Monday, September 26, 2016

Debate Night

So... it's the night of the first Clinton/Trump debate. Ugh, I get the feeling that it will be a slog and a slugfest. As a fighter, my opinion is that Clinton's first order of business is to get Trump off of his balance, which is never stable to begin with. If I had been on Hillary's debate prep team, I would have shown her the cool, unflappable Miss May Whitley in all of her glory:

Rattle Trump's cage, flat out state that he's out of his league, that he's none-too-bright. Pin the 'trust fund kid' moniker on him and drop a joke about him being unable to make money on casino gambling on a virtual monopoly in an Atlanta-to-Portsmouth sprawl that housed millions and millions of people at the time. Put succinctly, paint him as a failure, boosted by daddy's money and a congeries of iridescent globes scams that targeted the naive and desperate. In a fight, one should aim for one's opponent's vulnerable spot, and Trump's is the facade that he has maintained, that of a successful businessman.

I'm going to be finishing work at 9PM, and will listen to the first minutes of debate in the car, then go over to a friend's house for pizza and beer. Luckily, it's not a drinking game, don't need to get sloppy.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Long Slog

It's the time of year when the organization I work for holds its major Fall fundraisers, which means that it's 'all hands on deck' time at work. The long hours have already begun- I worked from Friday 5PM to Saturday 4AM, then had a bit of a respite, only working Saturday 5PM to Sunday 1AM. I am currently working a 6PM to 6AM shift, and there is a small army of technicians working their butts off- they are a really nice group of men and women, some of whom I have known for years. They should wrap up around 3AM, then I have to do all the i-dotting and t-crossing after they leave. I actually have a day off on Wednesday, but I will be spending that at an annual certification class... fun fun fun. For the record, one of my co-workers put in a whopping one-hundred and two hours in last pay period. He took the day off today so he could attend a vintage car show- it's the calm before the storm, because he'll have few days off in October.

Myself? I have two days off scheduled for the month- both Secret Science Club event nights... gotta support my people, you know. It's not as bad as it seems, though, about one-third of the nights will be four-hour shifts, which are pretty mellow. I usually refer to October as 'pulling a Captain Nemo', because I won't surface for a month, but this coming October, I'll call it 'pulling an Alvin'. At any rate, I can't complain, I like my job, I like my co-workers, and it's a not-too-common opportunity to pick up a bunch of overtime.

I'll try to keep to a regular posting schedule, but I'll be falling back on short posts, video posts, and pre-scheduled posts. I'll surface one of these days.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Polk Salad Bastard

Last month, inspired by a post about pokeweed by Thunder, I posted about pokeweed and the country-rock standard Polk Salad Annie. We actually have quite a bit of pokeweed growing on-site here, far north of the Mason-Dixon line:

I was actually lucky enough to encounter a couple of small poke plants, small enough to be solidly in the 'pick me' category:

Erring on the side of caution, I boiled the pokeweed that I had harvested in three changes of water, then sauteed it in some olive oil with some garlic. The greens have a nice flavor, similar to that of spinach... and I consumed them without any ill effects, though they do tend to 'clean you out' very well if you know what I mean, and I think that you do. I can readily see a small amount of pokeweed becoming part of the weekly foraging take, in season. We have a secondary growth of stinging nettles coming up, and the pokeweed would be a good accompaniment for the nettles and lamb's quarters in my typical green slurry.

So, now that I'm a poke-eater, I guess that I could qualify for a song of my own:

Polk Salad Bastard, the dude likes getting plastered.
Everybody thought it was a joke, that this Northern boy is chowing down on poke.
A big, bald, Schick razor shaving bastard.

I found a really great cover version of Polk Salad Annie by Sammarinese singer Little Tony (who's a better Ciacci than Scott Baio ever could be). I particularly like this version because he was singing the song phonetically and made some charming errors due to his unfamiliarity with such regionalisms as 'truck patch'. I find this version a lot of fun, but not quite as much fun as Tony Joe White's duet with Johnny Cash:

I think Italians would 'get' the whole polk salad thing- Italian cuisine specializes in making bitter things delicious, and pokeweed seems like it belongs alongside such greens as escarole, arugula, and radicchio. I think poke would go well with beans, which like pokeweed can be poisonous if prepared incorrectly. Like poke, they can also clean you out really well.

