Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Every culture has its own comfort foods; every family samples from that culture; everyone has his own personal favorites, connected to a million intimate family memories.

For me, comfort foods stem from a little finished basement in South Hackensack, New Jersey. Several folks had a claim to sovereignty over that space: for example my grandfather, Salvatore Gulino, who owned the house; my great-grandfather, Melchiorre Occhipinti, who presided as a kind of family elder statesman over everything we did.

A quick word about my great-grandfather, my “Nannu” — that’s not a misspelling of the Italian, by the way, it’s Sicilian dialect for “grandpa” [1] — or as he was known by my mother’s generation, “Pop.” My mom and her sisters were terrified of him; I mean, this man was a holy terror in his day. My great-uncle, Pete Occhipinti, told a story about facing down union organizers in Pop’s small factory [2]: Uncle Pete told me about how he was yelling at the union rep, trying to scare him off, and that the guy started to get real pale, looked worried. “I thought I was scaring him real good,” my uncle said. “Then I turned around, and saw Pop standing behind me with a big lead pipe in his hand.” The other story was about Pop throwing a guy through a window because he didn’t like the way the guy was dancing with my great-grandmother.

We Sicilians can be an intense people. Very few of us are as placid and pleasant as yours truly.

By the time I came ’round, though, Pop was this kindly, gentle 90-something who, whenever I came by, would give me a dollar bill and a 7-Up and set me to drawing pictures on the vine-covered back porch of his house, next door to my grandparents’.

Man oh man, is it good to be the first grandson in a Sicilian family. I recommend it highly. But I digress.

Arguably, that big, second-kitchen, one-family events center in the basement of my grandparents’ house belonged most of all to my grandmother, Margherita Gulino. If my grandfather Sam was the strength of the family, quiet and gentle and protective, my grandmother, his profoundly beloved “Marge,” was the emotional center. We read the opening to Corinthians 13 at her funeral — a rare reading for a funeral — because it was just, so, her:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, enough to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and hand over my body to be burnt but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind. Love is not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love is not irritable or resentful. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. Now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love [3].

Among many cherished memories, I remember, and try to emulate, my grandmother’s cooking. Variations on simple pasta are a mainstay in my house to this day [4]; I recently reproduced a promising, if not-quite-there, cauliflower pie; one of these days I’ll have to try to re-create her tomato-covered mackerel, which was amazing.

But if there’s one thing I remember most fondly of all, it was her ravioli. She’d make them from scratch, of course, rolling out a sheet of pasta dough, spooning out the cheese — her secret ingredient was a little sugar, and sometimes some cinnamon [5] — and then covering it with a second sheet, using a little tool I’ve got to get hold of to cut and crimp at the same time …

To this day, ravioli conjures up a flood of connected memories, partly because memory is so intrinsically linked to the sense of smell. I swear, if somebody exhumes the rotting carcass of Proust’s Madeleine passage one more frigging time, I’ll puke [6] — but the guy got it right nevertheless.

Today, however, we’re going to go a bit farther afield than the, in evolutionary retrospect, unsurprising idea that the structures in the brain that govern memory are connected to those that govern smell. We’re going to talk about the link between metabolic state and smell (as well as taste).

Submitted for your approval: Mssrs. Bronwen Martin & Co.’s review of connections between the metabolic hormones and the olfactory and gustatory systems.

I remember a lecture in a college endocrinology class, when the professor told us a harrowing story of a toddler with a fatal kidney dysfunction who would eat handfuls of salt. Somehow, the kid knew what he needed, even if it couldn’t save him … Then there are the women who become nauseated at the drop of a hat when they’re pregnant — maybe, their bodies are making them avoid any hint of toxin to protect the baby …

Well, today’s paper surveys what we know about how the body’s metabolic state modifies our sense of smell and taste to point us toward what we need.

Maybe the best-understood actor in this context is glucagon-like peptide 1, or GLP-1. It’s a key actor in the body’s system for sensing satiety — when your stomach says, “enough.” GLP-1 release by the intestines signals that the body has taken up a load of glucose, and that it’s time to ratchet up insulin production — which itself is a signal for cells to take up and store the sugar from the blood— and ratchet down glucagon, which has the opposite effects to insulin.

