Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Secret Science Club Zoom Lecture Recap: The Last Stargazers

Tonight, my great and good friends of the Secret Science Club are presenting a Zoom lecture with astronomer and astrophysicist Dr Emily Levesque of the University of Washington.  Dr Levesque's new book is The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy's Vanishing Explorers.  Dr Levesque has used some of the most sophisticated telescopes, including using NASA's SOFIA flying observatory.

Dr Levesque has studied the birth and death of the most massive stars.  The Last Stargazers is her first popular science book.  She noted that 2020 was a difficult year for releasing books, and noted that, at a library association meeting, the topic of the importance of first lines in books are extremely important.  She joked that the first line of her book is: "Have you tried turning it off and on again?"  It was uttered to her while she was a 24 year old grad student working at the Mauna Kea observatory on her PhD thesis on the topic of the environments where stars were dying.  There was an unsettling 'bloonk' noise, and the technician noted that she thought it was okay, because she didn't hear the crash of the mirror falling off its supports.  In a worst-case scenario, the secondary mirror would crash into the huge primary mirror (about nine meters in diameter).

She was the astronomer in charge and she'd heard horror stories about the destruction of telescopes, such as the Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia.  She knew that leaving the telescope would mean giving up research time if it were a false alarm, but if there was a worse case scenario, she would have presided over the breaking of the world's largest piece of glass.

Dr Levesque noted that images of space are beautiful and fire the public imagination.  She briefly touched on the image of the astronomer as a man in a white lab coat, an image she wants to supplant.  She wanted to be a scientist ever since she was a six year-old.  The summer after her second year as a physics student in MIT, she worked at the Kitt Peak observatory.  She was advised by her professors' colleagues to make sure to drink coffee, but not too much, to remember to order a nighttime lunch, and was warned that there were scorpions that matched the color of the carpets.  She listened to stories of lightning strikes and raccoon run-ins, and was itching to make stories of her own.  These stories of behind the scenes adventures make up her book.

Dr Levesque had adventures of her own while writing the book, visiting telescopes and labs she'd worked in before, interviewing fellow astronomers.  She's not an investigative reporter, but she figured out how to glean stories from researchers, and piece together a common thread

What is your most memorable observing story, whether firsthand or tenth-hand?  She wanted not only anecdotes, but legends of the field, such as the Green Bank collapse.  One major topic of interest was a 2007 discovery by the Parkes Observatory in Australia of weird radio bursts, a strange signal to encounter.  The data was filed away to be researched later.  A lot of things give off latent radio signals, such as cell phones, spark plugs, all sorts of electronics.  A grad student, Emily Petrov, decided to research these mysterious signals, dubbed Perytons.  A lot of these Perytons occurred around lunchtime, so the microwave was considered suspect.  The scientists acted like astronomers, not hungry people opening the microwave a bit early, which was detected by the radio telescope as a Peryton... except for the initial burst, which was determined to come from Elsewhere.  These fast radio bursts occasionally occur, and might emanate from dying stars.

In the case of the LIGO gravitational-wave observatory, which uses miniscule (1/1000th of the diameter of a proton) 'squishing' of the arms of the observatory to detect gravitational waves.  The sensors are good at filtering out signals from trucks or footsteps, but one hot summer, suspicious readings were apparent- due to iced over pipes of liquid nitrogen.  Local ravens were pecking the ice condensed on the pipes as a source of water in the eastern Washington desert.  The raven was caught in the act, and measures were taken to prevent these peckings from occurring in the future.

What would surprise people the most about our jobs?  One major thing is that the telescopes now in use typically don't have eyepieces.  Also, the job is more exciting than most people would realize.  Dr Levesque mentioned the SOFIA flying observatory, a plant-mounted infrared telescope.  Infrared light often doesn't reach the Earth's surface, it bounces off of atmospheric water vapor.  SOFIA is above that layer, and Dr Levesque used the telescope to research dying stars.  She noted how excited six year old her would have been about the prospect of flying in an experimental plane over Antarctica and seeing the Southern Lights.  She talked with astronomers who did research at the South Pole and up in Svallbard.  She talked about astronomers using weather balloon mounted telescopes.  She mentioned George Carruthers, inventor of ultraviolet cameras, including one transported on Apollo 16 to the moon.   She also mentioned Doug Geisler, who on May 18, 1980 at the U of Washington's Manastash Ridge observatory, having a lovely clear night... the next day, he woke in the midst of an ash cloud resulting from the Mt St Helens eruption, which resulted in a lost night of observation.

How has astronomy changed since you began observing?  The biggest answer was improving technology.  Up until the 1980s, images were made using thin glass plates covered in silver nitrate.  Kodak would send many plates, but they had to be cut to size and tweaked to improve image quality before being inserted into telescope cameras one-by-one.  Amazing research was conducted using these plates.  Astronomers using these glass plates figured out the shape of the universe.  Now, digital images are created, the difference is incomparable, with dust being visible, and the shape of a galaxy's arms being detailed beautifully.  The work of astronomers has differed- astronomers used to have to apply for observation time, and travel to observatories.  Now, telescopes such as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory under construction in Chile, will be taking continual images of the night sky through an automated process.  Dr Levesque and her colleagues don't have to apply to use the data, they can just log in and download data.  The adventure and experience will be differed, involving fewer scorpions and raccoon encounters

Dr Levesque brought up the topic of Thorne-Zytkow objects, binary stars orbiting each other, in the process of dying.  One star will collapse into a neutron star and get swallowed by the companion, which transforms into a red giant with a core replaced by the neutron star.  Dr Levesque's team discovered a potential Thorne–Żytkow object using the Las Campanas observatory in Chile.

This wouldn't have been discovered using the pre-programmed Rubin observatory, but the Rubin observatory can provide data which can prove to be Thorne-Zytkow objects.  Giant observators such as Rubin are needed, as are smll mountaintop observatories, SOFIA type creative telescopes, and radio telescopes.  Curious stargazers are needed as well as computational processes.  We must combine these approaches to continue the process of discovery.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session.  The first question involved the depiction of celestial phenomena in art, such as a 1054 supernova depicted on a cave painting, the supernova that resulted in the Crab Nebula.  Are any of these telescopes open to the public?  Kitt Peak observatory in Arizona and Mauna Kea were open to the public during the day, but nighttime visits are off-limits because of light polution from headlights.  Another question involved Vera Rubin's discovery of dark matter through observational methods- at the time, women couldn't be lead researchers, though they had made many astronomical discoveries at the time- Vera Rubin noted gravitational anomalies that proved dark matter existed.  Regarding the imaging of a black hole, the discovery was made by 'a telescope the size of the entire planet', an array of radio telescopes worldwide that obtained that fuzzy donut picture that everybody loves.

Some Bastard in the audience asked about the James Webb Space Telescope, infrared telescope in space, in a cold, dark place far from Earth.  This telescope will be invaluable for studying dying stars.  Recently, Betelgeuse dimmed because it puffed off a cloud of dust that is bright in infrared.  This is going to fill an important niche in studying dying stars, it's the telescope that might find evidence of extrasolar life, it will look further and further back in time than other telescopes.  All astronomers are excited about the 'first light' from this telescope.

Another question involved the collapse of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.  She had never visited Arecibo, though it was on her list.  She received a lot of anecdotes about Arecibo, but it collapsed the year after she released the book.  It was an unparalleled tragedy in the astronomical world... Arecibo detected the first evidence of planets around other stars.  It's the dream of many astronomers to rebuild the observatory.

