Bootstrap boogie

The American credo “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!” – an uplifting imperative that originally appeared, in German, above the entrance at Auschwitz; unless it was engraved, in Dante’s Italian, above the entrance of Hell…

From My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates

Where do sunburns come from?

Vintage Sunburn Ads (1)

Last Monday, I reached over the stove while I was cooking and bumped my wrist against a hot saucepan, sustaining a semicircular blister burn. That Saturday, when my thermal burn was nearly healed, I went to Knoxville Pridefest in a sleeveless blouse and got a sunburn on my shoulders. As I write this, my week-old sunburn is shedding little pieces of skin onto the inside of my T-shirt.

These annoying but altogether normal experiences had me wondering: why do sunburns and thermal burns look and feel so different? Why did my thermal burn heal without peeling everywhere? Why do thermal burns hurt immediately, while sunburns glow warmly but painlessly for hours before you really feel them? And why does one increase the risk of skin cancer while the other does not?

As it happens, science has the answer! Well, science still has to work out the minute details, but on the basic level it has the answer.

When sunburn occurs, ultraviolet radiation penetrates the nuclei of the skin cells and mutates the DNA within. The mutant DNA gets transcribed into mutant bits of non-coding microRNA, which disseminates and triggers an inflammatory response. This inflammation is what makes the sunburn red and warm. If the mutations are pronounced enough, the cells in the first layer of skin will die and eventually peel off. The body has processes that stop the crazy sunburn mutations from spreading, but every time you get a sunburn it increases the statistical possibility that mutations will stick around – and that’s why sunburns increase the risk of skin cancer.

So sunburns are caused by DNA mutations from radiation. Real life is so much less glamorous than superhero comics.

A thermal burn from a hot stove, by contrast, happens when excessive heat melts the proteins inside the skin, causing it to break down. You feel this immediately, which is a good thing when you think about what would happen if you just left your hand sitting on a hot saucepan. Thermal burns have nothing to do with skin cancer because they do not mutate DNA.

It just goes to show that even common experiences can be an opportunity to learn some fascinating science – or, if you’re really smart, to come up with some fascinating science.

I have a crush on Bartleby



I want to sail the seven seas with you...

I want to sail the seven seas with you…


“I would prefer not to.”

These words, uttered again and again by the titular figure in Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener,  comprise a riddle that torments today’s literary critics just as surely as they torment the Manhattan lawyer who serves as the novella’s narrator. According to Professor Arnold Weinstein, whose Coursera offering I have been enjoying very much these past three weeks, the postmodern consensus is that Bartleby isn’t even a character – the copyist who would prefer not to is either a metaphysical challenge to a lawyer’s humanity or a symbol of the death of storytelling. These readings are certainly justified. One cannot behold Bartleby standing inert in the middle of the office “like the last column of some deserted temple” without imagining him as an object or a symbol; this is a person who cares so little for himself that he starves to death after deciding that he would prefer not to eat.

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At least the plants like it.

Summer, everyone! Time for humidity, mosquitoes, severe thunderstorms, circadian rhythm breakdown, inability to concentrate due to lifelong summer vacation conditioning, suet melting out of the suet feeder, dehydration headaches, teenagers blasting music, Facebook friends’ bizarre status updates from church camp, and boob sweat. The only good thing is that fresh corn, squash, and tomatoes go on sale for three whole months. I miss having a garden of my own. It gave me something to look forward to every day.

Jeez, this planet and its axial tilt.

Your poverty-shaming is not going to get me off government assistance


I had a panic attack last night. It was a mild one triggered by working too long too late on my Udacity precalculus course, but the thoughts that came to me were only tenuously related to my progress in math. They took the form they’ve been taking for three years now: I am a thief. I am stealing from the taxpayers. I am a parasite. I am worthless. Everyone hates me. Everyone except my immediate family members would be happier if I were dead. Maybe I should kill myself.

It is worth noting that I am not suicidal. It is only during these intense spasms of shame that I chance to think such things, and the only reason I risked frightening my readers in this manner is that I need to convey how negative the effects of poverty-shaming can be. My spasms of shame are a direct result of how people in my life and the media have spoken to me about the poor, and they do not result in any inspirational displays of bootstrap-pulling. Rather, they distract me from my studies, kill my motivation, worsen my social skills, and ultimately keep me out of the workforce longer.
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I wish to be reincarnated as a vulture


A vulture, I say!

