Tuesday, April 30, 2019
After the all-staff meeting, my immediate boss and I met with a young man who had applied to replenish my gutted department. He seemed like a nice guy, a Yonkers resident like myself. I made sure to ask him if he were comfortable working outside at night, in the dark, and told him that two guys were unable to finish a shift because they were scared of the dark. This guy is a Yonkers guy, so I think he will be okay. It’s now a matter of HR checking his references and conducting a background check. In the meantime, HR finally promoted one of my subordinates to a full time position. For the record, he can run people the wrong way because he’s utterly candid, but I think every organization needs someone who tells you exactly what he thinks- while arguing for making him full-time, I told my boss, “The only times I wanted to punch him in the nose were times when he was right.” Looks like his candid approach rubbed off on me. With his promotion, much of our staffing crisis goes away, but we could use two more part-timers.
It was a long day, but a productive one. The busy season starts tomorrow, and I feel better about the coming weeks than I did yesterday.
Monday, April 29, 2019
For a bunch of people who claim to follow the literal word of the Bible, these assholes sure love to bear false witness. It's this sort of religious right hypocrisy which has resulted in non-affiliation now being one of the biggest and certainly the fastest growing group in the US religious landscape. Maybe if the Christian churches followed the lead of Pete Buttigieg, they wouldn't find their pews emptying out.
Sunday, April 28, 2019
Tonight, it's going to be jacket and tie, what my mom jocularly refers to in military fashion as 'dress blues, tennis shoes, and a light coat of oil'. The board of directors of the not-for-profit for which I work is meeting at my principal workplace. Besides the annual board meeting, the event is a rollout for a major project, so there will be a presentation about the project and a dinner. I imagine much of my night will involve running interference for the caterers and the cleaning contractors... pointing out outlets and unlocking doors. One of the development staffers from the main office will be working with me. We get along famously, she met her husband in one of the bars down the street from my place, so we are simpatico. For the record, she's a hoot, she has a great sense of humor, even under stressful conditions (the last event we worked together was during a torrential downpour, when the basement of the building flooded and the parking lot was under six inches of not-so-clean water). I checked the forecast today, and it might rain a little.
As usual, I will be packing a change of clothes- after the mucky-mucks leave, it's back through the woodsy area to the building where Ginger is handling her mousing duties, and I don't want to get my dry-clean only clothes muddy. I gave her a double-ration of cat food before leaving last night to tide her over until I can feed her when the VIPs leave, but I imagine she'll be hankering for some kibble. Sure, I will have been dealing with the Board of Directors, but I know who my real boss is.
Saturday, April 27, 2019
It seems that this current shooter was radicalized online by reading about the 'white genocide' conspiracy theory, and that his family wasn't involved in his turn towards terrorism (I am reminded of the two suicide bombers in Sri Lanka who were sons of a wealthy spice merchant). It's a shock when people 'from good homes' commit heinous crimes, but a sober look at the evidence reveals that many terrorists come from monied backgrounds. Poor people don't have the money for arms, and working stiffs don't have the time to spend on radical sites.
I have a nauseating feeling that these 8Chan massacres will continue. There's a toxic synergy of social isolation, bigotry, and nihilism that occurs online, and impressionable people will be 'blackpilled' and see violence as the answer to the problems they believe afflict them.
Friday, April 26, 2019
The goslings, as goslings tend to be, are cute. Here is one of them with mom and dad:
Something tells me that, although they got used to people walking within five feet of the nest they had built near the entrance to the site, they wouldn't be so calm if anyone were to approach the babies so closely.
Thursday, April 25, 2019
My go-to authority on the... uhhhhh... matter of dark matter is Dr Priyamvada Natarajan of Yale University, who delivered two Secret Science Club lectures on dark matter. Here's a TED talk by the good doctor on dark matter:
For a more in-depth exploration of the matter, the Fermilab has an hour and a half lecture by Dr Natarajan on dark matter and black holes. While the subject matter may be hard to wrap one's head around, I think that Dr Natarajan's almost musical accent makes the lecture fun to listen to even if you are physics averse.
The Secret Science Club also featured a lecture on neutrinos by Dr Ray Jayawardhana of the University of Toronto. I am particularly enchanted with the idea of tying together our knowledge of the infinitesimally small universe within each atom with our knowledge of the mind-bogglingly vast multiverse. Science, I repeat, works.
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
The real freaky part is that Daubenmire implored the right-wing 'Oath Keepers' and 'patriot groups' to join him at Casa Clinton, the 'greatest crime scene' in the world:
Dave Daubenmire drove from Ohio to New York yesterday so he could stand alone outside the Clinton's home and demand that Trump arrest Hillary. pic.twitter.com/ZPIcPHYLTG— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) April 23, 2019
Part of me hopes that these right-wing assholes will take Daubenmire up on his challenge. Between Bill Clinton's Secret Service detail and the state and local authorities who look ill upon out-of-state whackos bringing their firearms into New York State, anybody following 'Coach' Dave on his crusade against Hillary is looking to enter a World of Hurt. I would certainly not mind seeing a thousand MAGA Militia members facing felony charges just in time for the 2020 election season.
