Wednesday, October 11, 2023

A starry portal opened wide today... (repost)

... and two dear friends went home...

Received an SMS this morning that stunned me for several moments. Justin Tan, who last visited me in November 2009 in the company of three gorgeous divas, had a motorcycle accident and died instantly. The crash happened in the vicinity of Ulu Yam Baru, so his body was taken to the Kuala Kubu Bharu hospital morgue.

Justin had recently turned 38 and was planning to formalize his marriage to one of the divas - a magnificent lady and blogging buddy named Janet.

I met this lovable couple more than 10 years ago when they were both active members of Food-Not-Bombs. Janet I kept bumping into at the Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival and was someone I enjoyed occasional evenings at the theater with, followed by extended teh tarik and roti canai sessions. Justin usually stayed home. He was totally cool about his girlfriend pursuing a career as a singer.

The few times I met Justin he was usually quiet but very pleasant and jolly company. So I can't say I knew Justin very well - but I am profoundly fond of Janet and was glad she had found such a cool, solid guy as her partner.

I first noticed that Justin resembled a samurai during his November 2009 visit to Magick River. Okay, he could also pass for a master chef (just imagine him with a big white hat on). When I saw his lifeless body in the morgue today, he looked even more like a samurai in his full riding regalia, helmet still on. I could sense him hovering around, trying to reassure his friends and family that he was perfectly okay where he was...

It's virtually impossible to comfort anyone who has just experienced a sudden bereavement. Janet had arrived at the crash scene before the ambulance and she told me it was a surreal journey to the hospital, made even weirder when the ambulance had a flat and the driver had to get out and change the tire.

However, Janet was absolutely brave and held up remarkably. And so were Justin's parents whom I met for the first time today. It made me feel a momentary sense of relief that both my own parents have already gone and therefore need never make funeral arrangements for their own children.

There are times when I feel a tiny twinge of envy for those who have already passed through the portal of death and moved on to new adventures. The competitive games humans play to gain petty advantages over each other are ultimately so boring and tedious. Yes, the idea of going to sleep and never waking up again is sometimes a most enticing one...

As I took my leave of Janet, her parents and close friends, I felt a deep sense of gratitude to have been Justin's friend, albeit a casual one. I had no clue he was such a passionate biker. Now that he was on the other side I could clearly see his soul signature - and it was that of a samurai, a Zen master, a very noble, compassionate and wise being, a Jedi no less. Isn't it astonishing that we sometimes have no idea who our friends actually are... until they are no longer with us?

While I was at the the morgue, I received word that a friend from theater days - someone I hadn't seen in years but whom I always thought of with great affection - had left the earth. I didn't even know Dicky Cheah was sick. He hadn't even reached 50. Whenever I saw Dicky he would be all smiles and affability. He was so fond of the stage he'd accept just about any role, whether or not he had any lines. Later he got into mime in a big way and gigged at children's parties and corporate dinners. All this while he was holding a day job in advertising. Apart from this, I knew nothing about Dicky's personal life - but I would say he was probably among the least malicious of all theatre personalities.

What prompted me to blog about the passing of two friends on the same day, both younger than I, neither of whom I can claim to have known intimately, was the serene feeling that accompanied one of the most glorious twilight skies I have seen in weeks. It was as if the spirits of my departed friends now permeated heaven and earth and I was picking up their relief at being unburdened of physical trappings.

I was reminded of the beautiful death of another dear friend more than seven years ago - a guy we called Chief because he saw the profile of a Native American chief while gazing at the rocks around Magick River. Thinking about my friends' sudden departure put me in an emotional zone between joy and sorrow, where celebration feels more appropriate than mourning, for I strongly sensed that these were bright, uncontaminated souls emanating from the Eternal and glad to return thereunto, inevitable though the emptiness their loved ones must feel looking at the physical traces of their brief sojourn in human form...

Justin, Dicky... thank you for blessing me with your friendship and I shall forever cherish your being an integral aspect of my ultimate self.

[First posted 3 October 2010]

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

WORLD'S WORST JOBS IN SCIENCE (well worth reposting!)


Their work is noninvasive — for the apes, that is... "Have I been pissed on? Yes," says anthropologist Cheryl Knott of Harvard University. Knott is a pioneer of "noninvasive monitoring of steroids through urine sampling." Translation: Look out below! For the past 11 years, Knott and her colleagues have trekked into Gunung Palung National Park in Borneo, Indonesia, in search of the endangered primates. Once a subject is spotted, they deploy plastic sheets like a firemen's rescue trampoline and wait for the tree-swinging apes to go see a man about a mule. For more pee-catching precision, they attach bags to poles and follow beneath the animals. "It's kind of gross when you get hit, but this is the best way to figure out what's going on in their bodies," Knott says.


It's a job that separates the boys from the men. Okay, okay, their real job title is usually something like "cryobiologist" or "laboratory technician" - but at sperm banks around the country, they are known as semen washers. "Every time I interview someone I make sure I ask them, 'Do you know you'll be working with semen?'" says Diana Schillinger, the Los Angeles lab manager at the country's largest sperm bank, California Cryobank.

Let's start at the beginning. Laboriously pre-screened "donors" emerge from a so-called collection room that is stocked with girlie mags and triple-X DVDs. They hand over their deposit, get their $75, and leave. The semen washers take the seminal goo and place a sample under the microscope for a sperm count.

Next comes the washing. The techs spin the sample in a centrifuge to separate the "plasma" from the motile cells. Then they add a preservative, and it's off to the freezer, where it can stay for 20 years. Or not. Thanks to semen washers (and in vitro fertilization), more than 250,000 babies have been delivered in the U.S. since 1995.

