Saturday, December 22, 2018

Itsy Bitsy

“Unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.”

Robert Frost

You’re strolling along a leafy path or perhaps across a flagstone patio when splith! – you get a face full of spider web. Clingy, diaphanous strands adhere to your nose and lips like tacky arachnodactylic fingers. With a shudder, you recoil from the thought of a spider on your face or a mouth-full of half-devoured, silk-enshrouded  insect parts. You feel a frisson of dread that you’re trapped: the more you tear at the web, the more enmeshed you seem to become. Never mind that the spider, acutely attuned to vibrations from its web and knowing the difference between, say, a falling leaf and a moth, is probably more revolted than you and fleeing to safety down a silk dragline streaming from its behind.

Moon parka ($1,000 from The North Face, Japan) made of synthetic spider
silk developed by Spiber. Perhaps the ultimate wrap, but would you feel
 trapped like a spider snack?
Under the circumstances it might be hard to appreciate that spider silk is truly amazing stuff with a whole range of potentially useful applications. Weight for weight, some types of silk are ten times tougher than Kevlar, as strong as steel, and lighter than carbon fiber. They can stretch well beyond their original length without breaking. Natural spider silk has been used to make reticles for rifle scopes, small fishing nets, and wound dressings. It’s even been fashioned into violin strings, albeit of limited utility (high C sticks to the G-string, hampering arpeggios).
Limited edition synthetic spider silk neckties
(unisex, $314 from Bolt Threads) available
exclusively on, well, the web. Tie clasps
sold separately.

Unfortunately,  commercial production of natural spider silk is severely limited by the fact that spiders can’t be “farmed” the way silk worms can. Spiders are very territorial and like Eugene Field’s famous cat and pup, they unfailingly eat each other up: they’re hopelessly cannibalistic.

Indeed, creatures that yield workable fibers (sheep, goats, rabbits, llamas, camels, silk worms) are virtually all herbivores.  Were goats not vegan, you probably wouldn’t be wearing that cashmere sweater – even if, reminiscent of hapless Arachne, goats were transformed by the power of science into a source of synthetic spider silk. As indeed they have been! More about this in a bit.

Conspiring to caparison the world  in synthetic spider silk, CEO’s
of Amsilk, Bolt Threads, Kraig Labs, and Spiber are taken aback by the sudden
if unlikely intrusion of a supernumerary panelist and critic.
Though spiders can’t be farmed or herded, they can be rounded up and stripped of their textile payload one at a time. Outlandish or impractical as this might sound, two imaginative gentlemen, a Brit and an American, actually did it. Simon Peers, a British art historian and textile expert, and Nicholas Godley, an American fashion designer, both living in Madagascar at the time, hired a team of locals to collect female Golden Orb Weavers in the wild. In a roundup that made Texas cattle drives look downright tame, they eventually roped in 1.2 million spiders to extract their silk. After a protracted tug on their virtue, the ravished creatures were released (though some of them died, possibly of shame).

Four years and more than half a million dollars later, Peers and Godley had produced a magnificent hand-woven, saffron-colored (the silk’s natural hue), brocade cape that’s as much a work of art as garment.

Sacrifice of a Sacred King: To make crops grow and critters flourish, an
Araneidae priestess clad in a ceremonial cape made from the silk of more
than a million Madagascar Golden Orb Weavers summons the spider king to
his destiny
But if spiders themselves aren’t a commercially viable source of silk, why not genetically engineer other organisms to synthesize recombinant silk proteins instead, such as was done with human insulin (e.g., Humulin, Eli Lilly)? By 1990 researchers were able to clone the first fibroin (spider silk protein) gene for just that purpose. Since then, recombinant DNA techniques have been used to engineer fibroin expression from Escherichia coli bacteria, yeasts, plants, silkworms, and even goats, though the recombinant compounds  are typically inferior to the natural ones.

Interestingly in the case of goats, scientists from Nexia Biotechnologies developed a line of genetically modified nannies whose milk contains spider silk proteins. Unfortunately, compared to yeast and bacteria, goats require too much space and food and don’t reproduce fast enough to make commercial silk production feasible.

Still, you wonder if these extraordinary spidey nannies could be turned to some other purpose – say, making a super-springy cheese you could pass off as novelty Gruyère chewing gum to tourists in Switzerland. Or a buccal fitness-enhancing bubblegum for tubists and gaffers.

Two-foot orb web in my backyard. It’s weaver was
nowhere to be seen. The record-holder for such work,
found in Madagascar, is believed to be Darwin’s bark spider
that spins webs more than three feet in diameter with draglines
exceeding 82 feet. It’s silk is the toughest known.
Spider silk proteins are building blocks that can be converted, not just into  fiber, but film, gel, sponge, powder, and nanofiber forms as well to suit a number of different purposes. Indeed until recently, they were used mainly in cosmetics such as moisturizing creams and for medical devices. Coating prosthetic implants – silicone breast implants, hip prostheses, intravenous catheters – with spider silk proteins may make them more bio-compatible and as well as infection-resistant, and clinical trials have been underway.

Compared to many other synthetic fibers, however, artificial spider silk is quite expensive to produce, and it’s far from evident that at least for some applications – designer garments, for example – it offers enough of a performance advantage to justify the premium cost. Nevertheless, several textile startups have moved full steam ahead with a variety of consumer creations.

The atonement of Arachne – and Paris!
Using material developed by Germany’s AMSilk, Adidas has pioneered the first sports shoe made entirely of Biosteel spider silk. Biosteel is strong, yet completely biodegradable and fifteen percent lighter than other synthetic fibers. AMSilk also has a deal with Airbus to create a new spider silk-based material for use in lightweight, high-performance aircraft.

