Monday, May 30, 2016

That Most Unusual of Holidays

Memorial Day is a weird holiday- it's supposed to be about honoring those who fell in the service of our country, but it's devolved into a day for heading to the beach or for barbecuing. The devolution was bound to happen, most Americans don't know anyone who's fallen in combat, serving the nation, and fewer still have enough vacation days so they can devote a precious day off to civic piety. Personally, I think Memorial Day should be moved to a colder month, say March, and the last Monday of May should be renamed
'It's Too Nice to Work, I'm Heading to the Beach' Day. For the record, I worked an overnight shift, but I'm one of the lucky ones who actually loves his job and his workplace- I closed up after the big fundraiser ended, so I saw a lot of friends and had the place to myself afterward.

We Americans talk a good job about 'supporting the troops', but we're so eager to throw them into the meat-grinder rather than forging a saner foreign policy. I'm not the kind of guy to begrudge anybody a nice Sunday night beer bash and a Monday spent on the beach, I'd rather have a government which isn't devoted to adding to the ranks of the fallen.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

On Packing

I always tend to pack light, but this weekend is a bit of an exception- suit and tie for the big class dinner, ditto with the size 12 EEEE dress shoes. I also packed a half-gallon bottle of homemade limonaranciello and a half-gallon of a rum-based guava punch as contributions to the revelry.

Is there anything I forgot while packing?

Yeah, right, like you'd even want to spend a few hours in the car...

This post was pre-scheduled, I had thought that I'd posted this funny picture of Ginger before, but I can't seem to find it, even with Google image search.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Reunion Bound

There's a saying that friends help friends move, good friends help friends move bodies. In the case of my great and good friend, my old college roommate The Bronson from Wisconsin, well let's just say that I will be picking him up from LaGuardia Airport this morning and the two of us will brave I-95 on Memorial Day weekend to travel to the Prestigious Bastion of Prestige where we met.

The best thing about reunion is the fact that a single, silly line will reduce everybody to paroxysms of laughter because we share a common store of inside jokes, of shared experiences. For instance, I can greet my freshman roommate with the question "Hey, dude, what the fuck?" and he will be rolling on the floor- it was the common greeting of an ultra-rich foreign-born suitemate who attended a New England boarding school and was taught a very idiosyncratic version of the vernacular.

It's amazing how the years can just drop off, and everybody becomes a goofy teenager for a glorious weekend.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

I Don't Dig Her, but She Doesn't Deserve This

I am on record as someone who detests Taylor Swift's music, but I have no personal animus against the woman herself. I met her when she was on the cusp of superstardom, and the fact that I didn't realize that she was a celebrity suggests a down-to-earth nature. One could say that I like her as a person while hating her music, so I was taken aback by the fact that alt-right racists and neo-nazis have latched onto her as an 'Aryan' icon. I imagine most of them harbor fantasies of killing Kanye West onstage for being a dick to their 'goddess'... well, they harbor fantasies of killing any African-Americans they encounter, just as their cohort Dylan Roof did.

Why is Taylor Swift the recipient of this 'Aryan' ardor? Sure, she's tall, thin, and blonde (personally, I don't find her all that attractive- I find her too 'angular' for my tastes, though I can see her as a jolie laide archetype), but I think there's something deeper at the root of this infatuation... Just as Taylor Swift was embarking on her career, there was an explicitly neo-Nazi white nationalist pop duo made up of blonde pre-teen twins whose adult male fans had an unhealthy sexual obsession with the underage 'Olsen Twins of Hate'. The girls of Prussian Blue eventually gave up the hate thanks to Dylan and weed, leaving horny white supremacists without a fantasy object for a while. As right-wingers are masters of psychological projection, it didn't take long for them to project their white-power/masturbatory fantasies on the politically unfathomable Ms Swift.

I feel sorry for Taylor Swift, it's not her fault that the haters gonna 'bate, 'bate, 'bate, 'bate, 'bate.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Meanwhile, on the Work Front

I love my job, I need to get that out of the way. I enjoy the day-to-day tasks inherent to the position, I love my beautiful workplace and my nice co-workers. I actually arriving at work each and every workday. That being said, things are far from perfect all the time- for instance, our e-mail system has been out of commission for a week. I had to cobble together June's schedule and ended up printing up a copy for each of my subordinates and another copy which I sent through the interoffice mail to my supervisor, informing him of the fact through a text message. I am sitting on April's expense reimbursement form (I get reimbursed for mileage incurred through job duties) because I can't send the spreadsheet to the comptroller.

