Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: July, 2006

The Lowly Screw

From putting together bookcases to taking apart a laptop computer, there is one particularly low-tech tool that no one should be without: the screwdriver. In Witold Rybczynski‘s One Good Turn, we get an insightful, although sometimes dry, account of the history of the screwdriver and by extension, the screw.

Rybczynski’s book has its genesis in a request from The New York Times editors for an article about “the best tool of the millennium.” The editors didn’t want an essay on something merely useful. They wanted something that was literally, a tool. But like any other normal person, the author was at first hesitant. How interesting is a tool to the average person? A screwdriver is a screwdriver. To us, it seems patently obvious to its use. But as Rybczynski began his search for this tool’s origin, he found that this wasn’t so. Many tools have already been invented by ancient times. The screwdriver, on the other hand, appeared in the layman’s toolbox no earlier than the 19th century.

However, the 19th century toolbox revealed the screwdriver in its full modern form. How could it have suddenly appeared like that without anyone noticing? One way to dig deeper into the origins of this tool was to examine the presence of screws. Rybcyznski discovered, that like many tools, such as the cannon, the screw first appeared in the context of military technology–specifically medieval armor. It was only until after the use of screws in guns that people realized its wider applications.

The author posits that the concepts behind the screw originated from Archimedes who had worked out the mathematics behind the water screw–a device used in irrigation and pumping water out of mines. But screws, compared to nails, were difficult to make. Prior to the 18th century, they were all made by hand. Only when the lathe was perfected could the screws be made accurately and in quantity.

I admit, I would not recommend this book to just anybody. You’d either have to be mechanically oriented or just fascinated by gadgets and technological advancements in general to appreciate the evolution of something so simple as a screw. Or, I could put it this way. The audience for this kind of subject, no matter how well written, would resemble the demographics of a certain history of science class I took as an undergraduate where the prof was particularly fond of steam machines and clocks: male engineering majors and me.

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The Thursday Threesome: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Onesome: You can’t always get what you want- Have you ever wanted something really badly and had it fall through, only to look back later and realize that things ended up better for it?

I wouldn’t say “better”. I’m still at the “bitter” stage.

Twosome: But if you try sometimes- Is there anything you’ve ever wanted so badly that you were willing to give up on other things while you tried to get/save up for the one big thing?

Yes. The first thing that gets sacrificed is sleep.

Threesome: Well you just might find you get what you need- Most of us have been at spots in our lives where what we want and what we need are not always the same thing. Money’s tight and that new toy you want isn’t going to happen because you need to get the brakes on the car repaired or you need textbooks for school. What have you really, really wanted, but you had to give up because of practicality? And did you ever figure out how to have both the want and the need?

I don’t really want any sort of material things other than the necessities (you know, like food, some place to live, gas in the car, a working computer–fancy-schmancy programs need not apply). My only vice, if you can call it one, is my love of books. Other people spend their money on going to the movies, DVDs, nifty electronic gadgets, and eating out once in a while. I spend mine on books. Happily, I need not bankrupt myself–there is always the library.

The Stench in the Air

Let’s face it, everyone stinks. Whether it’s from excessive exercise or from an overly liberal use of the perfume bottle people smell. But here’s an idea–it’s unusual for people to have an aversion to body odor because the rest of the creatures in the animal kingdom don’t. If you’ve seen dogs sniff each others’ butts, you know smell is very important for animals. But do we embrace our inner stinkiness? No way! We scrub until our skins are raw and then douse ourselves with deodorant, perfumes, cologne, and body sprays so we don’t smell like ourselves anymore.

According to Lyall Watson in Jacobson’s Organ and the Remarkable Nature of Smell, despite our obsession with the state of odorlessness, much of our social interaction is governed by our noses. It is not just smell we’re talking about here but our pheromone perception–a “sixth sense.” The Jacobson’s Organ, pits of sensory receptors located in our nostrils, was originally considered vestigial and useless by anatomists and physicians. But this is not the case–like in other mammals, it’s functional.

