Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Humbug!

So, Halloween has finally rolled around... feh. I've worked Halloween for the past nine years, it pretty much marks the end of our busy season. I've come to the conclusion that, for many people, Halloween is, as Al Jourgensen told us, every day:

Ah, who am I kidding? I have no animus against the day, or its celebrations. I talk a good game about being a curmudgeon, but I can't really get torqued up about this holiday. In fact, it signals the end of the busy season, much as the lark heralds the morn. Here's wishing a happy Halloween to all of my readers. Here's wishing you success in your liquor treating.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Scariest Halloween Story of All

Last night was the final night on the job for my co-worker whose wife transitioned from working one day a week to a full-time job. He's a solid citizen, so he gave a month's notice before leaving- he didn't want to leave us in the lurch for our busy season. We always got along really well, having similar attitudes and a similar work ethic. One of my other part-timers joked, "When the boss hired him, he was hiring you again."

After giving me his keys and his company nametag, he assured me that he wouldn't be a stranger, and we both considered the possibility of doing per diem work for each other in case of staffing emergencies- I'm sure H.R. wouldn't mind that, he's pre-vetted and very well thought of. As of last night, my department is now down to three employees, myself and my two part-time subordinates, and that's kinda scary.

Speaking of H.R., I hear that they've put an ad out for the position. I didn't write the ad copy, but if I did, it would include the following prerequisites:

Must have tolerance for general weirdness and occasional physical discomfort
Must not be afraid of the dark
And most important of all... must love cats

Our event schedule becomes much lighter after this weekend, so things calm down considerably, with one frenzied day next Tuesday, when my principal workplace becomes a polling site. I'll be putting in a twelve hour day that day, but I can use the overtime. My part-timers are pretty psyched about the additional hours- for now.

It remains to be seen whether or not the position will be filled any time soon. I always joke that the job is very cushy, except when it's not. I also joke that it's a 'cake' job that many, many people would be totally unsuited to do. At the risk of sounding conceited, I think H.R. is looking for yet another 'me'.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Secret Science Club North Post Lecture Recap: One Hundred Years of Solitude Relativity

On Tuesday night, I headed to the Scintillating Symphony Space, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, for the latest Secret Science Club North lecture, featuring astrophysicist Dr Jason Kalirai of the Space Telescope Science Institute and NASA's James Webb Space Telescope project. Dr Kalirai's lecture was a commemoration of both the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity and the 20th anniversary of the launching of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Dr Kalirai began his talk by asking, what is our place in the universe? His quick answer was that it depends on when an individual asked that question. He followed up with a quick overview of the history of astronomy, beginning with the ancient Egyptians, who aligned their pyramids with the circumpolar stars and used astronomical observation to determine the times of planting and harvest. He then moved on to a quick discussion of Greek philosophers and mathematicians, such as Pythagoras and Aristotle, who believed that earthly standards could be applied to celestial bodies. He singled out Hipparchus as an avid mapper of the changing positions of celestial bodies, and Ptolemy, whose geocentric model of the universe held sway for fifteen-hundred years, until Copernicus publicized his heliocentric model. Copernicus' model was corroborated by Galileo's discovery of moons orbiting Jupiter. By shifting the center of the universe away from the Earth, our position in the universe was considerably diminished.

In 1920, the Great Debate between Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis regarding the nature of spiral nebulae took place- Shapely believed that spiral nebulae were formations within the Milky Way, which comprised the totality of the universe, while Curtis believed that spiral nebulae were additional galaxies outside the Milky Way, which would necessitate a vastly larger universe and a Milky Way which was merely one galaxy among many. Edwin Hubble was able to determine that spiral nebulae lay outside the Milky Way by observing a certain type of star in several nebulae, indicating that they lay outside our galaxy.

The next great leap forward in astronomy would require a telescope in space, outside of Earth's atmosphere- in 1946, Lyman Spitzer wrote a paper titled, "Astronomical Advantages of an Extra-Terrestrial Observatory". Within fifty years, the Hubble space telescope was sent into orbit, science fiction became science fact. Dr Kalirai then proceeded to show us some wonderful images from Hubble depicting the life of stars such as the explosion of a star and the end of a supernova. Stars are largely composed of hydrogen and helium- the heavier elements were formed in the core of stars and are disseminated throughout the universe by the explosion of older stars. The Earth formed in a region 'polluted' by supernovae, and we are all made of stars. He also showed lovely images of the Hubble Deep Field, which gave us a glimpse of the thousands and thousands of galaxies in the universe.

The talk then shifted to the topic of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. In 1905, Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity. The two main postulates of Special Relativity are that the laws of physics are independent of a frame of reference and that light has a constant speed independent of the direction and motion of its source. According to Special Relativity, time and space are one (physicists speak of spacetime), and that time slows down for objects in motion (time dilation). Special Relativity was thought to apply only to systems in which there is no acceleration, in which speed is constant.

In 1915, Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity, which was a response to Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation- Einstein was not satisfied with Newton's equations, which approximated reality. He desired a more elegant explanation for gravity because Newton's laws break down at high speeds in high gravitational fields. Einstein noted that mass bends space and time, with larger masses distorting spacetime more than smaller masses. Gravity is the interaction of objects in the warped spacetime.

