Friday, November 30, 2018

Vin's Birthday, 2018

Today is my brother Vin's official birthday. Since his boyhood, we have usually celebrated his birthday on Thanksgiving weekend because a lot of people had off for the long weekend. For his eighteenth birthday, we conspired with a bunch of his friends to get him out of the house for a few hours so we could gather a ton of his friends in our house, making sure that they all parked around the corner, out of sight. Vin was completely flabbergasted when he walked into the living room and was confronted by dozens of guests all shouting, "Happy birthday!" My older brother, Sweetums, displaying impeccable timing, snapped his picture as he stood there, jaw halfway to the floor.

This year, we had a couple of birthday celebrations at Vin's place in Alabama. On Friday, one of his army buddies came over with his wife, their two beautifully mannered sons, and the family dog. This buddy of his, dubbed 'Sweet Pea' as a teenager because of his almost pretty good looks and gentlemanly nature, was a regular at our house... he's been family for over two decades. I hadn't seen him in a long time, but it was as if the years melted away, and we settled into our old, jocular routine. He hasn't even changed much in the intervening years. His wife, a good sport, was immediately inducted into the family as well, and the boys were an immediate hit with us. On Saturday, Vin's neighbors who lived next to house he rented when he first moved to Alabama came over. They are a retired couple- she volunteers in a pet rescue, he plays various instruments and runs an open mic night at a local coffee shop. I immediately took a liking to them, as always Vin has exhibited flawless taste in his friends.

Happy birthday, Vincenzo! It's always a great multi-day extravaganza, so I have no doubt that it will continue all this weekend.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Nine Inch 'No'

Today, we have an item for the schadenfreude file- Ted Cruz asked for free tickets to see Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor told him to fuck off:

Trent asks the crowd who voted for Ted Cruz - 11/27 Irving, TX from r/nin

The weird thing here is that Ted Cruz is a Nine Inch Nails fan in the first place- the band was often picketed by fundamentalist Christians like Cruz purports to be. The one reason I could possibly think for Cruz' desire to see the band is to indulge in some 80s nostalgia. Reznor released his first album in 1989, but he has always worn his influences on his sleeve, often performing with artists who inspired him- here's a live performance by Mr Reznor collaborating with 'goth' godfather Peter Murphy, the frontman of the post-punk band Bauhaus:

A while back, I binge listened to a lot of Gary Numan's music, and Mr Numan and Trent Reznor have performed live together on multiple occasions:

Gary went through his embarrassing Tory phase back in the 80s, but he got over it. I have no doubt that he'd also tell Ted Cruz to fuck off.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Burning Question of Last Week

My goddaughter, having been raised correctly, asked her mother to buy her a Ramones T-shirt a couple of weeks ago. There being no Ramones T-shirts at the store in which they were shopping, the dear girl chose a Hogwarts T-shirt as a consolation prize. This raised a question in my mind... which original Ramone would have been chosen by the Sorting Hat for which House of Hogwarts. I came up with this sorting:

Joey- Hufflepuff
Johnny- Ravenclaw
Dee Dee- Slytherin
Tommy- Gryffindor

Of course, others may have a different opinion regarding the wizarding potential of each individual Ramone. At any rate, here is a video of the famous 1977 London concert which became the source for the live album It's Alive:

I hear they caught the train for Hogwarts the next day.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Post-Thanksgiving Catch-up

I got home this morning at about half past five, beating out the bulk of the NYC rush hour traffic by a nose. The fourteen hour drive home was an endurance test, but not an ordeal, and my first order of business upon getting home was to call family to let them know I'd arrived safely. Now, it's a matter of catching up... I've caught up on sleep, I've consumed plenty of water to make up for my 'take only sips' roadtrip strategy. Now, I will go out and catch up with my local friends, and tomorrow will involve catching up with the laundry, and reading more in-depth about the news items I'd merely scanned while in Alabama. Hanging out with family took precedence over keeping up with current events. I also have to upload some pictures from my phone to my laptop so I can add them to the posts I'd written on my phone last week... specifically, I have photos of my handsome new friend, Lupin, the wolfy dog that my warrior queen goddaughter adopted. I should be caught up in a couple of days.

Monday, November 26, 2018

About to Hit the Road

I’m in the process of packing up for the trip home. I got up at 6:45 so I could see the kids off to school and my brother off to work, then went back to sleep for a few hours. Now, the bag is packed, and I’m showered up and powered up. I just have to put on my traveling clothes, fill up the Camelback, bid adieu to my mom and my sister-in-law, and head out to what Charles Portis called ‘the roadways of pelagic America’. Most of the trip will be the northeasterly I-81 route from Chattanooga to Hazelton, PA, then it’s a scoot across I-80 til I’m home.

I had a ball with family and friends, and I’m positively swollen with pride at my nieces and nephew. The ride home won’t be fun, but my love for the family makes the slog worthwhile.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Feeling Sorry for Travelers

This morning, we spent some time watching the weather channel, following the snowstorm horror stories from Midwestern roadways and airports all over the country. Here at Vin and fam’s Huntsville home, it was a balmy, beautiful morning- a perfect morning for playing with the dog in the backyard. We could see clouds rolling in around noon, though. Vin and I took the girls to see a movie (the second ‘Magical Beasts’ movie, a fun fantasy spectacle suited for imaginative girls who love animals), and the skies opened up briefly as soon as we left the theater.

