Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Something Eerie for Halloween

This morning, I am working a post-event graveyard shift, having arrived at 9PM for the tail end of the festivities (I will be returning at 5PM for a long slog). After locking up, I decided that I would take a break and begin watching a cult-classic throughout the night, between my tasks. I chose the low-budget ($30K!) high-concept Carnival of Souls. The film is in the public domain, and can be found in its entirety on the t00bz:

The initial sequence of the film immediately reminded me of Ambrose Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and the film covers similar ground. The core of the film is Candace Hilligoss' performance as Mary Henry, the irreligious organist who leaves the town in which she suffered an accident to be become a church organist in Utah. Hilligoss, doe-eyed and high cheekboned, is a luminous presence, her toughness as a survivor contrasted with her vulnerability to hallucinations and convictions that she is becoming disjointed from reality. She has to fend off the advances of both her slimy lothario of a boarding-house neighbor and the advances of a cadaverous man played by film director Herk Harvey, all the while being beset by episodes of intangiblity and the attentions of ghastly apparitions. The ending of the film is appropriately Biercian.

Reading up on the film after watching it, there is a great feminist interpretation of the movie, with the female protagonist bucking the roles that society expects of women and dealing with the haranguing condescension of even the nominally sympathetic men around her, such as the minister who fires her for her 'profane', apparition-inspired playing or the doctor who tries to treat her for her attacks.

The movie isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, some of the acting by the majority-amateur cast is clunky, and the pacing could be tightened up a bit, but it is a memorable one, and one which can be interpreted in many ways (are the creepy ghouls from the pavilion, along with the cadaverous man himself, evil, or are they attempting to help Mary with her transition to the afterlife?). It's a nice, eerie bit of cinema with an amazing back-story which casts a long shadow on the horror movie genre... a nice watch for Halloween.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Slight Touch of Déjà Vu

Five years ago, Superstorm Sandy hit the area, imiserating millions of persons in the NY metro area. I escaped unscathed, though I did have to camp out on the job for four days without heat or electricity because no gasoline was to be had, so a lot of my co-workers were unable to get to work, and it fell on me to 'shelter in place' on the job, which was preferable to getting stuck on the side of the road with an empty gas tank.

Well, today we're experiencing a tropical storm, with heavy rains and potentially hazardous winds. While this storm is piddly compared to Sandy, it was enough to get us to cancel our fall fundraisers for the evening. I spent a good deal of time outdoors making sure that people who hadn't checked their email for cancellation notices were turned away in a diplomatic fashion. I also made sure the drains and sewer grates weren't blocked by fallen leaves and pine needles, and put some flood barriers and absorbent synthetic 'sandbags' in the basement in case of local flooding.

The power is on, as you can surmise by this post, and the storm isn't nearly as fierce as Sandy, but I can't help but feel a twinge of déjà vu. Five years ago, one of the managers and I were scrambling madly around the site, taking down lanterns and lantern-stakes to prevent wholesale breakage. Tonight, we were making sure the hatches were battened down in the main building, and turning away visitors. It wasn't as frantic as it was then, but the general feeling that we've been through this storm-crap before is unshakeable.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Recommendations for a Friend

Like many people, myself included, a friend of mine likes to read horror fiction in the month of October. It's a nice lead-in to Halloween. He likes audiobooks, having a somewhat long subway commute to work (as an aside, my commute home from SSC on Wednesday night was a horror story- there was a 4 train stuck in the northbound tunnel near 138th St in the Bronx, accompanied by construction on the other track, so the delays were terrible). Asking specifically for a supernatural tale of terror or two, I unhesitatingly directed him to M.R. James, who I mentioned in a recent blog post, steering him towards Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. The book, which is in the public domain, is available at Gutenberg, with an audiobook at Librivox. I specifically recommended he try 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, Lad' and 'Count Magnus'.

I figure that, if you want supernatural tales, go for the classic, and the classy.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: This Lecture's Gone Viral

On Wednesday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring evolutionary biologist and virologist Dr Paul Turner of Yale University. Dr Turner titled his lecture Viruses: Good, Bad, and Ugly, in homage to his favorite spaghetti western.

Dr Turner began his lecture by addressing the amazing biodiversity of the planet, displaying first a list of North America's 'big five' charismatic megafauna- grizzly bears, caribou, moose, bighorn sheep, and wolves, contrasting it with an invisible 'big five' of North America- the Giardia protozoan, the influenza virus, the HIV retrovirus, a bacteriophage, and the Cordyceps fungi. He posed the question, are microbes nasty? His answer was that this was not necessarily true, that microbes can benefit human health. In humans, the microbiome, the community of bacteria, fungi, and viruses within the body, outnumbers the body's own cells. The microbiome can affect one's risk of heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses- it also plays a role in an individual's weight. It is currently believed that childhood exposure to microbes may help prevent autoimmune diseases, a concept known as the hygiene hypothesis. In experimental helminthic therapy, irradiated hookworm eggs are introduced into subjects in order to reduce autoimmune diseases. Dr Turner summed up this part of the lecture by noting that we live in a microbial world.

