Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking Back on 2015

Generally speaking, 2015 was a pretty good year for me, I received a substantial (though not outrageous) raise at work, the social calendar is filled with comfortable routine- the monthly Secret Science Club lecture-with-beer and the weekly Tuesday night trivia contest at a local bar (our team has the winningest record for the year, but we've established a friendly rivalry with our closest competitors), the Saturday coaching gig is going well, and I was able to use my vacation time to spend some quality days with family. As is typical, I am working on New Year's Eve. I've always seen it as "amateurs' night", a night when the bars jack up the drink prices and some people tend to get stupid. It's quiet, and I've had a chance to reflect on the past year, and it's not a particular standout year. All told, on a personal level, 2015 was decent, though nothing truly spectacular (good or ill) occurred.

As far as "personal growth" goes, I'm pretty much skating along. The single greatest accomplishment I've achieved this year was getting comfortable enough with wild mushrooms that I've added them to my foraging repertoire... that sounds like a big "ho hum', but being able to find prized fifteen pound mushrooms isn't a bad skill to have. I've been a forager for years now, but this is taking it to the whole level.

On a broader basis, 2015 was a lackluster year- the problems of violence, systemic racism, and misogyny that have been with the U.S. since its inception continue, with no foreseeable hope of abatement. The inability of the Congress to get its act together to pass useful legislation is annoying, but on a local level, I see the new Tappan Zee bridge going up at a good pace, and the trains in the area run on time, so at least some stuff is getting done. Politics has seemed more stupid than usual this past year, but I think that's mainly due to the fact that a stupid, vulgar amateur has campaigned long after his suspected "past due" date, much longer than 2012's crop of numbnuts novelty candidates.

All told, it hasn't been a bad year, or a great year, or a particularly challenging year- there's a certain amount of stasis that seems to have set in, nothing of import is really occurring. Given the stupid attitudes of much of the public, and the media's complicity in the dumbing down, I don't know if I'm looking forward to an exciting 2016.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Back in New York, Family Time Was a Blast

It's been a pretty insane week- my four siblings and I under the same roof, with our mom and a passel of children, for the first time in five years. I can't get over how all of my nieces and nephews got along so beautifully, with the two teenaged sons of my sister alternating between being extremely nurturing toward all of the "little kids" and good-naturedly roughhousing with them. If there's anything funnier than watching a crew of preadolescent girls chasing their teenage cousin with a chorus of "GET HIM!", I don't know what it could be... and is there anything cooler than not being too cool to hang out with a bunch of brainy grade-schoolers?

It was a bit tough on the kids to part ways, but there weren't any tears. My sister's boys are already planning a Europe trip over the summer to visit my older brother and I have big summer plans with my goddaughter. We may be pretty far-flung, but we're all close-knit. We've got plans to make for the coming months, but we always seem to pull things off with aplomb.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

No, LEMMY!!!!

Just in time to make the '2015 obituaries list', we learn of the death of Ian Fraser "Lemmy" Kilmister, the rock-and-roll juggernaut who fronted the space rock band Hawkwind and the heavy metal band Motörhead, after a shockingly brief fight with cancer. Lemmy was one of those rare individuals who could make a neighborhood bicycle ride sound both cosmic and menacing:

Back in high school, my smartass friend Spike and I requested the DJ at a school dance to play Iron Fist, but his succinctly reply was, "No Motörhead tonight, boys."

I figure the greatest tribute to Lemmy is to blast his signature growl at high volume, with perhaps Killed by Death being the most appropriate showcase for it on this sad morning:

The metal world lost a titan, and the suddenness of Lemmy's death (he was diagnosed with cancer on the 26th) boggles the mind. Lemmy had a good, long run in an industry that seems to chew up young lives at an alarming rate. He lived the most rock-and-roll of rock-and-roll lifestyles, and lived to be old enough to earn a pension, but generations of metal fans will miss him none-the-less. Rest in peace, Lemmy, but not in quiet.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


Yesterday, all of my siblings and I, with all of the family's children, were gathered under one roof for the first time in years. The kids all got along famously, and the day's activities ranged from throwing around a Nerf football to playing epic Risk and Monopoly games, to playing 8-ball on a pool table one of my brother Vin's army buddies bequeathed to my mom when he was deployed. It was a great day, but I have developed an acute mental condition I'm calling Legopodaphobia... the fear of stepping on a Lego (or Monopoly house or Clue weapon or Risk army) while barefoot.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas to All

Here's wishing a very merry Christmas to all of my readers. I was awakened this morning by my niece and nephews, the children of my older brother, who were eager to open their Christmas presents. They are good kids, patient enough to wait for the grand unveiling of presents. Breakfast was an informal affair, we ate leftovers from the last couple of days. Around eleven in the morning, one of my sister's sons called to say the family would be boarding their flight from LAX to Dulles... I didn't recognize his voice, he's fourteen and I have already been forewarned not to be too shocked at how big he's gotten.

The rest of the day has been occupied by cooking. I'm the designated root and tuber guy, so I attacked two rutabagas and about six pounds of potatoes, which are now resting, all puréed, in oven safe bowls. We've also had some social calls from neighbors who my mother has unofficial lay adopted. Tonight is going to be great, we'll have enough family over so we'll have to use two sets of plates, and there are two brothers left to arrive tomorrow. We'll clean out the china cabinet to be sure, as well as the board game collection.

It has been a great Christmas so far, and it's only going to get better.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Muggy Christmas

It doesn't feel like a typical Middle Atlantic State Christmas Eve today, being a muggy 72F (22C) outside. Although thunderstorms were predicted, they haven't panned out. It's been raining the last couple of days, though, and the ground is saturated. We were outside throwing a Nerf football around, and small gouts of water were thrown up with every step. It's a muggy, muddy day, but the kids got out so cabin fever's been averted temporarily.

The kitchen has been a hotbed of activity, we baked three quiches, a sausage-apple quiche, a quiche Lorraine, and a spinach quiche. I don't know how quiche became associated with effeminacy by yahoos, because I have French ancestry in my genetic mix, but baking and eating quiche hasn't affected my throwing arm adversely.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Family Trait

If there's one trait that characterizes my family, it's an unwillingness to go to sleep when there's a possibility of interesting goings-on. Whenever there was a party or get-together, we'd be impossible to put to bed. This is a trait that has carried over to the next generation. Over the Thanksgivng weekend, I sat up one night with my eight year-old niece and goddaughter, exchanging jokes and generally being a couple of goofballs. Last night, my brother Sweetums' kids didn't retire until after midnight, due to a synergistic combination of jet lag, a five+ hour road trip, and sheer overexcitement. When all of the kids in the family are gathered together under one roof, the family reluctance to end the party will no doubt be even more pronounced.

The kids won't want to miss any of the excitement of being together as one big tribe, and we adults will indulge them in this. It's a family trait, and we wouldn't want to miss out on the excitement either. There are just too many interesting things going on to make sleep an option.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Righties Talking "Star Wars"

Roy's latest column is about righties' reactions to the latest "Star Wars" film. Once again, these idjits are fussing over a bit of pop culture and trying to pound it into an ideologically sound (dare I say, a politically correct?) hole. Typically, they fail pretty miserably.

