Saturday, December 31, 2016

Looking Back Over the Past Twelve Months

One of the recurring themes of 2016 was how bad the year sucked. Politically, culturally, the year was terrible, marked by the deaths of beloved celebrities, the ascendance of naked racism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, and the rise to power of a stupid, venal creature who appeals to the worst elements of our society. Yeah, 2016 has been terrible on a 'macro' level.

Personally, I can't say the year was bad for me. On the workfront, I received a decent raise at the beginning of the year, and the organization hired a guy who I really get along with well for my department. The organization itself had a really successful year, and our fundraisers hit unprecedented attendance levels. On one discordant note, they outsourced a lot of the nuts-and-bolts work to hired hands from a temp agency... the part-timers who make up the bulk of our staff are a bit worried that they might not be able to depend on extended fall hours before going on furlough for the winter. I'm not worried about myself, I have the sort of job which can't be easily outsourced- I have the keys to everything, alarm codes, and safe combinations... not the sort of things revealed to a 'hired gun'.

Generally speaking, my life is pretty stable- I've worked for the same organization for ten years, and volunteered for the same organization for twenty-five. While I value novelty in small things, in large matters I prefer things to go on in placid fashion. This year, though, there were two big changes- I bought a newish car and I moved out of the place I'd been living for ten years. Although the new car is small, it's really roomy inside, with no wasted space, and I was able to fit even my largest pieces of furniture, two bookcases (naturally), into the back of the car, secured with a bungee cord and some rope. The car is a lot of fun to drive, being a five-speed stick-shift, and the new apartment is very similar to the old one, albeit on a quieter street that's even closer to the local bars, so I am pleased with these changes.

As far as writing goes, I have to say that the high point of the blogging year has been Dr Frans De Waal's linkage on his Facebook page to my recap of his lecture... as I joked back in April, this is like a sportball fan getting a link from Peyton Manning or LeBron James.

Soooooo... 2016 was a mixed bag- my personal situation has been more than okay, but I am concerned that friends of mine will be adversely affected by the upcoming political and social developments. I'm a straight white man, college-educated and employed full-time... the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life (I'm not rich, but I consider a lot of the paths to wealth as cheat codes), but (besides having a desire for social justice and fair play)I recognize that minorities function as the canaries in the coal mine, and that if bad policies are inflicted on minorities without public outcry, then there's a good chance that they will eventually be inflicted on non-wealthy white persons.

I wish I could say that I was optimistic about 2017, but I really don't see much cause for optimism. As bad as 2016 seemed to be, and as much as I'm not sad to see it recede into history, I don't think it will be any worse than the coming year. I am looking forward, though, to another year of your readership and support.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

I Don't Ordinarily Bleg...

I don't ordinarily bleg, but I do make an exception for the Secret Science Club, which is hosting a fundraising campaign. My friends Margaret and Dorian are great champions of continuing science education, and the monthly lectures are free.

Back when I worked in a big insurance company, in an office with one-hundred co-workers, I would shake the tin cup every year when I rode in Multiple Sclerosis Tappan Zee bike ride, asking everyone for two dollars, figuring that I'd rather get two dollars each from one-hundred donors than one-hundred dollars each from two donors (most people gave more than two dollars). I certainly wouldn't ask people to give more than they can afford, but if you can throw a couple of dollars in the tip jar, it would help to keep this worthwhile educational and cultural institution going, and I would be extremely grateful.

This country is going to need all the intellectual boosting it can possibly get.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

I Felt a Great Disturbance in the Force

This year, this year, this horrible year! With the death of Carrie Fisher yesterday, this time it's personal. Like most people in my age cohort, male and female, I developed a crush on Princess Leia, the now iconic character played by a nineteen year-old Carrie Fisher. Princess Leia was a strong female character in an action-packed genre that usually relegates women to passive roles- she was a young senator risking her life (and undergoing torture) to overthrow a government devolved into something evil, a general in a galaxy-wide resistance movement, and one hell of a snark-slinger:

It's a bit of a shame that she had to be saddled with the 'Princess' moniker, though the word doesn't necessarily connote helplessness. She was the feisty action Princess who could even snark out on her rescuers:

And bravely confront the captors who ordered her torture:

For the record, my favorite 'Star Wars' anecdote involves that scene- contrary to the line of dialogue that she delivered, Carrie noted that Peter Cushing smelt of elderberries linen and lavender.

For the first two movies, Princess Leia was portrayed as a no-nonsense, competent leader, and while a romantic interest for both of the male leads (until the truth about the cute girl who kept kissing Luke was revealed), she was never overtly sexualized. Then, in the third movie, the producers ill-served the character by ditching the tame Ralph McQuarrie conceptual images for a sweaty, libidinal Frank Frazetta look (for the record, I am an unapologetic Frazetta fan, and an unapologetic ass man, though I recognize the cheeze factor in his art). While the adolescent me, like most of my peers, greeted the Dejah Thorisfied Princess Leia with a 'Christmas came early' attitude, the mature me thinks that it was an unfortunate misstep in the franchise, and, even though the sexualized Leia killed her misogynistic captor with the chain used to confine and humiliate her, the whole 'sexy slave girl' Leia detracted from the saga... also, why the hell would a giant slug-thing-with-cat's-eyes-and-Donald-Trump's-comically-small-mitts put a member of a totally different phylum in a sexually revealing outfit?

Looking back, I have to say that Carrie was overshadowed by the character she played- how does a nineteen year-old star of a mega-blockbuster escape from the shadow of a character who is so iconic that even her hairstyle is recognizable around the world?

I was vaguely aware in my younger days of Carrie's struggles with addiction and mental illness and looking back, I admire her candor in confronting and addressing her problems. She was as tough as the iconic character she portrayed, and as funny. She didn't shy away from her problems, writing about them with humor and humanity. When an idol can talk frankly about these issues, attitudes change- if the beloved Carrie Fisher can talk about her bipolar disorder, so can her fans.

As much as I crushed on Princess Leia as a kid, I came to crush on Carrie Fisher as an adult... she was a talented writer, with much of her work done behind the scenes, and a fearless advocate for people who are often marginalized. Her initial scene in last year's 'Star Wars' sequel was a welcome return, and provided one of the funniest lines in the film:

Here she is discussing the need for candor and the use of humor as a coping mechanism:

This video features Carrie in full-on raconteuse mode with an interesting round-table:

Leave it to a talented scriptwriter to give the funny line to a co-star.

At any rate, it's tough to lose Carrie Fisher, she loomed large in the culture of my peers and people younger than ourselves, and she modeled a candor, toughness, and grace that we all should aspire to. Here's a video of John Williams conducting an orchestral rendition of the lovely theme he wrote for Princess Leia:

I know that there have been a myriad of memorials to Carrie Fisher's memory, but I think the best commemoration of her memory would be making December 27th Bipolar Pride Day.

Damn, as if this year weren't bad enough, Debbie Reynolds lived just long enough to survive the death of her daughter... sometimes, it seems as if there really is a Dark Side.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Rest in Peace, Princess of Space

Back in the 1970s, a pioneering woman worked to uncover the machinations of the Dark Side... I am, of course, referring to astrophysicist Dr Vera Rubin, who died this past Sunday at the age of 88. Dr Rubin's observation that the edges of spiral galaxies rotated at the same rate as their centers revealed that there was a 'halo' of dark matter around every spiral galaxy- with less visible matter at the edges of the galaxy than at the center, the rate of rotation at the edges should be slower if one just took into account the visible matter.

She was also an eminently quotable scientist, a champion of research funding and of improving the role of women in the STEM fields. It is often suspected that Dr Rubin was snubbed for a Nobel Prize because of her gender... after all, she did make observations that confirmed the existence of almost 25% of the universe.

On this blog, Dr Rubin's name popped up in my recaps of Dr Priyamvada Natarajan's lectures on dark matter and gravitational lensing. Dr Natarajan's lectures are nice, understandable overviews of the murky subject of dark matter.

