Monday, March 31, 2014

An Ongoing Solution

Back in the mid-'70s, the avant garde of rock music was Ohio, and one of the most interesting Ohio bands of the era was Pere Ubu, a sonically challenging band which formed out of the breakup of legendary proto-punk band Rocket from the Tombs. Early on, the band facetiously described their musical style as avant-garage. One of Pere Ubu's most celebrated early singles was ode to teenage alienation Final Solution, a song which the band refrained from playing live for years because of the association of the title phrase with Nazism.

The song's first incarnation was a spare, edgy version performed by Rocket from the Tombs:

The original Pere Ubu single version had a richer sound, a slow tempo number which still achieves a nice burn:

Recently, a reconstituted Rocket from the Tombs has toured, performing a version of the song which, to my ears, has a plaintiveness substituting for the angst of the original version:

Covers of the song have popped up from time-to-time, with Peter Murphy, frontman of Bauhaus releasing a version as his debut solo single:

Yesterday, I found a smoldering cover of the song by Living Colour, which inspired this post:

For a song originally recorded by a bunch of young Midwestern weirdos, it sure has legs.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Happy Birthday, Baby Brother!

Here's wishing my baby brother, Gomez, a very happy birthday. As far as baby brother's go, Gomez is a pretty diesel specimen. He was a highly ranked boxer in the Army Brigade Open matches and he still plays hockey on a regular basis (recently getting his referee certification so he can increase his ice time).

Happy birthday, Gomez!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Domestic Dürer Dead

This week saw the passing of David A. Trampier, an artist whose work always reminded me of the woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer and Gustave Doré. Trampier's black and white line work was obsessively detailed and richly conveyed light and texture. He was also co-designer of the board game Titan. Trampier's world was one of hard-bitten, opportunistic adventurers (including seeming self-inserts, like the bearded chap here):

And sophisticated monsters:

Note the shoutout to wacky boardgame Snit Smashing in the lower right-hand corner...

And the perils of living in a world in which you're not necessarily on the top of the food chain:

Dave Trampier was also a gifted comic artist, whose Wormy comic portrayed the everyday lives of monsters in a sympathetic light (Eskov's The Last Ringbearer mines similar territory). The monsters is Wormy, aside from the eponymous, conniving game-hustler dragon, were working stiffs, just trying to live their lives in peace, for the most part. "Tramp" was able to portray his "other" characters with genuine pathos- one of my particular favorite sequences has his most sympathetic characters going from sorrow to relief (and comic relief) in the space of a few panels. One of his most beautiful pieces is the coda to this sequence, in which his intrepid duo makes their triumphant arrival in Toadtown:

In the mid-80s, Tramp gave up his art career, even leaving his checks uncashed (it's commonly thought that he felt that he was screwed over by his employer. About fifteen years later, he was featured in a newspaper profile of late-night taxi drivers in Carbondale, Illinois. After being located, he was courted by fans but declined all overtures and offers of work. In one of life's tragic ironies, he may have been planning a return to the art and gaming communities in the months before his passing.

RIP, DAT! It's a pity to have lost you twice. Your intricate art fired the imaginations of legions of fans... it's a pity that the majority of us were too young to shower you with financial success to equal our esteem for your work.

Friday, March 28, 2014

YA Romantic Fiction

Via Roy's place, we have an account of Libertarian Fonzie (catchphrase "Ayyyyy is Ayyyyy!") pinning his hopes for a Rand Paul presidency on a popular Young Adult fiction series and its movie adaptation. After typical "don't call me a Republican hack, A POX ON BOTH HOUSES!" Libertarian boilerplate, Gillespie gushes about his dreamy Randian protagonist:

Whether or not the Kentucky Republican actually wins the Republican nomination, much less the White House, is besides the point. The question is whether the politics of the future will be the same as the politics of the present. “I don't want to be just one thing,” explains one of the protagonists in Divergent. “I can't be. I want to be brave, and I want to be selfless, intelligent, and honest and kind.” If anything explains Rand Paul’s rising profile, it’s precisely his ability to be more than just one thing—a social conservative, a civil libertarian, a budget cutter, a decentralizer, and more. There’s no reason to fear— and every reason to promote—such divergence in our elected representatives.

Rand Paul is a decentralizer? I must have missed all the antitrust legislation that he introduced since attaining his senate position. Oh, well, I'm sure that young female voters will eventually see that Rand Paul and his political supporters have plans for their demographic.

Back on Planet Earth, I have to note that Mr Gillespie is headed for a heartbreak if he believes that the popularity of a Young Adult fiction series will have any bearing when it comes to wooing millennials in the 2016 election... Even though the "Twilight" books were wildly popular, young voters didn't throw their support behind a sparkly Mormon vampire in 2012.

This post is expanded from a comment I left at Roy's place. In response, commenter mds wrote:

Maybe if there had been some actual sparkle.

The vampirism sure as hell was real, though.

Cross-posted at Rumproast.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Scary Selfie

Last night, I took a most unusual self portrait:

Yeah, that's me alright... anybody got any idea what the hell's going on?


We have a couple of powerful flashlights on the job (one is a 1.5 million candlepower rechargeable spotlight that became a particular favorite of one of my co-workers after I demonstrated it to him... he'd so much as see a car in the parking lot after dark and he'd shine that monster on the occupants and they'd leave PRONTO- yeah, I created a monster). Our newest flashlight, powered by two C-cells, was dropped by one of the guys in the department, so the button for the switch popped off. To turn the thing on or off, one has to use a pen or a key, or what-have-you to hit the switch. Last night, I kept the light on (we're using rechargeable batteries at this time, so it's not that much of a waste), but slipped the thing up my sleeve when I wanted a little darkness. The light is powerful enough that it was able to render my hand translucent... making me look like some kind of creepy horror out of "Warcraft".

