Tag: Genetics

Day 1000: How It Ends

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Inside this cubicle the air is thick as honey, with asphyxiating flecks of the mundane bracing against the irrefutable promise of a golden weekend. Outside these pin-cushion partitions – and indeed inside as well – every tiny molecule in the universe is saying its goodbyes to its neighbors and preparing to splash into the unknown permutations of a distant someday. My fingers hammer at these tiny plastic letters, fully ignorant of what’s to come.

Or are they? The hallowed fingers of esteemed science – no doubt similar in size and shape to my own, only tasked with a far more specific purpose – have combed back the hair of the observable now and picked at the scalp-nits of projection. The fields of astronomy, physics, mathematics, and a cabinet full of –ologies have given us a map of what’s to come. A timeline of time’s last hurrah.

And the best part? If any of these predictions are wrong, every record of them will likely be destroyed before anyone finds out. That’s my kind of science.

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Within 10,000 years, human genetic variation will no longer be regionalized. This won’t mean we’ll all look the same – the blonde gene will still speckle crowds and set up offensive jokes, but it will be distributed equally worldwide. This forecasted panmixia is far more optimistic than astrophysicist Brandon Carter’s Doomsday Argument, which places our present at roughly the halfway point of humankind’s civilized journey, and projects a 95% likelihood that we’ll be wholly extinct in 10,000 years.

If global warming hasn’t already soaked us into a Kevin Costner-esque hellscape by then, we may also be facing the melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which will raise the sea levels by 3 or 4 meters above wherever it will be once we lose the rest of the polar ice caps, which should happen long before then.

Long term forecast: buy a big-ass boat. Read more…

Day 993: Sexual Selection In Darwinian Theory, or Why You Can’t Get Laid

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Herbert Spencer was the 19th century philosopher, scientist and all-around smart cookie who coined the phrase “Survival of the Fittest” after having read Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species. While some may argue each and every tenet of evolutionary theory (much to the exhaustion of everyone who actually knows a little something about science), we have come to realize that Spencer was only half-right in determining which genes get promoted into the next generation. It’s also a matter of Survival of the Sexiest.

Sexual selection extends beyond the boast-worthy ability to fend off predators, gather food and shoot zombies with a crossbow. Mate selection based on these factors certainly occurs, but the truth grabs many more hairs between its gnarled knuckles. So much of who we are plays into our subconscious exigency to be sexually selected.

So if you’re finding your Saturday nights have of late been more occupied by binge marathons of Murder, She Wrote than sweaty, carnal bodyslapping, perhaps you should turn to science to understand why. With a few tiny modifications to your being, you might just find yourself crotch-deep in sexual social butterflydom.

English dictionaries

You need to word good. Humans – at least most humans – possess a far greater vocabulary than that which is needed for basic communication. It’s true – most of us know words like ‘dungarees’, ‘mellifluous’ and ‘woebegone’, but how often do we really need to use them? Evolutionary scientists suspect we throw down this excess of verbiage in an effort to show off our intelligence to potential mates. This has been tested; we tend to spew a more flowery and profound lexicon when we’re in a romantic mindset. Then again, some of us do it just to make a living. Read more…

Day 966: Which Came First And What’s On Second?

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While the central focus of this project has been devoted to the kind of esoteric trivia that will one day allow me to run the category of ‘Obscure Miscellany’ on Jeopardy, sometimes I like to ask the big questions. The paradoxes. The queries that prompt chortles and didactic witticisms in some company and distant frosted-glass stares with maybe a “woah” among stoned people.

Why did the chicken cross the road? To teach us about existential nothingness, of course. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Only the most fleet-footed of Broadway angels know that one, and they’re keeping their collective yap shut. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

It’s a paradox that has been juggled from philosopher to philosopher, flitting through the fingers of the rhetorically-inclined while attracting the occasional wordy summation from the theological or scientific camps (who are divided by a fuzzier line than even they would admit). This is the stuff of mental meandering, the kind of riddle that the mind loves to lock itself in the bathroom with and do wicked, self-abusing things. It’s an A-or-B multiple choice question with a clear and concise C and D hiding in the margins.

My favorite kind of question.

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The most obvious (and therefore buzz-killing) answer is “the egg”, using the justification that other animals – reptiles, dinosaurs and their cool-blooded ilk – also came from eggs. Let’s toss this smirking solution into the semantic garburator  right away by clarifying that ‘egg’ for the purposes of this riddle refers only to ‘chicken eggs’. We’re trying to untangle a paradox here; no one is suggesting that the chicken was the first creature to poach its zygotes inside a calcite shell. Read more…

Day 890: Put Your Head On My Shoulder, Neck, And Everything Else

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In honor of our species’ unending quest to concoct our own mythical creatures from the depths of our creativity and our most depraved scientific know-how, I give you the head transplant. I’m not referring to the overplayed movie trope in which Jamie Lee Curtis swaps minds with Lindsay Lohan in an effort to see if one another’s bodies could handle their respective addictions to poop-inducing yogurt and cocaine, but rather the physical exchange of crania.

