Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Low Albedo?

In back of the building in which my office is located, in a normally shady spot, there is still a sheet of ice, which I have been attacking piecemeal with an ice chopper. In places, fallen leaves have reduced the albedo of the ice, producing leaf-shaped holes in the ice:

It's a shame that the 3-D effect is not so apparent in the pictures because the holes look really cool up close:

I should go nuts and grab a bunch of leaves to strew over this ice sheet, but the damn things are hard to come by this time of year.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Gomez' Birthday

Today, I stick to my yearly tradition by wishing my baby brother, Gomez, a happy birthday. Mom will be traveling down to Gomez' house for Easter. Unfortunately, shipping an Easter Egg Ring down to his place really isn't that feasible... I don't think the eggs cooked into the ring would travel well in a USPS truck.

Happy Birthday, Gomez, and have fun with mom on Easter.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Poor Little Starvelings

When I got to work this afternoon, I was greeted with the piteous cries of hungry cats. Oh, for shame, look at these poor little starvelings:

I've heard that the guy who's supposed to feed them is a bastard.

Edit: They just about "mugged" me when I fed them this afternoon. They really didn't want to give me a chance to open up a can of food for them. They've been in a pretty giddy mood lately, probably because it's finally decent out temperature-wise and they're finally getting a chance to be outside. I totally empathize with my little furry buddies.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Rockstar Morality

I've been a big fan of the band Muse ever since hearing their song Starlight on a local college radio station. The best thing about the band is that they are totally a nerd band (no surprise, as frontman Matt Bellamy is the son of George Bellamy, rhythm guitarist of the Tornados, whose Telstar is a glorious bit of 1960s rocket-pop), whether referencing astrophysics in their music or channeling a gloriously cheesy science-fantasy kung-fu space western (a fantastic spoof of a cheap European knockoff of a gloriously cheesy science-fantasy samurai space western). Besides the band's impeccable nerd-cred, they also have released political songs urging listeners to break out of the mass-media propaganda bubble.

In the runup to the release of the band's upcoming album, Drones, Mr Bellamy took on the topic of drone warfare and the societal implications of their expanded use:

Now, speaking to Mac, Bellamy elaborated that the album was "a modern metaphor for what it is to lose empathy." He continued: "I think that through modern technology, and obviously through drone warfare in particular, it’s possible to actually do quite horrific things by remote control, at a great distance, without actually feeling any of the consequences, or even feeling responsible in some way."

"The next step in drones is gonna be autonomous drones, which actually make ‘kill’ decisions themselves, where no humans are involved," Bellamy added.

Heady stuff, coming from a "rockstar". Personally, my take on the use of drones is that they remove the danger of human casualties on the battlefield, but that the very depersonalization of warfare further lowers the bar for violence. If an operator can kill an individual while sitting in an air-conditioned room two thousand miles away, the very act of killing can become no more emotional than playing a video game is. In the case of autonomous drones, even the slightest moral element is removed from the act.

Of course, the moralist is also a rockstar, so here is a video of a badass live performance of the new song Reapers:

As a final note, our society has hit a pretty bad low when rock songs are a better source of information that the news media.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Sauce! Sauce! Sauce!

This week, I stopped by the H Mart Korean superstore in White Plains to pick up such staples as soy sauce, tofu, and kimchi. While shopping, I fell in love with an eight-and-a-half pound bottle of chili garlic sauce, which I absolutely had to buy:

This bottle of hot sauce is as large as my rather big head, a fact that will be apparent from this picture of me performing my locally infamous "bottle trick", where I use my long cranium and excellent sense of balance to dance with a bottle (or cup or book or what have you) on my head:

My preciousssssssssssssssssssssssssssss...

I predict it'll last me a couple of weeks. Title inspired by David Johansen's hilarious novelty track.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thanks Are in Order

Wow, I have to take a moment to express my gratitude to several people in the aftermath of last night's post. First of all, I have to thank Dr Christoper Mason, who sent me a text message to correct an inaccuracy in my post, regarding the pace at which genome sequencing halved in cost. Thank you, Dr Mason! Next, I want to thank the awesome Dr Evon Hekkala, who delivered an amazing Secret Science Club lecture back in April 2013. Dr Hekkala suggested that Dr Mason and I exchange contact information and "talked up" my blog... thanks, Dr Hekkala, you have been unfailingly supportive and 100% fantastic. I also want to thank Elisabeth Bik of Microbiome Digest, who sent a link to my blog post via Twitter. I knew something funny was going on when my post counter started "upticking" at 1AM. I have never met Ms. Bik, but count me as a member of her fan club... thank you!

It goes without saying that I am grateful to Margaret and Dorian, who make the whole Secret Science Club experience possible. Thank you one and all!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Talk Dirty to Us

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 Dr Christopher Mason, assistant professor of physiology & biophysics and computational biomedicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and member of the Yale Law School Information Society Project (but not, to my knowledge, a member of the Information Society). He was also named a member of the brilliant ten by Popular Science magazine. Dr Mason created quite a stir locally when the results of his NYC subway system DNA collection project were revealed earlier this year. Dr Mason gained overnight notoriety when he answered, in response to a query about germs in the subway, "You wouldn't want to lick all the poles, even though you'd probably be fine." Now THAT is one thousand varieties of awesome!

Dr Mason began his lecture by stating that he was obsessed with sequencing DNA, the molecular "recipe" present from an individual's first cells. He described development as a symphony of DNA, RNA, and proteins, a combination of processes that occur at all times.

