Saturday, August 1, 2015

Monkey See and Monkey Do

There are times I find myself entertaining the thought that my monthly edition of Scientific American magazine should be mailed in an old fashioned, plain brown wrapper to hide its identity, much in the way Playboy was done years ago. I especially feel this way some days after having to endure the idle but festering idiocy of some redneck or your average Bible thumper. These two stalwarts of today's society feel their country commonsense and high school education outweighs a scientist's years of training and research in their field of study or believes nothing matters since we are living in the End Times with the Rapture imminent. Given those types of people, a magazine that contains articles about human evolution and a universe that is many millions of times older than the six-thousand years evangelicals believe could be a life threatening possession if seen by the wrong person.

Even the newly civilized Southern suburbanite, one or two generations removed from redneckhood, living comfortably in their McMansions can be a problematic. Since much of their lifestyle is not only environmentally unsustainable but morally reprehensible because most of humanity, including many here in the land of the free and home of the brave, can't escape poverty. Science has a nasty habit of exposing the way the world works and the last thing suburbanites want to hear is how their lifestyle is screwing up the planet. Now don't get me wrong, all the groups I've mentioned love science when it provides things like ultra-huge televisions to watch the latest in reality shows or things like sleek jet fighters, new assault rifles, and other weapons to use against whatever boogeyman or horde God fearing Americans are battling this month.

Be that as it may when my Scientific American arrives I run the largely imaginary gauntlet to the mailbox and then back to my house and put it away to read. Yeah, despite my interest in science, finding the time and energy to read is often difficult. As an unwilling member of the suburbanite crowd required by the Nazi-like homeowners association to play the stupid game of house and lawn maintenance along with working third-shift at my job I always seem to have a pile of magazines to catch up on when times allows.

Just yesterday, after finishing up the damn lawns, I had a chance to read an article in the June issue of Scientific American that raised, for me, some intriguing questions as to the nature of human societies and their health. Entitled “The Networked Animal” it explains how many animal species spend their lives in complex social networks that both govern the behavior of the individual and the group as a whole.

Since such research has no direct payoff, it doesn't take much in the way of imagination to picture the reactions of various stunted and narrow minded libertarian folks jumping up and down and foaming at the mouth upset about how their precious tax dollars are being wasted. They would never understand how this research is important because it will ultimately allow development of improved conservation efforts for both individual species and even entire ecosystems. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the element of this research that is sure to send evangelicals into a good old-fashioned hissy is how the examination of other species social networks can tell us a lot about the ones humans belong. To them, Homo sapiens are the Big Guy's special creation and to think any other lesser species could teach us anything about ourselves smacks of atheistic blasphemy.

Despite all that what caught my attention though was the part of the article concerning the social networks of pig-tailed macaques. Like higher primates, which includes humans, these Old World monkeys have complex social groups made up of different networks. Individual macaques in the overall group can belong to different networks and have a higher or lower social status in each, just like humans who have to deal with people in a variety of settings.

Another similarity is that macaques share with humans is that our furrier cousins have a kind of police made up of the highest ranking individuals that keep the peace and stability among all the groups and its members. Being the curious primate myself, I immediately began wondering how macaque police compared to the human equivalent, a functional and competent government made up of laws. I'll admit upfront and say this all ties in with my extreme distaste that is actually borderline hate of economic libertarianism and how its followers pretty much believe that outside their family and close friends everyone else and go screw themselves.

The authors of the article themselves wondered what would happen if they removed these police-like individuals at an Emory University primate research site, which hosts a troop of 84 macaques. Needless to say, I found the results of their research quite enlightening.

As expected the removal of lower ranking macaques did little to upset the workings of the different social networks. But the removal of the individuals making up the macaque police in the troop led to an increase in aggression and decreased reconciliation after fights finally died out. After reading this I couldn't help but relate this to the widespread and semi-psychotic idea here in America that a heavily armed civilian population promotes a safe society. If you follow the twisted logic that if most everyone in a community goes around carrying at least a handgun countries like Somalia and Libya should be the most peaceful places on the planet.

