Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Ten Years on the Job

Today is a very special anniversary, the tenth year of one of our star employees. No, not myself, my fourteenth anniversary is in August. I'm talking about my beloved Ginger, pictured here in her rookie year:

Ginger was a package deal with her brother Fred, who we lost to cancer three years ago. Here's a picture of the two in happier times:

Fred and Ginger were given to us by a former site manager who takes care of feral cats in her neighborhood. When one of her ferals had a litter of kittens, she knew that the place would be a perfect spot for two cats to live well, and to live usefully as our Rodent Abatement Team. The fact that we are staffed with cat lovers only sweetened the pot.

Ginger is currently on furlough due to the 'rona, she's staying with one of our managers, who has been with her from the start... he was the one who transported them from the home of their original benefactress, and is usually the one to take our cats for their veterinary checkups. I haven't seen the dear girl since March, but get regular updates in how she's doing. Hilariously, she gets put on a leash and taken for walks, which I find hard to believe (here, she has the run of a twenty-five acre property for most of the day, before she works her building all night).

In a few minutes, we are having a Zoom 'conference' to celebrate Ginger's anniversary. I haven't seen most of my coworkers in way too long, due to COVID-19 furloughs, so it's going to be a nice reunion all around, as well as a celebration of a beloved, and valued, coworker.

Monday, June 29, 2020

They've Overcome Their Shyness

The opening to Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn has a lovely description of the titular critter, from which I will extract a relevant passage:

She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses have never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in dancing mockery.

While Mr Beagle's prose is lovely, and he is capable of wrenching at his readers' heartstrings, he really needs to get acquainted with These Deer These Days. I mean, shy doesn't even enter into the picture, by which I mean this picture:

It's not any different at night... I was walking the property and saw that someone had, oddly, left a sawhorse near the main footpath... it took a while to realize that the sawhorse, while remaining stationary, was a bit too diaphanous. It took a while before the deer, and its buddy (I can recognize three of them on the property, a doe, a young stag, and a larger stag with a partially broken antler) even considered moving from the delicious apple tree foliage they were browsing on:

I'm starting to suspect that a speciation event has occurred, and that this population of Odocoileus virginianus has evolved into Odocoileus impudicus. Pretty soon, they'll be sauntering up to me to root for muffins in my lunchbag.

Post title swiped from this classic song.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Intersectional Pride Day!

Here's wishing a happy LGBTQ Pride Day to all of my readers. This year, with the continuing Black Lives Matter demonstrations occupying the public spaces of multiple communities throughout the nation, I figured that I'd bring up the topic of intersectionality, which even a cishet white guy like myself can see is the proper approach to any and all liberation movements. An intersectional approach to human rights campaigns involves confronting all oppression- racial, class, religious, sexual and gender orientation/identification. Your feminism is broken if you are anti-transwoman. Your racial liberation movement is defective if it countenances homophobia. Your Democratic Socialist agenda just isn't working out if you are anti-semitic.

This year in particular, the dangers faced transwomen of color need to be addressed. Just this month, two black transwomen were killed. Violence against transwomen of color has been described by the AMA as an epidemic. Black transwomen were on the front lines of the original LGBTQ rights movement, playing a critical role in the Stonewall 'riots'. Black lives matter, trans lives matter, black transperson rights matter.

Enjoy the Pride celebrations, but remember that the Trump Maladministration has reversed policies protecting LGBTQ people from healthcare and health insurance discrimination. Trump would also love to crush the Black Lives Matter movement, violating the Constitution to do so. The time for a compartmentalization of activism is long gone, discrimination against any protected class is unacceptable.

Have an happy Pride Day, but don't forget that being angry as well is perfectly reasonable.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

An Uncharacteristic Lack of Wariness

I've made my peace with woodchucks, by which I mean groundhogs, whistle-pigs, weenusks, or monax marmots, though once upon a time, I counted among my enemies this guy, who sorely vexed me even from beyond the grave. Verily, my consternation with these chunky sciurids has passed into memory, a tale to be told in my dotage to bored youngsters, such as yourselves.

That being said, groundhogs are known for being somewhat antisocial, they are wary creatures, ready to bolt when their bitter rivals approach their demesnes. I was somewhat surprised to practically stumble upon a young one which didn't immediately run for its burrow:

While it would be tempting to pass this critter off as the great-grandchild of my foe, I must be candid- there is a distance of almost four miles (6.4 kilometers) between this site and the site which my old foe haunted in vexatious life and pungent death. I am fairly confident that I won't have to deal with a multi-generational campaign of vengeance.

Friday, June 26, 2020


Back in March, in a conversation with a coworker, I predicted that the US would see a half-million person death toll from the COVID-19 outbreak. He, being an optimist, answered, "I think it'll be a million." Well, today's full-on freakout news is the CDC's announcement that the COVID-19 infection rate may be ten times the number of reported cases... this information was obtained by testing blood samples from a variety of donors and patients for coronavirus antibodies. If this is true, the true COVID-19 picture resembles that of an iceberg, with about ten percent being visible above the surface. With cases surging in Florida and Texas, two states in which mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing were rejected, the situation is going to look apocalyptic in a couple of weeks. The outbreak in New York should have served as a warning, but some people really need to touch the stove to test your assertion that it is hot. Hell, I truly believe that the lackadaisical response in 'Red State' America was a misguided snub against Andrew Cuomo... defying that nanny-stater from the Coastal Northeast is preferable to living without respiratory distress and cardiovascular inflammation.

Already, Texas hospitals are nearing capacity and convention centers are being tapped as emergency medical facilities. THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED IN NEW YORK A MONTH AND A HALF AGO! This was no mystery, the situation in Florida, Texas, and Arizona was entirely predictable! At this rate, we will never get over this pandemic, and I'm starting to think that my coworker was lowballing his prediction.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

They Sure Love Their Stolen Valor

Right-wingers love stolen valor more than just about anything... given a choice between a real hero and a fake hero, and they will choose the fake hero EVERY TIME. Now, they have gotten even more insufferable, not content with stolen-valor-by-proxy, they are now claiming it en masse:

At the behest of the anonymous shitposter known as 'Q', the 'digital soldiers' are taking oaths of office:

Christ, these people are stupid and offensive. How soon before they start asking Trump for government pension benefits because of their 'Information War'? Will these digital soldiers being spinning yarns about how their 'Pinochet Pepe' memes triggered the libs back in 2020?