He then posed the question: What is a virus? After repeating his theme of ugly, good, and bad viruses, he posed another question: Might a virus save your life someday? Cellular life can be divided into three broad categories- bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes... all of which form cells enclosed by a membrane. In contrast, viruses do not form cells, they characteristically have genetic material, DNA or RNA, surrounded by proteins. Viruses come in many forms- typical bacteriophages have tail vanes (Dr Turner facetiously compared them to the lunar lander). Influenza viruses contain RNA in the center of a protein shell. Viruses have a non-cellular life cycle. In order to reproduce, a virus enters the proper cell type, injects its genetic material, the viral genetic material hijacks the cell metabolism to copy itself, and the viral offspring are released from the cell.

Viruses are biodiverse, most are sub-microscopic... an electron microscope is needed to observe them. Influenza viruses and rhabdoviruses come in many shapes. Virus size does not correlate with host size- a whale can be infected by small viruses, a bacterium by large ones.

The evolutionary origin of viruses is a mystery- viruses appeared billions of years ago. Dr Turner posed a multiple choice question. A. Did viruses evolve before bacteria, being inhabitants of an RNA-based world that existed before DNA evolved? B. Did viruses evolve as parasites within cellular organisms? C. Are viruses 'devolved' cellular information? D. Did viruses arrive to Earth from space? Dr Turner jocularly illustrated these last two options with a picture of Devo and a picture of the lunar lander juxtaposed with a bacteriophage. Dr Turner indicated that A, B, and C are the three leading ideas.

Viruses reproduce very quickly, while bacteria can reproduce rapidly through binary fission, viruses can grow even faster as their progeny are formed in the cells of other organisms. Viruses are very abundant, they thrive in all environments, and they outnumber all other organisms. They are the most numerous of Earth's inhabitants. The human global population is approximately 7.2 billion, while the global virus population is estimated to be 1031. If the genes of all of the Earth's viruses were laid end-to-end, they would stretch to the Perseus Cluster, approximately 250 million light years away.

We live in a viral world- the bad viruses make the news, they are the viruses that are researched. There is evidence of ancient viral diseases- the Pharaoh Siptah had a clubbed foot that suggests polio, which is probably depicted on an image of a priest on a stele dating to 3700BCE. The mummified remains of Ramesses V indicate that he had suffered a case of smallpox. The polio virus is common in soil, it is usually harmless to humans, but becomes extremely dangerous when it enters the human nervous system. The smallpox virus was rendered extinct in its natural environment, the human body, and exists only in labs at the CDC and in Russia.

Dr Turner then took us on a tour of deadly epidemics- the 'Ugly' viruses. The 1918 flu killed 50 million to 100 million victims, a single flu strain managed to infect approximately 500 million individuals before the advent of commercial air travel. In our modern era, where travel is common, a flu epidemic may be just as deadly if the available vaccines don't match the flu strain. The Great Plague of the 14th century, which killed approximately 40% of Europe's population, is generally blamed on the bacterium Yersinia pestis, but other pathogens may have contributed to the death toll, hygiene and sanitation being sub-par at the time. The smallpox epidemic which began in 1520 in the New World decimated the Native American populations, but there are no estimates of the death toll. The AIDS epidemic, which is generally considered to have started in 1981, has claimed 39 million lives, with 78 million likely infected.

Virus emergence is a continual process- viruses can 'jump into' humans from other organisms. Bats commonly harbor viruses, which are often transmitted to pigs, then from the pigs to humans. HIV has jumped from other primates to humans, with HIV1 originating in chimpanzees and the less lethal HIV2 originating in monkeys. The HIV strains were probably introduced to humans between the 1920s and 1940s. Flu viruses are commonly transmitted by birds, especially waterfowl. The human immune system is 'naive' to bird flus- infection is easy, and we don't have the money and time to prevent 'fires', just to put them out. The mosquito born Zika virus was first identified in a rhesus monkey, only recently emerging in humans.

After dealing with the positively ugly viruses, Dr Turner focused his attention on the merely 'bad' viruses. Some viruses make you sick but don't kill you. He repeated the 1969-vintage quip: "We can put a man on the moon but we can't cure a common cold." Colds are caused by a variety of rhinoviruses. If an individual has respiratory problems, such as asthma, a cold can be serious, but many people are healthy enough to go to work with a cold, becoming links in the chains of contagion. Rotaviruses can kill children, but generally don't kill adults. Approximately 5% of child deaths in the developing world can be attributed to rotaviruses, which cause severe, dehydrating diarrhea.

Dr Turner then posed the question, can viruses be used in biocontrol of pests? He brought up the use of myxomatosis, the dreaded 'white blindness' of Watership Down, to control the invasive rabbit population of Australia in the 1950s. While partially successful, this introduction generally failed because the virus tended to kill rabbits before they had a chance to transmit it. Dr Turner chalked this up to yet another example of the folly of introducing invasive species to Australia.

