Sunday, March 26, 2017

International Love Fest Masquerading as Brawl

I'm on my way to the annual New York Open Judo Tournament, a team competition held at the New York Athletic Club every March. The US, France, Israel, and Germany have teams representing them. As usual, the main draw is Kayla Harrison, who won gold in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. If anyone represents excellence in the sport, it is this remarkable young woman.

The event draws an international crowd from the NY metro area- I have friends from Morocco, Italy, Switzerland Poland, Brazil, Japan, Albania, Uzbekistan, and the Bronx who will be attending. It's the premier judo event in the tri-state area, and the vibe is wonderful. The action on the mats may look rough, but the event is all about love.

I'm hastily typing this out on my phone on the subway, but I will clean up the post and provide links later on.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Dulce et Decorum Est pro Capitalismus Mori

Tuesday was a busy day for me, between work and drinking, so I didn't have a chance to watch the Gorsuch nomination hearings. Reading The Rude Pundit, I decided to check out Al Franken's grilling of Gorsuch regarding his dissent in a decision about a truck driver who was fired because he abandoned a trailer which had frozen brakes and a non-functioning heater. Put in stark terms, the man had a choice- disobey the orders from his company or die of hypothermia. He disobeyed orders and was fired, then filed a complaint with OSHA about the firing, and Gorsuch dissented from the decision, which supported the truck driver's case. Gorsuch's family made its fortune by retailing ski clothing- the idea that the guy wouldn't know how deadly being stuck without heat in minus-fourteen degree temperature is ludicrous. Here's Franken's amazing grilling of Gorsuch:





Gorsuch's attitude is that Alphonse Maddin, the truck driver in question, should have followed orders even unto death. Basically, he should have been a martyr to capitalism, and obediently frozen to death so as not to negatively impact the company's bottom line.

As much as I've thought Chuck Schumer, my senior senator, has been a Wall St flunky, I am proud that he will fillibuster Gorsuch's nomination. Sure, the excesses of Wall Street are villainy, but they aren't the sort of 'Dead Peasant' cartoonish supervillainy that Gorsuch is comfortable with.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Second Assassination

This week's big local story was a terrorist attack- a white supremacist fatally stabbed an elderly black man in the back. Now, that's deplorable, but even more deplorable was the manner in which Murdoch rag The New York Post covered the fatal hate crime. Not only did they describe the white perpetrator as 'well-dressed', but they reported the 66-year old victim's arrest record... news flash, he was the victim of the crime, stabbed in the back in cowardly fashion while collecting empty cans and bottles for the deposit redemption value. All too often, minority crime victims are treated as if they are the guilty parties- I'm surprised the 'Post' didn't write that Mr Caughman maliciously stained his killer's blade.

Timothy Caughman was assassinated by a white supremacist who wanted to kill a black man in the world's media capital... afterwards, his character was assassinated by a scurrilous rag in a white supremacist's media empire.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Not a Lot of Buzz About this Announcement

I am one of those individuals who never grew out of that childhood phase during which one is compelled to turn over rocks and logs to see what kind of creepy-crawlies are living underneath. I love my precious little bug buddies- I also like lectures about insects, even eating insects. Needless to say, I was bummed out by listening to a report of the rusty patched bumblebee being placed on the endangered species list, with the Trump maladministration reversing its policy of undoing federal regulations in this case- of course, the bumblebees are crucial pollinators, the loss of which would be an utter disaster for humans.

The main threats to the rusty patched bumblebee are the loss of suitable nesting space (they lair underground) to development, the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, and pathogens. Steps should be made to reduce the use of neonicotinoids and to preserve suitable habitats for insects. I have long considered the modern obsession with well-manicured lawns to be pathological, and would suggest a shift to yards which combine native wildflowers, ornamental plants, and herb/vegetable gardens. Well-manicured grassy spaces are more appropriate for municipal athletic fields. I also think that highway margins and medians should be devoted to the planting of native plants (with patches of milkweeds at least every quarter-mile). The maintenance of such plantings would be more costly and labor-intensive than simple mowing would be, but don't we need jobs to make America great again?

I fondly remember watching the bumblebees hovering around the azaleas in the backyard of the family home, those improbably chunky flyers with their noisy wings. I would be upset if this buzz were silenced forever. The implications of the collapse of pollinators are terrifying, though I can imagine a joint venture between Monsanto and Raytheon to manufacture pollinator microdrones after killing off the beneficial insects, which terrifies me even more.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

BiZZZZZZZZy

Last night, the call came... my subordinate let me know that the County Board of Elections had dropped off a bunch of voting machines. Somehow, management spaced out on this, and I didn't have any advance notice, so I hadn't arranged coverage. No biggie, I had to handle this one myself, though it would mean I'd get about three hours of sleep. I always joke that the job is very cushy unless it isn't. I was up by three-thirty, out the door by four-fifteen, and at work before five. I received a briefing from the overnight guy and opened the building up for the poll workers, who were expected at five-thirty. Being the guy with the institutional memory, I was able to tell the poll workers where to plug in the voting machines, the best places to put the voters' tables. I know about half of this election's crew, a lot of poll workers are repeats every year.