Japanese startup Spiber joined with The North Face to make a synthetic spider silk fabric for a proof-of-concept winter jacket, the Moon parka. Sold only in Japan so far, the coat may soon be available in the U.S.

Bolt Threads of Emeryville, California, the fastest growing of the textile startups, is known for its Microsilk. It has teamed up with high-end fashion designer Stella McCartney and outerwear maker, Patagonia. Bolt itself sold a limited run of fifty neckties that were made entirely of Microsilk.

Finally, Kraig Biocraft Laboratories has a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to research and develop body armor made of the company's genetically modified spider silk, called "Dragon Silk."

This is all fine as far as its goes, but consumer goods like jackets, shoes, and neckties seem rather beside the point. For me, the implications of synthesizing Nature go well beyond such frivolities. The ravages of environmental change that now beset us – an insect apocalypse is already at hand – may one day soon make bio-tech and bio-engineering labs the natural world’s (us included) only remaining hope. Image swarms of scuttling micro-robotic cannibal spiders that rely on large quantities of high grade synthetic silk to trap and dispose of spring-loaded bionic grasshoppers and other such robo-pests (not to mention each other). Only Science might be able to keep them fully supplied and reliably on the job. With a little chemical inspiration – for the scientists, I mean, not the spiders – spider webs could become more complex and original than ever, virtual works of art.

While we’re about it, perhaps we could engineer the fake silk to feel less creepy when it gloms onto your face in, say, the rain forest section of some Plexiglas bio-dome.

We seem well on our way to achieving it all.

All abuzz

Thursday, October 4, 2018

California Driftwood

Oh, the beach, the beach. How folks love the beach, especially when it gets hot, and you can cool off at the beach. They come in droves. Locals with dogs wearing cute checkered bandanas. Mothers with dozing infants in Bugaboo Buffalo baby strollers. Youths toting  Rocket 
Fish surf boards. Aging hippies with deep tans, scraggly beards, tie-dyed T-shirts and Jesus sandals. Tourists speaking in foreign tongues, looking a little uncertain. Families with small children, cabana towels, picnic baskets, and Tommy Bahama umbrellas (or portable beach pavilions). Nerf ball and frisbee players. Surf caster fishermen, walkers, joggers, and amateur photographers. The occasional wedding party. Even
Stylized California highway marker (mission bell and
shepherd’s crook).  Its real-life counterparts can be
found along US 101 between Los Angeles and San Jose.
professional photographers doing fashion shoots for Elle or Vogue.

Some show up after dark with six-packs of beer and stay until late. Others, sometimes the homeless, stay the whole night.

Tidewrack shack with seaweed. A variation of the 
Paleo-Survivalist style emphasizing Spanish moss 
over seaweed is common along the southeastern 
Atlantic seaboard.
And amongst this multitude are the beach artists and architects. I’ve never actually seen them at work, but until swept away by the tides, their creations endure as testimony to their inventiveness. Just as children dig sand and build castles,  grown-ups fashion stuff from driftwood, seaweed, and rocks. Perhaps it’s the primitive urge to construct shelters or make art. Perhaps some innate impulse to repair chaos, organize things.  Or maybe just boredom after enough  sun and sea. The builders often work together, I’m told, like Mennonites at a barn raising.

Beach creations come in various shapes and sizes. Lean-tos, burners, tepees, A-frames, dugouts, pillboxes, circulars, and wind breaks are among the most common. Some aren’t so much structures as sand art incorporating driftwood, rocks, seashells, and feathers.

One way to build a driftwood sculpture without getting your feet wet is to 
photograph the scene, assemble the structure you want using available 
elements and really good software, and then trust to sympathetic magic. 
After all, what is more than but an avatar of something imagined?
The sky’s the limit when it comes to what takes shape on the beach, and some of this handiwork defies description. You might even be given to wondering whether some of it is cast up ready-made by the ocean itself, like Athena springing full grown from the head of Zeus. Recall that the first ever Burning Man event (1986) was held, not in Black Rock City, Nevada, but on a beach, Baker Beach, in San Francisco – and Zeus was from San Francisco.

“Welcome” sign, Nazca-like lines, cairns, bird’s 
beak totem with kelp. It seemed like the hip 
beginning of something – maybe a trendy motel.

Oh, the beach, the beach.

In some cultures, driftwood has been viewed as a sort of fundamental element, like earth, air, fire, and water. According to Norse mythology, Ask and Embla, the first human couple, were made from driftwood by Odin (god of a litany of things)  and his brothers, Vili and Vé. The Vikings had the habit of throwing wood into the sea before making landfall, then building their mead halls wherever the wood washed up. Perhaps they figured if you fell in the drink while drunk, you’d drift to shore like the jettisoned wood, not out to sea and be sunk.

A recent book, Driftwood Forts of the Oregon Coast by James Herman, waxes philosophical about all this. “Something deep and dark runs through the forts here [north jetty of the Siuslaw River],” he says. “It’s not a bad thing…The forts are smoky and talk to you, even if you aren’t listening.” Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so maybe Herman is on to something even it’s coming from smoke signals.