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Looks Like We've Found Yuggoth!

Here's some exciting news on the astronomical front- the discovery of another dwarf planet in the outer reaches of the solar system hints at a larger planet that effects its orbit gravitationally:

Though exciting in its own right, the discovery raises a more tantalising prospect for many astronomers: that a “Super Earth” up to 10 times the mass of our planet orbits the sun at such a great distance that it has never been seen

Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we may have found evidence of the existence of Yuggoth. Pretty soon, nobody will have to leave their body behind to visit this mysterious planet... provided NASA can get funded properly. It's bad enough to have to outsource space flights to the Russians, but it sure beats outsourcing space travel to Mi-go!

In honor of the happy discovery of Yuggoth, I feel an urge to indulge in my taste for poetry:

I predict that Yuggoth is going to become very hip all of a sudden... how soon before a "Ghooric Zone Diet" is in the works?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Jocular Jehovites

Today, for the first time in years, a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door. For the record, the last time the Witnesses rang my bell, I took one look at the primly dressed elderly ladies and said, "Usually, the agency sends the same two strippers, but you two will do just fine." It's been a while since they've been back (I'll let you imagine how the last encountered panned out, you dirty dogs).

Today, two pleasant women in their late forties were waiting outside when I opened the door. One of them handed me a flyer about an upcoming commemoration of Christ's death and said, "We hope you can come."

Me being me, I responded, "Will there be beer?"

"It's not that sort of event."

"I guess I'll bring my own."

This led to a light-hearted discussion about how the Egyptians and Sumerians both brewed and consumed copious amounts of beer, and how the first miracle attributed to Christ in the New Testament was the whole changing water into wine at the wedding feat at Cana. We had a good chuckle and they departed with mutual well wishes...

Could it be that they were really Jovial Witnesses? I could be down with a denomination like that.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dismissed? Get Pissed!

This morning, I caught the 7:44AM train to the City of White Plains, the Westchester county seat, and hoofed it to the county courthouse to report for jury duty. I arrived ten minutes before the 8:45 check in time. We prospects received an orientation from the Commissioner of Jurors which mainly concerned parking. We were given a ten minute break an hour later, mainly so those people who couldn't find long-term parking could top off their meters. It's times like these that I thank myself for not having a "suburban" perspective.

Those of us who did not ask to be dismissed due to language barriers or school or family obligations were ushered into an "empaneling" room where we waited approximately half an hour. A rather jovial judge then entered the room and informed us that the one civil case on the docket for the day had been settled that morning before going to trial. He told us that he needed to determine whether or not the next trial in the works could be moved up a day. About half an hour later, he returned to inform us that the attorneys hadn't lined up all of the doctors involved in the case so we were free to go as soon as a clerk could issue our certificates of completion. We are now off the hook for six years in county cases , four years in federal cases.

I finally wrapped up and decided to hit a pub for a couple of beers. Before heading over to the Brazen Fox, I stopped at a coffee joint for a cup of Java and a Cronut knockoff. Fortified, I headed over to the tavern district. A car with MA plates was getting ticketed in front of the bar- this is White Plains we 're talking about.

The bartender working the 'Fox was a guy I haven 't seen in years, the former owner of a long gone Cajun restaurant I'd occasionlly dine in. I had a couple of beers and a cider and shot the breeze with a friendly Czech fellow who was planning a cross-country road trip. I told him he HAD to check out Death Valley- it's like a moonscape.

Feeling passably well-oiled, I bid the folks adieu and had a nice prix-fixe lunch at Turkish Cuisine. The waitress on duty was one of the most attractive women I've ever seen, a short curvy Mediterranean girl. I can sling the Blarney with the best of them, but I'd have to resort to using my hands to describe her.

Well-oiled and well-fed, I took the train back to the City of Y______. I'm thinking of hitting the pub... The bartender at the 'Fox asked me how Jimmy at Rory's is doing.

Post composed on smartphone- I will have to add links later.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Earlier this month, I received a summons for jury duty. The instructions on the summons were to call the automatic messaging system to find out if my juror number has been chosen. Sure enough, I have to appear at the county courthouse in White Plains by 8:45AM. Since I'm working until 1AM, I'll be dragging my keister tomorrow. Fortunately, I live a scant few blocks from the Wakefield Station on the Metro-North Harlem line, so I'll be able to take public transportation- free parking is only provided to jurors chosen for trial, not prospective jurors. Hell, even if the parking were free, I'd probably take the train anyway, because downtown White Plains is a bit of a pain to navigate.

The last time I was called for jury duty was over fifteen years ago. The case was a civil case in which the plaintiff was a motorist who was suing a utility company for putting a pole too close to a roadway, resulting in an impact. At the time, I was working for an investigation firm which specialized in handling questionable auto accident claims. Needless to say, I was not picked to serve on that particular jury. I wonder what sort of case will be in the offering tomorrow, and if I'll have an angle to work to get dismissed. I am slightly ashamed to admit that I would rather not be picked, regardless of my attitudes toward civic duty.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Done with Living a Lie, or Eldritch L.A.

For years, I have represented myself as a huge Tim Powers fan. I will readily tell anyone who asks me about my literary tastes that one of my all-time favorite novels is The Anubis Gates, a book so tightly constructed that one could poke it in one place, and the whole thing will jiggle like a jello mold. Seriously, get your hands on a copy of this book NOW... I really should post a review of the book one of these days, I'm due to re-read it.

Other Powers books that I have enjoyed immensely are The Stress of Her Regard, a tale of destructive supernatural muses, and Declare, a supernatural thriller that reads like a "straight" take on the subject of Charles Stross' "Laundry" novels. I have also enjoyed On Stranger Tides, the mother of all supernatural pirate novels and The Drawing of the Dark, a historical fantasy romp in which **SPOILER** and **SPOILER** defend Vienna from a Turkish sorceror in order to protect a magical batch of **SPOILER**.

