Tuesday, June 30, 2009

These Boots Were Made for Walkmen

Here's a thought experiment: what if you handed a contemporary 13-year-old a vintage Sony Walkman from the late 1970s/early 1980s? Would he be able to figure out how it worked? The BBC (via Gizmodo) has an article on just such an experiment.

For all of you who have a tough time figuring out new technology, take heart (or be downright smug) that today's kids have (or at least this one had) a tough time figuring out old technology. Even the humble cassette tape itself posed problems:
It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape. That was not the only naive mistake that I made; I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.
Actually, I remember when a Walkman that had an auto-reverse feature (i.e., the head flips around at the end of a tape and plays the other side automatically) came out, I thought that was the greatest thing ever.

He did learn that one of the limitations of analog tape was the inability to shuffle songs:
But I managed to create an impromptu shuffle feature simply by holding down "rewind" and releasing it randomly - effective, if a little laboured.
I told my dad about my clever idea. His words of warning brought home the difference between the portable music players of today, which don't have moving parts, and the mechanical playback of old. In his words, "Walkmans eat tapes". So my clumsy clicking could have ended up ruining my favourite tape, leaving me music-less for the rest of the day.
I do recall that any tape length longer than 90 minutes (like the 120-minute ones) tended to get eaten anyway. But since most albums were under 45 minutes long (the limitations of vinyl), one 90-minute cassette could hold two albums. I used to obsessively record all my vinyl LPs on cassette--to play on my Walkman, of course. Just like I now obsessively rip all my CDs to play on my iPod. Technology changes, but behavior doesn't.

Next we'll have to give this kid a rotary dial phone--with a cord and everything--which may very well blow his mind.

Yes, the magnetic audio tape has gone the way of the VHS tape--and some years ago automakers stopped even including tape decks in new cars, a fact I only discovered about five years ago when I rented a car and had no place to insert my iPod tape deck adapter, which never worked well anyway. (In cold weather it would constantly eject itself.) In fact, the only reason I bought a new car a couple years ago was for a direct iPod jack. (And decent cupholders.) Any other car feature is pretty much wasted on me, since I hate driving.

Still, as someone who had his share of Walkmen over the course of the 80s and 90s (and seized on the iPod from Day 1 as far superior), I can't help but think that, in 30 years, the iPod will probably be seen as quaint and nostalgic, and the 13-year-olds of 2039 will likely be hard-pressed to figure out how it works. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Monday, June 29, 2009


There is something deeply wrong about the fact that the only place to get cell phone reception in a 10-mile radius of Blue Mountain Lake, NY, is actually on a boat in the middle of the lake.

Last week, Ken A. and I rented--as we did last year--a cabin on Blue Mountain Lake up in the Adirondacks. I like it for many reasons, not the least of which is that there is absoluetly no cell reception, WiFi, or even TV in the house. And it's usually fairly quiet, free of the chain saws, .lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and the rest of the din of suburbia. (Though they were replacing the roof of the cabin next door, which tended to be a bit loud--not so much the hammering, but the bad 1980s radio station they had on.) Still, we had pretty decent weather, and happily missed black fly season.

I had been fretting the black flies, since the prior week I had gone up to Tupper Lake (about 30 miles north of Blue Mountain Lake) to interview the director of The Wild Center (The Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks) for an upcoming story for RealScience, and she had told me that they were still in the thick of them.

Black flies are nasty, but happily their season ends by the end of June, which is when most people start doing their summer activities. (Well, it's when I get around to doing them, anyway.) There are more than 1,800 or so species of black fly in the family Simuliidae in the order Diptera. Different parts of the world--and even the U.S.--have their own indigenous species, but Simulium venustum is the one familiar to campers and hikers. The black flies feed on blood and are worse than mosquitoes because whereas a mosquito inserts its proboscis into the flesh and sucks blood as if through a straw, the black fly rips open the flesh with its bladelike mouthparts (rather like those of a horsefly) and laps up the blood as it pools on the skin. (Although I've been to restaurants with people who eat like this.) They swarm in great numbers, and although they aren't lethal, there are those who have allergic reactions. Some species in South America and Africa can also transmit the parasitic nematode Onchocerca volvulus, which causes Onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness. Here's an interesting fact: black flies are more attrated to dark blue than white clothing. However, even black flies won't be caught wearing white after Labor Day.

Anyway, we were quite happy to have avoided the whole business and just had the mosquitoes to deal with. Hence, the entire cathedral's worth of citronella candles we had on hand. Still, we didn't do much beyond sit overlooking the lake with a stack of books and a bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon (sorry, Audrey!). (K. goes to Kentucky fairly often to Corning's plant in Harrisburg, which is not far from the Bourbon Trail, and picked some up from the source. It's rather good.)

