A Look Behind the Curtain

My father has always been the kind of guy who wants to know how things work. When I was growing up I recognized the basement as a place where weird tools were kept and mysterious electronic boxes hummed in the dark. The corners were packed with various gadgets and implements that my mother called “junk”. Whatever purpose had caused them to be brought into the house, it was long forgotten. The best policy for a kid was not to touch things unless directed to do so. But if you wanted to kill a few hours, all you had to do was ask “what’s that”? Explanations were free and complete.

Through that question-and-suffer process I discovered I don’t have the necessary patience to know very much about anything. That’s why I went into the uninformed commentary business – we bloggers and pundits only have to figure out a plausible angle to get our work done.

And really, it doesn’t have to be all that plausible.

Thank goodness there are scientific researchers who are willing to pay closer attention to stuff, especially the debris collecting in the margins. Just yesterday a series of papers were published that upended what we’ve thought for years about how human traits are controlled.

To quote the New York Times story:

“The human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that reside in bits of DNA that once were dismissed as ‘junk’ but that turn out to play critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave.”

And by “behave,” we mean “badly”. Complex diseases appear to be influenced by the throwing of hundreds of these gene switches. All that remains is to figure out which levers cause which things to happen. Not a simple task by any measure, but this work by hundreds of researchers in dozens of labs around the globe will have amazing and long lasting scientific and medical effects.

All because they had the patience to investigate the junk in the corner.

When has a closer look paid dividends?

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89 thoughts on “A Look Behind the Curtain”

  1. Good morning. I am more or less a trained scientist. As Dale has indicated, science more or less requires taking time to pay attention to details. In my experience it requires a lot of boring repetitive work.

    The dividend for the attention I paid to the details of the distinguishing characteristic of a bunch of tiny nematodes was a thesis that included the description of some new species. This turned out to be not much of a dividend because no one was interested in employing me to to continue to do this work, but I can say that I was able to describe some new species.

    By the way, if you ever want to describe a new species of nematode, I can tell you how to do it. Most of the existing species of nematodes have not been described and with a little work you could describe a species of nematode that is unknown to science.

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    1. Somehow, Jim, the notion of describing a new species of nematode strikes me as no more exciting than watching paint dry. Of course, having never observed a nematode, I could be wrong.

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      1. Well, in some ways describing new species of very tiny worms is not too exciting. On the other hand, I was looking into the largely unknown world of an incredibly diverse group of animals that is extremely numerous and found almost everywhere.

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  2. Early June I was helping my mother get read for a family reunion in Branson. At the last minute she started to change her mind about going, but she’d already paid for it and my brother and his wife had paid too, and they’d been planning this trip for months so everybody said, “You’re Going!” Mom was not in a cooperative spirit. It may have had something to do with riding in the car with her daughter-in-law. No – I take that back. It had A LOT to do with riding in the car with her DIL. But we all knew she’d have fun once they arrived and she could get out of the car. So I was trying to positive and helpful – washing her clothes, sewing on buttons, and humming. When it came time to pack I had to go to the basement to search for a suitcase. I found several and all were full of STUFF. The kind of stuff people who are near-hoarders stuff into suitcases. Mostly ancient paperwork and of course the random and valuable dryer sheet. I came across a plain white envelope that was sealed, opened it up and found a 50 dollar bill. Guess what? I kept it! I should have felt guilty and maybe I did a little, but I got over it. After-all, my mom’s a republican. I figure why not treat her like one?

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      1. Yup. Makes me the baboon I am today.
        BTW – Mom had a good time and was glad she went – and this year when she forgets my birthday it won’t bother me.

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        1. I’m hard to characterize. I grew up in with Eisenhower republican parents. However, around 1973 we had a dinner discussion about the McCarthy-Nixon election, and it turned out that both parents and all siblings who were old enough to vote had all voted for McCarthy. Now really, can I be a d o r if both parents voted for McCarthy? (They thought Nixon was getting too full of himself.)

