Thursday, October 29, 2009

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Park Landscape

Friday already? How can it be?? It was just Friday, like, a couple days ago.

I meant to go to a small local park for pictures, and I did that on Sunday for a different purpose, completely forgetting I was supposed to do my Shootout prep at the same time because now whenever I leave for the evening it's already Dark out. So the Park Landscape post for my current town - Aubière, France, is here - just click
Don't forget to feed the hamster while you're there.
I couldn't see posting the same batch twice, particularly since they're all contaminated with a certain plush toy. So I'm taking you to a different park, in a different country: The Anza Borrego State Park. California, 'natch!

Of course, three of these pictures contain that same object. I dare you to spot it.

I do promise to get on the ball for next week's Skylines!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Move that butt

I am officially insane.
There was an inkling when on Saturday I bought sweatpants. I have never had such a thing in my wardrobe before. Now I do. I have changed clans, from the No Sweatpants People to the People with baggy, tasteless, styleless, boring, but comfy Sweat Clothes. The fleece jacket thing I bought in Denver last spring because it was way colder in Denver than where I had come from does not count, regardless of the similarity of the fabric and the bulkiness of the cut, because it's in this neat dark red color and it has a nifty Denver logo thing on it.
Last night, I put them on. Yes. with a thick t-shirt, and my Denver jacket over that.
Not only did I put them on, and change into my beat-up sneakers, but then I went outside and jogged up my street.
Can you believe it!
Me. Jogging. Getting home, and instead of flopping down in front of the news with a plate of nachos and whatever I haven't read yet of The Economist, I went out for some exercise.
I usually get my exercise by walking, fast and far. But that isn't doing enough for me any more; it just takes so much time. So I figure jogging compresses an hour's workout into a reasonable package that I can squeeze in between getting home and flopping down for whatever's on.
So I jogged for the first time in my life. Good thing it was dark and nobody was watching, because I only made it about 2/3's of the way up my street. Which is what, a quarter mile long? So I walked the rest of the way because it was just too, too lame to give up without even getting to the end of the street. And then I jogged back. The whole way, which is downhill, slightly, but does that ever make a difference!
It's funny about this jogging thing. I can go all day at a fast walk. 20 miles no problem. I can work out on my step machine for an entire rugby game, stopping only to shout 'throw him down!', or 'get him!', and to gesticulate wildly (which I have discovered is not the best thing to do while trying to continue stepping on the flimsy thing). But that's energy dispensed slowly; energy my body restocks as I spend it, so there's never any acute must-stop tiredness. Spending energy quickly by going running is a different thing.
Tonight the plan is to jog all the way to the end of the street and back, without taking a rest. By the end of the week I should be turning at the end and making a loop of it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Addendum to the Poetry Bus post

can you tell what sort of person I am?
1. non-acceptance of a proposed fact
2. review of the evidence
3. acceptance. conversion to belief in the fact.
so predictable.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bus Trip to Monday

Is it Albert who's driving today? Okay. I feel nice and secure then. I had a fab ham & cheese sandwich for lunch on Saturday, per instructions. Then hustled down to the only place in town that sells Drambuie, to discover that even they almost don't now, in spite of being an Irish Shop. None of the staff had any idea what I was talking about, until I spied a dusty gift set on the lowest shelf. For shame! But now I have a bottle of the good stuff and a couple of nice enough glasses and Wow do I appreciate rediscovering what Drambuie is all about. Next I'll try it with ginger ale, if I can find some of the latter. France is so Porto and Martini and Muscadet, there are so darn many things to drink of an evening that they don't even miss Drambuie. The fools!
And then I spent my time in front of the mirror as ordered. Here you are:

How did this happen?
Who is that?
What's with all those grey hairs? I can't possibly be more than 25 yet, and those lines?
Are you sure?
That's what the passport says?
and the driver's licence?
and the birth certificate says the same,
with its tiny footprint and the Seal of the State of North Carolina?
That's what they all say, all at once?
They're lying.

And yet maybe there's something to it.

Grad school was a while ago. A different century.
Students, some of my staff, passersby, they call me Madame, politely.
There has been an awful lot of coming and going to different countries, and that can't have happened all in a year.
Somehow my photo albums have all got stuffed full,
and blogposts up to the hundreds,
and my bookshelves are sagging and overflowing with works I've read and loved.
I've even outlived several cats.
So maybe it's true.
Maybe that is me there.


Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Childhood Classics

For me, the big childhood classic was Going to the Beach.

Playing in the park was special too.

It's always fun to go to work with Mom or Dad, to find out what they do all day. (Click on the photo, and if you like it, it's actually a series of nine posts.)
It's always fun to get in the kitchen on Sunday morning and make waffles for breakfast (click!)

... and to play at being Superheros (click!).
That's all the time this big kid has for blogging at the moment - ciao!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cat of the Month: Tigger

In the limited series of Minnesota Cats, today’s Cat of the Month is ...da dut dada!...Tigger!
Ah, yah, a tiger-striped cat. Don’t look at me; I didn’t name him. Not an orange one, though. Brown-black-grey.
One fine day Mom & Dad went down to the pound, because ours was a house that could not go catless for long. Mom couldn’t make up her mind - or I think it was Mom; I wasn’t there. I had to work or study or go on a date or something; it may have been Dad - so they came home with two cats. Two cats are better than one! Especially if you plan to keep them inside all the time because you’re tired of cats going out forever.
Tigger was the sidekick cat. Casper gets to be Cat of the Month in November so more on him then.
Tigger was cool. Nothing perturbed Tigger. You could sling him over your shoulder, use him for a scarf. Put him in ridiculous positions. Knock him off the bed in your sleep. Best, you could reposition him on your lap when you had to reach for the remote, or your foot was falling asleep. Most cats won’t let you do that. They get all huffy you’re disturbing them and go off. Only to be back in 10 minutes to put your other foot to sleep. My current cat Natalie will even growl and smack me if I try to wiggle life back into a toe.
And he ate everything. He wasn’t a fat cat by any means, nor particularly large. But he weighed a ton. You go up to an ordinary-looking cat, expecting maybe 12 pounds, and wrench your shoulder out of joint because this guy was made of lead or something. So we called him Iron Guts, for the density.
The big flaw with Tigger was his shyness. He’d hide if strangers came around, didn’t like the limelight. So when the house caught fire, the two cats ran out of the basement to escape the flames. The whole neighborhood was gathered around in the street, though, and Tigger was so afraid of all those people, he ran back inside.
And that was it for living at home. We moved into temporary lodgings, and I moved from there into my first student apartment, closing two decades of sharing the family house. From now on, all cats would be my personal responsibility.

Bye, Tigger!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

All around us, all the time

Ok, one more on the subject, and then I'll move on.

One of the interesting points in discussing evolution is that people tend to think of it as something that happened long ago. Evolution 'set' living things the way they are and that's it. And thus any evidence for evolution is to be found in the fossil record, and only in the fossil record.
Not so, not so!

Plenty of evidence is found in the fossil record, but that's not the only place to find it. Even back in my own university days, there was the classic story of moths in London. Used to be they had light-colored wings. As pollution turned the tree trunks on which the moths rested all black, the moths stood out and were easy prey. Over time, darker moths survived and eventually matched the tree trunks. Then people started coming out of the industrial revolution with a wish for clean air, the pollution was cleaned up, and London tree trunks are no longer black as coal. Dark moths, finding themselves easy prey like their light predecessors, disappeared, while lighter ones survived. Today moths in London have light coloring again.

It's easy to see how an animal or plant that is better at surviving and reproducing than its brethren gradually comes to dominate its ecological niche. This is true in the wild, and it's true for domesticated species. Just take dogs. Dogs we like the look of get special opportunities to breed. We force their evolution into various strange forms by selecting individuals. It's the very same thing as frogs evolving in a pond, only speeded up by the heavy hand of human dog-breeders and with endpoints that apply (naturally) only to the special case of domesticated dogs.

Thing is, selective pressure applies to humans too. We might like to think of ourselves as exempt, but not at all! There's a lot of time involved in natural selection. You have to pass your genes on to children, who grow up and have children of their own, so for people it takes 15-40 years for a single round of selection. In the modern age, we change our environment much faster than that.

