Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter, Peeps!

Here's hoping that everybody's having a good Easter, hopefully you are eating chocolate eggs to eggcess (hat tip to the late, great Vincent Price... need I repeat that Star Wars would have been a lot cooler if Vincent Price had played Obi-Wan Kenobi?). My Easter started with a call from one of my uncles, who was checking in with me after hearing that two guys got shot in a bar fight about a mile from my workplace (I left at midnight, but I'll ask my co-worker if he heard the gunshots). Happy Easter!

I'm working now, but I suspect that the gunplay will be kept to a minimum, what with the local gendarmes being on edge after this morning's affray. Anyway, enough of my yapping, I really just want to wish you an Easter that's better than this:

I hope everybody has a groovy Easter, which is sure to be the case of the right rabbit comes to your house delivering goodies:

Ya know, if White Rabbit doesn't quite sate your appetite for Easter-themed psychedelica, the entire album "Easter Everywhere" by the 13th Floor Elevators is available on the t00bz, so get your groove on and bask in the best electric jug viruosity ever to grace the earthly soundscape:

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Happy Birthday Baby Brother

As has been my tradition here at Bastard central, I take every March 30th to wish my baby brother Gomez a happy birthday. Inspired by a comment by Another Kiwi, I've been on a bit of a "Swedish Chef" kick, and I figured that baby bro would find this video hilarious:

Happy birthday, Gomez... BORK BORK BORK! Hopefully, the Swedish Chef won't be making your birthday cake:

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Note on Devotion

From the religious devotion files, we have coverage of the annual crucifixion ritual that takes place in the Philippines every Good Friday. In Mexico, the Good Friday commemorations are not so extreme, but they don't look like a picnic. Of course, the participants in these rituals are uniformly of the peasant class- you don't see too many ecclesiastical types putting their sanctified asses on the line.

Higher up on the religious food chain, self-mortification is eschewed in favor of the mortification of others, whether women, gays, or the poor. Personally, I think these God-botherers and holy rollers should be the ones volunteering to take the punishments. Why take a chance on missing out on the sanctified gift of the stigmata when you can have some burly blue collar guy actually nail your hand to a wooden beam for holiness' sake? If Pat Robertson is tough enough to leg press a ton, I imagine he could stand a few minutes hanging around after getting nailed.

Personally, I'm going to show my devotion by dancing The Sign of the Cross:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

In Like a Lion...

March is supposed to come in like a lion and leave like a lamb, but this March has been very cold in the Northeastern United States and much of Europe. Tonight, it's supposed to get down to 37 F (3 C)- the thick, hooded sweatshirt and multiple layers have not been retired yet.

Paradoxically, the cool local temperatures are most likely due to global warming- as Arctic ice melts, and the far northern latitudes warm up, the jet stream slows down and meanders, reducing the flow of warmer air from the Pacific Northwest into this particular geographical region. While global warming deniers would say, "Hur hur, it's cold in New York", they purposely ignore the.. uhhh... errrr... global extent of, you got it, global warming.

The BBC has good coverage of this phenomenon, which is likely to lead to tragic results in the north of the United Kingdom, with emotional repercussions being felt as far away as Ontario.

March came in like a lion, and it's leaving like a slightly less ferocious lion... but Al Gore is fat, amirite?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

In Venality Veritas

Every once in a while, a political figure says something which hints at a deeper meaning which is usually kept under wraps. One such unintended "tell" is **ACK** Chief Justice **GAG** John Roberts' indication today that the shifting attitudes in gay marriage are due to, get this, a well-funded lobbying effort by gay-rights activists. In a question to lawyer Roberta Kaplan, Roberts demonstrates his roots as a right-wing corporatist hack:

"I suppose the sea change has a lot to do with the political force and effectiveness of people representing, supporting your side of the case? As far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case."

Roberts seems to be unable to fathom a societal change taking place without the influence of hacks and flacks like himself. He sees the involvement of lobbyists in a movement that is driven by grassroots efforts. The groundswell of support for gay rights in general and same-sex marriage in particular is due to the fact that more and more gay people are out, and that more and more straight people have come to the realization that they have gay friends and family members.

As far as my "education" is concerned, my first encounter with an out gay person was with one of my dad's cousins, while on our annual camping trip to Maine. I was eight or nine years old when I met Cousin Peter, who was at the camp with his friend Joe. Cousin Peter was extremely funny, a slightly high-strung (he was even more high-strung when he discovered that one of our uncles had let us take turns driving his Jaguar on a dirt road) motormouth with a quick wit. His friend was a nice, mellow chap. We were too young to think that their skinny-dips together were weird- after all, we were in camp in the middle of Maine, where normal rules went out the window... where eight and ten year olds could take a turn driving a car down a dirt road. I subsequently learned that Cousin Peter had spent some time at the family homestead in The Bronx while working for a spell in Manhattan, where he scandalized my grandmother by having a collection of "muscle magazines". My grandmother, as jovial and easy going as she was, was a product of her times, and was a bit freaked out when his "stash" turned up in a routine house-cleaning. Peter's father was the perfect example of a man's man (though not in the sense that his son was)- he was a blue collar guy who was into hunting and fishing, and always wore a hunting knife at his belt while in camp. A few years ago, I asked one of my uncles how such a macho guy dealt with the fact that his son was gay, and my uncle told me that his attitude was, "He's my son, and I'm going to support him no matter what." My forebears didn't have things so easy when they got to this country, so sticking together superseded such petty considerations as sexual attraction.

My education continued in high school- I had two gay friends who tried to kill themselves. Thankfully, both survived. One was disowned by her family, while the other, an only child, was accepted by his. To see lives so adversely affected because prejudices trumped family ties was a horrific eye-opener for me. In college, I knew quite a few out gay folks of both genders. It's was impossible to hate Todd, Danny, and Katherine because they were really nice people- their sexual preferences mattered absolutely nothing to their circle of friends. Two other college friends of mine took years to come out because of the cultural and religious attitudes in which they'd been raised. Finding out that they had eventually come to terms with their sexuality was heartening, and I only wonder what opportunities they missed out on because they didn't do so earlier.