Turns out that GLP-1 is also produced in the taste cells of the tongue, and in the glomerular layer of the olfactory bulb that receives signals from the smell-sensing neurons in the olfactory epithelium. More interesting, GLP has the ability to shift the sense of taste, reducing sensitivity to sweetness and increasing sensitivity to umami, that meaty “fifth flavor” [7] that Westerners didn’t know about until relatively recently, because, well, we’re barbarians. That’s right, the same hormone that tells the body that we have enough sugar on board makes us hanker less for sweets [8]. Its role in smell isn’t as clear, but we know it’s there.

Martin’s crew talk about a number of hormonal actors: for example cholecystokinin, another intestinal signal that encourages digestion of fat and proteins, somehow affects social memory. Neuropeptide Y, a potent natural appetite stimulant/sedative with effects not unlike a good Thai stick, is a major affector of smell as well, encouraging the generation of new olfactory neurons — a process necessary for long-term reprogramming of the nose’s sensitivity to various smells.

Most topical, perhaps, was the mention of leptin, a hormone produced in fatty tissues and whose absence has recently been linked to obesity. Mice who have mutations that make them unable to produce leptin have increased preference for sweets (and also swell up like balloons). Harder to fit into the picture, but as provocative as it is interesting, is the fact that high serum leptin levels are associated with superior odor-discrimination ability in men — but low capacity for odor discrimination by women.

At one level, these connections are almost predictable: of course there are direct links between the body’s systems for digesting food and those that help us find, make us want, to eat more — and what to eat. Of course problems with maintaining healthy body weight are going to involve breakdowns in these signals. Hell, they haven’t even completely nailed all these connections down yet, but it seems a safe bet that, somehow, it will all connect up eventually.

But a step back, and the mind reels with the delicate intricacy of the signals and counter-signals. Everything is connected; from the simple quorum-sensing molecules that bacteria use to communicate with each other nature has developed a rich, complex dance of molecules and electric impulses that make it all work.


One more food/connections story about, or rather from, the basement on Leuning Street: it’s from a day when Heather was a brand-new girlfriend, come down to meet my family maybe for the first time. My aunt Dorothy was still alive, and my aunt Barbara and my mother were still talking to each other. The discussion came down to braciola, a southern Italian specialty of flank steak, pounded flat, and rolled up with spices and pine nuts in tomato sauce — if you do it right, there’s a hard-boiled egg in the center. But not everybody does it right [8].

My aunt Dee was trying to remind my mother of a neighbor they’d had, decades before. “He lived in that brick house,” Aunt Dee said, and I wondered, from the way she’d said it, if the house even existed any more. Certainly, it wasn’t spurring any memories for Mom.

Dee thought for a moment, then brightened, and said, holding up a fork, “He choked to death on a braciola string.”

That did it: Mom had it now; everybody nodded, and went back to the meal.

[1] Note that many folks believe that Sicilian deserves status as a language in its own right, separate from Italian.
[2] What can I say: we were rare, for the period, Italian-American Republicans. I actually worked in that building one summer, for a machine shop that was leasing it from Uncle Pete. I’ll have to post on it sometime, but let’s just say if it hadn’t been for who my uncle was they’d have fired my clumbsy ass.
[3] Say what you want about Paul; I defy you to argue he didn’t get this one right.
[4] I consider myself no slouch. Maybe my best dish is cacciatore, which I admit I tinkered with for years to duplicate not my grandmother’s recipe, but
Michelle’s Restaurant’s, in Garfield, which now seems to have become a banquet hall. Not the same thing; you really can’t go home.
[5] I know it sounds a bit weird. But it works.
[6] Which I just did. Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaugh.
[7] Add it to sour, salty, sweet, and bitter, the four “classical” flavors. Everything else in flavor comes from the aroma, not the actual taste.
[8] Until I looked up the Wikipedia entry, I didn’t know the name braciola was a misnomer common to Italian-Americans. How ’bout that.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


It was an ugly scenario, I’ll give you that.

