Friday, October 30, 2009


I'm having a halloween party tonight, combination of our housewarming and my 30th birthday.  I don't expect many costumes - halloween in general is still seen as an American holiday, I think.

The ITGeek wanted to go as Chris from the Resident Evil games.  I decided to do the dorky couple thing and chose a costume related to his.  But, realising that anybody who didn't play zombie-killing video games would have no idea who we were,  I chose Alice from the Resident Evil movie

I do not have the legs of Milla Jokovic.  Actually, I have nothing even remotely close to Milla, but I figure most of my friends are used to me and have lowered their expectations accordingly.  I do, however, have a pair of slut boots, a newly-made red dress, and bike shorts. With big thanks to my mum for helping me make the costume.  Because I like to sew, I have whole boxes of fabric, I have all these grandiose plans for outfits I can sew, but I suck at it. 

The ITGeek, who must only buy new tools/tech toys based on if they come with holders he can hang off his belt, only needed a H harness.  Well, until we discovered he's almost too good at weight watchers, and lost 8kg.  So then he needed new pants, as well.    (Between me and the entire freaking internet, I don't care a bit.  See, the ITGeek has a tush so gorgeous it turned me into a butt woman, and these pants show it off nicely. )

So I'm sitting here, writing this while trying to dye my hair vaguely blondish.  It's a gorgeous 28C day.  Our house is mostly clean, including the brand spanking new leather couches we got yesterday.  The cat has taken up residence in our garage, where we've set up our old couches.  He's going to be pissed when I chuck him into a room with a sign on the door asking people not to let him out.  Morgan is a complete attention slut and will be desolate at missing out on the chance to headbutt most of our friends.  Affectionate, but stupid, that's our cat.

I'm beginning to feel excited.  I hope I've got enough food, and the drinks will be cold.  I'm not an accomplished party-thrower, so please, cross your fingers for me!  

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I considered making this one my first article for the Papers Cannonball, but it's already written in layman's terms, and the authors have obviously fought off the Crowbar of Boring. Probably with alcohol. Basically, a bunch of epidemologists decided to perform an experiment on their co-workers regarding the availability of teaspoons atempting to answer an important question 'where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?'.

The case of the disappearing teaspoons

A couple of amusing/disturbing things - their science is pretty good, in a MythBusters sort of way, although a Teaspoon Half-life is not something I've ever considered.
-I worked in the same building this experiment was performed in, although for a different organisation. Our communal tea room was almost as awesome as theirs, though we didn't get a balcony. But we did get a great view over the park and surrounding apartments, where a couple often had sex on their balcony. That made coming into work on a Saturday all the more amusing.
-And other scientists did more experiments. Scroll to the bottom of the page and you'll find the links. I don't know if that makes us awesome, or really, really sad.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Am I insane?!

Okay, the answer to that question is, and probably always will be, 'Oh hell, yes!'.

So let me rephrase - I have a somewhat insane idea, and I'm not sure if I should go through with it or not.

My main weakness as a scientist is my lack of background knowledge (okay, that, and staying up to date with my lab book. Let's never mention that again). I don't read the literature. Firstly, because I'm spending so much time doing the actual lab work, which my boss, understandably, considers far more important than reading papers. Secondly, because it's boring. I mean, the science itself, the moment where you go 'So THAT's how it works!' and are all impressed by how the other people worked it out, is incredibly cool. But the language we're expected to use to convey this discovery beats all the excitement out of it with a crowbar made of Boring.

But, really, I have no excuse. It would only take an hour to get through a paper properly. Two if I happen to write a little bit on it. Like a mini review/explanation, basically all the fun stuff. On a blog. Say, once a week.

So that's my idea - to do a Papers Cannonball, alongside the book one. Would anybody be remotely interested in that? I'll try to write in layman's terms, and explain how/why it's exciting. It would help me out, and maybe if I think somebody is reading my 'review' (even if they're not!) I'll be more inclined to yanno, do that part of my job. Instead of just the parts that involve cutting out organs or dousing mice in cigarette smoke.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Liquid Nitrogen.

I'm writing this while slightly drunk, so bear with me and please ignore any spelling mistakes that slip through.

Liquid nitrogen has been part of my scientific life since I first entered a lab.  See, there's two types of cells you can grow (in petri dishes, flasks, 6-96 well plates, or, in the case of one microbiology undergrad, on the flesh of your back).  Primary cells have been taken directly from the source, be it a human or an animal,via biopsy or just by cutting it open and taking out an organ or two.  You 'split' (ie. take a smaller amount of cells from a container that's full of 'em and transport to a new, fresh container) primary cells about 20 times at most.  After that, you can't be sure they're the same cells you started with - primary cells have a bad habit of changing.

The second type are the immortalised cells. The first of these was the HeLa cells, and they were originally the cervical cancer cells of a woman called Henrietta Lacks (hence, the HeLa), who died from the disease.  She was also royally screwed over by the doctor who propogated these cells from her biopsy without her permission or knowledge and, eventually commercialised those 'progeny'.  You're not allowed to do that today (says the woman who had to write a 25 page ethics application to ask permission to use people's blood cells which we'd then dispose of, not alter and make shitloads of money off).  Immortialised cell-lines don't change.  This makes them awesome.   What little comfort Henrietta's family can take from the entire shitty mess is that HeLa cells have been instrumental in everything from development of the Sacks vaccine for Polio to understanding of telemeres and their role in cancer.  Next time you're having a drink, raise your glass to Henrietta Lacks.

