2017: Year of the Tardigrade

by Geoff Olson

tardigrade.jpg

A modest proposal for 2017, which threatens to be another tough year: make it “The Year of the Tardigrade.”

The what, you ask?

The tardigrade (pronounced tar-dee-grade) is an itty-bitty creature with eight legs that looks like an air mattress with an attached vacuum cleaner nozzle. It’s almost invisible and nearly indestructible. It’s commonly found in mosses, lichen and damp outdoor spaces.

Discovered back in 1773, the millimeter-sized tardigrade has gone from a scientific curiosity to a pop culture meme. Less technically and more fondly, it’s also known as the “moss piglet” and “water bear.”

In photomicrographs, the multi-limbed critter looks like both alien and comic, like an outtake from a 1950’s Ed Wood film. But there’s the sci-fi part: when its environment dries up, the water bear can lose up to 99 percent of its body water and survive.

In this desiccated state, called a tun, the creature can withstand conditions that would finish off most organisms. Temperatures ranging from boiling hot to near absolute zero? No problem. Atmospheric pressures hundreds of times higher than those found in the Marianias trench? Bring it on. The tardigrade can even momentarily survive the vacuum of space and radiation levels of 57000 rads – over 1000 times the dose fatal to humans.

When “brought back to Earth and hydrated, they exhibited rates of survival close to the individuals that have never left the laboratory,” according to the Tardigradia Newsletter. Some species of tardigrades can live close to 10 years without food or water, making them a category unto themselves as multicellular critters.

The moss piglet’s talent at survival through desiccation, called cryptobiosis, is said to have inspired the development of “dry vaccines,” in which water is replaced with trechalose – a form of sugar which water bears use to safeguard their tissues and genetic material during the tun state. Such vaccines require no refrigeration, allowing their safe transport to and storage at international trouble spots.

The 13th International Symposium on Tardigrada was held in Modena, Italy in 2015, and the 14th will be held in København, Denmark in 2018. It boggles my mind that a dozen previous symposia were devoted to something smaller than the president elect’s hands.

In the U.S., the Tardigrade Hunters website was “founded in 2015 to advance the study of tardigrade (water bear) biology while engaging and collaborating with the public with tips on tracking down water bears.”

The site welcomes amateur collectors to submit specimens for microscopic inspection at the University of Northern Carolina, with the proviso they will not be returned. Any tiny donations that prove to be of exceptional interest may be posted online as the “Tardigrade of the Week.”

Not surprisingly, a creature that is both Japanese anime-cute and semi-indestructible has hit a chord among cultural creatives. There are websites that sell crocheted moss piglets, and others pitching a range of plush toy versions. There is a children’s book called “The Tiny, Tiny Tardigrade,” and an animated cartoon character Captain Tardigrade, who dispenses safety tips to thrill-seeking kids.

A Google Image search of “tardigrade” and “tattoo” reveals plenty of limbs and torsos decorated with the creature’s image and matching mottos (“Tardigrade Tough” and “Live Tiny, Die Never”). A few clicks will take you to images of moss piglet cosplay, and a mockup cover for “International Water Bear” magazine, with its “Moss Munching Hotties.”

Even the Vatican is getting into the water bear craze. Shortly after granting sainthood to Mother Theresa, Pope Paul officially blessed the tardigrade as “an extraordinary organism endowed by God with a Lazarus-like talent at rising from the dead.”

Enraged by this statement, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins recently enlisted fellow atheists Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris to tour in Dawkin’s anti-religious heavy metal band, The Water Bearers. (Their Pope-slamming single “Retardigradia” is available now on iTunes.)

Sorry, those last two paragraphs were shameless fake news of my own making. Couldn’t resist. But seriously: if we’re all going to survive 2017, is there a better mascot for the year than the near-indestructible tardigrade?

I can imagine scientists working in an Pentagon lab on an eight-legged supersoldier capable of surviving insane doses of heat, cold, radiation and pressure. Not in real life, but in a Hollywood film. The trailer is already screening in my mind’s eye: “This Summer….Vin Diesel is The Moss Piglet.”

The Vancouver Courier, Dec. 27

GOOD RIDDANCE…

yearendDec29.jpg

by Geoff Olson

What a rotten, misbegotten year. And me with a pre-holiday column to write after passing a kidney stone.

2016 brought us more pipeline politics, fentanyl overdose deaths, police shootings, terror attacks, and the biggest buildup of western military and naval forces on the borders of Russia and China since Word War 2.

It’s safe to say the defining moment of 2016 came with an election win for a figure who embodies of all that’s fake and fear-mongering in Rome 2.0. I knew our neighbours went through the looking glass early last November, but with the CIA protesting foreign interference in the election of a right-wing president (how ironic is that?) they’re in full Jabberwocky territory.