We’d gotten the call on a Friday night, I think, for a Saturday morning response — someone had left a note in a small West Virginia state park saying he’d murdered two women and stashed the bodies at the park. Who knows how seriously the authorities would have taken that note, if it weren’t for the fact that two local teens were unaccounted for. They had to assume the worst.

By the time we got there, though, the picture had muddied. The teens had shown up, safe and sound, and the authorities were beginning to believe the note was a hoax. But they had a tiger by the tail — they’d initiated a search, and now didn’t know how to stop it. If they kept going and somebody got hurt looking for bodies that weren’t there, they’d have a legal problem on their hands; if they called the search off and somebody’s grandma found two women’s bodies two weeks later, it would be even worse.

Fortunately, one of the services that volunteer SAR teams with good incident-command training can offer is a set of mechanisms for deciding when and how to wind a search down, ethically and by the book. In some ways, when we roll up on a search like this we’re even bigger heroes to the local authorities than when we actually find somebody.

In this case, we had a number of clues of uncertain significance to follow up on, and a few bald spots in the previous search efforts to cover, before we could suspend.

Before I left for the search, I got a call from our incident commander, Don Scelza, who said, “Bring your caving gear.”

At the time, AMRG wasn’t a cave rescue team. But a number of us were cavers, and had taken at least the introductory National Cave Rescue Commission rescue class. In this case, Don had something very specific in mind. A dog of unknown quality had alerted near a maze of rocks — essentially, a little cave system that had lost its roof — and Don wanted me to explore the maze thoroughly to rule out any, well, dead people being in there.

What I did not bring, and this is going to become poignantly relevant, was a dog. With Moe’s untimely and still-frustrating medical discharge [1], we’d gotten caught with only one operational dog — and Heather and Pip, along with our teammate Bill Evans, had gone to Mississippi, as part of the post-Katrina response, duly deputized by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania [2].

When I rolled up on the search scene, I had something else to do before I did any caving. At the time, before our team had its trailer, our gear had a habit of dispersing among the officers. Since I was then communications officer, I had our radios in my car and needed to set up our communications net as job one.

The base radio was a challenge. We had no electric power in the picnic shelter that served as a command post; I tried plugging the radio into a car cigarette-lighter inverter I had, only to find that, between the power loss at the plug, the inverter itself, and the power supply, we didn’t have enough juice to run the radio.

“You know, the radio runs on 12-volt DC,” Don said, looking over my shoulder, and I felt a little dim. I pulled the power supply off the radio, hooked the damned radio up directly to my car battery, and voila, we had a communications net. I wasn’t absolutely sure I’d be going home without a jump, but I had cables.

So I put my helmet, kneepads, and gloves on over my uniform, slung my gas-mask-bag cave pack over one shoulder, and hiked up to the grotto.

Normally you don’t do SAR tasks alone; and you never do cave tasks by yourself. But this wasn’t exactly a cave, and a grid team was covering an area right next to me, within easy shouting distance. So I dove in, starting at a big opening and working my way around counter-clockwise, crawling into every crack, every opening I could find.

The task was utterly uneventful until I was nearly back where I started from, at the far side of that big opening. Standing there, I had to admit that something smelled dead.

I thought, “Think like a dog.” Knowing the scent would likely rise in the daytime, I moved into the big opening and started climbing. From the top, I was able to move down into the smell, finding, eventually, the dead fox that was its source.

Can’t tell you what a relief that was. But I felt I had a good explanation of what the dog had alerted on — and that somebody needed to go back and do some remedial training.

I drew two other tasks that day; one, the field team leader’s nightmare, was to lead a team made up of park rangers, state troopers, and local firefighters in the day’s last area-search task.

I said to myself, “If you screw up, these guys will turn on you in a second.” We did have a difficult moment, when a rose thicket broke our line like the 20th Maine broke the Alabamians on Little Round Top. But I guess I handled it all right, because despite a little grumbling about how thoroughly I was making them perform a task that we all knew was pro forma, we had no major mutinies.

