Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween? HUMBUG!!! or Sorry, Dylan

October is my hell-month on the job. My ordinary workplace dream, time spent wandering a pretty site with funny cats, is replaced by a month of dealing with the public and running all over the site for hours, making sure that the site is ready for the influx of people, and then running all over the site to make sure that the place is cleared and closed.

Aunt Snow, who has been waging a one-woman campaign against beauty deficit disorder, put up a post commemorating Dylan Thomas' centenary. In her post, she linked to Poem in October. Well, I have my own October poem:

Eyes are droopy,
Feeling poopy.
Get no sleep,
I won't weep.
One more weekend,
Then I'm free, friend.

You know your life has taken a nutty turn when you actually look forward to November.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Handsome Drake

This year, I was ecstatic to note that a pair of wood ducks chose my principal worksite to raise a family. Longtime readers may recall that I am partial to the birds, which are often considered the handsomest of the North American waterfowl. I had noticed a couple of the ducks on the property last fall, probably mid-migration, and I was happy to see that we had a spring-to-fall presence of the ducks.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw the drake foraging with a bunch of other ducks and geese. The wood ducks tend to be shy, so he led the other birds on a pell-mell run to the pond on site. He's the handsome bird on the left-hand side:

Ordinarily, the geese would linger on land, cropping grass, not fleeing unless one were to actively chase them. The handsome drake, though, is shy. I haven't seen much of him, more frequently coming across his gal pal and their ducklings. I think this winter, I may cobble together a nesting box to attract additional wood ducks to the site.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Sandy Anniversary

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture. This month's lecture featured physicist and atmospheric scientist Dr Adam Sobel of Columbia University. Two years ago, Dr Sobel delivered a lecture on the science of Superstorm Sandy in the aftermath of the storm. On the two-year anniversary of Sandy, he returned to the Bell House to discuss people's reactions to scientific predictions.

Dr Sobel jumped right into the topic, showing a slide depicting the October 24th GFS forecast, a deterministic model of weather conditions. This particular model showed that the jetstream had dipped far south, and the 10/24 model produced by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts was an accurate model of the actual course of the storm. On the Wednesday before the storm hit the NY metro area, models indicated uncertainty about the eventual landfall- storms are chaotic systems so slight changes in the characteristics will result in larger eventual changes. On Thursday, the five-day forecast produced by the National Hurricane Center was dead-on. Dr Sobel noted that weather forecasts are great scientific achievements resulting from steady progress. Better computers allow forecasters to make better models, therefore they make better predictions.

When Sandy made landfall, it was a post-tropical storm- it was by no means a weaker storm, but it lacked the symmetry typical of tropical cyclones. Tropical storms are symmetrical and are warm at their center, they gain their energy from the warmth of the ocean. Winter storms are asymmetrical and get their energy from the jet stream- the temperature difference between the pole and the equator give them energy. Sandy was cold at the center- the storm was a merging of a tropic storm and a winter storm. The wind speed was 65 knots, which placed it firmly in Category 1 of the Saffir-Simpson scale. The storm was vast, with a huge area of winds and a worse storm surge. Because the storm was post-tropical, the National Hurricane Center did not issue hurricane watches or warnings north of Virginia. Under NOAA's rules, a hurricane advisory could not be issued due to the nature of the storm, a policy which has been changed. Gale warnings were made, though. On 10/27, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg held a press conference urging New Yorkers to stay indoors and to avoid low-lying areas, while warning of MTA shutdowns.

Sandy was characterized by its dramatic storm surge, basically a slow pileup of water. While the local officials did many things right, they did not issue evacuation orders on Saturday due to the lack of hurricane advisories. Dr Sobel noted that the water gets high no matter what the storm is called. NOAA's current policy is to issue hurricane warnings even if dangerous storms are not technically hurricanes.

On Sunday, 10/28, evacuation orders were given for evacuation zone "A" and the transit system was shut down. There were attempts to protect infrastructure- the electrical signals in threatened subway tunnels were ripped out and certain adits to the system were boarded up. There was a partial pre-emptive shutdown of the power grid. No evacuation orders were given to nursing homes.

Ultimately, Sandy resulted in 117 deaths in the U.S. and 50-65 billion dollars in economic damage. Most of the loss of life occurred in low-lying areas such as barrier islands, which Dr Sobel characterized as "glorified sand dunes". Among the slides depicting the destruction wrought by the storm, a picture of Mantoloking, NJ was particularly scary, as was a photo of the Hoboken, NJ PATH station.

A perusal of the NYC inundation map reveals that every area that flooded was wetlands, landfill, or barrier islands. Dr Sobel noted that the original coastline of lower Manhattan was Water St. He wryly noted that the idea that there would be flooding in Lower Manhattan shouldn't have been shocking.

Two of the worst-hit areas were Breezy Point in Queens, which was ravaged by a wildfire as well as by flooding, and Staten Island's Oakwood Beach.

Half of Manhattan was affected by a power outage and there was substantial flooding as a result of a fourteen foot storm surge. Gasoline supply chains were disrupted for weeks in the region.

Wise short-term decisions that saved many lives and much property were made, such as zone A evacuations and the measures taken to protect the subway system. The region's infrastructure, though was unprepared to withstand the storm... the South Ferry subway station, renovated in 2009, was totaled, needing $600 million dollars in repairs.

Dr Sobel then went over damage estimates from old storms, mentioning a 1992 nor'easter which flooded PATH stations. In 2011, Hurricane Irene resulted in flooding, mainly in New England and upstate New York.

Sandy was a rare event, but no scientific assessment indicated that it was an impossible event. The timing of Sandy was particularly bad- the fourteen foot storm surge coincided with a five foot high tide. In contrast, the thirteen foot storm surge from the 1821 hurricane which hit NYC hit during low tide.

Dr Sobel then brought up the role of availability bias in our reaction to storms. If a particular issue isn't pressing, people tend not to pay much attention to it. If something happens all the time, there's no need to really think about our responses to it, it becomes the "new normal". It often takes catastrophic events to inspire actions meant to mitigate damage.

He brought up the Dutch response to the 1953 Delta Flood which resulted in approximately 1800 deaths and massive economic damage. The Dutch government responded with the "Delta Works", a system of flood barriers. The Thames flood barrier was modeled on the Dutch Delta works. In 1938, the hurricane known as the Long Island Express slammed into the Northeast, resulting in approximately 600 deaths. The estuary cities of Stamford, CT, New Bedford, MA, and Providence, RI were flooded. In the 1960's a hurricane barrier was built to protect Stamford.

Dr Sobel touched on plans to protect New York City from flooding, asking "What will happen post-Sandy?" He brought up PlaNYC, a blueprint for stability and resiliency for the city. He noted that there were no plans for great storm surge barriers in New York harbor- the plan relies on local flood walls and the elevation of infrastructure.

The lecture then moved on to the topic of climate change. Dr Sobel noted the Bloomberg headline: "It's Global Warming, Stupid." He noted that it's hard to pin one storm on climate change. Human influence is not clearly detected in any upward trend in storms- there is a lot of natural variability. Currently, it is thought that climate change may result in fewer tropical cyclones, but that the intensity of storms is likely to increase, on average. Little is known about storms like Sandy, which was peculiar due to its route and its tropical/winter storm hybridization. There is a clear link between global warming and sea level rise, though. This has a bearing on flooding- in the old Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, each category of storm was typically categorized by three feet of storm surge. Sandy, however, was characterized by Category 1 winds and a Category 3 storm surge. With climate change, it's not unreasonable to jack up storm surge predictions one category. With sea-level rise, weaker storms will still result in higher surges.