Dr Kalirai then noted that there are five basic pieces of evidence that backed General Relativity. First, the gravity of the sun bends light from objects behind it, an effect observed by astronomer Arthur Eddington during a solar eclipse in 1919, during which it was observed that stars behind the sun could be seen. The second piece of evidence is the observed precession (rotation) of Mercury, which deviates from the precession predicted by Newtonian models. The third piece of evidence supporting General Relativity is gravitational lensing- the bending of light from distant sources by intervening mass (the subject of the first Secret Science Club North lecture was the use of gravitational lensing to infer the presence of masses of dark matter). The fourth piece of evidence in support of General Relativity is stellar life cycles and black holes. Small stars, approximately the size of our sun, will form white dwarfs at the end of their 'lifespans'- these stars expand to form red giants, then lose their outer layers, with the core remaining, a small star remnant about the size of the Earth with a mass approximating that of our sun. Stars with higher mass will end up as pulsars, superdense neutron stars which emit beams of radiation that appear to pulse due to rotation. The largest stars will collapse to form black holes, which are so dense that their escape velocity exceeds the speed of light, so that not even light can escape their gravitational forces. The fifth piece of evidence supporting General Relativity is dark matter and dark energy- Einstein believed in a static universe and postulated a cosmological constant in order to 'hold back gravity' in order to allow his equations to account for it. When Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding, Einstein is reported to have labeled the cosmological constant his 'greatest blunder'. Dark energy is believed to compose 70% of the universe and is postulated to cause the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.

Dr Kalirai then tied the two major threads of the lecture together, talking about the need for improved telescopes to improve our observation of the universe in order to increase our knowledge. He talked about the James Webb Space Telescope project, which involves sending a telescope with a mirror array the size of a tennis court to a position a million miles away from Earth. The resolution provided by the telescope will exceed that of the Hubble. He also brought up the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, which is supposed to explore the nature of both dark energy and exoplanets. Besides the 100th anniversary of General Relativity and the 25th anniversary of the Hubble, it's the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the first exoplanet. He noted that the Hubble Telescope was limited by its size- he likened its use to peering through a drinking straw. The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope will be able to observe a field one hundred times that provided by the Hubble. It is hoped that the WFIRST will allow us to transition from finding exoplanets to learning about exoplanets- using spectra to determine the composition of planetary atmospheres. Another desired result of the use of these telescopes is to search for the first light of the first stars.

All told, Dr Kalirai's lecture was a slam-dunk... he really tied together an introduction to General Relativity and research projects which will expand on our knowledge of astrophysics, the experimental data which corroborated Einstein's theoretical framework. The audience skewed both older and younger than the typical Secret Science Club crowd, with many senior citizens and a sprinkling of children. Only a handful of the Brooklyn regulars were on hand. The main Symphony Space auditorium was about 80% full, and the Q&A session was lively. After the lecture, I had a nice, brief discussion with Dr Kalirai about the use of these telescopes to give us a better idea of the larger structure of the universe- the clusters of galaxies and the tendrils of dark matter which trail from galaxy to galaxy. Dr Kalirai indicated that much of our theories about this structure were extrapolated from the Hubble Deep Field images- we're basically peering through the soda straw and making predictions about that. Any widening of the field will widen our knowledge.

Once again, the Secret Science Club delivered a great program- Dr Kalirai was an engaging, charismatic speaker, a true populizer of science, able to convey complex astrophysical information to a lay audience. Here is a video of him delivering a lecture on our place in the universe:

The lecture begins about ten minutes into the embedded video... pour yourself a nice cold beverage and approximate that Secret Science Club vibe.

Monday, October 26, 2015

That's No Urban Legend!

Last night, I was approached at work by a very charming young woman, with perhaps a bit of the naïf about her, who had a somewhat unusual question:

"Do you know anything about the red-eyed people who come out after dark and scare other people? Are they vampires?"

Being a Yonkers guy, I had an immediate response: "No, those are drunks."

I think she was referring to the urban legend about black eyed children, so not being a total dick, after my typical disclaimer that I watched quite a bit of classic Scooby Doo as a kid, so I didn't believe in monsters, I referred her to the Creepypasta website so she could read up on urban legends.

Then I pulled a Lafcadio Hearn on her and revealed my red, sleep-deprived eyes.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Little Bit of Weird Halloween Ephemera

This weekend, our Fall fundraisers are in full swing, and it's hard to get a quiet moment in which to put up a blog post. Yeah, it's time to fall back on the "post a video" gambit. I'm going to post a somewhat obscure novelty song by a short-lived New Wave band called Electric Guitars. Wolfman Tap is a bizarre cautionary tale about a tap-dancing werewolf. I remember it getting a fair bit of airplay on the storied left-of-the-dial radio station WLIR, but I haven't heard it in years:

The opening percussion is reminiscent of Ant Music by Adam and the Ants. I'd never heard anything else by the band before, but their early stuff is pretty interesting. Another interesting tidbit, Toni Basil requested a song from the band with some interesting results. It's kind of a shame that they are best known, at least in the 'States, for a novelty track, even one as funny as a bit about a tap-dancing werewolf.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Combatting Lunacy

I have a friend who is an artist, he doesn't have such a great background in the sciences, but he's willing to learn. We had a conversation today in which he told me that I 'have to' watch a TV show called Aliens on the Moon with which he has become obsessed (his girlfriend hilariously complained, "He's obsessed, it's all he talks about these days!"). I gently tried to debunk this lunacy, having taken an oath to spread scientific literacy throughout the known universe.

