Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

This is a guest-post from a friend for whom I have utmost respect.

By Teri McLain

Today I ran a Thanksgiving Day Race in downtown Fort Collins with my Sister Lisa, her friend Jen and 1432 other people. 

At the finish, everyone was milling about and I was leaning on a light pole watching for Lisa. I noticed an obviously homeless man watching the bagel table. When the line thinned, he approached and took a bagel and when he realized no one cared, he took another for his pocket. Then he turned and walked straight towards me, eating a bagel with the happiest look in his eyes that I have ever seen. It was heartbreaking, the sheer joy that could be induced by a circle of dough with a hole in the center. He looked happier than a jewel thief with a pocket full of diamonds.

Around us, half the racers were talking or texting, in their own private Idaho. Two women behind me listed all the things they had to accomplish tomorrow on their shopping spree. They sounded annoyed. Others were talking dinner plans, rehashing the race, or contemplating the best place to grab a beer at 9:47 in the morning of Thanksgiving day. Everyone was munching on bagels and not a one of them had that look of joy in their eyes. I checked. They mostly looked bored.

Did anyone notice this homeless bagel thief? Did they note that he had food now for today, perhaps tomorrow, but not Saturday? Did they see that a dirty outsider with a torn shoe had penetrated their world of dinner plans, $100 trainers, cell phones and shopping sprees? A representative of the hungry - a group of 925 million people on this earth who sleep each night with rumbling bellies and only despair on the menu for breakfast - had waltzed right through their world completely unnoticed. Did anyone see? 

No. They did not. And it is a good thing, because it most certainly would have disturbed the turkey feast when they remembered those eyes. And that left shoe with the ragged tear might have trod upon their happy, nappy afternoon dreams. No. It is decidedly better not to see old shoes like that at the end of a Thanksgiving day race at 9:47 in the morning. And it is best if you never have to see eyes like that. Ever.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Wonderful Life Indeed - REPOST

I'm gearing up to write a massive post on the cultural evolution of Santa Claus; from Odin (the one-eyed Norse Father-God) into the jolly Kris Kringle known today. I'm envisioning an overview of all Christmas traditions historically having nothing to do with Jesus but taking their ques from pagan traditions. In preparing I searched my site for old posts I'd composed about Christmas and I came across this re-hash of a debate I had with a large group of creationists. The conclusions here echo a recurring theme I keep running into lately - resorting civility and holding a parley in the culture wars.

Here's the primer...

As the nights grow to the longest of the year in the northern hemisphere I come back to the Christmas Classic "It's a Wonderful Life" year after year and take away some new "positive magic." The right to speak freely also entails an obligation to listen freely. Progress is not achieved through ideological "wars" where one idea is diametrically opposed to another, where foes are demonized and enemy lines are not to be crossed. It comes through the raising of a common consciousness, a common sense.

A book of the same name has also affected me and perhaps made me more receptive to the message in this Jimmy Stewart classic. In the fall of 2007 a "young earth" physicist named Dr. D. Russell Humphreys spoke at Colorado State University. He spent two hours in front of a podium explaining that the observed rate at which helium atoms leaked from zirconium crystal collected from a salt mine in New Mexico indicated the earth was only about 10,000 years old. When I asked the man how humans could observe stars that were more than 10,000 light years away and sometimes even millions of light-years away his response was not scientific at all. He explained that during Genesis and the "great flood" God sped up the space-time continuum to bring the light beams to our eyeballs... After the seminar I left the auditorium in shock and disbelief that this man was paid to speak at a university, then I realized why it was worth it. In the lobby I was surrounded by the student group who invited him and engaged in a two hours long discussion about the age of earth and evolution. I described to them the progression of life as evidenced in the soft bodied fossils in the Burgess shale in British Columbia. I told them how this showcase of evolution and evolutionary timescales was eloquently described by Stephen Jay Gould in his award winning book "Wonderful Life." They had never heard of the Burgess shale and I think I piqued their interest and maybe a few students followed up on investigating this evidence on their own. Even though I was initially shocked that the university would allow such a seminar to be commissioned on campus I eventually realized the beauty of it all. The ensuing conversation between 20+ creationists and myself would never have taken place had this seminar not happened. Free speech is like white light, shining in all directions. Ideas like "life is a wonderful thing" have the power to reign in the poles of the culture wars, forcing us to acknowledge one another and move forward together.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Four Loko Banned... I see why.

