Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Poke, Poisonous Poke

In his latest post, Thunder has a great picture of a northern mockingbird (Mimus dorsalis) perched on a pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) bush. Pokeweed is an interesting plant, it is toxic to mammals, but nevertheless, it is commonly eaten in certain parts of the country. This just goes to show you the ends to which poor people will go in order to survive. I'm an avid forager, but I tend to leave pokeweed alone. That being said, even the humble red kidney (Phaseolus vulgaris) bean contains dangerous toxins which must be destroyed by cooking... always boil your beans, folks, don't just throw them in a slow-cooker. Some of my favorite wild food plants (I'm looking at YOU, wood sorrel) contain oxalic acid and should be eaten sparingly. One of these days, I just might overcome my poke hesitancy, but I'll be sure to keep in mind the adage 'the dose makes the poison' if I do so.

In the meantime, I've gone over the archives and noticed a glaring omission... the only time I've ever mentioned the great song 'Polk Salad Annie', by Tony Joe White, was in a post about the late, great Dr Nazar Sayegh, who was a family practitioner by day and an Elvis impersonator by night. The last time I saw the good doctor alive, he performed a version of the song. The song has been performed by Elvis Presley:

Tony Joe White has performed it with Johnny Cash:

And with the Foo Fighters:

I prefer the original, with it's sparer arrangement:

I love the blackly comic nature of the song, especially the bit about Annie's "wretched, spiteful, straight-razor totin' woman" of a mother. Now, that's the kind of individual who could thrive on a poisonous weed!

EDIT: Finally fixed those embeds... maybe I shouldn't smoke pokeweed before posting!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Yonkers, Beautiful Yonkers

Last Monday, it being my day off, I decided to visit the beautiful Untermyer Gardens in Northwest Yonkers. It's been a while since last I was there. The heart of the park is its classical Persian style walled garden:

The interior garden is a peaceful, gorgeous sanctuary watched over by a pair of sphinxes:

No riddles need be solved by visitors, though I'm pretty well versed in that form of gamesmanship. From behind the sphinxes, one can get a nice glimpse of the perfect layout of the gardens:

The pools are home to goldfish of various sizes, as well as some lovely water lillies:

The setting of the park is as magnificent as the gardens... one has wonderful views of the mighty Hudson:

The view from the bottom of the stairs is only missing a determined local boxer to make it complete:

Since last I was here, a fence has been put up, separating the Croton Aqueduct Trail from the park:

On the way out, I visited the fanciful Temple of Love, which features a gazebo, but not a dread gazebo:

While wandering through the park, I had a conversation with some really nice kids who were enjoying a late summer afternoon... one boy brought up the not-so-good old days of the park. I remember coming to the park when I was in high school, and it was genuinely creepy. The creepy vibe is really captured well in this website... while I don't believe in ghosts, I can vouch for the presence of the outré graffiti scrawled on the walls. Part of me thinks that the creepy vibe of the park at its nadir only enhances its original and current magnificence. It's one of the jewels in the crown of Yonkers, beautiful Yonkers.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Adequate Labelling

In a comment on my last post, mikey questioned the use of the euphemism 'alt-right':

Frankly, I'm not terribly comforatble with the 'alt right' euphamism. It helps them cement a kind of mainstream acceptance as just a faction of the American conservative 'right'. They love the title because it lets them participate, where 'White Nationalist' or even 'White Supremacist' would exclude them from the mainstream political discussion - as it has for decades.

Merely the fact that they couple their racism with a more coherent - though even more toxic - construct that includes a vicious misogyny and a strong bent towards tribal violence shouldn't allow them to re-brand themselves as something that belongs in American discourse.

I know - I've already lost this argument. But I'm going to continue to use terms like White Nationalist to describe them, because they shouldn't get that kind of ideological cover...

Nasreen agreed:

I agree with Mikey. Nazis shouldn't get cute nicknames.

I think the real problem is that these fuckers are such 'broad spectrum' bigots that one cannot simply walk into Mordor point out one aspect of their bigoted agenda. Play up the white supremacism, you might not adequately describe their misogyny, call out their misogyny, you might not adequately describe their anti-semitism...

What would be an adequate-yet-succinct descriptor for these creeps? Would 'Broad Spectrum Bigot' be a good, short label? How about 'Bigots Resisting Open Society', or B.R.O.S.? Alt-right is a bit twee, it conjures up the term alt-country, a music genre I like quite a bit. How should we encompass the totality of the horribleness of this movement?

Friday, August 26, 2016

Gotta Clean out the Auditory Canals

A couple of days ago, I made the mistake of listening to a new alt-right anthem, much to my dismay. In order to clean out my auditory nerves, I decided that a Gang of Four listening binge was in order. While in the midst of this binge, I found a great cover of Damaged Goods by a Chinese punk band:

Gotta love the bassist, she totally has that badass Dee Dee Ramone stance down pat, and she even has the same 'do as Dee Dee did. Finding this video almost makes listening to that horrible alt-right drivel worth it... but then I realize that, being a huge Gang of Four fan, I probably would have found it anyway.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Happy Centennial, National Park Service

I've been all over the place this week as far as the tone of my posts goes. Today, though, I'm posting something happy- the National Park Service turned one-hundred years old. Back when government was seen as a good thing, and government competence was embraced, large tracts of land with ecological or historic significance were set aside for the good of the public. These natural wonders weren't walled off to become plutocrats' playgrounds or corporate profit centers. Some things are too sacred to be owned by any one person, family, or company.