Dr Sobel then stated that willful denialism of climate change is the most acute problem that we face in reacting to storms. Denialism makes taking long-term steps and unfamiliar risks to deal with storms. Availability bias is as much of a hindrance as a help. We can't wait for the problem to be compounded, though. He then ran down a quick summary of long-term predictions about weather events- the effect of climate change on tornadoes is largely unknown, but heat waves will definitely be more frequent, as will be coastal flooding. Climate change will probably simultaneously result in more droughts and more flooding. We will probably have fewer snowstorms.

The Q&A after the lecture was short and fast, and the Bastard in the audience didn't get to blurt out a question (for the record, he also had to pee like a racehorse by lecture's end). There was an interesting question about the lack of tropical cyclones in the Southeast Pacific and the South Atlantic- the climate is just not right for cyclones to form, a cold sea surface and strong wind shear combine to prevent this from occurring.

After the lecture, Dr Sobel was signing copies of his new book, Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future. The lecture itself was another triumph for the Secret Science Club- a timely exploration of a topic which has been on the minds of many New Yorkers, two years after one of the worst disasters the region has ever faced.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Thousand Dollar Bottle?!?!

My friend Peter has been in town for the past couple of days. He has been residing in San Diego for a while, but his parents still live in Yonkers. The family visited Prague, where Pete's parents were born, for a family reunion, and Peter stopped in New York to visit friends.

Over a decade ago, Peter wanted to learn everything there was to know about a very, very, very specific subject that had little-to-no practical value. He finally settled on the whiskys of Islay. He purchased a bottle from each of the distilleries located on the island, and tracked down a bottle from the Port Ellen distillery which had just closed. It was a bottle of the 1980 vintage 18 year-old whisky:

Back in the day, Peter had arranged a tasting for a bunch of us, with bottles of each of the whiskys and water and ice if we didn't want our whisky neat. I usually drink my whisky with the tiniest "teardrop" of water- dip the finger in a glass and add one drop, please. In the course of the event, we partook of the 1980 18-year Glen Ellen. On Sunday, a bunch of us got together and Peter busted out the bottle, which is about half-full.

If you look at the collectors' prices for Port Ellen scotch, they range from hundreds of pounds to thousands of pounds. If it had remained unopened, Peter's bottle would probably have been worth about $750-800. Sharing the bottle was worth a lot more, and he'll be bringing the bottle back with him to San Diego, where one of his co-workers is a Scotch aficianado. The whisky is a rarity, and it will be a treat for this guy to try a nip of such a nonesuch.

I take a pretty dim view of "collectors", probably due to the sort of people who hoard comic books and toys, driving up the prices so that families with little kids can't afford them. Toys were meant to be played with, books to be read, and whisky to be drunk. If Peter had held onto the unopened bottle, he could have sold it at a handsome profit, but the stories that he'll be able to tell about sharing the scotch will friends are so much more valuable.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Tactful Tactic

During our nighttime events, we light our sites with lanterns in order to provide a certain atmosphere to the proceedings. Along the path to the parking lot, the lanterns are secured to their stakes with plastic zip-ties to discourage theft. Needless to say, there are occasional attempts to walk off with a lantern.

Last Friday, some asshole cut the two zip-ties and walked off with a lantern. One of our contracted parking valets, seeing the guy carrying a clearly stolen lantern, intercepted him and grabbed the lantern, saying: "Thank you, sir, for picking up the lantern that fell to the ground."

It was a perfect response, unexpected enough to unbalance the guy, tactful enough to let him leave chastened but with some semblance of dignity (though clearly looking like a total thieving asshole to any witnesses.

The valet who pulled off this coup is an immigrant from Latin America, his English is okay but not fluent- but certainly good enough to navigate a particularly prickly social encounter while yielding the best possible result. The valets who work for our parking contractor deal with the public all the time, encountering dicks and d-bags on a regular basis. They are all post-graduate students in the study of human nature... an education that a lot of overprivileged natives never get.

I love these guys.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Silent Hollow

This being the Halloween season, I'm up to my keister in work, so I typically set up posts in advance and use the "scheduling" option. I also rely a lot on posting videos. This being the Halloween season, and me living in the Hudson River Valley, I typically put up one or two posts about Sleepy Hollow this time of year. Today's post features Edward D. Venturini's 1922 silent film The Headless Horseman, an adaptation of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow starring Will Rogers as Ichabod Crane. The film is overlong, and this particular video has a repetitive soundtrack, but it captures nicely the "Dutch vs English" subtext in the original story:

At the fifty-seven-and-a-half minute mark, there is a brief shot of laughing African-American children watching Ichabod Crane dancing... this seemingly out-of-place scene is actually straight out of Irving's original:

And now the sound of the music from the common room, or hall, summoned to the dance. The musician was an old grayheaded negro, who had been the itinerant orchestra of the neighborhood for more than half a century. His instrument was as old and battered as himself. The greater part of the time he scraped on two or three strings, accompanying every movement of the bow with a motion of the head; bowing almost to the ground, and stamping with his foot whenever a fresh couple were to start.

Ichabod prided himself upon his dancing as much as upon his vocal powers. Not a limb, not a fibre about him was idle; and to have seen his loosely hung frame in full motion, and clattering about the room, you would have thought Saint Vitus himself, that blessed patron of the dance, was figuring before you in person. He was the admiration of all the negroes; who, having gathered, of all ages and sizes, from the farm and the neighborhood, stood forming a pyramid of shining black faces at every door and window, gazing with delight at the scene, rolling their white eye-balls, and showing grinning rows of ivory from ear to ear. How could the flogger of urchins be otherwise than animated and joyous? the lady of his heart was his partner in the dance, and smiling graciously in reply to all his amorous oglings; while Brom Bones, sorely smitten with love and jealousy, sat brooding by himself in one corner.

While certainly not up to modern standards of propriety, this passage is pretty tame by the standards of Irving's time. I'm willing to cut "Uncle Wash" some slack regarding his racial attitudes- he was a product of his time, and in comparison to most of his contemporaries, he seems to have been innocuous. More importantly, this passage underscores the fact that people of African descent have been part of the American fabric since before the U.S. existed. The heart of "Sleepy Hollow Country" is Philipsburg Manor Upper Mills, a food-processing complex (featuring a mill, a dairy, and a bakehouse) that was operated by twenty-three slaves (listed by name along with the cattle and silverware on an inventory drawn up by a probate court when Adolphe Philipse died intestate). Irving makes mention of the mill-pond on a couple of occasions in his story:

The schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle of a rural neighborhood; being considered a kind of idle gentlemanlike personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains, and, indeed, inferior in learning only to the parson. His appearance, therefore, is apt to occasion some little stir at the tea-table of a farmhouse, and the addition of a supernumerary dish of cakes or sweetmeats, or, peradventure, the parade of a silver tea-pot. Our man of letters, therefore, was peculiarly happy in the smiles of all the country damsels. How he would figure among them in the churchyard, between services on Sundays! gathering grapes for them from the wild vines that overrun the surrounding trees; reciting for their amusement all the epitaphs on the tombstones; or sauntering, with a whole bevy of them, along the banks of the adjacent mill-pond; while the more bashful country bumpkins hung sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and address.

