Friday, September 7, 2012

Prowling the Junkyards

Newsflash: junk isn't always crap. I'm not surprised. Neither is anyone who watches Abandoned or Storage Wars.

But the realization has caused a bit of an upset in genetics labs lately, with breaking news that all the confusing, nonsensical-seeming jumble of "junk" DNA we learned about in high school, well-- that "junk." isn't crap either. 

We've dug in and discovered a bit more. Looks like it's all about switches. To me, one of the greatest discoveries was the influence some switches apparently exert due to their proximity in the 3-D DNA coil. Previously, this influence was tough to detect, because scientists were examining the switches "out of context" - i.e., straightened out, but now we're beginning to take helical modeling structure into account.

The research could pave a pathway to new drug development and clinical procedures: it seems bright and shiny enough, virtually a yellow brick road to health. It also seems daunting. The more we learn about DNA, the more complex a set of systems we seem to realize is at play, and these realizations have, overall, been tough to transform to regular clinical practice. 

As a public health student, I'm anxious to find out what possible public health applications ongoing DNA discoveries will yield. "Junk" DNA is poised to highlight more about which aspects of our health we can control and which will stay out of reach. 

I can't wait to see what else the "junkyard" holds.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

TACTILE: finger language

I've never had a deaf close friend or partner. Still, I'm fascinated with sign language and sign language's emotive elegance. It delineates a dimension of space spoken words just can't inhabit.

I was reminded how much I love it yesterday while studying in a UW atrium. One student was having an online chat in sign language, when another student walked in, also signing, and wanted to talk. The first student signed back something like (I think): 'In a minute, I'm on a call.' 

I loved seeing that moment, and I love watching people sign. I think it's time I learned at least a bit of sign language--it's too intriguing a form of expression NOT to explore it a little! 

Also, a clip from 'Children of a Lesser God.' A gorgeously calibrated film not just about having a relationship with a deaf partner, but also about the complexities of communicating at all. The gender roles and relationships, I thought, were so well depicted and honest--the man trying to convince the woman that she is, despite her lack of official schooling, brilliant, but coming across as patronizing, or as only able to call her beautiful, and her mistrusting his intentions because of her stubborn pride and fierce desire to be seen for who she is.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

ONSTAGE: Danger Mouse

Let's be clear here: I don't know much about modern music. Not in a behind-the-scenes way, anyway. Witness: I didn't know Danger Mouse was behind Sparklehorse, Gnarls Barkley, and one of my favorite recent songs, Jack White's "Two Against One." 

What resonated most for me once I started looking Danger Mouse up was his take on music: that as a producer he views himself as musical director, assembling soundscapes the way a film director creates certain visual worlds. 

I'll list some clips below. I have nothing profound to say from the depths of my musical ignorance, only that I'm grateful Danger Mouse is at work, and that's he's behind so much of the music I do find myself pursing.

Friday, August 10, 2012

BRAINCASE: peanut butter cookies, p's and q's

A volley of 'p's ricocheted inside floor upon floor of Atlanta's downtown Hyatt Regency during this past week's National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing, and Media.

Commenting on the array of alliteration, one presenter said "I've realized how all you health types love your p's." We "health types" heard about partnerships, populations, products, public health, presentations, planning, and more. We ate plenty of delicious (decidedly unhealthy) frisbee-sized peanut butter cookies. And we took home a few doggie-bags full of food for thought, too.

I'll include my list of observations round-up style, in no particular order.

Dr. Isaac Ashkenazi woke us all up on a sleepy humid-laden Atlanta afternoon at the conference's kick-off with a battery of slides illustrating disaster responses. In his opinion, we should crowd-source more of our emergency responses, at least during those vital 20 or so minutes while the professional disaster response personnel are still jammed in traffic. People, Ashkenazi thinks, do pretty well on their own, especially when bolstered by a few hours of training. Extending the TSA slogan of "See something, Say something," Ashkenazi would amend that to "See something, Say something, DO something."

A point well-taken, I thought, in as much as we could all benefit from being a little more prepared (but that could just be my public health bias showing. Again.) As the conference proceeded and I sat down to turkey sandwiches with a few colleagues, I took Ashkenazi's injunction to a different place: preparing to screw up. We all do make mistakes and mis-steps ... it's just more fun to pretend that politicians and criminals are the real screw-ups, while the rest of us are just getting by.

That would do an injustice to our culture, though, a culture I believe encourages self-confidence to the point of defensiveness, accusatory flailing, and unpredictable lashing out when one of us gets caught screwing up. We'd rather blame our illnesses, our extenuating circumstances, our parents and our government than admit that sometimes we actually make inferior choices that hurt others and perpetuate injustices.

