Saturday, October 31, 2020

Two Centuries of a Spooky Classic

 This year marks the bicentennial of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, originally published on March 15, 1820 as part of his collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, GentLongtime readers of this blog will know that reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an annual Halloween tradition for me.  I have long maintained that the tale (not a legend about a place that wasn't called Sleepy Hollow) is the original 'Scooby Doo' episode- a slightly spooky comedic story about a a creepy presence which may or may not be a ghost.  Irving's Ichabod Crane, so different from the real man, is pretty much Shaggy, a tall beanpole with a boundless appetite and a tendency toward credulity.

Sadly, this pandemic year put the kibosh on the Sleepy Hollow Literary Festival, which was supposed to be a celebration of the 'Legend's' bicentennial.  The festival was supposed to involve a consortium of Irving scholars presenting panel discussions and lectures on the 'Legend'.  I had been hoping to attend some of the festivities before work, but that was not to be.

I was able to attend a brief lecture about the inspirations and antecedents of the 'Legend' by local storyteller and Friend of the Bastard Jonathan Kruk, who in non-plague years would recite The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at The Old Dutch Church with organ accompaniment by my Great and Good Friend Jim Keyes.  Much of Mr Kruk's lecture, held outside on the grounds of Washington Irving's home Sunnyside, was based on his book Legends and Lore of Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson Valley.  

Irving wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow while living in England, trying to keep his family's import/export business afloat, and not having a very good time of it (the United States was in the midst of a 'buy American' phase, with patriotic Americans bolstering homegrown industry).  Disheartened, Irving met with Sir Walter Scott, a fan of his youthful writings, and received encouragement to continue his writing career.   In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving fused fact, fiction, and fable into a wonderful composite.

The figure of a headless specter is common throughout Northern Europe, with the Dullahan being a particularly vivid type specimen, by which I mean archetype specimen.  Apparently, the Dutch Americans also had a tradition of muffling themselves in cloaks and scaring unwanted individuals out of town in the colonial era.  In the journal of American revolutionary general William Heath, there is an account of a Hessian mercenary decapitated by a cannon ball: "A shot from the American cannon at this place took off the head of a Hessian artillery-man. They also left one of the artillery horses dead on the field. What other loss they sustained was not known."   

This compares well with Irving's account of the decapitated Hessian: "It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War..."

 I have long maintained that much of the appeal of the 'Legend' is due to its sparse plot... at its heart, it's the story of a man who goes to a party and gets chased by what he thinks is a headless horseman.  There is a lot of scope for adding one's own spin on the tale- good-natured rowdy vs pseudo-intellectual, rural vs urban, Dutch vs English.  Even more significantly is Irving's genius at description, with his portrayal of Ichabod Crane being a masterpiece of comedic writing:

In this by-place of nature there abode, some thirty years since, a worthy wight of the name of Ichabod Crane, a native of Connecticut, who "tarried" in Sleepy Hollow for the purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity. He was tall and exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, and feet that might have served for shovels. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weathercock perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield. 

It's odd that a lot of modern adaptations insist on making Crane sexy. 

For me,a lot of the appeal of the story is that it is local, indeed hyper local.  The route of the 'Legend', on Route 9, is one I have driven many times.  Again, Irving's genius at description comes into play in his depiction of the Pocantico River valley that he dubbed Sleepy Hollow:

In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail and implored the protection of Saint Nicholas, there lies a small market town which is generally known by the name of Tarry Town. This name was given by the good housewives of the adjacent country from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days. Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley among high hills which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook murmurs through it and, with the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker, is almost the only sound that ever breaks the uniform tranquillity. 

It's the attention to detail that most adaptations tend to lose, those little flourishes which conjure up an image that remains to this day, say when you hear a woodpecker earning its keep at Kingsland Point Park.

There are some nice background pieces about the 'Legend', such as this History Channel essay or this CBS news item.  Again, the appeal of the 'Legend', a factor in its two centuries of popularity, is that it is endlessly adaptable- it was a brilliant synthesis by Washington Irving that has spawned a myriad of different interpretations in a chain of creation.  It's an appropriate genesis for American fiction, both comic and scary.

I'll include one recent adaptation, an animated short by David Hyde Costello and narrated by poet Malik Work, which is a current stand-in for a shadow puppet show present annually in non-plague years at Irving's Sunnyside, which was cancelled this year due to the impossibility of social distancing between the two puppeteers involved in the show:



I figure I'll end this post here... I've got some reading to do.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Short Runup to Halloween

 Typically, October is a very busy month for me- it is traditionally our major fundraising month on the job. My strategy a strategy for blogging in October, has typically involved setting up post ahead of time. Usually I take the time in October to write about horror fiction or scary movies.  This year, a year of genuine horrors and habitual mask-wearing, what is the point of Halloween?  

More importantly, we have canceled two minor fundraising events and truncated another, I just haven't been as busy as I am in a typical year.  The hectic nights of running around making sure event logistics are adhered to have been replaced by low-key nights playing with the cat and reading horror fact, not horror fiction.

Tomorrow will be weird, overtime has been authorized because people expecting events will show up, so someone has to be on site to ensure that they don't improvise kicks on the premises.  It's fewer hours than a typical October weekend, but a little extra cash will be a nice treat during this tricky year.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Good Thing the Pandemic Is Over

Forget the spike in COVID-19 numbers, never mind the fact that over 230,000 Americans have died, the Trump Administration's Office of Science and Technology Policy released a document enumerating its accomplishments, among which is, and I quote: "ENDING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC".

 From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Administration has taken decisive actions to engage scientists and health professionals in academia, industry, and government to understand, treat, and defeat the disease. 

 Currently, COVID-19 is ravaging the Midwest, with cases of the disease rising in counties in which Spready Krueger has held rallies.  It's grotesque enough that the White House is taking credit for ENDING THE PANDEMIC, but the fact that they are doing so while actively spreading the virus is monstrous.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Three Years of Q-nacy

 Three years ago today, the weirdest conspiracy theory I have encountered, which is more like a conspiracy aggregator which can absorb other conspiracy theories, was birthed.  The first prediction was  ambitious. predicting the fall of the right-wing's most hated figure, but not auspicious, having not come to pass in the ensuing three years... oddly enough, the first 'Q Drop' was actually a response to another 'insider anon' on 4chan:

Apparently, it was common for various shitposters to claim inside knowledge about intelligence or law enforcement matters, and would engage in games of one-upsmanship.  Oddly enough, the shitposter who came to be known as 'Q Clearance Patriot' beat out other figures such as 'FBI Anon'.