It has happened. Not with humans – you didn’t miss out on some freakish sci-fi tale of weirdness in the news, but our able-handed doctors have performed some rather cunning re-assignments among the brain enclosures of the animal kingdom. Some believe it’s only a matter of time before we get around to a human swap.

We have the technology. Sort of. There isn’t a doctor alive who can reattach a severed spinal cord; full and complete functionality is not at play here. But some variant of this could happen within our lifetime. We just need the right alignment of desperate patients, extreme circumstance and a doctor who has nothing to lose. Sounds like a movie treatment if nothing else.

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American physiologist Charles Claude Guthrie’s work on vascular surgery with the Frenchman Alexis Carrel should have earned the guy a Nobel Prize. But Carrel won the prize by himself, likely because the weird experiments Guthrie was into probably freaked out the Prize committee. In 1908, Guthrie became the first to graft one dog’s head onto the neck of another, creating a two-headed beast. Unfortunately, too much time had occurred between the decapitation of the second dog and the restoration of circulation. It wasn’t a lively second head, but it was technically alive. Read more…

Day 864: Mu-vin’ On Up From The Lost Continent

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“The antediluvian kings colonized the world; all the gods who play in the mythological dramas in all legends from all lands were in Atlantis.”

This is an excerpt from the legend of Atlantis – or more accurately from the 1968 Donovan song “Atlantis”, but it makes my point. Since the days of Ancient Greece when Plato wove the notion into his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, humans have postulated on the possible existence of a great civilization that sunk into the sea. Once the European jet-set (or large-boat-set, I guess) discovered the New World, the concept of Atlantis was used to explain some of the wonders of the tribes they encountered. The sunken island has a glorious history.

All of it completely fiction, of course. Atlantis is not one of our planet’s uncovered mysteries like the Bermuda Triangle or the physical content of a McRib. Europeans tried to use it as justification for the existence of the Mayan culture because there was no way those indigenous doofuses could have concocted such an elaborate civilization on their own, right?

If you have to invent an entire continent to justify your inherent racism, maybe it’s time to give it up.

Atlantis is not the only slab of land that Mother Earth has misplaced. We should also look to that other massive ocean and the lost island of Mu.

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We can blame the so-called Mu mystery on Augustus Le Plongeon, a 19th-century writer who had investigated the Mayan ruins in Yucatàn and allegedly translated some of the ancient writings. Actually he was working off a mistranslation of a piece of Mayan literature then called the Troano Codex, and he interpreted the name ‘Mu’ to mean a land that had sunk after a catastrophe. It was a tiny leap of connection for Le Plongeon to decide that Mu was Atlantis, or something just like it. He claimed that the magnificence of Ancient Egypt was founded by Queen Moo (probably not a cow), a refugee of Mu. Read more…

Day 821: Schlepping A Thousand Kosher Words To The Page

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I’m not one to toot my own genetic horn, but I have yet to discover a language more palette-ticklingly entertaining than Yiddish. I may have been raised in a Jewish home whose only strict adherence to the faith involved my father slightly furrowing his brow when I’d order a bacon cheeseburger at a restaurant, but I still feel connected somehow to those roots, at least to the comedy synthesized within them. Sure, it took me years before I understood what Laverne & Shirley meant by “Schlemiel, Schlimazel” (and I still have no idea what “Hasenpfeffer Incorporated” means), but dammit I learned.

Yiddishisms have spiraled outward from the Lower East Side to become a part of our national (and I’m in Canada, so it’s safe to say international) lexicon. Those words ring out with the clarity of a brilliant punchline: “putz” splats against the wall in high definition, “schmuck” delivers a crisp, voiceless velar uppercut, and “plotz” speckles our aural ceiling  with the sonic lucidity of what it means to convey.

I love these words, both as a Jew and as a writer. Carved from the euphonic stones of an ancient dialect, they pepper our language with capricious consonants and cough-vented vowels. A few days ago I wrote about ‘leet’ – the pseudo-language of the old-timey computer era, concocted to massage a false sense of elitism and smug superiority. But Yiddish – in particular the words that have become commonplace in English – is all about fun, spice, and delivering a laugh with the deftness of Jackie Mason.

But remember, just saying "putz" doesn't make you Jackie Mason. The rest of the joke still has to be funny.

But remember, just saying “putz” doesn’t make you Jackie Mason. The rest of the joke still has to be funny.

Let’s start with the schmuck. You might use this to describe a guy who leaves his shopping cart seemingly strategically so that it blocks off two spaces in the parking lot. You might as well call him a dick, because that’s what the original Yiddish definition of a schmuck is. In German, the word translates to ‘jewelry’, whereas they’d use the word ‘shmok’ (which is actually closer to the original Yiddish pronunciation) if they want to employ it the way that we do. Actually – and I’m not making this up – this is cited as one way the term ‘family jewels’ came to represent the male dong. Read more…

Day 769: Happy Birthday To Possibly Both Of You

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Every so often I like to write an article about math.

This is not because I like math (I don’t) or because I unearth a specific gem of unique adrenaline when I reach the conclusion of a math problem (I experience no such thing). I write about math simply to remind myself that it’s there, and to give myself the daunting challenge of making some portion of it interesting. You thought writing a thousand words in Shakespearean sonnets was tricky? That was a seat at the sundae bar compared to this.

