Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Had I Known...

If I had known that arrests in NYC would plummet, I might have considered going to Times Square tonight, with my good flask nestled in my coat pocket.

Nah, I don't have the patience for that scene, never did. At any rate, if the police think they are punishing New Yorkers by not enforcing minor "quality of life" infractions like drinking in public, they have another think coming... Now where'd I put that bottle?

Happy New Year, everybody! Let's hope for a splendid 2015.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Anomalous Pudding

While running some errands, I stopped into my butcher shop of choice (yes, I live in a neighborhood which still has not only one, but two butcher shops). After the usual exchange of pleasantries, I decided that I would purchase something for breakfast. I usually get the house-made black pudding, but I noted an anomalous pudding in the display case:

This anomalous pudding was made from the tail ends of the butcher's black pudding and his white pudding after he'd packed the casings. I prefer the black pudding to the white pudding, but sometimes it's nice to have both, without having to buy two puddings. Balance is important, isn't that what the Yin-Yang symbol teaches us?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Creampuff or Lemon?

I recently stumbled upon a vintage car of dubious vintage:

I'd never seen one before, but I suspected that this car was a specimen of the infamous Edsel, a brand automobile produced by the Ford Motor Company. Sure enough, a closer view verified this:

Is it a creampuff or a lemon? YES!

POSTSCRIPT: How about this for hilarity? The Ford Motor Company hired modernist poet Marianne Moore to propose names for the car, with awesome results.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Afghan War, Now 90% Over!

Finally, after thirteen years, the war in Afghanistan is "formally" over- or 90% over, as about 14,000 troops are staying in-country. The Soviet war in Afghanistan was was a bit shorter. It has to be noted that the U.S. government backed, trained and armed the Muslim fanatics who created the Taliban and Al Qaeda in order to fight a proxy war against the Soviets.

As if that weren't bad enough, we didn't maintain a large presence in order to create the civil society that could have enabled a peaceful Afghanistan to develop. Now, a quarter century later, Afghanistan is still a mess, and still a threat. We used to treat our enemies well, and helped them to rebuild after armistices- at some point, we started treating our "allies" poorly, with predictable results. Well, now the Afghan War is 90% over, why am I not 90% happy?

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Baby Bottle... or Rip Van Whiskey

Today, I attended a first birthday party for the twins sons of old friends. I find it very hard to shop for such tiny children- I hate shopping in the first place (exceptions, food shopping or shopping in bookstores, preferably used bookstores, the more cluttered the better), and I find it especially tough to shop for something that the kids have yet to grow into and will grow out of in a matter of weeks. I figured I'd write them a check for their college fund, and then, in a stroke of inspiration, I went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of Scotch, which I had the boozeslinger wrap for me. I added a note: OPEN IN 20 YEARS.

I should have thought of this idea long ago!

Friday, December 26, 2014

You Won't Be Needing Those Childhood Memories!

Being enough of a Tolkien fan to have written a few blog posts about the good professor's work, I have assiduously avoided seeing any of Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" films. To quote the blurb from the back of the parody Bored of the Rings (which I love, not being a rabid fanboy):

"Those who have any respect for a certain living author won't touch this turkey with a ten-foot battle lance"

Yeah, no "Hobbit" movies for this guy... I didn't particularly care for Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" movies to begin with, and I viewed Jackson's expansion of a relatively slim novel to three films a crass pass for the brass. Regarding the movies, I'd heard some tidbits which convinced me that I was right to avoid these movies. The first movie had too many "roller coaster" type scenes, probably setting up action sequences for video game adaptations. The second movie had a character added to the story which looked suspiciously like a Mary Sue (She's an orphan! She rose quickly from a common birth to a lofty position! She's even a redhead!!!). I am certainly not complaining about the addition of a female character to the movie, but I think that several of the dwarfs should have been female... Melissa McCarthy as Bombur FTW!!! The problem with the "hawt elf chick" insert is Hollywood's insistence that every female character be a Daphne, with nary a Velma onscreen. The third movie was seen as soulless. I didn't watch any of these movies, so why am I writing about them? I don't do the guest-post thing, but I am going to bring in a special guest-star for this post, a friend and co-worker who is a devout Tolkien fan. I warned her that she would hate the movie, but she went ahead and saw it anyway. She sent me a text-message to wish me a merry Christmas, and I asked her the fateful question:

You see that hobbit movie yet?

Oh... worse than you can imagine. I died a little inside

Give it enough time and you'll come to hate Jacko's LotR movies too. I think he just wanted to make a big budget remake of "Hawk the Slayer"

I don't hate him. Just really disappointed. To be fair, I didn't have high hopes for this one.

Just think of the movies as a big budget "Hawk the Slayer" remake and you won't be so disappointed. The end of "Hawk" did leave room for a sequel.

Lol I'm currently watching the "Die Hard" movies in between cooking

Did Jacko at least include Thorin's dying speech to Bilbo? The "child of the kindly west" speech?

Not all of it but most of it. Thorin dies not on the battlefield, but on the mountain fighting Azog. Two words: war pigs

Peter Jackson can eat a bag of dicks. I can't wait until the novelization of the movie comes out, written by that Salvatore guy. Why couldn't Jackson just call his movie "Warhammer: Dwarfs vs Orcs" and leave the beloved children's classic alone?

True! *twitches at the mention of Warhammer* I'm a Warhammer widow ya know. My house has little painted men EVERYWHERE

Anyway, Peter Jackson's not going to poop on my childhood memories of the beloved classic (hell, did his movies even give the eponymous hobbit more than a few scant minutes of screentime?). No need for me to watch his three-course serving of pure CGI cheese. It seems that even my spoofy Ayn Rand/Hobbit mashup was more faithful to the books than these movies.

That being said, I'd watch the hell out of Peter Jackson's big-budget sequel to Hawk the Slayer, and he can add all the "Mary Sue" characters he wants!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas to All!

Here's wishing everybody a very merry Christmas. It's easy to succumb to cynicism this time of year, with the all-too-real commercialism and the all-too-fake controversies, but I genuinely, sincerely hope that everybody is having a wonderful time.

Thankfully, it seems that the most anticipated thing about Christmas is spending time with loved ones- people realize that it is more about the presence than the presents.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Little Christmas Music

Longtime readers will know what my all-time favorite Christmas song is (for the record, my favorite traditional carol is Oh, Holy Night, but most of the versions on Youtube are sub-par). This year, I heard another great Christmas song about New York, Bells of St. Ignatius by Wormburner:

The song was written as a "response" to Fairytale of New York... while "Fairytale" tells the tale of the emotional trajectory of an immigrant couple as they fall in and out of love, with a (slim) possibility of a reconciliation, Bells of St. Ignatius comes across as a native New Yorker's slice-of-life view of the holiday. I'd wager that the "St Ignatius" referred to in the song's title is the storied St Ignatius of Loyola in the Yorkville section of the Upper East Side.

The song certainly won't knock "Fairytale" off its pedestal in my heart, but it's a fine listen, and one can't have too many good Christmas songs.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Sorry Righties, He's Yours!

Roy has a good dissection of the right-wing's attempt to pin the blame for the assassination of two NYPD officers on President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and NYC Mayor DeBlasio. In yesterday's press conference with NYC's Chief Detective, a different narrative emerged... piecing together evidence from the shooter's social media revealed that the shooter was motivated by anti-government sentiments:

Sorry, righties, he's one of yours, just like your patron saint.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Winter of Our Contentment

Damn, it feels good to lock the gates to the property for three months. We had a lovely first night of winter- a mere dusting of snow that was limited to unpaved areas lent the evening a certain picturesque quality. We had a steady stream of visitors, with some especially comical children being among them. I asked one five year old girl what her favorite activity of the evening was, and she eventually opined that getting a chocolate-covered pretzel was the highlight... sorry, co-workers, you've been upstaged by a snack!

