Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Matter of Minutes

Before the news of Leonard Nimoy's death took over the airwaves and occupied my blogging-attention, I was contemplating writing about a horrific tragedy that I missed by scant minutes. I had gotten out of work at 4AM and embarked on what I thought would be a routine drive home, when I ran into a really bad traffic problem, resulting in a complete closure of the Sprain Brook Parkway. The "Sprain" is odd for a local parkway (and the reason we drive on parkways and park in driveways is because a parkway is a highway with landscaped, parklike medians and verges while a driveway is a path on which we drive to our garages, until they become so full of crap we can't park in them)- it is a wide, six lane highway with very long intervals between exits. If there is a problem on the Sprain, there's no easy way to get off the roadway.

I did something I have never done before- I called the "traffic hotline" of the local CBS radio affiliate to report the complete closure of the roadway. The radio station doesn't typically broadcast this number outside of rush hour, so it took about fifteen minutes of googling on my phone to find it. I wasn't going anywhere, so I had no qualms about not having a "hands free" device. I used to investigate auto insurance claims, so I have a decent ability to convey the facts. I informed the staffer that had answered my call that the southbound Sprain was completely obstructed between the Greenburgh and Jackson Avenue exits. I was in the middle lane, so I couldn't spy a mileage marker.

As things turned out, I was at a standstill for about forty-five minutes, silently mouthing imprecations at the tiny handful of assholes who decided that driving on the shoulder would be acceptable. Really, assholes, do you think that blocking the approach of emergency vehicles is at all acceptable behavior in a civilized society?

When the left lane was finally cleared, and I was able to drive past the sea of blue and red flashing lights, I glimpsed a horror- a totaled compact and a small SUV that was facing the wrong direction on the shoulder of the road, opposite the guard rail. It was real "Red Asphalt scenery. I finally made it home after an hour on the road.

When I finally woke up, I put on the radio and heard that the driver of the SUV, a detective in the NYPD Internal Affairs Division, had been killed in a collision with the driver of the compact, who had been driving the wrong way in the northbound lanes. He was ten months shy of retirement, the sort of sad irony that seems to characterize bad cop shows.

I couldn't help but feel a bit queasy when I contemplated that I had missed being involved in this accident by a matter of about ten or fifteen minutes. As much as I cursed being stuck in traffic for forty-five minutes, I got home that morning. I don't take the ride home for granted, as routine as such things are usually considered. There aren't a lot of cars on the road at that hour, but it's right around last call at the bars, and alcohol and marijuana are believed to have played a role in the erratic, one-way driving of the killer. It's sad, I really don't enjoy driving anymore, I just want to get from "Point A" to "Point B" in one piece. I'm sure Detective Duncan wanted the same.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Set a Course for Eternity

It's not often that the death of a celebrity hits me hard (the death of Joey Ramone being one of those occasions), but the death of Leonard Nimoy is genuinely saddening. Mr Nimoy's alter ego was a guest in our house at 6PM Eastern Time almost every Saturday, when one of the local TV stations broadcast episodes of the syndicated Star Trek original series. Even though he played the stoic, unemotional Vulcan science officer, Mr Nimoy was able to convey a wry sense of humor with the mere lift of an eyebrow, and his terse responses to the emotional DeForest Kelley formed much of the appeal of the show (as puberty raised it's hairy, hormonal head, the usual parade of hawt space chix was also an undeniable part of the show's appeal).

Leonard Nimoy was one of those exceptional actors who was as noble as the hero he portrayed on television. He insisted on supporting actor's pay equity for Nichelle Nichols and used his clout to ensure that Ms Nichols and George Takei were included in the vocal cast of the "Star Trek" animated series (tip of the hat to Alicublog commenter FMGuru). Mr Nimoy was every bit the activist that castmates Nichelle Nichols and George Takei have been. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry likened Mr Nimoy to the "Conscience of Star Trek".

I'll forgive Mr Nimoy for his rare lapses in taste, such as lending his gravitas to the pseudoscience extravaganza In Search Of... and whatever you wish to call this. Besides his acting career, he was a film director, a photographer, and a poet. His last tweet, as reported by Tengrain was a perfectly lovely example of Mr Nimoy's grace and wit:

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP

Speaking of tweets, perhaps my favorite "Spock" moment from the original Star Trek series was his straight faced delivery of the line Logic is a little tweeting bird chirping in meadow. Logic is a wreath of pretty flowers which smell bad."

And what other actor could emote like a ham while interacting with a pulsating pool of plastic puke without looking utterly ridiculous?

Cutting through the patina of cheesy Sci-Fi, that scene represents a plea for tolerance, mutual understanding, and the need to break out of a cycle of violence and vengeance... man, it's hard not to get a little misty-eyed even despite the cheese factor.

Also in the comments at Roy's place, Megalon clued me in to a Spocksploitation movie that Leonard starred in in 1973... guess what I'll be watching this weekend:

For many of us, losing Leonard Nimoy was like losing a friend, and to cerebral, cool-headed guys, a role model. The universe is a little sadder, and a little less logical, with his passing.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Utter Nihilism

Among the litany of horrors emanating from the land of the two rivers, comes a report of ISIS militants destroying artifacts in the Mosul museum. It's not surprising that individuals who have no qualms about killing people in especially revolting ways would be able to destroy items of stone and ceramic. The ISIS militants are so obsessed with dogmatic concerns that they seek to efface any history that doesn't conform to their sterile vision of the world as a sinful distraction from their "otherworld". This is the same nihilistic impulse that drove the Taliban to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas, that drove the razing of Tenochtitlan. The same impulse leads to attempts to ban teaching evolution in public schools.

As Tengrain reported, ISIS shares the impulse to ban the teaching of evolution with the fundamentalist evangelical Protestants of the United States... the only reason Ken Ham is not revered by ISIS is because ham is considered unclean according to Islamic dietary laws.

