Sunday, November 30, 2014

Happy Birthday Vin!

Today is my brother Vincenzo's birthday. Just a week and a half ago, Vin finished a three week quarantine after a tour of duty in Liberia constructing medical infrastructure to deal with the Ebola breakout (which has seemed to disappear from the media gaze). Vin said that his quarantine was worse than his deployment... he received a warm welcome from the grateful people of Liberia and came back to a military base that hadn't even provided him with a change of clothes to wear during his three week confinement. He also complained about the poor quality of the chow he was served while in quarantine.

Thankfully, he'll be celebrating his birthday and Thanksgiving simultaneously, along with a crowd of his Italian neighbors, who are wonderful, generous people. I had the pleasure and the privilege of being at last year's celebration of Vin's birthday cum Thanksgiving, and I quickly came to love everybody in Vin's Italian town. Buon cumplianni, Vincenzo!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Before the Moon Falls

For the past couple of days, my musical obsession has been The Fall. I have been listening to the band's albums in order, starting with 1979's Live at the Witch Trials. Oddly enough, I started off on this "Fall" jag when I listened to Southern Mark Smith by The Jazz Butcher (the joke of the song is that Mark Smith is decidedly "Northern").

Anyway, while listening to the draGnet album, I was struck by how amazingly good the song Before the Moon Falls sounds:

The lyrics are a masterful conjuration of the choices faced by a smart troublemaker in an economically disadvantaged area:

Up here in the North there are no wage packet jobs for us
Thank Christ
While young married couples discuss the poverties
Of their self-built traps
And the junior clergy demand more cash
We spit in their plate and wait for the ice to melt
I must create a new regime
Or live by another man's
Before the moon falls
I must create a new scheme
And get out of others' hands
Before the moon falls
I could use some pure criminals
And get my hands on some royalties
Before the moon falls

That's a good bit scarier than the more traditional "demonic possession" horror narrative of Spectre Vs. Rector.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Consumer Complicity

This day after Thanksgiving, I want to take an opportunity to rant about the retail stores that were open on Thanksgiving, with some corporations threatening to fire employees who do not work on the holiday. While the corporations that forced their employees to work on Thanksgiving are truly odious, they are not the sole bad actors in this sordid, exploitative affair. The consumers who decided that it is appropriate to patronize the stores that are maltreating their employees are just as complicit in this abuse as the corporations are. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with someone who just cannot refrain from a consumer frenzy for one single day so that the poor retail workers can celebrate the one holiday that is well-nigh universal to Americans of differing cultures and creeds?

Thankfully, there is a growing backlash against the stores that decided to open their doors on Thanksgiving. It seems that people are finally fed up about the disgusting power disparity between employers and employees. It's about time. Perhaps people have come to the realization that the underpaid, overworked retail workers are really the canary in the coalmine, and that it's not inconceivable that they may eventually face the same regressive workplace policies.

As I have written before, I believe that the American people have allowed themselves to transition from citizens to consumers over the past forty years (I chalk a lot of this up to that idiotic "government is the problem" trope- and look at all those goddamn upvotes). With stagnant wages and diminishing benefits among middle class workers, class differences between the middle class and the lower class are primarily a function of consumption patterns- the guy buying that flavored-up Starbucks coffee can kid himself that he's materially better off than his counterpart who's buying a cup-of-Joe at McDonald's.

It gets worse- with decreasing workplace protections, we are now transitioning from consumers to consumed. Don't want to knuckle under and put your life on the line to help feed the mass-consumption frenzy? Tough shit, peasant, you'll find yourself on an unemployment line.

Just say no to the whole sordid ritual... the holiday you save may be your own.

POSTSCRIPT: For the record, I worked on Thanksgiving. In fact, I wrote this post during a quiet moment at work and set it up to post later in the day. I am essential personnel, and I am a supervisor... it's my feeling that, if someone has to "take it on the chin", it's my duty to my subordinates to be that someone. I most certainly do not feel that my presence on the job on Thanksgiving is exploitative, it's merely the price I have to pay for working in an unorthodox capacity.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


Here's hoping everybody stateside had a good Thanksgiving. I didn't make any travel plans- last year I had a wonderful Thanksgiving in Italy with two of my brothers, but this year taking a trip just wasn't in the cards. I spent the holiday at the home of an old high school friend, his wife, and their not-quite-one-year-old twin sons. My high-school chum's in-laws came up from the Florida panhandle for their grandchildren's christening, which was last Sunday. Sadly, my old friend's parents, also old friends, didn't come around because his mother was fighting a bad cold. A couple of other old friends were also spending Thanksgiving there, along with their two adorable children.

I got to my friends' house around 2PM, whereupon my friend joked, "Here's the plan: first you're going to get drunk, then you're going to eat turkey, then you're going to sober up, then you're going to eat pie. Than you can go to work." Sounded like a reasonable plan to me... I pretty much kept to that trajectory, starting off with a couple of beers. I also busted out a bottle of homemade limoncello, because my friends from Florida have a lemon tree in their backyard that yields lemons the size of softballs, so I figured I'd inspire them to put those big beauties to good use.

Besides having a turkey, my friends served a farm-made ham made from the haunch of a heritage-breed pig. They are dedicated customers of an upstate farmer that they met at one of the local farmers' markets. They'll probably get another of his spectacular hams for Christmas, and they will definitely get one for their annual New Year's Day feast, which also invariably features collard greens, black-eyed peas, and cornbread. While the turkey was delectable, the ham was otherworldly.