"The hardest part is explaining it to friends," Schillinger says. "But we do have stories." Like what? "Like the donor who was in the room for the longest time. We had a big discussion about who was going to check on him. Turns out he thought he had to fill up the entire specimen cup."


The smell is just the start of the nastiness. Almost 1.5 billion tons of manure are produced annually by animals in America — 90 percent of it from cattle. That's the same weight as 14,432 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. You get the point: it's a load of crap.

And it's loaded with nasty contaminants like Campylobacter (the number-one cause of acute gastroenteritis), salmonella (the number-two cause) and E.coli 0157:H7, which can cause kidney failure in children and painful, bloody diarrhea in everybody else.

Farmers fertilize their fields with manure, but if the excrement is rife with E.coli, then so will be the vegetables. Luckily for us, researchers at the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety are knee-deep in figuring out how to eliminate these bacteria from our animals, their poop and our food. But to develop techniques to neutralize the nasty critters, they must go to the source.

"We have to wade through a lot of poop," concedes Michael Doyle, the center's director. "If you want to get the manure, you've got to grab it. Even when you wear gloves, the fecal smell tends to get embedded in your skin." Hog poop smells the worst, Doyle says, but it's chicken poop's chokingly high ammonia content that brings tears to researchers' eyes.


Odor analysts are common in the research labs of mouthwash companies, where the halitosis-inflicted blow great gusts of breath in their faces to test product efficacy. But Minneapolis gastroenterologist Michael Levitt recently took the job to another level — or, rather, to the other end. Levitt paid two brave souls to indulge repeatedly in the odors of other people's farts. (Levitt refuses to divulge the remuneration, but it would seem safe to characterize it thusly: Not enough.)

Sixteen healthy subjects volunteered to eat pinto beans and insert small plastic collection tubes into their anuses (worst-job runners-up, to be sure). After each "episode of flatulence," Levitt syringed the gas into a discrete container, rigorously maintaining fart integrity. The odor analysts then sat down with at least 100 samples, opened the caps one at a time, and inhaled robustly. As their faces writhed in agony, they rated just how noxious the smell was. The samples were also chemically analyzed, and — eureka! — Levitt determined definitively the most malodorous component of the human flatus: hydrogen sulfide.


In the early 1980s, Virginia Tech profs Tracy Wilkins and David Lyerly studied the diarrhea-causing microbe Clostridium difficile in sample after sample after sample of loose stool from the disease's victims. They became such crack dysentery docs that they launched a company, Techlab, dedicated to making stool-analysis kits.

Today, Techlab employs 40 people, 19 of whom spend their working hours opening sloppy stool canisters and analyzing their contents in order to test the effectiveness of the company's kits. You'd have to have a pretty good sense of humor, right? Well, fortunately, they do. The Techlab Web site sells T-shirts with cartoons on the front (two flies hover over two blobs of dung; one says to the other, "Pardon me, is this stool taken?") and the company motto on the back: "Techlab: #1 in the #2 Business!"


Researchers who want animal sperm — to study fertility or for artificial insemination — have a suite of attractive options: They can ram an electric probe up an animal's rectum, shove an artificial vagina onto the animal's penis, or simply do it the old-fashioned way — manual stimulation. The first option, electroejaculation, uses a priapic rectal probe to send electricity pulsing through the animal's nether regions.

"All the normal excitatory signals that stimulate ejaculation, like touch, sight, sound and smell, can be replaced with the current from the probe," says Trish Berger, professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis. "It's fascinating. Of course, this is a woman talking."

Electroejaculation generally requires anesthetizing the animal and is typically used on zoo dwellers. The other two methods — the artificial vagina, or AV, and the good old hand — require that animals be trained to the procedure. The AV — a large latex tube coated with warm lubricant — is used primarily to get sperm from dairy bulls (considered the most ornery and dangerous of bovines). The bull gets randy with a steer; when he mounts the steer with his forelegs, a brave technician, AV in hand, insinuates himself between the two aroused beasts and deftly redirects the bull penis into the mock genitalia, which he must then hold tight while the bull orgasms. (Talk about bull riding!) Three additional technicians attempt to ensure this (fool)hardy soul's safety by anchoring themselves to restraining ropes attached to a ring in the bull's nose. Alas, this isn't always absolutely effective: Everyone who's wielded an AV has had at least one close call, and more than a few have been sent to the hospital. The much safer "digital pressure" is used mostly with pigs, who are trained from an early age to mount a small bench while the researcher reaches around with a gloved hand and provides appropriate pleasure — er, pressure.

Photo from Animalize Taxidermy


Natural history museums display clean white skeletons or neatly stuffed animals, but what their field biologists drag in are carcasses flush with rotting flesh. Each museum's taxidermist has his own favorite technique for tidying things up. University of California, Berkeley, zoologist Robert Jones swears by his strain of flesh-eating buffalo-hide beetles and has no problem reaching his bare hand into a drawer to pull out a rancid shrew skeleton swarming with thousands of these quarter-inch bugs. Jeppe Møhl at the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum deposits sperm whales and dolphins into vast empty tanks and lets nature take its course. And then there's the boiling method, useful for chemically preserved samples that bugs won't touch — an approach favored by archaeologist Sandra Olsen, who has done her own skeleton work. She recalls a particularly vivid experience boiling down hyena paws: "It felt like inhaling the gases would literally kill us." Nah. It merely gave her a lung infection.

[First posted 3 December 2007, reposted 15 December 2013 & 14 October 2016]