Mirror Mirror…

My oldest and “bestest” friend has started a new blog here!  Check out “Mirror Girl” (aka Lrig Rorrim) over at http://www.pandapoop.net/lrigrorrim/.  She’s a great writer and is, frankly, putting my “no editing, off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness” blog to shame.  But that’s joy of blogs – they can be whatever you want to make of them – random musings, well-researched op-ed pieces, links to your favorite silly cat photos :)

Actually, her blog got started when we were talking the other night about news.  My view is that I can’t possibly keep up with the 10,000 things I’m “supposed” to as an educated person.  What are we doing today in Libya?  What are the political/social/moral/financial implications of meddling in yet another world crisis?  What’s the latest event in the on-going political ping-pong here in Wisconsin?  How are the federal budget deliberations coming along? What type of exercise/diet/medical care is best for me? What’s going on in my field of nutritional ecology? What’s going on with the grocery store next door?  What shifts are happening in China?  India?  Europe?  These are all things that I, an over-educated American can certainly research and develop opinions on.  But there’s a limit to how many things I can be in-depth on at a time.

That’s why we have reporters and bloggers.  They do the dirty work of sifting through the issues, understanding the history, so I don’t have to.  I think good reporters should take a stand.  Not a “I believe X, therefore I will spin everything to show X”-stand.  But a “I’ve looked at all the facts, and based on history/politics/economics, we should do X”-stand.  And I want there to be many reporters all sifting and winnowing through the issues and coming up with their own (different), reasoned opinions and evaluations.

Right now I feel like most reporting is failing for two reasons:

First, more and more of the media is beginning with the end in mind.  They start with the conclusions and then interview people and dig up just enough statistics to support that conclusion.  To some extent, we are trained to do that in school by writing reports (and theses and dissertations) that follow that structure.  Mostly, though, it isn’t lazy reporters using a grade-school format, it is a marketing strategy to sell stories to people who would rather have confirmation of their own opinions rather than thought-provoking analyses.  Brevity sells.  People like to feel that they are right.  Media responds to these demands.

The second reason is a perversion of the idea of fairness.  Fairness should mean listening to all sides of an issue in order to make an informed judgement.  But it does not (and should not) mean valuing everyone’s opinion equally.  Our current state of affairs has equal value being given to opposing sides just because they are opposing.  In an effort to present “both sides of the story”, round-earthers and flat-earthers get equal billing.  A good reporter writing about the shape of the earth should listen to the flat-earthers to see what their arguments are, but at the end of the day should dismiss their arguments as weak and report that the earth is round.  Fairness comes in making sure that the flat-earth group gets interviewed and judged, but not by accepting their ideas without judgment.  Perhaps because of our well-meaning democratic ideals, US news sources are especially prone to this – from the New York Times, to the Wall Street Journal, to the network news stations and weekly magazines.  Some of them are even proud of this – FOX news’ motto is “fair and balanced”, which manages to hit both of my media “problem” buttons at once. So we get flat news stories that report the facts but not the context of those facts or their implications.

So, how do we fix this state of affairs?  Not only do inquiring minds want better analyses, but the news industry is in a free-fall plummet towards complete failure in large part due to their declining standards.  Dumbing down stories may sell more copies of a particular issue of a newspaper, but also weakens the reliance people have on the paper as a news source.  When those same people want to really know about an issue they care about, they’ll go elsewhere since they know their paper is just “fluff”.

The answer is to fund media publicly to ensure that we have media that isn’t tied to advertising and economic agendas, one that doesn’t act as a mouthpiece of the government, but is funded by the government.  Perhaps some charitable institutions could help support it so that the burden wasn’t exclusively on the government.  Oh wait!  We already have such a venerable institution.  We have NPR and PBS.  And, they’re on the chopping block.  They’ve been maligned as biased, but they aren’t.  They have equal numbers of viewers on the right and left and on the far right and far left.  People listen/watch because it’s good, in-depth, insightful reporting.

The earth is round.  I want more good reporting.  Keep up the good work Mirror Girl!

The birds are back!

After a long and beautiful snowy winter, we had a long and icky “mud” and “ice” season as the snow melted and thawed and melted and thawed again.  But!  There are signs that spring is near!  The weather has been warm!  The birds are back in town, singing at the crack of dawn!  The snow is almost gone.  The lake ice is breaking up.  My labmates assure me that winter will make another effort before spring really sets in, but I’m hoping this year will prove them wrong.  I am ready for spring!!!!

