Saturday, September 23, 2017

Nibiru? Nah, Beer/Brew

Yet again, some idiot is claiming that a 'hidden planet' called Nibiru is going to crash into Earth today, killing us all. Meh, we've seen these idiots claim that the world is going to end time-and-time again. Nibiru, my ass... if a friggin' planet were on a collision course with Earth, it would be visible to the naked eye by now.

At any rate, this is a shitty day for an apocalypse, because it's the day of the local street festival, and I plan on going on a twelve-hour bender. October is a hell of a month on the job, so I figured I'd binge on craic (this elicited a hearty laugh from a co-worker of mine) before going on a long slog. The festival is always fun, and I only need to crawl two blocks to get home.

The beauty of the neighborhood is that it has its own theme song by a bunch of great local guys, a song which perfectly captures the spirit of the community:





There's no need to worry about the end of the world when there is an endless supply of beer.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Festival Circuit

Today, I decided to make a couple of recreational stops before heading to work. I decided to visit the Boyce-Thompson Center in Northwest Yonkers. The center was originally the Boyce-Thompson Institute for Plant Research, until the institute relocated to the campus of Cornell University. After the Institute was abandoned, it deteriorated into a near-ruin, afflicted by vandals and, ironic for a botanical research facility, runaway plant growth. It was rehabilitated into a multi-purpose medical/retail/commercial property earlier this year. Here's the impressive brick facade of the building:




In a nod to the history of the Institute, there are bioswales adjacent to the parking lot, containing a mixture of wild plants, such as milkweeds (to my delight), and plants which were used for research purposes by the Institute scientists:




Being across the street from Lenoir Preserve, one of my favorite places in Yonkers, the Center is destined to be a favored post-hike destination for me. I had lunch at The Taco Project, which manages to be 'contemporary' while respecting traditional Mexican cuisine. For instance, the pork belly tacos had the crispiness of well-made carnitas with a pineapple flavor reminiscent of tacos al pastor... washed down with a delicious horchata, the tacos were a perfect meal, just the pick-me-up a stroller in the preserve or Untermyer Park could ask for.

For dinner, I hit the Middle Eastern Festival at the St John Paul II Maronite Church at Immaculate Conception... basically, I pigged out on a combination plate of falafel, baba ghanouj, hummus, spinach pies, and my favorite, kibbeh, all washed down with an Almaza beer chased by a tiny cup of Arabic coffee. Before leaving, I purchased some pastries, including baklava and basbousa, from two absolutely charming women to bring to work. I might have to stop by again on Sunday to buy more baba ghanouj (it had a perfect smoky flavor) and kibbeh before going to work.

Tomorrow, I am taking a day off from work so I can attend the local street festival and get my drink on. Before heading out today, I had a conversation with my next door neighbor and he asked me, "Which bar do you think you'll be drinking in?" I thought, "All of them, Katie" but answered, "The street will be closed, so I'll be open-carrying all up and down the street." I have to get my licks in, recreation-wise before, as I told my neighbor, "Work turns me into Captain Nemo, eventually resurfacing in a month-and-a-half."

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Been Busy, Catching up with the Atrocities

It's been a busy week... on Monday, I went out drinking and learning, at work I am in Fall mode, compiling and re-compiling schedules, dealing with contractors setting up for the Autumn fundraisers, and generally staying on my toes. I'm getting a full dose of the horrible performance by our moron president at the United Nations (Vixen Strangely is killing it all week).

It's not normal, with Trump referring to Kim Jong Un with his jokey nickname while threatening to totally destroy North Korea, and making up a new mashup African country while bragging about his friends exploiting African nations and peoples.

This week of diplomatic blunders can't end soon enough- I fully expect Trump to mention his very fine allies from Kekistan before the week is over. Maybe it's a good thing that I've been ensconced in a cocoon most of the week.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Uh, You Could Use Your Own Services, Man

Today has been an unusual day on the job. I arrived at 5PM, my department being stretched thin, necessitating some shift reshuffling. Shortly after arriving, I received a call from my department head- a couple visiting one of our other sites was stuck in our parking lot with a flat tire, and the daytime staff would be leaving shortly. I made sure everything was locked up at my primary site and drove down to the site at which the visitors were stranded.

It wasn't a standard flat-tire situation that a typical motorist support club (or a person with a lug wrench and a basic degree of know-how) could cope with- the couple were traveling in a camper van, but not a Camper Van Beethoven... the sort of thing which demands a special jack and a special lug wrench. Luckily, the owners had a membership in an RV club that provided roadside assistance. This organization had a service contract with a tire company which specializes in truck tires.

The roadside assistance tech arrived in a truck which, frankly, needed a new set of tires:




That thing was balder than I am. I guess the shop owner doesn't want any of his employees dipping into the profits.

The whole process was fascinating to watch- the tech used a pneumatic jack to elevate the dual-wheel assembly, removed the tire, which had a leaky valve stem, from the rim and exchanged it for a new tire. Picture this on a larger scale. Oddly enough, it took longer for the owner of the tire place to figure out the billing than it took to change the tire, because the RV club operator had told him that the camper van was a rental and he didn't know who to bill. A few phone calls, and the billing kerfuffle was eventually resolved and I was able to lock up the parking lot.

Basically, half of my shift was spent dealing with this situation, three hours and change spent in order to lock up a parking lot. At least it was a gorgeous evening, a temperate night after a glorious sunset. Sometimes, even when work is a pain in the ass, it's wonderful.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Two Lecturers, Two Black Holes

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 Princeton University physicists Steven Scott Gubser and Frans Pretorius, whose latest book, The Little Book of Black Holes, is literally hot off the presses. The two doctors lectured in a 'tag team' style, taking turns at the microphone and occasionally engaging in physical demonstrations of concepts.

