Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Too Cool

So, it turns out that I'm rather allergic to certain moisturizers, or some ingredient therein.

In addition to some serious topical steroid cream which required a prescription, my dermatologist suggested a lotion called Sarna* as an additional treatment/source of salvation. (A salve of salvation?) What's the magic ingredient? There are two, actually: camphor and menthol.

Naturally-derived camphor is a tree resin that is solid at room temperature. It is also highly flammable, which I learned from The Time Machine. Not surprisingly, it has some insect-repellent qualities (of course it does, plants need defenses too!). Some mothballs are made with camphor. It is also a rather effective topical analgesic.

It is interesting to note that natural camphor is derived from the camphor laurel, Cinnamomum camphora. That genus name isn't a coincidence; true cinnamon (C. verum) and cassia (C. aromaticum, which is most common "cinammon" sold in America) are in the same genus as camphor. Camphor laurels are an economically important crop in the areas where the species is native, but the tree is invasive in Australia. Camphor was also one of the first organic chemicals to be synthesized in a laboratory.


Menthol is the other half of this dynamic duo. Menthol can also be synthesized in the lab, but in nature it is found in members of Mentha, the genus that includes peppermint (Mentha x piperita, actually a well-established hybrid of watermint and spearmint), spearmint (Mentha spicata), and other pleasant-smelling herbs.

I don't know which of these compounds acts faster and which one lasts longer, but combined they're enough to stop itching cold. (Sorry.) Menthol stimulates specific cold-sensitive ion channels in skin neurons, but I'm not sure how camphor works. In my case, the combination of menthol and camphor creates such a strong illusion of cold that I start shivering even though I know my body is at an acceptable room temperature.

I would write more -- allergies are incredibly interesting and very complicated -- but I'm also taking diphenhydramine and I feel like I'm about to zonk out. (And it's only 11 AM!) I'd better prepare some coffee.

Oh, organic chemistry, is there anything you can't do?

*As an interesting aside, sarna apparently means "scabies" in Spanish.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Rescue Ink

When Big Ant, Sal, Des, Batso, and Mike Tattoo tell you that your dogs have inadequate shelter from the sun and you should really build them a doghouse, would you say no?

Tattooed Bikers, A Dog's Best Friend

It takes a tough man to bottle-feed a kitten, that's for sure. Let's hope Michael Vick runs into a couple of these guys when he gets out of prison.

You can learn more about them at the site for Rescue Ink.

Don't forget -- spay and neuter your pets! (Big Ant doesn't like people who don't.)

PS: Forgot to mention -- the slide show for this article is one of the greatest things ever. Really.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Just a quick FYI -- thanks to Mike, I can now inform you that the dragonfly I previously labeled L. vibrans (great blue skimmer) is actually L. incesta (slaty skimmer). Apparently, vibrans has a whitish face, which indicates that this is incesta. I do not know how it came to that species name, however. That's all for now!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Anax junius and Friends

As promised, some pictures!

It turns out that Anax junius likes to hang out more towards the middle of the pond. Lacking waders, I practiced catching anything I could. (Things like coordination don't always come easily to me.) I also don't have a great camera for macro stuff. One of these days I'll get a better one, but in the meantime I still got some decent pics!

OK, less talking, more dragons!

Pachydiplax longipennis

First up is Pachydiplax longipennis, also known as the blue dasher. That is the standard way of holding dragonflies after you catch them, by the way. This guy was a lot more blue than the picture looks, but it's sort of hard to see.

Celithemis eponina

If this is what I think it is (but I don't have a great field guide) then it is the aptly-named brown-spotted yellow-wing, Celithemis eponina. Unfortunately, standard dragonfly holding procedure obscures a lot of the beautiful wing patterning, so check out Wikipedia for more. The wings on these guys are lovely! If I've ID'd it correctly, it's also known as the Halloween pennant. Even if I don't have the species quite right, I feel pretty good saying that it's at least in Celithemis.

Libellula vibrans?
Libellula incesta

I don't have a good handle on this one. I suspect it might be Libellula vibrans, the great blue skimmer, but I'm really not sure. There's a picture of one on this page about the genus Libellula, but ... I don't know. I'll have to send this post to Mike and ask him.