I took my last math class in high school. And by ‘took’, I mean I sampled bits of it, but left most of it on the plate. Once the curriculum started to include concepts like quadratic equations and logarithms, I allowed my attention to meander to more earth-bound notions, like old soul records, pretty girls and caramel sauce (sometimes all three at once – I was a creative kid). I simply don’t have a brain that is hard-wired for that brand of thinking.

But I’ve danced down this hallway before, poking my head through the door of Monty Hall’s Let’s Make A Deal 3-door conundrum. And even for us non-mathies, sometimes numbers can take our brains by the squishy parts and lead them on a fun little trip.

BirthdayProblem

Where math tends to poop out its most delectable little gems is in the realm of probability. How the oddsmakers in Vegas determine a 2.5-point spread for a game instead of a 3-point spread is a complicated and elaborate process that I hope to dissect before the next 231 days have expired. An understanding of probability will decrease your chances of leaving a casino with your wallet significantly lighter. Most importantly for me, probability also presents a number of quirky snig-bits of momentarily interesting trivia. My specialty. Read more…

Day 718: Ball-Busting Horror Stories From The Sperm Bank Vault

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As one who has followed the somewhat boring and traditional path in raising a family, I admire those who carve their own onramp to the domestic highway, so long as they do so with the passion and commitment of quality parentage. Single mom? Single dad? Two moms? Two dads? Seven moms and three dads in some crazy pan-sexual feather-and-lace-wearing love-bond? Whatever suits you, as long as you don’t raise the kid to be an asshole.

I know very little about sperm banks, apart from what I’ve seen in movies and on sitcoms (notably unreliable sources for factual information), but I think I get the premise. People – usually men – show up and deposit their little swimmers. Some of those are acquired by women seeking the joys of motherhood, while others are sent underground to be incorporated into bizarre and morbid experiments, thus producing goons and henchmen for future evil villains who aim to take over the earth.

Again, I’m really not clear on the intricacies of these operations. But from what I understand, a woman acquiring sperm from such a source is rolling the genetic dice. Recessive diseases and hereditary horror stories are part of the gamble, though I imagine reputable joints do a fairly thorough job of background-checking their donors. But in the 80’s and 90’s, the truly discriminating mother-to-hope-to-be might take a trip down to Escondido, California, and snag an emission from the Repository for Germinal Choice.

RepositoryForGerminalChoice

No one wants to find out that the biological father of their child was in fact some hobo named ‘Spoot’ who dropped off a donation in exchange for $30 in malt liquor money. At the Repository for Germinal Choice, the sperm that would battle it out for claimer’s rights in your nether regions would originate from the balls of a Nobel Prize winner, guaranteed. Well, not ‘guaranteed’. In fact, almost not at all. Read more…

Day 492: Tasting With The Best

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Having been an avid wine drinker ever since I was eight days old and Jewish law demanded that I receive a belt of Manischewitz whilst some stranger slashed at my shvantz, I still can’t wrap my brain around wine reviews. Seriously, after spending my childhood sipping on dry red during every Sunday dinner at my grandparents’, you’d think I should be a veteran of vino, a veritable wine Jedi with an insight into the subtle nuances of every aspect of a wine’s intricate flavors.

But I just don’t have it. I look at wine review sites like this one, and I get lost in the ornate descriptions. “A savory and brooding red”. “Chalky tannins throughout and wild briary fruit layered with dark carob.” “Smoked notes underscored with dark chocolate and leather.” I’m sure with a bit of practice I could learn to tell a chiraz from a merlot, but this sort of intricate tastery is beyond me.

Also, this site invites readers to rate each wine on a scale of one to six. Six? What kind of pretentious scale is that?

On a scale of 1-2 tinted medieval goblets, I give this vintage a solid 1.25.

On a scale of 1-2 tinted medieval goblets, I give this vintage a solid 1.25.

Admittedly, I would rather contemplate the cavalcade of flavors bunny-hopping their way through an intricate craft beer than those waving their grapey hands in a bottle of wine. That’s simply a matter of preference. But I’m still swimming in the shallow end of the pool when it comes to acute flavor sensation. Read more…

Day 402: The Size Of The Wand

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WARNING: The following article may contain sensitive verbiage, mature subject matter and an unhealthy focus on the human dink. Not the dink that raced to cut you off in traffic then slowed down to 15 below the speed limit with his blinker on as though he simply gave up hope of ever getting to his destination, but the dink that either you or someone you know shares a non-detachable bond with.

If you are male, this article may bolster your confidence or deplete it. I don’t make up the facts; I simply restate the facts that have already been made up by someone else. It’s time for a frank talk about human penis size.

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First off, don’t panic. In Ancient Greece, a small penis was considered to be the most desirable ideal. A chunky flesh-sausage was considered freakish and ridiculous. This was chosen for two reasons: it saved money for statue-makers, and the women who had sex with the men didn’t get a vote in what was the cultural ideal.

I’m kidding of course – statues were made by chipping away at a marble block, so they weren’t saving any money here. Read more…