Thursday, May 31, 2018

When You've Lost Canada

I am one of those 'Murricans who has an appreciation for Canada and its people. While it's been a long time since I have visited our neighbor to the north, I do maintain a blogroll which conforms to Canadian content regulations. I acknowledge that Canadians are our best friends, our most steadfast trade partners, our Clamato-swilling Continental siblings... and now our moron president is starting a trade war with them, as well as our Mexican and European Union allies. With the imposition of tariffs, the Canadians are responding in kind. What kind of idiot blows it with Canada? As if that weren't bad enough, the Dow took a pretty big hit because of this idiocy. I don't even want to contemplate my 401k these days.

As if things weren't insane enough, there's a report claiming that Trump wants to ban all imports of German luxury cars. I can't imagine that such a policy would go over well with the GOP plutocrat donor base- what good is making multiple millions of dollars if you can't ride around in a Maybach?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Reminded by Memorial Day

This past Memorial Day, at a ceremony at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, a wreath was laid by 102 year old veteran Richard Cole, the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raid, a daring April 1942 long-range bombing run over the main Japanese island of Honshu. The mission was a one-way flight over Japan due to the difficulty of landing the B-25 Mitchell bombers on the aircraft carriers from which they took off.

Me being me, I immediately thought of the haunting Pere Ubu song 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, inspired by the book and movie of the same name. The song, a particular favorite of mine, gives me goosebumps. Here is a 2013 live rendition:

If you can't distinguish the lyrics, the album version is more intelligible.

Thankfully, we of the US are friends and allies of the Japanese people, to the extent that an attack on Tokyo is one of our greatest fears when it comes to international policy.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Obligatory Annual Memorial Day Post

As is typical, I post on Memorial Day about the now-surreal nature of the holiday. Memorial Day originated in the aftermath of the Civil War as a day to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. While there are multiple origin stories surrounding the holiday, some credit is due to African Americans in Charleston who buried the bodies of Union Soldiers in a ceremony in 1865. It is strange to me that this holiday is now celebrated mainly by going to the beach or drinking a lot on Sunday night and nursing a hangover. I can't fault people for this, though- Americans get few days off as it is, so people maximize their recreational time by enjoying a late-Spring day in the manner in which they choose. Perhaps the official Memorial Day should be moved to a less gorgeous time of year.

This Memorial Day, though, has been marred for some people in South Illinois by a creep who spray-painted hundreds of graves with swastikas. These acts of vandalism are particularly vile considering the timing. Illinois Nazis are the worst.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Flight of the Girls

The Irish are a diaspora people... for centuries, they have fled war, famine, poverty, and oppression, both foreign and domestic. They have faced exile and penal transportation. My dad's mom's parents were members of the diaspora- fleeing poverty in the early twentieth century (my great-grandfather had planned to emigrate to Australia, but while he was in San Francisco waiting to embark, the earthquake hit and he, a stonemason, was pressed into service rebuilding the city, actually living in a labor camp but receiving a decent wage, and decided to go back to New York, where he met my great-grandmother). I live in a neighborhood with a large Irish immigrant community, and every summer, we get an influx of young people from Ireland looking to work in construction or the restaurant/bar industry. My upstairs neighbor is an Irish gal raising two wonderful Yankee kids, and my next-door neighbors are Irish. Going to the bank, I overhear guys in paint-spattered pants asking how the craic is. I go to the local butcher to get house-made black pudding. The diaspora continues, though now there is more of a back-and-forth.

One of the watershed moments of the Irish diaspora was the Flight of the Earls, which saw the earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell leaving Ulster to seek help from the Spanish government in an attempt to throw off British sovereignty. The Flight of the Earls looms large in Irish folk history.

This weekend, though, saw a return of the diaspora population as many Irish abroad returned to Eire in order to vote on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Looking at the pictures of returning émigrées, I have to say that the Flight of the Girls is an even more important event in Irish history as the Flight of the Earls (Smut Clyde informed me that this picture was actually taken at a pro "return to vote" performance art piece):

As an aside, I totally want to buy the girl in the glasses and the Ramones T-shirt a shot of Tullamore Dew. Gabba Gabba na Gael!

The Irish people voted overwhelmingly to repeal the Eight Amendment which criminalized abortion. Once again, the population of Ireland has voted overwhelmingly to pursue liberal reforms- the first being the legalization of same-sex marriage. I have a prediction that this liberal vote, in the overwhelmingly Catholic Republic of Ireland, will cause a lot of angst among the right-wingers here in the United States. The Catholic Church in Ireland has been guilty of running a gulag system for young women, complete with forced labor and mass graves- they had lost the moral authority to weigh in on the abortion issue. A lot of Americans view Ireland as some sort of Candyland, toora loora lorra and all that shit. They want Ireland to be trapped in amber, a faraway land inhabited by leprechauns or smurfs. The voters of Ireland, and the emigrant Irish community proved to the world that they are modern, progressive people, people devoted to women's and minority rights.

This being a post about matters Irish, I would be remiss if I didn't post a song... the most appropriate one for this occasion is the haunting The Innocent and the Honest Ones by In Tua Nua:

That song was released thirty years ago- the Tuath na Gael have come a long way in the intervening years.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Fifth Anniversary of Jack Vance's Death

The reason why I decided to post about beloved Science Fiction and Fantasy author Jack Vance all week is the occasion of the fifth anniversary of his death. Vance was known for his baroque language, his spirited dialogue (often between characters trying to scam each other), and his unparalleled ability to invent weird planets and weirder societies... seriously, Jack Vance could throw up a dozen interesting planets in the course of a single novel. Jack Vance was also one of the major influences on Gary Gygax's Dungeons and Dragons, with Vancian Magic being the preferred model for dweomercrafting, rather than a more traditional sympathetic magic approach. In his 'Dying Earth' story cycle, written while he was serving in the Merchant Marine during the Second World War and published in 1950, the wizards who haunt the moribund Earth are forced to commit discrete spells to memory with no knowledge of the dangers they may be facing. The tale Mazirian the Magician perfectly illustrates the trope:

The Magician climbed the stairs. Midnight found him in his study, poring through leather-bound tomes and untidy portfolios ... At one time a thousand or more runes, spells, incantations, curses and sorceries had been known. The reach of Grand Motholam—Ascolais, the Ide of Kauchique, Almery to the South, the Land of the Falling Wall to the East—swarmed with sorcerers of every description, of whom the chief was the Arch-Necromancer Phandaal. A hundred spells Phandaal personally had formulated—though rumor said that demons whispered at his ear when he wrought magic. Pontecilla the Pious, then ruler of Grand Motholam, put Phandaal to torment, and after a terrible night, he killed Phandaal and outlawed sorcery throughout the land. The wizards of Grand Motholam fled like beetles under a strong light; the lore was dispersed and forgotten, until now, at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.

Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal's Gyrator, Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere. This accomplished, Mazirian drank wine and retired to his couch.

Similarly, from the story Turjan of Miir in the same collection:

As he sat gazing across the darkening land, memory took Turjan to a night of years before, when the Sage had stood beside him.

"In ages gone," the Sage had said, his eyes fixed on a low star, "a thousand spells were known to sorcery and the wizards effected their wills. Today, as Earth dies, a hundred spells remain to man's knowledge, and these have come to us through the ancient books ... But there is one called Pandelume, who knows all the spells, all the incantations, cantraps, runes, and thaumaturgies that have ever wrenched and molded space .. ." He had fallen silent, lost in his thoughts.

"Where is this Pandelume?" Turjan had asked presently.

"He dwells in the land of Embelyon," the Sage had replied, "but where this land lies, no one knows."

"How does one find Pandelume, then?"

The Sage had smiled faintly. "If it were ever necessary, a spell exists to take one there."

Both had been silent a moment; then the Sage had spoken, staring out over the forest

"One may ask anything of Pandelume, and Pandelume will answer—provided that the seeker performs the service Pandelume requires. And Pandelume drives a hard bargain."

