Rabbit Holes

A tempestuous sky over Missoula, MT. July, 2022.

As a young boy I wanted to understand how things worked. Not in a precocious way, I had average intelligence (my sister would say below average). One of the first things I did with the first radio I got as a gift was to turn it over on my desktop, slide off the battery door, remove the batteries and unscrew the plastic back to reveal the inner workings. Which at the time were a complete mystery to me. Inside there was a green, hard plastic board with what seemed like a random series of silver “bumps” on it, connected here and there to wires by a drop of solder. Then I wanted to know what the wires were connected to on the other end. I couldn’t tell because the green board was in the way. So I thought if I could remove the green board (the circuit board, duh – again, not precocious) I could glimpse what the wires were connected to. But from what I could tell, to do that I’d have to pull the control knobs off and remove the face plate of the radio. Except on close inspection the face plate wasn’t screwed to the plastic body like the back was, it looked like it was glued. Hmm? So failing that I got a flashlight and a small screwdriver to poke and probe the inner workings a little bit more, looking for what I didn’t know. Eventually I gave up. In the end, I surmised that somehow the invisible waves in the air that my father had told me were all around us (a bigger mystery still) “bumped” into the antennae, traveled down the antennae into the green board, through the silver bumps (somehow), and then out via the wires to the speaker? OK, maybe, but how did turning the volume dial to the right make the waves “bigger.” Surely that’s what made the sound louder, or so I thought. And for that matter what about the speaker, what was that magnet for? (It had pulled the screwdriver from my fingers more than once as I probed the inner workings). It would be about ten years later, in a college physics class, before I had my answer to how it all worked. At least to a first level approximation.

I’ve never really stopped wondering how things work. It’s why I went back to school, to learn how drugs work. You have a pill in your hand. You swallow it. You wait fifteen minutes (or so). Pain leaves the body. Whaat? At forty years old that was no less a mystery to me than were those invisible waves all around us that caused MacArthur’s Park to play through my radio speaker (What’s that? Or for heaven’s sake I was ten years old. Tell me with a straight face you didn’t sing out loud to the “cake out in the rain” line! 🤨).

To understand how something really works often requires science. Don’t panic! With a desire to learn, patience, and a good teacher or two, you can learn the basics (at least) of how almost anything in the real world works. And, if you ask me, wading into it with a sprinkle of humility doesn’t hurt. Beware though, the learning experience can feel like tripping down a seemingly endless network of rabbit holes. For instance, back to my example, that pill in your hand – what’s it made of? In the case of a pain reliever (say Ibuprofen), it’s a specific chemical (and a bit of “binder” – to hold the pill together) formulated by scientists called medicinal chemists, who typically (not only) work for large pharmaceutical companies. How do the scientists know what specific chemical to make, one that will relive pain? Ah, that requires an understanding of what pain is, what makes us feel pain. Down a rabbit hole we go. A human is a monolith of complex of cells, trillions and trillions of cells. Shake hands with a bread knife and you’ll feel pain, guaranteed. How? Inside every cell exist certain bio-molecules, proteins called enzymes. Enzymes are active, they transform one kind of chemical molecule into another. By the time blood is pooling in your palm from that handshake, millions of bio-molecules, racing along the bloodstream highway, will have already arrived at the site of injury, sirens blaring. Some enter the afflicted cells and bind with an enzyme called COX. COX, being an enzyme, transforms its bound partner into another bio-molecule, which in turn binds with yet other bio-molecules and, in a kind of coordinated group dance, triggers a cascade of other activities in the cell. Think fans in a football stadium doing “The Wave.” These cascades we refer to as pathways. (There are thousands of kinds of enzymes, each with its own unique and complicated activity on distinct pathways. Certain scientists devote their lives to the study of enzymes. They’re called enzymologists. They occupy dark and shadowy rabbit holes all their own. Don’t worry, I won’t escort you along each pathway. Mostly because I can’t. You’re welcome). In the case of the pain pathway, it nears its end with specific enzymatic product molecules binding with their partners in the central nervous system, triggering yet another pathway that eventually terminates in the brain with the experience – “Hey, I’m hurting down here!” All this happens in milliseconds, thousandths of a second.

