Wednesday, October 31, 2018

It's Halloween!

As is typical, I am working on Halloween- this day I will be covering two of our sites, having started at 4PM. For some reason, perhaps the fact that the weather was gorgeous, nobody wanted to leave. We even had one lady drive in through our exit gate five minutes before closing time, 5PM, looking to 'look around'. She was a nice lady, but she really needed to leave and come back another day. It was funny, though, as I was hinting to her that she needed to go, she'd pick up on a thread of our conversation and try to spin our conversation out a little longer, all the while telling me she needed to be back in Manhattan by six-thirty. She was a good conversationalist, being well-versed in literature, but her timing was pretty bad. I suggested that she return over the weekend and visit the site when we are actually open.

I will be leaving the first site soon, and traveling to another site to close things up after the last night of our Fall fundraiser. It being Halloween night, things won't be too hectic- most of the die-hard Halloween fans will be in Manhattan for the big parade, or attending house parties.

At any rate, how about some endearingly awful 'outsider art'? The Shaggs were three teenage sisters whose father, prompted by a 'prediction' by a palm reader that his daughters would form a popular musical group, browbeat them into forming a band, despite their lack of musical talent. While not achieving commercial success in their first attempt at forming a band, they did gain a certain cult status later on. Here's the seasonally appropriate It's Halloween:

It's also pretty bad... but fascinating nonetheless. Happy Halloween, all!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Bringing Together Horror Greats

In the runup to Halloween, I have been watching a classic horror movie every night (oddly enough, watching a supernatural thriller is good escapism from the real world horrors of the day). I recently watched The Haunted Palace, produced and directed by King of the B Movies Roger Corman, a mad genius who could crank out a movie in three weeks for a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Corman had directed a run of successful horror movies adapted from short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, widely considered the greatest horror author of all time, at least here in the United States. Corman wanted to attempt something different, so he hit on adapting The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, a posthumously published novella by H.P. Lovecraft. The management at American International Pictures insisted on slapping an Edgar Allan Poe title on the film, however, as Lovecraft was relatively unknown at the time, so it was entitled The Haunted Palace and Vincent Price recited lines from the poem to give a patina of Poe-etry to the proceedings. The screenplay of the movie was written by Charles Beaumont, a prolific science fiction and horror author who wrote numerous Twilight Zone episodes, but is largely forgotten today- his precipitous neurological decline and death at the age of thirty-eight constitutes a horror story in and of itself. Penguin Books has recently released an anthology of Beaumont's stories, Perchance to Dream, which will hopefully pull this interesting writer back from obscurity. Beaumont's script adapts The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but also admixes an unsavory element from Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror to augment the rather bare-bones motivation of Lovecraft's sinister warlock. Beaumont's script also moves the action of the novella from the city of Providence to Lovecraft's fictitious town of Arkham, probably due to budgetary constraints.

Lovecraft's villain, Charles Dexter Ward's ancestor Joseph Curwen, while engaging in necromancy by calling up the remains of the dead using their 'essential saltes', really has a vague motivation... he and two other necromancers, based in Europe, are calling up dead persons of renown in order to interrogate them to gain more knowledge and power.

What these horrible creatures—and Charles Ward as well—were doing or trying to do seemed fairly clear from their letters and from every bit of light both old and new which had filtered in upon the case. They were robbing the tombs of all the ages, including those of the world’s wisest and greatest men, in the hope of recovering from the bygone ashes some vestige of the consciousness and lore which had once animated and informed them.

A hideous traffick was going on among these nightmare ghouls, whereby illustrious bones were bartered with the calm calculativeness of schoolboys swapping books; and from what was extorted from this centuried dust there was anticipated a power and a wisdom beyond anything which the cosmos had ever seen concentrated in one man or group. They had found unholy ways to keep their brains alive, either in the same body or different bodies; and had evidently achieved a way of tapping the consciousness of the dead whom they gathered together.

He attributes the alchemical means by which this is accomplished to Borellus:

“The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his own Studie, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke Method from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust where into his Bodie has been incinerated.”

John Bellairs parodied this in The Face in the Frost, a particular favorite of mine:

In the meantime, he fribbled away the day with mindless tasks like cleaning the ash pit of the fireplace and raising the ghosts of flowers. From a square bottle marked "Essential Salts," Prospero poured a few green crystals into a white ceramic dish; when he had mumbled some words over the bowl, a pink and green cloud began to ascend from the shimmering translucent pebbles.

Before long, a definite shape appeared.

"Carnations," said the wizard disgustedly. "Phooey."

Of course, raising dead humans poses a greater risk than raising flowers, even flowers unsought for:

Certainely, there was Noth’g butt ye liveliest Awfulness in that which H. rais’d upp from What he cou’d gather onlie a part of. What you sente, did not Worke, whether because of Any Thing miss’g, or because ye Wordes were not Righte from my Speak’g or yr Copy’g. I alone am at a Loss. I have not ye Chymicall art to followe Borellus, and owne my Self confounded by ye VII. Booke of ye Necronomicon that you recommende. But I wou’d have you Observe what was tolde to us aboute tak’g Care whom to calle up, for you are Sensible what Mr. Mather writ in ye Magnalia of ——, and can judge how truely that Horrendous thing is reported. I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you can not put downe; by the Which I meane, Any that can in Turne call up somewhat against you, whereby your Powerfullest Devices may not be of use. Ask of the Lesser, lest the Greater shall not wish to Answer, and shall commande more than you.

