Sunday, December 31, 2017

Acting Like a Professional on Amateurs' Night

As is typical, I am working on New Year's Eve. For a long time, I have regarded the holiday as amateurs' night, when a lot of people go nuts- I've seen fights, car crashes, vandalism, and just general dumbassitude on New Year's Eves past. It's no hardship to be on the job, there will be plenty of time for drinking on Tuesday night, when there's bar trivia on the line.

Tonight is bitterly cold, 9 degrees Fahrenheit (-12 Celsius), with wind chills making it feel like -6. There's no way in hell I'd be out in Times Square reenacting a Jack London story. I just got in from touring the facilities and the feeling is just coming back to my face. While it's bitterly cold, it's a gorgeous night, with an almost-full moon illuminating the snow on the ground... this is exactly the sort of 'cold hearted orb' that the Moody Blues recited an ode to:

Ginger accompanied me on a brief leg of the inspection tour, having a bit of cabin fever from staying in the warmth of an employees' lounge. She was quickly cured of this desire to wander, and is now in her accustomed spot, on top of a radiator cover. Too bad that radiator cover isn't bastard-sized.

At any rate, here's wishing everybody a happy New Year's Eve, let's hope for a better 2018.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

About This Year-The Good

Yesterday, I wrote a brief summary of the bad stuff that happened during the year, so this year I figured I'd post briefly about things I am optimistic about. For starters, the fact that the pushback against the Trump regime began in earnest the day after his inauguration with the Women's Marches was heartening. People have been yanked out of their complacence, organizing for political and societal change.

While the revelations about widespread sexual misconduct in many industries and various governmental bodies were appalling, the rise of the metoo movement promises to clean up the cesspools in which sexual abusers and harassers thrive.

The best news of the year has been the successful political pushback against the GOP in places somewhat expected, such as Virginia, and unexpected, such as Alabama. It looks like the Democrats have a decent chance at retaking the House of Representatives, and targeting Blue State Republicans such as California's Darrell Issa and New York's Peter King by hanging the GOP tax plan around their necks like an albatross seems like the best strategy to make bicoastal Republicans go the way of the dodo.

For a pretty crappy year, there have been glimmers of hope, and indications of a return to some semblance of sanity in 2018. Sweeping a whole lot of bad men out of positions of power is the crucial strategy for accomplishing this.

Friday, December 29, 2017

About This Year- The Bad

The general theme of this year has been that it's sucked. We have a sub-literate boob as president, perhaps the most corrupt and venal individual to hold the job since the country's inception. Even this late in the year, he is putting in place horrible policies, such as getting rid of an Obama era AIDS/HIV council's members, and this is a guy whose vice president had a horrifying rural AIDS epidemic happen on his watch. Things are bad, with bad tax policies, bad or nonexistent foreign policies, and racist domestic policies.

That being said, I'm a straight white male with a college education and a full-time job. I'm housed and well-fed, and don't personally face oppressive policies. Personally, things have been okay, but I know that I am insulated from a lot of the bad shit... that being said, I've heard Hispanic and LGBTQ friends talk about their concerns- fear of losing family members, fear of violence from a hateful political base. Much of the really bad stuff I am only feeling by proxy. There is an existential dread hanging over the country, but I am not feeling it directly.

On a personal level, by far the worst thing I have had to deal with was the death of my beloved feline co-worker Fred, who succumbed to cancer at the age of seven. I still miss the cat terribly- opening up catfood cans for his sister Ginger, I miss having a large, strong cat headbutting my arm in order to get at the chow. I also miss having two cats curled up on the desk, rather than one. It was a loss, but so many people are feeling more acute pains.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

2017 Music Retrospective

This being the wind-down part of the year, I figure I should engage in some year-end retrospectives. 2017 has been a pretty horrible year in many ways, but it was a damn fine year for music. I figure I'd take some time to post some of my favorite singles from the year.

The National, originally from Cincinnati, but now making Brooklyn their home, released the album Sleep Well Beast in September. The first single from the album, The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, released in May, is a moody masterpiece of a song, with lyrics that hint at hidden layers of meaning... this song gives me goosebumps:

Australia's Courtney Barnett and Philadelphia's Kurt Vile released an album of droll duets- their combination of deadpan snark and cute lyrics is a real delight. My favorite song of theirs is Continental Breakfast, I crack up every time I hear Ms Barnett sing about 'East Bumble-wherever':

I posted earlier this year about LCD Soundsystem's Tonite, a bit of droll media commentary disguised as a hot electronic dance track:

Sunflower Bean, another Brooklyn-based band that came to my attention last year released the single I Was a Fool, a 70s vintage sounding single with a video in which lead singer Julia Cumming trades her Gorey-esque image for an entirely more sultry one, more Deborah Harry than Wednesday Addams:

I'd have to say, though, that my favorite album of the year has to be Antisocialites, the sophomore album by Canadian band Alvvays. This album is a gorgeous bit of power-pop reminiscent of a lot of late 80s, early to mid 90s British 'shoegaze' bands. Listening to the band, I hear echoes of my beloved Shop Assistants, and the band invokes Jim Reid of The Jesus and Mary Chain in their song Lollipop (Ode to Jim):

The entire record is fantastic, with the opener In Undertow being a glorious combination of lush vocals and fuzz-laden guitars:

Plimsoll Punks is an uptempo number with an immediately catchy chorus:

As if the band read my mind about their sound being reminiscent of The Shop Assistants, they covered post-Shop Assistants Alex Taylor project Motorcycle Boy's Trying to Be Kind:

Even better, the band showcased their sense of humor by covering the Ramones' Cretin Hop:

This is a band which can do no wrong, and I have been compulsively listening to both of the albums for the past two weeks. Like I said, it's been a crap year in a lot of ways, but a great year musically.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

mikey's Bitcoin Rebuttal

Last week, I posted a scathing bit about Bitcoin, which raised the ire of bloggerhood stalwart mikey, who has posted a detailed rebuttal to my post. I make it a point not to substantially alter my posts, and I am still skeptical about Bitcoin, given its volatile nature- while the concept of cryptocurrencies may be sound, I am of the opinion this particular one has been implemented in dubious fashion.

At any rate, I am not the sort of person who shies from controversy, and, if I need to take my lumps, I will take them. As I indicated in my previous post, I have a close personal friend who has been involved in the scene for a long time, and has enough confidence in the currency that he used it to pay tournament prizes a few years back. At any rate, please read mikey's detailed analysis of Bitcoin.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Betcha Can't Watch Just One

So, I have a day off today, and it's a typical December day, no need to leave the house until it gets a little warmer. While I am not a big comic book fan, I was turned onto these funny Justice League Action Shorts:

These shorts are funny and subversive, the perfect antidote to the 'grimdark' aesthetic which seemed to take over the medium when misogynistic assholes like Frank Miller took the reins and the West (the best!) camp aesthetic was jettisoned. These shorts bring the fun back to the funny pages, striking a nice balance between the gonzo, day-glo 1960S superhero series and the outstanding art-deco-with-a-muted-palette-but-not-oppressive 1990s Batman: The Animated Series. These are superheroes, and villains, who have hobbies, who have anxieties, who can get short-tempered with each other... the whole series is a cute love letter to the superhero genre, with each vignette being a joy, even if like myself, you don't recognize half of the characters.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas to All, or the War on the War on Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone. I'm at work, but it's been a peaceful day... I clocked in at nine, and the co-worker I relieved was heading to the in-laws for Christmas breakfast after working the overnight. I will be relieved at 5PM by another co-worker, he joked that this would give him an excuse to bow out a half-hour after his in-laws arrive, before they can stress him out. We're essential personnel, but we all love being onsite.

