Sunday, August 29, 2004

See, there's definitely no crying in Taekwondo

In the Olympic gold medal match of the men's over-80kg Taekwondo weight class, the Korean fighter knocked out his Greek opponent. I can think of at least three reasons why that must have sucked:

1. Getting kicked in the head by a 6'3" guy in prime physical condition who actually knows how to kick would hurt a lot.
2. Getting knocked out in the gold medal match, front of your home crowd, on the last day of the Games, after there have been several drug scandals involving your country's athletes, by a guy 4 inches shorter than you, has to make you feel like you let your country down a bit.
3. And, last but not least, when your opponent says


``My left leg is not very strong. I was busy defending myself and he stepped on me with his right foot, so I kicked him with my left foot without realizing that I knocked him out,'' he said

you gotta feel even worse.

But, and this is the good part -- the Greek guy was gracious about it, and even had a sense of humor about it:

``The truth is I don't remember much,'' he said. ``It all happened so quickly. I started with a lot of enthusiasm and it seems I paid for it.''

Now that's good sportsmanship.

[All this, btw, comes from this article]

There's no crying in Taekwondo

One of the matchups in Taekwondo at the Olmypics yesterday was between an American, Steven Lopez, and an Iraqi, Raid Rasheed -- a match with highly political overtones. Steven Lopez won the match 12-0. In other words, it was a good old-fashioned behind-the-woodshed beating [and I know how those go ... I once lost a match 10-0].

Afterwards, this is what Raid Rasheed had to say [per this article]:

I had a problem with my right leg and the last twenty days I didn’t practice. I spent all my time with doctors and physiotherapists. Even today I had a problem with my calf, something that didn’t let me sleep. The American exploited my injury and he continuously hit me on this spot

Uhm, ok, what would he have liked Steven Lopez to do ? Only use one leg as well ? Only hit him on his "good" side ? Taekwondo is a combat sport -- that means you hit people where it hurts. And you don't complain afterwards that when your opponent kicked you, it hurt. That's all part of the game and you'd think that somebody competing at a high-level event like the Olympics would have internalized that.

What irritates me even more about Rasheed's attitude is that even if he'd been fully healthy, I doubt the end result would have been much different. Steven Lopez has been pretty much untouchable for the last 4 years -- he won the gold medal in Sydney in 2000 and in the last 2 world championships, and he won the gold medal this time around as well. In other words, he doesn't suck.

Sore loser, in more ways than one.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

I know somebody who can kick your ass

A friend of mine, Chinedum Osuji, competed in the Olympics today, in the under-80 kg weight category in Taekwondo. Unfortunately, he lost his first match, but he lost it to a worthy opponent -- the guy he lost to went on to the semi-finals and missed winning the bronze medal by a single point. Taekwondo is funny like that -- if you lose, you always want the guy who beat you to do really well, so you feel like you didn't lose to a nobody. Not that there are any nobodies competing in the Olympics, of course.

So, bummer for Chinedum, but the most important thing is that he is/was good enough to be there and compete. That's something very, very few people can say.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Sometimes, athletes tell it like it is

When Jeremy Wariner won the 400m race in the Olympics, this is what his supposedly biggest rival had to say:

I’ve never seen a white man run that fast,” said Grenada’s Alleyne Francique, who was supposed to be Wariner’s biggest threat but finished fourth.

[according to this MSNBC article]

And today, Liu Xiang of China, upon winning the 110-meter hurdles supposedly said:

``This is a miracle,'' Liu said. ``I'm too tired to even cry. I never ran so fast. I am very proud, not just for myself and China, but for Asia and the yellow-skinned people.[...]''

[according to this NY Times article].

Now all we need is a black swimmer doing really well internationally ;-)


Party with the future CEOs of America

A friend of mine from Ghana, Kojo Dufu, is starting Sloan, MIT's business school, so we've been hanging out a bit. He's been forwarding me all the invitations to events being organized by the incoming Sloan folks and I am frankly amazed: these people are partying really hard. I'd always heard that a lot of B-school was about building up a social network etc but I'd never seen it quite so vividly demonstrated. They've basically been going out every single night for the past week and the pace shows no sign of slacking. I guess that's what you get when you put 350 socially outgoing overachievers into a class together and tell them to get friendly. I do suspect that festivities will come to a screeching halt once classes really start, though, since the first semester of B-school is supposed to be a ridiculous amount of work.

Christina and I went to one of their events yesterday, to a nightclub/lounge in Boston called Caprice and I was very much reminded of freshman year of college. Everybody was positively quivering with eagerness to meet everybody else and run through the "What's your name ? Where are you from ? What'd you do before you came here ? What do you want to do when you get out ?" line of questioning. While this made for a really friendly atmosphere, it did get a bit tiring after a while; as Christina put it, as a non-Sloanie, eventually you just want to say something like "Look, I'm nobody important, I don't even attend Sloan, you don't have to meet me or be nice to me, now run along and go meet somebody else who's as excited as you". She also called them "eager beavers", which is very appropriate, given that MIT's mascot is the beaver [because the beaver is "nature's engineer". Talk about a mascot that lends itself to abuse ...].

All that said, we did meet a couple of nice people, always important in a new city, and I'm sure we'll end up going to more of these events, especially given that my incoming class consists of 4 people [counting me], and so there's a limit to how social we can get.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Boston bites

Christina and I have developed a new theory about why so many people eat ice cream and donuts in Boston: it's because, judging from the [admittedly non-random] cross-section of people we've seen so far, many people here seem to be missing a lot of teeth, and so they probably gravitate towards soft foods that don't require much in the way of functioning dentition.

This one's for you, B


Posted by Hello

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Oh, the things you'll hear

More random subway conversation snippets:

The metrosexual:
Man, talking on cellphone, describing himself to somebody he's supposed to meet: Yes, I'm wearing a marigold shirt.
Me [thinking]: Oh, is that what that color is ? I thought it was orange.

The woeful mismatch:
[Young man gets on train, carrying thick paperback]
Young girl/woman: Hey, what book are you reading ?
Young man: It's Hitler's "Mein Kampf".
YW: What's that about ? [or something along those lines]
YM: Well, it's about Hitler. Though he was an evil guy, I'm reading it because I think there was something fascinating about him, that he was able to convince so many people to follow him.
YW: Uhm, yeah, ok ... [turns to girlfriend] What was the name of that perfume again ? "Romantic Kiss" ? That smelled lovely.
... and that was the end of that conversation.

The silent, but very meaningful conversation:
Rather, uhm, tough-looking young man is on train. Another young man gets on, "blinged-out" and wearing a doorag, baseball cap and baseball T-shirt.
YM1: [some gang sign] (side note, if you follow the link: why does a Jesuit university have a tutorial on gang signs ??)
YM2: [some other gang sign]
... staredown until one of them gets off the train ...
[Christina and I speculated how they would have reacted if somebody had walked up to them and starting talking in sign language ...]

Photoshop -- it'll put a sparkle in your eye [and anywhere else too]

This evening, Christina and I went to check out a photography school she's interested in, namely the Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University which was having an open house. This is a program that concentrates entirely on digital photography, as opposed to most other photography programs which are still heavily into darkroom-and-toxic-chemicals technology. While she was initially a little skeptical about their program, she warmed up to it by the end of their presentation, so she'll probably end up starting their evening program in January.

