Friday, December 31, 2010

the year that was - 2010 in photos

2010 has been a whirlwind year. Here are some of my best shots from the last 12 months! (Click on images for larger versions.)

Brandi Carlile rocking out. Ridgefield. January.

Snowpocalypse I. Brooklyn. February.

Architecture. Barcelona. March.

Avia's street. Masnou. March.

White House bowling alley. Washington. May.

Shuttle engines. Kennedy Space Center. May.

Liftoff. Kennedy Space Center. May. (w/thx to George)

The library. Brooklyn. June.

The eminent cosmologist. Manhattan. June.

Obligatory feline snapshot. Brooklyn. June.

Ice. Rocky Mountain National Park. June.

Walt Disney Concert Hall. Los Angeles. July.

Caltech. Pasadena. July.

Hairpin walkway at the Getty. Los Angeles. July.

Michael Jackson party. Brooklyn. August.

A new mark. Mount Monadnock. September.

The Huntington Library gardens. Pasadena. October.

Ceiling of the Civic. Pasadena. October.

Palm trees and condos. Cali coast. October.

Rolling hills. Cali coast. October.

Sea stuff. Monterey. October.

Cal Academy of Sciences. San Francisco. October.

Cargo. Oakland. October.

Snowpocalypse II. Brooklyn. December.

gone in 2010

This is the time of year when we remember those who have left us. The following is a short list of those departed in 2010 with whom I am particularly proud to have shared some time on this planet. Some you may have heard of, some undoubtedly not. All will be missed.

Jean S. Cione: All-Star pitcher with the All American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s and 50s

Geraldine Doyle: Factory worker whose photograph became the basis of the iconic World War II "We Can Do It" Rosie the Riveter poster

Jaime Escalante: East Los Angeles high school math educator whose motivational teaching style inspired the film Stand and Deliver.

Miep Gies: One of the protectors of Anne Frank's family during the Holocaust, and the person responsible for saving Frank's famous diary

William E. Gordon: Electrical engineer who designed, built, and operated the Arecibo Observatory, the world's largest radio telescope

Dorothy Height: A leader and unsung champion of both the American civil rights and women's rights movements

Naomi Prawer Kadar: Inspiration behind BrainPOP, the children's educational website, and founder of BrainPOP ESL, for English-language learners

Dorothy Kamenshek: Former All-Star with the All American Girls Professional Baseball League who provided a basis for the lead character in the 1992 film, A League of Their Own

Juanita Kreps: Pioneering economist and businesswoman who became the first female Secretary of Commerce under President Carter

BenoƮt Mandelbrot: Innovative mathematician who developed the field of fractal geometry

Brian Marsden: Astronomer who directed the Minor Planet Center and coordinated celestial discoveries made around the world

Robert Macauley: Connecticut businessman who founded AmeriCares, one of the largest private health-care charities in the world

Paul the Octopus: Famed cephalopod who became renowned for his ability to correctly predict the winners at this year's FIFA World Cup

Sylvia Pressler: New Jersey judge whose most famous ruling gave girls the right to play Little League baseball

Allan Sandage: Prolific cosmologist whose observations helped establish the currently-accepted age and fate of the universe

Bobby Thomson: Major League outfielder whose "shot heard round the world" propelled the New York Giants to the 1951 World Series

Theresa Weinstock: Someone without whom I literally would not be here: my grandmother!

George C. Williams: Evolutionary biologist who contributed major insights into the workings of natural selection

Howard Zinn: Historian, writer, and progressive thinker whose A People's History of the United States offered an alternate view of American democracy

Thursday, December 09, 2010

on politics: a picture speaks a thousand words

I had zero intention of writing a blog post today, but this photo wouldn't let me go. It so perfectly encapsulates the serious frustration I've been feeling toward our government this year. It was taken moments after a bill to extend health benefits to 9/11 responders—the very "heroes" that members of the Grand Old Party have invoked time and again in the wake of that tragic event—was blocked by Republicans from entering a full vote in the U.S. Senate. At left, New York's junior Senator Kirsten Gillibrand seems utterly defeated, while her colleague and mentor Charles Schumer, NY's senior Senator, tries to console. One can only imagine the words between them at that moment. I'm reminded of that scene in Lost in know the one. It doesn't matter what he said to her, and you don't need to know because you get the gist.