While setting up, Dr Gubser joked that, while living in a two-religion household is fine, living in a two-operating system is more difficult, so he made the switch from Linux to Apple at the behest of his brother-in-law. He then began the lecture by discussing time dilation- according to the Theory of General Relativity, time moves more slowly for a moving observer than for a stationary observer. He confessed that the demonstration would be 'slightly fake', because he's not the Flash and could not run near the speed of light, then the two demonstrated the Twin Paradox, as one ran across the stage and the other remained stationary. At the end of the jog, he joked that, at this pace, the jogger would be one femtosecond younger than the stationary observer. The Twin Paradox is not an optimal frame of reference, general relativity doesn't take into account acceleration, and the 'paradox' is a red herring- a better analogy is a pair of hypothetical light clocks, using a photon traveling between two sensors. The speed of light being constant, the photon of a moving time clock would appear to an outside observer to be moving on diagonals, moving a greater distance than a stationary clock:





At greater speeds, the photon would move greater distances. The photon trajectory forms a right triangle relative to the 'clock' and its trajectory, so the Pythagorean theorem can be used to derive the value of Tau (proper time). At any rate, a moving observer would experience slower time relative to a stationary observer.

The lecture then shifted to the subject of gravity. According to the Theory of General Relativity, gravity is a product of the curvature of space- mass bends space, and gravitational forces can also produce a time dilation, with time moving faster the further an observer gets from a source of gravitation. The mass of an object determines the degree to which it can curve space, and the good doctors displayed a graphic which contrasted the amount of curvature among different heavenly bodies, ranging from our sun to a white dwarf to a neutron star to a black hole. Each of these objects represents a degree of compression of mass- a white dwarf is the remnants of a star approximately the size of our sun compressed to a diameter of approximately a few thousand kilometers (thanks, Smut). A neutron star is the remains of a supermassive star which has collapsed under its own gravity- a star with two times the mass of the sun would collapse into a two-kilometer diameter. On Earth, gravitational time dilation effects GPS units.

Stellar black holes are stars which have collapsed into a small enough radius that they cause spacetime to undergo a gravitational collapse within a radius known as an event horizon. This collapse of spacetime is the ultimate expression of curvature, a condition in which a singularity is formed. The spacetime dilation at a singularity is infinite, a hypothetical clock would stop. The Schwartzschild radius is the radius at which a body's mass, compressed into a sphere, would result in gravitational forces which had escape velocities which exceed the speed of light. At the Schwarzschild radius, time dilation is reversed- a stationary observer would find that time moved slower than a moving observer would. One of the pillars of the Theory of General Relativity is that there's no such thing as gravity, just the movement of time in space.

At the event horizon of a black hole, the curvature of space becomes infinite in 'a nasty way'. Crossing an event horizon, an observer would experience an 'oh, damn, what do I do now?' moment. With the stopping of a clock at the singularity, escape would always be in the victim's future... there would be a spaghettification as a subject is stretched out by gravitational forces.


Einstein initially doubted the existence of black holes
. As Carl Sagan quipped, extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. Evidence for black holes was circumstantial... observations of the center of the galaxy revealed that the stars were orbiting an object four million times the mass of the sun, but no such object was observed. Strong-but-circumstantial evidence pointed to the existence of a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy.

Stellar black holes are inferred from accretion disks orbiting something which cannot be observed directly. In 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detected evidence of two black holes colliding. As Dr Gubser noted, the era of gravitational wave astronomy had finally arrived. He also joked that scientists are better at breaking discoveries than making them. Gravitational waves 'marry' matter and energy. In the LIGO-detected event, two stellar mass black holes orbited each other, forming a binary. Two dense concentrations of matter were coming together at the speed of light, and energy was lost to gravitational waves. As the two black holes moved closer, they collapsed with a massive javascript:void(0);energy output- the death throes of a binary black hole collapsing into a single black hole. The evidence for this energy output is circumstantial, the gravity not allowing photons to escape. LIGO's detection of gravitational waves signifies the dawn of a new era in astrophysics. LIGO uses interference patterns to detect the stretching and squeezing of space due to gravitational waves. The collision of the black holes cause the gravitational waves to produce a 'chirp' pattern:





The way in which the waves chirped helped researchers infer the size of the black holes. If the collision of the two black holes had been visible, it would have outshone all of the stars for a fraction of a second.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session- the Bastard did not have an opportunity to get a question in, but Drs Gubser and Pretorius fielded a wide variety of questions. A question about the evidence for relativity led to a discussion of the eclipse observations of bent light which resulted from gravitational effects. A question about GPS systems elicited response that the systems need to take time dilation into account. A discussion of pulsars, spinning neutron stars, revealed that they pulse at regular frequencies, so they are good clocks. A question about the fate of the universe elicited the response that time ends- relativity predicts its own demise, but that a collapse could possibly be followed by a re-expansion. A question about whether a racecar driver would age more slowly than an avid jogger was answered by the assertion that extreme velocities are needed to make an observable difference in aging. Another audience member asked about Hawking radiation- black holes emit dim and faint radiation, but it is swamped by the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Asked about his 'fantasy' experiment, Dr Gubser answered that he would want a range of interferometers measuring a range of interference pattern up to the ten kilometer ranges, and more sensitive detectors. He also wanted to explore the analogs between black hole collisions and heavy ion collisions (PDF).

Once again, the Secret Science Club has dished out a fantastic lecture. Kudos to Margaret and Dorian, Drs Gubser and Pretorius, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House yet again.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Move Under Ground

This is going to be one of those days- New York City will be congested because of Trump's visit to the United Nations, even though he's not exactly endearing himself to members of that body. I have to get to Brooklyn for tonight's Secret Science Club lecture. While the roads will be a nightmare, the 4 train should be as reliable as ever... as usual, the best way to move is underground.

The post title is taken from Nick Mamatas' 2004 Beat Writers against Elder Gods novel. While the subway system can be a scary place, it's got nothing on crosstown traffic:





Now, that's scary stuff.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Life of a Character Actor is Always Intense

Another fave of mine gone... Harry Dean Stanton, perhaps the finest character actor in cinema history, has died at the age of ninety-one. Stanton's filmography, spanning seven decades is formidable, and Stanton was good in every film in which he acted. No less a film authority than Roger Ebert formulated a Stanton-Walsh rule: No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad. An exception was CHATTAHOOCHEE (1990), starring Walsh. Stanton's record is still intact.

