Thursday, July 31, 2014

In the Sky, a Marvel

At about 2:15AM, while I was doing my customary walkabout on the job, I caught a bright flash of light out of the corner of my eye, bright enough to briefly illuminate the building I was walking next to. I turned in the direction of the flash and beheld the final moments of the most spectacular meteor I have ever seen, a bona fide fireball. The magnitude of the light was sufficient to illuminate a bright, smoky tail. WOW! I've never seen a meteor that came close to this one. Last August, I saw some impressive meteors, but this one blew them all away in terms of magnificence. The incident had me humming this little ditty, which is before my time, but catchy as hell:

There was quite a bit of astro rock (as opposed to planet rock or space rock) in those days.

Ya know, I feel like embedding another video, Larry Fast's tribute to those old instrumentals, named for the Redstone rockets which made Project Mercury possible:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

An Unforced Error

Talk about big mistakes! The National Review has decided to pick a fight with, of all people, Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

First of all, if you are a National Review reader, then it is safe to say that Dr Neil Degrasse Tyson (BA: Physics, Harvard University; MA: Astronomy, UT Austin; MPhil: Astrophysics, Columbia University; PhD: Astrophysics, Columbia University) is smarter than you. He's smarter than me. He's pretty much smarter than anybody (antipodeans not counted) you'll meet.

That out of the way, Dr Tyson always seems to be very diplomatic when it comes to political issues, and even praised Republicans when it came to funding science- I'll note that funding projects in astrophysics funnels money into the Military Industrial Complex, due to all of the hardware involved. By dragging Dr Tyson, who is a popular, charismatic figure, into a political brawl, conservatives can only lose. Bill Maher offered up Tyson's combination of race, intelligence, and charisma as a reason for the conservative hate-on for Dr Tyson, while D.R. Tucker opined that it is Dr Tyson's belief in anthropogenic climate change.

Sadly, only the opening of Chucky Cooke's article is available on the web for free, and I absolutely refuse to pay money to kill my brain cells unless alcohol is involved. The smart Charles, Mr Pierce, took the dumb one to the woodshed.

I've met Dr Tyson on two occasions, and he is as nice a gentleman as he is a brilliant populizer of science. I don't think he'd want to be dragged into a pointless Left/Right "battle", but if the Conservative establishment wants to pick this fight, all I can say is, "Please proceed, conservatives!"

Edit: Special thanks to Buddy McCue, who not only clued me in to this article, but linked to a thread in which the article was cut-and-pasted. Yeah, it's even worse than you think. My favorite part was this:

"Science and 'geeky' subjects," the pop-culture writer Maddox observes, "are perceived as being hip, cool and intellectual." And so people who are, or wish to be, hip, cool, and intellectual "glom onto these labels and call themselves 'geeks' or 'nerds' every chance they get."

Which is to say that the nerds of MSNBC and beyond are not actually nerds but the popular kids indulging in a fad. To a person, they are attractive, accomplished, well paid, and loved, listened to, and cited by a good portion of the general public.

It's a funny juxtaposition, especially since people like Rachel Maddow are actual scholars. The real news is that the actual nerds won the culture war- we're living in Gary's world now. Chuckie Cooke goes on to whine:

In this manner has a word with a formerly useful meaning been turned into a transparent humblebrag: Look at me, I'm smart. Or, more important, perhaps, Look at me and let me tell you who I am not, which is southern, politically conservative, culturally traditional, religious in some sense, patriotic, driven by principle rather than the pivot tables of Microsoft Excel, and in any way attached to the past.

To that I say, there's nothing that says that a person who is "southern, politically conservative, culturally traditional, religious in some sense, patriotic, driven by principle rather than the pivot tables of Microsoft Excel, and in any way attached to the past" needs to be stupid, but conservatives like Representative Paul Broun choose stupidity. The whole article is merely a whine that the Movement Conservative base chooses to let the stupid people not only speak to them, but to set the policy goals for political conservatives. If Cooke has a beef, it should be with the knuckle-draggers, not the "smart set" that ridicules them.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Playing with Juniper

There are a couple of juniper bushes on one of my jobsites and they are festooned with pale, pine scented "berries". As gin-and-tonics are my go-to summer drink (besides, of course, beer), I have decided to play around with them, making an infused vodka reminiscent of jenever, a spirit I came to enjoy when I traveled to the Netherlands a few years back. Maybe a good analogous drink would be Old Tom gin, a sort of "link" between jenevers and modern gins. I've been looking up recipes on the interwebz, and I think I'm ready to infuse a batch of booze. I've been making limoncello and other citrus infusions for years, and this year I started a batch of nocino... why not try a batch of gin?

I'm still pondering what "botanicals" to put in this mixture. I have the juniper, lemons and oranges are easily come by, I live by bunch of Indian groceries where I can buy coriander and cardamom seeds in bulk, and I actually have access to lavender in the gardens at work. It'll take a couple of days to accumulate my ingredients, but I think I'm going to do this thing.