Back in 1993, I took two separate cross-country road trips, visiting various national parks on both occasions. We not only hit popular parks such as Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns, the Devil's Tower, and the Grand Canyon, but less developed parks such as Death Valley, the Petrified Forest, the Guadelupe Mountains, and (perhaps my favorite) Big Bend. Sadly, when we were in the area, Yosemite was inaccessible due to the amount of snow on the roads (Gullyfornya used to have snow back then).

The memories I have of the time we spent camping in the parks are precious... Drinking beer in the evening as a herd of javelinas overran the campsite, hiking through a shallow alkali pond at the bottom of Badwater Basin, watching the silhouette of the Devil's Tower become distinct as our eyes adjusted to the predawn darkness- those are adventures I will never forget.

While I haven't been 'out west' in a long time, I still make a habit out of visiting National Parks, such as the Gettysburg battle site, Grant's Tomb, and Ellis Island. These parks and monuments are something I will always value, because they are priceless. The very existence of the National Park Service is a testimony to the importance of good governance. Of course, there are libertarian cranks who wish to privatize the NPS, precisely because these areas are beyond compare. We can't let that such a theft happen, these natural wonders must be held in the public interest.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Che Orrore! Che Tristezza!

Today has been a bit of a downer- the earthquake which hit eastern Lazio, in Italy, and pretty much destroyed the village of Amatrice is upsetting. Those old buildings weren't designed to be earthquake resistant, which explains the extent of the destruction. The timing of the earthquake, after 3AM, was really bad- the poor sleeping victims of the quake were sitting ducks.

While I've never visited Amatrice, I have been to similar small villages in Italy, tiny towns where all the residents know each other, where turisti on the passeggiata stand out, but are taken in, and shown a hospitality that is second to none on earth. It's the sort of place celebrated in song, a place similar to the village which formed the values instilled in meby il nonno mio, my dad's dad, whose parents grew up in a town not dissimilar from Amatrice in most respects. The fact that the very beauty of the place, the quaint, antique architecture and the dramatic tectonics-produced mountain geography, combined to up the casualty count, is particularly horrific.

Il cuore mio is with the people of eastern Lazio and western Abruzzo tonight, and I need to send something to the NIAF for the relief effort. Bad as it was, the timing of the earthquake could have been even worse- a major pasta festival was scheduled for the coming weekend, which would have resulted in a large influx of visitors. In the meantime, I need to make myself some bucatina all'Amatriciana for dinner tomorrow, it's hard to grieve on an empty stomach.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Myanmar was also hit by an earthquake today- it's a part of the world that is often forgotten, but I'm not the kind of guy who likes to think that his admitted Western biases go unexamined.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


A few years back, a study suggested that conservatives have larger amygdalae than liberals. The amygdala is involved in fear responses, suggesting that conservatives suffer from anxiety more than liberals do (they are also "carriers" of anxiety).

With the rise of Donald Trump as the new GOP standard bearer, I am starting to believe that conservatives have different brain chemistry as well, with their primary neurotransmitter being dope-and-mean.

Housekeeping note: I composed this post on my phone, and it's acting up when I'm trying to embed one last link... please pretend that I linked to an article about dopamine until I can edit this baby.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Cellar Serpent

People tend not to be 'lukewarm' about snakes, they either hate and fear them or love and cherish them. I am firmly in the latter camp. The idea of killing a snake, unless you are going to eat it, is repugnant to me. I dig the Ophidia.

Yesterday, while in the basement of the building which houses my office, I noticed a diminutive visitor:

This young Dekay's brown snake (Storeria dekayi), not to be confused with Australia's eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis) which is venomous enough to kill Wyoming, was in very unfriendly surroundings- the cool, smooth basement tiles really aren't conducive to the health and happiness of an ectotherm which gets about in a legless fashion.

I was reluctant to pick up the snake, out of fear of harming it (gotta watch that grip strength), so I tried to coax the little thing to climb onto my hand... the snake's impulse was to try to take shelter under my hand. Our brown snakes are known as city snakes, they thrive in an urban environment, even one as congested as New York City, largely because they can shelter under all sorts of debris, including big, meaty hands.

I ended up picking up the snake, as gingerly as I could, and placed it outside in a nearby patch of Pachysandra. Before placing it in its new digs, I hastily snapped a picture, the quality of which is not so great due to my haste and the somewhat poor lighting:

I was careful to place the snake on the other side of the building from this fine critter, I really don't want my new friend getting eaten by one of my old friends.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Dark Horse, or White Horse?

If there's one redeeming feature of Mormons, it's their aversion to threats to religious freedom for adherents of minority faiths, an aversion born while the Mormons were hounded until they migrated to Utah by the dominant cultures of 19th Century America. Distaste for Donald Trump is even jeopardizing the once-reliable Mormon Republican vote. Of course, it must be mentioned that the Mormons did back California's hideous Proposition 8 , and they still tend to vote Republican.

Because of Mormon distaste for Trump, elements of the Never Trump wing of the GOP have put forth cipher Evan McMullin as an alternative candidate. Mullin is pretty much a Dark Horse candidate, pretty much a complete unknown... or is he a White Horse? Mitt Romney failed to be the 'one mighty and strong', could McMullin be the McMulligan, the Mormon hero do-over? Since it's too late for him to gain ballot access in crucial states, McMullin's campaign is a non-starter. No white horse for this dark horse...

