Monthly Archives: January 2013

You can’t make this sh!t up: well, turns out you can

Every so often a news story comes along with a nearly infinite capacity for humor.  I saw one today I couldn’t resist.

But first a little backstory.

It’s no secret that we are a buggy species.  You would be shocked to find out how buggy, though.  Some estimates are we carry one hundred trillion bacteria in and on us.

Those bacteria outnumber our own cells.  Think about that: you are more bacteria than person.

Apparently that adds up to five pounds of bugs.  So… you need to drop five pounds really fast?  Saturate your body in antibiotics!

Assuming that would actually work, it would eventually kill you, because we need some of those bugs.  You couldn’t digest food without them, for one.  Hence the probiotic yogurt craze, under the theory that if some bugs are good, more must be better.  Fortunately, you don’t need their ‘special’ bugs; all yogurt aids digestion (fortunately, because the probiotic stuff gives me wicked gas).

For roughly half of us, bacteria in the vagina will protect this beautiful organ from yeast infections and keep the vagina beautiful.  That gives the other half of us good reason to appreciate bacteria as well.

It works because bacteria and yeast are arch-nemeses from ancient times.  Even before Fleming isolated the penicillium mold, our ancestors used mold to treat infections, not knowing why it worked.

Or at least, it used to work.  Penicillin was once a wonderdrug, but over the decades most bacteria have evolved to laugh at it.

In fact, last year gonorrhea became an official superbug — it has evolved to the point where not much works against it anymore, except prevention… although it’s only time before it learns how to chew through latex and lambskin.

So that brings us to the point of this article.  Clostridium difficile is a bad bug that can cause havoc in your colon.  Diarrhea is the least of your worries with this guy.  He can kill you.

Some antibiotics can knock him out, but most make it worse by killing the good bugs that normally displace C. difficile.

And of course sticking antibiotics in factory meat and soap and sponges and cutting boards and shoe insoles and deodorant and God knows what else is accelerating the evolution of this and other superbugs.  But I digress.

A new treatment for treating particularly difficult C. difficile is to insert (somehow, I don’t want to know the details) fecal matter with good bugs into your colon.

Apparently it works very well, but the ick factor has people hesitating.  Understandably so.  So a microbiologist from the University of Guelph in Ontario has created… wait for it… artificial poop.

The good news is it is proving to be as effective as real poop.

The better news is she is calling it “rePOOPulate“.  Brilliant.

With such a fertile comic field, let’s plant some slogans and see what grows:

rePOOPulate: The best to you each morning.
rePOOPulate: Oh what a feeling!
rePOOPulate: Come smell what we’ve been cooking.
rePOOPulate: It’s finger lickin’ good.
rePOOPulate: There’s peanut butter in my chocolate!
rePOOPulate: There’s something special in the air.
rePOOPulate: Makes the going great!
rePOOPulate: Driven by what’s inside.
rePOOPulate: What’s in your wallet?

Hmm… there must be some other good ones out there…

So enter to win our rePOOPulate slogan contest in the comment section below!  All entries will be judged by a forum of your peers.

First prize winner could get a crock of rePOOPulate!

The runner-up might be entered into a draw for a free colon cleansing!

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Reeds, shoots & leaves: a short story on paper

Did you know when you write on paper, you are writing on leaves?

Yep, it’s in the history of our language.

Our story starts a few thousand years ago.  Our ancestors in what are now North Africa and the Middle East wrote on clay tablets.  It was presumably cheap and fairly permanent, but not terribly portable.  Every book created in such a manner is a hardcover.  Very hardcover.  Imagine trying to fit the Old Testament into your camel bags when every page is inch-thick rock.

The Egyptians decided there had to be a better way.  They figured out how to turn papyrus reeds into paper.  In fact, that’s literally where “paper” comes from: “paper” comes from the French “papier”, which comes from the Latin “papyrus”, which comes from… um… papyrus.

In the meanwhile, Buddhist monks figured out how to write on dried palm leaves.  In fact, some anthropologists think the paper caused them to use rounded letters, because angled letters tore the paper.

That’s interesting, don’t you think?  Sumerian cuneiform writing was mostly lines and angles, probably because it was too hard to make curves in clay.  As people started using flattened papyrus reeds and palm leaves, they added curves in their writing so they wouldn’t tear their new paper.

So that means the writing medium directly influences the alphabet of a culture.

And it’s still happening.  Remember PalmPilots and their own funky alphabet?  It was called Graffiti, and they needed it to make use of the new medium.

Graffiti is perhaps a poor example because it died with the PalmPilot, but in the age of text and email we introduced emoticons.  This is because our new electronic media is devoid of emotion.