Age-wise, I'm on the "cusp" of the pro-gay rights and anti-gay rights demographics... the first kids to grow up in the post "Stonewall" era. Knowing older out gay people and growing up with people who learned to cope with their sexuality, I came to the realization that same-sex attraction is not a mental illness, merely a personality trait. It didn't take the efforts of a team of lobbyists to form my attitudes toward gay people, just years of proximity to good people who just happened to be attracted to persons of the same gender. I basically learned the same lesson that Rob Portman learned, but at the age of eight or nine... how could I hate hate Cousin Peter on the basis of whom he found attractive? How could a friend's revelation of their sexual preferences change my attitude toward them?

Roberts' career has largely been informed by venality. He's a mercenary hack who can't imagine that others would support gay rights because of their experiences, even though he has a gay cousin who is attending the DOMA hearings. Today, his venality caused him to let a glimpse of the truth slip out... in venality, veritas.

Cross posted at Rumproast.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

You WILL Want One!

I had the today off and I received an offer I couldn't refuse. My cousin *REDACTED*, who was NOT "Big Leo" in the hilarious "Midnight Gardeners" prank during high school (he seems to recall using the code name "The Bishop"), called me to tell me that he was taking the kids and a school chum of theirs to The Bronx Zoo- they have the whole week off for Passover and Easter. How could a nerdy fellow like myself pass up an offer of a zoo trip with some awesome company? Of course, not all trips to the zoo end up well, but my track record has been stellar in this regard.

The day being pleasant, but somewhat chilly, the zoo was not crowded at all. There were no lines to any of the added attractions, and my cousin's family membership got us complimentary admission to all of the added attractions. The animals did not fail to deliver the goods- the African hunting dogs were especially active- they seemed to be sorting out their hierarchy by the amount of "playing" they were engaged in. Most other times I've seen them, they've been pretty lethargic. The snow leopards and their melanistic southeast Asian relatives also gave a nice little show- in both instances, one of the cats was grooming a companion. It's funny to consider how little difference there is between the great cats and their domesticated counterparts. That being said, I thank my lucky stars that Ginger isn't approximately my size.

Because most of the animals were at "mid-range", I didn't even bother taking many photographs- they would not have turned out that well. The one animal I snapped a pic of was a tiny African pygmy goose, which was adjacent to the glass of its enclosure and not shy at all:

Isn't that a pretty little birdie? It looks like a painted toy. I don't know how hard they are to keep, but I think I want one. I'm pretty sure you now want one too.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Cursed? Karst!

Not three weeks after a giant sinkhole claimed the life of a resident of the Tampa, Florida area, a second sinkhole has formed in the same town. Of course, the formation of sinkholes in such close proximity is no coincidence... there is a, pardon the expression, underlying cause for these disasters.

The geology of West-Central Florida is typified by a karst formation, strata of soluble rock riddled (couldn't resist) with holes and gaps through the action of acidified water. Sinkholes are a common feature of karst landscapes, especially when ground water is removed from the formation. Further hydrological disruptions can occur as development retards the absorption of the rainwater which, under normal conditions, would replenish the groundwater. With increased development, and increased stress on groundwater resources, the incidence of sinkholes is likely to increase.

The real problem is unsustainable development on unstable geological formations. Development on unstable karst landscapes, ephemeral barrier islands and low-lying flood plains is problematic. Of course, there are very few legal impediments to unsustainable development in unsuitable areas, and an insufficiently knowledgable public will continue to build and rebuild on locations known to be unsafe.

Regarding the karst landscape of Florida, I have no solution to the problem of dissolution, I can just point to the problem and nerd out about the geology involved.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

When Tired and Lacking Inspiration

How about this for a gambit, or maybe a cheat? When you're tired and uninspired, fall back on the creativity of others. While poking around the t00bz, I found a pretty webcomic version of H.P. Lovecraft's fantasy The Strange High House in the Mist by an artist named Jason Thompson. It's a nice bit of work, and not long enough to be a major time sink. Of course, taken in the aggregate, Mr Thompson's site has the potential to be a major time sink.

Even as I write, I'm eyeing his nice version of The Cats of Ulthar. I should farm out a review of this to a guest blogger.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Of Local Interest

Today marks the second annual St Patrick's Day parade in my neighborhood, which is pretty solidly Irish and Irish-American. The official Yonkers St Patrick's Day parade takes place downtown, near City Hall, but everybody hightails it to McLean Ave, the heart of the tavern district, afterwards.

Perhaps the best thing about this year's neighborhood parade is that the Grand Marshal is local luminary Joanie Madden of the supergroup Cherish the Ladies. Here's Joanie Madden displaying her virtuosity on the tin whistle and flute with the rest of the band:

For our antipodean friends, here's the band doing a number called The Hills of New Zealand:

You know what other locale is known for its hills?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Skewing the Statistics

Here we have a dispatch from the world of GUNS! GUNS! GUNS! A 66 year old man in Centereach, NY, on Long Island, was arrested for possessing more than 300 unlicensed guns. The gun owner had a federal license to sell firearms, which expired nine years ago. Many of the guns were loose and loaded.

Gun nuts like Mr Steiner of Centereach, illustrate recent trends in gun ownership- more guns are owned by fewer gun owners. Most people don't even own a gun, let alone many guns that would necessitate an entire rack. An article posted at Think Progress about the decline of gun ownership and, extrapolating from this, the declining power of the National Rifle Association, attracted the attention of serial dumbass and Seeker of the Holy Gree-ul Bobo Wens, who just had to post his dumbassery in the comments... here's his opener:

This is one of the most unintentionally amusing things I've read in a long while. Do you actually believe your own propaganda?