Then the Sage had shown Turjan the spell in question, which he had discovered in an ancient portfolio, and kept secret from all the world.

Turjan, remembering this conversation, descended to his study, a long low hall with stone walls and a stone floor deadened by a thick russet rug. The tomes which held Turjan's sorcery lay on the long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan's brain could know but four at a time.

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violent Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.

Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. He robed himself with a short blue cape, tucked a blade into his belt, fitted the amulet holding Laccodel's Rune to his wrist. Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.

While there are no statistics out there, it's probably that reading Jack Vance in high school would add two hundred points to a test taker's SAT verbal score. It's the language which ultimately draws fans to Jack Vance's work- the worlds are beautifully detailed, the dialogue sprightly and droll, the characters (whether noble or despicable, and Vance has written some incredible villains and antiheroes) memorable, even if some of his more competent, heroic protagonists tend to blend together a bit. Vance provided the perfect escapism- his satirical content was applied with a light touch, his plots were often secondary to the sheer wall of glorious purple prose. He's been five years gone, but he'll be a part of my dreamscape for the rest of my life... and for that I will be forever grateful.

Friday, May 25, 2018

It's a Miracle, a Vancian Miracle!

Tomorrow being the fifth anniversary of the death of Science Fiction/Fantasy grandmaster Jack Vance, I figured that I would make this week Jack Vance Week- all Jack Vance, all week.

If one were to force me to pick a favorite work of fiction by Jack Vance, I would eventually have to conclude that

The Miracle Workers, a novella originally published in the July 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, an illustration of one of the book's 'jinxmen' is a real beaut:

The electrical diagrams on the vestments of the jinxman are a particularly nice touch! I first encountered the story in the a library copy of the hardcover edition of the 1969 compilation Eight Fantasms and Magics, which I found in paperback at a library booksale years later.

I disagree with this review, being of the opinion that The Miracle Workers is better than The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle- the protagonist is a more genuinely (HEH) character, an amiable misfit who challenges a society which has stagnated to the point of peril, possible extinction. Like the societies depicted in the later The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle, the human society of The Miracle Workers' planet Pangborn is descended from spacefarers defeated in an interstellar war and taking refuge on a planet inhabited by insectlike autochthones, who they promptly began to slaughter:

Sixteen hundred years before, with war raging through space, a group of space captains, their home bases destroyed, had taken refuge on Pangborn. To protect themselves against vengeful enemies, they built great forts armed with weapons from the dismantled spaceships.

The wars receded, Pangborn was forgotten. The newcomers drove the First Folk into the forests, planted and harvested the river valleys. Ballant Keep, like Faide Keep, Castle Cloud, Boghoten, and the rest, overlooked one of these valleys. Four squat towers of a dense black substance supported an enormous parasol roof, and were joined by walls two-thirds as high as the towers. At the peak of the roof a cupola housed Volcano, the weapon corresponding to Faide’s Hellmouth.


During the first centuries of human settlement, sportive young men had hunted the First Folk with clubs and lances, eventually had driven them from their native downs into the forests.

In the intervening centuries, the humans of Pangborn descended into superstition and medievalism, with the voodoo-esque 'jinxmanship' replacing empiricism. The ancient 'miracle workers' are seen as superstitious sorcerors:

Peculiar, these ancient men! thought Lord Faide: at once so clever, yet so primitive and impractical. Conditions had changed; there had been enormous advances since the dark ages sixteen hundred years ago. For instance, the ancients had used intricate fetishes of metal and glass to communicate with each other. Lord Faide need merely voice his needs; Hein Huss could project his mind a hundred miles to see, to hear, to relay Lord Faide’s words. The ancients had contrived dozens of such objects, but the old magic had worn away and they never seemed to function.

The action of the novella begins as one of the planet's feudal rulers, Lord Faide, is consolidating his power over the other keep lords. The military action between human armies depends on the use of mannikins to induce pain or terror into enemies and the use of 'demons' (the 'rights' to which can be traded between jinxmen) to possess soldiers in order to confer to them superhuman ferocity, agility, or vitality:

“Listen then. What happens when I hoodoo a man? First I must enter into his mind telepathically. There are three operational levels: the conscious, the unconscious, the cellular. The most effective jinxing is done if all three levels are influenced. I feel into my victim, I learn as much as possible, supplementing my previous knowledge of him, which is part of my stock in trade. I take up his doll, which carries his traces. The doll is highly useful but not indispensable. It serves as a focus for my attention; it acts as a pattern, or a guide, as I fix upon the mind of the victim, and he is bound by his own telepathic capacity to the doll which bears his traces.

“So! Now! Man and doll are identified in my mind, and at one or more levels in the victim’s mind. Whatever happens to the doll the victim feels to be happening to himself. There is no more to simple hoodooing than that, from the standpoint of the jinxman. But naturally the victims differ greatly. Susceptibility is the key idea here. Some men are more susceptible than others. Fear and conviction breed susceptibility. As a jinxman succeeds he becomes ever more feared, and consequently the more efficacious he becomes. The process is self-generative.

“Demon-possession is a similar technique. Susceptibility is again essential; again conviction creates susceptibility. It is easiest and most dramatic when the characteristics of the demon are well known, as in the case of Comandore’s Keyril. For this reason, demons can be exchanged or traded among jinxmen. The commodity actually traded is public acceptance and familiarity with the demon.”

“Demons then do not actually exist?” inquired Lord Faide half-incredulously.

Hein Huss grinned vastly, showing enormous yellow teeth. “Telepathy works through a superstratum. Who knows what is created in this superstratum? Maybe the demons live on after they have been conceived; maybe they now are real. This of course is speculation, which we jinxmen shun.

“So much for demons, so much for the lesser techniques of jinxmanship. I have explained sufficient to serve as background to the present situation.”

The opening scene involves a war party from Faide Keep encountering a trap-filled forest planting created by the planet's natives... to locate the traps in the planting, the novella's protagonist, bumbling apprentice jinxman Sam Salazar (my favorite Vance character), is considered the most expendable person, and tasked to prod the perilous planting in order to ensure the safety of head jinxman Hein Huss... leading to some of Vance's trademark brilliant dialogue:

“Send someone to speak to the First Folk. Inform them we wish to pass, offering them no harm, but that we will react savagely to any hostility.”

“I will go myself,” said Hein Huss. He turned to Comandore, “Lend me, if you will, your brash young apprentice. I can put him to good use.”

“If he unmasks a nettle trap by blundering into it, his first useful deed will be done,” said Comandore. He signaled to Sam Salazar, who came reluctantly forward. “Walk in front of Head Jinxman Hein Huss that he may encounter no traps or scythes. Take a staff to probe the moss.”

Without enthusiasm Sam Salazar borrowed a lance from one of the foot soldiers. He and Huss set forth, along the low rise that previously had separated North from South Wildwood. Occasionally outcroppings of stone penetrated the cover of moss; here and there grew bayberry trees, clumps of tarplant, ginger-tea, and rosewort.

A half mile from the planting Huss halted. “Now take care, for here the traps will begin. Walk clear of hummocks, these often conceal swing-scythes; avoid moss which shows a pale blue; it is dying or sickly and may cover a deadfall or a nettle trap.”
“Why cannot you locate the traps by clairvoyance?” asked Sam Salazar in a rather sullen voice. “It appears an excellent occasion for the use of these faculties.”

“The question is natural,” said Hein Huss with composure. “However you must know that when a jinxman’s own profit or security is at stake his emotions play tricks on him. I would see traps everywhere and would never know whether clairvoyance or fear prompted me. In this case, that lance is a more reliable instrument than my mind.”

Sam Salazar made a salute of understanding and set forth, with Hein Huss stumping behind him. At first he prodded with care, uncovering two traps, then advanced more jauntily; so swiftly indeed that Huss called out in exasperation, “Caution, unless you court death!”

Sam Salazar obligingly slowed his pace. “There are traps all around us, but I detect the pattern, or so I believe.”

“Ah, ha, you do? Reveal it to me, if you will. I am only Head Jinxman, and ignorant.”