I told him to watch the show with a skeptical eye, paying attention to the fact that the show's thesis relies on old, low-resolution images, and I told him to check out Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's images. When he objected that NASA is engaged in a massive coverup, I countered with the observation that scientists love to talk about their projects, so that something would have been leaked if there were alien bases on the moon. One of these days, I'll have to bring up the problems with FTL travel, but I'm taking baby steps here. For the record, I believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life, I just don't think that it has visited our neck of the woods.

I referred him to the RationalWiki page on lunar anomalies, and told him that the only intelligent presence on the moon was Whitey's.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Runup to Halloween... Meteor Madness

This being the runup to Halloween, I figured it would be appropriate to post a video of a scary movie... or a movie that was supposed to be scary, at any rate. Perhaps

Die, Monster, Die! is loosely based on The Colour Out of Space, my favorite short story by H.P. Lovecraft. The Colour Out of Space, as I have noted before, is second only to Ethan Frome in the "terrifying tale of the disintegration of a New England family" literary sub-genre.

Anyway, here is Die, Monster, Die!, not exactly pure Lovecraft, but a reasonable facsimile:

Oddly enough, an even closer approximation of The Colour Out of Space, though one played as a broad comedy, is the vignette from Creepshow titled "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill", in which Stephen King plays the hapless title yokel:

I tend to find a lot of Lovecraft's stuff funny, because I don't share a lot of his hangups (plus the idea of geometry being scary is just plain silly, unless you're a mathphobic high-schooler). It's kinda weird to see his one truly unsettling story being mined for laughs.

UPDATE: Early this morning is the best time to watch the Orionid meteor shower... fortuitous to link to some movies featuring killer meteorites on a night when the stars will me shootin'.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Prodigal Returns

This afternoon marked the triumphant return of my co-worker who had broken his arm in August. His timing was flawless, covering all of our fundraising events on top of our usual workload has been taking its toll on the rest of us. I stopped in to see him (and in the interest of full disclosure, to retrieve my backpack, containing my glasses, from my office). He seems to be back to his old curmudgeonly self, though he is still unable to lift anything with his left arm yet. He has joked that he can perform most of the job duties with one hand tied behind his back, so this will be the test of that proposal.

It's nice to be back at full staffing levels, though one of the guys will be leaving at the end of the month. We can deal with bare-bones staffing then, after things calm down. At any rate, I'm feeling a bit run-down, and (for reasons I will elaborate in a future blog post) I may have to put somebody through a wall (nobody I work with, everybody's great) before the month is over.

Oh, to hell with it- I'll tell you why I might have to put somebody through a wall... after our event on Saturday, two guys were in our parking lot well after closing. When invited to leave the property, one guy headed toward the street in expeditious fashion, while the other guy wended his way through a cordon of crowd-control barriers. When I told him to leave immediately, the guy turned around and pointed a laser pointer in my general direction (I always make sure my location is hard to pinpoint when dealing with the public after dark). At that point, I bellowed, "If you do that again, we will construe it it a threat and notify the authorities." I also make it a point to never reveal whether or not I am onsite alone- it's always a good idea to make people think you're backed up by a team of Sherpas, or the NY Giants' offensive line. The jerk and his buddy ran off, but I decided that it would be a good idea to 'sweep' the site to see if they had jumped a fence, not the sort of thing I really wanted to be doing at the tail end of the shift, after I should have punched out.

Overwork and overexposure to d-bags is starting to wear thin. It's good to have the prodigal return to take some of the heat off.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

You Know It's a Spectacular Night...

You know it's a spectacular night when three of your visitors end up in the pond. One guy somehow walked into the pond in some undefined fashion and lost a shoe (sacrifice to the mud gods?). In an even crazier episode, two girls walking the path to our fundraiser decided that they didn't want to walk back to our visitors' center to use the restroom. They jumped over a small split-rail fence in order to answer the call of nature (okay, they needed to micturate) and fell into the pond. They were soaked up to their waists, no word on whether or not they pissed their pants, but one cannot spell "pond" without "P".

Other than that, it was a low-key night, though someone did report that a raccoon had poked its head out of a sewer grate- uh, lady, they live down there, and they're more unhappy with you being around than you are with them. They do appreciate the spilled kettle corn and dropped candy apples by the concession stand, though.

October is only half over and I'm already feeling a bit of burnout. There are some things which make it all worthwhile, though- a very sweet eight year-old girl who attended the fundraiser with her mom stopped by my desk to write a thank-you note to our education staff for running a Spring after school program that she had attended. Everybody was touched by this lovely gesture, and my co-worker Peter hung it up on the wall.