Righties have a "Star Wars problem", even those who are big fans of the movies. The original 1977 movie which kicked off the franchise opened with a depiction of an "extraordinary rendition" of a civilian deemed to be an enemy of the state. The main villain's perfidy was signaled by his use of "enhanced interrogation techniques", an impromptu grilling of a captured crewman, and an eventual extended torture session in a "black site". The sheer magnitude of the villains' evil was driven home by a depiction of a "shock and awe" attack on a planet inhabited by civilians. Twenty-five years later, a Republican administration used these scenes as a blueprint for a pre-emptive war, even though they were a clear indicator to 20th Century audiences: THIS IS WHAT BAD GUYS DO!!!

Righties try to portray Darth Obama as the Dark Lord who wants to destroy their freedom by raising the top marginal tax rates by a few percentage points or make dudes face background checks to buy AR-15s, but that's not what bad guys do... bad guys don't force schools to serve kale at lunch or to institute carbon cap-and-trade policies, they whisk people off to torture sites and blow civilians to smithereens, stuff which righties applauded. Try as they might, they don't "get" the Star Wars movies, precisely because they took one look at the Evil Empire and thought, "Hey, they have some good ideas."

Saturday, December 19, 2015

An Annual Tradition

For more years than I care to relate, I have volunteered as a judo coach for a children's athletic program, a comprehensive introduction to sports as common as soccer and basketball to as esoteric as water polo and fencing. The program broadly follows the school year, beginning in October and ending in March. Today, we will be having outr holiday party before taking a two week break. There's a lovely luncheon and the kids sing carols. Every year, presents are given, hats or gym bags... the like.

This year, my brother Sweetums is bringing the kids, who are judo players. I have had the pleasure of attending one of their classes in Switzerland, and actually met a couple of players from their dojo in New York. For a city of millions, NYC is a one horse town. Today, I promised the kids I'd teach them uchimata, a hip throw which looks a lot worse than it actually is. This Christmas, I'm giving the gift of badassery.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Ancestral Homeland

While they're in New York, my brother, his wife, and their kids will be staying at my aunt's house in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx. The house was built by my dad's mom's dad and a group of his colleagues who worked in the building trades. He was a mason/bricklayer- all of the homes in the neighborhood are modest brick houses, all built in a huge collaborative effort by the folks who ended up moving into them. If you carefully examine the mortar between the bricks, you can find an occasional fragment of crushed clamshell- a free source of lime, foraged from the wetlands of Pelham Bay.

While my grandparents were alive, the house was a boisterous place, the sort of house which was invaded every weekend by a horde of grandkids. Much of the backyard was taken up by my grandfather's marvelous garden, the centerpiece of which was a maze of raspberry brambles, carefully trained on a network of stakes. There was enough of a grassy yard for a decent-sized bocce court- my grandfather staying close to his Italian roots, even though he married an Irish girl.

After my grandmother died, my Aunt Jane sold her house, a few blocks away, moved into the ancestral homestead, and assumed the mantle of family matriarch. At the time, my Uncle Jim was still alive. He had been the victim of an accident which resulted in a head injury serious enough to leave him with a steel plate in his skull. He had learned the mason's trade and worked as a bricklayer until he obtained a job as a night porter in Rockefeller Center. He made a decent wage, but he wasn't really capable of living on his own. When he retired, I traveled down to the union hall so he could file his paperwork, and then had a long discussion with my aunt about how to set up his account so most of his money was saved while leaving him enough "mad money" (as my grandmother would put it) to hold court at his neighborhood haunts.

After my uncle Jim's death, my aunt kinda sorta had the house to herself, though there has always been a revolving cast of visitors. Her grandchildren are there practically every day, and several of my uncles stay there on a regular basis when work brings them to New York. I stay there whenever there's work being done on my apartment. Hardly a night goes by when nobody is dropping by.

It's good to have a place in which the family roots run deep. My aunt has kept up the family tradition of hospitality which has been the model for generation, ever since my great-grandparents landed on these shores.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

'Tums Touchdown

Tonight, my older brother, Sweetums ('Tums for short) and the family fly into JFK for a Christmas vacation back in the homeland. It's been just over two years since I stayed with them in Europe, so I'm ecstatic. It'll be interesting to see how much the kids have grown since last I saw them.

Needless to say, the next couple of weeks are going to be very busy. I'll try to keep up with the posts, but I make no promises in that regard. Being able to dash off a quick post on the phone is a boon, though.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sustaining Secret Science

It's no secret (heh) that I have been a big fan of the Secret Science Club, the monthly science lecture, arts and performance series created by my great and good friends Dorian and Margaret. For the second time in the SSC's nine year and three month existence, the organization needs an infusion of funds so a pledge drive is underway at Donorbox.

In a climate (heh, uh, sob!) in which corrupt academics are taking pallets of money to produce industry-mandated "results", the real heroes are working on a shoestring budget, getting real science out to the public. If you've got a couple of bucks, please consider a donation to the Secret Science Club... even if it's just two dollars- they don't have the backing of multinational fossil fuel oligopolies.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

It's Not Your Fault for Following the Pathways of Your Heart

Lately, my musical obsession has been with a song off of the new album by Shannon and the Clams, a band which has been on my radar for a couple of years. The band has this great 'neo-retro' vibe, their songs sound like something the oldies stations of a cooler parallel universe would play. I'd describe it as the Shangri-Las and Dick Dale collaborating with the Cramps, with John Waters acting as style consultant. Here's a live performance of How Long, my current earworm:

The sound is a little raw, which only highlights the sweet notes... and how amazing is Shannon Shaw's voice? It's rich and lush, with the sweetness tempered by a great punk growl. If Ronnie Spector had channeled John Lydon, she would have sounded a lot like this. It's not my fault for following the pathways of my heart (or my ears) and falling in love with this tune.

Poking around the t00bz, I found a couple of nice interviews with Ms. Shaw. It's nice to see someone escape a staid, square upbringing and reinvent themselves as a rock-and-roll powerhouse.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Nutty Little Neighbor

The news has been a bit of a downer lately, terrorist attacks, political ugliness. I think I need a little relief... I had a bunch of errands to run locally. Luckily, I could travel by shank's mare to accomplish them all. As I was heading out, passing by the local schoolyard, I ran into this little guy running towards me on top of the fence:

Thanks, Nutkin, you never fail to cheer me up, even when you're causing all sorts of mischief. I apologize for not having a peanut to give to you.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Sobering Read About Sexism

Interrobang's Livejournal site is a really good aggregator of interesting reads, and yesterday she linked to a must read post about horrific callousness of media coverage of violence against women. This Salon article covers similar ground- the reflexive media reaction to humanize white male perpetrators and victims who are women and people of color... something that 'even the liberal New York Times' does with distressing regularity.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Trump and Muslims

The internet is abuzz with Trump's dumb idea to ban all Muslims from entering the US- besides religious tests being completely unconstitutional, the guy has made no distinction between immigrants, refugees, tourists, and citizens. As a bastard with close Muslim friends (I'd say that I would trust these people with my life, but I do trust these people with my life every time we're in the dojo together), I have to note that Trump is a bigoted asshole, and that his statement is not all that different from Jeb Bush's stated position.

