When Was the Last Time You Just Sat?

When was the last time you just sat?  And did nothing?

For me, it was Sunday night, two nights ago.  Before that, I can’t recall.  Maybe 2016? 2015?

I was sitting at the bar of a restaurant, Hearth, in the East Village, waiting for Eric to join me for a casual birthday dinner.  I sat down, ordered a glass of sparkling wine, and then decided not to take out my phone.  Or look at my watch (which has the same distraction capabilities as a phone).  Or take out my planner.  Or a book.  Or write anything down.  I just sat.  It felt like one unending giant sigh of relief.

I stared at all of the different bottles of alcohol clumped together on the bar shelves.  Mezcal.  I tried to remember what Mezcal was.  White agave?  Regular agave? I noticed a bunch of Erlenmeyer flasks of assorted sizes sitting on the bar.  “Do you use those?” I asked the bartender.  “Yes, as wine decanters,” she told me, because not only do they provide a large surface area, but she always knows how much wine she has left.  I’ve never seen functioning Erlenmeyer flasks at a bar.  Possibly because I’ve never looked. 

Erlenmeyer flasks, barside.

“Is that the rosé?”, an older man two bar seats down from me asked.  “Yes, it’s delicious,” I said. The man surveyed the two cocktails in front of him.  “It’s going to be quite a night!” he said.  He was there with his wife.  They were in from Connecticut, visiting their son who lived nearby.

When we sat down at our table, we noticed an antique-y metal box on our table, on every table.  The metal box had a sign on it, “Open me!”.  “A Faraday cage!” Eric said, eyes lit up.  Inside, the box said, “We’d like to invite you to ‘unplug’ during your meal here at Hearth.  Feel free to use this box to put your phone away and connect with your fellow diners.” 

We didn’t fully unplug — I can’t really when the kids are with a babysitter.  But I’m grateful for that time at the bar when I just sat.  Had I been reading or writing or phoning or watching I wouldn’t have learned about Erlenmeyer flasks as decanters, talked to two new people, or just felt the elongating sensation of a true pause in daily life.  

That Time Your Kid’s Playground Was Crawling with Bacteria

Citizen Science again!  

I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal last winter (“Scientists Unearth Hope for New Antibiotics”, link at the end) about a citizen science project called Drugs from Dirt.  We’ve all heard about the rain forests as a potential treasure trove of new medicines like antibiotics, but what about the soil in one’s backyard?  Enter the Drugs from Dirt project.

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Screenshot of the Drugs from Dirt website

How does it work?  You send a sample of dirt to Sean Brady’s lab at Rockefeller University.  As in “you”, I mean literally, you.  You can go out into your backyard today and dig some up.  Once the soil arrives at the lab in New York City, scientists extract DNA from the soil’s bacteria and fungi and analyze it, searching for genes (sections of DNA) hypothesized to be associated with a bacterium’s (or fungus’) production of antibiotics.  For example, as reported in Nature Microbiology in February (link below), the Drugs from Dirt lab was interested in discovering new calcium-dependent antibiotics, due to their uniquely effective mechanisms of action.  Known calcium-dependent antibiotics typically are associated with particular genes.  Knowing this, scientists can search for those particular genes (and small variations on them) among thousands of soil samples.  

Once the DNA has been isolated from the soil, it is inserted into bacteria that can be grown in the lab with ease.  If all goes well, the bacteria will produce the antibiotics of interest.  This worked last spring, when the Drugs from Dirt lab produced a new class of calcium-dependent antibiotics called malacidins.  They aren’t ready for human consumption yet, but are in the drug preparation pipeline.  

You might wonder why scientists would be interested in searching for additional calcium-dependent antibiotics.  For the same reason we need more of every kind — antibiotic resistance.  The following graphic published in the Wall Street Journal article illustrates the challenges of antibiotic resistance.  

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Also, if the DNA that codes for antibiotics is in the soil, why go through so much work in the lab to extract it and insert back into bacteria to make the antiobiotic?  In order to produce appreciable quantities of antibiotics, you need to grow the bacterial or fungal hosts in the lab.  Unfortunately, most bacteria and fungi cannot be grown in the lab.  By inserting DNA recovered from bacteria in soils into different bacteria, bacteria that can easily be grown, you get around this problem. 

