Friday, January 31, 2020

Jar Jar Lamar

The frustrating enraging story of the day concerns the Senate's decision not to call any witnesses for Trump's impeachment trial, effectively stating that, while Trump did something wrong, it doesn't merit further investigation. The shitshow is best summed up by a recent string of tweets by Lamar Alexander:

Alexander's cowardice is now a trending topic on social media. Personally, I am getting flashbacks to the not-so-great 'Star Wars' prequel movies, with Lamar playing the role of Jar Jar Binks granting Palpatine emergency powers:

Of course, with the signal that Trump is above the law, I'll let Natalie Portman have the final word on the Trump cultists approval of their God-Emperor's asspotheosis:

As if the shitshow weren't bad enough, Adam Schiff just had to rile up the fringiest of the MAGA fringe by referencing a storm, which is enough to get the conspiracy theorists all wee-weed up. I know I've predicted that 2020 will be a stupid year, but I didn't even know the half of it.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

They Call the Wind Antifa

Today, in Tales of the New West, we have to sorry story, via Tengrain, of a not-quite-gale-force-wind blowing down a section of Vulgarmort's Wall. A thirty-seven mph wind was sufficient to huff and puff and blow down the big bad moron's personal monument to racism. Personally, like Barack Hussein Obama, I believe that Trump is probably a fascist, and is at best fashcurious... the fact that winds blew it down suggests that Nature itself is antifascist, so may as well call the wind Antifa, a reference to the signature song from the musical Paint Your Wagon, which has passed into the status of a standard:

Even joking, the Smothers Brothers had a better grasp of windmills than Trump does. My introduction to the song was the Kingston Trio's rendition from the indispensible ...from the "Hungry i" album:

Getting back to the wall, it seems to be a shoddy piece of work, like most of Trump's gaudy death traps. I would love to know how many millions of taxpayer dollars went to which well-connected fly-by-night contractors, and what kind of kickbacks Trump was getting. The guy may be racist, but his greed exceeds even his hate.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Lovely Luncheon

It was a total Power Move by the head of our Grounds Department- tasked with finding a spot for our interdepartmental luncheon (all of the departments that answer to my boss, that is), she picked one of the swankiest restaurants in the area, Irvington, NY's Red Hat on the River. It's a fancy New American place, with cuisine inspired by classic French bistro fare. Our boss, a magnanimous fellow, signed off on this, we had a successful fundraiser year, and we all worked hard to pull it off. One big joke is that we throw our 'Christmas' party in late January, when reservations are easy to come by, and prices tend to be lower than peak holiday prices.

It's a nice opportunity for everyone to get together. One of my subordinates hadn't even met some of the 7AM to 3PM crowd- he's kinda like Bigfoot, his presence is known, he's sometimes glimpsed from afar... he had a nice 'debut' today, having taken a half day off from his Day Job. It's also a nice opportunity to exchange stories- we night guys have the weird ones. I confessed to eating a Canada goose egg (not this one, which I passed up) when the topic of a goose chasing contractor came up. We also talked about the upcoming season, which promises to be an extra busy one- besides the busy tourist and fundraiser seasons, we have major renovation projects going on at two of our sites.

It was a fun lunch, a two hour extravaganza marked by fine dining and exquisite service (I went for the prix fixe 'bistro special'- pork/duck rillettes with cornichons, pickled onions, and greens followed up with boudin blanc with garlic bread, moutarde and greens). We all had a bunch of good laughs and caught up on the local scuttlebutt, both organization and town.

I'm still a bit awed by the choice of venue- our head of Grounds joked that next year she will find a place in Bali to host the luncheon. She's a feisty one, so she just might pull it off... things are usually quiet until May, after all.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Today's Time Waster

It's been a lazy day off for me, the sort of day on which I didn't have to accomplish anything, so I didn't accomplish anything. One of the time wastes I frittered time away on is an 'Add a Word, Ruin a Book' Twitter feed. There's some comedy gold in there, such as the obligatory Lord of the Cock Rings and A Game of Porcelain Thrones.

So far, I haven't seen The Right Butt Stuff. While Gus Grissom might not approve, this girl certainly would:

There are a lot of hilarious entries in the thread, so be careful before you click, if you have anything important to attend to. I had to put it aside because I had to post a blog entry before heading out to bar trivia. You've been warned... the Moby Dick entries are particularly funny.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Overton Window's Not THAT Far Right!

The Overton Window is the range of policies which are considered respectable in mainstream political discourse... anything outside the 'window' is considered radical. Over the course of the past forty decades, with aid from the media (particularly right-wing talk radio), the Overton Window has been shifted rightward. Once unthinkable policies, such as the gutting of Social Security and Medicare, are now considered right-of-center-though-not-unreasonable postions.

Generally speaking, the Democratic Party shifted to the right, with Bill Clinton implementing 'welfare reform' in the 90s. The Republican Party, however, has shifted so far to the right that it has veered off into fascism. Still, the push continues, as Fox personalities try to paint John Bolton, of all people, as a liberal. Yeah, THAT Bolton, the war hawk of the oughts. Bolton is a far-right figure, but he's a neocon, so his brand of far-right lunacy is not in vogue right now. The real reason why Bolton is persona non grata among the Trump Cult dead-enders is because he possesses information that undermines Trump's impeachment defense and he's enough of a loose cannon that he might actually spill the beans, if only to spite his erstwhile boss.

