Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sir Patrick Moore — The Brightest Star in the Night Sky

Asteroid 2602 Moore is named after Sir Patrick Moore

Quick — name the longest running television show in history.

Nope: you’re wrong. It’s not a soap opera or Sesame Street or As The World Turns, even The Grand Old Opry.

It’s a program about astronomy from Britain called The Sky at Night, and it’s been running since 1957, practically the dawn of time, as far as television goes. It’s presenter, Sir Patrick Moore, is an amateur astronomer whose impact on the field of astronomy has been so profound that he is credited with producing an entire generation of star-gazers. He is also one of Great Britain’s most beloved eccentrics, and he died today at the age of 89.

If you like the idea of history being linked, one event or persona joining with another as if in a wondrous necklace, then Sir Patrick Moore forms one of those chains. His career spanned the history of man’s ability to foil gravity by taking to the skies — having met the Wright brothers and being well known to the astronauts and cosmonauts who ushered in the Space Age — he played an integral role as an advisor to both the US and Russian space programs.

Known for his shambolicly ill-fitting suits, his wild hair, and for his ever-present monocle, Moore was also a gifted Xylophone player and pianist — accompanying Einstein (who was playing violin) when they met, on “The Swan.” Ever an Englishman, Moore was also a fan of cricket and his home, in whose back garden he often filmed the show, staring through a giant telescope.

It’s hard to convince Americans of the extent to which Sir Patrick Moore was a beloved iconic figure, perhaps because the medium of television (especially in its early years) took such divergent paths. In Britain, it was a medium for entertainment based on facts and self-improvement, whereas in the US it was the venue for game shows.

Sir Patrick Moore was tall. His legacy is that whenever we lift our heads to look up, we will always see him winking back at us.

Perhaps he’s taken up residency on one of Saturn’s moons, Iepetus, from which he thought the most heavenly view in the universe could be seen.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Sweet Scent of Hell

Nature's hand-grenades

A madness descends on America in December — Xmas fever. I use the word “Xmas” deliberately: the X stands for anything dreamed up by marketers as having anything remotely to do with winter, or winteryness. We are used to the lights and carols, to trees and snowmen. But in recent years the moneymen have found a new sense to assault: our sense of smell. Try entering a supermarket without choking through a thick cloud of the monstrous odor emitted by sacks of “scented” pine cones — you have to hold your breath until you reach the safe confines of the fruit section.

This wintery fakery is the result of impregnating innocent pine cones with a hellish combination of cinnamon and “essential oils,” notably peppermint or nutmeg. The idea, it seems, is to infuse the air with the delightful hint of apple pie. The reality is like being sprayed in the face with mace.

Mace and nutmeg grow together.

Mace, by the way, comes form the outer layer of the nutmeg. We all know what mace does to the human olfactory system, which is why it is classified as a weapon. Too much nutmeg, is, in fact poisonous. And if you’ve ever seen some poor dull-witted person subject themselves to the “cinnamon challenge” by attempting to survive a mouthful of the cloying, hot spice…well, you can guess that it too can be a mightily persuasive irritant.

Pinecones in their natural silver state

In the 1970s, pine cones collectively shrugged beneath the indignity of being sprayed with silver paint, because that somehow made them prettier and more winterified.

Now, each and every one of them points an invisible gun at its head to blow its brains out because it’s been rendered into a faux-natural hand-grenade of overpowering sensory detail.

The only thing worse than holding your breath when running the scented pine cone gauntlet at the supermarket is letting your curiosity get the better of you when faced with the packet of “glaze” that comes with your spiral-sliced ham. “Mix with a quarter cup of water,” the directions say, “leave to cool, them pour over ham.”

On no account do this. The grotesque reconstituted molasses this vile concoction becomes smells exactly like the dreaded scented pine cones, only there’s no warning: the packet ingredients only list “cane sugar, canola oil and spices.” Do not trust anything that says “spices.” Remember, mace is a spice. The Spice Girls were a manifestation of the horror that spiciness can inflict upon your person.

Guess what this candle smells like. 

Likewise, avoid wintery candles whose wax or vegetable oil has been infused with the inexplicable aromas of things like “egg nog,” “pumpkin pie,” and “cloves.”

Remember: Xmas is a celebration of all that is toxic in nature: mistletoe, poinsettia, evergreens, and pine cones. Stick to the chocolate. And oranges. And chocolate oranges. 

The real smell of Christmas.