Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Darwin, Welles and the Evolving Ego.

We spent last Friday at the American Museum of Natural History. I'd been to New York many times, but never made the time to go to this venue. Without a doubt, it's the most impressive scientific museum I've ever seen. Typically, scientific museums cater to small children, making it somewhat boring for adults. This museum has something for everyone. In particular, the new Darwin exhibit is absolutely amazing.

The interesting thing is, Darwin waited over twenty years to publish his work on natural selection. Why? Apparently he was frightened that he would be made a pariah in the scientific community. In a sense, his ego prevented him from publishing one of the greatest scientific discoveries in the history of mankind. As you walk through the exhibit, you can see Darwin's original writings on evolution. It's absolutely magnificent.

We walked through the museum, which spans four blocks. I witnessed the diversity of life, reminding myself that I was in the largest city in the United States. "The world is a big place," I thought to myself. On the contrary, as we entered the planetarium, I remembered how small the world is, in context of the many galaxies present in our universe.

Having frolicked through the museum, we got a quick dinner and went to "Orson's Shadow," a play focusing on the egotistical struggle between Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier during their attempted production of Ionesco's "Rhinoceros." This production brilliantly depicted how two men could evolve into egotistical maniacs, consistently trying to out do one another.

I left the play thinking how our ever evolving egos can be kept in check if only we consider the size of the world, the interconnected network that bonds us all and our place in the universe. Perspective, methinks, comes from deep evaluation of scale.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Cookin' With Bobby Flay.

The train ride to New York was easy enough. If you take the MTA, a one way ticket will cost you $14 from New Haven. If you take Amtrak, you'll spend $77. Can anybody guess which train we took? Both arrive at New Haven at exactly the same time. It's no wonder that Amtrak is a bust.

When we arrived we walked around Times Square. It had been a while since I'd been to New York. It's such an amazing place. The funny thing was, it was impossible to walk on the sidewalks. They were jammed with tourists saying things like "Wow, look a Hard Rock Cafe!" Note -- I was one of these tourists. I found myself marveling in the sights, sounds and yes, even the smells associated with Manhattan.

It was Thanksgiving day. We had missed the parade, but I hear it was of the "contact sport" variety. We had dinner at Bobby Flay's Bar Americain. The food was absolutely amazing. I'd like to tell you that Bobby Flay came right up to our table and hung out with us. No, that's not what happened. Instead, some lady at the table next to ours decided that looking at me incessantly and disapprovingly shaking her head would be a good way to enjoy her meal.

I swear, she did it 20 times. Was there a booger hanging out of my nose? Had I unwittingly soiled myself? What was her deal? Then I heard her say, in a thick syrupy accent, "Ah never thought we'd be sittin' next ta' one a them." She must have been refering to my status as a graduate student. Nobody likes to have Thanksgiving dinner next to a graduate student, right? It couldn't have been the color of my skin? Nah, she just didn't like the fact that I was a scientist. Yeah, that's it.

I leaned into the table and whispered loudly to Mrs. Vavoom, "Man, prejudiced people are such assholes. They can't even enjoy Thanksgiving without being insulting." The woman perked up. I thought to myself, "Yeah, that's right bitch. I heard you." Mrs. Vavoom then said loudly, "I heard what she said too, Vavoom. Do you want to move tables?" I can't tell you why, but I looked at my wife and we started laughing uncontrollably. Everytime I looked over at the lady next to us, I couldn't help it, I cracked up. We laughed until we cried. Soon enough, they moved to another table. Good Riddance.

Would you like to hear about the amazing time we had the next day? Tune in tomorrow... (Am I a tease or what?)

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Breakdown.

We hopped in our car, enthusiastic to get to New York City. We'd both been there many times, but this was a special occasion. I made a huge leap with my experiment on Wednesday night and for the first time, our vacation would be absent my typical concerns about science.

It was dumping snow along the 84. Suddenly, we heard a loud boom and something drop out from under the car. "Holy shit," I yelled out. We pulled over in New Haven, Connecticut, the home of Yale University. The power steering was giving out and we just made it into a gas station.

