Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mardi Gras Multiculturalism

Typically, on Mardi Gras, I post a bunch of Cajun and Creole music, being a firm believer in the attitude laissez les Bon temps rouler . This Mardi Gras, I just want to note that the holiday is a perfect occasion to celebrate the strain of multiculturalism that has characterized this nation since its inception. The culture of New Orleans is a melange of French, African, Spanish, Native American, Anglo-American, and Italian influences. This admixture of various cultures has resulted in a vibrant culture that has not only thrived, but holds a considerable appeal for open-minded outsiders. This year, vive la Resistance is an appropriate counterpoint to laissez les Bon Temps rouler. America is a better and more interesting place because we are a glorious patchwork of cultures.

Excuse me now, I'm going out for some Bon Temps, mes Amis. Bon soir

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Pernicious Hate Hits Close to Home

The big local news story today is that the continuing epidemic of anti-semitic attacks and threats has hit in our area, with bomb threats phoned in to Jewish Community Centers in the communities of Tarrytown and New Rochelle. I am intimately familiar with both of these municipalities- I work near the Village of Tarrytown and I used to live and work in the City of New Rochelle... both of these communities are exemplars of multiculturalism and the virtues of liberal values. I have posted on the wonders of New Rochelle and Tarrytown on numerous occasions, and have a love for both of these places.

I've always been stymied by anti-semitism, having grown up with Jewish friends, neighbors, doctors, teachers, roommates. The Jewish people, in spite of two millennia of bigotry and violence, have thrived- their gifts to humanity in the fields of science, medicine, philosophy, and the arts are immeasurable. The very fact that this current wave of vandalism and threats of violence is occurring in twenty-first century America appalls and confounds me, and the fact that such threats have been made in such 'safe' communities as New Rochelle and Tarrytown has me pig-biting mad. These are friends of mine who are being targeted now.

I am currently writing this post in the Grinton I. Will branch of the Yonkers Library System, having stopped by looking for some reading material while on errands. In the lobby of the library, there is a small, stark Holocaust memorial:

As I guy who likes to fight recreationally, and abhors cheap-shotting someone, I sure am in a Nazi-punching mood. New Rochelle and Tarrytown are vibrant and beautiful because of their diverse residents, and they are strong enough to resist this onslaught of hate.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

My Pick for the Academy Award Would Be...

I'm not a big cinephile, and I haven't been keeping up with the Oscar nominations beyond listening to the coverage on the radio news. That being said, as a nerd, my preffered 'best picture' winner would be Hidden Figures, a dramatized account of the work of the African-American women who worked as 'computers' for NASA in the 1960s. As I have indicated before, I am a firm believer in the importance of having women and people of color working in STEM fields.

The achievements of women and minorities in American history have largely been ignored or suppressed by the white, male dominance structure, to the extent that there is still a lot of resistance from certain quarters to the celebration of Black History Month. The recognition of the NASA computers who helped to put John Glenn in orbit and get him back down in one piece, despite their need to navigate the pitfalls of the segregated South, is merely one corrective in the historical narrative, though it's good to see Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn, and their colleagues finally receive the accolades due to them.

The general buzz seems to be that the musical La La Land will win best picture, largely because it is a callback to the old Hollywood musicals of yore (I need to use this word more often), but I'd rather see a celebration of women, people of color, and technical brilliance than some LA navel-gazing. I've heard that this year's Oscars have been characterized by expressions of resistance to Trump, what better rebuke would there be than to celebrate a crew of genius black women who worked for the government to achieve something amazing? Besides, it would be a good way for the film industry to put that 'Oscars so white' controversy to rest.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

An Arduous Path, an Amusing Payoff

One particular annoyance in traveling to midtown Manhattan on the weekend is the fact that, while the subways run twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, their primary purpose is to convey the millions of Monday-to-Friday workers to their jobs, with an emphasis on getting the 7A-3P, 8A-4P, and 9A-5P cohorts to their places of employment. The weekends are when a lot of track repair takes place. I knew, before I even approached the subway station at 238th St and Broadway in the Bronx, that I would have to take a shuttle bus from 238th St to the A train terminus at 207th St.

The bus ride wasn't too bad, because it was early in the morning, and the traffic backups due to the track maintenance and maintenance work on the Broadway Bridge hadn't had time to metastasize. The Broadway Bridge played host to a bunch of Department of Transportation trucks:

Metal barricades were set up to provide a clearly delineated area for the construction workers:

The central portion of the drawbridge was covered with plywood:

The ride on the A train from 207th St to 59th St wasn't too bad- the train is an express, so it makes a paucity of stops. The trip was only remarkable because there was a panhandler on the train with a unique approach, he was wearing pajamas and a leather jacket, and his pitch was, "I'm wearing my pajamas and I need two dollars to wash my clothes." His novel approach didn't win anyone over, it was a crowded train of people who were already pissed off that they had had to take a slow shuttle bus ride to the 207th St station. Divining the unsympathetic mood, the panhandler got off the train after one stop.

I got to the dojo eighteen minutes late, but Big Al and Kickass Sue had the first class well in hand. Head Sensei, the Berber Badass, was supervising the whole thing, and Morocco's George Clooney came in shortly after I did... yep, train issues.

We had a great program after everybody had assembled. I played randori with Head Sensei for three minutes and held my own- I told him that I had spent a lot of time earlier in the week humping boxes around, so I felt extra strong. Our last class was a big one- about thirty students, boys and girls, seven years and under. After an initial instruction period, reviewing O Soto Gari and O Uchi Gari, we decided that we would have the kids engage in an informal tournament- we set up a competition area on the mats and had them compete, complete with formal bowing, two out of three falls for the win. The highlight of the competition was a match between one of my favorite students, a four year old girl with an infectious smile, and Head Sensei, who graciously let his opponent win. I have to commend these little kids for their sportsmanship, respect for each other, and mutual support- these kids really made me proud with the way they comported themselves. We all emphasize the moral component of the sport (mutual welfare, mutual development) and these kids demonstrated flawless behavior. They looked so cute, and so funny, as they were fighting, I couldn't help but be amused by our little tourney. It's things like this that make getting up on a Saturday morning after two and a half hours' sleep worthwhile.

