Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Happy Birthday, Vincenzo

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Realizing I'm Not Getting a Nablopomo This Year

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

Shy-ber Monday

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

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

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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Because Snark is Never Out of Place

Via Tengrain, we have a bizarre conflation of obituaries:

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The End of an Era

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

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

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

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

*Sees Trump Elected*

“Well my work here is done.”

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

Friday, November 25, 2016

As if this Year Weren't Bad Enough

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

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

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

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thankful for Friendship

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Media Malfeasance, Sins of Omission Version

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Females have evolved twisty countermeasures to thwart forced insemination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

Brooklyn Bound, for Birdies

Tonight, I'm heading down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture to hear Dr Rafael Maia of Columbia University speak about birds. Speaking of birds, Thunder has a nice post with pictures of a leucistic sparrow at his blog.

Longtime readers will know that I am partial to birds myself. I am also partial to Pere Ubu and the amazing concert film Urgh! A Music War. Put Urgh, Pere Ubu, and birdies together and you get this:

Pere Ubu's music ranged from the minatory to the Dada-esque, with this song being firmly in the latter camp. Me, with a crocodilians post and a birdies post back-to-back, I'm firmly in the Archosaur camp.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Reptilian Respite

On Friday afternoon, I was sick and tired of seeing cold, glittering reptilian eyes, so I decided to stop reading about the Trump transition and headed down to the American Museum of Natural History with one of my old college roommates and his son to see the crocodilians exhibit. The awesome Dr Evon Hekkala receives some much deserved accolades in the exhibit, which features several live crocodilians, including African dwarf crocodiles (Osteolaemus tetraspis) and some cute baby American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis). Another major centerpiece of the exhibit was a huge mounted taxidermy specimen of a saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). There were fossil crocodilians on exhibit as well, and some interactive displays, such as an alligator vibration simulator:

This was a social visit, with an old friend and a grammar-school aged boy, so I didn't take copious notes. I tend to go to the exhibits multiple times (museum membership has its advantages), so I will write it up in a more thorough future blog post. I just wanted to get away from slimy, soulless reptiles for a while and see some Archosaurs.

Yesterday morning, at my volunteer coaching gig, we had an eleven-and-up girls group, a really fun group of students, some of whom have been with us long enough so we can teach them some of the throws with more 'oomph'... we were teaching them the major hip throw, O goshi, yesterday. Two of the girls in the group are identical twins, very athletic, pretty, nice, and smart girls who are instantly likeable. One of them told me at the end of the class that she would prefer to stay in the dojo rather than going to the pool for swimming:

"I wish we could stay here, I don't want to go swimming today."

"You really need to go to swimming, it's the most important thing you learn here, because it's one activity you might not have a choice to do or not to do."

"I'm a really strong swimmer, I've gone swimming in the ocean with riptides."

Thinking of crocodiles... "You've gone swimming in the ocean with reptiles? Saltwater crocodiles? Sea turtles?"

"Riptides. Riptides."

"Oh, sorry, I was at the museum of natural history yesterday and have crocodiles on the mind."

She's too nice of a girl to have called me a lunatic.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Hardest Working Woman in Showbiz

As if 2016 wasn't bad enough, we lost Sharon Jones, the hardest working woman in show business, with the emphasis on work... Ms Jones worked a day job as a corrections officer at the prison on Rikers Island to make ends meet, and didn't reach the big-time as a singer until she was in her forties. Here's a fairly long live concert which perfectly encapsulates her guts, gusto, humor, and that magnificent voice:

Here's a fun live number, in which Ms Jones delivers a quick lesson on various dance crazes of the 1960s, and is joined by a special guest:

And now, neither of them is with us... this year has been a terrible, terrible one for music.

Friday, November 18, 2016

You So Fucked

Via Interrobang's Livejournal (my blogroll conforms to Canadian Content laws), we have the sobering observation that the flowering of many fruit trees depends on a certain period of cold days. Certainly, this past year, I noticed that there was no foraged/scrumped fruit to be had... no mulberries, no cherries, no peaches, no apples, no quinces, no kousa-dogwood fruits. Put succinctly, this was a crap year for foraging, though the nettles have been plentiful and the fall re-growth is coming in luxuriously. Forget all of the idiots who claim that global warming will be a boon for agriculture, the fruit trees of the temperate world are well-and-truly boned. As someone who, despite living in a city, lives 'close to the earth', I can see consequences of climate change that most Americans would not notice... a lack, a delay, an alteration in a natural process. It's one thing to read about ocean acidification on a website or in a newspaper, it's another thing not to have any cherry cordial this year.