On the cusp of Christmas, “goodwill toward all men” is looking shaky for an estimated 65 million displaced people, most of them generational jetsam from the Cheney-Bush invasions, NATO destabilization campaigns, and Obama drone wars. Didn’t the Good  Book tells us the meek shall inherit the Earth? From where I sit, they’ll be lucky to inherit a month’s worth of rations.

Truth be told, some of the the First World meek – the ones raised by helicopter parents and given prizes for participating – have grown to be rather obnoxious lately. Their insistence on university ‘safe spaces’ and the inclusion of trigger warnings in texts is precious enough, but their demand that instructors address students by a whole new range of personal pronouns is worthy of a Kurt Vonnegut plot-line.

So what’s a newspaper scribbler on a deadline to do when trying to extract a ray of seasonal cheer from 2016’s cesspool of dark silliness?

I suppose I could avoid the problem entirely by knocking off a generic piece about about the pagan beginnings of Saint Nicholas, and how early 20th century Coca Cola ad campaigns rendered him as the rosy-cheeked, red-and-white-garbed Santa we know today.

I could digress on the astronomical theories that the Star of Bethlehem in the New Testament was actually a comet or supernova. Or rehash the Christmas truce of 1914, when German, French and British forces climbed out of the trenches to mingle and exchange gifts, and in some places have a friendly game of soccer.

Or I could muse on today’s Consumers for Christ Crusade at shopping malls, and how the entire retail economy hangs precariously on Yuletide potlatch.

How about a short meditation on the passage of time? I remember my parents handing out Christmas gifts from under a tree decorated with the cheap tinsel and plastic ornaments, with me and my sisters bouncing off the walls, gooned on candy canes and shortbread cookies.

Thanks to my parents, I learned that time is not just linear but cyclic: holidays return like comets, lighting up the drab passage of days.

Ceremony is important in whatever form we observe it, as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Wiccans, agnostics, atheists, or whatever. Annual traditions are cultural efforts to tame time.

Old Man Chronos eventually wins, of course. My parents died ignobly and terribly a few years back. When their son and daughters follow them into the earth we will take our memories of them with us. Our parents will then be truly gone.

Not to bum you out with the bleeding obvious, dear reader, but every one of us comes into being and then vanishes from this realm like fragments from a dream. Even the pyramids will be consumed by stellar fire at some point. We and all our creations are – to use a term cribbed from Ecclesiastes by the seventies rock band Kansas – “dust in the wind.”

And damn improbable dust at that. The number of potential human beings, calculated from possible genetic combinations, far exceeds the number of subatomic particles in the universe. People pop into the world of appearances with best-before dates – so why shouldn’t we reciprocally honour our cosmically unique and unrepeatable existence?

Given our short stretch here, does it not make sense to treat others as one would wish to be treated ourselves? To choose the power of love over the love of power? And in a world spinning out of control, to extend universal compassion beyond the holiday season?

Just asking a few big questions, while trying to figure out what sort of holiday column to write.

The Vancouver Courier, Dec. 15 and 29

DONALD TRUMP AND THE F WORD

by Geoff Olson

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p style=”text-align:left;”>There’s a brand new dance but I don’t know its name
/That people from bad homes do again and again/
It’s big and it’s bland full of tension and fear/
They do it over there but we don’t do it here
-David Bowie, Fashion, 1979

triumphDec1.jpgLast Tuesday night, I parked my butt on a barstool and watched slack-jawed as the US election results rolled in on a big-screen TV.  Inconceivably, Thing One was trumping Thing Two. By the time I stumbled home it was game over: Lady Macbeth had lost to a former reality TV star with an Art Deco ‘do and 70 active lawsuits against him.

One thing you can say about Donald Trump: he and his successful train wreck campaign have been yuuugely fascinating. Morbidly, perversely… but fascinating nonetheless.

“Fascinate” means to bewitch or enchant. It originates from the 15th century Latin fascinus, meaning “a charm, enchantment, spell, witchcraft.” It was once believed that witches and serpents could render one unable to move or resist through a spell or a mere gaze. According to the Century Dictionary, “To fascinate is to bring under a spell, as by the power of the eye; to enchant and to charm are to bring under a spell by some more subtle and mysterious power.”

News watchers were spellbound by the media’s fixed focus on Trump’s dickish exploits and outrages, any one of which would have been enough to sink a traditional candidate from either party. Yet the Rethuglican candidate was nothing of the sort, unless you consider sexual harassment and an endorsement from the Klu Klux Klan to be “traditional”. The press couldn’t look away, and neither could the rest of  us.

In any case, once you start investigating word origins, there’s no telling where you’ll end up. A word closely related to fascination, with its associations of spells, paralysis and power, is the f word: fascism.