You can see the effects of being poorly adapted to 21st century life in the type 2 diabetes that is rampant in many first-world countries, notably America. But this doesn't affect all groups equally. People who come from places that were more recently similar to an older way of life, where periods of feast and famine were regular and severe are harder hit by diabetes today. Their metabolism hasn't had as much time to adapt. It used to be advantageous to be able to eat huge amounts of food and store that energy as fat that would be consumed metabolically during times of famine. The fatties could survive, for example, the harsh Arctic winter, whereas thinner people could not. Eventually developing diabetes wasn't much of an issue compared with a serious annual risk of starvation. Now that food is abundant all the time, the craving to eat is still there, the ability to store fat is still there, but the crisis never comes and the diabetes does.*
So evolution goes on all over the world, every day, for every species. The selective pressures may be different, and often man-made, but there will always be pressure from somewhere, and living organisms will always respond to it.**
*the selective pressure against people vulnerable to type 2 diabetes may seem irrelevant to reproduction, because it generally occurs after childbearing is finished. However, it is probably not irrelevant. First, it has been shown that women who live withing 30km of their mothers have more children than their sisters who live farther away, an effect likely explained by the help that grandparents, and grandmothers in particular, give in raising the families of their offspring. If grandmothers are not available, through distance or death, women appear to hesitate more in having larger families. Also, having a parent of either sex die young hinders families economically and socially. Remember, in reproductive success, it's the number of fertile children you have that counts, not the proximal reasons why you have number of children you do - whether you conciously choose to limit your family or not.
**there is some argument that modern medical care is putting humans beyond the reach of evolution, since people who would otherwise not survive do now go on to have families. This is certainly true in some respects, but overall evolution still has its say in our future.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Sunrise & Sunset

Because it's freezing out this morning and I haven't put the heat on yet (I'll deal with that when I get home tonight!), for your Shoot Out pleasure here are some winter shots of dawn from the archives.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Half an eye IS better than none

Alright, Ginger, here you go. I'm going to do this off the top of my head because my references are at home (or on line, but if I start calling up this stuff I'll never take a break to get any work done).
Evolution works in small steps. Lots of creatures are born with small genetic variations that did not exist in their parents (replicating our 3,000,000,000 base pairs of DNA is bound to make a mistake somewhere eventually). Sometimes that means you're born with Muscular Dystrophy; usually it means nothing at all: now and then it means you're a little bit better at something.
One of the creationist arguments that evolution cannot be right is that this kind of small incrementation cannot possibly result in complex structures that don't work until all the parts are there. Having just some of the parts would be useless and not advantageous, so you couldn't get them all together by chance. An oft-taken example is the eye.
But it simply isn't true that the modern human eye must be complete and perfectly functional for it to be advantageous. Certainly, when competing one human against another, being myopic is not as good as having clear vision. And being color-blind is not as good as being able to see the usual spectrum of colors. And having macular degeneration is disadvantageous too. But that's comparing partial vision to good vision, when you should be comparing partial vision to even less vision or none at all.
Early in the course of animal life on earth, imagine that no creature can see. Then one creature happens to have a patch of cells that are somewhat sensitive to light. This may indeed be advantageous because it gives the creature an edge in knowing where to find shelter, or which direction to go to find food plants that grow in the light. Then one of this creature's descendents had a light-sensitive patch that was bigger, and so could start to detect the movement of something dark against the sky. This creature might avoid predators better than its peers and thus survive to reproduce more. Then in one of its descendants the light-sensitive patch developed in a sort of indentation, and this concentrated the light in one area, resulting in better resolution. And so on. The indentation deepens to a globe, an eye. The light-sensitive cells become sensitive to different wavelengths, giving color vision. The globe is capped with a lens of very stable, clear, flexible proteins (the crystallins, a family of enzymes used for completely different purposes, just happen to fulfil these critera, and now make our lenses) that helps focus light into sharp images. Every step of building an eye is more useful to some animals than the eye without that step. Examples of different eyes, down to simple light-sensitive patches, abound in the animal kingdom (and that's where I need my references to cite them for you).
The very definition of what's a good eye varies with different animals. Cats' eyes are well developed for gathering all the light they can in the semi-dark, but that night-vision sacrifices daytime detail. Predators tend to have front-facing eyes with excellent acuity in a narrow zone in front where their prey is, with a concurrent sacrifice in peripheral vision. Prey animals, in contrast, have their eyes on the sides of their heads, making for excellent peripheral vision to spot that stalking lion but poor depth perception in front. Deep-living animals, if not completely blind, are often content with light-sensitive patches signalling 'up'.
So in the course of evolution, changes that head toward something more useful than the previous version tend to let their animals live more successfully. What is better depends on what you need - whether you're prey or predator, living in bright light or shadows. Changes that don't help, or that hinder, either go unnoticed, or disappear from the gene pool, or are known to us as birth defects or genetic illnesses, or contribute to the diversity of the species. Just think of the color of your iris: living in most places, this color doesn't impact your physical fitness but it well may impact your sexual fitness by making you more desirable to the opposite sex (notably if your eyes are blue); in other places, like an equatorial desert where the sun is harsh, having a dark iris may protect your eye from too much light and thus have a real impact on your ability to function outdoors. Usually eye color is placed in the basket of normal variation without impact, but is it really...
Anyway, the point is that the complex and magnificent thing that is an eye can indeed be developed through evolution, and there is plenty of evidence that it did so. Every part of the eye is explained, from its existence, position, color, eyelashes, tear ducts, even the awkward inside-out design (with the light-sensing retina behind other structures, and a central blind spot where the optic nerve enters - if one were to design an eye from scratch, surely this organisation would be avoided! but it's a leftover from earlier versions). A person denying evolution may then say, 'well, that's just a bad example, let me take another one.' But that one too will be argued and we'll just go on and on and on.
I'll give you more if you ask for it, but it's time to prepare today's oncogenetics class. (cancer - now there's evolution gone wild!)

