Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Two Picnics

Today is the day of our company picnic, which is a wonderful opportunity for me, a person who works alone at night about seventy percent of the time, to hang out with my co-workers, who are awesome people. This year, like last year, there is a 'casino' theme- each attendee gets five hundred dollars worth of 'funny money' to gamble with, the prizes being vouchers which can be redeemed for items from our gift shop. There are also lawn games set up, such as horseshoes and bocce, a particular favorite of mine. I always have a good time, it's like a reunion for me, and it is the staff's one last breather before the utter madness of Fall Fundraiser season begins.

The other picnic of the title is Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic, a 1971 science-fiction novel, the release of which was delayed by the Soviet authorities. The novel was published in translation in the U.S. in 1977. To my chagrin, I had not read the novel previously, though it is a landmark in the genre, which I claim to be a fan of.

Roadside Picnic involves the aftermath of an alien visitation, a visitation in which the aliens, technologically superior to humans, didn't even bother to interact with the natives... hence the title:

"Imagine a picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car drives off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out of the car carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Gas and oil spilled on the grass. Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around. Rags, burn out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind. Oil slicks on the pond. And of course, the usual mess — apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire cans, bottles, somebody's handkerchief, somebody's penknife, torn newspapers, comic, faded flowers picked in another meadow."

"I see. A roadside picnic."

"Precisely. A roadside picnic, on some road in the cosmos."

The 'usual mess' in the six Visitation Zones consists of inexplicable objects and effects- there are deadly concentrated gravity pockets, drifts of burning fluff that incinerates native flora, 'witches' jelly' which can dissolve the bones of anyone unfortunate enough to come in contact. There are also sufficiently advanced treasures- hoops which suggest that perpetual motion might be possible, wonderful batteries which aren't depleted, and most common of all, 'empties':

He had loaded, locked, and sealed one safe and was loading up the other one -- taking the empties from the transporter, examining each one from every angle (and they’re heavy little bastards, by the way, fifteen pounds each), and carefully replacing them on the shelf.

He had been struggling with those empties forever, and the way I see it, without any benefit to humanity or himself. In his shoes, I would have said screw it long ago and gone to work on something else for the same money. Of course, on the other hand, if you think about it, an empty really is something mysterious and maybe even incomprehensible. I’ve handled quite a few of them, but I’m still surprised every time I see one. They’re just two copper disks the size of a saucer --about a quarter inch thick, with a space of a foot and a half between.

There’s nothing else. I mean absolutely nothing, just empty space. You can stick your hand in them, or even your head, if you’re so knocked out by the whole thing -- just emptiness and more emptiness, thin air. And for all that, of course, there is some force between them, as I understand it, because you can’t press them together, and no one’s been able to pull them apart, either.

No, friends, it’s hard to describe them to someone who hasn’t seen them. They’re too simple, especially when you look close and finally believe your eyes. It’s like trying to describe a glass to someone: you end up wriggling your fingers and cursing in frustration. OK, let’s say you’ve got it, and those of you who haven’t get hold of a copy of the institute’s Reports -- every issue has an article on the empties with photos.

Kirill had been beating his brains out over the empties for almost a year. I’d been with him from the start, but I still wasn’t quite sure what it was he wanted to learn from them, and, to tell the truth, I wasn’t trying very hard to find out. Let him figure it out for himself first, and then maybe I’d have a listen. For now, I understood only one thing: he had to figure out, at any cost, what made one of those empties tick -- eat through one with acid, squash it under a press, or melt it in an oven. And then he would understand everything and be hailed and honored, and world science would shiver with ecstasy. For now, as I saw it, he had a long way to go. He hadn’t gotten anywhere yet, and he was worn out. He was sort of gray and silent, and his eyes looked like a sick dog’s-they even watered. If it had been anyone else, I would have gotten him roaring drunk and taken him over to some hard-working girl to unwind. And in the morning I’d have boozed him up again and taken him to another broad, and in a week he would have been as good as new -- bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Only that wasn’t the medicine for Kirill.

There was no point in even suggesting it -- he wasn’t the type.

So there we were in the repository. I was watching him and seeing what had happened to him, how his eyes were sunken, and I felt sorrier for him than I ever had for anyone. And that’s when I decided. I didn’t exactly decide, it was like somebody opened my mouth and made me talk.

"Listen," I said. "Kirill."

And he stood there with his last empty on the scales, looking like he was ready to climb into it.

"Listen," I said, "Kirill! What if you had a full empty, huh?"

The protagonist of the novel, Redrick "Red" Schuhart, skirts the legal divide, at times working for the Institute which studies the Visitation Zone, at times working as a 'Stalker', an unauthorized treasure-hunter who enters the zone seeking alien artifacts for the black market. The novel is set in a remote area of western Canada, and takes place over the course of a number of years. As the years progress, there are hints of the Zone exploration bearing fruits- cars powered with alien 'So-Sos' replace petroleum dependent ones. Those individuals exposed to the Zone often bear mutant children, and as the suburbs 'plagued' by proximity are abandoned by civilians, a city populated largely by scientists and security forces grows nearby. The primary conflict in the narrative is the tension between the legal explorers of the zone and the 'Stalkers', with figures such as Red straddling the fence.

The aliens remain a mysterious offstage influence, their technology is never explained, and some of it is probably legendary- the tall tales of the 'Stalkers'. The novel really does seem to have a 'Soviet' vibe- the secrecy necessary for functioning in a morally gray milieu, the thriving black market, the lionization of noble scientists, the paranoia inherent to a security state in which 'shoot to kill' orders are in place... this isn't the typically optimistic American 'Sci-Fi' novel.

So, those are the two picnics that will occupy my time today- one a sunny, cheerful event, full of good fellowship, the other a dark, brooding tale of moral ambiguity. Me being me, I love them both... though I do prefer sunshine and friendship to 'grimdark' amorality.

Monday, August 21, 2017

It's a Total Eclipse of the Sun

Wow, everybody in the States seems to have eclipse fever. Here in the NYC metro area, we will get a 70% eclipse. I am planning on rigging a pinhole projection setup to observe the eclipse. Three of my friends are traveling to South Carolina to view the eclipse, and one friend is traveling to Kentucky to view it in its totality.