Digital soldier, Q-drop blasta.
He was a digital soldier, in the War for America.
Posting all the dank memes, posting all his dark dreams.
If you know your your loony 'coms'
You might redpill soccer moms.
Then you wouldn't have to ask me,
Why I worship a vulgar yam.

With, of course, apologies to Robert Nesta Marley:

Thankfully, the K-Pop stans are once again rising up to act as the internet's immune system.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Florida is Dim Dumb Carcosa

Today's horror comes from the ungovernable backwater regions of Florida... where we have a public hearing in which masks are described by MAGA morons as 'tools of the devil'. There's a lot to unpack here:

I've often said that the greatest trick the authoritarians ever pulled was convincing the world that the Devil exists. Funny how that Devil can be repurposed for any lunatic cause- in this case the portrayal of a responsible behavior for the common good as something evil. Yeah, we're through the Stupid Looking Glass here. On another note, as a science geek, I have to call into question that bit about 'God's wonderful breathing system'- frankly, the mammalian breathing system is trash... I mean, having to breathe in and breathe out in succession is bullshit, birds breathe so much more efficiently. It is this sort of respiratory system, which separates ventilation and gas exchange, which probably allowed dinosaurs to grow to mind-boggling sizes. Suck it, mammals, by which I mean suck air.

Lost in the general lunacy of this public hearing is perhaps my favorite part, a statement as subtle as it is stupid... one of the women says to a doctor, “I have many question marks about your degrees and what you really know”. And SHE's the one who told another woman to go back to school!

Christ wept, this country is doomed.

Post title taken from a favorite horror classic of mine.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Make the Barrow Downs Great Again!

One of the fundamental laws of the universe is that you can hate or you can spell, but you can't do both. Something about hatred of one's fellow human beings tends to short circuit that part of the brain that processes spelling... either that or this individual is the Witch King of Angmar:

I confess to having an anti-wight bias... I mean level drain is a terribly 'metagaming' mechanic, sure to break versimilitude at the gaming table. Don't even get me started on these assholes (confession, I just downloaded Myth II: Soulblighter at 'My Abandonware' to kill social distancing time). Wights just aren't that appealing, they uneasily occupy that weird, liminal space between the corporeal and semi-corporeal undead worlds. Zombies are unambiguous, wraiths are unambiguous... wights really need to commit to one single state of corporeality. I mean, even that jerk Peter Jackson isn't into wights, I mean, hell, how can one make a drawn-out spectacle out of some hippie weirdo singing a song?

Monday, June 22, 2020

Anecdote for Our 'Broke' Age

My car, purchased used four years ago with an absurdly low odometer reading recently clocked sixty-thousand miles. The front brake pads were starting to look thin, and (seeing that the suggested average replacement mileage is 50K), I figured it was about time for new ones. I took the car to a local place I have had good luck with before, and dropped it off, saying, "I'd like new front pads and, if necessary, rotors, and a tire rotation."

Since we are still doing the 'social distancing' thing, and it being a beautiful, balmy day, I headed to a nearby park to kill some time. When I returned to check on the progress of the work, the amiable guy behind the counter told me, "I have good news and bad news."

He gave me the bad news first... "You're going to need new brake pads."

"Uhhhhh... yeah..."

"The good news is that you've still got about ten-percent left in these ones."

"That percentage might make the difference between me cracking the windshield with my skull or not, I've gotten more mileage than average, go ahead and replace them."

Since I drive stick and don't tailgate, I put a lot less wear-and-tear on my brakes than the average driver. Plus, the majority of my driving is on one of our local highways, and on those rare occasions that I tap the brakes while driving on a highway, someone has screwed up. Downshifting is one of those great pleasures of driving a manual transmission vehicle.

I know the counter guy was being helpful. We live in a working-class city where work has been scarce for a lot of people lately. If I had been laid off, being able to put off a brake job for a month or two would be significant. I'm actually doing slightly better than usual in terms of wages, having had overtime hours approved. Even broke, I'd break the bank for brakes.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Happy Fathers' Day, Guys

Here's wishing a happy Fathers' Day to all of my readers, and to my brothers, brother-in-law, and various uncles and cousins. Friends as well, good dads are needed these days. I've often said that the problem with toxic masculinity is the toxicity, not the masculinity, so it's important for fathers to instill in their sons a healthy, functional masculinity. As much of a beer lover as I am, I'm not a fan of 'hold my beer' culture.

It's pretty telling, though, that most of the songs about fathers are about overbearing or neglectful fathers... the one song that comes to mind that portrays a father in unambiguously positive terms is about the passing of the singer's father:

So, thanks, guys, for being good fathers, and raising good kids. I know you guys can all sing "he'd grown up just like me" and it will be a positive thing.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Tackle Tulsa Tonight

This is a quick placeholder post which I will expand on. I am meeting friends for dinner at an outside dining area. I haven’t seen them since March, three hundred years ago. All I will write before sitting down with a gin-and-tonic is that one pundit noted that Trump hadn’t heard of Juneteenth (when he originally scheduled this rally) or the 1921 Tulsa race war in which a white mob torched the most prosperous black community in the US... but Stephen Miller had. I will have plenty of time tonight in the quiet moments at work to catch up with the COVID convention.

Right now, more pleasant matters await.