While portraying myself as a Powers fan, there has been one vexing lacuna in my appreciation of his oeuvre... I had never read Dinner at Deviant's Palace, his postapocalyptic take on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I finally got my hands on a copy of the book, and it is classic Powers (albeit a SciFi/Fantasy, not a historical fantasy). In typical Powers fashion, the protagonist is a sympathetic character with a lost love who is put through some serious physical punishment in the course of the book... Powers loves to knock the hell out of his protagonists. The hero of Dinner at Deviant's Palace is a professional musician that undertakes harrowing liberation/deprogramming missions to rescue the abductees of a sinister cult. The milieu of the novel is an "after the bomb" Los Angeles metropolitan area, with Venice being portrayed as a particularly horrific hellhole, centered on the eponymous evil nightclub:

Though in his years in Venice Rivas had prided himself on being a particularly wild, nothing-to-lose young man, boating by moonlight down canals sane people shunned even at noon and participating in several foolish duels, he had taken care never to venture within blocks of Deviant's Palace. But the stories he'd heard about the place still colored his nightmares: stories of fantastic towers and spires that threw dark stains on the sky, so that even at noon stars could be seen twinkling around the warped rib-cage architecture of its upper levels; of nonhuman forms glimpsed weeping in its remoter windows; of what creatures were sometimes found dying in the canals that entered the place through high arches, and what things these creatures sometimes said; of wooden gargoyles writhing in splintery agony on rainy nights and crying out in voices recognized by passersby as those of departed friends... The place was supposed to be more a nightclub than anything else, and Rivas remembered one young lady who, after he'd impatiently broken off their romance even more quickly than he'd instigated it, had tearfully told him that she was going to get a waitress job at Deviant's Palace. He had never permitted himself to believe that she might really have done it, in spite of the evening when a walruslike thing that a gang of fishermen had netted and dragged to shore and were butchering by torchlight rolled its eyes at him and with its expiring breath pronounced the pet name she'd always called him ...

Powers' "Ellay" is a setting in which a flashy mode of transportation is an old Chevy body mounted on a horse-drawn wagon, antique pistols retrofitted to fire poisoned darts are fashion accessories for rich women, and money has such denominations as fifths, half-pints, and jiggers. The use of language is up to Powers' high standard, with a lot of "oh, shit!" moments as the reader has a flash of comprehension- for instance, the seemingly innocuous sentence "Why don't you go home and just deal with things you know something about, sport?" is an insult sufficient to provoke a duel. A couple of classic Powers touches pop up here and there in the narrative- the malevolent floating horrors known as hemogoblins remind this reader of a particularly memorable creepy floating horror in The Anubis Gates, and a "translation" of Ovid's Metamorphoses by William Ashbless to open up Book Two (as far as I got in the book) had me bursting out with laughter.

While I haven't finished the book, I know that I am hooked because one of my first inclinations was to grab a map of the Los Angeles metropolitan area so I could place the narrative in a better geographic context (I got your number "San Berdoo"). As far as the postapocalyptic speculative fiction genre goes, the book stakes out a mid-point between the serious-yet-with-comedic-touches A Canticle for Leibowitz and the gonzo "mutants with telepathic powers" fantasy Hiero's Journey- though it has to be said that the religion depicted in Dinner at Deviant's Palace is a far cry from the civilization-preserving churches of those novels.

Yeah, I was done with living a lie, so I finally picked up Dinner at Deviant's Palace. Finally coming clean with my appalling lapse is as sweet as Currency Brandy. I apologize to any readers (and you know who you are) who might have thought that I was conversant with the work... and I swear I didn't read this Boing Boing blurb before getting the book. If I had, I probably would have paid a lot more than I did for my copy.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Pajama Boy Goes Galt

In a comment on Bette Noir's great Rumproast post on GOP voter outreach, reader SoVeryConfused had a request:

Request commentary on the GOP outreach to Millennials, recently performed by the hipster dude in the tortoise-shell glasses and striped shirt, last seen putting 87 octane gas into a Audi A4.

Not to step on Bette's toes, but I think I can field this one...

For all of the public mockery of "Pajama Boy", the RNC, led by Reince Priebus, was privately alarmed at the GOP's glaring "Pajama Boy gap". In a mere three months, Reince unveiled an improved simulacrum of the original Pajama Boy. Instead of the effete footie pajamas sported by the Obamacare poster boy, the Republican ambassador to the hipsters has been butchified 10% with the addition of a cool "Fonzie meets Smee" wardrobe and the addition of some badass hair gel. Gone is the wussy cocoa mug... the new hipsterlicious volcano of machismo has his hands on a strategically placed gas nozzle... Iggy Pop, you've been knocked off of your eroticization of petrol pump pedestal. I bet Pajama Boy goes to the full service lane and has some other guy do the pumping, if you know what I mean and I think that you do.

The RNC was so enamored of their hipster guy that they put him in a second video, which is sure to be a hit with millennials:

He believes in an energy policy using a wide array of sources, including Republican favorite "Bqhatevwr". There are a couple of missteps in the ad if it is truly aimed at millennials- car ownership tends to be a low priority among this age cohort, so gasoline prices are not all that important to them. Even more of a gaffe is the GOPster's complaint about the price of home heating oil... saddled with crippling debt and bad job prospects (neither of which is being helped by the GOP congresscritters) home ownership is a currently unattainable dream for most millennials. Seeing this bespectacled pitchman blithely mention his home heating cost, many millennials will see this ad as a cruel joke.

The really odd thing about these ads is that, just as "Pajama Boy" was an Organizing for Action employee and not an actor, the GOP answer to "Pajama Boy" is PR flack who works for the Republican Party. In both cases, these individuals, widely assumed to be model/actor types, are true believers (or reasonable facsimiles thereof). The parallels between the two are remarkable- we have the contrast between a hipster and a Bizarro-hipster.

