Saturday, May 31, 2008

Science Tattoos!

For many years I have wanted to get a tattoo. I've balked at the price and at the lack of seemingly decent tattoo parlors around where I live, but I've decided to go ahead with what I can find.

And what kind of tattoo am I getting? A flaming skull? A heart inscribed with my lovely wife's name? Pictures of my kids? "Momma"?

No, of course not. I'm a scientist, after all. It's got to reflect my scientific interest (no offense to Mom, my wife, my kids, or skulls, thank you).

I am choosing to have permanently inked into my left upper arm the image at left. It is the first critter I studied, while as an undergrad. I studied the Cottonwood Borer beetle's reproductive anatomy and behavior in GREAT detail. Yes, not all science is for the betterment of mankind, but I found it fascinating, and still do. The beetles are about 2 inches long from the front of their head to the tip of their butt (though the antennae are longer). That little research project (which also involved learning some pretty detailed and traditional procedures and instrumentation) led to years of entomological research, then toward a career in biotech. The beetle isn't exactly colorful, but the story behind it means a lot to me. Sadly, we never published the work.

And then yesterday I came across this amazing blog dedicated to nothing else than documenting science-themed tattoos, imprinted onto scientists who study those topics:

Absolutely fascinating! People have sent him pictures of their tattoos on everything from evolution to zoological anatomy, subatomic particles to mathematics, computing to ecology.

Some of my favorite examples from those pages include THIS one, THIS one, THIS one, THIS one, and THIS one (but it is so hard to choose!). Enjoy!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day '08

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, when we remember and recognize all those men and women in uniform who went into harm's way for our country (whether the war was justified or not) and, in many cases, gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect our nation's interests.

Right now, the giant American flag that was presented in my grandfather's memorial service is hanging in my bay window, completely covering the glass there. Grandpa served aboard a supply ship in the Pacific during World War II, but came home safely. My great uncle fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II Europe. He came home, too. I also had a step father who served in the Korean war. A fall from an icy tank injured his back, but he came home. He never really recovered from his back injury, but he had a far harder time dealing with the mental wounds of war. And my lovely young niece is, right now, patrolling the edges of Sadr City in Baghdad. She is shot at often, and the risk of being killed by bullet, mortar, or roadside bomb is very real. I am lucky that none of my relatives has actually died while at war. Let's hope it stays that way. She comes home in August, just before her 23rd birthday.

But the danger doesn't end when they walk through that door to their good ole home. A recent study found that 1 in every 5 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):

That's 20% of returning veterans. Of those who seek treatment, only about half receive "minimally adequate" treatment.

The biggest effect of PTSD is depression, with suicide as the worst outcome. According to the Pentagon's own assessment, soldier suicides are five-fold higher than before the wars began, and currently that rate is at its highest ever since the start of the war (SOURCE). At least five soldiers commit suicide each day. That means that the number of suicides may soon outpace the number of combat deaths.

In a recent phone call, my niece commented on how surreal it is, fighting there in Baghdad, where you drive around in a big city, like any big city, where there are cars and people walking around, except there you can expect to be shot at at any moment, and everyone you are supposedly fighting for wants you gone and may be conspiring against you.

This isn't the war my grandfather and great uncle fought, or even my step father. Those we were liberating wanted us there.

So as you enjoy your day off, going boating, cooking hot dogs with the fam, reading blogs by liberal scientists, or simply gathering around the home entertainment system to watch this week's episode of American Gladiator, give a thought to those who have fought for your country, and another for those who are fighting for their lives right now.

Hang in there, my niece. I'll see you soon. Though this holiday is meant to remember our soldiers who have died, my flags fly for the living heroes, too, and one day soon this unjustified war will be over.

Addendum: On a closely related note, May 17 was Armed Forces Day, a day where we celebrate all that our combined armed services do for us (and, I might add, a holiday which is practically unknown or ignored outside of miltary circles, as far as I can tell).

Image taken from HERE.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Keeping Yourself Pale May Also Make Coral Reefs Pale

I love the smell of cocoa butter. It sends me immediately into daydreams of hot, summer beaches and cool water.

If that statement seems odd to you, then you are either old and forgetful or younger than 25, or were too much of a lily to go outdoors.