Earlier, though, I’d been making my way out to my last solo task of the day — a culvert leading from the reservoir that another dog had alerted on — and reflected on how utterly, totally cool I was. I was Joe SAR. I could do anything the incident required.

Multitasking? Bring it on, thought I …

Cruelly abandoned to hold down the farm on my own while th’wife was masterminding adoptions for nearly 250 rescued dogs in Montana — a different but still difficult multitasking mission — I’d been a little too busy to do a full entry recently. Instead I thought I’d give a quick smattering of stuff that caught my eye recently, but that has piled up way too fast for me to blog — or whatever it is I do in these pages — on them. In the event, this post got delayed by the timely capital punishment/high school reunion issue, but here goes now:

First, in my Fortnight of Multitasking, something I was already suspecting — namely, let’s not kid ourselves about what great multitaskers we are. The people who multitask the most, apparently, suck at it the most. I think that multitasking gives the subjective impression of productivity without actually producing all that much.

A surprisingly sympathetic — and harrowing — story about what happens to cockroaches when deprived of social interactions. Answer: the poor little buggers get clinical depression.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, there’s this item about the movement behaviors of white blood cells. A bit of context first: you may recall me getting into a bit of a twist trying to understand how having more receptors on one side of the cell would help one of these cells find the source of a chemical gradient, given that the difference in concentration of that chemical at each end of the cell has to be negligible. Then I saw this piece in Nature about a new method for observing individual cells in a living animal, through its intact skin. Turned out that not too long ago, folks used this technique to see that white blood cells moving toward an infection don’t move in a uniform front. They bob and weave, in apparent random motion.

Well, I’ve got an alternative explanation: they’re casting for scent, just like a moth trying to regain a pheromone plume he’s lost — or, maybe, a SAR dog trying to zero in on a search subject in difficult scent conditions.

Be that as it may, I had my own little epiphany about searching — and the limitations to multitasking — as I was crawling up that culvert, green slime dripping on my back [3]. It struck me that I’d never had to crawl up a culvert like that before, and I realized immediately why — normally, I’d have sent my dog.

And that’s when it hit me: I had no dog, but they’d given me all the dog tasks anyway. I really was just a dog’s sidekick.

Humbled, and again relieved at once again finding nothing, I trudged back to base to report.

[1] Happy ending: Moe has today found fulfillment and gainful employment as head of homeland security for our little farm.
[2] This is literally true. Soon after they left, I learned that the text of the mutual aid agreement between Pennsylvania and Mississippi that governed the response had been hastily scraped over, word for word, from the one that sent Pennsylvania state troopers down there, and included full police powers (remember, this was post-Katrina, and everybody was scrambling). For reasons that would be obvious to anybody who knows Bill or Heather, we didn’t tell either of them until they got back.
[3] Ruined my @$%#^$ uniform shirt.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Experts and Testimony

Lord, but the Real World has a way of hijacking — or, perhaps less dramatically, riffing on — this space. A recent post was a fairly “insider’s” view of the professionalism issues facing the search-and-rescue dog-handling community, and as such I was a bit concerned about whether it would be of interest to all of DACSIH’s readers.

Huh. The state of Texas, it turned out, had other plans. But I get ahead of myself.

So there I was, at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton, New Jersey, built literally on the corpse of the farm stand where I used to get cider and cinnamon doughnuts as a boy. But we won’t dwell on the evils of suburban sprawl, because it was a happy occasion: my 30th reunion, Pascack Hills High School Class of 1979.

Heather had pulled a muscle in her back from the fucking smoker’s cough she’d brought back from her Billings adventure, and of course this really wasn’t her thing anyway, so she spent much of the evening on a couch outside the meeting room. That turned out to be perfect for me, because the experience, while enjoyable, was also a bit intense: I’d spend half an hour reminiscing with people, walk out, hang with Heather for a while, and go back in once I’d de-intensified for a little while.

Much of what we did was tell stories about getting into trouble when we were at school together. I had a particularly interesting talk with Greg Bunce, who’d been first-chair trombone when I was second-chair trumpet. As band geeks, we’d spent an incredible time together; virtually every moment we weren’t in class, we were in the band room, playing or shooting the bull.