In regards to your survey data, people have become especially sensitive to the threat of gun confiscation under an Administration that created a gun-walking plot that has claimed 300+ Mexican lives in hopes of further gun control. While the number of guns sold and number of shooters continues to grow, people are far less likely to tell outsiders the number of firearms they own, or even admit they own firearms, to a survey company.

Here in the real world, every gun shop I'm in contact with has added extra sales staff. Some have opened additional locations. Walmart has re-added firearms to many of their stores to capitalize on increased demand, and are now even carrying AR-15-based "modern sporting rifles."

Of course, the plural of anecdote is data. I wonder how many loaded, unsecured guns President Obama's "jack booted thugs" will find in his double wide.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

It Didn't Work Out so Well the Last Time

Yeah, I know my last attempt to enlist the services of a guest blogger didn't turn out so well, but that was months ago and, besides, I pretty much cribbed a post yesterday from an astute commentor on another blog. Maybe it's time to bring on a guest blogger again... Fred is a lot less nutso than his rambunctious sister, I think he'll work out:

What, you want to be paid? Don't you think that the exposure you'd get from this post would be good for your career? Okay, the publicity is not enough, I'll pay you. Here, here's some milk, but you'll have to split it with your sister:

Whoa, now, why are you two giving me such a jaundiced eye? Yeah, you're upset I made the two of you split a bowl of milk, but it's a damn sight more than Ariana Huffington would pay you:

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

International Blame the Victim Week?

Sometimes, ya just gotta steal material, so I'm basing a post on a comment from Sadly, No! and (if I'm not mistaken Balloon Juice) regular Chris, who really should be blogging because he's knowledgable and astute. Chris writes, with regard to a post skewering racist nutbag Jack Cashill's post (I'm not making this up) Why Florida Persists in the Zimmerman Persecution:

It’s oddly appropriate that he’s coming out with this chickenshitbullshit the same week as all that “poor rapists, such a promising career” stuff is in the media. Is there some sort of national Blame The Victims; The Guilty Are The True Heroes week going on that I’m not aware of?

It would seem that this is not only Blame the Victims Week nationally, but internationally as well. Besides Cashill's piece (do read Cerberus' summary, this week has also seen CNN's sympathetic coverage of the Steubenville rapists (as an aside, I feel the town should be razed because it sure as hell seems too corrupt to redeem). To give the week an international "flavor", this week marks the tenth anniversary of the biggest "Blame the Victim" episodes in recorded history... the United States invaded Iraq to prevent the use of chemical weapons by a dictator who was not discouraged to use WMD by the very man who spearheaded the Iraq War effort. To heighten the horror, an American company sold Saddamn pesticides which could be used on "pests" of the two-legged variety as well as the six-legged variety.

So... what a week this is to commemorate the unsung sociopaths, be they authoritarian assholes with a history of violence and itchy trigger fingers, overly entitled teenage douchebags who thought they could use an unconscious girl as their sex toy (and all of those who enabled them to engage in this heinous behavior), or an entire administration staffed by individuals who armed a nasty dictator with nasty weapons and then used their own malfeasance as a pretext to depose said dictator (with thousands of American casualties, millions of Iraqi casualties, and a shredded Constitution as a result).

I think I shall now be sick.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Shocked at Shocked

From the WTF? files, we have alt-folkie Michelle Shocked, who became somewhat of a lesbian icon, told a (wait for it!) shocked audience in San Francisco that "God hates fags."

Fuckity, fuckity, fuck fuck! Michelle was a liberal icon when she began her career. Her album Short Sharp Shocked featured a picture of Michelle being carted away from an anti-corporatist rally at the 1984 Democratic Convention. Michelle was a liberal's liberal, the sort of individual I would have expected would have become involved with the Green Party in some capacity. Hell, she still has some liberal values, she was arrested in a breakup of "Occupy L.A.", after all. Personally, I loved her songs Memories of East Texas and Anchorage (a personal fave), and I saw her open up for Billy Bragg back in my college days. Damn, I'd read that she became "born again", but I never thought she'd go full-on Westboro Baptist... never go full Westboro Baptist!

Oh, well, Shocked became a Shit... one of the few sad apples who should have taken Roger Daltrey's advice. Since I'm not going to post any of her videos (not even for Anchorage), I think I'll post a video by Billy Bragg, the guy who headlined the show I'd seen Michelle open for:

Billy's not known for his subtlety, and Sexuality kinda hits you over the head with its earnestness. Hey, how about another Billy Bragg tune? Here's Levi Stubbs' Tears, a number about the ability to cope with life's difficulties through the healing power of music:

Let's hope that Michelle comes to her senses, and decides to find her own healing in the creative process... she certainly wasn't "healed" by her religious conversion, and she's managed to hurt others with her hateful comments.

Monday, March 18, 2013

When All You Have Are Hacks...

Pity poor dumbass Reince Priebus, the guy tasked with performing the post mortem on the Republican Party. The guy is talking about minority outreach scant days after white supremacists hijacked a conversation about minority outreach at GOP Woodstock. They talk about putting together an “RNC Celebrity Task Force of personalities in the entertainment industry” scant months after a personality in the entertainment industry hijacked the Republican National Convention, stepping all over the candidate's dick. He also proposed a shorter primary season, which would effectively keep the freaks from the public view by effectively banishing them to Ubecky becky becky becky stan stan.

My favorite part of this "post mortem" is Priebus' proclamation that technology will help to save the GOP, again scant months after Mitt Romney's computerized "get out the vote" application crashed on the day it was meant to kick into overdrive:

"So if it gets to technology and all of the work that we need to do there and opening our technology efforts up to an open source, setting up an office in the Silicon Valley, doing hackathons across the country. This is going to be huge, Bob. And we're ready to go and we're ready to lead."

