Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: July, 2004

Recent Reading

The Confusion by Neal Stephenson. As a volume continuing the Baroque Cycle (started by Quicksilver) the style is in the same vein. If you liked Quicksilver, you’ll probably also like this one. I personally kept putting off reading it the past two months because of its imposing bulk and the author’s penchant for being long-winded. Another note: as I was reading parts of The Confusion, I thought it might be more exciting to read an actual non-fiction economics and history book. Or maybe I just don’t have the patience to read fiction any more.

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. I went through high school biology before this book became required reading in the classrooms, but I did see Outbreak. At any rate, this makes me appreciate the fact that the bacteria that I work with are babies compared to these viral Godzillas. This is not something you would want to read right before going to bed–because you’d be wishing that you were living like the bubble boy before you’re through. Preston focuses on the filoviruses which include Marburg and various Ebola strains. There are particularly gory descriptions of these viruses’ effects on humans: severe hemorrhagic fever that in about a week’s incubation time, turns a normal person into a liquefied bag o’ viruses. Most of the book deals with an Ebola outbreak in a Virginian monkey lab–scary not because of the infection and spread itself but of bureaucracy, politics, personal fears, and grudges that get in the way of more effective containment.

Current reading: I am in the middle of Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom which depending on mood, an interesting history about a chess piece or a blatantly feminist take on European history. Also, I’m on the verge of starting Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague. Not surprisingly, I’m more excited about starting the huge tome on infectious diseases than a piece of fiction that won a National Book Award.

Update on Food

I am not sure if anyone liked the pie even though people kept telling me they liked it because my advisor made a big production of it. However, I do know people liked the potato and cucumber salad because I managed to sneak it into the pile of other main dishes without anyone looking and only when everyone tasted everything people began demanding, “Who made the potato salad?” Of course they made me tell them the recipe.

Once again, I dodged the bullet of bad food. I wonder if my luck will hold the next time I have to make food for other people.

Recipe Craziness

Cooking is only fun when I have free time and when I can’t think of anything else to do. Last minute potluck parties are bad because I can never think of what to make. Besides, it also means that I have to go out and buy stuff. I usually don’t have enough food in the house to feed twenty people.

So after going through many recipes, I decided on some things I found in the magazine Bon Appétit. Yes, I know this is a stupid yuppie magazine, but I was getting desperate and at least it had pictures so I had some vague idea how the recipes should turn out. That said, I took some major liberties and altered the said recipes–due to laziness, ingredients I couldn’t find, and ingredients I didn’t have the stomach to put in.

* * *
Potato and Cucumber Salad

2 large cucumbers
5 lbs. golden potatoes
6 tablespoons white vinegar
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup mint, finely chopped
1 cup thinly sliced onion
8 radishes, thinly sliced
3/4 cup mayonnaise

Note: Except for the number of cucumbers, I estimated everything else. I would guess it would serve 10 to 12 people, if you don’t have many other dishes.

Dissolve the kosher salt into the vinegar. Thinly slice the cucumbers and add the salt-vinegar mixture. Let the cucumbers soak in this solution overnight. Meanwhile, peel and cut up the potatoes and boil them. Do not cook them over 30 minutes or they will get mushy! Drain potatoes and let them cool. Once the cucumbers are done soaking, drain them, and mix them in with the potatoes along with the onion, radishes, and mint. Add some pepper. Finally add the mayonnaise and mix well. It can either be served refrigerated or at room temperature.

* * *
Apricot Apple Pie

1/2 cup grape nuts
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup almonds, chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) chilled margarine

1 1/2 lbs. apricot preserves, halved
1 lbs. apple filling
5 tablespoons of sugar
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon almond extract

Note: I also estimated everything here except for the margarine. I bought the crust (9 inch, deep dish) instead of making it from scratch because I didn’t have time.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. For the topping, add all the ingredients except the margarine. Cut up the margarine and add it last. Mix until everything is on the verge of forming moist clumps. For the filling, add apricots, sugar, cornstarch, and almond extract and mix. Add to the crust. For the next layer, add the apple filling. Now add the topping and bake the pie until the topping is brown and the filling is bubbling. I recommend putting a tray beneath the pie when you’re baking it because the liquid part of the filling tends to leak out.

Ed Lewis

Oh wow. I just heard about this too. Pharyngula has an excellent piece about this brilliant geneticist. I remember when I was taking a genetics lab with about nine other students and we would walk through the third floor of Kerckhoff past rows of bottled flies and the prof would tell us, “This is where Ed Lewis and Seymour Benzer work.” And I remember being very impressed that these guys were still doing what they loved when other people their age were sitting on the beach enjoying the sun.