Shortly after ten, a school group, a bunch of fourth graders from Connecticut, came in for a workshop. They filed into the building in orderly fashion to use the facilities and headed outside for their program. After a few hours, they filed back into the building and had their lunch in a greenhouse behind our gift shop, which still hasn't opened for the regular season. They were very well behaved students, they were quiet, and the poll workers remarked on the kids' manners... they didn't distract from the proceedings in the room next to the greenhouse, where the polling site had been set up.

The election has been quiet- it's a local election, and most of the positions are uncontested. I wonder how many of the voters have showed up to cast write-in votes to show that they still have the power to choose. I don't think a dozen voters have crossed the threshold. I've spent a good deal of time doing paperwork- I am cobbling together the April schedule for my team. Our custodian treated me to lunch in return for me entering his business expenses (mainly mileage) into the requisite Excel spreadsheets and sending them off to the main office.

It's been a quiet day, but I have to admit that I am one tired fellow. My relief comes in around five, and I think I'll just crash for twenty minutes before even contemplating getting behind the wheel of my car.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Infernal Equinox

Today is the vernal equinox, though looking at the amount of snow still on the ground here in the City of Y______, one would be hard-pressed to think of Spring. Rather than discussing the vernal equinox, this post concerns an infernal Equinox, a low-budget horror movie, produced by a crew of amateurs, released in 1970. While not very scary, the film does boast some not-terrible stop-motion special effects- from a practical effects standpoint it 'punches above its weight', given the low budget and inexperience of its creators. The plot, concerning a college student's search for his geology professor, who has gone missing from his cabin in the mountains while trying to decipher a mysterious grimoire, is very reminiscent of the first two films in the 'Evil Dead' horror franchise.

I'm not a big horror movie buff, though I do rate for the 'Evil Dead' films, being a fan of Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi. It was interesting to watch Equinox with an eye to comparing the films. My primary interest in watching the movie was its casting of Bastard fave and fantasy juggernaut Fritz Leiber as the doomed professor. While not a speaking role, it was fascinating to see one of my literary heroes on the screen, even in a bit part. Here is the movie in all of its cheesy, low-budget glory:





Oh, and if you ever meet a guy named Asmodeus, run like... uhhhhhh... Hell.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Multigenerational Bummer

I was saddened to hear of the death of Chuck Berry, even though the man was ninety years old and had not only reached the pinnacle of his craft, but hovered a height above the pinnacle. Roy, a rock-and/or-roller himself, has a post about Chuck which lays out the man's importance rather well. Was there anybody who quite defined an entire genre of music as Chuck Berry defined rock-and-roll, the outgrowth of rhythm and blues music that he helped to birth? I can't even think of anyone who played lead guitar in popular music before Chuck Berry blazed that particular path.

I believe it was Greil Marcus who wrote the the opening of Johnny B. Goode was the greatest opening of any popular song, and a riff for the ages:





As far as openings go, it's right up there with Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor... I think the guy who wrote Roll Over Beethoven would be sympatico with Bach's virtuosity.

Besides being a fantastic songwriter and a blistering guitarist, Chuck Berry was also a humorist, as his tale of romance frustrated by a seatbelt attests:





My particular favorite by Mr Berry is Memphis Tennessee, which is an emotional number with a surprise ending:





Chuck's was a towering talent, and the man himself managed to navigate the perils and pitfalls of being a black man in the segregated United States- reading between the lines of Back in the U.S.A., one can divine the legacy of Jim Crow in the lyrics (despite his fame, Chuck would have needed the Green Book while touring).

Mom introduced us to Chuck Berry's music while we were kids... she raised us right. I spoke to her on the phone today, and she was bummed about his passing- she had seen him in concert at Brooklyn's Paramount Theater while still a teenager. There's a timeless quality to Chuck Berry's music, the sort of quality that led to a multigenerational fandom, and with his passing, a multigenerational bummer. He had a long life, and a storied career, but he will be missed.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Local Shindig

Today marks the local St Patrick's Day parade, which wends its way through the commercial district of my heavily-Irish neighborhood. Here's local band Shillelagh Law performing the neighborhood's theme song:





Luckily, I have another carry-over vacation day from last year, so I'll be able to bend an elbow for a second day in a row. It's supposed to start snowing (AGAIN!) in the afternoon, so a little bit of antifreeze is in order.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Solemn Feast of St Patrick

Today being the solemn feast of St Patrick, I decided to use a carry-over vacation day from last year so I could pour some libations (down my gullet). Before I head out, I just have to rant... in the wake of the horrors that have been exposed in Irish institutions that masqueraded as helpers of the indigent, that the Irish people have long been preyed upon by authority figures, by bigoted foreign conquerors (who attempted a genocide), by the various predatory religious hierarchies who abused and divided the common people. I look at my kindly, generous friends and neighbors and I wonder how a people so given to hospitality and good-heartedness could have let their worst elements wield such power over them. The popular vote to legalize same-sex marriage in Ireland signaled a major shift away from the patriarchal dominance structure that prevailed even after Irish independence was gained, a shift from authoritarianism to a generous-spiritedness more natural to the tribe.