The end of the story describes the re-routing of the roadway to its current position by the Philipsburg Manor millpond:

The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire. The bridge became more than ever an object of superstitious awe, and that may be the reason why the road has been altered of late years, so as to approach the church by the border of the mill-pond. The school-house being deserted, soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue; and the ploughboy, loitering homeward of a still summer evening, has often fancied his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.

While I prefer the Walt Disney version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, even though I'm no Disney fan, this silent version of the "legend", with all of its flaws, does include an African-American presence which has largely been erased from the history of the North.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Woman's Place Is in the Dojo

I don't usually flaunt my blog at other people's websites, but I'm posting a link to the comment threat on Amanda Marcotte's post on the doxxing of Felicia Day. In her piece, Ms Marcotte writes about a depressing trend in all too many "fandoms":

But still, I recognize exactly the phenomenon she’s talking about and it happens to a lot of women who have interests in stuff outside the female ghettos of fashion and domestic arts. (Mine would definitely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, be music fandom.) The desire for camaraderie with your fellow hobbyists outweighs nagging doubts you have that many of the men in your world think you don’t belong or that you deserve to be put in a second class position, forever having to defend your right to be treated like an expert compared to men who are simply assumed to belong. You decide those men are outliers or, if they are relatively quiet about their beliefs, you convince yourself that you’re being paranoid. Hell, if you worry about it out loud, you may even be told you’re paranoid. Often by other women who, like you, are so eager to believe that men welcome your presence that you may overlook evidence that suggests otherwise.

It's infuriating and depressing, so I figured I'd put up a feel-good post to alleviate some of the frustration that many people are feeling in this era of #gamergate foolishness.

Last Saturday, we had a special guest in the dojo to teach our students:

The woman in the blue gi with the blonde ponytail is one of the top-ranked judo players in the world... she won the gold medal in her weight class in the London Olympics (while I'm not posting her name, there aren't too many Olympic gold medal winners, so a little research will show you her stellar record). I snapped a picture of her teaching a bunch of seven-and-under girls zenpo kaiten, or forward-roll breakfalls. She taught four classes for us, boys and girls ranging in age from six to fifteen. After each class, she let the kids dogpile her while touching her gold medal... it was quite a sight to see her jovial face peering out from a passel of children, her smile shining brighter than the medal.

Also in the picture, from left to right: the gent sitting on the windowsill is a good friend of our gold medalist, visiting from London. The gentleman in the white gi next to him is a dear friend I jokingly refer to as "Morocco's George Clooney"- he visited Shanghai on business and a bunch of the locals took him for the real deal. The woman in the red polo shirt is one of our soccer coaches, who hails from Argentina... her daughter is one of the rolling students. The gentleman to the left of our guest Olympian is the father of one of our students. The imposing gent to the right is a dear mentor of mine, also from Morocco ("Berber Badass" would be a good nickname for him). On the uttermost right, that cascade of hair belongs to one of the teenaged counselors who shepherd the kids from activity to activity... I have known this young woman since she was small enough to fit in a peanut shell. I know you're not supposed to play favorites, but it's hard not to, and she has always been close to our hearts. The Italian guy and the Brazilian guy aren't in the picture because they are off to the right sparring. The other Olympic gold medal winner is also off to the side, teaching an adult student. Gentle Jimmy G. from Jersey hasn't arrived yet, he comes in on his lunch break to get his fight on before returning to work.

So there you have it- an amazingly competent, dynamic woman who excels in a largely male milieu of international scope, teaching a bunch of young girls with gusto and humor. The haters can go stuff their precious game controllers up where neither Sol nor any alien sun shines. The good guys want women to be fearless.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ottawa Outrage, Ottawa Outcome

I was shocked and appalled by the murder of Canadian soldier Nathan Cirillo by a career criminal who decided to embark on a jihadi's course. One thing that struck me, though, is that the shooter was only able to kill one individual before being shot by House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers.

Imagine how different such a shooting would have been in the United States, the land in which porn magazines are more heavily regulated than gun magazines. Only one victim? Here in 'Murka, there would have been many more, perhaps a double digit body count. How's that for American exceptionalism?

While the outrage is just as appalling, the outcome was a lot better in Ottawah than it would have been stateside.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Buon Viaggio Mama!

My mom left today on a trip to Italy. My brother Vincenzo, who is a career officer in the U.S. Army, is stationed in the vicinity of Vicenza, and is attached to the African Command. He shipped out to Liberia to oversee the construction of medical facilities to combat the Ebola outbreak. Mom is flying out to help my sister-in-law take care of the kids. Vin's deployment is somewhat open-ended, and he will have to undergo a three-week quarantine when he leaves the "hot zone". Mom is retired, and she has a neighbor she refers to as her "other son" who can take care of her house and yard while she is away, so her European trip is open-ended, like Vin's deployment.

My mom was understandably concerned when she learned that Vin was deploying to Liberia. In a long conversation with her, I noted that the hype and fear-mongering about Ebola was overblown. Vin would be engaged in logistical support- he won't be acting as medical staff, so his risk of exposure to the virus is pretty low. We then had a lament about the failure to fund and support the State Department, so a lot of the tasks that should be performed by our diplomatic and developmental professionals now fall on our military... if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.

I'm going to go off on a brief tangent now... given the history of Liberia as a refuge for freed African-American slaves, the failure of the U.S. government to lend support to this nation is unconscionable. We should have backed the Liberian people, recognizing their cultural connection to the United States, and helping them to establish a healthy democratic society in order to help in the development of the African continent. I would hazard a guess that a combination of racism and a desire to exploit the peoples of Africa economically was responsible for the neglect of the fledgling nation that was founded by Americans. It's yet another case of us failing to live up to our lofty stated ideals. Pity we were never as good as we claimed to be.

At any rate, mom's on the move, Vin's in the field against an enemy that all humans can agree must be vanquished. Good voyage to mom, good health and good fortune to Vin and his family.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Securitism and Stealing

Last week, WNYC's Leonard Lopate interviewed James Risen on scams and fraudsters making millions off of "homeland security". The good folks at Crooks and Liars are covering the same territory. Simply put, there were a shitton of grifters, many of them well-connected, but some of them just Walter Mitty types who could spout a line of bullshit that impressed the dunderheads in the Bush Maladministration. Besides being a creepily Orwellian bureaucracy, the "Department of Homeland Security" (can we dissolve it already) was a West-West wonderland for yahoos with power-trip fantasies and for straight-up crooks, and for a third class of creep that were a combination of the two. The DHS hires seem to be even worse than the horse-fancying horse's ass who was tapped to lead FEMA (and who CNN saw fit to bring on to comment on the current Ebola situation). WTF, CNN?

The most damaging legacy of the Reagan administration was the complete denigration of government competence. Somehow, in the past forty-odd years, the American public was sold the notion that the private sector was better able to deliver goods and services than the public sector. Throughout the course of these past few decades, the American people have been transformed from citizens to consumers... now, with the advent of the Sociopathocracy, we have made the final transition, from consumers to consumed, prey to cheats and frauds. The amount of taxpayer dollars that was funneled to lunatics, losers, and liars to keep up an ineffectual security-industrial complex is utterly appalling. In the absence of competent defense and security protocols, we are left with securitism, a self-perpetuating farrago of fear-mongering and empty gestures meant to overawe the true enemy of the DHS, which is the American taxpayer. Meanwhile, real safety falls by the wayside as dangerous industries are allowed to operate without regulation, infrastructure crumbles, and the day-to-day operations of well-meaning, competent public servants are underfunded.

