Saturday, May 27, 2017

Belated Secret Science Club Lecture Recap: Everybody Lies, but Your Browser Knows the Truth

On Thursday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring economist and data scientist Dr Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, University of Pennsylvania Wharton School lecturer, former Google data analist, and author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz opened his lecture by noting that, over the past eighty years, if researchers wanted to judge people's beliefs, they would conduct an opinion survey. The problem with that is that people lie to surveys. In a survey concerning sex and condom use, the participants lied about frequency of sex and use of prophylactics: extrapolating from survey data, the women's answers would indicate that 1.1 billion condoms would be used per year. According to the male respondents, 1.6 billion condoms would be used per year. Actual sales figures indicated that about six-hundred million condoms were actually sold the year the study was conducted. If frequency of sex had been extrapolated from the study and correlated with condom sales, there would have been far more pregnancies expected that year.

People lie to surveys, they also 'mess with' surveys for various reasons- in one recent survey, when asked the question 'What color is a red ball?', six percent of respondents answered 'green' and six percent answered 'undecided'. Screwing with surveys is a particular problem when teens are the participants. In a survey formulated to determine if adopted teens were more likely to drink than those who lived with their biological parents, more than half of the respondents who claimed to be adopted had not been. Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that it's fun to mess with surveys.

Internet searches are a different matter- Dr Stephens-Davidowitz likened Google searches to 'digital truth serum'. People are comfortable telling their browsers things that they don't tell other people. According to Google trends, searches for porn were more common than searches for weather reports among twenty percent of men and four percent of women. Search engines give users incentives to tell the truth... if one wants the results one wants, one must use the proper search terms to find them.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that Google searches revealed a lot of secret racism that was missed by polls. A map of racist Google searches correlates uncomfortably with a map of support for Donald Trump's candidacy. Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that the true divide when it comes to frequency of racist searches targeting African-Americans is not North vs South, but East vs West, with a higher percentage of easterners using racist search terms. It is pretty safe to say that racism is the number one factor in the ascendancy of Trump.

In another recent survey concerning sexuality, the highest percentage of men claiming that they are gay was in Rhode Island, with 4.8% of respondents answering in the affirmative. The state with the lowest percentage of affirmative responses was Mississippi, with 2.7%. In contrast, the percentage of Google users searching for gay porn was 5.3% in RI and 4.8% in MS. The numbers are similar everywhere. Among women, the search term 'Is my husband gay?' occurs ten times more frequently than 'Is my husband cheating?' and eight times more frequently than 'Is my husband depressed?' This query is most common down South.

Another survey indicated that there is a self-induced abortion crisis. With more and more states restricting legal abortions, desperate girls and women are using the search term 'How do I perform an abortion myself?' This search term exploded around 2011, just as the crackdown occurred.

In India, the top way to complete the search term 'My husband wants me to' is 'breastfeed him'.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that, if Google just confirmed analysts suspicions, it wouldn't be so revolutionary, but the unexpected results of trend analysis revealed secrets that the researchers didn't suspect. He wryly noted that this was a BIG WIN for science. In the case of the Indian Google search terms, none of the experts knew that about the breastfeeding fetish.

If Google is 'digital truth serum', Dr Stephens-Davidowitz said, Facebook is a 'digital brag to friends about how good one's life is'. People are even more dishonest on Facebook than they are on surveys. While the National Enquirer sells more copies than The Atlantic, on Facebook the latter publication gets mentioned with forty-five times the frequency of the former. The top terms women use to describe their husbands on Facebook are: 'best', 'best friend', 'amazing', 'greatest', and 'so cute'. On Google, the top terms women use in searches regarding their husbands are: 'gay', 'jerk', 'amazing', 'annoying', and 'mean'. Dr Stephens-Davidowitz gave us a good piece of advice- knowing the truth is better than not knowing, don't compare your Google searches to others' Facebook posts.

Learning of our biases can also be helpful. Parents are twice as likely to use search terms such as 'gifted' and 'genius' when describing their sons, while they are more likely to use the queries 'is my daughter overweight?' or 'is my daughter ugly?' than to ask that of their sons. While it is difficult to ask racist internet searchers not to be racist, it isn't that difficult to tell parents not to be biased.

In the immediate aftermath of the San Bernardino mass shooting, the top Google search was 'kill Muslims'. There was an explosion of anti-Muslim rage, with other popular terms being 'I hate Muslims', 'Muslims are evil', and 'Muslims terrorism'. As searches using such terms rise, hate crimes rise. In the aftermath of the shooting, President Obama delivered a speech from the Oval Office in which he implored Americans:


“Just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination.”


While the speech was well-received by pundits, minute-by-minute the anti-Muslim searches skyrocketed. The media consensus was 'Nice job, Obama', while the search engines revealed rage and backlash. Later on, in the speech, President Obama noted:


“Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes—and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that.”


By engaging people's curiosity, the internet rage-fest calmed a bit. In a speech to a Baltimore mosque congregation, President Obama doubled down on his appeal to people's curiosity about Muslim-Americans:


Generations of Muslim Americans helped to build our nation. They were part of the flow of immigrants who became farmers and merchants. They built America’s first mosque, surprisingly enough, in North Dakota. America’s oldest surviving mosque is in Iowa. The first Islamic center in New York City was built in the 1890s. Muslim Americans worked on Henry Ford’s assembly line, cranking out cars. A Muslim American designed the skyscrapers of Chicago.


Rage and violence are important issues, but insane people were usually not studied... when people make crazy Google searches, what enrages them? Conversely, what calms them down? With search engine analytics, studying an angry mob is now a science, so a more effective approach to addressing violence can be formulated.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz then opened up the floor to a lengthy Q&A session. Some bastard in the audience raised the specter of Rule 34 and, while the Good Doctor (shockingly, to me) wasn't familiar with the term, he assured us that it exists. In answer to one query, he made sure to note that data is neither good nor evil- the users choose to use them for good or ill... investigators use data to solve crimes, scammers use data to fleece consumers. Using data, corporations can target small sets of the population with advertisements. In answer to a question about people's ability to stop being honest on Google, he noted that, right after Edward Snowden's leak, embarrassing searches (including searches for 'Nickelback') slowed down. Regarding elections, Google searches are getting better, but it is still hard to predict elections. Politics being a sensitive area, searches tend to be bad- models must be based on data, not on people's responses to direct questions. Data gives us a deeper and richer view of people than the surface view that surveys provide.

In answer to a question about how individuals can use information to combat corporate dominance, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz did note that consumers can use internet searches to seek out lower priced goods, but that Big Data overall makes corporations more powerful. Google knows truths about you before your family does.

In 2004, Google users tended to be students or intellectuals, so searches about science were more popular by percentage of searchers. Now, the internet has a much broader user base. There has always been unseemly behavior, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz described it as 'a dark element of anonymous people doing horrible things'. Early on, internet searches concerning suicide often elicited deplorables urging 'do it', while later interventions in the search algorithms altered results to refer users to suicide prevention hotlines. Searches regarding 'child abuse' are more ambiguous, as older kids often do post-abuse searches, which can result in interventions by officials. When asked about a breakdown of internet users by age, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that this can't be done, referring to Peter Steiner's famous 1993 New Yorker Cartoon: On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

When asked about the strangest American habit that he's learned about, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that people google Google. He indicated that using Google Trends is a powerful way to put public data to use.

Another questioner asked him how to spot fake news, and Stephens-Davidowitz noted that conspiracy theories have been popular long before the Sandy Hook Massacre.

In answer to another question, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that, while internet searches tend to correlate with offline activity, there can be holes in the dataset that don't play out- while searches for 'God' tend to correlate to the Bible Belt, the top result for Google searches for the word (at 2%) were related to the God of War video game franchise.