After we were done, Gentle Jimmy G., who arrived at about the midway point in the day after working a shift, offered me a ride back to the Bronx. When he proposed driving up to Dyckman St because there are a lot of pretty Dominican girls in the neighborhood who would be enjoying the warm weather, I told him that Broadway was a traffic nightmare due to all the construction. The neighborhood is a bit of a traffic snarl-up on the best of days, so bypassing it on the Henry Hudson Parkway was the way to go.

I can't imagine the Broadway construction project will wrap up anytime soon... there are two more weeks of our Saturday classes, two more weeks of dealing with the vagaries of the transportation system. It's also two weeks of teaching, and watching our students put what they learned into practice. The trip may be arduous, but the payoff is wonderful.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Yet Hannity Remains

Via Tengrain, who was invited by the man to be a contributor to Liberaland, Alan Colmes died at the all-too-young age of sixty-six. I primarily knew Mr Colmes through his role as the liberal foil to Sean Hannity on Fox' 'News' Hannity and Colmes.

Being the sole liberal on a Fox talking heads show, Mr Colmes often came across as a punching bag, especially paired with a shouty blockhead like Hannity. He was a quiet, calm presence, trying to use reason and facts to promulgate his point of view. The problem was that Americans, despite what platitudes they mouth, tend to side with the bullies. Sure, Mr Colmes came across as a punching bag, but that made Hannity, and the other nutjobs the punchers. Mr Colmes' one failing was precisely his virtue- he brought his brain to a fistfight.

After leaving Fox, Mr Colmes had other media gigs, in which he always came across as a smart, compassionate guy, but I mainly know his oeuvre from his 'Liberaland' site, and a guy who would go out of his way to hire Tengrain is alright with me. Someday, we may value the thinkers over the punchers, but I'm not holding my breath... we put a puncher in the White House. It's just a tragedy that Alan won't be around to participate in the resistance.

Here is a clip of Mr Colmes doing a stand-up routine back in the 1980s:

Back then I bet this stand-up comic didn't know he'd be working with a clown one day.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Yankee Goes Home

I'm back in New York after a whirlwind of activity in northern Virginia. Last November, mom sold the house she had been living in for the past eighteen years- the yard maintenance was just getting to be too much for her. After 'couch surfing' for a few months with my sister and two younger brothers, she finally closed on a cute townhouse not too far from her old stomping grounds on February 10th. The movers moved her stuff from a storage unit to her townhouse on the 15th, and I made plans to help mom unpack the larger boxes.

Yesterday, we must have moved a ton of stuff, mainly books. We are a family of bibliophiles, we have been for generations. The good thing about being a bookworm is that it forces you to be a weightlifter if you have to move. Pumping paper, bay-bee. I'd hump a few boxes of books, then take a breather by putting them on the various bookshelves in the study/family room. Establishing a rhythm is the key: UGH, UGH, UGH, UGH, hey I wondered where I'd last seen that hardcover edition of Don Quixote, UGH, UGH, UGH, UGH.

Gradually, books, board games, pictures, kitchen utensils and lamps found their way to the places they would occupy, and mom's cute new dwelling place emerged out from under a sea of cardboard. Mysteries remained- there were lampshades which needed to be reuinted with lamps, and mom's meager shoe collection, aside from a pair of sneakers and a pair of moccasin slippers, remained to be found. The bulky/heavy 95% of stuff was moved in, but one of the laws of the universe is that the last 5% of stuff to be moved is the pain in the ass part.

Today was occupied with putting the empty cardboard boxes in the driveway, as close to the curb as possible, so mom could move them to the designated trash pickup spot next to the gutter. She called the sanitation department to let her know that there would be a huge cardboard pickup. My plan was to leave in the early afternoon so I could drive straight to work, and I know that a lot of municipalities frown on residents putting stuff at the curb before 5PM. One of mom's neighbors was outside doing some yardwork, and we sheepishly told her that this mountain of cardboard was a one-time, ephemeral structure. She laughed, her husband is serving in the Army, so she was no stranger to the travails of moving.

After a hot shower and a couple of aspirins, I hit the road... my arms were pretty heavy, but the foot was light enough to avoid any brushes with the law. I made decent time, even having enough time to hit the grocery store before starting my shift. I called mom before stepping into the store. She had found her box of shoes behind a box of holiday decorations. I had held up my part of the bargain, I was a brute going grunt work. In the coming weeks, my sister and her husband will stop by to hang up paintings, photos, and diplomas. They have a better eye for that sort of thing than I do, and the stud detector had yet to be unpacked.

Despite the fact that it was a couple of days of dusty, sweaty work, I had fun. Mom is good company, and throughout the lugging and unpacking, we had a great running conversation. The aphorism is that many hands make light work, but the wagging of the tongues is a more crucial factor than the work that the hands do.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

My Profile Picture Doesn't Look Bad Enough

The profile picture I've been using since this blog's inception was snapped by my friend Frenchie (who is, of course, Italian), a man I have known for almost twenty years. Ever since I've known him, he has taken headshots of his friends, and my photo was an impromptu one taken in the dojo on a Saturday morning between classes. This past Saturday, he took another round of headshots, which he then 'doctored' using an app on his phone. I initially protested that I hadn't shaved for a couple of days, to which he replied, "That's good, it makes you look tougher." In order to make us look even 'tougher', he played with the contrast, darkened the image, and applied a red filter so we all looked like we'd be fighting (which we had been). I now present the publicity still for Frank Miller's 'Bastard City', a Quentin Tarantino Production:

Funny, I could swear that I had blue eyes...

