Friday, July 21, 2017

Witchy Women, Tenure Battles

Longtime readers will know that I am a big fan of Fritz Leiber, a criminally unsung author whose influence is as pervasive as it is unacknowledged. Such stories as 1941's The Smoke Ghost and 1949's The Girl with the Hungry Eyes are foundational documents in the 'dark urban fantasy' genre which is so popular these days.

One of the lacunae in my Leiber reading was the 1943 novel Conjure Wife, a tale of witchcraft set in a small university. The protagonist of the novel is John Saylor, a sociologist who has recently completed a survey of folk-magic practices with the assistance of his wife Tansy, culminating in an upcoming monograph, The Social Background of the Modern Voodoo Cult. Saylor and his wife are nonconformists stuck in a conservative institution, yet are thriving despite not being quite as staid as the administration would wish them to be.

One day, on a whim which he acknowledges as being childish and perhaps illicit, Saylor decides to go through his wife's dressing room and discovers that she has drawers full of the trappings of witchcraft- graveyard dirt, hair-and-nail clippings, horseshoe nails, and flannel mojo hands. A social scientist, he is appalled by this evidence of superstition on the part of his wife. On her return home, he confronts her with his discovery and makes her promise not to engage in these practices, and combs through the house finding flannel mojo bags and other talismans everywhere.

After he destroys the items, bad things start to happen- he is accused of sexual harassment by a student-employee, he starts lecturing about controversial topics, he puts his path to a department chairmanship in jeopardy. Being a rational person, which is never a plus in a dark fantasy, he chalks these things up to coincidence. The reader, of course, susses out what's going on pretty quickly.

The threats that accumulate against Saylor culminate in a supernatural attack on his house by an architectural grotesque that adorns one of the campus buildings, and hints of a fatal curse placed on him by an unknown antagonist. Tansy, unknown to her husband, takes the curse upon herself in order to save him, and receives a compulsion to flee the university. In one particularly creepy scene, John tracks down Tansy and, finally realizing that his rational worldview is not up to the task of saving his wife, decides to use supernatural means to save her... too late. Having largely failed to save his wife from a soul-stealing enchantment, he has to find a means to return her trapped soul to her and discover the source of the supernatural attacks on them.

The weird thing about this novel is that it portrays every woman on the planet as being a witch. Tansy, the other university wives, a young hotel maid... all of them use magic to one extent or other. The rudiments of the practice are handed down mother-to-daughter (uh, no explanation for how orphans learn it), but each individual woman continues to the extent of her abilities, using trial-and-error to achieve more mastery of the craft.

The novel then shifts into a spiritual battle between Saylor, who uses his analytical skills to approach the supernatural arts, and the witches who have tormented him and his wife. His struggle is reminiscent of a video game, in which he has to face a succession of increasingly powerful 'level bosses', until he finally finds the authoress of the couple's misfortunes.

The book was a fun read, if dated. There is the typical mid-century sexism, of the 'women being conscious of the moon-pulls and earth-tides' variety, and African-American conjure-men working their mojo, but it's not as toxic as a lot of other mid-century pulp fiction. The book also had me looking up the folk-practices that it describes, and I found a great Lightnin' Hopkins song about a mojo hand as a result:





One mark of my enjoyment of a book, movie, or television series is the series of internet searches that the work inspires... I love works which set off a cascade of queries.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Continual Source of Disappointment

The big political story today is John McCain's brain cancer diagnosis. I wish that Senator McCain successfully fights the glioblastoma with which he is inflicted... I've had a conflicted view of McCain for many years- the media has long portrayed him as a 'country before party' guy, but my observations have put the lie to this conventional wisdom.

My biggest beef with McCain, one which I take personally, is his flip-flop on immigration reform. In 2006, I attended a pro-immigration reform rally at St Barnabas Church on the Bronx/Yonkers border which featured McCain as a speaker. Back then, he was an advocate of immigration reform, having co-sponsored a bill on the subject with Teddy Kennedy.

I also had a beef with McCain about his flip-flop on the release of POW Bowe Bergdahl... as a POW himself, McCain should have unequivocally supported Bergdahl's rescue, but he decided to use it to score political points.

