Friday, May 27, 2011

Dreaming of Insomnia

Dozens of scientific studies by a wide array of experts have shown that 4 out of every 3 Americans have occasional or frequent bouts of insomnia, a condition that can lead to depression, memory problems, weight loss or gain, stress, mental disorders, and an inability to properly calculate the number of Americans who struggle with insomnia.

Very broadly speaking, insomnia comes in three categories: sleep-onset insomnia, in which the sufferer has trouble falling asleep; nocturnal awakenings, in which the sufferer has difficulty remaining asleep through the night; and terminal insomnia, which fortunately doesn’t use “terminal” to mean “deadly,”1 but rather to indicate that the sufferer’s night of sleep terminates too early. While these categories are distinct, they are by no means mutually exclusive—lucky insomniacs can mix-and-match from all three kinds, alternating them successively or even experiencing all at the same time.

If this is you, being sleepy is far from your biggest problem.
Causes of insomnia, when they can be identified at all, vary widely, and can include but are not limited to:
excessive use of caffeine, alcohol, or drugs (prescribed and illicit); excessive noise or silence; too much or not enough exercise; the neighbors’ insufferably noisy dog; softly dripping faucets; wondering if there’s anything good in the fridge; and the beating of that old man’s hideous heart, buried under the floorboards.2

Potential cures for insomnia vary as well, and can include:
excessive use of caffeine, alcohol, or drugs (prescribed and illicit); noise; silence; warm milk; more or less exercise; your own insufferably noisy dog; finding something good to eat in the fridge; and murdering the old man with the creepy vulture eye.3

Given the frustratingly high degree of similarity between the causes of and cures for sleep loss, it’s hard to believe that there are subcategories of insomnia even less well-understood than the condition itself. However, researchers are only barely delving into a phenomenon they call sleep state misperception, which, although not nearly as bad as fatal familial insomnia (see notes, below), provides still more evidence to the sleep-deprived that, yes, their brains really do hate them and want them dead.
One suffering from sleep state misperception commonly underestimates (or, much more rarely, overestimates) the amount of sleep he or she gets. While observation and objective measurement would show a healthy seven or eight hours of sleep on a given night, that sleeper might mistakenly recall having been awake for, say, three or four of them. So despite being in good physical health, this poor jerk gets to feel as exhausted, cranky, and disconnected from reality as if he or she actually had slept like crap.

While the causes of sleep state misperception are unclear, it’s reasonable to assume that one of the top candidates is dreaming—specifically, dreaming of not being asleep.4

Certain dreams, of course, make it quite clear that you’re no longer in the real world. If you find yourself teaching John Lennon how to play guitar, or beating zombies to death with a pool cue in the halls of your old junior high,5 odds are good that (1) you’re dreaming and (2) you’ll realize you’re dreaming.

You mustn’t forget, though, that your brain is not only much smarter than you are but also trying to kill you, so a dream designed to look like a sleepless night will be much more difficult to detect. Even these, however, will contain understated nuances that, to the trained eye, will differentiate it from a frustrating but mundane sleepless night.

So in the interest of furthering knowledge, we humbly present the following examples of the subtle differences between the real world and a diabolically crafted insomnia dream. Included are our notes on the details that might otherwise escape the novice:

YOU COULD BE AWAKE: There’s a television in your room, but it’s broken. This is not necessarily at all out of the ordinary.
. . . BUT YOU’RE PROBABLY ASLEEP: there’s also TV repairman in the room . . . at 4:30 a.m. You don’t recall letting him in, and while you can’t be sure of this because the room is rather dark, you suspect he’s dressed as one of the Mario Brothers. And in the real world, of course, plumbers dress like this, not TV repairmen.

YOU COULD BE AWAKE: looking out of your window into the distance, you see a vast and overwhelming expanse of water. Potentially very normal for the several billion people that live in coastal areas.
. . . BUT YOU’RE PROBABLY ASLEEP: when you went to bed you were in Colorado, roughly one thousand miles from the nearest ocean. Also, the water outside your window is vertical—a tidal wave several hundred feet high, but completely motionless, hanging ominously in some sort of suspended animation. This hardly ever happens outside of shitty movies.

YOU COULD BE AWAKE: WNBA All-Star and former Colorado resident Becky Hammon is standing just outside the window, enthusiastically mooshing her boobs against the glass.
. . . BUT YOU’RE PROBABLY ASLEEP: when you went to bed, your room was on third floor of your hotel. Hammon, while a basketball player, is only about 5'6" tall, and thus would have an extremely difficult time staring into a third-floor window without a ladder or some sort of hovering skateboard, neither of which exist in real life. It’s this kind of subtle detail that allows the trained dream observer to separate the near-realistic dream from waking life.