To a large extent, the Irish (like the Jews and African-Americans) are a diaspora people, forced to leave their homelands by hostile outside forces, and finding ways to not only survive, but to thrive despite the hardships they have faced. The heritage that I celebrate is the tenacity, the hard work and sheer grit that my forebears exhibited, and that I endeavor to maintain. For the same reason, I admire Jewish and African-American people, who have inherited the same determination to overcome oppression. The flip side of that is that I find Irish-American authoritarians (I'm looking at a couple of FOX hosts here) to be particularly repugnant- they are the sort of people who have thrown in their lot with the oppressors, rather than the underdogs of the world.

I'll be heading out for a wee dram or two... or three... Before I head out, here's a number from Mary Courtney, friend of the Bastard and Star of the County Bronx,





The Patriot Game, with lyrics by Dominic Behan, perfectly encapsulates the conflicted nature of the Irish people, the morass of patriotism, sectarianism, nationalism, and violence that has so long held sway on Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore. Things have gotten a lot better in the past twenty-years, which is reason enough to raise a glass of Tullamore Dew in celebration.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Make America Sick, Dumb, Hungry, and Dirty Again

Egads, the Trump Budget Plan is a true horrorshow, not хорошо at all. This particular bit struck me as especially troublesome:


Trump’s first budget proposal, which he named “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” would increase defense spending by $54 billion and then offset that by stripping money from more than 18 other agencies. Some would be hit particularly hard, with reductions of more than 20 percent at the Agriculture, Labor and State departments and of more than 30 percent at the Environmental Protection Agency.


This means a whole lot of deregulation, a wholesale degradation of environmental and labor standards... this is particularly a victory for extractive industries which are particularly dangerous to workers and the environment. The simultaneous increase in defense spending and decrease in State Department spending seems to put the lie to the whole 'Hillary Clinton is a warmonger so vote for Trump' trope pushed during the election last year. I have long been a proponent of the use of soft power in America's dealings with the rest of the world, but it looks like the only tool in the Trump Maladministration toolkit is a hammer, by which I mean high-explosive ordnance. At least we didn't elect a warmonger... not one in a pantsuit, at any rate.

Trump also wants to wage the culture war by using the power of the purse:


It would also propose eliminating future federal support for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Within EPA alone, 50 programs and 3,200 positions would be eliminated.


Besides the fact that eliminating these positions works counter to Trump's stated goal of creating jobs (maybe those EPA inspectors can be sent down into the coal mines to dig, rather than regulate), these cuts will further impoverish the culture- I work for a not-for-profit, and we receive NEH grants for some of our programs... this time, it's personal.

Not surprisingly, the budget also cuts programs that help the poor: home heating fuel subsidies and community block grants which are often used to combat homelessness. One real puzzler is the proposal to privatize the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control- wealthy people fly more often than poor people, and I can't imagine a privatized FAA, concerned with cost-containment, making air travel safer.

Perhaps the worst feature of the budget is the gutting of funds earmarked for research into clean, renewable energy and climate change mitigation:


The proposed budget extensively targets Obama programs and investments focused on climate change, seeking to eliminate payments to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund — one key component of the U.S. commitment to the Paris climate agreement — and to slash research funding for climate, ocean and earth science programs at agencies such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At the same time, clean-energy research, heavily privileged by the Obama administration, would suffer greatly under the budget with the elimination of the ­ARPA-E program (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) at the Energy Department and an unspecified cut to the agency’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.


Yep, at the worst possible time, we have a government which is putting the pedal to the medal in the race along the road to, well, The Road. It's here where I reiterate my line that we aren't destroying the world, we are destroying our world... best of luck to our hardy Coleopterous planetary heirs.

Meanwhile, the budget funnels money to charter schools and private schools... gotta pay for school-wide bear defense.

Then, of course, there's the Wall:


And he requested $1.7 billion in new funding this year and an additional $2.6 billion in new funding in 2018 to begin construction of a wall along the border with Mexico. Trump proposed creating this wall during his campaign and had said Mexico would pay for it. A number of congressional Republicans appear to be cooling on the idea.


By the time Trump guts everything which makes this country liveable, there won't need to be a wall on the southern border... maybe the Canadians will start building one of their own, they'll need it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Iowa, Land of Intrigue

Roy has a piece up about the right-wingers' reactions to Iowa representative Steve King's racist, xenophobic tweet, and some bastard wrote a waggish comment that he now feels compelled to post on his own blog... the comment was directly inspired by Helmut Monotreme's bit about Iowa's hog farms and feed lots and dairies big enough to suck the water table down to bedrock and drown your favorite lake in a tidal wave of liquid manure:


Hog farms and feed lots and exploding silos,
Even a college that won't invite Milo.
Ponds full of Round-Up that make your eyes sting.
This is the state that elected Steve King.

Big butter sculptures and hot dogs in batter,
Is it a wonder the people get fatter?
Blonde, corn-fed beauties who make your heart sing,
This is the state that elected Steve King.

When the darkies, have their babies, and I'm feeling fright,
I just remember Iowa's Steve King, and he'll keep our country White!



This is, of course, a parody of My Favorite Things from "The Sound of Music", but reading it over again, I find myself running up against Poe's Law- the chorus of this parody could pass as a campaign slogan for Steve King.