Like I said, I love my job, but I've never encountered a work situation like this before. I really can't understand the malaise which could produce such a batty situation. We are in the middle of a spring fundraising event which has been extended for two weekends, news of the extension had to be disseminated through word of mouth. I am going to revise the June schedule and now have to print up additional copies of the PDF in order to distribute it to my department. For a successful organization, such dysfunction is inexplicable... I'm not exactly holding my breath for the solution to this problem, but I hope I'll be able to e-mail July's schedule out.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Bad Pizza, Worse Ethics

The big local story here in the NY Metro Area is a lawsuit filed by our state attorney general alleging that Domino's Pizza engages in wage theft. One of Dominos's flacks was on the radio claiming that this was disrespectful to small business owners. My feeling is that, if your business model is predicated on wage theft, your business needs to go under. The CEO of Domino's has long espoused right-wing causes- he's yet another pious crook.

When I was in high school, I worked in a local deli. I was paid a fair wage, and treated like a family member. To illustrate the extent to which my boss had my back, a simple anecdote will suffice...

My boss figured he'd boost the lunch business by starting local deliveries. Our first order was from the business office of a nearby department store. The order came out to something like $33.42. The office manager gave my $34 and told me, "Keep the change." When I returned to the deli, my boss asked me, "So, did they give you a tip?" Stuffing the entire $34 in the cash register, I said, "Tip? They gave me the whole shaft." The next day, the same office manager called to place a lunch delivery and the boss deadpanned, "We don't deliver."

Now, that's the kind of boss that people need. He was a ball-buster and a snarky, snarky guy, but he had his employees' backs. He didn't even countenance other people ripping us off.

P.S. Domino's makes crap pizza, we have hundreds of local places owned by people who treat "the help" like family... like I was treated.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Affliction and the Cure: Both Delicious

Walking across the property this evening, I ran across a storied plant combination:

In the foreground, on the left, one can see some of my beloved stinging nettles, while the spindly plant with the narrow leaves is curly dock. The plants are known to grow together frequently, and crushed dock leaves are reputed to take out the sting of the nettle... though this may be B.S. At any rate, the dock/nettle combination is one that you should familiarize yourself with, so you won't face situations like this:

Pity Mr Bishop didn't know that he could have had that entire weed patch for dinner. For the record, the broad leaved plant in the background is burdock (Genus Arctium), which is known for its edible roots.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Texas GOP's Fabulous Platform

Via Tengrain, we have the hilarious grammatical error which has led the Texas GOP to declare that homosexuality is a Biblical mandate from God:

“Homosexuality is a chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that has been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by our nations founders, and shared by the majority of Texans.”

Uh, dumbasses, 'has' refers back to 'homosexuality', not 'truths'. It's always funny to see stupid bigots hoist on their own petard. At any rate, the Texas GOP platform seems to corroborate the premise of songwriter Ned Sublette's song Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other, most famously interpreted by Texas native son Willie Nelson:

Oh, Texas GOP, you are funny to outsiders, but you must be terrifying the locals.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

I'm not Walking on Eggshells

Last Sunday, on the job, I got 'killdeered'... while walking through a field, I was confronted by a small, noisy plover (Charadrius vociferus) that was doing its best impression of an injured bird. It's a sham performance, an ostentatious play-acting of physical distress inspired by evolutionary distress, the fear that a predator would find the bird's precious eggs. The display looked a lot like this:

Last night, while walking through the same field, I encountered the same bird, which started the same display. Being fond of these noisy, comical birds, which look like slightly malfunctioning windup toys, with their ultrafast gait and sudden stops, I immediately shifted into investigative mode. I proceeded through the field at an excruciatingly slow pace... it was like an inversion of navigating a minefield- a methodical creep while scanning for the slightest hint of anything out of the ordinary, not because of a fear of one's own destruction, but for a concern to avoid the destruction of an innocent family of charming neighbors. I was cast in the role of an unwilling Godzilla, liable to stomp on a happy home. My patience paid off, I was able to discover the minimalist excuse of a nest, scratched into a bare spot of ground:

I marked the vicinity of the spot by jamming a stick into the ground vertically, then placing two sticks parallel on the ground, flanking the nest. I left a note for one of the daytime managers, who has a soft spot in his heart for animals, so he could let everybody on the day shift know to give this particular spot a wide birth so as not to trample on these precious treasures, hidden so well in plain sight.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

None Dare Call It a Fairness Doctrine

The latest conservative whine is that Facebook has been 'censoring' conservative content. Needless to say, the source of this allegation is anonymous, which should be a big 'red flag' for anyone contemplating the veracity of this story. Nevertheless, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with conservative media figures to discuss this issue.

