Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Goodbye 2019

I'm not going to sugar coat it, 2019 was a bad year. I lost two friends, one of whom I would see almost every day at shift change, to cancer in the earlier part of the year. Work has been hectic, because of understaffing, but I have to say that I and my small department have been able to handle everything that came down the pipe.

The latter part of the year involved climbing out from the low I hit in March and April. Staying busy was important- between work and volunteering, I was able to take comfort in routine. Having a support group of close friends was instrumental in buoying me up. Blogging also helped, the structure of sitting down and writing is therapeutic.

I'm not the sort of person to wax melancholy at the end of the year... like I said, the hits I took took place in the earlier months. I'm in a lot better shape than I was from mid-March to early-April, when I was hit with a set of two one-two emotional and professional punches. I won't be sorry to put this year behind me, though.

Monday, December 30, 2019

New Year’s Eve Eve

I’ve long maintained that New Year’s Eve is amateurs night, a night when people who don’t know how to handle their booze go out and overdo it, and end up getting stupid. Prices are jacked up, service suffers because servers are harried. I live in the Tavern District of Yonkers, I can pop into a dozen bars within easy walking distance- there’s no need to get involved in a rugby scrum just to grab a beer.

My friends and I figured out a workaround- we are meeting in a gin mill tonight, New Year’s Eve Eve. A couple of us work unorthodox schedules (and are working tomorrow night). It’ll be a more low-key night, a night without lines and outrageous cover charges... an altogether more civilized night, while being more economical. It’s a grand idea... and I’m not that keen on champagne anyway.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

As if I Thought the Times' Antisemitism Was Bad...

Yesterday, I posted about the New York Times publishing a pseudoscientific op-ed piece that trafficked in antisemitic tropes, and last night, there was a heinous antisemitic attack in Rockland County, across the river from my beloved City of Y______. This machete attack was a terrorist attack, pure and simple- it was a attack perpetrated in the heart of a largely Hasidic village, in the home of a religious leader, during a religious celebration. The intent of the attacker was to show the Hasidic community that they weren't safe in their own community, in their own homes, to sow terror.

There has been a wave of antisemitic attacks in the New York metro area, including a previous assault on a Hasidic man in Monsey and a mass shooting at a Jersey City kosher market.

There has been a lot of tension in Rockland County, specifically East Ramapo, regarding the funding of the public school system- it's largely perceived that the Hasidic community is trying to defund public schools while funneling tax dollars into yeshivas. The attacker in this instance wasn't quite a local, he was a resident of a nearby town the next county over. I doubt that he was keeping abreast of the school district controversy. There is also a history of animosity between the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and the African-American community in the region (both the Hasidic and the Caribbean-American communities are also expanding from Brooklyn to Rockland as members seek affordable homes).

I don't have any answers here... I was raised to believe that diversity was a good thing, that getting along with people of all colors, creeds, and ethnic origins was not only the mark of a civilized society, but the path to a richer cultural life. I really don't spend a lot of time in Rockland (I joke that I draw a dragon on that part of the map while acknowledging that I am long overdue for a trip to Khan's Mongolian Grill), but it's in my backyard. It pains me to see such barbarism so close to home.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

NY Times Publishing Protocols

I don't read the New York Times anymore. I don't click on links to the Times, I don't link to the Times... I don't say this with any joy, back when the world (and the Times) was not so awful, one of life's low-key pleasures was spending a post-bender Sunday sipping coffee and reading the Sunday Times damn near cover-to-cover, completing the crossword puzzle, naturally.

Every so often, I am reminded why I now shun this newspaper that I once loved, and this weekend is one of those reminders... the Times published a Bret Stephens piece about Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence that cites a white nationalist 'race realist'. The idea that different racial groups have different IQ ranges, with Ashkenazi Jews at the top, is a pseudo-scientific update of the myth of the sinister Jewish plotter. One of the tenets of the current fascism is that wily Jews are fostering non-white immigration to the United States and Europe to promote interbreeding in order to lower the general IQ, resulting in a more easily manipulated populace. Yeah, claims that one particular group has a higher IQ are invariably connected to claims that other groups have lower IQ.

I don't even know if Bret Stephens, an Ashkenazi Jew himself, is aware of the full implications of his 'race science'. Being ignorant, though, is more damning than being evil- after all, the guy is a paid contributor to what passes as the paper of record. I'm not even Jewish, but I have a well-tuned ear for racist dogwhistles. Basically, Stephens is writing a seemingly flattering depiction of Jewish people, while not caring that he is trafficking in the foundations of a century-old antisemitic trope- I'm not privy to the New York Times publishing protocols, but I never thought they'd be publishing 'Protocols'.

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Lunatics Are Feeling Frisky

It's a big day in Loony Land, as the craziest of the MAGA Deplorables have convinced themselves that the final punishment and ultimate destruction of their enemies is coming to pass:

The inconvenient fact that this entire conspiracy theory started two years ago with an announcement that Hillary Clinton was in the process of being arrested hasn't dampened the spirits of those who believe that 'The Storm', which will sweep their perceived enemies off to Gitmo, is inevitable. This particular bunch of charmers was calling today 'Fry Day', in the hopes that the Clintons, John Podesta, Tom Hanks, and a host of others will be sent to the electric chair for a host of crimes against humanity... and you thought that liberals were the ones ruining Christmas!

The other big development in Loony Land was Trump retweeting a 'QAnon' supporter... this brought a troll army that would make Sauron proud to the mentions of jouralist Eliza Relman:

Her feed was flooded with various Cursed Conspiraboomer images, leavened with a couple of calls for her to be shipped off to Gitmo... lovely people in a peaceful research movement, there!

Of course, when nothing happens, as has been the case for the past 26 months, the true believers will double down and return to their cack-handed gematria- surely the next prediction of pain will be correct, and their enemies (you know, people like us) will be swept up in the righteous wave that will wash the scum off the streets. Any day, now, sure, the Q-waitus-interruptus will end.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Happy Boxing Day!

I am fortunate to have really good neighbors- my immediate upstairs neighbor is a dream, working hard in house and yard, raising her two kids to be accomplished persons. She herself is a firecracker, a small gal, but mighty- she competes in triathlons, she laughs loud and often, and she doesn't take any guff from anybody. When she found out I was stuck at work on Christmas, she put aside a dinner plate for me:

This being Boxing Day (she's an Armagh gal by birth, a Yonkers gal by choice), she brought down this fine repast and I gave her a bottle of Bailey's (perhaps the best ever use of surplus product) as we exchanged holiday greetings. Calling the day St Stephen's Day is more of a southern thing, and wren hunting is more of a rural thing- it's funny how, for such a small country, there is so much difference in customs throughout Ireland... and Yonkers.

I spent a good portion of the afternoon on an overseas phone call with my older brother, Sweetums. He's doing well, and he related a funny anecdote about how his kids wanted to stay up all night rather than having to get up early for Christmas (it's a longstanding family trait- NONE of us ever wanted to go to sleep, out of concern for missing out on something). In a new, though not atypical, development, they all watched Monty Python's Life of Brian on Christmas Eve, ensuring that the kids would be singing this all day long. My brother's take on it is that, even thought there's some spicy content, there are no explosions or shooting in the film- and his oldest has taken some Latin in school, so he got this joke. I reminded him that watching the film really wasn't any more irreverent than some of the Christmas Eve booze fests we've had over the years. It's good to know that Sweetums is raising the kids right.