UPDATE: Well, I've caught up on things and, boy, was the whole thing hilarious. First, there was the concerted effort by teenagers to snap up tickets they never intended to use, which forced True Believers to camp out for days in front of the venue, which never even filled to half capacity. The speech was a cringeworthy attempt at boosting Trump's ego, with obsessive attempts at mulligans for his ridiculous water drinking issue and his feeble descent of a ramp at West Point,,, I suspect that we'll be hearing about this crap for months. The most appalling moment of the whole speech, in my estimation, was his line about slowing down COVID-19 testing:

His handlers tried to pass this off as a joke, but Christ, he's the President of the United States of America, we need him to be serious for a second.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Jerk Jacking Juneteenth?

Tengrain has a post about Juneteenth, a holiday which celebrates the final liberation, two months after the end of the Civil War, of slaves in Galveston, Texas. A certain jerk in the White House, a house largely built by slave labor, claimed that nobody had heard of Juneteenth before he made it famous. Yeah, nobody had heard of it...

I first learned of Juneteenth back in the 1990s, when it was largely a Texan holiday, one of many regional celebrations, such as the April 16 Emancipation Day of the abolition of slavery. Here in New York State, the prominent African-American holiday is Pinkster, a Spring festival which corresponds to the old Dutch Pentecost celebrations, when slaves were granted a sort of 'carnival' season in which family reunions could take place. I learned about holidays such as Juneteenth and Pinkster because I have African-American friends, and I listened to them, and took them seriously. The existence of Juneteenth was hardly a secret in early 2020.

Poking around the t00bz, I found a wonderful 'Schoolhouse Rock' style cartoon about Juneteenth, featuring The Roots and originally airing on the show Black-ish:

I notice that the video was posted back in 2017... so much for the jerk-in-chief being the guy who put Juneteenth on the calendar.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Secret Science Club Remote Lecture: MRI and Memories

Tonight, my friends at the Secret Science Club are sponsoring a lecture by neurologist Dr Daphna Shohamy of Columbia University and the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. I had a problem booting my laptop (nice timing, Dell Inspiron!), so I popped into the conference a half hour into Dr Shohamy's lecture. This lecture was the annual Dana Foundation lecture and originally been scheduled for March.

When I was added to the chat, Dr Shohamy was discussing the role of the hippocampus in the formation of memories. Much of what we know about the role of the hippocampus came from the study of Henry Molaison (known in the scientific literature as Patient H.M.), who suffered from epilepsy resulting from a traumatic brain injury as a youth. At the age of 27, his seizures were localized to the medial temporal lobe, specifically the hippocampus. In order to cure his epilepsy, H.M.'s hippocampus was surgically removed. This led to H.M. having difficulty in forming new memories. His older memories were intact, but he had problems forming memories of newly encountered people, scenes, and moments. This phenomenon is known as anterograde amnesia. H.M. was able to learn new tasks, such as drawing a shape observed in a mirror, but did not remember the learning process even as he got better at the task itself. Neuropsychologists Suzanne Corkin and Brenda Milner studied H.M.'s memory and cognition after his operation, and was instrumental in discovering the role of the hippocampus in memory formation.

The hippocampus is named due to its perceived resemblance to a seahorse. Imagining the hippocampus using the brainbow staining technique, displays a complex, and gorgeous, network of neurons. To give the audience some idea of the complexity of neural connections, Dr Shohamy displayed Felleman and Van Essen's 1991 diagram of the visual cortex of the brain. The 'HC' at the top represents the hippocampus, with 'ER' being the entorhinal cortex:

The hippocampus has a 'privileged position' for receiving sensory input. It is high on the brain 'hierarchy', funneling sensory input to other regions of the brain for higher cognition. Study of the brain typically involves the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which measures blood flow, allowing metabolic activity to be tracked. The prefrontal codex is active in memory coding. Dopamine, which Dr Shohamy jokingly described as 'the celebrity of neurotransmitters', plays a role in reward learning (as well as playing a role in addiction). The corpus striatum also plays a role in action and movement.

Dr Shohamy then shifted to the topic of the role of reward in memory. She wistfully noted 'we used to be able to travel', then recounted a trip to Paris when she was twenty years old- she would often leave her map behind and explore the city. She got to the point where she could locate a favorite cafe, even without making a conscious effort to memorize the location. How can we prioritize important information if we don't know at the time that it is important?

Dr Shohamy's former student Kendall Braun developed a computer 'maze' game which involved a reward half of the time. Participants would follow a series of images until they found, in fifty percent of the image boards, the image of a gold coin. Fifteen minutes after playing the game, participants would remember images from 'no reward' mazes almost as well as they remembered images from 'reward' mazes. Twenty-four hours later, they would remember images from 'reward' mazes much better than they remembered those from 'no reward' mazes. After twenty-four hours, and a consolidation process which takes place during sleep, there was a retroactive improvement of memories.

Memories are shaped by their relevance to future events (which affect you in the future), the prioritization of memories occurs retroactively, and depends on a consolidation process involving dopamine, and a reactivation of patterns after sleep.

It's easier to access memories which lead to better decision making. Links between memories can lead to 'false' memories, such as a memory of a conversation in a restaurant being conflated with a different conversation with the same person in a different location. Dr Shohamy presented us with a hypothetical example of integrating memories to result in a 'false' memory. Noting that her colleague Dr Nim Tottenham delivered the SSC Dana lecture last year, she posed a situation in which remembering having a cocktail in the lecture setting could be inspired by drinking a cocktail while watching her Zoom lecture, which could set off a cascade of other memories of the lecture.

In one experiment, the factors were associations between two events, the possibility of a reward, and a resultant decision, a basic Sensory Preconditioning situation. Create an association of a neutral image with a reward, and that image will become preferred to another image even in situations in which a reward is absent. In the case of faces, real or imagined, specific areas of the visual cortex, the fusiform face area, are active.

Memories are integrated into a network of associations, a 'model of the world'. This integration depends on the reactivation of associated memories. Access spread across memories shapes decision making. Dr Shohamy posed the question, should these retroactive associations be considered false memories, or flexible memories?

