mystery

Ray Bradbury on an encounter that changed his life

From Sam Weller’s interview of Ray Bradbury in “The Art of Fiction No. 203” (The Paris Review: Spring 2010, No. 192):

Circuses and carnivals were always passing through Illinois during my childhood and I was in love with their mystery. One autumn weekend in 1932, when I was twelve years old, the Dill Brothers Combined Shows came to town. One of the performers was Mr. Electrico. He sat in an electric chair. A stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end.

The next day, I had to go the funeral of one of my favorite uncles. Driving back from the graveyard with my family, I looked down the hill toward the shoreline of Lake Michigan and I saw the tents and the flags of the carnival and I said to my father, Stop the car. He said, What do you mean? And I said, I have to get out. My father was furious with me. He expected me to stay with the family to mourn, but I got out of the car anyway and I ran down the hill toward the carnival.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I was running away from death, wasn’t I? I was running toward life. And there was Mr. Electrico sitting on the platform out in front of the carnival and I didn’t know what to say. I was scared of making a fool of myself. I had a magic trick in my pocket, one of those little ball-and-vase tricks—a little container that had a ball in it that you make disappear and reappear—and I got that out and asked, Can you show me how to do this? It was the right thing to do. It made a contact. He knew he was talking to a young magician. He took it, showed me how to do it, gave it back to me, then he looked at my face and said, Would you like to meet those people in that tent over there? Those strange people? And I said, Yes sir, I would. So he led me over there and he hit the tent with his cane and said, Clean up your language! Clean up your language! He took me in, and the first person I met was the illustrated man. Isn’t that wonderful? The Illustrated Man! He called himself the tattooed man, but I changed his name later for my book. I also met the strong man, the fat lady, the trapeze people, the dwarf, and the skeleton. They all became characters.

Mr. Electrico was a beautiful man, see, because he knew that he had a little weird kid there who was twelve years old and wanted lots of things. We walked along the shore of Lake Michigan and he treated me like a grown-up. I talked my big philosophies and he talked his little ones. Then we went out and sat on the dunes near the lake and all of a sudden he leaned over and said, I’m glad you’re back in my life. I said, What do you mean? I don’t know you. He said, You were my best friend outside of Paris in 1918. You were wounded in the Ardennes and you died in my arms there. I’m glad you’re back in the world. You have a different face, a different name, but the soul shining out of your face is the same as my friend. Welcome back.

Now why did he say that? Explain that to me, why? Maybe he had a dead son, maybe he had no sons, maybe he was lonely, maybe he was an ironical jokester. Who knows? It could be that he saw the intensity with which I live. Every once in a while at a book signing I see young boys and girls who are so full of fire that it shines out of their face and you pay more attention to that. Maybe that’s what attracted him.

When I left the carnival that day I stood by the carousel and I watched the horses running around and around to the music of “Beautiful Ohio,” and I cried. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I knew something important had happened to me that day because of Mr. Electrico. I felt changed. He gave me importance, immortality, a mystical gift. My life was turned around completely. It makes me cold all over to think about it, but I went home and within days I started to write. I’ve never stopped.

Seventy-seven years ago, and I’ve remembered it perfectly. I went back and saw him that night. He sat in the chair with his sword, they pulled the switch, and his hair stood up. He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.

All about freezing to death

Ice mask, C.T. Madigan / photograph by Frank Hurley
Creative Commons License photo credit: State Library of New South Wales collection

From Peter Stark’s “As Freezing Persons Recollect the Snow–First Chill–Then Stupor–Then the Letting Go” (Outside: January 1997):

There is no precise core temperature at which the human body perishes from cold. At Dachau’s cold-water immersion baths, Nazi doctors calculated death to arrive at around 77 degrees Fahrenheit. The lowest recorded core temperature in a surviving adult is 60.8 degrees. For a child it’s lower: In 1994, a two-year-old girl in Saskatchewan wandered out of her house into a minus-40 night. She was found near her doorstep the next morning, limbs frozen solid, her core temperature 57 degrees. She lived.

The cold remains a mystery, more prone to fell men than women, more lethal to the thin and well muscled than to those with avoirdupois, and least forgiving to the arrogant and the unaware.

Were you a Norwegian fisherman or Inuit hunter, both of whom frequently work gloveless in the cold, your chilled hands would open their surface capillaries periodically to allow surges of warm blood to pass into them and maintain their flexibility. This phenomenon, known as the hunter’s response, can elevate a 35-degree skin temperature to 50 degrees within seven or eight minutes.

Other human adaptations to the cold are more mysterious. Tibetan Buddhist monks can raise the skin temperature of their hands and feet by 15 degrees through meditation. Australian aborigines, who once slept on the ground, unclothed, on near-freezing nights, would slip into a light hypothermic state, suppressing shivering until the rising sun rewarmed them.