McMullin is pretty much a bog-standard establishment Republican, he's just a lot more polished and polite than Vulgarmort. McMullin is the nice, well-scrubbed co-religionist who's been proposed as an alternative in order to keep the rank-and-file Mormon voters from becoming Dem-curious. He's like the 'nice boy' blind date concerned conservative parents set up for their probable-lesbian daughter... "You're not really into voting Democratic, you just haven't met the right candidate yet."

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Let Them Eat Play-Doh

Via Tengrain (I seem to be relying on him for blog-inspiration a lot lately), we have pictures of Donald Trump handing out cases of Play-Doh to survivors of the recent Louisiana floods:

Generally speaking, if you are going to disrupt a relief effort in order to have a photo op, it's best to hand out actual emergency supplies rather than Play-Doh. While Play-Doh is, strictly speaking, edible, it is not a foodstuff and really shouldn't be eaten unless one is in extremis. Maybe Trump thinks it's what the lower classes eat, probably because his fans are a bunch of paste-eaters, but "let them eat Play-Doh" shows a callousness beyond that attributed to Marie-Antoinette, at least she was said to enjoin the peasants to eat real food.

Friday, August 19, 2016

This 'Free Range Children' Movement Has Gone Too Far

A few years back, the whole 'Free-Range Kids' philosophy was all the rage. I can sympathize with the idea, growing up we had a lot of free time- in the summer, we were allowed to play outside until sundown, and our mom would ring a big brass bell to summon us to dinner, which usually lasted until after 10PM. We were ramblers and rough-housers, with parental supervision typically being stringent only in the case of academics. Mom knew she raised us with ethical standards, so she wasn't afraid of us having the run of the neighborhood. That being said, as Tengrain reveals, the free-range kids thing can go too far:

It's a cookbook!!!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Non-binary Competition?

It was with great interest that I read about Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was born intersex. Being a science-nerd, I have to point out that human genetics is a lot more complicated than most individuals think, and that the binary gender model, while applying to most people, is not sufficient to explain the full range of human sexual phenotypes. When one intently researches human genetics, one encounters individuals with XYY genomes, chimerae who have two separate genomes, and intersex individuals of various genetic origin.

My personal feeling is that the binary model of men's and women's athletics may be outdated. Perhaps a competitive model which groups cohorts of competitors by testosterone levels and muscle mass without assigning individuals to a particular gender is the best solution. I don't think, though, that the conservative International Olympic Committee would be willing to do that anytime soon. By not separating competitors into a female/male binary, perhaps coverage of women's athletes wouldn't be so damn sexist.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Company Picnic 2016

Today was the company picnic for the organization that employs me. For a guy who typically works nights, it's a wonderful opportunity to see co-workers I don't see that often. This year, the picnic committee decided on a 'casino' theme- we had a craps table, roulette wheel, and two blackjack tables set up in the main conference room of our headquarters, and gaming professionals to run the games. Everybody received one-thousand 'dollars' worth of play money, which could be redeemed for raffle tickets for prizes. I learned that my boss is quite the craps player... who'd a thunk it?

It was another scorcher of a day, so the lawn games that we usually play didn't receive much attention. In a very funny side attraction, the picnic committee set up what I called the 'junior delinquent games', which on further consideration I would call the 'misspent youth' games. One game was much like 'beer pong'- nine cups of water were set up in a square, and the first competitor to land three of their colored ping pong balls in a row, similar to a 'tic-tac-toe' victory, would win. One of our IT guys is a table tennis whiz, so he did pretty well in this game. I'm a big beer drinker, so I beat a young guy who works in our retail department, though it was a close match. Another of these games involved shooting a triangular stack of empty soda cans with rubber bands, with victory going to the first one to knock down all of the cans. I was up against a diminutive pixie from the development office. I won pretty handily, largely because I used to bull's-eye womp rats in my T-16 back home shoot brown marmorated stink bugs with rubber bands during the great stink bug infestation of 2012. When one of my co-workers noted that smashing the stink bugs releases pheromones which attract more stink bugs, I noted, "That was the point, more targets for the shooting gallery." A good friend of mine used to joke about youthful mischief, "If we weren't so bored, we wouldn't have had so much fun." Paradoxical, no? At any rate, a lot of the women playing the game noted that having nice nails was a disadvantage- the stout rubber bands really weren't conducive to a manicured look.

It was fun getting together with everybody, and a hoot watching co-workers getting into the casino games in an intense fashion. It was a nice way to spend a few hours with co-workers, especially for a guy like me who works nights and weekends. I'm fortunate in working with a great group of people.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Science is Cool, Literally

Today was another scorcher, so I decided to take shelter from the heat in the American Museum of Natural History. In the interest of full disclosure, my primary reason for heading down to the museum was the imminent closing of the Secret World Inside You exhibit. I parked in the Bronx and took the 1 train down to 79th St, sharing the subway ride down with some revelers heading to the Dominican Day parade, felicidades, mis amigos Dominicanos.

The museum was a cool respite from the scorching environment of Manhattan, and I proceeded up to the third floor for the exhibit, previewed in this video:

The exhibit started with the topic Meet Your Microbiome, which featured a video presentation by Dr Martin Blaser, who delivered two lectures with the Secret Science Club.

