Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Portion Sizes. Or, how what we learn from our parents follows us for a looooong time...

Every night, my father walks to the laundry room, opens the freezer, and grabs a pail of ice cream (Kemps, of course). He pours chocolate sauce or maple syrup into a bowl, and puts it in the microwave. Granted, this was after I scolded him solidly for days about microwaving things in plastic containers - his response was, "Well, if the asbestos didn't kill me, I sure don't think a little plastic will." But he acquiesced, and now that he has a warm bowl, he starts scooping. Eight scoops of ice cream. It nearly spills over the top of the bowl, although not as much as it used to since we now have larger bowls. He settles in his leather chair and digs in.

This happens every night. And this sort of habit is why I have such a horrendous problem with portion sizes. I had no idea that this was far more ice cream than you should ever consume until college. I kid you not. I'm not trying to place blame here...but it is a reality that children will notice what parents do and mimic these habits.

Today I discovered a website that shows 300 calorie portion sizes as they really are ---

It's amazing what browsing through these pictures will do for your sense of awareness of the size of things. They include the dollar bill and credit card to provide a sense of scale, something really important to think about when you are learning to control portion sizes.

Slightly unrelated but still relevant are the differences between the costs of these different servings. And we wonder why there is such a correlation between poverty and obesity?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Champagne and Sushi Tasting

The night before the epic journey home to Minnesota was spent with Scott in Waltham for a dinner out at the behest of my grandmother: we chose a sushi and champagne tasting, something we definitely could not have afforded otherwise. Luckily, there is a bus that started about two blocks from my apartment and went straight to the tasting. Unluckily, it was late. And cold outside. So, I called the person in charge and let them know we would be late, and she promised to save us two seats. When we finally arrived, two of the five courses had already been served, and there was only one remaining place. Slightly peeved (on the basis of the effort it took to get to this place as well as the cost of the meal for each of us, which, while not astronomical, was certainly enough to object to missing the food). The hostess, slightly annoyed at our sudden presence, fixed us two seats, and after consulting with management, agreed to give us each a complimentary bottle of champagne. The menu for the evening was astonishingly good: portions were, in my opinion, not large enough for the amount of alcohol consumed, but still delicious. The eel was amazing: succulent, if you will. There really is no words for how delicious the food tasted. (note: sorry for the lack of pictures -- the foodie in me just wanted to stop the clock and take beautiful pictures, but it was a bit too formal for me to bring out my camera)


Grilled blue point oysters with green onion vinaigrette
Paul Cheneau Reserve Cava Brut Blanc de Blanc

Hamachi sashimi with spiced strawberry cinegar
Lucien Albrecht Cremant d'Alsace Brut Rosé

Braised stuff daikon (shrimp) with Japanese mushrooms and creamy miso dressing
Lucien Albrect Blanc de Blancs

Sake glazed salmon with green peppercorn-grapefruit vinaigrette
Nicolas Feuillatte Rosé Brut

Broiled eel with apple, pear, and sansho pepper
Nicolas Feuillatte Blue Label

After some deliberation, we decided on the Blue Label and the Cava, together worth about $65 at their prices (I got kind of sad looking at the online prices being much cheaper...but that's Boston for you!)

The gentleman who presented the wines was quite nice as well, and not pretentious in the face of how little we knew about champagne (we were easily the youngest people in the room by about 5-10 years). Also, instead of drinking from champagne flutes, we drank from white wine glasses, apparently because it's easier to taste the flavors, and as you are drinking the champagne immediately, you don't need the same bubble conservation that the flute provides. He also laughed at my use of tin foil to preserve bubbles in unfinished bottles of champagne.

All in all - it was quite a lovely night, and maybe something we'll do again. But for now, we'll be enjoying our two bottles of champagne...

Adventure #1 of Winter 2008 - getting home.

I’m sitting in the terminal in Boston, feeling very nostalgic for this past spring full of grad school visits and so much time in airports. Terminal E at Logan is actually much more chill than others, yet I’d rather be downtown Boston, or at home, or in Cambridge. Because of a winter storm both here and in Minnesota, we’ll see if I make it back tonight.

edit: Nope. But keep reading...