Experiments showed that neurons from the Jacobson’s Organ fired impulses to the brain after being confronted with human pheromones secreted by the skin. It’s even possible that the removal of the Jacobson’s Organ may severely impair one’s perception–how can one function without sensing, somehow, the invisible social cues other people emit? Without smelling other people’s true intentions, one might become positively paranoid and schizophrenic.

In evolutionary terms, the sense of smell is primitive. It’s only quite recently that we primarily maneuver around using vision or even hearing. In mammals, smell is primary for interaction–i.e. scent marking for territory, signaling for mates, and even for self-defense. Studies with rodents revealed that scent is essential in normal mating behavior and mother-young bonding. So it is not so wild to conjecture that humans use these same mechanisms to signal to each other even if we have many times less olfactory neurons than say, the pet dog.

This would explain all those results from experiments involving separating men and women via sniffing dirty t-shirts, why people prefer certain perfumes over others, why women living in close quarters synchronize their cycles, and how even strangers can pair mother and child after examining random clothing. Sometimes, we might intuit something even when we don’t noticeably detect an odor. Instead, it may be that how we process the olfactory information we receive rather than the quantity that matters.

Jacobson’s Organ is in the form of an extended rambling essay, loosely organized on the seven categories of smell defined by Carolus Linnaeus–the same man who introduced the system we use today for naming species. Compared to other popular science books, this one has a far more colloquial feel. I didn’t even realize I was reading about experiments except in hindsight.

Insomniac Philosophy

As I’m sitting here, writing this, I’m thinking that some of my neighbors are completely insane. The female ones, at any rate. A young woman living next door is hurdling insults at some silent victim and slamming doors and stomping around. Another young woman who lives directly above me chain-smokes, screams at her boyfriend, and makes a horrible amount of racket around three in the morning. The guy who lives across the hall once apologized profusely beforehand about operating an electric drill, but I hardly heard it anyway.

Which brings me up to another thought. I’m all for feminism and all the whatnot that goes with it, but why do some people use the notion of equality as an excuse for behaving badly? Assertiveness and bad behavior are not the same things.

Mushrooms, Strange, Night

The fact that you and I and everyone else are inhaling lungfuls of fungal spores with every breath we take is enough for hypochondriacs to run screaming to the hills, but that’s not the only gruesomeness possible with the Kingdom Fungi. Cordyceps species parasitize ants, tormenting the hapless insects with epileptic seizures before growing out of their heads. Madurella can invade feet causing “moth-eaten” bones. Fungi can rot plants, engage in strange sexual orgies, spread themselves over thousands of acres, and cause “demonic possessions” (hallucinations).

With Nicholas P. Money‘s Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard we find these sorts of macabre things and more–all told with the same loving amusement a horror fanatic might have for H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. Although I might have to warn you, unless you are science-minded or just plain tenacious, you might find some of the explanation sections more bewildering than fascinating.

* * *
The World of Edward Gorey by Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin is not a substitute for any of Gorey’s books despite the numerous reproductions of his illustrations. What it is, though, is a companion book–it’s an attempt at explaining Gorey. Despite the weird, creepy Edwardian world he has drawn, Gorey wasn’t British at all. In fact, everything is a synthesis of what he had accumulated by reading–for most of his life, Gorey entrenched himself in Cape Cod. Allusions in his work range from the easy to the arcane.

What was most interesting about this book was not Wilkin’s in depth analysis of Gorey’s work (although the deconstruction of his books, illustrations, and theater props were intriguing), but Ross’s interview with the artist. How can you not like an eccentric who thinks Manet “wrecked painting forever” and doesn’t think he’s collaborating in collaborations, but likes Batman cartoons?

* * *
In this society where sleep is becoming less and less of a priority, William Dement in The Sleepwatchers warns us that it is dangerous to take such an approach on life. With a mixture of near evangelical zeal and humorous personal anecdotes, Dement documents the discovery of REM sleep, the identification of sleep disorders, and the role of the biological clock in our sleep cycles. He also speculates on the meaning of dreams and recounts the daily stresses of running a laboratory–mainly attempting to get funding.