The basic gist of the exhibit was that 99% of the genes in your body aren't yours, they belong to the microbes which inhabit your body. While these microbes sometimes cause illness, most of them are harmless fellow travelers and some of them are necessary for proper health. Even the harmless bacteria provide some benefits, as they crowd out hostile microbes, such as the fungi which cause athlete's foot.

The exhibit was broken down into sections detailing the various biomes of the body, the introduction to the skin's biome being a nice bit of poetic language expressing scientific truth:

Your skin is the largest organ of your body. In an average adult, this protective layer covers some 20 square feet (1.8 square meters). Think of your skin as a sprawling countryside of hills and valleys, cracks and crevices, smooth slopes and rough terrain. Some parts are cool and dry, others warm and humid, and still others oily or forested with hair. Many species of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes call this landscape home.

There was a display about microbial transfer, with an amusing report of roller derby players having more similar microbiomes after the bruising contact of a match.

Another big part of the exhibit dealt with pregnancy and childbirth- in the womb, a fetus is protected from bacteria and viruses in its amniotic sac, and during natural childbirth, the baby picks up a bit of its mother's microbiome while exiting through the birth canal. Infants born by cesarean-section do not receive this beneficial microbial slathering, so swabbing C-section delivered babies with extracts from mom's birth canal may show some promise in remedying this microbial deficit.

The section of microbes' role in the health of their host was fascinating- there were placards detailing Helicobacter pylori's mixed role in human health (described in some detail in this lecture recap). Another bacterium given accolades is Lactobacillus johnsonii, which may provide hosts with lower rates of asthma and allergies which affect the lungs. Bacteroides fragilis can reduce inflammation in colitis sufferers. One particularly funny display illustrated the use of fecal transplants to aid colitis patients infected with Clostridium difficile:

Yes, I am an overgrown eight year-old.

There was also a really funky model of a macrophage engulfing harmful staphylococci while ignoring useful bacilli and red blood cells:

The caption of the display likened the macrophage to a well-behaved dog, warding off intruders but welcoming to friends. Can you dig it?

Other sections explored other bodily biomes, such as the mouth, with a special focus on the role of acid-producing bacteria in causing tooth decay.

The exhibit featured a lot of interactive displays. One was a game called 'Build your microbiome', which simulated the development of gut bacteria through diet, stressing the importance of probiotics and vegetable matter which provides a lot of nourishment for gut bacteria. One grand interactive exhibit portrayed a woman laying on a table, surrounded by icons which, when touched, would bring up displays of the microbes inhabiting her body, from her hair to the soles of her feet.

The exhibit was really well-done, with a myriad of tiny lights to symbolize the various symbiotic microbes and a lot of buttons to push for inquisitive children. It was a charming exhibit, conveying a topic which is still a bit 'foreign' to a society raised to believe that 'germs' are bad. It was definitely worth heading out of the house in the blistering heat to attend this cool exhibit.

Saturday, August 13, 2016


It's hot as blazes here in the NY metro area- the high was 95F (35C), but with the heat index, it felt like it was about 110F (about 43C). That's almost Midnight Oil hot. Even now, an hour and a half after sundown, it's still 88F (31C). While it's not raining in the immediate vicinity, lightning is dancing to beat the band to the north and south. It's been a sweaty, sticky day, and tomorrow is supposed to be similar.

On our company Facebook Page, one of my co-workers posted a picture of the site in winter with the caption 'eye candy for a heat wave'. Gotta keep cool in these melty days, gotta think cool. How about this image to convey a sense of coolness?

That's my co-worker Ginger literally playing cool, like a refreshing blast of January's chill on beastly, broasty day, a day in which the weather reports are melteorological.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Celestial Fireworks

The big astronomical story of the week is this year's Perseid Meteor Shower, when the Earth makes its annual trip through debris left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle. The cruel joke for the New York Metro Area stargazer is the ubiquitous light pollution. As if that weren't bad enough, we've been in the midst of a heat wave characterized by violent thunderstorms.

Last night, as I drove to work, the sky was lit by numerous lightning strikes, as many as I can ever recall seeing. Heading north on the Parkway, my foremost thought was, "Great, I'm driving into the thick of the storm." The lightning strikes continued throughout much of the night, to the extent that I limited my outdoor activity- if I'm reluctant to go outside, and I'm on the payroll, someone who's not on the payroll isn't going to be jumping the fence to wander around.

This evening, my beloved Yonkers played host to a short but intense thunderstorm. When I left the house for work, the rays of the setting sun shone through the high clouds, suffusing everything with a beautiful, ale-colored light more appropriate for Carina 4269 than for dear old Sol. The camera doesn't quite capture the sheer loveliness of the light conditions:

While the rain had passed by the time I hit the road, I could again see the play of lightning illuminating the clouds to the north. The storms raging to the north weren't great rain events, but there were dangerous lightning strikes about fifty miles up the Hudson.

The storms seem to have moved on, but the sky is still somewhat overcast. I'm hoping that the clouds break, so I can catch a glimpse of the meteor shower, but at any rate, I've had quite the eyeful of celestial fireworks.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Return of a Nobel Winner

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture. This month's lecture featured the triumphant return of physiology/medicine Nobel Prize winner and former director of the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute Dr Harold Varmus, currently with the Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medical College, who delivered a lecture on the first anniversary of the Secret Science Club. For the record, this month marks the tenth anniversary of the Secret Science Club. This lecture was one in the continuing collaboration between the Secret Science Club and the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

Dr Varmus began his lecture by contrasting the current venue with the original venue of the Secret Science Club, the basement performance space of Park Slope's Union Hall, joking that the Secret Science Club really felt like a secret, something almost revolutionary given the contemporaneous occupant of the White House. He stressed the importance of keeping science in the public domain.