Beaumont's screenplay dispenses with all of the alchemical bafflegab and substitutes for it a more traditional 'village girls in peril' theme, making it more accessible to the typical audience member.

The film is a great collaboration between horror greats- Lovecraft, Poe, Corman, Beaumont, and Price. Add in a sympathetic portrayal of Ms Ward, a woman nonplussed by the terrible transformation of her formerly loving husband, by the luminously gorgeous Debra Paget, in her last film role before retiring from the big screen, and you have a fun, gruesome little horror gem. It is also the first film adaptation of a Lovecraft story. Vincent Price, years later, recorded an introduction to the film for Iowa public television:

In The Haunted Palace, you get twice the Price- with the horror maven playing both the benevolent Charles Dexter Ward and the monstrous Joseph Curwen. In his introduction to the film, Price notes that his own career parallels his performances in the film... the kindly, urbane Vincent Price ably playing every stripe of villain. It is a perfect spooky entertainment for the Halloween season.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Yelling 'Fire' in a Crowded Theater? Not Exactly

It's been a weird day... I worked until about 6AM, then went home for a long nap, having to get up at 2PM to return to work. At work, I spoke to two of my Jewish friends and co-workers, who both have relatives who are congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, none of whom were harmed, baruch hashem. I was then reminded that the brother of another friend of mine, who had moved to Pittsburgh for grad school decades ago and decided to stay, was a congregant at the synagogue. He was not present for the massacre. I imagine that, if I were to poll my Jewish friends here in New York, that most of them would know congregants of the synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

After this sobering rundown on the situation of my friends' friends and loved ones, I began to indulge in a bit of Schadenfreude by checking out the downfall and probable demise of the platform, which I have been fascinated, and repelled, by for the past year. From its inception, the social networking site has been a haven for trolls and neo-nazis, misogynists and racists... oh my! Their debut on the world stage occurred this past weekend when the synagogue shooter made a cryptic announcement that he was 'going in'. Since the massacre, the Gab spokescreeps have been overactive on Twitter, oddly enough, with a litany of whinging and self-righteous twaddle. In one particularly ludicrous assertion, the Gab CEO claimed to have been 'proactive' regarding the shooter, yet this was after the massacre.

The usual cliche for describing the limits of free speech is yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater, but in this instance, the person is yelling 'burn down the theater with those people inside'.

That being said, I believe that the efforts to deplatform Gab are not really the answer- the entire right-wing media apparatus has been pushing the 'caravan' narrative that pushed the shooter over the edge, and Gab is just small potatoes compared to Fox, Sinclair, and the like.

Besides reading up on the Gab saga, I have been, in the runup to Halloween, been watching classic B horror movies, particularly those starring Bastard fave Vincent Price. Poking around the t00bz, I have found two great PSAs by Vincent Price regarding bigotry, the first from 1947:

The second from 1950:

For a guy who relished playing villains, he sure was a good man.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Every Little Thing He Does Is MAGA, Ick!

After a terrible week ending on a truly horrific note, I think I need a little mood lightener... Via Tengrain, we have the minor kerfuffle of Trump dropping his umbrella while boarding Air Force One, and leaving it on the stairway. While most of us 'normies' would interpret this as laziness on Dotard's part, I am sure that the QAnon crowd is going to interpret it as a portent. Hell, these people interpret misspellings in Trump's tweets as coded messages (the links to the QAnon subreddit are gone, as the subreddit was nuked).

Trump dropping an umbrella might be interpreted as meaning there's no shelter from 'the coming storm', the central trope of QAnon. Occam's Razor, the proposition that the least speculative explanation to a phenomenon should be considered the correct one, is a cornerstone of mainstream perception of the universe, but the QAnon crowd always goes for the most convoluted explanation... call it Jone's Gluegun, or something.

Laziness or a coded message to the faithful on the eve of the midterms?

Post title taken from this classic by that Stang feller and they boys:

It's a big enough umbrella, but it's always me that ends up getting indicted for a vague international conspiracy.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Terror in a Safe Space

This morning, as I was leaving work, I figured that I would be posting about the capture of the MAGAbomber, but upon waking up this afternoon, I learned of the mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue which resulted in the death of eleven persons.

I have not been in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh in many years- the first and last time I was there was when I helped a high school friend of mine move into an apartment when he started his MFA program in lighting design at Carnegie Mellon University. It was a nice place to visit, but my trip was a whirlwind- I was tasked with returning the rental van my friend used to move his worldly possessions, so there was no time for lollygagging.

Demographically, Squirrel Hill's population is forty percent Jewish, with the neighborhood housing one-third of Pittsburgh's Jewish population, which has been in the neighborhood for a century. I can think of no other place, besides neighborhoods in NYC and LA, in which Jewish Americans felt more secure in their lives, their faith, their culture. This attack was perpetrated by a deranged bigot who was convinced that the Central American migrant movement trumped up by right wing media outlets is a Jewish plot to undermine 'white America'. It was a textbook case of terrorism, an attack designed to make the Jewish population of the United States feel unsafe no matter where they are- if a massacre can happen in Squirrel Hill, a haven for Jewish people and a diverse college town, a massacre could happen anywhere. The right-wing media, including such mega-corporations as Fox, have been pushing the narrative of an invasion caravan for the better part of a month, so they, and Trump, bear some culpability in the radicalization of the shooter.