In order to mess up the data, one would have to be subtle- yahoos using Yahoo are at a disadvantage because searching for oppositional reasons merely indicates interest. There are pitfalls- one can cherry pick data, use of one strident word can have a disproportionate effect.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz ended by addressing the ethical issues of data analytics, and whether companies such as Google should intervene when troublesome searches are made... does Google know when someone's doing something bad? He noted that a lot of people have horrible thoughts, but don't follow through on them. On the question of whether suicidal ideation correlates with suicide rates, he indicated that, while he was aware of 3.5 million searches about suicide, only four-thousand of the individuals followed through with killing themselves. While he encountered some disturbing revelations, such as the extent and effects of racism, he also encountered hopeful revelations- people's searches can verify some of the suspicions but allay other ones. For instance, while people are insecure about their own shortcomings, they are usually more forgiving of those of their partners.

The lecture was thought-provoking and entertaining- as someone who probably spends too much time on the internet, it was a nice overview of what really goes on in this crazy Series of Tubes. Here's a short media appearance by Dr Stephens-Davidowitz on the topic of 'Internet Truth Serum':





For more substantive media, here's a broad selection of appearances by the good doctor.

Friday, May 26, 2017

International Talk Like a Jack Vance Character Day

Ordinarily, I would have written up last night's Secret Science Club lecture, but like a mooncalf, I left my libram of notes at home when I departed for work with much celerity. Today being the anniversary of Jack Vance's transition to realms Empyrean, I hereby declare this sidereal day to be this annum's Talk Like a Jack Vance Character Day.

Accordingly, we shall indulge in rococo rodomontades of considerable loquacity and castigate oafs and varlets, blackguards and mooncalves. Let us woo demimondaines in the gloaming in verdant plaisances, plying them with choice viands and the chansons of Old Earth. Of greatest importance, let us avoid the snares and guiles of the deodands and hormaguants, venefices and jinxmen:





In the next diurnal round, I shall endeavor to scribe the sagacities of the scientists, but until then, I shall engage my tongue in the verbosities of Vance.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Lovely Lepidoptera

Yesterday, with a burning need to stop listening to the news, I headed down to the American Museum of Natural History to visit the Butterfly Conservatory, which will be closing this coming Monday. The exhibit has a few display panels describing the evolution and biology of butterflies- of the almost 250,000 Lepidopteran species, 7% are considered butterflies, the other 93% are moths. The Lepidoptera have colorful scales on their wings and staw-like proboscises (those which have mouthparts in their adult forms- some, like the giant Atlas moths, imperial moths, and luna moths lack mouthparts, and do not feed- existing only to mate, and to enthrall primates).

The closest relatives to the Lepidoptera are the Trichoptera, the caddisflies, which are characterized by aquatic larvae which build protective 'cases', typically bound together with silk. The Lepidoptera, being mainly nectar-feeders, co-evolved with the flowering plants- the exhibit had an image of a fossil Prodryas persophone dating back to the Eocene epoch.

The life cycles of butterflies should be well known to any observers of nature- the transitions from egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (encased in a chrysalis or coccoon) to adult (imago) are well-documented, as any wag will tell you.

Of course, the centerpiece of the exhibit is a chamber kept at a humid 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.67 Celsius) and chock full of Lepidopterans, with some particularly gorgeous Morpho butterflies seeming to dominate.

The real show stealers, as Thunder would be able to tell you, were the Atlas moths which, while somewhat sombre in hue, have a wingspan wider than that of a typical sparrow:




It was fun to see how different people react to the insects- one little girl was displaying some trepidation, while another loquacious girl not only reveled in the butterflies, but talked about them with any adult within earshot. As for myself, I love the things- I had one land on my hand, and was torn between reaching for my camera and not moving in order to prolong the contact. I also had the feeling of tiny legs crawling across the back of my neck, but all was good in the world because it was a butterfly and not some bitey or stingy thing.

After about a half-hour in the butterfly chamber, I realized that I was sweaty and needed a nice, cold drink. I exited out the 'airlock' style double doors, after a cursory inspection for stowaways, and proceeded to the less colorful, but no less magical, precincts of the museum.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Madchester

I have to say that I am not an Ariana Grande fan- I am a cynical man in his forties who really doesn't dig her brand of pop music. That is precisely why I am so horrified at the suicide bombing which killed twenty-two of her fans. The attack specifically targeted young people, particularly girls. The survivors of the attack, including Ms Grande herself, will carry a bit of survivors' guilt and a great deal of anxiety... something that I wouldn't wish on anyone, especially an adolescent.

There's a certain surreal quality to this particular tragedy, the role of social media in disseminating information about the fallen. The goofy selfies and whimsical photomanipulations culled from the kodds' various apps are jarring when contrasted with the stark crime scene images.

Around noon, I just had to get away from the media coverage- I headed down to the American Museum of Natural History to immerse myself in the butterfly exhibit. At first, it felt a bit unreal, standing in a warm chamber full of friendly people while enchanting, bejeweled creatures flitted around us... but then I realized that THIS was reality- the ideologies and theologies which lead a fanatic to murder children are unreal, not the marvels of nature. Then realization hit again, the beauties of the natural world are imperiled by human foolishness, just like the beautiful lives of children who just want to enjoy a night of music and joy. Solace achieved, solace abandoned...

I'm not an Ariana Grande fan, but I have friends whose children are, and that is precisely why the Manchester madness has me so angry.

Monday, May 22, 2017

In the Spring a Not-So-Young Man's Fancy Lightly Turns to Thoughts of Eating Something Poisonous

Last year, after posting about pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), I finally tried the stuff out, even though the stuff is poisonous. Thrice-boiled pokeweed (with the water changed after each boil), known formally as poke sallet, is a staple of rural southern foodways.

Today, after locking up at work, I picked a mess of poke, which will be boiled tomorrow:




I also picked a bagfull of nettles, which pack a whallop of a sting, but have no toxins... though the mature, flower-bearing plants accumulate phytoliths, which can irritate one's urinary tract. I tend to parboil the nettles to kill the 'sting', though drying them has the same effect.

As the old maxim goes, the dose makes the poison, and even such commonly eaten plants as the ubiquitous red kidney bean and spinach contain toxins. The best way to deal with these toxins is to eat a variety of plants, which is pretty much what I get when I forage- I throw the miscellaneous greens together into a food processor and puree them into a green slurry, the composition of which varies as the foraging season progresses. Now, pokeweed will join the nettles and dock and garlic mustard and lambs' quarters and dandelion greens in the mix.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

I Demand a Set of Chaps and a Top Secret Security Clearance

From the great fount of derangement that is Texas asshole Alex Jones, comes the ass-ertion the CIA is a cabal of gay leather daddies because he sees a lot of guys with shaved heads in the 'deep' (heh heh) security state. Well, if a shaved head means that a guy is a leather daddy, I guess I'd better get a damn set of leather chaps and a top security clearance if that's the case. Also, Jones sees a 'gay conspiracy' everywhere.. it's a recurring fantasy of his to the extent that I suspect he's got a clear working knowledge of the GOP public bathroom toe-tapping code. Jones also knows very well what the queers are doing to the soil.

Getting back to the whole CIA bald leather daddy situation, I suspect that Mike Pompeo is just a figurehead, and that the de facto director is Rob Halford:





Hey, he even admits to being hip to the security state...

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Interminable Workday

I always joke that my job is pretty cushy, except when it's not. Today was firmly in the 'not' category. I left the job this morning after 4AM, and after running a couple of errands, got home after dawn. I ran into my next-door neighbor as he was walking his yellow lab, and we chatted for a bit about our respective jobs (he works at a medical center which has been taken over by a larger healthcare organization, so his job security is uncertain), and I turned in for the morning. I finally hit the mattress after 7AM.

