Ancient Seeds Can Still Bear Fruit

Herodotus, Galen, and Pliny the Elder, names from the ancient Greek and Roman world that are familiar to the classical scholars among us, all praised the fruit of the Judean date palm. But in the centuries after the heydays of the Greeks and Romans, the date groves fell into decline and the distinctive Judean date palm plant disappeared — until now, thanks to the efforts of some Israeli scientists. And the reappearance of the plants tells us something noteworthy about the sophistication of the ancient farmers who grew the plant and, potentially, the hardiness of seeds.

The scientists located ancient seeds of the long-lost plant in caves and the ruins of a fortress built by King Herod and have used the 2,000-year-old seeds to grow thriving plants, like the one shown in the photo above. From hundreds of seeds that were collected, scientists selected a few dozen of the best candidates, soaked them in water and fertilizer, and then planted them — and, amazingly, six plants sprouted. The scientists then used the grown plants to conduct a genetic analysis that showed that the Judean date palm contained elements of African date palms and Middle Eastern date palms.

In short, the Judean farmers of long ago had engaged in careful breeding programs to try to produce the most succulent dates — which is why many people in the ancient world praised the Judean date for its large size, sweetness, and long storage life, as well as claimed medicinal benefits. Those findings suggest that ancient farmers knew what they were doing as they crossed different plants, hoping to enhance specific, desired qualities of the fruit.

The successful regeneration of the Judean date palm, centuries after its disappearance, from seeds that have sat, unused, for millennia may teach us something about the longevity of seeds, and may mean that other lost plants of the distant past can be recultivated. As for me, I’d like to try one of those famous dates — after the scientists that rescued the variety from oblivion are done experimenting with them, of course.

A Ramen Story

I’ve been eating a lot of ramen noodle lunches during this COVID shutdown period. I cook up the noodles, toss the unopened, too-salty-for-my-tastes flavor packet into the trash, and then add various items to the noodles and water, like chopped hard-boiled egg, tofu, spinach, tuna fish, chopped onion, or other leftovers from the refrigerator, and always some sriracha sauce, mustard, and horseradish to give the concoction an extra spicy kick. It makes for a hot, satisfying lunch that’s a nice break from sandwiches.

The other day I was waiting for the water to boil and noticed that the back of the noodle packet included a short tribute to the founder of the Nissin Top Ramen brand that is shown in the above photograph. You don’t see tributes to founders on food packets much anymore — in fact, you really don’t see them at all. This one says that the founder, Momofuku Ando, invented instant ramen in Japan and brought it to America in 1970, includes a sketch of his head, and describes him as a “legendary inventor and humanitarian.” The packet also directs you to the Nissin Foods website for more information.

Well, why not learn more about a legendary figure? You can find the referenced website here. It says that Mr. Ando invented instant ramen to deal with food shortages in post-WWII Japan and also invented instant noodles in a cup after noticing Americans eating noodles from cups. It includes photographs of Mr. Ando, including one with him in a lab coat posing with a microscope that sure makes him look like an inventor. The photos indicate that the sketch on the packet is a pretty good likeness, by the way. As for his humanitarian status, the website includes some of Mr. Ando’s sayings that are claimed to still inspire the company, like “be meticulous, yet bold.” Some of Mr. Ando’s other quotes are “always look around you with a great deal of curiosity,” “food is a peace industry,” and “when you cast away greed in adversity, you can find unexpected strength.”

It’s nice to know a little bit more about this person who came up with the idea of instant noodles, which have helped to make my personal shutdown period a bit more tolerable. And, in his honor, I will strive to always “be meticulous, yet bold” in chopping up leftovers and adding inventive combinations to my ramen creations.

The Lab Leak Scenario

It’s been about a year since the coronavirus started to spread in earnest and unleash its wrath on an unwitting world. Since that time, tens of millions of people have been infected, countless more have died, and therefore the focus understandably has been on fighting a desperate, rear-guard action to try to minimize the spread and effects of COVID-19. But . . . will we ever know, for sure, the origins of the virus and how it came to shut down the world?

