Monday, December 24, 2007

  Penguins and Polar Bears

I was watching television the other day and saw the Coca-Cola ad featuring a party of penguins being interrupted by polar bears. It's a pretty picture of tolerance, except that polar bears are Arctic and penguins are Antarctic. Perhaps nobody else is bothered by this scientific inaccuracy, but I cringe to think that a bunch of elementary school children now believe that penguins and polar bears live in the same area.


posted by AJM  # 5:04 PM 0 Comments

Monday, October 15, 2007

  Funny Because It's True?

I was in Chicago this weekend and decided to go to improv comedy on Saturday night. I went to a show called ComedySportz, which takes two teams of three comedians and has them compete against each other for the audience's laughs. The show was very interactive, with a comedian "referee" (dressed in an NHL referee's uniform, no less) soliciting input from the audience multiple times each scene. The audience was, at times, full of suggestions, though sometimes silent. There were some clever suggestions: "I shall return" for a famous historical quote; and a comedian rhymed "Bob" with "Charles Schwab."

So, the referee asked for "a historical artifact recently discovered," and the audience was initially silent. In the silence, I offered up "Lucy." There was a momentary pause, and then the referee smiled--"Lucy," he said. "You know," he added, to the audience, "the dinosaur."

"It's an Australopithicine!" I was not going to stand by silently at such a scientific mistake, though I think it really just slipped out.

"A what?" the referee said, clearly not expecting to be corrected.

"An Australopithicine," I replied.

There was a slight pause. The referee then said, "And is your girlfriend with you tonight, sir?" The lights were already up; I had come alone, and the theater burst into laughter. I had to join them: I had no girlfriend; perhaps this is why.

"That's right," one of the other comedians exclaimed, "insult the paying customer!"

The referee then asked, "So what's an [spattering of syllables intended to clearly mispronounce Australopithicine which, in all fairness, is a pretty funny word]?"

"Australopithicine," I repeated, again, "an early Hominid." And then, I brought out the big gun: "And, as a paleontologist, I'm used to dealing with old folks like you, or, as we call them, fossils." [I figure the referee was in his late 30's, but he had a receding hairline, so he could have been a bit older.]

He didn't expect that. "You got burned," one of the comedians pointed out to the referee.

Overall, it was a fun evening.


posted by AJM  # 10:41 PM 0 Comments

Friday, August 31, 2007

  The Boulevard

For the last four months, my existence has been defined by Bay Area Boulevard. I'm working on an intensive project for work (so intensive that they temporarily relocated me to Houston to work on it), and it just struck me that, for being here for four months, I haven't really seen any part of Houston. I have, however, seen plenty of Bay Area. My apartment is on Bay Area, as is my gas station, my grocery store (two), the Chick-fil-A where I eat lunch on Saturdays, and my office. Some days, I get adventurous: I drive a mile south to the movie theater. But, more likely than not, I get up, drive along Bay Area to the office, and then drive back.
I mention this not for sympathy (the road often floods when it rains; road construction causes traffic delays; the lights are timed long) but to observe how easy it is to be focused on one thing and completely lose track of time--for months. When I arrived, school was in session. It has since gone on summer vacation and started back up again. Time flies quickly, and we all need to work to ensure that it doesn't pass us by. It would be a real tragedy if, after seven months in Houston, I never really explored the area. Starting in mid-September, that's what I plan on doing.

posted by AJM  # 11:31 PM 0 Comments

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

  New Math: Fail = Pass

As someone who wants to be a high school teacher, I find this very disturbing, regardless of the facts: A Teacher Grows Disillusioned After a ‘Fail’ Becomes a ‘Pass’.

posted by AJM  # 12:10 AM 0 Comments

Sunday, July 1, 2007

  Two interesting articles

Two interesting articles in today's New York Times:
  1. The Amateur Future of Space Travel. I especially like the phrase "'containing garment' business," used to refer to a company that manufactured space gloves, pressurized suits, and bras.
  2. The Six Stages of E-Mail. So true, so true.


posted by AJM  # 8:24 PM 0 Comments

Sunday, June 24, 2007

  Earwax and Evolution

The not-so-recent news article on the boy who had two spiders removed from his ear reminded me of a similar experience of my own.

In the Fall of 2001, while a sophomore in college, I developed a keen interest in paleontology, which I pursued with both coursework (including a class from the late Stephen Jay Gould) and a summer internship at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Kimberly, OR. As an intern, the Park Service provided me with free lodging in a single-wide trailer at the Bureau of Land Management's Dayville Fire Guard Station. The trailer had seen better days--most of the window screens were filled with holes, large and small, and it was generally advised to put on insect repellent before going to bed. Combining this with the two weeks I spent at Philmont Scout Ranch that summer, I spent about 10 weeks in some form of open-air camping environment. It was great fun, and I enjoyed every minute of that summer.

