Make your monsters unique: Lizzie Borden vs. Lovecraftian horrors

I watched the season finale of American Gods, and they did something brave: they portrayed Jesus as just another member of the motley horde of gods. Usually the Christian faith is excluded from these kinds of god-stories — you can’t reduce the One True God to another myth, like Anansi or Czernobog! — but the show did just that. Furthermore, they featured dozens of Jesii, because there so many different versions of him, all different and often incompatible with one another. They chickened out a little bit, though; there was a throw-away line about Jesus being the nicest of the gods, and they failed to include one prominent American god, Supply-Side Jesus of the Prosperity Gospel, armed with an AK-47 while crushing the necks of the undeserving poor under his sandals.

But it’s still an interesting point. If you’re going to personify deities, which rendition are you going to use? There are at least hundreds of gods in the Bible alone, although the devout seem to think giving one name to all of those entities, malignant and benign, is enough to unify them. Likewise that got me thinking of other mythical beings. Is there one true vampire nature, for instance? The media versions are all over the map. There’s the Stoker version, which wed Victorian disgust for sex with disgust for contagion. There’s the Ann Rice version, all sex and Catholic guilt. There’s the del Toro/Hogan version, which got rid of the sex and wallowed in repulsive infection stories. Or the Stephen King version, which is a little less gorey but is still all about dread of infection and decay and death. I shall not dwell on the sparkley angsty emo vampires, but they’re also part of the range.

One of the problems with the proliferation of supernatural variants, though, is that interest attenuates. Which Jesus are we talking about? Which vampire? I’d also add, which zombie? Pretty soon these kinds of stock genre boogey men degenerate into an unimaginative gluing together of standard tropes and the mechanics begin to show. Oh, this is a standard Stoker vampire plus tolerance for sunlight plus a functioning penis. Oh, this is a God-is-Love Jesus plus non-white xenophobia minus pacifism. It’s paint-by-numbers supernaturalism. Genre fiction (note: I include Christianity in the genre fiction category) tends to get overwhelmed with this kind of rote assembly line crap. A few original and creative stories launch an idea into popularity, and then the hacks take over. The zombie genre is in the terminal stages of the process right now. Seriously, authors, don’t bother doing zombie anything anymore, unless it’s genuinely original, and no, “fast zombies whose weak spot is the heart rather than the brain” are not original.

I love the creepy-crawly kind of horror story, the ones that make you go “eww, ick” now and then and wonder which character is going to die horribly next. But I’m tired of vampires and zombies and Christian evangelists — those monsters have been sucked dry and reduced to gristle and slime and all the thrill is gone. I am overjoyed when I stumble across a story that is new and different.

Which brings me to the point of this overlong introduction. My airplane reading this past weekend! I found something cool and fun and creepy!

I’m a fan of Lovecraftian atmosphere — but not so much of most of the stories themselves. Usually there is just some detached narrator recounting the mounting horror growing in the breasts of the victims, who will meet their demise in some climax of hyperbolic madness. There are lots of Lovecraftian pastiches out there that are little more than collections of increasingly florid adjectives and adverbs. But have you noticed that most Lovecraftian heroes are dull men with little imagination who are usually shattered by some unearthly revelation? Fine, once or twice. Boring when every Lovecraft imitator does exactly the same thing.

But Cherie Priest doesn’t. Her novel, Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches, first focuses on the characters, but it’s still Lovecraftian. It’s set in Massachusetts in the 1890s; Miskatonic University has a featured role; there are horrors that emerge from the sea. The story revolves around the Borden sisters — that’s right, Lizzie Borden, after her acquittal from a famous pair of axe murders, and yes, her axe, and her skill with it, is very important in the story. We learn the true secret reason why her parents were killed. There is a blend of science — Lizzie has a basement lab where she tries to understand what is happening, and one aspect of the nightmare overtaking them is an unusual specimen of Physalus — and mysticism. There is a supernatural aspect to the weird absorption of the townspeople in a voice from the sea, and the fate of the individuals who touch the thing from the ocean. There’s definitely horror here: the monsters are vivid and disgusting, and portrayed with the Lovecraft Adjective Generator turned down enough to endow them with a revolting degree of plausibility. Lizzie has her axe, and also a convenient installation in her basement called “the cooker” which allows her to render monstrosities down to digested slime. It’s all very well thought out and grisly.