I ate like porkers and drank like hell, but my one saving grace was having a couple of just-under-twenty-pounds twins to exercise with. They both love to be bounced around, with one of them loving to "jump" with adult assistance. They are on the cusp of being able to run around, they just need to work on their balance.

Everything went according to plan... I had a nice buzz on when we sat down to dinner, and was sober and sipping the first of two cups of coffee when the pies, a pumpkin pie and an apple pie, were set on the table. I'm not a big fan of apple pie, but this pie was spectacular- my friend's father-in-law was kind enough to reveal his secret, use tart apples, cut them up and dust them with sugar and cinnamon, and leave them in a colander for the excess moisture to run off- voilà, an apple pie with no hint of sogginess in the crust.

I'm now at work, it's quiet, and the cats are as well-fed as I am. I'm looking forward to a nice, quiet night, and I'll be home before the door-busting consumption frenzy begins.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Travel Travail

The biggest regional news story is a bigass nor'easter which slammed the Northeastern U.S. today, the busiest of travel days in the U.S. I made no Thanksgiving travel plans- when I cobbled together November's work schedule, my mom didn't know when she'd be back from Italy. Instead, I planned on working Thanksgiving. I spoke at length with mom, she'll be traveling to baby brother Gomez' house, which is a two-and-a-half hour drive from her place. She decided to wait until Thanksgiving day, after the storm (and hopefully the traffic) has subsided.

My drive to work wasn't too bad- the radio reports of dire accumulations of snow haven't materialized in my neck of the woods, though the roads were kinda slushy and a snow/sleet/rain mix was falling in quantities sufficient enough to be annoying. It's yucky out, to be sure- the cats didn't even want to run out when I opened the door of their assigned workplace to check up on them- but it's not dangerous.

Good luck to everyone who is traveling to visit loved ones for the holiday. Be safe!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I Got Your Civil Society Right Here

Via Roy, I have been skirting the margins of the right-wing fever swamp. The odious Mark Levin (check out his oeuvre here, if you must) had this to say about developments in Ferguson, MO:

What we are witnessing now is the left's war on the civil society. It's time to speak out in defense of law enforcement and others trying to protect the community and uphold the rule law.

Call me crazy, but my idea of a civil society has no room for corpses of teenagers lying in the street for four hours. Once again, I have the sinking feeling that I'm living in a "Banana Republic with Nukes".

I don't have a television, so I haven't been watching any cable "news" coverage of the post-verdict situation in Ferguson, MO. Last night, I met up with friends for a beer and caught some of the post "Monday Night Football" coverage, and there was talk of bottles thrown and tear gas canisters launched. A quick perusal of the web shows that a dozen businesses were torched and there were scores of injuries- it looks like the situation might get really bad, but I'd argue that the attack on "civil" society took place long ago.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Working the Refs

Patricia at The Polygon has a great post about the declaration of a state of emergency in Missouri in the runup to a grand jury decision regarding P.O. Darren Wilson's slaying of Michael Brown. On the right side of the dial, we have bloviators such as Mike Huckabee and Sean Hannity (in a discussion with Mark Fucking Fuhrman, no less!) talking about "mob action" and violence in anticipation of street protests.

To me, this is a clear cut case of working the refs- they are preemptively poisoning the meme stream against any protestors so that any violent response on the part of the police will seem legitimate, indeed inevitable. It's a case of screaming "LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO TO YOU!" in advance of a potentially ugly bout of brutality.

It stinks, it's repugnant, and it's as transparent as hell. Maybe "Anonymous" needs to turn some of its efforts against the media normalizers of violence as well as the KKK.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Deja... YOU?

Alright, I was able to get the cat off my sweatshirt, think I'll put it... WHAT?

I thought I'd just gotten you to move... wait, it's you !!

You had me going for a second there, you're not always easy to tell apart. Ya both like scritches, too:

The lint brush is going to get a workout this week!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Would You Mind Moving? You're Sitting on My Coat

Sweatshirt, if you want to get technical. Looks like my co-worker Fred has gotten v-e-r-y comfortable:

Hey, it's time to actually do some work, I'm going to need that sweatshirt... looks like it's time for wakey wakey! Sheesh, who knew a cat's head could be so heavy?

I can't seem to move my hand!

Once I get my hand free, I think I'll just get the staff windbreaker out of the office.

Title yoinked from a line from my favorite film noir.

It's a little throwaway line after the villain has just finished the second of his masterful monologuing scenes... a funny little juxtaposition between the rhetorical flights of an erudite supervillain, and the utter banality of day-to-day annoyances. "Hey, I just delivered a learned yet sinister soliloquy, now move your ass!"

Now I'm going to have to watch the whole movie again... I hope this doesn't wake the cat up.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Like Something out of Star Wars

Forget the flashy blasters and lightsabers from the Star Wars movie franchise, the technology I want to see developed and adopted is the humble moisture vaporator, which should really be called a condenser. Via Jim at Wisdom of the West, we have a portable condenser-cum-water bottle (note to pervs, the cum does not refer to Pastor Manning's favorite flavor-upper).

With drought being endemic to large swaths of the U.S., and lack of access to potable water in much of the developing world, the prospect of removing water vapor, which can play a role in exacerbating global warming, from the atmosphere could be a promising tactic in combating two problems. As far as water vapor in the upper troposphere goes, it could be possible (though not easy) to use high-altitude balloon-supported condensers to bring atmospheric water to the surface.

