Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Legislating Human Diversity Out of Existence?

I'd like to think that, even as a teenager, I was a decent person, but I have to admit that, being a straight, white, cissexual male, I was unaware of the privilege that I was accorded just by the mere circumstances of my existence. While in college, having breakfast with some ethnically diverse straight male friends, I remember a line from a campus literary magazine came up: marginalized to the point of negation. As straight males attending a prestigious bastion of prestige, we thought it was a bit histrionic. Well, live and learn, and examine one's privilege, and decades later, it turns out that the current administration of the United States is doing exactly that- the Trump regime is proposing to use policy to 'disappear' the entire transgender population, literally marginalizing them to the point of negation.

Back when I was yukking it up about the line 'marginalization to the point of negation', my awareness of the term 'transsexual' would have been limited to a line in a campy song from a cult musical. At the time, though, I was studying such phenomena as mosaic gynandromorphism and gender shifting in biology class, but transpersons weren't all that visible in the social circles in which I moved. Even now, decades later, it's generally believed that transpersons are just 0.58 percent of the population of the United States, approximately 1.3 million individuals- transpersons are pretty well represented on my blogroll, and I value the wit and grit of my trans-friends.

Since my college days, society has progressed on LGBTQ issues, with bathroom bills having largely been considered the stupid last-gasp legislation of bigots who felt that their time was pretty much up. This has all changed with the ascent of Trump and, in this case I suspect, Mike Pence. Progress is NOT inevitable, but the idea that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, as Chris Hayes put it, is wrong- that arc has to be forcibly bent by dedicated activists. Here and now, there is an attempt to 'legislate away' the very existence of a small, marginalized population in these here United States, and such attempts to use fiat to 'remove' people are often precursors to actual attempts to remove them by violence. In these days, when Godwin's Law has up-and-died, the idea of purges doesn't seem so preposterous, and 'marginalized to the point of negation' takes on a cogent, horrifying meaning.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Two Phones, One River

What a difference a week makes! The grounds of my principal workplace are bisected by a small river, actually a brook (there are two names borne by this body of water), that feeds our onsite pond. There is a bridge across this river which is a favorite spot for people to stop and take photos of the site, with its pretty pond. Most people, of course, use their smartphones to take photos these days.

Last weekend, a woman who was attending our fall fundraiser stumbled on the bridge and the phone flew out of her hands, ending up in the river. The fate of the phone was immediately apparent when her husband called the phone and was instantly shunted off into voicemail. Nevertheless, hope is a persistent thing, and the couple asked me if I could search for the phone during my overnight shift, and I dutifully looked for the stricken phone in the dawn's early light, to no avail. I sent her husband a text message the following day to indicate that the phone was not recoverable.

Last week, a major renovation project onsite was started, a project which necessitates the draining of the pond- a culvert which allows drainage was opened up, and the water started to slowly drain out of the pond, exposing much of the bed of our small river. On Friday night, a girl attending our fall fundraiser dropped her phone while on the bridge, and it fell onto a now-dry portion of the riverbed. One of our contractors working the event located the phone on the riverbed below, and with the encouragement of our event director, attempted to retrieve it. He scrambled down the overgrown riverbank, then was brought up short when confronted by one of our local raccoons. He climbed back up the bank pretty much at the time I arrived.

Knowing that I have a high tolerance for not-too-pleasant tasks (years ago, one co-worker once told me that I'm not happy unless I'm getting my ass kicked), he and the event director told me of the dropped phone, and pointed it out to me... challenge accepted! I scrambled down the bank of the river, crashing through the underbrush without encountering any fauna. I examined the riverbank to locate the spots which looked least likely to be soft, muddy places to lose both shoes and footing. I was able to get the phone and return it, functional but with a badly cracked screen, to its grateful owner.

It was a matter of luck- if the pond-draining hadn't been undertaken, and the river level lowered, this second phone would have suffered the fate of its predecessor. Meanwhile, my reputation as the go-to guy to accomplish off-the-wall tasks continues unabated.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Pho Pho Fun

This afternoon, I drove up to Danbury, CT to meet up with some of the Alicublog regulars for dinner at Pho Vietnam. The occasion for this meetup was a Connecticut visit by the lovely, gracious, and hilarious Jenn of Ark and her nephew, who had flown up to the state to purchase an automobile. Derelict, Gocart Mozart, mds, and I met Jenn and her nephew for bowls of pho and camaraderie.

It was fantastic to meet Jenn, for many years one of my favorite internet snark-slingers, and to touch base with Derelict, GCMZ, and mds, who I had met before. After dinner, we stepped outside to admire Jenn's new car, a sleek six-speed Ford. We speculated about the use of the sixth gear, and Jenn hit upon the use, confirmed with an internet search... it's a fuel-saving measure, allowing a lower rate of RPM on flat straightaways. The car looks like it will be fun to drive. It's a long way back to Arkansas, but it should be a sweet road trip.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Stupid Reichstag Fire?

John Oliver coined a term to describe the debased nature of this scandal-ridden-yet-farcical era: Stupid Watergate. Last week's vandalism of the NYC Metropolitan Republican Club immediately struck me as a 'false flag' incident- the halfassed 'anarchist' iconography and the letter referencing 'blacks' seem to point to an individual trying, and failing, to grasp the language of the 'Social Justice Warrior'. The vandalism preceded a speech by Proud Boy founder Gavin McAnus, which preceded a brawl on the streets of the Upper East Side. The UES is one of the whitest, richest neighborhoods of New York City, and even though it has a storied bar culture, is not the sort of place where brawls regularly occur. I view the vandalism of the Republican club as the 'Stupid Reichstag Fire', given the violence which followed in NYC and Portland soon afterwards.

