Monday, March 25, 2019

Survivor Guilt, Plus a Year-Long Litany of Abuse

In an upsetting coda to the horror of last year's Parkland mass shooting, two of the survivors, and the father of a Sandy Hook shooting victim, have taken their lives recently. Besides being witnesses to horror, and coping with survivor's guilt, these individuals have been subject to torrents of abuse online, and at the hands of well-payed arms industry shills.

After every mass shooting, the trolls come out of the woodwork, with their accounts of 'crisis actors' and 'false flags'. This American Life had a recent episode about Lenny Pozner, father of Sandy Hook victim Noah Pozner, and his efforts to turn the tables on the trolls who have hounded him from residence to residence with their accusations of deception and, in extreme cases, their death threats. Mr Pozner comes across as a tough, competent, experienced individual, the sort of person who can weather the barbs and brutalities of his tormentors. Sydney Aiello and the unidentified sophomore who took his life, were teenagers, more vulnerable to anonymous tormentors.

I can't fathom the sort of cruelty which would lead people to bully the bereaved. The natural human instinct, the natural mammalian instinct, is to console the suffering... what the hell is wrong with anyone who would harangue and harass someone who has been a witness to utter horror?

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Leave the Gun, Take the Adrenochrome

One of the weirder recent local stories here in the NY Metro Area is the murder of the capo di tutti capi of the Gambino crime family by a sfacim on March 13th. While the conventional wisdom concerning the crime is that the killer murdered the don because the don warned him to stay away from his niece, the killer had a couple of QAnon conspiracy theory related terms inked on his palm.

QAnon is the 'one conspiracy theory to rule them all, one conspiracy theory to find them, one conspiracy theory to bring them all and in the darkness bind them in MAGAland, where the edgelords lie'. It's the unified field theory of conspiracies, with a basic premise that the Democratic Party and Hollywood elites are committing ritual child abuse and cannibalism on a global scale. It's Pizzagate on a combination of steroids and meth, the ancient blood libel trotted out for a 21st Century audience, with a lot of accumulated baggage, such as Ickean lizard people, Flat Earth lunacy, and a ton of Satanic Panic and eschatological evangelical fantasies. A lot of it is rooted, though believers may not realize it, in pop culture, with one central tenet of the conspiracy theory, the consumption of adrenochrome as a drug by the elite 'cabal', coming from Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and depicted in the movie based on the book:





Adrenochrome-as-drug is also alluded to in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, with 'drencrom' being an additive to the moloko-plus favored by the book's villainous main character. For the record, I'm not a fan of Kubrick's film adaptation, which traded in the gritty, grotty milieu of the book for an all-too-clean aesthetic which I feel glorifies the 'ultraviolence' the book portrays:





Adrenochrome being oxidized epinephrine, the easiest way to obtain adrenochrome is to let an epi-pen go bad. According to the conspiracy theory, though, regular adrenochrome doesn't cut it for cannibals such as Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks- the good stuff has to be sourced from victims subjected to torture and murder. This is a major plot point in the first episode of the BBC police procedural Lewis:





The Sisters of Mercy weren't particular about sourcing their adrenochrome:





At any rate, the world is a weird place when a mob boss gets gunned down by a guy who believes in a hoax perpetrated by a 4chan/8chan shitposter. The idea of the Mafia sending a couple of bone-breakers to send a message to a couple of online grifters is surreal, the very sort of grotesque lunacy which seems to be a hallmark of this particular era.

Post title based on my favorite line from The Godfather.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Ring Me Ring Me Ring Me up the FBI, and Find out if my Country's Alive

It happened, the Mueller Report has finally been released. There's a lot of speculation about what it contains, but I'm not jumping on the overly optimistic bandwagon, and am resigned to the feeling that this isn't the succor so many sought. It's not like the FBI has exactly covered itself in glory when it comes to Trump. Hell, it's a weird organization, while it has done things like catch the Unabomber, it has also done things like harass Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Yeah, it's a bit weird that so many left-of-center people have projected their hope of a savior onto Mueller and his investigation.

At any rate, I figure I have to explain the post title now- it's adapted from a line from the Ramones' song The KKK Took my Baby Away:





The important thing is that the FBI isn't going to save us, impeachment is dead on arrival with a Republican dominated Senate. It's up to us to save ourselves, and next year's elections are going to be the most important ones of my lifetime, once again.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Two Ways to Handle the Gun Violence Issue

After last week's deadly mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, the country's government has banned semi-automatic and automatic rifles, and a gun buyback program will be instituted. This is what happens in a nation which has a government which is not owned by the arms manufacturers' lobby. Here, in the United States, there is a different approach to mass shootings- shoot teachers in the back with pellet guns as part of an active shooter drill. While this does nothing to promote school safety, it sure as hell shows those uppity teachers what could happen if they demonstrate for higher wages.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Man Knew Everybody

I just arrived on the job after attending the wake of my friend and co-worker Barry, who died last Saturday. Barry was involved in many public service organizations, he was an emergency medical technician for his local volunteer ambulance corps, a volunteer firefighter, and a recently-promoted captain in the Westchester County Sheriff's Department. When I arrived at the funeral home, I was stuck with the staggering array of insignia on the vehicles in the parking lot. Outside the funeral home, there was an honor guard from the sheriff's department. I greeted them with a simple declarative sentence: "The man knew everyone." Without missing a beat, the head of the honor guard replied: "And everyone is going to be here."

Throughout the two hours I was in attendance (I had to leave a 7PM in order to get to work early so my co-worker Jim could pay his respects), every five minutes or so, there would be a changing of the guard for the two uniformed service members flanking the coffin... the Westchester County Police would salute and the Cortlandt EMS would step up, the Yorktown Fire Department would be relieved by the Croton-on-Hudson ambulance corps. State police in uniforms, teenaged EMT trainees in maroon polo shirts with their affiliated insignia... all were there to honor the life and the generosity of a man who exemplified public service in many different capacities.

The funeral will be tomorrow morning, and the procession, much like the processions he participated in while serving in a formal departmental capacity, will probably be a mile long... the man knew everybody.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: The Triumphant Return of Dr de Waal

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, which featured the triumphant return of Dr Frans de Waal, Emory University primatologist and psychologist, director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, living legend, and one of my heroes. Dr de Waal delivered a Secret Science Club lecture Dr de Waal delivered a Secret Science Club lecture in April 2016 on animal cognition. Last night's lecture, riffing on his latest book, Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, concerned, you guessed it, animal emotions.

Dr de Waal began his lecture by mentioning Charles Darwin's book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals and noting that this book had fallen out of favor by the time he was a student. Scholars used to be able to talk about animal motions, but he was told as a student not to talk about thinking, feeling, or any inner states. The main objection to discussing inner states was the sin of anthropomorphism, (mis)attributing human feelings to non-human animals. Another objection is our inability to know what animals feel.

In Darwin's model of emotions, stimulus leads to emotion which leads to action, and emotions must lead to adaptive responses. For example, fear can lead to hiding. An alternate model of emotion, proposed by William James and Carl Lange, held that stimulus led to action which was the basis of emotion. The current model is that stimulus leads to emotion which leads to action and feelings. Actions are adaptive and feelings are awareness of emotion. Dr de Waal stated that he cannot know an animal's feelings, he cannot know your feelings, feelings are hard to access... not knowing how an animal feels does not mean that he cannot study its emotions.