Friday, September 23, 2016

A Brilliant Coda to this Month's Lecture

What could be a better follow-up to an oceanography/marine biology lecture than the announcement that President Obama has created the first Marine National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean? The fact that this oceanic preserve contains some of the very seamounts and marine canyons described in Tuesday's lecture is just the icing on the cake.

Back when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, I was quoted in an interview as saying, "I'm happy that we have a nerd in the White House once again." In his speech acknowledging the creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, hot on the heels of the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, President Obama shows himself to be a steward as well as a nerd. He cherishes the oceans, and he is doing what he can to protect important regions of them:

Once, not too long ago, the oceans must have seemed indestructible, but with overfishing, ocean acidification, and appalling pollution, it is evident that these once invulnerable-seeming environments are woefully fragile. The creation of protected areas is a small, but significant, step in better stewardship of the oceans, and the president deserves kudos for making it happen.

I'm going to miss him being in the White House, but I have no doubt that he will go on to a stellar career as a former President.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Alvin and the Chipmunks Abyss

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring Dr Mercer Brugler of CUNY's City Tech and the American Museum of Natural History. Dr Brugler is a marine biologist, deep-sea adventurer, and activist helping to get women and minority students involved in the sciences.

Dr Brugler opened his talk with a couple of photographs- beginning with a nice shot of a newly discovered genus and species of low-light coral, following this up with a photograph of a whale turd which had attracted the attention of some hungry sea cucumbers. The bottom of the food pyramid of the sea consists of light-dependent phytoplankton, many of the denizens of the deep sea rely on biological material 'raining down' from the upper levels of the ocean.

The focus of the talk then quickly shifted to coral, which are Cnidarians. The Cnidaria are approximately six-hundred million years old. A coral colony can be likened to a ton of 'mouths' (polyps) that secrete a skeleton and clone themselves. A coral colony is composed of genetically identical individuals. Each individual polyp can be likened to an 'upside-down jellyfish (the technical term for a jellyfish is medusa)'. Cnidarians are two cell layers thick, with a goo called mesoglea filling the space between the layers, and have a two-way digestive system, spitting out undigested material from their 'mouths'. Coral polyps reproduce asexually and the colony secretes a calcium carbonate skeleton over which the polyps can grow. The polyps are connected by a layer of tissue known as a coenosarc. Coral colonies can reach an age of four thousand years. Like all Cnidarians, corals have stinging structures known as nematocysts, which have barbed 'harpoons' which inject venom- Dr Brugler quipped that the venoms are of various toxicity levels- this determines whether or not one has to go to the hospital. Coral colonies shed mucus, which is being studied to determine if it has cancer-fighting or antibiotic properties. Corals that dwell in shallow regions have photosynthetic dinoflagellate symbionts called zooxanthellae. When coral bleaching occurs, the beneficial zooxanthellae die off, stressing the coral.

Corals are divided into subclasses- the 8-tentacled octocorallia, the 6-tentacled hexacorallia, and the tube-dwelling ceriantharia. Among the octocorallia is Corallium rubrum- Dr Brugler ruefully noted that his mother likes coral jewelry, made out of the skeletons of dead animals. Also among the octocorallia is the blue coral. The hexacorralia includes the reef-building stony corals (Scleractinia) and the sea anemones.

Certain corals thrive in extreme environments, such as the vicinity of hydrothermal vents and cold seeps and under polar ice. The black or thorny corals are deep-dwelling hexacorallia with protein based skeletons. Among the black corals are the wire corals, which through convergent evolution resemble the octocorallia sea whips. Dr Brugler displayed a succession of slides which beautifully illustrated the variety of coral forms- branches, fronds, feathers, bushes, spines... He recounted the DNA sequencing of the genus Bathypathes and noted that DNA plus environment equals morphology.

The topic then slightly shifted to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the largest structure of biological origin on Earth. As large as it is, the Great Barrier Reef is succumbing to bleaching.

Dr Brugler then completely changed direction, turning his attention to the deep sea. Sunlight can penetrate seawater to a depth of 200 meters (this sunlit area is the photic zone). Below 200 meters, photosynthesis cannot occur, the water is cold (typically -2 to 4 degrees Celsius), and the pressure is extreme- for every ten meters one submerges, the pressure increases one atmosphere. There is little food in the deeps- the dead bodies of phytoplankton rain down from the shallow waters to the bottom- this detritus is known as 'marine snow'. Among the pictures Dr Brugler displayed of deep-sea life was a time-lapse sequence of amphipods Hirondellea gigas swarming over a feast of dead fish. Despite Edward Forbes' belief in an Azoic region of barren sea beds, there is life in the deep sea. Dr Brugler jokingly described the deep seas as 'Dr Seuss Land'- the sort of biome which houses ten foot-tall corkscrews.

