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“The nations of the world must now stay united in the struggle against unknown forces instead of fighting each other”*…

Toho’s [see hereThe Mysterians (1957) is a mammoth sci-fi spectacle, featuring giant lasers, flying saucers, underground domes, alien invaders, and robot monsters. Lying beneath its visual prowess is a set of questions, themes, and ideas that elevate The Mysterians as one of the decade’s most fascinating films. It asserts a warning for humanity: don’t misuse science. For 1957, in the midst of a spiraling nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the film is chilling; but when examined through the lens of 2020, The Mysterians is arguably even more frightening today.  

In the film, a series of earthquakes and forest fires precedes the appearance of a giant robot, Mogera. The mechanical monster wreaks havoc before it is blown up by the self-defence forces. The next day, a gigantic dome emerges from the ground, and we are introduced to the robot’s creators: the Mysterians. They beckon key scientists to meet them in their base, where they explain themselves as a race ravaged by atomic war. The Mysterians want three kilometres of land on which to live, but they also have an unpleasant stipulation. The Mysterians’ bodies are so damaged by radiation that they can no longer birth healthy offspring; and so, they want to mate with human women. Having already used Mogera to show that conflict is useless, the Mysterians appear to have the upper hand. However, forces from East and West unite, and Earth is poised to take on the Mysterian menace. 

The Mysterians features Akihiko Hirata in a role similar to his turn in Godzilla (1954). Hirata plays the enigmatic Shiraishi, a scientist who discovered the home planet of the Mysterians, Mysteroid. Shiraishi disappears before the Mysterians emerge, and we later discover that he has joined them. Seduced by their scientific achievements, Shiraishi admires the Mysterians; he believes that they simply wish to stop mankind from destroying itself, ignorant to their real plans for conquest. His assertion of science above all else prevents him from considering the ethical horrors that come with the Mysterians’ terms.  

Shiraishi is the personification of director Honda’s concerns over the misuse of science. “At that time I feared the danger of science, that whoever controlled it could take over the entire Earth”, Honda observed…

There’s also something else that makes The Mysterians all the more chilling today. The film’s concern that we could become like the Mysterians may have already come to pass – though not in a way that’s immediately apparent. The Mysterians have gone through an unimaginable horror in the form of atomic annihilation; and yet, they haven’t learned from their own nightmare. Instead of renouncing war or seeking peace, the Mysterians have looked to further conquest. For them, there is no recognition of the horror of war, just the restart of its engine.  

At the film’s climax, when the Earth has successfully fought back the invaders, we see scattered Mysterian bodies in their decimated dome. Many of their helmets are cracked and split, revealing their faces; they look human, with very little to distinguish them from us except their wounds and radiation scars. One looks at their damaged faces and sees a miserable, endless cycle…

The Mysterians is also striking in its depiction of a united Earth, with both Russia and America working side by side. The nations of the world join to fend off the new danger, with earthbound conflicts rendered banal in the face of collective oblivion… Director Ishiro Honda’s [see here] concern was in presenting a united planet – a recurring tenet of his genre work. Of The Mysterians, Honda said, “I would like to wipe away the [Cold War-era] notion of East versus West and convey a simple, universal aspiration for peace, the coming together of all humankind as one to create a peaceful society.” As noted by his biographers (Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski), the visual composition of scenes involving international meetings shows a symmetry that affirms Honda’s egalitarian view; no one country is seen above or below another…

From Christopher Stewardson (@CF_Stewardson), an appreciation of a classic that’s all-too-timely again: “Thoughts on Film: The Mysterians.”

[[TotH to our buddies at Boing Boing]

* “Dr. Tanjiro Adachi,” The Mysterians

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As we think globally, we might recall that it was on this date in 2018 that Sir David Attenborough (a naturalist and producer/host of the BBC’s epic Life on Our Planet) spoke at the UN’s climate summit in Poland. Sir David warned that climate change is humanity’s greatest threat in thousands of years, and that it could lead to the collapse of civilizations and the extinction of “much of the natural world.”

