Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reading the Histories of Middle-Earth

With characteristic good timing, I found myself suddenly interested in delving deeper into Tolkien's mythology... right around finals week. (Naturally, this led me to lie awake at night thinking about biological transport phenomena in the Two Trees of Valinor and so on.) But now I have a lot of free time and very little internet access, so I'm working my way through the first volume, The Book of Lost Tales I.

It takes a lot of getting used to. Everything's name is different, and the tales are interspersed with commentary from Christopher Tolkien, which is very insightful but detailed to the point of neuroticism. There are a number of subtle differences between this old material and the published Silmarillion, and very often I'm not sure which version I like better. (For example, in the Lost Tales, Ossë is a much more ambiguous character. He plays an important part in the story of the Lonely Isle, rather than just being "the Maia in charge of waves and storms".)

However, the big difference is that the whole history is framed as a series of tales told to a human mariner, Eriol, who comes to the Lonely Isle and hangs out with the Elves. And, well, it really doesn't work. Neither Eriol nor any of the tale-tellers is developed at all, although we are promised that actual plot events will happen later -- but they really need to happen closer to the beginning. The effect is basically "heroic adventurer arrives in distant mystical land and gets the Bible read to him for several weeks". It doesn't stand well on its own, but only in relation to LOTR, Hobbit, Silmarillion, etc. Let's just say I'm glad the stories were extensively revised before being published.

However, I'm only about halfway through the first history, and there are twelve, if I remember right. So I bet it gets interesting later. And after that, there's the Letters, where Tolkien gives a bunch more explicit commentary on the more philosophical ideas of his mythos -- mortality as Gift of Ilúvatar in particular. I'm looking forward to it!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Project idea: improving my attention span

By now it's a commonplace that the internet whittles your attention span down to the sort of tiny nub that only lets you focus on one thing for about thirty seconds before popping away to check email or RSS or Twitter or what have you. Word among my older MIT friends is that burnout and curricular exasperation can have similar effects. I'm inclined to believe them, having lost all patience with, say, biomechanics. *growl* *ahem* Where was I?

Oh, yes. I've been thinking that, among the other soul-restorative measures I plan to take this summer, I should work on reconstructing my attention span. According to my parents, when I was young I had a wonderful attention span, and could admire a pebble for ten minutes together. I'm not sure how much I believe them, but I do feel like my attention span has decreased dramatically over the past couple of years as I've started to read more and more things on the internet.

So I gave myself a test. I had to read something all the way through without looking at anything else on my computer. I picked the first interesting-looking article out of Give Me Something To Read, which turned out to be an NYTimes article about arranged remarriages in China following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. (Incidentally, the article is very good -- thought-provoking and emotional without being overwrought.) Even though it was interesting, it was surprisingly difficult to get through. My mind kept wandering. Indeed, my mind is still wandering. I've pulled up my chat client once already while writing this blog post, and I keep having the urge to do it again. I'm like Randall Munroe at the typewriter here.

But with summer comes the opportunity to read books again! Do you have any idea how long it's been since I just sat down with a book and plowed more or less straight through the whole thing? I feel like I haven't done that since high school... So, as I pick up books again for the summer, I'll consciously practice keeping my attention on one thing for an extended period of time, and try to avoid get up every five minutes to get food or check my mail. We'll see how well I do, and whether this will translate to an improved studying efficiency in the fall.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Silliness: Legos and BioBricks

It's finals week around here, which means you get a brief post while my brain tries to figure out electroosmosis and Van der Waals forces.

The similarities between Legos and BioBricks are legion -- in fact, if I'm explaining synthetic biology to someone and I've got more than ten minutes of their time, I'll break out my favorite Lego Analogies for the desirable properties that we want biological parts to have.

But they're similar in another way. Everyone refers to BioBricks as BioBricks, but you're supposed to call them BioBrick Standard Biological Parts.

Trumpet fanfare optional. [Source]

Likewise... hope I'm not ruining all your childhoods here... The LEGO(tm) corporation will be very, very sad if you refer to their product as "legos" instead of "LEGO bricks" or "LEGO toys". They might even cry.

Apparently if you went to, you used to see this before being redirected, according to Mental Floss.

This sort of prescriptivism amuses me a little. I don't know enough about the relevant laws to comment on the legal necessity of being anal about plurals. But I was in a class co-taught by Drew Endy once, so I know he can say "BioBrick Standard Biological Parts" until he's blue in the face. Better him than me, I suppose.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Times when biology knowledge comes in useful

I love pineapple. Really, really love pineapple. Unfortunately, it irritates my mouth. I recently found out that this is not only due to the acidity -- pineapple contains a protease, bromelain. Bromelain will eat your face pretty effectively -- in fact, apparently there's a lot of interest in using it for wound debridement. [visceral shudder]

Unfortunately, the last time I ate a ton of pineapple all at once, I forgot about the protease until it was too late. But then I thought, "aha! I can saturate the protease with another type of protein and my mouth will remain unaffected!" Then I drank some milk.

Bio labs use milk as a generic solution of "loads and loads of proteins" in a lot of techniques. The one that springs to mind is Western blots. Basically, you run proteins through a gel that separates them by size and/or charge, to help identify what proteins you've got in the sample. Then you put your gel onto a nitrocellulose membrane that adsorbs proteins, so the spots from the gel transfer onto the membrane. Next, you want to probe the membrane with antibodies that should bind to your protein of interest, if it's on the membrane, and light up. But what's the problem? Antibodies are proteins, and the nitrocellulose membrane grabs onto all the proteins it touches, so unless you do something the antibody will just bind to the entire blot. What to do? Enter the milk! If you soak the membrane in milk before adding antibodies, then the milk proteins will bind all over the place and saturate the membrane, so then you can add antibodies without fear.

I told Zek about this and she mentioned another method for taking the bite out of pineapple: soak it in salt water. Apparently this is traditional in some places. We speculated that the high salt denatures the bromelain. I have yet to test whether this works or not, and whether it affects the taste.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Meal planning: harder than it looks

Today was ET's Brunch in the Park, an event we throw every year for the current actives and alumni. A bunch of us made various breakfasty dishes. Watching the meal planning and preparation process was quite interesting. Most people went with something very simple, such as "pancakes" or "bacon", where the planning reduces to "Step 1: Buy a lot of whatever. Step 2: Cook all of it." I volunteered to make eggs, but I unwisely decided to get all fancy and make oven scrambled eggs with lots of mix-ins on the side.

My crucial mistake was not bothering to figure out the proper ratios -- I just went to the supermarket and bought "one" of everything: one head of broccoli, one 3-pack of bell peppers, etc. It turns out that one head of broccoli has significantly less mass than three bell peppers. It also turns out that it's hard to pan-fry things when all the stove space is continuously occupied by the pancake makers.

The worst part, though, was that the eggs were far too little and far too late. I cracked 25 eggs, but I should have done two or three times as many (or used an equivalent amount of that egg stuff that comes in cartons). We had around 30 people and only about 10 of them could have gotten an adequate amount of eggs. (As consolation, I can offer the fact that eggs + sauteed mushrooms + fresh basil = awesomeness!)

This episode gives me a whole new appreciation for the work our cook Karen does in planning meals and specifying what needs to be bought. She specifies the week's shopping list very neatly -- 4 pounds of broccoli, 3 cans of butter beans, foo units of bar, baz units of quux. Of course, she's had at least 20 years of practice, so I shouldn't be surprised that she's expert. After all, 2h/meal * 7 meals/wk * 20 full academic years works out to ~ 10,000 hours.

I just hope I can devote that kind of time and energy to some kind of lifetime pursuit or career...