This massacre has been a particularly horrific coda to a terrible week, and I sincerely hope that my Jewish friends stay safe. The bigots are a small percentage of the population, and they WILL LOSE.

If there's one ray of sunshine in all of this darkness, it's that the MAGAbomber case was broken because the jerk left a latent fingerprint on a bomb meant to harm Maxine Waters- the lady can kick right-wing ass without even breaking a sweat. In a week as terrible as this, any bit of good news is precious.

Friday, October 26, 2018

So Long, Swamp Rocker

As if this week weren't bad enough, via Crooks and Liars, I learned of the death of singer/songwriter Tony Joe White. I wrote a post running down several versions of my favorite song of his, Polk Salad Annie, and I have added pokeweed to my foraging repertoire. In my version of the Great American Songbook, 'Polk Salad Annie', the heroine of this darkly humorous song, occupies a place somewhere between the great ladies of rock and roll, such as Peggy Sue and Barbara Ann, and such protagonists of tall tales as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Here's Tony Joe White having a blast singing the song with Johnny Cash:

Besides having a great baritone, Tony Joe White's genius at songwriting is evident when one considers the artists who performed his songs. In a melancholy vein, Tony wrote Rainy Night in Georgia, which was memorably covered by soul crooner Brook Benton and legend Ray Charles:

The spicy Steamy Windows was covered by Tina Turner:

Tony released an album, Hoodoo, in 2013 and played live on TV with Jools Holland and the Foo Fighters:

In his Crooks and Liars post, Dale Merrill embedded a 1970 BBC concert by Mr White. Here's a 1992 concert by the man:

I'd eat a mess of poke to commemorate the man, but we've already had a frost this season, and as he warned Johnny Cash, "If you eat it after a frost, it'll MOlest ya." Thanks for the decades of great music, Tony Joe.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Finding Solace in Art, Finding Solace in Yonkers

This has been a pretty bad week here in the NY Metro Area- three days of terrorism targeting New Yorkers, both in the City and here in Westchester County. I decided today to take a mental health break before heading to work, so I headed over to Yonkers' own Hudson River Museum to take in Maya Lin's A River Is a Drawing exhibit. This exhibit, which runs until January 20, 2019, is Ms Lin's love letter to the Hudson River and the planet- it showcases her dedication to environmentalism as well as her artistic brilliance. A River Is a Drawing has 'taken over' the museum- visitors are first greeted in the lobby by Pin River—Hudson Watershed, which uses over 20,000 pins to map out the Hudson River Watershed:

From the lobby, I proceeded to the courtyard, which featured two installations- the first being Reed River. a bamboo and bluegrass representation of the main course of the mighty Hudson, with the gorgeous gilded age Glenview mansion providing a lovely backdrop:

Next up was Concrete River, in which Ms Lin played on the dual meanings of the word 'overlook'- she painted the normally overlooked cracks in the concrete pavers near the scenic overlook giving a vantage of the river:

In the main floor galleries, Ms Lin acted as curator, displaying favorite paintings from the Hudson River School that reflected themes of industrialization and environmental challenges.

In the stairwell going down to the next level of the museum, there was The Hudson Bight, a wonderful topographic depiction of the Hudson Canyon, the seafloor at the mouth of the river which was gouged out by glacial forces during the last Ice Age:

In the lower level, there was a sculpture based on the proposed geography of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which gouged out the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes, and Lakes George and Champlain:

Another beautiful depiction of the river and its outflow into the Hudson Bight and Long Island Sound was rendered in recycled silver:

A combined map and timeline featured a depiction of the watershed surrounded by quotes about the river in historical order:

My particular favorite quote was Washington Irving's lament about the construction of the Hudson Railroad line, which ran past his home, Sunnyside, and caused a cove in front of his house to silt up and become a marsh: "If the Garden of Eden were now on earth, someone would try to put a railroad through it."

Perhaps the most dramatic piece in the exhibit was Folding the River, a depiction of the Hudson watershed made from recycled green glass marbles which sprawled across the floor, up one wall, across the ceiling and down another wall. I tried to take a panoramic photo of the piece, but pretty much botched it:

The location of the Hudson River Museum corresponds with the area where the floor and wall meet.

There was a sobering depiction of what New York City would look like by 2100 if there is a four degree Celsius rise in temperature:


Maybe this wasn't the sort of art to take solace in, gorgeous as it was. The exhibit ended with a challenge, a link to Ms Lin's What Is Missing? project, which is a memorial to the species killed off in the current Sixth Mass Extinction. Along with this call to action was an invitation for exhibit attendees to write down their own experiences with the Hudson and to post them on the wall.

The exhibit was marvelous, and the idea that such a titan of the American arts as Maya Lin would display such an elaborate exhibit in my beloved Yonkers was warming to my heart. If you are in the NYC metro area, consider a trip to the Hudson River Museum. Admission to the museum is a mere seven dollars, and the museum is easily accessible by Metro North- the ride from Grand Central to the Glenwood station on the Hudson Line is breathtaking. Come to Yonkers, especially if you've been having a bad week.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Bizarre Day, Bomb Day

What a day for nutty news- a rash of attempted bombings targeting various bêtes noires of the Right, and specifically of the White House Occupant. Strangely, most of these bomb scares happened in my backyard- the Soros and Clinton residences are up the road from my beloved Yonkers, and the CNN NYC headquarters is in Columbus Circle, an area I am intimately familiar with (my typical Saturday morning subway stop had to be evacuated during the CNN bomb crisis). I spent much of the day glued to the radio before I had to head off to work.

