Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

California Academy of Sciences – NightLife

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

I only nom marshmallows, thus my coloring.

So the California Academy of Sciences does these cool things on Thursday nights, where you go in and wander around with wine in your hands.  So, despite their frog exhibit (Ahem!  It REALLY SUCKS when you have a frog phobia and there are banners of poisonous frogs all over the city when you’re trying to drive!  Very inconsiderate.) I braved it with R2 a couple months ago.

I have a love for aquariums.  So after we swam through the crowd of hipsters and purchased our $7 mini servings of wine, we headed to the aquarium portion.

But first we passed by a…what’s the word?  Do-something.  Docent?  Who had a buncha these hideous dried fishies to show off.  She told us many fascinating facts about them, but  all of my cognitive abilities were going towards inhibiting my rather strong urge to poke at them.  I succeeded and was praising myself for my Asian obedience when the docent picked this one up and handed it to R2 to touch.  NO FAIR!

In the aquarium portion were many beautiful fishies, sea mammals, jellies.  As you know, though, I suck at taking pictures of anything that’s moving so this is the sole photo you get – a vaguely labia-majora-looking thing.  I made this joke to R2 and he said, “I knew you were going to say that.”

I’ve got to get new material.

They also has foodz!  This was a carnitas taco.  It was exactly what I wish out of a taco – corn tortilla, various raw chopped up crunchy things, and pork that has gotten its shit stewed out of it, resulting in something almost creamy.  I would go back just for the food!

Plan your  own NightLife trip!

Equilibrium: Five Senses

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

You know it’s been a while since you’ve posted when your spam comments get into the triple digits.  I am liking this new brand of spam comment where they leave a joke, though.  For example, “Nice joke! What is the biggest ant? An elephant.”  That was from a site selling Viagra.

Annnnyway, making new friends is easy.  It’s that post-“OK I met you and we’ve exchanged last names so that the other is findable on FB” actual leap to really hanging out again that’s the difficult part.  You may remember I met two randoms at the icanhascheezburger book launch and we immediately friended each other on the ol’ bookface.  I assumed I would never see them again but the one of them that lived in SF, Choco, promptly invited me to twenty thousand things he was doing.  The first of which was Equilibrium – some sort of hipster/nerdy nighttime event; this one themed “Five Senses.”

The thing that piqued my interest in the description (besides the “take it all in!” tagline) was the miracle fruit tasting station.  Miracle fruit is some sort of miracle fruit that you eat and makes everything sour thereafter taste sweet.  Limes, particularly, are supposed to taste extraordinarily yummy, and I’ve heard of people getting intense indigestion from all the acid that they ingest after doing miracle fruit.  The Equilibrium description was chock-full of hyperbolic statements such as “Oranges (already quite sweet) taste like they were imported from an Alien world or plucked straight from the Garden of Eden.”

Other things included talks on chocolate and technology from the TCHO guys, a talk on synesthesia, a talk on the neuroscience of vision, and music.  And drinks.

I arrived to the space (Langton Labs) with R2 and U2 in tow, paid the $10 suggested donation, and found Choco easily even though the place was entirely too squished.  How many nerds could there be in this city?  Jesus.  Hipster-nerds tend to be very thin and pointy too – not cozy at all in a packed-crowd situation. The lecture going on was about vision and I felt very hip with my legit Vision Sciences Society Conference bag that I inherited from James.  I nonchalantly yet conspicuously held it out in front of me but no one noticed.  I then downed a drink and piled five-deep onto a chair meant for one and participated in a demo on seeing smells.  I think this was meant to accompany the lecture on synesthesia, which is a very cool concept (upon which I shall expand below, so no need to click on the link).  It was basically a rotating cone of light (think what it looks like when you hit light speed in Star Wars) with tendrils of incense smoke curling through.  You could follow the path of the smoke with your eyes and your nose, much like a moth perceives the world.  Groooovy.

Then, upstairs to the miracle fruit station, which was completely picked over (see top).  Cry.  I actually have my own miracle fruit packets at home – a surprise gift courtesy of a colleague in New York – so I wasn’t crushed, but I did think, “Damnitall, now I have to turn the boring, sciencey, non-food-related parts of this night into a MTFB post somehow.”

