Sunday, July 27, 2014

Playing with Juniper

There are a couple of juniper bushes on one of my jobsites and they are festooned with pale, pine scented "berries". As gin-and-tonics are my go-to summer drink (besides, of course, beer), I have decided to play around with them, making an infused vodka reminiscent of jenever, a spirit I came to enjoy when I traveled to the Netherlands a few years back. Maybe a good analogous drink would be Old Tom gin, a sort of "link" between jenevers and modern gins. I've been looking up recipes on the interwebz, and I think I'm ready to infuse a batch of booze. I've been making limoncello and other citrus infusions for years, and this year I started a batch of nocino... why not try a batch of gin?

I'm still pondering what "botanicals" to put in this mixture. I have the juniper, lemons and oranges are easily come by, I live by bunch of Indian groceries where I can buy coriander and cardamom seeds in bulk, and I actually have access to lavender in the gardens at work. It'll take a couple of days to accumulate my ingredients, but I think I'm going to do this thing.

Anybody got a recipe for homemade tonic water?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Oh, Danny Boy

I saw a couple of friends today when I got to work. A few years ago, a nice woman of about sixty brought her adult son with Down Syndrome to our scary Halloween-themed fall fundraiser. When her son, Danny, caught a glimpse of one of the ensemble cast, dressed as a vampire, he got cold feet. His poor mother rolled her eyes and said, "I really wish he wouldn't do this, he wanted to come and I don't want the ticket cost to be wasted." I assured her that I would endeavor to talk her son out of his reluctance, and assured him that, if he were genuinely scared, he could always look for a staff member so he could be whisked out to "safety" quickly. Needless to say, by the end of the night, it took an effort on his mother's part to get him to leave. The two of them have attended the event every year since then, and Danny actually comes twice- once on the opening night, and once on his birthday, in late October. For the latter event, he makes sure he comes to the last show- the "darkest, scariest" time is his preferred time.

Besides being a "horror" aficianado, Danny is also a competitor in the Special Olympics. After my initial hello, I asked him how he had fared in competition. Without missing a beat, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the gold medal that he had one. His mother gave me a quizzical look and said, "I didn't know he was carrying it around." I told Danny, "If you've got it, flaunt it, and you've got it!"

I have to say, the guy has got star quality. Sure, he's got a disability, but he is a a great conversationalist and he has got charisma. In the course of our conversation, he reminded me that he knows an extensive repertoire of traditional Irish music, so I requested Wild Colonial Boy. Without missing a beat, he serenaded me with a version that would make the Clancy Brothers proud. The guy is on the ball.

His mother told me that she was working closer to my workplace and she was looking for a place closer to work. I immediately suggested the Southeast Yonkers/Woodlawn section of the Bronx as a place to look. She's a Bronx gal and her son would be in his glory in a neighborhood where his musical talents would be appreciated.

Having gotten to know mother and son, I have to say that it's heartwarming to see a man who would have been locked away a couple of generations ago living a happy, productive life- a life in which he has achieved splendid goals. I was in a great mood all day at work, and I look forward to seeing them again this coming October.

I deal with the public quite a bit on the job, and there are certain people you become friendly with. Danny and his mom are two of my favorite regulars.

While it's not my favorite trad song, I'm sure that Danny could have belted this one out with gusto:

Friday, July 25, 2014

Nuke the Nuge

I was very happy to read that a second Native American owned casino has cancelled a concert by Ted Nugent. Seeing that two venues have dropped the "Motor City Madman", I figure that the pressure is on. Accordingly, I decided to check out Ted's upcoming tour schedule and discovered that he'd be playing several dates at House of Blues locations. I figured it was time to send them an e-mail to express my displeasure:

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to express my consternation at the upcoming Ted Nugent concerts which are to take place on August 12th at your Orlando location and on August 14th at your Houston location. Given Mr Nugent's history of racially-charged, violent rhetoric, I feel that having him perform at your venues is contrary to your goal of celebrating an African-American musical tradition, and the performers who shaped and keep alive that tradition

Just over a year ago, Mr Nugent, in an interview with Alex Jones, had this to say about the African-American experience:

“I would like to reach out to black America and tell them to absolutely reject the lie of Al ‘Not So’ Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson, and the Black Panthers and Eric Holder and Barack Obama. They are enslaving you and the real shackles on black America, 100 percent of the time come from black America.

“Racism against blacks was gone by the time I started touring the nation in the late 60s. Nothing of consequence existed to deter or compromise a black American’s dream if they got an alarm clock, if they set it, if they took good care of themselves, they remained clean and sober, if they spoke clearly, and they demanded excellence of themselves and provided excellence to their employers.”

