To Make an Interstellar Omelet, Part III or IV

Alice smiled at Mr. Volkov, who shook her hand warmly before she took her seat at the table. The two seemed as familiar with each other as they seemed comfortable in the noisy, shockingly pink maid café.

The tall girl in the maid uniform approached the table, menu in hand. Alice waved it away with another smile. “I’ll have the usual,” she said, “with extra ketchup.”

Both Mr. Volkov and Justin ordered black coffee. The waitress took their menus, and retreated with a deep bow.

Alice took a phone from her pocket. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. Please, carry on with your conversation.”

Justin was about to point out that he’d come to the café to speak to Alice, but Alice pressed her face close to the phone’s screen and started texting, effectively cutting him off.

“I can understand your skepticism,” Mr. Volkov continued as though they hadn’t been interrupted.

“Mr. Volkov- with all due respect to your spaceflights, you’ve never been to the moon. There’s no possible way you could have found ancient ruins on there, even if such ruins existed.”

“It doesn’t matter that I’ve never been to the moon, personally,” Mr. Volkov said. “Humanity has been to the moon- we have been to the moon. We’ve left artifacts on the moon, even if we planted the wrong flag.”

“I hardly see how that’s relevant,” Justin scoffed. “You claim there are relics from an ancient civilization.”

“Indeed. Humanity is quite ancient.”

Justin opened his mouth several times, but an answer wouldn’t come out. He felt his cheeks burn after a moment, when he heard Alice laugh, but when he gathered the courage to look over at her, he saw she was laughing at something on her phone’s screen.

“This cat,” she giggled. “He knocked over a glass of water, and then slipped and fell off the counter. Want to see?”

“Er- no thanks.”

Mr. Volkov laughed jovially and slapped Justin on the back. “Now- will you listen to what we have to say without dismissing us as lunatics?”

Justin sighed, but tried to smile like a good sport. “You’re up to something, obviously. However, I think the moniker ‘lunatics’ still applies.”

“Alright,” Mr. Volkov said, nodding. “I’ll accept that. But to the point- humanity went to the moon, and though the United States enjoys the glory for accomplishing the feat, you must admit, the Soviet Union did assist. The race was the key, was it not?”

“Oh of course- the cold war and all that,” Justin said, waving this aside.

“Yes. Having a rival- an enemy even- is a great motivator.”

“It’s not the only motivator,” Alice said. “But wow, does it work. And when the cold war ended-“

“Shifted,” Mr. Volkov corrected.

“Yes, well- there’s a lot more apathy, now. People think it’s silly to go to space. They don’t see any benefits- even from the satellites we put up.” Alice smirked as she gestured to her phone.

“That’s why we need better science education,” Justin said. “Not pseudoscientific nonsense, like your blog.”

“But how do we educate people?” Alice said, ignoring his insult. “State legislatures cut school funding, local school districts push for their pet political agenda to be taught in place of science, and textbook publishers are racing each other to the bottom of the slush pile. No one wants to learn, and we can’t force them.”

“So what- we just give up?”

“Oh no,” Mr. Vakov replied. “We give them a show, instead.”

Justin groaned and threw up his hands. “And how will that help?”

His voice rose just a little louder than he had intended, and there was a momentary lull in the clamor around him. The D&D players all turned to look at him. One of the maids giggled.

“Sorry-“ Justin mumbled.

Just then, the tall waitress returned, carrying a platter with two black coffees, which she placed in front of Justin and Mr. Volkov, and an omelet, which she placed in front of Alice. She took a ketchup bottle from her tray, and drew an intricate design on the omelet. Justin looked over, and noticed that the design consisted on several concentric circles, connected by lines of ketchup to smaller circles. He was reminded somewhat of crop circles.

“Very interesting.” Alice held up her phone, and took a picture of the omelet.

Justin shook his head, and took his own cup.

“Wait!” the waitress said. “Don’t drink yet. I haven’t performed the magic spell.”

“…Magic spell?” Justin sputtered.

“Sure!” The waitress put her hands together in the shape of a heart, and waved them over the table. “Moe! Moe! Kyuu!

Then she bowed, and left again.

“I’m sorry but- why do we have to meet here? How did you even find a place like this?” Justin said.

“It’s my business. I own it,” Alice said.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit sexist?” Justin said.

“Jenny, one of our waitresses, thinks so. She’s going to debate Chris-“ Alice gestured to the guy on his laptop at the next table, “on my youtube channel, next week.”

“She’s arguing that her job is sexist?”

“Yeah. She’s minoring in women’s studies. Her major is law.”

“Then why…”

Mr. Vakov laughed again. “This is part of the show, Justin. We have to shock people- to shake them up a bit.”

“Listen,” Alice leaned over the table, and whispered conspiratorially. “Justin, you think debating me would be a waste of time, right? You’re not going to change anyone’s mind. You said yourself that it would only make pseudoscience seem legitimate.”

Justin shrugged.

“So why did you send me a 10 page e-mail?”