Anybody got a recipe for homemade tonic water?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Oh, Danny Boy

I saw a couple of friends today when I got to work. A few years ago, a nice woman of about sixty brought her adult son with Down Syndrome to our scary Halloween-themed fall fundraiser. When her son, Danny, caught a glimpse of one of the ensemble cast, dressed as a vampire, he got cold feet. His poor mother rolled her eyes and said, "I really wish he wouldn't do this, he wanted to come and I don't want the ticket cost to be wasted." I assured her that I would endeavor to talk her son out of his reluctance, and assured him that, if he were genuinely scared, he could always look for a staff member so he could be whisked out to "safety" quickly. Needless to say, by the end of the night, it took an effort on his mother's part to get him to leave. The two of them have attended the event every year since then, and Danny actually comes twice- once on the opening night, and once on his birthday, in late October. For the latter event, he makes sure he comes to the last show- the "darkest, scariest" time is his preferred time.

Besides being a "horror" aficianado, Danny is also a competitor in the Special Olympics. After my initial hello, I asked him how he had fared in competition. Without missing a beat, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the gold medal that he had one. His mother gave me a quizzical look and said, "I didn't know he was carrying it around." I told Danny, "If you've got it, flaunt it, and you've got it!"

I have to say, the guy has got star quality. Sure, he's got a disability, but he is a a great conversationalist and he has got charisma. In the course of our conversation, he reminded me that he knows an extensive repertoire of traditional Irish music, so I requested Wild Colonial Boy. Without missing a beat, he serenaded me with a version that would make the Clancy Brothers proud. The guy is on the ball.

His mother told me that she was working closer to my workplace and she was looking for a place closer to work. I immediately suggested the Southeast Yonkers/Woodlawn section of the Bronx as a place to look. She's a Bronx gal and her son would be in his glory in a neighborhood where his musical talents would be appreciated.

Having gotten to know mother and son, I have to say that it's heartwarming to see a man who would have been locked away a couple of generations ago living a happy, productive life- a life in which he has achieved splendid goals. I was in a great mood all day at work, and I look forward to seeing them again this coming October.

I deal with the public quite a bit on the job, and there are certain people you become friendly with. Danny and his mom are two of my favorite regulars.

While it's not my favorite trad song, I'm sure that Danny could have belted this one out with gusto:

Friday, July 25, 2014

Nuke the Nuge

I was very happy to read that a second Native American owned casino has cancelled a concert by Ted Nugent. Seeing that two venues have dropped the "Motor City Madman", I figure that the pressure is on. Accordingly, I decided to check out Ted's upcoming tour schedule and discovered that he'd be playing several dates at House of Blues locations. I figured it was time to send them an e-mail to express my displeasure:

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to express my consternation at the upcoming Ted Nugent concerts which are to take place on August 12th at your Orlando location and on August 14th at your Houston location. Given Mr Nugent's history of racially-charged, violent rhetoric, I feel that having him perform at your venues is contrary to your goal of celebrating an African-American musical tradition, and the performers who shaped and keep alive that tradition

Just over a year ago, Mr Nugent, in an interview with Alex Jones, had this to say about the African-American experience:

“I would like to reach out to black America and tell them to absolutely reject the lie of Al ‘Not So’ Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson, and the Black Panthers and Eric Holder and Barack Obama. They are enslaving you and the real shackles on black America, 100 percent of the time come from black America.

“Racism against blacks was gone by the time I started touring the nation in the late 60s. Nothing of consequence existed to deter or compromise a black American’s dream if they got an alarm clock, if they set it, if they took good care of themselves, they remained clean and sober, if they spoke clearly, and they demanded excellence of themselves and provided excellence to their employers.”

I enjoy listening to Elwood's "Blues Hour" on my local radio station,WXPK, on Sunday nights, and the nightly "blues breaker", which airs while I drive to work, has expanded my knowledge of American roots music. When it came time to buy a new pair of workboots this past winter, I chose to purchase from your sponsor Red Wing boots. I find it hard to reconcile the reverent, informative content of your musical and cultural offerings with your decision to book a performer who has such a profound contempt of African-Americans and such an ignorance of the very experiences that shaped the blues.

Sincerely yours,


Time to nuke the Nuge, to drop a hundred megaton outrage-bomb right on his wallet.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Reeflections

Yesterday, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. After a 2-hour slog on the subway (a broken rail on the "6" line at Canal St had the entire Lexington Avenue corridor, 4-5-6 trains, clogged up just in time for the evening rush hour), I got to my destination to attend the latest Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Dr David Gruber of the City University of New York, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Central Caribbean Marine Institute. Dr Gruber's talk concerned biofluorescence in marine organisms, and the importance of the discovery of biofluorescent proteins.

Dr Gruber opened his lecture by noting that it was his first lecture in a bar- he was quite taken with the whole concept. He then began in earnest with a discussion of the "human visual world"- the human visible spectrum ranges from 400 to 700 nanometer wavelengths. We live in Roy G. Biv's world. Some animals are able to see into the infrared and ultraviolet portions of the spectrum. Underwater, the spectrum is reduced- water filters out non-blue light, so the underwater color world is marked by a sharply decreasing "palette".

Dr Gruber then mentioned Aequorea victoria, the crystal jelly, which produces Green Fluorescent Protein- when the animal is poked, it produces a blue light which, due to a Förster resonance energy transfer is shifted to green light. Because of water's filtering effects, blue light travels farther than green light, so many bioluminescent animals produce a blue light. The filtration effect renders white light into blue light, which is reflected back as lesser energy green light.

