Sunday, February 28, 2021

Secret Science Club Zoom Lecture: What is Life?

Today, my great and good friends of the Secret Science Club for a Zoom lecture by Dr Paul Nurse, 2001 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine, and director of London's Francis Crick Institute.  The topic of the lecture was the subject of his book What Is Life? Five Great Ideas in Biology.  This Zoom lecture represents Dr Nurse's triumphant return to the Secret Science Club, the good doctor lectured back in 2008, while heading Rockefeller University... my one big blogging regret is that I didn't start the blog earlier, so I could have summarized those lectures.

Having a crazy schedule these days, I entered the Zoom about fifteen minutes late, entering while Dr Nurse was discussing Gregor Mendel's study of heredity in pea plants, showing slides of the monk's gardens to illustrate his painstaking study.

Chromosomes, the molecules which regulate heredity were originally found in onion root cells.  Chromosomes are made of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).  DNA splits and the strands are templates for reproduction.  The sequence of bases (adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine) in a gene is coded in RNA which acts as a messenger to the cytoplasm to regulate proteins- one gene per protein.  Heredity is written in the four letter nucleobase code (ACGT) in linear form.  

Life is chemistry.  Louis Pasteur, while studying the fermentation of sugar beets to ensure the production of alcohol rather than acid- he determined that yeast, a single cell organism, was responsible for producing alcohol, while bacteria would produce acid.  He stated that fermentation is a physiological process.  Proteins, polymers of amino acids, in the yeast acted as enzymes to alter carbohydrates, polymers of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.  There are twenty amino acids which can combine to form complex molecular structures (DNA is rather simple).  The various combinations of these twenty amino acids allow a wide range of proteins to be harnessed to power life functions.

Enzymes act as molecular machines which can reconfigure carbohydrates and lipids, they can transport other chemicals, they can turn sunlight to carbohydrates and break down other chemicals.  Because they interact, enzymes need to be encapsulated to prevent harmful reactions.  This separation allows the mechanism of life to occur.

Life is information, it is a complex system involving the management of information.  The structure of DNA, iconic and beautiful, only makes sense when seen as a digital information system combined of four amino acids.  Regulation is also necessary for life.  There are governors to the processes of life- negative feedback loops to reduce synthesis of chemicals, and positive feedback loops to initiate growth.  Homeostasis must be maintained, routines must be managed.

Life evolves, and life evolves by means of natural selection.  Charles Darwin's father, Erasmus Darwin, believed in the evolution of life from simple forms to more complex forms, but did not name a process by which such evolution occurred.  If life only evolved once, using four amino acids, all life is related.  Charles Darwin proposed the mechanism of natural selection as the means for evolution- it is a consequence of a population having variations dependent on heritable traits.  Traits which provide for better adaptation, and increased reproduction, will be passed on until there are sufficient changes to cause variable populations to cease to be able to interbreed.

Dr Nurse gave a brief rundown of Charles Darwin's gradual discovery of evolution by means of natural selection while serving on HMS Beagle.  He also displayed an illustration of the famous Galápagos finches, comparing their beaks to various types of pliers:



The different beak shapes were selected for by the necessity to obtain different types of food.  Natural selection requires reproduction, heritability, and mutability in heritability.  Chromosomes determine cell properties, chromosomes replicate, and mutations arrive, which can be selected.  

Dr Nurse ended his discussion of evolution by means of natural selection with this beautiful quote by Charles Darwin, who asserted that biology has laws, just like physics:

"Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Dr then shifted the topic to intermediate-life forms, viruses.  Viruses can reproduce and evolve, but can only do so in the cells of other organisms- they hijack the mechanism of cells to reproduce.  One could say that viruses only live while inside other organisms, but are lifeless chemicals while outside cells.  All life forms depend on other organisms- humans cannot synthesize certain amino acids, plants need bacterial symbiotes to produce nitrogen.  There is a spectrum of interdependence among the organisms of earth.  All life is interdependent.

Towards the end of the lecture, Dr Nurse summed up the various topics he had discussed in a series of bullet points.

Living things are independent bounded physical entities.  The basic unit of life on Earth is the cell

Life forms are entities that can undergo evolution, they reproduce, they have a hereditary system, their progeny is subject to natural selection.

Life forms are chemical, physical, and informational machines which build their own metabolism to grow and reproduce.

Life is based on carbon polymer chemistry, polymers produce nucleic acid information storage  Life is based on information storage in linear form encoded in polymers.

All known life on Earth descends from a common ancestor.  We are all related to our fellow denizens of the planet.

If there is life beyond earth, it will be based on polymers, but might be based on different chemistry, utilizing different forms of energy.

All living organisms are related, and interact.  We depend on our relationships to other inhabitants of Earth.  Together, we are the great survivors, the currently living descendants of a single organism back in Deep Time.  Because we are perhaps the only organisms to understand this, we have an obligation to protect and preserve life.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session.  The first question involved horizontal gene transfer, which can move genes from one branch of the Tree of Life to another- this doesn't alter natural selection, but does alter heritability.  A question regarding consciousness evoked a call for increased study of the brain, and its chemical and electrical processes- Dr Nurse stated that the study of the brain will be the great scientific study of the next one-hundred years.  Another question involved mitochondrial migration in neurons- neurons often being of great length, mitochondria might have to migrate to ensure proper energy supplies throughout the cells.  How likely or unlikely was the eukaryotic revolution?  Having studied the mechanism of cell division, the way in which human cells control cell division is identical to the way in which yeast cells control cell division- this is an extraordinary level of conservation, unchanged over a billion years.  One could even take a human gene and implant it in a yeast cell, and cell division would not change.  Questioned about the Drake equation, Dr Nurse noted that the universe is so vast, with enormous numbers of potential homes for life, the universe is most likely home to other lifeforms than earthly ones.

The Q&A session was short, as Dr Nurse had a prior claim on his time, which is just as well, because I had to get ready for work.  

For a taste of the Secret Science Club experience, here is a video by Dr Nurse covering the topic he lectured on today:


Kudos to Dr Nurse, Dorian, and Margaret for another great Secret Science Club lecture.  Now, folks, soak in that SCIENCE!

Saturday, February 27, 2021

The Lone Racist Sparks a Movie Night

I really can't understand why some people have a desire to use racial slurs- the use of such language is a reflection on oneself, not on the targets of the slur.  This week, an asshole dressed as the Lone Ranger was thrown out of a Walker County, Georgia committee meeting for defending the use of the 'N-word' and displays of the Confederate battle flag.  Great, just great... 

Racists suck, even when dressing up as beloved figures from pop culture.  That being said, the image of an old man in a Lone Ranger mask immediately reminded me of a scene in the cult film Bubba Ho-Tep, in which an elderly man, suffering from dementia, takes a final stand, cap guns blasting away, against... you got it... a soul-sucking mummy dressed in a cowboy hat and boots:

 

The difference between the Kemosabe of Bubba Ho-Tep and the Lone Racist is that Kemosabe had a soul to steal, unlike our Georgia asshole...  That being said, this tawdry incident moved me to re-watch Bubba Ho-Tep, a film which I've only mentioned in passing while blogging.

Bubba Ho-Tep was predestined to be a cult classic, involving such titans of 'grade B' horror as author Joe Lansdale, director Don Coscarelli, and leading man Bruce Campbell.  The subject matter is also pure pulp, with a bit of a gonzo twist- it involves an aging Elvis Presley teaming up with JFK to fight a soul-sucking mummy killing off the residents of a nursing home.  The late, great Ossie Davis, playing JFK, managed to lend the role an air of dignity, even as his dialogue involves a mummy trying to suck his soul out via his butthole. Yeah, it's that kind of movie, but it's so much more.  It's a horror-comedy film, but it is also a poignant elegy concerning the plight of the elderly.  Giant, carnivorous scarab beetles and soul-sucking mummies aren't all that scary compared to being confined in a nursing home, all-but-forgotten by family and waiting to die.  

