Sunday, May 30, 2010

Another Failure

Aww man, BP...

The top kill operation has failed too. Next up is another try at capping the tube, but that first requires slicing off the bent portion that is currently restricting the flow of oil. If they slice it off and fail to put the cap in place, the leak will be even worse. Considering the last 6 tries have ended in failure, I don't hold out much hope that the cap will work this time, and I think it's extremely risky to do something that could so easily increase the amount of damage done.

This should have stopped at the first try - why didn't those blowout preventer valves work? Were they never tested under realistic conditions (i.e., the equivalent of 5000 ft under the ocean surface)? That seems highly irresponsible to me.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Maker Faire 2010 (pt. 2)

Previously on The Scientist in the Yellow Hat: I went to Maker Faire 2010, and saw musical lightning, a pen full of R2-D2s, and much more!

Still within the confines of Fiesta Hall, we next ran into a life-height mechanical giraffe with funny glowing eyes, a busily chewing mouth, waggling ears, and a neck that moved up and down. These makers were also selling a (much more miniature) robotic giraffe kit. This one was a little longer than the palm of your hand, mostly plastic, yellow, and kind of cute. The cool thing was that this battery-powered figure you could build yourself could walk. Simple and sweet, it seemed a nice gift for a mechanically-inclined little girl or boy (no, I'm not being paid to advertise!). I apologize for the background sound and the unfortunate lack of waggling ears in the video, but hey, it blinks!

The Cardboard Institute of Technology had a cool tunnel in the corner. It was at least 10 ft. tall and 2-3 people wide. Well, at the beginning anyway. After passing through the cardboard city, the only way to exit was on your hands and knees, scrambling through like a kid in the McDonalds (or Chuck E. Cheese, which I prefer) playplace.

Then my mom saw these Playaflies chandeliers. They were actually made to mount on the back of a bike, but she really liked the idea and the fact that it was DIY (do it yourself). They involve nothing more than LEDs, Ping-pong balls, wires, and a little soldering ability, all of which we have or can easily acquire. Yet they certainly are pretty in the dark, especially when moving.

There was also a digital graffiti wall, to which all the kids were attracted like mosquitoes in India to my poor, defenseless body. The controller was shaped like a small can of spray paint, and you could apparently have up to 10 of them working on the wall at one, though I only glimpsed one being wielded by a child of 7 years or so.

YrWall Digital Graffiti Wall 2010 from Lumacoustics on Vimeo.

That's enough cool stuff for one post. Check back for the (perhaps not-so-)exciting conclusion tomorrow...or maybe the day after...!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Maker Faire 2010 (pt.1)

Maker Faire 2010 occurred at the San Mateo Expo Center. Now, San Mateo is a little suburb on the Peninsula, about 1/3 of the way from San Francisco to San Jose. Nothing ever happens here. Except for this. The Bay Area Maker Faire. This was the original, the first, and people still flock to it in droves despite the $25 ticket ($20 if you buy it at one of the participating local businesses - yay Whole Foods!).

We got there around 1pm, and parking was ridiculous. The city of San Mateo had set out parking enforcement officers, who very kindly gave us maps to 7 nearby parking lots where we were allowed to park mostly for free. Those maps had everything - the location of the railroad tracks, the Expo Center, the extra parking lots, the names of important streets...everything except the lines that represented the streets. Umm...what? You mean you're not going to show me one of the things I need to understand where I am on the map? It was okay for me since I knew where the K-mart was, but for anyone from out of town, it would've been a bit difficult.

At any rate, once we got inside, we started in the Fiesta Hall, where our attention was drawn to the guy in the chain mail/Faraday cage suit playing with the lightning to the music. Maybe that's not quite the right way to put it, since it was actually the lightning that was playing the music. ArcAttack's musical Tesla coil performance was...dare I say, electrifying?

We then walked around a little, looking at some battlebot type robots. One was named Ethel, and appeared in her magazine article to breath fire. Apparently, she also likes music and dancing and having a good time. Well, judging by the scandalous way she was dressed, I suppose that was not unexpected.

But I believe Ethel can hold her own if any cretins decide that the way she is dressed makes it her fault for tempting them and think that they have to succumb to their own supposedly unstoppable impulses. She's packing some firepower (which they did not demonstrate while I was there, fortunately or unfortunately).
 Pictures from the Team K.I.S.S. website - all credit goes to the builders, especially because I totally forgot to take my own photos here.

Nearby was a booth with the people who make Pixar stuff. There was a replica of the steering wheel-eye robot from Wall-E, as well as a Pixar logo, complete with real-life lamp. The cage next door held a multitude of R2-D2s. I got some pictures and videos of them, because they were ultra-cute, though sadly not real. They were being remote-controlled by their owners, who were lounging about in the R2-D2 corral.

