28 January, 2010

Old-School Anti-Woo

I came across the following letter on BoingBoing.

Nov. 20. 1905

J. H. Todd
1212 Webster St.
San Francisco, Cal.

Dear Sir,

Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain

This was a response to an advertisement from a patent medicine salesman, apparently seeking endorsement. I hope to remember in the future to slam the proponents of alt-med woo with such grace and wit, for at the very least it is more elegantly entertaining. In the meantime, my respect for Mark Twain* has only increased.

*Sooooooo much better than Kierkegaard.

18 January, 2010

City of Loathing

I'm just a scrawny cracker, and as such I don't exactly have much gravitas when it comes to commentary on things such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But I have something to say anyway.

I grew up in an area of the country where racism is everyday and accepted. African-Americans lived on Grand Blvd., Benton Park, Boonslick, Blanchette and in East St. Louis. Koreans lived down Manchester Blvd., Serbians lived through the worse ends of Kingshighway, Italians lived on The Hill, Irish lived in Dogtown, French lived in Soulard, Jewish people lived in Tower Grove and University City while Hispanics were practically invisible. Generic white people lived anywhere they damn well pleased, but were especially adamant in Florissant, Chesterfield, Hazelwood, Maryland Heights, Forest Park, and the Central West End. Saint Louis is a city of several million people that has been standing for more than 200y, and these divisions remain, perpetuated by infrastructure and class. The neighborhoods around the dying industrial zones just west of downtown are crumbling and so are the schools within them, and this just sets the stage for a cyclic repetition of the same social injustice. Meanwhile the office towers of Clayton feed the vibrant school discticts of Forest Park and the Central West End as well as luxury shopping villas like the Galleria.

But in all of this, it was the Page Avenue Extension project that most clearly illustrated the dystopic undercurrent of casual racism in the city. This project built another bridge west across the Missouri River, providing a direct line of transit from Page Avenue, which runs from downtown St. Louis all the way through to Maryland Heights, out to suburban St. Peters now. The largely white denizens of St. Peters nearly shat themselves in consternation, and the reason I kept overhearing was that now "black people could move in" and apparently would ruin everything. This highway project shaved about 30min of driving time off of getting from St. Peters to downtown, and I found it absolutely ridiculous to suppose that 30min by car would have effectively stopped African-Americans who wanted to move in from doing so. But that's what people were nonetheless afraid of.

And what disturbed me most about the whole thing was that the same people who had problems with the highway project were those who frequently also had tactical armories in the basements of their homes. That venal and irrational hatred, coupled with such easy access to powerful firearms, never sat well with me. This is the same city that sees the homes of interracial couples defaced with defamatory graffiti and witnessed the firebombing of the only Muslim mosque in the city with nary a murmur after 9/11. With Obama being elected, I would like to believe that racism has gone away, but I'm not so naive as that. Racism persists not because powerful people wish to keep oppressed minorities explicity repressed, but rather because those that have "made it" are desperately afraid of having to share their slice of pie with a strange group they perceive as not being of themselves.

Well, I cannot morally identify with those who cower in their suburban homes with semi-automatic assault rifles and hollow-tipped bullets in their basements for fear of simple progress. I reject their fear, I reject their hatred, and I condemn them for their prideful ignorance.

I left St. Louis in 2004. It had already left me much earlier.

*I can understand hunting guns and have no problems with them, but there is a massive difference between a single-shot hunting rifle and a semi-automatic tactical assault rifle loaded with bullets designed to inflict maximal harm.

15 January, 2010

Scalpel in My Head, Wielded by Mine Own Hand

I am an imbecile.

I am also a genius.

How do I manage to operate simultaneously at both extremes of intelligence? It's not as simple as a statistical mean, but rather a wild and exhausting oscillation between them, careening from high level metacognition to struggling to tap out a single important word that I can see in my posterior inferior frontal gyrus, stubbornly not moving despite my need of it.