It's been a quiet day, I made sure that I fed Ginger and toured the facility, picking up slack. In a quiet moment, being a resident of the Lower Hudson Valley, I cued up local legend (as in Legend) Washington Irving's Old Christmas, from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.:

Being a New York partisan, I have to note that Irving's Old Christmas was one of the inspirations of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and Dickens' Mr Fezziwig shares the same 'DNA' as Irving's Squire Bracebridge.

While reading Old Christmas, I was struck by this passage:

Surely happiness is reflective, like the light of heaven; and every countenance, bright with smiles, and glowing with innocent enjoyment, is a mirror transmitting to others the rays of a supreme and ever shining benevolence. He who can turn churlishly away from contemplating the felicity of his fellow beings, and sit down darkling and repining in his loneliness when all around is joyful, may have his moments of strong excitement and selfish gratification, but he wants the genial and social sympathies which constitute the charm of a merry Christmas.

I immediately thought of this churl, with his lies about a 'War on Christmas':

People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again. I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!

Even here, in the secular/multicultural Northeast, people say 'merry Christmas', like they have always done. Yesterday, before clocking in on the job, I went to a local halal Indian restaurant for their lunch buffet and the proprietor, a Bangladesh-born Muslim man, effusively wished myself, and all of the other customers, a merry Christmas. My Jewish co-worker wished me a merry Christmas when he came to take over at midnight. People say 'happy holidays' because there are multiple holidays this time of year, and many people celebrate two of them... it's a handy shorthand, and a safe bet to say to everyone. I like to celebrate everybody's holidays- Chanukkah, Diwali, Eid al-Fitr, they are nice supplements to Christmas, New Year's Eve, Walpurgisnacht. Here, in the high-functioning world, we don't take offense on people wishing us happy holidays, we recognize the whole 'War on Christmas' narrative as the divide-and-conquer bullshit that it is. Today, we wish everybody a merry Christmas... tomorrow we will wish everyone a happy Boxing Day or St Stephen's Day, and the day after we will wish everyone a joyous Kwanzaa. For the say of succinctness, happy holidays, everybody.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Tough Night on the Job

I'm working Christmas Eve, and it's been a pretty arduous day. I mean, look what I have to put up with here in my office:

This being Christmas Eve, I gave Ginger a bowl of milk after her usual half-can of catfood. She's been a pretty naughty cat, but she's cute and hilarious, so nobody gets mad at her.

This being Christmas Eve, I had to listen to my favorite song about the evening, in accordance with the prophecy. As far as traditional Christmas carols go, I'd have to say that I unironically love O Holy Night, and can think of no better version to post than that of the recently departed Jim Nabors:

Work, work, work, isn't it onerous?

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Two Statues Down! Two Statues Up?

In a bit of good news, the City of Memphis' city council sold the former Nathan Bedford Forrest Park and Memphis Park to a not-for-profit in order to circumvent a state law prohibiting the removal of statues of traitors from public land. Then, statues of Forrest and Jefferson Davis were removed. I am especially delighted that the city council used the Republican 'privatization' playbook to accomplish this victory.

Now that the two statues are down, I think that it would be appropriate to replace them with, you got it, two new statues. Nathan Bedford Forrest Park had been renamed to Health Sciences Park, I can think of no better honoree than Dr Daniel Hale Williams, the African-American physician who performed the first open-heart surgery. In Williams, we have a towering figure in the health sciences, and a perfect representation of African-American achievement, something important in a city with a majority black population. Since two statues were removed, a second statue, say of Dr Charles Drew, who was a pioneer in the storage of blood plasma, and an organizer of blood banks, would be appropriate.

Now that the statues of two failed traitors have been removed, how about putting up the statues of two successful doctors?

Friday, December 22, 2017


It's been a while since I have written about Bitcoin... I must confess that I have a fascination for a currency which is backed by the full faith and credit of a bunch of Rand-fanboy tech bros and various international criminal cartels. In this spirit, I have to say that the precipitous plunge in the cryptocurrency's value (almost 50%) came as no surprise at all. I actually advised a friend of mine, a guy with a lot of different revenue streams rather an a 9-to-5, who has long been involved in Bitcoin to sell, but he is an early adopter, in for the long haul. The metastatic increase in Bitcoin value struck me as a classic pump-and-dump scheme. I view Bitcoin to be a Ponzi scheme that has no one particular person at the apex of the pyramid.

The real problem with Bitcoin is that individual investors are at a serious disadvantage in a system which favors entities with the computing power to mine Bitcoins, and the economic clout to trade in volume, and the amoral attitude towards straight-up stealing Bitcoins... entities such as North Korea's regime. The whole cryptocurrency movement, with the exception of the use of the tech for illegal transactions, reminds me of the tulip bubble, with the difference that tulip bulbs are real, unlike Bitcoins.

The whole kerfuffle is a wonder to behold- a view into what a true 'libertarian' economy would be. It's a cautionary tale, and the people who will lose their shirts aren't exactly sympathetic individuals.

ADDENDUM: I forgot to add this bit of hilarity from a true believer. Timing is the key, just like in comedy.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Damn It, Space Rock, Where Were You Last November?

In today's space news, we have an account of a skull-shaped asteroid which will approach the Earth next year. It's a bit late, because last year was the year in which a giant space rock could have made an impact. Instead, we got hit by a 280 pound meteor of suet, hair, and bile which promises to be just as destructive, but with the disaster taking place in slow-motion.

Anyway, this skull-shaped space rock had its chance, and it blew it. Now, for some successful space rock, here's Space is Deep by Hawkwind:

Now, everything would change if this skull-shaped asteroid should open an eye...

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Above the Law

I was raised in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and still consider myself 'culturally Catholic' to a large degree... though that has as much of a (multi)ethnic rationale as a religious-tradition based one. I was never molested by a clergy member, and do not personally know anyone who was, though when I was in high school, a priest who turned out to have fondled a couple of teen boys landed in our local parish (and was hustled out when a congregant who worked for the archdiocese asked questions about why he had been in so many parishes in such a short time).