I'm not a hardcore Star Wars fan, but I think Artoo is one of the most recognizable figures George Lucas created - and I doubt there are more than a few people who don't like cute little robots that beep and whistle and can only be understood by Luke Skywalker.

Anyways, I've hardly gotten through the first bit, so stay tuned for more posts about the Maker Faire!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

People Who Know More Than You

Okay, so the Maker Faire story is taking a while. I was only there for 5 hours or so and there was still a ton of stuff to write about, and I'm being slightly lazy.

In the meanwhile, let me fill the gap by talking about presentations, since one of those is the reason I was in Berkeley the last few days. Basically, I had to make a little presentation in lab meeting on Wednesday about what I've been doing. A little background about the project and the techniques, a quick recounting of my various failed attempts, and the display/explanation of the data from the one trial in which things did work, followed up by a short list of where to go from here.

I'm not usually nervous about presentations, but this one had me worrying a little bit. I've realized that it's quite nerve-wracking to give a presentation to people who know the subject better than you. Hell, the main paper involved was written by my PI. Who knows it better than she does?

Two days before, I was still figuring out thresholds for comparing the experimental and control data, turning my huge tables in Excel (240 rows x DW columns is no joke) into pretty graphs, and figuring out the best way to show off my awesome-looking results.
Negative control on the top left - no response. With the thing  I'm testing - huge response. Inhibiting the thing I'm testing - no response again. Woooo, the assay works!

That lasted up until the evening before the meeting. Now it was time to start on my Powerpoint.
Yeah, a little late, but I actually don't procrastinate unless I know (unconsciously) I can make the deadline without too much stress. And this is something I've been working on for a whole semester, so I've got a pretty good understanding of it. Making the outline and the Powerpoint itself didn't take long.

The thing was, though, I'd seen some of the grad students in the lab presenting at lab meetings as well (one was practicing for her quals). They got asked a lot of tough questions. When I started, it was background, and nobody asked any questions. They all knew the stuff back and forth (I did mix up an important part, but my post-doc mentor was the only who caught it, and he waited until afterward to tell me). So I thought I was off the hook.

As soon as I got to my results, though, it was like a frenzy of (rather friendly) sharks. Most of the questions I got were on my data. How did I analyze it? Did I do this particular statistical analysis? Did I compare those two things? etc. Oh man. There were plenty of things I still had to do, so I couldn't answer everything, but apparently I still did a pretty good job.

So even though I'm not usually nervous about presentations, I've got to say: Whew. I'm glad that's over. For now.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Exciting Story!!1!one!! ...Except Not Yet

I went to the Maker Faire on Sunday, and I was going to write about what I saw and post some cool pictures and videos, but I have returned to Berkeley for a couple of days, and I realized that I don't have the cable to connect my phone to my computer. For whatever reason, I took it home. Oops. I don't want to write about it without the videos, because they show the coolest thing ever.

Yet worry not, dear readers! I shall endeavor to get these videos to my computer in some other manner. And if that doesn't work, you'll have to wait until Wednesday at the earliest. Sorry!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Chomp Chomp

If you haven't been to Google's homepage today, check it out! The logo for today is commemorating the 30th anniversary of the arcade classic Pacman. It's one of those iconic games that has stood the test of time.

Guess what else? The logo art isn't just art - it's a fully functional Pacman game!

Here's a secret I accidentally discovered with the help of my mom: if you insert two coins ("Insert Coin" replaced "I'm Feeling Lucky"), you get a two-player version. Ms. Pacman is controlled with the W-A-S-D keys.

Have fun returning to your childhood (or discovering Pacman anew)!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

So Cute I Could Eat You

Mochi is yummy. I may not have tried it filled with red bean (yet), but I have had it on my frozen yogurt and surrounding small balls of ice cream.

This is what non-colored mochi looks like:

And this is a picture of a baby harp seal my friend sent me:

It looks like a giant ball of mochi! So cute!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Pale Blue Dot

This is the "Pale Blue Dot" that is our Earth as seen from the edge of the solar system:

 Picture from the NPR article linked earlier.

I only read about this today though the 20th anniversary of the photo was in February. But Carl Sagan's words still gave me chills:

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
I couldn't have put it better myself (seriously, I couldn't have). Let's listen to him, yeah?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

New Toy!!!

My dad got me a netbook! Except, I don't really get to keep it. I'm going to be using it while I'm in India this summer for the month I'll be in a remote village away from my parents doing a volunteer project (I'll tell you more about that when it gets closer).

The thing is, my normal laptop has too much weight (both physical and informational) and too little battery life to take with me. I need something I can work on when the power is out. Before we leave, though, we're going to give it to my grandparents so that they have a simple, light machine to chat with by webcam.