Dr Turner then focused his attention on the 'good'- are viruses good for ecosystems? He noted that an absence of predators tends to throw biological systems out of balance, citing the absence of the wolf in most of North America, and the resultant explosion of the deer population, as a factor in the spread of the bacteria that cause Lyme disease... fewer deer, less Lyme. Viruses indirectly regulate the photosynthetic activity of cyanobacteria in the oceans. Cyanobacteria evolved about 3.5 billion years ago, and altered Earth's atmosphere by elevating oxygen levels. Cyanophages outnumber cyanobacteria by a factor of ten to one, regulating the cyanobacteria population. The cyanophages carry the genes which code for photosynthesis. Dr Turner noted that viruses infect other organisms and continually 'churn' genes. Approximately one in twenty of a person's daily breaths contain oxygen produced by virus genes.

Dr Turner then posed us a riddle: What would you trade 36 bushels of wheat, 72 of rice, 4 oxen, 12 sheep, 8 pigs, 2 barrels of wine, 4 barrels of beer, 2 tons of butter, 1000 pounds of cheese, a bed, a suit of clothes, and a silver cup for? The answer, of course, is a tulip bulb, but not just any tulip bulb, but a bulb infected by a tulip 'breaking' virus which resulted in fantastic mixtures of colors.

Dr Turner then posed the question, can viruses solve health problems? He brought up the topic of antibiotic resistence, citing MRSA and XDRTB as worrisome diseases- the drugs used to treat them pose dangers to the body. Antibiotic resistance is a global problem, and will be implicated in hundreds of millions of deaths worldwide by 2050. Bacteriophages are viruses that only kill bacteria- they could be used as an alternative to chemical antibiotics. Bacteriophages could be used as a self-amplifying drug- they multiply, find and kill new bacteria. In the mid-twentieth century, the Russians and Poles invested more heavily in phage therapy than in antibiotics. Phage therapy was used to treat field wounds and cholera. In the case of cholera, patients were rehydrated and given anti-cholera phages. Bacteria can evolve phage resistance. Dr Turner asked, can we develop a strategy that works even with the evolution of resistance? He indicated that the best strategy would be to discover phages which attack bacteria by binding to virulence factors- by binding to these sites, the phages would force the bacteria to evolve phage resistance by compromising virulence. Resistance would be achieved by becoming more dangerous. OMK01 (PDF link),a recently discovered bacteriophage, found in a Connecticut lake, effects the efflux pumps that bacteria use to remove antibiotics. OMK01 forces bacteria to trade phage resistance for antibiotic resistance. Dr Turner referred us to the 6/3/2016 edition of NPR's Science Friday. In 2006, the USDA approved the use of phages to combat bacteria which can taint deli meats.

Dr Turner then posed the question, would you be here without viruses? He indicated that 10% of our DNA comes from viruses which entered the genetic germ line- these genes are known as endogenous retrovirus genes. Syncytin, a protein produced by endogenous retroviral genes, is crucial to the formation of the placenta- the protein is necessary for the proper reaction of the immune system, which does not treat the fetus as a parasite. All placental mammals are made possible by viral DNA, which is a really good note on which to end a lecture.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. Some Bastard in the audience asked if viruses could be used in gene therapy to combat genetic diseases. While viruses are good at swapping out genes, CRISPRs are better tools, simple enought to use on multicellular organisms for correcting genomes. Another member of the audience asked, are viruses alive? Viruses are often conceived as 'quasi-living', but Dr Turner considers them living because they can reproduce and they are subject to natural selection. Asked whether viruses could jump from one 'domain' of life to another, Dr Turner indicated that this is unlikely, because cross-domain protein recognition tends to be rare, though it has often been attempted in the lab. Dr Turner then brought up the topic of bacteriophage prospecting becoming a growth industry- there is an illimitable supply of viruses out there, some of which may have therapeutic value. He then pondered whether or not humans co-evolved with phages to welcome them into the body. Asked about tips in case there's another dangerous flu outbreak, he noted that people should have a home preparedness kit so they can stay home until the epidemic wanes... I guess I need to download more ebooks!

Dr Turner delivered a top-notch lecture, informative and entertaining. I'm biased toward biological subjects, so this lecture was definitely in my top tier. Dr Turner, an extremely nice guy, lingered for an 'adult beverage' afterward, and I had a brief conversation with him about OMK01, which he told me was located in Dodge Pond, a polluted body of water not far from Lyme.

Kudos to Dr Turner, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House for yet another fantastic lecture. Here's the first of a three-part video series on viral biology by Dr Turner:

Crack open a beverage and soak in that SCIENCE! Be sure to watch the other two videos in the series- more videos, more drinking, more learning.

Oh, and this month's lecture was the annual Lasker Foundation collaboration with the Secret Science Club. Special thanks to the good folks at the foundation for their support. The foundation was giving out these great T-shirts with the slogan: If you think research is expensive, try disease.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Secret Science Club North Lecture Recap: Speak, Spaceman, Speak

Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space on Manhattan's Upper West Side, to attend the latest Secret Science Club North lecture featuring Dr Mike Massimino, NASA astronaut and Columbia University professor of mechanical engineering. Dr Massimino's lecture was a recap of his career, which is the subject of his book Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe.