This emotional power sneaks up on the viewer, who had previously been watching a film which previously put Bruce Campbell's knack for slapstick to the test:

 

The main characters of the movie represent themselves as formerly great figures (King and President) who have fallen far from their pinnacles of wealth and fame... that is, if they aren't completely delusional.  They have their narratives, whether true or false, and they jump at the opportunity to achieve a redemption, a heroic last stand, that they had no hope of attaining.  When Elvis turns to JFK and delivers the patently ridiculous line "ask not what your nursing home can do for you, ask what you can do for your nursing home", it just feels right.

I was lucky enough to see the film when it first came to the theaters as a limited run- it was, appropriately enough, a midnight showing in one of Manhattan's art-house theaters, and the crowd was fairly small.  I loved the movie then, and I think I love it even more now.  Sure, it has some grossout humor (the woeful state of Elvis' aged pecker is remarked upon throughout the film), and the action scenes are jokey and hokey (a mummy, being the slowest of the classic monsters, is a worthy opponent for a decrepit old man whose hip gives out when he attempts to use 'his stuff' to kick ass), but the film has heart, and presents, among the crazy supernatural material, the genuine horror of the plight of the elderly.  Even if you are not into the horror-comedy genre, it's an interesting film, with two outstanding lead performances among the B-movie shenanigans.  It ends on a sad, yet uplifting note, with our two aged heroes managing to save... well, not the Earth, but their nursing home.  That's a more worthy accomplishment than wasting your waning years trying to champion the use of racial slurs and hateful symbols.

Friday, February 26, 2021

The 'C' Stands for COVID

 Last year, the CPAC conference was perhaps the first COVID-19 superspreader event in the United States... one of the attendees tested positive for the novel coronavirus, which led to a lockdown of the city of New Rochelle, NY, a city for which I have a deep, abiding love.  If not THE first superspreader event, it was an early superspreader event... and the movement conservatives that attend CPAC haven't learned a goddamn thing about COVID, or public health, or virology:


A year after kicking off a pandemic which has killed over a half-million Americans, these creeps are still bound and determined to spread the pathogen.  They decided early on that the wearing of masks, and the maintenance of social distancing, were culture war issues, but the only culture war is between viruses and individuals determined to play the role of Petri dishes.  

The Trump Maladministration utilized the pandemic to 'punish' communities which tend to vote Democratic, so their sycophants tend to downplay the seriousness of the plague.  It looks like this year's CPAC, like last year's, will be another superspreader event.  Hopefully, it will mark the last big superspreader event (though I doubt it)- it would be crazy if the pandemic were 'bookended' by two CPACs.  The real plague, though, is the ideology that the attendees promulgate, and there's no vaccine for that sort of pathology.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Trolling as Policy

The new representative from Georgia's 14th congressional district has some interesting priorities, namely trolling the libs:

Now, I'd like to think of myself as having a pretty good handle on science, for a layperson, and Greene's sign is garbage, from a scientific standpoint (and a social standpoint, and a political standpoint, and a constitutional standpoint...). Gender is more complex than a simple binary of male and female- there are numerous biological conditions which result in an intersex condition. It's mind-boggling to me that our society, which claims the mantle of sophistication, tends to be resistant to this truth- numerous societies since antiquity have recognized the existence of a third gender

Here's where I confess that I had to educate myself about this topic- the issue of transgender identity never even came up in conversation when I was a pup... I did not know all there is to know about the crying game. I have several transgendered friends online who were able to point me towards sources regarding gender identity. I'm almost cartoonishly cisgendered, and het, but my personal belief is that anyone who means no harm to others should be able to express an identity which maximizes their potential to be happy. This new culture war is, to me, just a revival of the lost culture war against same-sex marriage, with the goalposts moved- as the general public became more accepting of gay and lesbian persons, a new target was needed, and transgendered persons are the new target, as their identity is confusing to many people. 

 This is a topic that I revisit on occasion, because it is the central culture war item post 2015. I endeavor to be an ally to the entire LGBTQIA community, and firmly believe that intersectionality is integral to human rights issues. I realize that transgender issues make some people uncomfortable, but lesbian-and-gay issues made people uncomfortable not-so-long ago. Don't let bigots such as Marjorie Taylor Green use transgendered persons as a Trojan Horse to sneak in a rollback of human rights for everybody.

ADDENDUM: What the hell is this bullshit?  No need to answer that...

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

When Your Token Black Friend Turns Out to Be a Hotep

 I would love to know who was in charge of vetting CPAC speakers, but this year's roster is a doozy.  The prize for whackaloonery goes to an individual calling himself 'Young Pharaoh', who has, as a lot of whackos do, opinions about 'THE J00Z':



The delicious irony here is that Young Pharaoh's problematic content was brought to light by Media Matters for America, long considered a bugbear by the Right. To make matters even funnier, the theme of the conference this year is 'Uncancel America', yet Young Pharaoh was instantly 'canceled' when his outlandish views came to light. Those views are a doozy!

Yeah, this guy believes that there is no historical or scientific evidence for the existence of Jewish people. I'm thinking of running a Schrödinger's Jew experiment to prove the existence of Jews... I can lock a Jewish-presenting guy from the Lower East Side in an opaque box with a bag of Lender's frozen bagels. This individual's Jewishness won't be determinable until the box is opened and we can observe whether or not he plotzed because of substandard bagels. 

Young Pharaoh also believes in the QAnon conspiracy mega-theory and it's assorted suite of outré tenets. You, dear readers, are lucky that I have been unable to find his song about Jews eating babies, and no, I am not making that up. This is what happens when your token black friend is a hotep, a member of a subculture of Afrocentric men who tend to be extremely misogynistic, antisemitic, and homophobic... believers in Black Liberation, but Women's Subjugation. They tend to be right-wingers, and the white right is so vested in trying to paint Democrats as 'the real racists' that they are willing to embrace these whackjobs, until they are exposed as loons by liberal watchdog groups.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

All the Robots Descend From the Stage

 I figured that everybody, including myself, needs a break from the doom and gloom litany of plague, storm, and sedition, so a pop-culture post is in order.  The big entertainment story of the week is the breakup of French dance-pop superstars Daft Punk, after  a storied career spanning twenty-eight years.  The members of this duo took their name from a bad review of a performance of their former band, Darlin', which characterized their sound as a 'daft, punky thrash'.  After the breakup of Darlin', as so many musicians before them, members Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter decided to mess around with synthesizers and drum machines, and megastardom beckoned.

Daft Punk's sound incorporated elements of house music, disco, funk, and electronic pop music, in a danceable blend.  Their first album, Homework, spawned a hit with Around the World, a song which incorporates a funky bassline with vocoder-altered vocals that would have made Kraftwerk proud:


The duo were very much invested in their privacy, and early on adopted the wearing of masks to obscure their identities, finally settling on futuristic helmets that made them seem robotic and, to those aware of the history of electronic dance music, served as an homage to the French electro-disco outfit Space.