As a coda to this post, I have to note that Conservapedia's definition of Poe's Law is a perfect illustration of, you got it, Poe's Law. The post title is *yoinked* from an old "Bloom County" parody of National Geographic which I can't seem to find on the t00bz.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Yesterday was 'Prep Day'

The big news story here is the nor'easter which is hammering the area... we're supposed to get anywhere from six to eighteen inches of snow before the storm abates. Tuesdays are typically a day off for me, but I brought the company cell phone home with me on Monday afternoon (I had to go to a staff meeting about changes to our retirement plan) so I could monitor conditions on the job if any of my subordinates had a problem getting to work. If the trains are running, I can get to the job in a pinch if there are any problems. I hope there are no problems.

I decided not to come in before the storm and camp out because I don't want to leave my neighbors in the lurch, sticking them with all of the snow-shoveling. I did all of my shopping on Sunday after work, braving the pre-storm crowds. My plan is to put together a big pot of sancocho (I worked in the South Bronx for fifteen years y conozco el sabor) and leaving it at a slow simmer while I shovel snow. Traditionally, I put a big pot of something, usually a ragù, on the stove during blizzards before going out to shovel snow. I haven't made a big pot of anything in a while... having all of winter condensed into a day and a half in March isn't typical.

I'm hoping I can sit at home all afternoon eating sancocho- I don't need to be standing on a train platform in a blizzard because there's a crisis at work.





Monday, March 13, 2017

The Blueprint for GOP 'Charity'

In a comment on yesterday's post, friend of the bastard OBS linked to a Washington Post article concerning Tuam, which I referenced in my post. The article is a tough read, it concerns the life of a young, unmarried pregnant woman who gave birth at “The Home for Mothers and Babies” run by the Sisters of Bon Secours. Her infant son was separated from her and she was confined to “The Magdalene Asylum”, until she escaped and fled to England to avoid further punishment.

Her son was confined to the Home for Mothers and Babies, where the healthiest children were often sold to adoptive parents, mainly from the U.S. His mother attempted to contact him numerous times, but he had been convinced that she was a 'woman of ill-repute'. He was finally able to reconcile with her after becoming an adult, learning that his mother hadn't been the evil individual throughout this whole ordeal.

I firmly believe in a government-run social safety net. Conservatives often talk about how private charities, usually churches, should be the organizations which provide succor to the poor, the sick, the unfortunate. FUCK THAT SHIT... I don't believe that these organizations act in, if you'll pardon the expression, good faith- they confine their aid to 'worthy' individuals (as defined according to their dogma), they attach strings to their aid (typically aggressive proselytizing), and they perpetuate a patriarchal dominance structure which is hostile to women and indifferent at best towards children. The GOP wants to bring a theocratic government to the United States, exactly the sort of government which created such misery in Ireland and which creates misery in places like Uganda, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. We need less religion in the public sphere, and we cannot trust religious organizations to care for vulnerable individuals, especially not women and children.

Rather than fuming about this story and bursting a blood vessel, here's The Innocent and the Honest Ones, an appropriate song by bastard fave In Tua Nua, fronted by the incomparable Leslie Dowdall:





I've posted the song before, but it's an important one, one of the most poignant agnostic hymns ever written. If your religion involves mass graves, then you really need to reconsider your faith. I reconsidered mine, and I sure as hell don't want theocracy to be implemented in these here United States.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The 2017 Runup to the Solemn Feast of St Patrick

I am firmly of the opinion that holidays should be modeled on Hanukkah, at least as far as duration goes... they should be multi-day affairs. Today, I am working an uncharacteristic day shift- the local municipality's St Patrick's Day parade takes place today, and management has allowed the town to use our main parking lot as an overflow lot for parade participants. I had to arrive before 9AM to open up the lot, though we didn't get a trickle of cars in until almost noon. It's been a quiet day, the weather is cold and windy, so nobody has shown any desire to linger on the premises. Basically, I've spent most of the day watching videos. One peculiarity of the parade is that it takes place on the main thoroughfare in the region, rather than the main commercial drag of the town, which is not majorly significant from a transportation point-of-view. A couple of people have shown up in the parking lot looking for a way around the area... after an initial faux-Mainer 'you can't get there from here', I explain to them how they can go north and east to get south.

It's tough getting around the area on a day like this, which reminds me of one of my favorite 'trad' Irish tunes, The Rocky Road to Dublin, which recounts, in humorous fashion, the travails encountered by a young man traveling from Tuam in search of work. Here's a great version by the Pogues, a band near and dear to my heart:





This track was never featured on any of the band's albums, though they featured an instrumental version of the song in their medley on the album 'If I Should Fall from Grace with God'. I'm hoping that I don't have a 'Rocky Road to Yonkers' when my relief comes in a half-hour or so.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Semester's End, March 2017

Today is last day of my volunteer gig until October rolls around- the athletic program is roughly structured around the school year, and school athletics pick up in the Spring. Even the kids who aren't playing on school teams should be playing outside in the warmer months, at any rate. On the last Saturday, we have an awards luncheon, jacket and tie and good manners are the order of the day. I'm always glad to have my Saturday mornings freed up, though I do miss seeing the kids, who are a wonderful bunch.

One thing I don't miss is the slog down on the subway- there are always construction projects on the weekend. Also, during the warmer months, Gaelic Park and Van Cortlandt Park host numerous athletic events, so the neighborhood in which I park before hopping on the 1 Train gets really congested- team buses take up a lot of space on the streets.

