Thursday, June 30, 2016

Comical Quackers

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I spend a lot of time on the Bronx River Trailway, a perfect place for biking or walking, or just hanging out... and it's the best place I know for mulberry picking. For many years, these four comical 'feral' ducks (I'd suspect they were pets that got too big or too 'bothersome' for some fool- we often get these 'discards' thrown over our fence at work, the last memorable occurrence involving a 'wild' turkey) have been a fixture at the park:

These four are inseparable. They get along with the Canada geese and mallards, all of which exhibit that tameness that well-fed park anatidae seem to show. I don't even begrudge these birds when they eat my mulberries.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Bravely Facing the Mammalian Menace

Monday being my day off, I decided to hit the Bronx River Trailway, one of my favorite local parks. While walking around the Bronxville Pond, I saw this bold young critter:

This is a juvenile American robin (Turdus migratorius), its spotted breast, oversized noggin, and short feathers giving away its youth. For some reason, I think its stubby, insufficiently-fledged pygostyle to be exceedingly comical:

This little birdie held its ground while its parents foraged nearby for tasty invertebrates. It faced down the two-legged mammalian menace with considerable panache, even if its immature panache left something to be desired.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Gotta Watch the Quiet Ones

On the job, we are in the midst of a major renovation/restoration project- a sprawling, multi-year project on the property where I typically work. We've had a contractor on site for the past three weeks, and he and his crew have become a fixture on the property. They typically clear off around 5PM on weekdays, before I am scheduled to work.

Last Wednesday, while conducting my first inspection tour of the night, I was greeted by my dear feline co-worker Fred, who wasn't in the building in which he typically works as a mouser. This was atypical, but I merely let him into the building after finishing my walkabout in his company. The next day, I got the full story... Fred had fallen asleep in the contractor's van, and woke up when the contractor pulled into his yard and was greeted with a meow. He had to return Fred to the site, but couldn't get him into his assigned building.

The general consensus at work is that this never would have happened to Ginger, because she usually demands attention and would have made her presence known as soon as the contractor entered the van. It's the quiet ones you've gotta watch.

He's such a good cat, we're lucky the contractor didn't decide to keep him... I guess he figures he'll be on the job for a good, long time, so he'll enjoy the cats' company for many weeks.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Hope Everybody Had a Safe, Happy Pride Day

Here's wishing all of my LGBTQ readers a happy Pride Day. In the wake of the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre, the main theme of Pride Day coverage on the news was security. The real news is that, at least in New York, politicians have been lining up to march in the parade, when not too long ago, they probably would have been reluctant to show up for such an event.

In the wake of the Pulse massacre, one thing that struck me was the love and support that the families of the victims showed for the fallen. My personal awareness of the struggle for LGBTQ rights occurred in the context of a family kicking their lesbian daughter out of the house when she came out of the closet. Three decades later, it's heartening to see the change in attitudes, even though it comes in the context of a mass-murder and act of terrorism. The majority of the victims were of Puerto Rican descent, and I have to note that Puerto Rican Pride Day in NYC was a couple of weeks ago. With the outpouring of positivity after such a horrible event, I have to commend both the LGBTQ and Puerto Rican communities... you have a lot to be proud of, people. Be strong/Sea fuerte, the country is changing for the better, even though things are far from perfect.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Painted Ladies, Lady Turtles, That Is

A couple of weeks ago, I joked that my workplace was looking like a maternity ward. Tonight, we received two more 'patients' in the ward... I was walking not too far from the location in which a large snapping turtle when I noticed a painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) laying her eggs in a nest she had dug out of a nice grassy spot:

In what is becoming a routine, I drove a stake into the ground at a short distance from the nest and laid a couple of parallel sticks flanking the nest in order to mark it so nobody runs a lawnmower over it. I then walked on a few paces and saw another painted turtle laying her eggs not far from her conspecific:

Here's a closer view of her head, note the yellow strips under her 'chin', which lend her species its common name:

Once again, I marked out the nest, then I sent a text message to the gentleman who is tomorrow's Manager on Duty. He's an animal lover, so he's as happy as I am about the beautiful mothers who happen to be raising their families on our property.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Whither Northern Ireland?

When I left work at 4AM today, I put on the local NPR affiliate, which broadcasts BBC programming in the wee hours of the morning. Needless to say, the topic was all Brexit, all the time- a pattern which held true for most of the day's news cycle. Among the main topics is the ripple effects of the UK leaving the EU on financial markets... I don't even want to look at my 403(b) right now.

On a personal note, I wonder what effect the Brexit will have on the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I'm a quarter-Irish by heritage, and I live in neighborhood in which many Irish immigrants live, so I tend to write about Irish matters quite a bit. Thankfully, the Good Friday Agreement, while not signed, has largely held, and the bloodshed stopped in 1998 with the horrific and broadly condemned Omagh bombing. With the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland both being members of the European Union, the divisions between north and south lost much of their meaning.