Regardless of what type of cell you're using, you need a stock of them.  Here's where liquid nitrogen comes in.  Take one large container, fill it with racks containing boxes of your cells samples.  Add liquid nitrogen and there you have it, long term cell storage.  The temperature of liquid nitrogen is about -200C, AKA, Really Fucking Cold.  This stops the cells from doing, well, anything.  It's like those cold mornings when you don't want to get out of bed, multiplied by a million.  Here's a demonstration picture of a random scientist and their cells:

The Occupation Health and Safety demon would choke if they saw this picture. Sure, she's got the glasses and the gloves, but look at her feet!  Sandals!  While fucking around with a vat full of LN2!  She either hates her toes, or her job, and she wants rid of one/both.  

I'm ranting because one of my jobs is to keep the level of LN2 high enough to keep those cells nice and frozen.  This means I have been trained in using it, because LN2 will kill you if you don't respect it.

Obviously, being really fucking cold, spilling is an issue.  Whenever I take the (smaller, 10L) dewer down to the basement to fill from the (enormous, 120L) tank, I have to wear:

a) gloves that give me all the dexterity of a Disney employee in a mickey mouse costume AND

b) a big fuck-off face mask.  Because nobody likes their face frozen away.

c) Lab coat and (take note, Pink T-shirt) covered shoes.  Actually, I have to do this no matter what I'm doing in the lab.  Some countries have different rules, of course, but personally, I'd like as much between me and the -200C splashy stuff as possible.

But there's another feature of liquid nitrogen that isn't so well known.  At room temperature, it evaporates.  When it evaporates, it expands to about 7 times what it is in liquid form, shoving the oxygen and carbon dioxide away.  This has a bad effect on humans, because our lungs are set up according to the usual ratio of oxygen:carbon dioxide: nitrogen, and if it's not right, you're not conscious.  What makes it worse is that nitrogen is heavier than oxygen and carbon dioxide and when people pass out, they tend to fall downwards.  Where it's mostly nitrogen.  

This can be fatal.  That's not me being drunkenly snarky, that's a fact.  

So, here's your take-home message.  Remember that scene from Terminator 2?  This one?

(well, okay, the scene about two minute before when the tanker crashes, but I couldn't find a picture of that)

Sarah and John would have asphyxiated long before they got to blast the hell out of the T1000.  Which, given how hard they'd been fighting the bastard, would have been very anti-climactic.

I have a lot of respect for liquid nitrogen.  

Bonus helpful tip - if you ever find yourself filling a dewar with liquid nitrogen, they're not transparent, so it's hard to know how full it is.  Fortunately, the super-cold LN2 creates a vapour in the air, and how that vapour is behaving lets you know how full the container is.

When you first turn it on, there'll be a great jet of vapour, which will probably try to envelop your face.  This is because the bottom of the dewar is empty, and the hose completely exposed.  When the exit point of the hose is covered, the vapour will settle down, 'bubbling' over the edge of the dewar.  When the level of LN2 gets closer to the top of the dewar, the smooth bubbling will become much more irregular, with puffs of vapour shooting off in every direction.  This is the point where you should prepare to turn the hose off, because very soon, you'll find more than just vapour bubbling over the edge.

There you go, just one of the things I work with.  Which is why MY income protection insurance was 3 times that of the ITGeek and the same amount as Life, Death, Disability and 'big health problems' insurance for the both of us (guess what we went for in the end?) 

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Como Gardens

Today, I visited Como Gardens.  It was established in the late 1800's by Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller, owner of an awesome name and a huge love for botany.  He created Melbourne's Botanic gardens, and Como Gardens was his nursery and private gardening play area. Just over ten years ago, the property was purchased and the gardens restored, and, twice a year, it's open to the public to raise money for our local SES and St Johns Ambulance.  

Good friends of ours are in the SES, and we missed the last few open days, so hell or high water, we were going to be at this one (for the Americans, Australia is run on volunteers.  The State Emergency Service basically fix anything messed up by weather or circumstances.  Tree falls on a house? Search for missing person? Someone trapped in a car after an accident?  Our local SES handles all of that.  St Johns Ambulance are first aiders, mostly at sports and community events, but they also step up to the plate during national disasters.  Oh, and don't let the 'volunteer' bit fool you.  These people are trained harder than most people for their job, and have to be certified before they can even put on the uniform).

The ITGeek flexed his amateur photographer muscles, and was particularly enamoured of the owner's vintage car collection (especially a Bugatti that recently broke the lap record for a classic car at Eastern Creek raceway and nearly broke my eardrums when the owner revved it).  And I?  Fell in love.

