Friday, February 23, 2018

Loathesome Loesch

Two days after CNN's 'town hall' and I am still scratching my bald pate about their invitation to loathesome Dana Loesch, mendacious NRA spokescreature. Did they really need to 'balance' grieving friends and family members with a serial prevaricator and pusher of stochastic threats? Just because Loesch can almost convincingly play a simulacrum of a pretty human (note: it's all about the glossy raven tresses, probably a dye job- even Christy Moore might be fooled) doesn't mean that she deserves to be on television, not even in a sitcom.

Predictably, Loesch mendaciously played the victim, claiming that she was rushed by an audience of individuals screaming 'Burn her!' It was an odd assertion, seeing as there were cameras all over the auditorium (the 'town hall' being put on by a television network and attended by thousands of social-media savvy teens with phone cameras), and video clearly shows her exiting without any peril, though being shamed and booed. Dana not being the most stable individual on this planet, she probably thought the crowd was yelling 'Boo-urn her!':

That's pretty much all the courtesy that this slimy bottom-feeder named after a slimy bottom-feeder deserves.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


I've had robots on my mind all week, and not even sexy robots. On Monday, I attended a lecture about robots, on Tuesday I wrote a post about the lecture about robots, and on Wednesday I woke to the news that Twitter purged a whole lot of bots, causing a meltdown among the Deplorable set. Even Vulgarmort himself seems to have lost beaucoup followers in the botpocalypse (but not the kind of robot apocalypse you're thinking of), merely a housecleaning.

The meltdown really shows a great deal of immaturity on the part of the emo-boy Nazi crowd. My beloved Joan Jett had the best advice concerning fake friends:

Well, nothing to lose but the sense that yours is a mass movement, but Boston was all the proof needed for that.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Simon and the Swarmbots

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 the triumphant return of biologist, transportation expert, and all-around fantastic human being, my great and good friend Dr Simon Garnier of New Jersey Institute of Technology's Swarm Lab. Dr Garnier delivered the December 2015 SSC lecture and has been a regular attendee of lectures since then. Over the years, I have become an unabashed fanboi, but don't let him know that... he has a knack for self-deprecation, so he might be embarrassed.

I have to confess that I arrived at the lecture late, after a two-and-a-half-hour MTA ordeal. I boarded a 4 Train at the Woodlawn station, as usual, but train traffic was delayed because of a fire at 51st St in Manhattan which closed down the Lexington Avenue subway line. At 161st St, an announcement was made, suggesting transfer to the B/D line, which ends up going down 4th Avenue Brooklyn, which is exactly where I was headed. It was a no-brainer, but for the brainlessness of the MTA holiday second-stringers who were on duty- the platform for the B/D trains was closed, no trains. I had to wait for another 4 train, and take it to 149th St, to transfer to the 2 Train, which ordinarily would have taken me to Brooklyn, but for construction. I had to transfer to the N/R train at Times Square. The N train was slow-going, but I might have made the lecture on time but for the boobery of the conductor of the train, who never mentioned that there was no local service along 4th Ave. I exited the N at Atlantic Avenue and I dutifully waited on the platform for an R train to take me two measly stops... no R trains were forthcoming. On a hunch, I boarded the third N train that stopped at the station, whereupon I learned that I would have to take the train to 36th St, then transfer to a Manhattan bound local train to get to 9th St. Facchinello!

I finally arrived at the beautiful Bell House and I have to say that EVERYBODY had been worried about me, because the only lecture I'd ever missed was on the date of my father's death. I was greeted effusively by staff, Dorian and Margaret, and the regular crowd- here's a big hug and molto amore to everybody- thanks for being so great. I had arrived about halfway through Simon's lecture, and he was showing a video of swarm-robots combining to pull a child across a floor:

As usual, don't read the YouTube comments, it seems that there are too many people who refuse to see the practical applications of this technology to post-disaster rescue efforts.

One conundrum in coordinating robot 'swarms' is whether a central control should be implemented- a centralized control system would require a lot of computing power and would be hard-pressed to adapt to changing conditions. For example, a centrally-controlled swarm of aerial drones could be stymied by the presence of birds. To illustrate the capability of swarming drones, Dr Garnier showed us a video of Intel's drone exhibition for the opening of the 2018 Winter Olympics:

There are three rules to being able to swarm like a flock of seagulls starlings: If too close to another individual, move away. If too far from another individual, move closer. Align movement.

