Monday, December 11, 2017

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Oceans of Wonder, or Microbiome Del Mar

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring marine biologist and oceanographer Dr Ed DeLong of the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. Dr DeLong's lecture concerned the marine microbiome, and its effect on the Earth's biochemical systems.

Dr DeLong began his lecture by noting that microbes permeate everything, and have done so for the majority of Earth's history. Microbes move in a very different fashion than macroorganisms, their motions taking the form of a 'random walk'. Microbes must contend with a low Reynolds number, with viscous forces being stronger than inertial forces. Dr DeLong likened this to a human swimming in molasses, being able to stroke once per minute. A microbe 'runs' straight, then tumbles in a random direction, tumbling less near food sources (with a general movement toward food).

A common view of biodiversity tends to focus on macroorganisms, typically insects. There is an anecdote that the biologist J.B.S. Haldane (who first conceived of abiogenesis and a 'primordial soup' and first suspected that sickle-cell anemia was an adaptation to malaria), when asked to comment on God by a theologian, replied that God had an 'inordinate fondness for beetles'. This anecdote probably derived from a passage in Haldane's book What is Life?:

The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other, for the simple reason that there are nearly 300,000 species of beetle known, and perhaps more, as compared with somewhat less than 9,000 species of birds and a little over 10,000 species of mammals. Beetles are actually more numerous than the species of any other insect order. That kind of thing is characteristic of nature.

If the Creator has a fondness for beetles, it has even more fondness for microbes- in a teaspoon of seawater, there are about one million microbes and ten million viruses. It is estimated that here are about 1024 stars in the observable universe, and about 1030 microbes in the world's oceans. A Creator would seem to have a phenomenally inordinate fondness for oceanic microbes.

Microbes have been around for a long time. The Earth is considered to be over four billion years old and microbes are believed to have been around for 3.8 billion years. Microbes have had a profound effect on the planet's chemistry- phototrophic organisms evolved, some of them evolving into photosynthetic organisms, with some photosynthetic cyanobacteria being incorporated as plant organelles. The waste product of photosynthesis is oxygen, the production of which made eukaryotic life possible, setting the stage for us. Microbes play a critical role in biochemical cycles- perhaps the most important of which is the photosynthesis-respiration cycle. With increasing amounts of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, it is possible that microbes might be able to store some of the carbon.

Life can exist in extreme conditions, such as boiling-hot geothermal vents and freezing polar conditions. Wherever there is water (hydrogen and oxygen), carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and energy, life can exist. Microbes drive Earth's biochemical cycles everywhere. One of the most important of these cycles is the microbial nitrogen cycle. The nitrogen cycle is crucial to the oceans, and nitrogen fixation, by which atmospheric nitrogen is converted into ammonia which can be used by other organisms, is a bacterial process- no microbes, no nitrogen cycling.

Dr DeLong noted that the 'forests of the sea' are microbial- while the primary photosynthetic organisms on land are macroorganisms, the plants, the primary photosynthetic organisms in the ocean are cyanobacteria, though diatoms and dinoflagellates are also important photosynthesizers. Approximately fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean.

Dr DeLong gave a brief history of the 1872 HMS Challenger expedition, a four year voyage around the globe during which the Marianas Trench was discovered and numerous biological and geological samples were obtained. Among the biological specimens collected were many eukaryotic organisms now included in a supergroup known as the Rhizaria. Many of these organisms were beautifully depicted by Ernst Haeckel. The Rhizaria are an important carbon conduit to the deep sea- when they die, they sink, their calcium carbonate walls providing carbon to the depths.

Dr DeLong then played a video of satellite imagery of cyanobacteria blooms similar to this video:

Cyanobacteria blooms can occur due to factors such as upwellings of nutrients and discharges of sewage and fertilizer runoff. Cyanobacteria are massively parallel, broadly distributed engines of chemical processes.

Dr DeLong then turned to the topic of 'seeing the unseen'- it is hard to observe microbes, and it is especially hard to study them in nature. Studying microbes in a petri dish is like studying animals in a zoo- in limited environments, what we learn about organisms is limited. To understand organisms, it is important to study their interactions. Before 1980, wild microbes were invisible, unculturable, and unidentifiable. It is now possible to study them through epifluorescence microscopy, which involves staining microbial DNA with fluorescent dyes in order to make it visible under microscopes. The discovery of oceanic microbes really amped up in the 1970s, when Carl Woese applied quantitative molecular phylogenetics to all life. He used DNA/RNA sequencing to piece together an RNA phylogeny for all life. Differences in RNA can be used to calculate evolutionary distances. Dr Woese's RNA sequencing revealed a new view of life. Not only is all life related, sharing RNA sequences, but the 'tree of life' was upended with the discovery of the Archaea. Many of the Archaea live in extreme environments, such as hydrothermal vents and super-salty pools. Some of the RNA sequences characteristic to Archaea show that they are closer to us than to bacteria.

Before Woese's project, organisms were broadly divided into prokaryotes and eukaryotes, different prokaryotes could not be differentiated, and the Archaea were lumped in with bacteria. With Woese's techniques, differences could be characterized.

To study microbes in nature, a mixed population is collected, and the DNA 'bar codes' are extracted, sequenced, and phylogenies are constructed. Quantitative surveys are then conducted to determine the proportions among the organisms. Back in 1987, 11 bacterial phyla were known. By 2006, 100 phyla had been discovered, with numerous species in each phylum. There are difficulties in defining bacterial species, and there are possibly millions of billions of them.

There is a logical flow to hunting microbes- find the RNA, we may know 'who' the microbes are but not what they are doing. Is a microbe a heterotroph or a phototroph? How do the microbes interact? The discipline of metagenomics is a genomic approach to microbial ecology- get samples, extract the genetic material, build a 'library' of community genetic sequences.

Dr DeLong showed a cover from The Economist trumpeting MICROBES MAKETH MAN, noting that the human microbiome has entered into the popular consciousness. A microbiome is a community of microbes, a collective genome. Dr DeLong joked that every microbiologist is a microbiome. Dr DeLong showed two funny pictures of microbe-hunting (manual sampling, remote sensing, and in situ surveys- a picture of three guys in a rowboat and a picture of a small boy with muddy hands). The environment of a microbiome could be measured in microns or, in the case of the ocean, meters. New genes and new gene functions are being discovered- novel opsin genes, similar to the opsin genes in human eyes, were discovered in bacterial genomes. The bacterial opsins can make energy from light. Over fifty percent of bacteria at the ocean's surface have opsins to boost energy, even though they are heterotrophs. Dr DeLong likened them to hybrid cars- this energy boost can enhance the bacterial growth and survival rates.

Dr DeLong then focused on the University of Hawai'i's Station ALOHA, an oceanographic research center in the open ocean a half-day's steam north of Oahu. Station ALOHA, led by Dr David Karl, has been in operation for about thirty years, studying changes in the ocean, such as this pH curve:

As carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, some of it is absorbed by the ocean, which becomes more acidic, hence the lower pH.

Station ALOHA also surveys the oceanic microbiome, establishing a station gene catalog. Near the bright surface, there is a lot of life, such as bacteria and diatoms, but very few nutrients. At a depth of 125 meters, a chlorophyll maximum is reached- in the darker transition region, more chlorophyll 'antennae' are needed to make photosynthesis possible. Below this transition zone, the amount of nitrogen in the water increases. Below this zone is a genomic transition zone- where a microbe is influences the types of genes it has and the types of organisms they are. The genomic transition zone is at depths between 25 meters and 75 meters.

Dr DeLong gave us a brief refresher course on DNA, composed of the four nucleobases: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. Adenine forms a base pair with thymine, cytosine with guanine. The GC base pair can be used taxonomically- between 25 meters and 75 meters, there is a low incidence of GC base pairs. At 125 meters, GC base pairs increase, reaching a maximum at 200 meters, then declining. The increasing incidence of GC pairs corresponds to increasing nitrogen content. AT base pairs contain seven nitrogen molecules while GC base pairs contain eight.