We’ve never followed women’s basketball before, 
and can’t figure out why we’re suddenly interested.
YOU COULD BE AWAKE: When the alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m., you get out of bed surly and exhausted, just like normal.
. . . BUT YOU’RE PROBABLY ASLEEP: When the alarm goes off, the TV repairman, the tidal wave, the basketball player—and her boobs—all vanish at the same instant, leaving the room safer and quieter but considerably less interesting.

The drawback to this dream-analysis technique is that, if successful, you’ll be fully aware of your full night’s sleep, which means you’ll no longer be able to shuffle through your day in a blackhearted funk, snapping at everyone you encounter, floundering through eight fuzzy-headed and mistake-prone hours at your job, and sucking down caffeinated drinks like they were oxygen.

Well, sure, of course you can still do that, and knowing you, you probably will.6 But you won’t be able to blame it on your sleepless night. You’ll just have to admit that you’re kind of a jerk.

1. There is, however, a fatal form of insomnia. Appropriately named fatal familial insomnia, this extremely rare affliction affects a tiny handful of people—approximately 100 worldwide—and, upon its onset, involves a seven- to eighteen-month descent from normal life into total sleeplessness, insanity, catatonia, and death. If we were to pick the worst possible way to die, this would  be our choice.
2. It seems like a good idea to point out that this is an Edgar Allan Poe reference. We hope this keeps our more skittish readers from calling the police.
3. Relax, it’s just Poe again. Man, are you jumpy today.
4. Why would you dream of being awake all night? One reason only, as far as we can tell: your brain hates you, and wants you to die. If you have a better explanation in mind, we would love to hear it.
5. Question: is actually possible to beat zombies—the “undead”—to death? Discuss. Show your work for full credit.
6. We’ve talked to your coworkers. You’re known as Ms. Fussybritches.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Doomsday Turns Out to be Way Less Apocalyptic than Expected

May 21, 2011, Harold Camping’s iron-clad-guaranteed beginning of the end of the world, turned out to be far less apocalyptic than initially anticipated, with a jaded handful non-Raptured skeptics attempting to convince themselves that Doomsday had completely passed them by, and even the stoutest believers in Camping’s predictions going to bed slightly worried at the slim chance that they’d somehow missed out on witnessing the deaths and damnation of several billion people.

When reached for comment on the day’s events, every human on Earth observed that they didn’t feel a single damned thing out of the ordinary at 6:00 local time. “You’d think that a worldwide earthquake signaling the end of all creation would have been, you know, noticeable,” said everybody, “But, then, what do we really know about science?”

The answer there is, of course, nothing. Over the past five hours, expert physicists from the Family Radio Institute of Fantastical Science have meticulously concocted scientific evidence that proves that this absence of any sort of evidence is in fact guaranteed evidence that the apocalypse has indeed begun just as predicted, except for all the things that had actually been predicted to happen but clearly didn’t. According to their official statement released just minutes ago,

“When the entire planet is shaking at the same time, it’s physically impossible for anybody on the Earth to notice the movement. Think of the Earth as a giant hula dancer, its entire surface moving, gracefully and somewhat seductively, in all directions at once. You never actually see the hula dancer move, do you? Of course not. The Earth is just like that, except made out of rock and water, very very large, not particularly Hawaiian-looking, and without the flowers and the grass skirt.
“Therefore, to actually witness the tremor that hit the Earth today at precisely 6:00 in twenty-four different time zones—that is, in a single, perfectly simultaneous instant occurring over the course of a twenty-four-hour period—one would have to view the Earth from a distant, stationary viewpoint such as, for example, heaven, or the moon.  Since no living human is in heaven, and the only human to have visited the moon is Jimi Hendrix, the lack of human witnesses to the apocalypse proves that it did, in fact, happen just as predicted.
“So now that that’s settled, please send your remaining assets, in the form of cashier’s check or money order, to the Family Radio Phenomenally Embarrassing Failure Relief Fund. You will receive your reward in heaven on October 21, 2011, when the end of the world has been, for the first time ever, mathematically guaranteed to occur.”

Yep, everything's swell here. Well, except for all the usual death, disease,
poverty, drugs, murder, hate, pain, bad dental hygiene, and reality
television. But still, no apocalypse, so we're good. Thanks for asking.

Today’s Calendar: Bruins vs. Lightning, 11:30 am; Apocalypse, 6:00 pm

The Boston Bruins look to take a commanding 3-to-1 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Saturday’s NHL Eastern Conference final. Game time is 11:30 Mountain Daylight Time, check your local listings for cable and satellite availability.