The hippocampus also plays a role in imagining the future, and damage to the hippocampus can result in trouble articulating the details of future plans. Neurologist Akram Bakkour formulated an experiment based on Buridan's Paradox, a seemingly easy decision making process made difficult by making the choice between two equally desired items. Dr Shohamy used the example of her two favorite candies, a choice between a packet of M&Ms or a Kit-Kat bar- put simply she would want them equally. In healthy people, the hippocampus supports deliberation even in 'simple decisions'. While anteroamnesiacs would remember long-desired objects, they would be slow in making decisions regarding preferences, but would be unhampered in choosing between two sets of facts, such as a question regarding whether objects were yellow or blue. We need memories in complicated times to help us make proper decisions.

Dr Shohamy concluded the lecture with a set of bullet points... The hippocampus allows the formation of rich, vivid, long-term records of the past. Memory is shaped by priorities, meaning, and intention. The brain trades off accuracy for flexibility so we can use the past to adaptively prepare for the future. The role of memory has implications in society, economically, culturally, and in terms of policy.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session, but your Bastard was unable to get a question in (I was still catching up, and was also somewhat occupied by work-related tasks). Neurology is a young, but rapidly evolving field, so any shortcomings in the use of fMRI in brain studies should be ironed out as the field matures. Regarding eyewitness accounts, Elizabeth Loftus did the groundbreaking research on the unreliability of eyewitness accounts- things are misremembered, mistaken connections are made. Regarding the retention of memory in seniors, cardiovascular activity is crucial to the health of the hippocampus, and is beneficial to memory. Regarding ADHD, more research is needed, but persons with ADHD have no noticeable memory deficit, though occasional coding issues may arise. That being said, curiosity helps with memory, and persons with ADHD tend to be more curious as well as more impulsive. Regarding stress, and its affect on memory, the hippocampus is packed with trauma/stress receptors and corticosteroids, stress hormones, can damage the hippocampus... she indicated that SSC alumnus and rockstar Dr. Joseph LeDoux was conducting research in this field.

Once again, the Secret Science Club served up a fun, informative lecture, though the boozy, beautiful Bell House and its lovely staff are sorely missed. Kudos to Dr Shohamy, the Dana Foundation, and Margaret and Dorian. Virtual high fives all around! I don't know when the next Cyber Secret Science Club lecture will take place, but put yourselves on the mailing list so you can get notifications. In the audience of this lecture, their were audience members of Chicago, LA, and Australia... so join in and soak in that SCIENCE!!!

Here's a recent video of Dr Shohamy lecturing on conscious memories:

If you dig that, get your name on the list.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Happy Social Distancing Day

It was about half of our usual Bar Trivia crew, out together for the first time in three months and one week. Yeah, the last time I went to a bar to drink was on March 10. I largely remember the date because it was a week before the Solemn Feast of St Patrick and three days after the close of the 'academic year' at my volunteer coaching gig, with its attendant luncheon. Anyway, we got together tonight at our usual spot, where half of the parking lot had been transformed into an open-air dining area. The one fly in the ointment is the lack of draft beer options, but it's after Memorial Day, so gin-and-tonics were the order of the evening. Thankfully, tonic water is still available, despite having been rumored to be a possible 'Rona cure.

Two of us were celebrating our birthdays. I have about five friends who are June babies, and one of my uncles celebrates his birthday on the 20th. We all texted birthday wishes to each other, and we might meet up for dinner on Friday. One of the villages in the county is closing off Main St (not the main street in town, as is typical these days) to motor vehicles so the local restaurants can set up tables for outdoor dining. It's nice to see that, in response to a pandemic, at least one town has initiated a 'piazza culture' sorely lacking here in the 'States.

At any rate, it was a welcome change from living like a hermit for the past three months, and that is perhaps the best birthday present of all... I have my health and my friends, what more could a birthday boy ask for?

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

US Cyber Command Commander Discovers Social Media

General Paul M. Nakasone, Director of the National Security Agency and Commander of U.S. Cyber Command, decided to open us a social media account, and I suspect he immediately regretted it:

The replies are a farrago of QAnon nonsense and grotesque 'Pepe the Frog' memes. Right wingers love stolen valor more than anything (they'll take fake heroes over real heroes any day of the week), and the QAnon adherents are the worst. They fancy themselves 'digital soldiers' waging 'information warfare' by shitposting and spamming the accounts of their enemies (people such as Ellen Degeneres, Tom Hanks, and Lady Gaga) with their puerile memes. Scroll down if you have a masochistic streak and a warped sense of humor, then weep for humanity after you've gotten your laugh. General Nakasone, Joe32058117534 is at your service, ready to use Twitter to 'redpill' the normies with a sustained barrage of frog cartoons and 'buff Trump' photoshops.

Welcome to the internet General, you'd be completely justified pulling the plug on the thing.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Joanne's Not Being Magical

I'm a straight male, almost cartoonishly 'cis', and totally vanilla in my amatory proclivities. That being said, I support the rights of transpersons to determine how they express their gender. I've long mocked postulates of natural law being used as a 'justification' for bigotry. With that out of the way, I figured that I'd post about J.K. Rowling's opinion about transpersons... for a woman who has written about fabulous shape-shifting beings, Rowling has a not-so-magical attitude towards individuals who seek to transition into identities more consistent with the gender identities that they are comfortable with.

Rowling's particular cruelty is that her fiction offered escapism to young readers with unhappy home lives and hostile families. For adolescents who feel out of place in their own bodies, the story of a young person overcomes abuse and transitions into a new identity, one in which personal growth and exploration is possible, the 'Harry Potter' novels must have had a powerful resonance. Rowling's anti-transperson bigotry is a fishhook embedded in a candy bar, a cruel barb sprung on an unsuspecting fan. It also contravenes Rowling's own statement of the theme of the books: She said she regarded her novels as a “prolonged argument for tolerance” and urged her fans to “question authority”. Rowley has forgotten why her stories had such broad appeal, an appeal the Brad Neely better explained in a three minute cartoon than Rowling has expressed in any interview:

Rowling has been a disappointment, and I am not even a fan (I read the first novel to help out with bar trivia, and quickly figured out that she was mining a vein which Diana Wynne Jones had better exploited). For her LGBTQ fans, I can't even imagine how betrayed they felt. She basically told them to get back into the cupboard under the stairs.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Looks Somthin' Like a Turnip Green

It's spring in the northeastern United States, so that means that the pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is coming up. As I've noted in previous posts, pokeweed is poisonous to mammals, though birds go nuts for the berries, which accounts for the plant's ubiquity throughout the continent, as seeds pass unscathed through the digestive tracts of these efficient dispersal agents. Consequently, we have the plants all over the place.