After that preamble, I now note that Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of the Boston archdiocese who presided over the worst of the sexual abuse coverup in the US, has died at the age of eighty-six. He died in a hospital in Rome, having avoided any penalties for his malfeasance. I have to say that my drift away from Mother Church was largely a result of this horrendous scandal, and the fact that I had seen the families of LGBTQ friends torn apart by doctrine-based bigotry.

Sexual abuse of minors is, of course, not limited to the Roman Catholic Church- all religions have had their sex scandals, typically among the fundamentalist sects- the Protestant Bible-beaters, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Wahabist Muslims. In the secular world, we've just witnessed a scandal which tore apart US gymnastics. In the case of Cardinal Law, the sin was compounded by protecting the abusers, allowing them to continue their depredations. It was an utter failure to protect the most vulnerable of his flock.

It's fitting that Law, who evaded the law, died in the midst of a societal shift on sexual misconduct. Gone are the days when powerful men could victimize women, children, and yes, even other men, while able to rely on a conspiracy of silence. Law is gone, let's hope that the toxic culture that he fostered will follow him into oblivion.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Jacket and Tie Getting a Workout

Tonight is the night of our office party, a nice event to thank everyone for another successful year. Since most of our workforce is part time, it'll be the last time I work with many of my coworkers for five or six months. I'm one of the elect- a full time, year round worker. It gets quiet in the winter, it's practically a different job.

At any rate, I'll be busting out the jacket and tie- for once, I won't be spending the night in a marsh.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Christmas Song for the Sketchy

I make no secret of unabashedly loving A Fairytale of New York, it's the perfect Christmas song for my beloved Yonkers. Today, I heard a great companion piece, with some hilarious lyrics, by the Hives and Cyndi Lauper:

To me, the song is reminiscent of both A Fairytale of New York and another Bastard favorite, the Ramones' Merry Christmas, I Don't Want to Fight, and has become an instant hit avec moi.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Long Day, Lovely Day

It's been a long day- I was up at 7:15AM, and busted out the old jacket and tie for the holiday party at my volunteer gig:

After teaching class, we all assembled for a luncheon- kids, coaches, counselors, parents, plus a few guests. We had an amazing guest speaker, a young man who has a rare form of vision impairment who went on to become a champion Parathlete, competing in swimming events. He got to know our athletic director, a sports doctor, because of an in-pool collision which resulted in a concussion. I really was impressed by this young man, and I'm not easily impressed.

That being said, I was also impressed by our young counselors- one of them took it upon herself to organize a toy drive for Ronald McDonald House, which houses the families of ill children facing medical treatment. The organizer has always been one of my favorite kids in the program, and I have known her for years, but now I am in awe of her. She has outstanding ethics, a cheerful personality, and is a talented athlete... I am honored to know her. Another counselor, who serves as the first among peers, gave an amazing speech regarding the things she has learned while acting in a position of authority and responsibility. She's a level-headed girl, poised and comfortable in her position. Again, I consider myself fortunate to have such a teenager helping us out to deal with our younger charges... you are only as good as the people in your corner. As an added treat, one of our soccer coaches played her guitar and led us in the singing of some holiday music, and her nine year-old daughter joined her on piano for a song she had spent a lot of time practicing.

After lunch, I quickly hopped on the subway back to the Bronx, drove back to Yonkers for just long enough to change into work clothes and drop off my bulky gym bag. I then hit the road to get to the job, where a low-key fundraiser was going on. My first order of business was feeding the cat, then I settled in to deal with the public for a couple of hours. We had a nice group of attendees, the sort of people that listen to NPR.

I'm pretty beat now, but my relief comes in in a half-hour or so. I just have to feed the cat again, then I can drag my ass home. It's been a long slog of a day, but it was absolutely lovely- just the sort of day which makes feeling knackered worthwhile.

Friday, December 15, 2017

If Any Bigot Starts Jawing About 'Natural Law'

A lot of anti-LGBTQ bigots like to invoke something called 'natural law' when opposing policies such as same-sex marriage. Needless to say, these morons don't know squat about nature, which is pretty damn complicated. In the latest bit of 'animals getting freak-AY' news, we have adolescent female Japanese macaques engaging in sexual behavior with sika deer. Psst, nobody tell Roy Moore about this kink, or he'll be molesting monkeys.

Male macaques have also been observed sexing up deer:

The most realistic hypothesis would be that of mate deprivation, which states that males with limited access to females are more likely to display this behaviour.

It's a good thing that Reddit banned its 'Incels' group, otherwise these assholes would be writing about trying to bang Clarice.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Goodnight, Sweet Jersey Son

In a bit of news which was a genuine blow- Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens died at the age of 62. The pride of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, Mr DiNizio was a fantastic vocalist, a great songwriter, and a champion of young bands and special needs children. By all accounts, he was a genuinely nice man... and did I mention that he was a hell of a songwriter?

If I recall correctly, the band's breakthrough single was supposed to be Strangers When We Meet, a personal favorite of mine:

The song was eclipsed by two other singles from the 'Especially for You' album... one being the moody Blood and Roses:

The other being Behind the Wall of Sleep, a song which inspired a previous blog post:

Pat also had a way with a tender song, like his Blue Period duet with Belinda Carlisle:

One of the band's biggest hits was A Girl Like You, which was originally written for the movie Say Anything- the song pretty much encapsulates the movie's plot:

We lost one of the greats on Tuesday night, and a personal favorite. Here is a 1988 interview of Pat by Terry Gross, in which Pat describes the songwriting process.

I am going to memorialize Pat DiNizio in the most appropriate manner- I'm going to listen to a bunch of Smithereens tunes and I am going to turn the music up to 11.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Alabama, Whodathunkit? Thank You, African-American Women

It's been rare these days that I come home from a night of drinking, put on the news, and am pleasantly surprised, but last night was certainly one of them. Wow, I still find it difficult to believe that Doug Jones won the Alabama senate race. I have to note that African-American women were instrumental in Doug Jones' victory, and will be instrumental in future efforts to reclaim Congress for the Democratic party.

I've said it before, but African-American women are the canaries in the coalmine of American politics- they are the first to be negatively impacted by bad policies. Bad banking policies? They started in African-American neighborhoods, but they will blow up on a national level. Police shootings? Don't look so shocked when they spill out into the mainstream. As we saw in Alabama, African-American women are shaping up to be the first line of defense for a civil, democratic society. Forget trying to woo the white working class voters who succumbed to the siren song of Trumpism, the real key to electoral victories is to get out the vote in African-American districts and to fight voter suppression efforts.

The repudiation of Roy Moore was a repudiation of dominionism, sexism, racism, anti-semitism, and that good old boy network which has, for centuries, left a trail of dead bodies and ruined lives in its wake. Doug Jones made his reputation putting the murderers of young girls in jail, it's appropriate that he put Roy Moore's political career on ice.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Oceans of Wonder, or Microbiome Del Mar

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 marine biologist and oceanographer Dr Ed DeLong of the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. Dr DeLong's lecture concerned the marine microbiome, and its effect on the Earth's biochemical systems.