Dr de Waal then tackled the subject of anthropomorphism, the 'sin' of attributing human characteristics to animals. In some cases, similar seeming behavior is due to convergent evolution, a process by which organisms which are not closely related appear to be similar due to adaptation- by independently adapting to similar environments, they end up looking similar. homology, on the other hand, involves similar traits shared by closely related organisms being due to shared ancestry. Dr de Waal contrasted two kisses... when kissing gouramis 'kiss', they lock their mouths in a form of fighting. Bonobos, which are closely related to humans, kiss for reasons similar to human reasons for kissing. In the case of bonobos, there is homology with human kisses, while the mouth-to-mouth contact of gouramis does not represent homology. Similarly, a chimpanzee forelimb, with its homologous structures, is referred to as a hand rather than a paw (as an aside, I have to note that this courtesy is not extended to monkeys). Dr de Waal showed us a picture of a baby gorilla laughing and quipped that, in the interest of avoiding anthropomorphism, this would be characterized as 'short vocalized panting', which elicited short vocalized panting from the audience. When a baby gorilla, a close relative of humans, laughs for reasons which would make humans laugh, call it a laugh, not vocalized panting.

Dr de Waal coined the term 'anthropodenial' to denote an a priori denial that other animals can have mental experiences or that humans are like animals. He opined that anthropodenial is more dangerous than anthropomorphism- the belief that humans are separate from nature is a major factor in our current ecological catastrophe.

When studying emotions, Dr de Waal advised us to start with the face, the window to the soul. Chimpanzees have as many facial muscles as humans. Inspired by Darwin, Dr Paul Ekman was a pioneer of the study of emotion. When Dr Ekman began his study of emotion, the prevailing belief was that emotions were expressed differently in different cultures- when he looked into this belief, there were no records, no photos... this belief was all in the theorists' heads. Dr Ekman studied emotions and categorized six major emotions: disgust, sadness, happiness,fear,anger, surprise. This model is still somewhat constraining, as there are subtler emotional expressions.

Dr de Waal's professor, Dr Jan Van Hooff, studied emotions and recognized differences between laughing and smiling. While smiling was thought to be a 'lower' version of laughing, Dr Van Hooff discovered that smiles are based on teeth baring behavior (often used to show aggression or submission) while laughter is rooting in play expressions. There are variations in behavior, nervous smiles and aggressive laughter. Aristotle famously wrote 'man is the only animal which laughs', but chimpanzees laugh under similar conditions that humans do. Chimps have the same tickle response that humans do:





Even though rats are ubiquitous lab animals, it was long thought that they didn't exhibit emotion through facial expressions, but when this was finally tested, it turns out that these animals were underestimated. Dr Jaak Panksepp even discovered that rats respond to tickling with ultrasonic laughter:





Showing us the video of the laughing rat, Dr de Waal joked, "As a student, I had a bunch of rats, they tend to multiply."

Studies of humor among apes are relatively new. In one instance, a zoo employee in a mask startled chimpanzees in a zoo, eliciting anger responses. On his last masked escapade, he took off his mask, and the chimpanzees laughed, suggesting that, like humans, they are amused by incongruity. Unexpected endings lead to laughter. When an alpha male allows a baby to chase him, it's funny. When a chimpanzee tricks her son and steals his nut-cracking rocks, she laughs afterwards:





An orangutan can be made to laugh with a simple magic trick:





Laughing represents a loss of control, it can be seen as animalistic- you can pee yourself, you need to catch your breath... why can't people just say 'this is funny'? Dr de Waal showed a video of Bill Clinton laughing uncontrollably, and causing Boris Yeltsin to laugh until he tears up:





A lot of emotional expressions affect our bodies deeply. The problem with the basic theory of emotion is that it is hard to study emotions that have no 'face'. Love, attachment, jealousy, hope, empathy... there are no facial expressions for them. Also, there are animals that don't expression emotions facially, such as cats and dolphins. Dr de Waal cited the example of the grieving orca which carried the body of its deceased young around for seventeen days. Chimpanzees are emotional beings, they express their emotion on reuniting with each other vocally.

Dr de Waal posed several questions: Are there uniquely human emotions? Are animals 'captives of the present'? Are humans the only animals with impulse control? Do only humans know disgust? He noted that he found this question the strangest of them all.

We don't know what animals feel, so the question of uniquely human emotions is unverifiable.

Regarding the notion that animals live only in the present, forgiveness involves a knowledge of the past. After fights, chimps engage in reconciliation- they have conflict resolution to shift from aggression to friendliness. The model for conflict resolution involves PC/MC (post-conflict/matched-control) observation, the reconciliation model is found in the wild and in captivity. Dr de Waal joked that he is from a family with six boys, so he is familiar with reconciliation. Besides primates, reconciliation behavior has been observed in most mammals- goats, hyenas, dolphins all reconcile. In an aside which I found particularly funny, he noted that reconciliation has not been observed in domestic cats. Among human preschoolers, reconciliation behavior was observed, and it was handled better by Japanese children than American children, probably because American teachers intervene in conflicts more frequently.

Dr de Waal displayed some pictures of Barack Obama and John McCain after a particularly contentious meeting, and Barack Obama has his cheeks puffed with air. A similar puffed cheek, bulging lip expression is used by male chimpanzees, and politicians such as Anthony Weiner, Bill Clinton, and others, probably to express regret. This expression is a male behavior, women don't do it.

Besides reconciling for past behaviors, animals also plan for the future. Psychologist Dr Wolfgang Köhler tasked chimpanzees with obtaining fruit that was hanging from the ceiling. The chimps were provided with boxes and poles and were able to employ them to get their reward. Köhler noted that the chimps solved the problem in their heads, not by a laborious trial-and-error process. Dr de Waal joked that this made him very unpopular with behaviorists. When he replicated the Köhler experiment, one particular female chimpanzee solved the problem by throwing a box and bringing down the fruit... she was the chimpanzee which brought down the drone:





Chimps can plan ahead, the collect tools and move them to areas where resources are available- they are not trapped in the present.

Animals can also exhibit impulse control. The standard laboratory test for impulse control is the marshmallow test:





Chimpanzees, like the children in the video, look around at other objects to distract themselves from temptation, they can hold out longer if given toys. Even some birds are able to pass the marshmallow test, with one African grey parrot holding out for fifteen minutes. Animals can control their impulses, such as a cat stalking a chipmunk rather than pouncing prematurely.

Subordinate animals in a hierarchy also exhibit impulse control. In the Menzel test, a chimpanzee is separated from the group and shown a hidden cache of food, which it must keep concealed from dominant chimps. Near the food source, the chimp will act nonchalant, an act of deception. If a low-value cucumber and a high-value banana are hidden, the aware chimp will sometimes lead the dominant chimp to the cucumber and grab the banana while the dominant one is occupied.

Animals feel disgust, it is an important adaptation to avoid contaminants and poisons. Psychologist Dr Paul Rozin opined that disgust seems to be uniquely human and is entirely or primarily cultural. Dogs were held up as exemplars of animals' lack of disgust- they eat feces and lick their testicles. Dogs do exhibit disgust, but only when presented with stimuli which disgust them, such as lemons:





Chimpanzees don't like the rain, and they try to keep their hands dry, hunching over and covering them. They tend to exhibit the wrinkled-nose disgust display when outside in the rain.

In one experiment, food was placed on plastic replica feces and real feces and macaques were observed eating food placed on plastic feces while rejecting the food placed on real feces.

Dr de Waal then discussed Dr Sarah Brosnan's primate fairness study, in which capuchin monkeys were given unequal rewards (a meh cucumber or a prized grape) for performing a task. The monkey receiving the poor reward doesn't take things well:





Inequity aversion is an irrational response- rationally, you should always take what you get. Reject the reward and you get nothing. Chimpanzees subjected to this test will sometimes refuse a grape until the other chimp gets a grape. Dr de Waal joked that this inequity aversion is lost in humans- one percent of us are grape monkeys, while ninety-nine percent of us are cucumber monkeys. In a not-so-funny coda, he noted that this is undermining our societies.