At any rate, Jim puts up a This Week in Water post periodically, much like Vixen Strangely posts a regular climate round-up. These posts are always a good read.

Just think what a $158 billion "Star Wars" program could accomplish if it were aimed at increasing access to clean, potable water for all of the world's residents.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

No Excuses: Secret Science Club Lecture Recap... Finally!

On Monday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for the monthly Secret Science Club lecture, featuring theoretical chemist Dr Garnet Chan of Princeton University. On his website, Dr Chan describes his research focus thus:

Garnet Chan’s research lies at the interface of theoretical chemistry, condensed matter physics, and quantum information theory, and is concerned with quantum many-particle phenomena and the numerical methods to simulate them.

At the start of his lecture, which he titled "Simulation and Complexity of the Quantum World", Dr Chan gave a hilariously self-deprecating description of his work. He stated that he is a theoretical chemist, a chemist that doesn't perform chemistry experiments. He joked that he needed a kid to help him when he conducted his last experiment. Dr Chan then noted that he had looked at the descriptions of preceding talks, and that he wanted to tie some of the themes of previous lectures together, with an emphasis on the small scale. The goal of his research is simulating the quantum world, and that quantum mechanics is a complicated subject.

Dr Chan quipped that everybody tells lies about quantum mechanics, but that such lies are not indicative of low moral standards, but are simplifications because it's extremely hard to discuss quantum mechanics without bringing complex mathematics into the discussion. Physics operates from a massive scale to a tiny scale... the scale of the universe (dealing with objects in the 1026 meter range) to the quantum scale (dealing with objects in the 10-15 meter range). Theoretical chemistry involves bridging the macroscopic and the microscopic worlds, from the human scale to the scale of atoms and molecules. Dr Chan underscored the importance of the atomic theory by quoting Richard Feynman:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

In our daily experience, the world appears to be continuous, but matter is discrete. The nature of matter was debated until approximately a century ago, the matter finally being theoretically settled by Einstein (PDF) and verified experimentally by the observation of Brownian motion by French physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin. Perrin observed that the motion of small starch particles was not continuous, but "jagged". If matter were contiguous, such motion would be smooth. If matter were composed of discrete bits, motion within the matter would be discrete. The rapidity with which a particle will change directions is equal to the number of collisions it is involved in- the ratio of the granule to the substrate, which is Avogadro's number.

Today, clearer evidence of atoms can be obtained through the use of scanning tunneling microscopes. Dr Chan described scanning tunneling microscopes as having a tip "one atom sharp", and the magnitude of the signal obtained by the electron microscope maps out the undulation of the surface of the substance scanned. At the atomic scale, though, things are "sticky", and the difference between the human scale and the atomic scale is so pronounced that it is difficult to make observations- there's no way to "see" inside atoms. Rather than bridging these scales in the real world, the "world of the atom" has to be digitally recreated in the computer world. It is crucial that the computer simulations are completely faithful to reality. The "laws of nature" are known- aside from Planck's scale (1035 meters), the fundamental laws and particles of the universe are known. Dr Chan asked, "Is this the end of physics, or the start of something beautiful?"

Nature is made of many particles, it's not just a matter of "more of the same". Dr Chan used the analogy of a chess game to describe theoretical chemistry: we know the pieces, we know the basic interaction among the pieces, but we don't know the complexity of the game- the interaction of the known particles leads to nature's complexity.

Dr Chan then addressed the question: what is quantum mechanics? General relativity applies to the large-scale structures of the universe, while classical "Newtonian" mechanics suffice for the human scale. On the micrometer scale of atoms and molecules, Newton's predictions begin to break down. Quantum mechanics are the "theory of small", involving atoms, molecules, the strength of bonds, the color of materials, their "stickiness", their electrical properties- as an example of a subject pertinent to quantum mechanics, Dr Chan cited the adhesiveness of gecko feet.

The lecture then shifted to the topic of atoms, a subject Dr Chan called "high school redux". An atom can be illustrated as a nucleus surrounded by one or more electrons, which Dr Chan described as "a fine model, but a complete lie". The reality is that everything in quantum mechanics is "fuzzy" and indistinct- there is a fluidity to electrons, they are not discrete. These fuzzy particles move as waves do, changing shape as they go- the "billiard ball" model of a perfect rigidity localized at all times is inaccurate. Regarding the question of location, whether a particle is "here" or "there" or "both here and there", Dr Chan showed a picture of a wave and asked, "Is the wave at point A, point B, or point C?"

The measurement of the position of a particle is probabilistic, there is no definite answer. Dr Chan joked, "It's our problem, not the particle's." Measurement involves comparing referents to determine similarity- such a comparisons don't look like completely like any particular position. Measurement in quantum mechanics involves measuring fuzzy particles to localized positions probabilistically- there is no straight answer to the location of a particle. Dr Chan then displayed a lovely slide of the Schrödinger equation to show the mathematical model for measuring changes in a quantum system over time.

Simulating quantum mechanics is not easy- in the case of a single particle, one has to factor in the superposition of different local positions. When two particles are considered, they can exist in the superposition of many localized two particle configurations, with correlations between the particle positions- if one particle is "on the right", for example, the other can be considered "on the left". This correlation is known as quantum entanglement. Dr Chan described quantum entanglement as "strange". In an example using two particles, there is a 50/50 chance of either particle being "left" or "right", but if one particle is on the left, there is a 100% chance of the other particle being on the right. Does finding one particle on the left mean that the other particle is on the right? Dr Chan once again quipped, "It's our our problem, not the particles'!" We see a 50% chance that a particle is in a particular position, and we intuitively assume that it is accurate, but the position is uncertain.

