Tag Archives: postaday2011

Weekly photo challenge: Through

This week’s Weekly Photo Challenge is Through. Here are two versions of “through”, taken in two very different places.

“Bridge of Sighs”, Venice

Chaco Canyon Ruins, New Mexico

Thousands of miles apart – but both are looking through darkness at light.

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The critter construction kit

Review – Endless Forms Most Beautiful
by Sean B. Carroll

A keeper? Definitely. And you should read it too.

Okay, you have a cell – just one – containing a bunch of genes. Where can we go from here? More to the point, since we can look around us pretty much anyplace on earth and see a lot of possible end points ranging from humans to nasturtiums, HOW can we get there from here?

For a long, long time, the details were mysterious. Some of them still aren’t clear. But now, by combining DNA analysis and embryology, an overall picture is forming out of the mist. (The “evo devo” of the subtitle is short for “evolutionary developmental biology”. Cute, and much easier to say.)

It turns out that living creatures share an amazing number of basic genes that control how their bodies are formed. Some of these genes are so universal that they must go back to before the Cambrian period, half a billion years ago. Then how can there be so much variety? It turns out that “gene” is biologist-speak for “a segment of DNA that makes a particular protein”, and there are stretches of DNA that don’t qualify as “genes”. What do they do? They control details of when and how specific genes and their proteins become active in the developing embryonic creature. (This, of course, is a horribly compressed version of what “Endless Forms” has to say. There’s more, so much more.)

Carroll shows how the interaction of genes and this “DNA dark matter” works. He also explains how such a variety of animals can be formed by tinkering with reusable parts – the dozens of ways that insects and crustaceans have started from a simple limb with a pincer on the end to build legs and mouths and feelers and gills and wings, for example.

What’s wrong with the book? First, Carroll is a specialist in fruit flies, and it shows sometimes. One or two chapters told me much more than I ever wanted to know about insect development, but even here there were unexpected nuggets of interesting stuff. Second, “Endless Forms” is not an easy read. I don’t think it could be easy and still do the subject justice. Be prepared to spend several weeks on it, and to re-read some parts and think about them before that part of the picture becomes clear.

Overall, though, if you have the slightest curiosity about the “hows” of life, if you aren’t already up to date on the latest in biology, you need to read “Endless Forms.” It’s that good.

Well. THAT was a Superbowl.

(All right, I know I have people outside the U.S. who follow this blog. Bear with me for the moment. The Superbowl is the final game of the American football (not soccer) season, between the two top teams in the two conferences.)

And I don’t even care about football. (Or soccer, either.) I wasn’t going to bother watching this game, not even for the commercials. (Which are always notoriously expensive and creative, and are only shown this one time.) And I didn’t watch the first half; it’s all my husband’s fault, really. Because I couldn’t help hearing the commentary while he watched, and the first half was a real back-and-forth dogfight. So after we ate, I sat down to watch a few minutes of the second half.

If you were watching too, you understand why I never escaped, never even stood up, until the game was over. If the first half was unpredictable, the second half was a thrill show of contested calls (Did he have both feet on the ground within bounds?? Well, yeah.) and unexpected turnovers and heartstopping drives, right down to the last five seconds when the entire game turned on a gap of inches between ball and reaching hands.

I don’t care about football. But everybody likes suspense and drama. Wow.

52 books / 52 weeks – Michael Collins & The Troubles

Review – Michael Collins & The Troubles,
by Ulick O’Connor

A Keeper? Probably

Well, I know a LOT more about the Irish revolution than I did a week ago.

Admittedly, what I knew a week ago was almost nothing. When I was in high school, history class somehow always ran out of school year around about 1870. If the material had been paced better, I’m sure my teachers would have taught us about World War 2, and even World War 1, before finding time for a (still) controversial period of somebody else’s history. I had heard, vaguely, of Eamon deValera and Parnell, enough to know they were involved in the Irish fight against England, and that there were some sort of events known as the Easter Uprising and Bloody Sunday (and I knew about that partly because of the song).