Yes, Reince, hackathons are the solution to your problems... after all, the one thing the GOP does not lack is a bunch of hacks.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Two Hemispheres' Worth of Diaspora Songs

Well, the party was yesterday, but there was time to cook a traditional New York dinner of corned beef and cabbage this Solemn Feast of St Patrick. The upstairs neighbors, immigrants from Monaghan ordered a pizza for lunch. Pizza, like corned beef and cabbage, is a traditional New York dinner. Anyway, I figured I'd post a couple of "diaspora" songs tonight, one from across the Irish Sea and one from across the planet.

Here's Irish Blood English Heart by the guy who I thought would be elected pope, a call from Moz for the English people to disavow the poisonous legacy of Oliver Cromwell and to throw off the yokes of the political parties who have failed them and the royals who sponge off of them:

The second song, Wild Colonial Boy, details the exploits and eventual capture of an Australian bushranger (as an aside, Ned Kelly was the most famous of the bushrangers, and Mick Jagger, of all people, sang a version of Wild Colonial Boy, in a 1970 film about Ned Kelly and, perhaps even odder, the American band Dr Hook performed a version of it as well):

The choruses of the two songs are similar thematically. In Irish Blood English Heart, Moz sings:

Irish blood, English heart, this I'm made of
There is no-one on earth I'm afraid of
And I will die with both my hands untied

The antipodean balladeer sings:

Come along my hearties, We'll roam the mountains high,
Together we will plunder, Together we will ride.
We'll scar over valleys, And gallop for the plains,
And scorn to live in slavery, bound down by iron chains.

I wonder how Morrissey would have fared as a bushranger... I imagine his pompadour would have provided decent cushioning from the iron bucket he would have worn on his head.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Moronic Miscalculation

Man, oh Manannán, did I do something dumb, dumb, dumb. When I made up the March schedule, I slickly arranged to have the evening of the Solemn Feast of St Patrick and the following morning off so I could pursue... uh... religious obligations... yeah. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that the parade and subsequent revelry would take place on the 16th, the day I'd earmarked to work extra hard in order to have the 17th off. Fuckety, fuck, fuck, fuck... sounds like a snippet of Bottle of Smoke, doesn't it?

So... here I am, stuck at work and as sober as a bleepin' Mormon (but not this Mormon. Oh, well, it's was a major screw up on my part, but I actually like my job, and I have nobody to blame for this mistake but myself. As a consolation, there's always the neighborhood parade next Saturday. Hey, how about a melancholy tearjerker to accompany this maudlin blog post?

The Town I Loved So Well, by Phil Coulter (who, and I did not know this until today, co-wrote the Bay City Rollers' song Saturday Night) details the city of Derry's slide from a hardscrabble working class town to an epicenter of violence during The Troubles. Get your hankies ready, this one's a real weepie:

Must be a little dust in the air... I think I need to check the HVAC filters...

Friday, March 15, 2013

World's Dumbest Public Intellectual?

Ya know, I'm a fairly prolific blogger, and, at the risk of sounding boastful, a fairly well-educated individual. At least once a month, I write a post which involves some research to supplement my beer-sodden perception of a scientific lecture. That being said, I never made a claim to be a "public intellectual". I basically consider myself an "educated yahoo".

Now, Thomas Sowell actually won a prize for intellectual achievement... let's see, via Monsieur McGravitas (I'll be damned if I'm linking to "Townhall") what a conservative "intellectual" serves up to his audience, let's check out his big brain, so to speak:

Roman conquests had historic repercussions for centuries after the Roman Empire had fallen. Among the legacies of Roman civilization were Roman letters, which produced written versions of Western European languages, centuries before Eastern European languages became literate. This was one of many reasons why Western Europe became more advanced than Eastern Europe, economically, educationally and technologically.

Of course, Sowell purposely ignores the fact that, at its greatest extent, the Roman Empire extended well into Eastern Europe and, even more egregiously, that Roman culture persisted in Eastern Europe long after Odoacer marched into Roman and proclaimed himself king of Italy. Sure, by the seventh century, the Eastern Roman Empire used the Greek language for most purposes, but "Roman letters" were not unknown to Eastern Europe. Additionally, Greek letters were perfectly suited for speakers of Slavic languages when Cyril and Methodius adapted them for such use in the 9th century. Sowell also ignores the fact that a Romance language speaking population persists in Eastern Europe to this day (note to self: self, you gotta put up a review of Masters of Atlantis one of these days).

More importantly, literacy rates in Europe in the Middle Ages were pretty piss-poor, and an educated person in Eastern or Western Europe would probably be literate in both Latin and Greek, to the extent that such a person could make a translation of a blasphemous, esoteric text from Greek to Latin three centuries before he was even born.

Sowell also ignores the fact that Eastern Europe was dealt a harsh blow in the 13th Century which left it reeling while Western Europe was beginning to get its shit together, as public intellectual Smut Clyde rightfully points out.

It's tragic how, in order to write for "Townhall", Sowell has to completely forget or ignore history (perhaps his hippocampus was damaged). I hope that each paycheck leaves just a little bad taste in his mouth, just a tiny frisson of shame at how shoddy his reasoning and writing are. At the very least, Sowell's disparaging of Greek culture should lead to some interesting conservative infighting, as at least one fanboy is probably sharpening his makhaira even as I write.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Post Lecture Recap: This One is Memorable!

On Tuesday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for the latest Secret Science Club lecture, by NYU neurobiologist and biomedical engineer André Fenton, who studies the "mechanics" of memory. Besides his academic endeavors, Dr Fenton started the Biosignal Group, which produces a miniature, wireless EEG monitor.

Dr Fenton started his lecture with a quote by Gautama Siddhartha: "All that we are is the result of what we have thought. What we think, we become."

Memory is characterized by "truthiness", memories have a certain "fuzziness" about them. Memory doesn't function like a recording device, it is a reconstructive process, not a reproductive process. Basically, we make up stories... memories are created out of what we expect of the world, not necessarily what happened. We even remember events that never happened. Dr Fenton illustrated this with a memory test in which words such as "bed", "slumber", and "wake" were flashed briefly on a screen, and the audience was quizzed afterword about which words had appeared in the test. A good portion of the audience misremembers the word "sleep" as having appeared, while a word such as "horse" is not falsely remembered.

