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Friday, September 21, 2007

A heartening story

One of my previous roommates, Stephanie, is a diligent writer. She comes home from work every night, exercises (already my hero), and writes for at least an hour. She writes short stories, screenplays, chapters...whatever. The important thing is that she writes for a whole hour, the duration of which is marked by an egg timer. I bow in awe, cringing, before her willpower while I update my blog for the first time in about three years.

Anyway, before I moved in she had finished a novel and was trying to get it published. As far as I can tell, this seems to be the holding pattern for most writers and most novels don't see paper. One fine day, however, Steph's lovely manuscript found the eye of a good agent, got the attention it deserved and was picked up by Harper Collins.

I'm sure she could have told that tale better than I just did. Regardless, My Summer of Southern Discomfort is finally out. When Steph gave me the manuscript to read one evening last year it was about 6pm; I didn't put it down until 4am the next morning.

The book is set in Macon, GA and is told from the point of view of Natalie Goldberg, an attourney who is prosecuting a death penalty case. However, not only is Natalie a New York Jew who recently moved to Georgia to escape an ill-conceived love affair, she is morally opposed the death penalty. The book does a great job of exploring the complexity of decisions, expectations, professionalism and morals, but it's real strength is as a character study. Natalie is interesting. Her Good Ol' Boy co-cousel is interesting. Her neighbors are interesting. The policemen and witnesses are interesting. And yet, nobody is a caricature or gets off easy.

Definitely a fun read and more complex than the cover art suggests. I know she's working on her next one, but I haven't managed to get my hands on a copy yet. Probably for the best since I need any sleep I can get these days.

Sunday, August 29, 2004


This weekend I was definitely in the right place at the right time. On Saturday at dusk I found myself in Providence RI during a city-sponsored artistic installation called WaterFire. It was one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen.

Over 100 braziers of wood were floated in the center of the two rivers that cross the city. As the sun went down, these were lit and tended by a troupe of black-clad performers sliding over the water in black boats. Music was piped in over loudspeakers, and though it was a bit New Agey it was enjoyable nonetheless . The music and fires went on until 1 am.

The nicest thing about the event is that there was no single ideal vantage point from which to view it. That meant everybody could mill about casually, rather than strain and jostle to "get there." Nobody saved seats and there were no lines. The fires looked nice from up close at river level, from overhead on the bridges, from afar while sitting on the hill. And so, we walked about then sat on a hill and were happy being where we were.

While lots of cities have urban renewal projects, few actually succeed in giving human warmth to an urban space. Clearly, more cities need to build great, crackling fires right in the middle of downtown.

Monday, August 02, 2004


So cute! Helicobacter pylori, Ebola virus, and Trichophyton mentagrophytes from GIANTmicrobes. On second thought, I can see it now...."Remember Auntie Amy? She gave you Ebola when you were a baby!"

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Nanny U.

It's July, the middle of the sleepy academic summer, and here at Harvard everyone at the Office of Common Sense is away on vacation.   Tourists stroll through the Yard, and students sleep in the grass.  Happy biologists take off their shoes and eat their lunches outside in the sunshine.  Yet the tranquility of the university belies the menace and activity of its bureaucrats.   I sense that they have waited until just this moment, the time of absolute maximum complacency, to unleash their new policy. 

Last week, I attended a mandatory meeting wherein it was explained that Harvard has expanded its Occupational Health Program to cover anyone who works with animals.  All animal users are now required to fill out a Medical History Questionnaire, and failure to do so can result in loss of access to the animal facilities or loss of employment.  Our personal medical information will be transferred to the Disability Claims Unit and screened by a nurse, who will make recommendations about whether we need any "accommodations", compulsory medical tests, or training to perform our jobs.

On basic principle, I find this to be an egregious violation of my privacy.  In practice, however, these things always boil down to the details.  For example, if the questionnaire simply asked me to list any animals to which I am violently and lethally allergic, I admit I would probably go along with it.  I am weak.  Yes, I know its wrong to coerce people to divulge medical information, but if the questions were reasonable enough, I might let it go.

Luckily, the questionairre is no where near reasonable enough to lull a lazy postdoc into grievous moral error.  Although there are different forms for "low risk" and "high risk" animal users, even the short version asks for personal details that many people would be uncomfortable sharing with their employer.  Plus, many of the questions have nothing to do with animal-related risk.  For example, I have a hard time understanding how anyone's smoking habits increase their risk of contracting an illness from mice.  The question I find most offensive, however,  is #6a (see below), which is easily translated into "Do you have AIDS?  If you don't want to say so here, you will be having a conversation with a nurse." 