Dr Massimino began his lecture by displaying the iconic picture of Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon:

He noted that the only image of Neil Armstrong on the moon is the image reflected in Buzz Aldrin's faceplate, and joked that these astronauts weren't members of today's selfie-culture: "We're going to New Jersey, better take lots of pictures." He then told us that his first clear childhood memory was of the Apollo Eleven landing, which occurred when he was six years old. He showed us a picture of himself dressed up in an astronaut costume (repurposed from a school play elephant costume by his mother), carrying an 'Astronaut Snoopy' stuffed animal and dreaming of being an astronaut.

Dr Massimino then displayed a diurnal picture of New York City from a high altitude, pointing out the approximate locations of Symphony Space and Columbia University, then noting the location of his boyhood home in Long Island's Nassau County. He contrasted the diurnal view of the Earth from high up with the nocturnal view- at night, human habitations are easily distinguished by the amount of light they produce, while natural features of the landscape such as mountains and forests are distinguished during the daytime view. Dr Massimino has a flair for illustrating his curriculum vitae by displaying pictures of the planet- after graduating with a bachelor's degree from Columbia, he went to MIT for his masters, so he displayed this with a gorgeous NASA Earth Observatory picture of the Massachusetts coastline:

Dr Massimino detailed the long process by which he sought a career as an astronaut- deciding while working in NYC as an engineer to apply to NASA, but getting a rejection letter, then getting his masters and sending in another application. His third application was accepted and he became a member of Astronaut Group 16, along with identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly (Dr Massimino joked that the only way to tell them apart was by remembering which one was in space and which was on the planet).

The bulk of the lecture was a series of reminiscences accompanied by video footage. Dr Massimino noted that the orbiting shuttle would be plunged from bright daylight to utter darkness every forty-five minutes, and that the resultant drop in temperature could be felt even through the protection of the spacesuit he wore while space-walking. One particularly great tale involved a repair job the Hubble Space Telescope- while unfastening one of the Hubble's external handrails, he stripped the bolt, and a low-tech solution to the problem had to be put into effect:

Throughout the lecture, Dr Massimino conveyed his love for his job, his comrades, and his planet with humor and grace. He told us of looking down on the Earth and having such an emotional experience that he started tearing up, then he remembered that it was a bad idea to introduce water into the spacesuit, and he would have to make an accounting of this moisture, which would result in a new nickname. He displayed a picture of the Earth's atmosphere from space, noting how thin a layer it was, like an onion skin, a fragile one:

He joked about his infamous 'first tweet from space', and the ribbing he got on SNL about tweeting 'Launch Was Great', which made him a hit among his children's classmates. He also showed a funny video on how to make a burrito in zero gravity:

All told, the lecture was sweet, and Dr Massimino made an eloquent spokesman for space exploration. He recounted his last spacewalk, when he was finished with the task he had to perform, and the shuttle commander told him to take some time for himself to enjoy the view. This is a man who had attained his childhood goal, and performed important work, and was fully aware of how fortunate he was. He even showed us how one of the personal items he had taken with him on a mission was the Snoopy doll he had been carrying in his boyhood photo:

How could you not love the guy?

In the Q&A, Dr Massimino talked about the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope project, noting that it will be too far from Earth for astronauts to do repair work on (he noted that he was confident that NASA would figure out how to make any necessary repairs if something were to go wrong), and noting that the Hubble will still be in use, just like the Hubble didn't render obsolete earthbound observatories. Here's a great video of Dr Massimino reminiscing about his work on the Hubble:

Kudos to Dr Massimino, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the scintillating Symphony Space.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Saving Savings

Today is a pretty quiet one, I merely had to show up to work for a few hours to lock up one of the sites after some students in an enrichment program left... no long endurance tour dealing with the public. I had some time to check the news and was surprised that Trump bucked a Republican plan to drastically cut the tax benefits of 401(k) plans. Basically, the Republican plan is to kill 401(k) plans by rendering them useless- no tax benefit, no real appeal in the plans.

I like to say that I am doing okay- I can actually put away ten percent of my wages in a 401(k), though I live a pretty frugal lifestyle. The organization matches the contributions to some extent, but it's the tax benefit which is most appealing. Any plans to cut the benefits to Joe and Jane Clockpuncher in order to give even bigger tax breaks to plutocrats is utter sociopathy.

