Thursday, March 31, 2005

And rich people wear copies of their fine jewelry

I went to the Free Library to get an E. Nesbit book that I had never read. Actually, I had never read any E. Nesbit books, which was why I wanted one. Apparently, E. Nesbit was a prolific writer of children’s books who had somehow escaped my attention when I was growing up, and I felt like I was missing out. Plus, I like reading children’s books. Even though I’m a grown up.

So I went down to get it, but I couldn’t find any E. Nesbit books in the stacks. Which seemed odd, because this was the main library of a major city, and, as I mentioned, E. Nesbit was a prolific writer of children’s books. But it was doubly odd, because the book I wanted was listed in the electronic catalog as being in the stacks. So I went to ask at the desk.

“Do you have The Railway Children by E. Nesbit? I can’t find it in the stacks anywhere,” I said. The librarian went to her computer and typed a few keys.

“Oh,” she said. “Here’s the problem. It’s in the rare book room. You can’t check it out. In fact, no one is even allowed to go in there.”

“No one?” I said, surprised. “No one can look at these books?”

“No, no one,” she replied.

“But someone must be allowed to look at them,” I said. “You must be able to get permission somehow. I mean, I understand that no one is allowed to check them out, but why would you keep them if no one can look at them?” But the librarian was insistent that no one was ever allowed to go into the rare book room. Not scholars, not historians, not anyone.

I gave up trying to understand this, although I still think she was wrong. Perhaps she thought I myself was trying to get permission to go in there. I was not. I just wanted to get her to admit that having a collection of books that no one is allowed to even look at, never mind read, is completely insane. They must let someone look at them. Otherwise, they may as well burn them and just tell people they have them. Same thing.

It reminded me of how, in college, when people were lucky enough to get a really good parking space in front of the dorm instead of way up the hill behind the dorm, they tended to never drive anywhere ever again. Because if they drove into town, they would lose their sweet spot close to the door. The one that minimized the walking distance from the dorm to the car. So instead, they walked into town.

Anyway, on the way home from the library, I stopped at a tiny children’s bookstore and picked up a paperback copy of the exceedingly rare The Railway Children for about $4. There are only millions of copies left in print, so I was lucky to get such a deal.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Zucchini, banana; to-may-to, to-mah-to

Someone had put a loaf of zucchini bread on the public, “you all are welcome to eat this” table in the lab. (Yes, in the lab. I believe we’ve covered this. It’s not like we ate it off of our lab notebooks or anything.) There wasn’t much left, but I had a piece from the end of it. The Doktah was working nearby, and I sidled over to her and whispered conspiratorially, “Don’t have any of the zucchini bread. It’s really dry.”

She looked at me. “It’s banana bread! And I made it.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

How about this, does this hurt?

So two years ago, I woke up on a Thursday morning with a stomachache. No fever or anything else, just a pain in my lower right quadrant. But I didn’t yet know it was called my “lower right quadrant.” I lay in bed for awhile, but the pain didn’t get better, so I called my mom. I’m not sure about my brother, but my sisters and I all feel the need to run our symptoms by our mom – who is a nurse – before we can go to the doctor. I talked to my mom, and she convinced me that I should go to Student Health, even though I felt embarrassed to go see the doctor about a simple case of indigestion. But it did hurt kind of a lot.

I called The Doktah to ask for a ride, because I didn’t think I could walk the mile or so to Student Health. The Doktah hung up on me. It’s pretty funny, actually. She hung up on me because it was early-ish in the morning, and she figured I was calling to find out if she would be at the lab soon, and did she want to go get coffee. She answered on the second call with an impatient, “What!” and I asked her, in a voice on the verge of tears, for a ride to the hospital.

She still feels bad about that.

At Student Health, the triage nurse confirmed that I had no fever. So I just had the pain. Oh, and I threw up a few times. But I still didn’t think it was anything, because books, TV and the movies had led me to believe that people with appendicitis have a fever and pain so bad they can’t stand up. But when the doctor pressed down on my lower right quadrant, we started to think it might be appendicitis.