Stanton managed to be ordinary-yet-distinctive looking... he was instantly recognizable, but looked like an everyman. He excelled at playing working stiffs, even a working-stiff-in-space (this is a rough scene, so if you're easily horrified, skip it, poor guy was a cat lover to boot):





The man also was a soulful crooner:





Here's a great video of him singing a duet with Art Garfunkel at a roast of Jack Nicholson, with some funny banter beforehand:





Stanton and Garfunkel... what a concept!

Stanton excelled at playing the laconic, competent straight man opposite various lunatics, whether a lipstick-smeared wicked mom in Wild at Heart:





Or a ranting conspiracy theorist in Paris, Texas:





Being a child of a certain age, my first exposure to Harry Dean Stanton, and the role that forever established my fandom, was his take on a world-weary car repossessor in Repo Man, the movie from which I took the post title:





While not an admirable character, Stanton's repo man did have a certain code of conduct:





By 1984, Harry Dean Stanton was often characterized as the world's greatest character actor, which I would not dispute:





David Lynch had a nice take on Harry's appeal:





At 91, he lived a good life, he was a character actor who managed to take on the status of a big star, the ordinary guy who, through his very ordinariness, achieved acclaim.

POSTSCRIPT: This appearance by Harry on David Letterman's show seems to have an allusion to a scene in Kelly's Heroes.



Saturday, September 16, 2017

The D.C. Stands for 'Dark Carnival'

Today is the day I've been anticipating all year, the day of the Juggalo March on Washington. The Juggalo march will coincide with a pro-Trump, fake patriotism rally. Check out this bullshit from the 'Mother of All Marches' organizers:


ANYONE WHO WOULD PROTEST THIS RALLY IS PROTESTING AMERICA AND SHOWING THEMSELVES TO BE THE VERY DOMESTIC ENEMIES OUR FOUNDING FATHERS WARNED US ABOUT. ANYONE ATTEMPTING TO SILENCE US IS COMMITTING A DIRECT ASSAULT ON OUR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS OF FREE ASSEMBLY.



Yeah, blow it out of your asses, righties. While it seems like people from all sides of the political spectrum are jockeying for Juggalos, the Democratic Socialists will out out to support the march, even planning on handing out Faygo to the marchers. Since a lot of Juggalos come from broken homes, growing up with an 'economic anxiety' that is supposed to be the motivating force behind Trump's election, it would seem that the Democratic Socialists will have a sympathetic audience. At any rate, the subculture isn't sympathetic to the iconography of the Lost Cause, having (very NSFW)two songs specifically denigrating Confederate iconography. To be sure, I am not a fan of the songs, with their misogyny and homophobia, but I appreciate the sentiment about CSA supporting white supremacists.

The idea of Juggalos becoming an anti-fascist force among working class American Heartlanders is intriguing... and the memes that this idea has spawned are hilarious:





It's going to be an interesting day, to be sure... the NSFW trailer for the event details the travails of the fandom, and features a great spiel by the band's lawyer about the problems the band is having finding a concert venue:





It looks like Washington is going to transform into a Dark Carnival as the Juggalos make their righteous anger towards conformist authoritarianism known... they aren't a gang, they shouldn't face government sanction. While I'm not a fan of ICP, the Juggalos are alright by me. WHOOP WHOOP, my friends.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Hart Had Heart

Now, here's another death that hits me where I live- Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü died at the all-too-young age of 56. Besides being a monster drummer, Hart was a writer of poignant lyrics, bringing heart as well as melody to the hardcore punk movement. I first heard Hüsker Dü on a local college station while I was a high-schooler and immediately became enamored of the Twin Cities music scene of the early 80s.

Hüsker Dü never received much commercial airplay, but the band was influential- according to one anecdote, the Pixies found bassist Kim Deal by putting out a classified ad: "Bassist wanted for rock band. Influences: Husker Du and Peter Paul & Mary." Hüsker Dü's fingerprints can be foud all over the grunge music scene and subsequent 'alternative' music.

In honor of Mr Hart's passing, I have been binge-listening to the band's magnum opus, the double album Zen Arcade. The album is a sprawling concept album, a hardcore punk rock opera about a young man's alienation. One particular standout track is Grant Hart's Turn on the News, which, sadly, is even more topical now than when it was written:





With its mentions of shootings, airline disasters, and refugee crises, the song couldn't be more relevant. It's a tribute to Grant Hart's perspicacity and devotion to humanity. It's tragic to lose Mr Hart so young, especially at a time when he is needed more than ever.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

If Everything Is Simply Jake then You're Frightened of Death

Another literary giant dead- this time it's J.P. Donleavy who has shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 91. An Irish-American who studied at Trinity College after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War 2, Donleavy was best known for his first novel, 1955's The Ginger Man, a stream-of-consciousness novel widely held to be autobiographical, about an American rogue ostensibly studying law at Trinity. The Ginger Man. first read by Brendan Behan was originally published by the storied (heh) Olympia Press, a French publisher known for its smut as well as its experimental fiction. The Ginger Man straddles this line. The novel is a picaresque, and the main character a sociopathic reprobate who sees women as sexual objects and sources of funds, but the language is glorious. The title of the post is taken from the novel:


“But Jesus, when you don't have any money, the problem is food. When you have money, it's sex. When you have both it's health, you worry about getting rupture or something. If everything is simply jake then you're frightened of death.”


I'm somewhat conflicted about the novel- the misogyny expressed is toxic, but the character comes off as an obnoxious Mary Sue/Gary Stu. Nevertheless, it's a great read, it offers a glimpse of life in postwar-Dublin, life in a country which, albeit poor, was spared the horrors of World War 2.

Donleavy had a knack for salacious grotesquery, The Onion Eaters being a black comedy about an unusually endowed young American inheriting a castle in rural Ireland from his aunt and running into all sorts of bizarre characters, including the titular onion-eaters, who have hatched a scheme to introduce poisonous snakes into Ireland to undermine people's faith in God. This review is spot on- The book reads like Hunter S. Thompson meets Mervyn Peake, or National Lampoon's Animal House in Castle Gormenghast.