Another question involved the role of time as well as distance- the universe is about 13.8 billion years old... the naked eye can see objects 400 light years away, from 400 years ago.  As telescopes become more powerful, they reveal the universe at older time periods.

How about extraterrestrials?  Every astronomer dreams of discovering it.  Even Dr Levesque had a moment when she encountered a weird signal at an observatory in the Netherlands, but then realized  that the signal was stronger closer to the admin building, so it was probably someone heating up a stroopwaffel or sending a fax.  She joked that the best phrase in science is not "Eureka!", but "That's weird!"  There are people working on the alien issue, and if they ever discover evidence of aliens, they won't be able to keep it secret.

What pending discoveries is Dr Levesque excited about?  The possibility of detecting life, even intelligent life...  Observing black holes...  Gravitational wave detction... The ability to go from 'we found this one weird thing' to a data driven approach.

How about multi-telescope arrays, interferometry (the use of interference to make multiple telescopes act as one) has to involve closely tracking multiple telescopes such as the Event Horizon Telescope under difficult conditions (such as shifting ice near an Antarctic telescope).  Astronomers dream of setting up an observatory on the Moon and syncing it up with a terrestrial telescope.

How about crowdsourcing science with programs such as Zooniverse, in which citizen scientists can identify different galaxies, such as spiral or elliptical galaxies.  A new form of galaxy was distinguished by citizen scientists.

Where in the universe would Dr Levesque want to go?  She can't pick one place, she wants to discover all sorts of weird stars, but she would love to visit Betelgeuse and that Thorne-Zytkow object she discovered.

Another question involved light pollution, which is an unfortunate occurrence.  There was also the topic of Starlink satellites interfering with observations of the night sky.  These passing satellites rob astronomers of data, producing radio light as well as reflecting visible light.  Astronomers have no say in the regulation of satellite launches, and want to fix the problem of running out of space in space, fundamentally changing the appearance of the night sky.

Another question involved the observed expansion of the universe- distant galaxies appear to be speeding away from us, with more distant galaxies moving at a faster rate.  This discovery was made by Edwin Hubble, using those glass plates.  The best way to determine the possible fate of the universe is through using the Hubble Space Telescope to measure the expansion.  This conundrum has been extremely contentious among astrophysicists, and some evidence (numbers not agreeing) suggests that the expansion might have changed over time.

Regarding getting involved in science, Dr Levesque suggested taking all of the math and computer science you can.  For astronomical observations, a simple pair of binoculars and astronomy apps on your phone are a good start- no need for expensive telescopes.

Who is regulating what goes up into space, if not scientists.  The FCC regulates it, though Dr Levesque notes that there is a conflict of interests.  Scientists and people driven by profits should both be involved.  The American Astronomical Society should get involved to sort out this chaotic situation (a rich enough person can launch a car into space).

Once again, the Secret Science Club has dished out a fantastic lecture.  Dr Levesque's enthusiasm for the topic was infectious, and she hit what I call the 'Secret Science Sweet Spot', that blend of hard science, adventure narrative, and advocacy.  Kudos to Dr Levesque, and Dorian and Margaret for a fun, informative program.  For a taste of the Secret Science Club experience, here is a video of Dr Levesque lecturing on this topic:

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

Monday, May 30, 2022

Memorial Day 2022

I've always felt conflicted about Memorial Day- it's an odd holiday, one meant for somber reflection on those who lost their lives, ideally, in defense of this nation, but which in reality is about cookouts and the initial beach trip of the season.  I don't begrudge people engaging in fun stuff on a day meant for solemnity- it's not as if Americans have a lot of national holidays to begin with.  Still, it's a weird contrast of stated purpose and actual practice.  Maybe the holiday should be moved to a more somber month... 

This year, though, Memorial Day is extra weird.  Currently, the US is not involved in a large, publicized shooting war for the first time in twenty years (though there's no doubt we're involved in sub rosa conflicts around the globe).  Sure, we are providing 'lethal aid' to the beleaguered Ukrainians, but American service personnel aren't be shot at in earnest.  American civilians are, though... Gone are the collections of photographs of military members killed in action, replaced by collections of photos of slain grocery shoppers and schoolchildren.

The real war is at home, the constant ache of mass shootings, the murders and maimings of ordinary Americans trying to perform ordinary, everyday tasks.  I've come to the conclusion that the victims should be memorialized along with those killed in war overseas... and you can be damn sure that I someday hope for a domestic Armistice Day.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Showy Critter Blending In

It's one of the showiest critters present at my principle worksite, but sometimes it's in a location in which it blends in beautifully...  Here is our resident great blue heron (Ardea herodias) nicely camouflaged against a backdrop of rocks on the bank of our small onsite river/brook:

It's not so easy to make out this large, showy bird, is it?  Normally extremely shy, this heron seems to be getting accustomed to the human presence.  Typically, it would take off, squawking in desultory fashion, whenever I approached within twenty meters, but now it's not so shy.  A couple of days ago, I sat about fifteen meters from it and watched it as it preened its feathers, showing no sign of imminent flight.  I'd post pictures, but they show a prominent feature of my worksite in the background, and I'm a bit circumspect about identifying my location.  

I wonder if this great blue heron is getting less shy because it's not cool with the black-crowned night heron grabbing the prime fishing spot on the premises.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Puffed-Up Pavo

Longtime readers will know that one of my workplaces is home to a large flock of wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo).  Today, when I arrived at work, one of the male turkeys was in full 'Thanksgiving card' mode, trying to impress the lady turkeys with his impressive plumage:


 From the back, one can see the 'architecture' of the tail display, with its prominent  radiating quills:

The post title takes its name from the Spanish word for turkey, which is based on the generic name for the peacock. Sir Alec Issigonis, the designer of the Mini Cooper, famously said "a camel is a horse designed by committee."  I would assert that a turkey is a peacock designed by committee- it has a sleek, subtly colored body on which a grotesque vulture head is grafted.

I'm hoping the mating season lasts a while, because it is comical to see these birds puffed up in such dramatic fashion.  They are a picturesque addition to this charming spot, especially when they strut about in such fancy dress.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Goodbye Good Fella

It's just another bummer item in a bummer week, but Ray Liotta's death at the age of 67 was a nasty surprise.  Tengrain predicted that everyone is going to go with Goodfellas, and I'm going to be predictable here.  I'm neither much of a cinephile or much of a ranked lists guy, but if I were pressed, I'd have to say that Goodfellas is definitely in my top ten movies of all time... 

Despite the brutal violence depicted in this movie about evil men, the film manages to have improbably comic moments, with Ray Liotta playing the role of straight man, as in this iconic scene, in which he literally plays off a funny guy:

Liotta-as-Henry-Hill also serves as Virgil, leading the audience deeper into the circles of Hell, introducing us to the outlandish cast of devils... expository voiceover isn't really supposed to work in films, but the script, and Liotta's delivery, was perfect:

Liotta's narration also made mundane scenes, such as the prison cooking scene, into highlights of the film...  I'm not the only one who has recreated this sauce at home, using the 'very good system' for slicing the garlic:

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is stolen by Martin Scorcese's mom, with the line about Henry Hill 'not talking too much' being a nice bit of foreshadowing:

Ray's best scene in this movie of perfect vignettes is the climax, in which Henry Hill has a no-good, rotten day.  He conveys a harried paranoia as he mixes ordinary tasks with his criminal enterprises:


The details are what make the scene for me, with a lovely amount of detail given to Henry's cooking 'Sunday gravy' for his brother, followed by an equally enticing dinner scene:


Liotta conveys a lot of emotions in this scene as a counterpart to his matter-of-fact narration: paranoia, frustration with his superstitious accomplice, glee at tricking his girlfriend, and finally, a wry social commentary about the police who finally arrest him.   It's a bravura performance, perhaps my favorite scene in any movie.

