Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Friends of Fred

This evening, three of the contractors who work on our major Fall fundraiser stopped by to bid adieu to Fred. Over the years, these good folks have become friends of mine, and friends of the cats. They have logged many hours in on the site, and they came to love Fred and Ginger. Tomorrow, one of our managers has the unenviable duty of taking Fred to the veterinarian's office for the final time- he has had the task of taking the cats for their quarterly checkups ever since we got them from a former co-worker, and his devotion to Fred is second-to-none. I have been getting the sad news out to former co-workers and seasonal contractors who have become attached to our dear cat.

I came in early to work, and the co-worker I was relieving and I waited for our friends to arrive. My co-worker had to euthanize his 15 year-old pet cat only a month prior, due to kidney problems. My brother Vincenzo is facing a similar situation with his beloved 18-year old marmalade cat, Orange Juice. We are all cat people, so there was a melancholy mood to our sendoff to Fred. Petting Fred, my friend Ali noted that he 'looks fat, but feels skinny'... he's bloated from the medicine as well as the tumor, but his spine stands out. I took one last picture of my beloved sibling feline comedy team:




This picture really catches the essence of the two cats- there's Fred, looking regal and composed as he sits on the ground, while Ginger is a blur of motion. My friends took a few pictures of me with the cat, mementos of our final night together. Our friends stayed with us for a good two-hours, commiserating with me and fussing over Fred. I am fortunate to have such good friends, both two-legged and four. Thank you for the outpouring of sympathy, sharing the sadness makes it more bearable.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Downside of the Deal We Make With the Kitties

I have some sad news to impart to longtime readers... my beloved Fred has been diagnosed with a cancerous mass in his belly. It's probably only a matter of days until he shuffles off this mortal coil. See, there I go with my Shakespeare again...

Fred came to us seven years ago, a package deal with his sister Ginger- both of them offspring of a feral cat which was being cared for by a two-legged former co-worker. At first shy around people, three months after his arrival he grew into perhaps the most loyal and devoted cat I have ever met. I fell madly in love with this cat one night after our major Fall fundraiser, when he trotted at my heels as I traversed a half-mile course from one end of the property to the other over the course of an hour, shutting down lights, locking doors, and making sure that everything was ship-shape.

Fred is one of those cats that acts like a dog- he has always been a calm creature, not prone to the jumpiness that characterizes a lot of felines. As I made my inspection tours of the property, he would be on my tail, while his sister would rove around us, checking out everything and occasionally stopping to give her brother a sniff or to get an ear-scratch from me. It grew to be a bit of a joke, I had two orange-and-white shadows which would follow me around the site.

Over the course of the years, Fred matured into a large, strong cat, an accomplished rodent-slayer and defender of storage areas. His was a handsome figure, a perfect representation of feline beauty and power:




He was unfailingly affectionate with those fortunate people that he favored, and he'd often bump my hand in order to elicit a good scratching:




I am sad that Fred, who I believed I'd have years of future fun with, is on his way out at the all-too-young age of seven, but what really has me concerned is the reaction from his sister. The two have always been inseparable:




The two cats have been quite the comedy team, with Fred playing the mellow straight man to the boisterous, mischievous Ginger. Even today, Ginger caused havoc when a school group visited the site- instead of locking their bag lunches in the school bus, the school group brought them onsite, and Ginger got into a bunch of them, eating the Principal's sandwich and necessitating the hasty purchase of pizza by our shop manager. When they were younger, the cats had a knack for squeezing out of a small vent window and roaming the site until I'd put them back inside- typically, I'd put one of them back inside and the other would get out... a revolving door effect that I found more amusing than annoying. I never failed to laugh when I'd see a pair of tiny golden orbs bouncing towards me as one of the cats would bound over to join me.

A week ago Sunday, one of our managers brought Fred to a veterinarian's office when he appeared to be lethargic. We all thought Fred was merely overheated, but a follow-up visit to Fred and Ginger's usual veterinarian revealed that Fred had cancer. The vet prescribed Prednisone to bring Fred out of his torpor, but indicated that the prognosis wasn't good. Fred hasn't much of an appetite, and his activity level is way down. I have made it a point to stop by and give him attention on a regular basis, because I don't know when our last time to be together will be. I took this picture last night, Fred playing a bright spot in a darkened room:




Four years ago, when I posted about the death of another of our storied mousers, the wise Smut Clyde commented: "It's the downside of our deal with the kitties." I knew the day would come when I would lose Fred, but I didn't think it would be coming so soon. Everyone on the job is sad at the prospects of losing our 'good' kitty... I just hope our naughty kitty can cope with the loss.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Et Tu, Covfefe?

I've had my beef with Shakespeare, albeit a fake conflict which depended on a familiarity with the Bard's works and with the history which inspired them he distorted. Despite the fact that Slick Willie 1.0 did a hit job on Lady Macbeth and her husband, Good King Macbeth, I just can't stay mad at him. I have long suspected that my father (Happy Fathers' Day to all of the dads out there) was a frustrated actor- he was the sort of guy who would dart a glance at you at dinner and intone: "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look." As a treat, he took the three eldest of us to see James Earl Jones as Othello and Christopher Plummer as Iago, with one proviso... if we wanted to see 'Darth Vader' live and in person, we had to read the play. For the record, he also took us to see Derek Jacobi as Cyrano de Bergerac with the same prerequisite. In the 7th grade, my English teacher, who was big on public speaking, made us memorize and recite Marc Antony's eulogy of Caesar. Like most educated persons in the anglophone world, I have a long relationship, and a pleasurable one, with the Bard of Avon.

They key word here is 'educated', as there has been a lot of outrage, poutrage, and fauxtrage over this year's Central Park 'Shakespeare in the Park' production of Julius Caesar , in which Caesar is portrayed with a blond combover like Vulgarmort's. I'm going to pause here to indicate that Julius Caesar, while being self-promoting, power-hungry and ruthless, was hypercompetent and a fine literary stylist... much unlike Vulgarmort. There's no real comparison between the two men. Also, as numerous pundits have pointed out, the play underscores the dangers of political assassination, and the chaos which results from using violence for political ends. The play is most definitely not a glorification or endorsement of political violence... but try telling that to the dumbasses.

Last Friday, two alt-right idiots briefly disrupted the performance of Julius Caesar- a demonstration of, well, a demonstration of their ignorance, or more likely, a rube-fleecing, as these hack-tivists launched a fundraising site for the stage-stormer's legal defense... hours before the 'protest'. The crowning glory of this stunt was Posobiec'e goober garbling Goebbels response to the tresspasser's removal from the stage. By the way, nice job, jackass, for making 'the girl' take the risks. The whole sad affair was followed up by the saddest protest in the world.

The real tragedy here is the fact that the people who claim to be the defenders of Western Civilization are people who are totally unfamiliar with it. These people are proud ignoramuses, the sort of people who believe that the Western Canon refers to Fort Apache. Growing up in the Northeast, I grew up thinking that the American ideal was a population in which even the working class was educated, a nation of literate farmers, longshoremen, and factory workers. I believed in a nation which values free productions of Shakespearean plays, which sees itself as a continuation of a classical tradition which Shakespeare, a true Renaissance man, referenced in certain of his plays.

The two alt-right knuckleheads, or grifters as the case may well be, who engineered this stunt should be sentenced to actually reading Julius Caesar, and perhaps writing essays on the themes presented in the play. It really would be a shame if a bunch of idiots could truly declare "Show's over Shakespeare."





Maybe somebody could come up with a 'King Lear' themed monster truck show, maybe a 'Tempest' themed WWE storyline...