Sadly, it was just the first major blow for the two, and especially the junior Senator, on this day. Hours later, the Senate GOP blocked another vote, this time on a bill that included a provision Gillibrand had put her full force behind, a repeal of the military's discriminatory Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. Even the recently despicable Joe Lieberman of Connecticut had gotten behind this one! And yet most of the rest of the Senate's conservative wing refused to set aside "procedural niceties," as one blogger so eloquently put it, to ensure equal rights for all our service men and women. W...T...F?

But back to the picture. Schumer, the sage elder who you can tell here has been around the Congressional block a few times, may be more adept at this point at swallowing defeat, and it's heartwarming to see him encouraging his counterpart to keep her chin up. Gillibrand is a young, energetic Democrat, elected to the Senate just last month after serving two years in the seat Hillary Clinton vacated when she became Secretary of State. I can't help but feel that Gillibrand in this photo represents what most Democrats are feeling these days: growing disappointment and disillusionment in the wake of what seemed so promising back in 2008. To be sure, it's nothing new for me to get annoyed with Republicans. And I freely admit that an unfocused Democratic caucus shoulders a certain amount of blame for recent events. But the GOP obstructionism has gotten totally and completely out of hand. I recently saw a blog post explaining how today's Republican strategies closely resemble those of Cold War-era Soviets. They include:
Taking extreme starting positions
Employing emotional tactics such as exasperation, or getting angry and storming out of the room
Viewing concessions by the adversary as a sign of weakness
Delaying giving concessions and then only giving very small amounts
Paying no attention to deadlines
In other words, they're being little brats! And hypocritical little brats at that; see 2:31 in this short video on GOP obstructionism. The poster went on to quote (a hardly liberal) David Brooks:
"[My] problem with the Republican Party right now ... is that if you offered them 80-20, they'd say no. If you offered them 90-10, they’d say no. If you offered them 99-1 they’d say no. And that’s because we’ve substituted governance for brokerism, for rigidity that Ronald Regan didn’t have."
Sigh. Anyway, as I tweeted earlier, hang in there, Senator Gillibrand, and keep fighting the good fight—even though I get that it might feel right now like you're smacking your head against a slab of cold concrete. To put things in a completely random perspective (and I know you're probably a Yankees fan but go with me for a second), this is sorta how we Mets fans feel every year. We deal. We pick up. We carry on and try again tomorrow. By the way, I hear you turned 44's hoping a few birthday drinks were able to numb the pain.

Photo by Drew Angerer for The New York Times

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

hum for the holidays

Wait, is it December again already?!! My, how 2010 has flown by. Well, I'm not quite prepared for the holidays just yet, but I've been cruising for some fun and unique winter songs, and I think I've come up with a set that you'll fancy, entitled Brooklyn December. (In case you missed my previous two holiday mixes, behold Brooklyn Xmas and Brooklyn Holiday.) As in years past, I've focused on indie/alternative tunes and interspersed various soul, country, and electronic/pop ditties. This year I came up with about twice as many songs as I could hope to fit into one mix, so you'll have to wait til next year for the rest ;) Enjoy! &infin

Brooklyn December mix | Listen on Spotify | YouTube Playlist
Father Christmas - The Kinks
Look Out the Window - Gene Autry feat. Rosemary Clooney
Fallen Snow - Au Revoir Simone
Ain't No Chimneys in the Projects - Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
Christmas Tree - Lady Gaga feat. Space Cowboy
Carol of the Bells - Straight No Chaser
Christmas - Leona Naess
Santa Claus is Coming to Town - Jackson 5
LeRoy the Redneck Reindeer - Joe Diffie
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear - Sixpence None The Richer
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Francesca Battistelli
Forget December - Something Corporate
Angels We Have Heard on High - Relient K
O Holy Night - Weezer
Christmas Ain't Like Christmas Anymore - Kitty Wells
Jag Vet En Dejlig Rosa - Robyn
Winter Song - Sara Bareilles & Ingrid Michaelson

Sunday, November 21, 2010

rosalind franklin gets her closeup

This weekend I went to get a chest x-ray for a minor but persistent lung infection that doesn't seem to want to go away. While at the hospital, I chatted up the radiologist, a pleasant and efficient man who explained the procedure while securing around my waist a heavy lead sheet. I knew that the sheet was meant to protect my reproductive organs from potentially harmful effects of the radiation I was about to receive. So I quipped that I'd just seen a play about Rosalind Franklin, and that I was all too happy to don the bulky shield if it meant keeping my ovaries in good, working order.