Dr DeLong began his lecture by noting that microbes permeate everything, and have done so for the majority of Earth's history. Microbes move in a very different fashion than macroorganisms, their motions taking the form of a 'random walk'. Microbes must contend with a low Reynolds number, with viscous forces being stronger than inertial forces. Dr DeLong likened this to a human swimming in molasses, being able to stroke once per minute. A microbe 'runs' straight, then tumbles in a random direction, tumbling less near food sources (with a general movement toward food).

A common view of biodiversity tends to focus on macroorganisms, typically insects. There is an anecdote that the biologist J.B.S. Haldane (who first conceived of abiogenesis and a 'primordial soup' and first suspected that sickle-cell anemia was an adaptation to malaria), when asked to comment on God by a theologian, replied that God had an 'inordinate fondness for beetles'. This anecdote probably derived from a passage in Haldane's book What is Life?:

The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other, for the simple reason that there are nearly 300,000 species of beetle known, and perhaps more, as compared with somewhat less than 9,000 species of birds and a little over 10,000 species of mammals. Beetles are actually more numerous than the species of any other insect order. That kind of thing is characteristic of nature.

If the Creator has a fondness for beetles, it has even more fondness for microbes- in a teaspoon of seawater, there are about one million microbes and ten million viruses. It is estimated that here are about 1024 stars in the observable universe, and about 1030 microbes in the world's oceans. A Creator would seem to have a phenomenally inordinate fondness for oceanic microbes.

Microbes have been around for a long time. The Earth is considered to be over four billion years old and microbes are believed to have been around for 3.8 billion years. Microbes have had a profound effect on the planet's chemistry- phototrophic organisms evolved, some of them evolving into photosynthetic organisms, with some photosynthetic cyanobacteria being incorporated as plant organelles. The waste product of photosynthesis is oxygen, the production of which made eukaryotic life possible, setting the stage for us. Microbes play a critical role in biochemical cycles- perhaps the most important of which is the photosynthesis-respiration cycle. With increasing amounts of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, it is possible that microbes might be able to store some of the carbon.

Life can exist in extreme conditions, such as boiling-hot geothermal vents and freezing polar conditions. Wherever there is water (hydrogen and oxygen), carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and energy, life can exist. Microbes drive Earth's biochemical cycles everywhere. One of the most important of these cycles is the microbial nitrogen cycle. The nitrogen cycle is crucial to the oceans, and nitrogen fixation, by which atmospheric nitrogen is converted into ammonia which can be used by other organisms, is a bacterial process- no microbes, no nitrogen cycling.

Dr DeLong noted that the 'forests of the sea' are microbial- while the primary photosynthetic organisms on land are macroorganisms, the plants, the primary photosynthetic organisms in the ocean are cyanobacteria, though diatoms and dinoflagellates are also important photosynthesizers. Approximately fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean.

Dr DeLong gave a brief history of the 1872 HMS Challenger expedition, a four year voyage around the globe during which the Marianas Trench was discovered and numerous biological and geological samples were obtained. Among the biological specimens collected were many eukaryotic organisms now included in a supergroup known as the Rhizaria. Many of these organisms were beautifully depicted by Ernst Haeckel. The Rhizaria are an important carbon conduit to the deep sea- when they die, they sink, their calcium carbonate walls providing carbon to the depths.

Dr DeLong then played a video of satellite imagery of cyanobacteria blooms similar to this video:

Cyanobacteria blooms can occur due to factors such as upwellings of nutrients and discharges of sewage and fertilizer runoff. Cyanobacteria are massively parallel, broadly distributed engines of chemical processes.

Dr DeLong then turned to the topic of 'seeing the unseen'- it is hard to observe microbes, and it is especially hard to study them in nature. Studying microbes in a petri dish is like studying animals in a zoo- in limited environments, what we learn about organisms is limited. To understand organisms, it is important to study their interactions. Before 1980, wild microbes were invisible, unculturable, and unidentifiable. It is now possible to study them through epifluorescence microscopy, which involves staining microbial DNA with fluorescent dyes in order to make it visible under microscopes. The discovery of oceanic microbes really amped up in the 1970s, when Carl Woese applied quantitative molecular phylogenetics to all life. He used DNA/RNA sequencing to piece together an RNA phylogeny for all life. Differences in RNA can be used to calculate evolutionary distances. Dr Woese's RNA sequencing revealed a new view of life. Not only is all life related, sharing RNA sequences, but the 'tree of life' was upended with the discovery of the Archaea. Many of the Archaea live in extreme environments, such as hydrothermal vents and super-salty pools. Some of the RNA sequences characteristic to Archaea show that they are closer to us than to bacteria.

Before Woese's project, organisms were broadly divided into prokaryotes and eukaryotes, different prokaryotes could not be differentiated, and the Archaea were lumped in with bacteria. With Woese's techniques, differences could be characterized.

To study microbes in nature, a mixed population is collected, and the DNA 'bar codes' are extracted, sequenced, and phylogenies are constructed. Quantitative surveys are then conducted to determine the proportions among the organisms. Back in 1987, 11 bacterial phyla were known. By 2006, 100 phyla had been discovered, with numerous species in each phylum. There are difficulties in defining bacterial species, and there are possibly millions of billions of them.

There is a logical flow to hunting microbes- find the RNA, we may know 'who' the microbes are but not what they are doing. Is a microbe a heterotroph or a phototroph? How do the microbes interact? The discipline of metagenomics is a genomic approach to microbial ecology- get samples, extract the genetic material, build a 'library' of community genetic sequences.

Dr DeLong showed a cover from The Economist trumpeting MICROBES MAKETH MAN, noting that the human microbiome has entered into the popular consciousness. A microbiome is a community of microbes, a collective genome. Dr DeLong joked that every microbiologist is a microbiome. Dr DeLong showed two funny pictures of microbe-hunting (manual sampling, remote sensing, and in situ surveys- a picture of three guys in a rowboat and a picture of a small boy with muddy hands). The environment of a microbiome could be measured in microns or, in the case of the ocean, meters. New genes and new gene functions are being discovered- novel opsin genes, similar to the opsin genes in human eyes, were discovered in bacterial genomes. The bacterial opsins can make energy from light. Over fifty percent of bacteria at the ocean's surface have opsins to boost energy, even though they are heterotrophs. Dr DeLong likened them to hybrid cars- this energy boost can enhance the bacterial growth and survival rates.

Dr DeLong then focused on the University of Hawai'i's Station ALOHA, an oceanographic research center in the open ocean a half-day's steam north of Oahu. Station ALOHA, led by Dr David Karl, has been in operation for about thirty years, studying changes in the ocean, such as this pH curve:

As carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, some of it is absorbed by the ocean, which becomes more acidic, hence the lower pH.