The duo achieved international stardom with the 2000 release One More Time, their biggest hit, which featured a heavily autotuned vocal by American singer Romanthony.  The song was featured in an animated feature titled Interstella 5555, a cartoon about an alien band abducted by spacefaring baddies:

 

Throughout the 21st century, Daft Punk was known for their collaborations, such as the Get Lucky, a 2013 collaboration with singer Pharrell Williams:


Daft Punk also collaborated with Euro-Disco titan Giorgio Moroder, resulting in a song about the man:


They also produced music by Kanye West, and in 2016, released a track in collaboration with 2021 Super Bowl Theseus The Weeknd:

After this long career as a duo, and as collaborators with a variety of other musicians, Daft Punk decided to break up, releasing a video epilogue to their career:

Hopefully, this doesn't mark the end of this interesting musical duo... breakups tend to be followed by reunions, followed by reunion tours.  Rarely are musical breakups permanent.

I wouldn't say that Daft Punk was particularly innovative- they stood on the shoulders of bands like Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and Space- but they were a lot of fun, and produced some lively dance music.  Not everybody can be an innovator like Ryuichi Sakamoto, but there's a place for competent journeymen who can take avant-garde elements and make them approachable... and Daft Punk excelled at this.

The post title is taken from Daft Punk Is Playing at My House, the breakout single by Brooklyn-based electronic dance music gadflies LCD Soundsystem.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Looks Like I Was an Optimist

 Last March, in a conversation with a coworker, I predicted that there would be a half-million deaths in the US due to COVID-19 before we got this pandemic under control, and it looks like I was a bit optimistic... we have hit the 500,000 dead mark, with no end in sight for months.  Upon hearing my prediction, my coworker countered, "I think it will be a million deaths."  Yeah, he's even more cynical than I am.

Back then, I really didn't foresee the anti-mask movement, nor did I know the extent of the anti-vaccine movement.  It really seems as if a sizable minority of people in this country are objectively pro-pandemic.  At the time, I also didn't predict that the Occupant of the White House would be the largest source of disinformation regarding the pathogen and the pandemic.  I knew the man was trash, but I didn't realize that he was quite that bad.

The sick joke of it all is that the right-wing malinformation complex will now go into overdrive in an attempt to pin all 500,000 COVID-19 deaths on Joe Biden.  Right-wingers are comfortable with cognitive dissonance, so they will simultaneously claim that the pandemic is a hoax, that COVID is no worse than the flu, and that President Biden is a mass murderer.  I may have been too much of an optimist when it came to predicting the COVID-19 death toll here in the United States, but I don't think I'm too much of an optimist when it comes to predicting what righties will attempt to do.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Ads Killed the Prank

 Via Tengrain, we have a very funny 'Star Trek' rickroll...  the rickroll being a decade-and-a-half old internet joke, originating on 4Chan, in which pranksters attempted to hide links to the video for Rick Astley's 1987 song Never Gonna Give You Up, on which unsuspecting marks would click, subjecting themselves to a video of the red-pomapadoured crooner, whose skinny frame could produce an incongruously deep baritone:


Rickrolling has always been a funny, harmless prank- a silly tradition which revived the career of a former best-seller.  In terms of internet one-upsmanship, it's an elegant weapon for a more civilized age, a way to 'count coup' without being abusive, a throwback to a time when 4Chan, as problematic as it could be, hadn't completely surrendered to anime Nazi edgelords, and actually functioned as a wellspring for much of internet culture.

Well, I am sorry to say that the rickroll is pretty much dead, ruined by YouTube advertising... now, instead of hearing the synthesized beats of the opening, a rickrollee will hear an ad, thus making it a Geicoroll, or a Hello Freshroll.  It's unfortunate that commerce could get in the way of pranksterism, that today's young-uns won't experience a genuine rickroll.  I'd suspect that even Dr Nambu would have a hard time designing a rickroll-powered superweapon, the way things are going:


I suppose I COULD sign up for a premium YouTube package to get rid of the ads which have rendered the rickroll obsolete, but that would seem like cheating... the rickroll should occur spontaneously, not subject to whether or not a recipient has an adblock, or a premium account.  It's part of our culture, a part of culture which is being destroyed by commercialization.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Christmas DeJoy

Back in December, my brother Vincenzo's wife told me that I should be looking out for a Christmas present that she had ordered for me, indicating that it was supposed to arrive by December 20th. Last Wednesday, my upstairs neighbor informed me that a package had arrived for me. Sure enough, it was box containing a large tin, colored a festive Christmas red, filled with a popcorn sampler. Yes, my Christmas present had arrived on Ash Wednesday. I texted my sister-in-law, telling her that the package had arrived. Her first thought is that I had forgotten to text her about the arrival, her second thought was that she might have muffed the address... no on both counts, her information was perfect. Rather than experiencing the joy of Christmas, I experienced the DeJoy of Christmas, the mail delays that everybody knows were engineered to screw up the counting of mail-in ballots. To compound matters, the postal screw-ups also set me back financially- a significant check that had been sent in mid-November never arrived, necessitating a cancellation, and recent reissue. Yeah, this time, it's personal. DeJoy has got to go, as soon as the Postal Board of Governors can be replaced in order to effect his ouster. Damn, did this asshole find a tight crevice in which to wedge himself, or what? 

Anyway, now I have a big tin of popcorn (and, I must say, a check of financial significance), just in time to replace the giant jar of cheeseballs that I won in a dance contest last year. Snack succession achieved! I joked to my sister-in-law that it's a good thing I didn't give up popcorn for Lent!

Friday, February 19, 2021

A Sweet Gal With Traditional Values

I can unabashedly say that I've been a fan of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez since her arrival on the political scene.  I remember seeing her campaign ads on NYC subway platforms, and getting the impression that they could be advertisements for a television drama or romantic comedy about a young woman trying to make it in the big city (I'd say she's made it in two big cities).  She's smart, media savvy, and dedicated to her constituents, mainly working-class residents of the Bronx and Queens.  She's also a sweet girl who better embodies 'traditional values' than the Republicans who claim to espouse them... here she is giving up meat for the entirety of Lent to memorialize Representative Jaime Raskin's son: I'm tempted to join Twitter just to give her my falafel recipe, learned from a Coptic neighbor decades ago, and refined over the intervening years (protip: use a 50/50 blend of chickpeas and peeled fava beans). The responses to her post are so sweet and wholesome, she has a nice community of fans, many of whom appear to be fantastic cooks. It's weird how such a wholesome, caring woman could be porttayed as a Stalinist menace by a bunch of hypocritical faux-Christians. Even better, Representative Ocasio-Cortez has proved to be a more effective advocate for Texas residents than their own senators (I'm looking at Fled Cruz, in particular). While they have been AWOL or MIA, AOC has raised money for relief for beleaguered Texans: She still had time to take the creep to the woodshed, in her typical 'raised in the internet age' fashion: Sure, 'Don't Mess With Texas', an anti-littering campaign slogan, has become a meme, but the real takeaway here is 'Don't Mess With the Bronx'.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Science Fiction Fact Thriller

In a week characterized by natural, and human-created, disasters affecting millions of Americans, we need a feel-good story, so how about a science thriller featuring a plucky robotic protagonist?  I've been watching the NASA livestream of the Perseverance rover's safe landing on Mars.  The seven minutes of terror are over, the lander, accompanied by a helicopter drone named Ingenuity, touched down in a rugged bit of Martian terrain, Jezero Crater, which is thought to have housed an ancient lake.  The main mission of Perseverence and its 'copter sidekick, is to search for signs of microbial life.  Another function of the rover is to test whether oxygen can be extracted from the Martian atmosphere, the fact that this unit is named after my favorite soft drink is merely a bonus.

The livestream has been a joy... it's impossible not to root for the robots, and the human team that has worked so hard to get them where they needed to be, and the initial images from the rover's camera elicited a genuine sense of pride and wonder.  Kudos to the NASA team.  The livestream even featured video questions from schoolkids, including an adorable girl who drew a picture of the rover 'thinking about Earth'.