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“Yes, there are two paths you can go by / But in the long run / There’s still time to change the road you’re on”*…

Chrissie Hynde fronting the Pretenders with a swamp ash Fendar

Every winter and spring, rains across the central U.S. combine with snowmelt along the northern reaches of the Mississippi River to inundate the hardwood-dominated bottomlands of the lower Mississippi. When the floodwaters recede and soils dry up in summer, logging crews harvest species of trees that include green ash. Being partly submerged for months encourages these trees to produce thin-walled cells with large gaps between them, creating a low-density wood prized by musical instrument makers. Since the 1950s, American guitar giant Fender Musical Instruments has used this kind of ash to create its iconic electric guitars. Countless music legends, from bluesman Muddy Waters to rockers Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, have loved their Fenders, and many say this wood gives the instruments a warm but crystal-clear twang. This niche has earned it colloquial labels such as “swamp ash,” “music ash” or “punky ash” in the lumber and music industries (although the names are used for a couple of others species of ash as well).

Once cheap and readily available, swamp ash became an integral part of Fender’s DNA over the decades, says Mike Born, former director of wood technology at the company. But earlier this year an acute shortage forced Fender to announce it would move away from using swamp ash in its famous line of Stratocasters and Telecasters—reserving the wood for vintage models only. Fender blamed the dwindling supply on longer periods of climate-fueled flooding along the lower Mississippi—which is endangering saplings and making it harder for lumber companies to reach standing trees—as well as the looming threat of an invasive tree-boring beetle. Another renowned U.S. manufacturer called Music Man raised similar sourcing concerns in 2019, which the company described as having “one of the worst harvests in recent history.”

The ominous situation shows how climate change consequences can reverberate through all aspects of society—even rock and roll. And the swamp ash supply could soon become still more tenuous because experts expect global warming to continue making floods worse. “The average player just won’t be able to afford it,” Born says…

Flooding and a wood-boring beetle threaten supplies of storied ‘swamp ash’: “Climate Change Hits Rock and Roll as Prized Guitar Wood Shortage Looms.”

(Violin makers have their own version of the same issue…)

* “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin… on which Jimmy Page played the solo on his swamp ash “Dragon Telecaster.”

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As we harmonize, we might spare a thought for Leon Theremin; he died on this date in 1993. A Russian inventor, he is best known for his eponymous theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments and the first to be mass produced. While the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” is the example of theremin use that springs first to most folks’ minds, that performance was actually on a knock-off (a similar-sounding instrument invented by Paul Tanner called an Electro-Theremin); still, it had the effect of driving demand– both for the theremin and for electronic instruments more generally.

He is also well-known in more arcane circles as the creator of “The Thing” (the Great Seal bug)– a covert listening device that hung in plain view in the office of the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and allowed Russian intelligence to eavesdrop on secret conversations for seven years. Concealed inside a replica of the Great Seal of the U.S. gifted by Moscow to Ambassador Averell Harriman in 1945, it was “passive” (relied on energy from nearby sources)– and is thus considered by many to have been the ancestor of RFID technology.

Theramin playing a theramin

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“We’re not in Kansas anymore”*…

Randy Shoemaker embraces his son Conner, 6, after surviving a deadly tornado that killed at least seven people in Chatsworth, Ga., in April

In March 2019, a violent tornado plowed through eastern Alabama, flattening houses and demolishing mobile homes. Twenty-three people were killed including four children, ages 10, 9, 8 and 6.

Exactly one year later, on March 3, 2020, a tornado gusting at 170 mph ripped through central Tennessee, killing 19 people. Four of the victims were children between the ages of 2 and 7.

The twisters spiraled along the ground for only minutes, but they are the two deadliest natural disasters in the United States since the start of 2019. They received fleeting national attention.