Here's a quick biographical video on Dr Rubin, oddly enough, posted nine days before her death:

We lost a pioneering figure in astrophysics and women's rights, and the universe is thereby diminished... Vera was truly a light in the darkness.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The King of All Birds, the Queen of All Balladeers

Five years ago, I wrote a post about the odd Celtic custom of Hunting the Wren on December 26th, St Stephen's Day. Of course, the wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) is the king of all birds because it was able to fly higher than the eagle by hiding on its back. The wren is hunted and paraded around by the mighty hunters, who ask for 'payment' until the wren is buried and the hunters' rewards are combined and cooked into a pudding.

I decided to post about this topic again because I heard a great version of John McCutcheon's ballad Christmas in the Trenches on a local college radio by my great and good friend Mary Courtney, the Star of the County Bronx. While looking for a video of a performance of the song, I found a nice video of Irish Christmas music and stories which starts off with Mary singing the Wren Song:

Christmas in the Trenches, references the improbable, impromptu Christmas Truce, a miraculous cessation of fighting on the part of soldiers on the front lines during World War One. Tragically, the truce didn't last long, because a new rotation of troops, ones who hadn't celebrated with their foes, came to the front lines. Mary is a humanitarian as well as a balladeer and folk historian... this is exactly the sort of song which she handles so beautifully.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Quiet Christmas, with a WTF? Coda

Last Christmas I gave you my heart was a raucous affair, with all of my siblings, my mom, myself, and a passel of nieces and nephews being under one roof for the first time in a long while. If I had to describe my family, I'd say we're close-knit but far-flung. This year, we have been unable to gather together, but I made it a point to call my brothers, my sister, and my mom to wish them a merry Christmas.

I was awoken this morning at 7AM by my upstairs neighbor's two children, who, like most children celebrating Christmas, woke up before sunrise to check out their presents. By 8AM, I could surmise that the hit present of the day was a karaoke machine... oh, well, sleep is overrated, and I'd rather have healthy, boisterous kids living upstairs that a couple of hothouse flowers. I was able to get back to sleep for a while when there was a lull in the action, and finally awoke before noon to get ready for work.

Today, the temperature hit approximately 50F (10C), and when I got to work, I decided that it was warm enough to change my shirt outside, there being nobody else onsite and me wanting to pull a 'shirtless Putin' routine. The sun was shining brightly, so after checking everything out, I hunkered down in a particularly scenic spot and alternated between making phone calls and reading a book... after yesterday's post, I figured I'd re-read A Christmas Carol. There's a reason why the book has become a perennial, much-interpreted favorite. I particularly liked the character of Scrooge's nephew, the hearty, good-natured chap who knew there was still good in Ebeneezer. If it's been a while since you've read the book, try it out- the didacticism is buried under a beautifully written narrative, by turns melancholy and humorous.

It's a bit weird working on Christmas- there weren't a lot of people on the road on my way to work, and when I stopped at a local Chinese restaurant to pick up lunch, there were two cars in a large parking lot besides mine. I did make one concession to tradition and made sure that I'd bought a panettone to snack on later in the evening. At the risk of sounding like a bit of a Scrooge, I'm glad that Christmas has arrived, so I don't have to deal with the pre-Christmas traffic and hustle anymore. I love the holiday, even when I'm stuck on the job, but the run-up to it can be just plain annoying.

Wow, in a real weird bit of coincidence, I learned of George Michael's death as I was writing this post. Go make one silly joke linking to a song you don't particularly like, and you find out that 2016's reign of awfulness is continuing... hang on, Carrie.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Chuck Jones Christmas Masterpiece

It's Christmas Eve, babe, and I figured I'd give all of my readers a nice present... Via Vox, I found a really lovely animated version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, directed by Richard Williams

The executive producer is Bastard fave Chuck Jones, whose autobiography, Chuck Amuck, is a must-read. Warner Brothers animator Ken Harris is also in on the project.

I love the look of this feature, with its artwork patterned after John Leech's illustrations for the book. The Ghost of Christmas Past is appropriately outré, and the details of the Ghost of Christmas Present appropriately ages during its sojourn with Scrooge. The story is told with an economy of words, with the breaking of Scrooge's engagement being a particularly poignant moment. The feature is suffused with melancholy, which makes Scrooge's redemption a particularly welcome relief.

It's a marvel how short this animated film is, yet how complete... there is absolutely no wasted effort in this little gem. It's reminiscent of another Chuck Jones Christmas collaboration that is near and dear to my heart, and would make a lovely companion piece. You can't have too many nice redemption narratives these days.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Tweets of Mass Destruction

Last Saturday, during an inter-class lull at my Saturday morning volunteer gig, my friend Frenchie (who, naturally, is Italian) asked me if I thought Trump was going to nuke something, anything. After a couple of seconds contemplation, I answered that Trump is a real-estate mogul, so he probably wouldn't be so callous with nuclear arms... there's just too much money to be lost. I then opined that the real danger would be Trump's regime starting a war with Iran for No Good Reason. That was last week, now I fear that my belief that the greatest danger of a Trump presidency would be a mere land war in Asia was, perhaps, naive.

All that changed when the President-Elected tweeted that "the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes." Now, there has been a mad scramble by Team Trump members to clarify what the dunderhead really meant, with reports that he himself wants to reignite a nuclear arms race. At this time, the United States is believed to have almost five thousand nuclear weapons. Six years ago, President Obama expressed his commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, now we are facing the prospect of a president who is committed to atomic dick-swinging. A guy who can't even control his iPhone use really shouldn't have access to the nuclear football. I'd hate to see him nuke Baldwin because he's mad about a Saturday Night Live sketch.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Secret Science Club Lecture Recap: Astrophysics Endterm Exam

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, which featured the triumphant return (I have to confess that my lecture recaps became much more serious when I started taking notes- the SSC really forced me to become a better, more responsible writer) of astrophysicist Dr Charles Liu of The City University of New York College of Staten Island and the Hayden Planetarium and Department of Astrophysics of the American Museum of Natural History.

Dr Liu began his lecture by joking about whether he describes himself as an astronomer or an astrophysicist- if he's sitting on a plane next to someone he wants to talk to, he describes himself as an astronomer... if he doesn't want to talk to them, he describes himself as an astrophysicist. He noted that yesterday was the last day of finals at school, so he wanted to give us a 'holiday sampler', starting with the astrophysical significance of the Winter Solstice- simply the day on which Earth's northern hemisphere receives the least amount of sunlight, but not necessarily the day on which the sunrise was latest or the sunset the earliest. He noted that the increasing darkness before the solstice tended to worry many ancient peoples, so they created special commemorations of the day, such as Saturnalia, which involved societal role reversals, gambling, and merrymaking (Dr Liu likened it to Mardi Gras). Most of the winter solstice holidays in the northern hemisphere involve the use of artificial lights amid the darkness of the solstice. Dr Liu quipped that these holidays are all due to astronomy.

Dr Liu then showed one of those gorgeous photos of Pluto and noted that he did not vote for the demotion of the dwarf planet. He noted that the New Horizon probe's closest flyby of Pluto occurred in 2015, but that the data from the probe has still been coming in throughout 2016, and the final data dump will soon occur. Pluto has a highly elliptical orbit and is currently moving farther away from the sun. Pluto is getting colder, and its atmosphere is precipitating to the surface. Pluto has a varied geology. Earth's geology is largely driven by the heat from the planet's interior, while Pluto's may be largely driven by the cold- Pluto's atmosphere has distinct layers of haze which form as atmospheric gases freeze into ice crystals. Dr Liu joked that Pluto is cool in the hot sense as well as in the cold sense, and noted that Pluto is cool no matter what its designation is, and he exhorted us to enjoy the beautiful new discoveries.

Dr Liu then gave us an overview of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. Spacetime 'ripples' much like the surface of a pond- the fluctuations in spacetime were predicted by Einstein when he formulated his theory of general relativity. LIGO uses two antennae arrays, one in Washington state and one is Louisiana, to detect fluctuations. LIGO operated for ten years without any 'action', at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. After ten years, additional funding was approved, and the antenna arrays were improved and gravitational waves were detected in 2015. The two detectors received the results about 1/1000th of a second apart, a ripple of spacetime with the dimension of an entire planet created a distortion the width of an atomic nucleus. The LIGO team is favored to win the Nobel Prize in Physics- a whole area of physics, gravitational waves, has now been solved. The source of the gravitational waves detected by LIGO was a set of two colliding black holes which are circling each other wan will collapse/combine into one black hole. Dr Liu tasked us with imagining the immense amount of power which will be released in this collapse as mass is converted into energy- a mass one three-thousandth of Earth would produce more energy than that our sun would produce in a billion years. Dr Liu joked that astronomers are cool, because they get to hang out, contemplating explosions powerful enough to destroy entire solar systems.