Most importantly, though, you know enough about the characters that you actually care about them as they are driven towards terror and the inevitable descent into madness.

Recommended, if you’re a fan of horror and Lovecraft and good writing. I’ve also read her book Boneshaker, which has got zombies in it, which are usually a turn-off for me, but it hasn’t got very many zombies in it, and they’re kind of a generic mass threat on the side, so you can mostly ignore them and read it for the story and characters.

Is the Ark Encounter economically viable?

From a few of the comments on my post about my visit to Ken Ham’s Ark Park, people seem to think I’m arguing for the long-term success of the fake boat. Short answer: I don’t know. But here’s what I do know.

It’s got a fair number of attendees. This is from a one-day sample, so I can’t possibly make any extrapolations, but what I saw were a lot of Christian family groups who looked like they were there on vacation, several buses full of evangelical church kids in matching t-shirts, and a scattering of older couples who were there like pilgrims visiting a shrine. It’s far more popular than other creationist museums I’ve visited, which are typically anemic and a bit shabby. Answers in Genesis has the flashy PR angle down cold, and is getting people to travel to the Ark Park as a tourist destination. That’s a plus for them.

Attendance really is comparable to what I see at real science museums, like the Franklin Institute or the Science Museum of Minnesota or OMSI. That’s remarkable considering they’re almost an hour away from Cincinnati and it’s a drive with virtually no other attractions. Location matters, and they’ve plunked this thing down in a crap location; if you relocated the San Francisco Exploratorium to this nowhere place in Kentucky, it would wither and die. The Ark Park is doing OK, because they can rely on religious fervor to motivate visitors.

However, that parking lot has got to be immensely embarrassing, because it is so dang immense and relatively empty. They clearly anticipated crowds that are an order of magnitude larger than what they’re getting. Maybe they’re anticipating a lot of growth? I don’t think they’ll get it.

Here’s why: there’s nothing there. When I compare it to real museums, it’s solely on the basis of attendance, because the content is pathetic — the Creation “Museum” has equivalent or more content, and the Ark Park just spreads the same stuff out over more square footage. There’s a lot of “tell, don’t show”: big pictures on the wall that explain verbosely what their interpretation of the Bible is, accompanied by…nothing. It’s bad pedagogy that only affirms what true believers already believe. If you’re not a believer already, it’s painfully dreary and dull; Ol’ Ken won’t be winning any souls for Jesus, but he will be reassuring those already on his side that science and American culture are agin’ ’em, and so they better join together.

What about the satisfaction of those attendees? They liked it! I doubt that many came out of it as I did feeling like they were ripped off. A few anecdotes: I was listening to what other people were saying (I was there solely as an observer, so I did not start any arguments, tempted though I was). I’m walking down the long, long, long ramp that winds through the center of the building, and there was an elderly couple walking along. “This is magnificent!”, he said to his wife, and she agreed. Yet all there was to see was this gigantic wooden ramp that was like a blown-up cattle chute, with us as the cattle. They’d clearly gotten the message that was hammered at us constantly about how big the Ark was, so that bigness became sufficient.

On the third deck, a woman bustled by, clearly anxious to just leave, and her teenaged son was trailing behind. “Mommm! Slow down! I’m trying to learn something here!” I spun around in place, looking at what there was to see. The ramp. A bright colorful poster of something or other on the wall. A small room space with a diorama in it. It was as close to an intellectual dead zone as I’ve seen. I don’t know whether the kid was simply using a buzz word — “learn” — to manipulate his mother, or whether he was sincere in wanting to think about the content. This was the point where I was most tempted to intervene and take the person aside who professed to want to learn and explain to him what he really needed to know about this place.