The MAGA supporters cannot recognize nuance... they cannot see that Bolton is a righty because he's no longer playing for their team. If he bucks Trump, he must be a lefty. We don't want Bolton. He's not even a principled conservative. I don't think there are any principled conservatives anymore. Just because some roided-out blockhead on Fox claims that he's a liberal, that doesn't mean that we need to claim him. Hell, I'm not ready to forgive that Rick Wilson guy, and he's been anti-Trump from the jump.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Current Earworm: A Perfect Accompaniment to my Commute

I listen to a lot of college radio, the non-commercial stations play a better range of music than commercial stations, and the exposure to new artists is unexcelled. My current earworm is by The Gonks, a San Francisco band I'd never heard of. I'm a Lonely Night Driver is a lo-fi marvel, the spare indie instrumentation highlighting the sweetness of the lead vocal:

I'm a Lonely Night Driver comes across to me as a plaintive indie rock counterpoint to the hard rock swagger of that other 'lonely night driver' anthem, Radar Love. As someone who will be heading out on the road in about half an hour to work the graveyard shift, I have to say that I prefer lonely night drives to daytime drives in traffic, no matter how swaggering the soundtrack is.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Year of the Rat, Contemplating the Neighbors

Here's wishing a happy Year of the Rat to my readers. As a resident of the New York metropolitan area, I have a familiarity with rats, which form a sizable portion of the population of the City of York, much like they form a sizable portion of the population of Lankhmar. I even have a coworker whose primary function is to deal with a potential rat menace.

I... uhhhh... I'm not really bothered by rats. There, I said it. While I certainly don't want a rat in mi kitchen, I don't get freaked out seeing them in the subway stations. Rats are a lot like humans, they are smart, gregarious, and have a knack for adaptability. Maybe that's why a lot of people hate them so much... well, that and the fact that they carry a lot of pathogens (just like humans). I can't be alone in having an indulgent streak towards these furry opportunists, some of which have attained local celebrity status:

At least that rat knows how to eat pizza in a civilized fashion, unlike this guy:

Again, rats are a lot like us, they even thrive because of our bad habits. When we waste excessive food, and produce excessive garbage, they gain by these peccadillos. According to the Chinese zodiac, rats are frugal, and they benefit from human prodigality. Sure, even I sometimes slip and use the term rat pejoratively, but the rat does have some admirable qualities, just like we humans do.

Friday, January 24, 2020

President Mafioso

The big news today is that the President of the United States is, basically, a gangster, and isn't even smart enough to try to hide it. First off, we have Trump telling Parnas and Furman to 'take out' Ambassador Yovanovitch. Neither Parnas nor Fruman has any authority to fire a U.S. ambassador, so this phrasing is highly suggestive of thuggery.

Next up, we have the threat to put Republican senators' heads on pikes should they vote to convict the president. While I doubt that actual pikes are meant, this still does constitute threatening witnesses.

Meanwhile, Lindsey Graham is trying a novel defense of the president, the idea that he doesn't think he did anything wrong. I'm sure that John Gotti didn't think he did anything wrong when he ordered the assassination of Paul Castellano. Gotti didn't think twice about threatening witnesses either.

Damn, if only the Republican senators would grow a spine. I know that if I were being threatened by some asshole, I'd hit him back as hard as I could.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

This Is Why I Don't Describe Myself as a Gamer

One of my guilty online pleasures is checking out the Cursed Conspiraboomer Images Twitter account, which posts bizarre memes from the various conspiracy communities online. If you want to see Flat Earthers 'owning' the normies or badly rendered photoshops depicting Michelle Obama as assigned-male-at-birth, this is the place to go. Recently, the genius responsible for this Twitter account found a bizarre game designed by Flat Earthers, which pits a Flat Earth penguin mascot against (oddly enough) the cartoon frog so loved by the 'ironic Neo-Nazi' set (I thought these two groups were simpatico):

It's a crude game, to be sure, and it makes little sense, but there's something oddly compelling about it in very small doses. It's as if 'Donkey Kong' had been made by barking lunatics... and, no, there was no way I was entering my name in one of the 'High Score' slots. I still haven't exactly figured out what I'm supposed to do, but the game is primitive enough so that it practically plays itself.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Cellular Switches

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring structural biologist Dr Kevin Gardner, Einstein Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry at City College of New York Director of the Structural Biology Initiative at CUNY’s Advanced Science Research Center. Dr Gardner titled his lecture Harnessing Nature's Switches: Discovering New Biotech Tools and Drug Targets.

Dr Gardner began the lecture with a question- how do cells 'listen' to the world around them and act on that information? Cells have to respond to outside stimuli second to second, minute to minute. Figuring out these mechanisms is important to biomedical research. Cells have the ability to sense oxygen levels in order to respond to conditions of hypoxia. Plant cells have to sense light levels so they can discontinue photosynthesis after sundown. Fish have the ability to sense pollutants in water, with the sensitivity callibrated to pollution levels. These cellular 'switches' are variants of the same basic process, which involves small molecules, such as the protein rhodopsin (derived from vitamin A). The switches get proteins to change shape in response to stimuli.

Dr Gardner told us the mantra of structural biology: Structure Determines Function. Biology can be likened to the opposite of architecture... in biology, structure determines function, while in architecture, function determines structure. An architect tasked to design a concert hall will base the structure on the acoustic needs of performances. With biologists, evolution is the 'client'. Biology has produced some good structures, but a lot of okay structures.

In the 1950s, the structure of DNA was determined, creating the models involved a lot of chemistry. Around the same time, the role of proteins such as myoglobin and hemoglobin was being studied. New insights into disease, such as the role of a single point mutation in sickle-cell anemia, were being made. Dr Gardner then took a moment to recognize the role of graduate students, who do most of the work in scientific research.

Dr Gardner then stated the multi-disciplinary nature of structural biology- structural biologists answer biology's questions, harness chemistry's intuition, and use physics' tools. In order to view the small molecules used in cellular switches, electron microscopes are needed. A typical human cell is ten to thirty microns in diameter. Images of cells must be 'blown up' to allow researchers to 'look around'. Using the example of a myoglobin molecule, Dr Gardner noted that, if a cell were blown up to the size of One World Trade Center, a myoglobin molecule inside it would be an inch in diameter.