Initially, many people thought that the virus had its roots in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China, where a virus that previously was limited to animals somehow made a leap to humans. Increasingly, however, people are exploring the alternative “lab leak” scenario. That hypothesis posits that the virus had its roots in a naturally occurring condition among animals, but than was modified and bioengineered and made even more infectious in a medical laboratory — in this case, a lab somewhere in Wuhan.

And here’s the scary part: the people who are articulating the lab leak scenario do not believe that COVID-19 was intentionally designed to function as some kind of biological weapon. Instead, they believe it was created and enhanced in infectiousness and virulence as part of routine, ongoing experimentation with viruses — and that, through negligence and inadvertence, it somehow got out of the controlled environment and began its destructive rampage across the globe. In short, they believe medical researchers throughout the world have been engaging in incredibly risky behavior with incredibly risky viruses, and through someone’s mistake or carelessness, we’re now all paying the piper. If that hypothesis is what actually happened, this wasn’t some naturally occurring phenomenon, but a self-inflicted wound that didn’t have to happen in the first place.

A New York magazine piece, The Lab Leak Hypothesis, does a good job of explaining this scenario for the creation of COVID-19 and establishing why it seems plausible. It turns out that, for years now, scientists and medical researchers have been tinkering with viruses and modifying them in an effort to make them more deadly and more easily transmitted, for the putative purpose of trying to prevent the spread of viruses and designing vaccines or other treatments. And, in publications in the scientific community, some people have sounded the alarm bells and predicted that, one of these days, one of those bioengineered viruses would escape. That may be precisely what happened here.

Reading the New York article, I found myself thinking: didn’t anyone involved in funding or supervising or performing this kind of incredibly risky research ever read The Stand, Stephen King’s novel about a bioengineered disease that decimated the world? And didn’t the scientists who were engaging in this research have a bit of humility about their capabilities, and question whether they should be playing God with viruses that could potentially sweep across the world?

We may never know exactly how COVID-19 came toravage the world. It’s unlikely that, if the lab leak scenario is true, someone will step up and admit that they opened the door to allow a global pandemic to escape. But Congress and the incoming Biden Administration can take a good, hard look at precisely what kind of risky research is being performed, at taxpayer expense or otherwise, and consider whether that research should be shut down entirely, or subject to much more rigorous controls than currently exist. We may not learn from whence the coronavirus came, but we can take the lab leak scenario seriously, and try to prevent a human-engineered disease from killing unwitting victims, smashing our economies, and throwing millions of people out of work in the future.

2,000 Years Of Fast Food

Pompeii — the Roman town that was buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. — continues to tell us some interesting stuff about the everyday lives of the ancient Romans. Excavations have uncovered apparent brothels, bars, homes — and now, a fast food stand, pictured above, that was operating on a busy street corner.

The fast food stand evidently was closed in a hurry as the volcano spewed the ash that buried the town. Archaeologists found the remains of that fateful day’s offerings in some of the pots embedded in the brightly colored food stand. The menu when the volcano blew included duck, pig, goat, snails, fish, fava beans, and a paella-like combo dish. And from that chicken that is painted on the front of the stand, I’m guessing that everybody’s favorite poultry was in one of those pots from time to time, too.

The excavation also uncovered a scenario that might be familiar to modern fast-food stand operators. The remains of a person who was lifting the lid on one of the pots of food were also uncovered — leading archaeologists to speculate that somebody fleeing the eruption couldn’t resist stopping to grab some free food when they should have kept running.

The ancient Romans seem like they were a lot like us, suggesting that the basic motivations of people — and the key concepts of point of purchase advertising that attracts them — haven’t changed that much over thousands of years. The brilliantly decorated food stand, obviously calculated to catch the eye of passersby, with the no doubt delectable smell of simmering food, looks like a modern food truck or an open-air food stand on the street of New York City. The pork, chicken, and fish that was served would be at home in any modern fast-food outlet, too. The only thing that appears to be missing from the Roman stand is a dirty water hot dog.