Back in the days when we actually talked to people, we could tell from their tone or facial expression whether they were joking.  Now, in a text or email, we can’t.  Thus we invented emoticons, so you can still insult your friends and family then tack on a smiley so they know you didn’t mean it.  You jerk.  🙂

Getting back to leaves… the French word for a sheet of paper is “feuille“, which is the same word they use for “leaf”.  It comes from the Latin “folia”, from which we also get the English word “foliage”.

And in English, a sheet of paper is also called a “page“.  The word “page” comes from the French word “pagene” or “pagne”, which comes from the Latin “pagina” which means the surface of a leaf, shoot, or a flattened twig.

So that word “page” brings us back to the beginning of this, when I was talking about papyrus reeds and palm leaves.  (You thought I was lost, didn’t you?)

In case you were wondering, the English word “sheet” comes from the Saxon branch of the language.  It just means a covering or a flat surface.  Nothing exciting there.

Note that some people were also writing on tree bark, especially birch bark.  In fact, the term “codex” which used to mean book (and sometimes still does) comes from Latin “caudex”, meaning “bark”.  That is another leaf reference, sort of.

To complete this historical picture: besides paper, European monks also used parchment.  This is the skin of a lamb, goat, pig, deer, or calf, which is stretched and treated to make a clean and durable writing surface.  In the case of calfskin, it was also called “vellum” which comes from the French “veau”, from which we also get “veal”.

Returning again to leaves… the English word leaf references paper in two ways:

  1. a leaf is a single sheet of a paper with two sides, such as you would find in a book, magazine, or newspaper.  It comes from medieval bookbinding methods, when monks would lay four sheets of parchment on top of each other, then fold them over to make eight leaves.  Since each leaf had two sides, that gave them sixteen pages.  This was called a quire, for “four”, and later called a gathering or a signature.  They painstakingly filled the pages of each gathering with medieval stuff, then bound all the gatherings together into a book.  As they replaced parchment with paper, they could fit more than eight leaves in a gathering, but the principle of binding leaves into gatherings and gatherings into books is still used today.
  2. to leaf through a book, magazine, or newspaper is to skim it by quickly turning over pages.  I assume this is simply verb-alizing the noun in #1.

illuminated_book1

What about collective nouns?

Well, we call a handful of paper a “sheaf”, and we buy it in reams.

Sheaf also comes from the Saxon branch of English, as a bundle of grain or straw.  That ties into papyrus, a bit.

Ream, however, comes to us through French and Spanish, originally from Moorish Arabic for “collect into a bundle”.  It was around 480 pages, but varied all over the place.  There is an international standard ream now, which is exactly 500 pages, but apparently reams of a little less and a little more are still around.

So the next time you come home from Staples with a fresh ream of paper, before you pull out a sheaf and stick it into your printer, give a thought to its five thousand year history and all those monks that came before you.  Scribing, illuminating, and bookbinding was high art — something a laptop and printer will never replace.

illuminated_page1

Goodbye, Old Friend

He was old, probably suffering, though his kind never complain, so how could you tell?  Stiff with arthritis, they will still struggle to their feet when they hear you at the door.  Gone blind, they will still wag their tails at the sound of your voice. Riddled with tumors, they will still lick your hand if you bring it near.

He lost the sight in one eye when he was around ten, but he had two good years before the cataract in the other eye grew in, leaving him completely blind. We considered paying the two thousand dollars per eye to get them removed, but at his age the surgery itself could kill him, and by then other things had gone wrong.

Besides, dogs use their other senses far more than we do. He could navigate the house well enough without sight. Unfortunately it meant we could no longer take him for walks, because any breeze that brushed him made him think he was about to run into something, and he would stop.

Arthritis had crept into his joints by then. He was cutting short his twice-daily sniffing tour of the backyard.  This was the same yard we used to chase him around not more than two years before, when he would bark and wag and never seem to tire.

Near the end, he would go out to just beyond the deck, do his business, and return. He always found his way back though. Even blind. It was inspiring to watch.

The worst were the skin problems. When he was around thirteen he developed a fatty deposit the size of a fist. It squatted just under the skin of his lower belly. He became obsessed with licking at it, to the point where he broke skin and it began to fester. We put a collar on him, but he found ways around it.

That was the saddest part of it all.  The smell of rot clung to him, and no bath could get rid of it.  He was never comfortable, especially with that damned collar.  And with the smell, no one wanted him around.  Even I had a hard time cuddling with him.

Finally we made the decision.  We took him to the vet for the last time.  As a bonus, the vet found a heart murmur.

Then she suggested various surgeries that could prolong his life — we could get another two years, perhaps. Maybe we should reconsider.

I still can’t believe she said that. Did she have any idea how long it took us to come to this decision? How we were barely holding it together as it was? Was she looking to pad her pockets? I nearly left in disgust, but we were too close to turn back now.

