Thursday, February 28, 2019

The End of an Era on the Job

A couple of weeks ago, one of my subordinates gave two weeks' notice after eight years on the job. He had gotten a promotion at his other job and this new position would be a floating shift, so he would be unsure about his availability for his position with our organization. He's not computer savvy at all, and one of my other subordinates believes that one factor in his resignation was not wanting to deal with our transition to using a business administration corporation to deal with HR and payroll, with all the changes in self-reporting timesheets that entails. I think he's onto something, because the guy who's resigning hadn't gotten paid for the first six weeks of the year, and I had to sit down with him and verify his hours so he could fill out payroll adjustment forms in order to get his wages. I suspect I am going to have to fill out additional forms and send them to him for his signature so he can get his final paycheck.

I have to admit that I am conflicted about this guy's resignation... he was reliable up to a point. Given a routine, he was steady, but any deviation from the norm, any novelty, would flummox him. I joke that the job is 75% cushy, 20% somewhat of a challenge, and 5% 'oh shit!' He was great 75% of the time, okay 20% of the time, and rattled 5% of the time. Even more frustratingly, he sometimes gave me the impression of being a fabulist. I wouldn't call him a liar, but every once in a while, he'd tell me of off-the-wall stuff that happened to him on the job, like teenagers in the parking lot revving up high-performance cars before peeling away. One axiom I have at work is 'if it's not written down, it didn't happen', and never once did I get an incident report. Oddly enough, though, every once in a while, one of his more outré stories would check out, but he'd still never fill out an official report.

Even after eight years, I couldn't tell you if he's got a nutty streak, if he's a magnet for nuts, or if he's taking the mickey. Having worked in the insurance industry, I am comfortable with apportionment, so I will say it's a 20/10/70 split. Having a snarky streak myself, I can 'recognize game', even as the butt of the joke. His last joke will be making me fill out more paperwork to ensure he gets paid... that being said, I will miss the guy despite, maybe even because of, his eccentricities.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

My One Takeaway from the Cohen Hearings

I spent much of today with one eye on the Michael Cohen testimony before Congress, typically peeking at Evan Hurst's liveblog of the proceedings between running errands and doing minor household chores, like throwing in a load of laundry.

The one major lesson of these sordid proceedings is that one should never NEVER NEVER vote for any candidate who has a bagman, a fixer, a dirty trickster. Voting for a gangster wannabe can only lead to heartbreak. Hell, the mere proximity of Goodfellas cosplayers is enough to inspire stupid people to 'get their gangster on'. A corollary lesson is that inquisitors shouldn't try to portray an individual as an inveterate liar when that individual's lies have been on behalf of the person they want to protect, who happens to be a bigger liar.

On one bright side note, Peter Sagal, who I am a huge fan of, has been on fire today with some hot takes and a surprisingly poignant comment on Cohen's dulcet N00 Yawk accent.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Sneaky Ebola, Sneakier Antibodies

Last night, I headed down the the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring microbiologist and immunologist Dr Kartik Chandran of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The topic of Dr Chandran's lecture was 'Unraveling and Counteracting the Infection Strategies of Emerging Viruses', with a specific focus on the Ebola virus. Dr Chandran researches how emerging viruses invade cells, and how medical practitioners could use 'jujutsu flips' to counteract their takeover strategies. Viruses such as Ebola emerge for a variety of reasons: clear-cutting forests, herding livestock which can allow viruses to change hosts, and climate change. Viruses can jump from various animal hosts into human populations. It takes a long time to figure out strategies to combat viruses when they jump to humans.

The Ebola virus was named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Ebola virus was discovered in 1976 in a remote missionary station run by Belgian nuns. The events behind the emergence of the Ebola virus were the topic of Richard Preston's bestselling thriller The Hot Zone, which will be dramatized as a National Geographic miniseries which Dr Chandran ruefully predicted will probably be 'a hot mess'. The Ebola virus is lethal but rare, and strikes in remote places. For a long time, charities such as the Gates Foundation did not consider Ebola to be a major healthcare problem compared to infant mortality and malaria. That changed with the 2013-2016 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, which set healthcare in the region back by a decade. A lot of healthcare personnel died in that outbreak. Currently, there is an outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in an active warzone. A lot was learned during the West African outbreak- there is an urgent need for vaccines, but where do we begin?

The Ebola virus is a filovirus, a virus that forms a filament, a single strand of RNA. Viruses can be likened to molecular machine assemblies, they reproduce by taking over cells and turning them into virus factories. Viruses have an 'invasion machine' which gets them into cell cytoplasm and a 'payload', a genetic code which turns the cell into a virus factory. Dr Chandran is primarily interested in the delivery system of the virus, which is a glycoprotein. This large molecule sticks to the cell and enters the cell's lysosome in order to reproduce more viruses.

Dr Chandran posed a darkly jocular question: how do we study viruses without losing grad students? The invasion mechanism of Ebola can be attached to the vesicular stomatitis virus, a cattle pathogen which only causes minor illness in humans. In effect, this altered VSV is a 'sheep in wolf's clothing'. This invasion mechanism could then be used to develop antibodies to fight the Ebola virus. This therapy, named ZMapp, was dubbed by Newsweek magazine 'The Secret Serum that Could Cure Ebola'. Antibodies are 'tailor made' by the immune system to bind to viruses. Viruses evolve rapidly, though, and Dr Chandran compared harnessing antibodies to pin down the Ebola virus to burly wrestlers trying to pin down agile ballet dancers.