My Incredible Shrinking World

Yesterday I went to the office. As I prepared to cross Livingston Avenue, which is the boundary between German Village and downtown Columbus, I realized with a start how rare it is for me to leave our neighborhood these days. The sad reality is that my personal world has become awfully small.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, I traveled regularly to different cities for business and recreation, stayed in hotels and cared about the points I was racking up on my different hotel rewards programs, and walked through airports without a second thought, trying to figure out the most healthy eating options on Concourse A. We entertained friends and family and were entertained by friends and family and went to their houses or met them at restaurants and talked about whatever. We enjoyed dinners at different eateries, and went to movies and live musical performances. On weekdays, I walked downtown to the office, checked out what was going on in the downtown area, talked to people in the hallways and elevators, and typically ate lunch at different places with friends from work.

None of that happens anymore. All of that interaction, that getting out and about, is pretty much gone. We drove to and from Maine this year, but that’s been it on the travel front. I worked at the dining room table and the kitchen table of our place in Maine and rarely left Little Deer Isle, just as I spend most of my days at our kitchen island or at the dining room table in our German Village home. If you graphed the amount of time I’ve spent sitting at the kitchen island over time, you’d see the biggest, most abrupt upward spike imaginable.

I’m not complaining about this — it’s just the reality of the current circumstances, and there’s no point in complaining about reality. But the way my personal world has narrowed is pretty remarkable. I’m ready to get out there and start experiencing different things and different places again and enjoying some of the mental stimulation that accompanies it. And I’ve decided I’m going to start going to the office from time to time, just to broaden my horizons even a little bit.

Breakdancing Gold

Breakdancing has become an Olympic sport. Yesterday the International Olympic Committee announced that breakdancing — which will be called “breaking” in its Olympic variation — will be one of the sports for the 2024 Olympiad, in Paris. Surfing, sport climbing, and skateboarding will be the other new sports at the Paris games.

The squash crowd isn’t happy about the decision. That sport has been lobbying for years to be added to the Olympic menu and has now been rebuffed — again. The decision to choose “breaking” over squash caused one champion squash player to say that the Olympics has become a “mockery.” I don’t know about the “mockery” stuff, but featuring skateboarding, climbing, and breakdancing will definitely make the Olympics seem a lot more like the “X Games.”

I’m not a traditionalist about what should be an Olympic sport. In its modern incarnation, the Olympics has never been confined to the events the ancient Greeks decided to include way back when. Adding new sports to the roster recognizes that sports is an ever changing area, and there’s no doubt that it requires talent, skill, and some degree of fitness to be a great breakdancer or skateboarder. But it seems like there should be some kind of line between a sport and an activity. And the champion squash player in the story linked above raises another valid point: many of the new Olympic sports won’t have an undisputed victor, like you would have in a marathon, the 100-meter dash, the shot put, or the long jump. Instead, we’ll need judges to tell us which “breaker” got the best score on his/her routine — which just adds subjectivity and possible corruption to the mix. If East Germany still existed, we’d likely be complaining about the East German “breaking” judge’s unfair scoring.

If breakdancing and skateboarding are official Olympic sports now, what’s next? Will videogaming — no doubt to be called “gaming” in its Olympic incarnation — be the next designated Olympic sport to break the squash players’ hearts?

Spam, Spam, Spam, and Spam

Our days often begin with a review of our email boxes to delete the spam. The other day, as I was performing this mindless chore, I wondered: why are random, unwelcome emails (and now, phone calls too) called “spam”?

Even though the internet and email are recent developments in the arc of human history, the true origin of “spam” to refer to unwanted emails seems to be lost in the mists of time. “Spam” apparently is not an acronym, nor is it some kind of direct slam on the canned meat of the same name that is produced by the Hormel Foods Company and is evidently beloved in Hawaii. Instead, the most plausible explanation I’ve seen is that, in the very early days of the internet, undesired email was called “spam” as a reference to the Monty Python spam sketch, in which a diner menu recited by a waitress features multiple dishes made with spam, a gang of Vikings sing a song about spam, and a fed-up British matron is forced to confess that she doesn’t like spam.

