Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Small Town Winter

Harry said that it’s more dangerous in the country than it is in the city. I had never heard that before, but I have spent years ruminating about it and finding ways to agree.

I have lived in New York City for 11 years now and in New York State my whole life. I grew up in southern Westchester, just a stone’s throw north of the Bronx. My family did not live in a small town, it was technically a little city encircled by suburbs. And both of my parents were New York City kids, which affected how we lived our suburban life: in suspicion of pretty much everyone and their squirrels. My parents spent many years cultivating a well-worn indifference to the majority of our neighbors. So, I never experienced the suffocation and acute yearning caused by growing up in a true one-horse town. It was that one lost year I spent in upstate New York that I felt the first miserable tickle of these creepy crawly town-averse tendencies. This Christmas we went to an Inn in New Hampshire. We spent two days there. It snowed and it was really very traditionally lovely, but that awful sensation welled up again:

It began with coffee that has that halo of watery weakness along the top rim, then came the ugly New England sweaters, turtle-necks, beer guts and typical pleasantries. It all makes me irrationally sick. Even two days of the same chubby judgemental Innkeeper knowing when I swish open and closed the Inn door irritates the shit out of me. Is it too much to ask that you ignore me? I don’t like it that someone is cleaning our room who is probably a cousin of the owner, who now knows we didn’t make the bed or that we have a bottle of Drambuie and an expensive camera in our room. I imagine the townspeople looking me up and down because my coat and boots are different—then I think that I must be going crazy—and then I see them do it.

I want a label for my disorder so I can officially hide behind it. Manhattanitis is too snobby, and I admit that what I have is a neurosis and not a sophistication. Its more like urban itch or a creeping crawling or a shortness of breath. I can really only stay one night at an adorable Inn. And Bed and Breakfast’s are completely out due to the high level of intimacy with chatty strangers at breakfast.

I—like Groucho and then like Woody—have a problem being part of any club that would have me as a member. I am not a joiner. This city is the only place that I can gracefully belong by not belonging. Sure its nice to live near Central Park and Carnegie Hall, but its the gritty anonymity that I need. I need my ipod and my coat and to walk a million blocks all bundled up and unavailable while being continually bombarded by all that is magnificent and horrifying in the world.

I am sure part of my discomfort comes from just being away from the comforts of a home anywhere, which is provincial and high-maintenance and all the things I try hard to resist, but its also true. I admit, I am philopatric, or “home-loving” in Greek.

Now, in spite of my discomfort, if you can believe it, we did actually have fun. We went out in the blizzard and cross country skied in the forest, which was dramatic and beautiful and my left toe turned lavender. But I will tell you about that another time.

Incidentally, since Harry was elderly, I think what he meant was that if you had a sudden health emergency in the country that it would take ages for someone to reach you. But I like to think that Harry also meant that the country could be a danger to that kooky urban freedom.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Great Pumpkin Pie

Forget turkey. Pumpkin pie is what defines the Thanksgiving table. Its orange ochre silkiness and notes of nutmeg evoke an anthem of autumnal comfort.

This year, for 9 minutes, we stopped to watch the parade balloons inflate. Then, we escaped the tourist-laden streets to have drinks with a friend. After drinks, we went on our pie-seeking way. We headed to the bakery ranked 3rd for the best pumpkin pie in the city. Why 3rd!? Well, numbers 1 and 2 were on the East side, or below 14th St, and the sun was setting fast on Thanksgiving eve. We rushed into the bakery flushed with hasty holiday warmth and anticipation. “We only have the big pies left”, they told us. Our gluttonous minds momentarily fixated on the words big pies, “ We’ll take one!”

On Thanksgiving Thursday, before turkey, and way before any actual conscious giving of thanks, we woke to coffee and a piece of this upper west side tertiary pie. The coffee was, as always, satisfying and delightful. The pie was—to my chagrinnot. Its disappointingly dense body rested in an overly buttery, almost greasy, un-crust. Our mouths considered it, but our hearts didn’t. We mumbled something, blamed ourselves for settling for 3rd, got dressed, and went to my Mother’s for the official celebration.

The meal concluded. And with perfectly cooked turkey behind us, we hunkered down for what we had really come for. My brother had made a pie from scratch, so we left the sub-par pie at home. Now this pie, my brother’s pie, was really something.

It looked as if the filling would spill out all over the table when sliced into, but it didn’t. The first piece I removed stood there on the plate, miraculously contained and regal. It would be a model for all pumpkin pies to come. To be precise, the filling was both pumpkin and yam. And the crust was an expression of ephemeral flakiness. My brother—who I always thought would have made a fine scientist—made the crust with vodka instead of water. The vodka wets the crust mixture at the right time but then evaporates completely when cooking, leaving no trace of vodka flavor, no sugary gluten, only a perfect pie crust in its wake.

With a dollop of lightly-sweetened whipped cream on top, we had what was probably the best, the lightest and most sublime pumpkin pie, ever. As we ate this pie together, we incidentally paused in silence. I know its flavor memory will flirt with our senses for Thanksgivings to come.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Out at the Beach

This September, we went back, even though some of us had never been there before. The place was Rockaway Beach, NY, the date September 25th and the mood, optimistic.

My parents met each other when they were about 9 years old. My father's parents owned a bungalow on Rockaway beach in Queens, my mother's family rented. Each summer, on Memorial day they packed up the big old American cars and drove from East Harlem, and from Corona, out to the beach. They stayed until Labor day. Almost every single summer was spent out there until the early 70's. By then, all three of my older brothers had been born. My mother and my aunts swam with flowered bathing caps, my dad rowed in peace with only the dog in the boat, they watched jets from Idlewild Airport roar overhead and pranced around with the confidence that comes with having fun.