On a lighter note, parents are now doing this experiment on their children, giving one kid a whole cookie and another kid half of one. Dr de Waal also recounted a colleague who has a Great Dane and a Chihuahua which want the same amount of food.

Dr de Waal summed up his take on anthropomorphism: if two related species have the same response to the same stimulus, use the same term. Don't separate animals from humans.

Dr de Waal ended his lecture on a poignant note, addressing consolation behavior. All mammals show empathic concern. Among elephants, consolation takes the form of vulnerable contact- an elephant will stick its trunks in another elephant's mouth, a display of trust. Dr de Waal then turned to the subject of his book Mama's Last Hug. Mama was the alpha female of the Royal Burgers Zoo (Arnhem, Netherlands) chimpanzee colony. She was the most powerful chimpanzee in the colony, a mediator and decision maker, and important contact with human researchers- when she died, conflict arose in the group. At the age of eighty, Dr de Waal's professor, Dr Jan van Hooff, visited Mama, aged fifty-nine, as she was dying. Dr de Waal described the visit as 'two aging hominids meeting'. Typically, because chimpanzees are stronger than humans and are potentially dangerous, all interaction is done through a cage. On this occasion, Dr van Hooff decided to forego protocol and enter the enclosure to pay his final respects to Mama:





The hug, the arm around the neck and the patting, is reassuring behavior. Some viewers didn't expect such an emotional reaction and he felt the need to explain. Animal emotions can be studied objectively, cortisol levels and heart rates can be measured. Humans have no organs that aren't in a rat's body, while our emotions may be more sophisticated, they are not that different.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. One question regarded bad emotions- Dr de Waal noted that animals do kill conspecific animals in conflicts over mates, hierarchical positions, territory. Another questioner asked, do animals have emotions that humans don't have? Dr de Waal noted that cetaceans may have stronger affiliative feelings (which may be a factor in mass strandings), but the basics are similar. To find something foreign to human experience, one might have to look at more distantly related animals, such as octopodes. Regarding the lack of reconciliation among cats, Dr de Waal noted that domestic cats are solitary hunters, so they have less of a need of affiliation than other mammals. Lions, being social, might exhibit reconciliation behavior, but this needs further study. Another question involved altruism- the origin of empathy is thought to be parental care, in which the hormone oxytocin plays a role. Chimpanzees share food, but this may be a case of reciprocity, rather than altruism. Sharing just makes sense. The house was packed, so the Bastard was unable to get a question in until the post lecture book signing, when he asked Dr de Waal about the role of olfaction in the expression of emotion, and how this could be measured. As a primatologist who studies apes, he noted that smell doesn't play as big a role as visual and vocal cues, but that other mammals might communicate that way. The bastard also thanked Dr de Waal for his kindness to linking to the blog.

Once again, the Secret Science Club served up a fantastic program. Dr de Waal's lecture informed, enthralled, saddened, and amused- how appropriate for a lecture on emotions. To use a baseball term, he knocked it out of the park. Kudos to the good doctor, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House.

Here's a recent interview with Dr de Waal concerning the topic of the lecture:





Pour yourself a nice beverage and soak in that SCIENCE!

Monday, March 18, 2019

This Month, this Month, this Horrible Month

I didn't think this month could get any worse, but Dick Dale died on Saturday night. Dick Dale, born Richard Anthony Monsour, defined the 'surf rock' genre, and incorporated Eastern Mediterranean musical influences, reflecting his father's Lebanese-American heritage (his mother was Polish/Belarussian), into his music. Dale was a guitar virtuoso, the man just ran up and down the fretboard and cranked up the reverb, pushing the limits of the equipment that Leo Fender gave him to test out. Dick Dale was also a genuine surfer, so his songs about surfing and drag racing were played with utter conviction. Dale's best known song is the Greek/Levantine folk song Misirlou, which he rescued from lounge-music purgatory and turned into an absolute amp-buster. While the song was re-popularlized in the 90s when it was featured on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack... I was introduced to his music by listening to college radio starting in my middle school years. Even as I write this, I have his greatest hits CD in my car's disc player, though I admit that it's dangerous to listen to Dick Dale while driving, because the music leadens the foot.

Dale's oeuvre is too numerous to encapsulate in a quick blog post, but the man performed into his 80s, because this country doesn't provide good healthcare to the elderly, displaying the same muscular playing style he did in his youth. Here's a live performance of his from June of last year:





I'm hoping for a break from the general suckitude of this month as I head down to Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring the triumphant return of Frans de Waal, who I am a big fan of. Dr de Waal was extraordinarily kind to me, linking to my recap of his lecture on his Facebook page, so there's one bright spot in this month, this month, this terrible month.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Solemn Feast of St Patrick 2019

This past week has been a tough one, with large scale atrocity and personal tragedy combining to punch me in the gut. Today, I had a respite, lunch with good friends- a home-cured corned beef brisket, braised cabbage, and homemade soda bread. An Irish coffee served to wash everything down, then I scarpered off to work to feed the cat.

This being St Paddy's Day, I figured I'd post a song appropriate for bereavement (nobody does bereavement quite like the Irish). The Pogues song Body of an American is part dirge, part tall-tale, part cryptolect rebel-song (the line about 'Spanish wine from far away' hints at gunrunning), whole-cloth rave-up. The song was featured prominently on the TV show The Wire, as an accompaniment to the police wakes depicted. I am partial to the live version from the 1986 Self Aid concert, featuring Spider Stacy playing a lick from The Guns of Navarone on the tin whistle:





I've posted clips from Self Aid before, it's a great snapshot of the Irish music scene in the 1980s. My favorite performance in the concert is the set by woefully obscure band In Tua Nua (if they had debuted five years later than they did, they would have been huge)... lead singer Leslie Dowdall still gives me heart palpitations to this day, and I'm not an adolescent anymore by any stretch of the imagination.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

A Horrible Ending to a Horrific Week

As if this week weren't bad enough, my friend and colleague Barry Goldstein succumbed to cancer today. I received notice from another friend-and-coworker shortly after noon. If you looked up the phrase 'large and in charge' in a dictionary, there would be a picture of Barry next to the definition. He was calm, competent, and commanding... his mere presence was a bulwark during stressful times. His humor, his humanity, his devotion to others were comforting.

Barry had a background in facilities management, he managed a large manufacturing concern in the Bronx until the bottom fell out of heavy industry in the US. Before his illness, he was working two jobs, both of which he was overqualified for. A few years back, I had to write his evaluation and I approached the prospect with some trepidation... I felt like the manager of a junior college baseball team writing an evaluation of Hank Aaron. I ended up writing: "Barry has a by-the-book approach to the job and, with his experience, I suspect that he wrote the book." Barry wasn't shy about sticking to his guns no matter what upper management would say. Furnace malfunctioning in an outbuilding? Barry wouldn't allow anybody inside until someone with a carbon monoxide detector checked it out. Manager acting like a martinet and bawling out a subordinate? Barry called her out.

Barry was a perfect exemplar of civic virtue, he lived a life of service. He was a lieutenant in the county sheriff's department, which was an unpaid position. While much of it involved traffic control during events, he was also connected with the state Department of Environmental Protection. In one harrowing occurrence, he confronted a teenager brandishing a large kitchen knife during a fight in a fast food restaurant and got the kid to drop the knife so he could be apprehended and brought in for a psych evaluation. He was also a volunteer firefighter and, along with his wife, an Emergency Medical Technician for the local volunteer ambulance corps. He was unfailingly generous with his time and expertise. He was a good role model as well as a good friend.

He also had a way with animals, doting on his two dogs and our mutual friend Ginger. His knack with animals even extended to wild critters- I actually saw him reprimand an aggressive gander during the nesting/hatching season and, whether by sound or stance, got this goose to back off and calm down. It was just another of his talents.