It's been a good day connecting with family- the nuclear family and the neighborhood family. That's what Boxing Day is all about, and no wrens had to be harmed.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Cheery via Telecom

I had to work today, being 'essential personnel' in an understaffed department... somebody has to make sure that the place is still standing and the cat is fed. It's a low-key day on the job, and it frees me up for some St Stephen's Day drinking, though I'll pass on hunting the wren. Most of the day, though, I was in communication with family and friends, getting updates on everybody's antics- my goddaughter getting up at 4AM because she was so excited, nephews making pastries for holiday parties. It was a day for recounting funny stories about ruthless Christmas tree shopping and weird run-ins with Cajun carnies. Jokes both clean and ribald (one friend, talking about deserving a spanking, set me up to make the punchline: "Can't spell Christmas without S&M!").

Everybody is doing well, as is to be expected. Myself, I hit a Chinese takeout place on the way to work and had a quick lunch before feeding the cat- for Christmas, I gave her some whole milk (she's one of those cats which has had the stuff throughout her life). I've been the recipient of altogether too much Christmas chocolate, and one of our managers, who will be on vacation for two weeks, wrote a note telling me that I was in charge of distributing the leftover snacks in the employees' kitchen, and I have to confess that I took the choicest stuff for myself. In the interest of full disclosure, I've been eating junk all afternoon, as one does on Christmas. My upstairs neighbor texted me to tell me that she had a ton of food, so she'd prepare a plate for me, so breakfast for tomorrow is in the bag. I have a bottle of Bailey's with her name on it, for her Boxing Day coffee.

Here's hoping that everybody has had a lovely Christmas, free from worry and stress. As a Christmas gift, here's a choral group from Trinidad and Tobago singing the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah

Watching that, dreaming of a green Christmas seems like a perfectly fine idea, no offense to Irving Berlin.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Carol of the Punks

I make no bones about my favorite secular Christmas song, the one which is essential listening on the regular every year. My favorite traditional carol is O Holy Night, a soaring paean of hope. Over the weekend, one of the local college stations I listen to played a rendition of the song by Osaka Popstar, a New York supergroup featuring former members of the Ramones and the Misfits (I'd wager that their name is an homage to Shonen Knife). Oddly enough, though the band has this guy in the lineup, their crunchy, uptempo take on the carol sounds one-hundred percent earnest:

In other punk Christmas news, Bad Religion, fronted by noted atheist Greg Graffin, released a holiday 'Yule log' featuring a bunch of earnest takes on traditional Christmas carols, with their American Jesus as a satirical coda:

Who knows? Maybe Santa is a headbanger. Hope all is well for you on this Christmas Eve.

Monday, December 23, 2019


In the annals (by which I mean anals) of Trump speeches, his recent speech in front of a crowd from young Republican group Turning Point USA has to be one of the most unhinged (and that's saying something). In particular, his Quixotic campaign against windmills was quite the farrago of bullshit:

Trump is lying about the role of wind turbines in bald eagle deaths while eliding the fact that high-rise buildings like the ones he favors are much more dangerous to avians. As far as his claims that the production of wind turbines creates fumes, it's inevitable that any manufacturing process will create emissions (until we have a grid powered by renewables, that is), but the installation of wind turbines will offset any 'fumes' footprint. Also, he's not exactly against fumes, as his support for coal-fired power plants makes clear (by which I mean smoggy). This sort of concern trollery isn't exactly convincing, and I imagine even the Turning Point troglodytes know this, but are the sort of knuckle-draggers who want pollution because it 'owns the libs'.

Trump's major personality trait is his cupidity, but secondary to that is his inability to let go of a grudge. He still picks fights with Rosie O'Donnell decades after the two had a falling-out. He can't let go of a quarter-century old crack by Greydon Carter, and he's never realized that the heart of the insult was 'vulgarian', not 'short-fingered'. Much of his animus against wind power stems from his failed lawsuit over a wind farm offshore of a Scottish golf resort. He's willing to watch the world burn because of this particular grudge.

Perhaps the real root of Trump's animus against wind power is the fact that his boss hates wind power- much of Russia's economy is based on fossil fuels, so anything which reduces Europe's reliance on Russian petroleum products is anathema to Putin. Nancy Pelosi quipped that, with Trump, all roads lead to Putin. While the rant is still nonsensical, it's not inexplicable.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Happy Hanukkah 2019

Here's wishing my Jewish readers a happy Hanukkah. I have older Jewish friends who tell me that Hanukkah wasn't really a major holiday until relatively recently, post World War 2, at any rate. The holiday became a bigger deal when Christmas became more of a public extravaganza, and who doesn't want a festival of lights during the dark days of December? Maybe that explains why there really weren't any great Hanukkah songs, and the best known Hanukkah song, given the nature of the dreidel game, is best compared to The Gambler or Queen of Hearts. Oddly enough, while there really hasn't been great Hanukkah music, a lot of our popular Christmas standards were written by Jewish composers. I figure that music composition turnabout is fair play, so I present what is perhaps the best Hanukkah song, by the late, great Sharon Jones, who started off singing gospel music in church:

I love that video, with the band wearing ugly holiday sweaters depicting the band, and Sharon absolutely nails it, as she always did. I can't think of a better Hanukkah song, so you should blast it after all of the gambling's done.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

May the Farce Be With You

With the release of the newest 'Star Wars' movie (and the last of the main plot arc), most of the nerdy places I frequent on the internet are rife with spoiler warnings. The film has gotten mixed reviews, with a general consensus being that it is trying to please diehard fans with Easter eggs, while largely being incoherent. I suppose I will see the film after the initial hubbub dies down, sort of like a nerdy day of obligation, but I'm no real rush to fight crowds in order to do so.

In the meantime, there's another 'Star Wars' saga that's recently been released, a sequel which expands upon an earlier video, and gives us what we didn't even know we needed, the galaxy-soanning adventures of terrible movie auteur Tommy Wiseau:

Like the original Star Wars, this is a triumph of editing, and as other wags have observed, Tommy Wiseau has better chemistry with Hayden Christensen than Natalie Portman did. I consider this 'Star Wars' canon, along with the holiday special and Darth Jar Jar. Sure, the new movie might be an incoherent jumble, but the real saga lies in the hearts of us, the fans.

Friday, December 20, 2019

A Rob Liefeld Christmas

Poking around the t00bz, I found a reference to something that only a 'tacticool' cosplayer would find appealing... behold the 'Tactical Christmas Stocking':

The first thing that came to my mind when I saw that pouch was the comic art of pouch-aficianado Rob Liefeld, who at least seems to have a sense of humor in the face of detractors.

If I were Santa Claus, I'd think twice before sneaking into the house of anybody hanging one of these puppies on the mantelpiece... nobody wants to get their ass shot off by a Mall Ninja?

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Simpson, Eh?

I'm not a connoisseur of modern country music by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, I have to say that I like some of the old timey stuff, some of the not-so-old-timey stuff, and some of the weird stuff. I'm not really up on anybody current, so I never heard of this Sturgill Simpson guy. His latest album, which is getting some airplay on local college and alternative stations, probably has some of his old fans a little nonplussed. That being said, it's a pretty fantastic rock-and/or-roll track:

The video is pretty crazy, apparently an entire anime film has been released in conjunction with the album. I never associated futuristic samurai driving muscle cars with country musicians before, but I think it's the combination I never knew I needed. Now, can I get a Voltron robot with Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Tony Joe White forming a giant, heroic robot? Why leave all the fun to the nerd-rap crowd?