The late, great Tony Joe White described the plant: "Looks somethin' like a turnip green." While the mature plants are immediately recognizable due to their jet black berries, by which I mean jet black berries, the smaller plants are more nondescript, though a studied eye can recognize them by their particular green hue:

Pokeweed is delicious, once boiled thrice, in changes of water, but there are lingering toxins. The stuff tends to 'clean you out'. I don't have any plans for tomorrow, though, so I think tomorrow might be a poke sallet day.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Commander Bone Spurs Goes to West Point

Is there anything more disgusting than Cadet Bone Spurs forcing the graduating class of the United States Military Academy at West Point to travel back to the school for graduation during a pandemic, merely to stroke his overinflated ego? Especially galling is the fact that he did this a week after threatening to sic the military on peaceful protestors, which contravenes the Posse Comitatus Act. This statement is extra gross because in light of his actions against the Lafayette Park protestors:

Trump knew that he'd have a captive audience, and audience which couldn't heckle or boo him because, as commander-in-chief, he outranks them, and they could be disciplined for showing derision. That didn't mean they had to applaud him:

The whole spectacle was bizarre, and he looked and sounded more demented than usual. Whatever you think of the United States Armed Forces, these young people aren't culpable in any of the errors and sins committed by our military over the past few decades. They are mainly idealistic, wishing to serve their nation, and they are smart and hardworking, vetted not only by stringent entrance requirements but by four years of vigorous academic, physical, and ethical standards. They really should not have been put at risk of infection just to listen to some stupid narcissist mumble inanities during their brief respite between graduating and embarking on their post-graduation careers as commissioned army officers.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Talking 'Bout the Bees and the Bees

We have several wooden structures at my typical workplace which play host to carpenter bees (here in the Northeastern US, they'd be Xylocopa virginica, which are decent pollinators, but terrible houseguests. These large bees don't have queens, and the drones are approximately the same size as the females. They are a common sight here, though for the first time in my life, I appear to have caught two of them in flagrante delicto:

Get a room, you two, and don't burrow through all of the wainscoting!

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Timely Secret Science Club Zoom Lecture

Tonight, while at work, I am logged into this month's Secret Science Club Zoom lecture featuring Muhammad H. Zaman of Boston University. While I miss the lovely people of the beautiful Bell House, I am currently basking in the rays of the setting sun behind the main building at my workplace.

This is going to be a bit of a liveblog. Dorian Devins just made a statement about the official SSC support for Black Lives Matter. I'm just going to say that racism is incompatible with science. PERIOD! Kudos to Dorian and Margaret for all they do.

Tonight's lecture is based on Dr Zaman's new book: Biography of Resistance: The Epic Battle Between People and Pathogens Dr Zaman began his talk by mentioning the role of systemic racism in the spread of illnesses. What can the history of antibiotic resistance tell us about future pandemics? Medical science took a fork in the road which led us to this place. Dr Zaman then shifted to the topic of the 1918 Flu, which was worldwide in scope, affecting such geographically separated individuals as Mustafa Kamal, Mohandas Ghandi, and T.S. Eliot all contracted the 1918 flu. Forty percent of the flu deaths occurred in India,

He then displayed the abstract of a paper co-written by Anthony Fauci concerning the role of bacterial pneumonia in influenza deaths. Patients who are intubated receive antibiotics, and antibiotic resistant secondary infections pose great danger to such patients.

Dr Zaman then discussed writing books in addition to research papers- books can broaden the conversation about scientific subjects. He wants to be able to discuss these subjects with neighbors, with his children's teachers, with his aunts and uncles. He also noted that books allow a holistic perspective of problems involving public health and policy.

Bacteria can be described as gram positive and gram negative according to how they react to a Gram stain developed by Hans Christian Gram, who studied pneumonia pathogens. Dr Zaman then noted that Louis Pasteur, while a titan of science, had stolen

Robert Koch formulated Koch's postulates of disease, but he also forced East Africans to take a medicine for sleeping sickness which turned out to be extremely dangerous. Dr Zaman stressed that even great scientists are humans with all of those flaws.

Dr Zaman noted that viruses can not only cause disease, but can be used to cure disease. British virologist Frederick William Twort discovered bacteriophages, viruses which harm bacteria. This research became popular with Stalin, so phage therapy was seen as 'Soviet', so the development of antibiotics was favored. Sulfa drugs were used to teat infections, but bacteria started to become less effective. Then Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Mary Barber was a British doctor who noted that penicillin resistance was evolving in bacteria, so new antibiotics had to be developed, such as methicillin.

There are so many different bacteria strains which produce antibiotics to provide an adaptive advantage. Bacteria have been 'waging war' since time immemorial. Dr Hazel Barton, a cave microbiologist, has been studying microbes from deep portions of the Lechuguilla cave in New Mexico. Bacteria have been competing, humans just 'put their thumbs on the scale'.

In another case, an isolated Yanomami group in Venezuela had been contacted by soldiers, and despite their isolation, fecal samples and non-invasive skin samples showed that they had resistant microbes.

There's a need to discuss overuse of antibiotics beyond talking of bad patients and bad doctors. One major factor in common outbreaks is global conflicts. In the first Gulf War, many US soldiers contracted a new, resistant bacterium, Acinetobacter baumannii. The bacterium still infects Iraqis. War kills doctors, destroys infrastructure, and contaminates soil, fostering bacterial resistance development. Similar outbreaks developed in Kabul, and Yemen is a potential source for a novel 'superbug'.