Post title derives from this, a topic I have blogged about before.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

In Hoc Signo Resistis

Riding on the subway to attend the chat by Richard Dawkins last night, I noticed several people on the train wearing safety pins to show solidarity with groups which face marginalization and outright violence during the Vulgarmort regime. When I got to Symphony Space, I saw additional safety pins, including one adorning the T-shirt of a boy who asked the Esteemed Professor a great question about eusocial insects... can I just mention how great I think this kid is?

I ran into a friend of a friend who was wearing a pin. She was concerned enough about being put on a national database that she and her girlfriend decided that marrying is a risk that is just too great to undertake in Mike Pence's America. She mentioned that she had friends who had voted for Trump for various reasons, and that she asked them point-blank, "What are you going to do when they come for ME?" Sobering... as a cishet white male, this is the sort of horror story which I never have to contemplate, which is the real meaning of Straight White Male Privilege.

Riding the train up to the Bronx, I saw additional safety pins, silent but eloquent evocations of both safety and unity. Today, at work, I hunted up a small safety pin and affixed it to my sweatshirt:

It's a mute symbol of solidarity, but if it signals to people that this is one shave-pated white guy who doesn't tolerate bigotry, then it will have served its purpose.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Commemoration of The Selfish Gene's 40th Anniversary

Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space for the Secret Science Club North commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene and the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Blind Watchmaker.

Dr Dawkins structured his talk as a friendly interview with the divine Dorian Devins, who he has known for twenty years. Dr Dawkins began by noting that natural selection involves the survival of something. He came to the conclusion that it involves the survival of genes, and a gene has the potential to be immortal. The world is full of genes which are successful, the bodies of individual organisms are vehicles for the genes inside them. Genes which are good for survival survive.

In no way is The Selfish Gene advocacy for selfishness... while genes are 'selfish', animals often act in altruistic fashion. Given a chance to change the title of the book, Dr Dawkins proposed the potential alternates The Immortal Gene or even The Cooperative Gene. He noted that such a change of title would not involve changing one word of the book itself.

When asked about his role as a populizer of science, Dr Dawkins noted the unfortunate existence of the Carl Sagan Effect- populizers of science are often shunned by the Academy for writing books for laypersons. He noted that, in his case, writing was good for working out his thought processes. While forty years have passed since the publication of The Selfish Gene, he would not change the book, but more is now known about genomes, and about how genes work. He noted that he had had his genome sequenced and that Dr Yan Wong, his assistant author of The Ancestor's Tale analyzed the genome to look for common ancestors of his two parents. In the analysis, Dr Wong noted a peak of genetic similarity at a time 60,000 years before the present, indicating an evolutionary bottleneck. It was possible to make inferences about paleodemographics by analyzing the genome of one individual. Dr Wong then sequenced the genome of an individual from Nigeria and was able to determine that no genetic bottleneck existed in West Africa at the time of the genetic bottleneck in Western Europe.

Many organisms have had their genomes sequenced- figuring out the Pedigree of Life involves looking at genomes and the proteins coded by the genes. In order to draw the family tree of life, one would have to use a piece of paper the size of the planetary orbit. Dr Dawkins then noted that a fractal map of the tree of life is now available (WARNING: AMAZING TIME SINK) ran a quick video of a search of this map.

Dorian Devins then asked Dr Dawkins, "Is each book the 'child' of the book before it?" Dr Dawkins noted that his second book The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene should be considered a direct sequel to The Selfish Gene, written for a more academic audience. The Blind Watchmaker was an exploration of the illusion of design resulting from an unguided, neutral process.

The Ancestor's Tale was explicitly modeled on Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and portrays a pilgrimage back in time (depicting a forward journey would only perpetuate the fiction that evolution is directed towards humanity, with humans as an end point- all living organisms are equal end points, with no pinnacle). The reason why he started with humans is because, as he joked, most of his readers are humans.

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution lays out the evidence for evolution as established scientific fact, a rebuttal to creationists of all stripes.