Dr Gardner then described the various instruments of his trade (the 'tools of physics') in dramatic terms. He joked that they constituted 'science built on a dare'. Cryoelectron microscopes use extremely low temperatures to reduce damage to biological specimens, allowing 3D images to be obtained (Dr Gardner quipped, "Don't mess around with electron guns"). Nuclear magnetic spectroscopy (Dr Gardner noted wryly, "Anything nuclear is good") involves using a large 'Thermos' with liquid nitrogen and liquid helium chambers wrapped with thousands of feet of superconductor cables, and utilizes a localized magnetic field millions of times more powerful than that of the Earth to obtain images of proteins- Dr Gardner described it as 'an atomic MRI'. A more 'sane' method of imaging molecules is X-ray crystallography, in which molecules in rows in a crystal have x-rays shone through them- the x-ray being intense enough to set air on fire. Again, Dr Gardner joked that this was 'science built on a dare'.

After this overview of imaging methodology, Dr Gardner got to the core subject of his lecture, beginning with an introduction to G Protein-Coupled Receptors, which are found in cell membranes and trigger cellular responses to outside molecules. GRCRs are the target of two-thirds of all pharmaceuticals- the drugs hijack GPCRs to result in a clinical outcome. Rhodopsin is a GPCR found in the human retina. Protein domains are pieces of protein, and Per-Arnt-Sim (PAS) domains are the protein pieces that act as molecular sensors. Three PAS domains were identified in 1991, and there are currently about forty-thousand known PAS domains.

Light-oxygen-voltage-sensing (LOV)domains are PAS domains which detect blue light, they can be turned on or off by shining blue light on them. LOV domains contain a derivative of riboflavin. They convert blue light into biochemical signals which are also dependent on other factors. One of the processes controlled by LOV factors is phototropism, the movement of plants toward light sources. If the PAS domain regulating the sensing of blue light can be knocked out, no phototropism occurs. In plants, the 2LOV domain activates a kinase which triggers the response. In darkness, the flavins are bound covalently, blue light creates new bonds to turn on the kinase. After checking with Dorian and Margaret that the Bell House crowd was over 21, Dr Gardner declared this process 'batshit crazy'. Blue light synchronizes the switches, which shut down after sundown. Rhodopsin in animal eyes shuts down images rapidly, so they don't persist, but plants don't need quick reaction times, so the light-detection-and-reaction process is slower than that of animals... Dr Gardner describe it as a 'good enough' evolutionary solution. Laser equipped NMR spectrometers can be used to study phototropics such as LOV2, which covert changes in light into changes in activity.

Besides studying PAS domains in the lab, biologists sequence DNA from a variety of organisms in order to identify proteins. Dr Gardner cited the 1KP Project, which sequenced the genomes of 1,100 plant species. This is being followed up with the even more expansive 10KP Project. Dr Gardner described a 'bioinformatics pipeline' from the field to the lab, and quipped that 'Nature's been busy'. He also stated another scientific mantra: MODELS GOOD, DATA BETTER.

He took a brief moment to express some envy of the scientists working in the field... he's a recreational diver, but the oceanic data has been outsourced to other researchers. He has, though, done field work in a local swamp. Using this as a transition, he then brought up the subject of the bacterium Erythrobacter litoralis, the genome of which was sequenced from a specimen collected in the Sargasso Sea. This bacterium is an opportunist, it can use photosynthesis to provide energy. Dr Gardner explained the significance of blue light- it penetrates deeper into seawater than other wavelengths. Erythrobacter litoralis has sensors which check light levels, which are dependent on both time and depth. A light-activated binding protein (EL222) was discovered in Erythrobacter litoralis, light 'flips the switch' to turn genes on. Other blue light sensing proteins are also known. Dr Gardner posed the question, are these 'bacteria only' tricks, or do eukaryotes use them? LOV PAS domains have been found in fungi such as brewers' yeast. Detection methods used to examine to action of photosensory and binding domains, and the changes in shape caused by exposure to light are not friendly to living organisms. To study these proteins, researches set beacons in the domains, flash them, and measure the changes. Because the LOV domains respond to blue light, these researches work, like Roxanne, under red light.

Dr Gardner told us to keep our eyes on optogenetics for an upcoming Nobel Prize. Place genes in organisms and use novel ways to illuminate them. Dr Gardner showed a video (which I haven't been able to locate yet) of a rat which had had an algal gene inserted into it using a virus, and a fiber optic cable inserted into its brain so neurons could be turned on or off using lasers, resulting in behavioral changes, in this case, feeding. After this look at one class of algal photoreceptors, researchers can go on to other photoreceptors, of which thirteen classes are known, detecting light from the ultraviolet to the infrared. Putting bacterial receptors into eukaryotes poses some issues- the receptors have to deal with the presence of a cell nucleus and 'figure out' the mechanisms of the eukaryotic cell. The EL222 protein has been turned into a research tool, inserted into organisms such as mice, yeast, and zebrafish. The more the gene expression in an organism, the more the response to light. The proteins which 'see light' in plants bond to other proteins and change their shape have been turned into biotech tools.

After this introduction to light sensors, Dr Gardner shifted to the subject of hypoxia sensors, the subject of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Hypoxia-inducible factor 1-alpha (HIF1A) is a PAS domain made in cells. HIFA1 is destroyed in real-time under normal conditions. If not enough oxygen is present, HIFA1 is not destroyed, which set up a response to produce more ATP (the fuel of the cell), and animals produce more red blood cells are reroute blood circulation to oxygen-starved body parts. HIFA1 can be used to treat anemia or blood circulation problems, but it also has the potential to be used for 'doping' by endurance athletes. Dr Gardner ruefully noted that speed walkers had beaten cyclists to the punch when it came to doping using a drug which inhibits HIFA1 destruction. Genes are turned on when they are needed. The genetic factors which produce growth can promote unregulated growth, cancer. If the system is broken, it is possible that shutting down HIFA1 production in cells can inhibit cancer. The structure of HIFA1 is similar to the structure of phototropic PAS domains.

