Monthly Archives: August 2011

War and Stationery

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Post it notes make up a huge portion of my day. I am a list writer. A To Do list is my anchor for the day. My recipe to get me from the 9am to 6pm!

In fact, it is not unusual to find me compiling a hot pink or fluorescent green log of even my more relaxed weekend activites, just to avoid a devastating error in the planned itinerary.

So today, I find myself in the wrong city entirely. Paris is at war! And what, you may ask, is the weapon of choice?

The POST-IT. If I were to choose a mode of warfare. This certainly would be it. The pen is mightier than the sword is it not?!

Vive La Papeterie!

The Aftermath

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Eating through an earthquake and then sleeping right through the hurricane this week has been somewhat disappointing.

I tried to stay up for the big winds on Saturday night but instead responded to my drooping eyelids and soon I was fast asleep in my safe house, snug as a bug in a rug.

When I resurfaced a little late on Sunday morning I was highly frustrated to find that the excitement was well and truly over. The high winds had whistled through the skyscrapers briefly and heavy rainfall had created deep but manageable puddles, scattered across Manhattan. Elsewhere the damage had been more profound but for us the severe storm was over before it had even begun. A stroll around Central Park revealed fallen trees, overflowing bodies of water and an excited population unable to partake in normal Big Apple fun. We were left to wander in the blustery day and marvel at the aftermath of our first hurricane.

Irene from space!

The storm approaches

The trees had no chance. Nowhere to go!

Quite a bit of rain by the looks of it

Coney Island felt the brunt of Irene’s wrath

Hurricane Irene

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This week is going to go down in history in the tri-state area for a mid-week record breaking earthquake. Hitting 5.8 on the Richter Scale and shaking the city in more ways than one; that was what we call Tuesday. Now it is Friday night and having been mocked by the San Andreas fault-liners for an over dramatic response to a little jiggle, the city is now in full drama again preparing for an absolute lock down in the face of a Level 2 hurricane, quaintly nicknamed Irene. Hurricane Irene has been running amok in the Bahamas for the last week and now is moving its 600 mile wide stormy self up the East coast.

This is quite the spectacle. Today, I have witnessed the hospitals/labs on the Upper East Side in emergency shut down mode. Outside paraphernalia is dragged inside while fridges, freezers and all other essential equipment is powered up to generators for fear of an electricity outage. I have been encouraged to plan for the worst, pack a go-bag (flashlight, water, biscuits etc.) and run away to higher ground, in what seemed like hourly Hurricane Emergency email bulletins from the Institute. And in an effort to do my weekly grocery shop before the city’s transport network officially shuts down for 24 hours, tomorrow at noon, I have queued outside Wholefoods for over 30 minutes just to get into a desolated store. What I found was surprising. What I didn’t find was… well anything. Not one lettuce leaf in sight. The banana shelves ransacked for what I can only imagine was an unnerving fear of potassium starvation. A calamity that could only possibly result in mild cramps?

It was as if the terrified population had looted the place.

Now as I sit in my apartment, painted in yellow on the evacuation map, which as you can see from above is only a suggested evacuation spot thus far, I am watching the nonstop TV coverage of this impending doom.

Mayor Bloomberg says, “stay indoors for at least 24 hours between 9pm on Saturday through the weekend.”

Mandatory evacuation spots are being patrolled to confirm everyone has successfully escaped incoming Irene. Weather analysis teams on high alert as they come into their own on this blowy final weekend in August. And for a country that takes pride in weather commentary, they definitely appear to be revelling in this storm.

After 12 noon tomorrow I will either be trapped on Roosevelt Island for the long haul or I will have been forcibly evacuated to safer ground.

Anticipate regular updates as this potentially bored individual is housebound for the weekend!

5.8 on the Richter Scale?

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It is a Tuesday afternoon and as I relax briefly, taking stock over lunch, before returning back to a lab bench of gruelling, torturous labour, I notice the glass of water in front of me rippling, seemingly unprovoked. Glancing around me, sensing an impending doom, I rapidly considered the potential causes of this unrest.

1) Could this be a loose Tyrannosaurus Rex, cloned illegally in a nearby Upper East Side lab, only to have broken its chains (?) in order to bolt down York Avenue away from its captors, crushing yellow cabs in true dramatic style. Not only causing havoc to life on the sidewalk but also creating enough impact to successfully jiggle the liquid in the cup sat in front of me.

Jurassic Park influence?

2) OR could this be an earthquake. I heard somewhere the 125th Street subway station is only above ground because a faultline runs directly through Harlem there. After 200 years of silence I could imagine it is due a shake about.