Also upstairs was a bathroom with waaaay too many toothbrushes in it.  What the hell?

We took seats in a nice, cushioney lofted area (see middle pic) and settled in to hear the synesthesia lecture.  Synesthesia is fascinating; defined as – whoops, I’m sorry.  I have to interrupt my explanation to have an epileptic seizure, because that’s what happened to this poor girl in the middle of the talk.  We were upstairs and could only hear it happening, but the part that shattered my heart was hearing her try to say “I’m sorry” as she convulsed.  It scared a lot of people, but not Choco, who was blasted and was off to the side saying things to himself like “the ground is like the most unusual kind of boat!”

An ambulance was called and the woman was safely taken to the hospital.  The lecture resumed.  Synesthesia means a fusing of the senses.  People who have synesthesia can taste words, see sounds as colors, and other trippy things all day that us mortals have to use drugs to experience. Sometimes numbers and letters have personalities, and in one particularly awesome example, some synesthetes can taste celebrities.   Christopher Walken?  Ham with chocolate.  Kevin Bacon?  Ironically, not bacon!  Instead, tomato sauce!  Bizarre, but supercool.

Not all of us thought so.  Some were itching to leave, so we did.  On the way out, U2 ungraciously but quite hilariously yelled “THAT WAS THE MOST BORING THING I’VE EVER DONE AT NIGHT!”

The SHOWDOWN: Empire Kosher vs. Butterball

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Hiya. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving.

Both of my advisors are total foodies. The One That’s Not Liz (Dr. TOTNL) has an annual double-blind taste test at Thanksgiving time. She pits the ubiquitous (and evil) Butterball turkey against whatever wins in that year’s Cook’s Illustrated turkey rankings. This year, she pitted Butterball against Empire Kosher.

Some background on the contestants:

Butterball: Butterball is the most famous turkey, and the turkey to beat. Think of Butterball turkey as McDonald’s. Ubiquitous, yummy, but low quality. Most people (including Dr. TOTNL) think that Butterball is injected with butter. Butterball says the “Butterball name was chosen to characterize a new, special breed of broad-breasted white feather turkeys, not because the turkeys contain butter, as many mistakenly believe.” The actual truth is somewhere in the middle, where Butterball turkeys are pre-injection-brined with a solution of water, salt, starch, sodium phosphate, and flavors. Brining makes everything more delicious, and brining a gigantic turkey at home is not so easy (thus no one does it), so it’s understandable why Butterball turkeys would taste good to people.

Empire Kosher: As previously noted, Empire Kosher won this year in the inimitable Cooks Illustrated’s taste test. Their website says Empire Kosher “continues to win taste tests conducted by prominent publications, institutions and TV shows such as Cooks Illustrated Magazine, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, New York Magazine, Gourmet Magazine, and America’s Test Kitchen Cooking Show! And not just because we’re Kosher but because we have the best taste!”

Dr. TOTNL is an esteemed scientist, and so she does this right. The most rigorous type of science employs the double-blind method, whereby neither the subjects nor the experimenter know which condition a subject has been randomly assigned to. In medical studies, this would be like neither the doctor/pharmacist nor the subject know whether the subject has been given the experimental drug or the placebo. The point is, having knowledge of the condition one is in might bias the results. If a subject KNOWS they are getting a drug that makes them more anxious, they might be on the lookout and notice any subtle increases in their heartbeat (usually ignored) and report being more anxious as a result, making the drug seem more effective than it actually is.

BUT, the problem is that Dr. TOTNL is the one cooking the turkeys. So there isn’t a way to blind herself to the turkey labels.

Or IS there?

Being super clever, Dr. TOTNL employed two people who weren’t her to carve the turkeys. The turkey meat was then put onto either white or blue serving platters and brought to a different room. Apparently, Dr. TOTNL’s china has a dragonfly at the top (In my fantasy, her plates are from the Kate Spade “June Lane Gold” collection, pictured left, because Dr. TOTNL has impeccable taste), and guests were instructed to place their turkey on either side of the dragonfly so they could keep track as to which was blue-plate turkey and which was white-plate turkey. THEN, the carvers were told to close their eyes while their wives made up a plate for them, so that they didn’t know which turkey was from which plate, protecting even the carvers from being biased.