Why, you may ask? Because they get up late and spend most of the day riding thermals with their vulture pals, keeping an eye out for roadkill but mostly just soaring and playing and soaking up the sun. Sure, there’s a gross-out factor, especially when it comes to diet, but a vulture is programmed by evolution to enjoy carrion the same way a human is programmed by evolution to enjoy a well-marbled ribeye. I’d just like my deceased ungulates a little less processed if I were a vulture. No biggie.

My diet would give me the spectacular defense mechanism of vomiting carrion onto aggressive parties. Step up on me and you’d get rancid meat in the face. Ha!

I’d be “ugly,” too, but no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. The captive turkey vulture at Ijams Nature Center believes herself a great beauty, judging by how much time she spends preening and strutting before the visitors. Even she is an exception – most birds show zero indication that they care what humans think of them. Wilderness-dwelling birds may be unaware of humans as separate entities.

The question would be: turkey vulture or black vulture? A birder can generally tell these species apart by their aura*. if you look up in a tree, see a big black bird, and think “Look, a vulture,” then you’ve probably seen a turkey vulture. If you look up in a tree, see a big black bird, and think “OH MY GOD IT’S A HARBINGER OF DOOM FROM THE DEPTHS OF HELL!” then you’ve probably seen a black vulture. Bulky, scary black vultures look badass, but I think I’d rather be a turkey vulture. Turkey vultures have a leaner shape for more graceful soaring.

A lot of people hate vultures, but I love them enough to want to be one. I guess it’s my knowledge of what a world without scavenging birds looks like, combined with the pleasure of watching my local vultures circle lazily in the summer air.


* Birding by intuition (getting the gist of the bird) is called “jiz birding,” because the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Bushtit v. Woodcock case that all birding slang must sound unspeakably filthy 

Course trailer for Walter Lewin’s MITx MOOC, 8.01x Classical Mechanics

I hope to be math-competent enough to take this course by the time it goes live. Look at this guy – he’s the archetypal physics professor, complete with accent, loud shirt, and unkempt hair. He says he’ll make me love physics whether I like it or not. I kind of believe him.

Open Matters

Some of the best lectures ever recorded now paired with cutting-edge edX online learning tools. Check it out:

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My book club is the best book club


Welcome to yet another installment of my semi-weekly series “The Things I Do On Sunday Instead of Church.” Previous installments have concerned birding, but this week I get to share some thoughts on what has become the highlight of my month: book club.

I attend book club with my aunt, who was part of the original group that formed around a grand effort to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – members still call it the Proust Book Club, even though the original group finished In Search of Lost Time years ago. We meet in a Panera Bread, among earnest college students fiddling with laptops. Meeting in a dry establishment is perhaps our noblest and most fruitful innovation as a book club. We are trailblazers for temperance.

I joined less than two years ago, when the club decided to tackle the works of Thomas Mann. My membership didn’t make sense in light of the demographics of the club – it’s mostly older, highly educated women and older, exquisitely cultured gay men – so I had to do all the reading, speak up often, and take risks to prove myself. This was ultimately successful and more than worth the effort. I’ve become a bit of a class clown, though – I’m the sprightly, irreverent millennial who can be depended upon to say things like “He puts the bi back in Bible!” That’s fine, as these people are my friends.

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Welcome to the Internet.


“To the relief of all the world’s nations, a truce has been declared in the (utterly fake and nonsensical) war between President Barack Obama and the Audubon Society.”

The story: The Onion, a satirical newspaper, posted screencaps depicting a fictional Twitter war between Barack Obama and the Audubon Society. It’s weird and hilarious and you should check it out. Anyway, someone at the White House picked up on it, and Obama (or, more likely, a White House PR staffer) tweeted a positive message about the Audubon Society.

The Audubon Society was excited to hear from the White House, as any large nonprofit would be. They retweeted Obama’s message and jokingly announced the end of the Obama-Audubon Twitter feud.

As a result, old ladies have been leaving angry messages on the Audubon Facebook page, alleging that the organization has made a political statement.

What a time to be alive.