Some claim the term “spam” was first used to describe email in 1993, when an early email user mistakenly sent multiple copies of the same email message; others say it dates back to the ’80s. In any case, the fact that there is a lot of spam email (like the spam-oriented dishes on the diner menu) and the spam email is not appreciated (like the diner patron who doesn’t like spam) seems to have been the connection that gave spam email its name.

Language is interesting, and “spam” email is a good example of why. In this instance, some early email user was a Monty Python fan who thought of the connection to the sketch and attached the name, it stuck and was used by early internet users, and then it spread to become the common term used by your iPhone, the filters on your computer, and the world of email users at large. It’s short, it’s as good a name as any, and if you’ve watched that classic Monty Python sketch, you know it’s apt. Like the high-pitched, purse-clutching English lady, we all “don’t like spam“!

Explaining 2020

Why has 2020 been such a dismal failure of a year? What could have caused the unique combination of disaster and catastrophe that we’ve experienced in this fateful year?

A mummy’s curse seems as good an explanation as any.

A news story recently disclosed that Egyptian authorities have been unearthing and opening a lot of sacrophagi this year. 160 ancient tombs and coffins have been opened, to be exact — and some of them were sealed with a curse that call on the council of the gods to punish any impure person who might desecrate the graves.

What we’ve experienced so far in 2020 seems like pretty curse-worthy punishment — but of course it is unlikely that a mummy’s curse could be the cause of the pandemic and the riots and the economic disruption and 2020 election and the other unpleasantness that have made 2020 such a memorable debacle. After all, Egyptian authorities have been opening tombs for years, without causing anything more troubling than some bad Hollywood horror movies. But who knows? The ancient Egyptians were savvy enough to build the pyramids and the Sphinx; maybe this year the authorities unfortunately stumbled onto the tomb of the one ancient priest of Osiris who really knew how to cast a curse with staying power.

In any case, why take a chance, given how this year has gone? Why not take a hiatus from any further tomb disturbances, just to be on the safe side? And while we’re at it, let’s not unnecessarily provoke any witches or anyone else who might give us the evil eye, either.

Arriving Via Meteor

The age-old question for humanity is: “How did we come to be here?”

The answer may turn out to be: “Well, we arrived via meteorite.”

That’s one of the intriguing issues raised by scientific analysis of a walnut-sized chunk of meteor that created a bright fireball before landing on a frozen Strawberry Lake in Hamburg, Michigan in January 2018. Pieces of the meteor were swiftly retrieved from the icy surface of the lake by meteor hunters, before they could be contaminated by exposure to Earth’s spores and microbes, and were then carted off to be examined by scientists. The scientists determined, through application of uranium dating principles, that the pieces of the meteor were almost unimaginably old, and had been formed about 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system was young. And the scientists also found that the meteor was seeded with more than 2,000 organic molecules, rich in carbon compounds — which is one of the elemental building blocks of life on Earth.

Because the meteor made its lonely 4.5 billion year journey without being affected by much of anything before alighting on the frozen crust of Strawberry Lake, scientists believe that the organic compounds it features are likely to be similar to the compounds that were brought to a young Earth by meteors shortly after the Earth’s formation. And in those early days of the solar system, meteor strikes were much more common — meaning that meteor bombardment could have left the young Earth littered with carbon compounds, just waiting for the spark that turned them into the most primitive forms of microbial life. Exactly how that happened is still a matter for scientific — or religious, or philosophical — debate.

I hope to live long enough to see humans establish a strong foothold in space, and on other planets, and maybe even get up beyond the Earth’s atmosphere myself. Who knows? It may turn out that, when we venture into space, we’re really going . . . back home.