Dr Kent Brantly, an American doctor infected by Ebola while serving in Liberia, was treated with ZMapp. Dr Ada Igonoh of Nigeria contracted Ebola virus, was left for dead, but survived the infection (as an aside, I have to mention Nigeria's Dr Ameyo Adadevoh who quarantined Liberia's 'patient zero', containing the outbreak, and died of the disease). The ZMapp antibodies 'lasso' the Ebola virus' glycoprotein and targets it for destruction. The problem with ZMapp is that it only works on the Ebola Zaire strain (other strains are Bundibugyo, Sudan, Reston and Taï Forest). The Zaire strain is the most common Ebola strain, but epidemiologists cannot predict which strain of Ebola virus will jump out of nature.

Dr Chandran likened the interaction of viruses and antibodies to a lock and key- not all antibodies can be useful to all viruses. Viruses mutate to be resistant to antibodies- they 'bob and weave' so the antibodies can't bind. The search is on for a 'Rainbow Unicorn Antibody', an antibody which could recognize proteins that a virus cannot change and act on those proteins, effectively beating Ebola and other viruses at their own game. Viruses stick to certain receptors, they 'figure out' what sort of cells they need to affect. For example, the polio virus cannot bond to mouse cells unless the mouse receives the human receptor gene. Ebola has a 'homing beacon' on the lysosome, the NPC1 gene (Niemann-Pick, type C1). The NPC1 gene transports cholesterol from the lysosomes, and is present in eukaryotes from yeast to humans. Dr Chandran likened NPC1 to a janitor working in the basement who is coerced by the Ebola virus to allow a break-in. If the NPC1 gene can be knocked out, Ebola is ineffective at invading the cell. The NPC1 gene is rapidly evolving in 125 African bat species. Usually, 'housekeeping' genes such as NPC1 evolve slowly. It appears that bats are evolving to disallow Ebola's use of NPC1 as a receptor, which suggests that Ebola is a bat virus, new to primates. The most promising treatments for Ebola would target the virus' ability to dock with the NPC1 gene in human patients.

The Ebola virus glycoprotein uses a staged invasion strategy. Dr Chandran quipped that he is not a rocket scientist, but he likened the invasion strategy to a multi-staged rocket. The NPC1 gene is not located on the cell's surface, but is sequestered within the cell membrane. The virus must be 'eaten' by the cell, and once inside the lysosome, it 'takes off its disguise' and multiplies. All primates have the same NPC1 gene, it is the perfect site to put an antibody which can prevent the Ebola virus from docking in the lysosome. Combining antibodies increases their effectiveness, and one antibody, mAb-548, binds to the NPC1 gene better than the virus- it beats the virus every time. Other antibodies dock with the virus better than the NPC1 gene does. Combining antibodies blocks the binding sites of both virus and cell. Antibodies need to be in the right place at the right time- Ebola viruses can sneak into lysosomes without either antibody tagging along. Antibodies typically can only bind to one thing- there is an effort to develop antibodies with 'second arms' that can grab onto two sites. Such a 'two armed' antibody could bind to either the virus or the NPC1 gene. These bispecific antibodies were tested on mice infected with the Ebola Sudan strain, and two shots of the antibody were sufficient to protect the mice. Eventually, the virus was beat at its own game and mice could be protected from multiple Ebola strains.

Dr Chandran then shifted the subject of the lecture to the Rainbow Unicorn Antibody, a naturally occurring antibody which could work against all Ebola strains. Blood obtained from an Ebola survivor was tested, and the antibodies were 'gold that has to be fished out' of the sample. Memory B cells function as a library of everything than an individual has survived- if Ebola antibodies are sought, they must be fished out of these cells. The B cells are sequenced, the Ebola antibodies are obtained, and injected into yeast cells to produce additional antibodies. The yeast cells are then screened to obtain the desired gene sequences. The entire process takes about a month to complete. Using this technique, 350 antibodies were found from one Ebola survivor and twenty of them turned out to be 'Rainbow Unicorn Antibodies'. The task then is to make cocktails, starting with one antibody, then adding additional antibodies and testing them on monkeys. These cocktails are effective up to day seven of an infection.

In the field, administering medications is difficult, considering the protective gear that medical personnel need to wear, and the hot conditions that prevail in the regions where Ebola outbreaks occur. A intramuscular injection delivered cocktail would allow more people to be treated quickly. Such a cocktail is now being developed for human use, and it has the potential to be used to treat multiple viruses: filoviruses, hantaviruses, nairoviruses, pneumoviruses, alphaviruses, and flaviviruses.

Dr Chandran ended his lecture by mentioning his participation in an organization called the Prometheus Group, which was formed to transform human antibodies into antiviral treatments in three years. He likened the group's approach to 'jazz improvisation' to develop many tools to fight viral diseases.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question concerned the unintended consequences of turning off the NPC1 gene... when the gene is turned off, cells can get clogged with cholesterol and cause neurological damage. This naturally occurs in individuals with Niemann-Pick Disease Type C. Turning off the NPC1 gene will cause cholesterol to accumulate over the course of several years, while Ebola can kill a patient in two weeks. Turning off one of two copies of the NPC1 gene can prevent Ebola infections while not leading to Niemann-Pick. Another question concerned the reasons why the West African Ebola outbreak died out- it was mainly due to quarantining patients and treating them with IV fluids. Individuals infected with Ebola must be isolated for 28 days in order to ensure the safety of others. Another question involved the lysosome... lysosome delivery systems are used by many viruses. Regarding the effects of different strains affecting different primates, it seems that crab-eating macaques are particularly vulnerable to the various Ebola virus strains. A question regarded Africa's genetic diversity, which is the greatest on the planet, and the possibility that it is a result from evolutionary responses to emerging viral outbreaks- the human genome contains a lot of genetic sequences from viruses. There was a question regarding the vulnerability of antibodies to viral mutation- if one antibody is involved, there is a good chance that the virus will evolve and thwart it, so multi-antibody cocktails are necessary. There was a question regarding using the same approach to combat HIV- therapies are under development, and it is possible that one will be available in the next two years or so.

