Sunday, September 28, 2008

Of Heroes, Maitotoxin, and Swearing Chemists

This season, the plot of Heroes revolves around averting the end of the world --again. This time, the apocalypse will be brought on by a secret formula, but what will this formula do? Thanks to some eagle-eyed chemists in Heroes' audience, we know it will probably kill the world at a cellular level with a toxin 50 times more potent than that found in blowfish.

Upon viewing the will of his late father, Hiro Nakamura can't resist peeking in his father's safe, where half of a deadly formula is hidden (clip below):

Hiro may not have paid attention in organic chem class, but some viewers did. Since I watched this on Hulu nearly a week after the premiere, I saw this comment posted to their message board on Friday by "bfrezza:" "Who needs the other half, I'd recognize that bad bear anywhere. The chemical formula that can end the world is definitely Maitotoxin." A few days earlier, "Mongpoovian" had already posted a note to the Heroes message boards pointing people to "Jacob's" blog post on the identity of the molecules as caffeine, the beginning of the synthesis of an antiviral drug like Tamiflu, and most interestingly, maitotoxin.

Maitotoxin (MTX), first isolated from a Tahitian fish known as “maito,” is produced by microscopic algae like Gambierdiscus toxicus, the organism responsible for red tide. Other than bio-polymers, like proteins and carbohydrates, which are chains of tiny, repeating subunits, MTX is the largest biological molecule known, composed of 32 fused carbon rings. It is also, gram for gram, the deadliest non-protein based toxin in the world--about 50 times more deadly than the toxin found in fugu (blowfish). Stated in another way, less than one gram of MTX would kill a half a billion mice. And while MTX has never, for obvious reasons, been tested on humans, in theory it would only less than 2.5 kilos to kill the entire population of the world,* less than the weight of one red, clay brick.

Thank goodness it's not that easy to get your hands on. Because of its complexity, a full proposal of MTX's full structure was only completed in 1998, thanks to the efforts of several teams of scientists at Harvard and, appropriately for the plot of Heroes, at Tohoku University and the University of Tokyo. Biochemists knew what atoms comprised MTX and roughly how they were arranged. However, just as the same make and model of car can have its steering wheel and gas tank on the right or the left, the "stereochemistry" of MTX--whether the atoms branching off of each carbon vertex pointed to the left or right --had yet to be determined for each vertex.

Why is stereochemistry important? In the case of a car, there are just 22, or four possible configurations of a car's steering wheel and gas tank. If you drove up to the right side of the pump island at a gas station, your configuration would make the difference between whether you would need to walk around to the other side of the car, or get back in your car and pull around to the other side. With chemistry, the three-dimensional structure of a molecule like a hormone, neurotransmitter or drug determines whether it can dock onto cells and have an effect--to make you grow, to help you retrieve the name of your grand-aunt, or to kill you. In the case of MTX, there were about one hundred, left-right decisions, or one nonillion possibilities (that's ten commas, folks).

Those are also the nonillion reasons why this is a daunting molecule to synthesize from scratch, but one lab is attempting to scale this Everest. Last October, K.C. Nicolaou published a paper showing that he and his colleagues at Scripps Institute in La Jolla had synthesized five the of the 32 rings of MTX. This February, that increased to nine rings. This is stirring some controversy among the synthetic chemistry community, but not for the reasons you might think--they simply debate whether Nicolaou's synthesis is meaningful beyond the sheer challenge of it (the bulletin board is worth a look if only to see how scientists, or at least graduate students, write outside of academic papers; one writes "What surprises me is that they can crystallize fckn huge 100s kDa proteins and can’t get MTX crystal!" Another says, "Ahhh… the wonders of Grubb’s catalyst. I usually run my shit on an MPLC, really slowly, a few times.") This synthesis work is intended simply to verify the structure of MTX, but one could see how in the hands of a sci-fi writer, the completion of this work could bring about worldwide disaster. As biological warfare agents go though, there are certainly enough sufficiently deadly toxins in the world that would be much easier to produce.

That being said, the Heroes staff has taken a few liberties--a careful look at the screen below shows that this is not exactly MTX. Below, I compare a drawing from Heroes with that of MTX. Whether intentionally or not, the production designers introduced some differences in structure (circled in red are substitutions of alcohols for hydrogens, and vice versa).

Images from Heroes, Season Three, Episode One on NBC and Nicolaou. ACIEE, 2006, Early View. DOI: 10.1002/anie.200604656.