Losing The Best Bond

I was very saddened to read today about the death of Sir Sean Connery, at age 90. The BBC reports that he died peacefully in his sleep in the Bahamas after a prolonged period of poor health.

Sean Connery will of course always be remembered for defining the role of James Bond — and doing so in a way that was so total and complete that every other actor who played the role was measured against Connery’s portrayal. Some of the actors, like Daniel Craig, have done a fine job as 007, but I’ll always view Connery as the best Bond, and I don’t really think there is any argument. Connery brought dash, humor, and tremendous physical presence to play, and was totally believable in every part of the Bond character — whether it was flirting with Moneypenny, trading witty remarks with M and Q or the villains always plotting to seize the world, seducing any woman who might help make his mission a success, or fulfilling the ultimate element of “00” status — and employing his license to kill. Connery’s fight scenes in To Russia With Love and Goldfinger are classics precisely because Connery was utterly plausible in standing toe to toe with Odd Job and Robert Shaw’s soulless assassin for SPECTRE.

But Connery wasn’t just James Bond. Unlike other actors who could never quite escape the long shadow of a career-defining role, Connery went on to a long and distinguished movie career that included winning an Oscar for his role as the tough, incorruptible cop in The Untouchables and making memorable contributions to The Hunt for Red October and The Rock. My favorite post-Bond film is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Connery stole the show as Henry Jones, Indy’s bookish, disciplinarian Dad who was obsessed with finding the Holy Grail and who was instrumental in helping Indy find the Grail–and who reconciled with Indy in the process. It’s no coincidence that many fans, like me, consider The Last Crusade to be the best Indiana Jones film — in my view, just edging out Raiders of the Last Ark.

It’s sad to lose a great actor like Sean Connery, and our thoughts go out to his family. It’s a comfort to know, however, that his roguish charm and cinematic contributions have been preserved and will always be there for us to enjoy.

Thank You, Mr. Phillips

The toolbox at our house has a motley collection of tools — some inherited, some abandoned, and some picked up here and there. We’ve got a lot of screwdrivers, but almost all of them are flat head screwdrivers. We’ve only got one Phillips head screwdriver — the short, orange and black tool shown above — which is too bad because most of the screws that are used these days are Phillips screws.

I had to use the Phillips screwdriver the other day, and once again gave inner thanks to Mr. Phillips for his invention. The screws I was trying to remove were really in tight, and anyone who remembers trying to remove flat head screws and stripping out the slot (which apparently is technically called “camming”) — thereby ensuring that the screw cannot be removed by any normal human effort — should always be grateful for the Phillips head design. Sure enough, in this instance the screws were successfully removed with only modest effort and without a single swear word being uttered. I’d guess that Mr. Phillips single-handedly has materially reduced the amount of angry, explosive cussing that would have otherwise occurred but for his salutary invention.

In case you’re interested, here’s an article about the history of the screw and screwdriver — which, surprisingly, didn’t really become common until the 1800s — the tale of Mr. Phillips, and a curious backstory about why Canadians use a different type of screw and screwdriver that some believe is an even better design. As is the case with so many stories about early industrial developments, Henry Ford figures prominently, and helped to bring about the fact that Americans use the Phillips head rather than the Robertson head used in Canada.

I don’t know whether the Robertson screw is better than the Phillips — but I do know that the Phillips is a huge improvement over the simple slotted screw that is so easy to strip. I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Phillips for minimizing my blood pressure and my contributions to the swear jar.

Without The Mighty Tourism Dollar

Italy is suffering.  Every year — until 2020 — Italy has welcomed millions of tourists from the United States, who spend billions of dollars enjoying the charms of one of the most beautiful countries in the world.  Those tourism dollars are a huge part of the Italian economy and help to keep thousands of people employed.

empty-rome.jpg.1200x800_q85_cropBut . . . it’s 2020, which means everything has changed.  With Italy being a COVID-19 “hot spot” in the early days of the pandemic, and the United States and other countries continuing to deal with coronavirus issues, tourism from America to Italy has plummeted.  The principal hotel association in Rome says 90 percent of the hotels there remain closed, and estimates that the hotel  closure is causing an economic loss of about $115 million per month.  Restaurants are operating at much lower capacity, and the residents of Rome report that it feels almost empty without the throngs of tourists.  It’s hard to imagine Roman landmarks like the Pantheon, shown above, without huge crowds of visitors.  In fact, you might say that this would be an ideal time to visit Italy . . . but for the global pandemic.