It's about time we had some good news, and this science fiction fact thriller, a tale of American achievement, engineering prowess, and scientific discover is particularly appealing to me... it's a perfect intersection of my interests.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Texas Freezes Over

The news out of Texas is, simply put, horrific...  millions of people are suffering without power, heat, and even water,  under conditions which are typical in more northerly climes, conditions which are minor annoyances.  Texas tends to send Republicans to Washington, so their congressional representatives (along with their governor) are wasting time better spent on disaster relief trying to score points on liberals.  The right-wing narrative is that Texas' reliance on wind turbines for 10% of their electricity generation was the cause of the cascading power failures... as if properly designed wind turbines cease to function in cold conditions.  The narrative is an attempt to shift blame for the disaster onto out-of-state Democrats and to make the Green New Deal look like a suicide pact.  Predictably, the truth is exactly the opposite- the power grid in Texas was not connected to the national grids so as to avoid federal regulations.  Without those connections, electricity providers in other states can't sell power to the beleaguered Tejanos.  Meanwhile, the real failure in electrical generation was a failure of the natural gas fired power plants.  Put succinctly, Texas Republicans are lying about the causes of their constituents' plight, while spending more time shitposting about AOC and the Green New Deal than on getting help for the suffering.  At least Joe Biden, not being a vindictive narcissist, already declared a state of emergency and is sending help.

In the meantime, people are truly suffering, and their suffering is compounded by their lack of knowledge of how to deal with cold weather.  Besides hypothermia, people are dying of carbon monoxide poisoning due to improper use of generators and combustion-based heaters.  People who experience cold winters regularly know to layer clothes, know to cordon off  'warm spaces' with blankets in which to huddle. 

In the meantime, it's a rare tragedy that doesn't offer some comic relief, and here we have a tale of a suburban commando who fancies himself a survivalist, albeit a survivalist who thought he'd rely on an electric can opener.


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Socially Distant Mardi Gras

 About a year ago, in the before times, I celebrated Mardi Gras by going to a local Cajunesque place and having a po'boy before heading off the bar trivia (a Tuesday tradition back in the Old World).  It two weeks before the world came to a stop, but the indications were pointing toward impending disaster.

This year, I'm celebrating a socially distant Mardi Gras.  The first thing I did when I got up was to start cooking the holy trinity, a must for any Cajun or Creole cookery... basically what my grandfather would have recognized as a sofritto.  The plan was to make dirty rice for 'brunch' and put on a pot of red beans for dinner, served as is de rigeur, with white rice.

I have been puttering around the apartment, doing chores all day, and haven't done any deep dives into Cajun or Zydeco music, as I usually try to do.  It's hard to recapture the Mardi Gras high that I reached when I posted about the Louisiana standard Iko Iko.  I have been listening to an appropriate playlist, though, particularly a nice version of Iko Iko by the Neville Brothers, with the Dixie Cups, who had a hit with the song as schoolgirls back in the 1960s:

Now, the chores largely completed, and a blog post practically wrapped up, I;m thinking about thos Beans, simmering on the stovetop.  I've thrown some hamhocks and a couple of 'country spareribs' (actually cut from the shoulder, if I'm not mistaken) into the Dutch oven as well, and have andouille sausage to throw in toward the end of the cooking time.  

With the amount of beans I have cooking, it's a good thing that social distancing is a thing, because I am sure to be impossible to be around after dinner.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Presidents' Day... Which Presidents?

 Ah, yes, Presidents' Day, that most unusual of holidays- originally a portmanteau holiday combining Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays, it's now an ill-defined holiday celebrating all presidents.  Sure, I know most people limit their commemorations to Washington and Lincoln... at least that's what the advertising circulars imply, but aren't Warren G. Harding, Zachary Taylor, and William McKinley also in that august company?  Even James K. Polk has his adherents...  not to mention the recently ejected Occupant of the White House, who some people believe will be return as the 19th President of the United States on March 4th.  Do we really need to lump all of these guys together under the umbrella of 'Presidents' Day'?

That's not even getting into the oddity of having two long holiday weekends during the bitterest weeks of winter.  Unless you are really into furniture sales, Presidents' Day is probably just a day to not change out of one's pajamas, maybe eat an elaborate breakfast that would be impractical to cook on a workday.  Maybe the holiday is a conspiracy by Big Ski to sell equipment and resort package deals.  The only people I know who really made a deal out of Presidents' Day were my great and good friend J-Co and his family.  They would hold a picnic in a local park, no matter what the weather, and make snowballs so they could have a snowball fight on the Fourth of July... I am not making this up, I have actually attended this event.

Looking at the presidential birthday calendar, it would make just as much sense to celebrate Presidents' Day in August or October, months during which people aren't inclined to merely hunker down in their homes nursing mugs of cocoa.  Sure, I know Washington and Lincoln are sentimental favorites, but wouldn't you rather have a day off when you don't need to worry about your car skidding off the road due to an icy patch?

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Love in the Time of COVID

Just in time for Valentine's Day, Governor Cuomo has allowed restaurants in NYC to resume indoor dining. Couples now can worry about pathogens not spread through sexytime, though wearing protection does help in this instance. Personally, I don't know if crème brûlée and candlelight are worth a trip to the ICU when an end to the plague is in sight, so I settled for a Valentine-appropriate meal of sautéed chicken hearts for dinner dans la maison. 

Studies indicate that both divorces and marriages have plummeted during the pandemic. I would guess that people, after some deadly outbreaks traced to weddings, learned their lesson about throwing large scale parties. As for divorces, who wants to change quarantine bubbles at a time like this? Even in matters of amour, the pandemic malaise seems deeply seated. Here's wishing everyone a safe and happy Valentine's Day. I love you all, maybe next year will actually be festive.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

A Foregone Conclusion

I had no illusion that Trump would be convicted in his second impeachment trial, there simply not being enough senators willing to convict the guy. Sure enough, only seven Republicans crossed the aisle to vote 'guilty'. One of them was Mitt Romney, who very well could have been killed by the MAGA mob on 1/6. 

There was value in the impeachment, it made public the harrowing footage of unhinged Trump supporters and laid bare the cowardice, and in some cases complicity, of Republican elected officials. The evidence presented will make for good campaign fodder in 2022 and 2024. If this reeks of political opportunism, so be it- it's an opportunism much more ethical than mustering a mob to overturn an election.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Why Call Off a Crowd He Weaponized?

 The big revelation today is that House minority leader Kevin McCarthy called Donald Trump during the insurrection and begged him to call off the crowd of insurrectionists, and Trump refused to do so, quipping, "Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are."  This is something that an individual completely ignorant of electoral procedures would say... someone who is also a sociopath unconcerned with the safety of others, that is.

I have to note here that two of the Republicans who are criticizing Trump, and who voted for his second impeachment, are Hispanic- they knew all-too-well that they would have faced the wrath of the racist MAGA crowd, their complexions being more salient to the knuckle-draggers than their political affiliations.

Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington had choice words to say about Trump's possible complicity in the insurrection:

"You have to look at what he did during the insurrection to confirm where his mind was at. That line right there demonstrates to me that either he didn't care, which is impeachable, because you cannot allow an attack on your soil, or he wanted it to happen and was OK with it, which makes me so angry.  We should never stand for that, for any reason, under any party flag.  I'm trying really hard not to say the F-word." 
 
