Monday, September 29, 2008

The paper from Hell

So, the hike was wonderful. Beautiful Redwood forests, happy lizards, dragonflies, blue skies, views of tree-covered mountains sweeping down to the misty sea and so forth, good company and nerdy jokes and wonderfulness. On the way back was a cloud that looked like a purple bruise on the blue sky. But that's not what I've been thinking about today. Today I have been thinking about (or trying to think about) a paper assigned for tomorrow that simply would not unravel its science to me.

In fact, it was only when I realized that the paper wasn't one research study but four independent experiments that I could understand what on earth was going on. At which point, since none of the experiments were particularly compelling, I was left with an even more sour taste in my mouth about the whole experience. Perhaps they assigned this paper simply to frustrate us; to see who could read a paper and who couldn't, who could determine the weaknesses and analyse and generally understand the steps of a paper. And to see who wasn't afraid to look at a published work and say "That paper was crap." Because this one was particularly hard to understand: no organization, no background, and no continuity from one part to the next.

As best as I can reproduce it, for your reading enjoyment, here is a summary.
First off, most people think that this one protein (A) interacts with the cellular scaffolding proteins to make cells asymmetric (btw, cells are asymmetric. nifty.) Except, if you prevent scaffolds from forming, you still get asymmetry, so this can't be it.

If you look at a cells that mess up their asymmetry -- don't bud/divide correctly -- you find that a lot of them have problems with another protein, B. (This protein is totally unrelated to protein A.) If you cut out B, along with some other proteins that let the cell know which way is up, cells become symmetric. If you add back B, they lose their symmetry. If you add back various mutated forms of B, effective and deficient in various functions, you can see that certain things, like binding to the cellular scaffolds, are necessary for cell survival and asymmetry, and other things, like binding to itself, are not necessary for anything in particular as far as we can tell.

Protein B might interact with protein C. Protein C is thought to serve as a +/- marker, like an on-off switch. But it might not work quite that way. If you force it to be a switch, you get symmetry, so it's most likely not a switch.

By the way, if you add lots and lots of the switch-version of Protein C, you can in fact get asymmetry back. But those cells aren't happy, so they don't count.
Honestly, I shit you not. Now put that over 13 pages of techno-babble with appropriate (or inappropriate, you know, to spice things up) figures, and you get the paper I had to slog through today. Delightful, right?

The one thing I take from this paper is that as a biologist, I need to learn how to design a study, in a way that is not just a collection of various and sundry experiments, because otherwise I will end up writing a paper like that one.

And that would be very, very saddening.

Also that stream-of-consciousness, while very effective as done by James Joyce, is not an appropriate literary device for a scientific paper. But I already knew that.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Martian Hop

Is on BoingBoing. Awesome?

Perhaps a more substantive post this evening when I get back from the dance on Mars. (Clearly, by "dance", I mean "hiking trip" and by "on Mars" I mean "in Big Basin Redwood Forest". Unfortunately, reality cannot live up to some expectations.)

We have just discovered an important note from space.
The martians plan to throw a dance for all the human race...

Friday, September 26, 2008


Inspired by the word "recuse":
When he looked back on it, Alan knew exactly what he should have said. He knew exactly what would have avoided all the strife, all the awkwardness, and all the sideways glances whenever Anna walked into the room. Just because they knew the story, people thought they were in on some great big secret – when really, Alan and Anna seemed to be the only ones who had moved on. And one sentence could have spared him all of this. One simple, straightforward sentence that summed up his feelings exactly:

“I’d rather not say.”

Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and all that rot.
Wrote my first functional, useful PERL script today. w00t! Which means, basically, that I have a free weekend, since my weekend's worth of work took all of three and a half hours. Also, I learned regular expressions in order to write said script. And yes, yes I was wearing my tee shirt that said "STAND BACK! I'm going to try Science!" while I programmed regular expressions in PERL.


And yes, I did explain the comic and the relevance of my teeshirt to the rest of the people in my program and year.

$elizabethGeek += 10;

All in all, it was a nice way to start grad school. Loads of geeked-out-ed-ness, and a free weekend afterwards!

Although I do have a biostats problem set to force myself to look at. Which is made exciting only by the fact that the book is somewhere en route. Time to go to the library.

Perhaps there will be a trip to Big Sur on Sunday? That would be awesome. And perhaps gardening tomorrow, which would be good, but less awesome than hiking around Big Sur. If there isn't a hiking trip, I'll lounge about in Palo Alto and work on Statistics. Perhaps it's time to put PERL on hold and teach myself some R.

So as not to get too out-of-balance, you know.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Child Prodigy

Inspired by the word "Prodigy":
Juliette refused to call herself a child prodigy. Her parents despised the word, with its implication that she wasn’t on a direct path towards success, but was rather a bright shining star that would burn out soon enough and let the other kids have a chance.

“That’s not fair,” Andrea said, “plenty of child prodigies grow up to be successful.”

Juliette dried up that sanctimonious phrase with a single look. Stuck behind the Starbucks counter all day, making Espressos for young investment bankers, the last thing she wanted to be reminded of was what a bright child she had been.
Graduate school, so far, is full of Computer Programming Languages. (To be honest, it is also full of epigenetics, and genetics, and my wonderful genetics clique which is being broadened to perhaps include biochemists and developmental biologists, but mostly it is full of Computer Programming Languages.) This quarter will be the quarter to learn how to analyze data; I am learning both PERL and R for that purpose. Well, not exactly. I'm learning R because it's part of a totally worthless statistics course I have to take (mostly I sit in the back and pass notes with the rest of my genetics clique). I'm learning PERL in order to analyze a data set for my first rotation.

It's a very novel experience; being confronted with a massive data set. I don't rightly know what to do with it yet. I mean, I have a vague idea of what sorts of graphs I'd like to eventually have. But it's very vague and I have very little idea of how I would go about making those graphs. But what's awesome is that my job for the next ten weeks will be to analyze someone else's data set: I'm so used to doing benchwork for ages and ages and getting maybe 10 data points. This time, with no benchwork at all, I was handed an enormous data set: something like 5 million points. I'll likely do some benchwork as well to make a library (read: sample) or two, but it's all procedures I know well already (read: molecular cloning, PCR amplification. The hardest step? Gel purification. From a kit.) and even if I started yesterday, since the lab I'm working for sends out their libraries for analysis, and the analysis is backed up like whoah, I wouldn't get data back until the rotation will be over. So I'll do it to stay in practice, I guess, but the focus of my project will totally be analysing all this data. And since I have a lot of data to analyse, I am (finally) teaching myself PERL.

