Fish Fossils Plug Hole In Evolutionary Theory

Fish fossils plug a hole in evolutionary theory, and some of the most e-mailed, viewed and commented on stories on the Web.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MIKE PESCA, host:

Hey, everyone, welcome back. Welcome back to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. We're always online at npr.org/bryantpark. And some of my best friends - even though I'm not here to make them, I happen to make them - some of my best friends in the room are here right now, guys named Matt and Dan and Ian. So, basically, if you have three or four letters in your name, you're allowed to join in. A gal named Trish, breaking the trenches, actually outside of the room.

PATRICIA MCKINNEY: You can call me Pat.

PESCA: OK. Pat.

IAN CHILLAG: T-Mac, also.

MATT MARTINEZ: T-Mac, yeah.

PESCA: We're all here to help each other read news stories and comment on The Most.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: And these aren't just any news stories. These are the most-emailed, shared and viewed all over the collection of tubes called the Internet. Tricia, why don't you start us off?

MCKINNEY: Why don't I start us off with Google Trends? It - I have another Google Trend to talk about, but I was just checking the updates to see, you know, where they are right now, and number one totally surprised me. It's actually - it's not a word. It's a swastika. I don't know how you do a swastika on the Internet, although apparently...

PESCA: Thank God they've invented the technology. Let's just say that.

MCKINNEY: It turns out, though...

PESCA: That's a great thing.

MCKINNEY: That may not be the swastika the way we think of one, but that it's actually a Chinese character. So, that might be the context in which it's used. Of course, I don't read Chinese characters, so I'm not quite sure why a swastika is there.

MARTINEZ: It's also a pagan symbol, you know.

CHILLAG: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: It's many things.

PESCA: And Navajo Indians.

CHILLAG: Remember the guy we had on recently talking about the change in top-level domains, that, you know, characters from all sort of different languages, not just, you know...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

MCKINNEY: Right. Well, this is the first time I've seen something on Google Trends that wasn't actually an English word, an English language word. So, we'll see what happens with that. But what I was going to talk about was another term, Air McFly, which is now down to number 22, was up higher earlier. But you know, these are the famous fake sneakers. They were in "Back to the Future II."

PESCA: Yes.

MCKINNEY: Marty McFly had these sneakers that apparently everybody wanted. I was not one of the people who wanted those. However, there's been this grassroots - I'm going to say so-called grassroots campaign to get the Air McFlys made real, because, who knows? It could be Nike that's behind it. But anyway, Nike has made a sneaker that apparently looks enough like the Air McFly that people are semi-satisfied with it, although there is some backlash coming up on the blogs.

CHILLAG: Yeah.

MCKINNEY: It's not enough like what Michael J. Fox wore.

CHILLAG: I agree. I agree.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: It's not enough like the fake...

CHILLAG: It doesn't have the self-tightening ankle.

DAN PASHMAN: That's the thing. The product I remember from that movie was - you know, Michael J. Fox arrives in the future. He meets Doc Brown. Doc Brown gives him a jacket that's way too big, and he's like, Doc, this doesn't fit! And Doc says, ah, well, watch this, Mahrty (ph)! And he hits this button, and all of a sudden, it just shrinks and it fits perfectly, and I want all of my clothes to do this.

MCKINNEY: That's going to happen in 2015!

PASHMAN: Awesome!

CHILLAG: Yeah, can I say, this whole thing has made me realize how absurd that is?

PASHMAN: I know.

CHILLAG: You know, they had those skateboards, the hover boards...

PESCA: Yeah.

CHILLAG: That, you know - that...

PASHMAN: Yeah.

CHILLAG: And the problem with them was that they couldn't go on water, but the problem with them is that's seven years away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MCKINNEY: Yeah. Well, anyway, these sneakers are out, and they're not actually called Air McFlys, but - and they're being sold in limited capacity. There's a bunch of them on EBay, and actually, this all happened last week. I'm not quite sure why it's on Google Trends this morning.