In other news, the Apocalypse is set to make its long-awaited debut at precisely 6:00 pm with a global earthquake that will signal the second coming of Jesus Christ, as predicted and guaranteed by Harold Camping of Family Radio in Oakland, California. Camping is confident in his calculations, having used his in-depth knowledge of the Bible and complex mathematical techniques that have proven to be infallibly correct, unless you count that one time when the world didn’t end at all, not even just a little bit, back in 1994 when he said it would. He took his Doomsday Mulligan on that one, however, and we’re fully confident that we should be pretty sure that he definitely might have it right this time around. Totally.

It has to be true. Says so right here on the internet.

Having made our own calculations, however, we strongly suspect that Camping has failed to take into account the necessary adjustment for Daylight Savings Time, which is a modern-day concept not to be found in the Bible and therefore probably overlooked in during his otherwise rigorous number-crunching. 

And that spells deep, deep trouble for Harold Camping, because when the Rapture happens at 5:00 local time instead of the 6:00 he predicted, boy oh boy, will his credibility be shot.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Metal Will Never Die. Your Experience May Vary.

Renowned heavy metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio died on May 16, 2010, and this, the first anniversary of his death, seems an appropriate time to ponder some of the accomplishments of his long and storied career. (Those accomplishments we can think of, anyway, or glean from the Internet; we didn’t actually listen to all that much Dio growing up.)

Ronnie James Dio is known for having popularized the hand gesture generally known today as the “devil horns.” Despite its common name, the gesture didn’t initially have any sort of Satanic overtones.1 In actuality, it came from Dio’s Italian grandmother,2 who considered the gesture a means of warding off the maloccio, or evil eye—a protection against evil, rather that some sort of endorsement of it. Whatever its origin, however, the gesture has become synonymous with an awesomeness than only heavy metal can achieve.3

Not to be confused with: (left) Hook ’em Horns—virtually identical but rarely seen outside of Texas; (center) “I love you”; or (right) Spider-Man.

Given the decidedly silly band names with which he was associated in his early years, Dio deserves credit simply for having been able to keep his career alive. While he did, of course, spend time with Black Sabbath and his own band, Dio, before that he was a member of the band Elf—initially called The Electric Elves, believe it or not—and also Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow.

Really—Rainbow. He was in a band called Rainbow, and this apparently didn’t bother him one bit. Some sources suggest that, when he collaborated in 2006 with former Black Sabbath bandmates Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Vinny Appice, Dio considered naming the band Strawberry Shortcake before eventually settling on the more prosaic Heaven & Hell.4

Rainbow: Because this shit is fucking heavy.

Dio is also known to have inspired at least two songs by occasionally semi-serious acoustic metal band Tenacious D, quite possibly the greatest band in the world, according to their various promotional materials. The vast majority of Tenacious D’s songs are inspired by (and often about) mythical creatures, marijuana,  themselves, or the majesty of rock, so to be able to lay claim to not one but two of their compositions is quite a distinction. One of these songs, “Dio,” from their self-titled 2001 album, is in fact about Dio, whereas “Kickapoo,” from 2006’s Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny,5 features a guest vocal from the man himself.

Perhaps Ronnie James Dio’s greatest achievement is one that he never intended, or even necessarily thought much about: his success goes a long way to prove that heavy metal is perhaps the most egalitarian of all musical genres. Let’s face it: normal- to odd-looking people rarely stand a chance of making it big in the music industry; looks and moderate (or barely measurable) talent generally get the breaks rarely awarded to the gifted but schlumpy.

Case in point—C+C Music Factory:

You thought Zelma Davis was going to make you sweat.

. . . turns out it was actually Martha Wash.

In heavy metal, on the other hand,

you think you’re listening to this guy . . .

. . . when you’re actually listening to this guy.

Granted, hard rock music has its own problems with image and appearances—there’s a very good reason why the name “hair metal” stuck so well to an entire era’s worth of bands—and it’s quite possible that, had Dio’s career begun in the golden age of the music video, rather than the decades beforehand, he would have struggled, his unconventional appearance made a punchline instead of being dismissed as irrelevant in the face of his talent.

Nah, who are we kidding? That doesn’t really happen, does it?

1. And doesn’t really now, either, no matter what Tipper Gore might want you to believe. Or whoever it is that says heavy metal music is all about Satan—we think Tipper really cared only about naughty words.
3. Mrs. (Dr.) Some Guy even inadvertently used the “devil horns” gesture in a characteristically enthusiastic moment during a job interview at a well-known and respected hospital, when describing something that—while now forgotten—totally rocked. She got the job, thus proving that pharmacists are the most metal of all hospital employees.
4. There is not a single source that suggests anything like this. We just made it up. But we’d love it if this silly joke becomes the seed of an absurd story that eventually becomes accepted as fact simply because it gets repeated hundreds of thousands of times all over the internet for no reason other than that people are willing to believe any dumb thing.
5. Why link to the German site for the Tenacious D movie? First, because German is the most metal of all languages—just ask Mötley Crüe or Mötörhëäd—and second, because we couldn’t find the English page.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

May 5, 1961: A Red-Letter Date for the Lowest Bidder

Alan Shepard in his Mercury capsule. It’s even less roomy than it appears.