I'll make it through the month- the little thoughtful gestures outweigh the occasional dumbassitude, and I have to admit that 95% of our visitors are great.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Mushroom Envy?

For the past couple of weeks, I've been showing off pictures of a giant puffball mushroom that I found on the job. On Tuesday, hanging out at the beautiful Bell House before the Secret Science Club lecture, I made sure to show off the picture of my find. As luck would have it, I also found a bunch of puffballs in Van Cortlandt Park while walking to the Woodlawn station on the number 4 subway line:

The regular Tuesday front-of-house bartender, a very charming young woman with a quick wit and a gift for snappy patter, asked me, "Do you live in Wonderland?" "No", I replied, "it's just fungus infested." You're only as good as your ensemble cast, and I'm fortunate to have a great troupe both online and in what passes for the real world. The other regular bartender, a nice low-key gentleman from Colombia, when hearing that I was planning on returning to the park to grab the two biggest puffballs (the largest is almost the size of a volleyball), expressed skepticism... "Are you sure nobody's peeing on them?" As a guy who likes to drink in Brooklyn and follow up the night out with an hourlong subway ride, I pretty much know the best places to pee between the subway station and home. I think I'll be safe and, besides, I have no qualms about eating kidneys...

The new Tuesday night manager of the Bell House used to run the Urban Rustic concession front of house, so he's an old friend and a culinary connoisseur. On seeing the puffball pictures, he brought up the topic of the hen of the woods mushroom (Grifola frondosa), known in Japan as the maitake. This mushroom, which typically grows on dead or dying hardwood trees (most commonly oaks) is particularly prized.

As luck would have it, my friend Mark had received a portion of a hen of the woods as a present from a neighbor. He actually brought the mushroom as a present to Secret Science genius Margaret Mittelbach (whose book you should buy), and Margaret was kind enough to give me a portion of this 'shroom. I wrapped the portion in several paper towels and stuck it into my pocket for the ride home. On my way to the subway station, I picked up a copy of the Village Voice (Roy's column is back)- as luck would have it, it was the "Best of New York 2015" issue, and a lot of the restaurant blurbs mentioned hen of the woods as a hot seasonal ingredient. Talk about a weird set of coincidences, from conversation to 'shroom acquisition to newspaper blurbs...

Was I suffering from a case of mushroom envy, seeing a bigger, more prized mushroom than my puffball? Not after that thing hit the skillet when I came home:

It was delicious, sauteed in a bit of butter and unadorned- why mess with perfection? Here's a hearty thank you to Mark, Margaret, and the guy who actually found this mushroom. There's not a hint of mushroom envy at play here!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Art Matters and That Matters

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 Dr Alva Noë, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and member of Berkeley's Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences. His book Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature has just come out.

Dr Noë began his lecture by looking out at the crowd and announcing, "I'm falling in love with you as a collective." He mentioned his upbringing in New York City and recounted a couple of recent 'back in New York' anecdotes, including a very funny tale of asking a barista if he could pay for his coffee with a credit card and receiving the jibe, "What is this, 1990?" Personally, I wouldn't want that coffee-slinger on my lawn either.

Dr Noë began the lecture proper by posing three questions: What is art? Why does it matter? What does art mattering say about our nature? He noted that the current fashion is thinking that the answer to these questions lies in neuroscience. One criticism is that the neuroscientific model holds that there is an adequate conception of human biology "off the shelf". Perhaps art can help us frame a more adequate conception of the self to move neuroscience forward. Art lies at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and vision science.

Vision science is important because we live in a world of solid objects and three-dimensional space, but what we receive are retinal images- how do we experience so much out of so little? Dr Noë recalled a conversation he had with an artist about vision science, in which his question was turned around- the artist, his father, countered that the real question is why we perceive so little when there is so much.

Dr Noë noted that viewing art is an enacted approach, it is not something that happens inside of us- experiencing art is something we do. We act, we achieve. Our environment, other people, culture, and technology are not in our brains. Similarly, the value of money is not inherit in the paper, the aesthetics of dance are not in the muscles of the dancer. Experience is triggered on us by the environment, but it is something that we achieve... or that we fail to achieve.

Can we receive guidance from art? Is art something to study, or a domain of research? If art is research, what kind of research is it? Dr Noë likened art to philosophical research- art involves a reorganizational process. As a research project, sometimes one just doesn't "get" art. If one is lucky, one doesn't give up on a particular piece, one tries harder to figure it out so that things stand out- formerly "flat" works take on structure, interest. There is a passage from not seeing to seeing, or from seeing to seeing differently. This transformation allows one to gain access to what was already there- art affords us an opportunity to catch ourselves in the act of reorganization. The best philosophies are similar reorganizational processes. The reorganization isn't included in the price of admission, though, it has to be achieved.

Dr Noë then noted that artists make stuff... paintings, performances. Artists do, they craft, they manufacture. We don't, though, measure the success of art by how it works. He contrasted Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine with a photograph of a jacket on a shopping website. Looking at the painting, one doesn't have to think of the Duke of Milan's mistress, but looking at the jacket should make one think of the jacket and wish to purchase it- the success of the painting isn't like the success of the catalog entry.