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        1. Thankfully, I haven’t, and I’m so sorry that Lupus is such a challenge in your life right now, Clyde. Hang in there. May relief come soon.

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    1. Ben, I assume that your kids had to suffer they way Dale did when he asked his dad about those items his dad saved in the basement, is that right.

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      1. Jim, yes, my poor kids. ‘Dad I can’t get this jar open.’ Me: ‘Well, you have a couple options’ (as I open the jar), you can run it under hot water, you can tap on it with a knife handle, you can use a grippy thing. Interesting thing about the grippy thing which leads us to a discussion on friction which leads to leverage and the three different types of levers and —– ‘
        You can tell they’ve disengaged. I get the same look from the students here at college sometimes.
        God help them if they ask ‘What is that thing’. But the fascinating thing about that question: I was always amazed that I could take some beat up rusty piece of metal I’d dig out of the dirt and ask Dad ‘What is this?’ and he always ALWAYS knew what it was! It’s all rusty and covered in dirt but it’s got a hole in it and he knew it was an axle chuck from the old buckboard wagon they used for picking corn. Huh!

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    2. im the opposite. i get asked to do stuff and then while they walk by and im doing it they want to know how the heck i ever learned to do that they get a little interest and i will kind of show them how to do it but they dont seem to understand that it applies in real life. stuff to know is not as valuable today with youtube videos of everything underthing under the sun sure makes life easier but you miss all the interesting charachters you used to have to touch to learn the cool stuff in life back in the old days. like 1990.. then again i have this volvo in my garage…

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  3. In our garden, It always pays to take a second look at the cucumbers and the pole beans, since you can look once and not find much, but a second look will reveal fruit ready to pick. We planted two poles of Green Lake beans and one pole of Borlotti beans. We planted pretty thickly, and the poles look like three Cousin Itts standing there in the back yard.

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    1. Last year we planted purple pole beans and they were much easier to find! Turned green when you cooked them, though.

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  4. I have created stage sets based largely on stuff I found in corners, behind stuff and on the edges. Good way to get the creative juices flowing – find some weird thingy tucked under that thing you need and then find a way to use it. Did a set for Dracula that mostly consisted of a series of platforms decorated and covered in stuff I found around the theater (that I could paint without getting fussed at) – “a closer look” in that case was more of a “farther away look” so I could concentrate on shape, size and texture vs. what the thing actually was (everything from a single window shutter to a finial or two to stuff I’m still not sure what it was to begin with – and lots of fabric). Wound up being a darn cool set, if I can brag a bit…(full disclosure, because I’m Minnesotan: I had a student help on it who was an excellent carpenter – some of what I designed would not have come into being without him, like the circular staircase).

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  5. Sorry I’ve missed the discussion all week, but the reason is relevant: I was away from my desk working on a priority scanning job. Scanning legal documents is ridiculously detail-oriented. A forgotten staple or torn corner will jam up the machine; tone and brightness has to be balanced for readability; settings have to be changed (over and over and over again) for color, b&w, single-sided, double-sided, letter, legal or double-letter; and of course the documents have to be reassembled, flags and sticky notes replaced properly and everything kept in original order (this case has government connections, so the documents had to be locked up overnight, made me feel like Agent Coulson). The scanner I was working on futzed out twice, so a second look saved me from having to rescan half the box. I can’t decide if I’d rather be scanning patent applications or studying nematodes. I’m pretty sure I’d choose the nematodes over claims forms for failed pipe fittings!

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      1. Hah, that WAS the interesting stuff! For the previous week I was doing nothing but data archiving. The only excitement…well, okay, frustration usually…in that is tracking down all the relevant information on the various network drives. It’s probably a good thing I’m used to spending a lot of time in my head.

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      1. Yep, well, when I get tired I just remember how much fun it was to referee fights over Internet access at the library every single day. Gee, how I miss working with the public…

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        1. Reminds of once, many years ago, applying for unemployment benefits. The woman interviewing me at the unemployment office asked me what I liked to do. I told her I’d like to work with people, to which she responded: ” I HATE working with people.”