I opened the hood. The serpentine belt had come off and the radiator fan had shattered against the radiator. "This is just fucking great," I screamed. Suddenly, I felt a snowball hit me in the back. My wife started laughing as she ran for cover. There we were, at a random gas station, having the snowball fight of the century.

Half an hour later, covered in snow, we called AAA. We had the car towed out to a tow yard that also had a mechanic on site. He promised he'd have the car ready for us by Sunday night. How the hell did we get to Manhattan? You guessed it -- we took the train.

What adventures awaited us in New York? Stay tuned, I'll have more for you tomorrow...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Nerdy Fun.

If comic books weren't nerdy enough already, Nature Publishing Group has come out with it's own comic entitled "Adventures in Synthetic Biology." As someone that loves science and comic books, I'm in heaven.

The Trip.

You're 3,000 miles away from home, in a hostile land where the weather is cold and the drivers are mean. Where do you go for Thanksgiving? That's right, New York City! Me and Mrs. Vavoom will be staying in Times Square, hanging out with David Letterman, Howard Stern and Michael Bloomberg.

We've planned out the trip and we're going to have a fantastic time. I've needed a nice long break. These next four days will serve that purpose. Don't worry, I'll take plenty of pictures and post them when I get back. Before then, give me some suggestions of what you'd like to see pictures of. I'll do my best to provide. Also, tell me what your plans are for the holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Go Stowers!

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute supports the activities of hundreds of biomedical labs across the country and abroad. For years, this organization was the premiere private granting institution. Their goal was clear -- provide funding to labs conducting risky research that doen't traditionally receive funding from the federal government. It's been a huge success, funding some of the most successful research within the biomedical world.

Enter Jim Stowers, the founder of American Century Investments. Stowers and his wife, Virginia, are loaded. They decided to begin their own organization, the Stowers Institute, similar to HHMI. They've built a massive research campus in Kansas City and are now recruiting and funding the best and brightest in biomedical research.

It's certainly good to see filthy rich people putting their money to good use.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Smart Reading.

Wanna feel like you haven't done anything with your life? Read this.

UPDATE: Commenters have the right idea here. Your task now is to write an overly flattering bio of yourself. Do it, damn you!!!

Sunday, November 20, 2005


That's four in a row!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Spamming Evil Spirits.

Like the rest of you, I get heaps of spam a day. Spam for me comes in three varieties. Most of them are Turkish. I have no idea why, but someone has decided that Vavoom Q. Citizen is fond of Turkish porn. Hence I get about 10 of these e-mails per day.

The other kind of spam that I get is from prospective students wishing to attend Fancypants University. This is actually rather bizarre. When I was at Berkeley, I never received any e-mails from strangers asking, "How did you get in? What was your GPA? Please review and correct my resume." I try to be nice and give them my suggestions, but I received three of these e-mails yesterday. I honestly don't have time to correct three resumes and give them an honest evaluation.

Finally, I keep getting the same damn spam message over and over again, every day. Here's a snippet:

Dear, friend!
Don't hesitate to contact us, if you are facing one or more of the following problems. Within few minutes, we'll make your life cool and calm.
Bad-mannered Husband / Wife Hurdles in Love Marriages
Demon's Effects Improper Love Affairs
Family Disputes Bounded Business
Sexual Diseases Effects of Evil Spirit
Infertility Unemployment
Psyche Problems Adversity
Study Problems Visa Problems
Property Disputes Other Problems

Thank God! Finally, I can get help for my sexual diseases and effects of evil spirit! Now, if only someone would spam me offering decent spam blocking software...

Tell me, what's your favorite spam?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

My Achy Breaky Head.

I've mentioned before that my sleep cycle has been regulated. Well, as a result of getting a full 8 hours of sleep a night, I'm now waking up with excruciating headaches. Fantastic, huh?

What makes having a monster headache particularly fun is having to meet with collaborators and have a well thought out coherent conversation. The conversation went something like this:

C1: So, I think the variation in our signal is because of x, y and z.
V: Uh huh.
C2: Yeah and we're confident that our results tell us that blah blah blah...
V: Uh huh.
C1: Isn't that amazing?
V: Uh huh.
C2: So what do you think would be a good next step, Vavoom?
V: Uh huh.