Station ALOHA also surveys the oceanic microbiome, establishing a station gene catalog. Near the bright surface, there is a lot of life, such as bacteria and diatoms, but very few nutrients. At a depth of 125 meters, a chlorophyll maximum is reached- in the darker transition region, more chlorophyll 'antennae' are needed to make photosynthesis possible. Below this transition zone, the amount of nitrogen in the water increases. Below this zone is a genomic transition zone- where a microbe is influences the types of genes it has and the types of organisms they are. The genomic transition zone is at depths between 25 meters and 75 meters.

Dr DeLong gave us a brief refresher course on DNA, composed of the four nucleobases: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. Adenine forms a base pair with thymine, cytosine with guanine. The GC base pair can be used taxonomically- between 25 meters and 75 meters, there is a low incidence of GC base pairs. At 125 meters, GC base pairs increase, reaching a maximum at 200 meters, then declining. The increasing incidence of GC pairs corresponds to increasing nitrogen content. AT base pairs contain seven nitrogen molecules while GC base pairs contain eight.

Dr DeLong then briefly asked the question, where is the field heading? How are genomes related to environment, to metabolism, to ecology? The brief answer is that more sampling is needed so better models can be developed. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to predict the ocean's 'bio-weather', which is being increasingly affected by human activity. Humans are the only non-microbial organisms that can fix nitrogen, and we are adding additional nitrates to the oceans.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question regarded post-Fukushima reactor findings- Dr DeLong indicated that they are tracking the situation closely but the results are not known yet. Another question regarded oceanic dead zones, or Oxygen Minimum Zones- nitrates can cause blooms of photosynthetic plankton which then die off and draw down the oxygen content of the water, in which fish cannot live, causing die-offs. There is a longstanding OMZ in the Gulf of Mexico- the Mississippi Plume, at the mouth of the river. A new OMZ has developed off the coast of Oregon. Another question regarded the shotgun hypothesis, which posits that warming waters could cause frozen methane clathrates at the bottom of the ocean to evaporate, releasing methane, which is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Another question regarded biodiversity- as the ocean becomes more eutrophic, certain organisms dominate, such as phytoplankton blooms. In another case, as fish are removed from the ocean, jellyfish populations bloom. Dr DeLong posed a conundrum- do microbe species go extinct?

Some bastard in the audience, keeping on the doom and gloom topic, asked about the effects of the Pacific Plastic Gyre on the ocean's biomes. Dr DeLong's immediate answer was 'Did you read our paper?' No... but I'm THAT guy. The plastic gyre in the mid-Pacific contains an average of one piece of plastic per cubic meter of seawater. The plastic is devastating to vertebrates, which ingest pieces of plastic. The pieces of plastic act as tiny reefs on which bryozoans and corals can colonize.

Other questions regarded the use of phytoplankton to absorb atmospheric carbon and sink it to the ocean bottom. By inducing blooms, uncontrolled systems result, which could cause problems. We can't control which species proliferate- geoengineering solutions are generally not viable. A question about how high GC organisms from high AT organisms elicited the response that genomes increase in size below the chlorophyll maximum. Steady surface conditions are conducive to low variability- as organisms follow each other in lockstep transferring nutrients, genomes can shrink. Deeper down, as conditions are more variable, stochastic environments, bigger genomes and more genetic diversity are conducive to success.

The lecture ended on a bit of a pessimistic note when an audience member asked Dr DeLong's opinion on the current political climate. The climate for climate science is not improving. Reports are held up, funding is decreasing. Dr DeLong brought up using a tactic of changing wording but keeping the same science to get by industry gatekeepers. He noted that science will move forward, and that scientists won't back down. Now, THAT is the Secret Science Club attitude this nation needs.

Once again, the SSC served up a fantastic lecture. Kudos to Dr DeLong, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. On another happy note, my friend Sensei ____ came down to the lecture with her roommate, who just happens to be studying algae, albeit freshwater forms. High fives all around!

Here's a video of Dr DeLong discussing Station ALOHA:

Grab a beverage, and soak in that secret science, with a side of defiance.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Short, Vulgar Middle Finger to California

I've been combing the webs trying to find a term to describe the style of government now embodied by the GOP, and I decided that the neologism Atëocracy... government by foolish, deluded mischief-makers. A prime example of this vicious folly is a change in the tax code which is tailor-made to punish California:

The House Republican tax bill would eliminate the deduction for personal losses from wildfires, earthquakes and other natural disasters, but keep the break for victims of the recent severe hurricanes.

Earthquakes and wildfires... I can come to no other conclusion that this legislation serves only to 'stick it' to Californians, who are among the U.S. residents least dependent on the federal government. Californians pay for 'Red State' infrastructure, and this is the treatment they get? As a New Yorker, I should pay lip service to some sort of East Coast-West Coast rivalry, but this 'fuck you' to California has me pig-biting mad.

Friday, December 8, 2017

First She'll Steal Your Heart...

The assistant manager of our retail operator is one of those instantly likable persons one occasionally meets. She's cute, smart, and funny... just a real pleasure to work with. Today, when I got to work, she had a funny anecdote about our co-worker Ginger. Yesterday, our retail manager noticed some mouse droppings in her office, so Ginger was moved into the main building on-site (her usual 'beat' consists of a couple of outbuildings which need continual mousing services).

The assistant manager was sitting down to lunch, a chicken parmesan sandwich. Soon after she started her repast, the front doorbell rang. Thinking that Ginger was shut in the manager's office on rat mouse patrol, she didn't close her office door. When she got back to her office, Ginger was sprawled on her lunch, having eaten much of her sandwich and getting tomato sauce all over (the mousepad had to be pitched). Being a kindly soul, the assistant manager was more concerned that Ginger, an obligate carnivore, had eaten a whole lot of carbs. Note, this is not the first time Ginger has eaten someone's sandwich, so the general take on this is that we need not worry about our resident naughty kitty.

The legend of Ginger grows- she can be a real pain in the tuchis, but you just can't stay mad at her. First, she'll steal your heart, then she'll steal your lunch.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Gonna Be a Busy Night, Post a Cat Picture!

I knew it was going to be one of those days before the workday even began. At 5PM, I received a call from one of my co-workers... every single zone in one of our alarm subsystems was 'in check'- something was radically wrong with the system. I sent a quick text message to my supervisor, informing him of the situation, and sent another to my subordinate, telling him I would be coming to work an hour early to help him troubleshoot, with the assistance of the monitoring company. We called the central office of the alarm company and one of their technicians walked us through a manual reset process... to no avail. Because we were unable to reset the system on-site, they will need to send a technician on a service call. Nineteen separate alarm 'zones' are malfunctioning, so this is a pretty big deal. I called my supervisor to inform him of this development so he can make the service call tomorrow during office hours. Now, I pretty much have to camp out in one of the buildings that is not 'on alarm', and I don't believe the site WiFi functions at this location. Not anticipating being able to set up links or do any research, I will fall back on the old gambit of posting a picture of mah preshus Ginger:

Isn't she a lovely beast?

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Nest of Pervs and Reprobates?