The exertion that warmed you on the way uphill now works against you: Your exercise-dilated capillaries carry the excess heat of your core to your skin, and your wet clothing dispels it rapidly into the night. The lack of insulating fat over your muscles allows the cold to creep that much closer to your warm blood.

Your temperature begins to plummet. Within 17 minutes it reaches the normal 98.6. Then it slips below.

At 97 degrees, hunched over in your slow search, the muscles along your neck and shoulders tighten in what’s known as pre-shivering muscle tone. Sensors have signaled the temperature control center in your hypothalamus, which in turn has ordered the constriction of the entire web of surface capillaries. Your hands and feet begin to ache with cold.

At 95, you’ve entered the zone of mild hypothermia. You’re now trembling violently as your body attains its maximum shivering response, an involuntary condition in which your muscles contract rapidly to generate additional body heat.

And after this long stop, the skiing itself has become more difficult. By the time you push off downhill, your muscles have cooled and tightened so dramatically that they no longer contract easily, and once contracted, they won’t relax. You’re locked into an ungainly, spread-armed, weak-kneed snowplow.

As you sink back into the snow, shaken, your heat begins to drain away at an alarming rate, your head alone accounting for 50 percent of the loss. The pain of the cold soon pierces your ears so sharply that you root about in the snow until you find your hat and mash it back onto your head.

But even that little activity has been exhausting. You know you should find your glove as well, and yet you’re becoming too weary to feel any urgency. You decide to have a short rest before going on.

An hour passes. at one point, a stray thought says you should start being scared, but fear is a concept that floats somewhere beyond your immediate reach, like that numb hand lying naked in the snow. You’ve slid into the temperature range at which cold renders the enzymes in your brain less efficient. With every one-degree drop in body temperature below 95, your cerebral metabolic rate falls off by 3 to 5 percent. When your core temperature reaches 93, amnesia nibbles at your consciousness.

In the minus-35-degree air, your core temperature falls about one degree every 30 to 40 minutes, your body heat leaching out into the soft, enveloping snow. Apathy at 91 degrees. Stupor at 90.

You’ve now crossed the boundary into profound hypothermia. By the time your core temperature has fallen to 88 degrees, your body has abandoned the urge to warm itself by shivering. Your blood is thickening like crankcase oil in a cold engine. Your oxygen consumption, a measure of your metabolic rate, has fallen by more than a quarter. Your kidneys, however, work overtime to process the fluid overload that occurred when the blood vessels in your extremities constricted and squeezed fluids toward your center. You feel a powerful urge to urinate, the only thing you feel at all.

By 87 degrees you’ve lost the ability to recognize a familiar face, should one suddenly appear from the woods.

At 86 degrees, your heart, its electrical impulses hampered by chilled nerve tissues, becomes arrhythmic. It now pumps less than two-thirds the normal amount of blood. The lack of oxygen and the slowing metabolism of your brain, meanwhile, begin to trigger visual and auditory hallucinations.

At 85 degrees, those freezing to death, in a strange, anguished paroxysm, often rip off their clothes. This phenomenon, known as paradoxical undressing, is common enough that urban hypothermia victims are sometimes initially diagnosed as victims of sexual assault. Though researchers are uncertain of the cause, the most logical explanation is that shortly before loss of consciousness, the constricted blood vessels near the body’s surface suddenly dilate and produce a sensation of extreme heat against the skin.

There’s an adage about hypothermia: “You aren’t dead until you’re warm and dead.”

At about 6:00 the next morning, his friends, having discovered the stalled Jeep, find him, still huddled inches from the buried log, his gloveless hand shoved into his armpit. The flesh of his limbs is waxy and stiff as old putty, his pulse nonexistent, his pupils unresponsive to light. Dead.

But those who understand cold know that even as it deadens, it offers perverse salvation. Heat is a presence: the rapid vibrating of molecules. Cold is an absence: the damping of the vibrations. At absolute zero, minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, molecular motion ceases altogether. It is this slowing that converts gases to liquids, liquids to solids, and renders solids harder. It slows bacterial growth and chemical reactions. In the human body, cold shuts down metabolism. The lungs take in less oxygen, the heart pumps less blood. Under normal temperatures, this would produce brain damage. But the chilled brain, having slowed its own metabolism, needs far less oxygen-rich blood and can, under the right circumstances, survive intact.

Setting her ear to his chest, one of his rescuers listens intently. Seconds pass. Then, faintly, she hears a tiny sound–a single thump, so slight that it might be the sound of her own blood. She presses her ear harder to the cold flesh. Another faint thump, then another.