As a funny aside, and an example of the GOP scoring an "own goal", a musician photographed with the GOP hipster after an interview has publicly disavowed any friendship. Nice hipster you've got there, GOP! For more hilarity, this Fark thread has some great material.

Now, for the crowning glory, the Youtube videos of these ads do not have comments disabled as of this writing. If that's the sort of savvy that the GOP is bringing to their youth outreach, this is going to be one hell of a year!

Post title shamelessly stolen from JPrestonian, a man with two extraordinarily beautiful cats. Cross-posted at Rumproast.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Reign of Icy Terror is Over

Alternate title could have been "The Rain of Icy Terror is Over", given the amount of sleet we've gotten this winter...

Yay, Spring! This winter hit the northeastern United States pretty hard, although on a global scale, this past winter was the 4th warmest on record, with especially warm weather hitting the Snowbilly Griftatrix' former stomping grounds. It'll still be a little cool at night for a while, but the first harbingers of the coming spring came three weeks ago. Today, I heard another harbinger of the warm weather- the first Mister Softee truck jingled its way down the block this afternoon.

It's nice to see life coming back to the gray, gritty landscape. There are still sooty mountains of ice and snow piled in local parking lots, some of which will probably last until Easter, but that's okay, they're simple reminders that winter is done and gone.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Worldwide Conspiracy

Imagine my dread when I found out that, on the other side of the world, cats were invading people's impedimenta. At approximately the same time a similar occurrence was taking place in the Northern Hemisphere:

What nefarious plot could these beasts be hatching? The fact that it is global only adds to the ominous nature of the scheme, and the very idea that they are commandeering carry-on approved baggage gives me the creeping horrors.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

International Recovery Day

Regarding yesterday's activities, I have to defer to Los Lobos, one of the world's greatest bar bands:

If there's one sort of person I would not trust, it's a person of Irish descent who doesn't have an affinity for the Mexican people and their culture (I'm looking at you messrs. O'Reilly and Hannity). From the doomed San Patricio Battalion to today's muckracking Irish-American literati, the Irish and the Mexicans have seemed to "get" each other- hell, people of Mexican descent even dig Morrissey. Back in the days when I had hair, Los Lobos played a live set in Hollywood with the Pogues as a supporting act. I imagine the crowd there was well oiled and dancing like mad folk.

I had a Cuban-American co-worker who used to often say, "Con el pecado, vendrá la penitencia. "With sin, there will come penance." I don't consider drinking and carrying on a sin, so there was nothing wrong with me that a day full of drinking copious amounts of water didn't "fix". If you are more of the religious sort, Los Lobos performed a really pretty version of Guadelupe (which I have posted before) with the Chieftains:

If you're the devout sort, make sure you don't stand too close to naughty cousin Christy, it might get a little too lightning-bolty there. Now, where'd I put that coffee pot?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Eve of the Solemn Feast of St Patrick

Tomorrow being the Solemn Feast of St Patrick, I plan on spending all day telling the beers beads. Tonight, I figured I'd post a couple of videos by the Corrs, a family group often described as "the most physically gifted band in the world", an assessment I'd have to agree with. One of their most celebrated instrumentals is Toss the Feathers, a sprightly number which showcases their virtuosity:

My personal favorite song by the Corrs is their take on I Know My Love, which they recorded with trad supergroup The Chieftains:

I plan on hitting the pubs church fairly early tomorrow- I'll probably set the alarm for the crack of dawn so I can put a corned brisket on to simmer for a few hours before finishing it off in the oven (I like to brown it a little, a pinkish gray slab of meat isn't all that appealing)... it's not good to drink pray on an empty stomach. I made sure to buy a couple of "beeves" while the sales were on, as I occasionally get a serious jones for a corned beef sandwich on rye. This year, I wasn't ambitious enough to get any boiling bacon, though my local butcher brines a mean bacon.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Uncle Howard Memorialized

Today marks the anniversary of Uncle Howard's death. Uncle Howard demonstrated a lot of racist and xenophobic attitudes, but seemed to be on the cusp of recovery when he was cut down by intestinal cancer at the age of 46. For a guy who claimed to embrace a cosmicist view of the universe, he sure was obsessed with the petty human concerns of phenotype and culture. In his later works, these concerns figured in his works less and less, and his later fiction was more sympathetic of the "other" (usually in the form of aliens like half-vegetable crinoidoid scientists and immense, iridescent, hyperintelligent, rugose cones.

I had forgotten that this was the anniversary of his death until I spoke with a nice couple who were attending a dramatic interpretation of The Call of Cthulhu at, appropriately enough, the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I'm stuck at work, so I can't pop on up to hear the performance. I even loaned my copy of the excellent Call of Cthulhu silent movie to a friend:

The big author who put Sleepy Hollow on the map, and is buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, is Washington Irving. Of Irving, Lovecraft had this to say:

Washington Irving is another famous figure not unconnected with the weird; for though most of his ghosts are too whimsical and humorous to form genuinely spectral literature, a distinct inclination in this direction is to be noted in many of his productions. “The German Student” in Tales of a Traveller (1824) is a slyly concise and effective presentation of the old legend of the dead bride, whilst woven into the comic tissue of “The Money-Diggers” in the same volume is more than one hint of piratical apparitions in the realms which Captain Kidd once roamed.

Irving's too whimsical and humorous ghost story has been mutated in pop culture from "Scooby Doo" progenitor (if only Ichabod had had a bunch of young hipsters and a talking dog to help him!) to supernatural thriller. Out of the two stories Lovecraft singles out, The Adventure of the German Student is a great, spooky tale, but modern readers will guess the ending well in advance. The portion of "The Money Diggers" that Lovecraft is probably referring to is the terrific The Devil and Tom Walker. I'd have to note that Irving was a much more worldly and jolly figure than HPL ever was, so his literary designs were vastly different, but the guy did know how to bring the creepiness when he wanted to... something that Arthur Rackham got immediately.