The next topic of the lecture was the means by which humans explore the depths. Dr Brugler began with a question, "Should we phase out human occupied vehicles like Alvin?" Human-occupied vehicles cost about $45,000 per day to operate, while remote-operated vehicles cost $4,000-$11,000 per day to operate. ROVs can stay down longer and collect more specimens. The deepest region of the ocean, the Marianas Trench reaches a depth of perhaps eleven-thousand meters at its deepest area, the Challenger Deep. Seventy-percent of the Earth's surface is covered by the oceans, sixty-five percent by the deep seas- the deep ocean is Earth's largest environment. Dr Brugler gave us a quick overview of the bottom topography of the oceans- the continental shelves border the continents, then the continental slope reaches a depth of about two-hundred meters. Beyond the continental slope, the seabed abounds in trenches, canyons, seamounts, and spreading areas.

In 1934, William Beebe and Otis Barton descended to a depth of more than 900 meters in a bathysphere until the water pressure caused the airhose to collapse, necessitating a hasty retreat to the surface. In 1960, the crew of the bathyscaphe Trieste descended to a depth of about nine-thousand meters when their plexiglass window cracked, necessitating a hasty retreat to the surface (I sense a trend here).

Dr Brugler then described shipping out on the icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer to the Drake Passage between southern South America and Antarctica in order to obtain deep sea specimens- only one sample had been obtained in the region by Russian scientists. Dr Brugler described the area, with its strong currents and multiple seamounts as the 'washing machine of the ocean'. He noted that if one were to fall overboard into the cold waters of the 'Passage, one would die in five minutes, which basically translates into 'you die'. The seas are high, with rogue waves of ten meters in height. Ice chunks in the water can snap chains meant to secure equipment on deck. Deckhands have to work in rotating teams, because frostbite can set in in five minutes. The water freezes into pancake ice, then can form small icebergs. Dr Brugler recounted tales of cetaceans following the icebreaker while 'pterodactyl-like' wandering albatrosses fly overhead. On the pack ice, clueless chinstrap penguins try to flee the unfamiliar humans, and are set into a panic by two stupid individuals which attempt to 'toboggan' on their bellies... uphill.

Despite the difficulties, there are rewards- the team obtained some deep sea glass sponges- Euplectella aspergillum, known as the Venus' flower basket because each sponge houses a mated pair of shrimp.

In the depths of the ocean, hydrothermal vents provide homes for such creatures as the newly-discovered Relicanthus daphneae, a hexacorallian which, through convergent evolution, appears like a giant (meter wide polyp, three meter tentacles) sea anemone... DNA sequencing indicated that this organism doesn't place with other anemones. Other hydrothermal vents seem to be monospecific environments, housing only crabs, only anemones, or only basket sponges.

Dr Brugler then introduced the audience to Alvin, a famed submersible paired with the research vessel Atlantis. He gave us a stem-to-stern description of the submersible- the outside houses electrical equipment, batteries, cameras; the crew compartment is a six-foot diameter sphere which is designed to accommodate three persons (the good doctor is 6'4", so he's a bit cramped)- one driver and two observers. Also inside the sphere are twelve oxygen tanks and two carbon dioxide scrubbers. There's no heater, and the sphere gets cold, so the crew members need to pack a bag of extra clothes. Crew members cannot wear metal accoutrements- while titanium is strong, it is soft, and scratches are a no-no. The Alvin was recently overhauled, and now has five cameras to replace the original three cameras. Additional portholes were added to the sphere, and it is more ergonomically friendly. Often paired with Alvin is the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Sentry- Dr Brugler joked that Sentry 'mows the lawn', taking photos and scouting out the scene before Alvin goes down. Dr Brugler treated us to lovely images of the New England and Corner Rise Seamounts (PDF), chains of seamounts characterized by numerous canyons. A ferromanganese(Fe-Mn) crust overlays a basalt substrate, and corals thrive on it. Dr Brugler cited the work of the University of Rhode Island's Inner Space Center in deep sea exploration.