The slowing that accompanies freezing is, in its way, so beneficial that it is even induced at times. Cardiologists today often use deep chilling to slow a patient’s metabolism in preparation for heart or brain surgery. In this state of near suspension, the patient’s blood flows slowly, his heart rarely beats–or in the case of those on heart-lung machines, doesn’t beat at all; death seems near. But carefully monitored, a patient can remain in this cold stasis, undamaged, for hours.

In fact, many hypothermia victims die each year in the process of being rescued. In “rewarming shock,” the constricted capillaries reopen almost all at once, causing a sudden drop in blood pressure. The slightest movement can send a victim’s heart muscle into wild spasms of ventricular fibrillation. In 1980, 16 shipwrecked Danish fishermen were hauled to safety after an hour and a half in the frigid North Sea. They then walked across the deck of the rescue ship, stepped below for a hot drink, and dropped dead, all 16 of them.

The doctor rapidly issues orders to his staff: intravenous administration of warm saline, the bag first heated in the microwave to 110 degrees. Elevating the core temperature of an average-size male one degree requires adding about 60 kilocalories of heat. A kilocalorie is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one liter of water one degree Celsius. Since a quart of hot soup at 140 degrees offers about 30 kilocalories, the patient curled on the table would need to consume 40 quarts of chicken broth to push his core temperature up to normal. Even the warm saline, infused directly into his blood, will add only 30 kilocalories.

Ideally, the doctor would have access to a cardiopulmonary bypass machine, with which he could pump out the victim’s blood, rewarm and oxygenate it, and pump it back in again, safely raising the core temperature as much as one degree every three minutes. But such machines are rarely available outside major urban hospitals.

You’d nod if you could. But you can’t move. All you can feel is throbbing discomfort everywhere. Glancing down to where the pain is most biting, you notice blisters filled with clear fluid dotting your fingers, once gloveless in the snow. During the long, cold hours the tissue froze and ice crystals formed in the tiny spaces between your cells, sucking water from them, blocking the blood supply. You stare at them absently.

“I think they’ll be fine,” a voice from overhead says. “The damage looks superficial. We expect that the blisters will break in a week or so, and the tissue should revive after that.”

If not, you know that your fingers will eventually turn black, the color of bloodless, dead tissue. And then they will be amputated.

You’ve seen that in the infinite reaches of the universe, heat is as glorious and ephemeral as the light of the stars. Heat exists only where matter exists, where particles can vibrate and jump. In the infinite winter of space, heat is tiny; it is the cold that is huge.

The escape of Mr. Flitcraft

From Claudia Roth Pierpont’s “Tough Guy: The mystery of Dashiell Hammett” (The New Yorker [11 February 2002]: 70):

There is one section of “The Maltese Falcon” that could not be filmed, and for many readers it is the most important story Hammett ever told. A dreamlike interruption in events, it is a parable that Spade relates to Brigid about a man called Flitcraft, dutiful husband and father of two, who was nearly hit by a falling beam while walking to lunch one day. Instead of going back to work, Flitcraft disappeared. “He went like that,” Spade says, in what may be Hammett’s most unexpected and beautiful phrase, “like a fist when you open your hand.” His narrow escape had taught this sane and orderly man that life is neither orderly nor sane, that all our human patterns are merely imposed, and he went away in order to fall in step with life. He was not unkind; the love he bore his family “was not of the sort that would make absence painful,” and he left plenty of money behind. He travelled for a while, Spade relates, but he ended up living in a city near the one he’d fled, selling cars and playing golf, with a second wife hardly different from the first. The moral: one can attempt to adjust one’s life to falling beams but will readjust as soon as the shock wears off.

The botnet hunters

From The Washington Post‘s “Bringing Botnets Out of the Shadows“:

Nicholas Albright’s first foray into some of the darkest alleys of the Internet came in November 2004, shortly after his father committed suicide. About a month following his father’s death, Albright discovered that online criminals had broken into his dad’s personal computer and programmed it to serve as part of a worldwide, distributed network for storing pirated software and movies. …

From that day forward, Albright poured all of his free time and pent-up anger over his father’s death into assembling “Shadowserver,” a group of individuals dedicated to battling large, remote-controlled herds of hacked personal PCs, also known as “botnets.” …

Each “bot” is a computer on which the controlling hacker has installed specialized software that allows him to commandeer many of its functions. Hackers use bots to further their online schemes or as collection points for users’ personal and financial information.