Now, with the population of Northern Ireland voting 56% in favor of remaining in the EU, and sharing a land border with the EU, the republican Sinn Féin party is calling for a vote on Irish reunification. This is, as Irish-American Joe Biden would put it, a Big Fucking Deal.

The repercussions, economic and social (hell even border control will be an issue), of the Brexit pose real challenges for the Republic of Ireland in the near future. Before the pipe-dream of a United Ireland even becomes an agenda item, these problems will have to be ironed out... one might even say Norn Ironed out. It's a bit premature to sing this:

I'm working tonight, so I don't have an opportunity to broach the subject in one of the local pubs, though such conversations can be contentious. It's been a long, long time since I've heard a publican intone, "If you're gonna keep asking questions, we're gonna ask you to leave." I call that challenge the barxit.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Talk About Failing Upwards

Now here's a revolving door for you... the big political story of the week's beginning was the firing of Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump's troglodyte trumplodyte campaign manager. Now, three days later, the creep was hired by CNN as a political commentator- talk about failing upwards! Reading about Lewandowski's hiring, I immediately thought, "Wow, I guess cable news figures that racist, misogynistic white guys with anger issues are underrepresented."

Last week, I had a door-to-door sales rep from Cablevision ring the doorbell. I had just gotten up and decided to answer the door in case it was UPS delivering something- my upstairs neighbors and I look out for each other when it comes to deliveries (and other things, too, it must be said). I explained to the guy that I was uninterested in paying for cable television. He then asked me if I wanted an account for the internet:

"What about internet services? We can give you high-speed internet for $49.95 per month."
"I have high-speed internet at work."
"What about surfing the net at home?"
"I have a smartphone, there's no need."

Poor guy, he was trying his best to close a deal. I finally told him that I worked nights and that I had just woken up. To avoid appearing rude, I asked him for a business card, then explained that I worked nights and had just woken up before slamming the door. Reading about CNN's hiring of Lewandowski, I have to ask myself, "Why would I pay fifty bucks a month to have sewage piped into my apartment?"

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Above Your Mundane Concerns

If I had to define intelligence, I would define it as the ability to observe the world and to connect the various observed details in a manner which is conducive to successfully navigating one's surroundings. I'm not the sort of guy who likes to toot his own horn, but I have a couple of pieces of parchment which certify me as a clever boy. I chalk any cleverness up to my observational skills. A couple of days ago, I stopped at a supermarket to buy a half-gallon of milk to bring to work (I admit to being a big coffee drinker, and I tend to put a little milk in my java to take the edge off the stuff, though I will certainly drink it black if there's no other option). While walking across the parking lot, I saw a grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) suddenly veer off in its flight, an act which tipped me off to some unusual condition in the vicinity. Sure enough, I looked up to ascertain what the disturbance could be, and saw this beauty:

This red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) had taken up a position atop one of the parking lot lampposts, and was calmly surveying the environs as shoppers hustled in and out of the supermarket. It was a bit of wildness injected into a most suburban setting... and most of the people running errands didn't even notice it on its perch. I made sure to point it out to one of the shopping-cart wranglers, a gregarious teenage boy with a good sense of humor- his mind was pretty blown by the sight of the hawk that had visited his normally uninspiring workplace. I reminded him that everybody needs to look up every once in a while, even in a suburban parking lot. There are things above our mundane concerns, and they can be transcendent and transforming.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Tripping, By Which I Mean Road-Tripping

Last month, I headed up to my own particular Prestigious Bastion of Prestige for a reunion. A friend of mine who grew up not far from the PBoP jokingly asked me if I could take him as a date, so he could check out this place which is practically in his backyard. After assuring him that I loved him, albeit platonically, I let him know that it would cost a few hundred dollars, and he'd be confronted by a bunch of nostalgic drunks who'd be sharing decades-old jokes. For example, all the the Bronson from Wisconsin (whose birthday is today, high five Base!) has to say to reduce me to gales of laughter is "COOT!" Of course, the proper response is, "GREBE!"

We decided that a summer road-trip would be the best way for me to introduce him to the arcana of the place... and there's a lot of weird stuff to point out. For myself, reunion was a time to hang out with friends, lectures and tourism took a back seat to joking about waterfowl and old reminiscences, I really didn't do any 'touristy' stuff, besides visiting the museum, where I worked as an assistant to the head of anthropological collections. I'll be road-tripping as Virgil leading a local Dante through the circles of, certainly not hell, but a place that probably looms larger in his imagination than mine, because I know it as an insider. What was a nearby mystery for him was home for me for four really amazing years, pretty good for the 'First Circle'.

It'll be interesting returning as a combination tourist/tour guide, playing Virgil in a setting in which I read Virgil.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Happy Fathers' Day

Here's wishing all the dads out there a happy Fathers' Day. I know that most people in our society are closer to their moms than to their dads (I being no exception here), but I have to say that things seem to be getting better. In my peer group, the fathers are careful to take time to spend with their children, and there is more of a sharing of labor with moms... I think that enough of us saw our parents getting divorced and made the determination to do better in our personal relationships.