I enjoy listening to Elwood's "Blues Hour" on my local radio station,WXPK, on Sunday nights, and the nightly "blues breaker", which airs while I drive to work, has expanded my knowledge of American roots music. When it came time to buy a new pair of workboots this past winter, I chose to purchase from your sponsor Red Wing boots. I find it hard to reconcile the reverent, informative content of your musical and cultural offerings with your decision to book a performer who has such a profound contempt of African-Americans and such an ignorance of the very experiences that shaped the blues.

Sincerely yours,


Time to nuke the Nuge, to drop a hundred megaton outrage-bomb right on his wallet.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Reeflections

Yesterday, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. After a 2-hour slog on the subway (a broken rail on the "6" line at Canal St had the entire Lexington Avenue corridor, 4-5-6 trains, clogged up just in time for the evening rush hour), I got to my destination to attend the latest Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Dr David Gruber of the City University of New York, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Central Caribbean Marine Institute. Dr Gruber's talk concerned biofluorescence in marine organisms, and the importance of the discovery of biofluorescent proteins.

Dr Gruber opened his lecture by noting that it was his first lecture in a bar- he was quite taken with the whole concept. He then began in earnest with a discussion of the "human visual world"- the human visible spectrum ranges from 400 to 700 nanometer wavelengths. We live in Roy G. Biv's world. Some animals are able to see into the infrared and ultraviolet portions of the spectrum. Underwater, the spectrum is reduced- water filters out non-blue light, so the underwater color world is marked by a sharply decreasing "palette".

Dr Gruber then mentioned Aequorea victoria, the crystal jelly, which produces Green Fluorescent Protein- when the animal is poked, it produces a blue light which, due to a Förster resonance energy transfer is shifted to green light. Because of water's filtering effects, blue light travels farther than green light, so many bioluminescent animals produce a blue light. The filtration effect renders white light into blue light, which is reflected back as lesser energy green light.

The talk then shifted to an overview of corals, which evolved rather suddenly about 200 million years ago. Corals are Cniadarians, as are jellyfish and sea anemones. Dr Gruber likened corals to jellyfish trapped in a calcium carbonate "rock" of their own making. Like other cnidarians, they use a single orifice as both "mouth" and "anus" and they have stinging nematocysts. Most corals have symbiotic dinoflagellates associated with them- the photosynthetic dinoflagellates, which provide much of the corals' energy, limit corals to well-lit ocean depths. The various polyps which form a coral colony are clones connected by a structure known as a coenosarc. Reef-building corals largely occur in two geographic zones, the Caribbean and the Indo-Pacific. Since corals are cnidarians, it was probable that they would also be fluorescent (this was borne out as these beautiful images attest.

Why would sessile corals fluoresce? It is possible that corals fluoresce green in order to cause a phototaxis to attract their dinoflagellate symbionts. Dr Gruber made a parenthetical note that dinoflagellates tend to have huge chromosome counts, with up to twenty-five times the amount of DNA that humans have.

Dr Gruber then went off on a brief tangent that he called the "Electric Kool-Aid Coral Acid Test". In an experiment performed to determine the effects of ocean acidification on corals, a specimen of the Oculina patagonica coral was subjected to a water with a decreasing pH level (from 8.1 to 7.4). As the pH level decreased, the coral polyps became increasingly disconnected from their calcium carbonate matrix and took on the appearance of sea anemones (Dr Gruber showed a time-lapse video of the experiment, but I have been unable to locate it yet). He then brought up the "Naked Coral Hypothesis", which posits that the "overnight" appearance of coral in the Triassic fossil record was probably due to increasing pH levels which allowed coral polyps to form their calcium carbonate "rocks". Because many corals can revert to anemone-like polyps, they have an "escape hatch" in conditions of increasing acidity. Dr Gruber wryly quipped that, in the case of increasing ocean acidification, "worry about your own shit, you can't turn into a polyp."

Dr Gruber then moved on from corals to the discovery of biofluorescence in vertebrates, - on one particular dive to photograph fluorescent corals, a bright-green fluorescent eel, a false moray Kaupichthys hyoproroides stood out in the foreground of one photograph... it was the first fluorescent vertebrate ever found.

