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Many people learned about the Big Dipper when they were children. Perhaps a parent pointed it out, or it was in school or at a planetarium show.  Lesser known is the Little Dipper.

Are they constellations? No. They are asterisms which are star patterns.  These Dippers are part of the constellations of the Big Bear and Little Bear (Ursa Major and Minor).

In all my years of stargazing, I still can only see those constellation shapes on a chart or planetarium show when someone connects the dots – and even then it is a stretch of the imagination!

But the shape of a dipper (once used to get a drink of water from a larger vessel or well) is pretty easy to see. This month you can find the Big Dipper high in the northern sky. The two outer stars in its bowl are referred to as pointer stars because they point to the North Star (Polaris) which is the end of the Little Dipper’s handle.

In Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, it says that the ancient Greek writers (like Homer) didn’t mention Ursa Minor or the dipper shape.  I always marveled at seeing the stars and planets as a child thinking that I am looking at the same sky that ancient people saw.

This group of stars became the “wings” of the constellation Draco the Dragon. When, around 600 B.C., the Phoenicians showed the Greek philosopher Thales how to navigate by the stars, he supposedly used the Dragon’s wings to create a new constellation. This might have been to make it easier to show them how to locate the north celestial pole.

Ursa Minor was one of the 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy, and remains one of the 88 modern constellations. The Bears’ tails are the dippers’ handles.

Further falling away of my childhood star knowledge came when I learned that our Polaris,  which marks the north celestial pole in the sky, was not the star those ancients would have used to navigate. Kochab and Pherkad at the end of the Little Dipper were closer to the north celestial pole in 600 B.C.

Learning how our sky view of the heavens has changed over the centuries isn’t at all disappointing to me, but rather a reminder that everything is changing.


The Liitle Bear with The Dragon looping around it, as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825


UrsaMinorCC.jpgUrsaMinorCC” by Till CrednerOwn work:
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Hubo is a robot with a face modeled on Albert Einstein. Credit: Hanson Robotics

I am an admirer of Albert Einstein and there are a good number of references to him on this site. I would have loved to have met him and be able to have a conversation with him. But I don’t know how I would feel about talking to a robot version of him.

That is possible since a recent Google patent describes robot personalities based upon the voices and behaviors of dead celebrities or loved ones. The patent is about robot personalities as software that could be transferred between different robots online. They could be famous people or personalities customized to your preferences.

of human users. That lays the groundwork for a future where robotic hardware could update and switch their software personalities based on the specific human customers they’re serving.

These artificial personalities that mimic the dead aren’t all robots. You probably have seen John Wayne seeming to sell Coors Light commercials or Fred Astaire dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner or Audrey Hepburn and Bruce Lee resurrected as digital avatars in TV commercials.

But have you heard of the “uncanny valley?” It’s that place where human-like figures (in animated films or robotics) feel creepy because they are too close to real. Have you seen that creepy zombielike digital avatar of the late Orville Redenbacher?

Then again, this commercial using a digital avatar of actress Audrey Hepburn to promote Galaxy/Dove chocolate had me thinking it was a really good lookalike doing the commercial. It is actually done with computer graphics(CGI) of Audrey’s actual face superimposed over a live model. A computerized Audrey mask.

Are you ready for the dead to return in robotic form?


“The Monk and the Fish” is a little film from 1994 by animator Michael Dudok de Wit. It is about a monk who tries to catch an elusive fish. Some viewers see Christian symbolism. Some see Buddhism.

The animator has said it is about rising above duality. He was inspired by the Ten Ox Herding Pictures, a series of Zen poems and images from 12th Century China. They illustrate the journey to enlightenment through the story of a man’s struggle with a wayward bull.

Each frame is hand-drawn in ink and watercolor and it also feels more Eastern. The short film was nominated for Best Short Animated Film at both the Academy Awards and the British Academy Film Awards.

Johannes Stoetter’s images body paintings, nature art and of models covered in vegetables and fruit are a kind of camouflage as art.

No, that’s not a bird holding a bird. It’s a woman holding a bird.

Watch video about his work:

Ian McKellen in Mr Holmes

Ian McKellen as Mr. Holmes

I read A Slight Trick of the Mind, the seventh novel by Mitch Cullin  that is the basis for a new film out this summer, Mr. Holmes,  starring Ian McKellen and Laura Linney and directed by Bill Condon.

The book is a revisionist account of a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes in retirement. I have always enjoyed Sherlock. I read all the books in my youth and have enjoyed most of the films. I saw the film adaptation of Cullin’s novel Tideland. It was directed by the extraordinary Terry Gilliam and stars Jeff Bridges, Janet McTeer, and Jennifer Tilly, but it didn’t do well at the box office. That might be because the story is so odd.  That book is about a girl who is taken away by her father to an isolated farmhouse where she finds herself in a bizarre fantasy world where only her dolls’ heads keep her company. Add into the mix a mentally damaged man and a ghost-like woman and the separation between imagination and reality disappears.