I had a series of tests to rule stuff out, and finally had a CT scan which confirmed the diagnosis of appendicitis, but I had to wait awhile for the surgery thanks to the noxious contrasting agent I had to drink. In the meantime, my mom, who was incredibly calm and nurse-like on the phone with me, was hysterically calling my brother and sisters and The Doktah and The Husband. Or so I’m told. The Doktah, in an effort to make up for hanging up on her friend in need, was serving as information coordinator for The Husband, my mom, The P.I., and the rest of the lab. And she also came over to the ER to keep me company, once I was officially checked into the hospital, post CT scan.

Which means she was there for the series of doctors, interns, and medical students who came over one at a time to press on my stomach and take a history. By the end, the Doktah could have told the story herself. “I woke up with a pain in my stomach. It felt like indigestion. I took two Phazymes, but it didn’t get better. I threw up three or four times. I haven’t had a fever.”

Then the doctor/student would push on each quadrant of my belly and say, “Does this hurt? This? This? This?”

“No, no, no, yes.”

Then he’d say, “Well, all signs point to acute appendicitis, and your CT scan confirms it.” One of the doctors drew me a little sketch of my intestines and appendix to explain what appendicitis is. And one of the doctors went digging for gold in my stomach. He pressed on my upper left quadrant and said, “Does this hurt?” The appendix is in the lower right quadrant, but any quadrant hurts when someone is feeling for your spine from the front. The Doktah, who was sitting with her eyes level with the bed, swears she saw his whole hand disappear into my abdomen. I was also interviewed by a social worker who asked if I was afraid in my own home, I guess to make sure that someone didn’t beat the appendicitis into me.

The Husband arrived – I had called and asked him to come down when the appendicitis was confirmed (he was only The Fiance at the time, remember), and they finally wheeled me into the operating room around ten that night. The Husband and The Doktah waited for me until 2 am or some such hour, when they were told that I wouldn’t be awake until the next day, and to go home.

The next day, I was in a fair amount of pain, but they kicked me out in the afternoon anyway with naught but a prescription for Percocet and instructions to rest. (My mom still gets really mad when this is brought up.) So my first night at home was really rough; a hospital bed would have been a great improvement over my hundred-year-old mattress of which I was the third owner. Nevertheless, I continued to improve, and by the time my parents arrived on Sunday I was able to go for brief walks and everything. But I didn’t go into the lab that weekend, or even that Monday.


The following Tuesday I had also been planning to do an experiment that I had begun setting up weeks before, and I didn’t want to have to start over. I couldn’t manage it on Tuesday, but I went in the next day to do it. Because my wedding was in a few months, and I was running out of time to get experiments done. And because I really, really, really did not want to start the experiment over. Weeks of preparation here, people. And because that is the life of a grad student. Major surgery is nothing compared to the pain of postponing your graduation.

The experiment? One sentence of my thesis.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The nieces keep me in line

My first year of grad school, I went to a Halloween party. I hate Halloween parties, because I hate dressing up, and so I strive to find “costumes” where I get to wear regular clothes, like when I was Harry Potter and just drew a scar on my head. (I already wear glasses.) Then I get to the party and everyone looks great in their fun costumes, and I feel like a schmuck in regular clothes. But I figured I should go in an effort to be sociable.

Being without costumey clothes, I asked The Doktah for help. She loves Halloween, and every year can pull together a great costume from articles she happens to have in her closet. So she lent me a black dress and a witch hat. When Muffet Niece asked me what I was going to be for Halloween, I told her a witch.

She looked at me critically, and said, “You have the hair for it.”

Oy, you students make me kvell!

After our qualifiers, The Doktah ran into the Dean of Engineering, who was also a member of our department. “I heard you passed your qualifier!” he said. “Congratulations! Or, as we say in my country, mazel tov!”