Personally, I think Zuckerberg should have told them to fuck off. Conservatives have long railed against the 'Fairness Doctrine'. Why, here's 'Libertarian Fonzie' himself celebrating the end of the Fairness Doctrine with some other right-winger:

To make matters even more bizarre, Fox news won an appeal which absolved them of an obligation to tell the truth. Not only do conservatives oppose the Fairness Doctrine, they oppose the necessity to eschew prevarication. All of a sudden, they're pissing and moaning about media bias in a corporation that doesn't even use the public airwaves? I know that conservatives love to move goalposts, and that they have the memory span of a gnat, but this is particularly rich... they are losing on the social media front, and now they want 'corrective' measures. Right-wing radio is dying and now right-wingers want to coerce the 'new media' that people dissatisfied with radio and cable television flocked to into giving them preferential treatment.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pernicious, Delicious

After locking everything up on the job, I picked a bumper crop of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), a particularly nasty invasive weed which I added to my foraging repertoire last year:

The leaves of the plant have a pungent flavor similar to that of broccoli rabe, blanched and sauteed in olive oil, it makes a wonderful side dish for roast pork or a great addition to pasta (orecchiette or penne are my usual go-tos here). The weed also lends itself to being made into a nice pesto. It would also make a nice addition to a saag dish. The white taproots have a bite reminiscent of a more mild version of horseradish (Cochlearia armoracia), though they can have a 'woody' texture. I figure I'll slice them fine and add them to vinegar as an accompaniment to boiled meats.

For this batch, I am considering cooking the garlic mustard with lambs' quarters (Chenopodium album), a wild relative of quinoa, which are ubiquitous in my neighborhood, and adding the mixture to all sorts of dishes.

Garlic mustard is pernicious, but delicious... the struggle goes on, one plate at a time, but the fight is its own reward.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Long-Range Planning

The tallest trees in North America east of the Rocky Mountains are the tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), to which I am particular. One of our sites is characterized by several tall, lovely tulip trees, while my primary worksite, to my knowledge, had no tulip trees. A couple of years ago, I decided to remedy this deficiency, and planted a handful of tulip tree seeds onsite. The seeds take a while to germinate, but my little experiment finally paid off- here's the larger of the two:

With luck and the right weather conditions, in fifty years, this is going to be a giant, beautiful shade tree, even if I'm not around to benefit from sitting under it.

Foggy, Foggy Night

Call me eccentric, but one of the great pleasures I take from working the night shift is Scooby-Dooing all over a site that I know (and love) every square inch of (even the stinging nettle patches). Tonight, the site has been uncommonly beautiful, as one of our characteristic fogs has settled over the area, softening the light, and even the sodium lights of the parking lot take on a faerie aspect:

Using a flashlight doesn't help one navigate the site much, because the beam manifests as a luminous cone which hides more than it reveals:

Everything takes on an indistinct cast- well known trees become amorphous blobs, the streetlights become radiant luminaria ringed by golden halos. There's a downside to all of this beauty, though, the humidity is so damn bad, I feel grubby as hell, and even I'm having a bad hair night,

Thursday, May 12, 2016

I Blame Nutkin

While walking around the jobsite, I spied an uncharacteristic flash of turquoise blue on top of one of our fences:

This sad, broken thing is the shell of an American robin's (Turdus migratorius) egg. The distinctive color of the American robin's egg has been enshrined in paint and crayon descriptors. This can pose confusion for American readers who aren't familiar with the eggs of the European robin (Erithacus rubecula):

No: the face was more mask-like than expressive. It symbolised her way of life, not her immediate thoughts. It was the colour of a robin's egg, and as closely freckled. Her hair was black and thick but she had hacked it away, a little above her shoulders. Her rounded neck was set straight upon her shoulders, and was so flexible that the liquid ease with which she turned it was reminiscent of a serpent.

What, my teenaged self asked, the fuck is he getting on about, when his descriptions are usually so exact? OHHHHHHHH!!!

This leaves the mystery of how this forlorn, broken egg got on top of the fence. Of course, Nutkin is known to eat eggses, and even chickses, on occasion, so I think I'll blame him. He has picked up some bad habits, after all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Physics, Philosophy, Fun

Last night, I headed to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring physicist Dr Sean Carroll of Caltech, the proprietor of the Preposterous Universe blog.

Dr Carroll began his lecture by noting the indignant questions he sometimes receives: How dare you contemplate the meaning of the universe or the origins of life? Who do you think you are? He noted that inquiring about the nature of the universe is an invitation to discussion, and an affirmation of the scientific project of deeper thinking. He noted that humans have a need for reasons, and cited the occasional danger of this, using the example of Lucia de Brek, a nurse in the Netherlands who received a life sentence for the deaths of her patients, though there was no concrete evidence of the crimes... as Dr Carroll put it, 'bad math convicted her'. The argument in favor of her conviction was based on statistics, the number of deaths of patients under her care seemed unlikely. When a statistician reviewed the numbers, it was revealed that the patient mortality rate actually went down during de Berk's tenure as a nurse. Dr Carroll observed that people don't want to accept patient deaths, we need reasons for them. Ms de Berk was exonerated and is now a free woman.