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

A Contradiction in Terms

It looks like the current occupant of the White House was having a meltdown today in the face of the impeachment proceedings. My schadenfreude receptors were firing non-stop when I read the all-caps cri de cul of this self-described stable genius:

Vulgarmort has a real problem with consistency here: if the radical left is engaged in an assault on America and the Republican Party, how can the Democratic Party be described as 'do nothing'? He's not the smartest guy, but even a third-grader, upon reflection, would find the inherent contradiction in terms in this missive.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: A Whale of a Subject

Last night, I headed down the the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club. This month's lecture featured the triumphant return of Dr David Gruber, marine biologist and adventurer of Baruch College at the City University of New York and CUNY Graduate Center, the American Museum of Natural History, and the National Geographic society. Dr Gruber's first appearance at a SSC event was in January 2009 (sadly before the advent of this blog) when he appeared as a guest of neuroscientist Dr Vincent Pieribone. His second appearance for the SSC was in July 2014, when the good doctor headlined a lecture about biofluorescent marine organisms.

Dr Gruber's lecture was titled The 'Aliens' Beneath the Waves, an apt title for a discussion of some gloriously strange denizens of the deep. He jokingly referred to himself (being an expert of marine biofluorescence) as the 'Glowing Guy' and stated that he had a goal to travel to the top of the world, where it is dark for half of the year. This entailed a year of dry-suit SCUBA diving, after which he was still miserable in the Arctic, continually asking himself, "Was this a good idea?" He jokingly detailed a couple of his bad ideas, such as a one-person submersible which had a tendency to spin and a swim with sharks during which he tested the use of a hockey helmet as protection. He traveled to Greenland with a small crew from the American Museum of Natural History, among them curator of ichthyology Dr John Sparks. Before their expedition, there were only about three-hundred Arctic fish species described. While Dr Gruber went to Greenland to find adventure, he found a dripping mess, much like 'an icebox left open'. He described the powerful experience of seeing the melting of Greenland firsthand. Dr Gruber displayed the neologism 'solastalgia', coined to describe the cumulative impact of climatic and environmental change on mental, emotional, and spiritual health. He stated that he didn't like the concept because it conveys a feeling of despair which can prevent humans from realizing that we can change our current course.

Dr Gruber then described a course of study that he recently embarked upon, a study to determine if we can learn to communicate with sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). We are not alone on the planet... how can we break the interspecies communication barrier as a means of connecting to nature? He half-jokingly said that learning to communicate with sperm whales could one day be a springboard to communicating with aliens.

Sperm whales are deep divers. Trained human free-divers are able to hold their breath for approximately five minutes- Dr Gruber quipped that we should recruit athletes as scientists, a cadre of mermaids and mermen to explore the deeps. Sperm whales can dive to a depth of one-and-a-half miles on a single breath, remaining underwater for about two hours, then resting for five or six minutes. The have the largest known mammalian brains, weighing up to eighteen pounds. They communicate in rhythmic social 'codas' (different dialects exist among diverse populations)- patterns of broadband clicks. They also use these clicks for an echolocation more sensitive than human-designed sonar. It's possible that they communicate by forming three-dimensional sound 'images' analogous to holograms.

Whales evolved from artiodactyls, even-toed hoofed mammals. Their terrestrial ancestors most likely resembled hippos. They have had a long time to evolve to their current marine environment- among modern whales, the Odontocetes (toothed whales) split from the Mysticetes (baleen whales) about 34 million years ago. Put succinctly, sperm whales are ancient. Dr Gruber waxed lyrical about looking a whale in the eye, and noting that curiosity is apparent.

Dr Gruber's foray into cetology began two years ago, when he participated in a fellowship at Harvard. He arrived known as 'the Jellyfish Guy'. During this fellowship, Dr Gruber played a whale song to a cryptographer, ho asked him how many whale sounds he had, then invited him to a machine learning group. Sperm whales produce sound with organs known as monkey lips and the vast reserve of spermaceti oil and waxes in their heads focus the sounds. Besides the series of clicks known as codas, sperm whales also produce sounds known as creaks and trumpets. Sometimes the whales touch their jaws together to allow bone-to-bone communication.

Among the machine learning group, Dr Gruber, playing his whale songs, joked that he felt like a kid playing with Tonka trucks, but the machine learning experts were hooked as they analyzed the spectrograms. They wanted to know which whale expert had the largest data set of whale songs. and contacted Dr Shane Gero of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. The collaboration resulted in a paper: Deep Machine Learning Techniques for the Detection and Classification of Sperm Whale Bioacoustics. Dr Gruber was faced with the challenge: what do we do with this? He convened a two day conference with scientists from many disciplines to study the subject, and somewhat sheepishly rattled off the tongue-twister of a name of the conference: Novel Ways to Non-invasively Visualize/Characterize/Decipher the Sonic Communication of Marine Mammals, Particularly Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus), via Compact, Low-noise, High-resolution Underwater Devices.

Dr Gruber averred that we can do this, we will be able to communicate with whales. He rattled off some interesting topics to explore- do whales talk about the past? He likened the development of communication with whales to Jane Goodall's discovery of tool use among chimpanzees in terms of game-changing discoveries.

One of the main results of the conference would be the development of non-invasive swimming robots that could track whales and conduct breath analysis of whales. There are about 300,000 sperm whales in the planet's oceans. Whale tags must be improved, with non-invasive designs developed- one tag design is patterned after remoras. One difficulty in studying whale communications is the 'cocktail party problem'- how do we distinguish communications? An integration of visual and acoustic data must be obtained from an array of microphones and cameras to figure out what is being communicated.

Dr Gruber then gave a quick 'how did I get here?' narrative. Most of his work in the field of animal communications involved fluorescence in marine life- animals take in blue light and employ it in secret channels of communication, revealed through the use of special equipment. He began this portion of the lecture by showing us video of the first fluorescent Arctic fish found. He then displayed some lovely footage of tiny flashlight fish (Anomalops katoptron) in the Solomon Islands:

He positively rhapsodized about the schooling behavior of these tiny fish, quipping that they formed a sort of 'blue brick road' as they swam in formation. He described them as 'the weirdos of the fish world', noting that they have highly vascularized sacs under their eyes in which they nourish the bioluminescent bacteria which provide their light. The fish flee from artificial light, so super-sophisticated cameras are needed to film them- a 64,000 light intensity camera was used to video them from a distance. The underwater ballet of these fish is collective behavior, as ad hoc leaders school in darkness. Dr Gruber hypothesized that the deep sea might be filled with schooling fish which flee the lights of submersibles.

Fluorescence was also found in the swell shark (Cephaloscyllium ventriosum), formerly thought of as an uninteresting little shark. The sharks exhibit sexual dimorphism in their fluorescent patterns, with females having 'masks' clustered around their faces:

To understand how the sharks perceive their world, Dr Gruber brought shark specimens to an eye doctor, who discovered that the sharks only have one pigment in the cone cells of their eyes, while humans have RGB pigments. Dr Gruber had to design a camera which filtered out wavelengths in order to mimic the sharks' eyes.