The Food and Drug Administration is preparing to ban alcoholic energy drinks, the biggest brand name being "Four Loko." Think Monster infused with malt liquor.  The "beverage" is manufactured by Phusion Projects LLC of Chicago, Illinois. The company has already pledged to remove the caffeine from their recipe. 

After I saw "The Social Network" the first weekend it came to Fort Collins I had a thought - if I want to know what the mainstream headlines  will be in a month or two I should make a point to visit the Harvard Crimson and the Cornell Daily Sun websites on a regular basis. I remember being a big fan of the Cornell Daily Sun the summer of 2004 when I was a bum and lived in Ithaca, NY in a house on College Avenue with seven women. I was indeed one of the "heathens on the hill" though I do not have the student loans to show for it.   I just lived with them.  Those were some of the most stimulating days of my life. Serving as my introduction to Dr. Bronner's Castile soap, kombucha, birding,  and flip-cup. Ah flip-cup, a beloved game of beer and physics that many a college student harmlessly participates in but if you are still playing after college you might want to assess your state of alcohol consumption. You have a drinking problem when 20 drinks isn't enough, but one is too many. But, I digress

While the commute back to my beloved state school (SUNY Fredonia)  always looming, I made the most of my time on the shores of old Cayuga.   Those drives through New York's southern tier on route 86 were  beautifully bucolic all the way from Tompkins to Chautauqua county.

OK... long tangent. Anyway... Social Network, Four Loko, and me.  Here is the story.  I saw the Social Network, realized I needed to go the to the Cornell Daily Sun and Harvard Crimson websites  to see what's up and... lo and behold, the first article I read at the Cornell Daily Sun was all about the dangers of this crazy alcohol laden energy drink called - Four Loko. Again, ironic that I recently made the pilgrimage to Washington, DC to attend the "Rally to Restore Sanity"  with Four Loko on my mind.  Here is the article I'm talking about. And an earlier more entertaining piece I found simply titled "The Legend of the Loko."

Today I type in  W W W . C N N . C O M  and what is the primary story...???  FDA bans the Tuarine and Guarine alcohol drink "Four Loko."

My prediction was dead right!!! 

So what do I do? I go to the local liquor store and try to get my hands on this ephemeral beverage. As it is about to disappear as currently concocted.  My first attempt was fruitless... Aggie liquor  said their boss refused to re-order that "trash" and they did want that "stuff" in their town. Hahahaha.

So off to the College Liquor Depot I went; the closest geographically to my abode.
There they were, the whole rainbow of Four Lokos.  As I have two house-mates I choose three and purchased. @ $2.50 each I was quite impressed especially considering the subsequent effects.

Upon first cracking open the initial reaction was... DISGUST. I was drinking the orange blend and it tasted like straight vodka mixed with a crack-laden red-bull.  Caused my tongue muscles to retract in repulsion.  But "as a matter of principle" I decided I was going to conquer  this 23.5 oz can of shit!

So there I sat sipping this god awful brew watching Jeopardy with my braver housemate. At first I was texting so that accounted for me not paying attention. Eventually the category became plant biology which piqued my interest.  This WAS college jeopardy so it was semi-intellectual.  One plant question included a cross-sectional diagram of "fir's" needle. What is fir?    I was into this but as soon as they got into Shintoism, and Islam I lost interest and took to inspecting the ingredients label on the Blue Raspberry flavor I had traded my housemate for earlier. Blue Raspberry Four Loko is colored with blue # 1, in case you were wondering.   This was indeed gross. But as I kept drinking I experienced a different kind of drunkenness.  A state in which the veins of my forehead stuck out and I was verbally abusing my house mates for their lack of participation in this charade. I only drank one of these things and I was extremely inebriated. I finished the entire can only spilling a few drops and sharing a few with the more reticent (and perhaps more wise) housemate.  He reported that his one sip woke him up considerably.  Now after finishing one can of four loko I feel extremely energized and now we are ready head to the rec. center for some basketball.