Dr Gruber described his research as taking place in three "generations"- the first generation involved using lights with filters duct-taped to them (he praised the uses of duct tape during his lecture). The second generation involved the use of better lights powered with motorcycle batteries- he assured us that the lights were "perfectly safe". The second generation equipment was taken to Shark Point in the Solomon Islands. While diving in the Solomons, the researchers found two hundred new species of fluorescent fish. Many of the fish had a yellow intraocular filter which allowed them to perceive biofluorescent organisms. Dr Gruber observed that the fluorescence may serve as camouflage, with red fluorescent organisms preferring red backgrounds and green fluorescent organisms preferring green backgrounds. This portion of the lecture was accompanied by gorgeous photographs and videos. In the case of some biofluorescent fish, they appeared identical to closely related species under normal light conditions, but they fluoresced in different patterns, which may facilitate spawning in the light of the full moon.

On one particular dive, a fluorescent ray was spotted, which raised the possibility that certain sharks may be fluorescent. Regarding the prospect of diving in search of fluorescent sharks, Dr Gruber noted that he had spent six years of his life working on his PhD in windowless rooms and now he is wearing a helmet and a shark suit to work. He went on a brief tangent about diving at night and told us that the shark wrangler that accompanied the expedition had never "wrangled" at night. The first shark discovered to be fluorescent was a swell shark (Cephaloscyllium ventriosum) and a chain shark (Scyliorhinus retifer) was found to be fluorescent soon afterwards. He went on a brief tangent about shark vision, with especial attention drawn to the bigeye thresher shark )Alopias superciliosus), noting that the sharks' eyes may have evolved to seek bioluminescent animals. He also noted that shark's acute sensory arrays also included the electroreceptors known as ampullae of Lorenzini and a sense of smell that isn't tuned to sense blood per se, but amino acids.

Dr Gruber described the third generation of his research as involving the use of a submarine with movie-projector quality LED lights and fiber optics (a big step up from duct tape) and showed us a picture of himself in a deep-sea diving suit that had been modified to accommodate the special light and photographic equipment. Using the deep-diving apparatus, the team discovered that there was a plethora of biofluorescent organisms at depths below 500 meters.

Dr Gruber finished his talk with a discussion of the importance of Green Fluorescent Protein in research- the discoverers of GFP were awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Green Fluorescent Protein can be "attached" to "proteins of interest". Beta tubilin can be tagged with GFP to help researchers study mitosis. Tagging kinases with GFP can assist in the development of cancer drugs (this particular topic is reminiscent of last month's lecture.

Finally, GFP offers a window into human consciousness- neurons can be tagged with GFP, a change in the intensity of fluorescence occurs when the neurons fire- Dr Gruber likened this to observing "consciousness in real time".

Dr Gruber finished his lecture by underscoring the importance of further research in conservation efforts, noting that it is estimated that only 10% of the species associated with coral reefs are believed to be known, and that you can't protect what you don't love.

Once again, the Secret Science Club offered up a spectacular lecture. Dr Gruber's talk hit that sweet spot at the intersection of hard science, adventure narrative, and humorous anecdotes from a life well-lived, plus some incredibly gorgeous photography and video footage. As I listened to Dr Gruber, I continually thought, "This is a person who is utterly enamored with his life's work." The man clearly loves what he is doing and he loves to share his work with others. In the Q&A some bastard in the audience asked about the number of taxa that exhibit biofluorescence, and what inferences can be drawn about the evolution of this phenomenon. Dr Gruber noted that it's clearly a case of convergent evolution, with fluorescence evolving multiple times- he noted that no fluorescent bacteria have been discovered, so this is not a case of the involvement of bacterial symbionts.

The research team to which Dr Gruber belongs has a beautiful website- seriously, you can become lost in the utter beauty of the images on the site, while reading about the methodology they employ.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Old Friends, New Friends, Ancient Friends

Today was an awesome day. I made plans to meet up with a co-worker, a friend of hers from Melbourne who is in the midst of a cross-U.S. motorcycle odyssey, and Major Kong at the American Museum of Natural History, which is my beloved Temple of Science!!! Unfortunately, my co-worker had to bail, because she was suffering from a migraine and a bad flare-up of her allergies.

After a bit of a "hiccup", which saw me circling around the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx looking for parking near the "1 Train", I met Major Kong and our antipodean friend, who I will dub P.J. in the interest of brevity and his privacy, at the parkside entrance of the museum around twenty minutes past eleven o'clock. We made a bee-line for the fourth floor, to the halls of vertebrate paleontology, where I paused to explain how I made peace with the Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology being named after David Koch. The last time the good Major had graced these halls, the Tyrannosaurus rex was in its "Godzilla" posture, rather than the more accurate stalking posture in which it is now displayed. We then high-tailed it to the pterosaurs exhibit- longtime readers will know that the Major is the go-to authority on aviation. Ancient fliers, meet a current flier! I'm going to have to put up a post specifically about the pterosaurs exhibit. Right now, suffice it to say that the new reproductions of pterosaurs are a lot more colorful than the older ones- rather than the leathery lizard-bats of yore, the current depictions are of colorful, fuzz-covered (pterosaurs have been known to have fur since the early 70s) lookers. The variety of well-preserved fossils bearing all sorts of crests on their heads is a recent, lucky discovery... as I said, I'll have to compose a post solely on this exhibit.

