Thursday, April 01, 2004

Root Canals, Group Projects, and other fun activities

I just got off the phone with a member of my project group for my "Social Issues in Biotechnology" class. During the conversation, she mentioned that she just finished a graduate writing workshop recommended by her advisor. After I got off the phone, it occurred to me that no one had ever suggested that I take a writing workshop in grad school. With a sinking feeling, I went and looked at her midterm paper on our class website. Let's just say it didn't fill me with confidence in her writing ability.

Now to be fair, I don't think she is a native English speaker. And I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who knows enough of a foreign language to attend graduate school in it. But on the other hand, when your grade is on the line, you can't help but think that it would be nice to be in a group with a few gifted wordsmiths with a remarkable command of the English language.

I should point out that I've worked with plenty of native-born Americans who were lousy writers, and I'm sure there are plenty of non-native speakers who can write circles around me. But unfortunately they aren't in my BIOT640 project group.

Oh, yeah. On top of that, I have once again summarily been elected group leader. We were playing a game of chicken. The first person to panic and suggest that maybe we should actually meet was tagged as the sucker, and henceforth appointed ruler. That was me. So it's my job to guide the group into coming up with a coherent paper in the next month. It's going to be a long month.

Letting sleeping birds lie...

BoingBoing highlighted this article on managing your body's hardwired "biological clock" that determines sleep cycles. It explains why the only time I usually see the sunrise is when I stay up for it.
The body tells time with a master clock in the brain, a pinhead-sized cluster of neurons in the hypothalamus that takes cues from optic nerves that signal sunlight. By sticking people in isolation chambers, scientists discovered that most people's internal clocks run a bit longer — about a half-hour on average — than the sun's 24-hour cycle. That's why, for most people, it's easier to stay up later and compensate by sleeping in than to force yourself to sleep early and wake early, explains Dr. Eliza Sutton, an acting assistant professor of medicine at the University of Washington. Morning larks are those rarer birds whose body clock is shorter than 24 hours, so they wake up raring to go.

On Frida Kahlo, Mexico, and Art

detail, Self-Portrait with Loose Hair, 1947, by Frida Kahlo A friend at work recently went to Mexico City, and has been giving me crib sheets for my upcoming trip. He recommended that I watch Frida, the award-winning film about Mexican artist Fridah Kahlo and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera.

So last night I rented the movie. It was shot entirely in Mexico, and was absolutely beautiful. A lot of the credit for this goes to director Julie Taymor. After listening to her director's commentary, I am a huge fan. She is amazingly articulate about how she manages to portray emotion on film, something that not all directors are able to convey. And her vision and connection to the material in the movie are apparent.

As usual, I spent a lot of time trolling through the DVD extras. The second disc included a variety of interviews with the participants in the film. One particularly fascinating one is with Chavela Vargas, a famous Mexican folk singer (in her 90s) who performed in the film and who actually knew Frida Kahlo. Through the subtitles, she almost seemed to be speaking in poetry.

Another hidden treasure was this story, relayed by Julie Taymor during an interview with Bill Moyers:

I am often interested in the story of the outsider. You know I lived in Indonesia for many years. [...] I was there for two years and I was planning to stay longer and start a theater company. I went to Bali to a remote village by a volcanic mountain on the lake. They were having a ceremony that only happens only every 10 years for the young men. I wanted to be alone.

I was listening to this music and all of a sudden out of the darkness I could see glints of mirrors and 30 or 40 old men in full warrior costume-- there was nobody in this village square. I was alone. They couldn't see me in the shadows. They came out with these spears and they started to dance. They did, I don't know, it felt like an eternity but probably a half hour dance. With these voices coming out of them. And they danced to nobody. Right after that, they and I went oh, my God. The first man came out and they were performing for God. Now God can mean whatever you want it to mean. But for me, I understood it so totally. The detail on the costumes. They didn't care if someone was paying tickets, writing reviews. They didn't care if an audience was watching. They did it from the inside to the outside. And from the outside to the in. And that profoundly moved me then.

The rest of the interview is online right here.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

"There is no such thing as a safe Shards O' Glass Freeze Pop."

Shards O' Glass: (amount of shards may vary in each flavor) It must be fun to work someplace where your entire job is basically to be a pain in the tobacco industry's backside. Case in point:
Shards O' Glass Freezer Pops

At Shards O' Glass, our goal is to be the most responsible, effective and respected developer of glass shard consumer products intended for adults. Our Shards O' Glass Freeze Pops are the nation's top-selling frozen treats containing glass shards. Little wonder, considering all we put into them! Enjoy your stay here. And remember, Shards O' Glass Freeze Pops are for adults only. is also pretty cool -- it's an ongoing project to index, cross-reference, OCR, and make available online the thousands millions of tobacco industry documents revealed during tobacco litigation.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Free books

Random discovery: The National Academies Press has placed more than 3000 complete books online for free. They are mostly technical and scientific books (Immunization Safety Review: Influenza Vaccines and Neurological Complications, anyone?), but there are some hidden gems. For example, Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention and Tragedy:
Charismatic, confident, and boyishly handsome, Thomson was not a scientist who labored quietly in a lab, plying his trade in monkish isolation. When scores of able tinkerers were flummoxed by their inability to adapt overland telegraphic cables to underwater, intercontinental use, Thomson took to the high seas with new equipment that was to change the face of modern communications. And as the world’s navies were transitioning from wooden to iron ships, they looked to Thomson to devise a compass that would hold true even when surrounded by steel.

But as the century drew to a close and Queen Victoria's reign ended, this legendary scientific mind began to weaken. He grudgingly gave way to others with a keener, more modern vision. But the great physicist did not go quietly. With a ready pulpit at his disposal, he publicly proclaimed his doubts over the existence of atoms. He refused to believe that radioactivity involved the transmutation of elements. And believing that the origin of life was a matter beyond the expertise of science and better left to theologians, he vehemently opposed the doctrines of evolution, repeatedly railing against Charles Darwin. Sadly, this pioneer of modern science spent his waning years arguing that the Earth and the Sun could not be more than 100 million years old. And although his early mathematical prowess had transformed our understanding of the forces of nature, he would never truly accept the revolutionary changes he had helped bring about, and it was others who took his ideas to their logical conclusion.

The catch to all this (and there's always a catch) is that you either have to read the books page-by-page online, or pay to buy a printed copy or download a complete PDF. Still, it's a pretty nifty program.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Too much information

I'm sitting in Bongo Java working on my Biotech paper. One of the guys who works here is having a loud conversation with a customer while sweeping the floor. It's all about how he was sick yesterday. He vomited a lot. He's going into great detail. I don't claim to be a marketing expert, but it seems to me this might not be the best patter for a place that serves food.