On Tuesday, we accidentally climbed up a mountain. That is, we had been in the Blue Mountain Lake general store (perfect when you're not looking for anything specific) and found a flyer on local hiking trails and throught we'd give one a try. The trailhead was just up the road, but, as it turned out, it was a 2-mile (one way) hike to the top of Blue Mountain (elevation 3,759 feet above sea level, but I believe from where we started it was only about 1,300 feet or something like that). Still it was rather steep, involved a lot of clambering over rocks, and it had been two or three years since I had last gone hiking--although it was not as arduous an ascent as the hike up Bash Bish Falls. At the top was a fire tower, the climbing of which was highly vertigo-inducing. Indeed, Jimmy Stewart was clinging to the ladder for dear life. Kim Novak was at the top about to be pitched off.

Still, the views from the summit were quite spectacular:

We also had a good view of Blue Mountain Lake, and could even spot generally where our cabin was:
There is also a sort of unwritten code of mountain hiking that states that, while descending, you offer encouragement to those on the way up (i.e., "The top isn't far"; "There's only one more really steep bit"; "You're utterly doomed. Turn back!")

We weren't aware just how high we had climbed until Thursday, when we rented a boat on Blue Mountain Lake and happened to see the mountain from afar:
You can't see it in the iPhone photo, but from the lake we could make out the fire tower we had climbed, as well as the cell phone tower at the summit--which is why I can get reception in the middle of the lake, but not anywhere else, as other mountains and landforms in the area block the reception. Thankfully.

I did actually check my e-mail once in the boat in the middle of the lake--but got aggravated by a note from a colleague, realized why I liked being incommunicado, and turned the iPhone off until I got home over the weekend.

I could have used another week there. Or three. Or...

Speaking of incommunicado, here's a blast from the past:


Good grief, I go away for a week to a remote Adirondack cabin far from TV, cellphone reception, and WiFi, and when I return everyone is dead--Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson to name three. Two of the three were very surprising. Three guess which two. (Hint: "Hey-O!")

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Census Working Overtime

Just got an exultant e-mail from Dr. Joe that the eagerly awaited 2007 Economic Census data are finally out. Let' s celebrate with song.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Waiting for the End of the World

I was in Borders the other day, and there now seems to be a cottage industry of books on the so-called "end of the world," which is said to be coming in 2012. Specifically, December 21, 2012. Whilst I am happy that it would mean I can avoid Christmas shopping, alas, we will all still be here in January (although I think I'll schedule any dentist's appointments for January 2013, so at least there will be an upside if the world does in fact end).

So where did this idea come from? Well, first of all, throughout history, there has never been any shortage of doomsday predictions, whether they be divinely inspired or technologically derives (the so-called Y2K disaster that also, if memory serves, spawned a cottage industry of books).

Interestingly, the current "2012" doomsday has actually been rescheduled from 2003. It's basically if Amtrak ran doomsday.

NASA's David Morrison, who writes the "Ask an Astrobiologist" blog, has 20 questions about the looming disaster. Some of his commentary has appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer, and as 2012 looms closer, I expect will be appearing more places.

Why is NASA getting involved in this?

I refer you to Question 1:
1. What is the origin of the prediction that the world will end in December 2012?
The story started with claims that Nibiru, a supposed planet discovered by the Sumerians, is headed toward Earth. Zecharia Sitchin, who writes fiction about the ancient Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer, claimed in several books (e.g., The Twelfth Planet, published in 1976) that he has found and translated Sumerian documents that identify the planet Nibiru, orbiting the Sun every 3600 years. These Sumerian fables include stories of “ancient astronauts” visiting Earth from a civilization of aliens called the Anunnaki. Then Nancy Lieder, a self-declared psychic who claims she is channeling aliens, wrote on her website Zetatalk that the inhabitants of a fictional planet around the star Zeta Reticuli warned her that the Earth was in danger from Planet X or Nibiru. This catastrophe was initially predicted for May 2003, but when nothing happened the doomsday date was moved forward to December 2012. Only recently have these two fables been linked to the end of the Mayan long-count at the winter solstice in 2012 – hence the predicted doomsday date of December 21, 2012.
It bears mentioning that doomsdayophiles conflate so-called Nibiru with "Planet X" and/or Eris. "Planet X" is a generic name assigned to any newly discovered object that might turn out to be a planet at the far edge of the Solar System. When the dwarf planet we now call Eris was first identified, it was referred to as "Planet X," then code-named "Xena" (those astronomers are lawless), and then officially named "Eris." Indeed, back in the early 20th century, when astronomers suspected that what we now call Pluto existed, it was also called "Planet X." None of these are Nibiru, and none of them are coming anywhere near the Earth, not in 2012 or...well, ever.

