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.

Friday, November 29, 2019

It Wasn't Exactly Buy Nothing Day

Generally, I agree with Tengrain's stance on Black Friday being Buy Nothing Day- why buy into a 'tradition' which subjects overstressed, underpaid retail workers to what amounts to a rugby scrum, albeit one with neither rules nor manners? I've never been a materialistic person anyway, and I'd rather not be a party to the downward spiral from citizens to consumers to consumed that has characterized our society over the past half-century.

That being said, I didn't quite do the Buy Nothing Day thing... for me, it was Buy Something Necessary Day. The 'oil life' indicator in my car was reading 5%, so I brought the car into a Valvoline branch not too far from my workplace. I had plenty of time before work, and this place is set up like a pit stop- simply drive up, and a cadre of technicians read your tire pressure and check the vital fluids of your vehicle. As I indicated, I was in desperate need of an oil change, but everything else was okay- air filter and oil filter were good, brake fluid level was good, all lights were functional. The young 'pit crew' swarmed over my car, performing their various tasks, and I was ready to drive off in under twenty minutes.

I'm still a bit surprised that the whole process took such a short amount of time, this being a day off for most people. My guess is that, when most people were in the malls, I studied the blade handled a necessary task. I should probably thank of the shoppers for clearing a way for me to do so in such an expeditious manner.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving 2019

This year, because of the chronic understaffing in my department at work, I had to work on Thanksgiving. It wasn't so bad, I was able to contact mom (who, like last year, is at my brother Vincenzo's house) and various siblings, nieces, and nephews. Everybody is doing okay- Sweetums was out gallivanting at a street festival in Uster, Switzerland, Vin, Gomez, and Pickle were all having the big turkey feast with their respective children. Last year, I was able to take a week off, and went to Vin's, and the main theme of my phone call was that I wished I down at his house with the fam.

Knowing that I'd be working on Thanksgiving, I decided to go the simple route as far as a turkey dinner goes. I picked up a couple of packages of ground turkey, some bulk sausage, and some croutons, and made a stuffed turkey meatloaf... a sort of 'Thanksgiving's greatest hits' meal item:

I needn't have worried about Thanksgiving dinner, though. One of my co-workers, who is the very essence of kindness, stopped by with another co-worker (who lost her father last year, and was celebrating Thanksgiving with co-worker one's family) with a bounteous feast, made from scratch by one of her daughters:

I was prepared for this, so I had purchased a bottle of Frangelico to go with their coffee-and-dessert course. My co-worker has to be in at 9AM, so I hope this wasn't a dangerous choice.

At any rate, I am thankful for being well-loved, by family and friends. Sure, I spent most of the day here on the job, but I had fun hearing from my mom and my siblings, I had an enormous feeling of gratitude towards my co-workers, and I got to spend time with my precious Ginger.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

He Wants Your Family to Be as Dysfunctional as His

Is there anybody on the planet more pathetic than Donald Trump, Jr? He is every bit as overweening as his father, and with even fewer accomplishments. This week's disgusting DJTJr moment is his suggestion that his followers pick fights with their liberal relatives at Thanksgiving dinner in order to 'trigger' them, and to videotape the results in order to win a copy of his book and a MAGA hat. Donald is the product of a dysfunctional family, headed up by an abusive ogre, and he now wants your family to be as dysfunctional as his is. Remember when the Republicans tried to portray themselves as 'the party of family values'?

Now, regarding the word 'triggered'... the current usage of the word was initially meant to warn survivors of trauma that certain materials could cause them to relive painful moments. The people who were the intended recipients of trigger warnings are people who have gone through hellish experiences, and made it through, albeit not unscathed. The idea that the rotten rich scion of a corrupt family would use this term as a pejorative only makes him even more disgusting than he's always been. None of the Trump family members could have survived the vicissitudes that PTSD sufferers have.

Junior's challenge is just gross, and his implicit denigration of survivors just makes it worse. My advice to anyone whose MAGA relatives try to bait them for Junior's 'challenge' is to loudly mock any pretense of 'Republican family values'. It's a holiday, not a day to play along with some rich sadist's nasty plan.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Something to be Thankful For

Every once in a while, I write a post on the Qanon Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory... it's 'One Conspiracy Theory to rule them all, One Conspiracy Theory to find them, One Conspiracy Theory to bring them all, and in the dark web bind them in MAGAland, where the wingnuts dwell'. Qanon is premised on the idea that an anonymous poster with Q Clearance has been posting cryptic clues on 4Chan and 8Chan (now 8Kun) pointing to a heroic battle waged by Donald Trump against a global cabal of Satanist Pedophiles- pretty much Democrats and (((rootless cosmopolitans))). It's a mish-mash of right-wing Clinton Death List nonsense with old-fashioned anti-Semitic blood libel... but it has been able to absorb Flat Earth lunacy, Lizard People whackaloonery, and a core group of believers that JFK, Jr is not only alive, but is a hardcore Trumper and possible 2020 Trump running mate.