The talk then shifted to an overview of corals, which evolved rather suddenly about 200 million years ago. Corals are Cniadarians, as are jellyfish and sea anemones. Dr Gruber likened corals to jellyfish trapped in a calcium carbonate "rock" of their own making. Like other cnidarians, they use a single orifice as both "mouth" and "anus" and they have stinging nematocysts. Most corals have symbiotic dinoflagellates associated with them- the photosynthetic dinoflagellates, which provide much of the corals' energy, limit corals to well-lit ocean depths. The various polyps which form a coral colony are clones connected by a structure known as a coenosarc. Reef-building corals largely occur in two geographic zones, the Caribbean and the Indo-Pacific. Since corals are cnidarians, it was probable that they would also be fluorescent (this was borne out as these beautiful images attest.

Why would sessile corals fluoresce? It is possible that corals fluoresce green in order to cause a phototaxis to attract their dinoflagellate symbionts. Dr Gruber made a parenthetical note that dinoflagellates tend to have huge chromosome counts, with up to twenty-five times the amount of DNA that humans have.

Dr Gruber then went off on a brief tangent that he called the "Electric Kool-Aid Coral Acid Test". In an experiment performed to determine the effects of ocean acidification on corals, a specimen of the Oculina patagonica coral was subjected to a water with a decreasing pH level (from 8.1 to 7.4). As the pH level decreased, the coral polyps became increasingly disconnected from their calcium carbonate matrix and took on the appearance of sea anemones (Dr Gruber showed a time-lapse video of the experiment, but I have been unable to locate it yet). He then brought up the "Naked Coral Hypothesis", which posits that the "overnight" appearance of coral in the Triassic fossil record was probably due to increasing pH levels which allowed coral polyps to form their calcium carbonate "rocks". Because many corals can revert to anemone-like polyps, they have an "escape hatch" in conditions of increasing acidity. Dr Gruber wryly quipped that, in the case of increasing ocean acidification, "worry about your own shit, you can't turn into a polyp."

Dr Gruber then moved on from corals to the discovery of biofluorescence in vertebrates, - on one particular dive to photograph fluorescent corals, a bright-green fluorescent eel, a false moray Kaupichthys hyoproroides stood out in the foreground of one photograph... it was the first fluorescent vertebrate ever found.

Dr Gruber described his research as taking place in three "generations"- the first generation involved using lights with filters duct-taped to them (he praised the uses of duct tape during his lecture). The second generation involved the use of better lights powered with motorcycle batteries- he assured us that the lights were "perfectly safe". The second generation equipment was taken to Shark Point in the Solomon Islands. While diving in the Solomons, the researchers found two hundred new species of fluorescent fish. Many of the fish had a yellow intraocular filter which allowed them to perceive biofluorescent organisms. Dr Gruber observed that the fluorescence may serve as camouflage, with red fluorescent organisms preferring red backgrounds and green fluorescent organisms preferring green backgrounds. This portion of the lecture was accompanied by gorgeous photographs and videos. In the case of some biofluorescent fish, they appeared identical to closely related species under normal light conditions, but they fluoresced in different patterns, which may facilitate spawning in the light of the full moon.

On one particular dive, a fluorescent ray was spotted, which raised the possibility that certain sharks may be fluorescent. Regarding the prospect of diving in search of fluorescent sharks, Dr Gruber noted that he had spent six years of his life working on his PhD in windowless rooms and now he is wearing a helmet and a shark suit to work. He went on a brief tangent about diving at night and told us that the shark wrangler that accompanied the expedition had never "wrangled" at night. The first shark discovered to be fluorescent was a swell shark (Cephaloscyllium ventriosum) and a chain shark (Scyliorhinus retifer) was found to be fluorescent soon afterwards. He went on a brief tangent about shark vision, with especial attention drawn to the bigeye thresher shark )Alopias superciliosus), noting that the sharks' eyes may have evolved to seek bioluminescent animals. He also noted that shark's acute sensory arrays also included the electroreceptors known as ampullae of Lorenzini and a sense of smell that isn't tuned to sense blood per se, but amino acids.

Dr Gruber described the third generation of his research as involving the use of a submarine with movie-projector quality LED lights and fiber optics (a big step up from duct tape) and showed us a picture of himself in a deep-sea diving suit that had been modified to accommodate the special light and photographic equipment. Using the deep-diving apparatus, the team discovered that there was a plethora of biofluorescent organisms at depths below 500 meters.

Dr Gruber finished his talk with a discussion of the importance of Green Fluorescent Protein in research- the discoverers of GFP were awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Green Fluorescent Protein can be "attached" to "proteins of interest". Beta tubilin can be tagged with GFP to help researchers study mitosis. Tagging kinases with GFP can assist in the development of cancer drugs (this particular topic is reminiscent of last month's lecture.

Finally, GFP offers a window into human consciousness- neurons can be tagged with GFP, a change in the intensity of fluorescence occurs when the neurons fire- Dr Gruber likened this to observing "consciousness in real time".

Dr Gruber finished his lecture by underscoring the importance of further research in conservation efforts, noting that it is estimated that only 10% of the species associated with coral reefs are believed to be known, and that you can't protect what you don't love.