Barry typically worked evening shifts, and I would come in early for the overnight shift to 'get the lay of the land'. The change of shift briefing usually involved shooting the breeze for half an hour or forty-five minutes, nerding out about astronomy, swapping recipes, exchanging information about favorite restaurants. Every once in a while, something unexpected would happen while we were conversing, and Barry would always respond with his typical good humor.

Even after getting his cancer diagnosis, Barry maintained his courage, grace, and humor. Having medical training and an engineering degree, he approached his illness like he approached all of the situations he encountered- he researched, he demystified the problem, he rolled up his sleeves and took the illness on. I thought he would beat this thing, we all thought he would beat this thing. None of us get out of here alive, but Barry gave us a good example of how to live. Today was a tough day, much of it spent getting the sad news out. Next week, we will gather for the memorial service and funeral. He would have wanted us to celebrate his life more than to mourn his death, so I will take my cues from him, and strive to be the bulwark of strength and compassion that will be needed... after all, he was a good role model.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Evil and Banality

As I am sure you have been, I have been following, appalled, the news of the mass shooting at two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques that resulted in the deaths of 49 innocent individuals. Much of the coverage post-attack, has concentrated on the manifesto that the terrorist posted online, that odd blend of actual right-wing conspiracy, 'dank memes', and red herrings that is the hallmark of 'chan' culture. The manifesto was calculated to baffle.

The thing that strikes me is that this is the first 'Gamergate/4Chan/8Chan' mass shooting... it was announced on 8chan, livestreamed like a 'Call of Duty' tournament, and accompanied by a hard-to-penetrate metanarrative meant to obscure what is pretty much a bog-standard white supremacist campaign of terror. It's the metastasis of the path of radicalization of many alt-righties... 'ironic' 4chan racism and misogyny leads to earnest racism and then action, which most of them keep limited to putting up racist flyers in multicultural neighborhoods and an occasional street brawl. Predictably, the very right-wingers who push the 'invasion' narrative which helped to radicalize the shooter are backpedaling as quickly as they can, with a lot of them pushing the idea that talking about the shooter's radicalization is somehow 'what the shooter wants'. Weird, I didn't hear any of them questioning media outlets' attempts to suss out the radicalization of Western-born people who ran off and joined ISIS.

The important thing here is that forty-nine people are dead, and forty-eight more people grievously injured. This sort of tragedy is unprecedented in New Zealand, which is the home of several of my bloggerhood friends. To the people of New Zealand, Kia Kaha.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Pi Day 2019

Today being Pi Day, when I went shopping last night, I actually bought a pie, a custard pie which isn't all that different from the egg tarts one can get in Chinatown. It's really quite a lovely pie, and storebought had to suffice because I didn't have the time to bake a Schadenfreude Pie.

For the record, I prefer savory pies to sweet ones. My sainted paternal Grandmother wasn't exactly the most elaborate cook on the planet, but one of her outstanding specialties was a lamb pie, small chunks of meat cut from the leg and baked in a double crust pie... a simple dish which perfectly highlighted the delicious, slightly gamey lamb. My favorite pie is steak-and-kidney pie, though Dad's family ate a lot of kidneys, they were typically consumed in stew for Sunday breakfast. Not having a lot of time, I think I might hit the local butcher shop to buy a steak-and-kidney pie before heading off to work.

Happy Pi Day to all! I'm not a big mathematics guy, though I am sympatico with people who are mathematics fanatics.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Dose Makes the Poison, Fatty

Swiss physician Paracelsus articulated the fundamental tenet of toxicology: “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” This assertion has passed down to us in abbreviated form: "The dose makes the poison."

The West Virginia House of Delegates recently passed legislature blocking the state Department of Environmental Protection from updating water quality standards. The proposed change in standards would have reduced the allowable concentrations of carcinogens in state waterways.

In an astounding display of Marie Antoinetteism, West Virginia Manufacturers Association president Rebecca McPhail told delegates why the presence of more toxins in the water was no biggie: West Virginians drink less water, eat less fish and are heavier than the national average. The EPA allows states to consider state-specific information about its population when proposing water quality standards.

Let them eat poison! McPhail seems to be suggesting that carrying an extra thirty or forty pounds means that benzene in the drinking water is okay. Meanwhile, the voters keep supporting politicians who enable this cartoonish supervillainy. I guess that capitalists putting toxins in the water is preferable to socialists taking away the hamburgers.

It's depressing that this story has taken a backseat to the story of rich Hollywood types paying bribes to get their spawn into Prestigious Bastions of Prestige. While both are examples of Mammon's malfeasance, causing yokels to die slowly of cancer is worse than getting Biff and Muffy into an Ivy, it's just that the college scandal will be flogged to a fare-thee-well because it highlights hypocrisy by 'Hollywood libs', and it will be, oddly enough, weaponized to undermine Affirmative Action (bookmark this!!!).

Anyway, this story is depressing as hell, and it's still the runup to the Solemn Feast of St Patrick, so how about a thematically appropriate song by the faithful, departed Phil Chevron?





In contrast, poison is alive and well in West Virginia.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Imagine if Information Could Be Shared Without Impediment

Whatever plan I had for posting something today changed when I saw the Google doodle celebrating the 30th birthday of the World Wide Web when computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee submitted a paper titled “Information Management: A Proposal” to his supervisor at CERN. The idea, linking information systems with hypertext, was brilliant, and CERN rightfully celebrated its role in the creation of the WWW.

The problem is the people... while it's good that people have access to information, the problem is that people tend to want garbage. The World Wide Web was created by scientists, people with lofty goals of seeking out the building blocks of the universe and democratizing their findings. They wanted to release their findings to a grateful world... the world wanted porn, cat pictures, and the ability to anonymously harass others.

Instead of the Promethean dream of common people discussing particle physics, the Web gave us (DON'T GOOGLE THESE) Goatse, and Two Girls One Cup, Lemon Party, and ten hour Nyan Cat videos. It gave us shitposting, and dank memes, and a quicker way to distribute 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion'. It gave us Russian troll farms and crazy conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine hysteria on a grand scale. The Web, brilliant in concept and execution, fell victim to Sturgeon's Law. The flow of information, much of it garbage, can confuse people who don't have the time and training to sift through the dross to find the real facts (hey, I sorta got burned by this yesterday). That Stang fella and his buddies warned us about this:





Of course, I'm half joking about this... while there's a lot of crap out there, the worthwhile information makes the whole endeavor a, pardon the expression, net positive. I'd like to think that my particular corner of this crazy virtual space is one of the worthwhile stops on this information superhighway. Hey, I've even posted about CERN.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Speedboats in the Hills of Chappaqua!!!

Here we have a dispatch from the most feverish of the fever-swamps of MAGAstan... some sort of 'frogman boat' coming to BRING THE PAIN!!! These two camo-ed stealth-boats are coming for Hillary:





It's going to take awhile, the Saw Mill River needs a good dredging to accommodate these suckers...

The lunatics are especially hotted up these days because they believe that their enemies will be crushed before the month is over. They're gonna need a bigger boat if they're going to ship tens of thousands of people to Gitmo.

ADDENDUM: Oh, Lordy, I really needed to have read the original tweets more carefully... it's satire, when I thought it was an embed of a true believer's video. It's getting so damn hard to suss out the snark in these post Poe's Law days. Even acknowledging that I have egg on my face, I'm leaving this post up, because the image of high-tech speedboats racing alongside the South County Trail is hilarious. Looks like I'm not the only one to fall for it.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Runup to St Paddy's Day 2019 Begins

Once again, the St Patrick's Day season is upon us (the Irish, being contrary, celebrate Carnival season in the middle of Lent), so I will be taking some time to post Irish music, but traditional and popular. This year, I think I'll start off with folk rockers Horslips, which I have featured in previous posts. The band was the first to blend traditional folk songs with hard rock, often incorporating traditional melodies into guitar riffs. The band also drew upon myth and legend for inspiration, recording 'concept albums' based on the Táin Bó Cúailnge and the Lebor Gabála Érenn.