I just don't see McCain as the principled 'Maverick' that he's played in the media's imagination- even in this current political climate, he's voted with the man who denigrated his military service almost ninety-percent of the time. Now that he's facing a long battle against a pernicious cancer, he's probably going to vote to prevent the middle-class, working-class, and indigent people of the U.S. from receiving affordable diagnostic care like he did. An elderly man, with numerous pre-existing conditions, McCain would never receive affordable coverage from any of the private insurance carriers that we peons are forced to deal with.

I wish Senator McCain a recovery from glioblastoma, but I would wish that for anyone. Basically, I wish that every single American citizen could receive the 'gold standard', taxpayer funded healthcare that McCain will be receiving. Tragically, Senator McCain doesn't seem to agree with me. Once again, McCain has proved to be a source of disappointment. I hope he recovers, but I won't be singing Fields of Athenry to him anytime soon.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: An Earthshaking Topic

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture by Yale University geologist and geophysicist Dr Maureen Long. Fr Long, an observational seismologist, described her job as dreaming up questions that nobody has the answers to and traveling around the world (a perk) to seek the answers.

Dr Long began her lecture by noting humanity's fascination with the world beneath our feet, a fascination which has cropped up in popular culture for a long time. She displayed a simple, elegant image of the Earth's layers as characterized by current geology. Beneath the cool crust of the Earth, there is a rocky mantle which surrounds a liquid outer core primarily composed of iron (about 80%) and nickel (about 20%) surrounding a solid iron-nickel inner core. The interior of the Earth is characterized by dynamic processes.

Approximately 4.6 billion years ago, the Earth accreted from a planetary disc- collisions between accreting dust particles created kinetic energy which was stored as heat, the present day source of much of the interior's heat. The Earth has been cooling slowly to the temperature of the surrounding space, which will eventually result in a slow heat death billions of years from now. The Earth radiates 46 terawatts of heat- it is thought that approximately one half of this heat is residual primordial heat, and one half results from radioactive decay. Heat loss fuels plate tectonics and localized disasters such as earthquakes. While the Earth radiates 46 terawatts of heat, it receives 170,000 terawatts of heat from the sun, which can cause atmospheric disasters.

Dr Long indicated that the heat lost by the Earth is lost by convection- although the mantle is solid, there is a slow convection as rocks near the surface cool, become denser, and sink and rocks near the core heat up, become less dense, and rise. The process is slow, rocks move one to ten centimeters a year... to help the audience visualize the process, Dr Long likened it to the speed at which one's fingernails grow. Dr Long compared the process to the motion of the blobs in a lava lamp and joked that, as a geophysicist 'of course' she has a lava lamp. Plate tectonics is a surface expression of the convection in the mantle. Subduction zones are the regions in which the plates of the Earth collide and one plate slides under another plate. Oceanic spreading zones are regions in which plates are moving away from each other. Plate tectonics in boundary zones is the cause of earthquakes and vulcanism. Dr Long stressed the need to understand the physical properties of the Earth to mitigate disasters.

Dr Long then shifted the topic to methodology- how do we study the Earth's interior? Much of what we know about the interior is the result of studying seismology. Earthquakes are recorded at monitoring stations all over the planet- the 'wiggles' of the seismographs give researchers insights into the structure of the Earth. There are different sorts of seismic waves, such as body waves which move through the interior and surface waves. Body waves are further divided into primary P-waves (or compressional waves) and S-waves (shear waves). Seismic waves continually pass through the mantle of the Earth and the data can be compiled to create seismic tomography, in a process analogous to medical tomography. Images can be constructed from seismic waves. Dr Long showed us a gorgeous tomographic image of the mantle underneath the United States:




The blue regions are characterized by fast seismic waves traveling through older, colder, stiffer rock, the red regions are characterized by slow seismic waves moving through hotter rock with more vigorous seismic activity.