What if, instead of learned defensiveness, we practiced 'apology drills' as much as we practice fire drills? A strange concept on the surface of it. But being poised to apologize, to admit wrong-doings when they occur, and to move on with sincere intentions to fix the wrongs and run damage-control plans just seems like a something a responsible human would practice.

What if we actually did that? What if we could actually screw up gracefully and then get on with things? I'd like to see a resurgence of humility, humbleness, and readiness to screw up well!

I was struck by presentations like the one Carolyn Ahlers-Schmidt made that showcased how persistence isn't always a positive trait. Ahlers-Schmidt told us how her project, a four-stage research package demonstrating how parents with cell phones would like their doctors to send them text messages when their children needed immunization appointments stalled in the final stage when clinicians, even clinicians with advanced technology, competent staff, and sufficient funding, admitted they'd rather not institute the program. Ahlers-Schmidt didn't delve into exactly why this was happening -- perhaps, she thought, clinicians didn't want to change the status quo, or were bracing against yet another round of new protocol to manage. Despite her promising results though, whatever the cause, she didn't find acceptance for her texting program, an example of when persistence serves to sink us deeper in our own short-sightedness.

One of the most highly quoted tweets from the conference was the simple injunctions one of the speakers gently made:  What if, instead of calling them the 'target population,' we called them 'our people'? This struck a powerful nerve with conference participants.

We had a whole session devoted to making communication more limpid and more easily grasped. Plainspeak, as it was termed, boiled down to the venerable principles of good writing: keep it simple. Use clear punctuation. Rope in your sentences. Evict unnecessary terminology in favor of shorter, friendlier words. In other words, be nice to your readers. I heartily agree, but was disheartened by the number of presentations by trained communicators that featured jam-packed slides, stale graphics, shoddy detailing, or just plain lackluster quality. A presenter speaking about the power of storytelling failed to include a story in her own presentation. Top policy-makers stuck to generalities. Marketers relied on statistic-loaded, blue-background slides they read aloud nearly word-for-word. So. I support much of what was said at the conference. But don't just tell me--show me what you mean.

I was privileged to present a poster. I'm only a student, rubbing sweaty elbows with some of the CDC's best, so yeah, I was nervous. But I got through it. With a few compliments, even, and with gratitude for the training I've received so far, and for the fact I can really get behind what I'm presenting, and finally, anticipation for when I'll finally be a professional with my own PhD. (Sweet tip: a 4' long poster is darn awkward to tote around, but will fit in many airline carry-on bins.)

One of my favorite poster presentations showed how soldiers with PTSD are demonstrably benefiting from an approach that fits: a graphic novel. Novel, I say!

I didn't get to sit on a real Atlanta porch. But I stood on one, a gorgeous one with a ceiling fan, attached to the lovely home of two Atlantans I couchsurfed with. In blatant contradiction to my usual Seattle longing for sun, I wanted the rain so I could enjoy it from the snugness of a real southern porch. Sadly, no rain fell. But I found a better, metaphorical porch: first in the couchsurfing experience itself, the chance to make total strangers instant friends, and second in the larger conference experience, the deliberate space created to meet professionals from government, non-profit, and business sectors all mixing, talking social media, social marketing, and sometimes just telling stories.

Popular points and puffery
As you'd guess at a communications conference, technology came highly touted. And, while I admire the capacity of Twitter, Facebook, and everything else micro-engineered to help us connect, I was also grateful for the down-to-earth presentations that pulled away from techno-glitter to remind us that stories still ground us, that technology still needs to serve our messages (instead of vice-versa), and that trying to master 'the next big thing' could distract us from continuing to do what works. Maybe the answer isn't always to copy the new marketing meme, but to just try a simple human connection. Call me a Luddite now.

I got plenty of cookies, like I said. Plus some promising connections, some new thoughts, some helpful training, a boost of confidence, and some really late hours of flying around. I'm stuffed!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Lies: Jonah Lehrer

When I first read him I assumed he was in his forties or fifties, mid-career for sure to judge by his wit and assurance. But he was spry, too, tipping science studies on their sides to dig up some fascinating perspectives. His insight and humor captivated me. So much, in fact, that some of his views, for a while at least, put a piece of bedrock under my developing PhD dissertation on mental health and genetics.

I was surprised, then, to find out he was no older than me. I admit to googling him copiously, frequently visiting his blog, even looking up his wedding photographs and wondering if all the attractive wunderkind science writers like him were already claimed. I admired his courtly replies to scientists disagreeing with some of the points he made in his latest book, "Imagine," and, though I haven't yet read "Imagine," I admired his previous books.