The likelihood that I would take a stand on this issue was also greatly enhanced by the two people who ran the meeting.  An administrator from the Financial Office informed us that the real incentive for this policy was to comply with standards from AAALAC and the NIH (standards that have nothing to do with the law, mind you), that normally Harvard would not ask us to divulge such information, but that it was "for our own good anyway."  Oddly those words did not have the persuasive effect he thought they would.

Then, a bossy nurse took the podium to answer questions.  She regaled us with a delightful anecdote about how she wondered what "zoo-noses" were, but then someone told her they were "zoh-a-NOS-ees", which is a word that us scientists use to describe diseases that can be passed from animals to people.  (Blank faces, no response.)  Someone said they didn't know whether they had been vaccinated for "vaccinia", and what was it anyway?  She responded that she certainly didn't know, but "vaccinia" is another word that us scientists use.  We should call our primary care provider to get our vaccination records.  And, quote: "Don't just write down that you don't know.  You HAVE to tell us the truth."

At this point, a couple of us laughed out loud and caused a disruption.  Others didn't understand whether they were in the "low risk" or "high risk" category and couldn't get a straight answer.  Heads of labs were told to consult the head of their lab.  After lots of squabbling, I finally worked up the courage to ask my question.  "So, what happens if we find this policy offensive and choose not to fill out the form?"  The bossy nurse deferred to the administrator, who pursed his lips and paused.  ".....Well, it probably wouldn't come to this...but, it does state that you could be prevented from working with animals.  I mean, we certainly HOPE it wouldn't come to that.  But it could."

Let's hope it doesn't, because I will eat maggots before I fill out that form.  Unfortunately, not being able to work with mice would effectively end my career. 

This can't possibly be legal, can it?

Section 3: Medical History:

Health Plan:
Name of your Primary Care Physician:
Date of Last Visit:
Location of Primary Care Physician:
Other Specialists involved in your care (list names and locations):

The following questions address possible health concerns related to your work with laboratory animals in Faculty of Arts and Sciences animal facilities:

1.  Do you currently smoke tobacco?  No or Yes.


2.  Have you smoked tobacco in the past 12 months?  No or Yes.


3.  Have you experienced any of the following symptoms:  eye burning?  nasal congestion?  skin itching?  hives?  cronic cough?  wheezing?  shortness of breath?  anaphylaxis? 

Do you take medication to control any of the above symptoms?  No or Yes.  If yes, please list. 

When did your symptoms begin?  Childhood or Adult.


4.  Have you experienced any of these symptoms with exposure to any of the following items? 

 a.  Animals?  No or Yes.  If yes, please specify the species that cause symptoms and describe your symptoms. 

b.  Latex products? No or Yes.  If yes, please tell us which symptoms you experience.

c.  Other workplace items?  No or Yes.  If yes, please explain.

d.  Have you had skin allergy testing?

     i.  Skin test?  No or Yes.  If yes, results:

    ii.  Other test?  No or Yes.  If yes, type of test and results.

e.  If you take any medication for the above problems, please list.


5.  Muscle and Joint conditions:

a.  If you have had weakness, pain, stiffness, or restrictions in your muscles or joints, please check off the affected body parts:  shoulders?  elbows?  wrists/hands?  hips?  knees?  ankles?  neck?  lower back?

b.  If you have checked any of the above items, please describe the problem and any treatment you received.

c.  If you take any medications for the above problems, please list.


6.  Other significant medical problems:

a.  Have you ever been told you have an illness that will make you more susceptible to other illnesses?  No or Yes.  (You may choose to leave this section blank if you prefer and discuss these matters with the occupational health specialist).

b.  Do you have any other medical concerns that might interfere with your ability to do your job that you would like to discuss with an occupational health physician?  No or Yes.

Monday, May 24, 2004

In memory of Leotardo, the Strain Gauge Guy...