Some bastard in the audience decided to ask a sociopolitical question- what is the role of conflict in Ebola outbreaks? The recent Ebola epidemics took place in regions wracked by civil war. Dr Chandran noted that conflict prevents responses by medical personnel, it destroys or degrades infrastructure, increases distrust of government. One necessary strategy to deal with outbreaks is to find influencers who can combat anti-medical social media memes, to convince people to get treatment. Trusted voices are needed to convince people to seek aid, not just voices from people in 'space suits'.

The last question concerned Dr Chandran's 'origin story', how did he end up studying Ebola. Dr Chandran indicated that he had been studying HIV early in his virology career, but was drawn to study Ebola by reading The Hot Zone. How's that for the power of books?

Once again, the Secret Science Club delivered the goods. Dr Chandran knocked it out of the park- he delivered an informative lecture on a topic which has been sensationalized by the media, conveying hard science fact in terms accessible to the layperson, discussing terrifying topics with just enough humor to leaven this heavy topic. I left the lecture more hopeful about humanity than I was when I entered. The 'good guys' are out there, and Dr Chandran is one of them. I also have a personal interest in Ebola, my brother Vin was deployed to Liberia in 2014 to build a medical infrastructure in the early days of the Ebola outbreak. It's good to know that scientists such as Dr Chandran are working to protect people who live in these 'hot zones', and people going to the hot zones to combat the disease, and other emergent diseases. Kudos to Dr Chandran, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House.

Here's a video on this topic by Dr Chandran, which showcases the fantastic imagery he displayed while he delivered his lecture. My recaps are mainly black-and-white, which isn't always up to the colorful, animated presentations utilized by the speakers:

Pour yourself a nice, refreshing beverage and soak in that SCIENCE!

Monday, February 25, 2019

Ebola Barbie

Tonight, I will be heading down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, which will feature Ebola specialist Dr Kartik Chandran of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

I have written about Ebola quite a bit, particularly back in 2014, when my brother Vincenzo was sent to Liberia in the wake of the Ebola outbreak. Much of Vin's work there involved building a medical infrastructure in the rural, underdeveloped areas in which the outbreak occurred. You want quick construction done, get the military involved... just ask The Prick with no Wall.

When I visited Vin and the family last Thanksgiving, I was drawn to a particular coffee cup for use in the morning. It had a bright magenta depiction of Barbie on it. The cup, as Vin related, had an unusual backstory. When Vin and the first rapid response team returned to Vicenza, Italy from their mission in Liberia, they had to undergo a three-week quarantine. The US Army, though, didn't do their homework, so the quarantine preparation was half-assed... the returning troops didn't have adequate supplies for their three weeks of isolation. For the record, Vin stated that the Liberian government treated the responders like national heroes.

In Italy, there was a mad dash to provide the necessities of existence to the quarantined personnel. The families of the Vicenza military base cleaned out their cupboards and donated items to the three-week isolates. Among the items were two somewhat garish coffee mugs with a magenta depiction of Barbie on them. Vin, being comfortable in his masculinity and a bit of a smart-aleck (both family traits), immediately grabbed one, while one of his comrades, of a similar bent, grabbed the other. They immediately dubbed them with the name of this post. Behold, Ebola Barbie:

I like to picture Ebola Barbie as a scientist working in the Malibu Institute of Virology, working on developing antibodies to the lethal virus. Of course, she would jet off to CDC headquarters in Atlanta in a hot pink Cessna, and occasionally travel to Western and Central Africa to supply local medical personnel with antivirals. Mattel, get on this, with proceeds of the sales going to the WHO and other organizations.

At any rate, the mug is a bright reminder of my brother Vincenzo's efforts to build a medical infrastructure in the early days of the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Herbs and Spices

Well, would you believe one herb and one spice? The spice in this case is Ginger, and the herb is catnip... The assistant manager of our retail operation decided to give Ginger a catnip-filled toy, and our precious kitty took to it like a dolphin to a pufferfish:

She was pretty blissed out after attacking her toy, but I'm sure she can quit anytime. At least she lives close to her job, so it's not like she's going to have problems with traveling under the influence.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Promotion Day

Today was a very eventful day- we promoted fifteen of our judo students, ranging in age from five to ten. Our fourteen year old, who is eligible for promotion to an orange belt, wasn't at class today. We tested the kids on their vocabulary, and had them demonstrate the techniques they knew.

One of our star pupils, a six year old, forgot the name of kesa gatame, but was able to recall it by the end of the class, so the day was saved and she earned her orange belt. As part of her promotion process, she had to fight me... at first she shot me a faux worried look, but our head sensei joked that, if she started losing the match, she could pull my hair. By the time he said 'hajime', she looked as if she'd been shot out of a cannon. Needless to say, she won the match, by a hair, but not mine.

We had a free period without students, so I did a bunch of uchikomi with one of the adults, a tall, limber guy in his twenties. I taught him the throw uchi mata, figuring that it played well with his height and flexibility. It's a hip throw, with the use of the leg as a force multiplier, but it looks like you're kicking your opponent in the crotch:

I believe that I've handed him a secret weapon...

It was a happy day, the kids play beautifully with each other. They are good sports, and it's clear that they want to learn together and help each other. I always try to stress the moral component of the sport- in order to do the potentially dangerous things that we do, we have to be good to each other. When I left the dojo, I was tired, maybe even a bit run down (right arm is still a little sore), but I was elated. I'd say that the kids are alright, but they're better than alright. I'm alright... a couple of aspirin and I won't even feel sore.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Sex Trafficking in Jupiter, not Mars

A couple of years ago, there was a conspiracy theory averring that there was a sex trafficking ring sending child slaves to Mars. While that is utter bullshit, there was a sex trafficking ring operating out of Jupiter, and one of its highest profile clients is in deep doo-doo. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting prostitution in a strip-mall 'day spa'.