The last ten years of microbiology have been revolutionary. To illustrate the growth of processing power in the field of genome tracking, Dr Mason brought up Moore's Law and noted that the reduction in the cost of gene sequencing has vastly outpaced the general pace of technological development. In the period from 2006-2007, the cost to sequence a genome was cut in half every five months. This reduction in cost has led to "participatory genomics", embodied by such websites as "Patients Like Me", a social media site on which individuals can share genetic data. Genome guided medicine has arrived- medicines can be tailored to a patient's genetic profile. Dr Mason noted that more data equals more power, and that organizations such as Genspace are bringing microbiology to a wider audience. One of Genspace's projects is a study of the microbiome of the ultra-polluted Gowanus Canal, mere blocks from the beautiful Bell House. Dr Mason mentioned two genes that have a great effect on the health of an individual possessing them: CCR5-Δ32 provides HIV resistance, mutations decreasing myostatin can result in larger muscle mass, and LRP5 regulates bone mass.

Dr Mason then shifted to the topic of DNA patents. Until recently, DNA, once removed from the body, could be patented. The patenting of a DNA sequence such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are implicated in the development of breast cancer, had the potential to stymie medicine based on these gene sequences. Dr Mason likened gene patenting to "patenting the word because and claiming to own every book". The challenge to gene patenting took place on 4/15/2013 and the Supreme Court invalidated patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2 on 6/13/2013- claims on isolated DNA were rejected. The litigation finally ended in 2015, so you now have a right to look at DNA. Dr Mason quipped, "Your genome is free!"

Dr Mason moved on to the topic of the microbiome. Every individual has more than one genome- there is the human genome and there is the genome of an individual's microbiome. Dr Mason illustrated this concept with a political analogy: "In a genetic democracy, you are the minority party." Every human being plays host to three to five pounds of bacteria, and most of the genes in your body are not "yours". Dr Mason cited the work of the Human Microbiome Project, joking "You are your bacteria." One's bacterial symbionts provide about 90% of the body's serotonin and about 50% of the body's dopamine. As Dr Mason put it, "The nearest pharmacy is your gut." The human microbiome produces about 700 "drugs". Lab studies have shown that (WARNING: NYT LINK, SAVE YOUR CLICKS) gut bacteria transplanted to fat mice can slim them.

An individual "inherits" its bacteria buddies from its mother in a Maternal Microbiome Transfer- during birth, a newborn picks up some of its mother's vaginal microbiome. Later on, this major transference is supplemented during nursing. Babies delivered through a Caesarian section tend to have a higher incidence of disease later in life. Dr Mason likened the microbiome to an anti-disease "force field", then he flashed a news report of Boeing's new "force field" patent (gotta love interdisciplinary nerdery!). He also noted that exposure to cockroaches is good for infants with asthma, and that Fecal Microbiota Transplants can harness "the power of poop" to help individuals with certain gastrointestinal problems (Dr Martin Blaser's two Secret Science Club lectures also dealt with this subject). He then cited OpenBiome as the go-to place for potential stool donors, with their "give a shit" campaign.

Dr Mason had a brief digression about bacteriophobia, quoting Bertrand Russell: "To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom." He showed the audience a couple of photos of his adorable daughter and mentioned her habit of putting toys in her mouth. When he took her to daycare, he observed the kids all putting the same toys in their mouths and passing their microbiota around. He likened it to the whole group "making out". This was the inspiration for the big "swabbing campaign" which led to the Pathomap.

The Pathomap is a "molecular view of the city", the goal of the project, which began on 7/15/2013, was to "seek out new life, new civilizations". The project has taken place over six different seasons, with 4,342 different data points in a subway system that transports 5.5 million riders daily. Samples were swabbed, annotated, and sequenced. 50% of the DNA belonged to no known organism (though the genomes of cockroaches have not been sequenced yet). Dr Mason described the subway system as a "rainforest to explore" in an interview with the NY Times. DNA from bacteria, eukaryotes, viruses, and "ambiguous" sources) was collected. A headline in The Atlantic proclaimed: "New York City Subways Are Covered in Microscopic Pizza". Despite the discovery of minute traces of anthrax, bubonic plague causing Yersinia pestis, and dysentery-causing bacteria, 88% of the bacteria on the subway were "friendlies". Out of the deleterious 12%, the most common were Enterococcus and Shigella. Despite headlines about everything "from beetles to bubonic plague" being found, Dr Mason noted that there is zero evidence that anyone is at risk from the subway bacteria. He noted that anthrax is caused by a soil bacteria and that the "anthrax DNA" that was found could belong to an unknown relative, and there is evidence that low levels of the "bad" bacteria in the subway are okay.

The greatest genetic diversity in the subway system was found in the Bronx, with Brooklyn ranking second. Dr Mason wryly noted, "Nothing soft comes from the Bronx." High diversity is a good thing, there is a lesser risk of any one organism accumulating in a dangerous concentration. Comparing the subway system's microbiome to the human microbiome, Dr Mason stated that the subway "looks like skin" with regards to the diversity of its biome. He noted the various incidence of bacteria associated with kimchi, sauerkraut, and noted that species diversity varies by area of the city. Areas of the subway affected by superstorm Sandy were characterized by bacteria not present elsewhere, including bacteria normally associated with the Antarctic. The hourly dynamics in the subway system vary in the course of a day- the periodic cleaning of the system is like a "forest fire", followed by a repopulation of the cleaned area.

Dr Mason provided a "greatest hits" summary of his various statements to the press, including such side-splitters as "the best thing to do with newborns is roll them like sushi on the subway ground" and the bit about licking the subway poles. The man has a knack for a soundbite.

On the topic of the genetic diversity of the system, Dr Mason indicated that the presence of DNA doesn't necessarily indicate that the organism it reveals the presence of is alive. Certain bacteria can produce antibiotics in order to compete with other bacteria. Among eukaryote genes, chickpea and cucumber genes were commonly found. Cockroach genomes not being sequenced, the mighty roaches of New York have yet to take their rightful place, now they are lumped in with the "unknowns". The amount of human DNA found varied from day-to-day... Dr Mason admitted that no swabbing was done on the day of the No-Pants Subway Ride. The human DNA that was found corresponds with census data- zooming in on the different areas of the Pathomap, one can predict the census results due to DNA matches. Humanity's "molecular echo" rings throughout the Pathomap.