I always look forward to the program picking up again in October, it's always amazing to see how much taller the kids have gotten in the intervening seven months. Every year, I devote twenty weeks (with a two-week break between semesters) to pedagogy, twenty weeks in which the kids accomplish amazing things. The truly amazing things, though, happen in those intervening thirty weeks.

Time to hit the road, gotta be at my best today.

Friday, March 10, 2017

What a Difference a Day Makes

Today, it's snowing... the weekend is supposed to be frigid. Yesterday, it was sunny and sixtyish out, so I took a constitutional on one of my favorite locales, the pathway by the Bronx River Parkway. It was warm enough for the local turtles to be out, basking in the sun:




Sorry, Shelly, back to the bottom of the pond with you... hope to see you in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Bowling for 'I Got Mine'

Amid the kerfuffle about the Republican 'healthcare' plan (which spends an inordinate amount of verbiage on lottery winners on Medicaid), Trump is trying to garner support for this Obamacare 'repeal and replace' by taking Republican lawmakers bowling in the White House bowling alley. It's a weird stratagem, unless 'taking them bowling' is a euphemism. At any rate, the GOP alternative to the hated Obamacare looks to be a big boon for billionaire health insurance execs and a shit sandwich for consumers (that premium hike looks worse than the Obamacare mandate by a longshot). The image of wealthy Republican lawmakers going bowling while discussing the removal of healthcare coverage from millions of Americans is grotesque- it's Bowling for 'I Got Mine'. Schadenfreude, though, is making me picture Trump's short fingers sliding out of the holes of all of the bowling balls in the White House... it's not enough to keep me from wanting to punch a wall (I have okay health insurance from the job). The whole sordid affair is a reminder of the utter banality of evil.

Given the nature of the alt-right Trump base, and their relationship to the GOP Congress, this song comes to mind:





I wonder how Dave Lowery's healthplan is...

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Women Are Our Best Line of Defense

I am going to preface this post by noting that I do not call myself a feminist, because I don't believe it is a title that one can claim, but a title that has to be earned. Similarly, I avoid saying 'I am not a racist', because the phrase invariably prefaces some seriously racist shit. Suffice it to say that I endeavor not to act in a sexist or racist manner, and I hope that I generally succeed. That being said, today was International Women's Day, and the Day Without a Woman action for economic justice.

Besides the gender pay gap, women tend to do a lot of dangerous jobs that aren't recognized as such by many people- nursing assistants (91% of whom are women) and hotel housekeepers lift heavy objects (in the case of CNA's, individuals) and are exposed to pathogens and potentially dangerous chemicals. Forty percent of women working in the fast food industry experience sexual harassment in addition to working in dangerous conditions. Low-wage women perform much of the necessary work that keeps the economy running, and they are typically the scapegoats of misogynistic public figures, especially if they have the temerity to be single mothers.

Watching the Women's March on Washington in January, I noted that the longer-term goal of any political movement should be electing women to political office. The percentage of congressional seats held by women is an abysmal twenty-percent. One of the best rallying cries of the new women's movement is: 'Women are the wall and Trump will pay for it.' In our society, women and girls are forced to deal with the consequences of their choices (and the bad choices of the men in their lives) while men often skate out of them- 'boys will be boys' is still used as a cover for bad behavior by men, and middle aged men's adultery can be dismissed as 'youthful indiscretion' as long as those men are God-fearing conservatives. Misogynists are overly represented in our government, media, and industry. It's long-past time to get some parity in representation- we need women to save us from bad policies, they really are our best line of defense against ourselves.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

A Rivalry Unsought

Another Tuesday night, another round of bar trivia. Our team captain is my friend Tony, who I have known for decades. He's thecouson of a high school classmate and he was the landlord of the Beach House Without an Ocean that a bunch of us lived in for a few years when we all moved out of our parents' homes. He's an electrician, but he's worked Asa network guy for a major financial institution for the past ten years. I always joke about how he paid his dues for years working in I heated construction sites and, on one brutal occasion, a sewage treatment plant.

A couple of weeks ago, he mentioned Tuesday Night Trivia to a woman who works in his place of employment. She and her friends weren't enchanted with the bar in which they played trivia, so she told Tony that she and her friends would come gunning for us. We had a seven week undefeated streak- when we were dethroned (I was in Brooklyn that week), the entire place went quiet, and my teammates went around congratulating everyone for a hard-fought effort. Gotta be a good sport. Last week, our newfound rivals showed up, but we regained first place. This week, they came with more players. It's interesting to have a rivalry, even if it's unsought.

UPDATE: Alright, here's where it gets weird... at the beginning of the match, the MC/quizmaster told us that there was a second team which had heard about us and wanted to take us down a peg. We beat them by one question for a first place finish. After the game, he introduced us to them, then said that they take trivia seriously. I replied, "We don't take it seriously, we're just a bunch of beer-guzzling nerds with complementary areas of expertise.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Suddenly, Everything Changes

Saturdays are weird days for me- work until 4AM, sleep for a couple of hours, take the subway to midtown Manhattan, teach from about 9:30 to Noon, travel back home, sleep for a couple of hours, then go to work at 5PM. Throughout much of the day, I am ensconced in a bubble, away from the news... ensconced in a bubble away from this kind of shit:

How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!