Why am I mentioning this now? Wonkette's Robyn Pennacchia has written a guide to readers who are dealing with Qanon whacko relatives at Thanksgiving. It's a compassionate treatment of deluded cranks, involving her mother's strategy of asking a string of concerned-sounding questions that will end in a True Believer having to articulate, and thereby truly consider, his or her beliefs. It's difficult to continue supporting a movement with a catchphrase 'trust the plan' when the plan is undefined and the planners unidentified.

This method is also a nice subversion of the Qanon methodology itself. While the whole kerfuffle began with a 4Chan post in 2017 about the indictment and coming execution of Hillary Clinton, it morphed into a series of vague posts, mainly questions and series of coded transmissions, basically the Socratic method for lunatics. The conspirator(s) also came up with a stupid-though-evil trick to keep True Believers from becoming skeptics when predictions didn't come true, or outright falsehoods came to light- they told the marks 'disinformation is necesary'. People, if you are the targets of a disinformation campaign, then you are the enemy. As far as the heavy lifting of the conspiracy theory goes, it is mainly done by a coterie of grifters who interpret the cryptic utterances of 'Q Team' like a bunch of MAGA theologians. These are the individuals who have added their own spin (aliens, flat earth, illuminati) to the whole shebang.

One of the axioms of the movement is that 'the normies' are blissfully in the dark, and that the hundreds of thousands of indictments, military tribunals, and executions would so disturb them that they would riot in the streets... they would have to be informed gradually, and then the Qanon True Believers would become lauded as wise heroes. Put succinctly, it's a fantasy about 'owning the libs', a fantasy about going from being a loon to being a sage.

Thankfully, I don't have any relatives who believe in this nonsense. We all value education, so there's no need to pretend to having a recondite font of secret knowledge. I feel sorry for anyone who has to deal with this nonsense, even with the guidelines set forth by Robyn, it's got to be exhausting work.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Going Back to the 'Tor' Well

Last Saturday, I riffed off of a post on the Tor Publishing website, and I am going back to that well for tonight's post. One of today's posts celebrated the birthday of SFF author Poul Anderson, an author I have only mentioned in passing in a couple of posts. Anderson wrote a wide variety of science fiction and fantasy works, ranging from Space Opera to Grim Norse Saga. He was also an early member of The Society for Creative Anachronism, and wrote a humorous essay, 'On Thud and Blunder' as cautionary advice to writers approaching All Things Medieval in a slipshod fashion.

My personal favorite novel by Anderson is 1954's The Broken Sword, published the same year as another notable 'elfy' book. The Broken Sword is the progenitor of 'grimdark' fantasy, a violent tale of a doomed protagonist bearing a cursed sword on a campaign of vengeance. Set in a Faerie-haunted Dark Ages Europe which is rapidly coming under the sway of a new god whose name the supernatural denizens cannot bear, the novel concerns a war between the two major powers of Faerie, the elfs and the trolls. The hero, Skafloc, is a human fosterling of an English elfin noble who kidnapped him to further his martial aims- humans can bear iron weapons and Christian exorcisms. The principal antagonist is Valgard, the half-troll/half-elf changeling (engendered in an evil fashion by the amoral elf lord) left in Skafloc's place, who grows up to be his soulless mirror-image. The two virtually identical beings, manipulated by fate, eventually meet in a 'you die, she dies, everybody dies' plot worthy of an Icelandic saga.

The book is refreshingly short compared to the interminable door-stop series that plague the Fantasy Industrial Complex. Anderson throws out paragraphs of exposition which, in and of themselves, put to shame most modern 'brick of paper' post-D&D fantasy 'epics'. This bit alone could form the basis of a twelve volume 'WAR OF GODS AND ELVES' series:

"The hardest fight was on a desert shore with a troop of exiled gods, grown thin and shrunken and mad in their loneliness but still wielding fearsome powers. Three elf ships were burned after the fight, there being none left to man them, but Imric was the victor."

While the book deals with horrific crimes (the elfs it portrays are a far cry from Tolkien's superhuman good-guys), it doesn't revel in depravity- the transgressive passages are short and matter-of-fact, the sort of laconic passages one would find in a Norse saga or the newspaper police blotter. The hero is likeable and capable, but his descent into a doom-laden destiny prevents him from being a mere 'male wish-fulfillment' figure. The villain is thoroughly despicable, though his helplessness due to his soulless nature (and his realization that he is a 'counterfeit' of another being) lends him an air of pathos.

The Broken Sword is a quick read, the plot is a thriller, the action portrayed with gusto. As I mentioned before, it throws out more ideas, more eldritch imagery, than most multi-volume series by lesser authors. If you were intrigued by the gray morality of the television series Game of Thrones, you should read the book, it delivers the same punch with much more economy. While I love The Lord of the Rings, I think it had, overall, a deleterious effect on the genre, with the 'gotta write a trilogy' model taking place of the one-and-done model.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

I Think We Know How This Movie Ends

One of the supermarkets in which I shop, one not far from a couple of my worksites, has a robot which rolls slowly down the aisles, detecting spills and directing custodial personnel to areas which need a clean-up. The robot is certainly not anthropomorphic, though it has been provided with a pleasant-sounding synthesized female voice... and someone has affixed a pair of googly eyes to it:

Those googly eyes are a weird touch, an attempt at drollery to lull the humans into a sense of comfort. I'm reminded of the jocular robots in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, with their droll manner of speaking:

"SPOILER—that was his name—had a habit of speech. Whenever he had to say something unpleasant, he softened it, made a joke of it, by attributing what he said to some comic situation. The first night we were here, when I asked you your name, you said, 'I lost it somewhere along the way. That's what the jaguar said, who had promised to guide the goat.' Do you recall that?"