Having no time to either add to this list of theories or validate them, I looked frantically around for support just as the second tremor hit. Glass tumbled from above as my colleagues and I dove under the scattered picnic tables to protect ourselves. Chairs clattered around us and a lone scream echoed in the complex sending a shiver down my back. The buildings swayed almost unrealistically as the vibrations below tormented their foundations and each of us, surprisingly calm in the face of this disaster, held on tightly, eyes pursed shut. The shock could have lasted minutes for all I was aware: our paralysis in the moment preventing any sensible time frame. We clung firmly for our lives in those seconds; driven together by the fear of Nature’s wrath. Holding on with every inch of our will.

And yet slowly, slowly the dust began to settle. The devastation was becoming apparent. Havoc surrounded us now, yet gradually we felt more confident that the worst of the Earth’s grumblings were over. I could make out others clambering from under their shelters and seeking out others for comfort. Days passed. We had been rounded up by police and fire services hours after the event and were evacuated out of the city. All the bridges had been severely, if not irreparably, destroyed so it was a couple of days before the authorities could effectively relocate us all into tented camps in the countryside by boat, away from the high rise risk on Manhattan island. The city was a ruin. Wrecked so severely by the earthquake it would take more than a Presidential speech from Bill Pullman (Independence Day), Michael Douglas (The American President) or Harrison Ford (Air Force One) to motivate this deflated population to rebuild their lives, not to mention in such a depressing economic condition.

…………………….

and then I wake up.

No Beth, you’re not on a movie set. I KNOW you recognise every corner as a site from that film or another, but you must FOCUS on the fact that these memories are fiction. King Kong did NOT scale the Empire State Building. Will Smith did not wrestle with evil, human-killing aliens to secure our future on this planet, and NO that comet near miss was not avoided through the sheer bravery of a certain Bruce Willis These memories did not really happen. In fact, you didn’t even feel the teeny weeny tremors that “shook” the city earlier today. YOU were eating M&S mackerel (in tomato sauce) on some excellent Le Pain Quotidien nutty bread with a beefsteak tomato and salad garnish. YOU were fully immersed in lunch and thus utterly and blissfully unaware of any ripples on the surface of neighbouring drinks. YOU have no right to claim any affiliation with this “Act of God” so YOU are just going to have to wait for the incoming hurricane that is currently plaguing the southern states and see if YOU will need an umbrella or not.

50 academics talk about God

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Taken from Open Culture:

Jonathan Pararajasingham has pulled together a montage of 50 renowned academics, mostly all scientists, talking about their thoughts on the existence of God. The list includes includes 16 Nobel prize winners, and a bundle of recognizable names, including Richard Feynman, Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, and Leonard Susskind.

Watch it in full here

One contributor is Richard P. Feynmann:

“On the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics”

Richard P. Feynmann was an American physicist and Nobel Laureate

Working in the field of Quantum Mechanics for much of his career he once famously said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

Well if he doesn’t understand it??? I really don’t know why they bothered to try to teach me repeatedly at university!


What does cancer mean for us today?

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The New York Times has done a great piece on the state of art in cancer biology now. With a wonderfully cute video, complete with drawings , Picture This: Cancer is perfect for the lay person as well as the scientists of the world to show us how science communication is quite the talent. Nice one George Johnson et al.

Click here for the full article.

But today is also great news for some cancer patients as the FDA approval for a new melanoma drug is finalised. ABC reports on the drug Vemurafenib, a pill that targets a specific gene mutation found in about half of melanomas. Most sufferers of skin melanoma do not survive more than 9 months but this drug has shown a dramatic effect on shrinking these tumours by around 70%. It specifically targets the protein product of the mutation found in 50% of melanomas effectively killing the cancerous cells specifically, having no detrimental effect on normal cells in the body.

Medical oncologist from Sloan-Kettering Paul Chapman is delighted with the results. For those who have this mutation he says, “This is the first pill that you can take that will shrink your melanoma, and we know will leave you living longer than you would have.”

What splendid news for a Thursday afternoon.

The Normal Heart

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It is Saturday and I don’t have any definite plans. Shall I relax indoors after a week of hot and then hotter, sheltering from the constant drizzle that persists outside my window?

Don’t be silly. It’s Big Apple Barbeque today and tomorrow. An extravaganza of outdoor cooking performed by meat pitmasters from all over North America. It is only drizzling and I am hungry as is custom at lunchtime and cannot think of anything I would like more than a pulled pork shoulder with baked bean side followed by beef brisket and a sausage for dessert. So off we go, purchasing umbrellas on the way to queue like the good Englishwomen we are for our barbeque chow.

Perched on the end of a drenched picnic table we demolish our plate of grill, unabated by the accompanying downpour and focused entirely on our carnivorous undertaking. It is not until there is no more meat to be had that we are aware of our soaked garments and unmistakeable smoked meaty odour. However, this has been a success nonetheless and since the day seems to have dried up we move onwards and uptown to our next plan for this grizzly Saturday on Manhattan Island.

