Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mark It Up

I'm not exactly a huge fan of electronic dance music, although I do dig the old stuff like Kraftwerk and YMO, and I'm not exactly not a fan of a lot of it. Twenty years ago, the band Underworld, which formed in 1980, had a hit song with Born Slippy, a 1995 single which was featured on the soundtrack of the film Trainspotting. While familiar with the song, I really didn't pursue any of Underworld's catalog, though the band has a new single out, and I'm really digging it. Here's I Exhale, which will be released as a single next month (WARNING: play the video, then switch to another browser tab so you don't get Pokémon seizures)

This song sounds so different from the band's previous work, it's almost as if someone told the singer to Mark E. Smith himself by 10% or so. Here's The Fall's 'pop tune', 1988's Hit the North for the sake of comparison:

I'm a big fan of the Fall, so I'm digging the Underworld now that the singer decided to 'Mark' it up.

Saturday, February 27, 2016


During the really rough cold snap we endured, one of our managers brought the members of the Rodent Abatement Team home so they could enjoy a nice, heated building. He brought them back this week, but last night was a bit of a cold snap, so I let them out of the building they are currently mousing and let them into the employees' lounge for a spell. They promptly made a beeline for the radiator cover they so love:

They had a nice chance to get all toasty warm... to get them back in their assigned area, I had to bribe them with some kibble. Well, kibble and a self-serve all-you-can-eat mouse buffet.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Giving the Game Away

Hapless Marco Rubio... every time he seems to be gaining traction, Donald Trump steps on his dick. I'd feel sorry for the guy if he weren't such a regressive asshole. Anyway, Rubio gives the game away in his latest criticism of Trump:

"He could become the nominee and we're not going to let that happen. There is no way we're going to allow the party of Reagan or the conservative movement to be taken over by a con man."

Marco, Marco, Marco, the conservative movement was taken over by con men from day one, with Reagan being the number one grifter of the entire movement. Why, here's the Gipper himself:

By painting the government as the problem, and running the government badly in order to prove that thesis, Reagan ushered in the current period of privatization, allowing a coterie of crooks and cronies to loot the treasury.

Being a redundancy robot, Rubio had to repeat his assertion:

"He's a con man. I think it's time to unmask him for what he is. He's trying to take over the conservative movement."

Marco, you're a con man yourself, dipping into your own party's till. Ted Cruz is also a con man, with a specifically religious spin to his grift. The entire conservative movement is nothing but one massive scam... Rick Perlstein wrote an essential essay on the nature of the grift. Marco Rubio isn't really concerned about a con man taking over the movement, he's just jealous because he's been upstaged by a more charismatic mountebank.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Missed By That Much

My standard line about my job is that it is very cushy, except when it's not. Last night was a combination of cushy and scary... lower New York State was on the verge of the storm which battered Virginia. We experienced winds speeds up to 50 mph (about 80 kph), accompanied by intermittent torrential rains. I usually spend a lot of time on the job outdoors (typically anywhere from one-quarter to two-thirds of my shift, depending on job duties and weather conditions), but while dangerous conditions prevail, I limit my exposure to harm. Last night, I only conducted two inspection tours of the property. So, it was a cushy night (I sat in my office drinking coffee and writing) with some scary episodes (I had limited exposure to some very inclement conditions).

All over the grounds, there were branches downed by the wind... then I came across this behemoth:

I'm not good at identifying trees by their bark, and the poor thing has been denuded of leaves for months, but I think it might have been a maple, judging from the bulk of the leaf litter. As you can see, it missed hitting one of our company vehicles, a pickup truck used by our grounds and maintenance staff, by a very small distance. If the tree had fallen at a slightly different angle, it would have smashed this truck and two company vans. As individuals, and as an organization, we were very lucky indeed.

I believe Don Adams has the best characterization of this sort of thing:

This tree fell down in a particularly nice section of the property, situated by a pretty wetland that teems with birdlife and a nice spot to take a break on the job with some friends. I wish I could remember what sort of tree this fallen behemoth had been, it seems a bit disrespectful not to remember.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: That's Amore!

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring biological anthropologist and love expert Dr Helen Fisher of the Rutgers University Anthropology Department Center for Human Evolutionary Studies and the Kinsey Institute. The title of the lecture was Lust Romance Attraction: The Drive to Love and Who We Choose.

Dr Fisher began her lecture by relating a conversation she had with an elder of a tribe of Papuan Highlanders who had three wives. She asked this individual how many wives he wanted and he answered, "None." While many societies are polygamous, only about 5-10% of individuals want many wives- most human adults form pair bonds. Dr Fisher recalled a statement attributed to Samuel Johnson, "Marriage is the triumph of hope over experience."

Dr Fisher was asked by the CEO of dating site, "Why do you fall in love with one person and not another?" Why are we drawn to each other? Is it chemistry, or more a matter of culture? For some people, love for one person can be overwhelming- Dr Fisher cited the Mayan ruler Jasaw Chan K'awiil I, who ruled over Tikal from 682-734. When Kalajuun Une' Mo', his young wife, died Jasaw Chan K'awiil I built a pyramid in her honor opposite his own pyramid tomb. The pyramids are aligned to the spring equinox so that 1,300 years after their construction, the love of Jasaw Chan K'awiil I and Kalajuun Une' Mo' touches.

Love is a powerful mind system, likened by the ancient Greeks to madness from the gods. Love, which is found in every society, has been the subject of countless myths, stories, operas, songs. Men tend to be more romantic than women... they usually want to move in together faster, and they are more likely to harm or kill others because of romantic passion. Love is a brain system like fear, disgust, or surprise. Dr Fisher likened love to a sleeping cat- it can wake up at any time. The brain system involved in love is the same for LGBTQ people as it is for heterosexual people.

Romantic love involves three neurotransmitter systems in the brain: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Dr Fisher likened romantic love to an "intolerable neural itch". The sex drive is largely produced by testosterone. Attachment is driven by oxytocin and vasopressin.

