Science! Zombie Ants & Rain

1. As readers of this blog no doubt recall, I have a deep and abiding interest in Nature, especially when it’s behaving in a blood-curdling, utterly horrifying way, such that it would make a slasher movie writer blanch. For purely scientific reasons, of course. Check here and here to whet your purely scientific curiosity.

Off hand, I don’t know what unspeakable horrors the innocent-looking carpenter ants have committed to deserve this, but check this out:

“How the Zombie Fungus Takes Over Ants’ Bodies to Control Their Minds.” As in:

Attacks of the Brain-Controlling Parasites | WIRED
This is a dead carpenter ant clinging to a leaf. That thing on its head is the fruiting body of a fungus. Said fungus infected the ant, took over its body, had it climb up high enough to maximize fungal growth and spore dispersion. Over an ant trail. It then converted ant-flesh to fungus and released its spores. The cycle repeats.

The subheading piles on thus: “The infamous parasite’s methods are more complex and more sinister than anyone suspected.”

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I’m sure you’ve discovered my deep and abiding interest in ants.

Okee-dokee, then. So Nature has produced, via, one supposes, the tender ministrations of Natural Selection, funguses that infect ants’ – oh, let’s just go there, cut to the chase – YOUR body, paralyze your mind so that you are reduced to a mute witness to your own long, horrid and painful destruction, causes you to shamble about for its own purposes – then devours you from the inside out, reducing your soft, Western-raised flesh to its own offspring – and then causes your body to sprout hideous protrusions to release them so that they may do the same to your loved ones. Got that?

More or less. I may have extrapolated a little. You  probably have nothing to worry about. For now. Sleep tight.

Here’s how the folks at the Atlantic put it:

When the fungus infects a carpenter ant, it grows through the insect’s body, draining it of nutrients and hijacking its mind. Over the course of a week, it compels the ant to leave the safety of its nest and ascend a nearby plant stem. It stops the ant at a height of 25 centimeters—a zone with precisely the right temperature and humidity for the fungus to grow. It forces the ant to permanently lock its mandibles around a leaf. Eventually, it sends a long stalk through the ant’s head, growing into a bulbous capsule full of spores. And because the ant typically climbs a leaf that overhangs its colony’s foraging trails, the fungal spores rain down onto its sisters below, zombifying them in turn.

For the sake of brevity, we will let pass the question of if ants have minds in any meaningful sense (It is part of the modern project to insist that minds and brains are the same thing. The insistence is instantiated via pretending there isn’t any question.). The reason these poor ants are back in the news (how are they ever off the news, BTW? Why aren’t there 24×7 cable and YouTube channels devoted to this? Has Capitalism let me down *again*?!?) is that there also exists in Nature the kind of researchers who will a) devote their lives to the study of this fungus; b) gather infected ant bodies in the jungle; c) cut these bodies up into 50-micron thick slices; and d) study said slices under electron microscopes until they have some idea exactly how the fungus works its evil magic.

Turns out:

Whenever Hughes or anyone else discusses the zombie-ant fungus, they always talk about it as a single entity, which corrupts and subverts a host. But you could also think of the fungus as a colony, much like the ants it targets. Individual microscopic cells begin life alone but eventually come to cooperate, fusing into a superorganism. Together, these brainless cells can commandeer the brain of a much larger creature.

But surprisingly, they can do that without ever physically touching the brain itself. Hughes’s team found that fungal cells infiltrate the ant’s entire body, including its head, but they leave its brain untouched. There are other parasites that manipulate their hosts without destroying their brains, says Kelly Weinersmithfrom Rice University. For example, one flatworm forms a carpet-like layer over the brain of the California killifish, leaving the brain intact while forcing the fish to behave erratically and draw the attention of birds—the flatworm’s next host. “But manipulation of ants by Ophiocordyceps is so exquisitely precise that it is perhaps surprising that the fungus doesn’t invade the brain of its host,” Weinersmith says.

In retrospect, that makes sense. “If such parasites were merely invading and destroying neuronal tissue, I don’t think the manipulated behaviors that we observe would be as compelling as they are,” says Charissa de Bekker from the University of Central Florida. “Something much more intricate must be going on.” She notes that the fungus secretes a wide range of chemicals that could influence the brain from afar.