When more particles are added to the mix, there is an explosion of possibilities- when two particles are involved, there are four (22) possibilities, three particles yield eight (23), one hundred particles yield 2100 possibilities. Mathematically, there are myriad possibilities- simulating quantum mechanics appears exponentially complex due to the need to describe the possible positions of multiple particles. Dr Chan then noted that it is really an illusion of complexity- certain configurations of atoms can be ruled out. Nature does not explore all quantum possibilities, the world we have has special properties, such as gravity, that limit possibilities. Nature only produces local entanglement, in order to monitor what two particles are doing simultaneously, we only need to monitor two particles in the same region of space.

Dr Chan concluded with a discussion of the material benefits that could be obtained by a thorough understanding of quantum mechanics- specifically the development of high-temp superconductors and a "materials genome project" to map out all possible materials that can be developed.

In the Q&A, the topic of spooky entanglement was brought up, and Dr Chan brought up the inability of nature to generate entanglement over long distances. Some bastard in the audience, who was going to bring up spooky entanglement, had to go to a fallback question regarding string theory, which Dr Chan indicated was not a useful model in reality, but had led to some interesting mathematical models. Funny, on the macro level, Neil Degrasse Tyson also indicated that he was unimpressed with string theory. After the lecture, the bastard, not being a bastard in real life, apologized to Dr Chan for bringing up string theory, which said "bastard" considers a bunch of hooey.

Once again, the Secret Science Club served up a great lecture. Personally, it was useful to me, because quantum mechanics is one of those topics I don't spend enough time reading up on by inclination, which means I need to force myself to read about it more. It's kinda like pushups... I do them precisely because I'm not inclined to do them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Notebook

I was planning on doing the lecture recap for Monday's Secret Science Club event, but I forgot to bring my notes to work, where I typically have a bit of quiet in which to write. I totally feel like a dumbass- I kept telling myself all afternoon, "Don't forget your notebook, don't forget your notebook." I even made sure I put it next to my wallet and my two keychains (I keep my work keys and my personal keys separate... I've always bought into that too many keys on the keychain trope, and I prefer not to carry too many keys while I'm walking the grounds at work- makes it harder to slip into ninja-mode.

At any rate, when I get home from work this morning, I will slip my little yellow book into the inside pocket of my oversized (even for me) Carhartt hoodie. If I leave without that, I'll have bigger problems than leaving my notebook at home.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reluctant to Rush the Recap

I was planning on writing my typical recap of the monthly Secret Science Club lecture, but it's been a busy, busy day. First off, I received a call from my department head... the father of one of my team members was placed in an Intensive Care Unit of a hospital (he's been sick for a long time), so my co-worker had to take a personal day. It was supposed to be my day off, but, hey, I've got to be behind my people 100%, so in I went for a four-hour shift.

When I got to work, my department head called me again, this time to tell me that there was a heating problem in one of the buildings at another site, and that a service call had been placed. He indicated that he would call me when the technician was near the site, so I could drive down, meet him, and let him onto the premises. The building that needed furnace service (that doesn't quite rhyme) is the one building that I don't carry keys to, so I had to disarm the alarm system, open up the site office, and get the keys out of the keybox.

The furnace tech was a hell of a nice guy, we had a good conversation about the importance of union labor- he mentioned his five year apprenticeship and his three years as a journeyman, then made a comment about a competing company which is a non-union shop that underbid his employer on a lot of accounts: "You don't want someone making eight dollars an hour working on your gas lines." He then went on to describe how this non-union, low-payrate shop would cut corners: they didn't pay a night differential, so they didn't have around-the-clock service, their employees had substandard skills. Hey, the furnace is out, and the heating contractor tells you to shut off the water to the house and get a hotel for a couple of nights until they can send someone over? Guess what? You just lost the money you thought you'd saved by taking the low bid!

After the furnace service was accomplished, I stopped at a local supermarket on my way to my principle jobsite. I don't have a traditional lunch hour per se, but I can pop out for a few minutes to pick something up to eat. While at the market, I discovered a fruit I had never eaten before, a sweet lime, produce of the Dominican Republic. The lime had the merest hint of sweetness, but nary a tart note like most citrus fruits. It was unusual, not the tastiest of fruits, but refreshing. I also bought the mushiest persimmon I could find. As Daffy Duck would tell you, an unripe persimmon is not a pleasant thing, though I would characterize the flavor as "astringent" rather than sour. My mushy persimmon was as sweet as candy... I'd describe it further, but the description would verge on p0rn0graphy.

I didn't have much time for writing today. I banged out this post while waiting for my relief to arrive. Tomorrow, I should have time enough to do the lecture the justice it deserves.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Secret Science Trifecta

I have to hand it to Dorian and Margaret of the Secret Science Club- they have been extremely busy this month. Today, I'll be heading down for the third Secret Science Club event of the month. Here's a hearty high-five and a heartfelt thanks to these two pillars of science popularization. How about an appropriate song to accompany a science pilgrim on his subway ride to Brooklyn? I've never heard this particular version of Science Friction by XTC, dating to 1976, but it has a rawness that the band sadly grew out of:

There won't be any science friction at the beautiful Bell House, that I can guarantee!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Current (Actually Recurring) Musical Obsession

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been on a major Blondie kick lately, obsessively listening to all of the band's albums in order over the past few days. Perhaps the best summary of the band's career is the 1979 concert at Glasgow's Apollo Theatre:

This concert represents the band at the height of its power, the band's third studio album, Parallel Lines, was a hit, with the disco-inflected Heart of Glass being a major international smash. This particular concert also features some lovely pop songs from the band's fourth studio album, 1979's Eat to the Beat. I think that Debbie Harry's voice sounds particularly clear and transcendent for this performance.

