Rose-colored glasses

5/20/2015

Ira's office is near mine at work at CCNY.  One day, he told me about the room he'd been assigned for an office last summer at CUNY's Graduate Center downtown: "It was small, and it had no windows," he said, nodding his head slowly in the affirmative.  "I had no distractions, so I could really work.  It was fantastic!"

"And the food in that neighborhood was great," he continued.  "I would go across the street to the Rite Aid where they had these refrigerated salads.  Those salads were delicious!"

I couldn't help saying "Ira, you're an easy man to please!"  I hoped he didn't think I was making fun of him.

"No," he said, "those salads were really terrific!"

I've often thought about Ira's positive attitude. 

The funny thing is that about a year after that conversation, I was walking by the Graduate Center downtown, and I happened to enter that Rite Aid with the salads Ira used to buy for lunch.  It was the most beautiful drug store I'd ever seen.  Near the entrance I noticed the display of salads.  They were, in fact, beautiful-looking salads.    Maybe Ira wasn't looking at the world through rose-colored glasses after all.

What about the small windowless office?  Maybe that little office also had a special charm.  I'll never know.  But my guess is that the charm is in Ira's ability to notice the positives that present themselves to us every day - even the fresh salads at Rite Aid and the little offices that allow us to think without distraction.

Neuroscience in the city

5/15/2015

Classes ended this week.  No more teaching, but several projects keep me busy.  What I like best is the time spent trying to make sense out of data on habit formation and the brain. It's a project with collaborators at Columbia's Psychiatric Institute.  

Tonight I see that the local NYC TV station is showing how dirty our subways are.  They're showing clips of rats perusing the tracks.  Expert panelists are debating whether to prohibit food on the subway. People apparently throw their garbage everywhere. More food for the little beasts with the long thin tails.  Another panelist says the problem is that the stations and subway cars aren't cleaned often enough.  Still another  points out that NYC has what might be the only subway system in the world that runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  A proper cleaning of the cars and stations would mean closing some down for a few hours at night, but night-time workers need to get to work.

I love the subway -- people of all ages, locals, tourists, black, white, Latino, European, African, everyone going to and from work, movies, restaurants, visiting friends, listening to music on their headphones, reading ... It's the underground lifeline, the circulatory system of the city.  The truth is I rarely see rats. Probably my subconscious keeps me from looking down at the tracks.

Authentic and pissed-off


I turned on the TV the other night and saw former Senator Jim Webb. Webb just threw his hat into the ring as a Democratic presidential candidate.  Ok, it's not official, but it sounds like the real thing to me.

Webb's face reminds me of the kid in my school who wanted to beat me up when we were nine.  Fenny Fitzpatrick would come up to where I was sitting in class and whisper through his clenched teeth "Horvitz, I call you out!"  Even before I knew what that meant, I could tell from Fenny's face that he wasn't planning anything very fun.

Still, I have a good feeling about Webb because I remember this exchange he had with then-President George W. Bush at a White House ceremony:

Bush: "How's your boy?" (referring to Webb's son, a Marine serving in Iraq).
Webb: "I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President."
Bush: "That's not what I asked you. How's your boy?"
Webb (coldly): "That's between me and my boy, Mr. President."

He was a tough guy, and for those of who were anti-Bush, he was our tough guy.

But I don't think Webb has a chance to win the Presidency. Ever.  For two reasons.

"I call you out Mr. President"
#1  His demeanor, facial expressions, voice intonation can be summed up in one (hyphenated) word:  "Pissed-off".

Webb may be pissed-off for excellent reasons.  But when "pissed-off" is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of a candidate, that candidate's going to have a hard time getting elected.

And ....
#2.  He's authentic and honest.  Combined with #1 it means that a political consultant won't be able to get him to warm up for the cameras.  No matter how much they beg him to smile cheerfully during political events, his authenticity will keep him from faking it.  

John Edwards is Webb's opposite. According to David
Axelrod, Edwards' campaign manager during the 2004
Presidential campaign, Edwards fit the old expression:
The most important thing is authenticity. And if you can 
fake that, you've got it made. Unlike cheery and
smarmy John Edwards, Webb is authentic
and
pissed-off. 

The respectable little fat molecule

Funny that when you look at the structure of a fat molecule, there's nothing 'fatty'- or 'greasy'-looking about it.

The top molecule, a saturated fat looks almost exactly like the unsaturated fat. Except notice the two carbon (C) atoms toward the middle of the unsaturated fat that have a double bond with one another and only attach to one H atom each, while the same C atoms in the saturated fat  each have bonds to two hydrogen (H) atoms.  That's the difference.  Big deal!  And yet the saturated fat is in butter, lard, bacon, and pizza, and is the thing that keeps your cardiologist in a BMW.  The unsaturated fat (unsaturated' in the sense that those two C atoms are not saturated with all the H's to which they could in principle bond) is the healthier type of fat found in olive oil.

In the same way I'm surprised and a little disappointed  that neuronal cells of the brain don't 'glow' with thought energy, I feel that saturated fat molecules ought to be disgusting to look at.  Over the years, I've gotten used to the fact that the neuronal elements of thought don't look thoughtful.  If I were a biochemist, I guess I'd be accustomed to the fact the saturated fat molecule is perfectly pleasant to look at.  Or maybe an experienced biochemist would take one look at saturated fat molecule and feel her arteries starting to clog. Differences in structure and function at the cellular or molecular levels of analysis give rise to different and interesting properties when they act as part of larger systems.



No. There's not really any popcorn in the brain