What happened during those summers at the beach was, I am sure, typical of many middle class New York families during that time. But to me, it has always seemed other-wordly and not only because I wasn't there. You see, my family isn't the most festive bunch. They don't allow themselves to embrace many things. Most activities, events and life decisions are met with, what I would call, extreme trepidation. But not the beach. When they talk about the beach, their eyes shine with something else. Its the most happy and the most sad that they will ever be. I know it. My dad's beach bungalow was burned down by vandals. My eldest brother remembers seeing all the items in the house that had been stored for the winter burned in the middle of the living room, and the fiberglass boat melted. They never went back. It was too painful and time was rough on the old neighborhood.

Until this year. My mom read an article about a woman who was organizing a beach cleanup on Rockaway in an effort to preserve the beach and its unique wildlife. She suggested we all go and help. We sat on our comfy suburban couch and wondered if she was serious. But she was. And we all went. My husband and I took the A train all the way out there, getting a full view of the expanse of beach as the train passed through someone else's memories. My parents and brothers met us out there.

We broke up into two teams. We put on gloves and picked up trash. We recorded what we collected. The purpose of the cleanup is to keep a record of the items dumped on the beach in an effort to correct the litter problem and to monitor its effect on the local environment. My brother (who remembers the melted boat) and I, walked further away from everyone else, cleaning steadily. We were met with a wall of extremely tall reeds and grasses. It was well over our heads. My brother walked straight in. I followed. I worried about ticks as I was repeatedly tickled by what was probably fairly dirty beach grass. We kept walking. I didn't know when we would emerge. But I followed my brother. Suddenly, I looked up to the tops of the grasses to see the largest cluster of monarch butterflies that I had ever seen. They fluttered liberally. It was pretty darn close to something childlike and magical. Below our feet, hoards of hermit crabs rushed around with somewhere important to go.

We eventually did emerge from our beachy-natureland, into a diverse pile of garbage; shoes, candy wrappers, couch foam, styrofoam, car bumpers, soda cans, you name it.

When we were done that day, my dad tried to take us to a restaurant that had been there last time he was there. It was gone. So, we drove further into Queens, all stuffed in the car together, tired and dirty. We eventually sat together and ate, but we didn't talk about what really happened that day. That day, my family made a small portion of peace with the past, and this time, I was lucky enough to be with them, out at the beach.

Click here to link to an article about the coastal cleanup. My parents are pictured in the image with the caption that reads, “At Beach 35 Street, recyclables had to be separated before bagging them", my mom is in the hat holding the garbage bag open, my dad is off to the left holding what looks like the moon in his hand.

Friday, October 1, 2010

less bio, same luminescence

I just started a new science blog on the nature network. So, I may be taking some of the occasional “bio” out of this blog and reserving this space for more personal anecdotes.

Here is the link.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Summer is wrapping up with a few last gorgeous moments here in New York city. But it wasn’t all roses this summer. It was hot roses. Although, we had a pretty damn good one, took many car trips to visit friends and family, went camping, got out to the beach, Joe saw a shark, I killed a huge cockroach/waterbug in our kitchen with boiling water, celebrated our 3rd wedding anniversary, brunches and coffees with dear friends, I forced Joe to watch Annie Hall, he forced me to watch Inception, our car was broken into, I am going to be an aunt (again), lovely jogs and walks in central park and along the hudson river, we fished, we picnicked, I overslept, we swam, we sweat, we ate chocolate pinkberry. But I cant wait for fall, it really is the best time in New York. And our air conditioner died this morning, it knew. Happy Labor Day Weekend everyone.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Blue Voodoo

“Its barely blue”, she muttered at me as I walked into the auditorium. She was standing too close and I was startled. I looked down at my own shirt, gave her a contrite a look, and continued walking. This was the first time the principal of my high school had spoken directly to me. I don’t think she knew my name. But she knew my shirt was not blue. It was a grey collared shirt, with only a hint of blue. I was, just barely, in uniform, which left me mostly out of uniform. Also, it was known, that blue was her very favorite color, she wore it every single god-given day.

A year later in my art class we were drawing and painting portraits. I wanted to do a portrait of our dear old wrinkly principal, who everyone seemed to love, but I really didn’t. It was uncharacteristically brown-nosey and gutsy for me to want to do this, but her face was so interesting. Also, at that point, I knew I was good. She would know my name now. I marched down to her office. She sat across from me in a chair, in her almost nuns habit, which was really just a habit of wearing the same color every day. I sketched her face, it seemed young and old at the same time, with tracks of disappointment running every which way across it. I was working quickly and nervously. Then, she moved her head. She was falling asleep in the chair. I didn’t say a thing. Maybe she needed a nap. Of course she needed a nap, poor old lady. I finished my drawing. It looked very much like her. We exchanged pleasantries.

I went upstairs to the art room to turn my drawing into a painting, one that would hang in her office for years to come. I would be famous. Sort of. I decided to paint her portrait in cool blue hues, because those were her favorite and because I had to do my blue contrition. I worked it and reworked it, with colors ranging from out-of-the-tube royal blue to the yellow-grey of a bird feather to soft metallic greens. Something was emerging. Something very strange. I put more paint on, painstakingly doing her eyes so they burned cold with equal intensity to her actual eyes. I stepped back to look at it. She looked very very ill in my painting. What had I done? I had particularly messed up her shoulders. Desperately, I cut the painting off at her neck. Now, I had a sick and intense blue head of my principal and it looked very much like her. I frantically pasted it on another piece of white paper. Then it looked something like her blue head on a plate, minus the plate. And maybe in the back of my mal-adjusted high school mind, that is just where I wanted her. That painting never saw another face, blue or otherwise.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Camping at Mongaup Pond

We went camping this weekend at Mongaup Pond, Livingston Manor, NY. Story to follow. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Paleontology and the Nucleotide New Wave

“There are two types of people in the world, those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. ” –Robert Benchley

As an evolutionary geneticist, the theoretical basis as to why I was at a paleontological field site in Kenya last summer is clear to me—but it’s not necessarily easy-to-explain-to-your-mother obvious. Here, I revisit the ideology that brought genetics and paleontology together and me to Africa:

In the 1930s, a few intrepid geneticists began to incorporate their ideas about the dynamics of living populations into a wider evolutionary framework, that included paleontology. And one paleontologist in particular, George Gaylord Simpson, was instrumental in forwarding the concepts from population geneticists into the minds, but probably not hearts, of paleontologists. What emerged was called “The Modern Evolutionary Synthesis”. It was an extension and refinement of Darwin’s way of understanding the natural world. It gave us a way of using gene frequencies in living populations to explain the formation of species diversity, both spatially and temporally.