Here’s a summary of the politics here the last few month or so:

Republicans: Wisconsin is broke and therefore, we have to axe public unions, cut public employee’s benefits, lower taxes, and get rid of recycling, gay rights, state parks, anti-discrimination laws, and reproductive health care.  You can’t do anything about it because we outnumber you 19:14.  Nah nah nah nah nah nah!

Democrats: Wisconsin isn’t broke, and wouldn’t be in the red if the Repubs had accepted some federal money or hadn’t passed tax cuts for the wealthy.  We’ll take the cuts in benefits but refuse to give up our rights to collectively bargain.  Union-busting and civil rights are not financial issues.  And paying for contraception is both financially cheaper than paying for babies and morally easier than upping the abortion rate.  This bill makes no sense and was written by weasels.

Republicans: Those whiny Democrats don’t understand basic economics.  My buddies, the Koch brothers, and I will explain things to you morons.  Civil rights cost money.  We are broke.  Unions are killing Wisconsin.  We are broke.  All these “frills” you want – health care, parks, recycling programs cost money and we are broke broke broke broke broke!  Besides, you all are hippies, slobs, and idiots.  You couldn’t possibly have any insight into what me and my buddies see from up here.

Democrats: You can’t institute a bill this sweeping in 3 days without consulting anyone else or making it public.  And we CAN do something about it.  Our 14 senators have just left the state.  Take that!

Republicans: Yes, we CAN pass a bill in three days.  You guys did it to us two years ago!  So there!  An eye for an eye!

Democrats: Well, OUR bill wasn’t as sweeping, or, um, as bad, or um, yeah…let’s not talk about that.  We DO understand basic economics.  We are business owners and professionals from all over the state.  The states where your kinds of policies have been enacted are the WORST off financially. The facts are on our side.  By the way, there’s 100,000 of us outside your door singing songs.

Republicans: (fingers in ears) La la la la la la la  Did you hear a noise?  It’s a pity that that the “rioters” have been so polite and quiet.  It’s getting harder and harder to demonize them.  And why do they keep bringing up these facts?  Facts are SO not in fashion these days.  It just shows how out-of-touch they are.  Their senators are so lazy and pathetic, they won’t even show up for work!

Democrats: We’ve agreed to the benefit cuts.  Stop calling us names, calling this a riot, and listen to what we have to say!  And, our 14 heroes are working hard!  They’re giving us a chance to READ this crazy budget bill!  And every time we turn the page, we are finding more and more things to be livid about.  Thank god they left or we would have been railroaded into accepting this crap!

Republicans: Unions are evil.  Everyone knows that.  And what’s wrong with discriminating against people who deserve to be discriminated against?  And you are TOO rioting – FOX news has footage!

Democrats: You are cutting fundamental services and civil rights and we aren’t budging.  Unions are wonderful, perfect creatures, who can do no wrong.  It’s hard for us to even contemplate considering thinking about modifying unions even a little.  Thank god you haven’t asked us to do that, and just gave us the easy choice of eliminating unions altogether.  But that’s not the point.  Your crazy bill is not about the money – it’s about creating some crazy oligarchy where big industry turns the people of our state into serfs. And, we don’t have palm trees in Wisconsin.

Republicans: Huh – didn’t know that about the palm trees..interesting.  Besides, what’s wrong with serfs?  Nobody is saying that we’d be mean to the peasants.   This just shows how misguided the peons out there are.  We’d be benevolent dictators, as long as there was no collective bargaining, so don’t worry.  It’s for the good of the state.  But, I’ll finally agree that you are right about something!  It’s not about the money! It is, indeed, just about the fact that my buddies and I hate unions, civil rights, women, and the environment.  So, yeah, we were bluffing.  Who cares.  But, now that you mention it, we don’t NEED your 14 senators to vote on non-financial issues.  In fact, we’ll vote those in right now.  BWAH-HAH-HA-HAAAAA!

Democrats: We are utterly perplexed that anyone still has any respect for you.  But, in one week of collecting signatures to recall the Republican senators who are eligible, we’ve got 2/3 of what we need.  And, now that you’ve shown your true colors, your chances of getting re-elected are slim to none. (cross fingers that the electorate develops a brain soon)

Republicans:  Poor us – it’s so hard to be making good judgments when there is a seething horde of scary people outside your door.  That’s why I’ve been touring the state lately, making speeches from anywhere but Madison.  Those people make me nervous.  We tried and tried to talk to the Democrats, but they fled the state like cowards.  So, we just had to go and pass the bill without them.