Back when I was a kid, running around mostly-naked on the beach during summertime, the word "sunscreen" meant a wide-brimmed hat. I would slather Coppertone on myself. That rich, mildly-chocolate smelling yummy lotion infused with cocoa butter seemed an excellent means by which I could saut̩ rotund little body to a beautiful tan in no time without sizzling to a crisp in the mid-day Southern sun. SPF values were something like 2 or 4, which meant that drenching myself with Coppertone only protected me four times longer from imitating a beet, which I did often. Anytime now I expect skin cancer to crop up and remind me why my grandma carried an umbrella (which she called a "parasol") to shade herself when she went outside (and with good reason Рshe developed skin cancer in her elder years).

But by the 80's, the term "suntan lotion" was gradually being replaced by "sunblock" or "sunscreen", until now you never hear the term "suntan lotion". HERE is a good discussion about the change in terms.

Is it wrong of me to be wistful? Maybe it's because I live in the Northwest, where it's too testicle-shriveling cold most of the year to lay around nearly naked absorbing photons, but I just don't hear about people trying to get tans anymore. Everyone's too busy coating themselves with sun-repelling chemicals. I miss being brown.

Besides, this picture illustrates how "artistic" you can be with your melanoma-inducing love of sun (see THIS page for information on the artist).

Oh, sure, sure, I know all the arguments. Skin cancer = bad. Pale = good. Love the skin you're in. No one wants to look like an alligator by the time they're 45. Even I use Coppertone Sport sunblock, with SPF 15, and my children, who are dark-complected African-Americans, get coated with Baby Blanket sunscreen, SPF 50+.

But before we pat ourselves on the back for being health-conscious and educated about the potential dangers of UV radiation, let us consider a recent study that shows that sunblock lotions washed off of our sweaty, body-surfing bodies are contributing to the bleaching of coral reefs:

Yes, in addition to the effects of global climate changes like increased UV radiation, increasing water temperatures, and rising water levels, plus industrial pollution, which endangers some 60 percent of coral reefs, some 10 percent of reefs are also at danger to being bleached by dangerous by-products produced when sunscreen breaks down. 78 million tourists who visit these reefs each year may gawk at the incredibly diversity of fishes and corals, but they are also releasing some 4000 to 6000 metric tonnes of sunscreen into that water. Researchers demonstrated that even small doses of sunscreen can bleach coral reefs within 96 hours of application, probably by stimulating viral infection of the coral.

No, I'm not advocating giving up the sunscreen. But maybe my grandma had the right idea. Let's not rely completely on painting our bodies with chemical sunscreens. Bring a parasol. Or at least a beach umbrella. But I still recommend getting out from under it enough to get some Vitamin D and maybe darken your skin enough to hide the veins. Ew!

Image taken from HERE.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

One Hell Of A Toothpick

Try to guess what the next three things have in common:

1. Last night I shoved a small, plastic stick with a wad of cotton at the tip into my ear canals and scraped out loving chunks of brown-yellow wax. It was nice to hear clearly again.

2. Today I go to the dentist to have my bi-annual tooth scraping and (bloody, painful) reminder to floss more often.

3. I plan to spend my supposed recession-deflecting economic band-aid of a stimulus package on something that makes me ignore the catastrophic national debt and economic recession.

Yes, you likely have already received a large sum of money from our government who, in their infinite wisdom, has waged an unjustified war that has cost the average American family $20,900, promoted big oil to record profits and record prices at the pump (the cheap stuff was $3.92 / gallon in town today!), and allowed fiscal irresponsibility to lead us into a recession. But, hey, even though it has cost each family dearly, they'll throw a trifle thousand bucks or so back at ya to spend on that new HD TV or, you know, buy the medicine that grandma needs because our failing healthcare system let her down. Thanks for the money, Dubya. It'll pay off about 1/8th of the average family's credit card debt. No need to invest it into our educational system, for instance, or social security.

Some folks suggested new and exciting ways to spend your stimulus package. Mark Morford had some good ideas (like buying one share of Google stock, filling four tanks of gas, or saving for the massive bonfire celebration to be held on 1/20/09).

