Saturday, December 26, 2009

Life After People

I'm at home basking in the food network, HGTV, Say Yes to the Dress! and the history channel. And clips of Jersey Shore. My brother is not impressed with my ability to know the slang "guido." Ah well...I tried.

One of the particular shows on the history channel is called "Life After People." It's an incredible look into how nature would reclaim the earth if people were gone --it's not a story of why we would vanish, but what would happen to those things left behind.

It shows a crumbling New York City due to steel superstructures which peel away from their internal structures. The Empire State building slowly implodes in on itself, and moss climbs up street lamps. The stainless steel plates of the Arch in St. Louis plunge to the ground and crash into the dirt, leaving behind heaps of twisted metal. The rubble of skyscrapers become canyons. Bridges fall into the harbors, rusting and corroding on the seabed.

The tagline for the history channel is "History is made every day."

The History Channel was built on the idea that it's a good idea to know history: to learn, to find joy, and to see the peril in repeating the mistakes in yesteryear. It's fitting that they have decided to look at what could happen if we were gone. They're the ones saying, "Hey! This is what will happen if a deadly pandemic strikes the planet! Or if we continue to be morons and practically wipe the earth clean of all our natural resources. So think about your choices, guys. Seriously."

It's sobering. And sad.

Can I watch Ace of Cakes now?

"Grassland puree"

My brilliant Swedish-speaking cousin responded to my email about the word poppy in Swedish:

"English and Swedish have common roots, so as you go back in time, Swedish and English words often look more and more alike. From what I have read about Vall on Gotland, the name probably just comes from a wall. Today, the Swedish word for wall is "mur," but the modern first definition for "vall" in the big Norstedts dictionary is embankment or rampart, so that makes sense. The modern word can also mean a pasture or grazing area.

Nothing ever translates exactly, of course. "Mos" is most often used for mashed potatoes ("potatismos"). Grandpa used to call Grandma's mashed potatoes and rutabagas "rotmos." (Rutabaga is "kålrot" in Sweden, but the British call them "swedes!")

For poppy, "vallmo" is the singular, and "vallmor" is the plural. The only way that an "s" would turn up at the end of the word would be in a possessive form (poppy's), so I don't -think- that mashes and pastures have anything to do with it. :-) "

Thanks cousin! I also found an amazing Swedish linen here - apparently it came from my grandma's house. It's covered in grease from years ago, but I hope I can bring it back to life.


Christmas day was filled with baaaad driving, lots of family---including my Alaskan cousin and his new son Ethan--and that's not even counting the dogs. Let's just say Nigel was quite the rambunctious beast after being stuck in the back of the pickup truck all day.

Alas, Christmas plans for Szechuan at Tea House were foiled (thanks, beautiful White Christmas and freezing rain) -- so we had make-your-own pizzas for dinner. And ohmyGOSH Duff's Meat's Italian sausage is incredible!

Now, I gotta say...I do like the chill Christmases of the older years. Spending Christmas Eve watching Food Network at midnight drinking is quite the different experience. And I really like it. And eventually, I look forward to Christmases full of little children again, but as the eldest I have a bit of time before that happens.

As the only wine drinker in the family, I took the liberty of drinking a bottle of Riesling left as a gift for my parents. It's kind of nice--every time I come home there's usually one or two more bottles in the pantry next to the extra cans of Michelob, bottles of Corona, cans of key lime soda, and cranberry juice. I went upstairs to grab another sweater, for even the booze doesn't warm you up when my house is so cold. I stopped, and I really looked at that space at the top of the stairs. Sounds kind of funny, but there's a lot of history there.

First called the playroom, with an old brown and black striped sleeper couch where my cousins from California would sleep when they came to visit. The room was always carpeted with toys...and then my little brother was born. The room went through several incarnations as a room for each of us kids, and when I moved out it became an official sort of "guest" room.