Testosterone triggers the sex drive and stimulation of the genitals triggers the dopamine system. Dr Fisher joked that casual sex is not really casual, it can bring about feelings of attachment. The various systems aren't always working in concert- Dr Fisher likened their interaction to a 'committee meeting going on in your head'. Because of the varied interactions of these systems, humans are well built for pair bonding and adultery. We can leave bad relationships and hopefully form new ones. In seeking love and attachment, an individual has to balance intimacy versus autonomy.

The topic then shifted to the topic of romantic love and the traits associated with it. Oddly enough, as I'm typing this post up, this song started playing on the radi-adi-o (no joke). Romantic love involves attaching a special meaning to an individual, as George Bernard Shaw put it, "Love consists in overestimating the difference between one woman and another." In a romantic relationship, one tends to play up the qualities one likes in a partner while downplaying what one doesn't like. Romantic love involves intense energy- swings from euphoria to despair. Individuals feeling romantic love feel wobbly knees and butterflies in their stomachs. They wait for their lovers to call or otherwise contact them and generally feel emotional dependency. They engage in obsessive thinking- 'someone is camping in their head'. There is a craving for attention and for an emotional union. All of these feelings are connected to the dopamine system.

An MRI of an individual viewing a photograph of their loved one reveals that there is heightened activity in their ventral tegmental area, the brain's dopamine factory. The brain stem regulates the most primitive drives, thirst and hunger, and the hypothalamus regulates sex drive. Love is not really an emotion, love is a drive- the drive to win a mating partner. There are facial expressions that express anger or surprise, but none that express hunger or love. The love drive is more important than the sex drive. Romantic love can be likened to an addiction, it uses the same pathways in the brain.

Dr Fisher then had a short aside about rejection- if you've been rejected, can you let go? In one survey, 90% of college aged respondents indicated that they had both suffered rejection and had rejected others. Again, the ventral tegmental area is involved in the perception of rejection, which is similar to the craving suffered by an addict. Dr Fisher quipped, "Can Advil help?"

All animals have attraction systems but many animal species don't form pair bonds. Most birds form pair bonds but many mammals, including most primates, don't. Apes tend to be self-sufficient, but the hominids who took to the ground needed help from each other, with males taking on a larger parental role. At some stage in human evolution, a monogamy threshold was reached, which favored the evolution of brain circuitry for romantic love and attachment. While evolution of this new brain circuitry largely overturned promiscuity, it was not absolute by any means.

Dr Fisher then addressed the topic of attraction... Why him? Why her? Timing and proximity are big factors, as are socioeconomic and ethnic factors. Intelligence and looks and shared experiences are important, as are shared social values. Attraction involves the interaction of nature and nurture. Dr Fisher then digressed to talk about the differences in intimacy between men and women- women prefer face to face interaction while men prefer to sit side by side. While experiencing intimacy, one's L-dopa levels go up.

Most of the brain's systems are devoted to keeping the eyes seeing and the heart breathing. The four major brain systems devoted to more conscious behavior are the dopamine system, the serotonin system, the estrogen system, and the testosterone system. Dr Fisher detailed a study in which participants were asked to take a 56 page personality test in order to determine patters of nature, patterns of culture, patterns of personality, and patterns of mate choice. According to their answers, subjects were grouped into four categories, corresponding to the four behavioral brain systems.

Individuals who had high dopamine levels could be characterized as 'explorers'- they are curious, adventurous. They tend to make the most money and to lose the most money. They tend to be optimistic, enthusiastic, spontaneously generous, and creative. They are susceptible to boredom, can be reckless, they tend to be unreflective, and they can be opportunistic. They also tend to live in urban areas, where the action is, and they are attracted to other 'explorers'.

Individuals with high serotonin levels could be characterized as 'builders'- they are guardians, pillars of society, they tend to observe social norms. They tend to be cautious and modest and enjoy familiarity. They like orderliness and structure, are fact-oriented and literal... they tend to be concrete thinkers. They are usually modest and pragmatic. They like to belong and are usually calm and controlled. They believe in loyalty. They can also be close minded, controlling, and moralistic.

Individuals with high testosterone levels could be characterized as 'directors'. They tend to be analytical and rank-oriented. They tend to believe in dominance matching- an attack should be met with an attack. In confrontations, they loom in order to look big rather than crouching to look little. They tend to be emotionally contained or they block their emotions. They can be less empathetic- Dr Fisher noted that, evolutionarily speaking, men's jobs didn't require empathy- empathy doesn't help a hunter as it dispatches a baby gazelle.

Individuals with high estrogen levels could be characterized as 'negotiators', they also tend to have higher oxytocin levels. Women tend to have better connected brains than men do. Dr Fisher joked that, while there are more male geniuses than female geniuses, there are also more male idiots than females. Negotiators tend to be more intuitive and more empathetic- they are adept at reading postures, gestures, and tones of voice. They tend to be trusting, which often works against them when they trust the wrong person. If they trust the right person, then they can achieve metabolic savings- it's easier to function when you have a good partner. They tend to be introspective, finding meaning in everything. They tend to value harmony and have a high diplomatic intelligence. They can be scattered and indecisive, gullible, and overeager to please. They can also be backstabbing and unforgiving. They tend to have excellent memories.

Each individual is a combination of all four of these categories. Citing the case of Darwin, not only was he an explorer, but he was a connector- combining the dopamine and estrogen 'types'. Dr Fisher noted that all four types are needed for a functional social group- over millions of years of evolution, hominids tended to form bands of about twenty-five individuals, typically twelve juveniles and twelve to thirteen adults. If every individual in the group went after that unusual mushroom, the prospects of the band wouldn't be so great. In evolutionary matters, group selection is the key.