After he took this picture, he took one of our mutual friend and colleague, Kickass Sue. Sue has a baby face, with a snub nose and wide eyes... while she is extremely tough, she is incapable of looking 'mean'. After Frenchie took her picture and played with the images, he showed it to her and her verdict was, "I don't look tough, I look drunk!"

I look drunk too, drunk on baaaaadness.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Avec Ma Mère

At the end of last year, I moved from one apartment to another, my landlord having sold the three-family house in which I rented an apartment... I moved all of six blocks. During the same timeframe, my mom sold her house in Northern Virginia. My sister, her husband and their sons relocated to the D.C. area earlier in the year when my brother-in-law retired after a career in the Air Force (my sister and her husband are both rocket scientists, literally). Mom moved in with them while she searched for a nice, low-maintenance townhouse in the general area, and she finally closed on a place a week and a half ago. Her furniture and other belongings were delivered on the 15th.

I drove down to her new place today in order to help her unpack and move stuff- I told her that I'd rather not move the fragile stuff, but the heavy stuff wouldn't be a problem. I talk a good game about being a 'bull in a china shop', but I'm really not that clumsy, I just would rather tote boxes of books than to gingerly place the good stemware in a cabinet.

Of course, we didn't accomplish a thing this evening, after I got the grand tour of the new place, mom and I just shot the breeze for hours over a leisurely dinner and a couple of belts of homemade limoncello that would make a passable rocket fuel... gotta talk to my sister and my brother-in-law about that.

Tomorrow, the work begins, the unpacking, the stowing away, the gathering of the moving boxes. My hope is that all of the grunt work gets done so mom can just rearrange the small, but not necessarily minor, stuff at her own pace. Wednesday, I'll move all of the boxes into the garage before driving directly to work in NY's suburbs, so mom doesn't have to lug the recycling that far when it's cardboard collection day.

The important thing is that mom doesn't have to couch surf anymore, she gets along well with all of us kids, but I'm sure she's happy to have her own place. Mom is tough as nails, and very independent, so this autonomy means a lot to her.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The 'Rosetta Stone' for Decoding Much of the Current Culture

At Roy's place, commenter M.Krebs linked to a blog post about the role that the 4chan message board played in the ascent of Donald Trump. This post is required reading for anyone trying to make sense of the political career of a boorish, idiotic authoritarian.

4chan is the wellspring of much of internet culture, having originated such ubiquitous internet memes as LOLcats, Rickrolling... indeed the typical 'internet meme' with the black-bordered white lettering. The 'no rule' random board /b/, whose users styled themselves as /b/tards, was the place where the channers tried to one-up each other with disturbing images, extreme porn, scatalogical content, Nazi allusions. I've never been a 4chan denizen, being too old and too averse to bad grammar and spelling, but I internet-know a decent fellow who was a 4channer, and he characterized the trolling culture there as 'pissing in an ocean of piss'.

My gut feeling is that much of the anger that led to Gamergate, the 'alt-right', and the Trump election stems from the 4chan 'internet nerd' crowd's anger at having their culture 'co-opted' by normies. When Katy Perry referenced 'their' cartoon frog in a tweet, it caused a lot of outrage among the alt-cognitive. The spite that led to the Trump election is similar- the wholesale rejection of societal norms as a backlash to the 'liberal elite', or 'politically correct' culture. The 'chan' base, the 'anime Nazis', backed Trump because they saw the election of this 'pussy grabber in chief' as a rebuke to the Anita Sarkeesians of the world.

The tragedy of this particular political backlash is that it is rooted in an ephemeral internet culture, but its dire effects will be long-term. The standing of the United States is in jeopardy, as are the civil rights of its residents. Most alarmingly, the planet's ecology is reaching a tipping point while the administration is doubling down on denial. By the time the 'chan klan' grows up and realizes that their actions have real consequences, it will probably be too damn late, but hey, at least they showed those uppity bitches and meme-stealing normies an thing or two.

Friday, February 17, 2017

As Tengrain Would Put It, a Palate Cleanser

After a week of really bad news, I figured I needed to post what Tengrain would call a palate cleanser. I listen to a lot of college and public radio, and even the local commercial station I listen to has a nice 'indie' vibe. One band that's been getting quite a bit of buzz is Sydney's Middle Kids. These... uh... kids from the drouthy Antipodes are really amazing- their rhythm section is muscular and frontwoman Hannah Joy deploys jangly guitar and gorgeous, rich vocals in a killer combination. I am totally enamored of the band's second single, Your Love:

I've been a big fan of Australia's independent musical scene since my days of listening to Midnight Oil, the Hoodoo Gurus, and the Celibate Rifles. That being said, the Middle Kids are keeping up a grand tradition, and I look forward to hearing much, much more from them in the future.

When things are terrible, we need good art more than ever.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

He's Hurting My Brain

I have to confess that, in certain matters, I am a snob. I've never been the sort to scorn 'the help', and I have no contempt for people who work up an honest sweat. That being said, I admire a well-crafted turn of phrase, and I cringe when I hear a native speaker who butchers the English language. Listening to Donald Trump's press conference today pretty much hurt my brain. Besides the mendacity and belligerence, the damn thing was redundant, redundant, redundant. Cazzo di merda, just look at this:

The press has become so dishonest that if we don't talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people. Tremendous disservice. We have to talk about it. We have to find out what's going on because the press, honestly, is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control. I ran for president to represent the citizens of our country. I am here to change the broken system so it serves their families and their communities well. I am talking, and really talking, on this very entrenched power structure and what we're doing is we're talking about the power structure. We're talking about its entrenchment. As a result, the media's going through what they have to go through to oftentimes distort — not all the time — and some of the media's fantastic, I have to say, honest and fantastic — but much of it is not. The distortion, and we'll talk about it, you'll be able to ask me questions about it. We're not going to let it happen because I'm here, again, to take my message straight to the people.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Republican speech without a measure of blame for the Kenyan Usurper:

As you know, our administration inherited many problems across government and across the economy. To be honest, I inherited a mess. A mess. At home, and abroad. A mess. Jobs are pouring out of the country. You see what's going on with all of the companies leaving our country, going to Mexico and other places. Low pay, low wages.