ADDENDUM: Or perhaps better called an 'addendumb'- these idiots aren't even familiar with 20th Century American literature or 17th Century colonial history.

ADDENDUM SECUNDUM: This might be my favorite right-wing tweet ever- some guy who is completely ignorant of Roman history and English literature thinks he's going to save Western Civilization.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Another Trip Around the Sun

Today marks another journey around Old Sol. I was born in a year which marked one of the pinnacles of human achievement (I leave it to you, dear readers, to figure out which one), in an era in which intelligence and learning were taken for granted. It's pretty damn depressing to see how debased our culture has gotten, all to serve for people's greed and prejudices. Quel dommage... quel dumbasses. The future, it's not what it used to be, the shining visions of my boyhood just aren't very convincing, not for the general bulk of humanity. I'm doing okay, though. It just bugs me that so many people aren't doing okay, not okay at all.

I decided not to bother taking a vacation day to mark the occasion... I simply don't have the patience to deal with weekend crowds anywhere anymore, better to celebrate on a weeknight. Besides, I like my job, I like my co-workers, I even like the vast majority of the people who visit, and the ones who I come to dislike are invariably in a clear-cut adversarial position... I like ambiguity, but not on the job.

Before heading to work, I received calls from Mom and my brother Sweetums, and exchanged text messages with a friend who happens to share the same natal anniversary, and another friend whose birthday I celebrated last Wednesday. Phone reception on my personal phone on the jobsite is pretty bad, so I'll check my voicemail in a while to catch up with other well-wishers. I'll save the carrying-on for next Tuesday, my typical night out.

Anyway, it's another trip around the home-star, thanks for sharing it with me, folks. I don't make a big deal about the day, but I'm glad to have friends, family, and readers. Let's hope the coming year sees some improvement in the general malaise that's gripping our not-so-sapiens species.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Addition to the Blogroll

Here's a small housekeeping note... I have added The Ink'd Scrivener, the website of a friend, to the blogroll. I have known the Scrivener for years, and she's a good friend- a generous and caring individual. She's also a freelance writer, so if you have any writing needs, she's your huckleberry:





And she'll never walk over your grave, unless you piss her off mightily. Don't piss her off mightily, though that would take some doing.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

At Least There's Something to Be Happy About

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I have a deep, abiding love of mulberries, which grow in profusion on a couple of my jobsites, and near my home, which is in a vicinity which used to be a failed silkworm ranch. Typically, I consume vast quantities of mulberries in the early summer, though last year was a horrible year for fruit picking- many varieties of fruit were denied me last year.

This year, though, promises to be a good one for usufruct, the first ripe mulberries have already shown up on certain trees:




I spent a good ten minutes on the job simply scarfing down all the ripe mulberries within reach. Most of the fruits are still unripe, the white mulberries are especially hard to determine the ripeness of... ripe berries are not so different from the unripe ones, they merely take on a plump, shiny appearance. The unripe berries are hallucinogenic, but make one violently ill.

One of my informants also tells me that the sour cherries onsite are coming in nicely, they typically ripen in early July. It's going to be a banner year for homemade booze, and the way things are going, I'm going to need a lot of it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

This Is What a 'Second Amendment Solution' Looks Like

The big news story here in the 'States is the shooting of GOP Congressman Steve Scalise, a lobbyist, a congressional staffer and a Capitol Police officer. Scalise has had a pro-gun legislative agenda, so there is a certain irony in his wounding at the hands of a gunman. Republicans have long had a flirtation with political violence, as Sharron Angle so memorably stated:

"If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are going to start looking for second amendment remedies..."

Well, now we have an unhinged individual who found a 'second amendment remedy', which looks a lot like a critically injured middle-aged man. Six years ago, it was Representative Gabrielle Giffords who was shot after Sarah Palin's PAC put out a suggestive ad 'putting crosshairs' on Giffords. There is a strain throughout the American populace which is overly comfortable with the notion of using arms for political aims, including a creep who was actually at the scene of today's shooting:




Rand Paul's statement would seem to condone today's shooting- after all, who gets to be the arbiter of 'tyranny' when arms are available to just about any despondent, desperate, or deranged individual?

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the country, there was a workplace shooting and a lockdown at a military base.

In the wake of Scalise's shooting, Michigan Republican Representative Mike Bishop stated that he was convinced that he was being hunted by the gunman. Well, welcome to the world that you've helped to build for the rest of us... now, what the hell are you going to do to get all of us out of it? 'Second Amendment Solutions' are ugly things, but they're all you've got when the only tool you have is a gun.

UPDATE: This is a bit awkward...

SECOND UPDATE: Remember this charming bit from Trump?

Monday, June 12, 2017

Three Percenters, 4chan

I find myself laughing in an almost unseemly fashion over this story of an anime Nazi running afoul of more typical American Nazis at a pro-Confederate rally in Houston. 4chan, meet Three Percenters.

The funniest thing about this confrontation is the fact that a "Sergeant Rock" cosplayer told the White Power/Green Frog guy, "Dude, this is not Comicon."

Meanwhile, poor alt-right kid just wanted to make friends, plaintively crying, "These are good memes!" Silly boy, Jethro doesn't care about your memes.

It's heartening to see that the right is fragmented and prone to internecine conflicts. Hopefully, they will bring each other down. I hate emo-boy Nazis, and it looks like other Nazis do too.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The 'Alternative' to Twitter Has a Twitter Account

I have to confess that, while not on Twitter, I have a bit of an addiction to watching the train wreck that is Donald Trump's Twitter feed, a fascinating array of bots and trolls of various stripes who vie to be the first to respond to a Trump tweet. The whole spectacle is like watching a digital train wreck, a farrago of bad grammar and worse politics, leavened with some genuine, cutting wit.

While scanning a thread, I found it hilarious that the alt-right 'alternative' to Twitter has a Twitter account. To compound the hilarity, the account has a mere 30K followers. SAD! I guess that it's impossible for these guys to self-promote without playing the 'beta' to the Big League corporate behemoth. Buncha cucks...

I thought that I had posted about the 'alt-right, alt-Twitter' before, but most of my posts about green frogs have been about frogs that are green, though not necessarily about green frogs.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

West, the Best

Holy part of my childhood is gone, Adam West, simply the best 'Batman' from the best Batman iteration has died at the age of 88. The 1960s Batman television series was a wonder of glorious camp and day-glo surrealism, and Adam West, despite his outrageous costume, was the greatest straight man in the history of television. Surrounded by a coterie of fine character actors playing outrageous, insane villains, Adam West came across like a player from the Walla Walla Shakespeare Company who wandered onto the set, delivering even the most ludicrous lines with a gravitas fitting the Bard's tragedies:





Like any Shakespearean actor worth his doublet, Mr West knew how to handle himself in an onstage 'affray':





He had the chiseled good looks to play a millionaire playboy philanthropist, this particular scene is a funny showcase of his acting, with him using different mannerisms for his two personae, even though the conversation is taking place on the phone:





There was just a hint of kink, by 60s standards, to Bruce Wayne, a guy who dresses in tights and has an ambiguous relationship to Dick, but Batman was a total square:





He did, though, have some great dance moves to impress the ladies:





One of the best aspects of the show was Adam West's chemistry with Julie Newmar- there was a funny dynamic between the glacier-cool, cerebral Batman and the smoldering, amoral Catwoman:





That one scene perfectly encapsulates the comedic-yet-sexy vibe of the series, with Adam West unflappably portraying the straitlaced Batman and Julie Newmar practically burning through the television screen with her provocative performance. MEE-OW! I imagine Mr West had some serious acting chops to maintain his composure during that scene.