Artists don't make things because they are special, the very act of making is intrinsically special to us. The practice of making organizes us- making makes us. Artists don't make tools which have functions, thus Dr Noë's categorization of art as "strange tools", tools which don't perform functions, but which reveal us to ourselves.

Dr Noë went on a tangent about boredom. Boredom comes in many varieties- life is a metronome, an undifferentiated sea of time into which you are plunged. He recounts boring summer days in his childhood, sick of the heat, the bugs, and his brother. He noted that this sort of boredom is rarely experienced by adults. Adult life is organized by projects, lives are arcs with beginnings, middles, and defined ends. The only way in which adults can experience the sort of childhood boredom is by looking at art... Dr Noë quipped about a "wrist-slittingly boring" performance that he had been subjected to. Boring art need not be bad art... just as dabbling in love presents the risk of heartbreak, dabbling in art presents the risk of boredom. Art obliterates the arc of organization, it gifts us with boredom and affords us the opportunity to deal with it.

Dr Noë noted that, while humans are mammals, we are the worst breast feeders on the planet. He noted that human babies fall asleep at the breast or are distracted by noise, necessitating jiggling on the part of the nurser- breast feeding while basic, spontaneous, and biological, is experienced cognitively. Breast feeding has a rhythm, a dynamic structure. The experience of breast feeding is almost linguistic, it's a pre-conversational type of communication, but it has a conversational structure, involving posture, dialect, organized activity. Besides providing nourishment, breast feeding releases oxytocin, and fosters bonding. It is an activity which can be pleasurable or fraught with affect. He brought up the topic of breastfeeding to illustrate an organized activity which can be likened to other organized activities common in human behavior

Perception itself is organized, but not necessarily social. Perception not only involves one looking, but one acting... it's not contemplative, but action-oriented. Lives can be thought of as nesting structures of organized activity. We are organized creatures but we are not masters of organization. We are creatures of habit, but we can lack self-awareness of organization. To underscore the nesting structures of organized activity, Dr Noë used the example of choreography vs dancing... is choreography just more dancing? He likened choreography to meta-dancing, or a philosophy of dancing. Choreography influences dance, which loops back and changes us. Writing and speech have a similar relationship. Literate societies experience speech through writing. Writing is a biologically moderated tool which allows us to amplify speech. Dr Noë indicated that, though he was speaking without notes, he was speaking in a literate fashion, organized into paragraphs. The looping changes us, it provides a reorganizing and an emancipation. Art puts organization on display.

Dr Noë finished his lecture with an aphorism: Art doesn't say, "check me out", it says "see me if you can".

The post-lecture Q&A began in lively fashion- Dr Noë called to the bartender for a drink and, as he was sipping a double bourbon, joked that this was the first time he was actually drinking during the course of a presentation. While he had lectured while hung over before, tippling while speaking was a first for him. I think it's fair to say the the collective was beginning to love him as an individual. Some bastard in the audience asked him how he would compare art to non-human activities such as dominance displays, mating dances, and such courtship practices as bowerbird nest building. After a quip about art helping people get laid, he cited the research of Dr Stephen Davies, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Auckland, who has written about the role of evolution in the origin and development of art. Davies likened art to a spandrel, a byproduct of an evolutionary adaptation which which itself doesn't improve survival. Art is a domain which employs intelligence, not getting art is a signal that something is wrong. Art is like the male nipple, a mark of normalcy. It is one step beyond an evolutionary explanation, though.

Dr Noë's talk was engaging and thought-provoking. I have to say that I tend to be biased toward nuts-and-bolts lectures dealing with specific topics, such as the role of cytokines in tumor formation. It was a nice change of pace to be presented with a lecture about 'big picture' topics, to be forced out of my usual comfort zone and confronted with an esoteric subject. I'm not a philistine, honest! Thanks to Dr Noë, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House for a fantastic lecture which got me out of my typical psychological/cognitive channels.

Here is a video of Dr Noë presenting a similar lecture on the Google campus:

Pour yourself a drink, I'd suggest a double bourbon, and settle in... soak in that Secret Science Club ambiance.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Happy Da Vinci Day, or Is It Dante Day?

It's been my tradition the last few years to put up a post regarding Columbus Day. I am proud of my Italian heritage, indeed, my Genovese heritage (in the interest of full disclosure, la famiglia actually hailed from a small town in the Greater Genoa Metro Area... the Yonkers of Genoa, perhaps?). At any rate, Columbus, while being Genoa's most famous son, was not a nice guy by any stretch of the imagination. Why make this accomplished, yet evil, individual the guy on whom Italian-American pride is pinned?

How about changing the name of the holiday to Da Vinci Day? Who doesn't love Leonardo Da Vinci? The guy was a bona fide genius and polymath- he was a pioneer of just about any scientific or engineering field you could think of, and a master of a plethora of artistic media. As a Nerd-American and an Italian-American, I would heartily endorse a holiday honoring Leonardo.