The lecture then shifted to a topic summed up by the question, can romantic love last? Long term romantic love involves activity in the ventral pallidum, a part of the brain involved in pain suppression and maintaining calm. Happy relationships involve positive allusions- focusing on what you like about your partner. Express empathy, overlook stress, and accentuate the positive. Introducing novelty into a relationship drives up dopamine levels. Touching, hugging, hand holding, and kissing raise oxytocin levels. Regular sex attaches the sex drive with the drive for romantic love. Expressing affection reduces cortisol levels in both partners.

The finale of the lecture involved the future of sex. Dr Fisher noted that the golden rule ("treat your partner as you want to be treated") should be superseded by the platinum rule: "Treat your partner as they want to be treated." When approaching a new relationship, you should ask yourself the following questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be? Who do I want others to think I am? What traits do I express? Dr Fisher noted that LGBTQ individuals do not differ from heterosexual individuals, people should just be categorized as normal. She stressed that dating apps do not change how we love, they only change how we court. We fall in love in the same way we have for millions of years, the algorithms just change how we meet. The one danger that these apps pose is cognitive overload- the more individuals we meet, the less we want particular individuals. We need more limited choices, we need to overlook certain things. Even looks stop counting after a while, so we need to think of reasons to say yes. There's a benefit to taking things slow, though, get to know individuals better.

A study of singles indicated that 50% of people have had one night stands or a 'friends with benefits' situation. While the press may characterize this 'hook up culture' as reckless, it's actually a cautious behavior. The main driver for this is the fear of divorce. People can try out partners on a 'pre-commitment' or 'commitment-lite' basis. Marriage isn't the beginning, but the end- and this attitude will probably lead to more happy marriages. There's an unquenchable, adaptive, primordial urge to love.

Oddly enough, while I asked a question in the Q&A, I totally forgot what my question was, and I didn't even drink that much beer. I blame an imbalance of neurotransmitters...

Dr Fisher features in a lot of videos, and it's hard to pick just one to express the topics covered in her lecture. Pick any one, pour yourself a libation, and soak in that secret science ambiance. Kudos to Dr Fisher, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. Once again, the SSC served up a lovely, lovely lecture.

POSTSCRIPT: Finally remembered my question- it regarding 'gaming' the system by giving answers that the subject thought the questioner would ask. That elicited the bit about portraying yourself as you think the other person wishes you to be.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Pluerotus Plunder?

Last December, I chanced upon a bounty of oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus sp.), and I've been inspecting dead and moribund trees for signs of these fall-to-early spring 'shrooms ever since. While I haven't found any mushrooms worth harvesting, I've found some promising growths to investigate in the near future:

The organization has a staff of talented carpenters- the sort of talented woodworkers who do fine work for our facilities and in their downtime crank out rustic benches on which our visitors can sit for a while:

After checking out the clever use of expansion wedges inserted into the end of the legs in order to fasten them firmly to the seat of the bench, look at that frilly off-white growth on the edge of the bench:

Looks promising to me... and we're supposed to have rain for the next couple of days.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Search Terms, WTF?

Every so often, I check my stats, and I never fail to marvel at some of the search terms that people have typed into their search engines before finding this place. This week, I've had a head scratcher and a knee slapper:

landangirl cont namber

philistin hotboobs

I have no idea what the first one could possibly mean, but the second one is hilarious. I totally call dibs on the band name 'Philistine Hotboobs'- unless, of course, the lead singer of philistin hotboobs was the one googling his or her band name. If so, please send me an mp3 of your first single, and I'll post it.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Dreaming of an Imminent Spring

A week ago, I was shivering in single-digit temperatures, but the temperature underwent a sixty degree (Fahrenheit) jump sometime in the morning hours of last Monday, and have been seasonally warm since then. This weekend, I saw my first American robins (Turdus migratorius) of the year, and heard the first red winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) of the year. With the return of these cheer-inducing avian charmers, I can be assured that Spring is nigh.

On the dendrological front, the first local trees to regrow their foliage in the Spring are the willows (genus Salix), which start to sprout golden shoots:

The site that forms my typical workplace is home to a small tributary of the mighty Hudson River, and the bank of this small river is home to a bunch of willows:

Some of the local willow trees are contorted into fantastic shapes:

Wandering along the meandering bank of this small watercourse on an overcast afternoon, I was struck by how druidical the vibe was... I was expecting these guys to come by:

I might not live in the Land of Dreams, but sometimes it's a dream job.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Literary Losses

Damn! What a horrible day for readers... we lost Harper Lee and Umberto Eco in quick succession.

Like almost every American who can be considered educated, I read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird many years ago. On the virtue of this one book, Harper Lee's spot in the literary firmament was guaranteed. One measure of the book's power is the frequency with which it has been challenged or banned in school districts. Wherever there is anxiety about large black men busting up chifforobes, the book will be considered a dangerous one. It's a paean to liberalism in the teeth of a racist culture, and a call for justice in a society in which courts shouldn't intervene to stop the execution of an innocent individual. I haven't read the recently released Go Set a Watchman, but from what I've read about it, it's a mere coda to the tour de force which is To Kill a Mockingbird.

In contrast, Umberto Eco was a prolific novelist, essayist, semiotician, and gadfly. The Name of the Rose was a marvel... simultaneously sprawling and claustrophobic. Any novel in which a Sherlock Holmes pastiche matches wits with an evil Jorge Luis Borges doppelgänger is alright with me, and the long digressions about monastic life in the Middle Ages and the tension between the Classical and Medieval worlds only sweetened the pot.

Foucault's Pendulum was catnip to me... a wonderful farrago of Kabbalah, crank pseudosciences, and outlandish conspiracy theories compiled into a grand game by a trio of smartass editors working at a vanity press using the outré writings of a gaggle of kooky 'Diabolicals'. Foucault's Pendulum was Illuminatus! written by a tweedy academic instead of a couple of countercultural tricksters, The Da Vinci Code written for brainiacs, Masters of Atlantis with jokes that necessitate an encyclopedia to get... did I say that this book was catnip to me? I love/hate bizarro conspiracy theories and 'weird science' (yo, Shaver, I'm looking at you!), so I readily identified with Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon, whiling away the hours at their job by concocting a unified theory of secret plots and recondite knowledge.