What I found the most thought-provoking was the notion that people in modern society carry a “sleep debt.” Because people have less sleep than they need, say even 7.5 vs. 8 hours, all those minutes can accumulate for days, weeks, even months which pretty much means everyone is sleep deprived and at a suboptimum level of awakeness. It makes one wonder if anyone should be driving let alone operating heavy machinery.

Bugs, Dada, and Genes

I’m rather casual about food, that is, I don’t consider myself particularly picky. Where others make gagging noises at the thought of touching okra or Brussels sprouts, I think it is no big deal. But, like most people, I do draw the line somewhere and that somewhere resides firmly before six- and eight-legged combustibles.

On the surface, one would believe that an aversion to eating bugs is instinctual. After all, some bugs bite and sting and contain all sorts of toxins–so they must be bad, right? But on the other hand some plants contain toxins, too, but that doesn’t prevent anyone from going to the salad bar. So disgust of bug eating perhaps is cultural instead. The husband and wife team Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio certainly make a case of it in Man Eating Bugs, a journalistic and photographic account of entomophagy around the world.

There were some things I already knew about–like eating honeypot ants in the bush of Australia, tarantulas in South America, using scorpions in Chinese medicine, and putting maguey worms in bottles of tequila to authenticate potency–but there were also other fascinating (yet squeamish) delicacies. In Japan, around Ina City, people harvest the larvae of aquatic caddis flies or zaza-mushi which are sauteed with soy sauce and sugar. In Botswanna, mopane worms, the caterpillar of the anomalous emperor moth, have three times the protein of beef. Because of their desirability, they’ve been hunted to near extinction. In Indonesia, children catch dragonflies for snacks. But in every culture, as Western influences seep in, people are abandoning traditional diets for processed foods. As one man the authors interview laments, “TV and chicken killed the dragonfly.”

One of the most interesting things about this book is the style that it’s written in: alternating journal entries between the two authors. It is both amusing and entertaining. One can tell immediately that Menzel must be the gung-ho instigator of this wacky project. He looks forward to each bug meal with relish and describes those creepy-crawlies with a gourmand fondness. “Not unlike what I imagine a deep-fried peanut skin filled with mile, woody foie gras would taste like,” he rhapsodizes about silkworm pupae. D’Aluisio is far more hesitant about this enterprise. Most of the time, she hides behind the camera on the pretense of being documentarian to pass on any wriggling dinner dish. It’s only near the end, after reluctantly sampling some of the local cuisine that she gains a more understanding view of entomophagy despite her western upbringing. Her contribution, however, is far more about the appreciation of the diversity of people’s lives and cultures than merely the ingredients of their meals.

* * *
What do you first think of when you hear the art term “dada”? Before reading Dada: The Revolt of Art by Marc Dachy, I believed Dada to be a French-derived branch of surrealism characterized by visual and verbal diarrhea, not unlike a random generator run amok. But this is only one small part of the whole–perhaps exacerbated into popular opinion around the early 1920’s when there was a very violent and public split in the original Dada movement into Instantaneism and Surrealism centered in Paris.

To really understand Dada, one must go back to World War I. In the middle of the chaos of war and authoritarian governments, artists were trying to find a balance between the two, to break away from the bourgeois ideal of the aesthetic. Dada was as much about opening up political narrow-mindedness as it was a new foray into the artistic avant-gaurd.

Yet I am not convinced that this art movement truly was a revolution in thinking about the modern world. Dada is nothing more than protest trussed up in another guise. Kitchen sinks on pedestals and syllabic poems have no meaning outside of the creator’s explanations and manifestos. These pieces of modern art are like emoticons in e-mails. Take them out, and the meaning of the e-mail still is clear.

However, I do not think that Dada was completely useless. It was the physical manifestation of the western world in unrest. A group’s sudden decision to shock and titillate was a symptom of something terribly wrong on a much larger scale. And perhaps this serves as an example as one of society’s signposts for a rocky near future ahead.