Using these three roles, the European Union is developing swarming drones with no central control, in a venture called the COLLMOT Project:

Predictably, the project is receiving major funding from military organizstions. To illustrate the potential dangers of weaponized swarming drones, Dr Garnier showed a brief clip of a fictional short titled Slaughterbots:

Suddenly, the idea of package delivery by drones is a lot less appealing...

The topic of the lecture then shifted to transportation infrastructure (my particular travail of the evening). It is estimated that $120-305 billion worth of productivity is lost to traffic each year in the United States. Dr Garnier joked that, if there were a percentage bounty for solving the problem, he'd take it. Much of the transportation infrastructure in the country is too old, was designed for less traffic, and bad behavior on the part of users compounds traffic problems. Dr Garnier displayed a video of a simulation of phantom traffic jams similar in subject matter to this video. He followed this up with Hyundai's 'Empty Car Convoy' commercial, which illustrates the 'too close slow down but not too much' approach to traffic control:

During the video, he called our attention to the 'terrible moment that didn't happen', and noted that undisciplined drivers could be helped by robots. He capped off the segment on robots by posing the question: Autonomous swarms- problem or benefit?

Dr Garnier then pivoted to the subject of morphogenesis- processes leading to the formation of functional structures. He emphasized the importance of functionality. This portion of the lecture involved discussion of structures formed by social insects. Dr Garnier displayed a diagram of an African termite mound. These structures, built by blind workers with tiny brains, can be several meters in height and have a complex 'architecture'- the queen is housed in the core of the mound, and there are multiple nurseries and fungus gardens. A central shaft provides ventilation, 'breathing' in or out in response to temperature changes. Dr Garnier noted that such ventilation systems could be incorporated into skyscrapers.

Dr Garnier then brought up to topic of stigmergy, the mechanism of communication through modification of the environment. He joked that every internet post ever is an example of stigmergy. To illustrate stigmergy among social insects, he began with the example of paper wasps- the first cell made by an individual wasp stimulates the construction of the next cell, and the process is continued until an entire nest is constructed. Put simply, the rule is 'observe what is done and make the best next step'. The simple probabilistic rules used by the wasps result in regular structures. Different rules result in different shapes, and in computer simulations, rules are modified to create new structures.

A potential application for this type of construction would be the use of swarming robots to build structures on Mars before the arrival of human explorers or colonists. Dr Garnier displayed a video of Harvard University's robot swarm construction crew:

In typically droll fashion, Dr Garnier joked 'robots are better at Lego than you' and followed it up with a hashtag: #childhoodruined. Other robots are pre-programmed self-assembly units, with the body of the robots being the actual construction materials:

Dr Garnier then brought up his particular specialty- ants, which are capable of using their own bodies with much flexibility. He opened with Australian weaver ants, which form chains in order to form nests:

He joked, "do not let these ants get on your body, they bite and they inject acid into you and they are hard to get off- I am speaking from experience."

He then displayed a video of fire ants forming rafts in order to survive floods, then shifted to the topic of army ants, which form nests out of the own bodies to protect their queen, then move and reassemble the nest. These temporary nests can conform to any environmental condition- filling tree cavities or depressions in the forest floor. The Harvard University kilobot swarm mimics the ability of army ants to form specific shaped structures:

One particularly useful skill of army ants is their ability to form self-repairing bridges:

The Harvard lab developed a climbing microbot which could possibly be developed into temporary patches for weak spots in bridges until the money is available for a more permanent fix:

Self-repairing infrastructure, it's what's needed when nobody is repairing infrastructure.