On the date of note, however, we weren’t doing any of that — I think that we may have already graduated, in fact. But in any case, Greg tells me a story I knew well:

“I remember that time that I rear-ended you — you were driving that old Mustang of yours, weren’t you? I tell my kids about that even now.”

Which came as a surprise to me, because I had good reason to remember it differently. I’m fairly certain of my facts, because I have far more details and because I vividly remember being dragged into the insurance agent’s office for the talk about teen drivers letting their attentions wander. Which was all bullshit, of course, because although none of the adults knew it, the accident had been a direct effect of egregiously and willfully dangerous horseplay.

I’d been driving, and not my 1967 candy-apple red squareback Mustang — I think it may already have died by then — but my mother’s late-60s Pontiac Le Mans, which she’d bought second-hand from her sister. The other car was Doug “Beaner” Weinstein’s, a little Mazda roadster that he pampered as his baby.

Heh. The Le Mans and I had different plans.

I don’t remember what we were coming back from, but we were on our way home on a fairly lonely stretch of road that included a causeway across a local reservoir. I was in front, my car full of wiseasses — including Greg, of course. Doug was driving behind us, and I think his car was empty because he was going a different way back.

I stopped at a light; behind me, the gentlest bump.

I look in the rearview; Doug’s grinning at me like he just ate a turd sandwich. Asshole.

At a stop sign, the same thing; I stop, he bumps me. Now he’s laughing.

At this point we hit a short four-lane stretch, and I slow down. Doug makes the amazing mistake of passing me.

Perhaps you can see where this is going; but you probably haven’t got the full picture yet.

At the next intersection, Doug encounters a red light. Who could have known the levies would fail, but as it so happens when I pull in behind him I give him a bit of a bump. But I don’t stop there: having made contact, I gently ease my foot onto the gas.

A Glory Days, unapologetic American V8 purrs to life, the raw power even at low revs starting to push the little Mazda forward, into the intersection.

Kids, I can’t stress this enough — don’t try this at home.

Doug tries his foot brake. Tries the hand break. Tries putting it into reverse — as if; the little rotary engine whines in impotent truculence, but that little car is still headed into the intersection, red light or no. Big daddy says forward, and at this point Detroit is still capable of bitch-slapping Hiroshima [1].

In my defense, I do have a carful of little shitheads howling with laughter and egging me on. Which, of course, made it all right …

Allow me to break frame for a moment, and tell you what neither I nor Doug nor our demonstrably unsympathetic fellows knew. In fact, the Le Mans’ bumper had almost no overlap with the much-lower Mazda’s. At this moment what was pushing Doug forward was about an inch of intersection between his bumper and my Mom’s.

Or rather, the torpedo nose in the front center of the Le Mans’ bumper.

The impact, when it happened, was almost gentle. Just the slightest shock, and from the feel I wouldn’t have even known it — Doug certainly didn’t, because when the light changed he just drove off.

Those of us behind him, however, had the awful evidence before us: a huge dent in his trunk, shaped exactly like the Le Mans’ torpedo nose (which didn’t, of course, have so much as a scratch).

For a moment, we all sat there in utter, awful silence. Then I hit the gas, tried to come alongside Doug and motion him to pull over. He just drove faster — thought I was trying to drag.

Eventually we managed to motion him over. He got out of his car, that big old grin still on his face until he rounded the rear and saw. The smile, and all the color, drained from his face.

That’s when we all huddled and got our story straight. We were smart kids, developed a short but believable scenario that would minimize the shit-storm I’d be in when my old man found out. I was going to have to take the fall; that was so obvious it didn’t need to be stated — but true friends are ones who help you construct an alibi that will soften the blow.

The punch line, though, is a phone conversation I had with our first-chair trumpet, Seth Rivkin, soon afterward — Seth hadn’t made it to the reunion, so I told him about Greg telling me the slightly revised story.

“Wasn’t I driving that day?” Seth asked.

I’ll be damned. Well, there’s your reliability of eyewitness testimony.