The real problem of religious fundamentalism is that the fanatics aren't content to wait until they attain their afterlife- they invariably seek to impose their nihilistic view on the material world. It's precisely this unwillingness to let those of us who see the value of this existence live in peace that makes them so dangerous.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Annual Winter Pilgrimage

Today was a glorious day- the temperature was above the freezing point and the sky was a flawless, cloudless blue. Having felt cabin fever for weeks and needing a break from politics and current events, I decided to make my annual winter eagle-watching pilgrimage. I headed straight for Fleischmann's Pier in Buchanan, New York (immediately north of the Indian Point nuclear reactor). Fleischmann's Pier is the best eagle-watching spot that I know, and I was not disappointed today, spotting a half-dozen eagles in the vicinity.

When I arrived at the pier, there was a brisk wind blowing down the Bear Mountain gap, a fresh, cold breeze seemingly coming down from the Adirondack Mountains, up by the Canadian border. Looking north, I could espy the Bear Mountain Bridge, framed by the high walls of the Hudson Highlands, which define the fjord known as the Lower Hudson Valley:

I had the pleasure of seeing two adult eagles conducting an aerial dance, which my phone camera was unable to capture in its glory. I was able to click a bunch of sadly inadequate photos of the birds:

Best of all, a juvenile eagle, it's plumage a patchwork of grey and black feathers, soared about thirty or forty feet overhead, a glorious site that, alas, my phone camera was unable to capture in its sheer grandeur:

It was a wonderful way to spend a few hours on a brisk but beautiful afternoon. It's heartening to know that the eagles of New York are thriving, especially in light of a bacterial infection that is plaguing the South's eagle population. I certainly hope that the eagle-killing bacterium can be combated, it would be tragic to lose these imposing creatures after they've come back from the brink of extinction already.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Love of One's Country, Is a Profitable Thing

I figured it was about time I weighed in on Rudy Giuliani's assertion that President Obama doesn't love America. Besides the juvenile nature of Giuliani's statement, let's take a peek at Rudy's love for the "homeland". First things first, though, let's examine how Rudy became a national icon through his own incompetence- in 1999, the Giuliani administration built a high-tech command center in one of the buildings of the World Trade Center, even though the WTC had been the target of a terrorist attack and was known to be a high risk location. A panel of NYPD and Secret Service security experts had advised Giuliani to locate the command cent in Brooklyn, away from the bullseye. Another criticism of the command center location was that the Giuliani administration had a 20 year lease with the WTC owner, with rents costing $1.4 million per year (NY Times link, count your clicks) when the city owned sites in which the center could be located. The reason why Rudy was walking the streets of lower Manhattan is because he had no other place to go, and his incompetence and corruption caused better persons than he to die. The most celebrated professional Giuliani critic is Wayne Barrett, formerly of the Village Voice- read his articles to learn about Rudy's true character and performance.

Despite his dangerous incompetence, Rudy Giuliani inexplicably got a reputation as a security expert, and parlayed that into a personal fortune. In 1989, when he first ran for mayor, Giuliani had a net worth of approximately $450,000 (NY Times link, count your clicks). His current net worth is approximately $45 million- that's what I call failing upwards.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Giuliani's former Police Commissioner and then business partner Bernard Kerik was nominated to head the newly minted "Department of Homeland Security". Kerikrecently was released from federal prison Giuliani's company benefitted from illegal influence peddling with "homeland security" (NY Times link, count your clicks) and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

If Giuliani truly loved his country, he would have served it without lining his pockets with tens of millions of dollars. There's a word for people who are paid for their "love".

NOTE: Title yoinked from Dominic Behan's best known song.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Oscar Night

Roy has been my go-to Oscar prognosticator, mainly because I'm not a big movie fan, but I am a big Roy fan. The only Oscar contender that I saw last year, indeed the only movie I saw on the big screen, was The Imitation Game, which I reviewed. Special thanks to my great and good friends at the Secret Science Club for scoring tickets for a special preview of the film.

In my review I predicted that the film would receive multiple nominations:

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.

It would be unfair to the film and to Turing to characterize it as "Rainman vs the Nazis", but in the interest of humor, I will make that grotesque distortion... hell, the film took liberties with history for dramatic effect. Roy, being more charitable, dubbed it "A Beautiful Mind meets Casablanca!"

Here is where I confess that Oscar prognostications are not rooted in any way in my knowledge of the actual workings of the Academy, they are one-hundred percent based on wry observations of Oscar nominations, with this one being particularly devastating:

A film about a guy on the autism spectrum defeating the Nazis? In my jaundiced view of the Oscars, that's like crack!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sounds Like Camp Granada

At the beginning of the week, one of the part-timers in my department at work started a new job... he called me on his first day to tell me that he didn't think he'd last more than one pay period. He didn't like the work, and he described his supervisors as a bunch of cowboys who sped around the site. Luckily for me, his new job didn't interfere with his weekend hours, because the department is spread thin as it is.

Today, he called me to tell me that he'd had a complete 180 on the job. He made his displeasure with his position known to his supervisor on the new job and was given a pretty cushy gig on the spot, which to me indicates that the organization is probably understaffed. Most workplaces are understaffed these days- there are layoffs and attrition, but the workload never diminishes. Yes, Corporate America has figured out how to get blood from a turnip. Corporations are people, my friend- really, really shitty people.

At any rate, my co-worker's turnaround on the new job reminds me of Camp Granada:

I told my co-worker that he deserves his cushy new gig- he's paid his dues, if not to the new organization, in an existential sense. Come to think of it, his new situation with us, working in a pretty spot for eight hours out of the weekend is pretty cushy too... except when it's not.

Friday, February 20, 2015

People of Faith in the News

The big local news story today is about an ultra-orthodox rabbi who ran a "kidnaping" ring that would nab husbands who refused to grant their wives a religious divorce and torture them until they relented. The methods of these roughneck rabbis sound like something out of the song Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap:

"Mendel Epstein talked about forcing compliance through the use of 'tough guys' who utilize electric cattle prods, karate, handcuffs and place plastic bags on the heads of husbands," said FBI Special Agent Bruce Kamerman shortly after Epstein's arrest.

