Bundy in Captivity: In America, “culture” is a crap argument.

Now that it appears that the standoff in Oregon has already turned for the deadly worse and is due to get bloodier, we really need to put a lid on this “culture” thing.

If you live in America, unless there are some serious economic special cases, you are rich. You are educated. And most importantly, you have access to any number of different forms of transportation that can allow you to live anywhere you like. In or outside of America.

All of which is to say: if you insist that your actions are somehow normal or acceptable within the boundaries of your “culture,” that’s a crap argument. No, a mid-Westerner is not appreciably different from a New Yorker. A cattle rancher is not different from a web designer. What differences may occur between these demographic groups is not about their life. It’s about their life-“style.” They all chose to make a conscious choice about who they are and what they do.

We cannot continue to excuse bad behavior because of “culture.”

Health Science

Is freshness really guaranteed, now?

Does the origin of your meat concern you? Since the outbreaks of 2003, the Country of Origin law has required meat packers to reveal where any meat you buy comes from. Now Congress has repealed the law, making determining the source of your red meat even harder to figure this out.

Congress has tried to prevent repealing the act, in part because of the World Trade Organization’s objections. The World Trade Organization had recently authorized Canada and Mexico to begin more than $1 billion in economic retaliation against the United States. Thankfully U.S exporters can now relax now that the law has been lifted and there will be no need for such a drastic retaliation.

In the United States, there’s really no need to worry about disease since there has only been 4 confirmed cases of mad cow disease in the United States since 1996. What about other countries that our meat might be coming from though?

The United Kingdom coming in first with 177 confirmed cases and France with 27 confirmed cases might not be as healthy as one would have previously thought. Technology advances in 2008 that allow us to test live cows for the disease instead of having to wait post-mortem will also help. This should prevent the spread of mad cow disease between cattle and limit the chances of it getting spread to humans.

For many, buying locally and supporting American industries are important values. Although only 8-20 percent of the total United States meat supplies comes from foreign sources, with the repeal of this law its going to be extremely difficult to know exactly which meat is foreign and which was born, raised or slaughtered here.

For other people, ensuring the freshness of the food they eat is important. Not because it could be coming from a different country but many meat manufacturers alter the meat to make it last longer than it typically would. For example, while many might look to color to determine how fresh a package of ground beef might be, this can be false due to the treatment that the meat undergoes.

Many manufacturers inject meat with carbon monoxide in order to give it a fresh pink color. This works because the carbon monoxide binds with a pigment in the meat so that it brings out the vibrant red colors. Unfortunately this false advertising can cause the meat to look edible and fresh but in reality it could be days, weeks or even years old and still have that same bright color to it.

So while your meat might be safe from disease, the idea of how fresh your meat is could be the main cause for consumers’ concern. It’s now up to the consumer to make sure that freshness is guaranteed and in order to do that you should ask the butcher at your grocery store but if that’s not enough for you, then buy from a local butcher who personally deals with the meat. With changes to your food happening daily, it becomes increasingly important to know not only the capabilities of the companies but what you could be feeding your family.


What is Planet 9? Our “new planet,” explained.

Social media was all aglow with the news yesterday that there may be a new planet in our Solar System, much further out than anyone expected. The new potential planet has been dubbed, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “Planet 9.” But what exactly is this new “planet?” How have we missed it for so long? How could we know it exists now? What is Planet 9?

Here’s a little primer on the new discovery and the history of planet exploration. It’s just for the sake of granting a bit of clarity to what is sure to be generally awful reporting in mainstream circles.

What is Planet 9?

Well, for one thing, it’s not definitively a planet just yet. For now, Planet 9 is a bunch of clues that all seem – to the eyes of the researchers following it – to point in the direction of a previously-unknown planet. Scientists are extrapolating a possible conclusion from odd data they have collected. Which is definitely not the same thing as coming to a firm conclusion.

What data? And what’s so weird about it?

The study published yesterday concerns itself with objects in the Kuiper Belt, another asteroid belt like the one between Mars and Jupiter, positioned outside of the orbit of Pluto. Actually Pluto, recently demoted from planet to planetesimal, stands at the inner doorway to the Kuiper Belt.

What is Planet 9? An example of an elliptical orbit
An illustration of orbital eccentricity. Note that normal orbits are oblong, deviating from the perfect circle.