Flotsam’s many forms: Installation by Zoe Leonard (Whitney Museum of American Art, March-June, 2018, New York) reimagined for the beach. At first glance through the gallery doorway during your visit to this display, you might have meet with a little confusion – misread the installation and its uniformed guard as the queued-up, secured luggage of an actual tour group. For a brief moment you might have hesitated to go in. What on earth was a baggage room doing amidst an enfilade of galleries? And how come none of the suitcases had wheels or retractable handles?  So many questions, so few answers. Yet one answer may wash up on the beach.  For works of this ilk, it seems to me, are ideally suited to the beach. The rich offset of the shoreline, for example, would highlight the suitcases in ways not possible in an expressionless and otherwise vacant (except for a few wall-mounted photos) gallery. Ocean swells would bring to bear the timeless forces that ceaselessly work and re-work the wrack line, lending a certain dynamic. Slick with Vanicream®, visitors sporting Oakleys® and Tevas® would queue up galore for a glimpse of the plein air spectacle, especially during high water. And, yes, there’d be spare suitcases aplenty – where these came from. Just in case. 

“Standing Supplicants” (mixed media), 2017. This installation could be 
a museum piece, beach and all.
Yet I take at least mild exception to his idea of  the beach “fort” (not that he’s alone in this appellation). Typically, beach structures resemble shacks or huts, not forts. Moreover, none of them would withstand even the most faint-hearted assault if it came to that. Maybe the idea harks back to “forts” such as children build. Once while on a playground with my granddaughter, I noticed several of the boys had styled a simple open space as an imaginary base or fort. So for all intents and purposes, I suppose, a fort could be anything you want, including a mash-up of driftwood.

But I’d certainly agree there’s something primeval and mysterious about beach structures, particularly shacks or huts, as though they might be the haunts of sea sprites, places where nereids and other minions of Neptune go to relax, hang out, and sip Singapore slings in the heat of the afternoon.  Yet – absent a few slings of your own –  don’t aspire to catch even a glimpse of them. At the first sign of company they abscond beneath the waves, leaving leisure behind and you with the bar tab. Some say they guard a fabulous treasure, the Golden Egg of Stylth, but I have my doubts. Rumor has it the treasure is in the private collection of J.K. Rowling who guards it even more jealously than the sprites did.

            “Sticklers for a lineup” (seawater, wood on sand), 2018
Here are a few unwritten rules for building beach huts. You ought use only what you find on the beach – no nails, screws, or plastic zip ties. This makes sense because structures put together with nails, say, could pose a hazard once knocked down by the waves. Plastic would only add to the man-made refuse already adrift in the oceans. If you use tools, they should be ones you make yourself. Kindly refrain from dismantling someone else’s construction in order to build your own. They’re community, not personal, property. As one writer put it, they “belong temporarily to everyone and permanently to the ocean.”

A female long-necked sand sitter (Oslignum littoralis) restrains an eager pup 
while two older siblings playfully nuzzle. Sadly, these rare creatures have 
become prized for their fur by the luxury garment industry and face a rising 
tide of endangerment. 

Atrophy & Hypertrophy, demiurges of the primal flood. And Pericles!

At Hendry’s Beach, wooden park benches feature cast bronze memorials – 
a semblance of permanence aloof from the tides but also a reminder of the 

My Little Grass Schack

Friday, August 10, 2018

LilthyEtta and the Goat of Many Colors

“The 2300 prophetick days did not commence before the rise of the little horn of the He Goat”     
Sir Isaac Newton 


The crossbow bolt – a Mirado Black Warrior # 9H lead pencil by Paper Mate – bored clean through the Pink Lady apple and lodged in the trunk of an old chestnut tree directly behind. The arbalest or crossbowman, one Zeitelin Geist of the St. Columbanus Mountain Goats crossbow team, was so accurate LilthyEtta Van Winkle had little to do but stand still.


The next shooter, Flim de Bockle of the same team, was abysmally off target. To connect with his erratically zooming pencil, LilthyEtta, in a move that for all the world seemed entirely premeditated – keeping a Pink Lady balanced adroitly on top of her head – sprang up and slightly to her left. De Bockle’s pencil then drilled the apple and whizzed off down range, missing the tree trunk entirely.

LilthyEtta was the best there was, or probably ever had been, at this game – playing target prop for the apfelschuss or apple-shot where some intrepid soul teetering an apple atop his head stands in front of a marksman (think William Tell) who attempts to split the fruit with an arrow or bolt from a crossbow.

Unlike most practitioners, however, LilthyEtta didn’t simply stand still. If the arrow were off course, she’d move to intercept it, shifting the apple agilely into its path. No wonder she’d been designated official “goalie” for the St. Columbanus Mountain Goats.
Ziegenfreude mit Cannabisis (Green Label),
Van Winkle Käse GmbH, St. Gallen – unique
texture, conspicuous taste, extravagant

Predictably enough, this preternatural skill of hers brought heated objections from opposing teams and often judges as well.

“What is the meaning of this?” demanded the astonished judge on this occasion.

“It meanth playing two endths against the middle, tho to say, ist a goodth strategy for the apfelschuss,” LilthyEtta replied archly as she chewed a bite from the latest target, a small trickle of apple juice escaping from one corner of her mouth as she spoke.  “Nothing in the rule book says we can’t do it.” (She’d finished chewing.) “Besides, wouldn’t you agree it’s sort of a tribute to Swiss ingenuity?”

“You might just as well claim your…your wristwatch controls the earth’s rotation in order to keep the correct time,” sputtered the judge in frustration.

But his remonstrance fizzled, limp as a damp squib. The rule book was quite specific. Apples used for the apfelschuss had to be of a certain size, pristine off the tree, and set up at specific distances from the shooter. Aside from that there were no restrictions. Indeed if anything, moving targets earned extra points!

So once again the St. Columbanus Mountain Goats carried the day, walking away with top prizes in every category of the tournament.

