Saturday, August 19, 2006

Does Will Shortz have a Real Job?

A huge foreword to this post is going to go something like:

I don't really care about the answer to the titular question because I do [read: try to do] the New York Times crossword puzzle every day and I pretty much rely on Will for my daily dose of entertainment.

But one has to wonder.
The man was a self-invented Enigmology major from Indiana University and afterwards he had an affair with law school, but skipped the bar exam to pursue a "career" in "puzzles" instead.

The most unsettling obersvation that goes along with the daily puzzle doing is that Will always seems to have a partner in puzzle constructing crime. Some common-named nobody who could be your next-door neighbor. A compelling portion of an interview with a co-star in the recent movie "Wordplay" sends a chill of confirmation down my spine:
CS: Do you think Will might start getting all of these puzzles from would-be puzzlemakers because of the movie?
Creadon: He might. He gets about 60-70 puzzles a week. He writes back to everyone who sends him puzzles, he gives them notes. If he accepts it, he'll run it and let them know. If he doesn't, about 90% of the puzzles he gets do not run, but he'll write back and say, "You know what? I've done this theme before," or "I wasn't too crazy about some of the words in this puzzle, but you're getting there." This is extremely important to Will.

I'm sure it is important! Will Shortz, affiliated with the prestigious NY Times and now with a WILDLY succesful film, must be terrified of burning out. You can only cram:
Etc, etc, etc... into a puzzle so many times during the week. Does Will Shortz claim joint custody over each day's puzzle to shift the burden of flak he must incur? By "burden" I am referring to the piles of canine, and perhaps ursine, feces and bottles of human urine that must accumulate on Mr. Shortz's doorstop come Thursday and continue on through Saturday.

I suppose I can't deem Will Shortz's job real or fake, but I can say that I'd feel a whole lot better about it if he didn't farm out the crossword task. Come on, Will, you're an Enigmologist. Get wit it now.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Space Madness

I was listening to NPR yesterday and heard about the two astronauts doing repairs on the International Space Station, and the term "Space Madness" popped into my head.

Space Madness. What a chilling set of words, right? Space is a place where you can't breathe and madness is just plain debilitating. It's also the title of one of the scariest episodes of "Ren and Stimpy" I'd ever seen, but surely that can't be the point of origination of that little tingle of fear that shoots down my spine when I hear those words in sequence. Space Madness must be something really bad-- something that makes astronauts want to chew their own helmet-encased faces off. Something that makes the buddies of the afflicted astronaut shake their heads and realize that they're going to have to cut the tether line and let him go because there's simply nothing else that can be done. Because I've never been in space, or known anyone who has, I'm woefully uneducated on the topic-- so I looked it up:

"Defiance, detachment, disagreement – harmful emotions in any small group situation, but in Outer Space these feelings are particularly damaging and possibly life endangering."

Life endangering. So we're getting to the rip-your-own-face-off part, right?

“In everyday life we are very socially dynamic and belong to a number of groups, such as family, work and friends. There are a number of psychological advantages to having such a dynamic social environment, which will be absent when people spend long periods of time in isolation.”

Okay, so the astronauts won't be able to sit and pass a blunt around while watching "So you think you can dance?" when they're in space. I kind of figured they'd be prepared for that, being astronauts and all...

The article that I referenced, entitled "How to Avoid Space Madness," details efforts by an Australian research team to simulate the lonely and stressful environment of Outer Space. The test astronauts get injected with a daily dose of cortisol [which our bodies release naturally in response to elevated stress levels] and then go get stressed out in some capsule. Some of the things the researchers were most interested in were how the subjects worked in a cohesive group and the potential problems that go along with cohesive groups.

“One thing we are interested in is the question of whether or not groups are good or bad for your health,” Dr. Eggins says. “We know that in cohesive groups people perform better, work harder and are more cooperative than in loose-knit groups.

“But do cohesive groups make us work too hard and what does that do to our stress levels?”

There are also other issues relating to the wrong sort of cohesion in a group, and small sub-groups forming within larger groups.