Tuesday, April 23, 2019
The best thing about the song is that it set me off on an exploration of Australian slang, particularly the diminutives, like 'smoko', that they use.
Yesterday, I had a day off, but I got called about, as luck would have it, a smoke alarm in one of our buildings... I couldn't joke that I was 'on smoko' under the circumstances. It was one building that nobody in my department has keys to... thankfully, there was somebody working there, and even more thankfully, it was a false alarm, most likely due to dust in the room where the sensor is. My coworker was able to handle the situation with the local fire department, and the president of our organization put in an appearance so my co-worker looked good in front of the mucky-mucks. I was able to talk him through the process of resetting the alarm system after everything was settled... no smoko when the smoke alarm goes off.
Monday, April 22, 2019
I am not ordinarily a 'downer', but this is a topic I have been harping on for the past decade of blogging. Take a walk outside, and gauge how long it takes to find a plastic bag stuck in a tree or blowing down the street. Check out the health statistics for asthma or for any of a number of cancers. Read up on plummeting insect populations (no worries, Monsanto will partner with Raytheon to build pollinator microdrones). It's pretty damn infuriating... the next quarter's profits are more important than the long-term survival of our species. The real shame is that we are taking the charismatic megafauna with us, though life is resilient and new ecological niches will develop on the flotsam and jetsam we'll leave behind, occupied by slimy little critters that don't tug at our heartstrings.
The title is a riff on a line from a song by the Doors, a band which I, like David Crosby, think is overrated... I think David Crosby is overrated too, though he has some good environmentalist content on his Twitter feed.
Sunday, April 21, 2019
Easter has always been my favorite holiday, it always signified the real turning point in the Spring, with the early blooming flowers at the peak of their glory, and the birds hitting their stride here in the northeastern United States. Sure, there were Easter Sundays when I'd shoveled snow while wearing shorts, but the overwhelming feeling of the Earth's renewal has always been there for me.
I just got off the phone with my mom and my brother Vin. Mom is down in Alabama, having flown down for Vin's retirement from the Army. Everybody in the family is doing well, mom called all of the 'satellite offices' both here in the States and over in Europe. Vin joked about having only had two jobs in his life... as a high schooler he worked in a local produce store, then he was commissioned as an officer in the US Army and never looked back... what they told him was the first twenty years didn't count. Vin is going to send out resumes, perhaps take a course in government contracting, and practice playing the guitar a lot. I'm grateful that, even as the world seems to be going to shit, the family is doing well.
My Easter has been pretty low-key. I got to work early to feed the cat and I had a funny encounter with a sixty-ish couple. Most of the time, I work alone, and I adhere to a 'my job, my rules' policy when it's just myself and Ginger. We are closed still, but when a woman knocked on the front door and requested, through a Chinese-to-English translation app on her smartphone, to use the restroom, I let her and her, I presume husband, in the building and pointed out the restrooms. I tend to default to 'compassionate' mode, and I haven't been burned yet- I think that I am a good judge of character.
When she was finished using the restroom, the woman thanked me, then, via the app, she told me that she and her husband were visiting from 'Snow City'. I mused, 'Snow City?' and without missing a beat, she said, 'Syracuse.' I needed a laugh after the horror and disgust I felt this morning, and she delivered an honest laugh. I gave them one of our brochures for the coming season, pointed out the website, and used an online translation on the desktop here to provide a quick précis of the site. They left me in a better mood than I was in when I arrived, and I'm grateful for that. No matter how terrible the human race in the aggregate can seem to be, most individual persons are wonderful. I didn't go on an Easter egg hunt today, but I found two good eggs.
Saturday, April 20, 2019
The young bird had a bit of downy fluff still, and notably did not fly off even though I approached it closely enough to take this photo on full zoom... a distance of perhaps seven or eight feet. This isn't my first close encounter with a fledgling mourning dove, nor is it the closest I've gotten to a fledgling bird which showed no fear. Adult mourning doves have a not-quite-shy disposition, they seem to take their time assessing a potential threat before winging off with a series of high-pitched chirps quite unlike their usual low-pitched coos. This particular little birdie made a show of being utterly fearless.
Friday, April 19, 2019
The murder of Lyra McKee is particularly upsetting in light of her growing prominence, signaled by the publication of her first book, about the violence which ultimately claimed her life. In this debased age, when even the President of the United States calls for violence against journalists, losing a brave truth-teller like Ms McKee is particularly disquieting. Hers is a voice that is sorely needed, the sort of voice which can tell of overcoming personal trauma and of overwhelming national trauma.
Here's a video of Lyra McKee's TED talk concerning the potential of religious reform to reduce violence against LGBTQ persons:
She hits on some of the same themes that Pete Buttigieg hit on in his speech earlier this week. Finally, people are talking about putting the Christ back into Christianity. Sectarian violence and violence against minorities should be considered unacceptable to the worshipers of the Gentle Nazarene.
The whole thing is upsetting, not only the loss of a bright young star, but the implications of further Troubles to come. Hey, I don't want to be a complete downer, but I don't want to break this melancholy mood, so here's tearjerker Derry City as performed by my great and good friend Mary Courtney:
Here's hoping that cooler heads will prevail and outshout those who seek to divide us.
