Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Curriculum Coincidence

I spent a few hours today taking an online course that is mandated by the program I coach for, a training module about sexual abuse, bullying, harassment, hazing, and inappropriate physical and emotional conduct. The curriculum featured videos with social workers and a forensic investigator who specializes in abuse cases. Needless to say, there were several trigger warnings throughout the course due to the nature of the subjects. After taking the tests after the various units and receiving my certification, I decided to do some web surfing.

There was a timely post at LGM about Joe Paterno, and the various apologists (appallogists?) who downplay his agency in the Penn State sexual abuse scandal... in this case, professional contrarian Malcolm Gladwell. There seems to be a cottage industry which seeks to rehabilitate Joe Paterno, typically by claiming he knew nothing of the serial sexual abuse perpetrated by his subordinate, Jerry Sandusky. Even when Paterno was informed that Sandusky was sodomizing children in Penn State facilities, these apologists like to portray him as a naïf who was too consumed by football to understand what 'raping children in the shower' meant.

The Penn State scandal, amplified by the subsequent serial sexual abuse perpetrated by Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar, spawned an entire industry to combat the sexual and other abuse of young athletes. Before the Sandusky scandal, I never had to undergo a criminal background check and drug testing in order to coach. There weren't courses about mandatory reporting of abuse allegations to the authorities. There just weren't protocols put in place to guide respondents, we just had to rely on our moral judgment, which is where Paterno failed. Thankfully, I have never had to personally deal with a horrific situation like this, but I look at the Penn State and MSU horrors and I wonder why these institutions weren't razed to the ground.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

This Salsa is too Spicy for Me

Ugh, it seems like Dancing with the Stars is the go-to show for washed up right-wingers to embarrass themselves on National TV, though this sentiment hits the nail on the head... better to be seen as a clown than a monster. I find Sean Spicer's appearance on the show particularly disgusting, as this spokesman for an administration which is virulently anti-Latin plays the congas and dances in a Latin-inspired fashion. It's a gross example of cultural appropriation- a guy who made excuses for a president who abandoned Puerto Rico coopting a Puerto Rican artform. It's too bad that the late, great Tito Puente isn't around to set his soul afire with a slanderous mambo:

I'm headed out to bar trivia, but I figure I should post an actual Tito Puente song:


Now, THAT is a mambo to set your soul afire, in a good way. Spicy Spicer just gives me heartburn.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Since You're Gone...

Last night's Total Bummer News was the passing of Ric Ocasek, who loomed large over the soundscape of my youth. Reading the obituaries written for him, I am struck by how he was much older than I expected (he wasn't a kid when he formed the Cars) and that he had been in a couple of folksy bands in the 60s.

My introduction to the Cars (most people's introduction) was the second single from their debut album, My Best Friend's Girl. a pretty straightforward rocker, though one punctuated with synth-pop flourishes and a rockabilly riff. It's the lyrics which make this otherwise cliche story about lost love into something off-kilter, with slightly subversive references to 'suede-blue eyes' and 'nuclear boots'. Here's a wonderful live version of this immensely appealing singalong:

The band's first, eponymous album has often been described as a 'debut greatest hits compilation', as the saying goes, it's 'all killer, no filler', and it encompasses a range of styles, with I'm in Touch with Your World being particularly surreal. This video comically conveys keyboardist Greg Hawkes' talent with all sorts of musical geegaws:

The album ended on the glorious Moving in Stereo/All Mixed Up combo, which combined the vocals of second frontman Benjamin Orr (who we lost to cancer in 2000) with heavy guitar riffs, swooping synthpop flourishes, and melodic backing vocals. It's the sort of musical epic which must have driven headphone sales back in the late 70s:

To me, the Cars' second album, 1979's Candy-O had a slightly harder sound. The debut single, Let's Go, another Orr-fronted song, had a more upfront synthesizer sound than most of the songs from the prior album:

Perhaps the quirkiest number of the album is the The Dangerous Type, a closer which opens with the double query: "Can I touch you? Are you out of touch?"

The Cars' third album, 1980's Panorama didn't sell as many units as the previous two albums, but it might be my favorite. The sing;e Touch and Go is a lush soundscape with two different time signatures, punctuated by a blistering guitar solo by Elliot Easton:

I also think the album features Ric Ocasek at his funniest:

The Cars released their fourth album in four years, Shake it Up, in 1981. It was a return to the winning formula of the band's two albums, less experimental than Panorama. Here's the late, great Valerie Harper introducing a television segment with the band playing the album's title track:

I think my favorite track on the album is Since You're Gone (from which I derived the post title), in which a breakup song, one of the most tried-and-true tropes of popular music, gets that off-kilter Ric Ocasek treatment:

If I recall correctly, Ric's line 'I took the Big Vacation' was the first veiled drug reference that I understood in a song.

The band took a hiatus from recording, with their fifth album, Heartbeat City, coming out in 1984. It spawned the top ten hit You Might Think:

The plaintive Drive hit number three on the US charts, and was promoted with a video starring the future Mrs Ocasek, Paulina Porizkova. It's definitely the band at its most earnest:

1985 saw the release of a greatest hits album (one that isn't the band's debut. that is) and the previously unreleased Tonight She Comes (no embed code), which was originally intended for a Ric Ocasek solo project.

The band's final album before they broke up was 1987's Door to Door:

Ric Ocasek also released a bunch of solo albums, starting with 1982's Beatitude, which spawned the single Something to Grab For:

That's quite a stellar career as a performer, but I believe that Ric Ocasek will be remembered as much for his production credits as for his own career as a performer. He produced albums for a bewildering diversity of bands, including Bad Brains, Romeo Void, Suicide, Nada Surf, Weezer, No Doubt, Bad Religion, Black 47, and a whole lot of other artists.

He was also a quintessential New Yorker in his later days, and there are plenty of funny stories about people walking into obstructions because they couldn't stop staring at him and his supermodel wife. The general gist of the stories is that he was a nice guy, the sort of guy who wouldn't look askance at starstruck fans. The outpouring of love from musicians who worked with him is also a testimony to his decency. For instance, Larry Kirwan wrote a lovely tribute to the man.

The best way to memorialize the man is to listen to his music, and composing this post was sad, but also a pleasure... it's tough to write about the death of a favorite musician, but the memories brought back by compiling a partial discography are sweet. It's time to finish listening to his catalog now.

ADDENDUM: Of course, I WOULD have to find this after publishing this post. I also figured I'd link the Cars' 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Are You Going to Finish That?

For today, a flawless sunny day, how about a slightly macabre touch? Being close to the mighty Hudson, we have osprey living on or adjacent to most of our sites. Every once in a while, they leave remnants of their meals for us to stumble upon, as if they took pity on us land-bound schmoes and wanted to throw us a bone... literally:

It's not very often that one finds a fish carcass away from the shoreline... this is what first tipped me off to our local osprey population a few years back. I imagine the local raccoons are nice to receive an occasional gift from above now and then.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

A Half-Century of Derring-Doo (sic)

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the first episode of the classic cartoon Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (sic). In my internet recommendations, I found a great essay about the cartoon by a Columbia University PhD. I am in agreement with the themes of this essay... I have been a fan of the show since first watching it.

The original Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (sic) championed skepticism and inquiry... the protagonists, those groovy 'meddling kids' used their senses and their intellects to pierce through the veil of superstition and fear that the villains employed to deceive the public in order to pursue their larcenous aims. The true monsters were invariably human (the most dangerous monsters of all), and careful observation, the amassing of clues, was the trick to beating them. The one show I can think of which comes closest to this theme is Mythbusters, and Jamie and Adam would have comported themselves well in that flowered van.

