BAH (not humbug)

Fake news and fake science is all the rage now, but I’ve been a fan since college when my mother, the research librarian, introduced me to the Journal of Irreproducible Results, a parody scientific journal. It published papers on absurd scientific theories, backed up with equally absurd and surprisingly detailed research, observation, and ‘facts.’ A quick google search tells me that the JIR was founded in Israel in 1955. I’m not sure it still exists; there is a JIR website, though I can’t tell how up-to-date it is. A former JIR editor founded the Annals of Improbable Research in 1995 which does appear to have a current website and publication schedule, and is the sponsor of the Ig Nobel award, a parody of the Nobel Prize. More well-known, perhaps, are the Darwin Awards, given out to people who remove themselves from the gene pool to the betterment of the future of the human race.

Nowadays, when I read fake news I tend to laugh only to keep myself from crying, so imagine how I leapt at the opportunity to attend BAHfest, the festival of Bad Ad hoc Hypotheses where I could laugh for the sake of genuine ‘scientific’ humor.

BAHfest is the brainchild of Zack Weinersmith, best known for writing the webcomic SMBC (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal). Last Saturday, the husband, D#2, the Significant Other (SO), and I went to BAHfest Houston on the campus of Rice University. (There are numerous BAHfests held in different locations worldwide.) None of us were quite sure what to expect; we were all prepared to end the evening saying either, “that was nice, glad I did it once,” or “I’m putting it on the calendar for next year.”

Below is a quick rundown of and highlights from the evening.

The keynote, Ron DenBleyker, addressed how the biggest problem with a space elevator will not be whether it can be built, but rather space elevator small-talk.

Nick Keiser posited that humans evolved bipedalism in order to juggle. When questioned by the judges as to how this might relate to dinosaurs who walked on two legs, Nick replied that paleontologists have unearthed what they claim to be nests with broken eggs indicating hatched dinosaurs… and he let the audience laughter finish his thought.

Social media can replace the current scientific peer review system according to Thomas Clements. Papers can be vetted simply by the quantity and duration of comments that a paper receives on twitter. As an added benefit, scientists will then be able to claim that the time they spend on social media is actually useful.

There was a bit of a dark theme to the evening, starting with Patrick Clay talking about the spread of disease. When good, happy people get sick, they tend to hide out at home until they recover. When mean, angry people get sick, they go forth and become super-spreaders, seeking contact with as many others as possible, the old misery-loves-company theory. The theory was good, but his solution of rounding them all up and sending them to Norway seemed unlikely to halt the next pandemic.

Rae Holcomb somehow compared a galaxy to the internet. Complete with photos that showed how they look almost alike…if you look at them from far enough away. Not finding evidence of life in a system as complex as the Milky Way is akin to not finding anything of value on a system of information as complex as the internet. In conclusion, complex systems all eventually fail and we are doomed. Even the judges were cowed by that one and had no followup questions.

The eventual winner of the evening was Habeen Chang who presented a very compelling argument in favor of replacing the quantum computing unit of qubits with units of ex- boyfriends and girlfriends called quexes because of the near infinite amount of meanings that can be contained in any given phrase of conservation. He clearly had the best, deadpan delivery, including starting his talk with “you all know about quantum physics so we can just skip over that part.”

The final presenter was Claire McWhite who studied what words can be found encoded in our genes. DNA, RNA, and proteins are denoted by series of letters. At the DNA level, it’s pretty much all CATs, but the more complex human proteins contain many more sad and negative words than happy and positive words. She hypothesized that this is why humans tend toward being miserable. Possibly because I was primed after a whole evening of fun, but this talk had me crying with laughter.

It was unanimous, the four of us are putting the next BAHfest Houston on our calendar, whenever and wherever it is. And we’re planning to spread the word to other folks who we know would enjoy an evening of laughing at good, bad science.

One last note. The JIR used to occasionally have contests for its readers. One was to write a limerick that contained the word “irreproducible” at the end of a line (necessitating writing a rhyme for it.) Here is my entry, which won honorable mention:

Old Bossy, she tried to seduce a bull.
No luck, but the fact was deducible,
That the bull she held dear
Was really a steer
That the farmer made irreproducible.

