Sunday, October 28, 2012

Of Wheels and Wails

The streets of Morristown NJ last were crowded with goblins, vampires, and other costumed revelers getting in their hijinks before Hurricane Sandy arrives tomorrow and lingers to dampen Halloween proper. The real mayhem, however, was inside: the NJRD (New Jersey Roller Derby), Morristown’s newest team, took on the Hartford Wailers in a bout that was rough-and-tumble even by the usual standards of derby. I didn’t attend NJRD’s previous away-game in Hartford (ending in a Hartford win), but was told by one team member that it, too, had been particularly raucous; so, both teams were primed for last night’s rematch.

In its very first match last April against the JSRG (Jersey Shore Roller Girls), the NJRD had shown itself to be spirited but lacking a depth of experienced skaters. That since has been corrected by honing its own talent and also by picking up skaters with experience from other teams (e.g. Maulin Rouge and Naughty Nessa). Even with team captain and key skater Pixie Bust on the sidelines with a knee injury, the NJRD had effective jammers and blockers to spare.

The bout began with #44 Maulin Rouge picking up the first points for Morristown. Maulin continued to be a major asset throughout the bout. A series of lead jammer positions built up a lead for the NJRD early in the first half. #10 Miss USAHole at one point slipped past the lead jammer to pick up 4 points for Morristown. Nevertheless, Hartford, through fierce blocking restrained the NJRD score while their own jammers (notably Diesel N’Gin and Monkey Brains) consistently won points of their own. Aided by well-timed power jams Hartford briefly nudged one point ahead. The first half ended with a negligible 96/95 lead for Morristown.

The pre-game and halftime band from The School of Rock was particularly good, and the Halloween costume contest was pleasant fun.

Usually, the intensity picks up in the second half, but in this case there was not more it could increase. In both halves, hits by both sides were as hard and aggressive as in any bout I’ve seen. All the skaters (special note to #12 Gunz, Miss USAHole, and Bloody Shannonigans) deserve credit for getting back on their skates after being taken down hard, and sometimes till go on to score points in the jam. Blockers piled up on several occasions. Effective blocking by both sides prevented a series of alternating power jams from delivering a commanding lead to either team. However, Morristown blocking kept Hartford from taking full advantage of few timely power jams, and the NJRD built up a point lead. The whistle blew with a final score of 237/195, win for NJRD.

It was a bruising and exciting bout. Perhaps on the next rematch, I’ll make the trek to Hartford.

(Note: for derby terminology and rules, see )

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Seeds of Doom

The Blockbuster channel all this month is running films that portend the end of civilization as we know it, e.g. The Terminator, Disturbing Behavior, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc. The theme is appropriate not only for Halloween but for all of 2012. After all, only 57 days remain in the 5125.36 year Mayan Long Count Calendar, which some folks interpret to mean the world will end this December 21. (Why the ancient Mayans would have been privy to this information is not entirely clear.) Most of us treat this prediction with amusement, yet the fact is that civilization will end – not on December 21, I’m willing to bet, but sometime. We tend not to think much about this most of the time, just as we tend to avoid thinking about our individual mortality, yet both are equal certainties. The threats to civilization are geological, astronomical, demographical, biological, and geopolitical (war).

Since the end of the Cold War we tend to regard wars as local or regional catastrophes. Yet, arguably, the ongoing spread of NBC (nuclear/biological/chemical) weapons is more dangerous than the old bipolar East/West standoff ever was. If we nonetheless manage to escape civilization-shattering war, we may fall victim to civilization-shattering love, which is to say we may overbreed. The global population is currently 7 billion, up from 2.6 billion when I was born. Can earth really support the 10 billion people projected for midcentury (assuming a continuing decline in birth rates)? What about 14 billion by century’s end? Even if we somehow contrive to feed ourselves, the planet has other tricks up its sleeve. The human race was nearly extinguished 70,000 years ago when the Toba supervolcano coated much of Asia and Africa in ash. Earth is spotted with other dormant supervolcanoes including, famously, Yellowstone; they will wake up sooner or later. A truly nasty bug that outraces our ability to counter it remains a possibility today. Then there is climate. On at least four previous occasions glacial ice extended to where I currently am sitting and typing; whatever global warming may do in the short run, in the longer run the ice will return again. Never mind the long-term fate of the sun, since that literally will end the world, not just civilization.