In contrast, a Beat Club performance by the band just a year earlier shows a much more idiosyncratic band... still very much rooted in the "alternative" music scene, with salaciously tongue-in-cheek material as X Offender (my favorite Blondie song) and Look Good in Blue still making the playlist cut:

What a difference a year and a couple of million sales make! While I absolutely love the pure-pop perfection of the band's later material, I can't help but sigh sadly when I think that the band that played that transcendent set in Glasgow in 1979 wouldn't be singing a gleefully demented song about giant ants from space.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

John Holt, RIP

I've been on a bit of a Blondie kick lately, and in what has turned out to be a cover songs thread at Roy's place, made reference to Blondie's The Tide is High, which is a cover of a song by the The Paragons, one of Jamaica's most popular rocksteady combos:

The song was written and sung by John Holt, who passed away in London on October 19th. Before joining The Paragons, John Holt launched his singing career with the 1963 single Forever I'll Stay:

He followed this single up with Rum Bumpers, a duet with Alton Ellis:

After his stint with the Paragons, Mr Holt had a very successful solo career interpreting the popular songbook in the reggae idiom, scoring a hit with a version of The Temptations' I Want a Love:

In the 1970s, Mr Holt collaborated with producer Tony Ashfield, who added lush production values to Mr Holt's recordings, scoring hits with cover songs such as Help Me Make It Through The Night, written by Kris Kristofferson:

With the rich production values and romantic themes, John Holt paved the way for the lovers' rock subgenre.

After a conversion to Rastafarianism, Mr Holt took on more political themes in his songwriting, with Police in Helicopter addressing a crackdown on marijuana growing in Jamaica:

John Holt had a long, storied career which serves as a beautiful microcosm ofmultiple Jamaican popular musical styles of the late 20th century, ranging from ska to rocksteady to reggae, to lovers' rock. It's fitting that he collapsed onstage during a music festival in August of this year... that is the mark of a true music powerhouse.

Friday, November 14, 2014

It is 100 Billion Hours Past Fucking Time They Made a Movie About Turing.

On Monday night, as a guest of the Secret Science Club, I attended a preview of the upcoming film about Alan Turing's efforts to crack the Nazi Enigma crytographic machine- The Imitation Game:

The movie is not a straight biopic, as it takes certain liberties to heighten the dramatic tension (notably, it turns Commander Alexander Denniston into an unimaginative, antagonistic martinet). The movie really is a mid-20th century techno-thriller, a boffins-versus-bombers espionage film. It is structured as a narrative within a narrative, with Turing, brought into a police station for interrogation, recounts his wartime service to a detective who is convinced that he is a Soviet spy. The film jumps back in forth in time, weaving together several story arcs concerning different times in Turing's life.

One of the arcs in the film involves Turing's days at the Sherborne School, where he is tormented by the majority of his classmates, with the exception of fellow mathematics whiz Christopher Morcom. In these scenes, Morcom is portrayed as a gallant savior, rescuing Turing from repellent hazing, and an inspiration, introducing Turing to cryptography, eventually leading to the two students passing encoded notes to each other during their overly simple mathematics classes. These scenes establish Turing's perennial outsider status, and lend an emotional depth to Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal as the adult Turing, who is emotionally "tone-deaf".

The second story arc, the main one of the film, involves the cracking of the Enigma code, starting with the assembly of a team of cryptographers including Conel Hugh Donel Alexander (the married Alexander is played as a single cad in the film) and Joan Elisabeth Lowther Clarke, who was briefly engaged to be married to Turing. This particular arc not only portrays the race against time to crack the Enigma code, but the harrowing decisions that had to be made regarding reactions to Nazi attacks after the code had been broken- how many attacks could be thwarted without revealing to the Nazis that their encryption had been rendered useless?

The third story arc is set after the war, in the course of a police investigation after Turing's home had been ransacked. In the course of the investigation, a detective suspecting that Turing is a Soviet spy runs into obstacles such as sealed military records. The film is presented as Turing revealing the truth of his wartime service to the detective, with the horrific maltreatment of Turing by the government of the country he had helped to save.

Benedict Cumberbatch does a credible job portraying Turing. There is some humor to be found in his performance as literal-minded individual with no skill deciphering verbal or social ambiguity. He is a riveting screen presence, by turns intense, obtuse, and vulnerable. In a film in which the "action scenes" typically involve clacking wheels, the tension has to come from interpersonal relationships, and Cumberbatch's interpretation of Turing beautifully conveys a personality of a man who can be admired and pitied simultaneously from a distance, but who would undoubtedly be infuriating to associate with up close.

Keira Knightly, portraying Joan Clarke, lends the film some warmth to counteract Cumberbatch's icy matter-of-factness. The film conveys some of the patriarchal flaws of the contemporary culture- assurances have to be made to Clarke's parents that the environment at Bletchley Park is wholesome, and Turing's marriage proposal to Clarke is portrayed as an attempt to mollify Clarke's parents regarding their daughter's unmarried status. Ms. Knightley is not just a luminous presence in the film, she conveys a spirited intelligence and an empathy as well.

