Sunday, February 20, 2011

King of the Bean

I got a copy of Fallout: New Vegas for my birthday. While I've always found post-apocalyptic books and movies to be mostly just depressing, something about Fallout 3 and now New Vegas is a little different. I feel much the same way about Portal. There's something I find compelling, horrifying and fascinating at the same time, about the decline of these huge corporate complexes, the tinfoil hat paranoia of the 1960s which in many ways proves to be all too true, the savage nature of people who can sit back and watch truly horrific things occurring. This last especially is more implicit in Portal, seeing as how one must assume the directives were programmed into the system by people at some point . . . and the various observation windows scattered around the test chambers, that clearly weren't placed there for the AI's benefit.

In the Fallout series it is a lot more direct. There are crazy people in the wastelands, gangs, people who don't care about anything but themselves, very Mad Max. There are people living in towns who act like a family from a 50's sitcom and commit terrible acts in secret. And there's Vault-Tec, the company who created the Vaults, in which a number of people survived the nuclear holocaust. A more in-depth explanation of the story is here, but in short, each Vault (there were only 122 built, despite the large population of pre-war America) is a sociological experiment designed to learn more about human nature. Completely aside from issues of 'normal' scientific ethics, many of these experiments resulted in truly awful things.

The games are both set in various places in post-war America, a few hundred years from now, where the player gets to travel around on their own, but Vaults still play a role in the game. In Fallout 3 you start out in one, and in both games, there are several you can find.

Ok, now for anyone who hasn't played the game, go out and buy it and play it first - right now, stop reading this post. Seriously. I mean it. It's for your own good. I don't exactly give a spoiler, but it's enough that I wouldn't have wanted to read it before I played through it.

Vault 11, in New Vegas, is a really intriguing story. You enter the vault, and find election posters for the Overseer Elections - where everyone is campaigning NOT to be elected. You have to search through the vault to discover more about what happened here, and the picture that forms is very, very grim. When I first entered Vault 11, I thought to myself, 'What could make someone not want to be elected?' Obviously there must be some negative consequence to being Overseer.

As an aside, I am a huge fan of Terry Pratchett books. The more I read them, the more I realize that they have huge substance and thoughtfulness underneath the interesting storylines and hilarious writing. Every time I reread one, I get more out of it than I had the previous time (I will be really sad when eventually this stops happening, as I suppose it must when I've gotten to 20 or 30 reads). One thing that Terry has done, way moreso than I had first realized, is incorporate a lot of historical and mythological references in his work. Plenty of these are things I don't know because I'm just not a history or literature buff; a few I don't know because I'm not British. Reading The Folklore of Discworld, a discussion of many of those references, opened my eyes to a lot of them. Anyway, in several of the books, and in the Folklore, Pratchett references The King of the Bean, which is something many people have heard of, but far fewer know its origins, apparently. And again, I'm not going into them here. I told you to stop reading a while ago, and you didn't listen. Once you've played at least that far in Fallout: New Vegas, then you can google it, or even better, buy your own copy of The Folklore.

King of the bean, indeed. I was right. And the entire story, all put together, made me feel like I'd been punched in the gut. One example I can compare it to is the first time you saw the Matrix, or the Sixth Sense, and when the reveal came, it hit you hard. Now those movies are as much jokes as they are taken seriously, but I still remember how amazing they were the first time through.

So far I'd been enjoying F:NV well enough, but this is something else entirely. This little piece of the game, at least, is thought provoking. And fucking creepy.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Immortal Life

I'm not a cell biologist, so I haven't ever done cell work. But among cell biologists, who hasn't used a HeLa strain at some point? From what I know about it, I would imagine that it's one of the first things that cell biology students are given to play around with. And even if you don't do cell biology, if you do any molecular biology, you certainly read about it - examples in text books, papers on experiments done with it, etc. I'd heard about HeLa my entire schooling and never once thought about what it meant or where the name came from - why should I care, either? It's not like the names of individual Drosophila lines are particularly illuminating. Most of them name the physical place the flies were originally collected from wild populations, or in the case of some others in our lab, they're just numbers.