In contrast, The Island of the Day Before grabbed me to a much lesser extent- it's more limited in scope than the wide-ranging Foucault's Pendulum, but it did have some very interesting digressions about the race to discover a means to measure longitude, and the implications that such a discovery would have for the discoverers. It was an entertaining read, but it didn't hit the perfect sweet spot that Foucault's Pendulum, with its secret histories and sinister plotters, had.

I have yet to read The Prague Cemetery, but it looks like it covers some of the same ground that Foucault's Pendulum does. I think a fitting tribute to Signore Eco would be picking this one up.

It's been a bad stretch for bibliophiles... all I know is that Gene Wolfe had better be watching his health, or I'll be despondent.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

All Your Kumquat Are Belong to Us

I have long been upfront about my love for kumquats. For those not familiar with kumquats, they are small citrus fruits, about the size of an olive or the end joint of one of my fat fingers:

I have an almost insatiable greed for kumquats, which aren't exactly the easiest fruits to find in a typical supermarket. I even went to the giant Korean supermarket up the road from me, and couldn't find any (I did eye the jackfruit for a good long while, and even gave the durian and glance and tentatively sniffed one, though it was refrigerated, so I couldn't distinguish any of its infamous aroma... with apologies to Mr Durian, I didn't buy one... this time). In my quest for kumquats, I stopped by the smaller Asian market, which I actually prefer, because I like their noodle selection better and they have my favorite brand fried bean curd. Luckily, they had kumquats in stock, and I bought them all:

Like I said, I have an almost insatiable greed for kumquats... and now I have two quarts of them.

The best way to characterize the flavor of a kumquat is to liken it to an inside-out orange... it has a thick, sweet rind and a bit of sour, astringent pulp. Eating a kumquat is almost a boozy affair... there's a hint of sweetness, a blast of astringency, then a sweet finish as you finish munching the rind. I brought some of the kumquats to work, and gave a few of them to my co-worker, who is also a food buff. He bit into one and said, "This is the natural equivalent of Sour Patch Kids." Now, that's a line worth stealing...

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Good Luck with That, Sweatbot

Via Tengrain, Marco Rubio had a little chuckle when a supporter yelled, "Waterboard Hillary!" Yeah, good luck with that, Rubio's not waterboarding anybody with that tiny little bottle of his:

Maybe Rubio could sweatboard Hillary.

Monday, February 15, 2016

SCOTUS Nomination Game

Even though we all know that the Republican congress won't approve of any Supreme Court nominations by President Obama, a guy can dream right? In a comment at Tengrain's place, Sirius Lunacy has a cunning plan:

Obama should immediately nominate Joe Biden just for the exploding head effect.

Then comes the doubling down- this is a seriously diabolical plan:

Or perhaps even better, Obama should immediately resign and then just when the wingnuts reach peak celebration mode for deposing the Kenyan Usurper, Joe Biden could nominate Obama.

Sirius, if that is your real name, you really need to join Barack Hussein Obama's staff, maybe as the Wingnut Torture Czar.

My personal preference would be for the President to nominate his wife for a seat on the Supreme Court... Michelle Obama has a degree from Harvard Law School, she is only fifty-two years old, and the woman is dedicated to her health and the health of America's children... I'd love to see her on the Supreme Court for a good forty years.

Any other suggestions for Supreme Court nominees? While joking to some extent, I really believe that our First Lady would make a great SCOTUS justice... I'd love to hear some other ideas, serious or not.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Reunion Rehearsal

This morning, I was able to get a jump on my upcoming college reunion- I met with three of my classmates (two roommates) and their families for a nice breakfast. It's funny how easily people fall into old patterns, the old jokes are funny, the shared reminiscences nicely burnished in the memory. Reunion is in four and a half months. There will be travel plans to make, arrangements to get dorm rooms (who wants a hotel room?), and the like.

You can bet your bippy that I'm not planning on working this coming reunion weekend.

Hey, since this is a pretty perfunctory post, how about a quick music video for the Feast of St Valentine? Here's a fun song by Norwegian girl band Cocktail Slippers:

I love you all, I wish I had a longer post for you.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Surprising, but Certainly not Upsetting

Wow, who would have thought that Antonin Scalia would just suddenly die with no warning? Antonin Scalia did untold harm to countless human beings, both here and abroad. The cliché is that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I'm going to cheat by displaying a picture that contains words, a PNG file to be exact:

Yeah, that was a human simulacrum which actually compared consenting adults in caring relationships to child molestors. I really can't get upset at his passing. I imagine that he was planning on participating in one of those horrible canned hunts before he croaked... his hobbies were just as awful as his life's work.

The next eleven months will be characterize by Republicans attempting to block the Kenyan Usurper from nominating a successor- all the more reason to get the hell out and vote this year.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Secret Science Club North Post Lecture Recap: The Nose Knows, but Who Knows the Nose?

Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space for the latest Secret Science Club North lecture, featuring Dr Leslie Vosshall of Rockefeller University's Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior. Dr Vosshall is also a consultant for International Flavors and Fragrances Inc.

The topic of the talk being the sense of smell, there was a brief presentation before the lecture- six different fragrances, strips of paper infused with essential oils, were presented to attendees, who were tasked with identifying them. The first fragrance was spearmint, the second eucalyptus, the third lavender, the fourth rosemary, the fifth orange, and the sixth was cinnamon leaf
(reminiscent of cinnamon bark, but subtly different).

