Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: May, 2008

Lookee Here

Here are some science blog-related events happening in Boston in a few days. One of them is free, open to the public. I might even show up for it for a little while just to check it out (even though I’d have to run off soon for a morning poster session).


Booking Through Thursday: What is Reading, Fundamentally?

Suggested by Thisisnotabookclub: What is reading, anyway?

After finishing Proust and the Squid, which is all about the neuroscience of reading (review coming possibly later this week!), I would have to say that reading is the interpretation of visual symbols–that is, words–and gleaning some sort of meaning from them.

Novels, comics, graphic novels, manga, e-books, audiobooks — which of these is reading these days?

If the definition above is to be taken at face value, then everything except for audiobooks would be considered reading.

Are they all reading? Only some of them?

Definitely not audiobooks. That’s listening. Your eyes aren’t doing anything.

What are your personal qualifications for something to be “reading” — why?

“Reading” means interpreting words, visually. This includes reading road signs like “Next Exit” or “Springfield 20 miles.”

If something isn’t reading, why not? Does it matter?

The iffy ground here, I think, is that of graphic media like comics etc. where words are juxtaposed with pictures. If you are reading the words in such media, then yes, you are indeed reading. But if you are only looking at the pictures, then that is not reading. For example: reading to kids. The adult who is reading the book out loud is the person who is reading because the adult is the one interpreting the words. The child is the one listening, not reading. I would only consider the kid reading if he/she was also looking and interpreting the words printed on the page.

Does it impact your desire to sample a source if you find out a premise you liked the sound of is in a format you don’t consider to be reading?

If something only exists as an audiobook, I might listen to it. I’m not too big on audiobooks, though, because oftentimes, the narrator can either make or break it regardless of how well the prose is actually written. I would not subject myself to a voice I can’t stand.

Share your personal definition of reading, and how you came to have that stance.

I think I pretty much outlined my definition above. Reading is the visual interpretation of words. How I came to that stance–probably because I’ve always associated reading with books.

* * *
The Thursday Threesome: Life Goes Faster Than You Think

Onesome: Life Goes Faster– than you want it to sometimes. Is anything moving just a little too fast for you lately?

Yes. Everything is going too fast. Too much to do. Lots of deadlines.

Twosome: (Faster) Than You– can pull a search? …anyone know where the subject and title for this week’s T-3 came from off the top of their head? No? It’s worth a quick search…

Er, Google says it comes from the lyrics of a Kenny Chesney song called “Don’t Blink.”*

Threesome: Think– ing about Summer? Time at the beach? Vacation plans? …or not: has the fuel price thing put a hold on some plans? …or are you thinking of alternate forms of travel for Summer fun?

I’m traveling next week, but not for fun, exactly. It’s more like professional development. As for later this month, I am going somewhere more vacation-related. Where precisely? I’ll blog about that later. Meanwhile, you can guess.

*These questions involving song lyrics are not very interesting because they are always out of my expertise. And it’s especially not interesting if it involves Google. Any idiot can Google.

Science Linkage

Tangled Bank #106 is over at Ars Technica’s Nobel Intent. Go read about virtual reality, chemicals in plastic, and brains! Speaking of brains…

The brains of dead Russian geniuses. Nice touch that the founder of this brain bank suddenly passed away after the inception of the bank and had his brain put in the collection.

A How-To for Increasing Book Sales?

I’m probably not the target audience for Donald MaassWriting the Breakout Novel. Sure, there might be tips here that are helpful for the beginning writer, but this is probably more for midlist authors stuck in a rut. And frankly, how many midlist authors are there anyway? A lot, you might say. Well, even if there were ten thousand midlist authors, this would still make for a fairly niche how-to book.

Most writing how-to books are written by writers. What made me pick this book up was that this one was written by an agent. Writers always emphasize the “craft” and on writing a story that you want to tell. An agent on the other hand, well, I was expecting Maass to concentrate on what was saleable from his perspective rather than the ephemeral fantasies flitting about in the head of a would-be novelist. Instead, he basically states that it’s a crapshoot. Agents and publishers don’t really know what will sell, he says, because the breakout novel will have its origins from the word of mouth. And to start that word of mouth, a writer has to write to the best of his ability.

However, that doesn’t prevent Maass from spewing out a formula disguised as tips to good storytelling. So exactly what is Maass’ idea of the anatomy of a breakout novel? Well first, you’ve got to have some sort of “high concept”, a provocative premise that will make people sit up and take notice. Secondly, stakes must be involved. No lulls allowed! There must be tension throughout the whole book! Then of course, there’s believable world building, larger-than-life characters to populate the dramatis personae, plot with non-stop conflict, and then some sort of theme to tie all this together.