The QAnon phenomenon had its start on 4chan, but migrated to the even more problematic imageboard 8chan (now rebranded as 8kun after several mass shooters posted manifestos on the imageboard).  The poster(s) known as Q painted themselves into a corner by claiming that no other sites would be used for communiques.  That's a total genius move by a 'team of high ranking military intelligence operatives'.

Most of Q's drops in the first couple of years consisted of cryptic missives written in a mix of jargon and code that functioned as an Alternate Reality Game for believers.  They could decode these 'drops' and compare notes to piece together a narrative, which typically involved the arrest and trial by military tribunal (followed, naturally, by execution) of high-ranking Democrats.

QAnon is really the Unified Field Theory of conspiracies, capable of absorbing other conspiracy theories.  Elites drinking the blood of children to get high and regain their youth?  Check!  Aliens manipulating humanity behind the scenes?  Welcome aboard!  Mole children raised as slaves in underground military bases?  You got it!  JFK Jr faking his death to fight Hillary Clinton?  Yeah, there's a sect for that.  The one thing that unifies the true Q believers is the belief that Donald Trump, the most corrupt person to occupy the White House, and a man credibly accused of being a sexual predator, is humanity's last hope in the war against the sinister cabal that rules the world behind the scenes, employing most of Earth's people as cattle to prey upon.  Yeah, it's pretty much Cult 45, seasoned with more than a touch of antisemitic Blood Libel.  I have to confess that the whole rigmarole fascinates me, but then again, I am a huge fan of Foucault's Pendulum and Illuminatus!

If you're unfamiliar with this conspiracy complex, a good place to familiarize yourself with the basics is the irreverent QAnon Anonymous podcast, and a real thorough debunker of the whole mishegas is Mike Rains, who posts as Poker and Politics (he probably knows the 'comms' better than anyone).

It's been three years since the first prognostication by Q was made, and it still hasn't come true.  Next week, the God Emperor that the Q-loons worship stands a good chance to lose the presidency in a landslide.  I don't think that will end the QAnon phenomenon, most cults survive failed prophecies.  What the movement morphs into remains to be seen, but watching the phenomenon unfold over three years, I have the distinct feeling that I was watching the birth of a new religion in realtime.  Who the hell knows what it'll morph into over the next three years?

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Early Voting Foray

 Today, I decided to see if this early voting thing, just implemented in New York State last year, was for me...  I had every intention to get up this morning and hit Eastern Yonkers' early voting site, the Grinton I. Will Library, before the polls opened at noon (they stagger the hours, alternating between 8AM-4PM and Noon-8PM).  I confess, though, that my discipline was sub-par today.  I didn't leave the house until about 4PM, and by the time I arrived at the library, the parking lot was full and there were two lines snaking around the building, one to the right of the entrance and into the parking lot, and one to the left of the entrance and along the sidewalk.  An enterprising entrepreneur had parked a food truck on the street outside the library.

I had thought to vote exactly a week before Election Day to make some sort of statement, but I now believe that voting on Election Day itself might be the soundest move- I've never had to wait more than fifteen minutes to vote at my usual polling place.  That's how it goes in a majority white, majority middle-class neighborhood.  I don't have to start work at 5AM on Election Day, so I can just pop in around 6AM and have plenty of time to get to work.

At any rate, voting against the Asshole-in-Chief is going to be an immense source of satisfaction.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Secret Science Club Zoom Lecture Recap: Eco Restoration Presentation

 Yesterday, I logged in on the latest Secret Science Club Zoom lecture featuring Dr Thomas Crowther of Zurich's Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and director of the Crowtherlab.  Dr Crowther is also involved in the developing RESTOR open data platform.

In his Zoom lecture, Dr Crowther spoke mainly about forest restoration, and its implications in carbon capture.  He began with a video by NASA's Goddard Center depicting a model of a yearly global carbon cycle:

As the plants regrow leaves in the Spring, the atmospheric CO2 levels go down- carbon is sequestered in the biosphere.  While a tree can capture a large amount of carbon in its woody tissue and leaves, most of the carbon it captures is underground, in the microbes, fungi, and minute animals (such as nematodes) that live among the tree's roots.

A lot of what we know about the amount of trees was obtained using satellite imagery, but this is inadequate, as satellites cannot penetrate the forest canopy.  A more accurate number must be obtained by researchers on the ground- the current estimate is that the world is home to three trillion trees, seven times the amount tallied using satellite images.  This information led to the creation of the Trillion Trees project, which identifies optimal sites for reforestation, with the goal of planting... you guessed it... a trillion trees.  Dr Crowther had beautiful maps of the regions which are most promising for reforestation- mainly areas on the margins of existing forests which have been extensively logged.  He also noted that the maps needed to be corrected, with old maps showing trees on the unforested Faroes and omitting trees in Vatican City.

While deforestation is a global problem, it is also a local problem, and local populations must be included in any ecological restoration projects.  The right trees must be planted in the right places, and trees which have agricultural uses are particularly attractive to avoid a 'pay landholder to plant trees which get cut down so the landholder can get paid to plant trees again' model.  

Forests aren't the only important biome, savannahs/grasslands and wetlands/peatlands also sequester a significant amount of carbon dioxide.  The treeless tundra of the north captures a lot of carbon, and the soil biodiversity is even greater than that of tropical forests.  

Dr Crowther accompanied his lecture with outstanding graphics- the maps were extremely informative, the different graphs and video models were beautiful.  When the video becomes available, I will post it.  I actually watched the video at work (I arrived an hour and a half early to watch it, finishing right when I had to punch in), on the edge of a wooded area, under the shade of a black walnut tree.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to take good notes under the circumstances, but was able to capture the gist of the lecture in this post.  Again, the video component of the lecture was an integral part, so the recap falls a little flat without it.

The lecture was followed with a Q&A session.  Some bastard in the audience asked about the roles played by invasive species.  Dr Crowther indicated that his lab was preparing a paper on invasives- invasive species are most common in coastal areas near ports.  In marginal areas, such as deserts, invasive species benefit from being ecologically similar to native species.  In more abundant areas, invasive species benefit from being ecologically different, able to exploit novel ecological niches.

At any rate, here is a video of Dr Crowther taking about ecological restoration,

Pour yourself a beverage, and soak in that SCIENCE!

Sunday, October 25, 2020

When GOP Prophecy Fails

There's a fine line between hilarity and horror, and that line was crossed and re-crossed when Republican representative Clay Higgins of Louisiana claimed that his wife had predictive powers:

 I don't know what unauthorized foods are, unless Clay keeps kosher, which I doubt.  He could also avoid having his knives seized if he stocks up on thirty or forty plastic knives to hide around the house and yard.  What kind of survivalist nutjob is he, anyway?