Dr Gardner finished up with an exploration of biomedical research. One ongoing project is the building of 'libraries' of chemicals which could potentially be the 'grandfathers' of medicines. Fragment-based drug discovery involves observing where various chemicals bond, to which proteins. Currently, two-hundred thousand compounds are being testing for their potential as medicines. Do the compounds bond? Do the compounds do something functional? So far, eighty-five compounds merit further testing. He himself was involved with a small company, Peloton Therapeutics, which evaluated an HIF inhibitor (PT399) which might be used to treat kidney cancer, and is now in clinical trials. Peloton Therapeutics was bought by Merck. Dr Gardner noted that while plants and humans have different biology, they have similar regulation- plant work was what got us to bacterial work which got us to work on humans. He also reminded us that the biologists couldn't have gotten to this stage without physics and chemistry. Research is expensive, but drug costs are high for non-academic reasons... small companies take on the drug discovery risks and get bought out by pharmaceutical giants when they become established. Dr Gardner ended the lecture by thanking all of his grad students, and suggested that the audience buy these good people a drink in gratitude.

The lecture was followed by a brief Q&A session. Some Bastard in the audience asked the good doctor if current models proposed a single origin for blue light sensing protein domains, or if they evolved multiple times in different lineages, was it divergent or convergent evolution? Dr Gardner stated that there is good genetic evidence that blue light sensors are all derived from a common ancestor. Another questioner asked about circadian rhythms- even fungi such as bread mold have cues for timing. Light and feeding tend to correlate. Another question involved (I'd love to know what inspired this) the role that oxygen sensors might play in the incidence of obesity in high-altitude populations. Dr Gardner noted that populations in the Himalayas and Andes have evolved various HIF-related ways (more than one) to solve altitude issues. In the Himalayas, specifically Tibet, there are mechanisms which turn down HIF domains to prevent overly thickening the blood with red blood cells, but these have not evolved in populations in the Andes.

Dr Gardner delivered a great lecture, hitting the audience with a lot of technical terms but remaining accessible. I, personally, found the tying together of blue light sensors and hypoxia sensors very enlightening... it all comes down to proteins, and I find the use of similar 'toolkits' to solve different problems to be elegant. He threw in enough humor to keep the lecture from bogging down in the details. It helped, though, to be familiar with terms such as 'kinase' (this is where Secret Science Synergy comes in-the more lectures you go to, the better each one gets. Kudos to Dr Gardner, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House.

I've been poking around for videos of the good doctor lecturing, but there are a lot of Kevin Gardners, musicians AND biologists, out there. Here is the good doctor speaking at a CUNY open house about his research, starting at the twenty-seven minute mark:

Grab yourself a beverage, check it out, and soak in that SCIENCE!

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

NI! Anderthals?

Just a quick post before heading down to Brooklyn... poking around the t00bz, I found a BBC documentary concerning Neanderthals, and there was a speculative bit about how they may have sounded. It's an educated guess, based on the morphological characteristics of Neanderthal remains, and it's also Pure Comedy Gold:

A bunch of wags commented on how this vocal simulation sounded familiar:

The 'reconstructed' voice would be perfect for the lead singer of a black metal band, a sort of Paleolithic Heavy Rock sound. I'll show myself out the door...

There must have been a disturbance in the Force, because when I wrote this post, I didn't even know that Terry Jones, who perfectly embodied this high-pitched vocal style, died.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Relief in Richmond

I worked the graveyard shift this morning, so when I returned home, I basically hunkered down- no need to leave the house again on such a chilly day. I couldn't immediately get to sleep, though, being concerned about the big gun rally in Richmond, VA. Besides the gross optics of a gun rally being held on MLK day, the rally itself was inspired by a hoax promulgated by white nationalists. Neo-Nazi shitposters mused about the possibility of a race war being ignited at the rally, and governor Northam declared a state of emergency.

I spent altogether too much time checking the twitter feeds of intrepid journalists and activists at the scene of the rally. For the most part, it looked like a cosplay convention of anxious middle-aged white guys trying to look badass by bedizening themselves with 'tacticool' gear. There were some 4Chan chuds trying to 'trigger the normies' with their possibly-ironic Naziesque imagery... protip, this shit is too cryptic for people who aren't online too much.

I'm relieved that things transpired without any violence, though there was the grotesque spectacle of a leftist woman getting arrested for wearing a mask while plenty of gun-lovers went masked without repercussions. Thankfully, law enforcement picked up a bunch of white supremacist terrorists before they could attend the rally, so it was a farce, not a tragedy.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Living Well in Chappaqua Is the Best Revenge

Yeah, I've been poking around the weird part of the t00bz again, and I found a video of someone suffering from an advanced case of Hillary Derangement Syndrome:

Maybe I'm too even-keeled for my own good, but I can't fathom this degree of rage, especially at someone so middle-of-the-road as Hillary Clinton. This is the result of decades of propaganda regarding the former first lady, senator, and Secretary of State. I imagine a deep dive into the fever swamps of the Right would reveal tens of thousands of raging loons exactly like the woman in the video. This is a Two Minutes Hate that has lasted a quarter of a century. Meanwhile, in Chappaqua, not too far from my beloved City of Y______, Hillary is probably sipping chamomile tea, working on the NYT Sunday crossword puzzle, perhaps dimly aware that her mere existence enrages a demographically significant population in these here United States.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

It's a Jungle Out There

Today's snarkfest involved the rollout of the proposed battle dress uniforms for Trump's Space Force. The camouflage pattern was the source of the mirth:

The general thrust of the mockery is that these uniforms would only be useful if the Space Force were fighting the hostile autochthons of the Forest Moon of Endor:

Those fuzzy little freaks should have raked the forest floor!

Being a child of the New York Metro Area, and an avid listener of college radio, and 'alternative' commercial radio, I immediately realized that these uniforms would be useful if the Space Force ever had to invade a space jungle:

Any real action by the Space Force would have to involve the securing of Penzey's locations... for, uhhhhh, reasons:

I know I'm jumping on the bandwagon here, and that one critique of criticism of the Space Force is that people ragging on it would have supported it if Obama had proposed it, but I genuinely believe that the militarization of space is a bad thing. NASA was specifically created as a civilian agency to signal to the Soviets that the space race should not be weaponized. I'm not exactly comfortable with the US signalling that the 'final frontier' is a war zone. Sure, it might be comical to rag on the camouflage uniforms for our newly minted star warriors, but the whole endeavor seems a bad business.