Hopefully, the voting public will come to its senses in time to realize that "small government" advocacy really means "big heist" advocacy in time for the upcoming midterm elections. If we ever want to be able to afford nice things again, we need to stop shoveling millions into the coffers of thieves.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

That Boner Guy Was Right

By the time this post appears, the annual Fall fundraiser will be half over. As of the wee hours of Saturday morning, we've only had one visitor taken to the hospital (passed out due to not eating all day) and one fence-jumper nabbed by security- the kid was from one of the wealthier burgs in this oh-so-wealthy county. When the security guard made him call his parents, the affluent assholes said they were eating dinner. When told that their son would be delivered to the custody of the local gendarmes if they didn't pick him up within a half-hour, they changed their dinner plans. Ah, affluenza... asshole parents, asshole kid, no repercussions for assholery. I hope the asshole's asshole buddies who hopped back over the fence razz the little shit mercilessly come Monday.

So far, it's been a month in which I've typically been getting three hours of sleep on Saturdays, a month in which I've had to excuse myself early from family functions. It's been a typically hectic October. That Boner guy and his band sung about the month:

October, kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall,
But you go on and onnn and oh-oh-oh-onnnnn, you go onnnnnnnnnnnnnn, you go onnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn.

You got that right, mister!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

American Horror Stories

This being October, not only is it the time for me to work my butt off every weekend, necessitating use of the pre-scheduling post setting, it's also time for scary stories. You want scary? Check out Robyn's post about nuclear testing. Yeah, those were some scary times... the U.S. was so afraid of the Soviet threat, it became an even bigger threat to its own existence. Robyn has that covered too.

Personally, I think the scariest of all of the proposals in the New Clear Age of the Atom was Project Plowshare:

No, that wasn't a satire. I sure wish it were!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Remembered Another Detail From Tuesday's Lecture

How the hell could I have omitted this detail from last Tuesday's lecture? In one aside, Dr Mark Siddall exhorted the audience to eat invasive species, just like the Eat the Invaders crew. I do my part, chomping down on the really aggressive Japanese knotweed. Dr Siddall singled out the invasive lionfish and the Asian silver carp which is taking over waterways in the Heartland:

In a bit about eating lampreys (the key is moderation), he mentioned that he had eaten lamprey in, if I recall correctly, Norway, and he exhorted us to depopulate the lamprey population of the Great Lakes, which is injurious of fisheries.

Now, you know what to do... eat the invaders! The only problem is if people like them too much and want to keep them around.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Bastard Favorite Gone Too Young

I was very sad to hear of the sudden death of actress Elizabeth Peña at the all-too-young age of 55. Ms Peña was the female lead of one of my all-time favorite movies, John Sayles' Lone Star. She brought a quiet dignity to her role- that of a woman forced to come to terms with her past when a former boyfriend, the town sheriff, investigates the death of his father. The film examines the racial dynamics of a small Texas border town, but the forces which separated the protagonists go beyond simple racial animus- I don't want to give away any more, go watch the movie NOW!!!

Ms Peña also lent a certain almost disconcerting sultriness to the cartoon femme fatale she voiced in The Incredibles (the best "James Bond" movie ever made).

Sadly, there aren't a lot of clips from Lone Star on teh Y00T00B, but there is one steamy scene of the movie- watch the whole movie to put the scene in context, the movie is quietly devastating:

Here are two other dear, departed figures from the past talking about the movie:

Watch the film and fall in love with Elizabeth Peña, so you can feel the loss that we, her current fans, feel. She should have been a huge star, but moronic typecasting kept her in small roles in big films and big roles in small films. She was taken from us way too early.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Secret Science Club North: Entomophagy Expectations Exceeded

Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space to attend the second-ever Secret Science Club North lecture, featuring the American Museum of Natural History's parasitologist and curator of invertebrates Dr Mark Siddall. Dr Siddall's topic was the consumption of various invertebrates for the good of the consumer and the good of the planet. Dr Siddall had delivered a previous Secret Science Club lecture about leeches back in December 2012. Before the lecture, Secret Science Goddesses Margaret Mittelbach and Dorian Devins were giving out samples of gummy worms and, more importantly, delicious mealworms and crickets:

The cocktail of the evening was the deliciously "swampy" Spineless Wonder, a blend of Bailey's, vodka, and Coca-Cola- the acidity of the cola partially curdled the Bailey's, making for a slightly chunky drink.

Dr Siddall's lecture last night was largely a travelogue/epicurean exploration. Think of a night spent listening to a very funny, very intelligent friend talking about their travels to interesting locations in the developing world and you'll get an idea about last night's lecture. Dr Siddall began by asking the audience if any members were vegans or vegetarians, moving to to asking attendees where they drew the line regarding consuming animals... would any of us eat gorilla? How about dolphins? They're relatively closely related to cows, which many of us eat. He displayed a mammalian cladogram and asked us to pick out which animals we'd eat- would any of us eat an opossum but not a wallaby? He then showed a cladogram of all known animal taxa and asked us which of these animals we would eat. He reminisced about taking university students on a tour of tidal zones and exhorting them to add taste to the other sense they used to explore the environment, serving them mussels and (at the tides ebb) sea urchin gonads. He noted that barnacles were tasty, being basically stationary shrimp encased in a stony shell, but eating the typical Atlantic barnacles was too difficult to be practical- likening barnacles to the "celery of the sea", one would burn more calories rendering them edible than one would obtain by eating. He then told of his "barnacle epiphany", trying the giant picoroco barnacle in Chile and finding it delicious. This was the first of many times in the course of the lecture in which he averred that, if in doubt about the palatability of any foodstuff, you should eat it served in a spicy broth. In an aside, he quipped that you should eat with a parasitologist if you want to know what bugs you.

To determine how squeamish the audience members were, Dr Siddall showed us a slide of huitlacoche, then he passed around a bag of tortilla chips and a container of delicious corn smut for the audience to sample. Que sabor rico!

The bulk of the lecture was occupied by a slide show of Dr Siddall in various markets in various nations, eating various invertebrates. Interspersed with pictures of Dr Siddall munching on grubs and grasshoppers, there were pictures of vultures scavenging the leavings at an outdoor market, of a jolly African matron laughing because the Americans wanted to eat mopane "worms" (in a spicy broth, of course), giant Hercules beetle grubs roasted on a stick (tastes like buttered popcorn! he quipped). He told us a funny story about the run-up to a trip to Oaxaca, when he enthusiastically told his young daughter that they would be eating chapulines, so that she was eager to be eating them in a taco with a spicy sauce and guacamole. In a picture of a bucket in a market in Korea, he remarked, "There are five phyla in that bucket!"

He advised us, if you want to know what's safe to eat, you ask the locals and you eat what the locals eat. In Madagascar, he joked about how the staple was rice- rice for dinner every day, occasionally a meal of beans, and if you were lucky, rice and beans. He then quizzed us about water safety, showing pictures of two glasses of water and asking whether one should drink the cloudy water or the clear water- answer: the cloudy water was boiled in the pot in which the rice was cooked to loosen the rice from the pot, and was safe to drink. He then showed a picture of Secret Science Club lecturer and all-around great person Evon Hekkala laid up with a bad illness she got from the water in Madagascar. He also talked about cultural savvy in the field- you should eat whatever is placed in front of you because it represents an act of hospitality from someone who can little afford it. If you are a vegan and your host or guide offers you their last chicken, eat the chicken. It's less of a sacrifice than the one made by your host.