Large-scale agriculture also fosters antibiotic resistance. Citrus growers use antibiotics to affect fruit shape and color. Farm animals are given antibiotics, which get into milk and meat. Indiscriminate antibiotic use pushed by ill trained druggists is common throughout the world.

Dr Zaman posed a thought experiment: if you are a pharmaceutical executive, do you develop antibiotics which are taken for a few days or pharmaceuticals which need to be taken every day for a patient's life? Also if you develop a novel antibiotic, should it be kept 'in reserve'?
There's a 2% success rate for new antibiotics working, and most 'new' antibiotics are merely reworking old antibiotics. For gram positive bacteria, a new antibiotic hasn't been developed for thirty years, fifty years for gram negative bacteria.

Our system doesn't work because the private sector cannot sufficiently provide a public good.

The story of antibiotic resistance is a story of bad decisions, people doing things they shouldn't have done. The problem is solvable, though, if different sectors combine- public, business. People with chronic conditions are the ones most affected by resistant infections, in the United States, African-Americans are the most vulnerable. The barriers which prevent people from having decent lives must come down if we want a society in which everyone is healthy.

The lecture has now shifted into the Q&A phase. One question regarded the pace of resistance development in medicine vis-a-vis nature. The selective pressures in a lab are just more rapid in pace, so resistance evolves more quickly. Another question involved overuse of alcohol-based wipes in the current pandemic- we don't know the long-term impact because there are no good studies. They are probably less conducive to resistance than antibiotics, but they do kill beneficial bacteria as well. There could be serious concerns. What is the best thing we can do as patients to counter antibiotic resistance? Perhaps it involves forgoing immediate relief for long-term benefits. As patients and consumers, we should also push back on excessive antibiotic use in farm animals, particularly use to foster growth, rather than to treat infection. Can bacteria lose resistance to old antibiotics? Resistance is a cost to bacteria, they have to carry that gene. Antibiotics which are ineffective here in the US can still be effective in countries which have tighter controls on their use. Is humanity destined to lose the battle with bacterial resistance? Dr Zaman is an optimist. People are suffering, and socioeconomically disadvantaged people suffer the most, and our humanity is suffering. Some bastard in the audience asked: Would it be possible to use 'selective pressure' to foster bacteria which are less deleterious to human hosts? If that is done, everybody must buy in. Such bacteria would be more prone to antibiotic resistance, which is not hard to evolve. Bacteria have been around for four billion years, they are hard to 'outsmart' evolutionarily. Another question regarded the best way to combat outbreaks. Dr Zaman gave his top three: stop conflicts, which drive suffering, make sure that proper information is transmitted, and involve everyone in health decisions, not just medical professionals.

I'm going to hit 'publish' now, though the Q&A is still ongoing. Please, put your name on the Secret Science Club mailing list, because there is another lecture taking place next week.

Kudos to Dr Zaman, Dorian and Margaret for another great Secret Science Club presentation.

UPDATE: In response to a young listener, Dr Zaman stressed that the old model of a 'war on bacteria' has been discounted, and that beneficial bacteria play an important role in human health. Another good question involved a global outbreak of resistant C. difficile- while numbers have been going up, the transmission isn't as quick as a viral infection. Another question involved the danger of knocking out beneficial bacteria, which Dr Zaman noted can impact our immune systems, which are under constant pressure, upsetting the balance is bad. The follow up involved ways to restore bacterial symbionts after a course of antibiotics. Dr Zaman opined that it depends on what antibiotics are involved, but suggesting consulting a nutritionist for advice.

SECOND UPDATE: There was a question about how antibiotic resistance arises, and Dr Zaman indicated that bacteria have multiple strategies... they can evolve thicker walls, they can develop more effective efflux pumps to remove toxins, they can move genetic material to different areas to thwart antibiotics. He reiterated that bacteria have been around for billions of years, and have many survival strategems.

THIRD UPDATE: There was a question about reviving phage therapy making a comeback. Broad clinical trials are needed. We need to know how phages affect bacteria. Studies of viral mutations must be done to ensure safety. Phage therapy should supplement antibiotic and vaccine use to create a broad spectrum of therapeutic techniques.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

A Matter of Semantics

Tengrain put up a post about Democrats' trouble with branding- in this case, the 'Defund the Police' movement. The police defunding movement is a subtle subject, one readily misinterpreted by dunderheads, by which I mean conservatives. They believe that the movement equates disbanding the police, while it really means cutting police budgets (the NYPD's budget is $6 billion annually) and allocating those savings to mental health treatment, education, and housing. In the course of the 'War on Terror', police departments have received surplus military gear, SWAT teams and tactics have been deployed in non-emergency situations (Breonna Taylor was shot by police serving a no-knock warrant). 'Warrior' police training developed by a grifter fosters a combative stance against the public, a 'shoot first, assess the situation later' mentality.

Judging from the sheer amount of ordnance deployed by police nationwide, police defunding would largely mean a cutback on 'riot gear', leading to a judicious deployment of such. I mean, how the hell much did this blanket of gas in Seattle cost? Impact projectiles and irritants should be like bird missiles, only used in extremis after obtaining Dr Nambu's permission. They aren't toys to be indiscriminately used by naughty boys with a limitless budget.

Perhaps a better term should be used in order to counter the simplistic semantic games being played by right-wingers. 'Demilitarize the Police' is simple and clear... I, myself like 'Defang the Police'.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Yeah, Some Provacateur...

This weekend's viral image of police brutality was a video of Martin Gugino, a 75 year old Catholic Worker activist, being shoved by Buffalo police and sustaining a grievous head injury. It was a horrific scene, that of an elderly man lying on the sidewalk, with blood pooling under his head, while a phalanx of riot cops walked right by him.

