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Four views of the tile found at 103 Orchard, via Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
Four views of the tile found at 103 Orchard, via Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

A Mysterious Mah-Jongg Tile From New York's Past

Four views of the tile found at 103 Orchard, via Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
Four views of the tile found at 103 Orchard, via Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

People have found some weird things inside walls over the years, from mummified babies to outrageously rare artwork. Other times, remodeling projects reveal nothing but mouse carcasses or a bunch of dust. This mah-jongg tile, found inside the wall of a former tenement building in New York City, might not seem fascinating at first. But it has an interesting story to tell about the many waves of immigrants that surged into New York during the 20th century.

The piece was found during a historical restoration project inside 103 Orchard Street, a building on New York’s Lower East Side that is owned by the Tenement Museum. The tile emerged when workers sifted through the debris in the building’s third floor. Just one of many unexpected artifacts found inside the building’s walls, it’s an example of the kind of object historians love—a little slice of everyday life.

Though the address 103 Orchard has remained the same since the building was first constructed in 1888, the building and the neighborhood itself changed dramatically over the years. Around the time the building went up, the neighborhood was home to Italian and Jewish immigrants, followed by waves of Puerto Rican immigrants and then Chinese immigrants. Over the years, over 10,000 people lived inside the building’s 15 apartments, a testament to the flows of United States immigration in the 20th century.

You might think that the piece belonged to a family like the Wongs, Chinese Americans who lived in one of the apartments inside 103 Orchard starting in the late 1960s. But it could also have been owned by one of the Jewish families who lived inside the apartment building.

The mystery of the mah–jongg piece reflects the enigma of mah–jongg itself. It’s not exactly clear when the game was invented, or even how it’s properly spelled. (Merriam-Webster prefers mah-jongg.) What is certain is that after gaining popularity in China it came to the United States alongside Chinese immigrants in the 1920s. Despite harsh anti-Chinese laws that essentially banned Chinese immigration, many Chinese people risked deportation and came to the U.S. anyway, sporting false ID papers and, apparently, some mah–jongg sets.

As the game became more popular, it started to show up in department stores like Abercrombie & Fitch. The future purveyor of apparel for shirtless male models (which has been around since 1892) was the first U.S. company to offer the game, importing and selling over 40,000 sets in a single decade.

Fred Astaire and his sister Adele playing mah-jongg in 1926. Image credit: Getty Images

 
Mah–jongg also became a beloved game among Jewish women. For a while, the game was so popular that you could find mah-jongg books, magazines, clubs, and merchandise seemingly everywhere. Scholars believe that the game not only reflects globalization and immigration, but appealed to Jewish immigrant women as a way to build and keep social networks.

Though primarily played by wealthy and suburban Jewish women, it was popular enough that it very well could have been adopted in tenements, too. The days of mah-jongg–related movies and even ballets is long gone, but it’s actually become more popular in recent years, especially among younger Jewish women eager to learn the game their grandmas loved.

Whether the piece was owned by Chinese or Jewish immigrants, it shows how pastimes and traditions can cross-pollinate—and how a single building can contain remnants of multi-layered histories. And if you want to explore 103 Orchard for yourself, you’ll get a chance this summer, when the Tenement Museum opens a new exhibit there.

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Cell Free Technology
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This Pixel Kit Will Let You Play Tetris With Jellyfish DNA
Cell Free Technology
Cell Free Technology

Forget playing Tetris on your phone. Now you can play it with jellyfish DNA. Bixels is a DIY game kit that lets you code your own games using synthetic biology, lighting up a digital display with the help of DNA.

Its 8-by-8 pixel grid is programmed to turn on with the help of the same protein that makes jellyfish glow, called green fluorescent protein (GFP). But you can program it to do more than just passively shine. You can use your phone and the associated app to excite Bixels' fluorescent proteins and make them glow at different frequencies, producing red, blue, and green colors. Essentially, you can program it like you would any computer, but instead of electronics powering the system, it's DNA.

Two blue boxes hold Bixel pixel grids.

Researchers use green fluorescent protein all the time in lab experiments as an imaging agent to illuminate biological processes for study. With Bixels, all you need is a little programming to turn the colorful lights (tubes filled with GFP) into custom images or interactive games like Tetris or Snake. You can also use it to develop your own scientific experiments. (For experiment ideas, Bixels' creator, the Irish company Cell-Free Technology, suggests the curricula from BioBuilder.)

A screenshot shows a user assembling a Bixel kit on video.

A pixel kit is housed in a cardboard box that looks like a Game Boy.

Bixels is designed to be used by people with all levels of scientific knowledge, helping make the world of biotechnology more accessible to the public. Eventually, Cell-Free Technology wants to create a bio-computer even more advanced than Bixels. "Our ultimate goal is to build a personal bio-computer which, unlike current wearable devices, truly interacts with our bodies," co-founder Helene Steiner said in a press release.

Bixels - Play tetris with DNA from Cell-Free Technology on Vimeo.

You can buy your own Bixel kit on Kickstarter for roughly $118. It's expected to ship in May 2018.

All images courtesy Cell-Free Technology

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Habibou Kouyate, Stringer, Getty Images
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Play a Game to Help Scientists Defeat a Cancer-Causing Toxin
Habibou Kouyate, Stringer, Getty Images
Habibou Kouyate, Stringer, Getty Images

If you're used to fighting virtual zombies or flying spaceships on your computer, a new series of games available on Foldit may sound a little unconventional. The object of the Aflatoxin Challenge is to rearrange protein structures and create new enzymes. But its impact on the real world could make it the most important game you've ever played: The scientists behind it hope it will lead to a new way to fight one of the most ruthless causes of liver cancer.

As Fast Company reports, the citizen science project is a collaboration between Mars, Inc. and U.C. Davis, the University of Washington, the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa, and Thermo Fisher Scientific. The team's online puzzles, which debuted on Foldit earlier this month, invite the public to create a new enzyme capable of finding and destroying carcinogens known as aflatoxins.

Aflatoxins form when certain fungi grow on crops like corn, nuts, and grains. Developing countries often don't have the resources to detect it in food, leaving around 4.5 billion people vulnerable to it. When people do eat food with high aflatoxin levels unknowingly, they can contract liver cancer. Roughly a quarter of all liver cancer cases around the world can be traced back to aflatoxin exposure.

The toxin's connection to agriculture is why the food giant Mars is so interested in fighting it. By working on a way to stop aflatoxins on a molecular level, the company could prevent its spread more efficiently than they would with less direct methods like planting drought-resistant crops or removing mold by hand.

The easiest way for scientists to eradicate an aflatoxin before it causes real harm is by making an enzyme that does the work for them. With the Aflatoxin Challenge, the hope is that by manipulating protein structures, online players will come up with an enzyme that attacks aflatoxins at a susceptible portion of their molecular structure called a lactone ring. Destroying the lactone ring makes aflatoxin much less toxic and essentially safe to eat.

The University of Washington launched Foldit in 2008. Since then, the online puzzle platform has been used to study a wide range of diseases including AIDS and Chikungunya. Everyone is welcome to contribute to the Foldit's new aflatoxin project for the next several weeks or so, after which scientists will synthesize genes based on the most impressive results to be used in future studies.

[h/t Fast Company]

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