Thursday, April 18, 2019
I first encountered Gene Wolfe in high school, when I read a tale in an anthology which haunted me, though I forgot the name of the author in the press of academic work and extracurricular activities. The long short story, which I later rediscovered was Seven American Nights, about a traveler from a technologically advanced Iran to a decrepit, backwater of a United States, has staying power with its slow burn of a narrative, in which details accumulate in the reader's mind until an 'aha' moment which punches the reader in the gut:
There seems to be no logic to the prices in this country, save for the general rule that foodstuffs are cheap and imported machinery-cameras and the like--costly. .Textiles are expensive, which no doubt explains why so many of the people wear ragged clothes that they mend and dye in an effort to make them look new. Certain kinds of jewelry are quite reasonable; others sell for much higher prices than they would in Teheran. Rings of silver or white gold set, usually, with a single modest diamond, may be had in great numbers for such low prices that I was tempted into buying a few to take home as an investment, Yet I saw bracelets that would have sold at home for no more than half a rial, for which the seller asked ten times that much.
Wolfe often employed unreliable narrators, protagonists with memory issues, protagonists who are trying to deceive, or whose perception of events is colored by drug use or simple naiveté. A Wolfe story is a puzzle, in which the reader must pierce the fog of the simple narrative in order to suss out an approximation of what is actually occurring. Simply put, Wolfe forced his readers to become better readers.
Wolfe's first major book was The Fifth Head of Cerberus, a set of three intertwining novellas set in a distant star system on twin planets originally colonized by Francophone spacefarers. The first novella centers around a young man who is trying to come to grips with his home life under a despotic father who subjects him to a battery of different tests. The second is an anthropologist's account of a legend concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of one of the planets from before first contact with humans and possible extinction at their hands. The third novella ties together the first two, as the anthropologist who authored the legend synopsis is interrogated in prison. The connections between the novellas have to be pieced together by the reader- small details in each possible refer to events in the other novellas, but nothing is made explicit. Like all of Wolfe's books, The Fifth Head of Cerberus rewards re-reading with an attention to detail, so details revealed later can be correlated with previous elements of the story.
Wolfe's magnum opus is The Book of the New Sun, originally published in four volumes. This novel, which superficially seems a love letter to my beloved Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, also features an unreliable narrator, a man who claims to have a perfect memory, but has grown up in a sheltered environment with a limited, specialized education... he might also be deceptive at times. The story takes place in a far-distant future, when the sun of Urth is moribund, the planet's natural resources have been depleted, society is divided into a vast population of poor people living under pre-modern conditions and a tiny minority of ultra-wealthy persons with access to high technology, and so much history has taken place that, as Wolfe once wrote: “If we are remembered at all, it will be as the contemporaries of Herodotus and Mark Twain.” Details of the planet's antiquity come in hints, references to things poorly understood by Severian, the narrator:
The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure's helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.
This warrior of a dead world affected me deeply, though I could not say why or even just what emotion it was I felt. In some obscure way, I wanted to take down the picture and carry it - not into our necropolis but into one of those mountain forests of which our necropolis was (as I understood even then) an idealized but vitiated image. It should have stood among trees, the edge of its frame resting on young grass.
Wolfe's particular genius in The Book of the New Sun was making his protagonist a professional torturer, raised in his guild since infancy. The narrative arc involves his exile from the 'Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence' for showing mercy to a prisoner he has fallen in love with, and his exposure to the world outside of the cloistered environs of the the most curious tower in which he lived:
But perhaps before I write further I should explain something more of the nature of our Matachin Tower. It is situated toward the back of the Citadel, upon the western side. At ground level are the studies of our masters, where consultations with the officers of justice and the heads of other guilds are conducted. Our common room is above them, with its back to the kitchen. Above that is the refectory, which serves us as an assembly hall as well as an eating place. Above it are the private cabins of the masters, in better days much more numerous. Above these are the journeymen's cabins, and above them the apprentices' dormitory and classroom, and a series of attics and abandoned cubicles. Near the very top is the gun room, whose remaining pieces we of the guild are charged with serving should the Citadel suffer attack. The real work of our guild is carried out below all this. Just underground lies the examination room; beneath it, and thus outside the tower proper (for the examination room was the propulsion chamber of the original structure) stretches the labyrinth of the oubliette.
The real power of The Book of the New Sun is that it is a story about stories. On the Vancian framework, Wolfe hung allusions to Borges, Robert Graves, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville... in order to 'get' the book, one is required to read other books. The novel features numerous subsidiary stories, as storytelling is a favorite pastime of the characters who live in a resource-poor milieu. The far-future setting is reinforced by ancient legends in which the Minotaur and the Monitor are conflated, in which The Jungle Book, the legend of Romulus and Remus, and the founding of the Plymouth colony are mashed-up. One of Wolfe's greatest achievements was coming up with a counter to Orwell's Newspeak when he has a prisoner of war from a totalitarian society which has reduced its language to Goodthink phrases from an equivalent to Mao's Little Red Book join in a storytelling contest for the hand of a soldier in a field hospital. Wolfe was confident that the human spirit could prevail even in the face of Orwellian thought-control:
The next morning, when we had eaten and everyone was awake, I ventured to ask Foila if it was now time for me to judge between Melito and Hallvard. She shook her head, but before she could speak, the Ascian announced, “All must do their share in the service of the populace. The bullock draws the plow and the dog herds the sheep, but the cat catches mice in the granary. Thus men, women, and even children can serve the populace.”