Representative  Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio offered a similar observation of Trump's response:

"I think it speaks to the former President's mindset.  He was not sorry to see his unyieldingly loyal vice president or the Congress under attack by the mob he inspired. In fact, it seems he was happy about it or at the least enjoyed the scenes that were horrifying to most Americans across the country." 
 
I have no doubt that  the Senate will fail to convict Trump in the impeachment trial, being spineless, partisan hacks who are terrified of being primaried by the increasingly more unhinged right-wing base.  The impeachment proceedings are worthwhile, even if doomed, simply because the evidence presented, and the reprehensible Republican response, make for powerful political ad material.  Get the horrifying truth out there, and hang it around the necks of the Republican senators- make the voters know that these cretins are their running mates.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Riverkeeper Sails Over the Edge of the World

I used to listen to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr's radio show 'Ring of Fire' on Air America, when Air America was a thing. I liked RFK Jr's take on environmentalism... he's a local guy, and was active in both the Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper organizations that have been so instrumental in cleaning up the Hudson River. Yeah, I could have been considered a fan of the man. 

The Riverkeeper has sailed into Strange Waters, as RFK, Jr has emerged as one of the world's most high profile anti-vaccine cranks, and his stance has gotten him kicked off of Instagram. Casting my mind back, I recall him talking about thimerosal in vaccines, when thimerosal had been removed from childhood vaccines before he crusaded against it. This anti-vax stance rendered his show unlistenable... I couldn't deal with the cognitive dissonance provoked by a pundit who spoke about the deleterious effects of pollution on health AND spoke against vaccines, which were responsible for ending the scourge of deadly diseases such as polio, smallpox, and measles, mumps, and rubella. 

Now, with the world gripped by a global pandemic which has killed nearly half-a-million Americans, anti-vaccination paranoia is pernicious and pervasive- the vaccine contains nanochips so Bill Gates can track you, the vaccine will reprogram your DNA to render you sterile, the vaccine will interact with 5G towers to zap you... and now, the virus will make you gay, like a Alex Jones' frogs. These conspiracy theories are hampering the anti-pandemic response. It's a shame that RFK, Jr decided to fall down this particular rabbit hole after a productive career as an environmentalist. He's sailed completely over the edge from the real world to Cloudcuckooland.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Support Our Asian-American Communities

 I consider myself a staunch multiculturalist.  This position is pretty much congenital, as I am well aware of my own diverse cultural inheritance (with Italian, Irish, Swiss, and French ancestry), and a personal commitment to all of the folkways of my forebears.  Similarly, being a New Yorker, I have been exposed to people from all over the planet, and I revel in being able to interact with them, eating their food, celebrating their holidays, learning about their traditions.  It pains me to note that attacks on individuals of Asian heritage are on the rise:


I actually touched upon the topic of anti-Asian, specifically anti-Chinese bias about a year ago, expressing my solidarity with ALL persons of goodwill who reside in this country. The most repugnant feature of this rash of attacks is that seniors are the targets. There is nothing I despise more than a bully, especially a bigoted bully. I look at the victims of these crimes and I see friends' parents, mentors of mine, neighbors. I may not have the largest platform, but I felt an obligation to amplify this story, to be one of the allies sought by Asian-American communities. Our former divider-in-chief is not out of office, kicked off from social media... it's time we undo the damage he inflicted upon our supposed-to-be United States.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

A Most Historic Occasion

 MAGA diehards often described Donald Trump as a 'historic' president, even though he was the 44th white president, and the 2nd failson president in the 21st century alone... Trump's one great historic achievement was becoming the first president to get impeached twice, with his second impeachment trial moving forward today.

Evan Hurst of Wonkette took on the unenviable task of liveblogging the impeachment proceedings.  The main defense strategy of Trump's defense team is asserting that he cannot be impeached because he is a private citizen, even though the initial impeachment process was started in the House while he was still squatting in the White House.

Representative Jamie Raskin, of Maryland's testimony was an emotional tour de force, detailing the fear that his family members felt as they hear the sound of insurrectionists, incited by Trump, battering on doors in the Capitol.  This is the testimony which will be remembered from this day, from this impeachment trial.

The other memorable moment from today's proceeding was Trump lawyer Bruce Castor advising the Democrats to have Trump arrested by the DoJ, rather than impeached.  This is the kind of legal representation that you get when you have a history of not paying his legal bills.

At the end of the day, fifty-six senators voted to proceed with the impeachment trial, though I am not optimistic about a two-thirds majority of the Senate voting to convict Trump.  It's going to be a long week, though.

Monday, February 8, 2021

A Most Base Act

Perhaps the most disconcerting news item of today is the announcement that hackers gained access to the water system of the city of Oldsmar, Florida, and raised the amount of sodium hydroxide, used to regulate the pH level of tap water, from 100 ppm to 11,100 ppm:


Thankfully, a human operator noticed the tampering and was able to rectify this dangerous situation.

I'm not a big believer in the expansion of the 'Internet of Things'... I mean, why would I ever want my fridge connected to the internet?  I am wondering why this municipal water system in a small city was even accessible to computer hackers... the computer system should have been isolated from vulnerable networks.

Thankfully, a human operator was able to spot the tampering, and there are alarm systems which are activated when dangerous levels of sodium hydroxide are introduced into the system.  I'm not a luddite, but there is no substitute for an alert human observer, or an operator who can override automated systems when they malfunction.  Now, hopefully, human investigators will be able to locate the attackers and bring these base cowards to heel.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

A Day for Athleticism

 This evening, feats of athleticism will be on display as strength and endurance are put to the test... yeah, I'm going to have to shovel snow again.  The snow began falling shortly after I returned home from working the graveyard shift, with about six inches accumulating by storm's end, a welcome contrast from last week's eighteen inches of the stuff.

I woke up about an hour ago, and my first act was to text my coworker to ask him how conditions on the job were- six inches of snow, with no plowing of the parking lot.  Management, because of last year's disastrous finances, did not renew the contract with our usual Mr Plow, and our grounds team has been tasked with snow removal... with the caveat that they work Mondays to Fridays, beginning at 7AM.  My coworker being a beautiful human being (and not wanting to deal with crappy road conditions, I am sure), told me that he would stay overnight, covering my graveyard shift, if I would cover his Monday night shift.  DEAL!   Now I don't have to dig the car out until tomorrow.

To be honest, I didn't even know who was playing in tonight's Superbowl until this morning, when I put on the 'all news/all the time' radio station to keep abreast of the weather forecast.  I don't have a dog in this fight, and nobody I know is even rooting for a particular team- a few friends of mine are participating in a Superbowl pool, and the general consensus is that they would all 'root for the box numbers'.  

I'm betting that I will get the snow cleared from the sidewalk in front of the house without feeling too many aches and pains.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Bad Day for Propagandists

It's quite a distinction, though an ignoble one, to garner the title The Stupidest Man on the Internet, but Jim Hoft, the right wing propagandist knon by the nom de plume 'Gateway Pundit', has managed to earn the moniker. Perhaps his greatest achievement was his publishing of minion Lucian Wintrich's warning that millions of 'antifa supersoldiers would behead 'all white parents' on 11/4/2017. Hoft has finally been booted from Twitter, uspended for repeated violations of Twitter's 'civic integrity policy': Connoisseurs of bad right-wing takes will now have to seek out Hoft in his own internet lair, now that he cannot use Twitter to amplify his outré fabulism. Another right-wing conspiracy theorist, Wayne Allyn Root, was also booted from Twitter: Root isn't quite the troglodyte as Hoft is, but he peddles in the sort of conspiracy theories that inspired the MAGA raid on the Capitol... no sci-fi stories about leftwing commandos wielding deadly soup cans, though. I don't know why Twitter is going after high profile right-wing conspiracy theorists, possibly because of fears of lawsuits, or, less likely, a genuine civic virtue that eschews outright falsehoods. It's a welcome change of policy, after so many years of disinformation from one particular source that I don't even hsve to name.