Monday, October 12, 2009

More highlights of my recent trip to Bruges.

In the marina just outside the old city walls, yes, there are boats from all over Europe. The larger ones are lived in.

All the doors high up on the different towers had red doors. No idea why, but it did add to the feel that the city planners had a firm grip on the 'look' of Bruges.

Looking south from the Bell Tower just after it opened for the day.

Good thing I went up there when I did, because by the time I came down, the line was out the door and down the hall.

A view from the canal tour boat. It's a very nice tour; 30 minutes for about $8. The guide talks constantly, but doesn't tell you very much because he has to repeat himself in at least three languages. We had French, German and English, and passed boats spewing Italian, Chinese, and Dutch.

Many commercial buildings have kept up their old-fashioned signs. This one is for the square where dairy farmers used to gather.

On the front of one of the government buildings. I guess this is just like the cow in the dairy square. The lion & bear of Belgium, that's what the business is within.

A door knocker. Lots of houses have this kind of fabulous detail somewhere.

Every pretty city has its sidewalk artists, and Bruges has a small number for a small city. This guy was quite talented, and unusually low-key in trying to get you over there.

Horses waiting in vain for tourists to haul around town. On a Monday, in October, in the rain. I spent an hour in this café writing postcards, and not one carriage was taken in all that time. I wonder how long before they give up and go home. Where it's dry.

Belief, or knowledge?

Aw, geeze, yet another article in the Christian press* with a fingers-in-the-ears denounciation of evolution. Let me skip the surrounding rhetoric and focus on one of the points:
The article wants us to see through the deception of the theory of evolution in part because scientists explaining evolution, and the textbooks that they produce, do not present any evidence against evolution. (When teaching physics, should the professer spend time saying, well, the laws of thermodynamics might not exist after all? Should the chemistry teacher propose that the periodic table may work, or be a work of whimsy? Should algebra class begin with a caveat that numbers are just all made up anyhow, so put them down any way you want? There just isn't any "evidence against".) The author cites evolution's failure to explain flight, or eyes, and the lack of acknowledgement of this failure as evidence that scientists are hiding something, or are just believing what they want to believe.
Yet the idea that there is some kind of failure here is an utter myth. Far from being two glaring holes in explaining how creatures adapt to their environments, evolution explains both flight and eyes rather well, and can indeed cite the existence of intermediate forms and show the utility of those forms.
I could go on for pages and pages and present that to you (and I will if there are any calls for it), but I just wanted to express my dismay at the misinformation distributed by this powerful lobby to a gullible public.
It's too ironic that a group clearly believing just what it wants to believe should so stridently clamor against that very fallacy.
*the article is here There's a lot of other stuff in it, but I really have to get back to work here...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday Photo Shoot Out

I was sorry to miss the Shoot Out last Friday, but sometimes it just isn't possible. This week was a near thing too! I know this week is supposed to be 'Silhouettes', but 1) I don't have any particular silhouettes to show you, and 2) the Portrait of a Building theme is one I really wanted to do. So a week late:
The Centre Jean Perrin. This is our main building, devoted to patient care, seen from the doctors' parking lot and ambulance entrance out front. All this paved area is today a large hole in the ground full of machinery and preparations for laying foundations.