This place is a maze of garden beds, the paths crossing and weaving like the steps of a dancer.  Every plant you could ever imagine is here.  There's no rhyme or reason to the garden bed, no occupational Health and Safety demanding ruberised concrete paths of regulation width.  The attitude could be considered respectful.  Plants have been placed in the ground with regard to their needs, but left to grow as they wish.  The asthetic enjoyment of humans come a distant second.

Today I discovered that the highly-imaginative five-year old who was obsessed with Enid Blyton is, in fact, not outgrown, but merely hiding inside this nearly 30-year old scientist.  And she can still make herself heard.  She will whisper that fairies could be real, and if they were, they would live here, up this tree, under this fern.  She will demand that every path must be followed and explored, and imagine where they lead.  To a chocolate tree.  A secret meeting place for bunyips.  A Faraway Tree.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Practice Review - Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.

In the past, any review I've done has had the nickname 'Lit review' in front of it, and science's version of Literature has nothing to do with fiction. Hopefully, Cannonball reviews won't need referencing, because, embarrassing but true, I'm no good at EndNote.

So, before November 1st, I thought I'd sneak in some practice. Just in case it turns out that I need to learn that fucking program afterall.

I bought this book because I was due to treat a group of mice via a nebuliser for an hour, and watching them bathe in the mist gets really boring after two minutes. It's a lot better than most of the stuff I do to them, but it's still boring. I read most of it in that hour, then finished it in my lunchbreak. I'm a latecomer to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, which makes me some kind of heretic amongst bookworms, but I'm going to make up for lost time, 'kay?

And Then There Was None is a classic 'strangers with secrets trapped in a house with a killer' story. I'd wager that it was this book that made it a classic storyline. Ten people are brought to an island via mysterious means, and trapped there by U.N. Owen ('Unknown'), who's got a burning desire to lay down some vigilant justice. Each of them are responsible for the death of another person. Some directly, some indirectly, and all of them exonerated by the law or society.

One by one, they're killed off, the manner scripted by a poem framed in each of their rooms ('Ten little soldiers', a variation on Ten little Indians). They quickly realise the killer is one of them, though they've got no idea who. The story moves fast, dragging the reader along with it, until the inevitable conclusion. Because it's a mystery, I won't give away the ending, but it's good. It's very good. Christie has a gift for sketching characters while keeping them utterly believable, so you don't end up screaming at the pages 'Oh for fuck's sake, why are you so stupid?!'. I found Emily Brent, the ultra-religious bitch, particularly interesting, and I found myself wishing she'd died a little later; that perhaps she might have then been introduced to an entirely different kind of Revelation.

If there's any problem with reading 'classics' it's that the plot has inevitably been diluted by repeated retellings by people who've clearly decided that, since the plot has already been figured out, they better focus on cheap tricks to keep the reader/viewer interested (I'm looking at you, Saw, but I'll give you a pass, Clue). The originals are still brilliant, but I always feel like both the author and I have been ripped off. The author, because, well, they've been ripped off, and me, selfishly, because I'm missing out on some of the sheer joy that comes with a good, original, storyline.

I discovered a bit of the history of this book, and I hesitated before mentioning it, but chances are good someone else will anyway. The bookcover claims it was originally published as 'Ten Little Indians', but, according to Wiki, the first title was actually 'Ten little Niggers', and the poem and name of the island reflected that (in the version I have, it's soldier island). I read that some people believe that Christie was using the predjudices of the time to convey just how 'separate' the island was, and play into the fears we're given in childhood. Personally, I don't think the story has suffered at all for the changes, and, whatever deeper meaning Christie was trying to convey, it's no longer relevant. Of course Christie may have possessed those same predjudices, but somehow, I doubt it. (Mind you, I'm basing that on a very small amount of evidence).

I just thought I'd better add, in case my countries recent stupidity with that Blackface skit gives anybody the wrong idea: there's no way in hell I want to see the original title in a bookstore.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Blame Pajiba.

If you've never heard of it, it's a website for reviews.   But, like everything else in my life, it has that fine veneer of insanity.

The heart of the site is the commenters, called Eloquents.  And, residing over our tiny, charcoal hearts is Amanda Amos, AKA AlabamaPink.  One day, I'll be able to come up with something that's good enough to honours her like she deserves.  She fought cancer with humor and courage and balls-out awesomeness, and it might have killed her, but it didn't beat her.  

When another Eloquent, Prisco, took on the challenge of reading and reviewing 100 books in a year, she challenged him to make it a competition.  Soon, other Eloquents started joining in, and thus, the Cannonball Read was born.

The second Cannonball Read has begun, renamed 'The Amanda Amos Kickass Cannonball Read', and changed to be 52 books in a year, rather than 100.  And for every Eloquent who signs on, reads and reviews those 52 books from November 1st, Pajiba will donate money to the college fund of Amanda's son (yeah, the Overlords might say they're scathing and bitchy, but when no-one else is watching, they cuddle kittens).

An incentive like that, to read books and babble about them?  Oh yeah, I'm in.  

This does mean I now have a blog, though, and face it, there's no way I'll be able to keep it just to reviewing books.

hehehehehe.  (which, apparently, is a very disturbing way to convey laughter).  (Hoping the link works, or I'm going to look like a twit).