“Notice. If we walk where the spore-pods have recently been harvested, then we are secure.”

Hein Huss grunted. “Forward then. Why do you dally? We must do battle at Ballant Keep today.”

Two hundred yards farther, Sam Salazar stopped short. “Go on, boy, go on!” grumbled Hein Huss.

“The savages threaten us. You can see them just inside the planting. They hold tubes which they point toward us.”
Hein Huss peered, then raised his head and called out in the sibilant language of the First Folk.

A moment or two passed, then one of the creatures came forth, a naked humanoid figure, ugly as a demonmask. Foam-sacs bulged under its arms, orange-lipped foam-vents pointed forward. Its back was wrinkled and loose, the skin serving as a bellows to blow air through the foam-sacs. The fingers of the enormous hands ended in chisel-shaped blades, the head was sheathed in chitin. Billion-faceted eyes swelled from either side of the head, glowing like black opals, merging without definite limit into the chitin. This was a representative of the original inhabitants of the planet, who until the coming of man had inhabited the downs, burrowing in the moss, protecting themselves behind masses of foam exuded from the underarm sacs.

The creature wandered close, halted. “I speak for Lord Faide of Faide Keep,” said Huss. “Your planting bars his way. He wishes that you guide him through, so that his men do not damage the trees, or spring the traps you have set against your enemies.”

“Men are our enemies,” responded the autochthon. “You may spring as many traps as you care to; that is their purpose.” It backed away.

“One moment,” said Hein Huss sternly. “Lord Faide must pass. He goes to battle Lord Ballant. He does not wish to battle the First Folk. Therefore it is wise to guide him across the planting without hindrance.”

The creature considered a second or two. “I will guide him.” He stalked across the moss toward the war party.
Behind followed Hein Huss and Sam Salazar. The autochthon, legs articulated more flexibly than a man’s, seemed to weave and wander, occasionally pausing to study the ground ahead.

“I am puzzled,” Sam Salazar told Hein Huss. “I cannot understand the creature’s actions.”

“Small wonder,” grunted Hein Huss. “He is one of the First Folk, you are human. There is no basis for understanding.”

“I disagree,” said Sam Salazar seriously.

“Eh?” Hein Huss inspected the apprentice with vast disapproval. “You engage in contention with me, Head Jinxman Hein Huss?”

“Only in a limited sense,” said Sam Salazar. “I see a basis for understanding with the First Folk in our common ambition to survive.”

“A truism,” grumbled Hein Huss. “Granting this community of interests with the First Folk, what is your perplexity?”
“The fact that it first refused, then agreed to conduct us across the planting.”

Hein Huss nodded. “Evidently the information which intervened, that we go to fight at Ballant Keep, occasioned the change.”
“This is clear,” said Sam Salazar. “But think—”

“You exhort me to think?” roared Hein Huss.

“—here is one of the First Folk, apparently without distinction, who makes an important decision instantly. Is he one of their leaders? Do they live in anarchy?”

“It is easy to put questions,” Hein Huss said gruffly. “It is not as easy to answer them.”

“In short—”

“In short, I do not know. In any event, they are pleased to see us killing one another.”

Subsequently, the humans come into conflict with the natives, who have developed biological weapons:

“Notice, they carry tubes,” said Scolford.

“Blowguns possibly,” suggested Edwin.

Scolford disagreed. “They cannot blow through their foam-vents.”

“No doubt we shall soon learn,” said Lord Faide. He rose in his seat, called to the rear. “Ready with the darts!”

The soldiers raised their crossbows. The column advanced slowly, now only a hundred yards from the planting. The white shapes of the First Folk moved uneasily at the forest’s edges. Several of them raised their tubes, seemed to sight along the length. They twitched their great hands.

One of the tubes was pointed toward Lord Faide. He saw a small black object leave the opening, flit forward, gathering speed. He heard a hum, waxing to a rasping, clicking flutter. He ducked behind the windscreen; the projectile swooped in pursuit, struck the windscreen like a thrown stone. It fell crippled upon the forward deck of the car—a heavy black insect like a wasp, its broken proboscis oozing ocher liquid, horny wings beating feebly, eyes like dumbbells fixed on Lord Faide. With his mailed fist, he crushed the creature.

Behind him other wasps struck knights and men; Corex Faide-Battaro took the prong through his visor into the eye, but the armor of the other knights defeated the wasps. The foot soldiers, however, lacked protection; the wasps half buried themselves in flesh. The soldiers called out in pain, clawed away the wasps, squeezed the wounds. Corex Faide-Battaro toppled from his horse, ran blindly out over the heath, and after fifty feet fell into a trap. The stricken soldiers began to twitch, then fell on the moss, thrashed, leaped up to run with flapping arms, threw themselves in wild somersaults, forward, backward, foaming and thrashing.

It is later revealed that the natives have adopted the methods of the ancient human 'miracle workers' to defeat their human enemies:

"‘There are always more in the cells to replace the elements which die. But if the community becomes sick, all suffer. We have been forced into the forests, into a strange existence. We must arm ourselves and drive away the men, and to this end we have developed the methods of men to our own purposes!’

“Isak Comandore spoke. “Needless to say, the creature referred to the ancient men, not ourselves.”

“In any event,” said Lord Faide, “they leave no doubt as to their intentions. We should be fools not to attack them at once, with every weapon at our disposal.”

Hein Huss continued imperturbably. “The creature went on at some length. ‘We have learned the value of irrationality.’ ‘Irrationality’ of course was not his word or even his meaning. He said something like ‘a series of vaguely motivated trials’—as close as I can translate. He said, ‘We have learned to change our environment. We use insects and trees and plants and waterslugs. It is an enormous effort for us who would prefer a placid life in the moss. But you men have forced this life on us, and now you must suffer the consequences.’ I pointed out once more that men were not helpless, that many First Folk would die. The creature seemed unworried. ‘The community persists.’ I asked a delicate question, ‘If your purpose is to kill men, why do you allow us here?’ He said, ‘The entire community of men will be destroyed.’ Apparently they believe the human society to be similar to their own, and therefore regard the killing of three wayfaring individuals as pointless effort.”

Realizing that the natives have developed heretofore unknown military prowess, Hein Huss, his chief rival Isak Comandore, and Sam Salazar travel to one of the First Folk's safe Forest Markets in order to determine if a counter to the natives' techniques can be developed via jinxmanship. Once again, Sam Salazar proves to be the most awesome character in Vance's oeuvre:

Isak Comandore, nominal head of the expedition, spoke. “We rode along the river bank to Forest Market. Here was no sign of disorder or of hostility. A hundred First Folk traded timber, planks, posts, and poles for knife blades, iron wire, and copper pots. When they returned to their barge we followed them aboard, wagon, horses, and all. They showed no surprise—”
“Surprise,” said Hein Huss heavily, “is an emotion of which they have no knowledge.”

Isak Comandore glared briefly. “We spoke to the barge-tenders, explaining that we wished to visit the interior of Wildwood. We asked if the First Folk would try to kill us to prevent us from entering the forest. They professed indifference as to either our well-being or our destruction. This was by no means a guarantee of safe conduct; however, we accepted it as such, and remained aboard the barge.” He spoke on with occasional emendations from Hein Huss.
They had proceeded up the river, into the forest, the First Folk poling against the slow current. Presently they put away the poles; nevertheless the barge moved as before. The mystified jinxmen discussed the possibility of teleportation, or symboligical force, and wondered if the First Folk had developed jinxing techniques unknown to men. Sam Salazar, however, noticed that four enormous water beetles, each twelve feet long with oil-black carapaces and blunt heads, had risen from the river bed and pushed the barge from behind—apparently without direction or command.