Sure, Ray Liotta made other movies, and excelled in them, whether making emotional content for guys, or creeping out audiences.  At least he went out in his sleep, while filming a movie, and didn't have to live out the rest of his life like an average nobody, like a schnook.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

International Talk Like a Jack Vance Character Day 2022

Today, we eschew the quotidian dialectical paradigms to commemorate the esteemed Jack Vance.  We heap encomia on the departed grandmaster, and emulate the diction of his fictional creations.  Today is a day for rodomontade and braggadocia, for remonstrating with mountebanks, and fulminating against churls and hoydens.  Use your sagacity to overcome obstreperous mooncalves and caitiffs!

 Musicians, ply your euterpean arts to perform panegyrics... let your ukuleles and kazoos ring out!


There is time tomorrow to return to mundane modes of communication, but today, we dazzle with declamations, baffle with blatherskite, and confound with corruscating conversation!

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Meddling With the Primal Forces of Nature

Hungary's fascist head-of-stat Viktor Orbán is riding high these days.  He just won a fifth term in office and he hosted CPAC, the fascist freakshow of American movement conservatism.  It's no wonder that he's feeling a bit spicy, but I feel that he's about to experience a major setback:

Orbán assumed wartime powers due to the Russia-Ukraine war and is planning to use national security as a pretense for making multinational corporations pay a percentage of their 'excess profits' into Hungary's coffers to fight inflation and build up the military.  While I am somewhat sympathetic to the idea of clawing back 'excess profits' from multinational corporations to fund government, I don't believe Orbán is operating out of good faith.  At any rate, I don't see this turning out well for him or his regime.

Put succinctly, Orbán has meddled with the primal forces of nature.  I can easily see multinational corporations simply pulling out of Hungary.  I can even see him getting fragged by mercenaries on the payroll of Coca-Cola or Disney.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Getting Damned Sick and Tired of This Story

It's happened again, a week and a half after the last headline-grabbing massacre (one of many that occurred that week)... another mass shooting, this one killing fourteen elementary school students and a teacher.  The shooter was an 18 year old high school student from the same town, Uvalde, Texas.  It's monstrous that someone that age, indeed any age, would kill little kids.

As sad as I am, I have to note that I am fortunate to know many kindhearted and responsible teenagers.  My upstairs neighbor's children are very good at helping their mom watch over the gaggle of kids that descend upon their place every afternoon while their parents are still at work.  They help watch over a coterie of younger children, and ensure that everybody is well looked-out-for.  

I also have to pay my respects to the teenage counselors who work at the athletic program in which I am a volunteer coach.  These youths, many of whom came up through the program, and who I have known for years, are responsible for looking after the kids in the program, making sure they move from class to class in orderly fashion, and chaperoning them on water and bathroom breaks.  I really can't say enough for these caring, responsible young women and men.

It breaks my heart to read of teenage mass murderers.  I'm not a naive person, but it boggles my mind that boys (yeah, it always seems to be boys) could be so cruel, and could obtain the instruments of death so easily.  How did their parents, and our society as a whole, fail so that these killers are produced?

It's a conundrum, and one which our society seems particularly blasé about trying to solve.  I'm not in the mood to watch the coverage, with the same empty calls for thoughts and prayers.  I wouldn't even describe my feeling as déjà vu, because that would imply that this is a discrete prior feeling I've experienced before, whereas this is a continual occurrence, without even time for recovery.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Hey, There IS a Genocide Going On

The stated motive for the Buffalo shooter was his fear of  'white genocide', a conspiracy theory which states that Jews are trying, through immigration policies, to reduce the percentage of white people in the United States, resulting in a browner, 'more docile' population that they can control.  It's all a lot of bullshit, but there IS a genocide going on in certain regions of the US (hint: most of them).

Of course, this genocide is not being waged against white people:

“About a third of our population is African American; African Americans have a higher incidence of maternal mortality. So, if you correct our population for race, we’re not as much of an outlier as it’d otherwise appear,” Sen. Bill Cassidy said in an interview with POLITICO for the Harvard Chan School of Public Health series Public Health on the Brink. “Now, I say that not to minimize the issue but to focus the issue as to where it would be. For whatever reason, people of color have a higher incidence of maternal mortality.”

Cassidy is basically saying that African-Americans aren't 'real' members of Louisiana's population.  He has no intention of addressing maternal mortality among people of color.  This dehumanization and callousness toward death among the out group are classic features of a genocidal campaign.  The real sick thing about this is that Cassidy belongs to a party which has been pushing the white genocide nonsense.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Reminds Me of a Song

At my principle work site, we have had the presence of red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) for as long as I can remember, but sightings aren't all that common because the animals are clever and shy.  Every so often, though, I'll see a flash of tapeta lucida at night or hear their unheimlich screams at night.  It is a rare, lucky occurrence when one catches a glimpse of one of these elegant critters in the light of early evening:

Now, THAT is an elegant little beast, dressed in its colorful finery.  

Seeing this glam animal, I immediately thought of glam rock:

The classics are classic for a reason, and the red fox, that 'dog hardware running cat software' is a true classic.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Pizzeria Pep Talk

Thursday night, after bar trivia, I decided that I wanted dessert, so I walked across the street to the pizzeria to get a slice.  Katonah Avenue in the Bronx is part of the tavern district in my neighborhood, which straddles the Bronx/Yonkers border, so there were quite a few revelers out and about.  Standing in front of the pizzeria was a slender-rangy red-haired Irish guy, who I'm going to say was exactly 21.  He was a friendly fellow, who gave me a greeting as I passed by.

I entered the pizzeria and approached the counter.  As I did so, a drunk, but not impaired, woman sidled up to me and slipped her arm under mine.  She gave me a sidelong glance and told me that the neighborhood was terrible.  I noticed the pizzaiolo rolling his eyes.  

She continued, "Everybody in this neighborhood hates me.  I'm the dumb c___ of the neighborhood."

I admonished her, "Don't be down on yourself.  If you're not in your own corner, nobody else will be."

At this point, the young Irishman entered the pizzeria.  I asked him, :"How long have you been in New York?"

He answered, "Three days!  I've from Cavan, THE STICKS!"

I replied, "Welcome to New York, welcome to the Bronx."

Then I turned to the woman and said, "The whole neighborhood doesn't hate you.  There's a lot of turnover in this neighborhood.  He's been here only three days, wait a couple of weeks and it'll be a completely different neighborhood!"

This is particularly true of the summer, when young Irish folks, on school break, come to New York to work in construction, or the restaurant/bar industry.  I'm sure my Cavan chum will find work helping one of the local immigrant carpenters or floor installers, or he'll find work as a barback.

This observation of neighborhood turnover seemed to mollify the self-deprecating lady, or at least to confuse her.  It was a weird sort of pep talk, a Bronx sort of pep talk, and I hope it worked.

In the interest of full disclosure, it was also a pep talk for the neighborhood, which I love.  Everybody in the neighborhood likes me.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Gonna Disagree with John Bellairs on This One

Longtime readers will know that one of my all-time favorite novels is The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs, who went on to become a bestselling author of creepy, 'gothic' young adult fiction.  The Face in the Frost, written for an adult audience, presages Bellairs' later works by combining whimsical humor with genuinely unsettling set pieces- he puts his good-hearted, good-humored protagonists into increasingly unnerving situations, achieving a creeping sense of dread, wisely leavened with comic relief.  If you are the sort who likes a bit of spooky fun, give the book a read.  