He shook his head. "I say a lot of foolish things."

"It struck me as strange; because it was the kind of thing SPOILER said, but he wouldn't have said it in that way unless he meant more by it than you seemed to. I think he would have said, 'That was the basket's story, that had been filled with water.' Something like that."

I waited for him to speak, but he did not."The jaguar ate the goat, of course. Swallowed its flesh and cracked its bones, somewhere along the way.""

Haven't you ever thought that it might be just the peculiarity of some town? Your friend might have come from the same place I do."

I said, "It was a time, I think, and not a place. Long ago, someone had to disarm fear—the fear that men of flesh and blood might feel when looking into a face of steel and glass."

I guess it's only natural to acclimate us to the unnatural, but this robot doesn't even come close to the 'Uncanny Valley'. I've seen enough movies, though, to know how this will end in that inevitable day when 'Spill in Aisle Seven' changes to 'CRUSH! KILL!! DESTROY!!!'

Saturday, November 23, 2019

A Charming Time-Travel Fantasy

Being very cognizant of my need to maintain my nerd credentials, one of the websites I frequent is the Tor science fiction site. One of their recent posts concerned a movie I hadn't heard of, a Czechoslovakian (therefore, somewhat old) science-fantasy film titled Cesta do pravěku, directed by Karel Zeman. The film begins with an adolescent boy finding a fossilized trilobite, and musing about seeing a live one, precipitating a dream sequence concerning of a Verne-esque voyage upstream and back through time in a 'magic cave'. It's a bit like the cast of Stand by Me starring in a less violence-fraught production of Jurassic Park. It's a leisurely paced film with a likeable ensemble, portraying plucky, resourceful kids engaged in a scholarly expedition. It's really a travelogue, with time, rather than distance, comprising the journey, and is a nice precursor to the BBC's wonderful Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Beasts series.

The prehistoric animals portrayed in the film are modeled after the paleoart of Zdeněk Burian, a personal favorite of mine (his paintings are gorgeous). The portrayal of these animals is woefully outdated, but comported with the science of the time. The dinosaurs look a bit hokey as well... the movie really shines when it depicts the mammals, and one terrible bird, of the Cenozoic Era- the models are more detailed than the dinosaur models, the action more convincing. The film nicely showcases such unsung prehistoric critters as Deinotherium and Uintatherium.

It's a fun watch for a paleo-enthusiast, and a nice low-key adventure/travel film... perfect for watching on a chilly Sunday morning in November after a night of drinking pivo

Friday, November 22, 2019

Trouble in Paradise MAGAland

Via Will Sommer, we have a somewhat sad, though undeniably hilarious, account of a schism among the MAGA crowd. As all good tragicomedies seem to be, this tale unfolded in a Denny's, where a MAGA Meetup group learned that a rival, farther-right group was staked out outside the Denny's, seeking a confrontation:

Sunday Afternoon at Denny's from Xavier Rotnofsky on Vimeo.

At first, I thought that this video might be a 'mockumentary', but further scrutiny revealed that the cast was, indeed, a coterie actual of Trump aficianados, including Republican congressional candidate. Errol Webber, who noped the fuck out via the backdoor before a kerfuffle could ensue. Among the neo-nazis outside, the red-bearded, famine resistant guy is a well-known troublemaker, and the man and woman in the 'Old Glory' clothes are these assholes. Yeah, this bad sitcom episode is the real deal.

The best line of the whole video is "These people are Nazis? So what do they have against us? I mean, we're pro... I mean, we're not..." This guy gives the whole game away.

It's only six minutes and eleven seconds, but it's chock-full of Primo Content... I don't know the whole context of the conflict, and I really don't care enough to get to know these assholes better than I do (I already know way too much about the more notorious of these creeps). I do, though, love the fact that they are fighting among themselves, the fact that they hate each other almost as much as they hate us.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

I Don't Want the President to Be a Pinhead no More

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am a huge Ramones fan- the band played a big role in the soundtrack of my live ever since I was a pup. The goofy, cartoonishly transgressive music of the Ramones was gleefully, intentionally dumbed-down (the concept behind the band, with its ironclad standardized image, revealed a hidden sophistication). Put succinctly, the Ramones were really smart about playing dumb... unlike the current occupant of the White House, whose bone-stupid handwritten notes inspired this bit of hilarity:

By hilarity, I mean terror... the President of these here United States is a real pinhead, unlike fellow son of Queens Joey Ramone, who played at being a pinhead:

'Gabba Gabba Hey' is more eloquent than anything The Donald has ever uttered.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Plutocrats Don't Do 'Omertà'

I don't know what Trump expected Gordon Sondland to say during his testimony on Capitol Hill, but Sondland is a billionaire, so the very notion that he would chance going to jail for Vulgarmort is laughable. Sondland donated a million dollars to Trump's inaugural committee, suggesting that he was buying Trump, or at the very least what was supposed to be a cushy ambassadorship. One does not make a million dollar payment to someone in order to be their lackey.