Doomsayers also, for reasons passing understanding, cite as evidence the fact that December 21, 2012, is the last date on the Mayan calendar. I don't know. December 31, 2009, is the last date on both my American Museum of Natural History wall calendar and my Anguished English page-a-day desk caldendar. I should be doubly worried--and a lot sooner!

Or it could mean that the end of the year is when the calendar resets, and I just have to buy a new one (or get one for Christmas, hint hint).

Likewise, there is evidence that the Mayan calendar is cyclical, albeit on a much larger scale than a single year, and that when it ends it simply means that you start again from the beginning. Like any calendar.

If you are concerned about the looming end of the world in 2012--and everyone seems to have their favorite method of destruction--I encourage you go read Dr. Morrison's Q&A.

Personally, I think the real worry is not the year 2012, but 2112. But at least I know if I find an ancient guitar in a cave, to not play it for the priests of the Temple of Syrinx.

Don't Catch the Bus

It has literally been almost 15 years since I was last on a Greyhound bus, and I hope it's at least that long before I am on one again. And, no, it has nothing to do with the passengers; rather, it's because it makes Amtrak look like the model of courtesy and efficiency.

I was supposed to return from New York Friday night on the 11:45 train. There was a World Science Festival event at 9:00 I wanted to attend (castmembers from the new Battlestar Galactica conjointly talking about cyborgs with roboticists) but I had innocently checked to see if there was an earlier train, only to find out that there had been a Metro North derailment south of Poughkeepsie and as a result there were no trains at all leaving until morning. I had a 10 a.m. meeting in Clifton Park, so staying overnight was not an option (for budgetary reasons, as well). I did some investigating and learned to my chagrin that the only way to get back to Albany was Greyhound.

There was a 9 p.m. bus that theoretically got in to Albany at 11:50. As it happened, it was almost entirely full of Amtrak refugees, and several of us bonded, as one does in those kinds of circumstances, through mutual grousing. Misery loves company, indeed. Anyway, Greyhound ticket counter agents are not exactly models of speed and efficiency; it was like watching a lava lamp. Gate numbers are merely suggestions which can change on a whim, and do. And then the bus was a half hour late getting in to the Port Authority, and one of course loves to spend as much time in Port Authority as possible. (Although, to be fair, Port Authority is actually much better designed and actually less horrid than Penn Station these days.)

On top of that, it is actually more expensive to take the bus than the train. I was not expecting that.

Finally, we get moving. Now, bear in mind, everyone on the bus is cranky and just wants to go home. The bus driver knows this. I don't see how he can't, unless he has no sensory apparatus whatsoever. Which in fact he doesn't.

Halfway up the Thruway, we pull off into a rest stop. Do buses do this? Everyone raises a fuss, but the driver simply says, "Nature calls," and gets off the bus. Naturally, other people decide to get off, too, either to smoke or to forage for food. I am certain we will spend the rest of our lives here.

After about 10 minutes, the natives start getting restless, as the bus driver has not returned. Some people toy with the idea of sending out a search party, and my immediate thought is that it will be like those horror movies where they send out a search party to look for a missing search party, and then that search party disappears. Anyway, it turns out the bus driver is calmly eating dinner at the McDonald's. Um...? He is cajoled into returning to the bus, only to discover that there are passengers missing. Those of us who stayed on the bus unanimously vote to leave without them, but we are overruled. So we wait another 10 minutes until they finally return with sacks of vile-smelling McDonald's food. Any chance we could careen off the highway into the Hudson?

Happily, the rest of the trip passes without incident. Until we get to Albany, and we discover that the bus driver does not know how to get to the Albany bus station. Isn't this the most basic skill one needs to be a bus driver, knowing where the bus station is? Especially since this was non-stop trip, with no stop other than Albany. In retrospect, I wonder if he even has a driver's license. So there we were, driving through downtown Albany with various passengers shouting out "Left!" "Right!" "Straight through this light!" It was very surreal. It was aso rather fortuitous, since we were all Amtrak refugees--and to be honest I hadn't a clue where the Albany bus station is. I still don't. And I hope I never have cause to find it again.

Anyway, we finally get in, and one of the folks I had met in Port Authority asked if I wanted to split a cab, because we all still had to get to the Rensselaer train station, where our cars all were. By this time, she was exceedingly cranky and made Lucrezia Borgia seem like Sandy Duncan. We had climbed into a cab and while the cab driver was trying to round up other passengers who were going the same place, she decided to rip him a new one and demand that we get going. Naturally, one doesn't like to rile cab drivers, and for good reason: we tore out of there at about 95, nearly crashed through utility poles, crash barriers, other cars, etc. It was like that chase scene at the end of The French Connection. I find it hard to believe that the five-minute ride from the bus station to the trail station should have been $20. I suspect he inflated that for our benefit. I sure wasn't going to argue with him at that point. He knows where the tire iron is.