Highlights from the open house:

- They need to work on clearly distinguishing between their Basic Photography Certificate and their Professional Photography Certificate. From their brochure, the difference is 2 classes [out of about 14], but the cost difference is $9000. When that apparent discrepancy was brought to their attention, they hurriedly explained that what looks like 2 classes in the Professional certificate program is actually 2 blocks of 6 weeks each and each block corresponds to 6 "classes" in the Basic certificate program. In other words, the Basic certificate actually only takes half the time that the Professional certificate takes, hence it only costs half as much.
- They're unashamedly a vocational/craft school ie they want to teach students specific technologies and skills that will be useful in helping them make a living from photography, they aren't trying to run an academic program that teaches things like "History of Photography". That's a pretty good fit for Christina, since she a) wants to make money from photography and b) already has enough academic degrees. From my perspective, I like the fact that they're not apologetic about this focus, but rather emphasize it -- being clear about who/what you are produces much more coherence.
- All their instructors have lots of real-world experience, as well as apparently being pretty well-connected with well-known commercial photographers. That sort of access to a network will probably come in pretty handy when it becomes time to look for a job.
- The director of their program is funny, though maybe unintentionally so. At one point, he had a bit of a Gollum attack and said "lenseses ... es ... es". He also characterized some of the "joys" of working with computers pretty accurately: "You spend a day trying to figure out why something doesn't work, and then you realize it was something stupid and trivial, and you aren't any smarter or stronger because of it, all you've done is lost a day."
- According to the director of the program, digital photography has finally gotten to the point where it's really revolutionizing commercial photography, and so there are lots of opportunities for people who are conversant with the new medium and technology as older/more established photographers may have a harder time making the switch. This sounds pretty similar to what's going on in molecular biology: computational methods are becoming indispensable for dealing with the mountains of data being accumulated, and so what's needed are people who are comfortable with computation but also understand biology deeply; the "traditional" biologists who still think Excel is the end-all, be-all of data analysis tools are going to have a hard time staying relevant. So, Christina and I are both getting into fields that are undergoing some pretty radical changes, and have the chance to be part of the new wave. Pretty nifty, if you ask me.

[Maybe we'll have her take a digital picture of me analyzing biological data on a computer -- that'll be such a cutting-edge picture, it'll make you bleed just to look at it ;-)]

Similarities between the Big Dig and Longhorn

Boston's new motto should be "Construction -- it's everywhere you want to be." It seems as if, inspired by the Big Dig, the folks in city government suddenly decided "Hey, everything is screwed up anyway because of the Big Dig, nobody will notice if we start up all the other construction projects we've been putting off for a while." There is construction absolutely everywhere, and it mostly seems to consist of digging up perfectly good streets and then filling them back in and leaving them looking much worse for the wear, with no obvious improvement. In the meantime, chaos reigns supreme.

I must confess that parts of this remind me a bit of Longhorn, Microsoft's next OS. There are "Big Dig"-like parts of Longhorn, like WinFS [a new storage technology] and Avalon [a new UI platform] ie major revamps of huge chunks of the operating system. And, inspired by this, a lot of other teams basically decided "Hey, if they get to really replumb everything, why shouldn't we do the same ?", as a result of which for a while Longhorn was basically shorthand for "a constantly-morphing set of features that nobody can make any progress on because it's so intertwined that everything depends on everything else and everything else is undergoing revolutionary change. Oh, and we want to ship it in 2 years." It was starting to settle down a bit before I left, but I suspect that there's a lot more settling to be done.

PS: I believe this last paragraph is technically an instance of "leaving the tent and p!ssing back in", but I don't think that it really qualifies as full-blown micturition [isn't the internet amazing ? you can find a graphic of anything ...].

Handywomen are good to have ...

... especially when you're married to one :-) I've always been rather clumsy with my hands and shied away from "manual" work [which was one of the reasons I stopped racing Honda RS 125s -- those bikes needed to be worked on constantly], which would have spelled trouble sooner or later if left on my own. Thankfully, Christina is pretty much the opposite, probably something she inherited from her dad -- she can [and does] fix just about everything. The only time I get called is when brute force is needed.

While we've been in Boston, she's

- helped somebody paint a house
- re-chromed our bathroom faucet and pipes
- spraypainted a few of our chairs to make them fit in better, color-wise, with all the wood paneling etc we have
- started to tear up the wallpaper in the apartment building's stairwell [it was really grotty] in preparation for repainting the entire stairwell

Her desire to do the last bit actually led to a pretty funny exchange with our landlord, Jose. Some background on him: he apparently came here from Portugal 20 years ago with nothing in his pocket and is now worth millions because he owns 100+ rental properties in Boston. However, he still does a lot of the required maintenance himself -- when we came to check out the place the first time, he was painting it, together with his wife and kids. Talk about work ethic. Of course, that also means that some of the work is a bit on the, uhm, hasty side -- we've found things like hair etc varnished to the floor because it was only cursorily cleaned before it was varnished for the next set of tenants. On balance, though, I prefer a landlord who is very much present, even if he does so-so work, to one who is absent.

In any case, Jose was around yesterday and Christina induced shock and awe [who knew that was actually a real military term, not just something Bush's speechwriters came up with on the spur of the moment?] in him by showing him the re-chromed bathroom. While he was still in a weakened state, she then proposed that he allow her to rip down all the grotty wallpaper in the stairwell and repaint it. Though still shocked and awed, Jose wasn't totally defenseless and was able to negotiate terms such that she's allowed to have her way with the bottom floor hallway and then, if he likes it, she can do the rest. I have no doubts that the entire stairwell will soon look exactly the way Christina wants it to :-)

After the negotiations were concluded, he repeatedly exclaimed
"This is great ! My wife, she do nothing ! I have to do everything !" and proceeded to thank and congratulate me on having such a great wife.

And I have to agree -- she sure is cool.

If you meet the Buddha on the subway, kill him

Not only are we close to Jamaica Pond [Seattleites: think Greenlake, but with fewer people] but we're also close to the Arnold Arboretum, 265 acres of park-y goodness. Not only is it a beautiful park, it's also not crowded at all because very few people actually make the trek out to Jamaica Plain -- Christina and I were there with our friends Jules and Lisa on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and found ourselves walking through it without seeing anybody else for minutes at a time. There are definite advantages to living a bit outside the most popular areas [ie Cambridge, Brookline, Backbay etc].

Of course, one of the disadvantages of this is that we spend more time on the train, which means we're exposed to a lot of the, uhm, idiosyncracies of public transportation, like:

- Rain drives the crazies underground. On one leg of a subway ride last Saturday, when it was raining heavily, we were in the subway with an old guy, who for no apparent reason, started yelling obscenities at a couple of middle-aged women sitting next to us. There was liberal use of the 'f' word in combination with the word used in non-polite company when referring to a prostitute. When we got off that train, we were met on the next platform by another loony who was dancing around with his fists in the air asking every man whether he wanted to get into a fistfight with him. When nobody took him up on that enticing offer, he started strutting up and down the platform yelling things like "I was a Black Panther !", "I'll put a cap in your ass !", "Who thinks they're bad ?" and, my personal favorite: "When you look at me, you look at death !" While this was amusing for a while, eventually it got annoying enough that I entertained notions of taking away his walking stick and beating him with it, but I thought that would be a bit unsportsmanlike.
- Subway performers can turn the wait for the next train either into a pleasant few minutes or something that haunts you for a long time. We recently had the misfortune to be exposed to a man playing the piano who sang the following lyrics for 10 minutes in a row: "We're having a party; Coke is in the icebox, food is on the table; Just me and my baby, having a good time", accompanied by 3 or 4 2-note chords. Tolerable the first 2-3 times around, when you still hope that that's just the chorus and there are more lyrics to it, but quickly descending into "Can we give him money to shut up ?" when it becomes obvious that that's the entire song. Just before we left, he'd switched to another song that sounded like a classic: "Don't let your dog bite me". Who knows whether that one had any more lyrics ... Christina still can't get the first song out of her head.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Cold showers and restraint are good things

There is such a thing as too much public display of affection, even if it doesn't involve overt groping. Christina and I were on the subway yesterday with a young couple [early 20's, at the most] that were so enamoured with each other that it was a bit embarrassing to be in the same room with them. They were gazing soulfully into each others eyes, touching each other gently, breathing sweet nothings, alternated laying their heads on each others shoulder and just generally so into each other that nothing else existed for them. It was like something out of a comedy skit. What made it so uncomfortable was that I, at least, felt like I was intruding on something that should have been private so I was pretty happy when we were able to get off the subway.