Dr Carroll noted that the philosophers Aristotle, Spinoza, and Leibnitz all averred that everything has a cause, a concept known as the Principle of Sufficient Reason- nothing occurs without a reason, things don't just randomly occur. To counter the PSR, Dr Carroll quoted the work of greeting card designer Emily McDowall: “Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason”

Teleology is the philosophical exercise of attempting to find causes and goals- if something moves, is something moving it? Teleology works with everyday things, it's a sensible thing to think that, if your coffee cup is moving, that something is moving it. It took centuries to discover that teleology doesn't always work on the deepest level- physics demands a different way of thinking that everyday life does. Bertrand Russell had a harsh view of teleology: “The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm.” In our everyday lives, the concepts of cause and effect are useful, but they aren't always useful to physicists.

The topic of the talk then shifted to the Conservation of Momentum... momentum (mass times velocity) keeps an object in a closed system moving with the same velocity. This contradicts the Aristotelian model, in which an object will sit still unless something is pushing it. The Persian polymath Ibn Sina was the first individual to propose the conservation of momentum, and proposed that, in a frictionless environment, a projectile would continue to move indefinitely. Galileo devised experiments to test this theory and Huygens devised the mathematical formula to describe it. There is no need to account for motion- momentum is natural, things just move, no reason for movement, no mover, is needed. Laplace was instrumental in the effort of building the science of physics from the observed 'laws of nature'. In a simple Newtonian model of the universe, there is a conservation of information. In the model known as Laplace's demon, if an intelligence understands the position and momentum of everything in the universe, that intelligence could calculate the position of everything throughout the past and the future. Dr Carroll noted that Laplace's demon is just a pattern- 6 precedes 7, but doesn't cause it.

Dr Carroll then brought up Frank Wilczek's Core Theory. The Core Theory involves quantum mechanics, spacetime and gravity, and matter interacting with the Higgs field. If one knows the Core Theory, one knows Pascal's demon- there is no meaning, no goal, and no judgment involved. Dr Carroll joked that there is one criterion for the acceptance of a physics model- does it fit on a T-shirt. He then displayed a diagram of the Core Theory, involving up quarks, down quarks, leptons, the strong force, the weak force, and the Higgs field. He then noted that there is no room for new laws of physics in everyday life, but that there is room for new laws of physics on other scales.

The next subject of the talk was Quantum Field Theory, which has changed the way physicists think- particles aren't important, fields are important. After noting that, at Caltech, he had inherited Richard Feynman's desk, Dr Carroll touched on crossing symmetry with regard to Feynman diagrams- imagine how a new particle interacts with known particles, drawing a Feynman diagram- once the particle interaction is mapped out, other interactions can be predicted by rotating the diagram ninety degrees. If the new particle can influence the known particles, then the particles can be 'smashed' to produce more. The only particles that have been seen are all part of the Core Theory, any new particles won't effect everyday life- for example, dark matter particles don't interact with 'normal' matter. The new physics is needed to model big things- dark matter, dark energy, and quantum gravity. For the everyday world, the Core Theory of quarks, leptons, and forces is sufficient- we are done. How do we get big concepts out of the core? A different vocabulary is needed for the macroscopic 'big picture' level.

Dr Carroll then brought up the concept of the Arrow of Time- the past and the future look different. As time passes, systems move from the orderly to the disorderly, a phenomenon known as entropy... the world was more orderly yesterday, and even more orderly the day before, all the way back to the Big Bang. If 'up' means always away from the Earth, 'future' means always away from the Big Bang. One second after the Big Bang, the result was a hot, smooth plasma- everything was exactly the same everywhere. Observation of the Cosmic Background Radiation revealed that, 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe could be characterized as ripples throughout a smooth background- the universe was clear and smooth, but there were differences in temperature and tiny tiny differences in density. Gravity started pulling matter together into clumps. 10 10 years after the Big Bang, stars and galaxies started to form. The Hubble Deep Field reveals hundreds of billions of galaxies, forming a 'lumpy' universe. At 1015, the universe will be dark and cold and static, mainly composed of black holes and rocks... then the rocks will fall into the black holes and the black holes will evaporate. 10100 years from now, there will be only empty space.

We live in a universe where entropy increases but there is interesting stuff- whether entropy is high or low has no bearing on complexity- while entropy increases, complexity comes and goes. Dr Carroll assured us, 'You are living in the middle of an exciting, fun part of the universe, not in spite of, but because of entropy. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics causes complexity. Dr Carroll quoted geochemist Michael Russell on the purpose of life: "The purpose of life is to hydrogenate carbon dioxide." Though entropy increases, an extra carbon molecule added to carbon dioxide produces methane, a 'reaching toward metabolism' was a necessary precursor to life. Erwin Schrödinger noted that life is a process sustained by entropy- the earth's organisms give back the same amount of energy as they receive from the sun, but with higher entropy as we photosynthesize carbohydrates, chew cud, or write books. Along the way, complexity comes to be.