In A Slight Trick of the Mind, it is 1947 and the long-retired Holmes lives in a remote Sussex farmhouse. He is not the man we knew in the stories in which Dr. Watson embellished the man and the cases. He never wears a deerstalker cap (prefers a top hat) and doesn’t smoke a pipe (cigars). He has a housekeeper. She has a young son who idolizes Holmes. He likes to tend to his bees. He writes in his journal.

I can identify with this old Holmes, especially when he confronts his diminishing mental abilities.

People still come to him looking for answers. He decides to revisit a case and it helps him answer his own personal big remaining questions.

trick cvrLike most of us, he is confronting life, love, death and not only his weakening mind but something he never considered in his youth – the limits of the mind.

Maybe some hardcore Arthur Conan Doyle fans reject any updating of alternate versions of Sherlock. I am okay with them. Doyle allowed the detective to retire to Sussex but others have put him back to work.

I liked Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, which is somewhat similar to the Cullin Holmes framework. It has the old detective (at 89) living in Sussex with his bees too. The locals generally know he was once a famous detective, but he has little interest in solving mysteries. The game is afoot once more though when a young mute boy who has escaped from Nazi Germany comes to him. The boy’s companion is an African gray parrot that keeps repeating strings of German numbers. Are they a Nazi code or some Swiss bank account or something far worse?

Laurie R. King has many mysteries on her book list including several in the Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series. In this version of Holmes, he is married. In her book, Dreaming Spies (the only one of hers I have read), they travel to India and Japan by boat and solve a mystery along the way. Personally, I found that this was too far away from the Holmes who lives in my mind to be a comfortable read. (A friend who is a fan of the series has told me to try the first in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice: or, On the Segregation of the Queen.)

In Nicholas Meyer’s novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, the conceit is that Meyer has “rediscovered” a Sherlock Holmes adventure recorded by Watson. It tells about a collaboration of Holmes and Sigmund Freud in the solution of a conspiracy which will affect the lives of millions of people. The story involves Professor Moriarty and his brother Mycroft Holmes. It reveals (no spoiler) where Sherlock was during that period when we all believed him to be dead.

The title is a reference to Holmes’s addiction to cocaine which was in the original stories (see Conan Doyle’s “The Sign of Four”) because he describes the cocaine he uses as “a seven-per-cent solution.”

You can tell that Meyer loves the characters. In fact, I think he is more fond and respectful of Watson than Conan Doyle is in the last Holmes tales. He has also published a followup, The West End Horror: A Posthumous Memoir of John H. Watson, M.D. and then a third, The Canary Trainer.

Although some of these non-Doyle authors’ tales seem far away from the originals, most of them do use bits and loose ends from the originals. In Canary, we see Sherlock after he has left his therapy with Sigmund Freud and has taken up residence in Paris where he is a pit musician (violin, of course) at the Paris Opera. I rank the three books in quality in the order that they were published.

Back to Cullin.  There are three paths the story travels in A Slight Trick of the Mind.  The first takes place after Holmes’ return from a trip to Japan. He was searching there for a prickly ash bush that he believed gives longevity to add to his beloved royal jelly (the beekeeper in him) that he used in earlier stories.

There is also Holmes in 1947 Japan. He visits Hiroshima, post-atomic bomb which he compares to a hive that has lost its queen. That’s what he tells Roger, the 14 year-old son of his housekeeper who he is teaching beekeeping. This paternal Holmes is not one you expect based on the earlier stories.

The third story path comes from his writing about his infatuation with a married woman many years ago. It is an irrational infatuation that he knows is unlike him.

And it all comes together.

I found this the most interesting of the “new” Holmes books. This Sherlock is minus his Mycroft and John. (“You know, I never did call him Watson—he was John, simply John.”) Both dead.  He has his beekeeping, his writing (journal, articles, letters).

armonica-wikimediaHe is trying to finish his version of the case concerning that mysterious young woman. She played a glass armonica (AKA glass harmonica, bowl organ, or hydrocrystalophone). It’s an unusual musical instrument made of spinning glass disks on a common shaft (lower notes from the larger disks to the left descending in size and rising in tone.

The name comes from harmonia, the Greek word for harmony and the sound comes by means of friction. Is there symbolism there?

Holmes has staying power. I was hardly alone in enjoying the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock that brought him into our time. I haven’t gotten into watching the U.S. television series of a modern-day Holmes,  Elementary, but it has completed 3 seasons.

Have we figured out what it is about Mr. Holmes that appeals to us? Should we try to figure it out?

The tunnel that may lead to a royal tomb discovered underneath a pyramid in the ancient city of Teotihuacan
2014 National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) file picture.

The Mayan calendar and the Maya people were in the news a lot for a year or two before the December 21, 2012 event that wasn’t an event. But the Maya and the Aztecs were not the earliest civilizations in the area.