Dr DeLong then briefly asked the question, where is the field heading? How are genomes related to environment, to metabolism, to ecology? The brief answer is that more sampling is needed so better models can be developed. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to predict the ocean's 'bio-weather', which is being increasingly affected by human activity. Humans are the only non-microbial organisms that can fix nitrogen, and we are adding additional nitrates to the oceans.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question regarded post-Fukushima reactor findings- Dr DeLong indicated that they are tracking the situation closely but the results are not known yet. Another question regarded oceanic dead zones, or Oxygen Minimum Zones- nitrates can cause blooms of photosynthetic plankton which then die off and draw down the oxygen content of the water, in which fish cannot live, causing die-offs. There is a longstanding OMZ in the Gulf of Mexico- the Mississippi Plume, at the mouth of the river. A new OMZ has developed off the coast of Oregon. Another question regarded the shotgun hypothesis, which posits that warming waters could cause frozen methane clathrates at the bottom of the ocean to evaporate, releasing methane, which is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Another question regarded biodiversity- as the ocean becomes more eutrophic, certain organisms dominate, such as phytoplankton blooms. In another case, as fish are removed from the ocean, jellyfish populations bloom. Dr DeLong posed a conundrum- do microbe species go extinct?

Some bastard in the audience, keeping on the doom and gloom topic, asked about the effects of the Pacific Plastic Gyre on the ocean's biomes. Dr DeLong's immediate answer was 'Did you read our paper?' No... but I'm THAT guy. The plastic gyre in the mid-Pacific contains an average of one piece of plastic per cubic meter of seawater. The plastic is devastating to vertebrates, which ingest pieces of plastic. The pieces of plastic act as tiny reefs on which bryozoans and corals can colonize.

Other questions regarded the use of phytoplankton to absorb atmospheric carbon and sink it to the ocean bottom. By inducing blooms, uncontrolled systems result, which could cause problems. We can't control which species proliferate- geoengineering solutions are generally not viable. A question about how high GC organisms from high AT organisms elicited the response that genomes increase in size below the chlorophyll maximum. Steady surface conditions are conducive to low variability- as organisms follow each other in lockstep transferring nutrients, genomes can shrink. Deeper down, as conditions are more variable, stochastic environments, bigger genomes and more genetic diversity are conducive to success.

The lecture ended on a bit of a pessimistic note when an audience member asked Dr DeLong's opinion on the current political climate. The climate for climate science is not improving. Reports are held up, funding is decreasing. Dr DeLong brought up using a tactic of changing wording but keeping the same science to get by industry gatekeepers. He noted that science will move forward, and that scientists won't back down. Now, THAT is the Secret Science Club attitude this nation needs.

Once again, the SSC served up a fantastic lecture. Kudos to Dr DeLong, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. On another happy note, my friend Sensei ____ came down to the lecture with her roommate, who just happens to be studying algae, albeit freshwater forms. High fives all around!

Here's a video of Dr DeLong discussing Station ALOHA:

Grab a beverage, and soak in that secret science, with a side of defiance.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Short, Vulgar Middle Finger to California

I've been combing the webs trying to find a term to describe the style of government now embodied by the GOP, and I decided that the neologism Atëocracy... government by foolish, deluded mischief-makers. A prime example of this vicious folly is a change in the tax code which is tailor-made to punish California:

The House Republican tax bill would eliminate the deduction for personal losses from wildfires, earthquakes and other natural disasters, but keep the break for victims of the recent severe hurricanes.

Earthquakes and wildfires... I can come to no other conclusion that this legislation serves only to 'stick it' to Californians, who are among the U.S. residents least dependent on the federal government. Californians pay for 'Red State' infrastructure, and this is the treatment they get? As a New Yorker, I should pay lip service to some sort of East Coast-West Coast rivalry, but this 'fuck you' to California has me pig-biting mad.

Friday, December 8, 2017

First She'll Steal Your Heart...

The assistant manager of our retail operator is one of those instantly likable persons one occasionally meets. She's cute, smart, and funny... just a real pleasure to work with. Today, when I got to work, she had a funny anecdote about our co-worker Ginger. Yesterday, our retail manager noticed some mouse droppings in her office, so Ginger was moved into the main building on-site (her usual 'beat' consists of a couple of outbuildings which need continual mousing services).

The assistant manager was sitting down to lunch, a chicken parmesan sandwich. Soon after she started her repast, the front doorbell rang. Thinking that Ginger was shut in the manager's office on rat mouse patrol, she didn't close her office door. When she got back to her office, Ginger was sprawled on her lunch, having eaten much of her sandwich and getting tomato sauce all over (the mousepad had to be pitched). Being a kindly soul, the assistant manager was more concerned that Ginger, an obligate carnivore, had eaten a whole lot of carbs. Note, this is not the first time Ginger has eaten someone's sandwich, so the general take on this is that we need not worry about our resident naughty kitty.

The legend of Ginger grows- she can be a real pain in the tuchis, but you just can't stay mad at her. First, she'll steal your heart, then she'll steal your lunch.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Gonna Be a Busy Night, Post a Cat Picture!

I knew it was going to be one of those days before the workday even began. At 5PM, I received a call from one of my co-workers... every single zone in one of our alarm subsystems was 'in check'- something was radically wrong with the system. I sent a quick text message to my supervisor, informing him of the situation, and sent another to my subordinate, telling him I would be coming to work an hour early to help him troubleshoot, with the assistance of the monitoring company. We called the central office of the alarm company and one of their technicians walked us through a manual reset process... to no avail. Because we were unable to reset the system on-site, they will need to send a technician on a service call. Nineteen separate alarm 'zones' are malfunctioning, so this is a pretty big deal. I called my supervisor to inform him of this development so he can make the service call tomorrow during office hours. Now, I pretty much have to camp out in one of the buildings that is not 'on alarm', and I don't believe the site WiFi functions at this location. Not anticipating being able to set up links or do any research, I will fall back on the old gambit of posting a picture of mah preshus Ginger:

Isn't she a lovely beast?

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Nest of Pervs and Reprobates?

During the day, when I'm not sleeping off the night shift or a Big Beer Night, I like to listen to WNYC, the local NPR affiliate. To be honest, it was one too many Kars4Kids commercials on the local news station which drove me to listen to commercial free radio. At any rate, the station has been wracked by a succession of harassment scandals... Last week it was the insufferable John Hockenberry, whose show I found to be a cesspit of 'both-siderism'. Turns out my instincts about him were right, he was a bully, particularly towards women of color. This was pretty evident from his tendency to interrupt women who were guests on his show.

This week, two additional hosts were suspended due to improper conduct-midday talk-show host Leonard Lopate, who was and weekend music show host Jonathan Schwartz got put in the penalty box, with Lopate apparently being escorted out of the building right before his noon show today. I always found Lopate's show to be hit-or-miss, he specialized in long-form interviews, so if his guests weren't of interest to me, I'd turn him off. Come to think of it, he did seem to have a tendency to interrupt guests, usually to show off how 'clever' he was. That being said, when he was 'on', he was on- having a thirty-two year radio career is quite the achievement, though it is now tainted by this scandal, and the suspicion that he was protected by a management which found women to be expendable.

I have come to the conclusion that all 'boomer' men should be swept from positions of power in the media, that women should be put into positions of authority. For too long, stale pale male voices have dominated the airwaves, and creeps like Bill O'Reilly, Matt Lauer, John Hockenberry, and possible Leonard Lopate need to be ditched in favor of new voices, ones which haven't been corrupted by power and the sense of entitlement it brings.

At least the radio station has been upfront about these scandals, giving a considerable amount of airtime to coverage. That being said, if Brian Lehrer turns out to be a creep, I'm gonna smash my, smash my radio:

Yeah, we want the airwaves, and we should turn them over to new voices.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Birthday Wish for Sweetums

Today marks the birthday of my older brother, Sweetums. His nickname started off as a bit of sarcasm, my acerbic sister making fun of my mother's assertion that Sweetums would never cut class (delivered mere minutes before Sweetums arrived home early for Thanksgiving break because he, you got it, cut class so he could get a ride from a friend). Soon afterwards, we all realized that the name could be used non-ironically... simply put, Sweetums IS pretty much perfect. He has always been a great friend, a great role model, and a great brother- as well as a great husband and a great father and, well, I could go on.

