Saturday, November 17, 2018

The One, No Longer the One

For the past quarter century, I have lived by one axiom- if you are going to the west side of Manhattan, park near 238th St and Broadway in the Bronx and take the One Train downtown. Lately, though, I have realized that the One is not the one, the love affair is over. Due to a lot of construction in the area, and a larger population (I suspect that a lot of single family homes in the area have been converted into two-family units), parking is harder to come by. More cogently, the 238th St station is under renovation- the rusting stairways to the elevated platform are being replaced, and general improvements are being made.

Starting last week, I traveled to my Saturday morning coaching gig on the Four Train. Parking is easy to come by, as the stretch of Jerome Avenue north of the Woodlawn terminus is sandwiched between Van Cortlandt Park and Woodlawn Cemetery. In a pinch, I can walk two blocks to the northernmost stop of the BX34 Bus and take it to the Woodlawn terminus. Sure, there are downsides- I HATE the 59th St station on the Lexington Avenue line, with its multiple levels and interminable escalators, but traveling by the One Train has just become untenable.

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Branch Previously Unknown

It's not every day that the 'Tree of Life' gets a makeover, but Canadian biology graduate student Yana Eglit discovered organisms which will necessitate changes. The best part of the story is that she discovered these organisms underfoot, quite literally- she scooped up dirt on a hiking trail. While Hemimastigotes have been known to science since the 19th Century, their true nature was unknown. I suspect that they were simply lumped into the paraphyletic group Protista and promptly forgotten. Luckily, Ms Eglit propagated her protists and had a colleague, Gordon Lax, conduct a DNA sequencing which was analyzed by another colleague, Laura Eme:

After waiting a few weeks for the sequencing to come in, we obtained our phylogenetic marker genes and enlisted the help of Laura Eme, an expert in eukaryote phylogenomics (and made some bets on which ‘supergroup’ our organisms would go into). Following weeks of extensive bioinformatic clean-up, we vividly remember when we saw our first phylogenomic tree of eukaryotes with ‘hemimastigotes’: which went… nowhere in particular. ‘Hemimastigotes’ did not fall within any previously-characterised major group of eukaryotes, representing a ‘supergroup’ of their own. No one won the bet.

I love this story- these young scientists made an Earth-changing discovery while on a routine hike in the woods, in a place familiar to them. This is a perfect account of people simply seeing the world differently, and taking steps to analyze a familiar place, only to find something which, while described a century ago, wasn't properly understood. Progress occurs in strange ways- technological advances are made, but often pure serendipity plays a role... kudos to Ms Eglit, her place in the pantheon of biology is secure, and I look forward to hearing from and about her for decades to come.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

An Early, Bitter Taste of Winter

Today was a disaster in the NYC metro area, albeit one that I, uncharacteristically sat out. It was the first ‘wintry mix’ to hit the area this season, and it caught the authorities unprepared. Luckily, I had the day off, so after hitting the supermarket around noon to buy some pasta (my go-to meal for cold, stormy days is a big pot of pasta), I hunkered down in my apartment and listened to the litany of woes on the radio. In all, about three to five inches of snow fell.

Hundreds of Jersey-bound bus commuters were stranded in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, necessitating a shutdown of the facility. The roads were littered with accidents. Then I got the phone calls- the guy who was supposed to start work at five was stuck in a parking lot two miles north of work- the road was impassible with a forty car pile-up. A contractor called, he had gone a quarter mile in an hour and wanted to turn around and spend the night camping out on our floor. My phone kept ringing and pinging- calls and texts... and here I was in beautiful Yonkers, cooking up a mess of pasta, with no plans to leave the house.

My people got to where they needed to be, if not where they wanted to be. It was a minor storm by meteorological standards, but the timing was terrible. It hit around rush hour, and the roads hadn’t been pre-treated with the spray of brine they would have gotten in actual winter. It also seems as if everyone forgets how to drive in the snow between March and November. Tomorrow, it’s supposed to be a sunny day in the mid-forties, so I should have no problem getting to work, but I have a lot of empathy for everyone who was caught in today’s shitstorm, masquerading as a snowstorm.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Trouble in the Land

Last week, Gothamist reported that white supremacist posters had been spotted in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx:

While I live in Yonkers, I consider myself a resident of the Greater Woodlawn community- there is a pretty much seamless transition from Yonkers' McLean Ave to Katonah Ave in the Bronx, the only real difference being the presence of MTA buses once the border is crossed.

