Saturday, January 30, 2010

Strasbourg, the Hotel.

Registering rather late for this meeting, I didn't even bother to lok up the hotels suggested by the organizers. Those are always full and they're never the most economical. The CJP has a pretty stingy ceiling for housing costs; they barely pay for the cheapest box along the highway; you can expect to pay a good chunk of the bill yourself, in spite of having to work all day away from your cats and comforts of home. So I look online for something affordable and walkable in Strasbourg. A trick combination, because 'affordable' in the center of the city often means a tiny, elderly building with minimal insulation and dubious plumbing. The photos on the websites are like figures in scientific journals - prettied up and carefully cropped to present only the best. Don't you believe for a second that it really looks like that every day.


I spun the wheel and came up with Hotel 21st.

It's the least expensive to offer free wifi (that is, really, wifi already figured in the bill) and also have a room for four nights. A lot of decent-looking places were just full.

Also, it's walking distance from the station and two blocks off the historic pedestrian district. My room is on the 5th floor (American counting), conveniently offering me a modicum of daily exercise.

First order of business, this wifi thing. Their system requires a password. Fine, but my computer refuses to connect. Something about an IP address not being recognized. The computer in the lobby won't connect me to my email either, with the same error. I'd look into it, but the meeting I'm going to is providing connected computers so I take the easy route and just wait for it to start. I'm so darned lazy sometimes it's unbelievable.

Second order: a shower.

Eh... one of those bathrooms where the shower corner is meerly curtained off. The floor slopes uncomfortably toward the drain, which, ALAS, has a huge plastic thing around it, curling up at the edges, smack under the shower head. It's an art to avoid stepping on it.

This is not such a surprise. Any cheap hotel near an airport has just such a bathroom.

What's totally new is the soap. Not that it's liquid soap in individual plastic envelopes absolutely impossible to open with wet fingers. But that it's scented soap with a unique flavor: green beans.


I swear.

Green bean soap. Big stringy woody overcooked green bean-smelling soap.

This is precisely why I have odds and ends of diverse hotel soaps floating around in the depths of my toiletries bag. Just In Case.

On to sleeping. I have two pillows. A foam brick so thick it gives me a sore neck, not to mention crushed ears. Then a limp sack of granular material that is just icky. What works is covering the sack with a double layer of towel, which gives it some needed thickness and evens out the bumps, and a layer of t-shirt for smoothness against the face.

While the interior has been redone, this is indeed an old building and they didn't splurge on insulation. The little heater in front of the window might think it's 21°C in here, but that must be a very local measurement. More than a meter away it's downright cold. Turned way way up, it gets livable.

The view out the window is nothing much, just the facing row of buildings. Most of the windows have their shutters closed, in that incomprehensible French thing for closing up tight and Dark. One window I can look into. It's directly across from me, one floor down. Hard against the window and facing it is a large bed covered with fluffy comforters, in which a woman sits and reads or types on her computer. If she looked up she'd see me watching her. The three days I'm here so far, she's always there, propped up in bed, no matter what hour I pass by and give a look.


So that's my hotel. Tomorrow: back to the meeting.


Friday, January 29, 2010

The Assises de Génétique!

It's a fun little meeting, held every year in a different city, where French geneticists of all persuasions (meaning, I suppose, that cytogeneticists and somatic geneticists and epigeneticists are just as welcome as the usual one-gene-one-illness kind) gather to present and discuss the latest.

I haven't gone to all of them, but I did get to see Angers and Montpellier and now Stasbourg this way, and for a smallish meeting that covers a lot of scientific territory there's a lot of interesting science around.


This year one of the things in style is the deciphering of the genetic components of complex disorders. As a cancer researcher myself I was particularly interested in one of the talks in the opening plenary session, on the genetics of lung cancer.


(OMG that is one astounding onion soup! And an interesting beer to go with it.This is not a high-class restaurant I've chosen to dine and write in, with its plastic menu and paper placemats, but the first course is great. It's not your usual dark brown beefstock onion soup with a layer of bread and cheese on top, but something lighter with white wine, no cheese, and bread on the side.)

(Why am I dining alone? Well, I meant to meet up with friends at the Welcome Cocktail, but for some reason they planned that in a space meant for 300 people. After letting in 450, they started turning us away, and I wasn't among the lucky ones, having arrived independently just a bit late. Like 20 minutes after it started. How 'late' is that for a cocktail party?)


