Detectorists

This past week I binged through 20 episodes of Detectorists. My friend Leon recommended the series which is on the Acorn subscription channel, but I watched it on the free Hoopla service that works through local libraries. The first six episodes are also on YouTube.

It is a beautifully written and gentle show with characters that have real depth and humanity. There is a bit of farce in it too, but it really takes a close look at a group of English hobbits who take their metal detecting very, very seriously They are not metal detectors (that’s a device),; they are detectorists. It is also a study of male bonding and relationships in general.

The Cast

This is not an action series. There are enough of those. Too many for my taste. The series first launched in 2014. I never would have seen it without a recommendation but it became a massive hit, winning three BAFTAs and a Rose d’Or Award.

Mackenzie Crook is the creator/writer/director and also one of the detectorists, This comedy series follows a group of detectorists but focuses on two of them who are sure they will strike gold in the fictional northern Essex town of Danebury. Andy and Lance are friends who share a passion for metal detecting. They act at times like a griping old married couple but they have a real bond and a common dream.

With their fellow detectorist club members, they encounter greed, betrayal and redemption, and negotiate other relationships with an ex-wife, girlfriend, daughter and outside detectorists.

I didn’t think I knew any of the actors but I always check IMDB for credits and it turns out I know a group of them, Mackenzie Crook (Andy) is known for being on the British original comedy, The Office. He was also in The Merchant of Venice, The Brothers Grimm, Finding Neverland and might be best known to Americans as Ragetti in the three Pirates of the Caribbean films.

I know Toby Jones (Lance) from the Hunger Games, Captain America: First Avenger, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and I just saw him in The Pale Blue Eye.

Give the series a look. This is the first episode with Andy and Lance meeting a new member to their small club, a student named Sophie. Andy and Lance both take a liking to her, but they are still more interested in finding the Saxon gold they believe is on farmland owned by eccentric Larry Bishop, a man once suspected of killing his wife. The pair visit Larry, now a befuddled old man, but he does tell them of an archaeological dig halted by the outbreak of World War Two and allows them to search his land.

The Occult Bookstore

This image is of Ray’s Occult Books, the rundown fictional NYC bookstore opened by Ghostbuster Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd). In the time between Ghostbusters I and II,.

Ray had problems dealing with life then. The city of New York had a restraining order on them for the property damage incurred while they saved the city from Gozer in the first Ghostbusters film. Those were hard years following the collapse of the Ghostbusters. He opened a store that specialized in bizarre, strange, and hard-to-find books. Ray tells someone that his books cover alchemy, astrology, apparitions, Bundu Magic Men, demon intercession, U.F.O. Abductions, psychic surgery, stigmata, modern miracles, pixie sightings, golden geese, geists, and ghosts. Peter Venkman was a frequent customer. We know that in 1989, Peter ordered a book a copy of Magical Paths to Fortune and Power.

Discovering this little piece of movie trivia, I immediately remembered an occult bookstore I had gone to with my friends Karen and Bob. Ray’s store exteriors were filmed at 33 St. Mark’s Place, but the store was supposed to be in the cooler part of Greenwich Village. The store I went to was also in the Village back in the 1970s but I don’t remember the location. We always called it “the occult bookstore” and I’m not sure what was its official name – if it had one.

It was as odd as Ray’s and equally odd were the staffers and customers. You could get into some interesting conversations there with people.

I bought a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead there and some incense on one visit. The book is for the living to prepare yourself or others who are dying for liberation and the passage between worlds in the bardo.

I’ve thought about that store and that book, especially when Bob passed from this world and I wondered if he was somewhere in that intermediary place between life and death and the next step.

I know Ghostbusters is played for laughs but I have been haunted my whole life by the idea of ghosts (only once by a ghost) and wondering if there is an afterlife.


Ray’s store shows up in Ghostbusters II, and the third film, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and in the comic book series and board and video games.

I Can’t Put a Number On It

I’m not a fan of those best-of and greatest lists. They are quite common at the end of each year. The best films, books, TV shows, records, actors etc. They are particularly annoying when the author puts a number on the list or Oscars-style you have to decide on only one winner.

The “ten-best” of anything is always going to be wrong for a lot of people who will disagree with the ranking or with those who didn’t make the list. Rolling Stone magazine recently posted a list of The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time.” I knew when I saw the title they were in for some trouble. Even with 200 names, people were going to complain about someone being left off, and about the ranking of some who made the cut. Not that I am anything of an authority, but there were plenty of names I never heard of on that list. I see a lot of comments online saying “Where is Celine Dion?” That kind of list is bound to court controversy – and that’s probably one reason media sources and critics create them.

A friend asked me to send my list of the best films of 2022. I can’t do the best list. Even with all the films I did see last year, when I look at other best film lists I see contenders that I never saw. Plus, what I liked is just what I liked. I liked The Fabelmans and it made some lists, but I suggested it to friends and a few thought it was just okay. A film that my wife and I saw at the Montclair Film Festival last October and really liked was Linoleum.