Of course, the Asshole-in-Chief has been spreading a conspiracy theory which posits that Mr Gugino was an 'antifa' provacateur on a sinister police equipment blocking mission:

Trump's comment was inspired by a dubious source, One America News Network riffing on a piece by the "Conservative Treehouse" blog. Supposing that it were true, which it is not, the police reaction to this purported provocateur was entirely inappropriate. People are provoked all of the time, but very few people respond with horrific violence, such as we have seen over the past week of protests. If Mr Gugino had been doing something nefarious, he could have been detained without the use of excessive force, which he wasn't. I mean, here was one eldery, unarmed man against scores of armored cops.

It's telling that Trump received more responses that 'likes' for his tweet (the dreaded 'ratio')... this was something straight out of Orwell's 1984: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

For me, the whole nasty affair has provoked a profound revulsion.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Fandom Fighting Fascism

Mr Rogers famously advised children, when confronted with scary things, look for the helpers. In these troubled times, the helpers are coming from unusual places... I'm talking about K-pop fans flooding right-wing agitators' social media feeds with fancam videos. More importantly, they also caused the crash of police apps meant to identify protestors. By flooding the stream of disinformation and race-baiting with harmless noise, they have effectively pulled off what could be likened to a denial-of-service attack.

Even better, the K-pop fans decided to turn their attention the right-wing QAnon conspiracy theorists, causing them all kinds of consternation:

Racist, homophobic right-wing dead-enders were especially stymied by videos of androgynous Korean boys, some with pink hair, such as these fellows:

In 2018, the odious Steve Bannon described a strategy to stymie the media by 'spamming' disinformation: "The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit." I prefer the K-pop fans strategy of flooding the zone with sugar.

As a nice coda to this story, K-pop supergroup BTS and their management company donated one million dollars to Black Lives Matter. I guess I'm going to have to post one of their videos:

Those humorless right-wing creeps never stood a chance.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Spectator Sports Are Back

I figured I would take a break from the terrible news that has been dominating the airwaves, and I am happy that spectator sports have returned to distract me from the sorry state of the world:

That prodigious leaper is one of the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) that have been visiting my workplace lately. This particular deer was browsing near the stream which flows through this site when I startled it from the vantage of a footbridge on our site perimeter. Ordinarily, we only have deer at this site on occasion, but being closed to visitors and staffed by a skeleton crew has made the place more attractive to these normally (but not always) shy creatures. This photo turned out to be so much better than the one I had been anticipating... I didn't expect that leap.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

The Texas Chainsaw MAGA Cur

What is it with guys who are angry at people protesting police brutality and outlandish weapons? The latest incident involves a man in McAllen, Texas brandishing a chainsaw while yelling racial slurs at demonstrators:

Despite what video games such as Doom and movies such as Evil Dead 2, a chainsaw isn't exactly an elegant weapon for a more civilized age... they are heavy, unweildy, and (unless you are Ash from the 'Evil Dead' movies) require two hands to use.

At least this chainsaw chump has been detained by police, much like his soulmate in Queens. I hope the authorities in McAllen interrogate him on suspicion of being Leatherface.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Damn It, Eliot, You're Breaking My Heart

As a Yonkers resident, my representative has long been Eliot Engel, who has served in the U.S. Congress since 1989. Generally speaking, I have considered him a decent representative. Yonkers may be a hardscrabble city, but it functions... my garbage gets picked up, the snow on the streets gets removed, and the buses tend to run on time. Yep, I always saw Engel as a decent man, and an effective public servant, but I now have to question whether or not he can sincerely represent the district.

At a news conference regarding the civil unrest which has ravaged the city for the past week, Representative Engel showed his ass. Speaking to Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Engel was picked up by a hot mic: "If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care."

Iesu Christi, filius Mariae, this is a bad take. The Bronx has been especially hard hit this past week, with agressive police crackdowns on peaceful protestors and the trashing of the Fordham Road commercial district. If Eliot Engel only cares about his re-election prospects, he really needs to get the hell out of the House. The primary is coming up in two and a half weeks, and Jamaal Bowman's idealism looks like a welcome alternative to Engel's long term encumbent's cynicism.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Wolverine's Trashy Brother

I have a general rule of thumb which has served me well... if you are going to do something that will draw the public eye, don't look ridiculous while doing it. With this in mind, we have the story of a guy in Queens who menaced some kids while brandishing an outlandish weapon. The weapon, which looks to be a four-bladed 'sci-fi' take, albeit a stupid one, on the classic Indian katar:

D00d looks like Wolverine's trashy brother, Glutton.

Because the guy exited his vehicle to pursue his Marvel Stupid Universe fantasy, his license plate was recorded and he was apprehended. Predictably, he has had prior run-ins with the authorities... this is what happens when you don't have a Professor Charles Xavier keeping tabs on your behavior.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Wisdom Gained from Whimsy

In the middle of the avalanche of bad news, it's a relatively minor item, but the death of Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, the mononymous Christo, hit home. When I was in college, I remember one of my roommates ragging on Christo because of the outrΓ©, seemingly naΓ―f, nature of his work. We were all know-it-all teenagers, and the idea of a guy Saran-wrapping a monument seemed like a scam (for the record, I still have a visceral distaste for Jackson Pollock and all his works and all his empty promises). As soon as I heard the news, I texted my old roommates, and received an impeccable response: "I guess you could call it a wrap!"

Back in January of 2005, I was self-employed, picking up contract work, with my major gig involving maintaining a warehouse of medical records from a recently closed hospital. It was a strange combination of database management, the grunt work of scaling a rolling stairway to retrieve transfile boxes, and donning a suit and going to court to drop off subpoenaed records. My co-worker was a moving-and-storage whiz, the kind of guy who could eyeball the contents of your house and estimate how much truck space and how many movers would be needed to get you to a new place for your stuff. One afternoon, I received a phone call from a friend, "Do you know how to drive a forklift?" Looking across the warehouse to the 'hi-lo' in the corner, I responded, "Yyyyyyeaaaahhhhh..." He had a job offer, driving a forklift... in Central Park... in January... at night. My co-worker gave me a quick tutorial about operating the machine, and I practiced with it every day for the rest of the week, so I would be prepared to start this night job the following Monday... after, of course, purchasing thermal undergarments at a ski shop.