Mass instability overseas, no matter where you look. The Middle East, a disaster. North Korea, we'll take care of it, folks. We're going to take care of it all. I just want to let you know. I inherited a mess. Beginning on day one, our administration went to work to tackle these challenges. On foreign affairs, we've begun enormously productive talks with foreign leaders, much of which you've covered, to move forward to security, stability and peace in the most troubled regions of the world, which there are many.

This repetition seems to suggest a paucity of vocabulary, or a bad commercial for a shitty product:

They don't have the right equipment, and their equipment is old. I used it. I talked about it. At every stop. Depleted. It's depleted. It won't be depleted for long. One of the reasons I'm standing here instead of other people is, frankly, I talked about we have to have a strong military. We have to have strong law enforcement also.

Once again, the man cannot let go of the fact that he lost the popular vote by almost three million ballots:

I'm here following through on what I pledged to do. That's all I'm doing. I put it out before the American people, got 306 electoral college votes. I wasn't supposed to get 222. They said there's no way to get 222. 230 is impossible. 270, which you need — that was laughable. We got 306. Because people came out and voted like they have never seen before. So that's how it goes. I guess it was the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan. In other words, the media is trying to attack our administration because they know we are following through on pledges that we made, and they are not happy about it for whatever reason.

Let it go, Vulgarmort... seriously, you won the rigged Electoral College vote in a low-turnout election with three alternative candidates, you just aren't that popular.

This particular quote had me laughing: This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine. I bet this machine was well-oiled:

The whole thing veered off into even weirder territory during the Q&A, during which certain responses were simply bizarre:

Well, the leaks are real. You're the one that wrote about them and reported them. I mean the leaks are real. You know what they said. You saw it and the leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake because so much of the news is fake.

His obsession with ratings is unhealthy:

I just see many, many untruthful things. And I'll tell you what else I see. Tone. I see tone. You know the word tone. The tone is such hatred. I'm really not a bad person, by the way. No, but You know, but the tone is such — I do the get good ratings, you have to admit that. But the tone is such hatred.

The guy can't even refrain from undermining his talking points in the space of a single answer:

Russia is a ruse. Yeah, I know you have to get up and ask a question, so important. Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven't made a phone call to Russia in years, don't speak to people in Russia, not that I wouldn't, but I just have nobody to speak to.

I Spoke to Putin twice, called me on the election. I told you this. He called me on the inauguration a few days ago. We had a very good talk. Especially the second one, lasted for a pretty long period of time. I'm sure you probably get it because it was classified, so I'm sure everybody in this room perhaps has it, but we had a very, very good talk. I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with, does.

The whole press conference was a disaster, and listening to snippets of it throughout the day was conducive to indigestion and a suppressed rage. Our last president was one of the most articulate, intelligent individuals to occupy the White House, and now we have this self-pitying, bellicose idjit in residence. I can't even snark about this.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Rand Paul Has Always Been a Partisan Hack

I have long maintained that Rand Paul is a useless sack of crap topped by a bad toupée, a category of individual which seems to be all too prevalent in our government these days. My contempt for Paul has only increased with his weaselly response to the Michael Flynn meltdown. Apparently, the distinct possibility that the White House is compromised by the Russian government is no big deal, because it would reflect poorly on Republicans:

"I just don't think it's useful to be doing investigation after investigation, particularly of your own party. We'll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we're spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans. I think it makes no sense."

Contrast this with the endless series of investigations into the Benghazi consulate attack, the blame for which can be partially laid at the feet of Republicans, who are still reluctant to fund embassy security.

The GOP is now clearly putting party interests over the interests of the nation. In light of the constant litany of incompetence and corruption emanating from the White House these days, this is unforgivable. I sure hope the Democrats remember this sort of bullshit when it comes time to vote on pretty much everything the Republicans propose.

As an added source of annoyance, the drive to repeal Obamacare is something that will benefit none of the voting public, even the stupid teabaggers. I am posting uncharacteristically early today because I just got out of our annual meeting regarding employer-provided health insurance. We get decent coverage, but non-emergency care is limited to a certain geographic range, and we are supposed to consult doctors within the 'preferred provider' system. I know Obamacare was a flawed bill, but goddamn it, a national health plan would make life easier for everyone outside of the insurance industry. To hell with Rand Paul and his whole corrupt cadre of hacks.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Gratitude, with a Side of Confession

I want to take an opportunity to thank Bluegal at Crooks and Liars for listing my Saturday evening post (nyuk nyuk) in the blog roundup. This linkage from a major blog means a lot to me.

Now for confession time... I linked to a lot of other posts in that post, hopefully funneling a whole bunch of traffic to my blahg. All your clicks are belong to moi.

Getting back to "sincere mode", thanks again and, at the risk of sounding smug, I think all of the linked posts are worthwhile reads, solely due to the quality of the lectures. I'm merely a stenographer, and a boozed-up one at that. I try my best to hunt down additional links, but it's the scientists who shine.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Lincoln Day, Darwin Day

If one were to demand of me, "Quick, name two of your favorite 19th Century figures!" there's a good chance that I would name Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Sorry, James K. Polk. Lincoln and Darwin were both born on February 12th... a fact that I noted in a previous blog post. Both Lincoln and Darwin could rightfully be called progressive heroes- Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which set off the cascade which resulted in the total abolition of slavery in the United States, and Darwin was fervidly anti-slavery. Both Lincoln and Darwin are maligned by crackpots, reactionaries, and manipulative creeps. I tend to judge people by the quality of their enemies, and the often overlapping enemies of Chuck and Abe are people I find repugnant.