I don’t have to be back to work until Wednesday, so I am planning on hitting the road early tomorrow afternoon. It looks like the weather will cooperate with me. I just feel sorry for all of the travelers who braved the journey home today.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Black Dog Friday

I’m not big into consumerism, so I’ve never understood the appeal of Black Friday. I’m not averse to fighting, but for me, it’s strictly recreational- the idea of fighting over a television or a pair of sneakers is repugnant to me. I preferred to spend a Black Dog Friday- playing with my niece’s Dog, a Black Belgian shepherd. My niece really wanted an army of dragons, but that’s not feasible, so she decided to settle for a dog, with the proviso that it would be a big, wolfy dog. A husky-Alsatian mix had caught her eye, but had already been adopted. She settled for the next wolfiest dog in the shelter, a skinny fellow with big, alert ears and a shabby coat. Apparently, ‘Lupin’ had been running the streets for an indeterminate period of time, either a runaway or an abandonee.

A couple of weeks of good meals and good care resulted in Lupin being the strong, handsome dog I met on Wednesday. He’s a social dog, uncomfortable with being alone, and excitable around new people. He and I became fast friends from the get-go.

There’s one tantalizing clue to Lupin’s footloose days... I was telling the girls about a goofy mockingbird on my worksite which mimics car alarms. While whistling the opening bars of the typical car alarm, Lupin ran across the kitchen into the living room, took a flying leap onto the couch, and proceeded to exfoliate my face with his tongue. Ever since, if I want the dog’s attention, all I have to do is mimic the car alarm. It’s a mystery, one I find amusing.

I’m writing this post on my phone, but I will update it, including a picture of my handsome, wolfy friend.

Thursday, November 22, 2018


I have a lot to be thankful for, starting with family. My siblings all called in to convey their holiday wishes. After breakfast, we walked around the neighborhood with the dog, then my goddaughter and I settled down on the couch and heckled the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, joking about the ‘D’ list celebrities who kinda looked like more famous people, and the weird cartoon characters we didn’t recognize, particularly some ugly, jowly elves. After the Elf on the Shelf float passed by, we decided that we should make a Troll on the Bowl to put on the toilet to remind you to eat your fiber. She plays the clarinet in the school band, so we had nothing but kind things to say about the marching bands, aside from a joke conflating the brass section with a ‘brats’ section. We then watched the International Dog Show and went from joking that she needed twenty corgis to pull her around in a chariot, to joking that what she really needed was to breed St Bernard sized Dire Corgis (so she could take over Westeros, or something). Yeah, we get along famously.

Before dinner, the girls entertained me with a clarinet and xylophone recital. They have the school recital on December 4th, so they have been practicing the classics, such as ‘Good King Wenceslas’. They made me proud, something to be grateful for.

Dinner was great. I was given the task of saying grace, and I ended with asking my nephew to say what he’s grateful for, and he said, ‘My family.’ Cute moment! As usual, we joked about family and friends, with one particular story about a turkey dinner being topical. Years ago, we had about twenty of Vin’s army buddies coming down for the weekend, so we went with an economical way to feed a crowd- cook a turkey and cook a ham, so everybody could make sandwiches. Once out of the oven, the turkey was never even touched by cutlery- it was hand-dismantled by a pack ravenous young soldiers. They were skeletonizing the biggest turkey available to us like a school of piranhas. Baby brother Gomez was playing hockey that evening, and my oldest brother, Sweetums, had the presence of mind to grab a drumstick (Gomez’ favorite portion) and hide it in a shoebox in his closet.

Is there anything to be more grateful for than close friends and smart family? Well, there’s also having wonderful readers- thanks to all of you for your support, I love you all.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Con Il Fratello Mio

Last night, I embarked on an epic road trip- starting a 900 mile drive to the greater Huntsville metropolitan area to spend Thanksgiving with my brother Vin and his family. Mom flew down from Dulles on Monday evening. The bulk of my drive was along I-81, from Hazelton, PA to Knoxville, TN.

It’s good to be surrounded by family. My nieces have grown a lot taller than they were the last time I’d seen them a couple of years ago, my nephew is no longer a toddler. The girls are as sweet, smart, and funny as always- they are readers, they have vivid imaginations, they are perfect exemplars of the family.

Vin’s birthday is November 30th, so we usually double up on Thanksgiving and his birthday. This Saturday will be the birthday party, and one of the guests is a guy who was a couple of years behind Vin at school, a regular guest at our house during his school years. He’s family, from the Tejano branch. A big family reunion like this makes a 16 hour, nine hundred mile drive worth the effort, and then some.

It’s weird- I’ve been up all night and all day, but I feel alert, almost wired. I chalk it up to the excitement of catching up with everyone.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Germline Primer

Last night, I headed out to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring developmental biologist Ruth Lehmann of the NYU School of Medicine. Dr Lehmann's list of accomplishments is formidable- she is Director of the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine, Chair of the Department of Cell Biology, Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Professor of Cell Biology, an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Director of the Lehmann Lab. This month's lecture was presented in conjunction with the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation.

