Monday, June 30, 2008

Unexpected Voodoo

For the last nine months I've walked the same strip of 10th avenue nearly every day. In that time, I watched a small slice of Capitol Hill change from Fall to Winter to... well, let's just call it Springalmostsummersometimeswinter. As the seasons edged noncommittally towards warmer days, the plants began to emerge. One particular bank of plants caught my eye. For several weeks I thought they were Calla Lilies. Yet, as the Calla Lilies leafed out and bloomed, this group of plants continued to grow. I was intrigued.

Eventually, the plants reached a height of approximately three feet. Their foliage emerged from a long, fleshy stem that was mottled purple and white. The leaves resembled the Calla Lilies, but were smaller and more deeply divided. Curious, I kept an eye on them as I walked to and from lunch.

Soon after leafing out, they began to flower. One day, as the flowers were emerging, I showed them to some of my studiomates. Casually touching them, I noticed an odd, yet familiar smell. The stench of rotting meat emanated from the flowers and coated my fingers. Blech!

As it turns out, the plant in question is Dracunculus vulgaris, also known as the Voodoo Lily. It is a native of the Balkans, the Aegean Islands, and SW Turkey. It belongs to the family Araceae, whose members are referred to as arums. D. vulgaris shares the family with the Calla Lily (Zantedeschi spp.), the Corpse Flower ( Amorphophallus titanum), Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus, Western Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), and other plants also called Voodoo Lilies (Sauromatum venosum for example). Araceae is also sometimes jokingly referred to as 'the Houseplant Family,' because so many of its members are used as indoor ornamentals. If you've ever set foot in a mall, restaurant, or office you're probably familiar with Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia spp.), Philodendron (Philodendron spp.), Monstera (Monstera deliciosa), and the ubiquitous Spathiphyllum (Spathiphyllum spp.). The family also contains both the world's largest, unbranching inflorescence (Amorphophallus titanum) and the world's smallest flowering plant (Wolffia spp.). In short, Araceae is a pretty heavy contender for the title of Coolest Plant Family.

Like the other members of its family, the Voodoo Lily sports an inflorescence called a spadix that is surrounded by a hood-like spathe. The individual flowers are clustered on the spadix. Both male and female flowers are found in the same inflorescence with the female flowers occurring lower on the spadix.

Lured by the vivid coloration and lurid stink, flies and beetles enter the mouth of the spathe and become unwitting pollinators. If they arrive late in the afternoon, the insects may be held overnight and released in the morning with an extra-thick cargo of pollen. I am unclear as to whether or not the insects have a tasty corpse-flavored treat awaiting them at the bottom of the inflorescence. It might be the macabre analog of nectar, or the whole thing could be an intricate scam. I didn't really want to get close enough to investigate.

Of course, the name 'Voodoo Lily' is a bit of a slur. Voodoo (more properly Vodou) is a real, living religion that has no more to do with corpses than any other religion. But the popular notion of Voodoo has a life of its own, and D. vulgaris is not nearly as catchy a name.

Since first identifying this cluster of D. Vulgaris, I've gone on to see them in other places. They are interesting to look at, but I don't think I could reconcile the myself with the carcass scent. Personally, I'd rather have my garden smelling of Jasmine, Magnolia, and Gardenia. If I want rotting meat I can always take a walk in an alley.

[Real botany geeks might want to investigate website of The International Aroid Society. There you can find the straight dope about the genusDracunculus, articles about aroid pollination, and all the aroid-related stuff you can handle.]

Photo Credits: Michael McDevitt © 2008

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mystery Abounds

As a kid, I used to come running as soon as I heard this music. I sat rapt until the show began then wandered away. After glimpsing the land of Edward Gorey, the show seemed anticlimactic. Of course I had no idea who the artist was or even that an artist existed. All I knew was that for a few brief moments I was home.

No surprise from a kid that looked like this.

Halloween circa 1984

RIP Edward Gorey

Credits: Mystery intro by Edward Gorey, Photo of me taken by my mom or dad, image of Gorey via the site of Shaenon K. Garrity

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Adventures in Tiny Land

Textbook illustrations, while fantastic, tend to depict cellular biology as if it were a Nerf product. The purple football clumps up with some orange ping-pong balls and... well, y'know, stuff happens. DNA replication! Ta-da!

These videos are something else entirely. I watch them, and my thoughts turn inward to my own body and the maelstrom of my own cellular activity. They convey the speed and the complexity in a way that the Nerf diagrams never have. I don't think I actually understood Okazaki fragments until I saw this video... and Okazaki fragments are one of my favorites.

What's more, the structures in these animations look alive. Despite the voice-over description, they remind me as much of sea creatures as machines. I see them doing rather than simply functioning. This is life.

According to a site called Teacher's Domain (thanks Google!), cells are replicated approximately 50 Billion times a day.... According to Wikipedia, that's 10,000 Trillion cell divisions in an average human lifetime.