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! was also unabashedly pro-teenager- it was a good antidote to the 'wild in the streets' junior delinquent movies that the film studios churned out. These kids were smart (even if Shaggy came across as a stoner) and good judgment and ethics superior to those of the adults around them. The show conveyed a message that the kids were right to have a healthy skepticism of authority... if you have a sense that the adults around you aren't on the up-and-up, trust your assessment rather than their appeals to authority. Old Man Higgins could easily stand in for Coach Higgins, Reverend Higgins, or even Major Higgins, and a questioning attitude could save a kid a lot of pain.

The franchise took a turn for the worse when a later iteration when the monsters were real. It blew the original theme of the series out of the water, which is a shame.

Friday, September 13, 2019

One Ticket to Paradise

I pretty much gave up on 'Classic Radio' when I was eleven years old, when I found the storied WLIR on the left side of the dial, and then discovered college radio, in all of its glorious anarchy. That didn't mean that I didn't get an earful of 'Classic Rock'. One of the rock-and-roll 'journeymen' who played the sort of reliable background music for a kegger was Eddie Money, nee Mahoney, who succumbed to esophageal cancer and heart disease at the age of 70. I didn't know that he was a Brooklyn buy, but as Tengrain relates, he kicked off his rock career in the SF Bay Area.

My introduction to Eddie Money's music was Two Tickets to Paradise, a working class kid's plea to a girl that he can't afford to take on an exotic vacation:

“Well, I was going with a girl at the time. She was in college and I was in college and her mother wanted her to meet somebody that was actually making a living,” Money told Rolling Stone of the song’s inspiration in 2018. “She had been dating the mayor’s son and I didn’t have any money to take her to Bermuda or Hawaii or anything else like that. So I wanted to take her on a Greyhound bus ride to the California Redwoods. It would only cost maybe 62 dollars for the both of us. But she dumped me and it never happened, so who knows?”

Like a lot of rock stars, he had his problems with substance abuse, but he survived and recovered, and was upfront about this unfortunate phase of his life. In the mid-80s, his career had stalled, but he pulled himself out of his slump with a simple song about romantic, by which I mean erotic, yearning... in a genius move, his lyrics incorporated a reference to 60s girl group icon Ronnie Spector, who had been hounded out of the music industry by her abusive, powerful husband... and he invited her to accompany him on the song. The story of the collaboration is quite remarkable:

“I could hear clinking and clanking in the background,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Ronnie, what are you doing?’ She said, ‘I’m doing the dishes, and I gotta change the kids’ bedding. … I’m not really in the business anymore, Eddie. Phil Spector and all that, it was a nightmare.”

The resultant song, Take Me Home Tonight served its purpose, hitting number four on the Billboard top 100, thereby reviving Money's career and bringing Ronnie Spector back from exile and putting her back where she always belonged, at the top of the charts:

A simple song about wanting to bone became a transcendent comeback narrative for both artists, and led to a Ronaissance, as Ronnie headlined a Christmas concert series and collaborated with unabashed girl group fan Joey Ramone. Besides his own considerable body of work, I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to Eddie Money for coaxing Ronnie back into the studio.

He also came across as a decent guy, married to the same woman for thirty years, father to five kids. He owned up to his mistakes, overcame them and maintained a good sense of humor about his life and career, with a knack for self-deprecation:

For the record, I think my favorite song by the guy was I Think I'm in Love, the video for which showcases a goofy sense of humor, which is refreshing for a RAWK GAWD:

I think he earned that ticket to paradise.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Arachnaphobia Test for a Repentant Homewrecker

It wasn't the sort of sight that bothers me, but I imagine it would make an arachnaphobe blanch... a fat Araneus, with an abdomen the size of a fingernail, sitting near a padlock I needed to get to in order to lock up one of the gates at work:

I'm pretty comfortable around spiders, even big ones, but spiders aren't that comfortable around humans who need to break up their homes in order to accomplish a task. The chain shifted, the web sundered, the poor spider beat a hasty abseil to the ground. Late summer and early fall are the peak of Araneus activity, and I have to confess that I have destroyed many a web while walking the site and performing my routine duties. I feel somewhat bad about this, because these critters must be doing a number on the local mosquito population... it's just that they often build their homes in inconveniently situated, by which I mean heavily trafficked, areas.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Another Year, Another 9/11

I still remember the day, a flawless late summer day eighteen years ago. For some reason, I was too lazy to ride my bike to work that day, which was fortuitous, because I ended up driving a coworker home after they evacuated our office building in Tarrytown, about 25 miles north of lower Manhattan. When coworkers told me about the first plane hitting the towers, I chalked it up to an accident, similar to the 1945 B-25 crash into the Empire State Building. A second crash, and I knew that it was war...

At the time, I lived near the intersection of Yonkers Avenue and Central Park Avenue, which is also the service road to I-87, the major thruway into New York City. The view of the NYC skyline at the intersection is clear, and I stood for an hour watching the cloud of toxic smoke rise into the sky to the south, as emergency vehicles rushed down the closed-to-the-public thoroughfares. I was shocked, but I certainly wasn't in awe, which only made the branding of the initial attack on Baghdad more repulsive to me. I had friends who worked in the World Trade Center, some of whom never made it out, some of whom did. I am reminded of that day when I see the family of a friend who succumbed to the toxic cloud a few years later, when I see a friend (a tough, gruff guy from Queens with a heart of gold who got all of his office mates out, barging into the bathrooms and telling the occupants, "Don't even bother to wipe your ass, GET OUT!") who doesn't even go into Manhattan anymore. I was on the periphery of the hellscape, though it could be seen for days and smelled for weeks when the wind blew in from the South.

I remember standing in line for hours to donate blood the next day, blood for victims who never materialized in the hospitals. I remember going to memorial services. Most of all, I remember the unity that we all felt, that feeling that all of us in the New York metro area were going to get through this ordeal together. Two of my great friends and mentors, men who I have known for years, are Muslim men from Morocco. They knew a lot of the victims I knew, they grieved with the rest of us, and anyone who makes a blanket indictment against all Muslims can go jump in a lake.

I remember the creeping sense of surrealism as the narrative shifted from an attack by Saudi Sunni extremists to an Iraqi connection, as the drumbeat for war increased, a war against an innocent, though not sympathetic, nation. I also recall the rise of the security industrial complex, the appearance of heavily armed police and national guard in the subway system. I was appalled at an idiotic show of force which would hamper the evacuation of busy midtown subway stations while peripheral stations in the outer boroughs were unguarded (this from a guy who would enter the system at 238th St and Broadway with a huge gym bag every Saturday from October to March). I remember finally visiting the three story tall pile of rubble a few weeks after the collapse of the towers, the evil miasma which clung to midtown. I also remember that the majority of the victims were roughly my age, they were go-getters just starting families and seeing their careers take off. If you had been a slacker that day, playing hooky to enjoy one last gorgeous summer day, you would have survived.

It's kind of weird to see all of the memorials by people who never experienced the loss. While I laud the well-meaning people who wish to acknowledge the tragedy, there are too many people who seek to use the day's events as a cudgel. The theocrats started blaming New Yorkers for the attacks in the immediate aftermath, the liberals, lesbians, libertines, and lushes were somehow to blame for another group of theocrats attacking the city. These victim-blamers still prattle on about the attack, much to my disgust.