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  6. When I edited a magazine for Midwestern sportsmen, I was impressed by all the bold new thinking going on in the world of fishing. My magazine published “breakthrough” articles with new concepts, month after month. But our hunting stories were as stale as an old fruitcake from several Christmases ago. I realized that most of our hunting stories could have been written ten, twenty or thirty years ago. They had nothing new to say.

    I took that on as a challenge. The game bird I had loved and chased all my life was the pheasant. Pheasant hunting writers in those days did a lot of their research on bar stools, and they were good at plagiarizing each others’ articles, repeating old myths about pheasants. Nobody understood pheasants well enough to explain them or (more importantly) predict them. Meanwhile, writers routinely said things about pheasants that were obviously silly and wrong.

    So I set out to create a sort of mental model of pheasant behavior that would accurately reflect their lives. I wanted the kind of sophisticated, complex view of them that we were getting about fishing from the more thoughtful writers. I hunted them as I always had, but while hunting I was thinking all the time. I suppose I spent two or three years reflecting about pheasants, remembering what they had done under different circumstances, always looking for the keys that would explain the confusingly different ways they behaved.

    It was a case of “looking at something closely,” and I eventually created a rough sort of model to explain and predict pheasants. The new picture I had of them was fascinating and impressive, for pheasants turned out to be more complex and capable than anyone had ever guessed. I wrote a book about my discoveries. It sold a few copies and gave me a few modest royalty checks. Perhaps the bigger reward was that all those old boys on bar stools changed their stories and began copying stuff I had worked out by looking closely.

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    1. That would be satisfying, Steve. I wish had known about you and your pheasant book when my dad was still hunting!

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  7. When I was a young married person I had an epiphany about how people make decisions. One kind of person looks closely at every single detail, every single nuance and tries to peer into the future to see the ramifications of each decision. This kind of person usually makes very good decisions, although not quick. Another kind of person takes a quick scan of the horizon, tries to factor in everything they can observe at the moment and then jumps into their decision. Sometimes not the best decisions, but quick. If you can keep from being too wedded to your decisions and try to take any reaction/blowback as it comes, then you can be this kind of decision maker.

    This is my long-winded way of saying I can’t think of any time when looking closer paid dividends as I am the second kind of decision maker. Going back and looking closer isn’t something I naturally do.

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    1. You describe the last character of the Meyers-Briggs thingamabob. It’s the only one that is strikingly clear for me. P or J. Sounds like you’re a J.
      I’m a classic P who has to look at every possibility before deciding, have to look at every shirt in a store (or a whole mall) before being sure I’ve found the right one.
      As those of us plagued with that characteristic like to say, my P-ness sometimes gets in the way ;-)

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      1. When I was a young married person, my wasband was a P – hence my epiphany (long story involving a stereo system). At the time I was definitely thinking that being a “P” was not a good thing. But many years of dealing with people in retail and the service industry as well as working for the most “P” person in the world have made me realize that it’s a valid way to do things and can lead to good decisions. It’s just not my particular style!

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        1. Not mine either! But in a work setting, a P-person and a J-person may complement each other very well although they may also frustrate the heck out of each other.

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      2. When VS described making decisions in that snapshot way, I was thinking it didn’t sound like the safe way to choose a lifelong partner. Love at First Sight. After reflection, I fear that Ps and Js might be at equal risk of divorce!

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  8. i am more the mile wide and inch deep kind of guy than the specialist in one area of expertise. i know stuff about stuff but its application in real world uses is often nill. you want to know about hats, i may be able to discuss more than the average schmoe but there isnt more than an enjoyment involved. i guess thats the way it works. find the things you enjoy and try to stop looking into it and then realize that you are the knowledgable person in that area just because you enjoy it or have decided to focus on it. writers like steve and the pheasants do research in a number o ways. in the old days you would get on a plane to go to italy to discover the wonders of art and if you wanted to know about a genre or a particular detail about a way of life at a particular time you would go to the library ad put together one of those study rooms with books and references all around you where you could begin ferroting through all the information on the subject. today you google it. when they said a couple of yeas ago that we are in the informatiion age and that the amont of information buzzing through the internet was 100x more than the total information transposed on planet earth in the revious 100 years they werent a kidding. it is mind boggleing wher you can get to by hitting google today. the amout of information at our fingertips blows me away. now what to do with it… thats a different story… ive got this volvo in my garage.