Friday, January 17, 2020

This Is Your Brain on SCIENCE!!!

Poking around the t00bz, I found a video of what might be the greatest experiment in the history of science... a study of the effects of drugs on the web-building ability of spiders:

I love how the bone-dry delivery early in the video sets the viewer up for the uproarious joke that follows. This is a perfect example of deadpan snark. There are other 'Hinterland Tales' videos of a similar... uh... nature, so it seems like I've found yet another timesink.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Faithful Custodian of His Father's Legacy

Today's bummer news concerns the death of Christopher Tolkien at the age of 95. Young Tolkien was the custodian of his father's literary estate and the creator of the Middle Earth Phenomenon out of his father's copious notes. I'm a Tolkien fan, but I'm not a completist by any stretch of the imagination, so I 'tapped out' after The Silmarillion, when all of the interminable 'Unfinished Tales' and 'Whole Middle Earth Catalog' volumes started hitting the shelves. By then, the Good Professor's prose had prepared me to read the Eddas and Kalevala, which is what I believe the Good Professor intended. Still, the massive body of work Christopher Tolkien assembled from his father's copious notes is the perfect model for anyone interested in fantasy worldbuilding, dubbed subcreation (PDF) by the Good Professor, down to the various languages he invented for the inhabitants of his world. Almost as much as his father, Christopher Tolkien was responsible for the creation of Middle Earth, even down to drawing the left-justified fantasy map (WARNING: TV Tropes, serious timesink danger) which has passed into cliche status.

I was tickled pink to read that Christopher Tolkien wasn't a fan of Peter Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings' movies, dismissing them as juvenile puncho-puncho-run-run: “They gutted the book, making it an action movie for 15-25 year-olds, and it looks like The Hobbit will be the same.” My take on the movies is that they looked fair but felt foul, and that Peter Jackson's real intention was to make a big budget remake of Hawk the Slayer.

Christopher Tolkien was a faithful custodian of his father's legacy, and the intellectual property which, perhaps not for the better, codified the 'Epic Fantasy Industrial Complex' for a myriad of lesser writers. While collating and editing his father's notes, he managed to release the contradictory writings which demonstrated how his father's 'canon' was shaped and re-shaped. Mythology is a messy business, even when written by Just One Guy. The hunger which the reading public received the body of work which went ever ever on is a testimony to the power of that creation, and the need for escapism in a world as callous as ours. Christopher Tolkien lived well, he served his family well, and he served the reading public well... without him, would his father's legacy have achieved such eminence?

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

There Is no Doctor Jekyll

It's a strange case, that of Mr Hyde, but there's no good counterpart, no Dr Jekyll to balance out the sinister Robert F. Hyde, Trump donor and Connecticut congressional candidate. Hyde's communications with Ukrainian 'operative' Lev Parnas regarding ambassador Yovanovitch have a sort of 'turbulent priest' quality:

Confronted by the Daily Beast about his activities in Ukraine, Hyde responded with an insult of Representative Adam Schiff. Hyde is apparently a QAnon conspiracy loon, making reference to an evidence-free accusation that Schiff committed vague atrocities in the basement of the Standard Hotel in Los Angeles:

This is the sort of lunacy typically peddled by whackjobs like Liz Crokin. Hyde has become is so toxic that the chairman of the Connecticut GOP has asked him to drop his congressional bid:

Mr Romano fails to realize that Hyde perfectly embodies what his party has become, a morass of corruption, conspiracy nuttery, and threats of violence against political opponents. The Connecticut GOP is moribund, and Hyde probably hasn't got a chance in hell to win, so at this point, Romano might just want to make sure that he still gets invited to parties by nice people... can't have a deplorable making the country club set nervous. I doubt that anybody online is going to let him unfasten Hyde from around his neck.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Alec Guinness, Reanimated

Poking around the t00bz, I found something which should be catnip to a nerdly fellow such as myself, a synthesized simulacrum of Alec Guinness 'reciting' H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu. I'm a huge fan of Alec Guinness, both being somewhat of a 'Star Wars' fan and a fan of Tinker, Sailor, Soldier, Spy. I'm also a Lovecraft fan. The simulacrum captures some of Sir Alec's sonorousness, but with an odd Mi-Go sort of rasp:

In contrast, here is the real Sir Alec reading T.S. Elliott's The Waste Land:

Although Alec Guinness is best known for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the pulpy 'Star Wars' franchise, it's amusing and a bit grotesque to imagine him reciting something as outré as The Call of Cthulhu. I like to think of this simulacrum being a take on a Mi-Go abducted Sir Alec, forced to recite pulp cosmic horror from the confines of a brain cylinder. I'm not so sure he would have approved.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Those Sneezings and Wheezings Are Due to 'Sexism'

Given the sombre nature of my recent posts, I figured I needed to lighten things up a bit by posting some pop science. Atlas Obscura has a wonderful post about how the use of male ornamental plants has led to increasing severity of allergies. Landscapers tend to stick to male trees because female trees produce fruit, which tend to create messes when the fruits fall onto the ground. As a firm believer in usufruct, I am of the opinion that female and male/female trees would be a useful addition to landscapes urban and suburban, with no restrictions on usufruct. I'm fortunate to live in an area where there are plenty of mulberry trees and a handful of precious cherry trees, and I work at a site which has apple, quince, and cherry trees in a relic orchard (sadly, the lone peach tree has given up the ghost).

One of the trees mentioned in the article, the ginkgo, produces edible seeds, but the fruits stink like puke... and handling them can cause dermatitis. Even as a committed forager, I haven't brought myself to grab any- I always forget when they are in season, and I really don't want to transport a bag of vomit-aroma fruits either in my car or on public transportation. Every once in a while, I get ginkgo curious, when I smell that characteristic aroma, but the desire to have a habitable car dissuades me.