So far so good with that; I'm pretty comfortable with basic control structures, arrays, and hash tables (and since I picked up the book yesterday, and since I am a biologist, I count this as progress). I'm finding my biggest frustration to be 1) Vista, which has nothing to do with PERL, and 2) the fact that all variables are stored, basically, as strings, so I have to remind the program that any given variable is a number, say, by adding zero to it, every time I want to do a comparison -- or else 9 > 10 since it's sorted alphabetically by ASCII value. Say what?

Next topic to cover is file input and output.

On another, unrelated note, I am riding my bicycle faster than I ever have before. I know this because I actually passed someone on the road today. For the first time in my entire life. As in, when I said "I passed someone on my bike today!" my dad thought it had to be a four year old with training wheels. I still feel big, slow, and vaguely turtle-like: since I carry textbooks and my computer, lunch, and various sundries on the back of my bike every day, as I slowly wheel my way the mile-or-so to work. But at least I am not the slowest turtle on the road!

If only my textbooks would protect me the way a turtle's shell protects the turtle. That, indeed, would be nice.

And, finally (I mean it, finally), I found a market that looked like it has been designed for a specific short story I wrote, which basically made me run out of reasons not to submit the story. So I did. I am keeping my fingers crossed, but to be honest it would not be the end of the world either way.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Heroes, Season 3: Brought to you by the word Bilious

It's the word of the day.

I couldn't resist.

Neither could I resist shouting at the screen in anguish repeatedly while watching the Heroes season three premier.

I could barely resist gouging my ears and eyes out.

Since the premier was not tonight but last night, I'm going to assume that I'm not posting spoilers for anyone who cares about reading spoilers. But:

I didn't like Heroes for the random powers, for the world it created, for the special effects, or for the simple fact that it was a super-hero show. I liked Heroes because I go to know, and like, and empathize with, the characters. Take Hiro, who I think is probably most everyone's favorite character (if he's not your favorite character, then you're silly). In the first season, he was just sustained awesome. In the second season, I put up with that ridiculous Takezo Kensei plot mostly because Hiro was in it, and Hiro was being his faithful, puppy-dog self. If it had been the naturally suspicious and serious Noah Bennet (who I like, don't get be wrong), or the takes-himself-waaay-too-seriously Peter Petrelli who had been sent back in time, the side-plot wouldn't just have gotten dull fast, it would have been impossible to watch. Like that feildtrip we took to Ireland with memory-wiped-now-morally-ambiguous Peter (that might be a hint -- keep Peter the good guy, unambiguously, please?).

Now, Hiro in season three is already suspicious and keeping secrets from Ando, something that would be unbelievable in previous seasons. And their justification of "Hiro thinks Ando will kill him, because he saw the future where that happens" doesn't make sense because, well, old!Hiro saw New York City blowing up several times, and instead of running away from it he tried to stop it. In this case, why not try to stop your best friend from attempting to kill you. By, say, NOT turning on him and becoming a secretive, suspicious idiot?

The thing is, this isn't just a sudden, unexplained character change in Hiro Nakamura (although since Hiro was so close to my heart previously it is particularly troubling to me). Peter, Clare, Mohinder, Nikki, and to a certain extent even Nathan, Sylar, and Noah Bennet have all undergone similar bizarro-tranformations. Evil!Future!Peter is just annoying (for once I agree with Mrs. Bennet -- bring back her son and get the Hell back where you belong), Emo!Numb!Clare is something I thought we grew out of at some point in season one, Lizard!Mohinder I shouldn't even have to qualify (seriously, bring back awkward, earnest, well-meaning Mohinder. The one who could have lines directed at him like "He's adorable. Can I keep him?" I want more adorable and less random!hookup!sex.)

Oh, and on a side note, why must everyone be a Petrelli? Next thing we know, we're going to discover that Hiro's a cousin many times removed and Matt Parkman is Nathan's older half-brother. I mean, really?

Um. So I'm not sure if it's even worth continuing. If I can find a group of people to throw popcorn at the screen with, then I might keep watching. But as is, ugh. I dunno.

In other news, Grad School is going well so far. I have a Genetics Clique. We are too cool for those Dev Bio and Biochem students in our classes (haha yeah right). Also, I have a rotation project. It's pretty much better than expected.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Bad Time

Inspired by the word "flak"
“It’s a bad time to be a science writer,” Stephanie said, and everyone agreed, shouting their outrage to drown the pounding on the doors of the barricaded conference hall.

“Journalism is dying with the newspaper,” she proclaimed. “And we’ve been deemed expendable. Things will only get worse.” There was a round of grumbling assent. “The outlook is dark: no new jobs, massive lay-offs, and lack of public interest.”

Keegan snickered from the back of the room. “That’s a gloomy prediction. But you’ve left out the mob with torches and pitchforks.”

At least, in the end, they made the front page.
Does it count as procrastination if technically I have nothing to do until five?

After lunch I'll try to find the mythical post-doc I'll be working with on my first rotation. Maybe he or she will give me a paper to read. That would be distressingly like productivity, since Julie seemed to think I couldn't go in to lab until tomorrow, earliest.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Something to be Said

“Last time we talked, you were seeing someone.” It was a statement, not a question. I laughed bitterly.

“Funny thing about that; turns out I wasn’t.” He said nothing in response. “How about you?”

“My boyfriend is moving out here in January.”

“That’s awesome.”

“Long distance is really hard.”

“Yeah. But if you can do long distance, you can do anything.”

It was his turn to laugh. “I hope so.”

We fell into silence. Finally, “There’s something to be said for a fresh start.”

I nodded. “Don’t I know it. But there’s also something to be said for having someone.”
I failed at tailgating, mostly because I failed at properly transcribing phone numbers. Lame, Elizabeth, Lame. Also lame was my thought; "That's okay, I can just wander around until I find them. How big can a college football game be?"

