Gut check

Javier A. Ceja-Navarro et al. suggest a novel means of controlling the coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei), as summarized by The Economist. The authors provide evidence that one of the species of bacteria that reside in the beetle’s digestive system, Pseudomonas fulva, detoxifies the caffeine that the coffee plant produces as a natural herbivore deterrent. Knock out the bacterium, perhaps with a targeted bacteriophage, and you knock out the pest.

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Stand clear of the closing doors

Not to be outdone by WAMU’s profile of Randi Miller, the voice of Metro, The New Yorker offers this video video vignette of Charlie Pellett, the voice of NYC’s subway.

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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2015

A Festival that gives the design departments an opportunity to shine.

¶ In her new play, World Builders, Johnna Adams revisits some of the territory she last explored in the distasteful Gidion’s Knot (this time to better effect): the power and importance of personal worlds of the imagination, albeit streaked with fantasies of revenge and death. Whitney (Brenna Palughi) and Max (Chris Thorn) are psychiatric patients enrolled in a clinical drug study who face a familiar dilemma: continue treatment, but at the loss of their individual universes, hearts, and souls.

While Whitney’s interior world is an elaborate multiplanetary melodrama, something out of George R. R. Martin (a writer mentioned by Adams in her program notes), Max imagines a constricted place more suggestive of Beckett’s The Lost Ones. In a rather intense, economical 90 minutes, it’s a bit of comic relief when Max finds logical inconsistencies in Whitney’s complex apparatus.

Whitney and Max develop what you might call a relationship, and along the way find a way to accommodate one another’s fantasies—a good metaphor for the space each of us sacrifices to make room for another person in our worlds, our hearts.

Arshan Gailus supplies the subtle, effective soundscape.

¶ The strongest and most ambitious piece is Everything You Touch, by Sheila Callaghan, a rich, dark comic fantasia of fashion and body image, nougat laced with hot sauce. We follow the paired journeys of Jess (Dina Thomas), a schlubby software technologist of the present day who has rejected her mother’s ideals of feminine beauty (and disparages herself for it); and Victor (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), a 1970s fashion designer who breaks onto the scene as an Alexander McQueen/Malcolm McLaren-ish child of the avant garde and undergoes a Damascene conversion into an easy, breezy Halston-like esthetic. Scenes interleave, mixing up present and past. Victor and Jess, each in their own way, come to a crossroads of identity, asking am I defined by this schmatte that I’m wearing? by the fast-food restaurant I frequent? Do I want to make art, or be accepted by the buyers for Dillard’s? And each makes a choice, although Victor’s is quite different from Jess’s.

The technical elements of this production need to be on the Festival’s highlight reel. Foremost among these elements are the costumes designed by Peggy McKowen, launching the play with a series of outrageous couture pieces for Victor’s 1974 show. The actor/models in that show also serve as ensemble, as well as autonomous set pieces to fill in the multiple locations called for by the script. What a luxury for director May Adrales to be furnished with a bedside table that can react to a remark by Jess about her mother. Also key for getting us from place to place are the projections, designed by Shawn Duan and projected against David M. Barber’s set. (I’m still wondering how Duan achieved the effect that ends the prologue.)

Some parts of the more outré costumes feel out of place in the mid-seventies, at times leaving us a bit confused about when we are. And the dialogue (and relationship) between Jess and her engineer colleague Lewis is rather weak.

But if you’ve only time for one show in this year’s Festival, Everything You Touch is the one to see.

¶ Michael Weller’s adaptation of David Carkeet’s novel, The Full Catastrophe, is an entertaining comedy of relationships that doesn’t reach too far. Jeremy Cook, a professional linguist down on his academic luck, takes a position as an unconventional marriage counselor with the Pillow Group, led by eccentric magnate Roy Pillow (Festival favorite Lee Sellars). To say that Pillow’s methods are opaque would be utter understatement.

In bringing the book to the stage, Weller excises an unnecessary subplot of professional jealousy but retains Jeremy’s point of view narration. If the early passages are a bit too expositional, Jeremy’s wry asides to us are usually worth it. T. Ryder Smith, covering the enesemble roles (his program credit is “Everyone Else”), earned his ovation for his last character’s final exit.

¶ Steven Dietz, in the program notes to his thriller, On Clover Road, says that the play is “built to take members of the audience certain that know what is going to happen and instead something wholly different happens.” Unfortunately, what does happen here, especially at the crux of Act 1 into Act 2, is wholly implausible.