The real horror here is that the women working in the 'spa' were lured to the US with the promise of jobs, coerced into performing sex acts in order to pay off an 'indenture', and housed in the building. I'm not big on moralizing, and generally believe that sex work should be legalized and regulated, but I am a firm believer in consent, so any legalization would have to involve investigations to prove that coercion was not involved. It's all about harm mitigation in my estimation.

Kraft is a hypocrite, the kind of guy who publicly donates to anti-trafficking groups, then goes to a seedy rub-and-tug place to purchase the services of a sex slave for $79/hour. One would think that a billionaire like Kraft could afford to hire a high-priced call girl, but I suspect that the seediness and coercive nature of the place appealed to his baser instincts.

Kraft is also a friend and supporter of Donald Trump, who seems to pal around with sex offenders to an alarming degree. This flies in the face of the conspiracy theory based on assertions that Trump is arresting sex traffickers and pedophiles. While some right-wingers are claiming that Kraft was entrapped by a hostile NFL management, I imagine that other Trump worshipers will claim that he became friends with Epstein and Kraft in order to (forgive me) penetrate their inner circles. Hope springs eternal among dead-enders.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Uhhh, You're Supposed to GUARD the Country

I can think of few things more disconcerting than news of a trusted protector going rogue- the bad cop, the predatory clergy member or teacher, the abusive spouse... they have the power to inspire fear that a mere 'bad hombre' doesn't have. And then there's this guy: the Coast Guard officer who was planning what's euphemistically known as a 'mass casualty event'. Never mind the fact that the guy had an arsenal in his apartment, this asshole had bigger plans: "I am dreaming of a way to kill every last person on earth."

Now, THAT is some serious nihilism, all in the service of a white nationalist homeland. Sometimes, in his estimation, a guy's just gotta kill white people in order to pursue a white homeland: "Much blood will have to be spilled to get whitey off the couch. They will die as will the traitors who actively work toward our demise." What is it about fanatics that makes them never think through the implications of their nefarious plans?

In a display of the banality of evil, the guy had a non-evil set of goals along with his kill list:

"Get out of debt!!!! Buy van to convert, diesel, Buy land for family out west or possibly NC mtns." He also adds that he needs to "come off" tramadol, a narcotic painkiller. "Clear my head," he says.

It's surreal, the cognitive dissonance behind a 'buy eggs, kill Nancy Pelosi and Joe Scarborough, pick up dry cleaning' bucket list hints at the inner turmoil of this creep.

There is a danger of certain military personnel becoming radicalized due to disenfranchisement, financial difficulties, unresolved mental health issues, and drug problems. Our government has long failed our military service members, but any criticism of 'the troops' is roundly condemned. At least the media is describing this particular plotter as a domestic terrorist, but that's probably due to his putting media figures on the 'hit list'. If he had just been threatening Democratic politicians, he would have been dismissed as a disgruntled 'lone wolf' figure.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Do They Make Atomic Bone Saws?

The big, appalling foreign policy story of the week (so far) is the attempt to fast track nuclear technology to the Saudis. The Saudis sit on a sea of petroleum, they sit under an unrelenting sun... there's no need for them to develop nuclear energy. A giant solar array in the Rub' al Khali would make more sense than a couple of nuclear reactor.

More importantly, does anybody want a bunch of bloodthirsty fundamentalists to get their hands on nuclear technology that could be used to start a nuclear weapons program? Saudi sourced weapons have ended up with ISIS, why trust them with nuclear material? Of course, Michael Flynn would have stood to make a shitload of money on any nuclear deals, and the Art of the Deal, no matter how shady, is the modus operandi of the current maladministration.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Flipper? More Like Tripper!

For a break from the general grim, stupid, and grimstupid news, how about a weird nature story? It seems that dolphins are getting high by tormenting, but not harming, toxic pufferfish, which release their toxin when they 'puff'. The tripping dolphins pass around their hapless drug paraphernalia like pot smokers passing a spleef:

The dolphins were filmed gently playing with the puffer, passing it between each other for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, unlike the fish they had caught as prey which were swiftly torn apart.

For the record, a dutchie is a cooking utensil, unlike a pufferfish. Here's a video of some dolphins taking a puff:

I guess this explains why they are always smiling...

Monday, February 18, 2019

Stolen Glory, Presidents' Day Style

Presidents' Day is a strange holiday, though it's originally a portmanteau of Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays, it's now usually seen as a catchall for all of our Chief Executives. Among this rarefied group are generally good, competent men, such as Lincoln, Eisenhower, the Roosevelts, the Adams family (but not the Addams Family), and Obama, generally good but ineffectual men such as Carter and Hayes, bad but effective men such as Andrew Jackson, bad and ineffective men, such as Warren G. Harding, Reagan, the Bushes, and our current Dotard, and a whole slew of men who blend good and bad features... flawed heroes such as Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe- men whose cognitive dissonance allowed them to 'champion' freedom while owning slaves. All are lumped together on this holiday, the greats and those whose names are generally useful to know on Trivia Night (for the record, one of the guys on my team has all of the presidents memorized while I am the world geography and science guy).

Then there's this guy:

I don't know why John and John decided to lionize this particular president, but the song must have been a boo to thousands of students since its release.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Public Accomodations Are Subpar

The public restroom facilities for the Woodlawn Cemetery side of Jerome Avenue aren't exactly great:

I'm in a confessional mood... oftimes, when I ride on the 4 Train, I am returning from a Big Beer Night in Brooklyn, and the combination of copious amounts of beer and a one-and-a-half hour train ride home often has me walking into the wooded section of Van Cortlandt Park opposite the cemetery to micturate. When I saw this porcelain bowl on the side of the street, I wasn't even tempted to utilize it.