It's somewhat surprising that Trump has been so vocal in defense of the 401(k) plan- I don't know whether to chalk this up to hatred of McConnell and Ryan, or a realization that this sort of legislation directly attacks his base.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Devil Is Not Mocked, but Nazis Are

Earlier this week, there was a failed attempt by emo-boy Nazi Richard Spencer to spread his message of fourchan fascism on a Florida University campus. Spencer is best known for being punched on television and bringing Nazi-punching back into fashion. Nazis are irredeemable villains, the lesser of two evils in just about every matchup imaginable, as pulp master Manly Wade Wellman (whose Appalachian regional tales of supernatural menace are wonderful) illustrated in his tale The Devil Is Not Mocked. The story was adapted as a fun segment of Rod Serling's Night Gallery:

Night Gallery S2E06 A Question Of Fear, The... by carsambadizileri

The ending is pretty well telegraphed from the get-go, but the whole thing is entertaining enough that this foreshadowing is forgivable.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Clark WolverAshton Smith

I have long been a big fan of teller of weird tales Clark Ashton Smith, whose stories combine a highfalutin' vocabulary with a detached-yet-macabre sense of humor. One of Smith's best known stories is The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, a creepy tale of an archaeological expedition on a Percival Lowellesque Mars. Smut Clyde clued me into a comic book adaptation of the story by Richard Corben. Poking around the intert00bz, I found a comic by legendary cartoonist Basil Wolverton which is eerily similar to CAS' tale of terror:

The Brain-Bats of Venus is available in its entirety at Archive.org. It's a fun-yet-creepy comic by a legend, who looks to be ripping off inspired by another legend.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Busy October... Quick, Post a Link!

As is typical for me, October is a busy month with fundraising activities on the job. Therefore, I think I shall post a Halloween-appropriate link. My introduction to the creepy aspects of Japanese legendry was Lafcadio Hearn's 1904 collection Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. The book formed the basis of a 1964 film of the same name directed by Masaki Kobayashi:

My favorite story from Hearn's collection is Mujina, a creepy-yet-funny tale which actually features a Noppera-bō, though a mujina could conceivably pose as such using its supernatural powers.

One of my favorite sites on the t00bz is Yokai.com, a beautifully illustrated collection of the various creepy-crawlies from Japanese folklore. The site was an invaluable resource while I was binge-watching Ghost Sweeper Mikami a few months ago:

There's a manga available for this entertaining-yet-salacious supernatural comedy, but the pop-up ads are a real horror. One of these days, I should post a review of the series... it's fun, but there's some content which in this day, in the 'States, would be considered problematic.

For the record, my favorite Yokai is the Karakasa kozō, or paper umbrella priest boy. Now that is one comical monster.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

There's a Reason Why He Calls It the 'Caveman Formula'

I must confess that I have a fascination with 'conspiracy theories', though I have a dim view of most purveyors of such. The worst of this lot, in my estimation, is Alex Jones, who sells snake oil along with his paranoid right-wing fantasies. As if his hucksterism wasn't bad enough, some of the supplements he sells have dangerous levels of lead contamination. For a guy who claims that he's trying to protect his listeners from 'globalists' who are trying to poison them with 'chemtrails', he sure seems to be comfortable with poisoning his marks, just like an old-timey charlatan.

By pushing lead-tainted tinctures to his audience, Jones is also making them more receptive to his bullshit narrative, because lead causes intellectual and behavioral deficits. My favorite detail about this is the fact that one of his tainted products is his 'Caveman Paleo Formula'... if you keep taking this crap, you'll end up with the intellectual capacity of an Australopithecus.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Past the Half-Way Mark

October has turned a corner- we are now past the half-way mark in the month. It's time to give a rundown on the major events on the job. So far, things have been going pretty well, I have recognized a bunch of regular October visitors, including three intrepid souls from Pittsburgh, a very nice local couple, and a patron who had come to me with a complaint a few years ago, who is now a fast friend (I have really come to appreciate his daughter, a really nice kid who is a talented artist and a budding bassist). Hilariously, the public seems to have a knack for pulling off things that management hadn't anticipated- now there is a bag-check so nobody sneaks bottles of booze onto the site, and last Saturday, a couple of guys decided to start a barbecue in the parking lot, in a well-traveled traffic lane. I was tasked with telling these bros to douse the grill, and they were cool about it, probably because they had finished heating their hot dogs. Tonight, I will be sending an e-mail to management detailing the latest in the organization/public 'arms race'... we may need signs detailing more individual behaviors which are disallowed on the property. Sure, there's no smoking on site, but a charcoal fire is not a cigarette.

Generally speaking, it's tiring but fun. 99.9% of our visitors are wonderful people, the occasional obnoxious drunk, while drawing a disproportionate amount of attention, is in the minority. I haven't had an urge to hit anyone with a shoe yet. The month is halfway through, and I haven't had a day off yet, but on the whole, I can't complain. Much as I'd hate to have it become public knowledge, I don't mind dealing with the public.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Scary Monsters

I am on record being a fan of the late, great David Bowie. One of my particular favorite Bowie Songs is 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Poking around the intert00bz, I found a great live version from 1995, with Bowie fronting Nine Inch Nails:

Now, isn't that an appropriate track for the Halloween season?