They also have not copied the stereochemistry notation exactly. You'll notice that in the image below, the chemical bonds are either depicted as lines or as dashed lines that look like railroad tracks:

These dashed lines are attempts to portray three dimensions on the page; they always indicate that the bonds are receding into the page. In contrast, the proposed structure of MTX also has bonds that are shown as coming out of the page towards you, as indicated by thin, dark triangles.

Nonetheless, it's clear this fictional poison was at least inspired by MTX. Most poisoning of humans by reef fish lead to gastrointestinal distress and neurological problems similar to MS that can last for days or decades, but this is due to other toxins that G. toxicus produces and rarely results in death. MTX itself has only been tested in mice and in cell culture; there it floods cells with calcium ions, leading the cells to breakdown and rupture.

No one really knows what would happen if you gave refined MTX to a fully grown human in large quantities but no doubt the Heroes writers will show us by the end of this season.

*Estimated weight of the world population (if everyone weighed 150 lb): 490 billion kg = 7 x 109 humans x 70 kg/human

5 x 10-9 g MTX/kg human x 490 x 109 humans = 2450 g= 2.5 kg.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Naruto on Hulu

If you're ever on YouTube, Naruto is unavoidable. You've seen him, you just don't know it--Naruto is a spiky-haired blond kid with a headband and an orange jacket who looks like a cuter cross between Bart Simpson and Kenny from South Park. Until today, I had never watched this show, but Hulu just introduced an Anime channel featuring the first season of Naruto. I think it's either the canniest thing an anime distributor has done, or too little, too late.

There is probably a statistic on how much of YouTube content is actually repurposed from movies and TV and if there is, I'm guessing a quarter of that content is anime, and half of that is Naruto. It's most likely posted and viewed by kids between the ages of 10 and 20. The question is whether any of these kids will watch this on Hulu, rather than via torrents or on YouTube, which seems to be perfectly acceptable in this age group, not to mention much older kids. But if anything would draw them to Hulu, it would be this show.

One huge difference between watching the show on Hulu and seeing it on Cartoon Network is that Hulu features the original Japanese show with subtitles, whereas CN shows it dubbed into English. Depending on the kid who is watching it, this could be a plus or a minus. I know one co-worker's teen was inspired to learn Japanese because of watching anime, so the chance to listen to native speakers while reading translation might be a bonus. However, I was trying to read another web page while watching this first episode above, which is nearly impossible when you have to read subtitles, so for those kids who like to multitask, it might be a pain.

For a long time, I've wondered what the appeal of Naruto was so I watched the first episode and was pleasantly surprised that this wasn't as empty as your average episode of Pokemon. If Harry Potter were training to become a ninja instead of a wizard, you'd have Naruto. Like Harry, he's a nascently talented if misunderstood orphan who is going to a special academy to hone his skills. But the parallel is not quite right--rather than becoming popular, he's an outsider. Because of this, he's always pulling pranks to get attention, more like the Weasley Twins.

But Naruto carries a dark secret that is revealed in the first episode--the reason he's been mistreated is because, unknown to him, he's actually the vessel for a dormant demon spirit that destroyed the village many years ago (for any Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans, he's like Buffy's "sister" Dawn). Fortunately, there are still teachers and elders who believe in him and treat him without prejudice. This is most touchingly shown in the first episode when we find out that Naruto's tough teacher, Iruka Umino, lost his own parents as a youth during the demon attack and yet is committed to nuturing Naruto to be better and overcome his heritage.

Having not watched the series beyond the first episode, I wonder if it's devolved into merchandising-laden show that kids tune in for only for action sequences. But I'm a sucker for themes of forgiveness and redemption, which these first episode sets up nicely.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

What Smart Funny Women Have to Say About Palin

Okay, let's leave aside the snide remarks Stephen Colbert and John Stewart have had about Sarah Palin's anointment, err, appointment to be McCain's VP--they're guys after all. Here's a run down of what funny women have to say about Palin--you go girl...right?

Here's my new fave Sarah Haskins, on Current's InfoMania show.

And YouTube star LisaNova

And of course, dead ringer Tina Fey, guest starring on Saturday Night Live

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"The Ex List" Sounds Like Every Single Woman's Nightmare

Basically, it's My Name Is Earl meets The Bachelorette meets How I Met Your Mother.

Remind me later to talk in full-length about how much CBS sucks. From its programming to its website, it seems determined to be a second rate network. And now, it's come out with a show engineered to traumatize thirty-something single women everywhere: The Ex List.