A recent Raw Story post detailed the need for better work/life policies for men as well as women. The conversation is about the need for men to receive time to care for their families, an issue which was largely considered a 'women's' problem until recently. I have to observe that feminism, contrary to the bleats of the MRA whiners and 'red-pill' bros, helps men.

Hey, how about a Fathers' Day treat? Here's a sweet video of Mick Jones of the Clash singing the classic Hitsville UK with his lovely daughter, Lauren:

That's one of my all-time favorite songs, and dad and daughter seem to be having a ball singing that duet.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Why, You Could Say, a Crappy Day

The immediate tip-off that something was amiss was the sight of my department head, who usually works Monday to Friday, 9AM to 5PM, sitting on the low wall in front of the main building. Yeah, that's not ordinary, so it must be an out-of-the-ordinary day. Sometime in the early afternoon, the main line from the bathrooms to the sewer had gotten blocked, and a flood of raw sewage backed up into the basement of the building. Because of this problem, the air conditioning system had to be shut down so that the foul miasma from the basement wouldn't be spread throughout the building. Needless to say, our weekend cleaning contractors, two wonderful, hard-working Latin American immigrants, did heroic work holding back the tide of foulness in the basement. It was comical, however, seeing one of them, a four-foot ten-inch tall woman, wearing a pair of shitkicking boots that would have made me, with my size 11-and-a-half EEEEE feet, proud.

Because of this situation, we had to close the Visitors' Center and gift shop early, and I had to run interference with the tourists, telling them that we were closed for the day. Everybody was lovely, everybody was patient, so things ran smoothly. In the meantime, the plumber/sewer maintenance contractor came on an emergency call and snaked out the system.

The last of the tourists have left, and I closed down the parking lot. The regular duo of cleaners have gone home for the day, but their supervisor, an Anglo dude with a shaved head (he could pass for a relative of mine) is downstairs with a heavy wet-vac, an industrial sprayer full of disinfectant, and a high-powered air-blower for drying out the area. Thankfully, about a month ago, the carpeting in the basement was torn out and a new tile floor put in, so there's no problem of tainted carpeting to deal with.

I am currently sitting outside the main building on a nice little patio, taking advantage of the wi-fi system and the gorgeous late Spring weather. It's been a crappy day, but the main problem occurred before I clocked in, so I really can't complain. I've had my fair share of storm sewer backups and weather-related flooding, but I got off easy today. My typical line is that the job is cushy except when it's not, and that the rough days constitute 'paying the dues' for the easy days. In the meantime, I have to document the fact that the various contractors have done the necessary work, so there will be a small amount of paperwork, but that's okay... it was a crappy day, but I wasn't up to my ankles in the stuff.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Current Earworm, Topical Earworm

It's been a busy week, which is a good thing, considering last weekend's horror. I've been very busy, the social calendar has been full. In my write-up of Monday night's Secret Science Club lecture, I didn't mention the subway ride from the Bronx to Brooklyn and back again- there were a lot of same-sex couples openly holding hands on the train and the subway platforms, and people were carrying the rainbow pride flag. As always, there were riders of all races and colors, and people advertising their religious affiliations with hijabs or the full regalia of the Hasidim... and everybody was coexisting peacefully. As usual, people kept to themselves, as people thrust into close proximity to eighteen million of their closest friends often do, but New Yorkers tend to defend our own on those occasions when somebody gets stupid.

The solution to hate and violence isn't hate and violence, and all-too-many bigoted religious whackos of all kinds are pushing a bizarre narrative that the shooter was wrong but that the government should kill gay people.

Anyway, the current earworm is by Nada Surf, a New York band whose best known song was teen-angst anthem Popular. The song that I'm currently obsessed with is the topical Always Love:

Hate will get you every time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Sexy Smart Robots

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring Dr Hod Lipson, profession of mechanical engineering and director of the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University. The subject of Dr Lipson's lecture was AI and robotics.

Dr Lipson began his lecture by declaring that, after two decades of research, the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics took off in the last couple of years. He posited the questions, what are the trends in robotics, where are they going, and what are the 'game changers' in the field? He urged the audience to think long term, then, displaying a movie still, intoned that 'a long time ago and many galaxies away', the conventional wisdom was that robots would take humanoid forms. Also, there was a 'lone genius' model of scientific research which is not the norm.

Today, there are millions of robots, mainly in factories. These robots are powerful and precise, but they are not clever. Dr Lipson posed the question, 'how do you make robots more adaptive?' He noted, regarding artificial intelligence, that there are 'tidbits' everywhere, but not in the manner in which most laypersons think- AI is involved in investment banking, weather prediction, and music programming. He joked that artificial intelligence paired with real money. The number of robots is growing and the role of artificial intelligence in daily life is growing- what had been talked about for decades is now common.

Dr Lipson then displayed a picture of a Roomba and then a picture of a drone, then quipped that computers that once would have netted a researcher a PhD are now used as toys. He then displayed a quote by Marc Andreessen: "Software is eating the world." Artificial intelligence is now 'infusing' robots. Dr Lipson then showed us a video of table tennis champion Timo Boll playing a match against a robot dubbed KUKA:

In the match, the robot dominated until Mr Boll was able to figure out ways to thwart it- robots perform well when things are in the right place at the right time, but they have trouble coping with 'corner cases'. It is difficult for robots to adapt to conditions that their programmers didn't anticipate.