The title didn’t help this very unusual independent film starring Jim Gaffigan and Rhea Seehorn, but we loved it. Then again, we met the director and producer and got to talk with them after the screening. And I like Gaffigan both as a comedian and as an actor in all the little films he has done. Rhea was one of the best things in a favorite show of the past few years, Better Call Saul.

I hope you see the film somewhere, somehow. It’s currently not available to rent, buy or stream but its U.S. release date is February 24, 2023. I’m also sure that a lot of people will not fall in love with it as we did. That’s why I don’t do best-of lists or rank anything.

I can’t really give you a good summary of the film without ruining it. Online it says “When the host of a failing children’s science show tries to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut by building a rocket ship in his garage, a series of bizarre events occur that cause him to question his own reality,” but that really doesn’t do it. It’s complicated in a good way. It’s the kind of film that I want to watch again just to see what I missed on the first viewing.

I just realized why I might have liked those two films. As a kid, I wanted to make movies. Like Steven Spielberg, I made films with a Super 8 movie camera. I didn’t take it as far as Spielberg and I didn’t become a director, but I get it.

In February of 1962, I wrote a letter to NASA astronaut John Glenn who had just returned from his historic flight in the tiny capsule named Friendship 7. This Mercury spacecraft circled Earth three times and then splashed down. He was an early hero of mine. I still have the letter and packet of materials I got in the mail from Glenn and NASA. I was not alone in wanting to be an astronaut. I was 8 years old. I did not become an astronaut. I did not become an astronomer, though I have spent a lot of time looking up at the sky, reading about it, and writing about it sometimes. I get it.

Monsters

Sure, I want to believe in all kinds of things.

Once upon a time, you believed in monsters. I thought about this because I was watching with my 2-year-old grandchild the Monsters Inc, movies. Those monsters turn out to be okay but at first, their jobs are to scare kids. Maybe you thought there were monsters under your bed or in your closet. Maybe they were outside at night or in the basement. You were not alone.

Ancient peoples thought there were monsters in the oceans and lands beyond their ken. They drew them on maps. They wrote stories about them. Over the centuries, tales about vampires, zombies, and werewolves. Some monsters had names. I don’t mean Frankenstein and names in fiction. I mean the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, et al. Water monsters are my focus today. There are 22 aquatic monsters reported in the U.S. that I found listed. On my coast, it includes Chessie in the Chesapeake Bay, Champ in Lake Champlain, a sea serpent in Gloucester Harbor, and Kipsy in the nearby Hudson River. I have never seen any of them but I thought about them this past week while watching TV.

Big Blue was supposedly a prehistoric plesiosaur that lived in a lake in Georgia. Sort of a southern Loch Ness monster. There were numerous legends, sightings, and even a gift shop relating to the monster, but it began to be taken seriously following the deaths of several people on the lake.

But all that happened in “Quagmire” – an episode (#22) of season 3 of the television series The X-Files. (You can go down their monster rabbit hole in The X-Files: The Official Archives: Cryptids, Biological Anomalies, and Parapsychic Phenomena.) I watched them all back in the 1990s. (The title music scared my sons.) This one was originally broadcast in 1996. FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were brought in to investigate.

Mulder and Scully eventually rent a boat and head out onto the lake, but their boat is hit by something and sinks. They find a large rock to climb up on and talk for a while about Mulder’s quest to catch Big Blue.

What really got my attention when I rewatched the episode recently was their talk about Moby-Dick. I suppose that whale is a monster. A fictional monster based on a whale that did attack a whaling ship.

Spoiler alert: Mulder chases the monster into the woods and fires at it, revealing it to be only a big alligator. Mulder is disappointed that there is no Big Blue monster. But as the FBI agents leave, Big Blue swims by in the lake, unnoticed.

In this episode, the characters are directly compared to or can be seen as being similar to characters in Moby-Dick. Mulder is Ahab, according to Scully. “You’re so consumed by your personal vengeance against life, whether it be its inherent cruelties or mysteries, everything takes on a warped significance to fit your megalomaniacal cosmology.”

Scully has her little dog, Queequeg, along on this investigation because she couldn’t get a last-minute dog sitter. During the episode, poor little Queequeg gets eaten by Moby Big Blue.

Here’s some of the dialogue:

TRANSCRIPT
MULDER: Why did you name your dog Queequeg?

SCULLY: It was the name of the harpoonist in Moby Dick. My father used to read to me from Moby Dick when I was a little girl, I called him Ahab and he called me Starbuck. So I named my dog Queequeg. It’s funny, I just realized something.

MULDER: It’s a bizarre name for a dog, huh?

SCULLY: No, how much you’re like Ahab. You’re so consumed by your personal vengeance against life, whether it be its inherent cruelties or mysteries, everything takes on a warped significance to fit your megalomaniacal cosmology.

MULDER: Scully, are you coming on to me?

SCULLY: It’s the truth or a white whale. What difference does it make? I mean, both obsessions are impossible to capture, and trying to do so will only leave you dead along with everyone else you bring with you. You know Mulder, you are Ahab.