Friday, February 5, 2021

From Angst in Japan to Alt-Right Rage

I've long maintained that the rise of the alt-right, and ultimately the rise of Donald Trump, were birthed by the misogynistic Gamergate tantrum.  Put succinctly, Gamergate was a backlash against female videogame designers and critics under the ludicrous guise of a call for 'ethics in gaming journalism'.  It metastasized into a broader misogynist backlash, with added racism of course, against any female participation in 'nerd culture'.

The latest QAnon Anonymous Podcast has a great rundown of the 'chan' culture that led to the birth of the online right.  Beginning in Japan with the post-recession nihilism of youth-in-Asia, this farrago of shitposting, 'ironic' bigotry, and one-upsmanship in being outrageous, this culture infected the US in a big way with the creation of 4chan by American teenager Christopher Poole.  When 4chan banned Gamergate related content, many of its more extreme users migrated to 8chan, created by American teenager Fredrick Brennan, who became disgusted by his own creation after it became a venue for mass shooters to post their manifestos.  He features prominently in this podcast.  Also featured in the podcast is Dale Beran, author of It Came from Something Awful, which also chronicles this phenomenon.

It's a good listen, a relatively short explainer about the online radicalization that led to the election of America's first shitposter president, built in the misogynistic, cartoonish image of the internet message boards themselves.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

President Biden Keeps Exceeding Expectations

The most welcome news of the day is the announcement that President Biden will cease American support for the Saudi war against Yemen. if not a genocide, it's something close, and the US arms sales to the Saudi regime were an atrocity. 

President Biden continues to exceed my expectations of him, I would have expected him to follow the post-9/11 model of centrist Democrats being afraid to seem 'weak on national security measures. He also upends that silly 'Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk narrative of a few years back. Trump actually ramped up drone strikes, but that is rarely discussed

The New York metro area is home to a sizeable Yemeni population, and many of our famous bodegas are owned by Yemeni-American families. The grocery store three blocks from my old apartment is owned by a Yemeni family. Four years ago, Yemeni bodega owners famously /a>closed their stores to protest Trump's travel ban, particularly cruel as Trump was enabling the Saudis to murder Yemenis. Biden has now reversed both the travel ban and the arming of the Saudis, signaling a more just, moral foreign policy. 

If he could only wind up the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, I'd be overjoyed.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Sleuthing

One of the most fascinating developments of this year has been the open-source research movement (like Qanon bills itself, but not stupid) that has been identifying the rioters who invaded the Capitol last month. Where the Q-cumbers will start off with a conclusion, such as 'Tom Hanks is a pedophile and use his weird hobby as 'evidence' for his crimes, the Capitol creeps researchers are the real deal. 

One of the best aggregators of this information is physician, veteran, and activist Dr Cleavon Gilman, whose Twitter feed alternates between infuriating profiles of Capitol invaders and heartbreaking profiles of COVID-19 casualties. One of the biggest targets of Dr Gilman's righteous wrath has been the infamous 'bullhorn lady' or 'pink hat lady' who appeared to play a major role in coordinating the Capitol invasion:

 

  

 

Well, the internet sleuths finally identified this individual, a mother of eight from western Pennsylvania. She was identified by Forrest Rogers of the Deep State Dogs research group and University of Toronto researcher John Scott-Railton, betrayed by a distinctive Kate Spade brand phone cover which was cross-indexed with pictures from anti-mask rallies in Pennsyvania:

Ronan Farrow wrote about her path to radicalization for The New Yorker: Her narrative is a familiar tale these days, lifestyle 'influencers' radicalized by the pandemic- she claimed that she was unfairly prevented from working as a distributor of dairy products because of her refusal to wear masks. On further scrutiny, the 'radicalized yoga mom' narrative seems to be a deception, she has a history of using racial slurs on social media, and then there's this:

I realize that a lot of people shoot recreationally, but short-range combat shooting classes  seem like something entirely different.  These people lie constantly, but the truth will come out eventually- I suspect, though, that her defense team will play up the whole motherhood thing.

As of this posting, she is still on the lam (though I would call her a sheep), but I suspect that she will be nabbed soon.  She wasn't quite clever enough to evade the amateurs who sussed out her identity, I doubt she will fare better with the professionals on her tail.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Saw My Shadow

 I have a somewhat complicated relationship with groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, chucks, wood-shocks, groundpigs, whistlepigs, whistlers, thickwood badgers, Canada marmots, monaxes, moonacks, weenusks, red monks, siffleux, and, to the scholarly, (Marmota monax).  Because of this, I have a complicated suite of feelings about Groundhog Day, also known as Imbolc or Candlemas.

Today, the capo di tutti capi of groundhogs, Punxsutawney Phil of the Punxsutawney groundhog crime family, saw his shadow, cursing us to six more weeks of winter weather.  Much of the eastern part of the country being in the middle of a days-long winter storm, death threats against the rodent were rumored to have been made.  I'm not happy with the critter myself, and if the roads weren't so terrible, I'd be tempted to fricassée the little creep.

As for myself, I dragged my ass out of the house around 7AM to shovel the sidewalk in front of the house.  The precipitation had shifted from yesterday's fluffy snow to a snow/sleet mix, so the stuff on the ground (eighteen inches of it) was a lot heavier.  To make things more annoying, it soaked my gloves (I always buy cheap gloves because I always lose the right glove, and have more unmatched gloves than Michael Jackson)... I shoveled until I started to lose feeling in my hands, then quit and placed my gloves on the radiator to dry out and warm up.  An hour later, sensation returned and gloves heated, I resumed shoveling, clearing the alley between my dwelling and the house next door, with an assist from my upstairs neighbor.

While shoveling, I saw my shadow, so I decided to return to my den... if winter continues being this inclement, I might hunker down for the next six weeks.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Thirty-Six Hour Snowmaggedon

 Today, the NYC metro area is in the middle of a 'snowmageddon', a nor'easter which is supposed to last for thirty-six hours and dump about a foot-and-a-half of snow (about 46 centimeters) on the region.  When I left for work on Sunday night, we had already accumulated about four inches (10 centimeters) of snow.  I made my way as expeditiously as possible to the main highway, then drove in the wake of two snowplow/salt spreader trucks, following at a distance of about two hundred feet (61 meters)- not only am I dead-set against tailgating, but if one follows too closely behind a salt-spreader, the particles of rock salt can take the paint right off of the hood of the car.

Last night was uneventful, I was bundled up (I even broke out the flannel-lined jeans for the frigid weather), and hunkered down.  I shoveled snow outside the main building three or four times to make sure that the doors could be opened.

When I left work at 7AM, I walked to the Tarrytown train station and got on the 7:39 to Grand Central Terminal.  The train conductor told me that I was one of only five passengers on this train to Manhattan.  I had the car to myself, a private railcar like that of a 19th Century robber baron.  

When I arrived at Yonkers, I ran to the bus stop just in time to see the 25 bus pulling away from the curb as I ran, arms flailing.  I was pissed off, because I was facing the prospect of waiting another 20 minutes for the next bus.  Fortuitously, another '25' pulled up about a minute later.  Sure, it was poor synchronization, but I wasn't complaining.  Twenty minutes later, and I was home, shoveling the sidewalk in front of the house with my upstairs neighbor.