For my traveling friends and my family members living in the Southerly climes, I am dedicating a video segment from one of my favorite concert films, the 1982 release Urgh! A Music War. One of the high points of the film is the otherworldly Klaus Nomi performance of Total Eclipse:

In 2004, The Nomi Song, a documentary about the singer's life and career, was released to critical acclaim. It's a fascinating film, a 'close encounters' tale about an alien who graced our planet for a tragically short time.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some cardboard to hunt down before heading out for some eclipse observation.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Peculiar Sort of Genius

Another legend gone... Jerry Lewis left us at the age of 91. I have to confess that I always found much of his schtick to be grating:

Lewis was best when he played a dweeby counterpart to the effortlessly cool Dean Martin:

I am most familiar with Jerry Lewis' longstanding fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, through his annual telethon. One particularly nice poignant of the telethon was Dean Martin's appearance on the show in 1976:

In some of the obituaries floating around, Mr Lewis is credited with the invention of video assist, but the patents don't bear this out. Nevertheless, he was a pioneering user of the technology, having been a director as well as an actor.

Jerry Lewis had a peculiar sort of genius... it taking a smart peson to convincingly play a fool. I recognize this genius, even if I don't exactly appreciate it, which is odd because I am one-quarter French. I also recognize that Jerry Lewis was beloved of millions, and that he accomplished some good during his time on Earth. Bon soir, bon déconneur. Bon soir, Jerry.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Make Way for Cucklings

Well, another weekend, another rightie-rally, this one was supposed to be a 'free speech' rally, though even the mainstream media is using scare quotes. The rally ended before it began, drowned out by a sea of 40,000 counter-protestors. It just goes to show you that the government isn't allowed to bar you from speaking freely, but nobody has to listen to your bullshit.

The real joke here is that internet tough guys were crying about being surrounded, and were escorted out of the vicinity by an African-American antifascism activist... someone they wouldn't have extended the same courtesy to. I picture the white right flight as something similar to the iconic Boston narrative Make Way for Ducklings, a perennial favorite of mine since childhood, with the police escorting the cucklings in a manner similar to that depicted in Robert McCloskey's charming illustration:

Of course, Boston is a liberal town in a liberal state, so it's not a Trump down either:

The idea that a bunch of Confederate apologists thought that they could take over the Commons for their little hatenanny was ridiculous from the get-go... Northern Aggression is real, and it's glorious.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Trump der Zorn Gottes

Once again, things got weird in the Trump White House, this time with the firing of Steve Bannon, the raging id to Donald Trump's... uhhh... raging id. ID ID ID ID ID! My suspicion is that Bannon's interview with Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect was the final nail in the coffin- Donald Trump doesn't like being upstaged by 'the help'.

Now, with Breitbart declaring #WAR on Donald Trump, things are really getting interesting, though Breitbart declares #WAR on Cheerios and retail outfits. It remains to be seen if Breitbart's possible insurgency against Dear Leader will hurt him, especially given that Breitbart's traffic and advertising revenue have tanked. This is a battle between two unpopular entities, sorta like a conflict between a tapeworm and a leech- nobody really wants to see a victor.

Meanwhile, the normal people have abondoned ship- the Manufacturing Council and Arts Council both disbanded. How soon before everybody but the dead-enders and family members bail out, leaving Trump adrift? I am reminded of the ending of one of my favorite films, Werner Herzog's beautiful-but-harrowing Aguirre, the Wrath of God, with Trump in the Klaus Kinski role. Trump even embodies the same creepy incestuous vibe.

NOTE: Youtube won't let me embed a video of the final scene, but if you haven't watched the movie, do so now. The scenery is gorgeous, the acting superb, and the theme of power-madness is, tragically, timeless. You will thank me. Then go out and get Fitzcarraldo AND Burden of Dreams.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Neo-Nazis Need Not Apply

In the wake of the Charlottesville Emo-Boy Nazi riot, and the murder of Heather Heyer, there has been a movement to name and shame the Nazis who attended. Now, we have the firings- Nazis working in a Minnesota diner, a Nazi hotdog boy was fired, a Nazi chain-pizzeria cook was fired... it's pretty clear that a lot of employers do not wish to deal with the public outcry against Nazi employees.

The real sad joke is that most of these guys seem to be in low-level service industry jobs- they are hardly emblematic of the 'superior race' they claim to represent. Meanwhile, the public face of the current neo-Nazi movement is a trust-fund kid, the son of a wealthy cotton heiress. This is a guy who probably won't have to work a day in his life, a guy who doesn't have to face the prospect of being fired for his shitbaggery. He reminds me of a Confederate plantation owner who was exempted from conscription precisely because of his wealth, while poor boys were expected to jump into the meat grinder for him.

I have no sympathy for the Nazi-morons who have lost their jobs, and find this tweet hilarious:

That being said, these young alt-right scrotes really need to realize that they are being exploited by creeps like Spencer, lest they face consequences that they aren't equipped to face... that sort of thing is no fun. These idiots should have learned that by reading about Pickett's Charge.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Fabulous Fins

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Dr Brooke Flammang, director of the Fluid Locomotion Lab at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Dr Flammang began the lecture by noting that her field is comparative biomechanics, a field for which there is no specific degree because it combines anatomy and physiology, evolutionary biology, engineering, computer modeling and robotics... Dr Flammang characterized her work by quoting Alfred North Whitehead: “It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” She advised us, be curious, make observations, ask questions.

Dr Flammang then asked the question, why study fish? Fish are diverse, with many morphologies, including a variety of different fin types. There are fins adapted for swimming, fins adapted for walking, and fins adapted for adhesion. Dr Flammang's particular interest in fins was born out of boredom- while sitting in a lab dissecting a spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias), she decided to investigate more than the usual face muscles and flanks of the little shark, and cut into the tail. In the tail, she found a bright red muscle which was not described in the literature. She dubbed this muscle the radialis muscle, and it is found in all shark species and in the torpedo rays. Certain sharks use their tails for different purposes besides swimming- thresher sharks use their extended upper fin to stun prey with a cavitation effect. Fast sharks, slow sharks- all have a radialis muscle.