Of course, the flyer is bullshit. It depicts a neighborhood under siege by sinister, dusky 'others'. As someone who has often taken the subway home in the wee hours of the morning, sometimes popping in to a local for a pint on the way home, I can vouch that this narrative is far from the truth. I also believe that it will backfire, because, historically, white supremacy has never been good for the Irish, who make up the single largest demographic group in the neighborhood. If it ever got out that whitey righty has posted 'wrath of the Saxon' crap, even the most ardent Blueshirt would join in the resulting donnybrook. The truth of the matter, though, is that the bulk of the Irish immigrant population is more liberal than your average white American, and that the working class immigrants are comfortable working with other immigrants... in the bars, there are Mexican busboys and barbacks working with the Irish bartenders and waitstaff. Carpentry and masonry crews tend to have the same sort of breakdown. In the face of a hostile influx of MAGA types, I imagine that the Irish community would side with Latinos, as is traditional.

For me, there are two great exemplars of the Seanchaí tradition among the Bronx Irish: Mary Courtney and Larry Kirwan, who collaborated on the immigration song Livin' in America:

Mary's the historian, the balladeer who keeps the old songs current, while Larry's the journalist, the satirist who observes the foibles of his adopted home. In 2000, Larry wrote of white supremacists, in the scathing song which lends its title to this post:

I had been planning to head down to Katonah Ave to get the lay of the land, to see if there were any racist scumbags trying to gain a foothold in the area, but a physical plant emergency on the job necessitated my going in early. I'll be leaving around midnight, so I have time to go on the scout in a local bar or two after work lets out. My advice to people who have been freaking out since 2016 has typically been 'protect your people, defend your area'. Now it's my area, trouble in MY land. I don't think that much will come of these flyers, which were quickly removed and roundly condemned, but I need to know the reality of the situation. This is beir bua time, if ever there was.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Big Change on the Workfront

I have been with the same employer for twelve years, starting off as a part-timer, but eventually becoming head of my small department due to my computer literacy. Recently, our management decided to move the organization, a not-for-profit, into the umbrella of a national business administration corporation. While my job doesn't change, nor does my change of command (with the proviso that the national umbrella organization can fire employees for cause, and can even jettison companies that act in bad faith), the name on my paystub will change.

The main reason for this change is due to the cost of medical insurance coverage- by joining a vast, national organization, our small not-for-profit joins a larger risk pool for medical coverage. One major benefit is that the health plan will now include dental and vision coverage. While it seems like a bittersweet thing to have a big corporate name on correspondence, it will sure be nice to get reimbursement for new contacts and/or glasses.

This morning was spent at an enrollment meeting- I had to bring my passport to prove identity and employment eligibility, and a voided check to provide a bank account and routing number for direct deposit. An additional half-hour to enroll in the medical, dental, and vision plans, and I was out the door. It was a big change in my employment situation, which will be effective at the end of the year, but it will be no change at all- same job description, same workplace, same co-workers. It may feel weird, but I could use a new pair of glasses...

Monday, November 12, 2018

Sad Day, True Believers

If there were any one person who could have claimed the mantle of God-Emperor of Pop Culture for the past half-century, that person would be Stan Lee, who passed away today at the age of ninety-five. Off the top of my head, I can't think of anyone else who really comes close... George Lucas is known for a handful of movies, Steven Spielberg is mainly known for adapting other people's IP for the big screen. Stan Lee, however, presided over a stable of characters created in conjunction with other comics titans such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Not being a big comics fan, I couldn't even begin to summarize the hundreds of characters that Mr Lee had a hand in creating. Lee's passing has left a big void in the nerd community, and paeans to him abound in nerd outposts across the internet.