The really weird thing about it is that Trump's source for this scurrilous accusation has no proof of the alleged misdeed. Oddly enough, this firestorm doesn't even seem to work as a deflection from Trump's ongoing 'Russian Puppet' woes- not only does a wiretap call to mind malfeasance in Trump's camp, but the accusation has brought James Comey into opposition to Trump (Comey is one asshole who should be feeling some intense buyers' remorse).

It's often noted that Trump goes nuts on Saturdays, when his daughter and her family are celebrating the sabbath. Saturdays were usually considered slow news days, the perfect days to spend in a bubble. Now, with a single unhinged tweet, the entire political landscape can change.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Discretion Being the Better Part of Valor... or Yips, Yikes!

It's a doleful sound, at the onset, one could misinterpret it as a human cry, especially when one is a fifteen minute drive from the border of the most populous city in the United States. Then as it builds into a chorus of an indeterminate number of intertwined vocal parts, a sonic mélange of howls and yips, it becomes as unmistakable as it is unheimlich- it is a pack of coyotes singing. I tend not to be timorous about coyotes, having had several encounters with them in the past. I decided that I would proceed in the direction of the coyote-chorus so I could attempt to get some idea of how many there were (count the tapeta lucida, then divide by two, hoping that there are no individuals which are monocular due to disease or misadventure)- then, in typical horror movie fashion, just as I was about to march forth (tee hee), the battery of my rechargeable flashlight gave out. I'm not afraid of the dark, nor am I afraid of coyotes, but, despite the fact that I have worked nights for the past ten years, from an evolutionary standpoint, I am a diurnal animal, so the prospect of walking into an area occupied by an indeterminate number of sizeable, clever predators wasn't exactly appealing. It was around 4AM, a time perfectly described by Fred Saberhagen as "the darkest morning hours, when human powers are known to wane, and others may reach their peak". ADVANTAGE: CANINE!

Lightless, I made my way to the brighter precincts of the site, then back to my office. I swear I didn't cry, but I didn't exactly feel very heroic until I was inside. If there's one thing I've learned by perusing lurid Man's Life magazine covers on the internet, it's that even the manliest manly man of manliness can prevail against a critter onslaught only during the daylight hours. If that one guy had run into those weasels at night, they would have ripped his flesh right down to the bone, marrow even.

On a felicitous note, because of the bitterly cold, windy weather, one of the managers took Fred and Ginger home for the weekend. Typically, I feed these two around 4AM on Saturday mornings, and the idea of having them out and about while coyotes are roaming around without me being able to see them would not have made me comfortable.

ADDENDUM: Given the frigid temperature, and the fact that the eastern coyote is about one-quarter wolf, this could have been the title of my post:


Friday, March 3, 2017

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap:Formidable Formicidae

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring myrmecologist (how I love that word), evolutionary biologist, and adventurer Dr Corrie Moreau of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.

Dr Moreau (could there be a more perfect name for a biologist?) began her lecture with a note of gratitude toward her subjects, noting that ants have taken her around the world, and that tropical fieldwork is tough, fun, and rewarding. She learned how to do rainforest 'canopy work' in French Guiana, and her travels sometimes involved unintended consequences, such as dealing with tropical illnesses. While her collecting of specimens was typically above-board, involving extensive dealings with customs agents, she once smuggled a tick out of Uganda... in her nose (this seems to be a trend). She underscored the importance of documenting biodiversity by noting that habitat degradation is affecting many ecosystems. Dr Moreau chose to study ants because they are beautiful and diverse, with approximately thirteen-thousand species known to science, with estimates of unidentified species being twice that number. Notable ant varieties include the fungus-growinng ants, the army ants, which can be used as emergency sutures in the field, and the honeypot ants, which include two convergently-evolved lineages, one in Mesoamerica, one in Australia. Dr Moreau noted that the honeypot ants live in environments which have boom-or-bust resource cycles, so 'repletes' store liquid resources until they are needed. She offered this piece of advice- eat the golden repletes, which are filled with nectar... the dark ones are often filled with the remains of rotting carcasses. Dr Moreau then covered the Dracula ants, which feed prey items to their larvae, then poke holes in them in order to drink their hemolymph, resulting in heavily-scarred larvae.

After this introduction to some of the more outré ants, Dr Moreau then discussed the processes that generate biodiversity. Some branches of the ants' evolutionary tree have more species than others, and some regions of the globe harbor more species of ants than others. Some traits have evolved numerous times in different ant lineages. Speciation can occur due to geographic separation of populations. Determining the pace of evolution, whether fast or slow, depends on studying the fossil record. One crucial factor in evolution is symbiosis- organisms evolve together. Dr Moreau quoted her doctoral advisor, E.O. Wilson, who characterized ants and other invertebrates as "The little things that run the world." Then she amended this observation by noting that microbes are the little things which run the little things which run the world.

Dr Moreau then covered variety of symbiotic relationships which ants have with other organisms. There are ants which 'farm' scale insects for the honeydew they secrete. Other ants have a mutualistic relationship with acacia trees- the trees provide food and shelter for the ants, which defend the trees from herbivores. Also, there are ants which have symbiotic relationships with fungi, both beneficial and horrifically deleterious. Ants don't exist in isolation, when studying them, researchers need to think about other organisms as well.