Once again, the Secret Science Club offered up a spectacular lecture. Dr Gruber's talk hit that sweet spot at the intersection of hard science, adventure narrative, and humorous anecdotes from a life well-lived, plus some incredibly gorgeous photography and video footage. As I listened to Dr Gruber, I continually thought, "This is a person who is utterly enamored with his life's work." The man clearly loves what he is doing and he loves to share his work with others. In the Q&A some bastard in the audience asked about the number of taxa that exhibit biofluorescence, and what inferences can be drawn about the evolution of this phenomenon. Dr Gruber noted that it's clearly a case of convergent evolution, with fluorescence evolving multiple times- he noted that no fluorescent bacteria have been discovered, so this is not a case of the involvement of bacterial symbionts.

The research team to which Dr Gruber belongs has a beautiful website- seriously, you can become lost in the utter beauty of the images on the site, while reading about the methodology they employ.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Old Friends, New Friends, Ancient Friends

Today was an awesome day. I made plans to meet up with a co-worker, a friend of hers from Melbourne who is in the midst of a cross-U.S. motorcycle odyssey, and Major Kong at the American Museum of Natural History, which is my beloved Temple of Science!!! Unfortunately, my co-worker had to bail, because she was suffering from a migraine and a bad flare-up of her allergies.

After a bit of a "hiccup", which saw me circling around the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx looking for parking near the "1 Train", I met Major Kong and our antipodean friend, who I will dub P.J. in the interest of brevity and his privacy, at the parkside entrance of the museum around twenty minutes past eleven o'clock. We made a bee-line for the fourth floor, to the halls of vertebrate paleontology, where I paused to explain how I made peace with the Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology being named after David Koch. The last time the good Major had graced these halls, the Tyrannosaurus rex was in its "Godzilla" posture, rather than the more accurate stalking posture in which it is now displayed. We then high-tailed it to the pterosaurs exhibit- longtime readers will know that the Major is the go-to authority on aviation. Ancient fliers, meet a current flier! I'm going to have to put up a post specifically about the pterosaurs exhibit. Right now, suffice it to say that the new reproductions of pterosaurs are a lot more colorful than the older ones- rather than the leathery lizard-bats of yore, the current depictions are of colorful, fuzz-covered (pterosaurs have been known to have fur since the early 70s) lookers. The variety of well-preserved fossils bearing all sorts of crests on their heads is a recent, lucky discovery... as I said, I'll have to compose a post solely on this exhibit.

The crown jewel of the exhibit is a reproduction of Quetzalcoatlus northropi, a giant with a wingspan of about ten meters (approximately 33 feet). Major Kong dubbed it "the B-52 of pterosaurs"- that pretty much sums it up. The exhibit also features interactive displays, in which one can "pilot" a pterosaur. Major Kong took a turn at piloting a Pteranodon longiceps, explaining the conditions leading to a stall. P.J. told us anecdote about his childhood home in Queensland- the conventional wisdom in this cyclone-prone region of Australia was to build houses with flat roofs, but certain winds would actually create lift, ripping off a flat roof, so his father built a new roof, pitched to create "stall" conditions.

After a good long time with our pterosaur buddies, we returned to the Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology, this time spending time with the mammalian fossils. We then headed to the planetarium where we strolled around the sphere for a while until we decided to bring things back to Earth, checking out the hall of earth science. We then made our way through the hall of North American mammals, the hall of human evolution, and eventually to the famous blue whale sculpture, which has been renovated to reflect a better knowledge of blue whale anatomy. The changes are minor enough so I could quip to Major Kong that some things haven't really changed since his last visit. We ended up our visit by checking the hall of meteorites and the hall of gemstones- the Star of India star sapphire being the most notable of the gems on display.

After our museum tour, which lasted over four glorious hours, we headed to the venerable Grey's Papaya for their famous hot dogs and fruit drinks. Fortified, we strolled east on West 72nd St, past the Dakota, and entered Central Park near Strawberry Fields- there were several acoustic guitars in evidence. Protip for emo college types, get your asses their now and play renditions of Beatles tunes, and you may be fawned on by cute tourists of whichever gender you wish to attract. A turn around the park, toward the Loeb Boathouse, and we were winding down the day. We parted ways at the "B,C" station at 72nd St.

It was a day well spent, hanging out with old friends, new friends, and ancient friends. Here's to friendship!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Regional Conflicts, Global Repercussions

Among the horrors of the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, thought to be perpetrated by Russian-backed separatists using a ground-to-air missile is the fact that one-hundred and eight HIV/AIDS researchers were killed. Let that sink in for a while... one-hundred and eight top-flight AIDS researchers, men and women who devoted years of their lives to the study of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, were killed in a stupid, brutal act in a pointless regional conflict.

Among the dead is Joep Lange, Ph.D. and M.D.- doctor, scientist, humanitarian. More than one headline blazed, "Could the cure for AIDS have been on that plane?"

Centuries work adding to accumulated scientific knowledge, decades of activism- all brought to cessation by a deed that took seconds of thoughtless action. The effects of this meaningless attack will reverberate for generations.

Back in 1991, I was captivated by a shooting at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, that claimed the lives of several authorities in the field of theoretical space plasma physics. My fascination with this rampage was largely due to the near-elimination of experts in an esoteric field of research. My main thought was, "The killer is now the foremost expert in the field, and by the time he gets out of prison, everything will have changed." Talk about setting things back by decades... and theoretical space plasma physics doesn't impact the lives of tens of millions of people worldwide. That tragedy doesn't quite compare to this recent one. One-hundred and eight brilliant, good people killed by dumb, bad people who are basically engaged in a dick-measuring contest.