Karate? Wouldn't Jiu Jitsu be more appropriate? Karate? Why not Treif Kwan Do while you're at it?

Being a pragmatic secular person, the whole notion of a "get" is baffling to me. I know that the forces of tradition are strong, but if you are hung up on a religious divorce that prevents you from obtaining a legal divorce, you need to dump your religion as well as your husband. Seriously, why subject yourself to the tyranny of men when you want to dump the tyrant you married? The description of an "undivorced" woman is something out of a horror tale:

Without a "get", a religious Jewish woman cannot remarry or get on with her life and she becomes an ostracized member of the community called an “agunah” or a chained person.

Even the description of the defense strategy sounds like something that shouldn't be taken seriously in a secular society:

The defense is expected to tell the jury about the oldest interpretation of Jewish law that broadly outlines torture as a legitimate vehicle for convincing recalcitrant husbands to grant their wives religious divorces. Defense lawyer Robert Stahl said during his opening statements that "the process is a legitimate divorce. It's not a criminal conspiracy." He told the jury that ancient Jewish texts endorse the use of coercion and physical torture in an effort to convince men to grant their wives divorces.

Sadly, the use of torture has been normalized in the U.S., but reading of a non-governmental actor engaging in it is particularly disquieting. I know that anti-sharia laws are all the rage in Red State America, what would the proponents of those laws say about the use of torture to coerce religious divorces? Is this sort of thing okay if the practicioners aren't Muslims?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Work Weirdness

Work has been pretty bizarre for the last couple of weeks... I am pretty reticent about my place of employment, which is a shame, because all of my best work-related stories get left off the blog because it would be pretty easy to surmise where I work if I gave out the juiciest details in an anecdote. The current situation doesn't reveal too much information about the job, so I think I can cover it.

My department on the job is small- after the big reorganization, we were left with four employees, myself and three subordinates. We report to the head of four different departments that have a small degree of overlap. Over the course of 2013, the one woman on the team, who was a part-timer in two departments, concentrated on the other department she was a member of because the job afforded more hours. Four months later, we hired another part-timer, after another candidate failed to last a night on the job. Since the new hire, back in late 2013, there has been no turnover in the department, though two of the part-timers had their hours reduced.

Because of the loss of benefits accompanying the reduction of hours, one of the guys had some choice words for the H.R. department, to the extent that he called me up an hour before his next scheduled day to ask if he'd been fired. I told him that I figured he'd be the first one to learn that he'd been fired, and that I'd heard nothing. Coincidentally, there was a problem with the e-mail server at work, so he thought that his account had been deleted... GOOD TIMES! As far as I know, he hasn't been fired, but I guess the truth will be apparent the day his paycheck is supposed to arrive.

The other part-timer who had his hours reduced has another job, which he's not exactly enamored with (though he's a "recreational complainer", so I don't have a gauge on his actual dissatisfaction). He also has an occasional gig which pays very well, but is too sporadic to be reliable. I told him that I would make sure to adjust the schedule to let him work these gigs, because I understand that one works to pay the bills, so any opportunity to make bank is something I'd make sure to accommodate. Facing the loss of benefits, he decided that he would apply for a full-time job at a local school. When he was hired, his new boss asked him if he could start the following week, which raised a "red flag" for me, because it meant that the previous employee had probably quit in a huff. Since his new job was a Monday-to-Friday position, he would still be able to work on Sunday and Saturday afternoons, which was an immense relief to me because we are especially understaffed on the weekends.

This new development meant that the guy who'd thought he was fired would now be working more hours. We have enough problems finding suitable candidates for these jobs because, frankly, they are pretty outré, the sort of jobs that some people don't last a night on (for the record, I love the work, precisely because it's pretty outré). My standard line is that it's not a normal job for normal people.

On Tuesday, I received a call from the guy who'd started the new job, and he told me that he'd probably quit at the end of the first pay period. He didn't like the students, who he found snotty and overprivileged. He didn't like his supervisors, who he said sped on the campus in their company cars. He told me that he was working in a small booth, being trained on the bag check procedure for students, so that they don't sneak contraband onto the campus, when one of the supervisors came careering down the driveway. He said he bailed out of the booth before the car hit, but the woman who was training him, who apparently had only been on the job for eight months, was knocked on her ass. Yeah, he didn't think he'd last more than two weeks, but our department head had assured him that he'd be welcomed back to his previous amount of hours.

As it stands, I have to cobble together the schedule for next month, but the status of the part-timers is in flux, and I haven't received the formal acknowledgment of the new situation from the main office. I've always been of the opinion that maintaining maximum flexibility is crucial to the operations of our small department, but I have to say that change ain't good.

I figure it'll be a confusing couple of weeks until things fall into place.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Here's Looking at You, Brain!

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring neurologist and radio host Dr Carl Schoonover of Columbia University. Dr Schoonover's lecture concerned the topic of his book Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century, the development of our ability to look at the brain.

Dr Schoonover began the lecture with the observation that researching the structure of the human brain is no easy matter- C. elegans, a nematode with a fondness for English compost heaps, was used to study neural development because it has a simple nervous system of 302 neurons. Neurologists studying the human brain, with its 100 billion neurons, have their work cut out for them. Topics of interest to neurologists are, what part of the brain is connected to mental life and how do the different parts of the brain communicate with each other? One problem with studying the brain is that it appears to be gray undifferentiated matter, resistant to observation.

One of the earliest attempts to map out the brain was Alhazen's Book of Optics, written by Alhazen (not to be confused with Alhazred) in the 11th Century. Earlier guesses about the brain's function were really off-the-mark, Aristotle believed that the heart was responsible for thought, and that the brain merely acted to cool the blood. The physician and anatomist Galen, performed animal dissections that revealed fluid-filled cavities in the brain, which he believed were filled with the "humors" thought to regulate human disposition. Because scholars didn't not actually handle human brains, their view of the brain was distorted- texts were valued over empirical engagement and the "ventricular theory" of the brain held sway for over a millennium.