The kicker, of course, came when we got back on the subway some 3+ hours later: they were [still ? again ?] on the subway, in the same car as us. And they were still going at it. And it was still embarrassing. Christina apparently caught a fragment of their conversation, in which the guy asked "Is there anything you don't like about me ? Anything at all ?" while, of course, gazing deeply into her eyes. One shudders to think about what they're like when they're actually in private, though I don't really see how it could really get any more intense.

In other news,
Christina has noticed 2 more differences between Seattle and Boston:
  1. She thinks that people here really, really like ice cream because we see lots of people eating it all the time. Personally, I think we may be getting a biased sample because we're very close to 2 ice cream stores, so we're somewhat more likely to see lots of people eating it. And I also think it's pretty understandable that people eat lots of ice cream, given the miserable heat humidity here.
  2. There is a Dunkin Donuts on every corner and there are people in them at all hours of the day eating donuts. I'm a pretty big fan of donuts but I have to agree with her that there's a time and place for them, and 1 o'clock in the afternoon or 7 pm in the evening isn't really the time for them.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Malaria bonanza

With perfect timing, the nice folks that publish Nature magazine have decided to make available, for free, a collection of their past articles that focus on malaria.

There have also been quite a few reports in the last few days about the fact that a team of scientists have made what appears to be a breakthrough by synthesizing a new antimalarial drug that's cheaper and easier to make and just as potent as the current best drug, artemisinin. What's a bit confusing about these reports, though, is that two of them [the AP News story, and The Guardian story] say the drug was developed by the Indian company Ranbaxy, whereas none of the others [
in the Scotsman News, in ABC's news in science, and a couple more] mention Ranbaxy; also, the actual paper published in Nature doesn't list any authors affiliated with Ranbaxy.

In any case, what makes this so interesting is that artemisinin, which is currently the last line of defense against drug-resistant malaria [which is very widespread] is so expensive [$2 per dose, as opposed to 10 cents per dose of chloroquine/quinine] that basically no African country can afford it. So, what's been happening is that most African countries have basically had to use drugs against which there is wide-spread resistance, potentially exacerbating the resistance situation even more. This new drug is supposed to be much cheaper to synthesize than artemisinin and be just as effective against drug-resistant strains of malaria, hence the hoopla about it. Let's hope it makes it through clinical trials and out into the real world ...

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Opportunity lost ...

Do you ever think of the perfect comeback a split second after you've issued a lame riposte ? If you don't, well, you're special. Me, I'm not that special -- I had the chance to really confound somebody yesterday and missed it, and I'm still kicking myself. Here is what should have happened:

[Phone rings]
Me: Hello ?
(Spanish-speaking) Caller: Hola, Blanca ?
Me: No, negro
Caller: [confused silence]

Here is what did happen:

[Phone rings]
Me: Hello ?
(Spanish-speaking) Caller: Hola, Blanca ?
Me: Uhm, I think you have the wrong number
Caller: Oh, sorry.
[Caller hangs up]
[I think of the "No, negro" comeback 1.52 seconds too late]

*Sigh* Such opportunities are so rare, you gotta seize them when they happen.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Mosquitoes suck

One research area that I've been thinking about is malaria; having had several bouts of it myself, I have a somewhat personal grudge against it =). However, nobody at MIT seems to be working on it, so I spent a bit of time looking elsewhere, with the result that I sent email to Dr.Dyann Wirth,who heads up the Harvard Malaria Initiative. I wanted to do two things: get her take on the applicability of computational methods to malaria research, given the current state of knowledge about the malaria parasite's life cycle and biology, and see whether there was a chance I could maybe do some work in her lab if I couldn't find anything of that sort at MIT. She was kind enough to be willing to talk to me [despite me being a random non-Harvard student who emailed her out of the blue =)], so I went by her office today.

She is definitely super cool -- she invited me to come to her lab meetings and hang around her lab to meet people, recommended books for me to read, offered to introduce me to a few people etc. Basically, she was very encouraging and didn't really seem to care too much that I'm an MIT grad student and not affiliated with Harvard in any way; her take on it was that university faculty in the Boston area tended to be pretty easy-going about cross-university collaborations and so she thought it was a definite possibility that I could do some work in her lab if I was interested. It's nice to find somebody that welcoming.

Her perspective on the applicability of computational methods was also very positive. Her lab is actually doing a fair bit of bioinformatics-based analysis of the malaria parasite's genome, as well as analysis of how expression of the genes is regulated during the parasite's lifecycle, to help figure out how to combat drug-resistant strains of malaria. She thought that malaria was actually a good test for computational methods because knowledge of the molecular biology of the parasite isn't as far advanced as some other systems that have been studied, and hence any computational models will have less "built-in" knowledge [or bias] about the biology and results that come out of them will really be based on computation, not on pre-existing knowledge.

Quite apart from the human health aspects, malaria is a fascinating subject in itself -- the parasite goes through several lifecycle stages both in humans and in mosquitoes, changes its gene expression radically depending on which stage of the lifecycle it's in, has developed various forms of drug resistance by modifying its genome, comes in several different variations with differing toxicities etc. Basically, if you want to work on genomic analysis, gene regulatory network analysis, molecular evolution and probably a few more areas -- malaria has something to offer.

Now I have to figure out how open the MIT folks are to having me maybe do some work in her lab ...

To rewrite or to patch, that is the question

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what sort of research I want to do and I feel like I have two basic choices: work on building the "new" biology [ie synthetic biology] or work on figuring out the "old" biology [ie biology as it currently exists], albeit with new, heavily computational, tools. To help me get my head around it, I've been looking at it through a lens that I'm familiar with, namely computers and software. Viewed through that lens, the two choices break down like this:

[Disclaimer: I'm still pretty clueless about biology, so it may well be that this analogy totally falls apart on closer inspection ;-)]

Synthetic biology is like being given the chance to build a new computing system from scratch, pretty much from the ground up. This means that you get to define everything yourself -- the architecture of the computer, the instruction set, the memory hierarchy etc, so you get [hopefully] exactly what you want. However, with that also comes the fact that you then have to fully design and build all of it -- you have to write the microcode, the compiler, the operating system and all the system services yourself, and debug each level. That's a pretty daunting task, especially given the limited understanding we currently have of all the forces acting on even the simplest biological system and the tools we have for investigating [ie "debugging and inspecting"] biological systems.

So, the end result will be [we hope] much more amenable to human understanding and manipulation, but it'll take a while to get there. How long "a while" is of course depends on the level of functionality being aimed for, but I suspect it'll be at least 5-10 years before we can reliably [ie resistant to mutation, able to operate under many different conditions etc] build something like a biological circuit that counts the number of cell divisions and induces cell death if the cell has divided more than, say, 100 times.