From the furniture to the people that have walked over this carpet, from friends to people I haven't seen in years and years, some whom I have absolutely no desire to see again, these rooms have seen time move forward. My brother's old bedroom is filled to the gills with my grandmother's old furniture, books, china, my life in plastic containers ( heard right. It's pretty epic. I wasn't a scrapbooker by any means, but I had this personal vendetta after I graduate from high school to package up every bit of my life into 6 large plastic tubs. And then I did. Everyone thought I was crazy, and now I'm pretty sure I think I was crazy, too)

A lot in my life has changed. And it's more apparent as I travel between two places I call my home, neither of which are absolutely and totally home. There will always be friends and family that are missing from where I live, and no amount of perfection in where-ever I live can make up for that. Thank goodness for the internet and cell phones...and thank goodness for cheap plane flights that make visiting home and friends easier.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas...

The snow is falling gently, the Christmas picture has been taken ("Hillary! Hillary! Look over here! Hillary! Woo-hoo, Hillary!"), and I'm now heading off to play horn in a Christmas eve mass. When I get back, I'll be spending Christmas eve with la familia, opening a few presents, and gorging on confirmation potatoes, steak on the grill, and a DQ ice cream cake. We're a very traditional family.

Merry Christmas, all....hope you all have a lovely time wherever you are, whomever you are spending your holidays with, and are able to look around you and be happy.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Swedish flowers

Boston is not a town of Swedes. They didn't come here. I don't really know why...but they didn't. They went to Minnesota instead, to places like Lindström, making their home in farmland and keeping the old country alive.

In some ways more than others, however...Swedish was the secret language between my grandparents, so the only word my father knows in Swedish is butter (=smur).

Today being a day full of snow and pretty scenery and me feeling generally lazy and contented, I spent some time finding pictures of my favorite Swedish flowers:

Blå eld (blue fire; Latin name Echium vulgare) was one of my absolute favorites in the fields of Sweden...this is a postcard from the 1970s of a field of blåeld from Gotland, where I'm from. Here's what it looks like from close up:

from here

One of the common names is "viper's bugloss" which just makes me giggle. The stems are a bit rough, which was certainly felt when Birgit wove them into my Midsommar crown, but it was worth it.

This lovely specimen is blåklint (cornflower; Latin name Centaurea cyanus or Cyanus segetum)

from here

So beautiful to see in the fields!

And this splendid flower is blåklocka (blue clock; what we think of as a bluebell; Latin name Campanula rotundifolia)

from here

And, no, I don't really know why I hit on all blue flowers so far; maybe it's because everything seems prettier with an umlaut?

There's also the venerable poppy, which has a particular connection with where my family is from in Sweden. Poppy is known as vallmosläktet...and here's where it gets interesting. Vall means grassland, mos means puree or pulp, and släktet is a designation for genus (a grouping of flowers. does grassland puree mean poppy? I have no idea. I emailed my Swedish-speaking cousin, so maybe I will find out.

from here

For other pretty wildflowers and Swedish eye candy, check out the wikipedia page - it's called "landskapblommor"---which makes it even better than you could possibly expect.


Thank goodness I am cozy in my own apartment instead of in Logan Airport. (last year's 36 hours...not so fun).

The Daystom Dinette

The vintage table and chairs I bought off of Craigslist for $30 was from of course I had to look up some of the ads.

A Daystrom Dinette from 1953; from here

Another Daystrom metal dinette set; from here

from here

from here

The one that looks the most like the set I have, however, is this one:
(isn't this precious! it's from an ebay sale of the ad itself)

There is fair little out there about Daystrom besides what is being sold on ebay as advertisements, although there is a bit here about Daystrom, but I'm having trouble finding anything more about it. Between my dining table and my vintage office chair (made by Sturgis), if you know any references, let me know! I'm always keen to know a bit more of the history of what I own.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

first noreaster of the season!

Tonight and tomorrow will be me drinking tea, reading a book, and doing some laundry before I go home (and packing, Mom...I promise!)

Why biological engineering is hard.