Leonardo DaVinci was one of the pioneers of studying the physical brain, being dissatisfied with the ventricular model- DaVinci believed that the structure and function of the brain were connected. In order to study the brain, a researcher must denature and manipulate the brain. In order to map out the ventricles of the brain, DaVinci dissected an ox brain (PDF link) and made a wax cast of its ventricles. DaVinci realized that his eyes alone were insufficient to the task of modeling the brain. One modern technique of modeling the brain is to make a resin cast of the brain structure and use acid to "eat away" the actual brain tissue.

In 1543, the anatomist Vesalius published De humani corporis fabrica, a text that drew upon his dissections of human subjects. Vesalius' work represented a turn away from Galen's models- the human body needed to be studied, dissecting animals was not sufficient.

Christoper Wren, the famed architect, studied the structure of the brain, notably injected ink into brains in order to study their structure, producing striking images. The technique of injecting dyes or contrast agents into the brain is still used, in the form of the cerebral angiogram. By the 18th Century, the use of stains hit its stride and a bewildering world of structures was discovered.

In the late 19th Century, Camillo Golgi developed the Golgi method of staining tissue with a silver solution to facilitate the use of light microscopy to study tissues. The Golgi method opened up the complex structure of the brain. The new approach to stained tissues was facilitated by refinements in microscopy, with Zeiss microscopes being of particular importance.

Golgi was unable to fully "atomize" the brain, but his work was built on by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who wished to be a painter, but was forced by his family to attend medical school. His skill at drawing helped him to depict the structure of the brain. Using the Golgi method, Ramón y Cajal was able to observe the dendritic structure (he likened these structures to "spines") of neurons- the dendrites of the neuron receive incoming information and the axon transmits outgoing information. Ramón y Cajal drew the structures he had observed from memory, and the "maps" of the brain that he drew (including those of such structures as the hippocampus and neocortex are still useful. Golgi and Ramón y Cajal shared the 1906 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work in neurology.

Electricity is the "lingua franca" of the brain, and the dendritic "spines" observed by Ramón y Cajal, which he guessed played a crucial role in transmission, are connections now known as synapses.

Dr Schoonover then displayed moved on to the use of molecular biology to model the brain. He discussed the use of green fluorescent protein to mark neurons- the neurons are lit from within so that structures can be studied. Other fluorescent proteins yield different colors, so approximately 100 hues can be used to highlight different structures of the brain. This part of the lecture was accompanied by breathtakingly beautiful images of the brain, similar to this gorgeous image of the hippocampus. The use of multiple stains alleviates the "tangle" problem- it's hard to distinguish structures if everything is tagged in the same way. The techniques used to "unravel" the brain's structure have yielded some strikingly beautiful images.

Another method of tagging brain structures utilizes protein antibodies- each antibody reacts to a specific protein so specific molecular "shapes" can be detected. Efforts are now underway to determine the "scaffolding" of the brain- without this structure, the brain would pretty much break down into a goo composed mainly of lipids and water. The glial cells are instrumental in providing the structure of the brain. Antibodies in stains can target glial cells for imaging purposes.

The use of GFP and antibodies depends on an understanding of how nature normally works so that it can be "hijacked" to serve other purposes. These staining methods are useless without the imaging technology. Laser microscopy is now yielding images of the brain over the span of weeks. Dr Schoonover displayed a series of images of the neural "spines" over the course of two weeks, noting the changes in their shapes. He quipped that the brain we woke up with in the morning was anatomically different from the brain we went to bed with.

Synapses are just big enough to see with light microscopes, but they are too small for details to be learned- for that, electron microscopes are needed- abandoning light opens up new vistas. With electron microscopy, the dendritic spines of the neuron and the configuration of synapses become clear.

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for the development of "super-resolved fluorescence microscopy", an optical microscopy technique which "beats light at its own game" in order to view smaller structures. This development signals a return to light microscopy.

The lecture then veered into a quick discussion of the electric nature of the brain. Luigi Galvani famously observed that an electric spark could make a frog's leg twitch. The electrical signals in the nervous system encode information with spikes in voltage. Dr Schoonover described an experiment in which a monkey was given a cup of juice, and its neurons encoded the administration of this reward. The electrical signal was accompanied by a vascular effect- there was increased bloodflow to provided needed oxygen to the neurons. The influx of oxygenated blood caused dark areas to appear in an MRI, producing a "smiley face" image of a happy monkey, an image Dr Schoonover ended his lecture with.

In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience asked if Loligo, with its giant neurons, was still used in neurological studies. Dr Schoonover noted that Loligo was a true workforce back in the 50s, so the aforementioned bastard is hopelessly behind the times.

Here's a video of Dr Schoonover giving a similar lecture, so you can get a taste of the lovely imagery, not the least of which (for those of you who are so inclined) is Dr Schoonover himself:

Once again, the Secret Science Club served up a fantastic lecture. For more on GFP, check out this recap, and for more on Ramón y Cajal, check out this recap. One of these days, I'll label my posts.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Let the Good Times Roll... FOR SCIENCE!!!

Traditionally, I put up a blog post to commemorate Mardi Gras every year. This Fat Tuesday, I'll be heading down to Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture. Here's a whole concert of green beans music by musical stalwart Stanley "Buckwheat Zydeco" Dural

The concert is about as long as the typical journey from my door in Yonkers to the door of the beautiful Bell House in Brooklyn. I imagine that any accordion players on the subway will be Mexican buskers, but that's cool, Mexico has a vibrant Carnival culture of its own.

Laissez le Bon Temps Rouler... POUR SCIENCE!!!

Monday, February 16, 2015

American Badasses' Day

Today, the people of the United States celebrate Presidents' Day, a holiday combining commemorations of the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (though there are some dead-enders who don't celebrate Lincoln's birth). Inspired by a comment mikey left on a previous post, I have to note that both Washington and Lincoln were total badasses, and not just in fictional depictions.