“There is a danger groups may become too cohesive,” Mr. Krins says.

There's also a danger that one of the astronauts might feel left out, or might want to borrow the saftey scissors and the others won't share-- THEN WHAT?! And let's not forget the greater danger that research money is being squandered on total boring dumb crap. Come on. "Space Madness" is sounding more and more like "Space Restless Leg Syndrome" and I'm thoroughly disappointed. No longer will Space Madness hold such a romantic/dangerous/terrifying place in my heart. No longer will I be able to imagine a sweaty astronaut with his eyes rolled back in his skull drifting towards the sun-- cut loose, crazy, and doomed to melt in his suit. Alas, this is now the only image that the term is capable of conjuring up:

Friday, April 28, 2006

Coke Blāk

It's been over one week now, and I think my body has finally managed to return to homeostasis. My mind, however, may never be the same.

One tentative sip of this classy-looking beverage and five minutes later I was yammering on about whatever was able to hold my now fleeting attention span, and I was struggling desperately against a giggling streak that was ready to explode at any moment from the gates of my clenched jawbones. I felt capable of cracking the best jokes, singing along the loudest, and basically just being the happiest. I felt high-- it was great.

"Finally!" I thought, "I know what it's like to be a bird!"

A bird? No. A plane! NO. A SNARLING DOG.

Perhaps it's no small coincidence that, upon looking up an image of the product under scrutiny, the fourth picture available is of this demonic creature.

Dr. Jekyll was a smart, witty, well-respected man until he drank that stuff and turned into Mr. Hyde [that asshole guy without an advanced degree]. "That stuff" was definitely Coke Blāk, because what my friends don't know is that after Chipper Lena stepped out of the car fumbling for her house keys, she broke the key in the lock. No problem, because the tablespoon of demon fuel in her veins was just enough to allow her to punch a hole in the door. After grinding some baking soda into her teeth and tearing her clothes off for bed, she lay rigid and slept with her eyes open and fixed on the ceiling not blinking-- not once.

The next morning she woke up to find several empty Slim Jim containers and barbeque sauce bottles with the caps crudely gnawed off. Also, this picture of "her friends" [on the back reading: the Coca-Cola Development Team]

So what is in this terrifying [yet extremely attractively packaged] beverage?

Ingredients: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, natural flavors, coffee extract, phosphoric acid, potassium sorbate and potassium benzoate (to protect taste), caffeine, aspartame, acesulfame potassium

Oh. It must have been the aceslfame potassium.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

"What's an 'Immune System?'"

While my eyes were glazing over in front of the television yesterday, a grating child's voice stated "I think salmonella is a kind of dinosaur!" Then another one said "I don't know how not to get sick!" and another asked "What's an immune system?" It turns out it was a commercial for Purell or some other we're-all-scared-of-dying gel. This particular company used ignorant, snuffling, touching, sneezing children to spread its message of fear-- but I found myself not worried about encountering germs, but worried about how much I know about what happens when my body encounters them.

I suppose that last child's question, combined with the fact that I'm currently stumbling unassisted through a series of failing immunopreciptation experiments here at the CDC, made me wish I'd had an immunology course at Skidmore. What IS an immune system?!


My biggest question is: what are the genetics involved in specific antibody production? I have a sketchy idea about innate vs. adaptive immunity, and the hideously complicated cascade of events that is kicked off when a pathogen is encountered and its antigens are presented to this cell that turns into that cell and yadda yadda and eventually antibodies are secreted. But are there genes just sitting in these immune cells that are waiting to be transcribed when a certain signal is given? And then you get a perfectly specific antibody? Just like that? The array of antigens that pathogens possess is so vast and diverse, how are our immune cells "told" what to make? I looked it up. All day. And I think I've found an answer in "Immunobiology" which is a text book available online through PubMed.

"The startling feature that emerged from the biochemical studies was that an antibody molecule is composed of two distinct regions. One is a constant region that can take one of only four or five biochemically distinguishable forms; the other is a variable region that can take an apparently infinite variety of subtly different forms that allow it to bind specifically to an equally vast variety of different antigens."