On the opposite edge of the Kuiper Belt, scientists have observed an irregularity about the way the asteroids move. You would expect that objects orbiting another object would move in oblong circular patterns like our Earth does. Such an orbit is called “elliptical” and the deviation an orbit has from a perfect circle is known as “orbital eccentricity.”

But the Kuiper Belt objects scientists are observing don’t quite behave that way. Thier orbits are much more eccentric at what’s known as the perihelion, which is where the object is closest to the sun. Many theories have been posited to explain this eccentricity, but so far a working model has not been agreed upon by scientists studying the phenomenon.

This study by two boffins of the American Astrological Society posits that the eccentricity could be accounted for by the gravity of another planet, interfering with the orbits of the asteroids and space debris.

So, we can’t see it. Have we ever discovered a planet this way?

What is Planet 9? Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier
Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier \

Yes! The planet Neptune was predicted by a man by the name of Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier after astronomers puzzled at the odd eccentricities of Uranus’ orbit. Noticing that Uranus did not quite move in the path predicted by Sir Isaac Newton – whose theory of gravity we still use today to calculate the movement of heavenly bodies – Leverrier reversed the math and determined that an object of exactly the mass of Neptune would exist just beyond Uranus. And he predicted the position of Neptune within one arc degree, which is very close, indeed.

On the other hand, the very same Leverrier also predicted the planet Vulcan would exist just inside the orbit of Mercury, because again astronomers found eccentricities they could not account for. Don’t bother looking up Vulcan in a Solar System atlas, because it doesn’t exist. It turned out that, close as Mercury is to the Sun, Newtonian physics actually do break down. It would take decades and an entirely new field of physics – Einstein’s Relativity – to explain that particular mystery.

It seems doubtful that an entirely new way of calculating gravity would be required to solve the mystery of the Kuiper Belt and the putative “Planet 9.” But strange things happen in space.

How could there be a new planet? After all our astronomical exploration?

Space is big. That may seem silly to say, but it’s a really, really hard thing to quantify for those who don’t deal with it every day.

Solar system planets, relative distance. Planet 9 would be double this.

The proposed planet is about nine times the size of Earth. For perspective, Jupiter is 12 times the size of Earth and Neptune is about five times larger than Earth. This proposed planet, if it exists, would be at least 50 astronomical units (AU) away from Earth. That’s 50 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth. We didn’t know about Neptune until Leverrier, and this object is almost twice the distance from us.

Could we have missed an object that small and that far away? Absolutely. Even the Kuiper Belt itself was only just discovered in the 90’s, so there’s a lot left to understand.

How could there be another planet, way out there?

Our Solar System presents itself as a remarkably orderly affair: rocky inner worlds formed of rock and metal, followed by gas giants floating loftily in the outer solar system. But elsewhere in the galaxy, we have discovered some damned-strange stuff: “Hot Jupiters” orbiting closer to their parent stars than Mercury or planets that slingshot in wildly eccentric orbits. Most of these bizarre planets, it is thought, have had their orbits interrupted in some way, which either flings gas giants into the center of a system or else hurls a rocky world in a crazy orbit.

Even within the Solar System, there are oddities. Scientists believe Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos are actually gravitational “abductees,” having been snatched into Mars’ orbit when they passed too close to it. Uranus rolls on it’s axis like a barrel, instead of a top as most planets do; scientists believe that this is because Uranus was collided with and had its orbit altered. Our own moon Luna is made of the same stuff as Earth because it is the result of a massive collision between Earth and some other protoplanet in Earth’s ancient history.

So while Planet 9 is by no means the only answer to the question of the Kuiper Belt’s odd orbital mystery, it is far from being an impossibility. But until we get a telescope trained in that direction – exactly in that direction – we won’t know for sure. Even then, there won’t be a lot of light from the far-distant sun, so spotting it will be tricky.

Whether Planet 9 turns out to be a new planet, a crazy loophole in Newtonian physics or some other unexpected wonder, our understanding of gravitational physics and our Solar System will be greatly enhanced. We will know something about our universe that no previous human generation has ever known. But as wonderful as that sounds,.. I think we’re all hoping for a new planet. Right?


What is Ted Cruz eligibility to be President? Let democracy sort it out.

Don’t get me wrong: I just love the schadenfreude of Republicans, having now purchased eight years of good will and continued power on the basis of a wink-wink/nudge-nudge Birther flirtation, finding themselves with a potentially – even just arguably – illegitimate candidate for President. Or more specifically: that Republicans have a choice of leadership between a lock of hair with an Il Duce complex or an illegitimate alien. Love it, love it, love it.