Klaus Van Winkle, Sr., toking up an alpine high, near Appenzell, circa 1925.
His innovative use of cannabis alpinicum saw in a new era of cheesemaking
and Swiss gastronomy – but also earned him the sobriquet “Ripped van
Not surprisingly, LilthyEtta was as accurate with the crossbow as she was at maneuvering cider-bound targets. As far as anyone knew she’d only ever missed once, the errant pencil lodging in a high school treatise on Goethe, a work in progress of hers that somehow never got beyond  paragraph six nor afterward reached any conclusions. Yet she’d submitted the work as it stood, embedded missile and all, and received an “A” – her professor reckoning she’d made her point accurately enough with the crossbow.

As an arbalest she trained tirelessly with apples tossed by a baseball pitching machine, striking them easily in mid-flight like clay pigeons with either a hand-help crossbow or the shoulder stock type. Despite Black Warrior 9H being standard issue for the crossbow team, she preferred the Swiss-made Caran d’Ache 9H because it sounded more French and seemed patriotic. She despised Swiss neutrality and wished her country would declare war on someone. To her, William Tell was an anti-hero in that he mainly wanted to be left alone and, absent coercion, had no interest whatever in shooting at apples. Still, she admired him for being less filicidal than Abraham. A fan of Bertrand Russell, she’d read Why I Am Not a Christian twice over.

The rallying cry of the St. Columbanus Mountain Goats was “Hemp, hemp, hooray! By Saint Columbanus, pencils away!”

Library reading room, St. Columbanus  Priory School, St. Gallen. 
Rain squalls and tiny fighter jets discharged from cloudlike chandeliers 
were believed to ward off the pox.
Hemp meant cannabis – the kind you smoked, drank, or ate. The kind that St. Columbanus Priory School, home of the Mountain Goats, received blended in a specialty cheese supplied gratis by Van Winkle Käse GmbH, St. Gallen – LilthyEtta’s family’s company.

Rather by happenstance, the Van Winkle cheese had come to be invested with an unlikely sort of existential significance at St. Columbanus. During an admiring lecture on alchemy and Rosicrucianism by a visiting professor from Zurich, students mis-heard “philosopher’s stone” as “philosophers stoned” – the lamentable little mondegreen being avidly, if whimsically, seized upon as testament to cannabis’s heuristic and propitious properties. As a result – LilthyEtta’s goal tending skills notwithstanding – the crossbowmen commenced crediting Van Winkle cheese more than their own marksmanship for the team's competitive successes. Likewise for wins by the debate team. There was no shop talk whatever about a boost from the cheese. It was simply taken for granted. And thus it was with much else besides.

The story behind the cheese was that of the family Van Winkle. LilthyEtta’s grandfather, Klaus Van Winkle, had founded the family fortune by developing a goat cheese delicacy prepared from a cultivar of hemp, cannabis alpinicum, that could be grown at the high latitudes of the Swiss Alps. The production process was simple. “Bhang” (powdered cannabis buds and leaves) was added to goat milk curd soon after rennet coagulation. The mixture was then compacted and aged in molds until it could be shipped or sold – typically, no more than an hour or so. Van Winkle called his creation Ziegenfreude mit Cannabisis (roughly, goat delight with cannabis) and successfully marketed it throughout the canton of St. Gallen and beyond.
LilthyEtta Van Winkle Shooting Trophy presented annually
by the Abby of St. Gallen (founded by St. Othmar, 747 AD) along
with a cash prize of 50,000 CHF and two Lindt chocolate bars. 

In addition to Green Label, the brand the firm donated to the priory school, it also made “high octane” Silver Label from the milk of spacey goats whose diet was high in cannabinoids. Silver Label was especially popular with the Swiss hospitality industry.

Before embarking on his cheese-making venture, however, Klaus Van Winkle had had first to win the support of the Abbey of St. Gallen and its patriarchal head, Bishop Hemmroyd of Bayreuth. For the abbey held sway, not only over the town and canton of St. Gallen, but much of adjacent Appenzell, too, and no business undertaking could prosper without at least its tacit approval.

Van Winkle convinced the bishop – the reverend father all the while sampling for himself the herb in question – that cannabis, like frankincense and myrrh, should be considered sacred to Holy Mother Church. The two Marys and Salome, he contented, had been imbued and anointed with cannabis ere they arrived at Christ’s sepulcher on the morning of the third day, the first Easter Sunday. Later, having consumed half a loaf of communion bread drenched in a cannabis butter reduction, even the disciple Thomas, the one who’d had doubts, had been persuaded.

And so likewise was Bishop Hemmroyd persuaded. Not only did he grant his blessing for the sale and distribution of Van Winkle’s cheese, he arranged for him to manufacture cannabis Cheez-It communion wafers for the Eucharist, too – which swiftly became all the rage. Mass in the abbey cathedral overflowed with communicants seeking expedited “peace which surpasseth all understanding” (legalities included).

So many parishioners flocked back to the one true church it appeared in short order that the labors of Protestant reformers in Switzerland like Zwingli and Calvin may have been all for naught. “What’s not to like about the Mass with the grass?” exalted one shrived Calvinist  convert.

Classic Victorinox design popular among Swiss
As for the hospitality industry, innkeepers throughout the region, whatever their religious convictions, rushed to feature Van Winkle’s Ziegenfreude mit Cannabisis (Silver Label), on their menus.  Its time-slowing effects were so potent they could get by billing guests for more days than they’d actually stayed.

All told, it seemed folks had found contentment in cheese. Souls were saved; money, made. Van Winkle Käse GmbH, prospering as never before, even began eyeing a movie deal for a re-imagined version of Heidi and her cheese-making grandfather.

Such was the world as LilthyEtta had found it.