The 1960s Batman show was bright, fun, and clever, with Adam West's Batman being an erudite goody two-shoes (in one episode, Batman pauses to put a nickel in a parking meter, in another episode, a bomb in the Batmobile fails to detonate because Batman won't exceed the speed limit). The Gotham City portrayed in the show wasn't a 'grimdark' hellhole, merely a fictionalized New York City, complete with a Mayor Linseed. Adam West's Batman, a cultured man, wouldn't deliver a stupid line like this:




The best contrast between Adam West's Batman and the 'gritty reboot' Batman of the Tim Burton movie can be seen in this juxtaposition between the best scene from the 1966 Batman movie and the decidedly less fun Burton film:





Adam West's Batman, as opposed to Burton's grinning sociopath, imperiled his own life to save a bunch of ducks, he sure as hell wouldn't have killed a villain, no matter how bad. This was a character without a hint of cynicism, a noble and incorruptible figure who evinces optimism- there was no problem that brains, skill, and a bit of bat shark repellent spray couldn't solve... and even Catwoman could be forgiven, once she did her time for the crime. This is comic book superheroics done right- a show that is equally appealing to little kids and to adults. If I want noir, I'll watch real noir not some Frank Miller fake tough-guy noir-for-numbnuts.

It's a shame that Adam West's career was sidelined for a while because he was overshadowed by the character he played, but he made his peace with the cape and cowl and garnered a multi-generational fanbase. The guy had a great sense of humor, and projected class... if your kid is going to have a television character as an idol, Adam West's Batman would be an optimal choice... for all of the *BIFF BAM POW* cartoon action on the screen, there were brains and heart as well.

The good people at Tor Books had a blog series recapping the entire run of 1960s Batman episodes. It's a fun read, and a nice way to remember Adam West.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Unlikely Heroes, Unlovely Heroes

One of the major regional stories here is a projected bad season for the spread of Lyme disease- the winter was mild, so the ticks which are vectors for the disease are expected to experience a population explosion.

There is hope, and help, though, from an unexpected source... the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), an unlovely animal unloved by most people, is a veritable tick vacuum- ticks will attach themselves to 'possums in order to suck their blood, and the 'possums will groom themselves and eat the ticks attached to them. Opossums are somewhat resistant to pathogens which affect placental mammals, such as rabies, probably because they have relatively low body temperatures.

While homely and pretty stupid, opossums thrive in spite of their deficiencies, being the only marsupials in temperate North America and the most successful migrant resulting from the Great American Interchange. Not only are they survivors, but they have been found to be 'helpers'. I have a fondness for the goofy things, and as a guy who spends a lot of time outdoors, a feeling of gratitude as well.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Politics Is a Spectator Sport

I live in the City of Yonkers, specifically in the Tavern District of Yonkers. Yonkers is the birthplace of James Comey, who is going to be testifying before congress this morning. Apparently, certain bars around the country will be opening early to show Comey's testimony. I doubt that any of the local bars will be opening early to show Comey on the stand, even though he is a native son... it's not like his testimony is that important to the people in my neighborhood, it's not like a Premier League match... though there is some appeal to watching an Orange Man being discomfited.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Prodigal Returns

Today marked the return of a co-worker who had left the organization a year-and-a-half ago. He left under the best of circumstances, giving a month's notice and working until the end of the busy season. He and I remained in touch- I still kept his contact information programmed into my phone, and we'd text back and forth on occasion. He's come back on his own terms, working three four-hour shifts per week, which is perfect for our department because the other part-timers don't see him as a threat to their hours.

I get along famously with the guy- we have similar values, similar attitudes. Besides, he's a reader, and has an exhaustive knowledge of music, from old blues classics to death metal. One of my underlings joked that, when this guy was originally hired, our then boss basically was hiring another me.

Predictably, when he came back, it felt to him and to everyone who had worked with him before as if he had never left. He hit it off with with the new hires as well, being a stand-up guy. I arrived at work early to see how his return had gone, and we ended up just shooting the breeze for almost an hour. Yep, it was like he'd never left.

Anyway, here's an appropriate song by a young Errol Dunkley to commemorate the return:





Most importantly, my friend and co-worker is not afraid of the dark.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

A Maturity Beyond Her Years

I have to confess that I am not familiar with the oeuvre of Ariana Grande, and a month ago, I probably would have yelled at her to get off my lawn. My sole knowledge of her came in the aftermath of a bratty outburst, one for which she apologized.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the fans attending her Manchester concert, Ms Grande has show a maturity beyond her years and an admirable depth of compassion. I imagine she must feel a pang of guilt, even though she is blameless, because the victims of the attack were at the scene simply because they wanted to hear her perform. Her response to horror has been perfect- her devotion to her wounded fans and her efforts to help the survivors are inspirational. In the course of two weeks, this young woman has matured into a paragon of kindness and solidarity. She has shown a maturity and level-headedness far in excess of that shown by the president of the U.S.

I'm not familiar with Ms Grande's body of work, but my friend's daughter showed me a SNL sketch in which she did a number of impressions:





While I think the sketch falls somewhat flat in the humor department (I'm not a big fan of the music she spoofs), it does a good job of showcasing her vocal skill. Her skill at navigating a straight course in the face of tragedy is even more impressive.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

This Shit Again?

An early June weekend, another series of terrorist attacks on innocent revelers... from the reports, an attack with a motor vehicle followed by a series of stabbings. This shit is getting old- with the Manchester bombing and the New York failed 'suicide by cop' which killed a young woman, the Portland train stabbings and the University of Maryland killing, I am positively furious at all of the assholes on this planet who hold human lives in contempt. It just seems that there is a minority of people who cannot peaceably coexist with others.

I know that the statistics show that violence has been falling precipitously in recent decades, but the litany of recent horrors seems to suggest that an uptick will be inevitable. It's hard to avoid letting cynicism and melancholy take hold of oneself, but my native optimism is being sorely taxed lately.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Detecting a Certain Similarity

I am fortunate in having an interesting local commercial radio station to listen to, one which debuts new music as well as playing a wide array of older tunes rather than the same old sixty or seventy 'classic rock' songs. One of the songs that is getting recent airplay is Blood in the Cut, an anthem to rough-living by an artist by the name of K. Flay. It's a got a chunky rhythm track with a bit of an 'industrial' sound:





Listening to that rhythm track, I am reminded of the song Metal, by Gary Numan:





There are differences, to be sure, especially when the vocals are taken into consideration, but the sound is similar to me. I am not insinuating anything negative about Ms Flay's songwriting, just commenting on a perceived 'relationship' between the two sounds. Gary Numan had a profound impact on industrial music, and Ms Flay is carrying on in this interesting musical... errrrr... vein.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

On My Sister's Birthday, an Appreciation for Geek Girls

As is customary on this blog, I devote June 1st to wishing my sister a happy birthday. For the record, my sister is a bona fide rocket scientist- she majored in chemical engineering as an undergrad on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, obtained her masters after her commissioning, and served as an officer to fulfill her commitment. She has spent her post-military career in the aero-astro field, with one notable job being for a company which worked on perfecting satellite power cells. Put succinctly, her 'geek credentials' are second-to-none.