Um. Don't answer that question. Just take it for a start that I have never been to a football game, and actually thought University of Chicago's football games, where even free food fails to draw a crowd, were normal.

In any case, after thirty minutes of aimless wandering through the thousands or millions or whatever it was numbers of people tailgating, finding no one, I called it quits and biked home. *Sigh* Maybe next time I will not be so stupid on so many levels (seriously, this afternoon was a comedy of errors, complete with being mistaken for a man and breaking into my own apartment. Or something like that).

In more positive news, I finally met up with Becca, and we hiked around the "lake" (more like a meadow) and up to the satellite dish. It was tons of fun!

Also, when I got home, I got my check (I can pay the rent! W00!) and my neighbor said to me, "I have a year's worth of Nature. Do you want it?"

Um. Yes?

It is now proudly sitting on my bookshelf, in chronological order. I've been reading them online, but I should go through them some afternoon (read: tomorrow?).

Friday, September 19, 2008

Mister President, I don't like you; you don't know how to rock!

Uh. Inspired by the diversity presenters at the Genetics retreat and the questions I'm glad I didn't ask them:

Sally hated to present to physicists. It wasn’t that they were loud or raucous; every question was politely held to the end. It was just…

“Are you sure your data is significant?”

She sighed. “The trend goes up,” she answered.

“But not by much,” her interlocutor responded. “And it sort of oscillates,” someone added.

“What’s important is that we’re hiring more diverse applicants,” she insisted.

“But we’re not getting more diverse applicants,” someone called from the back of the room. “If the pool is unchanged and we’re accepting more people, doesn’t that just mean we’re lowering our standards?”

Sally sighed.
In other news, I've been hazed and vetted by the genetics department. I actually, like, know people now. Highlights:

On my way to catch my ride to Monterey, I got lost in a golf-course. I didn't even know the campus had a golf-course, but in retrospect I'm not too surprised.

The first event of the weekend was our introduction (read: public humiliation). Doug (who knows Steve from grad school, I think, wacky!) asked me what the U of C mascot is and quizzed me on the date of the Great Chicago Fire. I don't remember (1873?). Man-Wah pointed at me and said "You have an interesting hobby. What is it?" to which I responded, after a moment, "I take classes to be a circus performer." The crowd was half-full of people who didn't actually believe me (which I find sort of amusing) and people who did (mostly professors or students I had told this to on a prior occasion, and who remembered). It also set the tone for the rest of the retreat: one out of every three professors, before giving their short talks, would say "My circus trick will be [x]", where x = doing this talk without coffee, doing this talk in under fifteen minutes, impersonations, and in one case a cartwheel (I'm doing my first rotation in her lab).

I have a first rotation lined up! I'm not sure what the specifics will be, but I will be working for the next 10 weeks on DNA methylation in induced differentiation, or something like that. I have been told I will be e-mailed about it. Now I just have to worry about not embarrassing myself the moment I set foot back in a lab. Eek.

Somewhat surprisingly, my incoming class is full of gay men. (Edward, Erik, and Ernesto. I swear I am not making this up, their names do all start with the same letter.) As in, there is only one straight guy. (His name is Biff, but he is not named after Back to the Future. Again, I swear I am not making this up.) There's a bet going between two upper-classmen that his sexual orientation won't last a year. The girls are, perhaps, less straight-out-of-a-wacky-and-poorly-conceived-television-show. But except Lia they mostly stayed in at night, which was lame. So for the first night, and for volleyball (which we were terrible at), I was one of the guys (TM). It was fun.

I got to the winner's circle in the first-night poker tournament! And then promptly felt pressured to bet less cautiously in order to move the game faster, and lost. But I beat two poker sharks in the process, and they were shocked. I should have stayed cautious. Oops! But I've been challenged to a rematch, so I should work on my poker face in case that happens sometime. (Next year, for instance).

The karaoke competition was more like a talent show than a karaoke competition: costumes, altered lyrics, song and dance numbers, the whole shebang. We (the incoming class) was pressured to sing, so I convinced them to sing "I Will Survive", and everyone joined in. Unfortunately, I had a migraine and basically had to leave half-way through. Lame! Instead of doing karaoke, one of the smaller labs put together a presentation on studying the bsh-2 (pronounced bush two) knockout mutant in C. Elegans. They found two mutations had arisen that abnegated the effects of bsh-2: mcn-1 and obma-1. It was actually reasonably well done, but most everyone was drunk at the time so they all found it hilarious.

PEOPLE HANG SILKS FROM THE PULLEY SYSTEM IN THE ROCK CLIMBING WALL! (Sorry, I had to shout that.) This is something I wanted to do SO very much, and they already do! My first-week job, perhaps, will be to find these people and ask them to be my friends. Or, you know, at least let me practice with them (I have my own silks and everything).

Also, in the interest of honesty, I'm going to issue a warning: classes are about to start (on monday), so I won't be posting to this blog as much as I have been. I'll try to update at least once a week. But hopefully, you know, I'll have a life.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Virtue is a painful, painful thing

As is the aftermath of intense exercise. Inspired by the word "surly", which is what I will be tomorrow.
As she fell asleep, Sarah felt the stiffness in her joints. By the time she woke up, all she was fit for was a hot bath and breakfast in bed. Every muscle in her body hurt. She could barely move for the pain.

Of course, pampering was not on her schedule, and so Sarah winced through every step of her long day.

“Buck up. It’s your own fault, you know,” Dan commented mildly over lunch. “You pushed yourself too hard with all those reps.”

“Next week won’t hurt as bad this way,” she answered. “This is the pain of virtue.”
My first silks lesson in San Francisco was today. The teacher knew Shayna! Which was how she greeted me -- "You trained with Shayna?" "Yeah." "She's awesome." "Definitely."

The class is fairly small, six or seven of us in total, all young women. And it's intense enough that I don't think I'll be able to move my arms tomorrow so much, which is awesome. And everyone is very, very, very friendly, which is also awesome. Then again, one of the things I like about "circus people" is that they're welcoming and friendly to newcomers in a way other intense athletes I have interacted with don't seem to be.

The transit situation, of course, is as bad as I thought it would be if not worse. But... but it was so much fun, and the silks hanging over my bed have even more meaning to me now, and my arms will be a delightful reminder tomorrow that as I go to start my new life as a Stanford Genetics Graduate Student (TM), something has already started for me. Just like meeting up with Amy yesterday made me feel like I already had half of a community at Stanford.