Dr Varmus then presented the basic facts about cancer. Cancer is not one disease, many cell types can give rise to unrestricted cell growth which invades other cells. There are many types of cancer- one wouldn't lump all infectious diseases together, so one shouldn't lump all cancers together. Cancers are illnesses of the genome. Some of the genetic risk factors are relatively minor, but other risk factors are closely related to the illness. Genetic changes occur in an individual's lifetime- DNA can be damaged by such factors as smoking or exposure to ultraviolet light. Small or large, changes to DNA can have dramatic results. Cancers are best described as 'too many cells doing bad things in the wrong places'. Different cancers can effect cells differently- some reduce cell function, while some increase function... all to the detriment of the organism.

Cancers become more frequent with age. The approach to fighting cancers must be multi-pronged. Researchers must observe and count cancers in populations. Screening must be performed- cancers must be diagnosed with specificity early on, and classified. Patients must me treated and comforted. Prevention must be attempted to reduce the incidence of cancer. Cancer must be studied in its various forms.

Dr Varmus displayed several graphs comparing the age-adjusted death rates for cancer and heart disease for individuals under the age of 85. He noted that the death rate for cancers peaked in the 1990s. He noted that the cancer death rates are decreasing, but not as dramatically as the death rate for heart disease. Different cancers have different mortality rates. Lung cancer mortality rates tend to be high, but are precipitously declining. Stomach and colorectal cancers are declining. Among women, there is a rapid decline of uterine cancers due to Pap smears, and the HPV vaccine could improve things further.

The traditional treatment for cancer involves surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. These therapies are extremely difficult for patients. An improvement in treatment would involve targeted therapies directed toward the genetic anomalies which produce the proteins which cause cancers. Two promising new therapeutic innovations are hormone therapy and immunotherapy. Of course, cancer prevention is preferable to treatment- tobacco use, viruses, obesity, and ultraviolet light exposure are all contributors to increased cancer risk. Vaccines against viruses such as HPV and hepatitis-B would reduce cancer risk. Screenings to recognize genetic predispositions to cancer are also promising.

Dr Varmus then proceeded to frame the discussion of the fight against cancer in historic terms, starting with Richard Nixon's signing of the National Cancer Act of 1971. This act was aspirational without a plan- we did not know how a normal cell becomes a cancer cell. There was a confidence, though, that money plus talent equals results. In the subsequent decades, new concepts, new methods, and new strategies emerged- genome research, DNA crystallography, computational methods. This fight culminated in President Obama's 2016 Precision Medicine Initiative. A base of information about diseases' genetic or molecular factors needs to be compiled. Taxonomy leads to better diagnoses, which lead to better treatments, which lead to better outcomes. Vice President Biden was tapped to lead the "moonshot" against cancer- a successful response to this challenge would be more effective, more efficient, and involve more collaboration.

Dr Varmus veered off to a short autobiography- his childhood was spent on Long Island. He studied literature in college though he did plan to attend medical school. After what he described as a 'prolonged adolescence', he became a scientist at the age of twenty-eight. He described the historical facts which influenced his life- hearing Eisenhower's push for scientific excellence, attending medical school while the Vietnam War raged, Nixon's signing of the National Cancer Act in 1971. He described his early days at the NIH as being a member of the 'yellow berets'. He displayed a picture of his 1968 cohort at the NIH and noted the gender imbalance of the organization. While at NIH, he started to study genetic expression in E. coli. He joked, "Few pleasures in life exceed a potent assay." In his case, he was measuring accurately how much RNA was made by a particular gene in E. coli. He noted that to answer complex problems, it was best to use simple models. Clear answers lead to more questions, both mundane and profound. He also noted that the 'gossip factor' was important to scientists- tell results to peers, even competitors, for the advancement of knowledge.

In cancer research, one must apply molecular models to complex organisms in order to determine when a normal cell becomes a violent miscreant which can kill the individual to which it belongs. The few genes in a virus which causes tumors in animals can change the behavior of an animal's cells permanently. How do these genes replicate? How do they cause cancers? How does one tiny retrovirus become thousands of particles? To answer these questions, Dr Varmus recounted the history of Peyton Rous and his researches into chicken tumors. Peyton Rouse, of the Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University) described a transmissible chicken sarcoma in 1910. The sarcoma was caused by a virus which could change the behavior of cells in a petri dish- these 'rounded' cells looked different from the background cells in the dish.