On the whole, the film is not without its flaws, but it is important nonetheless. The post title here was totally stolen from a comment made at Alicublog by Shakezula... Turing's role in WW2 and his role in the nascent field of computer science make him a central figure in mid-20th century history, albeit an unsung one. Besides bringing Alan Turing more centrally into the public awareness, the film does a wonderful job of publicizing the work of Joan Clarke. I would have preferred if the film had actually portrayed Turing's death (probably a suicide, possibly an accident involving cyanide), as it is, his cyanide poisoning is mentioned in a coda to the film which also mentions the persecution of tens of thousands of other gay men by the government of the U.K. As it is, Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as a weak, shaking shell of a man ravaged by chemical castration is pretty devastating, albeit too brief. Perhaps the production team didn't want to have such a jarring shift in tone... it's hard to have the "good guys" in the film become the "bad guys" in such short order.

I predict that the film is going to do extremely well come Oscar time. It's a WW2 film. It's about a man with a mental condition who is brilliant. It has a gorgeous young star playing a brainiac. That's all catnip for the Academy. I don't know if it will sweep, but I think it'll have a Best Picture nod, with a Best Leading Actor nomination for Benedict Cumberbatch and a Best Leading Actress nod for Keira Knightley.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Secret Science Stoop: Matt and Math(s)

On Tuesday, I took my beloved number 4 subway down to the Nevins St stop so I could visit the brilliant BRIC House to see math whiz, funnyman, Public Engagement in Mathematics Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, and all-around good guy Matt Parker perform his entertaining blend of mathematics and comedy in a joint presentation of the Secret Science Club and the BRIC Stoop Series. Matt has just released a book, Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension: A Mathematician's Journey Through Narcissistic Numbers, Optimal Dating Algorithms, at Least Two Kinds of Infinity, and More.

One of Mr Parker's first displays of acumen involved asking the audience if anyone had a calculator (practically everybody did, because we had phones- one lady in the audience actually had a straight-up calculator, which impressed Matt), then asking everyone to pick a double-digit number and to cube that number- he then quickly solved the cube root problems that he solicited from the audience, perhaps by using this method. He then moved on to perform his barcode bit, and digressed about the difference between European and North American barcodes, which led to a bit about the need to encode information in such a way that the inaccurate lasers can be compensated for, which led to a bit about using a 3mm drill bit to make a hole in a Blu-Ray disc (preferably someone else's, he quipped) and ascertaining that there was enough data coded on the disc to compensate for damage to said disc.

One of the tours de force of Matt's presentation was his spreadsheet trick (which you can duplicate at the linked site, by which he illustrated that digital images can be likened to spreadsheets, each pixel being a "spreadsheet cell". He capped this by noting that anyone who relaxed after work by watching television was basically going over multiple spreadsheets per second.

A lot of Matt's presentation involved props, such as interlocked rolling discs and a plethora of Möbius strips. Mr Parker told us that the Möbius strip is his second favorite shape, and in the Q&A admitted that his favorite shape is the Klein bottle. He also proudly displayed a self-correcting binary scarf knitted by his mum, who is now working on a Klein bottle hat.

It was an entertaining night of mathematics, but enough of my yapping... how about some of Matt's mathematical musings? Here is a long bit about a computer constructed out of dominoes:

Here's a funny bit about the imperial measurement system:

Here is a nifty "Fractal Pterodactyl" pattern (hint: the pterosaurs depicted are Pteranodon longiceps:

Here's a review of Matt's book, which promises to be a fun series of activities. He'll be appearing in Seattle next week, so if you're in the area, he's a fun lecturer and a great person, so check out his event. If you're really serious (but not overly serious) about math(s), check out one of the mathsjam events in your area, and while you're engaging in mathematical activities, drink to Mr Parker's health.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Sad Note in an Otherwise Great Week

This afternoon, I learned that my next door neighbor's mom passed away yesterday, in her sleep at the age of one-hundred and one. My letter carrier, who had heard from another neighbor on her route, informed me. I stopped by my neighbor's house to offer my condolences my neighbor and to reassure her that she had done everything in the best fashion, with regard to her mother. How many people are fortunate enough to peacefully go to sleep in their beds at a ripe old age and to simply not wake up? My neighbor told me that her mom had had a complete loss of appetite for a few days, but that she refused to go to the hospital, having a dislike of such places. Sometimes, it seems, people just know when they want to go... I think my Uncle Jim was like that, he also passed away in his sleep after spending the night with family, on the eve of a session to be poked and prodded by a doctor.

Now is the time when my neighbor's family is gathering for the funeral. There's a lot of paperwork involved, and trips to the airport to pick up arrivals from distant places, and other mundane tasks. I told my neighbor to ring the doorbell if she needs any assistance. I may work nights, but I'm almost always able to drag myself to the door, especially considering that this is an occasion which demands neighborliness.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Banner Week for Secret Science

Wow, two Secret Science Club events on back-to-back nights. Whodathunkit? Tonight's venue is the BRIC House. The featured speaker is this gentleman:

Awww, I can picture you out there, shaking your heads that I didn't embed an appropriate song:

I'll make sure I do writeups for both events later in the week.