One of the standout tracks on the album The Book of Invasions was Trouble (With a Capital T), which is still a popular music selection in the bars in my neighborhood. The song, despite its titular allusion to The Music Man, deals with the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a tribe of divine beings, to Eire. The song poses the question, "But are they gods or real folk?" It's the sort of question that one of the Fir Bolg would have posed when the sorcerous Danann host arrived on the island. At any rate, the song is a fun 1970s artifact, with a 'Jethro Tull' esque flute part:





Now isn't the arrival of a bunch of sorceror-kings with eldritch superweapons a bit more worrying than the opening of a pool hall?

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Ending the Week on a High Note

This week has been, to put it mildly, bad. I have a friend who is dying by inches, and spent most of the week rasping and wheezing with laryngitis and a chest cold. I managed to beat the cold, and my voice is largely back. Today was the last day of the current semester of my volunteer gig. Twenty weeks of coaching has drawn to a close, and we had a nice luncheon and awards ceremony to close the program.

We only had two classes, rather than our usual four, so we spent some time cleaning up our locker room, and putting in order the displays that we will be setting up for April's New York Open Judo Tournament. It was an hour of tidying up, of assembling frames and support devices for posters and banners. We also emptied the bin that we keep the kids' gis in, and I gave it a quick wash. We will be sending the gis to a commercial laundry service for a much-needed cleaning.

We then had a ceremony for awarding new belts to our students who passed their promotional tests two weeks ago. We took turns placing a belt on a student, and then gave them the customary 'throw' for good luck. I have a running joke with the student I had to fight two weeks ago, an adorable six-year old- she seems to have a mental block regarding the pin known as kesa-gatame.

I spot quiz her, barking, "What is the name of the technique?"
She responds, "It starts with a 'K'."
I respond, "Kesa-gatame, say it ten times!"
"Kesa-gatame, Kesa-gatame, Kesa-gatame, Kesa-gatame, Kesa-gatame, Kesa-gatame, Kesa-gatame, Kesa-gatame, Kesa-gatame, Kesa-gatame!"

For the record, she has the technique down pat:





At the luncheon, I had a nice conversation with her mom, who told me that she is totally obsessed with judo, and wants to practice every day. It's a sport that she has chosen without any pressure from her parents, who have her enrolled in a dojo where one of my colleagues works. Besides judo, she's a STEM girl through-and-through, she likes robotics and her favorite toy is a model of a car engine which she has been putting together. I knew there was a reason I liked the girl! I complimented her parents on raising her well, she has flawless manners and is a nice, clean player, just a good sport and an opponent who helps her fellow students learn.

During the luncheon, the kids sit together, the coaches and counselors have their own tables, and the parents sit with each other. I told mom about my little running joke with her daughter, and when she came by the table, I barked, "What is the name of the technique?" After the joke ran its course, I told her mom, "When she is competing in the Olympics in 2032, I'm going to bark that question at her. When I'm an old geezer in a nursing home, she's going to call me up and yell, 'Kesa-gatame you old goat!"

Best of all, Sensei Al brought his son, who is our new judo baby. If there's anything cuter than a baby in a judo gi, I don't know what it is:




He's a looker, just like his old man. It was hilarious watching a bunch of toughs oohing and cooing over this baby, and he was a hit with the kids.

I needed a break from the stress and sadness of this week, and I found it in my typical fashion, getting beaten up by a bunch of six to fourteen year olds.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Something Rotten Down in Broward

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the Patriots' owner getting arrested for soliciting prostitution, noting that Kraft is buddy/buddy with Trump. Well, shit got weird- the woman who founded the spa has been photographed with all sorts of Republican mucky-mucks, and was present at Donald's Superbowl watching party. While she had sold the spa Kraft was caught in back in 2013, there is evidence on 'rub-and-tug' finding websites that sexual services were offered while she ran the joint. In a particularly gross-and-suggestive instance, the MAGA Madam posed with the odious Matt Gaetz, who cast the single vote against the recent anti sex trafficking bill.

Once again, Trump has been connected to a probable sex trafficker, and while there is no clear evidence that he himself engaged in sex trafficking (though there is a connection between employment at Mar-a-Lago and being abused by Epstein), the sketchy practices of his modelling agency, which included a sort of 'indenture' in which undocumented women were charged to stay in company-run dormitories are eerily similar to the 'debt slavery' which kept most of the undocumented women working in the Broward brothels, which also functioned as company-run dormitories.

The very idea that Trump is fighting an international sex-trafficking cabal is both grotesque and ludicrous.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

War and Pestilence

Ever since February 2th, I've had Ebola on my mind. When I left the beautiful Bell House after Dr Chandran's lecture on Ebola, I felt more optimistic than I did when I entered. There were scientists cracking the code, so to speak, that the Ebola virus uses to enter a cell and reproduce, and there were medical professionals administering treatments.

Today, I didn't feel so optimistic... listening to the BBC World Service today before heading off to work, I heard a sobering news item about the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (coverage starts around the 8:20 mark). While the treatments are more effective than previous ones, and survival rates are improving, the conflict in the DRC is thwarting efforts by Medecins Sans Frontieres, which had to shut down two treatment centers.

MSF International President Dr. Joanne Liu encapsulated the infuriating dualism of the current Ebola outbreak in the DRC:


"We have a striking contradiction. On the one hand, we have a rapid and large outbreak response with new medical tools such as vaccines and treatments that show promising outcomes when people come early. On the other hand, people with Ebola are dying in their communities, and do not trust the Ebola response enough to come forward."


Conflict drives people into the wilderness, where they come into contact with Ebola vectors, and it creates a climate of mistrust which causes people to avoid treatment. I had asked Dr Chandran about the relationship of Ebola to conflict, and his answer was much like Dr Liu's. The virologists and epidemiologists, supported by the medical personnel working in the field, are doing heroic work, but they are hampered by those individuals who would rather fight their fellow humans, rather than the virus.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Did We Ever Need a Bloomberg Candidacy?

As Tengrain noted, Mike Bloomberg is out of contention for the 2020 Democratic primary. Heaven forfend that he tries to push the Republican Party away from the brink! Much like Howard Schultz' flirtation with a presidential run, Bloomberg's test-run seems largely motivated by a desire to keep the kids away from the Siren Song of Socialism by giving them some mealy-mouthed mushy middle maunderings. Sure, Trump's bigotry is very vulgar, but at least he won't sit idle and watch some young whippersnappers raise the marginal tax rates by a few percentage points.

Bloomberg's popularity lies strictly with Beltway insiders and media 'both-sides' fetishists. Even here in New York, where he reigned as mayor, Bloomberg would probably lose in a primary against Fatberg.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

That Fattest of Tuesdays

Today is Mardi Gras, but I don't feel all that festive. I'm waiting for the shoe to drop, that one phone call which will inform me that a friend of mine has died, all the while, taking calls from people who are in disbelief about the whole thing. To compound things, I'm fighting laryngitis, so I want to limit all conversations. To feel better, I cooked a big chicken yellow curry and have been drinking hot toddys all day. I let my trivia team compatriots know that I was in no shape to be interacting with anyone in public... don't want to emulate Typhoid Mary.

Anyway, Mardi Gras just hasn't been festive, but I think listening to some Cajun music by Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys will do something to lighten the mood.





When laissez le bon temps rouler doesn't work, a little Mardi Gras music can make the mal temps more bearable.