MULDER: You know, it’s interesting you should say that because I’ve always wanted a peg leg. It’s a boyhood thing I never grew out of. I’m not being flippant, I’ve given this a lot of thought. I mean. if you have a peg leg or hooks for hands then maybe it’s enough to simply keep on living. You know, braving facing life with your disability. But without these things you’re actually meant to make something of your life, achieve something earn a raise, wear a necktie. So if anything I’m actually the antithesis of Ahab, because if I did have a peg leg I’d quite possibly be more happy and more content not to be chasing after these creatures of the unknown.

SCULLY: And that’s not flippant?

MULDER: No, flippant is my favorite line from Moby Dick. ‘Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple dumpling.’

I like that line by Melville. It’s an odd one.

Oh, and Gillian Anderson (Scully) plays the part of Elizabeth, the wife of Ahab, in the “reimagined” 2011 TV series presentation of Moby Dick. Ahab’s wife was only fleetingly mentioned in the original book which doesn’t offer much in female roles.

More about this episode and some Moby-Dick connections.

Looking For Mercury

Mercury – NASA

Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun and the smallest planet in the solar system. All the planets out in space seem cold to us, but the average surface temperature on Mercury is 333 degrees Fahrenheit (about 165 Celsius). It’s hot.

Mercury has a large iron core that is much larger than Earth’s core. Mercury has almost no atmosphere. Its gray surface is covered with impact craters caused by asteroids and comets, so that it appears similar to our Moon.

It has a strong magnetic field, generated by a dynamo effect, in a manner similar to the magnetic field of Earth, resulting from the circulation of the planet’s iron-rich liquid core. Particularly strong tidal heating effects caused by the planet’s high orbital eccentricity would serve to keep part of the core in the liquid state necessary for this dynamo effect.

Because Mercury is small and is close to the Sun, it can be difficult to observe. The best times to see it with the naked eye are shortly before sunrise or right after sunset. The best time to catch Mercury is within a week or so of its greatest elongation. That is the time when Mercury appears to be at its farthest distance from Sun as seen from Earth. That happens about every four months.

The greatest elongation west is when Mercury is farthest from the Sun in the morning sky and its greatest elongation east is when the two bodies are farthest apart in the evening sky. The greatest elongation east (night sky) occurs on December 21, 2022. So the next few nights are a good time to look for Mercury after sunset.

You can check out tonight’s sky here.

In Roman mythology, most people today think of Mercury as the winged-foot god associated with speed. That is probably closer to the Greek god Hermes who is the equivalent of the Roman Mercury.

To the Romans, he was the god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, messages, communication (including divination), travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery, and thieves. He was also the guide of souls to the underworld.

Thinking About Infinity. Check My Math.

I have been thinking about infinity.

I was never good at math in school but I have always been fascinated by numbers. Here is what I have been running through my thoughts. Check my math.

infinity + 1 = infinity, which makes it seem like that 1 is a zero – no effect.

What about infinity minus 1? It has to be less than infinity. Right? So, what is the answer?

infinity + infinity = infinity

But infinity – infinity = 0

Two things inspired this infinitely frustrating thought experiment. First, I watched the film A Trip to Infinity (on Netflix). This 2022 documentary explores the concept of infinity through interviews with mathematicians and physicists.

The second inspiration was the much lighter sitcom Young Sheldon. In a recent episode, the precocious and young genius Sheldon comes to doubt the existence of zero. He is tutoring his not-very-bright neighbor Billy in math. During the session, Billy naively asks how zero can simultaneously exist as something but be nothing. The question causes Sheldon to have a kind of existential crisis. He turns to the two professors he works with and they can’t really answer the question and have some mathematical doubts too. It’s not unlike the physicist and mathematicians in the infinity film who have answers about defining infinity but don’t really agree or even seem very confident.

Sheldon rejects religion and God which is very important to his very Christian mother. Somewhat incongruously, when Sheldon talks with Billy again, Billy suggests they just pretend zero exists. Sheldon interprets this as an act of faith and that restores him.

It’s not that you can’t find a definition of “infinity.” It is that which is boundless, endless, or larger than any natural number. The ancient Greeks discussed the philosophical nature of infinity. In the 17th century, we get the infinity symbol and infinitesimal calculus. Working in the foundations of calculus, it was unclear whether infinity could be considered as a number or magnitude and, if so, how this could be done.

By the end of the 19th century, people were studying infinite sets and infinite numbers, and infinity was clearly a mathematical concept. In physics and cosmology, whether the Universe is infinite is still an open question.

There is a section of the film that I rewatched and it still doesn’t make sense. One physicist says that if you place an apple in a box it will decay into mush and then dust. Then, it becomes microscopic particles and then it becomes one with the universe. Whoa. Give it enough time, and it will become an apple again. What?

I think the connection between the film and the TV episode is the futility of wrestling with paradoxes. You probably will end up accepting that with all of our knowledge we will likely never explain or comprehend the greater existential realities of the universe.

Aristotle said that the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Not that we shouldn’t think about these things. Just don’t expect an answer.