Simply put, I wouldn't have the slightest clue that I am intelligent if not for others around me reinforcing their perception of my intelligence upon me. This isn't to say that differences in processing speed, retention of information, or synthesis of broad principles would not have eventually become apparent to me, but they would have taken quite a while as I, and others, have found myself to be profoundly dense when it comes to the nuances of human emotional social behavior. Basically, this stems from the contrast between feeling my sentience buzz with tantalizing data and sometimes feeling remarkably stupid.

I am aware that feeling stupid or feeling smart is an entirely subjective internal experience. Furthermore, it is likely that feeling remarkably stupid is actually due to being able to perceive my mistakes and/or shortcomings in their full implications and on (perhaps too) many scales. I am not writing this to polish my own ego here, this is speculation. I have been very frequently puzzled by other peoples' behaviors, and this is not the pleasant, relaxing kind of puzzled where there is some verifiable formulation of the question to begin with*, but the kind of maddeningly unquantifiable mystery that follows no logic except self-interest.

I don't understand most people. I believe I understand a large aspect of them, but I don't understand why. I have met so many people who seem content to live in the shallow end of the pool, who have never regarded information as anything other than temporary and fleeting, and I cannot help but wonder why they are content with it. Sure, everyone becomes a philosopher on their deathbeds, but what of the rest of their time before it? I cannot relate my frame of experience to theirs. I make no claim that my mode of thought is superior. I cannot comprehend satisfaction without questioning the vast beauty and complexity of the world sparking all around me.

On the other hand, nerds and scientists are comprehensible people. They operate on the same strong currency of curiosity and wonder that I do, and as such I find them much much much more relatable than most "normal" folks. Sometimes I amuse myself by trying to view the nerd/hacker/scientist cultures of which I am a part like I am an outsider to it, and the way that we interact with one another is in many ways fundamentally different. We are scientists, nerds, or hackers because we love what we do and are deeply emotionally vested in the outcome of our clever work. We question the world around us and reinvent our relationship to our understanding thereof frequently, and that, more than anything, is what sets intelligent people aside from others.

*E.g., a jigsaw puzzle has a solution if the complete set of pieces are placed in the correct spatial sequence, or the structure of a protein may be hacked to test its function in measurable environments.

10 January, 2010

Food Hacking 1

Unfortunately these were so delicious that I forgot to take a picture and by the time I did remember they were all gone. This is a recipe for Advanced Cooking Idiots that I invented yesterday, and I hope you find it as tasty as I and my guests did.

Cinnamon Radishes

1kg radishes
1 bag cinnamon chips
3 eggs
1 glop of breadcrumbs

1) Wash radishes thoroughly.
2) Boil radishes until slightly soft. Drain and let cool.
3) Cut off top sprout of each radish and use end of a potato peeler to excavate a narrow cavity.
4) Stuff as many cinnamon chips into that cavity as will stay.
5) Roll around in beaten eggs.
6) Roll around in breadcrumbs until well-coated.
7) Fry in 4cm hot oil, turning as needed, until evenly golden-brown.
8) Remove from oil with slotted spoon, shake off excess oil.
9) Serve.

Not too complicated, but sort of laborious. These will be crunchy on the outside, and the tart starchiness of the radish will both offset and complement the sweet kick of the cinnamon melted inside. Best served with a dollop of Sour Pepper Sauce on top.

Sour Pepper Sauce*

500ml ketchup
2 fat limes
100ml soy sauce
100ml Thai pepper sauce
2g tumeric
1.5g coriander
3g ancho chili powder
2g ginger
1.5g salt
1.5g black pepper
1g cardamom

1) Stir all wet ingredients and powder together. Bring to an vituperous boil.
2) Squeeze in all juice from limes.
3) Continue stirring intermittently at a high boil until the sugars in the ketchup begin to carmelize and turn the whole sauce a ruddy brown.
4) Cover and simmer for 30min.
5) Remove from heat and refrigerate overnight.
6) Serve cold.

This will be both hot and smooth with a nose tingle. It's is highly acidic, so exercise caution and titrate with base in such a case as indigestion develops. Pepto-Bismol may be used as a base.