Curiously enough the researchers also discovered that with the macaque police missing normal peaceful activities like grooming and play decreased as well. And that the number of friends— or in other words the social network connections of an individual decreased as well. In fact there was an overall breakdown in social cohesion of the group with the researchers actually using the word “balkanization” to describe the effect. The macaques kept breaking down into smaller, more homogeneous groups that rarely interacted with outsiders.

Economic libertarians absolutely start foaming at the mouth whenever anything is mentioned that the community or society might need to supersede the omnipotent individual. Of course such people usually take this position because they already have their precious possessions safely guarded from all the human leeches. But when you compare an United States that at a minimum leans heavily towards the libertarian screw-everyone-else idea to the more socialistic Europeans who have more upper ward economic it appears that Americans are the losers despite of all the propaganda we spread around to ourselves. No matter what Ayn Rand and her followers want to believe about their fantasy a hard but honest look at libertarianism shows it to be just as bankrupt an idea as communism. Possibly even more so given that the totalitarian Soviet Union at least gave the United States a run for it money while the libertarian paradise of Somalia is hard pressed to protect its unfortunate but heavily armed citizens.

I'll admit rules and societal norms suck. I hate having to kowtow to the homeowners association and dream of the day I can let my lawn go absolutely wild along with being able to tell the Bible thumpers I have to associate with what I really think of their Republican Jesus. But then again I realize I am a member of something larger than myself so I'll just try and help make it a better place despite my feelings.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Building Hope and Waging Peace

It seems incredible, maybe even highly unlikely given their current practices, but I vaguely remember a time when the big three American television networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—made a real effort to inform their viewers of not only significant events but of the struggles other human beings around the world have to endure to survive. Sure, ABC's David Muir, CBS's Scott Pelley, and NBC's Lester Holt will occasionally delve into a story not myopically centered around Americans or how the world and its people effect us but it is rare. In many ways it is not entirely the major anchors fault. Their corporate masters don't want the American public too informed or upset. If the former happens the status quo might become threatened and as for the latter, a disturbed population will not be inclined to go out and buy all the neat stuff we see in the commercials between the fluffy, feel good stories.

Now to be fair there is one bright spot, the Public Broadcasting Service in this country does an outstanding job of television journalism even though most Americans will not make the effort to watch in depth stories. The reasons run from the understandable, like a family making dinner to a stressed out parent trying to help their child with homework, but truthfully the short American attention span and willful ignorance are always high probabilities.

Still though, if someone is attentive and widens their perspective a little it is easy to learn about what is going on in the world and that there some reasons to be hopeful. Just today I was listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson's “Star Talk”podcast and learned that former President Jimmy Carter and his foundation have almost eliminated one of the most horrific diseases on the planet.

Called guinea worm disease or Dracunculiasis you contract this illness by drinking water containing water fleas that carry the guinea worm larvae. After the water fleas are ingested and die the guinea worm larvae penetrate the host's stomach or intestinal wall and then enter the abdominal cavity where they take up residence to grow. After a three month maturation, mating takes place and the male worm then dies and is absorbed by the host's body.

A year late with no signs of the parasitic infection showing in the host, the female worms migrate down the body to tissues along long bones or joints and move close to the surface forming a blister on the skin. The blister causes a painful burning sensation as the worm emerges and the host will often immerse the affected area into water to relieve the agony. It is during this time the adult female worm emerges from the body that it releases hundreds of thousands of her offspring in the water completing its life cycle and contaminating the water. As the adult worm leaves the host it will be difficult, if not impossible for him or her, to walk or work. It is not uncommon for the host to die in the end. Another diabolical aspect of this disease is that a person can easily be reinfected since the host develops no immunity like in the case of chicken pox.

This disease has been around for literally thousands of years with historians saying it was mentioned in the Old Testament as Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt. The traditional method to remove the worm is to slowly wind it around a small stick, a process that in itself is very painful and can take weeks since the organism can reach the length of 60 to 100 centimeters long. (For the Metric illiterate that's about 23 to 39 inches.) 