Personally, I think a better way to blow your stimulus package would be to follow the lead of a wealthy Spanish galleon captain from the 17th century: a toothpick / earwax spoon made of solid gold:

Divers recently unearthed from the sands of the Florida Keys a 3-inch long personal grooming device made of solid gold which has a toothpick at one end and an ear wax spoon on the other end (see picture). This is the latest find of years worth of searching for a fabled lost galleon, the Santa Margarita, which was sunk during a hurricane in 1622. So far they have found bars of gold, a lead box filled with pearls, and gold chains, but have yet to find the ship. This golden toothpick / earwax spoon has an estimated value of around $100,000.

Are you as horrified as I am that such a thing exists as an "earwax spoon"? Ew! And to have a toothpick at the other end! Double ew! Don't mix up one end from the other! You're likely to get a mouth full of yummy ear wax or a pierced eardrum with gingivitis.

But, hey, isn't it really just a status symbol? This little tool was apparently worn on a necklace. Wearing it on your neck, you would be proclaiming to the world, "I can afford a golden toothpick and you can't." You would also be proclaiming, "I have such bad earwax and tooth plague that I have to carry a special tool around my neck at all times to deal with it." But who cares? You're rich! Women will want to lay you no matter how horrible you look, just for a chance to get their own golden earwax spoon.

So, please, run out and get a golden earwax spoon / toothpick of your own. According to our government, it will help the economy. Sound economics.

Now that's picking your teeth with style!

Image taken from HERE.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Not Your Usual Computer Bug

Last winter our house was infested with ants. More specifically, by "sweet-eating ants", little red buggers that love nothing more than to get into any remnant of sweet foods left in your kitchen, like un-rinsed pop cans, sugar bowls, glasses that had held juice, and sugary cereal boxes. Trust me, when you have two small children with two working parents and precious little time to clean anything thoroughly, there is PLENTY for these f*ckin' ants to eat, anywhere in the house. Trust me, we fought them long and hard.

And then one evening my lovely wife told me she had found a "highway" of ants traveling down our bedroom wall and into a pile of clean laundry I had not put away for, oh, two weeks or so (did I mention that we have precious little time to clean anything thoroughly?) on the night stand next to my side of the bed. Shaking my head and wondering why, in the name of E.O. Wilson, these little insects could possibly be attracted to my horribly unfashionable garments, I marched into our bedroom, found the line of ants, and proceeded to dig through the pile of clothes looking for some half-eaten Pot-Tart my kids may have sequestered there. In my rummaging, I accidentally knocked my digital alarm clock off the night stand.

When the clock hit the floor, it positively exploded with ants.

Aghast, I grabbed the clock and, ignoring the army of ants running up my arms, put the clock outside so the little monsters would freeze in the winter air. After shaking them off of my body, I went back to the bedroom and proceeded to slap and stomp to death about a zillion of them next to my bed (I'm exaggerating. It was only half a zillion).

Then I took a big Ziplock, placed the alarm clock in it, and put the sealed alarm clock into my freezer overnight. By the next morning, this little nest of ants was dead. I shook out the dead ants as best as I could, then tentatively plugged the clock back in, half expecting a fiery short circuit, but the clock has worked fine ever since. No doubt there a hordes of dead ants still inside. I can still see one inside the faceplate. Eventually we got an exterminator to control the infestation.

HERE is a rather entertaining video where some ants made a nest in some poor sucker's computer mouse!

This is nothing new. Having once been an entomologist, I've noted news stories off and on over the years of ants forming nests in breaker boxes and various appliances, even computers. No one is sure why ants can be attracted to electricity.

Lately a news story has been going around about an invasion of "Crazy Ants" in the Houston area:

News videos:

These species of ant (scientifically named Paratrenicha species near pubens) are only about the size of a flea and race around in a seemingly random manner, thus the name, and are native to the Caribbean and the southeast of the U.S. This invading population, however, seems more rampant than the others, having apparently arrived in Texas by way of a cargo ship. A fellow by the name of Tom Rasberry, an exterminator, has been leading the charge in popularizing this invasion (and, apparently, generating much more business for himself. He was recently hired by NASA to guard the Johnson Space Center against the ants) and has even gotten his name attached to them, as many media outlets are reporting the species common name as "Crazy Rasberry Ants". Not only are the ant colonies spreading, but they have been shorting out electrical devices in the area, including fuse boxes and computers (see picture).