Back to Lovecraft and his Call of Cthulhu... I did manage to find an audio recording of the story on teh Y00t00b as a consolation prize for missing the live recitation:

I can't wait to hear how he pronounces "Ph'nglui Mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn."

Friday, March 14, 2014

Shoulda Posted at 1:59!

Happy Pi Day, people. Of course, next year is the big event, that once-a-century occurrence. Of course, when I think of pie, I immediately think of my go-to pie expert, the lovely, gracious, and talented Aunt Snow, who ran an amazing "pie a week" series. You want to learn how to make pie, she'll be your guiding star. Another resident of the bloggerhood who can, as he puts it, "knock out a good pie when the need arises" is Mr John Gray. I'm an indifferent baker, but on occasion I'll make a steak-and-kidney pie (though I substitute beef heart, and not the one you're thinking of, for the steak in order to make the pie more "organ-y"). I have come to use a springform pan instead of a pie tin, as it gives really good results (and I'm too intimidated to tackle my mother's incredible cheesecake recipe).

At this point, I'm thinking of an appropriate song for Pi Day, and the first song that leaps to my mind is a harmless but uninspiring song by a post-GoGo's Belinda Carlisle:

I've always found Ms Carlisle's solo work to lack both the fun and the bite of her GoGo's material- maybe she was trying too hard to be a serious chanteuse to remember how clever and sassy she once was. For the record, I think that Vacation is one of the finest pop songs ever recorded, a catchy confection of a song with slightly downbeat subject matter, just like I prefer.

I suppose I could play something by the Circle Jerks, but that might be construed as being disrespectful to the best irrational number of them all.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Just Babies

On Tuesday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, which featured the triumphant return of Yale psychologist and cognitive scientist Dr Paul Bloom. In July 2010, Dr Bloom lectured on the psychology of desire. This month, his lecture touched on the topic of his new book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.

Dr Bloom indicated that one major thrust in the study of justice is a shift from blame to biology- there is now a desire to explore the reasons behind immoral actions. The topic of the talk was the development of a sense of justice and morality in very young children. In the introduction to his talk, the good doctor related a study that found that judges were more likely to be lenient after food breaks. He then parenthetically noted that the crime rate in the U.S. doubled from the 1950s to the 1980s and then halved in the ensuing decades. Was this change in the crime rate due to a change in morals, or was there another reason for it? Certain behaviors once considered immoral, such as interracial marriage, were once considered immoral, but are now widely accepted throughout society. While morals are not immutable, ther seem to be universal aspects of morality.

In 1759, Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In this work, Smith proposed that moral sentiments proceeded from a sense of instinctive empathy, or sympathy:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

On empathy, Adam Smith had this to say:

When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or arm. And when it does fall, we feel it in some measure and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer.

One thought exercise that psychologists have devised involves asking subjects a series of questions regarding off-putting actions that they would be willing to perform for a dollar amount- how much would one have to be paid to have a front tooth extracted, or to strangle a cat, or to never move from a farm in rural Kansas? Different people obviously stated different dollar amounts to perform the various actions, but it seems that just about everyone has a price.

Thomas Jefferson believed that one's moral sense, a capacity to tell right from wrong that could be likened to vision or the sense of smell, could be developed, much like any part of the body:

The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body.

The development of the moral sense in very young children was a topic of controversy- while some observers believed that children are "pint sized psychopaths", others cited the fact that children cry at the suffering of others as evidence of a conscience. Children often exhibit altruism- they often share food and toys with others. Much of the lecture was a description of experiments to determine if babies could understand helping versus hindering. Can babies distinguish between a mensch and a jerk?

Dr Bloom showed footage of an experiment in which babies as young as six months (he jocularly compared three month olds to little blobs) were shown vignettes involving a geometric shape scaling an incline, with other characters either helping or hindering it:

Six to ten month old babies preferred the "good guy" over the jerk, suggesting that they can distinguish between good and bad actions. Of course, this preference could be a matter of self-preservation, not moral judgment, as babies are dependent on the help of others. At any rate, the babies would gravitate toward a prosocial helper rather than a an antisocial hinderer. When neutral characters were introduced, they would prefer a "good guy" to a neutral figure, and a neutral figure to a "bad guy". Moral systems depend on reward and punishment and children asked to reward a figure tended to reward the prosocial figure, while children asked to punish a figure tended to punish the antisocial figure.

The next topic of the talk involved the distinction between "in" groups and "out" groups. Hunter/gatherer groups would typically share food equitably among themselves, but their compassion tends not to be "broad"- they do not value strangers as much as members of the group. Members of out groups are usually viewed with fear and hatred. Jared Diamond wrote of indigenes of Papua New Guinea:

To venture out of one’s territory to meet other humans, even if they lived only a few miles away, was equivalent to suicide.

Margaret Meade, writing a considerable time earlier, put it in starker terms:

Most primitive tribes feel that if you run across one of those sub humans from a rival group in the forest, the most appropriate thing to do is bludgeon them to death.

Tragically, most societies throughout human history have tended to demonize the "other". Even in the case of babies, they do not respond as well to strangers as they do to individuals they know. It's not natural to help a stranger.