One tenet of “The Synthesis” was that there is no inherent difference between the evolution that shapes living populations from generation to generation, and the evolution that has formed wildly different species forms over millions of years of geologic time. This was a big deal. Some scientists thought that population genetics was not enough to explain the vast discontinutites in the fossil record, that instead there was some kind of qualitative difference between these two modes of evolution. Today, we essentially agree that microevolution (or population genetics) begets macroevolution (or speciation). And its quite beautiful to envision forms unfolding this way, where staggering diversity emerges from the humble tick of constant gradual change.

Although we regularly reflect on this elegant theory, it is difficult to actively merge these two data types in a biologically meaningful way. There is a network of insurmountable complexity between one nucleotide being replicated imperfectly and causing a consequential mutation, to understanding a menagerie of fossil forms. Despite this, there are a few examples where these two data types are used in a synthetic way.

One way you might imagine that fossils and DNA dovetail is when DNA is still organically residing in the fossilized specimen. This is how the Neanderthal genome was able to be assembled. And recently, DNA was extracted from a fossil finger bone in Siberia which showed that it was an entirely new species that existed between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago. But there is a turning point, that is dependent on both time and the fossilization environment, where virtually all DNA leaves the building. When fossils are nucleotideless like this, it takes conceptual creativity to save them from careening into deep time, like stone dragons, decoupled from the dynamic flow of neontology.

Humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor approximately 6 million years ago. This common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor with gorillas approximately 8 million years ago. How do we arrive at these time estimates? We need both fossils and genes. The neutral theory of molecular evolution predicts that certain regions of the genome, which are not functionally constrained, mutate at a constant rate over time. Like a consistent ticking molecular clock through time, change, change, change, change. So, by evaluating how different the gene sequences are between two living species, we can estimate how much time has passed since they last shared a common ancestor. However, to accurately connect the genetic distance with time, we need to know how fast the clock ticks. Enter the fossils. Geneticists use fossils to calibrate the molecular clock. We use a fossil that, based on its suite of morphological characters, represents a putative common ancestor between two living lineages. The fossil is dated. This date is used to calibrate the clock. There are not enough fossils to fit neatly into every divergence point between all living species. So, we use one well dated and morphologically informative fossil to calibrate the clock and then all other nodes in the tree, or points of divergence, are inferred based on the genetic distance between the living species. It sounds crazy, and it is kind of crazy, but this is how its done.

When fossils are analyzed and allocated to taxonomic groups, there has to be a method to quantify difference between two specimens. To do this, something has to be known about how skeletal evolution may progress. For example, if a particular feature is measured on two fossil specimens, which differ, how do we know we are comparing equivalent features? Enter, you guessed it, genetics. But also please welcome, our marvelous friend, the study of development, or ontogeny. The study of evolutionary-development, or Evo-Devo, is another place where genetics and paleontology gracefully meet. There are two ways which evo-devo provides evo-info for paleo-bio. One way is that the genetic and developmental basis of skeletal features can tell us if two features, in two different species, are homologous and should be compared. Additionally, paleontologists interpret fossil morphology and ascribe adaptationist explanations to particular features (e.g. a bone like this was used for that function). Ideally, these explanations are grounded in an understanding of what features develop independently. One cannot necessarily say that fingers were shorter because they were used for x, because feet and hands are governed by a common developmental pathway, and maybe it was the feet that were under direct selection. So, selection for one feature can result in another feature just changing along with it, for no adaptive reason, but because they are developmentally linked.

Which brings me to my big idea, which I wanted to dream up while staring out at Lake Victoria last summer, but it didn’t quite happen that way. Hopefully, I can make a contribution to the field—through the paired study of population genetics and skeletal morphology—which will be truly applicable to paleontology. That is what I want. I want to synthesize my evolutionary cake, and eat it too.

The first scientists who brought about this New Synthesis were not only brilliant, they were tolerant and open to other ways of knowing. This is rare. Once you become a part of any group, you learn that there are subgroups and sub-beliefs within the larger group. The subgroups are rarely philosophically harmonious. It’s silly. In the case of evolutionary biology, its best to gather many independent lines of evidence to begin to answer questions about the past, which, we can all agree, is thrilling and mysterious and over.

Blog Post Outtakes:

Waiter, there is a fossil in my hypothesis.

Get your fossils out of my hypothesis.

say fossilized hypotheses five times, fast.

The thing about the genome is that it does not record the evolutionary losses. When an allele is detrimental to life and reproductive success, it is not maintained in the genomes of the members of a population. Fossils record more than that, they record the evolutionary successes and the losses, the winners and losers all fossilize, its all there, except that its not.

There are some lineages that lived in the past but have no living members today. Death is sad but can you imagine how tragic it was the day the last Parathropus died? or even his or her last lonely conspecificless weeks on earth! We do not think there are any direct members of this lineage still in existence. In an evolutionary sense, some deaths are not really ends, while some, heartbreakingly, are.

Monday, June 7, 2010

And I suddenly turn and see your fabulous blank.

The World Science Festival happened in New York last week. It brought forty compelling, provocative and inspiring events that illustrated, contemplated and celebrated science.