(analogy time today, kids! Get's a doozy)

I started out my engineering career with things like a lego boat. The white body was a continuous piece of plastic, with room for gigantic nonfunctional sculpture-like towers that would sometimes crash over in the bathtub as Eric and I both kneeled on bath mats to have battles (that was after we almost flooded the sinks, of course). From there, I went on to houses. At first, I was all over the place in terms of color, with my 2x4 in random patterns, or in straight up and down towers that just kind of fell over. But trial and error taught me the overlapping brick method and soon I fell in love with the thought of a dream lego house with white on the sides and red roof tiles. And the flowers! Can't forget them. Ohhhh no.

from here

As my ability to judge space, height, and practice sound building principles, my homes improved. And got really good, actually. By the time Eric and I were in late elementary school, we had a huge house that spanned floors, had a hacked bathroom, and a big screen TV. I was proud of my houses...although most of the lego building I do nowadays is Star Wars ships with my other brother. Following directions and understanding how things fit together are key. That's how you succeed. That's how things work. You get a functional outcome based on these known principles.

In the same way, a field like civil engineering finds itself building bridges, fixing roads, and planning urban centers. The properties of materials like concrete, wood, and metal are known...the spaces in which they build are precisely measured and there is visual feedback through the use of levels, tape measures, and all sorts of other equipment. Processes are almost modular; no matter where you pour concrete, 98% of the time your instructions will be the same and almost immutable to any sort of variable you throw at it (this is what engineers call robustness - the ability of a system to withstand perturbation and "noise")

Biological engineering is the same. But we're still really at the lego boat falling over stage. Sometimes, success is luck. Sometimes it's like that moment where the lightbulb goes on over your head and you finally understand something that has been eluding you. Sometimes, you're able to bring things from another part of science into your arena and make it your own. But sometimes it's even's like someone set you in a room blindfolded without the lights on. There's a table covered with legos, but they're also covering the floor (and you're definitely barefoot). You can use some of your senses to come up with something that maybe looks like a house (maybe) but the colors won't be coordinated, you won't have used the most suitable pieces to create the house, you probably stubbed your toe and fell because the lights were out, and it just may fall apart. Frustrating, to be sure.

In bioengineering, we aren't at the stage where you can just turn on the lights and measure things with rulers, understand the innate properties of materials, or really see things all that clearly. You can't see all cellular interactions going on with the naked eye, you can't see how things are working internally. Granted, there are a lot of technologies being developed to help biologists really see what is going on (mass spectrometry, crystallography, NMR spectroscopy, atomic force microscopy, and a whole alphabet soup of other things). Yet, there is no way to "really" know what's going on in biology. All or our tests are proxies for things we can't actually see or measure, and this can mean that things get really complicated really fast. That's one of the reasons why this project has been so hard. Building a functioning FRET protein is exceptionally think "oh, just put one on each end, and it'll work!"

Ha. What a lie.

Building a FRET protein is like putting two pieces onto a movable sculpture but without being to see the sculpture, knowing what "glue" you're using, understanding how the sculpture will move, and having no ability to know if it actually works. Add that to the fact that this sculpture is incredibly tiny, and you're done. I could have gotten lucky. But I didn't. Which is why I'm now doing something else.

Sometimes I wish all I could do is build legos again.

Friday, December 18, 2009

design blogs

The Times of London recently released their list of the top 50 design blogs. I've been reading over half of them for about a year now...a terrible addiction that began over winter break after the realization that my education at IWU had been filled with a lot of qualitative design principles, while's just say we like numbers here. I am not judged on my ability to draw a sea cucumber's internal organs to scale, nor am I pressed to talk about different linings of body cavities in reference to each other, nor do I have to think about why different bird egg samples are different colors. Instead, I do lots of math-y things. Or experiments with lots of clear liquids, where you can't even see what you're working with...which, I gotta tell you, is really boring sometimes. Here I go, adding 15 µL of this clear liquid to 20 µL of this clear liquid. Then I put them on a heat block for three minutes, and then the experiment is "done." Yikes!