Okay, but how do you end up with one of the infinite options when you only have so many genes?

"This question was answered in 1976, when Susumu Tonegawa discovered that the genes for immunoglobulin variable regions are inherited as sets of gene segments, each encoding a part of the variable region. During B-cell development in the bone marrow, these gene segments are irreversibly joined by DNA recombination to form a stretch of DNA encoding a complete variable region. Because there are many different gene segments in each set, and different gene segments are joined together in different cells, each cell generates unique genes for the variable regions of the heavy and light chains of the immunoglobulin molecule. Once these recombination events have succeeded in producing a functional receptor, further rearrangement is prohibited. Thus each lymphocyte expresses only one receptor specificity."

Oh! So it's like fast-paced "evolution" with many options being produced, and only one is successful and gets the job done.

I still don't really understand how that type of "natural selection" works so quickly and keeps us from dying so well, and I don't understand the pressures that enhance the production of the successful antibody, but I do understand a LITTLE bit more about the immune system. And now I'm going home to watch more shitty commercials.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Purell.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Were Watson and Crick "my type?"

I looked it up:

Yes, yes they were.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Elective Amputation

I really hate to harp on the whole amputation thing-- but ever since my smallpox vaccine lesion turned kind of grey with a surrounding swollen, painful, itchy red ring, I've been spending some time thinking about cutting my left arm off. Undressing for bed has become troublesome, as has putting on my coat in the morning. I take Benadryl for the itching but that just brings me two big additional steps closer to being an authentic zombie-- necrotic flesh and all.

I love a good learning opportunity, but the next time any or all of the following words are the fine print I think I'll politely decline: vaccination, bioterrorism preparedness, Atlanta, poxvirology.

But back to elective amputations. Since I'm getting awfully tired of my left arm, I decided to look them up. Apparently they're kind of poo-pooed in the medical world, and should you let on that you want to have one of your mostly or entirely healthy limbs removed you may find yourself tagged as having Body Integrity Identity Disorder [BIID]. There are three different manifestations of the disorder: people who are aroused by amputees/being an amputee ("devotees"), people who use crutches or wheelchairs in order to simulate being an amputee ("pretenders"), and people who undergo elective amputation to remove a healthy limb ("wannabees"). I think that last one is pretty harsh, but that may indicate borderline devotee status.

Ultimately, I don't really fit under any of those categories because my limb is causing legitimate discomfort. BIID is described as a "bizarre and extremely rare psychological disorder" but it doesn't seem so bizarre to me, especially after seeing THIS website.

I mean, who wouldn't want to fit in with these people? And their website is the most popular! Sign me up!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ribozymes: Could anything be more awesome?

Indulge my nerdgasm, please.

Every once in a while I start to miss working with RNA, and I really miss learning about RNA. It's the coolest nucleic acid, hands down. As Bjork is to Britney Spears, RNA is to DNA. As flan is to vanilla pudding, RNA is to DNA. As heroin or "horse" is to whippets, RNA is to DNA. Etc, etc, etc.

I may be a little hyperbolic in making these statements, because after all DNA is the template from which RNA is synthesized, but there is no doubt that RNA is infinitely more versatile and mysterious. Also, while those two playboy hacks [or "History's Hottest Doubleteam"] Watson and Crick are the first people that come to mind when one thinks about DNA, legitimately sexy names like Tom Cech [see the post "Old men that I want and why I want them" in my other blog] spring to mind when one thinks of RNA.

So today I thought I would look up one of my favorite things about RNA: its ability to catalyze reactions. That's right, RNA isn't just a boring single-stranded thing whose only purpose is to encode a protein-- it is capable of catalysis just like an enzyme-- and often it performs its catalysis with MORE fidelity than an enzyme can muster. I found this wonderful outline, with diagrams, of what is known regarding RNA's ability to catalyze reactions:

It's written by Tom Cech, and I think it's pretty darned interesting. Also, bringing up the "RNA World Hypothesis" at any social event will make you appear at least ten times more attractive than you really are.