Forcing the Issue


One of the best free diversions in London is the Wellcome Collection, the medical museum operated by the Wellcome Trust and supported by the posthumous generosity of Sir Henry Wellcome, the American frontier kid who became a British pharmaceutical tycoon. “Medicine Man,” one of the permanent exhibitions, is drawn from Sir Henry’s own extraordinary collection of memorabilia related to health and the body. Though he was a Victorian, Wellcome was no prude, and the items span the breadth of human experience, from beautifully detailed medical models to Japanese sex aids to fearsome-looking anti-masturbation devices.

Only one display, though, is guaranteed to make those of us with female reproductive anatomy instinctively cross our legs: More than a dozen pairs of steel obstetric forceps, of varied size, shape, and vintage, are arrayed on blood-red fabric, positioned as if still ready to spoon out a dawdling baby.

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I Can’t Believe It’s Not Intelligent Design


Sylvain Martel of the NanoRobotics Laboratory at Polytechnique Montreal has spent the last 15 years discovering that just as you figure out what you need to design, it often comes about that it’s already been designed. At least, something else already exists with those exact specifications – it’s just being used for a different purpose. He’s been working on cancer, which in Canada is the number one cause of death. Canada is also – for now—the only place where medical nanorobots are a going concern.

In 2001, there were some very specific nanobots Martel wanted to build. They had to get a cancer drug from A to B. To get a therapeutic agent from an injection site to a tumour, systemic drugs are supremely inefficient. Only about 1% of the drug gets to the tumour, and 99% just drifts out of control and contributes to the patient’s decline. You can’t inject it directly into the area of maximum therapeutic effect, because the pressure of the injection will spread the cancer and help it to metastasize. Continue reading

A Bird’s Foot: Death in the Forest 

Three tall trees at the HJ Andrews experimental forest. The ground is covered by soft moss.
The HJ Andrews Experimental Forest

I find a stick and use it to break up the dry twists of coyote scat I have found on the trail. Shit is nature’s obituary page. In each pile are the traces of lives recently lost.

In this particular excreta I find a sprinkling of little white brittle bones—bird bones. And then I pull out a whole bird’s foot, about the size of a quarter: yellow and reptilian with three forward toes with serious looking claws, and one backward toe, higher up on the ankle, also clawed.

I email a picture to my brother in law, Vanya Rohwer, now the Curator of Birds & Mammals at Cornell University’s Museum of Vertebrates. He guesses it was a Steller’s jay or varied thrush. Then he adds, ‘The jay falling prey to a coyote seems a little dubious though—trickster vs. trickster—and i think the jay would win…. If it is a jay, perhaps the coyote found an old hawk kill and scavenged the foot.”

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The Last Word

Before the week’s Last Word, a continuing apology: Our software for commenting is still screwed up — you can leave a comment but its publication might take a bit — and we’re still working on it and we’re still sorry.

img_1129November 28 – December 2, 2016

Helen’s nerves are still shot — whose aren’t? — and she finds drawing out her worries to be soothing.  Goats are soothing too.

The beautiful big old eucalyptus trees in California aren’t native and are pitting eco against eco: welcome visitors? loathed invasives?

What websites should do about commenters is pitting writer against writer: civil conversationalists? smelly trolls?  (LWON’s commenters are 99.99% the former and we love ’em.)

PTSD comes in all flavors and from all reasons.  Nobody has a certain cure for all of it, but getting outside and looking up couldn’t hurt. Goats are soothing too.

No one, I promise you, has ever seen the universal desire to leave one’s mark in quite this way: from the Voyager’s golden disks to a coyote’s poops.

What’s the Poop?


I have been paying attention to poop and where I find it.

This isn’t a passing interest, I’ve been noting for years where animals choose to squat. In the out of doors, you can’t help noticing because they squatted to get your attention, like a billboard that reads GOTCHA!

With a little chub of scat would come all sorts of information: sex, fertility, health, virility, strength, what was eaten, and where. The way the poop is positioned, which end is tapered off, tells you which direction the animal was heading. A coyote had to feel pretty damn good about things to lay one right in the middle of a clean white sidewalk, knowing there would be no hiding it. This is pure animal pride.