But as a citizen, I’m actually a bit caught off-guard that this question even exists? What is and what is not a legitimate candidate for President? Our nation’s relationship with Europe before and after the Revolution was a lot closer than it is now. I would have thought this question would certainly come up quite a bit.

Senator Ted Cruz’s eligibility to become President of the United States seems very-much in question, hinging on a very arcane set of conventions and historical interpretation of what a “natural born” citizen is.

Obama, McCain and The Ted Cruz Eligibility Problem:

In order for a person to become the President of the United States, that person must meet only three criteria: they must be over 35 years old, have lived in the United States for 14 years and be a “natural born” citizen of the United States. I think the Senator would forgive me if I say we’re not worried about his age. And he’s been in American political life for longer than 14 years, so we’re ok there. But this “natural born citizen” business? That’s different.

Ted Cruz is born to an American mother and a Canadian father, in Canada. To the casual observer, this would seem to be a pretty cut-and-dried case. But I’ll bet if you compared notes with your neighbor, you’d find that you came to different conclusions.

History isn’t much of a guide and the Constitution never makes clear what a “natural born citizen” is. Perhaps this is because at the time, there wasn’t a question: American law was founded by the British before the Revolution and after the Revolution, American lawyers would have followed British Common Law. The Constitution only concerned itself with building a government and the rest was left to the citizenry.

The Common Law process for citizenship would have been to base the solution on the patrilineage of the child. In other words, where Dad’s from is where Baby’s from. That puts Ted Cruz up to his flag pin in maple syrup.

This is actually a very different case from the two previous (and in President Obama’s case, perpetual) cases of citizenship and the Presidency. Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, the paper trail of President Obama’s life is one of an American born on American soil in Hawaii. In John McCain’s case, an American father and mother gave birth to a son on an American base, therefore American-occupied soil. Senator Cruz is very clearly born in Canada. Only the question of his parentage remains.

To any modern ear attached to any modern-thinking brain, this sounds pathetically, backwardly sexist. Like, wenches-and-knights sexist. Leprosy-and-mutton-legs backward. But it’s also the law, and you can’t just ignore it because you don’t like it. And so the issue remains.

Right now, there are Constitutional and legal scholars pouring over the records for some kind of precedent. Anything that would prove that, in the United States, the law was widely interpreted one way or the other. But they probably needn’t bother: it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Americans would have broken with sexist tradition unless it was very, very recent.

The Good News: it’s not a Constitutional question.

As complicated as the question might be, it strikes me that this doesn’t necessarily have to be a question we leave to the scholars. For a start, since the basic problem is that the Constitution does not proscribe a solution in this case, this isn’t really a Constitutional question at all.

It is a question of whether we choose to live in a society that embraces a backward legal interpretation at the expense of modernity and gender justice. It’s also a question of whether we choose to live in a society that ignores legal precedent when it is inconvenient to our mores. It’s a hell of a question, as a matter of fact. And it probably shouldn’t be answered by anyone else but us.

Weather Science

Our tepid Yuletide, by the numbers.

It’s easy, whenever there’s a seemingly radically different year or month’s worth of weather to start talking Climate Change. The truth is: climate and weather are very different things.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson had an interesting illustration of this in his Nova series. The whole episode is below for you to enjoy. But climate is like a man walking a dog, which is weather. The dog can bound from one side of it’s master to the other, sniffing back and forth, or higher and lower for the purposes of our discussion. But the master defines the range in which the dog can move.

Similarly, we can experience great shifts of temperature, year over year, without them affecting the overall climate. Even more importantly from the perspective of planet-wide climate: one region’s weather does not a climate make.

Still, this past December was extraordinary. It’s one thing to have a “Brown Christmas,” of which every Rochesterian is acquainted. It is quite another to experience 70 degree temps for Christmas!

So, here’s a quick summary of the muddy Christmas of 2015, so you can really tell your grandkids. Someday..

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May 2015 pass gently downstream.

Every year for the holiday gift-buying season, mainstream news outlets – particularly The Today Show – make a habit of posting “most dangerous toys” articles for our edification. It seemed like a fun idea to write a similarly-themed article as a means to highlight the year of news, so I set myself to the business of writing. What big news stories of 2015 could I weave into my “dangerous toys” narrative? I was excited to take a poll.