Dr Gruber also discovered fluorescence in a hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata):

Dr Gruber showed an uproariously funny video (which I haven't tracked down online) of himself testing the vision of a turtle by flashing a color chart at it, joking, "This is as nerdy as SCUBA diving gets!" In order to figure out the perception of a turtle, he employed a hyperspectral satellite camera which can hold a lot of data... while it has broad color. Sea turtle eyes have drops of oil in their cone cells which help them to perceive fluorescence. Dr Gruber then showed us mock-ups of vision charts for various organisms, with humans having poor low-light vision while sharks have poor distance vision, but an acute sense for detecting motion.

Dr Gruber quipped that some of his work isn't glamorous, such as scooping dirty water out of a canal in Mystic, CT in order to study Ctenophores, or comb jellies, which are gelatinous plankton. Ctenophores are studied primarily because they can show us of how neurons evolved. In order to study animals such as ctenophores, Dr Gruber wanted to develop gentle robots in order to collect them without harming them. Dr Gruber noted, "We create the future, we don't need to kill animals in order to study them." A gentle robot which exerts one-tenth of the pressure of a human eyelid was developed to study jellyfish, and it can also be repurposed to pick strawberries without bruising them. Use of this robot didn't stress the jellyfish and initiate self-repair responses. Another design was inspired by origami, it folds to encase specimens... Dr Gruber joked that it was a 'spa treatment' for organisms, which could be studied physiologically and scanned to create three-dimensional models. Again, Dr Gruber stated that there is no need to kill animal specimens, and made the case for a super-intentional future: we make the future, and we can determine what sort of artificial intelligence we create. "There's no need for killers", he joked, "Soft robots will only kill a few people." He then displayed video of a glove which can be used to control a submersible's robotic arm... a 'squishy' robot arm. This human extension will allow interaction between researchers and marine life.

The displays of fluorescent marine life continued, with images of pyrosomes (chordates, they are distant relatives of ours) and box jellyfish ('the rockstars of the jellyfish world', with 24 eyes of 4 varieties and a venom which packs a whallop).

After this long digression about his 'origin story' as an animal communication researcher, Dr Gruber then returned to the subject
of whales, citing Roger and Katie Payne's recordings of humpback whales as an inspiration. Whale songs have been recorded since the 1950s after naval hydrophones picked them up. Returning to the sperm whale, Dr Gruber noted that they live in matriarchal societies, with males leaving their birth pods but often returning up to fifteen years later. He displayed a diagram of the two-hundred and fifty pound heart of a sperm whale and described it as 'a linebacker of a heart'. Having a big heart himself, he finished his lecture by stating, in the face of a Sixth Extinction, we can change course.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question involved the use of Green Fluorescent Protein in neurological research, which was covered in his 2014 lecture. There are eels with bilirubin-binding fluorescent proteins and sharks with tryptophan-derived fluorescence. Regarding fluorescent sea turtles, out of the seven extant species, only the leatherback turtle doesn't exhibit fluorescence. With regards to the B-52 Whale or Lonely Whale, which was picked up by a Navy hydrophone, while it may be a specimen of a exceedingly rare whale, it might just be a 'bad singer', using a different frequency than its compatriots.

Regarding the development of gentler collection techniques, Dr Gruber noted that scientists generally have a low impact on marine populations, but that they must set examples for others- he confessed, "I have fish blood on my hands." A question about the original notation of sperm whale recordings, Dr Gruber stated that it was done by hand, using recordings of the small population of well-known sperm whales off Dominica. There were questions regarding 'conversations' that whales might engage in... how do adults and infants commnicate? Do whales employ subterfuge? Dr Gruber joked that he had a nightmare that all the whales were swearing all the time, "That whale is a jerk!" He noted that communicating with whales, and figuring out their communications, has to get better than what we are doing now. This has to be a deep listening project, without some of the ethical lapses former researchers engaged in back in the 'dark days of whale research' which involved LSD and less savory... uhhh... stuff.

Some bastard in the audience asked about the differences in sound-producing anatomy between the baleen whales and the sperm whale in particular. Baleen whales echolocate and their songs are probably involved in mating rituals. Sperm whales, however, are so weird, so different from baleen whales and dolphins that it is hard to compare them. The closest relatives they have among the cetaceans is the pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps), but they are relatively distant relations.

I often talk about the 'Secret Science Sweet Spot' when I write the lecture recaps, and I have to say that Dr Gruber hit on all cylinders. His lecture was that perfect blend of hard science, adventure narrative, and advocacy, leavened with humor and illustrated by glorious photographs and video. Dr Gruber also conveyed a sense of optimism which I sometimes find lacking in myself- his avowal 'WE MAKE THE FUTURE' was a much-needed rallying cry. I actually thanked him for his optimism after the lecture. Also, this was Dr Gruber's third Secret Science Club lecture, each delivered in five year intervals... it was delightful to see his career trajectory in these three lectures. His first appearance on the SSC stage was as a young scientist speaking as an adjunct to a senior colleague. His second lecture was about a very specific topic, a course of study which cemented his reputation not only as a scientist, but as an explorer. This third lecture was that of a 'mature' researcher, engaged in a wide-ranging project involving colleagues from many disciplines. Put in gaming terms, each lecture represented a levelling-up. I'm a bio guy, and I've been privileged to attend these three lectures at three stages of Dr Gruber's career, and I have to say that this was one of the best Secret Science Club lectures of all. Kudos to Dr Gruber, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House.

While I haven't found any long video which would pertain to the main subject of this lecture, Dr Gruber has a lot of videos featuring specatacular imagery. Pour yourself a nice, refreshing beverage, and bask in the glory of SCIENCE!

Monday, December 16, 2019


In January, I found a BBC adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The same team behind that production have now adapted a sequel to that drama from Lovecraft's The Whisperer in Darkness, which **SPOILER** is a precursor to modern 'alien abduction' narratives **END SPOILER**.

The Whisperer in Darkness follows up on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, being presented as another adventure/investigation by colleagues working on a 'mystery machine' podcast. The same cast of main characters returns, bringing back the good chemistry they had in the first series. In this new series, they run up against British UFOlogy, with much of the action taking place in Rendlesham Forest. Nods to Lovecraft abound, though the main plot has been changed considerably- Akeley and Wilmarth are big players, but their roles differ from their roles in the original story.

One of the main charms of Lovecraft's original tale are the detailed descriptions of the geography and geology of the 'crowded green hills and endless trickle of brooks' of Vermont, details which are impossible to convey in a radio drama. The transfer of the story's setting to modern-day Suffolk (though it must be stated that Lovecraft wrote of his own experienced modern-day) allows a whole new 'mythology' to be appended to the story, a mythology of conspiracy and extraterrestrial meddling which viewers of The X Files. If you are at all a fan, check out this podcast. The actors are great, the characters sympathetic... it's a bit of shuddersome fun.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

A Little Reminder to De-Stress During the Holiday Season

After working on Halloween, I stopped by the 24-hour CVS to pick up some sundries and was chagrined to see that the night-crew was stocking Christmas merchandise, now that the Halloween juggernaut had rolled on. I like Christmas, I just like to see it start after Thanksgiving. I don't mind Christmas music being played at Stop-and-Shop, but I wouldn't want to be stuck working there, hearing it for a full shift. So far, I've been to one Christmas party, and had to miss another (ironically, the office party) because of work. I tend not to stress out about holidays, they should be happy occasions rather than free-for-alls.