I only made it to one inspiring lecture because the rest of the time, well, I was slowly and mildly tortuously carving out a dissertation topic for myself. I attended “Strangers in the Mirror”. The topic was a neurological condition called “prosopagnosia”, or “face blindness”.

There were two invited speakers. One was Oliver Sacks, a neuroscientist who—in addition to practicing medicine—lovingly writes popular books that bring rare neurological conditions to public awareness. He wrote the book “Awakenings”, which then became a movie. The other guest was Chuck Close, a painter of the giant, astonishingly detailed portraits which, upon inspection, are composed of small repeating shapes, sometimes fingerprints, rips of paper or blobs and rings of beautiful interlocking colors.

Oliver’s stories always captivate and Chuck’s paintings provoke an almost unanimous sense of emotional and technical awe. Both of these men are “face blind”, which means that they cannot recognize the faces of people who they have already met. Clearly, this has caused difficulty in their lives, and intriguingly, they have overcome it in different ways. Chuck described how he has learned to bullshit a lot, because people remember him, and he doesn’t know them. Oliver, on the other hand, withdraws from people so as not to have to face, the sea of unrecognizable faces. And maybe that is when he does his quiet and thoughtful writing.

Prosopagnosia is at least part of the reason why Chuck Close paints such amazing portraits. He is obsessed with the face. He described a human face as more of a landscape, than a window to a person. He sees something we don’t, because we see something he doesn’t.

Oliver describes people in his stories in a way that captures their deeply personal, neurologically-unique, perspective. Maybe prosopagnosia makes him a more objective scientist? Perhaps he should be a cultural anthropologist, then he would never feel any non-scientific attachment to his individual subjects.

But, you have to wonder how personal relationships progress, or don’t, with this condition. It must be extremely difficult to make friends or meet acquaintances. And it must be surreal when the man at the coffee-cart knows your usual order. For the loved ones of those with “face-blindness”, I imagine it something like that scene from Its a Wonderful Life when Mary looks George square in the face, but doesn’t know him.

I am always interested in any supposed, or actual, intersection of science and art, but that is not really why I went to this lecture. I went because I am not face blind. I am the opposite. Oliver described a normal distribution of facial-recognition skills in the human population, with most people falling somewhere in the middle. I suspected that there was an opposite-Oliver end to this continuum. I was right. He went on to describe people who are extremely adept at facial-recognition. They gave a “test” to the audience. I scored a perfect 10, as did only a handful of other people in the auditorium audience. I am a “super recognizer”, or so they labeled it. I knew it.

If I see a picture of your mother from when she was young, in a crowd of other children, I can tell you which one she is. I once walked down to the subway platform and picked out the woman from the laundromats sister, I had never seen her before. Then, sure enough her sister walked over to join her, and it was the woman I knew. It gets weirder. I once recognized my friends boss, from the back, in a winter coat, on the train platform several feet away, I have met him once.

I don’t consider this a talent, its really more like the characteristic of a savant. And I am torn between using my power for good or for evil. Most times I use it for evil, or more like “no good”. I use it to avoid people. I always see them before they see me and I deftly duck down another avenue or behind a tree, without so much as a trace. Its great.

Recently, I decided that I should probably grow up and start using this trait for something productive. I could use it to walk up to people at professional conferences—who by the second day had removed their name tag—and introduce myself. Well, my interpersonal skills and courage aren’t nearly as honed as my skills of facial-recognition. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Maybe next time. The faces I know will all be there again.

I wonder about populations of primates, like chimpanzees, which, because of their population history, have more total genetic diversity than all modern humans do. Do they also have more facial diversity? And to what degree do primates recognize the faces of con-specifics? And what might a population of extinct human ancestors look like, if they had more total facial diversity than we have today? Either males and females being more divergent, or just more facial variation overall. I suspect that this skill of understanding facial nuance would not necessarily be adaptive if faces were more wildly and obviously diverse than they are today.

It was tremendous to learn how Oliver Sacks and Chuck Close have struggled, and succeeded. And how this condition has fueled their impressive work. I thought the lecture spoke universally to overcoming any type of disadvantage and to spinning an inability into a keen and extraordinary awareness. I am thankful for their candor.

To those with prosopagnosia, faces are freed from the history that inhabits them, reduced to swerves of interesting flesh. And with that, virtually every human face provides an infinite resource of visual novelty. Certainly sometimes the possibility of who someone might be—without knowing the schlep that they really are—makes a face even more fabulous.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Together in its arms

We couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. We repeatedly inspected this alleged misfit and found it to be normal by our standards. We wanted it as our own. Oh the excitement that soon we would have a real grown-up couch. My mind raced to the glow of movie nights, to spontaneous naps and flopping down on it in the evening, to somersaults over its arms and dear friends visiting. We would be a little more normal, even if it wasnt quite. It was coverless, stripped to its vulnerable white batting. But with our ebullient enthusiasm, we decided we could make a couch cover. piece. of. cake. Lets buy it. As is. The man at IKEA who sold it to us didn’t realize it was a fold-out, so he gave us the regular oddball couch price. But when his guys lifted it for us, the secret of its heavy metal under-architecture was revealed. Graciously, he didn’t raise the price. We had scored.

We went to a fabric store in the west 20s and fell impossibly in love with an orange and magenta cross-silk. This was the fabric for our naked couch, and we bought a ton of it just in case. We were amateurs at this furniture buying and decorating game, but the fun was directly proportional to our cluelessness. The couch sat with this sari-appropriate fabric draped and pinned all over it for several months as a “test”. It did not look neat, or really normal, but we adored it and our life together on it.

to be continued...

Monday, April 26, 2010

garden fête at sunset.

swooning over this image {and its implications} via Apartment #34

Friday, April 23, 2010

beachy goodness

a tranquil, glittering beachy moment for you to gaze at,
sans sand grains between your teeth.

via the talented Alicia Bock at bloom, grow, love.