As the only girl in a family with five children, my sister grew up as a tomboy... the very idea that she would be excluded from any of our activities would have been unthinkable to us. Along with the boys, she watched blockbuster movies about space-samurai-wizard heroes, played computer games, and chucked funny dice. She can handle a basketball or baseball bat credibly, and she participated in all sorts of camping trips, fishing expeditions, and hikes. I can't recall any time in our youth when she was treated differently from the boys. In a family of five kids, there was really no scope for treating anyone in an alternate manner. Our mom placed a premium on our education, having no tolerance for academic-slackerhood, and our sister excelled in all STEM fields.

Having gotten this background information out of the way, I have to express some amusement at the poutrage over women-only showings of the upcoming Wonder Woman film at several Alamo Drafthouse theater locations. For too long, self-identified nerds have derided women who enjoy gaming, speculative fiction, and comic books as fake geek girls. Things came to a head with a sustained campaign of harassment of women involved in the video game industry, complete with death threats against women who had the temerity to give pithy critiques of lazy, sexist and racist tropes in popular culture. Yes, claiming that boob-plate is silly can result in a slew of death-threats, necessitating a change of address to a safe, undisclosed location. Is it any wonder (heh) that women (heh) would like a time-and-place where they can enjoy a 'nerd movie' without having a bunch of angry boys acting as gatekeepers and belittlers?

As a kid, I would have caught hell from mom for trying to exclude my sister from any of our activities. They way I see it, the Alamo Drafthouse is giving the boys a 'time out' because they haven't learned to share the toys with their sisters.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

We'll Always Have Paris?

Being both interested in science and an outdoorsy person, I write about climate change quite a bit. Put succinctly, I am convinced that it is real, it is anthropogenic, and it is dangerous. With Vulgarmort expected to pull out of the Paris climate accord, I am pig-biting mad. Even most large U.S. corporations currently support the Paris accord.

Worldwide, the prices of renewable energy resources are lowering- in India, the price of solar generation is now undercutting the price of fossil-fuel generation. The prospect of lowering humanity's carbon footprint is becoming more and more likely with technological innovations. Meanwhile, Tweety Amin has made the renewal of the coal industry in the US a plank in his platform, even though that will never happen given the low price of natural gas (which, while better than coal, should be phased out as well).

Now is not the time to double down on propping up the fossil fuel industry- we need a 21st Century energy policy, not a 19th Century one... By pulling out of the Paris accord, the United States will cede political, technological, economic, and even moral power to other powers, be they the European Union or China. The only beneficiaries of such a policy change would be the fossil fuel oligarchs and their pet politicians.

In Switzerland, the first commercial atmospheric carbon capture plant just opened. There is an entire family of industries that can be developed to mitigate the climate change conundrum- it just requires political will and proper funding priorities to make it happen... and I don't think that the United States will be at the forefront of this revolution. The plane won't leave the ground, because we won't always have Paris:





The irony here is that even the oligarchs would benefit in the long-term by dropping their short-sightedness and reactionary politics.

UPDATE: Tengrain's take is that Trump wants to pull out of the Paris climate agreement in order to help Russia's petrochemical industry- I guess Moscow grifting Trump's Paris activism.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day 2017

Memorial Day is a strange day here in the 'States. It's a day set aside for the remembrance of the glorious fallen on which many people go to the beach or drink beer with friends. I don't begrudge people their fun- Americans have the least amount of vacation time in the developed world, it's a rare day off for overworked, undercompensated people. Hey, I myself am going to meet some friends I haven't seen in a couple of months for lunch. Duty to friends is even more laudable than patriotism in these strange days, with a strange government in place.

As far as the true message of Memorial Day goes, I typically defer to Eric Bogle, who wrote the definitive song for the fallen soldier. What could I add to his incredible tribute? What could anyone?

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Work Going Well

It's odd to be writing about this in the midst of what is a holiday weekend for most American workers, but things are going really well on the job. My yearly raise kicked in this month, with an adjustment retroactive to January, and I received my ten-year service award, along with an additional week of vacation. Yeah, things are going well for me.

Even better, a former co-worker who left the organization a year and a half ago will be coming back to work for us for twelve to twenty hours a week, as needed. He left when his wife transitioned from part-time to full-time work, giving us a full month's notice and working to the end of the busy season. I had a chance encounter with him in a supermarket last October, and he told me that he 'missed the place', which set in motion his return. I told him, 'come back on your own terms, and I will do what I can to accommodate you'. He stopped by this evening and we just shot the breeze for almost an hour... it's as if he never left, and I will be incorporating him into next month's schedule (necessitating a rewrite on my part). We get along famously, having similar values and similar attitudes- another of the guys in the department once told me 'when they hired him, they were hiring another you'. As an added bonus, when he went to the main office to fill out the paperwork for his return, he learned that our new boss' assistant (her position was created a couple of weeks ago in preparation for some major projects) and he knew a lot of people in common.

Even the day-to-day operations on the job are going really well. We have had a lot of visitors, the gift shop is doing a brisk business... things are just generally turning out well these days, and I am looking forward to a really great summer season.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Belated Secret Science Club Lecture Recap: Everybody Lies, but Your Browser Knows the Truth

On Thursday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring economist and data scientist Dr Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, University of Pennsylvania Wharton School lecturer, former Google data analist, and author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz opened his lecture by noting that, over the past eighty years, if researchers wanted to judge people's beliefs, they would conduct an opinion survey. The problem with that is that people lie to surveys. In a survey concerning sex and condom use, the participants lied about frequency of sex and use of prophylactics: extrapolating from survey data, the women's answers would indicate that 1.1 billion condoms would be used per year. According to the male respondents, 1.6 billion condoms would be used per year. Actual sales figures indicated that about six-hundred million condoms were actually sold the year the study was conducted. If frequency of sex had been extrapolated from the study and correlated with condom sales, there would have been far more pregnancies expected that year.

People lie to surveys, they also 'mess with' surveys for various reasons- in one recent survey, when asked the question 'What color is a red ball?', six percent of respondents answered 'green' and six percent answered 'undecided'. Screwing with surveys is a particular problem when teens are the participants. In a survey formulated to determine if adopted teens were more likely to drink than those who lived with their biological parents, more than half of the respondents who claimed to be adopted had not been. Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that it's fun to mess with surveys.

Internet searches are a different matter- Dr Stephens-Davidowitz likened Google searches to 'digital truth serum'. People are comfortable telling their browsers things that they don't tell other people. According to Google trends, searches for porn were more common than searches for weather reports among twenty percent of men and four percent of women. Search engines give users incentives to tell the truth... if one wants the results one wants, one must use the proper search terms to find them.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that Google searches revealed a lot of secret racism that was missed by polls. A map of racist Google searches correlates uncomfortably with a map of support for Donald Trump's candidacy. Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that the true divide when it comes to frequency of racist searches targeting African-Americans is not North vs South, but East vs West, with a higher percentage of easterners using racist search terms. It is pretty safe to say that racism is the number one factor in the ascendancy of Trump.

In another recent survey concerning sexuality, the highest percentage of men claiming that they are gay was in Rhode Island, with 4.8% of respondents answering in the affirmative. The state with the lowest percentage of affirmative responses was Mississippi, with 2.7%. In contrast, the percentage of Google users searching for gay porn was 5.3% in RI and 4.8% in MS. The numbers are similar everywhere. Among women, the search term 'Is my husband gay?' occurs ten times more frequently than 'Is my husband cheating?' and eight times more frequently than 'Is my husband depressed?' This query is most common down South.

Another survey indicated that there is a self-induced abortion crisis. With more and more states restricting legal abortions, desperate girls and women are using the search term 'How do I perform an abortion myself?' This search term exploded around 2011, just as the crackdown occurred.

