Thursday, August 7, 2014

Siddhartha and the Black Plum

Above is a stock image of rose apples. Some describe them as bland, but they're not without a pleasant, distinctive flavor. They've got a nice crunchy texture, and there's no need to remove the skin or seeds.

If you know anything about Buddhism, you're probably aware that the Buddha's enlightenment came as he sat under a fig tree, the Bodhi tree, ficus religiosa. You're probably also aware that he practiced asceticism for seven years prior to enlightenment, and then determined that asceticism was futile in his quest.

What made him change his direction and accept food from the locals? As the story goes, a memory impinged on his ascetic practice. He recalled a time when, at the age of 9 years, he felt great peace and completeness. The young prince Siddhartha was sitting alone under a rose apple tree, away from nearby festivities and this profound feeling, a glimpse of the "first jhana" as Theravadans would say, washed over him. Recollection of this time was enough to set Siddhartha on the correct path, first questioning whether these feelings might lead him astray yet again, and then quickly developing a sense of certainty that he had seen the true way. At that point, he was 7 days away from enlightenment.

The rose apple story is a tad obscure. I wasn't aware of it until recently, and most casual Thai Buddhists aren't aware of it (noooooo....he sat under the fig tree!). But I find it quite powerful, more so than the fig tree story and the accompanying accounts of miracles. Many folks can relate to a feeling of completeness, perfection, freedom from expectations, whatever, that has spontaneously arisen in a natural setting. The rose apple story lets you know, if you didn't already know, that there's something incredibly profound and worthwhile in these moments. It's not illusory...far from it. really wasn't a rose apple tree, as you'll hear in Western accounts of the event. It was a not-particularly-tasty sort of "black plum." The problem, not surprisingly, lies in the translation.  "Chomphu", pronounced a certain way, refers to the rose apple. Change the tone a bit, though, and you're referring to a different sort of tree. It's "chomphu preuk" in formal Thai language, or "ton wa" more colloquially.

Of course, there's a chance that the Thais are actually wrong here. Probably not, though. Next time I meet a fluent Pali/Sanskrit Tripitaka scholar, I'll make a point of asking and will update the blog.


Update 1:  I consulted a Pali scholar who oversees the awesome site. It's amazingly common to encounter sappy quotes  attributed to the Buddha on various social media sites.  Given the size of the Tripitaka, proving that a particular quote is fake isn't always easy, though there are various giveaways (e.g. references to world-peace, open-mindedness, etc.).  Not only does Bodhipaksa, the curator of the site, do the debunking, but he also traces the origins of the fake quotes...often they're found in Western literature.

Anyway, here's a portion of Bodhipaksa's response:

This really isn’t my field (or orchard?), since I can barely tell one tree from another even where I live, but the Pali has the tree as “jambu,” which sounds like chomphu. And my Pali dictionary has this as the rose-apple tree, Eugenia jambolana.

However, if you google Eugenia jambolana, you'll actually see a plenitude of black plum images and references!  I'm leaning even more strongly to the black plum as the canopy under which the young Buddha-to-be experienced the first jhana.  Nevertheless, how can one assume that every obscure species of tree or animal has been properly translated from Pali/Sanskrit into English?  I asked a Burmese friend about my dilemma, he consulted a nun, and was told that the tree in question was a pine!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Glad that's off my bucket list

I've been obsessing over this difficult-to-find fruit for the last couple of years, like it might be the last in a series of bizarre fruits which, when eaten, unlock immortality.  My friends and I were engaged in a "have you ever eaten XXX?" conversation, and this one was missing from my list.  In Thai, it's "ma-kwid"; in English, "limonia."

It's not delicious.  Cheese, yeast, and bread aromas wafted out, overpowering some more subtle ones (vanilla, perhaps) and that's not because the fruit was rotten. There's some sweetness there. The seeds are edible and crunchy. The best comparison in my mind would be to tamarinds, but apparently it's more closely related to ordinary citrus fruits, like oranges. Psychologically, the color and mushy texture doesn't help its appeal, of course.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Lynched Openbill

Sorry about the quality of the image.

I found this situation a bit too surreal to ignore.  It's an Asian Openbill.  It appears that the bird met its death by hanging. Adding to the bizarreness is the cross-like feature on the rope or branch.  The critter has been up there for several days now, surveying the rice field, ignorant of the thunderstorms.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Rove Beetle Brushup

Above is the result (on me!) of barehandedly killing a "rove beetle."  They don't bite, they don't sting, but their internal juices contain a nasty chemical.  As with poison ivy, the discoloration tells the viewer where your hands journeyed shortly after the initial contact.

It's more of a stinging sensation than itching.  Not a big deal.  More than anything, I'm not thrilled about the prospect of repeatedly explaining what it is and what it isn't (NOT herpes!) over the next week...there's a mark on my face, so there's no hiding.  But if you google for references to the rove beetle, you're like to find superlatives like "extremely painful" and "more potent than cobra venom."  I wouldn't trade 1,000 brushups with the rove beetle for one cluster headache.

The Thai term for these buggers is "duang gon gradot", which translates to something like "ass jumping beetle."

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Thoughts on the Thai Flood

If you follow the international news, you know that parts of Thailand were deluged from October through December. I'm not sure the scope of this mess is appreciated, however. The total damage is estimated to be over $50,000,000,000. For reference, hurricane Katrina boasts an $80,000,000,000 figure. Consider, though, that Thailand is nowhere near as wealthy as the U.S., and the flood affected a large % of the Thai populace.