The Dean was from Argentina.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Death Soccer

Second only to my fear of flocking pigeons is my fear of flying balls. Although softballs make me flinch, soccer balls are the scariest. You see, during grad school, I foolishly joined both an intramural soccer team and an intramural softball team, despite my known lack of athletic grace in team sports. (I also played one game of intramural basketball, but that was short-lived, much to the relief of my team.)

I’m not completely without athleticism. I joined a Tae Kwon Do club my first summer at grad school, and I earned my blue belt by the time I graduated. I probably would have gotten to high blue belt if I had not been sidelined by appendicitis, or if we had had belt tests more often. I’m also not a bad swimmer, and if I work at it, I can be a respectable jogger. Racquet sports hold no fear for me, despite the presence of a flying ball. I think it’s because I’m armed.

But team sports? Well, there’s where I fall apart. I just can’t keep up with the location of the ball. And the bigger the field, the harder it is to keep track of the ball, so soccer is much more difficult than, say, volleyball. But as bad as I was at soccer before I joined the intramural team, I got much, much worse while on the team.

Athletic Post Doc had formed the team, and he even had us go through a few practices. At one of the practices, while we were running drills, The Doktah kicked the ball into my face. It was an accident – The Doktah stinks at soccer too, and she wouldn’t have hit me if she were aiming for me – but it still hurt, and my fear of the flying ball increased a bit.

Then the day of our first game was upon us. It was a crisp October day, perfect for a friendly game of soccer. Athletic Post Doc got us all in a circle to kick around the ball and warm up. I was concentrating really hard, trying to follow the ball so that I wouldn’t lose it in the air. Athletic Post Doc kicked it to The Husband, The Husband passed it to The Doktah. I turned towards her, and she kicked it into my face. Again. Hard. The ball slammed into my glasses which cut into the side of my nose. I thought I had a black eye, but I didn’t. (Aside: I have been hit in the face a handful of times, either by an errant ball, or a punch in Tae Kwon Do. Or a fall down a marble staircase. Each time it hurt so much I was sure I had a black eye, but I never did. Not even any swelling. Black eyes must be awful.)

The Doktah seemed to feel bad about her so-called “poor aim,” and the warm-up broke up as I acted all wimpy and whined about it hurting. But because of strict gender rules in intramural sports, our team would have to forfeit if I did not play. So, for the sake of the team, I stayed.

The Husband played goalie, and I played whatever position that kept me far away from the action. I was still feeling pretty skittish, and about ten minutes into the game, The Husband blocked a goal, scooped up the ball and called out my name. As I turned toward him, he flung the ball at my head with all his strength. I involuntarily screamed and ducked, covering my head with my hands.

This is a very embarrassing thing to do during a soccer game. Because apparently, what you’re supposed to do in soccer when the ball comes towards you, is field it. Or whatever it’s called in soccer. You know, get control of it and either pass it to someone or kick it at the goal or something. Apparently, you’re not supposed to shriek and cower. But I was still traumatized, so my reflex was to duck and cover. I couldn’t help it, and I looked like a moron.

So now I was embarrassed and my nose hurt. Was it really so awful of me to be a teensy bit relieved when The Husband broke his finger saving a goal and I got to quit the game to go to the ER? I wasn’t glad he broke his finger. I was just… not upset to leave the game.

I don’t play soccer anymore.