I did my research. Lots of other sources have already done “best of” type stories, so it’s a good place to start. I googled “best of 2015.” I read through a page or two of results. I googled “worst of 2015.” I browsed this list. It was then that the answer hit me in the face:

2015 sucked. There isn’t a nice way to put this, it just sucked. It was awful, violent, acrimonious, depressing and seemingly irredeemable. It sucked.

Straw purchases and dead bodies and racist bilge seeping out of every pipe and fitting of our aging, hobbled political system. Grift and opportunism and showmanship, paving the way for inequity and belligerence and injustice.

A year riddled with bullet holes. Holes taped over by plot gaps, logical fallacies, willful disbelief and other, even less savory bandages. A year that seems to shake it’s fist impotently from it’s hospital bed. At every enemy, every slight, every defeat. A year that leaves us very little room to hope for a brighter successor.

Still I can’t completely write off an entire year, least of all 2015. This was an amazing, banner year for my family. We bought an amazing lake shore-adjacent home that has been my life-long dream. My son has blossomed in this new place into a strong-willed, bright and creative toddler.

We hosted a Thanksgiving feast for our extended family and even reconnected with family that had grown much too extended from us. I end the year blessed to work with the talented BreAnna Bugbee as my intern, serving up fantastic content and making DFE no small amount better for her efforts. 2015 has been good to me.

I’m not sure whether the dichotomy I feel looking back on this year makes it a more or less capricious little universe we live in, where so many suffer so deeply while the rest of us skate by. It is easy to feel conspired-against by a cruel universe; as easy as it is to believe we are the Masters of our own Universes when things go our way. But if we felt exactly the contrapositive, we would be as correct, by the numbers.

Because let there be no mistake: chaos and decision making rule our lives in equal measure. Freewill exists, to the extent that it exists at all, at the momentary vertex of these two forces. One protozoan jinks left, the other right, one gets lucky. One wolf splits from the pack, the other stays. Both choices have their odds of success. But there are no statistics for the individual in that moment. There is only a final tally.

Everything about biology bears this out, down to the organic chemical level: it is hardly the best-evolved trait that flourishes in an evolutionary world. It is merely the one borne on the DNA of the species most likely to reproduce. “Survival of the Fittest” is itself a capricious process.

But before we drown our tears in the fickle frothiness of the multiverse from which our universe is sprung  – before we throw our hands up in the face of a hopeless battle against unknowable odds – it’s worth noting that we were born into a universe with enough artistry to allow only one-way travel along the 4th Dimension.

We live in the universe where traveling backward in time would require accelerating past the speed of light. In this universe, doing so would require an infinite amount of energy and stop time for the traveler. Thus, redoing history is impossible. You cannot go back and improve your station. You cannot go back and ruin it. The dark times that haunt you live only in your mind. And the happy times can live there forever, too, if you allow it.

In this world, as the phrase goes, let me have my world. Because it is only in that world that history can have any meaning, or that grieving can know closure. Wonderful moments can be halcyon. Thunderclouds can recede. And for all of these reasons, I wish the Year 2015 safe journey downstream. Let it float away and be what memory will have of it.

Thank you very much, all my friends and followers and readers. Happy New Year, and I look forward to seeing you in 2016!


DFE’s 2015 list of the Worst Christmas Presents

Why hello, late shopper! You’ve got the wild-eyed look of a man who has once again nearly fucked up Christmas. Really? Bravo. And you’re probably looking for a couple of good suggestions for what to get the people you love enough to shop at the very last minute?

Well, I don’t have any. But in the interest of at least avoiding any unnecessary unpleasantries, I do have an approved list a la conventional media’s incessant fear mongering over dangerous toys.

5. “Steve Harvey Reads From Cards.”

Sure. It’s a cheap gift, which makes it pretty attractive. But you get what you pay for with this one.

With some of the more expensive toys, you get things like warrantees, replacement bulbs and reading glasses. But the no-frills appeal of a Steve Harvey is hard to ignore. But as we can see with this case pretty clearly, leaving it to fate is not recommended.

4.  Trump Co.’s Kamp Kaliphate Play Set

Kamp Kaliphate

Ok, so you say you want your kid to learn counting and letters? At first blush, The Trump Corporation’s Kamp Kaliphate Play Set seems to have it all: characters with prisoner ID tags on their jackets, escapee counting games, even cell blocks with big, colorful letters. But a deeper look reveals that this play set has some serious flaws about it.