Foila flashed that dazzling smile. “Our friend wants to tell a story too.”
“What!” For a moment I thought Melito was actually going to sit up. “Are you going to let him—let one of them—consider—”
She gestured, and he sputtered to silence. “Why yes.” Something tugged at the corners of her lips. “Yes, I think I shall. I’ll have to interpret for the rest of you, of course. Will that be all right, Severian?”
“If you wish it,” I said.
Hallvard rumbled, “This was not in the original agreement. I recall each word.”
“So do I,” Foila said. “It isn’t against it either, and in fact it’s in accordance with the spirit of the agreement, which was that the rivals for my hand—neither very soft nor very fair now, I’m afraid, though it’s becoming more so since I’ve been confined in this place—would compete. The Ascian would be my suitor if he thought he could; haven’t you seen the way he looks at me?”
The Ascian recited, “United, men and women are stronger; but a brave woman desires children, and not husbands.”
“He means that he would like to marry me, but he doesn’t think his attentions would be acceptable. He’s wrong.” Foila looked from Melito to Hallvard, and her smile had become a grin.
“Are you two really so frightened of him in a storytelling contest? You must have run like rabbits when you saw an Ascian on the battlefield.”
Neither of them answered, and after a time, the Ascian began to speak: “In times past, loyalty to the cause of the populace was to be found everywhere. The will of the Group of Seventeen was the will of everyone.”
Foila interpreted: “Once upon a time …”
Gene Wolfe converted to Catholicism when he married his wife Rosemary, and his was a convert's zeal without a convert's dogmatism. Catholic themes, and Catholic imagery pervade his works- allusions to the Eucharist, meditations on sin and redemption, and biblical analogies. He was also a conservative before the word was tainted by anti-intellectualism and bigotry. He occasionally wrote about environmental themes, particularly in the context of energy production and use of chemicals in our foodways. One particular favorite quote of mine comes from his short story The Adopted Father:
John Parker crossed to the window and stared at the dark sky beyond the glass. "That's coal smoke, the technology of the Nineteenth Century brought into the Twenty-First and hard at work. They could have conquered the solar system and harnessed the sun, but they did this instead, because there was no fun involved. Their great-grandfathers had done it, and they knew it would work."
Regarding the decrepit setting of The Book of the New Sun, Wolfe wrote:
The challenge to science fiction today is not to describe a slightly hyped-up present, but a real future- a time radically unlike the present, that is. Clearly , there are more than one of these futures, there is the future in which mankind returns to the sea for new sources of food and raw materials. There is the future of extermination. I decided that the future most in keeping with the dark figure I had planned and his journey toward war was what I call the do nothing future, the one in which humanity clings to its old home, the continents of Earth, and waits for the money to run out.
One of Wolfe's most harrowing passages comes from the haunting Seven American Nights:
After I found my pistol and assured myself that it was still in working order, I dragged the thing to a spot of moonlight. When I glimpsed it on the roof, it had seemed a feral dog, like the one I had shot in the park. When it lay dead before me, I had thought it a human being. In the moonlight I saw it was neither, or perhaps both. There was a blunt muzzle; and the height of the skull above the eyes, which anthropologists say is the surest badge of humanity and speech, had been stunted. until it was not greater than I have seen in a macaque. Yet the arms and shoulders and pelvis-even a few filthy rags of clothing---all bespoke mankind. It was a female, with small, flattened breasts still apparent on either side of the burn channel.
At least ten years ago I read about such things in Osman Aga's Mystery Beyond the Sun's Setting; but it was very. different to stand shivering on a deserted street corner of the old capital and examine the thing in the flesh. By Osman Aga's account (which no one, I think, but a few old women has ever believed) these creatures were in truth human beings-or at least the descendants of human beings. In the last century, when the famine gripped their country and the irreversible damage done to the chromosomal structures of the people had already become apparent, some few turned to the eating of human flesh. No doubt the corpses of the famine supplied their food at first; and no doubt those who ate of them congratulated themselves that by so doing they had escaped the effects of the enzymes that were then still used to bring slaughter animals to maturity in a matter of months. What they failed to realize was that the bodies of the human beings they ate had accumulated far more of these unnatural substances than were ever found in the flesh of the short-lived cattle. From them, according to Mystery Beyond the Sun's Setting, rose such creatures as the thing I had killed.
Earlier in the story, the narrator notes:
Everyone knows that these Americans were once the most skilled creators of consciousness-altering substances the world has ever seen.
The same knowledge that permitted them to forge the chemicals that destroyed them (so that they might have bread that never staled, innumerable poisons for vermin, and a host of unnatural materials for every purpose) also contrived synthetic alkaloids that produced endless feverish imaginings.
Surely some, at least, of these skills remain. Or if they do not,, then some of the substances themselves, preserved for eighty or a hundred years in hidden cabinets, and no doubt growing more dangerous as the world forgets them. I think that someone on the ship may have administered some such drug to me.
Maybe Gene wrote this as expiation for his role in creating Pringles.