OK, but who was the first person(s) to figure this all out? I mean, all of us stand on the shoulders of giants, right? It’s one thing for a modern to follow a recipe for Mexican Mole, quite another for the person who made it from scratch the very first time, possibly armed with an atomic-level understanding of food chemistry (a book with that title I actually have in my library because, as I’m sure you’ve surmised by now, that level of detail interests me. You wanna talk about your rabbit holes!). OK, maybe that’s not the right analogy. Surely it’s possible (in fact likely) that many of the recipes we now enjoy originated from brute force trial and error, and not an atomic-level understanding by the chef of the precise way specific sugar molecules interact with fat molecules, and in what quantities, to elicit that wondrous flavor sensation at the taste receptors on our tongues that only an exquisitely executed mole can deliver. (By the way, guess what? Taste receptors are yet another kind of protein that activate other cellular pathways that end in the brain: “Wow, that tastes fabulous!”) On the other hand, trial ‘n error does roughly describe the approach many kinds of modern scientific experiments take to elucidate how something works. At a conference I spoke at many years ago in Sweden, an instructor at a short course I attended on cell mechanics wisely said in his intro: “I can’t understand something unless I can break it.” Even with my jet-lag addled brain I thought, yeah, that’s exactly right.

Thinking back on the radio mystery, I’m sure it had dawned on me that even if I could disassemble all the inner workings of the radio into its constituent parts, lay them out on the desktop, that alone wouldn’t explain how the invisible waves all around us were transformed into Paul Harvey’s voice in my brain. The experience of a voice from a radio cannot be understood merely by a thorough understanding of how the individual parts themselves work. Nor is it revealed by how the parts interconnect. You also need to understand the nature of the invisible waves, how a wave is created and stores information, the nature of electricity and magnetism. And then how the sonic waves generated by a vibrating speaker cone impinge on the receptors in the human ear that activate pathways that eventually end in the brain rendering the experience: “Good Day.”

To gain that detail of understanding then would require “experiments.” Breaking certain connections or removing parts from the system and observing what happens. Just like that instructor at the conference said about cells and understanding molecular pathways, same with radios, or any other electro-mechanical device for that matter. They all fascinated me. Although I’m sure my father & mother back then would not have been pleased to know I deliberately broke my radio, budding scientist or not. Radios in 1970 were not inexpensive. And while I really was uber-curious how it worked, I too didn’t want to break it

So, the moral of the story is that in order to really understand how things work, at least to a first level approximation… well, before I get to that, may I suggest not being like me (a “reductionist”) in the first place? There’s a lot of merit in not concerning yourself with how things work, but instead just being content with wanting stuff to work properly. I claim this is why most people buy iPhones. And I don’t mean that in derogatory way. To the contrary, actually. Reductionists like me are prone to discontent if we can’t “fiddle” with the operating system (OS) like you can on an Android phone. The desire (or addiction) to perform endless configurations, or experiment with switch settings to gain some understanding of how the OS works, can be seen as a bug of human psychology rather than a feature. I get that. Or wanting to remove the operating system altogether and replace it with a custom one some dude on the Internet made. Now we’re cooking! (I’ve personally done that more than once. And of course that doesn’t surprise you!). But if you are like me, then yeah, the moral here is that you need to show up equipped with some basic science chops (you don’t need to be a prodigy) and be willing to break systems (run experiments) of the kind you wish to understand.

And then lean back and get ready because once you start down that path it’s gonna be rabbit holes the rest of the way!

Nothing’s Inevitable

I give you at least three reasons to wear a condom, men.

In fact, these three outcomes were so horrible it wouldn’t hurt to double sheath.

Nothing in the universe is inevitable. It’s not like if Putin were never born there necessarily would’ve been another maniacal asshole to come along to fill his shoes. Same for tRump and Kim Jong-un. So while the images are funny they’re also true. On the other hand, if nothing in the universe is inevitable then it wasn’t inevitable that tRump would turn into a horrible human being. And that much is also true, and not just for tRump but every being who reaches adulthood. Who knows, given much better guidance coming up tRump may have turned out differently, he may have become a revered businessman and the wisest most effective leader of the free world we’ve ever known. Or, more likely, something in between those two extremes. The point here is that the kind of person each of us becomes is not strictly predetermined by our DNA. That may seem obvious to you, but you’d be surprised how many otherwise smart people would take exception. Still, it’s also true that if none of these three assholes had been born, millions of people today would not be suffering the fallout of their collective actions. So I guess the takeaway here is that we should want fewer people being born. Statistically, anyway, that will lower the chance of assholes appearing among us, and reduce human suffering overall. That much has to be something we can all agree on.