At one minute to nine, my phone rang... one of my co-workers had left her work-keys at home, and had to have the site open for the first wave of visitors at 10AM. I hastily threw on some clothes and drove to the site. I never check my phone while I am driving- I am 100% against texting while driving, or reading while driving, or putting on makeup while driving, or doing anything but driving while driving, with allowances for a change of radio stations (my newish car has radio presets and volume control buttons on the steering wheel). At 9:25, my friend had texted me to tell me that one of our gift shop managers had arrived, and she has a set of keys for the site. As luck would have it, I never read this message, and when I arrived, I learned that the shop manager's key didn't work on the particular lock for the Visitors' Center. I seem to have one of the few master keys which actually works on every lock in the organization. If I had read the text message and turned around to return home, I would have received another text message a half-hour later, telling me to come back, and the place wouldn't have been ready for our ten o'clock tour.

When I got home at half-past ten, I ran into my next-door neighbor walking his lab for the second time of the day, and he did a double take... "You're not asleep?" My job is cushy, except when it's not, but when my people need help, I step up. Support your people, that's the most important thing to do in this life.

I had to be at my principle workplace again by 5PM. We had a low-key fundraising event today, and I actually wanted to attend for a bit, but the traffic was so horrendous that I had to take a roundabout route to bypass a couple of snarl-ups and arrived a mere five minutes before my start time. When I arrived, everything was lovely- we had some very nice visitors, some wonderful entertainers that have performed for our fundraiser for many years, and a cadre of my great co-workers. I like being on the job, and the curveballs that I occasionally get thrown (unexpected emergency phone calls, for instance, or four-day campouts without heat or electricity after a hurricane) are the dues that I pay for a generally easy-going job.

Just about the time I ordinarily lock up our visitors' center/gift shop, I received a frantic cry for assistance- one of my co-workers slipped on a floor tile in our basement and banged her chin on the ground. A couple of additional co-workers had arrived at her side before I did, and I told one of the young guys to run to the manager's office for a first aid kit. An alcohol wipe, a gauze pad, and a 2X4 adhesive strip, and she was patched up, but we had to ask her if she wanted us to get her to an emergency room. In a depressingly, uniquely American twist, she told us that she didn't want to go to the ER because she really couldn't afford the copay... A couple of us explained to her that, because her injury had occurred on the job, it would be covered by Workers' Compensation insurance. By this time, the manager had arrived, and I told him that I had to attend to the locking-up duties, leaving him to fill out the incident report.

My co-worker who fell is a fellow Yonkers resident. The manager, who is just about as solid a guy as you could ever meet, drove her home after we made arrangements for me to pick her the following day and bring her back so she could retrieve her car. I told her that I'd be working until 1AM, and that if she had any need to get to a medical center, she shouldn't hesitate to call me until about 2AM.

I was finally able to get a bit of a breather after 8PM, when I could settle into my comfortable routine. This day, which should have been a tad more busy than a normal Saturday, was characterized by bad luck, so it just d-r-a-g-g-e-d on. Of course, we'll all be laughing about it at the staff picnic in a couple of months, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't beat right now.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Tweety Amin

The very prospect of Donald Trump going to Saudi Arabia gives me the creeping horrors. The Saudi Royal family, with their support of a fundamentalist regime that promulgates blasphemy laws, literal witch hunts, and lingering laws against women is perhaps the only family on the planet more repulsive than the Trump family.

I can't see this trip going well, with Islamophobe Stephen Miller writing the speech Trump is supposed to deliver to the Wahhabist regime, and the guy who promised to put a boot up the ass of the 9/11 attack backers is scheduled to play a concert in front of an all-male audience which will most likely include some of the very backers of those attacks. To make things worse, Jared Kushner pressured the CEO of Lockheed Martin to give a price break to the Saudis on arms which will probably be used to further Saudi interests in the Yemeni civil war. This whole trip just seems like a major disaster just waiting to happen.

Meanwhile, the probe into collusion between the Trump maladministration and the Russian government is closing in on a senior Trump administration official even as Trump embarks on what promises to be his foreign embarrassment tour. With any luck, he'll decide to take refuge with the Saudis to escape the consequences of his actions. The Saudis notoriously gave sanctuary to Idi Amin, maybe they will do the same for Tweety Amin.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hard Right, Soft Porn

A popular aphorism avers that only the good die young, so Roger Ailes death today at the age of 77 is ethically appropriate. Ailes was the midwife who birthed that particular Fox News brand of hard right politics and soft core pornography, a heady mix which was modeled on the Rupert Murdoch brand of sexual titillation and hypocritical moral outrage. Billy Bragg had the best commentary on this particular brand of yellow journalism:





Here in the States, the apotheosis of this paradoxical blend of umbrage and voyeurism was perhaps the 'expose' of Spring Break shenanigans complete with footage of young, scantily clad women. Never has moral indignation been accompanied by such hateboners... gotta sell that Cialis to the angry geezers.

Besides lowering the tone of political discourse to a troglodytic level, there is something more sinister going on- the Fox Effect... Fox viewers are, as a whole, less informed on current events than Daily Show viewers. News, trumped by comedy... thanks Roger!

Then there's the frathole atmosphere that Ailes fostered at the network, a vile miasma of sexual harassment and racial discrimination which comes as no surprise to those who have observed the constant belittling of women and minorities that was the network's stock-in-trade.

It came as a bit of a surprise that Ailes died so soon after his ouster from Fox, but his ghost will haunt the American brainspace for years to come, a ghost largely manifesting as a paranoia and hatred that seeped outward from Ailes' mind and poisoned vast swathes of America's population. If there is a single individual who could claim the title of worst American of the 20th century ever, Ailes would certainly be in the running for the title.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Secret Science Club North Post-Lecture Recap: Trail Blaser

Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space on Manhattan's Upper West Side, for the latest Secret Science Club North lecture. Last night's lecture marked the third appearance of microbiologist and medical doctor Martin J. Blaser, Director of the Human Microbiome Program at the NYU School of Medicine and author of the book Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues.

The first lecture by Dr Blaser that I attended concerned the human microbiome, with a focus on the role that the bacterium H. pylori plays in the gastrointestinal tract. The second lecture was a more generalized overview of the role of the microbiome on health, touching on such topics as the possible role played by antibiotic overuse/misuse in the world's growing obesity epidemic- it corresponded with the initial release of Dr Blaser's book.

Last night's lecture could be characterized to a 'greatest hits' compilation- it was a broad overview of the subject of the human microbiome and the role that antibiotics play in the relationship between us and our bacterial symbionts. Much of the talk revolved around the findings of the graduate students in Dr Blaser's lab.

The human gut is home to over one hundred trillion bacteria, most of which are harmless or even beneficial to us. Recently, the overuse of antibiotics, much of which can be attributed to the use of sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics to promote growth of farm animals, has adversely effected our internal biome, resulting in lower internal biodiversity among residents of the developed world. Dr Blaser displayed an array of gorgeous graphics to illustrate the relative biodiversity among the Venezuelan Yanomami, residents of Malawi, and residents of the developed world, with the Yanomami, who currently have little contact with outsiders, having a very high degree of internal biodiversity.

Dr Blaser noted that most of a newborn's microbiome is inherited from its mother, largely through vaginal birth, but also through close contact as breast-feeding, kissing, and in the case of some cultures, pre-mastication of food by mom. Babies born through C-sections tend to have less-developed gut bacteria than those born vaginally. By the age of three, an individual's gut microbiome is similar to that of an adult of the same cultural group.

Much of the lecture was involved with discussions of the role of antibiotic use in weight gain and possibly the onset of type 2 diabetes. While most of the experiments with mice involved sub-therapeutic levels administered over time, other studies mimicked the way in which people generally use antibiotics- pulses of high antibiotic use given to combat infection. Dr Blaser likened this to giving the mice antibiotics the same way parents would give antibiotics to a child with an ear infection. The 'pulsed' use of antibiotics early in life resulted in similar outcomes as the use of sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics.