So what we have here is a hostile takeover of a uniquely malevolent kind. Enemy forces invading a host’s body and using that body like a walkie-talkie to communicate with each other and influence the brain from afar. Hughes thinks the fungus might also exert more direct control over the ant’s muscles, literally controlling them “as a puppeteer controls as a marionette doll.” Once an infection is underway, he says, the neurons in the ant’s body—the ones that give its brain control over its muscles—start to die. Hughes suspects that the fungus takes over. It effectively cuts the ant’s limbs off from its brain and inserts itself in place, releasing chemicals that force the muscles there to contract. If this is right, then the ant ends its life as a prisoner in its own body. Its brain is still in the driver’s seat, but the fungus has the wheel.

(Note how we switch back to talking about brains without even pumping the breaks? That’s how moderns ‘win’ arguments – by pretending they don’t exist. But I digress…)

This article is so judgemental! The fungus is not ‘sinister’ or ‘malevolent’ or any other of the many harsh terms applied to it by the Atlantic writer. It’s just doing it’s thing – to ants we’d promptly wash away with bleach and rags if they set foot in our houses. Yet, here we are, all high and mighty! It’s stuff like this that separates the *real* nature lovers from squeamish posers!

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Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Doctor, the sperm whale on Earth devours millions of cuttlefish as it roams the oceans. It is not evil; it is feeding. The same may be true of the Entity.
Dr. Kila Marr: That would be small comfort for those who have died to feed it. We’re not talking about cuttlefish; we’re talking about people!
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: I would argue that the Crystalline Entity has as much right to be here as we do. 
Dr. Kila Marr:  Well then, step the hell right up to the front of the lunch line, Captain Cuttlefish! Don’t let me and my unevolved survival instincts slow you down. (mumbles: Pompous ass…)*

*may not be the canonical version of that dialogue. But it should be.

2. Finally got some rain. Over an inch and a half in the last 24 hours, which in California nearly qualifies as a epic storm. All in, for the season we’re a couple inches into our supposed average of around 17 inches. Good start.

For my part, I’m predicting another 1862 event, as discussed briefly here by Michael Flynn. Why? Well, why not? First, I heard somewhere that weather years, just like daily weather, tend to travel in packs – the best predictor of tomorrow’s weather is today’s weather; the best predictor of next year’s weather is this year’s weather. If it’s cold and rainy today, it’s more than likely to be cold and rainy tomorrow, and so on.

Thus, since the 2016-2017 California rainy season was EPIC! I’m going with predicting the 2017-2018 season will be MEGA EPIC!! Why let the Bible-thumper End Times dudes have all the fun? Seriously, let’s hope not, as California’s infrastructure, especially the dams, irrigation canals, water systems and aging levees (you knew California has a LOT of levees, right? No?) are in no way ready for it, and would probably be destroyed. So, no, let’s not – except I want to be on record having predicted it, just in case. Consistency, hobgoblins, and all that.

How it works: every few hundred years, the educated guesses go, that whole atmospheric river thing starts dipping into its major stash of steroids, and you get, using the 1861-1862 season for example, 43 straight days of pounding rain spread across the entire state. You get 250% of the snowpack, and many feet of rain on the western slopes of the Sierra. The Central Valley, into which ALL the rivers coming out of the western slopes of the Sierra drain, and which, in turn drains ONLY out the Sacramento River Delta into San Francisco Bay, turns into a giant lake. Over the century and a half since 1862, miles and miles of levees have been built in the delta, turning hundreds of square miles of wetlands into farmland – much of which is below river level, and all of which is below flood level.

Meanwhile, many urban water systems have been built along the river and delta – the one my house gets its water from, for example – that, should the river flood and the old, poorly maintained levees break, would be washed away, clogged up, or, when the flood water recedes, flooded with the salt water that is what makes up the bulk of the San Francisco Bay Estuary and which is currently held back from reaching the drinking water supply by those same levees. And SoCal gets a huge portion of its water via aqueducts that are fed, ultimately, from the dams in the Sierra – which are not likely to survive a megastorm.