Not long before graduating from St. Columbanus, an event occurred that cemented LilthyEtta’s standing as a crossbow phenomenon. She was awakened one night in the women’s dormitory by a startling presence – an enormous ibex ram or mountain goat. Apart from the oddity of such a creature being there at all, the beast was peculiar in another respect: it’s coat glowed with serpiginous patches of brilliant fluorescent color that seemed to shift about as though seen through a kaleidoscope. (Cannabis may not have been the only goodie making the rounds at St. Columbanus.)

“You may call me DayGlo,” said the ram. “Fear not for I bring you glad tidings of a great thing that shall be mainly unto the Church but maybe you, too.”

“And wha..what would that be?” managed LilthyEtta, squinting against the blaze of color.

St. Columbanus Mountain Goats team logo
“The library of Abby St. Gallen has become infested with divers heresies in a most devious and deplorable manner,” revealed DayGlo. “With my assistance and the Arrows of Truth – he gave her a sheaf of crossbow pencils so inscribed – you shall expose these falsehoods that they may be purged from their hiding places. Thus shall the library and all Christendom at last be rid of them. And thus shalt thou be blessed amongst high school seniors.”

“Ok,” replied LilthyEtta, “lead on.” She’d decided the present might not be the best time to argue, and anyway her interest had been piqued. Even so, DayGlo was constrained to give her a gentle nudge from behind in order to get her moving.

The abbey library was indeed rife with false teachings. Heretical ideas had intercalated themselves as subtext, like snippets of viral DNA in a genome, into the unsuspecting text  of otherwise blameless but like-minded volumes. Gnosticism, for example, with its emphasis on secret knowledge had crept into a tome by Leo Strauss, a work filled with  ideas so esoteric not even its author could explain them. Likewise, patripassianism, a Western church version of modalism, in a bid to amp up its own import or gravity, had sleazed into Principia Mathematica, Sir Isaac Newton’s treatise on, well, gravity.

And so it went. LilthyEtta, with DayGlo’s guidance, fired pencils of truth into every single adulterated work so that the monks of Abbey St. Gallen could easily identify and elide all inquiline heretical content.

Bishop Hemmroyd was so grateful he proclaimed the LilthyEtta Van Winkle Shooting Trophy to be awarded yearly in LilthyEtta’s honor. DayGlo got an extra bucket of oats.

LilthyEtta graduated St. Columbanus magna cum laude (“magna cum laudanum” sniped an envious few who might ought have looked to themselves) and went on to university, having decided to abandon the idea of professional arbalestry and become a writer.

On commencement day a classmate asked her how she’d made this decision. “Perhaps pencils in flight bore fruit in more ways than one,” she mused. “I think it was motivated, ambitious, single-minded, goal-directed pencils that made all the difference.”

Friday, June 22, 2018

Microbes Über Alles: Life at Maximum Zoomm

Deinococcus radiodurans
(“Conan the Bacterium”)
We humans like to think of ourselves and other creatures with backbones as Earth’s dominant life forms. Perhaps that’s because on the surface of things there seems quite a lot of us; we’re easily observable with the naked eye; and from our perspective we account for most of the important stuff, good or bad, that takes place on the planet.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Tiny, single-celled bacteria – approximately 5x10³⁰ or five nonillion of them – make up the majority of the life in this world. Their cumulative biomass exceeds that of us vertebrates by far. Every teaspoon of sea water, for example, contains five million – more in the oceans, that is, than stars in the known universe.

With numbers like that, it should come as no surprise that microbes exert an enormous influence on the biosphere. Many, particularly the cyanobacteria, use sunlight the same way plants do to produce oxygen and sugars. Indeed, the amount of oxygen they generate in the world’s oceans equals that produced by all plant photosynthesis on dry land.

Deinococcus radiodurans is able to deflect a  sur-
prising array of assaults.
Most microorganisms either benefit us or do no harm – fortunate since each of us plays host to some 100 trillion of them. They outnumber our own cells ten to one and account for nearly all of the unique genes in our bodies. To the extent that we're carriers of genetic information, more than ninety-nine percent of it is microbial. Yet fewer than a hundred bacterial species – сold comfort for germaphobes, no doubt – are believed to cause disease in humans. Indeed, if you consider the bigger picture, infectious disease may be the least significant aspect of our relationship with microbes.

Opined Richard Dawkins in his landmark book, The Selfish Gene, “Despite the principle of ‘survival of the fittest,’ the ultimate criterion which determines whether a [gene] will spread is not whether the behavior [benefits] the behaver, but whether it [benefits] the gene…”

Maybe so, but which genes would these be?  Ours or those of our microbial fellow travelers? Stanford microbiologist Justin Sonnenburg suggests that perhaps we ought to think of  the human body as “an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.”  He sees people not just as individuals, but also as ecosystems, the mammalian component of which is merely one part of the system.

Radiococcus deejaydurans can withstand hours
of heavy metal and acid rock (not to mention talk radio).
Geobiologists speculate it may have hitched a ride to
earth on a meteorite. Remarkably, it shares most of the
human genome.
Remember Master Blaster, the dynamic duo from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)? Master was a brainy but otherwise powerless dwarf who rode piggyback on the enormous but dim-witted Blaster, piloting him about for his (Master’s) own purposes like a Lipizzaner put through dressage. Together they held sway over Bartertown, a market settlement situated in the midst of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Despite his diminutive size, Master with the help of Blaster was able to work his will unimpeded in Bartertown, while Blaster maybe found some sort of direction and purpose. Today, this setup might be roughly analogous to the one we humans enjoy with our own microbiome.