Dr Lipson then backtracked a bit, giving a quick history of robotics. In 1912, John Hammond, Jr. and Benjamin Miessner designed a self-orienting robot which was programmed to turn towards light sources. This robot, designed to deliver explosives behind enemy lines, was described as being able “to inherit almost superhuman intelligence.” Throughout the 20th century, the goal was to develop exponentially more powerful technologies, a goal expressed most succinctly in Moore's Law. The exponential growth of processing power is a small part of the equation... something was missing in the hardware and software, and a political war arose within the computer science community about how to achieve artificial intelligence. Should programming be a 'top down' process or should computer scientists design computers that learn? In traditional computer programming, a programmer writes code and the computer uses the algorithm to solve a problem. With the advent of artificial learning, the computer learns how to solve a problem. The problem with top-down programming is that it is impossible to think of every 'if then else' statement needed to cope with a multitude of conditions. The top down approach doesn't work with all problems- there's no code to keep a driverless car on the road if the 'if then else's' are insufficient.

In 1957, Frank Rosenblatt of Cornell University developed a neural network that could distinguish simple shapes, and pioneered the field of machine learning. One early development in machine learning involved a computer that could play checkers. The original programming entailed writing algorithms instructing the computer to take opponent's pieces- the computer played a mediocre checkers game because humans made unexpected moves, things that the programming didn't anticipate. The programmers then changed their strategy- they collected data and programmed the computer to 'play' many games of checkers, mimicking the winning games. The computer was able to accumulate 'lifetimes' of checker playing experience. Then came the development of chess playing computers, also being able to learn multiple chess games until able to beat grandmasters. Recently, a computer was able to beat a champion Go player. Dr Lipson asked if this was the end of an era, then said that computers are poised to tackle the real world.

The subject of the lecture then shifted to the DARPA autonomous vehicle challenge. Dr Lipson referred to the work of Stanford's Sebastian Thrun, who addressed the quandry, does one use machine learning or big data? Does one teach an autonomous vehicle to drive like one would teach a human how to drive? Ultimately, the machine learning approach was taken. In 2007, there was a collision between the Cornell driverless car and the MIT driverless car, which Dr Lipson was quick to blame on the MIT team- the Cornell driverless car interpreted an immovable object as another vehicle then stopped in order to give it right-of-way, the MIT vehicle passed the stationary Cornell vehicle just as it reinterpreted the immovable object and started to steer around it. Both machines 'sensed' the world around them, but they didn't 'understand' what they sensed. The eyes worked, but they could not see. There was a failure of understanding.

Along with artificial intelligence, advancements in material science are also revolutionizing robotics. New synthetic 'muscle fiber' has been developed and 3D printers can make pieces which mimic organic structures. The programming of these new robots marries algorithms with machine learning, combining to produce an explosion in AI. In the area of Big Data, the number of cameras has increased exponentially... visual data, once difficult to obtain, is now ubiquitous. While academia always had access to 'fast' computers, this data was the missing element in early artificial intelligence efforts.

In 2012, ImageNet, originally a set of one million images, was created to test artificial intelligence. A million images were classified in thousands of categories, and the AI's were tasked to label novel images correctly. Dr Lipson jocularly referred to ImageNet as a 'Mechanical Turk' for recognizing images. Describing the project, Dr Lipson noted that it was 'freelancers training AI to take their jobs'. Originally, the ImageNet had a 25% error rate, a rate altogether unacceptable to employ in driverless cars. In 2012, a team from the University of Toronto developed an algorithm called SuperVision which dropped the error rate to 15%. Dr Lipson joked that this dramatic improvement was 'like seeing Jesus'. The real game-changer in visual recognition is the fact that the code is open source. While Frank Rosenblatt's early neural networks involved many 'layers' of wires, the new neural networks for visual recognition involve many 'layers' of code- it's a 'souped up' version of the neural network. Humans typically have an error rate of 5% in ImageNet, much of the error rate is due to an inability to distinguish images due to unfamiliarity with, say, breeds of dogs, or types of lizards. In 2015, a Microsoft team was able to bring the error rate down to 3%, for the first time in history, machines were able to 'understand' images better than humans were.

Another game changer in AI is the improvement of voice recognition and a refinement of image understanding- for example, the ability for a computer to recognize a 'kiss' in a movie. Computers are gradually understanding lots of images and the connections between objects.

Returning to the subject of driverless cars, Dr Lipson noted that it's difficult to distinguish things on the road... there are many 'corner cases'. Is an object a pothole? An oil spill? A shadow? The object recognition abilities of AI's couldn't be trusted. Is an object a fire hyrant, or a kid? With new hardware and new software bringing better image recognition ability to machines, the last link in the 'driverless car' puzzle has been made.

