Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Column: Planet of the Apes

How do we know evolution really happens?

It's a common misconception that evolution is a matter of faith, because it happens too slowly to observe. Here's the way one reader sees it: "I don't see any fish walking around, nor do I see any other creature in mid-evolving mode. . . . Simply stated, both creationism and evolution should be taught as competing theories; both are not provable, and both cannot be duplicated in a lab."

But evolution does happen in the lab, in real time, and it's bad news for us because such rapid evolution allows organisms that can kill us by evading drugs, vaccines, and our own immune systems.

Viral evolution is in the news because scientists reportedly created a new strain of bird flu (H5N1) that's highly contagious, prompting a government advisory board to request that scientific journals not publish the details.

As I quizzed Penn bioterrorism expert Harvey Rubin about the situation, he continued to talk about evolution and "fitness" of flu viruses. Indeed, he said, the whole point of creating a newer, scarier H5N1 was to help anticipate the virus' future evolution.

It's not easily transmissible now. But thanks to evolution, that might change.

This conversation led me to biologist Eddie Holmes of Penn State's Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics. "Viruses give us the best, most precisely defined examples of evolution you could possibly think of," he said.

Flu viruses evolve particularly fast because they're based on RNA - the single-stranded relative of DNA. RNA doesn't have any mechanism by which to repair copying errors, the way DNA does, so these viruses mutate much faster than DNA viruses.

Working with viruses, Holmes said, "is like watching human evolution on fast-forward." In 10 years, a virus can undergo as much evolution as a human could in 10 million.

The fact that these viruses undergo mutations is just part of the story. Their mutated progeny are subject to the sorting effect of natural selection. Those that are best at surviving and reproducing themselves predominate.

Viruses have hit upon a number of survival strategies, said Holmes. Measles infects children, thus ensuring a constant crop of new potential hosts. Herpes viruses can lie low, going undetected by the immune system much of the time, so it can survive in a host and spread for decades.

For flu viruses, the strategy is to evade the host's immune system. People are immune to whatever flu viruses have made them sick in the past, but evolution leads to slightly different versions coming back each season.

Some mutations change the proteins, called antigens, that are the targets of the immune system. By natural selection, the viruses that acquire new antigens can infect a lot more people and will be much more successful than those that have the same old antigens.

Holmes said evolutionary ideas were guiding the quest for a universal flu vaccine - one that would protect us not only from evolving seasonal viruses, but also from new ones, such as H5N1, that jump from other species.

To get such universal protection, scientists need to attack something that's common to all flu viruses. They are using genetic sequencing to find stretches of common genetic code, hoping to find a common Achilles' heel. If viruses didn't evolve from a common ancestor, this wouldn't work.

Meanwhile, at Penn, biologist/computer scientist Joshua Plotkin is learning about evolution by studying both flu and HIV.

Viruses disprove the common misconception that random mutations can't lead to improvements in an organism, he said. Unfortunately for us, random mutations lead to flu viruses that can escape our immune systems and vaccines.

"That's proof positive that some mutations are of adaptive utility," Plotkin said. "I can't think of a more straightforward example than that."


Click Here For Complete Column by Faye Flam,
& comments by readers of the Philadelphia Inquirer

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Flyers Hockey

Have been to 3 NHL games.

1994: Saw the Rangers at MSG (was NYC resident)

1999: Saw the Stars twice in Dallas (was Tx. resident)

2012: Hopefully, will see the Flyers this year (current Philly resident)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Skillet Mac & Cheese


Serving macaroni and cheese in the skillet it’s baked in amps up the homey comfort factor. The secret ingredient in this bread crumb-topped beauty is the finely chopped cauliflower that blends in subtly with the pasta. Using three different cheeses guarantees maximum flavor and meltability.


2 cups 1-inch-wide cauliflower florets
1¼ cups Light-and-Crisp Whole-Wheat Bread Crumbs
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons olive oil
3 cups cold low-fat (1%) milk
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1¼ cups shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese (5 ounces)
¼ cup shredded Gruyere cheese (1 ounce)
2 teaspoons mustard powder
¾ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
6 ounces (1 1/2 cups) whole-grain elbow macaroni, cooked for 3 minutes less than the package directions (about 3 cups cooked)
Nonstick cooking spray


1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

2. Place the cauliflower into a steamer basket fitted over the pot, cover, and steam until just tender, about 5 minutes. Finely chop the steamed cauliflower.