Dr Liu then mentioned the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope project. He noted that the Hubble Space Telescope is twenty-seven years old, and that it was recently saved due to public outcry- with the telescope's gyroscopes being serviced weeks before they would have failed, providing seven more years of perfect performance, though Dr Liu warned us that the Hubble could go at any time. The James Webb Space Telescope is designed to have different capabilities than the Hubble- it will be situated in a solar orbit at the L2 Lagrange Point. The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and will have an umbrella-like sunshield. The JWST will be able to observe light in the infrared, visible, and ultraviolet wavelengths. Dr Liu gave the audience some career advice- the Panoply of Space Telescope Awesomeness will require staffing, so brush up on your resumes.

Dr Liu went on to discuss the upcoming Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope project, named in honor of the late senator from Hawaii. The DKIST, located on Maui, is scheduled to begin operations in 2019 and is designed to observe the sun in the ultraviolet and infrared spectra, using solar-adaptive optics. It is designed to observe solar spicules. Dr Liu joked that the DKIST project is also hiring, and gleefully noted that the is a really exciting time in the field of astronomy.

Dr Liu then opened up a question and answer period, which he jokingly referred to as his own 'final exam' for the semester. He had audience members write questions on pieces of paper which were then passed up to him. Some bastard in the audience asked him to sing his black hole song from his previous lecture. The first question concerned the number of black holes in the universe, which Dr Liu said was increasing. Someone else asked if we could be wrong about gravity- Dr Liu said maybe, but gravity is a fundamental force of the universe, so no matter whether one adheres to string theory or a holographic model of the universe, our understanding of gravity is not disproven. In order to change the fundamentals of science, one has to show that everything is wrong, as Einstein showed that Newton was wrong because he didn't see enough of the universe. Dr Liu told us not to worry about these sort of things.

The next question dealt with climate change- Dr Liu indicated that climate always changes, but that natural changes occur over thousands of years. Humans have been altering the climate at an accelerated pace. Dr Liu noted that we had to worry about the short-term problems caused by climate change, but warned against grandiose geoengineering projects which could have long-ranging consequences. He noted that our main focus should be on carbon sequestration and helping poor people to survive natural disasters due to climate change. He said that we should solve the problem using the things we know rather than going off into unknown territory with geoengineering.

Dr Liu also noted that all science is important- using the example of climate science, he reminded the audience that oceanic science, earth science, and space science all contributed important knowledge to our understanding of global warming. Our understanding of the greenhouse effect was derived from studying Venus and Mars. All fields of study are parts of one whole- science is not a zero sum game and all scientists should work together. He also noted that scientists needed to be lobbyists in order to secure funding for research.

The next question regarded terraforming Mars- Dr Liu was of the opinion that it would take at least one thousand years to make Mars as liveable as Earth. Regarding his favorite molecule, Dr Liu joked that it was the beer molecule.

Another question regarded black holes- is there something on the other side of a black hole, such as a white geyser or a budding new universe? Dr Liu noted that there is no evidence for this sort of thing, and told us to think of a black hole as a sort of cosmic 'hernia'- the matter absorbed by a black hole kinda just 'hangs off of' the universe. While Stephen Hawking predicted that Hawking radiation would be released from black holes, there is no evidence of any white geysers, and there is no evidence for any other 'big bangs' than the original one.

When asked about SpaceX and the dream of colonizing Mars, Dr Liu noted that Elon Musk is a great salesman, then he exhorted us, 'Think big, and don't bet against humanity.'

Asked about how space junk is cleaned up, Dr Liu joked that there are no garbagemen in space, but noted that orbits decay, debris re-enters the atmosphere, and burns up. Asked about navigating through an asteroid field, Dr Liu noted that the average distance between asteroids is one million miles- sorry, Han Solo, no hotshot piloting is needed. Another questioner asked how the James Webb Space Telescope would be maintained, and Dr Liu noted that it wouldn't be- it works or it doesn't. He then went into a tangent about the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope under construction in Chile... it will have an array of 320 megapixel cameras to photograph the entire sky every night for ten years in order to build up a database of celestial objects- he noted that LSST will operate from 2023 to 2033 and asked if any of us were considering a career change.

Asked about the coolest thing about astronomy, Dr Liu joked, it puts a roof over my head and feeds my family. He then told us that, no matter how bad a day he's had, he's certain that the Earth won't be destroyed in the next five billion years. He said that what matters is today, and that although he's seen bad things, to think about the good things. He gave a passionate soliloquy- we live in a place, not just Brooklyn, where we can disagree without killing each other, without hating each other, we can even love each other. Be vigilant, be careful, speak up, but we will be fine in the end. Today will change the course of the future, but look to the stars... when things are crazy down here, look up. He then quoted from Robert Frost's poem Choose Something Like a Star:

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

After the written Q&A session, Dr Liu continued with an oral Q&A. Some bastard in the audience asked him to consider CERN with an astronomer's eye- what would be his dream discovery from Switzerland? Dr Liu stated that it would be the discovery of a graviton. While one can infer the existence of a graviton, such a particle would be one-billionth the mass of the lightest particle known. In order to discover one, a particle accelerator would have to increase in size and power, and the odds of a particle accelerator the size of Europe being built are slim.

Asked about dark matter, Dr Liu noted that it is observed through its gravitational effects, and that for every pound of baryonic matter in the universe, there are four or five pounds of dark matter. Dr Liu compared dark matter to the headlights of a vehicle- we can see the headlights and infer the mass of a car behind them.

Asked about the multiverse, Dr Liu noted that it could exist, but there would be a zero-percent chance that we could visit it using any current knowledge. He then quipped, 'Our universe is plenty big.' When asked how far back in time we can look, he noted that the cosmic horizon equals the age of the universe (13.8 billion years) times the speed of light. Looking out is looking back in time- it takes eight minutes for the light of the sun to reach the Earth, so we see the sun as it was eight minutes ago.

Asked about the possibility of faster-than-light travel, Dr Liu said that we would have to think beyond the four-dimensional universe and noted that Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre speculated the use of a bubble outside of spacetime which would allow apparent FTL travel.

Asked about the role of the public in funding science, Dr Liu characterized scientific societies as 'the tail that wags the dog' and joked that people loved the Hubble Space Telescope because the beautiful images it produced ended up as their screen savers. When asked about which Star Trek series he loved best, Dr Liu cried, it's like choosing between his children, then noted that, while TNG had the best episodes, it wasn't the best series, and that Voyager had its charms.

The last question concerned energy in the expanding universe- as the universe expands, the energy goes up. There is an inherent amount of energy in each cubic inch of space, and there is something counteracting gravity- the universe is accelerating in its expansion. As the energy increases, the amount of matter stays the same- we don't know where this energy comes from. As cosmologically abhorrent as the cosmological constant appears to be, it's what the universe tells us must be. Dr Liu then noted that a Dark Energy Survey is underway... I think I'm going to update my resume.

Once again, the Secret Science Club dished out a fantastic lecture, a sort of 'Astrophysics Greatest Hits of 2016' survey, or a 'State of Space Science Survey'. Dr Liu is a passionate, humorous advocate for astrophysics and, yes, he did sing the black hole song to the tune of Day-O, with audience participation, of course. Kudos to Dr Liu, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House.

Here's a great video of Dr Liu doing what he does best- advocating for science with passion, wit, and charm:

I'd say that the good doctor passed his end-of-semester final exam with flying colors... in a range from the infrared to the ultraviolet.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Solstice in Brooklyn

It seems somehow appropriate to attend an astrophysics lecture on the night of the winter solstice... what better night for stargazing than the longest night of all? My new home is considerably closer to the Woodlawn subway terminus than my old home, so I am skipping the whole 'drive to the Bronx' thing... the Bx34 Bus (PDF) actually gets me fairly close to home, and it runs until almost 1AM.