For example, even though the set says it’s only for Muslims, why are there so many Christians and Bhuddists in there? And the guy in the 7-11 uniform? Also, having to deal with the included ACLU Lawyer characters is just a pain, when you should really be focusing on the fun stuff like the Waterboard Challenge.

3. The Geoff Marcy “Little Lookers” Astronomy Set for Girls

Who doesn’t want their little girl to grow up to be an inspiration to their someday professor? I know I do! So I was particularly excited for world-famous astronomy professor and recent sexual harassment victim Geoffrey Marcy’s new toy set.

But instead of focusing on the stars, Professor Marcy’s guidebook seems a lot more focused on the astronomer’s choice of clothing, perfume and makeup. There are numerous references to “Cleavage,” “The Gap” and “Muffin Top,” which as far as my research shows, aren’t even constellations. And I’m given to understand that the telescope is nowhere near as powerful as he keeps insisting it is.

2. Straw Purchase! the Video Game

Try use your crappy phone to teach your kid some basic money math and these are the thanks you get. Predictably, this is one of those games you play that says it’s free, but every time you turn around, the costs keep adding up. And least, for about half the players.. Fail.

1. Doc McShkreli’s Malaria Bed Playtime Set

If you’re seriously considering this toy, you probably want to reassess your value system in the first place. But not for us to judge.

The mosquito netting is cheap. The towels haven’t been washed. And of course, the whole thing is about 700% more expensive than it deserves to be. Besides which, Doc McShkreli’s face just makes you want to give him a swirly while repeatedly punching him in the gnads. Till he passes out.

Ooh! Was that my “out loud voice?” Anyway, Merry Christmas to my friends, followers, readers and tweeters. Make it a safe and happy one!


Port of Rochester: want money in Rochester? Write a book report.

Whose up for a trip to that Italian-themed Midtown Mall? Or maybe a float down the reflooded State St? Or maybe catch a cruise ship up in the Historical Fast Ferry District.. I’m sorry, the Port of Rochester? Well, two out of three of those projects never even got a single shovel-full of dirt moved and the third will not, either.

I’m sorry if I seem cynical and angry. But fuck everybody. Because if the buffoonery of projects we have taken on in the past are cringe-worthy, they are nothing compared to the complete dipshittery of the things we never did. But we did “study” them.

Where does that money go, exactly? When we spend $100,000 on a study – as Steve Orr notes, mostly on the Army Corps of Engineers’ dime in this case – who gets it? Because that money doesn’t just vapourize: someone’s getting paid every single time. Someone please give me some names. And then cross-reference those with the names of our esteemed political class’ list of campaign donors.

Of course we know some of that money goes to actual City employees doing studies. But my guess is that the lion’s share of the money goes to the people and businesses with the expertise to do the job.. that’s never actually going to get done. Just “studied.”

Without any commitment from anybody; without any input from local residents; without so much as a single shovel of dirt moved from one place to another, somebody’s getting paid. Nice work, if you can get it: writing book reports for do-nothing city government.

At least two journalists in town for whom I have great respect – Steve Orr and Rachel Barnhart – seem to be focused on the fact that this “isn’t the Fast Ferry.” They think the ire they’re reading is missing the point. I respectfully submit that it is they who are missing the point. Entirely.

History Politics World

Syrian Refugees: we can have security and dignity, together.

Let’s be honest: as much as some Americans might wish it otherwise, our history is filled with examples of us being the same scared herd animals the rest of humanity is. Our current imbroglio over Syrian refugees is not surprise. Yes, we are absolutely as willing as the next large group of hairy animals to jettison our stated morals and standards when convenience dictates. When fear dictates. We are, in the end, only human.

How many times in our history can we cite in which we fell below our Lady Liberty’s standards? When we’ve asked for our immigrants to be a little less tired and a little less poor? When we’ve asked those seeking our shores to huddle a little less closely to us?

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    Today it seems clear, we’re poised to make the same mistakes with the Syrian refugees for many of the same reasons. In fact, some of our nation’s leaders are willing to directly – and positively – compare our current situation with that which prompted Japanese internment camps during WWII. And then apologize later, because they didn’t realize it would be a big deal:

    The longtime mayor of Roanoke, Va., who faced criticism this week for citing Japanese internment camps in his defense of limiting Syrian refugee assistance, apologized on Friday.