Take the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii, for example. It’s been found that contact with T. gondii can make men more likely to crash motor vehicles and do risky behavior. They also become more aggressive and jealous. For their part, women appear more likely to commit suicide. T. gondii may also be involved in dementia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism. To be sure, besides room and board, it’s not clear how T. gondii might benefit, if at all, from modifying it's host behavior.

Yet other alterations in the human gut microbiome  may have still wider effects – e.g., cause greater susceptibility to variety of conditions such as diabetes, neurological disorders, cancer and asthma. Colonic microbes involved in food breakdown have been shown to affect the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin which in turn influences sensorimotor behaviors.

From Wikipedia
Gut bacteria with mind-altering potential are now referred to as ‘‘psychobiotics.’’ Since typically, you get the good with the bad, you have to presume a few troublemakers in this collection, too – “traitor” microbes, say, that secrete substances rendering you paranoid about bacteria themselves, turning you against microbes in general – in other words, making you a hopeless germaphobe.

Or even if not a germaphobe in extremis like Howard Hughes or Howie Mandel, just harboring these bad boys in your colon might be enough to inspire an intuition of germaphobia or who-knows-what else, leading to who-knows-what sorts of mischief. Here in a bit of a twist the expression “You’re full of sh..t!" would denote something fairly specific – the fact that bacteria, which account for 60% of your poop, appeared to have bushwhacked your "free will."

Maybe one of these days, the time-honored “Twinkie defense” will give way to a “bad microbe” one. “Bacteria in my gut made me do it!” Or “Twinkies made my gut bacteria make me do it!”

Et voilà! You have a molecular basis for innocence or guilt, amendable perhaps by a fecal transplant from someone more righteous than you.

“Open wide, son, the court is going to help you get your sh..t together."

Admittedly, my gut reaction to all this, like yours, is “not!,” but maybe that’s just my probiotic (DanActive®) talking. Hey, it could happen! Foods might put words in your colon, leaving you talking out your...

Geobacter metallireducens digesting uranium
waste. Geobacter species use metals as an energy
source the way humans use oxygen. Some may
be helpful in environmental clean-up.
Certainly not all human-associated microbiota are about innocence, guilt, or even disease. Human gut microbes also help us out quite a lot with everyday life. Milk and other food substances, for instance, are full of glycans (polysaccharides) we can’t digest without the aid of bacterial enzymes.

Paradoxically, gut organisms also facilitate the process of weight loss by suppressing the production of a hormone that mediates fat storage and of an enzyme that stops fat from being “burned.“ In June, 2016, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, began a clinical trial (“Fecal Microbiota Transplant for Obesity and Metabolism”) studying the impact of gut bacteria from a healthy, lean person transplanted into the intestinal tracks of obese individuals by means of a small capsule of feces taken by mouth. This could lead to an exciting new way of managing obesity – if you could stomach the “diet.”

To me, one of the most fascinating things about bacteria is a behavior known as “quorum sensing.” Researchers have found that many species are able to detect the amount of a signaling molecule present in their environment and respond only when the concentration of the molecule reaches a specific level. They use this process to regulate various phenotypic behaviors such as biofilm formation, virulence factor expression, motility, and in some cases, bioluminescence, nitrogen fixation and sporulation. In a way, this makes bacteria the inventors of the information-based society, our internet being just an offshoot of a chemical information game that began billions of years ago.
Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria and then exploit their host’s
protein-making machinery  to replicate themselves, ultimately destroying the host.
They’ve been used for decades as an alternative to antibiotics in Russia, France,
and Central Europe.

But if bacteria can do this, why not us? You wonder what sorts of quorum sensing we humans – perhaps entirely unbeknownst to ourselves – might be getting up to.

Could quorum sensing account for the depredations of religious zeal and the need to aggressively proselytize, for example? Maybe the power of “I believe!” reverses the spin on your top quarks flipping you into some comfortable quantum collective that grows stronger with numbers, stabilizing (as “truth”) at some threshold level (the Biblical gathering of two or three might be overly optimistic) of recruitment. Too many non-believers, and the wave function falters, faces collapse, its “truth,” extinction – explaining the compulsion to ruthlessly exterminate heretics.

Just sayin’ – but have you got a better explanation for the urge to kill others who simply have a different mythology?

Finally, among the most intriguing microbes to me are ones we mostly don’t carry around as part of our microbiome – the extremophiles, many of which have upended notions about the nature of life, terrestrial or otherwise. For several of these rely on energy sources foreign to us, sources other than carbon and oxygen, and thrive in environments that would quickly be lethal for other creatures – e.g., extremes of pressure, radiation, acidity, salinity, heat, dryness, anoxia, and environmental pollution (oil, nuclear waste, heavy metals). Some are methane-consuming and inhabit deep ocean floor sediments; others are sulfur-breathers that live in fissures miles below ground.
Who knew a clinical history of mummification and 2000-year entombment
could be so helpful in the diagnosis of viral disease?

One of these, Thermus aquaticus (which only sounds like Latin for “hot water bottle”), recovered from hot (131° F) springs in Yellowstone National Park, was the source of the heat-resistant Taq enzyme used in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) DNA amplification process, an important research tool in molecular biology.

My favorite extremophile, however, is “Conan the Bacterium” – Deinococcus radiodurans, a polyextremophile listed in Guinness World Records as "the world's toughest bacterium." Able to survive extremes of cold, desiccation, vacuum, acidity, and starvation, it’s also the most radiation-resistant organism known. This it accomplishes by having multiple copies (between four and ten) of its genome and rapid DNA repair mechanisms that allow it to take two copies with random breaks and use them to reconstruct a single intact copy.

