The Problem with Countrymen

Back in October of 2018, Happy Wife and I along with two other couples bicycled from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. Part 1 was chronicled here. Somewhere near the halfway point of the ride, in southern Pennsylvania, the six of us hopped on a shuttle to go visit the Flight 93 memorial.

United Airlines Flight 93 was one of four planes hijacked by terrorists on 9/11. The flight manifest revealed a light passenger load, a feature of that particular flight which, among others, the terrorists preferred during their planning of the suicide missions – fewer passengers would mean less resistance, a lower chance of failure.

A lower chance, maybe, but fortunately not zero.

About forty minutes into Flight 93, now aware it had been hijacked by terrorists, some of the passengers stormed the cockpit door in order to break through and foil the terrorist’s plan. How? Exact details of what happened during the ensuing minutes are sketchy (the transcript from the recovered cockpit voice recorder was unclear at best), though pretty clearly wresting control of the plane from the terrorists had to be the first step. Once the terrorists in the cockpit were convinced the passengers would eventually breach the door (or maybe after they had), the pilot (Ziad Jarrah) initiated a rapid descent to crash the plane, knowing there was not enough time left to reach the intended suicide target.

Pause here a while to reflect on that.

Excluding the terrorists, there were 40 people aboard Flight 93, passengers and crew, 37 were Americans. All of them thought they were flying to San Fransisco that morning. At the memorial there is a multi-wall display showing a large photograph of each passenger and crew member, accompanied by a written narrative devoted to the details of their lives. I recall the six of us lingered there a long time, solemnly transfixed on the photos. Personally, I couldn’t get over just how ordinary many of these people were. And then to try and comprehend that such ordinary people could be suddenly thrust into unimaginable circumstances, all of them of one spirit and knowing they were likely going to die soon, to be able to concoct a plan for the most physically able among them to storm the cockpit to thwart the terrorist’s goal – to crash into the White house – I just couldn’t get my head around it. From where in the soul does that kind of courage come?

Twenty years later, instead of acting to protect it at all costs, even death, different Americans, craven ones, would storm and breach the White house. Simply to defile it, and to do who knows what other harm to their fellow countrymen inside. And then to return to your cozy little suburban home and smugly show “pride” in having taken part in it, as some self-described patriot? Disgusting.

To try and reconcile these two classes of Americans into any coherent concept of my fellow countrymen, for me is frankly impossible.

A photo I took outside the entry to the memorial

And another looking back at the memorial, near the debris field where Flight 93 crashed. The orientation of the walls was designed to align with the most likely path of the plane as it came over that hill. NTSB estimated its speed at 536 mph at the time of impact, 10:03 am. It left a crater over ten feet deep, fifty feet wide. The collision registered on area seismographs.

Could Never Happen Here

Yesterday gave us all a lot to think about. As I expect is true for many of you, I have tried to avoid making assumptions about the intent of the people who did this. I certainly understand how easy it is to paint them all as dangerous criminals who came to create mayhem and take hostage – or even kill – the people they believe are standing in the way of reversing the election. Of course, even if that was the real intent of the mob as a whole, the ultimate goal to change the election result would never have been achieved, Biden would still be declared the president, eventually.

On the other hand, nothing I witnessed on real-time news coverage, or saw in the reporting afterwards, could possibly lead me to conclude a benign intent of everyone involved. Pipe bombs and firearms were confiscated, and at least sixty people were arrested, people who likely (hopefully) will face serious criminal charges. Indeed, the more I think through this and read what others have written about it, I want to lean toward saying we simply don’t know enough now, and may never know enough, to speculate what the aggregate intent of the mob was, and thus what legal classification is correct. And maybe it’s pointless to even try.

What does seem to be clear is that this was a very disorganized mob lacking any coherent plan of execution or even a common notion of what the endgame was, or could be. And it’s equally clear that, to a one, these people were tRump idolaters, summoned by him via tweets to bring the fight directly to the White house. As such, I hold no sympathy for the supposed innocent ones hiding behind naivete, “We just came to protest, to make our voices heard, we didn’t want anybody to get hurt.” Really? In years past, lone gunman (real and imagined) have been shot on the White house lawn before even reaching the walls of the White house. The seriousness and consequences of that kind of trespass were made unambiguously clear in the days that followed. Yet you thought the actions to overcome security, occupy the steps right outside the front door, and remain there until your grievances were heard, would be met with, what, understanding? Really? (In fact, that is kinda what happened, but I’ll leave that for another post).