Anyway, the article is a fun, informative read, and it will give you insights into why you are suffering in the Spring... hopefully, landscapers will get over their 'botanical sexism' as they replace trees lost to age or misfortune.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

2019 Keeps Getting Worse

2019 was not a good year for me, being marked by the deaths of a coworker and friend and a workplace contractor and friend. Yesterday, it got even worse- my boss emailed us to tell us that a former subordinate of mine, who left the organization because a promotion on his other job rendered him unavailable, had died in November. His sister contacted our HR department to inform them, but didn’t offer any details, besides the fact that it was unexpected.

Ron Elliott was, to put it in TV Tropes terms, the quintessential ’deadpan snarked’... he was normally laconic, with a bit of a curmudgeonly streak, but if he liked you, his bone dry sense of humor would become apparent. One of his favorite sports was jocularly busting my chops, maintaining an almost impenetrable serious demeanor. Very rarely would he break character with a chuckle and murmur, “I’m just busting’ ‘em.” He wasn’t the kind of guy who liked novelty, unlike myself he had no patience for puzzling out solutions to whacky situations, but he was rock-steady when he knew what to expect, even if it was arduous. On several occasions, he worked overnight shifts during hurricanes or blizzards. Throw him a curveball and he’d get vexed, but confront him with a marathon, and he was a lion.

For a guy who wasn’t keen on novelty, Ron had the inconvenient trait of being a magnet for weirdness. If something off the wall was going to happen, it would happen on his watch. For example, one night, at shift change, he told me that two young bros in muscle cars were gunning their engines in the parking lot, and I thought he was pulling my leg yet again... then I checked out the pavement of the street outside the parking lot, and there were two sets of tire tracks where they had peeled out. It wasn’t always easy to divine truth from ribbing, but even the crazy stories usually turned out to have a kernel of fact. I’m still skeptical about the time he told me he’d seen Bigfoot on the grounds...

When he started working with me, Ron had a primary job as the manager of the local VFW hall bar. He lived in town, and both of his jobs were in town. If some drunk passed out on the sidewalk outside the site, Ron would be the guy to identify him. He all the local scuttlebutt, and would occasionally editorialize about the local scene, whereupon I would tell him to move out of the one-horse town, perhaps to Yonkers. He eventually got a more steady primary job with Metro North, which eventually led to the promotion which made him unable to work for us, it was the classic offer he couldn’t refuse. Even at Metro North, he tended to have run-ins with eccentrics.

The one thing that Ron would rhapsodize about was his youth in the suburbs of Chicago, and the adventures he had in his boyhood environs. In the back of his mind, he always had a notion that the inhabitants of his current hilly home weren’t exactly on the level... maybe that’s why he was a magnet for weirdness.

Tonight, to honor Ron, I think I will open up the parking lot and see if any wannabe drag racers drive in for a pre-race engine revving. Even though he always said he had no patience for weirdness, I don’t think he would have had things otherwise.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Monster Beats and Objectivism

One of my guilty pleasures, which I don't mention very often, is occasionally listening to the music of Canadian prog-rock band Rush... sure, their music is overlong and overindulgent, but every once in a while, you just have to listen to something which somehow manages to be ponderous yet sprightly. Bearing my dualistic feelings towards the band in mind, I am genuinely bummed out about the death of Neil Peart, Rush drummer and lyricist, at the age of 67. Peart was an incredible drummer, bashing his formidable kit like a madman, changing time signatures at a bewildering rate.

Neil Peart joined Rush in 1974, after the band's original drummer had to quit for medical reasons shortly after the release of the band's first album. After Peart joined the band, their sound became less bluesy with the album Fly by Night.

The title track to Fly by Night is a pretty straightforward paean to relocating overseas as a young person:

Soon, Peart introduced a Randian subtext into his lyrics, with Anthem being a tribute to an Ayn Rand novella:

Then things get weird, with the outré By-Tor & the Snow Dog being a Dantesque epic about... uh... two dogs fighting at the gates of Hell:

I know that it's a joke, I just don't get it... but the drumming is virtuosic. At any rate, the band must have dug the joke, because they released a sequel to the song, Necromancer:

Peart went all in on the science-fiction themes he flirted with on the album 2112, a dystopian tale of a society in which a cadre of priests suppresses creativity. It's all very earnest and goofy, but the music really saves the day here:

I would have to say that the band's Libertarian bent hit its peak with The Trees, though they seem to have gotten over this particular insanity eventually:

Peart had a way of making simple activities, such as listening to the radio, seem mystical and transcendent:

Even when writing about fast cars, a popular subject of rock-and/or-roll since the very beginning of the genre, Neil Peart introduced a dystopian regime and police hovercraft into the mix with Red Barchetta (my personal favorite song by the band):

The band's music was catnip to nerdy adolescent boys, and I'd bet actual folding money that Neil Peart was a more potent vector for Libertarianism than even Ayn Rand herself... a kid who won't get through Atlas Shrugged in a million years could listen to The Trees and get the basic gist. Me? I always preferred more stripped-down music such as punk (and the more lefty politics common to the genre), but a little bit of Rush was an interesting, occasional diversion. I did see Rush play live in the New Haven Coliseum, courtesy of a friend who was program director for a local Connecticut classic rock station... the seats were great (about ten rows back), the stage show elaborate, but there wasn't the visceral feel of being in the pit at a punk show.

I will be listening to Rush tonight throughout the graveyard shift, it's a perfect opportunity for slogging through twenty-minute rock operas about future dystopian societies while forgetting our current, dreary dystopia. Maybe if the news had a constant accompaniment by musical virtuosity, propelled by muscular-yet-brainy drumming, things would be more bearable.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Fog of War Poses Aviation Hazard

The most horrific development out of the current situation in the Middle East is the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet two minutes after takeoff from the Tehran airport. Due to the number of Canadian passengers aboard, Prime Minister Trudeau issued a statement, opining that the Iranians probably shot the plane down with a surface-to-air missile by mistake. The grim euphemism for this sort of horror is 'collateral damage', which apparently gained traction during the Vietnam War. My guess is that a trigger-happy anti-aircraft crew saw a plane and launched the missile... well, Trump did promise to send big jet planes.