My next Tony nominated performance is The Normal Heart. This play is an unyielding attack on the handling of the birth and progression of an epidemic that has killed over 35 million people worldwide. This semi-autobiographical play, written by Larry Kramer, presents his titanic frustration as this unknown illness we now know as AIDS, began killing primarily gay men throughout North America in the 1980s. Written and first performed in New York City in 1985, Kramer tells his story of activism and societal obstruction as he tried to document how this killer virus was being largely ignored and the prejudices against the gay community, which led to a slow response from the government to confront it.

Overall I thought this play was excellent. Some speeches were outstanding. In particular a character named Mickey gives a gut-wrenching monologue as this activist group attempt to make headway in both publicising the epidemic and gaining support for funds to be attributed to the desperate research that was needed. He works for some health consultancy firm and as such has spent his life researching how to best advise the public on such epidemics and good health practice in life. At the moment of this outburst he is about to lose his job for being associated with this gay movement and is being torn apart by his guilt as he feels he has made no impact. More and more of his friends are dying around him. I felt the full weight of this speech and as the scene ended, I looked around me to find my neighbours with equally sodden cheeks, as their eyes glistened in light of this emotive piece. In fact this was not an isolated incident. This was the first time that I have heard such weeping from an audience, such that it might even distract the players on the stage. I was using all my strength to hold in the tears and try not to blurt out any disruptive noises but there was an audible emotion surrounding me as shoulders heaved and tissues plugged eyes and noses. I watched the last 20 minutes with blurry vision as this devastating play wrapped up the misery with more misery and the clear heartache as this deadly virus travels from one person to the next with anguishing result.

If you want uplifting play don’t see The Normal Heart. If you want reality in painful definition than by all means this is the night for you. Just don’t come crying to me when you are….um…. well weeping.

My Family and the Whales

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Provincetown (P-town) is decked out in rainbow flags. The standard I am normally used to displays both stars and stripes, but alongside it here is the colourful banner of gay pride.

P-town Main Street

“Legalise Gay Cupcakes” emblazoned on a t-shirt warrants a photograph humorising the ever real battle for this basic human right (Go New York and Gay Marriage-P-town will be proud).

What flavour icing do they have? Not that matters much to me of course.

P-town sits on the tip of Cape Cod. We find, to our delight, that not only is a gay patisserie legal here but also a boat ride out into the Atlantic deep to float among the many pods of humpback whales that journey up here to feed over the summer. And although it is clear to a regular reader that I am not one to turn down a sugary product, the latter, in this case, is the true calling for the trip to this remote, sun kissed spot on the Cape. Sun cream effectively applied and maximum dosage of motion sickness drugs consumed, my family and I embark on our bumpy journey across the ocean. Sneaking on Dolphin IX, part of the Dolphin Fleet that comes highly recommended due to their strong scientific background in whale-y studies, we were delighted to jump up from the waiting list and board the stern of the ship. And as our vessel shoved off and out of the harbour, under the cloudless sky above, we were eager to find out what our trip would bring in terms of whale-like sightings, if any.

And there they were. Sharp sprays emerged from the water surrounding us, followed by the slow, elegant rolling of the humpback whale as each one dove back underwater. The water was black, reflecting the hot afternoon sun in all directions and as the boat slowed and came to a leisurely chug, the passengers watched in awe as jets appeared one after the other, in packs, pods of humpbacks, as they spent their days diving deep to feed and then resting on the surface; friends and family in tow. Our boat was rocking gently on top of the waves respecting these immense, yet silent, mammals that steadily paddle here. Spending their winters in the waters around Puerto Rico (good decision) these monumental creatures travel all the way up the East coast to feed so that when the winter comes they just don’t have to (less stress, great idea!). We learnt quickly that to search the horizon for a surge of air and water meant a whale or two and soon pods of these magnificent creatures were cruising past us, getting closer each time. An occasional wave of a pectoral fin and a jokingly teasing flutter of their fluke (tail bit) as they descended again had the whole boat in awe. Really the whole experience was a bit surreal. The magnitude of these powerful mammals coupled with the graceful movement through the water was quite mind-blowing. The only communication between these novice whale watchers was their collective “ooohhh’s” and “ahhhh’s” as monstrously magnificent creatures appeared and reappeared above the waves at such close quarters all around us.

A humpback whale is an impressive sight and pods of pods of them more so. P-town is the place to go if you are that whale inclined (chuckle, giggle, stop) and we will just have to wait if my sister’s more professional approach to photography yields better, more accurate images than my own.

A fluke? Or did my camera just catch a lucky break?