Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Titan of the Catholic Left

A few years back, I mentioned the Berrigan brothers as members of a sadly diminished Catholic Left in a post about the Conservative freakout over the 'nuns on a bus'. It was with great sadness that I read of Father Daniel Berrigan passing away at the age of 94.

Father Berrigan was the sort of holy troublemaker who, with his brother and brother priest Philip, causes the powerful to tremble, caused the powerful to quake in their boots... a burner of draft cards, a tireless anti-nuclear weapons crusader, a civil rights supporter. Fr Berrigan served time in prison for his antiwar activities. He was also a poet and playwright.

In an era in which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops seems like a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, obsessed with the sexual proclivities and activities of consenting adults, it's nice to be reminded that there is a Catholic Left, concerned more about matters of peace and social justice. Even though Fr Berrigan was a Jesuit, he truly embodied the ideals embodied in the Prayer of St Francis (though the Jesuits and the Franciscans have a rivalry not quite entirely unlike the East Coast/West Coast rap war of the 90s). He was an individual who believed in a powerful, positive peace- not just an absence of strife:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

With the passing of Fr Berrigan, the Catholic Left has lost a titan.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Something Fishy Going On Here

A few years ago, I found some circumstantial evidence that we had a breeding pair of osprey (Pandion haliaetus) living in the vicinity of one of my jobsites... it's not usual to find sizable fish on the lawn fifty feet from the nearest body of water. Sure enough, within a week or two, I was able to spy a rather vocal fishhawk perched high up in a dead tree adjacent to our property. We've had osprey there for about four years now.

Last year, I noticed another osprey in the vicinity of my major workplace- we're not far from the Mighty Hudson, and we have a small tributary running through our grounds. Yesterday, I had the great good fortune to see the local osprey perched on the limb of a tree on our grounds, eating a fish:

It was right around sundown, so the picture, hastily snapped with the camera of the department smartphone, isn't all that great. What is great, is the fact that we have osprey onsite... what's even better is the fact that the osprey have come back from the brink of extinction due to the effects of DDT. Recently, I've had the good fortune to have osprey sightings not only at work but near the waterways closer to home. A decade ago, I'd have to visit the Marshlands Conservancy in Rye, NY, to get my osprey fix (there is a nesting box in a cove there), now I can get it every week just by showing up on the job.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Fijne Konigsdag

This week, I have received 292 visitors from the Netherlands, mainly because I posted a recap of a lecture by a celebrated Netherlander. In all my excitement, I forgot that yesterday was Koningsdag, or perhaps I'm just nostalgic for the days of Good Queen Beatrix, and the 'old' April 30th celebration of Koninginnedag.

Years ago, I had the great good fortune to be in Amsterdam for Koninginnedag. I had traveled to the Netherlands with one of my housemates (at the time, I was living in a house owned by a cousin of a high-school classmate of mine, with a bunch of guys I'd known for years- it was like living in a beach house without an ocean), and we had done enough research to know to bring orange shirts. Even better, another old friend of mine who was living and working in Warsaw at the time, and his brother who was living in California, were both in the Netherlands at the same time, so we had the perfect amount of travelers to share a rijsttafel, or a bottle of jenever. Being rogue adventurers, we went a bit off the beaten path- one memorable occasion saw me confronted by a local in a bar in the Jordaan district:

"What are you doing here?"
"We're tourists."
She wasn't convinced: "No, the tourists are in Leidseplein, the tourists are in Rembrandtplein. What are you doing here?"
"Honestly, we're tourists."
"You're not tourists, you're freaks!"

Now, that's a compliment... As I said, we got a little bit off the beaten path, trying to scratch a bit beneath the surface. As a New Yorker, there are echoes of home all over the Netherlands- Breuckelen, Haarlem... I took a day trip to Rotterdam to check out the unusual post-WW2 bombing architecture, and we all took a train to Haarlem and took a local bus through the polders and bulbfields to Noordwijk aan Zee and back again. Wherever we went, we met with the warmest hospitality, and a genuine interest among the people to share their culture with us.

It all culminated on Koninginnedag- upon getting up and looking out the hotel window, I saw a sea of orange-clad revelers. My friends and I went from bar to bar, partying with the friendly Amsterdammers. At one point, I was 'adopted' by a family- mom, dad, and their eight year old daughter were all together in a local tavern, and they took the time to explain the significance of the various patriotic songs that the crowd was singing. I had the overwhelming sense that the crowd was filled with a deep sense of pride without the slightest bit of jingoism... theirs was the pride that says, "This is who we are, and this is who we love" without the need to claim that who they were and what they loved was better than anyone else's culture. They felt it very important to share their pride with visitors who wanted to get somewhere beyond the tourist experience... not tourists, but friendly 'freaks'. It was a wonderful experience, and I really can't say enough about Hollanders.

Here's wishing a happy belated Konigsdag to the influx of readers from the Netherlands... a few years back, I posted the video for the sentimental song Het kleine café aan de haven, but I figure that this is a perfect opportunity to post a live version:

The sentiments expressed in the song are so universal that the song has become a standard in several languages... I like it because it reminds me of all of the little cafes in which I found such a welcome.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Wow, Wow Wow Wow, WOW!

Tonight, I opened my browser and navigated over to the 'design' page of the old blog, and I saw something which amazed me: 1473 hits. Poking around further, I checked out my 'stats' page and found that most of my traffic has been coming from Facebook: 1026 120 97

I'm one of those holdouts who isn't on Facebook... back in the 90s, figuring I needed to become streetwise, I worked as an investigator, mainly of auto accident claims, in NYC's five boros, mainly Brooklyn and Queens, so I am v-e-r-y leery about putting information out on public display. Luckily, the photograph of my public spanking by a dominatrix at an S&M-themed restaurant on my 30th birthday (courtesy of smartass friends) was taken before social media was a 'thing'.