I get the distinct idea that Sondland is not happy to be the one forced to answer questions. He's a wealthy man, not the sort of guy to be called out on the carpet. I am actually enjoying the discomfiture of people who aren't used to self-doubt or fear for their future. Whatever Sondland expected he'd get for his million dollars, he just didn't count on getting screwed by Trump, like a common construction worker, or small New Jersey contractor. He's not going to go down with the Trumptanic, though, that's the sort of thing only a coffee boy would do.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Whatever Happened to 'Support the Troops'?

This post is a companion post to the post about right-wingers loving stolen valor, a sort of flip-side to that post. Right-wingers, despite the 'support the troops' narrative they used as a cudgel against anyone who protested the Iraq War, have no qualms about denigrating the service of anyone who incurs their wrath. The latest attack by Republicans on a decorated active-duty serviceman is the maltreatment of Lt Col Alexander Vindman by congresscreeps:

So much for 'thank you for your service' and all the usual platitudes... these assholes have no respect for the uniform. Meanwhile, they would be the first to complain if Democrats had lambasted Lt Col Oliver North for wearing his dress uniform in the Capitol, and HE was the one who was being investigated.

Monday, November 18, 2019

The Subtle Approach

During my wanderings in New York City, I ran across a hilarious flyer posted on a column in a subway station. In a cock-blocking move, I detached it and brought it home because I found it so hilarious. I can't understand how any 'females' could resist this offer for any of a number of kinds of dates:

I mean, ladies just love 'one nite stands', from what I've heard, and cheeseburger dates and cigarette meet dates are all the rage. For 'females' of both East and West Indies, there's always the roti date... who doesn't want to go on a roti date?

I hope I didn't squash the date-seekers prospects, because I haven't seen any more of these flyers since. I may have been a little cruel here... at least I didn't catfish the guy, though come to think of it, I really could use a delicious conch roti right about now.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Fifty Shades of Goop

Just in time for Christmas, Gwynneth Paltrow's Goop website is selling a $1350 BDSM kit featuring wrist and ankle restraints and a leather-bound paddle. BDSM isn't my kink, but I'm pretty sure that the price tag for this kit is outrageous. One could probably get the cuffs for cheap at a local smut shop, or even pick up some novelty cuffs online. As far as a paddle goes, why not pick up a copy of Donald J. Trump, Jr's book for cheap from the remainder pile? You could spank your partner's ass for a while, and when you want to inflict real pain, you can display the cover picture of Junior's vapid mug. You can thank me for saving you money later.

I have to say that this kit, while overpriced, is less pain-inducing than Gwynneth's anti-vaccine rhetoric, and less kinky than her vagina steaming idea... it's perhaps her least dangerous offering.

Since I've mentioned BDSM in this post, I am obligated to post a video for the Vibrators' Whips and Furs:

Great, now I'm wondering if Goop sells vegan whips and fake furs.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Remember Her?

I've spent the better part of a month working at one of the satellite sites on my job, rather than my usual haunts. Longtime readers will have noticed that there's been a lack of spice on the blog... a lack of Ginger, in particular. I'm here to remedy that by putting up a photo of mah preshus Ginger, who I've been spoiling all day:

Even though we are officially closed for the season, the gift shop in our visitors' center is open on weekends until December. It's pretty low-key all told, but there was a steady flow of foot traffic all day.. I brought Ginger into the shop with me this afternoon after feeding her in her usual domain, and she hammed it up for the people who stopped by. She's a diva, after all, and the visitors showed her the love that all divas are due.

Friday, November 15, 2019

A Name I've not Heard in a Long Time

I didn't have an opportunity to listen to more than an hour or so of today's impeachment hearings, being preoccupied with a flat tire on the way to work... I will have to catch up on the testimony of Ambassador Yovanovich now that it's quiet. That being said, I was able to poke around the weirder precincts of the t00bz, and I found a doozy:

Helena Blavatsky? Now, that's a name I've not heard in a long time... a long time. I had never really connected Blavatsky and her Theosophist movement to 'Star Wars'. I am well aware of the connection between Theosophy and the 'Weird Tales' authors of the early 20th century, but I figured that the religious underpinnings of 'Star Wars' could pretty much be summed up as Taoism 101. I know that Edgar Rice Burroughs, an influence on George Lucas (or at least those who influenced him), incorporated theosophical ideas into his 'Barsoom' books. I guess in the minds of the right-wing conspiracy mongers, anything that smacks of a non-Christian spirituality, even though it incorporates a pretty anodyne good-vs-evil plot, is connected with infernal forces. Oh, well... as I've said before, the greatest trick the authoritarians every played was convincing the world that the devil exists. Could any Jedi mind trick be that effective?

Aunt Snow wrote a bunch of posts about the Theosophical community and other nontraditional sects in the LA metro area, which make for fascinating reading.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Righties LOVE Stolen Valor

One of the big local stories here in the NYC metro area was the protest against Donald Trump appearing at the Veterans' Day parade. One of the counterprotestors, who threatened to shoot protestors, portrayed himself as a veteran of the Pacific Theater in WW2. Astute observers noted some irregularities with his uniform... he looks like he's stealing valor, besides acting like a fascist while claiming to have fought fascism. Sure, growing up in an age of conscription, he probably served in the military, but his account of his actions has got to be bullshit.