I wouldn't know a single trillion if it came to my door and tried to sell me cookies. 10,000 trillion? I can't even begin to imagine. Multiply that by the 46 chromosomes in each cell and that's 460,000,000,000,000,000 replications (give or take). That doesn't even include RNA transcription or translation, let alone any of the countless other cellular activities. My mind simply quits when I try to image all this activity in every cell of my body going on all the time, day and night, even when I sleep.


Check, please!

I love it.

After viewing the YouTube video above, I recommend zipping over to the website of the Walter And Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, the clever Aussies that came up with these animations. There are roughly a dozen animations that are available to download or stream. My favorite is called "The Central Dogma: Translation of RNA to Protein." It's like the rail car scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom...

...only smaller.

Image Credits: Diagram fromMrs. Muskopf's Bio4A website; Old Lady Girl Scout from Greystone Design via Dumb Criminals; Indiana Jones screenshots via The Raider Net

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Maples & Rhodies

I snapped this photo on my way to work a couple of days ago. I'd just spent the entire day in the studio struggling with painting color, so the visual centers in my brain were over-stimulated and hypersensitive. The intense carpet of pink exploded against the vivid green of the new, spring leaves. It was the visual equivalent of eating spoonfuls of icing straight out of the mixing bowl.

Photo: Michael McDevitt 2008

Saturday, June 14, 2008


This one has been blowing up all over the web. I sent it to Hungry Hyaena, who did a post about it. Still, it's so dope that I've got to post it here also.

MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.
Blu's other work is quite impressive, and I recommend spending a little time checking out his site.

Image Credit: Jacked from Blu's site.

Friday, June 13, 2008


This is public art at its best. It fulfills the grand tradition of populist murals in a savvy and earnest manner. Unlike the ham-fisted images of the early 20th century, these works celebrate the common individual without pedantry or melodrama. While the concept runs dangerously close to being overly sentimental, the gritty execution ties the work to reality rather than romanticism. I enjoy the way the artist does not hesitate to draw around pipes, cracks, or other imperfections in the walls. He incorporates the flaws and blemishes into the work, yet manages to avoid making the portraits grotesque. Instead, the inconsistencies of the substrate join with the content, making the mundane subjects that much more endearing.

These are the real faces of the city. They are young and old, hopeful and resigned. Like the charcoal on the wall, they will be gone with rain.

"It will fade away with time, just like the memory of the people."

"I don't know if I will be able to see it again, but at this moment it is priceless."

I look forward to watching the entire film.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Found Abstraction #1: Pareidolia Pole

Telephone pole, 10th Ave, Capital Hill, Seattle

I have a really hard time not seeing a face in this photo. The metal disc at the top right looks like an eye to me, and there's little I can do to reverse that impression. I even tried rotating it, but it just looked like an upside-down face. I am continually amazed how little information is required to cue the face recognition response in the brain. After taking an animal physiology class years ago, I walked away with the impression that there are individual neurons 'assigned' to identifying a given item. When the correct combination of stimuli roll through the brain, the neuron fires. "Face!" it yells like a fourth grade kid that knows only one answer.

The real thing is, of course, much more complicated. A brief perusal of the web turned up the article "One Face, One Neuron" in Scientific American. As it turns out, the theory described above is a bit of antiquated thought known as the Grandmother Theory. According to this model, "the brain has a neuron devoted just for recognizing each family member. Lose that neuron, and you no longer recognize grandma." This theory was tossed out decades ago, but somehow I didn't get the memo.

Nevertheless, according to Diane Martindale, the author of the SA article, researchers have found that the brains recognition response uses a relatively small number of neurons. In the study discussed, researchers used electrodes to observe the brains of patients as they were "shown a large number of images of celebrities, animals, objects and landmark buildings." The participants had the electrodes placed in their brains in order to pinpoint the source of their seizures. The researchers were thrilled by the results.

"In one patient, a single neuron responded to seven different photographs of actor Jennifer Aniston, while it practically ignored the 80 other images of animals, buildings, famous or nonfamous people that were also presented.... Similar results occurred in another patient with a neuron specific for actor Halle Berry; the neuron responded not only to photographs but also to a drawing and an image of her name." Similar reactions were observed for less sexy items such as the Sydney Opera house and the Tower of Pisa.

The research suggests that there exist "explicit single-neuron signals associated with individual people." Unlike the theoretical Grandmother Cell, these neurons also fired for other stimuli. So while the neurons are 'assigned' to other tasks, they still jump up and yell at the sight of their particular superstar.

In the end, however, I'm not sure if this same model is at work for the more generalized concept of 'face.' The brain is a complicated and poorly understood organ, and I am almost wholly ignorant of its workings. I do know, however, that I see faces everywhere that I go. I see them in buildings, rocks, wood, and, disturbingly, urinals. Do you?

Bee on a Button Box

I found this clip after reading about the AHL Foundation's show in NYC called "Flight of the Mechanical Bumble Bee." It is a involves work from my friend, Christopher Reiger, as well as work by SunTek Chung, whose path I crossed in Richmond, VA.
I love how much the musician's hand looks like an insect as it skitters around the accordion.
Once, while on a trip, the airline played his song while we were boarding. It wasn't very reassuring.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Mission Statement

See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.