To study the radialis muscle, Dr Flammang needed to make sharks swim, using a pool with a flowing current, much like a 'treadmill for sharks' with variable speed settings. Dr Flammang showed a video of a swimming shark, noting that there is little movement, small amplitude, near the shark's head and high amplitude near the tail, which moves a lot. As the sharks swam, the action of their muscles was measured using electromyography, and live recordings of muscle activity were obtained. Older models of shark fluid dynamics were two-dimensional, but Dr Flammang created a three-dimensional model to obtain a more complete understanding of what was occurring. Dr Flammang joked that previous researchers' lasers weren't as cool as hers- pulses of light from the lasers illuminated particles in the water and the movement of the particles was recorded. The typical bony fish creates a donut-shaped vortex, a ring of rotating fluid around the 'jet' of water, with its tail action (vortices like these are also produced by a duck's feet, or a piece of plastic used as a paddle). A shark, using its centralis muscle to regulate the stiffness of its tail, produces a double-vortex. Bu changing the stiffness of its tail, a shark produces thrust very efficiently- Dr Flammang joked that it is important to be stiff, and its important to be flexible.

Dr Flammang then went on to describe the bony fishes, using the bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) as a good example- bluegill are prime test subjects, being easily kept in a lab, and being the subject of a large existing body of literature. In a typical ray-finned bony fish, there are a few spiny supporting elements giving structure to a thin membrane. There are no muscles in the fin itself, but the movement of muscles at the base of fins can alter the fin shape. The rays are flexible bones, segmented at the distal end, more rigid at the proximal end. If a fish's fins were too flexible, they would be unable to push water.

Fish live in complex habitats, and many bony fish evolved to inhabit small spaces. The rapid speciation of the bony fishes coincided with rise of corals- when corals became common, new niches opened up for the bony fish, which evolved new ways to move, find food, escape from predators, and protect their young. The Permian/Triassic mass extinction ended up being very good for ray-finned fishes.

In order to test the maneuverability of a bluegill, Dr Flammang set up an obstacle course for the fish. To impede vision, obstacle trials can be held in low light conditions. To interfere with the fish's ability to sense fluid perturbations, the fish's lateral line can be numbed. Under conditions of sensory deprivation, the fish will touch the obstacles with its fins as it navigates the course:

Fins are sensors as well as propulsion devices.

Dr Flammang then brought up a hypothetical request from the Navy in which someone, hypothetically, wished to have a device which could, hypothetically, navigate a harbor filled with obstacles, what would this hypothetical device be based on. Dr Flammang then discussed a couple of robot-fish models-a speedy 'robo-tuna' which could deliver payloads on a straightaway course, or an ocean glider which would be effective in picking up underwater samples. For harbor navigation, though, the bluegill would be the best model on which to base this hypothetical robot. Such a robot would have flexible pectoral fins and transducers to mimic the lateral line. Hovering in the water is a hard effect to achieve, thou, so more information is needed.

Dr Flammang then talked about the use of fins for walking, using the recently discovered Cryptotora thamicola, a blind cave fish which can climb up waterfalls. Dr Flammang was introduced to this fish by her colleague Daphne Soares, who was studying the loss of visual senses in cave-dwelling organisms. Dr Flammang joked that the fish had a strange way of swimming- walking on its fins with its back out of the water:

While mudskippers use their pectoral fins as crutches on land, the blind climbing cave fish moves like a tetrapod:

When the fish swims, it undulates in a typical wave-form, but when it climbs, it exhibits the lateral-sequence, diagonal-couplet gait (PDF) used by salamanders, lizards, or dogs. The fishes are too rare to be taken from the caves they inhabit, so they were scanned in the cave using equipment from a local dental school. A typical bony fish pelvis is a rudimentary basipterygium which supports the pelvic fins- the pelvic fins don't exert much force, acting as a keel, so there is no need for a rigid connection to the vertebral column. The vertebra of a typical marine bony fish doesn't have to support the fish's weight, so the individual bones don't interlock. In a salamander, the hip bones, the ilium, ischium, and pubis are fused to the vertebral column, which is interconnected by zygapophyses in order to allow it to bear the animal's weight without buckling. In Cryptotora thamicola, a flare of bone mimics the ilium. It is not known where these bones originated, whether the process was pelvis-to-spine or spine-to-pelvis. Fish do possess Hox genes which can provide a genetic underpinning for limb development.

The tetrapods evolved from fishes during the Devonian period, with lobe-finned fish like Eusthenopteron giving rise to such basal tetrapods as Tiktaalik and Acanthostega:

Dr Flammang stressed the need for more fossils of basal tetrapods in order to analyze their pelvises... we need more fossils of things that could walk on land. Physics don't change, but there are multiple strategies to move on land. We have understanding of the mechanical needs for locomotion, we just need more specimens- basal tetrapod trackways are a good source of information.

The last subject of Dr Flammang's lecture concerned fins used for adhesion- specifically the specialized fins of remoras. There are eight species of remoras, some of which have specific hosts. Remoras, which attach themselves to other denizens of the sea, gain great monbility advantages- they can attach themselves to white marlins, which can attain a speed of 40mph. Dr Flammang noted that nobody had looked at the remora's adhesive disc, which has a fabled strength. Pliny attributed Mark Antony's defeat at the battle of Actium to a remora interfering with the movement of his vessel. Remora's have been used to catch sea turtles- a line is attached to the remora, and the turtle is pulled up with the fish attached. It was largely believed that the remora's adhesive disk was a glorified suction cup. Suction cups are often used to attach sensors to whales in order to study their behavior. The remora, with its ability to adhere to a host despite changes of pressure, velocity, drag, and temperature, would be a good model for marine adhesives. Remora's closest relatives are cobias, which look like remoras without 'hats'. The remora disk evolved from the dorsal fin spines of a cobia-like ancestor. The spines migrated forward onto the head and spread into plates with spinules. The adhesive requirements of remoras are stringent- a remora attached to a blue whale travels at 50km/hr, about three-hundred times the remora's own speed, yet the remoras don't slide down the whale's body. The whales can dive hundreds of meters with seconds, exposing the remora to vast temperature and pressure changes.