Getting back to science. Cancer is many things, and can be divvied up in many ways. One of the main ways is genetic vs environmental, with breast cancer being the poster child for hereditary risk (though less than 10 % of cases are strongly hereditary), and lung cancer sitting on the other end of the seesaw as the classic environmental disease (stop smoking! Now! All of you!). In fact, it has long been suspected that there are genetic factors that contribute to lung cancer. The effect of smoking is just so strong that they've been hard to identify.

Modern molecular biology to the rescue: Now that we can screen many thousands of markers in many thousands of people, gathering up 50,000 lung cancer cases and looking at markers across the entire genome is doable in a reasonable amount of time.

And they found stuff.


In Europeans, three loci (literally 'places in the genome', which usually correspond to genes, but don't always) are significantly associated with the risk of developing lung cancer. One of these was already known. Two are new, one at the tip of chromosome 5 and the other on chromosome 15. On chromosome 15 there's a cluster of genes around the marker that turned up hot, all of them components of the nicotine receptor in the brain. And it turns out that the hottest marker is a little change in one of these that makes it bind nicotine just a little bit better than the usual version.

Makes perfect darned sense!

People with this variant version experience greater dependence on nicotine than people without it. If they take up smoking, they're much less likely to be able to kick the habit. Doesn't mean they can't, but it's a significant handicap. Gives all the meaning to antismoking campaigns that lean on Don't Start.

So these people with the variant smoke more and for longer and expose themselves to more tobacco carcinogens. It's a gene that works _with_ the environmental factor. Not one or the other, but both together. (Just to be fair, having the variant does increase lung cancer risk for people who don't smoke, but its big clinical importance is in smokers.)

This only goes for Europeans. The variant is quite common in Europe (34 % of chromosomes there have it), but is not seen at all in Asians or Africans. Something else must be going on with them.


This is just the tip of the iceberg of gene-environment interactions. It's been several years now that the Nature vs Nurture arguement has been shown to be a false dichotomy in almost every domain. High-throughput gene screens on huge cohorts are beginning to give us the details.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Friday Photo Shootout: Look up, look down

This week's Shootout theme is "Look up, Look down". Which I wish I had time to treat more cleverly and all, but it's also the 5th Assises de Génétique and thus I'm on the road for an interesting meeting. Sciency posts in the near future, so stop back later!

For a look at the rest of the Shootouts, click here!

Going to Strasbourg

It's always nice to get on the train and go. Especially a nice new comfy train that's not too crowded. Some of the trains they have serving Clermont-Lyon are real relics, should be taken to Culoz for graffiti and breaking. This one's a good new one.

Our first destination I've been to many a time: Lyon.

I'll have an hour and twenty minutes and the Part-Dieu station. It's the nicer one, with decent shops and coffee & pastry, a major shopping mall across the street and a dozen restaurants all close by. Just perfect since I'll be there right at lunchtime, ready for a hot meal rather than a cold sandwich.

From Lyon it's off to Strasbourg, where I've also been but only once. And it didn't count fully because I saw it with Iris, which meant we saw the insides of the museums and never got a chance to walk just everywhere and see it all in person.

In Clermont, waiting to go. The train is waiting at the quay; no need to get cold outside. I pick the best window, facing forward. People are spilling out of the train across the quay, just in from somewhere. They hurry off to the tunnel and then to work, school, appointments.

Here we go. Gently, without warning but for the clock ticking over to 8:58, we head slowly north.

It's a grey, grey morning. Did the sun come up? It must have by now.

It's cold enough to snow, but hasn't. The crows' nests and mistletoe stand our in the naked trees. Interesting - none of the mistletoe trees have nests, and the trees with nests don't have mistletoe infestations. I wonder if there's a reason for that, or if I just don't have time, for a heavily infested tree, to see that each clump is plant, not nest. Could just be chance, too. If 5% of trees are infested, and 2% of trees have crows, then only one in a thousand should have both, just at random.

Past Roanne, fields dusted with snow. Closer to Tarare the patches in the tree-shaded gullies are big enough to gather snowballs. Then back to grey.

Rolling through the stark and shivering countryside there are not many crows about, just a few picking at the leavings in the cornfields. Plenty of hawks instead, sitting fluffed up in the trees and on poles.

Lyon Part-Dieu station is unheated, as far as I can tell. And why should it be, with all the open stairways leading up to the quays, and people constantly going in and out of the big doors to the street. Happy to be out of the wind and weather, but it isn't warm!

I have lunch at the only sit-down restaurant I don't have to go outside to get to. Yes, it is heated, though there has long been no fire in the generous fireplace along one wall. The restroom, in spite of the code to get in, is full of young women begging and warming their gloved hands under the blower. Over the noise I can't tell what language they're begging in, but it isn't French.