With no real information available, all sorts of rumors are flying- the righties are claiming 'false flage' attacks (though wags have been claiming that, if that were true, the names and addresses would have been spelled correctly), and the left-of-center Twitterati have coined the hashtag MAGAbomber, which became the number one trending topic on the platform. I would say that it's premature to assign blame, or a motive, but Trump has incited violence against political opponents and the media. It's not that far a stretch to make the assertion that at least someone in Trump's audience would make the leap from 'lock her up' to 'blow her up'.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Legislating Human Diversity Out of Existence?

I'd like to think that, even as a teenager, I was a decent person, but I have to admit that, being a straight, white, cissexual male, I was unaware of the privilege that I was accorded just by the mere circumstances of my existence. While in college, having breakfast with some ethnically diverse straight male friends, I remember a line from a campus literary magazine came up: marginalized to the point of negation. As straight males attending a prestigious bastion of prestige, we thought it was a bit histrionic. Well, live and learn, and examine one's privilege, and decades later, it turns out that the current administration of the United States is doing exactly that- the Trump regime is proposing to use policy to 'disappear' the entire transgender population, literally marginalizing them to the point of negation.

Back when I was yukking it up about the line 'marginalization to the point of negation', my awareness of the term 'transsexual' would have been limited to a line in a campy song from a cult musical. At the time, though, I was studying such phenomena as mosaic gynandromorphism and gender shifting in biology class, but transpersons weren't all that visible in the social circles in which I moved. Even now, decades later, it's generally believed that transpersons are just 0.58 percent of the population of the United States, approximately 1.3 million individuals- transpersons are pretty well represented on my blogroll, and I value the wit and grit of my trans-friends.

Since my college days, society has progressed on LGBTQ issues, with bathroom bills having largely been considered the stupid last-gasp legislation of bigots who felt that their time was pretty much up. This has all changed with the ascent of Trump and, in this case I suspect, Mike Pence. Progress is NOT inevitable, but the idea that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, as Chris Hayes put it, is wrong- that arc has to be forcibly bent by dedicated activists. Here and now, there is an attempt to 'legislate away' the very existence of a small, marginalized population in these here United States, and such attempts to use fiat to 'remove' people are often precursors to actual attempts to remove them by violence. In these days, when Godwin's Law has up-and-died, the idea of purges doesn't seem so preposterous, and 'marginalized to the point of negation' takes on a cogent, horrifying meaning.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Two Phones, One River

What a difference a week makes! The grounds of my principal workplace are bisected by a small river, actually a brook (there are two names borne by this body of water), that feeds our onsite pond. There is a bridge across this river which is a favorite spot for people to stop and take photos of the site, with its pretty pond. Most people, of course, use their smartphones to take photos these days.

Last weekend, a woman who was attending our fall fundraiser stumbled on the bridge and the phone flew out of her hands, ending up in the river. The fate of the phone was immediately apparent when her husband called the phone and was instantly shunted off into voicemail. Nevertheless, hope is a persistent thing, and the couple asked me if I could search for the phone during my overnight shift, and I dutifully looked for the stricken phone in the dawn's early light, to no avail. I sent her husband a text message the following day to indicate that the phone was not recoverable.

Last week, a major renovation project onsite was started, a project which necessitates the draining of the pond- a culvert which allows drainage was opened up, and the water started to slowly drain out of the pond, exposing much of the bed of our small river. On Friday night, a girl attending our fall fundraiser dropped her phone while on the bridge, and it fell onto a now-dry portion of the riverbed. One of our contractors working the event located the phone on the riverbed below, and with the encouragement of our event director, attempted to retrieve it. He scrambled down the overgrown riverbank, then was brought up short when confronted by one of our local raccoons. He climbed back up the bank pretty much at the time I arrived.

Knowing that I have a high tolerance for not-too-pleasant tasks (years ago, one co-worker once told me that I'm not happy unless I'm getting my ass kicked), he and the event director told me of the dropped phone, and pointed it out to me... challenge accepted! I scrambled down the bank of the river, crashing through the underbrush without encountering any fauna. I examined the riverbank to locate the spots which looked least likely to be soft, muddy places to lose both shoes and footing. I was able to get the phone and return it, functional but with a badly cracked screen, to its grateful owner.

It was a matter of luck- if the pond-draining hadn't been undertaken, and the river level lowered, this second phone would have suffered the fate of its predecessor. Meanwhile, my reputation as the go-to guy to accomplish off-the-wall tasks continues unabated.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Pho Pho Fun

This afternoon, I drove up to Danbury, CT to meet up with some of the Alicublog regulars for dinner at Pho Vietnam. The occasion for this meetup was a Connecticut visit by the lovely, gracious, and hilarious Jenn of Ark and her nephew, who had flown up to the state to purchase an automobile. Derelict, Gocart Mozart, mds, and I met Jenn and her nephew for bowls of pho and camaraderie.