And, of course, as I was paying for my parking, the attendant decided to launch into a long dissertation about what the effect of the derailment had been on the Rensselear station, the pattern of rail passeners returning to their cars, and so forth. I honestly thought he was going to pull out a PowerPoint presentation. All I'm thinking is, "It's 1 a.m. Can I go home now, please?" I was finally released, and I'm sure the people behind me were treated to the same lecture.

So, my new policy was that I'm never leaving the house again.

Well, until my douchebag neighbors started their ^%$#$&* chainsaws at 7:30 Sunday morning...

They Blinded Me with Science

Last week, after The Decemberists show, I trucked on down to NYC for the World Science Festival, which I was covering for RealScience.us (I had met the guy who runs it in Santa Fe last week--no, wait last month; oy, tempus fugit). Anyway, I wheedled my way into the opening night gala at Alice Tully Hall and the subsequent reception where I actually got to interview Alan Alda (he is one of the co-chairs of the event) and was snarked at by James Watson (Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule), but then Watson is 8,000 years old and is the most crotchety guy you could ever meet). It was a very enjoyable event; my decidedly un-Edward R. Murrow-like audio coverage can be heard here. A follow up report should be going up later today.


Here's something interesting--while I was on the road last week, I took along my old G4 Powerbook (my designated traveling computer) which still works extremely well (I bought it in 2004), though the battery is a bit dodgy (unplugged, it will last less than 20 minutes). Anyway, it's not the computer I normally use to sync my iPhone, or, more to the point, buy iPhone apps and e-books. So while on the road, I took a couple of pictures on my iPhone and needed to download them. Unfortunately, when my iPhone synced (sunk?), it removed my iPhone apps (despite the fact that I told it to not sync anything but iPhoto) and my e-books, including ones I had paid for. Anything I had bought from Fictionwise could be easily restored from my bookshelf, but it seems that anything I had bought through my Kindle iPhone App was gone for good. Doh! Fortunately, there weren't that many, and as it turns out, I have found that I much prefer reading e-books via eReader than the Kindle app anyway.

The ephemeral nature of digital data is, to my mind, one of the downsides of e-books. (Not that I haven't lost printed books before.) Like any data, it can be easily destroyed or erased unless meticulously backed up. And who does that?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Festering Boil

Over at Movie Mis-Treatments, the 1953 confuse-fest Mesa of Lost Women starring Jackie Coogan awaits you.
The movie plays like a fever dream. It’s wildly incoherent at even its best moments. And it has no best moments. It is told in flashback—actually two flashbacks—although many of the events are not actually witnessed by either of the people flashing back. One character’s flashback suddenly becomes another’s about midway through the movie. I think.

It was edited using the “Sgt. Pepper technique” (i.e., cut the film into bits, throw them in the air, and randomly tape the bits back together); in fact, a deep existential conversation between two characters about love and life is intercut with random close-ups of grinning dwarves. Oh, and the soundtrack comprises 68 minutes of “Duet for Untuned Spanish Guitar and Kangaroo Jumping on Piano.” Endlessly.

Mark Your Calendars

Do you wonder how much time is left before the game show The Running Man premieres, or when we'll start eating Soylent Green, or when we can all cavort in upsetting red shorts like Sean Connery in Zardoz? Well, thanks to Dan Meth, this handy Timeline tells us when the events of our favorite sci-fi movies will be taking place (click image for larger version):

Plugging Away

Via Gizmodo, the ultimate solution for those of us who find that even power strips don't give us enough outlets for all our crap: the "Outlet Wall":


Happy Bloomsday, all you James Joyce fans.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Maritime Evening

Yes, it has been some time since last I blogged, but the past week has just left me all a-quiver with excitement, such that my typing fingers were vibrating like piano wires, thwarting my every attempt at blogging. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Last Tuesday, mi hermano and I braved a cold, rainy, March-like June evening to see The Decemberists at the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston. I had not known it was an outdoor venue, but at least there was a roof. As Colin Meloy (singer for The Decemberists) explained it during some between-song banter, “Weatherwise, it’s June, apparently, and it’s summer in other places. We’ve been there, we’ve lived through it, and we’ve come to tell you Northern people [they are from Portland, Oregon] that there’s summer out there to be had.”

Despite the weather, it was quite possibly the best concert I have ever been to.