I do have to disagree with the late Mr Bellairs about one thing:

I'm the guy who'd die first in a horror film: "What's that bloodcurdling sound?  I've got to find out!"

A few nights back, while on a Zoom conversation with friends during a graveyard shift, I heard a sound which, to me, is familiar, thought not exactly pleasant:

Those high pitched background noises are raccoons squabbling over something, probably a juicy frog or maybe a crayfish.  It's not a sound for the faint of heart.

Right now, my boss is going over applications for a couple of positions in my understaffed department.  I told him that one crucial question to ask candidates is: "Are you afraid of the dark?"  Weird noises, shifting shadowy conditions, the gleam of eyes just outside a flashlight beam... all part of the job.  I love them all, but then again, I'm not necessarily normal.  Thank goodness it's just a job, not a horror movie.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

MAGA Convoy Contemplates Occupation

In a weird case of déjà vu, the MAGA convoy which rode around the Washington DC Beltway a few months ago is back in Hagerstown, MD, contemplating an incursion into Our Nation's Capital. These weirdos believe they can sneak into the city in the evening, betraying a fundamental lack of understanding of urban realities:

In preparation for their invasion, which they oddly refer to as an 'ambush', their leaders are urging 'radio silence', instructing the various video livestreamers to knock it off: Because of their ineptitude, they postponed their planned occupation of DC by a day: These people are capable of mischief, and some of them are armed, but I don't think they pose much of a danger to the DC metro area locals because they are a bunch of morons who are constantly squabbling.  It's supposed to hit the 90s in DC for the next three days, which should dissuade them from sticking around too long, especially if the locals are sufficiently riled up.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Crimes Against Demeter

Amidst the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the wholesale slaughter of civilians and the use of sexual violence against women and children as a weapon of war, it seems like a small thing, but it's the sort of small thing which will have global repercussions... I mean, the destruction of Ukraine's agricultural capacity.

Ukraine is traditionally known as the Breadbasket of Europe, and is the third largest exporter of grain in the world.  It is also a major producer of sunflower oil and potatoes.  Countries in the Middle East and Africa are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity due to the war's prevention of agricultural activity in Ukraine.  Invading a major food producer and exporter on the cusp of planting season is a particularly horrifying act of aggression.

Via Tengrain, we have a tale of a more subtle horror, the destruction of Ukraine's National Gene Bank of Plants.  This facility, in Karkhiv, preserved over one-hundred and sixty thousand varieties of seeds, some of them valuable hybrids, others not extant anywhere else in Europe.  The maintenance of genetic diversity among crops is crucial in this age of monocultures, emergent pathogens, and climate change.  A lack of diversity among our crops leaves us vulnerable to blights which can wipe out genetically narrow populations.  Maintaining diversity also allows agronomists to determine whether certain plant varieties, perhaps regional heirloom landraces, are better suited to changing climatic conditions.  The loss of 160,000 varieties of plants, while not as gut-wrenching as the murder of one civilian, is the sort of slow-creeping horror which becomes apparent on deeper contemplation.

To compound matters, as Tengrain noted, warming in the Arctic doesn't bode well for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault either.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Formula for Disaster

One of the latest right-wing smear campaigns has involved blaming the Biden administration for a shortage of baby formula, with the main narrative partaking of the very same 'Great Replacement' bullsjit which inspired the Buffalo massacre- namely, accusations that the Biden administration is stockpiling  baby formula for undocumented immigrants while native-born white babies starve.

The reality is that GOP policies, such as deregulation and toleration of monopolies, are to blame for this problem, which has been exacerbated by Trump's MAGA-branded protectionism.  The main reason why baby formula is is short supply is because an Abbott Nutrition owned formula production facility in Sturgis, MI was shut down due to contamination by Cronobacter sakazakii and Salmonella NEWPORT bacteria.  The contamination resulted in one probable death and necessitated a recall.  The GOP is the party which views regulation as 'burdensome', and, in true Libertarian fashion, Abbott execs spent money which could have been used to modernize, or at least sanitize the Sturgis facility on stock buybacks.

Another major factor in the baby formula shortage is that 90% of the baby formula in the US is produced by four corporations.  This situation is exacerbated by Trump's vaunted North American trade agreement being disadvantageous to Canadian formula producers.

Once again, we see Republicans blaming Joe Biden for the deleterious effects of Republican governance, which is always a formula for disaster.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Sure Sign of a Sick Society

American society is sick to its core.  Because I was either busy or fatigued last weekend, I didn't cover the racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, New York.  The shooter, who should have been flagged to remove his guns, was motivated by the White Genocide or Great Replacement conspiracy theory, which posits that there is a Jewish plot to use immigration from the Global South to marginalize white people in order to create an easily controlled 'mongrel' population.  It's a toxic blend of white supremacy and incel rage that has led to mass shootings throughout the past decade.  Recently, it's been promoted by Tucker Carlson of Fox.  The ten victims of the massacre were decent family people, many of them senior citizens.

As heartbreaking as the news of the Buffalo massacre is, the real horror dawns when you learn that it wasn't the only racially motivated mass shooting in the US that day... three Korean women were murdered at a hair salon in Dallas.  One knows that one is living in a sick society when there are so many mass shootings that they crowd each other out of the headlines.

I spent most of today sleeping, I must confess.  Sure, I worked three days worth of hours in two days, with three hours spent coaching, but I think that a desire not to even leave the house was as much of a motivator as fatigue.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Exotic Breakfast

It's been a long month of bad news and a long weekend of activity, both work related and volunteer gig related.  Frankly, I feel beat... I figure I'd put up a fun post about music, I think we can all engage in a brief bit of escapism.

In the wee hours of the morning, stalwart DJ Big Al of Fairleigh Dickinson University's radio station, played the song Breakfast at Denny's by Providence, Rhode Island neo-lounge band Combustible Edison.  You may recall that neo-lounge, sometimes called Space Age Bachelor Pad music, was briefly in vogue back in the 1990s.  It's a trippy number:

While the song certainly could be interpreted as a song about breakfast at one of the restaurants run by the diner-style chain Denny's, I immediately suspected that something else was going on...  This song certainly seems like a tribute to Martin Denny, a lounge musician who incorporated latinesque and asiatique sounds into his compositions to form a subgenre of lounge music dubbed 'exotica'.  A prime example of Denny's work is the title track from his album Quiet Village:

My primary interest in Denny's oeuvre is the fact that his brand of exoticization of the Mysterious East inspired Japanese popular music giant Haruomi Hosono to form a band as a joke, poking fun at Western stereotypes of Eastern culture.  It didn't hurt that he formed this band, Yellow Magic Orchestra, with fellow geniuses Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto, so this joke of a band was hugely influential on succeeding generations of electronic musicians.  Fittingly, YMO's first single was a cover version of Martin Denny's Firecracker:

It's funny how the mind works, sending me on a musical odyssey, beginning with a jokey 1990s tribute to a 1950s purveyor of 'exotic' music and ending with a jokey 1970s tribute-cum-parody of that very same music.  Along the way, I listened to a good bit of Denny's body of work, itself inspired by the post-WW2 fascination of all things Pacific, and now I want a breakfast at Denny's, complete with some tiki-bar cocktails.  Looks like I might have to whip up some orgeat syrup.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Flying Solo

My cultural reference for a hectic day is the long penultimate scene of Martin Scorcese's Goodfellas, in which a coked-up Henry Hill is running multiple errands while freaking out about a helicopter which he is convinced is tracking him.  It's a darkly humorous film sequence with a bit of that trademark Scorcese cultural, by which I mean culinary, flair that I love.