When asked about the use of anthropomorphism in writing about science, Dr Dawkins noted that it can be a useful illustration of scientific principles- as an example, he noted that asking, "What would I do if I were a gene trying to replicate into further generations?" would result in a correct answer. Other useful questions are "how will I manipulate this animal?" and "how will I manipulate the world?"

Dorian then asked Dr Dawkins whether the publication of The God Delusion hurt or hindered his scientific career. Dr Dawkins indicated that he does not separate his atheism from his scientific work- belief is a hypothesis, an erroneous one. Scientists can help people to develop critical thinking. He noted that critical thinking was in short supply in much of the Anglophone world, citing the election of Vulgarmort and the Brexit vote, and joked about emigrating to New Zealand.

He noted that we need less emotion and more reason, then quipped, "Screw your feelings." He exhorted the audience to trust reason, then stated that climate change is the worst problem faced by the world's population. He noted that President Obama has made every effort to support the Paris Climate Agreement and stated that our decisions must be rooted in evidence-based thinking.

When asked about the popular use of his coinage 'meme', Dr Dawkins first quipped, "Did the internet destroy democracy?" He then noted the original definition he applied to his neologism in 1976: a cultural selection unit which undergoes a Darwinian process analogous to that which a gene undergoes. A meme is an 'agent of mind' that can be selected for. He originally posited a question regarding the self-replication of alien life, which would undergo Darwinian processes but which probably wouldn't have DNA as the coding molecule. He carried the analogy further by positing the meme as a unit of selection for cultural inheritance. Memes can be fashion trends, such as wearing baseball caps backward (he joked that this 'reduces the wearer's IQ by ten points, which I won't dispute). Memes evolve, they are selected for and perpetuated- Dr Dawkins likened the spread of religion to the spread of viruses, viruses of the mind. These memes are co-adapted, forming meme-complexes. He noted that the internet is a fertile ecosystem for memes. He recounted a memetic epidemic which he started at his school- he introduced origami to his school and it spread like a flu epidemic before dying away like a flu epidemic. He learned origami from his father, who had learned it during a former origami 'epidemic' at the same school.

When asked if he could name any problems with the thesis of The Selfish Gene, he begged the audience to forgive him if he couldn't immediately think of one. He noted that genes are replicators- they make high-fidelity copies of themselves. Through Darwinian selection, some things replicate more than others and spread. Originally, scientists were used to the idea that animals do what is good for them- individual survival promotes gene survival. In actuality, the important unit is the gene, not the organism- if something is good for the gene, but bad for the organism, the gene survives. As an example, he offered a 'driving Y-chromosome'. Ordinarily, in vertebrates, there is a 50/50 sex ratio. If a mutation arises which codes only for Y-chromosomes, an individual will only have sons, a situation which will ultimately lead to extinction.

Multicellular organisms are coherent because all of their genes stand to gain from common work. In animals, there is a single common bottleneck for genes, through the genitals. Viruses are genes which broke out of this exit and reproduce through alternate means, no genitals needed.

Genes are the units of selection, not individuals- Dr Dawkins cited the example of army ants, which he described as a 'ball of frenzy' protecting the genes of the queen. The column of army ants is an extended vehicle to protect these genes. He recounted a childhood encounter in Africa with driver ants which terrified him, then noted that an adult encounter with South American army ants which failed to inspire terror, and noted that adult understanding allays childhood fears.

Dr Dawkins stated that when he wrote The Selfish Gene, evolutionary theory hadn't quite got hold of the gene idea- it was generally thought that natural selection worked on groups. This was his primary reason for writing the book, which he intended for three 'imaginary readers', a professional academic, a student, and a layperson. When asked why he wrote, Dr Dawkins indicated that he had an altruistic impulse to explain things, to correct problems, to put things right.

When asked about behavioral complexity in humans, he indicated that humans consider complexity to be the highest achievement, while a swift would consider flight to be the highest achievement, as a mole would consider digging. Humans have taken over the world using behavioral complexity deriving from brains which evolved through Darwinian selection, but have largely overtaken natural selection through overdeveloping complexity (he cited the use of contraceptives as a means of voluntarily thwarting selfish genes).