My first exposure to Mr Lee's personality was in his role as a narrator and occasional cameo in a now obscure 1980s cartoon version of Spiderman... this was decades after the classic 60s Spiderman cartoon which was my first introduction to Marvel comics characters. As I became more familiar with Mr Lee's oeuvre, I came to appreciate the New York City born and bred man's love for the city which I love so well myself. Lee's heroes, humans, mutants, aliens, demigods- all had to contend with the day-to-day problems of paying the rent, dealing with jerkass bosses, navigating family and romantic relationships, all while having to save the day on the regular. You could easily picture them on the streets of Queens, interacting with other local heroes:

Sure, with the exceptions of some hideous monsters, they were all good looking (a cousin of mine used to joke that even an elderly bag lady in a Marvel comic book would have a physique that Raquel Welch would envy), with idealized physiques, but they had the problems of typical New Yorkers. As an aside, here's a great 'Bloom County' strip lampooning the Marvel approach to depicting superheroines:

My favorite tribute to Stan Lee has to be The Onion's headline: Stan Lee, Creator Of Beloved Marvel Character Stan Lee, Dead At 95. Lee was very much a character, and a fan favorite, greeting his adoring public as 'true believers':

He also trusted his fans, not being the sort of person who talked down to them- I mean, here was a guy who knew that the kids who were fans of his creations would learn the meaning of his signature sign-off: "EXCELSIOR!" I have no doubt that he also came to know that his works provided a respite for marginalized persons- his characters were misfits, mutants, transhumans, aliens... a weird kid could look at a comic like The X-Men and gain hope of finding a family like Professor Xavier provided. Lee was unabashedly progressive, eschewing racism, sexism, and other bigotries. In the 1960s, he wrote columns against bigotry:

Last year, he made a video reiterating his commitment to civil rights and social justice, all while displaying his typical humor and panache:

Lee wasn't perfect, his treatment of collaborator Jack Kirby is considered by some comics fan to be a black mark against him, and he DID put the kibosh on Italian Spiderman, but he was a creative juggernaut who did his best to interject moral values into his sometimes lurid popular entertainments. I have friends who are genuinely upset at his passing, but Stanley Martin Lieber lived a good life, and a long life. I have no doubt that Stan himself would console them with a single, perfectly chosen word: EXCELSIOR!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Centenary

The dominant news story of the day has been the centenary of the Armistice which ended World War One. I spent much of my day with visiting family, heading to the American Museum of Natural History with my sister, her husband, and my nephews, then headed north to go to work.

The coverage has gifted us with accounts ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime- with Trump putting his combover over honoring the fallen and Macron speaking out against nationalism. One of my favorite posts about the day was Doktor Zoom's invocation of Kurt Vonnegut, who lamented that Armistice Day was turned into Veterans' Day here in the 'States, a move which de-emphasizes the value of peace while extolling the warrior, which jingoists often conflate with support for war.

World War One is a strange war, one not often talked about here in the 'States. The most appalling thing to me about the war is that it was, in many ways, a family squabble, with an inbred aristocracy throwing the flower of their nations' youth into a meatgrinder, a situation described with the proverb lions led by donkeys. The saddest thing about the war is that it had the potential to end in 1914 when soldiers ceased fighting in order to celebrate Christmas together. Suppose they gave a war and everybody decided to party instead. I also find the Treaty of Versaille, with its crushing punitive stance toward Germany's people, to be particularly horrible in light of the eventual rise of Nazism. The war was a nasty bit of bad business, leading to tens of millions of deaths and decades of misery.

In my estimation, the great poet of the First World War is Scottish born Australian Eric Bogle, whose antiwar songs have passed into the status of standards. I usually embed one of his tearjerker ballads in my Memorial Day posts. Mr Bogle doesn't sing of the 'glories' of war, he writes of the stark aftermath... death or dismemberment.

One hundred years after the end of the War to End all Wars, as Mr Bogle plaintively notes, war has happened again and again, and again, and again, and again. Hateful rhetoric, the plundering of natural resources, war profiteering- all occur, and until the human race eschews hate, fear, and greed, it will be another hundred years... if we survive.