Trump, DNA, and the Marriott hotel

Oct 22, 2016

I wasn't feeling well when I arrived to the Marriott hotel in Washington D.C. There was a meeting of the American Psychological Association starting that afternoon that would last for several days. There would be thousands of people, so If I skipped the first afternoon, nobody would notice.

In my hotel room, I lay under the sheets of the nice comfortable Marriott bed. I wasn't sick; just weak and fatigued. Maybe it was from stress anticipating the talk I was supposed to give on the last day of the meeting. I looked in the bedside drawer and saw two books. One was a bible. The other was about the history of Marriott hotels.

I almost never order room service, but this time I felt like treating myself well. With the little coffee maker on the desk I made a cup of coffee, took it back to the bed, and under the cool white Marriott sheets, I started reading about the history of Marriott. There was something great about reading this pointless - but not uninteresting - book, sipping coffee in bed, and playing hookie from the APA meeting.

From the book, I learned that Marriott International doesn't own many hotels. They don't sell them, rent them or even manage them. The big powerful Marriott chain basically licenses one thing: an instruction manual on how to run a Marriott hotel. The instructions include every detail. When the cleaning staff service a room, the manual tells them exactly how to make the bed, and everything else you need to know to clean a room efficiently in less than 10 minutes. If the hotel restaurant makes hotdogs, the manual tells you how many times to turn them over.

In a sense, the Marriott handbook is like DNA. You can’t have a cell of the body without it. But it doesn’t contain anything except for instructions on how to be an efficient, profitable cell. From the long string of DNA code, liver cells read the part about being a liver cell, neurons read the parts relevant to being a neuron, and so on. The strings of DNA in the liver are the same as the ones in neurons. The different cells just read different parts of the manual. So too, the Marriott cleaning staff can skip the chapters about working the front desk.

Materials are less important than know-how. Anybody can paint the walls of a hotel room or get a phone for a desk. The value is in knowing how to put all the pieces together and keep them functioning well. Similarly, it’s no big deal for an enzyme inside a cell to convert a nutrient into a useful biological molecule.  But the DNA has the cell's instructions on how to make those enzymes, which enzymes to make, and in what order. Different types of cells follow different sets of DNA instructions (they "express" different genes). If a cell that's supposed to become a neuron follows the wrong set of instructions it may become a liver cell, a heart cell, or a cell that's completely non-functional. For this reason, each cell puts a lot of energy into covering up the parts of the DNA that are irrelevant for its job, and making sure that the parts of DNA code that are important for its function are easy for the cell’s DNA reader (a molecule called RNA polymerase) to read.

It's been more than 15 years since I was in that Marriott, skipping out on that meeting, and reading the Marriott book instead.  Probably I’m thinking about it because I'm staying in a Marriott again.  (It’s one of those great Marriott Residence Inn’s where you get a whole extra room with kitchen and everything for an economical price. And I swear I get no kickback from Marriott for saying so.)

But there's another association to that time:  Back then, I could turn on the TV in the hotel room to see the newest revelations about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. It was hard not to be curious about what they'd find next.  And so in addition to room service, coffee, the Marriott book, and the fun of hiding during a conference, I could turn on the TV and get entertainment of the lowest, most entertaining sort.  Today, I turn on the TV in my Marriott hotel room and see a woman talking about how Trump groped her, and then cut to Trump, the brilliant American diplomat, telling his audience that it’s an obvious lie – just look at the woman - "Not my first choice," he says.   I always enjoy myself in a Marriott.

I Love Mormons

Oct 13, 2016

I guess we shouldn't be surprised to see Mormons in Spain since part of their tradition is to send young Mormons on missions in foreign countries.

In one of the opening scenes of the musical 'Book of Mormon', Elder Price, a young Mormon in his early 20s, is waiting to find out where he'll be sent on his mission.  He's been dreaming of this moment for a long time.  Maybe his assignment will be Paris or Ireland, or Ole Mexico.  But truth be told,  he dreams of being sent to Orlando, the home of Disney World.  For him, Orlando represents everything that's wonderful, magical and exciting; it's the same way he feels about his Mormon mission. Then he finds out he's been assigned to Uganda where he has to interact with impoverished people and armed thugs. 

Rosa and I had seen the "Book of Mormon" three times when we bumped into Mormons this summer in Santiago de Compostela. Whenever someone wanted to see a Broadway show, we'd say how about the "Book of Mormon"?   We'd laugh at the same scenes each time, and somehow, in the end, our feelings about Mormons were positive. What's not to like about well-intentioned, earnest guys singing hilarious songs in the middle of Uganda?