I am sad to report that Dr. Edward Simmons passed away last Tuesday of prostate cancer at the age of 93. Although most of us at Caltech knew Dr. Simmons only as "Leotardo, the Strain Gauge Guy", everyone knew of him. Leotardo could hardly escape notice; he was an elderly man with skinny legs who always wore a lycra tutu, pantyhose, aqua booties and a turban. A constant presence on campus, he could often be observed sleeping in his station wagon on Wilson Avenue across from the Beckman Institute or in the library reading the latest journals. As a graduate student back in 1930's, Leotardo invented the strain gauge, which measures the amount of deformation that occurs in an object when a force is applied to it.

No disrespect intended, but Leotardo was a mascot for Caltech. He was a cautionary tale for prodigal physicists, a marginalized yet unrepentantly weird individual, and someone so drawn to academic life that one can't really imagine him living elsewhere.

He will be remembered fondly.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Happy birthday to me!

All in all, a nice birthday: I slept in, awoke to good results from an overnight experiment, spent a low-key day in lab, received flowers, and ate cake.

Also, I had dinner at Upstairs on the Square in Cambridge. The food and wine were very good, and the atmosphere and waitstaff were excellent. After a long, drab winter in Boston, it was nice to be somewhere colorful. The decorating is ebullient: zebra stripes, checks, dots, gilt furniture, mirrors, red walls. Even so, it felt homey. (and no, I didn't grow up in a bordello.) I thought the atmosphere struck a good compromise between modern-funky and serious-elegant without being at all retro, which has been done before (literally).

My only complaint is that the calimari which accompanied my halibut were not crispy. In my opinion, squids have every right to be squishy when they are alive, but once dead they should be fried up tout de suite.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Being in the moment

A circulating questionnaire about the stuff of daily life. (via Pharyngula)

1: Grab the book nearest to you, turn to page 18, find line 4. Write down what it says:
"...epithelia with intercellular junctions that act to seal off this space. Another..." from Cells, Embryos, and Evolution, Gerhardt and Kirschner, 1997.

2: Stretch your left arm out as far as you can. What do you touch first?
The empty chair of my baymate, who, sadly, has left for Israel.

3: What is the last thing you watched on TV?
South Park

4: WITHOUT LOOKING, guess what the time is:

5: Now look at the clock; what is the actual time?

6: With the exception of the computer, what can you hear?
Recirculating water in the fish tank and the blower in the fume hood.

7: When did you last step outside? What were you doing?
3:30 pm, crossed the street to go to the mouse room.

8: Before you came to this website, what did you look at?
Radley Balko's The Agitator.

9: What are you wearing?
Blue jeans, knit shirt, sage green suede jacket, clogs.

10: Did you dream last night?
I dreamed I was having a normal day at lab, but that I had to stop to pee every five minutes. I found this worrisome, and considered whether it indicated a medical condition. Diabetes perhaps? A kidney disorder? Finally, I woke up, realized why I'd been having the dream, relieved myself, and went back to sleep.

11: When did you last laugh?
Yesterday at dinner.

12: What is on the walls of the room you are in?
Shelves that contain books, bottles of solutions, chemicals, and lab equipment. Posters of embryos, a calendar, notes, pictures of data, personal pictures and doodads.

13: Seen anything weird lately?
I saw a guy on the T who looked exactly like Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist from A Confederacy of Dunces. He was very fat and was wearing a hat with ear flaps, a wool shirt, and a huge mustache. Quite possibly he was drunk.

14: What do you think of this quiz?
It provides an excuse for people to reveal harmless and entertaining facts about themselves, which is something we all want to do anyway.

15: What is the last film you saw?
The City of Lost Children. It was very weird. And in French.

16: If you became a multi-millionaire overnight, what would you buy first?
A house.

17: Tell me something about you that I don't know.
When I was in the seventh grade, my friends and I would practice spitting at recess under the presumption that the girl who could spit the farthest would be most impressive to the boys.

18: If you could change one thing about the world, regardless of guilt or politics, what would you do?
Require classes in logic and reasoning for accreditation of all schools, beginning grade four and continuing through university.

19: Do you like to dance?

20: George Bush: is he a power-crazy nutcase or some one who is finally doing something that has needed to be done for years?
All politicians are power-crazy nutcases. George Bush's problem is that most of his policies are ill-conceived, poorly executed, and vastly exceed what I believe should be the role of government.

21: Imagine your first child is a girl, what do you call her?
I couldn't possibly answer this without being faced with the situation.

22: Imagine your first child is a boy, what do you call him?
See answer to 21.

23: Would you ever consider living abroad?
No. I want to live in the W or SW, possibly SoCal.

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