On a serious note, there's always a lot of trash dumped in this vicinity, which is a shame, because it's one of the most beautiful areas of the Bronx, being sandwiched between two of the city's biggest green spaces.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Bad News for Readers

There are heroes who fly under the radar by virtue of their ubiquity, and we lost one this week. Betty Ballantine, who helped to introduce high quality paperbacks to the United States, died at the age of ninety-nine. Along with her husband Ian, Betty imported Penguin paperbacks from the UK and formed Bantam Books and Ballantine Books. The name 'Ballantine' has always formed a big part of my bookshelf contents, the Ballantines introduced authorized versions of such SFF classics as The Hobbit and Fahrenheit 451 to the American reading public.

Ballantine Books also published the stellar Ballantine Adult Fantasy (check your dirty minds!) Series, which was edited by Lin Carter, who was a hack writer but an outstanding editor, even curator, of literature. The series included novels and short story collections by such favorite authors of mine as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Evangeline Walton, Katherine Kurtz, William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen, and Poul Anderson. The series forms a perfect introduction to the Literature of the Imagination of the early-to-mid Twentieth Century.

Apparently, Ms Ballantine also had a trickster's streak in her as well:

One memorable Ballantine release was inspired by a hoax. In 1956, nighttime radio personality Jean Shepherd was telling listeners that they should ask for a new novel called “I, Libertine,” by Frederick R. Ewing. Bestsellers at the time were based in part on requests at bookstores, and demand was so high that “I, Libertine” appeared on some lists.

But, as Shepherd’s fans knew, and the public only later found out, neither book nor author existed. So Ian Ballantine convinced a friend, science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, to write — and write quickly — an actual “I, Libertine.” Shepherd, who provided the book’s outline, recalled years later that Sturgeon worked so hard he fell asleep before he finished the manuscript. Betty Ballantine stepped in and handled the last chapter, and “I, Libertine” went to print.

For the record, Theodore Sturgeon is best known for Sturgeon's Law, now commonly rendered as "ninety percent of everything is crap". Betty Ballantine, along with her husband and her staff, made sure that ninety percent of her company's output was most certainly not crap. Just looking at my library will fill me with gratitude for her long, storied (ha!) career.

Friday, February 15, 2019

THIS Is Why You Should Play D&D

As kids, we played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons, which for those unfamiliar with the game is basically a codified version of make-believe, a sort of improvisational storytelling underpinned with statistics and random number generation achieved through the use of funny dice. Players create characters defined by statistics indicating their physical and mental attributes (in the original: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma) which determine how good they are at performing various tasks and how much punishment they can take before they are incapacitated or die in the course of the adventures that form the plots of the game. Blogger Jeff Rients wrote the best succinct description of the basic premise of the game: "You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula."

The game is moderated by a referee, known in the parlance as a Dungeon Master, who sets up the premise of the various adventures, creates the cast of non-player characters (allies, adversaries, bystanders, pretty much the 'inhabitants' of the game world), draws the maps of the adventure scenes, and devises the various obstacles and rewards the players deal with- encounters, tricks, traps. One of the tropes of the game is the dungeon full of deathtraps which must be circumvented for the players to succeed...

Which brings us to Philly- here we have a video of some guys touring a derelict house, guys who seem to have played a lot of D&D, judging by their skill at finding a trap and their use of a pole to harmlessly trigger it:

I like the content warning at the Philly Voice: (Warning: There is excessive profanity in the video embedded below.) Judging by what these guys encountered, I have to say that there is exactly the right amount of profanity in the video. You can't expect a bunch of Philly guys to speak High Gygaxian when they're stressed out.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Tainted Love Day

I have to confess that I've always been cynical about Valentine's Day- it really comes across as a made-up holiday engineered to make people in committed relationships feel obligated to spend a lot of money and to make people not in committed relationships feel bad about themselves. I'm not as down on romance as the guys in Gang of Four, but I'm not really big on commercialization/commoditization. As a hilarious aside, one of my cousins used to put her relationship with her boyfriend on hold from Christmas to Valentine's Day so as to avoid the whole present-buying kerfuffle. She can't do that with her marriage these days, but she had a good run while she was still single.

A scant year ago, though it feels like a longer time, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting eclipsed the romantic holiday with its utter horror. The original St Valentine's Day Massacre could be snarked about, it was a gangland slaying and the victims were, as Dotard would put it, bad hombres. Another mass shooting in 1977 in my beloved New Rochelle remains largely forgotten.

The Stoneman Douglas massacre seemed to have marked a shift in the national discourse about gun violence- the survivors were eloquent and media savvy, the victims were heroic, those who lost their lives trying to save their students, their friends. Sadly, though, nothing substantial has been done, and mass shootings still occur regularly. There were attempts, thankfully failed, to portray the shooter as a victim of bullying, and repeated attacks on the survivors' character, which helped to make this past year seem like a slog. The real tragedy is that there will never be a normal for these kids, never a February 14th which will be about overpriced roses or chocolate samplers. Title taken from a classic of my adolescence.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Loss of Opportunity

I'd like to think that I am an empathetic man, but I have to note that I am sadder about the loss of functionality of a robot than I am about the death of a human being. Of course, the robot added vastly to the sum of human knowledge while the human was a pox on our society...

The Opportunity Rover has gone silent after fifteen years, rendered powerless by a dust storm which covered its solar panels. The rover was only meant to function for three months, but nevertheless it persisted for fifteen years, a decent lifespan for a cat or a dog, much less a Mars rover. Opportunity discovered evidence that liquid water once existed on the surface of Mars. Everyone should have such a long and storied career!

I confess that I feel a bit weird mourning the death of a cute little robot languishing in a distant extraterrestrial desert... I blame George Lucas.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Crankiest Crank of them All

It looks like the biggest crank in American politics has died- it has been reported that Lyndon LaRouche died at the age of 1996. LaRouche was the living embodiment of horseshoe theory, he managed to be simultaneously far-left and far-right, and certifiably insane. The RationalWiki entry on LaRouche has a pretty good overview of his long, bizarre career in the public eye. It appears that he started out as a Trotskyite and ended up a Trumper. He ran in eight presidential elections.