Democrats: Um, our open-records law request shows that you and your staff have ignored every single request for a meeting, discussion, and conversation that has been sent to you.  You have not answered or responded to any questions.  Stop lying about how it is the democrats who won’t discuss this.

Republicans: Oh, how cute, they think lying is bad!  How quaint.  Pity they are so naive about politics.  And, we  are going to recall YOUR Democratic senators who were wusses and left the state.  After one week of collecting signatures, we’ve gotten DOZENS.  So there!

Democrats: Oh yeah?  We’ll, your bill is unconstitutional!

How will our tale end?  Stay tuned.  There are recalls afoot, challenges to the bill’s constitutionality, and an increasingly mobilized electorate.  In what direction are they being mobilized?  I have no idea.


Photos of Democracy in action

The chant that is said over and over at the capitol during these protests is “This is what democracy looks like!”.

The phrase has a distinctive rhythm and you hear people all over town even banging it out or beeping it on their horns.

I took photos last week and earlier today, although the crowd is continuing to grow.  This week’s shenanigans have upset people terribly.  There were lots of signs today saying “I was a republican, but this is too much”.

The signs have been amazingly creative.  I can’t stop taking photos of the amazing things people come up with and the different ways these changes in government are affecting everyone.

I’m rather proud of the photos and the signs.  There are a lot of them, but it is so fascinating!  Take a look!

Last week (March 5)

This week (March 12)

In addition to the blow to unions, there are restrictions on health care for women, taking away civil rights from gays, reducing recycling, reducing environmental regulations, cutting health care, cutting anti-discrimination laws, child labor, and tons more.

But, I could even live with all those terrible things if we had a PROCESS. I could live with this bill if it was a collaborative effort of two sides to make the right decisions for Wisconsin.  I could live with this bill if it had been debated and the better arguments were for it.

But, the dirty way it has been pushed through makes me sick.  I’ll freely admit the democrats started it by doing something similar (albeit on a much smaller scale) a few years ago.  They broke the process and I’m as pissed off at them for doing that as I am at the whole bill right now.  Those damn democrats made it “okay” for legislation to be passed this way.  Of course, they didn’t force through a bill this game-changing, but they still broke the system.

I don’t WANT people in office to vote their conscience.  I don’t WANT people in office to vote based on monetary gifts or even phone calls from citizens.  I WANT them to factor in the complexity of Wisconsin’s needs (economic, environmental, social) when designing legislation and I WANT them to do it together.  Are unions causing problems?  Then discuss how to protect workers rights while getting rid of those problems.  Are we short on funds for education?  Then discuss how to do great education with less money.  Are we spending too much money fighting discrimination?  Then discuss how to do it more cheaply.  Don’t just BAN everything.



Life in the lab

I haven’t posted about my research in a while, so here’s some updates on what I’m doing.

Colobus guereza

These are photos of the monkeys I’m studying in the US.  They are colobus monkeys.  The ones with the lumpy hair-dos are Colobus guereza, and the ones with the great white whiskers are Colobus angolensis (Angolan colobus).  These guys are both from Africa, but are in the same subfamily of monkeys that my Chinese monkeys are in – Colobinae.  All colobine monkeys (which include Colobus as well as the black-and-white snub-nosed monkey) have a strange digestive system that is rather similar to that of a cow – with a large bacterial fermentation chamber at the front of their stomach.  While in cows, it is generally thought that this is to increase digestion of their low-quality food (grass), nobody is really sure why colobine monkeys have such a system.  It may increase the digestion of their food (leaves), or the bacteria may help detoxify the leaves, which often are protected by the plant with various poisons.

Colobus guereza

I’m finished with the half of my research that took place in China – figuring out how digestible lichen was by snub-nosed monkeys (who eat lichen instead of leaves for much of the year).  Now I’m working on two projects here in the US.

1. The first is to look at how the toxins in lichen affect bacterial growth and fermentation. Many lichen toxins are antibacterial.  In fact, several antibiotics are derived from lichen compounds, and many indigenous cultures use lichens as disinfectants.  However, if the toxins in lichen have the same effect on the digestive bacteria in a monkey’s stomach, that could be bad news.   I’m going to take lichens and isolated toxins and put them into a fermentation culture and see which toxins, and at what doses, affect fermentation.

Obviously, the monkeys are doing fine on their lichen-based diet right now, but there is concern for the future.  As climate changes, lichens are disappearing world-wide.  As this is the only food source for the snub-nosed monkey in winter, this could have a big effect on their ability to survive.  Second, as forests in the area are logged for firewood or timber, this increases the UV radiation that gets to the lichens, and high UV radiation increases the amount of toxins in the lichen.