The plot of the story reaches an inevitable climax as humans and natives wage war. The denouement of the novella is particularly satisfying, but you'll have to read it yourself... I've already cut-and-pasted too much of the novella into this blog post. If you are a fan of Science Fantasy, I would urge you to purchase the ebook. It's a great introduction to Jack Vance, mixing swashbuckling action, evocation of a sense of wonder, A celebration of the scientific method, and sidesplitting humor. You'll thank me.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Vance's Hugo and Nebula Awards

In keeping with this being Jack Vance week, this coming Saturday being the 5th anniversary of Jack's passing, I figured I would comment on some of Jack's award winning writings. He won the 1962 Best Short Fiction Hugo for The Dragon Masters and 1967 Best Novella/Novelette Hugo and Nebula awards for The Last Castle. These two works are related thematically- they both concern human populations which have enslaved intelligent alien species and bred them for various tasks, such as waging war or providing transportation.

The Dragon Masters was originally published in the August 1962 edition of Galaxy magazine. Besides being a typical 'planetary romance', the long short story can be interpreted as an allegory of the arms race. The plot of the story concerns an isolated population of humans, stranded on a distant planet in the aftermath of an interstellar war and unsure of the current status of the bulk of humanity:

“You know the legends as well as I, perhaps better. Our people came to Aerlith as exiles during the War of the Ten Stars. The Nightmare Coalition apparently had defeated the Old Rule, but how the war ended—” he threw up his hands — “who can say?”


Carcolo sidled close, prodded Joaz with his forefinger.“We know nothing of the outer worlds. We are marooned on this miserable planet of stone and wind while life passes us by. You assume that Basics rule the cluster. But suppose you are wrong? Suppose the Old Rule has returned? Think of the rich cities,the gay resorts, the palaces, the pleasure-islands! Look up into the night sky. Ponder the bounties which might be ours! You ask how can we implement these desires? I respond, the process maybe so simple that the sacerdotes will reveal it without reluctance.”“You mean —?”

“Communication with the worlds of men! Deliverance from this lonely little world at the edge of the universe!”

Joaz Banbeck nodded dubiously. “A fine vision. But the evidence suggests a situation far different, namely the destruction of man and the Human Empire.”

Separated from the bulk of humanity, the population has stagnated, devolving to feudal societies using technologies from the early age of gunpowder. In their vulnerable state, they are subject to periodic invasions by slave-taking reptilian aliens who breed their human captives to fill various martial capacities. One such invasion goes awry due to the vicissitudes of the planet's weather, and an ancestor of the tale's protagonist manages to capture some of the aliens. Vance denies moral superiority to his human protagonists- they subject their captives, dubbed Basics, to the same enslavement and genetic manipulation that the aliens are guilty of- breeding them into the dragons of the title: Termagants, Blue Horrors, Long Horned Murderers, Striding Murderers, Fiends, Juggers, and Spiders.

In the course of the story, the Basics, accompanied by their human cannon fodder, stage their periodic invasion of the planet:

“Look you,these Basics are neither ghouls nor angels of death. They are no more than pallid Termagants, the basic stock of our dragons."


Phade stared at the queer pale shapes who had come tentatively out on the ramp. “They seemstrange and twisted, like silverpuzzles for children.”

“They are the Basics. From their eggs came our dragons.They have done as well with men: look, here are their Heavy Troops.”

Down the ramp, four abreast,in exact cadence, marched the Heavy Troops, to halt fifty yards in front of the ship. There were three squads of twenty: short squat men with massive shoulders, thick necks and stern, down-drawn faces. They wore armor fashioned from overlapping scales of black and blue metal,a wide belt slung with pistol and sword. Black epaulets, extending past their shoulders, supported a short ceremonial flap of black cloth ranging down their backs.Their helmets bore a crest of sharp spikes. Their knee-high boots were armed with kick-knives.

A number of Basics now rode forth. Their mounts were creatures only remotely resembling men. They ran on hands and feet, backs high off the ground. Their heads were long and hairless, with quivering loose lips.

In the ensuing battle, the protagonist uses broken terrain and his specially-bred dragons to counter the aliens' technological advantages. There is also a wild-card... a secretive human population living in caverns under the planet's surface, espousing a doctrine of non-interference and a prophecy of a resurgence after their 'inferiors' on the surface are utterly defeated. The tide of battle is ultimately determined by sheer numbers of cannon fodder, as the dragons can be bred in larger numbers and greater variety:

“Only two dozen? Perhaps they are hard to breed. Generations pass slowly with men; dragons lay a clutch of eggs every year."

There is also a timely intervention by combatants wielding what boils down to a wave motion gun.

Rereading The Dragon Masters, I noticed that it is less flowery than much of Vance's other works. The adjective use is almost restrained, the dialogue not as baroque as that in other Vance novels. It's a quick read, and the satirical/allegorical content sneaks up on the readers while they are occupied with a bunch of kaiju battles.

The Last Castle concerns a population of aristocrats who have forgotten how to work because they have delegated all of their tasks to various alien species, particularly the vaguely anthropoid Meks:

A specimen in a museum case,was a man-like creature native,in his original version, to a planet of Etamin. His tough rusty-bronze hide glistened metallically as if oiled or waxed. The spines thrusting back from scalp and neck shone like gold, and indeed they were coated with a conductive copper-chrome film. His sense organs were gathered in clusters at the site of a man’s ears; his visage—it was often a shock, walking the lower corridors, to come suddenly upon a Mek—was corrugated muscle,not dissimilar to the look of an uncovered human brain. His maw, a vertical irregular cleft at the base of this “face’, was an obsolete organ by reason of the syrup sac which had been introduced under the skin of the shoulders, and the digestive organs, originally used to extract nutrition from decayed swamp vegetation and coelenterates,had atrophied. The Mek typically wore no garment except possibly a work apron or a tool-belt,and in the sunlight his rust-bronze skin made a handsome display. This was the Mek solitary, a creature intrinsically as effective as man—perhaps more by virtue of his superb brain which also functioned as a radio transceiver. Working in the mass,by the teeming thousands, he seemed less admirable, less competent: a hybrid of sub-man and cockroach.

It is this contempt for the Meks that leads to the downfall of their aristocratic masters, and Vance's human characters echo some of the horrendous arguments that current apologists for slavery try to employ:

In spite of such research, the Mek revolt came as an utter surprise, no less to Claghom, D. R.Jardine and Salonson than to anyone else. Why? asked everyone. How could a group so long submissive have contrived so murderous a plot?

The most reasonable conjecture was also the simplest: the Mek resented servitude and hated the Earthmen who had removed him from his natural environment. Those who argued against this theory claimed that it projected human emotions and attitudes into a non-human organism, that the Mek had every reason to feel gratitude toward the gentlemen who had liberated him from the conditions of Etamin Nine.

One hears this kind of bullshit a lot from right-wing types...

The plot involves the defense of the last human stronghold against the revolt of their specially bred alien slaves, which even include their 'cars':

Power-wagons, like the Meks, were originally swamp-creatures from Etamin 9. They were great rectangular slabs of muscle, slung into a rectangular frame and protected from sunlight, insects and rodents by a synthetic pelt. Syrup sacs communicated with their digestive apparatus, wires led to motor nodes in the rudimentary brain. The muscles were clamped to rocker arms which actuated rotors and drive-wheels. The power-wagons were economical, long-lived and docile, and so they were principally used for heavy cartage earth-moving, heavy-tillage, and other arduous jobs.

Both The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are thematically similar to perhaps my favorite Jack Vance work, 1958's The Miracle Workers, which also involves a regressed, isolated human population coping with an insurgency of the natives of the planet they have colonized. I find The Miracle Workers to be a superior story, though, having a fantastic protagonist and some entertaining secondary characters. The human characters in The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are pretty despicable people, their careers of evil making their struggles for survival less urgent to this reader. I think I'll tackle The Miracle Workers in tomorrow's post- the theme of employing empiricism to pursue one's goals is particularly appealing to me.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Continuing Jack Vance Week Here...