Dr Blaser made sure to note that the development of antibiotics was a civilization-altering occurrence, and that the use of antibiotics has hugely benefited humanity. The study of the relationship between individuals and their bacterial symbionts is a relatively new field, and Dr Blaser and his team are on the cutting edge of it. Dr Blaser jokingly told an anecdote about he and his staff sending stool samples off to have genetic testing of the microbiota performed, and not knowing exactly how to interpret the results. Our internal symbionts have evolved with us over the course of millions of years, but our relationship is just beginning to be parsed out.

Dr Blaser devoted a significant portion of his lecture to the work of his colleges and students, presenting their achievements in succession with a palpable sense of pride. For a talk about germs and poop, there was a genuine sense of joy about the topic.

Dr Blaser devoted a considerable amount of time to a Q&A session- he knows that there is an intense public interest in his research and its health implications. There were a lot of questions about probiotics and ways in which to 'reboot' (perhaps re-butt) one's internal biota after a course of antibiotics. The topic of fecal transplants came up, with one wag in the audience (of whom I am jealous) referring to them as trans-poo-sions. One bastard in the audience asked if anyone had done research concerning the effect of antibiotic use on the onset of menarche, but Dr Blaser noted that lower ages for the onset of puberty predated the development of antibiotics by about a century, and should be attributed to overall improvements in nutrition.

All told, the lecture was wonderful- entertaining as well as informative. Dr Blaser has a remarkable knack for making his subject matter accessible for the layperson, something crucial when it comes to a topic as intimate as one's relationship with one's one trillion closest friends. Kudos to the good doctor, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of Symphony Space... once again, the SSC has knocked it out of the park.

Here's a video of Dr Blaser lecturing on this topic at the American Society for Microbiology:





Crack open a beverage and soak in that Secret Science Club ambiance.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Whose Blood? Whose Soil?

Over the weekend, a crowd of neo-Nazis descended on a Virginia town to protest the removal of Confederate memorials and conduct a totally-not-creepy torchlight procession. Among the slogans they chanted was the oldNazi standby "Blood and soil!" Of course, the soil that these sons of Europestood upon was stolen from Native Americans, and the blood that stained it was the blood of enslaved Africans... but these assholes would never acknowledge that, and "lack of melanin and trust funds" isn't much of a rallying cry.

I typed this out quickly on the phone while having a new tire put on the car (our roads are the pits these days), I'll clean up the linkage later.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

To All Those Mothers Out There

Here's wishing a happy Mother's Day to all of the moms who read this blog. I made sure to call mom after things got quiet at work. She had my sister and her family, except for her oldest, who was hanging around college to attend some friends' graduation. Mom is doing really well, as always, and we talked for almost an hour, until my phone battery ran out.

I appreciate the hard-work that mothers do... sometimes, they are too busy working to spend time with the kids, sometimes they are extremely protective and intensely involved with their kids' day-to-day activities. The vast majority of moms are trying their best to care for their children, often in the face of hostility to the needs of mothers, especially working moms.

I know I've posted the video before, but I think that 1980s icon Mr T. provided the best advice concerning respect for moms:





He probably wrote that after a run-in with a scrappy mama killdeer.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Single Volume Distillation of a Genre

Being a nerdy, bookish sort, I have been commenting at the Tor Books website for a while. It's not too difficult to figure out my pseudonym, because I am a huge Jack Vance fan. First things first, friend of the blog Robyn Bennis has a book published, so here's a hearty high-five and an exhortation for everyone to buy her book.

Secondly, the Tor book club selection for the month is Vernor Vinge's amazing A Fire Upon the Deep. While I had been aware of the book for a while, I put off reading it until last year. While I am partially kicking myself for not reading it sooner, I am also glad that I put off reading the book for so long because the book is especially rewarding for readers who are aware of all science-fiction traditions. A Fire Upon the Deep is a one-volume distillation of the entire genre of science fiction, masquerading as a rip-roaring galactic adventure novel. Back in 1992, when it was published, I hadn't read enough of the genre to fully appreciate this trait of the book.

Before I go into a breakdown of the book's shout-outs to the genre, I have to get one thing out of the way- I certainly do not love the central trope of the novel... the notion that there are different Zones of Thought operating under different rules of nature. Yeah, I'm of the opinion that there's one reality, which permeates the universe, and things really only seem outrageous in the vicinity of black holes. In Vinge's fictional galaxy, the usual science-fantasy tropes are inverted: the Galactic Center is the 'Unthinking Depths', where sentience dulls and dies, and space travel slows to a crawl. The Slow Zone, where Earth lies, or lay in the distant past, is the next layer, where faster-than-light travel is impossible and artificial intelligence difficult to develop. The next layer, the Beyond, is where the whiz-bang space-opera stuff can occur, with faster-than-light travel and remarkable displays of sentience are the norm. Beyond the Beyond is the Transcend, where vast intelligences of great power (though typically of short lifespan) can develop. As one moves away from the core, one's potential increases, until a sort of demigodhood can be achieved.

The story starts out with a team of scientists working at the edge of the Transcend, who unearth an Eldritch Abomination straight out of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror tale. After releasing this malevolent power, the valiant scientists attempt to contain it while sending a husband-and-wife team to escape with the research facility's children to a planet closer to the Slow Zone, where it is hoped that their pursuer's vast puissance will be blunted. What follows is a disastrous First Contact, with the refugees falling into the hands of a bunch of fascistic religious fanatics and falling victim to the classic Simpson's Halloween episode gag 'your superior intellect is no match for our puny weapons':





The aliens are doglike creatures which, while individually not very intelligent, can achieve an intellectual capacity equal to that of a human in groups of more than four individuals, but more than eight individuals lead to confusion. The individuals joining to form a group-mind communicate through sound, produced by a series of tympanic membranes. The initial protagonist of the story, an adolescent girl, dubs these creatures 'Tines', after the clawlike weapon that one of them uses to strike down her father... the name is an elegant one, though, as the individual creatures work in concert, like the tines of a fork, to produce one functioning entity. With a group intellect made up of a succession of individuals, the group intellects can last for hundreds of years. With his 'tines', Vinge, like Stanley G. Weinbaum created aliens that pass John W. Campbell's challenge: "Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man."

Not all of the aliens are hostile- the human protagonists just had to fall into the clutches of the worst of the worst of them. Vinge introduces other witnesses to the spaceship's landing, ones motivated by curiosity, rather than fanatical rage:


"You're a pilgrim. You've traveled the world ... since the beginning of time, you'd have us believe. How far do your memories really go back?"

Given the situation, Wickwrackrum was inclined to honesty. "Like you'd expect: a few hundred years. Then we're talking about legends, recollections of things that probably happened, but with the details all mixed and muddled."

"Well, I haven't traveled much, and I'm fairly new. But I do read. A lot. There's never been anything like this before. That is a
made thing down there. It came from higher than I can measure. You've read Aramstriquesa or Astrologer Belelele? You know what this could be?"

Wickwrackrum didn't recognize the names. But he was a pilgrim. There were lands so far away that no one spoke any language he knew. In the Southseas he met folk who thought there was no world beyond their islands and who ran from his boats when he came ashore. Even more, one part of him had been an islander and had watched that coming ashore.

He stuck a head into the open and looked again at the fallen star, the visitor from farther than he had ever been ... and he wondered where this pilgrimage might end.



What follows is a picaresque Planetary Romance, reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Leigh Brackett, with the scriber and the pilgrim saving the strange, bipedal alien princess and whisking her off to the relative safety of an old friend of the pilgrim.