Dr Garnier finished his talk by noting that these robots in development are individually stupid, but collectively capable. I would editorialize that humans tend to be the opposite.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. One individual asked about ant castes- ants often have a diversity in body shape along with a diversity in purpose, but swarming robots tend to be uniform. Regarding the danger posed by robots, Dr Garnier noted that the danger lies in how humans use them- will the robots be delivering packages or less nice things? Dr Garnier noted that he wasn't a complex AI expert, but that swarming robots were dumb, easily controllable. He noted that swarm behavior can be exploited- for example, dolphins and sharks can often exploit swarm behavior to catch fish. Regarding computer viruses, they can exhibit swarm behavior, overwhelming computer systems through sheer volume. Some bastard in the audience asked if swarming organisms changed their behavior when introduced to novel environments, and Dr Garnier brought up the example of invasive Argentine ants- in their native environment, ant colonies are territorial, and fight each other. Introduced to alien environments, a lack of genetic diversity has led to the formation of megacolonies, such as one which stretches from the Portugese littoral along southern Europe to Italy. These colonies seem to be collapsing though, probably due to the lack of genetic diversity which led to their formation. One final question concerned Von Neumann machines, which Dr Garnier noted are far from development.

Once again, the Secret Science Club has delivered a fantastic lecture, so thanks to Simon, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House... and sincerely, thanks to everybody for your concern- I love you all. I also have to note that SSC alum, good guy, and rockstar Mark Siddall was in the audience as was the NJIT crew and some Rockefeller University scholars. The ride to the Bell House was horrible, but I would not have turned around for any reason!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Presidents' Day 2018

Presidents' Day is a bit weird this year- I worked an overnight double shift because my co-worker and I swapped shifts so I wouldn't have to travel to work in a snowstorm on Saturday night for the Sunday graveyard. We decided that the best course of action for both of us was to stay off the roads. Tonight, I will be celebrating Presidents' Day in traditional fashion- traveling to Brooklyn to hear a smart, funny Frenchman lecture about army ants and highway infrastructure.

Presidents' Day is the combination of Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays. Like most Americans, at least in the Northern and Western precincts of These United States, venerate both of these badasses. It's important, though, not to venerate these flawed men as demigods- Washington in particular had some glaring character flaws (I highly recommend this book to everybody). Lincoln, though not perfect, was one of the more enlightened white males of the 19th Century (along with Charles Darwin), and the one thing that he can be legitimately criticized for was, in my estimation, necessary. Yeah, Washington and Lincoln were flawed, but I feel that their virtues outweigh their flaws, indisputably in the case of Lincoln.

That brings me to the current occupant of the White House... I can't think of any virtues that the guy embodies. Wisdom, temperance, mercy, eloquence- all are foreign to him. Hell, one could say that he loves at least one of his children, but even that has a creepy vibe. Hell, one can't even say that the guy is making the trains run on time. All flaws, no virtue... I might have to drink more tonight than is usual.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Gender Neutral Canadian Anthem

I'm late to the party, but I figured that, given the fact that my blogroll conforms to Can Con (and Kon Kan) standards, I should weigh in on the gender-neutral lyrical changes to the Canadian National Anthem, which I'm pretty sure is Fantasy by Aldo Nova:

The lyrical changes, which have upset conservative talking heads, really shouldn't be controversial, as they are minor, and convey a better sense of Canadian society.

The line: See the girls with the dresses so tight give you love, if the price is right has been changed to See the peeps with the dresses so tight give you love, if the price is right. As Tengrain chronicles in his Fashion Week posts, dresses aren't limited to the girly type persons.

The second verse of the song required the most revision:

Outta sight, buy your kicks from the man in the white
Feels all right, powder pleasure in your nose tonight
See the men paint their faces and cry
Like some girls, it makes you wonder why
City life, sure its cool, but it cuts like a knife, it's your life

Again, the changes are a better reflection of Canadian culture:

Outta sight, buy your kicks from the person in white
Feels all right, powder pleasure in your nose tonight
See the mimes paint their faces and cry
Like some kids, it makes you wonder why
City life, sure its cool, but it cuts like a knife, it's your life

The Canadian martial-arts community is a diverse one, and you are just as likely to get kicked by a woman in a white gi as by a man, and don't even think about going mano-a-mano with a senior citizen or a member of the First Nations.

The bit about the mimes is a call-out to the French contributions to the Canadian art scene. Finally, the original assertion that only girls make you wonder way was insufficient to explain the Canadian spirit of inquiry.

All told, the new gender-neutral language in the Canadian national anthem is a welcome change, and it is to be expected that Aldo Nova will be changing his name to Aldx Novx to better reflect his greatest contribution to the Canadian songbook.