In one experiment, children ages four to seven played an economic game in which they could determine to what extent a stranger they would never meet would be rewarded- they were given poker chips which could be redeemed for toys. In one instance, they had a choice in which they were given a chance to take one chip while giving one chip to a stranger, or to take two chips and give two to the stranger. Most children chose the 2,2 option- it combines the greatest reward with equity. In cases where the children have to choose between getting one chip while the stranger gets one, or getting two chips while the stranger gets three, most children will choose the 1,1 option. In a choice between 1,0 and 2,2 most younger children will choose the 1,0 option. In these cases, the children will tend to avoid a situation in which a stranger will have a relative advantage, and will prefer a relative advantage with a smaller reward to an equitable situation. Dr Bloom related an incident in which a lecture attendee related an old Jewish folktale in which an angel grants an envious man a wish, with the proviso that his neighbor will receive double, and the envious man wishes that he have one eye plucked out. Another student related an Irish tale in which the envious man asks the angel to beat him half to death. In the economic game, the children were willing to take less so that a stranger would not get more.

Dr Bloom then showed a video of two capuchin monkeys in a lab which received unequal rewards for performing a task:

Kids and monkeys don't want to get less than others do... getting more is not as personal.

Happily, our society has developed to the point where principles of equity are expanding to encompass other groups, mainly out of a sense of fair play. One possible way to extend empathy is through stories- by relating a story, one can increase familiarity with an out group, to make a stranger matter. Dr Bloom cited the possibly apocryphal quote attributed to Stalin, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." The flip side of that is Mother Theresa's quote, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." Charities which use individual accounts will fundraise more effectively than one that just throws out statistics.

Dr Bloom then cited reason as a basis of morality. He cited Steven Pinker, the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, who said that the Old Testament told him to love his neighbors, the New Testament told him to love his enemies, but in reality he loves neither, but he knows that it is not right to exploit them and under the right circumstances, he has an obligation to help them, not because of the pull of emotions, but because of the pull of reason. This is rooted not in love, but in rights, reason overrides one's gut feeling.

Adam Smith had a thought exercise in which he contrasted the death of thousands of lives to the knowledge that one would lose one's little finger the following day- learning of the a multitude of strangers will elicit sadness, but losing one's finger would shock one with horror:

If he were to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren.

Would you sacrifice a multitude of strangers to save your little finger since the finger seems to matter more?

Smith poses the question:

When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble?

His answer, in part (the whole passage can be found here):

It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it

Dr Bloom characterized that last clause as impartiality- which lies at the core of most moral systems, whether religious or philosophical. Moral reason occurs in communities and develops over time- Dr Bloom compares moral reason to science, it is directional over time... as an illustrative example, Dr Bloom cited white attitudes toward interracial marriage over time.

To complement the "little finger" example, Dr Bloom cited a routine in which Louis CK confesses that he wouldn't sacrifice his nice car to save starving people:

In conclusion, Dr Bloom stated that our moral development has two components- there is a "hard-wired" component which is genetic, but there is a component that has to be developed, which somewhat goes against our genetic "hard wiring". Reason can override passions, and empathy can be extended to "others". Laws can be passed to override our basest instincts. Dr Bloom ended by indicating that the Constitution binds us, and serves to block our worst impulses.

In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience who is conversant in tropes asked Dr Bloom whether physically repulsive characters can override a child's perception of which characters are good guys or bad guys. Dr Bloom indicated that no such study has been performed, but said bastard thinks that the triangle in that skit has a mean and shifty look.

Dr Bloom's return to Brooklyn was triumphant, he played to a packed house, and the topic was a timely one, given the economic and moral conditions prevalent today. If you want a facsimile of my evening, just crack open a nice cold beer or six and watch this webinar, which covers the same ground as the lecture did:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Addition to the Blogroll

It gives me great pleasure to note that Helmut Monotreme is now blogging. Helmut has long been one of my favorite commenters at the various blogs and websites I frequent, so my initial reaction to his blog announcement was "it's about time". I am looking forward to reading his screeds for a good long time.

Great to have you on board, old chum!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Hit the Mother Lode

I fear this post will be perfuctory, because of the subject matter... I found a treasure trove of old books and periodicals on the web. Right now, I'm working through an issue of Weird Tales, and I see a buttload of Amazing Science Fiction Stories. It's a wonder that I stopped to put up a post at all. It'll be wonder if I post again in the next two or three months. I figure I can pad out this post by posting an old video for one of my favorite XTC songs:

If Andy Partridge had had the internet back in the day, would he have been able to amass such an incredible body of work?

UPDATE: Is using a blog post as a "bookmark" a cop-out, or a brilliant ploy?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Slacking Off on My March Tradition...

So... it's nine days into March, and I've been pretty lax about my runup to the Solemn Feast of St Patrick. Happily, my great and good friend JCo, an old high school chum who now hangs his hat in the Greater Boston Metropolitan Area, has gotten me back on track by sending me a great video of an old favorite, a duet between Shane MacGowan and Sinéad O'Connor:

J-Co's email accompanying the link was terse, but hilarious: I love the way they filmed this so that the microphone covers Shane's teeth! I would add that Ms O'Connor looks particularly winsome and pixieish in this video.

The Pogues song Haunted was originally sung by Cait O'Riordan, and a snippet of it can be heard on the Sid and Nancy soundtrack.

I think I prefer Cait's version of the song- I prefer her raw-yet-melodious delivery to Sinéad's breathy-and-ethereal vocal. I'm happy that the song was redone, though, because it helped to put the original version on the map. The other Pogues song on the soundtrack was Junk Theme, an instrumental which actually was featured in the movie.