The Acer Aspire One in Midnight (or Onyx) Blue is such a cute little thing. If I were to buy my own, it would be white and perhaps a different brand, but it's cute nonetheless.And it's amazing when I look at the battery meter and it says "8 hr. 50 min." remaining. Woah.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Facebook Games

I've been playing this game on Facebook, and it's kind of addicting...

No, not Farmville! I'm talking about Bejeweled Blitz.

Every time you don’t beat your high score, you think, “Oh, I was so close! If I’d just moved that gem instead…”

Each game is only 1 minute, so it doesn’t feel long. You just keep clicking that innocent little “Play again” button, and it stretches out to an hour before you know it. Oops.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Little Perspective

With the Gulf oil spill, attention is being brought to the other indiscretions of oil companies. Spills happen routinely in other countries that don't have even our level of legal protection for the environment. Guess where all these countries are? In the "developing" world. Where our media fails to pay attention.
Kazakhstan, for one, had no comprehensive environmental laws until 2007, and Nigeria has suffered spills equivalent to that of the Exxon Valdez every year since 1969. (As of last year, Nigeria had 2,000 active spills.) Since the Santa Barbara spill of 1969, and the more than 40 Earth Days that have followed, Americans have increased by two-thirds the amount of petroleum we consume in our cars, while nearly quadrupling the quantity we import. Effectively, we’ve been importing oil and exporting spills to villages and waterways all over the world.
Ah yes, Nigeria. I remember seeing a film about oil in Nigeria in one of my classes. Beyond the violence and huge rich-poor disparities it causes, it leaves behind a lot of environmental problems. Oil pipelines are constantly leaky, and the people who live near them in the Niger Delta deal with a lack of clean water all the time (along with a preponderance of dead fish).

In Nigeria, the oil has been leaking for so long that it has spread everywhere. Doesn't "oil everywhere" sound like a bit of a fire hazard to you? Well, it is. How do you deal with fires springing up around your house all the time if you don't even have non-oily water to put it out with? I don't know, but to the villagers there, a leaky pipe might even be a good thing despite the fire, because it gives them a chance to tap some oil for themselves and even out the inequality a little bit.

And back to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf, I've found you a little video (you'll have to click through to the actual post if you're using a feed reader):

A Hug From Mom

You know how a hug from mom can cure pretty much anything (emotional, that is)? So can a couple of words. If you're a college student and you live away from home, give your mom a call. It's comforting and will de-stress you (unless you're having a fight with her, although I still think it would be unconsciously comforting). Plus, the more often you call, the less likely you will be to miss Mother’s Day!

Greasy Hands

It's always about oil and money. Can't corporations look past that for a minute to think about their effect on the environment around them? Corporations are made up of people, right? Those people have to live in this world same as we do. Throw off the mob mentality a little.

If you haven't heard of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, well, that's what I'm talking about. It's not even a spill, really, but a leak from the underwater oil well. This is worse, because it means that it's not just however many barrels of oil the Exxon Valdez or some other ship was carrying, but a continuous gushing of oil into the sea until the hole is plugged, which, over 3 weeks later, has still not happened. It is an ongoing spill, and it has been ongoing for 3 whole weeks. However much oil has made it to the surface of the water is barely the tip of the oil iceberg. There will be plenty of problems with things like tar balls on the sea floor, as there were in the San Francisco Bay in 2007.

It's nice that people are all ready to help out and BP is taking responsibility and all, but it would have been much better if we could have prevented this disaster in the first place. Perhaps if those extensive safety regulations that the oil companies fought so hard against had been put into place, this wouldn't have been a problem.

And damn it, water is not supposed to be black:

The effect on wildlife will be devastating.

Just, oh my god.

Pictures from's Big Picture series.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


"Needless to say" is a ridiculous, pointless expression. It is always, unfailingly, inevitably (redundantly, tautologically) followed up by an explanation of what was so needless to say. Seriously, if it's needless to say, don't say it. If you have to explain it, then it's not needless, but necessary.

You don’t have to use idioms that make no sense (“Head over heels”? Isn’t that the normal state of affairs?). Just say what you need to say.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Testing Day Again

Having about 10 black belts in a panel judging you and a bunch of other white and yellow belts in one half of the room is not so bad. Having every single black belt in the room on the panel watching you do trips of rolls and strikes across the room is much much more unnerving. Four tables worth of black belts got to watch me do not-very-good barrier rolls. I was sick all last week, so I didn't get to practice, and while I felt like I knew what I knew pretty well, I didn't get to practice it very much. I don't feel that confident after this test. I guess this is how everyone else usually feels, so I guess that's good for me, if nothing else >.<

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Rocking on the Top

After being sick for a few days, today was a relief. No fever, much much less cough, and nice weather! Well, my body probably had little to do with that last, but it did make the day a bit happier.