Ugly. Just like the drivers this morning who honked at me, first because I did not close the two car length gap that opened up on the light change with sufficient alacrity, second because I had the temerity to change lanes into the space the honker had let open up in front of him – the nerve! Californians do not, alas, respond well to the traffic jams these early storm inevitably create.

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Frou Frou Office Snack Update: Seaweed

Sanity, as much as is ever found in the La-La land of tech, has prevailed. The late and lamentable Virtue-Signal ™ brand snacks dissected here and here have been burned through, and a brief chat with the office manager has discovered that they will not be being reordered. (She did mention that each species is available separately and much cheaper via Amazon, if there’s a particular kind anybody liked. Not going there myself, unless there’s some sort of delayed addiction coded into the Blueberry/Vanilla/Kale skeet that causes cocaine-level withdrawal symptoms – I almost wouldn’t put it past the hippies that make these abominations. But I digress…)

Turns out the seaweed snacks I’d seen previously had not, in fact, been a part of that particular order, but some had migrated, somehow, to the snack-food Serengeti that was the Cardboard Box of Virtue Snacks, from whence they were consumed – before I got to try them. In the name of Science! and all.

Well, well – a fresh snack shipment came in today from CostCo, which included:

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The open package to the left is Ocean’s Halo Maui Onion flavored seaweed. First up for testing.

The operative word here is weed, as in a plant that’s in the way of whatever you’re really doing. But Science! must march on!

As a kid, went to the beach a lot (1), as it was 20 minutes away and I was a kid with older siblings dying to use that fresh driver’s license at any occasion. There were even Whittier to Huntington Beach buses one could catch, but we rarely did that. Instead, I and a bunch of kids from the neighborhood would just pile into the back of our old powder blue station wagon – older sis who was driving and her friends usually got the seats. We were sliding loose in a way that would horrify modern safety-niks as we drove down the 605 singing along with the radio as loud as we could. (Somehow, we all reached adulthood anyway.)

I mention this because the smell of the seaweed when I first open the package reminds me of the areas of the beach we would avoid. The areas where seaweed had washed ashore.

Seaweed was gross! Stank, covered with little flies, and would get tangled on your feet. Eat it? I think not!

But for Science! my love:

It’s – OK. The good parts are that it can curb your salt jones at only 20 calories a box. On the downside, it tastes like seaweed.

So far, I’ve eaten the Maui Onion sheets, and have tasted a couple of the Sea Salt offering. Seems an acquired taste. I think I could acquire it (love sushi rolls, and they have this exact stuff in them often as not…)

Further updates as events warrant.

  1. Such that, as an adult, I’m on way too familiar terms with my dermatologist, who regularly gazes, pokes and prods and has cut chunks – once, and alarmingly large chunk – of ME off my body.

Virtue-Signalling Snack Food Update

I can totally feel your breathless curiosity even from here: well? What high-end frou-frou snacks did your coworkers eat over the last 2 weeks, and which did they shun?

As of Friday morning:

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ALL the Blueberry (13th listed ingredient) Vanilla (16th) Kale (15th) LivBars done got et! As did ALL the seaweed snacks (I didn’t even get to try them! Boohoo!). So what are the 7 items above that fell, somehow, even below those ‘hand made’ ‘organic’ ‘GMO-free’ etc. goodies?

  1. Three (3) Grab the Gold pucks. These really are pucks. I’ve even eaten a couple. Apart from being sugar calorie bombs (as granola-based items strongly tend to be), they were pretty good.  Verdict: These are worse than seaweed and kale? My coworkers are sadly mistaken. IMG_4178
  2.  Two (2) Go Raw Sprouted Watermelon seeds. OK, this one I kind of understand. Have not tried them myself. IMG_4179
  3. One (1) Beans.  This, too does not passeth understanding. IMG_4181
  4. One (1) Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn – huh? (yea, it’s sideway – so sue me.)IMG_4182

So, there you are. The LivBars and seaweed did last to near the end, then, somehow, were more appealing to my coworkers than kettle corn and collapsed-star level dense granola pucks.

Further study is required.