NOTE... I will finish this post tomorrow... gotta go drink beer now, again.

CONTINUATION: Dr Flammang then went on to discuss the functional morphology of the remora disc- there is a fleshy lip around the lamellar array, and the spinules are of different lengths... Dr Flammang likened them to 'a bad comb'. Each lamella has individual muscular control, and the lamellae can move in order to engage the toothy spinules in order to create negative pressure and enough friction to overcome drag. The friction creating mechanism acts in a ratcheting fashion to lock the remora in place. In order to minimize drag, remoras will seek an optimal placement on a host. In order to prevent detachment through fluid seep caused by pressure differentials, the fleshy lip around the remora disc has viscoelastic properties, and mucus to help create a seal. Dr Flammang advised us that the performance of suction cups can be improved by applying mayonnaise or KY jelly to the suction cup to improve the seal.

When Dr Flammang dissected a remora, she found a series of blood vessels, a 'balloon of blood' under the disc. Remoras evolved to have anterior cardinal veins on top of their heads rather than inside their crania. By standing up, the lamellae press down on the anterior cardinal vein in order to create passive hydraulic control to prevent seep and improve suction.

Dr Flammang noted that no artificial products can minic remora adhesion... yet. Being able to mimic remora adhesion would improve the attachment of sensors to subjects' bodies- glue or sutures can cause tissue necrosis. There are medical applications- people have different degrees of hairness and moistness, so an EKG electrode able to adhere like a remora disc would be an improvement over current models.

After the lecture, Dr Flammang conducted a question-and-answer session. The first question involved marine mammals swimming abilities, and Dr Flammang noted that cetaceans are secondarily aquatic, so their tetrapod morphology is imposed on their swimming style- it's easier for mammals to flex their spines back and forth rather than side-to-side. A wag asked Dr Flammang if punching a shark in the nose will stun it, and Dr Flammang noted that it is difficult to punch things underwater, so she doesn't sugggest it... she did offer the advice that sharks are attracted to the scent of urine, so try not to pee in the sea. Regarding a question about fish in space, Dr Flammang noted that their locomotion hasn't been studied in any detail, but she totally wants to try it. Some Bastard in the audience asked her if the locomotion of flatfish has been studied, and she noted that one of her colleagues has begun to study them, and one avenue of inquiry involves the fishes' ability to stiffen their skins- the most important locomotor activities that flatfish have adapted to excel at seem to be attaining lift, and burrowing.

Once again, the Secret Science Club delivered an amazing lecture- kudos to Dr Flammang, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. I have often said that I am most interested in biological topics, so this lecture was particularly suited to me. Dr Flammang knocked it out of the park, hitting that 'Secret Science Sweet Spot' with her combination of humor (I'm still chuckling about her discovery of the centralis muscle), description of methodology, richness of information, and great video footage. Here's a hearty high five to the good doctor.

After the lecture, Dr Flammang hung out with us for a while, but was unable to join us in a drink because she's expecting twins in November- another high five! Talking about designing robots, she mentioned that she knows Dr John Long of Vassar who lectured on the evolving swimming robot... there's an effect I call 'Secret Science Synergy', the cumulative effect of attending multiple lectures improves each lecture.

Here's a video of Dr Flammang discussing modeling robots on marine animals:

Pour yourself a libation, and soak in that SCIENCE!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

I figured today would be a good day to decompress, to step away from political topics for a while. I will be heading down to Brooklyn to drink some beer and attend this month's Secret Science Club lecture. As a break from the seemingly continuous horror-show, I figured I'd post a picture of my beloved Ginger, who I haven't blogged about since the death of her brother Fred, who I still miss terribly. Last night, Ginger was in an especially affectionate mood, and I got a picture of the two of us playing around:

I'll leave it to my readers to determine which one of us is the beauty and which is the beast.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Heather Heyer, Killed by a Nazi

Today, as is typical of this year, has been a bizarre blend of a fantastic personal life and an existential shitshow... On the job, I had two friends who I met on the job stop by specifically to see me. I met them four years ago, shortly after they first met, and now they are married and living in Connecticut. They promised to contact me before stopping by the next time, so we can hang out longer. I was heartened by their visit, just the fact that I have become friends with a bunch of 'regulars', people who just happened to stop by the place, is heartening to me.

On an existential level, I can't help but be angered by the senseless death of Heather Heyer at the hands of a Nazi cretin. There was a local rally in support of the Charlottesville victims, but my work schedule conflicted with my ability to attend. It's important to acknowledge Ms. Heyer's life, and to make sure that her activism was not in vain.

I sincerely hope that the aftermath of the Charlottesville rally marks a turning point, when all but the most incorrigible of the 'deplorables' realizes that this whole neo-Nazi thing has gone too far. I'm not holding my breath, though.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Tiki Khaki Nazi Rally

Today has been pretty surreal. As is typical on a summer Saturday, I got back from work around 5AM, went to bed, and woke up at 11AM to listen to Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me and Ask Me Another, and went back to sleep for another hour. When I finally woke up to prepare for the workday, I put on the local CBS news radio affiliate to check out the coverage of the Unite the Right rally. As is typical these days, the media reports trailed the on-the-ground social media coverage.

It wasn't until I got to work that I learned that one counterprotestor was killed and nineteen injured in a vehicular assault, and that two police officers were killed in a helicopter crash in the vicinity. Honestly, I thought the rally would be more violent, and hope that the attendees disperse back to their lairs.

The optics of the demonstration were surreal, from the pro-Confederate tiki torch-lit rally last night (insert Traitor Vic's quip here) to the khakis-and-polo business casual look accented with homemade shields. The whole thing smacked of the dumbest LARP ever until this asshole plowed into a crowd, ISIS extremist style.

The whole affair was, as Hillary Clinton would put it, deplorable, but it could have been so much worse. I sincerely hope that any of the attendees who showed up merely for the keks reconsiders the path on which they have been treading.