Yesterday, I started off the day cranky, but was able to rally in time for a cheerful holiday luncheon. Tonight, the syndicated DJ on my favorite local commercial radio station played a funny reminder that we all need to 'shake the cranky away' this season:

I've become slightly obsessed with this song, which pokes fun at both sides of the 'War on Christmas' foofaraw:

The best thing about the band is that they are a kind of supergroup, with Norah Jones joining in on the fun, along with a special butt-shaking guest star at one performance at my beloved, beautiful Bell House:

Who could feel cranky after all that?

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Crouching Tiger, Ass Dragon

Today was a bit rough... I had worked a double overnight shift under rainy conditions, so I wasn't in the best of moods in the early morning. I drove home, took a brief nap, texted my coaching colleagues to tell them that I'd be running late, and hopped into a shower as hot as I could stand. Then it was get on a 1 train to midtown Manhattan, and a quick walk to the dojo. During the walk, I repeated a mantra that has served me well in my years of working odd, long hours: "Get through the next two hours, rest and rally, and repeat as necessary." Today, it would be getting through two hours of class, taking a brief nap on the tatamis, then getting through the post-class holiday luncheon and the train ride home.

I knew that things would be interesting when the first words out of my friend Frenchy's mouth were: "I am so tired..." Big Al had built a little fort out of crash pads to keep his beautiful judo baby from crawling all over a mat full of fighting, falling kids... and was sitting in the fort himself, looking tired as well.

There's a strategy we use for times like this, times when we are very tired and kinda cranky, classes of kids five through nine (hopped up on holiday season excitement) are expected, and we are on the verge of a two-week hiatus during which the kids will forget anything we taught them. This strategy is to line the kids up from smallest to largest, mark out a ring with unused obis, and have the kids play a stripped-down 'judo/sumo' blend. The idea is to either move your opponent out of the ring, or to force your opponent to touch the mat with a body part other than the soles of the feet. It's a neat 'out' for us- it keeps the kids engaged while helping us to gauge their abilities (who is strong, who is crafty, who is nimble). Will a kid use main strength or will a kid realize that technique can be used, a throw or a shifting of position that takes advantage of an opponent's momentum?

It's also a neat out for us because two coaches can run the tournament while allowing one coach to nap in shifts. The kids are happy, the coaches can recoup their energy. Besides, can you really teach de-ashi-barai to a six year old who is daydreaming about the radio-controlled car he's expecting for Christmas?

Our simple plan set in motion, we were treated to some interesting matches. What started out as a standard 'king of the hill' situation ended up, as every kid had an opportunity to compete, with a bunch of matches in which little guys challenged big guys and handled themselves credibly. The two toughest kids had a friendly rivalry going as they happily fought rematches (Jimmy was ahead at the last, with a 3-2 record). We were able to make points about leverage, balance, and momentum, and everybody seemed to have fun, even us formerly cranky coaches.

After another hot-as-you-can-stand shower, I put on my suit and proceeded to the room in which the luncheon was held. Due to a mix-up, some guy ended up in my seat at a coaches' table, and I had to sit with the teenage counselors who shepherd the kids from class to class (the head honcho of the program described the coaches as the 'heart and soul' of the program, I joked to my table companions that they were the brains of the operation, which I heartily believe). Some of the counselors were former students, and at my right hand sat a young woman who I've known since she was peanut-sized. It was nice to hear from her about her college application process, the work she was furiously engaged in before deadlines approached. I learned that our newest counselor, who is an eighth-grader also stressing out about applications, to elite high schools in this case, was a neighbor of mine, living just over the border from my beloved Yonkers, in the Woodlawn Heights section of the Bronx. We commiserated over the closing of Artuso's Pastry Shop (formerly owned by a high school classmate of mine, now retired to Florida) and the vagaries of the local bus service. It was a nice opportunity to talk to them about things more substantial than, "Hey, can you give us a two-minute warning so we can get the kids out on a timely basis?"

The post-luncheon coffee came just in time to keep me from falling asleep in my dessert and adding a discordant snore to the sound of the smaller kids singing carols. My second two-hour period would be drawing to a close. I rallied, and dragged my ass to the subway station and did my best to keep from nodding off on the 1 train. I have to confess that I just woke up to write this post before heading back to work the graveyard shift. I think I've gotten past the 'be cognizant for two hours' stage.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Ex-Cult Member and Cult Researcher Discuss Cult

Poking around my usual online haunts, I found an interesting video of a discussion of the QAnon conspiracy theory between QAnon researcher Travis View and former Moonie, current cult expert Steven Hassan. It's a respectful conversation between two individuals who seem to have the best interests of people bamboozled by the Cult of QAnon at heart:

I actually know someone who is a Moonie, who participated in the 1982 mass wedding in New York City. She is a decent person, seems to be well-adjusted, and is still married to the same man, and has raised some really good kids who seem to be doing well. When I found out she was an adherent of the Unification Church, I was weirded out for about ten seconds, but I realized that nothing had changed, that she was the same person I had come to like and admire.

I don't know if I could view a QAnon adherent in the same way, especially since there is an undercurrent of violent yearnings that the cultists just can't seem to hide. Travis and Steven make it clear that they are not dismissive of these people, but I don't think I could be as kind as they are.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Bad News for Jews

I'm a New Yorker, so even though I was raised in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, I schlep to work, I nosh when I'm hungry, and I complain about the gonif in the White House. I've always had Jewish friends and neighbors, Jewish roommates and Jewish girlfriends and Jewish co-workers. The eye doctor who first fitted me out for glasses was Jewish. Growing up, the vast majority of my friends were either Catholic or Jewish, so it was easy to assume that the majority of the nation was as well. Until recently, I (like most of my Jewish friends and acquaintances) thought that the Jewish people in the United States were as safe as any Jewish people on the planet. Now, I'm not so sure...

In the past three years, I've heard from LGBTQ friends who were afraid to get married because they thought they might get put on a list. I've heard from Hispanic friends who were afraid that they would hear a fateful knock on the door because their immigration paperwork might not be in order. So far, I haven't personally heard any Jewish friends express any fear of the current regime, but that time might come. Oddly enough, the most worrisome factor in Trump's 'Jewish Policy' is couched as a bill combating antisemitism... the bill seems to define Jewish people as a national identity group as well as a religious identity group, which plays into an old trope that Jews have divided loyalties to this nation. This is mere days after Trump peppered a speech in front of a conservative Jewish audience with antisemitic tropes. As a bizarre coda to this farrago of anti-Jewish bigotry, Trump invited antisemitic evangelical pastors Robert Jeffress and John Hagee to the White House Hanukkah party.

In the meantime, antisemitic attacks are on the rise in this country, from both white and black right-wing whackjobs. Trump's legislative order will do nothing to prevent real antisemitic violence, while playing into the hands of conspiracy theorists who portray Jews as a sinister 'Other'. If I thought Trump had a scintilla of awareness, I'd suspect that he planned things this way.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Another Cletus Safari Fails to Properly Identify Cletus

The journamalistic (sic) genre known as the Cletus Safari has become a regular punchline in the left-of-center online world. Serial fabulists such as Selena Zito have made a career out of fabricating quotes and many of the 'former Democratic voters' quoted in Cletus safaris are lifelong Republicans. Sure, the media can interview MAGAMan, but they never do their homework when they do so... they never seek out the real identity of Cletus.