And you have to wonder — will there be a long-term impact on tourism and travel, to Italy and elsewhere?  It’s pretty clear that travel helps to spread pandemics, which gives the notion of tourism a kind of risky taint — but once they get going, pandemics are notoriously nondiscriminatory in their impact and eventually are going to hit, and hurt, every country.  If a reliable vaccine is developed — a big if — will Americans go back to favorite destinations like Italy, or France?  Or, will they to stick closer to home for the time being and choose to travel within the U.S., until the dust settles and other tourists returning from their trips give the all-clear to travel overseas?  The Italian tourist industry representatives quoted in the article linked above seem confident American tourists will be back because they just can’t get enough of Rome and the Tuscan sun, but  after 2020 . . . well, who knows?

We’ve got an overseas trip planned for 2021 and certainly hope to be going — but between now and then we are going to be paying pretty close attention to news about vaccines, and outbreaks, and other medical developments that we wouldn’t have even considered before this year.  I’m guessing that we’re not alone.

It Could Always Be Worse

2020 has been an exceptionally challenging year, so far, and we’ve still got nearly five full months of it to go.  But your perspective informs your view, doesn’t it?  My grandmother, for example, frequently said:  “Nothing’s so bad that couldn’t be worse, from the day you were born ’til you ride in a hearse.”  Drawing upon her wise counsel, I’ve adopted a world view that says we shouldn’t complain too much, because things could always be worse than they are.

And even in 2020, there’s no doubt that things could be worse than they are.  Much, much worse, in fact.

e0b8a5e0b8b4e0b887e0b887-2-1-copy-696x392-1Consider the plight of Lopburi, a city of 750,000 people in central Thailand.  It’s now being overrun by thousands of famished, libidinous monkeys who rampage through the city, gorging themselves on fast food, having sex on the streets, and attacking whoever stands in their way.

Interestingly, Lopburi has always been associated with the monkeys, a species called macaques.  For years, the monkeys have hung around the Khmer temple and Khmer shrine in the city, and have been fed by the locals.  And in November, the people of Lopburi put on the “Monkey Festival” to celebrate their crab-eating primate pals.

But now the monkey population has exploded.  Gangs of angry monkeys, with no fear of humans, roam through the city, taking what they want and terrifying the locals, who have barricaded themselves in their homes.  The monkeys live on a diet of sugary fast food that makes them even more unpredictable; one official made the terrifying observation that “[t]he monkeys are never hungry, just like children who eat too much KFC.”  (Anyone who has experienced a kid on a post-fast food sugar rush knows just how frightening that comment actually is.)  The number of monkey babies seen in the city indicates that an even bigger monkey population bomb may be getting ready to explode.  Police estimate that thousands of monkeys have established a base in an abandoned cinema, where they attack any human that tries to enter.  The police apparently believe that trying to disperse or deal with the monkeys is “hopeless.”

So yes, 2020 could be a lot worse than it is.  Until we open our front doors and are confronted by hundreds of ravaging angry monkeys eating cheeseburgers and eager to take a bite out of your skull, we haven’t really hit rock bottom.

Useful German Words

Many of us are familiar with the German word schadenfreude.  It refers to the pleasure you feel from observing another person’s misfortune.  Think about the guilty but nevertheless real surge of joy you get when your arch-rival sports team loses a big game, and you’ve captured it.

trachtSchadenfreude is a very useful word.  So why does a specific word for that sensation exist in the German language, but not in English?  What caused the Germans, at some point in the past, to identify that very particular feeling and coin a term for it, and why didn’t somebody in merry old England do likewise?  You can’t tell me that, during the period of one of their countless wars, the British weren’t happy to see the French take a pratfall.  Why didn’t they come up with a word to capture that specific unseemly yet nevertheless real surge of pleasure?