Dr Lipson then noted that AI has wormed its way into all aspects of our lives. Because the algorithms are open-source, anyone can use them. There is a 'dark side', though, we don't always understand how the algorithms work. In one particular instance, an image recognition program 'learned' how to distinguish faces, even though it was never programmed to do so- the AI learned that tracking human faces was useful. While PhD candidates were working on facial recognition software, this particular computer just learned it. With the advent of the 'cloud', Dr Lipson joked, what one robot learns, all robots know. With shared data, a driverless car can draw upon thousands of lifetimes of driving, a robot doctor can 'learn' on millions of patients.

Dr Lipson opined that Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics were garbage- we don't know how robots learn and make decisions. The best way to track AI is to use AI to do so. The goal is to make 'curious and creative mechanisms'. Most artificial intelligences are designed to make decisions- buy or sell? These AI's take in information and make decisions.

Another kind of intelligence is creativity- humans create, but synthesis, unlike analysis, is difficult to teach. In developing 'creative' robots, the best inspirations are not from humans, but from evolution. In one particular case, a 3D printed robot was designed using a biological model as inspiration, and an 'evolutionary' algorithm was used develop a 'crawling' robot. Originally, the robot didn't have a self-image, and didn't know how to walk. First the robot had to discover what it looks like, and initially it flailed around until a self-image developed. Then the robot learned that it had four legs and used this information to develop a method of walking. The robot had to learn to walk, Dr Lipson joked that it was a far cry from an 'evil spider robot'. Then, when the robot had learned how to walk, one leg was removed, so the robot had to modify its self image and adjust its locomotion. Other gaits were generated for different damaged morphologies... here's a video of Dr Lipson explaining the robot's learning process:

The subject of the talk then shifted to artistic ability- Dr Lipson quipped that human beings have dreams, even dogs have dreams, but can a computer paint real 'art' or write a symphony? He described efforts to teach a robot how to paint, and noted that robots can paint decent portraits. In another instance, he described an AI that created an image of a double pendulum in action, and the AI was able to duplicate the equation describing the pendulum's motion using only algebra.

The lecture then veered into the subject of metacognition, thinking about thinking. Dr Lipson joked that computer scientists can't mention cognition or consciousness until they get tenure. Can one speak of 'robopsychology' or theory of mind? In the case of the walking robot, a self image had to develop, and as alterations were made to the machine, the self-image needed changing. Currently, artificial intelligences have no theory of mind- for example, drones aren't aware of other drones... yet. Dr Lipson brought up the subject of AI affecting jobs, and noted that the real question is 'what will people do to other people with artificial intelligences?' Utopia or dystopia? The answer will rely on human use of AI. Today, we are at a cusp, with a Cambrian explosion of robotics on the horizon. The main evolutionary changes in the Cambrian explosion involved the evolution of eyes, the ability to perceive the world, in many animal lineages. There is an explosion of AI 'forms' and successful robots will be 'rewarded' with replication in an echo of the evolutionary model.

In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience asked about the 'holy grail' of robotics, the development of self-replicating machines such as the hypothetical Von Neumann probe. While noting that the crude mechanics of self-replicating machines are challenging, software self-replication is possible, dependent on providing building blocks and definitions of self-replication. Another question, regarding robot consciousness elicited the joke that that's a topic restricted to tenured professors- Dr Lipson then asked, is a dog conscious? Consciousness doesn't have to achieve the level of human consciousness- are self-awareness and self-simulation sufficient? Another question involved biological models for robotics, and Dr Lipson cited evolutionary theory and neuroscience as useful complemetary disciplines. Regarding robotic medicine, how would one ensure ethical behavior? While one cannot program ethics into a computer, an AI could be taught as a child is taught- give examples and hope for the right choices. Another question involved maintaining control over AI's- with machines being able to exceed human limitations, perceiving more wavelengths, more frames per second, there is less human control over those machines. Regarding the open-source nature of much of computer science, the open-source movement has led to more data and better algorithms, but while corporations develop open source algorithms, they tend to keep the data private. The final question regarded driverless vehicles... is vehicle to vehicle 'awareness' better than a totally autonomous system? Dr Lipson preferred totally autonomous vehicles- they are harder to hack and no transponders are needed.

Once again, the Secret Science Club served up a fantastic lecture. Kudos to Dr Lipson, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. As an added bonus, last night my friend Peter, originally of Yonkers but currently residing in San Diego, was able to attend the lecture. He's involved in app development and he had good things to say about the lecture. It's nice to see a nerd's nerd reacting to the lecture and the vibe- it's not every day that one attends a hard science lecture that appeals to both experts and laypersons accompanied by a fully stocked bar... it's just every Secret Science Club day.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Orlando? Furioso!

What the hell is going on in Orlando, Florida? Yesterday, I woke up and put on the radio to learn that a young singer from New Jersey was gunned down by a crazed individual, probably an obsessive stalker, while interacting with her fans. This morning, I woke up to the news that fifty people were killed and over fifty critically wounded in a mass shooting in an Orlando nightclub that catered to the LGBTQ community. Two killings, one the worst mass-shooting in United States history, on back to back days? What the hell is going on in Orlando? Listening to the coverage of the Pulse nightclub shooting, the reporter noted that this was the fourth mass shooting in Orlando this year, the fifteenth in Florida, and the one hundred and thirty-third in the United States.