In India, the top way to complete the search term 'My husband wants me to' is 'breastfeed him'.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that, if Google just confirmed analysts suspicions, it wouldn't be so revolutionary, but the unexpected results of trend analysis revealed secrets that the researchers didn't suspect. He wryly noted that this was a BIG WIN for science. In the case of the Indian Google search terms, none of the experts knew that about the breastfeeding fetish.

If Google is 'digital truth serum', Dr Stephens-Davidowitz said, Facebook is a 'digital brag to friends about how good one's life is'. People are even more dishonest on Facebook than they are on surveys. While the National Enquirer sells more copies than The Atlantic, on Facebook the latter publication gets mentioned with forty-five times the frequency of the former. The top terms women use to describe their husbands on Facebook are: 'best', 'best friend', 'amazing', 'greatest', and 'so cute'. On Google, the top terms women use in searches regarding their husbands are: 'gay', 'jerk', 'amazing', 'annoying', and 'mean'. Dr Stephens-Davidowitz gave us a good piece of advice- knowing the truth is better than not knowing, don't compare your Google searches to others' Facebook posts.

Learning of our biases can also be helpful. Parents are twice as likely to use search terms such as 'gifted' and 'genius' when describing their sons, while they are more likely to use the queries 'is my daughter overweight?' or 'is my daughter ugly?' than to ask that of their sons. While it is difficult to ask racist internet searchers not to be racist, it isn't that difficult to tell parents not to be biased.

In the immediate aftermath of the San Bernardino mass shooting, the top Google search was 'kill Muslims'. There was an explosion of anti-Muslim rage, with other popular terms being 'I hate Muslims', 'Muslims are evil', and 'Muslims terrorism'. As searches using such terms rise, hate crimes rise. In the aftermath of the shooting, President Obama delivered a speech from the Oval Office in which he implored Americans:


“Just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination.”


While the speech was well-received by pundits, minute-by-minute the anti-Muslim searches skyrocketed. The media consensus was 'Nice job, Obama', while the search engines revealed rage and backlash. Later on, in the speech, President Obama noted:


“Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes—and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that.”


By engaging people's curiosity, the internet rage-fest calmed a bit. In a speech to a Baltimore mosque congregation, President Obama doubled down on his appeal to people's curiosity about Muslim-Americans:


Generations of Muslim Americans helped to build our nation. They were part of the flow of immigrants who became farmers and merchants. They built America’s first mosque, surprisingly enough, in North Dakota. America’s oldest surviving mosque is in Iowa. The first Islamic center in New York City was built in the 1890s. Muslim Americans worked on Henry Ford’s assembly line, cranking out cars. A Muslim American designed the skyscrapers of Chicago.


Rage and violence are important issues, but insane people were usually not studied... when people make crazy Google searches, what enrages them? Conversely, what calms them down? With search engine analytics, studying an angry mob is now a science, so a more effective approach to addressing violence can be formulated.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz then opened up the floor to a lengthy Q&A session. Some bastard in the audience raised the specter of Rule 34 and, while the Good Doctor (shockingly, to me) wasn't familiar with the term, he assured us that it exists. In answer to one query, he made sure to note that data is neither good nor evil- the users choose to use them for good or ill... investigators use data to solve crimes, scammers use data to fleece consumers. Using data, corporations can target small sets of the population with advertisements. In answer to a question about people's ability to stop being honest on Google, he noted that, right after Edward Snowden's leak, embarrassing searches (including searches for 'Nickelback') slowed down. Regarding elections, Google searches are getting better, but it is still hard to predict elections. Politics being a sensitive area, searches tend to be bad- models must be based on data, not on people's responses to direct questions. Data gives us a deeper and richer view of people than the surface view that surveys provide.

In answer to a question about how individuals can use information to combat corporate dominance, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz did note that consumers can use internet searches to seek out lower priced goods, but that Big Data overall makes corporations more powerful. Google knows truths about you before your family does.

In 2004, Google users tended to be students or intellectuals, so searches about science were more popular by percentage of searchers. Now, the internet has a much broader user base. There has always been unseemly behavior, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz described it as 'a dark element of anonymous people doing horrible things'. Early on, internet searches concerning suicide often elicited deplorables urging 'do it', while later interventions in the search algorithms altered results to refer users to suicide prevention hotlines. Searches regarding 'child abuse' are more ambiguous, as older kids often do post-abuse searches, which can result in interventions by officials. When asked about a breakdown of internet users by age, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that this can't be done, referring to Peter Steiner's famous 1993 New Yorker Cartoon: On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

When asked about the strangest American habit that he's learned about, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that people google Google. He indicated that using Google Trends is a powerful way to put public data to use.

Another questioner asked him how to spot fake news, and Stephens-Davidowitz noted that conspiracy theories have been popular long before the Sandy Hook Massacre.

In answer to another question, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that, while internet searches tend to correlate with offline activity, there can be holes in the dataset that don't play out- while searches for 'God' tend to correlate to the Bible Belt, the top result for Google searches for the word (at 2%) were related to the God of War video game franchise.

In order to mess up the data, one would have to be subtle- yahoos using Yahoo are at a disadvantage because searching for oppositional reasons merely indicates interest. There are pitfalls- one can cherry pick data, use of one strident word can have a disproportionate effect.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz ended by addressing the ethical issues of data analytics, and whether companies such as Google should intervene when troublesome searches are made... does Google know when someone's doing something bad? He noted that a lot of people have horrible thoughts, but don't follow through on them. On the question of whether suicidal ideation correlates with suicide rates, he indicated that, while he was aware of 3.5 million searches about suicide, only four-thousand of the individuals followed through with killing themselves. While he encountered some disturbing revelations, such as the extent and effects of racism, he also encountered hopeful revelations- people's searches can verify some of the suspicions but allay other ones. For instance, while people are insecure about their own shortcomings, they are usually more forgiving of those of their partners.

The lecture was thought-provoking and entertaining- as someone who probably spends too much time on the internet, it was a nice overview of what really goes on in this crazy Series of Tubes. Here's a short media appearance by Dr Stephens-Davidowitz on the topic of 'Internet Truth Serum':





For more substantive media, here's a broad selection of appearances by the good doctor.

Friday, May 26, 2017

International Talk Like a Jack Vance Character Day

Ordinarily, I would have written up last night's Secret Science Club lecture, but like a mooncalf, I left my libram of notes at home when I departed for work with much celerity. Today being the anniversary of Jack Vance's transition to realms Empyrean, I hereby declare this sidereal day to be this annum's Talk Like a Jack Vance Character Day.

Accordingly, we shall indulge in rococo rodomontades of considerable loquacity and castigate oafs and varlets, blackguards and mooncalves. Let us woo demimondaines in the gloaming in verdant plaisances, plying them with choice viands and the chansons of Old Earth. Of greatest importance, let us avoid the snares and guiles of the deodands and hormaguants, venefices and jinxmen:





In the next diurnal round, I shall endeavor to scribe the sagacities of the scientists, but until then, I shall engage my tongue in the verbosities of Vance.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Lovely Lepidoptera

Yesterday, with a burning need to stop listening to the news, I headed down to the American Museum of Natural History to visit the Butterfly Conservatory, which will be closing this coming Monday. The exhibit has a few display panels describing the evolution and biology of butterflies- of the almost 250,000 Lepidopteran species, 7% are considered butterflies, the other 93% are moths. The Lepidoptera have colorful scales on their wings and staw-like proboscises (those which have mouthparts in their adult forms- some, like the giant Atlas moths, imperial moths, and luna moths lack mouthparts, and do not feed- existing only to mate, and to enthrall primates).