Monday, April 12, 2010

You Are What They Ate

Fad diets abound in our society, sometimes they are backed by folklore, bad-science, pseudo-science, your mother or just wishful eat-thinking. Ugly hard-cover diet books pepper the sale shelves at bookstores. Everybody seems to have an answer, and nobody is persistently right.

But, diet is serious scientific business especially in the context of human evolution and adaptation. Can we reconcile our understanding of dietary adaptations over deep time with what you should make for dinner tonight? Well, perhaps with caution and a little nostalgia, it’s possible.

One hallmark of our genus, Homo, is a brain larger than that of our hominin forebearers. An explanation posited for the evolutionary burgeoning of the hominin brain is a dietary shift. The idea is that our brain, energetically, is an expensive tissue to develop and maintain and more dense high-calorie foods would have been required to support its needs. Maybe it was meat, they say. It has also been suggested that tubers may have provided crucial calories to hominins in times where other foods may have been scarce.

The above hypotheses have been tested in extant taxa and are continually being explored via environmental reconstruction, hunter/gatherer analogy and extensive mechanistic and isotopic studies of dentition. Fast forward to a more modern time, the onset of agriculture and animal domestication, approximately 10,000 years ago. Genetic adaptations to digest lactose and starch have been discovered in living human populations and temporally traced to major shifts in cultural food practices. Also, some populations have better tolerance for metabolizing alcohol. A recent paper just came out that Japanese people borrow bacteria from sushi, it then integrates into their stomach flora and enables better digestion of sushi. And there may be some evidence that this borrowed marine bacteria is heritable from parent to child!

The foods are diverse, but idea is the same. If we assert that diet is an environmental element that has driven selection and adaptation, then what we are saying is that certain individuals have some genetic or metabolic mechanism that allows them to better handle the foods that are in abundance. They are then healthier, have more offspring, the trait is honed and handed down to future generations. Its the classic gene-culture interaction.

This brings me to my main point. I think that the foods that we are best equipped to digest and glean the most nutrients from are foods that our very recent ancestors ate. I think there must be some more nuanced, as yet undiscovered, physiological adaptations to what people were eating just a few generations ago in your lineage.

So, eat mainly what your grandmother made, or what her grandmother did, but dont necessarily eat what mine did. Its a reason to hand recipes down with mitochondria. Oh and maybe its all just an excuse for me to go to Motorino’s and to drink Chianti, you say? well so what if it is.

Friday, April 9, 2010

tomato pin cushions (and strawberries too)

ooooOOOO look at this collection of vintage tomato pin cushions. I love the nuanced variation in a collection of many similar things. via A Collection A Day.

Blogging is Thinking, Online

Today is the 4th Birthday of this Blog! It’s also the Birthday of my husband’s brother, and my brother’s wife. So, its a magical day all around, that April 9th!

Thank you for reading and then reading again. And thank you to Blogger for giving me a medium which encourages and allows me to write, because an old notebook just doesn’t have the same thrill:

{We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection—Anais Nin}

{For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word—Catherine Drinker Bowen}

{Writing is thinking, on paper—William Zinsser}

{How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. —Annie Dillard}

Click here for my very first post, back when the blog was called Petri Dish.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Side Dishes

When I get bored with what I am doing, which is often, I dream of side-jobs and side-businesses that I can get involved in or invent. Sometimes simply thinking of the schmorgasborg of possibilities makes me feel at ease.

Anyway, I had two ideas this week of the side dish nature:

1) I want to start a business where I go into people’s offices and rehabilitate their old potted plants that they have been neglecting. I will re-pot, trim off dead leaves, water them and give them directions for future care. My business would be called something like “Company Growth”.

2) Also, what if I designed a shirt that had an image on it that could only be seen from a certain distance away, and that specific distance away would be the distance I would want most people to be away from me.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Woman Still Uncertain about Future Man

Are humans still evolving? is a question often asked in undergraduate Evolutionary Anthropology courses and its an important and honest query that we would all like to be able to answer. Although evolutionary theory is necessarily retroactive, I invite you to join me in speculating forward, to the future of our species. Now, for a moment, please put aside the obvious abyss of uncertainty that the future repeatedly confronts us with, and that Hostess snowball you are eating.

I recently read an article called, “Evolution stops here: Future Man will look the same”. It was written by a David Derbyshire and it quotes a geneticist named Steve Jones from the University College London. He posits that humans have stopped evolving because we no longer interface as intimately with our environment as we once did. Now we live in houses, have central air and plenty of food. The article also says that the decrease in older fathers, leads to fewer mutations passed on to offspring—because mutations in sperm cells accrue over an individual male’s lifetime. And with increased travel and globalization, there are fewer isolated populations of people, and this may cause a decline in the randomness that evolutionary change is predicated on.

It’s possible that some of the geneticist’s original points may have been lost in the brevity of the journalistic translation. So I address the following points to the article, not necessarily to the geneticist, and to you.

Firstly, it is true that our relationship to the environment has changed dramatically in modern times. We do live in houses with central air and we do have an abundance of agriculturally grown and processed food. However, we don’t all have the HVAC technician on speed dial and we don’t all have a stockpile of twinkies, ding-dongs or ho-hos. What about contemporary non-Western societies that subsist on hunted or gathered food stuffs? And what about the poor schleps with no central air, like me? I think this article underrepresents the heterogeneity with which modern humans, from all parts of the world, interact with their environment. It is true that some hunter-gatherer populations are dwindling in the face of increased agricultural practices, but they are not gone yet.