As can be predicted, Trump's response was pretty awful, a weird synergy of domestic racism and international belligerance:

Of course, being a liberal, I am cursed with memory, in this case, the downing of an Iranian passenger jet by an American missile. Maybe the Persian Gulf IS a bad neighborhood, but who's the principal thug in the region?

To make matters worse, the conspiracy fever swamps are roiling with hot takes, such as the notion that the attack was perpetrated by CIA backed 'Deep State' elements to eliminate evidence that sinister Canadian intelligence operatives brokered the Uranium One deal between Hillary Clinton and the Russians, who transferred the uranium to the CIA puppet state Iran... I'm not making this up:

The Trump dead-enders would rather see their Golden Ass wage war on Canada than to admit that he's a terrible president. Meanwhile, the rest of us look on in horror at a war of errorist attacks waged by two not-so-stable countries, an actual theocracy and a wannabe-theocracy.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Cold Comfort

When the whole world seems to be going to hell, the best way to seek solace is to find a beautiful natural locale... while they still exist. One of the places which is near and dear to my heart is Kingsland Point Park in Sleepy Hollow, which is one of the most scenic spots in the lower Hudson River Valley. It overlooks the Tappan Zee, the widest section of the mighty river:

While it wasn't a frigid day, the mercury was at 37 Fahrenheit (not quite 3 Celsius), a persistent high wind off of the river made it feel about ten degrees colder. The river itself was decorated with whitecaps:

I didn't stay long, it was just a quick visit before heading to work, but it took my mind off of the current geopolitical climate... I prefer the cold of a winter day to the heat of irresponsible rhetoric.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Meet the New Propaganda War, Same as the Old Propaganda War

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of surrealistic English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. Uncle Robyn began his unlikely pop career with a band named the Soft Boys (some of whom later backed him as The Egyptians in his later pop incarnation). Perhaps the best known Soft Boys songs is an anomaly in the band's typical oeuvre of psychedelic jangle-pop songs... I Wanna Destroy You was written as a spoof of the English punk scene, but nobody at the time seemed to get the joke because the song is a legitimate punk barnburner. It's also a song that I return to every time there is a push to get this country into another war (and we're in one with Iran, you can't just kill a general and say you're not already at war), since it is a scathing indictment of the News Entertainment Industrial Complex which hasn't seen a war it doesn't like:

Just like Robyn, I feel it coming on again, just like it did before...

The infuriating thing about the current propaganda push is that it is identical to the same propaganda push, as demonstrates with this montage:

Various news organizations are even trundling out the same mendacious monsters who lied the country into the second Gulf War, people that a sane society would have shipped off the the Hauge, or at least Leavenworth. We are even hearing the same 'if you're not with us, you're against us' lie. Heavens forbid a nuanced approach to a subject as serious as yet another land war in Asia, waged while we still have two continuing wars in the region. As Robyn sang, "A pox upon the media and everything you read, they tell you your opinions and they're very good indeed."

We're already at war, folks, no matter what any politician or pundit will tell you. It remains to be seen what sort of escalation is possible, but we already started the shooting. I just hope that people remember the past seventeen years, and the propaganda war waged on the American public. I've listened to enough news for the day, it's time to sit back and listen to some righteously angry music.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Strong Taliban/ISIS Vibes Here

Looks like the current occupant of the White House has issued a threat much like 'one false move and this shrine gets it':

This threat of targeting cultural sites amounts to a war crime if followed through on. It is also the same sort of nihilistic destruction that the Taliban and ISIS have engaged in. Trump has a history of destroying culturally significant structures- when he built his, as Tengrain would put it, Trash Palace on 5th Avenue, he reneged on a promise to preserve the Art Deco friezes that decorated the Bonwit Teller building which he demolished. While the Taliban and ISIS destroyed art treasures that didn't conform to their definition of Islam, Trump's destruction was in service of his god, Mammon. In an especially gross corollary to this story, Trump used his 'John Baron' alter-ego in an attempt to divert public wrath:

Trump values nothing besides the Almighty Dollar, not centuries old mosques in Iran, not decades old friezes in Manhattan, not even the blood of children, American or Iranian.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Locker Room Talk: This BS Again

Today was a day, I worked the graveyard shift, returned home for a quick shower, then headed down to Manhattan for my volunteer coaching gig... I really should just install a revolving door in the apartment. When I got to the dojo, the general conversation was, “Happy New Year, can you believe we in another war?” I’ve known most of the other coaches for a l-o-n-g time, and we spent a lot of time between classes talking politics and policy. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, I went with Frenchy (who is Italian) to the three-story pile of burning rubble in which we had lost friends. Confronted with that horror, we were dismayed when the narrative shifted to Iraq, and we realized that our government would be visiting horror on innocent Iraqis, while letting the true powers behind the attacks go scot-free.

It was with a gross feeling of deja vu that we asked each other, “Can you believe this shit is happening again?” All those conversations, sitting on the tatamis, came back to mind, the discussions about the lack of strategy, the propaganda campaign, the risks posed to our Muslim friends. “Can you believe this shit?” All over again...