Signing off, this is me live live-blogging once and only once after drinking an entire can of Four Loko... 
Why did I do this to myself  and my housemates?  One word - FREEDOM.

If I didn't the terrorists win. ;)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Brush with Madness

I'm giving myself ten minutes to do this. To write whatever storms into my mind then hit post.

I think the archaic revival might run into some barriers. Like starvation, no communication, and other electrical difficulties if it embraces the Abbey-esque Luddite philosophy entirely.

As much as I want to get onto that other boat I think I will just slip between the hulls and end up swimming by myself among the sea-monsters, bullets whizzing past my head with bubbles trailing behind in dark water.

What will this same attempt look like when I'm able to just think the text into existence without the trouble of commanding my fingers. We're almost there.

Have I done this before?

What were some of the ideas I was having earlier today? I was going to write a post entitled "a brush with madness" and I even logged into research blogging several times with the intention of creating HTML tags for the citations I found via pubmed search about psychotic manifestations in patients with the blood related disease - porphyria.

You see, I had a most jarring experience a few days before Halloween this year. It's ironic I went to the "Rally to Restore Sanity" the weekend after this experience.  I speak of a secondary encounter with real madness at a free public lecture fellow graduate student Nick Clark and I presented at the Park Hill library in Denver on October 26th, 2010. Our talk took place downstairs in the community room at the library. It felt like the community room at Saint Peter and Paul Church in Jamestown New York; the one where my parents met in choir - threadbare carpet and the dank smell of stale coffee. It was in the basement and it felt like a basement. We were presenting our lecture "The Biochemistry of Halloween" as a fun science-out-reach type event. After a successful presentation last year we were asked for an encore lecture by the CSU alumni association. Nick and I showed up about an hour and a half early to make sure we had a functional projector and helped set up seats. When we finished setting up a young woman with curly black hair entered the otherwise empty room and excitedly asked us

"Are you the guys talking about VAMPIRES?"

"Indeed we are, but the talk does not start for another 45 minutes." I replied

"Oh that's OK I'll just wait here." She said and sat giddily waiting it the front row.

We had decent turn out for an event in the basement of a public library held at 5:30 on a weekday. About 35 people showed up to hear about the "Biochemistry of Halloween" and there was really positive audience participation and several intelligent questions. All ages were represented.

At the end of the lecture the excited patron was the first to run up to Nick and I . She quickly asked for all our references linking dementia and porphyria. We took her e-mail address and said no problem. The woman then went on to explain that she was particularly interested in the topic as her ex-boyfriend was afflicted with porhyria. She knew the specific form - coproporphyria. Nick and I both immediately felt bad and responded by saying that we did not want to offend anyone by implying that patients with porphyria were actually vampires. Her reaction to this was most shocking. She said she was fascinated by the idea that historical cases of porphyria might explain the origin of vampire myths because her ex-boyfriend was in fact presently in jail because he went "nuts" and tried to cut her head off with a knife!

Well, that just hit me like a ton of bricks! Here we are trying to be super politically correct by not offending anyone connected with any of these diseases we were talking about and here was a real world case where a patient with porphyria was acting deranged. This rose a significant ethical dilemma in my mind. Current treatment of porphyria is diet control and injections of properly formed heme - analogous to diabetes patients receiving insulin as treatment - replacing the body's missing thing. But in the case of porphyria it is not just replacement of the problem chemical that needs to be addressed. The mal-formed chemicals stay in the blood stream and cause problems in the brain of the patient; hallucinations, dementia, and severe anxiety to name a few. To entirely alleviate the affects of the disease those "bad" molecules need to be removed as well. This is probably not an option as it would require the patient to be on constant dialysis.