The chat was followed by a Q&A session and some bastard was tapped to pass the microphone around the balcony during the Q&A, so he didn't ask a question. The best question of the night involved extinction, which pretty much involves the wholesale end of genetic lines. After giving a brief overview of the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event, Dr Dawkins noted that the best known mass extinction, the K-T extinction event, cleared the way for mammals to evolve into a myriad of forms, having previously been relegated to the 'small, noctural animal' niches. He noted that he mourns the current mass extinction event, the human-caused sixth mass extinction, and decried the loss of the dodo and the mammoth... though he did mention attempts to clone mammoths, while cautioning that elephants are endangered.

Another questioner asked how a designed universe would be different from the universe we inhabit. Dr Dawkins noted that a giant intelligence at the center of the universe would be salient, but that any searches for a designer have failed.

The next question, one which I was going to ask myself, concerned epigenetics, the switching on or off of genes by external factors. Dr Dawkins noted that epigenetics played an important role in embryology, determining whether a cell differentiated into a liver cell or a kidney cell, but that it will probably be a 'nine days wonder' in evolutionary biology, which will eventually go away- there is no evidence of the Lamarckian passing of acquired characteristics.

A really awesome kid of about nine, who was wearing a safety pin to signal solidarity with minorities, asked about the genetics of ants- why do they sacrifice their individual lives? Dr Dawkins noted that an ant colony could be thought of as a 'distributed animal'. Their imperative is to pass their genes on through the reproductive success of their queen. He then noted that eusocial insects such as ants and termites are supremely successful and dominate tropical ecosystems to a great extent.

When asked about Social Darwinism, Dr Dawkins noted that it allowed late 19th and 20th century power brokers to cite Darwinism as a justification for ruthlessness. Darwinian selection cannot be equated with 'good'. He noted that Hitler did not mention Darwin as an influence, but his actions brought Social Darwinism to a horrific conclusion. Dr Dawkins did note, though, that such a beloved figure as H.G. Well also authored some horrifically racist material. Of course, Social Darwinism involves artificial selection.

The last question I heard concerned the driver of human intelligence- what role did bipedalism play? Dr Dawkins noted that Lucy walked upright, but had a brain similar in size to that of a chimpanzee. He didn't know the significance of the freeing of hands from locomotory functions, but did suggest that the ability of hands to manipulate objects possibly played a precursory role to developing intelligence.

I then had to return the microphone I was given after the balcony questions were exhausted, and joined a line of individuals waiting to have their books signed by the Good Doctor. When I took the stage, I thanked Dr Dawkins for his work in promoting science and joked that I wanted Dorian to sign my book as well (she demurred), then accepted my now-signed copy of The Selfish Gene.

Once again, the Secret Science Club provided an amazing night of learning. Kudos to Dr Dawkins, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the scintillating Symphony Space. Also in the audience were such previous lecturers as Dr Mercer Brugler and Dr Mark Siddall, the Leech Guy. Overall, the atmosphere was pretty festive, sort of like a giant Dawkins love-in... exactly what you'd expect from a friendly chat with a Titan.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Richard Returns!

It's been a few years since last I attended an event featuring Richard Dawkins. Tonight, I am heading to the scintillating Symphony Space for the Secret Science Club North for the 40th anniversary commemoration of the publication of The Selfish Gene. I'll be heading down on the 1 train and, the Symphony Space being pretty far uptown, I won't be the guy with the longest train ride home.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Lucky Bastard

I usually don't go into the weeds about personal matters on the blog, but I have to confess that, in retrospect, the past four weeks have been pretty stressful- my landlord just sold the three family home in which I have been renting an apartment for the past ten years. My neighborhood is pretty close-knit, so I figured I'd check out the local businesses for flyers advertising apartments for rent, and I asked a few local merchants to keep an ear to the ground for me. Meanwhile, I have been accumulating boxes so I can pack up my belongings in preparation for a move.

As luck would have it, I found an ad on Craiglist for an apartment that only costs twenty dollars more a month than my current place. The ad was posted six days ago, and I met with the landlady last Friday and we exchanged contact information. She called me back on Saturday and I gave her the phone numbers for my two main references- my current landlord and my supervisor at work.

Today, I signed the lease and obtained the keys to the apartment. I have a full two weeks to move, and I won't need any more boxes to accomplish this. This place is all of six blocks away from my current address. It's even closer to the Bronx border (and the Woodlawn subway station) and the famous pubs of McLean Avenue than my current place. Despite that, it's a quieter street, a one-way residential street rather than the relatively high-trafficked street by the local K-12 school on which I currently reside.

