Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I made a thing!

During my lunch break at work today, I was given my very first crochet lesson. My coworker brought in the ball of neon green yarn that she used for the brain slug and said it was mine to practice on; she even gave me a crochet hook to use!

It took me a while to figure out how to grip everything, and my stitches are still uneven, but I only had fifteen minutes of training and practice! I didn't try anything exotic - I started with a chain. Then I added a chain to my chain, and made a strip, or something. I don't know the fancy lingo, but I made a green thing today that did not exist before I made it!

I wanted Horton to model it for the picture, but he refused. He wanted to play with the dangly ends instead. What is it with cats and string??

I will be taking a few more quick lunchtime lessons and learning how to make a round thing. And maybe a square thing. Hooray for making things!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lab skills or life skills?

Considering how many hours I have spent working in laboratories, I suppose it was inevitable that lab experiences would begin to influence my everyday life.

The rinsing principle

Let's say I'm going to wash up a unit of red cells to use in a procedure. First, I have to cut the bag open and pour the blood into a big centrifuge bottle with some saline solution, which is a messy process. But no matter how hard I shake it, there are always some red cells left clinging to the inside surfaces of the bag. I want to get as much of that into my bottle as possible, so I squirt in some saline from a squeeze bottle and swish it around the almost-empty bag to get all the good stuff out.

This is a remarkably useful process to bring into real life. For example, when I get to the end of a carton of coffee creamer, I spoon some coffee into it and swirl the carton to clean off its insides, then pour it all back into my coffee cup. I've also been doing it with jars of spaghetti sauce, because I can never get all of it out, even struggling with a spatula. I dump the jar out onto one side of the pot of cooked pasta, then I scoop up some of the uncoated noodles, pop them into the sauce jar, shake it up good, and then dump the noodles back into the pot. Less waste!

Butt-operated doors

Gloves and door handles aren't supposed to meet, since gloves are potentially covered in nasties. I've developed a butt-first approach to swinging lab doors that really works for me. Back into the door, gentle shove with my butt, and I'm through. I do this more often in non-lab settings than I'd like to admit, probably to my husband's embarrassment. If the door has a lever-style handle, I can navigate that quite easily by adding my elbow to the procedure. I lean down, push with my elbow, and then bump the door with my hip to get through.

It's somewhat more complicated when the door opens towards me, but I've recently been practising and can often use my elbow to get the door opened wide enough to stick my foot into the opening and swing it the rest of the way. Very useful in public bathroom situations.

Regular round doorknobs have thus far remained beyond my skill level.

The microbiology grip

You're supposed to keep things sterile in microbiology, because one tiny mold spore or bacterium getting into your culture medium can ruin everything. That's why microbiologists do most of their work with their arms inside special biological safety cabinets whose airflow and HEPA filters minimize the possibility of contamination. Still, sometimes you've got to unscrew the cap on a tube of media you want to inoculate, and you can't just put it down on the desk. Solution: the Microbiology Grip.

It can be accomplished with the pinky finger of the dominant hand:

Pinky technique - image from eplantscience.com
Or, if one absolutely needs the strength or dexterity of the thumb and index fingers to unscrew the cap, one can try the claw grip, but the inoculation wire or loop ends up being held awkwardly, and I think there is less control with this method.
Claw-style - image from ndsu.edu
And where, you may ask, am I finding a use for such a grip? Toothpaste. Not because my sink is so disgusting that I don't dare put down a toothpaste cap, but because my hands just do it anyway. Muscle memory is no joke. I hold my toothbrush like an inoculation loop in my right hand, then pick up the toothpaste tube in my left, bring my hands together, and unscrew the cap by gripping it with my pinky and then twisting both hands in opposite directions. I keep the cap firmly in my pinky grip while I apply toothpaste to my brush, and then I recap the tube and brush my teeth.

Laugh at me if you wish, but I can be confident that there are no mold spores in my Crest Complete with Scope.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

New acquisitions

Last week, I did not have these two things. I think that my life is more complete this week.