Monday, March 4, 2019

With Apologies to Paul Frees

This has been a big month for Sebastian Gorka, the weirdo right-wing Anglo-Hungarian 'foreign policy expert' who was even too much of a grifter for the Trump Maladministration. Gorka is a weird blend of pseudointellectual (he insists on calling himself 'Dr Gorka', even though his doctorate is questionable) and wannabe tough guy (I suspect he is overcompensating for his effete eurotrash accent). He claims to be an expert on Islamic extremist terror, but he doesn't speak or read Arabic. The crowning Gorka Glory is that he is, if not exactly a Nazi, not exactly not a Nazi. He is the sort of grifter who really only fails upwards in the milieu of a failed political party.

I didn't realize who Gorka reminded me of until last weekend, when he claimed that Democrats were coming after your ground-beef products:





Cartoon villain with a vague mitteleuropäische accent? SEBASTIAN GORKA IS THE BURGOMEISTER MEISTERBURGER!!! While he would be really successful playing the heavy in children's holiday cartoon specials, Gorka will no longer appear as a Fox contributor. Asked for comment, Gorka merely said:





I really shouldn't lump Sebastian Gorka in with the talented, comedy genius that is Paul Frees, a personal favorite of mine...

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Bearer of Bad News

This has been a terrible weekend... yesterday, I received news that my friend and co-worker Barry, who has been battling bile-duct cancer for the past year, is on his last legs. His kidneys and liver have stopped functioning, and it's only a matter of days. He is receiving palliative care, and is facing the end in his typical fashion, with bravery. The real shock to me is that I honestly thought that Barry would beat this thing... if anybody could do it, it was him. He is a big, strong guy, brimming with with vitality. He is also educated, he has been a volunteer emergency medical technician for years, so he was familiar with the jargon and read up on the particular cancer he was facing.

I have spent much of the day contacting mutual friends in order to convey the bad news. The general reaction is shock- the very notion that we are losing such a vital, almost elemental, individual is particularly upsetting to people. Barry was a role model and a protector... just knowing that he had your back was reassuring. He was unafraid to confront management when he saw something he didn't like (we have one manager who can be a bit of a bully to her subordinates, and he was not one to abide by that). I always enjoyed working with him because we have similar values, similar attitudes. We would spend shift change waxing poetic about Wo Hop or swapping recipes or discussing science and technology or relating funny animal stories (he has two dogs he dotes on and has a knack for interacting wild animals). When his day job brought him to my neighborhood, we'd stop at the local fish and chips place and hang out for a while.

So now, I will continue texting our mutual friends (I have laryngitis and sound like Marge Simpson) and receiving the same, shocked response: "If anybody could beat this thing, I thought it would be Barry."

Saturday, March 2, 2019

A Two Hour Two Minutes Hate

Having a bit of a masochistic streak, I have been following coverage of this year's CPAC, a right-wing Loonapalooza which culminated in a two hour long speech by the Dotard. It was a two-hour long Two Minutes Hate, complete with anger towards Robert Mueller, fearmongering about immigration and 'creeping socialism' in the guise of environmentalism, and continued lies about inauguration crowd size. Who says that people want new material? While Libertarian Fonzie raved about the speech, more mainstream authors panned it. Quick, what's the difference between Stephen King and Nick Gillespie? One writes horror fiction, while the other is Stephen King.

The coverage of CPAC that I have been reading tends toward the unsympathetic, by which I mean the observers reported the proceedings as they occurred. If the conference seemed like a freakshow, it's because it was. Perhaps the Freak of the Week was a newly returned Michelle Malkin, who is channeling her inner Alex Jones by fantasizing that a civil war is imminent. The really messed up thing about this is that I don't see anybody in the party she supports talking the base away from the ledge. Mercifully, the base tends to be dim and lazy, so I can't see their civil war going much beyond some shitposting on Twitter.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Cheesed Off

I just found out about a new 'viral' stunt- people are throwing pre-sliced cheez-food product at others' faces, hoping that it will stick, and recording video of the occurrence. This new stunt is called 'cheesing'.

I'm slightly offended by this trend... it's potentially a waste of food (though some of the cheese-ees are reported to have eaten the slice that was thrown at them), and it often involves babies or toddlers who probably get frightened by having something thrown onto their faces. The real offense, though, is that the individually-wrapped process cheez-food slices are being described as cheese. By heritage, I am a quarter-Italian, a quarter-French, and a quarter-Swiss... I take my cheese seriously. Hell, even the quarter-Irish part of me balks at calling this stuff cheese... there are some fine Irish cheeses out there. If you want to 'cheese' someone, use an actual cheese, just don't use a Pecorino Romano- that stuff is hard and can hold an edge sufficient to draw blood.

Also, haven't we heard enough about individually wrapped Kraft singles to last a lifetime?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The End of an Era on the Job

A couple of weeks ago, one of my subordinates gave two weeks' notice after eight years on the job. He had gotten a promotion at his other job and this new position would be a floating shift, so he would be unsure about his availability for his position with our organization. He's not computer savvy at all, and one of my other subordinates believes that one factor in his resignation was not wanting to deal with our transition to using a business administration corporation to deal with HR and payroll, with all the changes in self-reporting timesheets that entails. I think he's onto something, because the guy who's resigning hadn't gotten paid for the first six weeks of the year, and I had to sit down with him and verify his hours so he could fill out payroll adjustment forms in order to get his wages. I suspect I am going to have to fill out additional forms and send them to him for his signature so he can get his final paycheck.

I have to admit that I am conflicted about this guy's resignation... he was reliable up to a point. Given a routine, he was steady, but any deviation from the norm, any novelty, would flummox him. I joke that the job is 75% cushy, 20% somewhat of a challenge, and 5% 'oh shit!' He was great 75% of the time, okay 20% of the time, and rattled 5% of the time. Even more frustratingly, he sometimes gave me the impression of being a fabulist. I wouldn't call him a liar, but every once in a while, he'd tell me of off-the-wall stuff that happened to him on the job, like teenagers in the parking lot revving up high-performance cars before peeling away. One axiom I have at work is 'if it's not written down, it didn't happen', and never once did I get an incident report. Oddly enough, though, every once in a while, one of his more outré stories would check out, but he'd still never fill out an official report.

Even after eight years, I couldn't tell you if he's got a nutty streak, if he's a magnet for nuts, or if he's taking the mickey. Having worked in the insurance industry, I am comfortable with apportionment, so I will say it's a 20/10/70 split. Having a snarky streak myself, I can 'recognize game', even as the butt of the joke. His last joke will be making me fill out more paperwork to ensure he gets paid... that being said, I will miss the guy despite, maybe even because of, his eccentricities.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

My One Takeaway from the Cohen Hearings

I spent much of today with one eye on the Michael Cohen testimony before Congress, typically peeking at Evan Hurst's liveblog of the proceedings between running errands and doing minor household chores, like throwing in a load of laundry.

The one major lesson of these sordid proceedings is that one should never NEVER NEVER vote for any candidate who has a bagman, a fixer, a dirty trickster. Voting for a gangster wannabe can only lead to heartbreak. Hell, the mere proximity of Goodfellas cosplayers is enough to inspire stupid people to 'get their gangster on'. A corollary lesson is that inquisitors shouldn't try to portray an individual as an inveterate liar when that individual's lies have been on behalf of the person they want to protect, who happens to be a bigger liar.