So here's to Lincoln and Darwin, individuals whose progressive attitudes and good deeds laid the foundation for much of the good aspects of modern society. Hopefully, we are worthy inheritors of their legacies and fight to ensure that the positive changes they enacted survive. Funny, I'm not usually a proponent of the 'great men' model of history, though I will make exceptions for these two... I'm particularly in awe of terraforming Darwin.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Woman's Place is in the Laboratory, or the Field, or the Classroom

Via Shakezula, we have a reminder that today is the International Day of Woman and Girls in Science, and a link to a herpetologist's snarky takedown of a stupid piece about capping women's admission to science programs by Breitbart 'technology editor' Milo Youcangofuckyourself, who probably can't use any technology more complicated than a hair-gel applicator.

The role of women in the sciences has gotten a great deal of attention lately, with special attention being paid to the formerly neglected African-American women who crunched the numbers that put NASA's astronauts into space and onto the moon. In the previous century, women played a crucial role in crunching the numbers used by astronomers mapping the heavens. Ever since the dawn of the 'Scientific Age', women have been working in the 'STEM' fields, largely ignored by misogynistic assholes like the Breitbrats.

I decided that my particular contribution to the celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science would be to link the various Secret Science Club lectures by women (it's worth noting here that the SSC is run by two talented, dedicated women of great intelligence and strong civic values).

Ichthyologist Dr Melanie Stiassny lectured on the incredible biodiversity among fish in the Congo River.

Primatologist Dr Patricia Chapple Wright lectured on lemurs and the conservation efforts being undertaken to protect them.

Astrophysicist Dr Priyamvada Natarajan lectured on dark matter and gravitational lensing on two nights.

Neurologist Dr Leslie Voshall lectured on the human olfacory system.

Cognitive scientist Dr Alexandra Horowitz lectured on the cognitive capabilities of dogs.

Neuroscientist Dr Diana Reiss lectured on animal cognitive capabilities, with a focus on dolphins.

Anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher lectured on attraction and amor.

Neurologist Dr Dr Susana Martinez-Conde lectured on human perception, specifically illustions.

Paleoanthropologist Dr Shara Bailey lectured on the study of hominin teeth.

Biologist Mandë Holford lectured on snail venoms and their possible pharmaceutical use.

Primatologist Dr Mary Blair lectured on primate conservation.

Neurologist Dr Anne Churchland lectured on the decision making process.

Dr Heather Berlin lectured on consciousness.

Friend of the Bastard and all around great person Dr Evon Hekkala lectured about crocodile behavior and genetics in one of my personal favorite SSC lectures.

Comparative anatomist Dr Joy Reidenberg lectured on whale anatomy and the process of performing a necroscopy on a dead whale.

Molecular geneticist Dr Alea Mills lectured on the role of specific genes in tumor suppression.

Neurologist Dr Daniela Schiller lectured on the role of the amygdala in human emotional responses.

Sadly, I began my lecture recaps in December of 2009, so I missed writing recaps for two years and three months of SSC lectures. Suffice it to say, there are plenty of women doing amazing work in the various scientific fields. As someone who believes in a meritocracy, the very idea of caps on the admission of women and minorities in ANY field is abhorrent to me.

I would much prefer a cap on the number of paid internet trolls spouting stupid, misogynistic garbage.

Friday, February 10, 2017

This Hallowed Underground

And so, there came a time when I made a pilgrimage to the non-site of the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre:

We shall never forget that dark day, when the streets ran brown with bullshit.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

What a Difference a Day Makes

Yesterday, the temperature hit 62F (almost 17C)- it was a sunny springlike day, the sort of day on which one could comfortably wear shorts and a T-shirt. Today... not so much. It was a snowy, windy day, with accumulations of eight inches to a foot. Being the sort who thinks discretion is the better part of valor, I left my car safely ensconced in the parking lot at work and took the 5:28AM Metro-North Hudson Line train to the Yonkers train station, where I picked up the Bee-Line 25 bus which dropped me off four blocks away from home. Oddly enough, the Sanitation Department was collecting the garbage on this blizzard-y day, and I got home just in time to put the garbage on the curb to be picked up.

I spent about half an hour shoveling snow before I realized that the storm was picking up, so it would be better to go to sleep for a few hours, by which I mean pass out from exhaustion. By the time I woke up around 2PM, the storm had subsided, and I was greeted by a foot-deep drift in front of my door. Oh, well, there's not much to shovel- a bit of sidewalk and the walkway between my house and the next-door house. It took well under an hour to get it all cleared.

I was able to catch some more hours of sleep before having to wake up in time to catch the old 25 bus to the Yonkers train station- besides myself, there were only two other passengers on the bus, which wends its way from the subway station at 238th St and White Plains Rd in the Bronx to the Yonkers train station. The bus goes to the Cross County Shopping Center, so it usually has a decent crowd of riders, but today most of the stores in the mall were closed. Oddly enough, the bus made good time through the snowy labyrinth of hilly Yonkers streets. The train, on the other hand, was running fifteen minutes late, but it got me to my destination with plenty of time to spare. I walked on the slippery streets to my workplace with no mishaps.

Tonight, the temperature is supposed to bottom out at a chilly 19F (-7C), with wind gusts up to 40MPH. Needless to say, it is going to be a brutal, bone chilling night. One of the managers took Fred and Ginger home with him, so I don't have to worry about them on this cold, cold night. It's a far cry from the balminess of Wednesday, but I'll get through it all with some luck, some pluck, and the six layers of clothing that I packed for the night.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Dennett Delivers

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 philosopher and cognitive scientist Dr Daniel Dennett of Tufts University. Dr Dennett's talk touched upon topics covered by his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.