Part of what I find so interesting about paleontology is the unique world-view that comes as a result of seeing exhausting examples of Darwin's "descent with modification" principle. Every feature we--or any other animal--have is a result of an ancestor, somewhere along the chain, having a slight gene mutation that ended up being more beneficial than not. This applies to everything: fingernails, five fingers, opposable thumbs, eyes, a four-chambered heart, blood cells, etc. It fascinates me to no end to learn the advantage of each trait and how it came about.

So, there I was, December 2002, in the doctor's office for my annual checkup, part of which is the eye-ear-nose-throat exam. As the doctor began to examine my ears, I asked what the purpose of earwax is. I never really understood it--it seemed to build up in my ears and require cleaning, but, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out how it benefited me (and it never occurred to me to look it up). He replied that there were two main thoughts as to the utility of earwax:
  1. Keep the skin in the ear canal moist so that it doesn't crack/dry out.
  2. Keep dust/particles/insects out of the ear
As I was thinking about the two potential uses of earwax, the doctor remarked that I had a buildup of earwax in my left ear that he would have to remove. I was sort of surprised, as I hadn't felt anything, nor had I noticed any hearing loss in my left ear. So, the doctor took two elongated metal instruments (sort of like mini-spatulas) and began poking and prodding the offending lump of earwax in my ear. When he pulled it out and set it on the counter, he commented that it looked like an insect.

I looked closer: it was a wasp, encased in earwax.

A wasp. With a stinger. From my ear. Encased in earwax.

Suddenly, the second purpose of earwax, which I had pretty much discounted, became the most important function in my mind. Sometime over the summer, I figured, a wasp crawled into my ear, died, and was encased in earwax. I was surprised that I didn't notice anything wrong--no hearing loss, no discomfort, nothing. It took a periodic medical checkup to reveal how close my ear had come to being turned into a hive.

I had heard and discounted the false statistic that the average person swallows eight spiders a year, but, now, it doesn't seem that off-base. What I am sure of is how amazing our natural world is and how fortuitous it is that we have evolved protections against things as bizarre as wasps flying into ear canals.

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posted by AJM  # 2:37 PM 1 Comments

Monday, May 28, 2007

  In Memoriam

Yesterday, for the second time in as many years, I went to Arlington National Cemetery to watch Rolling Thunder XX. But this year, I had another mission: to visit the grave of a college classmate of mine who died in a car crash in December 2006 while serving in the Air Force.

I didn't know him very well--we knew each other's names and would exchange greetings when we passed on campus--but his death, for some reason, has touched me deeply. I've tried, over the past few months, to figure out exactly what I find so moving--after graduating, I didn't expect to see or talk to him again, unless we both attended a class reunion--and the best that I've been able to discern is that he is buried so close to where I live (a 10 minute walk from my apartment). Because, in my family, each successive generation seems to move away from home and stay there, there was no family tract at a local cemetery to visit. I have no idea where my mother's relatives are buried, and my father's relatives are buried in two separate parts of Pennsylvania; my brother and I will probably not be buried near either of them, as cemeteries are filling quickly. Having someone I know--even if I didn't know that person very well--buried so close came as a shock. I had to visit--it felt like my duty to do so.

Shortly after he was interred, I visited his gravesite, which was marked by a paper card, as it was too recent for a headstone. The freshly-dug earth had no grass growing on it, and the recent rains had made it muddy. Elsewhere in the Cemetery, Christmas wreaths lay on headstones. I reached the gravesite but found I didn't really know what to say--the most interaction I had with him was a meal with friends in our dining hall, and I felt guilty for visiting the grave of a person I didn't know all that well. I said a prayer, and I wept for the loss of my classmate.

Yesterday was much warmer than it was in January, the sky was bright blue, and tourists were swarming the Cemetery. As two friends from work and I made our way towards the section of the Cemetery in which he was buried, I again began worrying about my motivations in making this visit. As we got closer to the site, I began to scan headstones, looking first at date of death to calibrate how far down the row the grave is. My friends dropped back, and, suddenly, I saw his name: Jamin Buchanan Wilson. I stopped, stunned. I don't know why it surprised me so--perhaps because the first thing I saw was the name, not the date; perhaps it was the finality of seeing that name on the headstone; perhaps it was because I thought it was further down the row and its suddenness surprised me--but I stopped cold. I spent some time standing there, offering a prayer in what I hoped was a respectful way of honoring his life, and I cried. Still battling doubt (What is the respectful amount of time to stay? What are the respectful things to say?), I took a last look at his grave and walked back the way I came.

I don't know if anyone else came to visit his grave this weekend, and, though I haven't figured out why my classmate's death has impacted me as it has, I hope he took comfort in knowing that someone came to honor his life and his sacrifice on Memorial Day weekend. We owe so much to those who serve in our armed forces that it seems a bit sad that we only set aside two days a year to honor their sacrifices. To all of them, Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.


posted by AJM  # 1:24 PM 0 Comments


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