The vet stuck a needle in his butt and he collapsed in my arms. He began licking the palm of my left hand. Another needle and he was dead.

We had him cremated and buried him behind our pond, in the backyard he loved so much. We bought a statue of St. Francis to watch over him.

The next summer, I bought a little garden stone to leave with the Saint. It had the epitaph:

In memory of our faithful friend and companion.

It was painfully inadequate, but it was the best they had. He was all that, and so much more.

He was family.

Farewell, my friend.  And so much more.

A Parable of Parallels

This is the story of Robby and Tommy, and of the strange way in which their society valued their lives.

They were born in the same year and lived on the same street.  Naturally they became best friends.  They were always together, playing in one or another’s front yard, or riding their bikes around the neighborhood.  In school, their teachers said they were twins who acted alike instead of looking alike.

Robby’s father was a lawyer.  He went to work early every morning, and spent many weeknights working in his study.  He expected his son would go to college like he did.  On weekends he often took both boys to the museum, or the zoo, or the movies.  Once in a while he took them to his office to play with the photocopiers.

Tommy’s father was a Ford salesman.  He was a star football player when he was in high school, but he wasn’t quite good enough for a college scholarship, and he wasn’t that interested in college anyway.  He was liked by everyone and made a good salesman.  On weekends he often took both boys to a ball game, or the park, or the video arcade.

Both Robby and Tommy wanted to be deep sea divers when they grew up, then astronauts, then fighter pilots, then ambulance drivers.

But one year Robby’s mother got very sick.  The doctors said it was cancer, and she started wasting away right before their eyes.  One doctor gave her an experimental treatment, and she got better.  One year stretched into two, and everyone started to forget she was ever sick.  But suddenly she got even sicker, and began wasting away even faster.  A priest went to her in the hospital, and Robby began to understand that his mother was really dying this time.  He told her he didn’t want her to go, and she said she would always be watching him from heaven, and then she died.

Everyone they knew came to the funeral.  As Robby watched his mother’s casket lowered into the ground, he said to Tommy that he was going to be a doctor.  He wanted to make sick people well again, like that doctor with the experimental treatment, only he would do it better so it would never stop working.

Fast forward a few years.  Robby became Robert, and Tommy became Thomas.  Robert got a new mother, and he thought she was okay.  He called her Karen instead of Mom though, and she was okay with that.  Thomas said she was pretty, and Robert thought that was gross.

Thomas still came around for supper sometimes, but he didn’t sleep over anymore.  Every night he had football practice or basketball practice or baseball practice, and he usually hung around with his friends from the team.

Robert read lots of different books because he knew doctors had to know a lot of different things.  His dad bought him a set of encyclopedias, and he sat cross-legged with them on his lap for hours, going from one topic to the next.  Thomas sometimes came over to read them too, and then they used Robert’s chemistry set to make stinkbombs.

Fast forward a few more years, to high school.  Robert became Rob, and Thomas became Tom.  Rob was the school brain, good at every subject, captain of the debating team, and winner of all the science fairs.  Tom was the starting quarterback for the school football team, and star center for the basketball team.  They didn’t see each other much.  If they passed in the hallways, sometimes they would say “hi”.

In fact, Tom hung around with the “in” crowd, who made fun of Rob and his nerdy friends.  Tom went quiet when they did that.  Tom got a new girlfriend every month.  Rob was awkward and shy around girls.  He never got a date and took his cousin to the senior prom.

Tom got a college football scholarship, signed a contract for a major league team after his third year, and dropped out to play pro.  Many top colleges offered Rob scholarships, and he chose the one with the best medical and biotechnology programs.

Tom got a vintage Corvette as a signing bonus.  Rob kept driving his father’s old Tempo, the one his father had bought from Tom’s father fourteen years before.

Rob completed his undergraduate degree with honors and applied for graduate studies in biotechnology.  He was accepted immediately.

Tom was named Rookie of the Year and he tore up his contract to get a better one.  He got it.

Later that year, Tom wrapped his Porsche around a streetlamp and bought a Ferrari, but then got arrested for cocaine possession, suspended for a month, and was committed to rehab.  He tried to punch a police officer on the way out of the courtroom, and Disney had to cancel their advertising contract with him.  Fortunately, Mennen and Schick found his new rough image appealing, especially since it was splashed across the front pages of every newspaper in the developed world.  They offered him new contracts.

Rob’s old Tempo finally died and could not be resurrected.  He started taking the bus.

Rob finished his Master’s degree in a year and went on to Doctorate studies.  The faculty put Rob’s professor in charge of a privately funded research project looking at new cancer treatments.  After a year, the professor was spending more and more time flogging for additional grant money so he let Rob lead the research team.  Rob couldn’t have been happier, despite his girlfriend of six months leaving him for a phys-ed student.