"Rosalind Franklin?" the radiologist repeated quizzically. "Who's that?"

It's a question I'd expect from, oh, pretty much anyone without a significant science background. But I was rather shocked and dismayed to hear it from someone who not only works in the very field that Franklin contributed so much to, but who utilizes every day the same stuff that made Franklin's historic career—and that led to her untimely death. And so, as playwright Anna Ziegler did so eloquently in her recent production at the Ensemble Studio Theater in Manhattan, I couldn't help but muse, in nothing more than a hospital gown and leaden sash: What if?

Photograph 51 tells the story of Rosalind Elsie Franklin (pictured below), a British physicist and biochemist who made major insights into the molecular structures of coal, graphite, viruses, and the hereditary molecules DNA and RNA. In particular, the play centers on her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA, which tantalized scientists until the April, 1953 publication of three papers in the journal Nature. These papers, one of which was co-authored by Franklin, effectively elucidated the biological mechanism of reproduction—or as many have dubbed it, the secret of life.

Though Photograph 51 is billed as a fictionalized account of the personalities surrounding the discovery of DNA's structure, Ziegler clearly did her homework. Much of the information presented in the play has been documented as fact: In 1951, Franklin went to work with Maurice Wilkins at Kings College London on x-ray photography of the structures of biological molecules; Franklin and Wilkins formed an icy relationship, resulting in less of a professional partnership than a simple sharing of physical space at the Medical Research Council's biophysics unit; For two years, Franklin worked tirelessly, with the help of her grad student Raymond Gosling, to create x-ray diffraction images of DNA in an effort to uncover its form; Wilkins and rivals James Watson and Francis Crick would ultimately share the glory for their work on DNA's double-helix structure, while Franklin's contributions were largely ignored; It later became known that Watson and Crick had, unbeknownst to Franklin, secretly been shown one of her unpublished photographs, which led directly to their determination of the correct DNA structure.

While the play raises many questions about how and why this all came to be, Ziegler makes no apologies for Franklin's apparently prickly personality and the role it may have played in history's outcome. It was refreshing for me to watch actress Kristen Bush in the lead role, not only because she nailed the repression of Franklin's inner conflicts, but because despite all that I'd ever read about Franklin in books and articles popular and scientific, I'd never really envisioned how her contrary comportment might really have come across. I'd certainly known that her reputation was far from that of a cuddly teddy bear, but sometimes it really takes hearing the words and seeing the facial and body expressions to appreciate what a person was truly like in the flesh.

It's tempting now to consider what Franklin—who died of ovarian cancer at 37, just five years after the DNA structure was confirmed—might have thought of her legacy today. In some sense, it would be logical to conclude that she'd have been embarrassed by the whole thing and would have urged people to accept what happened and move on. But I can't shake the feeling that she would have been pleased at having become a feminist icon for women who, half a century later, still face uphill battles in being accepted as equals in the scientific world. One might also surmise that Franklin, at least privately, would have felt vindicated for being considered a pioneer after all the criticism that swirled around her personality and methods. In one of Photograph 51's early scenes, Wilkins fails to notice how hurt Franklin is that he's decided to lunch in the men-only common room on her first day at the lab. She feigns indifference but is obviously fuming inside, not only at the unfairness of this discrimination but at the clear slight by her new colleague. Yet just when you think she's going to let it pass, Franklin comes straight to the point about her displeasure upon Wilkins's return from lunch. She had no intention of letting it go, we find out . . . so why would she let a little thing like her legacy go unchallenged, either?

At the end of the day, of course, all we can do is speculate: What if she'd been more open to sharing her work? What if she'd been less methodical, more of a risk taker in the lab? What if she'd been easier to work with, more gregarious? What if she'd lived at a time when women were more accepted as scientists? What if she'd known about the dangers of radiation? What if she hadn't died before the Nobel were awarded for the discovery of DNA's structure? If any one of these factors had been different, might my radiologist have known who I was talking about when I mentioned Franklin's name the other day?

As her character opines in the play's final scene, I suppose we'll never know. What I do know is that I'm elated that Anna Ziegler and director Linsay Firman decided to bring Franklin's life to the stage. And I can only hope that Photograph 51 will be replicated in theaters everywhere, so that the world might ponder the same questions of biology, personality, history, happenstance, and the pursuit of knowledge.