It seems like Trump isn't walking back this comment anytime soon- he'd kill his chances with the base, who will probably turn on the other GOPers who are leveling lukewarm criticism at Vulgarmort. I can see a way for Trump to do a complete 180 on Muslims entering the country... just tell him that Islam forbids labor unions. We all know who Trump considers the real enemy.

The kernel for this post came to me while I was waiting for my 'spinach twist' to come out of the oven at a local pizzeria. The family that owns it is Albanian, but I've never asked them if they are Muslim or not... but if the topic of Trump ever came up in conversation, I'd be the first to call him a budalla.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Serving Two Masters

Via Tengrain, we have the latest idiocy from Marco Rubio:

Well, the executive orders would be to reverse the executive orders the President has made on things like gender equality in restrooms. You’ve seen some local districts and others been forced to, you know, provide girls access to a boys’ bathroom and so forth. These sorts of things you’ve seen in Illinois for example, but also ensure that we’re not doing anything that at any part in our government that is putting organizations that are motivated by their faith or organized around their faith from having to violate the tenants of their faith and that includes government contractors. There are many government contractors and small companies who provide services to the government who are faith-based people, and they are, they are being compelled to sin by government in their business conduct. That is not something we should be supporting.

I seem to recall a verse from a book that touched on this topic...

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

So, what'll it be, so-called Christians seeking government cashola, God or the sawbucks? Ours is a constitutionally-mandated secular society, a society in which no religion is to receive favorable treatment from the government. Like most conservative Christians (so called), Rubio has completely divorced what he calls Christianity from that liberal Jesus guy. Just like public prayer, paying taxes, stand your ground laws, and the war on women, this is another bit of the Bible that 'strict interpreters' completely elide.

Also, why the hell is Rubio working the Cruz/Huckabee side of the GOP street?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Happy Hanukkah

Here's wishing a happy Hanukkah to my Jewish readers. I'm not Jewish, but I think I have a decent understanding of the holiday... I'm pretty sure that the Macca Bees fly down the chimneys of people's homes, leaving presents for the good children. Children who have been misbehaving get a visit from this guy. Frankly, I'd rather take my chances with Schmutzli.

I can't top an earlier Hanukkah post, so I won't even try. All joking aside, folks, have a joyous Hanukkah.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Sweetums' Birthday Again

Today marks the birthday of my older brother, who received the moniker 'Sweetums' from my super-sarcastic sister. "Oh, Sweetums would never do anything wrong, Sweetums is perfect." The nickname stuck because, as it turns out, he is perfect. Besides being an older brother, he was a great role model. If you conduct yourself in the manner in which Sweetums conducts himself, you'll do okay.

Sweetums and his family are coming stateside for Christmas, which is something that I am very much looking forward to. It's been a while since he's been back in the old stomping grounds, so there will be a long line to get to see him... he is Sweetums, after all, and a guy like that has got fans. I include myself among them.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Collective Intelligence

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Simon Garnier of the New Jersey Institute of Technology's Swarm Lab. Dr Garnier's topic was collective intelligence, how millions become one.

Dr Garnier began his lecture with a brief discussion of American football- football is a complex problem of coordination involving actions with partners being performed against the actions of opponents. Dr Garnier joked that it is such a difficult problem that four tries are necessary to move the ball forward. He then noted that traffic is a problem of coordination as well. That being said, fish are able to move in coordinated schools, even though they have very small brains. He then noted that starlings are the champions of coordinated movements, showing videos of a "bird ballet":

Dr Garnier then showed videos of leafcutting ants, genus Atta, in action. These ants form nests up to twenty meters wide and eight meters deep, which house generations of workers- one single queen can give birth to five million workers. These ants are masters of coordination, even though their brains contain fewer neurons than a human pinkie does. The human brain is also a 'master' of coordinated activity- life is dependent on one's body being coordinated.

Dr Garnier posed the question, how do one million act as one? The short answer is 'self-organization'. He then showed an adorable video of Scotties feeding, noting that, with time, they coordinated their movements:

Coordinated interactions are local, repeated behaviors... if these behaviors are not constant, dispersal occurs. Coordination involves coupling of action and reaction, with various actors synchronizing like metronomes on a moving platform:

This synchronization takes place in a few steps, which Dr Garnier demonstrated in an audience-participation exercise. Audiences can synchronize clapping. He had us clap our hands, then exhorted us to synchronize our clapping with our neighbors, then to listen for more distant audience members, and to synchronize with them. Within moments, the whole audience was clapping in unison. Well played, Dr Garnier, well played.

Coordinated movements are necessary for information transfer, construction, decision making, and traffic organization. Dr Garnier posed the question, how do we make decisions? The fasted way to make decisions is to make many random trials. A better way to make decisions is to search for information and narrow down possibilities to optimize- choose the best course of action. There is an exploration/exploitation trade-off... one must spend resources to search and select the best option based on current knowledge. Dr Garnier compared the decision making process to a multi-armed bandit, a series of slot machines with different programming, with some machines paying better than others. In order to seek optimal winnings, one must try multiple machines in order to determine which provide better outcomes. Dr Garnier joked that some birds are better at making these choices than some humans.

After noting that most decision-making experiments are performed with animals that have a lot of brainpower, that organization is possible without a brain, whereupon he showed a slide of the U.S. Congress. He noted that some plants and some bacteria engage in coordinated behavior, which he termed the Homer Simpson Paradox- how does an organism thrive without brains? He then launched into a long digression about slime molds. A moving slime mold is a single-celled organism, but that single cell can have billions of cell nuclei. The yellow Physarum polycephalum slime mold and the 'dog vomit' slime mold, Fuligo septica are two of the better known slime molds. While in their mobile stage, slime molds start oscillating by pumping cytoplasm and then move in the direction of food sources, effectively making a decision in their search for sustenance. When the food runs out, the slime molds stop and develop into a sporulating form in order to reproduce. Dr Garnier informed us that slime molds are used a lot in research because they are cheap and fun to work with. He treated us to several time-lapse videos of slime molds moving, similar to this BBC video:

This zero-neuron organism is able to beat the 'multi-armed bandit' in its movements- in environments with consistent rewards, the slime mold tends to move in one direction, mainly toward the last reward. In environments with irregular rewards, slime molds will change directions, with the general movement being in the area with the highest mean of relative successes- they move in proportion to the number of reward sites. Dr Garnier paused and gave us the Twitter version: slime molds ignore failures and focus on successes.

Dr Garnier then showed an image of Berlin, taken from the International Space Station:

He noted that there was a city center with radiating arteries, allowing for ease of defense and the control of a large territory. He then showed a slide of the foraging paths used by Argentine ants (Linepithema humile), noting the similarities to the roadways of Berlin. The trails of the ants are marked with pheromones, so that other members of the colony can follow them. He then returned to the subject of genus Atta, which forms well-defined paths through its forest habitats, removing debris from these pathways. The leaf-cutter ants cut vegetation into pieces and use these scraps of vegetable matter to cultivate edible fungus in their nests. They have not only figured out traffic control, they also engage in agriculture.