So, as unlikely as it seems, we live in a kind of Golden Age. Survivors of the Collapse will tell tales of us and set fantasy stories in our time.

The Collapse is coming. The threats are too multifarious and inexorable to escape. When will it happen?  Probably not on December 21. Probably not in our lifetimes. Maybe not for centuries. Maybe not for millennia. Yet, it will happen, and it could be sooner rather than later.

There are more than a few survivalists who take the threats seriously enough to build doomsday bunkers and post-apocalypse survival kits. Doomsday preppers form something of a subculture. They include some surprising people, such as Morgan Stanley hedge fund manager Barton Biggs, who, in his book Wealth, War and Wisdom warns to “assume the possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure” and adds that “your safe haven must be self-sufficient and capable of growing some kind of food.” Well, someone who earns a living selling hedge investments might be primed to think defensively. I don’t know what kind of bunker Barton has built for himself, but some bunkers are truly impressive.

In the Svalbard Archipelago (aka Spitzbergen) in the Arctic is a particularly remarkable doomsday bunker. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was built by the government of Norway but its operations are largely funded by private donors. The vault was built to house seeds, not people. Since 2008, hundreds of thousands of crop seed varieties have been stored there at -18 degrees C. Even in the event of total power failure the internal vault temperatures would remain below freezing for centuries, thereby preserving the seeds for the future. The vault is buried deep in a mountainside well above any possible rise in sea levels. It can survive a missile strike. In the short run, the vault helps preserve seed diversity, but the elaborate safeguards are designed with an eventual global catastrophe in mind. Should civilization collapse, future farmers will not have to restart agriculture from scratch. They can reseed from the vault. Of course, not only will they have to know about the vault, they will have to go to Svalbard and force their way through a series of steel doors and airlocks to get at the seeds, all of which suggests knowledge and abilities beyond those of primitive farmers.

The vault receives funding from the Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Monsanto Corporation, the Syngenta Foundation, and many others. The money from these private sources alarms some people with a certain conspiratorial mindset. “Do the superrich they know something we don’t?” the alarmists ask. Probably not. More likely, the donors know exactly what we do, and that is reason enough.

Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice. 
--Robert Frost

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

A Boy and His Dog (1975 post-apocalyptic film)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Brigade Maneuvers

The Jerzey Derby Brigade was back in Morristown last night with an intraleague bout. The two teams of the Jerzey Derby Brigade women’s roller derby league are the Corporal Punishers and the Major Pains. Last night, however, in a Halloween themed event, two ad hoc teams were formed from the league membership (plus a little help from PA): LMFAO and Dark & Dangerous. Despite some mixing and matching, LMFAO was still, more or less, the Punishers while Dark & Dangerous was still, more or less, the Pains. They wore special uniforms for the occasion. Dark & Dangerous had the better ones: black with a death’s head vs. LMFAO’s pink.

It was clear the Jerzey Derby was using the intraleague bout as an opportunity to hone skills for interleague bouts and also to give some newcomers to the teams track experience. The teams employed the one knee start method was tested more than the usual number of times. This start method releases the jammers, thereby preventing an opposing team from burning up time by slowing down the start of a jam, as it might choose to do if a key player is in the penalty box for a one minute penalty. (For anyone unfamiliar with derby terms and scoring, see this instructional video: .) For all that, the evening was not simply a practice session. It was a full-fought rough-and-tumble bout, as #91 Pussycat Mauls can attest after she was injured on the track. (She got up and left on her own wheels).

In the past two years, the Jerzey Derby Brigade teams significantly have improved their defensive blocking, which was once (no pun intended) hit and miss. The importance of this showed last night when LMFAO jumped into an early lead and maintained it through the first half, despite the two best jammers on the track last night skating for Dark & Dangerous: #57 Heinz Catchup and #9 Baked Beanz,. Both Heinz and Beanz are very fast in the open and both expertly can exploit holes in opposing defenses, but both were slowed by LMFAO blockers, especially the formidable combination of Doom Hilda and Bruta Lee, and so their point totals were kept in some check. Dark and Dangerous blocking (special mention to Easthell Getty and Ginger-Ail) also was strong, but the edge went to LMFAO.  LMFAO fielded several good jammers. Particularly impressive was newcomer Hits Spaniola; I expect to see more of her in upcoming bouts. Voldeloxx and Californicate had a good night jamming for LMFAO (Californicate took some serious hits in the process), and Stevie NixHer (guest skater from Wilkes-Barre) also had a very strong performance.