“I take my [handheld computer] everywhere so I can keep tabs on the botnets when I’m not at home,” Albright said …

On a Sunday afternoon in late February, Albright was lurking in an online channel that a bot herder uses to control a network of more than 1,400 hacked computers running Microsoft Windows software. The hacker controlling this botnet was seeding infected machines with “keyloggers,” …

Albright had already intercepted and dissected a copy of the computer worm that the attacker uses to seize control of computers — an operation that yielded the user name and password the hacker uses to run the control channel. By pretending to be just another freshly hacked bot reporting for duty, Albright passively monitors what the hackers are doing with their botnets and collects information that an Internet service provider would need to get the channel shut down.

Albright spied one infected PC reporting data about the online activities of its oblivious owner — from the detailed information flowing across the wire, it was clear that one of the infected computers belongs to a physician in Michigan.

“The botnet is running a keylogger, and I see patient data,” Albright said. …

“Anything you submit to law enforcement may help later if an investigation occurs,” he said. “Chances are, though, it will just be filed away in a database.”

Botnets are the workhorses of most online criminal enterprises today, allowing hackers to ply their trade anonymously — sending spam, sowing infected PCs with adware from companies that pay for each installation, or hosting fraudulent e-commerce and banking Web sites. …

… in the 13-month period ending in January, more than 13 million PCs around the world were infected with malicious code that turned them into bots.

… Shadowserver locates bot networks by deploying a series of “honeynets” — sensors that mimic computers with known security flaws — in an effort to lure attackers, allowing the group to capture samples of new bot programs. …

Shadowserver submits any new or undetected specimens to the major anti-virus companies. Andrews said he is constantly surprised by the sheer number of bot programs that do not get flagged as malicious by any of the programs. …

In Andrews’s experience, by far the most common reason criminals create botnets these days — other than perhaps to sell or rent them to other criminals — is to install online ad-serving software that earns the attacker a few pennies per install. …

Even after the Shadowserver crew has convinced an ISP to shut down a botmaster’s command-and-control channel, most of the bots will remain infected. Like lost sheep without a shepherd, the drones will continually try to reconnect to the hacker’s control server, unaware that it no longer exists. …

“Bot hunting can really take over your personal life, because to do this right you really have to stay on top of it — it can’t just be something you do on the weekends,” he said. “I guess it takes a special type of person to be able to sustain botnet hunting. … I don’t know anyone who pays people to do this kind of work.” …

Albright said that while federal law enforcement has recently made concerted efforts to reach out to groups like Shadowserver in hopes of building a more effective partnership, they don’t have the bodies, the technology, or the legal leeway to act directly on the information the groups provide. …

“Sadly, without more law enforcement support this will remain a chase-your-tail type game, because we won’t ever really shut these networks down until the bot master goes to jail, and his drones are cleaned.”

Religion & evolution

From Salon’s “Religious belief itself is an adaptation“, an interview with Edward O. Wilson:

Religious belief itself is an adaptation that has evolved because we’re hard-wired to form tribalistic religions. Religion is intensely tribalistic. A devout Christian or Muslim doesn’t say one religion is as good as another. It gives them faith in the particular group to which they belong and that set of beliefs and moral views. …

You cannot explain the patterns of diversity in the world, the geography of life, the endless details of distribution, similarity and dissimilarity in the world, by any means except evolution. That’s the one theory that ties it together. It is very hard to see how traditionalist religious views will come to explain the meaning of life on this planet. …

The mystery of the Voynich mss

From John Baez:

A page from the Voynich mssThe Voynich manuscript is by far the most mysterious of all texts. It is seven by ten inches in size, and about 200 pages long. It is made of soft, light-brown vellum. It is written in a flowing cursive script in alphabet that has never been seen elsewhere. Nobody knows what it means. During World War II some of the top military code-breakers in America tried to decipher it, but failed. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania seems to have gone insane trying to figure it out. Though the manuscript was found in Italy, statistical analyses show the text is completely different in character from any European language.

More proof of time travel?

From Ohio.com:

It was 11:15 p.m. on a warm June night in 1950, and the area of Times Square was buzzing with people leaving the theaters.

Suddenly, in the midst of traffic appeared an odd-looking man, about 30 years old. He wore mutton-chop whiskers and quaint clothing that had gone out of style decades before.

The man gawked at his surroundings, and then tried to dash away from the cars. He was struck by a cab and killed.

Police found on the dead man antique currency, business cards in the name of Rudolph Fentz, and a letter addressed to Fentz postmarked in 1876.

Assuming the man was Fentz, police sought the next of kin. But Fentz wasn’t listed in the telephone directory, and no one at the address on the business card and letter knew him.

Capt. Hubert V. Rihm eventually turned up a 1939 phone book listing a Rudolph Fentz Jr. When Rihm located the junior’s widow, she told him her father-in-law had vanished in 1876 after going out for a smoke.

That knowledge in hand, Rihm dug into old police files and found the missing-person report from 1876. The address given was the same as that on the dead man’s business cards.