The novel follows several narrative arcs, each having different protagonists- there's the librarian who works at a central relay station of a vast galactic network reminiscent of the web in a cyberpunk novel by Gibson or Sterling, who teams up with a space-adventurer straight out of a Poul Anderson or Robert Heinlein space opera, rescued or reconstituted like Mary Shelley's monster from an ancient derelict spacecraft that had wandered perilously far into the Slow Zone because the crew fell victim to genre savvy, in order to track down the escape craft which had escaped the abomination.

Along the way, we have parallel plot threads, as the would-be rescuers evade pursuit while the stranded children learn how to interact with the alien natives, with suspense building as the reader is caught in the middle knowing that a major clash is inevitable. To heighten the suspense, there is an arms race, as one warring faction figures out how to use a child's laptop computer incorporated into a toy while another faction receives directions via FTL communication. There are strange aliens brought into sentience through cybernetic interfaces like the species in David Brin's 'Uplift' novels. The human population of the galaxy has spread through fits and starts, descents into barbarism and rediscoveries of space travel, reminiscent of the lost human colonies that Jack Vance wrote about. There are beautiful, xenophobic aliens who commit atrocities and brave space admirals who try to fend them off.

Vinge presents the reader with a head-spinning variety of cultures and concepts, with an occasional punch to the gut... oh, here's a loving couple who love their children and their friends' children so they do anything to save them and WHAM! Hey, nice star-sector spanning society of humans and aliens living in harmony, be a shame if something would happen to it... You really grew to like that character? WHACK! Oh, and his death is going to be a gut-punch to that other sympathetic character, and saddle her with a guilt trip.

The novel is a bildungsroman, a horror tale, a romance, a war story, a chase narrative, a picaresque, a thriller... it really does serve to tie the genre together. It's like a greatest hits medley that nevertheless remains original. I heartily recommend it, and will be following along with the 'book club' reading of it.

Oh, and everybody check out Robyn's book.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Knucklehead's Kneologism

Via Tengrain, we have the comedic economic stylings of one Donald J. Trump, millionaire, in the form of an interview with The Economist:




In a real coincidence, I came up with the expression 'what a dumbass' a couple of days ago and I thought it was good.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Window Shopping

A couple of nights ago, we had a visitor looking into the front window of our gift shop:




That handsome fellow is either a smallish bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) or a decent-sized green frog (Lithobates clamitans)- I didn't check for the dorsolateral ridges which would distinguish it as a green frog, not wanting to scare away a customer by getting too grabby.

Pretty soon, this critter will be in the pond doing its thing to perpetuate the species. Maybe it was shopping for a suitable gift for pitching woo.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Easy Comey, Easy Go-y

Just a quick note before drinking beer- the news that Trump fired James Comey was a bit shocking, but not surprising- Trump, judging by yesterday's tweet-binge about former assistant AG Yates, and today's silence, Trump seems to be in cornered rat mode. Anyway, I hope Comey is glad about making a big deal about Hillary's emails. Don't trust GOPers, even if you are one.

The real issue now is Comey's replacement... the biggest crook in the country will be appointing the head of the FBI. Smart money says it'll be Jared Kushner... I wish I were joking.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Let's All Drink to the Death of a Frog

To my knowledge, the first instance of an author killing off a character to prevent further appropriation by untalented hacks was Cervantes' killing of Don Quixote. Via Tengrain, we have the tale of Matt Furie killing off his Pepe the Frog character because it had been hopelessly corrupted by the Anime Nazi crowd. The problem here is that, unlike the knight-errant of La Mancha, Pepe as meme is much bigger than Pepe as character... for the record, Don Quixote is one of my all-time favorite books. Even more significantly, the crowd that co-opted Pepe is not exactly known for their respect for others' feelings, so they will probably carry on to spite Furie, who will be dismissed as a 'cuck' or a 'snowflake'. This isn't so much a funeral, but an uncontested divorce on Furie's part.

Rather than killing Pepe off, Furie should have sold the character off the Disney Corporation, which guards its intellectual property so fiercely that their lobbyists have fought to have copyright laws changed. A couple of lawsuits on the part of a deep-pocketed megacorporation, and the keks become mighty expensive.

The post title comes from one of my favorite Kinks songs:





Come to think of it, Pepe is a lot like the famous Disney rodent, a better example of graphic design than of interesting characterization... maybe Disney could have put his picture in the public bathrooms of their theme parks.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

You Can Keep Your Doctor

I've been on one of my periodic pulp-fiction binges lately, having looted Archive.org for issues of Weird Tales and looking up old, once-racy-but-comical pulp covers (I'm looking at YOU, Margaret Brundage). Perhaps my favorite cover is this unintentionally funny illustration:




The guy in the chair has one interesting malpractice suit. I'm not a doctor, but even as a layperson, I can say that Dr Skull's methods are unsound.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Morocracy

I have come to the conclusion that the form of government of this country is rule by the stupid, which I will call morocracy. Via Tengrain, we have Idaho's Raul Labrador telling a bald-faced, idiotic lie:





Of course, his health insurance is paid for by the American taxpayers, so he never has to postpone needed care because he doesn't have the scratch. Why the hell do the idiotic voters in the Heartland keep voting for assholes like this? Do we really need to continue putting the absolute worst people in charge of our lives, and the destiny of our nation? Just thinking about this is enough to raise my goddamn blood pressure.

Friday, May 5, 2017

La Fiesta de los Bad Hombres

If you were to ask me which of my posts represented my pinnacle of snark, I would have to say that it would be my Cinco de Mao post, which hit on a whole host of right-wing calumnies against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. I'm chagrined that a troglodyte who actually believes those calumnies is the current resident in the White House. I miss the smart guy... I really do.

It's weird how the Trump Maladminstration decided to have the Vice President even acknowledge the day, even though his message rang hollow in the face of a long litany of lies about Mexicans promulgated by his boss. If I were a Mexican immigrant, I'd would not be reassured by Pence's assertion that Trump has made Latinos 'a priority'. Several conversations with Latino friends has convinced me that Trump making Latinos 'a priority' is the last thing that they want.

Most of the local Mexican-immigrant population in my neck of the woods is from Jalisco and Michoacan states, immigration from Jalisco starting in the 1960s, with Mr Taco being a local fixture since 1981. According to local legend, a politician vacationing in Guadalajara was so taken with his tour guide that he offered the man and his wife jobs if they were willing to emigrate, and they became the nucleus of the Mexican immigrant community.

Cinco de Mayo is a specifically Pueblan holiday. My go-to Pueblan informants are the guys who run the taco stand at 4th Ave and 9th St in Brooklyn, and I make a point of talking post-Trump politics with them whenever I leave the beautiful Bell House. Once, I asked the proprietor if he made the famous chicken mole poblano, and he laconically joked, "Sí, en mi casa." I'll be seeing him in three weeks, and I'm sure we'll have a lot to talk about. He's a good hombre, like the vast majority of Mexicans who have immigrated to the United States.

The real news regarding U.S.-Mexican relations is Trump's decision not to terminate NAFTA. He must have been shown a map of the Americans who would be adversely affected by a Mexican boycott of American corn. One of the tragic legacies of NAFTA was the flooding of the Mexican food market with subsidized American processed food, which drove down prices and forced a lot of farmers off of their land. The jobs in the maquiladoras, many in Puebla, that the farmers flocked to lacked the job safety and wage protections that characterized American jobs at the time (we have since participated in a race to the bottom), and then many of them disappeared when China became the go-to place for cheap outsourcing.

NAFTA could have worked, if there had been provisions to raise the standard of living for the Mexican workers, the situation for the Mexican, American, and Canadian populations would be vastly better than they are these days. The problem is that the trade agreement mainly benefits the bad hombres who negotiated it.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Worst Kegger Ever

Almost every college student who has ever attended a keg party is looking for sex or drugs, some sort of hookup. I say 'almost' because there's at least one frathole who dreamed of slashing Medicaid while attending keggers. Tragically, that frathole now has an inordinate amount of power to change people's benefits for the worse. While not throwing a kegger to celebrate the passing of Trumpcare in the House, even though the Senate will probably reject it, the GOPers have had cases of shitty beer delivered to the Capitol to celebrate their shitty legislation.