It's been a long time since I've run into a LaRouchie in the flesh, though not for want of trying. The last time I saw a bunch of LaRouche supporters, I remember a handful of aging-hippies-gone-horribly-wrong handing out some whacky pamphlets. One of them shouted in my friend's ear, 'Fight for freedom.' He responded, 'Smoke my pole.' GOOD TIMES.

LaRouche has always been a presence on the political landscape that I have known, even though I still have no good handle on what he wanted, except that he was pro nukes, anti-England, and had some crazy ideas about teh J00s. It will be interesting to see if his followers can hold together some sort of movement, or will be subsumed by some other ideological freak show. At any rate, if a certain Hootchie Cootchie LaRouchie needs some, uh, comfort in this time of bereavement, I will make myself available. It's not like I've got a pet rabbit she can throw in a stewpot.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Universe Being Weird, or Earworm Confirmed

Last Saturday, I was inflicted by an earworm, a song I hadn't heard in years, the title and artist unknown to me. I had a lyric to go by, a somewhat generic 'I want to tell you today'. Poking around the t00bz, I found the song, a dance number from 1983 called Tell You (Today) by a band named Loose Joints, which was musician Arthur Russell and a revolving cast of collaborators. It's a jaunty tune, with just a hint of wistfulness For the record, I found the concert I posted last Saturday by Googling vocalist Joyce Bowden and discovering that she had collaborated with Joey Ramone in The Resistance. Ever since Saturday, I've been binge listening to various versions of the song, remixes, even a cover by Robyn (but not the one you're thinking of). This evening, when I stopped at the H Mart in Yonkers, I heard a by-now once-again familiar song on the store's sound system:

It was weird to hear this song completely randomly so soon after I had rediscovered it... the universe is a pretty bizarre place, to be sure. As a sad coda to this post, I have to note that Arthur Russell, a multi-instrumentalist who worked in musical genres ranging from minimalism to disco, a perfectionist who often didn't finish projects, succumbed, like all-too-many artists in late 20th Century New York City, succumbed to AIDS in 1992. As a kid, I never found out his name, now that I am a fan, I lament that fact.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Kids Are Alright... Or They Will Be When They Get Their Shots

Among the very worst people on the planet are the anti-vaccine crowd... they cite studies by discredited, even disgraced, individuals linking autism to vaccines and they place those around them at risk by degrading community immunity. There have been recent measles outbreaks in New York, Minnesota, and Washington. While measles is often portrayed as 'no big deal', it is a potential fatal disease that can cause long-term neurological damage. Tragically, the anti-vaccination movement seems to be one of the few things that unites raging righties and loopy lefties in this country.

The Kiwi Geniuses at Riddled cover a lot of 'alternative medicine' scams, and the anti-vaccine crowd is full of outright crooks as well as kooks... to make things worse, anti-vaccine propaganda has been pushed by Russian troll farms. Who needs to spend millions developing biological weapons when assholes will do your dirty work for free?

Thankfully, there is a movement of teenagers who have conducted research on vaccines and are rebelling against their parents by seeking inoculations. I guess that getting kicked out of the house by your asshole parents is better than going blind because of complications of an easily-preventable disease.

The post title is taken from one of my favorite songs by The Who:

Let's hope that this youthful rebellion grows, our country can't afford any more anti-science whackaloonery.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Missing Joey More than Ever Now

A major news story in these here United States is Chief Justice Roberts' surprise vote blocking a Louisiana law that would restrict abortion clinics. Predictably, Susan Collins was wrong about Barty the Boofer, proving how useless she is.

Anyway, that's not what I was going to post about... poking around the t00bz, I found a reference to a performance by Joey Ramone at a 1993 pro-choice benefit, fronting a pickup supergroup called The Resistance (Joan Jett put in an appearance playing guitar). The band played mainly covers,
from John Lennon to Sam Cooke to, in a case of foreshadowing, Louis Armstrong. I found an audio recording of the performance, which is wonderful:

Longtime readers will know that I have been a huge Ramones fan since I was a child, and it's nice to know that, while he played a cartoon lunatic delinquent in his band persona, Joey Ramone was a sensitive, articulate liberal. His monologue at the beginning of this performance is a testimony to his values, to his humane nature. We lost Joey to lymphoma on 4/15/2001, a loss which I took pretty hard (my brother Sweetums and I were returning to NYC from Easter at mom's house in Virginia, and when we heard the news on the radio, we blasted All the Stuff and More all the way home, singing along with tears in our eyes). Looking back, it was a loss for all of America. We could use more voices like Joey's, and I'm not just talking about his Queens-accented sorta-bleat/kinda-croon.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Virginia is For Loonies

I've stayed away from posting about the controversy over Virginia governor Ralph Northam's free-fall due to pictures surfacing of him in blackface or a KKK robe in a med school yearbook. The picture is despicable, and a med student is old enough to know better. To make matters worse, lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax has been accused of sexual assault by two women. The attorney general of the state also claimed to have worn blackface to imitate hip-hop legend Kurtis Blow. Predictably, this has led to mainstream media outlets pushing a narrative about (warning, Chris Cillizza post )the collapse of the Democratic Party in Virginia. For the record, Republican state senate majority leader Tommy Norment was editor of a VMI yearbook which contained racist content. Of course, VMI played a large role in the Confederate Army. Yonkers Boy James Comey, has indicated that the various racist scandals haunting Virginia are just the tip of the iceberg. Virginia has a long, sordid past as a major hub of the transatlantic slave trade, the CSA capital region, and a hotbed of segregation and Jim Crow laws. It is only recently that immigrants and Northern transplants such as my mother have turned the state purple.