Epilogue: This soccer game was about two weeks before The Husband and I went on vacation to Cancun. We were really looking forward to snorkling, and we were concerned that a cast would prevent him from going in the water. They fitted him with a removable cast, and we ended up wrapping his arm in a plastic bag the day of the snorkling. The thing was, the bag had a hole in it. So The Husband snorkled, then got out of the ocean with a plastic bag full of water on his hand. It’s funny, but only because the cast survived and we didn’t have to go to the Mexican ER.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Everyone should be tidy bonus feature

I should have provided a link in the original entry, but I decided to do it here. You may remember my post from last year called Engineers like to chart things. I would like to call your attention to the last chart on the page, which is the plot of Suck vs. Time for discovering that all of your data is wrong. Now you know where that comes from.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Everyone should be tidy when they eat

Let me tell you about my thesis proposal. It was quite a time in my life. The stuff of nightmares, really. Actual nightmares. People have literally dreamed that this happened to them.

I gave my thesis proposal in my third year of grad school, having spent two and a half years working on my project, doing experiments, gathering data. The night before I was supposed to hand in the written proposal to my committee, which was two weeks before the oral presentation, The P.I. was reading it over for editing purposes. That’s when it happened.

“This calculation,” he said. “Are you sure about the units? Can I see the spreadsheet?” So we looked at the spreadsheet on the computer. And you know what we found? We found that in my spreadsheet, the spreadsheet which I used over and over to analyze two and a half year’s worth of data, was wrong. It seems that I had multiplied some numbers by 10-9 Newtons, but called them pico-Newtons. The problem? Pico- is 10-12. That’s three orders of magnitude off. The numbers I was reporting were actually one thousand times larger than I was claiming them to be. And with the correct units, none of the numbers made any sense at all. Essentially everything I had done so far in the lab was wrong.

So on this, the worst night of my career, we went back and examined the raw data, which was on videotape. We found the source of the problem: My major experiment on which my entire thesis was to be based, was flawed. I won’t go into the technical details here (you’re welcome), but long story short, some fluid was flowing where it wasn’t supposed to be flowing. I was trying to measure force, and this extra fluid flow made it impossible to measure.

I ended up asking my committee members if I could give them my written proposal late (no problem since most committee members don’t read thesis proposals until the night before the presentation, if that early), and I spent the next few days desperately trying to salvage some information from the data on the videotapes. I made some estimations to make the old data presentable, and we came up with another way to do the experiment which would use the extra fluid flow as an advantage. But it was a truly awful two weeks.

I don’t remember much from the actual presentation. Just two things, really. The first is when, during the closed-door question and answer period, one of my committee members said, “Why are you even doing this at all?” (He sort of apologized for it later.)

The other thing I remember is about the French post doc from our lab. I had provided pizza and sodas because it’s always wise to bribe your committee, although The Doktah and I think that turkey, box o’ wine, and warm cream is the best thing to serve at a thesis proposal or defense. The food was all on a table down at the front of the room where I was presenting. French Post Doc was late, so in order to avoid disturbing anyone, he came quietly down to the food table, got on his hands and knees, and crawled in front of the table, out of my line of view. The next thing that I saw was French Post Doc’s hand reaching up to the table. He groped for a plate, then came back up for one, two slices of pizza. Sated, he crawled back to the side of the room, and I thought it was all over.

But then the hand came back, groping, and grasping on the tabletop. He’d forgotten to get a napkin.

No, we just had a special relationship

Disclaimer: This entry contains slightly off-color material as a warning for any nieces who may be reading it. Or moms. Specifically my mom.

The Doktah, Baseball Cap Guy and I were out at a bar with some other friends, and we were discussing the worst possible job. The Doktah said she had a friend who used to manually stimulate stallions for the artificial insemination of mares. Baseball Cap Guy gasped in horror. “Was it for a stable?” he cried.

We all looked at him.

“Oh, right…”

Thursday, March 10, 2005

I didn't touch it!

In the interest of fair play, I will now tell a story about me doing something dumb in grad school. A few weeks before The Doktah’s proposal, I needed send out an email, and for some reason that I can’t remember, I couldn’t use my computer. The Doktah had gone home for the day, but I knew she wouldn’t mind if I borrowed hers.

