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Quality: HD
Title : Logan
Director : James Mangold.
Release : 2017-02-28
Language : English,Espanol
Runtime : 135 min.
Genre : Action, Drama, Science Fiction.
Synopsis :
What happens when our superheroes get old? It’s essentially something that never happens in our movies, where our heroes are always virile and robust, and if they get a little long in the tooth, we just reboot the series and start over with a younger model. But that’s not the case with Logan, which follows maybe the most famous of the X-Men, Wolverine, as he not only deals with his own broken-down body, but with nursing the longtime leader of the X-Men, professor Charles Xavier. Xavier is now in his 90s and struggles to take care of himself, occasionally slipping into dementia and having trouble recognizing Logan or understanding just what’s going on at any particular time.

And this is just part of what separates Logan from any other superhero movie we’ve seen. I’ll admit that I’ve grown a bit tired of superhero origin stories and crash-and-bang ensemble pictures, but Logan is neither of those things. The characters here feel lived-in and real, and the violence is shocking and gritty. When innocent people are killed in this movie, it doesn’t feel like collateral damage; it’s genuinely disturbing and actually makes us realize that real people’s lives are at stake in this universe.

And even all of this barely scratches the surface. Logan gets involved in trying to save a little girl who’s far more like himself than he’d like to admit, and we eventually follow them as they work with a group of young mutant refugees trying to cross the border into Canada to escape persecution. If that doesn’t resonate with our times, I don’t know what will. The X-Men stories have always reflected racial and ethnic tension and fear, and that’s brought to the forefront here in ways I won’t spoil.

But ultimately, it’s the grounding in reality that makes Logan a special film. We see the broken bodies of our superheroes laid bare, we feel the difficult emotional reality of trying to care for an elderly loved one who has difficulty understanding his own condition and can snap in strange ways at any moment, and we know that nothing can last forever, not even our greatest heroes.

Chipotle’s GMO- (and evidence-) free marketing strategy

In a (not very) bold move, the restaurant chain Chipotle has announced that they are moving to a completely GMO-free menu. Reading the NYTimes article, there is a startling lack of explanation for why the chain is spending the effort and additional cost to source certified GMO-free ingredients:

Chipotle’s chefs preferred sunflower oil but finding enough was tricky. Chipotle found a farmer willing to increase his production of sunflower, but the company needed more oil than he could produce.

So instead of using one oil for the majority of its needs, Chipotle now uses sunflower to fry its chips and tortillas, while a non-G.M.O. rice bran oil will be mixed into rice and used to fry fajita vegetables.

Given that there has never been a single reputable article to support the claims of the anti-GMO crowd that GMOs are harmful, and given the 20-plus years of crops with genetically-engineered traits raised and eaten, the reason for a major chain to do this seems baffling. Then, this:

So Chipotle’s flour tortillas are now made with a non-G.M.O. canola oil, which costs more, and the company said last week that it might have to raise prices slightly this year.

So, given the lack of scientific evidence indicating a difference, why are they doing it? Marketing, I think. It’s brilliant, really. They have chosen a marketing strategy that pays for itself by justifying higher prices, borrowing a page from the Whole Foods playbook. Never mind that there is nothing wrong with GMO foods, there doesn’t have to be. Just by marketing the fact that their food is not GMO, they are able to set up a (false) dichotomy in consumers’ minds, planting the idea that perhaps GMO foods are not as healthy. And they don’t even have to make a case, really, because just to suggest a difference is enough. It doesn’t matter that they are playing a game of ‘cooties’ or ‘cheese touch‘, as long as it works to devalue the other options.

Here is Chipotle’s page explaining the decision. It comes down to 2 reasons (their 3rd is just preference): 1) GMOs need to be studied more, which is really the precautionary principle — prove no harm — which is quite difficult to do; and 2) GMOs harm the environment. These are the planks of the anti-GMO party platform, and both have been roundly refuted. Perhaps the fact that we now have definitive evidence that the exact same process of genetic engineering has been occurring in the wild for millions of years will help to convince some that there is no inherent risk in the technology itself?

Anyway, go ahead and enjoy a 1200-calorie GMO-free burrito. Whatever you do, though, don’t even think about washing it down with a Coke. That stuff is LOADED with sugar from GMOs! I wonder why they’re still selling that?

Looking forward

Launch of SpaceX Dragon on a Falcon 9 rocket, 14 April 2015, Cape Canaveral, FL. Image credit: NASA

I’m looking forward to the day that my seeds are transported to the ISS on one of these babies! There’s still a long way to go before my project is even ready to apply for a flight position, but I’ve started working with support scientists to schedule all the tests that need to be done. It’s going to be a very busy summer around my lab!

Read more about today’s launch, known as the CRS-6, at NASA’s page about the mission.