PESCA: All right. Where we're going next, we won't need roads...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Because we're going to get high. Marijuana U. Most at the Vah-hay-oh (ph) Times?

MARTINEZ: Vallejo.

PESCA: Vallejo? I don't know when to say the Ls. So, Vallejo is up near Napa Valley, but it's on a few newspapers, because I guess the guys making the headlines love the puns. There's a school called - what's called Oaksterdam University. It's in Oakland. You know you're in a different kind of college when a teaching assistant sets five marijuana plants down in the middle of the lab and no one blinks a bloodshot eye. The school prepares people for jobs in California's thriving medical-marijuana industry. And since they're just teaching about marijuana, it doesn't seem to be illegal, or at least the people who can arrest them are turning a blind eye. And some of the headlines in different papers are things like "Pot school takes students higher" and "A school that has gone to pot."

CHILLAG: No "Higher education"?

PASHMAN: No "Higher education"?

PESCA: "Higher education" was there, too.

MCKINNEY: How about "High enrollment in this class"?

MARTINEZ: Right, exactly.

PESCA: How about "These kids are on a lot of drugs"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PASHMAN: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: How about "Baked and hungry"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: How about, "If you take this, it will affect your perception and possibly give you the munchies"? Well, anyway, Ian, what do you...

MCKINNEY: How about "Gateway class"?

PESCA: Mm-hm. Ian?

CHILLAG: Yes. I have a Most...

PESCA: How about "Exactly like every other school except we admit it"? All right, Ian.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHILLAG: I have a most-popular from WNBC here in New York. Apparently, at the Bronx Zoo yesterday, the Skyfari, you know, it's this cable-car system where...

PESCA: Yeah, stop right there!

CHILLAG: You can look down at everything...

PESCA: It's the Skyfari?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHILLAG: Yeah, that's right.

MARTINEZ: I was watching the TV yesterday...

CHILLAG: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: And there was, like, flashing news, go to foxnews.com and watch this live happening!

CHILLAG: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: And of course, I did.

CHILLAG: Yeah.

PASHMAN: It's because they told you to.

MARTINEZ: Yes, of course.

CHILLAG: One of the gondolas derailed, and that sort of shuts down the whole system, and dozens of people were stranded up there for hours above the African Plains exhibit, where there are lions.

PESCA: Yeah.

CHILLAG: I just kept thinking about, like, my cats at home, that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: They're not allowed outside, and there's this window, and on the other side of the window, there's a birdfeeder. And it's, like, a torture device, this window, and they just sit there. So, the lions must have thought they were going to get some snacks, and then the crane comes in...

MARTINEZ: Well, I was thinking - the entire time, I was thinking about "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," at the end where they're crossing the bridge...

CHILLAG: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: And the bridge falls down, and it goes down to the water, and all of the crocodiles are there and they eat them up.

CHILLAG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MARTINEZ: It's like they're just waiting for a meal.

PESCA: I think the lions are normally very lethargic. I'd worry about the baboons, who are crafty!

CHILLAG: Yeah, they were also above the baboons.

PESCA: Yeah. So, how long were they up there?

CHILLAG: About four and a half hours, the last one came down.

PESCA: Were they charged extra?

CHILLAG: Yeah, no. No, not that I know of. They may be refunded, in fact, I believe.

PESCA: Hm. It's a cool story. Dan?

PASHMAN: Hey, guys. I've got a couple here for you, actually. One New York Times most-emailed. "Perfection? Hint: It's Warm and Has a Secret."

PESCA: Is this about marijuana also?

PASHMAN: That could really be misinterpreted. No, it's about chocolate chip cookies. Get your minds out of the gutter. And basically, they did this big survey talking to a bunch of chefs to find out what makes the perfect chocolate chip cookie. I'll summarize, dry dough. If you leave the dough out for long enough for the liquids in the dough to be absorbed fully, you get a cookie with a better consistency. And one of the ways you can do that quickly is by adding sea salt, secret awesome ingredient in chocolate chip cookies.

CHILLAG: Yeah.