The mortal storms illustrate an alarming trend that is overlooked amid concern about hurricanes, wildfires and floods: Tornadoes are increasingly occurring in the Southeast, where they are twice as deadly as tornadoes elsewhere in the United States…

A shift of tornado activity from the Great Plains to the Southeast has brought heightened danger by concentrating twisters in a far more perilous landscape — one covered by forest that conceals tornadoes and is filled with mobile homes that are easily demolished…

Tornado Alley has moved from the Great Plains to the Southeast: “Migrating tornadoes are the nation’s deadliest disasters.”

* Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

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As we contemplate the consequences of climate change, we might recall that it was on this date in 1896 that the Cedar Keys Hurricane finally disapated. Having passed as a tropical storm through the Lesser Antilles on September 22 (the earliest known activity), it grew to hurricane strength over Cuba, then passed on to Florida, over the Keys. Before being absorbed into another low pressure area, it made its way to southern New York State, where it finally gave out.

Its winds stayed high throughout its journey, and it was prodigiously wet: it left 19.96 inches at Glennville, Georgia, caused flash floods in the Shenandoah Valley, left the White House grounds in a wreck, and downed trees at the Gettysburg Battlefield. It is estimated to have caused 130 deaths and $1.5 million in damage (in 1896 dollars, which would be about $46 million today).

Storm victims pose with damaged houses on Cedar Key

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Written by LW

September 30, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democracy, from beneath which the old aristocratic colors sometimes peep”*…

Almost three decades ago, one of us, Jack Goldstone, published a simple model to determine a country’s vulnerability to political crisis. The model was based on how population changes shifted state, elite and popular behavior. Goldstone argued that, according to this Demographic-Structural Theory, in the 21st century, America was likely to get a populist, America-first leader who would sow a whirlwind of conflict.

Then ten years ago, the other of us, Peter Turchin, applied Goldstone’s model to U.S. history, using current data. What emerged was alarming: The U.S. was heading toward the highest level of vulnerability to political crisis seen in this country in over a hundred years. Even before Trump was elected, Turchin published his prediction that the U.S. was headed for the “Turbulent Twenties,” forecasting a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe.

Given the Black Lives Matter protests and cascading clashes between competing armed factions in cities across the United States, from Portland, Oregon to Kenosha, Wisconsin, we are already well on our way there. But worse likely lies ahead.

Our model is based on the fact that across history, what creates the risk of political instability is the behavior of elites, who all too often react to long-term increases in population by committing three cardinal sins. First, faced with a surge of labor that dampens growth in wages and productivity, elites seek to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves, driving up inequality. Second, facing greater competition for elite wealth and status, they tighten up the path to mobility to favor themselves and their progeny. For example, in an increasingly meritocratic society, elites could keep places at top universities limited and raise the entry requirements and costs in ways that favor the children of those who had already succeeded.

Third, anxious to hold on to their rising fortunes, they do all they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits, even if that means starving the government of needed revenues, leading to decaying infrastructure, declining public services and fast-rising government debts.

Such selfish elites lead the way to revolutions. They create simmering conditions of greater inequality and declining effectiveness of, and respect for, government. But their actions alone are not sufficient. Urbanization and greater education are needed to create concentrations of aware and organized groups in the populace who can mobilize and act for change.

Top leadership matters. Leaders who aim to be inclusive and solve national problems can manage conflicts and defer a crisis. However, leaders who seek to benefit from and fan political divisions bring the final crisis closer. Typically, tensions build between elites who back a leader seeking to preserve their privileges and reforming elites who seek to rally popular support for major changes to bring a more open and inclusive social order. Each side works to paint the other as a fatal threat to society, creating such deep polarization that little of value can be accomplished, and problems grow worse until a crisis comes along that explodes the fragile social order.