Big Sky Country

Your’s Truly w/Montana Friends

There they are, as if time stood still. They haven’t changed a bit, and they said as much of us as well. All the goats, except Clark, are named after powerful women. One sheep, Gary (not shown), later came out of the barn, curious as to who these two mangy Alaskans were. She (yes, She) was recently fleeced. Once she got over her wariness of us she moved close and enjoyed being petted. On Saturday the four of us went to the Montana folk festival where we ate, drank, and danced the day away. My personal favorite was Sugaray Rayford letting loose with a mesmerizing rendition of Comfortably Numb (Pink Floyd).

It was a beautiful thing seeing all those folks in the mosh pit, bodies swaying, arms waiving. And not just Boomers! If Butte, Montana’s best days are behind it you wouldn’t know it to experience this festival. What a great time we had.

Sugaray Rayford @ Montana Folk Festival

On Monday we visited the Lewis & Clark caverns state park. Why L&C are the namesake of the caverns is a little odd. They were actually first discovered in 1892 by two hunters long after L&C passed through (ca. 1807). During the New Deal era the caverns were made accessible to the public largely through the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Don’t visit here if you’re claustrophobic. After you enter the cave (a hole in the side of the mountain) you descend a few hundred steps pretty deep into the bowels of the cavern network. Crawling on all fours is sometimes required to passage from one cavern to the next. There are now a few lights to guide the way, but absent those it’d be pitch black like you’ve never experienced. At one point on the hour long tour our guide, Ranger Shane, told the story of a CCC employee who’d gone into the cave alone with only a primitive flashlight and twelve matches to light a candle he’d taken along. At the very spot we stood, Ranger Shane said this guy’s flashlight died and shortly thereafter he’d used up all his matches. He was found several days later by a team that had gone in looking for him, cold and curled up in a ball on the brink of madness. A state of mental anguish guaranteed to any human held hostage to permanent dark. To drive home the point, Ranger Shane clicked off all the lights. It wasn’t more than fifteen seconds and we were all like, “OK, got it. Lights back on please.”

Stalactites

Ranger Shane
Before The Lights Went Out!
So-called “Cave Bacon.” Everything’s better with bacon, even caves!

Summer Breeze

We’re going to Montana soon. Not to become dental floss tycoons. But rather to visit friends we haven’t seen since the Before Times.

We’d first met them when we were all in Cleveland. They lived just up the block from us. Wendy became a medical doctor, I didn’t. One time, at their house where everyone was in a celebratory mood after I’d passed my dissertation defense, her husband admonished me, “You’re a PhD now, start behaving like one.” This, in reply to my musing out loud if I should take an academic position or an industrial one. What he meant to say was, do both. I can hardly wait to see these two. If you happen to be here, seek us out and say hi!

It has been exceptionally warm and dry this year, unlike anything I’ve experienced in Anchorage in thirty plus years. A mere 0.07″ inches of rain in the past six weeks. And it was above 70 degrees all that time. With no end in sight. The grass is suffering (as is HW) but the fuchsias and lobelia are loving it. This was on our back porch around 10:00 PM near summer solstice. Maybe it’ll return to normal by the time we return from Montana, we’ll see.

Captured recently on the ice cream cam. Black Dog with his nose smushed against an empty pint of ice cream. Or so we thought. That six-inch long primitive tongue of his scours the bottom and sides until he’s certain not a molecule remains. His favorite lately is sea salt and caramel.

Don’t Forget To Turn Your Clocks Back Fifty Years

Oh, and France called. They want their statue back.

I wonder how long we will have to wait to see a far right-wing republican legislator from Missouri giving comfort to a fifteen year old girl as she delivers her uncle’s child.

And if the thought of that isn’t enough to make your blood run cold, Mr. Thomas at least would have the court consider other liberties, legal precedents to Roe v Wade, which he believes also may enjoy no support in federal law. Such as? Such as contraception. Maybe even same-sex relationships! Imagine waking up one day in a deep red state in America and learning that overnight, not only is it suddenly out of law to abort a fetus – no exceptions – but so is contraception, merely to avoid becoming pregnant in the first place! Or worse, any and all non-reproductive sex! You know, like sex for fun. Remember that? All of it, out of law. Overnight. Just try to imagine that. I mean WTF is next, swipe left on a dating app and go to jail? 🖕

Alaska, thankfully, has not turned back to the dark ages (yet). Another reason to come visit the Last Frontier. We’re open late.