I suppose the other part of this story is that I stayed up all night keeping a certain someone entertained and full of apple cider and brie while he was finishing his final exam for discrete math (something with euler circuits and cacti. Nothing I truly understand…). Anyway, his flight out of Logan was at 9 am, so I have been at the airport since about 8 am – I’m glad I am decked out with banana chips, cheerios, fruit leather, hard-boiled eggs, and chocolate chips. Although, it is quite odd to have nothing to do (no schoolwork, that is). Thus, I vacillate between reading old random papers and organizing folders and old documents on my computer (hello report on oysters from age 11) or drifting off in an uncomfortable sleep listening to rather awful holiday music.

Then, in my semi-asleep stupor, I spied a gentleman named Alex in a spiffy winter coat and scarf. Alex is currently a student at Carleton studying biochemistry and theater, and I met him a few summers ago when I worked as a musician in the pit orchestra for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

He had talked to me earlier about spending some time in Boston this December, but then it came to pass that I would be leaving and he would be arriving on the same day…oops. I called out his name, and he positively jumped out of his shoes. And then we ate at the Wok and Roll (no joke) and talked for awhile as my plane was pushed back even later into the night.

Weather picture one (around 12:30 pm Friday afternoon)

So, I went back to the gate and waited for my 1:25 pm departure time...and the plane was indeterminately delayed. Bad weather in Michigan had stopped our plane from arriving at the gate. However --- hallelujah --- the plane arrived at 5:30 pm. Okay - this is progress. We boarded at 6:15, and got ready to go, the pilots and flight attendants being super generous and staying past their time to get us home. And two hours later, after problems finding a crew to de-ice our plane, the pilots announced that the airport had been shut down. And so...back off the plane.

Weather picture 2 (around 8:30 pm Friday night):

After half an hour waiting in line to get my plane rebooked (and running down my cell phone battery calling the hotline), they announced that the plane was not canceled but rescheduled for the next day at 11:30 am. Good thing, too, because the people that finally got through on the hotline were aggravatingly shouting, "What?! There are no openings until December 23rd? That is absolutely unacceptable!" Our luggage finally returned on the carousel (well, most people's luggage...mine was MIA and there was no one out there to look for it, so I got myself a toothbrush from the luggage office and tried to find food that wasn't Dunkin' Donuts). I had to go over to Terminal C, walk through all of the weird office-y corridors, until wandering enough to find a food court. That closed at 8 pm. Sweet. Okay, so onto the next plan...a bar! I really just needed food, and given my four hard-boiled eggs and cereal menu for the day, I just wanted some vegetables. And boy did they oblige...with rubbery eggplant, nasty tomato, slice of mozzerela, all wrapped ever-so-sweetly on a butter-toasted hot dog bun. Beautiful.

I slugged my way back to the terminal, paid $8 for internet, and spent some time reading emails and catching up...actually, mostly trying to stay awake. At this point I had been up about 40 hours, and I was really dragging. After the airport finally quieted down (two international flights kept things hopping until 2 am), I slept awkwardly on those benches with armrests. Let me tell you --- sleeping to nonstop blaring Christmas music is not my cup of tea, that's for sure. I got up at 5 am, wandered around, and finally talked to the luggage people. Apparently my bag had gotten on the 11 am flight the day before - I certainly wish I had gotten on that flight...I got checked in, went through security, and made my way back to the gate.

The next day: weather picture 3:

The plane was on time, but then it was delayed...again, and again. We had a plane this time, but first no pilots...and then by the time we had pilots and were loaded and ready...the storms were so bad in Minnesota we couldn't take off. Finally, at 5 pm, we took off for Minneapolis, and I arrived in one piece at 7:10 pm central time. Phew. My other bag was just fine, and after waiting outside in the bitter cold, my dad picked me up from the airport and I was home to the snow and loveliness of Minnesota. Woo-hoo!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Semester 1: a retrospective

And now, for your reading pleasure, some thoughts from this semester (randomized, of a stochastic process induced by SNOW!! and to think it was 60 degrees yesterday...welcome to Boston, I suppose!)

-my new lotion, the olive and aloe ultra moisturizer for sensitive skin from Kiss My Face, makes me smell like bread dipped in olive oil for the first few minutes after I put it on...and I love it!