Protesters, rioters, criminal trespassers, insurrectionists, seditionists, terrorists – I don’t care to go down the semantic rabbit hole, though pretty clearly which one sticks will matter come prosecution and judgment time. But at the very least, unprecedented, misguided stupidity – yeah, I can get behind that.

Turning to something with more levity… had everyone in the mob been as freakishly harmless as this fella, I might judge them all as just hapless and misguided, deserving of our pity maybe. Seriously, give it a listen

One Percenter

The population of the United States is approximately 326 million. Vaccinating 80% of the population (the current estimate to reach herd immunity through vaccination) equates to roughly 262 million people. To date, 2.6 million people have received an initial dose of the vaccine (mostly the Pfizer version), i.e. about 1%. As of yesterday Happy Wife is in that count.

At this rate, reaching herd immunity via vaccination would take ten years. Clearly, a very different nationwide deployment model is going to have to be implemented if we’re going to “return to normal” by summer or fall of 2021.

Her Majesty

This was not here two days ago when we walked by. We asked others about it but nobody’s talking. The look ‘n feel is not otherworldly, not like the monolith in Utah (though I didn’t trudge through the snow to touch this thing – it kinda creeps me out). We’re going to keep an eye out and see what happens to it. It’s right off the path of one of our favorite low mountain hikes with The Dog, who issued his own wary, guttural growl as we passed by. Whether that was directed at the monolith or that brooding sky I can’t say.

It’s not always brooding. Even in our dimmest days it pays to look up now and then to take in the powdered treetops set against bluesky

This time of year in Anchorage it’s 10:30 am before Her Majesty rises over the Chugach mountains to paint the eastern sky, lately visible from the window in our new spa shower in the master suite

Pardon the items on the sill. Being the remodel was my idea, although with important design inputs from Happy Wife for sure, the spa has become a feature in the house that I, in a sense, am responsible for. This new role amuses Happy Wife to no end. Admittedly, I do tend toward over doing it when it comes to squeegeeing damp surfaces, keeping the grout tidy, hanging towels where they belong (ahem), etc. However, as I am wont to point out, “Important chores don’t complete themselves.” Also, I am a minimalist when it comes to the sundries of ablution. That is, I much prefer all such items be contained to the built-in shelf on the back wall of the spa. You know, the one I designed specifically to be used entirely and only for that purpose? Nevertheless, being I am not an unreasonable man, I have compromised my personal preferences in this matter to permit the pumice stone and soap dish a permanent place on the sill. Unsightly as it is, I’m sure you will agree.

Update: Since this photo was taken, I have insisted lovingly inquired of HW if she might find an alternative container for the soap – one consistent with her own sense of aesthetics, to be sure – to replace that ghastly bamboo soap dish that leaks goo out the bottom all over my otherwise spot-free sill! This request she granted, somewhat tersely, although without any real feelings of displeasure directed at me whatsoever. 😘

In certain places outside the home the caretaker role is often reversed. Especially where appointments of seasonal swag are concerned. The back porch, for instance, is HW’s domain. There you will find lights all twinkling, wreaths a-hanging, and this year no less than six luminaries a-glowing, homemade by HW herself. I sneaked the garden gnome (aka Norman) out of the house one night to photo-bomb the festive Feng Shui

Note that feral sky. I think we got hammered with like a foot of snow that night. Ho hum. All I know is we’ve turned the corner so far as daylight’s concerned. I’ve lived up here now the better part of thirty-one years. Winter solstice is my favorite “day” of the year, if for no other reason than it marks the return of Her Majesty, sloth-like yes, but eventually she never disappoints.

Recall: As usual on Rod’s Alter Ego, most photos may be embiggened with a simple click (or touch), which are then opened in a new tab.

Plug ‘n Play Molecular Biology

It interests me that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines exploit the same molecular biology to fight the novel coronavirus as the virus itself does to make us sick. You may have heard by now that these two vaccines are mRNA vaccines. mRNA stands for messenger RNA, the intermediate molecule between DNA and protein – DNA->mRNA->Protein – aka the Central Dogma.