* * *
Every time I pick up a science book, I am struck with terrible indecision. Should I read the book in my hand or some other science book on the shelf? Eventually, I decide with a sigh, I will have to read all of them if I’m to keep up with anybody. Despite publishing slumps and low library check-out rates (for materials other than DVDs), everyone else seem to be incredibly well-read–more than me at any rate–or at least they act like it. Maybe it’s due to the company I keep or perhaps to my poor brain’s inability to quote verbatim passages from relevant texts. Or maybe it’s because I don’t pretend to know everything. (The words “I don’t know” is as much of a conversation stopper as much as the subject of scab picking.)

Anyways, when I picked up Matt Ridley’s Genome, I was at first skeptical. How can anyone tell a biography of a species in a mere 23 chapters, 300 pages? Any genome, from bacteria to human, is extremely complex and after many textbooks and even more research papers, the story is still far from complete. But one has to take into account that this book is for laymen. The average person on the street has no time to wade through the vast scientific literature. Instead of training for years to be a jet fighter or astronaut, people want to get on a roller coaster ride and get the so-called entire experience in 90 seconds or less. And Genome is precisely that, a roller coaster ride of genetic proportion, abet in paper form.

Ridley structures the tale on the number of human chromosomes and picks one gene from each to help him tell the story of how our genome came to be. This ranges from the 5S RNA as a clue to the origin of life to the tumor suppressor TP53 and the ced genes which cause programmed cell death. In between, one finds out such goodies like genetic antagonism between the sexes, genes involved in language, prions, Alzheimer’s, and genomic parasites. Some may argue that it is not genes that determine who we are but the environment. If that is so, then there is still no free will–it is the outside forces that determine our destiny. But Ridley concludes with an odd and almost paradoxical view of free will: since genes are part of us, and there is obviously some genetic control over our lives, isn’t that a form of free will?

A Link Everyone’s Looking For and a Meme

I actually get a significant number of searches for that old interpretive dance video on protein synthesis. Well here’s the link for that science video on BoingBoing (if I haven’t posted this before).

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The Thursday Threesome: Cooked to Medium Rare

Onesome: Cooked to?– Okay, the easy one: if you’re having grilled meat (steak/hamburger) this weekend, how would you like it cooked?

Well done.

Twosome: Medium– to large? …too large? What do you think of the big ol’ plasma screen HDTVs available now? I mean, would you if you could?

I don’t do things just because I can. Sometimes, that can be monumentally stupid. As for televisions–I usually don’t watch TV; at times, I regard it as evil. So no, I wouldn’t get it just to show off.

Threesome: Rare– Footage: one of the major news services recently announced they would make archived news coverage available for personal purchase on DVD. Is there any one piece/segment/area of old news (or new) you’d like to have on your bookshelf to view “whenever”?

Purchase? Purchase?!! I think old news should be freeware. It should be distributed for reference like Wikipedia or the Internet Archive.

Caputo and Some Reading Recommendations

(Note: This post was written yesterday, but while I was trying to post, the power went out and half the town’s internet went out.)

My computer has died over the weekend (and when I say “died”, I mean the machine doesn’t do anything except emit a few feeble beeps when I turn it on–sort of like a corpse spasming when an electric current passes through it), so don’t expect too many posts while I try channeling Dr. Frankenstein in trying to resurrect it over the next couple of hours, days, weeks, whatever.

* * *
Bellwether by Connie Willis is funny, chaotic sci-fi. More emphasis on the funny than the sci-fi, that is. Sandra Foster is a scientist who studies fads like hula hoops and hair bobbing in trying to understand their origins. It’s by chance via misdelivered mail that she meets fashion-impaired chaos theorist Bennett O’Reilly who also works for the HiTek corporation studying monkey group behavior. After Bennett loses his funding in a series of mishaps, involving latte preferences, duct tape fashion, management-speak, corporate sensitivity training, and handicapping a genius grant, Sandra proposes a joint project involving sheep. But before they can discover anything, chaos intervenes in a seemingly endless fall of outrageous disasters stemming from one very sullen and extremely incompetent mail clerk.