Jonah Lehrer. From

Now he's hit the headlines again. This time not writing news, but for "imagining" it. Already accused of recycling his own work without acknowledging it, Lehrer is now being called out for fabricating quotations.
He has apologized in public and has resigned from The New Yorker. That's a good start. But I'm afraid I won't be reading him in his fifties, and won't want to after these shoddy, ignoble mistakes. I'm not going to beat the drum about journalistic integrity -- I think we've witnessed enough journalism scandals recently and are starting to run out of answers about why some top-flight journalists lie. We might even be wondering if all journalists and reporters fabricate.

I'm sure they don't. But I know it happens. I even remember a junior editor at the Iowa State Daily, admittedly a student newspaper, attempt to massage one of the quotes I reported in a story. It wasn't a particularly important quote or a riveting story, but I adamantly refused to let her make the alteration, and I was frightened that if I hadn't been standing in the newsroom, that mis-quotation would have gone to press.

We journalists don't have a lot going for us sometimes: meager salaries, hours of often tedious work, and public suspicion (that seems quite warranted, given these lapses.) I'd argue that many of us write because the world fascinates us though, and the access we get to adventure and information as we write is well worth all the toil and penny-pinching. We have our words and our hard-earned knowledge, and we stand by those things (not having much else to cling to!)

The thing is, Lehrer didn't have to pinch pennies. And even if he did, lack of funds, or thirst for notoriety, or the sheer pressure of beating a ticking assignment clock is no excuse for any kind of fabrication. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen, and crop up fairly often when journalists attempt to synthesize and summarize complex scientific papers (which themselves, sadly, sometimes fabricate findings.)

Lehrer's actions were deliberate lies though, not mere misunderstandings. I'm sure he understands he hurt himself, his readers, his sources, his publishers, and the overall professional of journalism. 
I know it's popular to be cynical, to say well, everyone lies, to say his mistake wasn't the lie but being so sloppy he got caught, or to shrug and say it doesn't really matter.

But it matters to me that I held him up as an example of elegant, powerful reporting, which I won't be doing any longer. It matters that I strive for precision, clarity, and honesty, and I wanted to be like him, and now I don't. It matters that I wanted to be one of his audience members, but that now he's joined the ranks of those like Greg Mortenson, who probably wanted to do good, and ended up fudging badly. I doubt we can currently know how much Lehrer has let slide, but he's no longer my hero.

Now he's just another human like any one of us who slaps a few lies together when it's convenient. Most of us do it.  I would argue that even casual lies can have damaging impacts though. And Lehrer's lies were calculated rather than casual, committed in a professional setting where I know I may be naive to expect accuracy, but where I still want it. He didn't have to do it; he was in fact defying the conduct code of his profession, letting his bread-and-butter land dirt-side-down.

Lehrer had a chance to keep his integrity, keep our ears, and keep his reporting solid. I'm afraid, despite whatever good work he has done, that he's shattered all that. And it hurts.

Monday, July 23, 2012

TASTE IT: Flat Iron Grill

Now, I meant Thursday entries to be more about things I make or grow, as opposed to things I eat out. But I ate things so terrific yesterday, my tastebuds command me to tell you now about the Flat Iron Grill. It's in Issaquah. I know. Issy. But completely worth it.

Cory and I went there meaning to introduce Cory to whiskey, since he's more of a sake and vodka devotee, and it's time he got introduced to one of my favorite kinds of hard liquor. What I thought would be a casual little tasting bloomed into an out-and-out feast, however, starting after I snuck up on Cory, who was already talking to another patron (about thermodynamics, I believe.) The Flat Iron is that kind of place, casually classy, but informal enough to break into your neighbor's conversations. Plus, it has an entire WHISKEY LIBRARY!

We'd made reservations and were going to sit in the large main hall....but the small bar lounge, upholstered in faux cowhide, just looked too cozy. It took us a while to make up our minds, but we did it, ordering the World Flight of whiskeys (representing Scotland with Abelour 16 year, Ireland with Red Breast 12 year, and Japan with, I believe, Hibiki), plus one of our local distillery offerings, Woodinville Headlong.

Cody also hadn't tried carpaccio, so it was time to try that. It came out with a stack of bread, and it wasn't the usual raw, melting flesh of traditional carpaccio. Instead, it has been lightly brined, giving it a tingle on the tongue that paired well with the whiskeys.

Though I drink it myself, I won't venture to comment on the whiskeys in detail, save to notice that Headlong was a young pour, coming on well, but lacking the punch I savor in a good whiskey. Our bar-tender expects they'll be at the top of their game in another 2-4 years, when their whiskeys have had the proper time to age. No foul in our book though--I'll plan a Woodinville distillery tour soon to check out what else they offer.