There's a twinge of melancholy about bidding the part-timers goodbye for three months, but that only makes the prospect of spring more happy. We year-rounders will keep things in order so they can return and shine... only to be upstaged by pretzels.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Punctuated Vacation

I'm back in New York- my department has four members, and on the weekends we have to cover three main sites, so I am back at work. Weekends are not the funnest of times for me, but I'm not complaining- having weekdays off generally means dealing with fewer crowds. Tonight, we had our second-to-last low-key December fundraiser- I will lock up the gates after tomorrow's fundraiser, and locked they shall remain until the spring. These nights are fun, I get to see co-workers who work during the day at other sites, and have met a couple of recent hires. Need I say that my co-workers are a lovely bunch of people?

It's quiet now- all of the other two-legs have left the property, and the Rodent Abatement Team is working in the small building that houses the dayshift's lounge. The site manager had seen mice in the building, so I will be letting Fred and Ginger into that area for a couple of hours every night. During our fundraiser, one of the ladies from the office was working in an area which is usually kept cat free- tonight, Ginger had a special dispensation to be present because, you got it, there are mice in the area... last week, she caught three of the critters. A good performance evaluation goes a long way toward changing typical workplace procedures. Similarly, I get quite a bit of leeway when it comes to ad hoc responses to worksite conditions.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Repulsive Road Trip, Delightful Destination

Having a few days off, I headed down to Northern Virginia to where mom hangs her hat. I drove down on Tuesday, in conditions which were, at times, harrowing- there were fog banks which reduced visibility to a single car length. In conditions like these, I keep my eyes on the reflective white dashes which separate the lanes of the highway in order to avoid going off the road. Needless to say, I leave a lot of space between my car and the one preceding it.

There was one moment of absolute horror- I was in the right lane, and I saw, in my rearview mirror, a huge tractor-trailer barreling down the left lane at prodigious speed. Another glance revealed that he was riding up the tailpipe of a subcompact car. They flew past me, but I could smell burning rubber as the truck driver must have stood on the brakes. I passed the truck, which had come to a standstill, and saw no evidence of the little car. I couldn't tell you if it had sped off or had been plowed under.

My driving motto is, "You have the rest of your life to get to your destination." I don't want my highways looking like a Hieronymous Bosch painting.

On a happy note, I am having a delightful time in VA.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Post Lecture Recap: Future of the Brain

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for the latest Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Cognitive Scientist Dr Gary Marcus of NYU.

Dr Marcus began his lecture by displaying President George H. W. Bush's 1990 Proclamation 6158, declaring the "decade of the brain". He then noted that, sadly, little has been done to follow up on this lofty declaration. Twenty-four years after the proclamation of the "decade of the brain", we still can't reliably use brain scans to diagnose such mental illnesses as autism and schizophrenia.

Regarding the biology of the brain, there are many unknowns, the basis of short-term memory, the full role of Broca's area, the mechanisms behind the brain's ability to process sentences- all are unknown. How does the brain "decide" which part performs which functions? What changes to the brain are made in the formation of long-term memories? Is the brain "analog" or "digital"? Can we even abstract brain function?

There is no serious Theory of Brain, despite the fact that a lot of researchers are doing a lot of research on various related topics. Regarding the development of Artificial Intelligence, Dr Marcus quipped that it is always "20 years in the future", whereupon some bastard in the audience likened it to workable fusion power. The core problems of AI remain unsolved: machine reading is stuck at a 4th grade "D" level, sketch understanding is extremely limited, there is no genine language understanding, there is no "common sense" reasoning. Despite the advances that have been made, there is not a lot of real progress.

Regarding the lack of progress in the development of artificial intelligence, Dr Marcus joked that there is a misguided search for "silver bullets", but there are no "three laws to put on a T-shirt". He then catalogued some of of the various models that were put forth- Parallel Distributed Processing, Neural Networks... the model that is currently generating excitement is Deep Learning. Dr Marcus noted that it is easy to fool "deep learning" systems- if an artificial intelligence is trained to recognize one thousand items, item number one thousand and one will stymie it. Such is system is limited, it only functions within a "closed world".

Whole brain emulation, while seemingly a great idea in the long term, is unrealistic in the short term- scientists currently can't model the 302 neurons in a worm's brain, much less the 86 billion neurons in a human brain. The quest for a single "Canonical Cortical Computation" model is in its early stages- a single common principle is hoped for.

Regarding the structure of the brain, even though there are considerable differences in the various parts of the brain, scans of these areas appear to be similar. There is no satisfactory account for what a "canonical circuit" might be- Dr Marcus quoted noted scientist Bono, we "still haven't found what we're looking for". There is no reason to think the brain is simple- complexity is found at every scale.

Dr Marcus prefaced the next part of the lecture with a quote from pioneering neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal:

Unfortunately, nature seems unaware of our intellectual need for convenience and unity, and very often takes delight in complication and diversity.

He likened evolution to a tinkerer, fiddling around with spare parts- it is difficult to reconcile a canonical circuit model with developmental, molecular, or evolutionary biology... the biology of the brain is haphazard. The traditional view of the brain, proposed by the visual cortex researchers Hubel and Wiesel, is one of a hierarchy of features. In a simple visual system, cells would differentiate between light and dark, with more complexity, a simple line could be distinguished, eventually, a right angle would be perceived. In reality, single neurons can be stimulated by very specific visual input- the infamous Jennifer Aniston neuron.

The lecture then shifted to the topic of making brain maps. Dr Marcus opined that neuroscience has a sorry history of attempting to explain the brain using metaphors drawn from the latest technology. The brain is not a hydraulic system, nor is it a hologram, nor a computer- one cannot download a brain app. The brain performs as many "devices" acting at the same time.

The computation that occurs in the brain is massively parallel- the brain is not subject to the limitations of Von Neumann architecture, it is probably more like a Field Programmable Gate Array in which many blocks can be configured to do different things. Although the structure appears homogenous on a superficial level, it is customizable in order to perform many tasks. While the anatomy of the brain is fairly uniform, the brain is "tuned" by experience- "nurture" is an important factor in brain structure. There is a lot of parallel "architecture" in the brain to integrate the many "computational blocks" needed to perform the brain's myriad functions.

Gene expression differs across the cerebral cortex, but the closer two parts of the brain are to each other, the more closely they configure- there is no grand principle of the brain, there is variation across the brain. Evolution reconfigures its toolkit over time. If synthetic biology progresses to the point in which a synthetic brain can be "wired" according to code, the computational blocks could be configured in customizable ways.

Once again, the Secret Science Club delivered a fantastic lecture. In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience brought up the subject of plasticity in the brain, and Dr Marcus reiterated the importance of experience "tuning" the brain. For a taste of the Secret Science Club experience, here's a video featuring Dr Marcus:

Pour yourself a libation and drink in the SCIENCE!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Two Years, No Progress

It's been two years since the massacre of twenty little children and six educators in Newton, Connecticut. I was really hit hard by the massacre- the children who were killed were as old as the youngest children I coach on Saturdays. Yesterday, we had our annual luncheon before our two-week break, so I was surrounded by kids all day. Over the years, we've lost a couple of the kids I coached... one mischievous-but-lovable teenager succumbed overnight to a sudden outbreak of pericardial inflammation- the last time I saw him alive, I "ripped him a new one" when I caught him smoking in front of his younger cousin, who is now a stunningly gorgeous woman who is helping with the administrative duties necessary to run the program. We lost another participant to lung cancer brought on by the toxic cloud produced by the destruction of the Twin Towers- his daughter, who was a babe-in-arms when her father died, is now an adorable, earnest five year old participant. A former athletic director was unable to attend- he is fighting a terminal brain tumor. When you have history with people, you have loss. You remember the fallen fondly, and lend emotional support to the survivors.