The current case that has inspired this post is CBS' coverage of Trump's recent rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the land of chocolate. The news did a decent job of covering the violent Cleti, who hanker for a second civil war:

They failed to note that some of the attendees weren't run-of-the-mill Trump supporters, but are actually right-wing alternative media figures... this is a bit of sloppy work that wouldn't pass muster if, say, someone affiliated with The Young Turks were to be featured in B-roll at an Elizabeth Warren rally. The amateur journalists are doing a better job of sussing out these characters than the major media organizations are.

This sort of thing matters- what is portrayed as a grassroots movement is a well-funded astroturf effort, national in scope. The players are known to watchers of the right-wing, but mainstream media organizations take the bait every time, to the detriment of our political process.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019


One of the more clickbaity articles that came my way today painted a picture of an Age of Penguins that occurred after the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs (n.b.: I found a less clickbaity site for my link). Penguins the size of humans (kudos to the Canterbury Museum for dressing the woman used in the comparison picture as a penguin) swam through the seas of the Paleocene South Pacific. These birds, in a see recently freed from the marine reptiles which once ruled the seas, were worthy successors to the distantly related, toothed diving birds of the Cretaceous.

This, of course, leads me to the source of the post title, namely H.P. Lovecraft's novella At the Mountains of Madness, which featured six foot tall cave-dwelling penguins, 'monstrous in (their) combined albinism and virtual eyelessness'. Amidst all of the cosmic horror and grue, it's not a masterly move to try to make penguins scary... Mr Popper's Penguins, not a horror yarn.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Fake Christians Hate Being Called Out

Having been raised in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, I am familiar with the tale of the Gentle Nazarene... born in a stable and placed into a manger because his parents couldn't find lodging in a town to which they had to travel for a census, he was the perfect outsider. Taken to a foreign land to escape execution by a hostile regime, he was the perfect refugee. One would think that the adherents of Christianity would welcome the refugee, would shelter the poor outsider... one would think wrong, judging by the vitriol launched at a United Methodist Church in Claremont, CA that depicted the Holy Family as refugees separated by ICE:

Fake Christians fly into a rage when they are confronted by real Christianity. While the Gentle Nazarene didn't have anything to say about LGBTQ people being sinful, nor did he mention abortion, he was completely clear about the fate which awaits those who did not succor the afflicted:

31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:

33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

You just can't reconcile baby-jails with the teachings of Christ, especially if you are one of this 'Biblical literalists' who claim that Old Testament prohibitions against 'teh ghey' are inviolate, while large chunks of the Gospel of Matthew can be jettisoned. In this runup to the Christmas season, I'm willing to make a deal with these people- I will put the Christ back into Christmas when they put the Christ back into Christianity.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Ten Years and One Week of Bastardy

If a guy forgot his tenth anniversary, you'd probably mutter. "What a bastard..." Well, that's exactly what I did- my tenth anniversary was last Sunday. The blog started on 12/1/2009, when I posted a silly riff on the introduction to Robert E. Howard's original 'Conan' story, The Phoenix on the Sword, which inspired the opening of the Conan the Barbarian movie (perhaps the greatest barbarian movie of all time). It was a silly post, but the important thing was that it got the ball rolling... an old co-worker of mine, one Johnny Alvarado, had a motto: "There's nothing to it, but to do it." That post was the initial 'doing it'. The two big inspirations behind the blog were the exhortations of my great and good friend Francesco Rulli, and the example set by the storied snark blog Sadly, No! The bulk of my early blogroll was composed of Sadly, No! regulars. Over the years of blogging, I wrote for Rumproast as well, and some of my co-bloggers there are also on the blogroll.

As of this writing, I've had 1,761,105 hits in my ten years, with my by-far most popular post (with a whopping 302,942 hits, most of them spambots) being my 2013 post about eating a kousa dogwood fruit before I knew for sure that it was edible. My top five countries are the United States, France, Russia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

I've long thought that my most important posts are the Secret Science Club post-lecture recaps. ee, When I started them, they were very rudimentary descriptions of the lectures, but I quickly came to the realization that I owed Margaret and Dorian and the lecturers more, and got serious about the recaps, taking extensive, barely legible (hey, you juggle a beer, pen, and notepad in a dark nightclub) notes and spending hours on each post, verifying information and hunting down links. These posts are the ones which most challenge me, each one is like a mini term paper, with you good people being my graders. They are a lot more difficult than just posting some political snark or a cute cat pic. My one most outré blogging experience was my 2011 24 Posts in 24 Hours stunt, which led to the spinoff Objectivist Morrissey project, which would be more funny if Morrissey hadn't turned into a real right-wing nutter.

Throughout my ten years of blogging, life has been pretty stable- I have had the same job all along, though when I started, it was a part-time position to ensure a steady trickle of money while I was working as a contractor (n.b.: clients never want to pay on time), but I was hired full-time and promoted to head the department within two years, all because I was the one office software proficient guy. I'm coy about posting too much information about my job, but I work in beautiful surroundings and enjoy myself perhaps too much (work shouldn't feel like a kick in the balls). In the course of my job, I have blogged about three of my feline co-workers- the dear, departed Moses and Fred, and the lively, lovely Ginger. Right now, while there's talk about getting a second (and maybe a third) mouser for the site, we're in the midst of a major construction project involving one of the buildings requiring mousing, and Ginger is such a dominant force that we're reluctant to force a younger cat to share quarters with her until they become acclimated. Of course, there are also the wild critters that I share my stomping grounds with... both enemies and friends. In the decade, I have inhabited two apartments, six blocks from each other, in the same neighborhood, the 'tavern district' of Yonkers. While I do enjoy a spot of novelty, life has been pretty stable for me throughout my blogging career. I realize that I am extremely lucky in this regard.

I want to thank you all for your support over the years. M. Bouffant and Tengrain in particular have been most generous in linking to my blog at Crooks and Liars. Driftglass and Blue Gal have also been very generous with their links and their support. Without you readers, though, the whole endeavor would be for naught. You're the reason I keep doing this thing. It's been a hell of a decade, and you have been a hell of an audience. Much love, much gratitude!

Saturday, December 7, 2019

I've Come to the Realization that this Album Is now Political

Earlier this year, I posted about the dangerous 'bleach cure' con. This is yet another 'miracle cure that THEY don't want you to know about' scam, but parents forcing their children to drink bleach is horrific. The strange thing about this particular scam is that there's a political component to it nowadays, as yet another right-wing nutjob jumps on the bleachandwagon. I guess that these people know that their audience is lacking in critical thinking skills and therefore is particularly vulnerable to affinity scams.

This brings me to a rather unusual subject, that of the 1988 Dead Milkmen album Beelzebubba. I had always considered this album a snarky comedy album by an irreverent, cartoonish punk band... then all of a sudden, conspiracy theories filtered into the popular imagination like so many psychedelic banana peels. The song Stuart, a perfect distillation of the intersection of right-wing conspiracy lunacy and anti-LGBTQ bigotry, took on a new meaning for me... this was perhaps the most cogent political anthem of the current zeitgeist.

Now, even formerly silly songs from the album take on a political edge in these bizarre times:

Thirty-one years after the release of the album, it is even more relevant than it was when it was released. Who could have guessed that a bunch of silly Philly punks would turn out to be so prescient? I thought the album was hilarious when it was released, but I'm not sure sure that it's all that funny anymore...