The Lady who Liked Clean Restrooms was a slight novel, based on an urban legend, about a Southern belle, Bryn Mawr educated and living in Scarsdale, whose life becomes unraveled through her husband's infidelities and an impending divorce. It's a nice love letter to New York City, and is one of the few Donleavy novels which features a female protagonist and an unambiguously happy ending.

My favorite novel by Donleavy is A Fairy Tale of New York, a 1973 book adapted from a 1961 stage play about a native New Yorker returning to the city with his dead wife after a period of time studying abroad. In order to pay for his wife's funeral expenses, he has to work off the bill at the funeral home. In the course of his work, he meets a rich widow, and embarks on yet another of Donleavy's bawdy picaresques... in this case, being sued by a widow for 'tarting up' her dead husband with an excess of makeup and engaging in petty larceny and a string of seductions. The novel takes a while to warm up to, being written in a stream-of-consciousness style composed largely of sentence fragments. My favorite passage in the book is a dirty, dirty tale about a gentlemanly cook on a naval vessel who entertains his fellow seamen after baking them 'fluffy golden delicious biscuits'. The book also reads as a melancholy love-and-hate letter to the city itself. While it is the sort of place which can crush and dehumanize people, New York, from the lowlands of Brooklyn, past the canyons of Manhattan, to the catacomb hills of the Bronx is the sort of place in which even a young orphan can indulge in self-reinvention: "When I was a little boy. Left in a brand new foster home. I went out playing the afternoon around the block got lost, so busy telling all the other kids a fairy tale of New York. That my real father was a tycoon and my mother a princess."

The novel is exactly the sort of novel which could inspire the greatest Christmas song ever written, a bawdy, funny, melancholy melange.

I will be the first person to admit that Donleavy's prose is an acquired taste, with a lot of 'problematic' content, but I have long been a fan. His was a style and a narrative voice which was inimitable... a style and a narrative voice which I initially disliked until I could catch the cadence, the rhythm of it. His novels certainly warrant a slew of 'trigger warnings', but if you have a high tolerance for depictions of bad behavior, there are gems to be found amidst the sleaze.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Blame Your Porn Viewing on an Intern, Ted

Funny, I am sort of let down by the Ted Cruz porn-tweet scandal, I was really hoping that Ted would be caught liking something more outré, like Furry Porn, Vore, or some sort of Chuck Tinglean erotic weirdness. To be honest, though, the actual porn liked in Ted's Twitter account is perhaps the Ted Cruziest porn imaginable, as it involves someone barging in on a couple having sex, violating their privacy. What could be more Religious Right than that?

Ted Cruz being a weasel, he is now claiming that this tweet-like was not his fault, leading to a hilarious mashup of Ted with Jamerican rapper Shaggy. For the record, I am a Shaggy fan, being especially taken with his first single, 1993's Oh Carolina:





Of course, this was a cover of a 1960 original by the Folkes Brothers backed by Count Ossie and his Rastafarian Nyabinghi drumming troupe:





One of the music collections I had hunted for for years was a four disc history of modern Jamaican music, starting with the Folkes Brothers' version of Oh, Carolina and ending with Shaggy's cover. Unable to find it in record shops, I put it out of my mind for a while, only to be reminded of it by, of all things, Ted Cruz' Twitter Pornfest. When life hands you TMI, use that information to locate something of interest.

At any rate, since Ted is trying to pin the blame on an underling, let's hope that someone on his staff decides to reveal the good stuff, such as Ted Cruz' bigfoot obsession.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

PrimarieZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Once again, a bunch of local primary elections are taking place, and my worksite is a polling place. I set the alarm for three-thirty in the morning in order to arrive at five. The poll workers started arriving at a quarter after five in order to get things up and running by six. Needless to say, I'm dragging my ass at this time- I usually get home from work at the time I left the house this morning.

For the most part, the poll workers are the usual crew that I have come to know over the past couple of years. There are a couple of new faces, but the core group, including a co-worker of mine, is intact. In a smart move, our retail department decided to open our gift shop (this also allows for some early fall re-merchandising), and the small cafe onsite is open as well.

Right now, I'm starting to flag, and I need to take the old contact lenses out... my relief comes at five PM. There's coffee to be had, but I may have to find a sunny spot on the property to take a short nap before hitting the road this afternoon.

The big regional race is the New York City Democratic primary between Bill DeBlasio and Sal Albanese. My personal feeling is that Albanese shouldn't be challenging the incumbent, but there's a not-so-loyal wing of the party in New York State, which has altogether too much power, largely due to heinous gerrymandering.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Disposable Heroes

September Eleventh again, a day on which friends of mine were killed. The memory doesn't dull- I see the family members of murdered friends, I teach children who will never know their parents. It really hits when the absence is made apparent at gatherings.

This year, I've done a pretty good job at ignoring the public memorial services, but one thing rankles- the first responders who worked on the recovery efforts are still suffering. Americans love to lionize our heroes, but we do a really bad job of caring for them. Once the photo-ops are over, the votes against survivor benefits are cast. We love monuments, but we don't love flesh-and-blood, especially when it is stricken.

It will happen again- already the Hurricane Harvey responders are suffering the effects of toxic chemical exposure. Again, the public pieties will be mouthed, the public obligations ignored. It's a day for loving America, I just wish it were a day for loving Americans.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Horror Show for the Ages

Watching the footage of Irma hitting Florida is riveting- it's not every day when you get to see an entire state disappear from the map:




The videos of downtown Miami are chilling:





How much of a future does Miami really have, this low-lying coastal city in a storm-prone region? I am reminded of J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World. Tengrain is exhorting Florida's Rick Scott to seek high ground, but I know he lives on a mountain. Tengrain also mentions Donald Trump's weird assertion that the Coast Guard is improving its 'brand'... I never knew that this branch of our military has a 'brand'. We'll see how FEMA's brand fares in the aftermath of the storm when the cameras are elsewhere.