Tom was arrested again for cocaine possession, but the judge was a huge football fan.  Tom was sentenced in absentia to one hundred hours of community service.  He never served it.  No one expected him to.

Over the next two years Tom’s addictions and erratic behavior began to affect his play, and he started to slide in the league standings.  He was traded to a small market team and his adoring public forgot about him.  The celebrity endorsements dried up, leaving him with only his base four million dollar salary.  He was very unhappy, and he fell further into excess.

Rob and his team made worthwhile discoveries and published three papers, but they didn’t make the big breakthrough that the private backer was hoping for.  They pulled their funding, which effectively killed the project.  Rob was disappointed, but not so much.  He knew he was close to something.

Later that year, Rob completed his Doctorate degree and became a professor at the same university.  He pulled together a team of graduate students and restarted his previous research project.  His old professor found him another corporate backer and Rob borrowed against everything he owned, and more besides, to buy better equipment for his lab.

Tom kept looking back at all he had lost.  He grew despondent as he watched his cars and his summer house in France go up his nose.  His girlfriend left with his Corvette, his friends dropped by less and less often, and he was suspended from the team for missing too many practices.  He gained ten useless pounds and looked fifteen years older.  He felt like the has-been the football pundits were calling him.

Rob followed his childhood dream with a fervor that left his fellows in awe.  They rarely saw him outside of his laboratory.  He even installed a cot in his office.  Which he occasionally shared, as it turned out, with an attractive young graduate student on his team.  She was caught up in the vortex surrounding the handsome young doctor with the soft belly and unruly hair, and a fire in his eyes that left her smitten.

The next year, Rob made a breakthrough that made international news.  His discovery was credited with saving potentially millions of lives, and he was nominated for the Nobel prize in Medicine.

Tom’s agent told him his contract would not be renewed.  Tom was deciding whether to go work for his father selling cars, or to put a gun into his mouth and end a lifetime of wasted potential, when his eyes happened to fall upon an article in USA Today.  It was about a boy he once knew.  The boy had grown up to accomplish everything he had promised to do.  Tom looked at himself in the mirror, then threw up.  He followed that by flushing the envelope of cocaine he had taped beneath the bathroom sink, then he went through his house gathering the rest of his caches.  He flushed them too.  That afternoon he called some friends in the league.  He managed to get himself traded to an expansion team that he thought could be a Superbowl contender.

Before the end of that season, Tom rediscovered his love for the game and outran even the rookies.  His star began to shine again.  The endorsement contracts began to trickle in, and the sports pundits stopped calling him a has-been.  As much.

Rob won the Nobel prize for Medicine.  He graciously shared the cash prize of ten million kronas, roughly one point three million dollars, with his research team.  After paying off his debts he still had enough money to buy a nice house.  The award presentation was not televised in North America, so he bought a ticket to Stockholm for his father and stepmother to watch it in person.

The next year Tom led his new team to the Superbowl finals and the league named him Player of the Year.  He received a million dollar cash bonus.  His face was again front page news.  His team renewed his contract for twenty two million dollars over three years, and new endorsement contracts came in at double that.  He married a supermodel and divorced her a month later.  She kept his new summer house in Italy and two of his cars.  He then married an actress.  That marriage lasted nearly six months, but fortunately she had signed a pre-nuptial agreement.  Naturally she contested it, but his lawyer assured him that the case would be tied up in appeals for another ten years, giving him plenty of time to hide his assets.

Rob’s breakthrough was considered one of the top medical discoveries of the century.  No one knew his face, and his name was quickly forgotten by the people whose lives he saved.  Instead, they thanked their doctor, or the pharmaceutical company who supplied the drugs created from Rob’s research.  Incidentally, that company’s stock split after the university sold them the patent.

Rob became a legend in the scientific community, and shared his time with as many research teams as he could.  He preferred to stay near home though, in his four bedroom house that he shared with his wife – the attractive former graduate student – and their two children.  He wrote in his memoirs that except for losing his mother at an early age, he was the luckiest man on Earth, and he would relive his life in exactly the same way.

Tom’s name lived on forever in the minds of sports fans and in games of trivia.  He blew out his left knee at age 30 and decided to retire.  He was wealthy enough to live better than royalty for the rest of his life, despite squandering millions on high living and failed marriages.  If he decided to write his autobiography – which he never would, but if he did – he could have remarked that throwing a ball and running around pays very well for those who are good at it.

One warm autumn day, Tom suddenly remembered that article in USA Today, and he found himself wondering about his childhood friend.  He nearly had his assistant look for Rob’s number to invite him over for a barbeque.  Rob nearly accepted.  And their society nearly wondered if it should value those who save lives more than those who entertain.  But it didn’t.

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