Which brings me to that earlier post — about how bogus scent-dog evidence seems to have helped convict a couple of innocent people in Texas — and today’s post — about how, in a grim finding no one could consider any kind of victory, anti-capital-punishment activists may have finally gotten what they were warning us was coming: evidence that a man was executed for a crime he did not commit.

Texas, again [2].

The particulars you can find in the excellent New Yorker article. But here’s the recap. A man named Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for setting fire to his house and killing his children. Much of the case was made by expert testimony saying that the fire couldn’t have been accidental. Unfortunately, the case began to unravel almost immediately after the conviction:

• The “expert testimony” from the fire marshal that pretty much made the case that a man had burned his family to death turned out to be little more than folklore-based.
• Research available well before the man was executed showed that the “evidence” investigators found for arson can happen naturally in any house fire, robbing us of the “it was OK by the standards of the time” argument.
• The Texas board responsible for clemency judgments seems to have willfully ignored a brief from one of the nation’s foremost researchers on fire forensics that pretty much established the state’s case didn’t hold up, and that the fire appeared to have been accidentally caused by a space heater or faulty wiring.
• Many of the witnesses who testified in court about the man’s “unnatural calm” while his kids burned up had originally described him as frantically trying to get back into the house to save them — but remembered the day differently after they found out the authorities had accused the man of a monstrous crime. Again, so much for eyewitnesses, which I’m beginning to think are a vastly overrated mode of evidence.
• The other “damning” evidence came from a jailhouse stoolie who, years later, offered this reassuring addendum (from the New Yorker article):
“After I pressed him, he said, ‘It’s very possible I misunderstood what he said.’ Since the trial, Webb has been given an additional diagnosis, bipolar disorder. ‘Being locked up in that little cell makes you kind of crazy,’ he said. ‘My memory is in bits and pieces. I was on a lot of medication at the time. Everyone knew that.’ He paused, then said, ‘The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?’”

One might ask if I have an agenda, where I stand on the issue. Fair enough. I tend against the death penalty for two reasons: first, I don’t believe in perfection, and so I can’t get around the irrevocability if you find out your guy was innocent. Second, I don’t like giving the state any more right to take its citizens’ lives than absolutely necessary — a cop defending himself or a bystander, that’s fine; but nobody should have the right to kill citizens in cold blood, the government the least of all. Even when the son of a bitch deserves it.

I say “deserve,” because what I will not do is waste a tear over the pieces of crap who are guilty of murder. They probably do have it coming [3].

More to the point today, I have a bug up my ass about a few words, particularly when people apply them to themselves. A “perfectionist” is someone who makes huge mistakes because he’s so obsessed with trivial detail. A “paisano” is, as my Dad once told me, a fellow Italian-American who’s about to put his hand in your pocket. And an “expert” is someone who’s been around for long enough that he feels nobody should ever be allowed contradict him again.

We’ve got a lot of this kind of “expert” in the dog handling community. God forgive me if I ever start to call myself an expert.

There are real experts in this world, although you’d have a hell of a time getting many of them to admit to it. My mother for example: all her life she’s been humble about her own smarts; but on more than one occasion she was able to see through walls, as the saying goes.

The incident with the Le Mans and the Mazda was no exception. As I’d said, we were careful to build a story and stick to it; and to my knowledge, none of the adults ever pierced the construct.

Um. My mother, it seemed, had different plans.

In a quiet moment, when nobody else was around, she grabbed my arm, and said, “Now I want you to be honest with me. Just between us. You were screwing around, weren’t you?”

No flies on Mom.

For my part, when Mom’s instincts I ’fessed up. Takes a pretty low character to lie to his mother.

[1] That sounds awful, but in fact this is where Mazda was founded.
[2] I like Texas. I like Texans. Texas women, in particular, kick ass. But let’s face it, yinz have got a blind spot a mile wide when it comes to the death penalty.
[3] I still think Tolkien got this exactly right. If you read Gandalf’s take on the death penalty — or watch it in the movie, it was portrayed faithfully to the text — it doesn’t deny that some people deserve death, and doesn’t really say the death penalty is never warranted. What it does do is make us question why we want to see it applied — and whether it’s truly out of a sense of justice, or out of fear and malice.