Now, the email I was sending included a file attachment. At the time, there were only two ways to send email attachments through our server: through webmail or through a program such as Netscape. But webmail at my school was still in its infancy, and I forgot that it was even a choice, so I was left with the option of changing the email preferences in The Doktah’s copy of Netscape.

The next day, The Doktah sent out an email to everyone on her committee confirming the date of her proposal. A little while later, The P.I. came into the main lab and asked her if she knew that the header of the email said it was from me. Then she started to get some questioning replies from the rest of her committee. Confused, she went into her Netscape profile and found my name as the identity.

Meanwhile, I was happily typing away on my computer at the desk next to hers. “Um, Mo?” The Doktah said. I took off my headphones.

“What’s up?” I said.

“Did you change the profile settings on my Netscape email?”

“No,” I said. I wasn’t lying. I truly believed that I hadn’t changed anything.

“Are you sure? Because I just sent out a really important email to my entire thesis committee, and the header says it’s from you.”

“Huh,” I said. “That’s really weird! Because I didn’t change anything.”

The Doktah pondered this. “Um, I think you must have, because it’s changed.”

I started to feel defensive. “But I didn’t change it!” I said. I don’t know what was going through my head, but even faced with the incontrovertible evidence of my tampering, I still believed myself to be innocent. I didn’t remember changing the settings, so I couldn’t have changed them. I was apparently working with the theory of computer gremlins. I just kept saying “I didn’t touch it!” with increasing agitation while The Doktah tried to explain to me that, clearly, I had.

I eventually realized that I obviously changed the settings, and apologized for making The Doktah look like an idiot to her committee. But I still like to imagine the scenario from her point of view. Imagine trying to reason with an irrational lunatic who just keeps repeating one phrase. “I didn’t touch it! I didn’t touch it! I didn’t touch it!”

Monday, March 07, 2005

Macaroons are made of coconut

The Doktah is allergic to garlic and coconut. I know. Garlic? Who's allergic to garlic? But that's beside the point. We were at a school of engineering seminar with a fancy schmancy reception afterwards. They had cookies, as all decent receptions ought to. Cookies and cake, that's all I ask.

So anyway, The Doktah was unfamiliar with the type of cookies they had, so she asked me to try them first because sometimes people sneak coconut into unexpected places. I bit into it, and tasted the sweet coconutty goodness of a mcaroon. I swallowed and said, "It's a macaroon. It's all coconut."

The Doktah smirked at me, and took a huge bite.

I was dumbstruck. "What are you doing?" I cried. "Spit it out!" She just grinned and kept chewing. "Spit it out! Spit it out!" I said, with growing alarm. "It's all coconut!" Finally, a look of concern passed over her face, and she spit the little that remained of the bite into her napkin. "Why did you eat it?" I said.

"I thought you were kidding," she told me. "Normally, you can see the coconut fibers in macaroons, so I thought you were being sarcastic." She got up to go rinse her mouth out.

Be that as it may, it's difficult to describe my feelings as I watched her eat the coconut macaroon. She was recklessly eating coconut, and I was helpless to stop her. All I could do was yell at her to spit it out and hope that her allergy wasn't bad enough to swell her throat closed. (It's not.)

I'm thinking of renaming this blog, "Dumb things The Doktah did in grad school."

The other NYC story

On Sunday, we had big plans. We were going to have brunch, go see the new, free art installation, go to B&H Photo Video, and go to SoHo to buy the lamp that The Husband and I found last December but thought was too expensive. Little did we know that lamps are really expensive, and usually boring. The brunch part was wonderful, but the plans began to go a bit sour on the way to the art exhibit. For although it was only 54 or so degrees outside, the wind made it feel like 20 or something. Plus, I was wearing tall boots because I had on brown pants that require heels. (The Doktah advised against getting them hemmed; she said I should just wear heels. Curse her.) These boots are actually pretty comfy as heels go due to the chunkiness of the heel, but it turns out that I should not wear them two days in a row if I'm doing a lot of walking, because chunky or no, heels are heels.