Ant evolution and the evolution of the flowering plants are inextricably linked- although ants aren't pollinators, some groups of ants exploded evolutionarily with the spread of the angiosperms. Many ants shifted from predation to plant-based diets. Ants play an important role in seed distribution, with certain plants having evolved structures called elaiosomes, protein-rich and fatty tissues which are attractive to ants. After eating the elaiosomes, the ants discard the rest of the seeds in their nitrogen-rich middens, far from the mother plant.

With thirteen thousand ant species known to science, a phylogeny of ants is needed to understand evolutionary relationships and dispersal. Fossil ants are not uncommon- ant fossils are typically of insects trapped in amber and insects being compressed in fine sediment. To form a decent paleontological record, at least forty-three fossils are needed for minimum calibration points. The are extant ant fossils from one-hundred million years ago on, but there seems to be an explosive radiation of ant genera in a narrow window, about thirty million years ago- this ant invasion explosion occurred when the ants rode the wave of flowering plants.

There is a latitudinal gradient in ant species richness, with the tropics harboring more species than colder regions. Dr Moreau indicated that there are two models to explain the biodiversity of the tropics- the cradle model and the museum model. The cradle model posits that evolution occurs more quickly in the tropics, that new species evolve in the tropics more frequently than in higher latitudes. The museum model posits that older evolutionary lineages tend to survive better in the tropics, that ancient forms persist. Put succinctly, in the cradle model, the tropics are species pumps, in the museum model, they are stable places in which species can hold out for a long time. The first ants evolved about one-hundred and forty million years ago. The configuration of Earth's continents was different then- subsequent plate tectonics affected the distribution of ants. The greatest diversity among the ants, the most endemic genera and the most species, is in the Neotropics. With evidence of the survival of older forms and the diversity of novel forms, it would be safe to characterize the tropics as both cradle and museum.

Ants are efficient at exploiting novel ecological niches. With the evolution and spread of flowering trees, ants were able to spread into the forest canopy (conifers aren't a rich source of exploitable resources). The evolution of herbivory among the ants coincided with the co-evolution of ants and endosymbiotic bacteria. Ants provide an excellent opportunity to study the diversity, distribution, and influence of gut bacteria. While ants harbor diverse bacterial communities, the nitrogen-fixing Rhizobiales are common among plant-eating ants, which feed at low trophic levels. The highly predatory army ants do not need nitrogen-fixing symbionts. Herbivory necessitated bacterial symbionts, which are not distributed equally throughout the ants' evolutionary tree. In the co-evolutionary process, more closely related ants have more closely related bacterial symbionts.

Dr Moreau then gave us an overview of the gastrointestinal anatomy of an ant, with an emphasis on the locations in which bacterial symbionts are found. Dissections of ants were conducted, and the bacteria in the mouth, the crop (from which ants can regurgitate liquid for other ants), the midgut, and the hindgut (the leg was also sampled as a 'control'). All of the dissected individuals had similar bacterial flora in their midguts and hindguts. The bacterial communities of the ants were dictated by what the ants ate. The herbivorous turtle ants have co-evolved with their gut bacteria for over forty-five million years. The bacterial communities of various ants- the herbivorous ants, the highly predatory army ants, the not-entirely predatory bullet ants- have to be compared and contrasted. In one particular project, Costa Rican bullet ants were collected, and their gut bacteria were studied.

After this fantastic overview of ants and their bacterial symbionts, Dr Moreau shifted the topic of the talk to the importance of science outreach, and the diverse tools needed to share scientific knowledge. Commitment to science necessitates outreach and popularization. Scientists have to convey to people how important science is to their lives. In order to combat the stereotypical view people have of scientists, scientists have to meet with people. Dr Moreau put together an exhibit called The Romance of Ants to chronicle her life and career in graphic novel form. The theme of the exhibit is that everyone is a scientist at heart.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question involved the evolution of eusociality in the hymenoptera- eusociality evolved several times among the different branches of the hymenoptera- there are non-eusocial bees and wasps as well as eusocial ones. Here's an overview of eusociality and genetics (ants, bees, and wasps are haplodiploid- males are born from unfertilized eggs, so sisters are more closely related to each other than they are to the mothers or to any potential offspring). Some bastard in the audience asked about the antibiotic properties of ants- ants have a metaplueral gland which produces an antibiotic fluid which protects against bacterial or fungal pathogens- ants have a lot of associated bacteria and fungi. Dr Moreau then pointed out that the bastard had attended all-but-one of the Secret Science Club lectures, which caused said bastard to blush in a most incandescent fashion, luckily the beacon-like effect wasn't so apparent in the darkened Bell House. The bastard then asked Dr Moreau a hypothetical about using ants to treat a cut in the field- while ant, uh, antibiotics aren't a panacea, the use of army ant heads as sutures would definitely be in the tropical pharmacopeia. Another attendee asked about the ant population of New York- after a joke about hipster ants in Brooklyn, Dr Moreau noted that fungus-growing ants survive on Long Island, tending to build their colonies under power lines. Another question concerned invasive ants- out of the one-hundred worst invasive species worldwide(PDF), five are ants. Invasive ant species can devastate ecosystems and outcompete native species. They thrive in locations disturbed by humans. Ants have many characteristics which make them good invaders, such as the ability to exploit novel ecological niches. In the case of the Argentine ant, the insects form mega-colonies which do not compete- offspring of different queens will interact cooperatively, probably due to the ants passing through a narrow genetic bottleneck, so all of them are closely related. Another questioner asked when eusociality first appeared in the Tree of Life- the termites, which can be likened to eusocial cockroaches, were the first eusocial insects to evolve and there are even fungus-farming termites. How do ants communicate? Ants communicate through scent- they have glands which produce pheromones, which are chemical signals to other ants. How do researchers determine fossil ant affinities? Some fossil ants have unique morphologies, but many fossil ants are similar to modern genera- younger specimens look more similar to modern ants than older ones. Regarding behavior, every ant colony acts as an individual, each worker ant can be likened to a cell in a multicellular animal. This breaks down in the case of the invasive Argentine ant supercolonies, in which neighboring colonies are not recognized as different from each other. Regarding dissection, ant specimens are handled with jewelers' forceps, though Dr Moreau joked that a common refrain in the lab is, "Don't talk to me on dissection day!" Dr Moreau noted that there is ant-specific citizen-science- volunteers can catch ants in their backyards and send them to the lab. Dr Moreau then discussed the various body forms among ant species, and while most ants produce small workers and big soldiers, there are about ten species which produce super-soldiers, and that the 'super-soldier' gene can be switched on in individuals to produce these oversized soldiers... super-soldiers can be produced in the lab. Regarding the acquisition of gut bacteria, every time an insect sheds its exoskeleton, it sheds its respiratory and digestive invaginations, and loses gut bacteria. New bacteria are obtained from other ants through oral/anal trophallaxis.