First of all, to my utter surprise, the opening act was Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 whom we had tickets to see back in April but who cancelled mere hours before showtime. The Venus 3 are guitarist Peter Buck (R.E.M.), bassist Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh fellows, The Minus 5), and Bill Rieflin (Ministry). They did a stripped down 32-minute set comprising a handful of songs from the new album (Goodnight Oslo), and two older songs—“Adventure Rocketship” from Olé Tarantula, and “I Often Dream of Trains,” which dates back to 1984’s album of the same name. Interesting, Robyn messed up the opening lyrics to “I Often Dream of Trains.” His between-song banter was his usual stream-of-consciousness, although he was a bit less verbose than he usually is when he headlines.

Colin Meloy (who sings backup on a few tracks on Goodnight Oslo) joined in for those self-same tracks. (Robyn, by the way, plays guitar on one track on the new Decemberists album.)

The song list was:

“I Often Dream of Trains”
“What You Is”
“Adventure Rocketship”
“Saturday Groovers”
“Hurry for the Sky”
“I’m Falling”
“Up to Our Nex”
“Goodnight Oslo”

The short set list was to make room in the evening for what were two one-hour sets by The Decemberists. The first set was the entirety of the new album, The Hazards of Love. The reason for this is that the album is a “concept album” (or a “rock opera,” although I have always hated that term). It’s one long, unbroken piece of music (well, it’s broken if you listen to it on an iPod because the header data that the MP3 format uses makes it nearly impossible to segue tracks; score one for CDs). The story is a narrative; indeed, almost all of Colin Meloy’s songs are stories—he has a degree in creative writing, actually—and over the past two albums have been experimenting with longer-form songs. Originally, they were largely folk-based (their early albums I once described as sounding like pirate folk music, or if Herman Melville fronted Fairport Convention) but have been gradually adding more and more classic rock and even progressive-rock elements. (Their last record The Crane Wife sounds like it could be the long lost Jethro Tull album recorded between Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play.)

Anyway, story of The Hazards of Love runs something like this: Our heroine Margaret is out wandering in the taiga and comes across a wounded fawn. She helps it out, and the fawn immediately shapeshifts into a human male (William). The choice of men must be decidedly limited in Margaret’s part of the world, because she immediately falls in love with him—after all, what could be more attractive than someone who had been wildlife only scant seconds earlier? They get up to some wild life of their own, and by Track 3 Margaret is pregnant (the narrative skirts questions of whether the child will be half-human/half-fawn). They are in love, but one obstacle appears in the form of William’s mother, the Queen. She is a witch who had transformed him into a fawn to keep him safe. There are all sorts of Freudian issues going on, and the Queen disapproves of William’s love for Margaret. She then abets the villain of the piece, The Rake, who in the best song on the record (villains always get the best songs) introduces himself by describing how he killed all his children. The Rake kidnaps Margaret, and the Queen helps him get her across the river. William goes in hot pursuit. The ending isn’t very clear, but it seems The Rake’s children come back to life to avenge their deaths (people don’t stay dead long in Colin Meloy songs) by singing “ooooh, the hazards of love” at him. William and Margaret drown together in the river but get married as they do so. There’s one wedding planner whose job I don’t envy.

Like most rock operas or concept albums, the narrative is a little dodgy, but musically it is incredible, and runs the gamut from gentle folk melodies to pounding heavy metal riffing. It takes a few listens to get into, but once it clicks, it’s hard to not want to listen to it again. And again. And again.

So in concert, they indeed played the entirety of the record—as one unbroken stream of music. Sure, some bandmembers had to vamp for a few extra bars in between some songs so others could change instruments (when the lights went out you could see the silhouettes of roadies running on and swapping guitars). The female singers who play the roles of Margaret and the Queen on the album (Becky Stark and Shara Worden, respectively, the latter of which has a very powerful Grace Slick voice) reprised their roles in concert. Worden in particular pulled out all the stops as Witchie-poo. The highlight had to be “The Rake’s Song” in which Meloy plays acoustic guitar, Nate Query plays bass, and everyone else pounds on drums. As I said, villains always get the best songs. (The Queen’s songs also get into deep Black Sabbath territory.)