    He said he did not anticipate the international attention his comments would bring.

    Add to this the presidential nomination process, which is bringing the firebreathers out in full force. We can perhaps forgive (or at least ignore) the overheated rhetoric of political season. After all, our political process depends on free voices, even if they’re nuts. But somehow, we’ve graduated from refusing Syrian refugees to the idea of somehow “registering” Muslims.

    Neither can we blame only our Republican presidential hopefuls: Rochester’s own Louise Slaughter capitulated to the popular fever of the moment, signing on with the bill to restrict refugee intake by preposterously-high standards. Everywhere, it seems, “caution” appears to rule the day.

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    There is nothing new or exclusive about Syrian refugees, compared to the millions of displaced people across the globe. There is nothing new about the State Department accepting refugees, nor even of accepting Syrian refugees. Yet, because we suddenly turned our attention to this non-story after the actual story of loss and tragedy in France, everything is different.

    Can we respect Syrian refugees and our history?

    However often we have trended towards nativism in the past, we don’t have to succumb to the same knee-jerk fear response now. Unfortunately, we know we can’t expect the Fox News Network to ignore this “issue,” any longer. Because Benghazi. But cooler heads can prevail.

    We can live up to our self-imposed obligations and find a way to show that “peace through force” can mean the force of our will. We can look to our Lady Liberty and understand that the poem written there wasn’t a bragging point for the rest of the world: it was a challenge to our own people. We can, even through the ugliness of our political process, show the world that democracy trends toward respect for humanity.

    For now, it’s enough to just lay out a few bare facts about Syrian refugees and let you make your own mind up. For that, I present the first in what I hope will be a long series of the DFE Datagram, our attempt at a story through numbers:

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    Anthropology Archeology Forensics Genetics Science

    DNA in Doubt: our increasingly-complicated relationship with the stuff of life

    It used to be so uncomplicated. DNA is the stuff that makes you who you are. It’s what makes you look the way you do, makes you susceptible or resistant to certain types of illnesses, even sets your biological clock. DNA is the stuff of life.

    Except when it’s not. As science probes the depths of the genomes of all forms of life on Earth, we are confronted with an increasingly-convoluted relationship between DNA and it’s expression – nature and nurture, in other words – that in turn makes our previous use of DNA increasingly dubious.

    Sammy Malone: DNA forensic expert
    Y’know, Sammy Malone: crime fighter.

    It isn’t all bad news: our more sophisticated understanding of genetic information means we’re getting close to finding cures for disease, genetically-tailored health care and amazing discoveries in the worlds of biology and anthropology. But our colloquial understanding the nature of DNA has not caught up to the scientific understanding. The result of this gap can often be abusive at best and flat out destructive at it’s worst.

    Nowhere is that fact more certain than in the world of forensics. As DFE discussed last year, local law enforcement has seen the same forceful push-back on DNA evidence presented in criminal cases that has swept the nation in the last few years. The assumption most of the public has in the infallibility of DNA to finger guilty parties is entirely wrong. And whether intentionally or not, many cases have been tried and many people convicted on evidence that is nowhere near near as declarative as prosecutors would have you believe.

    A new grant to Syracuse University is aimed at finding a solution to a fundamental problem in forensic DNA evidence-gathering: mixed DNA samples. Regardless of what type of tissue law enforcement is sampling from – blood, semen, hair, skin – it’s still just a pile goo at a crime scene. That pile of goo is a bit of a hothouse flower: organic chemicals don’t last long outside the body. And biological evidence can easily get mixed up with other that of individuals not even involved in the crime. Taken together, you can see that this is a bit of a dumpster dive.

    So clearly, the biggest challenge in DNA forensics is getting a clean, uncontaminated and complete sample of DNA. How challenging? Basically, the odds of meeting all three criteria are just a few degrees north of ever french kissing a unicorn. Pretty low.

    The SU plan is to light up cells with dyes and black light in a way that lets them tell whether the two cells contain the same DNA. The next step would be to extract them by DNA signatures: all of Specimen X, followed by Specimen Y and so on. That’s where SU’s brain power is supposed to hopefully kick in.

    And even as the scientific community grapples with the problem of commingling DNA and incomplete samples, a novel and highly-dubious use of DNA evidence is being tested in law enforcement, winkingly called “Familial DNA.” This concept means that, even if you’ve never been DNA tested for any reason, your DNA may get linked to a crime, simply because there is DNA in a database from a cousin or other relative.