Can you guess who won? It wouldn’t be blog-worthy unless the Butterball won, now would it? You’re right. Butterball won 6-5. This is the third year in a row that Butterball has won, and this is also the slimmest margin by which Butterball has won.

I don’t doubt that Empire has a better quality bird. I think the brining is what it’s all about. If Dr. TOTNL had brined the Empire Kosher bird, it may have been a more level playing field. I didn’t dare tell her my hypothesis because I think she would have been offended, thinking that I was telling her she cooked her turkey wrong, and then she would have been mad at me. (All of Dr. TOTNL’s advisees share this same sort of anxious preoccupation with her…not that she’s not nice, she’s just incredibly famous and cold and scary like Marisa Coulter (a.k.a. Nicole Kidman for you non-readers) in the Golden Compass.) I know she didn’t brine it because she was talking about how she put butter and herbs in between the skin and the bird, but didn’t mention anything about brining. She also kept saying the misinformation about Butterball being injected with butter, but I didn’t correct her on that, either. She also kept saying “Cook’s Magazine” and one of the braver postdocs said, “ummmm…do you maybe happen to mean Cook’s Illustrated magazine by any chance?” and she said, “NO, it’s Cook’s Magazine – it’s a very famous magazine.” Sigh.

Anyway, the moral of the story is if you want a good tasting bird and don’t care about looking cool, just get Butterball next year. You get the added bonus of getting to call the Butterball hotline at 1-800-SEXY-BRD. ((Not really – the real phone number is 1-800-BUTTERBALL. Boring.))

The Plight of the Urban Squirrel

Thursday, December 14th, 2006

As your self-designated NPR liaison, I have to post about a delightful piece I heard on As It Happens. It was about urban squirrels (“nature’s scheming dust mops”) and how squirrels who live in populous areas are different from normal squirrels who live in natural areas. Dr. Joel Brown from University of Illinois in Chicago is studying urban squirrels and their eating behavior.

Speaking of squirrel eating behavior, check out this freaking gratuitiously cute squirrel I saw on Bruinwalk. It plucked a flower from the bush and sat in a tree branch to eat it. Totally oblivious to the shrieking and cooing of us human girls on the ground, this lil’ guy just happily munched on his flower. Too fucking adorable.

Anyway, you’d think it would be easy living being an urban squirrel in a place like, for example, a college campus. Discarded Wetzel’s (ew) bits here, glistening boba nestled at the bottom of a cup there. However, urban squirrels, compared to their natural habitat peers, can end up starving during the winter. (Which means here in SoCal they’ll do just fine.) This is because urban squirrels do not have as much access to long-term, hideable foods like acorns and nuts, and as a result they don’t have a hidden-away cache of foods to fall back on when it gets cold. In other words, urban squirrels live on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis (much like the crazy stockbrockers in Boiler Room, where my embarrassing crush on Vin Diesel came into being).

The methodology Dr. Brown uses to study urban squirrel feeding behavior is as cute as the squirrels themselves. His team attaches long pieces of thread to acorns and nuts, puts them in a pile, and waits for the squirrels carry the food off. (The thread is made by a Canadian company. Why do we need to know this? I’m not sure. It’s an NPR-exhaustive-reporting kind of thing.) They come back the next day, follow the thread, and mark where the acorn is buried. They then return the following day and see where the squirrel has re-buried it, and so on. If the thread ends up dangling over a tree branch, they deduce that the acorn has been eaten.

Two more cute facts about squirrels:

1. Squirrels aren’t territorial, so they have to carefully guard their food. One way to do that is (as Dr. Brown says, “Like a football player faking a handoff”) by pretending to hide their food by digging little holes, pretending to bury an acorn, and then filling up the hole again. They will even tamp down the grass back into place with their little paws! Awesome!

2. The word “squirrel” comes from “a combination of ancient Greek words, meaning ‘he who sits in the shadow of his tail.'” Wheeee!

Listen to the segment here (it’s in Part I at around 19:00).