I claim my 15 minutes of fame anywhere I can get it.

Inked Up

Those, my friends, are pictures of my left ankle.

Bucket list item achieved. You’re never too old. Just do it. Be yourself. Why not?

Last weekend I went to the Star of Texas Tattoo Art Revival in Austin with D#2 and her “aggressively supportive” girl gang. Attending a tattoo convention was NOT on my bucket list, but it was a really fun day. I felt much less out of place than I had expected. It was really a convention for the tattoo artists – almost 400 of them from around the country (and a few from other countries) – with contests and social get-togethers and entertainment, but it is open to the public to admire the work displayed in portfolios, to admire the work displayed on people, and/or to actually get tattooed.

It wasn’t unlike walking thru an art museum, quietly commenting about things I really like, silently raising eyebrows at or swiftly passing by those things that didn’t appeal to me. Snark was kept to a minimum because 1) the artists were right there and 2) it was such a non-judgmental atmosphere. No one looked askance at me even though I was clearly one of the older attendees, and observation, even gawking, was encouraged for the art that was being worn and being created. And let me make very clear that I have no hesitation in calling these people artists – their talent is truly noteworthy, whether or not it appeals to me personally.

The people watching and eavesdropping was A-plus. Some people carefully choose tattoos with special meaning. Some people choose tattoos like they would choose a painting for the wall of their home. Some people collect tattoos like souvenirs.

My tattoo? Oh yeah, carefully chosen with special meaning. Pretty much anything I do comes with a story, ofttimes much to the dismay of those near and dear to me. If I was a better story teller, they might not cringe so much when I feel a need to give a presentation with every present given or recount the backstory behind every purchase made.

Flash back to when D#2 was in high school and exclaimed that she wanted to get a tattoo. I counter-exclaimed, “me too, let’s get them together!” It wasn’t actually reverse psychology, I did sort of like the idea of a tattoo, but she went off to college and, very justifiably, didn’t wait on me.

Flash back not quite that far to when a friend got her first tattoo. She is a children’s librarian and her tattoo has a children’s book theme, perfect for her. It got me thinking more seriously about what the perfect tattoo for me would be…

Flash back to when I was in high school. The summer after graduation I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden which remains my favorite book of all time. A key component of the book is the story of Cain and Abel, both literally and figuratively, and if evil is pure, inherent, and inescapable, or if it is something that can be overcome. “Timshel” is a Hebrew word that has been biblically translated with subtle differences, but at its most hopeful (at least for Cain) means “you may.” It is also the final word of East of Eden and has remained with me for 40 years.

Flash back not quite so far to when the daughters were regulars at summer camp. Each year they would bring me back a friendship string made from embroidery floss that they tied/braided for me and which I would dutifully tie around my ankle. But here’s the thing…I loved those anklets. They were bright and they stayed with me, I would wear them until they frayed thru and fell off. They reminded me of the daughters and for a woman who shuns cosmetics and just plain forgets to wear jewelry, they were a simple adornment that made me feel special. Ever since, anklets have been my favorite adornment, though it has not always been easy to find ones that I can just leave on all the time.

I was finally able to put the whole story together. The tattoo I wanted was an anklet, in the shape of a vine to express my love of nature, and somehow incorporating the word “timshel.” It took D#2 to actually make it happen, to invite me to the convention and encourage me to find an artist to make my simple vision a reality. And a pact made when she was in high school was finally fulfilled when she got her own version of a timshel tattoo at the convention.

My tattoo is just another story, just another part of who I am.

Strange bedfellows indeed

Politics makes strange bedfellows. Here’s the origin of that term from

Baseball just brought together at least 750,000 people in Houston, and not because of misery.

My beloved 2017 World Series Champions have been all over the place. Even you non-Houstonians might have caught a glimpse of them on The Tonight Show or SNL. We’ve also seen news coverage of them at Texans and Rockets games and celebrating at Disney World. Everyone has seen the marriage proposal (Correa) and none of us were invited to the Tuscany wedding (Verlander), though they did release a picture or two of the happy couple.