There's a certain banality to evil, and this Bud Light binge pretty much typifies it. Even though they are rich, and do the bidding of the ultra-rich, these people don't even have a scintilla of sophistication. They are men of wealth, but not taste. Let's hope that, as Nancy Pelosi suggested, they won't be around for a long, long year.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

I Suspect He Has Conan the Barbarian Confused with a Ken Burns Documentary

Crom, what a dumbass! There's a fake historical marker on the grounds of a Donald Trump owned golf course in Virginia that reads like a 5th grader's padded three-page report:


“Many great American soldiers, both of the North and South, died at this spot. The casualties were so great that the water would turn red and thus became known as ‘The River of Blood.’ It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River!”


The redundancy is making my eyes bleed... it had to have been written by the man himself. He also seems to think that Thulsa Doom was a Union general:





Among the Republican base, the Civil War is better known as the War of Stygian Aggression.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Ugly Job, Pretty Employees

I often post about my beloved co-workers Fred and Ginger, who make up our Rodent Abatement Team. Over the weekend, they were on special assignment in one of our buildings, in which there was evidence of at least one unwanted tenant. On Saturday, I arrived at work and let the two of them out so I could give them their customary can of catfood (each one gets half a can in the morning and half a can in the evening), and I noticed that they had been hard at work... there were the remains of a Rattus norvegicus, but not a Rattus Norvegicus just inside the doorway. Lovely... the carcass of the rat was reduced to a semblance of a muroid Penanggalan. I grabbed a stick and batted the remains of the critter outside, so the clean-up crew could dispose of them, while sharing in the ratty bounty.

I made sure to praise my feline co-workers, and after feeding and brushing them, we went on a nice walkabout. Their methods are gruesome but not unsound, and for a couple of straight-up killers, they sure are pretty:




They sure seem to enjoy their job, too.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Fröhlich Walpurgisnacht

Here's wishing a happy Walpurgisnacht to all of my readers, as is my tradition. I celebrated the festival by indulging in some herbalism- picking a bunch of garlic mustard and nettles which will form the base for a batch of green slurry.

On a serious note, people are still being persecuted for witchcraft in parts of the world, with the Saudis being particularly heinous when it comes to 'fighting sorcery'.

Even in the United States, there is a witchcraft panic among evangelicals which hearkens back to the Satanic Panic of the 1970s and 80s. It's just not safe to be an eccentric in a hotbed of religious fundamentalism, especially if you are an independent, wise woman.

Anyway, be safe on this Walpurgis Night, stay away from anyone who looks like Vincent Price:





Or this guy...

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Morelity Play

Last night, I had a pretty shitty assignment... last Saturday, one of my subordinates found an empty bottle of Hennessey and a used prophylactic at one of our sites. The obvious conclusion is that some individuals have been crawling through a gap in the perimeter fence and using the place as a free no-tell motel. When people feel comfortable trespassing on a site, bad shit can happen- vandalism of sensitive buildings, injury due to misadventure, liability lawsuits. My approach to my supervisor's position is to 'lead with my chin'- if someone is going to pull a duty which probably would lead to a call to the local constabulary, I think it should be me. I'm not easily rattled, I am comfortable sitting in the dark waiting for something to happen, and I am comfortable coming down on assholes like a two-ton heavy thing.

After getting the departmental cell phone from my principal site at 9PM, I headed down to the site which had the potential to become party central. I got to the site, and went into stealth mode... I was covering the whole site, basically playing the wandering monster (bugbear, large and fierce but incongruously stealthy) in a Keep on the Borderlands LARP. Yeah, I was there to wreck some adventurers' shit. I was wandering the site, making my "hide in shadows" rolls, when around midnight, mirabile, I find three morels growing under a lamppost:




I had to resist the urge to use my high-powered flashlight to go on a mushroom hunt, thereby blowing my cover... talk about potential mission creep! Still, I was champing at the bit until 2AM, when it started to rain, there was no sign of any trespassers, and I had to return to my principal worksite in order to perform can-opening duties for my two bosses. That also involved resisting the urge for mission creep, and driving straight home to do some sauté-ing. In the meantime, I'm wondering if the trespassers are actually coming during the daylight hours- it's easier to find the gaps in the fence when it's bright out... easier to find mushrooms, too.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Selling 'Murka by the Pound

Being an outdoorsy type, my latest Trump outrage is the executive order which will probably place twenty-four national monuments in jeopardy. The very idea that the fate of the public's inheritance will be placed in the hands of a coterie of extractive industry executives is infuriating. Trump has placed so many foxes in the henhouse that it is now a foxhouse.

To compound the crime, certain of these monuments were designated to protect sites important to Native Americans, including sites containing priceless artifacts. Trump has long had a willingness to attack Native Americans who have the temerity to get between him and a dollar.

The post title is derived from this album title. If Epping Forest were a national monument, Trump would turn it over to his cronies:





I have confidence that the National Parks Service will be on the forefront of this battle.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Batrachian Bings

Our pond at work is a sexy, sexy place, and the toads in the ponds are singing their seductive songs, a bunch of batrachian Bing Crosbys crooning their little amphibian hearts out. I managed to spy this sizable specimen heading off to the aquatic orgy:




In a couple of months, the place will be overrun by loads and loads of tiny toads, which always makes me extremely happy.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Demme Dead

Today's bummer is the death of Jonathan Demme. My introduction to Mr Demme's oeuvre occurred in high school, when I went with a bunch of friends to see Stop Making Sense. We were all Talking Heads fans, but we weren't old enough to get into most venues that the band would play. The film was a great outing for a bunch of smart-aleck kids who were just on the cusp of their concertgoing years. The opening of the film, with the jittery, angular David Byre, practically lost in an iconic oversized suit, appeared on the stage alone, with an acoustic guitar and a 'boombox' which served as a visual shorthand for a rhythm track played through the soundboard. to play the paranoiac classic Psycho Killer:





The beauty of the film is that the band gradually assembles onstage, with Tina Weymouth being the first to join Mr Byrne for the song Heaven:





This incremental approach to taking the stage loans the documentary a certain sense of drama- this isn't a mundane music film, it's somewhat reminiscent of the 'assembling the team' scenes from The Seven Samurai, with David Byrne playing the Takashi Shimura role.

David Byrne remains the visual centerpiece for most of the film, with his eccentric movements and a jacket which threatens to engulf him. I particularly like his almost-martial performance of the song Swamp:





Another highlight of the film for me was the sublime This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody):





On the whole, Stop Making Sense is sheer perfection- the band was at the height of their powers, and Mr Demme showcased them to perfection. The one part of the movie where David Byrne cedes the center of attention is when he leaves the stage to allow bandmates to perform as the Tom Tom Club, with perennial New Wave crush Tina Weymouth taking center stage, and our hearts along with it:





Is it just me, or is her outfit definitely the inspiration for Daisy Ridley's 'Star Wars' outfit? Daisy, put four strings on that staff of yours, and join a band! Back to Stop Making Sense, this Byrne-less interlude gave the man enough time to put on his REALLY BIG SUIT, and take the stage- Mr Demme's direction for Girlfriend is Better being sheer perfection, as we initially see a looming shadow before the big reveal:





I could go on about Stop Making Sense for paragraphs... the film made such an impression on me. Of course, there's the rest of Mr Demme's filmography, from his directorial debut with the trash-auteur Roger Corman distributed Caged Heat to the horror-film-with-ambition Silence of the Lambs or black-comedy Married to the Mob, but it's Demme's ability to capture musicians' personalities as they perform which never ceased to amaze me. Here's Demme's video for New Order's The Perfect Kiss, which beautifully captures the band interfacing with their equipment:





I'm going to end this post with Jonathan Demme's film Storefront Hitchcock, who is one of my all-time favorite musicians. Here's Uncle Robyn playing the gorgeous-though-melancholy Airscape:





Needless to say, I have been a fan of Jonathan Demme since before I could legally drive. It was nice to think that this accomplished person had tastes similar to mine, producing art which showcased some of my favorite performers. His political views also tended to align with mine- he was a champion of human rights. In all, he was a remarkable spirit, and I know I will miss his continuing artistic endeavors.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Everything Is Political

Today, I attended the annual all-staff meeting at work. It's always a nice event, most of our staff is made up of part-time, seasonal workers, so the meeting is a really sweet reunion. After working nights and weekends all winter without seeing too many people, catching up is a lot of fun. I also had a good long talk with my new supervisor (my old supervisor retired on April 14th). I let him know about a couple of things that I am concerned about, and we made arrangements for him to stop by at night and see what my typical work experience is. We get along well, and he is 'on the same page' about certain projects I suggested.