So--last December, I really started missing the visual component of science that was so important to me, so I decided to bring that back into my life by my living space (hence contacting Apartment Therapy for help and being a more careful thrift-store shopper, and trying to figure out what would make me happy in my own space). That said, I'd still love to get back to what the "real" engineers here call "fake" science. I very much believe that the education I received prepared me for a lot of things (reasoning, yes...programming, no), and if I am ever in the capacity to influence educational strategies for teaching science, they'd include a bit of everything in order to provide a broad background in how to think and how to describe what is actually happening. You can't see protein interactions, so you have to go with some sort of proxy for it, which will end up looking like this:

from here

Not nearly as satisfying or pretty as this:

from here

But there is a reason that I'm doing what I'm doing...this sort of science is where the "big" things are happening right now. I'm bummed that I can't really talk much about this project, because it does have some really neat applications (if it works) but it is also completely a "let's add clear liquids together" sort of project. And so, to make up for the lack of nudibranchs in my life, I drool over this:

from here

and this:

from here

and this:

from here:

A girl can dream, right?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

the no pants challenge!

This January, I'm not going to wear pants.


but as it's cold out, I'm going to wear either skirts or dresses with layers upon layers of tights, silk, and sweaters. And, of course, closed toed shoes to make my EHS rep happy (environmental health and safety...the people who yell at you for not sorting your hazardous waste correctly, or for not wearing gloves and being unsafe).

Stay tuned for a recap of this particular challenge (also to see if I can handle taking a picture of what I'm wearing every morning and improve "styling" myself, if you will).

Monday, December 14, 2009


My day started with almond-encrusted French toast (with the secret ingredient of eggnog!), bacon, and lingonberry mimosas. Eaten with friends, I can't think of anything better.

I did some reading (papers. Nothing "fun"), and got on the bus at 77 Mass Ave to head to Harvard. Unfortunately, I ended up on the bus with the dreaded start-go-STOP-jerk-GO driver and nursed my poor nauseated self the whole time. I walked to Pyara to get mah hairs cut (the local Aveda salon.. "Oh, you're from Minnesota, too! Did you know that ---oh! Yes, you did know the company was started there. How great, isn't it! ...and yes, I do love their salons. A tidge self-righteous, but they do a very good job). My stylist did a beautiful diffuser-blow-dry thing-a-ma-bob to my hair to cheerleaderize it and make it all nice and purty (soft curl at the end! So shiny! Not that I could ever actually do that myself). And then I walked outside. And it was pouring rain. And it was frizzy again within minutes. Sigh.

I went straight into lab to talk shop with a labmate about this new project of mine, which shall unfortunately be of the IP-protected variety, but it is very cool. I'm excited to jump in and order plasmids from France tomorrow.

I helped out with a finals study break tonight (McCormick has one every. night. this week. Cookies, pbandj sandwiches, chips, spanakopita, hot cocoa...IWU, you've got nothing on this). We also put on "Wall-E" and I missed my nickname like nobody's business.

Now, I'm procrastinating, oh, sleeping, by listening to Handel's Messiah and writing my holiday postcards (last year's cards hacked up and written on. Ever so eco-friendly. Or lazy and cheap. Or both). And the dishes from last night's epic 45-person study break are finally done. You ever get the feeling that your hands will never de-prune? I am there. It is a wonderful life.

Friday, December 11, 2009

I'm supposed to be a scientist?

I am just as excited to make these:

as I am to do science. Oops?

Speaking of science, apparently I'm switching projects. More on that later, as I literally found out, oh, an hour ago, but yes. Should be fun.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

eulogy for the chevy caprice.

Yesterday, my mom sold my car for two cases of beer.

Granted, it hasn't been used for over a year and needs some serious work, but me and that car have gone through a lot together. And I didn't get to say goodbye.

The car came to us from my grandparents, with the slight whiff of my grandmother's perfume that was soon replaced by the smell of slightly stinky kid, as my mom used it to drive to school. About a year later, it was stolen from the church parking lot across from my parent's school. In broad daylight. Full of kid's things, paperwork, and a stroller. Frustration and sadness and all sorts of things ensued, with my mom finally waiting out til the insurance money would come in and we could finally get another car. Unfortunately, the Chevy returned from it's sojurn as a participant in a gun-running operation literally two hours before the insurance deadline, and we took back into our hands a poor abused empty vehicle.

It stayed in our family as a workhouse, and ended up being my very first car, and I felt so nervous applying for my parking permit in the RAHS Activity Office (GOBBLE GOBBLE! oh lordy). I was only a sophomore - could I really end up with a permit, even for the rest of the year?? I mean, bumming rides to speech meets on Saturday mornings at 5:45 am had worked for awhile, and the bus is okay, I guess, but my own car? Really?