Taking One for the Team, Snack Division

I’ll get back to the Deep Thoughts and book reviews which are what I kid myself people come to this blog for, but first, adventures in – what, exactly? Snack food virtue signalling? Stress testing of gullibility levels? Subtle Pavlovian response thresholds?  You be the judge!

Earlier, mentioned the baleful reality of blueberry vanilla kale snack skeet (I’m going with ‘skeet’ as the unit name for these things. ‘Wads’ and ‘pucks’ are good, too, but ‘skeet’ is a funnier word), the existence of which skeet  I had until recently been blissfully unaware. A pile of these things appeared with the last shipment of hoity-toity ‘healthy’ snack food supplied to us workers by our little software company. Said pile is directly opposite the coffee machine, and so I see it several times a day.

Well, it’s Tuesday, and, as far as I can tell, that particular skeet-pile has not been diminished at all. While this does restoring to some small degree my faith in the tiny sample of humanity I work with, it also leaves unanswered the pure scientific question: Well? What are they like?

Therefore, with some trepidation but fortified by my holy love of science, I will now take one for the team, and crack into one of these things. First, photographic evidence:

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The Skeet in all its Glory! 

In case the messaging isn’t clear, here’s some detail:

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Soy free? Corn free? Those are things now? Remember when eggs were going to kill you? Good times! 

Don’t know how good I feel about this – it’s chock-full of ingredients!

 

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OK, with the baseline set, let’s crack into this. Visual confirmation: there is evidence that at least *1* blueberry was harmed in the making of this skeet:

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Did a little more investigating – Science! must march on! – broke it apart, and maybe up to 6 blueberries actualized their highest potentials in this thing. If there’s kale anywhere here, it is very well hidden, or they used some naturally invisible variety.

No, it looks like bird-feeder overflow that somebody stepped on. I suppose “Bird Feeder Overflow Skeet!” didn’t have as much cow bell as “LivBar Blueberry Vanilla Kale”.

It smells great. Didn’t see any fingerprints, so we’re not able to confirm the ‘hand made’ claim on the packaging.  Here goes:

Kinda weird. You’re shocked, I’m sure. Upfront, you get a nose full of blueberries and vanilla, and it’s kind of crunchy and sweet, but the aftertaste reminds me of a North Coast tea shop frequented by aging hemp-clad hippies. The littler seed stick in my teeth.

Verdict: Not bad, exactly, but I’m not dying for another one. I think we’ll run the experiment: how long will the remaining skeet last, in their little heap on the counter upstairs? Being mostly guys and programmers here, my money’s on: until almost everything else is gone.

Now that I’ve eaten almost all of it, Bernie is starting to sound reasonable. What’s IN these things?!?

Frivolous Friday Bullet Points

  • Briefly looked over the *97* draft blog posts in my backlog. But am I finishing or discarding any of them? Noooo! I’m drafting another one! Right here, right now!
  • I’ve previously mentioned the froo-froo snacks thing we have going at my place of employment. The company supplies all kinds of free goodies in each of two nice kitchenettes – one upstairs, one down. This bounty includes sodas, bottled waters, fruit nectars, greek yogurts, single-serving cheeses (3 kinds) along with nuts, party mix, granola bars, fresh fruit and on and on. For an office with around 20 people in it.
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Seriously? Does that look like a snack food to you? Or rather more like what you’d feed wintering livestock?

We’ve recently upped the ante from this already embarrassing bounty by adding ‘healthy’ snacks from a service that supplies them in a cute cardboard box/display every couple weeks. I am weak – I tried some: they range from pretty good (e.g., coconut something-something bars – yum!) to weird (e.g., ‘jerky’ that ended up being limp sticky maple flavored bacon – huh? Bacon = good; this = weird.), as you might expect.

But I do draw the line somewhere. I have nothing against kale, per se, even if I have occasionally and with some

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“A skeet of delicious organic goodness!” 

justification referred to it as ‘a weed with a marketing department’. But

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“This puck delivers 100% of the recommended daily dose of gulibilium.”

I’m not even going to try a snack leading with ‘Blueberry-Vanilla-Kale’ in big print. I have some principles.