There was an undercurrent of uncertainty, though... we are an educational not-for-profit and we have $960,000 in grant money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. With a regime hostile to the NEH and the NEA, this funding may disappear, putting us in the hurtbox.

I don't mention my employer by name on the blog, but I love to bring visitors to our sites when they come to the NY metro area. For instance, I have taken Major Kong to visit while he was on a delivery run. The mission of the organization is important, the values the organization espouses align with my values. Our President noted the challenges we may be facing, and told us that we weren't alone in the fight, then he urged us to call our congressional reps. He noted that Kirsten Gillibrand and Louise Slaughter are very supportive on the arts and the humanities. It was the first time that he has ever been explicitly political, but the political has become personal, and we, like many others, are fighting for our lives.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Do We Want? SCIENCE!

Yesterday was a great day- I took a vacation day and headed down to the NYC March for Science. I met up with
Yastreblyansky (nice to put a face to the name) at 65th and Broadway and we had to walk up to 68th St to queue up for the march due to the number of attendees. The crowd was amazing- there were a lot of really smart people, a lot of kids were in attendance with their parents and teachers. The signs were awesome, a lot of them played on Pi and the square root of negative one. Many signs, including my own, played on the whole 'Alternative Facts' dope-trope. Another popular theme was 'small hands can't grasp big facts'. One woman had a heart-wrenching sign... eight years of primary school, four years of high school, four years undergraduate college, seven years of graduate school, four years post-doc, under one year to take it away.

It was a coldish, rainy day- my sign started soaking up water before we hit Times Square- but spirits were high. It was fun meeting physicists and psychologists, and school kids, all of whom were advocating for funding science and for basing public policy on evidence-based science. There were a couple of places where the crowd started booing- passing a 9/11 'Truther' and passing the The Trump International Hotel and Tower in Columbus Circle. The march ended in Times Square, where, by happy coincidence, a samba group was drumming. The overall vibe in the Broadway pedestrian plaza was festive. I ran into Secret Science diva Dorian Devins, along with her fantastic husband and a couple of other SSC regulars. I also ran into the awesome scientist/adventurer Dr Evon Hekkala, her fantastic husband, and their lovely children. I had a great conversation with some folks from Jersey who had met at the NYC Women's March and were continuing their resistance activities (nevertheless, they persisted). I also ran into an alumnus from my Prestigious Bastion of Prestige who had graduated a few years ahead of my enrollment, but we had several biology professors in common. We must have spent an hour shooting the breeze about the teachers we had in common, about current mutual acquaintances. He hinted to me that Morbid Anatomy might be rising, Phoenix-like, from the ashes.

Finally, around 3PM, I decided that, in desperate need of a piss-break, I would retreat to the shelter of a tavern. After a warming shot of Tullamore Dew, I was fortified for the subway ride back to the Bronx- I passed small groups from the march and we greeted each other warmly. I walked all the back to Columbus Circle, and there were a bunch of Fordham University students hanging out outside the subway station. We shouted one of the slogans from the march:

WHAT DO WE WANT?
SCIENCE!
WHEN DO WE WANT IT?
AFTER PEER REVIEW!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

FOR SCIENCE!

This Saturday, I am planning on attending the NYC March for Science, so I registered tonight. My great and good friends at the Secret Science Club are planning on attending, though I imagine that any attempt to organize a group ahead of time would be like herding cats. Suffice it to say, the rally starts at 10:30AM at Central Park West and 62nd St, so any of the SSC regulars can rally there.

Longtime readers will know of my love for science, and my feeble layperson's attempts to promote it. It's time to put my moxie where my mouth is and to step up for evidence-based policy. If you are in the NY Metro Area, and are planning on attending, please let me know. I'll be the guy who looks a lot like the profile picture at the right, so I won't be that hard to find.

And on a lighter note, here's a whimsical number from nerd-approved They Might Be Giants:





That might be considered an unofficial theme song for the march.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Black Holes, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring physicist Dr Robbert Dijkgraaf, former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies. Dr Dijkgraaf lectured on the narrow topic of 'basic questions about space and time'.

For a long time, scientists believed that space was infinite and rigid, and that time flows universally on... the universe was the perfect stage on which humans could act. Einstein came onto the stage in the early 20th century and posited that time was merely a 4th dimension, and that space and time were actually unified- spacetime. Dr Dijkgraaf then displayed an animation of a 4-dimensional cube being rotated, similar to this video, noting that this is actually a 2-dimensional rendition of a 4-dimensional cube being rotated. He noted that, the retina being flat, the eye doesn't see in three dimensions, but the brain fills in the third dimension when the image is interpreted. Dr Dijkgraaf joked about a colleague who, on seeing a representation of a 4th dimension hypercube casting a shadow onto the third dimension, commented, "It's more simple to see in five dimensions."

Dr Dijkgraaf compared spacetime to a roll of film, with each particular instant being a frame- he displayed a video of two particles moving through spacetime, then displayed an image of the video broken down into a stack of frames, so that the image of the particles' motion appeared as two strands- he noted that everything happens at once in spacetime. He then joked that every formula should fit on a T-shirt, using Einstein's E = mc2 as an example. The equal sign in the formula connects the two sides of the equation, connecting two different worlds- in the Energy/Mass equivalence formula, energy and mass are 'talking to each other'- a small amount of mass can be converted into a vast amount of energy. Walking across the stage, Dr Dijkgraaf noted that he weights more as he moves across the stage (about one millionth more) than he does while he is standing still. He then displayed an image of Einstein's Field Equations:




He noted that, according to General Relativity, mass tells spacetime how to curve and that spacetime tells mass how to move.

Dr Dijkgraaf then presented a basic history of the Theory of General Relativity, noting that Arthur Eddington's 1919 observation of a total solar eclipse (PDF) offered proof that light was deflected by gravity- the stars behind the sun were visible due to this deflection. Einstein quickly became famous after this proof of his Theory of General Relativity, though communications were fairly slow in those days. Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz acted as the intermediarycommunications-relay between Eddington and Einstein. The NY Times responded to the news with a whimsical headline:




Einstein was hailed as a 'new giant in world history' in the German press.


Einstein's calculations indicated that the universe is not static, but is expanding. At one stage, the universe was smaller, perhaps even a mere point. Einstein believed in a static universe, and added a cosmological constant to his equations in order to achieve a static universe. Urban legend has Einstein labeling the cosmological constant as his 'biggest blunder'. The model of an expanding universe was first proposed by Belgian priest and astrophysicist Georges Lemaître, who pioneered the Big Bang theory with his model of a 'primeval atom' or 'cosmic egg'. Edwin Hubble observing a redshift in light from distant galaxies, proved that space is expanding. In 1965, engineers Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation as they adjusted a radio telescope. Dr Dijkgraaf joked that the engineers had scooped the physicists, who were working on the problem of finding evidence for the Big Bang. The immediate post Big Bang period is known as First Light... and for people familiar with the old broadcast televisions, about 1% of TV static was due to radiation from the Big Bang.