It was fantastic to meet Jenn, for many years one of my favorite internet snark-slingers, and to touch base with Derelict, GCMZ, and mds, who I had met before. After dinner, we stepped outside to admire Jenn's new car, a sleek six-speed Ford. We speculated about the use of the sixth gear, and Jenn hit upon the use, confirmed with an internet search... it's a fuel-saving measure, allowing a lower rate of RPM on flat straightaways. The car looks like it will be fun to drive. It's a long way back to Arkansas, but it should be a sweet road trip.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Stupid Reichstag Fire?

John Oliver coined a term to describe the debased nature of this scandal-ridden-yet-farcical era: Stupid Watergate. Last week's vandalism of the NYC Metropolitan Republican Club immediately struck me as a 'false flag' incident- the halfassed 'anarchist' iconography and the letter referencing 'blacks' seem to point to an individual trying, and failing, to grasp the language of the 'Social Justice Warrior'. The vandalism preceded a speech by Proud Boy founder Gavin McAnus, which preceded a brawl on the streets of the Upper East Side. The UES is one of the whitest, richest neighborhoods of New York City, and even though it has a storied bar culture, is not the sort of place where brawls regularly occur. I view the vandalism of the Republican club as the 'Stupid Reichstag Fire', given the violence which followed in NYC and Portland soon afterwards.

The police seem to be passively supporting the fascists, having allowed gang assaults to occur in New York, and covering up the discovery of a sniper's nest in Portland. Of course, the President is comfortable with encouraging violence- there is a move to normalize political violence. Thankfully, public outcry has led to the arrest of one fascist gang assault perpetrator, and more should follow.

With the midterm elections coming up, and voter suppression campaigns being waged around the country, this is going to be a long, stupid season. Hopefully, the violence will be tamped down, and the police forced to forestall gang assaults rather than acting as not-so-innocent bystanders. I'm not exactly holding my breath, though.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Numbers Games

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 538's Riddler, economist and game theorist Dr Oliver Roeder. Dr Roeder was formerly with the Brennan Center for Justice and has recently released his book The Riddler: Fantastic Puzzles from FiveThirtyEight.

Dr Roeder began his lecture with a description of the Rhind papyrus, a three-thousand year old Egyptian collection of mathematical exercises which begins with a wonderful description of mathematics as “The entrance into the knowledge of all existing things and all obscure secrets.” He then continued to extol the modern masters of mathematical puzzles, luminaries such as Lewis Carroll, Ernő Rubik, Tetsuya Miyamoto, and a man he singled out for especial accolades- Martin Gardner, who long wrote the mathematical puzzle column in Scientific American (and whose The Annotated Alice occupies a place of prominence on my bookshelf). Gardner popularized such math puzzles as tangrams, rep-tiles, and Escher's artworks.

Seeking to follow in Mr Gardner's footsteps, Dr Roeder has brought to the public such mathematical puzzles as planetary guardian, Laser Larry, the lonesome king, and chasing squircles. He described the different puzzle-solving cohorts as 'empirical solvers, theoretical solvers, and Jeff'.

He then launched into Riddler mode, testing the audience's puzzle-solving acumen. He started off with a classic in order to get our brains limbered up... the two jug puzzle featured in the second 'Die Hard' movie, which I believe was titled 'Dier Harder':

Then he had us split up into groups to engage in a game- how to allocate to use a one billion dollar budget to build a spacecraft which could reach an extrasolar object before spacecrafts built by rivals... the choices for components were top-notch American components, cheaper Russian components, and a finite amount of xenon gas which could improve performance. There were a couple of approaches- one being a blend of components, the other being to buy up all of the xenon (Dr Roeder joked that being a dickhead was advantageous here).

Then the audience was given a task to pick a number, with the two lowest unique numbers qualifying the respondents to compete onstage. The winners chose five and twelve, and were brought onstage. They were given a random number between 0 and 1, and given the opportunity to choose another number, with the one getting the number closest to one getting a prize. Both contestants were given numbers below .5, both chose to get another number. When asked to explain why they chose a second "draw", both indicated that they did so because they were below the halfway mark. Dr Roeder noted that the optimal cutoff is the golden ratio minus one with reader Christopher Mullan illustrating the problem with a graphic representation he dubbed the Pringle of Probability.

All told, it was a night of fun and games, reminiscent of Matt Parker's standup mathematics routine. Dr Roeder was a demanding, though not stern, taskmaster. I'm primarily a biology nerd, so having to exercise the mathematical portion of the brain was a good change of pace.

Kudos go to Dr Roeder, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House- this was a night of nerdy fun and games, and nobody decided to be a dickhead, no matter how advantageous it would be. For a taste of the sort of puzzles Dr Roeder deals in, here's a good video:

Pour yourself a beverage and join the Secret Solvers Club.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

THIS is the Bridge Too Far?

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi authorities is horrific, but not surprising, given the Saudis' bloodthirsty idea of criminal jurisprudence. The cynical part of me tells me that the sustained outrage about his death is largely due to the fact that the guy lived in the US and probably had lunch with American journalists on numerous occasions. Meanwhile, the executions of poor women accused of sorcery is a mere sidebar in the news. One well-connected guy is valued more than any number of working class women- the whole 'NPC meme' is nothing new, I guess.