Another interesting factoid:  the soils from urban parks in New York City are yielding more bacterial diversity than thought, and may even be more useful than the rainforests or other exotic environments with high biodiversity in the hunt for new antibiotics.  


How Dirt Could Save Humanity from an Infectious Apocalypse, by Peter Andrey Smith, Wired Magazine 

Scientists Unearth New Hope from Antibiotics by Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal

Culture-independent discovery of the malacidins as calcium-dependent antibiotics with activity against multidrug-resistant Gram-positive pathogens, by The Brady Lab, Nature Microbiology


As if I needed more to worry about, I recently learned of cargo ships sinking due to cargo liquefaction, a pseudo phase change in which solid bulk cargo becomes liquid.  As Ars Technica reported last month, it’s responsible for the loss of approximately 10 cargo ships each year.  In 2015, a 56,000-tonne (1 tonne = 1,000 kg, or about 2200 pounds) cargo ship sank off Vietnam due to suspected liquefaction of the bauxite (aluminum ore) in its hold.  

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Screenshot of Ars Technica article

Solid bulk cargo is understood as a granular material loaded directly into a ship’s hold.  Between the solid particles are water molecules.  When friction is present, the material acts like a solid, which means it doesn’t slosh around in the hold.  If something happens to reduce friction, like a rise in the pressure of the water between particles, the entire material acts like a liquid.  Unfortunately, water pressure can rise as the cargo is loaded.  Normal movements of the ship once en route can also cause water pressure to rise.  Once the cargo has liquefied, things can become grim.  As the article author writes, “A liquefied cargo can shift completely to one side of the hold.” Once that happens, the cargo can get stuck on that side, causing listing — a dangerous leaning to one side — and ultimately, sinking.  

What are some solutions to this problem? Monitoring.  Better monitoring of water pressure levels, the shape of the cargo.  Better monitoring could lead the crew to drain the water to reduce pressures, shift course to smoother waters, or, in the most dire of circumstances, evacuate the ship.  

Original article here.

Reflections on This Year’s Beach Trip

Two months later, I can finally bring myself to write about this year’s Beach Trip.  Not only was it mostly hellish and exhausting, but when reading through my account of the successful 2017 Beach Trip, I found we’d violated a few Best Practices.

To start, the most comfortable part of the day was from about 7:10 to 7:45 in the morning.  After that, I’d describe the weather as “90 Degrees In The Shade” until sundown.  While we did return to the same beach, we violated one of our main Best Practices and rented a house with stairs.  What was I thinking?! To be honest, I wasn’t thinking at all about whether the house had stairs when I rented it, as I was seduced by the photos of the gorgeous renovated construction, and the quaint nautical and beachy decorations.  No more rusting porch furniture for us!  Alas, no more sanity as well.  At the last minute Eric had the idea to take along our apartment baby gates.  Which was a terrific idea except they didn’t fit the beach house’s staircase, so June and I called the whole thing GateGate and completed cracked ourselves up (isn’t it amazing when a 4-year-old thinks you’re hilarious but does not understand the joke at all?) while Robert literally would throw himself down the stairs (from the 2nd or 3rd step) repeatedly, laughing.  Also, someone stole our cart-on-wheels WHILE ERIC WAS PACKING THE CAR on 23rd street, steps away from home, so we used the rental’s wagon to transport the children to and from the beach which was great until the day it tipped over, tossing poor Robert overboard, from which he emerged literally coated in sand.  As in sand in his eyes and spitting sand out of his mouth.  Luckily he has a good sense of humor about things like this.  I on the other hand had a near anxiety attack watching his little body plunge into the sand and promptly get covered in beach toys.  

Not so stable once we got to the sand.