Scientific rigor, this is not. The major problem I had was the methodology used–who physically collects newspaper clippings or goes to the local library wait list for research? Does casually circling personal ads constitute an experiment? And whoever heard of asking someone for a random flock of sheep for research subjects? I know this is artistic license to deliberately create a chaotic plot, but still. Any scientist, let alone a naive English major, would go about things more logically. However, I did enjoy the author’s inclusion of tidbits about fads at the beginning of each chapter (Hula hoops! Angel food cake! Chain letters! Dr. Spock!) and musings about the serendipity of scientific discovery.

It’s been a while since I’ve read funny sci-fi. Or funny books, period. Most of the books I glance at these days have plots that take themselves far too seriously. Even so-called “beach reads” seem so lackluster and ephemeral that I feel I might better spend my time watching the grass grow. So if you’re in the mood for amusement try Bellwether and you might even learn some Trivial Pursuit-worthy facts while you laugh like a loon.

* * *
After reading other similar works, Steve Olson‘s Mapping Human History feels like gigantic end-of-the-semester review. But as an introduction to the study of human origins, this is an excellent one. Olson gathers research from a wide variety of fields–from genetic to archaeological–to reveal that all humans are related and that any difference we may presume to separate groups are historical and cultural accidents.

* * *
I’ve recently finished reading A Mind of Its Own by David M. Friedman which is subtitled “A Cultural history of the penis.” A quote on the back cover by Daphne Merkin warns, “If you’ve picked up A Mind of Its Own with a slightly skeptical mind-set, expecting to be merely entertained, think again.” Instead, this made me expect one of two things: that either this text would be a lovefest of phallocentric order or watered down pap paying sycophantic tribute to modern feminism.

It’s neither of these things. Rather, Friedman has managed to piece together a fascinating account of the historical and sociological impacts of man’s obsession with his reproductive equipment. Men seem to agonize endlessly on the question: Does man control his penis or does the penis control him? Religion hopelessly contradicts itself on the subject by declaring the penis both divine and profane. Freudian preoccupation with it led to the formulation of psychological theories which place it as the primary causative agent. It’s been the point and symbol for racism, artistic enlightenment, and political wrangling.

Friedman concludes that science has answered that question in the form of Viagra and its ilk. But judging from the mountains of spam arriving daily in inboxes around the world, it’s doubtful that this is the end of this singular body part’s cultural history.

The Thursday Threesome: Entertainment: Music and Movies

Onesome: Entertainment- What’s your chosen form of entertainment in your time off? Do you go to the movies, a concert or just sit and read or indulge in your hobbies?

This depends. I always have an unread book sitting on my shelf and a blank notebook to fill so I’m either reading or writing. I’ll do something else if it happens to pique my interest.

Twosome: Music- What’s your choice for musical entertainment? Classical, rock, pop, hip hop, a little bit of everything or something completely different? Do you have a favorite band/singer? If you could see anyone, alive or dead, perform live, who would it be?

I generally like instrumental work over anything with voice. I don’t have any favorites right now, but wouldn’t it be cool to use a time machine to see Beethoven conduct the Ninth?

Threesome: and Movies- What’s on your “must see” list right now? Do you actually go out to the movies or prefer to wait for the DVD?

I don’t pay much attention to movies these days, screen or DVD, so I had to go to rottentomatoes.com to see what was actually out. I’m sort of curious about the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie since I liked the first one and I might get around to seeing A Scanner Darkly (Sci-fi! Animation!) and Wordplay (Crossword puzzles!) when I have time. Otherwise recent movies haven’t inspired any “must see” urges for me.

There’s Actually Traffic?

I just noticed that the main road has an HOV lane. Why on earth does a town of just over twenty-thousand need one of those for?