I decided that I needed to Google 'big bad bald bastard' and 'Facebook', and I found this:

I can't tell you all how grateful I am to Dr Frans de Waal, not only for his lifetime of research and advocacy, but for his kindness in linking to my modest little blog. Dr de Waal has worked tirelessly to connect us to our fellow Earth denizens, and I am humbled by his connecting to me.

A glance at the title of my blog is enough to show that I primarily envisioned this as a snarky, tongue-in-cheek weblog serving as a vehicle for letting off steam about current events and the state of politics, and for writing about music, art, and books that I like... oh, and a fan site for my feline co-workers. I owe a debt of gratitude to Margaret Mittelbach, Dorian Devins, and Michael Crewdson of the Secret Science Club not only for their wonderful lecture series and their friendship, but for forcing me to bring my best writing efforts to the blogging game. Oftimes, when one is writing multiple days out of the week, one tosses off posts quickly, but the lecture recaps involve note taking (basically, juggling a note pad and a beer in a darkened performance space) and enough web-surfing to verify the hastily-scrawled notes and provide links and attribution. I have an obligation to the lecturers and my readers to get things right... and I sincerely hope that I've succeeded.

So, to Dr de Waal, here's a heartfelt "Thank you", and for the benefit of visitors from the University of Utrecht, "Hartelijk bedankt!"

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Unabashed Fanboi Edition

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 Frans de Waal, Biologist, Primatologist, Psychologist, Ethologist, and personal hero of mine. Dr de Waal is a living legend, just look at the man's affiliations, cut-and-pasted from his website:

De Waal is C. H. Candler Professor in the Psychology Department of Emory University and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, in Atlanta, Georgia. Since 2013, he is a Distinguished Professor (Universiteitshoogleraar) at Utrecht University. He has been elected to the (US) National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. In 2007, he was selected by Time as one of The Worlds' 100 Most Influential People Today, and in 2011 by Discover as among 47 (all time) Great Minds of Science. Being editor-in-chief of the journal Behaviour, de Waal has stepped in the footsteps of Niko Tinbergen, one of the founders of ethology.

I approached this writeup by saying, "No pressure, man, just write the post... he's just someone who's work you've followed for decades, that's all."

Dr de Waal began the lecture by joking about the current election, "I wrote a book titled 'Chimpanzee Politics', but this posturing and dick measuring is below chimp politics." He followed this facetious introduction by noting that researchers in the past century downplayed animal intelligence. Behaviorists talked about stimulus and response but eschewed talking about thinking. He identified himself as a primatologist, but noted that he is interested in all animals. He then showed a breathtaking film of Lisala, a female bonobo at the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary, which houses bonobos rescued from the 'bush meat' trade- in the film, Lisala is balancing a rock on her back while also carrying her child. She walks about a kilometer carrying rock and baby, prompting Dr De Waal to note, "You know she's going to use it (the rock)." After the kilometer walk, which ended at a flat, hard surface, Lisala used the rock to crack nuts. Dr De Waal noted of Lisala, "Lisala thinks ahead." The bonobo knew about the nuts, and knew about the hard place, and she carried the rock to the hard place in order to crack the nuts.

Dr de Waal then noted that it used to be thought that animals were 'trapped in the present', but he noted that they are capable of 'time travel'- they exhibit episodic memory and future planning.

The topic of the talk then shifted to Mirror Self Recognition, a topic which was also discussed in January's lecture. Dr de Waal showed a short video of a female bonobo which had been bitten by a male inspecting the puncture wound in her forehead with a smartphone camera. Dr de Waal joked, "If you have a dog that does that, call me!" He then showed a video of a capuchin monkey interacting with a mirror- while the monkey was interested in the mirror, there was no sense of self-recognition. Chimps, upon discovering the 'mirror trick', tend to inspect their mouths and teeth- parts of their own bodies that they have never seen. Female chimps also inspect their behinds, while male chimps are more interested in inspecting the behinds of the females. Dr de Waal noted that the chimps will even check themselves out in his reflective sunglasses.

Dr de Waal then showed us a video of Ayumu, a genius chimp living in the primate research center of Kyoto University, playing a computer game which involves remembering a number sequence:

Ayumu has beaten human competitors at this memorization game, which has upset more than one person. Dr de Waal attributed this to the attitude that humans feel they need to be at the top, noting that the old 'pyramid' had God on top, with the humans coming next, and then a hierarchy of animals, with those most like humans closer to the peak.

Dr de Waal then posed the question, how does one test an animal's 'IQ'? Dogs and cats exhibit very different behaviors, how could one make a comparison? He then enumerated three important criteria for testing animal congnition: Researchers must beware the 'Clever Hans' trap. Intelligence testing must be species appropriate. Researchers must avoid negative evidence.

Clever Hans was an early 20th century performing horse which was reputed to be able to solve arithmetic problems, but was actually basing its responses on its owner's body clues... the horse was smart, but in a different manner than the way it was billed. One way in which to eliminate the 'Clever Hans' effect is to block the animal subject's view of the tester... as this video of retired psychology professor Dr John Pilley and his dog Chaser demonstrates:

Testing must be species appropriate... for instance, elephants are reluctant to use tools with their sensitive trunks. Dr de Waal joked that we test animals better than children, then contrasted the differences between testing human children and testing apes- children have language ability which apes lack, there are no barriers between children and researchers while ape subjects are separated from their testers, child subjects have parental support while apes are tested alone, and most importantly, children are tested by their own species while apes are tested by a different species.