The little green guy is a crocheted version of a Brain Slug from Futurama. When I learned that my new coworker is a very adept knitter and crocheter, I showed her this pattern and asked if maybe she could teach me how to crochet sometime, maybe over some lunch breaks, so I could make one. I've had the page bookmarked for months, and if I could ever learn how, I was thinking of using a crocheted brain slug as a Halloween costume, or sporting one in lieu of a fez on formal night on the next nerd cruise. My coworker printed out the pattern, mumbled something about likely trouble finding the right green, then left for the weekend.

I arrived at the lab on Monday and my boss warned me that my office had "an infestation", and I should be careful going in there. His tone suggested that it wasn't anything that required a can of Raid, but I couldn't think what in the world he was getting at... until I saw my new green friend sitting beside my computer monitor! I wasn't expecting her to make me one! Now, more than ever, I need to learn to crochet. Just imagine the possibilities!

And now, the book. The massive tome (8 pounds!!) comes with a long and convoluted story involving Barnes and Noble, their horrible computer system, and a delay of over a month in getting to me, but I'll spare you most of it. Essentially, they put it on a sale so good that it wiped out their inventory much more quickly than they expected, but their computer let people keep buying it anyway. I got emails telling me it was delayed, and then I called for more information and the computer had cancelled my order for me and not told me about it! It was worth fighting for, though, because I got this baby for $15, thanks to a friend on one of my message boards who gave us a heads-up about the sale. It's currently on sale at Amazon.com for $94.50, with its original price set at $150. I wanted it the second it was released two years ago, but couldn't justify the cost, so I am giddy about finally having my hands on it!

It's 1200 pages worth of Simpsons episodes broken down into trivia, quotes, pictures, summaries, and character profiles. I'm a huge Simpsons fan, to an almost-embarrassing degree. I don't have the seasons on DVD yet, but someday I'll splurge and buy a huge boxed set. This book will tide me over until then, I suspect, because it's going to take a while to explore. I remember getting Bart Simpson's Guide to Life* when I was a teenager, and finding more funny bits in it each time I paged through it, and I hope this book brings me the same giggles. 

*I just read the whole Wikipedia article, and that book came out in 1993, almost twenty years ago. Oh. my. GOD. I am old. And the Simpsons is awesome to have lasted so long!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

New floors and a new look for the house!

When we first visited this house, we had to use a little imagination to see past the surface into its potential. We noted the ugly paint, chaotic landscaping, gaudy drapes, and worn carpet, but we didn't become those people on the "House Hunters" shows, turning down a good home just because the bathtub is green. We decided it was more of a Charlie Brown Christmas situation, where it just needs a little love and a little work to make it look wonderful.

And we're getting there, bit by bit. Home improvements are not cheap, and saving money by deciding to do it ourselves comes with its own problems, like steep learning curves, spending weekends painting and ripping down wallpaper, and billions of trips to Home Depot. But our home is finally looking like we've wanted it to from the start, and I'm very happy about the progress we've made.

It took us two years to do it, but we finally have new floors. The old carpet in the living and dining rooms was thin, worn, and stained. And blue. Dirty blue. From the beginning, we wanted to replace it with clean hardwood floors, to open up the space. And today, the floors are finished.

Dining room, before and after.
As with most other projects in this house, the floors took a lot longer than I expected. Part of this is the sales guy's fault. He kept saying "three days", so I thought I'd walk in after a long weekend's worth of contractors in and out of my house and find my shiny new floors. It did not work that way. Note to self: stop trusting sales guys when they tell you how long something will take.

There was already some hardwood floor under the carpet, and at first we thought we'd be able to use it and save a little money - just have the guys sand it down and re-stain it to the color we wanted. But once the carpet came up, we encountered a problem. First of all, the hardwood didn't extend the whole way through the rooms. The last four feet or so of each room was just naked particleboard, and the interface between it and the hardwood was covered in a thick layer of glue.