While the Wikipedia article says this illness can infect canines as well as humans the doctor Neil deGrasse Tyson interviewed on his show to fill in the technical details of the disease clearly and repeatedly said only humans can carry this disease. He further states that since humans were the only vector, if we could prevent the transmission of the larvae through drinking water not would we stop the disease in its tracks but the end result would be the complete elimination of the worm itself.

Since the “worst president in the history of the United States” and his foundation became involved in the eradication of the disease the number of people inflicted has gone from 3.5 million in 1986 to just 126 cases in 2014! This could well be the first parasitic disease that we wipe off the face of the planet! In a better and wiser world this is a story all the major networks should be running instead of the usual celebrity-related crap and mindless human fluff pieces they can't stop running.

There is no cure or preventative vaccine for guinea worm. This disease is fought through the use of education, the establishment of local health care systems to prevent its spread, and the simple filtration of drinking water. While there are many other agencies and non-governmental organizations working to fight Guinea worm, President Carter has uses his honorable reputation to influence local leaders from national to village levels to combat this disease.

This should say a lot about Jimmy Carter who, instead of charging huge sums to speak at a homeless veteran's charity, is going out into a dangerous world in an attempt to better the lives of the forgotten and abandoned. Although, I've got to admit it takes some brass balls or major obliviousness to go out and charge a fee to charity that helps veterans who are overwhelmingly suffering from a war you sent them fight that was based on lies and propaganda. 

 This should also say something about our major news sources and their dereliction of duty along with the general ignorance and apathy of a people whose narcissistic tendencies precludes them from giving a damn about anyone but themselves. The little dirty secret is that a great many people in the world don't hate us Americans because of our supposed “freedoms,” no their major issue is often because we're just a bunch of assholes.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Last Gasp of Disney Pictures--I Swear!

Without beating around the bush this weekend has sucked above and beyond all expectations. It has been two weeks since our return from our outstanding Disney vacation and the REAL WORLD has finally raised its ugly head forcing us to surrender to the mundane and stupid. What about last weekend? Well, my wife and I saw the Eagles in concert last Sunday night up in Greenville, South Carolina so that previous Friday and Saturday was sort an extension of the vacation. But we're back to the here and now and my lovely spouse, Dragonwife, went all happy and psychotic-obsessive homemaker having me, myself, and I go all crazy pressure washing the house. Now in fairness the house did need a cleaning but before I could get the pressure washer going it required a trip to Home Depot for supplies, changing the oil and filter in the washer, mixing up the soapy stuff I had to use to spray down the vinyl siding, and finally getting everything in place. Once that was over I had to take off the trash, clean out and organize the shed where we keep all our neat outdoor maintenance equipment. That was just my Friday chores after I got off work, Saturday I had to help Draginwife pull out all the pot and pans as we reorganized the kitchen. So long story short, I didn't get much time to work on my latest piece of semi-crappy fiction. That means you get more Disney pictures.     

Outside the Enchanted Tiki Room at Magic Kingdom.  I could be wrong but I do not believe this outdoor fixture has changed any since this attraction first opened.

For those who may not know, the Enchanted Tiki Room features a flock of robotic birds singing different tunes. As the name implies it is decorated in the tiki style complete with a fake window overlooking a beautiful green tropical island with a sparkling blue ocean. Just be aware I realize this picture isn't very good so it degrades the actual scene I have found fascinating since childhood.  

This is from the Jungle Cruise attraction at Magic Kingdom. For reasons I will not explain I find this hut quite enticing. It would beat the hell out of any suburban McMansion.

One of the scenes during the "cruise." It's a nice thought especially since poachers are hunting rhinos to extinction before our generally uncaring eyes even now.

This is from EPCOT and it is a huge outdoor toy train setup. I once knew a seriously strange dude whose whole life revolved around model trains and a bizarre belief that America needs a king. Yeah, that's not a typo, this guy had some weird fascination with the English royalty and fear of Jesuit priests. Besides that he was an archconservative long before the tea party ever existed. I'm sure if he ever saw this train setup he would loose his teabagger mind. 