3. In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan and oil.

4. In a large saucepan, whisk together the milk and flour until the flour is dissolved. Whisking constantly, bring the mixture to a gentle boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer until the mixture thickens slightly, two to three minutes. Stir in the cheddar, Gruyere, mustard powder, paprika, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Whisk until the cheeses are melted and the mixture is smooth, one to two minutes. Add the chopped cauliflower and macaroni and stir until well coated.

5. Spray an ovenproof 10-inch high-sided skillet with cooking spray. Pour the mixture into the prepared skillet. Sprinkle with the bread crumb mixture, place on a baking sheet, and bake until the top is browned and the cheese is bubbly, 35 to 40 minutes.

More Mac/Cheese: Unintentional Humor (Video)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Resolution Factoids

Smokeless & Sober Since:

Jan. 2nd
4-5 pints of beer
pack of Marlboro Red 100's @ $6.26
(45 - 50% price increase since
moving to Philly 5-7 yrs ago)

Jan. 4th
3 pints of beer
pkg of Bugler Tobacco

Jan. 6th
pack of Marlboro Red 100's

Jan. 13th
pack of Marlboro Red 100's
pack of Marlboro Black 100's
Six-pack of Beer (various ounces)

Jan. 14th
Pack of Marlboro Black 100's
4 pints of beer

Jan. 15th
Pack of Marlboro Black Menthol 100's


Joe W.'s Unsmoked Cigs

Note: Joe W. was my next door neighbor.
He died of lung cancer on Sun., Jan. 8th.
Age Guesstimate: Mid 60's - Early 70's

R.I.P. Joe W.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Theory of Relativity: 1923

The Einstein Theory of Relativity 1923 from ricordidimenticati on Vimeo.

Wikipedia Link: Background Info for The Einstein Theory of Relativity (1923), a silent film directed by Max and Dave Fleischer and released by Fleischer Studios.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Current Reading Pile

The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
Published by Little, Brown and Company

Physics Of The Future
by Michio Kaku
Published by Doubleday

On Hold at The Free Library of Philadelphia

Remainder by Tom McCarthy
Published by Vintage Books Original

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"Zoe Strauss: Ten Years"

Zoe Strauss
January 14 – April 22, 2012
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On This Date In History

Jan. 10, 1946, the first General Assembly of the United Nations convened in London.

Jan. 10, 1910, Galina Sergeyevna Ulanova, one of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century, was born.

On This Date

1776 - Thomas Paine published the pamphlet "Common Sense."

1861 - Florida seceded from the Union.

1863 - London's Metropolitan, the world's first underground passenger railway, opened to the public.

1870 - John D. Rockefeller incorporated Standard Oil.

1920 - The League of Nations was established as the Treaty of Versailles went into effect.

1957 - Harold Macmillan became prime minister of Great Britain following the resignation of Anthony Eden.

1964 - The Beatles' first album in the United States, "Introducing the Beatles," was released.

1967 - Republican Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts, the first black elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote, took his seat.

1971 - "Masterpiece Theatre" premiered on PBS.

1984 - The United States and the Vatican established full diplomatic relations.

2000 - America Online agreed to buy Time-Warner for $162 billion. (Time-Warner decided to spin off AOL in 2009.)

2003 - North Korea withdrew from a global treaty barring it from making nuclear weapons.

2005 - CBS issued a damning independent review of mistakes related to a "60 Minutes Wednesday" report on President George W. Bush's National Guard service.

2007 - President George W. Bush announced he would send a "surge" of 21,500 U.S. forces to Iraq.

2010 - NBC announced a plan to move "The Jay Leno Show" from prime time to 11:35 p.m. Eastern time and push "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" back to 12:05 a.m. (O'Brien ended up leaving NBC, and Leno resumed hosting "Tonight.")

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Jan. 2012: Thought For The New Month

"Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones."

-- Phillips Brooks

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Day/Night Before New Year's Eve (*)

(*) Dec. 30th
5:36 - 5:58 p.m.
Ann St. between Edgemont/Richmond Sts.
Port Richmond, Philadelphia