At any rate, have yourselves a groovy little Solstice- I might not be noshing out on Druid food tonight, but I'll be getting both my drink and my nerd on. That's a great way to spend a long, long night.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

No Faith in the Faithless

It happened, like I pretty much knew it would, even the 'faithless' electors couldn't forestall the installation of Vulgarmort, so the United States will now have a kakocracy as it's form of government... or for the cartoon crowd, a kekocracy. They won't be laughing when the Trump maladministration decides to take South Carolina's internet porn fee national in order to prop up the nation's finances once the inevitable new round of GOP tax cuts take effect. Hey, similar consumption taxes were imposed in Kansas as part of Brownback's shifting of the tax burden onto poor people.

Anyway, at this point, I suspect that Lin-Manuel Miranda is going to be working on a new musical about how much Hamilton sucked.

Monday, December 19, 2016


Lately, there has been a lot written about the re-branding of Neo-Nazis as the alt-right, because a lot of people hate Illinois Nazis. Similarly, the term anti-semitic has negative connotations among polite people, so Jew-haters have coined a neologism, a neo-nazilogism, if you will- counter-semite. The prefix 'counter' implies defense... the new term is supposed to evoke people who don't hate Jews because of fictional, irrational reasons, but because they are opposing a worldwide Jewish plot to arglebargle why do you hate Jesus and America? As reported in the forward, the term is meant to obfuscate, to direct attention away from the purveyors of hate to an amorphous Jewish threat- it's an attempt of linguistic judo (note- I've met Ole Bischof, and he's one hell of a nice guy, and a terrific judoka), flipping the narrative in order to counter (there's that word again) the mainstream narrative that hatred of Jewish people isn't acceptable in a decent society.

It's amazing to see the constant development of an Orwellian vocabulary on the Right- a cryptolect meant to mislead outsiders and cement in-group loyalties. Given a decade or so, they'll all be speaking Ascian... and they say that it's the Left which is trying to impose Political Correctness on people.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Pre-Christmas Expedition

It's a week until Christmas, and I had a little free time this afternoon before I had to be at work. Having an aversion to shopping malls at even the least congested times, I decided to visit places far from the shopping crowd. I decided, oddly enough, to visit Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on an unseasonably warm, but overcast day. Of course, the premier occupant of the cemetery is beloved local figure Washington Irving- author, diplomat, bon vivant. Irving's grave is perpetually festooned with an American flag, appropriate for the United States' first successful professional author and a public servant of long standing:

The fence surrounding the Irving plot was decorated with a wreath:

This is appropriate, seeing that Irving wrote extensively of English and American Christmas celebrations.

Watching over the Irving plot was a regal red tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis):

After bidding goodbye to Mr Irving and his avian overseer, I headed to Kingsland Point Park because I'd heard that the lighthouse was illuminated for the holidays. Sure enough, the beacon lamp was lit, and some small lights, barely visible in the gathering dusk, were strung along the tower:

Note the construction of the bridge to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge in the background.

After spending some time braving the wind off the river, I decided that I would thaw out by heading into downtown Sleepy Hollow in order to buy empanadas from the Los Andes Bakery for an early dinner. Los Andes is the perfect place to enjoy Chilean baked goods and Chilean hospitality. After joking with the counter-help for a while, I settled upon two empanadas and a torta mil hojas and bought a box of alfajores for my co-workers.

Every once in a while, I write about Sleepy Hollow, an interesting little working-class village with an extensive Latino population (about 50%). It's the sort of community that send a xenophobe into a tizzy, but I've always found the residents to be hospitable. It's funny how not being an asshole tends to be rewarded... though to be fair, being an asshole is all-too-often rewarded even more handsomely. Oh, well, it's not like an asshole would get a chuckle and a warm season's greeting from the empanada baker.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Trump Kaijuu Robotto!

It seems I'm not the only one to come to the conclusion that the GOP under the leadership of Donald Trump has basically become Galactor. Here is an uproariously funny science-fiction spoof by Uruguayan production company Aparato, featuring Donald Trump piloting a kaijuu robotto:

Even the name of the anti-Mexican force, M.A.M.O.N. (Monitor Against Mexicans Over Nationwide), is hilariously on point. A cartoonish villain deserves a cartoonish treatment by a bunch of cheeky, geeky snarkers:

M.A.M.O.N. is part of the Wecanfxit project, powered by Uruguayan production house Aparato.
Our mission is to change the world using our geeky weapons: cinematography, visual effects and CGI.
Our motto: Making the world a better place, one pixel at a time.

The worst thing about Trump-as-cartoon-villain is that Vulgarmort lacks the requisite smashing fashion sense.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Make America Eat Rat Turds Again!

Via Tengrain, we have the Republican Freedom Caucus 100 day wishlist, a whirlwind deregulation tour which has some pretty repellent provisions. The Freedom Caucus wants to remove burdensome regulations which keep downer cattle out of the food processing stream, and regulate development in national forests. It wants to repeal USDA inspection of catfish and the labeling of meats by country of origin.

Perhaps my favorite is a change in regulations of student loan applications:

Requiring the new form and financial documentation to be provided upfront will delay the process of helping the borrower toward financial success. Completing lengthy forms which often require multiple conversations and then requesting financial documents when the borrower may not be in hardship burdens the process, creates confusion, and invades the privacy of the borrower.

Can't burden the process of keeping some poor kid in debt for decades with some upfront documentation!

Any conservation-minded energy-efficiency standards are dismissed with a boilerplate cut-and-paste:

These energy conservation standards are burdensome, costly, and implausible to comply with.

In the case of ceiling fans, energy conservation standards are a leftist plot:

The conservation rules are a part of the green agenda being pushed by the left: they are costly and benefit only certain providers, and dramatically effect markets like real estate and construction.

Saul Alinsky has been reincarnated as a green dragon, seeking to bring down 'Murka by regulating ceiling fans. Maybe the Freedom Caucus will make Human Enterprise Day a national holiday, and force people to leave their refrigerator doors open all day long.

Other solutions to problems which don't exist are ensuring that cigars aren't regulated like cigarettes are, and making sure the employer-provided health insurance doesn't have to provide hormonal birth control to slutty-slut-sluts.

How about this gem about removing the Mitigation Strategies To Protect Food Against Intentional Adulteration regulations?

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) final rule is aimed at preventing intentional adulteration from acts intended to cause wide-scale harm to public health, including acts of terrorism targeting the food supply.” And total costs ranging
between $280-$490 million annually.

We might be fighting terrorism overseas, but it's took expensive to fight terrorism in our kitchens.

The whole document is an interesting, by which I mean appalling, read. With both chambers of Congress and the Presidency in Republican hands, we will see a wholesale giveaway to the worst of corporate actors- the fossil fuel industry will get renewed leases on public lands, bad players in agribusiness and the Processed Food Industrial Complex will see a loosening of safety standards, and poor people will see all of their protections stripped away. It's a twenty-three page horror story, one authored not by Stephen King, but by Steve King.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Cuella De Vil Will Be a Shoe-In

From the Department of You Can't Make This Shit Up, we have a bit about Teh Donald's advisors for the nomination of the Secretary in charge of the US Department of Agriculture and, as predicted, there is one guy who is a doozy, by which I mean a maniac:

Back in 2010, the year before Protect the Harvest was founded, Lucas vigorously opposed a Missouri ballot measure to "require large-scale dog breeding operations to provide each dog under their care with sufficient food, clean water, housing and space; necessary veterinary care; regular exercise and adequate rest between breeding cycles," and to "prohibit any breeder from having more than 50 breeding dogs for the purpose of selling their puppies as pets."

Yeah, he's seeking advice from a guy who wants to prevent regulations that would require sufficient food, clean water, housing and space; necessary veterinary care; regular exercise and adequate rest between breeding cycles for breeding dogs and their puppies. I guess the Republican War on Women just isn't enough, now there's a Republican War on Bitches. If Cruella De Vil were a real person, I have no doubt that she'd be on Trump's transition team.