With all that taken into consideration, the picture of Northam was revealed by a GOP ratfucking organization, the sort of outfit run by people who don't think Breitbart is nuts enough. While the picture is offensive, the whole sordid affair strikes me as a decapitation strike aimed at the state Democratic Party and an attempt to put an Republican in charge of the state. Northam's scandal wouldn't even cause a raised eyebrow if the man were a Republican. Republicans are only outraged about Northam because a Democratic politician didn't live up to the current standards of the Democratic Party. I'm of the opinion that the allegations against Fairfax are a lot worse than those against Northam, as they involve sexual violence. Currently, I'm of the opinion that Northam should tell those calling for him to resign to fuck off. In the meantime, the party needs to nominate more women and young people as candidates- the country really doesn't need more entitled aging 'bros' in positions of power.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl...

One of my weekly must reads is Tor Books' Lovecraft Reread, in which Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M. Pillsworth conduct a study of the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and authors, who like themselves, were inspired by the 'Lovecraft Mythos'. It's a fun sort of book club, and Ruthanna and Anne do a great job at exploring and deconstructing the good (an imaginative blend of science fiction and horror fiction) and bad (racism and xenophobia) of Lovecraft.

The current discussion involves “The Seal of R’lyeh” by August Derleth who is simultaneously lauded for saving the writings of Lovecraft from lapsing into obscurity and derided for imposing his own biases on Lovecraft's conceptions, namely a trite good-vs-evil narrative and a silly correspondence between Lovecraft's alien 'gods' and the classic elements. Lovecraft's eldritch elders were portrayed as being so alien that human concepts of morality were meaningless to them and human knowledge of matter was insufficient to comprehend their makeup. Derleth's fiction in effect hammered Lovecraft's creations into anthropocentric holes.

Since I'm discussing the story and its tropes, I figure that I should give any readers a huge SPOILER WARNING for a whole bunch of stories, starting with H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth. For those who have no interest in reading the story, but want to continue, here's a nice minute-and-a-half summary:

Alright, with that out of the way, Derleth's story is based on The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a continuation of the narrative of the inhabitants of that decaying seaside town. It follows the Derlethian cliché of a young man inheriting an ancestral home and discovering the recondite, outré lore hidden within. Derleth used the same trope in such forgettable stories as "The Return of Hastur" and "Beyond the Threshold"... lot of grandfatherly and avuncular wizards in Derleth's Lovecraft pastiches. In the case of "The Seal of R’lyeh", the protagonist inherits a home in the vicinity of Innsmouth, which instantly telegraphs the direction in which the narrative will go to the Lovecraft savvy. The story does, however, portray the Innsmouth natives in a somewhat sympathetic light, and even features an example of a 'sexy Deep One':

She was twenty-five, but there were days when she looked much younger, and other days when she looked older. I went to her home, found her, asked her to come towork for me days. She had a car of her own, even if but an old-fashioned Model T; she could drive up and back; and the prospect of working in what she called strangely,“Sylvan’s hiding,” seemed to appeal to her. Indeed, she seemed almost eager to come, and promised to come that day still, if I wished her to. She was not a good-looking girl,but, like my uncle, she was strangely attractive to me, however much she may have turned others away; there was a certain charm about her wide, flat-lipped mouth, and her eyes, which were undeniably cold, seemed often very warm to me.

Even though the initial portrayal of the Deep Ones was meant to elicit revulsion, the sexy fishwife trope actually began with Lovecraft himself:

She was, I judge, about twenty-three at the time; and was taking a special course in mediaeval metaphysics at Miskatonic. The daughter of a friend of mine had met her before—in the Hall School at Kingsport—and had been inclined to shun her because of her odd reputation. She was dark, smallish, and very good-looking except for overprotuberant eyes; but something in her expression alienated extremely sensitive people. It was, however, largely her origin and conversation which caused average folk to avoid her. She was one of the Innsmouth Waites, and dark legends have clustered for generations about crumbling, half-deserted Innsmouth and its people. There are tales of horrible bargains about the year 1850, and of a strange element “not quite human” in the ancient families of the run-down fishing port—tales such as only old-time Yankees can devise and repeat with proper awesomeness.

The sexy Deep Ones trope has also cropped up in stories by James Wade and Charles Stross, and movies such as Grinding Nemo and The Shadow of Innsmouth adaptation Dagon, in which Macarena Gomez manages to be both sexy as hell and super-scary:

Hey, baby why don't you smile more?

"The Seal of R’lyeh" is basically the old tale of 'boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy and girl mutate into fishpeople and go on a quest for the home/tomb of their evil alien god'. In the usual Lovecraft tale, the protagonist goes mad when he (it's always a d00d) learns about the terrifying reality that humans are a mere speck in a vast, indifferent cosmos. In "The Seal of R’lyeh", the protagonist learns about the terrifying reality that humans are a mere speck in a vast, indifferent cosmos, is okay with that, and goes off to have adventures with his squamous squeeze. I don't know if Derleth intended his story to be a spoof of his mentor's body of work, but "The Seal of R’lyeh" is a perfect inversion of the typical Lovecraft tale.

The story suffers from Derleth's typical sins of name-dropping Lovecraftian entities to pad the word count, and of referring to events from other 'mythos tales', which the narrator shouldn't be aware of. A little bit of Derleth goes a long way, but the general consensus, shared by myself, is that his stories usually wear out their welcome after a while. In one criticism of the story under consideration, Tor reader Ophid remarked:

I agree with most point, but Ada reminded me of a RomCom cliche: the woman who’s “different” simply because she’s not blonde and fashionably dressed and also just snarks at the male protagonist. Besides her appearance, I have no idea why Marius likes her; all she does is dangle what he doesn’t know in his face and makes digs at how little his parents taught him. Then she saves him from drowning and suddenly they’re married.