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  9. When I met Husband, his sister Rose and I had been working together for a few months, and had become good friends. We were headed to a big party all together, and she and I were to pick him up (in Winona), where he was “floating” at the time. This was 1977, and I’d already been through my hippie phase. He still had pretty long hair; his sister called him “Happy”; his stuff was strewn all over the back room of this print shop where he was “squatting” down by the river. He pulled from a 1950s era refrig a pan of something he was bringing to this party, that looked like black sludge in a battered aluminum pan (it was carob fudge, which I later found out was delicious). I took one look at the whole scene and told myself “this one’s to weird for me.” Of course, after a closer look months later…

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  10. All my life, tim, I’ve tried to understand people. And like anybody, I sometimes get it right and often get it wrong. But I think I understand the process better than I used to. It seems to me that understanding many things–like people or organizations or pheasants or whatever–is essentially a two-step process. First, you make careful observations, as many as possible, of the thing you want to understand. Second, you let your mind act like a great playground or laboratory that allows you to consider your subject by looking for patterns. You want to see what this thing does, and what the context is for making it do what it does. You are looking for patterns that allow you to predict the thing.

    This is easier with animals or machines. When they do something, you can just ponder the behavior in the context of all the variables. Where do pheasants go when it rains? You just have to have enough experience to know where they are, and then you can relate their choice of a place to hang out to other things you know about them. Pheasants never lie. If they avoid grassy, weedy places in a rainstorm that could transfer rain to their feathers, you know something. A Volvo with a sick fuel pump will not develop a squeak in the right rear bearings as a way of throwing you off the trail to a good fix.

    People are harder because they lie all the time. You have to teach yourself to ignore (mostly) what they say and concentrate on what they do. You have to find the patterns that define what they really care about. A politician will say that he cares about women or justice or something else, but a little study of his voting record might show a different pattern. A good question for any politician is “which groups fund you and when have you ever voted in ways that displeased them?” People say all kinds of strange things about their dreams and motivations, but you get the truth by observing them and looking for patterns of consistency in what they do.

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  11. Two experiences I’ve had regarding a closer look both involved estate sales. The first one was the sale where I discovered the set of negatives from 1904 Europe. Some of you have seen some of the prints. A larger assortment is viewable at:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/billinmn/sets/72157622733362984/
    It was the last day of the sale and so everything of apparent interest or value was already gone. The remainders had been consolidated in the garage. The negatives were jammed in a small green packet. I took the time to pull a few out and saw, among other things, Dutch-style windmills. It wasn’t until years later when I had the time and equipment to scan them all that I fully appreciated how remarkable were the negatives.

    The second experience was stranger and more inexplicable. We were walking around Lake Harriet and,as we headed back to the car, noticed an estate sale in a house near the lake. We quickly ascertained that it had been the house of writer Brenda Ueland. As usual, I made a beeline for the books, but Brenda had been very rough on her books and the folks running the sale had separated most of the really interesting stuff, like the books inscribed by Carl Sandburg. After making a cursory circuit of the house, I was drawn to the basement. It was a typical, musty basement with a box of mildewy self-published books about the author’s mother in a box on the floor and some old clothes on a rack by the furnace. Though I have never done it at estate sales before or since, I began poking around in out-of-the-way places in that basement. A floor-to-ceiling cabinet next to the laundry tubs was built around some plumbing. At the back of the cabinet, behind the vertical soil stack, was a similarly-sized cardboard tube. I pulled it out. It wasn’t marked and obviously had not been discovered by the estate liquidators. No one else was in the basement with me. Inside the tube were a number of rolled papers. I pulled them out and spread them on the top of the dryer cabinet. In the tube were lithographs- a dozen or so- drawn by arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen and personally inscribed by him to Brenda and to her father. They were primarily arctic scenes and they were very good. I replaced the prints in the tube and took them upstairs. You should have seen the faces of the folks running the estate sale when I showed them what I had uncovered. I suspect they were likely the most valuable items left in the house. No extraordinary dividends accrued to me personally, other than that thrill of discovery and the opportunity to see and handle the prints before I turned them over.