George Washington, besides being a large man (probably 6'3" in height), was a proficient collar-and-elbow wrestler (the collar-and-elbow fighting stance is very similar to the preferred judo grip, and it's very probable that Washington would have been very much at home in the dojo). The flying mare technique that he demonstrated on seven Massachusetts volunteers is identical to our ippon seonage.

Abraham Lincoln, at 6'4" and 185 lbs, was a rangy specimen, and he was also an accomplished wrestler. As a teenager, he was reputed to have thwarted a riverboat hijacking by throwing the perpetrators overboard, and he went on to have a celebrated run as a champion in the rough-and-tumble wrestling styles popular on the U.S. frontier before moving on to bigger and better things.

Every society has a tendency to make its leaders into larger-than-life heroes, but in the case of the two presidents whose birthdays we celebrate today, these guys really were outsized badasses. Who needs Paul Bunyan when you've got Asskicking Abe?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Beauty and Peril

The Northeastern U.S. is gripped in a deep freeze this weekend, with brutal wind-chills. This afternoon has been gorgeous, the sun is shining brightly and a blanket of pure white snow lays over the ground away from the roadways, which are bordered by sooty gray piles of crap. The high temperature this afternoon was 18F (-2C), but the wind chill factor made it feel like -10 or so. Tonight, it's supposed to get to 0F (-32C), with the wind chill factor making it feel arctic.

I arrived at work this afternoon to see a juvenile bald eagle wrestling with the wind over my workplace. The wind was whipping up crystalline clouds of snow, which were dancing over the ground like the ghosts of summer memories, or like a cold elemental from an unpublished novel in Fred Saberhagen's Empire of the East series. It was really quite beautiful out, but the cold is unpleasant, and potentially dangerous. Typically, when I get to work on a Saturday or Sunday, there are a couple of cars parked in the lot, and a handful of people taking pictures of our lovely site. Today, nobody lingered- there were a couple of cars, as usual, but people were quick to hightail it to warmer environs after a brief look.

My initial act of the workday, once I grab the company cell phone out of our department lockbox, is to conduct an inspection tour of the property to make sure that everything is in good order. The typical initial walkthrough takes about forty minutes. I bundled up, wearing five layers (thermal undershirt, T-shirt, fleece, flannel shirt, and hooded sweatshirt), with an initial two layers to put on when it gets really cold. By the time I was done with my tour, the cold was starting to creep through my flannel-lined dungarees. It's gorgeous out, but not necessarily pleasant, and there are reminders that today's winds are no joke, azure sky or no:

It's so cold that even the small, brackish estuary of the Hudson adjacent to the property has frozen over:

This area typically teems with waterfowl as sunset approaches, but the one patch of open water is about as big as a typical kitchen table fit for four diners:

On nights like this I limit my exposure to the elements. I typically do an twenty-to-thirty minute inspection tour every hour and a half, but I typically only do two or three of them on a night like this. Nobody's going to be trespassing on such a dangerous night, and there are all sorts of alarms to warn of any "environmental" emergencies. For long-time readers who are familiar with my feline co-workers, Fred and Ginger are currently guesting with one of our managers for the duration of this wickedly cold spell.

The original post title I was toying with was "Pulchritude and Peril", but I've never heard of "pulchritude" being applied to a non-human object or vista.

UPDATE: It's quarter-to-one in the morning, and the wind chill is -20. NOT FUN!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Happy Valentine's Day to All

Here's wishing everybody a happy Valentine's Day, a day on which romantic love is celebrated in honor of a martyr of possibly apocryphal provenance. Personally, I think the equally apocryphal St Floradora should have been honored by having her name attached to a celebration of love.

Being a cynic, I've always turned a bit of a jaundiced eye towards the solemn Feast of St Valentine, a celebration which seems calculated to put people in serious relationships under stress, and to put people not in serious relationships under stress coupled with self-esteem issues. This stress-with-self-esteem-issues has reached it's peak in Japan, where the Revolutionary Alliance of Men that Women find Unattractive has held a rally against the celebration. My advice to these unattractive men is to just calm down for a bit and to recalibrate their expectations, just because you won't date Miss January doesn't mean you won't find Miss Right. In the meantime, these guys should learn the rudiments of romance from the late, great King of Fuji Rock, Kiyoshiro Imawano, whose Love Love is one of my personal favorite love songs:

Also associated with St Valentine's Day is the St Valentine's Day Massacre, which a bunch of killjoys turned wannabe killboys wanted to recreate in, of all places, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Thankfully, the Halifax attacks were thwarted. The perpetrators would have done better to join the marchers in Tokyo to demonstrate their disapproval- guns tend to make everything worse, with the exceptions of big-game hunting and trap/skeet shooting. Anyway, happy Valentine's Day, stay safe and may you be loved.

POSTSCRIPT: I've been trying to find an "embedable" version of that song for years, and I'm ecstatic about finally locating one. It's a big favorite of my brother Sweetums's wife, and was on the playlist for their wedding reception. I really dig it, I look at it as a "Country and Eastern" tune.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Kink Paradox

The big entertainment news this week is the release of the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey, based on a book which originated as Billionaire Dinosaur fanfic. While I haven't read the books, because I value well-crafted writing, I have read up on some of the controversy surrounding them, specifically, their abysmal portrayal of kink. My amatory proclivities tend to be strictly vanilla (I'm more of a BDFM guy than a BDSM guy), but I do have a sort of academic interest in paraphilias (vore and macrophilia are particularly outré ones... for the record, one friend of mine was approached by a couple of "student filmmakers" who wanted to film her stomping on a crayfish, which she declined to do, and another friend of mine, an "alternative model", did a photo shoot in which she stomped on toy cars).