Alternately, how about Dante Day? Dante Alighieri not only holds the distinction of being Italy's greatest poet, but the Tuscan dialect in which he wrote formed the basis of the modern Italian language. Sure, a lot of Italian-American linguistics originates in Southern Italy and Sicily (that's why cafone is typically pronounced "gah-vone", "Marone" is how "Madonna" tends to be pronounced, and what is known on the "boot" as "pasta e fagioli" bears the Arabic-influenced name of "pasta fazul"). At any rate, Dante is the father of the lingua franca italiana, and he wasn't a horrible person.

At any rate, it's difficult to remain unconflicted about Columbus- his accomplishments were manifold, but many of them were evil. Why not concentrate on accomplished individuals who weren't bad guys? Lucky Luciano managed to accomplish a lot, but nobody is proposing naming a holiday after him.

Anyway, enough of my yapping, how about a classic Italian love song? Here's the original 1961 version of Al di là, sung by "Betty Curtis", born Roberta Corti:

Happy Betty Curtis Day!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Wee Weekend Woes

This weekend has been pretty crazy, with a lot of little things going wrong. First of all, a couple of our Friday night fundraisers were canceled because of predicted thunderstorms, while a third indoor fundraiser proceeded as usual. Our outdoor events wouldn't be fun if someone were fried by a lightning strike or creamed by a falling tree limb. What's with the culinary metaphors?

I popped by my primary jobsite to get the company cell phone from my co-worker before working the overnight at another site. When I arrived he told me that he had gotten into confrontations with two belligerent groups of people who hadn't received confirmation of the cancellation. The first was with a family of New Jersey cafoni, a foul-mouthed woman and her college-aged phony Soprano son. From what I heard, they were using profane, abusive language in front of families with small children and sonny-boy was making threats. One of our shop attendants, a nice, genteel woman, was ready to press the store panic button to summon the local constabulary, but my co-worker was able to convey to them the fact that the police would love nothing better than to arrest them. The second confrontation was with a guy who was somehow able to buy tickets to the event after it had been canceled, but he backed down from his initial angry stance when my co-worker, keyed up from the first confrontation, told him not to cause trouble, and that he would get his refund processed automatically. Most guys don't want anything more than a pissing contest- the fact that my larger co-worker clearly wasn't impressed by this guy's aggressive stance disarmed the guy, and he left without escalating. Another fact, most dudes don't want to get decked in front of their girlfriends, especially when the police will probably take the side of the guy who decked them.

After hearing of his woes, I told him that I could take over if he wanted to go to the site I was originally heading to so he could take a breather. The site is closer to his home, and all that needed to be done was locking up the buildings and arming the alarm system. We had a couple of contract security guys on site, but they don't have the keys and codes necessary for shutting the place. I had a couple of people showing up to find that our event had been canceled, but everybody was polite.

I then received a call from the co-worker I had relieved- one of the IT guys managed to get his key stuck in the lock of one of the buildings, one housing critically important equipment. After locking up the site I was working at, I had to travel up there to attempt to extract the key. I was unable to do so, and I ceased my efforts with PB Blaster and pliers because I didn't want to snap the key off in the lock. Because the building couldn't be properly locked, I remained there until shortly before the end of the shift, then returned to my primary jobsite to return phone and pliers, and to feed the cats. Yeah, you know who the real bosses are. One of the guys on the day shift was able to extract the thing.

I finally got home around a quarter to seven and decided that going to sleep really wasn't a good idea, so I showered, drank a large cup of coffee, and headed down to NYC for my volunteer coaching gig. When I got to the 238th St Station on the "1" line, there was no service- it was weird, they were giving out "Service Block" vouchers, which I had never seen before. I decided that my best option would be to walk down to the end of the "A" train line, which is 207th St. It was a gorgeous morning, so I really didn't mind the 31 block walk, but I arrived late, about midway between our first class. We had two other classes, including our huge (forty students) six-to-eight year old girls' group. They are a very fun group to work with, and I still crack up whenever a particular girl, a very serious looking bespectacled six-year old, insists that she wants to fight me. These kids are not timorous around the big toughs at all, and they are well-behaved and competent enough to actually throw each other with o soto gari already- we have them do five uchikomi and let them throw on the fifth one. Needless to say, I'm very proud of this particular class.

I didn't get an opportunity to nap before returning to work on Saturday afternoon, but after closing up everything, I caught two-hours of shuteye before heading over to work another site for the overnight. For the most part, things went smoothly, but some knucklehead locked the cover of one of the rented tower lights that we use in our parking areas (for some reason, the padlocks are left open, which drives me up a tree because some idiot can lock them or, worse, walk off with them), so, not having a key to the rented unit, I was forced to leave the damn thing running all night, after texting my department head about the situation at a quarter-to-one in the morning. Yeah, I try to avoid that sort of thing, but CYA is an important motto to have in mind.

I was finally able to get some sleep today, but the drive to the afternoon shift was a hassle- two idiots got into a fender bender on the highway and, even though their cars didn't look too banged up, they didn't pull over to the shoulder- instead they were positioned diagonally across two lanes of traffic. Idiots. To compound matters, my temperature gauge started to climb while I was sitting in traffic, which is not the best feeling in the world. I was able to top off the coolant in the radiator after everybody else left this evening, I'm hoping there's no additional problem... my mechanic is a good guy, I just don't want to hand all of my overtime pay to him.