Noting that the bacterial "map" of the subway system looked like an ad for Uber or a full-body condom, Dr Mason tackled the question, "Should I ride the subway?" He said, "It's okay, you're all healthy." He concluded that we should ride the subway.

The final section of the talk concerned future projects. The NYC subway system, with 1.7 billion riders, is the seventh busiest subway system in the world. The swabbing and mapping of subways in other cities has already begun. Another upcoming project is a Hospital Microbiome Project. An integration of molecular and technical data would result in a "smart city" in which pathogenic microbe alerts could be issued. Nanopore sequencing, measuring DNA as it passes through pores, is making genome sequencing even more rapid, which led to a discussion of the need for BIG DATA storage, with Dr Mason musing about Yottabytes of genetic data. He also mentioned the upcoming studies of the Kelley twins to determine the effects of space travel on identical twins (obligatory shout-out to the mad genii of Riddled!)

In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience asked if there was an appreciable difference between the outdoor stations, exposed as they are to UV rays and winter cold, and the sheltered underground stations. Dr Mason indicated that there was almost the same level of genetic diversity, but the outdoor stations had more plant DNA than the underground stations. Other topics addressed included probiotic deodorant sprays (the bacteria prevent the "stink producing" bacteria from proliferating, but showering washes the probiotics off). Regarding DNA sequencing and genome-based medicine, Dr Mason urged us not to run away from genetic information, but to be wary of a loss of privacy. On the "Ebola question", Dr Mason noted that Ebola is an RNA virus, and no testing for it has occurred. MRSA was found at three spots in the system. Dr Mason briefly touched on DHS pathogen detectors, using air filtration, but the feds don't typically share data. One wag, noting that Dr Mason was a charismatic, entertaining speaker, asked if he would be giving Neil Degrasse Tyson a run for his money as the great populizer of science, to which Dr Mason responded that he had met with Dr Tyson and had "exchanged microbiomes" by shaking his hand. For those of you fantasizing about hunky scientists hanging out, this isn't the first time that topic has been raised. Regarding the Gowanus, there are a lot of Archea there, talk about extremophiles!

At the end of the Q&A, Dr Mason mused about the use of bacteria to protect astronauts from radiation on long space flights, and about "microbiome synchronization" in the tight spaces astronauts would deal with. He ended by noting that the best hope for long-term human survival is space colonization. We won't be going along on to the "final frontier", we'll be travelling with trillions of our closest friends.

Once again, the Secret Science Club dished out a fantastic lecture, one that hit the "sweet spot" of imparting information, giving a look into the processes used by working scientists, a healthy dose of humor, and perhaps most important of all, a compelling local connection. Put succinctly, Dr Mason knocked it out of the park. Kudos to Dr Mason, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. The ride home on the subway system was wonderful, I was able to bask in the rosy glow of knowing that I was traveling with a myriad of little buddies.

Here's a quick video featuring Dr Mason:

And, for extra measure, here's the Pathomap- be warned, though, you could spend many, many hours playing with it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Brooklyn Bound, with a Couple of Billion of My Closest Friends

Tonight, I'll be heading down to Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture. Tonight's lecture, by Dr Christopher Mason, will concern a topic that I wrote a blog post on last month. I'll be riding on the 4 Train and the R Train with billions of little buddies.

I promise that I'll tell the truth if I get more squicked out about holding onto the pole in the subway car on the ride home than I was on the ride down. I've written numerous times about how I'm not a bacteriaphobe. Let's see if tomorrow night's lecture does anything to change my view on "germs".

Monday, March 23, 2015

Majestik Kreechurz R Wee!

My workday typically begins with a ritual- the initial walkthrough of the site, checking for any problems, errors, and omissions, reporting those I cannot correct and correcting those I can. For this particular ritual, I usually have my feline co-workers accompany me. They get to stretch their legs and engage their brains as we walk the length of the property. The sight of me with my two orange-and-white shadows is a running joke among our staff and contractors, and occasionally, I'll have a conversation with a pedestrian looking over our perimeter fence who will do a double take and say, "What's up with the cats?" Yeah, I'm kinda like their mom and they can be clingy at times.

The initial walkthrough takes me to a section of the property where a lot of the behind-the-scenes work takes place- the workshop is nestled in a wooded area adjacent to a marshy estuarine environment. The guys in the shop have set up a table and some chairs so they can eat their lunch in this beautiful spot, and I like to take an occasional break to take in a particularly beautiful sunset or an interesting animal visitor. On Sunday, I paused to soak in a little sunshine and to let the cats explore for a bit. Here's a picture of them, posing in a grandiose fashion that only felines can pull off:

It's hard to see the goofy furballs (or is that furry goofballs?) that they usually are while looking at this picture. These two should be posing in front of a library.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Post-Solstice Solace

Last summer, I had the great good fortune to visit one of the most supportive members of the bloggerhood, Thunder. On the door to his world-famous Cacapon Mountain hideaway, there is a sign reading WHEN THE WORLD BURDENS YOU SEEK THE SOLITUDE OF THE FOREST!

The last few days have been rough, me having learned of the deaths of two friends. Luckily, I work in a beautiful location, and though it is not heavily forested, it is a wonderful place in which to take refuge when the world burdens me (I'm really fortunate to have a job which tends to be a stress reliever rather than a source of stress). Today was a glorious sunny day, albeit a chilly one. Most of the snow from Friday's storm has melted and there are many signs of spring. I finally heard the welcome call of the red-winged blackbird, a surefire sign that spring has arrived. The robins (our American robins are large thrushes) have finally returned, and I saw a jaunty mockingnbird as well. I saw two male wood ducks, likely from last year's local brood, in our pond. There are black-headed scaups of uncertain provenance in the pond, likely mid-migration, and the hooded mergansers have returned to the ice-free waters. Perhaps most welcome of all (though I hate to play favorites), the killdeer, those comical noisy birds, so much like crazy windup toys, have returned. Watching the returning birds and listening to their calls is a surefire way to life one's sagging spirits.