“I was just pissed off.”

Mr. Volkov slapped the table, then. “Exactly! We say enough ridiculous things, and we will make the intelligent angry.”

Alice smirked. “And then, if you and I yell at each other loudly enough, the apathetic- the fence sitters- will turn their heads to watch. You have the facts- you will sway the fence sitters to your side. This is the new cold war, Justin. This is how we’ll get your funding back.”

Justin stared down at his coffee cup. His bewildered reflection stared up at him. He sighed, and pushed the cup away.

“Aren’t there enough crazies to debate, already? Why do you have to put more nonsense out there?”

Alice smiled, and took a bite from her omelet.

“If we pose as the lunatics, then we can guide the argument from both sides. We’re in control,” Mr. Volkov said.

Alice put her fork down on the edge of her plate. “This is the big conspiracy, Justin. We want you to join us.”


Lunar Eclipse, 2015

Last night provided a thrilling drama far beyond what I expected from a lunar eclipse, even a supermoon lunar eclipse.

Perhaps I should have expected drama. According to the mainstream, it’s not merely a lunar eclipse, but a “blood moon,” a term which conjures images of elder gods demanding sacrifice. I guess I’m lucky, then, that instead of having to deal with plagues of locusts, meteors striking the earth, and wormwood spewing from my faucets, the worst I had to deal with was a thin layer of cloud cover.

Even so, I did experience many ups and downs as the moon bobbed in and out of the clouds. One moment it shone full and bright, the next moment it was completely invisible. Then it peeked out of the clouds for just a moment more before plunging back behind the veil.

I was worried one moment that I would miss the eclipse entirely, and the next moment I was elated when the moon emerged, partially veiled in the dark umbra, and then in a bright crescent. I spent the evening live-tweeting the event, so I was rushing in the house to upload each clear shot I got before dashing out again to take more.

I do wish I had better equipment. I was once an amateur photographer, but this was back in the film days, and as far as digital equipment is concerned, I am at baffled by the features and shocked by the sticker price.

In my hobbyist days, I took photos using black and white film on a refurbished Minolta my dad bought from a flea market. For tonight’s eclipse, I used a Sony HD Handicam. It was far more expensive than my Minolta, and I find I can do less with it because everything is automatic. I can change some settings, but not many. The photos I took were hopelessly mediocre.

The first shots I managed were of the moonrise.

moonrise moonrise4

I added a filter for this next moonrise shot, which I think adds a lot more clarity in viewing the moon’s features.


And here is the reason for my first panic, as the moon began to rise over the cloudline.


After this, the moon was completely covered as it presumably moved into the umbra. I couldn’t see the moon at all until the eclipse was full.

eclipse shot



Here we see my camera’s limitations. I can’t do long exposures with this camera, and the eclipsed moon was too dim for the camera to pick up, so I had to switch to the night vision function. I used the filter above to correct the green tint. You can’t see the “blood,” but to be fair, the moon didn’t seem that visibly red, here. To the naked eye, it looked a lot darker than the orange-red you see in most photos. Of course, this might also be due to the very thin layer of cloud cover that was still present.

And here we come to the happiest I was all night- the clouds shifted enough to allow me to photograph the umbral emergence.

These two shots are, by far, the best of the evening.



I was able to keep shooting until the eclipse was almost over, and the moon disappeared behind the clouds for the rest of the night.





You can see the irritating clouds here as they drifted back in, illuminated by the moonlight.

I wonder if the cloud cover didn’t add to my enjoyment of this event, just a bit. I would have been sorely disappointed if the clouds had entirely blocked my view, but each time the moon emerged, and I managed to get another shot, it felt like a moment of triumph.

I hope everyone out there got as much enjoyment out of the experience as I did, but for those who were unable to view the event, I hope my poor photos can convey the wonder I felt as I watched. Watching the lunar eclipse drives home the fact that yes- I am standing on a spherical object, suspended in space, and we can actually observe the shadow it casts for ourselves. Anyone can observe the reality.

I hope to record other celestial events in the future. Until then, happy stargazing.