But, I have a resolution, to do a small amount of conditioning and a relatively larger amount of stretching each day, so as to be more flexible. I was stronger than most of the other people in my class, and had better endurance, but my flexibility is for shit and I would still really like to be able to go for the whole hour and a half without feeling completely dead afterward.

Also, on the train, I saw advertisements for Spring Awakening, which is now showing in San Francisco. Which is super cool. But tickets are hideously, hideously expensive. Which is less than cool. And I think I want to replace my camera more than I want to see Spring Awakening, as much as seeing "Totally Fucked" performed by really good singers on stage would be, well, totally awesome. I tried to see if they have rush tickets for somewhat less hideously expensive prices, but they had no information on such things, which I take to be a bad sign.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sea Sickness

I am home, and so I am back to daily drabbling. This one inspired (believe it or not, hah) by the word "Culminate". Also the fact that I can still feel a ship moving underneath me, but fortunately not the fact that I had a problem with sea-sickness while onboard.
Joanne sighed in relief as they called: “Land ho!” The transatlantic crossing, recommended as the epitome in restful luxury by her parents, had sent her below-decks for an entire week, racked with horrible sea-sickness. But finally, finally she was off of that little dingy and onto blessedly solid land. She eyed the pier with excitement, and was the first to disembark.

Then she wobbled on her high-heel, swerving to one side and the other like a drunken sailor. She grabbed hold of a jetty for support.

Invisible swells swept under her feet, and she cursed her luck and her stomach.

I'm back!

I'm back in California, and have sorted through all my (almost three hundred) pictures of Galapagos. Here are a few.

Adorable Albatross Chick; it's as big as a turkey and much cuter!


Me, in a Mangrove tree!
A particularly photogenic boobie.

The rest can be found here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Bartolome, San Salvador

I hadn't planned on participating in the early morning hike, but one of the other passengers says it is not to be missed, so I promise her to wake up at six am to walk to the top of the hill on Bartolome Island. Worried I won't wake up in time, I wake up as the sun rises and can't get back to sleep. At six, I run my head under the tap and grab a cup fo tea to wake me up. The hike begins. It's not really a hike -- everything is boardwalked and stairstepped, and it's scarcely longer than wandering from my old Chicago apartment to the Point. But we move more quickly than usual and I reach the top of teh hill feeling at least like I had walked a short distance. The top is an "unparalleled" view of teh islands, a panoramic shot of martian landscape and flat blue water. Once we're there, Matt and Ken's mother insists on taking a video of us all, to remember the trip. First she lines us up against the railing and says "Do something," clarifying only with the suggestion "Imitate a blue-footed booby. I bet Elizabeth could do a really good job." (I take this as a complement, not knowing how else to take it.) When we ask her for more direction, she agrees that she'll film us walking down the hill instead. It's only slightly less awkward; Matt hums an annoying tune that's been stuck in his head (and publicly so) for several days, and we all turn to glare at him. Then we clambor back to the boat.

The rest of the morning, we snorkel, examining coral-covered rocks for sea lions, penguins, sharks, and rays. On the beach we see sharks (three of them!) patrolling for baby sea turtles. In the water there are sea lions, this time slow and lazy and taciturn, and penguins (four at a time!) dropping like bombs in search of fish. Then it's lunch time, and talking about leaving, and I start doing my stereotypical Elizabeth morbid everyone-is-leaving-and-it-is-analogous-to-death stuff, or perhaps I realize that I'll have to start all over with a fresh batch of people when I hit the mainland again, or perhaps I just don't want to leave paradise, but I hole up in my shell and I do stupid stuff like not put on sunscreen, and walk all over the slippery rocks, and break my camera. (Don't worry, the pictures are safe on my SD card and undamaged. I've checked. I have an SD card reader in my computer, so this will in no way stop anyone from getting pictures of me.) A long shower and a mental slap-on-the-head makes it somewhat better, but being able to simply say "I don't want to go home" to someone makes it a lot better.

Jessica, her family, Matt and Ken and their parents, and I all have dinner together. It felt nice and celebratory, and the dramatic display of baked Alaska (to the tune of "Old Fashioned Rock and Roll") was wonderfully hilarious. We are the last people to leave the dining room, and the kids head outside to play Mao on the boat one last time.

I don't want to leave -- it's been absolutely wonderful. But it is time to start my new life, and if this week has taught me anything it's that I'm not as socially awkward as I might think I am, and I need to make some long-term connections in Stanford already. (Also that tortoises are pretty awesome, and snorkelling is a blast.) I've done enough floating in the middle of the ocean, and it's time to commit to a place for a while, at least.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Santa Cruz, Guy Fawkes, and Chinese Hat

The sun wakes me up at six thirty this morning, and in the absence of wake-up calls for breakfast I assume I have slept through everything important, missing out on so-called "Dragon hill" and the land iguanas. I drag myself out of bed only to discover that breakfast doesn't start for another half hour. I should have stayed awake, but I stumbled back into my bed and rolled over for the half-hour. That was my first mistake.

The second time through, I can't wake up. Can't run my hair under a faucet to remedy my bed-head, can't change out of my pajamas, can't even pull myself out of bed, can barely roll over and curse the sun for rising at all. Part of me is looking forward to going back home to sleep - not because I can't sleep here, but because I haven't been. Mao has taken over the youth on board, and we have grown-up (college aged) games after hours, when the kids are asleep, playing until eleven or eleven thirty. This is late on this ship, where the majority of passengers have blue hair and are happy with seven a.m. wake up calls.

Breakfast is, therefore, rushed -- just enough time to drink a glass of mango juice before I am rushed out to hike. So I shrug and head towards iguanas, stomach growling.

Iguanas are territorial creatures, but that means different things for different varieties. For the ubiquitous (as in, so common they are constantly getting under foot) marine iguanas, this means "Please do not sit on the couch with me unless you are no threat or a sexy lady" or possibly even "Please do not lie on top of me unless you are no threat or a sexy lady". For land iguanas, however, it more closely parallels "Get off my yard, you hooligans!"