Dr Warmus followed up on this area of inquiry with his collaborator and co-Nobel prize winner J. Michael Bishop. Displaying a sequence of photos of the pair, Dr Warmus joked, "The pictures show the changes in our own morphology over time." Dr Warmus and Dr Bishop's best known discovery was proto-oncogenes. In one instance, the tumor causing retroviral gene v-SRC is similar to, and derived from a cellular gene c-SRC. Genes code for enzymes, and genes with mutations cause cellular changes. Using a molecular probe, a nuclear-coded set of amino acids, it was determined that normal chickens have a set of genes which resemble viral genomes, a code for proteins similar to genes present in all metazoans, which suggests an important function. The discovery of c-SRC was important for being 'ahead of its time', there was no genetic sequencing at the time. The discovery also reversed existing thought- the normal gene was similar to the cancer gene. There were also evolutionary implications- evolution occurs through the same sort of changes which can result in cancers. Extensibility also comes into play, there are parallel cases of viral genes which are derived from cellular genes. Another factor is the functionality of the proto-oncogene, which encodes a novel enzyme, a tyrosine-protein kinase (the role of kinases in cancers was the subject of the June 2014 lecture by Dr Charles Sawywers). Understanding the role of proto-oncogenes in tumor foundation provides targets for therapies. In a particularly elegant symmetry, the discovery of the viral genes was the guide to the proto-oncogenes, and the viral genes are derived from cellular genes. The pattern of research into tumors typically goes as follows: human tumor cells are isolated, DNA from the tumor cells is purified and inserted into mouse cells, and the transformed cells become the focus of further experimentation.

Dr Warmus then brought up the topic of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. CML typically has an early phase of five years, then a patient will undergo a blast crisis in the sixth year. CML patients typically have a 22/9 chimera, a transposition of genetic material between chromosome 9 and chromosome 22. This proto-oncogene was originally found in mouse tumors- a drug marketed as Gleevec blocks the oncogenic enzyme and kills the cancer cells, resulting in complete remission.

The situation is not always so simple- new studies reveal the complexity of cancer- for every type of cancer, there are ranges of mutational activity. In the case of lung cancers, which kill more than one million individuals annually, there are complex patterns of mutated genes, and heterogenous situations underlying the cancers. In a sizable percentage of lung cancers, it is hard to pin down genetic component, another sizable percentage can be attributed to mutations of the KRAS gene, and the remainder of cases can be attributed to various other driver genes. Even with these various underlying mutations, many drugs can be developed to cope with these cancers. The problem is that the lifespans of drugs are short, while cancers are not static- cancers evolve. In the case of renal cancer, heterogenous tumors can stymie targeted therapies and cancer 'phylogenies' are reminiscent of the evolutionary lineages of species. The evolution of various tumor subclones provides drug resistance to tumors, and increases the probability of metastasis.

Successful treatments must confront cancer's complexity- malignant cell behaviors should be targeted, not just a list of damaged genes and altered proteins. One promising avenue for treatment is harnessing the immune system to rein in or destroy cancer cells. For immunotherapy to 'come of age', targeted antibodies are necessary. Monoclonal antibodies can be developed to target specific antigens on tumor cells. The body's own T-cells can be engineered to target antigens on tumor cells with proteins known as chimeric antigen receptors.

Cancer prevention is of the utmost importance, involving risk assessment and early diagnosis, with liquid biopsies being a promising non-invasive early screening technique.

Dr Warmus ended his lecture with the observation that, in confronting cancer, one must grasp its complexity and seek simple solutions.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question involved the origin of sarcomas- sarcomas arise from the mesenchyme, tissues such as fat and bone. Dr Warmus advised us not to mistake the causes of cancer with the mechanisms of cancer- cellular 'damage' may result from inherited genes or from the very process of mitosis. A lot of mutations arise through the process of cell division- the error prone nature of cell division is responsible for evolution as well as cancer. Some bastard in the audience, who had attended Dr Warmus' 2007 lecture, asked him about the changes that had occurred in the interim between the two lectures- which of them were the most significant? Dr Warmus noted that DNA sequencing had become much faster and cheaper in the intervening years. While the number of successes in cancer research have not profoundly changed the 'cancer landscape', a proliferation of small-scale successes has led to optimism about the long-haul. Immunotherapy, a new field, is very promising. Another questioner asked about liquid biopsies- mutations in newly formed tumors can be analyzed using blood samples. Regarding policies to improve cancer treatment, gene therapy reimbursement rates should be improved- genetic tests are not that expensive, and the costs pale in comparison to hospital stays and imaging. The cost of drugs is more difficult to control- different drugs have different success rates, should patients only pay for effective drugs? There is also a detrimental cost of not treating viral infections- novel solutions are required. Another individual asked if stress was a risk factor for cancer. Dr Warmus indicated that it was possible, but not on the level of tobacco use... he then quipped that cell division itself promotes cancer. Dr Warmus then brought up the Cancer Genome Atlas, a collaborative effort by scientists sharing data on the genetics of various cancers. The final question of the night involved antibody checkpoint inhibitors, specifically inhibitors of the PD-L1 protein. Dr Warmus cautioned that these therapies pose dangers- unchecked T-cells could attack normal cells, so this sort of therapy is not to be taken lightly. It's not a long-term therapy but the risk might be worth it on a short-term basis. The danger of using antibody checkpoint inhibitors is that the therapy perturbs a fundamental feature of the immune system.

Once again, the Secret Science Club, in conjunction with the Lasker Foundation and the Bell House staff, served up a fantastic lecture. Kudos to Dr Warmus, Margaret and Dorian, the staff of the beautiful Bell House, and the good people of the Lasker Foundation. Dr Warmus was around for the first anniversary of the SSC, so he was the perfect lecturer for the tenth anniversary.