During the day, when I'm not sleeping off the night shift or a Big Beer Night, I like to listen to WNYC, the local NPR affiliate. To be honest, it was one too many Kars4Kids commercials on the local news station which drove me to listen to commercial free radio. At any rate, the station has been wracked by a succession of harassment scandals... Last week it was the insufferable John Hockenberry, whose show I found to be a cesspit of 'both-siderism'. Turns out my instincts about him were right, he was a bully, particularly towards women of color. This was pretty evident from his tendency to interrupt women who were guests on his show.

This week, two additional hosts were suspended due to improper conduct-midday talk-show host Leonard Lopate, who was and weekend music show host Jonathan Schwartz got put in the penalty box, with Lopate apparently being escorted out of the building right before his noon show today. I always found Lopate's show to be hit-or-miss, he specialized in long-form interviews, so if his guests weren't of interest to me, I'd turn him off. Come to think of it, he did seem to have a tendency to interrupt guests, usually to show off how 'clever' he was. That being said, when he was 'on', he was on- having a thirty-two year radio career is quite the achievement, though it is now tainted by this scandal, and the suspicion that he was protected by a management which found women to be expendable.

I have come to the conclusion that all 'boomer' men should be swept from positions of power in the media, that women should be put into positions of authority. For too long, stale pale male voices have dominated the airwaves, and creeps like Bill O'Reilly, Matt Lauer, John Hockenberry, and possible Leonard Lopate need to be ditched in favor of new voices, ones which haven't been corrupted by power and the sense of entitlement it brings.

At least the radio station has been upfront about these scandals, giving a considerable amount of airtime to coverage. That being said, if Brian Lehrer turns out to be a creep, I'm gonna smash my, smash my radio:

Yeah, we want the airwaves, and we should turn them over to new voices.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Birthday Wish for Sweetums

Today marks the birthday of my older brother, Sweetums. His nickname started off as a bit of sarcasm, my acerbic sister making fun of my mother's assertion that Sweetums would never cut class (delivered mere minutes before Sweetums arrived home early for Thanksgiving break because he, you got it, cut class so he could get a ride from a friend). Soon afterwards, we all realized that the name could be used non-ironically... simply put, Sweetums IS pretty much perfect. He has always been a great friend, a great role model, and a great brother- as well as a great husband and a great father and, well, I could go on.

Happy birthday, 'Tums. Thanks for being the perfect guy you've always been.

Monday, December 4, 2017


From the annals of terrible people, via Tengrain, we have utter grasshole Chuck Grassley, GOP senator from Iowa, telling poor people why they don't deserve a tax cut like wealthy heirs are going to receive if the horrible GOP tax bill is voted into law:

“I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

First off, the sexism of this comment has to be addressed- Grasshole doesn't even acknowledge working women, even though women are increasingly becoming the principal earners of their families. Sorry, straight ladies, grasshole doesn't think you count.

Now that we've addressed that, grasshole's comment demonstrates an utter contempt for the working class- he thinks that working stiffs blow all of their money to satisfy their desire for entertainment. Poor people go boozing and wenching while the worthy rich spend their money on traveling to far-off places to kill endangered megafauna, the more charismatic, the better.

It remains to be seen if grasshole's constituents will keep voting him into office, even after his display of scorn for them. Perhaps Iowa, in order to reduce the tax burden on plutocrats, can follow Kansas' lead by raising taxes on booze and smokes. In the meantime, booze and sexytimes remain affordable entertainment options, so to hell with poverty:

To hell with Chuck Grassley too.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Merry Christmas, Mr Bond!

I realize that Donald Trump is, pretty much, a James Bond villain who has, bizarrely, become President of these here United States, a fact which has been made explicit by his mollwife's choice in Christmas decor:

I can't wait til they unveil the White House piranha pool:

"Do you expect me to say 'Merry Christmas'?"

"No, Mr MuellerBond, I expect you to die!"

Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Nakedly Punitive Tax Bill

It happened in the middle of the night, the passage of a five-hundred page tax bill that the Senators didn't even read, a bill which is chock-full of partisan legislation and contained last-minute hand-scrawled changes.

A few years ago, conservatives claimed that the IRS was targeting conservative groups for scrutiny, though I say that any anti-tax organization merits such scrutiny. Since one of the axioms of conservatism is 'It's Always Projection', it stands to reason that Republicans would be guilty of tax policies that 'punish' liberals and other classes of people that they hate... and this has proven to be true. The GOP tax bill ends federal tax deductions for state and local taxes, a policy which directly targets the residents of high-tax 'blue' states. Even the odious Republican congressman Peter King of Long Island's Suffolk County opposed this tax bill because it penalizes a sizable contingent of his constituents.

Even more worrisome is the bill's targeting of the renewable energy industry, a regressive act which is calculated to prop up the fossil fuel industries while pissing off environmentalists.

Perhaps the most regressive policy encoded in the bill is the cancellation of nontaxable tuition waivers for graduate students, a class of individuals who are already slammed with student debt and low wages as it is. Trump famously stated that he loves the poorly educated, and the flip-side of that is that his party hates the highly educated.

The tax bill is an all-out war on the blue states, the smarty-pants liberal 'elites', the tree-huggers, and other 'enemies of 'Murrica'. It also ensures that the United States will end up a poorer, less healthy, less educated nation, an oligarchy where the loss of grandma's medical coverage helps to foot the bill for the Mercers' new yachts and the Koch brothers' new assault on what is left of the public coffers.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Losing One of the Nabors

One of my childhood neighbors was a Southern Belle, relocated to the New York Metro Area after marriage. Besides being a neighbor, she was the receptionist at our family dentists' office. She was a wonderful woman, as sweet as could be. Before she got married, she was a kindergarten teacher, and one of her star pupils was a nice boy named Jim Nabors, a fact which gave her instant celebrity status among myself and my siblings. Mr Nabors, who died yesterday, was a particular favorite comic actor of ours, playing the addlepated-but-decent country boy Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show and its spinoff Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.. In my retrospective after Andy Griffith's death, I noted that one of my all-time favorite comedic scenes was Jim Nabors' citizen's arrest of Don Knotts' Barney Fife:

This scene, which never fails to crack me up, perfectly showcases Mr Nabors' portrayal of Pyle, with his humorous high-pitched drawl, naïf optimism, and sense of justice in the face of an authoritarian bully. In the spinoff series, Pyle was a Marine recruit who just didn't have a sense of what he'd gotten himself into:

The spinoff series completely elided the realities of the Vietnam War era, something which I didn't pick up on as a child watching it in syndication.

Despite his high-pitched, nasally drawl, Mr Nabors had a smooth, baritone singing voice, which came as a marvel to a young bastard:

Surprise, surprise, surprise, indeed! He released devotional songs, opera, nostalgic songs, and Christmas carols:

Mr Nabors, while long maintaining privacy about his romantic inclinations, married his longtime male partner back in 2013. I consider this a particularly significant cultural moment because Jim was an icon of Southern culture, a simple, decent, God-fearing country boy who worked with his hands, served his country as a Marine, and just happened to like other men. Jim was a damn sight better Christian than the whole passel of anti-gay bigots who seem to infest the pulpits of these here United States.