Thankfully, there doesn't seem to be an impulse to make the day a national holiday, I mean nobody needs a repeat of this nonsense. The best way to remember those who were killed that day is to emulate them, to go to work, to carry out your duties as they did. Sure, you probably won't have to run into a burning building or sift through toxic rubble looking for survivors, but there is value in doing what you have to do, to embrace that New York work ethic that the occupants of the towers embodied.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Secret Science Club North Post Lecture Recap: The Universe Splitter

Tonight, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, for the latest Secret Science Club North lecture, featuring all-star physicist Dr Sean Carroll of Caltech. Dr Carroll's latest book is Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime. This was not Dr Carroll's first Secret Science Club Rodeo, so I was prepared to be informed, entertained, and a little baffled by the quantum physics that Dr Carroll studies. After an introduction by Dorian and Margaret, Dr Carroll received a second introduction by Dr Brian Greene, Columbia University physicist and chairman of the World Science Festival.

Dr Carroll began his lecture with a humorous thought experiment, The Universe Splitter, a 'quantum-involved universe bifurcator'. He sent a signal to a particle accelerator in Europe, and the result of a sensor detecting a particle determined whether he would jump to the left or to the right. With the result he received, he ended up jumping to the left, and joked that, according to the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics, in another universe he had jumped to the right. He then noted that quantum physicists are good at making predictive models, but that they haven't succeeded in understanding the underlying reality. Regarding quantum physics, Richard Feynman once said: "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." Quantum mechanics are necessary for the production of semiconductors, transistors, microchips, lasers, and computer memory... we use quantum mechanics though we don't understand quantum mechanics.

The classic Rutherford model of the atom consists of a nucleus surrounded by electrons in discrete orbits, but this model is incorrect. In this model, electrons should lose energy by radiation, which would mean that they spiral down to the nucleus, causing the atom to collapse. Electrons actually function in a wavelike fashion (a phenomenon known as the wave function). Even the single electron of a hydrogen atom should appear as a cloud, rather than a distinct particle. Wave functions over time are described by the Schrödinger equation, which describes the energy of a state and the rate of change- basically, how much energy and how fast it is moving. High energy states entail rapid movement while low energy entails slow movement.

When observed, electrons look like particles- Dr Carroll described wave functions as 'shy', they collapse when observed, appearing to be localized at specific values. This property of being undefined until observed is known as the Copenhagen interpretation, which posits two sets of rules for quantum mechanics- one when nobody is looking, another when there is an observer. This was considered by some physicists unacceptable as a fundamental theory of nature. There are two problems... the ontology problem can be summed up as 'what is wave function?' The measurement problem can be summed up as 'what does observation involve?'

Dr Carroll described Hugh Everett as a 'quantum therapist' who tried to get everyone to 'chill out'. He posited that wave functions don't actually collapse, but obey the Schrödinger equation. It is now known that the Higgs boson can decay into an electron and a positron. The Higgs boson has zero spin, while the resultant electron and positron have either upward or downward spin- when the Higgs boson splits, there is a conservation of spin as the resultant particles' spin cancels each other out. The particles are entangled, and as soon as the direction of spin for one is determined, that of the other can be determined as well. Hugh Everett proposed that there is really on one wave function, a Wave Function of the Universe with only one state, due to entanglement.

Dr Carroll then gave us a brief overview of the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment, comparing various classic and quantum models of the experiment. Everett posited that there was no 'collapse' of wave function on observation- in the experiment, the observer is in a quantum state as well as the cat, and opening the box involves a superposition, most people don't feel that they are in a superposition. Decoherence is the entanglement of quantum particles with the environment, and takes place before measurement can occur. Wave function splits represent different outcomes, and once diverged, will never effect each other again- as Everett described it: "It is as if they were in seperate worlds." When the divergence occurs, the universe isn't 'doubled', the existing 'amount of universe' is divided. Of course, there are objections to the 'many worlds interpretation'... the first is that it would result in 'too many universes'. The second objection is that the theory is not falsifiable, though Dr Carroll characterized falsifiablity as an outdated concept.

There are a couple of 'reasonable questions' regarding quantum mechanics... Why are probabilities of a particle being in a particular place, according to Schrödinger's equation, given by the square of the wave function? How does the classic world emerge from quantum processes? To answer the first question, probability is epistemic, not objective. Even unobserved wave functions can be explained by the equation. In finding the classic world, we still tend to privilege what we see over what is. Reality doesn't start off with the classic model and veer off into the quantum, it starts off in the quantum world.

Dr Carroll noted that interactions are local in space, that there is no real 'spooky action at a distance'- things interact with things that 'they bump into'. Space can be defined as the set of variables in which these interactions occur. Space is curved, and the distortion in space by objects is known as gravity. While there is a so-so 'quantum theory of gravity', Dr Carroll suggested that researchers not try to 'quantize' gravity, but to find gravity within quantum mechanics.

Quantum field theory posits that the universe is best modeled as a system of interacting fields, not particles. The relative proximity of objects is determined by their entanglement, and as more fields become entangled, geometry emerges... Dr Carroll advised us that this is just a hypothesis. The amount of entanglement of two systems is related to the entropy of either one. As particles are added to a system, entanglements are broken, increasing the energy and the entropy of the system. The geometry of spacetime can emerge from entanglement and the quantum wave function.

After this heady lecture, Dr Carroll advised us, "Stop doing whatever you are doing, and try quantum physics."

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. One funny question involved a 'conservation of embarassment'- is there a theory which is less 'embarrassing' than the many worlds interpretation, which doesn't involve other worlds. Dr Carroll told the questioner, 'Don't worry.' There's no need to be embarrassed because many theories have fallen by the wayside. A question regarding the heat death of the universe received a quick, jocular, 'Are you waiting for it?' The universe is fourteen billion years old, the future may be infinite, but with increasing emptiness. Dr Carroll advised, 'Live your life now, you only have ten to the fifteenth years left.' Regarding quantum mechanics and consciousness, Dr Carroll quipped, 'Nobody really understands either.' Regarding the 'simulation hypothesis', Dr Carroll talked about how theorizing about the construction of artificially conscious creatures led to the question, 'Could we be such creatures?' He dismissed it with a curt, 'I don't buy it.'

A question regarding the probability of wave action being the wave function squared was answered with the assertion that wave functions can interfere with each other, and action tends to follow the path of least resistance.

Another question involved the possibility of freaking people out with such esoteric subject matter as the many-worlds interpretation, and Dr Carroll joked, 'Freaking people out is a feature, not a bug.' The narrative becomes weirder because it deviates more from the traditional views of existence. He noted that he is not existentially worried about the existence of other worlds, and that how you live your life should be no different if there are many worlds or just one.

The last question was a simple 'What about time?' That, the good doctor said, was another lecture.

I didn't get a question in during the Q&A session, but I did ask Dr Carroll about quantum models of dark matter and dark energy during the post-lecture book signing. He said that dark matter is boring, it'll probably be just another particle eventually discovered, regarding dark energy, he tantalizingly noted that there is a section about it in the book.

Once again, the Secret Science Club has dished out a fantastic lecture. Kudos to Dr Carroll, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the scintillating Symphony Space for delivering the goods. It was a night of heady subject matter, but Dr Carroll was able to cover it cogently and coherently. Here's a video of the good doctor discussing the many worlds interpretation:

Pour yourself a refreshing beverage and soak in that SCIENCE!