The topic then shifted closer to home, as Dr Carroll decided to turn to the topic of ourselves. He introduced us to Elisabeth of Bohemia, who would have been a philosopher if it weren't for her gender. She was courted by René Descartes, with whom she engaged in a long correspondence. When posed the question of how the soul interacts with the body, Elisabeth rejected body/mind dualism. If the soul were immaterial, how would it interact with the body? Decartes concluded that the pineal gland was the seat of the soul, an idea that never gained traction. Thought can be explained by the Core Theory- the brain is made of particles. Charged particles leap from neuron to neuron, creating magnetic fields. Dr Carroll related a funny story about undergoing an MRI, after which the radiologist informed him, "You definitely have a brain." Regarding the evolution of intelligence, Dr Carroll cited cognitive scientist Malcolm MacIver, who contrasted the cognitive needs of marine organisms with those of land-living organisms. Fish cannot see more than a few meters underwater, where land-lubbers can potentially see at a range of many kilometers. Fish have an evolutionary pressure to act immediately, while terrestrials can 'think on it' before having to act. While we don't know where consciousness came from, we can guess a lot about its origins. With the emergence of intelligence, humans have choice and purpose- Dr Carroll contrasted this with the determinism promulgated by B.F. Skinner, joking that Skinner believed that it's wrong to anthropomorphize human beings. He outlined an approach he calls 'Poetic Naturalism'... there is one world, but we can choose what we tell about it. He cited poet Muriel Rukeyser, who wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” As human beings, we create stories, but we'll be dead someday. Dr Carroll showed pictures taken of Paris' catacombs, making note of bones arranged into fanciful patterns. He reminded us that life is not a thing which fills us, but a process. While we are ephemeral patterns of matter in the lifespan of the universe, we are in the middle of interesting things. He then showed us a diagram of the lifespans of various mammals, noting that we all have approximately the same number of heartbeats- about three billion heartbeats, the mouse having a fast rate, the horse having a slow rate. Dr Carroll mused that there is a last time for everything, a last book, a last Secret Science Club lecture- he then advised us that this is the best possible reason to value life, and urged us to make it all count, but also to contemplate the vastness of the universe, to sometimes 'stand in silence'.

He noted that we are small, and showed us the famous Pale Blue Dot photograph taken by Voyager One... we are small, but we stopped to take a picture of ourselves, which Dr Carroll characterized as 'awesome'. We are tiny, but we are self aware- we can learn about and care about the universe. We're small, but we're kind of a big deal.

During the Q&A, some bastard in the audience, perhaps inspired by this article asked Dr Carroll about the future use of the LHC to tie together the quantum scale and the cosmic scale. He answered that the LHC was conceived with an overwhelming project- the discovery of the Higgs boson, but that no other ideas for its use were a 'home run'. There is buzz about the possible discovery a new particle with about 700 times the mass of the proton, but Dr Carroll did not dare to guess the next new discovery. He did note, though, that there is hope that the nature of dark matter may be elucidated. When asked about the implications of quantum theory for everyday life, Dr Carroll noted that, if things work on the 'high' level, there's no need to go to the quantum level for explanations. When asked if we can 'see' behind the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, Dr Carroll noted that it would be possible to peer further back by detecting gravitational waves, then urged, 'SEND MONEY.' LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, is designed to peer back into this primordial state. One second past the Big Bang, the universe became a nuclear reactor, this has been confirmed through nucleosynthesis. The real question is, where did the smooth primordial plasma come from? He repeated the fact that more money is needed for this research.

Once again, the Secret Science Club has served up an excellent lecture, a sprawling mix of particle physics, cosmology, and philosophy, leavened with a helping portion of humor. Kudos go to Dr Carroll, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House.

Besides his Preposterous Universe blog, there are a lot of videos of Dr Carroll out there in the t00bz. Here's a video of Dr Carroll lecturing about 'particles, fields, and the future of physics'. Pour yourself a libation and get a taste of that Secret Science ambiance:

Who knew that physics could be so fun? Well, besides us Secret Science scenesters...

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Saluting Moms

Here's wishing a happy Mothers' Day to all the mothers out there. My mom is visiting my sister, also a mom, on the west side of LA. Speaking of LA, I'm pretty sure M. Bouffant is one bad mother... okay, I'll shut my mouth.

On a serious note, equal pay for women, especially single mothers, remains a political hot-button issue, which should be a no-brainer... though the brainless fight against it. Paid family leave is another benefit which is mandated in only five states, with my beloved New York having just adopted the policy. Reproductive choice is under fire throughout the United States.