Fascism is drawn from the Latin noun, fasces, meaning “a bundle of rods containing an axe with the blade projecting.” A Roman magistrate would carry these before him as a symbol of violent authority: “the sticks symbolized punishment by whipping, the axe-head execution by beheading. Hence in Latin it also meant, figuratively, “high office, supreme power,”” according to the Online Etymological Dictionary.

The Italian fascists explicitly took their name from fasces. A perched eagle clutching a fasces was a common symbol used on their uniforms. The British Union of Fascists also employed the image in the 1930s.

Columbia University historian Robert O. Paxton defines fascism as “a form of political behaviour marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

Needless to say, American immigrants are not the only ones now worried about the rise of domestic fascism in the US. (Whether or not Trump abides by his protectionist “principles” and projects military violence into the world, a la Clinton/Obama, is another matter.)

Tellingly, fasces are all over American iconography. There are two fasces on either side of the US flag behind the podium in the United States House of Representatives.  Fasces decorate the base of the Statue of Freedom on the United States Capitol building. The National Guard employs the image as well.

You can read as much or as little into this as you like into this, as either symbolic acknowledgement of America’s violent underpinnings or irrelevant decorative fashion. Yet fashion itself is a word lexically related to the terms above. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word has roots in the latinate term  for a “group of people acting together,” from facere, “to make.”

In a 1979 song, David Bowie drew a comparison between mass trends and totalitarian movements. Was he consciously working a lexical link between fashion and fascism? I don’t know, but his invocation of fashionistas marching in lockstep is both danceable and disturbing. A David Duke campaign song for 2020, perhaps?

Fashion!/Turn to the left/Fashion!/Turn to the Right/Fashion!/We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town/Beep-beep! – David Bowie, Fashion


trumpcoalDec22.jpgDid you hear the one about President-elect Trump’s off the record meeting with 30 to 40 media representatives? No joke. “It was like a f–ing firing squad,” an unnamed source told Mother Jones last week. “Trump started with [CNN chief] Jeff Zucker and said ‘I hate your network, everyone at CNN is a liar and you should be ashamed.”

Trump is halfway right for the wrong reasons. Consider past mainstream media reporting about the Mideast alone, from Saddam’s nonexistent WMDs to the existential threat from Libyan leader Gaddafi to the ‘moderate rebels’ fiction in Syria. Inconvenient facts that don’t fit the narrative have long been dispensable.

In contrast, the news monoliths’ straightforward recitation of Trump’s serial lies and contradictions constituted some fairly consistent truth-telling.

Faith in traditional media is at an all-time low in the US. As a result, Trump supporters were inoculated against verifiable information about their idol from The New York Times and other bastions of the so-called “liberal elite” (outlets that truly did give the venal Hillary Clinton a free ride, by the way).

Mix this curdled attitude toward old-school newsmongers with social media, where algorithms offer news items tailored to users’ browsing patterns. Sprinkle in some disinformation from Internet trolls, heat with divisive commentary from bloggers left and right, and let sit for an election cycle. That makes for one spicy stew of Confirmation Bias.

Eat up, ‘Murica. The facts have been fudged for your convenience; you just can’t be sure which ones.

The US federal election offered voters a choice between a cataclysm and a catastrophe. The Democratic Party owns this one, having put forward one of the worst presidential candidates in living memory. They can hardly call cry foul over suspect voting patterns in some US states (with Trump winning by highly improbable one percent margins) when they stole primary votes from Bernie Sanders to anoint the Queen Bee.

The hawkish Hillary hardly made the odious Trump shine in comparison. The problem with lesser-evilism as a political philosophy is that better options – the Naders and Steins – are consistently marginalized by the press during elections yet cursed afterwards by electors as self-indulgent, divisive vote-splitters.

So now we have tweeting Trump twice demanding an apology from the cast of the Broadway play Hamilton, for an after-performance speech directed at Vice President-elect and playgoer Mike Pence. This is something new in America: a president in waiting issuing direct commands to particular citizens to behave, like some tinpot dictator wielding a bullhorn and enemies list.

Short of military invasion, US foreign policy has long been about supporting authoritarian regimes, fronted by strongmen willing to sell out their country’s resources and assets for the benefit of themselves and international banksters. Batista, Somoza, Pinochet, Rios Montt, Noriega, Stroessner, Suharto, Trujillo, the Duvaliers, Marcos, Hussein, Mubarak. That’s just the short list of US-supported thugs from the past sixty years.

American mainstream media commentators have long pitched foreign invasion and covert ops as spreading freedom (at best), and the failure of good intentions (at worst). And last week some of these stenographers to power gathered to be harangued by an orange-skinned creature from reality TV. However could this ever have come to be?