Friday, December 6, 2019

C-SPAN Science Club

In my blog post from December 4th, I noted that I learned that the last two Secret Science Club North lectures were recorded for broadcast on C-SPAN. Well, I found the video of Sean Carroll's September lecture, and it's a good introduction to the Secret Science Club experience, especially since Dr Carroll is such a charismatic champion of an esoteric subject.

Pour yourself a beverage, make yourself comfortable, and soak in that Secret Science Club (North) experience.

When Dr Sullivan's SSCN lecture makes it to C-SPAN, I will post that as well.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Sweetums' Birthday

Today marks the birthday of my older brother, Sweetums. Sweetums was the one who set the tone for the rest of us, and he's a hard act to follow. My super-scarcastic sister was the one who dubbed him 'Sweetums', joking that he was perfect and never did anything wrong... we all quickly came to the realization that she was right, and the name stuck. After all, Sweetums is perfect. He was back in the 'States six months ago for his college reunion, and we had a grand time, even stuck in the swamps of Jersey

I tried to call Sweetums in Switzerland before going to work this afternoon, but I imagine he and the family were out gallivanting around. The kids, like Sweetums and their mother, are also pretty much perfect, and it's a source of pride for me to hear of their exploits. Sweetums, fratello, happy birthday!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Secret Science Club North Post-Lecture Recap: Walk Tall, My Captain!

Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, for a Secret Science Club North lecture featuring Dr (and naval Captain) Kathryn Sullivan. Dr Sullivan is the first American woman to walk in space, and was instrumental in the mission which placed the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit. She has just released a book, Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut's Story of Invention.

Dr Sullivan started her lecture with a passage from her book that came across as a passage from a techno-thriller, describing sitting in the shuttle, on the launchpad when an indicator light came on, showing a possible fuel leak. As she sat in the shuttle, a propulsion operator, known to her only by the callsign MPS, had to determine whether it was an actual leak or a faulty indicator, and whether to manually override the stoppage of the countdown clock- spoiler, the launch proceeded. It was a nice, sorta tense beginning to the lecture, an appetizer for the narrative that followed.

Captain Sullivan began her career as an astronaut in 1978, when NASA selected its first space shuttle crews. She had just received her PhD in geology, and was seeking her first post-doctorate job. The initial shuttle crews were, as she described them, TFNGs- thirty-five new guys (with the 'F' having another meaning not fit for the Symphony Space stage). Six of the Class of '78 were women, three were African-American men, and one was an Asian-American man. She joked that they were 'ten interesting people and twenty-five standard white guys'. As a 'baby astronaut', she had to go back to school for intensive classwork in physics, physiology, and other necessary subjects, receiving the equivalent of a first year graduate coursework in these fields. Before being considered as a crew member, she had to help prepare other flights- she compared this to starting work in the mailroom of a company and rotating around to other positions in order to learn what she needed for spaceflight.

Dr Sullivan's first spaceflight was in October 1984. Prior to that, her classmate Sally Ride flew in June 1983. Sally Ride flew with Dr Sullivan on her first flight, when she became the first American woman to walk in space. Dr Sullivan, a magnanimous person, noted that Russian cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya was the first woman to make two spaceflights and the first woman to walk in space. Dr Sullivan joked that her first mission allowed her to do 'cool earth-science things', and to test tools that would be needed for refueling satellites in orbit, thereby increasing their lifespan.

She also displayed an iconic photograph of her with Sally Ride, and related a funny anecdote... the two wee in the 'White Room' outside the shuttle launchpad, and they both knew that they were the recipients of media attention. In order to look like they were doing something, they decided to play out a stereotype from all sorts of military movies and tech thrillers, and pretended to synchronize their watches (which had already been done long before):

She quipped that astronauts are on top of the world before a flight, receiving a lot of attention, but when they land, they go back to being nobodies, having to seek themselves out in photographs.

After her spacewalk, Dr Sullivan was placed on the 'space telescope' project which would result in Hubble. The space telescope was supposed to be maintained for fifteen years, but no tools were developed with which to work on the device. One of her earliest tasks was to figure out what tools were needed for maintenance. She displayed a painting by Chesley Bonestell from a 1952 issue of Colliers magazine (published shortly after her birth) depicting a space shuttle, a space telescope, and a space station:

Her work would be making this image a reality... to make the engineering catch up with the vision. She noted that we have accomplished this, though the details were slightly different, with different shuttle wing configurations and an Erector Set space station instead of that 'Arthur C. Clarke hub-and-spokes space station'.

The space telescope being conceived shortly before her birth, she jokingly referred to Hubble as her 'big brother'. The telescope was designed to be worked on by space-suited astronauts. Dr Sullivan humorously likened this to putting on two snowmobile suits, placing a bucket on one's head, donning clumsy gloves, and trying to change the spark plugs in one's car... oh, and if you drop a tool, it floats away. Special tools needed to be devised, and the work choreography had to be figured out in a water tank. Dozens of tests were needed to develop good bench strength to work on the Hubble telescope. The original plan was to have large instruments worked on in orbit, but to perhaps bring the telescope back to Earth every five years to repair smaller electronics... this idea was scrapped in 1984, and everything had to be modified to allow repairs to take place in orbit.

Dr Sullivan then walked us through the necessary tasks to work on equipment in orbit. In order to hold one's feet still, a portable foot restraint is needed, a pivoting platform attached to the object to be worked on by a semi-rigid tether... all while the object to be worked on is restrained by the shuttle's robotic arm. Even the pliers and ratchet sets to be used in orbit have to be modified so they can be used while wearing heavy, clumsy gloves.

Before the Hubble mission, the crew ordered a bunch of mission patches, and enamel badges for the launch team, which were misprinted 'Lunch Team' and instantly became highly sought-after collectors' items.

In April 1990, the Hubble was released into orbit with a hitch- one of the solar arrays was stuck, so Dr Sullivan had to suit up and spend time cooped up in an airlock in case she had to manually crank the array into place. A technician on the ground was able to properly deploy the solar array, so Captain Sullivan never had to leave the airlock.

When Hubble was deployed, it was found to be 'nearsighted'- there was an imperfection in the main mirror, one-fiftieth of the thickness of a human hair. Arthur Fisher writing for Popular Science put it: “It was as if an eagle had become a bat.” The mess-up was a severe blow for NASA, but the Hubble team figured out that the error was precisely calibrated, and could be corrected by a similarly calibrated adjustment of the optical works. The correction, dubbed COSTAR, was envisioned by engineer Jim Crocker... Crocker, a tall individual, hit upon a solution while loosening an adjustable showerhead in an Utrecht hotel room, and realized that a corrective optical device could be added to Hubble. The repair took place in 1993, and the gorgeous images obtained by Hubble afterwards have become iconic.

The Hubble telescope has entered the public imagination like no other scientific instrument. It has been improved throughout its lifetime, which has been much longer than its projected fifteen year term. Dr Captain Sullivan finished her lecture by displaying a photograph of the actual handprints on the surface of the Hubble which inspired the title of her book, sections of the telescope's surface which, due to contact, have been weathered by interactions with particles in space. Being a magnanimous person, she noted that the ground crews which have participated in the Hubble mission have left metaphorical handprints as well.