Friday, August 11, 2017


Last month, a European far-right group decided to obtain a boat in order to disrupt the marine passage of refugees fleeing to Europe. So far, things haven't been going well for them- they were deported from Cyprus for human-trafficking and have been discouraged from entering ports from Greece to Tunisia.

The ill-starred voyage of the right-wingers' boat continues to deteriorate, as the vessel has experienced a malfunction, prompting one of the NGO's the crew has vowed to oppose to offer assistance, according to maritime law. The righties declined the aid, but it remains to be seen if they will need succor in the future, because the boat they chartered seems to be not-seaworthy.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Your Neurotic Ladybrains Can't Handle High-Stress Jobs!

I haven't had time to wade through the MoRAss that is now-fired Google employee James Damore's manifestbro, but a cursory scan of the document reveals this little tidbit of absolute bullshit:

Women, on average, have more:

Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.

Lower number of women is high stress jobs, eh? Let's look at the statistics for nurses, who perform some of the most high-stress jobs there are, involving triage, exposure to trauma victims and decedents, the possibility of assault, exposure to pathogens... you get the drift- approximately 91% of nurses in the United States are women. Now, I understand that the average tech-bro is under a lot of stress, but that's nothing compared to the pressure that a nurse at, say, Lincoln Medical Center or Bellvue Hospital faces.

Something weird happens when these alt-right tech bros run up against women in STEM fields, something I posted about five months ago... sexism is rampant in Silicon Valley, and people who should know better are taken in by sexist evo-psych bafflegab.

Of course, the firing of Damore isn't merely due to his manifesto, the fact that he lied about his academic credentials plays into the matter as well. I'm sure he'll blame some woman for this deception, because feminism hurts mendacity.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Embodiment of Nuclear Fears

This has been a weird week... the very week of the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing has seen an escalation of fears that North Korea will join the 'nuclear club', and the death of Haruo Nakajima, the actor who played the monster in the 1954 film Gojira. The eponymous monster played an embodiment of the national post-traumatic stress disorder felt by the Japanese populace after World War 2, especially the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Mr Nakajima's portray of the hulking villain of the movie was nothing short of heroic, as the suit he wore weighed more than two-hundred pounds:

"Since materials were so rare, things like rubber were not available. Instead, they used ready-mixed concrete, so it weighed about 100kg. It was so heavy and hot, and with the lighting, it was even hot just to touch it. I was sweating all over my face, but I did the best I could."

Being perfectly suited to the role of Gojira, Mr Nakajima continued to play the role of the monster throughout the transition of kaiju movies from horror to science-fantasy to camp until 1972, when he played the monster in his throwdown with Gigan:

The 'kaiju vs kaiju' movies which featured the formerly villainous Gojira as a hero form the greatest 'professional wrestling' act in entertainment history, with the horror of destruction undercut by the 'moves' of the outrageous monster combatants. The tragedy of the 1954 film transitioned into farce... which brings us to our current nuclear kerfuffle. The Trump vs Kim rhetorical rumble is an outlandish one... a fight between two spoiled narcissists with bad haircuts who never could have succeeded on their own merits. It's like Trumpzilla:

Versus Kim Ghidorah:

Of course, while farcical, this conflict is also deadly serious, and potentially tragic. The last thing we need is a Commander in Chief who ad-libs nuclear threats while the U.S. diplomatic corps is being hollowed out. Trump sounds as loony as Kim Jong Un, being as bellicose and ignorant of consequences as North Korea's boy wonder.

I really feel bad for the people of Guam, Japan, and especially South Korea (Seoul being vulnerable to artillery strikes). For a reasoned analysis of the Korea issue, I recommend reading mikey's take. In the meantime, I really can't freak out over this issue... I'd like to think that cooler heads will prevail while the two kaiju-in-chiefs confine their conflict to a war of words. In the meantime, I think I will honor the life and career of Mr Nakajima by listening to Akira Ifukube's glorious theme to the Gojira movies:

Mr Nakajima's turn in the suit ranged from 'figure of nuclear horror' to 'big green defender of the planet'. I don't expect a heel-face turn from either Trump or Kim, neither of them has the brains of a radioactive dinosaur.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Orange Moron, Purple Heart

This being the anniversary of the creation of the Purple Heart, Vulgarmort is tweeting about his awarding of the Purple Heart to First Sergeant Alvaro Barrientos, who lost part of his right leg fighting in Afghanistan:

Being someone who enjoys the use of language, I am pissed as hell at Trump's offer of 'congratulations' to Sgt Barrientos. Thank the man for his service, talk about his valor, his sacrifice, reassure him that he will be taken care of by the government and people he sacrificed so much for... but congratulations? The man was maimed for life, that's no cause for congratulations.

The problem with Donald Trump is that he has never experienced privation, never chosen a path of service, never sacrificed a blessed thing for the good of his fellow human beings. He has no concept of sacrifice, so he can glibly congratulate an individual on the loss of a leg. He is the sort of individual who can unthinkingly say that he always wanted a Purple Heart:

He got it 'the easy way', when a decent human being would have respectfully refused such stolen valor. Speaking of stolen valor, here is Trump criticizing Senator Richard Blumenthal for prevaricating about his military career, despite the flippant attitude that Trump has displayed regarding his own conduct during that era.

The last word on Trump's statements regarding the Purple Heart was Tammy Duckworth's statement: "this is how one usually looks when you are awarded the Purple Heart. Nothing easy about it."

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Fight to Unite the Right

From the cartoon froggy swamps of the new Right comes a Unite the Right rally scheduled to take place this coming Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, a 'do-over' of this Spring's hairdo-fascist rally to prevent a statue of traitor Robert E. Lee from being removed from a park.

In the runup to the rally, which even organizers (not gonna link) only expect under a thousand emo-boy Nazis to attend, the alt-right is beset by bickering. In late June, there were two opposed 'right-wing' rallies in DC, neither of which was attended by more than one-hundred righties... the 'alt-right' contingent disparages the insufficiently anti-semitic contigent as 'alt-lite'.