Schadenfreude doesn’t stand alone.  In fact, the Germans have been pretty good at creating lots of words that capture unique feelings or circumstances.  Here are some:

Futterneid — translated as “food jealousy” or “food envy,” it refers to the feeling you have when you go out to dinner with someone and they order food that looks much better than what you ordered, and you then suffer through the meal wishing you’d ordered their dish.

Fernweh — translated as “distance sickness” (the opposite of home sickness), it refers to the overpowering desire to be traveling, preferably to somewhere far away.

Fremdschamen — the uncomfortable feeling of embarrassment you experience when watching someone else go through a personally humiliating experience, like telling an unfunny joke to an audience or having way too much to drink at a work-related function.

Kummerspeck — translated literally as “grief bacon,” it refers to excess weight that is put on by emotional overeating.

Torschlusspanik — translated literally as “gate shut panic,” it identifies the fear that certain opportunities or activities are being closed to you as you get older.

Weltschmerz — the sensation of melancholy and resignation that you experience when your hopeful expectations about what will happen in the world fall disappointingly short . . . again.

We could use such words in English, so the word creators need to get cracking.  And isn’t it interesting how many of those German words describing unique, very precise feelings or conditions can be applied to what we are experiencing in 2020?

In A Star-Crossed Year, Anything Can Happen

It’s fair to say that 2020 hasn’t been a great year so far.  In fact, it’s fair to say that 2020 is not only below average, it is probably the worst year that I’ve experienced in my lifetime.  With the coronavirus pandemic, government-ordered shutdowns, massive shocks to the economy and resulting unemployment, and widespread civil unrest, it’s safe to say that, when the clock nears midnight on December 31, no one is going to be looking back fondly on the year limping to a close.  To the contrary, I would expect that people will be drinking heavily to forget the year gone by and to toast the arrival of a new year that is bound to be far better — that is, assuming we make it to December 31.

And that’s really the significant, underlying problem with 2020:  it has forever altered our perception of what could actually happen.  Before 2020, anyone predicting the arrival of a strange new virus, sweeping closures and stay-at-home edicts, and the other elements that make this year such a bummer would have been laughed out of town.  But now — well, it seems like just about anything is possible, doesn’t it?  That’s why gun sales, survival gear sales, and, relatedly, liquor sales are through the roof.  So far, 2020 has been like Edvard Munch’s The Scream brought to life.

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So when I read that scientists have measured significant “earthquake swarms” underneath Yellowstone National Park that could presage the eruption of a catastrophic “supervolcano” in one of Earth’s hottest hot spots — something I would have scoffed at until recently — I now think:  “well, it’s 2020 — why not?”

The strikingly counterfactual element of 2020 opens the doors to many possibilities that seemed absurd only a few months ago.  Remember those stories we see from time to time about asteroids and meteors coming uncomfortably close to Earth?  Well, it’s 2020, so . . . better get that survival gear handy.  And for everyone who’s wondered about when we’re actually going to make contact with intelligent alien life, well, it seems like 2020 is the ideal year for that to happen, doesn’t it?  And it’s not going to be cuddly, adorable E.T. aliens, either.  Because it’s 2020, after all, think Independence Day or Predator or Aliens, and you’re probably going to be closer to the mark.

To prepare myself mentally for the rest of this year, I’ve tried to identify every worst case, disastrous scenario that we’ve been warned could happen — locust invasions, massive solar flares, global warming and cooling, zombie apocalypses, Ragnarok, the reunion of ABBA — and am bracing myself that they all might happen this year.  And if we make it through without finding ourselves on a denuded, brutalized planet that has to endure a remake of Waterloo, I’ll raise my glass to 2020 come December 31.