The first half ended 82/49 favoring LMFAO. At halftime, prizes were awarded for both children’s and adult Halloween costumes.

The second half, as usual increased in intensity as the lead team struggled to defend its lead while the trailing one struggled to close the gap. Dark & Dangerous succeeded in reducing the spread, frequently employing what the announcer called “hit it and quit it” – which is to say calling off a jam immediately after scoring points in order to make best use of the clock. It wasn’t quite enough. LMFAO prevailed 139/110.

JDB delivered another fun night, and is well prepped for the next interleague bout on November 3.

On October 27 the NJRD (New Jersey Roller Derby), Morristown's other derby league, comes home to skate. I’ll be there too.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Faltered States

A few evenings ago I watched a DVD in the company of two college sophomores (a young guy and gal). The film was Wes Craven’s Cursed, a modestly parodic werewolf movie starring Christina Ricci – at least I think Wes intended parody. Maybe he didn’t. Regardless, more interesting to me than the movie was the way the sophomores watched it. At the same time the DVD was playing, they ran computer games on their laptops while sending and receiving texts (and accessing the internet) on their cell phones.  How much attention they paid to each electronic medium I couldn’t say. (One thing that they didn’t do very much was talk to each other.)

This is the new commonplace. I see similarly distributed attention in all sorts of settings. (I don’t pretend to be a good multitasker myself.) Is this immersion in communications media an expansion of human consciousness of the kind once sought by 50s/60s gurus, or a dilution of it by multiple distractions? I don’t know, but I’m inclined toward the latter. Quaint as they seem today, the mind-expansion gurus were a fascinating bunch, and many of their ideas involved eliminating distractions in order to raise one’s awareness of the moment. Some of their methods involved mind-altering drugs. Among those with legitimate scientific and academic credentials, Dr. Timothy Leary is the best remembered experimenter with psychedelics, but he was far from alone. Psychedelic drugs didn’t enhance anyone’s ability to perform everyday chores and calculations. Quite on the contrary. While trippers perceive the objects and people around them in a new way (sometimes seeing things that aren’t even there), they don’t do so in a manner compatible with multitasking. The frequently experienced one-with-the-universe sensation cannot survive answering a text message while navigating a first-person-shooter video game. But while the gurus are most notorious for their drug experimentations, they also tried non-pharmaceutical techniques such as meditation. One of the most radical non-pharmaceutical methods of eliminating distraction as a gateway to higher consciousness (one that I’ve never tried, but might yet) was the sensory deprivation tank.

The sensory deprivation tank was the brainchild of neuro-psychiatrist John C. Lilly. In the early 1950s the prevailing view was that consciousness was intimately connected with environmental stimuli; deprived of any stimuli, a person would fall asleep. Lilly wasn’t so sure. He constructed his first tank in 1954 to test the idea. In a soundless dark chamber a person would float on salt water at body temperature; to the extent possible, all physical sensations, including gravity, were eliminated. Sessions lasted from one to several hours. Few people who tried it slept. Their experiences ranged from complete relaxation to rampant thoughts to hallucinations. Typically floaters lost a sense of time, and were unable to judge how long they were inside. Lilly thought the tank sessions enhanced consciousness and creativity; he tried combining deprivation sessions with LSD, which was legal prior to 1964, with results that were often interesting and sometimes alarming. Other researchers copied his tanks and tweaked the design. Private businesses began to rent time in them to the general public, and these commercial sensory deprivation tanks became something of a minor fad in the 1960s.

The tanks fell out of fashion (like so much else of 60s culture) by the mid-70s. In recent years, however, they have made a comeback. Nowadays they are more commonly called isolation tanks or float tanks, and a fair number of commercial spas offer them as relaxation therapy. The supposed benefits, along with altered consciousness, include pain reduction (sessions do seem to promote endorphin release), stress reduction, and lowered blood pressure. Joe Rogan, the host of Fear Factor, is a big fan of them, telling The Atlantic writer Kyle Dowling, "I think it's one of the most incredible pieces of equipment for self-help and introspective thought that you could ever find." The benefits arise from not multitasking during the sessions – or even tasking.