The other whiskeys were what we wanted: varied, full-bodied, and complex enough to get us through the carpaccio and on to a side dish of cauliflower and white cheddar. This latter dish, it turns out, cannot be more highly recommended. Just the right amount of cheese. Just the right tenderness in the cauliflower. We made a whiskey-pact to order it again.  I didn't think to get my own shot, but this is close.

And then we ordered the 10-oz Flat Iron steak, which came riding on goat cheese polenta, enrobed in a taut, pungent chimichurri sauce. At this point, as we were closing in on the bottoms of our whiskey glasses, the bar-tender treated us to a us to a complimentary pour of Ballantine. 

You'd think we'd be done by now. We weren't. 

We finished by sharing a tumbler of Four Roses (rich, deep), and the olive oil creme brulee. THEN we were done. But you shouldn't be -- you should go there the very next time you want intimate, delicious dining with great service and all the whiskey you could ever want at your fingertips.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

WRITING PROMPT: lana del ray

Yes, she herself may claim to be awkward on stage sometimes. And she generates controversy faster  than an LA girl hits a tanning bed. But Lana keeps pointing back to her music, her song-writing, you know, the thing we're supposedly paying attention to her in the first place. 

I may not like everything she's written. But she does write her own songs (as Elizabeth Grant), and that's something. She's frank in her interviews: she didn't pick up a pen yesterday. She's been working for years now. Page by page. Club by club. Reading Whitman and Ginsberg along the way. 

For this prompt, I want to focus on those 'invisible years' before someone hits Hollywood gold. Lana doesn't have to be your hero, but she's got something, and she's done some work for it. Plus, she knows who she was paying attention to, reading over and over while polishing her own efforts. Who are you reading--who drives you on when you're feeling invisible?

 Let's check out some of her lyrics (Listen if you'd like, and pay attention if you do to the intonation and how she works with rhythm): 

"Off to the Races"
My old man is a bad man but
I can't deny the way he holds my hand
And he grabs me, he has me by my heart
He doesn't mind I have a Las Vegas past
He doesn't mind I have an LA crass way about me
He loves me with every beat of his cocaine heart

Swimming pool glimmering darling
White bikini off with my red nail polish
Watch me in the swimming pool bright blue ripples you
Sitting sipping on your black Cristal
Oh yeah

Light of my life, fire of my loins
Be a good baby, do what I want
Light of my life, fire of my loins
Give me them gold coins, gimme them coins

And I'm off to the races, cases of Bacardi chasers
Chasing me all over town
Cause he knows I'm wasted, facing
Time again at Riker's Island and I won't get out
Because I'm crazy, baby I need you to come here and save me
I'm your little scarlet, starlet singing in the garden
Kiss me on my open mouth
Ready for you

My old man is a tough man but
He's got a soul as sweet as blood red jam
And he shows me, he knows me
Every inch of my tar black soul
He doesn't mind I have a flat broke down life
In fact he says he thinks it's why he might like about me
Admires me, the way I roll like a Rolling Stone

Likes to watch me in the glass room bathroom, Chateau Marmont
Slippin' on my red dress, puttin' on my makeup
Glass film, perfume, cognac, lilac
Fumes, says it feels like heaven to him

Light of his life, fire of his loins
Keep me forever, tell me you own me
Light of your life, fire of your loins
Tell me you own me, gimme them coins

And I'm off to the races, cases of Bacardi chasers
Chasing me all over town
Cause he knows I'm wasted, facing
Time again at Riker's Island and I won't get out
Because I'm crazy, baby I need you to come here and save me
I'm your little scarlet, starlet singing in the garden
Kiss me on my open mouth

Now I'm off to the races, laces
Leather on my waist is tight and I am fallin' down
I can see your face is shameless, Cipriani's basement
Love you but I'm going down
God I'm so crazy, baby, I'm sorry that I'm misbehaving
I'm your little harlot, starlet, Queen of Coney Island
Raising hell all over town
Sorry 'bout it

My old man is a thief and I'm gonna stay and pray with him 'til the end
But I trust in the decision of the Lord to watch over us
Take him when he may, if he may
I'm not afraid to say that I'd die without him
Who else is gonna put up with me this way?
I need you, I breathe you, I never leave you
They would rue the day I was alone without you
You're lying with your gold chain on, cigar hanging from your lips
I said "Hon' you never looked so beautiful as you do now, my man."

And we're off to the races, places
Ready, set the gate is down and now we're goin' in
To Las Vegas chaos, Casino Oasis, honey it is time to spin
Boy you're so crazy, baby, I love you forever not maybe
You are my one true love, you are my one true love

You are my one true love