-despite all indications, the absolute value of my learning in 420 was immense (this is the kinetics/programming/math class). I am really proud of myself. I worked my butt off. And I have never quite had the cards stacked against me like that. Now, granted, this doesn't mean that I passed the course (frankly, I probably shouldn't), but regardless...I did something that I didn't think I could do. Also, props to all of the other BE students who helped me know who you are. Thank you.

-I had a dream once where I was running my own TV show on new science developments - the equivalent of Jon Stewart, science edition. Can I do this for a job? Please?

-biochemistry = da bomb. Mitochondrial pathology, metabolomics of cancer..this stuff is cool.

-watching TED talks while I eat breakfast makes me SOOO excited about the world.

-the concoction of yogurt and brownie mix is delicious

-one of the upsides in living in an apartment is that, even without turning the heat on, my room is always toasty. This is first time in years I have not had to wear two pairs of socks when going to bed, and you can bet I'm excited...

- I really really really want to be able to ice skate in my backyard when I get back - but I understand that this may not happen.

-I love making some dumb biology joke or reference during class and everyone getting it and thinking I'm hilarious. This never happens outside of class, but I'm not giving up hope.

-oral finals are really interesting. You feel like you can never prepare enough, for you have no idea what the questions could cover.

-the worst part about being sick for me is not being able to work out in combination with not being able to think, sleep, or do really anything else.

-I will be taking a two hour introductory class to Alexander Technique this January, and I am so pumped. I need help with relaxing while playing French horn, and this might be just what I need!

-I miss having a tree to decorate. A lot.

-I saw a special on re-discovering the Alexandria of Cleopatra on National Geographic while I was working out tonight, and I was reminded of my fourth grad book report in which I dressed up as Cleopatra and brought a rubber snake to school in a bowl and talked about why I killed myself (and then killed myself by sticking the snake at my throat and falling on a pillow). I cannot believe my mother let me leave the house to be a morose and dramatic Egyptian queen for a project. Actually, I'm pretty impressed in my persuasional skills. Or something like that.

-I could sit and watch glass-blowing for hours. And I would still be just as entranced as when I started.

-I want to be Ms. Frizzle one day. Actually, I want to be Ms. Frizzle + Bill Nye + Michael Pollan + Olivia Judson. All at once.

-I am excited for next semester. Life is going to be great.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Article from "Nature"

I read the following story in Nature today. I give full credit to the author, but as many of you would not be able to access Nature online, it is repeated below instead of linked.

"A long and happy life?"

The suicide note itself wasn't particularly remarkable.

Handwritten, of course. Even the oldest computers would have detected the quiver in the voice, or parsed the strained phraseology, and automatically alerted the authorities. The blue ink scratched its way across the paper, as if hard pressed to recall the individual shapes of letters. At one point the nib had pierced the white sheet. Few people wrote regularly with pens. It was still taught at school, but the odd love letter or shopping list was as far as most people got. And suicide notes, of course. This was no different; the writing was that of the very old, or the very young.

In a way the hand was old, the oldest that had still lived. But just as the sunrise is as old as time and new each dawn, so this hand was new: three months and twelve days, according to the factory's records.

Even the words, the symbols of the man's thoughts, were not worthy of note. They would have won no literary prize; inspired no doomed, romantic quest; enquickened no tired and demoralized army. The very human story was the usual one: of love, of ennui and, ultimately, of heartbreak.

No one, least of all himself, remembered quite when or how he had lost his first hand, more than 300 years ago. The accident was recorded, but if the loose-leaf binder still existed, the cheap ink was long faded into obscurity. Sometimes he claimed it was an explosion in a fume hood; at other times a gas cylinder had fallen from its moorings and crushed him.

What his memory was clear on, and what was attested to in the medical literature, was that he had attached ('single-handedly, haha!' he would joke) an artificial limb to the remains of his own arm. Not a simple prosthetic, but a fully functioning organ of composite fibre, ceramic joints and golden threads carrying two-way nervous traffic. The body's own electrical impulses provided power to the tiny servos that drove the slender titanium flexors and extensors.

No accident, the second prototype: it was tested and retested, planned months in advance. His wife directed the operation, and when he woke, his right arm to the shoulder was fully robotic. A fortnight later, while he was still delirious from antibiotics and analgesic, she was killed by a drunk-driver.

