Astroturf ahoy

Stay the course, Darrell: Politicos get a lot of the fake grassroots lobbying stuff, informally known as “astroturf.” Usually, it’s a form letter copied from the Web site of an interest group that wants like-minded folks to tell those jerks in the Capitol to save the whales or save the fetuses or save something. When something controversial comes up, lawmakers can be flooded with letters, e-mails and faxes, all from different people sending the exact same message: “Dear [Lawmaker], please save the …”

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg’s office got a few such letters last week, in support of a measure to increase preschool access—a bill carried by none other than … Steinberg? “Dear Assembly Member Steinberg,” read letters to the Sacramento Democrat. “I urge you to co-author and support Assembly Bill 56, authored by Assembly-member Darrell Steinberg.”

Ironically, the not-too-swift letter writers found the canned note on the Web site of EdVoice, a nonprofit group that lobbies for schools.

Steinberg, who continues to support his own bill, wouldn’t poke fun at his own constituents and instead responded to the misguided missives with Principal Skinner-like earnestness: “There is no doubt there exists a groundswell of support for universal preschool,” Steinberg deadpanned.

Homecoming queen: When post-Taliban Afghan President Hamid Karzai comes to UC Davis on Saturday, his opening act will be none other than U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. Karzai is relatively new to the touring circuit, but Veneman is rolling into town on the anniversary of last year’s much publicized ag biotech summit, during which Sacramento got its first taste of free-speech zones.

Why, it seems like only yesterday that Bites ran into Veneman—herself a UC Davis alumnus—while cruising the Convention Center’s mutant-food displays. Together, we shared a moment pondering the mysteries of Product 3600, a dehydrated emergency ration created by entrepreneurial survivalists hoping to cash in on the worldwide famine market. (In fact, Bites still has a weeklong supply of the vacuum-packed little goodies stashed away for Armageddon—in addition to their five-year shelf life, they’re as hard as rocks and good for fending off hungry co-workers.)

Of course, since that time, Veneman has had a lot on her mind, what with trying to keep Californians from learning where all those tasty mad-cow shipments ended up. Advice to Karzai: The Product 3600 is probably safer.

Now that’s good canary: Like the coal miners of an earlier generation, Bites always likes to keep a live canary around the office as an early-detection system just in case our SN&R ventilation system is compromised. But all that could change now that the UC Davis Center for Biostabilization is developing a new “DRIED CANARY CELL BIOTERROR TEST.”

Associate research scientist Ann Oliver is working toward the goal of producing a dehydrated version of these cells, which currently are used to detect the presence of bioterror agents. Trehalose, a sugar found in organisms that are naturally resistant to dehydration, is added to the cells prior to them being dried. The result is a vastly extended shelf life and, Bites presumes, a much tastier cell product.

Not that you’d actually want to eat them. Turns out Oliver and her bioengineering cohorts aren’t even using real canary cells! Rather, they’re working with “Cellular Analysis and Notification of Antigen Risks and Yields (CANARY) cells,” which are actually white blood cells from mice (yuck) that have been re-engineered to contain a fluorescent protein derived from jellyfish (ugh). That’s what gives the product its ability to light up in the presence of anthrax or the plague. Just add water, pop it in the cyclotron, and you’re good to go!

This last revelation will, no doubt, be a great disappointment to dried-bird connoisseurs everywhere. But, hey, at least Bites’ canary gets to keep its job.