In a short while, I have to head over to the other jobsite to cover the overnight shift. While the hours are a bit jacked up, it's great to see all of my co-workers. Last night, I was happy to hear one of the guys on the day shift (the guy who extracted the IT guy's key) call me "part of the bedrock" of the organization. It's the little things that have been going wrong, but in the grand scheme of things, I can't really complain. Hopefully, tonight will be free of minor annoyances.

At any rate, the theme song for this weekend is by one of my favorite bands, Manchester's Buzzcocks:

I've always loved this song, it so perfectly captures the everyday muff-ups that are so vexing, and it's funny as hell: Nothing ever happens to people like us, 'cept we miss the bus. Yeah, I know the feeling.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Busy Busy Busy, Here's a Quick Portrait

It's been one heck of a day, and by day, I mean I've been up for twenty-four hours straight. I am going to take a two hour nap and then head up to work the overnight shift. I think I'll post about the absolute craziness of the past day, but for now I'll have to post a picture of my beloved Ginger:

Isn't she a pretty cat? She's become quite the diva lately- she loves to be the center of attention when there are visitors onsite, and she manages to look really smug when she poses for her adoring public. I always get a kick out her act.

I always strive to give equal time to Ginger and her brother Fred, but I realized that I have this covered, having posted a solo Fred entry- for the record, Ginger doesn't stay still long enough to give her a proper brushing, while Fred is extremely patient.

The important thing is that I gave them equal time at six o'clock this morning when I fed them. It was a bit dark to take their picture at that time though.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

He Gives You Butterflies

Thunder, who has been unfailingly supportive in my blogging endeavors since the very beginning, is the go-to guy for amazing butterfly pictures, though his moths are even more incredible than his butterflies. In his latest post, he put up a gorgeous photo of a monarch butterfly gracing a similarly colored flower. The monarch butterflies migrate north from their wintering grounds in Mexico to as far north as Canada, then return ahead of the winter cold:

Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed plants and sequester toxins from the milkweed- the bright color of the monarch serves as a warning to potential predators that the butterfly is not good to eat (on a tangent, the viceroy butterfly was long seen as a perfect example of Batesian mimicry, but it turns out that monarchs and viceroys are both unpalatable, thus they are mutual Müllerian mimics).

At any rate, the monarchs are in the middle of their southward migration. I don't have any pictures of monarch butterflies, but I have a picture of a milkweed, probably the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca):

Note the fuzzy seed 'pods', more properly known as follicles. We have a bunch of milkweed plants throughout the grounds- our horticultural department is very knowledgeable, so they keep a nice balance of plants on our sites. The eradication of milkweeds with herbicides in much of their former range is a major factor in the decline of the monarchs. If you've got a yard, consider planting a couple of milkweeds.

Still no monarch pictures here- thunder gives you butterflies, I give you weeds. The weeds, though, give you the butterflies.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Fashion Week

Little kids drop things, that's one of the few definite things in life. When your job sponsors family friendly events, there is invariably a collection of items which end up in the 'lost-and-found' bin- a hat, an odd mitten, a scarf, or a less common doodad like a plastic tiara. In honor of Tengrain's periodic fashion week feature, here is my own take on found fashion:

Let it go, let it go, it's not your knit cap anymore:

Now, a fabric rose by any other name would be as bastardy:

I'd feel bad for the kids who lost these items, but I'm sure they're not really missed, and, more importantly, the kids who dropped them were being active... they were running around doing interesting things, which is why they didn't notice dropping them in the first place. These items can be returned if the owners realize they are lost, or can be replaced if they don't, but the experiences the kids had while they lost the items are more precious than these mere things.

More importantly, I bet they look cuter on me than they did on their original owners.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Long Day, but Good

Today was the first day of the new season of the children's program for which I have coached for many, many years. Despite a brutal work schedule, I woke up after two and a half hours of sleep and traveled down to midtown Manhattan from the 238th St station in the Bronx on the 7th Avenue local, the "1" train. I always feel a bit amused when I travel down with my gym bag, like someone who's privy to a secret knowledge that most people aren't in on. I can't find the post now, but I chuckled when I read an article by a guy who participates in Historical European Martial Arts, who wrote about seeing other fighters on the subway, men and women with big gym bags and visible bruises- fencers, kung fu practitioners and the like- and feeling a kinship. For the record, a young lady exited at the same station I did, bearing a large bag which looked like it carried several fencing weapons. Yup, part of the secret society of fighters...

I also had another secret, I was bringing a 16oz bottle, originally filled with Snapple diet iced tea (I don't usually buy this, I wanted the bottle), full of homemade limoncello with me to give to my old friend Frankiebello. Somewhere around 116th St, I stopped telling myself, "You're carrying enough booze to get everybody in the car drunk." Yeah, sometimes a couple of secrets are good to harbor for a short time.