Jim Nabors was a childhood favorite of mine- comic, crooner, country-boy... he was a unique icon, a memorable pop-culture presence. I don't ordinarily get misty-eyed about a celebrity passing away, but Jim Nabors was one of those special talents whose work I found impossible to outgrow.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Vin's Birthday

November 30th is my brother Vincenzo's birthday, so I traditionally convey my birthday greetings to him on this day. Vin is still active duty in the US Army, and has had quite an adventurous career, one which has taken him from American Samoa (where he trained a National Guard unit) to the Mideast (for last decade's misadventure) to Liberia (where he was involved in the response to the ebola outbreak). He has always had an anthropologist's knack for cultural observation and a talent for picking up languages, talents which have served him well overseas. He could have been a whiz in the State Department if he hadn't gone for an officer's commission back in the 90s.

Happy birthday, fratello Vincenzo.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Harassin' Feeler

From the 'I never would have seen this coming in a million years' file, Garrison Keillor, the mellow originator of A Prairie Home Companion, has been fired by NPR for sexual misconduct allegations. While I didn't often listen to Keillor's radio show, I did find his written compilation Lake Wobegon Days to be amusing. I guess the tagline of the fictional town will have to be changed: Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the children are above average, and all the men are creeps.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Can't Even Snark About This

Via Tengrain, we have this Ed Krassenstein Twitter feed about the multi-year campaign by Russian propagandists to get Trump elected President of the United States. If even a quarter of this is true, it's a terrifying glimpse at a major Russian victory in a re-ignited Cold War.

It's odd, though, to think that the country has been hijacked. I worked a double overnight shift, and even though I should be in freakout mode, my quotidian existence is really quite lovely. At dawn, I walked the site, and the autumn leaves were glorious and a small flock of wild turkeys were trooping along. I briefly played cat-and-mouse with them, to their dismay and my amusement. The world is going to hell, but MY world isn't really reflecting it... at least not yet.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Trump's Pick to Head NASA?

It has been noted that Trump's administration is a kakocracy- a government of the absolute worst people in this nation of ours. In this vein, I think I've found the perfect individual to head Trump's NASA:

"Mad" Mike Hughes, limousine driver and self-proclaimed flat-Earther, announced that he had to delay his plan to launch himself 1,800 feet high in a rocket of his own making. The launch, which he has billed as a crucial first step toward ultimately photographing our disc-world from space, had been scheduled for Saturday — before the Bureau of Land Management got wind of the plan and barred him from using public land in Amboy, Calif.

Could there BE a more perfect Trump administration official?

"I don't believe in science," Hughes told the AP earlier this month. "I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that's not science, that's just a formula. There's no difference between science and science fiction."

Hell, he's the perfect example of a modern Republican, though there's no evidence of him behaving as a sexual predator...

Sure, it might seem preposterous that Trump would appoint a flat-earther to head up NASA, but is that any more preposterous than appointing Mick Mulvaney to head up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

An Invisible Plane, Like You See in the Movies

Via America's most beloved misanthrope, we have the bizarre ramblings of a senile man about cutting-age military hardware:

The Navy, I can tell you, we're ordering ships, with the Air Force i can tell you we're ordering a lot of planes, in particular the F-35 fighter jet, which is like almost like an invisible fighter. I was asking the Air Force guys, I said, how good is this plane? They said, well, sir, you can't see it. I said but in a fight. You know, in a fight, like I watch on the movies. The fight, they're fighting. How good is this? They say, well, it wins every time because the enemy cannot see it. Even if it's right next to them, it can't see it. I said that helps. That's a good thing.

The President probably thinks that 'Wonder Woman' was a documentary:

Amidst all of the foolishness, I was struck by one of the more mundane lines in his rambling jerkemiad:

You know, in a fight, like I watch on the movies.

That's when it hit me... I knew that Trump had more than a bit of Veruca Salt in him, as well as a bit of Augustus Gloop, now I realized that he had a large portion of Mike Teavee in him as well... Trump is pretty much a composite of all of the naughty kids from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory rolled into one... I suspect he'll end up with some sort of two scoops malady. Come to think of it, I'd rather have a blueberry for a daughter than a vulgar talking yam for a president.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Fight, Oh Estrogen

Damnit, earlier this week I had a craving for aburaage pouches stuffed with mochi, not realizing that I was cucking my appetite. How was I to know that soy produces phytoestrogens that the pointy-headed boffins assure us are harmless, but some smoldering volcano of machismo who really likes cartoon frogs says are sapping men of their masculine essence? I mean, just look at this he-man:

Perhaps the best-known crusader against the dangers of phytoestrogen consumption is Mike Soynovich, the author of a book titled Gorilla Mindset to reflect (heh) his inability to pass a mirror recognition test and his small genitalia. Soynovich rails against the emasculating bean, uniting men to resist this peril:

Maintain manliness, men, soy will wreck you. If you don't believe me and a couple of anime-Nazis, just look at this video, which clearly displays the pernicious effects of soy products on the male physique:

Now, what guy would want to be a Soy Boy like that?

Thursday, November 23, 2017


Here's wishing a happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers. I hope that you are enjoying your holiday. I have a lot to be thankful for- I'm doing okay, which is more than a lot of people can say at this time. I've been working the holiday, but that entails being onsite in a beautiful location, enjoying a quiet night. I am 'essential personnel', my department is on a seven day schedule, and we work overnights, I knew going in that working weekends and holidays was in the cards.

I really find it offensive, though, that retail outfits are making their employees work on Thanksgiving night- and I have contempt for people who would buy into this exploitative system by rewarding such stores with their patronage. It's one thing to have gas stations and medical centers open on Thanksgiving, but non-essential businesses shouldn't be treating people this way.

I'm thankful that I'm not working in a big box store.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Belated Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Champions of Ilusion

Sorry about the lecture recap delay, yesterday I had to attend my annual state-mandated training for the job, and then went out for a couple of beers. On Monday, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Dr Susana Martinez-Conde and Dr Stephen Macknik, both of Brooklyn's own SUNY Downstate Medical Center. The good doctors form a neurology power couple, the masterminds behind the Best Illusion of the Year Contest. Monday's lecture was a showcase for the gorgeous illusions that were sent into the contest, and dovetailed with the couple's new book, Champions of Illusion, which is a gorgeous mind-blower of a tome.

The good doctors handled the lecture in tag-team style, riffing off of each other and pausing to display videos and static images of the illusions submitted to their annual contest. The contest was formulated to provide information about the neuromechanics of perception, while remaining fun for the layperson- one does not need neurological training to appreciate illusions. The illusions submitted to the contest were rated on their intellectual, aesthetic, and 'spectacularity' appeal.