Whew. That sounds busy. It makes one want to read something not so action-packed and emotionally thrilling–like the thesaurus. Most of the excerpts from representative breakout novels didn’t strike me as interesting either. Where the heck are all the excitement he’s been expounding about? If they were indicative of those novels as a whole, then I’m really mystified about why some novels break out and others that are more well written aren’t. (Or maybe it’s just an indication that my literary tastes aren’t mainstream.) I don’t really know what to make of Maass’ advice. Maybe it’ll help some people, maybe it won’t. But at least he does make his annoyance with authors who “phone it in” clear.

The Long Road: Swamp Thing to Lab Poodle

Film and television make it look so easy. A patient comes onto the scene dying of some mysterious illness. Or a sudden virulent outbreak spread by a cute monkey hits a bucolic everytown. Then in comes our hero-scientist-medical doctor who figures out what’s wrong and saves the day in twenty-four hours. Hurray! If only. It’s dramatization, folks, and if this was really how science worked, we’d have already solved the problems of AIDS, cancer, and why left socks always disappear into the dryer.

M ulcerans
Scanning electron micrograph of M. ulcerans cluster. Marsollier et al. (2007) PLoS Pathog 3(5): e62.
Weird diseases pop up all the time and rather than finding a quick and easy answer, they often leave people puzzled. Sometimes, people are puzzled for a very long time. Take, for instance, the Buruli ulcer. First described in 1948 by Australian doctors, this tropical skin-eating disease was a doozy: first it is quite painless–swelling of the limbs, skin lesions, destruction of the tissue–but ultimately debilitating and disfiguring.

However Mycobacterium ulcerans, the causative agent for Buruli ulcer, was not culturable in the lab until recently. Because transmission of the disease always occurred near or at aquatic environments rather than through person-to-person contact, Portaels et al. hypothesized in 1999 that predatory aquatic insects were the responsible vector. This was supported by the observation that M. ulcerans inhabited the salivary glands of Naucoris cimicoides, a type of waterbug. In this March’s issue of PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, Portaels and her colleagues were finally able to culture M. ulcerans isolated from another aquatic arthropod, the water strider.

The researchers collected the insect specimens in an area with a high incidence of Buruli ulcers in Benin and Togo. The insects were then frozen, diced, homogenized, and fractionated. The resulting sample was put in a special broth supplemented with egg yolk and grown for 3 months. (For typical microbiologists, this is eons. Compare this to the lab workhorse E. coli. Inoculate some broth in the evening, and the next morning, voila!) However, to isolate M. ulcerans rather than other faster growing contaminants, Portaels et al. used an animal model. Once the bacteria were injected into the footpad of a mouse, M. ulcerans would have the opportunity to proliferate while other microorganisms not adapted to living in mammals would die. To prove that M. ulcerans was successfully passaged in mice, the bacteria were identified by histological staining of infected tissues, PCR analysis, and mycolactone (a toxic lipid produced by M. ulcerans that kills fat cells* and inhibits the immune system) analysis.

So about six decades after its first description, M. ulcerans is now culturable in the lab. It’s great that now we have lab strains to study this disease. But still, it’s not so straightforward. As the researchers point out, the vector that carries the disease is still unidentified. The bacterium was isolated from the water strider, but the water strider doesn’t bite people. Rather, the insect probably harbored M. ulcerans because it ate other insects which were infected. And as most microbiologists will point out, lab strains are good models for studying disease, but they won’t be the same as clinical strains. Who knows how the bacteria have changed to accommodate itself in a murine host from its primary isolation in a waterbug to a succession of passages on mice feet.

*Hm. If anyone attempts to find a use for this, I bet one of the first commercial uses would be an alternative to liposuction.

Summer Reading Answers

Last week, I posted some book descriptions. Here are the actual books:

-a writing how-to book written by a successful agent
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

-non-fiction on the neuroscience of reading framed by a literary metaphor
Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

-the winner of the World Fantasy Award, published in 1974
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

-a 162 page book by the author of the Paradys tetrology
The Dragon Hoard by Tanith Lee

-non-fiction NYT bestseller on corpses
Stiff by Mary Roach

-the English translation of a German ursine text
Bears: A Brief History by Bernd Brunner

-also known as “the mannerpunk classic”
Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

-a paranormal romance with an oxymoronic title
Demon Angel by Meljean Brook

-a historical fantasy on food
The Stars Dispose by Michaela Roessner

-non-fiction about Charles Babbage with a cover quote referring to Dava Sobel
The Difference Engine by Doron Swade (not to be confused with the novel of the same name by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, although I have that one sitting around here somewhere, too)

-urban cultural history by the author of a delightful little book about the screwdriver
City Life by Witold Rybczynski

I’ve already finished a couple of them. If I manage to finish all of these before the summer is out, I might post another “guess the book” list from my to-be-read pile.

Currently Listening To

I don’t know about other soundtrack fans, but I listen to soundtracks whether or not I’ve seen the films. My favorites include John Corigliano’s The Red Violin and pretty much anything by George Fenton. Anyone else have a favorite soundtrack? Or do most people ignore them?