(Editor's note: See next post for correction.)

Plathemis lydia

I'm pretty sure this one is a white-tail, Plathemis lydia. Why? The tail is white. (Actually, there may be several species of white-tails, but there is only one in my field guide. Hopefully the correct one. )

And, finally, the pièce de résistance, the trophy at the end of several hot hours standing in the sun by a mucky pond with a net, the big kahuna we were hunting all day:

Mike holding our first and only Anax junius of the second day out.

Waiting for the glue on the transmitter to dry.

Waiting for clearance from air traffic control.

After being manhandled for several minutes, they need to shiver their flight muscles to get warm enough to take off. Payload firmly attached, he was airborne a few seconds after this pictures.

We tracked him for about an hour with a pretty strong signal, first up in the woods and the back to the pond area where Mike had originally caught him. And then, suddenly, the signal vanished. We waited awhile, but he did not return. Perhaps he decided that this pond was too dangerous.

PS: You might be interested to know, for scale, that my left thumb nail, which features prominently in all but the pictures of Anax, is almost exactly one-half inch wide. You might also be interested to know that "longipennis" means "long-winged", despite what I know you were thinking. Apparently penna means "feather" in Latin and is related to the word "pennant". Penna is also the root of the word "pinion", meaning both the outer part of a bird's wing and the removal thereof to permanently prevent flight. Aren't you glad you asked? Entomology and etymology, all in one convenient location.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Applebee's, Redux

On Monday evening, as I was preparing dinner, I received a telephone call.

It was from Applebee's! (Read my previous post on Applebee's here.)

Specifically, a very nice manager of the location at which I recently dined who made the following points:

1) The "artifact" (their word, not mine) had been promptly removed and destroyed. Or at least put in the trashcan, good enough for me!

2) As a lapsed vegetarian, she had a lot of sympathy for the fact that when I look at the menu, even though I know that something could be made specially for me, I feel slighted by the 100% coverage of meat. I expressed this feeling and suggested that even listing a few things, like vegan burgers, black bean and veggie quesadillas, and maybe a pasta primavera with a choice of sauces could really add veggie comfort to the menu. She thanked me for the suggestions and gave me her email address in case I think of more/better ideas. (Since I was preparing dinner at the time, my brain wasn't entirely focused on coming up with *other* meals, one at a time please!) I haven't contacted her yet, been busy with the dragons, but I will soon.

(Any suggestions?)

Anyway, I have to say that this experience with Applebee's has been on the whole very pleasant and positive. It's nice to know that companies really take the words "customer service" seriously. So far I'm three for three in my interactions with food businesses this year, kind of awesome! Hopefully, if they're really serious about it, we'll start seeing more veg-friendly fare on the menu at your local Applebee's too. One location at a time, I guess. Where better to kick things off than the Garden State?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Better Know an Insect: Anax junius, part I

I post a lot about what's going on in the world of science, but I haven't posted much about what I'm doing.

Today, that changes.

Ladies and gents, this is Anax junius, the green darner dragonfly:

Male green darner.

Female green darner.

Take a good look, because you'll be hearing a lot about these guys in the future.

Today was a testing day for Mike and myself. (Mike is my advisor.) We received some very small transmitters a few weeks ago, but because of various things (his trip to South Africa, my shuffling between NJ and LI, logistics, etc.) the plan finally came together only this week.

(Please bear with me. I forgot my camera, I will try to describe things as well as I can, and I will hopefully have some more pictures tomorrow.)

After borrowing a van from Princeton, which may or may not prove handy depending on how well we can use our radio antenna, we headed to a pond and spotted a few Anax. Mike being in possession of the one pair of waders, he went on in while I stayed on shore in case any made an escape attempt in my direction. We were very lucky, and Mike bagged a male (like the picture above) within a few minutes. Back on shore, we sat down in the shade (don't want the little guy to overheat) and proceeded to apply a radio transmitter with a combination of eyelash adhesive and crazy glue. Once it was on, he sat on Mike's finger, shivered his flight muscles for a few minutes to warm back up, and took off.