Hey, since things suck so bad, how about a nifty musical number by Bastard faves The Replacements? Here are the 'mats covering Cruella De Vil, and not in Dalmatian pelts:

I'm not a big Disney fan by any stretch of the imagination, but the Stay Awake was fantastic. My personal favorite song on the album is Buster Poindexter's amazing cover of Castle in Spain. Maybe Donald will mistake Buster for Ray Bolger's mustache-twirling villain and name him to his cabinet.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

I Hear Petroleum Is Great for Burning Witches

In another of a long string of alarming actions by Trump's transition team, Team Trump requested that the Department of Energy send a list of any and all employees who have attended climate change conferences within the past five years and a list of all research papers published by employees within the past three years. Thankfully, the Department refused to comply with this request. In order to start a witch hunt, the Trumpistas need a list of anyone who'll float when thrown into a pond.

To compound matters, Trump wants to appoint Rick Perry, who wanted to abolish the Department of Energy, to head the department. Leave it to the ur-Republicans to put a fox weasel in charge of a henhouse. It gets worse, the Department of Energy manages the nation's nuclear infrastructure... it's not the sort of task for a moron who has 'OOOPS' moments even when he's reading from a script.

At the beginning of this year, I binge-watched all one-hundred and five episodes of the seminal 1970s anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, and I swear that the current Republican party is modeled after the fictional terrorist organization Galactor:

At this point, I sure hope that President Obama has tapped Neil Degrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Janna Levin, James Hansen, and Michael Mann to form a Science Ninja Team of his own... goodness knows, the planet's gonna need it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Dunning-Kruger Elect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the cogntive bias which, among other problems, allows dumb people to believe that they are smart. In a worrisome interview, the President-Elect told Chris Wallace that he doesn't need to read the Presidential Daily Briefings because 'he is smart':

“You know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years,” he said. He added that he had instructed the officials who give the briefing: “‘If something should change from this point, immediately call me. I’m available on a one-minute’s notice.’”

Now, here is a guy who isn't smart enough to know that he isn't smart enough to serve in the position to which he... GAG... was elected. Genuinely smart person acknowledge their deficiencies and take steps to inform themselves in order to reduce them. A smart guy doesn't need to insist that he is smart, but dumb guys often feel the need to do so:

Now, I wouldn't be so freaked out if the last not-so-smart guy in the White House who ignored Presidential Daily Briefings saw the worst attack on U.S. soil occur on his watch... an attack that killed friends of mine. To think that this new idiot admits to ignoring his briefings before he has even taken his inaugural oath is giving me the creeping horrors.

This country is boned... SO BONED.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Hero for Our Times

This piece is a companion piece to my last post, which touched upon 'fake news'. Oddly enough, I haven't written much about Chuck Tingle, Hugo finalist and Taekwando grandmaster (who clearly knows a thing or two about cultural judo).

Chuck has now created a work of genius, a new fake news site called, in true Tingle fashion, Buttbart. The site is a bit perfunctory at this point, but it contains links to not-for-profit organizations which defend civil rights. Chuck's Twitter feed is a stream of outsider observations, outré gay erotica, bizarre affirmations, and some genuinely nice content. Chuck's mantra is that Love Is Real for All Who Kiss, and the catchphrase of the Resistance is Love Trumps Hate. It's nice to see Dr Chuck Tingle using his unique voice to push back against the regressives.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Gonna Have to Re-Post This

It's been almost five years since I put up a post featuring the Dead Milkmen's song Stuart. At the time of the song's release, I thought it was a funny novelty song, a broad farce about a paranoid denizen of rurality, but in this age of fake news that the mainstream media is struggling to cover (where the fuck were they when they could have made a difference?), I have come to see it as one of the greatest political satires ever written, an amazing achievement considering that it is satirizing an age almost three decades in the future. Stuart remains as funny as ever, but there is now a scintilla of horror to the song's humor:

Who'd a thunk that the bullshit peddlers from Pueblo, Colorado would have such a vast audience? Once upon a time, one had to search hard to find the fringe, now it's become 'normalized' (another media buzzword).

Similarly, the comedy Idiocracy has now taken on the status of a horror film, perhaps a documentary:

Fuck, it's that bad... hell, even the days of We Have an Even Bigger Problem Now don't seem so bad.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

John Glenn Drinks Cocktails with God

This year continues to be a major crapfest, now we read about the death of John Glenn. Sure, Senator Glenn lived to a ripe old age of ninety-five, and accomplished more than just about any other human being did, but it pains me to read of his passing. John Glenn was the best sort of hero- the once-warrior (wars not make one great) who put his fighting behind him in order to pursue the purer path of the adventurer, the explorer, the conqueror of his own fears (strapping oneself into a bier at the tippy-top of a giant explody thing takes a hell of a lot of courage) and of the limits of gravity. The fact that he returned to space in his post-retirement years is another testament to the man's fortitude.

Not being perfect, Glenn was caught up in the Keating Five scandal, but that's a minor blip in an otherwise... uh... stellar career. It's a shame that humanity has allowed itself to get bogged down in venality, tribalism, and willful ignorance, turning away from the legacy of John Glenn and the astronauts, cosmonaunts, and whatever non-U.S. and Russian space-sailors are called- the legacy of further expansion into the Solar System. The heady dreams of a future in the stars became bogged down in parochial concerns, and a refusal to think beyond the next quarter. Glenn wasn't perfect, but he was good, and I wish that we collectively could have been good enough to live up to his achievements. We could have done better, John, we should have done better.

The post title comes from the glorious Mekons' tune Ghosts of American Astronauts- I figured posting it would be sure to get zrm to visit:

Let's hope that Buzz Aldrin has a speedy recovery, and is able to escape from the mad scientists in New Zealand who are holding him captive... don't make us send Ray Comfort back, you kiwi fiends!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Failing Upward

Via Tengrain, we find that former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, the architect of the odious Show Us Your Poopers Law is to be summoned to Trump Tower, perhaps to audition for a position in the Trump Kleptadministration. Tengrain asks what position McCrory might fill in Trump's regime...

I think he's going to head the Office of Inspector Genital.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Happy Birthday, Sweetums!

As is traditional for me on December 5th, I am extended birthday greetings to my older brother, Sweetums. Sweetums received his nickname from my super-sarcastic sister, who was delivering a snarky 'Marcia, Marcia, Marcia' speech about him... "Oh, he's so perfect, he never does anything wrong... oh, Sweetums, Sweetums is so perfect!"

The rest of us decided that she was right, he WAS perfect, and the name 'Sweetums' stuck. It's funny how something meant as a jab can, by virtue of its accuracy, become a moniker. At any rate, Sweetums is still perfect, a good husband, a good father, an all-around good guy, and an amazing brother. Happy birthday, 'Tums.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

This Is Why Sitcoms Aren't Educational

Today, I am working in a site I don't work at all that often... it's sort of in the hinterlands, although still well within the 'commute to New York City' radius. I arrived at work shortly before sundown, and was greeted by one of the resident turkeys flying to roost in the branches of a tall oak tree for the night:

Upon closer look, I saw the rest of the flock (for the record, a bunch of domesticated turkeys is known as a rafter or gang) could be spied roosting in the same tree, about fifty or sixty feet above the ground:

As God is my witness, I know turkeys can fly:

Of course, these are the lean, muscular wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo)... to be fair to the WKRP writers, the overfed, overbred domesticated turkeys would probably plummet to the earth unlike their wild forebears.

In the interest of full disclosure, I failed to photograph the other bird which immediately caught my eye when I arrived, the first bald eagle I've seen this season... I did get to see it take wing and fly off over the adjacent tributary of the Hudson.