Happy birthday, 'Tums. Thanks for being the perfect guy you've always been.

Monday, December 4, 2017


From the annals of terrible people, via Tengrain, we have utter grasshole Chuck Grassley, GOP senator from Iowa, telling poor people why they don't deserve a tax cut like wealthy heirs are going to receive if the horrible GOP tax bill is voted into law:

“I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

First off, the sexism of this comment has to be addressed- Grasshole doesn't even acknowledge working women, even though women are increasingly becoming the principal earners of their families. Sorry, straight ladies, grasshole doesn't think you count.

Now that we've addressed that, grasshole's comment demonstrates an utter contempt for the working class- he thinks that working stiffs blow all of their money to satisfy their desire for entertainment. Poor people go boozing and wenching while the worthy rich spend their money on traveling to far-off places to kill endangered megafauna, the more charismatic, the better.

It remains to be seen if grasshole's constituents will keep voting him into office, even after his display of scorn for them. Perhaps Iowa, in order to reduce the tax burden on plutocrats, can follow Kansas' lead by raising taxes on booze and smokes. In the meantime, booze and sexytimes remain affordable entertainment options, so to hell with poverty:

To hell with Chuck Grassley too.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Merry Christmas, Mr Bond!

I realize that Donald Trump is, pretty much, a James Bond villain who has, bizarrely, become President of these here United States, a fact which has been made explicit by his mollwife's choice in Christmas decor:

I can't wait til they unveil the White House piranha pool:

"Do you expect me to say 'Merry Christmas'?"

"No, Mr MuellerBond, I expect you to die!"

Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Nakedly Punitive Tax Bill

It happened in the middle of the night, the passage of a five-hundred page tax bill that the Senators didn't even read, a bill which is chock-full of partisan legislation and contained last-minute hand-scrawled changes.

A few years ago, conservatives claimed that the IRS was targeting conservative groups for scrutiny, though I say that any anti-tax organization merits such scrutiny. Since one of the axioms of conservatism is 'It's Always Projection', it stands to reason that Republicans would be guilty of tax policies that 'punish' liberals and other classes of people that they hate... and this has proven to be true. The GOP tax bill ends federal tax deductions for state and local taxes, a policy which directly targets the residents of high-tax 'blue' states. Even the odious Republican congressman Peter King of Long Island's Suffolk County opposed this tax bill because it penalizes a sizable contingent of his constituents.

Even more worrisome is the bill's targeting of the renewable energy industry, a regressive act which is calculated to prop up the fossil fuel industries while pissing off environmentalists.

Perhaps the most regressive policy encoded in the bill is the cancellation of nontaxable tuition waivers for graduate students, a class of individuals who are already slammed with student debt and low wages as it is. Trump famously stated that he loves the poorly educated, and the flip-side of that is that his party hates the highly educated.

The tax bill is an all-out war on the blue states, the smarty-pants liberal 'elites', the tree-huggers, and other 'enemies of 'Murrica'. It also ensures that the United States will end up a poorer, less healthy, less educated nation, an oligarchy where the loss of grandma's medical coverage helps to foot the bill for the Mercers' new yachts and the Koch brothers' new assault on what is left of the public coffers.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Losing One of the Nabors

One of my childhood neighbors was a Southern Belle, relocated to the New York Metro Area after marriage. Besides being a neighbor, she was the receptionist at our family dentists' office. She was a wonderful woman, as sweet as could be. Before she got married, she was a kindergarten teacher, and one of her star pupils was a nice boy named Jim Nabors, a fact which gave her instant celebrity status among myself and my siblings. Mr Nabors, who died yesterday, was a particular favorite comic actor of ours, playing the addlepated-but-decent country boy Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show and its spinoff Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.. In my retrospective after Andy Griffith's death, I noted that one of my all-time favorite comedic scenes was Jim Nabors' citizen's arrest of Don Knotts' Barney Fife:

This scene, which never fails to crack me up, perfectly showcases Mr Nabors' portrayal of Pyle, with his humorous high-pitched drawl, naïf optimism, and sense of justice in the face of an authoritarian bully. In the spinoff series, Pyle was a Marine recruit who just didn't have a sense of what he'd gotten himself into:

The spinoff series completely elided the realities of the Vietnam War era, something which I didn't pick up on as a child watching it in syndication.

Despite his high-pitched, nasally drawl, Mr Nabors had a smooth, baritone singing voice, which came as a marvel to a young bastard:

Surprise, surprise, surprise, indeed! He released devotional songs, opera, nostalgic songs, and Christmas carols:

Mr Nabors, while long maintaining privacy about his romantic inclinations, married his longtime male partner back in 2013. I consider this a particularly significant cultural moment because Jim was an icon of Southern culture, a simple, decent, God-fearing country boy who worked with his hands, served his country as a Marine, and just happened to like other men. Jim was a damn sight better Christian than the whole passel of anti-gay bigots who seem to infest the pulpits of these here United States.

Jim Nabors was a childhood favorite of mine- comic, crooner, country-boy... he was a unique icon, a memorable pop-culture presence. I don't ordinarily get misty-eyed about a celebrity passing away, but Jim Nabors was one of those special talents whose work I found impossible to outgrow.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Vin's Birthday

November 30th is my brother Vincenzo's birthday, so I traditionally convey my birthday greetings to him on this day. Vin is still active duty in the US Army, and has had quite an adventurous career, one which has taken him from American Samoa (where he trained a National Guard unit) to the Mideast (for last decade's misadventure) to Liberia (where he was involved in the response to the ebola outbreak). He has always had an anthropologist's knack for cultural observation and a talent for picking up languages, talents which have served him well overseas. He could have been a whiz in the State Department if he hadn't gone for an officer's commission back in the 90s.

Happy birthday, fratello Vincenzo.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Harassin' Feeler

From the 'I never would have seen this coming in a million years' file, Garrison Keillor, the mellow originator of A Prairie Home Companion, has been fired by NPR for sexual misconduct allegations. While I didn't often listen to Keillor's radio show, I did find his written compilation Lake Wobegon Days to be amusing. I guess the tagline of the fictional town will have to be changed: Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the children are above average, and all the men are creeps.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Can't Even Snark About This

Via Tengrain, we have this Ed Krassenstein Twitter feed about the multi-year campaign by Russian propagandists to get Trump elected President of the United States. If even a quarter of this is true, it's a terrifying glimpse at a major Russian victory in a re-ignited Cold War.

It's odd, though, to think that the country has been hijacked. I worked a double overnight shift, and even though I should be in freakout mode, my quotidian existence is really quite lovely. At dawn, I walked the site, and the autumn leaves were glorious and a small flock of wild turkeys were trooping along. I briefly played cat-and-mouse with them, to their dismay and my amusement. The world is going to hell, but MY world isn't really reflecting it... at least not yet.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Trump's Pick to Head NASA?

It has been noted that Trump's administration is a kakocracy- a government of the absolute worst people in this nation of ours. In this vein, I think I've found the perfect individual to head Trump's NASA:

"Mad" Mike Hughes, limousine driver and self-proclaimed flat-Earther, announced that he had to delay his plan to launch himself 1,800 feet high in a rocket of his own making. The launch, which he has billed as a crucial first step toward ultimately photographing our disc-world from space, had been scheduled for Saturday — before the Bureau of Land Management got wind of the plan and barred him from using public land in Amboy, Calif.

Could there BE a more perfect Trump administration official?

"I don't believe in science," Hughes told the AP earlier this month. "I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that's not science, that's just a formula. There's no difference between science and science fiction."

Hell, he's the perfect example of a modern Republican, though there's no evidence of him behaving as a sexual predator...