Dr Dennett opened his lecture by displaying the beautiful Evogeneao Tree of Life diagram. He noted that one major 'explosion' in evolutionary process was the endosymbiotic origin of the eukaryotic cell. After more than one billion years of evolution during which life was restricted to the prokaryotes, bacteria and archaea, the eukaryotic cell arose from symbiotic relationships among prokaryotes and the Cambrian explosion, during which a lot of new forms of life emerged and other forms of live went extinct, occurred. Dr Dennett indicated that a new 'explosion' is occurring in the present- noting that humans are a recent development, having shared a common ancestor with the chimpanzees a mere six million years ago.

Dr Dennett likened evolution to Research and Development, to engineering... evolution exploits information to create, maintain, and improve 'designs'. Research and Development is an expensive process, it requires time and energy. Evolution occurs by two processes: natural selection and human design. These processes differ in fundamental ways- evolution by natural selection is purposeless, foresightless, and extremely costly... there are lot of 'rejects', organisms which die without reproducing, and it is slow. Evolution by human design is purposeful, somewhat foresighted, and constrained by cost considerations. It is many orders of magnitude faster than evolution by natural selection.

Evolution by natural selection is slow and costly, but brilliant- Dr Dennett invoked Orgel's second rule, which can be summed up as “Evolution is cleverer than you are”. Evolution by natural selection is a mindless, purposeless, thoughtless process capable of brilliance and ingenuity. With the development of genetic engineering, 'intelligent design' now exists, and is becoming more common.

Dr Dennett contrasted evolution by natural selection and evolution by human design by comparing a termite mound to Gaudí's Sagrada Familia church. While the structures have a superficial similarity, they are products of hugely different processes. The termites are mindless while Gaudí was a charismatic genius. While the processes of design are polar opposites, the results are similar. In the case of the termites, the design process is bottom-up, while Gaudí's design process was top-down. A large mound-building termite colony consists of approximately seventy-million clueless termites, while a human brain consists of eighty-six billion clueless neurons. How does one get a Gaudí mind from a termite colony brain? Each individual neuron is less savvy than a termite. Dr Dennett noted that one cannot do much carpentry with bare hands, and one cannot do much thinking with a bare brain. The human brain is well-equipped, while the termite brain is unequipped. Dr Dennett then displayed a quote by Freeman Dyson: "Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of life it is perhaps the greatest of God's gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and of sciences." He pooh-poohed the first sentence, then noted that technology is cultural evolution- the brain has 'thinking tools' that impose novel structures on the brain. These virtual machines can be likened to apps that we download into our necktops. These 'apps' are new competences, we don't have 'bare brains'.

Dr Dennett then displayed a quote by Robert Beverly MacKenzie, an early critic of Darwin:

In the theory with which we have to deal, Absolute Ignorance is the artificer; so that we may enunciate as the fundamental principle of the whole system, that, in order to make a perfect and beautiful machine, it is not requisite to know how to make it. This proposition will be found, on careful examination, to express, in condensed form, the essential purport of the Theory, and to express in a few words all Mr. Darwin's meaning; who, by a strange inversion of reasoning, seems to think Absolute Ignorance fully qualified to take the place of Absolute Wisdom in all the achievements of creative skill.

Dr Dennett quipped that this 'strange inversion' is just what Darwin demonstrated. He then discussed Alan Turing's 'strange inversion' (here is an article by Dr Dennett on this subject for readers who want to go into this in more depth), which can be summed up as: "In order to be a perfect and beautiful computing machine, it is not requisite to know what arithmetic is."

In the case of evolution by natural selection and machine computing, competence can be achieved without comprehension. While rote learning is often looked down upon, comprehension comes after competence. Bacteria and termites are competent without comprehension. Beavers are competent, and while more intelligent than bacteria or termites, lack the comprehension possessed by the engineers who designed the Hoover Dam. Humans are the first intelligent designers in the tree of life, other animals are not intelligent like we are. We are endowed with competences that have a different evolutionary basis than those of other animals.

Dr Dennett then brought up the topic of the MacCready explosion (PDF), articulated by aircraft designer Paul MacCready: ten thousand years ago, at the dawn of human agriculture, humans and their 'pets' would have made up 0.1% of terrestrial vertebrate biomass, today they make up 98%. Dr Dennett likened this to engulfing the planet with a great technology transfer. In the eukaryote revolution, which lead to the Cambrian Explosion, the earth was swamped with eukaryotic life. This second great explosion was enabled by the invasion of the human brain by symbiotic thinking tools, the memes that Richard Dawkins proposed. Dr Dennett quipped that the current usage of the word 'meme' has turned Dawkins' symbiotic thinking tools into ignoble things.

Unlike genes, memes are not inherited. The two sources of human competence are our genes and our memes. We have thousands of memes, each a way of thinking... how to alphabetize a list, how to perform long division. These 'apps' are the source of our power. Until recently, memes were produced by natural selection acting on culture, they were not designed. For instance, a fraction of one-percent of words were 'designed' by a person- e.g. 'meme' was designed by Richard Dawkins. These memes represent an explosive amplification of competence without comprehension which allowed a transition to competence with comprehension.

Dr Dennett noted that organisms do things for reasons- trees, fungi, the entire biotic world is saturated with reasons, from the molecular level on up- these reasons don't originate in any 'mind', there are free-floating rationales behind various adaptations. Dr Dennett reiterated: "Evolution is cleverer than you are." With humans, though, problems are solved culturally.