On one bright side note, Peter Sagal, who I am a huge fan of, has been on fire today with some hot takes and a surprisingly poignant comment on Cohen's dulcet N00 Yawk accent.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Sneaky Ebola, Sneakier Antibodies

Last night, I headed down the the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring microbiologist and immunologist Dr Kartik Chandran of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The topic of Dr Chandran's lecture was 'Unraveling and Counteracting the Infection Strategies of Emerging Viruses', with a specific focus on the Ebola virus. Dr Chandran researches how emerging viruses invade cells, and how medical practitioners could use 'jujutsu flips' to counteract their takeover strategies. Viruses such as Ebola emerge for a variety of reasons: clear-cutting forests, herding livestock which can allow viruses to change hosts, and climate change. Viruses can jump from various animal hosts into human populations. It takes a long time to figure out strategies to combat viruses when they jump to humans.

The Ebola virus was named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Ebola virus was discovered in 1976 in a remote missionary station run by Belgian nuns. The events behind the emergence of the Ebola virus were the topic of Richard Preston's bestselling thriller The Hot Zone, which will be dramatized as a National Geographic miniseries which Dr Chandran ruefully predicted will probably be 'a hot mess'. The Ebola virus is lethal but rare, and strikes in remote places. For a long time, charities such as the Gates Foundation did not consider Ebola to be a major healthcare problem compared to infant mortality and malaria. That changed with the 2013-2016 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, which set healthcare in the region back by a decade. A lot of healthcare personnel died in that outbreak. Currently, there is an outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in an active warzone. A lot was learned during the West African outbreak- there is an urgent need for vaccines, but where do we begin?

The Ebola virus is a filovirus, a virus that forms a filament, a single strand of RNA. Viruses can be likened to molecular machine assemblies, they reproduce by taking over cells and turning them into virus factories. Viruses have an 'invasion machine' which gets them into cell cytoplasm and a 'payload', a genetic code which turns the cell into a virus factory. Dr Chandran is primarily interested in the delivery system of the virus, which is a glycoprotein. This large molecule sticks to the cell and enters the cell's lysosome in order to reproduce more viruses.

Dr Chandran posed a darkly jocular question: how do we study viruses without losing grad students? The invasion mechanism of Ebola can be attached to the vesicular stomatitis virus, a cattle pathogen which only causes minor illness in humans. In effect, this altered VSV is a 'sheep in wolf's clothing'. This invasion mechanism could then be used to develop antibodies to fight the Ebola virus. This therapy, named ZMapp, was dubbed by Newsweek magazine 'The Secret Serum that Could Cure Ebola'. Antibodies are 'tailor made' by the immune system to bind to viruses. Viruses evolve rapidly, though, and Dr Chandran compared harnessing antibodies to pin down the Ebola virus to burly wrestlers trying to pin down agile ballet dancers.

Dr Kent Brantly, an American doctor infected by Ebola while serving in Liberia, was treated with ZMapp. Dr Ada Igonoh of Nigeria contracted Ebola virus, was left for dead, but survived the infection (as an aside, I have to mention Nigeria's Dr Ameyo Adadevoh who quarantined Liberia's 'patient zero', containing the outbreak, and died of the disease). The ZMapp antibodies 'lasso' the Ebola virus' glycoprotein and targets it for destruction. The problem with ZMapp is that it only works on the Ebola Zaire strain (other strains are Bundibugyo, Sudan, Reston and Taï Forest). The Zaire strain is the most common Ebola strain, but epidemiologists cannot predict which strain of Ebola virus will jump out of nature.





Dr Chandran likened the interaction of viruses and antibodies to a lock and key- not all antibodies can be useful to all viruses. Viruses mutate to be resistant to antibodies- they 'bob and weave' so the antibodies can't bind. The search is on for a 'Rainbow Unicorn Antibody', an antibody which could recognize proteins that a virus cannot change and act on those proteins, effectively beating Ebola and other viruses at their own game. Viruses stick to certain receptors, they 'figure out' what sort of cells they need to affect. For example, the polio virus cannot bond to mouse cells unless the mouse receives the human receptor gene. Ebola has a 'homing beacon' on the lysosome, the NPC1 gene (Niemann-Pick, type C1). The NPC1 gene transports cholesterol from the lysosomes, and is present in eukaryotes from yeast to humans. Dr Chandran likened NPC1 to a janitor working in the basement who is coerced by the Ebola virus to allow a break-in. If the NPC1 gene can be knocked out, Ebola is ineffective at invading the cell. The NPC1 gene is rapidly evolving in 125 African bat species. Usually, 'housekeeping' genes such as NPC1 evolve slowly. It appears that bats are evolving to disallow Ebola's use of NPC1 as a receptor, which suggests that Ebola is a bat virus, new to primates. The most promising treatments for Ebola would target the virus' ability to dock with the NPC1 gene in human patients.

The Ebola virus glycoprotein uses a staged invasion strategy. Dr Chandran quipped that he is not a rocket scientist, but he likened the invasion strategy to a multi-staged rocket. The NPC1 gene is not located on the cell's surface, but is sequestered within the cell membrane. The virus must be 'eaten' by the cell, and once inside the lysosome, it 'takes off its disguise' and multiplies. All primates have the same NPC1 gene, it is the perfect site to put an antibody which can prevent the Ebola virus from docking in the lysosome. Combining antibodies increases their effectiveness, and one antibody, mAb-548, binds to the NPC1 gene better than the virus- it beats the virus every time. Other antibodies dock with the virus better than the NPC1 gene does. Combining antibodies blocks the binding sites of both virus and cell. Antibodies need to be in the right place at the right time- Ebola viruses can sneak into lysosomes without either antibody tagging along. Antibodies typically can only bind to one thing- there is an effort to develop antibodies with 'second arms' that can grab onto two sites. Such a 'two armed' antibody could bind to either the virus or the NPC1 gene. These bispecific antibodies were tested on mice infected with the Ebola Sudan strain, and two shots of the antibody were sufficient to protect the mice. Eventually, the virus was beat at its own game and mice could be protected from multiple Ebola strains.

Dr Chandran then shifted the subject of the lecture to the Rainbow Unicorn Antibody, a naturally occurring antibody which could work against all Ebola strains. Blood obtained from an Ebola survivor was tested, and the antibodies were 'gold that has to be fished out' of the sample. Memory B cells function as a library of everything than an individual has survived- if Ebola antibodies are sought, they must be fished out of these cells. The B cells are sequenced, the Ebola antibodies are obtained, and injected into yeast cells to produce additional antibodies. The yeast cells are then screened to obtain the desired gene sequences. The entire process takes about a month to complete. Using this technique, 350 antibodies were found from one Ebola survivor and twenty of them turned out to be 'Rainbow Unicorn Antibodies'. The task then is to make cocktails, starting with one antibody, then adding additional antibodies and testing them on monkeys. These cocktails are effective up to day seven of an infection.

In the field, administering medications is difficult, considering the protective gear that medical personnel need to wear, and the hot conditions that prevail in the regions where Ebola outbreaks occur. A intramuscular injection delivered cocktail would allow more people to be treated quickly. Such a cocktail is now being developed for human use, and it has the potential to be used to treat multiple viruses: filoviruses, hantaviruses, nairoviruses, pneumoviruses, alphaviruses, and flaviviruses.