The basic theme of Dr Lehmann's lecture was: Germ cells are forever. Germ cells are named that because they form something which can grow, they form the sperm and egg cells which propagate from generation to generation. While individuals grow older, germ cells house information from organism to organism- they pass this information to new organisms. The Soma, the non-germ cell body, is merely one body through generations of the germline. An antiquated view of reproduction held that each sperm cell contained a homonculus, that all of the information needed for reproduction was contained in the sperm. Now, it is known that the sperm and the egg each contain half of the genetic information needed for reproduction- a fertilized egg is a single cell incorporating DNA from the sperm and previously unfertilized egg cells. It undergoes rapid division, forming approximately two hundred adult cell types- nerves, muscles, blood cells (84% of the body's cells). Ultimately, the body contains approximately thirty trillion cells, plus an even greater amount of symbiotic microbes (a topic covered in other SSC lectures) A small percentage of these dividing cells are sperm and egg cells- in the early development of an embryo, the germ cells are 'set aside' from the somatic cells.

Dr Lehmann then showed us a diagram of the germline life cycle similar to this diagram- the sperm and egg combine to form a zygote, which develops into a morula, then a blastocyst. The germ cells are 'set aside' from the somatic cells, then migrate to the embryo's developing gonads- in humans, this takes place in the 5th and 6th weeks of embryonic development. The oocytes and spermatazoa remain immature in the gonads until puberty takes place. While most of the cells of the blastocyst form the embryo, some make supporting structures, such as the placenta.

The study of human embryos is difficult due to ethical considerations, and a paucity of materials. Human blastocysts used for in vitro studies cannot be more than fourteen days old, when nerve tissues start developing, so the study of germ cells' migration to the gonads cannot be studied. Much of what is known about the subject is derived from Drosophila and zebrafish studies. Dr Lehmann showed us a video of fluorescent-dyed germ cells migrating in a zebrafish, similar to this video:

At the five day stage, stem cells can be obtained from the Inner Cell Mass. Stem cells can replicate themselves in a culture, and can be forced to differentiate into other cell types. A cocktail of factors can be used to reprogram different cell types into Inner Cell Mass analogs- for example, skin cells can be transformed into 'stem' cells. This is important for medical research because patient-derived cell lines can recapitulate aspects of disease, so that what is really going wrong, the underlying mechanisms of a disease, can be studied.

Organoids, tissues analogous to small organs, can be grown in vitro from adult stem cells which self-organize into these structures. Tissues with multiple different cell types will form these organ-type structures, such as an optic cup, albeit one without a blood supply. Organoids provide good research models, and hint at the possibility of regenerative medicine.

During development, the blastocyst folds in a procedure known as gastrulation. Dr Lehmann quoted the biologist Lewis Wolpert: "It is not birth, marriage, or death, but gastrulation which is truly the most important time in your life." During the onset of gastrulation, a structure known as the primitive streak forms- the precursors to germ cells can be identified 'set aside' at the end of the primitive streak. The somatic cells form into three germ layers in most animals: the ectoderm, the mesoderm, and the endoderm. Embryos in vitro are known as gastruloids- stem cells self-organize, but micropatterning in a dish can influence this differentiation. By 'setting aside' the germ line, the germ cells can be protected from such threats as somatic development and transposable elements, which jump locations and can prohibit other genes from expressing themselves, which would be deleterious to a germline. Germ cells behave differently from somatic cells- in women, with their XX genome, one X chromosome is inactive, but both X chromosomes are active in the germ cells.

Analogs of germ cells can be produced in vitro- skin cells can be transformed into pluripotent stem cell analogs which can then be transformed into primordial germ cells which can be implanted in gonads to become sperm or egg cells. If primordial germ cells didn't migrate to the gonads, which form from the mesoderm, they would die. In one form of childhood cancer, germ cells don't properly migrate and form tumors. In one exceptional case, the Caenorhabditis elegans nematode, the gonads migrate to the germ line. The germ cells migrate over and through other tissues, guided by signals both attractive and repulsive, then they stop and adhere to the gonads.

In humans, the oogenesis and spermatogenesis pathways diverge. If the SRY gene on the Y-chromosome is present, germ cells develop into sperm cells. If SRY is not present, the germ cells develop into ova. Germ cells in embryonic testes behave differently from germ cells in embryonic ovaries- the development of the sperm cells is arrested, while the germ cells in embryonic ovaries become immature ova. A female embryo contains about two million immature oocytes, a number which decreases to about twenty percent by age thirty. In males, the germ cells keep dividing to produce more sperm- about one hundred million sperm cells are released with each ejaculation.

Sexual reproduction involves a mix-and-match of genetic information from each parent. A mature sperm cell and a mature egg cell each contain half of the genetic information of all other body cells. The sperm and egg are produced through a cell division process known as meiosis, which Dr Lehmann jocularly referred to as 'a good thing'. Among gametes, chromosomes are not identical- the offspring will not be carbon copies of their parents. Among humans, somatic cells typically have 46 chromosomes, while gametes typically have 23 each. When a sperm cell fertilizes an egg, the 23 chromosomes of each gamete make up the full chromosome complement and the cycle of the germline development begins anew. Among male humans the process of meiosis produces four sperm cells, each with 23 chromosomes, while among females one oocyte and three polar bodies, which are 'thrown away' are produced. The final polar body is ejected when the oocyte is fertilized. With aging, mistakes involving polar bodies, such as trisomy, can occur.