The talk then shifted to army ants, specifically the genus Eciton of Central and South America. These ants form colonies of up to two million individuals. They move for a period of about two weeks and then form stationary colonies for about three weeks, during which the queen lays eggs. Due to their cycle of movement and lack of a permanent colony, they cannot form well-defined paths like the leaf-cutter ants do. They have to move quickly while carrying the queens brood. When their movement is restricted by obstacles, these ants form bridges with their own bodies, using hooked feet to lock together:

Swarming ants can also form rafts, having hydrophobic bodies:

The ants self-organize through a basic rule, "Walk all over me!" If there is a lot of traffic, an ant stays in place, if the movement behind stops, the ant proceeds. Dr Garnier had a hilarious aside about the the bites of army ants... they really hurt, which is why grad students are made to do the studies. While moving, ants seek to move the shortest distance, so their will form shifting bridges to bypass sharply angled paths:

Ecologists are the economists of the natural world, they perform cost/benefit analyses- the ants balance the building costs with the benefits, the less distance they have to move, the more efficiently they move. It's possible that swarming robots could be developed which operate in a fashion similar to the ants' behavior to bypass obstacles. Dr Garnier noted that the army ants are blind, they follow pheremone trails and are basically automatons designed to kill things and to bring them back to the nest as food. The individual ants have little memory, but they lay down little 'fridge notes' which can be followed, a process known as stigmergy.

Dr Garnier then shifted to the subject of traffic organization among humans, noting that, in 2011, Americans wasted 5.5 billion additional travel hours and 2.9 billion gallons of fuel due to traffic jams, at a cost of $121 billion. We know why it exists... density, and how to solve the problem. The number of cars that pass along a given stretch of roadway per hour is known as flux- when there are few cars on the road, passing is possible. As density increases, flux is diminished until a critical density is reached and a 'crystallization' process occurs, a traffic jam. Dr Garnier then ran a neat traffic simulator to demonstrate how density affects flux. He joked about wishing to set 'politeness' parameters, ranging from 'Swiss' to 'New Jersey', then noted that any perturbation of flux creates a traffic jam. He then showed images of the 'Snowmageddon' which crippled Atlanta in 2014.

Throughout the lecture, Dr Garnier would make an aside to display photos of his colleagues and to give short biographical notes, stressing that science is a collective adventure. Personally, I think that is a wonderful statement, and kudos to Dr Garnier for being so good to his grad students. He then described some an experiment in which subjects had to avoid a stationary individual while walking through a corridor- subjects usually showed no preference as to which side they passed a stationary subject, fifty percent passed to the left, fifty to the right. When passing individuals moving in the opposite direction, there was a social convention among individuals to pass on the right in countries in which motor vehicle traffic travels on the right. In conditions of high density, such as the Hajj in Mecca, pedestrian movement occurs in stop-and-go waves, with extremely high density causing turbulence, in which people lose control of their movement, a very dangerous situation. In areas of high population density, traffic problems increase. Dr Garnier characterized traffic jams as 'human self-organization gone wrong', but noted that we know the solution. He proposed a density-reducing solution based on a combination of public transportation, bicycle use, and smaller transportation footprints. He exhorted us to 'go back to the ants', to take turns. He noted that a flexible traffic system was needed, and mentioned that smart traffic lights could reduce congestion, noting that the city of Zurich implemented the use of traffic lights with no fixed timers, using lights that optimize traffic flow. He also mentioned the redesign of traffic patterns, such as substituting roundabouts for intersections, and ensuring that drivers don't have to cross in front of traffic moving in the opposite direction. He ended the lecture proper by joking, "I welcome our new ant overlords, may they fix the FDR and the Tappan Zee."

In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience, noting that eusocial species have evolved in distantly related clades, if swarming behavior can be induced in species which don't have well-defined social groups. Dr Garnier noted that some spiders can flip between sociality and non-sociality, probably due to hormone levels in their eggs. During optimal conditions, they tend towards a solitary existence, but under marginal conditions, they exhibit sociality.

All told, Dr Garnier delivered a fantastic lecture, one with applications to the crowed metropolitan area in which his audience resides. Let's hope that the findings of the Swarm Lab can be applied to the human swarms that take to the roads every day. Thanks again to Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House, and to Dr Garnier. Here's a video of Dr Garnier briefly covering the subjects he mentioned in his talk:

Pour yourself a nice beverage and soak in that Secret Science ambiance.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Show of Gratitude

This evening, the company had a ice little soirée as a show of gratitude for jobs well done. About half of the workforce showed up for a nice cocktail reception, with a cheese/crudités spread and a variety of nice "hoover doovers". It was nice to see everybody in a relaxed post-crunch time mood, especially since we all had tales to tell from October. Our President gave a nice speech thanking everybody for their hard work.

I had three small glasses of Pinot Grigio, then switched to non-alcoholic punch, mainly because I plan on going out drinking- it's trivia night again. The key to drinking successfully is in the pacing. Thankfully, I've had years of practice.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Vin's Birthday

As is typical for this blog, I'd like to give a shout-out to my brother Vincenzo on his birthday. I had the great good fortune to see Vin, his wife, and their lovely children last week. Vin is raising a comedy troupe- his kids are as smart and as funny as they are adorable. They kept us entertained with skits and songs, both pre-written and extemporaneous. They are not only a credit to their parents, but they are chips off the old block, as the saying goes- Vin has always been a paragon of snark, like most of the family. The guy knows how to turn a phrase, and he has no patience for knuckleheads, so he has ample opportunity to coin snappy comebacks.

Happy birthday, fratello!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Coy About Motives, Giving Time for Alibis

Vixen Strangely has a great post up about the Planned Parenthood shootiings in Colorado Springs. Yesterday, I had to turn off the news on the radio because the mainstream media was tying itself in knots to avoid saying the obvious- the shooting was motivated by anti-reproductive self-determination extremism. Every news report was careful to characterize the shooting as a mysterious, context-free occurrence:

Authorities weren't ready to discuss a possible motive Saturday after interviewing 57-year-old suspect Robert Lewis Dear, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said.

Even though the motive was apparent to anyone with two brain cells to rub together:

However, people can make "inferences from where it took place," said Suthers, a former state attorney general who also suggested Dear's mental health was part of the investigation.

This reluctance to call out this right-wing terrorism allowed the wingnut Wurlitzer to begin cranking out conspiracy theories to obscure the true motive for the shootings. The original 'cover story' was that the shootings were a bank robbery gone awry, but the right-wingers have morphed the story into something much stranger- the allegation that the shooter was, get this, a transgendered leftist activist.

I have to confess that I would not have guessed that this particular 'theory' would be the one to gain enough traction to be repeated by Ted Cruz. Personally, my prediction would have been that the right-wing would have claimed that the shooter was a patsy set up by Planned Parenthood to derail upcoming congressional hearings. I also figured that, because a police officer was killed in the attack, the right-wingers would claim that the #blacklivesmatter movement was somehow culpable. Frankly, I'm a bit confused that the 'transgendered activist' narrative, based on a typo, is what they are running with.