PESCA: That's useful.

PASHMAN: And I've got a most-emailed - sorry?

MCKINNEY: Bake-off!

PASHMAN: Yeah, I think you're right there. There's a recipe in here. There's a recipe. We'll link to it.

CHILLAG: Yeah.

PASHMAN: We'll have a bake off. I've also got a most-emailed here from Yahoo! News. "Fish Fossils plug hole in evolutionary theory." You know, I didn't realize this, you know, flat fish, like flounder, sole, halibut, I always thought...

PESCA: Fish with two eyes on the same side?

PASHMAN: Well, I always thought they were just really flat, but they actually swim on their sides.

PESCA: Oh.

PASHMAN: That's why they're flat. They're, like, just a flat version of the vertical fish. And they, like you said, Mike, they have two eyes on one side of their bodies, and the evolutionary question is, how did they get to be that way? For a long time, there were no intermediary fossils to show, you know, the middle step in the evolutionary process between the fish. Obviously, it's an advantage for a flat fish to have two eyes looking up, watching its back.

PESCA: Yeah.

PASHMAN: So, they finally found some fossils in the bowels of several European museums that show these fish with the eyes slowly, basically, moving across to one side of the body.

PESCA: Wow.

PASHMAN: So, they can show the various steps that took place to make this happen.

MCKINNEY: Time-lapsed photography?

PESCA: Matt...

MARTINEZ: That's very cool.

PESCA: Matt, you want to take us to a piece?

MARTINEZ: I will. I have one of those stories. It hit the most-emailed and viewed list before it was even aired on any NPR program. It's always nice when that happens. It's about the trailers that were given to victims of Hurricane Katrina. We reported about this on the show that, you know, high formaldehyde levels founds in these trailers. So, the federal government said it would stop using them, and would only use them again in a catastrophic disaster, and only if there were only other - no other choices, in that case. But now you have thousands of trailers just sitting around, and it costs money to have them just sit around. Some estimates put it at 130 million dollars a year, and NPR's Pam Fessler reported on what's to be done with all of these trailers.

(Soundbite of NPR's Morning Edition, July 8, 2008)

PAM FESSLER: Perhaps no one in America has been more disturbed by the storage of unused travel trailers than Wanda Phillips of Purvis, Mississippi.

Ms. WANDA PHILLIPS (Resident, Purvis, Mississippi): My property is just a few feet, just right across the road from them. There's trailers, I would say, within 150 feet of my house.

FESSLER: And by trailers, she means thousands of them, all lined up in rows, baking in the sun. Phillips sits on her front porch across from what used to be an open field with a lake and longhorn steer. She says now there's just a herd of white elephants. This is where FEMA set up one of its first staging areas after Hurricane Katrina. Initially, the problem was traffic, hundreds of trucks delivering and picking up trailers.

Ms. PHILLIPS: You couldn't get in and out. They parked in the front yard, parked on our grass, parked on the root system of our trees.

FESSLER: But that was nothing, she says, compared with what followed, insomnia, headaches, coughs, sinus problems. At first, she thought it was the dust, so she decided to move to a plot of land she owns elsewhere. But Philips made a mistake. She bought a used FEMA trailer to live in.

Ms. PHILLIPS: Then I got worse. I mean, I really - I just thought I was sick before. I really got worse.

FESSLER: So, she decided that she might as well come back home and suffer there.

Ms. PHILLIPS: And then one day, I was sitting in the living room on the floor and my husband was sitting in his chair and he said, look at this, and he threw the newspaper over at me, and I reached and picked it up off the carpet and I looked at it and I said, oh my God. I said, there's formaldehyde in those trailers. What is formaldehyde?

FESSLER: And that was the start. Phillips has spent months since collecting documents and reports and making her own stink in an effort to get rid of the trailers. She's joined thousands of Gulf Coast residents who have complained about the formaldehyde and are suing the government. FEMA has acknowledged that the chemical can be a health problem for those living in the trailers, but it has not said the same of those living near storage sites. In fact, the agency says the ongoing litigation has stalled its efforts to dispose of more than 94,000 travel trailers it now has sitting empty and unused around the country. Almost a third are here in Mississippi.