The real tragedy is that, two years after the massacre, there have been ninety-five school shootings, and nothing has been done to institute a national gun policy involving background checks prior to gun purchases. Nothing's going to get done- the fearmongering about confiscation of guns is too effective a political issue.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Swiss Degrees of Separation

Today, a new sensei joined our ranks for our kids' judo classes. On hearing that our new colleague was from Switzerland, I asked him from which of the cantons of the Confoederatio Helvetica he hailed, he told me that he was from Zürich. I mentioned that my brother Sweetums and his family lived in the town of _____, a lovely suburb of Zürich, whereupon my new Swiss friend said that he grew up in that town, and gave Zürich as his origin in order not to confuse people... much like I tell people who from out of the area that I am from "New York", even though I live three blocks north of the Bronx border- if pressed, I can tell them I live in the Greater Woodlawn neighborhood, on the Yonkers side of the border.

Of course, finding out that he was from the town in which my brother is living, I mentioned that I had visited his home dojo so I could watch my nephews' classes. Of course, the boys' sensei is a good friend of his. When I was in Switzerland, I had a great conversation with their sensei, in which we discussed the international nature of the sport, the shared experiences and vocabulary of the community, and the importance of ethics and empathy in a sport in which we engage in potentially dangerous activity. I was elated to meet another friend from this beautiful judo club.

It's funny how you can travel far away from home and have experiences which "echo" in your home life. It just goes to show you that, no matter where you are, you have to comport yourself in a decent fashion, because you never know when you'll run into someone who knows someone you've run into.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Space Race

Once again, I find myself pressed for time, so I'm putting up a post which I've expanded from a comment I left

Earlier this month, there was a nerd-kerfuffle over the casting of an actor of African descent as a "Star Wars" Imperial Stormtrooper. I believe there's a significant amount of racism in the nontroversy, but I'd apportion most of the blame to simple nerdrage over an alteration of "canon". For the "Comic Book Guy" contingent, a simple deviation from their interpretation can inflame passions that "mundanes" can't understand:

Some Star Wars fans were upset that Boyega was apparently cast to play a Stormtrooper. These fans claimed that Stormtroopers were clones of Jango Fett, and since Fett wasn’t black, no Stormtroopers should be. There is only a black Stormtrooper because of “political correctness,” they lamented.

Despite the fact that "Star Wars" is fiction, I'll play along with the canon-trolls... In the fictional milieu of the "Star Wars" saga, the original Stormtroopers are, indeed, clones of the Jango Fett character. In the course of the movies, these clones exhibit such poor marksmanship that they are the "trope namers" for bad shots. Even the "higher quality" clone, the bounty hunter Boba Fett, was an incompetent boob who was killed by a blind man and George Lucas' vagina dentata anxiety. Given the poor performance of these clones, the Empire must have made the decision to recruit competent individuals in a bid for its very survival, so the ranks of the military would eventually be filled by individuals of all races, from all planets (except for critters like this which couldn't be equipped with helmets). Of course, these new merit-based hiring practices weren't put into place in time to save the Empire.

The people complaining that there's a black Stormtrooper (of course, this assumes that the character isn't in disguise) are the same sort of people who whine about affirmative-action subverting the meritocracy when a qualified minority candidate is hired instead of the boss' golfing-buddy's "gentleman's C" earning frathole son.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tokyo, Memphis... I Believe You've Met

This is a busy week for me- I have to attend some classes for certification necessary for my job. This is a perfect time to fall back on the "post a video" gambit... and have I got a video for you! Back in 1992, Kiyoshiro Imawano, the father of Fuji rock, toured Japan with Booker T. and the M.G.'s, the legendary Stax Records house band:

Besides showcasing the musical virtuosity of Booker T. and the M.G.'s and the inimitable showmanship of Kiyoshiro, the video features Booker T. Jones, the master of the instrumental, singing- he has a rich voice that should have been featured on more recordings. On a sad note, Kiyoshiro and Duck Dunn of the M.G.'s are no longer with us. Booker T. Jones is still going strong. Back in 2009, Mr Jones played a memorial concert for Kiyoshiro during the Fuji Rock festival.

The video is a lot of fun- it features a flamboyant frontman backed by one of the greatest backup bands in the history of popular music. Tokyo met Memphis, and they had a ball!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Violation of the Geneva Fur Conventions!

In a shocking story from the Heartland, a chlorine gas leak disrupted the Midwest FurFest in a hotel in a suburb of Chicago. It is suspected that the chlorine gas leak was intentional:

The manner by which the substance, which was consistent with powdered chlorine, was released “suggests an intentional act,” according the statement from Rosemont police, who are investigating the incident as a criminal matter.

Chlorine gas, which was used extensively in WWI's trench warfare, is now considered a banned substance under the Geneva protocol. The use of this banned substance on the furry community, whose members often wear headgear which may dull their sense of smell or prevent them from hearing alarms, might represent a hate crime, verging on a war crime, committed by mundane extremists. The Geneva Conventions should be in effect to protect fur conventions.

The best case scenario, in this ugly incident, is an accidental chlorine gas release by a green dragon otherkin. Should this be the case, better regulation of the more dangerous "kindred" must be implemented to protect the community at large.

UPDATE: If there's anything that can make a horrible event even worse, that thing is coverage on the "Morning Joe" show.

This scene is rather unusual, in that Mika Brzezinski runs off the set after learning what "furries" are- she is a sophisticated, jaded coastal elite type, so I doubt that a mere paraphilia, no matter how outré, would phase her. I believe she is running off the set so she can jet out to Chicago to join the furries, now that she can put a label to the yearning which has always been in her heart. I imagine her "fursona" is a golden jackal. Also, please note that, at the 32-second mark, there is a green dragon present in the crowd. I believe that this individual is a dragon of interest and have alerted the authorities, namely St George and King Pellinore.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Right-Wing Hive Ass, Pooping Out Talking Points

I've long maintained that the American right doesn't have a hive-mind, it has a hive-ass from which it pulls out bullshit talking points. The current crop of crap is the assertion that Eric Garner's death can be blamed on high cigarette taxes, not a chokehold forbidden to police officers. The usual suspects, such as repulsive Rush, crackpot Rand Paul, ghoulish Ann Coulter, idiotic Jonah Goldberg and most likely your goofball right-wing uncle/cousin/in-law, are all poop-parroting.

I imagine that Jon Stewart will have quite the montage of right-wing creeps spouting this nonsense about "liberals" and the "nanny-state" cigarette taxes being responsible, never mind what the goddamn video tape shows. The crazy thing is that the mainstream media won't be calling any of them out about their patent-falsehoods.

UPDATE: Tengrain has this covered!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Low-Key Nights

For the next few weekends, we'll be having a nice, low-key fundraiser, compared to the madness that is October. My running joke about the attendance at these events is a cheery greeting: "Welcome NPR listeners!" Being an NPR listener myself, it's an affectionate jest, not a put-down at all. I have some vacation time I need to use before year's end, but I'll be working on the weekends because my department is overextended. No worries there- work sure beats dealing with holiday shopping traffic!

It'll be nice to have people onsite after a few weeks of quiet, and it'll be even nicer at the end of the month to settle in for a nice, long winter of peace and quiet. Over the years, I've come to know quite a few of our regular visitors, and they are all lovely people. It'll be nice saying "thank you, goodbye, enjoy your holidays and we'll see you in the spring" to them.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Happy Birthday, Sweetums!