Since the fifth anniversary of the death of Jack Vance is this coming Saturday, I have decided to continue Jack Vance week, having been a huge fan of Jack Vance since my youth. One of the tropes common to Jack Vance's oeuvre is the protagonist's encounters with unscrupulous business professionals proffering dubious services. Perhaps the funniest of these scenes is stranded Earthman Adam Reith's encounter with a professional assassin in the hilariously titled Servants of the Wankh, the second book in his 'Planet of Adventure' series. Earlier in the book, the same protagonist encounters another sort of tradesman, who runs afoul of the supercilious renegade Dirdirman (a member of a human population kidnapped from Earth millennia ago by the sinister, spacefaring Dirdir and bred to serve, and ultimately resemble their captors) Ankhe at Afram Anacho:

An hour later, clean and refreshed, the four met in the downstairs lobby. Here they were accosted by a black-haired blackeyed man with a pinched melancholy face. He spoke in a gentle voice. "You are newly arrived at Coad?"

Anacho, instantly suspicious, drew himself back. "Not altogether. We are well-known and have no needs."

"I represent the Slave-taker's Guild, and this is my fair appraisal of your group. The girl is valuable, the boy less so. Dirdirmen are generally considered worthless except in clerical or administrative servitude, for which we have no demand. You would be rated a winkle-gatherer or a nut-huller, of no great value.

This man, whatever he is, appears capable of toil, and would sell for the standard rate. Considering all, your insurance will be ten sequins a week."

"Insurance against what?" demanded Reith.

"Against being taken and sold," murmured the agent. "There is a heavy demand for competent workers. But for ten sequins a week," he declared triumphantly, "you may walk the streets of Coad night and day, secure as though the demon Harasthy rode your shoulders! Should you be sequestered by an unauthorized dealer the Guild will instantly order your free release."

Reith stood back, half-amused, half-disgusted. Anacho spoke in his most nasal voice: "Show me your credentials."

" 'Credentials'?" asked the man, his chin sagging."Show us a document, a blazon, a patent. What? You have none? Do you take us for fools? Be off with you!"

The man walked somberly away. Reith asked, "Was he in truth a fraud?"

"One never knows, but the line must be drawn somewhere."

Planet of Adventure is a pretty good introduction to Vance. It's got a pretty simple 'planetary romance' plot- an Earthman, a hypercompetent military scout stranded on a strange planet by a sneak attack on his 'mothership' is forced to fight his way through strange aliens and stranger humans (taken from Earth and bred to be clients of various contending aliens) in order to obtain a spacecraft so he can return to Earth to warn the authorities of various hostile alien species. In some ways, it's Vance's 'love letter' to Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Barsoom' novels (complete with savage giant green-skinned nomads), though Vance was a lot funnier than Burroughs.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Should I Make this a Jack Vance Week?

So far, I have put up two posts about Jack Vance this week, and seeing that the fifth anniversary of the great science fiction grandmaster's death is this coming Saturday, I may just make it a Jack Vance week. Current events will be just as stupid, just as worthy of skewering, next week.

Speaking of stupid current events, Trump has decided to use his office to attack Amazon- I suspect it's because Jeff Bezos is a lot richer than he as, as well as being owner of The Washington Post. I haven't bought anything from Amazon in years, but I think I will make an exception just to spite Vulgarmort. Jack Vance's two best known mystery novels are finally available in affordable editions, and it behooves me to buy them. The shop at the Jack Vance website is Paypal only, so I figure buying hard copies is preferable to having to set up an account with yet another 'evil empire'.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Another Vance Mystery

Yesterday's post concerned a mystery novel written by Jack Vance, perhaps my favorite author, under the aegis of the Ellery Queen Industrial Complex. Jack Vance typically wrote his mysteries under his full birth name, John Holbrook Vance, and won an Edgar Award for best first mystery novel (he had written previous science fiction novels) for 1960's The Man in the Cage. The book, until recently, had been prohibitively expensive to buy, but it was adapted for an episode of the television anthology show Boris Karloff's Thriller:

The big takeaway from watching this is that one should NEVER imprison a Jack Vance protagonist- that only leads to heartache and eventual defeat. I also enjoyed the twist at the end of the plot with regards to the police informant who saves the day.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Now, THIS Is Royalty I Can Get Behind

In yesterday's post, I wrote about how unseemly I find it when the media fawns over royalty. I will make exceptions for certain royal figures, such as the King of the Bop and Ellery Queen. Ellery Queen was a 'house name', originally for cousins Daniel Nathan and Emanuel Benjamin Lepofsky- besides being an author pseudonym, Ellery Queen was the detective protagonist of many of the stories. A stable of other authors also wrote under the 'Ellery Queen' pseudonym, including my beloved Jack Vance (one can say I'm a bit of a fanboi), the 5th anniversary of whose death will fall on next Saturday.

I recently got my hands on a copy of one of Jack Vance's three 'Ellery Queen' novels, 1966's The Madman Theory, a police procedural concerning the murder of a businessman hiking in Kings Canyon National Park with a small group of business associates and a brother-in-law. This is the first of Jack Vance's mysteries that I've ever read- until recently, they were extremely hard to get hold of, and prohibitively expensive. Jack Vance's Science Fiction and Fantasy novels are baroque, gorgeous tapestries depicting strange planets and stranger persons... intricate anthropological surveys of societies which never were. Constrained by a 'house style', Vance seemed to use a lot of restraint while writing as 'Ellery Queen'. Fresno police inspector Omar Collins, the protagonist of The Madman Theory, is a low-key version of the typical hyper-competent Vancian hero:

At nine o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, June 16, three men arrived at the Fresno airport: Dr. Albert Koster, assistant to the Fresno County Coroner; and Sergeant Easley and Detective Inspector Collins of the Sheriff’s office. Koster, a small oval sort of man with a waxen scalp and hornrimmed glasses, carried a black case. Sergeant Easley was almost as bald, but he was rectangular, with the patient look of a butcher’s block. Inspector Omar Collins, the tallest of the three, was spare in the flanks, with coarse black hair, a broken nose, gloomy eyes, and a quality of unpredictability that made people shy away.

Given the amount of characters necessary to set up the 'whodunit' plot, and to provide a sizable cast of victims who fall prey to the murderer, Vance had to draw them in broad strokes. Pharmaceutical firm employees, transplanted Okie musicians, wives and girlfriends are succinctly described, though Vance occasionally got in some of his typical dry humor:

“It’s something to look into.” Collins made a note. “Apparently he got on well with Bob Vega.”

“Bob has outlasted every man that’s ever worked for Earl. He’s a real careful manager. In fact you could call him a bunny except where the ladies are concerned. There Bob throws caution to the winds. I don’t know how many times he’s been married—I doubt if he knows himself. Anyway, Vega’s energy is pretty well sopped up by his wives and ex-wives and wives-to-be. He doesn’t have time for juggling the accounts.” Kershaw spoke in a tone of amiable contempt, as if any ordinary man would find the time.

In another wryly funny passage, Vance describes a collaboration between Inspector Collins and a lieutenant from the San Jose police department:

Collins made no reply. He had formed no high opinion of Loveridge’s competence, and he suspected that the young lieutenant held similar sentiments toward him.

The description of the national park is where Vance's characteristic flair comes to the fore, though his signatiure use of recondite adjectives is missing:

Orchards, vineyards, housing developments tailed off into alfalfa fields, which turned into dry pasture. The foothills began to swell and loom, until they became the spurs of the Sierra Nevada. Eucalyptus and live oak gave way to manzanita and pine, then to fir and redwood. Kings Canyon opened before them: a glacial trough a mile wide and a mile high, with the Kings River a silver trickle on its floor. The helicopter flew east, between granite crags.

The plot is a typical murder mystery/police procedural- Vance puts Collins through his paces: interrogating witnesses, seeking clues, trying to piece together a motive. Illegal drug manufacturing, embezzlement, marital infidelity, or the madman theory of the title... all are considered, though a mounting body count points to a methodical effort to eliminate loose ends.

There are moments of grue- one cannot write a murder caper without bloodshed, but Jack Vance, himself a musician, seemed to find a particular horror in the fate of a musician whose teeth are smashed out and hands cut off in order to stymie identification of his corpse:

Collins grimaced. Poor guitar player. He would have thrown up at what was about to happen to his hands.