I wasn't familiar with Christina Grimmie's life or career, she was a finalist on a show I didn't watch, and she sang a genre of music I don't particularly care for. Looking her up on the internet, though, she came across as an unpretentious, caring individual, the sort of woman who would happily, gratefully meet with her fans and show them her appreciation... the sort of woman who would trust the public to be as good-hearted as she was. One particular image, a picture of her with the caption Never Stop Smiling, was particularly saddening- she really came across as a bright speck in this vast uncaring universe, and now she's gone, killed at the age of 22. I can't even imagine how her brother, who was able to subdue the killer, but unable to save his sister, feels. It's heartbreaking.

Then we have the murder of fifty innocent people at the Pulse nightclub, fifty people who went out for a night of revelry and ended up massacred by an unhinged ISIS-wannabe with a history of domestic violence who was enraged by the sight of two men kissing. In the coverage of the massacre, one patron of the Pulse nightclub was a "safe space", the sort of place where he felt he could be himself. From safe space to killing zone in a matter of seconds... descriptions of the massacre indicate that the entire bloody fray occurred in the brief duration of a single song.

The real horror of the Pulse shooting is that the shooter, who had a couple of run-ins with the FBI and a history of domestic violence, was able to purchase firearms. The fact that he worked as a security screener at a courthouse only adds to the horror of it all.

Luckily, I had to go to work this afternoon, so I haven't been following a lot of the coverage of the massacre, though Roy dove into the cesspool to see what right-wingers, conflicted by their hatred of LGBTQ people and their pleasure that the murderer was a Muslim, were saying. Meanwhile, the Texas Lieutenant Governor blamed the victims, and Tucker Carson blamed President Obama. Rick Scott refused to acknowledge that the LGBTQ community was the target of the massacre and Paul Ryan pushed his unconvincing false pieties. President Obama made a speech denouncing the attacks that had a bit of an 'oh fuck, again?' quality about it. Pope Francis and CAIR executive director Nihad Awad also denounced the attacks...

Meanwhile, amid the denunciation, and expressions of blame, nothing will get done about gun violence in the United States. This horrific weekend of violence, the assassination of a young woman whose talent was matched by her kindliness and the massacre of innocent LGBTQ people out for a night of fun in a 'safe' space, perfectly illustrates the ubiquity of gun violence in the United States. Even while walking around on a beautiful late Spring evening, this specter was in the back of my head... simply put, Orlando has made me furious.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Fearless Mom, Devoted Mom

A day that I have awaited for weeks has finally come to pass. I arrived at work early today in order to confer with one of the day shift members who has been endowed with 'manager on duty' powers. She's been with the organization for a couple of years, but she's still a little green as an M.O.D. My other task was to check up on a bird that I have become rather fond of. Today, she was her fearless self, as always, and she didn't shy away from a confrontation:

As I approached the nest, mama killdeer went into her usual sham injury display:

When I checked on the nest, though, this was the sight which greeted me:

Four perfectly gorgeous little fuzzballs, nestled where the eggs had been. The little lovelies were running around just like mom soon after hatching... I actually took this photo as the sun was setting and these diurnal creatures are settling in for the night. I'm kinda surprised that they returned to the nest, it being such a perfunctory affair, but there they were. I made sure to inform the day staff that we had four perfect baby killdeer running around the property.

It doesn't take a lot to make me happy, and watching this fearless little creature protecting her family has been a source of joy for me for weeks. The fact that we have four more noisy little 'clockwork toy' birds on the property just makes it all the better.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Young Girls Love Hillary

The big national news story is Hillary Clinton's securing the Democratic presidential nomination. The significance of this nomination has been commented on by all sorts of news and opinion outlets, with coverage both sympathetic and hostile. In the midst of this welter of coverage, I'm just going to comment on something I have observed firsthand. Yeah, I know the plural of anecdote isn't data, but this is something that has been apparent to me for months... young girls have a fascination with Hillary Clinton, and the very idea that she may become the first woman president of the United States is very appealing to them.

In April, I actually had to tell a bunch of eight-year old girls to move outside of the 100-foot 'no-electioneering' limit of our worksite polling place before resuming their chant of "Hillary! Hillary!" A week later, I was peppered with questions by the six year old daughter of an old friend regarding my vote... she would not let me evade her questions until I gave her my assurance that I would support Hillary in the general election. I've heard girls talking up Hillary while walking by the school across the street from my home.