Luckily, I had put on a big pot of red sauce the night before, so I had a great meal before passing out from exhaustion.  The carbs will come in handy when I go out to shovel snow again... and again... and again.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

This Affinity Scam Has a Silver Lining

 Generally speaking, it's not a good idea to place too much credence in an anonymous 4Chan shitpost. 'Insider' Anons, individuals claiming to have inside information from positions of power in various institutions, have long been a feature of imageboard culture.  In the wake of the recent Game Stop short squeeze, which is motivated as much by rage against hedge funds as it is by pump-and-dump operators, here's an even more ambitious scam masquerading as a short squeeze on silver which is supposed to tank the entire banking sytem:


Gotta dig that over-the-top supervillain dialogue, down to the cliche "You fools." It's the sort of monologuing that wouldn't fool even the most gullible of... oh, dear:

The real problem with shitpost culture is that one can never be sure if a post is in earnest or not. This is the culture that gave us 'ironic racism', which is, you know, racism. Nothing these people write can be taken at face value. Conservatives are especially susceptible to precious-metal trading scams, remember this asshole

I suspect that, in the case of this accelerationist wet dream of tanking the entire banking system, the scam artists are playing on the rubes' belief in NESARA, a pipe dream perfectly explained in this letter to the editor. A financial reset is integral to the QAnon 'Great Awakening', so it is to be expected that a bunch of affinity scams of a financial nature will spring up in the wake of the failure of the anonymous Q's prediction that Trump would win the 2020 presidential election in a landslide.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

MTG Is Not Playing With a Full Deck

 Ah, Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Cloudcuckooland)... what can we say about this QAnon obsessed freshman congresscritter?  She has come under intense scrutiny for her role in the 1/6 Capitol invasion, having amplified the 'stolen election' narrative, even stating that House Speaker Pelosi should be executed, but she's always been trash.  A decent human being does not stalk and harangue a youth whose classmates were murdered in order to push an anti-gun control agenda.

Greene has never met a conspiracy theory she doesn't like, from 9/11 trutherism to the Borg-like QAnon conspiracy complex which has assimilated other conspiracy theories in a Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory.  Perhaps the most outré conspiracy theory that Greene has pushed is straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Cylon, an assertion that the Rothschilds and George Soros used lasers to ignite the 2018 California wildfires:

 



Conspiracy theories always eschew the solutions with the most parsimonious explanation, operating not on the principle of Occam's Razor, but of Jones' Gluegun... the wildfires could not have been caused by a cigarette carelessly tossed out of a moving car, or lightning, they were started by Jews in Space.  Yeah, conspiracy theories inevitably end up in antisemitic tropes, which makes them cease to be fun.

As I noted, Greene has always been trash.  It's noteworthy that she ran unopposed in the general election because her Democratic opponent dropped out of the race due to the death threats he received.  I doubt that she will be ejected from Congress, a two-thirds vote being needed to accomplish that.  Also, she's the face of the Republican party now, the culmination of decades of conspiratorial-minded lunacy begun by the John Birch Society, and spiraling downward through Bill Cooper and Alex Jones to the current 4Chan/8Chan/8Kun ecosystem of anonymous shitposters.  She'll be the House minority leader by year's end.

About the post title, I realize that Marjorie Taylor Greene is dubbed MTG on Twitter in order to save characters, but the abbreviation also smacks of an odious attempt to cast her as a right-wing 'counterpart' to AOC.  MTG is also the abbreviation for the collectible card game Magic the Gathering, wildly popular in the 1990s.  I never played it, but it sounds like a Pokémon game for the Dungeons and Dragons set... it's adjacent to my nerd interests, but not among them.  From what I've heard, victory in the game depends on some extent to the size of one's collection of cards, which causes a consumption spiral as fanatic players stack their decks with new purchases.  At any rate, the MTG of the post title clearly isn't playing with a full deck.

Friday, January 29, 2021

In the Deep Freeze

The Northeast is gripped in a polar vortex, so temperatures here in the New York metro area are now hovering around 18F (-8C), accompanied by high winds that make it feel like 3F (-16C).  I took the flannel-lined jeans out of storage today for the occasion.  Wearing a mask helps while outside, it's not just for in-store wear anymore, and topping off with a scarf is now de rigeur.

On the work front, Ginger is on vacation at the home of one of our managers for the duration of the Deep Freeze, so I have a chance to brush the cat hair off of my backpack.  At home, my upstairs neighbor, cursed with a poorly insulated pipe close to an exterior bathroom wall, has to flush the toilet with water poured from a bucket filled in the sink... our landlady told her, "It'll get warmer soon."  In her defense, our landlady hasn't had the best time during the pandemic, she has a unit in upper Manhattan that lost a couple of tenants to the pandemic exodus from NYC.  The last time this happened, she had to hire a handyman to come by with a torch to quickly unfreeze the pipe, then set up a heater inside the wall to keep the flow going... not the sort of solution that can be sustained for long.

It's supposed to get warmer come Monday, though the warming is expected to be accompanied by a snowstorm.  I really shouldn't complain, it's winter in my beloved New York metro area, and this sort of weather is to be expected.  I can get through this, with my fancy flannel pants and a couple of layers of shirts under my water-resistant hoodie... at least I don't have to flush the toilet with a bucket.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Yet Another Bastard Favorite Has Exited Stage Left

 I learned of Cloris Leachman's passing, at the age of 94, via Tengrain.  Tengrain noted that Ms Leachman's knack for comedy was flawless.  I mean, who could beat this timing?

My favorite Cloris Leachman role is her amazing performance as Christina in the 1955 noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, which, if pressed, I would claim as my favorite movie.  The movie opens with Cloris, barefoot and clad only in an overcoat, using a desperate gambit to stop a motorist, the movie's protagonist:

 

While her screentime is relatively brief, Cloris Leachman's performance exudes charm and wit, contrasting well with Ralph Meeker's laconic, somewhat brutish Mike Hammer.  The dialogue is fantastic, and her delivery is perfect:

Christina: You're angry with me, aren't you? Sorry I nearly wrecked your pretty little car. I was just thinking how much you can tell about a person from such simple things. Your car, for instance.
Hammer: Now, what kind of a message does it send ya?
Christina: You have only one real lasting love.
Hammer: Now who could that be?
Christina: You. You're one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard.
Hammer: You against good health or somethin'?
Christina: I could tolerate flabby muscles in a man who may be more friendly. You're the kind of a person who never gives in a relationship - who only takes. (Sardonically) Ah, woman, the incomplete sex. And what does she need to complete her? (Mocking) Why, man, of course. A wonderful man.

She steals the scene that she's in, using the same chops which made her such an effective comedic actor.  Her charismatic performance makes her (no spoiler warning needed, this is a noir, after all) Very Bad End at the hands of Very Bad Men all the more upsetting. 

Cloris Leachman's body of work is vast, spanning decades, with diverse roles, so I know how I'm going to pass some of my downtime this weekend.  Her turn in Kiss Me Deadly was her first major role, and while not as iconic as her turn playing Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein or Phyllis Lindstrom in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it was a harbinger of things to come.  It's a performance that I can watch repeatedly, and I shall.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Secret Science Club Zoom Lecture: Perchance to Dream

 Tonight, I am participating in a Zoom lecture with my great and good friends of the Secret Science Club.  Tonight's lecture features sleep researchers Dr Antonio Zadra, professor of psychology at the Université de Montréal and a researcher at the Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine, and Dr Robert Stickgold, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition. Drs Zadra and Stickgold are the authors of When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science & Mystery of Sleep

Dr Zadra began the lecture by joking that he and Dr Stickgold would be running the lecture like a tag-team wrestling match- he would set the stage and Dr Stickgold would wrestle the topic into submission.  He then posed the question: why study dreams?  We all dream, and these vivid experiences are usually quickly forgotten.  What are the origins and meanings of dreams?  Dreams are as old as humankind and feature in literature, philosophy, and medicine.  Both as a concept and an experience, dreams are trickier than most people imagine.  Dreams are often dismissed... "it's just a dream" is a common rejoinder to a dreamer.  It takes a while to understand what dreams are.