Here's a video of Dr Warmus delivering a lecture to an audience at Paris' Institut Curie:

Pour yourself a libation, sit back, and soak in that ambience of the Secret Science Club. It's been ten years, ten great years of Learning While Intoxicated. Thanks again to Dorian and Margaret... happy tenth anniversary!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Pokémon Patrolman

Tonight is my first night on Pokémon Patrol, I'm here because one of the guys in my department had a big conference for his day job, and the two other guys in the department were needed for regular shift coverage. It's a pretty cushy gig, and a rare opportunity for overtime. It also took me to the site where I work the least, so it was great to see people I haven't seen since the big all-staff meeting in the Spring. Like all of our worksites, this is a very pretty area of the world. I don't have any funny feline co-workers here, but there are two golf carts on which I can zip around... I really shouldn't talk about how fun this particular job is, though I'll be the first person to admit that the job is very cushy, except when it's not, even to my bosses.

Right now, the sun is going down, and there is an aerial shift change going on- the birds are retiring for the night, while the bats are heading out on their insect-abatement assignments. I've long had a fondness for bats, and I enjoy their aerobatics. This site also has a lot of deer- pretty, shy ones unlike the bolder deer of other sites. I chalk their shyness up to a greater coyote presence in this area.

All told, I can't complain about Pokémon Patrol, I haven't even had any Pokémongers show up- maybe the 'Site Closed' sign and the presence of a parked car is inspiring them to turn away. The only people that I've had interactions with so far were an exterminator who was responding to a call about a large hornets nest onsite (I should have told my boss that I could deal with it- knocking down hornets nests after dark, when the insects cannot function, is one of my specialties), a contractor who had done work for us in the past who was just driving through the vicinity with a friend (I had a nice conversation with the guy, and told him to call our main office to ascertain whether there was any need for his services), and a woman who was asking for directions, but didn't want to drive on any of the main roads to get to her destination...

"I don't live around here, but I would suggest you take the *REDACTED* parkway."
"I don't want to drive on the parkway."
"Then you can take Route *Redacted*."
"I don't want to take Route *Redacted*"
"Then you can take Route *Redacted-B*."
"I don't want to take Route *Redacted-B*."
"Then I can't help you, there aren't any alternatives that I know."
"I'll take Route *Redacted*."

I think I would have preferred a Pokémonger. A 'squirtle' is less elusive than a mystical highway that this woman would have wanted to drive.

Now that the sun has gone down, things should be real quiet. It's a Monday night, the site is pretty remote, and I think that the 'navigation' system of the game is a bit screwed up now, so people have a harder time locating their Pokémon sites. I haven't received word of the site being removed from the system, so the 'patrol' is going on until the end of the week, when we will re-assess the need. It's not a bad gig, and at this point in time, everyone in the department has gotten overtime.

I'm not complaining, things are pretty sweet.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Road to Birddom

This morning, I decided to buck my lazy Sunday morning trend and meet up with some friends at the American Museum of Natural History. I hadn't seen these particular friends in a while, and I was overdue for a renewal of my museum membership. After meeting my friends, we made a beeline for the fourth floor, which houses the dinosaurs. The greatest addition to the museum is a cast of the 122 foot long fossilized skeleton of a titanosaur found so recently that it hasn't received a species name.

After touring the fossil galleries, we headed over to the special exhibition Dinosaurs Among Us, which details the evolution of modern birds from dinosaur ancestors. The exhibit featured gorgeous fossils and models of the various feathered dinosaurs on display, including modern birds.

The largest model was a quilly Yutyrannus huali, a feathered tyrannosaur approximately thirty feet long and estimated at a ton-and-a-half in weight. Tyrannosaurs belong to the Coelurosauria clade (tyrannosaurs are discussed in this Secret Science Club lecture recap). There were numerous models representing smaller feathered dinosaurs, many of them were represented in the wonderful Feathered Dinosaurs exhibit of five years ago, which recreated the environment of China's glorious Liaoning Province fossil beds. Among the mounted specimens of modern birds was a forlorn dodo, extinct ninety years after being introduced to western science.

There were interactive exhibits detailing egg-laying, nesting, and childcare among the crocodilians, dinosaurs, and birds, including casts of dinosaur eggs and embryos and a 'life sized' dinosaur nest for kids to play dinosaur parent on. Among the dinosaur remains in this area were the fossils of two ovaraptosaurs assigned to the species Khaan mckennai and nicknamed 'Sid and Nancy'.

Another feature of the exhibit was a display on the adaptations which helped dinosaurs and birds to succeed, specifically brains and lungs. There was a video of a crow using its reasoning ability to obtain food floating in a U-shaped tube. Bird lungs, derived from the lungs of their dinosaur ancestors, are more efficient than mammalian lungs, with air sacs connected to the lungs via channels running through the hollow bones.

The exhibit also featured some charming activities for kids, including a 'build a bird' simulator, in which players could choose different options (heavy body vs light body, various sized wings and breastbones) to create different animals, ranging from a velociraptor to a penguin, to a strong-flying modern bird. Players would place the various puzzle pieces in the display, then hit a button to display an animation of their creation on a screen... a modern flying bird would reward the player with a nice 'flight' display.