Meaning that land iguanas are scarcer on the ground, and fight with eachother more readily, especially as it is currently mating season (It's possible that, in the galapagos, since we are at the equator, it is always mating season). They don't crawl into the path, but that doesn't mean they're exactly hard to find. Next to nothing that they've had us looking for is. We trek up, and back, and see our fill of land iguanas.

I think I'm going to go through a wildlife withdrawl when I get back to the States. I mean, the past week I've been walking on trails so covered with large animals -- lizards, sea birds, marine mammals, turtles and tortoises -- that I'll miss it considerably when I get home. I think that's common. I might have to buy a pet turtle to make up for it, though. A small one.

Before and after lunch is snorkeling. Yes, two snorkeling adventures today. I was thrilled. Tomorrow, the last day of the trip, also features two snorkeling adventures, and although shrugging on the wet wetsuit was less than enjoyable, having the opportunity to spend even more time floating with the animals was great. The first time around, there was a friendly pod of sea lions, and beautiful cliffs that dropped straight down through the water, bright coral and beautiful geology. The second time, however, there was a friendly penguin, and a sedentary shark (and, from the sounds of it, a sleepy ray as well for those of them that found it). Halfway through the second trip, Matt-from-Harvard says "Have you noticed all those fish? It's impossible to touch one -- they're too fast!" He's grabbing at them, failing hilariously. Not to miss out on ridiculous fun, I chase the sparkling silver fish with our penguin friend, not catching any. Jessica-from-Santa-Clara joins in eventually, as well, and it's laughter and fishing all around.

The penguin is a torpedo with wings. Underwater, it looks like the ungainly thing is flying - the same wing motions that would allow a bird of different proportions to fly in the air allow it to zip through the water. My body is not built for penguin movements, so although I try to swim penguin-style (arms out, flapping up and down) I know it is ineffectual, and I switch back to human-style soon enough. I go back to the ship and pass up on the kayaking, a grave mistake since there were shenanigans, and overly friendly sea lions (Jessica was nearly marooned on the rocks when one decided to pull her kayak with it a ways). But you can't see them all.

Over dinner, we see something jumping out of the water, and I leap out of my seat to get to the railing. Ken-from-DePaul tells me not to jump overboard, helpfully. Jessica runs down to the lower deck to get a better look, catching strange glances from the assembled staff. It has disappeared, but Jessica and I have gotten half a glance at it, and I suggest (since we agree that it was too pale and too big to be a sea lion), that it was a slightly deformed albino baby orca. We laugh for a while until it comes back in all of its sea-lion glory.

After dinner is the time for Mao, with the older kids. And all of my fears about this-group-doesn't-live-up-to-home are blown away. It is raucous and fun and a great time. Matt suggests that it's the three of them against me, taking the game seriously enough to keep track of which cards I might or might not have when I get down to one or two cards, and is proven wrong when Jessica wins something like three games in a row. New rules are vetted and determined to be goofy enough or serious enough, as the case may be. Toga parties are discussed, along with other theme parties and their pros and cons. It is an all-around good time, and I am somewhat disappointed that after Saturday, I will never see any of these people again.

I hadn't expected to make friends. I guess in my wildest imaginings, there would be one person who I hit it off with enough to regularly be my buddy on snorkeling outings or kayaking. But we have a little posse, the four of us, and although I recognize that it's not necessarily a friendship that will last after we leave the Galapagos, by any means, it is still sort of miraculous that it happened the way it did, and I'm blown away by my luck.

I suppose that's what facebook is for, when it comes down to it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Santa Cruz

I hope there were cool pictures posted by the company. I also want you all to know that I am, daily, the last passenger awake on this ship. Because of my dedication to you.

Today marks our return to civilization, and our time among the tortoises. Santa Cruz is home to the largest population of humans in the Galapagos, centered around the city Puerto Ayora. This is also home to the Charles Darwin Research Center, a small collection of painted cinderblock buildings with corrugated steel roofs next to artificial tortoise habitats and incubators. The center is our first stop.

Here they have gathered tortoises-in-exile, stolen cruelly from their home islands so long ago that they don't remember where they belong. They have been rescued and brought back to the Galapagos from their house-pet or circus-freak existence, but are no longer fit for the wild. Really, the life at the center doesn't seem so bad: sleep, eat, and breed -- in order of the apparent preference of the tortoises. The largest part of the facility, however, is taken up with baby tortoise cages, incubators, and protective habitats for the still-prey-for-hawks young. What seem like hundreds of tiny black-green already ancient (although less than five years old) critters crawling in a slow tumble across the ground like, well, like nothing so much as hundreds of tiny tortoises. None of my metaphors work, I need new ones.

The star of the center, however, is lonely George -- the last of his subspecies -- who at the tender age of 100 or so has finally figured out how to successfully procreate (there was some confusion about which end to use. I dare you to think about that without giggling) and who can, therefore, no longer be truly deemed 'lonely' at all. We caught him chasing after a female, as fast as his stubby tortoise legs could carry him. The whole place has the air of a zoo, planned breeding programs and controlled incubation to optimize the male:female ratio and, above all, corrals. (I decide that they are all named Plautus, except the ones who are named Lightning, even though I know that not all Tortoises are governed by a cruel fate in the form of a tutor-turned-hermit or a slightly off mathematician: "This is called Self-determination").

We see Tortoises in the wild as well, trek through the mud to peer into their ancient wise old eyes. They are unruffled by everything, eating and breathing and passing gas with a vengeance, until at a point, staring one in the face, all I can hear are his aging tortoise breaths. I snap a picture. He blinks. They seem like stones; boulders, mountains, exactly how I imagined turtles to be only so very much bigger. The guides order us not to sit on any, because we have a firm hands-off policy when it comes to the wildlife. It's not until I see the animals that I want to break the rule, but I hold myself back. (Today has been full of self-control: first when I refrained from buying Megan an "I like boobies" shirt, and now when I refrain from climbing on top of the wild tortoise.)

Later on, walking through the forest of daisy trees (yes, daisy trees: fifty foot tall trees with bright green leaves and tiny daisy flowers), Collette says something that clicks in my head: they have to protect the park from invasive species because, she says, invasive species will out-compete the endemic species for sunlight, water, and life. Invasive species are invasive simply because they are "better suited" for the particular job that they do.