Speaking of cameras, Irma's got to be good for the television ratings... on the heels of Harvey, this is bound to be the best television season EVER. Stay tuned, you never know how things is going to turn out.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Fackebook

I haven't signed up for Facebook, and I don't plan on doing so at any time in the future. The site originated in a misogynistic, invasive college website, it compiles all sorts of information about its users including facial recognition data... and I really don't need to know that some guy I worked with twenty years ago is now a deplorable racist or woman-hater. No Facebook for me, thank you.

As if things couldn't get any worse, Facebook accepted a one-hundred thousand dollar ad buy from Russian sources seeking to affect the presidential election. Even worse, many of the fake Russian Facebook accounts were set up to promulgate divisive causes such as Texan and Californian secessionist movements; anti-immigrant, Muslim, and LGBT stances; and right-wing conspiracy theories.

I've long maintained that Facebook is a cesspool, but this sort of unopposed propaganda war takes the cake- Facebook compiles all sorts of data on its legitimate users, it's long past the time that they take steps to keep tabs on hostile foreign actors, who shouldn't be difficult to suss out.

Friday, September 8, 2017

There's Hurricanes in Florida...

With all of the natural disasters hitting places as far-flung as the Indian subcontinent to Mexico... With earth, wind and fire wreaking havoc, and a nuke-armed nutjob on the loose, I am reminded of a childhood favorite- the Kingston Trio's Merry Minuet, written by Sheldon Harnick, is a masterpiece of comedy so black it's fuligin. It's surprisingly topical, but it always seems to be so:





I'll be hiding under the bed, laughing like a hyena.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

My Contempt for Chris Christie Comes to the Fore Again

I have long held New Jersey governor Chris Christie in contempt, not only for his bullying nature, but for his scuttling of a much-needed sub-Hudson railway tunnel project. Well, now, seven years later, the Gateway Tunnel Program is in the news again, with Donald Trump seeming to agree to the project, at least at this moment.

I'm not exactly optimistic about the funding for the project- besides the money needed for post-multiple-hurricane recovery, the upcoming Debt Ceiling conflict bodes ill for any large infrastructure projects that would benefit 'blue' America. This project should have been funded seven years ago, but that would have been a victory for the Kenyan Usurper and those liberals in the New York City metropolitan area. If it had been started back then, the damn thing would probably have been finished by now.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Most Dangerous Storm in US History

Listening to the radio and reading the news on the internet has been pretty scary today. Besides the horrific damage caused by the category 5-plus storm (I made up the 'plus' part, but the Beauford scale tops off at 5) to the Leeward Islands. I really fear for what will happen to the people of Puerto Rico, who have been ill-served by the United States government for too long. I have a lot of Puerto Rican friends, I value their culture, and I have long felt that our government has to bail out this beleaguered American territory. Florida also looks to be destined for an unprecedented boning with several models suggesting that the storm will barrel right up the urethra of America's dong.

As if Irma's not bad enough, the fact that tropical storms Jose and Katia are also at large is enough to give one the creeping horrors:




It gets worse though- the party in control of the executive and legislative branches of government denies anthropogenic climate change and opposes regulations which would curb carbon emissions. To compound things, this party of small government had sought to slash FEMA's budget, while the agency is nearly broke, and is set to continue its debt-ceiling brinksmanship. This is exactly what the country does not need in the teeth of what could be a series of four massive blows to its southern coastal regions.

Hurricane Irma is the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, but it's got nothing on the most dangerous storm ever to hit the United States... the Category 45 shitstorm which hit Washington D.C. last January.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Donald's Acting Cruelly Again

Vulgarmort is as it again, he sent his house-elf Jeff Sessions to announce that he's planning to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that President Barack Obama instituted to provide undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors protection from deportation, the ability to obtain drivers' licenses and work permits, and (it is hoped) a pathway to citizenship.

Barack Obama described DACA in terms of basic decency, something that Vulgarmort lacks:


"We shouldn't threaten the future of this group of young people who are here through no fault of their own, who pose no threat, who are not taking away anything from the rest of us."


The 'Dreamers' who have benefitted from DACA are English-speaking and American-schooled... they have been vetted, checked for any possible criminal backgrounds or threats to the Republic. These are not unscrutinized individuals, they are assets to their local and state communities and the broader national community, exactly the sort of persons we Americans should welcome into the fold.

As is typical, Vulgarmort's timing is bad- his proclamation comes on the heels of a dreamer dying while engaged in post-Harvey rescue efforts (a case of Mexico sending us her best) and prior to a Houston reconstruction effort that will most likely require immigrant labor. As an aside, a Democratic congressperson should propose an 'American Jobs Only for Houston Recovery' act in Congress just to show up Republican hypocrisy.

I am pro-immigrant, I have many immigrant friends, I value the contributions of immigrants to American culture. I feel that this rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is cowardly, bigoted, and cruel. I make it a point not to inquire the legal status of my immigrant friends and neighbors, so I don't know if any of my friends will be impacted by this action, but I would hate to think that people I care for would be deported just so some rich, incompetent ogre can claim some sort of victory.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Laborious

Once again, I find myself working on Labor Day, but don't feel bad for me. Right now, I am typing out this blog post while watching the sun set from a hill overlooking the mighty Hudson:




It's been some day, I spent a good deal of it talking with one of the ladies in the gift shop about her family's recent trip to one of my all-time favorite places on Earth- Quebec City. When her husband arrived, we all continued rhapsodizing about the place. The prettiest European city is in North America. I also had a lovely conversation with a family which had arrived too late for our tours, but I took them to a hilly spot which overlooked the site and pointed out the attractions, so they can return at a later date. I describe my approach to work as '90% by the book'... every so often, you have to go slightly outside of the usual script, and in my experience, it benefits the organization.