Dr de Waal noted that apes don't ape... while human children imitate human behavior, apes typically don't. In order to test apes' ability to ape, observations of ape-to-ape learning had to be made. Apes do learn from each other, with the learning of a behavior like nut cracking typically taking five to six years. In the Yerkes research center, the chimps choose to enter the Cognition Room- the chimps recognize not only their own names, but the names of the other chimps. They can get their friends if requested to do so. In one particular experiment Dr de Waal and research fellow Victoria Horner dubbed the 'Panpipe Paradigm' (Pan being the chimp's genus), chimpanzees were given long pipes with which they could activate a reward 'hopper' by either poking the hopper or lifting a lever on the hopper. One group of chimpanzees learned to activate the hopper by poking while another learned to lift the lever, with high ranking females of each group transmitting the knowledge to other members of their group (the high-ranking males were too busy with sex and politics to bother with this task and low-ranking females were ignored by higher status chimps). By imitating the behavior of their high-ranking conspecifics, two separate cultural traditions developed, pokers and lifters.

The third criterion for good testing of animal intelligence is to beware of negative evidence- the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In early tests to determine elephants' ability to recognize themselves in mirrors, the elephants were in enclosures with bars, and the mirrors were small and awkwardly placed. The failure of the elephants to pass the mirror test under these circumstances was a failure of the test, not the elephants. Given large enclosures and large mirrors, elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors:

When dealing with negative evidence, the best procedure is to ask, are we asking the right questions? Is it fair to ask whether we humans are smarter than an octopus?

The lecture then shifted to tool use in animals. It was long held that 'Man is a Tool-Using Animal'. In the early 20th century, German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler tested chimpanzees' problem-solving skills by placing chimps in an enclosure in which bananas were suspended from above, with sticks and crates scattered around the floor. The chimpanzees figured out how to stack the crates in order to reach the reward:

Dr de Waal joked that Köhler's name was 'hissed by psychologists'. He then showed a video of a female chimp which solved Köhler's problem by throwing a box at the suspended bananas, knocking them to the ground, quipping that she had stumbled upon the 'unofficial solution'. He then showed a remarkable video of a chimpanzee downing a drone that was being used to film at a Dutch zoo:

He followed this up by joking, "Welcome to our chimp overlords." He then showed us a video of capuchin monkeys cracking palm nuts with rocks. He noted that the characterization of "Man the Tool User" had to shift to "Man the Tool Maker". Then he noted that chimpanzees make tools, as do New Caledonian crows:

The new claim is that humans make tools to make tools... Dr de Waal noted that chimps have entered the Stone Age, and joked that chimp people are unhappy with competition: "My dolphins are smarter than your chimps." He noted that, with New Caledonian crows making tools in the field, and Aesop's fable of the crow and the pitcher being replicated, the corvids are posing a big challenge to the primate people.

To make matters even more of a challenge for the primate-centric, he showed a video of an octopus carrying a coconut shell to use as a portable shelter, noting that the locomotion of the octopus involves a strong cognitive component:

And an alligator using a stick as a lure for nesting egrets:

Dr de Waal noted that there is a 'Cognitive Ripple Effect'- after tool use was observed in apes, it began to be observed in other animals- monkeys then crows, then alligators... Every cognitive capacity we find in other animals ends up being older and more widespread than we thought. He indicated that while rats and pigeons make good research subjects, studies using them don't apply equally to other species. A wide range of species needs to be studied to gain a better understanding of cognition... noted that social paper wasps can recognize each others' faces while non-colonial wasps cannot. He noted that animals have the cognitive abilities they need due to natural history and ecology.

Dr de Waal quipped that 'animal cognition' was a dirty word in the 1980s... we will never know what animals think. He noted that anthropomorphism, the (mis)attribution of human qualities to non-humans, was something to be avoided, but he questioned whether concerns about anthropomorphism should apply to chimpanzees and other animals closely related to humans. He cited the example of kissing, noting that kissing gouramis appear to kiss when engaging in mouth-to-mouth combat, while chimpanzees kiss to reconcile with each other and those dirty, sexy bonobos engage in tongue kissing. Dr de Waal urged the audience, if similar species engage in similar behavior under similar circumstances, use the same label. Having similar traits due to shared ancestry is homology- homologies are important and deserve the same terminology- the forelimb extremities of humans and chimps have the same function and the same origin, they should both be labeled 'hands'.

If a gorilla is tickled, call the resultant sound laughter, there's no need for obfuscation. Dr de Waal noted that laughter is an animalistic behavior, we lose control of ourselves when we laugh. He then showed video of Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin laughing uncontrollably:

Dr de Waal advised us to honor the similarities between humans and our relatives, not to deny them. He presented us with a neologism- anthropodenial: the a priori denial that animals can have human-like mental experiences. He illustrated such experiences by discussing Dr Sarah Brosnan's monkey fairness experiment, in which two monkeys are given unequal rewards, with familiar results... here's Dr de Waal showing video of the experiment:

This experiment apparently raised a bit of a controversy, Dr de Waal joked about the torrent of mail he received, with one philosopher indignantly claiming that it's impossible that monkeys know fairness, because fairness was discovered during the French Revolution, and numerous economists complaining that monkeys aren't economists. He then showed a video of two children, one given a whole cookie and one a half cookie (indignantly thrown to the floor), noting that mothers do this under protocols that would never be approved in animal studies. He noted that the rejection of the sub-par reward is an irrational response, because half a cookie is better than no cookie at all.

I was unable to get in a question during the Q&A... not only was the main room packed to capacity, but front-of-house was filled, with those outside getting the audio feed. One questioner asked if empathy was limited to mammals, and Dr de Waal indicated that he was setting up an experiment to determine if fish had a capacity for it. Another question regarded intelligence versus instinct- Dr de Waal opined that the line between them was hard to draw, giving the example of the weaverbirds, the males of which build complex nests- while all males build nests, some are better at it than others, and females prefer males who build better nests. Dr de Waal stated that it is difficult to distinguish biological tendencies and learned tendencies. He finished the night by urging us all to realize that all organisms are interconnected, and to cherish these connections.