The main characer, Bella, played by Elizabeth Reaser (Grey's Anatomy) is a single surfer gal in California. All her male friends are attached or seemingly unemployed. Then, at her sister's bachelorette party, a psychic informs her that if she doesn't find her soul mate in the next year, she will lose him forever, and the kicker--it's someone she's already dated. Naturally, she freaks out.

First, what a horrible premise! Basically, the show is saying that all single women in America are just picky and have themselves to blame. They wouldn't be the first--this March, fortyish single writer Lori Gottlieb wrote a compelling case for settling in The Atlantic. Only in Gottlieb's case, she says it is the Hollywood idea of meeting the perfect soul mate that has made it nearly impossible for women to compromise.

So will the writers cop-out and make Bella's true love be a once nerdy friend who magically transformed into a buff hottie after high school? Or will he be the bald, slightly pudgy lawyer with a teabag problem, ala Harry on Sex in the City, who is otherwise caring and adorable? You only have a year to find out!

Which is the second problem--I'm all for keeping shows tight, but a year? At least My Name is Earl had 259 items on Earl's list. Are they really going to cut this off next year if this show takes off? Producer/show runner Diane Ruggiero (Veronica Mars) had said she has a secret plan to extend the show beyond one season.

But if the show can't succeed in the first few eps, they may not even need to cross that bridge. Rugierro herself has left the show last week over creative differences. Despite the upbeat tone of the advertising campaign (featuring a smiling Reaser sitting in a wading pool of frogs) I don't know how many shows are successful in building an audience while simultaneously injecting fear into their main demographic. But if you are home alone when the show debuts, fittingly on October 3, Friday night 9/8c, what else are you going to watch?

Ninja Cat Gets Closer Without Moving

I don't know why, but this video made me laugh out loud.

Update: Now I know where I've seen this scene before.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Strikethrough Humor Makes It into Print at Newsweek

I bet the inventors of Microsoft Word and HTML never imagined that strikethrough, the typographical markup, would ever be used for comic effect but it's a popular form of humor in blogs. Basically, you say the hard truth, then cross it out and replace it, as if you've just corrected a Freudian slip with a more tactful line, such as "Jack Nicholson needed a new Porshe was drawn to the life-affirming story of The Bucket List." This type of joke, which masquerades as a copyeditor's note that failed to be corrected, fits right in with the casualness of blogs but has never made it into print--until now.

In the September 22 issue of Newsweek, this line from Daniel Gross' column "Lemons, But No Lehman Aid" caught my eye:
It was sure to be another long weekend for Henry Paulson, who is doing an admirable job running the country serving as Treasury secretary.

The strikethrough looked out of place on the glossy page--it wasn't unwelcome, but it was unexpected. Daniel Gross writes the Moneybox column on Slate and also kept a personal blog. However, he migrated his blog to Newsweek as "The Money Culture" column in July 2007. Given the origin of this column, it's not surprising that Gross' column is the first place, as far as I can tell, where strikethrough humor has made it into print.

However what is surprising is that the joke was removed from the column's online version. There, the column is called "What, No Lehman Aid?" and the line simply appears as:
It was sure to be another long weekend for Henry Paulson.

Given the origin of strikethrough humor, one wonders why the line was removed from the online version, but appeared in print. I have to guess that what seemed like a cute novelty in a print column may, in an online context, have threatened to make a serious column look like a flippant post. In an age where popular bloggers can whip out unedited musings and rants, newspapers and magazines may be working hard to maintain the signs and signifiers that show that they maintain professional standards. I would love to see a linguist take this on--paging Geoffrey Nunberg!

Update: In trying to discover how long strikethrough humor has been around, I found this 2005 Business Week Blogspotting post on the matter. The author, Stephen Baker, was not happy with what he regarded as a new literary device, saying that it made blogs less earnest. He received many comments saying that this type of sarcastic humor has been around since the days of Usenet and to cut bloggers some slack. Baker responded "OK, I'm taking some hits on this one. Let's leave it at this: When you see me strike through something, it's because I'm correcting it. And if I read a strike-through on someone else's blog and can't figure out whether it's a joke or a correction, I don't know whether to laugh or grumble."

So what do you think--should a "professional" blog or printed column employ the strikethrough to indicate sarcasm? Or is it such a new phenomenon that it's not likely to be recognized as such?