*Also an effective way to clear one's sinuses.

08 January, 2010

Dinosaur Scientists

HD isn't doing me any kindnesses, but I stand by my thesis: we need more dinosaurs! Or robots!!! Or robot dinosaurs. Just something more charismatic than "Scientists have discovered..." in media reports as though we're all faceless data drones. I mean, if sports teams can have mascots, why can't we have them too?

07 January, 2010

Consultant Toaster

I have decided to do some consulting on the side to bring in some extra dough. And by dough, yes, I do mean that I will accept payment in cookie dough, but it better not be peanut butter cookie dough or I will cut someone*. Seriously, peanut butter belongs with jelly on bread, NOT IN MY COOKIES!

Anyway, I have noticed a large number of people who complain about the greater-than-desired circumference of their waistlines very often. I cannot force these people to do sensible things such as eat better or exercise more regularly, and I am wholly unqualified to perform bariatric surgery. Therefore, I will help motivate them to exercise more intensely.

For just $20/session, Toaster will chase you full-speed with a pointy stick. You supply the pointy stick! Each time you slow down or stop fearing the stick, Toaster will give you a gentle jab with the stick to re-motivate you.

And for just $50/session, Toaster will come to your house in the morning and ambush you with not just one, but TWO pointy sticks as you walk to your car and chase you all the way to the nearest health food store, lurk ominously until you have purchased low-calorie, high-fiber foods, and then chase you back to your home screaming obscenities in a foreign language of your choosing!

Toaster is offering this service for a limited time only because he is well aware of the rate at which people lose their convictions to stick to their New Year's Resolutions. So don't delay, email Toaster now to schedule your first one-on-one personal weight-loss consulting session!!!

*Even if that means drawing a hotsauce face on a block of tofu and slashing at it.

06 January, 2010

Worms in My Data

This is real flow cytometry data I collected. The terraced blotches represent different populations of cells as differentiated by staining their surfaces with fluorescent antibodies, as such the axes represent 2 different fluorophores' distinct staining intensity. Non-floaty blobs like the sandworm blob are common because primary cell populations are always somewhat heterogeneous and as such will rarely stain in perfectly discrete pots. I couldn't look at this plot and not see a sandworm, so I made it better.

04 January, 2010

Muffin Ravioli

In theory, ravioli are watertight. So maybe this will work. But I'm not certain.

I like food. I like science and the engineering/hacking methodologies. But I know it's not a good idea to eat off of labware, so the natural solution is to hack food. To this end, I am hosting a food hacking potluck with many of the local hackers this coming weekend*, and I've been trying to figure out what to make.

Experimental Aim:
Essentially, I want to make blueberry muffin ravioli. I will serve it in a mango avocado basil reduction. Now, making either raviolis from scratch or muffins from scratch is relatively straightforward, but combining them so that the ravioli is still pasta-ey and the muffin is still muffiny is an issue. Will pasta cook if I just bake it in the oven? Or do I have to boil it first? I know from literature research that lasagna noodles must be boiled before being baked. It is possible that I could blanch the muffin batter-filled raviolis in boiling water and then bake them, but I am concerned that this would lead to leathery pasta shells. I mean, honestly, I think my best bet is to cook the ravioli squares first without muffin batter, fill them, seal them, and then bake them moist.

What do more experienced cooks think?

If this falls flat, I have a backup plan: caramel-filled radishes breaded, fried and then served with a sour pepper sauce.

*I will be posting pictures and recipes of the things that turn out tasty.

03 January, 2010

Science Isn't a Job

I am not suited to have a job.

Notwithstanding my circadian malfeasance, I can't just have a job. A job is something you go to for 8h a day and detach yourself from coming home, something that pays the bills and fits in a big chunk of your daily routine. Something that weekends are an escape from.

Science isn't just a job. Science isn't just a career. Doing science is a mode of being, a way of thinking and a pervasive outlook that permeates all aspects of life. To be sure, there are people doing science to whom science is nothing more than a job, but to the scientists, doing science is a passionate outpouring of their innate internal curiosity and excitement at the sheer wonder and awesomeness of the reality around them.