They are resistant to ant sprays, have multiple queens per nest, and spread quickly.

The good news is that they eat fire ants. If you've ever been stung by fire ants, as I have, you'll be happy to hear this. Texas is overrun with fire ants (another introduced ant species that shorts out electrical boxes, I might add).

So the next time you have an ant infestation in your home, and you can't find the nest, check your electrical box, appliances, laptop, and your frickin' alarm clock, especially if you're in the Houston area. There may be a different sort of computer bug living in there!

Image taken from HERE.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

My Liquid Lunches

No, I haven't been going out to the bar at lunchtime.

As you can see in the margin of this blog page, I have been dieting lately. I've lost over ten pounds and over four inches off my belly. Yay me! Of course, I was as handsome as a lab rat could be beforehand, but now I'm a slimmer, healthier rat. How have I done it? Nightly exercise (one reason I haven't been writing as much lately), lower portion sizes, and calorie restriction.

In particular, my lunches typically involve drinking a Slim-Fast shake. Chocolate. 190 calories.

Now, I went into this little endeavor of drinking my lunch with the sort of enthusiasm typically reserved for National Guardsmen headed to Iraq, and drinking my lunch each day sounded about as fulfilling as trying to defend Hillary's chances of getting the Democratic nomination. And yet, I was surprised how well these shakes sated my appetite. They are high protein and high fiber, but low calorie. A recipe for success.

What's more, they are creamy and whipped with air. Whip it, baby! Whip it good! It turns out, according to a recent study, that this is a major factor in making a diet shake work well:

Bulking up food with water and gas extends that food's ability to satisfy an appetite for one or two additional hours. Whipped milkshakes were a good choice. But not just any gas will do. Carbon dioxide, apparently, doesn't work. Darn, there goes my Pepsi diet!

Unfortunately, the article doesn't specify which gases are best. Let's hope it's not the kind that comes out the other end.

So, tomorrow at noon, I'll pop open another cold one, drink it before the whipped air escapes, and watch my beer belly melt away.


Image taken from HERE.

Friday, May 9, 2008

When Cremation Isn't Gross Enough

How much thought have you given to what will become of your corpse?

Oh sure, sure, we try not to think about such things. Death is a thing better not dwelled upon. But let's face reality. Eventually we're all worm food, in one form or another.

My paternal grandma was convinced that burial was the only option. A thoroughly religious and superstitious woman (is there really any difference between the two?), she believed that cremation was the Devil's work, that somehow by being cremated you were inviting eternal damnation in a lake of fire. Of course, she also believed that having a beard meant that you were hiding something, and she always distrusted daylight savings time so much that she kept at least one clock with "the correct time" all year round. I loved her dearly, but you have to admit she was eccentric. What would she think of me now, I wonder, being an atheist, an advocator of cremation, hairy like a rat, and adhering to that daylight savings time conspiracy?

Yes, Grandma thought a lot about her corpse. She had everything arranged. The cemetery plot was purchased, and she visited it now and then. She had purchased a headstone (unfinished, of course). She even had a funeral home on stand-by. It was that way throughout my youth, and she reminded me of it often. If she could have dug the grave ahead of time, she would have.

It's good to be prepared.

Personally, I'd prefer my body be laid out in state, with thousands of mourners shuffling by to look at my handsome face, then be buried in a massive and overly-expensive granite tomb with my most famous quotes chiseled into the side of it…. But since that isn't likely to happen, I guess I'll just donate my organs and have the rest of me cremated. (Lake of fire! Lake of fire!)

Of course, there are other options to burial and cremation. There's the ancient and (thankfully) extinct Native American practice (in some areas) of simply putting the body up on a wooden platform to rot in the wind, or the Tibetan practice of chopping off the limbs and tossing them to the winds for vultures to feed on, or (my favorite), the Viking burial in a burning ship at sea (now that's a way to go!).

