Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Uh, You Could Use Your Own Services, Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

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

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring Princeton University physicists Steven Scott Gubser and Frans Pretorius, whose latest book, The Little Book of Black Holes, is literally hot off the presses. The two doctors lectured in a 'tag team' style, taking turns at the microphone and occasionally engaging in physical demonstrations of concepts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

Move Under Ground

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

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

Now, that's scary stuff.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Life of a Character Actor is Always Intense

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

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

The man also was a soulful crooner:

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

Stanton and Garfunkel... what a concept!

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

Or a ranting conspiracy theorist in Paris, Texas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The D.C. Stands for 'Dark Carnival'

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Hart Had Heart

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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