The "old" biology is like being given a working system [ie the human body] and being told "Figure out how it works, figure out how to fix it when it's broken [eg in disease] and figure out how to make it do certain things better [eg maybe a stronger immune system]". In this case, you already have a working system, but it's insanely complicated and not really "designed" to do anything except survive in any way that's possible. It's pretty much an engineer's nightmare in that there is no modularity, exceptions to just about every rule, bugs [and features] we don't know about, zillions of interacting parts and unknown forces [like selective pressure] acting on it and changing it in ways we don't understand. Oh, and God forgot to leave us the instruction manual and doesn't pick up the phone when we call tech support. Everything we know, we've had to figure out on our own, and that will always be the case; the problem of "debugging" tools is even more acute here than in synthetic biology because we don't even know all the parts to look at. The flip side is that you don't have to re-invent and re-build everything from scratch -- once you figure out the rules for the little corner of it that you care about, you can manipulate it and have an already-working system in place to test out your changes.

The question for me is: if I want to work on something that can lead to applicable technology, which direction do I pick ? In software terms, it's basically "Should I rewrite the program or should I patch the existing one ?". The answer, as with many things, is "It depends" -- on how quickly you need it, how much it's allowed to cost, who your existing customers are and what their needs are etc.

In the [really ?] long term, I think synthetic biology has the bigger upside -- being able to custom-build biological circuitry and insert it into living organisms is just about the most powerful technology I can think of [wouldn't it be nice, or at least more practical sometimes, if we all had chloroplasts so we could get energy from sunlight and a handful of nutrients found in soil, rather than having to eat ?]. In the short term, well, people are ill and dying now and there's lots of work to be done in figuring out what ails them and how to prevent that.

The programmer in me is saying "Go with the new stuff -- you get to totally build your own system ! Who wants to work on a grotty system that's already a few billion years old ? Let somebody else do tech support for version 1.0, version 2.0 will be so much cooler and more exciting !". The pragmatic part of me is saying "Yeah, human 1.0 is old, but we've got over 6 billion customers and more being born everyday and so far 2.0 is mostly spec-ware, so the right thing to do is work on 1.0 and squeeze as much out of that as possible."

Right now, I'm pretty squarely on the fence. I have to pick a thesis advisor and lab by the end of the first year, so that's as long as I can stay on the fence, but I'd like to get off it sooner than that.

<>

Sunday, August 15, 2004

MIT Museum visit

Visited the MIT Museum today, with Christina, Victor and Justin [who was Victor's "little brother" in the Big Brother program while Victor was in Boston]. Overall, it was very nifty; my favorite bits were

- one of the original "Lisp machines", which looked like it had been hand-wired [and what a pain in the ass that must have been -- there were hundreds of wiring endpoints and the wiring was at least 5-6 layers deep]
- a sculpture/machine which consists of a set of 12 interconnected gear - worm gear speed reducers [a "worm gear speed reducer" reduces the speed of rotation of a gear, something I'd never heard of before today]. Each such combination reduces the input rotation speed by a factor of 50, so the initial input rotation speed is reduced by an overall factor of (1/50)^12 ie quite a bit :-) The end result is that with the input gear rotating at 212 times per minute, the last gear in the series will take 2.191 trillion years to rotate once. Now that's what I call building for the long term :-). The entire "Gestural Engineering" section was really cool.
- A picture of the first few microseconds of a nuclear explosion, taken with apparatus invented by Harold "Doc" Edgerton, whose better-known pictures are of a bullet going through an apple and a droplet of splashing milk frozen in time with perfect clarity.

Definitely a good place to take visitors and my favorite science/engineering musem so far.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

The discontents of synthetic biology

You know it's going mainstream when a non-technical magazine like Prospect publishes an article on synthetic biology, mostly on the potential dangers thereof. It's definitely a valid point, and I think the smart thing to do would be to nip potential public concern in the bud by developing a set of guidelines used to regulate the sort of stuff that gets worked on. There is already a precedent for this -- in 1975, a set of biologists gathered in Asilomar, in California, to talk about the possible dangers inherent in recombinant DNA [ie putting genes from one organism into another]. For example, one issue that worried some researchers was what would happen if E.coli [a bacterium that exists by the millions in everybody's intestines, btw] acquired genes that gave it immunity to penicillin, as well as genes that made it toxic, and then spread into the general population. The outcome of that conference was a set of guidelines that researchers agreed to stick to, which helped to calm down both public and government fears and pre-empted any heavy-handed government legislation.

There's an article here that talks about a conference that was held in 2000 to talk about whether the historic 1975 conference could help in any way with some of the existing concerns about things like genetically modified foods, germ-line engineering and xenotransplantation [ie transplanting organs from animals into people]. One thing that struck me as particularly relevant to synthetic biology in that article is this bit:

At the end of last month's meeting, Berg reflected on the differences between 1975 and 2000 and what they might mean for the resolution of scientific controversies. One factor that made the first meeting work, he said, was the "suddenness of the issue." Because molecular biologists weren't yet heavily invested in recombinant DNA technology and the public knew little about it, "it was much easier to get people to agree on a course of action," Berg told Science. Most of the issues discussed at last month's conference are "chronic," he noted. And "once an issue becomes chronic, positions become hardened, and consensus is much more difficult to achieve."

If you agree with this logic, then now is the perfect time to start this conversation in the synthetic biology community, because it's early days there for researchers. As Drew Endy put it to me when describing the Synthetic Biology 1.0 conference which he just organized: "This is the first time that all the people who have been working on this stuff came together and said 'Hey, look, there are other people working on this, I don't have to apologize for doing this stuff anymore'" [paraphrased, of course =)].

Another bit I found rather interesting was

Those who gathered at Asilomar in 1975 represented a research community that was purely academic in its interests. Today, "there are few pure academics left" in molecular biology, Baltimore noted. As genetic engineering has gone commercial, academics have followed, and today most senior academic researchers have ties to biotechnology companies that would complicate any attempts at self-scrutiny.

Yes, it's a lot easier to get consensus when there's no money on the line. And there will be money on the line pretty soon in synthetic biology, I'd wager -- the promises of being able to just "build" any biological system you want are bound to spur the creation of lots of companies.

Luckily, it looks like some of the conversation has already started; a talk by George Poste at the aforementioned Synthetic Biology 1.0 conference is about how to create the right regulatory framework for this field [and others that may face similar issues]. There's also a talk by Paul Rabinow that appears to be about the relevant ethics. I say "appears" because, from the brief scan I did of it, it appears to be rather, uhm, "high level" [aka "a bit fluffy"] and so I didn't bother reading much of it.


Friday, August 13, 2004

Surf alert !

Christina and I went to Cape Cod yesterday with a couple of friends, Kojo and Tiffany Dufu. Notable occurences:

1. There is surf on Cape Cod. We drove by a surf shop in Wellfleet [called "Little Overhead"] and I made Kojo turn around so I could go talk to the owner.

Side note on surf culture: surfers hate to actually admit that there is surf anywhere in the vicinity, because everybody wants to make sure "their" surf breaks don't get to crowded, so they're very cagy about telling you where exactly the surf spots are. You see this behavior even in people who run a surf shop -- it's like they can't really bring themselves to admit to strangers that there might be a surf spot around their shop, despite the fact that it's a surf shop, which means there's obviously surf nearby.