My day wasn't quite so hectic, but the only stimulants running through my system are a couple of cups of coffee.  I started the day working the graveyard shift. then returned home to take a one-hour nap.  Then I was off to my volunteer coaching gig, where I was the only judo coach present.  I ran four classes of children from ages five to fourteen, going over proper movement and unbalancing techniques, then throwing them using the major hip throw, O Goshi, which is particularly suited to gi-less fighting.  Throwing the students, so they can learn proper falling, is an important teaching technique.  As a treat, I let the kids throw me using O Soto Gari, the first throw we teach them.  I sent a couple of sensei-to-sensei photo messages to our head coach so he could see what he was missing.  Then I had the kids practice uchikomi, those form practices so crucial to the sport.  In the youngest students' class, I was able to enlist the services of my self-appointed nemesis, a young girl who wants nothing more every Saturday morning than to fight me- she's a very enthusiastic student who knows what she's doing, and I basically gave her a brevet rank to assistant coach.  She's a serious girl who wants to use her stuff, so she was more than happy to help rally the other kids to the uchikomi practice so she would have an opportunity to kick my butt... which she did.  I also received invaluable help from the teenage counselors who escort the kids from activity to activity- in one case, one of our students who has earned his orange belt led an incoming class in the ritual bowing in that starts a workout while I led the preceding class in bowing out.  If you are going to fly solo, you need support staff to help you navigate.

After coaching, I was able to go home for two hours of sleep before having to go to work,  

I'm also flying solo at work- the one remaining coworker in my department (while my coworker Jim is on medical leave) is attending his daughter's college graduation/  I had to go to one site at 4PM to help lock up at the end of the day, then hightailed it to another site to help the manager lock up after 5PM.  I'll be working until midnight.  I'm going to be dragging my tailfeathers, but a college graduation doesn't occur every weekend.  I can deal with flying solo all the doo-dah day under these circumstances.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Muskus Interruptus

The main business story today concerns Elon Musk's decision to put his pending Twitter purchase on hold.  He's claiming that he's doing so until he can be assured that fewer than 5% of Twitter users are bots, but I suspect that he was only trolling, and never really wanted to buy the social media company.  Here's a pundit opining that he's also trying to weasel out of the one billion dollar penalty he faces for backing out of the deal.

Musk has long shown that he has the emotional maturity of an eight-year old, and not a particularly well-adjusted one.  He received publicity for his announcement, and he believes he 'triggered' a lot of people.  He's not a genius by any stretch of the imagination, just a weird edgelord kid that never grew up.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Woke Culture is Emasculating Dinosaurs!!!

Looks like the woke crowd is at it again, this time ruining dinosaurs!  In the American edition of British tabloid The Sun, some schmuck was complaining about an upcoming BBC program depicting a softer T. rex... WARNING: LINK GOES TO SUN.  Sure, predatory animals don't spend all of their time killing and eating other animals, but the libs are forcing images of dinosaurs engaging in family life to ruin men.

The conspiracy runs deep, and at least one 4Chan neonazi has detected a Jewish plot in the pushing of LGBT rex:

Ah, yes, the Rootless Cosmopolitans are at it again!

Here's another Brain Genius, commenting on a Vintage Dinosaur Art Facebook page, complaining about how the libs have ruined dinosaurs by discovering fossil evidence which forced a reassessment of what these animals looked like:

This is just a selection of a longer screed which is a farrago of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, and a stubborn refusal to read the most recent research on dinosaurs.  The entire manifesto can be heard, read by the hosts of the Minion Death Cult podcast:


That's right, zaftig chicks are ruining dinosaurs, and they're in it with the queers! Being a filthy lib, I've been down with the feathered dinosaur conspiracy for well over a decade.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Pretty Is the Head Which Wears the Crown

I am fortunate in working at sites which encompass a lot of green space, representing a variety of environments.  In particular, we are blessed with a wonderful variety of birds.  For the past two years, we have had some of my personal favorites in residence, such as this gorgeous creature:


The picture is not great, it's difficult to take a mid-distance photograph against the reflective surface of the water, but the subject is amazing.  That is a black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), easily identifiable by virtue of its black crown, which trails two long white tassels.  These birds tend to be less shy than other wading birds.  Years ago, my favorite bird ever was a black-crowned night heron which would take up a position near a waterfall in the Bronx River, about a meter from the well-traveled biking/jogging/walking trail.  The prospects of a good meal outweigh all of the weird bipedal mammals in the vicinity.

This bird has found a spot in the local brook in which there's an inflow from the pond on our premises.  It's a good spot to hunt for critters washed downstream, so I am looking forward to seeing this bird in the coming months.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Secret Science Horde Descends on Brooklyn

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture.  This month's lecture featured my great and good friend Dr Simon Garnier, who heads up the New Jersey Institute of Technology Swarm Lab.  Dr Garnier is a Renaissance man, he's a biologist whose study of ants and their behavior has led him to being a robotics expert.  I arrived early to the beautiful Bell House and had an opportunity to catch up with him- he regaled me of tales of transporting his cat to Europe while on sabbatical, and other humorous slices of life from a tragic period of time.  Needless to say, it was time well-spent catching up, especially since we were joined by a couple of other SSC regulars in a long-overdue reunion.

Dr Garnier's lecture topic was The Self-Assembling Horde: Building Functional Structures on the Move.  Dr Garnier began his talk with a self-deprecating joke about his accent, assuring us that he was talking about the ant, an insect, rather than the aunt, that weird lady at Christmas asking you why you don't have kids.

Dr Garnier then posed the question: What is life?  He noted that, as a biologist, everything he does depends on this definition.  He used Emerson as an example of a poet's definition of life: The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.  Biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi's definition was: Life is an electron looking for a place to rest.  Astrobiologist Michael Russell stated: The purpose of life is to hydrogenate carbon dioxide.  Life creates entropy, resulting in more chaos.

Dr Garnier then gave us his somewhat jocular definition of life: Life is a complex, autonomous, multi-level game of Lego.  He then gave us an overview of the various levels of organization: atom, molecule, macromolecule, organelle, cell, tissue, organ, organ system, organism.  The self-organization of individuals through interaction results in disordered elements forming a global order.  He illustrated this with an adorable video:

Things that aren't very smart bump into each other and eventually organize.  

Dr Garnier concluded: self-organization plus natural selection equals life.  He added that he would add another layer to the atom-to-organism self-organism, the superstructures formed by some organisms, such as social insects.  He displayed several examples of such superstructures as fire ant rafts:

And clusters formed by honeybees to ward off the attacks of wasps and hornets:

Dr Garnier then narrowed his focus to army ants of the genus Eciton.  Army ants are not defined taxonomically, but by behavior- they are nomadic, form new colonies by fission, they have strict reproductive cycles, and they are very carnivorous, being top predators equivalent to lions ecologically.  Dr Garnier noted that they are very strange ants.  The genus Eciton is completely blind.  Eciton forms colonies of up to a million individuals- Dr Garnier compared the movement of a large colony to the inhabitants of Philadelphia packing up and moving thirty kilometers every day.  When the ants stop moving, they form living bivouacs in which they shelter the queen and her brood.