Monday, November 15, 2010

felons and felines

William Minnick is a wiry-haired inmate at the Indiana State Prison, a maximum-security correctional facility about 50 miles east of Chicago. He's been behind bars since 1982, when he was convicted of assaulting and killing a young woman in her home. Minnick knows a thing or two about the darkness of prison life; he was on death row for many years until his sentence was stayed in 2004. Even then, he remained confined in a small cell with little to live for.

Enter Mr. Magestyk, Minnick's slightly overweight and clearly pampered cat. The pair became fast friends in 2006 when Minnick, now 47, adopted Magestyk (pictured below) as part of a pilot program to allow inmates to care for homeless cats. Today, Minnick and Mr. Magestyk are inseparable. By all accounts, the introduction of this little ball of fur into Minnick's cell has given him a new lease on life.

I learned about the Indiana State program after coming across a fascinating blog post detailing one woman's quest to discover how cats are making life better in a place where 70 percent of convicts are there for murder. Diana Korten, who not only visited the prison but also interviewed corrections officers and inmates there about the program, found that aside from giving inmates something to love and be responsible for, the cats have mellowed them out considerably—which means fewer incidents of violence for officers to deal with.

Not that the cats haven't instigated a few rumbles... In one case, an inmate was found murdered after he had allegedly spit soda on another inmate's cat. Another time, several convicts put out a contract on the life of whomever was responsible for killing the cat of a particular prisoner. The cat killer was never found, but the fact that his own life was threatened illustrates how closely the inmates at Indiana State have bonded with their felines!

Simply put, this program appears to be a blessing for a population that doesn't have much else going for it. And considering there are so many cats in need of homes, it seems like a great system to try out in other prisons across the country. Some might argue, of course, that allowing prisoners to own cats or other animals is a pleasure they shouldn't be afforded, especially when the crimes they've committed are particularly heinous. But it's my belief that convicts should be given some way to grow as people while they're behind bars. And if a prisoner can find some humanity with the help of a pet then why shouldn't he have that opportunity? It should be noted, by the way, that inmates in the Indiana State Prison program have to pay out of their own pockets for the upkeep of their cats—which means for most of them that they have to work to earn money for food, toys, and medical expenses. So the kitties give their owners that extra incentive to stay on task, too.

Anyway, if you're interested in learning more, here's a short piece detailing some of the history of the Indiana State Prison cat program, and an article on pet therapy for prisoners. You can also check out the video below on cats in prisons, including at Indiana State (Minnick and Magestyk make an appearance). &infin

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

ballot initiative 300: that would be illogical

So I was minding my own business last night, taking a quick peek at the Twitter feed, when the following post popped up on my screen from @absolutspacegrl:
Denver voters to decide whether their tax dollars should be spent on creating an "extraterrestrial affairs commission"

There must be some misunderstanding, I thought. People don't "vote" on "forming extraterrestrial commissions" any more than they "vote" to "have municipal garbage collectors dump trash on the steps of city hall." I clicked the link. What I found was, as my Twitter pal Luke later put it, a gift that keeps on giving.

To be sure, I do realize it's that time of year...the time of year when ghouls and goblins come out attacking everyone and we all pretend like it's normal. I'm talking, of course, about midterm elections. But I was still a little taken aback to confirm that indeed, the great city of Denver has somehow managed to attach to the very bottom of their ballots a small eensy weensy measure on the formation of a coalition to investigate UFOs and other instances of extraterrestrial beings here on Earth. It is real, folks. It is called Initiative 300, and it has a music video, "Pink UFO."

Just so you know, aside from being the official music video of Initiative 300, this production—which stars (alleged) hip hop musicians TIME and Damon Jevon—was created to raise awareness about the fact that there's a cure for breast cancer floating about the heavens somewhere, and that the ETs have so nicely offered to give it to us, but the U.S. government won't let us take it from them. You. Can. Not. Make. This. Stuff. Up. (Of course I now have to decide whether to add this to my pink post; I should probably refrain.)

A quick glance at the website for Initiative 300 gives away the madness. I must admit it was heartening to find out that Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson were both alien fans before they died, and that Ronald Reagan was followed by a UFO once, but he didn't have the cojones to report it. But it got better. Luke alerted me to an article pointing out that in 2014, a group of representatives from eight civilizations from various nearby stars and constellations will be dropping in on the United Nations general assembly for a little chat with us. Do they get diplomat parking privileges with that? I can only imagine the rubbernecking along First Avenue when those guys fly into town. Or maybe they can beam themselves in? Perhaps JJ Abrams can clue us in on that one.