All-in-all, Dr de Waal delivered a fantastic lecture to a packed house. Once again, the 'Secret Science Sweet Spot' was hit- the lecture was informative-yet-accessible, with great video accompaniment and humorous touches. Dr de Waal is a titan in the field of ethology, and it was a privilege to hear him speak. After the Q&A, he had a book signing, with copies of his new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, on sale. Unfortunately, I had to bug out as soon as the talk was over in order to get to work an uncharacteristic Tuesday half-shift. At any rate, kudos to Dr de Waal, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House.

Here's a nice one-on-one interview with Dr de Waal on the topic of animals' feelings:

Speaking of feelings, I get a real sense that the man has a love for his subjects... he's a guy I'm glad I share the planet with.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Peel and Eat

I have an intense love/hate relationship with Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)... on the one hand, it's one of the most noxious invasive species to haunt the United States, on the other hand, it's not only edible and probably healthy to eat, but it happens to have a nice, tart taste(reminiscent to that of its relative, rhubarb) that I enjoy.

Normally, I eat this plant out of hand, munching on fat, juicy stalks while whacking down thinner, less choice ones by the score.

The purple-mottled peel comes off rather easily, in long strips, exposing the tender interior of the stalk. Typically, I'd munch on these suckers like one would munch on a celery stalk, but I decided that I'd peel a bunch of them to be cooked when I get home from work:

I figure I'll begin simply, by adding them to stir-fries... they would probably taste great in counterpoint to caramelized onions. There are recipes for it on one of my favorite websites, Eat the Invaders, as well as traditional Japanese recipes for this horrible-yet-useful plant, known as itadori in its homeland.

I figure I can use all of the recipes I can find... I'll be eating this stuff for months, for America.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Life's Too Short To Be Cooped Up Indoors

Today, at work, I noticed an unannounced guest in the building:

Just going by the twin cerci at the tail end of this critter, and our site's proximity to water, that this is a mayfly, specifically a not-quite-adult subimago. Since mayflies are basically the prime example of extremely ephemeral creatures, doomed to die after the briefest of existences, I didn't want to see this doomed creature's existence to be wasted indoors, alone:

The insect needed little coaxing, one quick flutter of the hand and it took off to join the mating swarms over the site's pond. It's bad enough when a long-lived creature is cooped up inside all day, for a creature with a lifespan of mere hours, it's intolerable.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Nutkin, We Need to Talk

I'm a fan of Nutkin, and I'm not the only one. I'm a little worried, though, because it seems like Nutkin has a problem:

Oh, Nutkin, what are you doing on top of the garbage can, and what's that in your mouth? You're gnawing on muffin wrapper, because it still has some crumb adhering to it? Now, Nutkin, being a junkie (or a trashy, for that matter), is no way to go through life. There are plenty of oak and hickory trees around, there's no need to go diving into the trash barrel. Nutkin, we need to talk, I think you may need help.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Earth Day Climate Accord

This Earth Day, the big news is the signing of the Paris Climate Accord. I'm a climate pessimist, having observed for all-too-long the fact that corporations are willing to scuttle their long-term prospects in the service of next quarter's profits. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is a bit more optimistic than I am:

“The era of consumption without consequences is over. We must intensify efforts to decarbonize our economies. And we must support developing countries in making this transition. The poor and most vulnerable must not suffer further from a problem they did not create.”

There is an entire industry dedicated to derailing efforts to decarbonize our economies, and the 'Masters of the Universe' who control the fossil fuel industry would rather burn the planet down than to submit to regulation.

I've been posting about this subject for years, and it seems like nothing has changed. This sponsored inertia isn't going to destroy the planet, but it'll probably destroy our planet, and we're going to take a lot of beautiful, interesting species down with us.

I believe that there are solutions to the problem of climate change... or at least mitigations. An array of 'alternate' energy sources should be put on a development 'fast track' with generous subsidies (which are now squandered on fossil fuel industries). More energy efficient appliances, vehicles, and habitations should be adopted. Carbon sequestration methods (even something as simple as reforestation) should be put in place. Moving towards a 'carbon neutral' economy isn't an easily accomplished goal, but it sure as hell beats a global environmental catastrophe.

I wish I could be more sanguine about this topic, but it's not that easy to pull off a hard-but-not-fatal landing when billions of dollars are spent to ensure that H. sapiens remains on a nose-dive of a course.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Former Artist Formerly Known as Prince

The big item dominating the news this afternoon was the untimely death of Prince Rogers Nelson at the age of 57. For a good eulogy, check out Tengrain's place. My favorite comment regarding the passing of Prince comes from guitarist Butch Walker:

Wow. I don't even know how to fucking process this day. You were an anomaly. You were a genre-defying, badass little purple wizard. You shaped my guitar playing, my confidence, and most importantly, taught me how to be a performer. From 14yrs old, all the way to today, you were always BETTER THAN ANYONE. Thanks for getting me through puberty and helping me discover sexuality in pop, soul, hard rock, and psychedelia. Let this be future advice to all young, outcast nerds that are sitting in their parent's basements, learning music. A beautiful swan can rise from those basements and rule the world. Just like Prince did. Practice hard and get as good as you can at all things music because.. We have BIG shoes to fill from such a little guy. I love you, Prince.... Thanks again for everything...

Throughout the news coverage, a lot of commentary revolved in a joking fashion about his decision to change his name to a symbol, but none of the corporate media wags mentioned that he engineered that name change in an effort to push back against record company dickery. Besides being a talented songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, the guy was a fighter, and the industry he was in a cesspool in which too many artists drown.

Mr Nelson did take things a bit far, being notably litigious regarding intellectual property and 'fair use', even sending a takedown notice to a fan who'd uploaded a 29-second clip with Let's Go Crazy playing in the background to Youtube. While that might seem like a bit of a dick move, it was an act of self-preservation in a cutthroat industry.