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Prunes Give Me the Runes

Today's selection is M.R. James' Casting the Runes, a supernatural thriller in which a reviewer plays a cat-and-mouse game with an occultist who has cursed him for a bad book review... some people just can't take criticism! In the course of the narrative, the reviewer needs to figure out a way to reverse this fatal curse, which was 'activated' when the occultist slipped him a piece of paper inscribed with arcane runes. The story was filmed in 1957 as Night of the Demon, a not-so-subtle take on Mr James' tale:

The movie is referenced in my favorite song from the Rocky Horror Show, Science Fiction/Double Feature, from which I took the post title:

Personally, I think that, with a giant demon chasing you, you wouldn't need prunes to 'move things along'.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Gives Me a Headache

Being October, I'm swamped at work, especially on the weekends, so in accordance with the prophecy tradition, I like to post scary stories or film clips on the weekends. One of the weirdest of the 'weird tales', by modern standards, is Green Tea, by Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu. The story concerns a young author who descends into madness and hallucination becauTea was my companion-at first the ordinary black tea, made in the usual way, not too strong:se he... uhhhh... drinks green tea:

"I wrote a great deal; I wrote late at night. I was always thinking on the subject, walking about, wherever I was, everywhere. It thoroughly infected me. You are to remember that all the material ideas connected with it were more or less of the beautiful, the subject itself delightfully interesting, and I, then, without a care." He sighed heavily. "I believe, that every one who sets about writing in earnest does his work, as a friend of mine phrased it, on something--tea, or coffee, or tobacco. I suppose there is a material waste that must be hourly supplied in such occupations, or that we should grow too abstracted, and the mind, as it were, pass out of the body, unless it were reminded often enough of the connection by actual sensation. At all events, I felt the want, and I supplied it. Tea was my companion-at first the ordinary black tea, made in the usual way, not too strong: but I drank a good deal, and increased its strength as I went on. I never, experienced an uncomfortable symptom from it. ! began to take a little green tea. I found the effect pleasanter, it cleared and intensified the power of thought so, I had come to take it frequently, but not stronger than one might take it for pleasure. I wrote a great deal out here, it was so quiet, and in this room. I used to sit up very late, and it became a habit with me to sip my tea--green tea--every now and then as my work proceeded. I had a little kettle on my table, that swung over a lamp, and made tea two or three times between eleven o'clock and two or three in the morning, my hours of going to bed. I used to go into town every day. I was not a monk, and, although I spent an hour or two in a library, hunting up authorities and looking out lights upon my theme, I was in no morbid state as far as I can judge. I met my friends pretty much as usual and enjoyed their society, and, on the whole, existence had never been, I think, so pleasant before."

Ahhhh, yes, ordinary black tea, the crushed and oxidized occidentalized tea favored by Westerners, rather than those inscrutable Easterners with their hallucination-inducing green tea. Le Fanu's tale is perhaps the second best cautionary tale about tea, second only to Rabbit's Kin:

I first ran into this tale in the course of Tor Books' wonderful Lovecraft Reread series.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Predictable 180 on Debt

Nine days ago, Donald Trump hinted that he would pressure investors to take a bath on Puerto Rican debt obligations, but being a mendacious prick, he has not only ditched that, but threatened to pull FEMA from the island. Meanwhile, the Republican congress wants to offer Puerto Rico a loan for disaster relief, a loan which Puerto Rico really can't afford. Once again, the U.S. government has failed this territory and its people.

Over the course of last weekend, I had an opportunity to discuss the situation in Puerto Rico with several Puerto Ricans, both inhabitants of the island who were in New York on vacation (one gentleman discussed having had family vacation plans prior to the hurricane, and taking advantage of his US sojourn to indulge in such luxuries as hot showers and access to the news) and Nuyoricans. The general mood was one of sadness, with anger towards the federal government, but gratitude to the state and local governments which are stepping in to fill the void left by the absence of a coherent federal response. In a discussion with one woman, who was wearing a PUERTO RICO T-shirt in solidarity with the people of the island, I remarked that New York City should just name Puerto Rico the sixth borough... the population is not much more than that of Brooklyn, and there are plenty of people who have a foot in both NYC and PR... people such as the people I spoke with, people such as numerous friends of mine.

Puerto Rico needs genuine help, not a doubling down on their financial straits in the guise of assistance.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

More Fridge Notes About Injuries and Food

I bounce around a lot from site-to-site on the job this time of year. While I still spend the majority of my time at my usual spot, I am called upon to cover additional ground as the workforce gets spread around thin. At a site I don't spend too much time working, I found this fridge note from a co-worker:

It's an interesting juxtaposition, injuries and food. I'm the guy who places the orders for first-aid supplies for the organization, and chemical cold packs are the items which see most use, aside from small adhesive bandages- people fall, they get stung by insects... things happen. I'm glad that the staff uses real ice-compresses, while saving the instant ones for the patrons.

The title of this slim post (I'm running to another site as soon as I hit 'publish') is inspired by the title of Talking Heads' second album. Here's Found a Job from the album:

I found a job... and I can't seem to escape it these days.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Seems Legit

Okay, I've gotten a couple of comments from an outfit claiming to be from New York Times©... uh, shouldn't that be a trademark? Anyway, it's for a modeling gig, albeit a 'furry' one:

Hey this is the New York times©, we were wondering if you would be interested in modeling for a magazine cover, all you would have to do is come dressed as a tiger man, thank you, send application @newyorktimes.com®

They even sent a follow-up:

Hey this is NYT©, we were wondering if you are still up for that tiger man gig?