I could go on gushing about Gene Wolfe, and cutting-and-pasting particular favorite passages of mine, but I've gone on long enough, and I'm distracting you from reading the man's work itself. Suffice it to say that we lost a literary titan, and a particular favorite of mine. As I have noted before, Gene Wolfe raised the bar for his readers, he demanded that we become better at reading, and that we read more and that we read more carefully. For that, I will always be grateful to him.
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
Kudos to the Paris fire department for their heroic effort in saving the cathedral. Thankfully, nobody was killed in the fire... this brings me to my main point. I visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame seventeen years ago, and while I remember the building being extremely beautiful, my main memories of Paris were of people- a bistro owner who took a shine to my handsome nephews, a busload of Italian tourists who were, to my sweat-stung eyes, were wearing about two layers of clothing too much while I was roasting in a short-sleeved collared shirt. The cathedral was beautiful, it was designed to be beautiful, to draw pilgrims to Paris to increase the prestige of the city and the nation.
My mom's dad's mom was a Parisienne, she left France to avoid an arranged marriage and sailed to Buenos Aires where she met her husband, an Alsatian sailor... her's is the most romantic emigration story of them all, the one which didn't boil down to 'you can't eat scenery'. Walking the streets of Paris, visiting the cathedral- these experiences made me feel a connection to my great-grandmother. The Cathedral of Notre Damn was a testimony to the inspiration, the aspiration, and the perspiration of its builders. They built for the glory of God and Country over the course of a couple of centuries. Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, I love Gothic and Neo-Gothic architecture, that particular genius which makes a massive stone pile look almost diaphanous... I imagine the spires of Elfland would look much like a Gothic belfry.
I have no doubt that Notre Dame will be repaired... the fires probably started due to a mistake made during the renovation work that was in progress (or perhaps Michelle Obama using a drone-delivered Directed Energy Weapon on the roof). The cathedral has undergone alterations and renovations throughout its eight-century existence. Money is pouring in for reconstruction efforts. The damage to the cathedral is extensive, but can be repaired. There are disasters which can be rectified. Meanwhile, there is an irreparable crisis in France, the ongoing deaths of marine mammals offshore. Notre Dame will most likely be rebuilt in my lifetime, but the ecological catastrophe that is occurring won't be. Notre Dame is eight centuries old, and if rebuilt may very well last another eight centuries, but the plastic garbage gyres in the world's oceans will outlast our species.
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Dr Fuchs began her lecture by telling the audience that this was a first for her, she had never lectured an audience in a bar. Welcome, my good doctor, to the Secret Science Club experience. She noted that her main subject of study is adult stem cells, and posed the question: what are stem cells? Biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term 'stem cell', which was popularized by E.B. Wilson) to describe the cells in an embryo which give rise to the cells of the body. Stem cells were discussed exclusively in terms of embryology. In 1909, cytologist Alexander Maximow isolated cells from bone marrow and found undifferentiated cells which give rise to blood cells. Biologists Ernest McCulloch and James Till introduced a single stem cell into an irradiated mouse which had its marrow cells destroyed, and demonstrated that a single cell could rebuild an entire hematopoietic, blood forming, system. Dr Fuchs noted that not all groundbreaking research wins a Nobel Prize.
She then shifted to topic to culturing cells, and the distinction between embryonic and adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, they give rise to all of the tissues of an organism. Adult stem cells are more restricted, limited to giving rise to a narrower range of cell types. Adult stem cells are used to repair tissues when they are subject to wear and tear- wound healing is a prime example of adult stem cells at work. Dr Fuchs summed up the distinction elegantly: we can't develop without embryonic stem cells and we can't survive without adult stem cells.
Dr Fuchs then delivered a crash course in emryology- a fertilized egg forms a structure known as a blastocyst, the outer layer of which forms the placenta of placental mammals, and the inner cell mass of which produces embryonic stem cells, which produce the embryo. Blastocysts can survive outside of the womb, they can be generated in vitro. Regenerative medicine can be achieved using embryonic stem cells to repair damaged tissue (for instance, nerve damage caused by Parkinson's disease). Cultured embryonic stem cells can be transformed into any cell type- adjusting growth factors can be used to derive the desired cell type. Dr Fuchs specifically mentioned the growth of heart muscle cells in a petri dish. In one experiment, stem cells were introduced into the severed spinal cord of a rat in order to restore hind limb movement:
Dr Fuchs noted that human neurons introduced into mouse don't make it any smarter, though the percentage of neurons is kept low due to ethical concerns (I'd like to interject that nobody wants murine supervillains).
Due to ethical concerns, techniques for reprogramming adult stem cells to induce pluripotency have been developed. Transcription proteins such as KLF4 (KLF3AM is not a protein), OCT-4, SOX2, and c-myc are used in this process. The types of therapies made possible by the use of reprogrammed stem cells are myriad, with treatments for Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, cardiomyopathies, Alzheimer's disease, type 1 diabetes, and macular degeneration being within reach.