Sure, it might seem preposterous that Trump would appoint a flat-earther to head up NASA, but is that any more preposterous than appointing Mick Mulvaney to head up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

An Invisible Plane, Like You See in the Movies

Via America's most beloved misanthrope, we have the bizarre ramblings of a senile man about cutting-age military hardware:

The Navy, I can tell you, we're ordering ships, with the Air Force i can tell you we're ordering a lot of planes, in particular the F-35 fighter jet, which is like almost like an invisible fighter. I was asking the Air Force guys, I said, how good is this plane? They said, well, sir, you can't see it. I said but in a fight. You know, in a fight, like I watch on the movies. The fight, they're fighting. How good is this? They say, well, it wins every time because the enemy cannot see it. Even if it's right next to them, it can't see it. I said that helps. That's a good thing.

The President probably thinks that 'Wonder Woman' was a documentary:

Amidst all of the foolishness, I was struck by one of the more mundane lines in his rambling jerkemiad:

You know, in a fight, like I watch on the movies.

That's when it hit me... I knew that Trump had more than a bit of Veruca Salt in him, as well as a bit of Augustus Gloop, now I realized that he had a large portion of Mike Teavee in him as well... Trump is pretty much a composite of all of the naughty kids from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory rolled into one... I suspect he'll end up with some sort of two scoops malady. Come to think of it, I'd rather have a blueberry for a daughter than a vulgar talking yam for a president.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Fight, Oh Estrogen

Damnit, earlier this week I had a craving for aburaage pouches stuffed with mochi, not realizing that I was cucking my appetite. How was I to know that soy produces phytoestrogens that the pointy-headed boffins assure us are harmless, but some smoldering volcano of machismo who really likes cartoon frogs says are sapping men of their masculine essence? I mean, just look at this he-man:

Perhaps the best-known crusader against the dangers of phytoestrogen consumption is Mike Soynovich, the author of a book titled Gorilla Mindset to reflect (heh) his inability to pass a mirror recognition test and his small genitalia. Soynovich rails against the emasculating bean, uniting men to resist this peril:

Maintain manliness, men, soy will wreck you. If you don't believe me and a couple of anime-Nazis, just look at this video, which clearly displays the pernicious effects of soy products on the male physique:

Now, what guy would want to be a Soy Boy like that?

Thursday, November 23, 2017


Here's wishing a happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers. I hope that you are enjoying your holiday. I have a lot to be thankful for- I'm doing okay, which is more than a lot of people can say at this time. I've been working the holiday, but that entails being onsite in a beautiful location, enjoying a quiet night. I am 'essential personnel', my department is on a seven day schedule, and we work overnights, I knew going in that working weekends and holidays was in the cards.

I really find it offensive, though, that retail outfits are making their employees work on Thanksgiving night- and I have contempt for people who would buy into this exploitative system by rewarding such stores with their patronage. It's one thing to have gas stations and medical centers open on Thanksgiving, but non-essential businesses shouldn't be treating people this way.

I'm thankful that I'm not working in a big box store.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Belated Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Champions of Ilusion

Sorry about the lecture recap delay, yesterday I had to attend my annual state-mandated training for the job, and then went out for a couple of beers. On Monday, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Dr Susana Martinez-Conde and Dr Stephen Macknik, both of Brooklyn's own SUNY Downstate Medical Center. The good doctors form a neurology power couple, the masterminds behind the Best Illusion of the Year Contest. Monday's lecture was a showcase for the gorgeous illusions that were sent into the contest, and dovetailed with the couple's new book, Champions of Illusion, which is a gorgeous mind-blower of a tome.

The good doctors handled the lecture in tag-team style, riffing off of each other and pausing to display videos and static images of the illusions submitted to their annual contest. The contest was formulated to provide information about the neuromechanics of perception, while remaining fun for the layperson- one does not need neurological training to appreciate illusions. The illusions submitted to the contest were rated on their intellectual, aesthetic, and 'spectacularity' appeal.

Dr Martinez-Conde began the lecture with a brief discussion of the infamous color-changing dress, accompanied by an image of the dress illuminated in light of two colors. As a personal aside, I figured out the controversy by comparing night Ginger with day Ginger.

The first illusion presented by the good doctors was Kokichi Sugihara's 'ambiguous cylinder' illusion:

The physical objects are ambiguous square/circle hybrids, and the use of a mirror activates this ambiguity as the objects are moved. Dr Martinez-Conde described this illusion as 'smoke and mirrors', or in this case, light and mirrors.

The next illusion presented to the crowd was the dynamic Ebbinghaus illusion:

Our perception of illusions can help neurologists 'dissect' how we see objects. The next illusion presented by Drs Martinez-Conde and Macknik was Anthony Norcia's Coffer Illusion:

The audience was tasked with counting the circles in the image, which tend not to be immediately apparent.

The next illusion present to the audience was Victoria Skye's beautiful variation on the classic café wall illusion:

In this instance, the shading is a crucial element in the illusion.

The next illusion presented was the chesspiece illusion, in which identical images of chess pieces were made to look dissimilar using the darkness of the background against which they appeared:

The observer's brain determines whether a piece is white or black, in the real world, everything is ambiguous. Our brains normalize things, which has evolutionary significance, such as a parent's ability to recognize a child both inside and outside of the cave.

We were then shown the Leaning Tower Illusion, in which two parallel images of the Leaning Tower of Pisa were perceived as diverging:

While actually parallel, the mind interprets them as diverging because, as parallel objects recede into the distance, they are perceived as converging:

A similar illusion was entered into the 2014 contest by Kimberley Orsten and James Pomerantz:

My favorite illusion of the night was Kochiki Sugihara's 'uphill rolling' structure:

This illusion exploits the brain's desire for a sensible rectilinear shape- our perception 'defies gravity' in order to make sense of an ambiguous structure.

The next illusion was an attention illusion- instructed to pay attention to changing dots, observers tend to stop seeing change in individual objects when the objects move:

The brain gives primacy to perception of the motion, which is more important from a survival standpoint than the color changes.

Dr Martinez-Conde likened illusions to 'stories that the brain tells us'. Illusions allow us to tell stories about neuroscience. The challenge in talking about neuroscience is how to engage the audience. She invoked E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel- writers have thought deeply about narrative, with there being a difference between story and plot. Foster contrasts two sentences- the first is 'The king died and the queen died', a story, which makes a time connection between two events. The second sentence- 'the king died and the queen died of grief', a plot, makes a connection of causality as well as time. Plots engage audiences- Dr Lawrence Krauss remarked on the muted excitement when the discovery of gravitational waves was made public, quipping that the public is interested in science when it results in faster cars or better toasters. Scientific discoveries that affect the public create emotional responses- people have strong reactions to cloning, the discovery of hobbits, or the demotion of Pluto.

Science is as its best when it engages our sense of wonder- where did we come from and how did we get here? Illusions provide a sense of magic, a sense of wonder. She showed a video of a broken-and-restored thread act in which the stage magician spun a poignant tale of a difficult relationship "you are intellectually dull and your cooking is mundane", effectively distracting the audience from the slight of hand. She then showed the same video of prestidigitation without the narrative, removing the emotions which accompany the illusion, which requires misdirection.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session- one bastard in the audience asked about the perception of illusions by non-human species. Animals are subject to illusion, many organisms employ camouflage, mimicry, and other forms of deception to trick each other in various ways. Illusions have value, evolutionarily. Another question elicited the response that the brain fills in gaps- the brain makes up more than it takes in, in some cases, there are spectacular cases of discrepancy. Previous generations of scientists believed that illusions were cases in which the brain 'got it wrong'. Now, the focus has shifted to how illusions may help us- if illusions had no adaptive use, we would have evolved out of them long ago. Another question involved tactile and auditory illusions, which led to a brief discussion of the disappearing hand illusion:

A question about Dr Kokichi Sugihara's physical objects led to a fascinating digression about Dr Sugihara's initial desire to program 'impossible' object plans into a design program, then discovering that, not subject to human perception, the program would render workable designs for objects deemed impossible within the limits of human preconceptions. Regarding the subjectivity of perception, Dr Martinez-Conde joked that objects are honest, the brain determines what is perceived. Asked to picture one's mother's face, a subject is able to do so even if she is not present. Perception often involves 'filling in details'. There are conditions which affect one's perception of illusion- certain individuals on the autism spectrum are difficult for stage magicians to misdirect, certain people have brain damage which removes the ability to perceive motion, certain illusions are more difficult to perceive as a subject ages.