Being the leech guy, Dr Siddall digressed on the topic of edible leeches, pronouncing the blood-suckers kinda flaccid and tasteless. The leeches to eat are the muscular carnivorous ones, like the giant earthworm eating red leeches. He showed us a portrait of himself eating a leech while a grad student working in the field- the booze bottles photoshopped out because he had shown the lecture to a bunch of grammar school students.

Another aside dealt with the "medicinal" uses of certain foods- snake is sold in the markets of Taiwan to improve virility, scorpions are sold in the winter because they are considered "hot". He then mentioned English naturalist Thomas Muffet, whose writings on the medicinal virtues of eating spiders may have inspired the nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffet.

Dr Liddall then went into a lengthy digression about the blister beetle Lytta vesicatoria, the infamous Spanish fly, the source of the blistering agent Cantharone- he related an anecdote about a pediatrician wishing to topically apply Cantharone to his daughter's arm, but he wouldn't allow the treatment until he swabbed himself with it. After much resistance, he liberally applied it to his arm, resulting in three-inch blisters- the pediatrician told him that the merest touch would be applied to his daughter's arm. He then related a tale about the Marquis De Sade giving Spanish fly laced sweets to women because the irritating agent is concentrated in the urogenital system and the "stimulation" was thought to be an aphrodesiac. He also told of a unit of the French Foreign Legion that had been laid up with painful priapism from eating the legs of frogs that had consumed Lytta vesicatoria. Frogs have a knack for accumulating insect toxins- the wickedly poisonous golden poison frog accumulates beetle toxins in its flesh. This led to a bit of advice about avoiding bright bugs- they are aposematic, they advertise their toxic status by standing out.

Another funny topic was drunken elephants- Dr Siddall noted that it would take three trailer loads of fermented marula fruits to get an elephant drunk, and that the intoxicated elephants of legend are probably tripping on poisonous insects consumed with tree bark. Another slide showed a slug happily munching on an Amanita muscaria.

Regarding locust "plagues", Dr Siddall advised us to eat the locusts, noting that it was sad that Laura Ingalls Wilder's dad didn't know that. He showed a newsreel of an African locust plague and noted that the gentleman walking through the cloud of grasshoppers ate one.

The home stretch of the lecture dealt with the nutritive value of insects. Dr Siddall noted that the worst features of malnutrition resulted from an underconsumption of protein and a lack of protein and fat diversity. Starches are easier to come by. After an strong exhortation not to eat bats, which carry ebola, Dr Siddall started to show us "nutritional labels" for various insects. To produce a pound of beef, it requires 12 pounds of feed, 5,000 gallons of water, and 31 kilowatt-hours. For a pound of chicken, it requires 2 pounds of feed, 815 gallons of water, and 4 kilowatt hours. By comparison, a pound of crickets requires 2 pounds of feed, one gallon of water, and 2 kilowatt hours.

2.5 acres can produce enough beef to feed one person, while the same land can produce a plethora of crickets. Dr Siddall exhorted us to eat more insects. Currently, three pounds of cricket "flour" typically costs around sixty dollars. Demand for edible insect products will drive costs down.

The whole lecture involved a lot of audience participation. In one exchange, a lucky bastard was able to say he ate a bug because he took advantage of the periodic influx of brown marmorated stink bugs at his workplace... and to think that earlier that day he'd only eaten cicadas among the real "bugs". Besides huitlacoche, Dr Siddall passed around figs so we could eat the tiny wasps that inhabit the inflorescenses. It was a very fun lecture with a serious takeaway- eat insects, preferably in a spicy broth.

In the Q&A, some bastard asked Dr Siddall a question in his capacity as the leech guy. Given the number of (relatively) unrelated taxa that consume blood, were the anticoagulants used by, or example, leeches and mosquitos, similar? Dr Siddall indicated that there are many factors in the coagulation cascade that can be targeted. Hirudin, the anticoagulant in the saliva of the medicinal leech, is an anti-thrombin. Different sanquivorous taxa target different parts of the coagulation cascade, some anti-coagulants attack thromin, some attack pre-thrombin, some attack platelets. There are also anticoagulants that are A-pyrases, they destroy free ATP (after the lecture, I asked Dr Siddall if any of these pyrases were proposed as anti-cancer drugs, but they are large proteins that cannot penetrate the cell walls, making them unlikely to be used against tumors).

Another audience member, who suffers from ulcerative colitis, asked Dr Siddall about nematode therapy. After briefly discussing the hygiene hypothesis, Dr Siddall emphatically stated, "People in wormy areas would rather have your allergies than their parasitic worms." He then noted that pig whipworms, which cannot reproduce in a human host, can be used with some success. He then commented on the near eradication of the hideous Guinea worm, a meter-long worm that burrows beneath the skin- last year, there were only 83 recorded cases of Guinea worm, all in South Sudan.

A funny question by an audience member regarded squeamishness- what does it take to make the bug-eating Leech Guy puke? His answer was that vomit makes him want to vomit, and that this has a really good evolutionary basis. We are descended from individuals who ate together, so if one of them ate something that made them sick, the others would be safer if they threw up as well. Those individuals who were non-pukers died off, leaving no descendents.

Asked about parasites, Dr Siddall noted that, while we are co-evolved with them, we don't need them. He then brought up toxoplasmosis, which is caused by a protozoan related to the malaria pathogen. The definitive hosts of toxoplasmosis are cats, though all mammals can act as vectors. Mice infected with toxoplasmosis tend to engage in risky behaviors- they don't fear cat urine and they are more active in the daytime... perfect behaviors to make it more likely that they will be eaten by cats. All mammals can act as hosts for toxoplasmosis- the organism tends to go through different stages in different hosts. In the bloodstream, the parasites reproduce quickly- they are "tachyzoids". In pregnant females, the tachyzoids can cross the fetal barrier in the placenta and cause birth defects (the process is known as teratogenesis). Never change kitty litter when you're pregnant- make someone else do it. Dr Siddall then joked that mosquitoes are the primary hosts of malaria, and that humans are vectoring the parasite for those poor mosquitoes.

After the lecture, Dr Siddall hung out with the crowd, fielding any and all questions. I asked him if he'd ever eaten trepang, which led to a digression on contact between Indonesia and Australia before Europeans "discovered" the continent. A young woman was asking about the feasibility of raising crickets in a community garden, and Dr Siddall noted that the insect market was unregulated but that insect producers, leery of onerous USDA crackdowns, tend to autoclave their product to forestall any scares. Some bastard joked that we should all pool our resources and start an "artisanal" cricket market and sell crickets to hipsters. That led to digressions about Brooklyn crickets (brickets- rub them with the same spices you rub on briskets) and pickled crickets- pricklets. Yeah, there was beer involved.

All told, it was a very fun night with a very engaging lecturer and some unusual snacks. Kudos to Dr Siddall, Dorian, Margaret, and the staff of the Symphony Space.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Expecting Entomophagy

Tonight, the second lecture in the Secret Science Club North series at Symphony Space on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Today's lecture will be by Secret Science Club alumnus Dr Mark Siddall of the American Museum of Natural History. Regular readers of my blog may recall that Dr Siddall presented a lecture on leeches (one of my awesome cousins was able to attend that particular lecture with me that time).