After this brief illustration of the nature of memory, the talk proceeded to the biology of memory- how does memory work in the brain, and where in the brain should we start to look? The best estimate is that the human brain contains about 100 billion neurons. Each neuron is a "chemical factory" and the interaction of these chemicals have electrophysiological effects. The brain is an electrical organ, neurons send electrochemical signals. To illustrate the connection between neurons, and the role that synapses play in the formation of memory, Dr Fenton showed us a film of the firing of a single entorhinal neuron in the brain of an epilepsy patient who had had electrodes implanted into his brain as a therapeutic measure. The patient was shown various images, and this particular neuron was most active while the patient was shown "Simpsons" clips and while recollecting said "Simpsons" clips. It would seem that single neurons are tuned to particular features of the outside world.

As an example of such "tuning", Dr Fenton cited head direction cells, discovered in Brooklyn, which activate when a rat's head is facing in a particular direction. As another example, place cells activate when a subject is in a particular location. It's important to note that there are no sense organs for place or orientation, so a calculation must be made. Dr Fenton compared this process to a whole "symphony" of cells being active in sense of place, movement, and orientation. The business, and joy, of neuroscience is figuring out how this symphony works.

Dr Fenton then moved on to the topic of synapses, the contacts between neurons- synaptic connections are the fundamental property of neurons. Cognitive experiences leave a lasting imprint within synapses. Experience and other electrochemical relationships "tune" synapses, they set synaptic relationships and maintain them. As Guatama Siddhartha put it, experiences define who you are and who you are going to be.

In studying the anatomy of the brain, experiments on humans is unethical (again, the subject in the aforementioned "single neuron" experiment had had electrodes implanted for therapeutic reasons related to a severe case of epilepsy). As an aside, these ethical standards may be different in the antipodes. Rats and mice are the typical subjects in brain anatomy studies.

Anatomically, the region of the bain most involved in memory is the hippocampus. In the hippocampus, neurons form circuits for information flow and transformation. In an aside, Dr Fenton imparted to us an important life lesson: TRY NOT TO DAMAGE YOUR HIPPOCAMPUS. Dr Fenton then showed us an image of the hippocampus of a mouse which had been genetically engineered so that the neurons produced a protein which made them glow green when active, the image was similar to this. Images of the signals across the synapses shows the organization in the synapses. Information is created, organized, and stored in the synapses as far as we understand. As far as the long-term retention of information, changes occur in the strength of relationships between synapses. Dr Fenton expressed this in a simple, cute and (importantly) memorable fashion: Neurons that fire together wire together.

The next topic was the brain's ability to change despite the limitations of anatomy. Changes in brain activity are dependent on synaptic plasticity. Coincident activation changes synapses- if enough of a chemical is released in a reliable way, subsequent activation is easier.

In a droll aside, Dr Fention informed that audience that "stimulates" is a fancy word for "electrocutes"- stimulating neurons electrically creates a response and rapid stimulation makes the response bigger. Change is important and can be regulated, high frequency stimulation makes a response bigger, and the response remains bigger because of brain changes.

One particular chemical which plays a role in memory is protein kinase M zeta. For more information on PKM zeta, Ed Yong has several relevant blog posts. Experiments demonstrated that the actions of protein kinase M zeta could be inhibited through the use of another protein, zeta inhibitory peptide. Zeta inhibitory peptide undoes the strengthening of synapse sets, in effect resetting the relationship to a "baseline" level. Injecting zeta inhibitory peptide into rats makes even "educated" rats act as if they were naive- in effect, it "erases" memory. Dr Fenton noted that memory is not everything, how one uses memory is also important (I sure hope that using memory to blog about lectures on memory is a worthy use of memory).

Inquiries into how cognitive experience changes the brain involve such questions as: Where is the PKM zeta molecule made? Where does it go? Where in the brain is PKM zeta present? Mice are used as the subjects in theser experiments because their genome is better known and more easily manipulated than that of rats. Trained mice have more PKM zeta present in their brains than untrained mice, and the difference in how much PKM zeta is present in different synapses makes the organization of these synapses apparent. The functional changes are not only due to the fact that the protein is present, but also due to the fact that it changes the synapses- measurement of electrical activity in the brain shows that trained animals produce different signals than animals in an untrained control group. These differences are attributed solely to prior experience. One finding that could have potential therapeutic use is that the manipulation of experience made changes can mitigate brain damage.

Preemptive cognitive experience has the power to change brain and psychological function. To illustrate this, Dr Fenton showed us Sandro Del-Prete's Message d'Amour des Dauphins:

Experience determines how one interprets the world- while it may take a while for you dirty dogs to see the dolphins in the image, a five year old would probably spot them immediately.

The lecture then moved on to possible therapeutic implications of training. Cognitive control is the ability to coordinate the use of information from multiple sources, typically for optimizing actions. Mental illness impairs cognitive control, the basic challenge in psychiatry is to improve cognitive control in patients. Optimal outcomes depend on context, a determination must me made of which information is most relevant in any situation. To illustrate this, Dr Fenton subjected the audience to a Stroop test:

A Stroop test was developed for rats and it was determined that brain-damaged rats had difficulty with the test. The brains of the rats were lesioned in such a way as to mimic schizophrenia, which may be triggered by fetal trauma. The schizophrenic rats had problems recognizing the incongruent stimuli presented in the Stroop test. Cognitive training during adolescence was able to prevent these deficits... early cognitive training may be able to mitigate brain damage. The adolescent cognitive experience prevented the adult cognitive control deficit despite persistent brain damage- the syanpses were "tuned" by training. Early cognitive experience promotes normal brain function- a normal brain is well synchronized, and early cognitive training makes synchronization easier and promotes plasticity. Experience tunes the synaptic communication pathways that create and control information flow through the brain. Cognitive experience in adolescence may be the "therapeutic window" to manipulate the brain in order to mitigate damage.