Monday, September 9, 2019

Looks Like You Can Drown Your Problems in Alcohol After All

The conventional wisdom states that it's not a good idea to try to solve your problems with alcohol, but the conventional wisdom is wrong, if your problem is a rat infestation. The latest attempt to wage war on the unwanted four-footed population of New York City is a trap which drowns rats in an alcohol solution. I was immediately reminded of an old joke about a man who drowns in a vat of Guinness, but while looking for it, I found a darker rendition

I don't know if the rats suffer much while they are drowning in booze, but it seems like an epic way to go, a surefire passage into Fratboy Valhalla. Oddly enough, the one song about dying from overindulgence that I know best is by a Detroit girl group, The Pleasure Seekers. which was anchored by the Quattrocchi sisters, including 70s rocker Suzi Quatro:

What a way to die, indeed... I hope those authorities have chosen a libation that pairs well with pizza.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Trump Goes Full Streisand

Last week was the week when Trump embodied the Streisand Effect, his failed attempts to cover up his... uh... failures became manifest in a manner which would have embarrassed a non-narcissist. His weeklong attempt to push the narrative that he had been correct about Hurricane Dorian hitting Alabama has brought greater scrutiny on his administration's efforts to force NOAA to conform to the maladministration narrative.

The other big story of last week, the use of taxpayer dollars to prop up a Scottish airport crucial to the survival of a Trump golf resort, and to funnel military travel expenses to said resort, has resulted in greater scrutiny of other Trump chicanery in Scotland. In one particularly scummy instance, Trump unsuccessfully tried to pressure the Bank of Scotland to foreclose on a historic hotel overlooking St Andrews golf course so he could buy it for a cheaper price.

As a New Yorker, I have known for decades that Trump is a deadbeat and a scumbag, what Yiddish speakers and the New Yorkers they have inspired would call a gonif. Occupying the White House has merely expanded his scope for fraud, but the underlying conman nature is fundamentally unaltered. The fact that the mainstream media didn't cover this aspect of Trump's career in 2016 amounts to journalistic malpractice.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

When Daddy Can't Bail You Out Any Longer

It has long been known to news-watchers of the New York metropolitan area that Donald Trump was continuously bailed out from his serial business failures by his father. In one outré instance, Trump's daddy bailed him out with a $3.5 million purchase of poker chips. Despite his claims of being a self-made man, Trump's daddy propped him up for years.

Now, Trump is still plagued by failing businesses, in particular his golf resort in Scotland which is hemorrhaging a million dollars a year. His daddy is no longer able to bail him out, so he's going to his uncle, one Uncle Sam. It seems that military aircraft are making refueling stops in Scotland, spending $11 million on fuel at the Prestwick Airport (also hemorrhaging money) and spending nights at Trump's resort, all on the taxpayers' dime.

This is just the latest in Trump's long-running violation of the laws and norms regarding emoluments... and not even the only one this week. While Trump has donated his $400K salary to various organizations, he's raking in much, much more bailout money from his deep-pocketed uncle, by which I mean you and me. It's about time we all cried "Uncle!"

Friday, September 6, 2019

Toad the Line

The edges of each stair in front of the main building at my principal worksite are painted with reflective white paint in order to increase visibility for persons entering or leaving the building. They form a perfect background to highlight an ordinarily camouflaged critter who has succumbed to... you got it... camouflage fail:

This toad toed the line, so to speak. It's hard to 'read' a toad, so I don't know if this particular batrachian is tired, like Rocky Burnette:

I certainly wouldn't want to waste its precious time... time better spent trying to convince princesses to give it a kiss.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

8Chan Deposition

I've posted every couple of months for almost a year about the internet message board 8Chan, perhaps the most wretched hive of scum and villainy on the internet, which is saying something. Child porn, conspiracy whackaloonery, neo-Nazi recruiting, manifestos from mass shooters (accompanied by the cheers of the CHUDS who egg them on)... it was all to be found on 8chan, which has been offline for three weeks since it was dumped by its DDoS security provider Cloudflare.

The current owner of 8Chan was summoned to give a deposition before the House Homeland Security Committee. While the deposition took place behind closed doors, the owner of 8Chan prepared a statement (PDF) claiming that his platform adhered to 'free speech' principles, pretty much ignoring the torrent of death threats which aren't protected speech. The joint statement from Chairman Bennie G. Thompson and Ranking Member Mike Rogers after the deposition was noncommittal.

In the fever swamps of conspiracy pushers, the takedown of 8Chan is seen as a 'Deep State' plot to derail the 'QAnon' phenomenon- the huckster/hoaxster behind the lunacy informed followers not to trust 'outside comms' (though there may be a loophole). It's a bit maddening not to know the substance of the deposition, and the lack of transparency will play into the hands of the paranoid, but it looks like the site is down for the count, which is music to the site's founder's ears.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Secret Science Club Movie Night: The Sound of Silence

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for a joint film premier sponsored by The Secret Science Club and IFC Films. The film details the work of a self-proclaimed 'house tuner', who obsessively tests the pitch of various neighborhoods of New York City and consults with homeowners who believe that their anxieties are rooted in the ambient noise of their homes. The film's protagonist, Peter Lucian (played by Peter Sarsgaard) is a musician who lives in a converted city fallout shelter, who leaves his soundproofed lair with his array of tuning forks to suss out the various chords of the city's neighborhoods, and attempting to establish a connection between sound an human behavior:

In the movie, each neighborhood has a background chord which determines the character of the neighborhood... in particular, Central Park evokes a 'nostalgic' mood.

The movie largely concerns Mr Lucian's efforts to pinpoint the source of client Ellen Chasen's stress. Rashida Jones, whose television comedies I am somewhat familiar with, seems to play against type as the harried Ms Chasen. In the course of his consultation, Lucian determines that Ms Chasen's toaster is the source of the discordant note in her apartment. As he works further to isolate the problem, he interacts with academics who inspire him to submit his research to a scientific journal and with representatives of a corporation which seeks to emulate his niche business.

The film was visually dark, with a muted palette, the better to concentrate on the role of sound. Sarsgaard's Lucian is socially awkward- perhaps a genius, perhaps a crank. Variety's Peter Debruge characterized the film as a deeply silly movie that takes itself incredibly seriously, but concedes that this is the movie's strength. There IS an undeniably funny aspect to a self-proclaimed expert convincing a stressed-out yuppie to buy a new toaster because her old one hums at the wrong pitch.

I immediately thought of the movie as a mirror-reflection of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 thriller The Conversation, which also portrayed a socially-awkward audio expert working for a client. The difference between Peter Lucian in The Sound of Silence and Henry Caul in The Conversation lies in the direction of their work- Caul seeks to isolate and amplify particular sounds in order to piece together a conversation, while Lucian seeks to isolate sounds in order to negate them to produce harmony. The anxieties of the city-denizens in The Sound of Silence come across as neuroses, while the paranoia in The Conversation is real, with the roles of villain and victim being ambiguous throughout.

Like all movies set in New York City, I keep a close look for the cues which say 'this is New York', and The Sound of Silence serves up crosstown traffic, subway and Metro North trains, the Roosevelt Island tram, and the various structures around Central Park. I had a lot of fun trying to pinpoint the various locations in the film.

