California magazine

Flash Fiction: “A Mercy, A Sport”

It was about time! We’d finally figured it out! What would this grand experiment emit? Every newborn had been subjected to the question: What happens if we cut out this sequence or that one? We’d been doing these CRISPR tests for years, so as to evolve using those Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Know thyself! Now, modify. Was it a mercy? Or a sport?

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Kiss Me, I’m 61.5% Irish

THE YEAR HAS BEEN A JUMBLE FOR ME. Long story short: I was Portuguese, then I wasn’t, then I was again.

It all started after my wife and I spat in vials and mailed the samples off to a laboratory, where our DNA was extracted from the skin cells that had sloughed off into our saliva. Many thousands of DNA segments were read and analyzed, and the results returned via email.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Intolerable Genius: Berkeley’s Most Controversial Nobel Laureate

IN THE SUMMER OF 1984 the senior scientists of Cetus Corp., a Berkeley biotech company, found themselves in a bind. One of their employees, a promising young scientist named Kary Mullis, had dreamed up a technique to exponentially replicate tiny scraps of DNA. He called it polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and if it worked it would change the world and likely earn Cetus a mountain of money. The only problem was Mullis was an interpersonal wrecking ball.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

‘Tisn’t the Season

Newcomers to the Golden State (of which Berkeley has many, the student body now representing 74 countries and all 50 states) are quickly disabused of the beachy, bikini-clad stereotype of California sold to them in song lyrics. Instead, they find themselves immersed in Berkeley’s funky, foggy, nonlinear climate. In fall, while much of the nation is snuggling into sweaters and snarfing down pumpkin spice what-have-you, Bay Area folks are pulling the popsicles from the freezer for the first time, September usually being the hottest month of the year.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Blue is an Elusive Color. One Artist Just Invented a New Shade.

Blue is an elusive color. Crush the feathers of a blue jay or the wings of a Morpho butterfly and you’ll see gray dust; our perception of their electric blue hue depends on microscopic structural features that bend the light just so. The blue sky is merely a mirage of refracting light, as are blue eyes. Truly blue pigments are exceedingly rare in the natural world, which is perhaps part of their allure—blue is our favorite color, according to an international, cross-cultural survey.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Blood Work: The Citizen Sleuth Using Genealogy to ID the Dead

ON APRIL 24, 1981, THE BODY OF A YOUNG WOMAN with auburn braids and a fringed jacket was discovered off the side of a road in Troy, Ohio.

She had been strangled to death only hours before. Authorities took DNA samples but couldn’t find a match for the woman. For decades, she was described only by the clothes on her back: “Buckskin Girl.”

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

D.A. by Day, Drag Queen by Night

I was doing drag on the weekends when I was working as a prosecutor at Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office. It was a very schizophrenic lifestyle. I was considered one of the best trial lawyers in the D.A.’s office. And then I would shift gears on Friday night and go up to San Francisco and do drag shows.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Chancellor’s Letter

It was just over ten years ago that the State of California cut funding for higher education as part of a financial retrenchment in response to the Great Recession. Ensuing tuition increases helped to partially close the resulting budgetary gap, but the financial foundations of the campus were weakened and there were legitimate fears regarding our ability to sustain Berkeley’s excellence. In that context, I am delighted to announce to the Cal community that, as of June 30, 2019, our operating budget is balanced.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Editor’s Note: The Genetics Issue

Brave New World author Aldous Huxley came to Berkeley (his son’s alma mater) in 1962 and delivered a speech on campus entitled “The Ultimate Revolution.” It ended as follows: “Our business is to be aware of what is happening, and then to use our imagination to see what might happen, how this might be abused, and then, if possible, to see that the enormous powers which we now possess thanks to these scientific and technological advances be used for the benefit of human beings and not for their degradation.”

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.

Robert Meltzer Died Fighting Fascism. Then He Was Blacklisted.

Here’s a scene worth picturing on Veterans Day: It’s 1951. McCarthyism has reached a fever pitch, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), already keeping watch on Orson Welles, has trained its sights on one of Welles’ close friends.

His name is Robert Meltzer—a UC Berkeley graduate-turned-Hollywood-screenwriter who, through biting send-ups of the status quo, has made his leftist leanings clear.

Is DNA Testing of Immigrants a Threat to Us All?

In May 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented a program called Rapid DNA testing—subjecting families crossing the Mexican border to cheek swab tests, which produce extensive DNA profiles in less than two hours that are entered into a national criminal database. The initial pilot program, begun this summer, was ostensibly rolled out to identify “fraudulent family units”—groups of children and adults who are not blood-related but were trying to achieve special immigration status—and prosecute them for fraud.

At Berkeley’s California Typewriter, the Selectrics Keep Humming

I didn’t need a typewriter. I’ve never had an editor request hard copy. These days a typewriter is just a decorative toy and using one an affectation, like Civil War reenactment or home-curing bacon. But when I found a 1940s era manual Remington Rand on Oxford Street in one of those free piles that spring up curbside at the end of the academic year, I couldn’t just leave it there.

There’s an App for That! Earthquake Early Warning Is Here.

On the 30-year anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, Governor Gavin Newsom stood near the Oakland entrance of the Bay Bridge, a portion of which collapsed during the quake, and announced the launch of MyShake, the United States’ first earthquake early warning system.

“The price of admission for living here is preparation,” Newsom said. “Today we are making a big leap forward.”

The Chalk Market: Where Mathematicians Go to Get the Good Stuff

Filmmaker Kyung Lee never dreamed she’d become a dealer. But bringing her first feature-length documentary to fruition required money she simply didn’t have. What she did have, however, was an idea for getting high-quality product and access to exclusive clientele.

Hagoromo chalk is a bit thicker than standard American chalk. It has been called the Rolls Royce of chalk—even the Michael Jordan of chalk.

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