But it worked out...and I spent the next two years driving my brother and assorted neighbors to and from school. We had it completely optimized...chill in classes after the school day ended at 2:45, mosey on to our lockers (B52 Love Shack!), chat with teachers, hassle K "Ole" Paulsen - by the time we left school at 3:05, the parking lot would be bare, the traffic jam on B2 would be gone, and we'd be free and clear for a quick ride home. It was made even better by the illustrious Kemps bucket in the front seat on the floor (my Chevy had a bench seat in the front). We'd buy an obscene amount of candy the day after Halloween, and the car would be stocked til Christmas, the Reeses made even better (and oddly shaped) by the cooling and freezing cycles so common in Minnesota. The trunk would be stuffed full of more bags of candy, keeping us warm...especially because the heat didn't really work. Having the windows down did help, though. I'd first throw my keys to Eric, and he'd open the passenger side and crawl over to open the driver's side door from inside (the handle was broken). I would start the car, and then I would yell at Eric for not wearing gloves or a jacket (he was a pep band sweatshirt and dad's old ski hats kind of guy) as he cleared snow off the car with his sweatshirt rolled over the brush and scraper. He was a machine, and before long, we were rolling.

Then, the car made its way to Illinois for undergrad, complete with a new stereo, a graduation gift from a friend. It stayed the lot next to Presser. That is, until someone decided to throw a rock into the back window and steal my stereo, leaving me bereft of not only tunes, but also a working heater (again with the no heat. Irony indeed for someone who wears two layers of long underwear everyday during the winter and spent high school wearing wool pleated skirts over jeans over tights).

Thus began the trail of money leaving my bank account and heading straight into a new carburetor, a new heater connection salvaged from the bone yard, a new window, etc, etc. We're talking around $4K. Phew.

Oh--and then there was the time that someone who shall remain nameless (cough) decided to not look behind her while she was backing up in the Presser parking lot and ended up T-boning my car, me pounding on the horn just in time so she didn't really do any damage, thank goodness. Although, I think Kathleen lost one of her nine lives that day. Yikes.

Eric actually came down one May, and when we were heading out for groceries, suddenly...the brakes didn't work. We panicked...we're talking screaming profanities that would make a sailor blush, here, and sweat dripping down my back from a combination of fear and the heat of an early Illinois summer. We drove into the Meijer parking lot and drove the car without pressing the accelerator until it eventually slowed to a stop and we could put it in park. We called my dad frantically, and he told us to check the brake fluid. Being an expert in bleeding breaks (I always got to be in the car pressing the brake pedal with both feet to help my dad eliminate air from the brake fluid compartment, something you have to do whenever you add brake fluid). was about half full. =Not good. So, we walked to a nearby gas station, bought some brake fluid, and added half the bottle...and promptly noticed a stream of liquid spurting underneath the engine. "Aww, sheeeeeeet." Dad made the observation that we had to get to a car repair shop, and preferably the one that had done work on my car before (he likes it old school, and these guys definitely were). Thankfully, we were right off of Veterans, so we started up my baby, and prayed for dear life with our hazards on for the longest four miles I've ever driven. We made it safely, and walked the three miles back to school on a day hot as balls, drinking our extra-jumbo blue raspberry icees from 7-11. It survived the eight hour drive home three days later, only to die in our driveway two days later, where it has sat since then, in various states of use, reminding me of wonderful memories past. honor of my 1989 Caprice, and to all those that spent time in those gray seats the car with the license plate "PHF" that my cousin nicknamed "Pretty Hot Female" -- you will be missed.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Exercise=better sleep.

No wonder I notice a direct correlation.

Now if only I didn't have so much stuff to do and could --- hey! get both an ample amount of sleep and work out.

In other news, I am now the proud owner of Holiday Inn, White Christmas, and Christmas in Connecticut (classic movies ftw! I can't wait to show them at the movie night next weekend!)

And then there's this little gem of my childhood:

Classy. Spoiler alert: the Swedish Chef tries to cook Big Bird.