Nature has a palliative power... when the world burdens you, take solace in the world.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Sad News in Bastardville

In the last few days, I have received some sad news.

On Wednesday, I learned that a co-worker who had been critically injured in a car accident last August died a week ago in a longterm care facility to which she had been transferred. She was a gentle soul and a kind heart. She was my age.

Today, I received an e-mail informing me that one of my colleagues in the children's sports program that I volunteer for had succumbed to cancer. He was a few years older than I am. He was a physical fitness fanatic, and a consummate athlete, but his finely honed body "betrayed" him in spite of his doing "everything right". This isn't the first time that a friend in the bloom of a strong middle age died shockingly young. The important thing to do now is to rally around his young son.

It's a tragedy to lose two friends so young, especially in such a short period of time. My reaction to loss is stoicism- while I was still in my teens, I lost three friends in a weekend... two to accidents, one to leukemia. I learned at a young age how to deal with tragedy, so I'll provide the stiff upper lip and the broad shoulder for others to cry on. For me, it's more about keeping the memory of my friends alive, and lending moral support to their survivors than it is about mourning.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Hooray for Spr...Oh, Crap

Today being the first day of Spring, I was excited to go outside and see...

Great, just effin' great... The real joke of it all is that, barring this one particular bit of the globe that I inhabit, this winter has been the warmest on record. Of course, right-wing idiots and corportate feudalists always chortle, "Heh, snow..." every winter, but the phenomenon is called global warming for a reason. Just because I'm in a snow globe doesn't mean that the world is a snow globe.

I think I'll post a video, how about a live version of the title track of so-called "one hit wonder" Modern English's bestselling album? Here is a reconstituted Modern English performing After the Snow:

It seems that "after the snow" would mean "at an unspecified future date", at least to the guy looking out his window at the falling precipitation.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Well Played, Legislator!

Via Pupienus Maximus at the mothership, we have a great legislative undermining of a discriminatory law by state representative Emily Virgin. Representative Virgin added to the "Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act", in reality a "we don't serve your kind here" law, an amendment that would force businesses to post announcements that they discriminate against certain potential customers:

Virgin amended the bill agreeing that is was fine to discriminate as long as you gave notice. All she was doing was saving everyone from embarrassment. Post a notice in your business, put it on your website and place it in your advertising. Hell, she even included race as a class you don’t have to serve in your business as long as you post it.

I like the bit about couching the bill in terms of avoiding those awkward face-to-face interactions, when the bigots have to figure out a way to couch their assholery in veiled terms. Better to make them broadcast their hate to the public to allow potential customers to make an educated decision about the businesses they patronize.

Brilliantly played, Rep. Virgin! If the bigots want to discriminate, make them wear their hate on the sleeve, or their front door and website.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Poll Cats

Today was a local election day. Typically, elections are held on Tuesdays, but yesterday being a holiday, the polls were open a day later. My workplace is a polling site, and there was a village mayoral election, so turnout was high for a non-presidential, non-November election.

When I arrived at work at 9PM, I found that there had been a bit of a kerfuffle on the job- the individual who armed the alarms onsite was not aware that Fred and Ginger were inside the building. The cats set off a motion detector and the police responded to the alarm. One of my co-workers ran out to disarm the alarm system and inform the police that there was no emergency. After he made sure the "emergency" had been handled, he found that the cats would not go calmly to the building they were assigned to "mouse". In fact, the cats followed him to our main building, which is where we host the polling site.

The cats caused a bit of a sensation... you'd think that people had never had dealings with cats before. My predecessor on site put them in a side room, where they would be out from underfoot. I arrived and let them out, so they could stretch their legs (I had to let Ginger outside so she could answer nature's call). Between the people oohing and cooing over the cats, there were others who were afraid that, if the cats got out of the building, they would "get attacked" or something, even though there was enough foot traffic to dissuade even the bravest of coyotes. I pointed out to one woman that these weren't housecats- "Look at the muscles on these cats, these are tough working cats, pretty as they are." I also pointed out that the cats knew where their food bowls were, so they wouldn't stray far. These cats follow me around a substantial piece of real estate at night, they aren't going anywhere. There's no need to worry about these two kittehs:

The cats were quite the hit. One fellow especially enjoyed hearing the story about the poor per diem worker who didn't realize that there were two cats.

Once things calmed down and the poll workers left, I was able to coax the cats into the building in which they are stationed on "rodent abatement" duties. A pocketful of cat snacks works wonders when one is trying to bribe two kittehs.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Solemn Feast of St Patrick

Today marks the most solemn Feast of St Patrick. Today, I will be performing my religious devotions, among which are telling the beads beers... one pint of beer for each Ave, and after ten, a shot of Tullamore Dew for a Paternoster. Religious fervor is very hard on the liver, doncha know.

Because I will be occupied by my devotions all day, I figured I'd post a video of the Dubliners singing The Rocky Road to Dublin

Back in January, I posted a video of the Dropkick Murphys performing a rendition of the song. As I wrote back then, the song is pretty much 19th Century punk. Here's hoping that the road to Yonkers isn't so rocky tonight, unless by rocky we mean Rocky Sullivan's.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh, my dears!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Wings of Waning Winter

Winter is certainly on the wane her in Bastardland. Besides the annual ritual of shoveling snow while wearing gym shorts, the local wildlife is coming out of its winter torpor. One of the most unusual sights of this time of year is seeing insects crawling on the snow. In this vicinity, the stoneflies, specifically the Taeniopterygidae are the first insects to emerge at winter's end. I was able to snap a decent picture of an individual, probably Taeniopteryx nivalis, resting on the end of a pruned branch of one of our onsite apple trees:

From what I've read, stoneflies, which have an aquatic larval stage, are sensitive to pollution. Either the local "flies" have evolved a high tolerance for the waters of the New York metro area, or the onsite body of water is a lot cleaner than I had supposed. I hope it's the latter, just in case I ever trip and fall into the drink.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Recap of Mom's Visit

Mom left my place this morning in order to visit one of my aunts on Long Island. I'd have liked to have joined her, but I had to go to work tonight. She's on the fence about whether she'll return to the City of Y______ on Tuesday or go straight back to Virginia.

