Sunday, July 25, 2010

Australia's general election: the Leader debate

I happened to see a few glimpses of the leadership debate between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and contender Tony Abbott.

I didn't hear what they said, which was a boon on two counts: first, I already knew their message in general terms, and the repetition can be wearying.  Second, it gave me an opportunity to look at their visual presentation.

They both waggled their heads.

Yet Gillard did it in a reassuring way, while Abbott's head waggling seemed rather agitated.  I would expect this debate would only influence those who had not made up their minds.  I'm further guessing that those people might not make a lot of sense of the difference between their policies on the basis of what they said.  And on what I saw, those swinging voters would have responded better to Gillard.

Later this evening, I heard a few snippets from the debate on the radio.  Again, going by just the tone of voice, Gillard sounded more measured, while Abbott was more strident - not in a positive way.

I'm not convinced the debate will have a great influence on the outcome of the election.  But if it did - at the margins - it wouldn't bode well for Abbott.

(However, with any luck, the margins are affected by more weighty aspect of the choice between the two parties.  That's a hard one, though.)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Genetics 001: The basis of heredity

Most discussions of genetics demonstrate that what is known has been discovered through rigorous scientific experimentation and observation.  One good reason is that this field demonstrates more clearly than the study of fossils the evolutionary basis - and common roots - of all life on earth.  I don't plan to go to that level of detail: because anybody who investigates this subject with any sort of rigour would find the evidence clear, logical, and irrefutable.

Most discussions also begin with Mendel's two laws.  Although they are widely known, I'll reproduce them briefly here.  Mendel was a monk (and scientist) whose work on breeding peas was largely ignored in the 19th century, and rediscovered at the start of the 20th.
Mendel's first law: an individual inherits two factors of heredity for each given trait, one from each parent.
Mendel's second law: independent traits assort independently of each other.
From Mendel came the understanding those two factors above can be dominant or recessive - ie the dominant can mask the recessive, although both factors are present in the individual, and inheritable.

Now, a molecular biology overview.

Animals and plants are eukaryotes: each living cell in every organism has a nucleus, which contains the genetic blueprint for the organism.  This is organised as a set of chromosomes, the same number within each species, but differing numbers for different species.

In contrast, Bacteria are prokaryotes, which means a bacterial cell has no compartmentalised nucleus for the storage of genetic material.  Bacteria are single-celled organisms, as are nearly all prokaryotes.  Most eukaryotes are multi-celled organisms, although some are unicellular - amoeba being an example.

(Although it could be said that organisms lacking nuclei are more primitive, Stephen Jay Gould has illustrated that the likes of bacteria are an extraordinarily successful form of life, having eked out more niches on this planet, and over a longer period of time, than anything else.  Moreover, bacteria in total biomass outweigh the total of all eukarytic life.  They are very successful adaptors.)

Chromosomes take the form of DNA (deoxyribose nucleic acid): very lengthy molecules - largely comprising hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen - that are typically packed tightly, in a well-structured way.  Much of a cell's metabolism is controlled automatically via the instructions stored in DNA, which are sent out from the nucleus through RNA, and typically executed by the assembly of proteins from the building blocks of amino acids.

Proteins typically act as catalysts: that is, they facilitate chemical reactions without being changed themselves.  Thus, the presence of particular proteins bring about certain reactions that affect metabolism in cells and through the body.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Film: The Swimmer (USA, 1968)

This is a most unusual Hollywood film.  Not for its mise-en-scene and locational filming, the stomping ground of the rich East Coast upper middle class.  But for the way it blended realism and allegory in a fashion hardly ever seen in Hollywood.

It is based on a short story by John Cheever which was apparently substantially similar to the film.  However, the level of detail of the film is such that credit must clearly be given also to the scriptwriter, Eleanor Perry (wife of, and sometime collaborator with, the director Frank Perry).

Spoilers below.

The plot:
Burt Lancaster is Ned, a wealthy advertising executive, who conceives of a plan to "swim his way home" by doing a circuit of the swimming pools of all the people he knows in his leafy, well-heeled neighbourhood.  The film is effectively a group of set pieces at each of the pools he visits.