The”active ingredient” of the virus is mRNA. It carries the instructions required to make more copies of the virus. But the virus can’t replicate itself, it first needs to get inside a human cell, break apart, and release the mRNA. From there, the cell recognizes the viral mRNA and translates it to proteins, specifically proteins required (in part) to create another viral particle. In a separate (more complicated) step, more copies of the viral mRNA are also made inside the cell. With all the required parts copied, in a final step they are re-assembled into a new virus particle which is effectively spit out of the cell (Exocytosis) to enter the circulation. From there the particle will infect more cells, make even more copies of itself, and so on. The point is, all of the hard work of replication is done inside your normal cells because they don’t recognize the mRNA as foreign. Detail

Stay with me now, almost there. Recall from above that an mRNA carries the instruction to make a protein. Also, as you’ve probably heard, the protein that enables coronavirus to enter your cells is the so-called spike protein – those pin-like protuberances sticking out of the viral particle’s shell (membrane). The spike protein is crucial to the virus’s ability to get into your cells. Unfortunately, your immune system can’t recognize the spike protein because it’s “cloaked” in other molecules, so no antibodies against the spike protein are produced that would bind to it and interfere with the virus’s ability to enter your cells. Fortunately, there are small pieces (peptides) of the spike protein that are “visible” to the immune system.

Enter mRNA vaccines. You create a synthetic mRNA to code for the specific part of the spike protein that is visible – just that small part – and get that mRNA into the cell and have it translated. Synthetic mRNA is the easy part, readily doable in any modern lab. Then, just like the viral mRNA, the cell translates the synthetic mRNA into protein, presents it to the immune system, which in turn creates specific antibodies against it. This is what it means to “train” the immune system. With that, you’ve now got circulating antibodies that will bind to any peptide that looks like that, including the “visible” peptide on the spike protein of the virus! Bind they do, and now the virus is prevented from getting into your cells. Game over, immunity achieved. Detail

The point is the “active ingredient” of both the virus and the vaccine is mRNA. Both leverage the normal molecular machinery of the cell to do all the hard work for free! This is a very different approach compared to how previous vaccines were developed. The most difficult part of getting this approach to work is getting the vaccine mRNA into the cell, which evidently Pfizer and Moderna scientists have figured out. mRNAs are also easily degraded which is why the vaccines need to be kept so cold during distribution.

Disquieting Times

So here we are, a little over two weeks after the election. In all my adult years I’ve never felt less certain about the near future of this country than I do now. It feels to me like a crisis in scope second only to the civil war. The circumstances are of course different, but the feeling of similarity in terms of a deeply divided country that presaged both crises is difficult to deny. We have a president refusing to concede the election because to do so would be the pin that pops his outsized ego. If you’re reluctant to believe that, if you think that’s merely “my opinion,” it really is not just an opinion. It’s an undeniable matter of fact as plain as the nose on your face.

For the past four years tRump has weaponized twitter spewing an orgy of noxious lies, baseless claims, and misleading statements, without equal, certainly for a president. All for a single purpose: to seed doubt and division in this country. And it worked. And it was deliberate, supported in no small part by his lackeys in the republican party, with disappointingly rare exception. The end goal of this division was to concentrate tRump’s supporters and weaponize them, figuratively and in some cases literally, to sew contempt for the Left and in turn keep tRump in the white house another four years. Make no mistake about the true nature of this pathologically egotistical goal. Winning the white house this time wasn’t about the furtherance of republican ideals for another four years – by most measures of what that means tRump is not really a republican anyway. Nor was it only to get more people to vote republican – this was never really about winning the game in the marketplace of ideas. No. That’s swamp talk. In the president’s mind, as in war, games have a sole winner and everyone else is a sucker and a loser. To avoid losing – all that tRump has ever cared about – the real strategy was to dupe voters into believing he, and he alone, would be their savior from the evil of the Left.

And it worked. Over seventy two million people voted for this Prevaricator in Chief. Surely though by now, two weeks after his loss, republicans in both houses of congress have begun to repudiate this man’s refusal to concede, right? Wrong, crickets.

Again, this is not merely my opinion. There is simply no way any rational human being assessing the evidence of lies, contempt for his enemies, and baseless claims the past four years would reach any reasonable conclusion other than this man is a pathological liar and narcissist. I don’t come to this conclusion lightly. This is the president of the United States for God’s sake, how did this happen?

Well, maybe you’re right, but he did lower taxes, right?” Yes, with support from his lackeys in the senate your taxes were lowered. Check. But pardon me for saying this, that’s analogous to the conclusion, in judgement of a cheating husband’s love and commitment to you, “Well, he did recently buy me a new car.

My point in all this goes to motive. tRump didn’t lower your taxes because he wants to make America great again, he would just as well have raised taxes if he thought it would make him, personally, better off. No different than the cheating spouse who aims to buy your continued devotion. None of tRump’s policies, domestic or foreign, derive from a commitment to republican principles – again, quite a few people (some republican) have convincingly argued tRump is No true Scotsman. No, every single action the man takes is a swindle, calculated to keep the national focus on his smug, orange face in order to dupe voters into Keeping. Him. In. Office. No other conclusion of his true motive makes sense.