The question then arises. If a patient experiences mental disturbances including psychopathic behavior because of a disease is that patient responsible for his/her actions? Can a patient plead insanity in this instance? What extent should the public help this individual manage their psychological problems to protect its members? I had heard of this type of scenario in ethical thought experiments before but this was the first time a case like this was staring me in the face. She said that she thought her ex was crazy and hoped he rotted in prison. But how much of his bad behavior was of his own free will and how much was due to biochemistry? Could his attempted murder have been prevented if medicine was able to safely remove the detrimental chemicals from his blood? This is much different that a badly behaving drug addict - in that case an individual is choosing to put the delusion -inducing chemicals in their blood while in the case of porphyria the patient has no choice. What if the patient was simultaneously abusing drugs?  To what degree is that self-medication attributed to the disease? Are patients in this situation doomed to the fate of this guy? How does society deal with this situation?

In looking for answers to some of the clinical aspects of these questions I stumbled on a surprising medical speculation.  Some scholars have attributed the bouts of madness experienced by the great impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh to acute intermittent porphyria!  His self mutilation, delirium, agitation, paranoia and sporatic timing of his attacks may all be explained by him having this disease. Exacerbated by poor diet and subsnace abuse - especially absinthe - may have pushed him over the edge.  Though he had produced some of the world's most stimulating paintings on July 29th, 1890 in a northwestern suburb of Paris Vincent took his own life by shooting himself in the chest. 

This medical scenario begs the question.  If Van Gogh were to be born today with the advent of contemporary medicine and diagnosis would his paintings scream with such beauty?


Sedel F, Baumann N, Turpin JC, Lyon-Caen O, Saudubray JM, & Cohen D (2007). Psychiatric manifestations revealing inborn errors of metabolism in adolescents and adults. Journal of inherited metabolic disease, 30 (5), 631-41 PMID: 17694356  

Rose FC (2006). Van Gogh's madness. International review of neurobiology, 74, 253-69 PMID: 16730519  

Altintoprak AE, Ersel M, & Bayrakci A (2009). An unusual suicide attempt: a case with psychosis during an acute porphyric attack. European journal of emergency medicine : official journal of the European Society for Emergency Medicine, 16 (2), 106-8 PMID: 19262206  

Mandoki MW, & Sumner GS (1994). Psychiatric manifestations of hereditary coproporphyria in a child. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 182 (2), 117-8 PMID: 8308532

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Worthy Chorus - Tim Minchin

Tim Minchin - Canvas Bags

Green Chemistry - a discussion

John Warner of the Warner Babcock Institute is known as one of the founders of Green chemistry and presents here the logic behind this emergent scientific discipline.

John Warner: Intellectual Ecology from Bioneers on Vimeo.

Thanks to John Anderson for sharing this backstage discussion on "Green Chemistry" from this year's Bioneer's conference.

Backstage@Bioneers: Green Chemistry & Intellectual Ecology from Bioneers on Vimeo.

Friday, November 12, 2010

NCSE - Bringing evolution to the street.

Humanism - as embodied in the words of Robert G. Ingersoll

I went to a wedding in Estes Park, Colorado about three years ago. It was a beautiful day but one thing really bothered me. The minister also happened to be the father of the bride and his words of advice in the ceremony were archaic and harmful. He basically reflected the sentiment in the bible verse in the clip below - (Timothy 2:12). He told his daughter on her wedding day that she should strive to be her husband's assistant, his "little helper." I almost stood up in the pew and screamed. But this would not have been received very well as I only kind of knew the couple. Maybe some people are OK with this kind of mindset but I think it continues to be the source of many fundamental problems; pay inequality, double standards, and general angst.

Consider Humanism - Robert Ingersoll from American Humanist Association on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What was the point of the Rally to Restore Sanity?

The question keeps popping up. What was the point of the Rally to Restore Sanity? Was it simply a quorum call by Viacom to measure their corporate power to mobilize human beings? Was it a secret plot to get us all to subscribe to text message updates on the Daily Show and the Colbert Report? Was it a plan by four-square to have the first ever Mega-swarm of smart phone users? Or was it really the intellectual Woodstock it appeared to be? Ummm I was there and it was none of those. I showed up because I am sick and tired of the media always plastering the jowly faced blowhards who talk the loudest into my television and computer speakers. I wanted to hear Jon on CSPAN freely talking to all Americans telling them to stop being so afraid of the boogie men in Rush Limbaugh's vocal chords.