At any rate, I blame the mainstream media for being unwilling to call right-wing extremism for what it is, giving enough breathing room to the right-wingers so they could start spinning.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

An Experiment which Far Exceeded Expectations

Before heading down to mom's house in Virginia, I packed the car with some contributions to the holiday culinary efforts, primarily a couple of bottles of homemade booze:

On the right is a bottle of my typical homemade limoncello, a strong, clean citrus liqueur made with pure grain alcohol, lemon zest, and sugar, diluted to proper drinking strength, approximately 50% alcohol by volume. That bottle of light pink liquid on the left is a new thing for me, my take on a not-too-well-defined folk liqueur known as cherry bounce. There are recipes for bounce made with bourbon, brandy, vodka... a whole plethora of different base alcohols. For my first batch, I used rum, which was suggested for bringing out the fruitiness of the cherries, and added a pound of sugar to counteract the tartness of the cherries. As far as the cherries are concerned, I picked two gallons of cherries on the job, the first of which I used to make homemade maraschino cherries, the second of which went into a gallon jar to be macerated in rum.

I wasn't sure how well the experiment would turn out, but I have to say that it was an unqualified success. Next year, I plan on repeating it, and using other cherries to make different variants- using whisky, brandy, and the like. This experiment far exceeded my expectations, but that doesn't preclude further experimentation.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Who Needs a Doorbuster?

I finally returned to New York, driving straight from mom's house to work. Whiskey Joe, one of my brother Vincenzo's old army buddies, a guy who was a fixture at our house when he had a precious bit of leavetime (to the extent that he knew where the spare housekey was hidden- when there are five kids in a family, what's a dozen, or a hundred more?) stopped by around 1PM in order to hang out for a bit, and we had a good laugh and some catching up. I had to leave after a half hour, and it was a bit melancholy bidding farewell to the kids, Vin and his wife, mom and Joe, but I'll see everybody again around Christmas.

When I got to work, I called mom to tell her that I got home, and there was the sound of kids laughing in the background. Slade, another of my brother's old army buddies, had come over with his kids. One of my brother's eight-year old twins had been daunted by the prospect of a bunch of boys, including (horrors!) a teenager, coming over, but judging from the general aura of hilarity audible on the other end of the connection, she was holding her own rather well.

In retrospect, the one thing that I'm most thankful for is the fact that my mom raised us in a tradition of hospitality, so that we have an extended family of thousands of people who have found a place to stay and a decent meal over the years. Many of them are still coming by. Who needs a Black Friday doorbuster, when there's a place with an open door?

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Thanksgiving is drawing to a close, and I'm thankful. The turkey turned out perfectly, moist and flavorful. The gravy was silken smooth, the side dishes fantastic. It was a splendid meal, and my mother's cheesecake wasn't even cut until a couple of hours after dinner.

More importantly, we had fun all day. In the early afternoon, my brother and I were teaching his daughters how to throw a classic spiral pass with a Nerf football. Now, we're coaching them in a chess game. All day long, they were entertaining us with extemporaneous songs and funny stories. Tomorrow, they will put on a show of songs that they have been writing. They are lovely kids, smart, funny, and creative. As soon as I post this, it's back to the chess game.

I am thankful for my great family... even better, we'll all be together for Christmas. I'm also thankful for my friends, including my beloved readers.

I'm going to leave you with a story about a plan I've made with my nieces for next summer. There's a pond near there house, in which there lives a huge catfish, a big sucker who has already broken one fishing line. The catfish was dubbed "Big Ugly". Our plan for next summer is to catch Big Ugly and give it a makeover, starting by putting lipstick on its mouth. When we release the fish, it'll have to be called Big Pretty. Did I mention that they are gifted comediennes? I'm thankful for comedy too.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Smashing!

On Monday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring physicist Dr Kyle Cranmer of NYU's Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics and NYU's Center for Data Science. Dr Cranmer was a member of the Large Hadron Collider team which discovered the Higgs boson.

Dr Cranmer began his lecture by displaying an image of a snowflake, which he prized for its beauty and symmetry. While noting that symmetry is not often observed in 'normal' life, as things get smaller, symmetry becomes more common- objects (at this stage, he displayed a scanning electron microscope image of pollen) become more austere, cleaner, more symmetrical. The fundamental particle that makes up 'normal' matter is the atom- each atom is composed of electrons and a nucleus that is made of protons and neutrons, which are made out of quarks, both up quarks and down quarks. Electrons belong to a class of particles known as leptons. Dr Cranmer drolly noted, "Everything you touch is made out of down quarks, up quarks, and electrons.

He then displayed the 'classic' image of an atom, and noted that electrons don't orbit the nucleus of an atom like planets orbit around their sun- a better model for their movement is a cloud probability model. He then displayed a gorgeous image of the hydrogen wave function:

The talk then shifted to the subject of the four fundamental forces of nature... Electromagnetic force, the interaction between magnetism and positive and negative charges- opposite charges attract and same charges repel. The strong force, which holds identically charged protons together in the nucleus of the atom, is stronger than electromagnetic force. The weak force is involved in the interaction between quarks and leptons. Gravity is an attraction between and among masses. Dr Cranmer also delved briefly into Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, mentioning the central importance of an equation:

The universe can be broken down into four forces, one equation, and twelve particles:

One problem that was encountered early on in particle physics is that the equations only worked if the fundamental particles were massless, though it was known that the particles had mass. Physicist Peter Higgs theorized that there was an energy field that permeates the universe (the Higgs field) which every particle 'feels'- different particles are effected in different ways, particles which interact strongly have a lot of mass while particles which are hardly effect have little mass. Dr Cranmer illustrated this principle with a cartoon. The interaction of the particles with the Higgs field gain inertial mass.

Why do particles interact differently with the Higgs field? Fundamental particles can act as waves, the most commonly known example of this being light waves, which are composed of photons. Peter Higgs proposed that there was a particle manifestation of the field, which was dubbed the Higgs boson. In order to test this theory, and to discover whether or not there was a Higgs boson, the biggest particle accelerator in the world was needed. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, has as its centerpiece a 17 mile long particle accelerator three-hundred feet below ground spanning the Swiss-French border. The ATLAS detectors measure the paths, momentum, and energy of particles, allowing identification to be made. The CMS detector uses a solenoid magnet to bend the paths of particles. Among the gorgeous visuals Dr Cranmer presented was a picture of beautiful transparent lead tungstate.

In the particle accelerator, particles collide and 'lots of stuff' flies off and interacts with the various sensors. Interesting particles show up at the point of collision and decay immediately. The energy of the particle beam, which is steered by electromagnets, rivals that produced by a jumbo jet- it's sufficient to melt copper. Dr Cranmer dryly noted, "You don't want to put your hand in there." Mass and energy being equivalent, new particles are created in collisions. While this occurs rarely, there are forty-million collisions per second. In the quadrillions of collisions which have occurred in the LHC, a few Higgs bosons have been detected. Dr Cranmer compared the search to painting one thousand grains of sand red and then putting them in an Olympic-sized swimming pull filled with sand and then trying to find the red ones. The Higgs boson quickly decays, often into two Z bosons which decay into four leptons. After a statistical 'spike' in the CMS data suggested the existence of the Higgs boson, the discovery of the Higgs was announced on 7/4/2012. In 2013, Peter Higgs and Belgian physicist François Englert won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Dr Cranmer quipped that it's hard to overstate the importance of the discovery of the Higgs boson, but it is possible. He then presented us with a diagram of the standard model of particle physics originally done by David Kaplan- from Dr Cranmer's blog:

The model is self-consistent, but Dr Cranmer noted that there is a problem with the "complete theory of everything", namely it looks like we're done. He then posed the question, "Where do we go now?" His answer, we go from small to large, from the subatomic level to the macro level. He then showed a familiar picture, an image of a galaxy cluster characterized by distorted images caused by light being bent by mass... gravitational lensing. The amount of bending allows us to measure the mass which is causing the bending, and there is a lot more mass than is present in the stars alone. The existence of dark matter can be inferred by its gravitational effects. There is evidence that dark matter forms a 'cosmic web', a scaffolding for the universe in which galaxies and clusters are seeded. Dark matter is not part of the standard model of particle physics.