    What? That’s right. If a DNA sample taken at a crime scene is similar enough to a relation of yours, police may use this fact to posit that the DNA must be yours. In a Six Degrees of Separation type of scheme, you are implicated to be involved in the crime simply because you have similar DNA to what was found on scene.

    This deeply-troubling practice runs directly afoul of the Birthday Paradox, a statistical quirk that radically and unexpectedly reduces the odds that a match will be found in a group, rather than individually. For a much more elegant explaination than I might summon forth, read Southern Fried Science. This statistical fact makes DNA databases generally misleading in the first place, but once you expand the search to include people who aren’t even in the database, the potential results are genuinely disturbing.

    In the world of anthropology (the science, not the store), our deepening understanding of mitochondrial DNA is completely redefining our understanding of human migration. Perhaps not for the better, depending on your favourite theory.

    At issue is the long-held belief that those who would become Native Americans traveled across the Land Bridge and very quickly populated the whole of the Pacific shore. This fairly linear theory of American anthropology has brought multiple theories and timelines into clash for decades. Are the Clovis points really the most ancient relics? No. But are the Clovis people still the oldest people in the Americas? Well, maybe…

    What the newest mitochondrial DNA evidence, taken from the bones of a mother and child discovered near the Bering Sea, suggest that perhaps part of the problem with identifying the path of Native Americans is that there simply isn’t just one path.

    Instead, the mitochondrial evidence points to a highly-diverse group of Asian immigrants coming across the famed land bridge. Rather than a single set of tribes or related individuals crossing the great divide, it may have been hundreds. This new evidence suggests that the reason archeological evidence of human inhabitation seems so scattered is because human habitation was in fact very scattered.

    If there is a lesson in the week’s DNA news stories, it is that science is a double edged sword for those that would hold onto it’s truths too tightly. However reliable a scientific fact has seemed in the past, there is always new research that casts doubt upon it.


    The weight of our obesity could sink the Freddy-Sue bridge

    On Monday morning of this week, Excelus sent out a press release detailing the new numbers revealed in a report on obesity in New York. The numbers are unflattering to say the least. They show that just over 34% of Finger Lakes residents are overweight, and that a whopping 26.4% of us are actually obese. We’re not the worst offenders in this category – that distinction is saved for the Utica/Rome/North Country region, the tubby little fuckers.

    But this report got me thinking about the problem of obesity as an ecological problem. Because fat is stored energy. And ultimately, it is energy that drives life forward.

    Energy is doused upon the Earth by the sun in the form of sunlight. Only a tiny fraction of that energy – less than 1% – actually gets photosynthesized by plants into biologically-useful energy. Of the fractions of that energy that are trapped, for a short time it gets used by life for life’s own devices. Eventually, all energy escapes the Earth in the form of heat energy. But obesity represents a kind of energy blockage – it’s not being used, it’s not escaping the Earth. It’s just sitting there in lumps of flesh here, while elsewhere in the world, there is not enough to go around.

    Just how much extra weight is trapped in the Finger Lakes region, then? Let’s break down the numbers, a bit.

    The Pudgetown Beacon

    Within the region marked as the Finger Lakes region, we have six counties: Monroe, Wayne, Livingston, Ontario, Yates and Seneca. All tolled, we have a population of around 1 million people and change. If 26.4% of us are obese, that means about 280k people are obese.

    Now, obesity is a question of Body Mass Index, which is a comparison of your height and weight. Whether or not you are “big boned,” or particularly muscular, above a certain threshold, the only explanation for your enormous weight is your enormous ass. It’s just that simple.

    With that in mind, the highest weight that is considered “normal,” healthy weight is 144lbs for a woman, 174 for a man. This is based on average heights for each sex. The lowest weight that the NIH considers “obese” would be 175 for women, 209 for men. In other words, the difference between the highest healthy weight and the lowest obese weight is about 31lbs for women and 34 pounds for men.

    Put all that together, and you realize that the minimum amount of extra fat present in the Finger Lakes region is about 9.25 million pounds, or 4610 tons. That’s not the total weight of all Finger Lakes residents. It’s just the extra fat, and only a minimum measurement. You can bet the real number is much higher.