Judging from the teaser post at the SSC Blog, there will be lecture-appropriate munchies available:

In this gourmet talk, Dr. Siddall turns the food chain upside-down and inside-out and asks: What are you eating/what’s eating you? What invertebrates are incredible AND edible? Bring your appetite for science!

My (heh heh) spider sense tells me that the snacks in question won't be lobster or oysters. I'm cool with eating bugs, having dabbled in entomophagy on occasion. Back in 2010, having been nominated for the "Honest Scrap" challenge by all-around good guy and basenji fancier Johnny Pez, I offered this little tidbit:

I have knowingly and willing engaged in entomophagy. The first insect I knowingly ate was a hapless cicada that happened to be resting on a friend's screen door. A bunch of us had been drinking in the backyard. As soon as I said, "Hey, I've read that these things are edible" my friend divined my intention. Anyone familiar with cicadas knows what a racket they can make. Well, this one made a racket, until I bit its head off. I refrained from eating the wings. I would compare the experience to eating a huge celery-flavored M&M, crunchy on the outside, gooey goodness within. Subsequently, I have tried crickets, katydids, and ants (which are tangy). It goes without saying, eating the caterpillar in the mezcal bottle is a no-brainer. If I ever get my ass to the not-so-drouthy antipodes, I will refrain from throwing a weta in the deep-fryer for fear of legal sanction. To anyone "squicked out" by the prospect of eating bugs... you have accidentally done it on a fairly regular basis.

To anyone who scoffs at the idea of eating insects, I'd point out that, if a shrimp crawled out from under your radiator, most people would likely smash it, but because it lives in the ocean, they're willing to pay twenty bucks a pound for it, and it would be delicious. Also, a significant proportion of the world's population consume insects with gusto. I can say with authority that carpenter ants have a not-unpleasant tangy flavor, and crickets a pleasant nuttiness. Bugs ain't bad... though I have yet to start chomping on the stink bugs that I have been known to smash with reckless abandon.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Columbus Day Conflict

As a proud son, through my beloved paternal grandfather, of the boot, I have to confess that I feel very conflicted about Columbus Day, a holiday set aside to honor a horrible guy of Italian, indeed (like myself) Ligurian descent, which has been reconfigured into a holiday celebrating Italian heritage. I have alternately proposed changing the holiday to Garibaldi Day or even Granata Day. Marconi would also be a great candidate to honor, if one had to name the holiday after a particular individual.

At any rate, I figure a great way to pay respect to my heritage is to post a video for a live 1980 performance by Claudio Villa of a beloved Italian standard, Cesare Cesarini's 1939 Sogna Firenze:

Those Florentine dreams sure are a lot nicer than the dreams Columbus had for looting the New World and enslaving its inhabitants! Here's a version sung by some guy named Pavarotti.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Natural Redhead

Last week, I had to fill out a form to make an appointment for an identification card. On the form, I had to include a capsule description of myself, picking most of the terms out of a multiple choice list. One of the descriptors for complexion, the one that I picked was "ruddy". At this time of year, exposure to sun and wind and the nascent cool weather conditions has rendered my big old cabezón a nice, subdued red. Back when I was a cubicle jockey, I used to joke with a co-worker who dyed her dark brown locks, "I'm a natural redhead, you're a bottle redhead."

I don't typically do product endorsements, but my outdoor habits have led me to swear by Queen Helene Cocoa Butter Lotion. I regularly slather a copious amount all over my head before I head off to the job. If I didn't perform this task every day, I'd be literally flaky as well as figuratively flaky.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Kept the Beaches Shipwreck Free

This being the season when my weekend workdays give me no opportunity for peaceful "alone" time, I figured I'd schedule a post with some pretty pictures. When I visited Kingsland Point Park in Sleepy Hollow to watch a giant crane "limbo" under the Tappan Zee Bridge, I took a couple of pictures of the Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse, which was built in 1883 and decommissioned in 1961.

Up close, it looks like it could use a touch-up paint job:

The area is such a pretty one, it should be more of a tourist draw. Sadly, the visitation hours of the lighthouse are way too scanty:

2014 Lighthouse Tour Dates: Sundays: April 27, May 11 and 25, June 8 and 22, July 6, 20, August 3, 17, 31.
Time: 1:00 pm–3:00 pm, last tour begins at 2:30 pm.

Local scuttlebutt (I'm not naming names) has it that the guy who runs the site doesn't have the time to run it, but doesn't want to step down from the position. I don't know how much it would take to run the lighthouse on a regular basis, but I sure wish somebody would make a go of it. It's a fascinating building, and its setting is unparalleled. I don't want to create a local controversy- this is a plea, not an accusation.

Just as the title of my "crane" post was cribbed from a tune by TMBG, this one is as well:

Why buck a trend? I'll have to see if any other TMBG songs match up with park features...

Friday, October 10, 2014

Killing the Customers?

Ever read a story and immediately realize that it just didn't pass the "smell test"? Republican congresscritter and senate candidate Tom Cotton's yarn about ISIS teaming up with Mexican drug cartels to kill Arkansans really doesn't wash. Even from a common sense standpoint, it's obviously utter bullshit. Why the hell would the Mexican drug cartels want to kill their customer base?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Half Million Mark!

Wow, I logged in today and discovered that I have bypassed the half-million hit mark. My current hit tally is 503,410.

Here are my top referring URLs: 11492 2180 2054 1430 1387 889 829 765 671 643

These are my top referring sites: 25725 12473 5649 2960 2196 2109 1606 1419 949 928

My audience is slightly under 50% U.S. residents:

United States 206546

France 58428

United Kingdom 26942

Germany 16806

Russia 12806

China 12538

Ukraine 9423

Poland 9118

Canada 7477

Netherlands 5654

Thank you, everybody, for reading my blog. It's really touching to have an audience. Most of the URLs that have been sending traffic this way are owned by members of the bloggerhood. If you are not familiar with these fine, fine individuals, please check out their sites. I owe them a debt of gratitude, and the least I can do is to return the favor. Again, thank you, thank you, thank you!

UPDATE: Special thanks go out to my beloved Suezboo. Suezboo is a "sadlynaught" from South Africa- her comments at Sadly Central would always come in the wee hours of the morning Eastern Standard Time. I like to think of Suezboo as my lark. Also, her comments would always signal the end of the workday for me. Thanks as always, Suezboo!

I also need to thank Tengrain, who is unfailingly supportive of other bloggers. He has often linked to my blog at "Crooks and Liars". If you're blogging, he's always in your corner!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

They'll Need a Crane

The big local story on the news was the arrival of a super bigass crane to the Tappan Zee Bridge construction site and its subsequent journey under the bridge, conducted during the low ebb tides caused by the full moon (unless you're Bill O'Reilly).

I headed up to the gorgeous Kingsland Point Park in Sleepy Hollow, NY to take in the scenery and to watch the giant crane being moved:

I can't wait until they erect that sucker. I've always been fascinated by heavy machinery... I'm pretty much an overgrown eight year-old.