On this trip, Robert was attached to me in such a way you’d think he’d never left my side in his 21 months in the world.  I literally could not walk 3 feet away from the high chair without a meltdown and him screaming for Mommy.  He’s also at that age of demanding Things That Can Never Happen.  For example, we stood in the blistering sunshine, hand in hand, watching the construction happening next door to the beach house.  “Backhoe Loader!” he said, over and over and over again for what felt like hours, as we (I, as he didn’t really seem to care) roasted in the heat.  Then when the backhoe loader was done, he escalated this to “Again, Backhoe Loader! Again, Backhoe Loader!”.  This ended in a full fledged meltdown because there was no Again.  We’d also stand at the edge of the ocean, his bucket full of sea water and too heavy for him to carry, but he’d insist on not dumping it out.  So much frustration.  So much standing.  Meanwhile, June and Eric were off swimming and fishing and collecting sea creatures.  I was jealous!  

We had our incredible babysitter from last summer, except that since her name was not Mommy, Robert would have nothing to do with her.  When we finally made it out of the beach house for a dinner out, it was like we were emerging with torn clothes and dirty faces from a standoff.  Even then, after we left, he tried to escape from the high chair with such force that he had purple bruises on his legs.  Eric and I waited anxiously for an update telling us he was OK, staring into our cocktails, trying to erase the sound of him screaming from our memory.  


The one upside of our two-level rental was a spacious upstairs balcony from which we could see what seemed like every star in the galaxy.  At night I would binge on Pirate’s Booty and canned sparkling wine while staring at the stars.   I think the Best Practice I would take away from this year is Do Not Take a Beach Vacation with a 21-Month Old.  And, put a reminder in the winter calendar to not rent a house with stairs! 

What Makes You Feel Like a Superhero?

Today, I took June to school.  Normally Eric does the school run in the mornings as it’s on his way to work, but on Thursdays I have a writing class at 10 AM so I take her on my way.  This morning was a beautiful and brilliant one.  The air was clean and crisp.  The sun was shining.  It was just chilly enough that a deep breath felt like a sip of invigorating coffee. 

Yet, as I hadn’t had any coffee, when June asked if we could race I said I didn’t feel like running as I was tired.  She suggested a walking race.  OK, I said.  She started walking quickly and I set off to catch up.

Then my toe caught on something.  I rocked forward.  I was tripping, a never-ending trip that lasted at least thirty steps.  Each step carried the promise of catching myself, but that never happened.  Pound pound pound pound.  Each step was more dramatic and sending me closer to a full-blown splat.  Finally, after nearly dying from my own suspense, I shot through the air and landed, face down.

My knee was soaking in pain.  I slowly pushed to all fours and then sat down.  Two passers-by ran over, asking me if I was OK, if I broke anything.  When you’re almost 41 do you have to worry about bone density? My knee was convulsing.  My jeans however, were not torn.  Each hand had a bloody scrape.  But I was basically OK.  I slowly got to my feet.  One of the people who stopped told me I “flew through the air” and I looked like Wonder Woman.  “You can tell people you were flying today!” she said.  

I hobbled to June’s school and when we arrived I sat down next to a Dad while the kids scooted around the courtyard.  I carefully pulled up the pant leg of my jeans, expecting to see maybe a red mark or a small scrape.  The Dad gasped.  Two giant open wounds — with some serious blood.  My first thought, “Damn girl!”.  Second thought was to make a mental note to keep buying jeans from whoever made these.  

I went into June’s school to ask for first aid supplies.  I selected large bandaids for my knee, and then, because I “flew through the air like Wonder Woman”, I selected superhero bandaids for my hands.  I told the story to people in my writing class and someone said, “I’m sorry that happened to you.”  And I said, “Are you kidding? It was awesome.  I feel so powerful.”  No broken bones, impressive scars to show off to other parents . . . I feel like a superhero!  Also it could have been so much worse.  I’m not elderly.  It didn’t happen on a subway platform — gulp.  I didn’t land on my face.  June got to see me recover reasonably well.  And I guess I can also say I was able to fly? 