It's that time of year that I wish my older brother Sweetums a happy birthday. Last year, I had the great good fortune to celebrate his birthday with him at his home in the Greater Zürich Metropolitan Area. This year, the Europe trip just wasn't in the cards. One of these days, I'll have to try to get the photos out of the memory of my old phone, which met its demise shortly after I returned from Europe- I had had the thing for almost seven years and broke the damn thing while I was contemplating the fragility of the shiny new company iPhone.

Anyway, happy birthday to Sweetums and love to the fam!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Current Earworm, Courtesy of NPR

This morning, local NPR 10AM-Noon personality Brian Lehrer hosted a show with a bunch of time-related topics. One of the songs that he used as a musical bumper has embedded itself in the auditory centers of my brain:

I don't know much about the singer- apparently she opened for Miley Cyrus on a leg of her tour... I'll forgive her that. She also seems to be a "Pitchfork" darling... I'll forgive that:

It's the producers at WNYC I won't forgive for infecting me with this earworm.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Secret Science Club North Lecture Recap: Sense of Style

Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space for the third Secret Science Club North lecture, which featured the triumphant return of Harvard psychologist and linguist Dr Steven Pinker. Regular readers will remember that Dr Pinker presented a lecture last April at the Bell House concerning the decline of violence over the course of history. Last night's lecture touched on topics covered in Dr Pinker's new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. In this book, Dr Pinker, the chair of the American Heritage Dictionary's usage panel, analyzes writing style manuals through the prism of cognitive science and linguistics.

The Sense of Style is a modern answer to the hoary old Strunk and White. He began the lecture by asking why writing is so hard, and why bad writing is so common, joking: "Bad writing is a choice!" He singled out "legalese" and "academese" as particularly egregious examples of bad writing. Bureaucrats use gibberish to evade responsibility, nerds use jargon as "revenge" on mundanes, and pseudo-intellectuals use gobbledegook to bamboozle their readers in order to seem smart. Being a kind man, Dr Pinker quickly followed these assertions with an acknowledgement that even good scientists and earnest people engage in bad writing.

Dr Pinker then took on the assertion that digital media are undermining the language. He had a very funny slide which addressed the limitations of Twitter's hundred-and-forty characters:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Ri

He quickly torpedoed the "Dumbest Generation Theory" by displaying various quotes concerning assertions like this dating back to 1785, following these with a relevant cartoon. He then quoted Darwin on the difference between speech and writing: “Man has an instinctive tendency to speak as we see in the babble of our young children while no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew or write.”  Speech is instinctive, writing is hard, and there is no feedback from the readers (readers are imaginary and can't interrupt during the writing process for clarification). Writing is both an act of pretense and an act of craftsmanship.

The talk then shifted focus to improving the craft of writing, whereupon Dr Pinker brought up Strunk and White's The Elements of Style While generally praising the book, Dr Pinker opined that language style manuals are largely collections of a particular stylist's preferences and peeves, not an understanding of how language works. He characterized some of the book's advice as "baffling" and asserted that we can produce a better approach to writing style by using science and modern scholarship. Much of the old stylistic advice was based on Latin grammar (not splitting infinitives is a perfect example of this- it can't be done with the one-word Latin infinitives). He also stressed the use of cognitive science to help determine whether a sentence is easy to read or difficult.

Dr Pinker made an argument for using "classic prose style", which involves showing an object, not describing the act of studying it- prose should be a window on reality, and should credit the reader's intelligence without apology or hedging. He also brought up the topic of the overuse of cliches, which can lead to mixed metaphors (with some particularly hilarious examples) and joked about membership of "AWFUL: Americans Who Figuratively Use Literally"

One particularly amusing example of bad stylistic advice was Strunk and White's admonishment to not use the passive voice, which uses the passive voice:

The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.

Dr Pinker defended the use of passive voice in the sciences, where an emphasis must be made on replicability (anyone should be able to replicate an experiment, this is encouraged by use of passive voice). He also noted that passive voice is useful to place emphasis on particular words- the word order in English is important due to the lack of case endings such as Latin or German have.

Dr Pinker also discussed the various approaches to acting as custodians of the language. Should there be a central authority determining proper usage (this has been attempted in countries such as France) or should changes in style occur naturally in a "bottom-up" fashion.

Since Dr Pinker is currently on a book tour supporting his new authorial endeavor, he has been delivering lectures on this topic all over the U.S. Here's a recording of one of his lectures, if you want to listen to the whole thing rather than my rehash of the topic:

Dr Pinker's talk blended humor, theory, and policy prescription. His criticisms were gentle and good-natured, his proposed solutions sensible. All-in-all, it was a lovely lecture which contained good advice for writers. Myself, I like to engage in wordplay... I like ambiguity and an occasional touch of grotesquerie in my writing. In the Q&A, I asked how one should differentiate between "plain bad" and "so bad it's good" writing, and Dr Pinker noted that exaggeration or an intentional misuse of language can be employed to comic effect, but that much of this is subjective.

Once again, my friends Dorian and Margaret of The Secret Science Club curated a fine lecture. The main hall of Symphony Space was packed for the lecture, and many attendees were new to the S.S.C. There was a hint about further Secret Science Club North lectures- hopefully, now that the word is out, the events will all take place in the main performance space (Dr Pinker is a celebrity- he has appeared numerous times on Stephen Colbert's show- let's hope there will be a "coattails" effect on future lectures). Kudos all around!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Coming Out of the Closet, So to Speak

Yesterday, I published a post about my fifth-year blogiversary. Today, I want to ask everybody out there who's blogging, do you tell your family and friends that you are a blogger? A handful of co-workers, a handful of family members, and a handful of friends of mine know that I have been writing this blog... but it's not general knowledge. I've had a couple of cousins post comments here, and occasionally the subject of a post will discover it and post a comment. It's kinda weird, though, telling people that you rant on the internet, and it's especially weird telling them that you've been doing it for five years. How do you casually bring that up in conversation? Do you? It's kinda like telling people that you're a novelist without having anything published... at what point does someone become a novelist rather than someone who's just waiting tables?

So... anybody out there have any stories about coming out of the blogging closet? Any "I think you should know this about me before we get too serious" narratives? How about breaking the news to your parents that you've posted about, let's say, frog voyeurism or the dangerous allure of hoochie-coochie LaRoucheys?

To what extent do you allow "meatspace" and your online activities to intersect? Are you "outies" or "innies", people?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Five Years of Bastardy

Five years ago, I started this blog with a somewhat unauspicious post, figuring that the hardest part of blogging was starting the whole endeavor. Ultimately, the inspiration for this blog was the Sadly, No! community, both headliners and commentariat. The immediate inspiration for the blog came from Thunder, zrm, Substance McGravitas, M. Bouffant and the antipodean genii at "Riddled"- I needed a Blogger profile to post comments at their blogs, and their blogs were so entertaining that I just had to join in on the fun.

Regarding the 'nym... I've always considered it a tongue-in-cheek jab at "machismo", which I consider a "toxic cult of failed masculinity". That being said, the "Big Bad Bald Bastard" is a character that mild-mannered Mr _________ of the City of Y______ can readily slip into when it is to his advantage- I admit that I can be somewhat fierce on those rare occasions on which fierceness is called for. I chalk a lot of the "Bastard" character's traits, and my traits which I exaggerate when I have to be the Bastard, to the tutelage of this departed gentleman. Regarding the "Bad", I've always meant that in the non-pejorative slang sense... I am a generally law-abiding, responsible individual. For the record, my parents were married when my four siblings and I were born, so the "Bastard" is a self-deprecating bit of slang. Also, I'm a sucker for alliteration, being a fan of Old Norse Poetry.