I got a Kindle for Christmas this year and I absolutely love it, which is a whole other post; but anyway, one of the books I recently read was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. For the first time, I learned where most cell lines get their names. For the first time, I learned in a manner that felt nearly first-hand, more about the things that were done to people in the name of science, as short as fifty years ago. I'd heard about the Tuskeegee experiments, just about every scientist has, even if they aren't in the medical field, but reading such a direct and painful description of the way things were . . . it's hard. Did you have to read Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle' when you were in high school? I did, and it really upset me. I used my normal trick of reminding myself that it was a work of fiction, and besides, this was a compilation of every single bad thing that could happen to an immigrant family all happening to these characters. It only made it partially better, because I knew those things really did happen.

But reading this book, you can't tell yourself that it's okay because it didn't happen. It's like reading the Jungle but knowing that these people were real, that they worked and suffered and were lied to and then died. I don't want to give away the particulars of the book, because it's a really, really good read, and anyone who is interested in science or medical ethics should read it for themselves. But if you are like me, then be prepared for the horrible realizations that come with it.

That's just the way things were done. Maybe I could have been one of those privileged doing my work without regards to people or their rights, if I had been born sixty years ago. Maybe I wouldn't have seen how awful it was at the time either, even though my mind rebels at that idea. How many things do we allow because 'that's just the way it is'? Are there things we do today that will be considered atrocities in fifty years? I can think of a few things about society as a whole, but of course I would like to think there is nothing I, personally, do that falls under that. Wouldn't everyone?

Also, it reminds me of why cancer is so very creepy to me. Not just because it's deadly, and we still have inadequate treatment options even today - no, cancer frightens me because of what it represents. Cancer is a part of you that has declared mutiny. A part of you that refuses to cooperate, that seeks an independent existence from the organism it should be a part of. Of course, I'm anthropomorphizing, and doing it to a clump of cells, for added ridiculousness. It's much more like the concept of an industrial robot on an assembly line losing some of its built-in regulations and doing its particular job as much as it possible can, without regards to where it fits in the total assembly line of building a product, like spot welding 37 hood ornaments on to one car's hood, instead of the normal one-per-car it should be producing.

But changing the analogy doesn't frighten me any less. And knowing that I'm not one of those people now, that we don't do that to people any longer in the name of research, doesn't take away my shame that I still get to benefit from the results of such research.


I started a new job last Monday, something that's kind of weird considering my previous work and skillset - an ASP.NET programmer for a state agency. When I have a master's degree in Evolutionary Biology. Yep.

I always liked programming and I've done enough of it throughout my biology career that they thought I was a good fit - and apparently they like to get people and train em up right, so they don't care that I didn't actually know what ASP.NET even was when I started on Monday. I've spent most of my first week studying, and while I don't think I could whip out an awesome web-based application with ease just yet, I at least have one really important thing down: now I know much better what it is that I don't know and need to learn. Things felt much more overwhelming before I knew the enormity of my own ignorance. Also, now I know where to look to find much of it, or at least where to start, and who I can ask for more help.

It feels weird to think of that as an accomplishment, but I kinda do. And I'm so excited about all of this.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

We can knit if we want to

Alternate title: notion tins and why they are a good idea

I like modularity. I always strive for organization, though I rarely achieve it. I have perhaps twenty WIPs, in various stages of completion. Some of them are in nice, cute zipper bags (most of them are in less cute ziploc bags, but I'm slowly growing my collection). While I like to always have one or two with me, I also like to not have to worry about things like 'Do I have everything I need for this project?' I like to be able to grab their project bags and go. But if I'm not careful, I can leave home with a project, and while I'm working on it realize that I REALLY NEED a certain tool - and not have one anywhere in sight. This is dangerous business.

This drove me crazy, until I came up with a solution. Now I forget where I first read this tip, but it has served me well - to make an emergency tin with a few notions in it, and take it everywhere you go - and I must point out that that particular concept has been mentioned all over the place. It's certainly not my idea. But I have adapted this to work with my 'system' (does it make it more organized if I call it a system?) of WIP storage, basically by making a crapload of tins with inexpensive supplies.