Recently on my playlist:
Atonement – I like the use of the typewriter as an instrument.
Enchanted – Lots of references/motifs from previous Disney films. I’m guessing it will make more sense with the movie.
I Capture the Castle – Also scored by the same guy (Dario Marianelli) who did Atonement. Mostly playful and light-hearted, sometimes melancholy. Probably the only one I would recommend out of this list.
Immortal Beloved – The usual popular Beethoven fare. It would be cheaper to get one of those best of CDs in the classical section.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – Er, John Williams at his mediocre best?
Nim’s Island – I only know Patrick Doyle from his scores of Shakespearean films, other costume dramas, and Eragon. This is sort of interesting, but it gets bogged down in the latter half.
The Golden Compass – Mostly disappointed. Alexandre Desplat did better work in The Queen.
The Spiderwick Chronicles – The only track I liked was the Closing Credits.
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian – It sounded more like the sequel to Kingdom of Heaven than the first Narnia movie.

Links for the End of the Week

Who Gets To Be American? A Jeremiad. Ding at Bitch Ph.D. points out the idiocy of a columnist who believes only those who have “sacrificed” and have the bloodlines to prove it should be Americans. This reminds me of an anti-immigration bumper sticker I read while walking home that told people to “go home.” Of course I’m mad. But I’m also mostly exasperated. Everyone in the US is an immigrant or has descended from immigrants. Just because your family has lived in this place longer doesn’t mean that you deserve it more.

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. I don’t think this is a failure of college. It’s a failure of earlier education. People shouldn’t be coming out of high school with such deficits. I’m also struck by the fact that this English professor seems to think that biology is all multiple choice. I’ve had very few multiple choice exams on a college level. Maybe just four, now that I think of it. A lot of it was oriented more toward critical thinking and problem solving. Sometimes (gasp!) even creativity was involved.

Research and Education Careers and the Mythical 40-hour Workweek. Recently, an undergrad came to work in the lab, expecting that there would be hours. You know, the 9 to 5 kind of thing. She was very surprised when people told her that there weren’t. Rather, people went to lab to get things done. Personally, I can be in lab for 24 to 36 hour stretches. And I still feel guilty for not being in lab enough. It isn’t because other people are putting undue pressure on me (actually, I think most people think I’m nuts) or that I’m inefficient, but that I have workaholic tendencies and I don’t have a social life. As for people who do have social lives and families, good for them. Whether or not they get their work done is their own business–as long as they don’t foist their stuff on me.


Booking Through Thursday: Books vs Movies

Suggested by Superfastreader: Books and films both tell stories, but what we want from a book can be different from what we want from a movie. Is this true for you? If so, what’s the difference between a book and a movie?

Movies, for a lack of a better description, are just there. It may be beautiful, exciting, thrilling, yadda yadda, but in the end, it’s somebody else’s vision of the story. A book, however, can be interpreted in as many ways as there are readers. You can imagine the setting in any way you see fit, only limited by the author’s vocabulary rather than budget constraints. A book can also explore inner motivations far better than film. It’s the same for documentaries and non-fiction books. I like documentaries, but if it’s based on a book I’ve read, then it feels dumbed down in comparison. Simply put, there’s detail in text that can’t be transferred to a passive visual medium.

* * *
The Thursday Threesome: Anna’s Tax Wholesale Sale

Onesome: Anna’s Tax– Okay, what is the most onerous tax you’ve ever run across? Yes, alcohol and tobacco can fit in, but I was thinking of some regional quirk…

I’ve only spent money on the usual things like food or books, so no, I haven’t come across any taxes that seemed weird.

Twosome: Wholesale– or retail? Do you prefer to drive to the wholesale stores to save over the regular store prices? …or does the handy 5000 pack of macaroni and cheese not work for you?

It’s only me, so I wouldn’t know what to do with 5000 packs of macaroni except maybe donate 4990 of those packs to the local food bank. I usually go to the local supermarket and just get enough to tide me over to the next week.

Threesome: Sale– Do you have ‘Tax Free’ sales in your area? Every so often one of the hardware places has a “We Pay the Sales Tax” weekend. …and hey, 8% is 8%!

I have no idea.

What About Book Jackets?

When bookcovers DON’T sell books.

“My suggestion to publishers is a variation on the step-back idea. For the outermost cover, a sensual image could be used to grab shoppers’ attention. But that cover would be perforated, enabling sensitive readers to tear it off and reveal a second cover, one with an inoffensive design that would allow them to enjoy the books in public without embarrassment.”

(emphasis mine)

Wow. Way to go. If that ever happens, people who denigrate romance novels as “bodice rippers” won’t be so inaccurate anymore.

Besides, even the thought of tearing off covers–no matter how awful they are–really horrifies the bibliophile in me.