The closest relatives to the Lepidoptera are the Trichoptera, the caddisflies, which are characterized by aquatic larvae which build protective 'cases', typically bound together with silk. The Lepidoptera, being mainly nectar-feeders, co-evolved with the flowering plants- the exhibit had an image of a fossil Prodryas persophone dating back to the Eocene epoch.

The life cycles of butterflies should be well known to any observers of nature- the transitions from egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (encased in a chrysalis or coccoon) to adult (imago) are well-documented, as any wag will tell you.

Of course, the centerpiece of the exhibit is a chamber kept at a humid 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.67 Celsius) and chock full of Lepidopterans, with some particularly gorgeous Morpho butterflies seeming to dominate.

The real show stealers, as Thunder would be able to tell you, were the Atlas moths which, while somewhat sombre in hue, have a wingspan wider than that of a typical sparrow:




It was fun to see how different people react to the insects- one little girl was displaying some trepidation, while another loquacious girl not only reveled in the butterflies, but talked about them with any adult within earshot. As for myself, I love the things- I had one land on my hand, and was torn between reaching for my camera and not moving in order to prolong the contact. I also had the feeling of tiny legs crawling across the back of my neck, but all was good in the world because it was a butterfly and not some bitey or stingy thing.

After about a half-hour in the butterfly chamber, I realized that I was sweaty and needed a nice, cold drink. I exited out the 'airlock' style double doors, after a cursory inspection for stowaways, and proceeded to the less colorful, but no less magical, precincts of the museum.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Madchester

I have to say that I am not an Ariana Grande fan- I am a cynical man in his forties who really doesn't dig her brand of pop music. That is precisely why I am so horrified at the suicide bombing which killed twenty-two of her fans. The attack specifically targeted young people, particularly girls. The survivors of the attack, including Ms Grande herself, will carry a bit of survivors' guilt and a great deal of anxiety... something that I wouldn't wish on anyone, especially an adolescent.

There's a certain surreal quality to this particular tragedy, the role of social media in disseminating information about the fallen. The goofy selfies and whimsical photomanipulations culled from the kodds' various apps are jarring when contrasted with the stark crime scene images.

Around noon, I just had to get away from the media coverage- I headed down to the American Museum of Natural History to immerse myself in the butterfly exhibit. At first, it felt a bit unreal, standing in a warm chamber full of friendly people while enchanting, bejeweled creatures flitted around us... but then I realized that THIS was reality- the ideologies and theologies which lead a fanatic to murder children are unreal, not the marvels of nature. Then realization hit again, the beauties of the natural world are imperiled by human foolishness, just like the beautiful lives of children who just want to enjoy a night of music and joy. Solace achieved, solace abandoned...

I'm not an Ariana Grande fan, but I have friends whose children are, and that is precisely why the Manchester madness has me so angry.

Monday, May 22, 2017

In the Spring a Not-So-Young Man's Fancy Lightly Turns to Thoughts of Eating Something Poisonous

Last year, after posting about pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), I finally tried the stuff out, even though the stuff is poisonous. Thrice-boiled pokeweed (with the water changed after each boil), known formally as poke sallet, is a staple of rural southern foodways.

Today, after locking up at work, I picked a mess of poke, which will be boiled tomorrow:




I also picked a bagfull of nettles, which pack a whallop of a sting, but have no toxins... though the mature, flower-bearing plants accumulate phytoliths, which can irritate one's urinary tract. I tend to parboil the nettles to kill the 'sting', though drying them has the same effect.

As the old maxim goes, the dose makes the poison, and even such commonly eaten plants as the ubiquitous red kidney bean and spinach contain toxins. The best way to deal with these toxins is to eat a variety of plants, which is pretty much what I get when I forage- I throw the miscellaneous greens together into a food processor and puree them into a green slurry, the composition of which varies as the foraging season progresses. Now, pokeweed will join the nettles and dock and garlic mustard and lambs' quarters and dandelion greens in the mix.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

I Demand a Set of Chaps and a Top Secret Security Clearance

From the great fount of derangement that is Texas asshole Alex Jones, comes the ass-ertion the CIA is a cabal of gay leather daddies because he sees a lot of guys with shaved heads in the 'deep' (heh heh) security state. Well, if a shaved head means that a guy is a leather daddy, I guess I'd better get a damn set of leather chaps and a top security clearance if that's the case. Also, Jones sees a 'gay conspiracy' everywhere.. it's a recurring fantasy of his to the extent that I suspect he's got a clear working knowledge of the GOP public bathroom toe-tapping code. Jones also knows very well what the queers are doing to the soil.

Getting back to the whole CIA bald leather daddy situation, I suspect that Mike Pompeo is just a figurehead, and that the de facto director is Rob Halford:





Hey, he even admits to being hip to the security state...

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Interminable Workday

I always joke that my job is pretty cushy, except when it's not. Today was firmly in the 'not' category. I left the job this morning after 4AM, and after running a couple of errands, got home after dawn. I ran into my next-door neighbor as he was walking his yellow lab, and we chatted for a bit about our respective jobs (he works at a medical center which has been taken over by a larger healthcare organization, so his job security is uncertain), and I turned in for the morning. I finally hit the mattress after 7AM.

At one minute to nine, my phone rang... one of my co-workers had left her work-keys at home, and had to have the site open for the first wave of visitors at 10AM. I hastily threw on some clothes and drove to the site. I never check my phone while I am driving- I am 100% against texting while driving, or reading while driving, or putting on makeup while driving, or doing anything but driving while driving, with allowances for a change of radio stations (my newish car has radio presets and volume control buttons on the steering wheel). At 9:25, my friend had texted me to tell me that one of our gift shop managers had arrived, and she has a set of keys for the site. As luck would have it, I never read this message, and when I arrived, I learned that the shop manager's key didn't work on the particular lock for the Visitors' Center. I seem to have one of the few master keys which actually works on every lock in the organization. If I had read the text message and turned around to return home, I would have received another text message a half-hour later, telling me to come back, and the place wouldn't have been ready for our ten o'clock tour.

When I got home at half-past ten, I ran into my next-door neighbor walking his lab for the second time of the day, and he did a double take... "You're not asleep?" My job is cushy, except when it's not, but when my people need help, I step up. Support your people, that's the most important thing to do in this life.

I had to be at my principle workplace again by 5PM. We had a low-key fundraising event today, and I actually wanted to attend for a bit, but the traffic was so horrendous that I had to take a roundabout route to bypass a couple of snarl-ups and arrived a mere five minutes before my start time. When I arrived, everything was lovely- we had some very nice visitors, some wonderful entertainers that have performed for our fundraiser for many years, and a cadre of my great co-workers. I like being on the job, and the curveballs that I occasionally get thrown (unexpected emergency phone calls, for instance, or four-day campouts without heat or electricity after a hurricane) are the dues that I pay for a generally easy-going job.

Just about the time I ordinarily lock up our visitors' center/gift shop, I received a frantic cry for assistance- one of my co-workers slipped on a floor tile in our basement and banged her chin on the ground. A couple of additional co-workers had arrived at her side before I did, and I told one of the young guys to run to the manager's office for a first aid kit. An alcohol wipe, a gauze pad, and a 2X4 adhesive strip, and she was patched up, but we had to ask her if she wanted us to get her to an emergency room. In a depressingly, uniquely American twist, she told us that she didn't want to go to the ER because she really couldn't afford the copay... A couple of us explained to her that, because her injury had occurred on the job, it would be covered by Workers' Compensation insurance. By this time, the manager had arrived, and I told him that I had to attend to the locking-up duties, leaving him to fill out the incident report.