Mothers' Day is one of those days that is characterized by glossy, lovey-dovey media coverage, but the reality is that the patriarchial authoritarian power structure still acts as if women's rights are negotiable. Amid the flowers, cards, candy, and brunches, remember that one must continue the fight- do it for mom, you owe her.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Scaling Up Production

For years, I have made limoncello, a liqueur typically associated with Italy's Amalfi Coast. My routine was to drive to Greenwich, Connecticut in order to buy pure grain alcohol, which was illegal to sell in New York State. A few years ago, sales of grain alchohol were made legal, something which I discovered by accident in a local liquor store. The liquor store owner told me that he had found out that 'grain' had been made legal by leafing through the catalog of one of his distributors- there was no major announcement.

Earlier this week, I placed a special order for a case of Everclear grain alcohol, so I can make two two-gallon batches simultaneously. I felt pretty badass as I carried this case, with it's 'Danger: Flammable' warning on the side, to my car:

Tonight, on my way to work, I stopped at a store I call the 'food TARDIS' (it's bigger on the inside than the outside- it looks like a small, unassuming storefront, but it has a cavernous basement filled with amazing produce at low, low prices) and bought a variety of citrus fruits- lemons, oranges, and limes in order to make a multi-citrus blend to supplement the traditional limoncello. The long-range summer forecast is 'boozy'.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Secret Science Club North Post Lecture Recap: Science Building Bridges

Last night, I headed to the scintillating Symphony Space for this month's Secret Science Club North lecture featuring marine biologist Fernando Bretos, director of the Cuba Marine Research and Conservation Program, curator of ecology at Miami's Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, and director of the Trinational Initiative for Marine Science and Conservation in the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean.

Mr Bretos began his lecture by noting that Americans are presented with a lot of misinformation about Cuba. He stated that while Cuba certainly does not have an ideal society, there are good things happening on the island. He stressed that problems are caused when countries refuse to talk.

Mr Bretos recounted a quick family history- his parents were sent to the United States during Operation 'Peter Pan', and their parents had to emigrate at a later date. When he first arrived in Cuba in 1999, he was petrified, but his Cuban colleagues embraced him and his work not only engaged his passion for conservation, but it also brought him closer to his roots. He currently works with an international three-person team, with one Cuban colleague and another based in Costa Rica. He joked that fish don't know politics.

Mr Bretos stated that the biggest problem facing Cuba's marine life is overfishing. Much of Cuba's territorial waters are protected, because Fidel Castro was an avid SCUBA diver (the CIA even tried to undo him with a tainted wetsuit). In particular, Castro set aside Jardines de la Reina as a protected site. Mr Bretos stressed the importance of science breaking down barriers between the United States and Cuba, using the term 'manatee diplomacy' to describe this joint scientific effort. He then showed an edited version of a CNN documentary about the cooperation between Cuban and American marine biologists.

Mr Bretos informed us that protecting Cuban coral reefs is crucial to the health of reefs throughout the Atlantic. Coral reefs in Florida are in trouble due to an influx of chemicals- fertilizer runoff, spilled motorboat fuel, even sunscreen residue in the waters. Marine resources migrate, larval organisms flow with the currents of the Gulf Stream. Mr Bretos said that, as a Floridian, he has a selfish interest in protecting the healthier reefs of Cuba because the health of Florida's reefs depends on the health of the reefs to the South.

Mr Bretos noted that Cuba is already changing since the White House announced a thaw in relations on 12/17/14. He said that no Cuban wants Cuba to become the next Cancún, but that building renovations are already occurring, and people are coming to terms with the once hard-to-imaging ending of the embargo. He used the analogy of the critically endangered Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer) to underscore the challenges of this change- the Cuban crocodile can interbreed with the more common, but still endangered, American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) and are in danger of genetic dilution. The only pure Cuban crocodiles are bred in crocodile farms.

Change will bring mass tourism, and Cuba needs to get it right. While science-based policy has worked for Cuba, can it cope with scale? Florida receives about 92 million tourists a year, while Cuba receives a mere 3 million, a figure which could very well increase by 5 to 6 million. Change will take a while, because there is still very little commercialization in Cuba, but people-to-people tourism is growing, with private residences run as tourist lodging (casas particulares) popping up throughout the country. Mr Bretos advised us that most trips to Cuba must involve educational exchange... one can't just drink rum and hit the beach.

Mr Bretos described his work as building bridges through conservation. Cuba has been likened to an 'accidental Eden', having avoided the development and tourism that have threatened other Caribbean islands. While Cuba's marine resources are relatively pristine, the interior hasn't fared so well. Cuba underwent three deforestation events due to the growing of sugarcane and the construction of sugar processing plants. Much of the deforested land has been overrun by an invasive African bush known as the marabú (Dichrostachys cinerea) since the 1990s when many farmers left the land and moved to the cities. Despite the deforestation and the growth of invasive species, Cuba is characterized by a high degree of endemism- about 50% of Cuba's plants are endemic, as are such animals as the shrewlike Cuban solenodon (Solenodon cubanus), the adaptable Cuban hutia (Capromys pilorides), and the bee-hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae)- the world's smallest bird.