The set, designed by David M. Barber and lit by John Ambrosone, is a grungy, crepuscular abandoned motel room. Much of the action is primarily illuminated by a portable mechanic’s work light, positioned down center on the floor. The lamp’s position and the slight rake of the stage make a powerful shadow play on the back wall.

The story of the play concerns a dissolute mother seeking to extract her teenage daughter from a religious cult with the assistance of a deprogrammer of questionable means. We’re left with no one to root for, even when the cult leader, played with silicone-slick determination by Tom Coiner, appears in the second half.

WE ARE PUSSY RIOT, by Barbara Hammond, brings new life to the expression “show trial.” The play provides a context for the antics of the provocative Russian feminist group, a punk artist collective whose means and motives are easily misinterpreted by Western media.

The piece incorporates a jumble of overtly theatrical elements, some more successful than others: exaggerated gesture, lines spoken as a chorus, audience participation, a dance break with Madonna (who has spoken publicly in support of the group). If the pre-show in the cramped lobby of the Marinoff is a muddle, the cast are quick on their feet in dealing with audience members. (On premiere night, T. Ryder Smith, as Russian prosecutor, gave somewhat willing volunteer Paul a sheet of charges to read; when Paul begged off, saying that he needed his reading glasses, Smith bounded back to Paul’s companion in search of the specs.)

The scenes of the 2012 trial of three members of Pussy Riot, with dialogue taken almost exclusively from public statements, are interleaved with scenes in the cell of dissident Sergey (Smith, again), a composite character. While we are left with the impression that the young women’s movement will prove to be a flash in the pan, the passages with Sergey give the play gravity, bringing all that dancing on the catwalk back to earth. Russia’s problems and injustices aren’t going away soon, and maybe this kick in the shins from these young women with their guitars and video cameras will spark something of lasting impact.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • World Builders, by Johnna Adams, directed by Nicole A. Watson
  • Everything You Touch, by Sheila Callaghan, directed by May Adrales
  • On Clover Road, by Steven Dietz, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • WE ARE PUSSY RIOT, by Barbara Hammon, directed by Tea Alagić
  • The Full Catastrophe, by Michael Weller, based on the novel by David Carkeet, directed by Ed Herendeen
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At the park: 79

Not a great-looking set of data for 2015. We’ll get ’em next year.

Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser trend chart

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The city that never sleeps

Dave Taft offers a splendid 24-hours sampler of the wildlife to be found within New York City, be it animal, vegetable, or fungal; native or alien invasive. He even finds something remarkable about the ickiest species on his list, Macrobdella decora:

Generally an animal no one wants to find, the American medicinal leech is attractive, as far as leeches go. Green or dark brown overall, this native leech has orange spots with a lighter belly.

The color illustrations by Matt McCann, in the online edition of this story, really pop.

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Oh, one more from the links pile: a gorgeously illustrated post by Scott K. Johnson about the geology of California’s Sierra Nevada. Is the mountain range rising or falling? We still don’t really know.

That might disappoint people who just want a simple answer, but messy fields of research are interesting fields of research. As Greg Stock [geologist for Yosemite National Park] described it, “Part of what’s been fun about being involved in this issue of Sierra uplift, for a couple of decades now, is that every so often—actually pretty often—a paper will come out that really challenges a lot of what we thought we had accepted before. Even though I know it’s a little frustrating for our interpreter rangers here [at Yosemite], who kind of want a nice clean story to tell the public, I have to tell them—no, no, this is great, because this is the way science works. And it’s a great thing to be involved in a field of study that is this turbulent.”

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Key it out

Something to skim during my long twice-daily train rides: Arthur Lister’s Monograph of the Mycetozoa (2/e, 1911), digitized and available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

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An op ed piece by Mark Lynas has been sitting in my clippings folder for several weeks. He makes the case for genetic engineering (GE) of food crops, with particular emphasis on its positive effects on yields in the developing world. While I can’t say that I’m entirely convinced, the column is persuasive — particularly when you consider that Lynas was once an activist against GMOs.

No one claims that biotech is a silver bullet. The technology of genetic modification can’t make the rains come on time or ensure that farmers in Africa have stronger land rights. But improved seed genetics can make a contribution in all sorts of ways: It can increase disease resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to bite; and it can help tackle hidden malnutritional problems like vitamin A deficiency.

At about the same time, Tania Lombrozo posted about the psychology of public acceptance of genetic engineering, or, as she put it rather bluntly in her lede,

Why do so many people oppose genetically modified organisms, or GMOs?