The news lately has been doing a series on pickpockets in France. The footage is mostly from the Paris metro. I'm not the sort to take all my baggage with me to the restroom, though one of my Paris friends certainly would. I have my shoulder bag with me, but the beggar girls remind me of the Bulgarian gangs working Paris and other major cities, making me wonder about my duffel, which contains my computer and my knitting, and not only the irreplacable Maurice but the visiting gecko, Warren. Not to worry - all is in place at my table when I return, guarded by my travel-weary poster tube.

This tube, in fact hasn't travelled all that much. It went by car once from Toulouse to Clermont. Its only major journey has been to Denver, where the airline did in fact lose track of it, delivering it to my hotel in extremis the morning of my poster presentation two days later, covered in stickers and barcodes and black gummy areas where stickers had been removed. One of the orange end parts has been lost, so it's closed on one end with an old TSA notice of inspection and some laboratory tape. What bearer of such a ratty-looking poster tube (the contents, I assure you, are first class!) could ever have treasures worth stealing in a small, cheap duffel bag?

Un dessert, madame?

I shouldn't, but by the clock I've got 40 minutes to go. I say I'll look at the menu, meaning to marshal my resolve and order just coffee. But I remember the coffee here is nasty, and see they have crème brulée...

An excellent crème brulée, in fact, surprising considering the dubious quality of my gnocchi gratinée.

The restaurant has quite filled up since my arrival. Everybody else is having roast chicken, steaks & fries with salads, large glasses of beer. The carpaccio at a table nearby, when I finally figure out that that's what it is, is so covered with oil and garnishes that I'm glad I didn't go with that as I almost did. It's a steak place: go with the faux filet next time and you won't be dissappointed.

12:30. Time to go find my train. I hope it's not coming from Perrache, the other Lyon station, and just passing through here. I'd like to be able to get on early, out of the cold, and settle in for the 5 hours to Strasbourg. On the way I pick up some schedules for trains from Lyon. I have a discount pass to travel to this particular region that's good until May. I should take advantage. See some more of the little places.

Well, the train is coming from Perrache, so the crowd waits for it. I tried to reserve a window seat online, but was given an aisle, often a sign that the train is full. But no. They just decided to fill the reservations back to front. There are seven reserved seats in the entire car, which seats more than 50. All elbow to elbow at the back. So once again I pick the cleanest, unobstructed window I can find.

It's a pleasant ride, through the countryside of eastern France. The vineyards of the Jura roll by on their low hillsides. A paddock of shaggy ponies. A huge castle in the distance. Going through towns we have a good view of backyards, strewn with the things of life, swimming pools with ice on their covers. I took this day on the train instead of flying mostly to have this time of relaxation, time to look out the window and think of random things, read a book, just be still for a while.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Associated Sports of Montferrand advances to the Q-finals

It's painful to see the Italians play rugby.
The Heineken Cup is in its last weekend of pool play, and the ASM is certain to advance to the quarterfinals as they play Viadana today near Rome.

A bit of vacation for our guys, really. They wrapped up the offensive bonus point (for four touchdowns) before halftime. For the second half, the French TV producers simply showed us the Ospreys-Leicester game, in spite of it not involving any French teams at all, cutting back to Rome only for beauty-shots of the ASM's new scores. Final score: 59-20.

One just hopes the Italians don't get too discouraged, what with constant defeats and playing in nearly-empty stadiums. A place in this European championship is pretty much a curtesy, as no Italian team has much hope of besting any of the others. Keep at it, though, and their play should improve. Their national team, in fact, can no longer be counted on to win the Wooden Spoon* in the 6- Nations tournament, as they occassionally rise up and beat Scotland (though their presence has been a boon to Scotland, frequent past recipients themselves of the dreaded Wooden Spoon).

Alas, no number of touchdowns could change the fact that if Biarritz and Toulouse both won their matches, which they did, the ASM would be ranked 5th of the 8 quarterfinal teams and thus have an away-game against last year's champion to start off the elimination rounds.

Go Yellow & Blue!