Paddlers

Happy Wife & the Merry Mermaids in Aialik Bay, AK recently. Just chillin’ on their annual sea kayaking extravaganza. That be Aialik Glacier doing the chillin. A day earlier they spotted a couple Orcas moving about in this bay. 😯

When Good People Make Bad Arguments

A new look and feel here at Alter Ego! What do you think? I like reading in dark mode, I hope you do too.

And now for something completely different.

In most circumstances killing a post-natal human being is wrong. Everyone knows this. With notable exceptions, if you kill someone you’re in a lot of trouble under common law. Legally speaking, it’s called homicide. Here’s something else: If you assault a pregnant woman, say she’s 20-weeks pregnant, and cause the death of the fetus you’re guilty of a separate crime, though not necessarily homicide. In Connecticut, for example, as I understand it you would not be charged with homicide of the fetus. However, you may be charged (barring unusual circumstances) with a class A felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison. I don’t know the relevant law well enough to say if the same assault on a woman would get you the same charge in every state. I do, however, think it’s safe to say that regardless of where the assault occurred, very few people would argue the assailant should be found guilty of anything less than a class A felony for causing the death of the fetus. And I wouldn’t expect an ideological divide on this matter, between men and women or between pro-choice versus pro-life people. If I were on a state grand jury (as I once was) and the DA brought this indictment for felony A crime, I’d vote True Bill.

Accepting all this as true, why is it that otherwise smart and reasonable people who decry the imminent overturn of Roe v. Wade continue to assert that what this is really about is the government wanting to control women’s bodies? Trying to demonize your adversaries as conspiratorial misogynists usually doesn’t work to win arguments. Again, if you accept that the fetus deserves the protection of the law in cases where the mother is assaulted, then why not when the assailant is the mother herself? One could try to squirm out of this logic, equivocate on the definition of “assailant,” but I don’t think that would get you very far with the justices of the court. After all, even when it comes to your own person, if another person kills you he may be guilty of homicide. But he is also criminal when you try to kill you with his help; assisted suicide is illegal in most states. Tyrannical maybe. But this is the world we live in.

My point is this: If you accept the premise that the law does and should protect human life, including the protection of you from yourself, then don’t become indignant when the SCOTUS concludes there is no support in law for abortion. Which is what the current decision actually entails. It does not make abortion illegal, it kicks that can down the road to the state legislatures so far as I can tell. Rather, it removes federal protection for abortion, arguing (rather persuasively I thought) that the legal arguments for Roe v. Wade in 1971 were flawed, and thus so was the decision. This isn’t about old white men trying to animate the nightmare of the Handmaids Tale. No, this is just what the SCOTUS does, it tries to get law right. Surely even the most permissive pro-choice advocates understand this.

Of course all this leaves the obvious question unanswered: when is the fetus a human life? Clearly the law can only protect a real life. Unfortunately, opinions here vary widely. Given what I know about human developmental biology, I would call life starting sometime after eight weeks, certainly after twelve weeks. Prior to that, the incipient fetus is a mass of largely disorganized, rapidly dividing cells. I know many people cringe to hear a “baby” referred to as merely a mass or “clump” of cells. But it is what it is, fetuses don’t suddenly appear in the womb fully formed. So terminating a pregnancy during this time is not killing a human life if you ask me. Which is why, in part, I consider myself pro-choice. The other part is because I think that the vast majority of woman who have an abortion don’t make the choice lightly. Even when and where it’s lawful. But then, the difficult choice is her’s to make. As a political matter it seems to me a majority of my fellow citizens are roughly of the same opinion. For women’s sake, I hope most state legislatures are too. Time will tell.

I’m Only Gonna Ask Once

His name is Alfeo (Al-Feh-Oh). We met at one of five (!) micro-breweries my friend Joe and I stopped at during an urban bike ride recently in Anchorage. As I was petting his friend Effie (below), Alfeo moved toward me and took my forearm (the one attached to the hand I was petting Effie with) into his mouth, big as a catcher’s mitt! Probably because I’d been drinking I wasn’t alarmed (plus just look at that face). He then turned his head (and my arm) away from Effie as if trying to place my hand on his back. “I get it! Alfeo wants me to pet him instead!” Once I obey he releases my arm and all is well. With the possible exception of Effie, who looked to me with those mournful eyes.