Dr Vosshall began her lecture by contrasting our knowledge of the sense of smell with our knowledge of color vision and of hearing. With color vision studies, we know the rules, there is a predictable relationship between the stimulus and the percept. Different wavelengths of light are associated with different colors- a honeybee would be able to perceive certain ultraviolet wavelengths and a rattlesnake would be able to perceive certain infrared ones:

Our perception of sound is also well understood, there is a predictable relationship between frequency and pitch. Musical notation can be likened to scientific notation, it's a diagram plotting pitch and time.

Smell is not well understood- different smells can be characterized as sexy, delicious, evocative, or disgusting, but there is a lot of subjectivity in this regard. In one case, there is a woman who claims to enjoy the smell of dirty diapers.

Dr Vosshall broke the subject down into a few subjects: Why does smell matter? What is the stimulus/percept problem involved? What is the role of genes in our perception of smell? What is the role of the brain in smell? Are pheromones fantasy?

Dr Vosshall then displayed a map of the world, with the countries ranked by incidence of smell disorders- the United States ranked high, with India also having a high degree of individuals with smell disorders. While blindness and deafness are considered to be tragic disabilities, an inability to smell is not generally considered to be that big a deal. To those suffering from anosmia, though, there is a decreased enjoyment of life- anosmia sufferers can inadvertently eat spoiled food, they can gain weight because of a diminished sense of taste which causes overeating, they have trouble gauging their hygiene and can compulsively wash themselves or be unaware of strong body odor, and they can fall victim to such dangers as gas leaks and chemical exposure. They can suffer mental health problems due to social isolation and a loss of links to past aromas.

Dr Vosshall displayed a couple of cartoons from an exhibition from artists James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau depicting doctors making diagnoses by smell and dogs sniffing out cancer cells, and posed the question, can dogs really sniff out cancer?

The topic then shifted to the stimulus/percept problem. Dr Vosshall showed us some diagrams of molecules which turned out to be beta-damascenone (a major component of a rose's bouquet) and 3-hexanol (a major component of grass' aroma). She noted that there is no disciplined way to predict how a particular substance will smell. A rose has over 260 odor molecules mixed in a certain combinatorial ratio. While different flowers have different aromas, there is a lot of overlap in their odor compounds. Dr Vosshall then displayed a diagram noting some odor compounds in common flowers:

Nature is the ultimate perfumier...

She then displayed a diagram displaying some odor compounds associated with human waste, such as skatole:

She then informed us that some of these 'waste' odor compounds are used in perfume making, wryly noting that perfumes contain a hint of 'stank', otherwise they'd smell flat.

As an aside, I have to note that these compound diagrams are fantastic.

Smells can be characterized by their intensity (strong vs weak) or valance (good vs bad), but there is no quantitative measure- a subjective element is at play. The culture in which one is raised has an effect on odor perception- one's perception of the smell of a durian, garlic, blue cheese, or cilantro is, to a large extent, culturally driven.

There is a difficulty in categorizing scents... we operate in a 'constrained space', having to describe aromas as 'floral' or 'citrus', or some other category. Even the descriptive terms are subjective... contrast that to a description of a musical note- Dr Vosshall joked about the difficulty in shopping for perfumes and quipped: "Nobody in a music store asks a customer, 'Do you like Middle C?'"

Dr Vosshall then displayed the body odor aroma wheel to kick off a discussion of the semantics of odor quality descriptors:

In the 1980's, researcher Andrew Dravnieks had subjects describe aromas using 146 different descriptors (PDF), though there are other breakdowns in the odor atlas. In a recent experiment, subjects were asked to describe 480 different odor molecules in their own words. At the low end, one subject merely used two words while another used 7,160 words to describe the different odors. Women typically used twice the number of words to describe aromas as men did. Certain compounds were easily described- R-(–)-carvone being described as having a minty aroma, D-camphor being overwhelmingly described as smelling like Vick's Vap-o-Rub. Other compounds were described using more varied terms, with vanillin being largely described as having a 'vanilla' smell, but also described as smelling 'sweet', or 'like chocolate'- Dr Vosshall joked that the descriptors for vanillin could be likened to the smell of Zabar's bakery section. On the other hand, methanethiol was described as smelling like feces, spoiled milk, rotten eggs, garbage trucks, and 'ass'. The descriptors are subjective, there's no scientific term to pin down an aroma.

The topic of the talk then shifted to discrimination- how many odor molecules can humans perceive? One study by Dr Vosshall's team suggested that humans can distinguish a trillion smells. There are approximately 166,443,860,262 different odor molecules, out of which perfumiers use about five thousand. Dr Vosshall wryly noted that, if the publishing industry limited itself to five thousand words, books would be boring. Dr Vosshall admitted that the study stating that humans could discriminate one trillion olfactory stimuli was her 'most hated' paper, and then described the study itself. In the study, thirty olfactory compounds were mixed in various combinations, with a certain percentage of overlap. Three vials were presented to the test subjects- two relatively close, with one mixture significantly different... the test subjects were typically able to distinguish the 'odd vial out', the one with a significant percentage difference. Out of the various compounds, trillions of possible combinations were possible, and the scents produced were dissimilar from any familiar scents.

We are much better at smelling than we think. Smelling starts with sniffing- air containing odor molecules is inhaled through the nostrils and hits the olfactory bulb, where various olfactory neurons react to different odorants to different extents. Dr Vosshall played a short animation to illustrate the manner in which various odor molecules interact with different olfactory neurons:

Odor intensity is determined by how many neurons are activated by odor molecules- the more neurons stimulated, the more intense an aroma. The identity of odorants is deconstructed in the piriform cortex of the brain, though no patterns of brain activity regarding odor perception have been differentiated. Dr Vosshall noted that scientists are driven by ignorance- they thrive on such problems as the mystery of olfaction. She also noted that it is difficult to build sensors corresponding to all odors. That being said, she noted that the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Richard Axel, Linda B. Buck for their research in olfaction- Dr Vosshall joked that this was the 'Smell Nobel'.