My co-worker who fell is a fellow Yonkers resident. The manager, who is just about as solid a guy as you could ever meet, drove her home after we made arrangements for me to pick her the following day and bring her back so she could retrieve her car. I told her that I'd be working until 1AM, and that if she had any need to get to a medical center, she shouldn't hesitate to call me until about 2AM.

I was finally able to get a bit of a breather after 8PM, when I could settle into my comfortable routine. This day, which should have been a tad more busy than a normal Saturday, was characterized by bad luck, so it just d-r-a-g-g-e-d on. Of course, we'll all be laughing about it at the staff picnic in a couple of months, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't beat right now.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Tweety Amin

The very prospect of Donald Trump going to Saudi Arabia gives me the creeping horrors. The Saudi Royal family, with their support of a fundamentalist regime that promulgates blasphemy laws, literal witch hunts, and lingering laws against women is perhaps the only family on the planet more repulsive than the Trump family.

I can't see this trip going well, with Islamophobe Stephen Miller writing the speech Trump is supposed to deliver to the Wahhabist regime, and the guy who promised to put a boot up the ass of the 9/11 attack backers is scheduled to play a concert in front of an all-male audience which will most likely include some of the very backers of those attacks. To make things worse, Jared Kushner pressured the CEO of Lockheed Martin to give a price break to the Saudis on arms which will probably be used to further Saudi interests in the Yemeni civil war. This whole trip just seems like a major disaster just waiting to happen.

Meanwhile, the probe into collusion between the Trump maladministration and the Russian government is closing in on a senior Trump administration official even as Trump embarks on what promises to be his foreign embarrassment tour. With any luck, he'll decide to take refuge with the Saudis to escape the consequences of his actions. The Saudis notoriously gave sanctuary to Idi Amin, maybe they will do the same for Tweety Amin.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hard Right, Soft Porn

A popular aphorism avers that only the good die young, so Roger Ailes death today at the age of 77 is ethically appropriate. Ailes was the midwife who birthed that particular Fox News brand of hard right politics and soft core pornography, a heady mix which was modeled on the Rupert Murdoch brand of sexual titillation and hypocritical moral outrage. Billy Bragg had the best commentary on this particular brand of yellow journalism:





Here in the States, the apotheosis of this paradoxical blend of umbrage and voyeurism was perhaps the 'expose' of Spring Break shenanigans complete with footage of young, scantily clad women. Never has moral indignation been accompanied by such hateboners... gotta sell that Cialis to the angry geezers.

Besides lowering the tone of political discourse to a troglodytic level, there is something more sinister going on- the Fox Effect... Fox viewers are, as a whole, less informed on current events than Daily Show viewers. News, trumped by comedy... thanks Roger!

Then there's the frathole atmosphere that Ailes fostered at the network, a vile miasma of sexual harassment and racial discrimination which comes as no surprise to those who have observed the constant belittling of women and minorities that was the network's stock-in-trade.

It came as a bit of a surprise that Ailes died so soon after his ouster from Fox, but his ghost will haunt the American brainspace for years to come, a ghost largely manifesting as a paranoia and hatred that seeped outward from Ailes' mind and poisoned vast swathes of America's population. If there is a single individual who could claim the title of worst American of the 20th century ever, Ailes would certainly be in the running for the title.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Secret Science Club North Post-Lecture Recap: Trail Blaser

Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space on Manhattan's Upper West Side, for the latest Secret Science Club North lecture. Last night's lecture marked the third appearance of microbiologist and medical doctor Martin J. Blaser, Director of the Human Microbiome Program at the NYU School of Medicine and author of the book Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues.

The first lecture by Dr Blaser that I attended concerned the human microbiome, with a focus on the role that the bacterium H. pylori plays in the gastrointestinal tract. The second lecture was a more generalized overview of the role of the microbiome on health, touching on such topics as the possible role played by antibiotic overuse/misuse in the world's growing obesity epidemic- it corresponded with the initial release of Dr Blaser's book.

Last night's lecture could be characterized to a 'greatest hits' compilation- it was a broad overview of the subject of the human microbiome and the role that antibiotics play in the relationship between us and our bacterial symbionts. Much of the talk revolved around the findings of the graduate students in Dr Blaser's lab.

The human gut is home to over one hundred trillion bacteria, most of which are harmless or even beneficial to us. Recently, the overuse of antibiotics, much of which can be attributed to the use of sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics to promote growth of farm animals, has adversely effected our internal biome, resulting in lower internal biodiversity among residents of the developed world. Dr Blaser displayed an array of gorgeous graphics to illustrate the relative biodiversity among the Venezuelan Yanomami, residents of Malawi, and residents of the developed world, with the Yanomami, who currently have little contact with outsiders, having a very high degree of internal biodiversity.

Dr Blaser noted that most of a newborn's microbiome is inherited from its mother, largely through vaginal birth, but also through close contact as breast-feeding, kissing, and in the case of some cultures, pre-mastication of food by mom. Babies born through C-sections tend to have less-developed gut bacteria than those born vaginally. By the age of three, an individual's gut microbiome is similar to that of an adult of the same cultural group.

Much of the lecture was involved with discussions of the role of antibiotic use in weight gain and possibly the onset of type 2 diabetes. While most of the experiments with mice involved sub-therapeutic levels administered over time, other studies mimicked the way in which people generally use antibiotics- pulses of high antibiotic use given to combat infection. Dr Blaser likened this to giving the mice antibiotics the same way parents would give antibiotics to a child with an ear infection. The 'pulsed' use of antibiotics early in life resulted in similar outcomes as the use of sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics.

Dr Blaser made sure to note that the development of antibiotics was a civilization-altering occurrence, and that the use of antibiotics has hugely benefited humanity. The study of the relationship between individuals and their bacterial symbionts is a relatively new field, and Dr Blaser and his team are on the cutting edge of it. Dr Blaser jokingly told an anecdote about he and his staff sending stool samples off to have genetic testing of the microbiota performed, and not knowing exactly how to interpret the results. Our internal symbionts have evolved with us over the course of millions of years, but our relationship is just beginning to be parsed out.

Dr Blaser devoted a significant portion of his lecture to the work of his colleges and students, presenting their achievements in succession with a palpable sense of pride. For a talk about germs and poop, there was a genuine sense of joy about the topic.

Dr Blaser devoted a considerable amount of time to a Q&A session- he knows that there is an intense public interest in his research and its health implications. There were a lot of questions about probiotics and ways in which to 'reboot' (perhaps re-butt) one's internal biota after a course of antibiotics. The topic of fecal transplants came up, with one wag in the audience (of whom I am jealous) referring to them as trans-poo-sions. One bastard in the audience asked if anyone had done research concerning the effect of antibiotic use on the onset of menarche, but Dr Blaser noted that lower ages for the onset of puberty predated the development of antibiotics by about a century, and should be attributed to overall improvements in nutrition.

All told, the lecture was wonderful- entertaining as well as informative. Dr Blaser has a remarkable knack for making his subject matter accessible for the layperson, something crucial when it comes to a topic as intimate as one's relationship with one's one trillion closest friends. Kudos to the good doctor, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of Symphony Space... once again, the SSC has knocked it out of the park.

Here's a video of Dr Blaser lecturing on this topic at the American Society for Microbiology:





Crack open a beverage and soak in that Secret Science Club ambiance.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Whose Blood? Whose Soil?