I think modern communications and electronics are wonderful. It would be silly to feel otherwise while blogging on the internet. Distractions have their value. However, there is something to be said for cutting them off now and then. For anyone who feels the attraction of the iPhone too strongly to achieve this through simple meditation in a dark room, sessions in an isolation tank might be a solution. Close the chamber door, float, and let time vanish. Alone with ourselves, we can meet our own thoughts. It used to be called mind expansion. Perhaps it is.

A Particularly Swank Sensory Deprivation Tank

Altered States (1980): In sensory deprivation experiments, William Hurt alters his consciousness (and gets a helping hand back). I wouldn’t count on experiencing anything as colorful as this.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Tea and Chimpanzee

Earlier this year I missed seeing in the theater the huge hit film The Hunger Games, based on Suzanne Collins’ YA novels, but it turned up on satellite a few nights ago. It was more enjoyable than I expected. The movie depicts a dystopian future in which a ruling elite in the Capitol demands as tribute two young people from each of 12 formerly rebellious outer districts to compete in Hunger Games as entertainment. (This harkens back to the mythic tribute of Athenian youths and maidens demanded by King Minos of Crete to face the minotaur.) In a contest called the Hunger Games, the tributes go out into the wild and hunt each other until only one survives. The winner is celebrated and feted. The sport is followed by everyone in the districts. The denizens of the 12 districts, by rooting for their own local contestants, become invested and implicated in the games and in the society.

Humans-hunting-humans is an entire genre of film, even if we leave out war movies, detective movies, and fugitive movies (even scifi as Logan’s Run) in which the sporting element in them is obscured. In all those cases the public interest is the nominal motive (even if misguided) for the violence of the characters. As Maxwell Smart says to Agent 99 in an old Get Smart episode, “We have to shoot, kill, and destroy: we represent all that’s wholesome and good in the world.” Just the films in which the gamesmanship is overt are numerous enough. A few examples:

The Most Dangerous Game (1932): This is the granddaddy of the genre. Joel McCrea and Fay Wray survive a shipwreck only to be set loose in the jungle on the private island of the immoralist big game hunter Count Zaroff who hunts them for sport. This film has been aped and parodied many times – even on an episode of the The Simpsons. The original is still the one to see.

The 10th Victim (1965) is a Franco-Italian, based on the short story by scifi author Robert Sheckley. Contestants – all volunteers – compete in the Hunt for prizes, sponsorship deals, fame, and fortune. There are ten rounds for each contestant, five as hunter and five as hunted (“victim”); the victim doesn’t know who his or her assigned hunter is. You win by killing all your opponents in all ten rounds. The Hunt is the most popularly followed sport in the world, and has the advantage of eliminating from society its most violent members. Despite undeniable campiness and some nice location shots (including the Coliseum) in Rome, this is a silly movie. Stick with Sheckley, whose writing is clever and funny.

Death Race 2000. What can one say about this cult film from 1975? On a cross-country race, drivers (David Carradine and a young Sylvester Stallone among them) in pimped-out sports cars score points by killing pedestrians.

Running Man (1987). In a movie made well before “reality TV” became a staple of programming, Richard Dawson hosts a near-future game show in which convicted criminals are released into a linear arena to run for their lives. They are chased by “stalkers” who have themes and nicknames like those of wrestlers. One called Fireball uses a flamethrower, another called Buzzkill uses a chain saw, and so on. If a criminal survives, he or she wins release. The (wrongly) convicted criminal this time is Arnold Schwarzenegger. You know the rest: bad news for stalkers and bad puns for us.

Death Race (2008). In a reimagining of Death Race 2000, drivers battle each other to the death in order to win pardons for their crimes. Once again, it is a televised sport.

These are just a sampling. The persistent popularity of books and movies with the theme suggests that they connect with something deep in the human psyche. Humans are not alone in this. The days are long gone when primatologists entertained the pleasant image of chimpanzees, our close relatives, as peaceful vegetarians. Today we know that meat is a significant part of their diet in the wild (monkeys are a favorite), and that chimpanzees hunt chimps from neighboring tribes in a way that looks a lot like sport. In the BBC film clip below, chimps raid a neighboring territory where they catch, kill, and eat another chimp. They seem to enjoy it.