    For comparison’s sake, the Freddie-Sue Bridge was constructed of about 5,200 tons of steel. At minimum, our pudgy asses (because I absolutely do qualify as obese by the NIH standard) could sink the Freddie-Sue into the Genesee.

    Biology Science Zoology

    Of sex, food and worms: good science, badly reported

    It is true: there is a newly-discovered set of neurons found in a type of worm that, when activated, causes the male of the species to forego food in search of sex. That this set of neurons was just discovered actually does matter to the lives of humans. Or at least, it could. But not because it confirms the cliche of men starving for sex:

    Researchers may have figured out why men can prioritize sex over food. Well, some men.

    It’s a matter of two “mystery” neurons, suggest researchers at University College London.

    They found that these extra neurons — which are unique to males — allow them to remember and seek sex even at the expense of food and are also behind some sex-based differences in learning.

    So, what happened?

    C. elegans is a species of worm about which we know a surprising amount. In biology research, there are some species of plants and animals that, for one reason or another, get more attention than others. Elodia and Drosophila (fruit flies) are very common study species.

    C. elegans is popular because it is a simple organism that happens to share a lot of common traits with more advanced forms of life like humans. By studying C. elegans, we can often make intelligent extrapolations about how things work in other species.

    In particular, C. elegans has the distinction of being the only species of life for which we have a complete neuronal map. Every neuron, every synapse (connections between neurons), every feature of the neural network of the C. elegans has been long-since mapped and analyzed… at least, so we thought.

    Two researchers at the University College of London, wife and husband team Dr. Arantza Barrios and Dr. Richard Poole, research the sexual dimorphism of C. elegans. Sexual dimorphism means that different sexes have different traits (think boobs. I know I do).

    In the past, the dimorphism of C. elegans has always been studied in a different portion of the worm, where differences are more obvious: the tail. These researchers discovered one set of sexually-dimorphous neurons in the head of the animals, which they named the Mystery Neurons of the Male (MNM).

    What they do turns out not to be much of a mystery at all: they learn to recognize the opposite sex as a priority stimulus. Don’t we all? When the opposite sex is near – which turn out to be hermophrodites, in the C. elegens’ case – the worm with active MNM will ignore other homeostatic functions – like eating – in favour of pursuing sexual reproduction.

    So. There you have it: males of the C. elegens species will forego eating in favour of sex. Or at least, they will favour sexual reproduction over other things. Not quite the whiz-bang you were hoping for? Of course not, because non-science – and even some science – news sources want to focus on sex, sex, sex. Yet the reality of what the boffins in London discovered is way more important and honestly cooler.

    Why it matters

    Worms getting it on don’t seem terribly relevant to humans. And indeed, they are not. What really matters is, again, the fact that simple organisms like the C. elegens can give us clues to our own biology. In this case, science has been looking for the keys to understanding sexual dimorphism in human cognition. We know that some decision making in humans is consistently different from one sex to the other. While much of the scientific community has been certain that such a difference also existed in the brain’s wiring, science has thus far not been able to pin that difference down.

    That a simple creature so far removed from us in the evolutionary tree should have such a simple device for continuing the species may indicate that a similar development across species. Or, it may not. It’s just way too early to tell.

    The other, perhaps even more significant, discovery that this new development represents is the appearance of glial cells in such a simple organism. Here in Rochester, we know all about glial cells, because that’s what our neuroscientists specialize in.

    Glial cells are, effectively, stem cells for the brain. They are part of the glimphatic system, and their job is to grow more neuronal  cells when old ones wear out or are damaged. Remember Nancy Reagan in the 80’s? Insisting that you could not grow brain cells back, so don’t do drugs? Well, the old bat was wrong. Do drugs: your glial cells will make more neurons, no sweat.

    It’s is significant that glia create entirely new neuronal cells at different age stages, at least in the case of C. elegans. Rather than simply creating the same type of cell over and over again, it seems like glia (individual glial cells) can alter their behavior throughout the lifetime of an individual. It means glia are a lot more flexible than we knew, which may point the way towards therapies for neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

    So, maybe not the sexy news you were hoping for. If you’d been planning on filling out your 6pm news cast or your morning radio talk show? Sorry. But understanding the fundaments of human cognition and finding cures for wasting brain disease seems kind of important. But these messages got lost, because pee-pees and hoo-hahs. Maybe, if the media industry at large could stop giggling and take this more seriously, we could appreciate this amazing discovery for what it is.

    But for now, dear reader, it’s just you and us.