After the film, there was a Q&A with neuroscientist Dr Bianca Jones Marlin of Columbia University (who delivered a SSC lecture last year) and movie co-writer Ben Nabors. The questions ran the gamut from the soundtrack to the creative process, to the science of hearing. Some Bastard in the audience asked Dr Jones Marlin about the role of aging in hearing perception (citing The Mosquito, inaudible to most adults)- could someone the protagonist's age really have a good shot at being a keen observer of background noise? She responded that the loss of perception of high-pitched sounds is due to the loss of hair cells as we age. She noted that she periodically tests her hearing, even though her research has shifted to the sense of smell. It was an engaging discussion, facilitated by the divine Dorian Devins.

As an aside, I was joined for the night by my great-and-good friend Handsome Johnny C, originally from Ireland but now a Brooklyn boy, his lovely wife, and their niece, who is in grad school in NYC. It was nice to bend an elbow with them. Johnny coaches soccer for the athletic program I coach judo for, and has been a great friend and mentor of mine for decades.

Kudos to the film's cast and crew, and Dr Jones Marlin for a night of thought-provoking entertainment, and high fives to Dorian and Margaret and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. If you are looking for a low-key drama about an eccentric crank/genius and his anxious client, you should check out The Sound of Silence... it's a nice meditation on the factors which might drive one to seek out 'alternative' treatments to physical or psychological problems, and the fine line between therapeutic measures and 'WOO!' that seekers of solutions have to navigate. While you're at it, pair it up with The Conversation, which is the perfect paranoid post-Watergate exploration of paranoia and the surveillance industrial complex.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Ray Davies Would Approve

My upstairs neighbor decided to squeeze one more eventful summer day in before the kids go back to school on Thursday, one last trip to the beach before the typical daily routine resumed. She sent me a text from the beach, asking me if I could let the dog out around 11AM so he could do his dogly deed outside. I like the little fella, so I was more than happy to spend some time with him. Today, he wasn't interested in wreaking havoc on a hapless ball:

He soon found a nice, sunny spot to lie on, and no soccer ball could tempt him from this spot:

Ray Davies would approve of this course of action. We hung out in the backyard, doing nothing much of all, until he got up to take a leak, then wanted back inside. I'll soon be Brooklyn-bound for a Secret Science Club event, but it was nice for this big, bald dog to laze about with a shaggy little dog for a while.

Monday, September 2, 2019

A Do-Nothing Labor Day

As luck would have it, I had a day off today, which is unusual for me on Labor Day. I decided to do absolutely nothing of substance all day. I couldn't even muster up the outrage to write a semi-radical post about the state of labor in the US, but Doktor Zoom wrote a post for the occasion that we all can admire. As far as my job goes... my wage is okay, but I have a lot of freedom on the job, typically being the only human employee on site for most of the time. I like my coworkers, and my boss is a decent, competent, conscientious guy. I realize that I am extremely fortunate, and don't regret leaving the toxicity of Corporate America fifteen years ago. Things aren't perfect, but I'm not the guy who can complain.

This is a very perfunctory post, something cobbled together after a big meal and a couple of drinks. I figure I should post some sort of labor-related song, but this is the song which is popping into my head right now:

Hope everyone enjoyed their long weekend, and hope the return to work goes smoothly!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Big Bug Summer Gets Noisy

My last two posts were a bit of a downer, so as Tengrain would put it, a palate cleanser is in order. In a continuation of Big Bug Summer, here's my latest encounter, with a finger-long singer of songs:

Obviously, this pretty green critter is a katydid, but I can't determine which of our native New York katydids it is. The real beauty of these insects is that they take over the night-singing duties when the amphibians, their love songs sung, go silent for the year (unless you startle them, whereupon they leap to safety with a comical squeak). The chorus remains, as romantic as it's been all summer, it's just the singers who change.

This isn't my first katydid post, these leaf-mimicking insects are spectacular, if you can find them... I just got lucky because of yet another case of camouflage fail.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

What Do They Have To Be Proud Of?

It looks like the 'Straight Pride' parade in Boston went off like a damp squib. In actuality, this event served as cover for a neo-Nazi parade. As seems to be inevitable, 'straight pride' seems to be entirely about hating LGBTQ people, and sadly the police of Boston appeared to take the side of the neo-Nazis over that of the people who believe in peaceful coexistence. PD, do better.

There looks to have been moments of levity and Vermin Supreme was generally being his own bad self:

The whole thing is a shitshow, meant to belittle the lived experience of LGBTQ people. 'Gay Pride' is about survival, the ability to live life openly, publicly, without fear of repression, suppression, or aggression. This 'Straight Pride' thing is about grievance against people who are merely claiming the rights they should have been granted all along. I'd dismiss it as mere trolling, but it is meant to elicit genuine fear, fear that the bad old days of authoritarian bigotry will return. It would be easy to ignore this sort of thing, dismissing it as a juvenile stunt, but I feel that I owe it to my LGBTQ friends not to turn a blind eye to people who wish to have a carte blanche to attack them.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Is This Who We Have Allowed Ourselves to Become?

In a year of disgusting and disheartening stories, this is perhaps the most disgusting and disheartening- the deportation order for Isabel Bueso, a young immigrant from Guatemala who was invited to the United States to participate in a clinical trial for her rare genetic disorder: Mucopolysaccharidosis type VI. Miss Bueso needs continuing medical treatmsent to survive, requiring a respirator to assist in breathing and regular injections of enzymes. These are treatments which she wouldn't be able to receive in the country of her birth.

The Bueso family has been in the United States legally for sixteen years and Isabel has, since playing a crucial role in the clinical trial for which she was invited to this country, graduated summa cum laude from Cal State University East Bay. Isabel Bueso has a tiny and helpless body, but a formdiable intellect and an irrepressible spirit, she is exactly the sort of individual who should at first rouse the protective instincts of anyone with a shred of humanity, and then gain their admiration for her extraordinary achievements. What has happened to our society that would possess our government to send a courageous, intelligent person to their death like this? There are videos of Isabel dating from before the New Cruelty, videos of her addressing an audience at Children's Hospital, her breathing labored but her sense of humor and grace apparent. Another video has Isabel describing her entry into college, her ongoing treatments, and her plans for the future:

At the end of the video, she muses about being married within ten years... the fact that she has lived for so long is a testimony to the medical treatments developed through her participation, and the very idea that the cruelty of a corrupt government could spell her death is abhorrent. This country came to be known as the place to which ill children could come for treatment, a rich and well-educated country in which decent people funded therapies for sick, indigent children. I would like to see Miss Bueso live as long a life as possible, to see her work with wheelchair-bound children, to see her get married on the timeline she envisioned... she deserves better. We deserve better.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Peter Tosh, Policy Expert

While wandering throughout midtown Manhattan with my brother, his wife, and their kids, we remarked on how many people were smoking cannabis on the streets of the most 'law and order' neighborhoods of the city. In broad daylight, on the most heavily trafficked streets of the city, people were smoking up, and the sweetish smell of marijuana smoke wafted throughout the humid air. Frankly, I was surprised... in my experience, people tended to smoke in their outer borough neighborhoods, typically at night, in out of the way locales. My perplexity was cleared up when I read today that a partial decriminalization of marijuana went into effect yesterday. While, technically, people could have been stopped for smoking weed in public, still a violation, that didn't seem to put a damper on people's indulgence.