That was depressing, to see someone who at least claimed to want to learn who’d sought out this terrible place that was only teaching ignorance.

It also highlighted something else about the place: where were the docents? Most museums have volunteers who will help explain anything on display, or have experts who will do demonstrations. I saw nothing of the kind here. There were a couple of places where there were bottlenecks, with guides who were there to shepherd groups along; there were a few guards armed with tasers and police dogs. Otherwise, everything was designed to stand alone, which might explain why there so many walls of text splattered about. It’s all so ideologically focused in a narrow way, so it might also be difficult to get volunteer guides who don’t say something heretical now and then.

I expect the attendees stroll out of there to register high satisfaction ratings, in the majority. That’s a problem for AiG. You know that giant parking lot that maybe they hope to expand into? They’ve already captured the audience that is made giddily happy by trudging for 45 minutes through a maze of wooden boxes with amplified pig noises squealing at them. You don’t need substance to appeal to them at all. You could just bus them out to a completely empty giant wooden box, and if you told them it was Jesus-approved, they’d nod and check off the biggest number in the Likert scale of the satisfaction survey. This isn’t just a phenomenon at religious sites, of course.

It is a problem for growth though. Adding more exhibits or longer ziplines or carnival rides will increase their expenses, but won’t draw in more people beyond their already pre-satisfied crowd of Jesusites. The baseline has been successfully acquired. What do they do to make it grow? I have no idea. I don’t think they do, either.

Another concern for AiG. I, too, own a big wooden box called a house. It’s nowhere near the size of Ken Ham’s big wooden box, but maintenance is a non-trivial expense — we’re especially aware of that this summer, because we’ve hired a contractor to redo all the big wooden siding and replace the rotting-out boards in the big wooden deck. My pocketbook is already aching, so I’m a little bit sensitive to this sort of thing. I looked at the already seriously weathered shell of the Ark, and I wondered what happens when all those boards expand and warp in the cold and the heat, and what their maintenance costs will be. I’m also confident that those costs will grow over the years, and that AiG, given their desperate desire for raw overwhelming BIGNESS, have probably cut corners in quality somewhere (which is evident in the paltry content). Just the fact that they proudly proclaim that they have built the largest wooden structure in the world should tell you that they’re at the extreme end of what you can do with this kind of construction.

So I repeat: I don’t know if the Ark Park is economically viable. It might be cruising along just fine right now — that’s entirely possible, given reasonable attendance — and they might even get significant repeat business, because their fans are definitely devoted. But I know nothing about their expenses, it’s not exactly poised for real growth, and it’s got nothing in the interior that ought to make science museums concerned about competition. It’s a shrine to stupidity, which has a built-in strong audience in America. And which makes Ken Ham rich.

A new claim from the quack decapitator

Sergio Canavero is now claiming to have achieved successful repair/regeneration of severed spinal cords by something he pompously calls The Gemini Protocol. This is simply severing the cord with a sharp knife (good to know he’s not using a dull one) and immediately squirting the cut with polyethylene glycol (which we’ve known for decades will cause cells to fuse). He has photos of rats that he said managed to start walking again two weeks after slicing through their spinal cords.

This is pretty much guaranteed bullshit.

More qualified experts than I say the same thing.

Critics of the proposed human head transplant have been vocal since it was first announced. Commenting on it in 2015, Chad Gordon, professor neurological surgery at Johns Hopkins University, told BuzzFeed : “There’s no way he’s going to hook up somebody’s brain to someone’s spinal cord and have them be functional. On the conservative side, we’re about 100 years away from being able to figure this out. If he’s saying two, and he’s promising a living, breathing, talking, moving human being? He’s lying.”