Of course, there is a bittersweet note- my upstairs neighbors are moving out tomorrow morning to a home they own in South Carolina. The mom was able to take all of her accumulated days off preparatory to retiring, dad has to put in a couple more years with the NYC government, and will be moving a few blocks east to the Wakefield section of the Bronx. They've been really great neighbors, and I will miss them. Tomorrow, I will let the neighbors next-door and across the street that I will be moving, but I will still be local.

I consider myself lucky, I found a comparable place in the same neighborhood, a neighborhood I love immensely. I'm keeping the same zip code, and probably the same letter carrier... I don't even have to find a new 'local'.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sea Fuerte, Buena Suerte

Today, I spent a good deal of time talking with our weekend cleaning contractors, Cesar and Maria, about the post-Trump era. This is the last day of our tourist season, so I will probably not see them until the Spring. I told them that there were 'anglos' who still support their latino friends and neighbors, and will defend them if things take a turn for the worse. Cesar is Peruvian by birth, so he remembers the Fujimori regime, with its corruption and civil rights abuses. We commiserated a bit about a society which would put a ladrón in the seat of power. I tried to reassure Maria that Trump was lazy and mendacious, so he probably wouldn't follow up on many of his campaign promises. I also told her somos juntos, that New Yorkers will stand with their immigrant friends.

When Maria's husband came with their children to pick her up, I bid farewell to this family that I have come to be very fond of, and told them 'Buena suerte, sea fuerte. Somos juntos. No olvidaremos nuestros amigos inmigrantes.' Good luck, be strong. We are united. We will not forget our immigrant friends. When it came time for Cesar to leave, I bid him the same. I told them both that they knew where to find me if they ran into any problems. In a time of uncertainty, we have to stick together. I know a lot of people are sad. That's not my nature, I'm motivated.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Last of the Seven

As if this week weren't bad enough, now comes news that Robert Vaughn has died. I primarily know Mr Vaughn from The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges'... uhhhh... magnificent remake of Akira Kurosawa's even better Seven Samurai. Robert Vaughn's character, Lee, is nerve-wracked, obsessed with his leather-gloved hands, afraid that he's lost their speed and sureness. His is the most vulnerable of the characters in the movie, a movie which, despite the size of its ensemble cast, managed to give each character a distinct personality. Vaughn's performance is, to a large extent, conveyed non-verbally, though he does muster up a bit of false bravado at the end of this scene (one of the all-too-few uploads from this movie):

Vaughn's character WARNING: SPOILER has a final heroic scene, a tour-de-force exit after a long period of jitters, nightmares, and second-guessing.

In real life, he was a lifelong liberal, and an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. I guess that's to be expected of a man who could so convincingly play a shell-shocked gunfighter risking his life to free a bunch of peasants from their oppressors.

With Mr Vaughn's passing, the last of the Seven has left us. Is there any better way to 'play Mr Vaughn out' than to post Elmer Bernstein's... uh... magnificent overture to the film?

This year has really been a terrible one.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Fermi Paradox Explained?

One of the great conundrums of astrophysics is the Fermi Paradox, which basically poses the question: "With the vast number of stars in the galaxy, why can't we find evidence of extraterrestrial life?"

I think this week's election pretty much answers the question... rather than seeing a progression in wisdom, technological advancement, and species unity, we've seen a regression into tribalism, hatred, fear, and anti-intellectualism. Even if Vulgarmort doesn't touch off a nuclear war, the energy policy he's probably going to enact will be overly reliant on fossil fuels, a topic I touch upon every so often. Instead of pursuing renewable energy sources, we will probably see another lost decade of climate inaction at a time when urgent action is crucial to the survival of our species.

I have a trepidation that SETI is finally going to intercept one lone, final radio signal from a distant planet: "Make Rigel-5 great again!"

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Great, Another Name on the Clinton Death List

Talk about a bummer of a week, first we have Vulgarmort winning the presidential election, now we have the death of Leonard Cohen- poet, novelist, songwriter, and chanteur. My personal favorite by Mr Cohen is First We Take Manhattan:

First we take Manhattan actually sounds like a good strategy for the resistance, though the forces of repression will certainly be emboldened by Trump's ascent.