Personally, I believe in a broad spectrum legalization of drugs, with regulation and taxation being features of legalization. Basically, treat narcotics in the same manner in which alcohol is treated. My main concern is harm mitigation, by having narcotics legally sold by licensed distributors, fewer users would purchase products adulterated with fentanyl, PCP, or even formaldehyde. Full legalization with exoneration would also result in the release of non-violent offenders who never should have been incarcerated in the first place. Of course, operating motor vehicles or heavy machinery under the influence should remain a criminal offense... as I stated, treat narcotics like booze.

It seems like Peter Tosh's policy advice is being heeded after all:

Marijuana legalization just might be a big part of any 2020 electoral platform, on the local, state, and federal levels. Most people think that weed isn't a big deal, and there's revenue to be made. If legalization doesn't take place, though, I'd prefer that all elected officials be subject to mandatory monthly drug tests, with the results to be made public

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Doing the 'At-Home Tourist' Thing

The daughter of my youngest brother, Gomez, plays on a top-tier traveling ice hockey team, she is following in her father's footsteps, by which I mean skate ruts, though she isn't a goalie like her pop. This weekend, she has a tournament in New England, so Gomez, his wife, and the kids came up to New York City. It was my nephew's first visit, and my niece's first visit since she was a baby, when she came up for my brother Sweetums' wedding.

I met up with them in midtown Manhattan, the corner of 34th and 7th to be precise. We headed over to the Empire State Building, which I hadn't visited in years, and zipped up to the 86th floor observation deck, where the views are spectacular, though overcast conditions prevented us from seeing the wide horizons. I wish that the entrance fee was on a sliding scale correlating to percent-visibility, but that's me. As much as I love the Empire State Building, my favorite building in midtown is the Chrysler Building, with it's art deco style and prominent aquiline gargoyles:

We followed up with a circuitous route through midtown, stopping by the main branch of the NY Public Library, then hitting the gorgeous Grand Central Terminal so they could take a gander at the marvelous ceiling, adorned with depictions of constellations. They hit a Yankees branded store to pick up some merchandise for the obscure local baseball franchise (my brother's wife is from upstate New York, so she is a lifelong fan, as is my downstate-bred brother), then it was off to an NHL-themed store, where they could buy NY Rangers merch for my brother and niece, and Buffalo Sabres merch for my sister-in-law and nephew... they have a friendly rivalry in this instance.

I scored a major coup by treating them to a late lunch/early dinner at a pub which shares my sister-in-law's maiden name, and persuading the manager to sell us two of the bar's pint glasses, which bear not only the name, but the crest of the extended family. It was an unlooked-for victory, and the glasses are destined to be Christmas presents for Gomez' mother-in-law.

After dinner, we walked up the tony 5th Avenue, where we visited St Patrick's Cathedral, then headed up to... uhhh... Trump Tower, where my sister-in-law and the kids stopped inside, while Gomez and I lounged outside, talking about how New Yorkers have detested Trump since the 80s, when he reneged on his deal to save the decorative facades of the old Bonwit Teller building which he demolished to build his personal demesne. With this side-trek out of the way, we headed through the Artists' Gate of Central Park, and the kids climbed various large rock formations for funny photo ops. A brief saunter through the southern verge of the park, and it was out the Merchants' Gate and into Times Square, where we took in the spectacle of Spectacle. We pretty much kept to Broadway, which is lined mainly with retail stores, with an occasional restaurant. With a constant drizzle, hanging out outside wasn't that appealing a prospect. We eventually ended up a few blocks from where we began, the subway station at 42nd St in Times Square. We parted ways, with them headed downtown, and myself headed back to the Bronx, having gotten a lot of the touristy stuff out of the way so that we can concentrate on museums when next they head back up to my brother's ancestral homeland. Every once in a while, it's nice to play the tourist in the old hometown.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Big Bug Summer Takes a Sexy Turn

It's been a Big Bug Summer this year, by which I mean a big summer for bugs and a summer for big bugs. Even this month's Secret Science Club lecture was about insects, and typically large ones to boot. This weekend, Big Bug Summer got sexy when I found a couple of cicadas, each about as big as your thumb, making the 'beast with two abdomens':

I have to admit somewhat sheepishly that I can't supply a Latin binomial for these (true) bugs, but cicada identification seems pretty daunting for the layperson. Poking around the NY State DEP website, I saw a picture which suggests that these might be Neotibicen canicularis.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Noisy Neighbors, or Winged Wonders

It's been a pretty crazy month, so I decided to post a quick, as Tengrain would put it, palate cleanser tonight. This summer, the ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) which live adjacent to one of my worksites have been exceptionally active, or more accurately, I've been around more when they are out and about. They are oddly melodious raptors, and have been singing to each other at great volume pretty much all day, all summer. At dawn, they are singing in the conifers:

At dusk, they are singing in the dead tree by the riverbank:

At various times, they are winging overhead, and if we (and they) are lucky, we'll catch a glimpse of one clutching a fish. And have I mentioned that they are unexpectedly melodious? They do wonders when it comes to lending a sense of wonder to the place.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

From the Eighth Floor, You Can See the Cosmos

Ir's been a nutty day on the job. I started off at one site, locked it up at the end of the public visitation hours, then motored up to another site, where we had an event which nobody told me about before this morning. It's okay, I don't mind dealing with the public, and there's usually leftover food after the event, which is a huge bonus when you're working an overnight double shift

One of the attendees of the event was a woman who I have known for years. She used to volunteer for us a few years back. She's hard to pin down agewise, being perhaps late 60s to late 70s. She's an active senior, being involved in an English/Scottish dance group and a knitting group. She told me that she's had a run of bad fortune, the biggest problem being that her landlord of 42 years wants her out of the house, for whatever reason (probably wants to rent to a younger person at a higher rate).

She mentioned that she looked at a place the next town over, an apartment on the 8th floor of a big building. I told her that, at least, she'd have a nice view. She sighed, then said, "Yeah, I'll be able to look out and see trees... and if I see the saucers coming, I can go with them."

It wasn't quite a conversation stopper, but it DID almost break my usually unbreakable poker face. I admire her optimism, though I don't share it... if the saucers DO come, I fear that Fay and the gang might be right.

Friday, August 23, 2019

De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum, My Ass!

There's a certain cliche by which I do not abide, the very idea of not speaking ill of the dead. By speaking only platitudes about deceased persons, we elide their transgressions, their crimes, the damage that they have done to others. David Koch, who did croak, did incalculable damage to US society, to workers' rights, to the world's environment. He, along with his brother Chuck, bankrolled such fever swamps of bad ideas as the American Enterprise Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council to push oligarchy masquerading as libertarianism. Wherever bad legislation undermining workplace safety regulations or proper disposal of toxic waste popped up, there was the hand of David Koch. Wage stagnation and environmental degradation... Dave was there, pushing for it, and buying the politicians who implemented the policies which resulted in it.

Sure, David Koch has been described as a 'philanthropist' by a media reluctant to tell the truth about the man's legacy... sure, he donated money to performance venues and museums. A few years ago, I mentioned that the Koch name being attached to the dinosaur halls at AMNH used to chap my ass, until I realized that there could be no better tribute to the fossil fuel magnates than rooms full of extinct animals. It doesn't mean that I have warmed to the Kochs, though... the willful destruction of the Amazon rainforests (which provide 20% of the Earth's atmospheric oxygen) and the meltdown of Greenland bear the fingerprints of Koch's greedy, grasping hand. As far as I'm concerned, there is nothing good to say about this particular carcass, and I sure as hell am not going to keep quiet about this evil man who wreaked such havoc through his 'giving'.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Big Bug Summer Continues

On Tuesday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Dr Jessica Ware, entomologist and evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University, who earlier this year received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The official title of Dr Ware's presentation was 'Insect Divergence: The Evolution of Termite, Dragonflies, and Damselflies.