When everybody left, I locked up and did my inspection tour of the site. Our apple orchard is at its peak, so I have had my pick of apples. The geese onsite are going nuts for the apples, and I indulged them by feeding them bits of apple (with the peel attached- when you have a gazillion free apples, you don't have to eat the peels like you'd do if you had purchased them) and then tossing them the cores, resulting in a free-for-all. I was able to feed one particularly brazen goose from hand, though it's not that appealing to have a sizable chunk of keratin knocking into your fingers.

It's not a bad life... I always joke that the job is cushy, except when it's not, and today has definitely been in the 'cushy' column, which is perfect for Labor Day.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

National Day of Prayer

Prayer being the last refuge of a scoundrel, it's no surprise that Donald Trump proclaimed today a National Day of Prayer for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, even though Memphis Minnie told us ninety years ago that 'crying won't help you, praying won't do you no good':





The people of Southeast Texas don't need prayers, as pious fraud Joel Osteen found out... and now Osteen is doubling down on the stupid. Getting back to Trump, the idea that a man who has only worshiped Mammon and his own loathsome self would call for a day of prayer is even more ludicrous.

My religious leanings are best characterized as apatheism- I had a pretty traditional religious upbringing, but the failings and hypocrisy of the self-proclaimed interpreters of the will of God turned me off completely to religion and, frankly, the universe just makes more sense when you stop trying to shoehorn it into a religious framework. Nevertheless, I am familiar with the Bible, and one of my personal favorite verses is Matthew 6:5. As if the useless piety of hypocrites wasn't enough, the absolute worst of the god-botherers are claiming that Harvey created a hellscape in Texas because Bruce and George went hunting for furniture for their apartment together. Yeah, I think I've had enough from these creeps.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Have a Good Time, Picking up the Remains of your Shattered Lives

I've had things pretty good all my life... I've experienced lean times, I've had frugal stretches, but I've never experienced long-term privation. That being said, I'd like to think that I have a sense of empathy. I have experienced the aftermath of a destructive storm, but I had a dry dwelling to return home to. At any rate, I would not be the sort of person to tell a bunch of evacuees who have just lost their homes and possessions to 'have a good time'.

I love words, I love the English language (and, to tell you the truth, other languages, all other languages enchant me), I think I have a pretty good grasp on speaking extemporaneously. It doesn't take a goddamn genius to avoid telling a bunch of people who have experienced terror, loss and displacement to 'have a good time', as if they were camping out for a lark.

I can't fathom what sort of cognitive/emotional deficit it takes for an individual to be so blithe about the ruination of others' lives... and the fact that such an empathy-free monster is heading up our government creeps me the hell out.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Let Them Breathe Organic Peroxides

Oh, great, that ongoing explosion freedom pop crisis at the Crosby, Texas organic peroxides plant just got worse, with at least two trailers of peroxides having caught fire. The man-made disaster which is accompanying the natural disaster that was Hurricane Harvey is largely due to Republican deregulation- the Texas GOP played an instrumental role in blocking regulations that should have made an 'incident' less likely. Of course, this is the same GOP which brought us the infamous West, Texas chemical plant fire... can you just feel the lifting of burdensome regulations? Feels like a vibration underfoot, and a burning in the sinuses, trachea, and lungs.

The real kicker is the press conference with Richard Rennard an Arkema executive who tells the media that 'toxicity is a relative thing'. Well, duh, the aphorism 'the dose makes the poison' is centuries old... I get that, after all, I eat pokeweed. The problem is that the Arkema representatives aren't being upfront about the composition of the 'noxious' smoke, so the 'relative toxicity' of it will have to be determined by the authorities, something which doesn't seem to appeal to Texas' elected officials.

This is way beyond the 'let them eat cake' attitude, it basically boils down to 'let them breathe poison'. Tragically, I don't think any heads will roll (figuratively) for this disaster, and I foresee yet another douchebag 'Gulf region' CEO whining on television about wanting his life back.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Meanwhile, in the Bloggerhood

A careful perusal of my blogroll will reveal that it adheres to Canadian Content standards. Among the Canadians in the blogroll is Interrobang, who does some great quote roundups from the snarkiest blogs out there... and some serious journalistic sources. Scanning her blog invariably leads to some fantastic reads, and she is a great snarker as well in numerous comment threads.

A longtime reader, I have been aware that she has had a run of bad luck for a while, as she describes in her latest post. She set up a Gofundme campaign to buy some new hardware for a job search. The campaign funded, but I figured I'd get the word out so she can get some more funds to provide a safety net for her as she searches for a new job. Interrobang is good people, and her misfortunes pretty much show that the concept of karma is pretty much just wishful thinking. While the universe is a cruel place, the bloggerhood is a place where kindness prevails. If you've got a few simoleons to spare, sending them to Interrobang would do a lot to make sure that she keeps this particular corner of the internet interesting.

As others have said, here's hoping that this marks a change in fortune for you, !?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

On Draining Swamps

I am a lover of swamps, as longtime readers will know, so the Trump slogan 'Drain the Swamp' was always a non-starter with me. Swamps, marshes, and other wetlands serve a vital ecological function, being hotbeds of biodiversity, breeding grounds for all sorts of terrestrial and marine life. Draining swamps negatively impacts regions... especially when those swamps are drained for the development of low-lying infrastructure.

On today's Brian Lehrer Show, Harvey took central stage. In my estimation, Harvey is the perfect 'Republican' storm, a stormy brew of anthropogenic climate-change fueled atmospheric moisture and a lack of zoning regulations that allowed real-estate development in low-lying areas, and a paved-over sprawl which prevented the absorption of water, exacerbating the flooding.

Harvey is basically the result of literal Swamp-Draining, which is just as bad as the figurative swamp-draining that this froggy fellow claims to be accomplishing.

UPDATE: As usual, Charles Pierce has a must-read post about Harvey and the upcoming non-natural disasters in its wake.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

From NY to Texas, We Love You, Stop Voting for Assholes

I have expressed anger at Texas' senators for holding up relief funds for New York and New Jersey post-Sandy, but, not being a monster, I have to hold myself to a better standard than those assholes... I can't sit by and do nothing for the people of Southeast Texas in the face of Hurricane Harvey. I am not a believer in big charities- I have seen too much about even seemingly reputable charities using funds to pay unreasonable executive compensation and fundraising costs. Accordingly, I have donated by dollars to local groups- the Central Texas Food Bank and the San Antonio Food Bank. These organizations will be handling the care and feeding of evacuees for the foreseeable future, so I figure they are two of the best bets for money actually getting to the needy.