God help me, I couldn't get more than an "uh huh" out. Now I'm off to class. I have a strange suspicion that won't get much out of it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Deconstructing George.

I'm feeling a tad ornery today. Could someone please tell me what George W. Bush has done well? We're trapped in an ill advised war, current government spending is bordering on recklessness, religious conservatism is deeply intertwined with public policy and unethical practices abound (read: torture and CIA leaks).

It's not surprising that W's numbers are down. It's not clear what he's doing well.

I never supported the war in Iraq. I've always stood against government bloat and spending. I dislike the typical "I told you so" mentality that most liberals are taking, but for God's sake wasn't it clear all of this was coming? Conservatives often claim that Democrats don't have ideas. I tend to think having no ideas is better than implementing bad ideas.

I'm asking for your objective opinion. What has George W. Bush done well?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


About two weeks ago I proposed an experiment to Prof. Bigshot. It was a great idea and Bigshot agreed. Suddenly, Bigshot did a 180 on me and decided it wasn't a good experiment. I just found out that Bigshot has farmed out my idea to another faculty member's group. When I went to class today, this is what I overheard:

I1: Man, so it's a completely new way to probe the system... what a great idea!
I2: Yeah, Prof. Bigshot talked to Prof. SoSo and I get to try the experiment. It's going to be an amazing collaboration.
I1: Dude, you are so lucky... these Fancypants profs have the best fucking ideas.
I2: I know, I know... They're going to write an entire grant around this experiment.

I kept listening. Yup, it was the experiment I proposed. I counted to ten about 5 times. I was still pissed off. What did Vavoom learn today? Keep your mouth shut, do the experiment and then scream the results to the world.

Monday, November 14, 2005


I'm not sure what's caused this change. I'm as happy as I've been in a long while. Ahh, the roller coaster that is my life. I took the entire weekend off. We spent Saturday running around Boston and went to Providence, Rhode Island on Sunday. A little R and R was just what the doctor ordered.

Just outside Brown University, in a small cafe, I saw a man crying. He was sobbing uncontrollably. Strangely, the people in the cafe didn't even glance in his direction. I stood outside the cafe, staring at him for a while. I knew where he was. I've been there many times.

He looked up from his frothy drink and stared at me. His eyes swollen and red, his cheeks glazed with tears. I smiled, nodded and worded, "It's going to be okay." He returned a smile and added, "Eventually. Thank you."

Now that I'm feeling better (yes my recovery is ongoing, but dramatic), I feel the need to help others that might be in the same position I've been in for so long. Who's to say that me, a one time miserable wretch, could help anyone get through their saddened state? I can certainly try. Ultimately, we're all helped through tough times by divine providence. Whether that be through the action of a stranger outside of a coffee shop, a friend late at night or a concerned family member, it all makes a difference. I often wonder, are we all God's hands? Does goodness come from the simple actions of decent people? Or do you believe divine intervention comes through larger, undetectable means?

Friday, November 11, 2005


Yes, I was randomly called on for a "chalk talk" at group meeting yesterday. This time, I was ready. I had planned out how I was going to present my work and all of the subsequent issues I'm having with my project. I laid it out logically.

Questions flew. I shot them down. It was fantastic. No matter how they nit picked, no matter what they did, I had the right answer. I doled out some added punishment to group members that hammered on me the last time I was called up.

I walked home with a little extra bounce in my step. I'm feeling confident, very confident. The more time I spend here, the more I realize that I can do this. I can't say this was the greatest victory I've ever had, but certainly it was pretty good.

I pose to you the following question -- Tell me, what's your greatest victory?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Group Meeting.

Oh, lucky me. Bigshot has come back into town and is in the worst mood I've ever seen. Normally I wouldn't care, but I've caught wind that I'll have to give another chalk talk today at group meeting. Compiling to all of that is the fact that we'll have another faculty guest. The guest, Prof. Megalomaniac, hails from Berkeley and is known to tear people to shreds during their meetings. Lovely.

It's just one tidal wave after another...

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Hey, Superman!

You've all seen Superman II. You know, the one where Superman battles three super villains all dressed in black. It's one of my favorite movies. There's a scene in particular that always cracks me up. Ursa, the evil female super villain calls out, "Hey, Superman" and proceeds to launch a manhole cover into Superman's chest. Whatever the context, I always tried to fit that line into conversations I had with friends. Strange, I know, but it used to crack me up.

