Monday, September 24, 2007

Public service announcement

Aristocratic Octopus is no more.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


I have vanquished the GRE! Go me! Now I just need to similarly vanquish my subject test and the math methods test and I can maybe get into graduate school!


Friday, September 21, 2007


Is it just me, or is the Eckhart library set up particularly well for a rousing performance of "Marian the Librarian?" I mean, the partial second floors are just too perfect. As is the large central area full of desks for dancing on. Unfortunately, there aren't any of those rolling/sliding ladders that are so awesome. At least, I couldn't find any.

But it still bears thought. Seriously, guys. Take a look if you haven't.

I am no longer dead to the world!

In fact, I am out and about today! Hooray! If by 'out and about' I mean 'at work and studying' then... yes.

I recently got an e-mail about the test that I have to take to prove that I can do some math, so the Chemistry department won't disown me and ostracize me from the elite group of Biochemistry majors into to the masses of Biology majors. That would be scary. There are so many pre-meds there.

I laughed at first, because the concepts on it (n-space, linear dependence, eigenvalues) were all things I remembered learning in high school but have long since vaguely forgotten about. I don't mean to sound snide -- I'm sure the college course here on basic linear algebra is much more demanding than my high school course on basic linear algebra, even if it isn't the course here on abstract algebra which sounds like so much more fun and I'm somewhat disappointed I never really got a chance to take.

However, I understand now why the Chemistry department won't simply take my year of Analysis as proof that I can do this math - because while some of the concepts in Analysis are based on the concepts of linear algebra, and while Analysis is really much much easier if you know a little bit of linear algebra, the topics above, especially eigenvalues, are not covered in Analysis. So it would be entirely possible to pass through Analysis and not know what an eigenvalue is. (Which would be a shame because then you couldn't throw things at Peter Parker when he mistakenly gives one a unit.) Of course, I've almost forgotten what an eigenvalue is, so it's time for me to break out the book and get studying.

I can't believe that it's the weekend before first week and I have 1 test to take and 2 to study for. This year is going to be awesome. If I survive it.

Monday, September 17, 2007

What is so hard about getting my name right on an ID?

I am 1 for 4, on people getting my name right on IDs at their first try. But at least DMVs are full of hijinks for me. I guess that's a good thing. Certainly makes something very boring somewhat exciting.

Today there were two adventures: First, I presented my 19-year-old social security card (with stub containing an address in Roger's park) and my much more recent Maryland Driver's License. They accepted the Social Security card as proof of my residency in Illinois. I am now registered to vote here. At no point did they ask for any sort of more recent mail. I know that they do for some people, because I heard them asking people in line in front of me. They also tried to put the roger's park address as my current address. But I caught them there. When she asked "Is this your current address?" I was shocked enough to sort of double take. I was not aware that the stub to the social security card contained an address. But it does. What's more, I think that wherever I go in life and whatever I do, I will be able to get an Illinois Driver's License. Which is more than a little bit absurd.

The name mistake is much less funny, because it wasn't really their mistake. My (and my brother's) social security cards say "Hauener" instead of "Havener" for the middle name. The woman, therefore, typed my middle name with the U instead of the V. This was, fortunately, easily corrected with my passport which clearly says "Havener". I didn't show her the erroneous social security card again, and I am perhaps lucky she did not ask. But she was fairly apologetic, which was nice. Or something.

Also, the inside of the DMV in Chicago (on a weekday at about 2 pm in the middle of the month) is actually not much of an ordeal. The people are polite, friendly, and intelligent, and they move you through remarkably quickly. (for a DMV).

That is all.

Friday, September 14, 2007


In this week's Science table of contents, this caught my eye:

Production of Trout Offspring from Triploid Salmon Parents

Now, at first I stared at it and said, well, how can a Salmon give birth to a Trout? The answer, it turns out, is if the Salmon is only externally a Salmon, and has Trout-derived reproductive cells. The researchers took sterile Salmon and transplanted by microinjection (so basically injected into the fish eggs) Trout progenitor cells for reproductive cells. Surprisingly enough, the fish grew normally and were, for all intents and purposes, Salmon with Trout eggs/sperm cells.

Which raises the question, biologically, are they closer to Salmon or closer to Trout?

Also, how wacky and awesome is it that Salmon can give birth to Trout?