Teōtīhuacān was a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican city in a sub-valley of the Valley of Mexico,  30 miles (48 km) northeast of modern-day Mexico City. It is known today as the site of many of the most architecturally significant Mesoamerican pyramids built in the pre-Columbian Americas. It is also anthropologically significant for its complex, multi-family residential compounds.

The name Teōtīhuacān was not its true name but is one given by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztec centuries after the fall of the city. It is usually translated as meaning “birthplace of the gods”and Nahua creation myths were based there. Teotihuacan is the most visited of Mexico’s archaeological sites and is impressive just for its scale. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world. The Calle de los Muertos (Street of the Dead) was originally 4 km long and flanked by temples, palaces and platforms. There are even some murals in the Palace of the Jaguars or the Palace of the Quetzal-butterfly that have survived, along with sculptures in the Temple of Quetzalcoatl.

Recently, I have been reading reports about a continuing search for a Teotihuacan king’s tomb. Mexican researcher Sergio Gómez’s announcement that he had discovered “large quantities” of liquid mercury in a chamber below the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent (the third largest pyramid of Teotihuacan) caused excitement in that research.

Gomez has been slowly working his way through a deep, dark tunnel beneath the pyramid and expects the elusive last resting place of a king to be at the end. The significance of that find would be as evidence about how power was wielded in Teotihuacan.

The ancient city was home to as many as 200,000 people and is thought to be the center of an empire that flourished between 100 and 700 A.D. (Teotihuacan is distinct from the Mayan civilization.)

Why is liquid mercury significant? It surprised the researchers who found it in the tunnel that has been sealed for nearly 1,800 years. They had found three chambers 60 feet below the temple containing many artifacts: jade statues, jaguar remains, a box filled with carved shells and rubber balls. Liquid mercury was and still is rare to find naturally occurring and it was thought by many ancient people to have powers. Its existence suggests a king’s tomb or a ritual chamber.

liquid mercury – quicksilver

Mercury has been found in Egyptian tombs that date from 1500 BC.

In China and Tibet, mercury use was thought to prolong life, heal fractures, and maintain generally good health, although it is now known that exposure to mercury or its vapor leads to serious adverse health effects.

The first emperor of China, Qín Shǐ Huáng Dì, was said to have been buried in a tomb that contained a model of the land he ruled with rivers made of mercury. Ironically, he died from a mercury and powdered jade mixture that his alchemists gave him for eternal life which ended up causing liver failure and brain death.

The ancient Greeks also used mercury in ointments. The ancient Egyptians and the Romans used it in cosmetics.

In Lamanai, once a major city of the Maya civilization, a pool of mercury was found under a marker in a Mesoamerican ballcourt.

Alchemists thought of mercury (AKA quicksilver) as the First Matter from which all metals were formed. They believed that different metals could be produced by varying the quality and quantity of sulfur contained within the mercury. The purest of these was gold. Mercury was used in experiments at the transmutation of base (or impure) metals into gold, which was the goal of many alchemists. It odd liquid-metal look and unusual physical characteristics intrigued the ancients.

Gómez has spent six years slowly excavating the tunnel, which was unsealed in 2003, and the mercury finding was unexpected. It may have been used to symbolize an underworld river or lake, or was there for it supernatural, alchemical or healing significance in rituals.

Spaniards dug at Teotihuacan in the 1670s searching for gold and treasure, but scientific excavation of the site did not begin until the 1950s.

The inhabitants left no written record. They abandoned the city long before the Aztecs came to power in the 14th century.

View from the Pyramid of the Sun

View from the Pyramid of the Sun

In that time, it was the largest and most populated center in the New World. It had what we would call multi-floor apartments compounds built to accommodate this large population. Was Teotihuacan was the center of an empire? We are not sure. Its influence throughout Mesoamerica is documented and Teotihuacano presence can be seen at numerous sites in Veracruz and the Maya region.  The discovery of a King’s tomb would settle the debate and mark the city as the center of power for the possibly multi-ethnic Teotihuacano people.

A British Library curator who specializes in medieval manuscripts just mentioned an odd drawing in an interview with The Guardian, but the image caught the interest of the Wacky Wide Web.

Why? Because the figure, who was created between 1300 and 1340, looks like looks a lot like Jedi Grand Master Yoda from the World Wide Star War Universe.

Medieval  Yoda is found in a 14th-century manuscript known as the Smithfield Decretals, Of course, the “scholars” say it is supposed to be an illustration for the biblical story of Samson.  (Decretals are collections of papal letters containing decrees on church doctrine.)

Was the illustration made by a medieval time traveler? Did Yoda live or visit Earth about 700 years ago?  Yoda was supposed to be around 900 years old, but that’s from the perspective of him living in a galaxy far, far away in a rather vague “long time ago.”




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