Jerry Silver, Professor of Neurosciences at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, works on repairing spinal cords after injury. Commenting on the latest study, he tells Newsweek it is unclear whether to team had truly severed the cord completely. “I notice that in the last paragraph they state ‘In conclusion, we have shown that the paralysis following full severance of the dorsal spinal cord can be reversed—to a significant extent—by immediate application of a fusogen.’ Did they sever only the ‘dorsal’ cord?” he says.

He said the team also claims the axons—which form part of the spinal cord—had regenerated, but “they show no evidence for regeneration.”

“There is no histology [the study of the microscopic structure of tissues] which is the only way to assess what is really going on here,” Silver said, adding the BBB scores—the scoring system used to assess motor function in rats—were unrealistic.

“Two treated animals supposedly recover locomotor skills that are nearly normal (BBB scores of 19 and 20 out of a possible 21 total) and as a group they average a score of 12 which means that they can on average take multiple weight bearing steps. [This is] unbelievable. Too good to be true in my opinion, which mandates that these results will have be independently verified and properly analyzed before this work can be accepted as scientifically valid.”

No histology. Partial cuts? Poor documentation of supposed recovery. This guy is a quack.

By the way, he’s also abruptly dropped plans to do the first human experiment on a man with a degenerative disease, Valery Spiridonov, and is instead planning to do it on an unnamed Chinese victim patient, just as he has announced Chinese government support.

Don’t take Canavero seriously, unless it’s to drag him off to the Hague for prosecution. His proposal is a glory-seeking sham.

The meeting circuit

Some people expressed surprise that I was at the Midwest Zebrafish meeting. They have meetings about zebrafish? How weird. Only not. What I find weird is that people are unaware of this mundane part of the science experience, so I thought I’d briefly explain it.

Every sub-sub-discipline does this. There are zebrafish meetings, fly meetings, worm meetings, mouse meetings, bat meetings. There are meetings dedicated to specific diseases. There are meetings for organs and tissues: brain meetings, kidney meetings, hair cell meetings, enteric nervous system meetings, ear meetings. There are meetings dedicated to the mechanisms of vomiting. There are meetings with 50 attendees, others with 30,000. They are going on in every city of the country all the time. We are right there under your nose.

Why do we hold these meetings?

  • Practice. It’s part of student training.

  • Networking. Bringing together people with similar interests is a great way to make connections.

  • Sharing new ideas. Sometimes an experiment might not be right for publication, so you get feedback on preliminary results.

  • Inspiration. We learn all kinds of cool stuff we can try in our labs.

  • Good times. You know how nice it is to hang out with weirdos with the same interests?

Who gets to go? Anyone. They’re open to anyone willing to pay for registration (which may be a few hundred dollars). You don’t want to go. It’s all very esoteric. This is where we let it all hang out: talks are wall-to-wall high-density jargon in which we assume everyone knows all the basics, or even the advanced stuff. It’s great, but lay people will be bored or lost. This stuff is often so rarefied and narrow that not even science journalists will be interested. It’s often condensed down to 12 minute talks — kind of like blipverts for the most technical stuff.

Sometimes people might wander by the hotel we’re having it in — it happened last night. The poster session for the meeting was held in the atrium, and we had a couple of people stop by and ask what it was all about. That’s great! We had a nice conversation and showed off some of our videos. Most scientists are happy to talk to anyone about the weird stuff we’re doing.

Now you know what it’s all about. Tomorrow I get to go home after an intense weekend…and I get to repeat it again in July.

The Ark Encounter: Wood, plus animal noises

I visited Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter today, and my title says it all: it’s a big wooden box full of more fake wooden boxes, with recorded animal noises playing constantly to make it seem like there’s something more. A hollow cacophony. Maybe if you’re a church-goer, you’re used to that, but I’m not. I tweeted a bunch of stuff as I went along, and I’ll post that below with a litte more commentary below.

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