Those terrorists...

So, I need to renew my driver's license. I went to the Illinois DMV armed with my old driver's license, my passport, a canceled check, and a piece of mail, thinking that with all of these things I would be set. However, they turned me away immediately for not having my social security card with me. I told them I knew my number, they were not impressed (this is understandable), I told them I could get it faxed to them in a matter of minutes, they were not impressed. Finally, in a bit of a tiff, I asked them why they needed my social security card when I had two forms of U.S. photo I.D. with me, as well as proof of my residency in Illinois. Their response, and I quote, was "To prevent fraud after 9/11."

Now, excuse me for a second while I ponder this statement. First off, I was unaware that there was a particular increase in identity theft concurrent with the attacks of September eleventh. Second, I am confused as to how preventing people from getting an Illinois driver's license will a) prevent them from getting on an airplane and crashing it into a building or b) prevent them from committing any other form of atrocity except, perhaps, living in Illinois and owning and driving a car. Third, I am very baffled, since social security cards are perhaps the easiest piece of identification to fake, as they have only a number, name, and signature, and they are printed on plain blue paper. In fact, had I actually lost my social security card, I imagine that it would be easier and less time-intensive for me to forge a new one using photoshop and online images than it would be to go to the social security office and get a new one sent to me.

Fourth, I am unaware as to how giving my social security number to the idiots at the DMV will prevent fraud. Excuse me if I am wrong, but it really does seem to me that the reason we have a problem with identity theft and social security fraud is, quite simply, that there are quite a few transactions where the only identifying information on them is a social security number and name. Every time that I give my social security number to someone else, it goes into another database to be stored with a bunch of other people's social security numbers. The more times I give out my social security number, the more possible times there are for someone to steal it. Making an easily forged social security card necessary for a driver's license in fact does nothing to ensure the safety of my social security number; if anything, it makes it more dangerous for me.

Finally, since this doesn't prevent terrorists from flying in our planes, trains, buses, and taxi-cabs, perhaps with dirty bombs tucked away in briefcases or boxcutters with which to hijack whatever, well, the question is what does this rather useless rule do? It seems like a simple rule to, generally, make life harder for immigrants and keep those gosh-darned illegal immigrants off of American soil. One more hoop for them to jump through before they can be treated as human beings. Of course, it's easy to hijack the public's fear of anti-American terrorists coming over and doing evil things to keep everyone else out as well, which in some ways we've already done (one look at the signs on American customs outposts convinces you of this - the 'welcome measures' include fingerprinting for all non-U.S. Citizens who enter the country, I believe). This is just one more example.

Of course, it could also be to prevent terrorists from stealing my social security number and crashing it into a building. You know, like they do.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


People from societies with diets that have historically been rich in starch are twice as likely to have at least six copies of the Amylase gene.

Amylase is one of very few genes that exhibits significant differences in copy number between individual humans. It encodes for the protein in saliva that begins the digestion of starches, and is necessary to get nutrition out of grain. What's more, contrary to what happens in some other places, the "extra" copies of the amylase gene are fully functional and do lead to more amylase protein being produced, which in turn leads to faster and more effective digestion of starches. Also, since the differences in sequence between the three copies of the amylase gene in the reference human genome sequence are so small, it seems that this duplication might have happened quite recently; even perhaps since the birth of modern humans. Which means things like the development of agriculture and therefore the increased levels of starch in some societies' diets might very well have effected the evolutionary path of those societies. Which is cool -- we are effecting our own evolution. And not just by killing genetically diseased babies, like certain geneticists would want us to.

Nature, Futures, and the coming dystopia

The past two stories in Nature's "Futures" column have both been in reference to a futuristic society in which certain aspects of life (photography and weapons manufacture, respectively) are monitored automatically via computer, ala failsafe. In the first, guns turn against their owners and start deciding who gets shot based on entries in a police database-in-the-sky. In the second, all photographs are stored online (by requirement) for some reason - and darkroom procedures hence outlawed, a compromising picture of a government official appears in a chemistry lab.