Post title yoinked from one of my favorite TMBG tunes:

A friend of mine discovered the "Giants" after their Flood album came out, and remarked how whimsical the band was. I set him straight, TMBG may have had a whimsical facade, but the vast majority of their songs were about heartbreak, ennui, and disillusionment. The audio of the official video for They'll Need a Crane is clearer than the live version. Just listen to the bridge and tell me that these guys were ever in it for the laughs.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Now We Are Five

In a quiet moment in this busiest of months, it struck me that my friends and co-workers Fred and Ginger, our Rodent Abatement Team, are five years old. A former co-worker of mine takes care of feral cats and tries to find homes for any kittens born to her charges. Fred and Ginger weren't quite kittens when they arrived, being about six months old. When they arrived on-site, they were shy. I was able to gain their confidence early on, to the extent that Fred followed me from one end of the property to the other, a distance of about half a mile, after a night of our fundraiser. From that night forward, I've referred to Fred as my little dog. I've never known a cat to shadow me in such a fashion. Ginger prefers to bounce hither, tither, and yon- checking out interesting sounds, sights, and smells even as she generally paces me and her brother.

Originally, Fred and Ginger worked in the same building. We had an older cat, Moses, working in another building on site. Sadly, Moses succumbed to cancer last year, and Ginger was promoted to work in his former "Rat Patrol" area. They have plenty of time to socialize with each other during the day, when they have the run of the grounds, and they both have their niches in the lounge/kitchen area for the day shift.

Here's Fred, performing his feline ablutions:

Ginger's found a nice little spot on top of a radiator cover and underneath a counter:

Having two such charming co-workers is a genuine treat for a guy who spends most of his time on the job working solo (as far as other bipeds go). I have had a lot of fun with Fred and Ginger over our five years together. I vividly remember my first encounter with one of them, flitting around the shadowy interior of a rather large building, unsure of the primate who just walked through the door. In those days, even I couldn't tell them apart.

Post title kinda sorta yoinked from A. A. Milne.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Why Did No-one Inform Me of this Dark and Stormy?

I have a friend who is into both "pirate" culture and "cocktail" culture. Needless to say, we have interests in common. In the course of a conversation we had Labor Day weekend, the topic of "Dark and Stormy's came up. Last week, she gave me a pre-mixed Dark and Stormy in a can, put out by the good people at the Gosling's distillery. I had given her a bottle of homemade limoncello last month- I know my target audience, booze enters into our conversations fairly often.

The pre-mixed Dark and Stormy was good... made with actual rum, rather than being a crappy malt beverage like Four Loko or Zima. It was a bit on the sweet side- my commercial ginger beer of choice is Jamaica's D&G. I like my ginger beer spicy. That being said, I would not pass up the cans of this product at the store.

When Christmas rolls around and I make a bunch of sorrel punch (I make sure to add plenty of rum to it when I make it), I'm going to have to give her a bottle.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Bats Have Left the Belfry

In this run-up to Halloween season, I have to confess that I am puzzled that bats feature so prominently in Halloween iconography. In this part of the world, the bats are hibernating when Halloween rolls around. I have always been a big fan of bats. I am not a fan of Frank Miller, the asshole fascist who ruined the "Batman" franchise by making it all angsty and shit (and by "shit", I mean shit). My opinion of the "Batman" mythos can be summed up with a simple couplet:

The "Batman" that's the best,
Is the one with Adam West.

I can't decide which "Batman" villain is the best... whether it's Egghead (Vincent Price, W00T!) or King Tut. I love King Tut's supervillain origin story:

I suspect Bruce took pity on him because the good professor gave him a "Gentleman's B".

Post inspired by some yuks in the comment section at TBogg's place. Post title taken from one of the founding documents of "Goth" music.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Down to the Wire

Tomorrow is the start of the fall fundraising season. Tonight, there was a "friends and family" event for the contract workers who are the bulk of our event staff. While it's a nice little perk for the employees, the ticket giveaway also allowed us to perform a "dry run" with a friendly audience so we can determine if there are any potential snags that would affect the real event. Pretty crafty, eh?

Right now, there is a small army of technicians on the property, putting the last touches on the event grounds and battening down the hatches, because the weather is supposed to get foul. We lucked out with the weather last year... can't win them all.

To compound the nuttiness of my day, I am planning on heading down to Manhattan for the first day of the Saturday morning coaching gig. I have my gym bag packed, and plan on leaving the house after catching a couple of hours of sleep. I figure I can map on the crash pads in the dojo when we don't have students present. It's going to be a nutty, nutty day- I already have a pot of coffee set up for brewing tomorrow morning. Dear departed Uncle Warren wrote the theme song for this time of the year:

Pretty much sums it up...

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Typical October Madness

Longtime readers of my blog will know that October is an insane month for me. October is our major fundraising month on the job, so my ordinarily cushy job becomes decidedly not-so-cushy. It also marks the beginning of my volunteer gig as a coach in a children's athletic program which roughly coincides with the school year. As is typical, I try to compose posts when I have free time and schedule them to post automatically. I also tend to post more videos than usual this time of year.

I managed to pick up a copy of Roger Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October to read in the downtime. From what I've heard, it's a fun read, perhaps best described as fan-fiction written by an industry giant on a bet, which he won. The book has thirty-two chapters, an introduction and one chapter for each day of the month. I had been toying with the idea of reading a chapter a day, but the early chapters are very short compared to the later ones. I think I'll read the book in conventional fashion. The book is a love-letter to the turn-of-the-20th-century pulp fiction, so I think I'll relish every page. I sure hope I do!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Inaugural Secret Science Club North: Dark Side, Upper West Side

Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space for the inaugural Secret Science Club North featuring astrophysicist Dr Priyamvada Natarajan of Yale University, the Dark Cosmology Center (sounds "Harry Potteresque", no?) of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, and the University of Delhi, where she has been appointed to a lifetime honorary professorship.

Last night, Dr Natarajan's lecture was titled "Unveiling the Dark Side of the Universe". The lecture centered on the search for dark matter. She began her lecture by stating that, while there has been much progress, the problem of dark matter remains unsolved. Since the Classical period, there have been various conceptions concerning the nature of outer space, with the ancient Greeks proposing the existence of Ether as an extraterrestrial element. Other ultramundane "elements" such as phlogiston and miasma were postulated to explain natural phenomena that were poorly understood. While these conceptions of materials out of the ordinary have fallen by the wayside, the universe remains quite peculiar.

The "ordinary" matter in the universe is really quite extraordinary- it composes less than 5% of the makeup of the universe. Approximately 23% of the universe is composed of dark matter, while 72% is composed of dark energy. Dr Natarajan mused that exploring the nature of dark matter and dark energy can be likened to a crime scene investigation in which there are many clues, but there's no body. There are independent lines of compelling evidence, but the dark matter cannot be directly observed.

Dr Natarajan proceeded to give us a quick overview of current cosmology. While there is no direct data for the Big Bang, there is a "signature" of a period approximately three minutes after the Big Bang, and evidenct of the condition of the universe 400,000 years after the event, which occurred approximately 13.8 billion years ago. The universe started off as a "soup" of dark matter, much of it in clumps. The first galaxies appeared approximately one billion years after the Big Bang. Galaxies developed around clumps of dark matter.