Also, the Gucci snack industry’s crack delivery system mutation division can’t seem to settle on terminology: are these oh-so-hip snack units bars? cookies? skeet? pucks? I’d go with ‘wads’ – ‘a delicious wad of vanilla- infused blueberries enveloped in a healthful duvet of the finest kale’ – I might try THAT, once, anyway, out of sheer cussedness.

  • My daughter and I sometimes kid about efforts to be holy, in what I hope is a light and not-asking-to-get-struck-down-by-lightening way. We once came up with ‘redemptive mockery’ in response to the use of the term redemptive suffering for every little inconvenience: one might piously help out a fellow sinner by mocking them relentlessly, for their own good! Look at all the humility and patience to be gained! In a similar vein, living out here in California, we get pretty touchy-feely at Mass. People tend to hold hands at the Our Father, sometimes forming circles of people so joined. I refered to this as ‘redemptive kindergarten’ to said daughter, and had the satisfaction of watching her spend the next few moments fighting off a giggle fit. At Mass. Bad Daddy! Bad!
  • This may have to be my default GIF from here on out:
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(BTW: trying to get my arms around the morality of ‘borrowing’ gifs – this is a snippet of a movie somebody already borrowed, then turned the lines from the movie into text. So the only people who should be concerned are the movie rights owners – who, if they’ve got an ounce of business sense, are thrilled to see people reminded of their movie a million times a day. Ya know?)       

Politics? Education? Religion? Hey, the dumpster fires have to burn themselves out eventually, right? Right? PLEASE?!?

If you want to die at home, my advice would be, don’t go to a hospital. Perhaps this will strike gentle reader as a remark overweighted on the side of the obvious; but there is some method in some of my madness. So I will begin with a careful qualification: my advice holds for Canada, and the United Kingdom, but not for all of those Natted States. (I realize there are other jurisdictions.) And even there, the impossibility of fixing “Obamacare,” without further extending its “entitlement” provisions, shows the end is coming, soon. But in Canada and UK, the future has been here for some time.

The reason, of course, is that at these higher latitudes we have so-called “single-payer” “healthcare” systems in which, as we have been reminded lately, all decision-making is concentrated in the caring-sharing State, or as I prefer to call her, Twisted Nanny. Once the paperwork is complete, and the customer has progressed from the outer to the inner waiting rooms, he is entirely in her power. He may, after reviewing her apparatus (both surgical and managerial), want to go home and die there. But she is unlikely to release him, and it will require the assistance of loyal friends and family to effect the equivalent of a prison break. (Tip: staff tend to be at their least attentive during the conventional sleeping hours.)

You see, Twisted Nanny likes to watch people die. She can become quite annoyed when others appropriate this privilege. She also likes to kill people, and has gone to considerable trouble to establish a monopoly in this regard. And given her latest powers, under legislation for “euthanasia,” she prefers to do it in her own facilities. She doesn’t make house calls, the way they do in Red China.

Have a good weekend!

 

Friday. Link. Graph.

A. Good story here from Calah Alexander: Why you should let your kids take risks — especially when they might fail.

I’ve said that I’d never let my kids try a 10-day  (unsupervised European trip – ed) in college, because what if what could have been for me comes true for them? What if they get lost, or mugged? What if they make a poor decision, choose the wrong stop, and get stranded outside an airport in a blizzard? What if they need help and can’t find it?

That one major snafu on our 10-day happened at the end, when we missed our flight back to Rome because we got off the train at the wrong stop. The airport in Brussels wouldn’t let us spend the night inside, so we huddled against the building instead, trying to stay out of the snow. The only thing we had to eat was a backpack full of Cadbury chocolates that my roommate had gotten in London.

As a parent, this story is terrifying. But it’s one of my favorite memories. We made it back to Rome cold, tired, sick of Cadbury, but alive and newly aware of our own resilience (and of the importance of navigational skills).

Ironically, protecting our kids from the pain of failure is itself a failure. It’s failing to let them experience the life we know is coming at them, the life we can’t protect them from forever.

Real choices matter to the kid, are supported by the family, and have real consequences. Leave out any of those three things, and the choosing is an illusion.

