The colorful history of an occultist JPL founder

“After his girlfriend ran off with [L. Ron] Hubbard, he decided to create his own girlfriend and summon an elemental.”

This WIRED article features a brief history of rocket engineer Jack Whiteside Parsons, a founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratory who “developed the first castable solid propellant used to power aircraft.” Parsons came at a time when space exploration via rocketry was still considered science fiction (and science fiction was considered extremely silly).

According to the article, Parsons’ interest in rockets was inspired by SF literature. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t mention his inspiration for his bat-shit insanity.

from NASA’s website

From Parsons’ Wikipedia page:

“There was a widely used astronomy textbook published in the early 1930s which said that rocket flight was impossible. It was something that was really not even on the fringes, even beyond the fringes of respectable science.”
—Clayton Koppes, author of JPL: A History of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

My comics

I draw comics here and there. I think you’ll be able to tell I grew up reading Mad Magazine and have a handful of weird 90s’ influences like Scud: The Disposable Assassin. I have some from a few years ago that I might begin posting each Friday here.

Ghost *Bicycle* Rider

As for the lack of posts lately, I’ve been busy. Then there’s this weird midlife anxiety thing I’m dealing with right now. I always feel a little off as the seasons change, but the feeling seems magnified as of late.

I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier and wrote about it, but didn’t post it because it feels… I don’t know. Not sure that’s the direction I want this blog to go in anymore. That and everyone seems to be talking about it lately. Long story short: I loved it. I used to be indifferent to the MCU, but their movies are knocking my socks off as of late.

I can’t wait until Guardians of the Galaxy. Director James Gunn wrote the best Troma movie ever:

Nebraska: Be somebody.

I’m not a fan of “feel-good” movies. Yet, I’ve got to say it: Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is feel-good as fuck.

What’s the only way to make a legitimately touching movie? Be sincere about your characters. Be real about where they end up and how they get there. But above all, make a good goddamned movie. Don’t throw in overcooked music and tears. Just make a good movie. It’s a tough act, but Nebraska manages. Is it low-key? You bet. But I found myself laughing more during Nebraska than I did during Anchorman 2. And yes, I did like Anchorman 2.

There’s something a lot more satisfying about the wind-up of consistent laughter, as subtle as it may be, rather than the forced yucks of a heavier handed comedy. I would say I’m not a fan of the road trip movie, but I loved Albert Brooks’s Lost in America, and Alexander Payne’s earlier Sideways. Come to think of it, all of Payne’s movies are road trip movies. If you’re anything like me, you’ll agree no one makes them better.

Most movies are about heroes and exceptional people. Nothing wrong with that. It wouldn’t take much searching on this blog to discover I love big movies, at least when they’re done right. But movies like Nebraska are about us. Thank the Hollywood gods there are still people like Payne to bring us back down to reality every once and a while. I need big, “stupid” Hollywood comedies like the latest Will Ferrell vehicle as much as the next guy, but it sure is special when a Nebraska comes along.

The movie opens on a bridge in glorious black & white. Bruce Dern, looking characteristically disheveled, is walking towards us. A sheriff pulls up and asks Dern where he’s headed. Dern points ahead. Then the sheriff asks where he’s coming from. And Dern points behind him.

Dern’s son (Will Forte) is a stereo salesman going through a recent breakup with a painfully average woman. He’s the one who has to pick Dern up from the police station. He finds out his dad has been suckered by a million-dollar sweepstakes scam which aims to sell magazine subscriptions. It’s the second time he’s attempted to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska, which is where the sweepstakes office is located. Dern’s wife, who isn’t one to bite her tongue, says, “If the sonuvabitch wanted to be a millionaire, than he should’ve worked for it.” Later we learn Dern married his wife because he had nothing better to do at the time.

But there’s more to it than that, you’ll find, as the movie peels its layers like an onion. It becomes apparent why these people are the way they are and how they got to be that way. It plays more like a mystery than a comedy, constantly revealing tiny details with every new interaction between characters. It’s bittersweet, but that’s the best kind of sweet. We all know the million dollars Dern wants isn’t real. But while you may expect sadness at the end of this journey, you’ll get a Hollywood-style payoff. By then, the movie’s earned it.

Nebraska gets a lot of points right out of the gate. It’s got Bruce Dern in it, who’s been criminally underused in movies as of late. Stacy Keach is in there, too, playing the kind of character you love to hate. Bob Odenkirk is solid as Dern’s older son. If you don’t like Odenkirk, I’m just not sure what kind of person you are. And June Squibb, who plays Dern’s hypercritical wife (you’ll recognize her as Jack Nicholson’s late wife in Payne’s other movie, About Schmidt), probably has the funniest lines in the entire movie.

Then there’s Will Forte, who seems like the odd guy out until you actually see the movie. He’s the perfect sad clown. He’s got a face that’s perfect for something like this. I liked him on Saturday Night Live, but here you see a much brighter future than what most SNL alumni get stuck with. This is the road Sandler could have (and should have) gone down if he hadn’t been so focused on mumbling/yelling movies with pointlessly stupid high concepts.

I’ll be the first to admit it isn’t a movie for everyone. A lot of its charm might be lost on people who didn’t grow up watching Bruce Dern. The fact nothing blows up or nobody gets shot is probably a detriment to today’s low-attention moviegoers. But for others, it’s a hugely entertaining flick, at times hilarious when it’s not content with being merely funny. Design a scene around an air compressor and you’ve got my attention.

Big innovations and small: Neal Stephenson @ Solve for X

While the subject of Neal Stephenson’s speech is our culture appears to be moving away from big innovations (increasingly taller buildings, space exploration, faster jets, constantly pushing the limit of what’s physically possible etc.), what really struck me the second time I watched the video was his prediction that, a hundred years from now, 99% of the population might believe the moon landings were faked. People who know otherwise would be marginalized as “conspiracy theorists” in such a scenario.

That’s a pretty dark vision of the future if you ask me.

For the record, I don’t think that will happen. Certainly not in the next hundred years. Feasible? Sure. I’ll give him that. Nonetheless, the statement illustrates an important point. As Stephenson puts it: there are people actively trying to make that kind of future a reality. Maybe engineering big things will be sufficient enough monuments to remind people why human achievement matters and why real science should be trusted. Maybe not. Either way, it’s some interesting stuff to think about.