 I don't believe in precognition, perhaps because I became familiar with the work of the late, great James Randi early on.  At any rate, there's no way that Mrs Higgins has the gift of premonition... after all, she married a thrice-divorced whackjob like Clay.

Post title taken from the classic essay on the usual fate of eschatological cults- perhaps the only sociology essay mentioned in a Blue Öyster Cult song. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

A Valiant Effort, an Implacable Foe

 Today was the last day of my volunteer coaching gig for the foreseeable future.  Ordinarily a twenty week stretch from October to March, we ran for eight weeks from September to October.  Our judo classes were simulacra of practice, because we had to forgo the close contact so crucial to our sport.  We did falling drills and practiced footwork.  I had sensei, who had driven up from New Jersey, throw me a couple of times to illustrate what we were simulating, and our teenaged counselor, a swimmer, exclaimed, "That's what judo is, I thought it was like yoga."  We have more bruises...

It's been a strange semester, one in which maintaining social distancing took up almost as much time as instruction.  The sense of camaraderie was great, we coaches usually occupy separate rooms, now we shared various areas of a soccer field.   We joked about how bad the year has been, how tough it is to tell six year olds not to hug.  We took 2020 group photos, a bunch of masked desperados, perhaps low-key comic book heroes.

It was a valiant effort, starting with our directors, who cobbled together an outdoor program, salvaging a semester.  Our foe, though, is implacable- the pandemic is spiking, we cannot continue in indoor spaces, with inadequate disinfecting protocols.  From a moral and a practical standpoint, we had to stop.

We had a bittersweet finish to the morning's activity, bidding each other farewells for an indeterminate period of time.  I thanked the kids, and told them how proud I was of them.  We had to get creative, and our students rose to the challenge.  When the world returns to sanity, we will have the crazy stories of almost-practices, of masked group photos, of our small pushback against a crisis none of us could have predicted.


Friday, October 23, 2020

So NOW They're Into Science?

The GOP has now come out in favor of science, sort of... never mind that these projects aren't feasible without the renewable energy that Trump denigrate (coal fired rockets aren't a thing). More importantly, the general thrust of scientific resources should be directed at ending the pandemic, not this: We'll have time for that after we stop the mass casualty event that's ongoing. I firmly believe that humanity needs to pursue an extraterrestrial destiny, but dire earthly concerns should be current priorities. I'm going to riff on my favorite Gil Scott-Heron poem now... 

 Coronavirus killed my friend, 
But Trumpy's on the Moon.
This goddamn plague will never end, 
But Trumpy's on the Moon. 
Sounds like a science-fiction dream, 
Trumpy on the Moon, 
But I suspect a kickbacks scheme, 
With Trumpy on the Moon.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Mute the Mutant

 Ugh, it's debate number two between Biden and Trump.  I just tuned in in time for Trump to blame Biden for the H1N1 flu response... in an outbreak which claimed 12,000 lives, compared to the current 220K plus.  It'll be interesting to see how Vulgarmort responds to the post two-minute mic mute.  Already, Trump is using the 'basement Biden' crack that the right-wingers love so much.

It's going to be a slog, a long night of idiocy and mendacity.  I'm at work, so I can't drink while watching this.  So far, the one bright spot is Kristen Welker's moderation, so much better than Chris Wallace's low-effort moderation.  I have to confess that Miss Welker's attractiveness is also a welcome distraction from Trump's scowling mug.

At least Biden is on the attack, calling out Trump's ineptitude, and his 'fiddling while Rome burns' golf outings.  I hope he keeps it up, enough with the malarky.

UPDATE: She really needs to use that mute button on that asshole.  I do like fiery Biden, though.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Dance Dissection

 I need a break from the general stupidity and nastiness of the current political campaign.  Last night, in an open threat at Wonkette, one of the commentariat posted some 80s music to liven up the mood, among which was New Order's 1983 new wave dance classic Blue Monday:  


The song charted in the UK, hitting number nine, which led to a glitchy live performance on Top of the Pops:


I figured I'd post videos of the various songs which inspired the song's various components.  It'll be interesting for me to line up all of these ancestors in one place, seeing that I first heard Blue Monday as an adolescent listening to the storied WLIR.

Various band members have copped to the fact that elements of the song were lifted from other songs.  Bassist Peter Hook confessed that the synthesized rhythm of the song was stolen from Donna Summer's Our Love:

Lead vocalist Bernard Sumner copped to stealing a bassline from Sylvester's You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real):

Sumner also copped to lifting portions of Klein + MBO's Dirty Talk:

The sepulchral chant in the song is sampled from Kraftwerk's Uranium:

Keyboardist Gillian Gilbert noted that the sound of the bass was reminiscent of Ennio Morricone, I'm hearing the guitar from the 'Musical Pocket Watch' theme from For a Few Dollars More:

There's also a resemblance between Blue Monday and a novelty track by Manchester act Gerry and the Holograms:

Poking around, I found a short video in which band members go over most of these influences:

There was a 1988 Quincy Jones remix of Blue Monday which was an international smash hit:

Well, this deep dive into an old favorite was a fun distraction from the current news, and who doesn't like dance music?

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

When You Can't Run on the Issues

Via Tengrain, we have the possibility that Trump is trying to duck out of the coming debate, which is supposed to concern foreign policy.  Trump's campaign doesn't seem to consider the pandemic, global warming, or racial injustice to be worthy topics of discussion, because they consider these topics to be hoaxes, by which I mean 'no win' topics.

Trump can't run on the issues, because he's made such a cock-up of everything.  Four years ago, Trump asked African-American voters, "What do you have to lose?"  Four years later, we have answers to that question... 

It's two weeks until the election,  two agonizingly long weeks.  I plan on voting early, for the first time ever (NY only made it an option last year), but the wait is almost unbearable.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Playing Greatest Hits for Biggest Shits

 Oh, yeah, the right wing noise machine is at it again, trying to recapture that 2016 high with a lurid story about Hunter Biden's laptop, basically rehashing the Anthony Wiener laptop story.  The evidence free conspiracy theories are all of a kind- this new one even alleges that, besides incriminating evidence of collusion with China, there is video of Hunter Biden torturing and molesting children.  This is just like the Wiener laptop hard drive, reputed to have contained a video of Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin cutting a child's face off before sacrificing her to  obtain her sweet, sweet adrenochrome.