We were then given a quick 'tour' of the seabed- seamounts are undersea mountains of volcanic origin, the mid-ocean ridges are areas of increased water flow beneficial to life, methane seeps give off plumes of methane which feed communities of micro-organisms, deep sea brine pools are hypersaline pools on the seabed which are denser that surrounding waters- they even have their own 'waves' as they interact with surrounding waters. In 1977, hydrothermal vents were discovered along the Galápagos Rift, home to giant tube worms with bright-red hemoglobin-rich plumes (most worms use copper-based hemocyanin for oxygen transport). Also found near the vents were large mussels and snot-like bacterial mats. Certain bacteria are methane-fixing. Among the chordates thriving in the deep are the sharklike chimaerae.

Dr Brugler then introduced us to a dazzling array of Remote Operated Vehicles- the Pisces IV and V, the Herculesand Argus. Dr Brugler noted that if any audience members liked playing on the XBOX, they should become ROV operators so they could explore the Manning Seamount. Dr Brugler then noted that deep sea exploration is hit-or-miss. Sometimes, hours are spent looking for something, but nothing is found... at a cost of $45,000. Conversely, sometimes a crew will discover a wealth of information.

All the while, Dr Brugler was showing slides of the gorgeous organisms found in the depths, such as the 'bubblegum coral', Paragorgia arborea, which can attain lengths of six meters, and the black coral Leiopathes, which grows micrometers per year, but which can attain 4,265 years of age. While deep sea corals do not form large reefs, the coral Lophelia pertusa forms deep-water reefs off the coast of Ireland and Florida. The big reefs are in the shallows, Dr Brugler noted, but there are singletons in the deep sea. Sea spiders, pycnogonids, feed on corals with a proboscis. Seastars often feed on fallen coral, but avoid the upright corals. Taller corals provide access to greater water flow for worms, crabs, and brittle stars. Some of the larger polychaete worms can attain lengths in excess of a meter. Other organisms lay egg masses on corals- recently, eggs of the Dumbo octopus were found on a coral- one egg hatched in captivity, but the low-pressure conditions led to the death of the octopus shortly after hatching.

Dr Brugler stressed the importance of public outreach- black corals are harvested for jewelry and illegally traded. It is difficult to identify black corals... the Department of Justice collaborates with the Smithsonian and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Sevices, confiscating suspected corals and having them identify biological materials. Dr Brugler recounted having a couple of Feds oversee him while he was attempting to identify a coral item. He displayed a picture of a gaudy bauble made of gold, red coral, and black pearl. One a more hopeful note, deep sea bamboo corals can possibly be used as living bone implants. The Revlon cosmetics company uses an extract from the 'sea whip' Pseudopterogorgia elisabethae in makeup for its anti-inflammatory properties.

Dr Brugler then discussed the effects of global warming and ocean acidification on corals- certain corals, exposed to conditions of high acidity, can stop forming skeletons and take on the appearance of sea anemones (a topic also addressed in Dr David Gruber's July 2014 SSC lecture). Will our kids have coral reefs? When the pH is moved by a factor of .3, the corals adapt to take on their anemone-like forms, the current shift in pH is .1. When acidification ceases, the corals resume forming skeletons.

Dr Brugler then touched on the topic of genome sequencing. He noted that the genetics of leeches are being studied in order to determine medicinal uses for leech anticoagulants (one cannot work in the Department of Invertebrate Biology at AMNH without dealing with the Leech Guy). The DNA sequence of bedbugs is being determined in order to develop better pesticides. DNA sequencing is becoming faster and cheaper, DNA sequencing equipment is getting smaller, and sequencing can be done in real time in the field.

Dr Brugler left off the lecture with a quote from author C.P. Idyll: "It was once considered absurd to expect life to exist in the deep sea- cold, perpetually dark, and subject to crushing pressures."

The lecture was followed with a Q&A session, as always. One individual in the audience asked about the evolution of deep sea corals- it is generally thought that shallow corals invaded the deep sea, rather than vice-versa. Another individual asked about the mechanisms by which animals survive when the pickings are so slim in the deeps- Dr Brugler suggested lipid storage as the best mechanism for long-term survival. Some bastard in the audience asked if different hydrothermal vent communities were compared genetically with each other- how much connectivity is there in the deep sea. Dr Brugler likened hydrothermal vents to evolutionary stepping stones- rich oases of life, but noted that corals evolve very slowly, their changes in DNA tend to occur one-hundred times slower than typical invertebrates (chalk a lot of that up to asexual reproduction). Asked what he wants most to know, Dr Brugler stated that he wants to know what is in the deep trenches (some bastard in the audience, perhaps fed up with this year's presidential election, joked that maybe Cthulhu could be found). When asked about the Hudson Canyon, Dr Brugler expressed a hope that there would be a DIY ROV movement, with hobbyists building there own submersibles to explore the waters around NYC- he noted that this would be a great way to monitor invasive species. When asked what the greatest threat to the oceans was, Dr Brugler stated unequivocally that it was carbon dioxide emissions.