Meanwhile, some d-bag at WND or Breitbart or the Blaze is adding Leonard Cohen's name to the Clinton Death List... why? Because QUESTIONS REMAIN!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Orange Julius

Well, the voters of the USA did it, they really did it, and Vulgarmort has been elected president. Given his grandiosity and self-centeredness, he's going to think he's an emperor, hence the post title. Mazel tov, 'Murka, we now have a clear-cut ganef-in-chief taking the reins. The best case scenario is that we have elected our very own Zaphod Beeblebrox, installed to draw attention away from the true rulers of the universe. At worst, we have our very own Humungus to rule over the soon-to-come waste. Trump even played a professional wrestler once upon a time:

Suddenly, Idiocracy doesn't seem so funny...

At Casa di Roy, commenter Captain Ambiguity asks:

So, uh, how did we survive Reagan and Bush? I wasn't alive for Reagan, and was a kid under Bush.

After some consideration, looking back on my high school days, I'd answer that we had something back then, and though much was stolen from us (workplace protections, pensions), we still had a lot left. During the Clinton years, the economy was humming (though much of it was a bubble) and the government was running a surplus, to the extent that there was talk of the national debt being paid off... then came Dubya, taxes were cut, the debt skyrocketed with two unfunded wars, and the economy tanked. The bailout was at the taxpayers' expense and we just don't have anything left to steal anymore. Now the president-elect has a tax plan which will vastly expand the debt while lining his pockets and the pockets of his cronies. We survived Reagan and Bush because we had something to steal, the odds that we'll survive Trump aren't so great. As Karl Marx put it, "History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce." Funny, I'm not laughing.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Grab Your Pussy and Vote

As is typical, my worksite is a polling place. I arrived at work at 5AM in order to open the doors for the poll workers, who arrived at 5:30. I also help them set up the voting machines, because I know where we keep extension cords, surge protectors, and the like. By 5:55, we had about twenty people lined up inside, waiting for the polls to open. All day, there has been a steady stream of people coming to vote, many of them with children in tow. A local senior living community has been busing its residents in since about 10AM- every half-hour a busload arrives and swamps the voting machine for that particular district.

All told, the vibe has been pretty festive- a lot of the voters know each other. One girl, possibly a first-time voter if I am a good gauge of age, came in wearing a NASTY WOMAN T-shirt. Her companion, possibly her mother, was wearing a white pantsuit.

Meanwhile, we have had a couple of school groups onsite, because things are never hectic enough. With a bunch of small children running around, and the potential that one of them will drop something delicious, the cats haven't crashed the party yet. I'll have to repost my September primary election picture of a patriotic Ginger:

I haven't had a chance to grab that pussy, but I imagine she's been dodging questing elementary school hands all day. I get to clock out at 5PM, when the afternoon guy, who I usually relieve at 9PM, relieves me. I don't think I'll be waiting on line too long to vote- there are always plenty of voting machines at the polling place across the street from home. I think the vibe at home will be a little more low-key, it being a more populous neighborhood in New York State's fourth largest city. My next-door neighbor has had her Hillary lawn sign up for months, so I can sit down with her tomorrow for a nice long chat.

UPDATE: Murphy's law being what it is, we have had a heating problem in one of our buildings, so a service call was put in to our oil heat provider. I had to go across the site to make sure they had access to the building and was able to finally grab my pussy:

That's my beloved Fred, a most patient and sweet-natured cat. Now that I have grabbed my pussy, I feel confident about voting. #I'mwithfur, soon #I'llbewithher.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Drain the Swamp, Indeed

The latest rallying cry of the Trump supporters is 'Drain the Swamp', which I find ironic, because Donald Trump is about as corrupt and venal as an individual can get- and his supporters are even worse, the sort of pond-scum that would heap abuse on a 12 year old with cerebral palsy just because he had the nerve to disagree with them politically.

The real joke here is that really draining the swamp would leave a bunch of nasty frogs without a home, especially the loathsome amphibian at the bottom of the morass:

For the record, I love frogs and toads, and am appalled at any attempts to associate these delightful and endangered creatures with a hate movement.