Cuba has three thousand miles of coastline, the reefs are in good condition because of low tourism and progressive policy regarding reef protection. Reefs are low-nutrient ecosystems, and are very vulnerable to nitrogen-based fertilizers. While there was a brief period during which Russian advisors attempted to modernize Cuba's sugarcane production with artificial fertilizers, the fall of the USSR brought this to an end. Today, Cuban agriculture is 'organic' by necessity- the farmers simply cannot afford the fertilizer and pesticides. Cuban farmers are savvy, though, and a good deal of urban agriculture takes place.

The three major foci of Mr Bretos' work are research, science diplomacy, and educational travel/sustainable tourism. Quick, in-and-out tourism isn't good for Cubans, Mr Bretos joked that it is good for Canadians, though. Cuban tourism should be low scale and low intensity, with visitors staying in small family run casas particulares. Culturally and biologically, Cuba and the USA are closely linked, and tourism should acknowledge those connections.

In 1999, to determine the biological connections between Cuba and the US, Mr Bretos conducted an experiment which he has vowed never to repeat- he released 1,900 glass vials off the southern shore of Cuba, each containing a note asking the finder to inform him of the date and location at which the vial was found. While coral larvae are relatively short-lived, fish and lobster larvae are hardier... it's probable that most surviving coral larvae end up in the vicinity of the Yucatán while lobster larvae could make the passive journey to Florida's shores. Mr Bretos contrasted a map of Atlantic Ocean currents, illustrating Cuba's being interconnected to the rest of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, with an old Eastern Airlines map, in which Cuba was glaringly absent. He noted the time lost, the science lost, and the opportunities lost in the years in which the US and Cuba were diplomatically silent.

He then noted that working with the Cuban authorities is fun but frustrating- much of Cuban society is insular and bureaucratic. There are advantages to this- lands and waterways are centrally owned, science drives policy, the Cuban government is committed to protecting 25% of the country by 2020, with 16% of the country already protected. Cuba's three thousand miles of coastline are characterized by diverse biomes. Cuba has low population density, making conservation easier. Cuba has a strong scientific history, the Cuban Academy of Sciences was founded in 1861. Througout the late 20th century, Cuban scientists collaborated with their Russian colleagues, but Mr Bretos joked that they preferred working with Americans because the Russians always listed their names last in academic papers. There are disadvantages as well, primarily low pay- a typical marine biologist makes $25 per month, while the curse of marine biology is its high cost.

The subject of the talk then shifted to Cuba's coral reefs, with a focus on the Proyecto Tres Golfos, a study of benthic ecosystems in three of Cuba's gulfs, the Gulf of Guanahacabibes on the northwestern coast of Cuba, and the Gulf of Batabano and the Gulf of Ana Maria on the south shore. The southern gulfs are biologically diverse, being shallower than the northern waters. One of the major goals of the Proyecto Tres Golfos is to measure reef health over time. In order to determine the growth of coral over time, core samples are drilled out- the resultant holes are then plugged with concrete and the coral polyps grow back. If the holes aren't plugged, bacteria can cause problems to the coral colony. Mr Bretos related a funny story about Cuban ingenuity- his team didn't have a concrete plug for the first core sample they drilled, so a plug was improvised with a prophylactic device filled with concrete. The core samples from coral colonies can be 'read' like tree rings, and the history of the temperature and salinity of the water, and their effects on reef health, can be determined. In one particular instance, a 1.4 meter coral core sample proved to be 227 years old, allowing researchers to model climatic conditions over more than two centuries (by analyzing elemental ratios). In the case of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), the Cuban population is healthier than the Floridian population, which is effected by bleaching. The elkhorn corals of Cuba's southern waters are healthier than those of the northern waters.

The next topic of discussion was the green turtle, (Chelonia mydas), a herbivorous sea turtle which primarily feeds on sea grass. While Cubans do not eat turtle eggs, they do eat the meat of turtles, and females who return to shore to lay eggs are particularly vulnerable, and their deaths involve the destruction of their eggs. As part of the conservation effort, the beaches of Guanahacabibes are protected throughout the laying season and the incidence of turtle poaching has dropped from 30-35 turtles per year to 4-5 turtles annually. Cuba is a major nesting ground for not only green turtles but loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles, with Cayo Largo being an important location. In 2012, a satellite tracking program was instituted, because it's impossible to protect turtles until you know where they go... for the record, two of the tagged green turtles made a beeline for Florida, then veered west toward Nicaragua. Loggerheads are more common in Florida's waters but do spend time off Cuba's shores.