Now there's a new option: Dissolving your body in lye:;_ylt=AhxAi5B3goY5EidSQI1hMoSs0NUE

Yes, that's right. Dissolving corpses is no longer reserved for lunatic murderers. Now a couple of medical centers (The University of Florida in Gainesville and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.) are using a special "pressure cooker" filled with lye, at 300 degrees F and 60 pounds of pressure per square inch, to literally dissolve the body away – a process known to chemists as alkaline hydrolysis, which has been used for years for disposal of medical waste and dead animals. Now a New Hampshire mortuary is wanting to buy one of those "pressure cooker" tanks.

The resultant human-goo is a "coffee-colored liquid [that] has the consistency of motor oil and a strong ammonia smell." Umm, appetizing! Need a cup of java, anyone? This liquid, which is now sterilized, is then poured down the drain.

I repeat: poured down the drain.

So if you're living in Gainesville or Rochester, give that water of yours another sniff, eh? If you drink it, does that count as cannibalism?

This whole body-processing thing dredges up visions of Charlton Heston running through the streets of a crowded, dystopic future New York yelling, "Soylent Green is made of people! People!"

Personally, I'm not as horrified by this rather macabre method as I thought I would be. I'd be dead, after all. It's technically sanitary, doesn't fill up otherwise wonderful sunny meadows with depressing graves for ghosts to putter around in, and you don't have to find a place in the rose garden for your Cousin Ralph's ashes. Just fill the pressure cooker, insert the lye, press a button and Voila!, your beloved is turned into gravy. Just be sure to flush twice.

And as for my Grandma, she died at a ripe old age, and she got the burial she always imagined for herself, in that grave she had prepared, and with the gravestone she'd bought so far ahead. But we deviated in one minor way from her well-laid plans. She had wanted a closed casket, believing herself too ugly to view. But I have to say, when I viewed her laying there, she was more radiant and beautiful than I had ever seen her in life. You can't get that with alkaline hydrolysis.

AP photo taken from HERE.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Another Flighty Invention

A couple days ago, a Mexican (yes, Mexican) aerospace company announced designs for a new strap-on helicopter backpack:

From the article:

Technologia Aeroespacial Mexicana (TAM), the company behind the Libelula strap-on helicopter, explains on its Web site how the device is powered by two hydrogen fuel canisters. Tiny rockets at the tips of the helicopter´s rotor blades take the place of a tail rotor, a component which couldn´t be safely attached to a human body. According to the company, the Libelula would be the lightest helicopter in the world, so light that it could be strapped to a person´s body with a carbon fiber corset.

Wow. Nifty. Gee whiz…. Yawn.

Several times a year, some enterprising inventor comes out with yet another far-out but over-played transportation device that, like its predecessors, is too expensive, too unsafe, often untried, and simply not marketable. Take, for instance, the most recent car that can turn into either a boat or a submarine (the sQuba car), or yet another flying car concept that was announced not so long ago.

Yeah, it's neat, but even if the Libelula helicopter backpack works (and it is still just a concept, I will remind you), it's really just a novelty. Hell, it would take some convincing just to get me to travel by motorcycle (four wheels is a LOT safer than two!). Getting me to strap a hydrogen fuel tank to my back, then take off with a loud engine and whirling blades just inches from my sensitive little head, is a whole other thing. Hey, while you're at it, let's make it even more unsafe and add some potentially-explosive rockets to the blades. Oh, I guess there already are.

It's an interesting commentary on the workings of the world that most people have trouble understanding how to hook up their stereo systems or operate their digital cameras, but we'll give any schmuck a license to drive a half-ton SUV at ramming speed down the freeway. I don't trust most drivers to keep me from becoming one with their hoods, so it should be no surprise that giving them a helmet with a couple of spinning 3-foot, potentially-decapitating blades and explosive rockets and hydrogen fuel isn't a concept I endorse. Call me snobby, but I'd like to keep folks on the ground and leave the flying to licensed pilots.

As for the personal-helicopter idea, I'll leave you with a link to a video of someone who has already built a similar contraption:

Here's another one:

Yes, you, too, can experience the miracle of flight with the new Libelula helicopter backpack, able to leap tall buildings and border walls with a single bound. Just watch out for those power lines, amigos, or those blades will be chopping more than air.

Addendum: For a slightly less explosive and death-defying option, consider the "Mosquito" personal helicopter:

Image taken from HERE.