After a few hours spent basking in the museum, it was time to wend my way back to the Bronx, where I had parked the car, and get myself to work. It's been a long day, longer than a typical lazy Sunday, and I'll be dragging my tailfeathers tomorrow, but renewing my membership and hitting this amazing exhibit totally makes it all worthwhile. If the exhibit comes to a museum near you, I highly recommend it, but I am a huge dinosaur nerd, by which I mean a bird nerd.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Butt Dial to Brazil

Last night, I had an odd occurrence, I butt dialed my friend Big Al while entering my car after my pre-work supermarket trip... gotta stock up on milk for the office coffee service! After dealing with the vagaries of a failed Facetime connection (more like butt time in this instance, but that sounds like a Chuck Tingle opus), I was able to hang up and send a quick text message to Al explaining the mixup.

Al replied that he's in Brazil to watch the Olympics. He was born and raised in Brazil, and returns to visit family on a regular basis. He was able to combine familial obligations with a love of sport (he's a judo player as well, I know him through the dojo) on this year's trip. Big Al is also an avid photographer/videographer, so he's sure to get a plethora of pictures of the various events he attends.

Saturdays are my super busy days, so I haven't been able to watch any of the judo matches yet, but there will be time in the quiet, wee hours of the morning. Day 6 is when things really heat up, especially with the women's 78 kilogram division... I imagine Kayla Harrison is going to get a lot of coverage because of her skill and remarkable personal history. Marti Malloy is another favorite, I had the pleasure to see her compete at this year's New York Open Judo Championship.

I can't say that I am jealous of Big Al, he's just too nice of a man to be envious of- he's one of those genuinely kind-hearted, good-spirited people who just happens to enjoy fighting other people for fun. Weird how common the type seems to be.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Ultimate Betrayal

The current news story that has my blood boiling is the revelation that the USA Gymnastics ignored repeated allegations of sexual abuse by at least fifty coaches. This decades-long pattern of abuse is reminiscent of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, especially in light of the duration of the crime spree.

I am a volunteer coach in a children's athletic program- for three hours every Saturday from October to March, parents trust their children to my care, and the children trust me to treat them in a morally sound way. The very idea of betraying these trusts is repellent to me, but the tragedy of sexual abuse is that it usually doesn't involve 'stranger danger'. The majority of sexual abuse cases involve predators who are trusted- family members, friends, teachers, clergy, coaches. There is no worse betrayal than the victimization of children.

One of my heroes is 2012 Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison, who is competing again in Brazil this year. She is a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her coach, and advocates for young sexual abuse survivors. Among her future plans is authoring a book for middle-schoolers to inform them about the dangers of sexual abuse: “I’m writing a book with a psychologist which is intended to be a guideline of what sexual abuse is and I want that book to be in your seventh grade kid’s class curriculum.”

I consider myself fortunate to have met Ms Harrison on a number of occasions- she visits our dojo and teaches our kids at least once a year. I can't think of a braver, more generous individual. She went through hell and not only survived, but she thrives, and she fights to protect others from the horrors that she faced. You can be sure that I will promote her book when it comes out.

It boggles my mind that abusive coaching regimes can operate for so long in so many organizations- I chalk it up to a culture that considers women and children disposable and a win-at-all-costs mentality that protects abusers so long as they produce team victories. The pervasiveness of perverts is something which needs to be rooted out of sports organizations. My colleagues and I submitted to background checks and drug tests after the Penn State sex abuse scandal came to light, and we have a policy that no adult is alone with a kid at any time. We saw what happened in 'Happy Valley' and made sure we were above reproach. We owed it to our kids, we owed it to Kayla.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Bumper Crop, in Front of My House

It's time for a break from politics' 'silly season', and time for a perennial favorite topic of mine... Longtime readers will know that I am partial to purslane (Portulaca oleracea), a succulent weed that looks like a miniature jade plant. Purslane is either loved or hated, and I've been firmly in the 'love it' camp since childhood. Lately, purslane has gained some cachet due to its oddly high omega-3 fatty acid content.

The New York metro area is experiencing perfect purslane weather- hot and dry. Purslane is perfectly adapted to this sort of weather, being able to employ a CAM photosynthetic pathway during dry days, which allows the plants to keep their stomata closed during the heat of the day.

I located several small patches of purslane on the job and made sure to harvest only the tips of the plants, so they will continue to produce their purslicious bounty. Having returned home with this bounty, I found a couple of decent-sized plants right in front of the house, and grabbed them:

A fistful of purslane... not a bad score. While there are recipes for purslane out there, I feel that a simple presentation is the best- the texture of the plant is succulent, a bit crunchy, so I feel it's a shame to cook it. So far, I've mixed it with tahini and lemon juice and eaten it on toasted pita. Tomorrow, it'll be purslane and yogurt, in a tzatziki-like preparation. The plant tends to sprawl all over the place once it gets established, so I'll be eating quite a bit of the stuff in the coming months.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Nobody Wants One

From the Trump atrocity files, here's a new low- Donald Trump stated that he wishes he had a Purple Heart. Seeing as the Purple Heart is awarded to individuals who are wounded in battle, Donald Trump displayed a contempt of the wounded warriors he claims to support, and showcases his ignorance. This thing that he sees as a mere bauble is paid for with lost limbs, traumatic brain injuries, shattered lives.

Trump has had a weekend of gaffes and offensive comments. It's going to be a long, stupid three months.

I'd be remiss if I didn't note that this isn't the first time a Republican has made light of the Purple Heart- many 2004 Republican National Convention goers openly mocked the Purple Heart simply because John Kerry was a recipient.

If Donald Trump wanted a Purple Heart, it's because he didn't have a heart of his own.