Humanity kinda bites.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rambunctious Youths

This week, I have had to deal with an incursion of rambunctious youths at one of my jobsites. I was sitting at my desk, when I heard the crash of one of our site garbage cans being knocked over. I quickly exited the building, flashlight in hand, and was confronted with three pairs of glowing eyes. Yup, we have a trio of adolescent raccoons who are learning the ropes of being suburban menaces. These little critters are brazen- while walking on a narrow pathway, one of them ran right by me, coming within inches of my ungainly clodhoppers. I did a double-take when I saw this fuzzball running past me, knowing that Fred and Ginger were safely ensconced in their respective workplaces, handling the overnight mousing shift. I had another of the raccoons run right toward me on another occasion- I damn near freaked out because I initially thought it was a skunk (though skunks tend to move pretty slowly).

I can't believe how fearless these little raccoons are... I chalk it up to youth, not rabies, as they are not active during the daytime, and have learned to be more discreet over the last couple of days. Maybe they are such juvenile delinquents because they lack a suitable male role model, dad having been incarcerated.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Trip to Paris

The big news on the local front is that Major Kong is in town on a long layover. This afternoon, I got together with the good Major and Ned Beaumont. Ned being enamored of Old New York, he suggested that we meet at The Paris Tavern, a venerable South Street institution, established in 1873. The Paris Tavern is characterized by old-timey tile floors and warm hospitality. The last time I went drinking in South Street was a few years back, when I hit Jeremy's Ale House with some co-workers from my old company's Manhattan office. Jeremy's is a funny place, it has a grotty vibe, serving beer in 32 oz. styrofoam cups to an only-in-New-York-City mix of longshoremen and Wall Street swells. Frathouse vibe aside, the place sells portions of calamari tentacles (best part of the squid!) and house-fried potato chips. The Paris Cafe is very genteel compared to it.

After a relaxing beer together, we headed west on Fulton St, and Ned was in his glory. Ned is the go-to guy about old buildings, and he knows the city like the back of his hand. He was pointing out details of the building facades, the silly looking modern "caps" put on beautiful old buildings to increase the number of apartments in them when they were converted for residential use. Sadly, I had to part ways with Ned and the Major at Broadway, in order to catch the "4" train back to Woodlawn, in the Bronx, and to proceed to work.

Saturday is my "no fun at all" day (unless you count listening to NPR for a couple of hours while contemplating getting out of bed)- I work until 4AM and return to work at 5PM. Actually, I like my job, so I have fun on Saturdays. Ned and I made some suggestions to the Major- walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and check out the Highline. The Major is in town until Monday, so we'll make plans to get together again. It had been a while since I'd hung out with N__B and the Major, it was good to get the old trio back together. So, when are you going to get your ass to New York?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Spambots Love Me!

Now, this is weird- in March of this year, I broke the quarter-million hit mark. In the self-congratulatory post I wrote about that occasion, I mentioned that, by far, my most popular post was about eating an unidentified fruit that looked like a toy. Well, now I have over 100,000 hits for that particular post, just about a quarter of my total hits. My next popular post has just over 6,000 hits, to put things in perspective. A couple of comments have eluded Blogger's spam filter (I don't use captcha, because I love comments and want to make things easy for my readers), so I know that these hits are all due to spambots.

The spambot comments have a strange poetry to them. I'd love to know how the hell these verses are composed:

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Simply marvelous... how about this?

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e.e. cummings, eat your heart out!

I wonder what it is about this particular post that has it acting as a decoy attracting all the spam comments.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

ERMAHGERDS! Thor's a Chick!!!

In a move which is bound to result in a lot of nerdrage, Marvel Comics has an upcoming title in which Thor is a female-type goddess. Reading the articles about this change, and the subsequent kerfuffle, I am having flashbacks to one of my favorite posts.

To reiterate a point I made in that post, the adherents of the Norse Eddas weren't as prudish as the butthurt fanboys that are complaining about Thor's makeover as a woman. In the hilarious Lay of Thrym, Thor poses as the goddess Freyja in order to retrieve his hammer, Mjöllnir, from the Jotun Thrym:

Heimdall, the fairest of the gods, like all the Vanir could see into the future. "Let us dress Thor in bridal linen," he said, "and let him wear the necklace of the Brisings. Tie housewife's keys about his waist, and pin bridal jewels upon his breast. Let him wear women's clothes, with a dainty hood on his head."

The Thunderer, mightiest of gods, replied, "The gods will call me womanish if I put on bridal linen."

Then Loki, son of Laufey, said, "Thor, be still! With such foolish words the giants will soon be living here in Asgard if you do not get your hammer from them."

So they dressed Thor in bridal linen, tied the necklace of Brisings around his neck and housewife's keys about his waist. They pinned bridal jewels upon his breast, and dressed him in women's clothes, with a dainty hood on his head.

Then Loki, son of Laufey, said, "I will accompany you as your maid-servant. Together we shall go to Jotunheim."

Hilarity ensues, as Loki has to explain away Thor's ravenous appetite and fiery red eyes... but the dénouement of the tale is quite bloody, as Thor reverts to type and kicks some ass.

At any rate, the decision to make the comic book character Thor is an interesting one, and one in keeping with the original Norse Eddas. At any rate, Marvel's Loki has been sexually ambiguous for a while, which is completely compatible with his traditional portrayal.