We decided to go ahead and tear out the old stuff, because even though the glue could be removed, the old floor was very uneven. It may have been old water damage, we're not sure, but if I ran my hand over it, I could feel that it was bumpy and wavy, and I knew it would bother me if we left it like that. I guess I could have thrown a rug over the weird spots, but then what's the point of the new floor? The wavy floor problem caused a delay, because the boss had to come by and look at it, and then they had to go out and buy more wood for us, because the verdict was that not much could be done to rescue the old floor. We were given the option of pre-finished floors or unfinished ones that would be sanded in place and then stained, and we decided on the unfinished ones for a tighter look. The pre-finished ones tend to have teeny gaps between the slats, which we didn't like. Also, since we weren't replacing the wood stairs or the undamaged upstairs hallway, they would be sanding and staining those, and matching that stain to the pre-finished stuff would be harder. Instead, we opted to get naked oak floors, and have them sand and stain everything to match. Messier, but worth it.

Then the demolition began, and we discovered that the sub-floor was extremely thin, and not to current building codes. Only 3/8" thick, when code is 5/8". It bounced when we walked on it, so the floor guys drew lines to show us where the joists were so we wouldn't end up with a leg in the crawlspace beneath the floor.

There was another delay, as they went and bought new plywood to put down over the old stuff to solidify our floor. I'm glad they did, of course, but it was another week and a few hundred more dollars of materials to get it done. They laid the new oak floors down, and were almost completely done before I noticed a bump in the floor. The boards that met over the bump seemed to be sticking up a little, and I was nervous about the long-term durability of that area - would the boards warp and pop up? Once again, we called the boss in for a look, and he explained that the bump was from the old foundation, before the addition was put on the house. The floor joists go in one direction until that wall underneath, then the addition had the joists going the other way. We have no idea why they did it that way, but the remaining foundation wall is raised up just enough to cause a bump. We had a choice: live with the bump, or have them pull everything back up and completely rebuild the floor. With reassurances from the boss that the floor would not pop up in that spot, and they would come back and fix it free of charge if it did (although I have my doubts on that), we decided not to spend tens of thousands of dollars on rebuilding a whole floor. 

If you ever come over and see a rug in front of the living room fireplace, you'll know why!

Once the floor was in, the finishing crew came to sand and stain it all. That, too, took longer than usual, because the guys kept showing up late (past 10:30, despite telling us they'd be here at 8:30), and when they first came they seemed unclear on what their work order included, so we once again had to get the boss involved. And they were grumpy that we hadn't moved our furniture from the rooms - but nobody told us to! The sanding took a whole day, and required some really loud equipment with a vacuum attached to cut down on sawdust getting everywhere. Sawdust still got everywhere. The vacuum bag got most of the bigger stuff, but the fine powder got through and settled on every surface it could find! On the second day, they stained the floors with "gunstock" stain, and put on a coating of quick-drying water-based polyurethane, but they ran out of time for the next two coats and had to come back a few days later to finish up.

It was worth the hassle and the delays, because our house is now completely blue-carpet-free! The color turned out exactly how we wanted it, and it's shiny and slick and makes the place look a lot nicer. It's also tons of fun to watch the cats run on it, trying, and failing, to get traction for their high-speed turns.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a lot of dusting to do!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A GPS Moment

Since my husband gets home a few hours after I do, I try to have dinner ready, or at least close to ready, around the time he arrives, so we can eat together. 

The other night, he was a little earlier than usual, or maybe I was running late. Whichever it was, I had just popped the marinated chicken breasts into the oven as he came through the door. It would be half an hour or so before we could eat the main course (Lemon-garlic chicken and purple mashed potatoes), but I threw together a big salad appetizer to tide us over.

We settled into our designated spots on the couch with our big salads, and watched half an hour of something or other, until the oven timer interrupted us with a loud buzz. Down went the salad bowl, and up went I to the kitchen, fumbling to find the oven mitts. I poked the metal spike of the digital meat thermometer into the thickest part of the biggest piece of chicken, and pressed the button. Numbers appeared on the screen and began to climb, slowing to a crawl around 80. Concerned, I checked the setting on the oven - 375 as usual - and then tried the temperature in a different piece of chicken. No difference: the temperature still wouldn't get past 80.


"It's going to be a while, honey. I should have pounded these stupid things; they're too fat and they're going to take a while." I offered him some mashed potatoes, but he was content to wait, so I covered the baking dish with some foil and put it back into the heat, setting the timer for 25 more minutes and returning to my mindless TV.