Once again, the Secret Science Club delivered a fantastic lecture, one accompanied by a variety of mind-bending illusions. Drs Martinez-Conde and Macknik entertained and enthralled as well as informed us. Kudos to the good doctors, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House for another fine Secret Science Club event. Here's a nice video featuring my favorite neuroscience/magic power couple:

Pour yourself a nice beverage and soak in that science... and consider picking up Champions of Illusion, which is a spectacularly pretty book.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Brooklyn Bound, Repeat Secret Science Club Lecturer

I'm heading down to Brooklyn this evening for tonight's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring the return of Dr Susana Martinez-Conde of SUNY Downstate. Two years ago, Dr Martinez-Conde gave a great lecture about perception which featured a lot of really great optical illusions.

I'm running out the door, so how about a video for my favorite song by Joe Walsh, but not the asshole Joe Walsh:

Lately, it seems like we've all been living a life of illusion. Try as I might to pierce the Veil of Maya, I still see a hairy, anthropomorphic pumpkin in the White House.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Responding on the Local Level

It's been two months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and the response by the federal government has been a disaster, a farrago of incompetence and outright kleptocracy. Thousands of marchers hit the streets of Washington D.C. today to call attention to the situation in Puerto Rico, and the poor response to it.

The real response to the ongoing crisis is coming from local municipalities- shortly after the hurricane, the Fire Department of New York rallied to collect material and funds for the relief efforts. Last week, I made a donation to the police department of the Town of Greenburgh, north of my beloved Yonkers, to help send a team of first responders to the island. The New York Metropolitan Area is home to a large Puerto Rican community, the members of which form a large portion of our civil servants, our first responders, the people who keep things running. New York, along with Florida (also home to a large Puerto Rican community), is stepping up to get the power running on the island after the corrupt cronies were sent packing.

I believe in competent governance, the pooling of talent and funds to ensure that the roads are maintained, the garbage collected, and, yes, disasters are responded to with alacrity, compassion, and know-how. The worst bill of goods ever sold to the population of the U.S. was Reagan's assertion that government is the problem. If you are a member of a political party that runs on this premise, you have no business being in government, because you will seek to prove it. The GOP has devolved since Reagan, to the extent that we have a bunch of kleptocrats, and kakocrats, running the country. Thankfully, there are still localities which function, and can act to prop up places, like Puerto Rico, that have been the victims of this dysfunctional government. I'm thankful I live in one of these localities.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Senseis Nerding Out

This morning, as is usual for me this time of year, I went down to Manhattan for my volunteer gig, teaching children's judo classes. The latest addition to our roster of senseis is a women's national champion judoka who is all of twenty-two years old. Like most judoka I have met, she is tough as nails but nice as can be- there is something magical about the sport, it involves combat with compassion. When an athlete throws an opponent, there is an emphasis on proper form so the thrown individual's safety is fostered. A few years back, when asked what he thought of MMA, one of my senseis thought for a minute, then answered, "It lacks warmth."

After we taught four kids' classes, we were hanging around the dojo and I started talking with our young champion about her field of study in college, and she mentioned that she studied ecology, with an emphasis on botanical systems. The conversation soon turned to the topic of slime molds, and she started rhapsodizing about these amazing, protean eukaryotes. She recounted how she convinced a professor, a fungi specialist, to order a slime mold for her. I had to ask, "Oooh, was it from Carolina Biological Supply?" Needless to say, we went down the nerdery rabbit hole, and the two of us were regaling Sensei Big Al about the wonders of slime molds, and our new sensei showed us gorgeous pictures of the slime mold colony that she had fostered, and we discussed the 'brainless intelligence' of these organisms. This sort of 'intelligence' in food location can mimic the highways of a country:

I'm pretty sure one of those slime trails is Route Nationale 7. When Sensei Frenchie's wife came to the dojo after our classes, we subjected her to this onslaught of nerding out. Slime molds just aren't popular enough, and we were in evangelical mode.

Me being me, I mentioned the Secret Science Club and suggested that I introduce sensei to mon bon ami Simon Garnier of the NJIT Swarm Lab- he's totally down with slime mold fandom. I envision a trail of New York nerdery to rival a slime mold's peregrinations across a culture medium.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Decrying the Over-Commercialization of the War on Christmas

There was a time when the War on Christmas didn't start until after Thanksgiving, and the War on Christmas decorations didn't go up until December. That's all changed now, via Tengrain, the good folks at Right Wing Watch have reported repulsive grifter Jim Bakker's early start on the War on Christmas:

Jim is complaining that he can't buy Jesus-themed merchandise at Walmart, but he's hawking the stuff himself... this is like Pepsico complaining that the Coca-Cola Company of America doesn't sell their products at Taco Bell. I think the War on Christmas has become over-commercialized, but the entire evangelical movement is one huge commercial enterprise.

POSTSCRIPT: I have become addicted to Vic Berger's videos... he's the Werner Herzog of satire, making hilarious-yet-terrifying edits of right-wing wackos and fundamentalist con artists. His use of music, sound effects, and tempo manipulation is brilliant, each video is a surreal mélange of horror and comedy. His YouTube channel is a time-sink, you've been warned!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Et Tu, Al?

This one genuinely hurts... in the general torrent of sexual harassment accusations and revelations, Al Franken has been accused of non-consensual kissing and groping. I have long admired Franken for his outspoken support of liberal values and causes, and his progressive political career. To hear that he has been a creeper and an abuser is disheartening. I thought he was better than that. Looking at the photo of him creeping on Leeann Tweeden is infuriating... even if he wasn't actually touching her, this sort of smirking attempt at 'humor' makes light of sexual aggression.

I'm not the only one who's pissed off... Of course, the regressive Right will try to draw false equivalences between Franken and serial-pedophile Roy Moore. I also have a feeling that Bill O'Reilly, who has long hated Franken, will try to use this scandal to leverage a return to the airwaves.

Al fucked up, bigly, and this is a fuckup which will reverberate throughout the public discourse.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

This Is the Best News You're getting All Week

It's been a busy day, so I am going to post a video for my current earworm, a viciously funny number from Brooklyn's electronic superstars LCD Soundsystem. I was first drawn to the single 'Tonite' by its retro-electronica sound, but damn, the lyrics are topical and trenchant:

This was the verse that hit me when I first heard the song:

And you're too sharp to be used
Or you're too shocked from being used
By these bullying children of the fabulous
Raffling off limited edition shoes

Sound familiar to you?

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Hero America Deserves

From America's Heartland, a folk hero arises... in a downmarket echo of Rand Paul's bizarre, violent altercation with a neighbor, an Oklahoma man decided to challenge a former neighbor to a knife fight. Already, we are in Borgesian territory, El Mediooeste rather than El Sur. As if that weren't fantastic enough, our protagonist fashioned a makeshift haramaki out of pornographic magazines. There's a sort of old-fashioned quainterie about the whole affair, and a hearkening back to the ancient Far East. As far as I am concerned, Donald Gene Gaither is the hero that America now deserves, the one Donald who best represents our nation.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Closing for the Winter

Today, it felt really good to lock up our two auxiliary parking lots for the next six months... it was our last day of regular tours, so the winter gets really quiet. We will still have school groups visiting for the next month, but the weekends will be peaceful. Our resident mouser, Ginger, must have sensed the pending change in the rhythm of the place- yesterday, she parked herself in the site's Visitors' Center for a few hours, in order to mooch scraps from lunches, and to receive the adulation of visitors for one last weekend. When she tired of attention, she would curl up in the corner of the 'information' desk in the building:

It's a nice refuge from the adoring throngs, and she now has a whole winter ahead of her to rekindle her enthusiasm for the crowd... as do I, as do I.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Work Winding Down

Today has been a chill prelude to winter, with a biting wind adding to the low temperature. This is the last weekend that our sites are open to tourists, one final coda before we go on winter break. Normally, I would turn off the valve for our exterior drinking fountain, but the dropping mercury forced me to do so as soon as I arrived at work this afternoon. When Sunday evening rolls around, I will lock the auxiliary parking lots for the last time until April. Things get really quiet after the madness that is October.