Righties love stolen valor, from Trump on down to the run-of-the-mill MAGAchud. They hate actual decorated veterans, but they are addicted to fake war stories from fellow travelers.

So far, the mainstream media sources haven't come out and exposed this fraudulent old coot. His fifteen minutes of fame has passed by, but his position in the MAGA pantheon hasn't been dissected and rejected. It seems like the news media loves stolen valor as well.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Emotional Brain Development

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring neuroscientist Dr Nim Tottenham of Columbia University. This lecture was presented in collaboration with the Dana Foundation.

Dr Tottenham's lecture concerned early experience and the subsequent emotional development of individuals. The effects of early experiences endure throughout one's lifetime. Her studies in particular explored the interactions of the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala helps us pay attention to emotionally important events. Connections to the prefrontal cortex help to quiet over-arousal of the amygdala. While the whole brain is involved in the processing of emotions, Dr Tottenham takes a narrow view to study emotions- this allows her to look at the system as it is unfolding. She likened it to 'looking at a pie as it is baking'.

Early experience plays a role in emotional brain development- there are sensitive periods in early brain development when the brain is amenable to influence. During these sensitive periods, the phenotype of the central nervous system emerges. Phenotypic expression is affected by environment, and the ability to regulate emotions takes a long time to develop. Mental disorders such as schizophrenia, mood disorders, and substance abuse often emerge during adolescence.

Dr Tottenham went on to describe an experiment to test functional amygdala responses. Forty-five participants ages 4-22 were observed during passive viewing of faces displaying fear expressions. Neuroimages were obtained using magnetic resonance imaging. The participants were allowed to view movies or television shows of their choice, but were intermittently shown, with advance notice, the fear faces. Their amygdala responses were then imaged. Younger participants showed high amygdala responses, and the researchers looked for changes in amygdala activity as a function of age. Dr Tottenham noted that there is a negative correlation between amygdala activity and the age of the subjects- younger participants have stronger responses with more activity. The main role of the amygdala is to allow learning about the relative safety and danger of the environment.

Using imaging, Dr Tottenham was able to 'pull out' the activity of different regions of the brain and compare their activity. The amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are in communication, with the prefrontal cortex having an inhibitory relationship with the amygdala. As the amygdala is 'quieted', there is lower autonomic arousal. Younger individuals have lower amygdala/prefrontal cortex connectivity, and the maturation of connectivity occurs slowly. Children have positive correlation between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, a switch from positive to negative correlation is accompanied by behavioral change. Specifically, normal separation anxiety decreases with age- positive prefrontal cortex/amygdala correlation is connected with higher separation anxiety. The regulation of emotions can be inhibited by early stress (particularly institutional care of children separated from their parents). Early adversity or neglect can result in amygdala hyperactivity.

Dr Tottenham informed us that the brain develops hierarchically, from back to front. The prefrontal cortex matures around twenty-five years of age (she joked that the insurance companies knew this before the scientists did). The amygdala develops in childhood, Dr Tottenham poetically described it as 'the older sister who informs the rest of the brain'. She invoked Wordsworth: "The Child is father of the Man".

One of the contrasts measured in Dr Tottenham's experiment was the contrast between stimulus related amygdala/prefrontal cortex connectivity and resting state connectivity. When the brain is in a resting state, the connectivity is lower- a sort of 'functional skeleton' of the brain takes over, and this connectivity ramps up when fear stimuli are presented.

Dr Tottenham quipped: 'Cells that fire together wire together'. The youngest participants in the study exhibited more brain plasticity than the older participants. The connections 'settle down' as aging occurs. There are Juvenile Sensitive Periods, and stimuli from an individual's youth can help reduce anxiety in adults. Mice in an 'open field', a box without shelter, run to the corners of the enclosure (Dr Tottenham joked, 'like middle schoolers at their first dance'). If the mouse pups are exposed to music, playing the music that they are habituated to will cause them to be less anxious about exploring the center of the enclosure.

It is difficult to identify the Juvenile Sensitive Periods among humans, due to our long lifespans and slow development. In one experiment, Billboard charts were used to date particular stimuli (for instance, the Backstreet Boys were popular in 1997). Subjects were exposed to stress in the form of difficult math problems from the SAT exams. Students were told they were below average, and instructed to speed up their problem solving. Given a choice of music to listen to, US born subjects prefered listening to the Backstreet Boys rather than Justin Bieber, while non-US born subjects had no such preference. The preference among US born subjects was not correlated with liking the Backstreet Boys. Exposure to childhood music led to less autonomic stress, less anxiety.