Humans have about 400 odor receptors, while rats have about 1,000 and dogs have about 2,000. Is smell unimportant to humans, or are 400 odor receptors sufficient? Every human has a unique nose and each of us is a bit 'smellblind'- everyone has different odor receptor functionality. To illustrate this, Dr Vosshall had three volunteers from the audience smell three vials of odor molecules- one of them (odor B) was androstenone, a sex steroid which drives female pigs in heat crazy (a similar compound, androstadienone, a product of the breakdown of testosterone in humans). The subjects were asked to describe the smell of the androstenone, and all three indicated that it did not have a strong smell, which elicited a joke from Dr Vosshall, about how she could tell them what their genomes were like. The gene OR7D4 responds to androstenone and androstadienone, and various individuals can perceive it as odorless, or sweet/floral, or urinous/sweaty. The OR7D4 receptor only responds to sex steroids, broken copies of OR7D4 cause individuals to perceive androstenone as less intense (for the record, when the vial of odor B was passed around, I perceived it as an acrid odor, almost painful to smell).

Dr Vosshall then brought up the topic of pheromones, nothing that the term originally applied to chemicals secreted by female insects to attract mates. She described one Israeli study, which she described as 'brilliant, convincing, and funny- a trifecta for scientists' that found that women's tears tended to turn men off. Tears are a chemosignal- in the study, women's tears were collected (the tears were induced by having the women watch sad movies, no onions were used in the experiment) and small patches were soaked in either saline solution or the tears of sad ladies, and these patches were placed under the noses of male subjects. There was no conscious odor difference between the tear-soaked patches and the saline-soaked ones. The male subjects were asked to rate the sexual appeal of different female faces, and the tears were found to reduce the sexual arousal of the men. Dr Vosshall noted that there is no real human equivalent to insect pheromones- any talk of human 'pheromones' involves a stretching of the term and some degree of confusion. She noted that the human pheromone literature is a 'toxic mess'.

After the lecture, there was a Q&A session. There were various questions about the evocative nature of aromas- Dr Vosshall indicated that smell tends to bypass semantic centers and hit emotional centers. Another questioner, noting that certain cooks are better at distinguishing ingredients than others, asked if one could improve one's sense of smell- Dr Vosshall noted that good smellers practice, they train themselves. Another questioner asked if any work was done to integrate odors in pedagogy, with, for example, pairing scents with chapters in a book- alas, this isn't typically done. There is a huge scent industry, though, and a lot of high-end hotels have scent designers 'imprinting' or 'training' customers with signature aromas, typically 'easy florals'. Some bastard in the audience, being a hard science junkie, asked Dr Vosshall about the differences in mammalian olfaction and insect olfaction (the last common ancestor almost definitely being an aquatic denizen of the Precambrian). Dr Vosshall stated that vertebrates and insects use completely different proteins to serve the same purpose- insects have fast-acting olfactory receptors, which probably co-evolved with flowering plants. Slower mammals evolved slower olfactory sensors.

Dr Vosshall opined that humans should be more like dogs, they should sniff around more, interact more with scents. I made a note of this advice before heading off to the subway...

Once again, the Secret Science Club has dished up a fantastic lecture in their Northern Outpost. Kudos to Margaret and Dorian and the staff of the Symphony Space. High fives all around. For those of you unable to attend, here is a video of a World Science Festival panel discussion featuring Dr Vosshall:

Crack open a beer and, if you're feeling adventurous, spray a little Odor B around the room, and inhale deeply through your nose... that's the smell of science!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Rethinking the Winter Pilgrimage

This time of year, I conduct my annual pilgrimage to see bald eagles in the northern reaches of Westchester County's Hudson banks. This year, there's an “extremely disconcerting” leak of radioactive tritium-contaminated water
from Buchanan's Indian Point nuclear power plant, which is immediately south of Fleischmann's Pier, my prime eagle-watching spot.

There is a quote about nuclear power that I have heard attributed to R. Buckminster Fuller:

The sun is the only safe nuclear reactor, situated as it is some ninety-three million miles away.

About 16 miles (25 kilometers) south of Indian Point, the village of Tarrytown is aggressively pursuing a village-wide solar power initiative. Being 93 million miles from a nuclear power plant is preferable to being sixteen miles downstream from a leaking one.

The nuclear power plant has the Orwellian slogan Safe. Secure. Vital. Nothing sounds quite so safe, secure, and vital as an extremely disconcerting leak of radioactive water.

I'll probably end up making that drive north... it's not like I would be spending a lot of time at the site. Does anybody know of a good Geiger counter app?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler, Mes Amis

As is the tradition around here, I'd like to take an opportunity to wish everybody a happy Mardi Gras. Mine didn't start off too auspiciously- I had to go to our annual workplace healthcare insurance meeting this morning and ended up sitting in traffic for a good long time due to an eleven car pileup on the Sprain Brook Parkway... I shouldn't complain, I wasn't in one of those eleven cars. After writing this post, I'm going to pick up some peppers and celery in order to make the holy trinity for a pot of jambalaya. Tonight, I'll be heading out to a local bar for team trivia night, and I don't know if they'll be serving any Cajun/Creole fare this week, so I have to get my Lafayette on before leaving the house.

To help you get your Fat Tuesday on, how about some music? Here's a live performance by one of my Cajun/folk faves, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys:

And so as not to leave the Creole population of Louisiana out, here's C.J. Chenier playing some green beans music:

Before I run off to the grocery store and then ensconce myself in the kitchen for the rest of the afternoon, I'll advise you to check out Aunt Snow's blog- she's hanging her hat in New Orleans these days and has some amazing pictures of various Louisiana krewes. Au revoir, mes amis, laissez le bon temps rouler.