As the saying goes all good things have to end and the time came that we had to send my niece, Darth Gadget, back home. This is part of the Orlando International Airport, a pretty cool place given that it is an airport after all. I was surprised to learn that it is also an upper-end hotel which would make those ubiquitous layovers far more interesting. 

The entire time we were waiting for Darth Gadget's flight to leave the airport intercom kept reminding everyone to watch for "abandoned luggage or containers" implying they could be dangerous. So I didn't know what to make of the lady who walked off suddenly leaving an unattended banana behind on her seat.  

For the traveler who absolutely has to have a new smart phone or tablet before his or her flight leaves. Funny thing, I didn't see any prices listed on the stuff inside, I guess if you had to know the cost, you couldn't afford it. 

Alas, even my troop eventually had to leave the confines of Walt's wonderful creation and sunny Florida. This might piss some redneck off but you cannot imagine the despair I felt crossing back over into the intellectually stimulating fiefdom of South Carolina. 
Finally, here is a video I filmed of an afternoon thunderstorm at Animal Kingdom Lodge. I will return to my usual crappy fiction for my next post. Even though Dragonwife is sure to have more epic adventures in home maintenance planned for me next weekend. Yes, I'm ready to go back to Disney.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

As the Dust Settles at the State House

Since I possess the amazing talent of being misunderstood despite my best intentions let me go ahead and clearly state that I am totally ecstatic that the Confederate flag has been taken down and removed from the South Carolina state house grounds. No matter what Southern apologists and outright neoconfederates still angry over their side losing the Civil War might say the Confederate flag in all its versions is a symbol of slavery and hate. The purpose for me adding my “two-cents” to the already chaotic mix of people expressing opinions on the subject is to offer my observations on Southern “heritage” and general culture as someone who has always felt like an outsider living amongst all the self-described “good old boys and girls” even though I have lived most my life in the South.

First and foremost is the symbolism of the Confederate flag itself and how the white Southern population could ever ever embrace that flag given the history of slavery in America. With all the end-of-the-world sorrow expressed and tears shed yesterday by Confederate flag supporters as it was brought down some might assume that banner had been flying in some form or the other since General Lee surrendered to Grant back in 1865.

No, here in glorious South Carolina the Confederate flag was first raised on the state house dome in 1961 flying underneath the American and Palmetto flags. Officially raised to commemorate the beginning of the Civil War it was also there to protest court ordered degeneration and the growing Civil Rights movement sweeping through the South. As someone who was aware enough to register what was going on in the South during the late 1960s, not even the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviets scared white folks back then like seeing a bunch of angry African-Americans marching through town.

Now even the most vicious redneck should acknowledge the fact that for decades the Klan has used the Confederate banner to terrorize the black population. Only speaking for myself but such a soiled and tainted flag is nothing to embrace or use to symbolize one's heritage if it is as pure and innocent as the disgruntled masses still committed to the holy “Lost Cause” swear to any who will listen. In fact the designer of the flags used by the Confederacy, William T. Thompson, himself puts any debate on the matter to rest. 

While there are a good many exceptions, generally speaking the average proud Southerner is an unimaginative prole who is suspicious of education and anyone possessing anything greater than a high school diploma. Southerners love to say they would rather live using their “God given commonsense” and mostly look on with scorn at anyone with a degree higher that what you would earn at a community college. Such southerners absolutely hate the idea anyone might be smarter than them and will go to great lengths to prove that they are equal or better than a college educated person. Egos here in the South are huge demanding monsters but at the same time uniquely fragile things.

Additionally, I would have to add that from my own personal experience dealing such individuals despite all the declarations of American patriotism that proud Southerners fall all over themselves to display their actual love of country and willingness to sacrifice falls considerably short. I know this mainly through all the hassles I had at a previous job back in 2003. See I was surrounded by good old boys who got all teary eyed whenever Lee Greenwood sang about how wonderful the USA was but these dudes would grumble like whiny, wet hens whenever there was a possibility they might have to cover my weekend shift when I had National Guard duty. They were all deer hunters or fishermen and my military service during that period disturbed their true priorities.