Oddly enough, the 'Paper of Record' seems to have a very odd profile:

On Blogger since October 2017

Profile views - 3

What could possibly go wrong with sending in an application?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Once Again, We Consider Columbus Day

As is typical, on Columbus Day, I reconsider the meaning of this holiday. To put it mildly, although accomplished, Christopher Columbus was not a nice man. As not only an Italian-American, but a Genoese-American, I think that our community can nominate a much better representative than Columbus, who sailed for Spanish monarchs four centuries before Italy existed as a nation... and I'm not the only Italian-American to reconsider this representation. I wouldn't object to renaming the day Antonio Del Monaco Day- he was a handsome guy and he recorded one of the great Italian standards:

Of course, the holiday itself should be kept- when I got home from work after 2AM, I only found a parking space close to home because the alternate side parking rules were suspended. Che miracolo!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Road to Hell

Being that I am in super-busy mode throughout October, I often pre-schedule my weekend posts. Appropriately, Atlas Obscura has been featuring some spooky posts for the month. I especially liked this cross-cultural feature about reputed entrances to the Underworld. It's an interesting read, and it sets up a great opportunity to post a video for the terrific Straight to Hell, by the Clash:

The song lent its title to a spaghetti-western parody by Alex Cox that I have never gotten around to watching. I know it's a self-consciously 'cult' film, but any film that features the late, great Joe Strummer and members of the Pogues has got to be of some interest to a bastard such as myself.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

As if Work Weren't Busy Enough

Besides a crazy work-schedule, the first Saturday in October marks the beginning of my volunteer coaching gig. It's always amazing to see how much the kids have grown over the summer... Funny, we coaches don't change. This time of year, I don't get much sleep, but I've always considered sleep to be overrated. It's much more productive spending time being beaten up by a bunch of seven year-olds for a few hours on a Saturday morning.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Busy Weekends Ahead

This afternoon, it begins... our second major Fall fundraiser starts, so it's all hands on deck, staffing-wise. At the beginning of the evening, I have to prepare our site for the influx of visitors, and at the end of the night, I have to make sure that everything is locked up, all of the lights are off, and the coffeepot is unplugged. During the actual event, I basically act as a 'backstop' for my co-workers, if anybody has any problems, I will respond, either acting as a pacifier or a rectifier. We typically get a good crowd, with a couple of unruly drunks in the mix- a couple of unruly drunks who are dealt with quickly, so they don't cause any problems. I have actually gotten to know quite a few of the 'regulars', often people who have had a complaint about something which I have helped to rectify. Funny how seeming to be sympathetic and allowing people to vent serves to disarm them, often eliciting gratitude. I've got a good poker face, and a high tolerance for emotional people, so I have a knack for defusing tense moments. It doesn't hurt that I look like a person who is perfectly capable of knocking someone on their ass if they get out of hand- the one time I contemplating staging a physical interposition between an asshole and a co-worker of mine, the guy's friends got the hint and hustled him away from the confrontation- lucky for him, this particular co-worker of mine is one badass woman. Most people aren't looking for a fight, and I have ended up being 'buddy-buddy' with people who came to me with chips on their shoulders. When dealing with the public, it helps to model yourself on a local bartender- give them ear, but channel that old McSorley's adage: Be good or be gone.

The one thing to which I cling throughout the month is the fact that things get R-E-A-L Q-U-I-E-T after this month and a half long crunch time. Come mid-November, I'll be hanging out in peace and quiet, playing with Ginger, and enjoying the beautiful scenery.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Typical Leftist War on the Poor

Well, the aftermath of the Mandalay Bay Slay has been predictably stupid, but it seems as if the Congress might put regulations on the sale of bump or slide stocks. As an aside, the right-wing media is very clear about blaming the Obama administration for the legalization of bump-stocks- so much for the gun-grabbing Kenyan Usurper. Via Wonkette, I've found the stupidest defense of bump stocks from a Breitbart not-too-bright brat:

My favorite items are 3. and, especially 5. Let's take 3. first: Bump-stock devices are not made for accuracy, but for the fun of mimicking automatic fire. Mimicking automatic fire is fun, but attending country music shows in open-air venues is terrifying. Automatic fire has a military application- providing suppressive fire to diminish an enemy's ability to attack, but in the absence of a hostile force, it's really only effective in slaughtering masses of people in close proximity. With the reduced accuracy of automatic fire, one engages in spray and pray- a lot of lead is put into the air, in the hopes that at least one projectile with hit a target. Tragically, shooting congregated concertgoers is like shooting fish in a barrel- 'spray and pray' becomes 'spray and slay'. Bump stocks aren't of value to the sportsman, unless one considers mass-shootings of human beings a sport.

Item five is a real howler- leave it to some Breitbart asshole to apply the label 'typical leftist war on the poor' to describe a reaction to a millionaire's very real act of war against some Heartlanders who wanted to enjoy a night of music which was cheaper than a $200 slide-stock. Sorry, Buford, but if you can't afford a real automatic weapon, you should have chosen your parents more wisely.