Structures in the egg cell, such as the zona pellucida and the corona radiata attract sperm but prevent more than one sperm cell from fertilizing the egg. The sperm also 'prepares' for fertilization- because they move, they are packed with mitochondria. The sperm cell is 'capped' with a structure known as the acrosome, which is packed with enzymes which allow penetration of the egg cell wall. Out of millions of sperm, there can be only one winner- fertilization by more than one sperm cell would result in aberrant cell divisions.

Among fish, which typically use external fertilization, it is important that sperm from fish of other species are not recognized. In zebrafish, a 'bouncer' molecule ensures that sperm cannot enter from everywhere, but only one site- the bouncer molecule also recognizes zebrafish sperm and keeps foreign sperm out. A matchmaking molecule has to be recognized for fertilization to occur. If the bouncer molecule is removed, foreign sperm from closely related fish species can fertilize eggs, but the resultant embryos die during gastrulation. The bouncer molecule is sufficient to form the species barrier.

Dr Lehmann ended her lecture by referring the audience to a Radiolab series concerning gonads, then proceeded to hold a Q&A session. Some bastard in the audience asked her to touch upon the topic of cloning, wherein somatic cell nuclei are inserted into ova. She characterized cloning as cell reprogramming, in which the pluripotency factors of the ovum are used to develop tissues with the somatic cell chromosomes. A lot of oocytes are necessary for successful cloning, which is a lot more complicated than reprogramming somatic cells with a cocktail of factors. She indicated that cloning was not feasible in analyzing diseases, and noted that cloning is unnecessary, but interesting to study. Regarding the segregation of germ cells, Dr Lehmann noted that germ cells are dangerous- they never lose their pluripotency and have the potential to metastasize if not contained. Regarding determination of sex in intersex individuals, Dr Lehmann noted that, once the gonads develop, hormones take over to guide development- perhaps, in intersex individuals, a hormonal signal is not recognized, perhaps an XY germ cell can occur in a gonad acting like an ovary. Cells are not autonomously on their own while they develop. Regarding the production of better organoids, Dr Lehmann noted that micropatterning and other techniques could guide development, and more reliable organoids could be produced.

Dr Lehmann imparted a ton of knowledge in her lecture- it was a thorough introduction to reproduction and embryology, accessible to the layperson. Once again, the Secret Science Club, in conjunction with the Lasker Foundation, delivered a fantastic lecture. Kudos to Dr Lehmann, Dorian and Margaret, the good people of the Lasker Foundation, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House... high fives to all!

For an in-depth introduction to this topic, Dr Lehmann has a multi-part lecture about germlines:

Settle down and give thanks for SCIENCE!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Need to Spice up the Blog

This blog needs a little spice, so how about some Ginger? The worksite is closed for the season, barring a holiday boutique in the gift shop on the weekends, so most of the seasonal day shift has the next few months off. It falls on me to feed my beloved Ginger, our beautiful workplace mouser:

Ginger typically works in a building with no heat and a rudimentary electrical system, which is enough to accommodate a new acquisition- a heated cat shelter which replaced the heat lamp which used to grace her demense. Despite the heated cat shelter, in typical diva fashion, she tends to prefer MY chair to her lair:

Who am I to flout her authority?

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The One, No Longer the One

For the past quarter century, I have lived by one axiom- if you are going to the west side of Manhattan, park near 238th St and Broadway in the Bronx and take the One Train downtown. Lately, though, I have realized that the One is not the one, the love affair is over. Due to a lot of construction in the area, and a larger population (I suspect that a lot of single family homes in the area have been converted into two-family units), parking is harder to come by. More cogently, the 238th St station is under renovation- the rusting stairways to the elevated platform are being replaced, and general improvements are being made.

Starting last week, I traveled to my Saturday morning coaching gig on the Four Train. Parking is easy to come by, as the stretch of Jerome Avenue north of the Woodlawn terminus is sandwiched between Van Cortlandt Park and Woodlawn Cemetery. In a pinch, I can walk two blocks to the northernmost stop of the BX34 Bus and take it to the Woodlawn terminus. Sure, there are downsides- I HATE the 59th St station on the Lexington Avenue line, with its multiple levels and interminable escalators, but traveling by the One Train has just become untenable.

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Branch Previously Unknown

It's not every day that the 'Tree of Life' gets a makeover, but Canadian biology graduate student Yana Eglit discovered organisms which will necessitate changes. The best part of the story is that she discovered these organisms underfoot, quite literally- she scooped up dirt on a hiking trail. While Hemimastigotes have been known to science since the 19th Century, their true nature was unknown. I suspect that they were simply lumped into the paraphyletic group Protista and promptly forgotten. Luckily, Ms Eglit propagated her protists and had a colleague, Gordon Lax, conduct a DNA sequencing which was analyzed by another colleague, Laura Eme:

After waiting a few weeks for the sequencing to come in, we obtained our phylogenetic marker genes and enlisted the help of Laura Eme, an expert in eukaryote phylogenomics (and made some bets on which ‘supergroup’ our organisms would go into). Following weeks of extensive bioinformatic clean-up, we vividly remember when we saw our first phylogenomic tree of eukaryotes with ‘hemimastigotes’: which went… nowhere in particular. ‘Hemimastigotes’ did not fall within any previously-characterised major group of eukaryotes, representing a ‘supergroup’ of their own. No one won the bet.