When I come to a confluence of canyons and there on a boulder in the middle is a shit of coyote or fox, I can’t look away. The animal knew this was the spot.

The last couple months I’ve been snapping photos of well-placed predator scat. Whenever I see one, my mind flies to wherever that animal has gone, effectively leaving a proxy of itself, as if being cloned, leaving a dark one like a sentinel. It is a graffiti scrawl, I was here, which may be pertinent information, letting competitors know that the fight isn’t worth it, letting potential mates know who’d come by, the tinder of the wilderness. Continue reading

Looking Up

img_7915About seven years ago, a good friend of mine experienced an unthinkable tragedy. Her 38-year-old cousin—to whom she was extremely close—and the woman’s two young daughters were walking hand in hand to school when a driver, having passed out due to an illness, swerved into them. They were dragged to their deaths.

Ever since, my friend has been unable to drive over bridges.

Her sudden inability is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, which can manifest as an irrational fear of something directly related (or sometimes not) to the incident that triggered it. In her case, the accident turned manageable discomfort with highway driving into extreme nervousness on busy roads and full-on panic attacks on bridges. Why bridges in particular set her off isn’t clear, but it’s atop these suspended roads, she says, that she worries she’ll pass out like the driver who killed her family. (She’s been blogging about her own road, to healing, here.) Continue reading

What Should We Do About Comments?


I have a policy: never read the comments. This rule applies to most of the publications where my work appears online, such as FiveThirtyEight, Slate and The Washington Post. (LWON is the exception. Comments left here require approval before they’re posted, and I read them all.)

It might seem unfriendly to ignore people who are interested enough in my stories to share their thoughts, but by the time a story is published, it’s usually been occupying my headspace for a while and I need to move my attention to the next piece. Discussions in the comments rarely seem directed at me. Instead, they’re more like a book club discussion where not everyone finished the novel, which is just a conversation starter anyway.

I do read every email I receive from readers (and do my best to reply) but I don’t have the time or energy to keep up with the back and forth in the comments. Whatever I have to say is already contained in the article I wrote, so reiterating it seems pointless. And when the comments veer toward personal critiques or attacks, it feels unwise to dignify them with a response.

While working on a recent story about what motivates people to comment, I wondered how other journalists handle comments, so I created a survey. It’s not a scientific sample, (I solicited responses via social media and I imagine that people who’d had memorable experiences with comments were probably most likely to respond) but it provides a bit of insight nonetheless. Continue reading

The Great Eucalyptus Debate

A grove of eucalyptus trees, viewed at trunk level, with whitish bark
Eucalyptus globulus at Reyes National Seashore, Marin County, California. Reproduced under a CC license. Charles (Chuck) Peterson

The Tasmanian blue gum, Eucalyptus globulus, is a magnificent tree. That is perhaps the only thing that everyone agrees on. It is, as Jake Sigg puts it, “a big, grand, old tree.” Tall, gnarled, stripey-barked, with white flowers like sea anemones, blue gum eucalyptus are characteristic of the San Francisco Bay area, despite being native to an Australian island half a world away. They just happen to thrive in the Bay climate, and many were planted either for timber of for scenery from the 1850s onwards.

There is, to put it mildly, widespread disagreement about what to do with these trees. The argument is as complex and tangled as the bark streamers that hang from the blue gum’s trunks. In the most general terms, there is a faction of environmentalists that want to see many of these eucalyptus trees removed, because they are a fire hazard close to homes, or because they are non-native and make poor habitat for native species, or both. In this group, place native plant enthusiast Sigg (who nevertheless loves the species and would like to see more of them planted in landscaped, irrigated parks). This faction also includes the local chapter of the Sierra Club.

There is another faction of environmentalists that dispute that the trees are more of a fire hazard than what might replace them, see them as decent or even very valuable habitat, and want to retain them to sequester carbon, provide shade, beauty, and recreation, and to avoid the use of the herbicides that are generally necessary to thoroughly kill them off. This faction includes a longtime correspondent of mine, Mary McAllister, and allies in different groups, including the Hills Conservation Network and the small-but-fierce Forest Action Brigade.

Those are the basic contours, but getting a fuller understanding requires a walk deeper into the woods.

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