Monday, June 30, 2008

What's going on?

OK, both Carl Zimmer and Phil Plait are pulling something... They're both late. WTF is going on? Are they in cahoots?

That's just mean. Keeping fans in suspense like that! I mean really!

UPDATE: They have both gone over to Discovery magazine's blogs. This should be an interesting move.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Suburban Wildlife 3

The beautifully ugly Wood Stork, perched on the eave of the condo complex a street over. They usually spend the summer with us here in Pinellas, then head south for the winter. They soar with grace, but the take-off and landing can be a bit awkward.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


How does one go about weaving a compelling story about a seemingly simple gut bacterium?

For me it was rather simple: I didn't even try. That didn't get the story very far, though, so thank goodness that there are people around who can do it. I don't need to, and hey, anyone who visits here knows that writing compelling narrative is not my strong suit. That's what Carl Zimmer is for.

'Bout 10 minutes ago I closed the book that contains this remarkable story Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life, and I couldn't resist the urge to write a little something about it. I am not a complete layman when it comes to E. coli, in fact I hijack it's machinery quite frequently. I've used it for such diverse things as developing and testing a detection and quantification method for toxic algae to figuring out microbial communities' components. It is as essential to my work as the mechanics' socket wrench is to theirs. Though the mechanic may take that socket wrench for granted, I shall no longer do the same with my E. coli.

I never really worried too much about how this little bug came to be the wonderful tool that it is, though I knew it has been deployed for all kinds of useful things. Diabetic friends of mine use human insulin produced by huge vats of E. coli, for instance.

Zimmer's prose in this book is classic Zimmer style. He has developed a voice that explains in conversational and understandable ways some of the most complicated bits of biology. Heck, my retired non-scientist father devoured Evolution: Triumph of an Idea and came back to me with some questions that clearly showed that Zimmer's writing helped evolution make sense to him. Call it the "father test." If my Dad can read a biology book that lays out fairly complex topics cover to cover in a week and not only understand it, but enjoy it, that's good writing.

Throughout the book, Zimmer repeats Monod's quote "What is true for E. coli is true for the elephant." He uses this non-intuitive phrase to great rhetorical purpose. As he takes us through the discovery of this humble little gut bug, the stories of the scientists who figured out many of its inner workings, and eventually how to manipulate them, Monod's quote is the recurrent chorus. The story of modern biology, with all of its various uses and troubles, Zimmer shows us, is the story of E. coli.

Zimmer takes us from the beginning, with the discovery of the bug, through the process of proving it even had genes. He takes us through the experiments that Lederberg conducted to demonstrate that E. coli had sex, in a series of not-very-racy scenes (hey, he's not writing that kind of book).

He leads us through how scientists learned it can get sick and that those viruses had genes, too; similar genes to the host they infect. From these humble beginnings, he takes us through the development of E. coli as a serious, though somewhat messy and stinky tool that has proven to be an essential part of modern biology. If E. coli sex and illness sound "neat to know, but useless" read the book. It's truly amazing the power of those two little facts and the impact they have had on modern biology.

There were several moments where I was reminded of facts of life I have taken for granted, until I saw it written in Zimmer's evocative prose. The sheer numbers of these bugs in our guts and indeed their necessity for our survival, was one I need to store away to squick out new lab interns. The truth about the integrity of "humanity" is something I'll let you discover on your own.

In short, I guess this review all boils down to a few points:
->if you like bacteria, buy the book,
->if you don't care about bacteria, buy the book 'cause, really Zimmer uses E. coli as a window to "the new science of life"
->just buy the damn book, it's a great read.

Next time someone tells you that science and understanding takes away the wonder and awe, send 'em one of Zimmer's books to show them just how wrong they are.

Oh, I almost forgot! Galileo likes it too:

Friday, June 27, 2008

Did I mention that I'm psychic?

I have a prediction to lay upon y'all (all 1 of my readers, including myself).

I predict that some time in the first few month of 2009:
someone will forget to use the new year on a personal check,
someone will lose their keys.
someone will be unable to find the gift receipt to return the horrible thing that was given to them for the holidays,
someone will state that the commercials during the Super Bowl were the best part of the game,
And someone will sue the state of Louisiana with an establishment clause violation.

Governor Jindal, LA, signed into law the "academic freedom" bill, covered in the Times Picayune. Oft attempted by other states, including my current home of Florida (which died due to lack of time, not interest), these bills are nothing more that an attempt by the Religious Wrong to insert their faith into the public school system. When some misguided teacher attempts to "teach the controversy" about the "strengths and weaknesses" of the theory of evolution, there will be a court battle. The state will lose. They may win initially, depending on the specifics of how the case is set up but eventually they will find out that their legislation in this area is unconstitutional. It will cost them mucho dinero.

The crystal ball grows fuzzy...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, Tits!

I'm gonna miss George.
Here's the original 7 words bit, in brief:

So, the question becomes, where is George Carlin now?

The weather tonight will be...dark.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Suburban Wildlife 2

Cuban Tree frog, on the screen to my back porch. It's an invasive, and the recommendation is that we catch them, put them in a bag and then in the freezer. I have a hard time doing that, so I'll try to break the reproductive chain instead. I'll make sure all the eggs in the pond laid during their orgies are killed. It's like friggin' Calligula out there when they're gettin' it on, but their egg masses are pretty distinctive, so either the fish eat 'em or I'll start scooping 'em out. It's free plant food, right?

I don't want to mess with the eggs of the other frogs that use our pond, so I'll have to scoop 'em quick. We do have a few native species that use our little pond for their procreative needs.

She's cute, though, huh?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Always run your backups!

I have finished installing the new HD, installed Leopard, and, after much manual shuffling, transferred almost all of my files. The old drive was so messed up that I couldn't just transfer my account, so I have to reconstruct everything basically one folder at a time. Most of the pictures and music made it through fine, but a small minority were too far gone. The email all came through ok, so that's nice. I'll see about the address book and bookmarks and calendar and all that rot over the weekend.

I'll have more pics and rants soon!

Final reminder: Always run your backups!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

I'm not dead, yet...

...but my computer is. My HD is on the blink and failing rapidly. I've decided not to use it unless absolutely necessary to save it for the hopeful last-gasp download to the new HD. I'm using the SO's compy for now, but she gets a bit testy when I'm on her computer all day. I can't imagine why.

So that all means posting will be a bit light for a while. I hope to have the problem resolved by the end of the week.

Does anyone know how to swap out the hard drive on a MacBook?