Legend has it that the turkey was in the running to be our national bird, alongside the bald eagle. Just imagine, if things had gone otherwise, we might be getting e-mailed pictures of crying turkeys from our wingnut acquaintances.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Make Mordor Great Again

One of my bloggy heroes is Tengrain, who I often refer to as the 'Patron Saint of Small Bloggers'. He's been a great supporter of not only myself, but of other denizens of this bloggerhood. I have to note a bit of not-at-all acrimonious disagreement with him regarding this post, a disagreement which stems from my disagreement with the Washington Monthly post to which he links... the author posits that Hillary Clinton's campaign failed to point to a villain, but I think that's bunk... the real problem is that a bunch of bigots decided that fellow victims, people much more marginalized than themselves, were the villains. There's a lot of cognitive dissonance involved in, for example, watching a bunch of Mexican immigrants laboring in a field and characterizing them as lazy moochers (a perennial calumny aimed at African-Americans who toiled without pay to enrich their masters since before this country existed), and there's a lot of cognitive dissonance involved in believing that a serial-prevaricator and kleptomaniac would do anything to stop the immiseration of the working and middle classes.

Tengrain comments on the post:

One of the great archetypes of literature and film is the little guy triumphing over evil. From David and Goliath to Frodo vs. Mordor, the best heroes are the everyday, average people, who find themselves in an extraordinary situation and somehow or other win.

The problem is that the Trump voters believed that Frodo is the villain, sneaking over the border of Mordor in order to commit terrorist acts against Barad-dûr and to put the Ringwraiths out of work by imposing burdensome regulations against Evil Sorcery. They voted for Sauron, and he’s going to Make Mordor Great Again.

Tengrain continues:

We on the left don’t tell stories, we recite facts. We believe (correctly) that the facts matter, but we don’t know how to give them context. So instead of telling a story, we implore our audience to listen to and study our earnest 200-slide Powerpoint presentation, and learn from their betters… and we end up wondering why we lost?

The problem here is that the stories, based on facts, are out there... We have facts about climate change, but the story is written in blood and wreckage in the 'reddest' region of the Heartland. We have facts about Obamacare, but the story is being written about the loss of benefits that accrued to impoverished Trump voters.

The problem with liberals 'telling stories' is that these stories, rooted in facts, cannot penetrate the bubble of epistemic closure (NY Times link, so ration those clicks). The potential audience for these stories has been pre-conditioned in their churches, their firing ranges, their right-wing media cocoon, to characterize any 'leftist' narratives as lies, facts to the contrary be damned. The typical Donald Trump voter could be hit over the head by a wind-borne Ford F-150 and still believe Dear Leader's lie about Anthropogenic Global Warming being a Chinese hoax.

I don't have any answers to this dilemma... I just don't know what sort of narratives could convince the typical Red State Trump voter. I am an uber-nerd who attends science lectures in a bar, I live in a neighborhood with a very high immigrant population, two of my dearest friends and mentors are Muslim men, I have friends and co-workers from a wide array of backgrounds, creeds, sexual orientations. There is no narrative I can communicate with a Trump loyalist which wouldn't be seen as suspect. I've spoken to these people, and they tend to reveal their true ugliness to me because I look a lot like the guy in my profile picture, and they tend to see me as simpatico.

Again, I wish to stress that I have nothing but love, respect, and admiration for Tengrain, but I just can't see this strategem working. Tragically, the aggrieved white bigots who supported Trump are going to have to hit rock bottom before they reconsider their support for a guy who is going to further immiserate them. Even more tragically, they are going to take the rest of us down with them, and I didn't sign up for a one-way trip down the caldera of Mt Doom.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Welcoming Committee

As recent readers will know, I am in the process of moving, but my new place is in the same neighborhood, about six blocks away from the old place. I've been moving stuff in a few boxes at a time (the main items, as longtime readers would probably guess, are books and booze), and getting rid of stuff- clothes I haven't worn in ages (there's a dropoff box for stuff not too far from work), old documents, antiquated electronics (I dropped off a bunch of e-waste this afternoon).

In the course of my move, I've met a couple of the neighbors, one of the upstairs tenants (my new arrangement is eerily similar to the old one- an apartment in a three-family house, I just have an entrance in the back of the place and better yard access), and a next-door neighbor who I took an instant liking to. Leo is originally from Westmeath, and he is exactly the sort of Irishman you'd want for a neighbor- quick with a laugh, eager to lend a helping hand to others, a hearty, good-natured fellow. I also met his yellow Labrador, Setanta, and immediately joked that it was a perfect name for a dog. Leo laughed and noted that his wife is from Ulster, so they named the dog in honor of her roots. He noted that most people that he meets aren't familiar with the name, and I told him that I have Roscommon antecedents, then quickly added that I have Italian, Swiss, and French antecedents as well, then joked, "You need two things in this world, roots and wings." Leo let out a good-natured chuckle at that and I gave Setanta a well-received scratch behind the ear.

I think I'll do just fine in the new place. Here's one for my new doggy friend:

POSTSCRIPT: The one bummer in this move is that Katy, my letter carrier for the past decade, won't be delivering my mail at the new address. She's a really great person, and she knows everything that goes on in the neighborhood. Luckily, I will probably run into her now and again during my strolls through the neighborhood... it's not like I'm going far away.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Happy Birthday, Vincenzo

As is traditional on this day, I am taking time out to wish my brother Vincenzo a happy birthday. Vin is one of those erudite guys who is well-versed in history and current events, possesses a knack for languages and an anthropologist's discernment when it comes to interacting with people from diverse backgrounds. He's a devoted husband, a doting father, and an all-around great guy. Did I also mention that he has an encyclopedic understanding of punk rock? Here's an appropriate number from the Lurkers, a band which Vin always jokes makes the Ramones look sophisticated:

I don't need to tell ya, Vin's a super fella. Happy birthday, fratello!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Realizing I'm Not Getting a Nablopomo This Year

Checking over this month's posts, I realized that I didn't put up a post on the 5th, so I won't be eligible for a NABLOPOMO like I was in 2011... so close. It's no biggie, though, I did once write 24 posts in 24 hours in the course of a long, bizarre day on the job during which I worked a 12-8, 4-12 split-double shift. Ah, those were the days- thanks to Jennifer for putting that idea into my head.

At any rate, I don't have to put up a blog post tonight just to get a NABLOPOMO in this year.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Shy-ber Monday

I make it a point to avoid the 'Black Friday' orgy of consumption like the plague... I've never been that materialistic to begin with, and the idea of joining a scrum and trampling some poor $8/hour retail serf into pulp to get a flatscreen television is utterly repulsive. Same thing with this whole Cyber Monday thing... I prefer brick-and-mortar stores to purchasing online. I work for an organization which depends on visitors' dollars, so I make it a point to have a cashier ring my purchases up- my motto is 'the job you save just might be your own'.

I'm not saying I've never purchased anything from Amazon- all of the independent bookstores within fifty miles of me, with the exception of The Strand, have pretty much gone the way of the dodo, though there is still a really neat independent bookstore in Hastings-on-Hudson, not too far from a funky falafel shack. I miss the slightly grotty used book dens where a patient biblio-hunter could track down weird Science Fiction or Fantasy paperbacks which cost less than a buck. I typically have to wait until I visit mom's house to get my used paperback fix. Every so often, I will break down and use Amazon to find a particular obscure item that I absolutely must have.

Listening to the news radio coverage of Cyber Monday, I was struck by the reporting about possible security threats to online shoppers. While I wouldn't consider myself a Luddite (a ridiculous assertion by a blogger), I do admit to being a little squirrely about using credit cards online... on those rare occasions on which I purchase something over the intert00bz, I tend to use prepaid gift-cards purchased at a brick-and-mortar store. I'm a little cybershy when it comes to purchasing things- I want to deal with a cashier even when I succumb to the e-commerce siren.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Because Snark is Never Out of Place

Via Tengrain, we have a bizarre conflation of obituaries:

Funny, whatever happened to the beard and the fatigues? Of course, this set my smart ass to poetizing:

Here’s the story, of an angry Cuban.
Who was fed up with the bad, oppressing rich.
And chased them all to Miami,
Now ain’t that just a bitch?

Here’s the story, of a man named Castro,
Who was cooking up a Workers’ Paradise.
But he had to go be a mini-Stalin.
Couldn’t he be nice?

Then the one day when this angry Mr Castro,
Had to indulge in all of his vices,
And the shitstorm that ensued, sucked in the great powers.
And we know it as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Missile Crisis, The Missile Crisis,
It’s the shitstorm that we call The Missile Crisis.