Monday, February 8, 2016

GuNg HaY Fat Choy

Here's wishing a happy new year to my readers who celebrate the Lunar New Year- I hope the Year of the Monkey is a happy and prosperous one for all of us. In New York City, the administration has made the Lunar New Year a school holiday, thus furthering the cause of inclusion in a city which has always been at the forefront of cultural diversity. No longer will parents have to choose between sending their children to school or having them participate in holiday celebrations.

Last year, the New York City public school system added Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha to the school holiday calendar. Hopefully, this year they will add Diwali to the list. You just can't have enough holidays.

Gung hay fat choy, everybody.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Once Again, a Sportball Spectacle

As is typical, I am working on Super Bowl Sunday. Years ago, I decided to completely divorce myself from the orgy of consumption, social pathologies, and unearned loyalty that is professional sports in these here United States. The National Football League is an unholy farrago, destroying its players (on the radio today, a physician noted that football is not a contact sport, but a collision sport), countenancing violence against women despite claiming to be dealing with it, devalues the work of women, further victimizes the most marginalized persons, and transfers taxpayers' dollars into the pockets of billionaire owners. I refuse to involve myself in the whole dirty spectacle...
I'd rather watch a bunch of amateurs playing something, anything for the love of the game and a spirit of fellowship.

Given the appetite people have for bruising displays of athleticism, I'm surprised that nobody has ever started a hadaul league. Hadaul is a fictional sport invented by the late, great Jack Vance, one of my favorite authors, and detailed in The Face, the fourth of his 'Demon Princes' pentalogy. Mr Vance describes the sport in minute detail:

From Games of the Galaxy, by Everett Wright: the chapter entitled "Hadaul."

Hadaul like all good games is characterized by complexity and the multiple levels upon which the game is played.

The basic apparatus is simple: a field suitably delineated and a certain number of players. The field is most often painted upon the pavement of a plaza; occasionally it will be constructed of carpet. There are many variations, but here is a typical arrangement. A pedestal stands at the center of a maroon disk. The pedestal can be of any configuration, and customarily supports the prize money. The diameter of the disk ranges from four to eight feet. Three concentric rings, each ten feet in width, surround the disk.

These are known as "robles" and are painted (from in to out) yellow, green, and blue. The area beyond the blue ring is known as "limbo."

Any number of contestants, or "roblers," may participate, but usually the game starts with a maximum of twelve and a minimum of four. Any more creates excessive congestion; any less reduces the scope of that trickery which is an essential element.

The rules are simple. The roblers take up positions around the yellow roble. All now are "yellow roblers." As the game starts they attempt to eject the other yellow roblers into the green roble. Once thrust or thrown into the green, a robler becomes "green" and may not return to yellow. He will now attempt to eject other green roblers into the blue. A yellow robler may venture into the green and return into yellow as a sanctuary; similarly a green robler may enter blue and return to the green, unless he is ejected from blue by a blue robler.

A game will sometimes end with one yellow robler, one green robler, and one blue robler. Yellow may be disinclined to attack green or blue; green disinclined to attack blue. At this stage no further play is possible. The game halts and the three roblers share the prize in a 3-2-1 ratio, yellow receiving the "3" or half share. Green or blue may wager new sums equal to the yellow prize, and by this means once again become yellow, a process which may continue until a single robler remains to claim the entire prize.

Rules in this regard vary from hadaul to hadaul. At times a challenger may now propose a sum equal to the prize, the previous winner may or may not decline the challenge, according to local rules. Often the challenger may propose a sum double the prize, which challenge must be accepted, unless the winner has suffered broken bones, or other serious disability. These challenge matches are often fought with knives, staves, or, on occasion, whips. Not infrequently a friendly hadaul ends with a corpse being carried off on a litter. Referees monitor the play assisted by electronic devices which signal crossings of the roble boundaries.

Conspiracy is an integral part of the game. Before the game starts the various roblers form alliances of offense or defense, which may or may not be honored. Tricks, crafty betrayal, duplicity are considered natural adjuncts to the game; it is surprising, therefore, to note how often the tricked robler becomes indignant, even though he himself might have been intending the same treachery.

Hadaul is a game of constant flux, constant surprise; no one game is ever like another. Sometimes the contests are jovial and good-natured, with everyone enjoying the tricks; sometimes tempers are ignited by some flagrant act of falsity, and blood is wont to flow. The spectators wager among themselves, or, at major hadauls, against mutualization agencies. Each major shadestages several hadauls each year, on the occasion of their festivals, and these hadauls are considered among the prime tourist spectacles of Dar Sai.

Vance being a competent writer, he was fully aware of the Checkov's gun rule, so he placed his protagonist, a man honed since his childhood into an instrument with one purpose (to hunt down and reap vengeance on the five criminal masterminds who killed or enslaved the bulk of the populace of his boyhood home) in a game of hadaul which turns sinister, then fatal. That's pretty much to be expected in a action-packed tale of revenge. Of course, on a planet which generally adheres to the rule of law, referees would be expected to make sure a match doesn't devolve into a bloodbath. It's no more violent than calcio storico, which is played in a city widely seen as one of the jewels in civilization's crown:

And there wouldn't even be a silly old ball on the field to distract anyone.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

For Smut and Thunder... Blame Nutkin

In a comment to my last post, Smut found the culprit for Thunder's slow posting schedule:

Skwirls stole your posts, Thundra?

Yeah, Nutkin has a lot to answer for... In my opinion, Nutkin should have been a featured menace in a men's pulp magazine:

Oh, Nutkin, your perfidy knows no bounds!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Blogroll Amnesty Day 2016

Tengrain, the patron saint of small bloggers, reminds us that today is Blogroll Amnesty Day, the day for promoting other blogs according to three rules:

1. You are not allowed to complain or mention your blog’s low traffic until you have been posting daily for a year.

2.If you’re little, link other blogs that are new or still growing their audience, and encourage them to practice their craft daily.

3. Then, show them how.

Regarding the first rule, I have to wonder if one can complain if one has put up 24 posts in 24 hours... I can't complain about low traffic at any rate, I passed the one million hit mark last November, thanks to your readership and your linkage. I can't express my gratitude enough, you've always been the best.