Hillary fever is a real thing for young girls. Their imaginations are fired by the prospects of her winning the election. These girls are too young to vote, but their attitudes will be shaped to a large extent by the things that they observe at this age. I know that Bernie Sanders has run a great campaign that has appealed to teenagers and twenty-somethings, but there's something about Hillary that fascinates the pre-teen set. I sure hope that these girls continue to be politically astute and, when they are old enough to do so, to be politically active.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Intimate Lives of Chelonians

This week is shaping up to be 'invasion of turtle privacy' week for me... Sunday, on the job, I spied on a snapping turtle laying her eggs. Monday, I doubled down on my turtle voyeurism... Monday is typically a day off for me and, last Monday being a gorgeous late spring day, I decided to head over to the beautiful Bronx River Parkway Preservation, a location I frequent. Walking around the lovely Bronxville Pond, I noticed a commotion in the water:

On closer inspection, it turned out to be two very large common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) making, shall we say, the beast with two carapaces:

If you've never seen two aquatic turtles going at it, they are really acrobatic, or better yet, aquabatic:

They pitch, roll, and yaw like out of control airplanes, or rotate on all axes like 3D Tetris pieces, you'll see a head stick out, or a clawed foot:

While I was watching this erotobatic display, a gentleman who was walking around the pond with his son approached me and said, "I saw the splashing from across the pond and wondered what it was, because of the size of the ripples, I suspected a swan." He caught on pretty quickly regarding what was going on. His son, bless the child, offered an alternate explanation, "I think they're fighting."

Yeah... fighting... just like those Ninja Turtles... except (WARNING: you can never unsee this image if you click on this link, you've been warned) their weapons are much larger and much better concealed.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Au Revoir, Not Adieu

Today was a bittersweet occasion, we had a luncheon to celebrate the retirement of the head of our retail division and his right hand lady. Our visitors' centers have attractive gift shops with a diverse array of interesting products that are not commonly found in retail shops. Our retiring head of retail, a debonnaire Frenchman, was with the organization for twenty-two years, and his right hand, who he described as "Only five feet tall, or maybe four-point-eight, but very strong", was with the organization for twenty years... not too shabby a run.

In his farewell speech, our departing friend made sure to name all of the sales and stock personnel in his department, as well as the volunteers who assist the retail team. He recalled his hiring- his was the last resume to arrive in response to a help-wanted ad, and the head of H.R. almost passed it by, thinking that he'd seen the best candidates. Upon perusing this late-arriving resume, he reconsidered the hiring decision and arranged an interview. In the pre-GPS days, the candidate decided to make a dry run- driving to the office the day before and timing the trip so he knew how long the trip would typically take (it's been ten years since I've had to appear for a job interview, and I would always do this as well). When he arrived for the interview, he answered all of the typical questions and then was asked a poser: "Are you tough?" He recounted that this question worried him, he really thought he'd blow it, but he answered in the best possible fashion: "I'm fair."

In his twenty-two years, his impeccable taste transformed the gift shops into shopping destinations, apart from the sites themselves. He adapted to changing tastes and trends while maintaining a classy environment with quality merchandise. More importantly, he treated his underlings in a courteous, kindly fashion, making sure that their needs were accommodated and taking his entire staff out to lunch after the close of the tourist season. When Christmastime rolled around, he made sure to give everybody on staff a nice little present, such as a package of chocolates or cookies.

I had the good fortune to finally meet his husband for the first time today. He is also retiring, so the two of them will be able to spend time traveling between New Jersey and Europe whenever the mood takes them. They make a lovely couple, and I'm sure that they will grow old gracefully.

I will also miss our assistant manager, a small, cute lady with a small, cute car. She was the one to deal with vendors, with accounts payable, with lugging merchandise from site to site, no small feat for a small lady with a small car. Her grace and humor will be missed.

Our head of retail closed his farewell speech with a quote from Andy Warhol concerning the future of retail: "All department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores." It was just the funny sort of line with which to close a bittersweet speech, and an appropriate line as well- with his good taste and commitment to presenting a higher class of merchandise sourced from all over the globe, our shops straddled that line nicely.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

That Maternal Glow

While on my first inspection tour of the workday, I spied a silhouette which is familiar to me... sure enough, it was a sizable snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina):

Snapping turtles tend to stay in the water until the female turtles come to land to lay their eggs. Sure enough, a glance of the turtle's hindquarters revealed that the turtle was depositing her eggs into a hole she had scraped into the ground, note the long 'dinosaurian' tail:

I was able to watch her deposit a couple of white, spherical eggs into the hole, but there was no opportunity to catch this on the camera, and I wasn't about to disturb the turtle in this most crucial of endeavors. I did take a photo of her beatific visage, though:

Isn't she beautiful? As with the killdeer nest I marked the location of the nest with a stake so I can inform the day shift of the location of the nest so nobody steps on it or runs a lawnmower over it. The place is starting to look like a maternity ward.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Float Like a Butterfly, Defy the Authoritarian White Power Structure Like a Revolutionary

The big story in the news today has been the death of Muhammad Ali at the age of 74. Ali was the consummate athlete, a man whose speed, strength, and stamina made him a legend in the boxing ring, a heavyweight who moved more like a smaller fighter. As much as he was known for his pugilistic skills, he was also well known for his wit and his charisma, having a tongue that was as sharp and as punishing as his jab.