Now, how about an awesome performance from the man who was once a symbol?

Rest in peace, badass little purple wizard.

UPDATE: Ruh-roh, looks like the Illuminati got him because he knew too much:

I bet he was going to release a song warning us about what the queers are doing to the soil.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

New York Values, Revisted

Back in January, I wrote a post on Ted Cruz' New York Values crack. In light of the fact that Ted Cruz won zero delegates from New York and lost to non-candidate Ben Carson in some counties, I figured I'd revisit that subject. Texan and blogroll member Nasreen Iqbal, in a comment on Monday's post, noted that Ted Cruz has pretty much been a big no-show regarding the needs of New Yorkers:

In other news, I have survived Houston's third major flood in less than a year. After the last one - last Memorial Day - Sentaor Cruz stood behind and verbally supported our mayor in asking for federal disaster assistance. He had opposed that for Hurricane Sandy, a storm with the good sense to hit a place other than Texas.

Yep, Ted Cruz opposed federal relief after Superstorm Sandy, while asking for federal relief after flooding in his home state. He also voted against the Zadroga Act, which sets aside funds for the medical expenses of 9/11 first responders who were exposed to a toxic cloud that Republican Christine Todd Whitman insisted was safe. New Yorkers never forget, so Cruz was pretty much DOA from the get-go in New York, even with his recent stupid ads running against Bill De Blasio.

An integral ingredient of New York values is our support for each other when the chips are down. If you fuck with one New Yorker, you fuck with all of this. Ted Cruz, in a very real sense, fucked with New Yorkers in need with his votes against federal aid paid for with taxes which New York pays to Washington in excess of monies received.

New Yorkers help each other, we also help others, such as Texans... you don't see any of our senators blocking federal aid to states with GOP representatives. Once again, I'll take our New York values over anything that creepy sociopath Ted Cruz espouses.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Busy Day, Happy Day

Today was our all-staff meeting at work. As usual, the meeting began with breakfast and a nice meet-and-greet. It's always nice to see everybody after the long, lonely winter. This year's meeting started on a high note- we had over 2,500 attend our family-friendly Spring fundraiser this past weekend... a record breaking figure.

Regarding our staffing, our CFO (who bears a bit of a resemblance to Mr Burns) will be retiring this coming June, and four members of the executive group were promoted to the position of Vice President. Our gift shop manager and his administrative assistant will also be retiring. On the bright side, twenty-eight new hires were brought on to help with our upcoming season.

After the President of the organization spoke and the CFO gave his goodbye speech, a representative of the county tourism board spoke about the importance of tourism to the region, and the need for increased communication between the county government and the various tourist attractions. Being the guy who locks up the joint on the weekends, I told her, "Please run a campaign with the slogan 'Leave Brooklyn Before Eleven AM' because I get a lot of people showing up just as I'm locking up."

Then the head of our education department gave a presentation about the development of an educational app funded by a grant from the federal government, and then showed a video of an interview he did for a BBC production. He's a mellow fellow, and his BBC video was great- he was sporting a jaunty porkpie hat and a soul patch, and he just looked too cool for school. He's universally beloved in the organization, so this bit went over very well.

He was followed by our head of collections, who described some recent acquisitions. She's a lovely, caring person, and she got very emotional reading one of the newly acquired documents. It's nice to know that she has a real connection with the objects placed in her care... I often note that one key to working here is 'buy in'. None of us makes a gajillion dollars, so a proprietary feeling toward the place is crucial.

After the staff meeting, I had to put in four hours to cover a site which is a polling place for the primary elections. I'm happy to say that the turnout has been high. We also have a school group onsite. At one point, a bunch of eight year-old girls started chanting, "Hillary! Hillary!" I was very proud of the girls for being politically savvy, but I had to inform them that there was no electioneering within 100 feet of the polling site. Happily, they walked another five feet and resumed the chant.

It's been a fun day, albeit a busy one. I'm not making a gajillion dollars, but I've got a sense of 'buy in'.

Monday, April 18, 2016

What a Time for Seccession Talk!

Via Tengrain, we have news of the next upcoming Texas secession vote... it seems like we have to hear this song and dance routine every three or four years, and the Texas GOPers are still holding out on us. The timing of this current vote to secede is a bit, to put it mildly, awkward, as Houston is in the midst of a flooding disaster that has largely shut down the city and had left over 100,000 houses without electricity. Texas is going to need federal aid... let's see who votes 'yes' on secession when there's a need for federal largesse.

It's annoying how often we have to hear from the Confederate Nostalgia Wing of the Texas state house, maybe the real solution would be to deport all of these assholes to a seastead where they can form their own libertarian John Galt paradise. I feel sorry for the good people of Tejas who have to put up with this nonsense... go out and vote, please, and get rid of the Gohmerts and Cruzes. In the meantime, stay safe, high, and dry. If things get really bad, the rest of the U.S. will be there with the aid, despite the wishes of your elected officials.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Nostalgia Begets Nostalgia

It's no secret to longtime readers that I am a fan of the proto-punk/avante-outré band Pere Ubu. Today, I had a hankering to hear the song Non-Alignment Pact, which is a bizarre deconstruction of typical oldie songs about infatution. After blasting the original, I remembered that Julian Cope, former lead singer of The Teardrop Explodes, performed a credible cover of the song about ten years after the release of the original.