The song list for the first half was:

The Hazards of Love
“The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)”
“A Bower Scene”
“Won’t Want for Love (Margaret In the Taiga)”
“The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)”
“The Queen’s Approach”
“Isn’t It a Lovely Night?”
“The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid”
“An Interlude”
“The Rake’s Song”
“The Abduction of Margaret”
“The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing”
“Annan Water”
“Margaret In Captivity”
“The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)”
“The Wanting Comes In Waves (Reprise)”
“The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)”
The second half of the show was another hour of other assorted tracks. My only disappointment was only one track from Picaresque (still my favorite album of theirs). But, who am I to complain? Meloy has been to a few Robyn Hitchcock concerts as he is getting that jokey stream-of-consciousness banter down pat. He treated the audience to a confession (“don’t tell anyone”) of “the worst song I ever wrote” describing the anatomy of “Dracula”s Daughter,” “A Cmaj7th to a G7, alternating back and forth in a swinging pattern—for the layman, all this is to say is that this is a douchy chord progression....As I put that on my notepad, my feather pen fell to the ground, with a splash of ink that spelled ‘Help.’” He then went on to talk about the ghosts that may have been in the room at the time...downright Hitchcockian. Still, Meloy is the kind of guy you actually would expect to use a feather pen; his lyric are rife with “thou”s and “shalt”s and the like, as well as vocabulary that sends even me running for the dictionary. (A “taiga” by the way, the setting for The Hazards of Love, is “a moist subarctic forest dominated by conifers [as spruce and fir] that begins where the tundra ends.”) That’s up there with “the curlews carve their arabesques” on The Crane Wife.

Other highlights included an extended “The Chimbley Sweep” in which various audience members were recruited to come on stage and strap on a guitar. The evening ended, as all Decemberists shows these days do, with “Sons and Daughters” and everyone in the audience chanting “Hear all the bombs fade away.”

The song list for the second half was:

“Oceanside” (5 Songs EP, 2001)
“Lesley Anne Levine” (Castaways and Cutouts, 2002)
“July, July!” (Castaways and Cutouts, 2002)
“Sleepless” (a truncated version of a track that appears on Dark Was the Night, a benefit album for Red Hot Organization, an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS)
“Summersong” (The Crane Wife, 2006)
“O Valencia” (The Crane Wife, 2006)
“The Chimbley Sweep” (Her Majesty, 2003)
“Crazy On You” (yes, the Heart song, sung by Margaret and the Queen from The Hazards of Love)
“Eli, The Barrow Boy” (Picaresque, 2005)
“Sons and Daughters” (The Crane Wife, 2006)

Anyway, it was a wonderful evening and if anyone ever gets the opportunity to see The Decemberists, I highly encourage it. Here is what the Boston Globe said of the show.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Palm's Curdless Phone?

Perhaps you have heard of the new Palm Pre, Palm's new smartphone. Whilst I am perfectly happy with my iPhone, the Gizmodo folks did discover that the Pre does have one advantage over the iPhone: its sharp edge can be used to slice cheese.

They say smartphones have become the new Swiss Army knives, but I had no idea that was meant to be taken literally.

Pimp My Ride

Well, I think I know what the niece(s) are getting for Christmas. (h/t Boing Boing.)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

They Call Me MISTER Squid

I'm not one for being posh, but the next time I have to go to a formal gathering, perhaps this T-shirt would be appropriate. I could even sing "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Nature Green in Tooth and Claw

I made a brief foray into the backyard today to once again try to tame the flora that is in danger of taking over everything. it kind of reminds me of a Brian Aldiss sci-fi novel I read a long time ago called Hothouse, in which plants evolved to take over just about every ecological niche on Earth, and a small remnant of humanity was banished into a large tree because if people got too close to the ground they’d be eaten by carnivorous plants. (Wouldn’t that make a great TV movie for the Home and Garden Network?) That’s pretty much my backyard. (I’ve decided to practice backyard Darwinism; whatever can survive me—or more precisely, my weed whacker—will live to spawn another day.) I guess I should mow the front yard at some point, before I have to yell at the lawn to stay off the kids.

It was in this context that I was reminded of poison ivy, as there is this colony of vines in the back that looks like it might be poison ivy. There is supposed to be a mnemonic phrase to remember how to tell if a plant is poison ivy. I think it goes something like “Leaves of three, sailors delight”? No, that can’t be right. Um, “Thirty days hath poison ivy, save for February, which has hairy vines...”? No... You know, I find it harder to remember mnemonics than the actual things.

Ah, here’s a picture. Box elder is on the left; poison ivy, with the serrated edges, is on the right. Kind of like a botanical police lineup.
It’s funny; growing up in the suburbs of New Hampshire, I don’t recall ever having had poison ivy, even though I had many friends who did. I find it hard to believe that I am not allergic to it. After all, it’s been estimated that 85% of people have allergic reactions to poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), and its brethren poison oak (T. diversilobum), and poison sumac (T. vernix). Heck, I even have allergic reactions to Yma Sumac (Soprano peruviana). Interestingly, the Toxicodendron genus is part of the family Anacardiaceae, which also includes the cashew, pistachio, and mango trees. All families have their ne’er-do-wells, I guess.