Dr Fenton then briefly discussed the ethics of prophylactic measures- while he was dubious about the ethics of prophylactic medication, he indicated that cognitive behavioral therapy would be a better therapeutic technique. The inability to focus mentally is debilitating, and cognitive training can mitigate this problem.

In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience was going to ask Dr Fenton if there were different biological mechanisms for short and long-term memory, but some evil mother pre-empted him (just kidding, no offense- the bastard had a sore throat anyway, so he wasn't prepared to bellow anyway). Dr Fenton answered that there was no evidence that different processes were involved.

Once again, the Secret Science Club dished out a, heh heh, memorable lecture. This particular lecture hit that sweet spot at the intersection of hard science, human interest, and social relevance. Bravo SSC and Dr Fenton! For a taste of this lecture, here is a "Studio 360" presentation by Dr André Fenton:

If you pour yourself a drink before hitting play, you'll have some approximation of the awesome power of the Secret Science Club.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Papal Conclave Poll

Now, for a Big Bad Bald Bastard first, I am conducting a poll! Since today marks the beginning of the Conclave to elect the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, I am polling my readers about who they wish to see in the papal throne:

Who do you think should be the New Pope? free polls 

Now, for a quick introduction to the candidates, and a bastardly summation of the pros and/or cons to each candidacy...

First up, we have Shane MacGowan, the monsignor of The Church of the Holy Spook. Shane would be the first Irish pope, which would be a fitting, if belated, display of gratitude for that whole preservation of scholarship through the Dark Ages thing. The one possible wrinkle with Pope Shane I is that he might distribute amphetamines in lieu of communion wafers.

Next up, we have M. Bouffant, who also has had a career doing pastoral work. While most popes have tried to concentrate on esoteric affairs rather than worldly ones, I can't think of anyone whose comtempt for worldly matters exceeds that of Monsieur Bouffant. Also, moving the papal residence to L.A. would make pilgrimages easier for working class residents of Latin America.

Next up, we have Massimo. Do I even need to spell out how awesome a pope in a luchador mask would be? Plus, daily Mass would be a lot more hilarious than it currently is.

Now, we're coming up to Pupienus Maximus, who should be Popeienus. Perhaps what the Church needs now is a motorcycle-riding, man-Ho loving Portland cooking machine. Plus, Portland is supposed to have the most strip clubs per capita in the U.S. while the Vatican has none that I know of. Bringing a Portland vibe to the Vatican would address this glaring lack of nudie bars.

Charles Stross, being the antipope, would, if elected pope, create a pope/antipope reaction which would further the field of particle physics in a way which the LHC could never accomplish.

Paul Ryan would take the name Pope John Galt I and attempt to interject an Ayn Randian worldview into the doctrine of the church. The benefit of a Ryan papacy would be that the U.S. would finally be rid of the sociopathic schmuck, and having a Randian disciple pope would cause Ayn to turn over in her grave to such an extent that we could attach magnets to withered remains and generate enough power to address all of the nation's energy needs.

Now, Fidel Castro... Fidel means "faithful", and faith is a necessary characteristic of a pope.

Kathryn-Jean Lopez, while not a male (unless you count the mirror universe K-Lo with a beard, who is a lefty, atheist writer for the world's best website), is holier-than-the-pope, so she would make an excellent candidate for someone whose honorific is "Your Holiness".

Finally, we have Morrissey, whose candidacy I've touched on before. If elected pope, the "Pope of Mope" will make an ex cathedra pronouncement that transubstantiation no longer transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, thus allowing vegans to partake of communion. While this would initially create some doctrinal problems, I think a solution inspired by a really terrible movie would be possible. One possible complication of a Morrissey papacy is that it would make Mojo Nixon an anti-pope, and a protracted Charles Stross/Mojo Nixon flamewar of epic proportions could possibly rend the internet asunder. Of course, there is a slight chance that Mojo Nixon and Charles Stross could merge to form a superantipope... such a collaboration could be very fruitful, as both Stross and Nixon have written about horrors that humanity was never meant to behold.

Alright, that's our Papal Conclave poll, my first poll ever. Don't forget to vote! Forgetting to vote causes people to worry about your whereabouts. If you have any write-in candidates, please post them in the comments. Off the top of my head, I can think of two splendid alternate candidates. Pope Thunder I would be sure to canonize both Joseph of Strummermathea and Jerry of the Jam. The second great alternate candidate is Italian Spiderman, who would usher in a "puncho puncho" papacy.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Just Increase the Risk Pool!

Alright, my ass is officially chapped... While Nancy Pelosi rightfully characterizes Republican plans to raise the Medicare age as taking a "scalp" rather than seeking a solution, she totally blows it when it comes to proposing the real solution to problems with Medicare. You want to fix Medicare? Drop the age requirement entirely.

The very concept of insurance depends on "pooling" risk. Insurance carriers collect the premiums of their "insureds" and aggregate the funds to allow them to pay off any claims incurred by insured entities. While riskier "insureds" typically pay higher premiums, these higher premiums are insufficient to pay off claims, therefore, the premiums paid by less risky "insureds" form the bulk of the funds used to pay claims. In the case of health insurance, older persons, in the aggregate, tend to have more health problems than younger persons, and those problems tend to be more chronic. In the U.S., younger, healthier persons tend to be covered by private insurance policies through their (or, increasingly, their parents', thanks to Obamacare) employers. Older, generally sicker, persons and disabled persons are covered by Medicare, while indigent and disabled persons (who tend to have worse health outcomes than middle class and wealthy individuals) are covered by Medicaid. Generally speaking, young healthy persons pay premiums to for-profit health insurance companies while older, sicker persons receive benefits from Medicare... a clear case of "privatize the profits, socialize the losses". By dropping the age requirement altogether, by instituting "Medicare for all", insured persons will pay into the system while they are young and healthy, thus bolstering the system in preparation for a future in which they may very well be old and sick. Raising the age of Medicare eligibility would only compound the existing problems with the system, which is why Republicans are proposing it.