Oh, and a belated happy National Flag of Canada Day to my Canadian readers. Fess up, Flag Day is celebrated in February because that's the month in which the Canadian flag instills fear in any and all rival nations.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A Monstrous Proposal

It seems that, after every mass school shooting, right-wing troglodytes vie to determine which one of them will utter the most outrageous proposal to deal with the problem of gun violence in order to derail any conversation about sensible gun regulation. The post Parkland shooting news cycle has Fox' Gret Gutfeld taking the prize in this dubious endeavor- he believes that school children should be trained in hand-to-hand combat:

You have to be rational about it, which means hardening soft targets through drills and training. Learning combat. Learning hand-to-hand combat. This works, by the way, for terror, if there’s a terror attack, and it works for school shootings.

...How do you improve upon this rationally? Well, you train them. That simple.

I teach children's judo classes, I teach hand-to-hand combat to children as young as five. It would be a gross dereliction of duty and a violation of any sane code of ethics to suggest to my students that they should attack an assailant armed with a firearm. I would expect to be run out of the dojo if I told the children to emulate scenes from Walker, Texas Ranger. I've had to sit through 'Run Hide Fight' videos yearly for quite some time now, and I would tell my young students to run like hell or to find a really good hiding space.

Gutfeld isn't alone in this idiotic stance- a few years back, new WaPo hire Megan McAddled opined that children should rush an active shooter. Swarm tactics can effectively be used on active shooters, such as the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church gunman, but the effectiveness of this approach is predicated on having the knowledge to recognize when a shooter is preoccupied, and the body mass to subdue that individual. It's really not an option for kindergartners.

The real problem with this sort of foolishness is the misuse of public airtime to distract from the real issue at hand- the ease with which an unstable individual with a history of making threats and of torturing animals can get a gas-operated killing machine. I believe in the Second Amendment, with one critical caveat- that the whole damn thing be enforced, particularly the clause regarding the 'well-regulated militia'. If you want an Armalite rifle, you should have to prove your competence, not only in the use of said firearm, but in navigating the day-to-day business of living. I would also advocate a probationary period, similar to that which beginning drivers are subjected to. Can't undergo three months of training and evaluation to take control of your shooting iron? Well, you are not mature or stable enough to have it. Teaching hand-to-hand combat to children, promotions are dependent on testing, not only of the students' knowledge and ability to apply it, but of their ethics, the way they approach the sport, the way they approach each other. Incidentally, we promoted a bunch of our beginning students to yellow belts- last week, we told them to engage in self-directed play for a half hour, observing them as they practiced the techniques they have learned and occasionally asking them questions about vocabulary or history. They weren't even aware that they were being tested. The kids are well-regulated, and someone who seeks the awesome responsibility of owning an instrument solely designed to kill humans should be subject to an even greater degree of regulation. No obfuscating bullshit about untenable 'solutions', our society needs action to curtail the low-grade civil war which is putting our children in the morgue, in the hospital, in grief-counseling.

The title of the post is cribbed from Jonathan Swift's masterpiece of Juvenalian satire, but the Gutfelds and McArdles of the world aren't being satirical, they are merely monstrous.

I'll be leaving for Manhattan soon in order to teach, and I will make sure to cherish the kids in our classes. I won't act surprised when our five year-old hand holder grabs one of my meaty paws, I will praise our serious fourteen year-old for her kindness in playing with her younger cohorts. A few weeks ago, the mother of one of our five year-olds asked me about the safety of the sport, and after rattling off statistics, I paused and asked her to look at the adults on the mats- look at the gray hairs, look at people in their forties, fifties, and above playing the sport. My sincere wish is that her daughter decides to stick with the sport, and still plays it long after I haue ſhufflel’d off this mortall coile. I sure hope that she will live in a society which isn't plagued by regular blood sacrifice.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Meanwhile, on the Home Front

Days after the story of brave high school faculty members sacrificing themselves to protect their students, we have a local horror story- twin brothers, one of them a teacher, from the Bronx have been arrested in a bomb plot targeting children: “Under the full moon the small ones will know terror.”

To compound the horror of it all, the teacher, who had been caught having an affair with a fifteen year-old girl, had enlisted the aid of students in dismantling fireworks for bomb-making material. In the annals of bad teachers, I think this asshole is in the running for top dog.