Last Friday, I was with all of them. (Except for the one who was already on his way to Italy.) I couldn’t resist joining the crush of Astros fans for the downtown parade and celebration. I didn’t have much of a view of any of it, but it was still fun to people watch and cheer and just be there.

After the parade, the official rally took place on the steps of City Hall. All any of us wanted to do was cheer the team, but first they had to introduce all the politicians in attendance. Mayor Sylvester Turner: rousing applause. Gov. Greg Abbott: smattering of applause. Lt Gov Dan Patrick (whose legislative priority is the ‘bathroom bill’): roundly booed. Sen Ted Cruz: more robust booing. County Judge Ed Emmett (top Harris County official) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (queen of the photo op): smattering of applause. I didn’t realize that I had so much in common with my fellow Astros fans. Sports and politics, strange bedfellows indeed.



Well I never…

File this under things I never thought I’d say.

I am going to a World Series game today.

I am a sports fan in general, but baseball has always been my true love. I know I’ve talked about it in posts here on tftb in the past. It is a connection to my youth and to older generations in my family. It is my comfort sport. It was my constant companion during a long recovery after an accident when I was in middle school. It is the subject of some of my favorite books, movies, songs, and TV documentaries. I have trouble deciding if baseball provides the metaphors for life, or if life provides the metaphors for baseball.

Going to a World Series game has never even made my bucket list. Because going to any old World Series game wouldn’t be all that special. But this year, MY team is in the World Series. The ASTROS have Earned History and made it into the October classic.

I don’t know how it’s all going to end up. As I type this, the dodgers and the ASTROS are tied 1-1 heading into a 3-game stretch here in Houston. I’ll be elated if the ASTROS win it all, but only mildly disappointed if they don’t. What a ride, what a season, what an incredible bunch of human beings make up this team, from the players to the management to the broadcasters. As I told D#1, I think this team has finally supplanted the Cubbies of my youth as the #1 team in my heart. Yes, I can still recite the lineup of those loveable loser Cubs, but these ASTROS players will be loved and cheered by me, wherever their careers and lives take them.

I am going to a World Series game today.

And for it all to be happening this year, of all years – it’s enough to make anyone believe in the baseball gods. Harvey took a heavy toll on Houston this fall. For some it was a heavy physical and financial toll. For the lucky of us, it was just an emotional toll. But everyday I walk the dog and feel the same pit in my stomach as I see the streets of empty, gutted houses. They’ve announced where all the blockades are going up on Halloween to keeps trick-or-treaters and ne’er-do-wells out of the uninhabited 70% of our neighborhood. The ASTROS were out-of-town when Harvey hit, and an additional series was moved to a neutral site before it was feasible for them to play at home, about a week after Harvey made landfall. We bought tickets and went to that first game back. I sat there and cried during the pregame. I cried again when George Springer hit a home run and pounded the “HoustonStrong” patch that had been added to their uniforms as he ran from third to home. It was, once again, the great baseball-life metaphor. Life would go on, full of good things and normal things and, sometimes, bad things. People will come together and laugh and cry and celebrate together. Yes, it always eventually ends, but for most of us, there’s always next year and we live to play another day.

I am going to a World Series game today.

“Let’s play two!” is my fondest baseball quote of all-time by  Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. It’s a beautiful weekend for baseball in Houston, let’s see two! We have tickets to tomorrow’s game, also, and we are letting the daughters have our tickets. They have caught that lifetime affliction known as baseball fever from their mother and I can’t think of any experience I would rather give them. There is no cure for this disease and I’m pretty sure this will make the fever stronger. The husband had been exposed in childhood, but caught the fever from me early in our marriage and it has become our shared summertime passion and hobby. So, to be truthful…

We are going to a World Series game today.

I was born and raised in Chicagoland. Houston is my adopted home town and the ASTROS are my adopted home team, but after 33 years, there is no longer any question where I belong or what baseball team belongs to me. I can’t get enough of my beloved ASTROS. I’ve been eating up the media coverage of this team ever since that improbable Sports Illustrated cover from 3 years ago predicting that the 2017 ASTROS would win it all. Most of you don’t care that much, I get it. But if you’ll tolerate only one story about the ASTROS and Houston, read this one from SBNation. I really, really, really hope they win it all this year, but if they don’t…well (read the article.)