One final thing to add: kids also need to see adults sticking with the results of their own decisions. If mommy and daddy are running away – from their responsibilities, their spouses, their own kids – it becomes pretty much a given that the kids will grow up into bitter, whiny irresponsible brats. We wouldn’t want that to happen.

B. Another chart showing something or other:

It’s from Pew, whose methodology is both widely respected and, to give them the benefit of the doubt,  hopelessly flawed. In general, unverified self reporting by the  sort of people willing to take polls, with no concern wasted considering if the responder is at all motivated to tell the truth. (1) The questions tacitly assume that the world really does fall into convenient polar positions on virtually every subject. Which would be really, really convenient – for pollsters. So don’t give Pew polls much weight, in general.

By happenstance, about the same time I saw this I read a quip somewhere, to the effect that ‘Sir,’ Ma’am,’ and ‘Thank you’ will get you farther than a bachelor’s degree. Had to wonder: what’s the overlap between those red bars above and people who would nod at the folk wisdom of that quip? I’d quibble that a bachelor’s in something real PLUS the proper use of sir, ma’am and thank you is the real winning strategy. Nevertheless, with Pew, is often not difficult to see which of the two either/or points of view they’re hammering the world into they want us to consider enlightened.

  1. I’ve wondered since the election about the reported 8% of blacks who voted for Trump. I believe the number was based on exit polls. Now, imagine, in the general atmosphere of the last election, if a black person would feel completely comfortable telling a stranger with a clipboard that he’d just voted for Trump. Not saying one way or the other about what the results show – just that the method used is ignoring a pretty big potential issue when it fails to account for social pressures, or just assumes they cancel out.

C. Something stupid for your possible amusement:

Something about rabbits and chickens, creatures with largely unearned reputations as pacifists, going all Wild West there’s-a-new-sheriff-in-town that cracks me up a little.  One struggles a little coming up with the proper Darwinian just-so story that explains such odd behavior away.  Why are the chickens not content to let the rabbits kill each other if they want to? Have they adopted them, somehow?

D. Apologies. This is plain stupid. This is what an adolescent sense of humor,  + <45 seconds of  web searching  + <10 minutes of  MS Paint will get you:

Female lawmakers ‘bare arms’ in sleeveless attire to support new House dress code

Bear Arms

Post Apocalyptic Prelude

Been watching a lot of short sci-fi videos (Dust is good, especially this one as posted before) because, I dunno, some of them are pretty good and you can skip ahead when it gets dull.

donut thing
Our machine overlords always seem to have the best tech. Which figures, I guess.

One feature of many such films is the Post Apocalyptic Prelude, the little placards at the beginning that give you text with enough back story so that the action can be fit into a 10 – 15 minute film. The better the film, the less likely a Post Apocalyptic Prelude will be needed, or at least it will be shorter. But that’s not the real issue I have: every one of these assumes the same brand of DOOM. The apocalypse is always brought about by this week’s looming evil – global warming, right wing or religious totalitarians, tech run amok, aerosol spray propellant, whatever, you get the drift. The post apocalyptic world is likewise dominated by similar evils, or, for those with slightly better imaginations, mere chaos.

Prelude
A typical sample. That I can’t even remember what the little film was about is kind of the point here.  A person with more imagination might wonder why and how religious fanatics came to rule.  What superior survival characteristics did they possess?  What was lacking in their opponents? And, contrary to all human history so far, those who eschew technology dominate those who do not?

I will never make a film like these, which show as often as not some seriously cool film making chops. But I am sure I could come up with a better, or at least less boring and more thought-provoking Post Apocalyptic Prelude. For example:

The world’s major cities lie in ruins, their infrastructure destroyed in the Cleansing. Sociology professors, convinced any sufficiently woke person could run society’s complex machinery, seized power and brought about destruction. 

Flyover, a mysterious land of near-legendary wealth and evil, stretches from the People’s Republic of Canada to the Rio Grande Marches, and from Stockton, California, to the Appalachian Mountains. Gripped with fear yet desperate to escape the chaos and hunger, a band of  city dwellers use the last remaining charge in their Tesla to cross the Altamont Pass….  

Ya know? What you  got?