After the Big Bang, there was a period of inflation, in which the young universe was a hot 'soup' of quarks and gluons. This young, hot, soupy universe was opaque- when it cooled down, atoms began to form and the universe became transparent- this occurred at approximately 13.7 billion years ago as evidenced by cosmic microwave background radiation. Currently, the universe is composed of about 26.8% dark matter, 4.9% 'mundane' matter, and 68.3% dark energy. While telescopes like the Hubble can look farther out and farther back in time, the Primordial Era of the hot, dense, opaque early universe cannot be observed. The LHC probes what the universe was like under those conditions, and the search is on for dark matter, supersymmetry, and extra dimensions.

Dr Cranmer then asked, can we trust extrapolations from the earthly observations to the universe at large? Out conceptual framework is derived from the Theory of General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and Field Theory... a combination that can be called 'Relativistic Quantum Field Theory'. Relativity describes the symmetry of space and time. Field theory describes how fields interact with matter. Quantum mechanics describe the wave/particle duality- particles can act as waves, light waves are composed of photons, the Higgs boson is a particle which acts as a wave field.

Dr Cranmer then went on a digression about antimatter- if there are particles, there should be antiparticles. Similarly, if the supersymmetry theory of space and time is correct, there should be superparticles- in theory, one of these 'sparticles' has the properties of dark matter.

The success of the Relativistic Quantum Field Theory is related to spin- particles have spin, which receives a quantum correction- the quantum corrections are expressed in Feynman diagrams. Dr Cranmer described the success of experiments in quantum corrections as 'hitting a hole in one from New York to China. The Higgs boson also receives quantum corrections- corrections which are a quadrillion times the mass of the boson- this is known as the naturalness problem. Questions remain: Why is the Higgs boson so small? Are we missing something? What is the energy scale at which the problem occurs? This renormalization process is akin to adjusting for inflation? The underlying principle to balance the "budget" is supersymmetry- for every boson there's a fermion.

The next question Dr Cranmer posed was, "Does the Higgs boson spell the death of the universe?" The stability of the universe correlates to the ratio of the top mass of the universe and the mass of the Higgs:

As the mass of the universe and the mass of the Higgs increase, the universe could enter a different state, perhaps a state in which atoms cannot exist. The timeframe of this is probably 'kajillions' of years, but it could happen tomorrow. It's possible that this change could result in a 'bubble' universe branching off. It's possible that there is a series of nested universes popping off, a multiverse in which different pockets are connected, but conditions could be radically different. The naturalness problem could be explained by different conditions in different 'pockets'- we can only observe universes which can support life, the anthropic principle. While a lot of physicists are displeased with this model, it's not necessarily wrong. Dr Cranmer likened this to Kepler's nested platonic solids model of the solar system, while it wasn't correct, it wasn't necessarily dumb according to the standards of Kepler's time.

Dr Cranmer ended the LHC portion of the talk by likening CERN's experiments to a menu, with the Higgs boson being an appetizer and Supersymmetry with Dark Matter or Extra Dimensions with Black Holes being the main course. He then briefly touched on extremely energetic particles from space (jokingly referred to as the "Oh My God!" particle) detected by the Fly's Eye Detector. The source of these superenergetic particles can't be too far away, but it is a mystery. In the fluxes of cosmic rays, one of these particles, which typically have the energy of a fastball, per billion square kilometers may hit the earth's surface in a year. The Pierre Auger detector is designed to detect these ultrahigh energy particles. Dr Cranmer then noted that apps could be developed so that every cell phone could be a particle detector, one such app is CRAYFIS.

In the Q&A, the topic of the different interactions with the Higgs field came up- the reason for this is unknown, but there are lots of theories. Some bastard in the audience asked about the implications of the LHC experimental results for quantum entanglement, the so-called 'spooky action at a distance'. When a particle decays, two particles 'fly off', but the angular momentum is conserved. Measuring one of the particles, one can know the state of the other. This doesn't impact the results in the LHC- it's a subtle effect, but it's real. It doesn't drastically change what the particles do, though. Dr Cranmer then riffed on this by mentioning the Black Hole Information Paradox- if something falls into a black hole, what happens to the 'information' that results from its entanglement with another particle? Also in the Q&A, Dr Cranmer talked about the role of dark energy in the expansion of the universe- dark energy 'makes matter allergic to itself'.

Once again, the Secret Science Club dished out another fantastic lecture- kudos to Dr Cranmer, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. Here's a special pre-Thanksgiving thanks to everyone.

Monday, November 23, 2015


The Western media has taken to using the term 'DAESH' to refer to the group formerly known as ISIS/ISIL. 'DAESH' is an acronym for the Arabic term Dawlat al-Islāmiyya fī al-Irāq wa s-Shām, but it has a couple of homonyms which are less than flattering:

Daesh also sounds similar to the Arabic words daes — which means someone who crushes something underfoot - and also dahes — which is someone who sows discord.

Recently, a group of armed thugs have taken to intimidating the congregation of a mosque in Texas- substitute a trucker's cap for an Afghan pakol, and there's not much of a difference in the look of these asses and ISIS.

I have decided to refer to these homegrown extremists by the acronym 'DOUCHE': Destroying Our Usual Comity for Hateful Extremism.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Jolly Diwali, then Melancholy

This afternoon, after a morning spent coaching, I went to a local Indian restaurant for their Diwali buffet. Needless to say, having not eaten breakfast and having spent a couple of hours teaching children how to fight (and having a good friendly brawl with my friend Gentle Jimmy G. and a nice fight with technical tips for one of the teenage counselors who chaperone the smaller kids), I was ravenous, so I descended on the sumptuous spread of dishes like a newly awakened Kumbakharna. The buffet presented a great selection of dishes from throughout the Indian subcontinent, from Southern iddli with sambar and coconut chutney and goat jalfrezi to Northern saag paneer and Chinese-Indian delicacies like gobi Manchurian and diaspora dishes such as chicken tikka masala. To finish the meal, there were Diwali sweets, and those addictive fried-milk balls, gulab jamun... a former co-worker of mine, a Trinidadian woman of Indian descent, would make a beeline for the gulab jamun whenever she went to an Indian restaurant. At any rate, I staggered out of the restaurant, contemplating how gauche it would be to unbutton my pants... Diwali mission accomplished!

Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights- one of its origins lies in the celebration of the return of Rama, his wife, Sita, and his brother Lakshmana to the city of Ayodhya after years of exile and war, as recounted in the Ramayana. While exiled, Sita was abducted by the ten-headed rakshasa king Ravana, who ruled the island nation of Lanka. In their invasion of Lanka, Rama and Lakshmana are aided by an army of monkeys, led by the divine Hanuman and the king Sugriva.