For those who are unaware of all sitcom traditions...

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The End of an Era

As Joe Biden would say, "This is a big fucking deal"... Fidel Castro is dead at 90. Castro was one of the most interesting figures of the second half of the 20th century, half monster, half hero- the bête noire of many an American presidential regime but the popular tweaker of Uncle Sam's beard to countless denizens of the developing world who had no reason to love the United States.

Of course, the truth is somewhere in the middle of this tragic mishegas- Fulgencio Batista, the military dictator overthrown by Castro, was a monster himself. More tragically, before he threw in his lot with the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro made overtures to the Eisenhower administration and was rebuffed. Despite portrayals of Eisenhower as the 'last noble Republican', Ike made some serious, far-reaching errors in his term as president (Iran, the Congo, and Vietnam being particularly tragic examples). The major American sins of the Post WW2 era involved propping up dying colonial interests instead of engaging with newly freed colonies as equals to support. I would chalk much of this up to racism, but most of it can be laid at the feet of the Dulles Brothers.

At any rate, the idea of an Eisenhower-backed Castro is an even more interesting counterfactual than a Major League baseballer Castro... sadly for the world, we were stuck with the Castro we ended up with, the central figure in a tragedy with grotesque elements of farce, including such outré assassination methods as exploding cigars and infected wetsuits. With Fidel safely dead of old age, the President-Elect is probably going to take credit. My favorite take on Castro's death is deptfordx' comment at Lawyers, Guns & Money:

“Can’t….. Rest….. Till. America Destroyed.”

*Sees Trump Elected*

“Well my work here is done.”

At any rate, Fidel is finished, one of the last few relics from the not-so-good old days of the Cold War has passed. To the extent that he was a monster, he was merely one in an age of monsters, among the Trujillos and the Duvaliers. His rise, and the rise of other strongmen of his ilk, can be chalked up to failures of the United States to live up to its lofty ideals of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness and the choice not to implement the Monroe Doctrine as a force for extending democracy and self-determination to Latin Americans. If only we had been a better nation all along, maybe Fidel Castro could have developed into a truly transformative politician, rather than a miniaturized Stalin.

Friday, November 25, 2016

As if this Year Weren't Bad Enough

In another crappy development in a crappy year, we lost Florence Henderson: actress, singer, comedian, and beloved icon of TV motherhood. Sure, The Brady Bunch was a hokey sitcom, but Florence Henderson always conveyed warmth and understanding, and was apparently a really good role model for her young costars. I always remember my childhood as a pretty idyllic time, but I imagine that The Brady Bunch provided a bit of escapism for kids from less than ideal homes, with Ms Henderson's Carol Brady being the fantasy mom who always had a sympathetic ear and good advice. As I recall, she largely played a "straight man" role, with most of the gentle comedy coming from the kids' zany antics, but her filmography reveals that she was a good hand with a joke. She even made Wesson cooking oil commercials watchable.

A spicier side of Ms Henderson recently emerged as fake scandal mongers tried to pass a crotch-grabbing (on stage, as part of an act) Florence Henderson off as a Hillary Clinton "just as bad as Donald Trump". It's kinda strange that this was the last big media mention of Mrs Brady before she left us, but I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't kinda hot... and I'm sure plenty of guys my age would agree.

At any rate, we lost another talented individual whose life touched the lives of millions of others, someone who seemed to be as genuinely nice as her sunny TV persona. In this time of ugliness and strife, we could use a wise-but-chipper mom to help us through the days.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thankful for Friendship

On the workfront, things are a little nutty- two of my subordinates have maxed out their part-time hours, so my one remaining subordinate and myself are left to cover the work schedule until the end of the year. Things are pretty quiet, but I find myself having to work on Thanksgiving. As luck would have it, my great and good friend Major Kong flew into NYC around midnight for work and we made plans to meet up for Thanksgiving lunch.

Around eleven-thirty this morning, we met at the glorious Grand Central Terminal and took the Lexington Avenue Subway down to Canal Street, the main east-west artery of Manhattan's Chinatown. We had lunch at the venerable Wo Hop on Mott Street. Wo Hop is open 24 hours a day, and most of my visits to this basement hideaway have been in the wee hours of the morning, after a night of boozing, when the restaurant is packed with drunks, cops from the nearby precinct, and drunk cops from the nearby precinct. I can't remember the last time I set foot in the place during the daylight hours... if I ever have. Wo Hop was founded in 1938, and specializes in old-school Cantonese comfort food... and did not disappoint. We had a nice, leisurely lunch, washed down with plenty of hot tea and a guava-cordial I had made earlier this year. In the course of our conversation, I realized that I must MUST MUST buy a decent inflatable kayak like the one the Major showed me pictures of.

After our lunch, we stopped in the Mott St location of the Fay Da bakery to buy egg custard tarts. While we were being served, the family which sat next to us at Wo Hop came in and I quipped, "Hey, you folks look familiar." The husband jokingly said that they would follow us around all day, and I promptly dubbed them our 'bodyguards'. We rhapsodized for a while about early-morning post drinking-binge visits to Wo Hop, until we received our orders and amicably parted ways. The Major and I took the subway back to Grand Central, where we parted ways, because I had to be at work at 3PM. It wouldn't have been wise to be late, because I have two very demanding bosses:

Thankfully, the day shift left me a can of 'turkey and giblets' catfood... at least someone's getting a turkey dinner today.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Media Malfeasance, Sins of Omission Version

Today has been a busy day for me- I've been packing books, washing laundry, shredding documents, and cleaning furniture in the course of my ongoing move to an apartment six blocks away. As I typically do, I am listening to the radi-adi-o while working. I'm listening to the "liberal" NPR's coverage of the appointment of public education foe Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary and never once was it mentioned that she was related to the theocratic, right-wing founder of major multi-level marketing company which has engaged in shady business practices.

This is all part and parcel of the normalization of extreme right-wing viewpoints and their proponents. DeVos and her family are far out of the mainstream, but this is completely elided by even the "liberal" media.

All things considered, except for the wholesale looting of the country.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: This Subject's for the Birds!

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 evolutionary biologist Dr Rafael Maia of Columbia University. Dr Maia titled his lecture 'The Colorful Sex Lives of Birds'. He noted that he isn't exactly the best birder, often having trouble finding his subjects in the field. He noted that the 'bird nerd' image is somewhat justified, with birders planning their honeymoons around adding to their life lists. He noted that he first became interested in studying birds by watching Jurassic Park, specifically the scene in which Sam Neill lectures an annoying kid who says that stating dinosaurs are like birds is dumb:

Studying birds is studying living dinosaurs, the evolutionary descendants of the dinosaurs which escaped the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous.

Charles Darwin observed that evolution occurs through natural selection. First, there is variation among members of a species. Secondly, there is heritability- variations are passed on to offspring. Finally, there is selection- some individuals are better at surviving and will be selected for better reproductive outcomes. To illustrate the concept, Dr Maia showed us a slide of one of Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons:

The lemming with the lifesaver will beat out the other lemmings in the selection process. Darwin knew nothing about genetics when he formulated his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Darwin also wrote about the expression of emotion in man and animals, speculating whether or not behaviors are heritable and selected for. Is a particular behavior critical for reproductive success or not? Dr Maia showed us a video of the mating dance of the greater bird of paradise (Paradisaea apoda) from the Cornell Ornithology Lab's Birds of Paradise website:

Dr Maia quipped that sex and death are the only things that matter in evolution- reproducing is more important than survival itself. Why do most multicellular organisms have sex, why don't they just clone replicas of themselves? There are benefits to sex, advantages to gene mixing, such as disease resistance. Why are their two sexes, why not ten? There are two problems which must be solved by gametes- mobility and nutrition. Gametes need to move and they need to nurture developing offspring. If all gametes were identical, they would not be able to solve these two problems optimally. Thus, there are two types of gametes- tiny ones adept at moving (sperm) and large ones good at nurturing (ova). Occupying the middle ground is not so advantageous. Metabolically, sperm are cheap to produce but ova are expensive to produce. On the most basic level, the one thing which defines whether an individual is male or female is whether it produces small gametes or big gametes.