Alternatively, Western practices such as controlled housing temperature and our new processed diet may present some novel selective pressures of their own. For example, our increasingly sedentary lifestyle and our ubiquitous consumption of processed products such as high-fructose corn syrup. These elements of our society are the new selective pressures. Childhood obesity is skyrocketing, and I cannot imagine this will not have some effect on the fitness, meaning how many viable offspring are produced, of this new generation.

There may be fewer older fathers than there were in the 18th century, but what about older mothers? In this case, our culture is evolving and is selecting for mothers who are able to have successful offspring—who are themselves reproductively fit—into their later years. True, this seems like a predominantly Western phenomenon, but women are having children later and later in life. This can lead to increased stress on the mothers body and it increases the possibility of offspring having chromosomal abnormalities, such as down-syndrome. This can’t mean nothing for our species. This may have some long term effect on our life history, and more specifically, the increment of time that females are reproductively fit. Mothers who have healthy daughters later in life may pass on the trait of being able to have successful offspring later in life. Longevity and reproductive health are, to some extent, heritable. Or perhaps mothers who have daughters later in life may pass on inability or difficulty in having successful offspring. All female babies are born with all of their eggs, perhaps the development and viability of the female fetus’ eggs is affected by the mothers health and age during gestation.

And what about artificial insemination, IVF or assisted hatching? Do we know the long term fitness effects that these novel reproductive practices may have on our species? No, I don’t believe we really do. And I say this with a gentle hand, quite simply, offspring are being born who would otherwise not be. Genes are being passed on to the next generation that would otherwise not be. What is their fitness level, how many successful offspring will they have, and what traits will they then pass on to their own offspring? So, while prezygotic selective pressure may be abated through these new medical practices, I cannot imagine that the subsequent population will not differ in its genetic and physiological landscape.

Evolution is random. Mutation and genetic drift both shape the population’s collective genome in a random manner. This author suggests that the lack of isolated human populations will halt randomness. It is true that genetic drift—or the selection of alleles from one generation to the next based on stochastic sampling—is stronger in smaller populations. But genetic drift is not absent in larger populations. Also—while it may be more rare and less random than we once thought—mutations do continually arise and lead to novel phenotypes that interact with the ever changing environment.

And what about the environment, or large scale climate change? For one thing, global warming can affect the ecological habitat of some parasites, like Plasmodium which causes malaria, and that can affect humans. Microorganisms that lead to diseases that we don’t have inexpensive widespread cures for, are key in the evolution of our species. Individuals who are resistant or less susceptible to disease, because of a random mutation, survive in the population to reproduce, others don’t. The flu virus rapidly mutates every year, so as long as viruses and bacteria are still evolving, we will be too.

The point is, adaptations to temperature, diet, reproductive robusticity or disease resistance, may still be relevant to the evolution our species. Natural selection may no longer be traditionally “natural”, but it’s still selective. And maybe more directly, “Woman Still Uncertain about Future Man” is not as sexy a headline as “Evolution stops here: Future Man will look the same”. And perhaps Future Man will fuel vehicles with Hostess snowballs and wear t-shirts that say “Only Losers Evolve”, but then again, we wont really know.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

a little birdie told me

I am addicted to Twitter. For those of you who don’t know it, its a website/service that allows you to get snippets of streaming information from organizations or people of your choice. When you decide you want to know whats going on with someone, or something, via Twitter, you find their Twitter profile and you “Follow” them.

Its different from Facebook because its less personal, and that is a wonderful thing. You do not have to accept people as friends, or even “friends”, and the amount of information doled out is, mercifully, short and sweet.

I do not follow many friends, so I don’t get updates like, “there is slightly more jelly than peanut-butter on my sandwich today.” And I don’t follow celebrities, although you can. I have accumulated a list of organizations that I follow (NYTimesArts, several Museums, NatureNews, ScientificAmerican, Pratt Institute) that update me on smart and interesting information. All. Day. Long.

Here are a few links that I have learned about via Twitter that I thought I would share with you:

The Promise of Evolutionary Synthesis:linking previously unconnected scientific ideas together.

Artists Reconstruct the Past:paleoartistry and its origins. see also, my blog post about this very topic.

Super Color Vision in Humans:some humans may be able to see more nuanced shifts in color.

Death Blooms:copper urns that have weathered, very spectacular and strange and sad.

Perfect Lego Art:the whimsy and simplicity of legos in unexpected outdoor spaces.

A Twitter sized thought I had last weekend: What if all car horns sounded like notes from wind instruments, then a traffic jam might sound more like a symphony.

Friday, March 19, 2010

of Brilliance and Brilliance.

My brain responds dramatically to light. All through the dark winter nights my personal struggles about [insert word] reach sisyphean proportions. I get especially dark and brooding. I quit things, break off relationships, decide [blank] is just not for me, pack my bags, hang my head and incessantly navel-gaze, during winter. Its flat out pathetic. Now that sunny spring has arrived in New York, I realize that this winter problem I have, is getting worse.

But then, a larger thought occurred to me. I know I am not the only person who reports these feelings during winter. And I started wondering about seasonal patterns of ideas. I wonder how music written, paintings painted, scientific eurekas, and novels or love letters penned—in winter—differ from those in spring. They must. Although, out of struggle, and winters of discontent, great work most certainly has sprung, but not if one found themselves too melancholy to concentrate.

Seasonality is something that is widely discussed in the primate ecology literature. Trees fruit seasonally (or mast), food abundance shifts and animals respond both behaviorally (less competition for more resources) and physiologically (better nutrition leads to healthier, and more, offspring). Or when any animal lives in a seasonally shifting climate, adaptations to fluctuating temperatures, landscapes and resources are what’s crucial to survival.

You might say our relationship to the earth, and its resources, is not knitted quite as tightly as the primates to their fruit. Globalization allows other climates to provide us with faraway warm-weather resources year-round. And we also have the option of hopping on JetBlue to experience a verdant season, somewhere else.