It vaguely reminds me of the Cybermen; the little ear-bud phone service that turns against you, hijacks your brain, and turns you into an automaton. And I wonder what the fascination with such dystopic futures is. At one point, progress was considered universally good, we were on the path to utopia, and so forth. Now it seems more imprinted on the common imagination that we are descending into a police state, that our parents were freer than we are and we are freer than our children will be, and that there is no turning back on this irrevocable path. When did we go from Marx, with the revolution being imminent, to Mill, with no more revolutions and the gradual death of our species from lack of freedom, argument, and passion?

EDIT: I know the answer to that question is, potentially, when Marx's communism turned into just such a controlling police state.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


There is a certain joy that can only be achieved by nestling into freshly washed, still-warm-from-the-dryer, sheets with the window open and letting in air that is just a tad colder than comfortable. And it is a joy that cannot be had in summer in Chicago. (There are plenty of awesome things about summer in Chicago, such as swimming in the lake and sudden thunderstorms, but that is not one of them). But last night was just such a night, and that is a sign, perhaps, that fall is on the way (or already here).

Monday, September 10, 2007


My experiments worked! Joy!

Also, I have a new project: Bright red wool coat with polka dotted lining; double-breasted and really full bottom; approximately knee length; big white buttons. Wish me luck! I will post pictures if I ever get a camera that works.

Friday, September 07, 2007

November is closer than you think

I just realized, recently, that November is really quite close. Which means that the insanity of writing a novel is closer than I think. Which also means that the insanity of applying to NSF grants and graduate school while writing a novel is closer than I think. I tried the writing-a-novel-in-December last year, and while I succeeded it wasn't nearly as much fun without the online community (or any community to speak of, really). It was my second year doing it, and I think that the product I ended up with was better than the first year. But I can do better. I have a few ideas for my novel this year. Most of them are stories that I want to write eventually, so I'll have plenty of fodder to keep doing this for years to come no matter which I choose. The three best ones are as follows; first, the story that I originally envisioned as a fanfic, but doesn't have to be, second, the story vaguely based on my experiences with circus people and diving, and third the science-policy dystopic story. I've had ideas for first chapters to all of them in the recent past, but I'm working on the fic-one right now. At the moment I think I'll do that one, but I think the other two are probably better stories. Or I could combine the first two, but that seems a bit much perhaps? It would need outlining to work right. The problem being that the first two are both vaguely retellings of Peter Pan or The Wizard of Oz (or Alice and Wonderland I guess, but I'm less familiar with that). I feel a little bit like that is the only plot I can really write, because it is arguable that the story I wrote last year also follows that paradigm in plot:

Main character runs away from/is spirited away from normal life to adventures, has adventures but in the process realizes that they really want to be home having normal life/normal life is the true adventure/some corny moral and returns home to cheers and fanfare. It's the typical children's story I guess. So maybe I want to write the science one simply because it's different.

In any case, this useless post brought to you by the fact that November is NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH. You should all write novels in November with me, so that I will have company.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Now this is cool.

It seems like it is a corrollary of the theory of Natural Selection that the most highly conserved regions of the genome will be those which are necessary for existence -- if a region is not necessary then it will slowly mutate away and if it does not do this there must be some reason why mutations in that region are selected against. This is particularly interesting in the context of certain "ultraconserved" regions which do not code for proteins -- long regions that are conserved between fish, frogs, and men and which can be very distant from any coding region. For a while, it was supposed that these regions were necessary regulatory elements. However, conservation does not imply necessity, a recent study points out:

It is widely believed that the most evolutionarily conserved DNA sequences in the human genome have been preserved because of their functional importance and that their removal would thus have a devastating effect on the organism. To ascertain this we removed from the mouse genome four ultraconserved elements—sequences of 200 base pairs or longer that are 100% identical among human, mouse, and rat. To our surprise, we found that the mice lacking these elements are viable, fertile, and show no apparent abnormalities. This completely unexpected finding indicates that extreme levels of DNA sequence conservation are not necessarily indicative of an indispensable functional nature.
I find this very cool. I have no idea what it means, but it's very very cool.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

My new project?

I am probably certifiable, but I am going to try and make a jacket based on this for a part in a halloween costume (I'll make the whole costume as pictured, with a slightly different jacket). My idea being to make it black + off-white, with trim around all the seams and a design on the front bottom openings and around the neckline and on the sleeves, instead of everywhere. Probably a more tailored and fuller cut too, because I like those. Wish me luck; if I succeed it should be totally awesome.