More buzzing, more fumbling for oven mitts, more temperature-taking. This time the numbers stopped near 100. I may have cursed at this point. I may have flapped a dish towel around in frustration.

"Fine", I may have muttered to myself, "if they don't want to cook in the oven, I will nuke these sons of bitches. They won't taste right but we'll be able to eat something before midnight, and maybe this way I won't kill us with salmonella!"

"They won't get up to temp," I informed my hungry husband, "so I'm just going to nuke them so we can eat. They're supposed to get to 165 to not kill us, and they're still way below that."

One and a half minutes of full-power microwaving later, the thermometer still didn't want to get past 105. I flung it onto the counter and tried to think what the hell else I had in the fridge so I could throw together a quick replacement dinner. And that's when I saw it. 

The readout of the digital meat thermometer, still on, a few feet away on the counter.

It said: 21.

Oven-mittened facepalm ensued.

"Um, honey? I think I just had a GPS moment."

There were two seconds of silence, and then a giggle from downstairs.


It amazes me that no other explanation was required.

We ate the chicken. On the bright side, even the hyperthermophilic* bacteria that live beside superheated ocean vents can't survive past 105C, so we were definitely safe from Salmonella.

*Hyperthermophilic: loves extreme heat.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Purple Mashed Potatoes

As I promised, I'm back to share the results of my mashed purple potato experiment.

This batch of purple potatoes was not as purple as the first, so already we've got an unexpected variable to contend with. This is terrible science*, but at least I can admit it - the worst terrible science is the kind that tries to pass itself off as the real thing.

I blithely assumed that the potatoes from Wegmans would look like the potatoes from the farmer's market on the inside, because they looked the same on the outside. Consider this proof that you cannot judge the purple-ity of a potato by its skin. The Wegmans potatoes were pale immediately under their skins, but a medium, radiating purple at their core. Not as dark as the first set, and with more white streaks through the middle, but definitely still purple.

I treated them exactly like I would normal potatoes. I boiled them until they were fork-tender, drained them, and then mashed them by hand with some milk, butter, salt, and pepper. The water I poured off was an unappetizing grey shade, and the end result was a sad greyish lavender color, with a few purple chunks.

Honestly? They reminded me of Montreal's slushy winter streets, and despite them tasting exactly like regular mashed potatoes, I wasn't really happy with them. Some of the color washed out during the boiling process, since the water was greyish, but adding milk likely also contributed to diluting the purple. Maybe very purple potatoes would have fared better, but I'm not going to keep trying, since they're quite a bit more expensive than regular old potatoes. Nope, it'll be russets or reds for mashing, and if I decide to get fancy with purple potatoes again, I'll roast them to preserve their beauty and impress friends.

*To make this a little more accurate, I'd have needed white potatoes to boil and mash and compare to the purple ones, because maybe the boiled-potato-water is grey for white potatoes too and I've just never noticed before because it goes straight down the sink. I only saved the boiled-purple-potato-water because I was expecting it to have color. An experiment with no control, conveniently confirming my hypothesis? I hang my head in shame. Maybe they'll let me use the spectrophotometer at work to see just how much color difference there is in the runoff from boiled white vs purple potatoes...

Friday, July 13, 2012

Animal, Defender of the Home, Killer of Mice

"Hey, um, can I ask you a question?"

When that's the first thing I hear when I get home, I know something interesting has happened.

"Do we have a really, really realistic mouse toy?"


Apparently, despite the fangs the vet had to remove from his mouth, our Animal is a mouser. It looks like eleven years of training and hundreds of determined butt-wiggle-and-pounce attacks on the purple catnip mouse finally paid off. At some point last night, Animal found and killed a real made-of-meat-and-fur mouse, and delighted in batting it around the computer room to show off in front of Dave.

And of course, Dave saved it to show me.

For those of you wondering how long you can store a dead mouse in a Gladware container before it smells absolutely rank... most definitely under twelve hours. Probably much, much closer to no hours at all. Just... yeah, don't keep dead mice. Or if you do, and your spouse really wants to see it because they're weird like that, I cannot stress enough the importance of not opening the container you have stored it in.

