The Last Word

running-muskox-790x527February 23 – 27, 2015

One time my mom did something with the innards of a chicken that made me rethink my bad attitude.

The Bad Science Poet reminds us once again: the science isn’t bad but the poetry sure as hell is.

Digging out an American camel in the back of a cave, Craig slides into the Pleistocene.

Having a tan protects you from cancer but getting the tan gives it to you; so get tan without tanning, right?

An LWON quiz, which says I got a C- but honest, really I flunked it flat. The muskox is entirely gratuitous but still, a delight.

Quiz Time

running muskox

The utterance, “There will be a quiz on this” is notorious for striking panic into a roomful of students, but for me it holds the key to my strongest motivation. I am so much more likely to read a textbook chapter that will be followed by a pat on the back in the form of smug circling of correct letters. Not a test, mind you – not an essay, not an exam – but a quiz. Preferably of the multiple-choice variety.

Perhaps it’s the comparative ease of recognition – identifying the correct choice – over recall (coming up with the right technical term to fill in a blank) that provides what enigmatologists have identified as a primal reward. Behavioral game designers schedule these rewards optimally – a bonus round here, an achievement unlocked there – so that the brain never suffers the frustration of dopamine withdrawal during game play, and that iPad becomes nigh on impossible to put down. Continue reading


Plan UVB

You may have read last week that you should start wearing sunscreen at night. This was bad news for me: I’m already a hopeless victim of sunscreen marketing, slathering the stuff in rain or shine, in London fog, at dusk. I just can’t stop, despite mounting evidence that regular sunscreen may be less protective than advertised, and may even help cultivate a Vitamin D deficiency. And then, last week, Yale researchers found that UV rays keep wrecking skin cells up to three hours after the last photon has hit the skin. This implies that in addition to the SPF 45 I use during the day, I should stock my night table with an “ex post facto” overnight sunblock. With ingredients like vitamin E and antioxidants, this hypothetical cream would act like the Plan B of sun protection, undoing damage after it had ostensibly already been done.

While “night-time sunscreen” was an arresting image, though, that product (which is probably more like an aftersun) wouldn’t solve the fundamental problem: how do I get enough sun to be healthy without getting enough sun to give me cancer? What I really want is something that amps up my skin’s natural sun defenses 24-7 from the inside out. Many different ideas are knocking around various labs, and some might be on the market soon. The best ones manipulate melanin, so in addition to letting me ditch the goopy creams, they’d give me the Mediterranean glow I’ve always been so careful to avoid. Continue reading

Dreaming in the Pleistocene

Mammoth dreamIt would have been different if it hadn’t been a cave, if the excavation had been out in the daylight where mystery more easily washes out.

The darkness helped, nothing but my headlamp to show the way. Every morning we’d suit up at the cave entrance. A group of scientists descended a ladder one by one, packs filled with notebooks and tools. I had gotten onto the excavation by working at the base camp as a cook. They let me dig because they needed all the hands they could get. Bones were coming out of the cave by the thousands, a rich Pleistocene horizon. Continue reading

Bad Science Poet

6a011168597440970c0147e2e96a32970bTime for a further sampling from the journals of Bad Science Poet. Remember: “It’s not the science that’s bad—it’s the poetry!”


Penguin, oh penguin, you’re so black and white.

Your colors remind me of both day and night.

For six months a year you live without light,

Like butter inside a fridge that’s shut tight.

Continue reading

Flabbergasted By the Real World

???????????????I grew up on a small farm and among other creatures, we raised chickens. Every day they had to be fed and watered and their eggs, warm from their bodies, had to be gathered. When the chickens got old enough to stop laying regularly, we’d turn them into stew: we’d kill them and dress them, “dress” meaning take off their feathers and feet, and take out their innards. As a kid, all the blood and guts didn’t bother me, I had an operating knowledge of chicken anatomy, I’d seen it all before.

In fact I was pretty cynical in general, especially about things the grownups said, which I thought were mostly theory or flat-out propaganda. Except for one memory that can’t be entirely right but I’m sticking to it because it was something our mom showed us and for once, it was interesting; in fact, it was a miracle. Continue reading

The Last Word

February 16 – 20

Helen:  “Why, 18 degrees isn’t bad, I thought to myself. All you need is…I did some math in my head and realized I was wearing about $350 worth of specialized clothing, while occasionally passing some poor soul hunched down in a hooded sweatshirt.”

Cameron reduxed, updated: “I must confess now that, three years later, all the seed catalogs that  arrived this winter have gone straight to the recycling bin. Last year I tried to grow Michael Pollan and several other tomato varieties from seed; only one of the 50 or so seedlings that emerged resulted in actual tomatoes. When it’s tomato season, I’m going to the farmers’ market instead. But I did just get these apple trees . . .”

Guest Judith Lewis Mernit:  “Poor Isis! She died in such beloved company, but lived without much purpose. That’s the final anachronism: Among England’s aristocrats between the wars, a lazy Lab kept for show by the fireside would have been odd indeed. The fantasy dog named Isis may have enjoyed a long and comfortable life, but for a dog presumably bred to fetch ducks from icy rivers, it couldn’t have been much fun.”

Sally:  “The French language – and thus how the French think and speak, their worldview – is controlled by the state. English is a free-for-all. Is there a middle ground? I don’t want to get all Hitler about it, but it wouldn’t kill us to have a bit of border security.”

Guest Stephanie Paige Ogburn:  “The mailman hustles down the stairs. The watcher makes his move. A quick flip of the clip, and he’s in. The mail slot’s inner door creaks closed behind him, swinging back and forth. He lands on the small table that catches the mail, sits for a minute atop the Christmas cards and grocery store ads, then looks around, stealthily.”

A Visit From the Christmas Squirrel

Squirrel1He must have come in through the mail slot. I imagine him watching the mailman stride up the front steps Christmas Eve, flipping open the metal flap and thrusting the envelopes inside. The flap is propped open a smidge by the metal binder clip we use to hold outgoing mail. It is snowing — cold. To him,* this unknown land inside the mail slot must have seemed warm, inviting, perhaps full of food.

The mailman hustles down the stairs. The watcher makes his move. A quick flip of the clip, and he’s in. The mail slot’s inner door creaks closed behind him, swinging back and forth. He lands on the small table that catches the mail, sits for a minute atop the Christmas cards and grocery store ads, then looks around, stealthily. Continue reading