It's lazy and stupid, but these are lazy and stupid people.  The supposed source of the data is a Trump supporter with a sketchy story about obtaining the data on Biden's drives, and the promoter of the story is Rudy Giuliani... even convicted felon Bernie Kerik is trying to recapture his fifteen minutes of fame by jumping on this lurid fantasy, tailor-made for the QAnon crowd.  The reporters at Rupert Murdoch's New York Post tried to keep their names off the byline. Flimsy evidence be damned, though, idiots have been spreading it on social media.

Like the Hillary/Huma video, evidence of Biden's crimes will never come to light, since it's all made-up nonsense.  That being said, Hunter Biden has lost my vote!

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Socially Distanced Contact Sport?

 Yesterday, I went to my volunteer coaching gig, with a sort of prop, a sadly deflated old basketball I borrowed from my neighbor Georgie,  who has a knack for destroying balls.  The plan was to use the ball as a proxy target, standing in for the feet that we sweep in several judo throws.  The sad shape in which I found the ball was a boon, I didn't want anything that would roll far.  We formed the kids into a circle and we passed the ball around using our sweeping techniques.  At one point, a six year old girl who hadn't studied with us raised her hand.

"Yes, young lady, what is your question?"

"Is this a real sport?"

In the back of my mind, I thought, "Not this year, kiddo, not this year."  As my actual response, I turned to my great and good friend Frenchie (the man who took my profile picture, who is, of course, Italian) and we decided to break the social distancing mandate for a while in order to show the kids what the sport is all about.  We went through the throws we were mimicking with the ball, the o-soto-garis, the ko-uchi-garis and o-uchi-garis, the de-ashi-barais... this allowed us to seque into ukemi, the techniques we apply to fall without injury.  

We spent quite a bit of time falling and rolling, on a soccer field rather than the mats we usually work out on.  Even as I rolled and slapped the ground, I kept on thinking, "You're going to feel this tomorrow."  Yeah, today involved a couple of aspirin and a nigh-scalding shower before I was functional enough to head to work.

After our classes in this not-quite-sport-no-not-this-year, we met with the two heads of the program and conferred about the rest of the semester, and probably year... with the colder weather coming upon us, and the impossibilities of social distancing indoors, and the unfeasibility of disinfecting equipment between classes, next Saturday is going to be our last session for the duration of our current crisis.  We typically run twenty weeks from October to March, this year we experimented with an eight week September to October session.  We worked hard, and we succeeded, but COVID is a bigger enemy than we are equipped to handle.

One thought that has been in the back of my mind for a year is 'don't be that guy'.  Last year, when an artistic director wanted to bring lanterns into one of our buildings, it was 'don't be that guy who is working when the building catches fire'.  This year it's 'don't be the guy who spreads COVID-19 to twenty or thirty six year-olds'.  We can't socially distance a contact sport, gimmicks and props notwithstanding.   I haven't set foot in a dojo since March 10th, the soccer pitch judo was an expedient, a somewhat soreness-inducing one, but the experiment has run its course.  Next Saturday will be melancholy, but the right choice is to go on hiatus, or in this case you could call it medical leave.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Baby Bear!

Longtime readers will know that I have a fondness for woolly bear caterpillars, the larvae of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella).  Ordinarily, I find the charming caterpillars while they are approximately the length and girth of my pinkie finger, a pretty hefty size for a caterpillar.  Last Monday, I found the smallest woolly bear that I've ever seen:

Look at that wee, precious beastie!  If it's lucky, it will bulk up on a variety of plants (no specialist like the monarch here), becoming the cute, finger-sized chunk that I am used to seeing, then freeze solid during the coldest winter days, ready to thaw out in the spring and develop into a pretty yellow moth.

As I've noted, I have a fondness for these little fuzzy buddies, and I was overjoyed to see one this small... next year, I think I'll have to keep my eyes peeled to see if I can spot the eggs of this charismatic moth.

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Metric Which Counts... to a Narcissist

To a TV President, nothing matters more than ratings, so the post-mortem for last night's dueling town halls must have sent him into an apoplexy:

Yeah, Trump is a big loser in the ratings.  That is gratifying to see... it looks like people are bored with Trump's tired, repetitive schtick, and wanted to see some sensible policy talk.  Why listen to a buffoon harp on the same old tired topics, slinging the same old lies, when you can listen to actual science-based environmentalism and the growth of green jobs?


In a hilarious own goal, a Trump campaign staffer tried to insult Biden by comparing him to a beloved children's television show host:

Yeah, I watched Mr Rogers as a wee one, and I'll take the kindly, empathetic Fred Rogers (a more genuine Christian than any religious-right fanatic) over Fred Trump's predator son.  "Won't you be my neighbor?" is a better TV catchphrase than "You're Fired!"

I make no bones about supporting Elizabeth Warren in the primaries, but I'll take a kindly, empathetic Joe Biden any day.  Maybe we need a nice uncle in the White House to soothe the widespread nationwide hurts... as long as he has a tough VP and even tougher AG to clean the neighborhood out after four years of a criminal conspiracy.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

From AQony to EQstasy

 It's been quite a day for the QAnon community... The day started on a terrible note for the self-styled 'digital soldiers', with YouTube banning multiple QAnon related channels- those that promote violence, which means most of them.  For a while, 8kun, the fountain of bullshit where 'Q' posts, went dark, but that seems to have been a temporary blip.  The day was a massaQer, videos were taken down, revenue streams were disrupted.

Tonight, however, was a banner night for the QAnon minions, as Donald Trump, known for promoting tweets from QAnon influencers, was asked for his opinion of the conspiracy community, and promoted the idea, debunked by anti-trafficking organizations, that they were combating pedophiles:


This is Qatnip to the Q-people, a senpai noticed me moment.  Samantha Guthrie unambiguously asked the question, and Trump did not denounce QAnon.  It wasn't quite Trump uttering "my fellow Americans, the Storm is upon us", but for people who have waited since October 2017 for Hillary Clinton to be arrested, any little validation is precious.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Kiss of Death

 As late as, say, July or August, if anybody had told me that the largest single denomination in the United States would turn out to be an interfaith death cult led by Donald Trump, I would not have believed them.  Now, with widespread defiance against mask wearing, and populations as diverse as Hasidim and GOP elites holding superspreader events, it's become pretty clear that an almost cartoonish death cult has taken hold of about a quarter of our population, with COVID Commander at the helm, steering straight into perdition.

The latest manifestation of this murder/suicide pact has arisen organically in Trump's recent superspreader rallies, as Trump expresses a wish to transmit the novel coronavirus in a novel way.