Last week, one of the leading loons of the 'alt-lite', in a sort of 'Brokeback Bro' moment, decided that he was going to give up Trump in order to pursue his 'MRA' grift. Another alt-lite figure, one of the participants in the stupid Shakespeare fauxtrage, claimed that her old, rotten tire had been slashed, drew derision from wags both left and right, including some extremely anti-semitic abuse from the Anime-Nazi crowd.

The broader right-wing coalition is pretty much done, even if it ever truly existed. I believe that a sizable subset of the Trump coalition is merely motivated by trolling, and that the three percenters and the 4channers don't mix well. I don't see the upcoming rally as something which will go well for the righties. I guess we'll see what sort of shitstorm results next Saturday.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

A Somewhat Shitty Day

Today, the shit went down at work... literally. In the early morning, thankfully after I left, and before the site opened up to the public, a brief-yet-torrential downpour hit the area. The site is in the valley of a minor tributary of the mighty Hudson, the vicinity basically acts as a funnel, with our site near the bottom. The building is mid 20th Century vintage, and apparently the storm sewers for the building and the town come together in such a manner that our pipes get overwhelmed during heavy storms. This also throws our sewage line out of whack.

Needless to say, the basement was flooded with some not-too-clean water... very not-too-clean water. My first indication that something was amiss when I arrived a five in the afternoon was the amount of sediment and debris deposited in our parking lot- sand, gravel, twigs, trash forming a small embankment against the curb. The second indication was the fact that our shop staff wasn't looking too happy. Luckily, our weekend cleaning contractors were doing yeomen's work- our two usual cleaners were working hard, and the owner of the company, to his credit, was downstairs running a wet-vac, spraying disinfectant, and setting up large industrial fans to dry the basement. The last time I saw him was under similar circumstances, a previous flood, after which he stayed until midnight doing clean-up duty. This afternoon, I joked, "We've got to stop meeting like this."

These occurrences are taking place about twice a year now. My boss, who is an architect, pored over the plans of the building and figured that running new sewer lines would have a six-figure price tag. Reading between the lines, I figured that nothing is going to be done about this situation. My office (such as it is, I am pretty much all over the place, indoors and out) is on the ground floor, so I can deal with the aftermath of these unpleasant episodes, but certain co-workers of mine have basement offices. As is usual, I can't complain about my work situation, I don't have it as shitty as others do.

Friday, August 4, 2017

An Instant Favorite in the Culinary Canon

I guess this is purslane obsession week for me, two posts about the stuff in one sennight... am I going crazy? Crazy for purslane! In this comment thread at Cooking with EL CHAVO!, I found this comment to be interesting:

The traditional Mexicano recipe for verdolagas is with pork, but years ago a Mexicano I used to work in construction with showed my a good way to eat it fresh.
He took a bunch of fresh verdolagas and put it in a hot flour tortilla with some slices of avocado, some slices of queso fresco, and one or two green onions. Then he dripped on some El Pato salsa and voila a tasty and fast burrrito de verduras.

While I didn't have green onions, I came across a nice purslane patch, picked the tips off the stalks, and served it on a corn tortilla with some avocado, queso fresco, a squeeze of lime, and a judicious amount of hot sauce:

It was a nice balance of tart purslane and lime juice, salty queso, creamy avocado, and a touch of heat... a perfect no-cook summer snack. Having the store-bought ingredients in the office fridge, and a bumper crop of purslane on the grounds, it looks like I've got my work-meals taken care of for a week. I might even open up a concession stand on site: Calvo Loco Taco.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Why Couldn't He Be Like Endicott?

One of the strangest local stories today was hip-hop pioneer Kidd Creole's fatal stabbing of a homeless man. Creole, born Nathaniel Glover, was pushed while he was close to the edge and lost his head. The report is that Glover stabbed the victim because he thought the guy was hitting on him, which is a pretty crappy reason to shank a guy. Protip: If you are carrying a steak knife up your sleeve, you need to reconsider your life choices. The victim was a level 2 sex offender, so if Glover hadn't fled the scene of the crime, he probably would have been able to make a self-defense claim.

New York City actually had a Kid Creole, August Darnell, as well as a Kidd Creole. Kid Creole's music had a bit of a Latin/Caribbean flair. The post title refers to a song by Kid Creole, which describes a character that Kidd Creole should have emulated:

Endicott wouldn't shank a man,
Endicott won't land in the can.

At any rate, it looks like Kidd Creole stands a good chance of ending up in the pokey, but when he gets out he may very well become a stool pigeon, in a process that Kid Creole described:

Ha-cha-cha-cha, indeed.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Purty Purslane

It's been a busy day for me- I left Virginia around noontime and drove to the vicinity of my workplace rather than to my home. I had enough time to do a little grocery shopping and then hit a local Korean restaurant for some bibimbap before clocking in. When I got the work, I called mom to let her know that I had arrived safely. The drive home wasn't too bad, though I did pass through occasional bands of heavy rain, and at times it looked like apocalyptic thunderstorms were pounding the regions to the sides of the highway.

Needless to say, I was blissfully ignorant of current events until I reached the outskirts of the New York metro area, where I could pick up the local CBS radio affiliate. I still have some catching up to do. I figure I'll put up a quick post, and then get to the business of catching up...

One of the ornamental potted plants my mom has is a fancy Portulaca, which longtime readers will recognize as an old friend:

I must say, those are some pretty flowers- this is a much showier plant than its scrappy cousins growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk... its leaves are every bit as delicious, though.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Story of the Week

I roll my eyes every time a media outlet heaps encomium on Elon Musk. I mean, this guy is not going to single-handedly save humanity from itself. It is with this attitude that I present this tale.

My sister and her husband are both bona fide rocket scientists- my sister put in her time in the Ait Force, got a masters in chemical engineering, and started working on satellite battery systems when her obligation was fulfilled. She still works for a company which designs satellites for the private sector.

Her husband recently retired from the Air Force, and holds a PhD in aeronautical/astronautical engineering. Atone point, he was the "space guy", advising a general on all matters orbital and beyond. As his career was winding down, he was looking for a job which would put his formidable-yet-esoteric skills to use. Almost inevitably, he interviewed with SpaceX, even though he also finds Musk annoying.