Poor butthurt comics fanboys, this Edda fanboy is laughing at your discomfiture.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Smut Recommendation

A couple of weeks ago, in a thread at the mothership, Smut Clyde had this to say about Fritz Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness:

The way BBBB feels about “Face in the Frost” is how I feel about Fritz Leiber’s “Our Lady of Darkness”, his homage to CAS.

With a recommendation like that (I've lauded The Face in the Frost more times than I can remember at this point), I figured I'd have to revisit the novella, because it had been ages since I'd read it. I'm most familiar with Leiber's Nehwon stories, featuring his swashbuckling duo Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and lately I'd read his tributes to H.P. Lovecraft (with whome Leiber corresponded), such as The Terror from the Depths and the touching To Arkham and the Stars- the latter story subverts the whole "cosmic evil" theme of Lovecraft's mythos and ends on a sentimental, optimistic note.

Anyway, it had been a while since I'd read any of Fritz Leiber's contemporary urban dark fantasy, so I got my hands on Our Lady of Darkness. The novella is Fritz Leiber's "love letter" to the City of San Francisco and to the "Weird Tale" author Clark Ashton Smith. The protagonist is an author who is just getting over a long bout of alcoholism after the death of his wife. During his "hazy" days, he acquired two extremely rare volumes from a used bookstore- the first being a journal which may belong to Smith, the second being Megapolisomancy, an exceedingly rare book (the reason for its rarity is explained in the narrative) that posits an occult "science" of urban development:

He handed her the one that had been open, saying, "That's just about the most fascinating book of pseudoscience I've ever seen—it has some genuine insights mixed with the hokum. No date, but printed about 1900, I'd judge."

"'Megapolisomancy,'" she pronounced carefully. "Now what would that be? Telling the future from . . . from cities?"

"From big cities," he said, nodding.

"Oh, yes, the mega."

He went on. "Telling the future and all other sorts of things. And apparently making magic, too, from that knowledge. Though de Castries calls it a 'new science,' as if he were a second Galileo. Anyhow, this de Castries is very much concerned about the 'vast amounts' of steel and paper that are being accumulated in big cities. And coal oil (kerosene) and natural gas. And electricity, too, if you can believe it—he carefully figures out just how much electricity is in how many thousands of miles of wire, how many tons of illuminating gas in tanks, how much steel in the new skyscrapers, how much paper for government records and yellow journalism, and so on."

"My-oh-my," Cal commented. "I wonder what he'd think if he were alive today."

"His direst predictions vindicated, no doubt. He did speculate about the growing menace of automobiles and gasoline, but especially electric cars carrying buckets of direct electricity around in batteries. He came so close to anticipating our modern concern about pollution—he even talks of 'the vast congeries of gigantic fuming vats' of sulphuric acid needed to manufacture steel. But what he was most agitated about was the psychological or spiritual (he calls them 'paramental') effects of all that stuff accumulating in big cities, its sheer liquid and solid mass."

"A real proto-hippie," Cal put it. "What sort of man was he? Where did he live? What else did he do?"

"There's absolutely no indication in the book of any of those things," Franz told her, "and I've never turned up another reference to him. In his book he refers to New England and eastern Canada quite a bit, and New York City, but only in a general way. He also mentioned Paris (he had it in for the Eiffel Tower) and France a few times. And Egypt."

In the course of the novella, the protagonist becomes obsessed with observing the Sutro Tower and Corona Heights, where he spies a mysterious brown-clad figure which he originally takes to be a "robed hierophant"- stoned priest of a modern sun god dancing around an accidental high-set Stonehenge.

As the plot moves forward, he becomes more obsessed with the brown-clad figure on Corona Heights and makes a trek to the crown of the hill to find the "priest", a course of action which ends on a surprising note for the protagonist. He also attempts to verify the provenance of the journal he attributes to CAS, paying a call on a burnt-out counterculture figure who is able to fill him in on some of the details of the life of the author of Megapolisomancy, and his relation to Clark Ashton Smith.

The narrative builds to a climax as the protagonist runs afoul of the "paramental" forces conjured up by the urban landscape, in conjunction with his own mind. As things come to head, his "salvation" hinges on verifying whether his home is the building alluded to in the journal, and determining if he can use this knowledge to ward off the paramentals.

The novella is, like everything I've read by Leiber, great fun. It conjured up other works in my head, which is always a good thing, as I love to spot allusions. The protagonist's fascination with the heights across the city from his apartment evoked H.P. Lovecraft's The Haunter of the Dark. The "paramentals" of the tale reminded me of Clark Ashton Smith's Genius Loci and Leiber's own Smoke Ghost. The whole "megapolisomancy" angle reminded me of the game played by Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, in which they posit that the great towers built throughout history were designed to track "telluric currents"- I wonder if Eco was inspired by Our Lady of Darkness. The search for the McGuffin which can help the protagonist lay to rest the paramentals besieging him reminded me of John Bellairs' wonderfully eerie The House with a Clock in Its Walls, while the final paramental manifestation was reminiscent of M.R. James' Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad, though with a somewhat comic twist.

Our Lady of Darkness works on a bunch of levels- it works as a supernatural thriller, it works as a loving tribute to the city in which it is set, it works as an homage to a favored author, it works as a part of a greater "weird" literary tradition, it even works as a comedy, on some levels. One way in which I knew that I was hooked from the get-go is that the novella sent me rushing off to look up the Sutro Tower and Corona Heights. For me, that's a sure sign that I care enough to put the book into a greater context.