It was odd enough when he made a joke about kissing audience members, while not out of the woods regarding his COVID-19 situation, in Florida on Monday:

He reiterated this joke, or whatever, last night in Pennsylvania:

This repetition of a problematic line was enough to get the attention of professional Trump watchers.  Is it bravado?  Trollery?  Flattery?  Who can even tell with this White House whacko?  Would he follow through if his audience took him up on this offer?  Would they really yearn for the liar's kiss that says 'I love you' but means something else?   Trump said he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose voters... would he lose voters if he shot someone in the fifth row?

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Three Weeks Has Never Seemed So Long

 Three weeks until the upcoming presidential election, and it seems like an eternity.  I swear, the 2020 time dilation effect is going into overdrive.  Already we have seen coast-to-coast Republican election tampering, from illegal ballot boxes in California to hours-long waits at Georgia polling sites.  Yep, this coming three weeks is going to d-r-a-g on in agonizing fashion.

Since last year, New York State has allowed early voting- this year the early voting starts on October 24.  I typically work on Election Day, because my workplace is a polling site, and someone needs to make sure that the physical plant is up to the needs of the public... for example, one year a poll worker plugged in an electric heater and tripped a circuit breaker, which I had to rectify after telling them: "Light, heat, or voting... PICK TWO!"  This year, I will probably have to make sure social distancing guidelines and mask compliance are met... I am already trying to figure out the best way to ensure one-way traffic through our building for non-handicapped voters (the main entrance is the handicap-accessible, the side ones that I will suggest be used as exits, not so much).  I really want to get my crucial voting accomplished before then.

Three weeks... in a year that seems like it's been a century, time only seems to be slowing down.  I'm sure it'll be over in the blink of an eye, though.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Happy Cabrini Day!

 As is typical for us in October, we grapple with Columbus Day.  Christopher Columbus, put succinctly, was a terrible human being.  As someone of Italian, and like Columbus, Ligurian descent, I really think that a better exemplar of the Italian and Italian-American people is needed.

This year, I am inspired by fellow paisano Andrew Cuomo, who will be presiding over the dedication of a statue of Mother Cabrini tomorrow, and nominate Maria Francesca Cabrini, canonized as St Frances Xavier Cabrini, as a proper substitute for Columbus.  Francesca Cabrini, born in Lombardy in 1850, took holy orders and in 1880 founded the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the S67acred Heart of Jesus.  She was filled with missionary zeal, desirous of proselytizing in China, but was instructed by Pope Leo XIII to minister to the burgeoning Italian population in North America.

In the course of her missionary work, Mother Cabrini founded schools, orphanages, and hospitals, totalling 67 establishments by the time of her death in Chicago in 1917.  When she was canonized in 1946, the first American citizen to achieve sainthood, she was given the position of Patron Saint of Immigrants.

Whatever your opinion of the Roman Catholic Church may be, Maria Francesca Cabrini's contribution to society shouldn't be that controversial- no slave trade or heinous torture in her portfolio, no awkward explanations to schoolkids why such a horrid person is honored with a federal holiday.  The elevation of Columbus Day to federal holiday status was pretty much done to placate more conservative Italian-American interests, the sort of staid interests that are foreign to the Anarchist and Socialist impulses of many persons of Italian descent.  Even the most impious socialist Italian, though, can be brought to tears by a rendition of Ave Maria... none of us would object to swapping out Christopher Columbus for Maria Francesca Cabrini.  More importantly, isn't naming a federal holiday for a woman long past due?

Sunday, October 11, 2020

From Houston to Kingston

As if this year hasn't been a big enough bummer, I learned of the recent death of singer and music executive Johnny Nash.  Mr Nash is primarily known for his smash international hit I Can See Clearly Now-  because of the song's reggae-inflected sound, I have to confess that I was an adult when I learned that Johnny Nash was born and raised in Texas, not Jamaica.

With his clear tenor voice and teen idol looks, Johnny Nash's first major label single was his 1956 release A Teenager Sings the Blues:



He first charted with a cover of A Very Special Love in 1958: 




In 1965, Nash had a hit on the American R&B charts with Let's Move and Groove Together




1965 was also the year when Johnny Nash moved to Jamaica with his manager and formed a company to market American singers in Jamaica. Upon meeting Robert Nesta Marley, he signed the young singer on with publishing company Cayman Music. As for his own music, he was inspired by the rocksteady scene, recording Hold Me Tight in 1968 for his newly formed label JAD Records: 




JAD Records also signed Jamaican music legends Bob Marley, Rita Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff. Johnny Nash had a hit with his 1971 cover version of Bob Marley's Stir It Up




 My introduction to Johnny Nash, as a boy, was his 1972 international smash hit I Can See Clearly Now, backed by The Fabulous Five, Inc.. It's a gloriously optimistic song, just the sort of spirit lifter we need in these dark and stupid days:




Besides being a singer/songwriter and music executive, Johnny Nash was also an actor, having roles in 1959 bildungsroman Take a Giant Step and 1971 romance Vill så gärna tro

For his role in promoting and popularizing Jamaican music worldwide, Johnny Nash has had a couple of profiles in the Jamaica Gleaner. His passing elicited a heartfelt proclamation by Jamaican culture minister Olivia Grange: 

“The Johnny Nash experience tells a very credible story of Reggae's international influence since its inception. The fact that Johnny Nash and his manager Danny Sims were willing to move to Jamaica to record and produce reggae music meant that they were seeing the true potential of the music. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh wrote several songs for him and they in turn taught him how to play Reggae rhythm guitar. Johnny Nash covered a number of the Wailers' songs. It was a wonderful setup full of young, exuberant talent. Today we see similar connections being made between young Jamaican artistes and other young artistes and producers all over the globe. Jamaica is grateful for his contribution and we know that his legacy will live on.” 


As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, as a young 'un, I believed that Johnny Nash was Jamaican, and while I was wrong about the details, I think I was right in an existential sense... Houston and Kingston lost an icon with his passing.

Saturday, October 10, 2020


 No, it's not a storied lower Manhattan music venue, it's a desperate attempt to allow socially distant practice of a close contact sport...  Judo is an intimate sport, we fight chest-to-chest, hip to midsection- we throw partners and pin them to the mat, all the while maintaining a distance no greater than a couple of layers of fabric.  How do you play such a sport while maintaining social distancing guidelines?  The sad, simple answer is: you don't.  This year, the New York Open Judo Tournament was canceled, as was the summer Olympics- it's the year that never happened.

There are some things you can attempt to practice, which is where the PVC Gi comes in... it's basically a gi draped over a length of PVC pipe to allow students to practice kumikata, the gripping techniques that are the crucial beginning of any judo match, at more than arm's length:


Each student can grab a sleeve supported by the pipe, and grab the fabric in the center, rather than the traditional sleeve-and-lapel grip.  It's no substitute for the real thing, but it's a stop-gap measure which can allow us to give the kids we coach an opportunity to get the feel of proper gripping techniques.