Today has marked the beginning of the annual 'goodbyes' to the seasonal staff, exhortations to have enjoyable holidays and to get some rest in the off-season. I'm one of the elect, the full-time, year-rounders. I think I'm lucky, they think they are lucky- I can deal with the cold, with darkness, with discomfort... as much as I enjoy company, I actually value the coming months of peace and quiet.

Today is also the first really cold night of autumn, so a lot of my two-legged co-workers have been asking about Ginger's ability to cope with the cold. For the record, Ginger has a cozy cat-cave, a heat lamp, and a heated no-freeze bowl in her lair. For a working cat, she has a pretty cushy gig. For a working cat, I have a pretty cushy gig as well... now, let me put on a couple of more layers of clothing and head outside to inspect the premises.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

There's a Reason He Wants Ten Commandments Monuments

Scratch a fundamentalist, find a pervert- it seems that religious right hero Roy Moore has a history of molesting or attempting to molest underage girls. I guess there's nothing in the Ten Commandments specifically against diddling 14 year-olds, which is one reason we don't base our legal system on them, despite the efforts of craw-thumpers like Moore.

Predictably, the religious right doesn't give a hoot about Moore's depredations, even using scripture to justify them in some cases.

For a bunch of people who are obsessed with fake conspiracy theories involving pedophilia, these people sure do seem to tolerate the real thing.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Women Are the Wave

One my my favorite signs from last January's Women's March read "Women Are the Wall". It was a declaration that women stood as a bulwark against the depredations and depravities of the new Trump regime. Last night, with the Democratic electoral victories in New Jersey and Virginia, women were the wave, rising up against the racist, sexist, homophobic and religiously bigoted GOP candidates.

The elections of women, people of color, and LGBTQ candidates, all first-timers, was remarkable. Many of these candidates had been inspired by the Women's March, and trained during the post-march organization period. Women were the wall, now women are the wave. Let's hope that the momentum of the movement will build in the coming year, so the wave can wash away all of the flotsam in Congress.

This post was hastily composed before I head out to work- I will clean it up and post links at a quiet moment.

UPDATE: There were a lot of ugly campaigns this election season, with appeals to racism, transphobia, sexism, and religious bigotry... all of which failed. 2018 is shaping up to be quite the year, as long as people remain angry, and organized.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


Today being election day, I had to report to work by 5AM in order to prepare my workplace, a polling site, for the 5:30 influx of poll workers and the 6AM influx of voters. It's a long day, but I know the poll workers (a nice bunch of people) and many of the voters. After work, I have to rush home to Yonkers to vote.

The big issue here in New York State is a plebescite on whether or not to have a constitutional convention. I am definitely voting NO on this one, because there is too much dark money involved in politics, and too much manipulation of political processes by hostile foreign powers. New York is a bastion of liberal, progressive values, it's too damn risky to give weirdo right-wing creeps like the Mercer family a shot at undoing a century and a half of progress in this, one of the most liveable, liberal states in the Union.

Monday, November 6, 2017


I'm not a wealthy person, but I'm doing okay... that being said, I try to cultivate a certain form of sophistication appropriate for an East Coast Elite type: I am well-read and well-fed, having an extensive personal library and an experience of diverse cuisines. Lately, I have been craving a nabemono, having learned how to make a passable one from my Tokyo-born sister-in-law (my brother Sweetums' wife), but have so far settled for a boil-up of chicken thighs, savoy cabbage, tofu, and mochi finished off with some rice noodles since I haven't been able to shop for aburaage, atsuage, and shirataki lately. Yeah, I don't have a lot of money, but what I have I can spend so that I seem to punch above my weight lifestyle-wise.

After this long-winded introduction, I have to note that our president, despite his wealth and pose of class, is an inaka mono, despite having grown up in the diverse borough of Queens, NY. The guy, on a state dinner with the Prime Minister of Japan, had a hamburger for lunch. Face, palm, I believe you've met... Trump is the quintessential clueless tourist, the guy who loudly orders steak tartare and complains even more loudly that it hasn't been cooked. He's in a nation known for its refined cuisine, and he orders a hamburger? It could have been worse, though, the burger was made of American beef, so at least Trump didn't blasphemously insist on a well-done burger made of Wagyu beef. Sou desu ne?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Honor System for the Dishonorably Discharged

Another day in 'Murka, another mass shooting. This time, the shooter was a guy who was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force, though CNN reporter Dianne Gallagher indicated that he was able to purchase a firearm even though his dishonorable discharge should have prevented him from doing so:

Official says Kelley checked box to indicate he didn’t have any disqualifying criminal history on background paperwork

He checked a box on a form... just fucking great. He was dishonorably discharged, but his gun purchase was done on the honor system?

UPDATE: Predictably, the shooter's court-martial was for domestic violence, yet another case of the link between domestic violence and domestic terrorism.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

What if They Scheduled an Insurrection and Nobody Came?

It's been weird reading up on the rightie conspiracy theory that there would be an 'Antifa Revolution' today, largely promulgated by Youtube lunatics. The craziest of the lunatics are convinced that 'Antifa' will cripple the United States with an Electromagnetic Pulse... a particularly popular topic among conspiracy loons.

Predictably, 'news' of an upcoming insurgency against Vulgarmort brought out the bloodlust among the Chairborne Rangers, as J.J. McNabb chronicles. These people really love their violent fantasies of the streets running red with blood, their hate-boner dreams of living out a Sylvester Stallone movie. I guess if the only tool you have is a gun, every problem looks like a target, though the vast majority of these people are all bark, no fight.

The response among the snarky left-of-center crowd has been hilarious, with plans for a post-revolution regime being bandied about. My wish is that Tweety Amin gets exiled to Saudi Arabia so he can spend more time with his orb.

In reality, the Right will spin this fake insurgency as a victory, a hard-fought skirmish won by internet tough guy talk rather than a trumped-up hoax that they all fell for.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Catching up on Other People's Halloween

I just started catching up on the news, and I found an image of the White House Halloween party:

What a costume! It depicts a vicious predator with a tiny brain and absurdly small fore-claws... oh, and there's someone dressed as a Tyrannosaur as well.

In other hilarious Halloween news, local artist and academic Amy Finkel left a Mueller jack o'lantern in front of Paul Manafort's Brooklyn home. Well played, professor.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Pondering the Victims

Tuesday was one of those surreal days- I was swamped with work, but was aware that a terrorist attack had been perpetrated in Lower Manhattan. After the initial reports, I switched the car radio to a music station for the ride to work because I really don't like to be inundated with speculation, misinformation, and malinformation. Better to wait until the basic facts are known, and catch up with the news later.

The real horror, as opposed to the terror, of terrorist attacks on soft targets is that the victims are usually people who are just out minding their business, going to work, or having a good time at a concert or a festival. In this latest attack, I am particularly saddened by the deaths of the five Argentine high school friends who had come to NYC with other classmates for a class reunion. Two local men and a Belgian woman were also killed, a testament to the international appeal of my beloved New York City (second only to the City of Y______ in my heart).

In contrast, the perpetrator was a violent fuckup who became radicalized- thankfully, he was too incompetent to arm himself with more than a paintball gun and a pellet gun for his post-motorized rampage stand. Thankfully, he was also too stupid to begin his rampage at night, when the streets are full of hundreds of thousands of Halloween revelers.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Finally Able to Surface

October is now behind me, and I didn't have to put anyone through a wall. It's been quite the slog, but it's nice to be able to earn some overtime pay... the next couple of weeks will also involve extra hours because we need somebody on site while the installations of the fundraisers are removed. At least I don't have to deal with the public much in the coming weeks. It's not as if I don't like people, but having crowds of them to deal with gets to be old after a couple of weeks. In one particularly odious case, the high-pressure tank in our handicapped-accessible toilet was put out of order (somehow, a metal bar gets pulled out of alignment at times, and has to be pulled into place)... I don't know why people don't approach any employees with problems like this, and throwing more toilet paper in the bowl doesn't fucking help.