So clearly, some folks in Colorado have been watching a few too many Balloon Boy YouTube reruns, I thought to myself. Hopefully Denverites will see right through this and vote a resounding 'over my dead body.' But then...then I found out that the organizers of Initiative 300 are already targeting New York for a similar ballot proposition! And now it gets personal. So all I will say is this: If my posse of Flying Spaghetti Monster-fearing droogs and I have to raise some hell and kick some snooty New York ass on account of this unscientific horseshit, then by golly, it will be done. We will not be voting on the aliens, thank you very much!! And to those of you in Denver next week: If you know what's good for you, VOTE NO ON 300. &infin

Sunday, October 24, 2010

what's in a logo? a lot

By now you've all heard about the recent Gap logo brouhaha, in which the purveyors of inexpensive office duds revealed their new corporate marker to a fury so loud, they were forced to recant and issue a big, public "never mind." For what it's worth, I think it was the right decision: While their logo isn't one of my favorites, the new one was awful. But more importantly, the new logo had nothing whatsoever to do with their old one, which had come to be known and trusted by shoppers everywhere.

Some have argued recently that logos don't matter anymore, but I strongly disagree. If that were the case, then why does the image of a U.S. flag awash in logos conjure sentiments of outrage? Why is this taxonomy of species so powerful? And why did Logorama win best animated short at the Oscars this year?

Of course, many successful companies periodically update their logos as a way to refresh their image or reflect a new line of thinking. But my opinion is that unless you're changing the entire gist of your offerings, the best redesigned logos don't completely start over; they instead build on the existing design so that the public can still identify the brand. When Gap decided in the mid-90s to ditch Banana Republic's safari/travel theme and go after the "casual luxury" clothing market, the resulting logo redesign made a lot of sense. But Gap's change this year was just dumb. It reminded me of the decision that New York City-based pharmacy chain Duane Reade made a few years ago—only this time, the parent company realized the error (albeit after severe public excoriation) and wisdom prevailed.

Friday, October 15, 2010

stuff of life: time to learn on blog action day

Today is Blog Action Day, and this year's theme is water. While there are so many issues I could focus on for this, I'm simply going to whip out one of my favorite statistics to get things going: If you fill a bucket with water and have it represent all the H2O on the planet's surface, the percentage representing clean, safe drinking water would amount to no more than a spoonful. One spoonful!

It's no secret that the lack of potable drinking water around the globe is a ridiculously huge problem. In fact, it's so big that we in our busy lives have a tendency to pretend there's nothing wrong or otherwise ignore the issue because we think there's nothing that just one person can do about it. Well, there are things you can do! But the solutions do start with a small sacrifice: your time. To really make a difference, we all need to set aside whatever we can—a few minutes, a few hours—to learn about the water problems we face. And amidst all the gloom and doom, we need to hear about progress, too; there are a number of ingenious ways in which folks have already achieved success at helping keep our waters—and the waters halfway around the world—clean and clear.

For those of you looking for a basic background on the state of our world's drinking waters, you might enjoy my recent post on water safety. The following videos should also serve as quick, helpful primers on issues of water security, both in developing and developed nations. &infin

A friendly reminder about the world's drinking water, from Charity: water

How one man's invention could save millions, from

Why bottled water is evil—and not necessarily clean—from The Story of Stuff

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

making a mark

I've been wanting to do this for a long time now. Finally worked up the nerve to make it happen! I chose the seven brightest stars in the M45 star cluster, better known as the Pleiades. That's five of the "seven sisters" from Greek Mythology plus their parents. (From an apparent magnitude standpoint, the other two sisters were a little too puny to include.) My star, 20 Tauri, is at the top right of the central "box."

Update: My tattoo is now featured in the astronomy section of Science Ink, a marvelous collection of math and science tattoos from noted science writer Carl Zimmer!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

postcards from an alien world

Most of the time if you hear me gushing about planetary vistas, it's about Saturn, its rings, or its lovely moons. But let's not forget about Mars! This week, scientists working with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling our ruddy neighbor since 2006, released a series of exquisitely detailed and hauntingly moody images of the Martian surface. Wired offers an informative write-up with long captions for a few of them, but I'm posting my favorites here. I encourage you to browse through all 236 of the latest shots on the web portal for HiRISE, the camera system in charge of these amazing views. I'm telling you, each page is better than the next!