At any rate, my sincerest wish is that there will be a whole ton of crying alt-right bros come Tuesday night:

Let's hope the whole movement croaks with their Leader's electoral hopes.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Great Jewish Conspiracy of the 20th Century

It seems that Donald Trump has finally crossed the alt-right (better known as neo-Nazi) Rubicon... Team Trump has rolled out an ad which hearkens back to anti-semitic conspiracy theories depicting a sinister Jewish plot against 'real Amurkins':

I've never seen Jewish people as a threat, having grown up with plenty of Jewish friends and neigbors, having studied under Jewish teachers and being a patient of a Jewish opthalmologist. Lately, though, I have been researching the claims of the cartoon frog brigade and I uncovered evidence of a vast Jewish conspiracy that successfully swept over the world throughout the mid-20th century, leaving only three countries as holdouts.

For this conspiracy, I am profoundly grateful.

I cannot wait until Tuesday, when this country can rebuke Vulgarmort and his deplorable followers.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Jack Chick's Corpse Isn't Even Cold

Last week, outsider artist, unintentional comedian, and fundamentalist bigot Jack Chick croaked to the dismay of the left. Chick was one of the main architects of the Satanic Panic of the late 1970s and 1980s, a bullshit crusade against the eccentric, the unorthodox... gamers, metalheads, LGBTQ, free-thinkers, pagans, New Agers, pretty much everybody who wasn't a Bible-beater. This week, via the estimable Roy, we have a new Satanic Panic, involving a mysterious Balkan art-vampiress (hat tip to Smut). From the fevered dreams of Alex Jones:

Menstrual blood, semen and breast milk: Most bizarre Wikileaks revelation yet..

Now, that's one hell of a risotto recipe!

Of course, this whole thing is unmitigated bullshit, one last desperate gambit to convince Evangelical voters to vote for a secular libertine. Oddly enough, even the WaPo website has been inundated by Satanic-panic believing whackaloons (the greatest trick the authoritarians ever pulled was convincing the world that the Devil exists), a wholesale invasion of InfoWars Alex Jonestown lemmings giving us mundane folk a view into the Conspiracy Theory abyss... Stare into the madness, the Alex is present.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Current Earworm, Just What It Says on the Tin

My current musical obsession is a new song, called New Song by LA band Warpaint. I typically like songs which are lyrically complex, but this particular song has simple lyrics but a complex sonic tapestry. I like the central conceit of the song- a new love is as compelling, as obsessive as an earworm. I particularly like this version of the song, recorded in the studios of WFUV, the radio station of Fordham University in the Bronx:

What's not to like about that? I dig the breathy, almost ethereal vocals, the jagged, staccato bursts of trebly guitar, and most of all, that sinuous, earthy base (the bassist is super cute too).

Here's a slightly rawer-sounding live version recorded at Seattle's KEXP:

I think the vocal harmonies come out better in this version, though it's less polished.

Overall, the song is 'poppier' than the band's older releases, and with its eminently danceable beat and simple subject matter, it should become a monster hit. I first heard it on college radio, now the local 'alternative' commercial station is playing it. By year's end, it should be all over mainstream radio.

Here's a less 'airplay friendly' song from the band:

Now, that's a sound to give one goosebumps... love those harmonies.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Pinning Their Hopes on a Wiener

When I first read that Anthony Wiener's laptop (UGH!) was at the center of the new Clinton e-mail 'scandal', my first reaction was a sincere hope that the d-bag gets hit by a very small meteor. I think Wiener and his wiener have had enough coverage to last us all a lifetime. Seriously, the guy needs to just fade into obscurity, and take his wiener with him.

My second thought was, "Those Republicans are trying once again to bring down a Clinton presidency by pinning their hopes on a penis." Alas, Wiener's wiener just doesn't have the impact of the mighty Clenis. If the Clenis couldn't knock the Big Dog down a peg, how is the wiener going to knock his wife out of the presidential campaign?

The Republicans really should stop with their obsession with penes, even though their most powerful recent public figure was a dick... once again, they will only be let down.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Ordeal is Over, Let the Ordeal Begin

October is over, the major fundraising season at work is done, and things will get pretty quiet for the next six months. That being said, the last week of a gross, exhausting presidential election is upon us. My personal slog is done, but the existential slog for the soul of the Republic is in its home stretch.

The one benefit of having a hectic month at work is that it's hard to get bogged down in politics. Most weekends, I'd frantically try to catch up on the news in an odd quiet hour. I have some reading to do, and the quiet hours in which to do it... I don't know if I'm all that enthusiastic about that.