Thanks, Smut! Now, regarding the post title, did you dirty little lambies think that this would be a pr0n review?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Slippery Dope Arguments

Inevitably, in discussions about "culture war" issues, right wingers will raise the specter of a "slippery slope". In the case of same-sex marriage, for instance, Rick Santorum insisted that it would lead to polygamy, even though polygamous relationships almost invariably involve coercion- as an aside, Conservatives Cannot Comprehend Consent, so they naturally see that same-sex marriage proponents would be cool with polygamy. In the case of the regulation of firearms, pro-gun commentors always bring up the topic of gun confiscation, a subject which the Kenyan Usurper has never even broached.

When you point out to them that their slippery-slope arguments are bullshit: "Point out feminist leaders who are advocating for the legalization of infanticide" or "Name five prominent liberals who want to ban all firearms", these commentors never stick to the topic. They shift goalposts, they ask off-topic questions, and they trot out enough strawmen to keep the entire crow population of North America at bay. In their efforts to avoid being pinned down on a topic, they go through contortions worthy of a hagfish. It's impossible to have a good faith argument with these people because of their refusal to engage on a factual level. They manage to be polytropos, but without the sagacity of an Odysseus. This combination of twisting-and-turning and stupidity leads me to describe their "debating" style as "slippery dope" arguments.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Third Cat?

Long time readers of this blog will be familiar with my co-workers and companions Fred and Ginger. This summer hasn't been overly hot, but the cats are shedding to a fare-the-well. Fred, in particular, has some matting in his hair, which necessitated a serious brushing:

That's a fraction of the clouds of hair that came off of that cat- there was enough hair that I could have sculpted a third cat out of it. Fred is a lot more patient than Ginger is, the only way I could get Ginger to stay still (she has ADD) would be to use a cat deactivator on her:

Gotta put in a request for office supplies...

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Last Original Ramone

It was with great sadness that I read of the passing of Tamás Erdélyi, the Budapest-born musician who reinvented himself as Ramones' drummer Tommy Ramone. I always thought of him as "the short one", because he stood on a small "ledge" while posing for the cover of the band's debut album. Even more significantly than serving as drummer on the band's first three albums, Tommy co-produced the albums. He also served as the "straight man" in a band that featured three demented characters. To give you an idea of Tommy's role in the band, this anecdote, from Mickey Leigh's wonderful family memoir I Slept with Joey Ramone, should suffice:

Johnny had his own idea of fun, a fascination with depraved people like Hitler and Charles Manson. Dee Dee shared it, especially the Nazi thing- possibly resulting from his boyhood fantasies while growing up in post-World War II Germany, or possibly because he was just mentally unbalanced. For whatever reason, some of this found its way into the fabric of the band's compositions.
Tommy brought a few songs to the table, as well. He'd written "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" himself and had come in with a new one called "Animal Hop". "Animal Hop" is a prime example of how the personalities, styles, and visions of the band's members clashed and how the collaborative process really paid off.
"I wrote 'Blitzkrieg Bop'," Tommy Ramone declared. "I wanted to contribute, too, but the guys weren't real receptive to my input. Whenever I wrote a song for the band, it'd have to be incredibly good. This wasn't John, but mostly Dee Dee, because Dee Dee was very competitive. I don't know how Joey felt, because Joey was very quiet. Joey would just sit there not saying anything. But I wrote this song originally called 'Animal Hop', and it was too good to be rejected. It wasn't about Nazis. It's about kids going to a show and having a good time.
"It went, '
They're forming in a straight line, they're going through a tight wind, the kids are losing their mind, the Animal Hop.'
"There's a line that goes,
'Hey, ho, let's go, they're shouting in the back now.'
"Dee Dee said, 'Animal Hop'? Let's call it 'Blitzkrieg Bop'! Dee Dee was sabotaging the song," Tommy recalled, exasperated. "He said, 'I don't like that line
"They're shouting in the back now"- say, "They shoot 'em in the back now."' He wanted to do the Nazi thing, so that it would never get played on the radio!"
As Johnny summed up the confusion, "Basically we decided to write some crazy bubblegum music.

Besides writing such Ramones staples as the uncharacteristically sweet "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" and the sabotaged-to-the-point-of-transgression "Blitzkrieg Bop", Tommy was involved in the production of the band's first album, and as Mr Leigh relates in his book, he bumped up against Johnny with regards to the use of overdubs. Tommy wanted to use overdubbed tracks to create a fuller sound while Johnny insisted that the band use single tracks to keep a spare, "live" sound. I have to say that I think Johnny was right in this instance, and that Dee Dee's sabotage of the probably-soon-to-be-forgotten "Animal Bop" resulted in a transcendentally, transgressively gonzo masterpiece- the Ramones' first album had some truly warped material on it, something which has been lost in the cartoonish sanitization of the band.

Besides producing albums for the Ramones even after Marky Ramone replaced him on drums, Tommy Ramone produced the Replacements' masterpiece Tim (my favorite track on the album is the heartachingly sad "Here Comes a Regular"- the sort of downside of "Cheers"). Tommy's latest project was in the acoustic duo Uncle Monk, along with his S/O Claudia Tienan.