In 2003, the WMAP satellite created an image of the cosmic microwave background radiation, an image refined by the Planck spacecraft. Dr Dijkgraaf likened the image of the 300,000 year old universe (from 13.8 billion years ago) to the universe's 'baby photo':




Dr Dijkgraaf noted that instruments cannot 'see' farther than the pointillist painting obtained by WMAP and Planck.

After the Big Bang, matter condensed, stars formed, and galaxies coalesced- the cosmic evolution started to be pieced together in the last one-hundred years, and a different history of the universe is being written. There are unknown facts, but the cosmologists know what they don't know. Dark matter is one mystery, it comprises five times the mass of baryonic matter... Dr Dijkgraaf stated that 'transparent matter' might have been a better name for the stuff. He likened dark matter to a Christmas tree, with the baryonic matter being the lights. Dark energy is the name proposed for the force which causes the increasing rate of expansion of the universe, the force in empty space which pushes the universe apart. Between dark matter and dark energy, 96% of the universe is 'missing', only 4% is known to us. Dr Dijkgraaf noted that other scientific fields work with a lot of 'dark knowledge'- for instance, paleontologists have to reconstruct evolutionary relationships with a fossil record that has huge gaps.

The topic of the lecture then shifted to black holes. There are two broad categories of black holes- stellar black holes are extinct stars which collapse under their own gravity while galactic black holes, also known as supermassive black holes, have a mass of millions or billions of stars. These galactic black holes spew vast radiotion plumes as gigantic, violent explosions constantly occur on their periphery. Stars in the galactic center revolve around the galactic black hole in elliptical orbits. A proposed Event Horizon Telescope would look into the center of the galaxy to obtain more information about the conditions around the black hole in the the galactic center.

Dr Dijkgraaf also noted the discovery of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory- this gravitational wave detector observed small waves which probably resulted from the interaction of binary black holes merging into one larger object. The LIGO is sensitive enough to measure the gravitic effects of an overhead cloud- Dr Dijkgraaf joked about 'lying on your back, feeling uplifted'.

A collision between two black holes detected in September 2015, which occurred over 1.3 billion years ago, resulted in the most violent explosion ever measured, a cataclysm which released more energy than that released by the entire visible universe.

Dr Dijkgraaf then shifted the topic of the lecture to particle physics and the Standard Model. He displayed a diagram of the years from concept to discovery:




Looking at the scant duration between theorizing about the existence of the muon and it's discovery, he noted that the joke concerning the discovery was, "Who ordered this?" The Higgs Boson took five decades to find. Peter Higgs, 86 years old when the discovery was made, stated that he was happy that the boson which bears his name was discovered during his lifetime. In contrast, it took a century between Einstein's proposal about gravitational waves and their discovery. Dr Dijkgraaf noted that science is a relay race, and that researches must pass the baton on to their successors.

Black holes took a longer time to discover- in the 18th Century, John Michell proposed the existence of stars with gravitational forces which were so powerful that light could not escape. In terms of mass, if the earth were compressed to the point where its gravitational field was so strong that light couldn't escape, it would be a mass two centimeters in diameter. In 1939, Robert J. Oppenheimer and Hartland Snyder described how a collapsing mass, such as a star collapsing under its own weight, could form a black hole. The black hole itself can be likened to a gravitational singularity, the boundaries of a black hole are known as the event horizon. An object within the event horizon is doomed. Dr Dijkgraaf noted that, if our sun collapsed into a black hole, it would have an event horizon three kilometers in diameter, which he jokingly described as 'Brooklyn sized'.

Time inside the event horizon flows differently, possibly stopping altogether. If the Big Bang represents time's beginning, black holes represent an end of time. The term black hole was coined by John Wheeler, who noted that black holes were a paradox- the laws of physics that we know break down. Nevertheless, the universe works, and we need to formulate a new theoretical framework. Originally, Einstein did not like the Big Bang and black holes, preferring a static universe, but he changed his mind as new evidence accumulated. Dr Dijkgraaf quipped, 'Sometimes, a theory is smarter than its discoverer.'

The topic then shifted to quantum theory- Dr Dijkgraaf posed the question, 'Why is every electron the same, does Nature have a perfect electron factory?' Richard Feynman recounted a telephone call from John Wheeler on this subject:

I received a telephone call one day at the graduate college at Princeton from Professor Wheeler, in which he said, "Feynman, I know why all electrons have the same charge and the same mass" "Why?" "Because, they are all the same electron!"

Dr Dijkgraaf asked us to consider an electron moving up and down through spacetime, making copies of itself and weaving a Big Knot- is the result many particles, or are they all the same? Richard Feynman drew diagrams representing the behavior of particles, showing the splitting and recombination of particles. The Feynman diagrams even graced the family van. In quantum mechanics, there is one edict- 'Everything which is allowed is obligatory, everything which can happen will happen.' The duplication of particles through quantum mechanics might form an explanation for dark energy.

The Planck length (×10-35 meter range) represents the size of the tiny 'pixels' which make up the universe, while the Hubble Scale (×1025 meter range) represents the size of the universe. About smack dab in the middle we find the scale at which life is organized (×10-5 meter range). The hot Big Bang was preceded by a period of rapid expansion of space known as the Cosmic Inflation Period. The classical density perturbations, the small disturbances at the quantum level, determined the large structure of the universe... the very small determines the structure of the very big. Dr Dijkgaard quipped that empty space is an exciting subject, and that more money should be dedicated to the study of Nothing.

Thermal energy, known as Hawking radiation is expected to be emitted from the event horizon of a black hole- two particles are thought to be produced at the event horizon, one which cannot escape and one of which is liberated due to quantum mechanics. Dr Dijkgraaf paused in the lecture to joke, 'What is the sound before the Big Bang? Oh, shit!" He noted that black holes are the most mysterious objects that we are aware of... they are the most complex objects, the objects which collect the most 'information'.

This formed Dr Dijkgraaf's shift into string theory and the role of black holes in string theory. He brought up such topics as AdS/CFT correspondence and the holographic principle, noting that a 'holographic universe' can be projected on black holes because of the physics that occurs on the event horizon. Space can warm and time can wrap. The visible universe can be explained by the interaction of light and matter, but the interactions are complicated and chaotic. The basic building blocks of the universe, though, are simple. Particle physicists see simplicity, but complexity can be seen in the interaction of molecules in a glass of water. Hydrodynamics and thermodynamics are emergent properties... the laws that regulate spacetime might emerge from something more simple, perhaps pure information acting as a matrix.

In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience asked the good doctor to comment on this recent model calling into question the role of dark energy. He responded that physics is an ever-changing field and that, ten years from now, the entire model might be different due to refinements and new observations, though it must be noted that Einstein was usually correct. In response to another question, Dr Dijkgraaf recounted an amusing family anecdote- his son asked him, 'What happened before the Big Bang?' He replied, 'That's what Daddy is working on.' The next day, his son asked, 'And?'

All in all, Dr Dijkgraaf delivered a great lecture- it was a combination of grand overview of physics and mind-bending string theory that I really need to read up on more. He is an engaging, informative lecturer who has a huge following online... if you can read Nederlandish, he has a lot of material. Once again, the Secret Science Club dished up a fantastic lecture- kudos to Dr Dijkgraaf, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. I'll try to hunt down video links to illustrate these topics, but right now I have to run out for a second night of beer-drinking in a row. It's bar trivia night, and what better way to celebrate Useless Knowledge is there?