Because the Intert00bz is a garden of forking links, I found a video of a concert that Mr Cope played at NYC's The Ritz, a music venue which I frequented back in its 54th St heyday... the venue was right by the Afghan Kebab House, so there was a good, inexpensive restaurant at which to fuel up before hitting the club. At any rate, I figured I'd watch the entire concert, and Mr Cope did not disappoint:

Julian Cope is pretty much the antithesis of Pere Ubu's David Thomas, a rail-thin, handsome rockstar with a deep, vibrant voice, compared to Mr Thomas' burly, somewhat disheveled warbler. Mr Cope did have a pretty good handle on the non-conventional in popular music, something he probably picked up by listening to David Thomas... he couldn't have helped being a conventional pretty-boy.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Opening Day

Today was the first day of the year that we were open to the general public. In fact, we have a nice low-key Spring fundraiser which, today, drew about a thousand visitors, mainly families with kids, to my principle jobsite. Tomorrow, the weather is supposed to be even nicer, so our attendance should be even better.

I spent the end of last shift, the wee hours of this morning, unlocking and opening the gates to our parking lots, turning on the outside drinking fountain, and generally making sure that the day shift could hit the ground running as soon as they arrived on the job. It's an 'all hands on deck' weekend, with seasonal workers from all of our sites converging on this place to work the event. Me? I like to think of myself as a guy who helps his co-workers perform their necessary tasks without getting bogged down in the minutiae of mundane tasks best done before the site is open.

I arrived at work an hour early so I could catch up with people I hadn't seen in months. I'm one of the part-time, year-round employees, the bulk of the workforce isn't around during the Winter. It's a nice reunion in a gorgeous spot. I was surprised to see one young woman who used to work for us during summers when she was on Summer vacation. She had gone off to college in the Midwest, but it wasn't a good fit- she didn't like the area, she didn't think the other students were nice, and she didn't think she fit in well with her original academic plan. She figured out that she wasn't where she needed to be, so she put in her time for one semester, then came back East, applied to another university (a prestigious bastion of prestige, even), and will be happily studying her beloved Classics starting next semester. She's also going to be working with us whenever she can. I noted that she was back in her 'comfort zone', and stressed that one crucial component of knowing what you want is knowing what you don't want.

Another one of our young part-timers is back, working longer hours in an expanded capacity- it's nice to know that management has gotten serious about our 'up and comers'. The backbone of our organization is made of employees who have retired after having more traditional careers, who have the option to work on a part-time basis in order to have fun and indulge a passion for their work.

Regarding my four-legged co-workers, (in an echo of two years ago), Ginger, our feline diva, made sure she was underfoot, in the eye of the crowd. Fred, being a more reserved animal, spent most of the day safely ensconced in one of his hiding places, but made presence known late in the day... probably because his normal afternoon feeding time was nigh. He trotted over to me for a good ear-scritching, when I heard a chorus of children sing, "Kitty!" A trio of small girls ran over, and I gave them a brief intro, "Girls, he isn't a pet kitty, he's a working cat, so please be very gentle and very careful when you pet him." My main concern was that Fred would get stressed out and scratch someone, but my beloved cat was very patient as three small, dimpled paws stroked his fur. Good ol' Fred, my mellow, marmalade meower, just sat there and indulged the whims of three very cute preschoolers. I don't take pictures of kids who aren't related to me, you'll have to trust me when I say that it was the 'cuteation'. The girls were very well-behaved, very sweet and gentle.

It's been a great day, our crowd was very lovely, and even the people who wandered by after we closed for the day were nice, friendly people who I hope will visit us again when we're open. I'm happy that the season has started up again, and as it always does, it started on a high note.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Paying the Dues for a Club I Call 'America'

I know that Tax Day this year falls on April 18th, but I usually write about taxes on April 15th, and I am on record saying I don't mind paying my taxes. I recognize the fact that I have a responsibility to pay for the services I use, and I have to note that the people who complain most loudly about taxes tend to benefit from tax dollars. I pay federal income tax, state income tax, and city income tax, and I derive benefits from all of these levels of government... I drive to work on decent roads, I buy untainted groceries at the local store, and I have a great county library system and parks system.

New York State actually gives its taxpayers the opportunity to pay additional monies, earmarked for specific purposes, into its coffers. I voluntarily contribute to funds for wildlife, cancer research, and outreach for homeless veterans. I'm not a saint, I'm a citizen, I recognize my obligations to my less fortunate neighbors.

Last week, I joked about procrastinating with regard to my tax preparation, but I actually enjoy sitting down and crunching the numbers, and I don't experience a pang when I write out the checks. I like being a member of this club I call America, so I value living up to my obligations by paying the dues.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Ugh, Ablow Again

It's been a while since I've taken Keith Ablow to the woodshed. Mercifully, I tend to forget about this creep, but then one of his ablowviations makes it to the blogosphere. Well, Ablow's latest is another bit of non-scientific jackassery:

Who was the first human being in the world to say that transgenderism would pave the way for people to declare their own races? Dr. Keith Ablow. I warned about it. And it's happening and it will happen with age because of guys like Mark Zuckerberg, who have you invent your life on Facebook and then don't understand the concepts of the borders of a country. The country's a real mark, he's part of this too. It's part of the denial of reality.

Race is a social construct, there is no biological basis for the concept of race. I believe that Ablow is really afraid that a world in which transgendered persons are accepted is one which is likely to jettison the whole concept of race, and realize that the human species is one big, interconnected family.

He's not warning about a world in which individuals can declare their own races, he's warning about a world in which people can declare that there is no such thing as race. That kind of world, in which Ablow can't claim superiority because of the melanin content of his skin, is what really has him worried.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Saga of Big Ugly

My people are outdoorsy and have a well-developed sense of intellectual curiousity... we are rock-turners, puddle-jumpers, and critter-catchers. The women of my clan are beautiful, but tomboyish... they wade in ponds and throw credible spiral passes, and they are gifted comediennes. Last Thanksgiving, my nieces, the daughters of my brother Vincenzo, and I spun a goofy yarn about giving a catfish living in a pond near their house a makeover. The catfish, dubbed 'Big Ugly', was to be caught and a beautiful wig was to be placed on its head and some lipstick applied to its wide, unlovely mouth. This fish-out-of-water-and-in-a-beauty-salon story was the source of much mirth over the past couple of months. On Sunday night, I got a phone call from Vin... he and one of the girls went down to the pond to feed some of the local turtles. Being the curious types, they brought a net with them so they could catch any particularly interesting critters for further examination... and then it happened, they caught Big Ugly, luring him within netting reach with a chunk of day-old bagel.