Ulick O’Connor does not even try to play the historian’s or biographer’s game of blank slate objectivity. He’s pro Irish, all the way and no matter what. The book starts well before The Troubles, well before Michael Collins was born, with the story of how the British Secret Service spied on O’Connor’s great grandfather Matthew Harris during the 1870’s and 80’s. Then we’re taken through the ins and outs of Irish politics, and British politics as they related to Ireland, over the next thirty years; and somehow O’Connor makes it all understandable and mostly interesting (I’ll admit that sometimes I got a little weary of the parade of names and the fine points of policy). Ulick O’Connor stresses repeatedly how important these century-old events were to later movements of civil disobedience and anti-imperialism.

Oddly, though perhaps unavoidably since O’Connor needed time to explain the background, Michael Collins doesn’t appear until halfway through the book, at the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin and the siege of the post office – a catastrophe for the people directly involved, but apparently crucial in kickstarting the rest of the Irish revolution. Before long, Collins, still in his twenties, is one of the main revolutionary leaders, the organizer of IRA assasinations – particularly Bloody Sunday. (All fully justified, O’Connor assures us.)  We follow Collins’ career in detail from then on until his assassination in 1922; then a brief wrapup of Irish history since those days, and the story’s over.

(But what genre is this book? I’m not really sure, though probably it doesn’t much matter. We hear less about Michael Collins’ life before 1916 than we do about the backgrounds of various other Irish leaders; Wikipedia gives much more detail there than O’Connor, and Collins isn’t even seen for the book’s first hundred pages. So it must be a history, not a biography. On the other hand, once Collins makes an entrance, he is the primary focus, and the book pretty much stops with his death, before the Irish Civil War is finished, before Ireland is officially its own country. So it must be a biography, not a history. Oh well.)

After the comfort zone

I was lucky with my first week in the No Comfort zone. A project chased me down and dared me to escape it, and I was able to wrap it up within the week. That won’t be true every time. There are a lot of things I want to explore that I won’t even get a general overview of within a week – no more than a first, misleading glimpse.

In aikido training, we practice and repractice techniques again and again. At first, as a new student, everything is challenging and confusing. Then you start to feel comfortable with some techniques – you may even think you’ve mastered them. But the time comes when you realize there’s a whole hidden world in the technique you thought you knew everything about, something more to explore, landscapes you couldn’t see at first, so that you have to forget the mastery you imagined and start learning afresh. In the same spirit, I’ll post about my long-term No Comfort projects when I start on them, then leave them unmentioned until I find myself in one of those new areas of challenge.

And sometimes I’ll settle for short and sweet.
* * *
Oh, and it seems that this is my one hundredth post. Yay me!

She’s at it again – No Comfort

Yes, I found another bloggy webby challenge to get entangled in – “No Comfort Zone.” This one’s dedicated to the goal of making yourself do one thing a week that you wouldn’t ordinarily try, and if the idea intrigues you, by all means click on the button to the right and learn more.

I have a LOT of things I’d like to tackle – silly and fun, to practical, to over ambitious, to is-she-nuts-or-what. But I don’t have a  list of weekly projects to carry me all the way to the end of 2012 right this minute – I’m sure things will come up, though, not to mention projects that will carry over past their assigned week. (More on that topic in my next post.) But my first No Comfort project almost fell, or jumped, into my lap:

How the heck DO you get one of those special buttons to show up in the side column of your WordPress blog?

Done, at last, after several days of worrying at it when I had five spare minutes. If you find installing those buttons – “Widgets” – confusing too, well, Inside Out Cafe has a helpful page of instructions. If you’re like me and still don’t get it, go to the source – take a look at the instructions on WordPress support.

Done with that one. Whew.

At work – the photo

Another entry in the 2012 Dark Globe February Shoot-off – category is “People at Work”.

He’s working three jobs at once – he’s a wheelwright caught in the middle of making a hub for a wagon wheel; he’s an actor playing the role of an 18th-century craftsman at Williamsburg, Virginia; and he’s a teacher ready to explain how wagons were built all those years ago.