The culprit in poison ivy that causes all the problems is an oil called urushiol (the name comes from the Japanese urushi, which means “lacquer”). The urushiol touches the skin and chemically reacts with proteins on skin cells. The body fails to recognize these proteins as normal parts of the body (I think we’ve all had that experience, usually in fitting room mirrors) and sends in its army of T cells to destroy these invading pathogens—which are actually bits of the body’s own skin. The blistering and oozing are the results of the immune system response.

This urushiol is powerful stuff; as little as one billionth of a gram is enough to trigger an allergic response. Oh, and poison ivy can be spread, not by the ooze from the sores but rather from any stray urushiol that is transferred to clothing, pets, tools, toys, or just about any object. It can be transmitted from person to person if the one who made first contact still has the oil on his or her body.

Fortunately, poison ivy rashes are not usually very serious, just irritating, although they sometimes can lead to anaphylaxis, or a potentially life-threatening reaction.

People have tried to eradicate poison ivy but, like the weeds in my backyard, too easily recur. And I did come across an interesting study from 2006 that suggests that global warming may be a boon to poison ivy. Jacqueline E. Mohan, a postdoctoral scientist at the Woods Hole Marine Biology Lab’s Ecosystems Center, found that
[poison] ivy grown under high carbon dioxide grew twice as much over five years as the ivy exposed to today’s level of the greenhouse gas. Also, ivy grown in high carbon dioxide produced a more allergenic version of urushiol
Oh, good, more poison ivy and more toxic urushiol. Splendid. Furthermore:
Poison ivy is in a class of plants called woody vines. Around the world, woody vines are flourishing to the point where they can smother young trees, which are the “forests of the future,” said Mohan. Fifty to 100 years from now, if the level of carbon dioxide continues to rise and carbon dioxide promotes growth in woody vines, “what do we expect our forests to look like?” said Mohan.
Global warming doesn’t just affect carbon dioxide levels, but also the growing season (i.e., making it longer) as well as nitrogen resources. Mohan admits there is more to research before they can conclude what the effect of climate change on poison ivy will be. Still, it may very well be the case that, as the song says, you’re gonna need an ocean of calomine lotion.

Then I came across this news story this morning from the University of Delaware about another unpleasant plant: Phragmites australis, one of the most invasive plants in the United States. It invades by using a toxin which, as the UD researchers found out, gets even more potent in the presence of ultraviolet light (specifically, UV-B rays).

Phragmites secretes gallic acid, which it uses to kill off native plants and establish itself. However, the UD researchers found that UV light degrades gallic acid to produce a second toxin called mesoxalic acid, “effectively hitting susceptible plants and seedlings with a double-whammy.”

Nature adapts in its own ways to changes in the environment, and who knows what other changes in plant life climate change will bring? Maybe Brian Aldiss was exceedingly prescient, and plants will take over at some point. And then herbicide will be a crime. And where do they send people convicted of herbicide? Botany Bay, of course.

The Goth Fodder

Need a baby shower gift? Especially for a mother-to-be named Rosemary? How about this blade-covered baby equipment? (h/t Gizmodo) Perfect for what will almost certainly grow up to be a little hellion. What's next: a Bauhaus children's album?
You don't even want to see the rocking horse.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Seven Days to Decemberists

Counting down to next Tuesday, when mi hermano and I see The Decemberists at the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston. (We saw them previously back in 2006.)

Here is a 2007 performance of "Oceanside," the lead track from their debut EP 5 Songs (2003).

Meet the Beetles

In Santa Fe the other week, I happened to meet a Ph.D. candidate who was working at the NIH, but who also got a gig writing copy for the Smithsonian’s Web site. She was in my group, and she was workshopping an article on the Smithsonian Institution’s Osteo Prep Lab about a hitherto unknown (to me anyway) “behind the scenes” activity at many natural history museums: cleaning the skeletons of large animals. That is, removing the flesh and connective tissue.

I was reminded of this topic today as I was investigating the topic of “what do they do with dead zoo animals?” (My initial response was, “Two words: snack bar,” but further digging happily disproved this.) One possible destination for zoo animals that have joined the choir invisible and are pushing up the daisies (etc. etc.) is being sent to places like the Osteo Prep Lab.

Which then brings me back to my original subject: how do they remove the flesh from large animals to study or display bones, skulls, or entire skeletons? Surprisingly, they do not use chemicals or “mechanical” means (which are best left to an overactive imagination). In fact, they use bugs.

Dermestid beetles are a family (Dermestidae) of about 500–700 species in the order Coleoptera. (This order comprises beetles, essentially, of which there are about 350,000 known species; indeed, beetles represent 40% of all known insect species and as much as one-fourth of all the species on earth! The great naturalist J.B. S. Haldane was once asked by a cleric what he might infer about the Creator and is supposed to have responded, “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” The quote is perhaps apocryphal, but no less true.)