It goes back to something that bothered me about some of the guided tours. In short, it is this: more evolution does not take place at Galapagos versus anywhere else on the world. If it is to be powerful, a law, a valuable concept, Evolution must take place everywhere and anywhere and at equal rates. It must be wholesale. (And in fact, it does, is, will be: Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution, quoth Dobzhansky). But something about the Galapagos must be special in order for it to have had the profound impact on the human consciousness. The question is, what, and the answer I think lies with the Daisies being outcompeted by other trees.

The essential characteristic of the Galapagos seems to be their isolation. These islands are 500 miles or so from any other land, in the middle of the Pacific ocean. To get here is hard. Really, really hard. To get here and be healthy enough to start a species is even harder. So not many animals, and not many plants, get here in the first place. Which means that maybe for a while daisies were the tallest plant, and the taller daisies got more light, creating a positive feedback loop that created fifty foot tall daisies. That wouldn't happen in a forest where trees already grew: any other tree would make a two-foot daisy no stronger than a one-foot daisy. But since there was an open niche, and only a daisy to fill it, the daisy grew into its monstrous shape.

Similarly, with the finches, which have evolved divergently to eat everything from seeds to leaves to cacti. Every finch has a different beak, and all of these niches can be, and are, filled by finches because there weren't sparrows or whatever desert birds often eat cactus (roadrunners?) or... you get the point. You can "see evolution in action" because there are so few kinds visibly diverging in a limited number of ways into a large variety of species, not because the islands are special and unique in that they foster evolution to move particularly faster than anywhere else.

Of course, the relative youth of the islands helps to isolate them. But in my opinion that is secondary to the geography of the situation.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Fernandina and Isabela

This comes late due to a game of Mao. (Mao!) I have the younger generation hooked on the game, both the kids aged 8 to 14 and my own college-aged peers. The bullet is enormous, there is no escape. If you want pictures, and an official run down of the events (I rarely will cover everything), go to the site maintained by the cruise company.

I am now officially a poliwog, having crossed the equator in a boat with my eyes open. I even have a picture of the bright yellow line floating in the water, girding the globe. My certificate suitable for framing will arrive tonight over dinner, along with tomorrow's itinerary.

As we crossed, the acptain blew the horn and the cruise director herded us to the stern of teh ship, whre naturalists dressed up as pirates (and one ninja) held hostage all of the children (which was stretched to mean all the children and me, and then anyone my age or younger, and then all of us and one old white-bearded grandfather). We were "baptised" in the Equatorial tap water, sprayed from a hose, forced to kiss a dead octopus, and drink strawberry-kiwi flavored Iguana blood. We were christened with animal names as well, for laughs. (Well, some of us were).

We are on the lookout or whales and dolphins here (mostly whales anymore because I am happy to report my luck with dolphins has not run out). After lunch, we ran into a pod of dolphins, maybe five hundred of them, on all sides, swimming with and in front of the boat. Five hundred common dolphins, which, according to the naturalists (who have a vested interest in lying about this, but have not been dishonest before) is not so common at all; as the small animals tend to shy away from contact with humans. They jumped ten feet out of the water, frolicing in the waves in front of us, showing off their dark gray backs and yellowish-white stomachs, smaller and rounder than their ubiquitous bottlenose cousins. I had told my friends here of my previous luck with dolphins, and I am glad not to disappoint. If only I had inherited my mother's Orca-spotting capabilities as well.

But the real stars of the day were sea turtles, and again snorkeling. After scouting out the water, the guides were naysaying a snorkelling tour: too cold, too murky, too choppy, they said. But the college kids and I banded together, sitting at the front desk with eyes as big as baby sea lions, looking hopeful for teh chance to put on our wet suits and commune with the ocean once again, and finally Lucho said "okay, fine, if you want to go snorkelling, now would be a good time to put on your gear." No announcement to the ship at large, he just assumed that everyone who wanted to would figure it out. And they did, adn there were two boats full of us at the end. Jessica and I were the first ones there, waiting eagerly for the zodiac boat. The guide, probably shocked by our folly, stayed in the zodiac.

The water was colder and cloudier than before, and shallower, and so full of sea turtles that I honestly worried I would run into one on accident and be banned from snorkelling in the Galapagos for life because of an overpopulation problem. We swam into teh center of an outright sea turtle convention, five, ten, twenty of them staring at us with their dinosaur visages, moving so slowly it was hard to keep up, adn yet almost weightless in teh water. I had always imagined turtles would be heavy, slow, barely able to lift their legs. But underwater, these animals are anything but leaden- floatnig slowly by, graceful, not a care in teh world. Almost as if their slow speed is the result not of heaviness but of the right sort of turtle calm balance - the world sits so lightly on their shells that there is no need for exertion, no need for a hurry, or for outside expectations.

Jessica leads us away from our slow-moving friends in search of three things: sea iguanas, fur seals, and penguins. We succeed in two out of three counts; catching the tail end of an iguana writhing through the water like a snake, arms and legs tucked in close to its body, adn a fur seal (rumored to be less friendly than its galapagos sea lion cousins) came to check us out and blow bubbles in our faces. But the penguins and the flightless cormorants that were so outstanding on the zodiac tour stayed high and dry and did not join us in the water. We're bound by regulation to climb out of the ocean at noon, so we cut the aquatic adventure shorter than I would have liked, but at least we have formed, today, a snorkelling lobby to ensure future trips.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Floreana (Or, go with the flow)

I am averaging 11 pages of journalling each day, so you're only getting highlights. The rest I'll keep to use in my next novel. Or something.

Overnight, we proceed one island west, to Floreana, anchor up as dinner ends, and the ship starts moving, swaying, listing, tipping to this side and that, or so it feels. I can hear the iron beams creaking against the swell and it hits me suddenly that against the power of the Pacific Ocean, nothing else stands a chance. Out here, water trumps everything.

I barely stumble to breakfast to wake up before snorkeling in the morning, but I wrestle bravely into my wet suit and add little boots and a vest (thank you, Aunt Sue, thank you thank you thank you). Passengers ask me to do a showy dive off the edge of the zodiac, but in my flippers I don't feel comfortable. Maybe next time.