These were the conditions that prevailed in the lead-up to the great upheavals in political history, from the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, to the revolutions of 1848 and the U.S. Civil War in the nineteenth century, the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the twentieth century and the many “color revolutions” that opened the twenty-first century. So, it is eye-opening that the data show very similar conditions now building up in the United States…

Two scholars long-ago predicted political upheaval in America in the 2020s. Why it’s here and what we can do to temper it: “Welcome To The ‘Turbulent Twenties’.” An important– and bracing– read.

As to how these challenges might unfold (JIC you’ve not yet seen this widely-circulated piece): “The Election That Could Break America.”

Of course, domestic issues are only one dimension of the challenges facing us. We have to deal with those same issues on a global level, as they play out in radically-changing geopolitics and geo-economics– all underlain by climate change: “Are we living at the ‘hinge of history’?

And finally, for those interested in the “plumbing” that enables the slide toward autocracy: “Money Laundering for 21st Century Authoritarianism: Western Enablement of Kleptocracy” (pdf).

* Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

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As we step up, we might recall that it was on thus date in 1962 that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published. A pioneering study of the long-term dangers of pesticide use, it challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind relates to the natural world.

Carson documented her accusations that the chemical industry spread disinformation, and that public officials accepted those marketing claims unquestioningly. Unsurprisingly, the book was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies; but, thanks to public opinion, it sparked numerous changes: it led to a reversal in the United States’ national pesticide policy, and a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and helped to inspire an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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Written by LW

September 27, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Reason is the first casualty in a drought”*…

The 100th meridian runs from pole to pole, 100 degrees longitude west of the prime meridian in Greenwich, England. It cuts through six U.S. states, forming a partial boundary between Oklahoma and Texas. Powell identified this line as marking the point where the average annual rainfall dropped from 61 centimeters on the eastern edge to 46 centimeters at the western edge. New research shows a sharp aridity gradient still exists, but it’s moved east a bit, closer to the 98th meridian. Climate models predict it will move farther eastward in coming decades. Credit: National Atlas, modified by K. Cantner, AGI.

n 1878, without benefit of the Landsat program, GPS or Google, and just a decade after the creation of the National Weather Service, John Wesley Powell first advanced the idea that the climatic boundary between the United States’ humid East and arid West lay along a line “about midway in the Great Plains” — almost exactly 100 degrees longitude west of the prime meridian in Greenwich, England. This line, the 100th meridian, runs from pole to pole and cuts through six U.S. states, forming a partial boundary between Oklahoma and Texas. The 100th meridian also corresponds roughly to the 600-meter elevation contour as the land rises from the Great Plains toward the Rockies.

In his 1878 “Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States,” Powell identified the “arid region” as the land west of the 51-centimeter-per-year rainfall line, which closely tracked the 100th meridian. This amount of rainfall per year is about the minimum that permits farming without irrigation, and it also greatly influences the types of crops that can be grown. The line Powell noted as dividing the arid and humid sections of the continent has become known as the “effective” 100th meridian.

Powell’s original goal in describing the effective 100th meridian as a dividing line was to persuade the federal government to bear in mind the greater aridity when planning for settlement and development in the western territories, which would be very different than in the moisture-rich east…

Today, the 100th meridian is still considered a climatic boundary line, but that will likely change in the coming decades: The 51-centimeter rainfall line is gradually moving east due to climate change, according to recent research…

The very middle of the U.S. is becoming increasing drier, with what are sure to be huge consequences: “Dividing line: The past, present and future of the 100th Meridian.”

* Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

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As we ponder parching, we might send environmentally-unfriendly birthday greetings to C. Montgomery Burns; he was (fictionally) born on this date in 1893. A recurring character in the animated television series The Simpsons (voiced initially by Christopher Collins, and currently by Harry Shearer), he is the evil, devious, greedy, and fabulously wealthy owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and, by extension, Homer Simpson’s boss.

“Excellent.”

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Written by LW

September 15, 2020 at 1:01 am

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