Monday, November 10, 2014

An Uncharacteristic Movie Night

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am, by no means, a cinephile. The last movie I saw in a theater was the 2010 remake of True Grit, which I saw in the theater because I am a huge fan of the book, which I want to ensure remains in print. Tonight, however, I will be attending a sneak preview of the film The Imitation Game, a film about the heroic code-breaking efforts of Alan Turing who helped to save Britain from the Nazis, only to be destroyed by the anti-LGBT bigotry of the government of the people he defended. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch (is there a more Dickensian/JK Rowlingsish name in entertainment?) and Keira Knightley (whose film debut, Bend it Like Beckham was another one I saw in the theater).

Special thanks go out to my dear friends of the Secret Science Club, who were the recipients of the sneak preview tickets. They distributed the tickets to people on their e-mail list through a contest which, appropriately, involved solving a cryptogram:



I was able to solve the puzzle in a few minutes, largely because I recalled a bit which I believe is from Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, namely that the key to cracking a code is to have some idea of what the message is before you start out. I won't give out more of a hint than that, but I trust my smart readers to get this one pretty quickly.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Season's End

Today was the last day of our regular tourist season of 2014. I arrived at work early in order to turn on some of the outside lights in our auxiliary parking lot. After escorting a lovely family to the lot (the path to the lot was a little dark, and mom wanted someone to walk with them, preferably bearing a light), I was able to lock the gates to the auxiliary lot, and they shall remain locked until April. When I got back to the visitors' center, I locked the doors and, after bidding a happy Thanskgiving, merry Christmas, and a happy New Year to the departing sales clerk, went down to the basement to shut off the water for the drinking fountain outside our front door. Things got real quiet all of a sudden, and so they shall remain until the spring.

There was one wrinkle, however. The Manager on Duty for the day discovered that his office door, the door that had never been locked for all of his sixteen years with the organization, was locked and that he didn't have the key. To compound matters, his personal keys (car and house) and his wallet were locked in the office. Furthermore, the key box for the building is, you got it, in the locked room. After making a few calls, he got in touch with one of the guys in our maintenance department, who told him that he had an old master key (all of the locks were changed a year and a half ago) which could possibly work. The maintenance guy was working at another site about eight miles north of my principle site, so I drove the M.O.D. up to get the old key, which thankfully worked, necessitating a call to a locksmith.

While it was a pain in the ass, things turned out well in the end, so this little kerfuffle will be something we joke about in the future. It's always the minor-but-majorly-annoying events that end up as the funniest anecdotes.

Now, my job enters the "cushy" part of the "cushy, except when it's not" phase, and cushy it'll remain but for bitter cold snaps and other beastly weather events. I'm cool with that, I think I've earned the peace and quiet.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Fishy Beginnings

It was with great pleasure that I read of the discovery of a fossil representing an amphibious basal ichthyosaur. The ichthyosaurs were "fish-lizards", basically the "reptilian" ("reptile" being an outdated term due to paraphyly) equivalent of the mammalian cetaceans. The ichthyosaurs eventually evolved to become so committed to a solely aquatic existence that, while some early forms gave birth on land, the more derived forms gave birth to live young underwater. The ichthyosaurs became a diverse group of critters, featuring such amazing beasts as the huge-eyed Ophthalmosaurus, which probably dove into the stygian darkness of deep waters, and the sperm whale-sized Shonisaurus

The discovery of a primitive ichthyosaur that could function on land much like a seal is significant because it potentially allows paleontologists to determine what terrestrial lineage the transition ichthyosaur evolved from.

Recently, many gaps in the evolutionary history of whales have been filled in. To see a similar expansion of our knowledge of another great lineage's "back to the sea" trajectory makes me positively giddy. Despite the bleatings and blatherings of creationists, the gaps in the great chain of being keep getting filled in, making for a more complete evolutionary narrative.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Spunk-N-Spice Latte

I can't stop laughing at the unintentional comedy stylings of Pastor James Manning, the barking lunatic who said that Starbucks is putting "sodomite semen" in its coffee. Here's the money quote, in all of its lunatic glory:

“My suspicion is that they’re getting this semen from sodomites. That’s what my suspicion is. My suspicion is that semen, like cord blood, has millions and millions of little zygotes in it, and it flavors up the coffee. And it makes you think you’re having a good time drinking that cup of latte with the semen in it.”

Never mind that he sounds like he's speaking with the voice of experience (he seems like one of those "so deep in the closet he's cavorting with Aslan Assslam" self-haters)- the pastor goes beyond run-of-the-mill homophobia, going full-on jizz libel:

“Starbucks will be found to be perverting its customers and perverting human sexuality. As if drinking Starbucks is some sort of a sacrificial ritual bath where they kill the innocent babies and drink their blood in some of these meetings that are had by these fraternal or sorority groups. Starbucks has, for years, been using sexual fluids to prosper at their businesses, and the truth is now coming out.”

Sodomite semen, baby blood... he sure has a lurid imagination regarding the dietary habits of the Illuminati. I bet he believes that there's an energy drink called Spawndo: "It's got electrolytes zygotes!" As commentor "Drunk Spock" put it: "It has what plants sodomites crave!" At any rate, the sodomite semen coffee drink is perfect for lactose intolerant people, even if it's not for vegans... instead of ordering a soy latte, why not do as Pastor Manning does and order a boy latte?

Check out the comment thread on the story, there's a wealth of win there!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

WTF, Voters?