As far as the blogs I'm going to link to, here goes nothing...

Buddy McCue's place showcases the man's art, which deserves a good look. The man is a true gentleman with a keen wit, please check him out.

Paleotectonics mixes righteous rage and side-splitting humor, with copious doses of nerdery and traditional Midwestern values. He's exactly what the Heartland should be- a take no shit attitude, walleye fishing, and Dr Who references aplenty.

Also in the Heartland, zombie rotten mcdonald is another righteously angry Wisconsinite whose eclectic musical tastes take a backseat to no one's... ZRM and Paleo represent the original Heartland values, not the 'I got mine, screw you' values promulgated by the Scott Walkers and Rick Snyders dicking up 'flyover country' and making it into a place that people really want to fly over, or flee from.

Aunt Snow's blog is the perfect cure for Beauty Deficit Disorder- she was a great chronicler of the sheer gorgeousness of the greater L.A. area, now she's doing the same for the NO LA area. Aunt Snow lives beautifully, and she shares the beauty of her existence with her lucky readers.

Nasreen Iqbal's blog is the newest blog on my blogroll, a wonderful mix of the personal and the political. Nasreen is another individual whose musical taste I find interesting. One of these days, I'm going to hang out with Nasreen and ZRM and we're going to geek out for hours on music.

I'd be remiss if I didn't thank Tengrain for his unfailing support throughout my blogging endeavor. Also, I don't know if I would have gotten this thing off the ground if it hadn't of been for the early support from Thunder, mikey, Kiwi and Smut, Johnny Pez, and M. Bouffant. If there's such a thing as 'Blog Amnesty', these are the bloggers who showed it to me when I was just beginning.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Having Cast Our Eyes to the West

Man, the West has been in the news quite a bit these days. I haven't been out West since the 90s, when I took two cross-country road trips which took me throughout most of the U.S. In a comment to one of the news stories about the Malheur takeover, one commentor noted that this whole affair reminded him of the Wall of Voodoo song Call of the West:

Harshly awakened by the sound of six rounds of light-caliber rifle fire
Followed minutes later by the booming of nine rounds from a heavier rifle
But you can't close off the wilderness
He heard the snick of a rifle bolt
And found himself peering down the muzzle
Of a weapon held by a drunken liquor store owner
"There's a conflict," he said, "there's a conflict
Between land and people
The people have to go
They've come all the way out here to make mining claims
To do automobile body work
To gamble
Take pictures
To not have to do laundry
To own a mini-bike
Have their own cb radios and air conditioning
Good plumbing for sure
And to sell Time/Life books and to work in a deli
To have a little chili every morning
And maybe... Maybe to own their own gas stations again
And take drugs
Have some crazy s**
But above all, above all, to have a fair shake
To get a piece of the rock and a slice of the pie
And spit out of the window of your car and not have the wind blow it back in your face"

Stan Ridgway was onto something there... it's a pity that Wall of Voodoo is best known for a novelty song, even a fantastic one. They were a really fantastic band, blending alt-country, new wave, spaghetti western sountracks, that inimitable Ridgway twang, and a noirish sensibility. Here's a video of the band's performance during 1983's US festival:

Listening to some of their songs still raises goosebumps. These guys were fantastic, even their novelty songs were great.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Insight Into Ammosexuality, or Fry, My Boy, You're Cooked

While reading about the travails of the Malheur Four, I came across a comment linking to an interview with anti-semitic ISIS sympathizer David Fry in which he reveals the real reason why he's unwilling to surrender:

At around the five-minute mark, Fry lets drop that he's terrified of being "sodomized by Bubba" if he is sent to prison. Never mind the fact that he's spent the past few weeks with individuals who fit the common perception of 'Bubba', Fry's statement offers a glimpse into the ammosexual mindset... at its root is the fear of victimization at the hands of a stronger individual. Much of the fear is rooted in projection- these people are violent people themselves, with no qualms about victimizing others. The same fear underlies American racism, the notion that African-Americans would love nothing better than to turn the tables on the whites who enslaved them and brutalized them under the Jim Crow apartheid system. Without his gun, Fry is small fry, and he'll be eaten alive by a bigger fish if thrown in the tank.

The very fact of Fry's presence at Malheur is worthy of a cautionary afterschool special- the tale of a boy being bullied by white classmates for his half-Japanese ancestry who grows up to throw his lot in with white supremacists. It's telling that he was odd man out in the Bundy Bunch until LaVoy Finicum, whose 'book' Fry helped to get published, vouched for his bundy fides though Fry was apparently never truly accepted by the core of the group. Finicum's relationship with Fry paradoxically humanizes LaVoy and makes him more monstrous... it's touching that he took this beat-down misfit under his wing, but he exploited him to serve a cause that he would derive no benefit from. At best, Finicum's 'mentoring' of Fry comes across like Lance Murdock's bad advice to Bart Simpson, seen in a less charitable light, it's a doomsday cult leader's exhortation to a follower to self-immolate.

Fry probably doesn't stand a chance if he continues his present course of action. If he doesn't achieve his 'suicide by cop', he'll probably be shanked in prison for being a snitch- he's the guy, after all, most responsible for the continuous video feed that provided the feds with tons of evidence. Plus, he's not a member of the Bundy inner circle... he's not family, he's a non-white interloper from back East who was never trusted from the get-go. If Fry had any sense at all, he'd surrender and turn state's evidence. He doesn't seem to have a lick of sense, though, and America's own Humongous seems to be doing his level best to get him killed. I'd feel sorry for the guy, he's a pathetic figure, but his self-loathing and fear led him to embrace hate, which led him to consort with a bunch of bad, dangerous people, and he poses a danger to others. There still may be time for him to save his ass, but his naivete and stubbornness will probably land Fry in the fire.