In the course of the interview process, he is speaking with the man himself, and Musk asks him how he would go about drastically reducing the cost of putting payloads in orbit. After talking about the limits of material science and the difficulty in formulating more powerful rocket fuels, my brother-in-law, being a science-fiction nerd as well as a science fact nerd, asks Musk if he has considered building a space elevator. At this, Musk gets miffed and starts on a tirade about how stupid the concept of a space elevator is, and the two of them get into a spirited back-and-forth for the rest of the time.

A couple of days later, my brother-in-law's contact at SpaceX calls him and says, "Mr Musk is interested in hiring you."

My brother-in-law replied, "That's funny, all we did is argue for forty-five minutes."

"If he wasn't interested, he would have ended the interview after five minutes."

I know you ruin a joke by going on after the punchline, but the Air Force wouldn't release him early to take the job, but he landed a prestigious wonk job afterwards, and he doesn't have to argue with an overrated tech bro these days.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Arrivederci Scaramucci

I arrived in northern Virginia around 11AM today and spent some time shooting the breeze with mom. After a small lunch I took a short nap, our plan being to head over to my sister's place around 4PM, in time to meet my eldest nephew when he got home from work. On our way to my sister's place, we didn't even bother to turn on the radio, we had more interesting topics to discuss with each other.

When we met my nephew, he broke the news, Scaramucci had been fired... Mooch, we hardly knew you! The disarray in the executive branch is impacting my brother in law, who recently retired from the Air Force- he is a civilian employee of *REDACTED* now, and he would be a liaison to the White House science and technology department, if it still existed. While we all got a laugh at Mooch's firing, there is an existential crisis in the executive branch that even the Scaramucci shots how can't distract us from.

On the way back to mom's place, we put on WTOP to hear details of Mooch's ouster, but they were sketchy, like Mucci himself. Che mondo pazzo!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Hitting the Road

Late July is a weird time... it feels like the summer is over. Accordingly, on the spur of the moment, I decided that a visit to see my mom and my sister and her brood in Northern Virginia would be in order. My eldest nephew will be returning to college around August 20th, and I would feel like a total slug if I missed seeing him.

I will be hitting the road in the early morning hours, before the morning rush, and aim to drive back straight to work on Wednesday. I haven't been down to Virginia since February, when I helped my mom unpack from her recent move. I am really looking forward to seeing my nephews, they are really great kids.

I will try to put up a post or two in the upcoming days, but I don't anticipate keeping up with the national news, which is a shitstorm... much better to keep up with the family news, which is great.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Busy Day, Albeit a One-Shot

Today, we had a low-key fundraising event, a showcase for local storytellers that mainly appeals to the NPR set... you know, nerds like myself. On a typical weekend day, I can lock up at 7PM, and I have the place to myself for the rest of the shift. Tonight, I just finished running around and locking up everything after the event ended. It was a busy night, but I was able to score a couple of delicious samosas and bhel puri from one of the featured caterers, and a slice of blueberry pie from the other caterer. Needless to say, that was some good carbo-loading for the post-event dash.

It's now quiet, maybe a little too quiet, so I think I've going to blast my current earworm, which is Saint Motel's Destroyer:

I love the catchy lyrics, though in this live version, the chorus is muted in comparison with the studio version. The saxophone knocks this single out of the park, though, lending it a slightly sleazy 'Electric-Six'-esque vibe.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Channeling Blofeld

Like most of us who follow the news, I'm scratching my bald pate at the firing of Reince Priebus from his position as Trump's Chief of Staff. Priebus was a representative of the Republican Establishment, having chaired the Republican National Committee for years. He was a wonk's wonk, somebody who went about the party business with little fanfare. It's sort of bizarre to see him ousted so quickly after Scaramouche went on the attack on him, but I'd chalk that up to Trump viewing Scaramucci as a sort of mini-me, a fast-talking Noo Yawk bullshit artist/legitimate business man. I would feel sorry for Reince, but for the fact that he's a scumbag, albeit a calmer one than Trump or Scaramucci, he really shouldn't have expected loyalty from Vulgarmort.

Trump now seems to be in full-on Blofeld mode, being willing to fire a chief of staff of six months' duration seemingly at the behest of a new hireling. I expect to see more of these firings, similar to Blofeld's downsizing of his Japanese Regional Manager:

Given the fact that Trump is surrounded by frickin' idiots, I expect that other firings will follow as his stated agenda, the real agenda being lining his pockets, continues to stall:

If I had to make a prediction, I'd guess that Southern barbecue is next on the menu.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Passing of a Comedic Titan

I can't be alone in saying that another part of my childhood is gone... the legendary voice actress June Foray has died. Like most Americans who grew up in the latter half of the twentieth century, June Foray was a part of my life, having voiced some of the great classic cartoon characters. I would characterize the late Ms Foray as one of the greatest comedic talents in the American entertainment industry. Alongside such comic duos as Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello, we have Foray (as Rocket J. Squirrel) and Scott (as Bullwinkle J. Moose), with June playing the long-suffering, though eternally loyal, straight man to Bill's good-natured doofus:

In the very same show, we have the comic duo Foray and Frees, playing the villains Natasha Fatale and Boris Badanov (one of the greatest character names ever):

Happily, there's an interview with June, discussing her roles in The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Her account of her skepticism concerning a show about a moose and squirrel evaporating with her second martini is precious:

My favorite 'Rocky and Bullwinkle' episode is the 'Goof Gas Attack', which was turned into an electronic dance tune in 1986:

My favorite line is when June, as Rocky, channels Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men.

June also had a memorable career working with the producers of Warner Brothers' 'Looney Tunes', with my favorite character of hers being the cackling, unhinged Witch Hazel:

Another memorable role, which had June collaborating with Looney Tunes' director Chuck Jones, was her poignant turn as the trusting Cindy Lou Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas:

Writing this post, the one question I have is, why didn't June Foray have a career as a storied film actress? She was a remarkable beauty:

One clip I did find was from a largely forgotten movie, Sabaka, which features a white cast (ugh) playing Indian characters:

At any rate, June's talent as a live-action actress is better showcased in this clip from The Johnny Carson Show:

It's dated, but June was great in her role.