Humans have the choice of rising above our natures. Most of us get along well enough with our neighbors – we don’t usually cannibalize them anyway. But we probably can succeed better at being a kinder gentler ape if we acknowledge the part of ourselves that isn’t. Denying our nature just makes it crop up surreptitiously, such as in ideologies that categorize appalling violence as justice. It is better to indulge our chimp-like qualities in a game of Halo or by watching violent movies such as The Hunger Games, while we enjoy tea with the neighbors.

Chimp hunger games  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Caveman Delicacy

A local deli offers a lobster salad sandwich that looked too good to pass up today. So, as much as I like to fight for my lobster meat by assaulting chitinous carapaces, today I merely unwrapped a sandwich.

Our ancestors must have been very hungry to have discovered the sweet taste of lobster, because in truth the ugly critter doesn’t look especially appetizing. Nevertheless, excavations in a cave at Pinnacle Point, South Africa, show that early modern humans were cracking them and other shellfish open 164,000 years ago, tossing the shells aside – the (continuing) human careless way with garbage is a great boon to paleontologists. Neanderthal sites in coastal Europe 110,000 years old also reveal a taste for any and all shellfish.

Much more recently, the ancient Romans liked lobster. A Roman cookbook survives that often is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, but is actually only named after him. Apicius, who lived in the first century AD, was a notorious gourmet; dinner at his house was definitely the invitation to wangle if you could. The anonymous authors of the cookbook describe how to make the meals he served up to guests. The recipe for lobster is as follows:

[399] Locustum Elixam cum Cuminato
Real boiled lobster is cooked with cumin sauce and, by right, throw in some whole [illegible], pepper, lovage, parsley, dry mint, a little more cumin, honey, vinegar, broth, and if you like, add some bay leaves and malobathron.

That sounds pretty spicy, even without the illegible mystery ingredient, but I suppose you don’t need a written recipe for “boil, crack open, dip in butter.” We don’t know if the Romans did that, too. If so, they didn’t mention it in any surviving manuscript.

Despite this long history on the menu, until modern refrigeration and handling in the 20th century, lobster was a purely coastal dish, because it doesn’t travel well. Without being cooked or frozen, lobster becomes inedible very quickly after it dies, and it dies very easily in transport. Accordingly, while the dish wasn’t found inland for most of history, lobsters were dirt cheap at the shoreline – literally dirt cheap: Native Americans fertilized crops with them.  Early 19th century New England employment contracts for household servants specified that they would be fed the lowly dish lobster no more than twice per week. All that turned around when long-distance transport became possible but expensive – cost always gives panache to a product.

For the past century, lobster has been a delicacy, and, as human populations grow while lobster yields don’t, it only can get more expensive in the future. Because lobsters are cannibals – they eat each other insouciantly – attempts at farming them (aquaculture) haven’t been commercially successful. So, their numbers seem likely to remain limited to about their current level.

Though in general there is little particularly enviable about being a lobster, they do have one intriguing characteristic. As far as we know, lobsters are immortal. Oh, they can and do die – our chefs often see to that – but they don’t senesce.  80-year-old lobsters are as vital, healthy, and fertile as two-year-old ones; they are just larger. Lobsters keep growing for as long as they live. The largest on record was caught off Nova Scotia. It was 106 centimeters (41 inches), 20.15 kilos (44.4 pounds), and more than 100 years old, maybe 200. No doubt there are bigger ones down there. Presumably, disease, parasites, accidents, and top-line predators (sharks, squids) catch up with them eventually, but they don’t age in the usual sense.

As previously mentioned, I enjoy battling with the shell for the meat inside, though this can lead to awkward moments. Take one example. There is a local restaurant called Sammy’s that, true to its secretive origins as a speakeasy, has no sign or any exterior indication it is a restaurant other than the cars parked in the lot. Its specialties are steak and lobster. Some years ago there, my sister squeezed at the base of a lobster claw with the cracker. The claw popped off, sailed across the room, and dropped perfectly into the coat pocket of another diner, who didn’t notice. She spent the rest of the meal trying to decide whether to tell him. (She didn’t.) I’ll leave the various ways this might have played out later with the owner of the coat to the imagination of the reader.

The sandwich is now several hours gone, but the image of Neanderthals enjoying a lobster and clam bake lingers. It is somehow pleasing.

Teenagers from Outer Space Plan to Use the Earth to Grow Giant Lobsters. (Wisely, studio marketers left the big crustacean out of the trailer.)