Being a New Yorker, therefore someone who forgets nothing, I will never forgive the Texas congressional Republican coterie for holding up post-Sandy aid, and I will especially never forgive these assholes for making me think 'screw those people, they didn't come out to help us when we needed them' for even one second. If I am to claim that I am a better person than Cruz et al., I have to be, you know, a better person.

Now, my Texan friends, please take some time to perhaps consider not electing total assholes to represent you?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

My Noggin, Your Canvas

Today has been a busy day for me... since summer is rapidly drawing to a close, I decided that I would actually go about doing things before heading off to work, rather than sleeping in all morning. At one point in my travels, I went to an event at which a young woman was creating 'glitter tattoos' for children. She insisted on giving me a glitter tattoo on my big, bald noggin. Since I was wearing a Secret Science Club T-shirt, I decided to get a purple octopus glitter tattoo:




Hey, it's not like I had a choice in the matter... it's impossible to say no to a cute girl dressed as a pirate. I did have some explaining to do when I arrived on the job, but telling everybody that a cute pirate lass was giving out glitter tattoos was sufficient.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Trump's First Major Natural Disaster

It was bound to happen, a natural disaster occurring on Vulgarmort's watch, as a monster category 4 hurricane slammed into Texas' gulf coast. While Harvey has been downgraded to a tropical storm, it is still dumping fucktons of rain on Texas. I am reminded of Hurricane Irene, a slow-moving storm which dumped buckets and buckets of rain, being particularly devastating to New England.

Trump's response to Hurricane Harvey will be fascinating to watch- the man is an incompetent boob, but the storm hit 'Trump Country', so I suspect he will make a big show of sending help, even if it's ineffectual. Trump's FEMA head, Brock Long, seems to be marginally competent... it's not like his sole organizational experience has been running a horse-fanciers' club. I also have to note that Trump has been gutting NOAA's budget, which will negatively impact future tropical storm modeling.

Being a New Yorker, by which I mean someone who never forgets anything, I have to note that Texas Senators Cornyn and Cruz, shitbags both, voted against Hurricane Sandy relief five years ago. While I would never wish Senators Schumer and Gillibrand to vote against hurricane relief for Texas, I sure hope they name any legislation to that effect the 'Ted Cruz and John Cornyn Are Worthless Pieces of Trash' bill.

Stay safe, Texans, by which I mean Nasreen and family. Stay safe.

Friday, August 25, 2017

A Local Triumph

It's been a while since I have written about infrastructure. The conventional wisdom is that American infrastructure is subpar. The big local infrastructure story in my neck of the woods, which I have devoted multiple blog posts to, was the deterioration of the Tappan Zee Bridge, which spans the Hudson River, and the construction of a new bridge. Yesterday, Governor Andrew Cuomo cut the ribbon on the westbound span of the bridge, which has been named after his father, the late Governor Mario Cuomo. While a fan of the late governor, I really don't think that the bridge should have been named after anyone- the old name honors both the original indigenous people and the Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley, so I will stick with calling it the 'Tapp'.

The eastbound span of the bridge should open to traffic in the fall, just in time for the main upstate Autumn foliage tourism. It's nice to see a local infrastructure project come to fruition. My one beef with the new bridge design is the failure to incorporate a light rail line into the structure to connect the I-287 Corridor to the three lines of the Metro North railway system, thereby linking New Jersey to Connecticut via rail. Oh, well, that's me, ever the curmudgeon... at any rate, at least something has been accomplished.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Another Genre Titan Gone

Another of the great science-fiction auteurs of the 20th century is gone- Brian Aldiss passed away at the age of ninety-two. Brian Aldiss, besides being the author of 80-odd (and I mean odd) books, was the editor of forty anthologies. Perhaps Aldiss' best-known story was Supertoys Last All Summer Long, which inspired the Kubrick/Spielberg vehicle A.I. Out of Aldiss' novels, the Helliconia trilogy, a sprawling planetary romance, is perhaps most familiar to the American reading public.

Aldiss tended to avoid optimistic space operas, with square-jawed heroes and whiz-bang technology. My favorite works by Aldiss were outré stories, with the science taking a backseat to the somewhat zany plots. He had a knack for portraying humanity in decline, his human protagonists are just another part of the food chain, concerned more with survival than conquest. His first novel, 1958's Non-Stop, a tale of a primitive tribe's exploration of its environs, has a couple of huge twists... so as not to spoil the fun of the book, I won't even give a small recap of the plot. At any rate, it is a fun read, with Aldiss messing with the readers' expectations on a recurring basis.

1962's Hothouse is a tour-de-force of bizarro biology, with plant life run amok on a rotationally locked Earth tethered to the moon by the kilometers-long strands of the massive vegetable entities which traverse the distance between the two heavenly bodies:


The traverser drifted very high above the Tips, safe from its enemies. All about it, space was indigo, and the invisible rays of space bathed it and nourished it. Yet the traverser was still dependent on the earth for nourishment. After many hours of vegetative dreaming, it swung itself over and climbed down a cable.

Other traversers hung motionless nearby. Occasionally one would blow a globe of oxygen or hitch a leg to try and dislodge a troublesome parasite. Theirs was a leisureliness never attained before. Time was not for them; the sun was theirs, and would ever be until it became unstable, turned nova, and burnt both them and itself out.

The traverser fell, its feet twinkling, hardly touching its cable. It fell straight to the forest, it plunged towards the leafy cathedrals of the forest. Here in the air lived its enemies, enemies many times smaller, many times more vicious, many times more clever. Traversers were prey to one of the last families of insect, the tigerflies.

Only tigerflies could kill traversers - in their own insidious, invincible way.