Also, the idiotic Medicare Part D provisions that disallow price negotiations with drug companies need to be dropped yesterday. Yeah, the GOP congress passed provisions that hamstrung the buying power of the Medicare administrators in a blatant giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry. They clearly demonstrated that they have no desire to keep Medicare costs down, why buy into their framing of the Medicare debate at all?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Nerdgasm Inducing

I'm pretty beat, so I'm going to slide by falling back on the "post a video" gambit. A website about building complex machines with LEGO® building blocks has instructions for building a Babbage difference engine. Here's a video of the LEGO® difference engine in action:

Of course, the William Gibson, Bruce Sterling collaborative novel The Difference Engine, which depicts an alternate history timeline in which steam-driven Babbage engines have allowed a 19th century computing revolution to occur, was one of the landmark works of fiction in the "steampunk" literary subgenre. While there are some whimsical Lego steampunk creations out there, it's much, much more impressive to see an actual, working mechanism. I wonder if Gibson and Sterling will come out with a Legopunk novel any time soon.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Taking Back Saturday

Today's the last day of my Saturday volunteer coaching gig until October rolls around. For twenty weeks out of the year, I either leave the house before 8AM and head down to Manhattan to teach, then head straight to work, or I head down to Manhattan straight from work... either way, I don't spend a lot of time at home on Saturdays from October to March. As much as I love it when October rolls around and the program begins, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't equally happy when March rolls around and we have our closing exercises. Today, I will leave work in about half an hour, rush home to shower and put on some decent clothing, then head down on the subway to coach two classes and then attend the post-program luncheon and awards ceremony. Next week, I will have time to hit the brewery on Saturday, or to hit the bar after working the midnight shift (last call is 4AM) and sleep late, or to generally goof off. It's my time once again...

In seven months, it'll be back to Saturday spent away from home. The kids will all be about three inches taller than they are when I part company with them today. I'll be happy to see them, and happy to put in another twenty weeks, but I will have relished the thirty-two weeks of free Saturday mornings.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Rand Paul Has 99 Problems

From the "damn, he's trying too hard to be relevant" files, Marco Rubio made references to hip-and/or-hop artists in a response to Rand Paul's fauxlibuster (remember, Harry Reid's spinelessness ensured that "talking filibusters" were unnecessary). Here's Rubio incongruously trying to sound relevant:

Ah, yes, way to woo the kids with references to Jay-Z... I think Rubio's trying to steal the "youth" vote that Rand is trying to inherit from his old man by speaking with the vocabulary of the street. Good luck, Marco, Paul didn't even take a drink until he was about an hour into his speech... no furtive snatches at baby-sized water bottles for this Randian superman. Keep quoting those hippety hop artists, Marco, it won't change the fact that Rand Paul drank your milkshake (which is sure to bring all the libertarians to the yard). Oh sure, the kids will be appalled that Rand Paul would have opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he doesn't support reproductive freedom for women, and he didn't seem to mind that his "Tea Tea Macoutes" stomped a young woman in his presence, but he pretty much left you in his dust (which may explain your dry mouth). Regarding his continued appeal until 2016, Rand Paul has 99 Problems, but Marco Rubio isn't one of 'em.

Of course, Rand Paul is right about the use of drones in extrajudicial killings of American citizens, but you know what they say about a stopped clock... as an added benefit, his fauxlibuster is deepening the rifts in the Republican Party.

Cross posted at Rumproast.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


Last evening, I called my mom about a family matter and she mentioned offhand that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez had just died. Hugo was an interesting character- not only did he ensure that the poor of Venezuela were able to share in that country's petroleum wealth, but he offered home heating oil to the poor of the United States. By having the temerity to not hand over his country's oil to the multinational corporations, Chavez was a favorite bette noir to the neocons of the world. With his passing, even the usually staid Bloomberg News is characterizing him as "Anti-U.S."

All hyperventilating aside, history will remember Chavez as a better leader than the man he called a devil. Chavez, after all, never invaded another nation, and he did more to help poor Americans than George Bush ever did. As far as Chavez' animus towards the Bush Administration, it has to be noted that the Bushies backed an attempted coup in 2002 that Chavez was able to thwart. The attempted U.S. treatment of Venezuela was creepily reminiscent of the horrible foreign policy blunder in Iran that ultimately led to the ascention of the Islamists. For all the attempts to demonize the guy, Chavez never inspired the hatred that was inculcated against former U.S. ally Saddam Hussein. I think a large part of this failure was the fact that the population of the U.S. was growing increasingly disenchanted with the "kill people and take their stuff" foreign policy, mainly because it resulted in the death of American kids, and because the loot seemed to accumulate in the coffers of administration flunkies, without trickling down.

Anyway, the world will probably be a little less interesting now that Hugo is hugone. Papi really knew how to tweak the beard of the worst persons in the U.S.. For a more nuanced take on Chavez' legacy, Jimmy Carter's farewell can't be beat (hat tip to Tengrain).

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Alpine Hinamatsuri

I'm relieved... my brother Sweetums e-mailed to compliment me on my Hinamatsuri post. Thanks, big brother, I'm glad I didn't mess it up. My lovely, gracious, and brilliant sister-in-law grew up in Tokyo's equivalent of Forest Hills, one of those "most urban of suburbs" kind of neighborhoods. Here is the Hinamatsuri display she put up in the family's apartment in the greater Zurich metropolitan area (they are living in Zurich's equivalent of Forest Hills):

Are those dolls not extraordinarily beautiful? The floral arrangement is also really elegant. This year's Hinamatsuri was especially important, as it was my niece's first Hinamatsuri. No doubt my sister-in-law was happy to put up this display, because until last year, she just had a bunch of boys running around the place. Don't worry that the boys are left out of the festivities, they will get their accolades in two months.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Pope Stephen

Theoretically, any baptized male Roman Catholic is eligible to be elected pope, although the newly elected pope must become a bishop before he assumes the ancient title of Pontifex Maximus. You know where this is going, eh?

