The language of bacteria

Yesterday at Morphosys we had an interesting discussion based on the TEDTalk by Bonnie Bassler on how bacteria “talk” to each other, using a chemical language that lets them coordinate defense and mount attacks by recognizing “self” and “other”. I asked the course how she “hooks” her listeners, and they said one of her main hooks was turning bacteria into actors, humanizing them, giving them “a mind of their own”. One of the participants said this was dumbing down, and didn’t like this type of popularized talk. But it got us thinking: Do we think actively, or is our brain just producing a series of chemical processes? What is consciousness? How legitimate or important is it to make an essential distinction between various levels of complexity in living organisms? I went home and read up on the “philosophy of mind” and the “theory of mind“, and I’m going to take some discussion points related to what I’ve found out back to them the next time I see them.

I love TEDTalks precisely for the way the speakers manage to popularize their enormously complex research to reach an interested audience, a skill any scientist must learn in order to get out of his or her highly specialized daily work to speak to people from other related disciplines – and to people in business! Plus they are 18 minutes long, a length proven to be just about ideal to keep an audience’s attention (See John Medina: Brain Rules for public speaking). That makes them the best source for learning presentation skills currently available on the Internet. The questions we ask are: How is the talk structured? How does the speaker hook the audience to engage them and bridge the gap between generalists and specialists? What is the take-home message?

Mike Hogan posted an article on how teach with another TED presentation, this one by Richard St. John, on Ask Auntie Web.


My dear friend, mentor, dance partner, swimming mate. She wanted strong, intellectual, emotional, free women, green students and a self-sufficient third world. How come she was always so sure of what was right and what was wrong? For all her ideals and fans and disciples she drank and was lonely. When I gave up on my PhD project she made me feel like a rotten loser, and I threw a glass of wine at her and told she just didn’t understand. After our big falling out we lost touch. Then one day, several years later, I found out she had died. Her answering machine was still working, and I heard her voice come to me down the wire from beyond the grave.

Tonight at Michele’s I heard music that we used to listen and dance to together, and it all came rushing back to me. God, how I miss her.

Quiet, please

Yesterday one of the hundreds of tweets I read showed me that a new generation of interactive exercise widgets has arrived (Create quizzes at Anyone can use them and embed them in their blog or wiki to start producing sophisticated webpages for learners for free. I knew it was coming, but I just didn’t expect it quite so soon.

It’s great! But what does it mean for me professionally? I’ve enjoyed writing exercises as a part of my portfolio (latest one here). But as more and more sophisticated exercises become available for free, I might be out of a job. Content is important, I suppose, but why should my content be more relevant to a learner than anyone else’s? I’m not very good at online marketing, which I haven’t had to be, as I have been able to rely on friends and long-term business partners so far. What makes me a little sad is that I haven’t been able to involve my students in the productive side of using Web 2.0 technologies. My clients just haven’t been interested. I’m in a comfortable niche with them, but I’m always thinking about the future, and so getting students to create content is still the way I want to go! So I get the feeling that my interactive exercise phase has crested. Quiet, please, Twitter. I need to think. Going to take time off to find my mojo.

Florence Foster Jenkins

She kept us in stitches at college. You haven’t heard of Florence Foster Jenkins? She couldn’t sustain a note, and her sense of pitch and rhythm was off, but she was totally sincere about loving music and had loads of fans attending her recitals. Wikipedia writes: “After a taxicab crash in 1943 she found she could sing “a higher F than ever before.”” She performed in elaborate costumes with wings and things, and she gave everything she earned to charity. At 76, on 24 October 1944, she sang at Carnegie Hall. A month later it was curtains for Florence. Meet an old friend:

See the Guardian article of 2005, “Playing the Diva of Din“, which I’m taking to one of my classes:

“Word got out, and soon people were battering the doors down to get in. Some people did laugh at her, and she was aware of this, but she had a wonderful blinkered outlook on life, she was so ingenuous, it seems, that she just blocked out the sound of laughter. And the real aficionados would applaud loudly to try to mask it. Any notices she did get would say things like: “You will never again hear a voice like this at Carnegie Hall!” Everyone was in on the joke. But was Florence in on it too? Was her lover/ manager the English actor Sinclair Byfield? Was her accompanist, the deliciously named Cosme McMoon? A tape recording exists of him saying: “No one can do what Florence Foster Jenkins did because they all try to send her up. She was totally sincere. …
Her story is one of triumph over embarrassment.”

The Story of Bonnie and Clyde

by Bonnie Parker (herself!)

You’ve read the story of Jesse James –
Of how he lived and died.
If you’re still in need of something to read,
Here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

Now Bonnie and Clyde are the Barrow gang.
I’m sure you all have read
How they rob and steal, and those who squeal
Are usually found dying or dead.

There’s lots of untruths to these write-ups;
They’re not so ruthless as that.
Their nature is raw, they hate the law –
The stool pigeons, spotters, and rats.

They call them cold-blooded killers,
They say they are heartless and mean,
But I say this with pride, that I once knew Clyde
When he was honest and upright and clean.

But the laws fooled around, kept taking him down
And locking him up in a cell,
Till he said to me, “I’ll never be free,
So I’ll meet a few of them in hell.”

The road was so dimly lighted;
There were no highway signs to guide;
But they made up their minds, if all roads were blind,
They wouldn’t give up till they died.

The road gets dimmer and dimmer;
Sometimes you can hardly see;
But it’s fight, man to man, and do all you can,
For they know they can never be free.

From heart-break some people have suffered;
From weariness some people have died;
But take it all in all, our troubles are small,
Till we get like Bonnie and Clyde.

If a policeman is killed in Dallas,
And they have no clue or guide;
If they can’t find a fiend,
They just wipe their slate clean
And hang it on Bonnie and Clyde.

There’s two crimes committed in America
Not accredited to the Barrow mob;
They had no hand in the kidnap demand,
Nor the Kansas City Depot job.

A newsboy once said to his buddy:
“I wish old Clyde would get jumped;
In these awful hard times we’d make a few dimes
If five or six cops would get bumped.”

The police haven’t got the report yet,
But Clyde called me up today;
He said, “Don’t start any fights –
We aren’t working nights –
We’re joining the NRA.”

From Irving to West Dallas viaduct
Is known as the Great Divide,
Where the women are kin, and the men are men,
And they won’t “stool” on Bonnie and Clyde.

If they try to act like citizens
And rent them a nice little flat,
About the third night they’re invited to fight
By a sub-gun’s rat-tat-tat.

They don’t think they’re too smart or desperate,
They know that the law always wins;
They’ve been shot at before, but they do not ignore
That death is the wages of sin.

Some day they’ll go down together;
They’ll bury them side by side;
To few it’ll be grief – To the law a relief –
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.

Source: Internet Accuracy Project

Serge Gainsborough wrote the immortal French “Bonnie and Clyde“, recorded with Brigitte Bardot in 1967. The French lyrics are based on Bonnie Parker’s poem “The Trail’s End”. I can’t figure out who actually first recorded the song in English, but the Walkabouts do a beautiful version. Some of their English lyrics repeat Bonnie’s poem verbatim. Others include great lines like “drawn together like a bow and arrow” and “brighter shades of love were turning darker“.

The maker of this video, T. Methvin, has an interesting online collection on Henry Methvin, a relative of his who was a member of the Barrow gang.