Early on, most of my posts were short, pithy bits of snark, written to amuse me on the cold nights after the jobsite had closed to the public for the winter months. I had a lot of quiet solitude on the job to crank out short posts that were mainly personal observations of little consequence.

Soon after starting the blog, I put up my first short "political" piece, but I really didn't realize the potential of blogging until I put up my first (woefully skimpy- I've since taken to bringing a memo pad to lectures) recap of a Secret Science Club lecture. The lecture recaps quickly became a regular feature of my blog and the recaps actually became kinda good sometime in 2010. Besides the SSC recaps, I also had the privilege of writing up a recap of a lecture by Ned.

Speaking of Ned, I had the pleasure of meeting him in person back in ought-nine and we get together every so often, but not often enough. I have also had the honor of hanging out with Substance McGravitas, Actor212, Major Kong (who I took to my workplace on one occasion), and Thunder (who let me hang out on his famous deck).

In 2011, I finally realized that the second biggest reason for the internet is posting cat pictures, so I got smart and started regularly featuring my co-workers Fred and Ginger, who I met shortly before starting this blog. I also posted about our dear, departed Moses, but I didn't post more about him because he had a higher profile than Fred and Ginger, and I'm leery about revealing too much about the job.

Perhaps my single most unusual blogging achievement was my 24 Posts in 24 Hours stint, which took place on Sunday, June 19, 2011, when I was working a split double shift (midnight to 8AM, 4PM to midnight). This day also saw the birth of Objectivist Morrissey, who desparately needs a revival. Thunder, being a trouper, commented on each and every one of those posts. Maybe my single greatest blogging achievement was my recap of the post-Sandy Secret Science Club lecture- that lecture had scientific, political, and social pertinence. Another big achievement, in 2012, was being invited to join the snarky geniuses at Rumproast (I'm overdue for a post there). Also in 2012, I began to get some serious linky love from all-around great and good guy Tengrain, who recently put up a post similar to this one.

If I were asked about any regrets I might have had in the course of my blogging career, I'd have to say that my only big regret is not starting this blog in time to cover the entire run of Secret Science Club lectures. One minor regret is neglecting to label any of my posts, but that's a minor thing.

Over the course of my five years of blogging, my blogroll has expanded to seventy-seven blogs owned by diverse people from all over the planet. I am very proud of everyone in the "bloggerhood" and I love you all. Thanks for all of the support you've given me over my five years of bastardy. Writing this blog has always been a great pleasure, in large part because of you. I am looking forward to the next five years with you. Thank you for everything!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Happy Birthday Vin!

Today is my brother Vincenzo's birthday. Just a week and a half ago, Vin finished a three week quarantine after a tour of duty in Liberia constructing medical infrastructure to deal with the Ebola breakout (which has seemed to disappear from the media gaze). Vin said that his quarantine was worse than his deployment... he received a warm welcome from the grateful people of Liberia and came back to a military base that hadn't even provided him with a change of clothes to wear during his three week confinement. He also complained about the poor quality of the chow he was served while in quarantine.

Thankfully, he'll be celebrating his birthday and Thanksgiving simultaneously, along with a crowd of his Italian neighbors, who are wonderful, generous people. I had the pleasure and the privilege of being at last year's celebration of Vin's birthday cum Thanksgiving, and I quickly came to love everybody in Vin's Italian town. Buon cumplianni, Vincenzo!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Before the Moon Falls

For the past couple of days, my musical obsession has been The Fall. I have been listening to the band's albums in order, starting with 1979's Live at the Witch Trials. Oddly enough, I started off on this "Fall" jag when I listened to Southern Mark Smith by The Jazz Butcher (the joke of the song is that Mark Smith is decidedly "Northern").

Anyway, while listening to the draGnet album, I was struck by how amazingly good the song Before the Moon Falls sounds:

The lyrics are a masterful conjuration of the choices faced by a smart troublemaker in an economically disadvantaged area:

Up here in the North there are no wage packet jobs for us
Thank Christ
While young married couples discuss the poverties
Of their self-built traps
And the junior clergy demand more cash
We spit in their plate and wait for the ice to melt
I must create a new regime
Or live by another man's
Before the moon falls
I must create a new scheme
And get out of others' hands
Before the moon falls
I could use some pure criminals
And get my hands on some royalties
Before the moon falls

That's a good bit scarier than the more traditional "demonic possession" horror narrative of Spectre Vs. Rector.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Consumer Complicity

This day after Thanksgiving, I want to take an opportunity to rant about the retail stores that were open on Thanksgiving, with some corporations threatening to fire employees who do not work on the holiday. While the corporations that forced their employees to work on Thanksgiving are truly odious, they are not the sole bad actors in this sordid, exploitative affair. The consumers who decided that it is appropriate to patronize the stores that are maltreating their employees are just as complicit in this abuse as the corporations are. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with someone who just cannot refrain from a consumer frenzy for one single day so that the poor retail workers can celebrate the one holiday that is well-nigh universal to Americans of differing cultures and creeds?

Thankfully, there is a growing backlash against the stores that decided to open their doors on Thanksgiving. It seems that people are finally fed up about the disgusting power disparity between employers and employees. It's about time. Perhaps people have come to the realization that the underpaid, overworked retail workers are really the canary in the coalmine, and that it's not inconceivable that they may eventually face the same regressive workplace policies.

As I have written before, I believe that the American people have allowed themselves to transition from citizens to consumers over the past forty years (I chalk a lot of this up to that idiotic "government is the problem" trope- and look at all those goddamn upvotes). With stagnant wages and diminishing benefits among middle class workers, class differences between the middle class and the lower class are primarily a function of consumption patterns- the guy buying that flavored-up Starbucks coffee can kid himself that he's materially better off than his counterpart who's buying a cup-of-Joe at McDonald's.

It gets worse- with decreasing workplace protections, we are now transitioning from consumers to consumed. Don't want to knuckle under and put your life on the line to help feed the mass-consumption frenzy? Tough shit, peasant, you'll find yourself on an unemployment line.

Just say no to the whole sordid ritual... the holiday you save may be your own.

POSTSCRIPT: For the record, I worked on Thanksgiving. In fact, I wrote this post during a quiet moment at work and set it up to post later in the day. I am essential personnel, and I am a supervisor... it's my feeling that, if someone has to "take it on the chin", it's my duty to my subordinates to be that someone. I most certainly do not feel that my presence on the job on Thanksgiving is exploitative, it's merely the price I have to pay for working in an unorthodox capacity.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


Here's hoping everybody stateside had a good Thanksgiving. I didn't make any travel plans- last year I had a wonderful Thanksgiving in Italy with two of my brothers, but this year taking a trip just wasn't in the cards. I spent the holiday at the home of an old high school friend, his wife, and their not-quite-one-year-old twin sons. My high-school chum's in-laws came up from the Florida panhandle for their grandchildren's christening, which was last Sunday. Sadly, my old friend's parents, also old friends, didn't come around because his mother was fighting a bad cold. A couple of other old friends were also spending Thanksgiving there, along with their two adorable children.

I got to my friends' house around 2PM, whereupon my friend joked, "Here's the plan: first you're going to get drunk, then you're going to eat turkey, then you're going to sober up, then you're going to eat pie. Than you can go to work." Sounded like a reasonable plan to me... I pretty much kept to that trajectory, starting off with a couple of beers. I also busted out a bottle of homemade limoncello, because my friends from Florida have a lemon tree in their backyard that yields lemons the size of softballs, so I figured I'd inspire them to put those big beauties to good use.

Besides having a turkey, my friends served a farm-made ham made from the haunch of a heritage-breed pig. They are dedicated customers of an upstate farmer that they met at one of the local farmers' markets. They'll probably get another of his spectacular hams for Christmas, and they will definitely get one for their annual New Year's Day feast, which also invariably features collard greens, black-eyed peas, and cornbread. While the turkey was delectable, the ham was otherworldly.