The Madman Theory is a fun read if you have a tolerance for some discreet grue. It was my introduction to another facet of the career of one of my favorite authors, so I found it particularly fascinating.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Royal Bore

Yesterday afternoon, after hearing the pre-commute traffic and weather report, I decided to go on a news blackout. I just couldn't deal with the amount of coverage that today's royal wedding was getting. I get it, England's second most popular redhead is getting married to a cute commoner from overseas. I guess it's the Irish in me, but I really couldn't give two fucks... and it's not like Hank will ever be king without some serious Game of Thrones level of violence. I suppose Hank is an okay guy, though he had his asshole 'bro' stage, he seems like he is now 'very fine people'. At any rate, he and brother Billy turned out better than Uday and Qusay... and it's funny that Vulgarmort was not invited to the nuptials, most likely out of fear that he'd sexually harass the bride. Luckily, I'll be working graveyard shifts this weekend, so I don't even have to listen to the traffic report before heading off to work, risking news exposure.

All snarking aside, I find the amount of coverage that the American media is devoting to this event unseemly... the raison d'être for the founding of this nation was so we didn't have to deal with people like Prince Hank and his family. This lesson used to be taught to our children by the media.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Not a Member of the Bar Association

One of the fundamental laws of nature is that there is no asshole quite like a New York asshole... witness the current PotUS, or our asshole de la semana- this guy, who has a history of bizarre confrontations with people. At any rate, in one of those rare cases in which 'karma', as conceived of in the popular culture, has caught up with the guy in a big way- he has been kicked out of his office space and his apartment building has been 'besieged' by a block party... a fiesta de la cuadra, if you will. The guy is pretty much universally despised, he's like a cut-rate, more offensive Scaramucci- one who won't ever benefit from a television show pitch.

To me, the funniest development in the whole kerfuffle is the revelation that, contrary to the biography on his website, he does not appear to be a member of the New York State Bar Association. I suspect that it was an honest typo- he's got to be a member of the brah association.

As for why I am even commenting about this asshole, I am a New Yorker, and he does not espouse our famous values of tolerance and multiculturalism. There's no asshole quite like a New York asshole, but we New Yorkers have scant tolerance for the type.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Finally, a Twin Study!

PREFACE: The mad geniuses at Riddled are often yukking it up about twin studies, so I figured I'd give them a shoutout before writing the bulk of this post...

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture. This month's lecture marked the triumphant return of Dr Christopher Mason, associate professor of physiology & biophysics and computational biomedicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, member of the Yale Law School Information Society Project, and director of the WorldQuant Initiative for Quantitative Prediction. Dr Mason's previous lecture concerned his famous 'subway swabbing' project.

The topic of Dr Mason's lecture was 'Subterranean, Pan-Earth, and Inter-Planetary Genomics'... Dr Mason quipped that he is a fan of preposterous talk titles. The broad topic of the lecture involved a study to determine what the human body looks like in space. He displayed NASA's dramatic graphic showing their plans to put boots on Mars by 2035:

Dr Mason then showed the image of the SpaceX Tesla roadster, which is predicted to settle into an orbit just outside the orbit of Mars. He called attention to the library inside the Tesla, and informed us that the creation of a lunar library is scheduled for 2020, with a Mars library to follow in 2030. Dr Mason then mused, "What if it were a human body in that car?" What would the effects of space travel be on that human body. He noted that mutations can change a normal cell to a tumor cell, and that genetic mosaicism increases with age- specifically that cells can shed X chromosomes. He described an 'inexorable molecular march to oblivion'- mutations increase with age, telomeres shrink... the genetic 'bookends' fall away. He posed the question, 'how long can the body survive the slings and arrows of space?' Overall, mortality among astronauts has been significantly higher than for the general public- Dr Mason noted that space travel is not for the sheepish.

An unprecedented opportunity to study the effects of space travel on the human body presented itself when astronaut Scott Kelly was tapped to spend approximately a year on the International Space Station while his twin brother Mark remained on Earth. Dr Mason joked that the first task that NASA undertook was designing a patch for the mission:

He insisted that the patch reference epigenetics.

The Kelly twin study involved a lot of blood testing, and Dr Mason illustrated the complications of astrophlebotomy by showing a video of Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata drawing blood on the ISS:

After blood is drawn, it is centrifuged and the blood cells are frozen, the frozen cells being sent back on a Soyuz capsule, touching down in Kazakhstan.

After 340 days, Scott Kelly made it back to the Earth, and the stress of space travel was immediately apparent- his post-flight cognition was slightly impaired and his cytokines had shifted. Unused to clothing touching his skin, anything that touched his skin caused a burning sensation. He wanted to wander around naked- Dr Mason joked that that was like a typical Saturday for him.

Genetically, mutations and structural variations had occured. DNA methylation and DNA hydroxymethylation had occurred, as had RNA methylation. Scott Kelly's genome wasn't exactly the same as it had been- for example, the length of his telomeres had increased while he was in orbit, then shrank while he was back on Earth. The press coverage of the study was sensationalized and less-than-accurate- one headline screamed 'Space Made Scott Kelly Taller and Younger'. Dr Mason dryly noted that, due to time dilation, Scott Kelly was, relativistically, .1 second younger than he would have been if he'd stayed on the Earth.

Love level DNA transcription inversions were apparent, and some genetic damage persisted after Scott Kelly had returned to Earth. There was an increase of cell-free DNA in his bloodstream... as cells underwent apoptosis, the cell-free (extrasomatic) DNA was released into the blood. In particular, there was a spike of mitochondrial DNA in his blood. It was also apparent that his white blood cells had launched DNA into his blood to fight invaders. In the absence of gravitational forces, fluids shift around in the body, causing, among other things, facial puffiness.

Dr Mason then shifted the topic of the lecture to epigenetics. The ACGT genome is really just the beginning of gene expression- epigenetic factors control when and where genes are activated.

In one case of epigenetics, DNA methylation can predict an individual's age, which has great forensic utility. Dr Mason joked that YOLOIDs is now obsoletel because now bouncers can sequence a patron's DNA to check their age. Besides age, there are other reasons for epigenetic shifts- in the case of Scott Kelly, the epigenetic age was dynamic, early in the mission it appeared lower, mid-mission it appeared higher, then it appeared lower after he landed. In the three to six month range, there were 6,976 changes in gene expression. In the 6-12 month range, the amount of changes was seven times higher. 93% of the gene expression returned to normal when he landed, but 7% did not- a phenomenon promptly dubbed 'space genes'. The 'space genes' were disrupted by space flight, but Dr Mason noted that permanent genetic change only occurs when a subject is dead.

In response to the dramatic reports that 7% of his DNA had changed, Scott Kelly joked that he didn't have to call Mark his twin brother anymore. Even The Daily Show had a segment on Space Genes. NASA stepped in to set the record straight, noting that Scott and Mark Kelly are still identical twins, and that if 7% of Scott Kelly's DNA had changed, he'd have to be considered a different species. Dr Mason described this overly sensational media coverage and the subsequent scientific correction as 'a good teachable moment'.

Dr Mason then cataloged the factors which may have caused the changes in Scott Kelly's genetic expression- hypoxia, hyperemia, immune system responses, DNA repair, and disruptions to bone formation. In the ISS, carbon dioxide levels fluctuate. High levels of mitochondrial DNA in Scott Kelly's blood were thought to come from platelets and white blood cells, indicating a response to stress.

Dr Mason went on to discuss changes to Scott Kelly's microbiome- there are more than just human cells in the human body. In space, microbial diversity was largely maintained, but there was a slight shift in the Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes ratio. Dr Mason noted that it was hard to collect fecal samples in space, but refrained from describing the process. He noted that fecal and oral samples allowed researchers to determine what Scott Kelly had been eating, noting that the DNA of vegetable matter tends to survive in poop. At one point, it was suggested that Mark Kelly maintain a similar diet to synch up with his brother Scott, but he refused to do so... there aren't any 5-star restaurants in space.