Angolan colobus

2.  The second project is to develop a laboratory model for colobine monkeys’ unique digestive system.  If I were a dairy farmer, I could send a sample of a feed I was thinking of feeding my cows to a lab.  The lab could analyze it and tell me how well it would meet my cows’ needs, and even how much milk they’d be expected to produce if they ate the diet.  Currently, the only way of evaluating monkey diets is to feed a diet to a monkey.  That’s fine in a zoo (if the animals will cooperate), but less fine if you are a researcher studying wild monkeys.  And what if you want to know the digestibility of just one diet item?  You wouldn’t want to feed a monkey an all-apple diet, but you might want to know how digestible apples are by the monkey.  A laboratory method would solve all these problems.

So, I’ve been traveling around to zoos to collect samples of diets (conveniently, every zoo feeds a different diet, so I’ve got lots of variation), and measure its digestibility.  Now that I’ve got my “standards”, or my “known” samples, I can tweak existing laboratory methods for other animals to best match the monkey.  Is it more like a cow?  a sheep?  a pig?  something new?  We shall see.

So, why does anyone care about monkey nutrition?  Mostly, colobine monkeys stay alive in zoos without too much trouble.  However, many colobine species have never been successfully kept in captivity.  They usually die of digestive problems right after they are caught.  Also, the diet of wild monkeys influences all sorts of things such as their population size, group size, and social structure.  For example, colobine monkeys can live in different habitats with lower protein than other monkeys without their special digestive system.  This means things like logging and fragmentation can affect them differently, and also means that logging particular trees might create bigger problems for colobines than for other monkeys (or might not).

Freeze dryer

Okay – that’s the lofty background.  Here’s what I’m actually up to this week.  I’ve finished all my sample collection from zoos.  I have been struggling to get our freeze dryer up and running properly (it’s been out of use for a while now and the how-to knowledge of how it needed to be coaxed and babied to work properly was lost.  I think I’ve got it figured out now, though).  I’m freeze-drying my samples instead of oven-drying them because heating the samples would “cook” the starch, and change its digestibility.

A freeze-dryer works by creating a vacuum that sucks all the moisture out of my samples.  Because it is so cold, though, and the samples stay frozen the entire time, it takes a …long…time.  *sigh*

Here you can see the front of my freeze drier with all my samples drying inside.  Mmm…carrots, oranges…

Carrots and oranges drying in the freeze dryer.



Below the main compartment is the condenser, where all the water that gets sucked off my samples gets frozen (so that the water doesn’t get sucked into my vacuum pump).  Every few days, I have to defrost the huge block of ice that accumulates there.

Ice ring from the condenser

Here’s a photo of the ice ring after it’s had a heater blowing on it for two hours.  It’s mostly gone, but still fills a bucket full of water when it melts!

Well, that’s the summary of what I’m up to.  Swapping samples in and out of the dryer, thawing ice rings, and planning my fermentation trials.

Have a good weekend!


Updates from the land of cheese

One site that has been fun to read the last few days is PolitiFact – an independent organization that checks up on the statements made by folks in public.  They’ve been evaluating the rhetoric from both sides using an unheard-of metric in political circles these days – facts!.  It is nice to see that someone is keeping the “spin” under some form of control.  Not sure what good it will do in the current climate, but it’s a good start.  Check it out!

The new bill keeps generating surprises for everyone, even its supporters.  The latest nuggets?

They are getting rid of sick leave:

“Among the legislation the Senate will consider today is a preemption of
city, village, town, or county ordinances requiring employers to provide
employees with leave from employment to deal with family, medical, or
health issues.”

And taking away birth control.  Um…if you are trying to prevent abortions, blocking birth control is the DUMBEST way to accomplish that.  And, if economic savings is your rationale, well, babies are much more expensive than pills.

“Current law requires health insurance policies and self−insured governmental and school district health plans to cover the cost of contraceptives prescribed by a health care provider and of outpatient consultations, examinations, procedures, and medical services that are necessary to prescribe, administer, maintain, or remove a contraceptive. This bill eliminates these requirements.”

Another fun is how FOX news has been describing the utterly peaceful protests as a riot and showing footage of other cities’ riots as Madison coverage. The latest shows that we have palm trees and are wearing light coats and safari hats in 20-degree and below temperatures.  Here’s a clip (palm trees near the end):