As was mentioned by Dan Harris during a recent episode of his podcast, every single dial of tRump’s ethical and moral constitution is tuned to the absolute worst possible setting. It’s true. There is zero evidence tRump has any courage, any conviction, any smidgen of caring, sympathy, or empathy for others. If it could be said he does anything well, it’s demagoguery. Again, it pains me to say this, it really does, but the (outgoing) president of the United States is a horrible human being. Although, and here again I agree with Harris, that does not mean tRump is the worst human being ever. He is not Hitler. He’s not Stalin, or Pol Pot, or Ceausescu, etc. Those men also had their dials set to the absolute worst possible settings, but they went further and murdered many of their own citizens. That flips them into the truly Evil category.

I fear what may come next. I fear, as some others do, in his retreat from failure tRump may lay ruin to many things. Things he knows are still within his power to ruin. If that were to happen, you would think it would prove to tRump supporters he never really cared about them, their way of life, their families, their healthcare, the horrors of a raging pandemic, protection from malevolent foreign operators. But I don’t think it’ll go down that way. Instead, I fear the Master Demagogue will too soon re-emerge, create a new social media platform, maybe allied with Q Anon, a new pulpit of his own design from which he can spew more lies. “All that ruin? Wasn’t my fault, it was the Left that did it. Sad!

Running With Scissors

Never yield to despair that which mirth can vanquish.

Leave it to SNL to bring the mirth

I fear, as others do, it won’t everywhere be all fun and games after tRump loses. Even up here we see the occasional caravan of 4×4 monster trucks loudly parading down the busiest roadways, ominously waving MAGA and tRump flags. Something tells me the spirit of this display isn’t merely to Get Out the Vote. It feels a lot more like, Or Else.

A couple days ago Happy Wife went to pick up litter on the pedestrian path near our home, mostly Bud and Truly cans. She hadn’t gotten far when she heard a loud horn go off. Startled, she looked up to see a speeding Honda with the person in the passenger seat, a complete stranger, angrily flipping her off. The only thing we can think of is that at the place where the insult occurred, she happened to be standing next to a neighbor’s fence with a large campaign sign nailed to it for the democratic candidate for State House in our district. Maybe the passengers thought she lived in that house? No other explanation makes sense.

Covid-19 cases are surging up here. Every day for the past few weeks two to five hundred new cases were reported statewide, usually one to two hundred are in Anchorage. The good news is the proportion of deaths among cases (CFR) is down, or at least leveling off, as is the rate of sick people requiring hospitalization. This according to Alaska’s chief medical officer, , someone who Happy Wife is suspicious I am a bit too fond of. Fair enough, I did pay an extra $5 on my last Grub Hub order to include an Anne Zink sticker (which I’ve prominently affixed to the breaker box in the garage). And yes, it’s true, every time she appears on TV I make this excitedly loud and quirky exclamation evidencing an exaggerated adulation for her. But excessive fondness? Come now dear.

To avoid the Covid blues and atrophy we walk the Anchorage beach at least once weekly with Black Dog. That’s the tallest mountain in North America (and on the North American continent) behind HW (right). And the third highest peak is further to the left- Mt. Foraker. Can you name the second highest peak in the United States? How about the 4th-10th highest peaks? Guess where they all are.

Before the recent surge in cases we daringly stepped outside our protected bubble to visit our friends at their home on the Kenai River. By night from their deck

Some of the largest salmon runs in the world move up this river. Mostly gone by the time of this photo, but they’ll be back next year. As will our friends, they winter in Florida now.

At least three days a week HW asks me what I’d like for breakfast. My go-to has been a three minute egg with toast and a side of fruit. This latest preparation included a sprinkle of fennel pollen. It’s a tad off putting to think of a sperm cell progenitor as a flavor enhancer, but dang if it ain’t.

So Long Friend

For the past eight years we’ve loved and cared for her as you would a cherished dog. Hardly a detail in that home was untouched by us. We made it what it is and trust the new owners companions will cherish her as we did. You can do all the rationalization you want, what a good deal we got, how it was the right time, blah blah, but like putting a dog down for “the right reasons” all that rationalization does nothing to relieve the profound feelings of loss and sadness. We loved being there, without exception. Eight years. Alas, our show must go on.