One day my group was having its quarterly meeting in the conference room whose windows are in the top right of the above picture. There was a tremendous amount of noise, and quite a lot of alarming vibration. It got so bad we had to move. Afterwards, I went outside and found the reason: just as we were having our meeting, they were dismantling the entryway!
This is the new entrance.
Yes, patients get lost!
Most people arrive from the back now; you only go this way to get to the regular hospital just behind me from here, or to the medical school.
Around the back, this was the entrance to the Oncogenetics department a couple of months ago.
Back up a few steps and our entrance a couple of weeks ago.

Turn around and the pit looks like this. The pit touches the foundation of our building, which shakes continuously whenever the construction crew is at work.
They gave the pit a nice smooth bottom and are now digging holes in that to lay pipes and plant columns and who knows what. At least there's no basement for this part of the new building. It's a lot of noise, though, so let's go inside.
Just inside our little porch is the genetic consultation area. This used to be an open space used for teaching school groups, and when we converted it to our area with several offices, and different rooms, there wasn't really enough space to go around.

Just go straight through the waiting area, and behind the pillar with the fire extinguisher (conveniently located right in the middle of everything!) is the door to the lab.
Here's the main lab, with its seven tiny annex rooms, each with its own function. For patients to get to the consultation these days, they actually have to cross the laboratory.
The lab is full of fun equipment, like a 454 Genome Sequencer.
And of course there are researchers doing experiments - here Maurice is experimenting on a rat. Or maybe this is what they mean by experimenting on rats.

When everything is done, the old front will be hidden by the new hospitalization building on the left. Our little building is scheduled to become the parking area to the right, and the lab will be moved into what used to be the operating theaters in the old building. Only, nobody has reserved any money for converting that space, so we'll see!


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thursday Zebras

And now for your weekly zebra break.
Yes, there are Zebras in Bruges! Well, I saw one, anyway.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

cats in Paris

Aha! They are everywhere. I was on the bus from Gare du Nord in Paris, and there was another one.
Getting home, I looked for more info on the web, and yep, the cats are indeed all over, and I probably did see some in Vienna and elsewhere in Paris.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Best of Bruges, Saturday morning

Wonderfully walkable Bruges.
Beware of cyclists, and lost tourists in cars.
Wear thick-soled shoes and mind the uneven cobbles, especially if you tend to walk around looking up at the decorated eaves and spires, or keep an eye on just the right opening you need for that view down a narrow street with a prize in the distance.
The chocolate museum! Free samples with entry, both at the beginning and at the demonstration at the end. Must go back Monday before my train to pick up a bag...

Where to eat, where to eat...
Lunch was at a random tourist place on the main square. The national dish is of course mussels and fries, but I'm rather tempted by a local dish: Rabbit in the Flemish Fashion.
Mmmm. I do like bunny for a hot meal. It's been threatening rain all morning, and I know mussels cool off so quickly. But rabbit in dark beer sauce sounds like a dish to keep me warm all afternoon.
I don't expect much from this place, depending as it does on seducing tourists away from the restaurants to either side, but I'm pleasantly surprised to be served two large peices of rabbit in a delicious sauce. Wonderful. Good idea.
The only thing is, next time I must insist on a table indoors. Where smoking is forbidden. This heated terrace is quite toasty and out of the wind, but when the guy at the next table lights up, the cloud of pollution comes right for me.
Gag. Cough.

The shops are having a big sidewalk sale day, so I take advantage for a couple of gifts and a top I'll wear tomorrow. I hope not to get too lost walking back to my boathotel to drop the load off. One thing I haven't found yet is a good book of photography of Bruges. They've got a cheap paper version, but the printing is awful. The only hard-cover I've seen is terribly overpriced for an unexceptional collection of images. On a sunny day I could do better myself.

Though Bruges is not an inexpensive destination. I spent more than 30€ on lunch, and I shopped around - that was typical for a restaurant meal (dinner will be a snack in my room!). My cute hotel (a converted barge) I got a great deal on online, or I'd never be staying there. So maybe the book prices I find outrageous are just the way it is here.

Oh, and I just remembered to mention. The Chinese guys across the aisle at the restaurant had come all the way to Belgium, and were all eating spaghetti bolognaise. Like kids!
Alright. It is the Venice of the North. One of them...

Detail from the same doorway.

It's surprising that the busses fit down the narrow, winding streets.

Sorry for the photo quality. I've yet to install any image-messing-with software on my netbook, and, well, what can you do when the sun is just not ever going to come out? I'm just happy it didn't rain!
Many more pictures on Facebook, Mom.