The paradoxical thing about kink is that its practitioners have to be more morally upstanding than vanilla folks- they need to set boundaries and communicate every action in order for everyone to have a safe, good time. The "Fifty Shades" books seem to elide this important prerequisite to the kinky sex acts they portray. In my personal experience, the closest analogy I can come up with is fighting- the important thing about fighting is that the participants have each other's health and well-being in mind. Every time we enter the dojo, we bow- originally, each dojo featured a shrine, but in our secular society, I look at this ritualistic act as a reminder that we, as judoka are leaving the ordinary world behind, that we are engaging in potentially dangerous activities. Similarly, we bow at the beginning of every class and we bow to our partners when we start a workout with them- every bow is a demonstration of trust and a reminder that we have to be better than our everyday selves. I wouldn't want to fight against someone with poor morals (not that I may have a choice in the matter, which is something I would be repulsed by). Similarly, I wouldn't want to engage in any kinky activities with someone who wasn't concerned with respect for a partner's health and well-being.

I sure hope the average "50 Shades" viewer has the savvy to study up on kink before engaging in it, I just don't trust the books' author or the movie's producers and director to make sure that there is a "teaching moment" to instruct the audience to take any of these activities very seriously. If you're going to play with whips and furs, you need to do it with someone with a sweet, sweet heart:

That last sentence was a happy coincidence, I wasn't aware of the video of the two songs back-to-back until a minute ago.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Happy Birthday, Chuck D!

Today, we mark the birthday of Charles Darwin, the naturalist who, simultaneously with Alfred Russel Wallace articulated the Theory of Evolution by Means of Natural Selection. Darwin had been quietly formulating his thoughts on evolution, but being a careful, sober man, he put off publishing them for fear of upsetting the establishment until Wallace wrote him to describe his own observations about evolution. Darwin gets most of the credit, and blame, for his Theory of Evolution, but Wallace's role should not be forgotten.

Charles Darwin has been demonized and slandered by those who feel threatened by his theory- he has been falsely portrayed as a racist and mendacious shitbags have tried to link Nazism to Darwin's theory (I would observe that Martin Luther had more of a role in German antisemitism than Darwin ever did). Creationists have also tried to like Darwin with Stalin, which is particularly egregious, because the Stalinist party line embraced Lysenkoism. In reality, Darwin was a staunch foe of slavery and racist violence, and could be counted among the most enlightened individuals of his time.

The Scala Naturae, the idea of a "hierarchy of being", with white males at the top, preceded Darwin, and Darwin's theory played a large role in dismantling it. Darwin's observation that all organisms shared a common descent is a celebration of the interconnectedness of life, and actually makes racism and even cruelty to animals less morally tenable. We are all related, descendents of a primordial microorganism, and we are more closely related to mushrooms than Escherichia coli bacteria and Clostridium sp. bacteria are to each other. The "Darwinian" framework also led to the discovery that there is no genetic basis for race, so laying the blame for racism on Darwin is a monstrous distortion and a base calumny.

Darwin's observation is dangerous precisely because it undermines the positions of racists and authoritarians, which is why they accuse him of their own sins, a classic case of psychological projection. Evolution is real, it can be observed in action with the rise of antibiotic resistance. Stripped down to the simplest level, evolution by means of natural selection merely means that organisms which have more descendents pass along more of their traits than those which do not... it's a process that works on populations over time, and the idea that an individual can evolve is a gross distortion, or a Pokémon rule. Evolution is real, and Creationist arguments against it invariable rely on arguments against a house of straw of their own, er, creation.

Darwin was good, Darwin was right, I celebrate his birth tonight.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Worst of Humanity, the Best of Humanity

It's official, humanitarian aid worker Kayla Mueller was killed while being held hostage by ISIS. Ms Mueller represented the best of humanity, after spending her youth serving humanitarian causes at home and abroad, she gave her life while working to ameliorate human suffering. The world is diminished by her loss at the hands of the worst of humanity. One of the greatest tragedies of the human condition is that the worst of us, those who are consumed by hatred, by an urge to dominate others, tend to kill those of us who are loving and selfless... aggression beats agape, such is the lot of our species.

As if the murder of Kayla Mueller weren't horrible enough, knuckle-dragging conservatives here in the 'States are bashing her. There is little difference between ISIS and these "good American patriots"- really, the only difference is that the U.S. is still a functioning secular democracy, something which these monsters are trying to change. Fatwah envy is one of the hallmarks of American conservatism, with all of the misogyny that entails.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Third Crappy Monday in a Row

Once again, we've had inclement weather on a Monday, here in the Northeast. I left work at 1AM and took my time driving home because a light freezing rain was falling, and I was concerned about black ice on the roads. By the time I got home, all of the parking spots on the block were taken... well, those not occupied by miniature icebergs. I ended up parking a block and a half away, in front of the local school. Because of the weather, alternate side of the street rules were suspended, on a typical day, all the cars clear out by 8AM to avoid tickets.

I set the alarm for quarter-to-eight so I could get the lay of the land. When my usual spot opened up, I parked my car there, on a side street with no alternate side rules. All's fair in parking! Besides, I was merely reclaiming the spot I usually park in, and have for the past eight years.

I typically have Mondays off, which has been a mixed blessing- I didn't have to drive to work this morning, and I was able to steal my parking spot back from the schmuck who parked in it. I also had a craptastic day off, and am reluctant to move the car out of a coveted spot. I have tomorrow off too. It's supposed to get above freezing tomorrow, so I'll probably break up a few huge piles of snow to promote melting. Foolishly, I forgot to borrow a mattock from the job, the snow mounds are that formidable.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Grammys? No Thanks!

I'm pretty out-of-it when it comes to current popular music trends, as if my periodic music video embeds didn't clue you into that. I did, however, have the misfortune of forgetting my iPod while taking a road-trip to visit my mom in Virginia, so I heard the execrable Grammy-nominated Shake it Off by Taylor Swift. I don't have anything against Taylor Swift, on the one occasion on which I met her, I didn't even realize that she was a soon-to-be-famous songstress (so I have to assume she was pretty down-to-earth) and I have a fervent desire that she achieves actual immortality so she can become Taylor Swift IN SPAAAAAAAAAAAAACE and break up with every guy in the universe- I just can't stand her crap music. Shake it Off, a solipsistic song about (you got it) Taylor Swift is especially horrible, just check out the lyrics:

'Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off
Heartbreakers gonna break, break, break, break, break
And the fakers gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, fake
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

Ugh, it's tailor-made (better yet, Taylor-made) for the soundtrack to Gitmo, or Malebolge, or (even more hellishly) Sarah Palin's Iowa speech.