Dr Dennett then posed the question, how does one get a Bach mind from a termite colony brain? Before answering the question, he digressed to discuss the usefulness of memes. He specified the meme which results in religious belief. Having been asked, "Every human society has developed religion, what is it good for?" He answered, "Every human society has experienced the common cold, what is it good for?" He noted that certain memes are useful, certain memes aren't. Certain viruses are good, certain are bad, certain are indifferent. He noted that humans harbor trillions of viruses- symbiotic visitors which thrive, even if they aren't alive, in the body. He joked that viruses are 'strings of nucleic acid with attitude', not alive but capable of entering cells and using them for reproductive purposes. Dr Dennett then posed the question, how does one get a Bach mind from a termite colony brain? Before answering the question, he digressed to discuss the usefulness of memes. He specified the meme which results in religious belief. Having been asked, "Every human society has developed religion, what is it good for?" He answered, "Every human society has experienced the common cold, what is it good for?" He noted that certain memes are useful, certain memes aren't. He characterized the invasion of the brain by memes as the 'second great endosymbiotic revolution' and quipped that we are 'apes with infected brains'. He further joked that memes are what make a person a francophone guitarist who loves the Iberian peninsula.

Dr Dennett described cultural evolution in comical terms- cultural evolution begins with a lot of doofuses, but some of the doofusry provides benefits. The process of cultural evolution develops to the point where deliberate design takes place. This deliberate design rests on a backstory of unintelligent design, memes selected by natural selection. Dr Dennett displayed a quote from Picasso: "Je ne cherche pas je trouve." "I do not search, I find." Editors note: Despite what you've heard, Pablo Picasso was an asshole. Dr Dennett then described Bach as an ideal of creative intelligence that even Picasso couldn't meet. He noted that Bach was an exemplary intelligent designer- he had a deep comprehension, he was well-versed in trial and error methods, he was well equipped with thinking tools (in this case, music theory), and he possessed a wealth of technocratic know-how.

Dr Dennett then displayed a picture of an Acheulean handaxe next to a computer mouse. He noted that the handaxe wasn't really invented by any one individual and that the design was in use for about a million years without change. The computer mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart in the 1960s, and it is almost extinct. Dr Dennett noted that chimpanzees have culture- their nut-cracking and termite-fishing techniques constitute the rudiments of culture. Homo sapiens, though, is the only animal with voluminous, recursive cultural evolution. In the case of language, words started out as synanthropic memes, like bedbugs and rats, words thrived in the human environment, but we didn't own them, they weren't domesticated. The first words were 'picked up like fleas'. Eventually, humans domesticated words, we exerted control over their reproduction. Coined words are like genetically modified organisms, their creation was engineered, but some of them don't fly. Certain words begin as technical terms, some as internet 'memes'. Replication is the future of a word, with internet memes being a reductio ad absurdum... Dr Dennett noted that an 'intelligently designed meme' is a contradiction in terms, like a splitable atom. Regarding the development of memes, Dr Dennett quoted Émile Chartier on the topic of boats:

Every boat is copied from another boat... Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied... One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

Once again, Dr Dennett reiterated, "Evolution is cleverer than you." Cultural evolution can be described with an economic model- good things are reproduced. Cultural evolution is increasingly top-down and self-comprehending, it's increasingly resembling genetic engineering rather than evolution by natural selection. Now, with the advent of deep learning, we see the development of 'thinking' machines that work, but do not know. Noam Chomsky recognized a distinction between mysteries and problems- problems can be solved, but not mysteries. Such issues as free will and consciousness are mysteries. Dr Dennett indicated that artificial intelligence should be likened to a Nautilus machine for the mind- a tool, not a colleague.

Dr Dennett characterized Einstein and Feynman as being 'good at using thinking tools', with Feynman being particularly good at teaching others how to use these 'apps'. If the 'apps' weren't true, then we wouldn't be where we are, they represent an accumulation of good design. Eagle eyes are optimized for the needs of eagles, they are highly developed truth-finding apparatuses. Humans have developed microscopes and telescopes which have generated mountains of truth, not just random crap. Dr Dennett likened evolution to plagiarism- if something works, just copy it.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The bastard wasn't able to get a question in, what with the standing room only crowd and all. While micturating, the bastard missed a question, but the tail end of the answer was funny- Dr Dennett stated that he doesn't trust the word 'emergent', traffic jams are emergent but they don't cause 'Zen' moments. To a question about the difference between human and chimpanzee brains, Dr Dennett noted that there is a huge difference between human and chimp 'hardware'- thousands of chimpanzees have lived in close proximity to humans and human language, but they don't pay attention to language. If some factor could be changed in chimp cognition, everything could change. Regarding immortality, Dr Dennett opined that one could be 'immortal' if the information in one's brain could be stored and uploaded into another brain- one's personality wouldn't appreciably change, it would be a case of 'Whoa, here I am back again.'

Dr Dennett delivered an entertaining lecture, a thought-provoking philosophical odyssey leavened with wit and humor. It's no wonder that the man is a celebrity. Personally, I prefer the nuts-and-bolts stuff, but it is important to get a dose of 'big picture' thinking periodically. Kudos to Dr Dennett, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. For a taste of the Secret Science Club experience, pop open a tasty beverage and check out this video, which covers a lot of the topics covered last night:

At about the midpoint, Dr Dennett displays some Decker cube diagrams that I omitted because I couldn't find representations of them on the t00bz. Without the pictures, the concepts were a bit wonky to encapsulate verbally.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Periodic Table of the Subversive Elements

This afternoon, I am heading down to Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, like I typically do each month. Now, with the United States having transitioned from a nerd-American president to a dumbass-American president, the SSC is going to feel subversive again. I imagine the upcoming Science March on Washington is going to be a popular topic among the attendees... For me, attending the Secret Science Club lectures since 2006, it's always been about pushback- I'll never forget another regular saying, "People are sick and tired of being stupid."