Before she left, one of her neighbors, who has never visited New York City, admonished her to "be careful". This amused mom to no end because she is a New York City (specifically a Bronx) girl, and she knows that New York is one of the safest large cities in the U.S., indeed the world. I can imagine how freaked out her neighbor will be when mom mentions that she took a subway ride down from the Bronx to midtown Manhattan. Both she and I can't figure out why so many people have such a distorted view of New York City.

I took mom to work on Friday so she was able to meet three of my two-legged co-workers and Fred and Ginger. She immediately took a liking to all of my co-workers, bipedal and quadrupedal. While onsite, we met two women from Colorado, and I gave them an impromptu tour of the vicinity. One of the women is studying Waldorf pedagogy in New Jersey. I told her that we ran some craft-oriented events which she should check out from a "Waldorf" perspective. I didn't tell her that everything I knew about Waldorf pedagogy can be attributed to the fact that I am a huge Nena fan, but I realize that the lovely Nena Kerner started a Sudbury school, not a Waldorf school. I don't know why I conflated the two... my mind gets kinda fuzzy when I think about Nena Kerner. Whenever I take someone to work when the site is closed, I run into lovely people I take on the unofficial tour- it never fails.

Over the course of her visit, mom and I went out for pizza (the stuff in Virginia is sub-par at best) twice, the first time to a local spot and the second time to the Yonkers location of Pepe's (the cold winter has kept the clam boats from going out, so we had a spinach, mushroom, and gorgonzola pizza rather than one of the famous clam pies). We consumed two bottles of vino, a bottle of Valpolicella and a bottle of Prosecco, and I gave mom the last bottle of homemade limoncello to take home, so I'll have to head up to Connecticut to buy pure grain alcohol, an errand which the abominable weather had kept me from doing these past two months.

On Thursday night, we went out to dinner with some of my long-standing friends, people that she hasn't seen in a long time. She always loved to have her kids' friends over to our house when we lived at home, and being able to hang out with them was a particular treat for everybody.

Mom got to meet a bunch of my neighbors, who all told her that I have a "satisfactory" grade on my neighborly report card. We visited the old neighborhood that mom moved out of seventeen years ago, and dropped in on our old across-the-street neighbor, who was crying tears of joy to see us. We were very close, she and mom had similar values and attitudes. I'm going to have to disagree with Morrissey on this one.

The highlight of the visit was mom attending yesterday's closing exercises for the program for which I volunteer as a coach. She got to see some of the older coaches who she hasn't seen in years, met the newer coaches, and fell in love with the kids in the program.

For me, the important thing was that mom got to see me interact with multiple social circles: friends, neighbors, co-workers, volunteer colleagues, random strangers. One of these days, I'll convince her to start a blog so she can meet the bloggerhood.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Hey, Ma, Watch This!

Today was the last day of this semester of my volunteer coaching gig. My reason for inviting mom up for the week was so she could attend our final day and the luncheon/awards ceremony afterwards. I've been coaching judo in this program for about twenty years. When she was still living in New York, mom would come down for our "closing exercises" every so often. She knows all of the old-time coaches. Two of our soccer coaches, Keith the Brummie and Handsome Johnny C., have been coaching for thirty years. Jerry, the track coach, for longer than that. She has known all of my compatriots in the judo room for years, with the exception of "Big Al", a very nice thirty-something Brazilian guy who has been with us for about seven years. Most of the "newcomers" have been around for ten years or so. I knew mom would be able to work the room, knowing so many people. She took an immediate liking to Big Al, who is one of the most genuinely nice people I know.

I had two classes to teach, a class of eight and nine year old girls and a class of eight and under boys. The girls class was a small one, and the girls are serious about what they do- one particular girl won our "most improved" award, and she's one to watch, a driven girl who has come to love our sport. I suspect she'll end up being best in sport next year, and made sure to tell her parents that we would love to have her come for extra lessons after the regular multi-sport program ends at noon. At the end of the class I told all of the girls that my mom was visiting so they should all line up to throw me for her.

The boys class was, inexplicably, visiting the dojo for the first time all year. We were kinda disconcerted when this group of over twenty boys showed up, having never been exposed to the sport. Sheesh, couldn't they have been sent to the basketball courts? We ran them through some exercises, then had them compete in a sumo tournament, smallest to largest. It was pretty nutty, but the kids broke a sweat and had some fun competing.

When the last kids left, we had some free time, so I went three rounds of randori with Gentle Jimmy G. Jim joked, "I feel bad about beating you up in front of your mom." I replied, "It's okay, she watched all of the eight year-olds beat me up." Mom would rather see me engaging in hand-to-hand combat with a bunch of big tough guys than to see me sitting on my ass in a recliner channel surfing any day.

After the classes, we had a nice luncheon, and various awards were given to the best and most improved boys and girls in each age group, and additional awards are given for sportsmanship and spirit. The award to the best counselor of the year, named after a boy who was taken from us by a runaway infection at the age of sixteen twelve years ago (the last time I saw him alive, he was smoking in front of his younger cousin, and I ripped him a new one, telling him, "Quit now while you still can, but if I ever see you smoking in front of her again, I'll rip your head off", so every time his aunt sees me, she cries, because she is reminded of him), was awarded by his cousin to a counselor who was "brevetted" to basketball coach, and has had a successful go at it. We had a nice meal, and mom got to chit-chat with all of the nice guys who beat the snot out of her son. For a bunch of guys who fight like hell, we sure get along well.