One of the hallmarks of the Fall fundraisers is the use of contractors to assist the in-house staff. Some of the temporary workers have been impossible to deal with- in particular, one woman was found to have slipped twenties in among the singles in a cash register she was working, and she got into an argument with our long-time concession operator- she was not invited to return. Another winner had the temerity to ask one of our shop managers where the money from retail sales was kept, and was bounced. Of course, we also had plenty of great temps, including one Yonkers native who was extremely helpful to our retail staff and a genuinely nice fellow. If I had pull in the retail division, I would recommend that they hire him.

Our parking attendants for hire have been uniformly excellent. While a good portion of them are repeat contractors, there were plenty of new faces. Most of these folks are young African-American and Latino guys, with an admixture of a few women. Quite a few of them are Yonkers residents, my kind of people. One of the managers was a new hire, an older guy who had a good way with the younger employees... by the end of the month, I felt as if I'd known him for years. The company they work for is growing in the region, gaining parking contracts for local train stations, medical centers, and shopping malls. They are earning the business, because their employees are polite and helpful, while being no-nonsense. Since our organization contracted with this company, they have become indispensable to the success of our events. I always tell them that they are welcome to stop by any time for a visit.

As always, October was a slog, but things get real quiet real soon. The slog pretty much pays my salary, as the fundraisers contribute mightily to our operating costs. I have long described my job as 'really cushy, except when it's not', and it's the 'not' days which make the cushy part possible.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Something Eerie for Halloween

This morning, I am working a post-event graveyard shift, having arrived at 9PM for the tail end of the festivities (I will be returning at 5PM for a long slog). After locking up, I decided that I would take a break and begin watching a cult-classic throughout the night, between my tasks. I chose the low-budget ($30K!) high-concept Carnival of Souls. The film is in the public domain, and can be found in its entirety on the t00bz:

The initial sequence of the film immediately reminded me of Ambrose Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and the film covers similar ground. The core of the film is Candace Hilligoss' performance as Mary Henry, the irreligious organist who leaves the town in which she suffered an accident to be become a church organist in Utah. Hilligoss, doe-eyed and high cheekboned, is a luminous presence, her toughness as a survivor contrasted with her vulnerability to hallucinations and convictions that she is becoming disjointed from reality. She has to fend off the advances of both her slimy lothario of a boarding-house neighbor and the advances of a cadaverous man played by film director Herk Harvey, all the while being beset by episodes of intangiblity and the attentions of ghastly apparitions. The ending of the film is appropriately Biercian.

Reading up on the film after watching it, there is a great feminist interpretation of the movie, with the female protagonist bucking the roles that society expects of women and dealing with the haranguing condescension of even the nominally sympathetic men around her, such as the minister who fires her for her 'profane', apparition-inspired playing or the doctor who tries to treat her for her attacks.

The movie isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, some of the acting by the majority-amateur cast is clunky, and the pacing could be tightened up a bit, but it is a memorable one, and one which can be interpreted in many ways (are the creepy ghouls from the pavilion, along with the cadaverous man himself, evil, or are they attempting to help Mary with her transition to the afterlife?). It's a nice, eerie bit of cinema with an amazing back-story which casts a long shadow on the horror movie genre... a nice watch for Halloween.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Slight Touch of Déjà Vu

Five years ago, Superstorm Sandy hit the area, imiserating millions of persons in the NY metro area. I escaped unscathed, though I did have to camp out on the job for four days without heat or electricity because no gasoline was to be had, so a lot of my co-workers were unable to get to work, and it fell on me to 'shelter in place' on the job, which was preferable to getting stuck on the side of the road with an empty gas tank.

Well, today we're experiencing a tropical storm, with heavy rains and potentially hazardous winds. While this storm is piddly compared to Sandy, it was enough to get us to cancel our fall fundraisers for the evening. I spent a good deal of time outdoors making sure that people who hadn't checked their email for cancellation notices were turned away in a diplomatic fashion. I also made sure the drains and sewer grates weren't blocked by fallen leaves and pine needles, and put some flood barriers and absorbent synthetic 'sandbags' in the basement in case of local flooding.

The power is on, as you can surmise by this post, and the storm isn't nearly as fierce as Sandy, but I can't help but feel a twinge of déjà vu. Five years ago, one of the managers and I were scrambling madly around the site, taking down lanterns and lantern-stakes to prevent wholesale breakage. Tonight, we were making sure the hatches were battened down in the main building, and turning away visitors. It wasn't as frantic as it was then, but the general feeling that we've been through this storm-crap before is unshakeable.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Recommendations for a Friend

Like many people, myself included, a friend of mine likes to read horror fiction in the month of October. It's a nice lead-in to Halloween. He likes audiobooks, having a somewhat long subway commute to work (as an aside, my commute home from SSC on Wednesday night was a horror story- there was a 4 train stuck in the northbound tunnel near 138th St in the Bronx, accompanied by construction on the other track, so the delays were terrible). Asking specifically for a supernatural tale of terror or two, I unhesitatingly directed him to M.R. James, who I mentioned in a recent blog post, steering him towards Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. The book, which is in the public domain, is available at Gutenberg, with an audiobook at Librivox. I specifically recommended he try 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, Lad' and 'Count Magnus'.

I figure that, if you want supernatural tales, go for the classic, and the classy.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: This Lecture's Gone Viral

On Wednesday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring evolutionary biologist and virologist Dr Paul Turner of Yale University. Dr Turner titled his lecture Viruses: Good, Bad, and Ugly, in homage to his favorite spaghetti western.

Dr Turner began his lecture by addressing the amazing biodiversity of the planet, displaying first a list of North America's 'big five' charismatic megafauna- grizzly bears, caribou, moose, bighorn sheep, and wolves, contrasting it with an invisible 'big five' of North America- the Giardia protozoan, the influenza virus, the HIV retrovirus, a bacteriophage, and the Cordyceps fungi. He posed the question, are microbes nasty? His answer was that this was not necessarily true, that microbes can benefit human health. In humans, the microbiome, the community of bacteria, fungi, and viruses within the body, outnumbers the body's own cells. The microbiome can affect one's risk of heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses- it also plays a role in an individual's weight. It is currently believed that childhood exposure to microbes may help prevent autoimmune diseases, a concept known as the hygiene hypothesis. In experimental helminthic therapy, irradiated hookworm eggs are introduced into subjects in order to reduce autoimmune diseases. Dr Turner summed up this part of the lecture by noting that we live in a microbial world.

He then posed the question: What is a virus? After repeating his theme of ugly, good, and bad viruses, he posed another question: Might a virus save your life someday? Cellular life can be divided into three broad categories- bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes... all of which form cells enclosed by a membrane. In contrast, viruses do not form cells, they characteristically have genetic material, DNA or RNA, surrounded by proteins. Viruses come in many forms- typical bacteriophages have tail vanes (Dr Turner facetiously compared them to the lunar lander). Influenza viruses contain RNA in the center of a protein shell. Viruses have a non-cellular life cycle. In order to reproduce, a virus enters the proper cell type, injects its genetic material, the viral genetic material hijacks the cell metabolism to copy itself, and the viral offspring are released from the cell.

Viruses are biodiverse, most are sub-microscopic... an electron microscope is needed to observe them. Influenza viruses and rhabdoviruses come in many shapes. Virus size does not correlate with host size- a whale can be infected by small viruses, a bacterium by large ones.

The evolutionary origin of viruses is a mystery- viruses appeared billions of years ago. Dr Turner posed a multiple choice question. A. Did viruses evolve before bacteria, being inhabitants of an RNA-based world that existed before DNA evolved? B. Did viruses evolve as parasites within cellular organisms? C. Are viruses 'devolved' cellular information? D. Did viruses arrive to Earth from space? Dr Turner jocularly illustrated these last two options with a picture of Devo and a picture of the lunar lander juxtaposed with a bacteriophage. Dr Turner indicated that A, B, and C are the three leading ideas.