I love this story- these young scientists made an Earth-changing discovery while on a routine hike in the woods, in a place familiar to them. This is a perfect account of people simply seeing the world differently, and taking steps to analyze a familiar place, only to find something which, while described a century ago, wasn't properly understood. Progress occurs in strange ways- technological advances are made, but often pure serendipity plays a role... kudos to Ms Eglit, her place in the pantheon of biology is secure, and I look forward to hearing from and about her for decades to come.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

An Early, Bitter Taste of Winter

Today was a disaster in the NYC metro area, albeit one that I, uncharacteristically sat out. It was the first ‘wintry mix’ to hit the area this season, and it caught the authorities unprepared. Luckily, I had the day off, so after hitting the supermarket around noon to buy some pasta (my go-to meal for cold, stormy days is a big pot of pasta), I hunkered down in my apartment and listened to the litany of woes on the radio. In all, about three to five inches of snow fell.

Hundreds of Jersey-bound bus commuters were stranded in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, necessitating a shutdown of the facility. The roads were littered with accidents. Then I got the phone calls- the guy who was supposed to start work at five was stuck in a parking lot two miles north of work- the road was impassible with a forty car pile-up. A contractor called, he had gone a quarter mile in an hour and wanted to turn around and spend the night camping out on our floor. My phone kept ringing and pinging- calls and texts... and here I was in beautiful Yonkers, cooking up a mess of pasta, with no plans to leave the house.

My people got to where they needed to be, if not where they wanted to be. It was a minor storm by meteorological standards, but the timing was terrible. It hit around rush hour, and the roads hadn’t been pre-treated with the spray of brine they would have gotten in actual winter. It also seems as if everyone forgets how to drive in the snow between March and November. Tomorrow, it’s supposed to be a sunny day in the mid-forties, so I should have no problem getting to work, but I have a lot of empathy for everyone who was caught in today’s shitstorm, masquerading as a snowstorm.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Trouble in the Land

Last week, Gothamist reported that white supremacist posters had been spotted in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx:

While I live in Yonkers, I consider myself a resident of the Greater Woodlawn community- there is a pretty much seamless transition from Yonkers' McLean Ave to Katonah Ave in the Bronx, the only real difference being the presence of MTA buses once the border is crossed.

Of course, the flyer is bullshit. It depicts a neighborhood under siege by sinister, dusky 'others'. As someone who has often taken the subway home in the wee hours of the morning, sometimes popping in to a local for a pint on the way home, I can vouch that this narrative is far from the truth. I also believe that it will backfire, because, historically, white supremacy has never been good for the Irish, who make up the single largest demographic group in the neighborhood. If it ever got out that whitey righty has posted 'wrath of the Saxon' crap, even the most ardent Blueshirt would join in the resulting donnybrook. The truth of the matter, though, is that the bulk of the Irish immigrant population is more liberal than your average white American, and that the working class immigrants are comfortable working with other immigrants... in the bars, there are Mexican busboys and barbacks working with the Irish bartenders and waitstaff. Carpentry and masonry crews tend to have the same sort of breakdown. In the face of a hostile influx of MAGA types, I imagine that the Irish community would side with Latinos, as is traditional.

For me, there are two great exemplars of the Seanchaí tradition among the Bronx Irish: Mary Courtney and Larry Kirwan, who collaborated on the immigration song Livin' in America:

Mary's the historian, the balladeer who keeps the old songs current, while Larry's the journalist, the satirist who observes the foibles of his adopted home. In 2000, Larry wrote of white supremacists, in the scathing song which lends its title to this post:

I had been planning to head down to Katonah Ave to get the lay of the land, to see if there were any racist scumbags trying to gain a foothold in the area, but a physical plant emergency on the job necessitated my going in early. I'll be leaving around midnight, so I have time to go on the scout in a local bar or two after work lets out. My advice to people who have been freaking out since 2016 has typically been 'protect your people, defend your area'. Now it's my area, trouble in MY land. I don't think that much will come of these flyers, which were quickly removed and roundly condemned, but I need to know the reality of the situation. This is beir bua time, if ever there was.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Big Change on the Workfront

I have been with the same employer for twelve years, starting off as a part-timer, but eventually becoming head of my small department due to my computer literacy. Recently, our management decided to move the organization, a not-for-profit, into the umbrella of a national business administration corporation. While my job doesn't change, nor does my change of command (with the proviso that the national umbrella organization can fire employees for cause, and can even jettison companies that act in bad faith), the name on my paystub will change.

The main reason for this change is due to the cost of medical insurance coverage- by joining a vast, national organization, our small not-for-profit joins a larger risk pool for medical coverage. One major benefit is that the health plan will now include dental and vision coverage. While it seems like a bittersweet thing to have a big corporate name on correspondence, it will sure be nice to get reimbursement for new contacts and/or glasses.

This morning was spent at an enrollment meeting- I had to bring my passport to prove identity and employment eligibility, and a voided check to provide a bank account and routing number for direct deposit. An additional half-hour to enroll in the medical, dental, and vision plans, and I was out the door. It was a big change in my employment situation, which will be effective at the end of the year, but it will be no change at all- same job description, same workplace, same co-workers. It may feel weird, but I could use a new pair of glasses...

Monday, November 12, 2018

Sad Day, True Believers

If there were any one person who could have claimed the mantle of God-Emperor of Pop Culture for the past half-century, that person would be Stan Lee, who passed away today at the age of ninety-five. Off the top of my head, I can't think of anyone else who really comes close... George Lucas is known for a handful of movies, Steven Spielberg is mainly known for adapting other people's IP for the big screen. Stan Lee, however, presided over a stable of characters created in conjunction with other comics titans such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Not being a big comics fan, I couldn't even begin to summarize the hundreds of characters that Mr Lee had a hand in creating. Lee's passing has left a big void in the nerd community, and paeans to him abound in nerd outposts across the internet.