Dr Martinez-Conde began the lecture with a brief discussion of the infamous color-changing dress, accompanied by an image of the dress illuminated in light of two colors. As a personal aside, I figured out the controversy by comparing night Ginger with day Ginger.

The first illusion presented by the good doctors was Kokichi Sugihara's 'ambiguous cylinder' illusion:

The physical objects are ambiguous square/circle hybrids, and the use of a mirror activates this ambiguity as the objects are moved. Dr Martinez-Conde described this illusion as 'smoke and mirrors', or in this case, light and mirrors.

The next illusion presented to the crowd was the dynamic Ebbinghaus illusion:

Our perception of illusions can help neurologists 'dissect' how we see objects. The next illusion presented by Drs Martinez-Conde and Macknik was Anthony Norcia's Coffer Illusion:

The audience was tasked with counting the circles in the image, which tend not to be immediately apparent.

The next illusion present to the audience was Victoria Skye's beautiful variation on the classic café wall illusion:

In this instance, the shading is a crucial element in the illusion.

The next illusion presented was the chesspiece illusion, in which identical images of chess pieces were made to look dissimilar using the darkness of the background against which they appeared:

The observer's brain determines whether a piece is white or black, in the real world, everything is ambiguous. Our brains normalize things, which has evolutionary significance, such as a parent's ability to recognize a child both inside and outside of the cave.

We were then shown the Leaning Tower Illusion, in which two parallel images of the Leaning Tower of Pisa were perceived as diverging:

While actually parallel, the mind interprets them as diverging because, as parallel objects recede into the distance, they are perceived as converging:

A similar illusion was entered into the 2014 contest by Kimberley Orsten and James Pomerantz:

My favorite illusion of the night was Kochiki Sugihara's 'uphill rolling' structure:

This illusion exploits the brain's desire for a sensible rectilinear shape- our perception 'defies gravity' in order to make sense of an ambiguous structure.

The next illusion was an attention illusion- instructed to pay attention to changing dots, observers tend to stop seeing change in individual objects when the objects move:

The brain gives primacy to perception of the motion, which is more important from a survival standpoint than the color changes.

Dr Martinez-Conde likened illusions to 'stories that the brain tells us'. Illusions allow us to tell stories about neuroscience. The challenge in talking about neuroscience is how to engage the audience. She invoked E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel- writers have thought deeply about narrative, with there being a difference between story and plot. Foster contrasts two sentences- the first is 'The king died and the queen died', a story, which makes a time connection between two events. The second sentence- 'the king died and the queen died of grief', a plot, makes a connection of causality as well as time. Plots engage audiences- Dr Lawrence Krauss remarked on the muted excitement when the discovery of gravitational waves was made public, quipping that the public is interested in science when it results in faster cars or better toasters. Scientific discoveries that affect the public create emotional responses- people have strong reactions to cloning, the discovery of hobbits, or the demotion of Pluto.

Science is as its best when it engages our sense of wonder- where did we come from and how did we get here? Illusions provide a sense of magic, a sense of wonder. She showed a video of a broken-and-restored thread act in which the stage magician spun a poignant tale of a difficult relationship "you are intellectually dull and your cooking is mundane", effectively distracting the audience from the slight of hand. She then showed the same video of prestidigitation without the narrative, removing the emotions which accompany the illusion, which requires misdirection.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session- one bastard in the audience asked about the perception of illusions by non-human species. Animals are subject to illusion, many organisms employ camouflage, mimicry, and other forms of deception to trick each other in various ways. Illusions have value, evolutionarily. Another question elicited the response that the brain fills in gaps- the brain makes up more than it takes in, in some cases, there are spectacular cases of discrepancy. Previous generations of scientists believed that illusions were cases in which the brain 'got it wrong'. Now, the focus has shifted to how illusions may help us- if illusions had no adaptive use, we would have evolved out of them long ago. Another question involved tactile and auditory illusions, which led to a brief discussion of the disappearing hand illusion:

A question about Dr Kokichi Sugihara's physical objects led to a fascinating digression about Dr Sugihara's initial desire to program 'impossible' object plans into a design program, then discovering that, not subject to human perception, the program would render workable designs for objects deemed impossible within the limits of human preconceptions. Regarding the subjectivity of perception, Dr Martinez-Conde joked that objects are honest, the brain determines what is perceived. Asked to picture one's mother's face, a subject is able to do so even if she is not present. Perception often involves 'filling in details'. There are conditions which affect one's perception of illusion- certain individuals on the autism spectrum are difficult for stage magicians to misdirect, certain people have brain damage which removes the ability to perceive motion, certain illusions are more difficult to perceive as a subject ages.

Once again, the Secret Science Club delivered a fantastic lecture, one accompanied by a variety of mind-bending illusions. Drs Martinez-Conde and Macknik entertained and enthralled as well as informed us. Kudos to the good doctors, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House for another fine Secret Science Club event. Here's a nice video featuring my favorite neuroscience/magic power couple:

Pour yourself a nice beverage and soak in that science... and consider picking up Champions of Illusion, which is a spectacularly pretty book.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Brooklyn Bound, Repeat Secret Science Club Lecturer

I'm heading down to Brooklyn this evening for tonight's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring the return of Dr Susana Martinez-Conde of SUNY Downstate. Two years ago, Dr Martinez-Conde gave a great lecture about perception which featured a lot of really great optical illusions.

I'm running out the door, so how about a video for my favorite song by Joe Walsh, but not the asshole Joe Walsh:

Lately, it seems like we've all been living a life of illusion. Try as I might to pierce the Veil of Maya, I still see a hairy, anthropomorphic pumpkin in the White House.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Responding on the Local Level

It's been two months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and the response by the federal government has been a disaster, a farrago of incompetence and outright kleptocracy. Thousands of marchers hit the streets of Washington D.C. today to call attention to the situation in Puerto Rico, and the poor response to it.

The real response to the ongoing crisis is coming from local municipalities- shortly after the hurricane, the Fire Department of New York rallied to collect material and funds for the relief efforts. Last week, I made a donation to the police department of the Town of Greenburgh, north of my beloved Yonkers, to help send a team of first responders to the island. The New York Metropolitan Area is home to a large Puerto Rican community, the members of which form a large portion of our civil servants, our first responders, the people who keep things running. New York, along with Florida (also home to a large Puerto Rican community), is stepping up to get the power running on the island after the corrupt cronies were sent packing.

I believe in competent governance, the pooling of talent and funds to ensure that the roads are maintained, the garbage collected, and, yes, disasters are responded to with alacrity, compassion, and know-how. The worst bill of goods ever sold to the population of the U.S. was Reagan's assertion that government is the problem. If you are a member of a political party that runs on this premise, you have no business being in government, because you will seek to prove it. The GOP has devolved since Reagan, to the extent that we have a bunch of kleptocrats, and kakocrats, running the country. Thankfully, there are still localities which function, and can act to prop up places, like Puerto Rico, that have been the victims of this dysfunctional government. I'm thankful I live in one of these localities.