Enough of the eulogizing, it's time to remember the man in the best possible way, blasting some of his music! Here's Tommy doing an acoustic version of "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend":

Here's the famous 1977 live version of "Blitzkrieg Bop" off of the seminal album It's Alive:

Goodbye, last standing original Ramone, and thank you for keeping your totally gonzo bandmates grounded just enough to put out some of the best headbanging music ever released.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Today is mom's birthday. She's doing really well- her health is excellent and she is enjoying her retirement. She is spending the week at my baby brother Gomez' house, a mere two hour drive from her place.

Mom's health and happiness are a testament to an active life, and an emphasis on opening her heart and her home to others. She looks twenty years younger than the age on her driver's license, and has enough energy to put to shame people half her age.

I'm convinced she'll outlast me... Happy birthday, mom!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Nutty Experiment

There are a couple of black walnut trees on the property of my principal workplace. I typically leave the nuts be, because they are so difficult to crack, requiring special equipment to do it correctly. This year, I made the decision not to let this bounty go to waste- I decided to make nocino, a traditional Italian liqueur made by steeping unripe walnuts in grain spirits, for the first time. This recipe (technically for a French liqueur de noix- same difference, da vero?) looked promising, so I went to work.

In a short period of time, I was able to pick a bag of unripe nuts, enough to make a nice batch of liqueur. Here's a picture of my nutsack:

The thick husks of the unripe walnuts have a lovely green color and a strong aroma reminiscent of citrus fruits. They look much like pears until you cut them open to reveal the characteristic shape of the developing walnut:

The nuts, cut into eighths, went into a jar with the requisite spices, and then I poured in the pure grain alcohol left over from my latest batch of limoncello (about half a cup) and some cheap vodka- David Lebovitz' quote on this matter is worth repeating: Use the absolute (not ‘Absolut’) cheapest vodka you can find. It’s lunacy to use something pricey when the least-expensive swill yields similar results. And believe me, French peasants ain’t cracking open bottles of Stoli to make this.

Now, the wait begins... from what I've read, it's madness to even consider opening the jar until two months have passed, and an actually enjoyable product should result by Christmastime. By that time, the walnut stains on my hand should be gone.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Van Cortlandt Voodoo

Last week, on my walk to the 4 Train Woodlawn Station, I passed by Van Cortland Park and saw something bizarre:

This is a statue of a man, with red thread twined around its legs. I don't know the specific meaning of the thread, but a cursory knowledge of sympathetic magic, and multiple readings of The Face in the Frost, suggests to me that this is a charm meant to bind someone, possibly to keep a lover from straying. Perhaps it's a talisman meant to alleviate a leg ailment. I don't even know what tradition of "magic" this charm belongs to. This is not the first time I've found weird magical paraphernalia in this vicinity of the park. Maybe there's a Call of Cthulhu LARP going on in the park.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Magnificent Seventh

HJuly seventh... and a magnificent day to boot. Hmmmm... what would be an appropriate song to play today? I got it!

Or perhaps something more punchy, something to help you "move yourself to go again":

Hope everyone is having a magnificent seventh.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Proposed National Anthem?

I heard this ditty on the radi-adi-o tonight:

If it weren't so funny, it would be sad. Hope everybody had a good, 100% patriotic weekend!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy Independence Day!

Here's wishing all of my fellow residents of the United States a happy Independence Day. To all of my readers from the United Kingdom, there's no hard feelings- we love you folks! The typical celebration of Independence Day involves eating a lot of grilled hamburgers (or a horrifying amount of hotdogs) and drinking a lot of beer in somebody's backyard. The weather is supposed to be crappy tomorrow, and I'm working this holiday, as is typical (don't feel sorry for me, it's a double-pay day).

As a typical member of my age cohort, quite a bit of my early education can be attributed to the totally groovy Schoolhouse Rock series of cartoons... to this day, I can't recite the preamble to the Constitution without hearing this tune in my head. Among the history episodes, there was one specifically about Independence Day:

Hmmm... perhaps watching a rainy day watching Schoolhouse Rock videos is a good way to spend Independence Day- I'm partial to the grammar episodes. Fear not, there will be beer involved- I don't have to get to work until nightfall.

As an added bonus, I can watch the local fireworks display (if it's not cancelled due to weather) from part of the grounds.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Rain and Frog

Tonight, I drove to work in a pounding, torrential rain. The local traffic and weather reports largely consisted of dire flash flood warnings and tales of brave Ulysses roads closed due to high water. When I got to work, I found this handsome critter outside the building which houses my office:

That, my dear friends, is a fine specimen of the American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana). This particular beast is about size of my not inconsequential fist. The American bullfrog eats just about anything it can cram into its sizable mouth, including other bullfrogs. A less focused but brighter photo shows its coloration to good effect, and reveals the creature's pretty eyes:

We have a pond on the premises which is basically a singles bar for bullfrogs, their amorous calls have been a constant soundtrack for the last couple of weeks on the job. Tonight, with the rain that we've been having, the whole property is kinda like a pond, which explains why this critter has been sitting outside the main entrance to the building. I sure am glad I'm not smurf-sized.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Selfie With Paper Tiger

The cool kids' hot topic these days is selfies with big cats. In a desperate attempt to appear cool and trendy, I took a tiger selfie, albeit with a paper tiger:

This is not my first cat selfie, though it is my first possibly illegal one.