I'd venture to say that Ali's greatest attribute was his anti-authoritarianism, an independent streak that led him to refuse military service during the Vietnam conflict. He defied the United States government and challenged the morality of the war itself:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.

A courageous statement from an intelligent, thoughtful man who knew that his stance, though moral and just, would land him in serious trouble with the corrupt government. It's no wonder that Ali became a symbol for revolutionaries and reformers the world over. While the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila were towering epics in the annals of international sport, the real legacy of Ali lies in the rumble of protest at injustice and the thrilla kindled in the activist's heart. In one of his last public statements, Ali spoke out against both Islamic fundamentalist radicalism and Islamophobia:

I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.

We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.

Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people's views on what Islam really is.

For a man who was known for his fists and his mouth, Muhammad Ali's heart was his greatest defining characteristic. He spoke truth to power, and white power, and the inevitable torrent of trollery will be keeping me away from most mainstream website accounts of his death. The real danger, though, is that Muhammad Ali, a man who burned with revolutionary fervor, will be sanitized and trivialized for public consumption... he was a lion, not a Care Bear, and it's up to us to remember him as such.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Fearless Furball

I like to get to work early, typically fifteen to thirty minutes early, in order to have a briefing with the co-worker(s) who are working the previous shift. I like my co-workers, so it's a pleasant recap of the day's events, a time to discuss upcoming scheduling, and an opportunity to engage in chit-chat.

Last night, during the shift change, I was talking with my co-worker, who is even bigger than me, when a raccoon climbs onto a stone wall in front of our Visitor's Center, about six feet from where we're standing. After the initial, 'WHOA' and a brief mention of the 'r-word', we calm down and notice that the animal is not acting in an unusual manner, besides its boldness. The raccoon, which had a slightly spindly adolescent look, stopped, stretched out its neck, and gave a couple of inquisitive sniffs. I almost had an impulse to extend my finger as I'd do with a curious cat, but thought better of it. After a couple of sniffs, the raccoon decided we weren't anything to be concerned about, and jumped into the trash barrel not four feet from us. After listening to the raccoon rummaging around in the trash for about thirty seconds, my co-worker kicked the barrel as if to signal, "Hey, get out of there, you." The raccoon simply stuck its head out of the barrel as if to respond, "Hey, mister, I'm not done here." We both got photographs of the fearless furball:

The raccoon simply looked at us, then dove right back into the trash. We were beaten, we weren't going to do more to convince that raccoon to leave. When it was done, it merely ambled off to continue its rounds. The whole incident was rather comical, especially the bit when the raccoon stuck out its nose to 'check us out'... I almost succumbed to reacting to this gesture as I'd react to a friendly dog or cat. If this young raccoon continues to be so bold, it's going to be a long summer, especially for the grounds personnel who have to clean up the area in the morning.

Thursday, June 2, 2016


Via Tengrain, we have the account that an iron dagger buried with King Tut was forged from a meteoric iron. Meteoric iron, rare as it is, provided isolated 'jumpstarts' on an 'Iron Age', because the purity of the metal eliminates the need for smelting. It is generally believed that smelting was an outgrowth of ceramic manufacture, with pigments fashioned from ores such as malachite or azurite being applied to pots which were then fired, producing unexpected results. Iron smelting was pioneered by the Hittites, an Indo-European group from Anatolia. While the early iron was not appreciably harder than bronze, a copper/tim alloy, its abundance in the earth's crust made it a more attractive metal for fashioning implements than bronze, the manufacture of which necessitated long-distance trade.

Meteoric iron was also forged into implements by the Inuit of Greenland and the Hopewell of Ohio, two otherwise 'Stone Age' (please note that I am not using the term pejoratively) cultures.

The people of the ancient world were just as smart as modern individuals, and probably more observant, in the aggregate. An individual coming upon an unusual rock would have checked it out, and anyone finding a chunk of an iron meteorite would have discovered its malleability upon trying to chip a stone tool out of it. These malleable implements, so ubiquitous today, would have been gifts fit for a king.

Confession time, in college I took a class titled 'Archaeometallurgy and Artifact Analysis', a seminar with about ten attendees. It was a great class, involving a bit of shopwork to demonstrate such concepts as malleability and ductility (cup and cone fractures FTW). I could nerd out on this subject for hours if anybody really wanted to talk about arsenical bronzes.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Happy Birthday, Strange Fortnight

June 1st is my sister's birthday, and the start of about two weeks of odium in our household as my sister and I, 'Irish Twins', engaged in a mutual nastiness campaign while we were officially the same age. It was always a weird period because, when my birthday finally rolled around, our usual comity returned. Everybody pretty much knew that we'd be impossible for this period of time and everybody pretty much just dealt with it.

My sister has mellowed out considerably in the intervening years, and her kids are just about the nicest boys you'd ever want to meet. Her husband, a rocket scientist like her, just retired from the USAF, and the family will be moving back east to the D.C. metro area. With their move, I'll be seeing a lot more of them... we don't have any awkward two weeks of mutual antagonism anymore.