Mr. MIKE MILLER (Mississippi Field Coordinator, Federal Emergency Management Agency): When some folks look at these clutters, they see formaldehyde. When I look at them, I see a cool, clean, dry place for a family to live until they can get established.

FESSLER: Mike Miller is FEMA's Mississippi field coordinator. He drives along a dirt road that cuts through the site across from Wanda Phillips' yard. There are gently rolling hills here and, indeed, a little lake, now surrounded by trailers. Most look like they're in fairly good shape, although there are several burned-out units, the remnants of household accidents, even some meth labs.

(Soundbite of door car closing)

FESSLER: Miller says the trailers served their purpose on the hectic days after Katrina, but now, he'd be as happy as anyone to see them gone.

Mr. MILLER: Our job out here in the field is to work ourselves out of a job, but right now, that's not taking place. So, we're just in - we're in caretaker status and making sure that we have good security and good programs to maintain the grounds and the units here.

FESSLER: But that costs money, 28 million dollars a year just in Mississippi. FEMA had been selling the units, but stopped last year because of the formaldehyde. Miller says he's heard a lot of jokes about what to do with the trailers now, such as using them to build a border fence with Mexico. But he thinks taxpayers, who spent almost three billion dollars to buy the units, would be better served if the sales resumed. He says people he talks to aren't worried about formaldehyde. Most want the trailers for recreational use.

Mr. MILLER: We've got folks, hundreds of folks, that are calling us, wanting to buy these units, and over the months, probably thousands of folks. We had one gentleman who wanted to buy 10,000.

FESSLER: Miller's not sure why, but suspects it was to house oil field or construction workers. But what might make sense on the front lines doesn't always make sense at headquarters. David Garrett is FEMA's deputy assistant administrator for disaster assistance.

Mr. DAVID GARRETT (Deputy Assistant Administrator, Disaster Assistance, Federal Emergency Management Agency): What we don't want to do is provide travel trailers that have high formaldehyde values and sell that to somebody who may end up living in that unit. We've decided that we're not going to take that chance, and we think the safest thing to do is to dispose of them in a way that they may not be a danger to anybody in the future.

FESSLER: And that means selling them for scrap. Garrett says some units might be sold to individuals, but only after they've been tested to see if they're safe. He says everything's on hold because of the litigation. The Centers for Disease Control is also looking at whether air filters, or something else, can be used to make the trailers safe.

Besides the thousands still occupied or sold, over 7,000 trailers were donated as government surplus to states and nonprofits to be used as police mobile command centers or other temporary facilities. One of those surplus trailers has ended up here in a small lot on the campus of MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lecturer Jae Rhim Lee takes me inside the trailer, which looks new, with its flowered curtains and matching tile behind the sink. It's supposed to sleep five, although we notice a huge wet spot in the middle of the master bed. What happened?

Ms. JAE RHIM LEE (Lecturer, Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): I think we had a little leak. Maybe this is...

FESSLER: Lee checks a skylight over the bed to see if it's open.

Ms. LEE: I guess that's - do you know if that's open to the outside?

FESSLER: It does smell musty in here. Lee says the air will be tested soon to make sure it's safe. She plans to use this trailer for a course she's teaching this fall, and for a campus-wide competition called the MIT FEMA Trailer Challenge.

Ms. LEE: People will develop sort of solutions to, what do you do with these thousands of surplus trailers? How can you address formaldehyde off gassing...

FESSLER: Or any of the other problems that have immerged. Lee is reluctant to prejudge the outcome, but says maybe the trailers could be used as mobile health centers or environmental testing labs, something to help people such as Wanda Phillips and others, who think they got the raw end of the trailer deal. Lee plans to present the winning ideas to FEMA, hopefully before all the other trailers have been sold for scrap.

PESCA: And that was NPR's Pam Fessler reporting.

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