I ate like porkers and drank like hell, but my one saving grace was having a couple of just-under-twenty-pounds twins to exercise with. They both love to be bounced around, with one of them loving to "jump" with adult assistance. They are on the cusp of being able to run around, they just need to work on their balance.

Everything went according to plan... I had a nice buzz on when we sat down to dinner, and was sober and sipping the first of two cups of coffee when the pies, a pumpkin pie and an apple pie, were set on the table. I'm not a big fan of apple pie, but this pie was spectacular- my friend's father-in-law was kind enough to reveal his secret, use tart apples, cut them up and dust them with sugar and cinnamon, and leave them in a colander for the excess moisture to run off- voilà, an apple pie with no hint of sogginess in the crust.

I'm now at work, it's quiet, and the cats are as well-fed as I am. I'm looking forward to a nice, quiet night, and I'll be home before the door-busting consumption frenzy begins.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Travel Travail

The biggest regional news story is a bigass nor'easter which slammed the Northeastern U.S. today, the busiest of travel days in the U.S. I made no Thanksgiving travel plans- when I cobbled together November's work schedule, my mom didn't know when she'd be back from Italy. Instead, I planned on working Thanksgiving. I spoke at length with mom, she'll be traveling to baby brother Gomez' house, which is a two-and-a-half hour drive from her place. She decided to wait until Thanksgiving day, after the storm (and hopefully the traffic) has subsided.

My drive to work wasn't too bad- the radio reports of dire accumulations of snow haven't materialized in my neck of the woods, though the roads were kinda slushy and a snow/sleet/rain mix was falling in quantities sufficient enough to be annoying. It's yucky out, to be sure- the cats didn't even want to run out when I opened the door of their assigned workplace to check up on them- but it's not dangerous.

Good luck to everyone who is traveling to visit loved ones for the holiday. Be safe!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I Got Your Civil Society Right Here

Via Roy, I have been skirting the margins of the right-wing fever swamp. The odious Mark Levin (check out his oeuvre here, if you must) had this to say about developments in Ferguson, MO:

What we are witnessing now is the left's war on the civil society. It's time to speak out in defense of law enforcement and others trying to protect the community and uphold the rule law.

Call me crazy, but my idea of a civil society has no room for corpses of teenagers lying in the street for four hours. Once again, I have the sinking feeling that I'm living in a "Banana Republic with Nukes".

I don't have a television, so I haven't been watching any cable "news" coverage of the post-verdict situation in Ferguson, MO. Last night, I met up with friends for a beer and caught some of the post "Monday Night Football" coverage, and there was talk of bottles thrown and tear gas canisters launched. A quick perusal of the web shows that a dozen businesses were torched and there were scores of injuries- it looks like the situation might get really bad, but I'd argue that the attack on "civil" society took place long ago.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Working the Refs

Patricia at The Polygon has a great post about the declaration of a state of emergency in Missouri in the runup to a grand jury decision regarding P.O. Darren Wilson's slaying of Michael Brown. On the right side of the dial, we have bloviators such as Mike Huckabee and Sean Hannity (in a discussion with Mark Fucking Fuhrman, no less!) talking about "mob action" and violence in anticipation of street protests.

To me, this is a clear cut case of working the refs- they are preemptively poisoning the meme stream against any protestors so that any violent response on the part of the police will seem legitimate, indeed inevitable. It's a case of screaming "LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO TO YOU!" in advance of a potentially ugly bout of brutality.

It stinks, it's repugnant, and it's as transparent as hell. Maybe "Anonymous" needs to turn some of its efforts against the media normalizers of violence as well as the KKK.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Deja... YOU?

Alright, I was able to get the cat off my sweatshirt, think I'll put it... WHAT?

I thought I'd just gotten you to move... wait, it's you !!

You had me going for a second there, you're not always easy to tell apart. Ya both like scritches, too:

The lint brush is going to get a workout this week!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Would You Mind Moving? You're Sitting on My Coat

Sweatshirt, if you want to get technical. Looks like my co-worker Fred has gotten v-e-r-y comfortable:

Hey, it's time to actually do some work, I'm going to need that sweatshirt... looks like it's time for wakey wakey! Sheesh, who knew a cat's head could be so heavy?

I can't seem to move my hand!

Once I get my hand free, I think I'll just get the staff windbreaker out of the office.

Title yoinked from a line from my favorite film noir.

It's a little throwaway line after the villain has just finished the second of his masterful monologuing scenes... a funny little juxtaposition between the rhetorical flights of an erudite supervillain, and the utter banality of day-to-day annoyances. "Hey, I just delivered a learned yet sinister soliloquy, now move your ass!"

Now I'm going to have to watch the whole movie again... I hope this doesn't wake the cat up.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Like Something out of Star Wars

Forget the flashy blasters and lightsabers from the Star Wars movie franchise, the technology I want to see developed and adopted is the humble moisture vaporator, which should really be called a condenser. Via Jim at Wisdom of the West, we have a portable condenser-cum-water bottle (note to pervs, the cum does not refer to Pastor Manning's favorite flavor-upper).

With drought being endemic to large swaths of the U.S., and lack of access to potable water in much of the developing world, the prospect of removing water vapor, which can play a role in exacerbating global warming, from the atmosphere could be a promising tactic in combating two problems. As far as water vapor in the upper troposphere goes, it could be possible (though not easy) to use high-altitude balloon-supported condensers to bring atmospheric water to the surface.

At any rate, Jim puts up a This Week in Water post periodically, much like Vixen Strangely posts a regular climate round-up. These posts are always a good read.

Just think what a $158 billion "Star Wars" program could accomplish if it were aimed at increasing access to clean, potable water for all of the world's residents.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

No Excuses: Secret Science Club Lecture Recap... Finally!

On Monday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for the monthly Secret Science Club lecture, featuring theoretical chemist Dr Garnet Chan of Princeton University. On his website, Dr Chan describes his research focus thus:

Garnet Chan’s research lies at the interface of theoretical chemistry, condensed matter physics, and quantum information theory, and is concerned with quantum many-particle phenomena and the numerical methods to simulate them.

At the start of his lecture, which he titled "Simulation and Complexity of the Quantum World", Dr Chan gave a hilariously self-deprecating description of his work. He stated that he is a theoretical chemist, a chemist that doesn't perform chemistry experiments. He joked that he needed a kid to help him when he conducted his last experiment. Dr Chan then noted that he had looked at the descriptions of preceding talks, and that he wanted to tie some of the themes of previous lectures together, with an emphasis on the small scale. The goal of his research is simulating the quantum world, and that quantum mechanics is a complicated subject.

Dr Chan quipped that everybody tells lies about quantum mechanics, but that such lies are not indicative of low moral standards, but are simplifications because it's extremely hard to discuss quantum mechanics without bringing complex mathematics into the discussion. Physics operates from a massive scale to a tiny scale... the scale of the universe (dealing with objects in the 1026 meter range) to the quantum scale (dealing with objects in the 10-15 meter range). Theoretical chemistry involves bridging the macroscopic and the microscopic worlds, from the human scale to the scale of atoms and molecules. Dr Chan underscored the importance of the atomic theory by quoting Richard Feynman:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

In our daily experience, the world appears to be continuous, but matter is discrete. The nature of matter was debated until approximately a century ago, the matter finally being theoretically settled by Einstein (PDF) and verified experimentally by the observation of Brownian motion by French physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin. Perrin observed that the motion of small starch particles was not continuous, but "jagged". If matter were contiguous, such motion would be smooth. If matter were composed of discrete bits, motion within the matter would be discrete. The rapidity with which a particle will change directions is equal to the number of collisions it is involved in- the ratio of the granule to the substrate, which is Avogadro's number.