After the luncheon, Gentle Jimmy G. offered my mom and I a ride back to the Bronx, where I had parked my car. Al's apartment is not far from Jim's usual parking garage, so we all walked together. My mom and Al were having a conversation about my nephews' judo exploits and Jimmy joked, "Al's getting kinda close to your mom." I quipped, "He'd make a great stepfather." We started joking about my mom and Al getting hitched, and I called Al "my new dad". My mother and Al were both beet red, and my mom said, "I don't want to steal him from some charming young lady." Don't sell yourself short, mom!

It was a fun day. Mom got to see some old friends and got to meet some new ones. She got to see some of our counselors that she had last seen as little kids, and got to see her boy getting thrown around by some lovely kids. When we got back to my place, I made her promise that she wouldn't take so long to make her return. We resume our classes in October, I hope she can make it to our December end of semester party.

Friday, March 13, 2015

We Continue the Runup to St Patrick's Day: Bad Boy Doing Good

This post is dedicated to zombie rotten mcdonald, who would bleed music rather than blood if you cut him. He was the one who got me hip to a cover version of Screaming Jay Hawkins I Put a Spell on You that Shane MacGowan and a bunch of his friends put out to benefit the victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. I think you'll recognize some of the good people accompanying Shane:

Also in 2010, Shane performed an inimitable cover version of Neil Diamond's ode to cheap wine. The willowy blonde bassist is Cait O'Riordan, former bassist and occasional singer of the Pogues, who left the band to marry some dude named Declan:

Shane is still doing his thing, despite his long career of self-immolation. Every time I ponder Shane, my mind boggles that he has managed to outlive Kirsty and Phil. Given his predilection for alcohol and illicit pharmaceuticals, he'll probably outlast us all, embalmed for posterity. "The Bomb" could drop, as the video Roy embedded fearmongers, and Shane and Keith Richards would wander the smoldering ruins, fighting the rats and cockroaches for stockpiled opiates.

I don't know if that's a comforting thought or not.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Mother's in the Motherland

Around Christmastime, while visiting my mom in Virginia, I suggested that she come up to New York in March for the closing exercises and award luncheon at the end of this semester of my volunteer gig. Mom used to come to this event when she still lived in New York- she's on a friendly basis with the guys with whom I fight.

I spent the last couple of days furiously cleaning the apartment. Mom's not the type to be offended by a pile of empties, though... as soon as she arrived, she asked me if I had a cold beer. Did I mention how much I love my mother? Needless to say, I had a cold beer for her. What I didn't have for her was a spare key, so the two of us had to go to the local hardware store so I could have a couple of spares cut. As luck would have it, we ran into a bunch of neighbors, including a woman who is in the process of moving into the apartment upstairs from mine. I get along with everybody, so I got the neighborly equivalent of a good report card. On the main commercial drag, there were plenty of retirees hanging out on the benches that grace the sidewalks in front of certain stores. It was a matter of scant minutes to get two keys cut, and we walked to the bakery to grab a snack. A high school friend of mine owns the bakery, so I figured mom would want to see him. He was out drumming up support for the upcoming St Patrick's Day parade, the local parade now being the official city parade. The son is a carbon copy of my friend- he looks like his dad and he has a similar personality. Needless to say, mom took an instant liking to him, talking to him as if she'd known him as long as she's known his father.

Our next stop was the butcher shop a couple of doors down, so we could pick up something more proteinaceous... we settled on a couple of Scotch eggs. We chatted with the proprietor and his sons about the Cadbury ban- they have enough chocolate stockpiled for Easter, but if Hershey lowers the boom, kiss those imported chocolates goodbye for Christmas. We also chatted with the gent in line ahead of us, whose daughter now lives in Virginia, about a hundred miles away from where mom hangs her hat. He opined that he couldn't see himself living away from New York, and I vigorously nodded assent. Mom commented on how she missed the New York culture, that neighborhood feel with mom-and-pop stores and retirees hanging out on benches in front of their apartment buildings.

Mom is a Bronx native- you can take the girl out of the Bronx, but you can't take the Bronx out of the girl!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Short Shoveling

It's warmed up considerably this week, so I decided to put on a pair of gym shorts and go out to break up some of the larger piles of snow that have accumulated on the local streets. By breaking up the piles and exposing more of the pavement, I'm decreasing the albedo effect, creating better conditions for further melting. I've had enough of cruising around the neighborhood at 4:30AM looking for a parking spot, or parking on the street by the local school and getting up after two and a half hours of sleep in order to move the car before the 8AM no parking hours.

I typically use a coal shovel for this work (I keep one in the car throughout the winter, you never know when you're going to have to hit someone with a shovel), it is better at chopping ice than a snow shovel. Besides, I don't have anything to prove, so I prefer a "less weight, more reps" approach to shoveling. I also have a snow shovel handy so I can slide the piles of snow around the pavement to speed up melting.

Like I did in yesterday's post, I'm going to crib another of Thunder's categories, specifically "My Left Foot", which I suspect he cribbed from Christy Brown:

In the background, you can see my trusty coal shovel, used as an improvised hanger for my trusty plaid shirt, which I took off because it was warm enough to do without. In the course of my shoveling I cleared out two parking spots, which is important because my mom is coming up to visit for a week or so!!!!!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

VaCATion's Over

I got to work tonight and saw this note on my desk:

It's a beastly night, rainy and above freezing, so the entire grounds are a mucky mire. The cats aren't going to go "on the scout" with me on a night like this. Here's Ginger, looking like she's got a serious case of ennui:

Here's Fred... if you squint, you can make out a certain Bastard in the background:

Looks like there's a friendly orb in the picture, welcoming Fred back to the site. I think I'd better call Thunder, he's the resident expert of orb phenomena.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Runup to St Patrick's Day, a Non-Sinister Band

Fortuitously, while I was searching for the video to embed in Saturday's post, I found out about a two-thirds Irish, one third Cornish (shoutout to Chickpea, who you really should be reading) band named I Am Not Lefthanded. The internet being what it is, I had to seek out the band's music... how could one not seek out a band described thusly?