It’s time to post this blog for soon I will head to the bus stop, wearing orange with a ticket in my pocket and a scorebook in my hand. There’s a familiar refrain that keeps running thru my mind today. It’s the mantra of every baseball fan on every Opening Day in April. But I’m an ASTROS fan and it’s October and I am still believing that THIS COULD BE THE YEAR WE WIN IT ALL.

I am going to a World Series game today. GO ‘STROS!

One in 122

One in every 122 people on earth is a refugee. Let that sink in. Some are displaced within their home countries and some are seeking asylum across borders.

Last week I went to see REFUGEE, a traveling photo exhibit by the Annenberg Foundation that was sponsored in Houston by Fotofest International. The Annenberg Space for Photography commissioned five internationally acclaimed photographers to capture the refugee experience on five different continents. It was stunning. The link above will take you to the official website of the exhibit and some of the photographs.

I’ve been hesitating to write this post because, well after all, a picture is worth 1000 words so how can I possibly describe what was contained in this photo exhibit in a 600 word post? I only took a couple of photos of the photos because it seemed weird and probably frowned upon.

Lynsey Addario photographed the Rohingya of Myanmar. Discriminated against because they are Muslims in a Buddhist state, many are forced to live in camps within Myanmar where they don’t have access to education, medical care, or legal jobs. The photographs highlighted the difficult conditions and suffering in the camps.

She also photographed a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon, focusing on the life of 12-yr old Hana. Here is a picture of Hana riding to work at dawn to pick cucumbers. The photos depict a fairly ordinary seeming life, but Hana and the others are always aware that they are not really home.

Omar Victor Diop photographed portraits of refugees in camps in Cameroon. More than 850,000 residents of the Central African Republic, nearly one-fifth of the country’s population, are displaced both inside and outside the country due to power struggles between Christian and Muslims. If refugees were able to make it to the camps in Cameroon or other neighboring countries, they were able to find medical care, food, and shelter. The portraits (and their captions) revealed proud, strong men and women who were looking forward to building new lives and providing for their families. Although this section of the exhibit highlighted the future and the potential for these refugees, they have all lost so very much.

Graciela Iturbide photographed life inside the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space in Columbia. It is a safe zone created by 302 families trying to stand up to violent gangs. The drug trade in Central and South America has made life difficult and dangerous. Certainly we hear about people fleeing these areas and seeking asylum in the US, but imagine the other option of having to live within a compound in your city just to feel safe. How valuable is freedom?

Martin Schoeller took portraits of refugees resettled in the US in 2015. These extreme close-ups remind us of how much more alike we all are than unalike.

Tom Stoddardt documented the refugee crisis in Europe with photographs from the shores of Greece to the streets of Berlin. Mostly Syrians, but also refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia and Nigeria are all fleeing from armed conflicts in their home countries. His photo of the piles of life jackets and the realization that each one represents a person fleeing one life for another is the one non-human image that has really stuck with me.

There were two other series of photos in the exhibit, I apologize that I did not get the photographer’s names. One was a series of photos of Sudanese refugees showing the most important item that they brought with them.

The other was a series of photos from the town of Rigonce, Slovenia. Within a 10-day period, more than 70,000 refugees passed through this town of 176 residents on their way from Greece to Germany and Austria – an unusual route that they were forced to take when Hungary abruptly closed its border with Serbia on October 17, 2015. Here photos of the refugees were mounted side-by-side with the people of the town.

I know this post doesn’t do justice to the exhibit, but there’s a short film that comes close. I sat and watched it at the exhibit, but it is also available on Netflix. There’s a short preview of it on the website linked to above. It’s called REFUGEE and is narrated by Cate Blanchett. Personally, I don’t even know how to watch something on Netflix, but I’m confident all of you do. Next time you’re trying to decide what to watch, invest 23 minutes on REFUGEE.