And, again, I’m not sure that her analysis applies to my skepticism, but the effect of the two writings leads me to consider why I am mildly opposed to expanding high tech agriculture. I think the core of my opposition lies in business models and practices, in the troubling consolidation that is taking place in the seed industry—not in subjective assessments of what constitutes a “natural” food. I look to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which offers this pro- and con- assessment:

We understand the potential benefits of the technology, and support continued advances in molecular biology, the underlying science. But we are critics of the business models and regulatory systems that have characterized early deployment of these technologies. GE has proved valuable in some areas (as in the contained use of engineered bacteria in pharmaceutical development), and some GE applications could turn out to play a useful role in food production.

Thus far, however, GE applications in agriculture have only made the problems of industrial monocropping worse. Rather than supporting a more sustainable agriculture and food system with broad societal benefits, the technology has been employed in ways that reinforce problematic industrial approaches to agriculture. Policy decisions about the use of GE have too often been driven by biotech industry public relations campaigns, rather than by what science tells us about the most cost-effective ways to produce abundant food and preserve the health of our farmland.

“Public relations campaigns:” does anyone remember when DDT was going to save the world, and Rachel Carson was called a crank?

The Union’s policy recommendations, among other things, call for food labeling laws, “so that consumers can make informed decisions about supporting GE applications in agriculture,” and I am definitely behind that idea.

I would like to think that I can be convinced by reason and evidence, so I could change my mind. But for now, I’m hanging out in the gray area.

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Some links: 73

One more link to clear out of Instapaper and into a blog post: Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on an application of 3-D printing that actually sounds useful: artificial cowbird eggs for studies of brood parasitism.

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Big strides

Robert Rice updates us on the progress of the Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly (BF) coffee program, and connects it to research programs here and abroad. The program is retailing north of 700 thousand pounds of java annually.

The biggest challenge facing the BF coffee program is marketing. Currently, less than 10% of the coffee certified as BF actually makes it into the market as such. This shortfall is partly due to the fact that BF coffee is certified organic (as a pre-requisite) and thus often is sold into the organic coffee stream as organic only—not being purchased or marketed as BF. We presently are working with a consultant to help us design plans to increase demand. Creating more demand will result in more shade coffee farms being certified as Bird Friendly, and that is our main goal of this program: conserving viable, quality habitat for migratory and resident birds in the tropics.

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On deck: 14

some chunky onesSome great fat volumes in my future. Will Robert Caro even fit in my briefcase?

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At the park: 78

Our last monitoring day for nest boxes was 7 June. From my final report for the season:

Well, not a lot to celebrate this year. My count shows 2 successful nests, one Wood Duck and one Hooded Merganser, both along the inflow to the main wetland. Elsewhere we had 11 nests started but not hatched, either abandoned or predated. As I wrote earlier, we saw evidence of raccoons at several boxes. On 7 June, we also found a rat snake in Box #7. (My notes are not clear for Box #1; it may have been successful, but it was probably predated.) Our fledging percentages for the season are Wood Duck 19% (13/69), Hooded Merganser 20% (13/64).

It would seem that we had more mixed-clutch boxes than usual. Perhaps our species ID of individual eggs is not as accurate as it could be.

Once again, if the team can be helpful in installing predator guards, please let us know.

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Dove Pete Panto?

The Hook, a screenplay by Arthur Miller from 1950, never produced due to its leftish sympathies, now adapted for the stage, has just completed a run at the British regional theater the Royal and Derngate.

Although [Harry] Cohn [of Columbia Pictures] agreed to make the film, the McCarthy-era mood prevailed….

Soon after the meeting [with Miller], Cohn declared the script had to be vetted by the head of the stagehands union, and — according to Miller’s autobiography — by the F.B.I., which feared the film might cause unrest in the dockyards that supplied the Army fighting in Korea. Changes were demanded, Miller wrote, notably that “the bad guys in the story, the union crooks and their gangster protectors, be communists.”

Furious, Miller returned to New York. Soon after he received a telegram: “It’s interesting how the minute we try to make the script pro-American, you pull out. Harry Cohn.”

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First come, first served

Abrahm Lustgarten and Naveena Sadasivam, in colloboration with ProPublica, have written a very good series about the perverse incentives and magical thinking that infuse water policy and management in the Colorado River watershed: Part 1|Part 2|Part 3|Part 4.

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Feel the buzz

Great radio of the week: finding the best fit in musical instruments for Port Huron fifth-graders, as Kyle Norris of Michigan Radio reports.

The button on the end, added by an NPR director, will bring tears to your eyes.

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