I do not understand all the follow-up complaining.

It was a beautiful event with a mellow vibe to be had by all. To me the main point was - Let's stop tearing each other down and try building something together. One citizen's chemistry lab is another citizen's temple. I'm sorry PZ Myers doesn't get it. You had to be there I suppose, but I'd like to think the message can be spread to those not in attendance with some simple testimony from those who were.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
MSNBC Suspends Keith Olbermann

Happy Birthday Carl

Monday, November 8, 2010

Dance your PhD

Graduate students like to dance! Here are the top routines from this year's "Dance your PhD" competition.

Chemistry - This one gets extra point in my book for use of Lady Gaga.

Selection of a DNA aptamer for homocysteine using SELEX from Maureen McKeague on Vimeo.


Directed transport without net bias in physics and biology from Steven Lade on Vimeo.


How does your brain analyze incoming visual information? - Dance Your PhD contest 2010 from Maartje C. de Jong on Vimeo.

Cupcake Cook-off: a tool co-op benefit

Hammer Time is an emerging tool Co-Op in Fort Collins, Colorado. Here patrons can freely use an assortment of hardware and get advice on how to create whatever they want.  Charlie Malone wrote up a  wonderful summary of their core values over at Matter Daily. On Friday November 6th Hammer Time hosted a "Cupcake Cook-off" at the BeanCycle/Matter Bookstore to help pay for their home-base. People showed up in droves to taste-test the finest most wholesome, vegan, organic, alcoholic, delicious cupcakes Fort Collins had to offer.  The entries and attendance was phenomenal as the cup-cake trend surged through the bookstore with oceanic force.  Here are some visual highlights.  If I could provide a virtual tasting through the internet I would. Where is Willy Wonka when you need him?

Chocolate with meringue on top - dipped in hardening chocolate. 
Kale infused cake, spirulina provides chroma to the frosting, topped with apples gleaned from Fort Collins!

Espresso cupcakes with chocolate dipped pretzel handles.
Chuncks of peach in the cake with cream cheese frosting and pecans on top
Lavender, earl gray, with lemon zest

Raspberry atop a raspberry liquor infusion
Banana cake with ginger cream cheese frosting, chocolate and salted peanuts

Friday, November 5, 2010


I have written about this company 6 times over the last 3 years and each time I've thought they were near an IPO. Today I heard the first hint of news indicating the possibility for this fledgling solar cell company from Fort Collins, Colorado. The CEO of  Abound Solar - Tom Tiller - was quoted in this article indicating an IPO as something that might happen in the near future.  Perhaps I need to do a little source checking here as he is either misquoted or really does sound like a business-robot.

He said...

"We hit the knowledge to acquire this consort and create continuance in this process. If things go substantially and business markets are cooperative, as we intend toward the latter conception of incoming year, we strength study an IPO"

If I can translate to English, I think he is saying that  the technology they have developed has finally proven cost effective enough to warrant further expansion and possibly a public offering of  stock.  I'm not sure what language he is speaking in the last sentence but it seems positive.

The take home message?  Keep your eye out for this company going public soon.  Why?

Look at their biggest rival First Solar. This is what it did within the first year after going public.

$25 to over $300 a share in just over a year.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Solidarity Brothers and Sisters.

Autotune - Jon Stewart

Flu Season! Biochemistry on NPR. YAY!

Robert Krulwich - star of one of my favorite podcasts - RadioLab - narrates a molecular tour of viral infection. Medical illustrator David Bolinsky first came to my awareness through an animation he made in conjunction with Harvard University for the Biovisions initiative. That animation is titled "the inner life of the cell."  Set to dramatic piano/techno music it invokes emotion about a traditionally dry subject which is what I am striving to do here.  If you visit the revamped Biovisions website you can watch a high resolution tour of the mitochondria in action.   Bolinsky's work continues to amaze me.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lost and Found

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Rally to Restore Sanity Lost and Found
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

The Crux of the Rally to Restore Sanity

[Fort Collins, CO - USA] As the dust settles in the 2010 midterm election I continue to reflect on my short whirlwind trip to Washington DC last weekend to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.