Citizen Science

I’ve long been intrigued by the concept of Citizen Science, which basically means people who aren’t scientists doing science.  I used to think about it in the context of teaching.  I had high school students with generally good lab skills.  Every week the kids would make a bunch of new chemicals from mixing other chemicals and then at the end, we’d just throw everything away or dump it down the drain.  It seemed like a waste.  And some kids didn’t care about the labs at all because they weren’t real.  I’d think, isn’t there some city lab who could use a classroom’s worth of extra lab assistants?  Perhaps instead of making copper chloride just for fun and then throwing it away, the kids could make a chemical that’s actually needed in some lab, or they could do a reaction to neutralize the waste from some other lab.  I always had this vision for a promotional video on it — the kids would be in a row, assembly line fashion, pipetting liquid in robotic movements in sync to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” (that’s the one that goes, “We don’t need no education . . . “).  An idea for another day.

Currently, the home of Citizen Science on the internet can be found at Zooniverse (zooniverse.org).  It is an incredible place.  It features 90 projects that allow anyone to participate in science by inspecting images from your computer screen.  For example, you can look through images of outer space to help identify galaxies (Galaxy Zoo).  Or, you can transcribe images of military records from African American civil war soldiers as part of a history project sponsored by the African American Civil War Museum.  Or, you can listen to clips of mosquito buzzing and identify which species it belongs to in order to help track the geographical distribution of disease-carrying mosquitoes.  Each project comes with a tutorial you should master before moving on to analyze the images, audio clips, or videos.  I feel especially passionate about cleaning up the plastic waste on beaches and in the ocean.  I found a Zooniverse project called The Plastic Tide, in which you analyze aerial images of beaches and identify plastic waste.  The results help train drones to do this automatically.

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Screenshot of the Civil War records project
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Screenshot of The Plastic Tide project

While I’m completely amazed by the scope and number of projects, I’m also sitting here wondering, who is doing this?  Are people actually sitting at their computers sifting through images or audio clips in their spare time?  I wasn’t able to find aggregate information, but some projects list the number of participants.  The Civil War project has had about 2,500 participants so far.  Galaxy Zoo has had 13,000.  In some cases, the results have contributed to published scientific papers.  While I enjoyed tagging some plastic, it felt a bit lonely.  It would be more fun to do this with friends or as part of a Citizen Science group.  I think this could be a great thing for teachers to help their students work on — I wonder if any do?  I could see this applicable to middle and high school students.  

It also kind of gets at the question of what science is, anyway.  Can anyone do actual science?  Is sifting through civil war records actually science?  On some level, this question is what my brother once called “Fieldology” and the answer doesn’t really matter.  But I think about it nonetheless.  The other day June asked me if a plant we walked by was poisonous and I said I didn’t know and she said, “But Mommy, you’re a scientist!”.  And I had to explain being a scientist doesn’t mean knowing all the answers, but knowing how to find them.  But thinking about this Citizen Science resource makes me want to broaden that even more.  It’s about careful observation, a good amount of grunt work, an intense desire to know the answer to something.  And here, by logging onto a Zooniverse projects, I think it’s about contributing to something bigger in a supremely accessible way.  Imagine being part of a published paper on mosquito geographical distribution, from classifying audio clips from your couch wearing PJs?  It changes very much how we conceptualize science and the work of scientists.  

Thank You to the Disney Princess Cookbook

Thank you, thank you, thank you to the authors of the Disney Princess Cookbook for getting my daughter to eat vegetables.  Thank you for making her think she’s following a recipe Jasmine herself came up with.  Thank you for making the recipe so easy that my daughter could make it herself, once I cut the vegetables, after I forgave myself for not being able to cut perfect carrot and red pepper matchsticks and just settled for smallish irregularly shaped long-and-thin pieces.  (How can I learn to cut perfect matchsticks?!).  Thank you for providing an activity more compelling than watching “Fireman Sam: The Movie”.  Thank you for calling these “magic carpets”, despite these looking absolutely nothing like a magic carpet.  My daughter has not EATEN A CARROT STICK IN OVER A YEAR.  Tonight she had about 8 of my sorry excuses for matchsticks.  

Evidence of eating vegetables.

I did not believe she would eat these.  I was wrong.  The Disney Princess Cookbook wins.  

Next up: Ariel’s seashell pasta salad!