You will pet me now
No, pet me plz

Ho ho ho!

Sadly, my Deer are no longer being Feared. 🤨 However, if consolations matter to you, know that 27.5 (of 28) quarters had been played before it was clear who the winner of the Bucks-Celtics series was. And I bear no shame joining the chorus of yeah-buters that if not for the loss of Khris Middleton’s expected contributions on the court, The Deer would still be being feared right now in Miami. Anyway, hat tip to a great season men, it just wasn’t to be this year.

Let’s turn to politics! 😬

You may have heard Alaska’s one and only congress critter, Don Young, died inflight on a plane from LA to Seattle (he was headed for Alaska). He was the longest-serving Republican in congressional history, 49 years. And to think I was a naive 13-year old learning how to kiss girls when Don Young first entered the hallowed halls of congress. Amaze balls. Many voters in Alaska have been saying for decades Don Young has to go, he’d become the poster boy for term limits, but I don’t think this is what they had in mind. (Although in private, certain people exasperated by multiple failed attempts to replace him have in fact conceded. “I guess we’re just gonna have to wait for him to die.“). In many elections over past decades Young ran unopposed. In others where he faced a challenger, it was never close. His record in congress is mixed, though one thing’s for sure, when it came to bringing home the bacon Don Young was no Ted Stevens, aka ‘Uncle Ted’ (who, curiously, also met his end inside a plane). 🤔

So now, finally, we really do need to replace Don Young. There’s a special election being held to do that. There are an eye-popping 48 candidates on the ballot. Interesting, isn’t it, that in past debates around the value of public service, certain of these candidates might well have waved a petulant fist and spasmed, “Government is the problem!” Yet now, evidently, they want to be employed by it? 🙄 And look who else is on the ballot! Why, it’s the world’s best known bringer of gifts

He literally lives in North Pole, AK. You cannot make this stuff up. Judging from his campaign web site Santa is a Sanders-style democratic socialist. A worldview consistent, I presume, with his reputation as the bringer of gifts. You may recognize other names on the ballot. Perhaps most notably, the deservedly besmirched Sarah Palin. I mean c’mon, the last time she held public office (AK Governor, ’09) she suddenly quit, offering the lame excuse that all the distractions and pressures of ethics investigations were inconsistent with finishing out her term. (Ha! You ain’t seen nothing yet, hon. Wait’ll you get to DC, people like that will eat you alive). Anyway, she subsequently built a big house in Arizona and moved there with her husband (now ex-husband) and family. Although they kept their house in Alaska which continued to be her state of primary residence? Not 100% sure about that last part.

In any case, now she wants to be Young’s replacement. In order to do that, she first needs to be one of the top four vote-getters in this special primary election, to be held June 11th. After that a general election will be held among those four to decide the winner. I didn’t cast my vote for Palin or Santa. I voted for the gardener.

Defense!

Whenever the topic turns to NBA basketball and I’m asked what I think wins championships, I always answer: Elite, sustained defense. You win a game if you have more points than your opponent does when time expires, duh. But some people forget there are two ways to do that, score more points on offense is one; limit the points your opponent scores to fewer than what you scored is the other. You do that latter with elite defensive plays.

I submit the following into evidence. Game 5, Milwaukee Bucks vs. Boston Celtics. That is pure poetry, Mr Jrue Holiday, pure poetry. Aka elite defense. Not to mention the save immediately following this block, itself another example of elite, presence-of-mind defense

Jrue Holiday’s clean block on Marcus Smart in the wee seconds of game 5 to keep the lead for Milwaukee. Because sans that block the shot surely would have been made.

And as if that wasn’t brilliant enough, mere seconds later Mr. Holiday does it again, to once and for all cinch the victory for Milwaukee. These two defensive plays (arguably three) by the same player back to back will surely be entered into the NBA annals of legendary, game-deciding plays.

With mere seconds to play Jrue Holiday steals the ball from an unsuspecting Marcus Smart, again foiling what might have been a game-tying 3-pt shot.

Fear The Deer!