A lot of knowledge in developmental biology is needed to produce specific cell types. There is a need to push development of cell types such as the pancreatic islet cells needed to treat type one diabetes. One particular researcher produced 'buckets' of these cells which ere attacked by the immune system of the lab animal into which they were introduced- the environment of stem cells is as important as stem development itself. Ultimately, it is an engineering problem- how do we make a 'cage' in which stem cells can develop? What is important has to be determined. In Japan, clinical trials to combat macular degeneration are entering a second stage. The eyes are an immune privileged site. In other treatments, genetic differences must be minimized so treatments can go forward.
Dr Fuchs noted that we need to know how different cell types emerge. How do normal tissues develop? How do tissues 'put away' stem cells until needed for repair? How do adult stem cells sit in quiescence until they are needed? If they are mobilized unnecessarily, tumors can develop as a result. How do stem cells cope with stress, such as conditions in which their microenvironment isn't right? Basic science research is integral to developing regenerative medicine.
Dr Fuchs then displayed a collage of photos of various animals, and noted that there were many manifestations of skin types, with various furs and feathers existing. She joked that she would rather study the beautiful surfaces of animals than their ugly internal organs. She noted that you can never solve equations in biology, questions answered invariably lead to new questions. Biologist Howard Green was a pioneer of stem cell culturing, and compared cultures of skin cells to actual human skin. He was able to expand skin cells into sheets which could be grafted onto burn patients. Only a few purified stem cells were needed for a near-whole body skin replacement- regenerative therapy could be used to save children who were burned over 90% of their bodies.
Blistering skin disorders can be treated by identifying the major proteins expressed by epidermal skin cells. Mutations in epidermal skin cells can be repaired through homologous replication. By 2012, whole body regeneration using corrected epidermal stem cells was possible. Stem cell therapy can also be used to repair burns of both the skin and chemical burns of the corneas.
The skin's stem cells are found in hair follicles, sebacous glands, sweat glands, and throughout the interface of the dermis and epidermis, which is full of growth factors. Stem cells are surrounded by many cell types, such as nerve cells, which are derived from the same progenitors in the blastocyst. The 'cross-talk' between different cell types influences what stem cells do and when they do it. A bucket of stem cells, lacking feedback from other cell types, cannot develop properly... stem cells have niches and understanding of these niches is needed.
Stem cells lie in quiescence until they are needed for tissue repair. Inhibitory messages from neighboring cells keep them in quiescence, but when repair is needed, an override signal takes over and the stem cells form short-lived progenitor cells which produce tissue. The on-signal for producing hair follicles has been studied in mice. An on-signal without an off-signal produces tumors... quiescence is important. BMP signaling kicks off a cascade of proteins such as SMAD1, ID1, ID3, and XCL to produce tissue growth. Stem cell numbers remain high throughout an organism's life, but stem cell activity wanes with age. Hair graying is dependent on melanocyte stem cells which occupy the same nice as follicle stem cells. These melanocytes inject melanin into hair. On researcher, looking for a 'fountain of youth', intercepted the BMP signal, but this resulted in sparser gray hair appearing more quickly... the hair conundrum is probably more environmental rather than stem-cell based.
Stem cells are equipped to cope with many different signals- each stem cell has many surface receptors to make needed repairs possible. Chromatin dynamics form the signal-receiving switchboard within stem cells. Wounds and inflammation are different stresses and these different stresses cause different signals. Chronic inflammatory skin diseases such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis cause epidermal cells to proliferate, and the skin to thicken. They tend to recur in the same spot and new flare-ups tend to worsen. Stem cells retain the memory of inflammation in their chromatin, and this memory might be cumulative. Changes in the chromatin can be apparent six months later. If the problem of cytosine memory can be figured out, the use of immunosuppressant drugs to treat these conditions might be unnecessary. The skin is also affected by other diseases, such as squamous cell carcinomas. TGF beta signals effect tumor growth, and sometimes tumor relapse can occur if stem cells are invasive.
Dr Fuchs ended her lecture by noting that the skin is the largest organ of the human body, and the primary interface between the organism and the environment, keeping fluids in and microbes out... she joked that, in some few cases, 'building a wall' was necessary.
The lecture was followed by a Q&A session, but I must confess that my bursting bladder overrode my burning curiosity, so I didn't manage to get a question in. Other audience members took up the slack, though... One question regarded the microbiome, and Dr Fuchs joked that, though the gut microbiome is pretty well known, researchers are just 'scratching the surface' regarding the skin microbiome. Regarding autoimmune diseases, the basis of autoimmune problems is not well known, but tumor antigens might play a role... the 'cross-talk' between stem cells and immune cells needs to be better known, especially as the skin milieu changes with inflammation. Regarding the study of diseases such as papilloma viruses, Epstein-Barr, and herpes, the complexity of tissues is not usually taken into account in culture studies. Human skin contains 65 different cell types, all of which might not be represented in a tissue culture. The final question involved the ways in which stem cells can go awry and form tumors- Dr Fuchs noted that there are many ways in which this can happen and quipped 'Mother Nature has seen it all'.
Dr Fuchs delivered a fantastic lecture, involving a nice embryology refresher course, a good overview of emerging regenerative medical techniques, and a fantastic discussion of an often overlooked part of the body. Kudos to her, to Margaret and Dorian, and the staffs of the beautiful Bell House and the lovely Lasker Foundation for another top notch Secret Science Club lecture.