A good single-volume introduction to the Ramayana is a gloriously written 'retelling' of the epic by William S. Buck. Here is how Buck describes the sacrifices that Ravana performed in order to force the god Brahma to grant him a boon:

And at the end of every thousand years, Ravana cut off one of his heads and threw it into the fire as a sacrifice, until nine heads were gone and but one day remained before he would cut the last one. That day was passing. Ten thousand years and Ravana's life were about to end together.

Ravana held the knife to his throat, when Brahma appeared and said,"Stop! Ask me a boon at once!"

"I am glad that I please you," said Ravana.

"Please me!" said Brahma. "Your will is dreadful, too strong to be neglected; like a bad disease I must treat it. Your pains make me hurt. Ask!"

"May I be unslayable and never defeated by the gods or any one from any heaven, by Hell's devils or Asuras or demon spirits, by underworld serpents or Yakshas or Rakshasas."

After defeating several gods in battle and forcing them into servitude, the thunder god Indra approaches Vishnu/Narayana, the Preserver of the Universe, for advice:

"How shall we bring down Ravana?" asked Indra. "Because of Brahma's boon is the Demon King strong, and for no other cause of his own. Help me, you are my only refuge, there is no other for me. I will gather my storms again and attack Lanka, give me your permission to fight Ravana once more!"

"Never!" said Narayana. "Don't you understand that Brahma's words are always true? Do not falsify the three spheres of life. I would not have let you fight in the first place, though you were right to resist and Ravana was wrong. Ravana asked Brahma
- Let me be unslayable by every creature of Heaven and of the underworlds. And Brahma promised-So be it. That boon is unbreakable, yet will I cause Ravana's death. That is the truth. Only ask me...."

"Ah," said Indra, "from disdain Ravana did not mention men or animals and took no safeguard against them. He eats men; they are his food and why should he fear them? Lord, on Earth, life resembles Hell again. We need you again. Look at us, see us, and bless us. For the good of all the worlds, Lord Narayana, accept birth as a man."

"I already have."

Spoiler alert, the man in whom Vishnu manifests as an avatar has his wife abducted, and just happens to assemble an army of monkeys and bears...

Buck's Ramayana is beautifully told, it's the sort of book that I have inserted numerous tiny bookmarks in to mark particularly felicitous passages... I can't recommend it highly enough. Buck also wrote an equally gorgeous retelling of the epic Mahabharata, which also occupies a position of prominence on one of my bookshelves.

I promised melancholy, and not just in order to rhyme with jolly and Diwali. William Buck died at the age of thirty-five, and the world was deprived of further interpretations of Indian myth from the man. This webpage and its comment thread shed some light on the life and career of William Buck, including the possibility that he used his family's considerable wealth to hire Sanskrit translators, but I fully believe that he was the one who interpreted the translations in a particularly pleasing prose.

As a simple postscript, I think Smut and zrm would disown me if I didn't insert a reference to Buck Dharma somewhere.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Quick, Fall Back on the 'Post a Video' Gambit!

It's almost midnight... I really want to post something on Friday. Hey, how about posting a video? I was toying with the idea of posting a video by pop genius Marshall Crenshaw, but was unable to decide between the humorous 'Cynical Girl' or the earnest 'Whenever You're on My Mind'. Luckily, I found a video of him playing an entire concert at NYC's long-gone midtown Manhattan venue, the Ritz:

The Ritz was a great venue, and it was right near the Afghan Kebab House, which was a cheap, good place to grab a bite to eat before a concert... Midtown Manhattan wasn't quite the corporate dysneytopia that it now is.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Sugary Entanglement at a Distance

Every once in a while, it seems that there's a weird interconnectedness in the universe... for instance, some guy in the Southern Hemisphere writes a post about pigeons eating nonpareils, then a few days later, a guy in the Northern Hemisphere wins some nonpareils in a random prize drawing run by the guy who organizes the local bar's Tuesday Trivia Battle:

The running joke is that Joe, the trivia organizer/MC, has stock in a company that sells insulin pumps, what with all of the candy he gives out. At least he's not giving it out from a van... at least not on Tuesday nights.

At any rate, the nonpareils were delicious:

Who you calling a pigeon?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Making a Killing

Today's source of outrage is the news that, three days after horrific terrorist attacks made on innocent civilians by fundamentalist Sunni Islamic extremists, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of smart bombs to a society run by fundamentalist Sunni Islamic extremists. The Saudis are currently fighting a Shiite insurgency in Yemen, a religious conflict that has re-ignited Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. After yesterday's long post about the danger to the West of using religious fanatics in various proxy wars, we have an news item about the sale of cutting-edge weapons to people who have shown themselves to be our enemies since September 2001 in order to facilitate a sectarian war. Great, just fucking great... at least Boeing and Raytheon will be making a killing.

It's a pity the smart bombs aren't really smart... there's no way to talk them out of detonation:

I imagine some of those munitions, labeled 'Made in the USA' will find themselves used on Christians, Jews, and Yezidis as well as Shiites. Is it too soon after Paris to talk about blowback?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Steyn on Western Civilization

Tengrain is a national treasure, one of those guys who reads the right-wing's bloviations so you don't have to subject yourself to them. Recently, he covered statements by Canada's most toxic export (Alberta bitumen is a distant second), Mark Steyn, made in response to the Paris terrorist attacks. Please read all of Tengrain's excerpt of Steyn... I'm just going to touch on one paragraph:

“…But that’s not true, is it? He’s right that it’s an attack not just on Paris or France. What it is is an attack on the west, on the civilization that built the modern world – an attack on one portion of “humanity” by those who claim to speak for another portion of “humanity”. And these are not “universal values” but values that spring from a relatively narrow segment of humanity. They were kinda sorta “universal” when the great powers were willing to enforce them around the world and the colonial subjects of ramshackle backwaters such as Aden, Sudan and the North-West Frontier Province were at least obliged to pay lip service to them. But the European empires retreated from the world, and those “universal values” are utterly alien to large parts of the map today."

The problem with Steyn's characterization of Western Civilization is that it distorts the West's interaction with the developing world. To put it mildly, the Great Powers of Europe did not export the benefits of Western Civilization to Africa, Asia, and the Americas, they looted their colonies and used divide-and-conquer to keep their subjects under their heels. To the colonizers and the mercantilists, the colonies were a source of natural resources and cheap labor. Rather than trading with the natives as equals, the 'men of the West' used force of arms to subjugate and enslave populations, propping up and arming local strongmen who would facilitate wholesale theft. Put succinctly, Western Civilization failed to live up to its noblest ideals. Even those philosopher-heroes who espoused the loftiest sentiments tended not to live by them. The "universal values" Steyn mentions only applied to white males of the gentry. The implementation of the freedoms birthed by the Enlightenment really only took place in the early 20th Century, when women's suffrage was granted, and their benefits didn't accrue to various minorities until the 1960s. The real relationship between Western Civilization and the colonies is perhaps best summed up by a cartoon by William H. Walker in the March 1899 edition of Life magazine

Western Civilization's interaction with the developing world in the 20th century continued in the same old oppressive fashion- the inhabitants of the Third World were largely seen as inconvenient squatters on natural resources, or convenient cannon fodder in proxy wars. Even post-World War 2, the 'West' preferred to topple nascent democracies and to install dictators in order to steal petroleum, to undermine left-leaning governments, to crush independence movements in former colonies. Our current problems with Islamic fundamentalist terrorists stem from the use of Islamist radicals as proxies in the Cold War and the U.S. government's continued support for an autocratic regime that has been exporting fundamentalist Sunni Islam, combined with an early 20th century divide-and-conquer policy in the Middle East. An even more grievous lapse was the failure of the U.S. to give economic aid to the Afghans after they expelled the Russian army... we once treated our enemies better than we now treat our allies.