Francis Crick

Yesterday, a great biologist passed away after a long battle with colon cancer. On one hand, I’m not sure what to say. As a student, I’ve pretty much viewed Crick as a historical fixture in science textbooks. I don’t know him. I haven’t even seen or heard him in person. Other people are way more qualified than I am to talk about Crick’s life and work. So in a way, I doubt that my feelings or thoughts about this matter to anyone else except myself. However, I can say how I think his work has influenced me.

Like most people, I heard of “Watson and Crick” before I learned that these were two separate men. When I was about nine or ten, I became fascinated with genetics. Which I suppose isn’t that surprising now that I look back–what kid hasn’t wondered why we look the way we do? I remember checking out a book from the local library with a picture of a simplified DNA helix and thinking, “That’s so cool.” But at that time, I was far more interested in how the thing worked. I never thought to ask about the people who figured everything out in the first place.

Fast forward to high school biology. It was a horrible class. How I escaped it with my love of the subject intact is still somewhat of a mystery to me. There were very few bright spots that I remember about the class and none of them had to do with the teacher. One was the showing of the movie The Race for the Double Helix. I actually don’t remember exactly what I saw but I do remember coming away with the feeling that science wasn’t just a bunch of stuffy people in lab coats, science was exciting.

About two years ago, when I was in my last term at Caltech, I decided to take a neurobiology course about the correlates of consciousness just for the heck of it. The class was taught by Christoph Koch–one of Crick’s last collaborators. The textbook for the class, co-written by Crick, was still in its rough draft form and the students in the class were invited to submit suggestions for revision if we came across any errors. Crick never visited the class, but his collaborator had plenty of stories about him and what we learned was infused with Crick’s ideas on consciousness, perception, and self. This was literally the kind of thing that made students apply to grad school instead of medical school.

So aside from his actual work, Francis Crick is an inspiration. Anyone can navel-gaze and psychoanalyze and say “This is who I am.” But I have more admiration for those who really dig down deep to the fundamentals–all the way to the atomic level–to find out really who we are.

The Thursday Threesome: Knit One, Purl Too

Onesome- Knit one: Do you have a crafty hobby? Knitting, stitching, scrapbooking or model building, whatever it is, tell us about it! Or is there a crafty hobby you’d like to take up if had the time and/or money to do so?

No, I do not have a crafty hobby. I don’t have an interest even if I did have the time and money. I’m not the domestic type.

At one time my mother did try to interest me in sewing and knitting but I simply didn’t take to it. I guess I don’t have the type of patience to deal with that kind of thing. But to be fair, I didn’t take to the computer programming my father tried to interest me in either.

Twosome- Purl: Or rather, pearl. What’s your birthstone? And while you’re at it, what’s your sign? *g*

I always thought that birthstones were something the jewelry industry cooked up to increase sales. Anyways, my birthstone is topaz or citrine–which I never thought was very interesting. The only time I was really interested in rocks was when I took a geology class.

I’m sure I mentioned my signs elsewhere in the blog, but here they are again: monkey, scorpio.

Threesome- Too: Too much? Have you had enough of the political coverage already? …or are you waiting for things to really gear up in the Fall?

There’s always too much political coverage.

Tangled Bank #8

Head on over to for this week’s compilation of biology posts. I promise it’s more interesting than my rants about my neighbors and nonexistent cooking skills.

Pseudo Chef

Aw crap. Apparently my former housemates have been spreading tall tales about me. Now my advisor thinks I’m an expert cook and I’m supposed to bring some sort of culinary masterpiece to the next party. I guess I’m off to ransack some recipe websites.


Kill scientists, says animal rights chief. To the fury of groups working with animals, Jerry Vlasak, a trauma surgeon and prominent figure in the anti-vivisection movement, told The Observer: ‘I think violence is part of the struggle against oppression. If something bad happens to these people [animal researchers], it will discourage others. It is inevitable that violence will be used in the struggle and that it will be effective.’ So I guess this guy has never heard of Ghandi?

Ogre? Octopus? Blobologists Solve an Ancient Mystery. Yep, with DNA tests, they have finally figured out that the blobs washing ashore are just bits of whale blubber–not decomposing aliens.

Silly Putty

Since no one answered the previous post, I’ll either assume no one knows anything about the earplugs on market these days or everyone thought I was just trying to be amusing. Well, I have said before that I could sleep through almost everything–but the key thing is: almost. I thought getting my own apartment would also eliminate what I found so annoying about roommates and dorms, but no. And did I mention that I also had a thesis committee meeting yesterday? Even though I didn’t fall flat on my face, it’s a bad idea going through those things feeling spacey. So last night I picked up some Mack’s Earplugs. It’s like putting silly putty in your ear except you don’t have to stick anything down your ear canal. I think they sort of worked although I still heard my crazy neighbors slamming their doors.