Over the long slow eons as the sun's radiation increased, vegetation had evolved to undisputed supremacy. The wasps had developed too, keeping pace with the new developments. They grew in number and size as the animal kingdom fell into eclipse and dwindled into the rising tide of green. In time they became the chief enemies of the spider-like traversers. Attacking in packs, they could paralyse the primitive nerve centres, leaving the traversers to stagger to their own destruction. The tigerflies also laid their eggs in tunnels bored into the stuff of their enemies' bodies; when the eggs hatched, the larvae fed happily on living flesh.

This threat it was, more than anything, that had driven the traversers farther and farther into space many millennia past. In this seemingly inhospitable region, they reached their full and monstrous flowering.

Hard radiation became a necessity for them. Nature's first astronauts, they changed the face of the firmament. Long after man had rolled up his affairs and retired to the trees from whence he came, the traversers reconquered that vacant pathway he had lost. Long after intelligence had died from its peak of dominance, the traversers linked the green globe and the white indissolubly - with that antique symbol of neglect, a spider's web.

The traverser scrambled down among foliage of the Tips, erecting the hairs on its back, where patchy green and black afforded it natural camouflage. On its way down it had collected several creatures caught fluttering in its cables. It sucked them peacefully. When the soupy noises stopped, it vegetated.

Buzzing roused it from its doze. Yellow and black stripes zoomed before its crude eyes. A pair of tigerflies had found it.

With great alacrity, the traverser moved. Its massive bulk, contracted in the atmosphere, had an overall length of over a mile, yet it moved lightly as pollen, scuttling up a cable back to the safety of vacuum.

As it retreated, its legs brushing the web, it picked up various spores, burrs, and tiny creatures that adhered there. It also picked up six burnurns, each containing an insensible human, which swung unregarded from its shin.

Several miles up, the traverser paused. Recovering from its fright, it ejected a globe of oxygen, attaching it gently to a cable. It paused. Its palps trembled. Then it headed out towards deep space, expanding all the time as pressure dropped.

Its speed increased. Folding its legs, the traverser began to eject fresh web from the spinnerets under its abdomen. So it propelled itself , a vast vegetable almost without feeling, rotating slowly to stabilize its temperature.

Hard radiations bathed it. The traverser basked in them. It was in its element.



The imagery of the novel is gorgeous, but the plot, involving the peregrinations of a not-too-smart human descendant, is goofy... it really doesn't do justice to the grandeur of the setting. It's an entertaining read, a weird picaresque interlude before the destruction of Earth by a terrific solar flare.

My favorite work by Aldiss is The Saliva Tree, which simultaneously manages to be a tribute to H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds and a pastiche of H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space. The similarity to the latter story is such that even the details are similar, with an alien presence lending a grotesque vitality to nearby terrestrial life, before consuming it... The Saliva Tree adds the element of pastoral class drama and a romantic subplot. The aliens are also slightly more active in their malevolence than Lovecraft's mysterious 'colour':


They were safe, but the safety was not permanent. Through the din and dust, they could see that the gigantic beasts were wedged tightly in both entrances. In the middle was a sort of battlefield, where the animals fought to reach the opposite end of the building; they were gradually tearing each other to pieces but the sties too were threatened with demolition.

"I had to follow you," Nancy gasped. "But Father, I don't think he even recognized me!"

At least, Gregory thought, she had not seen her father trampled underfoot. Involuntarily glancing in that direction, he saw the shotgun that Grendon had never managed to reach still lying across a bracket on the wall. By crawling along a traverse beam, he could reach it easily. Bidding Nancy sit where she was, he wriggled along the beam, only a foot or two above the heaving backs of the swine. At least the gun should afford them some protection: the Aurigan, despite all its ghastly differences from humanity, would hardly be immune to lead.

As he grasped the old-fashioned weapon and pulled it up, Gregory was suddenly filled with an intense desire to kill one of the invisible monsters. In that instant, he recalled an earlier hope he had had of them: that they might be superior beings, beings of wisdom and enlightened power, coming from a
better society where higher moral codes directed the activities of its citizens. He had thought that only to such a civilization would the divine gift of traveling through interplanetary space be granted. But perhaps the opposite held true: perhaps such a great objective could be gained only by species ruthless enough to disregard more humane ends. As soon as he thought it, his mind was overpowered with a vast diseased vision of the universe, where such races as dealt in love and kindness and intellect cowered forever on their little globes, while all about them went the slayers of the universe, sailing where they would to satisfy their cruelties and their endless appetites.

He heaved his way back to Nancy above the bloody porcine fray.



Aldiss was a one-of-a-kind talent, his particular brand of Science-Fiction was nonconformist, unheroic. The one other author I can recall who mined the same lodes as Aldiss is the long-silend Doris Piserchia, whose oeuvre might be even zanier than Aldiss'. At any rate, Brian Aldiss' unique voice is now stilled, and I, a fan, feel a certain diminution because of it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The War of Northam Aggression

The Virginia GOP has decided to say the quiet parts out loud post-Charlottesville, claiming that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam has turned his back on his heritage by stating that he supports the removal of monuments that glorify the Confederacy. I can't really say that I have any predecessors that I would be ashamed of- my people have been largely scrappy peasant types who have overcome adversity and gained middle class success, with a couple of upper-middle class types who fled their stultifying lives in the old country thrown into the mix. The 'crimes' of my ancestors have all been ones that I find to be colorful, nothing to be ashamed of- one of my great-grandfathers was reputed to belong to an absinthe-smuggling ring, one of my great-grandmothers had a still blow up in the house during Prohibition... I consider my ancestors to have been scoffing a stupid laws, laws which were eventually repealed. Northam's family, though, engaged in activities which Northam does not countenance. He is repudiating the aspects of his heritage for which he cannot be proud:




The Virginia GOP has deleted its tweets calling out Northam as a traitor to the treasonous 'lost cause', but the wags won't let this go away:

By deleting that tweet you are erasing history.

The GOP emblem should be a mayfly, rather than an elephant- they have a knack for flushing facts down the memory hole.

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.