Yet its remarkable tolerances are hard to explain. Easily cultured in the laboratory, and not a cause of disease, D. radiodurans is found virtually everywhere – in soil, meat, feces, sewage, dried foods, room dust, and on medical instruments and textiles. It’s been recovered from elephant dung and granite in dry Antarctic valleys (thought to be an environmental approximation of Mars). Selective pressures here on earth, in other words, don’t seem to explain its preternatural hardiness.

U.S. scientists have created a strain of Deinococcus that can degrade toluene, an organic chemical found in radioactive waste sites. Another genetically engineered strain converts mercury, also found at these sites, into a less toxic form. None of which gets rid of the radiation, but does expedite cleanup and saves money.

Could Deinococcus radiodurans be Earth’s last best hope for the future? Isn't is comforting to know that once we humans have managed to eradicate just about every species including ourselves, D. radiodurans is likely to go soldiering on? Perhaps it’ll piggyback onto cockroaches (if there are any), Master Blaster style, to oversee the reconstruction of a brave new world. Or at least some scaled-down version of one – a buggy Bartertown, say, where servile methane-producing microbes live enthralled to gluttonous, methane-gobbling ones; where, just as on Mars, water and oxygen are things of the past, and extremophilic, the new norm.

Where “Conan the Bacterium” rules über alles.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Smile!: Unscripted Reactions to Candid Photography

"There are only two styles of portrait painting: the serious and the smirk."  – Charles Dickens 

Who can get enough of  personal imagery, especially if it’s of you? Rembrandt painted nearly eighty self-portraits; Frida Kahlo, fifty or so.  Online, some folks claim to have hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs of themselves. I myself have rather fewer, alas, none of them any good. But given so particular an affinity for one’s own physiognomy, it seems  ironic, indeed  lamentable, that the latter be treated as a peculiar possession so reluctantly parted with as to begrudge others even the occasional copy. Most folks, it turns out, are  not enthusiastic about having their picture taken, especially impromptu or candid ones. More about this in a bit. 

Under African sun, 1976
Portraiture emphasizing facial likeness was little known until the time of 18th dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th century BC.  The first portraits to appear in a truly natural or realistic modern-day style were probably the Fayum mummy portraits from Greco-Roman Egypt in the 3rd- 4th centuries.

During Europe’s Medieval period, having one’s portrait painted was considered vanity, jeopardizing one’s standing in the grace of God. The diminutive figures of donors in the sacred art of the Middle Ages often seem tenuous, a little precarious – obeisance on all fours symbolizing at once penitence yet vanity, or penitence as vanity, a sort of blurring of the line between hubris and humility, punishment and reward. One never knew when one’s piety might be in question, one’s soul at risk. Better to pay the Church – or at least an artist.

Even in today’s world, some members of the Amish community consider photographs to be “graven images” that violate the Bible’s Second Commandment. Other Amish feel that active cooperation in photography of oneself smacks of pride and is a sin for that reason. 

During the Renaissance, such attitudes began to change dramatically – the personal likeness or portrait eventually becoming fashionable not just amongst royalty but the middle classes as well. Portraiture of one sort or another, especially photography beginning about the middle of the 19th century, has been more or less on the rise ever since.

"You brought me a potato, and you expect a peach!"– Gilbert Stuart (to a client dissatisfied  with his wife's portrait)

A “decisive moment” of sorts. New York City, 1974
With today’s smart phone camera, however, this trend may be reaching an apogee of sorts. Camera-computers you wear on your face like Google Glass, the technological successor to the smart phone, have been roundly condemned as over the top for intrusiveness. Early adopters were ignominiously dubbed “glassholes.”  Larry Rosen, an expert in the psychology of technology, offers an analysis of this.

On the other hand, most new technologies to varying degrees have had to weather the travails of unfamiliarity on the path to popularity, and the same may be true of Google Glass (Google hasn’t thrown in the towel on the device). Even so, one might wonder if patience with today’s avalanche of personal depiction, or at least with the turn it’s been taking, may be starting to wear thin.

Fingers do the walking – and the talking. Rye, New 
York, 1977
Personal imagery or depiction of people has always had something of a numinous quality about it that taps into the human psyche. The sympathetic magic of the voodoo doll is perhaps a good example. Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, in a novel treatment of the same idea, imagines how one might preserve untrammeled youthfulness by outsourcing the decrepitude of age and ravages of debauchery to a likeness of oneself painted on canvas. To the devout, depictions of Jesus’ sacred heart such as adorn those crimson votive candles or hold center sway in some household shrines have similar import – never mind the plethora of iconography to be found in houses of worship.

Fashion model on a photo shoot focuses 
on the other photographer. Piazza di 
Spagna, Rome, 2002
At the extreme, the personal image or photograph has been imagined, not merely to engage the psyche, but actually make off with the soul! The Lakota leader Crazy Horse famously refused to be photographed because of such a belief, as did other Native Americans who thought photography showed disrespect for the spirit world. The same was true for some of Canada’s First Nation peoples. In Central Africa, fear of the photo was found amongst the Yaos people (page 90), as it was in 19th century Japan (which has come a long way since). Even today, some Aboriginal cultures forbid the display of pictures of the deceased for at least a year after death. For others, it’s disrespectful to show such images at all or even utter the names attached to them. 

Not surprisingly, it's difficult to separate the fear of photography misunderstood as a medium of sympathetic magic from its twin bugaboo, alarm over a photo's imagined power to literally hijack the spirit or soul. In either case, many pre-industrial folk have been wary of having their pictures “taken.”