Playing sparse but uplifting post-grunge music, they’ve been described as sounding like ‘Natalie Merchant fronting Death Cab for Cutie’.

Anyway, here's a pretty, wistful number called Lifelines:

I'm glad I hunted down that old movie clip to embellish Saturday's post. One of the benefits of blogging is that it inspires one to chase down all sorts of leads on the t00bz, sometimes finding things of beauty. In this case, Inigo Montoya did all right by me.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Signs of Spring

Anyone reading this blog for more than a month or so will know that I've been kvetching about the weather this past January and February. This weekend, though, gives me hope for the onset of spring. Besides the weather (two days of above-freezing temperatures!), there are other signs that Spring is imminent. Yesterday, a bunch of our seasonal workstaff came back to my principle worksite for a meeting concerning our upcoming season. I work nights, so I didn't see most of the attendees, but I did see the manager who has been boarding Fred and Ginger for the past three weeks of bone-chilling cold, and he will be bringing our beloved feline co-workers back sometime this week. We also had a lot of people pulling into the parking lot to check out our picturesque site, and I spent a good spell of time talking to a charming couple from Manhattan that had come up to the area on the train for some sightseeing. I had the good grace not to mention that I had been in Manhattan for the better part of the day- better to maintain the illusion of suburban tranquility. After giving them some restaurant recommendations, I told them to come back in a month, and earlier in the day, so they could have a nice tourist experience, because there's not of lot of "there here" in the off-season. Years ago, when I exchanged contact information with Radomir, he took one look at my 914 area code and quipped, "Oh, so you are a villager!"

Today, it was a positively balmy 46F (about 8C), and I could espy the shadows of a flock of birds on the dashboard of my car as I pulled out of my parking spot. This being the first day of Daylight Savings Time (did all of you dudes follow Tengrain's advice?), there was a good hour and a half of sunlight after I arrived at work. There was a gentleman who had parked in our lot to take photos. I did my regular start of shift inspection tour and found the site to be a muddy mire, but it was warm enough for me to take off my tuque and expose my glossy pate to the warmth of the sun for a while. Tomorrow, I'll probably indulge in my yearly ritual of shoveling show while wearing shorts, so I can break up some of the big snow piles in the neighborhood.

About an hour and a half ago, I found a car parked in our lot. I usually give people a "grace period" of ten or fifteen minutes before I give them the mildly accusatory, "Can I help you?" There was a middle-aged couple in the car, who turned out to be the parents of one of our seasonal employees, waiting for their daughter to come back from a workshop that she and some of our other employees had carpooled to. I joked that my usual line when I found couples in the parking lot was, "Get a hotel room!", which elicited a jocular, "We're too old for that!" response. I'll make sure to check out the parking lot later on to make sure they didn't get any ideas.

It is getting springlike, after all.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Sinister Plan

Today was the second-to-last session of this semester of my volunteer gig. Next week, we have one last session, then we gather together for a luncheon and an awards ceremony for the kids who have shown the most progress since October. We had two classes, one class of girls aged eight and under (the youngest kids are typically four, usually the younger siblings of other program participants), and one class of girls aged nine and ten. The younger group was large, about twenty kids, while the older group only had five participants (we have a lot of attrition to school and municipal athletic programs, which is a good thing).

One thing I always stress to the kids is that if something feels "weird", it's not correct. Gripping an opponent's gi is fundamental to the sport, and occasionally I'll see a kid torquing their arm and gripping their oppponent's gi with their thumb facing down. I'll invariably comment, "Feels weird, no? If it's not comfortable, it's not judo." Similarly, when doing forward rolls, there's no need for an exaggerated "lunge". A normal step prefaces the not-so-normal-roll that we try to drill into our students so it becomes so natural they can execute it even if, say, they fall off of their bicycle while commuting home from the office, so they can dust themselves off and continue the ride home.

After the "official" program is over, we stay in the dojo so really motivated kids can spend an hour, from noon to 1AM, for more intensive instruction. Today, we had two students stay after, a girl of seven and a boy of nine. For me, the ideal class is eight to ten kids with a decent range of ages and sizes. Because of the size disparity, I decided to teach the kids some great "sneaky" techniques that are useful for dealing with larger opponents. Sasae tsuri-komi ashi is tailor made for a situation like this- as one's opponent circles around, you block the leading ankle so the top of their body continues to move while the bottom of their body is stopped. I also went over okuri ashi harai with them, because it's fun to practice- it looks like a dance.

After teaching these two new throws, I decided that I would devise a sinister plan- I would make the kids practice using a left handed grip. It's important to develop both sides of your body in the interest of symmetry and, to be perfectly honest, to make yourself a better fighter. I had the kids practice o soto gari, which is the first throw almost every judoka on the planet learns, switching from a right-handed stance to a left-handed stance, with the necessary changes in grip and a shift from stepping in with the left foot and "reaping" with the right leg to stepping with the right and "reaping" with the left. I told them, "Nice and slow, shift your grips and merely 'tap' your opponent's leg, then switch to the other side."

The boy, trying out the left-handed grip, told me, "But this feels weird!" I quipped, "It does for you, but it feels natural to me... that's why I'm making you practice it. If you feel comfortable but your opponent feels weird, you already have an advantage."

I'm a lucky bastard, one of my early sensei's was a lefty.

UPDATE: How could I be so remiss as to forget one of the greatest scenes in cinema?

I should have thought of embedding that video earlier, as I am aware of all tropes (warning, link is a major time-sink, click at your peril).

Friday, March 6, 2015

Countdown to the Solemn Feast of St Patrick: The Good Coulter

In keeping with tradition here, I spend the first couple of weeks of March counting down to St Patrick's Day. Today, I'll post a weepie that I posted before as a tangent to another post. The Town I Loved So Well, by Phil Coulter, describes the transition of his native Derry from a hardscrabble working-class town with not enough work, to a shell of a town, bombed out by The Troubles.