Viruses reproduce very quickly, while bacteria can reproduce rapidly through binary fission, viruses can grow even faster as their progeny are formed in the cells of other organisms. Viruses are very abundant, they thrive in all environments, and they outnumber all other organisms. They are the most numerous of Earth's inhabitants. The human global population is approximately 7.2 billion, while the global virus population is estimated to be 1031. If the genes of all of the Earth's viruses were laid end-to-end, they would stretch to the Perseus Cluster, approximately 250 million light years away.

We live in a viral world- the bad viruses make the news, they are the viruses that are researched. There is evidence of ancient viral diseases- the Pharaoh Siptah had a clubbed foot that suggests polio, which is probably depicted on an image of a priest on a stele dating to 3700BCE. The mummified remains of Ramesses V indicate that he had suffered a case of smallpox. The polio virus is common in soil, it is usually harmless to humans, but becomes extremely dangerous when it enters the human nervous system. The smallpox virus was rendered extinct in its natural environment, the human body, and exists only in labs at the CDC and in Russia.

Dr Turner then took us on a tour of deadly epidemics- the 'Ugly' viruses. The 1918 flu killed 50 million to 100 million victims, a single flu strain managed to infect approximately 500 million individuals before the advent of commercial air travel. In our modern era, where travel is common, a flu epidemic may be just as deadly if the available vaccines don't match the flu strain. The Great Plague of the 14th century, which killed approximately 40% of Europe's population, is generally blamed on the bacterium Yersinia pestis, but other pathogens may have contributed to the death toll, hygiene and sanitation being sub-par at the time. The smallpox epidemic which began in 1520 in the New World decimated the Native American populations, but there are no estimates of the death toll. The AIDS epidemic, which is generally considered to have started in 1981, has claimed 39 million lives, with 78 million likely infected.

Virus emergence is a continual process- viruses can 'jump into' humans from other organisms. Bats commonly harbor viruses, which are often transmitted to pigs, then from the pigs to humans. HIV has jumped from other primates to humans, with HIV1 originating in chimpanzees and the less lethal HIV2 originating in monkeys. The HIV strains were probably introduced to humans between the 1920s and 1940s. Flu viruses are commonly transmitted by birds, especially waterfowl. The human immune system is 'naive' to bird flus- infection is easy, and we don't have the money and time to prevent 'fires', just to put them out. The mosquito born Zika virus was first identified in a rhesus monkey, only recently emerging in humans.

After dealing with the positively ugly viruses, Dr Turner focused his attention on the merely 'bad' viruses. Some viruses make you sick but don't kill you. He repeated the 1969-vintage quip: "We can put a man on the moon but we can't cure a common cold." Colds are caused by a variety of rhinoviruses. If an individual has respiratory problems, such as asthma, a cold can be serious, but many people are healthy enough to go to work with a cold, becoming links in the chains of contagion. Rotaviruses can kill children, but generally don't kill adults. Approximately 5% of child deaths in the developing world can be attributed to rotaviruses, which cause severe, dehydrating diarrhea.

Dr Turner then posed the question, can viruses be used in biocontrol of pests? He brought up the use of myxomatosis, the dreaded 'white blindness' of Watership Down, to control the invasive rabbit population of Australia in the 1950s. While partially successful, this introduction generally failed because the virus tended to kill rabbits before they had a chance to transmit it. Dr Turner chalked this up to yet another example of the folly of introducing invasive species to Australia.

Dr Turner then focused his attention on the 'good'- are viruses good for ecosystems? He noted that an absence of predators tends to throw biological systems out of balance, citing the absence of the wolf in most of North America, and the resultant explosion of the deer population, as a factor in the spread of the bacteria that cause Lyme disease... fewer deer, less Lyme. Viruses indirectly regulate the photosynthetic activity of cyanobacteria in the oceans. Cyanobacteria evolved about 3.5 billion years ago, and altered Earth's atmosphere by elevating oxygen levels. Cyanophages outnumber cyanobacteria by a factor of ten to one, regulating the cyanobacteria population. The cyanophages carry the genes which code for photosynthesis. Dr Turner noted that viruses infect other organisms and continually 'churn' genes. Approximately one in twenty of a person's daily breaths contain oxygen produced by virus genes.

Dr Turner then posed us a riddle: What would you trade 36 bushels of wheat, 72 of rice, 4 oxen, 12 sheep, 8 pigs, 2 barrels of wine, 4 barrels of beer, 2 tons of butter, 1000 pounds of cheese, a bed, a suit of clothes, and a silver cup for? The answer, of course, is a tulip bulb, but not just any tulip bulb, but a bulb infected by a tulip 'breaking' virus which resulted in fantastic mixtures of colors.

Dr Turner then posed the question, can viruses solve health problems? He brought up the topic of antibiotic resistence, citing MRSA and XDRTB as worrisome diseases- the drugs used to treat them pose dangers to the body. Antibiotic resistance is a global problem, and will be implicated in hundreds of millions of deaths worldwide by 2050. Bacteriophages are viruses that only kill bacteria- they could be used as an alternative to chemical antibiotics. Bacteriophages could be used as a self-amplifying drug- they multiply, find and kill new bacteria. In the mid-twentieth century, the Russians and Poles invested more heavily in phage therapy than in antibiotics. Phage therapy was used to treat field wounds and cholera. In the case of cholera, patients were rehydrated and given anti-cholera phages. Bacteria can evolve phage resistance. Dr Turner asked, can we develop a strategy that works even with the evolution of resistance? He indicated that the best strategy would be to discover phages which attack bacteria by binding to virulence factors- by binding to these sites, the phages would force the bacteria to evolve phage resistance by compromising virulence. Resistance would be achieved by becoming more dangerous. OMK01 (PDF link),a recently discovered bacteriophage, found in a Connecticut lake, effects the efflux pumps that bacteria use to remove antibiotics. OMK01 forces bacteria to trade phage resistance for antibiotic resistance. Dr Turner referred us to the 6/3/2016 edition of NPR's Science Friday. In 2006, the USDA approved the use of phages to combat bacteria which can taint deli meats.

Dr Turner then posed the question, would you be here without viruses? He indicated that 10% of our DNA comes from viruses which entered the genetic germ line- these genes are known as endogenous retrovirus genes. Syncytin, a protein produced by endogenous retroviral genes, is crucial to the formation of the placenta- the protein is necessary for the proper reaction of the immune system, which does not treat the fetus as a parasite. All placental mammals are made possible by viral DNA, which is a really good note on which to end a lecture.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. Some Bastard in the audience asked if viruses could be used in gene therapy to combat genetic diseases. While viruses are good at swapping out genes, CRISPRs are better tools, simple enought to use on multicellular organisms for correcting genomes. Another member of the audience asked, are viruses alive? Viruses are often conceived as 'quasi-living', but Dr Turner considers them living because they can reproduce and they are subject to natural selection. Asked whether viruses could jump from one 'domain' of life to another, Dr Turner indicated that this is unlikely, because cross-domain protein recognition tends to be rare, though it has often been attempted in the lab. Dr Turner then brought up the topic of bacteriophage prospecting becoming a growth industry- there is an illimitable supply of viruses out there, some of which may have therapeutic value. He then pondered whether or not humans co-evolved with phages to welcome them into the body. Asked about tips in case there's another dangerous flu outbreak, he noted that people should have a home preparedness kit so they can stay home until the epidemic wanes... I guess I need to download more ebooks!

Dr Turner delivered a top-notch lecture, informative and entertaining. I'm biased toward biological subjects, so this lecture was definitely in my top tier. Dr Turner, an extremely nice guy, lingered for an 'adult beverage' afterward, and I had a brief conversation with him about OMK01, which he told me was located in Dodge Pond, a polluted body of water not far from Lyme.

Kudos to Dr Turner, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House for yet another fantastic lecture. Here's the first of a three-part video series on viral biology by Dr Turner:

Crack open a beverage and soak in that SCIENCE! Be sure to watch the other two videos in the series- more videos, more drinking, more learning.

Oh, and this month's lecture was the annual Lasker Foundation collaboration with the Secret Science Club. Special thanks to the good folks at the foundation for their support. The foundation was giving out these great T-shirts with the slogan: If you think research is expensive, try disease.