I have to say, Big Ugly is just that:

I'm pretty sure Vin wears a size eleven or eleven-and-a-half shoe, for the sake of comparison. Needless to say, there was a lot of excitement, and all of the kids came out to see this fish that has loomed so large, and so ugly, in their minds.

After Big Ugly's photo op, it was released into the pond. The next time they catch Big Ugly, they'll have a nice wig fashioned out of Spanish moss for it... with any luck, my next catfish post will be about Big Pretty.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

He Stole the Vole and Ate It Whole

The cats and I were on patrol,
When Ginger caught a meadow vole.
She left it by a maple bole.
Her brother then the carcass stole.
He stole the vole and ate it whole.
And now, dear friends, my tale is tol'.

I'm a bit shocked that Ginger carried the vole around for a bit, then just dropped it on the ground, ignoring it. Her opportunistic brother then picked it up and ate it, including the crunchiest of crunchy parts. I'll refrain from showing pictures of the incident, here's a picture of the two cats enjoying a peaceful moment after the incident:

The rodent abatement task is not a pretty one, but the Rodent Abatement Team sure is pretty.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Bathroom Pathology... Bathology, if You Will

The North Carolina 'bathroom bill' has captured the national press to the extent that typing 'NC' into the web-browser results in the number one auto-fill result 'NC bathroom bill'. Congratulations, North Carolina... even better, the anti-gay legislation was accompanied by regressive workplace policies- the right-wingers use the social issues to con the rubes into voting against their best interests.

The real puzzler to me is the bizarre fixation on public restrooms... I just can't understand anyone portraying them as hotbeds of eroticism, though this has been a Republican fixation for years. One of my favorite bars has a unisex bathroom, and the individual stalls afford a large measure of privacy. Working alone at nights, I have often been in the women's restrooms (I'm the guy who locks up and turns off all the lights when we close), and the stalls afford a large measure of privacy. There's really not a lot of room for salacious activity to occur in public bathrooms, not to mention that the cold, harsh environments aren't exactly conducive to an amatory mood.

The really crazy thing here is that public bathroom shenanigans, whether sexual or violent, tend to involve conservative men.

Things are bad enough, but it takes a Louie Gohmert to make things worse... here's Louie waxing gohmertic on public restrooms:

“…I was as good a kid as you can have growing up, I never drank alcohol till I was legal, never to, still, use an illegal drug, but in the seventh grade if the law had been that all I had to do was say, ‘I’m a girl,’ and I got to go into the girls’ restroom, I don’t know if I could’ve withstood the temptation just to get educated back in those days.”

About the only thing an adolescent Louie would have learned in the girls' restroom in his middle school is that the pretty girl in math class that he had a crush on takes craps as prodigious as the varsity football team linebackers. Hmmmm... given how full of shit Louie is, maybe he did get educated in the girls' restroom back in seventh grade.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Procrastination? Nah, I've Got a Week

It's April 8th and I haven't done my taxes yet... I have a week to get everything in order, maybe I picked up some bad habits by going to the General Post Office on 34th St in Manhattan to see the Tax Day chaos in years past. There was always a weird vibe, with truly late filers playing 'chicken' with the midnight deadline. I've got a week, though... better dig out the old pocket calculator:

It's great to watch that video of Kraftwerk doing their thing in 2013. My favorite part is the crowd singing along to Dentaku, the Japanese version of Pocket Calculator.

At any rate, I do have to get on the case, I don't have time to waste on Computer Games:

Gotta love that YMO, their appearance on Soul Train remains one of my favorite television moments.

Oddly enough, I haven't found any collaborations between these two giants of electronic music, but I did find a melancholy YMO jazz cover version of Radioactivity from a 2013 'No Nukes' concert:

I wish I had the time to hunt down all evidence of a possible YMO/Kraftwerk collaboration, but I've got a important task ahead of me.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Predictive Power of Science Fiction

Exactly five years ago, I wrote about the role of women in Science Fiction and 'Gaming Culture'. Sadly, about a year after that, the whole 'Gamergate' crapfest occurred... and things just don't seem to get better in nerddom. That being said, my purpose in this post isn't to lament the state of the fandom, but to mention an author whose works I have only recently discovered.

Doris Piserchia published her first short story in 1966, and her novel publishing career lasted from 1973 to 1983, when her daughter died, leaving her to care for her granddaughter. While in Virginia visiting mom, I stopped by a used book store (tragically, these are as rare as hen' teeth in NYC these days, largely due to economic factors) and picked up a couple of Ms Piserchia's books.

A Billion Days of Earth, published in 1976, is a darkly comic tale of the far-future, when the descendants of Homo sapiens have developed psychic powers which allow them to live as extremely powerful yet effete 'gods', while the descendants of rats and dogs have formed 'human' societies. Into the society of the rat-people, a frightful, predatory alien inexplicably comes to be, a quicksilver nonesuch which seeks to absorb the egos of other lifeforms. This horror comes to a society already rotting from within due to class inequality (Chapter 3):

A few centuries before, the rich of the world were philanthropic. Their descendants monopolized wealth, eliminated all but the very elite, took the family name of Filly, stopped giving money away and knew no fear of anyone but the Gods. They needn't have worried. The Gods didn't care what rat-men did, rich or poor.