Relying on some imaginative notions about quantum mechanics, Michael Fryd proposes an amusing tongue-in-cheek explanation of the supposed physics of photographic soul snatching. If his theory is correct, though, you could end up kidnapping your own soul, or at least unplugging it, by taking a selfie, so beware.

Quite apart from primitive notions of imagery’s magical properties, people today for various reasons are still chary about being photographed, especially if it’s a candid shot done on the fly without their permission. One woman has even posted a shrill manifesto listing her objections and premeditated responses.

In a report published in 1980,  Guile et al. noted that study subjects reacted to candid or impromptu photography as an invasion of personal space – typically responding to the photographer by either smiling or running away. Interestingly, no aggressive responses were observed.

Likewise, photographer Eric Kim has said that in the course of taking an estimated 300,000 candid street shots, he encountered aggressive reactions on only three occasions, none of them serious in his view. His discussion of how to go about doing this kind of photography is instructive.

As distinct from the general public, police and the military are notoriously wary of and often belligerent about being photographed.  In many foreign jurisdictions, it’s illegal and/or dangerous to do so. Given the nature of their professional duties, some sensitivity at having any sort of device with a barrel, sights, or rangefinder pointed at them might seem understandable. But unfortunately the reluctance of these groups probably has more to do with issues of public accountability and how to avoid it.

When it comes to candid photography, no figure looms larger than the late Heni Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004), still considered by many the doyen of his genre. Publication of his photo anthology The Decisive Moment in 1952 set a standard that in many respects still prevails today.

As phrased in the book’s title, the “decisive moment” expresses Cartier-Bresson’s idea that the photographer must be able to recognize the precise moment in which multiple elements of a scene come into equilibrium, then instantly seize that moment – the “decisive moment” – to capture the image on film. As he put it, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization the forms that give that event its proper expression.”


In reality, the famous expression has become a shibboleth of candid photography that makes much better sense put in context. Like most serious practitioners of the genre, Cartier-Bresson would “work the scene” (he was also a photojournalist), taking multiple shots of a situation, then choosing the best one(s) from a contact sheet. Yet every exposure in the collection, even if discarded (a contact sheet for “Seville, Spain, 1933” is extant, but most were destroyed after vetting), would still represent a decisive moment in its own right. The famous photographer would sometimes shoot an entire roll of film to get a single publishable (in his judgement) image – it’s selection a sort of definitive moment for the collection as a whole. 

Moroccan guide Omar Kyam gamely posed for 
pictures but strongly warned against photographing 
“any kind of police.” Marrakech, 1976
Thus understood, “decisive moment” contains less of an idea of preternatural, almost superhuman graphic acuity-cum-reflexive responsiveness on the part of the photographer and instead takes on an element of trial and error. Cartier-Bresson himself once said “Of course it’s all luck" – but then he was notorious for this kind of self-deprecating hyperbole, having also once declared “As for photography, I don’t know the first thing about it.

Despite such pronouncements, Cartier-Bresson’s talent was formidable. For me, a better understanding of his technique and methods makes his work that much more accessible.

As for the “decisive moment,” surely it’s an ideal for which one strives.

“The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!”Henri Cartier-Bresson 

Though Cartier-Bresson claimed not to manipulate his subjects, he often staged portraits, either through stylized composition or by using props. Some of his street photos, like “Barrio Chino, Barcelona,1933” or “Behind the Saint-Lazare Station, Paris, 1932” are so extraordinary that doubts about staging still linger. In point of fact, he was well-known to lay in wait for passersby to walk into a pre-composed frame – which might be considered staging of sorts.

Curiously, photographic self-portraits by Cartier-Bresson are rare, perhaps reflecting his unassuming personality and predilection for privacy. Only three are known to exit. He disliked publicity. 

To me,  the most compelling aspect of candid photography like Henri Cartier-Bresson's is its strong people-centeredness. Whether in a studio or on a street corner, people, I believe, are the photographer's greatest challenge by far.  Naturally, it would be simpler to snap pictures of, say, trees or rocks but apart from the likes of Weyerhaeuser or a few antique Freemasons, who could abide the monotony? Artistic treatment or interpretation of live creatures, especially people, through photography is invariably more intimate, more complicated – and that much more interesting.

Sometimes even when your subject objects.

Too agitated to notice photographers, a  groundskeeper berates a pet owner for encouraging his dog to 
cool off in the Venus fountain. Gardens of the Villa Borghese, Rome, 2017

Filming policemen from the rear or with their eyes shut reduces the risk. Left: minor traffic accident,
Hanoi, Vietnam, 2009; Right: lunch break,  Santa Lucia de Tirajana, Gran Canaria, 1976

Capturing this corpulent pair with a telephoto
lens kept the photographer well out of notice.
Montego Bay, Jamaica, 1977

A concerned policeman fends off tourists from snoozing pooches. Puerto Montt, Chile, 2014

Having compelled a photo to assure the camera
was not an infernal device, an airport security official
flashes a smile. Munich International Airport, 1994

Photo fatigue. Three Rivers Campground, Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico, 1997

Defeating  the photographer’s stratagem, a street vendor blocks the camera.
Varanasi, India, 1999

Too stoned to care, an enormous Indian bull elephant stares impassively.  A
mahout had foolishly tormented the intelligent creature while he was in musth,
whereupon the bull seized the man and taking him to the nearby Narayani River,
drowned him. Remorseful, the elephant then returned the lifeless body to camp and
laid it on the ground. Thereafter, handlers took care to feed the big male industrial
doses of Valium whenever he went into musth and confine him to quarters. Tiger Tops,
Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal, 1999

With almost Tantric detachment, a Himalayan domestic yak strikes a placid pose. Outskirts of Thimphu,
Bhutan, 1999