Dr Ware began her lecture with an autobiographical note, joking that she and her twin sister, a performance artist, diverged early on. Her interest in science was sparked by her grandparents, residents of Northern Ontario, who 'tossed snakes and frogs' at their granddaughters. As a child, she engaged in the activities she now performs as a field biologist: hiking, collecting, asking questions, and indulging her natural curiosity. She decided to study insects because of sheer numbers... she can catch ten dragonflies in a shorter period of time than it would take to see one whale.

Dr Ware noted that there are approximately 5,500 mammal species on Earth, about 391,000 plant species, and approximately one million insect species. Insects are incredibly diverse- they run the gamut from herbivores to predators. Dr Ware said that, whatever humans have done, insects have done it before them. Insects wage war, take slaves, farm, and developed flight. One of Dr Ware's areas of research is determining how the various insect orders are related, and when they diversified. She is specifically interested in termites (which she described as 'fancy social cockroaches') and the dragonflies and their sister group the damselflies. She contrasted the key innovations of the termites (being sociality) and the dragon-and-damselflies (flight).

Before tackling insect diversity, Dr Ware gave us an overview of systematics, describing the 'family trees' of Earth's organisms. Using a familiar example, she noted that cats and dogs form a sister group while sheep are more distantly related. Dr Ware is a member of 1KITE, the One Thousand Insect Transcriptome Evolution project, which studies insect phylogenetics, how the different insect orders are related, and when they diversified.

The Odonata are basal insects, they are probably the earliest winged insects to evolve. There are approximately three thousand dragonfly species and about three thousand damselfly species... there is also an intermediate group, the Anisozygoptera, represented by a single genus found in Nepal, China, and Japan.

Dr Ware described the Odonata as pretty and showy, and have been used as decorative motifs by Tiffany and other designers. She launched into a very funny tangent, "Is your tattoo a dragonfly or an ant lion?" She conceded that the Neuroptera are also cool before noting that dragonflies have no antennae while ant lions have big antennae. She then joked that nobody has a tattoo of an aquatic dragonfly baby unless they are a top level entomologist. She noted that the aquatic dragonfly nymphs are voracious predators.

Dr Ware posed the question, who flew first? Was it the Odonata, the mayflies, or another insect lineage? What was flying around in the early days of insect evolution? What were the reasons why dragonflies evolved flight early on? Perhaps it was due to sexual selection- dragonfly mating involves indirect sperm transfer. Females mate with multiple males, and the males have a secondary 'penis'- they scrape the sperm of other males out of the female with which they are mating and use a 'secondary penis' in which sperm is stored to transfer the sperm after rivals' sperm is scraped out. Other basal insects use sperm packets to inseminate their mates.

Most Odonata systematics, Dr Ware explained, is based on wing venation- the degree of venation in an insect's wing (sparse vs high) is strongly correlated with flight syles, with the amout of veins determining the stiffness of a wing.

In the Carboniferous period, about 350 million years ago, a sister group to the Odonata, colloquially know as griffinflies, attained giant sizes, with wingspans up to two feet (Dr Ware quipped that, as a Canadian and a scientist, converting from metric units didn't come naturally to her). True Odonata appeared in the Permian, about 250 million years ago. The earliest branching lineage of the extant Odonata is the critically endangered Tasmanian damselfly Hemiphlebia mirabilis. Dr Ware somberly noted, "They may be extinct by the time you get home." The females use their abdomens to fling eggs haphazardly across the bogs which form their dwindling habitat. DNA sequencing revealed that they are a sister group to all other Odonata.

Dr Ware paused to inform us that she prefers dragonflies to damselflies before continuing with the lecture. She then went on to note that most of the organisms which prey on Odonata evolved after the Odonata did- frogs evolved in the Jurassic period, modern birds evolved in the Cretaceous period. She took a moment to joke: "Predators are jerks!"

Odonata have two egg-laying strategies: exophytic species lay their eggs outside of plants while endophytic species lay their eggs inside plants. Dr Ware amusingly described exophytic species as 'squirting their eggs out like ketchup', noting that they sometimes lay their eggs on cars, mistaking their reflective surfaces for bodies of water. The endophytic strategy may have been ancestral- in a case of convergent evolution, the Gomphidae (clubtails) and Libellulidae (skimmers) employ an exophytic strategy. They are not very closely related, so 'egg squirting' evolved twice, probably as a means to avoid predators.

Despite her preference for dragonflies, Dr Ware singled out a specific damselfly species for special consideration- the giant helicopter damselfly (Megaloprepus caerulatus) has evolved to eat spiders, plucking them right out of their webs. Some of the males have white, waxy patches on their wings, which are probably used in territorial displays to warn other males away from the water-filled tree holes which are necessary for mating. There is a geographical distribution between white patch dominant and no patch dominant populations.

Getting the coolest damselfly out of the way, Dr Ware then proceeded to her preferred Odonata, the dragonflies. The Aeshnidae (darners) are represented by 453 species of large, colorful dragonflies. Some of them can change color as the temperature changes, with pigment particles migrating to and from the surface of the abdomen, changing from blue to purple. Some of the darners are migratory- in one experiment, researchers glued tiny radio transmitters to the dragonflies with eyelash adhesive, but the transmitters interfered with the insects' flight, and most of the overburdened insects were eaten by predators.

The next family of dragonflies introduced by Dr Ware were the Petaluridae (petaltails), which are large dragonflies. Dr Ware then recounted the bizarre tale of one Perry Turner (PDF link), a student at Berkeley University who had borrowed a large collection of Petaluridae from various museums, including several type specimens. Turner was also a big believer in Sasquatch, and believed that Sasquatch ate Petaluridae. Turner disappeared without paying the rent on a storage locker, and his purloined Petaluridae ended up in an antiques shop.

Dr Ware then returned to the GomphidaeGomphidae (clubtails). which are exophytic egg-layers, their eggs being coated and weighted to they sink quickly to reduce predation by fish. There are over 900 species in the Gomphidae.

The Libellulidae (skimmers) are exophytic egg layers and some of the species are migratory. Dr Ware singled out the genus Pantala, which includes two species- Pantala hymenaea is a migratory species which ranges throughout the New World, and Pantala flavescens, which has a global (excepting Antarctica) distribution. Dr Ware joked that Pantala flavescens was her first dragonfly catch in Canada, Africa, and Australia. Pantala can thrive in areas which aren't hospitable to other dragonflies because their nymphs can develop in five weeks, which means that they can survive in temporary or transient bodies of water. Most dragonfly nymphs take one to five years to develop. Pantala also has a morphology conducive to gliding, with banded wing bases which can catch the wind. Pantala flavescens can be found also exhibits adaptive behaviors on windy islands, such as Easter Island, 'crouching' to avoid high winds so they aren't blown out to sea.

Dr Ware described a project in which the genomes of 700 Pantala flavescens specimens were sequenced to find shared genetic patterns, and to note where genetic outliers were found. A colleague of hers collected a Pantala flavescens while on a cruise, another colleague encountered a Pantala flavescens while on conducting research 100 miles out to sea. The origin of a particular Pantala flavescens can be determined through isotope analysis- since the nymphs develop in the water, they pick up the isotopes found in their native waters, which gets deposited in their wing chitin. Pantala flavescens in the Andes tended to have a local origin, while Pantala flavescens populations in Queensland and West Africa tended to have hydrogen signatures indicating that they originated elsewhere.