We were able to follow him for a bit into some trees (apparently, green darners that have been man-handled will retreat to trees away from the pond) and then lost the signal. Driving around, we were able to find his blip again, only to lose it a few minutes later. We are concerned that the soldering was not as firm as we'd like and the transmitter may only be transmitting intermittently (that's a mouthful!).

Our plan for tomorrow is to 1) try to find our guy again in the same area. If we are successful... well, actually I don't know. I think we'll just try to keep an eye on him as long as we can. 2) If we can't find him, we'll first do a practice run with just a transmitter to test the range of a properly-functioning beacon. After that... probably try to bag another one and follow it around for a while.

What's the point of all this? Well, our project is on migration in Anax. So, we're trying to figure out whether it's even feasible to tag one, relocate it, and follow it for several days over land. It has been done before, but we're both new-ish to the technique. And it's not easy.

I'll post more in the next few days about the exciting world of insect endocrinology and how hormones may influence migratory behavior -- an under-explored area which might become part or all of my project if it proves too difficult to consistently follow tagged individuals. Also, pictures next time.

PS: In case you were thinking that we were attaching big, heavy transmitters to dainty damselflies, rest assured, we are not. Green darners are anything but dainty. Go out to a pond, take a look at all the dragonflies you see, and look for the biggest thing flying around. That's probably an Anax species. A picture for size comparison:

Male A. junius and female A. longipes.

I didn't take this picture and those aren't my hands, but this will give you some idea of just how big these guys are. Totally harmless, of course, but definitely massive!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

I Want to Go to Nice

This restaurant sounds amazing!

Rich, Luxurious, French, Vegetarian

The only thing is, where did Mark Bittman get this idea that people need to be convinced that veg doesn't equal monastic? Guacamole, peanut butter and tahini are all vegan and all decadent, and when you're ovo-lacto the whole world of cheese, eggs, and therefore soufflé is at your disposal. So, I'm not really sure where that came from, or who he's trying to convince. After all, he did write How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, so he knows better... it's very odd how defensive he is.

But if you're up for a trip to Nice (and who isn't?), let me know, we're going to this place.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Applebee's, Meat, and the Dearborn Independent

Today D. and I went to the local Applebee's for a quick bite after doing some shopping at Target. We don't eat there often, but it was close by and we figured it would be fast and easy, and it was.

While we were waiting for the check, I idly surveyed the sports memorabilia decor. Jets jerseys sharing a wall with Giants jerseys, an assortment of hockey team photos, and along one wall, a number of humorous golf-related signs.

And then my eyes fell on something unusual on the wall of golf items. For there, between the sign indicating that hitting your caddies with a five iron is more effective than with a driver (or something like that, it seemed very violent either way) and something else about golf being outlawed in fifteenth-century England, there was a little framed magazine cover showing a man in classic golf pose, having just driven the ball 200 yards and looking very satisfied.

It was a cover from the Dearborn Independent.

Had I been in this Applebee's a year ago, I might not have even made any association, although the name was certainly familiar. However, over the last couple of months D. and I have been watching The Jewish Americans, a great documentary that aired in three 140-minute segments on PBS. It's really good so far, although I haven't yet wanted to watch the next segment. Learning about Jews in the Old West is one thing, but we're just about up to World War II and that's a little harder.

In the meantime, though, we have learned a lot about Henry Ford and the newspaper he purchased that published some genuinely bonkers anti-Semitism. Among other things, it ran the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The Dearborn Independent was founded in 1901 and purchased by Henry Ford in 1919; it didn't publish again after 1927, after lawsuits about above-mentioned bonkers anti-Semitism forced him to shut it down. The cover in the restaurant was dated 1926, putting it squarely within his era.

I'm not calling for some kind of mass action against Applebee's; restaurant chains have enough going on right now with the economy doing what it's doing. But it did get me thinking. I had actually been planning to email the company anyway; the menu is dreadfully dead-animal centric, although, as our waitress helpfully pointed out since it wasn't on the menu, they do serve vegan burgers. I think I will mention the magazine cover in my email as well. I know that their intention was not to offend; I'm sure it's only up on the wall because it fit the golf theme of that section. But I do think it's worth reconsidering whether it should be up there at all.

What do you think?