My first exposure to Mr Lee's personality was in his role as a narrator and occasional cameo in a now obscure 1980s cartoon version of Spiderman... this was decades after the classic 60s Spiderman cartoon which was my first introduction to Marvel comics characters. As I became more familiar with Mr Lee's oeuvre, I came to appreciate the New York City born and bred man's love for the city which I love so well myself. Lee's heroes, humans, mutants, aliens, demigods- all had to contend with the day-to-day problems of paying the rent, dealing with jerkass bosses, navigating family and romantic relationships, all while having to save the day on the regular. You could easily picture them on the streets of Queens, interacting with other local heroes:

Sure, with the exceptions of some hideous monsters, they were all good looking (a cousin of mine used to joke that even an elderly bag lady in a Marvel comic book would have a physique that Raquel Welch would envy), with idealized physiques, but they had the problems of typical New Yorkers. As an aside, here's a great 'Bloom County' strip lampooning the Marvel approach to depicting superheroines:

My favorite tribute to Stan Lee has to be The Onion's headline: Stan Lee, Creator Of Beloved Marvel Character Stan Lee, Dead At 95. Lee was very much a character, and a fan favorite, greeting his adoring public as 'true believers':

He also trusted his fans, not being the sort of person who talked down to them- I mean, here was a guy who knew that the kids who were fans of his creations would learn the meaning of his signature sign-off: "EXCELSIOR!" I have no doubt that he also came to know that his works provided a respite for marginalized persons- his characters were misfits, mutants, transhumans, aliens... a weird kid could look at a comic like The X-Men and gain hope of finding a family like Professor Xavier provided. Lee was unabashedly progressive, eschewing racism, sexism, and other bigotries. In the 1960s, he wrote columns against bigotry:

Last year, he made a video reiterating his commitment to civil rights and social justice, all while displaying his typical humor and panache:

Lee wasn't perfect, his treatment of collaborator Jack Kirby is considered by some comics fan to be a black mark against him, and he DID put the kibosh on Italian Spiderman, but he was a creative juggernaut who did his best to interject moral values into his sometimes lurid popular entertainments. I have friends who are genuinely upset at his passing, but Stanley Martin Lieber lived a good life, and a long life. I have no doubt that Stan himself would console them with a single, perfectly chosen word: EXCELSIOR!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Centenary

The dominant news story of the day has been the centenary of the Armistice which ended World War One. I spent much of my day with visiting family, heading to the American Museum of Natural History with my sister, her husband, and my nephews, then headed north to go to work.

The coverage has gifted us with accounts ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime- with Trump putting his combover over honoring the fallen and Macron speaking out against nationalism. One of my favorite posts about the day was Doktor Zoom's invocation of Kurt Vonnegut, who lamented that Armistice Day was turned into Veterans' Day here in the 'States, a move which de-emphasizes the value of peace while extolling the warrior, which jingoists often conflate with support for war.

World War One is a strange war, one not often talked about here in the 'States. The most appalling thing to me about the war is that it was, in many ways, a family squabble, with an inbred aristocracy throwing the flower of their nations' youth into a meatgrinder, a situation described with the proverb lions led by donkeys. The saddest thing about the war is that it had the potential to end in 1914 when soldiers ceased fighting in order to celebrate Christmas together. Suppose they gave a war and everybody decided to party instead. I also find the Treaty of Versaille, with its crushing punitive stance toward Germany's people, to be particularly horrible in light of the eventual rise of Nazism. The war was a nasty bit of bad business, leading to tens of millions of deaths and decades of misery.

In my estimation, the great poet of the First World War is Scottish born Australian Eric Bogle, whose antiwar songs have passed into the status of standards. I usually embed one of his tearjerker ballads in my Memorial Day posts. Mr Bogle doesn't sing of the 'glories' of war, he writes of the stark aftermath... death or dismemberment.

One hundred years after the end of the War to End all Wars, as Mr Bogle plaintively notes, war has happened again and again, and again, and again, and again. Hateful rhetoric, the plundering of natural resources, war profiteering- all occur, and until the human race eschews hate, fear, and greed, it will be another hundred years... if we survive.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

An Artifact from a Poignant Moment

This morning, I headed down to the dojo for the Saturday morning children's judo classes, and we had a special treat- two guest senseis from the USA National Judo Team. They are great role models for us senseis as well as for the kids. Our guests are lovely, lovely people, as the vast majority of judo players I have met throughout my lifetime, and it was an honor to have them with us.

As an added bonus, there was a traveling Olympic memorabilia display on hand as well. One of the featured items looked much like my father's lightsaber... it turned out to be the torch that Muhammad Ali used to light the Olympic flame during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics:

Holding the torch, which was pretty hefty (it felt at least five or six pounds in weight), I was reminded of the poignant ceremony, when Ali, stricken with Parkinson's disease. Watching the video, the thing that strikes me as amazing is how Ali, shaking from his ravaged nerves, holds the torch steadily, as if his will alone kept his arm stationary:

Holding the torch gave me goosebumps- besides lighting the flame for the 1996 Olympics, Ali competed in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, winning a gold medal in the light heavyweight division. There was a lot of history wrapped up in that torch, and being allowed to casually handle it was quite the privilege.