The record shows that he opened a new lab with venture capital, employed three dozen scientists and disappeared into his research. The exclusive clinic followed: he himself was its first patient, walking out on legs of alloyed titanium — and straight back into the lab.

Half a dozen more clinics started up across the nation, opening their doors to anyone whose medical insurance would pay the fees. For ten years the company replaced natural limbs with artificial constructs that were functionally equivalent to the original. More than equivalent: these never wore out, never got cancer, never got tired, never felt weak or cold.

For ten years the clinics operated and the lab researched. No papers were published, no patents applied for, and investors grew nervous. Interest waned. Two clinics closed; a third of the research staff was laid off. Rumours circulated, created by and lost in the noise of the Internet. It was another three years later when, finally, a press conference was called on the lawn of the first clinic, the handful of journalists who bothered to turn up were turned away — — and were called back, to face a man who under crepusculine clouds glistened.

The patents and the papers followed on the morrow: the artificial blood, the fuel cells, the intricate and minuscule fibres and vessels and motors: in short, a body wonderfully and fearfully man-made.

Only his face appeared natural, and over the following years even that was slowly replaced. Having no need of food, depending solely on a defined and especially formulated medium, protected by filters and powered by the elements, no toxins could threaten him. With hard, durable alloys and man-made composites in place of bones and tissues, redundant systems and every organ replaceable, he was all but indestructible.

Alzheimer's had been cured by the time he reached 105, and the last bastion of mortality — the uncontrolled cell division leading to legion neoplasms — tamed a few years after that. And then he was a living brain in a metal and plastic shell, talking, walking and living: never fatigued, immune to all disease, the Tree of Life incarnate.

For 200 years he lived like this, never needing to eat: a weekly cocktail of nutrients and pharmaceuticals keeping the one, irreplaceable fleshly and uniquely human organ alive.

When the end came it was without fanfare or press conference. No papers were written, no patent lawyers notified. With the finest of Torx drivers he opened an access panel, removed a wire, took out a power cell, held it — his life in his own hands.

The suicide note of the world's first immortal ended simply enough:

I cannot live without her.

-rpg (nom de plume of a molecular cell biologist and hopeless romantic at the University of Sydney)

Nature 456, 836 (11 December 2008) | doi:10.1038/456836a; Published online 10 December 2008


Monday, December 1, 2008

Wedding Gifts + Holdiay Consumerism

I know this may sound like an awfully awkward title for a blog post...but stick with me. My friend M posted a few days ago about wanting gifts that really meant something during this holiday season - something that would useful, or meaningful. And many times, this is something personalized, or something that is an "event" that you do together. For instance, my gift to my brothers this year are shirts that I buy online. They wear shirts. Ergo, useful.

Then, yesterday I came across this posting in Apartment Therapy Los Angeles (which has a long convoluted name for a blog that is basically a home design blog all about improving your surroundings - lots of pretty pictures, lots of interesting ideas, and it's especially good to give you a sense of what is possible in any given living space). It lists some ideas for wedding gifts which the couple will be able to actually use that are particularly amenable to my age bracket...we want to give something that the couple will like, but all we can afford on the registry is napkins.

Weddings are hard - registries are almost a necessary "evil" these days, and people assume that yes, you're going to need something, or celebrating starting a life together requires the gift of a blender or these steak knives or these very specific tablecloths. I think there has got to be a better way.

My first roommate this year, Elaine, and I talked about weddings for almost two hours, and one of the things she described was the nature of gift-giving in China. According to her, it would be completely unacceptable to give one of your cousins less than $2000 for a marriage gift. And if I was very close to said cousin, the gift should be closer to $3000. If you cannot afford that kind of gift, you do not attend the wedding and reception. Period. Elaine said that some young adults her age go into debt because they can't afford to attend all of their friend's weddings.

This shocks me. I cannot understand why in the world celebrating marriage became so dependent on money and consumerism. It distresses me, I guess, that some people give more thought to the gifts they will receive rather than celebrating something so special and full of love.