* the "prize" for going winless

Friday, January 22, 2010

Invictus, bis

I did get to see Invictus the other day. Great film. The second half might be a bit rugby-laden for the uninitiated or the unintrigued. And a friend mentions that the film is utterly silent on the poisoning episode.
Yes. Apparently the All Blacks suffered some serious food poisoning the night before the final, and thus were artificially not at their best for the big match. The Blacks themselves never made an issue of it, though the Kiwi media certainly did. Thing is, with the Blacks not making an issue, nobody really investigated. So we don’t know if there was some sinister plot by the South African government to win at any cost. Or if a person acting on his own initiative decided to give the Springboks a hand. Or if there was just an unfortunately bad dish served to the team that night.
Personally, I think that given the uncertainty surrounding the event, it’s just as well that Eastwood and his team didn’t get into it.
Much more interesting anyway is the beginning of the film, which addresses how the Mandela government dealt with the early days of integration.
His speech to the executive staff is inspiring but expected. More getting-down-to-it is the series where the black security team is begging for more men, and are sent the members of the old, white team. You need guys? Here they are. They guarded de Klerk for years; they know what they’re about.
The story would seem too good to be true. And maybe the film is polished and bright-side and hagiographic, but we know that indeed, Mandela pulled it off. The country did integrate without becoming virulently anti-white in the way its neighbors did. The Springboks did win in '95 (and again in '07). Invictus is a fascinating look at just how.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Sound

I feel terrible! It's my theme. I had this great theme lined up, really cool, and it just happened to land this week and the entire month I've been too busy to arrange a blindfolded walk about town during daylight hours. No fair! I will post a blind hike for you some other time. Promise!
There are plenty of sounds in my town. Let's go for a more ordinary sort of stroll and check some out.
This is my neighbor's car, parked smack in front of my house. My roses here are nice and quiet. The car, I hear it coming and going, and doors slamming, and the trunk slamming, and people talking endlessly in the night. Something about my house being so poorly insulated, the noise goes right around the loosely-fitting front door, down the wood hallway, and into my bedroom. The back bedroom.
Walk down the block to the center of Aubière, and you cross this stream, the Artière.
It's a little guy, but very musical. I always appreciate the little touch of nature in its burbling course through our town.
Sundays Aubière is closed off for market morning.
There are always crowds of people, talking, shouting out orders and prices, kids running around and parents yelling at them.
It's a lively thing, even in dreary weather.
More of the market in front of the church, which tolls the hour (twice, in case you miscount the first time), and gives one chime for quarter and half hours.
I like the sound of the bus pulling up to the stop to take me to work. Lots of the buses have noisy brakes and you can hear them blocks away, above the traffic if you know what to listen for.
Once at work, these guys are a good source of noise.
They'll beep at you if you try to enter incorrect directions, but most of the noise is the fans cooling off their motors.
That's one reason why they're sequestered here in a teeny room on their own.

That's nothing compared to the noise of the construction zone outside.
This is the view from the bridge between my building (left) and the main one.
Sawing through concrete they just poured last week.
The crane turning around.
Unidentified noises of all sorts.
Coffee time is good for some noise.
I won't say who here makes the most. You know who you are.

And our tram.
I like the little bell it has for crossing streets.
Brrring! Brrring! like an old-fashioned bicycle bell.
It has a serious horn, too, for when it feels threatened.

So there you are.
How about your town?
Link to other shootouts here.

Thursday Zeb

A very quick zebra for you today.
gotta run!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I don't go to the movies often, but I've been waiting eagerly for the opening in France of Invictus.
The story of Nelson Mandela, the end of apartheid, and rugby. What could be better?
I just hope this movie doesn't disappear without notice in the US. It's not that Americans don't like Mandela, or the end of apartheid, and a good triumph of the underdog story is always a winner. But Rugby? WTF? And the title. No regular American has any idea what “invictus” means. We don’t study latin any more. This movie may be doomed to obscurity from the start.
I can’t help much with Latin, but having lived for a time now in a rugby-playing land, I can give you a few pointers concerning the impenetrable rules of that game.
First, it doesn't stop. No timeouts. No stopping the clock between plays. Minor injury on the field? Keep playing, just try not to run the guy and the medical team over. It’s a big field: go play on another part of it. Even the end of the half, or the game, does not stop play. Running and tackling and rucking (yes, it is a game with rucks and scrums and melees) continues apace, sometimes for several minutes, concluding only when a score is made or the ball goes out of bounds. Play can be stopped any time, however, if the referee's battery needs changing.
Other rules: - No bleeding on the field. Anyone caught bleeding has to go off. This goes for the referee, too.
- No throwing a guy to the ground unless he has the ball. This rule is kind of flexible.
- Getting the ball into the end zone is not enough. You have to touch the ball to the ground. So don’t get all caught up in celebrating and forget to touch the ball down. In rugby you have to ‘touch down’, though in American football a ‘touchdown’ only requires the ball cross the plane into the end zone.
- Wear any shoes you want. Socks are part of the uniform, but shoes are up to you, so there are guys out there with any color shoe they can find. Which can be useful trying to identify guys in a pile. Same goes for headgear. If your wife makes you wear one of those funky quilted helmets to keep your ears pretty, it doesn't have to match anything else.
As you can see from these rules, it’s a fast-moving, rough and tough game, a bang-up show of testosterone. Go see it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Birds

Today's Friday Shootout theme is Birds, chosen by Scriptor.