I have no idea where this mouse came from. We found a few in the garage when we first moved in, and the problem seemed to disappear when we cleaned up their nest area and laid down some traps. There's no evidence of more mice anywhere in the house, so this guy likely ran in unnoticed while we were coming in from the garage. Just one mouse, not a big deal.

No big deal, because I'm not afraid of mice, and it's clear we don't have an infestation, but with the recent study linking toxoplasmosis to suicide and self-harm in women, I'm a little uncomfortable about it. You see, the Toxoplasma gondii parasite is carried in mice (and birds), but requires a trip through a cat's digestive tract in order to reproduce. It manages to do this by messing with a mouse's neurotransmitters and making it attracted to the scent of cats*. Mice walk up to their new feline BFFs, and suddenly find themselves dead and eaten. People can become infected when they come into contact with cat feces, which is why everyone knows pregnant women aren't supposed to scoop the litter box - Toxoplasma is particularly dangerous to a developing fetus and can seriously mess with brain development. And since recent studies seem to link Toxoplasma infection with schizophrenia, depression, and self-harm, the non-gravid among us get to be paranoid too, hooray!

But, as all these news articles are happy to report, if you have exclusively indoor cats, they're not out eating Toxoplasma-infested rodents, so your home's litter box is not a danger zone. That meant my home was free of Toxo-related worries... until the mouse incident. Is it possible that the mouse walked right up to Animal and offered himself up as a sacrifice to the Toxoplasma parasites running his foggy little brain? I hope not, because I don't want to think of Animal, or us, getting sick. I need to stop watching medical dramas and those "OMG Scary Diagnosis" shows on Discovery Health.

I'll just keep washing my hands really well after dealing with the litter and try not to have nightmares about parasites in my brain. And I'll buy some special treats for Animal, Defender of the Home, Killer of Mice.

*It needs to get into a cat, so it controls mouse brains to get it there. Science is awesome. Also scary.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Purple Potatoes

I had to buy them. A coworker and I visited a farmer's market on our lunch break, and there they sat quietly, piled up in a basket at the far end of the table. Purple potatoes.

They were smaller than the basic red-skinned potatoes I usually buy for roasting and smashing and all other forms of tatery goodness, and they weren't cheap, but they were purple. My inner seven-year-old squealed "purple!!!!" and I forked over the money.

Well, my friends, it turns out that unlike red potatoes, whose beauty is only skin deep, the vivid purple shade of this variety goes right to the core. I don't know what species I purchased; there are several varieties of blue and purple potatoes in existence, and the sign said, unhelpfully, "purple potatoes". If I return to the market, I will ask the farmer about their lineage.

Normally, in the nutrition world, brighter and deeper colors indicate healthier food (Cheez-its and Kool-Aid notwithstanding). So, what's with the purple? do they taste purple? Are these potatoes healthier than red potatoes or Russets, and should I keep shelling out more money for them?

As far as flavor goes, my experiment with roasted garlic purple potatoes resulted in... roasted garlic potatoes. With my eyes closed, I'm confident I would not have been able to tell the difference between a red or a purple potato prepared in the same way. And these looked so incredibly cool on my plate beside the chicken!

I did a little digging, and it turns out that the purple color is from high levels of anthocyanins, which is the same antioxidant that makes blueberries a "superfood". Proof once again that sometimes "ingredients you can't pronounce" and "chemicals" can be damn good things to have in your food.* In all honesty, the jury is still out on whether the antioxidants and other compounds in blueberries and other fruits actually make as big a difference in vivo (in your body) as opposed to just in the lab, but I see no reason not to add as many colorful foods to your diet as you can. My educated guess is that these potatoes are marginally better for me than the average white-fleshed potato, but not by a whole lot and probably not enough to justify the extra cost on a regular basis. 

That said, I bought more. I plan on boiling and mashing them this time, because apparently anthocyanins are water soluble, and I want to see if the purple washes out with boiling. Science!

* I still find myself getting pissed off to an absurd degree when I hear natural-foods people railing against "chemicals". If you're against pesticides, or artificial coloring, or preservatives, say so. Oxygen is a chemical, for crying out loud - don't be dissing chemistry as a whole just because you don't understand it.