One Degree: Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman

First, the answer to the last One Degree: Tobey McGuire and Robert Downey Jr. first starred together in Wonder Boys.

Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman memorably starred together in Juno as a yuppie couple seeking to adopt Juno's baby. However, they had already starred together in what movie, that same year?

Answers next week! Put your answers in the comments! Last one is a rotten egg!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Garbage Singer is a Terminator

Shirley Manson, lead singer for Garbage, has a new role on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. She probably sent in this video for the title song of The World is Not Enough as her audition tape.

All Asians are Cylons

I have to applaud Battlestar Galactica for its colorblind casting. Not only did they give Boomer's call sign to a woman, but they cast actress Grace Park in the role, despite the fact that the character's name is Sharon Valeri. Now a cynic would say this is simply pandering--sci-fi shows since the nineties have had a history of including Asian females in their cast --two of the four daughters on the Joy Luck Club have been on either Star Trek (Rosalind Chao) or Babylon Five (Tamilyn Tomita), three if you count Lauren Tom as Amy on Futurama. Meanwhile, poor Harry Kim held down the fort on Star Trek: Voyager as the lone Asian Male in the universe.

However, Park is more than eye candy--she played the pivotal role of the first cylon to be outed on BSG and has been blessed with meaty scripts throughout the series four season run. However, it must be a lonely place for her character--not only is she one of the few cylons living among humanity, she's the only Asian woman in the fleet. Why are there no human Asians? I think I have seen one other Asian on the show and it was some token nameless pilot with hardly a line. You would think that if one in every twelve cylons is Asian (two, actually, if you count Tory Foster, played by Indian-Canadian actress Rekha Sharma --her character was outed this season as well) that the same ratio would hold for the human population they were designed to blend in with. But no, Helo gets to be the only "rice king" in the entire BSG universe.

Monday, September 8, 2008

New Shows I May Watch This Fall

In the eighties and early nineties, there were a few writer-producers who were well known for creating network hits: Stephen Bochco (Doogie Howser, M.D., L.A. Law), Steven J. Cannell (The A Team, 21 Jump Street), and David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Legal). However, in the aughties there are some writer-producers who have developed a fan base for themselves, not just their shows. This practically guarantees viewership of any new series they produce--at least for the first episode. Personally, I am interested in checking out three new shows based solely on their creator: True Blood by Alan Ball, Dollhouse by Joss Whedon, and Fringe by J.J. Abrams.

Alan Ball wrote and directed American Beauty, then followed it up with one of my favorite TV shows, Six Feet Under. Who knew that a show about a family of funeral directors could be such a compelling show about life? Each character was exquisitely crafted, endearing and frustrating and familiar. With his new show, True Blood, Ball has adapted the Southern Vampire novel series to the small screen. It has one premise--a new blood substitute has enabled vampires to stop feeding on people and instead live among them.

The last time I saw a sci-fi allegory on integrating minorities was in the early nineties 1989 with Alien Nation which I liked even in its short run. I am a little concerned however--the danger with some sci-fi is that the underlying themes overrun the character development (Star Trek: The Next Generation which I loved at the time, seems so "it's a very special episode" to me these days). Joss Whedon, who broke ground for vampires on TV with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, managed to strike the right balance, so I know it is possible not to let your actors drown in theme. And although sci-fi is new for Ball, if anyone manage to make sure the characters shine through, it's him. The show premiered on HBO last night and since I've disconnected cable, it will be a while before I see this, more than enough time to let the critics weigh in.

Speaking of Joss Whedon, let's move on to his new show Dollhouse. It's not set to air till January 2009 on Fox and in July, it was announced they were filming a new first episode, so I'm a little nervous for it's prospects. The show will be about "mind wiped" operatives who are imprinted with new personalities for every mission.

While Buffy explored themes of teens maturing into adults, Whedon seems to be treading into Battlestar Galactica and Blade Runner territory here--what is the nature of self and a soul if memories can simply be created and transplanted? But if that sounds too deep, also look for much ass-kicking courtesy of star Eliza Dushku, and in a possible ploy to attract BSG viewers, Tahmoh Penikett.