Anyway, dermestid beetles are also variously known as skin beetles, larder beetle, hide or leather beetles, carpet beetles, and khapra beetles (but not “silver beatles” with an “a”). Some are called “bow beetles” as they make their homes in violin cases and feast on the hair used to make violin bows, which would make Isaac very stern indeed.

Given so many dermestid species, it’s not surprising that they have a wide range of habits, but most are scavengers, and various genera have carved out their own nutritional niche. Some eat plants, some animal hair, others feathers, and still others eat other insects such as wasps.

One particular genus—the Dermestes—are carrion eaters. That is, they eat dead animal flesh (well, so do we, but “carrion” specifically refers to dead and putrefying flesh; there are a couple of restaurants I could pick on here, but I shan’t). This gives them two useful purposes for us humans.

I have not seen CSI in many years, but I would be very surprised if they had never done at least one episode about Demestes maculatus—hide beetles—which are one of a variety of insects that play a role in the field of forensic entomology. That is, medical examiners can gauge the time of death by examining how much of a dead body has been munched by dermestids. Dermestids have been found to “dine out” about 5–11 days after death (a pretty wide range, forensically speaking, but scientists are working to refine that range; interestingly, different species seem to arrive on the scene first, probably senior bugs after the “early bird special”).

Getting back to my original point, dermestids are also used by many natural history museums to clean animal skeletons.

This is not new; the process actually dates from 1922, and the earliest published description of its techniques dates from 1933 (Raymond E. Hall and Ward C. Russell, “Dermestid Beetles as an Aid in Cleaning Bones,” Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 372–374, 1933). (Ward Russell is said to be the “father of dermestid beetle bone cleaning.” I’m guessing he took many meals alone.) A 1974 article from Curator sums up some of the refinements to the technique.

A page on the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology’s Web site written by Stephen Hinshaw sums up the current state of the art. Whilst some of it gets a tad judgmental (“do not remove the brain unless you are an incredible pansy” or “the fish people don’t care to have their specimens degreased. They say that is part of the fishy ambiance that they like in their work. On the other hand the bird division has an almost fetish desire to degrease their specimens”) it is a very good detailed look at the topic.

Essentially, these labs start a healthy dermestid beetle colony and when it’s up and running, add fresh specimens (i.e., full-fleshed bones) for cleaning. The bugs eat the flesh, lay their eggs in the decomposing flesh, and the young’uns get in on the feast. After a while, significant levels of “frass” build up and must be removed. (Frass is insect excrement. If you’ve ever seen the movie Sideways, you may recall that there was a big celebrity winery called Frass Canyon. The insult was intentional.)

Once the flesh is gone (this was the original opening line of the Mamas and the Papas’ hit “California Dreamin’”: “All the flesh is gone, and the bones are clean...”) , you wash the resulting bones, make sure there aren’t any little critters left on (or in) them, and they’re ready to be sent to other departments in the museum.

The caveats involved with working with dermestids are fairly obvious. First, you have to be careful not to let them escape or they will get into other parts of the museum and eat things you don’t want them to eat. (We all have relatives like this.) One solution involves keeping the temperature below about 80°, since Dermestes maculatus can’t fly at those lower temperatures, which helps matters greatly. Building a bug box (or “dermestarium”) that is sufficiently secure is one big challenge of creating a colony. The bugs also achieve their best results on larger specimens; creatures like fish or small mammals can be damaged during the eating process and “disarticulated.”

I also have it on good authority that some dermestid labs smell rather awful. It’s hard to see why; after all, they only involve large chunks of decaying flesh that are being eaten by bugs. It’s hard to see how that would have any unusual odors. At the same time, dermestid larvae have tiny hairs that can go airborne and cause problems for people with respiratory problems or allergies.

It probably goes without saying that there are other creatures used to clean skeletons, but dermestids are useful because they are thorough, easy to keep, and don’t damage the bone they are cleaning. And it’s more environmentally sound than using chemicals.

So anyway, the next time you are at a natural history museum looking at an elephant skeleton, just remember all the little people that went into its preparation. And then be sure to skip the snack bar.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Syllable Heard Round the World?

Via Boing Boing, LA Weekly has a review of a 15-minute film by video artist Daniel Martinico which is nothing more than an endless loop of the buildup to Shatner yelling "Khaan!!" in Star Trek II: The Wrath of... umm, sorry, I seem to have forgotten.

A two-minute excerpt fails to capture the majesty of the full-length version, it is said. I'll take their word for it. It might make a good opening short for the new Star Trek movie.