Most importantly, June was a tireless advocate for the art of animation, being instrumental in the formation of ASIFA, the Association Internationale du Film d'Animation. Besides her devotion to the art of voice-over, June recognized the value of the animated film- besides being one of the founders of the Annies award, she was a champion of awarding Oscars for animated features.

There is a certain breed of troglodyte which insists that women aren't funny, but June Foray's stellar career proves these jerks wrong. I grew up with June Foray, she was funny to me when I was a kid, and she is funny to me now, even though I'm shedding a tear for her.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

An Unconvincing Fundamentalist Turn

The big story in today's news was Trump's tweet about barring transgender folks from serving in the military. Besides trampling on the right to self-expression of people who have chosen to serve their nation, Trump broke another campaign promise, albeit one that few people really believed, to protect the rights of LGBT people. Huh, who could have seen that coming?

The best response to Donald Trump's disgusting betrayal of servicepersons has been Senator Tammy Duckworth's... here is a distinguished veteran who left two limbs in a warzone, speaking about how it's the service which counts, not the gender.

One rationale cited for banning the service of transgender personnel is the cost of gender transition, estimated to be from $2.4 million to $8.4 million annually, which is a fraction of the cost of Trump's stupid cruise missile attack on a Syrian airstrip, which accomplished nothing.

I believe that, unless Mike Pence has stolen Trump's phone, that Vulgarmort is cynically trying to appeal to his fundagelical base, a suspicion that is furthered by an all-caps follow up tweet:


Bud, some of us don't worship either. The real sickening thing about this tweet is that Trump has never worshiped God, he's worshiped himself, and above all, Mammon. Deep down, the fundamentalist evangelical Trump voters know this, but their own leaders have been worshiping Mammon for many a decade now, so they are used to turning a blind eye to this grift.

None of the rest of us are convinced, though.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

If I Were a Nine Year-Old

I'd want to hear some old gee Ed in a bad wig talking about a cocktail party thrown by Steve Ross, the best people, big league!

I really have to wonder if Vulgarmort even realized he was talking to kids, with his weird insinuations and Dick-swinging anecdotes. I'm appalled that he trash-talked his predecessor in front of kids in what is suppose to be a non-partisan setting. This kind of garbage can't be good for the future of scouting.

Unless they are going to award misogyny merit badges for hitting anchorwoman with gendered insults.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Transit Tales of Terror

In the interest of full disclosure, when I traveled to Broolyn last week for the Secret Science Club lecture, the ride from Woodlawn in the Bronx to the 9th St/4th Avenue stop in Brooklyn took over an hour and forty-five minutes. That day, the entire subway system was a mess, a crappy day in what has been dubbed a Summer of Hell. Currently, the state and local officials are engaged in a blame game and the transit situation just seems to worsen.

Coincidentally, my current reading obsession is pulp tales of morlocks/ghouls/deros/CHUDS- those creepy, subterranean people-eaters that seem to crop up periodically in lurid tales from questionable magazines and low-budget movies. One of the best of these 'cannibalistic mole-people' stories is Robert Barbour Johnson's Far Below, which seems to build on one of the most memorable lines in H.P. Lovecraft's ghoulish Pickman's Model:

There was a study called 'Subway Accident,' in which a flock of the vile things were clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in the floor of the Boston Street subway and attacking a crowd of people on the platform.

Far Below elaborates on this theme, chronicling a secret police division tasked with protecting commuters from the hungry creeps which inhabit the tunnels 'far below' the subway system... it also has a nice, shuddersome take on the perils of fighting monsters. The story also serves as a precursor to Clive Barker's The Midnight Meat Train, which also concerns a secret cabal of government operatives working in the subway for arcane purposes.

Counterintuitively, last week, the subway train I rode on at midnight was much more crowded than the 5PM train I rode to Brooklyn. Part of that is due to the fact that fewer trains run at night than during the daylight hours, but it also speaks to the reality of work in this day and age. Far more people are working night shifts than did before- office cleaners, maids, restaurant workers, CNA's and nurses... a lot of the hard work of the city is done between 3PM and midnight, and there is another crowd that starts work at 11PM to midnight. Many of these people live in places like the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. The very idea of a quiet 'midnight meat train' in which shadowy killers can stalk their prey is pretty far-fetched these days... can't have a meat train when everybody is packed in like tinned sardines.

Now, who needs a pulpy mole-man subway horror story? The real horror is the ride itself.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Most Republican Story Ever Told

Playing off of Tengrain's title, the saga of Sean Spicer and the mini-fridge has got to be the most Republican story ever told:

“[Spicer] dispatched a top aide to a nearby executive office building where junior research employees are crammed into a room, surviving on Lean Cuisine frozen lunches. Mr. Spicer wants your icebox, the aide said, according to people familiar with the incident. They refused to give it up.

So Mr. Spicer waited until sundown — after his young staffers had left — to take matters into his own hands. He was spotted by a fellow White House official lugging the icebox down the White House driveway after 8 p.m.”

It's a metaphor for the past four decades of Republican policy- an employee asks his boss for a simple benefit, is refused, then steals from the employees lower down on the food chain, rather than rectifying the situation himself. Party of personal responsibility, my ass, this is the party of 'screw the little people, I can't let them have something nice that I don't have'. It's the sort of party which has, as one of its tenets, the notion that anything which benefits persons of lesser stature is theft from their 'betters', while theft from lessers is just 'business as usual', if not actively virtuous in a Randian sense of the word.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Another Clown in the Media Circus

Tengrain has a contest to come up with a moniker for Donald Trump's new White House Director of Communications. While I don't believe that 'name equals destiny' (with one notable exception), I find it amusing that Anthony Scaramucci shares a name with one of the famous clowns of the classic commedia dell'arte. Well this clown certainly is joining a circus.

Already, Scaramucci is doing the fandango as he's deleting his Twitter history. Given the fact that the administration he's joined has a tenuous relationship with the truth, it's a good that that he can't distinguish the real life from just fantasy.

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!