Update: My cute squirrel picture was recently featured on The Cute Project! Those Cutizens know quality when they see it.

Bacteria, hollerin’ at you

Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

I am allegedly some sort of scientist. So it’s only responsible that I blog about science once in a while. I promise to weed out boring stories, as well as stories so sensational everyone would have heard about them, and try and bring you stories where a non-scientist might not realize how freaking cool that finding is.

NPR does a good job of this, and I confess that the inspiration for today’s post was from today’s All Things Considered. However, no one aged 65 or younger listens to NPR except me, so I feel good about being a liaison here.

[If you’re reading CM solely for the bras and food, this may not be your kind of post.]

Today’s Post on Science (PoSci – let’s pronounce it “Poe-see”) is about bacteria. That talk!

There is a species of bacteria called Vibrio harveyi that scientists discovered act in a peculiar way. When a single bacterium of this species (I’ll call him Harvey) is alone, he pretty much just sits there. The only thing he does (besides the normal day-to-day maintenance he does to live) is send out chemicals (like a “chirp” in Boost Mobile terms) to see if any other Harveys are out there, and if so, please holla back. If other Harveys come near, they pick up each others’ signals until they get a big enough gang (a “quorum” in scientific terms), and then…they begin to glow. The glowing is actually a by-product of all the genes (100 or so) that get turned on and off, the net result of which is that the many Harveys being to to act as one huge organism.

This shit is cooler than Hypercolor t-shirts!

Pretty cool in itself, right?

Cool thing #2 – Bonnie Bassler, who together with Michael Silverman discovered this phenomenon, then went on to discover that not just Harveys, but all bacteria can talk within their species in this manner. They communicate, group together, and carry out all sorts of activities besides glowing, such as…making you sick! Neato! Bonnie describes it best:

“Melissa Miller, a graduate student in the lab, went on to show that cholera has a circuit like Vibrio harveyi‘s and what it does, it doesn’t make light, it makes toxins, and so that’s what it does as a group,” Bassler explains. “So they can’t make you sick as one, but if they wait and they launch their attack together, it’s fantastic.” Source: “A Biologist’s Listening Guide to Bacteria” by Richard Harris, All Things Considered, NPR News, September 12, 2006.

Fantastic indeed. Cool thing #3 – Bassler THEN went on to discover that not only do members of bacteria species talk to one another, ALL species of bacteria can talk to ALL species of bacteria! Think about how remarkable this is! It’s as if humans could talk to dogs (“fucking STOP jumping on me, OK buddy????”) or birds (they would probably get sick of being asked, “How does it feel to fly?”) or snails (“I’m going to eat you now, after I dump you in some garlic.”), and they could TALK BACK! (“I just FUCKING LOVE YOU SO FUCKING MUCH!,” “I dunno, it’s aight, I guess,” and “Noooooooooo!” respectively).

OK, actually a more appropriate analogy would be that it would be more like if we could communicate with other ape species such as chimps or bonobos. Still pretty cool, don’t you think? [Dane Cook fans nod enthusiastically here]

This is how it works.

The coolest thing about Bonnie Bassler, however, is this: Bonnie is an aerobics instructor. Why is this the coolest? Because *I* am an aerobics instructor, too! I am a bonafide “group exercise leader” certified through the American Council on Exercise. I think scientist + aerobics instructor is a great combination. Just like little bacteria Harveys, I’m hoping that nerdy scientist aerobics instructors can band together to rule the world.

Bonnie, you’re my hero

I bring the same nerdy intensity to aerobics as I do to my research. I practice my step aerobics routines in the stairwell between my 4th floor office and my 3rd floor lab. I have cataloged all my kickboxing sequences (such as jab-jab-cross, lunge, hook, lunge, uppercut) in a gigantic kickboxing database. I just today had a two-hour conversation with a triathlete about the biomechanics of the pedal stroke (I teach spinning, too), and whether it was possible to hit 100% efficiency or if that was biomechanically impossible.

The moral of this story is this: bringing a little science into our world is a great thing. It makes for better aerobics classes. It makes for pretty glowy things. And, one day, it might help us talk to our pets.