The sun is out today, warming the surface, and either because of that, or my yesterday's experience, or the vest adding insulation, today it is easier for me to breathe. I'm the second person off the boat, and I set out.

The sea walls (I have learned that, although they are covered in coral, they are volcanic rock walls and therefore notably not a reef. Oops) seem more vibrant and colorful than yesterday's; more ish, more sea lions, more waves, more. The highlights, for me, are two purple octopods and a sea lion pup that stares me in the face, mere inches away. The schools of fish here live within the rhythm of the waves, in and out with each surge of water. They are a riot of living confetti, half swimming half floating. Among them, I use only my fins for steering and float with the fish, trusting the water not to crash me into the rocks. My trust, it turns out, is not misplaced; the great Pacific Ocean is kind for once. (Ken cut himself in five places on the coral yesterday, crushed by an errant wave).

Even the bull sea lions, protecting their harems, are laid back today, seemingly unthreatened by teh order of the day, which is human observation. We have been warned about their territorial agression, but they display only barking to scare Jessica away from their harem. One, even, swims directly under us and passes by without a fuss. This is before the curious juvenile comes over to make friends.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Espanola Island - thoughts on flight

(It has occurred to me that keeping a journal no one will ever read full of verbose insights into the trip and posting short nothings is perhaps the opposite of what I actually want to do. So, here's a long post composed over the course of day two. I might back-post my thoughts from day one, probably when I get back to CA). Short version: Today was AWESOME, and there were lots of animals. (likely short version of the trip: it was AWESOME, and there were lots of animals.)

It has occurred to me that I am playing Charlotte Darwin - examining, cataloging, pretending to Genius I cannot imagine possessing. When the thought comes, it is always Darwin-and-his-pet-monkey ala The Fall, boyish and innocent and daring. And it is always followed by the reminder - but he was perpetually sea sick, and he hated it here.

The ship lists noticeably (so much I have trouble balancing), and I bend with it, lean into it, wait it out. The rumble of the engines is ever present. Kevin would not be happy here. Neither, I think, would Darwin. This morning the wake up call comes cheerfully over the P.A. system at seven o'clock, urging us to breakfast before a "difficult" hike. We are off the boat at eight, children with a scavenger hunt in hand (Imagine -- 246. One of Darwin's Finches. 100 customs violating points).

The water here is navy and turquoise and crystal clear. Our zodiac boat shoots across the waves (We rearrange so as not to tip over - using eachother as ballast) onto a black igneous boulder outcropping that doubles as a peir. We are greeted by a male sea lion guarding his turf: arf arf arf means get out of my harem, get out of my house, and don't touch the women (or children).

On the beach lies a cow and the pup she had just given birth to, blood from the labor fresh on the sand. They cuddle, exhausted both, and everyone is reminded once more of humans. The iguanas here are red, black godzilla with pink-red cheeks and heads, and they lie in piles in the cool morning hours to preserve their precious body-heat. In the afternoon they will swim out, arms tucked into their bodies, heads sticking out of the water, tail corkscrewing behind them, looking for all the world like a cross between a sea snake and an otter. But for now they lie in piles (colonies, we are told) on the beach.

Apparently the best nesting location is on the trail, for as we continue we find a warren of boobies (a veritable booby trap, har), a baby seal, iguanas and lava lizards and doves and finches and at least one snake, all waiting underfoot. (Everywhere else I've been told - don't step in the animal droppings. Here that's inevitable, and we're told not to step on the animals.) We climb slowly up from the shore, over rocks and onto cliffs. The cliffs were the Albatrosses nest.

Waved Albatross are endemic (exclusively native) to the island of Espanola, although young ones have been spotted as far as the coast of Japan. They're eight pound turkeys of gulls with dull grey feathers, bright white heads, yellow beaks, and an eight foot wingspan.

They can fly, miraculously, forever. But they canot (cannot) land or take off gracefully. A colony of Albatrosses is a study in awkward elegance - waddling like a duck, flinching and flapping and flocking, then pounding along with wings outstretched to take off like a B-52 (thunk, thunk, thunk, thu--) and gawking-floating-falling to land, almost in a heap, wings and neck outstretched toards the ground like a five pointed star.

The chicks are already as big as turkeys, solid puff-balls of grey and white down with black eyes and grey beaks. They wait to be fed fish oil by mom and dad; as much as a liter at a time, untul the chick falls and rolls onto its bottom, sated. It needs to grow in double-time: in December it leaves the island for college, only to return from afar in four or five years when it can rightly be called an adult. (But even then it will not mate - the first year back is reserved for Albatross singles parties and finding Someone Suitable (TM)). I laugh.

If I were a bird I might well be an albatross (and not simply because I promise to rain a powerful curse down upon my eventual slayer, vindictive beast that I am). But in a way I identify with the oversized seagulls: masters of air and water but confined all too often to the ground by the laws of physics and the mechanics of their courtship ritual. Likewise, I long to be floating, flying, even falling (and Albatrosses pitch themselves from cliffs to begin their flight) but am confined to my earth-bound body by nature and necessity.

Although, it must be said, I have less than an eight foot wingspan.

And I weigh somewhat more than a large turkey.

Later, wetsuits donned and snorkels in hand, one of my compatriots flips backwards, SCUBA-style, into the water. I, nervous of getting water into my snorkel, slip in feet first, tentative that this will prove too much for me and I'll ride behind in the zodiac boat. I breathe quickly at first, my mind too busy acclimating itself to the cold water beneath me to take in the scenery - fish, coral, sand fade into a nondescript gray. I control my breathing, forcing air deeper into my lungs. In, out. In, out. Slowly I realize that I can, in fact, breathe, and I relax. Only then to do I see the floor forty feet below me.

The reef, (since it is by rights a coral reef) teems with color in a diluted, understated way. Fish glint yellow or red when they dusky light catches them and otherwise blend into the blue of the water. The ground, and the walls, are littered with starfish (one, at least, yellow with brown-black spots - a chocolate chip sea star). Whenever I laugh, bubbles shoot from my nose and water rushes in to take their place. I learn to laugh through my mouth.