Today, clearer evidence of atoms can be obtained through the use of scanning tunneling microscopes. Dr Chan described scanning tunneling microscopes as having a tip "one atom sharp", and the magnitude of the signal obtained by the electron microscope maps out the undulation of the surface of the substance scanned. At the atomic scale, though, things are "sticky", and the difference between the human scale and the atomic scale is so pronounced that it is difficult to make observations- there's no way to "see" inside atoms. Rather than bridging these scales in the real world, the "world of the atom" has to be digitally recreated in the computer world. It is crucial that the computer simulations are completely faithful to reality. The "laws of nature" are known- aside from Planck's scale (1035 meters), the fundamental laws and particles of the universe are known. Dr Chan asked, "Is this the end of physics, or the start of something beautiful?"

Nature is made of many particles, it's not just a matter of "more of the same". Dr Chan used the analogy of a chess game to describe theoretical chemistry: we know the pieces, we know the basic interaction among the pieces, but we don't know the complexity of the game- the interaction of the known particles leads to nature's complexity.

Dr Chan then addressed the question: what is quantum mechanics? General relativity applies to the large-scale structures of the universe, while classical "Newtonian" mechanics suffice for the human scale. On the micrometer scale of atoms and molecules, Newton's predictions begin to break down. Quantum mechanics are the "theory of small", involving atoms, molecules, the strength of bonds, the color of materials, their "stickiness", their electrical properties- as an example of a subject pertinent to quantum mechanics, Dr Chan cited the adhesiveness of gecko feet.

The lecture then shifted to the topic of atoms, a subject Dr Chan called "high school redux". An atom can be illustrated as a nucleus surrounded by one or more electrons, which Dr Chan described as "a fine model, but a complete lie". The reality is that everything in quantum mechanics is "fuzzy" and indistinct- there is a fluidity to electrons, they are not discrete. These fuzzy particles move as waves do, changing shape as they go- the "billiard ball" model of a perfect rigidity localized at all times is inaccurate. Regarding the question of location, whether a particle is "here" or "there" or "both here and there", Dr Chan showed a picture of a wave and asked, "Is the wave at point A, point B, or point C?"

The measurement of the position of a particle is probabilistic, there is no definite answer. Dr Chan joked, "It's our problem, not the particle's." Measurement involves comparing referents to determine similarity- such a comparisons don't look like completely like any particular position. Measurement in quantum mechanics involves measuring fuzzy particles to localized positions probabilistically- there is no straight answer to the location of a particle. Dr Chan then displayed a lovely slide of the Schrödinger equation to show the mathematical model for measuring changes in a quantum system over time.

Simulating quantum mechanics is not easy- in the case of a single particle, one has to factor in the superposition of different local positions. When two particles are considered, they can exist in the superposition of many localized two particle configurations, with correlations between the particle positions- if one particle is "on the right", for example, the other can be considered "on the left". This correlation is known as quantum entanglement. Dr Chan described quantum entanglement as "strange". In an example using two particles, there is a 50/50 chance of either particle being "left" or "right", but if one particle is on the left, there is a 100% chance of the other particle being on the right. Does finding one particle on the left mean that the other particle is on the right? Dr Chan once again quipped, "It's our our problem, not the particles'!" We see a 50% chance that a particle is in a particular position, and we intuitively assume that it is accurate, but the position is uncertain.

When more particles are added to the mix, there is an explosion of possibilities- when two particles are involved, there are four (22) possibilities, three particles yield eight (23), one hundred particles yield 2100 possibilities. Mathematically, there are myriad possibilities- simulating quantum mechanics appears exponentially complex due to the need to describe the possible positions of multiple particles. Dr Chan then noted that it is really an illusion of complexity- certain configurations of atoms can be ruled out. Nature does not explore all quantum possibilities, the world we have has special properties, such as gravity, that limit possibilities. Nature only produces local entanglement, in order to monitor what two particles are doing simultaneously, we only need to monitor two particles in the same region of space.

Dr Chan concluded with a discussion of the material benefits that could be obtained by a thorough understanding of quantum mechanics- specifically the development of high-temp superconductors and a "materials genome project" to map out all possible materials that can be developed.

In the Q&A, the topic of spooky entanglement was brought up, and Dr Chan brought up the inability of nature to generate entanglement over long distances. Some bastard in the audience, who was going to bring up spooky entanglement, had to go to a fallback question regarding string theory, which Dr Chan indicated was not a useful model in reality, but had led to some interesting mathematical models. Funny, on the macro level, Neil Degrasse Tyson also indicated that he was unimpressed with string theory. After the lecture, the bastard, not being a bastard in real life, apologized to Dr Chan for bringing up string theory, which said "bastard" considers a bunch of hooey.

Once again, the Secret Science Club served up a great lecture. Personally, it was useful to me, because quantum mechanics is one of those topics I don't spend enough time reading up on by inclination, which means I need to force myself to read about it more. It's kinda like pushups... I do them precisely because I'm not inclined to do them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Notebook

I was planning on doing the lecture recap for Monday's Secret Science Club event, but I forgot to bring my notes to work, where I typically have a bit of quiet in which to write. I totally feel like a dumbass- I kept telling myself all afternoon, "Don't forget your notebook, don't forget your notebook." I even made sure I put it next to my wallet and my two keychains (I keep my work keys and my personal keys separate... I've always bought into that too many keys on the keychain trope, and I prefer not to carry too many keys while I'm walking the grounds at work- makes it harder to slip into ninja-mode.

At any rate, when I get home from work this morning, I will slip my little yellow book into the inside pocket of my oversized (even for me) Carhartt hoodie. If I leave without that, I'll have bigger problems than leaving my notebook at home.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reluctant to Rush the Recap

I was planning on writing my typical recap of the monthly Secret Science Club lecture, but it's been a busy, busy day. First off, I received a call from my department head... the father of one of my team members was placed in an Intensive Care Unit of a hospital (he's been sick for a long time), so my co-worker had to take a personal day. It was supposed to be my day off, but, hey, I've got to be behind my people 100%, so in I went for a four-hour shift.

When I got to work, my department head called me again, this time to tell me that there was a heating problem in one of the buildings at another site, and that a service call had been placed. He indicated that he would call me when the technician was near the site, so I could drive down, meet him, and let him onto the premises. The building that needed furnace service (that doesn't quite rhyme) is the one building that I don't carry keys to, so I had to disarm the alarm system, open up the site office, and get the keys out of the keybox.

The furnace tech was a hell of a nice guy, we had a good conversation about the importance of union labor- he mentioned his five year apprenticeship and his three years as a journeyman, then made a comment about a competing company which is a non-union shop that underbid his employer on a lot of accounts: "You don't want someone making eight dollars an hour working on your gas lines." He then went on to describe how this non-union, low-payrate shop would cut corners: they didn't pay a night differential, so they didn't have around-the-clock service, their employees had substandard skills. Hey, the furnace is out, and the heating contractor tells you to shut off the water to the house and get a hotel for a couple of nights until they can send someone over? Guess what? You just lost the money you thought you'd saved by taking the low bid!

After the furnace service was accomplished, I stopped at a local supermarket on my way to my principle jobsite. I don't have a traditional lunch hour per se, but I can pop out for a few minutes to pick something up to eat. While at the market, I discovered a fruit I had never eaten before, a sweet lime, produce of the Dominican Republic. The lime had the merest hint of sweetness, but nary a tart note like most citrus fruits. It was unusual, not the tastiest of fruits, but refreshing. I also bought the mushiest persimmon I could find. As Daffy Duck would tell you, an unripe persimmon is not a pleasant thing, though I would characterize the flavor as "astringent" rather than sour. My mushy persimmon was as sweet as candy... I'd describe it further, but the description would verge on p0rn0graphy.