Well, vast stretches of the US are now functionally at Third World levels, so who better to take the reins than a despot-in-training? Trump’s infamous tag line – “you’re fired!” – is just right for deindustrialized America.

The Banana Republican’s bluster has yet to be field-tested in the oval office, but he will be backed by the National Defence Authorization Act, signed into law by Obama in 2011. The point is not that Trump WILL take advantage of a bill that supposedly allows the president to detain Americans indefinitely without trial. The point is that he CAN.

The “cult of American exceptionalism” did not impress the late, great  American writer Joe Bageant, who wrote on how a succession of Democratic and Republican administrations had exploited the US rural underclass for decades. “Arrogance is experiential and environmental in cause… Human experience can make and unmake arrogance. Ours is about to get unmade,” he wrote shortly before his death in 2011.

The Vancouver Courier, December

THE SHINY NEW PALEOCONSERVATIVE PARTY

Hello! We’re the new, rebranded PaleoConservative party!

We’ve learned from past mistakes and moved on. Stephen Who? What? Huh? After the outcome of the last federal election, we all probably have PTSD. Can’t remember much.

Yet we do remember expecting a different outcome. With sinking hearts we watched as a tide of red spread west across the nation’s ridings. It was like someone sawed a Canadian beaver in half and splashed its entrails across the 49th parallel. It hurt that much.

However, we respected the will of the electorate. Among the lessons we’ve learned is to never, ever let a tone-deaf party leader get near a keyboard, unless its attached to a computer.

Another thing we learned is that you don’t roll out a nation-wide snitch line for “barbaric cultural practices” without defining the parameters. We were overloaded with calls about muzzled federal scientists and shuttered fisheries libraries (it’s not our fault some Canadians can’t tell the difference between an islamofascist’s pressure cooker bomb and some ichthyologist’s peer-reviewed bore).

Also in retrospect, “Building a Bridge to the 19th Century” was not the greatest of political campaign lines.

In any case, next time around we’re just going to leave the hijab alone. Not gonna touch the burkini, either. Nuh-uh.

Anybody applying for Canadian citizenship can wear whatever he or she wants at a swearing-in ceremony. Swim fins, welding goggles and a fez – go for it. Dance into the room wearing tap shoes and a tank top with “Free Leonard Peltier” on it, for all we care. Whatever floats your overloaded multicultural boats, newcomers! We don’t care if you can only speak only Esperanto or Vulcan. Viva la difference!

We love foreigners, actually. The number of temporary foreign workers in this country exploded under Lord Volde…we mean Ste…under the previous Tory government.
The PaleoConservative party now comes with 35 percent less corporatism, in the Mussolini sense of the term. We are kinder and gentler. Honestly. The Business Council of Canada tells us the word next time around is “stealth.” It’s nifty word that combines “strength” and “health.”

We are confident you’ll give us a kick at the can rather than a kick in the teeth, once respectable pundits in the press reveal Justin Trudeau as the metrosexual, Pinko crybaby that he is.
And really, what’s with the hair? C’mon, anyone who uses that much product is keeping their eye on the salon mirror, not their parliamentary seat. (You know who’s really got great tresses? Our leader, Rona Ambrose. And she comes by it naturally; word is she was fully covered in hair at birth.)

Yes, we are sorry about hosting public comments calling for the prime minister’s assassination on the old Conservative Facebook page last August. We removed them once The Walrus called public attention to the matter. Really, we didn’t know they were there. Kinda got in under the radar. (Weird Canadians found out about it through a large, flippered marine mammal, though.)

But make no mistake; we are sticking to our core principles. Jobs. That’s the mantra of the PaleoConservative party. Jobs, jobs, jobs.

We’re going to create a lot of them for Canadians. With the collapse of the oil sector, we have an entire swath of Alberta to remediate. Lots of bird-brained waterfowl are still landing in tailing ponds, and we’re excited about the prospect of handing out buckets of soap and water to overeducated, underemployed citizens who might otherwise go on about Darwinian selection.

We’re down with your hypocrisy if you unbelievers have young heathen to feed.
We will continue to be tough on crime, so your right-wing government in exile promises job creation through the Canadian penitentiary system. A former Tory MP from Calgary is actively consulting the American private prison industry about future investment in Canada. So if you’re jobless, and feel compelled to commit a crime, victimless or otherwise, no worries: you will find plenty of meaningful, character-building work at your local supermax “crowbar hotel.”

You tried Progressive Conservative, you tried Reform, you tried Alliance. Then you tried old stock Conservative. Try PaleoConservative in 2019 after our rebranding is complete, when we’re slicker than a Moray eel in Jell-O. You’ll be glad you did!

Sincerely,
The PaleoConservative Party of Canada

The Vancouver Courier, Nov. 3