There are seismic stations all around the globe- a lot of earthquakes occur, providing a lot of data. While earthquakes are, as Dr Long put it, super-common, most of them occur in remote places, deep in the earth. A Global Seismographic Network with about two-hundred monitoring stations uploads data in real time. Earthquake occurrence is not evenly distributed, and oceanic monitors are difficult and expensive to place. With a global network, a seismic tomography of the deep earth is being compiled. One recent discovery is that subducting plates can form slabs which sink towards the core. Dr Long noted that many of the features observed in the deep Earth look like the predicated models, but that there are surprises- not all subduction slabs act alike, some slabs are slowly sinking all the way to the core-mantle boundary. Beneath Japan, one subduction slab sinks to a depth of 900 kilometers then stops sinking. Dr Long posed the question, why do some slabs sink to the mid-mantle level while others sink to the core-mantle boundary? All of these slabs are made of the same stuff.

There are also rising rock 'plumes'- solid rock rises up through the mantle. Dr Long cited the work of UC Berkeley geologists Scott French and Barbara Romanowicz who found slow velocity hot rock plumes under such volcanic hotspots as Hawaii and Iceland. Some of these plumes are one-thousand kilometers in width. There are also 'superplumes', more properly known as large low-shear-velocity provinces located at the base of the mantle and having low shear-wave velocities. There is a large low-shear-velocity province underneath the Pacific Ocean, and another under Africa. Dr Long characterized these LLSVP's as 'superweird'. Nobody knows what they are- they are at the base of the mantle, and they are hot, but they don't seem to be rising. Dr Long wondered if these structures had a different minerology/chemistry from other mantle sections and if they were formed shortly after the birth of the planet. LLSVP's remain a mystery. She recommended a TED talk by Dr Ed Garnero of Arizona State University on the subject:





Dr Long then brought up the topic of Earthscope, the largest earth science project funded by the National Science Foundation. Earthscope was designed to make transformative discoveries about the structure of the North American continent, earthquake physics, and the Deep Earth. The data derived from the project is free and open. The USArray placed approximately twenty-five hundred seismic systems throughout North America- before Earthscope, there were about one-hundred seismometers in the US. Dr Long contrasted the pre-Earthscope era to the present day using an analogy- it's like studying astronomy with a pair of binoculars versus studying astronomy with the Hubble Space Telescope. I seemed to detect a bit of 'football spiking' when Dr Long told us that PopSci, in 2011, named Earthscope the most awe-inspiring project of the year, edging out the LHC.

The Earthscope observatory nearest to the beautiful Bell House is N61A in Milburn, New Jersey. The USArray is a flexible array- detectors can be earmarked for specific seismic experiments. Dr Long's specific experiment is the poetically named MAGIC: Mid-Atlantic Geophysical Integrative Collaboration. The goal of the MAGIC project is to determine the seismic structure of the eastern United States, and to reconstruct the plate tectonics processes which formed the region. The geology of the eastern United States is largely covered by vegetation and I-95. It's a complicated geology- about 350 million years ago, the Appalachian Mountains were young, tall mountains like the Himalayas. At about 200 million years ago, the supercontinent of Pangea was splitting up, with present-day Africa separating from present-day North America- meaning that the current Eastern Seaboard would have looked much like Africa's Rift Valley. There are dramatic remnants of the Triassic Rift in the Hudson Palisades, part of the Newark Basin and New Haven's East Rock (visible from Dr Long's office), part of the Hartford Basin- both the Palisades and East Rock are lava formations, dramatic evidence of ancient tectonic processes.

Dr Long's MAGIC project is set up to determine the effects of tectonic processes on the deep structure of the crust and mantle underlying eastern North America- what lies beneath? Eastern North America has not been a plate boundary for 200 million years, but the seismic tomography indicates a couple of unusual features- red 'blobs' underneath New England and Central Appalachia, indicating slow velocity seismic waves. Dr Long chose to study the Central Appalachian 'blob'- what does the crust/mantle region look like in Appalachia? Central Virginia is known to experience earthquakes. Dr Long characterized the geology of Appalachia as 'superbizarre'- there are 500 million year-old rocks in the region, which should not be found in a passive-margin region with no plume or hotspot. Put succinctly, the structure is anomalous. MAGIC deployed 28 seismometers in Appalachia between 2013 and 2016. Dr Long announced her 'hot off the presses' findings... in the Central Appalachian region, the lithosphere, thought to be 100 kilometers thick, turned out to be a mere 70 kilometers in thickness, way thinner than was expected. At some time, perhaps 50 million years ago, some part of the lithosphere dropped off into the mantle. The dropped chunks of lithosphere may explain the earthquakes in this region. This unexpected finding raised other questions- is this region of thinness unique to the region, or is it a characteristic of old mountain ranges? What's special about Appalachia?