I didn't have much time for writing today. I banged out this post while waiting for my relief to arrive. Tomorrow, I should have time enough to do the lecture the justice it deserves.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Secret Science Trifecta

I have to hand it to Dorian and Margaret of the Secret Science Club- they have been extremely busy this month. Today, I'll be heading down for the third Secret Science Club event of the month. Here's a hearty high-five and a heartfelt thanks to these two pillars of science popularization. How about an appropriate song to accompany a science pilgrim on his subway ride to Brooklyn? I've never heard this particular version of Science Friction by XTC, dating to 1976, but it has a rawness that the band sadly grew out of:

There won't be any science friction at the beautiful Bell House, that I can guarantee!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Current (Actually Recurring) Musical Obsession

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been on a major Blondie kick lately, obsessively listening to all of the band's albums in order over the past few days. Perhaps the best summary of the band's career is the 1979 concert at Glasgow's Apollo Theatre:

This concert represents the band at the height of its power, the band's third studio album, Parallel Lines, was a hit, with the disco-inflected Heart of Glass being a major international smash. This particular concert also features some lovely pop songs from the band's fourth studio album, 1979's Eat to the Beat. I think that Debbie Harry's voice sounds particularly clear and transcendent for this performance.

In contrast, a Beat Club performance by the band just a year earlier shows a much more idiosyncratic band... still very much rooted in the "alternative" music scene, with salaciously tongue-in-cheek material as X Offender (my favorite Blondie song) and Look Good in Blue still making the playlist cut:

What a difference a year and a couple of million sales make! While I absolutely love the pure-pop perfection of the band's later material, I can't help but sigh sadly when I think that the band that played that transcendent set in Glasgow in 1979 wouldn't be singing a gleefully demented song about giant ants from space.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

John Holt, RIP

I've been on a bit of a Blondie kick lately, and in what has turned out to be a cover songs thread at Roy's place, made reference to Blondie's The Tide is High, which is a cover of a song by the The Paragons, one of Jamaica's most popular rocksteady combos:

The song was written and sung by John Holt, who passed away in London on October 19th. Before joining The Paragons, John Holt launched his singing career with the 1963 single Forever I'll Stay:

He followed this single up with Rum Bumpers, a duet with Alton Ellis:

After his stint with the Paragons, Mr Holt had a very successful solo career interpreting the popular songbook in the reggae idiom, scoring a hit with a version of The Temptations' I Want a Love:

In the 1970s, Mr Holt collaborated with producer Tony Ashfield, who added lush production values to Mr Holt's recordings, scoring hits with cover songs such as Help Me Make It Through The Night, written by Kris Kristofferson:

With the rich production values and romantic themes, John Holt paved the way for the lovers' rock subgenre.

After a conversion to Rastafarianism, Mr Holt took on more political themes in his songwriting, with Police in Helicopter addressing a crackdown on marijuana growing in Jamaica:

John Holt had a long, storied career which serves as a beautiful microcosm ofmultiple Jamaican popular musical styles of the late 20th century, ranging from ska to rocksteady to reggae, to lovers' rock. It's fitting that he collapsed onstage during a music festival in August of this year... that is the mark of a true music powerhouse.

Friday, November 14, 2014

It is 100 Billion Hours Past Fucking Time They Made a Movie About Turing.

On Monday night, as a guest of the Secret Science Club, I attended a preview of the upcoming film about Alan Turing's efforts to crack the Nazi Enigma crytographic machine- The Imitation Game:

The movie is not a straight biopic, as it takes certain liberties to heighten the dramatic tension (notably, it turns Commander Alexander Denniston into an unimaginative, antagonistic martinet). The movie really is a mid-20th century techno-thriller, a boffins-versus-bombers espionage film. It is structured as a narrative within a narrative, with Turing, brought into a police station for interrogation, recounts his wartime service to a detective who is convinced that he is a Soviet spy. The film jumps back in forth in time, weaving together several story arcs concerning different times in Turing's life.

One of the arcs in the film involves Turing's days at the Sherborne School, where he is tormented by the majority of his classmates, with the exception of fellow mathematics whiz Christopher Morcom. In these scenes, Morcom is portrayed as a gallant savior, rescuing Turing from repellent hazing, and an inspiration, introducing Turing to cryptography, eventually leading to the two students passing encoded notes to each other during their overly simple mathematics classes. These scenes establish Turing's perennial outsider status, and lend an emotional depth to Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal as the adult Turing, who is emotionally "tone-deaf".

The second story arc, the main one of the film, involves the cracking of the Enigma code, starting with the assembly of a team of cryptographers including Conel Hugh Donel Alexander (the married Alexander is played as a single cad in the film) and Joan Elisabeth Lowther Clarke, who was briefly engaged to be married to Turing. This particular arc not only portrays the race against time to crack the Enigma code, but the harrowing decisions that had to be made regarding reactions to Nazi attacks after the code had been broken- how many attacks could be thwarted without revealing to the Nazis that their encryption had been rendered useless?

The third story arc is set after the war, in the course of a police investigation after Turing's home had been ransacked. In the course of the investigation, a detective suspecting that Turing is a Soviet spy runs into obstacles such as sealed military records. The film is presented as Turing revealing the truth of his wartime service to the detective, with the horrific maltreatment of Turing by the government of the country he had helped to save.

Benedict Cumberbatch does a credible job portraying Turing. There is some humor to be found in his performance as literal-minded individual with no skill deciphering verbal or social ambiguity. He is a riveting screen presence, by turns intense, obtuse, and vulnerable. In a film in which the "action scenes" typically involve clacking wheels, the tension has to come from interpersonal relationships, and Cumberbatch's interpretation of Turing beautifully conveys a personality of a man who can be admired and pitied simultaneously from a distance, but who would undoubtedly be infuriating to associate with up close.

Keira Knightly, portraying Joan Clarke, lends the film some warmth to counteract Cumberbatch's icy matter-of-factness. The film conveys some of the patriarchal flaws of the contemporary culture- assurances have to be made to Clarke's parents that the environment at Bletchley Park is wholesome, and Turing's marriage proposal to Clarke is portrayed as an attempt to mollify Clarke's parents regarding their daughter's unmarried status. Ms. Knightley is not just a luminous presence in the film, she conveys a spirited intelligence and an empathy as well.

On the whole, the film is not without its flaws, but it is important nonetheless. The post title here was totally stolen from a comment made at Alicublog by Shakezula... Turing's role in WW2 and his role in the nascent field of computer science make him a central figure in mid-20th century history, albeit an unsung one. Besides bringing Alan Turing more centrally into the public awareness, the film does a wonderful job of publicizing the work of Joan Clarke. I would have preferred if the film had actually portrayed Turing's death (probably a suicide, possibly an accident involving cyanide), as it is, his cyanide poisoning is mentioned in a coda to the film which also mentions the persecution of tens of thousands of other gay men by the government of the U.K. As it is, Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as a weak, shaking shell of a man ravaged by chemical castration is pretty devastating, albeit too brief. Perhaps the production team didn't want to have such a jarring shift in tone... it's hard to have the "good guys" in the film become the "bad guys" in such short order.

I predict that the film is going to do extremely well come Oscar time. It's a WW2 film. It's about a man with a mental condition who is brilliant. It has a gorgeous young star playing a brainiac. That's all catnip for the Academy. I don't know if it will sweep, but I think it'll have a Best Picture nod, with a Best Leading Actor nomination for Benedict Cumberbatch and a Best Leading Actress nod for Keira Knightley.