I would also be greatly remiss if I did not mention that at no time after the 9/11 attacks and during the Iraq War was there ever a great rush of patriotic Southerners to join the military. I retired from the National Guard in 2005 and I knew several recruiters who were forced to pursue Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants in an effort to meet their monthly enlistment numbers. For some reason good old, patriotic Southern folks simply couldn't find a single recruitment office during those really bad days during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm not saying all Southerners ignored their duty, from my discussions with by recruiter buddies they did better than some others working the Northern states but unlike after the attack on Pearl Harbor back 1941 there was no stampeded to the recruiting offices. 

The last thing I have to mention is the way the Confederate flag was finally brought down her in South Carolina. It took the deaths of nine innocent people to spur both the ideologically rigid governor and the sadly pathetic but curiously comical state legislature into action. For those folks who might be graced with a state government that at least partially works here in South Carolina we can't even agree to fix our seriously crumbling infrastructure such as bridges and roads. Additionally, while there are some decent suburban schools in this state, I would not force my worst enemy to send his children to just about all the schools in the rural areas of South Carolina. I could be very wrong but somehow we never quite seem to figure out a way to bring those up with the suburban schools.

Call me a cynical bastard but given Governor Nikki Haley's previous comment about how she has never heard a single word of concern about the Confederate flag from any business CEO. I can't help but wonder if after the shootings in Charleston some suit did in fact call her up worried how his, or her corporation would look getting tangled up with a state where enraged sociopaths can't be readily singled out from the rest of the good old boy population.

Like I said at the start of this rant I am supremely happy the Confederate flag is now gone from the state house grounds. But at the same time its departure does not really solve any of the pressing societal issues here in South Carolina. This state is just not mired in the delusional past but does not really have a single figure in government with any idea how to met the demands we will face as the twenty-first century unfolds.

The republicans can't get past parroting the same old lines about giving even more tax cuts to the wealthy, dismantling the public education system for some unworkable voucher program, or jumping into yet another overseas war in the case of our federal elected officials. It will surprise none with even a few IQ points that the vast majority of whites in this state vote republican. They generally hold to the idea that they have theirs and screw the rest of the people in this state even though this is ultimately a self destructive attitude.

As far as the democrats go in this state, they are a disorganized and demoralized mess. South Carolina does not have a single elected democrat to any statewide office and those who run usually get their asses cut. The democrat delegation to the state legislature is a minority in both houses but we do have a few dynamic individuals who could make things interesting in a few years.

If it were any other state in this country I would say the situation could only get better from here, but after all this is South Carolina so I'm not optimistic. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Nomad Feet 4: Doing Disney's Animal Kingdom

Wednesday my motley crew took a break from the parks and rested at the resort. Since it was relatively early when I struck out I found a perfect piece of real estate directly underneath a tree that would have provided cooling shade all day. Top it all off there was a music speaker nearby that had relaxing African music coming from it. Adding to my sheer pleasure was a margarita I drank after the poolside waitress brought it to me. Frankly, I didn't want to leave but my wife made lunch reservations at one of the resort restaurants and made it clear there would be issues if I didn't get up and come with her and the girls. Don't ask me who that woman is to the left of the picture, she grabbed my recliner not two seconds after I had to get up.   

Darth Wiggles and Darth Gadget. Had to force both of them into the water to get this picture. Both brought various computer tablets and laptops and would have much rather stayed in the room playing.

We hit Animal Kingdom on Thursday. The huge "Tree of Life" is, of course, fake, it's mostly the top half of an undersea oil rig covered over with cement. If you enlarge this picture you might be able to see the animal figures molded into the sides. There is a theater at the bottom.