And yet, I was trying to rest so I won't get hit with another virus while I'm weak during finals. But lying in bed and sitting around for three days is not easy for an active person like me. So today, I decided I should continue taking my self-taught classes in dancing.

I've been trying to learn a little bboying (or bgirling, in my case) from Youtube. The fancy acrobatics are attention grabbing, but I've found myself admiring the toprock. Now that I've been exposed to so many other types of dance, I can see the swing and latin influences in here (Slide step? You mean cucaracha?). Maybe I'll get to the windmills and air flares eventually, but for now, I'm working on my basic kick step, hip twists, and shuffle step:

Once I've got the basic toprock footwork down, I can give it my own flavor. Strawberry, perhaps? Or maybe pomegranate...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My Future

I've been looking at grad schools this week. Which ones have the best neuroscience graduate programs, what do I need for their application, what's the curriculum and rotation schedule like, etc. There's some obvious ones, like UCSD, UCSF, UCLA, UC Berkeley...but I don't really know much about those outside sunny California. Except Columbia.

I really, really want to go to Columbia. What I like is that their program is very interdisciplinary, but still well established. And they have Professor Eric Kandel! He literally wrote the (8 lb.) book!

The Kandel book, as it is called, despite the presence of two other authors on the cover.

Still, there's one other thing that I've been thinking about. I was tipped off about this program last spring, when someone came into my History of India class and spoke about it. Since then, I've heard of it from multiple other sources, and done some research for myself. One of my roommates is also going to be doing it beginning next (school) year. It's called TeachForAmerica.

The program selects the best and brightest undergraduates to teach in schools in underserved areas for two years. And it's highly competitive. This year, it got some 35,000 applicants and accepted about 4,000 to train and send off into the education world. Something like 10% of the Harvard graduating class applies to this program. What are the chances I will get in?

If by some chance I do make the cut, I have to think about how I will deal with grad school. Grad school is definitely my goal - I want to do research. This is something I've been working for since high school, and it's really my dream. But I've had a charmed life. I've been extremely lucky. I want to spread some of that to kids who haven't had what I grew up with, to help make their lives better and open up all of the opportunities waiting for them in the future. This is also something I really want to do.

The ideal situation would be getting into a graduate program that will allow me to defer for two years, get that teaching experience, and then return to studying the brain. TeachForAmerica is a well-known program, and they have arrangements with many schools to allow such deferrals. Neuroscience, however, is a pretty specific field, and I haven't seen any of those on the list on the website. So it falls to me. I need to call up each of the graduate schools that ends up on my semi-final list and see which ones would allow me to take 2 years before I begin. If none of my top schools will allow it, or if I don't get in to TFA? Then I guess I'll go straight to grad school and find another way to get kids interested in learning. Don't worry, I've got a few ideas on what to do in such a situation...

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A (Kind of ) New Take On Cancer Treatment

Cancer is a difficult disease to cure. Our current systems of classification for it are based on the symptoms rather than the cause. Yet the actual causes vary so much that it is difficult to generalize treatment anyway.

In essence, cancer is a disease of sociopathic cells. These cells no longer follow the rules of the cellular environment around them - they don't care about their neighbors and they don't listen to the advice that staying low is better for society (i.e., the body) as a whole.

Hey, I write a blog, not a webcomic, okay?

Now, anthropomorphizing aside, human cells are complex little things. The problem with finding a simple cure for cancer is that each instance of cancer may involve a different set of proteins becoming disabled or overactive. Cells have redundancies and backup pathways for most of their processes, but sometimes, even the backups break down. Add to that the existing genetic variation between individuals and you have a mess more complicated than a tesseract. The best we can do is try to prevent it by living healthily.

But now we may have a new weapon in our arsenal: a cancer vaccine. It is still being studied, but I can talk about the possibilities.

It won't prevent cancer in healthy people. That would be amazing, but you would have to correctly predict what type of cancer they were about to get and give them a vaccination specific for the markers those cells would express. And how would you know if it worked? Maybe you just cured something that wasn't even going to happen in the first place.

What it can do is prevent relapses. Once somebody has been diagnosed with cancer and treated with drugs and/or chemo, adding the vaccine helps the immune system do its part in the fight in getting rid of the few remaining cells. It helps to highlight parts of the cancer cells that are not normal so that our white blood cells know that these targets can be attacked. If you can catch the micrometastases before they grow back into full-fledged tumors, you can theoretically nip the problem of relapse in the bud and be fully cancer-free.

There's a lot of possibilities here, and I hope this avenue of research proves fruitful.