I don't wish to minimize the death of Mr Khashoggi, but where the hell were all of the pearl-clutchers over the past century of stonings, dismemberments, beheadings? Saudi money is a corrupting influence, and the current maladministration is ass-deep in the stuff, so I suspect that the current outrage will die down soon. Sure, Jamal Khashoggi might have been a lunch buddy, but the Saudis can pick up much bigger tabs than he ever could.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Hen Party

It being fall, the hen of the woods mushroom (Grifola frondosa) is on my mind. The best place to find these mushrooms is growing on a tree on which you have previously found them- they tend to recur, as the edible portions of the fungus are merely the fruiting bodies of a largely underground organism. I have staked out a few trees on which I have found hens. In a bit of counterintuitive thinking, I begin my search for new hen of the woods sources by looking up- the fungi tend to be found on oak trees, so if you find the tree you might find the mushroom. I did, though, find a small one growing on a moribund (now lopped) maple tree right in front of my house, seen on the right hand side of this photo:

I did not identify the fungus on the right hand side...

I hit paydirt while visiting an ancient oak tree at one of my worksites. This picture, taken last week, shows some of the seven fruiting bodies clustered around the tree like a hen of the woods party:

The fruiting bodies have subsequently gotten bigger, and I harvested the largest one last Friday, using a long, sharp knife to cut 'florets' off of the tougher 'stem' attached to the tree roots. Sauteed in a little olive oil, a portion of what I harvested made a nice meal, accompanied by a nice, crusty baguette. There's more left in the kitchen, and six additional fruiting bodies to lop off of the tree.

I have found an additional small 'hen' on a tree at my principle workplace, but it's not yet big enough to grab. The search goes on, as I look up to the canopy to find oak leaves and look down to find fallen acorns. The hens are out there, they have no poisonous lookalikes, and they are choice. This fall, I am throwing a hen party.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Respect for the Office

Despite the title, this is not a political post... it's literally about an office, specifically my office. I'm an indoor/outdoor cat, but I and the other guys in my department have a diminutive office at each of our worksites. It's the place where we have a lockbox for the company smartphone and a smattering of equipment, such as first aid supplies, spare keys, and a small toolkit. It also houses our department fridge, where we keep milk for our coffee and perishable lunch items.

This being our busy season, our office is also where our small army of contract parking valets keep their equipment: reflective vests, walkie-talkies, and traffic batons. This is okay, we work closely with them and they are a great bunch of people, mainly men and women in their twenties who never fail to impress me.

This, though, pissed me off:

Boxes of paper goods, meant for stocking the restrooms, which are swamped by the numerous visitors we get. I wouldn't mind so much, but they were blocking fridge access until I used my bulk to shift the stack enough to open the door a crack.

Friday, October 12, 2018

A Delicious Purchase

In the runup to Halloween, I like to post about the outré, macabre even, pop culture that I enjoy. I am on the record saying that I am a big fan of Vincent Price, so I was happy as a clam when, on a visit to Washington Irving's home, Sunnyside, before work, I found a copy of Mary and Vincent Price's Come into the Kitchen Cook Book, which features pictures of the kitchens of notable historic houses, including Washington Irving's remarkable kitchen... which explains why the book was on sale in the gift shop.

The book itself is arranged in chronological order, starting with recipes from the colonial era, then exploring the addition of different foodways as the country expanded westward and new immigrant groups arrived, and ending with 'modern' recipes of the post WW2 era. This historic 'tour' of America's foodscape is followed with an extensive section about wine- purchasing, tasting, and matching the precious liquid with different foods, and even touching on home winemaking.

The friendly lady working in the gift shop told me that she had purchased the book, and that Vincent Price's recipe for popovers has become a regular part of her family's culinary repertoire. Even better, she referred me to a Tonight Show segment in which Vincent Price teaches Johnny Carson to cook in a surprising, and hilarious, manner:

Now, that was a twist ending worthy of M. Night Shabba Doo. For a man who was best known for starring in horror movies, Vincent was a brilliant comedic talent. I can't wait to put his popover recipe to the test.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Michael, Blow the Boat Ashore

Watching the coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Michael is disconcerting. The storm, a few scant mph short of being a category 5 monster, devastated coastal communities.

At the risk of seeming callous, my major reaction to news stories like these is to nerd out. This sort of destruction happened at the intersection of global warming and the sort of lax regulatory environment which leads to the construction of flimsy buildings altogether too close to the oceanfront. The IPCC just issued a report detailing the dangers of global warming as the storm was bearing down on the Florida panhandle, most of the residents of which voted for politicians who tried to legislate away global warming, by which I mean any mention of global warming.

I live on a hill in a city of hills but work in a low-lying area near a tributary of the Hudson River, so development in littoral zones holds a particular fascination for me. Beachfronts strike me as particularly bad places to build 'permanent' structures- proper foundations can't be built, storm surges are devastating. One look at the debris left behind by Michael had me thinking uncharacteristically biblical thoughts.

This being the second devastating hurricane to hit the Southeastern US this hurricane season, Michael should be the wakeup call that our government has been ignoring for the past two decades, but I doubt it will lead to substantive policy changes... it seems that not even the primal forces of nature can change the primal forces of nature.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A Heroine Unlooked For

It's been a while since I've mentioned Taylor Swift on this blog. I have long been on the record saying that, while I'd rather jab a fork into my thigh than to listen to any of her songs, I have no animus against her. I actually met her right before she became a household name, and I never would have guessed that she was a celebrity, because she was so low-key and unassuming. She also seems to be very devoted to her fans.