The other front-runner for song of the year, Stay With Me by Sam Smith, is not offensive at all, and I wish Mr Smith, a "blue-eyed soul" singer from the UK, all the success he deserves. I think he is exactly the right guy to become the 21st Century's Rick Astley, and foresee a time twenty-five years from now when kids smithroll each other.

Personally, I think the Grammys are a crapfest, a perfect distillation of the utter crap that the music industry extrudes like so much pink slime. Everything you need to know about the Grammys can be summed up by Christopher Cross' sweep of the 1981 Grammy awards (though, again, I have no personal animus against Mr Cross, and actually dig the fact that he played a gig with Deep Purple once).

This year, you know the Grammys are a total sham because Darkey and the Keys haven't been nominated for a single Grammy, even though they are a billion times better than Taylor Swift:

My favorite member of the band is the big dude with the short hair and the bushy eyebrows... he looks like he's wandered in from another band's recording session, or from another planet altogether. I have come to think of him as "Tiny", the cousin of the lead singer and that the two had this conversation before forming the band:

Darkey: Hey, Tiny, you still got that electric guitar of yours?

Tiny: Sure, I occasionally play songs from Frozen to entertain our nieces.

Darkey: Well, I'm forming a band, think Tamil death metal, with a Ronnie James Dio meets Shiva as Ascetic aesthetic.

Tiny: Darkey, I dig the idea, and you know I'll always have your back, but we have a dress code at work.

Darkey: Tiny, I really need you, you're the best guitarist in the neighborhood.

Tiny: I'm in, as long as it doesn't interfere with my job at the Kuala Lumpur Municipal Water Authority.

And the rest was history, in my imagination.


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Trillions of Fellow Passengers

Today was a typical winter Saturday for me, I hopped on the number 1 subway train at 238th St in the Bronx and rode down to midtown for my Saturday volunteer coaching gig. I'm not a germophobe, so I wasn't particularly freaked out by the discovery that the NYC subway system is teeming with microorganisms, with 48% of the DNA recovered belonging to organisms that were previously unknown. There were a couple of samples which had DNA associated with anthrax and three samples of DNA associated with bubonic plague, but I'm not worried- bacteria tend to be promiscuous and exchange genetic material like swingers swap spouses at a key party. Anthrax on the subway? I've never seen them busking.

There are some really interesting findings- the Sandy-flooded South Ferry station has a marine microbial profile, with some specimens typical of Antarctica. Throughout the city, bacterial profiles tend to resemble the residents' eating patterns, with bacteria associated with cheese, sauerkraut, kimchi, chickens, and chickpeas (but not Cornish chickpeas) being found in various parts of the system.

The interactive Pathomap promises to be as much of a fun time sink, albeit a less pretty one, as the gorgeous Welikia Project. I'm not freaked out by the discovery of all of these fellow subway passengers, I'm comfortable knowing that I have an entire world in my guts, and that many of its natives are bacterial buddies that I can't do well without. The subway is teeming with microorganisms, and that's a beautiful thing. Maybe the MTA can start spraying the subway cars with a probiotic culture after the trains are cleaned.

That being said, I still won't be doing this anytime soon:

Not even for a dollar.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Current Earworm, Netherlands New Wave Style

This being a bit of a grim week on the local news front (two horrific mass-transit accidents took place locally in the past seven days), I figured I'd alter the mood a bit by posting a video. My current earworm is a blackly comedic song by new wave band Gruppo Sportivo of the Netherlands. Their song Mission a Paris is a bouncy number, starting off as a tale of unrequited love for a stranger while on vacation and morphing into a tale of counterespionage which ends up with a dead 007 found in the Eiffel Tower's safety nets with piss-soaked tuxedo pants. Sorry, Mr Fleming, the world of "fanfic" doesn't have to respect plot immunity:

Dig that kazoo! The original studio version from the 1978 album Ten Mistakes actually has even more kazoo. The band's sound and their darkly whimsical subject matter reminds me of the Rezillos, another old band that I dig. Sorry about inflicting an earworm on you, folks, if you're like me, you'll find yourself singing: I'll buy a dictionary and look up what you said to me compulsively for a few days.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Healthcare Meeting

Today, my place of employment had its annual meeting about the company health plan. After getting about four hours of sleep, I drove in a short but fairly intense snowfall to our home office. We have about thirty-five full-time employees, most of our workforce being seasonal part-time employees, many of them retirees. Thankfully, we aren't covered by Anthem, Inc. My spider-sense tends to tingle when I note certain company names, typically anything involving "Liberty", "Patriot", or "Family"- those keywords set off my BS detector, and I make sure I have my hand firmly on my wallet. Regarding Anthem, could the founder(s) have been an Ayn Rand fan?

Anyway, after a discussion of various copays, deductibles, and caps of out-of-pocket expenditures, I emerged from the meeting ever more convinced that a single-payer government healthcare system is the way to go. I haven't taken a prescription medication in twenty-five years, and I don't typically use any over-the-counter medicines, either, being a rather healthy, active lad. I'm a bit sore now, having spent a few hours yesterday shoveling snow on a balmy, sunny day- the neighbor who lives across the street and one house over and I were breaking up the mountains of snow left on the side of the street by the plows, in an effort to gain back our two-lane street. Even with some soreness, I figure I'll work the kinks out and muddle through the discomfort for a day... it's pretty much a typical Sunday for me.