The benefits of Western Civilization simply did not accrue in "ramshackle backwaters such as Aden, Sudan and the North-West Frontier Province". The 'West' could have engaged with the world in a generous fashion, establishing democratic societies instead of kleptocracies. Instead, centuries of colonialism have resulted in decades of blowback. Even more perniciously, the colonizer's mentality has come back to haunt the citizens of Western countries, with declining wages, higher mortality rates, and substandard infrastructure. Perhaps the most glaring example of the contempt that our elites hold for democracy was the naked dictatorial yearning by the guy who acted as ISIS' midwife:

There's a Steyn stain on Western Civilization, and that stain is hypocrisy- a yawning gulf between noble ideals and base policies, a sustained, systemic failure of Western Civilization to act in civilized fashion. At its best, Western Civilization, with its pluralism, secularism, and concern for minority rights, holds the greatest promise of a happy, healthy society... we of the West should try it sometime. Maybe that would result in a world in which terrorist movements gain no traction.

Tonio K. summed up the thesis of this post in 4:11:

To return to a serious note, interrobang has a couple of great posts

Friday, November 13, 2015

Quelle Horror, Vraiment

I woke up this afternoon to horrible news, the series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris which claimed the lives of over one hundred victims. I haven't been to Paris in a decade, so it's hard to reconcile the scenes of carnage with the City of Light that I remember... it's especially jarring to see crimson carnage sullying a city characterized by the rosy life.

This has been a terrible year as far as terror attacks in France are concerned, starting with the Charlie Hebdo attack and continuing with the attempted trainboard massacre. This new horror is the nadir of a bad year.

Right now, my sympathies and well-wishes go out to the French people. I feel a kinship with Parisians- my mother's father's mother left Paris to escape from an arranged marriage, only to fall in love with a merchant seaman from Alsace-Lorraine, and my mother spoke both French and Swiss-German at home as a young girl. While in Paris, I noted that the French people were much more hospitable than American popular culture would lead one to believe. I hope that the French government responds to these terror attacks in a wise faction... fourteen years ago, the metropolitan area which I call home came under attack, and my government responded to these attacks by launching a war against innocent bystanders, a war calculated to line the pockets of administration apparatchiks with our tax dollars and Middle Eastern petroleum reserves, a war which caused much of the blowback that led to these current attacks. I hope that President Hollande is prudent... skulls need to be cracked, but they have to be the right ones.

May Liberté, égalité, fraternité never give way to nihilistic fundamentalism or a paranoid security state. Vive la France! Bon Courage!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A More Inclusive Fan(tasy) Community

The big news in the publishing world is that the trophy given for World Fantasy Awards, a bust of H.P. Lovecraft, will be retired. The impetus for the change was World Fantasy Award winner Nnedi Okorafor's discovery of Lovecraft's pernicious racism, and the realization that she had the bust of a man who, at at least one point in his lifetime, would have considered her subhuman, and who went to his grave without giving up his youthful racist beliefs.

I am a fan of Lovecraft's 'weird tales' (even now, I am taking a break from finishing up a re-read of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), and I have written quite a few blog posts about the man and his body of work, addressing his racism as well as his stories. It's tempting to believe that he was reconsidering his reactionary attitudes in the days before his untimely death, but the fact remains that he harbored some heinous attitudes. Lovecraft's position in the Fantasy and Science Fiction pantheon is undeniable, though, as sword and sorcery author Charles R. Saunders acknowledged in a recent interview. Whenever you encounter 'nameless horrors from beyond' in a story, Lovecraft's shadow can be found.

There's no need, though, for the Old Man of Providence to lend his long, lugubrious countenance to an award. Speculative fiction has been enriched by such African-American authors as Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and the aforementioned Nnedi Okorafor and Charles R. Saunders. The Fantasy and Science-Fiction community is not the exclusive white boys club it used to be (a few years ago I wrote a post about women F&SF authors)- it's time the leading lights of the community recognized this reality.

With the retiring of the HPL statue, the World Fantasy Association needs to come up with another award statue- if they didn't want to rename the 'Howard', they could always rename the statue after Robert E. Howard... wait, what?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Quick Musical Interlude

Tonight is a beer-drinking night, the weekly team trivia battle at a local bar, so I figure I'll put up a quick post, a lickle musical parody... Roy's latest post is an exegesis of a recent screed by Sparta-obsessed whackjob Victor Davis Hanson. In the comments, the redoubtable Smut Clyde, who cannot have my giant mushroom, noted a particular obsession peculiar to VDH:

There may be a glitch in his copypasta software. So far this year he has snarled about:

progressive grandees
Public grandees
Silicon Valley grandee
some Silicon Valley Grandee who wants the smelt
The grandees of Planned Parenthood
the Bay Area grandee's
another successful grandee of unknown lineage
millions of tax-deductible dollars from foreign grandees
a rather run-of-the-mill liberal grandee
Silicon Valley grandees [different ones]

Do you think he knows he's doing it?

With apologies to The Kingston Trio...

My name is Don Victor D. Hanson,
I'm obsessed with the title 'grandee'
But I lost my saw to a wetback,
To hell with the lords in D.C.

Right-wing, the white wing is lonely,
You can work at the Hoover, it's true,
But all of the smug urban hipsters
Are pointing and laughing at you.

For those not familiar with The Kingston Trio's body of work, this is a parody of South Coast, a tragic ballad about early settlers of California's Monterrey region:

I'm not sure that VDH would dig the tune, it being about white, but decidedly non-Anglo people.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Gotta Let This Hen Out

Three weeks ago, I was the recipient of a nice chunk of a really choice wild mushroom, a hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa), known in Japanese as the Maitake, or 'dancing mushroom', because its discoverers are said to dance with joy upon finding one.

I was dancing with joy today as I spied a nice hen of the woods fruiting body roosting at the base of a large red oak (Quercus rubra) tree on the grounds at work:

After clearing the leaves from the base of the tree, I found two more fruiting bodies, but one of them looked past its prime- dry, tough, and playing host to mold. I left that one behind... as I rule, I never grab everything, I want these beautiful mushrooms to proliferate, after all. All told, though, I had a major mushroom score:

I don't know the weight of my find, but it totally filled a standard plastic grocery bag. Needless to say, I am an extremely happy individual right now and I will be scarfing down delicious mushroom for weeks. The post title is inspired by a very silly song by Robyn Hitchcock:

I referenced Listening to the Higsons in a post about the possible discovery of the Higgs boson, the song also provided the name of a fabulous live album, a personal favorite of mine, by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. I've got this hen out of the woods, and now I've gotta get this hen in mah belly!