I was surprised when she wrote a detailed Instagram post about her reasons for voting against Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn and urged her fans to educate themselves about political candidates and vote for those that represent their values. Predictably, the anime Nazi crowd lost their shit about this. Since Ms Swift has such a vast following of mostly-young, mostly-female fans, her coming out as a Democratic voter has terrified Republican politicians... indeed, after her endorsement, voter registrations have spiked. It looks like a sleeping giant has been awakened, and it's not going to take any BS from regressive men. Taylor Swift is a survivor of a sexual assault, so it's tempting to infer that the Kavanaugh hearings, and the Republican attacks against a survivor, forced her hand. At any rate, the long-reticent Swift has revealed herself as an advocate for civil rights, and the GOP just isn't aligning with her values.

If I were given a thousand guesses, I never would have guessed that Taylor Swift would be this year's 'October Surprise', but it seems as if she's The Chosen One who will lead her legions of fans to turn this country, indeed this society, around... and I can say that I met her 'back then'.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Giorno di Dio?

It's been our tradition this time of year to question the appropriateness of Columbus Day. As an Italian-American, and specifically a Ligurian-American, I have long maintained that Columbus, whose treatment of the inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere was horrific, is not an appropriate standard-bearer for my people and our culture. Today, Dr Zoom at Wonkette wrote a post articulating this, a post similar to my typical posts on the topic.

I usually propose better representatives of Italian culture to replace the problematic Columbus. This year, how about Italian-American singer Ronnie James Dio? Signore Dio started his career as a teenager in the band Ronnie and the Redcaps. Here's il giovane Dio singing about a missing angel:

Later in his career, he discovered that the missing angel had become a holy diver:

Signore Dio's album covers typically depicted occult themes, which many critics might chalk up to a crass attempt to boost sales due to controversy, but my guess is that Ronnie was paying tribute to Dante Alighieri's most famous work- Dante being, after all, the person most responsible for the formulation of the formal modern Italian language.

Since the man grew up in Cortland, New York, the best way to celebrate Ronnie James Dio day would be to cook some spiedies, the jewel in the crown of Southern Tier Italian-American cuisine:

Perhaps the best thing about changing Columbus Day to Dio Day is that the Spanish translation would be Día del Dio.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Day the SCotUS Died

Because snark is the best defense mechanism...

Ta-ta Missy Yank Liberta,
Drove my pickup, full of sickup
From Bart O'Kavanaugh.
Them good old boys butt-chugging warm Meisterbrah,
Saying, "Keep Beach Week tales from my ma!"

Of course, this is a riff on this ubiquitous pop anthem.

Sadly, I have a 1.75 liter bottle of Tullamore Dew sitting in the kitchen which I am neglecting because I have to be at work at 11PM. Weird how drinking is seen as a remedy for dealing with a violent drunk being elevated to the Supreme Court.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Barty the Boofer Benched

I had a feeling it was going to happen... with the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, we have a Justice who is a serial perjurer and probably a serial sex offender. He’s the perfect corporate shill, the consummate toady who will shred the Constitution to serve an increasingly dictatorial executive. Trump sees him as a get out of jail free card, which is why this selection process was so rushed.

There is one month until the midterm elections, and we need to channel our indignation, our fury. Millions of Americans, many of them women whose trauma has been brought to the surface by the sham hearings, are devastated right now- grief is an appropriate response to this slap in the face of abuse survivors. It’s the follow up which counts now. Take the time to grieve, then it’s time to continue the fight.

Be strong, everybody. We will get through this. We have to...

Friday, October 5, 2018

It Begins

Tonight was the first night of one of our Fall fundraisers. This year, I am tasked with coming in at the tail end of the night and helping to shut things down. Over the years, I have come to know most of our contractors- the event security staff, the parking valets. Coming in tonight was like a reunion.

Things should be quiet after everybody leaves- I’m used to things being hectic, but I can get used to this.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Just in Time for Halloween

In a very cool coincidence (or is it?!?!?), a skull-shaped ‘dead’ comet will approach the Earth right around the Eve of All Hallows:

I’m not a believer in the supernatural, but if I were, I’d have to say that the cosmos has one fine sense of humor.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Dotard Deputizes Deplorables?

I had meant to turn off my phone as a rejection of Vulgarmort's policies, but last night was pretty rough, so I forgot to do so. I was awakened at 2:18PM by an 'emergency alert' from a man who I consider the greatest emergency these United States has ever faced. I immediately cleared the alert message and, cursing myself for leaving my phone on, went back to sleep.

The message awakened the lunatic fringe of Trump's deplorable base- the QAnon freaks interpreted it as a prelude to Trump declaring martial law against a shadowy cabal of Democratic 'elites' who sacrifice children and consume their flesh to get high. The fact that they are busy defending the SCotUS nomination of a guy alleged to have preyed on teenage girls, nominated by a guy who used to creep on teenage girls is lost on these knuckle-draggers.