Dr Ware then shifted the focus of her lecture to termites (which I doubt anybody has a tattoo of). She described termites as fancy, myopic, dark-dwelling social roaches. They were formerly classified in their own order, the Isoptera, but they have recently been reclassified as Blattodea, along with the cockroaches. There are are approximately 4,500 species of roach and 3,100 species of termites. Most termite species are not pests, nor are all termites wood eaters- many termites consume fungi or grasses. Termite sociality probably evolved because termites need symbiotic bacteria to help them digest cellulose. These gut bacteria are lost as individual termites molt, and must be replenished by termites consuming probiotic anal secretions from other termites. Most termite studies involve the approximately 2% of termite species which are pests, though Dr Ware singled out termites which explode to defend their nest (if my beery brain recalls correctly, she recounted the discovery with a colleague, of an Amitermes species that "explodes like Mr Creosote" to defend the colony).

Dr Ware indicated that termite evolution is probably tied to the evolution of the flowering plants, the angiosperms, in the Cretaceous period. Determining the age at which insect lineages evolved can be complicated by flaws in molecular data and the difficulty of non-paleontologists in calibrating the age of fossils. It's generally believed that the first insects may have evolved around 450 million years ago, with roaches evolving around 250 million years ago. Piecing together the divergence of insect life does involve some cautious optimism.

Dr Ware ended her talk by discussing the future of entomology, stressing the need for public outreach, especially the need to get children involved. She discussed the role that her two children play in her fieldwork, displaying a picture with the funny caption: "Relax, my mom is an entomologist!" She talked about her early career, when women were often derided as 'net-holders', and said that she was the only woman in her entomological group in 2003. She disavowed the notion that women had to choose between fieldwork and child-rearing, noting that children are extremely good at collecting insects. She finished her lecture by stating the New Jersey has a particularly rich and diverse Odonata population, with 188 species inhabiting the Garden State.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question involved dragonfly mortality- while predators take their toll on dragonflies, there are other dangers... dragonflies store fat in their tails, and there is a danger that they might run out of energy reserves. Another danger is that their wings get to wet to sustain lift, so they might drown. Mating is dangerous for dragonflies, the males have claspers on their tails with which they grasp females (or, by mistake, other males). The claspers can hurt the other dragonflies, and mating can be a violent affair. Dragonflies also eat other dragonflies. Another question involved polluted waters- dragonflies can sequester pollutants such as mercury and other heavy metals. The relative hardiness of dragonfly nymphs can be used to determine water quality. Another question involved dragonfly hunting strategies- dragonflies have spines on their tibia with which they catch prey on the wing (this is commonly known as 'hawking'), much of their food can be likened to 'aerial plankton'.

Some Bastard in the audience asked about the evolution of aquatic development in the Odonata. Aquatic development has evolved in numerous insect lineages, but the ancestral condition was terrestrial. Griffinfly nymphs are unknown, and there are some Odonata nymphs which aren't aquatic, with some species even found in trees.

A question involving the diet of early fliers elicited a grimly funny response from Dr Ware... "They probably ate each other." High atmospheric oxygen content allowed some griffinflies to reach their huge size. During the Jurassic period, an adaptation allowing twisting and bending of the wings evolved, which resulted in improved flight. During the Jurassic, though, there were more predators. Regarding Pantela flavescens, the species is a young one, perhaps a million years old, and small nucleotide differences among populations suggest numerous repeated colonization events on islands.

Regarding climate change, temperature in lab settings does effect viability, with many species operating optimally at a temperature of 25C. At 30C, mortality sets in, with temperature particularly effecting the behavior of aquatic juveniles.

Dr Ware was asked about the possibility of an impending Insect Apocalypse- yearly collections are used to determine biomass. There has been no difference in dragonfly biomass, but there is a difference in species distribution. Dragonflies are highly mobile, they can leave areas when conditions change for the worse. In one particular case, a dragonfly formerly limited in northerly range to North Africa can now be found in Sweden, and Arctic dragonflies now range above the treeline.

Another attendee asked about dragonfly longevity- the adults last for one hot summer, they have two to three months to 'get their business done'. Nymphs can range in lifespan from five weeks to five years, depending on the species.

Regarding the skinny abdomens of damselflies, Dr Ware noted that all damselflies are endophytic, and narrow abdomens are probably a result of this egg-laying strategy. Dragonflies, being more active, have invested more resources in a muscular thorax and a fat-storing abdomen. The need for heat dispersal might also affect abdomen size. Another question involved edibility- there are no venomous or poisonous dragonflies, and the thorax, being muscle, is pure protein.

There was a question regarding fear of insects. Dr Ware stated that it is learned behavior- her older child accompanied her in the lab much of the time, and has no fear of insects. Her younger child spent time in daycare with entomophobes while she was working on her doctorate, and is less comfortable with insects. She quipped that this was only a sample size of two.

Regarding aggregating behavior, aggregations occur around suitable mating sites, and sites where food is plentiful. Exophytic dragonflies produce large egg masses, which is good for the first nymphs to hatch, because they can eat their smaller siblings.

The final question of the night involved the exploding termites, about which not a lot is known. Dr Ware was collecting termites with a colleague using aspirators. While collecting termites from a strange-looking mound, they noticed that the aspirator was getting clogged with 'gooey' termites. Closer observation revealed that some of the termites had ruptured abdomens, but they noted that this might have been a result of collection methods. They didn't think it was enough to change the focus of their research, so they put the specimens in ethanol, and brought them back to New Jersey. They noted the explosions, which probably evolved to seal colony walls, later.

There's a concept which I call the 'Secret Science Sweet Spot', that particular combination of hard science fact, entertainment factor, and advocacy. I'm an entomophile, as longtime readers will know, and this has been a BIG BUG SUMMER for me, so this was a paricularly fantastic lecture. Dr Ware knocked it out of the park, with fascinating information, gorgeous photographs, engaging autobiography, and earnest advocacy for education, inclusion, and environmentalism. I only had one beef with her... I am firmly on team damselfly (I mean, I've never had a dragonfly interact with me like this), and jocularly chided her for her damselfly deprecation. All was well when she revealed her first Odonata tattoo, a male ebony jewelwing like the one that so patiently allowed me to relocate- she didn't want to subject the tattoo artist to having to depict wing venation, so she chose the Odonate with opaque wings. All is forgiven, good doctor! There were some other highlights- one of Dr Ware's old mentors brought a bunch of live insects to the beautiful Bell House, including Madagascar hissing roaches, a leaf-mimicking mantis, and a grasshopper-ish critter that was about four inches long. Also in attendance was entomophagy advocate chef Joseph Yoon. NJIT sent a contingent, notably Dr Phil Barden, who indicated that having a damselfly land on your fishing pole is good luck.

Kudos to Dr Ware, Margaret (who has pulling solo duty as Dorian was out of town being awesome elsewhere), and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. While I enjoy all of the lectures, I have to confess my bio-bias, and this month's lecture was TOP TIER. High fives all around! Here's a video of Dr Ware leading some students in fieldwork in a park in Newark, New Jersey:

Pour yourself a nice beverage and soak in that SCIENCE!