To Make an Interstellar Omelet, Part III

Justin had long since arrived home and nursed away his caffeine-induced headache when Alice replied to his e-mail. Alice’s reply was maddeningly short and cryptic. Justin had written ten pages, and all Alice said was, “you make some interesting points. Do you have a skype account?”
Justin closed his laptop and stood up. “I solemnly swear that I will never, ever e-mail Alice again.” He took Alice’s card from his wallet and tore it to bits, and then threw the pieces into the fireplace for good measure- never mind that is was summer, and the fireplace was unlit. Afterward, Justin felt comfortable enough with his resolution to send Alice his skype info.
A few minutes later, he got a private message from Alice, herself.
~Hey! I’m sorry I took so long. I have three cats, and I wanted to get them out of the room. They like to play with my keyboard.”
 ~That’s fine, Justin replied. What did you have in mind?
~If you want, we can do a video chat. Then I can show you my new kitten. She’s a calico I just rescued from a shelter. Her name is Gamera, and she’s really sweet.
 ~No thanks.
 ~Not much of a cat person?
Just then, Justin’s bedroom door shook as his own cat, Tibby, pawed at it, asking to come in.
~Not really, no. Let’s just get to the point.
 ~Fair enough. I was thinking that we should have a live debate. You put too much information in your e-mail for me to address in the comments section of my blog. I’ll let you choose the moderator, and you can set whatever rules you feel are necessary.
 ~No. Just forget it. I probably shouldn’t have sent you that e-mail to begin with. I don’t want to validate the nonsense on your website by granting you a debate.
A few moments went by with no reply, and Justin sat back in his chair, feeling triumphant. There it was- the final blow to the solar plexus. This conversation was over.
Then came the next reply.
~Are you sure you don’t want to? You made some really excellent points, and I have a very large audience.
 -Sometimes, Alice, there aren’t two sides to an issue. The pro and anti “rodents on Mars,” points of view aren’t equal.
There was one last pause, and then the final reply.
 ~ I don’t think you really understand what I’m trying to accomplish with my blog. Why don’t we discuss this in person- maybe over coffee? 
Justin’s next mistake was not insisting that they meet at a Starbucks, like normal people.
When he’d ducked out of the steamy, summer rain and under the pink scalloped eaves of the appointed building, he’d barely had time to check the address Alice had given him before he was accosted by three girls in maid uniforms, who lined up by the door and said, “Okaerinasaimase goshujin-sama,” In bright, girlish voices. The tallest girl, who had long dark hair and glasses, took his umbrella, drawing him through the door in the process. The shortest girl attempted to take his coat, but tripped and fell on her face instead.
Justin turned to the tallest girl. “Hi- is this the Momo Tea house? I was supposed to meet a girl named Alice…”
The shortest girl stood up and started to giggle, and soon the others were joining in as well- though the tallest made an effort to hide it. Then the tallest bowed and gestured into the shop.
“This way, milord. I will take you to her usual table.”
Justin followed her into the bright pastel tea shop, which was filled with mismatched tables and even more mismatched patrons. A group of kids in fancy clothes sat near the front, drinking bubble tea and laughing. On the side, two large tables were dominated by a group of men in ragged tee-shirts, playing dungeons and dragons.
“Give me one good reason that my paladin can’t use his armoire of invincibility,” one of the role-players shouted.
Next to the dungeons and dragons game was a television hooked up to a Nintendo, where a young couple was playing Mario cart. On the other side, next to the empty table where the tall maid seemed to be leading Justin, a boy with long dreadlocks was showing a heavily tattooed girl a series of photos.
“You see-“ he was saying, “if you say nice words, like ‘love’ and ‘peace,’ the ice crystals are prettier…”
Justin pinched the bridge of his nose as he sat with a plop at the table.
“Here is a menu, Milord,” the maid said. “I will inform Alice of your arrival. Is there anything else you require?”
“Ah- no. Thanks.” Justin said.
Justin glanced at the menu when the maid left, but it was difficult to concentrate when a fast-paced vocaloid song started, and all of the maids began to dance. At the same time, a young man at a nearby table shouted at his laptop. “-No, you idiot! That’s how you get a universe tiled with paper clips.” In the distance, the dungeons and dragons group cheered, “take that, legion of undead!”
“You’ve chosen a lively evening to visit,” a quiet but heavily accented voice said just over Justin’s left shoulder. Justin turned to see an older gentleman in a grey suit and bowtie. The old man smiled, and sat across from Justin, uninvited.
Something about the man’s shadowed eyes and lopsided smile seemed familiar to Justin.
“I’m sorry- but do I know you?” Justin ventured.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” the man said. “We have a mutual acquaintance.”
At the words “mutual friend,” something clicked in Justin’s mind. The man’s accent was definitely Russian. Justin suddenly thought of the article in The Voice, and the Wikipedia article he’d read afterward.
“You’re Yuri Volkov, aren’t you.”
“I am. Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Mr. Volkov reached across the table to shake Justin’s hand. “I read the e-mail you sent to Alice, and I must say I like your style. Will you be engaging her in a debate, soon?”
“I- I don’t think so.”
Mr. Volkov began to laugh. “You needn’t look at me like I’m crazy, you know. As the Cheshire cat said, ‘we’re all mad here,” he said, gesturing around the café.
“I’m sorry, but you did claim to find ancient ruins on the moon. What am I supposed to think of you?”
Mr. Volkov leaned on the table, interlacing his fingers and staring into the distance, as though in deep thought. Then he smiled and leaned back in his chair.
“Well, Justin, if I hadn’t said I’d found ancient ruins on the moon, would you think of me at all?”
The song ended, and the maids dispersed amid scattered applause. A second later, Alice approached the table, wearing an “I ❤ Pluto” T-shirt and a broad grin.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how much time it takes to count all of the angels on the head of a pin, even with an electron microscope.