Go raibh maith agat, JCo, for keeping me on track!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Maybe I Wanna See the Wheatfields

This afternoon, I called mom at the beginning of my workday. I had just arrived, and I was doing the preliminary walkabout with my feline coworkers, so I had a quiet moment to talk with mom. After the usual discussion of family news, my mom asked me what I thought about the situation in the Crimea. I confessed that I was stymied, and merely expressed a desire that violence can be averted. Khrushchev felt an affinity with the Ukraine and transferred the Crimea from the Russian republic to the Ukraine, and there seems to be considerable intermarriage between the two populations. The Crimean Tatars, forcibly relocated elsewhere by Stalin, are understandably apprehensive at the prospect of a crackdown. Hell, I just hope they can avoid ethnic cleansing, and immediately a line from the Clash's Cold War plea The Call Up leapt to my mind:

Maybe I wanna see the wheat fields over Kiev and down to the sea

The song itself, sung in a plaintive growl by the late, lamented Joe Strummer, is a plea to the better angels of the youths who would be called upon to slaughter each other in a clash between the USSR and the West:

It's up to you not to heed the call-up
'N' you must not act the way you were brought up
Who knows the reasons why you have grown up?
Who knows the plans or why they were drawn up?

The song also excoriates the policymakers who have always sent them of to the meatgrinder:

All the young people down the ages
They gladly marched off to die
Proud city fathers used to watch them
Tears in their eyes.

I have no answers to the growing tensions in the Black Sea region, and I feel that the U.S., having decided upon a policy of pre-emptive war, has no moral standing in this conflict. I just hope that our diplomatic corp is working like hell to ensure that our response doesn't devolve into gunboat diplomacy. I'm not optimistic, though.

Joe, Joe, Joe, you left the world too young. We need you more than ever now:

Friday, March 7, 2014

Broke the Quarter Million Mark

Sometime today, I had my 250,000th hit. Thanks to all of my readers for giving me a serious ego boost. I don't track my traffic all that often, but last month something totally weird happened- I had never cracked the 10,000 hits a month threshold before, I typically got six to nine thousand hits a month, but last month I got a whopping 20,957 hits.

For the bulk of my blogging career, my number one post was, by far, my most popular post was my affectionate, though irreverent tribute to the late Frank Frazetta. This post was also my key to becoming the internet's number one unapologetic ass man. That post is now a distant fifth place, with 3266 hits.

Oddly enough, my most popular post, by a long shot, is my post about eating a fruit of unknown origin (obligatory shout-out to zrm and Smut. I don't know how or why this particular post became so popular, and there are no spambot comments (I turned off captcha to encourage random wags to post comments and I haven't seen spam for months, maybe the automatic filters are that good).

As far as readership goes, the vast majority of my hits, almost half, are from the 'States, numbering 121551 pageviews.
Surprisingly, second place goes to France, with 11128 hits. Russia clocks in at 11128, the UK with 10544, Germany at 9278, Canada at 6600 (my blogroll conforms to Canadian Content laws). Rounding out the top ten are Poland (6428), New Zealand (*hi AK and Smut!* 5081), Ukraine (4358), and China (3189). Thank you international readers!

As far as traffic sources, the overwhelming amount of traffic comes straight from the 'Goog', with Thunder being my second highest source (at 5143 hits) and Crooks and Liars being third (at 2180 hits- thanks to Tengrain's turns at the blog roundups). Again, thanks for the linkage, people!

Dear readers, I couldn't have done any of this without your support and encouragement over the years. Thank you for navigating over here. As always, I love your comments, and I am amazed by the sense of community that characterizes the "bloggerhood". Now, could somebody tell me what was so compelling about that giant crunchberry tree?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Skid Row No Mo'

I can't be considered a fan of the Salvation Army by any standard, but I have to say that I felt a pang when I heard that they sold their facility on the Bowery to a hotel developer.

Lower Manhattan's Bowery has its origins in a Lenape footpath, and received its name during the era of Dutch colonization when it was used to transport produce from farms (Bouwerij meaning "farm") to the city precincts of New Amsterdam. The most famous resident of the Dutch Bowery was Peter Stuyvesant.

From the mid 19th Century to the late-middle 20th century, the Bowery deteriorated into New York City's Skid Row, with the "Bowery Bum" becoming a cultural phenomenon worthy of a 1931 New Yorker profile. In the 1970s, the Bowery became the epicenter of New York's punk movement... that was slightly before my time.

By the time I was old enough to hang out on the Bowery, it seemed like a good portion of the street was taken up by companies selling commercial kitchen equipment and outlying Chinatown businesses. While I've been to CBGB, it was clearly in its waning days, and was notably mainly for being a filthy shithole with alarming bathrooms. My go-to watering hole in the area was Swift's Hibernian Lounge, around the corner on East 4th St. Notably, the annual Guinness Oyster Fest to benefit the Merchant's House Museum used to take place on the Bowery and 4th St before moving downtown to Stone St. The festival was always a highlight of NYC street fair life, with freshly shucked oysters, great live music, and dirty big pints of stout. From my perspective, the Bowery switched from a haunt of down-and-out alcoholics to accomplished drunks. Still the area kept a sort of downmarket, scruffy charm... a mix of bars and grungy commercial properties.

With the rapid gentrification occurring, the Bowery will probably cease to become a destination for boozehounds, whether functional or not. So it goes... For the last word on the Bowery, I will defer to one of its most celebrated denizens, a guy whose name graces an honorary street sign on the storied roadway:

I tried to find a live version, but I couldn't find one without a ton of other material.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Not Even a Speedbump

Appropriately for Ash Wednesday, the **ack** Executive for my county of residence has announced that he is running on the Republican ticket against Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose approval rating stands at 63%.

Astorino supports fracking in NY State, a position which is facing more opposition even upstate. Astorino brought gun shows back to the Westchester County Center, a divisive policy that won't win him any friends in the post "Sandy Hook" milieu.

In his announcement speech, Astorino said, "I'm tired of watching New York's decline."

Operating on the handy principle that Republicans are always wrong, a glance at New York's unemployment rate indicates that it has dropped to 7.1%, and that New York accounted for 12% of the country's private sector job growth in December. If that's a decline, I'm Rapunzel.