Dr Tottenham noted that being supported by our parents allows long childhood development... our parents are the scaffolding that allows us to mature and figure out how the world works. Rat pups prefer odors associated with their mothers. If a rat pup is raised to associate a peppermint smell with its mother, that rat will even tolerate a shock associated with the peppermint smell. This preference is regardless of violence versus reward. Parental buffering occurs- the presence of the mother decreases corticosteroidal production and amygdala activity. Having mom around frees the pups to learn about the world around them. Among altricial animals, fight and flight strategies are not reliable, and attachment to parents is a better survival strategy. Human brains are Among altricial animals, fight and flight strategies are not reliable, and attachment to parents is a better survival strategy. Humans being altricial, our brains are neotenous, there is a long period of plasticity. Among precocial animals, such as sea turtles, there is little plasticity, and infants know what to do immediately after birth. The stretched-out period of plasticity among humans gives our parents time to provide the scaffolding which aids in brain development.

In one experiment, subjects were stressed by making them speak publicly- among younger subjects, parental buffering resulted in lower cortisol production, while it had no effect with adolescent subjects. Parents may help their offspring to guide attention to what is important, to allow exploration of scary subjects. Notably, parents are good at buffering if they are calm, but not when they are anxious. During adolescence, the parents lose effectiveness in suppressing amygdala function. The sensitive period of neurohormonal activity ends, but what was learned is reflected throughout life. Dr Tottenham noted that there is value in 'slow cooking', the transition to adult emotional regulation is largely dependent on the environmental scaffolding we receive through adolescence.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. One sobering question regarded the role of attachment in cases of abusive parents- the shock paired with a smell associated with a parent is a model for abuse. To understand how attachment works, the sources of plasticity must be understood, a development which might have implications for family court proceedings. Another question involved the case of institutional care (e.g. orphanages)- 'growing up fast' can trunctate development and result in less coordination between amygdala and prefrontal cortex... on average, of course. Another question regarding promoting plasticity- therapy works on plasticity, and there are pharmacological boosters, such as Prozac, in experiments on rats. Still another question involved the need to support families in order to protect children's mental health. Dr Tottenham noted that a child doesn't struggle alone- we need to address a child's mental health AND what is wrong with society. Regarding 'helicopter parenting', good parenting allows a child to fall, the rupture and repair is needed, and good parents should help a child to mend.

Some bastard in the audience, unable to get a question in during the formal Q&A, asked the good doctor if any of her subjects had received a traumatic brain injury in the course of the study, which would affect results. Fortunately, none of them did, but there are studies at the University of Nebraska to gauge the role of concussions in brain plasticity, and the use of physical exercise to increase plasticity.

Once again, the Secret Science Club served up a fantastic lecture. Kudos to Dr Tottenham, Margaret and Dorian, the DANA Foundation, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. While the lecture was wonderful, I could not escape the societal implications of the family separation policy at the border. The US government is doing untold harm to thousands of children, and the mental health effects will be felt for a generation. I had a good amount of time to reflect on this on the subway ride home, so my prefrontal cortex had a lot of regulating to do.

Here's a video of Dr Tottenham discussing emotional regulation to take your mind off of that downer ending:

Pour yourself a nice beverage and soak in that SCIENCE!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Cutting Edge Home Defense Technology

From the 'ya can't just make this shit up' file, a Michigan man (I am shocked he wasn't a Florida Man) defended himself from a home invader with a battleax purchased at a Ren Faire. The home invader wasn't too swift, having been an ex-boyfriend of a roommate of the man he attacked... you'd think he would have learned that the guy was involved in a full-contact combat LARP. D00d didn't have to read Njáls Saga to know that breaking into the home of a heavily armed guy rarely ends successfully. In this case, the invader got his torso chopped in an inverse of that iconic scene from The Shining. Luckily for him, his intended victim didn't have a Bohemian earspoon or a glaive-glaive-glaive-guisarme-glaive, or he probably would have ended with a lethal perforation, rather than having a mere divot taken out. Again, people, it's important to read your sagas.

Perhaps the funniest thing about this sordid tale of primitivism is the fact that the possessor of an elegant weapon for a more civilized age lived in apartment 2A... guy was bearing arms, alright!

Alternate post title: While you were breaking down the door, I studied the blade.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Veterans' Day 2019

Veterans' Day always weirds me out a bit... our society has a strange, split relationship with veterans. We are exhorted to 'thank the troops', but social programs for veterans are often on the chopping block when budgets come up for a vote. Veterans are used as props in political ads, but are swept under the rug when it comes time to address the social difficulties they encounter.

I'm glad that my two younger brothers are now retired from the US Army. The idea that they would be serving under an ignorant, incoherent autocrat-wannabe who has weakened alliances and gutted the diplomatic corp was disquieting. I've long maintained that our foreign policy should not take the form of a 'military response first' strategy, and the idea that Trump plans on using the military as a mercenary force is utterly abhorrent.

At the tail end of this Veterans' Day, I still have mixed feelings about our treatment of veterans. As a society, we need to do better, not only for the men and women who serve in the armed forces, but by the other residents of the globe, who deserve a more measured foreign policy, one in which high-speed chunks of metal aren't the first recourse of a nation which claims to embody lofty ideals.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Locking Up Day

Today is our last day of normal visitation at work. From now on, the gift shop will be open for a couple of weekends for holiday shoppers, and we have a very low-key Winter fundraiser which, due to the limited number of tickets, sells out pretty quickly. This is the day when I can pretty much lock up our auxiliary parking lots for six months, until the tourist season resumes in the Spring.