And this goes for all holidays as well: if you are, for example, an uncle/aunt, the best gift you could give would be of your time. Instead of toys, give your niece/nephew an entire day, just between you and them. (bonus gift for the parents as well). I can't tell you how much more I remember and appreciate a tradition with my aunt to go downtown and look at the Dayton's holiday exhibit compared to a Target gift card.

Anyway, what follows is a list of some ideas for newlyweds (many are also applicable to your friends for other times of the year and not just wedding-exclusive). And I understand that things break down for different couples and the relationship you may have with them: - gifts are not one size fits all. You know your friends - their likes and dislikes, and what they would most appreciate. People are different, and not everyone will appreciate the same thing.

-give them the gift of flowers - give them a gift certificate for flowers in their new home.

-become "part of the wedding" --- make the cake, do the flower arrangements, play music for the ceremony, make some sort of dessert, fold napkins artfully, make name plates on the tables, etc...everyone has some sort of skill that can be utilized in the whole beginning to finish project that is a wedding.

-if they are moving to a new city and don't know anyone who lives there (but you do), give them a map of said city and do some research on restaurants, places to see a concert, etc... so they can start feeling at home in their new city.

-if they love pets but won't be able to keep a pet in their apartment, make a donation to the Humane Society in their name.

-breakfast in bed/tea tray - completely indulgent, but can be really fun. You can find these at home stores like Marshalls for a decent price, or thrift stores (these can be refinished or repainted as well, if you're crafty)

-if you are giving a gift as a couple and live nearby, give the gift of "sitting at home watching the game with the boys" and "going out shopping with the girls" - obviously, this would be tailored to the couple in question. Bring snacks and watch a movie with one, or bring ingredients to make cookies, or go out for drinks with the other, etc...make it a gift of time to spend with the other person.

-give them a tree (rainforest, taiga, park-related - there are lots of online sites to donate flora and fauna). There is also a fun family tradition to begin which involves planting a tree whenever a child is born so you can watch the child grow with the tree.

-my mother clued me in to the idea of buying decorative plates (with snowmen, santas, etc...) and some ornaments or cookie cutters as something that they can share for their first holiday season in their new home. This isn't something "essential," true...but it is something that will be used if it is there. You can also put a greeting on the bottom of the tray with permanent marker, something to the tune of "Congratulations X and X! --Your name, 2008"

-surf the site - it has lots of homemade and beautiful gifts that are often inexpensive. Also, you can go in together on gifts..if there is a group of you (say, for example, you were close to three other people on your high school soccer team) -- you can come up with a gift together.

-my aunt frequently makes quilts (not for the novice sewer, to be sure, but if you can -- it's a gift that will be used)

-plants (if they like plants -- given the harried nature of most weddings, you may want to just give a card and say you'd like to buy them a plant for their new home, and in their first month or so, make a date to go and pick out a plant (and have coffee or something similar - it's a good way to catch up on their lives as well)

-get together with a bunch of college and/or high school friends and put together an album (either old-school with photos or using a program from the web) of pictures from that time in their life - artsy pictures of campus, plays, dances, football games, parties, can also personalize it and have old teachers and friends put in memories about their time at school.

-one point that the article (and many of the comments) brought up is that some people actually NEED the things on the registry, and getting anything but that is wasteful and rude, basically the cardinal sin you could do at a wedding, and you end up with lots of stuff you don't want because you decided to be more "thoughtful." I'm torn on this one: I guess buying something inexpensive from the registry and then making it more your own works best in that instance: for example, you could buy a cookie sheet and oven mitts and include some of your family's favorite cookie recipes.

-a favorite board game from high school or college

gifts for parents:

-if your parents have a lot of their photos only in "picture" form, consider digitizing them for archival purposes

-same goes for a home inventory - if you're feeling brave, consider photographing and setting up a home inventory for insurance purposes - it's one of those things that everyone knows they should do, but never get around to

-offer yourself up to do whatever they ask with no complaining for a day

-bake cookies for the holiday season - all their favorites. And then put them in the back of the freezer so they have something to snack on in January

-wake up on a snowy morning and shovel the walk/driveway

gifts for siblings: = gold. $10 a shirt - each is offered only that day, so check back frequently. Some are odd, but they're a great deal.

-do their chores

-take them to matinee movies, and make a contest to see who can smuggle in the most food