It is not silent underwater; it is not like a swimming pool. Peaceful, yes, but as I submerge my head there is a steady static clicking sound (perhaps from the engine of the zodiac trailing us), a popping that I hear. The sound of a lightbulb blowing out or a small fuse breaking. The sound comes from everywhere, seems to match the glint of reflected light from the fish, as though they are not covered by mirrors but rather small flashlights, and I hear them flashing on and off like a camera's bulb. Like the shimmer was a spark, and I heard the thunder.

I hold my breath and swim into a school of glittering silver fish - they surround me, shying away and clearing a path as I enter. I dolphin-kick straight down, but the cold has stolen my breath and my lungs burn all too soon. Deeper is a ray - a little patch of black hiding half under a rock. I can't get deep enough for a good look. Our guide is a champion diver, and I feel a tinge of jealousy.

We swim into a cave, and a warm current caresses us (although at the equator, waters here at the moment are a chilly 71 degrees. Brr.) I want to warm up, but the carrot held in front of me is the prospect of sea lions up ahead. I swim on. The sea lions are lithe black spots shooting through the water. They swerve and swim among us but soon grow bored with our clumsiness. My earlier jealousy towards the guide evaporates, and suddenly I want nothing more nor less than to be a sea lion, graceful and nimble, a creature with three dimensions of movement open to it instead of my humble two. It is an old wish, perhaps, that of flight, strangely inverted. But there's nothing for it. I swim back for the boat.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Hello from the Southern Hemisphere!

Drabbles are on hiatus while I am on a boat. Also, probably, while I am on a plane.

It's just as well, because I don't think even after this much practice I could summarize everything I have seen and done today in 100 words. I will try to figure out how to get pictures to post from the boat, and if so you will see pictures (guaranteed) of sea lions, blue-footed boobies, and land and sea iguanas at very close proximity. As in, I could almost touch the critters. If I can't figure out how to get those up onto these computers, well, you'll all have to wait until I get back California-side. At which point I'll have a big picture-posting party.

So, that's awesome.

I have a lot of thoughts in my journal, in part because I would journal when I didn't have anything else to do (which meant very often, in transit). But in the interest of not using up all of my internet minutes today, I'll keep those mostly to myself and put up highlights here (now that I've abandoned the 100 word limit, who knows how verbose I could be if I sat down and tried. And by tried I mean just wrote stream-of-consciousness).

At first I must admit I was a bit tentative about the cruise. There is a decided age gap in the passengers, one that I noticed when I was on a cruise with my parents last summer and continues to be the case here: the middle ground between 12 and 35 (where, for the present moment at least, I count myself) is... shall we say sparse? So I was a little bit nervous 1) that the excursions wouldn't be very exciting, if marketed mostly to a 'geriatric' crowd of retirees, and 2) that I wouldn't really find someone to be a buddy. But, fortunately, that's not a problem; there are four of us in this younger-but-not-kids age group, and I've made friends with them (as much as an awkward antisocial snellian like me can make friends, hah). Plus all the real grownups who aren't in their grown-up capacities since they are on vacation.

That said, today was full of nothing but good news. First is that there are empty beds on the ship. And one of them is in a cabin with me, which means that I have the cabin all to myself. Hooray! Second is that I've been here a total of one day and I have already seen galapagos sea lions and blue-footed boobies and frigate birds. As in, nesting on the trail for the first two. They said "Watch where you're stepping so you don't trip over the wildlife" and I thought they were joking. But I guess the sea lions and the boobies would have made a lot of noise if we had come too close to stepping on them.

Which means stepping on them, basically, since we all but touched the critters. I expect the rest of the time to be more of the same, so I'll hold back on details, but everyone here is friendly and nice, and apparently I'm supposed to tutor one of my new friends on basic genetic concepts like the maternal inheritance of male pattern baldness ("But what if you inherit your x-chromosome from your father?" "Then you're a woman." odd, I know, but whatever - I've got little better to do) and I can rarely pass up an opportunity to talk shop. I'll quiz him on Kuhn; he says he studies history of science.

In short, hello from the southern hemisphere! (I'm just barely south of the equator at the moment).

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Sometimes All You Need is a Hug

Inspired by the word "Haptic".
Nancy smiled and set down her cup of tea to read her letters. It was wonderful to have friends scattered hither and yon, and to know how they were all doing, and to be a part of their lives, although apart from their lives. It was wonderful to live in the sheltered constancy of nostalgia.

She nestled deeper into her armchair and ran her finger across each word. The psychic connection given by the letters, the aroma of paper, and ink, was lovely. But she still kept checking over her shoulder for someone’s warm presence, a hand on her shoulder.
I have found that, over the course of just one week living alone, I have retreated inwards to the point of silence. My voice, which was once strident and clear, is now barely above a whisper. I try to drown out the silence with music, to no avail. I feel all the more ridiculous singing and dancing around the apartment when there is no one to share in my joy, and I retreat into quiet thoughtfulness soon enough. But there is something stable about the silence, or at the very least nothing threatening about the silence. So I don't mind it so much. Perhaps this silence will teach me wit, and timing, and how to make the best use of everything I do say.

And at least I haven't started talking to myself.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Nutmeg Poisoning

The fact that nutmeg, in high enough doses, can cause hallucinations and psychotic episodes reminds me of "The Moonstone" by Wilkie Collins. Really, it's probably a good thing that not all Christmas parties are that exciting.

Joanna awoke in the middle of the night, heart racing. Someone was in her room. She sat up and a wave of nausea and dizziness swept over her. She fell back and tried to calm down. The room was silent but she could sense someone in it, watching her. No, that was impossible. She would have heard breathing; the creak of the floor as he entered. Her reasoning brought no comfort. She screamed.

No one heard.

Later, a friend would proclaim that the eggnog had been particularly strong. And Joanna accepted this, although it tasted of not Rum, but Nutmeg.

Countdown to Galapagos: 3 days!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Lost in Space

Inspired by Starbucks and an old CTA card.

No, really.

Erica was sipping at her double mocha latte frappuccino when she came adrift in space. She was plunged from awareness of her precise location – a Starbucks, at a certain corner in a certain city state country continent – to icy uncertainty. She was here, and she was two thousand miles away, and three, and even four. In cities where she once lived, or had visited, or had never even been.

She felt a wave of vertigo pass through her. No one else seemed bothered. Perhaps no one else noticed.

After all, it was a Starbucks, and they all looked the same.