The owner was nice enough -- he told me that there was surf all along the Cape, and even that there were surf spots in Rhode Island, but that he wasn't going to tell me where the "secret spots were". Fair 'nuff, wasn't really expecting that anyway. We also talked a bit about how warm the water got [warmer than Seattle :-)], whether there were sharks [no], how many people would be out on a really "crowded" day [about 40] etc. All in all, the main point for me was that there is indeed surf around here and so I don't totally have to say goodbye to surfing for the next 4-5 years, which was good news

2. We walked around Provincetown a bit, which was entertaining. Provincetown is basically the combination of a seaside tourist trap with a super-strong gay community -- the result is lots of kitschy shops interrupted by the occasional drag queen loudly proclaiming the virtues of his [her ?] evening show, when you could see even more flesh than he [she ?] was already showing. My "favorite", if that's the right term, was Wonderwoman [Wonderman ?] -- somehow, I never really imagined her with super-long fake eyelashes, handing out fliers and having a conversation with a really hairy, bare-chested fat guy in which she said things like "You wouldn't guess that I'm from North Carolina, would you ?" [that's the snippet of conversation I overheard].

3. Driving in Boston sucks @$$. The roads are really poorly marked and poorly lit, randomly change names and directions [eg to stay on Tremont, you have to take a 90-degree turn at a 4-way stop light, going straight puts you on an entirely different road] and drivers are very impatient. The whole thing is so confusing that even Microsoft Maps sometimes basically throws up its hands, says "You're on your own on this one" and presents you with something cryptic like "Follow local roads to ...". No mention of what the names of the "local roads" might be, just the equivalent of software shrugging its shoulders and looking apologetic. I found this out the hard way trying to get back to our place last night -- all the above factors, combined with rain, meant that it took us close to an hour to get home from the outskirts of Boston. We got on and off the highway 3 times, passed by the scene of a major accident twice, and finally, by blind luck, ended up on a road that we were actually familiar with because we'd taken the bus along it before. Not an experience I want to repeat.


Immunology is cool

I had a chance to talk to Dr.Luk Van Parijs today, who works on the immune system. His work seemed interesting to me because I'm interested in doing research on topics that are relevant to disease control, and studying the immune system seems like one good way to do so. He's doing a bunch of interesting stuff like

- Using RNAi and lentiviral expression vectors to decrease and increase the expression levels of certain genes in mice and then seeing whether that changes the susceptibility of these mice to tumors. The idea is that, instead of starting by a priori studying the genes that we know are relevant to immune system and then expanding out from there, you can make the assumption that all genes are relevant to the immune system and then figure out which ones aren't by knocking them out or enhancing them and showing that they don't impact the immune system response. The flip side, of course, is that concentrating on whether the genes affect the immune system response to tumors means that they won't detect genes that affect immune system response to, say, the tuberculosis bacillus, but it's basically a "crawl, walk, run" strategy -- focusing on just one system at first allows them to produce pretty crisp results about at least one system, without having to worry about side-effects on other systems. Part of the problem here is how much data they generate and how to actually interpret it -- they basically have a data mining/machine learning challenge.

- Computational modeling of certain pathways in the immune system, like cell death caused by killer T-cells attacking an infected cell. One of the big challenges in setting up these computational models is that getting quantitiative data to base the models on is pretty hard -- you have to question whether you actually believe the data [eg certain labs have the reputation of not producing very good data], you have to deal with the fact that there is no consistent standard for how to store biological data [eg in Excel, in just a plain file, in an Oracle database], you have to comb through the thousands of papers on the topic to figure out whether you have all the major players in the pathway etc. However, the model they've built has been pretty successful for them, and so now they're looking at expanding into other areas and doing things like statistics-based modeling -- if you have lots of different moving parts [eg reaction rates, temperature, concentration, acidity etc], you can't do experiments that cover all the possibilities, so how do you know which experiments to do that will give you the most important aspects of the model ? Lots of interesting computer science/computational-type questions to answer in that area.

The immune system in general is very interesting -- it's made up of many different actors [B-cells, T-cells, dendritic cells, antibodies, pathogens etc] all affecting each other in rather non-deterministic ways, yet doing a pretty good job overall of dealing with the myriad of microbes we're exposed to every day. It's very much a "systems" problem because everything is interconnected, and so it's rife with opportunities to build computational models to see how changes in one area affect other areas. Depending on how things go, I might end up doing one of my rotations in his lab to get a better understanding of what the possibilities here are.

Nerds are like snowflakes ...

... each one is unique and special. That's the conclusion Christina came to after having had a few opportunities to observe the indigenous fauna of the MIT campus, a true nerdologists paradise. Her theory is that the amazing variety of observed nerd appearance can be attributed to a very simple principle: the total lack of fashion sense in nerds. This leads to them being dressed in a semi-random combination of clothing, with the only major restriction being that all relevant body parts have to be covered in some fashion -- other factors, such as fit, color, lack of holes etc are ignored. Combining these selection principles with the wide variety of ill-fitting clothing usually possessed by nerds generates the huge range of variation commonly observed.

Christina is also experiencing a budding fondness for MIT nerds in general. To her, nerds are "like classic cars. They're utterly useless to you, but you appreciate them because they're such a pure expression of nerd-dom that you can't help but like them."

[All this is good news for me, given that I'm about to really nerd out for the next few years]

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Of bats and women

[... with apologies to John Steinbeck]

In the middle of eating dinner last night, there was a knock on our door. When I opened the door, I was greeted with the question "Do you have any experience with getting bats out of apartments ?". Now, short of various religious nutcases that I've had the misfortune to get cornered by, that's probably the weirdest conversational opening gambit that I've ever heard. I countered with the equivalent of the conservative e7-e5 chess opening move, namely "No, why do you ask ?".

It turned out that Kendra, our neighbor, had come home to discover a bat fluttering around in her apartment and was at a loss about how to get it out. Christina, of course, was all over this -- she loves animals of all sorts, so the chance to catch a bat was right up her alley.

The bat was flying laps around Kendra's living room, looking like it was trying to find a way out. At first I thought that all we needed to do was open a window so it could use its "bat radar" to detect that there was an opening and fly right out. No dice. We opened the window and it kept right on flying in confused circles. The next thing we tried was shepherding it into the corner with the open window by cutting off the space it was flying around in by standing on chairs with sheets stretched between us and slowly forcing it into a corner. We figured that, statistically speaking, doing so would sooner or later force it fly out of the window. That worked, to a certain extent -- it reduced its radius of flight, but it never made it out of the window. And after a few small circles, it would always fly through a gap between the sheet and the ceiling and we'd have to start all over again.

After trying this for a while, I started thinking about "nontraditional" ways to catch it; the main idea I came up with was using one of our cats -- a bat, after all, is kind of like a mouse with wings, so if we could equip a cat with the power of flight, it should be able to catch it for us. Given that we were short on winged and/or flying cats, I thought we could build a makeshift one by basically throwing the cat at the bat and hoping that its hunting instinct would distract it long enough from the sensation of hurtling through the air to snag the bat and bring it down to the ground. Oddly enough, this ingenious suggestion was met with scorn and derision ... such is ever the fate of visionaries.

We tried a few more things like throwing the sheet over it and trying to get it to fly into a bucket, but none of those worked. At this point, the bat must have flown well over 100 laps of the living room and was getting pretty tired -- it would occasionally take a breather on one of the moldings close to the ceiling. That made Christina think of a more indirect approach: stop trying to catch it, turn down the lights, turn on some slow, groovy music and basically make the bat feel more at home and relaxed [I'm kidding about the music part] so we could sneak up on it when it was sitting still. That actually worked -- the bat settled down, Christina was able to sneak up on it and trap it inside a bucket and then we let it go.