On one level, it's really bizarre that simple facts would be subversive, but we are living in really bizarre times, led by a really bizarre individual.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Low Hiring Standards

While shopping at a local supermarket, I noticed that they were seeking employees:

It doesn't seem like they have stringent requirements for this job.

While I am employed full-time, every so often I check out the 'help wanted' ads for part-time positions. Like almost everybody, I could use some extra cash, and most of my friends are at work during my free daytime hours. I decided to apply for this job. The manager wasn't too impressed with my meat credentials, he told me, "You come across as a fun guy."

Sunday, February 5, 2017


I hear that there's some sort of sporting event taking place tonight. I can't be bothered watching, even if I weren't working, I'd probably take a pass heh heh. Besides the whole Debordian spectacle that is off-putting to me, I have come to revile the whole American football system, with its multiple incidents of heinous sexual misconduct and culture of violent misogyny. Even the fact that the advertisements have eclipsed the main event is repugnant- do I really want to be manipulated for commercial purposes?

I can understand that people want to be entertained, to hang out with friends drinking beer and eating junk food. Hey, I like to do that myself. I just don't want to be involved in this particular orgy of mass consumption, of mass consumerism. As far as I'm concerned, I'd rather watch a superb owl, but I'm nerdy that way.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

What a Day!

I should have realized that something odd was going on when I returned from work this morning around half-past-four. One of my upstairs neighbors was running the clothes drier at that uncharacteristic hour. When I woke up at half-past-seven, I saw that there was a text message from my landlady- the furnace had conked out, and one of the upstairs tenants had called her. My plucky neighbor had probably thrown a few blankets in the drier to warm them up... pretty crafty. It wasn't too bad in my apartment, but I had no incentive to dawdle before leaving the house for my volunteer coaching gig.

We had a full complement of four 35 minute classes- girls eleven and up, girls nine and ten, girls seven and under, and boys seven and under. I had a kinda gross moment when one girl, a beautiful child of five or six, sneezed out a two-inch long snot column... I told her not to move a muscle, and got a tissue so I could clean up this prodigy before she wiped her nose with her sleeve. The boys' class was crowded, so we went over falling roll-outs, a couple of throwing techniques, and then let the kids play randori. A couple of the fathers are 'weekend warrior' types, and they got on the mats to give their kids pointers, which completely pissed off my friend, the Moroccan George Clooney, who is one of the nicest, sweetest individuals I've ever met. He was still pissed after we hit the showers, and we discussed the imposition of a 'no parents on the mat' policy. None of the girls' parents ever pulls this- in fact, we have a particular favorite dad who is a wrestler (he was also a competitive diver and male model in college, which amuses us to no end), who we enjoy having on the mat- he even works out with us, because there is a lot of overlap between judo and certain types of wrestling. Funny how dudes never seem to need to live vicariously through their girls. Our best girl fighter is a twelve year old who is big for her age, strong, and very smart- her dad is an athlete and a sports medicine doctor, an all-around gentlemen... he never feels the need to tell us how to do our coaching gig.

I finally got home around half-past-two, and the heat in the house had been fixed- yay, landlady! Shortly afterwards, I received a call from some good friends who were visiting the Hudson River Museum, a jewel in the crown of the City of Y______, a place I visit every couple of months. I told them I would meet them there and we wandered through the Red Grooms exhibit, which my friend K. described as 'walking through a childrens' book', before hitting the planetarium show. Admission to the museum is six dollars, the planetarium show is four- I could have used my company ID for a reciprocal free admission, but this was ten dollars well-spent. For the record, I love the fact that my beloved city has a museum and planetarium, and want to make sure I support the museum with my wallet.

I had to bop out after the planetarium show to get to work, knowing that I would have two hungry kittehs waiting for me. They can be quite forceful when it comes to feeding time. It's been quiet on the job, which is a good thing, because it's been a long, busy day... just the sort of productive day which serves well to distract one from politics for a spell.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Two Weeks In

Two weeks into the Trump/GOP maladministration, and quite a lot has been accomplished... an unconstitutional ban on travelers that has caused the revocation of tens of thousands of visas, nan 'unpresidented' hostility between the U.S. and Australia, a European Union that considers the POTUS a threat, the obliteration of rules meant to prevent the dumping of coal waste into streams, and got rid of rules which were meant to keep firearms out of the hands of certain mentally ill persons. He also gutted reductions in mortgage premiums and is in the process of deregulating the financial industry, including the axing of rules that would force financial institutions to act in their clients' interest.

I can feel the greatness returning to America!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Giant Space Rock

Back in the halcyon days of 2016, there was a joke going around that a giant meteor strike was polling well in the Presidential election. Well, now it seems that there are quite a lot of asteroids buzzing old Terra these days. Somehow, this notion isn't as upsetting to me as it would have been a few months ago.

On a serious note, I think that this 'spike' is probably due to better detection methods. Every so often, I post about asteroids, though I think that our demise may well come from willful bed-shitting.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

And So It Begins?

I've long been fascinated with the country of Iran, and the obsession that American right-wingers have with it. I was a young child when the Shah of Iran, installed as an American-British puppet to further the interests of British Petroleum, was deposed and the new regime took a bunch of westerners hostage. I have long maintained that American hostility to Iran, rooted in American hostility to democratic movements in nations with fucktons of patroleum, has been one of the major policy blunders of the 20th Century, one which has bled, literally, over into the twenty-first century.

Recently, I predicted to a friend of mine that the Trump administration would seek to start a war with Iran. Now, we have National Security Adviser Michael Flynn rattling the sabre about Iran, making a vague threat about putting Iran 'on notice'. Given the stupidity and belligerence of the occupants of the White House, I am genuinely concerned that there will be an attack on Iran. Sure, the testing of that ballistic missile was a provocation, but it accomplished what it was meant to do- it provoked. I just hope that there are some responsible adults in Washington who can de-escalate this situation before it leads to tragedy.