To which some Bastard replied: Heh, Manic Ichthy Dream Girl!

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

A Case of Congestion

I don't typically travel by taxi, being a dedicated public transportation user. The last time I took a taxi ride in NYC was about a year ago, when I traveled from the Atlantic Avenue subway station to a Wonkette meetup in Red Hook, Brooklyn. I've never used a ridesharing app. That being said, I do try to keep abreast of all sorts of transportation issues in the NY Metro Area. Last weekend, a congestion pricing surcharge was applied to rides from hired motor vehicles, both medallion cabs and app-based ride sharing services. I believe in the principle of congestion pricing, and the application of the funds raised to maintain and improve public transportation. That being said, I believe that medallion taxis should be exempt from the surcharge- taxi medallions, those permits which allow a vehicle to be operated as a taxi, used to be very pricey, but the ascendancy of app based services such as Uber and Lyft have caused them to plummet in value. Since medallion purchases involve a large initial outlay of money, they should be considered a 'prepayment' of congestion costs.

Taxi drivers are having a hard time making ends meet. Last year, in New York City, eight taxi drivers committed suicide, largely due to financial difficulties. The majority of NYC's taxi drivers are immigrants- driving has historically been a good starter job for recent arrivals. Things are looking bleak for the medallion cab industry, by exempting these cabs from congestion pricing, the playing field between the industry and the rideshare app industry can be leveled somewhat.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Party Unity, No Unity Across the Aisle

The pre-speech coverage of tonight's State of the Union address is supposed to be 'unity', which is convincing exactly no-one. In fact, Trump was bashing Chuck Schumer on Twitter this morning... so much for unity.

Tonight is bar trivia night for me, so I won't be watching the address live. Why bother wasting time being lied to? I figure I'll have time to catch up on the atrocities tomorrow, no need to give Vulgarmort any help with the ratings. More important than the State of the Union will be Stacey Abrams' rebuttal. The Democratic Party, indeed the current Resistance, is headed up by women and people of color, and Ms Abrams is a powerful symbol of intraparty unity- she ran a stellar campaign thwarted by racially motivated anti-voting measures, and is the perfect mouthpiece to articulate a message refuting Republican white supremacy and ratfuckery.

Monday, February 4, 2019

What a Difference a Few Days Make

Not a week ago, I couldn't even feel my face while walking outdoors. The northern half of these here United States was gripped in a polar vortex. Here in New York, we got off pretty easily- the temperatures bottomed out around 0F, with wind chills getting as low as -20F. It wasn't a pleasant time, especially when one has to be out and about at night for one's job.

Today, in contrast, was 58F, for one acclimated to last week's cold, that meant walking around in shirtsleeves for much of the day. As luck would have it, I actually had to work today, which is uncharacteristic for a Monday. It was a glorious afternoon to be out and about, especially since I was working in a particularly lovely site. Unfortunately, it's not where Ginger works, so I didn't get to play around with her outdoors this afternoon. Over the weekend, though, when the temperatures topped the freezing mark, I did let her go outside so she could get some relief from being cooped up in the same building (the ones with the convenient radiator covers on which to sleep) for days on end.

The rest of the week promises to be well above normal, temperature wise, but I don't expect anybody on Fox to mention that. I'm not complaining, but I would like to have a February that's a nice average between 'Greenland' and 'late March'.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sportball Spectator

It’s been a while since I’ve watched the Superb Owl. For the past few years, I’ve worked the night shift while the game was played. Oddly enough, it was a schedule conflict which freed up this evening- one of the guys in my department is on a business trip, so I had to cover his shift, freeing me up this evening. I’m now planning on catching the second half of the game with some friends. I don’t give a panda’s patootie about the game, but it’s an opportunity to hang out drinking beer.

While the spectacle is the main event, it’s not the only event.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

I'll Do It My Way

We share our dojo with yoga students and gymnasts- it's a beautiful room with a tatami floor, perfect for all sorts of floor exercises. This morning, our gymnastics instructor was running late for one of her classes, so sensei took it upon himself to begin running the class: "We're going to do gymnastics, in the judo way!"

There's a bit of overlap, we do a lot of tumbling in order to practice how to fall safely. Sensei ran the class for a few minutes while the rest of us taught our judo classes, then the gymnastics coach arrived. She thought that sensei's line was hilarious. We form a mutual admiration society, her sons took judo classes with us, and even more significantly, she herself was mentored in her youth by the legendary Rusty Kanokogi, whose name is synonymous with both New York City judo and women's judo in the United States. She's exactly the sort of coach who can appreciate running a gymnastics class in the judo way.

Friday, February 1, 2019

A Crime so Vast, It Changed the Planet

In the annals of historical atrocities, few rival the slaughter of the indigenous population of the Americas. Recent research suggests that the 'Little Ice Age' was caused in part by the death of approximately ninety percent of the population of the Americas, a reduction of the population from about sixty million to about six million. With the human population plummeting and the subsequent reversion of farmland to forest, the theory goes, enough carbon dioxide was photosynthetically sequestered in the form of wood that it caused the Earth's temperature to drop.

Pre-Columbian North America was the home of sophisticated societies which built large communities, though racist hypotheses were promulgated to downplay the achievements of American autochthones- the large earthworks were attributed to Vikings, Atlanteans, a lost tribe of Israelites, giants... a whole slew of 'suspects'. In an egregious recent example, a pseudoscientific/pseudohistorical television series pushed the trope, by which I mean tripe, of giant mound builders, identified by at least one crank as half-Denisovan hybrid giants. With the paucity of Denisovan remains, these ancient people have become part of the legendarium of all sorts of 'WOO' peddlers, from Bigfoot aficianados to Nephilim nudniks. As if killing off the majority of Native Americans weren't bad enough, there are ongoing efforts to erase them from the historical narrative altogether.