Moral #1 of the story: always have a woman [Christina, if possible] with you when you go bat-catching or have to deal with critters of any kind. She's really, really good with animals. If I'd gone in alone, I think it would have ended up with me telling our neighbor "Looks like the bat is here to stay. I suggest you get to know each other and learn to co-exist".

Moral #2 of the story: Bats really suck at detecting open spaces. The fact that it couldn't detect the open window and fly out of it really bugs me. How is it possible that they can detect bugs with their echolocation apparatus but can't find a big hole ? It seems like an open window would "look" like a big void -- you send sound waves at it but never really get anything back, which seems like it'd be a unique signature and hence easily detectable. Guess not. Good thing that Batman can see or else he'd be forever wandering around the Batcave trying to get out ...

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Warning, steep learning curve ahead

Drew Endy kindly allowed me to attend his lab meeting, so I attended my first "scientific lab" meeting today. Most of it was taken up by a couple of the members of his lab reporting on the talks that they'd found interesting at the "New Phage Biology" conference they'd just attended [a phage is a virus that infects bacteria].

The Bad: "I can understand the individual words coming out of your mouth, but I have no idea what you just said" pretty much sums up some of it for me. In other words, though I was familiar at a high level with what was being talked about, I had a hard time fully understanding what people were saying -- if I'd had a few minutes to try to parse the title of each talk, pore over each slide and been able to pause, rewind and replay what people were saying, it would have been much easier. Made me wish I had "Tivo for real-time interactions". As it was, I think I understood about 60-70% at a surface level, but the deeper implications pretty much totally escaped me. Pretty humbling and frustrating after being used to having a really good handle on what people were saying, seeing the implications and being able to ask thoughtful questions.

The Good: At least I understood most of what was being said, and as the meeting went on, I actually started thinking of questions myself [which I didn't voice] some of which other people then proceeded to ask. Given that my education in the actual details of molecular biology basically started at the beginning of this year and has consisted of me reading textbooks on my own, I was pretty happy to not be totally lost and be able to come up with questions demonstrating at least some understanding.

Key takeaway: I need to do a lot of reading on phage and bacterial biology in order to fully grok what's going on in Drew's lab, be able to contribute effectively and nod sagely in agreement when I hear things like "And of course, that's a departure from the classical model of phage development in which the booglepopper interacts with the snarflefozzer to cause rackbackergy and thus induces the rotorooter to strategorize with the archbooble." That's a verbatim quote. No, really, it is.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The New England Aquarium and "Asian insulation"

My 3-word review of the New England Aquarium: over-priced, over-crowded, under-crittered. Tickets were $16 [ie overpriced] for a pretty small facility with not that many aquatic critters [ie under-crittered]. Throw in the fact that it was crowded with tons of school/youth group excursions and you get the over-crowded bit. Definitely underwhelming. Christina suggested something that I think would be pretty cool: give each group that comes in a set of headphones and a mouthpiece set to a particular radio frequency, such that they can only talk to each other and nobody else has to hear them. It would make the entire experience so much more pleasant ...

I also experienced the phenomenon of "Asian insulation" first-hand: when Christina was teaching middle school, she said she always put the most troublesome/loud kids in the middle of a bunch of Asian [Chinese/Japanese/Korean] kids, which served to basically muffle them because their antics would just be swallowed up and not reflected. I was a little skeptical about this until I observed two very different kids groups today: one was a set of mostly black & Hispanic kids that were on the subway with us -- it was like having a tornado inside a subway car, barely kept under control by the poor teenager who was nominally supervising them. The other was a group of Chinese kids that were also on the subway platform -- they walked two abreast, holding hands and were so quiet that it was almost impossible to notice they were there. There are probably a zillion other factors contributing to the difference in demeanour, but it served as a pretty dramatic demonstration for me that "Asian insulation" might indeed be an effective classroom control technique. That said, for a hilarious send-up of precisely this sort of stereotyping, go see "Harold and Kumar go to White Castle" ...

Monday, August 09, 2004

We have the technology, we can build it

... or, rather, "we're working on the technology, so we can build it". "It", in this case refers to a biological system that does, well, anything we'd like it to do -- churn out drug precursors more cheaply than existing chemical synthesis processes, kill a cell that's divided more than a certain number of times [like a cancer cell], chew up plaque building up on artery walls etc.

That's the kind of stuff that I had a chance to talk about today with Drew Endy, one of the folks at MIT working on what's being called "Synthetic Biology" and whose lab I'm thinking about working in. The basic idea is pretty straightforward: wouldn't it be nice if we could build a system out of biological parts [ie cells, biomolecules and their reaction networks] in the same way that we can currently build electronic systems out of silicon chips ? The implementation of that idea, on the other hand, isn't -- we don't understand biological systems nearly as well as we understand the physics of transistors, there's lots of cross-talk between the chemical reactions going on in a cell, we don't know all the reactions going on in the cell, or even what molecules are participating in them, biological systems are probabilistic ... the list goes on. And, the kicker, something that you don't have to deal with at all in electronics or software is -- even if you build a system that actually works in a cell, it evolves. Somewhere along the way, during cell division, a mutation is going to occur that totally wipes out your carefully engineered mechanism, whether you like it or not. How do you build a system that can deal with random mutations like that ?

The current state of the art is basically people building one-off systems, with results that may or may not be transferable to other systems. What Drew Endy and other people like Tom Knight [somebody else whose lab I'm interested in working in] are working on is a "platform" for engineering biological systems, with interchangeable parts with known input/output characteristics that can be combined to build novel systems out of these "off-the-shelf" parts.

One of the things that I always liked about programming was "building stuff that does stuff", and so the notion of tinkering with such fundamental, very malleable blocks and building a broad platform for this sort of biology-based engineering is very exciting to me. Luckily my program gives me the chance to do 3 short "rotations" in different labs before I pick an advisor, so I'll have a chance to try this on for size before actually committing a few years of my life to it.

[For anybody interested in reading more about this, Science News, the EE Times, the Lawrence Berkeley labs and Scientific American all have stories on this.]

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Christina's birthday and more Boston discoveries

Today is Christina's birthday. Due to the hectic nature of the last few weeks, it kind of snuck up on me, so I had to scramble a bit to get all the necessary bits in place -- a present for her, "itinerary" for the day etc, but it all worked out in the end. I'd say it actually worked out better than her past 2 birthdays, which, for various reasons, ran into certain, uhm, complications.

Disovery of the day: Haymarket. It's a big outdoor produce and fruit market with insanely low prices: 6 apples for $1, 14 plums for $1, a big box of strawberries for $1 ... you get the idea. That's a good 2-3 times cheaper than any supermarket I've ever been in. And Haymarket is really easy to get to via public transportation from our place so we're definitely going to be shopping there for fruits and produce.

We also walked around Boston's North End a bit, which is the Italian section but also has some parts of the Freedom Trail ["300 years of history in 2 miles", or something like that] like the Paul Revere House. The Paul Revere house [which we didn't actually go into] led to me revealing just how little US history I know -- the conversation went something like:

Me: "Who was Paul Revere again ?"
C: "He was the guy that told the colonists the British were coming to kick their ass"
Me: "Why were the British coming, because the colonists had declared their independence ?"
C: "No, because the colonists were refusing to pay their taxes"
Me: "What taxes ?"
... and so on in that vein.