As I said, I can't just have a job, I need the storm and flow of science's complex funneling of my creativity, cleverness, and joie de vivre. Even as I define the parameters of my experiments, science, in many ways, defines me. My education in science has sharpened my inquisitive and skeptical predispositions to become useful tools and not just the occupation of idle daydreams. This utility of my innate urge to create new stuff, to explore and discover are why science isn't just a job for me, it's awesome.

There are times that I get frustrated with my benchwork. Recently I had a long series of experiments not work properly for a couple months, and tearing through my methodology to try to find where I'd gone wrong, trying to plot out possible sources of error and chafing at the bit as each of these experiments took several days to validate was draining and discouraging. There are times that the poor quality of my data, such as getting a higher event count from bleach than my sample on the flow cytometer, makes me question my scientific aptitude in the first place. How could I ever expect to succeed in this experimental endeavor when I wasn't smart enough to begin with?

But it is this that is also valuable. Science forces us to question ourselves. We wrap up our self-esteem in our experimental results and we take rebukes from reviewers personally. We chase windmills of perfect data and push the capabilities of our minds ever further seeking to integrate our data into a new story the world has never seen before. This is important. By being both scientists and science, by loving what we do and the delightful but exhausting challenges it confronts us with, we are pushed not only to improve the quality, scope and ambition of our experiments themselves, but also to become better, savvier scientists and humans as well.

As a science, biology is weird. It's messy, it's frequently stubborn, it's complex and chaotic and these are what attracted me to studying it. And then into more complexity I realized how awesome immunology is. But it's not so much the complexity itself that draws me back into the lab, it's that with molecular biology I am literally peeling back levels of reality with my mind through the careful design of experiments with cells and reagents that I cannot see, feel, or taste. It could not be cooler, unless I had more lasers, but I digress:

Science ain't a job so much as it is riding an angry horse through a buffet of cookies and ice cream.

02 January, 2010


Somewhere over the course of an incorrigible doodling habit, I got to a point where I could draw kind of decently. If I sit down and make the formal effort I am able to bang out a pretty good approximation of what I see in front of me. But life drawing has never satisfied me. It's as if the point of life drawing is to cast reality in cold marble, and to me this loses a great deal of the vitality of real-time, unfiltered visual perception. Instead, I like caricatures, those potemkin representations of people that take an aspect of their physiognomy and amplify it, draw it out like a good cook brings a subtle flavor simmering to the surface and celebrate it. I find that these more daring 2D casts of faces and people and things and places capture more of the realness than a photograph because it is filtered through the unique wrinkles of the drawing hand's mind.

And I like drawing caricatures.

So, dear readers, would you like a Toaster-drawn caricature of yourself? Email me* a picture you want drawn through my distorting parameterization and I will send you back a quick caricature, with no guarantees as to humility or reverence. It should be noted that I will also post them here, but will not append your name and/or pseudonym if that is your wish.

*Toaster DOT Sunshine AT gmail DOT com

01 January, 2010

Theory vs. Practice

In theory, a flex sensor is simple. It is just a bit of resistive material, like anti-static plastic sheeting, sandwiched between 2 bits of copper laminate and squished inside some heat-shrink tubing. There are many things that I would like to build of of this. First up as a prototype is building flexible antennae for an Atari Punk Circuit to modulate the sound based on how they are moved about. Then I want to make a suit out of them at all my major bendy points and route them through a Freeduino into a MIDI to have an instrument suit. I think it'll be neat to be able to make roaring bass lines just by waving my arms about wildly, which is how I normally dance anyhow.

In practice, however, securing the copper laminate has been more difficult than expected. Turns out there are a lot more different types of copper foils than I had ever expected and I'm not sure exactly which one would suit my purposes best. And while we're on practice vs. theory, it turns out that Ethernet cables are much easier to make into complex braids than 16G aluminum wire. While a 42 braid of Ethernet does look cool, it is not a torc.