For additional information, here's a video, first in a series, of Dr Fuchs discussing stem cells:
Pour yourself a tasty beverage and soak in that SCIENCE!!!
Monday, April 15, 2019
I did, though, receive a tax cut I never wanted due to the doubling of the standard deduction. I’m saving a couple of hundred bucks while Sheldon Adelson and Dick Cheney are saving millions. Hooray for me, I promise I won’t spend it all in one place, unless I hit a pothole that went unfilled because of budget cuts and mess up my car.
My state and local taxes are relatively unchanged, and I actually paid some extra money into several state funds for environmental cleanup, veterans’ families, and the like. I believe that government works, as long as it’s not Republican governance.
POSTSCRIPT: This year keeps getting worse! Norte Dame Cathedral is burning and Gene Wolfe died. Thankfully, it’s a Secret Science Club night, so I can seek solace in something good.
Sunday, April 14, 2019
The Beat was blessed with two handsome, charismatic frontmen, and the interplay between Ranking Roger's Caribbean-inflected tones and Dave Wakeling's deep Brummagem burr was as integral to the band's sound as their incorporation of Caribbean and Latin instrumentation into their punk-tinged ska/rocksteady blend.
On the band's fist album, 1980's I Just Can't Stop It, the song Ranking Full Stop was the perfect showcase for Roger's mile-a-minute 'toasting' style. From the US Festival, this live version of the infectiously danceable tune is a gem:
Here's a rendition from 2016, in which Roger and his son perform the song, followed by the Beat signature tune Mirror in the Bathroom. The man hadn't lost his touch at all in the intervening decades:
The Beat wasn't just about party music, they were intensely passionate about politics, and articulated a vision for a multi-racial, multi-cultural society... one of their clarion calls was 'Love and Unity, the Only Way':
The Beat's second album, 1981's Wha'ppen, slowed down the frenetic tempo of the first album and incorporated more West African influences. The standout single Doors of Your Heart, a 'unity rocker', opened the album... again, here's the version from the US Festival:
The Beat's third and final album, 1982's Special Beat Service, was their American breakthrough, anchored by the single Save it for Later. While it had the Beat's most conventional rock tunes, it also included some of the band's 'purest' Caribbean dancehall style patois-heavy songs, such as Spar Wid Me:
Special Beat Service was on constant rotation at our house, it was a large part of the soundtrack of my high school years. Due to internal conflicts in the band, it was their last album, their big breakthrough was followed by the big breakup. Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling formed General Public, whose first single was 1984's Tenderness:
Roger also collaborated with other artists, such as the Clash, with whom he sang Police and Thieves during a 1981 concert:
In the 90's Roger reunited with Pato Banton, with whom he sang Pato and Roger a Go Talk on Special Beat Service for Bubbling Hot:
In the 21st Century, Roger kept performing in various incarnations of The Beat, and performed with his son. His last tour was in 2017, as recounted in this news item:
I spent this morning binge-listening to The Beat's three albums and various singles that Ranking Roger performed on. He was a big part of my youth, and I'm grateful for the message of love, peace, and unity that he always conveyed. By all accounts, he was a lovely man and he was a fine role model, which is altogether too uncommon among celebrities.
Saturday, April 13, 2019
She is a calm bird, and she has gotten to the point where she doesn't even hiss when I pause near her nest to open up the gate in the fence near her. As you can imagine, she has become a staff favorite because of her beauty and gentleness. I just wish that her neighbors would make her their role model.
Friday, April 12, 2019
For me, this is a personal issue. I have a friend who emigrated from Nicaragua- she used to be a cashier at a local Stop and Shop, but was promoted to assistant manager. She is absolutely lovely, a hard working woman with strong family values, exactly the sort of neighbor I would want. I wouldn't mind having more Central Americans in the neighborhood... the closest pupseria to me is across the city, where parking can be a hassle.
On an earnest note, I am on record as saying that I believe that the United States has a moral obligation to help out the nations in Central America that have engendered the refugee crisis. The US armed a lot of the right-wing militias that spawned the gangs that plague these nations, and now is not the time to cut aid to Central America... not if you are a competent administration.
Thursday, April 11, 2019
It must be distressing to Assange, as Tengrain posted Trump continually had Wikileaks on the mind on the 2016 campaign trail:
It just goes to show one that an utterly self-centered individual like Vulgarmort just can't be trusted. He'd throw his own children to the wolves in order to save his own hide, so why would he stick out his neck to take care of some weirdo that he probably has confused with Bill Maher?
Wednesday, April 10, 2019
In various Secret Science Club writeups, I have written about the black holes that the lecturers have discussed in their talks. It's nice to see a confirmation of the theoretical models, with the bright accretion disc appearing as a halo, or a cosmic donut, around the event horizon of the black hole, inside which not even light can escape the gravity. Science works, science funding is crucial, and the fact that science funding, and even scientific research (and scientists themselves) come under attack by regressive forces is infuriating.
But let us not dwell on earthbound ingnorance, this day is a day for celebration:
While black holes may suck, science certainly doesn't!