Reading the 2014 Voter Turnout statistics, I'd have to say that I'm pretty appalled. Maine had the highest turnout, a whopping 59.3% of eligible voters. Indiana weighed in at an abysmal 36%. I just don't get it, the vote is the most precious thing that a citizen of These United States possesses. I know that people are swamped at work, and that obstacles have been placed in the way of certain voters in certain districts, but I don't this sufficiently explains how low the participation in the election was.

I can't wrap my head around the wholesale apathy that afflicts this nation. I, myself, love to vote... I have friends working the poll site, I enjoy the act of casting a ballot (though it doesn't have the same visceral appeal of using one of the old-school mechanical voting machines), and most of all I enjoy having agency. I just don't get the whole "sitting it out" thing. Am I the freak here?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Out of the Hot Zone and Cooling His Heels

A couple of weeks ago, my mom flew to Italy because my brother Vincenzo was deployed to Liberia to build medical infrastructure to combat the Ebola outbreak, so his wife needed help taking care of the kids. Vin's deployment is over, and he is back in Italy, undergoing a three-week quarantine. Predictably, the DoD didn't provide civilian clothes or even pajamas, so my sister-in-law had to pack a bag for him and take it to post.

Mom has extended her Italy visit so that she'll be around when Vin gets out of quarantine. I've said it before, and I will say it again, but the fact that the DoD is the go-to agency to respond to a healthcare crisis demonstrates how broken our State Department is. At least guys like Vin, who is super-competent and has a genuine appreciation for the African people he has worked with for the past few years, are on the job.

I'm very proud of Vin.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Local Voting Chicanery

I headed over to my polling place, which is across the street from my house, shortly after noon today. As usual, I had absolutely no difficulty in voting. I gave my name to the poll worker and signed the voters' ledger, with no need to show identification. I know a bunch of the poll workers, so it was a social call as well as a civic duty and an opportunity to exercise my rights as a citizen. As an added bonus, there was a bake sale to benefit the PTA of the school which served as polling place... one dollar cupcakes for the win!

One of this year's developments in local politics has been the creation of a "third way" so-called Women's Equality Party to undermine support for the genuinely progressive Working Families Party. It was a real dirtbag move, because Cuomo received the support of the Working Families Party... it was particularly cynical because, in order for the party to achieve the fifty-thousand votes that it needs in order to remain on a ballot line for the next four years, its supporters have to vote for Cuomo. Talk about having your detractors over a barrel!

Such national sounding boards as The Nation, Daily Kos and Move On have criticized Cuomo's cynical move. In a particularly off-putting move, the name of the party makes criticism of such seem scummy... I mean, what kind of jerk is against women's equality?

I have to say, I held my nose as I voted for Cuomo, and voted a straight Working Families Party ticket. I'm not happy with Cuomo, but I couldn't take the chance that NY State's genuinely progressive party gets dropped from the ballot. Yeah, over a barrel...

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Some People Try to Pick Up Girls and Get Called 'Asshole"

One of the big media stories last week was the Hollaback video depicting catcalling of a woman who happened to be out walking while female, preceded by a hidden camera operator. I'm a dude, I haven't been catcalled very often... one memorable occasion that occurred in my twenties was while biking, when a fourteen year old girl greeted me with a sing-song, "Hi, Irish boy!" It was cute, she was a sweet kid, and I replied, "Hi back at ya, colleen!" The imbalance of power in this case was so much in my favor that it was a harmless, even a charming occasion. If I had been the one initiating the conversation, it would have been creepy and intimidating.

I've never been one to catcall, I see it as a ridiculous exercise, fit only for making women upset and men foolish. Also, looking like the guy in my profile pic, I know I can come across as somewhat fierce and intimidating looking... while I can easily snap into "Big Bad Bald Bastard" mode, my general attitude on the street is one of threat-minimization. I make an effort to at least acknowledge the presence of others on the street, with a nod or a greeting, but I make sure to maintain eye-contact, rather than going all Tex Avery wolf. Basically, I try to live by the motto "don't be a dick" most of the time... if some woman wants your attention, she'll know how to get it.

A lot has been made of the fact that the majority of the catcallers on the video were black and latino men of "lower status". The fact that footage of white harassers didn't make it to the final video is disturbing, but I'd also offer that lower-class black and latino men live more of their lives in the public view- they aren't insulated from the general gaze by office entry-control or the gates of private clubs. Upper-class men are probably more likely to engage in workplace harassment than street-harassment. Like most of the sins of the wealthy, the sexual peccadilloes of the wealthy are less obvious than those of the poor, even if they are more serious.

I don't have any prescription to fix the problem, other than, "Dudes, don't be dicks." Basically, this post is a great excuse to post a video for Pablo Picasso by The Modern Lovers, which is basically the theme song for this video:

I never knew that David Bowie did a cover version of the song... I bet David Bowie never tried to pick up girls and got called 'asshole' either:

Saturday, November 1, 2014

All Saints' Day Damned

It's been a l-o-n-g time since I've posted a video by the Damned. Being a child of the radio rather than the T.V., I never knew that there was a video for the song Grimly Fiendish, from the 1985 Phantasmagoria album. The song's strange, bouncy vibe is served well by an "Addams Family"esque video (better yet, it's like "Grimly meets Gorey):

The Damned's later sound is a far cry from the gloriously raw punk of their early releases:

I missed a bit about a tempest-in-a-teapot regarding members of the Damned turning on the Christmas lights of the city of Cambridge. It makes perfect sense to me, though, as Captain Sensible sang one of my favorite Christmas songs.