Finally, there is Fringe from J.J. Abrams, also on Fox. I'll be honest: Abrams pisses me off as often as he intrigues me. He doesn't seem to be known for themes so much as for twists, especially on Lost, and when taken to the extreme, it's to the detriment of the series. With Fringe, he heads into X-Files territory. The thing that was frustrating with both Lost and The X-Files was this sense that the writers were leading us on a wild goose chase and had no idea how to resolve all their loose threads. Sure, each episode was interesting, but how were they going to wrap up the story arc? Things have gotten better on Lost since they gave it an end date but during it's third season it was living of the pure good will built up in the first two seasons; many viewers weren't as patient as me and left. Fringe may have even less time to establish itself tomorrow with it's premiere.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

"Spore" is in stock

Almost two years ago I read this profile of game inventor Will Wright in The New Yorker. He was working on a new game for Electronic Arts called Spore, which was going to essentially be "Sim Everything"--you would have the chance to create unicellular creatures all the way up to whole civilizations and see how they did against other people's creations in a virtual world. After watching this 35-minute demo back then I thought this is going to turn kids into mini-Darwins or mini-creationists but either way, they are going to have fun.

If the enormous YouTube ad pictured above didn't tip you off (Has YouTube ever allowed such a huge ad that pushes the content down like that before? How much did that cost?), Spore is finally in stores today. If there were any video game I would play it would be this one, but I already have enough addictions, so I will avoid it. However, this video of Robin Williams playing it sure makes it look like fun.

Yummy Oatmeal Pancakes

It's always a good sign when I'm cooking again--it means I feel relaxed and creative. This morning I wanted to try making oatmeal pancakes. I had a not-so-great version at a local brunch place once--it looked like someone threw a clump of wet oatmeal in pan and fried it up--it was still wet in the middle. It still sounded like a good concept though, and I figured there must be better versions on the net.

I just made the first recipe that popped up on a Google search and it turned out good! It happened I had all six ingredients in my kitchen--oatmeal, eggs, lowfat cottage cheese, and for sweetness, vanilla extract, nutmeg and cinnamon--that's it. I doubled the recipe but I had less than half enough eggs so I used the whole egg rather than just the whites.

Because everything is blended, you won't see any chunks of whole oats or curds--the end result is a chewy, filling pancake actually has more protein than carbs and conforms to the South Beach diet. But I think it's would be good enough to serve to company--it's kind of like a wheaty, sweet omelet. Since it passed the hubby taste-test ("it was good!") I'll probably make it again, maybe with some fruit, and I'll try to take a picture next time.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

From Firefly to Mad Men: Christina Hendricks

Christina Hendricks plays dishy office manager Joan Holloway on Mad Men. She's like a red-headed kitten, taking razor-sharp swipes at men and women alike, then retracting back to wide-eyed innocence. However, it's not the first time Hendricks has proved she can turn on a dime from innocent to femme fatale. She looks completely different here on Firefly as the seemingly naive, subservient Saffron, who has convinced Captain Malcolm Reynolds that he's inadvertently married her in an obscure backwater ceremony--turns out she's got motives of her own:

Bonus: This was not the first time Hendricks appeared on a Joss Whedon show--she had to pay her dues with bit parts like this on Angel--don't blink!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Where Have I Been?

I don't have many readers who would notice how my posts have trickled off over the last two weeks but I feel I must explain. I recently accepted a new job. It's not that the new job is keeping me busy--I haven't even started. It's more like the second that I got that new job a couple of weeks ago, I didn't feel as compelled to blog. My husband says it's also when I started to smile at home again. It was like a great weight was lifted off of me. So why would news of a new job lead me blog less?

I think I needed a distracting outlet from the stress of my job situation, something I had control over, an escape. TV was probably that outlet in the past, but in the last three months or so, I would instead come home from work and immediately start to blog; I would wake up on Saturdays and compulsively surf and blog. Part of me felt like I should be putting in a couple more hours of extra work in the evening and weekend, but as soon as I sat down at my computer, I'd procrastinate and post. Soon it would be 9 PM or Sunday night. I wouldn't have done anything else, like chores or work out. Blogging was getting to be just as bad as my TV watching.

I think I also thought my hobby might lead to a new career. Understanding how Google Ads work, learning about the ripe frontier of "internet TV," practicing my writing, figuring out what content was attracting readers using Google Analytics--not only was it fascinating, it felt like it could become a marketable skill. Had I not gotten this job, I might have even tried to get a job at YouTube or Current.

This is not to say that I won't be blogging anymore, or that if I do start it up more regularly, it's because I hate my new job. I think blogging is good. I like to write about things I find funny or compelling or that I think other people would find interesting. But at least at this moment, I don't feel compelled to blog the way I was for the last few months and I think that's a positive thing.
Copyright 2008