The turtle discussion was followed up by a look at the problem of invasive lionfish in Atlantic waters. The lionfish are venomous, and have no predators in their unnatural environment, and some jerk(s) released them off North America's eastern seaboard. They then spread north along the US coast before spreading south throughout the entire Carribbean and Gulf of Mexico. It was hoped that the healthy ecosystem of Los Jardines de la Reina, with its population of large predatory fish, would be a site of biotic resistance to the lionish invasion, but two studies of predation on lionfish (by groupers, for instance) were contradictory. In continuous reefs, lionfish are very difficult to remove, but they can be eliminated from small 'patch' reefs. Lionfish are destructive, and stomach content studies need to be conducted to see what native organisms they imperil.

Mr Bretos then turned to a more optimistic subject- the creation of the Trinational Institute for Marine Science, a joint venture of the three nations bordering the Gulf of Mexico- the United States, Mexico, and Cuba. The Trinational Institute looks at fisheries and conservation in a regional context, and one of its ventures is a 'sister park' initiative stretching from the Florida Keys to Guanahacabibes. Protecting the marine environment is the easiest avenue for cooperation between the US and Cuba... science builds bridges.

Tourism has risen 17% in Cuba in the past year, and there is an expected wave of tourists. More tourism means more pressure on the environment. Cuba has instituted environmental protection laws... In 1995, Ley 81, which mandates that Cuba remains the most environmentally sound country in the Caribbean, was passed. Ley 212 prohibits construction in coastal areas without approval from seven government agencies. The System of Protected Areas includes 15% of the insular shelf, 35% of coral reefs, 31% of seagrass beds, 27% of mangrove swamps, and 16 fish spawning sites.

Mr Bretos ended his talk with a simultaneously encouraging and worrying image, a photograph of a Carnival Cruise Lines ship sailing into Havana's harbor. After a brief digression about a Cuban policy of allowing Cuban-Americans to enter Cuba by plane, but prohibiting them from entering by boat (a policy which only took two weeks to change, which is lightning speed in Cuba's bureaucracy), he noted that the all-inclusive nature of cruises tends to limit currency from flowing to the locals. Cuba needs hard currency, and it doesn't have the luxury of being able to refuse US tourist dollars. That being said, the revenue must end up in the hands of local people. In one instance, a village of turtle hunters (since 1961, turtles were seen as a resource, and there was a commercial sea turtle fishery until 1991, when turtle hunting was banned) transitioned into ecotourism, and casas particulares opened up in the town.

Mr Bertos' passion for conservation was evident throughout his talk, as was his pleasure in being able to find his roots in the country his parents had left as children. In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience asked him if the BP Gulf Oil Spill had effected Cuba's waters, and Mr Bretos indicated that any effects were minimal, most of the oil and dispersants flowed elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. There were three attempts to drill for oil off the northwestern coast of Cuba, but they were unproductive. Regarding coral bleaching, one factor that may be protecting Cuba's coral is hurricanes, which lower water temperatures, which reduces bleaching. Another question regarded dive centers in Cuba- the biggest problem facing Cuba's marine life is overfishing. This problem may be offset by fostering tourism, with fisherman being able to shift their focus to the new industry. Cuba has no real export market for fish, they are caught for local consumption. Dr Bretos suggested a 'best practices' workshop for dive operators. Other questions regarded Cuba's mineral wealth- the island had nickel mines, but they are not productive anymore. Internet access is spotty, but if conditions improve, the educated Cuban population could start a decent tech industry. Regarding defections, the two individuals he knew who defected to the US did so because they were financially unable to work as marine biologists. Another individual asked about the Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker, but the search for surviving specimens is inconclusive. A question about apex predators in Cuban waters was answered- there are sharks in Los Jardines de la Reina, but they are rare elsewhere. Last year, Cuba instituted a shark management plan. A question about the effects of fertilizers on coral elicited the response that nitrogen isotopes in coral near agricultural runoff is the key to finding out the bad effects of nitrogenous fertilizers on reefs. The Florida aquifer is like a giant underground river that runs from south to north, draining into Florida Bay and dumping nitrogen and phosphorous on unsuspecting marine life. The final question regarded Mr Bretos' personal history as a conservationist... he had wanted to be a conservationist since the age of 16, and pursued research in Panama and Australia. He noted that conservation is 'people work', not just biological research. As someone who had the privilege of sitting through his lecture, I'll have to note that he's very, very good at people work, and the turtles and coral and fishes are benefiting.

Kudos to Mr Bertos, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of Symphony Space. The Secret Science Club North has once again delivered a fantastic night of entertainment and education.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

I Thought Cats Were Supposed to Be Clean

My co-worker Ginger is a very pretty cat, a lovely creamsicle critter with orange and white patches... She also loves to roll around in the dirt and detritus:

I've never seen her brother get as dirty as this, and he's the one that's easy to groom... Ginger can never sit still long enough for a decent brushing, one has to use quick strokes of the brush at odd intervals to even due a half-baked job of it.

At any rate, I don't think I'd let her sleep on my sweatshirt in this condition... the cat hairs are bad enough.