Tuesday, April 9, 2019
Last week, we also pulled off a first place showing. The ‘picture recognition’ round involved naming animals... the easiest ones were alpaca, narwhal, and the bartender (labeled Sexius Beasticus) by the smartass MC. Then came more outer beasts: jerboa, aye aye, axolotl, Patagonian cavy. I told my teammates, “Hand me the sheet, this one’s mine”. When they asked if we should double the round, I stated emphatically, “I am 100% joker confident!” The term has since passed into the lexicon, this week we were ‘joker resigned’ and pulled off 9/10. For the record, most of last week’s teams did poorly with the weird animals- the second place team, who are very friendly rivals, got 3/10. I guess that my years as a huge fan of the late, lamented World of Darkness at the Bronx Zoo were useful.
On a happy note, tonight’s MC, a sub for the usual ringleader, told me that he got a job as an overnight DJ at a local radio station. He’s a good guy, lives a couple of blocks from me, and has done the bar DJ, trivia MC thing for a while now. He’ll be at a top 40 station, but I told him that I’d call up requesting songs like ‘Firecracker’ by YMO or the extended dance instrumental for the Clash’s ‘Magnificent Seven’. At four in the morning, would management lean on him for going off-script? In all seriousness, though, he’s a great guy, and though the pay isn’t great he’ll be doing what he loves, and he’ll still have time for his MCing duties.
I like it when the good guy wins.
Monday, April 8, 2019
At any rate, I stopped in the Greenburgh, NY public library because two books I wanted to read were located there, and it’s not far from my typical bar trivia haunt. To my chagrin, my card was no good. The librarian was great, she filled out an application for the county library system so Yonkers can mail me a new card, and allowed me to check out my desired books on a provisional basis. I love it when my tax dollars go to pay dedicated, competent public servants. More on those two books at a later date, when I’ve finished them...
Sunday, April 7, 2019
The bad news is that Neilsen is merely one monster in a cadre of monsters, another rat deserting a sinking shit. She will most likely be replaced by the even more odious Kris Kobach (I suspect his middle initial is 'K'). The only way to root these creeps out of the government is to vote enough of the Republicans out of office so that a functional, compassionate administration can be instituted. I like to think that I am not a moral disaster, that my fellow Americans are (on the whole) decent people... if we can't clean up our act, I honestly don't know how our society can be saved.
Saturday, April 6, 2019
About a half-dozen of our Saturday morning students came to cheer her on, and here are the backs of two of their heads:
I spent much of the tournament explaining to scoring to a father of one of the students, I figure he had to know the difference between an ippon and a koka if his now-obsessed daughter continues her judo career, which I have no doubt she will. It was an exciting day, a lot of ippons, which necessitate perfect throws, were scored.
After the match, there was a lovely reception, which was accompanied by an open bar kicked off with a sake ceremony presided over by two gentlemen in luchador masks:
I spent much of the after party with a couple of gents from the Stanford, Connecticut dojo who I hadn't seen in a year, and the Georgian national team, a couple of whom were living in Brooklyn. I also had a nice time socializing with the German national team, whose coach had, not too long ago, been a competitor in the open.
As always, it was an international love fest, and an opportunity to see old friends. It was also a celebration of the life of Rusty Kanokogi, who we lost ten years ago. Rusty is synonymous with women's judo, and the stellar performances by the women's teams from the US, Israel, and the UK would have done her proud.
It was a gorgeous day- the fighting was beautiful, the fellowship wonderful... as always.
Thursday, April 4, 2019
I remember a short time ago
He's not exactly pouring golden words in your ear.
Wednesday, April 3, 2019
A #QAnon Facebook group is currently melting down over the theory that one hundred thousand kids are being held as sex slaves under the Getty museum--something that the group's admin discovered by "remote viewing."— Colin (@Kolyin) April 3, 2019
The theory includes reptoids and Nazi psychics. pic.twitter.com/YFfeBHKDnM
The text linked to in this tweet is something that would make Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea take pause, it's a farrago of poorly spelled nonsense about Nazi psychics, trains that travel through tunnels at four thousand MPH, reptilian aliens, the Templers (sic, also sick), and an underground city housing one hundred thousand child slaves. The guy promulgating this madness, who claims to have discovered this underground facility through 'remote viewing', is pretty much running a Margaret St Clair LARP, delivered with the soporific affect of a Bob Ross:
Gonna put some happy little Reptilians in those tunnels.
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
This has me thinking about my own writings now, the very idea of losing everything I've written has now crossed my mind. I'm not exactly suffering Datapanik in the year 2019, but I am considering using the PDF widget at the bottom of each post to save my content on a thumb drive... though the sheer volume of stuff is daunting.
It just goes to show one how ephemeral content can be in this online age... like, you know:
Time to back up...
Monday, April 1, 2019
The premise of April Fools' Day is a subversion of the expected order- unexpected happenstance, uncharacteristic behaviors from individuals. It was a day predicated on falsehood, a break from the quotidian expectations that underpin our lives. These days, though, with the constant parade of falsehoods, distortions, and calumnies that inundate us, it's just not that fun. April Fools' Day used to be the one day of the year when 'alternative facts' were acceptable, now falsehoods have swamped our accepted consensus reality... maybe now it can be the one day when people are expected to adhere to, as the guys in Depeche Mode put it, a policy of truth:
And I'm not fooling...