The police seem to be passively supporting the fascists, having allowed gang assaults to occur in New York, and covering up the discovery of a sniper's nest in Portland. Of course, the President is comfortable with encouraging violence- there is a move to normalize political violence. Thankfully, public outcry has led to the arrest of one fascist gang assault perpetrator, and more should follow.

With the midterm elections coming up, and voter suppression campaigns being waged around the country, this is going to be a long, stupid season. Hopefully, the violence will be tamped down, and the police forced to forestall gang assaults rather than acting as not-so-innocent bystanders. I'm not exactly holding my breath, though.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Numbers Games

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring 538's Riddler, economist and game theorist Dr Oliver Roeder. Dr Roeder was formerly with the Brennan Center for Justice and has recently released his book The Riddler: Fantastic Puzzles from FiveThirtyEight.

Dr Roeder began his lecture with a description of the Rhind papyrus, a three-thousand year old Egyptian collection of mathematical exercises which begins with a wonderful description of mathematics as “The entrance into the knowledge of all existing things and all obscure secrets.” He then continued to extol the modern masters of mathematical puzzles, luminaries such as Lewis Carroll, Ernő Rubik, Tetsuya Miyamoto, and a man he singled out for especial accolades- Martin Gardner, who long wrote the mathematical puzzle column in Scientific American (and whose The Annotated Alice occupies a place of prominence on my bookshelf). Gardner popularized such math puzzles as tangrams, rep-tiles, and Escher's artworks.

Seeking to follow in Mr Gardner's footsteps, Dr Roeder has brought to the public such mathematical puzzles as planetary guardian, Laser Larry, the lonesome king, and chasing squircles. He described the different puzzle-solving cohorts as 'empirical solvers, theoretical solvers, and Jeff'.

He then launched into Riddler mode, testing the audience's puzzle-solving acumen. He started off with a classic in order to get our brains limbered up... the two jug puzzle featured in the second 'Die Hard' movie, which I believe was titled 'Dier Harder':

Then he had us split up into groups to engage in a game- how to allocate to use a one billion dollar budget to build a spacecraft which could reach an extrasolar object before spacecrafts built by rivals... the choices for components were top-notch American components, cheaper Russian components, and a finite amount of xenon gas which could improve performance. There were a couple of approaches- one being a blend of components, the other being to buy up all of the xenon (Dr Roeder joked that being a dickhead was advantageous here).

Then the audience was given a task to pick a number, with the two lowest unique numbers qualifying the respondents to compete onstage. The winners chose five and twelve, and were brought onstage. They were given a random number between 0 and 1, and given the opportunity to choose another number, with the one getting the number closest to one getting a prize. Both contestants were given numbers below .5, both chose to get another number. When asked to explain why they chose a second "draw", both indicated that they did so because they were below the halfway mark. Dr Roeder noted that the optimal cutoff is the golden ratio minus one with reader Christopher Mullan illustrating the problem with a graphic representation he dubbed the Pringle of Probability.

All told, it was a night of fun and games, reminiscent of Matt Parker's standup mathematics routine. Dr Roeder was a demanding, though not stern, taskmaster. I'm primarily a biology nerd, so having to exercise the mathematical portion of the brain was a good change of pace.

Kudos go to Dr Roeder, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House- this was a night of nerdy fun and games, and nobody decided to be a dickhead, no matter how advantageous it would be. For a taste of the sort of puzzles Dr Roeder deals in, here's a good video:

Pour yourself a beverage and join the Secret Solvers Club.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

THIS is the Bridge Too Far?

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi authorities is horrific, but not surprising, given the Saudis' bloodthirsty idea of criminal jurisprudence. The cynical part of me tells me that the sustained outrage about his death is largely due to the fact that the guy lived in the US and probably had lunch with American journalists on numerous occasions. Meanwhile, the executions of poor women accused of sorcery is a mere sidebar in the news. One well-connected guy is valued more than any number of working class women- the whole 'NPC meme' is nothing new, I guess.

I don't wish to minimize the death of Mr Khashoggi, but where the hell were all of the pearl-clutchers over the past century of stonings, dismemberments, beheadings? Saudi money is a corrupting influence, and the current maladministration is ass-deep in the stuff, so I suspect that the current outrage will die down soon. Sure, Jamal Khashoggi might have been a lunch buddy, but the Saudis can pick up much bigger tabs than he ever could.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Hen Party

It being fall, the hen of the woods mushroom (Grifola frondosa) is on my mind. The best place to find these mushrooms is growing on a tree on which you have previously found them- they tend to recur, as the edible portions of the fungus are merely the fruiting bodies of a largely underground organism. I have staked out a few trees on which I have found hens. In a bit of counterintuitive thinking, I begin my search for new hen of the woods sources by looking up- the fungi tend to be found on oak trees, so if you find the tree you might find the mushroom. I did, though, find a small one growing on a moribund (now lopped) maple tree right in front of my house, seen on the right hand side of this photo:

I did not identify the fungus on the right hand side...

I hit paydirt while visiting an ancient oak tree at one of my worksites. This picture, taken last week, shows some of the seven fruiting bodies clustered around the tree like a hen of the woods party:

The fruiting bodies have subsequently gotten bigger, and I harvested the largest one last Friday, using a long, sharp knife to cut 'florets' off of the tougher 'stem' attached to the tree roots. Sauteed in a little olive oil, a portion of what I harvested made a nice meal, accompanied by a nice, crusty baguette. There's more left in the kitchen, and six additional fruiting bodies to lop off of the tree.

I have found an additional small 'hen' on a tree at my principle workplace, but it's not yet big enough to grab. The search goes on, as I look up to the canopy to find oak leaves and look down to find fallen acorns. The hens are out there, they have no poisonous lookalikes, and they are choice. This fall, I am throwing a hen party.