One aspect of natural selection is sexual selection, the ability of an organism to successfully reproduce with a mate. Females produce big gametes, which are expensive to produce, so they produce fewer gametes than males do and typically seek fewer mates. Males produce a lot of cheap gametes, so they tend to mate with more partners than females do. For females, sexual selection is weak- there is little variation in reproductive success. Males undergo strong sexual selection, they must mate often for reproductive success. It benefits females to be choosy, while it benefits males to go for quantity. Males tend to have more variation in looks as well as in reproductive success.

In the case of the long-tailed widowbird (Euplectes progne), females tend to prefer males with long tails. Such sexual selection can lead to exaggerated traits- in one study, certain male widowbirds had their tails shortened and others had their tails lengthened with extensions (PDF), with differences in reproductive success resulting.

In the case of Arizona house finches, females prefer to males whose plumage exhibits a greater degree of carotenoids. Carotenoids are derived from the diet and are an important anti-oxidant, put putting pigments in feathers is a luxury- excess pigment is a sign of better health, and most likely better genes.

Dr Maia then showed us a video of the mating dance of the blue manakin (Chiroxiphia caudata), which engages in a competitive group pre-mating behavior known as lekking:

Typically, one alpha male gets to mate with the female, the other males acting as 'wingmen'. The younger, less dominant males learn how to perform the mating dance by observing the alpha male in a joint reproductive effort.

Dr Maia joked that sexual selection among birds can produce crazy behavioral traits and crazy morphological traits, then showed us a video of a club-winged manakin (Machaeropterus deliciosus) beating its wings together over one-hundred times a minute to produce a sexually appealing stridulation:

One of the pitfalls of the traditional view of sexual selection is that it tends to 'erase' the female story, something alluded to in Sarah B. Hrdy's The Woman that Never Evolved, which opens with the sentence, "Biology, it is sometimes thought, has worked against women." While females were often dismissed as passive and ignored in studies of evolution, female behaviors are important in evolutionary success. Most bird species, about ninety percent, are monogamous. In most cases, they are sequentially monogamous, they form pair bonds for a breeding season, but mating for life is not the norm. In contrast, about three percent of mammal species are monogamous. It is thought that monogamy in birds may be due to low variation in sexual selection- males and females have similar selection pressures, even though males tend to be more ornamented than females. Even though monogamy is the norm, extra-pair paternity is found in seventy-five percent of bird species. Extra-pair young are found in about one in five nests, about ten to twenty percent of offspring are merely social offspring, not biological offspring.

The Australian superb fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) forms monogamous social pairs (males present females with flower petals in courtship), but both males and females engage in extra-pair copulation. In the case of these birds, females don't necessarily go for the most attractive males, but for neighboring males, favoring early risers (Mr Right-now is preferred to Mr Right). Dr Maia joked that, among fairy-wrens, it's better to be ugly than to be isolated.

Dr Maia noted that there are non-binary sex roles among birds. Among the lek-breeding European ruffs, males fall into three phenotypes- the showy, dominant territorial males which attempt to court multiple females, the less dominant satellite males who opportunistically mate with females while the territorial males are distracted, and the female-mimicking faeder males, which will sneakily mate with females right under the beaks of other males. Among white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), there are two phenotypes, white-striped and tan-striped. Both males and females can be of either morphology. The white form tends to be more aggressive, the tan form exhibits more parental care- most pair bonds are cross-morphology... opposites attract in this case.

There are even birds which exhibit a sex-role reversal, the wattled jacacna (Jacana jacana) being a prime example. Female jacanas are larger than males, have bigger wattles, and tend to be more aggressive. Females are polyandrous, mating with multiple males- they produce a lot of eggs which the males will incubate. Females will even break other females' eggs and mate with the the bereaved fathers. Jacanas inhabit a tough environment, one in which the loss of eggs to predation approaches ninety-percent. For female jacanas, the eggs are not that expensive, and the males do the work of nurturing. Dr Maia stressed that it is not a good deal to overgeneralize when discussing reproductive roles.

Dr Maia then veered into the 'JUST PLAIN NASTY' aspects of bird reproduction. This involves ducks, so here's a huge TRIGGER WARNING for anyone who wishes to avoid discussions of violent, outré sexuality. Male ducks will attack females, often nearly drowning them in order to prevent them from escaping. Male ducks will copulate with other male ducks, even dead ones. Male ducks, unlike most birds, which merely engage in cloaca-to-cloaca sperm transfer, have evolved elaborate 'penes' WARNING: CANNOT UNSEE FOLLOWING VIDEO:

Females have evolved twisty countermeasures to thwart forced insemination.

There is an immense diversity of morphology and behavior, which Dr Maia cited as the overarching basis of his research. He then presented us with a video of a blue-black grassquit's (Volatinia jacarina) leaping display:

The male grassquit defends a small territory, and its leaping displays showcase the color of its plumage.

While humans have three types of cone cells, resulting in trichromatic vision, birds have a fourth type of cone cell that allows them to see into the ultraviolet. Often, the males will have plumage which reflects UV light in order to attract females.

Dr Maia then shifted the topic of his lecture to the ways by which bird plumage derives its colors. Generally speaking, brown and red plumage results from pigments while green and blue plumage results from structural elements which reflect colors. The brown pigments in feathers results from the pigment melanin, which is collected in structures known as melanosomes. The reddish pheomelanin and the brown and black eumelanins form in differently-shaped organelles, which allows paleontologists to make educated guesses about the colors of dinosaur plumage using microscopy. In one dramatic case, paleontologists were able to determine that Anchiornis huxleyi probably had black and white plumage with a reddish crest. Ornamentation preceded flight, with complex plume patterns probably being the norm among dinosaurs. Yellow, orange, and red pigments are due to pigments known as carotenoids. Pigments result in a limited palette, which is insufficient to explain the variety of bird coloration.

The palette of bird colors is vastly expanded by structural colors. There are no known blue pigments, and very few green pigments used by animals. Structural colors result from the reflection of light- Dr Maia likened this effect to the iridescence of soap bubbles. The structure of a feather is complex, with differing pigment layers which absorb, reflect, and refract light. Some wavelengths cancel each other out, some reinforce each other. An expert can predict the structural factors which will result in particular colors. In birds, the brightest colors tend to be structural, as Dr Maia illustrated with this amazing video of a male Costa's hummingbird (Calypte costae) trying to impress a female with his iridescent mantle:

Iridescence is directional, it depends on the angle at which the light hits. Structural elements in the feathers of the dinosaur Microraptor gui reveal that the dinosaur had dark iridescent plumage due to the way in which its melanosomes were layered.

Dr Maia then ticked off some of the benefits of studying structural color in bird plumage, such as a new kind of mirrorless laser, improvements in fiber optics, improved camouflage, even better cosmetics.

There are different types of melanosome arrangements, with flat melanosomes producing less light absorption, hollow melanosomes have a major impact on iridescence, and a combination of flat and hollow melanosomes adding to the color palette. Dr Maia cited the African starlings as having a wide array of melanosome arrangements and the resultant optical complexity. The different color palettes among the starlings, derived from different melanosome morphologies, drive faster speciation and greater diversity.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session, in which I was beaten to the punch by a gentleman who inquired about brood parasites such as cuckoos and cowbirds... how do they fool their victims? Dr Maia hypothesized that the calls of baby birds are probably similar enough that the adults don't figure out that something is wrong. Some bastard in the audience asked specifically about the hypothesis that ornamentation was correlated with lower parasite counts. Dr Maia reiterated that ornamentation was generally a good indicator of health and good genes, followed by a brief overview of the handicap hypothesis.

All told, this was another fantastic lecture, a feather in the cap of the Secret Science Club. My main interests lie in biology and the study of evolution, so this lecture hit the 'Secret Science Sweet Spot' for me- it was a great overview of bird reproductive strategies and the anatomy of feathers, illustrated by incredible video footage. I'm a bird nerd, and a dino nerd, so Dr Maia knocked it out of the park in my estimation. Kudos to Dr Maia, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House.