One of the first attractions we hit was Kali River Rapids. It's a pretty typical "river ride" were the object is both to get wet and somehow stay dry as the circular raft bounces around the waterway. I've gone six straight times and not gotten wet. Truthfully that is kind of weird considering the designers clearly meant for all the riders to get soaked and a bit of a disappointment. 

Another huge ride is Expedition Everest, a roller coaster ride that has the honor of also being the highest physical point in the state of Florida. As roller coaster go, it's fairly tame with the exception being short part where it goes backward through a tunnel in total darkness. I found that slightly unnerving and little kids might panic.

The Kilimanjaro Safaris is the biggest attraction at Animal Kingdom. Now Disney likes to make out that they are actually acting in a manner benefiting the conservation of many of the animals in this section and while I believe that is partly true I am skeptical enough to think this ride is just a more elaborate fantasy than say the Pirates of the Caribbean. All things considered with education so bad in the United States I can't fault them for a honest effort in trying to inform a public that a majority of times doesn't have the attention span of a gnat. 

An endangered White Rhino.

A small segment of the open savanna area

A male lion resting while all the women are at work.

A baby elephant nursing. I'll be honest and say that while Disney is just another corporation, with all the associated faults, most of their efforts are benign with some actually being helpful to the greater good. The Disney parks are one of the few places left in America where rich and poor literally rub elbows and get to interact on a human level. Along with basic education on such things as environmental concerns they do a good job, compared to the average American nightly news cast which can't due to time concerns and the fact the Suits running the show don't want the populace upset. I'll have one more of these travel posts before I return to my usual rants and crappy fiction, now I'm off to the pool. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Nomad Feet 3: Doing the Disney at EPCOT

Hit EPCOT bright and early Tuesday morning.

We started at the Living with the Land and Pavilion, a place designed to show the significance of agriculture to human development and existence. It also has a great indoor garden that, from what they told us, also does research in how to improve organic food production.  

They also raise various types of fish. This was really a fascinating place and I took about fifty pictures of the facility. Don't worry, I will not post them, I'm sort of getting tired of this myself.

This was taken outside the Seas with Nemo and Friends pavilion. Neither one of the young Sith Lords wanted to cooperate so this was the best I could do. I personally love this pavilion but the Sith Lords and my wife wanted to move on so we didn't stay long. What pictures I took weren't very good.

An English "street" in the World Showcase of nations. For those who might not know the World Showcase is sort of like a permanent world's fair with different sections highlighting individual nations. EPCOT has a nice variety with most of the major countries represented. The one for England here had a lot of samples of English culture and history. Given the blatant ignorance most Americans show for the rest of the world this is an outstanding achievement.  

Walking towards Impressions de France.

Had lunch at Chef de France. It was an unbelievably awesome experience and the price matched it as well. 

Darth Gadgets dessert. I would have taken more pictures of the food but nothing lasted long enough.

Our waiter Gilles.
While the World Showcase is still first rate I have noticed the other section of EPCOT don't seem to be getting the same level of attention. I really hate the thought of such a wonderful place with so much potential not being fully used like Walt Disney intended. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Nomad Feet 2: Doing the Disney at the Magic Kingdom

Please excuse this paraphrasing of this infamous line but it was already a terribly bright and roasting hot day as the eager throngs rushed into the Magic Kingdom Monday morning. Everyone was there to have a great time and nothing would stop that from happening, even a little thing like man-made climate change.  

The first stop for my small group was "Be our Guest" for a hearty and rather expensive breakfast. As you can tell it had a "Beauty and the Beast" theme and despite it all the food was good.

My daughter and niece, Darth Wiggles and Darth Gadget.

This would have been my new Facebook profile picture if my wife hadn't cut off the lower portion of the gargoyle's head. I'm the ugly one on the right.

Even the fish at Disney are happy over the recent Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage. Suck it to all the nasty bigots. These fine fish are from "Journey Under the Sea," I think.

Mechanical young lovers. Just kiss the girl dammit!

Entrance to the Enchanted Tiki Room. I could have sat there all day and watched that waterfall. Time to move, more later.