The best strategy the Cuomo campaign can come up with is to tie the Republican gubernatorial albatross around Astorino's neck and let the combined weight of Scott Walker, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Ricks Snyder and Scott sink him into the depths of the tea-dark sea.

From an Ash Wednesday announcement to an ashy heap after the inevitable crash-and-burn, I don't think Astorino will even act as a speedbump to slow the Cuomo juggernaut. Cuomo's no doubt got his eye on the White House in the future, and he won't let the pissant Westchester County Executive stand in his way.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Fattest of Tuesdays

Wow, I almost let Mardi Gras get by me without a post- I can't let that happen. One of my brother Vincenzo's army buddies is a guy from the heart of Cajun country whose family was adopted en masse by my family. My mom is very proud of her French heritage, so she immediately took a shine to la famille M_____, who were proud Children of Acadia. The père of the family is a lawyer who specializes in the byzantine property laws of an area characterized by changing watercourses, and most of his clients had agricultural interests (one client was a rice farmer who decided to diversify his business by raising crawfish in the flooded paddies). Needless to say, the man is an amazing cook- he made it a point to demonstrate his culinary skills to his various clients so they would be sure to bring him bushels of crawfish and shrimp whenever he threw a party. When I visited my brother Vincenzo at Fort Polk, the family came up from Lafayette Parish, jumbo shrimp and boudin packed in coolers. More important was the endless supply of Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes- one characteristic of Cajuns is the ability to poke fun at their own foibles.

My brother's army buddy always got a kick out my Mamoun's Falafel Restaurant shirt, deliberately conflating "Mamoun" with Mamou (later on, he underwent an intensive Arabic language course at the Defense Language Institute- he can now order a falafel/baba ghanouj combo in Arabic. My personal favorite Cajun band is, appropriately enough, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. Here's the band playing Bon Reve:

So, to the Cajun branch of the extended family, and to all of my readers, let me just say, laissez les bon temps rouler, mes cheres.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Begorrah, Can They Do That?

This time of year, I usually do a countdown to the Solemn Feast of St Patrick- I strongly feel that holidays should be long-form celebrations rather than single day affairs. Today, the Borough of Queens held it's gay-friendly, "St. Pat's For All". The mayor has stated that he will not participate in the main St Patricks' Day parade because the parade does not allow LGBT people to march openly. In Manhattan, the old rules of determining Irishness still apply:

That's right, folks, you can't be Irish if you're gay... Oscar Wilde and Phil Chevron, no mind their literary and artistic merits, could not have been Irish in Manhattan- not according to the parade organizers.

The real truth of the matter is quite different, as the people in the pews do not necessarily agree with the clergy. Here's the heart of the matter, AOH bigwigs please take heed of the "bolded" section:

„„In 2003, all major religious groups opposed same-sex marriage, with the exception of the religiously unaffiliated. Today, there are major religious groups on both sides of the issue. Religiously unaffiliated Americans (73%), white mainline Protestants (62%), white Catholics (58%), and Hispanic Catholics (56%) all favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. A majority (83%) of Jewish Americans also favor legalizing same-sex marriage. Hispanic Protestants are divided; 46% favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry and 49% oppose. By contrast, nearly 7-in-10 (69%) white evangelical Protestants and nearly 6-in-10 (59%) black Protestants oppose same-sex marriage. Only 27% of white evangelical Protestants and 35% of black Protestants support same-sex marriage.

Sadly, these individuals don't seem to communicate among themselves, seeming to interpret each others' silence as tacit approval of the party line:

Roughly three-quarters (73%) of Catholics believe that most of their fellow congregants are opposed to same-sex marriage. However, Catholics who regularly attend church are in fact divided on the issue (50% favor, 45% oppose).

Speaking for myself, I sure hope that the mayor marches in the parade at sometime during his term.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

On the Work Front

My department recently hired a new part-time employee. Luckily, the guy is not afraid of the dark, therefore his "big" isn't wasted- and he is BIG, six foot two and 280 lbs soaking wet. He reminds me a lot of Ned- the guy looks like he could be his cousin.

One of the guys in my department joked that the department head was looking for another "me" when he hired the new guy. Our work experience is pretty damn similar, scarily so- the "new guy" has a second job for an organization close to the one I used to work for, and he does double duties in two areas, just like I did. Needless to say, we hit it off well from the start.

The problem with work situation is that the new guy stated that, as a prerequisite, he absolutely cannot work weekends. He's strictly a Monday to Friday guy. Of course, the two other part-timers (I'm the only full timer in the department at this time) have seniority over him, and they are scheduled to work every weekend. I tried to mollify them by pointing out that the "no weekends" policy was a prerequisite for this eminently qualified candidate to come aboard, but they aren't having any of it. Of course, I didn't hire the new guy, and had no say in his terms of employment- I'm just trying to ensure that the two old-timers don't blame him for something that's not his fault.

To compound matters, the department is cutting corners, and the two old-time part-time guys have had their hours cut pretty severely. I've made my misgivings about the cutbacks known, but I don't think anybody in the main office gives a good goddamn about what goes on on the ground.

A while ago, during a staff meeting, I noticed that there are two broad categories of employee in the organization- the folks who wear boots to work, and the folks who wear shoes (I am firmly in the boot category). The "boot people" are busting their humps and jumping through hoops of fire to handle things, but the "shoe people" just don't seem to care, or even notice, what's going on throughout the peripheral sites.

Needless to say, morale is pretty bad. One of my minions asked me why the organization has taken the steps it has, and I had to respond that I gave up trying to put myself in other people's heads a long time ago. Basically, I have no answer beyond the organization being penny-wise and pound foolish.

I almost typed "looking for a reason" there... one of my all time favorite Go-Go's songs is playing on the radi-adi-o:

It's really hard to maintain one's righteous indignation when the Go-Go's are playing. I should be madder, but I'm bopping in my office chair here.