Being nomadic, army ants cannot engineer the environment like ants that build nests.  Ants such as leafcutter ants build elaborate nests, and use the leaves they harvest to grow gardens of the fungus that they feed on.  Colonies of up to twenty-five million ants form highways along which they transport leaves:

Army ants such as Eciton, being constantly on the move, do not build infrastructure- they inhabit a chaotic environment which cannot be engineered due to time constraints.  The ants have evolved behavioral and anatomical adaptions to attach to each other to build structures on the fly.  These structures are self-repairing.  

The NJIT Swarm Lab has studied the ants, which do not thrive in laboratory settings, in the field for over ten years.  Dr Garnier broke down the study of on-the-fly construction of superstructures as a function of achieving three objectives: overcoming constraints on movement, maintaining traffic along a pheromone trail, and traversing dynamic/unstable substrates.

Why do ants build where they build?  They build where it is difficult to move.  In a recent experiment, a board was placed as an obstacle interfering with an army ant column- the angle of the board to the ground was changed in order to make scaling it more difficult.  The difficulty was measured by the number of ants which fell off the board.  As the angle of the board got steeper, and more ants fell off, the ants would attach to each other to form scaffolding.  Dr Garnier made the analogy of human rock climbers using each others' bodies instead of pitons to climb a cliff face.  As scaling the board became more difficult, more ants would join the scaffold.  

The decision whether to move or to join the structure depends on the constraint on movement- more difficulty in movement means that more ants join the structure.  Dr Garnier likened the decision making process of an ant to that of a thermostat.  Ants build until a structure gains maximum efficiency.  Simple behaviors suffice to build complex structures- in the case of constraints on movement, if it is difficult to walk, the ant stops and helps others to overcome the constraint.

Traffic occurs along trails. In a 2012 experiment, natural bridges formed by ants were destroyed using tweezers, and the ants repaired these bridges within thirty seconds.  If traffic is disrupted, it is restored using packing functions- ants crowd in to complete structures.  As structures near completion, fewer ants crowd in.  How long does an ant stay in a structure?  This is a function of traffic, as long as traffic is high, and and would stay indefinitely, but as traffic lessens, an ant will move itself.  Dr Garnier proposed and analogous situation in which human commuters assembled the George Washington Bridge every morning at 7AM, then dissolved it at 9AM, then reassembled it at 4PM and kept it up until 7PM.  He joked that this is the way it should be: "We don't want you in Jersey."  He followed this up by noting the time the governor did exactly that.  Dr Garnier proposed an army ant lesson: YOUR WORK IS NOT DONE UNTIL EVERYONE HAS GONE.

Dr Garnier noted that, besides the reproductive queen and male drones, there are four Eciton castes:tiny non-reproductive females whose role is largely unknown, typical food-gathering workers, long-legged workers which transport food, and long-mandibled soldiers which defend the food source by biting.  Army ant colonies are parasitized by various birds which steal food from the ants, a case in which the parasites are larger than their hosts.

He then described the way in which ants build bridges to form shortcuts, displaying a video of the process:

Note that the bridge 'moves' to improve the shortcut, and the bridge is longer than an ant's body size.  There is a cost/benefit analysis at work- the cost of building the bridge should not exceed the cost of moving the unspanned distance.  Dr Garnier noted that there are mathematical models about this tradeoff which can predict where a bridge will be built.  He gave us another army ant lesson: SOME CORNERS, IT SEEMS, ARE WORTH CUTTING.  Up to twenty percent of the colony can be used to build bridges.

Ants move along a dynamic substrate... the surfaces on which ants move can be unstable, the weight of the ants atop it can move it.  How do these blind ants build on changing substrates?  In one experiment, the gap which had to be bridged was increased:

Army ants use hysteresis to stabilize control of constructions.  Hysteresis is a delay between cause and effect upon change in the direction of a cause.  As a bridge nears a stable state, the probability of ants leaving or staying is about equal.  After a stable state is achieved, the probability of ants leaving becomes lower than the probability of ants joining.  This asymmetry creates hysteresis.

Hysteresis stabilizes complex structures.  Traffic varies a lot, but hysteresis prevents overreaction to variations in traffic, and creates bridges which do not collapse and are not overlarge.

It's here where I note that, appropriately for a Swarm Lab, a gaggle of Dr Garnier's grad students were in attendance at the lecture.  From time-to-time, Dr Garnier would call out to one of his colleagues for a clarification of a mathematical model, or a clarification on a project to vacuum up an entire bivouac.  In our conversation prior to the lecture, he noted that he did not like remote teaching or lecturing, and it was mostly due to the lack of feedback from both audience and colleagues.

Dr Garnier then mentioned the lack of funding for the sciences, and noted that one way he was able to get a National Science Foundation grant was to partner with Northwestern University's engineering department to create robots which can assemble themselves into structures by melting and melding together in any configuration.  Dr Garnier quipped: "Your money at work!"

No additional parts are needed.  Ant models can be used as models for building auto self-assembling robots.

Dr Garnier ended his lecture by urging us to support science education, noting that we are living in a time in which book burnings are occurring and women's bodily autonomy is being attacked.  He noted that we may not be the resistance yet, but we very well might be.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session.  Before the first question, Dr Garnier jokingly warned the audience that living in Jersey had destroyed his French but had not improved his English, so they might have to ask for clarification.  The first question involved the last ant forming a bridge- Dr Garnier joked that she was able to safely cross an obstacle: "Don't worry about her."  Regarding colony sizes, they range from about ten thousand (recently 'fissioned off colonies') to about a million- smaller colonies use shorter trails with fewer bridges?  Which caste is the most important in bridge construction?  It's unknown at this time.  Soldier ants, about 2% of a colony, are not involved- they only bite, and cannot even feed themselves due to the size of their mandibles.  Do other ants form bridges?  Weaver ants in Australia form bridges, but these are a function of other ants walking over them- in contrast to Eciton army ants, weaver ants have excellent vision and stop at gaps.  Weaver ants can see if an impasse is unbridgeable.  Blind army ants just find another route if a gap proves insurmountable.

Why did ants evolve social behavior?  The prevailing theory is because the workers are the offspring of diploid queens and haploid males who develop from unfertilized ova, therefore each of these ants shares 75% of its genome with its sisters, while it would share 50% of its genome with any offspring.  It's an indirect passing of genes, inclusive 'fitness'.  In other organisms, social behavior may result from more 'selfish' behaviors- a fish in a school might hide behind other individuals, or otherwise avoid predators.

Why are army ants nomadic?  Army ants are weird ants.  They have a strange reproductive cycle in which many larvae are produced at once, which necessitates the consumption of a lot of protein.  The ants need to move so they don't exhaust the resources in a constrained area- its a case of move or starve.  Are army ants cannibalistic?  This hasn't been observed, but some ants lay eggs as a food resource.  Why are they blind?  They re-emerged after living underground.  

Are their atypical ants?  Outliers?  One study of ant foraging behavior noted that ants wander around in search of food sources, the trails are more varied in environments with patchy resources, and are less varied when adequate food sources are found.

How about castes?  Eciton has four observed non-reproductive castes, but some leafcutter ants have 13 castes, the smallest of which can perch on the heads of the largest.  The smallest leafcutter ants tend the fungus gardens that the ants subsist on.  Regarding intelligence, a typical ant has about 12,000 neurons, they don't know much.