I know that light influences hormones in the brain. I want to know more about how other animal brains respond to light. And what’s with nocturnal animals, like possums and vampires, they must have some alternate neurophysiological profile to diurnal animals?

Also, perhaps more poetically, I am envisioning a cultural history of ideas, arranged according to how close the sun was to the location of the birth of each idea, published by Phaidon, or as a large mural, or information graphic, or a map in radiant color. Would there be some kind of latitudinal gradient of idea strength or quality as one approaches the equator, I am not sure.

Or maybe as the poem suggests, its not really the springtime or the sunlight, its the drama of seasonal change that seems to ignite an intellectual dawn. If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”—Anne Bradstreet

Oh and happy luminescent spring my darlings!

Monday, March 15, 2010

light love

at the new 5:30 this evening
I fell in love with the lingering daylight
that was saved for me

Monday, March 1, 2010

Maternal Imprinting

Did you ever spend all day at the beach and then close your eyes in the evening and see waves? Or did you ever spend all day driving and go to bed and see the road? How much of the beach or the road can you really make out? And how much is your brain just making you feel it, in its most drowsy and abstract incarnation?

Well, some nights I go to sleep and I see patterns on fabric. One after another. They are always colored, sometimes brightly, and flat. They are not consciously constructed and often, unexpected color combinations present themselves. But its not like I really see these, like a proper hallucination. Its just that on the brink of sleep, I think about these things and my mind wanders like a plotless shimmering dream.

My maternal grandmother worked as a dress maker at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, NY. She came from Algeria, was French and her fabric draping skills were legendary, or so I have been told. Because of this, as a child, my mother was dressed in her Sunday best every day of the week. By the time my mother grew up, married my father and moved out, it was the middle of the 60s. She embraced 60s fashion with a particular grace and restraint. She was not a hippy and her skirts were never too micro. But by today’s standards she would fall on fashion’s flashy side, although she would deny it. She had a gold embroidered dress, a bright bright red bouchlé skirt suit and a long gown with only one shoulder and a gossamer fabric wing fluttering behind her on one side. By the time I was born, she had toned it way down, but I still knew of the fuschia prints that bloomed in her heart. Partly I still knew because the clothes were all neatly relegated to a metal cabinet in our attic which, in spite of my childhood dust allergy, I visited often.

All of this focus on fabric and fit and femininity in the family affects a girl. The tradition of fashion and what was considered right and beautiful was given to me. I have spent years toying with it in varying doses and rejecting it at times when I felt a rebellion of practicality or grittiness swelling. I remember little containers of endless varied buttons and scraps of deeply colored thick laces and trims, and even though they were all reduced to a box or two in the bottom of my mom’s closet, it was impossible not to vividly imagine the garment of their origin.

I have always been fascinated by what makes a favorite color, a favorite. Or what makes someone go into a clothing store and really deeply “ooooooOOO” at something. And I realized that the patterns that I am most intensely drawn to are patterns that look something like, something my mother wore. The colors and combinations I tend towards are attached to memories of her memories.

Although I think about and very much love loud beautiful clothing, I don’t quite have the personality to carry most of it off—that I got from my Dad. You can’t wear a bright orange pea coat and a concerned scowl. And most times I find myself wanting to be discreet or invisible and a red suit unfortunately wont do. Also, I have no sisters and most days the only people around me were my brothers in blue jeans and old sneakers, so that too influenced my sensibilities. I spent 12 years in a plaid school uniform and oh yes, I am training to be a scientist, so there is quite the de-emphasis on clothing. But I live in Manhattan, pulled in many fashion conscious and unconscious directions, there is hope yet.

My grandmother was very sick before she died. She was in her home in Queens, NY in a hospital style bed, with nurses taking care of her every minute. It was the 4th of July, which was her birthday. I was about 14 or so and wearing a red t-shirt and blue and white checkered short-shorts. She reached up from her bed and touched my shorts and she said “seersucker”, with soft approval. This is something that will always be with me.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Daily Dialogue

Me: “Get out of your damn pajamas and go running!”

Me: “but its COLD and it SNOWED and when I get tired of running I will be improperly dressed for the weather and stranded.”

Me: “Ok, so don’t go running, just go outside with running clothes under your coat to make yourself feel sporty and energetic.”


Me: “okay, yes indeed, I think I can handle that.”


Me: “So, what about your dissertation project, aren’t you going to work on that today?”

Me: “Yeah, what aBOUT my project!”



Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Idle Hands

This semester, by a twist of paperwork, I am not teaching. People tell me that this is wonderful. I can focus on my own
project and not worry about freshmen who dont know how to spell A-u-s-t-r-a-l-o-p-i-t-h-e-c-u-s. Most graduate students that I have found, hate to teach. They slide their heavy feet along and lament about taking the time to teach students who just don’t care. These graduate students have much more important work to attend to. Well, I have found, that I don’t.

I am feeling astonishingly useless as I sit around at the computer day after day and read and think and write and question. Its just about the most indulgent, selfish activity a human could engage in. Can you imagine another primate spending time on such an activity, that does not procure food or sex. I know, I know, humans have loftier intellectual goals than the basic need to sustain life. But it just feels wrong, for me anyway.

Amazingly enough, its just as self-indulgent and vain as being a true fine artist would have been. But then at least my art could have made someone happy. I doubt my dissertation will bring a smile to anyone’s face in quite the same way a painting might.

My work now is not emotionally cathartic, nor is it practical. At times, like these, its hard to justify doing it at all.

Today I met my husband for lunch. We sat across the table from three women who had on shockingly immense diamond rings and fur coats that looked like they had murdered a bear. The women were in beautiful cashmere sweaters talking about how they have applied to pre-schools for their children and are waiting to hear back. One woman complained incessantly about the nanny, who was no doubt home with her children as we sat there. Another woman scolded the waitress because her now empty plate had been sitting in front of her for a full 15 *gasp* minutes! They seemed cliché and bored.