Friday, November 9, 2018

A Resource I Will Be Dipping Into

Poking around the t00bz, I found a really great website which I will be having a lot of fun with... the Irish National Folklore collection. If you want a tale of a lagomorphic lycanthrope, spalpeens, newts, the dreaded Balor of the Evil Eye, or banshees, this is the place to go. There's even a bunch of material on Crom, but not the one you're thinking of:

For a nerd and Goidelphile like myself, I predict this site will be a real time sink for myself, by Crom.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Had a Jolly Diwali

Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that commemorates the return of prince and avatar of Vishnu Rama with his bride and avatar of Lakshmi Sita and Rama's brother Lakshmana to the city of Ayodhya after the defeat of the demon king Ravana (discussed in this post from three years ago), started yesterday. I was unable to commemorate it last night, but after work today, I hit one of my favorite Indian restauarants for dinner. The place was well-attended, with a bunch of Desi couples and families enjoying their holiday meals.

Apparently, Diwali fireworks are being implicated as a factor in seasonal pollution in northern Indian cities. I am not one to criticize, because after the meal I ate, I will be having a negative effect on local air quality myself.

Poking around the t00bz, I found a joint Indian/Japanese animated version of Ramayana, a perfect coda to a nice Diwali:

The 1992 release has an interesting history- while initially it was a welcome collaboration between Indian artists and a sensitive Japanese director who had done extensive research, it was being made during a period a religious/political controversy. Fortunately, production was completed, and it is a beautifully made, respectful adaptation.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Women Were the Wave

Last year, the Women's March in January was the real kickoff of the resistance to Donald Trump's Reign of Terror and Error. I noted a sign which read 'Women Are the Wall and Trump Will Pay for It'. This year, in the successful Democratic effort to retake the House of Representatives, women were the wave, with thirty-one women newly elected to join sixty-five incumbent women. Among the women who won, two are Native Americans, two are Muslims, three of the newly elected women are veterans.

The Dotard seems to be feeling the pressure of losing the house- with the Democrats in the House regaining subpoena power, he's lashing out at them. Personally, I am looking forward to the distinct possibility that, as loathsome Steve Bannon predicted, investigators will 'crack Don Jr like an egg'. Even though the prospect of a successful impeachment of Vulgarmort is slim due to Republican control of the Senate, I think that seeing his children dragged in front of congressional committees to testify about their malfeasance will be enough to drive that old creep around the bend. That being said, there's always the possibility that there might be Republican senators who, out of a distaste for 'the Donald' might just stand up to Trump... though I'm not holding my breath, I do enjoy this frisson of Schadenfreude, especially since the torment that Trump will feel will have started with him being beaten by 'girls'.

Oh, and here's a special thank you to the women of color who braved voter intimidation, voter suppression, and other dirty GOP tricks meant to prevent this wave election. You are truly the heroes that the United States needed in these perilous times.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Long Day, Eventful Day

This morning, I set my alarm for half-past-three in the morning. I had to be at work at five in order to open the site up for the poll workers in time for them to get things up and running by six, when voting began. By five minutes to six, a handful of people had lined up to vote, and it's been a steady stream of voters ever since. I was heartened to see a lot of people bringing their children with them, and a good number of them took pictures.

At about eight, though, a coworker of mine who was here to vote felt lightheaded and slumped against a table. It being around shift time, practically the entire local police force showed up, including two sergeants. EMTs from three localities arrived, and my coworker was taken, coherent but lightheaded, to a local hospital. I spent much of the morning filling out an incident report.

It's been less exciting since that scare, and the voting continued unabated until right about now, when we are getting people coming in in dribs and drabs to vote. For a while, the local senior community was busing in voters, but I believe now is the lunch hour. I have come to know the shuttle bus driver, an immigrant from Scotland with a brae sense of humor and an impressive brogue, over the years, and we have developed getting voters from bus to polling place into an art- today, the rain has been heavy, so we've been put through our paces.

I get off of work at 5PM and will return to my beloved Yonkers to vote. In the meantime, I have to note that the atmosphere here has been upbeat, with people happy to perform their civic duties.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Shivering with Anticipation

Tomorrow is it, the day on which we start to take back the nation from the hands of a sociopath, or the day on which we formulate a Plan B. I have been intermittently listening to coverage of the elections, but am not enamored of the 'horse race' style coverage that seems to be the norm. I am looking forward to tomorrow, though, and will let Tim Curry describe the feeling I'm sure most of you are experiencing:

I have to be up before dawn, because I need to open up my workplace for the poll workers at 5AM. I sure hope I sleep well, because tomorrow is going to be a long, emotionally fraught slog for so many of us.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Other Toys Pale in Comparison with Big Yellow

My upstairs neighbor is an athlete- she runs half-marathons, has run marathons, and she participated in a triathlon this summer. She has her two kids involved in all sorts of sports: soccer, basketball, hurling, and Gaelic football. She is active in the New York Road Runners, so today she volunteered to support the runners in the New York City Marathon. This involved heading down to Central Park with the kids at about half-past seven in the morning.