If looking over that electrified fence at the estate made an observer sick because he suddenly began to think about a hundred piles of money as high as a hundred hills, and that those Fillys in their manors were sitting on more dollars than he could count in his lifetime- if this was what the observer thought- he looked over his shoulder to make sure he was alone, after which he let it out in one loud, crazy scream and then he went home and tried to forget he had those thoughts.

It would be unendurable to live in a world where ninety-nine percent of it were serfs, while the remaining one percent silently manipulated them. The philosophy of the sacrifice of the one for the many wasn't perfect, but it had served man for all of his existence. Hadn't it? Philosophies were suspect and humanity must be cautious in his choices. For instance, consider the philosophy of the sacrifice of the many for the one: that was just too goddamn...

Leaving aside the hard science-fiction stories which predicted cell phones, microcomputers, and the like, this particular passage, written forty years ago, perfectly encapsulates the principle malaise affecting societies all around the globe. Later in the book, one of the characters watches a young boy pass by, and contemplates the possible fate of the kid:

Redo began to brood. Would that the fate of the world hung upon the decisions of smiling boys. Even now, war drums were beginning to mutter. The sounds would grow in volume. The thunder would increase to a crescendo before the year was out. Madness was coming upon the children of men because the Fillys in the Eastern Hemisphere didn't like what they read on their ticker tapes. The time had come to stir men from lethargy. If they wouldn't buy refrigerators with a little coaxing, they would be forced to buy guns and bombs. One way or another- it was all the same to the Fillys. There would be war. The sweet boy who had passed the table would gurgle out his life in some muddy hole in the hinterlands of Chin.

The novel is a bit hit-and-miss, throwing out numerous subplots in its 210 pages- there are atavistic mutations in rat-people's bloodlines, there are battles between the protagonist and dangerous genetically-engineered creatures, there are internecine struggles within the Filly clan, and skulking through the narrative like a silvery devil is the will-destroying alien. The novel could easily have been expanded into one of those 'fantasy doorstoper' blocks of paper, with all of the various narrative threads. It's an odd book, but the two passages I've cited in this post made it a worthwhile read in and of themselves.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Killing Peasants... No Big Deal

Today's tale of American Justice involves the one year prison sentence and $250,000 fine imposed on Don Blankenship, former Massey Energy Co. CEO, for conspiring to violate federal mine safety and health laws. Blankenship's malfeasance led to the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion.

One year in jail, and a quarter of a million dollars for the deaths of twenty-nine employees? A poor black kid caught possessing pot faces much stiffer penalties... and it's important to note that this was the maximum penalty which could be imposed on Blankenship. This is yet another example of the Golden Rule as it exists in American legislation and jurisprudence... whoever has the gold makes the rules.

No word on whether or not Blankenship took out dead peasant insurance on his employees.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The War on Women Endangers Everyone

Last week, Donald Trump caused quite a stir when he stated that he would punish women who'd undergone an abortion. In saying this, he outraged a lot of the anti-choice right by giving the true nature of the game away. While Trump backpedaled, saying that women seeking abortions were 'victims' (thus putting forth the misogynist idea that women are not capable of moral authority and autonomy), the fact remains that anti-choice policies already punish women. For a very personal account of the difficulties involved in obtaining a legal medical procedure, please read Syrbal/Labrys' post... this is exactly the sort of gut-punch that 'fence-sitters' trying to find 'common ground' with misogynist authoritarians need.

In the GOP war against Planned Parenthood, there are other threats- Missouri senators are attempting to nullify HIPAA privacy regulations in order to obtain patient consent forms for abortion procedures at a St Louis Planned Parenthood facility. As someone who worked in a HIPAA-compliant facility for years, I find this attempt to steal confidential patient records to be an abhorrent overreach and, potentially, a threat to everyone's health information privacy.

On a even more harrowing note, the GOP's war against Planned Parenthood in Indiana has shut down rural clinics which test for STI's in the face of a growing HIV epidemic.

The GOP War on Women poses a danger to everyone who can't afford to escape to a country with more humane laws. Men, even straight conservative white men of a certain age, ignore this to their peril. I imagine quite a few of the Heartland HIV patients voted for Republican representatives, and they will pay an unthinkable price for that.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Dreamy, Ethereal Even

Every once in a while, a song comes around which instantly grabs my attention. Last week, I heard a song from a band named Sunflower Bean, a young band which has been generating quite a bit of buzz. Easier Said Than Done has a dreamy-pop sound, all jangly guitars and ethereal vocals, backed by a muscular, though cymbal-y rhythm track:

The promotional video for the song has a great 'Goreyesque' vibe:

With all that marsh grass in the background, I'd guess that the video was recorded in the Gateway National Recreation Area. I sure hope the band saw some horseshoe crabs while they were making it.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Rock On, On Rock

During the week, I work the overnight shift, but on Saturdays and Sundays, I start work in the late afternoon. It's typically on the weekend when I get decent pictures of my feline co-workers. I typically carry a small bag of kitty treats with me when I walk the site, for bribery purposes. Whenever the cats hear the crackling of a plastic pouch, their attention is immediately drawn. I used this to good effect to line them up on a particularly nice rock:

This picture perfectly encapsulates the dispositions of these two animals- Fred, with his eyes half-closed, is all blissed-out while Ginger, wide-eyed and alert, is looking out for number one... better make it with the treats, hairless ape, so nobody gets hurt. The same dichotomy between these feline siblings is evident in this picture too.

Recently, there's been quite a bit of coyote activity in the area- last Sunday night, I heard a chorus of the critters, and a couple of nights I've caught a quick glance of a fast-moving critter that I am confident is a Northeastern wild canid. The local geese are all on edge as well. I have made sure to limit Fred and Ginger's outdoor time to the daylight hours, and keep them close to me. I typically like to have them tag along when I do the periodic walkabout, but I really have to play things safe for my cat companions.