Dr Zadra noted that his five year old nephew had a pretty good handle on what dreaming is all about, believing that dreams occurred before his eyes.  Questioning the lad, he'd tell him that his eyes were closed while he was dreaming, resulting in consternation.  He joked that, now that he has children of his own, he doesn't have to torment his nephews. 

Most preschoolers believe that dreams are real, that they originate outisde the body, and can be seen by others.   Usually by ages six to eight, children realize that dreams are private, originate in the mind, and cannot be perceived by others.

An understanding of dreams requires the ability to distinguish between real and imagined event.s  Narcolepsy effects the sleep-wake cycle and can interfere with this distinction.  False awakenings, a dream that an individual has awakened, also occur.  Confusion between dreams and reality can manifest themselves in different ways.  Among our ancestors, supernatural causes were often posited to explain dreams

 Thre are challenges to studying dreams.  Being private, dreams cannot be studied, only dream reports.  An analogy is that pain is difficult to study, patients must describe pain for physicians to study it.

There is no real consensus about what counts as a dream.  A broad view of dreaming encompasses everything from fragmented, thought-like dreams to sweeping, epic dreams with dramatic imagery and emotional content.

In sleep labs, heart rates and brain patterns can be measured. Patients can be awakened soon after REM sleep to increase retention of dreams.  Home dream journals and questionnaires can also be used to study dream reports.  Dream reports can study settings, characters (real or imagined), social interactions, emotions, bizarreness, length.  

Four questions drive dream research.  What are dreams?  Where do they come from?  What do they mean?  What are they for?  Dr Zadra then turned over the lecture to Dr Stickgold.

Dr Stickgold started his lecture by stating that he would address the cognitive nature of dreams.  He described dreams as 'memory evolution'.  During the day, we form memories, but have little time to process them.  We 'file them away', but these memories evolve overnight, over a lifetime.  In one experiment, subjects typed a number sequence over and over, in a thirty second cycles interspersed with thirty seconds of rest for twelve minutes.  They would be sent away for twelve hours and return, if they conduct the test at night and re-test in the morning, their performance improves in terms of speed and accuracy.  Given a more complex task, a number reduction problem, ten percent of the subjects figure out a shortcut to figuring out the pattern (Dr Stickgold joked that they are taken out back and shot).  Given a period of sleep and re-tested in the morning, subjects are two and a half times better at discerning the pattern.

Dr Stickgold's student Erin Wamsley tested subjects with a maze problem.  Individuals allowed to sleep performed better the following morning.  She also had her subjects report dreams.  Subjects reporting no dreams didn't get faster at performing the task.  Subjects who dreamed about the maze solved it an average of three minutes faster, using one hundred fewer grid movements.  Subjects reported dreaming about swimming above the maze, seeing everything, or looking for a friend in the maze, or being in a real labyrinth, such as a hedge maze.

Drs Stickland and Zadra formed the NEXT UP model of dreaming: Network exploration to explore possibilities.  Dreams are related to memories of recent events.  Dreams don't just replay memories.  Our dreams search for, discover, and activate related memories.  Most sleep dependent memory processing serves to extract information from recent memories, seeking answers.  Dreaming seeks possibilities, potential uses of memories.

Dr Stickland then moved to the subject of dream cycles, a brief onset of sleep, then cycles of slow wave sleep and rapid eye movement sleep throughout the night.  Different stages of sleep play different roles in memory evolution.  Different stages of sleep have impacts on different memory tasks, such as word pairs, motor skill tasks, or emotional memory tasks.  Sleep onset identifies and 'tags' memories for processing.  Non REM sleep explores strong associations.  REM sleep involves the exploration of weaker, more distant associations.  

The hard problem of dreaming is the question of are we talking about dreaming or about the underlying processes.  Why can't this processing take place in the background of consciousness.  Consciousness can be described as a 'gimmick' evolution gave us as a new means to solving problems.  It creates the world of the imagination, the world of planning and prediction.  A crucial value of sleep is to discover and evaluate previously unexpected associations in our minds.

Dr Zadra then took the mic in the tag-team match and returned to the NEXT UP model, which helps to explain recurrent dreams, nightmares, lucid dreams, and even dreams which seem to predict the future.  He likened dreaming to an artist who creates a work, then asks people to interpret the art, which is what people often do with dreams.  There is no 'one true meaning' to any dream.  To understand a dream, the artist, the dreamer, must be involved in the analysis.  Working with dreams can be useful in a therapeutic context- it can contribute to the alliance between therapist and patient, increase client involvement in therapy, enhance the understanding of the clinical progress, and improve patient well-being.

Dr Zadra advised us in remembering dreams- he advised us to close our eyes and review everything before recording the dream.  Once recorded, the dream can be re-read and re-examined.  Then you can explore the meaning- the images and emotions, the settings and people or animals encountered.  What associations come to mind?  Do your dreams remind you of things that you are experiencing?

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session.  The first question involved talking in one's sleep... could sleep apnea be a factor?  Sleep talking can occur in all stages of sleep, and can be in the form of gibberish, or be articulate.  One's statements can be related or unrelated to a dream, and can hear others and respond to them.  Sleep talking has no disruptive effects on sleep, and has no connection to sleep apnea.  Another question regarded lucid dreaming- there are practices during wakefulness to foster it, and gadgets of dubious value marketed to improve it.  Lucid dreaming draws a lot of attention and is learnable, but learning it is difficult.  What are factors in remembering dreams and are dreams really in grayscale, rather than in color.  Dr Stickgold noted that remembering dreams is best done by lying down.  People usually don't have the opportunity to remember dreams- they fall asleep quickly without hypnogogic dreams, they sleep deeply, and wake suddently to an alarm clock.  He suggested drinking a lot of water to cause one to wake up during the night.  Some people dream in gray but others dream in color.  Dr Zadra interjected that people who remember dreams often experience micro-awakenings, then mentioned that, until recently, people didn't report dreaming in grayscale.  Perhaps the advent of black and white photography had an effect on this perception.  Perhaps colors are not registered as important parts of dreams.  Some bastard in the audience asked how dreams affect our sensory cortices- these areas of the brain are activated during dreaming, but it is unclear if these activations are important.  The memories that are recalled activate the visual and auditory circuits and this might strengthen the sensory encoding of these memories.  Answering another question, Dr Stickgold indicated that his biggest regret was not studying the connection between memory and dreams until Erin Wamsley devised the maze test.  Another question regarded sleep among animals- sleep occurs throughout the animal kingdom.  Even fruit flies sleep, and mice and rats (and even fish) display sleep-dependent learning.  We have to shut down every so often and process information- what we learn during the day is the easy part, it makes us smart, but learning how to process the information requires sleep- that's what makes us wise.  Another questioner noted that she kicks when she sleeps- while in REM sleep, the body experiences muscle paralysis, but some individuals experience REM sleep behavior disorder, in which they can leap out of bed (this is distinct from sleep walking) or otherwise act out dream behaviors. 

Once again, the Secret Science Club has served up a dream of a lecture.  Kudos to Drs Zadra and Stickgold, and Dorian and Margaret.  Both Dr Stickgold and Dr Zadra have videos posted on YouTube.  Pour yourself a beverage, sit back, and soak in that SCIENCE!!!