The genetic study of Scott Kelly marked the first 'cartography' of a body in space, but more samples are needed, a problem compounded by the fact that there are only 556 total subjects- there just aren't many astronauts out there. Questions remain- are the patterns of changes linear, quadratic, or exponential? One potential advance is the sequencing of DNA in space- at $10K/kilogram for sending stuff into orbit, nanosequencers would make this feasible. Dr Mason joked that the first order of business was producing a Biomolecule Sequencer patch:

Sadly, the DNA sequencer was a casualty of the Falcon 9 rocket explosion. As Scott Kelly put it: "Space is hard."

To lighten the mood after that bummer, Dr Mason showed us a funny video of researcher Andy Feinberg attempting to microgravity pipetting on the 'Vomit Comet':

Eventually, a commercial DNA sequencer, MinION, was used by astronaut/microbiologist Kate Rubins to sequence DNA in space for the first time, a feath that Dr Mason described as a game-changer. A billion genes have been sequenced in space susequently, notably a sequence of E. coli's genome. Now, new infections in the ISS can be sequenced in real-time.

Dr Mason then posed the question- where else can sequencing take place? The Gowanus Canal? The subway? This was a perfect segue into the topic of his grand subway swab. He began with a great aphorism: In the absence of knowledge, the best thing is to discover. His goal was to conduct a Metropolitan Genome Project, an exploration of the metropolibiome, if you will. In the course of the subway swab, fifty percent of the DNA recovered had never been seen before- half of the world under our fingertips is unknown. He joked that, from a biological standpoint, a subway railing should be as inspiring as a rainforest. The species diversity varies by area of the city, with one particularly interesting locale being the South Ferry subway station, which had been flooded by Superstorm Sandy. Post-Sandy, the South Ferry station has exhibited a persistent molecular echo of cold ocean water. One particular organism, Shewanella frigidmarina, which was located there can produce eicosapentaenoic acid, the consumption of which may reduce suicide rates. Dr Mason seems to be particularly plagued by sensational media responses to his research- the Gothamist headline about his subway genome project read: Licking Subway Poles "Probably Fine," Says Expert. The hygiene hypothesis posits that bacterial exposure early in childhood is important in immune system function. Dr Mason then introduced us to the work of Heather Dewey-Hagborg, an artist who uses DNA from discarded cigarette butts and chewing gum to create 3d images of faces WHICH IS NOT CREEPY AT ALL!!!

In another project, 2010 Census data was campared to humans' molecular echoes, to determine if neighborhoods could be distinguished using DNA samples. Regarding privacy, an individual can choose, to some extent, what DNA they leave behind... at any rate, one should not avoid riding the subway out of privacy concerns. Dr Mason then showed images of the early morning subway cleanings, comparing these daily events to forest fires, with the subsequent press of commuters representing a 'reseeding'.

The Metasub project is a multi-city transit system metagenome project- once a year, multiple subway systems throughout the world will be swabbed for genetic material to sequence. The next big swabbing project will take place on June 21 of this year.

Other topics are ripe for research... Where does antibiotic resistance arise? Can an engineering approach be brought to medicine? Can we tweak something and predict what will happen if engineering occurs? Pigs could be genetically engineered to grow human organs. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy repair can be performed in fetuses. Fragile X syndrome can be repaired. Using genetic engineering, how can astronauts be 'armored'? Could TP53 be enhanced to guard their DNA? What about the prospects of adding chloroplasts to human cells to allow photosynthesis? In that case, a surface area of two tennis courts would be needed to replace one hour's worth metabolic needs fueled by eating. Dr Mason characterized the prospects of such research both terrifying and exciting- there is a real chance that NASA could meet its precision medicine goals, but what if we do something wrong?

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session, led off by some bastard in the audience asking if there had been genetic surveys of people who have spent large amounts of time in underwater environs. Dr Mason indicated that there haven't been any genetic testing of SCUBA enthusiasts, but that there is currently a twin study of mountaineers who are tackling Everest. Another question regarded the percentage of subway microbes which are pathogenic- about 98% of subway microbes are not pathogens, but Dr Mason wryly noted that some of the microbes in the subway could kill you if you were a lobster. If the subway were swarming with pathogens, we all would have died already. That being said, there is a danger from aerosolized particles- it's best to avoid red-eyed, sneezing people. The odds of getting sick from subway exposure are low.

Regarding twin studies, Dr Mason joked, "I wish you all had a twin." He noted that the fact that the Kelly brothers the only twin astronauts, and that even then they had both been in space, so Mark wasn't a perfect 'control', even though Scott's time in space was orders of magnitude longer.

Another question regarded telomere elongation- one proposed mechanism is that enzymes regulating telomere length become more active. In cancer cells, telomeres tend to be too long.

The last question of the night was hilarious, a real doozy: "Given a CRISPR and no ethical qualms, how would you engineer the perfect spacer?" Dr Mason suggested that smaller size would be beneficial, as would cancer repair, photosynthetic enhancement, and a tweak to the LRP5 gene to maintain bone density. He then noted that, like Dr Moreau, geneticists in popular fiction are usually depicted as evil, he then flatly stated, "We're not evil." Yeah, you're not evil, in fact you're awesome!

Kudos to Dr Mason for another fantastic lecture, a heady blend of molecular biology, outer space adventure, dry wit, and a cautionary note about sensationalistic science reporting in the popular media. Once again, Dr Mason hit one out of the park. Special thanks to Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House as well. High fives all around.

Now, here's a video of Dr Mason delivering a TED talk about genetics, epigenetics and the Kelly twin study:

Pour yourself a beverage and soak in that science!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Camouflage Fail

One of the most elusive amphibians in my neck of the woods is the gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor), which lives pretty high up in trees and is perfectly camouflaged against the bark of said trees... this doesn't work with wrought iron chairs:

Hey, you're not a gray CHAIR frog!

I saw this beautiful critter napping in the cool, moist environs of one of my worksites yesterday morning, when I dropped off a bunch of bulk first aid supplies for our tourist season. I made sure to point it out to my coworkers as soon as I arrived. I figure this frog is on the grounds staff, one of the many pest-control workers we have onsite, so introductions were in order.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Some Easy Listening Music for Your Mothers' Day Brunch Soundtrack

Here's wishing a happy Mothers' Day to all of the mothers out there, and to all of the bad mothers as well. I figured that I would post a nice little tune about filial piety to accompany your breakfast or brunch:

Ah, such gentle strains, such ethereal vocals! At any rate, my mother is too busy gallivanting around the Bay Area attending my nephew's graduation to cause the telephone to scream. Happy Mothers' Day, people.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

A Credit to the Family

This afternoon, I am taking some time to note that eldest of my nephews and nieces, my snarky sister's son Boy B., is graduating from UC Berkeley this weekend. He's a good'un, a gentlemanly young man- a devoted son, brother, cousin, grandson, and nephew. My sister and her family, along with our mom, flew out to Berkeley for the ceremony a couple of days ago.

After graduation, he'll be heading back to the East Coast. Even after four years, I guess he's not Berkeley enough:

That being said, granola IS delicious. Congrats to the boss kid of the next generation!

Friday, May 11, 2018

What Human Cost?

In a predictable instance of ratfuckery, Scott Pruitt's EPA is going to change clean air standards, ostensibly to factor in 'economic considerations' in pollution standards, to the detriment of human health.

In Pruitt's world, the economic costs of respiratory diseases don't factor into the equation... especially since poor air quality disproportionately affects poor children of color. We can't let the lungs of indigent children in the Bronx or Houston get in the way of Scott Pruitt's bottom line, now.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

As I Wrote Before, As Tengrain Would Put It, a Palate Cleanser

Last year, during a bad news week, I put up what Tengrain would call a 'palate cleanser', a video by a great Australian band called Middle Kids. Joyfully, the band finally released their eagerly awaited first full-length album, and the first single is fantastic:

Like I always say, good art makes bad times bearable.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Can't Spell Rage without AG

I spent much of yesterday in a foul mood, a sort of righteous rage... I woke up to the news of abuse allegations against NY State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Schneiderman has portrayed himself as a defender of women, a champion of women's rights, and a key member of the Resistance to Donald Trump. Schneiderman has a record of solid accomplishments- among them ending Brooklyn Hospital's charging for rape kits and going after serial sexual abuser/harasser Harvey Weinstein. He was a progressive crusader... and a shitbag who apparently hit and choked the women he was involved with without their consent, attempted to control what they ate and drank... and then attempted to use his power to coerce them into silence, even threatening them with harm. Sickeningly, he tried to pass off his actions as 'kink':

“In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity. I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.”