And you have to give credit to the Mormons for dealing in such a good-natured way with Broadway's satire of their faith. The Mormons took out an ad in the pamphlet handed out to the audience that said "If you liked the show, you'll love the book!" Not all religions deal with ridicule in such a graceful way.

So in Spain this summer, we're walking to Rosa's parents' house and these two clean-cut guys in their early 20s, white button-down shirt, polished shoes, conservative necktie, and little Missionary handbooks are a block down the street. One of the songs from Book of Mormon starts running through my head: "I believe .... that God has a plan for all of us; And I believe .. that plan involves me having my own planet; And I believe ..." (By the way, not everyone agrees that Mormons are supposed to get their own planet.  At most, it's implied in a preserved sermon by Brigham Young).   I don't know if Rosa was singing one of the songs to herself too, but we couldn't help smiling as we approached them. Besides, this is a red, white and blue American religion.   Their founder Joseph Smith taught that the Garden of Eden was in western Missouri.  We tried to keep our smiles from turning into laughter. As we got near the Mormons, they gave us a bright "Hola!" We answered "Hola,"

"What are you guys laughing about?" one of them asked us.

Whoops. When in doubt, tell the truth. Or at least a half truth.

"It's just that we live in the U.S." Rosa said. "We think of Mormons as American, and so we were surprised to see you here."

They quickly set us straight. "Mormons are all over the world, in  [some number of] different countries."  They said they were from Colombia. In the meantime, they never lost that bright, open expression on their faces, the expression that says I'm only 20 years old, and a Mormon on top of it.

Should we have mentioned the Book of Mormon? That felt like too much honesty. We exchanged a few pleasantries, took their cards ("Elder Rodriguez", "Elder Ramos") and continued down the road to get some caldo gallego and pulpo.  

The Insensitive Professor meets the Patels

Oct 1, 2016

One day, I was teaching at Boston College and I was giving a lecture on Schizophrenia. I told the class that for a person to be diagnosed with schizophrenia they need to show particular clusters of symptoms.  But the DSM manual used by psychiatrists (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) lists diagnostic criteria that seem somewhat arbitrary. For instance, to be diagnosed with schizophrenia a person might need to show two or more of the following 5 symptoms:  delusions, hallucinations, ..., one or more of the following 5 symptoms: ...., and at least 1 of the following 3 symptoms. It's kind of like ordering from a Chinese menu where you select one dish from column A, 1 from column B and so on. That analogy became a problem.

About a week after the lecture, I got an email from a student who said that as an Asian she was offended by my making fun of Chinese restaurants. (But I love Chinese food! I could eat it every day!) In fact, she said, several of the Asian students in the class got up and left when I talked about the Chinese menus (But a lot of them really do work like that, or at least they used to!).  I actually doubt that several offended students got up while I was talking about Chinese restaurants, because with fewer than 60 students I think I'd have noticed that.

I wrote her back that I was sorry, and I hadn't meant to offend. (And I was sorry, even though I didn't really understand why it was offensive.)

Since then I've been on extra alert for sensitivities that I might not be aware of.  I didn't really think about it again until last Monday's class at CCNY. I was talking about neurons and the fact that sodium can enter the neuron under certain situations, and that sodium enters, in part, because the outside of the neuron is so crowded with sodium that it moves to the less crowded area inside the neuron. I started with an analogy that everyone who lives in NYC understands: When you enter a crowded subway car, you try to move into a less crowded one. Sodium also moves toward the less crowded area.

The problem with the analogy is that sodium only moves to the area that's got less sodium. It doesn't matter if there are more or less atoms overall.   It's as if I moved to the subway car that was less crowded with Horvitz's, but didn't mind crowds of other people. Is there really a human analogy to moving away from your own kind? And that brought me to the analogy that may have been a problem.

I asked if anyone had seen the movie "Meet the Patels". It's a fantastic documentary about a guy who grew up in the U.S., but whose parents are from India. Unmarried in his early 30s he decided to let his parents fix him up on dates with women using the traditional Indian match-making customs. What was funny was that he wasn't just supposed to marry a woman of Indian descent, but a woman with his own last name, Patel. It's not quite as weird as it sounds because a large area of India is filled with people who are all named Patel. (Apparently, in the U.S., if you go to a motel or a 7-11 owned by Indians, they're likely to be Patels.)  Still, I said to my class, I wouldn't want to date a Horvitz. In fact if my parents said they knew a nice woman for me to date, her last name's Horvitz, I'd go running, just like a sodium ion.

The problem is that with a class of 200 students at CCNY, I not only have a number of Indian students, but usually there are two or three Patels in the mix. Am I going to get an angry email from a Patel? I think if a week passes without a Patel complaining about my cultural ignorance and insensitivity, I'll be okay. In the meantime, I'm heading out for some Chinese food, a dish from columns A, B and C.