It's the sort of day when I walk around thinking, "I won't have to unlock this gate for months" and "This sign can be packed away until May." After today, the job becomes a completely different job. One of the seasonal employees asked me how I deal with the change of pace, and I had to confess to her that I like the downtime. She countered, "But, you're so social." Yeah, but I like the quiet, the time when I can read when there's a lull, when the periodic tasks have been accomplished. I like the time spent fussing over the cat, the mornings when I crunch a trail through newly-fallen snow onsite, the 'changing of the guard' as the birds migrate and a new cadre of critters becomes active onsite. I will miss the seasonal workers and the contractors, all lovely people, but that makes their return in the Spring all the more precious.

The hours will still be long, our departmental staffing issues haven't been solved, but the hectic pace will be finished. The slog becomes more manageable, with no need to be in two places at once. It's a time when less pressing tasks can be handled, projects postponed due to the needs of the busy season can be accomplished. It's a nice payoff for a couple of months of hurlyburly, but at the same time, it allows for some recovery so next year's hurlyburly can be dealt with when it begins.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Tea and Sympathy

The weather has taken a turn toward Winter, with the mercury hitting 24 degrees Fahrenheit (-4 Celsius) at this moment. As luck would have it, I have one more weekend of working a special event before locking up for the post-season. Last night, I was hanging out with one of our contractors, who is California born and bred. He is NOT a big fan of the cold.

"Where I grew up, it would rarely get below seventy degrees. I hate the Winter."
"It's not even Winter yet..."
"Anything below forty degrees is Winter to me!"

Being a Northeasterner, I am better acclimated to the cold. A person can always put on another layer of clothing, but when it's hot out and you're down to your epidermis, there's little you can do to be more comfortable.

Unfortunately for this contractor, his job involves being outside for a couple of hours straight. I have taken to bringing him a hot cup of ginger honey tea a couple of times a night when my running around taking care of event logistics allows me to do so.

I've sort of taken on the role of den mother with this event, having taken a shine to the contract workers. They are a nice bunch of kids, and someone has to take care of them.

Friday, November 8, 2019

A Woman of Wit and Warmth

Today is marked by a sad occasion, the wake for my great and good friend JCo's mother. Mrs Conner passed away a week ago, so I will be joining her seven children and multiple grandchildren to commemorate her life. She was a woman of wit and warmth, a gracious host to her children's friends, and a fount of wise advice. In many respects, she reminded me of my own mother- they had a similar sense of values, a similar set of priorities... which they both instilled in their children and grandchildren. In retrospect, this is one of the reasons why JCo and I spent a lot of time hanging out at each other's houses... there was a sense of familiarity, in the most basic form. Both houses were also places where our friends would congregate- when you're a member of a large family, having friends over is a common occurrence. What's another four or five kids when you've got seven already under the roof?

I was always fortunate growing up, in that I had some incredible role models and a fantastic peer group. This weekend, I will be commemorating an incredible role model along with some of my most fantastic peers. I would not have become the man that I am without these people.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Make Cuisine Great Again

Among the deplorable residents of MAGAstan, perhaps the most outré are Diamond and Silk (or as I prefer to call them, Lump of Carbon and Extruded Caterpillar Secretion). They have made careers out of being African-American Trump supporters, though I can't for the life of me tell if they are True Believers, grifters, or trolls... or perhaps a bizarre mixture of the three. On a recent Fox appearance, their particular brand of stupidity makes me suspect that some sort of Poe's Law is at play, because I can't believe that anyone, even a Trump supporter, could be this idiotic:

If they are playing dumb to appeal to the racist Fox viewership, they are deep under cover. I mean, if they aren't idiots, then their Fox segment on making a 'without sugar' banana pudding out of sugar-laden commercial pudding mixes, 'Nilla wafers ("some people call it vanilla wafers, but they're nilla wafers"), and canned whipped cream has got to be an Oscar-worthy performance:

Watching the two segments, I have to go with the simplest explanation... they are dumb as stumps. Despite, or rather because, of this, they are laughing idiotically all the way to the bank.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Colour Out of Cage

Longtime readers of mine will know that one of my all-time favorite horror stories is H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space. Unlike most of HPL's stories, it's a subtle slow-burn of a tale about a family in rural New England which is plagued by an unknown force or entity brought to their farm by a meteorite. It's a perfect example of 'cosmic horror'- the threat posed to the family is incomprehensible, indescribable (unlike most of Lovecraft's lovingly described indescribable horrors). It's also the one Lovecraft tale which is genuinely unsettling- the hints of the fauna and flora being altered and 'not quite right' are more effective than explicit descriptions would be.

This year, the story is getting the Hollywood treatment, with a film starring Nicholas Cage:

It looks to be a lot flashier than the subtle, creeping story which inspired it, but then again, it would be a hard sell to modern audiences to have a 'monster' which can only be described by allusion: The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all.

Given the fact that Nicholas Cage will be heading the cast, I imagine that all subtlety will go out the window. With Tommy Chong playing what appears to be a New Age loon/shaman, it's pretty much a given. I might have to go see the film, though, even though I will probably find it funnier than scary, even though the source material is the one Lovecraft story which I can't find anything to chuckle about.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

SPOILER: It Happened to Him

There's an almost overwhelming sense of both relief and schadenfreude washing over me tonight as the Kentucky gubernatorial results come in, making Trump look like a chump:

The news for Virginia Republicans is also dire.

