Monday, September 28, 2009

BYBS: Brain Science Podcast

So I was, as usual, trying to find a topic to blog about. It being Monday morning at 6am, and therefore just a wee bit past Sunday (though the whole BYBS thing is as much of an excuse to get me to do something as anything else, but that's another story) and I was debating whether to blog about a kick-butt Podcastle episode or a kick-butt episode of Brain Science Podcast.

I finally settled on Brain Science Podcast, specifically episode number 59: Interview with Guy Caldwell. This is mostly because Dr. Caldwell brings a certain enthusiasm to what others might consider to be a boring topic: worms.

In particular, he talks about a worm called caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans as this critter goes by at cocktail parties. C. elegans has a number of distinctions which make it useful to scientists like the fact that the complete cell lineage for the critter has been determined.

Can you imagine the people who had to do that job?!

Cell number 2,643...check...2644...check...2645...check.

I would gasp with disbelief at the mind-numbing nature of that job if it were not for a) the unbelievably boring nature of many jobs that people do and b) I'm not sure that this critter actually has that many cells.

Anyhow, one of the cool things this guy managed to do with C. elegans is to paste some jellyfish genes that give off light into the neurons of the worm so that one could, for example, see if some combination of conditions was causing said neurons to die off. That, in turn, came in handy for helping to tease out some aspects of Parkinson's disease.

Put another way, you could take a look at a worm and ask a simple question like: "Hey is the thing glowing? No? Then all the dopamine producing neurons are dead." This is much simpler than getting a worm analyst to talk to the thing.

It's stuff like this that wins the "aint it cool?" category for extreme cleverness, but then there's the whole issue of Dr. Caldwell's enthusiasm for the subject. I mean it sounds like he actually enjoys this work.

As someone who at times feels like a burn-out, chewed up, dehydrated husk of a human being, listening to someone with that sort of vigor brings back fond memories. He speaks with admiration for the guys who sat there and catalog cell lineages. He talks about how his research could be used to create therapies for Parkinson's disease.

That's the kind of energy and optimism, the looking forward to tomorrow that I find inspiring.

Monday, September 21, 2009

BYBS: Oatmeal, Raisins and Black Tea

Over here at the office for extreme cleverness and ideas for when you have nothing else to blog about, I've been researching a new substance that has the potential to bring about world peace and freedom in our time. Many people have asked me how this works.

The answer is simple: it doesn't.

So much for the bad news. The good news is that the byproduct, oatmeal with raisins using black tea instead of hot water, is surprisingly tasty. What's more, it gets both carbohydrates and caffeine into one compact meal.

While this may seem like a trivial posting, you have to remember the source. Furthermore, when facing yet another day in which my full potential will be utilized in a manner which makes me realize that I don't have that much potential, and that will simultaneously bring home the notion that we all have something to contribute except for those like myself who can best help out by not contributing, the concept of a caffeine loaded breakfast is just the thing to get the wheels turning.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

BYBS: Microbe World

Last week (OK, it was actually the week before that, but still), I listened to a fascinating podcast called "Tiny Conspiracies" by Dr. Bonnie Bassler about how some microbes can talk to each other. I found this very cool because a) the little buggers aren't supposed to be able to do that and b) I could understand anything she said at all.

As a veteran of listening to people who are not coherent, it is always a pleasure to experience a presentation given by someone who does a good job. Many people have complained to me about my postings, saying that they go off on tangents and have no point. To these people I say: "I'm supposed to have a point?"

But back to small critters talking to each other. It was previously thought that microbes led sad, lonely lives concerned with things like growing, dividing, and causing plague. During the past 20 years or thereabouts, it has been discovered that bacteria and their ilk also do things like engage in vibrant conversations, write books and attend poetry readings...and then cause plague.

So perhaps I embellished that a bit. Perhaps a lot. But it appears that microbes do not live the isolated lives that we once imagined. In "Tiny Conspiracies" Dr. Bassler talks about how some microbes can do things like gauge the size of their population and then change their behavior accordingly.

For example, once a population has reached a critical limit, the colony can form a membrane around themselves for added protection. Another, rather more sinister example is that a colony of bacteria might wait to release a toxin until their population is large enough that it will have a better chance of overcoming their host.

This sort of info gets the "ain't it cool!" award from me partially because of the clever way Dr. Bassler describes some of their tests --- she used bits of DNA that would cause the microbes to light up when they were "talking" --- but also for the potential applications. If one were to interfere with this signaling mechanism, for example, it may be possible to cause some nasty pathogen to skip the whole "cause plague" bit.

So waltz on over to Microbe World and give Tiny Conspiracies a listen.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

BYBS: Escape Artists

Escape Pod and its siblings, Podcastle and Pseudopod are podcast sites that deal in various fiction short stories.

A podcast is like a radio show or a book on tape in a form that you can download and play on your computer, an MP3 player or an iPod (hence the name). Much to my surprise, I've never blogged about podcasts before, but that just means that I now have all my BYBS entries written for the next 6 weeks.

Escape Pod deals in podcasts about science fiction, while Pseudopod deals in horror stories and Podcastle has essentially everything else. I've tried listening to fiction podcasts before and, though there have been exceptions, I've come to believe very strongly in what Theodore Sturgeon meant when he said "90% of everything is crap."

I was therefore more than a little surprised when I stumbled onto these guys. The stories are very interesting and original, and most are read by good performers. Incidentally, if you don't think that voice talent should make a difference, go over to to hear some person suck the soul out of Charles Dickens.

I don't want to babble on about all the good stories I've heard there (read: topic for weeks of BYBS entries), but here are a few:

  • Episode 212: Skinhorse Goes to Mars by Mike Boris - a Mars overrun by zombies holds the key to a terraforming experiment gone horribly wrong.
  • Episode 210: The Hastillan Weed by Ian Creasey - you know about all the nasty plants that have been imported to other climates and wrought havoc? Ever wonder what a plant from another planet might do?
  • Episode 209: On the Eyeball Floor by Norm Sherman - a story about love and jealousy in a not quite human way

And that's just from the science fiction podcast! Get yourself an iPod and check em out.