At first, he is greeted with heartiness as warm and eager as he himself exudes.  But gradually through the film, the apparent balmy day turns sharply autumnal, as do the people he meets.  A troubled recent past slowly emerges, which he doesn't seem to remember.
The receptions accorded to him slowly turn frostier, bitter even, when he meets some who he still thought of as close friends.

Gradually, as the circle closes, Ned arrives back at his own house, which is deserted and boarded up, his family long gone.  The rain pelts down on him, mirroring the futile blows he makes on the front door as he collapses and sobs.

I first saw this film as a teenager; it left an indelible mark on my memory.  But I don't fully trust my young impressions of adult films, so I grabbed the chance to see this a second time recently.  It didn't disappoint.

Certainly, it is dated.  It is very much a reflection of its 1960s wealthy, somewhat conservative milieu.  Yet the nature of the storytelling is quite disarming: its beginnings are steeped in super-realism, which is where the cinematography remains.  But allegory inexorably takes over the narrative.  You know the real story is below the surface; hints are given, but it's never firmly spelt out.  You start to wonder about his fall from grace, and the genre seems to have slipped into mystery: a puzzle to be revealed.  But it turns out that the story is the journey itself; the denouement is the very fact of his fall.

I am not familiar with the other works of the writer and the director, so this film must stand alone, albeit bearing the mark of the original writer, Cheever.

Made in 1966, but not released until 1968: the original director, Perry, left this project uncompleted: the cited "creative differences" probably saw him at odds with the film's producers.  For what it's worth, Sydney Pollack finished it.

On a final note, those who came in late may remember Burt Lancaster as a somewhat cheesy Hollywood actor with little that is memorable to his credit.  So it is salient to point out his presence in two films of moment: this, and an even more memorable work, 1957's hard-hitting film noir, Sweet Smell Of Success.  Seek it out.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The future of this blog [genetics 000]

It has come to my attention that...
I know I've been a bit slack lately...
There is so much richness in this world that there's never enough time to explore it all, let alone diarise it...

Ideally, I'd write a thought a day; heaven knows there is an abundance of fresh insights to be gleaned from the experiences of each and every day.  On the other hand, there's a putative obligation to pursue the insight to the full extent of its value, else why even start?

So, the world is still turning, new experiences are daily deposited in the bank of life's richness.  Where is the reward in not sharing it?

Time, that is the villain.  It seems to accelerate, leaving me guilty and struggling in its wake.

Not that I've been idle.  But as it stands, the less time I spend commuting, the less I have to devote to absorbing and recording.  (In any case, my commuting time had been taken up with podcasted lectures.)

To date, evolution constitutes the majority of my [tagged] posts.  Not surprising; it's been a fascinating journey - unexpected, and very rewarding.  But I've taken an equally fascinating, equally unexpected turn: to molecular biology and genetics.

Although the confluences could be mapped, this path certainly wasn't planned.  And I'm not a gadfly, turning to a new subject at whim.  In fact, before dipping into evolution, I'd not plunged so deeply into an area of study outside a formal university course.  And I had hitherto treated biology as the distant, neglected cousin of all the sciences, steeped as I had been in mathematics and physics.

A starting point could be: "what is a gene?"  Actually, I have attempted this in the past, with understandably mixed results.  So I felt I should not start the recording process until I'd got that under wraps.  Yet by the time I felt sufficiently confident, I'd come out the other end, and in fact discovered where within this wide area my true temperament and interest lies.

I will not start with the above question - the answer is not sufficiently straightforward.  I will start at the natural starting point: the basics of molecular biology.

It's not dry and uninteresting.  It's a fascinating universe writ small, and it touches on many of my core concerns, including information science, analysis, evolution, mathematics, and pure intrinsic beauty.

I will be trying to construct an engaging, coherent narrative.  Yet I will still take minor excursions into some of my traditional interests: music, film, current events, and science (first up will be a film called The Swimmer).

I even know exactly where this journey is taking me: genomics, wherein lies a universe of challenges - and which is one of the most current, most relevant worlds left to be explored.  For a hint of this, there's a truly inspiring lecture by Eric Lander of MIT, called Genomics (it's available for free on iTunes).  Although its clarity is worthy of the best of the visionary TED lectures, the full richness of its meaning will be far better appreciated with sufficient context.  That's what I'm aiming to provide.