The crown jewel of the exhibit is a reproduction of Quetzalcoatlus northropi, a giant with a wingspan of about ten meters (approximately 33 feet). Major Kong dubbed it "the B-52 of pterosaurs"- that pretty much sums it up. The exhibit also features interactive displays, in which one can "pilot" a pterosaur. Major Kong took a turn at piloting a Pteranodon longiceps, explaining the conditions leading to a stall. P.J. told us anecdote about his childhood home in Queensland- the conventional wisdom in this cyclone-prone region of Australia was to build houses with flat roofs, but certain winds would actually create lift, ripping off a flat roof, so his father built a new roof, pitched to create "stall" conditions.

After a good long time with our pterosaur buddies, we returned to the Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology, this time spending time with the mammalian fossils. We then headed to the planetarium where we strolled around the sphere for a while until we decided to bring things back to Earth, checking out the hall of earth science. We then made our way through the hall of North American mammals, the hall of human evolution, and eventually to the famous blue whale sculpture, which has been renovated to reflect a better knowledge of blue whale anatomy. The changes are minor enough so I could quip to Major Kong that some things haven't really changed since his last visit. We ended up our visit by checking the hall of meteorites and the hall of gemstones- the Star of India star sapphire being the most notable of the gems on display.

After our museum tour, which lasted over four glorious hours, we headed to the venerable Grey's Papaya for their famous hot dogs and fruit drinks. Fortified, we strolled east on West 72nd St, past the Dakota, and entered Central Park near Strawberry Fields- there were several acoustic guitars in evidence. Protip for emo college types, get your asses their now and play renditions of Beatles tunes, and you may be fawned on by cute tourists of whichever gender you wish to attract. A turn around the park, toward the Loeb Boathouse, and we were winding down the day. We parted ways at the "B,C" station at 72nd St.

It was a day well spent, hanging out with old friends, new friends, and ancient friends. Here's to friendship!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Regional Conflicts, Global Repercussions

Among the horrors of the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, thought to be perpetrated by Russian-backed separatists using a ground-to-air missile is the fact that one-hundred and eight HIV/AIDS researchers were killed. Let that sink in for a while... one-hundred and eight top-flight AIDS researchers, men and women who devoted years of their lives to the study of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, were killed in a stupid, brutal act in a pointless regional conflict.

Among the dead is Joep Lange, Ph.D. and M.D.- doctor, scientist, humanitarian. More than one headline blazed, "Could the cure for AIDS have been on that plane?"

Centuries work adding to accumulated scientific knowledge, decades of activism- all brought to cessation by a deed that took seconds of thoughtless action. The effects of this meaningless attack will reverberate for generations.

Back in 1991, I was captivated by a shooting at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, that claimed the lives of several authorities in the field of theoretical space plasma physics. My fascination with this rampage was largely due to the near-elimination of experts in an esoteric field of research. My main thought was, "The killer is now the foremost expert in the field, and by the time he gets out of prison, everything will have changed." Talk about setting things back by decades... and theoretical space plasma physics doesn't impact the lives of tens of millions of people worldwide. That tragedy doesn't quite compare to this recent one. One-hundred and eight brilliant, good people killed by dumb, bad people who are basically engaged in a dick-measuring contest.

Humanity kinda bites.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rambunctious Youths

This week, I have had to deal with an incursion of rambunctious youths at one of my jobsites. I was sitting at my desk, when I heard the crash of one of our site garbage cans being knocked over. I quickly exited the building, flashlight in hand, and was confronted with three pairs of glowing eyes. Yup, we have a trio of adolescent raccoons who are learning the ropes of being suburban menaces. These little critters are brazen- while walking on a narrow pathway, one of them ran right by me, coming within inches of my ungainly clodhoppers. I did a double-take when I saw this fuzzball running past me, knowing that Fred and Ginger were safely ensconced in their respective workplaces, handling the overnight mousing shift. I had another of the raccoons run right toward me on another occasion- I damn near freaked out because I initially thought it was a skunk (though skunks tend to move pretty slowly).

I can't believe how fearless these little raccoons are... I chalk it up to youth, not rabies, as they are not active during the daytime, and have learned to be more discreet over the last couple of days. Maybe they are such juvenile delinquents because they lack a suitable male role model, dad having been incarcerated.