A few days ago, my close friend called me from Southern California. "Hey, I want you to hear something." The phone was fumbled a bit, then I heard it. His adorable 3 year old son got on the phone and said, "Hey, Superman!" I began laughing hysterically. My friend got back on the phone, "We thought you'd get a kick out of that."

It was a small gesture, but it made my night. It got me thinking, my friends are trying so hard. They're doing everything they can to help me through this rough patch. I'm lucky. They're all so busy and yet they're trying their best to make sure I know they're there for me. My family is doing likewise. My siblings call me daily, just to make sure I'm doing alright.

The saying goes, when one leg of a table is gone, it's the other three that keep it standing. I now realize how true that is.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Starts With A C, Ends with A P.

I just finished giving a 2 hour talk to a room full of 100 people. I was up all night preparing. God, I'm so tired. I feel like crap. Need sleep. Unfortunately, I need to stay at work and get some data. Bigshot is coming back into town and I need to complete my proof that the experiment is off the ground.

What do you folks do when you have to work and you're dead tired? Coffee -- I've tried that. Speed -- no thanks.

Monday, November 07, 2005


You normal people have it good. Really. This weekend I got 8 hours of sleep per night. 8 hours! I've never been so well rested. I'll remind you that I normally get 3-4 hours of sleep per night. The health clinic gave me some gangbusters good medicine that helps regulate my sleep schedule. Wow, you guys are so lucky to be able to sleep normally.

Before the weekend's begin I finally got my experiment to work! Yes!!! I've been fighting with this crazy ass project, tooth and nail. Finally I've got it going. Thank God.

In addition to all of that, my friends were visiting this weekend. That was, perhaps, the best medicine I could have taken. We scooted around Boston, visited some good bookstores, ate at fancy restaurants and had a good time in general.

It's been a while since I've been able to provide an upbeat post. Well, mark your calendars... today is the day. I can't guarantee that I'll be alright tomorrow, but I can promise you this -- today is going to be a good day. I guess that's the best any of us can do.

Friday, November 04, 2005


It was an urgent visit. I needed to be there. It was, in fact, the first time that I ever felt like I needed to be carted off in a straightjacket. He was an old man, his tie looked like it was from the seventies. We had been talking for an hour already, then came the big questions:

Dr. C: Can you tell me, Mr. Vavoom, are you in danger of hurting yourself?

V: I'm smart enough to know that you'll put me in a 5150 hold if I say yes. Thus the answer is no.

Dr. C: I'm serious, are you going to harm yourself or anyone else?

V: No.

Dr. C: Well, I'm going to be frank with you. Your diagnosis is rather severe and that's why we've decided to handle this a bit differently.

V: I see.

Dr. C: Vavoom, you suffer from severe posttraumatic stress disorder. It's the worst I've ever seen in a student.

V: What qualifies you to make that diagnosis?

Dr. C: 30 years of working with veterans.

V: Oh... okay... I think I want a second opinion. All of this sounds like bullshit.

Dr. C: Well, that's just it. You've seen three people here. All of them have independently provided the same diagnosis.

V: Oh.

Dr. C: Listen, you went through something very terrible and for a long, long time you've been living like this. It's time to fix that.

V: I don't have posttraumatic stress disorder. How is that possible?

Dr. C: We can go into that next time. For now, I'm supposed to determine if you need hospitalization.

V: Oh Jesus Fucking Christ, give me break. I come here to get help and you guys are trying to throw me in a fucking looney bin?

Dr. C: Hang on, hang on. When I first looked at your records, I was convinced that I'd need to place you under supervised care. I was a bit surprised after talking to you. You're a very funny guy. You're very kind, warm and witty. I ask myself, 'How has this guy been able to do all of this given everything that's happened to him in his life? How the hell did he survive a childhood like that? How is it possible that he's accomplished so much? Why is he so well adjusted?' Do you want to know the answer?

V: Dazzle me with your insight.