Today it becomes exceedingly clear that people and politicians in the United States are now in a position where compromise and reasonable discussion must prevail over rhetoric and hyperbole. Jon Stewart railing against the cable TV conflictinator machine could not be more timely. I have read at least one keenly written perspective on attending the rally. Here I will attempt to share my own experience. 

I flew into Baltimore-Washington International airport on Friday afternoon. I paid $6 for a train ticket from Baltimore to DC and was on the train within 30 minutes after walking off the plane. While inside the clean and roomy passenger train run by the Maryland public transportation authority I sat amongst rally goers from Minnesota, California, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio. There was a calm sense of pride welling up in all as we shared how and why we had decided to make the trek to DC. The Minnesotans were from Deluth and were doning custom made t-shirts with "TEAM SANITY" boldly painted on the fronts. 

It was an interesting bit of real-world foreshadowing that the cost-effective and time saving train ride left such an impression on me as the concept of getting on a "train" together was a recurring theme in the rally itself. The "fear-mongering" Colbert character refused to get on the peace train as proposed by Yousef Mohammed the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, while Jon Stewart refused to get on the "Crazy train" Ozzy Osbourne offered up as he intereupted Cat Steven's performance. I have to say I was disappointed that the "act" did not allow for at least the completion of a few songs by Cat Stevens as I think his appearence was one of the most significant aspects of the rally. Anyone with an internet connection can watch the whole event here. So I'll spare the details of the rest here. 

I stayed in DC with a friend from high-school who so graciously put me up for the weekend. Fortunately she had a friend hosting a brunch on Capitol hill the morning of the rally. After a full spread of monkey bread, Dunkin' Doughnuts, Bacon and egg quiche and much more we were ready to walk to the mall. We wiggled our way politely into a comfortable spot right next to the "coffee party's" headquarters on the mall to take in the musical intro by the Roots and the first portion of the "show." At this point I was about 1/3 the distance back on the mall and had good view of one set of jumbo-trons. I was amazed by the calm mood of the crowd and the organization of the whole event. I never once felt any hostility or disorder. 

As Stewart and Colbert began presenting their "awards" I departed the group to try and get closer to the main stage. Here is where I observed sanity in action. The areas of the mall directly in front of the stage were fenced off and the number of people inside was being regulated by police officers. A sea of people stood waiting to be admitted and the policy of one out one in was maintained perfectly. When anyone in line started to get grumpy or make make demands of being let in the cops dealt with it by making fun of that person and they were shunned by the crowd to move to the back of the line. I thought this a wonderful testament to the power of people to assemble peacefully Though I missed 30 minutes of the rally my patience paid off and I was admitted to the front in a very peaceful and orderly manner. You can see the photos I took here

In the end I was happy to be near Jon as he made his plea with us in attendance and anyone watching. A plea to stop perpetuating the illness the 24 hour news cycle has inflicted on the American psyche. In the following 13 minute speech you can see why he called for this rally and Now after the election is over I see the importance of his timing. We need to stop demonizing each other and come together to make things better. The culture wars are not going to end with one side victorious but when both sides make those small concessions we seem to be able to make every day! If you watched the rally already it is worth watching this bit from the end again maybe a few times.

Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear
Jon Stewart - Moment of Sincerity
Rally to Restore Sainty and/or FearThe Daily ShowThe Colbert Report

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rally to Restore Sanity - best signs and other photos

All photos taken by Kristopher Hite Washington DC 10/30/2010
Click on any twice to see high resolution.

Mad - in the mercurially induced sense of the word
By bro he means all Rand Paul supporters
Kareem driving the lane to Stephen's heart
R2 made my day. OK, maybe it was Cat Stevens.