Regarding field work, the main difficulties are finding the ants and making them walk your setup.  As far as the energy it takes to make bridges, the exoskeletons of the ants can lock into position, so it requires little energy to sustain weight.

Asked about a particularly weird study, Dr Garnier noted that he was approached by a law enforcement agency about a crime prediction project- looking at data, can criminals be likened to an army ant swarm dependent on environmental factors?  Can a model be formed of crime (e.g. drug dealing) as a collective market-based activity and used to predict where a criminal 'swarm; will hit next?

What is the purpose of bivouacs?  To protect the queen and her brood.  Bivouacs even provide temperature regulation, with ants shifting position in order to maintain optimal conditions for larvae.  Among nest building ants, the brood is moved throughout the colony to maintain optimal temperatures.

Some Bastard in the audience asked Dr Garnier if the Swarm Lab has sent any researchers to study distantly related Old World ants which behave similarly to New World army ants.  Alas, the NJIT Swarm Lab has not sent any grad students to Cameroon to study driver ants.

Once again, the Secret Science Club has served up an excellent lecture.  I often talk about the 'Secret Science Sweet Spot', and Dr Garnier always hits it- he serves up interdisciplinary material, illustrated by memorable video footage, he finds ways to involve his graduate students in the lectures, and he leavens his material with humor.  Suffice it to say, he consistently knocks it out of the park.  Kudos to the good doctor, to Margaret and Dorian, and to the staff of the beautiful Bell House.

Now, for a taste of that Secret Science Club magic, here is Dr Garnier lecturing on the self-assembling horde:

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

Monday, May 9, 2022

Brooklyn Bound to See an Old Friend

Tonight, I am headed to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture.  This lecture marks the return of Friend of the Bastard Dr Simon Garnier of the New Jersey Institute of Technology Swarm Lab,  Longtime readers will know that Dr Garnier has delivered multiple SSC lectures, and is a regular attendee of the lectures, many of which have been by his colleagues.

For those who aren't familiar with the Good Doctor, he is an entomologist and robotics expert, who has parleyed his observations of insect swarms into the programming of autonomous robots which can act in swarms to achieve needed goals- for instance, searching unstable buildings for individuals in need of rescue.  He also models traffic patterns, and is a very entertaining, informative lecturer:


He's also a friend, the perfect sort of fellow to have a beer with, and a mentor to his graduate students and post-doc fellows.  

Tonight, I'm expecting Dr Jen to meet me at the Bell House after she finishes with work-related consultations.  It'll be a 'meet the family' moment, because the Bell House staff, the audience regulars, and the SSC mavens, including the lecturer this month, are such old, good friends.  The important thing here, though, is that I'm winning another covert over to the Secret Science Club.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Happy Mothers' Day, Be Careful!

Here's wishing all of the mothers in my readership a happy Mothers' Day.  I'm grateful to my mom for the values she instilled in me and my siblings, and the stellar example of proper conduct she modeled for us.

I'd be lying if I didn't say that this Mothers' Day is fraught, in light of the leak about the SCotUS' plan to overturn Roe vs Wade.  The United States has an appallingly high maternal mortality rate, more than double that of most wealthy countries, with non-Hispanic African-American women having a horrific mortality rate of 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births.  Predictably, the maternal mortality rate tends to be higher in red states (with New Jersey being an odd outlier), precisely those states which are poised to ban abortion if Roe vs Wade indeed gets overturned.  It's here where I note that maps of all sorts of bad outcomes in the US invariably correspond to maps of the Confederacy.

The Republican foes of abortion rights are so demented, Republicans in several states even stated that they would ban abortions in the case of ectopic pregnancies, basically forcing women to die, killed by non-viable embryos.  The outcry caused Missouri Republicans to back down from this particular horror.  For the record, a few years ago, Ohio Republicans pushed legislation to 'transplant' ectopic embryos into the uterus.  This isn't about saving babies, it's about controlling women, even to the point of killing them.

So, have as happy a Mothers' Day as you can under the circumstances... the fight will continue, so maybe a little break, perhaps a champagne brunch with the kids, is in order.  Be careful, though, moms, because the second half of this year is shaping up to be pretty damn bad.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Faithful Servant, Treacherous Snitch

Like most middle-class people in developed countries, I find my smartphone an invaluable tool.  It's basically an electronic Swiss army knife- phone, camera, computer, calculator, compass, atlas rolled up in one compact package.  It's also a snitch, providing data to observers such as search histories and locations... data which could be weaponized against women seeking abortions.  Conservatives in the US have already indicated that they do not believe in one's right to privacy, why would they respect one's right to have one's data private?

During 2020's Black Lives Matter protests, it was no secret that police were surveilling protestors' phones. The ability of the police to demand one to unlock one's phone, even forcing one to use one's fingerprint to unlock it, has been litigated in the courts, and there seems to be differing policies in various states.

My advice to anyone seeking an abortion, or even protesting for women's reproductive freedom, is to get a burner phone, that staple of crime dramas and spy thrillers.  A cheap pre-paid flip phone can be purchased at a big box store for about twenty bucks, and prepaid cards with a set number of minutes and/or text messages, can be used to replenish it.  I'm not a big fan of big box stores, but the faceless anonymity of the megacorporation is actually a plus when one wishes to protect oneself from reactionary forces while living in an actual crime drama/spy thriller.  It's going to be a long, hot summer, leave your faithful servant at home so it can't snitch on you.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Open for Business

Today was the first day in over two years that my workplace has been open for business on a regular basis.  We had some form of our fall fundraising events for the past two years, on a truncated basis, but our regular day-to-day visitation was on hiatus.

It was a soft opening today, the weather being unseasonably cool and rainy was enough to dissuade walk-in visitors from coming, and there weren't too many pre-ticketed visitors.  It's not necessarily a bad thing- the site that I am currently working has no functional plumbing, due to a water main break. There are a couple of porta-potties set up in the parking lot, and two cases of bottled water in the breakroom fridge, but no running water just isn't pleasant.  I joked with the manager on duty that she should contact the staff of the nearby pizzeria to arrange bathroom privileges.  

Meanwhile, the site looks gorgeous, with the lilac bushes and apple and dogwood trees in bloom.  I would have taken pictures, but for the rain.  It's a nice place to be, even when you have to use a porta-pottie.

As far as my job goes, it's going to be wacky because of our staffing issues.  I close up here and have to go to another site for a midnight-to-seven graveyard shift.  My boss told me that they have a bunch of applications for positions in my department, but no hires yet... I made sure to tell him that he needs to ask candidates if they are afraid of the dark.  I often describe my job as a 'Scooby Doo' episode every night, and individuals who get freaked out by weird noises and hard-to-decipher chiaroscuro conditions don't do well with us.  Weekends will be pretty bad, with me cramming three days' worth of work into two days, but I can't say I'm not happy with going to a four-day week.

Tomorrow is also supposed to be foul, weather-wise, but being a Saturday, we will probably be busier than we were today.  I sure hope so, the sites need to be appreciated by the general public, not just lucky employees like myself.  It's been two years of loneliness, these places need love.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Expanding the Team

Tonight is bar trivia night, an opportunity to unplug from the news, which is terrible, get together with friends, and engage in friendly competition with other locals.  Last week, a young lady informed us that she and her friend would be joining our team, effective tonight.

Who were we to say no?  This woman is a force to be reckoned with- she's a motormouth (not in a pejorative sense), with a continual line of snappy patter.  She didn't just kiss the Blarney Stone, she slipped her tongue so far down its throat, she gave it a tonsilectomy.  She had us rolling with her anecdotes, perfectly delivered.