I realized that I am in the same position as these women (sans the rings, coats, nannies and sweaters of course). But with all the wretched, lonely, despicable anxious parts of having nothing to do and none of the money to actually do something.

As things stand now, I would be better off working in a coffee or pizza shop. But I am afraid my patience and skill for those tasks would fall short of the average person. I know, self pity is always unbecoming.

This video about graduate students from the Simpsons is pretty accurate this week: click to view.


ampersand project

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

“ ”

And how about this quote for a Tuesday, late morning.

Someone reminded me that I referenced this quote once. I didn’t remember using it and suspect it wasn’t really me and that they were mistaken. I am happy to take the credit though:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Eleanor Roosevelt

Friday, January 29, 2010

“ ”

ok, on an up note for Friday early evening, lets try this quote:

“life is not easy for any of us. but what of that? we must have perseverance and, above all, confidence in ourselves. we must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.” —Marie Curie

Monday, January 18, 2010


I began this post while sitting in the lab at school on Martin Luther King Day. No one was there. It was like a post-apocalyptic world. And because of some poorly developed plot circumstance, I thought I was the only survivor. Then the locksmith swiftly keyed into our lab and scared the shit out of me. I hid my facebook page, blogger page and the off-beat scientific publication on my screen and cowered with a quick beating heart. Sal didnt notice, a thing.

Which delivers me directly into the pulsing vein of my next point: Science is scary. If you are a non-scientist, the intricacies of the scientific world can seem mysterious, intimidating or insurmountable. And if you are a scientist, you know that science really truly requires deep intellectual risks that ignite unparalleled feelings of unease. Other people might describe this as the rush of discovery, I might too. But suffice it to say that science can at once be unbelievably wonderful and atrociously heart-wrenchingly terrible.

Science takes courage, creativity and sometimes brutal honesty to practice. One has to be sensitive, deeply pensive and yet dispassionately logical and critical. And not everyone is cut out to do this.

I listen to Obama talk about how we need children to excel more in math and science. and I notice a poster at school encouraging undergraduates to pursue math and science careers. But really, really do they know what they are getting themselves in to? and really, should we be encouraging more average people to pursue a career that requires such a bizarre combination of intense dedication, intelligence and persistence to excel in? Maybe its best that just a few nerdy boys in the back of the chemistry room take this on. Maybe its best that most of us keep our distance. Maybe its best for Science that pretty girls stick to being pretty, jocks continue being sporty and that most of us just look on in some kind of half-blind respect and delight at what those hard working mal-adjusted weirdos are accomplishing.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Rude Alert

New Yorkers are not all rude. A day or two around Manhattan will reveal a lot of door holding, seats given up for elderly riders, coins dropping in cups, strangers dogs kanoodling and overall graciousness. The idea that New Yorkers are all rude is an outdated stereotype. It was once more true, in a grittier past life, but now it isnt.

So the other day I was in a wretched mood. I had nothing to give. I was not smiling or holding doors or thinking about volunteering or recycling. I was walking through the cold with my ipod on and a scowl. I felt like an actress doing a historical reenactment of a time gone by, you know, for the sake of tourists who expect rudeness. It was a retro move of mine. I thought Ed Koch or The Beastie Boys might jump out at me and give a public service announcement. But they didnt. And I went on brazenly ignoring homeless people, musicians, puppies and people handing out pamphlets. Because I could.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

X Out

Damn you Christmas. Why do you always have to come, and then go? leaving garbage bags full of wrapping paper and bleakness in your sugary wake. No other time in winter has the same timbre of bright or cheery intentions. And even though sometimes it causes stress, the real problem I have with Christmastime is that it ushers in winter with a big fat smile-only to dessert you, shoot your eye out and then desert you.

Hello second week of January, we meet, unfortunately, again.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Primate Love Letter

One thing that comes up continuously in the lab sections that I teach is that the writing is bad. And more seriously, flawed thinking about the topic is sometimes only captured on the written page, too elusive for multiple choice or class discussions to capture its sweet tangled inaccuracies. In some cases, students who are bright and interested will write papers that are just subtly, not. quite. right. But before I go any further, I would like to say that, I am no expert. I just know what patterns have emerged in the student writing I have seen over the years. I have not been formally taught how to evaluate science writing, or how to write.

Many students in anthropology 101 are writing a science paper for the first time at the college level. And for these students one almost universal error in their writing is that they put too much opinion and emotion into it. They get excited about the material (which is great and encouraged) but they flourish and wax inappropriately, rather than address it in the dispassionate, neutral manner that it requires. The class is about primates, which makes it accessible and easy to relate to, but also contributes to this problem. I doubt this happens at the same frequency in a course about drosophilia (fruit flies). I find too much talk of cute, emotional primates or superior species, where one is inherently better than another in some way.

Addressing this issue without extinguishing any enthusiasm requires careful consideration and I am still searching for ways to do it properly. Another problem that fuels this issue is that they arent reading the literature. So, they have nothing to say except what comes from their own warm primate heart. I need to address the issue of not reading the literature, not referencing it and just wandering through a cascade of baseless, biased claims. Its dangerous even.

I need to spend more time talking about the papers and what I expect. I fantasize about showing them a sentence that is all opiniony and cute and transforming the same general idea into more scientific terms. I also tell them, the shorter the sentences, the better. I often find long winded sentences with words like thus in them. Its an effort to sound smart. I know it. I appreciate the sentiment, I really do, and I have been there, but I need to channel their excitement into the correct format. And maybe I should spend an hour or two where we talk about how damn cute and lovely all the species are, and use all the elaborate and embellished and emotional adjectives we can find. You know, to get it out of our system, to show our appreciation without having to sound scientific about anything. Because truly, if I wasnt moved by primates, in all their fuzzy familiarity, I wouldnt be teaching this lab.