Dr Moreau ended her lecture by stating that she is unwilling to let go of field research... She is a typical field biologist, she likes looking at live things as much as studying dead ones. She joked that some of her keenest observations were picked up lying on the ground picking up chiggers and ticks while studying her subjects.

As an individual who tends to prefer biology to the other sciences, I have to say that Dr Moreau really hit a grand slam with this lecture. She imparted important knowledge about some of our most interesting fellow denizens of Earth with passion, she outlined a model for communicating scientific knowledge to the general public, and she was very entertaining. I like to talk about the 'Secret Science Sweet Spot'- that combination of hard-science lecture, adventure narrative, and advocacy that characterize the best of the lectures, and this lecture hit on all of those cylinders. Also, Dr Moreau was in town for a conference, and all-around good-guy Dr Simon Garnier was the person who told her about the SSC, inspiring her to lecture in Gowanus. Dr Garnier attended with a bunch of students from his lab, and there were a gaggle of entomologists hanging out in the beautiful Bell House. In an informal discussion over beers, I had a talk with a young entmologist about haplodiploploidy and eusociality, and he mentioned that the thrips, which are haplodiploid, also have some eusocial species. Surrounded by entomologists, I made a joke about these entomologists forming a 'hymenoptera gang' and zooming along the highways and byways on Vespas. Good times, nerding out with great people!

Kudos to Dr Moreau, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. Also, high fives to all of the assorted biologists in attendance, you are all doing great work.

Here's a short video of Dr Moreau lecturing on the evolution of ant gut bacteria:





Here's a longer video featuring Dr Moreau lecturing on biodiversity and the evolution of ants:





Dr Moreau also has several videos on the Field Museum's Brain Scoop YouTube channel. If you are going to get stuck in a time-sink, I can think of few better ones than the Brain Scoop.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Feeling Antsy

I'm heading down to the beautiful Bell House in Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, which is all about ants. Before I hit the 4 train to Brooklyn, I figure I have time to post a video for Attack of the Giant Ants, a rather silly song off of Blondie's eponymous first album:





Has the prospect of human extinction ever sounded so upbeat? The video accompanying the song was cobbled together out of clips from the movie THEM!, perhaps the finest giant radioactive ant movie ever filmed. On a personal note, my only exposure to giant ants has been totally delicious. Why yes, I have indulged in myrmecophagy on several occasions.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

That's No Pivot, Still a Bigot

I didn't watch Trump's speech to Congress last night, being preoccupied with drinking beer and recapturing first place in the local bar's Team Trivia contest (after a seven-week undefeated streak, the team failed to place last week). I figured I'd have time to digest the speech today, and I was somewhat surprised to hear pundits characterizing it as a 'pivot'.

Meanwhile, the real Trump has kept on his same old bigoted course- he is creating an agency to 'address' crimes committed by immigrants, though immigrants actually are less likely to be criminals than the native-born. In the aftermath of the shooting of two Indian engineers working in Kansas (and a heroic 'good Samaritan'), Trump stated his obligation 'to serve, protect, and defend the citizens of the United States', with no mention of his obligation to protect residents or visitors to these shores.

On the WTF?scale, Trump made an issue about 'ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force', not taking into account that the vast majority of these individuals are children or retirees. He also continued his vendetta against Chicago.

Meanwhile, even though many media outlets are falling over themselves to laud Trumo for not shitting on the carpet, the man himself is hinting that his political opponents might be behind the attacks on Jewish Community Centers and cemeteries. The guy can behave himself for a whopping hour and ten minutes, but that doesn't mean that his attitudes and priorities have changed.