Thus, I began working for Christo and Jeanne-Claude on The Gates:

My job, a 6PM to 2AM shift, entailed unloading the heavy cast-iron bases from the flatbed trucks that would distribute them throughout the park. We would stack the bases (loaded onto the trucks by another crew) in strategic locations throughout the park for the day shift to place... forklift operators would unstack the ironmongery and pallet-jack operators would place them in their final positions.

Every night, I would take the 4 Train from Woodlawn in the Bronx to 125th St, then transfer to the 6 Train to 103rd St, not far from our base of operations. We would 'shape up' for work, find our helper/spotter, then head out in a merry convoy until we'd peel off to continue on to our designated location. If you've never driven a forklift, it's an experience- with rear-wheel steering, they are very maneuverable, you can palm the wheel and do a 360 with one. Working in Central Park at night in the cold was also an experience, I was privy to a secret world, dark but not quiet, because of the constant mechanical symphony. We would break for dinner, which was provided for us because we really couldn't split up and reconvene without causing chaos. The legendary Big Nick's was the go-to place for the project manager. We'd continue working to the wee hours of the morning, then return to our base around 100th St and knock off at 2AM.

All throughout the project, Christo and Jeanne-Claude would visit to see how we were progressing and to cheerlead. He was reserved-but-gracious, she was ebullient, ready with a joke or a hug or an offer of autographs from herself and her husband. I remember thinking how perfectly complementary they were... how difficult it would be to picture them without each other (Jeanne-Claude passed away before I started this blog, and I can't imagine how her husband must have felt). Because of their constant involvement, and infectious enthusiasm, this massive undertaking had the vibes of a family business.

As for the project itself- it transformed the normally drab Northeastern US winter landscape into a whimsical carnival, a riot of bright color amidst the typical palette of grays, browns, and washed-out greens... and then the snow came, and the whole scene was transformed once again into a creamsicle world (a joke I had made once before). People were wandering through the park, socializing and posing for photographs. The huge art installation had an auditory component as well, the sound of thousands of banners flapping in the breeze gave the site an nautical air, if one closed one's eyes for a bit. I, myself, on two occasions walked the entire length of the park, from Central Park South to 110th St, rather than take the subway, so I could bask in the wonder of it all, and on numerous occasions walked a section of the park to get a taste.

I returned for the dismantling process, stacking the ironmongery so another shift could load it onto the flatbed trucks to return to our base camp. Inexorably, the park returned to its normal winter state, stripped of its 'fancy dress'. The park that I had always loved returned to some semblance of normality, but a touch of the whimsy remained, people still reminisced about what had overtaken the park.

Yeah, it wasn't just about wrapping stuff like a deli counterperson... Christo and Jeanne-Claude forced the individuals who interacted with their grand projects to experience their normal surroundings in an entirely novel fashion. I, myself, was able to see and hear Central Park in entirely new ways, both working on the project and strolling through it. Sure, it was funny as a callow kid to goof on Christo and Jeanne-Claude's body of work , but art imparts wisdom as well as age does, and sometimes that wisdom can come in the guise of whimsy.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Meanwhile, Back in Yonkers

Today was a weird day. I woke up to a text message from my upstairs neighbor, informing me that a local jewelry shop and mom-and-pop pharmacist were broken into. She also sent me a cell-phone video, which I won't be posting because it could help pinpoint the location of the recorder, who took the video from a nearby apartment. The local coverage is pretty good, obviously the thefts were committed by professionals who knew what they wanted to grab (cash, jewelry, opiates). It did not occur, as ABC's headline indicated, 'in overnight Yonkers protests'. Thankfully, the actual coverage is much better, and our local city council member handled the situation well:

"This was not done by protesters, this was done by criminals, unfortunately. They came in, they looted a jewelry store, they went into the pharmacy. These people, who are business owners, people who, they've been closed for moths just to come back and have something like this done. So it's very, very sad."

The whole crime spree took under five minutes, with about a dozen men in a small convoy of cars hitting the area, smashing the glass pharmacy door and using a stolen SUV to ram through the jewelry store facade.

I combined errands with a bit of 'scouting', and spoke to some of the local merchants. Everybody stressed the idea that this was a crime of opportunity that had nothing (besides being timed to coincide with the police being stretched thin) to do with the local protests, which were peaceful. Sure, the guys who run the liquor store (I needed to replenish my Tullamore Dew supply) were boarding up, but nobody was freaking out. On a happy note, the local Chinese takeout place had reopened, so I bought some lunch and left a tip that they told me was too big ("No, you've been closed so long, I'm so happy to see you open.").

Again, everybody was cool about the protests, but then again, this is a heavily immigrant community, and a lot of the older folks remember The Troubles, so they're not the sort of people who are cool with the gas and 'rubber bullets' flying. As much as I love Stiff Little Fingers, I sure as hell don't like see my fellow US residents living through one of their songs:

This wouldn't have happened on a normal night, pre-civil unrest and COVID-19. Usually, with all of the bars on the street, there are a fair number of people out and about at 4:15AM.

Monday, June 1, 2020

As Is Tradition for the First of June

The first day of June marks the birthday of my super-sarcastic sister, and the brief interval when she and I were the 'same' age. When we were young, we both became insufferable for a couple of weeks, until my birthday rolled around. Sure, it was stupid, and we were impossible to be around, but the whole family just kinda gritted their teeth and dealt with us until we stopped being jerks.

This year has been quite the adventure for my sister and her husband, who are both bona-fide rocket scientists. They both started new jobs (my brother-in-law with a startup), which necessitated a move from the Washington D.C. suburbs to the Bay Area. Of course, the COVID-19 outbreak hit soon after they established their foothold in Gullyvornya, but there's really no respite from the pandemic anywhere.

One running joke among my circle of friends is that birthdays just don't happen in 2020, that we will 'sync up' when the world returns to some semblance of normality. The reality, though, is that time marches on, at least online, so here's to my sister, who isn't so impossible to be around now that she (and I) have mellowed with age. Happy birthday!