After the Q&A session, Dr Brugler gave a coda to his lecture, describing his roundabout route to his doctorate. As a child in Texas, he was introduced to SCUBA diving by his father, but his diving was limited to lakes with low visibility. He attended University of Miami, Florida as an undergrad and applied to a masters program at the University of Charleston, where he was accepted by mistake. After an initial confusion about his status, he was told to sequence the DNA of black coral, and things smoothed out for him... because of this unorthodox start, he decided that his life goal (which is totally awesome) would be to ensure that no high school or college student who want for experience to pursue the goal of studying what they want to.

This particular lecture hit what I've come to call the 'Secret Science Sweet Spot'- it was a great blend of hard science, adventure narrative, gorgeous visuals, and advocacy. Put succinctly, Dr Brugler hit it out of the park. Kudos to Dr Brugler, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. High fives all around.

After the lecture, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Brugler and two of his grad students, both young women of Latin heritage. The good doctor takes his goal of STEM diversity seriously. Also in the audience was SSC lecturer Dr Simon Garnier, who has been a regular audience member. One of the other regulars outed me as a blogger... it's kinda odd to come out and tell people you're a blogger, and I'm not big on self-promotion. He read my recap of his lecture and didn't hit me with a shoe afterward. Sorry, Monsieur Docteur, I should have told you earlier... Dr Frans De Waal sussed me out on his own. Dr Garnier was accompanied by a couple of his grad students- as a big nerd, I have to say that it's a lot of fun to be able to geek out on Atta in a bar, and to hear anecdotes about one's homework being eaten by army ants. Good times! This is what the Secret Science Club is all about.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mr Sulu, Set Your Phaser on 'Burn'

Longtime readers of mine will know that I am a big fan of George Takei. I liked him in the original Star Trek, I respect his record as a fighter for civil rights, and I like his hilarious takedows, takeidowns if you will, of bigots and fools. George's latest 'burn' is a dig at Donald Trump, and boy is it a scorcher:

George doesn't suffer fools lightly, and he can deploy a thermonuclear snark-attack. I've written before that President Obama should award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to George Takei and Nichelle Nichols for their human rights work and their contributions to American culture. President Obama is a 'Trek' fan, possibly a Vulcan- awarding George and Nichelle the PMoF would enrage a lot of right-wingers, and the President doesn't owe those idiots a damn thing.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Terrorist's Blast, or a Dope's Dud?

The big local story this weekend was the explosion of a bomb in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood yesterday. I was firmly ensconced in the suburbs, attending the wedding of two longtime friends, and then working an overnight shift at a site I don't typically work... I was pretty much out of the loop as far as the news was concerned, and I was so worn out that I slept until well after 2PM, sleeping through one alarm, but having set a backup alarm in case I was comatose.

I am familiar with the neighborhood in which the blast took place, but not as familiar with it as this guy. The odd thing about this bombing is the placement of the device- anyone aiming for mass casualties would have placed the device in a more trafficked area, such as Times Square. This particular incident is more reminiscent of the placement of a homemade bomb in Central Park, which injured a visitor's leg to the extent that it had to be amputated below the knee. In the case of this new bombing, all 29 victims have already been released from the hospital, not that Gary Johnson knew that they were hospitalized at all:

My instinct is that this incident was rooted in malicious mischief, rather than terrorism. Lately, a lot of, as security experts would describe it, dumb shit has been occurring in Manhattan, notably a series of cigarette lighter attacks on women in Midtown. Thankfully, this current incident didn't kill anyone. I think it'll be blown out of proportion- already the dumpster fire is citing the dumpster bomb as a reason to 'get very tough'. I'd prefer that we get very smart, it's the best way to combat dumbassery.

UPDATE: Listening to the news coverage of the suspect's apprehension, it seems like he's a terrorist and a dumbass. Thankfully, his career of evil was cut short by his incompetence. Meanwhile, the heroes in the case were a pair of luggage thieves and a barman- of the three, the barman has an honorable profession, but high fives go to all three.