Dr Long ended her lecture with a plug for the Earthscope project and told us to stay tuned for new amazing discoveries, transformative discoveries, to come. Deep Earth research is important to understanding life, and to understanding hazards.

In the Q&A session following the lecture, some bastard in the audience asked Dr Long about the feasibility of earthquake prediction (impossible by today's standards). She noted that earthquakes cannot be predicted, but that broad forecasts can be made about which regions are earthquake-prone. While nobody can indicate if an earthquake is imminent, knowledge of risk factors can lead to better building codes in quake-prone areas. She indicated that there's not a lot of progress, and we may never get there, but increased knowledge can lead to better policy.

Another attendee asked if convection is random or if the LLSVP's play a role in the process- Dr Long indicated that nobody knows what factors control convection patterns. A question about the Chicxulub impact's effect on the planet had Dr Long stating that, while the impact was a mass extinction level event in the biosphere, it had little effect on Earth's deep structure... that being said, extinction events are often associated with volcanic flood basalts. Another question about our knowledge of extraterrestrial seismic studies had Dr Long talking about seismometers on the Moon and the Insight mission to place seismometers on Mars. Another question regarded the anomalous rise of upstate New York's Adirondack Mountains which is occurring 'faster than it should be'. The last question regarding the heat death of the Earth, and Dr Long noted that there are differing calculations depending on how much one attribute's Earth's heat to primordial kinetic energy or to radioactive decay- at any rate, we have tens of billions of years until it happens, and as Dr Long wisely put it- 'we have bigger problems'.

After the formal Q&A, Dr Long hung out at the beautiful Bell House for an informal chat session. One topic which came up was the discovery of a fault line not too far from the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Dr Long also broke the news to me that Dr Leo J. Hickey, gentleman and Renaissance man, had passed away four years ago.

Dr Long's lecture hit what I call the 'Secret Science sweet spot'- it was an entertaining and informative blend of hard science fact, methodology, and travelogue. In other words, the good doctor hit it out of the park. Kudos to Dr Long, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. If you want a taste of that Secret Science effect, here's a video of the good doctor lecturing on natural disasters:





Crack open a beer and soak in that SCIENCE!

Monday, July 17, 2017

I Have a Feeling He'll Be Back

Another Titan has fallen- George Romero, the father of the modern zombie/ghoul/living dead horror genre, has died, but I suspect he'll be back. Romero's films, made on tight budgets with casts of unknowns, are notable for their political content as well as for their gore. The original Night of the Living Dead was notable for featuring an African-American protagonist, and while the political message is in the background, the practically subliminal racial tension is a factor in the dynamics of the group almost as much as the tension between the living and the not-exactly-dead. The ending of the movie is one of the great shocking twists of cinema history.

Dawn of the Dead, in my estimation Romero's grand opus, is a savage satire of consumer culture, as rival groups of survivors (particularly cops and outlaw bikers) ensconce themselves in a mall to withstand a siege by ghouls. The breathers and the shamblers are all obsessed with consumption- the undead at least realize that humanity is the product.

The Tor article I linked to is an essential read for Romero fans- the sheer ubiquity of the tropes the Romero started served to drown out the oeuvre of the man himself, leaving little room for an auteur who preferred to work with modest budgets and practical effects.

One thing that I have to note about Romero is that he had a sense of humor, albeit a grim one. One particular scene comes to mind, in which the female protagonist's brother tries to scare her:





My favorite line in any of Romero's movies is the deadpan-snark description of the undead uttered by the character of the police chief who is leading the local response to the zombie uprising:





Night of the Living Dead, surprisingly, is in the public domain. It's a bit gruesome, but not over the top like some modern splatter films. Even if you're not a horror movie fan, it is an interesting watch, because of its genre-defining status. Just keep the lights on, because George might be coming to get you.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Can't Save Them All

When I arrived on the job today, one of my co-workers, a sensitive artistic woman, greeted me with a dilemma... she had found a distrait bird in front of our main building. Acting on the instinct of providing a 'nest' for an injured bird, she had placed it in a cardboard box lined with paper towels:




The bird, a white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) looked to be in rough shape. It had a tendency to shiver and to occasionally flop over. My friend had called a couple of wildlife rehabilitators to ask for assistance, but had to leave messages with them because they were unavailable. I took the box with the bird from her (I am fond of nuthatches, they are comical little birds which often climb head downward along one of our wooden outbuildings, looking for tasty bugs) and tried to figure out how best to deal with the little thing. I figured I'd see if I could get it to drink from a drip-feeder improvised from a wet paper towel (having no eyedropper in my office) and eat a bit of cat-kibble (not having sunflower seeds or peanuts available). Sadly, the bird expired while I was trying to figure out how to provide sustenance for it.

About an hour after she had left, my co-worker returned to see how the bird was doing- the whole situation weighed on her so much that she had to return to see how the bird was doing. I broke the bad news to her, and then we had a talk about how birds which have ended up on the ground are often sick to begin with. I told her that she had done everything correctly to the best of her knowledge, and how I had tried to get some water and food into the bird. She had heard back from one of the rehabilitation experts, who pretty much told her the same thing I did, even down to the whole 'try to feed it sunflower seeds or cat food' bit. This is a prime season for animal injuries, so all of the local wildlife rehabilitation experts have their hands full. My friend is an idealistic woman, but she's also a realist, so she took the news of the bird's death in stride... she did a yeoperson's job, but even a yeoperson can't save them all.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Liberté Égalité Covfefé

Today being Bastille Day, I figured that I'd post about President Trompe le Monde's Mission a Paris. Despite an awkward opening 'line' from Trompe (quel dommage dumbass), President Macron responded with genuine statesmanship and hit the PotUS with a full-blown Parisian charm offensive (bonus points to the French military band for playing a 'Daft Punk' medley during the Bastille Day parade) and making him feel at home in the rococo, by which I mean tacky, Élysée Palace.

I have to grudgingly express admiration for President Macron's discretion and diplomacy for not trolling Trompe with a succession of tumbrels during the Bastille Day parade, but the man took the high road. The 'conventional wisdom' is that Trompe is typically influenced by the last person with whom he's spoken, so Macron's display of amitié toward Trompe might move him to a more moderate stance towards America's allies... dining in the Eiffel Tower just might make him conflate the Paris Agreement with La Ville-Lumière, and reconsider his position.

I'm not holding my breath, though, Trompe's lune de miel is over, and now it's back to the harsh reality of the Russian hacking scandal and low approval ratings. As the lovely Veronique Vincent sang, prends l’avion pour un autre là-bas...





But someday you have to fly home to face the music... at any rate, this is a story to follow.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

When Someone You Can't Stand Covers One of Your Pet Topics

I pretty much view the whole 'Freakonomics' phenomenon with contempt, especially given the authors' blase approach to climate change, with the belief that geoengineering can save the day, is boneheaded, though not the most boneheaded approach. Generally speaking, I can't stand these guys, but while changing radio stations on my way to work last Saturday, I actually stopped and listened to their radio show, because they were covering a topic which has long been a mini-obsession of mine... the American obsession with lawns.

My take on lawns is that they are only appropriate for athletic fields of various sorts- they are wasteful monocultures, costly in terms of money spent and biodiversity lost. To me, the best symbol of the idiocy of the lawn is the suburbanites' war on the dandelion, a plant which is useful in every part, in order to grow turf grass, which is only useful to ruminants. To use potable water in order to grow this useless, invasive turf grass is extremely wasteful.

Personally, I think that a combination of native wildflower and herb/vegetable gardens is the way to go... people should at least consider having a couple of milkweed plants in their yard. I would even advocate a 'million milkweed median' program for the national highway system in order to bolster the endangered monarch butterfly population.

I listened to the entire 'Freakonomics' show, and I note that their characterization of lawns as 'carbon sinks' is flawed because it doesn't take into consideration the carbon costs of lawn maintenance and the transportation infrastructure used to support the industry, and the fact that mown turf grass doesn't remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as most plants, especially trees. I still hold the 'Freakonmics' staff in contempt, but I am pleased that they at least covered this topic.