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      1. To some extent, I think that WWI was the real turning point between the nineteenth and twentieth century. There are no automobiles in any of these photos. For the most part, individuals still wore their national costumes.
        The negatives themselves are almost 4″ x 5″ on nitrocellulose stock. The images are not only exceptionally fine, but the quality is high as well. Most of them are capable of enlargement to 16″ x 20″.

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    1. Wow, bill, I’m blown away by that collection of photos. Amazing quality, so glad you found them. Do you have some of them blown up and on display at your house? I hope so.

      And, those Fridtjof Nansen lithographs, what an exciting discovery! Do you have any idea what happened to them subsequently?

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      1. I have quite a few of them blown up and a few on display. I have a standing arrangement with a local giclee printer, who has high resolution files of the images.
        I suspect the Nansen lithos went to a dealer for framing and sale.

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    2. These are really amazing photos, Bill. Such good composition and the focus is so crisp, those large format cameras really are superior. You have a treasure there.

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  12. It’s a good thing I took a closer look at the supplies we needed for backstage last night. Someone had made a shopping liszt for me and Mike and I did the shopping accordingly. The liszt said we needed plastic spoons, so we bought six small boxes of plastic spoons. I started digging through the stuff which had been in storage since last year’s Rock Bend and found three ginormous boxes of clear plastic spoons and knives, but no forks. I served brats done in beer with sauerkraut, tabouli, chips, Friendship bread and bars to the volunteers who built the stages last night and, due to our shopping liszt, I was certain we had paper plates. I couldn’t find a single one. Paper bowls had been on our liszt, so we bought a couple hundred. There are probably a couple hundred bowls in storage – no plates. Lots of paper towels; no napkins. So I ended up shopping again. I’m glad I took a closer look yesterday because I don’t want to have these problems on Saturday.

    I’m also glad we took an extra look at the metal pipes that are used to build the North Grove Stage. It would have looked very ungainly if we hadn’t found the right ones. I need to remember to bring a black magic marker to mark this stuff so I know what it is for when I take a closer look next year.

    I worked hard all day yesterday and have today off but I don’t have much free time. I’ll try to keep up here, but I’m not promising anything. I hope to see some of you on Saturday and Sunday. Don’t forget, Holly’s band, String Fever, is playing at the North Grove Stage at 4:15 on Sunday.

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  13. Here’s a look behind the Rock Bend curtain. Watch all the way to the end because they’ll mention the price – oh, and that bit about the hamster….

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  14. OT – I’m looking for a couple of food grade plastic or ceramic crocks in which to ferment vegetables (4 – 5 gallon capacity each). Anyone know where I might be able to find some?

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    1. I have seen ceramic crocks lately at our ranch suply store. I think there are the same kinds of farm supply stores in your area but I can’t tnink of the names. What are you fermenting? Making sauerkraut?

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    2. PJ, we have old ceramic crocks that size and larger, but unfortunately they each have a big crack in them… cracked crocks, as it were. If you know how to mend and make them hold liquid again, you’re welcome to use them. Husband did use one back in his other life for exactly that purpose.

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      1. BiR, do the cracks go all the way through so that they no longer hold water? If that’s the case, I don’t think it will work. But I really appreciate the offer, thanks.

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    1. I think there may be some kind of ordinance against that many sombreros congregating in such a small area all at once.

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