One very funny moment in the meeting, one that underscored the boot/shoe divide in the organization, occurred when one of our production heads, an elderly diminutive lady who is as strong and tough as she is kind and sweet (I liken her to an ant, able to carry ten times her body weigh), asked for a list of in-network urgent care centers, so her staff wouldn't have to go to a hospital emergency room for a cut that "only required stitches". The office staff was genuinely taken aback by this somewhat blasé attitude toward bloodshed, while someone in her department joked about applying her sewing skill as an "in-house" solution. Me? I just nodded and chuckled "it's only a flesh wound", knowing the nature of the work. Hell, I slipped on ice last week and was fine because I was so bundled up, and I've practiced ukemi. We boot people tend to be pretty tough.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Homeward Horror

The major local news story of the day is a horrific crash involving a motor vehicle and a northbound Metro-North commuter train. The driver of the vehicle had apparently gotten stuck at one of the few railroad crossings on the Metro-North Harlem line.

In my neck of the woods, the railroad right-of-way is situated in a low area, and all of the transverse roads are on overpasses, a condition which . The particular railroad crossing is in a less-traveled area that had an uptick in traffic due to a detour. At any rate, six people have lost their lives, and railroad service in the region will be disrupted for a long time.

Kudos go to engineer Steven Smalls, who pulled several passengers out of the train and is recuperating in hospital. This poor, brave man could not have stopped the train in time to avoid the crash... even though he's blameless, I imagine this horror will haunt him for years to come. Nobody could have done better in the circumstances into which he was thrown.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

E. coli Conservatism Isreal!

Via Tengrain, we have a wonderful tale of E. coli conservatism from North Carolina. In a crusade against the tyranny of burdensome government regulations, Senator Thom Tillis pulled this wonderful talking point out of his ass, recalling a conversation with a constituent:

“She said, for example, don’t you believe that the regulation that requires this gentleman to wash his hands before he serves your food is important, that it should be on the books?” Tillis recalled.

Tillis replied: “I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says ‘We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom.’”

Instead, Tillis believes that full disclosure of such lax hygiene policies would be a strong enough deterrent on its own to put the store out of business. “The market would take care of that,” he said.

Yeah... that's the classic Libertarian argument, let the market take care of shit in your coffee. Seeing a restaurant close down because it served contaminated food is a great consolation to someone facing the prospect of kidney failure due to E. coli poisoning. In a stellar example of hypocrisy, Tillis, who received a 35% permanent disability rating due to an automobile accident is an advocate of tort reform who wishes to cap awards for damages in civil suits. You got it, the guy who doesn't think that restaurant employees should have to wash their hands, and thinks that the market would sort out resultant problems, wants to limit the rights of individuals harmed by unsanitary conditions to sue for damages. On the one hand, he wants to throw away regulations, on the other, he wants throw away Joe and Flo Schmo's ability to benefit from the "market forces" he wishes to replace regulations with. Basically, he wants to remove consumer protections at the same time he removes reparations... put succinctly, he wants to screw the little people.

Also, what the hell is up with every wingnut's fascination with Starbucks? First we have psycho pastor "semen lattes", now we have Senator "this coffee tastes like shit"... whoa, could Tillis have some inside information? Is Starbucks going to serve kopi luwak?

Title yoinked from one of the funniest brainfarts of one of the dumbest d00ds on the internet.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Here We Snow Again, or the Groundhog Pooped Itself

I typically don't celebrate Groundhog Day, it reminds me of a time in my life during which I was mired in criminality, and pursued a bitter rivalry which only ended in the death of my foe. For me, there's a lot of emotional baggage that accompanies Groundhog Day, even though I've made my peace with the past.

Today, I think the groundhog shit itself... we got hit with a snowstorm that affected my area harder than the last one did (thankfully, we only got about five or six inches of snow, but it was weighed down with freezing rain). It took me over an hour to get home at 1AM- I was in a line of cars following a pair of snowplows, shaking my head all the time at the lack of distance the drivers left between cars- seriously, pileups happen, people. Thankfully, I don't have to be back at work until Wednesday night, but I am feeling a slight twinge of guilt because this is the second week in a row in which I've dodged really bad weather. Oh, well, I draw up the schedule weeks in advance- and I don't have access to President Obama's Weather Smurfing Machine.

Tonight, it's supposed to get frigidly cold, so the area's going to be a skating rink. Not having to leave the house, I decided to take on a time-consuming project, making a moussaka. For the record, I'm using two layers of eggplant and one layer of potato. It's supposed to warm up considerably on Wednesday, so I can dig out the car then... at least I'll have a hearty lunch waiting for me, and moussaka always tastes better after it's had a day or two to "come together".

Unfortunately, I can't just ensconce myself in the house for the next six weeks.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sportball Spectacle

There seems to be some sort of major sporting event taking place tonight, some sort of athletic spectacle of some notoriety. Now, I've read Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, so I have a pretty good idea of what's going on. Let's see what fly Guy had to say: In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. Yeah, that pretty much holds true, although I did see about twenty young guys playing football on the snowy school athletic field near my house, so somebody is directly living the football dream.

Me? I'm at work, taking a break from reading one of the key documents of the Situationist International movement during a lull on the job. While most Americans are watching the game and indulging in an orgy of caloric consumption second only to Thanksgiving Day, some of us are otherwise occupied. For instance God-botherer Jan Markel is on the case, noting that tonight's halftime show featuring Katy Perry, Zoey Deschanel's bosomier, more salacious lookalike, will be bringing sin into livingrooms and bars across the country:

“Katy Perry will be doing the halftime and it will be complete maximum evil which is nothing new, and Paul, you of all people know more than anybody with some of the halftime stuff.”

Yep, Katy Perry will be perpetrating "complete maximum evil" on a day when religious fanatics beheaded a courageous journalist, a day on which violence rages in the Ukraine and the Middle East, a day on which thousands of people will die violently, a day on which millions of people will know hunger and privation.

I don't know about you, but I think that a world in which a thirty year-old sex bomb with big natural boobs and small artificial talent bumps and grinds on a stage for a half hour constitutes "complete maximum evil" would be a much better place than the world we've got. Regardless of which team you're rooting for, I sure hope you're rooting for a victory of "sexy" over "violent".

That victory would be spectacular.