I've been through a couple major earthquakes and a fire. Floods are different, I can now say. In the recent case, at least, the water continually rose over a period of a month. First, the water creeps up to the level of the road. Then I found myself bicycling through a foot or more of water to get to the University. When the water began to enter the house, it was time to find a new dwelling. Like many others, I assumed it would just be a week before I could return, so I didn't bother to move my refrigerator, washing machine, etc., upstairs. Other folks fared worse, leaving their cars and motorcycles behind. Three weeks later, I returned in a "long tail" boat to survey the damage. In a village of 100's of townhouses, I saw maybe three faces. Inside the house, black, stagnant water. I had been told that the village management would turn off all electrical power...I discovered this was not true when I interacted with my refrigerator, floating, but tethered by the electrical cord.

All my previous experiences with long tail boats were in paradise, Southern Thailand. And, in fact, the one hour sojourn was quite pleasant, winding through palm trees and abandoned properties. I had to laugh.

Vandalism was being reported, so I pulled my hard drive and other valuables. Apparently, a crocodile was caught in the village.

Then, as the water recedes, the aforementioned events play out in reverse. The symmetry is broken, however, by death (my plants!) and filth that wasn't there a few months prior. It turns out that children's items are particularly floaty...thus a huge stash of shoes and plastic toys in my corner of the village. A pink plastic hobby horse with wheels. Large stuffed animals, including a smiling tortoise. The requisite tire. Endless plastic bags, garden pots, bottles, etc.

My camera was also a victim, so I regret that I can't show you the tortoise happily surveying the damage. My new camera can only capture the latter stages of this mess.

Snail eggs, stuck to my wall. It's amazing how fast these buggers, a bit bigger than ordinary escargot, propagate, infiltrate, and die.

Above is my lovely sewer. Over a couple of months, fish invaded every conceivable space. Now they're floundering around in whatever water they can find. This one's dead, but there are living specimens in that filth as well. See the pink toy?

My only surviving tree. Everything else is dead, including a mango that produced exactly one exceedingly delicious fruit in its life.

It wasn't advertised, but apparently these homes come with self-cleaning walls...exposure to the water causes everything to peel off. The dirt on the washing machine gives you an idea of its position as it floated around the interior. Unlike my refrigerator, it still works.


Everyone, including me, observes that 2011's rainfall didn't seem much heavier than 2010's. There are 100 theories as to why this disaster occurred. As things go in Thailand, it's unlikely that a clear picture will ever emerge, particularly if some important people are to blame. Some blame the minister of the interior for his decisions regarding management of dams in Northern Thailand. The idea is that poor choices were made in the name of populist politics, aiming to please the farmers in the northeast of Thailand by retaining excess volumes of water. If so, the cost of a few folks' politically-motivated resource management decisions is almost inconceivable.

Though there's no evidence for it in this case, I note that Thai politicians are very much in the habit of timing events and making decisions based on astrology, numerology, feng shui, etc. I wonder if superstition played any role in this monstrous mess.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Buddha and Bobbing-Head Snoopy

In case it's not obvious, that's a fat Buddha hanging out with two bobbing-head Snoopies on the carpeted dashboard of a taxi. In the Thai mind, there's nothing horribly incongruous about this arrangement.

It's a watercolor. I guess I cheated...the painting is based on a photo, which was then photoshopped, printed out, reproduced on tracing paper, and copied onto watercolor paper. From there, it's about as difficult as filling in a child's coloring book.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Salmon Sperm DNA

You might be surprised at how important this stuff is in the biosciences. It's used as a "blocking agent" in Southern blotting, a common method for identifying a DNA of interest in a forest of DNA molecules, and as a "carrier" when trying to introduce DNA into yeast. DNA tends to interact with DNA; in cases where you want two kinds of DNA to interact in a general, not entirely specific, manner, you want DNA that comes from a species that isn't closely related to the organism you're working with. If you're working with human DNA, salmon sperm DNA will fit the bill. If you're working with salmon, of course, you'll have to find another source of DNA. In European genetics labs, you'd be more likely to find a bottle of herring sperm in the freezer.

You also want a relatively cheap source of DNA. Male salmon release their load into the water, so they need to make a lot of the stuff. As is the case throughout the animal kingdom, sperm has a high concentration of DNA (i.e. the cell doesn't contain much more than a nucleus), so it's a good source of DNA.

The dry flakes are difficult to dissolve in water, so you've got to boil the stuff. I had to prepare a few milliliters last weekend. Oddly, after all the processing and purification it took Sigma Labs to put 1 gram in a plastic bottle (at about $100 a pop), the distinctive aroma of salmon permeated our lab upon boiling.

Interestingly, if you examine the history of DNA science, salmon sperm has played an important role from the very beginning. Crick and Watson figured out the structure of DNA, but a dude by the name of Friedrich Miescher worked out its basic chemistry nearly a century prior. You can read the story in detail. Miescher, apparently, did fine and meticulous work, and understood that this substance ("nuclein", back then) must be of importance in the cell.

Salmon sperm (from the Rhine) provided a good source of DNA for Miescher's studies. Back then, if you wanted to characterize some chemical, you'd heat it and boil it and torture it, trying to register a weight change in, say, a phosphorus-absorbing substance. That way, Miescher worked out that DNA is 3% phosphorus. Needless to say, that approach required copious quantities of starting material.

Since sperm is mostly nuclei (which is where the DNA resides), it made sense that it was involved in fertilization. Given the techniques of the day, though, it seemed that nuclein from salmon was no different than nuclein derived from any other organism, so Miescher looked elsewhere for the genetic essence, even speculating that the chiral nature of protein might hold the key (40 chiral centers in a protein mean 1,099,511,627,776 arrangements!).


Did you know there's actually a disease, trimethylaminuria, where the patient gives off a fishy odor? According to Wikipedia, "Living with TMAU can be challenging, and TMAU can adversely affect the livelihood of the people who have it, as well as their families." Yikes!