When she knows she'll be out for the day, she asks me to let her dog, Georgie, out in the early afternoon so he doesn't pee in the apartment. Today, I got a reluctant Georgie out of the house and decided to engage him in his favorite game- I throw a ball and he savages it with his wee, sharp teeth. He's a terrier, so he's not so far removed from the small but vicious dog of gaming fame.

Today, I threw the ragged remains of the soccer ball that he had destroyed, but he wasn't interested in the thing. Out of all of the balls and sticks, and other throwable objects in the yard, the only thing that could pique his interest was a soccer ball sized replica of a tennis ball:

The thing is too big for him to get a purchase on, so his new approach is very much akin to a soccer player's, while making all sorts of bloodcurdling yips and yaps, he pushes the ball, snapping, across the yard. He actually got pretty good at herding the ball towards me so I could throw it the length of the yard again. Every once in a while, I'd try to interest him in another toy, but he just wasn't having any of that- it was the big yellow ball or nothing at all.

He was very pleased with himself, and after an hour of playing 'soccer' with him, I put a reluctant Georgie back in the apartment so I could get ready for work. Longtime readers will know that I am more of a cat person than a dog person, and the dogs I prefer are big, working or sport dogs. Nonetheless, there's an undeniable appeal to the scrappy, but high maintenance, Georgie:

I texted my neighbor to joke about how he was only interested in the yellow ball and her response was "ARG LOL"... that pretty much describes the little guy.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Take Sexual Violence Seriously

The most maddening thing about the recent murder of two women in Tallahassee, and the wounding of five others, is that the perpetrator, like many shooters, had a history of violence against women. In the case of this current CHUD, two current arrests for groping women in 2012 and 2016, neither of which resulted in prosecution.

If the perpetrator's sexual crimes had been taken seriously, there is a good chance that he would have been incarcerated, or prevented from owning firearms. Yet again, the toxic intersection of America's rape culture and its gun culture has resulted in death and injury. I'm not exactly holding my breath in the hope that either will be addressed.

Friday, November 2, 2018

A Prodigal Returns

The workday started off on a very positive note- a former co-worker who left us five years ago to go to grad school returned for a visit. Besides myself, the only persons from the era in which she worked for us were a manager and two of our elderly part-timers (who are the backbone of the organization). It was a pleasure to see this young woman, who had gone off for a couple of years in DC and a couple of years abroad, with her sheepskin and an upcoming job in a prestigious institution in Manhattan.

I have been with the organization for twelve years and I like to think of myself as one of the 'keepers of memory'- on the one hand, I remember old procedures used to cope with uncommon situations (I'm the guy who ends up turning on the outside drinking fountains in the Spring and turning them off in November before it gets really cold), on the other hand, I remember individuals. This particular former colleague spent an hour hanging out with us, catching up with the doings of other alumni and giving us a précis of her studies and job situation. It was a lovely way to begin the workday, and plans were made to visit another former co-worker of ours who has been positively kicking ass, professionally.

One topic which came up, a topic which I have expounded on with co-workers, is the poor track record the organization has in cultivating and retaining the younger staff. We often lose our younger workers due to salary considerations, as most of our positions are part-time. As I indicated earlier, the backbone of our workforce consists of retirees. Our former co-worker then joked about how she is now planning to return once she has retired. She'd fit in beautifully, she always did, even when she was a youngster.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Santos Sí, Sin Soldados

Today was All Saints Day, a day in the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church on which the faithful commemorate the communion of saints, those individuals who have died and abide in the presence of God. In the vernacular, a saint is a person who embodies goodness, typically kindness and forbearance, and the other virtues. Using this definition, a saint is generally considered a person who will put their own interests aside to help others... the sort of behavior that seems sorely lacking these days.

On this All Saints Day, in the aftermath of a synagogue massacre perpetrated by a man enraged at the false tale of an invasion caravan, the President of these here United States is still pushing that canard. Even more disquietingly, he is proposing sending fifteen thousand soldiers to the border, a military force which is more than double the size of the 'caravan' of civilians it is meant to counter. Horrifically, Trump has indicated that he believes that the rules of engagement should be loosened so that massacres are more likely.

Rather than spending untold millions of dollars to engage militarily with people fleeing violence in Central America, the US would be better served by spending that money to undo the damage it caused in the region by engaging in proxy wars in the 1980s. The Reagan administration armed right-wing militias in Central America to counter the leftist Sandinista regime, culminating in the arrival of three thousand American troops in Honduras in 1988. The decade saw brutal murders of American missionaries by members of the right wing National Guard of El Salvador and the assassination of the Archbishop of San Salvador. Washington bullets filled the Central American air, Washington dollars paid to train and arm the paramilitary forces who were fighting to prevent the dirt-poor campesinos of Central America from embracing Marxism. In this violent, chaotic milieu, gangs such as MS-13 developed among displaced, brutalized individuals. In a very real sense, the ongoing problems in Central America are the poisoned fruits of an evil foreign policy decades ago. These problems were caused by American militarism abroad, and American militarism won't solve them.

We need saints, not soldiers, to solve this crisis. We need to succor the afflicted, not sight them down gun barrels. I have long pondered the importance of soft power in American foreign policy, but the current maladministration would rather use violent means to address the refugee crisis- personally, I will be looking to see which members of his administration will be profiting from militarizing the border.

ADDENDUM: In the context of All Saints' Day, it's way past time to de-canonize St Ronald Reagan, who really inaugurated a lot of the bad policy now plaguing the nation.