There was also a guy trying to make money by playing what was supposed to be Italian music on an accordion; the only problem was that he basically played the same 3-4 chords over and over again [I think those chords were from the bit in "The Godfather" where Michael Corleone has fled to Sicily and is walking through the fields with his 2 bodyguards, just before he meets the young girl he marries there], so it wasn't much of a musical performance. He was playing those chords when we walked past him into the North End and was still playing them when we walked back out, 30 minutes later. I wonder how he manages to keep from going crazy; maybe the same way that people who do repetitive assembly-line work keep themselves sane [though I'm not sure what that is].

just fyi

Turned on ability for anybody to comment on my posts.

Friday, August 06, 2004

MIT's hack corridor and the rediscovery of libraries

Christina and I had lunch today with the chair of my PhD program, Bruce Tidor. We went to meet him at his office in the newly-completed Stata Center, which is the new home of MIT's computer science program as well as a couple of other programs. It's definitely a cool building [Wired devoted an entire article to it], but it does look like it has a lot of wasted space that could have gone towards more labs and offices. On the flip side, it's much better than the previous home of the CS department, which can only be described as "Nuclear fallout shelter-chic" -- a squat rectangular building, with really tight corridors with low ceilings, really old carpeting and just plain "bunkerish". Gave me the creeps when I first visited it.

Afterwards, while wandering through one of the other buildings, we discovered a whole corridor devoted to pictures of MIT 'hacks", like the time they put an entire police car on top of one of their buildings, rearranged all the chairs in a lecture room to face backwards [despite the chairs being bolted to the floor and each other], an altered street sign reading "MIT monster eats Boston/BackBay" etc. We'll take some pictures and post them. What I thought was cool about it was that it's a tradition that is clearly embraced by the institution if they're willing to officially chronicle it. Christina was also amazed by all the doors with signs saying "Radioactive Material", "Biohazard" etc of various labs; as she put it, she felt like she should be running around in a hazmat suit, yelling and screaming something about the end of the world ...

We also went to the Boston Public Library, which is a very cool library -- tons of cool, old architecture, an inner courtyard with a fountain and benches around it etc. Again, pictures will be forthcoming. Between the Boston Public Library, the MIT libraries and the access I'll have to Harvard libraries, I'm rediscovering the joys of a well-stocked library -- "ah, I don't have to buy the book anymore, I can just borrow it and then return it when I'm done, instead of having to spend both money and bookshelf space on it -- what an ingenious concept !".

The Puritanical Force is Strong With This One

Boston has some weird alcohol laws. A few we've discovered so far are:

- If a store has several locations, a maximum of two of them are allowed to sell alcohol
- A restaurant with an outdoor seating area may only serve alcohol in the outdoor seating area if there is some sort of a "fence" separating the seating area from the sidewalk
- If you order a bottle of wine in a restaurant, you have to drink it all -- you can't cork it and take it along with you. [This is a Cambridge law, not sure whether it applies to all of Boston].

Very, very strange.

A new beginning...

The Setup

After close to 7 years at Microsoft, I thought it was time to go do something rather different. I'd been interested in biology/biotechnology for a while, so I ended up deciding to go back to school for a PhD in computational biology/bioinformatics. I got accepted into MIT's program in Computational and Systems Biology [http://csbi.mit.edu] and so Christina and I moved to Boston. The premise of this blog is to chronicle the transition from a 'Softie to being a grad student, how Christina and I settle into building a new life out here and other stuff of that ilk [ie whatever the hell I want to write about].

Pre-Move

Three things are certain in life: death, taxes and that moving sucks.
We've spent the last 2-3 weeks really experiencing that last bit about moving. In keeping with the, ahem, change in living circumstances [aka being broke], we went with the cheapest moving company we could find: ABF U-Pack. The gist of their service is pretty simple: they come drop off a 28-foot container in front of your old house, you pile all your stuff into it, they pick it up, put commercial freight into whatever space is left over in the container, drive it across the country, drop it off in front of your new house, you un-pile all the stuff, end of story. You're charged by how much space in linear feet you take up in the trailer, and at $200/foot, that gives you plenty of incentive to pile stuff as high as you can. What made that part suck was trying to pack everything we had into boxes and continuously finding more stuff that needed to be packed, leading to lots of exchanges like "Why are you packing item X ? You never use it" "Oh yeah, well, you packed item Y, and you never use that, so I get to pack item X"…

We spent a happy day, aided enormously by Christina's dad, packing the container and ended up cramming everything into 14 linear feet, which of course was more than the 10 feet they'd estimated [moving companies are kind of like software developers: they give you lowball estimates that need to be inflated by a fudge factor to get close to reality …]. After packing everything into the container and sending it off, we spent the next week and a half doing what I thought was equivalent to camping indoors – no furniture in the house, very few clothes, using plastic dishes etc. Now that I think about it more, though, it wasn't really much like camping at all – we had running water, indoor
plumbing, DirecTV, high-speed wireless internet access and a fridge. I don't think camping is much like that [as far as I know – I've never actually been camping …]. These last few days were stressful because, now that most of our stuff was gone, we had to do a bunch of "small" work items to get our place ready for our renters – painting, cleaning, taking things to the dump, finding more things that needed to get packed and shipped etc … it's always the last 20% that end up causing 80% of the stress, another similarity between moving and software development.

Two days before our departure we had a little farewell get-together for our friends at The Garage, a pool hall in Seattle, which was a lot of fun [and shame on all of you that said you'd be there but didn't make it ;-)]. Seeing so many of my friends all in one place made me realize that Seattle is basically "home" to me now, one that I'd like to return to. And the day before we left, Christina's parents organized a farewell BBQ at their friend's house over on Bainbridge Island, which was also cool – one of the highlights, for me at least, was going kayaking a bit [the house is right on Puget Sound] just before sunset, and getting a great view of the Olympics. Definitely a "Pacific Northwest" kind of moment.

The trip

I was a little stressed out about how the flight to Boston would go because not only did we have lots of luggage [close to 200 pounds, all told] but we also had to take our two cats along, as carry-on. When we've put them in moving vehicles [ie cars] in the past, they've been pretty upset about it and loudly commented on that fact by meowing incessantly. And not just the usual "Hey, I'm a cat, I'm miaowing" sort of miaow, but rather miaows of the "Long, low and mournful, as if my soul is being slowly sucked out of me through my tail" type. So, I was worried that we were in for six hours of this on a crowded plane. Another factor that had me worried was that we needed to take them out of their carriers in order to go through the X-ray machine at the airport, so I had visions of trying to hold on to a struggling cat while trying to not set off any metal detectors and in general avoid annoying the oh-so-friendly airport security people. And for those of you who have ever tried to hold a cat that doesn't want to be held, you know that 10 pounds of usually placid kitty can quickly become 10 pounds of scratching, clawing, twisting, mad-as-all-get-out hell cat. A little
bit of mad in a cat goes a long way …

To avoid precisely this sort of situation, Christina had spent some time looking into cat tranquilizers and we actually ended up getting some pills that were supposed to calm them down. The only problem was that these pills were large enough to give a horse a bit of pause if it tried to swallow them without water. We tried the usual tricks [ie mixing them into their food etc], but none of that worked – they just turned up their discerning, although slightly smushed, noses and walked right away from it. On the day before we were supposed to leave, Christina ran across some spray that was supposed to be based on cat pheromones and to help calm them, so we liberally doused their
carriers in that and hoped for the best.