Here in New York City's northern suburbs, the Republican Party is all-but-extinct. I started my shift at 9PM, just as the polls at my workplace were closing. I overheard the vote count for one of the two districts which polled here, and it was something like 180 Democratic votes to about thirty Republican votes.

I'd say that this election is a referendum on Trump, and impeachment, but I really hope that it is a referendum on the Republican Party, a party which creates problems through its regressive policies, then runs on the premise that government is the cause of the country's problems. In either case, the 2019 election results don't bode well for Vulgarmort, and I imagine he will be spending a sleepless night tonight. I can't wait to see the enraged tweetstorm tomorrow morning, when I get home from work.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Switch to Low-Key Mode

Now that October is behind me, things have gotten more low-key on the job. In an almost symbolic act, I always turn off the valve for the water fountain outside the Visitors' Center after the end of the major fundraiser... it's nice that it coincides with the drop in temperatures that occurs at this time.

This afternoon marked the start of a local grammar school's afterschool program- it's a small group of third graders from the town. They are a mixed bag of middle and working-class students. One particularly friendly boy told me about his mom's job as a bus driver while we were waiting for transportation. He was one of three kids who weren't taking the bus home after the program, which struck me as a bit ironic, seeing as he had a bus driver drive him anyway.

One of my tasks while working during the afterschool program is to help translate any questions for Spanish-speaking parents who might be concerned about the bus running late. Yo estudiaba español por muchos años y practicaba la lengua cuando puedo hacerlo. This year, the site staff had an indispensable ally in our Chilean cleaning contractor, who spent some of her downtime on the job calling Spanish-speaking parents and making sure that they understood the transportation arrangements. Everyone in our organization has told her that they will be more than happy to write her any sort of referral letters she could possibly need. Being a high school senior, she will have some sort of public service requirement, and a dozen or so recommendation letters should open some doors.

At any rate, things ran smoothly, and I didn't have to field any queries regarding transportation. I waited onsite with one of the managers for another forty-five minutes or so, in case a parent called about a missed bus stop, but it was a quiet afternoon. No onslaught of tourists, no racing around the site making sure contractors could access what they needed. It'll be like this for a few months now, when we go on Winter hiatus, and I am ready for it. The one task I need to perform is to write a recommendation letter.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Syndrome Syndrome

One of our Fall fundraisers is best described as outdoor musical theater, a seasonally appropriate drama/comedy featuring a cast of talented, attractive young people. I am quite taken with them, because they are a nice, charming bunch. I'm so taken with them that, when a couple of them commented that the strain of performances was wearing on their vocal chords, I bought a big jar of Korean honey-ginger 'tea' for the site's breakroom, with a big 'help yourself' sign.

One of the principal cast members is as nice a young man as you could want to meet- he's funny, good-natured, handsome, and humble. Yesterday, his mom and his aunt, twin sisters, came to our daytime event before taking in the night's performance. Predictably, they were very sweet, and proud of the second generation's success. It was immediately apparent to me where he'd gotten his low-key, kindly personality.

I arrive towards the end of the daytime event- my first task is to help clear away the daytime visitors in preparation for the influx of new visitors. I met my friend's aunt and mother during the lull before the changing of the visitors. Later, in the runup to the nighttime event, when I basically make sure that all of the various contractors (performance cast, sound and light techs) have the access to the site they need, there was a message on the walkie-talkie... the cousin of this cast member was in the queue, and was seeking to enter on the 'friends and family' list. I was standing next to the tech director of the show, and she started laughing. I gave her a quizzical glance and she said, "That's not his cousin. She met him today, when he was with his mom and aunt, and said that she was a big fan of his, and he told her she could come to the performance."

"He's too good for his own good," I replied, "I've seen this movie before."

Thankfully, she didn't take the whole town down.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Halloween Holds the Line

Last night after work, I stopped by the local 24 hour CVS to buy a birthday card for a friend. As I was navigating the aisles, the night crew was busily shelving Christmas merchandise. The Halloween candy was marked down 50%, and the pumpkins and autumn leaves were giving way to tinsel and faux evergreens.

Thanksgiving has pretty much been overrun, it’s not a big commercialized holiday, except with regard to Black Friday Christmas sales. Halloween holds the line, preventing Christmas commercialization from overrunning October. The fact that Halloween has become commercialized is its own issue, but the Eve of All Hallows was always about acquisition.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Patron Saint of Travelers

This being All Saints’ Day, I figured I’d post something saintly. The traditional patron saint of travelers was St Christoper, but his canonical status is questionable, because he was probably a mere legend. In fact, the main story of St Christopher, that of carrying a divinity across a river, was also tied to other other figures of myth. At any rate, I will invoke the blessing of St Christopher on behalf of another traveler- Donald Trump is leaving New York for Florida. We never liked him anyway, and are glad to see him go.

I’m also going to invoke the blessings of St Christopher to protect Trump on another journey, not across a river, but up the river. Pax vobiscum, people!