I didn’t notice an expanded police presence on streets or subway, but I’ve read that it’s out there. I was too beat to notice much, too tired from an overnight shift and four hours of classes, too preoccupied with the impending shitstorm. Right now, I’ve just gotten up to get ready to work the graveyard shift again. I’m sure I’ll be preoccupied with the impending shitstorm to contemplate much. It’s the Bad Old Days of the aughts all over again, at least I have good people to discuss it with, this is the kind of locker room talk that non-assholes engage in.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Perturbed About Persia

The killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani has me a bit perturbed. Sure, Soleimani was, as the current occupant of the White House would put it, a 'bad hombre', but he was a major player in a region characterized by shifting allegiances and conflicts of a tribal and sectarian nature that most Americans, and certainly not the current occupant of the White House, do not understand. Soleimani supported Iraqi Shiite militias that were participants in the anti-U.S. insurgency, but he also supported war efforts against the Sunni fundamentalist ISIS. Soleimani was a bad guy in a region full of bad guys, including some of the supposed good guys. In true Middle Eastern fashion, he was the supporter of our enemies and of the enemies of our enemies. I'm not mourning his death, but I have serious misgivings about what it portends.

The Iranian government has sworn revenge, as they always do, and although they can't stand toe-to-toe with the U.S. military, they have a lot of options for creating havoc. The could strike oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, which would create a recession. They could strike oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. They could launch missiles into Israel. They could ramp up their support for Shiite militias in Iraq. They could launch cyberattacks on U.S. computer systems. While they are no match for the United States, they are perfectly capable of initiating a broad spectrum of attacks on U.S. interests.

Looking at the Wiki page (which is never wrong) for Iran, it has a population of approximately eighty-two million, which would make an invasion of the country a harrowing endeavor. It is also less subject to factionalism than Iraq, which has three large demographic divisions. I doubt that any of our allies would join in with the U.S. on yet another war of choice... though the Saudis would cheer from the sidelines as Americans died to advance their Sunni fundamentalist cause in the Middle East. I don't think that even Trump is dumb enough to start yet another land war in Asia, but I have a suspicion that he doesn't have any plan for a follow up on Soleimani's death, that he is just spiking the football and thinks that he's won. Meanwhile, we're not in the runup to war, we're now in one- one doesn't just kill a high ranking military commander of another country and claim that it wasn't an act of war.

Perhaps my greatest misgiving is a sinking feeling that the American media will gloss over the costs, human and otherwise, of the wars that we have been engaged in since 2001, and will end up cheerleading for a yet another war. Already, a campaign of misinformation is being waged on the American public by administration officials, with Mike Pence attempting, poorly, to attach blame for the 9/11 attacks on the Iranians:

Not only does he get the number of terrorists wrong, but he completely ignores the Saudi complicity in the attacks.

As far as Trump himself goes, there's a tweet for everything, and the idea that he killed Soleimani to distract the public from his ongoing legal problems is not far-fetched.

I just have the feeling that the news media will screw this up again, and that we are entering yet another quagmire that will end up in more dead Americans. I also suspect that Trump and his cronies have invested in arms manufacturers' stocks, and stand to make a killing on the killing. I also believe that this misadventure could spell the end of NATO- to use a Yonkers-appropriate analogy, if your drinking buddy keeps starting barfights, you stop drinking with him.

Whatever happens, it looks to me like there's a supreme shitstorm a-brewin'. There's no doubt that Iran will escalate the conflict, and there will be, at minimum, the sort of asymmetric warfare that will disrupt the world economy. I haven't even looked at the price of gasoline today, and gasoline is far less precious than blood.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

How Do We Sleep When Our World Is Burning?

The images out of Australia are horrific, as Tengrain and the Doktor Zoom have described. The conditions are hellish, a combination of drought, heatwave, and, now, wildfires. To compound matters, right-wing politicians in Australia have long been involved in climate change denial.

The extent of the wildfires is staggering, with smoke reaching New Zealand, and soot staining the country's glaciers. One factor in the vastness of the territory in flames is the nature of eucalyptus trees, which are basically botanical tinderboxes- the trees are laden with volatile oils which foster fires that clear the forest undergrowth, leaving a burned-over district in which the fire-activated eucalyptus seeds can germinate, allowing the fast-growing trees to grow with little competition. Wildfires have always been a normal factor in ecosystems, and in the case of Australia, the aboriginal peoples used controlled burns to regulate the environment in their favor, to the extent that early European explorers described the land as 'parklike'. The current out-of-control fires are due to the drought, the forces which once worked to sustain the Australian biomes, including fires, are now out of balance. As if the situation on the land isn't bad enough, the kelp forests of Australia are dying.

I sure hope that the hellish images out of Australia act as a belated wake-up call to the world, though I imagine that the usual suspects in the media will obscure, as if with a smokescreen, the role of climate change. The post title was adapted from the 1987 song Beds Are Burning by Australia band Midnight Oil, a band which always promulgated environmental and social justice issues, and was led by big, bad, bald frontman Peter Garrett, who went on to a long career as a progressive politician. The song is required listening:

I always note that we are not destroying THE planet, but we are destroying OUR planet... there are organisms which thrive under conditions which would end us quickly, these organisms will survive pretty much anything we can throw at them. That being said, we are taking down a lot of really charming species with us.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A Clear Vision for 2020

Now that 2020 is upon us, it's time to create a clear vision for the year. Obviously, the number one priority for decent Americans is to vote the cretinous creep in the White House out of office. The idea that some Trump supporters are itching for a civil war makes this even more imperative. I don't think that the bulk of the MAGA people will get off of their duffs to start anything, but I have no doubt that some 'lone wolf' dead-enders will be up to some mischief. At any rate, I think 2020 is going to be a Very Stupid Year.

One somewhat disconcerting feeling that needles me at times is the challenge posed by the rise in hate crimes. I thought I was pretty well insulated from this madness, but the mass-knifing in Monsey, across the river, has caused me to take pause. I don't think that I, personally, would be targeted for a hate crime (being cis, white, hetero, and tough-looking), but I am once again forced to consider what I would do if things got bad for people I know... one comment I saw on a recent story about the Monsey attack was 'who am I going to have to hide in my attic?'

2020 is going to involve a lot of work- passive hope that things will get better just isn't going to cut it this year. It's going to be an exhausting year, but I have some hope that good people outnumber the bigoted assholes. We just need a clear vision for 2020- without that, we'll just be stumbling around, headed for oblivion.