So we schlepped over to the art installation on very painful ankles (well, I was the only one with painful ankles), and it turns out the art installation was not free. We paid anyway, if only to get out of the cold, because the damn thing was right on the water and the wind was making me miserable. I was not dressed for the weather at all. But it is a temporary structure, so it wasn't much warmer inside. The exhibit consisted of a long hallway of painting after painting of Tibetan people with elephants, birds, or leopards. Each painting was individually quite beautiful, but after a hundred pictures of people with closed eyes posing with elephants, it begins to get repetitive. Plus the fact that every single person had their eyes closed really started to get on my nerves. It's like they were saying, "Oh, look at me, I'm so spiritual and communing with this elephant. Don't you wish you were as deep as I am? Look, I'll meditate right now. Meditating is like second nature to me. Ohhmmm....." At the end of the hallway was a looped film of the same images. The artists had obviously made the film, and then used it as the model for the paintings, so it was even more repetitive. And the film was run in slow motion, to really drive home the deep spirituality of the subjects, which did not add to my enjoyment. And did I mention that it was cold in there? And that it wasn't free?

OK. So we ended up having to skip B&H because things just took too long, and wound up in SoHo where, luckily, the lamp was still for sale, and for $10 less than in December! So we bought it, and asked for one in a box because we had to drive back to Massachusetts with it. It came in a really tall box, and when we hailed a cab to go back to Brooklyn, we discovered it would not fit. Since the L train to Brooklyn was not running, so we were forced to walk ten minutes more in the freezing cold on sore ankles, carrying a very cumbersome tall box, and catch the J train over the bridge and then wait and wait for the shuttle, which turned out not to be a "shuttle" so much as a bus because it stopped a lot.

The only thing motivating us was the thought of the awesome bagels we were going to buy from the best bagel store ever, 4 blocks up from Leah Lar's apartment, and then the thought of eating said bagels in the lovely, lovely warmth of the apartment. And also the bathroom.

So The Husband and D headed back to the apartment to get our stuff all packed up, and Leah Lar and I ordered the bagels. I ordered 1 toasted pumpernickel bagel with garlic and herb cream cheese, and 1 toasted sesame bagel with the same cream cheese. Leah Lar ordered 1 toasted everything bagel with plain cream cheese and 1 toasted wheat bagel with garlic and herb cream cheese. I ordered first, and several minutes later the guy who took my order said, "You wanted 1 pumpernickel and 1 sesame, right?" Right. "You wanted them toasted, right?" Right. "You wanted garlic and herb cream cheese, right?" Right.

So when we got back to the apartment, we found the following 4 bagels: 1 toasted everything with plain cream cheese, 1 untoasted wheat with plain cream cheese, and 2 untoasted sesame bagels with olive and red pepper cream cheese. I'll give you a second to go back and check what we ordered.

So D was golden, because they got his right. And Leah Lar was disappointed at the lack of toasting on her wheat bagel, but her order-taker had told her there was no more garlic and herb cream cheese, so she was prepared for that. But as for me and The Husband, I guess my guy was just toying with me with all the double checking.

No cable here

This isn't about grad school, but I couldn't resist making fun of my friend Leah Lar. The Husband and I went to visit Leah Lar this weekend in New York. I asked her if she ever watches a show that originally aired on HBO, but is currently playing on TBS. Leah Lar said, "We don't have cable."

Meanwhile, her roommate was watching a movie on IFC, the Indpendent Film Channel. And I know that Leah Lar herself watches MTV pretty much exclusively.

I asked her if she understands what cable actually is. Because we didn't have cable when I was growing up, and I can tell you that MTV and IFC do not show up on regular TV. Hell, The Husband and I have cable now, but we don't get IFC!

Oh, I also didn't have cable in grad school. So there you go, a connection to the actual subject of this blog. What a hardship-filled life I have led.