As it turned out, the cats were actually not a problem, but I don't know whether that was because of the spray or because by the time we got on the plane, they were just plain too tired and scared in general to really kick up much of a fuss – their trauma started the day before because we put them into their carriers to take them on the ferry over to Christina's parents, confined them to a single room in Christina's parents house the night before we left, didn't feed them [to avoid unfortunate "accidents" while on the plane], woke up at 4 am in the morning to be able to take the 5:20 am ferry, put them in harnesses, put them back in their carriers, carried them through a crowded, noisy airport for a couple of hours and finally stuffed them underneath a seat for 8 hours. In other words, short of electrocuting them and setting them on fire, we'd done just about everything to them that would induce abject terror. If somebody had done the equivalent to me,
I think I would have done just what the cats seemed to do – surrender themselves to their fate and just sit in their carrier without making a peep. I do wonder whether we're in for some payback, though – when I tried petting them a bit while they were in their carriers on the plane, they seemed to make a point of turning their back on me, as if to say "You may have the upper hand now, but payback is going to be a bitch …"

Some other random observations on traveling with cats: I think it is utter bullshit that American Airlines charges $80/cat, for no apparent reason. They don't take up any extra space, the airline doesn't feed them … are we paying for the air they breathe ? That particular surcharge seems like a "Because we can, that's why" charge. Rat bastards.

Oh, and if you have an overheight [ie above 6'6"] vehicle, SeaTac is not a friendly airport. We found this out by dint of trying to find parking for Christina's parents VW Vanagon – the signs for overheight vehicle parking are extremely difficult to find, disappear after leading you about half a mile away from the airport and then when you finally find the parking spaces, they are really far from the terminal and there are no elevators or escalators to the terminal, just stairs.

The new place

We finally got to our new place around 6 pm on August 1st. Thankfully, we still like it, after picking it after only being in it for 15 minutes, 2 months ago =) . After a few hours of actually living here,
though, it's clear that there are a few things that need to be fixed, like - the fact that there are no outlets in either the living room or the bathroom [ok, so it's an old building, but, c'mon – no outlets in a living room ?]. There's a general paucity of outlets in all the rooms.
- our bathroom sink: not only is the enamel chipped and showing the rusting metal underneath, but it actually is so old that it has separate hot and cold water faucets, so the only way to get a mixture
of a specific temperature is to basically put the stopper in and fill it with a mixture of hot and cold water. "Mix to taste", indeed.
- Calling the amount of water coming out of our kitchen faucet a dribble [when it's fully turned on] is being charitable. The weird thing is that the "sprayer hose" in the same sink [I have no idea what
you call the extensible little hose that is part of kitchen sinks, sometimes part of the faucet, sometimes not, so I'll just call it the "sprayer hose"] spews out water like a fire hose. Maybe I'll spend some time rooting around underneath the sink to try to figure that one out [since I'm such a master handyman … not].

Also, the previous tenants were quite possibly Wookies ie very tall and hairy. How do I know this ? Elementary, my dear Watson: spurred by the slow drainage, Christina did a bit of "excavating" and pulled what must have been close to a pound of hair out of the sink and bathtub. Truly nasty. There are also hangers in the closets that seem to be intended for people well over 8 feet tall. Now, who or what is tall and hairy ? Answer: Chewbacca and other Wookies. QED.

I'm sure as time goes on, we'll find more things we need to fix, but overall, it's still a cool place.

Getting our stuff

Our stuff arrived a couple of days after we got here. The tricky bit about actually getting it into our apartment was that Boston doesn't allow parking a 28-foot container in a public street for 24+ hours
[which is what happened when they picked up our stuff in Seattle] – when I called the relevant city department's office, the lady I talked to actually laughed at me when I said that I wanted to do that. So we had to do what's called a "live unload", where you basically get 1 hour to unload all your stuff while the driver waits with the truck; every 15 minutes over the hour costs you $28. Again, lots of incentive to move pretty damn quickly and limit the financial downside. I figured all this out a few weeks before we moved, so I hired 3 folks to help us move, which turned out to be a godsend.

The container actually arrived at the beginning of the 2-hour block they'd given me, even before the people I'd hired showed up. However, there were a couple "minor" glitches – there was nowhere for the truck driver to park, and there was no ramp in the container [which is about 4 feet off the ground] to use while unloading [despite the fact that I'd talked to the folks several times to make sure that a ramp was supplied]. So the truck driver had to double-park his 40-foot rig in a
relatively busy public street while we scrambled to get everything off the truck in an hour, without a ramp. We actually made it in 45 minutes – I've never lifted that much stuff that quickly in my entire
life, and I sincerely hope that I never have to do so again. After we'd gotten everything off, we had to move it all up to our 3rd-floor apartment, with no elevator, and stairs that went up at about 60-70 degrees, in 90-degree heat and high humidity. Talk about a fun job …

After more huffing and puffing, we got that done too; total time elapsed from when the truck pulled up till all the stuff was in our apartment: 2 hours. That's gotta be some sort of record  Couple of funny incidents: apparently, the folks who were helping with the move were rather upset at the number of books we had and kept asking Christina whether we were setting up a library; one of them also hit on her, though this last bit was complicated somewhat by the fact that he was about 2 inches shorter than her and his idea of a pick-up line was "mujeres beaauuutiful".

Other random observations:
- our cats are beginning to have a hunted [and haunted] look about them, as their world keeps changing every day, with random people stomping through the apartment, loud noises, continuously being locked in a room etc. It must be a bit like being in an M. Night Shyamalan movie. I think if we keep this up a few more days, they're going to simply have a heart attack and fall over. Must minimize stress on the poor little critters.
- There's a street in downtown Boston, right outside some pretty ritzy apartments and a fancy gym, that seems to be populated mostly by heroin addicts. We walked by as one woman was shooting up in broad daylight. I didn't know that they were heroin addicts specifically, as opposed to general addicts, until Christina informed that you could always tell heroin addicts because they were so calm. I guess if you're going to have a street full of junkies, you might as well have the calm type …
- Boston is hot and muggy. Very hot, very muggy, very blech.
- Our stove is, uhm, interesting. It's ancient … it's so old, I think my grandmother would have called it an "artifact from many generations ago" … it has a huge pipe going up to what is presumably a chimney, an oven, a toaster, a broiler and a warming pan, as well as 4 gas burners [2 of which are mysteriously off-center from the holes in the grate, still haven't figured that one out]. Lighting it is pretty much impossible to do with a match unless you really like singed fingers, and the pilot light is an exposed flame. I'm already not really comfortable with the idea of a pilot light ie an always-on flame, in my apartment, so when you couple that with the fact that this one is exposed and we seem to have zero smoke detectors in the apartment, you get what seems like a recipe for disaster. Old is cool and all, but there's a limit to how authentic I want to get. [In the meantime, I've been informed that the stove is "cool" and a "collector's item", qualities which apparently redeem it. I'm just a barbarian, I guess]
- We got our landlord to paint our bathroom sink [see above], which also led to a funny incident. He apparently has a standard guy that he hires to do this sort of stuff, so he brought him along and then left him here while he went to buy paint. It took ages for him to come back, and in the meantime the paint guy had to heed the call of nature, so he basically made himself at home, without even asking – copped a squat in our bathroom, with a newspaper, no less. We found this out when we wanted to use the bathroom and the door was locked and we heard him frantically flushing and scrubbing the toilet when we knocked. I guess when you gotta go, you gotta go …

So, we're here, we have all our stuff, now we can really start settling in.