On May 5, 1961, American Alan B. Shepard and his Mercury capsule Freedom 7 rode a Redstone rocket to an altitude of 116 miles above the Earth. While the U.S.S.R.’s Yuri Gagarin had made history less than a month earlier by becoming both the first person in space and the first person to orbit the Earth, Shephard’s journey into space highlighted one of the Russian space program’s most thorough and embarrassing failures: in more than thirty years of operation, from the late 1950s to its dissolution in 1991, the Soviet Union consistently failed to launch even one single, solitary red-blooded American into space.1
While Shepard followed Gagarin’s spaceflight by mere weeks, Gagarin’s orbit of the Earth occurred nearly three and a half years after the first living creature made the trip. A dog named Laika—which translates from the Russian as “dead frozen space dog”2—was launched into space by the Soviets on November 3, 1957. Public knowledge of the circumstances of her death in space (which was expected and, in fact, inevitable, once she got up there) have evolved considerably over the decades. Official reports at the time stated that she was painlessly euthanized after about a week, before her supply of oxygen ran out; this story was probably not widely believed because for several decades it was just plain silly to believe most anything reported by the Soviet Union.3 Evidence suggests that Laika in fact died only a few hours after liftoff, from a combination of overheating and stress.

We appreciate the effort, comrades, but Don Bluth didn’t mean that
all dogs literally go to heaven. We kinda wish we’d said something earlier.
It took the United States of America more than three years to counter the Soviets’ daring leap forward by launching into space—and, even better, recovering safely—a chimpanzee named Ham, who was quite nearly nearly Laika’s equal in both overall cuteness and utter ignorance of the terrific dangers of his situation.

“People keep handing me fruit, I get to wear underpants, they’re not
making me drink TANG . . . this place is great. I think I’ll. . . . Wait—what?
You want to send me where?”

While Ham’s flight was not without incident—several hours of pre-launch delays were followed by an in-flight loss of cabin pressure, a higher-than-expected peak velocity, and a subsequent return to Earth some 130 miles from the targeted landing area—Ham’s survival and the knowledge gleaned from his flight showed NASA that a larger, less-hairy primate might well survive the same conditions, with the added benefit that he would actually understand the dials and levers in front of him.4

The successes of Shephard’s flight and the flights that followed were built on a foundation of daring, dedication, ingenuity, and even (to some degree) thrift. According to then-NASA flight director Gene Kranz,
“When reporters asked Shepard what he thought about as he sat atop the Redstone rocket, waiting for liftoff, he had replied, ‘The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.’ ”5
NASA, nearly three years behind the Soviet Union at the Launching Ignorant Creatures stage of the space race, had closed the gap to a scant three weeks by the time of Alan Shepard’s flight, and eventually surpassed the Soviets to become the first nation to place a man on the moon.

Forty years later, STS-135, the last launch of the venerable Space Shuttle program, is scheduled for July 2011. No comparable replacement for the shuttle is expected for at least five years, and quite possibly much longer. While space agencies worldwide now generally work in cooperation with one another rather than in competition, and while NASA will still have some limited means of manned space flight, it’s a shame to see that, for perhaps the first time in four decades, American space exploration is taking an undeniable step backward. Perhaps as disappointing is that public interest in keeping the space program going doesn’t seem to be particularly high.

If the best and most noble elements of of humanity, such as Alan Shephard’s courage in the face of the unknown—or of the barely-known but obviously dangerous—can’t manage to keep our interest anymore, maybe NASA needs to bring back the monkeys. Who doesn’t love monkeys? This country would pay through the nose to see monkeys on Mars.6

1. Although they did allow us to chill out at their place back in the summer of 1975, which was pretty cool of them.
2. This is absolutely not true, but we like the sound of it. We don’t speak a lick of Russian.
3. Notable exceptions to this rule were statements such as “Dear Poland, we are coming to visit. See you at about noon. Sincerely, Josef Stalin.”
4. NASA was also keenly interested in finding a telegenic astronaut who could interact with reporters in a way that didn’t involve throwing feces.
5. This quote may be familiar to those of you who were unfortunate enough to have seen Michael Bay’s Armageddon, which incorporates Shepard’s statement into Steve Buscemi’s dialogue in one of the few moments when the movie is not viciously brutalizing the laws of science.
6. Yeah, yeah, we know. Apes are not monkeys.