The lecture was followed up with a Q&A session. I am happy to note that there were several families with children present for the lecture... it's beautiful to see the values embodied by Dr Sullivan and the Secret Science Club team instilled in kids. One of the first questions was, were you ever scared while on a mission? Dr Sullivan joked that astronauts ride bombs for a living, but that the risk is totally worth it, and that as an astronaut, she had to be 'all in' on every mission. Regarding a question about the scientific benefits of space programs, Dr Sullivan noted that the Apollo program marked the first time that computer scientists stopped bragging about how big their computers were and started bragging about how small their computers were (I was reminded of this). Another question regarded the effects of space flight on her body- after ten days in orbit, her body felt like wet sand, and she had to remind herself that she couldn't just 'launch' objects to other people because of the gravity. Another question regarded looking down on the Earth, and Dr Sullivan noted that most boundaries cannot be seen from space, but certain divisions are visible due to human effects on the terrain. When asked if she experienced sexism in NASA, she noted that she walked on as a full astronaut, and that NASA had been attempting to make a 'one size fits all' spacesuit, a sort of modular 'Mr Potato Head' design that could be adjusted to fit a broad range of physiques. Asked what inspired her to transition from Marine Geology to Spaceflight, she said that she wanted to see the Earth with her own eyes. Asked if the view of the stars from space was different than from Earth, Dr Sullivan joked that the differene in distance from the ground is negligible, but that the view of the Earth from orbit is dramatic- Earth isn't Carl Sagan's 'pale blue dot', but a 'big blue beachball'. Some Bastard in the audience asked her to contrast her career in NASA with her career with NOAA, particularly with regard to politics- she noted that NASA is seen as a bipartisan gem, with a unified space law formulated in 1958 with the administration's creation, and defining its mission. NOAA, formed in 1970, aggregated bits and pieces of many agencies, some such as the Weather Bureau and the Department of the Fisheries dating back to the 1800s. It was created to synthesize a 'big picture' from various oceanographic and atmospheric sources. If NASA is a gem, NOAA is a quilt, and its efforts have to be more convincing to more people in order to ensure proper funding.

Dr Sullivan delivered a fantastic lecture, a blend of hard science and engineering, with a fascinating career retrospective, and a bold adventure narrative... all of it leavened with humor, and heartfelt expressions of gratitude to her colleagues. I often talk about the 'Secret Science Sweet Spot', and Dr Sullivan achieved it. Grand Slam? She knocked it into orbit. Kudos to Dr Sullivan, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the scintillating Symphony Space.

For a taste of that Secret Science Club experience, here is a video of Dr Sullivan speaking on her career with NASA:

Last night, I learned that the two latest Secret Science Club North lectures were recorded for C-SPAN Book TV. Last night's lecture should be broadcast in three weeks or so. I will post the last SSCN lecture's C-SPAN recording in another blog entry, so you can get the full experience.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Haunted by the Spirit of the Falklands

One of my weekly listens is the Qanon Anonymous podcast, which concerns the big current right-wing conspiracy theory. This week's episode concerned the statutory rape and sex trafficking allegations against Prince Andrew. Perhaps it's the Irish in me (or more, ominously, the French), but I've never been a big fan of royalty in general, and the House of Windsor in particular, and I remember when 'Randy Andy' was a punchline in the tabloids. It was kind of funny when he was catting around with a woman whose greatest brush with fame ended up on George Lucas' cutting room floor, but it's appalling and gross now.

In a disgusting attempt to undermine accuser Virginia Roberts-Giuffre's allegations against him, the prince claimed that he was unable, for a time, to sweat because he was haunted by the Spirit of the Falklands:

My main motivation in posting this is that it's the perfect excuse to post one of my all-time favorite protest songs:

While the right-wingers squawk about Hollywood pedophile rings and Hillary Clinton's nefarious career as a child-eating Satanist, the Occupant of the White House is claiming not to know Prince Andrew, despite photographic evidence of them both hanging out with Jeffrey Epstein. The very idea that Trump is crusading against child trafficking is a disgusting farce.

Monday, December 2, 2019

I Think This Will Be a Regular Stop on the Itinerary

Today wasn't exactly the sort of day that was conducive to wandering around, being damp and cold and slippery. I had some errands to run locally, though, so it was out the door, and off to the main drag two blocks away from Casa di Bastard. After accomplishing the tasks I needed to perform, I walked by one of the local deli/grocery stores and saw that there was a sign in the window advertising homemade burek. The shop, owned by a family from Kosovo, has a plethora of Eastern European products, including palacinka, various sausages, and preserves. I opted to get a house-made spinach burek and a tulumba. It was a nice alternative to grabbing a couple of slices of pizza, and the rest of the wares looked tempting as well.

Local hero, and high school classmate of mine, RJ Puma, recently returned to the neighborhood for a 'foodie tour' in August. I am familiar with all of the places covered in this trip. This Kosovar eatery is relatively new, but it's a worthy addition to the neighborhood, and, more importantly, it's closer to home than the famous Pelham Parkway bastion of burek. I look forward to learning a lot more about the cuisine of the Balkans, here in my beloved Yonkers.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

An Appropriate Beginning to December

It's been an ugly day weather-wise, here in the NYC metro area. The storm that hit began as a snowstorm, but after a couple of hours, and no accumulation, it transitioned into a cold, steady rain. As is typical on the weekends, my first order of business was feeding my precious Ginger. The weather being yucky, I didn't even try to get her to join me on my walkabout, by which I mean my sullen trudge around the property.

It's been one of those days on which I'd have preferred to ensconce myself at one worksite, but that wasn't in the cards... I had to respond to a situation at another site. Thankfully, there weren't too many cars on the road- between the weather and the post-Thanksgiving travel hangover, there were few other cars on the road. This task took about an hour of my time, but not a lot of outdoor exposure.

The storm is expected to continue throughout tomorrow, with a mixture of snow, sleet, and rain. One of the major projects on the job has already been canceled due to the inclement weather. I'm not complaining, it's exactly the sort of day to spend indoors, making a big pot of soup from scratch. I'm hoping there will be no surprises to claim my time, it's my typical day off.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Happy Birthday, Vincenzo

Today, we mark my brother Vin's birthday. It was always doubled up with Thanksgiving in our house, because we're thankful that we have Vincenzo. Mom is down at Vin's place, participating in the double celebration. I sent Vin a birthday message, and he is celebrating at one of Huntsville's storied German restaurants (ya know, those rcket scientists that were brought to Huntsville after the war needed someplace to eat.

Vin always kept us hopping- his first act when he got to the US Military Academy was to post the family address on a bulletin board, with a note informing everybody that they were welcome to stay. And stay everybody did... he increased our already large family by a factor of a couple of hundred. We should have installed a revolving door in the house- at any rate, hundreds of people knew where the spare key to the house was 'hidden'. I can't tell you the number of times I came home from work to find a couple of guys in the kitchen, cooking dinner and drinking beer on one of their rare free weekends. Needless to say, we wouldn't have had it any other way. Family is family, no matter whether blood relations or not.

Vin is keeping the old tradition of hospitality alive, and I imagine a couple of his Army buddies have stopped by this weekend to hold court with him and with mom, who still remains the matriarch of an extended family of global scope. I can't think of any better celebration of Vin's birthday than having various callers stopping by throughout the day. He, inspired by mom's generosity, took on the mantle of gracious host, and that's the sort of thing that doesn't change with age.