An incredible opportunity

I’ve put off this post long enough, not because it’s a bad thing, but rather because it’s such a good thing I’ve had difficulty knowing how to write it. So I won’t, I’ll let these links do the talking:

TL;DR – One of my projects was selected for development as an International Space Station experiment. Ever since we finished our study on gravitropism in the starchless mutant, I’ve wanted to write a proposal for a Station experiment that would serve as the next chapter in that story. In that publication, we showed something new about how plants without the normal gravity sensing machinery respond to gravity. They do so more slowly, and without regard for the angle of stimulation. This raises the question of whether these plants are using the same gravity sensing system as normal plants, which is the question forming the core of our new project.

I struggled with myself about whether it even made sense to attempt such a project, reasoning that my teaching, advising, and service loads only permitted a limited amount of time to do research. And we don’t have grad students or postdocs, who do so much of the technical implementation on these kinds of projects, how could I get the work done? The more I grappled with those thoughts, the more I began to see them as self-fulfilling prophecy of a sort. If the science were good enough to receive funding, the labor, time, and logistical issues should work themselves out. At some point in late 2013, I decided that I would apply to the next NASA Research Announcement for space biology flight opportunities. I was on the hook to myself.

I started to outline the core experiments before the announcement of opportunity came out in February of 2014. As a set of objectives became clear, I started sifting through the pile of unpublished results in the lab and doing additional preliminary experiments to support my arguments. I wrote and wrote. I wrote early in the morning, in between classes, while proctoring exams (some of the most focused time, I’ve found), and late at night. Any scientist, any academic, any writer knows this schedule. Then I submitted it and waited.

And then, in February, I heard.

Now the work and fun begins. I’m assembling a team of students for the summer and preparing a list of tests we need to complete to be approved for a flight experiment. Here’s a great video NASA Ames Research Center produced that describes the process:

I can’t help but feel it’s truly an incredible (= unbelievable) opportunity. I’m going to try to chronicle our progress here, but I’m not sure I’ll have the time. :-P

Seeds can change their coats for the season

Whenever I teach on seeds, either in my non-majors Food class or my Plant Physiology class for majors, I can’t help describing them as the children of the mother plant. I know, not exactly creative, but it helps to paint a picture of the roles of the parent plant and the seed. I like to talk about how the endosperm or other food reserve is like a packed lunch, put there by the caring mother to feed the baby plant as it germinates and becomes able to feed itself. And what kind of parent sends its babies out without a coat? It usually gets a few chuckles, at least, to put this all in human terms.

That coat on the seed? Sometimes it’s a jacket, and other times it’s more like a down coat, and the mother plant chooses based on the temperature. I’m not making this up. In a study published this week, plant scientists link the toughness/thickness of the seed coat to the temperature endured by the mother plant. If the mother experienced warmer temperatures, it will make more of a protein that limits the production of tannins in the fruit. Less tannin makes for a thinner seed coat and faster germination. On the other hand lower temperatures cause the mother plant to make more tannins, leading to a thicker coat. Simple, yet remarkable.

See a news article on this research, or go check out the paper itself.

Virtual progress

Although I’ve been on sabbatical this semester, it appears that our experiment using Chromebooks in our introductory biology courses has been going well. From what I’ve heard, only a few students have been burned by the extra layer of abstraction of running Windows in a web browser, occasionally closing the Chrome tab instead of just the program running in the virtual Windows environment. All told, I’d say that’s pretty impressive for an idea I dreamed up last winter, made possible by the excellent support from our IT department.

I can only imagine this is the early days of a growing trend, both within and beyond academic settings. I noticed a few days ago that Adobe has been working with Google to make their flagship application, Photoshop, available in a “virtual” environment. It sounds like an unholy combination of virtualization, VNC, and JavaScript, but it might work well enough to be worth it. Interesting, too, that Google is investing engineering resources to make this happen, as this clearly increases the value of Chromebooks if it can provide an adequate user experience.

While this is an example of making a particular program run virtually, Amazon continues to push forward with their more general solution, called AppStream. They’ve just announced the ability to run almost any Windows application on their virtualization platform, removing the need to manage a server on site. It costs $0.85 per hour, billing only for the time used. I’m not sure it would make sense for every app or student or teacher, but for certain programs that need to be run only occasionally, it seems like a great idea.

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Quality : HD<br>
Title : Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.<br>
Director : James Gunn<br>
Release : April 20, 2017<br>
Language :  en.<br>
Runtime : 0 min<br>
Genre : Action, Adventure, Science Fiction.<br>

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Google Scholar’s creator

From a nice article by Steven Levy on Anurag Acharya, the man behind Google Scholar:

I can do problems that seem very interesting me — but the biggest impact I can possible make is helping people who are solving the world’s problems to be more efficient. If I can make the world’s researchers ten percent more efficient, consider the cumulative impact of that.

What a great motive to guide your work.