In particular, she told a story of her early days as an immigrant from Ireland's County Kerry.  She had been visiting Manhattan, and took the Metro North train back to Yonkers.  When she hopped in a taxi, the cab driver asked her about her accent, and she told him that she was from Ireland.  As luck would have it, he had just seen the film adaptation of Angela's Ashes, so he knew things.  He replied, "You're lucky to have gotten out alive!!!"

Given this cue to riff on, she spun a yarn about growing up in a shack with a leaky roof, raised by a consumptive mother along with nineteen siblings.  With her particular knack for banter, she kept regaling this credulous man with a tale of privation and misery.  Good thing she got out alive, indeed!

How could we say no to such a character when she informed us that she was henceforth on our team?

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

New York Welcomes Healthcare Refugees

Being a New Yorker, I am proud to say that we stand by our stated values.  I'm particularly pleased that some of our politicians have made public statements that women seeking abortions are welcome to travel to this state, where abortion services are protected by law.  Manhattan borough president Mark Levine made this policy explicit:

Mr Levine also provided information regarding payment assistance and travel assistance for patients traveling to New York for abortion services. He also reiterated that fact that abortion will remain legal in New York even if Roe vs Wade is overturned.

We tend to live by our values here in New York, and to have no tolerance for bullshit.  We know that the current situation in much of the US is untenable, and will provide a safe harbor for any refugees fleeing right-wing tyranny.  Is it any wonder that I have tremendous pride for my motherland?

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

There Is But One News Item Now

The news pretty much blindsided me, because I spent much of last night gaming with old friends, avoiding news and commentary for a few hours of friendly competition and the jocularity which accompanies it.  When I finally became aware that an anonymous leaker had revealed Sam Alito (not going to call him a 'justice') had drafted an opinion calling the overturning of Roe vs Wade, I had a brief flashback to Spring 2020, when there was but one news item... the probable termination of legal abortion in much of the United States drives all other stories out of the headlines.

Already, 23 states have put into place legislation to outlaw abortion as soon as Roe is overturned.  Three years ago, I had a conversation with a friend regarding the people we'd have to hide if anti-immigrant policies got worse... today, I had a conversation with her about the people we'd have to help travel to get healthcare.  She made me swear I'd provide the bail money for her because she's going to fight this thing as hard as she can.  

Already, the abortion rights rallies are taking place, but I think that a general strike by all pro-choice women will be needed.  If women are relegated to second-class status by a Supreme Court dominated by justices nominated by popular vote losers, they should withdraw their contributions to society to force change.  Sure, voting in November is critical, but the same Supreme Court which is moving to strip women of their right to necessary reproductive care is also moving to strip them of their right to vote.

This court won't stop with Roe, if successful, they will move to overturn Obergefell and Lawrence vs Texas.  These people will never stop their culture war until they are stopped, and they need to be defeated now.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Snarky Biden Is Best Biden

I've commented on how I admire compassionate Joe Biden, the man who (despite a reputation for gaffes) never falters when called upon to act as consoler-in-chief.  I've also written about how I was pleasantly surprised by Biden-as-boss, the hirer-in-chief who has made historical appointments to important positions in the government.  I have to admit, though, that my favorite Biden is snarky Biden, the Biden who, while leaving a press gaggle, responds to a BBC reporter, "I'm Irish."  That's the best Biden, the one whose wit undercuts right-wing accusations of senility.

Snarky Biden was on hand at this week's White House Correspondents' Dinner, when the man showcased his ability to cut a mofo to pieces with a smile: 


The best thing about it is that he didn't even mention The Former Guy by name, so any criticism of his joke is also an accusation of TFG.  Once again, it's clear that one has to be on the alert in order to get one over on Sleepy Joe.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Recap of a Busy, but Good, Day

Today, I'm beat... it's the sort of day when one hesitates between reaching for the aspirin bottle or the Tullamore Dew bottle.  I can't complain, yesterday was a really good day.  I worked the graveyard shift, then returned home, where I was able to nap for an hour before heading to my volunteer coaching gig.

It was nice to see my friends and colleagues, most of whom I've known for many years. The highlight of the morning was seeing that one of my favorite kids in the program had been promoted to counselor, a member of the team that actually runs the program, herding the students from class to class, making sure we coaches adhere to class times, and occasional escort a kid or a group of kids to the bathrooms.  This young lady disappeared from the program for a couple of years while she fought cancer, and beat it soundly.  Her younger sister is one of our best students, and when she arrived, their parents told us about big sis being in the hospital...  I have nothing but admiration for this brave young lady, who battled a scourge that no child should have to face.  Words being inadequate tools on some occasions, I greeted her with, "Welcome to Team Grownups!"

My great and good friend Frenchy, who took my profile picture in the dojo, was with me, and with the vaccines and boosters, we were able to dispense with the social distancing policies which made grappling impossible for the last two years.  I had brought a portable crash pad with me, so I spent part of each class throwing our students with the major hip throw O Goshi, which is the friendliest throw for gi-free fighting.  It's important for them to feel how a throw works, and how to land properly.  As I was throwing them, the mantra of bad parents came unbidden to my mind: "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you."  Yeah, those kids fell once, except for the adventurous ones who insisted I throw them a second time... they bounced back up and, yes, some of them requested a second trip through the air.  Me?  I threw sixty kids over the course of three hours... I'll be feeling it all the doo-dah day.

I managed to pick up a self-appointed Nemesis as well, a girl who appears to be seven.  She told us that she takes judo classes elsewhere on Mondays, following up with an ominous "I want to fight you."  I told her that we had to get through basic instruction for less advanced students, but she was insistent: "I want to fight you."  I told her that she should save that attitude for the 2036 Summer Games, and I was only half-joking. Needless to say, I was an instant fan.

After the athletic program, I headed over to my friend Kid's house for a cookout, a celebration after his sons's first Little League baseball game.  My friend J-Co came down from Boston to join in the festivities, as did Poor Scott, who Kid and J-Co worked with as teenagers.  For the record, I went to high school with these guys, and consider them family.  To add to the family atmosphere, Kid's parents joined us, ensuring that we ate well by bringing some gorgeous peppers and zucchini to throw on the grill.  Kid's mom also took on the project of oven-roasting a couple of trays of chickpeas, spiced with salt, cumin, and paprika... ceci nuts, in the vernacular of my grandfather's people.

In the course of our banter, Kid mentioned that he had an old dryer in the basement which, someday, had to be removed.  I announced, "I've had enough beer to feel valiant, but not enough to be impaired.  LET'S GET THIS DONE!"  No injuries were sustained in the successful moving of this dryer, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't feeling the aftermath of this exertion, as well as the exertion from beating up five dozen kids.  I'm happy to say that I felt good enough yesterday afternoon to move the darn thing in the first place.

We hung out for about seven hours, joking around while enjoying a multi-course though casual feast, and basking in the conviviality of an extended family.  I had to call it an evening then so I could go home and sleep for several hours before going back to work another midnight shift.  Three hours was sufficient, though I put an extra spoonful of coffee in the French press.

J-Co's plan is to depart for Boston after 8AM, so we made plans to meet for breakfast after I finish my shift at 7AM.  There are leftovers which would be great in a frittata or omelet, and some house-made chorizo from a Mexican-American market not to far from my place.  It's not very often that we can all get together, so putting off sleep for an additional hour is a small price to pay... and pay that price I shall, say I as I eye that aspirin bottle.