Anybody home?

Up there? Anyone?

Yoo-hoo! Birds!

Most of our regular birds are on vacation today.

Pretty much the only birds hanging around my town these days are the ubiquitous crows, a magpie high in a tree,
and some fat doves. (They're not fat; they're fluffy!)

So from my secondary town, here's a San Diego Zoo inhabitant,
And a beach bum.
And from my parents' town of Mountain Home, Arkansas,
watching the birdfeeder scores plenty of birds.

At a lake a couple of miles from the folks, a pair of Bald Eagles nests every year. These are the 2009 fledglings just a few days before leaving the nest.

For a look around all the Shooters' posts, click here.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thursday Zebras

For your zebra viewing enjoyment.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cat of the Month: Orange Bunny Baskerville

We just called him Basker, or Bunny, depending.
On moving to Los Angeles, we discovered that the fabulous Man O War needed a companion, now that the apartment wasn’t filled with people coming and going. There’s a place just off Venice Boulevard called Pet Pride that keeps cats. They have about 200 at any time, though many are not up for adoption due to health or behavioral problems. All the cats are adults, since the rule is that you must have had your cat at least a year before Pet Pride will let you leave it with them. That’s one way of limiting the new cats, by refusing random strays, which is sad for the strays but the place would just go under otherwise - too many cats, not enough adoptions. Last time I was there they must have relaxed this rule, because there were some younger ones.

Even after getting a cat, sometimes we’d go down there on the weekend, just to spend an hour or two petting and brushing and giving attention. Their collars were coded - blue for boys, pink for girls, white for the declawed (PP makes you promise not to declaw). I wish they had a fourth color, for those not up for adoption, so you don’t make up your mind for one it turns out you can’t have.

Out of the milling cats, many clamoring for petting and brushing and being taken home, others curled up sleeping, others just sitting around bored and resigned to their lot, there were a lot of candidates. Among the white-collars, we picked a large, very skinny, middle-aged, orange one. Bunny. Baskerville was my idea (hey, Man O War had been Bing in a past life). Orange was Tim’s addition. Like we might get this one confused with some other Bunny Baskerville in the neighborhood.

So Bunny came home with us, and was great friends with Man O War.
Only, he never did eat much. We discovered too late that was due to the woeful state of his back teeth, and sadly he died of an infection soon after. Unlucky cat number 13 in my life. Check your cats’ teeth!

Monday, January 11, 2010

It's cold out

We had snow early last week, none of which melted before a new layer was laid down Friday and Saturday.The outdoor catwater is frozen.

The yard doesn't need mowing this weekend, thank goodness.
Here comes Natalie!

The azaleas are quite covered.

Where are the others? Is it time to go play?

Are you kidding?
Bandersnatch prefers to appreciate the snow from right side of the window.

Sienne doesn't appreciate the snow at all, preferring to nestle in the snowy-white comforter.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Fences

This week's My Town Shootout theme is Fences.
There's a lot of potential with this topic, but I just didn't have the fortitude to get out and collect photos in the cold last weekend, and weekdays, well, are just impossible.

So this is my backyard. The vegetable patch has a little wire fence, just to show where the edges are. On the lawn side I don't mow too close because that's where irises and tulips and etc are planted.

The fence separating my yard from one of the neighbors.

The back fence is often covered with climbing weeds in the summer.
I try to keep that in check, but I'll never have the manicured lawn that they do.

The front fence keeping my car from escaping. Well, if I had a car and I wanted to mess with this gate every day instead of using the parking space on the street, that's what it would do. I think I even know where the key is.
My neighbor's fence is new. They just finished constructing the house last year.
From the archives of my other town, there's a fence at Torrey Pines that keeps people away from the fragile cliff-edges. Well, it may keep some of them away - there are plenty of footprints on the wrong side.

An ex-fence in a stream.

And a fence to tell the cows where to eat and where not to eat.

That's all, folks! To visit the other Shootout participants this week, click here.