I doubt that anything will be accomplished- there will be the typical false pieties, the typical admonitions that having a frank discussion of America's mass-murder problem is somehow 'disrespecting' the families of the slain. It's the same old shit, so on with the body count.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Sixty Years of a Space Age

Being a nerd-American, I have to note the sixtieth anniversary of the launching of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite launched into Earth orbit. The successful launch of the satellite was a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union, demonstrating that Soviet science and engineering had overtaken that of the West, and setting off a panic. If the Soviets could launch a sphere into space, they had rockets which could hit Wichita or Des Moines. Behold, the sound of terror:

The BBC Newshour had great coverage of the repurposing of a radio telescope by an English astro-engineer to track Sputnik 1's orbit. At any rate, the launching of Sputnik galvanized the U.S. government to create NASA and the 'Space Race' was ignited. Sixty years later, things seem to have stagnated, but the untenanted probes have performed spectacularly.

Regarding 'Sputnik Moments', the World's Sexiest Astrophysicist has something to say:

Me? I'd prefer to see international cooperation in space. Dwight Eisenhower pointedly created NASA as a civilian space agency, which gave the US a 'public relations' advantage over the USSR's military space agency. Every inhabitant of the Earth should eventually get a shot at a new life in off-world colonies:

Hopefully, humanity will get its act together, put violent conflicts behind it, and join in a grand interplanetary adventure. The launching of Sputnik 1 may have launched a panic, but that panic resulted in positive action. Well, it also resulted in at least one novelty song:

Now, that's got to be the second best song ever written about a satellite.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Fucking Miracles, How Do They Work?

Oh, cheese-and-crackers, this fucking week, this fucking president... first we have him traveling to Puerto Rico and claims that the response is 'nothing short of a miracle', while the response has involved human toil, human generosity, human compassion. Then he claimed that the Puerto Rico disaster response has 'put the budget out of whack'. Fucker, know what puts the budget out of whack? Your weekly golf trips which you bill the taxypayers for and your former HHS secretary's half-million dollar charter plane habit. Tom Price's expenditures could have gone a long way to alleviate the suffering of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico. Also, what the hell is up with singling out Puerto Rico for the pricetag of recovery, while not mentioning Texas and Florida? No need to answer that, it's Trump's racism, specifically his animus against Latinos.

Commenting on the mass-shooting in Las Vegas, Trump also used the term 'miracle'- ‘What happened is, in many ways, a miracle.’ No, it was no miracle- it was a combination of window-alarms, smoke detection, and the human responders from the hotel security department and the Las Vegas Police Department.

I'm a secular, cynical person, so I don't look for miraculous explanations for human successes, or in these instances, harm mitigation. You want miracles? Talk to a couple of clowns:

At this point, I think that either of these guys would make a better president than Donald.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Really World, WTF?

Wow, the news is terrible... the mass shooting in Las Vegas last night was the worst yet. The radio news is goddamn depressing, better put on the local FM music station... GODDAMNIT!!! Tom Petty just died. Just fucking great, world...

The radio has been playing a string of Tom Petty's songs this afternoon... the guy had a long, variegated career. Talking about his death with a co-worker, I came to the conclusion that Tom Petty was the mac-and-cheese of popular music- he may not have been the most flamboyant performer, but he always delivered a satisfying performance. While not the greatest vocalist, his distinctive, sometimes droll/sometimes lugubrious twang was perfectly suited to his songs about underdogs. I also appreciated the fact that he matured before the public eye- in one case, famously disavowing his former display of the Confederate battle flag as he came to terms with his Southern heritage. Yep, he was a reliable fellow, always good, often excellent, with lyrics which expressed the uncertainties of life and love. He also had quite a sense of humor, which was often self-deprecating- no pretentious egomaniac here. My all-time favorite Tom Petty moment is featured on a live album, when the audience takes over singing his breakout single 'Breakdown' in harmony, and Mr Petty lets them roll with it, joking, "Gonna put me out of a job!"

Now, there was a man who trusted his fans. He wrote a bunch of enduring songs, not all top forty hits, but songs which will be played for posterity. It's been a shitty day, coming home from an overnight shift, the news was dominated by the Las Vegas mass shooting, but not even tuning out the news improved the day>

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Prepare to Dive!

Another October has arrived, the month of the major Fall fundraising season at work is upon us, so I will be a busy bee. Today is especially crazy, because I have to go to the wedding of two co-workers before heading off to work.

October also marks the start of my Saturday morning volunteer coaching gig. Last Saturday, I ran into my next door neighbor, and he remarked that he hadn't seen me in a while, so I gave him my standard line about October: "Basically, I become Captain Nemo, and I won't surface for six weeks or so."

In honor of my upcoming 'submarine voyage, here's my favorite Sex Pistols tune, from a live 2016 concert by the reconstituted band:

Hopefully, I won't end up missing before the month is over:

At least I won't be freezing in my Spam tin... I'm going to try to schedule posts throughout the month when I'm able to, but I don't anticipate keeping up to date with current events to the extent that I usually manage to do.