The QAnon crowd positively thirsts for bloodshed in the streets- these are the folks who fantasize about the execution of John McCain by a military tribunal. They long for the streets to flow with the blood of the nonbelievers:4

The fever swamps of 8chan were abuzz with the jubilation of the Deplorables who believe that Dotard has deputized them. Personally, I am not concerned with a mass movement of QAnons, the majority of whom are trolls, the rest of whom tend to be out-of-shape baby boomers. The one concern I have is that some nutbar, emboldened by this inferred clarion call, will shoot up a pizzeria or harass the staff of a donut shop. For the most part, the QAnon crowd is a bunch of ineffectual numbnuts, fantasizing about being the Big Damn Heroes in a bloody action movie. Each QAnoner is a super shitty Walter Mitty, but there's a chance that an occasional live-wire will decided to bring the fantasy to life. It's times like this that I am glad I live in the Northeast.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Where Were You Working When the Storm Broke?

This has been one of those days... there were storm warnings all day, even a tornado watch for Northern Westchester and Rockland counties. As luck would have it, we had a VIP event scheduled for tonight- a preview of one of our Fall fundraisers which, again as luck would have it, happens in a tent in a low-lying field on one of our properties.

The e-mails tell the story... at noon, my boss wrote to tell everyone the event was cancelled, at half-past noon, the event was reinstituted. Either way, I had to work, so nothing was really effected on my end. I arrived at work, and there were mucky-mucks abounding. The first thing I did, as a favor to one of the part-timers in our development office who I absolutely love (she met her husband in one of the bars in my neighborhood, so we get along swimmingly), was carry a couple of cases of beer from our basement staff kitchen to the room where the pre-event reception was taking place. I was getting flashbacks to my high school years, when I worked in the local deli as a factotum. I was also able to touch base with one of the guys on the day crew who handles most of our maintenance work- plumbing, changing light bulbs, sending work orders for electrical jobs. I am a big proponent of institutional memory, so I was able to point out certain things which needed to be addressed before the busy season starts in earnest this weekend.

The event went off without a hitch, but as soon as it ended, all hell broke loose, weather-wise. While we didn't get any tornadoes, one was confirmed in Chappaqua, which suggests that Vulgarmort may have gotten his hands on the keys to Obama's Weather Smurfing Machine. A handful of people from the development office and my boss' boss made it back to the site's Visitors' Center, drenched to the bone. I helped them put the leftover beer and wine from the event in a storage room, then went to the basement to check to see if any flooding had occurred. Sure enough, some water was backing into the bathrooms from an overtaxed sewer system. Luckily, I had put down doorway flood barriers and flood control bags at the beginning of the shift, so things were somewhat contained. I told my big boss about the flooding and he was able to observe the rising level of filthy water coming up through the drains. It's nice when one of the bigwigs gets to see what we deal with happening in real-time. After a brief conference, I called our cleaning contractor, who had been onsite earlier to clean the place before and after the event, to let him know that his services, and his wet-vacuums, would be needed first thing in the morning. He's one of our best contractors, and I have come to value his competence and his friendship.

As the office staff left, I went outside to lock up the main parking lot, which was being overswept by a torrent of water flowing down the street. The water was over my ankles and, with the current, a lot of it ended up flowing up my legs, leaving me totally drenched, poncho notwithstanding.

I am now taking a brief breather before heading back outside to lock up an outlying parking lot, and making a hasty inspection of the property. Before I head back into the storm, which has subsided to a moderate rainfall, I think I'll post one of my all-time favorite songs, which lends its title to this post title:

Monday, October 1, 2018

About This October

October is our busy season on the job, but this year is going to be different- management has outsourced a lot of the seasonal tasks to contractors. There are temps of all sorts working for the organization, and I am sorry to say that my part-timers have had the rug pulled out from under them, hours-wise. Even worse, the employees of the contractor that is handling our work are incompetent- there have been multiple occasions on which they have been caught sleeping... this has even happened at 7AM, when these guys know that the day shift will arrive. To compound this shitshow, upper management doesn't seem to be doing anything about it.

There are also some new faces in the organization. In one case, a new hire has been appointed daytime Manager On Duty for one of our sites. I immediately took a liking to the guy- he comes across as low-key and competent. He wasn't given a master key to the site he's managing, and his alarm code is a temporary one. There is one master key that a bunch of employees have to pass among themselves like the Graeae passed their eye and tooth. I met with him last Saturday to give him the combination to our retail shop drop safe, and left with the thought: 'This poor man doesn't know what he's gotten himself into.' He was thrown into the deep end of the pool, and I have confidence that he will be a good swimmer, but it's not because management is helping.

From a staffing standpoint, upper management keeps moving the goalposts, and I am not happy about it. I had cobbled together a schedule for October and November by the end of the first week of August, but I currently don't have an approved schedule due to main office dithering. My immediate supervisor, a great guy, has been doing his level best to convince the muckety-mucks to commit to a schedule, and one which doesn't totally bone by part-timers. I've gotten to the point where I've said my piece, lobbied for the guys in my department, and finally thrown up my hands in frustration... though I should be able to finalize an October schedule tomorrow.

My job has never been like this before. The organization has always hired a small army of seasonal temps to help pull off our fall fundraisers, but this wholesale outsourcing is something new, and my department, usually insulated from this sort of thing, has been negatively impacted by the hiring of incompetents. October has always been a bit rough, but this is unprecedented and nonsensical.

The one thought that is getting me through October without banging my head against my desk is 'Winter Is Coming'.