Dr. C: You're strong. Very strong. Stronger than 99% of the people that I've seen. You're in a terrible slump. You've been in that terrible slump for a while. Yet, every morning you get up, work 16 hours a day, go home, study and keep moving along. You do this 7 days a week, despite your sadness. Now it's time to slow down and let someone help you. You have a severe problem and it needs to be addressed. You've got everything going for you, kid. Everything. Let me help you.

V: Wait, did you just call me kid? What is this, some cheesed out Hollywood movie?

Dr. C: Hahahahaha. See... that's funny.

V: Yeah, I'm a regular Rodney Dangerfield.

Dr. C: What do you say? Let's start working through this. I'll help you. How does tomorrow afternoon look for you?

I stopped and pondered that question for a while. Thoughts ran through my head like a swarm of bees. Do I want to dredge it all up? I'm over all of it, right? Besides, he's not going to be able to help, just look at his tie for God's sake. What if he can? Will all of it stop? Finally I answered:

V: Yes. Tomorrow afternoon sounds good.

Dr. C: I won't let you down.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


I'm fortunate to have good friends. I must say, having left most of them behind in Berkeley has been a trying experience. Like any long distance relationship, communication lags, understanding wanes and availability is an issue.

One problem I've had to deal with is finding the means of appropriately discussing my unhappiness with them. I'm no longer an integral part of their lives. I don't know about their broken down car, their new sofa that won't fit through the door and the like. I often struggle to discuss my personal matters without feeling intrusive or creating a burden.

I have to be honest. I am as depressed as I've ever been. Several factors are contributing to this downward spiral. The loss in locality of my friends has been a major one. Sure, I've met a few people here. Still, I can't seem to find time to meet too many. Normally, if my experiment wasn't working, I could simply walk across the hall or down a flight of stairs and talk shop with my friends. I'm clearly not in that type of situation now.

It's all rather sad. Two close friends have come to visit me from Berkeley. I picked them up from the airport. As they approached my car, I nearly burst out in tears. My lacrimals were at work for two reasons. On one hand, I was elated to see them. On the other, I was already sad that they'll be leaving soon. I'm not planning on deeply discussing my personal problems with them while they're here. I really want them to simply have fun and relax.

It's interesting, even my blog numbers sag when I discuss my misery. Nobody likes a wet blanket. Unfortunately, when dealing with me these days that's all I seem to be able to offer.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Horror.

We have a single user restroom for our entire lab. It's a feature common to many labs here at Fancypants University. It has all the amenities you'd expect in a single user restroom -- toilet paper, butt gaskets, clean toilet, sink, etc. The only thing that's lacking is a reliable latch on the door.

This morning I strolled into the restroom, prepared to conduct my morning defecation ritual. When I was finished wiping, I just wasn't as clean as I'd like to be. So, I decided that I would carry out an age old solution to the dirty butt syndrome. I wet the toilet paper. Yes, you heard it here first, I wet the toilet paper and then use it. It's a single user restroom. Nobody's going to see me, right?

I stood over the toilet, reaching over to wet the paper in the sink and then use it. Just as I reached over to wet one final time, the bathroom door opens. It's Prof. Bigshot. Bigshot yelled out in horror, "Oh Jesus, Vavoom!" When the door closed, I heard Bigshot ask, "What the hell are you doing in there?" "I'll be done in a minute," I responded, "Just give me a minute..."

When I left the bathroom, Bigshot was outside with two other faculty members. Apparently they were all headed somewhere and Bigshot wanted to stop off at the bathroom. I can't tell you why, but the disgusted look on their faces made me erupt in laughter. I couldn't stop. I'm still chuckling as I write this.

My advisor has now seen me naked and knows that I wet my toilet paper. I've also managed to disgust another two faculty members in one day. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Implicit Bias.

Are human beings inherently judgmental? Of course, you'll respond. Yet how can you prove that? Social scientists at Harvard University have developed a system to test whether or not an individual is implicitly biased against a given group or concept. Check the site out and see for yourself.

This leads me to our topic du jour -- Does our increasingly politically correct way of life mask society's problems? Imagine a prejudiced person (if you don't know one, look in the mirror... we're all prejudiced), is it really a good idea for that person to mask their true beliefs for the sake of sparing another's feelings? Or is it better to openly express your feelings and address them in public?