Over the weekend, a crowd of neo-Nazis descended on a Virginia town to protest the removal of Confederate memorials and conduct a totally-not-creepy torchlight procession. Among the slogans they chanted was the oldNazi standby "Blood and soil!" Of course, the soil that these sons of Europestood upon was stolen from Native Americans, and the blood that stained it was the blood of enslaved Africans... but these assholes would never acknowledge that, and "lack of melanin and trust funds" isn't much of a rallying cry.

I typed this out quickly on the phone while having a new tire put on the car (our roads are the pits these days), I'll clean up the linkage later.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

To All Those Mothers Out There

Here's wishing a happy Mother's Day to all of the moms who read this blog. I made sure to call mom after things got quiet at work. She had my sister and her family, except for her oldest, who was hanging around college to attend some friends' graduation. Mom is doing really well, as always, and we talked for almost an hour, until my phone battery ran out.

I appreciate the hard-work that mothers do... sometimes, they are too busy working to spend time with the kids, sometimes they are extremely protective and intensely involved with their kids' day-to-day activities. The vast majority of moms are trying their best to care for their children, often in the face of hostility to the needs of mothers, especially working moms.

I know I've posted the video before, but I think that 1980s icon Mr T. provided the best advice concerning respect for moms:





He probably wrote that after a run-in with a scrappy mama killdeer.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Single Volume Distillation of a Genre

Being a nerdy, bookish sort, I have been commenting at the Tor Books website for a while. It's not too difficult to figure out my pseudonym, because I am a huge Jack Vance fan. First things first, friend of the blog Robyn Bennis has a book published, so here's a hearty high-five and an exhortation for everyone to buy her book.

Secondly, the Tor book club selection for the month is Vernor Vinge's amazing A Fire Upon the Deep. While I had been aware of the book for a while, I put off reading it until last year. While I am partially kicking myself for not reading it sooner, I am also glad that I put off reading the book for so long because the book is especially rewarding for readers who are aware of all science-fiction traditions. A Fire Upon the Deep is a one-volume distillation of the entire genre of science fiction, masquerading as a rip-roaring galactic adventure novel. Back in 1992, when it was published, I hadn't read enough of the genre to fully appreciate this trait of the book.

Before I go into a breakdown of the book's shout-outs to the genre, I have to get one thing out of the way- I certainly do not love the central trope of the novel... the notion that there are different Zones of Thought operating under different rules of nature. Yeah, I'm of the opinion that there's one reality, which permeates the universe, and things really only seem outrageous in the vicinity of black holes. In Vinge's fictional galaxy, the usual science-fantasy tropes are inverted: the Galactic Center is the 'Unthinking Depths', where sentience dulls and dies, and space travel slows to a crawl. The Slow Zone, where Earth lies, or lay in the distant past, is the next layer, where faster-than-light travel is impossible and artificial intelligence difficult to develop. The next layer, the Beyond, is where the whiz-bang space-opera stuff can occur, with faster-than-light travel and remarkable displays of sentience are the norm. Beyond the Beyond is the Transcend, where vast intelligences of great power (though typically of short lifespan) can develop. As one moves away from the core, one's potential increases, until a sort of demigodhood can be achieved.

The story starts out with a team of scientists working at the edge of the Transcend, who unearth an Eldritch Abomination straight out of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror tale. After releasing this malevolent power, the valiant scientists attempt to contain it while sending a husband-and-wife team to escape with the research facility's children to a planet closer to the Slow Zone, where it is hoped that their pursuer's vast puissance will be blunted. What follows is a disastrous First Contact, with the refugees falling into the hands of a bunch of fascistic religious fanatics and falling victim to the classic Simpson's Halloween episode gag 'your superior intellect is no match for our puny weapons':





The aliens are doglike creatures which, while individually not very intelligent, can achieve an intellectual capacity equal to that of a human in groups of more than four individuals, but more than eight individuals lead to confusion. The individuals joining to form a group-mind communicate through sound, produced by a series of tympanic membranes. The initial protagonist of the story, an adolescent girl, dubs these creatures 'Tines', after the clawlike weapon that one of them uses to strike down her father... the name is an elegant one, though, as the individual creatures work in concert, like the tines of a fork, to produce one functioning entity. With a group intellect made up of a succession of individuals, the group intellects can last for hundreds of years. With his 'tines', Vinge, like Stanley G. Weinbaum created aliens that pass John W. Campbell's challenge: "Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man."

Not all of the aliens are hostile- the human protagonists just had to fall into the clutches of the worst of the worst of them. Vinge introduces other witnesses to the spaceship's landing, ones motivated by curiosity, rather than fanatical rage:


"You're a pilgrim. You've traveled the world ... since the beginning of time, you'd have us believe. How far do your memories really go back?"

Given the situation, Wickwrackrum was inclined to honesty. "Like you'd expect: a few hundred years. Then we're talking about legends, recollections of things that probably happened, but with the details all mixed and muddled."

"Well, I haven't traveled much, and I'm fairly new. But I do read. A lot. There's never been anything like this before. That is a
made thing down there. It came from higher than I can measure. You've read Aramstriquesa or Astrologer Belelele? You know what this could be?"

Wickwrackrum didn't recognize the names. But he was a pilgrim. There were lands so far away that no one spoke any language he knew. In the Southseas he met folk who thought there was no world beyond their islands and who ran from his boats when he came ashore. Even more, one part of him had been an islander and had watched that coming ashore.

He stuck a head into the open and looked again at the fallen star, the visitor from farther than he had ever been ... and he wondered where this pilgrimage might end.



What follows is a picaresque Planetary Romance, reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Leigh Brackett, with the scriber and the pilgrim saving the strange, bipedal alien princess and whisking her off to the relative safety of an old friend of the pilgrim.

The novel follows several narrative arcs, each having different protagonists- there's the librarian who works at a central relay station of a vast galactic network reminiscent of the web in a cyberpunk novel by Gibson or Sterling, who teams up with a space-adventurer straight out of a Poul Anderson or Robert Heinlein space opera, rescued or reconstituted like Mary Shelley's monster from an ancient derelict spacecraft that had wandered perilously far into the Slow Zone because the crew fell victim to genre savvy, in order to track down the escape craft which had escaped the abomination.

Along the way, we have parallel plot threads, as the would-be rescuers evade pursuit while the stranded children learn how to interact with the alien natives, with suspense building as the reader is caught in the middle knowing that a major clash is inevitable. To heighten the suspense, there is an arms race, as one warring faction figures out how to use a child's laptop computer incorporated into a toy while another faction receives directions via FTL communication. There are strange aliens brought into sentience through cybernetic interfaces like the species in David Brin's 'Uplift' novels. The human population of the galaxy has spread through fits and starts, descents into barbarism and rediscoveries of space travel, reminiscent of the lost human colonies that Jack Vance wrote about. There are beautiful, xenophobic aliens who commit atrocities and brave space admirals who try to fend them off.

Vinge presents the reader with a head-spinning variety of cultures and concepts, with an occasional punch to the gut... oh, here's a loving couple who love their children and their friends' children so they do anything to save them and WHAM! Hey, nice star-sector spanning society of humans and aliens living in harmony, be a shame if something would happen to it... You really grew to like that character? WHACK! Oh, and his death is going to be a gut-punch to that other sympathetic character, and saddle her with a guilt trip.

The novel is a bildungsroman, a horror tale, a romance, a war story, a chase narrative, a picaresque, a thriller... it really does serve to tie the genre together. It's like a greatest hits medley that nevertheless remains original. I heartily recommend it, and will be following along with the 'book club' reading of it.

Oh, and everybody check out Robyn's book.