Of course, the Saturday morning athletic program that I volunteer coach for has been holding outdoor classes, but that's no feasible in the cold weather.  Without mats, we judo coaches have mainly been acting as social distancing chaperones, helping the soccer and basketball coaches.  It looks like there will be a COVID-19 resurgence in the state, so I don't even know if we will be able to continue the program this semester, but if we eventually move inside, this silly-looking PVC gi might be just what the epidemiologist ordered.

Friday, October 9, 2020

What Kind of Rings Are We Talking About?

In the category of things few people were asking for, we have the revelation that Amazon's upcoming Lord of the Rings series will feature nudity and sexual content.  I have friends who are huge LotR fans who write porn, and they are not down with this decision.  There's no need to... uhhhh... insert 'adult content' in Tolkien's oeuvre- can't these producers leave well enough alone?

The only people who really want sex and nudity in their Tolkien are people who write Legolas/Gimli slashfic.  There's no need to 'Game of Thrones' a 'Lord of the Rings' series by ten percent.  Hell, do we really need a LotR series so soon after the movies, which I really didn't like, came out?  Can't the film/television industry stop dipping into the same well, especially if they are determined on polluting it?


Seriously, originality seems to be absent from the entertainment industry, which is cautious to the point of stagnation... they want an elfy fantasy series with boobs, blood, and problematic content, and they want to attach Tolkien's name to it, which is a pretty offensive way to treat the Good Professor.  I'm not against an elfy fantasy series with boobs, blood, and problematic content, but Tolkien's Middle Earth is not where it's at.


Published the same year as Tolkein's The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword is just what the show-runner ordered.  It's even elfier than 'The Lord of the Rings', being the story of a child stolen from a home in the Danelaw by an elf-earl and the changeling left in his place, and the wyrd which intertwines them.  Poul Anderson's elfs are immortal, like Tolkien's elves, marginally less cruel than the trolls with which they continually war, and indeed, the humans which both Faerie species dazzle and torment.  Anderson pretty much stuck to a main narrative, throwing elf-fosterling Skafloc and soulless changeling Valgard into a predestined conflict set in motion by a victim of Skafloc's Viking father


‘’Tis long since the elves have been abroad among men,’ said the witch.


‘Aye, we have been too busy in the war with the trolls,’ answered Imric in his voice that was like a wind blowing through ancient trees far away. ‘But now there is truce, and I am curious to find what has happened in the last hundred years.’


‘Much, and little of it good,’ said the witch. ‘The Danes have come from the east, burning and plundering and breaking English lords. They are nigh to overrunning all the western islands.’


‘That is not bad.’ Imric stroked his long mustache. ‘Before them the Saxons came with fire and death, and before them the Picts and Scots, and before them the Romans, and before them the Brythons and Goidels, and before them – but the tale is long and long, nor will it end with the Danes. And I, who have watched it almost since the land was made, see naught of evil in it, for it helps pass the time. I were fain to see these new folk.’


‘Then you need not ride far,’ said the witch, ‘for Orm the Strong has taken land here and his hall is but the ride of a night or less to the east on a mortal horse.’


‘A short trip for my windy-maned stallion. I will go.’


‘Hold – hold, elf!’ For a moment the witch sat muttering, and only her eyes had life, gleaming red out of the firelight’s monster shadows. Then of a sudden she cackled in glee and screamed, ‘Aye, ride, ride, elf, to Orm’s house by the sea. He is gone a-roving, but his wife will guest you gladly. She has but newly brought forth a son, and he is not yet christened.’


At these words Imric cocked his long pointed ears forward and his ivory-white face tautened. ‘Speak you sooth, witch?’ he asked then, low and toneless like wind blowing through unpeopled heather.


‘Aye, by Sathanas I swear it.’ The old woman rocked to and fro, squatting in her rags before the dim coals that spattered her face with red. The shadows flowed out of corners and chased each other across the walls, huge and misshapen and noiseless. ‘Go see for yourself.’


‘I would not venture to take a Dane-chief’s child. He might be under the Aesir’s ward.’


‘Nay, elf, nay. Orm is a Christian, but an indifferent one, and his son has yet been hallowed to no gods at all.’


‘Ill is it to lie to me,’ said Imric thinly.


‘I have naught to lose,’ answered the witch. ‘Orm burned my sons in their house, and my blood dies with me. I do not fear gods or devils, elves or men. But ’tis truth I speak.’



Anderson drew upon the same Northern European Dark Ages sources that Tokien drew upon, but his prose was more akin to that of the pulps than philologist Tolkien's was.  There's plenty of sex, some of it problematic (in particular, the conception of the changeling Valgard deserves a content warning), and the battle scenes are bloodier and more 'cinematic' than Tolkien ever wrote.  In this relatively slim book, Anderson conjured up short passages which nowadays would be the basis of multi-volume series of fantasy door-stoppers:

One year Imric outfitted a dozen longships and went a-roving. The fleet crossed the eastern sea, and harried goblins dwelling along the rocky coasts. Then the warriors rode inland and made a raid on a troll town, burning it after they had slain its folk and taken their treasure. Sailing north and then east through a weird white land of mist and cold and drifting icebergs, Imric and Skafloc and their men at last rounded the cape and went south. Here they fought dragons, and harried among the demons of the land. They followed the continent westward again, until it turned south, and then north anew. Their hardest fight was on a desert shore with a troop of exiled gods, grown thin and shrunken and mad in their loneliness but still wielding fearsome powers. Three elf ships were burned after the fight, there being none left to man them, but Imric was the victor.


They saw somewhat of humans, but paid no great heed, the more so since their warring was with beings of faerie; and the humans never saw them at all, or only in frightened glimpses. Only four ships returned of that fleet, three years after it set out, but they had a huge booty of wealth and captives. It had been a glorious voyage, of which great report went about in Alfheim and the neighboring lands, and the fame of Imric and Skafloc.

That half-page has more action in it than most modern fantasy series- I'm looking at YOU, Robert Jordan.

Wouldn't that make a for better special-effects extravaganza than the relatively subdued 'Lord of the Rings'?  It could have been storyboarded by Jack Kirby.  The novel is a proto-grimdark tale, as bloody as a doom-laden Norse saga, and should make a film/TV producer salivate.  Anderson deserves wider renown, especially since fans seem to be rebelling against what Sword and Sorcery author Michael Moorcock termed 'Epic Pooh'.  Even the biggest nerds of all, Dungeons and Dragons players, can be divided into two broad categories- those who think the game is based on Tolkien's fantasy and those who have read Poul Anderson.