Dr Natarajan then gave us an overview of dark matter and dark energy. She quipped that, when cosmologists don't know the nature of something, they add the adjective "dark" to a term. She reiterated that dark matter composes 90% of matter, while dark energy composes over 71% of the "stuff" in the universe. Cosmologists do not know what dark energy is, but they know what it does- dark energy plays a role in the increase in the rate of the expansion of the universe. In 1929, Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding... in the 1990's it became evident that the "gas pedal" of the universe's expansion had been floored. In the early stages of the universe, the radiation resulting from the Big Bang dominated the universe, but dark energy is currently the dominant force at work in the universe.

Looking out into space is looking back in time- the speed of light and the age of the universe are both finite, therefore our view of the universe is finite. The farther a particular celestial body is, the further back in time the light from that body originated (the light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach the earth, so our view of the sun is of an eight-minute old Sol). Basically, our observations of distant objects are old "snapshots". There's a boundary beyond which the universe cannot be observed. "Ordinary" atoms are extraordinary- the most common of elements are hydrogen and helium. Heavier elements are produced in starts through fusion reactions, but as the universe cools, the formation of heavier elements becomes more difficult. Dr Natarajan quipped that, while romantics muse about our being made of stardust, one could just as easily say that we are made of cosmic trash. Thanks Obama Dr Natarajan!

The lecture continued with a discussion of gravity, the force of attraction between different bodies which, as formidable a force as it is, falls off over distance. The gravitational forces in the solar system are dominated by the sun- and bodies further from the sun orbit more slowly. Observers tried to apply the same model of rotational velocity to galaxies, expecting them to behave similarly to the solar system, but the galactic rotational curves differed markedly. Astronomers Vera Rubin and Kent Ford observed that the actual rotational curves did not follow the theoretical models and noted the peculiarities without making any claims. The observed rotational curves suggested a lot of mass far from the centers of the observed galaxies and a deficit of mass in the galactic center. The only explanation for these rotational curves is a huge mass of unseen matter at the fringes of these galaxies. Every galaxy has an exterior "halo" of dark matter extending ten times further than the observable matter.

By the 1980s, a theoretical framework was developed to align with the observations. Dark matter does not seem to interact with baryonic matter or photons. It does not emit anything... it's invisible. Dark matter can only be "observed" by its effect on the motion of "nearby" objects.

One particularly interesting line of evidence for dark matter is its effect on light- gravitational lensing. The universe, space/time, can be likened to a sheet (although there is nothing above or below the "sheet") which is bent by gravity. Light traveling through space/time is bent by mass. The more massive a object is, the bigger the "pothole" that it creates in space/time. British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington was able to verify the curvature of space and bending of light while observing the apparent position of a star during a solar eclipse. Light from distant galaxies is bent by dark matter. The shapes of the galaxies that we see are distorted. Some regions of the cosmos are more "cluttered" with mass than others. Observers are able to compare the distribtion of shapes from regions of more mass with those from regions of less mass in order to figure out their shapes and to infer the amount of matter deflecting light. Mathematical models can be used to "undo" the distortion. Dr Natarajan likened this to tomography- images are analyzed "slice by slice" in order to figure out the size of the "pothole" in space/time to determine the amount of mass.

Large conglomerations of dark matter act as good gravitational lenses, and observations of the lensing effects indicate that galaxy clusters are held together by dark matter. Big enough gravitational lenses can split images, but each galaxy has its unique "fingerprint"- its spectrum. Light beams can become split multiple times, helping in the mathematical modeling of dark matter lenses- the distortion of light is systematic, and the position of distorted images allow the modeling of the dark matter making up a particular gravitational lens. The stars themselves only have 10% of the mass needed for distortions- they are small beacons in a much larger mass.

Gravitational lensing was first observed in 1979 by astronomers D. Walsh, R. F. Carswell, and R. J. Weymann who observed twin images of a single quasar- the presence of an intervening galaxy creates a double image.

Observation of the distorting effects of dark matter "halos" allows inferences to be made about their shapes. These halos tend to be smooth and ellipsoid around galaxy clusters, but have an overlay of more granular, or lumpy accretions. The amount of lumps in a particular halo of dark matter leads to a lot of distortion.

The next part of the lecture was accompanied by some particularly gorgeous images. She compared an image of the galaxy cluster Cl2244 obtained in the 80s using the Canada–France–Hawaii Telescope with another image taken a decade later using the Hubble Space Telescope. The finer resolution of the Hubble-obtained image allows for a better "map" of the dark matter causing the gravitational lensing. In the image embedded below, the "arcs" are actually distorted images of galaxies in the cluster:

Dr Natarajan then displayed an image of the Abell 2218 Galaxy Cluster, which she jokingly referred to as the "Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of galaxy clusters" due to the frequency with which it has been photographed. Abell 2218 is the first cluster that allowed the mapping of "lumps" of dark matter. In the "undistorted" image of Abell 2218, the younger galaxies appear blue while the yellow "blobs" belong to the cluster itself:

Oddly enough, there don't seem to be any good images of the dark matter "map" of this particular cluster on the t00bz... At any rate, the most dramatic distortion of images indicates tightly packed accretions of dark matter- the "punctuated" fabric of space/time.

Another important feature of gravitational lenses is the fact that they magnify distant galaxies and bring them into view. By "calibrating" the gravitational lens of galaxy cluster Abell 1689, one of the most massive clusters known, astronomers were able to discover the most distant (therefore "oldest") galaxy known. Dr Natarajan likened the cluster to the "optometrist of the cosmos".

Dr Natarajan then paused to ask, "Why are we mapping dark matter?" She indicated that information about the nature of dark matter is sitting in the shape of the dark matter "granules". In a typical galaxy cluster, stars are one percent of the total mass, with hot gas making up another nine percent, and the remaining ninety percent being dark matter. She then showed a breathtakingly beautiful image of the Bullet Cluster, showing the collision of two galaxy clusters:

In the image, the blue sections represent the map of the associated dark matter, while the pink section depicts the energy producing collision of the gas associated with the two clusters. Note the the dark matter doesn't interact with the gaseous collision. It can be inferred that dark matter is not a gas- in the equation of state, P=0 for dark matter.

In the current theoretical model, to which the reconstruction of gravitational lenses corresponds, dark matter serves as the "scaffolding" of galaxy structures. Simulation of the filamentary structure has been undertaken to determine some of the properties of dark matter- cold dark matter would result in granular filaments while warm dark matter would result in smoother filaments. The Cold Dark Matter model seems to better reflect current observations.

The Hubble Frontier Fields project will involve "staring" at a particular cluster "lens" for months to enable the reconstruction of dark matter distribution in order to map filaments of dark matter.

When asked if she had any theories about the nature of dark matter, Dr Natarajan stated that, while nothing is known, one possibility is that dark matter is composed of WIMPs, Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, specifically the hypothetical particles dubbed neutralinos. Columbia University's XENON project is an attempt to detect dark matter.

The inaugural lecture of the Secret Science Club North was fantastic. Dr Natarajan was an engaging, informative speaker who was able to make complex concepts comprehensible, and her enthusiasm for the subject was infectious. Hats off to my good friends Dorian and Margaret for pulling off yet another major success, and thanks to Dr Natarajan for knocking it out of the park. After the lecture, the good doctor was hanging out and entertaining questions from attendees. From what I've heard, the lecture was recorded, so I'll let you guess which of the questioners was yours truly when it is made available. In the meantime, here is a short video of Dr Natarajan talking SCIENCE:

I drank considerably less last night than I do at the Bell House. To replicate the Secret Science Club North experience, you can simply sip one drink while watching rather than chugging a sixer.