I am totally vanilla in my amatory proclivities, but I have a sort of academic fascination with paraphilias, no matter how outré, and I have to note that, done properly, kinky sex has to involve stringent ethical standards, consent being paramount. Schneiderman's Fifty Shades of Gray fanfic is unconvincing and insulting. Thankfully, Schneiderman resigned, but the resulting political shitstorm will have repercussions throughout New York State- hell, even the investigation of the allegations against Schneiderman are a cause for division, with Governor Cuomo appointing Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas as special prosecutor because Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance bungled the Harvey Weinstein case so badly. Meanwhile, Barbara Underwood is acting Attorney General, but there is a probability that the election of a replacement will be a goddamn rugby scrum.

The whole scandal is sordid and enraging- the hypocrisy of Schneiderman merely compounds the hideousness of it. In a climate in which Trump Neanderthals are castigated for spousal abuse and Republican 'bros' are condemned for partner abuse, Schneiderman's violence against women is particularly egregious. Women don't need fake allies, such as this Joke Woke Bloke, and I have to opine that Schneiderman's replacement should be a woman... enough with shitbag men.

The Brian Lehrer Show has been devoting a lot of time to this story. If you need to be outraged, give a listen.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Creature Discomfort

Last weekend, there was a spot of drama amidst our re-opening for the season... a raccoon which was active during the daylight hours. When you see a raccoon walking around by daylight, it's typical to err on the side of "OMG, RABIES!!!!" Accordingly, on Friday afternoon, the Manager on Duty called the local gendarmes to report this potential hazard to the public health... to compound matters, a coyote recently attacked two children not too far from the site. I arrived on the job before the police arrived, and the raccoon was curled up on top of the sewer grate:

I stood in the vicinity for the rest of the afternoon and waved people away from the area until a police officer arrived. The village doesn't have a dedicated animal control officer, so there was no prospect of trapping the animal. The one time I had witnessed the putting down of a possibly rabid animal took place along the Bronx River Greenway, which falls under County Police jurisdiction- the county sent an officer with a tranquilizer gun, and they shot the raccoon with a dart with a lethal sedative dose. The procedure among the local police is to use a 9mm round loaded with shot, instead of a bullet, to kill an animal. After a brief discussion, we decided that it would be inappropriate to engage in any gunplay until after everyone but myself had cleared the property- it's not good to shoot when people and cars are in the parking lot, and I didn't want to subject nice tourists from France or Japan to see a particularly cute, and exotic, critter being executed, even if for the public good. Luckily, the raccoon climbed back down into the sewer, and I grabbed a couple of benches and used them to block off egress. The responding officer and I then made the plan to have him return after hours so we could deal with the beast.

At dusk, I unblocked the sewer grate and peered into the sewer... not exactly fun. After about twenty minutes, the creature emerged from the sewer and I called the non-emergency number of the police- they were on another call. By the time the original responding officer returned, the raccoon had gone back underground, so we weren't able to resolve the issue.

After the police officer left, I went to my office and texted my boss about the inability to resolve the issue, then sent out a memorandum to all of the MODs for the weekend, plus several other managers. As luck would have it, the raccoon never made an appearance on Saturday afternoon, so I am hoping that it expired in peace. Better yet, I hope it recovered, because, as much as the local raccoons are a pain in the ass, I'd be lying if I said I didn't like the suckers.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Reminder of Why I Support 'Sanctuary Cities'

This weekend was the opening of the tourist season for the organization for which I work, the weekend when the seasonal employees and contractors come back to the site. Our porter/janitor is on a Monday to Friday schedule, so the weekend janitorial duties are outsourced to a cleaning contractor. Yesterday, at the end of my shift, the custodial contractor, who has been assigned to the site for two years running, arrived on the job. He is a originally from Peru, and he is an intelligent, diligent, and conscientious man, hard-working and well-spoken, even if he isn't entirely fluent in English (my Spanish is pretty good, and I have had numerous conversations with him about current events and politics). Needless to say, I was happy to see him after a hiatus of six months.

After we had exchanged greetings, he told me a depressing tale. He lives in the nearby city of White Plains, a city which traditionally had the reputation of being mainly a place where people worked, but has grown dramatically in population recently (still, the city's population swells by 200,000 every workday). The city is generally safe, but like all cities, there is some crime. His other job, his weekday job, is doing custodial work in one of the big buildings downtown. Last week, while walking home from work, he was mugged- a large man punched him in the side of the head and stole his cellphone and the bag containing his dirty workclothes. In the course of the attack, my friend fell to the ground, luckily catching himself on his forearms, rather than putting his arms out straight- he had bruises and some cuts, but no breaks.

After recounting his mugging, he spoke about the dangers faced by the many Latin immigrant workers on the night shifts- especially the restaurant workers- waitstaff, bussers, and barbacks who get paid in cash. They are tempting targets for alley-bashers and strongarm crooks, especially since there is a perception that they will be afraid to contact the police. 'Sanctuary city' status is crucial in combating violent crime, as undocumented witnesses might be unwilling to report crimes or testify against defendants. Statistically, immigrants are less likely to engage in criminal activity than the native born, despite a few sensationalized cases of heinous crimes committed by people who should have been deported.

At any rate, this was a case of my personal convictions being bolstered by my lived experience- my immigrant friend was assaulted and robbed by a native-born American, and I sure hope he gets justice. He's okay now, but it was a scary experience which could have ended up in his death or serious injury. The old cliche is that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, but my liberalism has been reinforced by my friend's mugging.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Make Agave Great Again!

Back in the halcyon days of 2012, I wrote what could be considered my last word on Cinco de Mayo, a holiday which originally celebrated the Battle of Puebla, in which a Mexican army defeated an occupying French army, a victory which slowed but did not stop the French from establishing a Second Mexican Empire. Cinco de Mayo was a Pueblan celebration, but it was repurposed in Los Estados Unidos to boost tequila sales, thereby making agave great again.

Back in the stupid days of the 2016 presidential campaign, un baboso Tío Tomás para El Trump warned of the peril of taco trucks taking over ever corner of 'Murka:

I don't have a taco truck on any of the corners of my block, or my neighborhood. My go-to taco truck, which recently upgraded from being a mere taco stand, is in Brooklyn, and it happens to be run by some gents from Puebla. Most of the Mexican eateries in my neck of the woods are run by families with roots in Michoacan and Jalisco states. A couple of decades ago, they were probably a bit perplexed by the number of gabachos who came in to dine on May 5th, but business is business, as the tequila importers realized years ago.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Skynet, Woven from Chemtrails

It's not very often that a berserker decries berserkers, but Alex Jones is convinced that Donald Trump is waging a war on a rogue Artificial Intelligence that is seeking to usher in a 'post human world':

It's an odd performance, as Jones and his collaborator claim that the Las Vegas massacre has been forgotten, and they claim that Elon Musk is a target of the 'elite', never mind that the guy is a multi-billionaire. Yeah, it's an artificial intelligence attempting to prevent humans from getting our asses to Mars. The guy who rants about chemtrails is now ranting about Skynet. This is what happens when you watch The Terminator after licking Sonoran desert toads, which have all been turned gay.

I do like the idea that Donald Trump is humanity's first line of defense against a coldly logical killer AI. As any true Science Fiction fan knows, the best way to destroy a logical AI is to employ nonsense:

And nonsense is exactly what Donald Trump purveys.