Leave JRRT and his works alone, if you want boobs and mayhem, there are better options out there.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Winner of Last Night's Debate

 As I suspected it would be, last night's debate was a farrago of bad moderation, a failure to adhere to the rules, and a complete steamrolling of the questions asked to allow for the delivery of prepared monologues.  Pence was a boorish liar, or a lying boor- constantly going over time and interrupting Kamala Harris.  For her part, Kamala Harris was calm, and called out Pence for his prickery, but I can't help but feel that she missed several opportunities to eviscerate the mendacious mansplainer.

There was a clear winner of the debate, though, a silent critic which made clear what Pence was full of: 


What's the difference between Mike Pence and a fly? One is a disgusting disease vector that flies around, spreading pathogens, the other one is a fly. 

The one time I yelled at my computer screen during the debate was during Kamala Harris' response to Pence's statement that she and Joe Biden would use taxpayer dollars to fund Planned Parenthood: 


While Harris' response was a decent boilerplate answer, she could have eviscerated Pence, tying his stance on reproductive health with his failure, as Pandemic Czar, to contain the COVID-19 disaster. While Pence was governor of Indiana, that state experienced a full blown AIDS epidemic in rural counties- Pence was reluctant to initiate a clean-needle exchange program during an opiate abuse crisis, delaying a response to the outbreak. Furthermore, his defunding of Planned Parenthood in Indiana caused the closure of the only STD testing clinic, which exacerbated the response. 

The American people simply cannot trust a man whose ignorance, religious fundamentalism, and callous treatment of disadvantaged people led to a regional epidemic to run a pandemic response. There, that's bringing Pence's ignorant take on women's reproductive health directly to our current crisis... this is why I was screaming at the TV. Yeah, opportunities lost... I guess Senator Harris is too busy to obsess over minute historical details, but Indiana Boy Pete Buttigieg should have driven this information into her during debate prep. 

Anyway, back to the real winner of the debate, here's a nice theme song for Pence's public appearances: 


Yeah, he'll 'shake you down to say please as you accept your next dose of disease' pretty much sums it up.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Another Virtuoso Gone

2020 isn't getting any better, and the news of Netherlands-born American GUITAR GAWD Eddie Van Halen losing his fight with cancer at the age of 65 is yet another blow. In the late 70s, Van Halen took up the mantle of Jimi Hendrix and became the most noted hard rock guitarist of the late 70s-mid 80s, preferring to play a modified guitar he cobbled together himself. His place in the hard rock pantheon would be assured even if his only release was the instrumental Eruption off of his band's first album, characterized by an innovative two-handed string tapping technique. This is THE song which every teenager who picks up an electric guitar seeks to emulate. Here's the 1983 US Festival performance of Eruption:


 It's a hard act to follow up on, but Eddie Van Halen persisted in putting out party-friendly hard rock. Here's a performance of the second album's Beautiful Girls featuring Eddie Van Halen's son Wolfgang on the bass:


Everybody Wants Some!! off of Van Halen's third album, formed the sountrack behind a hilarious animated vignette in the movie Better Off Dead


 Unchained, from the band's fourth album, is another barn-burner of a song, with its heavily flanged guitar sound:


One of the standout tracks on Van Halen's fifth album is Little Guitars, which was inspired by Flamenco guitar playing: 


Eddie Van Halen described his guitar technique on Little Guitars in a charmingly self-deprecating fashion: 

"I think that the best thing I do is cheat. I came up with the intro after I bought a couple of Carlos Montoya records. I was hearing his fingerpicking, going, 'My God, this guy is great. I can't do that.' So, I just listened to that style of music for a couple of days and I cheated! [Using a pick] I am doing trills on the high E and pull-offs with my left hand, and slapping my middle finger on the low E. If there's something I want to do and can't, I won't give up until I can figure out some way to make it sound similar to what I really can do." 

  If that was cheating, nobody would cry foul. 

The rock world, and rock fandom, lost a titan with the passing of Eddie Van Halen. His eponymous band, anchored by his guitar genius and leavened with the sometimes clownish (in a good sense) showmanship of David Lee Roth, formed the soundtrack to a lot of parties in my youth. Eddie's playing, with it's use of effects pedals, tapping/hammering, and whammy bar, was emulated by a lot of bands of the era. I could go on with further examples of Eddie Van Halen's sheer virtuosity- the band released a dozen albums with various lineups, but I figure my time is better spent just blasting Eddie's music. What better tribute could there be to such a nonpareil?

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Secret Science Club Zoom Lecture Summary: A Brief Vacation from Earth

 Tonight, I am tuning in to a remote lecture presented by my great and good friends at The Secret Science Club

featuring astrophysicist Dr Katie Mack of the North Carolina State University. Appropriately enough for these seemingly eschatological times, the lecture is related to her new book: The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking). It'll be a nice vacation, contemplating an end which will be comfortably distant in spacetime, rather than an imminent one here in the Time of Coronavirus. 

Dr Mack began her lecture with an overview of astrophysics, beginning with the famous 'Blue Marble' picture of the Earth, noting how lonely and fragile our planet looks. In about a billion years, the sun will swell, engulfing Mercury and Venus, and boiling the oceans of Earth, eventually drawing it in. She held out hope that humanity will reach out into the cosmos, perhaps finding new homes, though that will only forestall the end. The universe had a beginning and will have an end, it is gradually becoming less hospitable. 

Dr Mack outlined five possible end of the universe scenarios: a big crunch, heat death, big rip, vacuum decay, and a bounce. 

She continued with a picture of the Milky Way taken from the Southern Hemisphere, then for a simulation of what the galaxy looks like from the outside, she showed us a picture of the Andromeda Galaxy, with the supermassive black hole at its center. The Milky Way contains over 100 billion stars. There are many other galazies- the Hubble Deep Field is an image of a small patch of the sky. Most galaxies are moving away from us and from each other, because the universe is expanding (Andromeda is getting closer). If the universe is expanding, it must have been smaller, hotter, and denser than it is now- this is what led to the Big Bang theory. If the universe is infinite, it was a smaller infinity earlier. 

When we observe light from distant galaxies, we see into the past- the light has been traveling for potentially billions of years. The Hubble Ultra Deep Field presents an image from thirteen billion years ago, about a half-billion years after the Big Bang, and we can actually see light from the hot plasma resulting from the Big Bang if we look far enough... light from the first formation of the universe. We are actually seeing the light from this event, and can map it out. Making a map of the universe using microwaves, a uniform background 'light' is apparent. There is a range of microwave wavelengths that form a Black Body curve which can help astrophysicists determine what the radiation source is. She compared this range to the light emitted by a hot poker. The background radiation is caused by the heat of the early universe. Little temperature fluctuations can be observed with more sensitive wavelength calibrations.