Grab a handkerchief, you're going to need it. At best, the life that Mr Coulter describes is far from idyllic:

In the early morning the shirt factory horn
Called women from Creggan, the moor, and the bog
Whilst the men on the dole played a mother's role
Fed the children and then walked the dog
And when times got tough, there was just about enough
And they saw it through without complaining
For deep inside was a burning pride
For the town I loved so well

With his talent, he was able to find a way out of the hard-knock town, the dream of many a striver:

There was music there in that Derry air
Like a language that we, we all could understand
I remember the day that I earned my first pay
When I played in a small pick-up band
There I spent my youth, and to tell you the truth
I was sad to leave it all behind me
For I learned about life, and I found a wife
In the town I loved so well.

Upon his return, though, he finds that his town has been riven by sectarian violence and government repression:

But when I returned, how my eyes have burned
To see how a town could be brought to it's knees
By the armoured cars and the bombed-out bars
And the gas that hangs on to every breeze
Now the army's installed by that old gas yard wall
And the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher
With their tanks and their guns, oh my god, what have they done
To the town I loved so well?

The song ends on a cautiously optimistic note, a wish for peace, though Mr Coulter mourns a past which is irrecoverable... so as not to spoil the climax of the song, I'll let you listen for yourselves:

As with a lot of modern Irish music, the song has been covered by a plethora of performers, with Luke Kelly and the Dubliners and Paddy Reilly singing particularly choice renditions of the song.

Wipe your tears, my dear readers, Phil Coulter didn't only write tearjerkers... along with Glasgow's Bill Martin, he wrote this bouncy little number:

You can't cry all the time... especially not on a Saturday night.

Regarding the title, the bad Coulter would be the one perhaps best known for her upcoming role in Sharknado 3.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Last Gasp?

Today, we received another four-to-six inches of snow in my neck of the woods. Luckily, yesterday was warm and rainy, so a lot of the dingy stuff on the ground melted before a mass of cold air moved into the area around 4AM and the snow started falling. I woke up around noon and commenced shoveling, joining my next door neighbor in our snowday ritual. After clearing the snow in front of my place and a couple of neighbors' houses, I went inside to have a cup of coffee and put a pot of split pea soup on the stove. An hour later, I was shoveling again. The weather report on the radio had mentioned that the snow was tapering off... nice joke.

After sweeping the bulk of the snow off the car, I made sure to clear a patch of street behind my car so I could pull out of my parking spot easily when it came time to leave for work. Dealing with this weather is like a chess game, you have to think a few moves ahead.

The drive to work was pretty uneventful, once I got off the not-so-well-plowed side streets in my neighborhood. I had enough time to stop at a supermarket on the way, and, among the staples, bought a can of sweetened condensed milk so I could make snow ice cream:

When life hands you lemons... I had never had snow ice cream before, but have been curious about if ever since reading Charles Portis' Masters of Atlantis. My favorite chapters in the novel involve an unlikely collaboration in a harebrained get-rich-quick scheme between all-American grifter Austin Popper and Mu-obsessed Romanian crank Professor Cezar Golescu (one of the greatest comic characters in American literature). In the novel, a young woman wooed by Austin Popper comes to call on him at the ramshackle house in which he and the Professor live, with a can of sweetened condensed milk among the dinner items she's bringing. Hilarity ensues.

The snow ice cream has a really nice texture. I wish I'd thought to bring some vanilla extract to jazz it up with, but the plain flavor was not bad at all. As nice as the snow ice cream is, I really am done with snow. I sure hope that this was winter's last gasp. If it's not, it might be mine!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Annual Run-Up to the Solemn Feast of St Patrick Begins

In keeping with our annual tradition, every March I put up a series of videos of Irish music, trad and otherwise. I'm going to kick this year's countdown off with a great folk-rock number by the terrific (and Bastard-approved) band Horslips. King of the Fairies is a traditional set dance, which takes on a particular awesomeness when given the rooftop rock-out treatment, complete with awesome 70s 'staches and wide collars:

Me being me, my favorite part is the tin whistle solo beginning at the 2:23 mark. Damn, that's some badass tootling!

The "fairies" of Irish folklore are a far cry from the "Tinkerbell" style little winged critters. More properly known as the Aos Sí, they are the remnants of the old pagan gods of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann, a entirely more "dangerous" category of otherworldly beings than that of the nursery tales. As one noted folklorist described them:

They're the things that you see
When you wake up and scream
The cold things that follow you
Down the boreen
They live in the small ring of trees on the hill
Up at the top of the field

Nobody's going to be clapping to keep these types alive!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

In Like a Polar Bear

As the cliche goes, the month of March "comes in like a lion, and goes out like a lamb". Today, we're expected to receive three to six inches of snow. Walking around the jobsite, it looks like four inches have fallen. I have to confess that I slept until 2:30PM today because yesterday utterly wiped me out. Getting three hours of sleep, teaching for four hours and then going to work will do that to a guy. Some days, my activity cycle resembles that of a python or a crocodile- intense bursts of activity interspersed with periods of torpor. I just needed twelve hours of sleep today.

The drive to work was no fun at all, but it was uneventful. It was pretty much a 25MPH slog up the parkway, with one burst of higher speed to get myself out of an inexplicably bunched-up group of drivers. Really, people, give yourselves room to maneuver. When I exited the highway, I sang out, "Goodbye Sprain, goodbye Taconic, I felt your pain, and it was chronic!" Not sophisticated, but extemporaneous.

It's supposed to warm up later in the week, with the temperatures expected to be above freezing for the next three days. I'm sure glad that March has finally arrived, even though it's come in like a polar bear rather than a lion. Never mind the fact that it only has twenty-eight days, February is the longest month of the year.