When I got to my destination, the kids were just lining up in their age groups, so I had time to shoot the breeze with my fellow coaches, most of whom I have known for a long, long time. I gave the bottle of booze to Frankiebello, who didn't immediately realize what it was. He gave me a quizzical look and joked, "So this is where our relationship has come to, you are giving me a bottle of diet Snapple?" When it dawned on him what I'd given him, he quipped, "Should I drink some of this before class?" I assured him that I never consider gifts to have strings attached, and that the bottle and its contents were his without any conditions.

The orientation went quickly, so we had an unexpected class of boys six-to-eight. There's usually four to six of us in the dojo, so we can accommodate unexpected groups if there's a problem in another area. We had one scheduled class, but what a doozy it was- over forty six-to-eight year old girls. There were five coaches on the mat this morning, so we split the group up into manageable groups and taught them ukemi, something which has been on my mind ever since my co-worker broke his arm in a fall. After a bit of grounding in falling techniques, I threw them all using tai otoshi, which is just scary enough to be exciting for the kids, who love to go flying as long as the landing is soft. I then taught my sub-group the basic grips, then went over the classic o soto gari, which is typically the first throw students learn. After the instruction session, we had the girls play randori with us. The key to playing randori with a bunch of grade-school kids is to balance throwing them with letting them throw you- you want them to get acclimated to falling, while building up their confidence so that they want to play. I still love it every time I look across the mat to see a tiny little pixie with a look on her face which says, "Yeah, I can take that guy..." The class was a lot of fun, but we had a hectic time organizing all of those kids- our athletic director assured us that they would split up the group into more manageable sized groups. Our student body is skewed young- if we do our job well, the older kids will get involved with school sports.

After class, I had to head to one worksite to help with the tail end of one of our fundraisers- basically making sure the property is vacated and the site is locked up. In a few hours, I'll be heading to another site to do the closing honors for another fundraiser. I left the house before 8AM today, knowing that I'd not be returning for almost twenty-four hours. I always joke with the upstairs neighbors that, this time of year, I am the ghost who haunts downstairs. As tired as I am, I have to say that I am perhaps the happiest ghost on the planet.

Friday, October 2, 2015

An Offer She Couldn't Refuse

This is the busiest month of my job, the month during which our biggest fundraisers of the year take place. There is a lot more running around than usual, and the amount of physical labor that needs to be done increases exponentially. This year, my department is short-handed, literally, as one of the guys broke his arm about five weeks ago. There are only three of us working in the department.

Earlier this week, one of the part-time guys gave notice after almost two years on the job. His wife, who had been working one day out of the week, received an offer of full-time employment from the company she works for. She was offered a wage she couldn't refuse, a literal game-changer for the family. My co-worker, who is on a twenty-hour schedule with us, has a full-time job... this job just provided him a little extra money to pay down bills. Now, with his wife working five days a week, he has to be home afternoons to take care of their young son.

He's an upstanding guy, so he's going to work through the month of October. He didn't want to leave us in the lurch during the busy season. I hit it off with him when we first met- we have a similar attitude and a similar work ethic, we even have an eerily similar work history. In the e-mail he sent to the department head, he mentioned how this job is like none other- he was taken with the place, with the experiences he's had... he was even taken with the cats. I'm going to miss him, I enjoyed the talks we would have during shift change, swapping observations about the various organizations we've worked for over the years.

He's not the sort of guy who walks off the street and into the HR office every day, and he's going to be hard to replace. At any rate, the position is not easy to fill, one of the prerequisites is not being scared of the dark.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

It Begins

October is our 'hell month' on the job- we have several concurrent fundraisers occurring simultaneously. My standard line about October is that I pull a Captain Nemo- I'm going into the submarine and I'll surface sometime in November. This month, it's particularly nutty because one of the guys in my department is recovering from a fractured humerus (that's no joke) and will be out for an additional two weeks under optimal circumstances.

To compound matters, my volunteer coaching gig starts this Saturday- I will put in a cameo appearance on the first day and discuss the upcoming weeks with the other coaches. There are usually four or five of us in the judo room, so I can take three weeks off if necessary. Things get really quiet come November. As things stand, I'll be working at one site from about 3PM to 7PM, then work another site from 10PM to 6AM. This schedule is pretty much set in stone, but hopefully will be adjusted if my co-worker is able to return to work.

As if this baseline craziness isn't bad enough, this weekend is supposed to be characterized by horrible weather- we are already experiencing a flooding rain, and Hurricane Joaquin might be making landfall in the vicinity (at any rate, we'll get a ton more rain from the storm). I have already stockpiled cans of sardines in case I have to camp out on the job like I did post-Sandy. I'll have to top off the gas tank in the car tomorrow when I finish the overnight shift- I still have over half a tank from my last fill-up, but I've been bouncing from site-to-site due to the manifold tasks I've been performing (luckily, I get reimbursed for mileage and drive a small car, so I make out nicely). On a smaller scale, one of the electricians working on site setting up for an event jumped a curb in the parking lot and knocked down a light pole that was crowned with a wireless router for our point-of-sales computers. GOOD TIMES!

The month is not exactly starting off on the most auspicious note, but it's adversity that makes one strong and resilient. In thirty-one days, things will get extremely quiet, and remain so for the next six months. It's a cushy job, except when it's not, and October is when I pay my dues.