Lately, Morissey has been in the news a lot- he refused to perform on Jimmy Kimmel's show, he's castigating "Bouncy" for using animal hides in her couture. The guy has been in the news more in the past two weeks than he's been in the previous decade. I know something is up, I think the Papal Conclave is going to elect Morrissey pope... he is eligible. He's been the Pope of Mope for quite some time, soon he'll be the Pope of Rome. It's a good move for the Church- not only does Morrissey have mass appeal to the Latino community, he is sure to have the support of all of the Vicars in tutus:

It's a no-brainer, Morrissey always enjoyed success on the college charts, I don't think the College of Cardinals will be any different. It's about time the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church had a pope with a pompadour.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Robyn Hitchcock Turned Sixty

I just found out that today is Robyn Hitchcock's sixtieth birthday. I could give a little discussion about Robyn, who is one of my all-time favorite musicians, but I think I'd rather post a bunch of his songs.

Here's Robyn performing Brenda's Iron Sledge, a demented little ditty which has always put me in mind of a poorly-translated Slavic folk song:

Here's a more recent video of Robyn performing one of his most beautiful songs (albeit it one with a hint of unsettling imagery), Airscape:

Here's the disturbing, but oddly life affirming, Sounds Great When You're Dead... remember how dodgy things get, they're preferable to death:

Here's Queen of Eyes, which was originally done by Robyn's first band, The Soft Boys. It comes across as the sort of song The Byrds would have written if they are totally tripped out on acid and Mervyn Peake novels:

I'll leave off with Robyn playing his beautiful Madonna of the Wasps with the Decemberists:

Yeah, you could say I'm a fan. I've seen Robyn play more than just about anyone, with the possible exception of Joan Jett, who is relatively local. Happy birthday, Robyn, just don't make young people scream.

Girls' Day!

Here's wishing a happy Girls' Day to all of my readers. The Girls' Day festival has its roots in the Hinamatsuri, the Japanese Doll Festival. Originally, small straw dolls which were supposed to contain bad spirits and the sins of the community were placed on tiny boats and set to drift away, carrying off all that badness. Now, the dolls have become more elaborate, and are arranged in a tiered display which portrays the Imperial court. The modern Hinamatsuri is a day to pray for growth and happiness for girls.

I found a great video by way of Singapore blogger Simon Ooh. Here are a couple of city girls (they rather self-effacingly describe themselves a "silly", but they are very charming) checking out a huge Hinamatsuri festival in a small town in Chiba Prefecture:

Happy Girls' Day to all of my female readers, and a special shout out to my brilliant and gorgeous nieces.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Badass Boy Band?

Check out this bunch of handsome young fellows, looking for all the world like the world's toughest boy band:

Sorry, pop fans, these boys aren't crooners, the standing fellows are a team of Russian university students here in NYC for tomorrow's NY Open Judo Tournament. I met these guys in the lobby of the storied New York Athletic Club and got them in touch with the guy who's "taking a knee", a guy who is, GASP, not a Russian. That dashing chap is my great and good friend Francesco Rulli, the proprietor of Film Annex and a tournament sponsor. Whenever Francesco meets someone, he always takes a "headshot"- my profile picture was taken by Signor Rulli a few years ago. Needless to say, he made sure to take headshots of all the Russian guys and joked about selling them off to some "cougars".

The guy in the gray hoodie seemed to be their leader, though the nice guy in the red fleece bore the dictionary/phrase book and had the best command of English (albeit not so great, though my Russian is limited to a handful of phrases). After their introductions to a couple of tournament officials, they decided to take a few hours for sightseeing before their weigh-ins. I gave them directions to the Empire State Building and bid them "До свидания!" before heading off to work. They'll have a great time, they're a bunch of twenty year old university students in New York City for five days.

I have to say, for all of the language barrier, these guys came across as a really nice bunch. I'm not so afraid of the Russians:

If you're in the NY metro area, and you want to see these guys compete, the New York Open Judo Tournament is open to the public. I'm going to check it out for a couple of hours before going off to work.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Silver Lining for the Sequester?

Don't get me wrong, I think the "sequester" is a bad thing, the stupid result of brinksmanship by an awful bunch of morons who are abrogating their duty to serve their constituents. The goddamn sequester will result in job losses, furloughs, and diminished growth, but there may be a miniscule "silver lining" to this nasty, nasty cloud.

The sequester will necessitate cuts to the already bloated military budget. The United States spends a godawful amount of money on defense. Tragically, such money sinks as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will probably survive, mostly because parts for this white elephant of a plane are made in 45 states, with the attendent importance to the careers of congresscritters.

More importantly, the implementation of cuts mandated by the sequester will drive home the foolishness of Conservatives' condemnation of "Big Government". In his juvenile "rebuttal" to President Obama's State of the Union speech, Marco Rubio accused the president of being a "Big Government" advocate. Conservatives have long wanted to shrink government, with right-wing kingmaker Grover Norquist articulating this desire in particularly creepy fashion. The coming cuts due to the sequester are the fulfilment of this long-stated desire. The furloughs and layoffs, the drastic service cuts, and the resultant long lines at airports, the crumbling transportation infrastructure, and the decreased disaster aid are all the price to be paid for shrinking government. Perhaps the implementation of true conservative principles will finally convince the low-information voters that conservative policies are jejune. To this end, we really need to hammer home to conservatives that the sequester is the logical end of conservativism and that, franky, conservatism is terrible.

I want to reiterate that I think the sequester is pretty goddamn horrible, but it seems that American society has to hit rock bottom before any positive changes will be enacted. I'm not the only one who thought that the second Bush administration was pretty much rock-bottom, but the goddamn electorate showed that it didn't suffer enough from Republican malfeasance in the 2010 midterms. Tragically, there will be plenty of "collateral damage" as a result of this hard-learned lesson.