Dr Chandran ended his lecture by mentioning his participation in an organization called the Prometheus Group, which was formed to transform human antibodies into antiviral treatments in three years. He likened the group's approach to 'jazz improvisation' to develop many tools to fight viral diseases.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question concerned the unintended consequences of turning off the NPC1 gene... when the gene is turned off, cells can get clogged with cholesterol and cause neurological damage. This naturally occurs in individuals with Niemann-Pick Disease Type C. Turning off the NPC1 gene will cause cholesterol to accumulate over the course of several years, while Ebola can kill a patient in two weeks. Turning off one of two copies of the NPC1 gene can prevent Ebola infections while not leading to Niemann-Pick. Another question concerned the reasons why the West African Ebola outbreak died out- it was mainly due to quarantining patients and treating them with IV fluids. Individuals infected with Ebola must be isolated for 28 days in order to ensure the safety of others. Another question involved the lysosome... lysosome delivery systems are used by many viruses. Regarding the effects of different strains affecting different primates, it seems that crab-eating macaques are particularly vulnerable to the various Ebola virus strains. A question regarded Africa's genetic diversity, which is the greatest on the planet, and the possibility that it is a result from evolutionary responses to emerging viral outbreaks- the human genome contains a lot of genetic sequences from viruses. There was a question regarding the vulnerability of antibodies to viral mutation- if one antibody is involved, there is a good chance that the virus will evolve and thwart it, so multi-antibody cocktails are necessary. There was a question regarding using the same approach to combat HIV- therapies are under development, and it is possible that one will be available in the next two years or so.

Some bastard in the audience decided to ask a sociopolitical question- what is the role of conflict in Ebola outbreaks? The recent Ebola epidemics took place in regions wracked by civil war. Dr Chandran noted that conflict prevents responses by medical personnel, it destroys or degrades infrastructure, increases distrust of government. One necessary strategy to deal with outbreaks is to find influencers who can combat anti-medical social media memes, to convince people to get treatment. Trusted voices are needed to convince people to seek aid, not just voices from people in 'space suits'.

The last question concerned Dr Chandran's 'origin story', how did he end up studying Ebola. Dr Chandran indicated that he had been studying HIV early in his virology career, but was drawn to study Ebola by reading The Hot Zone. How's that for the power of books?

Once again, the Secret Science Club delivered the goods. Dr Chandran knocked it out of the park- he delivered an informative lecture on a topic which has been sensationalized by the media, conveying hard science fact in terms accessible to the layperson, discussing terrifying topics with just enough humor to leaven this heavy topic. I left the lecture more hopeful about humanity than I was when I entered. The 'good guys' are out there, and Dr Chandran is one of them. I also have a personal interest in Ebola, my brother Vin was deployed to Liberia in 2014 to build a medical infrastructure in the early days of the Ebola outbreak. It's good to know that scientists such as Dr Chandran are working to protect people who live in these 'hot zones', and people going to the hot zones to combat the disease, and other emergent diseases. Kudos to Dr Chandran, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House.

Here's a video on this topic by Dr Chandran, which showcases the fantastic imagery he displayed while he delivered his lecture. My recaps are mainly black-and-white, which isn't always up to the colorful, animated presentations utilized by the speakers:





Pour yourself a nice, refreshing beverage and soak in that SCIENCE!

Monday, February 25, 2019

Ebola Barbie

Tonight, I will be heading down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, which will feature Ebola specialist Dr Kartik Chandran of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

I have written about Ebola quite a bit, particularly back in 2014, when my brother Vincenzo was sent to Liberia in the wake of the Ebola outbreak. Much of Vin's work there involved building a medical infrastructure in the rural, underdeveloped areas in which the outbreak occurred. You want quick construction done, get the military involved... just ask The Prick with no Wall.

When I visited Vin and the family last Thanksgiving, I was drawn to a particular coffee cup for use in the morning. It had a bright magenta depiction of Barbie on it. The cup, as Vin related, had an unusual backstory. When Vin and the first rapid response team returned to Vicenza, Italy from their mission in Liberia, they had to undergo a three-week quarantine. The US Army, though, didn't do their homework, so the quarantine preparation was half-assed... the returning troops didn't have adequate supplies for their three weeks of isolation. For the record, Vin stated that the Liberian government treated the responders like national heroes.

In Italy, there was a mad dash to provide the necessities of existence to the quarantined personnel. The families of the Vicenza military base cleaned out their cupboards and donated items to the three-week isolates. Among the items were two somewhat garish coffee mugs with a magenta depiction of Barbie on them. Vin, being comfortable in his masculinity and a bit of a smart-aleck (both family traits), immediately grabbed one, while one of his comrades, of a similar bent, grabbed the other. They immediately dubbed them with the name of this post. Behold, Ebola Barbie:




I like to picture Ebola Barbie as a scientist working in the Malibu Institute of Virology, working on developing antibodies to the lethal virus. Of course, she would jet off to CDC headquarters in Atlanta in a hot pink Cessna, and occasionally travel to Western and Central Africa to supply local medical personnel with antivirals. Mattel, get on this, with proceeds of the sales going to the WHO and other organizations.

At any rate, the mug is a bright reminder of my brother Vincenzo's efforts to build a medical infrastructure in the early days of the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Herbs and Spices

Well, would you believe one herb and one spice? The spice in this case is Ginger, and the herb is catnip... The assistant manager of our retail operation decided to give Ginger a catnip-filled toy, and our precious kitty took to it like a dolphin to a pufferfish:




She was pretty blissed out after attacking her toy, but I'm sure she can quit anytime. At least she lives close to her job, so it's not like she's going to have problems with traveling under the influence.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Promotion Day

Today was a very eventful day- we promoted fifteen of our judo students, ranging in age from five to ten. Our fourteen year old, who is eligible for promotion to an orange belt, wasn't at class today. We tested the kids on their vocabulary, and had them demonstrate the techniques they knew.

One of our star pupils, a six year old, forgot the name of kesa gatame, but was able to recall it by the end of the class, so the day was saved and she earned her orange belt. As part of her promotion process, she had to fight me... at first she shot me a faux worried look, but our head sensei joked that, if she started losing the match, she could pull my hair. By the time he said 'hajime', she looked as if she'd been shot out of a cannon. Needless to say, she won the match, by a hair, but not mine.

We had a free period without students, so I did a bunch of uchikomi with one of the adults, a tall, limber guy in his twenties. I taught him the throw uchi mata, figuring that it played well with his height and flexibility. It's a hip throw, with the use of the leg as a force multiplier, but it looks like you're kicking your opponent in the crotch:





I believe that I've handed him a secret weapon...

It was a happy day, the kids play beautifully with each other. They are good sports, and it's clear that they want to learn together and help each other. I always try to stress the moral component of the sport- in order to do the potentially dangerous things that we do, we have to be good to each other. When I left the dojo, I was tired, maybe even a bit run down (right arm is still a little sore), but I was elated. I'd say that the kids are alright, but they're better than alright. I'm alright... a couple of aspirin and I won't even feel sore.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Sex Trafficking in Jupiter, not Mars

A couple of years ago, there was a conspiracy theory averring that there was a sex trafficking ring sending child slaves to Mars. While that is utter bullshit, there was a sex trafficking ring operating out of Jupiter, and one of its highest profile clients is in deep doo-doo. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting prostitution in a strip-mall 'day spa'.

The real horror here is that the women working in the 'spa' were lured to the US with the promise of jobs, coerced into performing sex acts in order to pay off an 'indenture', and housed in the building. I'm not big on moralizing, and generally believe that sex work should be legalized and regulated, but I am a firm believer in consent, so any legalization would have to involve investigations to prove that coercion was not involved. It's all about harm mitigation in my estimation.

Kraft is a hypocrite, the kind of guy who publicly donates to anti-trafficking groups, then goes to a seedy rub-and-tug place to purchase the services of a sex slave for $79/hour. One would think that a billionaire like Kraft could afford to hire a high-priced call girl, but I suspect that the seediness and coercive nature of the place appealed to his baser instincts.

Kraft is also a friend and supporter of Donald Trump, who seems to pal around with sex offenders to an alarming degree. This flies in the face of the conspiracy theory based on assertions that Trump is arresting sex traffickers and pedophiles. While some right-wingers are claiming that Kraft was entrapped by a hostile NFL management, I imagine that other Trump worshipers will claim that he became friends with Epstein and Kraft in order to (forgive me) penetrate their inner circles. Hope springs eternal among dead-enders.