The distribution of matter, density, and the action of gravity can be extrapolated from this image, and computer models can be made to determine how galaxies and galaxy clusters were forming. Dr Mack then began her discussion of the end of the universe... 

The Big Crunch: The universe, now expanding, stops expanding. The outword push of the Big Bang is braked by gravity, and the slowing expansion will reverse. Galaxies will collide with greater frequency than they do now. Our galaxy will collide with Andromeda in about four billion years, stars will string along, new stars will be formed, the supermassive black holes will merge, but our solar system (with its bloated sun) probably won't hit anything else. In the Big Crunch, the collisions won't kill the stars, the compressed radiation from the newly smaller, denser universe will do the job. Space will get so hot from this hard radiation that thermonuclear explosions will destroy the stars. 

 The Heat Death: This is thought to be more likely than the Big Crunch. This is a big freeze- heat is disordered energy. In the Heat Death, the universe will continue to expand forever. In the 1990s, astrophysicists tried to determine the deceleration parameter, whether the expansion of the universe would slow down due to gravity. They discovered that the expansion was increasing, and proposed that dark energy was driving the acceleration. Einstein's cosmological constant was a mathematical model of this 'stretchiness'. In the Heat Death model, the universe gets emptier and emptier, and in one hundred billion years, our galaxy, merged with Andromeda and other locals, will be isolated, with other galaxy clusters invisible. The stars will burn out, the black holes will evaporate, and matter will dissolve into a bit of trace heat, stray photons, and dark matter. Dr Mack noted that this is a sad story. 

The Big Rip: If dark energy goes wrong, and is insufficiently explained by the Cosmological Constant (Einstein wasn't aware of other galaxies as more than a theoretical concept). Einstein didn't know that the universe was expanding, and he formulated the Cosmological Constant to explain why a static universe wasn't falling into itself due to gravity. The Cosmological Constant involves density over time- the amount of mass remains the same even as the universe expands. Matter and radiation become more diffuse, but the Cosmological Constant, the inherent stretchiness of space, remains the same. In one model phantom dark energy could cause density to increase. If this phantom dark energy can move galaxies apart, it can rip galaxies and stars apart, and can even rip smaller bodies apart, eventually ripping the universe apart. We don't know what dark energy is, and the phantom dark energy model can be determined by the Equation of State Parameter. If it is -1, the Heat Death is a good model, if less than -1, it's phantom dark energy, meaning a big rip is likely. Using the Planck microwave background information astrophysicists calculated the Equation of State Parameter, getting a value of -1.028 =/-0.032, suggesting that the Big Rip could be likely in about 188 billion years. 

Vacuum Decay: The discovery of the Higgs Boson was a big driver of this model. The standard model of particle physics includes various quarks, leptons (such as the electron), gauge bosons (force carriers), and the Higgs boson. Gauge bosons are responsible for the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and electromagnetism. Masses can be calculated and the stability of physics can be determined. The Higgs field sets the rules for how physics works, but the value of the field is thought to have changed at one time in the lifespan of the universe. Our laws of physics are meta-stable, they are stable for now. Dr Mack likened it to a glass on a table, safe for now, but vulnerable to be knocked over- it would be more stable on the floor. The Vacuum State is the lowest energy state and determines the rules of physics for the universe- there are two vacuum states, a false vacuume state and a true vacuum state. If we are in a false vacuum state and 'fall into' a true vacuum state, the laws of physics would alter and the nature of particles will change. We should be safe, but we live in a quantum mechanical universe, so barriers are never really barriers- eventually quantum tunnelling will occur and particles will cross barriers. Subatomic particles are governed by uncertainty, and even the Higgs field could be affected by quantum tunnelling, creating an expanding bubble of the true vacuum state which will cause atoms to fail to hold together. This would occur at the speed of light, so you would never see it coming. Dr Mack quoted a paragraph from a 1980 paper by Sidney Coleman and Frank De Luccia which she characterized as the most beautiful example of scientific poetry:  

“This is disheartening. The possibility that we are living in a false vacuum has never been a cheering one to contemplate. Vacuum decay is the ultimate ecological catastrophe; in a new vacuum there are new constants of nature; after vacuum decay, not only is life as we know it impossible, so is chemistry as we know it. “However, one could always draw stoic comfort from the possibility that perhaps in the course of time the new vacuum would sustain, if not life as we know it, at least some creatures capable of knowing joy. This possibility has now been eliminated.” 

The lecture was followed by a Q&A.  A question about the Big Crunch model led to a response that such a crunch might be an end, not followed by another Big Bang. A question about what lies outside the observable universe, beyond the Big Bang horizon led to the answer that the universe probably just carries on beyond what we can see- there is no sign of an edge. There was probably an inflation, an early rapid inflation, but we can't observe beyond it. 

What caused the change in the Higgs field value changing? That's a quantum mechanics question, but the behavior of the field probably resulted from the cooling of the primordial universe. By measuring the Higgs field, we can come to the conclusion that it could shift again. It's a technical, complicated question, difficult to translate into layperson's terms. 

Regarding dark matter, we have a good standard model for particle physics, and there are no big cracks, so there's no real data to point the way to go research-wise. We know we don't have the whole picture, but discovering what dark matter and dark energy are would open up whole new avenues of research. Why do we know so little about such prevalent components of the universe? They are invisible- dark matter only interacts with other matter gravitationally, it doesn't interact with electromagnetism (nor do neutrinos). There aren't enough neutrinos to account for dark matter though. We just don't know how to build a detector to find it. Dark matter particles might annihilate each other, creating normal matter, but that is theoretical. We can see how dark matter clumps by its gravitational effects, but we don't know what it is made of. Dark energy is even more difficult to study- it is uniformly distributed, invisible, and all it does is stretch space- it could be a property of space itself. We can look at growth of structures but that is not definite. 

Some bastard in the audience asked about the revival of a theory that primordial black holes might explain dark matter- Dr Mack noted that small black holes might explain it, but there are no good models for their formation. They can't be ruled out, but it's an idea that continually falls out of favor and gets revived. She is not optimistic about the black hole model, but it keeps coming back, with different mass ranges proposed.

Kudos to Dr Mack for delivering a mind-expanding and entertaining lecture, and to Dorian and Margaret for presenting it.  Thanks for presenting another fantastic Secret Science Club experience!

 For a taste of the end of the universe, presented in entertaining fashion, here is a video of Dr Mack presenting this topic:



Pour yourself a nice beverage and soak in that SCIENCE!!!