I collect candy tins. Altoids one are perfect, although there are plenty of others that will also work. Anything that is small and closes securely is a good candidate for this. Then, I just fill each tin with a set of useful supplies:

-Stitch markers - I make these myself so I have as many as I need, but there are lots of inexpensive substitutions. Small 'ouchless' plastic hair elastics work great, and you don't have to care if you lose them.
-A finishing needle, usually threaded on a several-inch piece of yarn so I won't lose it easily. I normally use large sewing needles instead of dull tapestry needles for this - I like to be able to split the plies sometimes when working ends in, and I also like having a needle that can double as a cable key for my knitpicks interchangeables.
-A small measuring tape
-Some kind of cutter. I have several pairs of cuticle scissors that became too dull for cuticle use, but make excellent yarn snippers, and fit in the tins.
-A few bobby pins - these make good impromptu stitch holders, and they will not fall out of your work. I imagine you could even cable off them, although I usually just cable without using a needle these days.
-A few feet of some smooth fingering weight yarn to use for holding larger sets of stitches
-Rubber bands - these make cheap and good point protectors

Keeping one of these in each project bag is a great way to ensure I will always have the notions I need. I'll admit that I do not have as many tins as I do WIPs, only the more portable ones, which I might actually take somewhere with me, usually get tins. If you have a more reasonable number, then this is even easier to do. So if you happen to know any men without hats, and you feel the altruistic urge to make them one, now you can do it in safety, anywhere.

Site redesign!

. . . if by redesign, you mean, 'I decided my homemade custom background and whatnot looked amateurish and unpleasant, so I chose my favorite out of the available default templates'. Which is pretty much what happened.

I'm a knitter, not an html coder, and not even a particularly good blogger. I decided I'd rather this looks okay with minimal effort from me, than it continues to look bad with no effort, or I update it and get it exactly how I want it (I assume this would require a great deal of effort to do it right).

Anyway, I've been thinking about why I bother having a blog and what it's good for. I like explaining things to people, so a lot of my posts have been sort of 'how to' statements, but I would also like for it to be entertaining. I've been spending more time on Ravelry's I Blog group, and it's given me some things to think about.

Expect more posts soon.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Haruni, thou art my teacher.

Today I learned something. I've been working my way through a beautiful Haruni, a gorgeous and free shawl design by the talented Emily Ross, and today I finished repeating Chart A and moved into Chart B, to make the leafy border. It forms a bunch of interlocking leaf shapes, each of which is crowned by a triple decrease. Which are supposed to be centered.

When I started Chart A, I thought that the chosen triple decrease was less than ideal. It's a sl2, k1, psso decrease - slip two stitches, knit one, and pass the slipped stitches over. I followed the instructions as I read the - slip two, knit the third, pass the slipped ones over. Sure it came out centered, but not very symmetrical. It didn't lean, but I always ended up with the rightmost stitch on top of them, giving it an unbalanced look. Not a bad one, just a little unbalanced. So I went through the entire section of Chart A that way - 7 repeats, in fact, since I wanted a larger shawl than the original pattern calls for.

When I started Chart B, I found the decrease really just looked bad in the pattern - some of them were centered atop previous sl1,k1,psso decreases and it really looked bad then. So I thought I'd look up if there were any other triple decreases out there I liked. I was in a coffee shop at the time, so I could only use the crappy mobile web app on my phone (which is most certainly NOT anything fancy as an iPhone), but I did find a promising article by TECHKnitter (if you haven't visited her blog, please do. It's helped me immensely in developing my knitting skills.) It described some common decreases. Hey look, it has a triple decrease. My word - it describes how to do the sl2, k1, psso decrease. And - wait - hers look good.

Then I realized it. I'd gone through the entire shawl doing them all wrong. If you do it as follows, the way I did, it comes out looking unbalanced:
Slip one stitch knitwise. Slip another stitch knitwise. Knit 1. Pass both slipped stitches over together.

(I also tried slipping them separately and purlwise, it looks more or less the same).

However, if you do it correctly:
Slip two stitches together knitwise (enter them like you were going to k2tog, but slip instead), knit one, and pass the slipped ones over.

Then it looks beautiful, the middle stitch is on 'top' of the bundle of three, and it comes out perfectly.

Why didn't I think to check when I started this shawl? There is absolutely no way in hell I'm going back and redoing all of chart A. The asymmetric ones actually don't look terrible, I think they give it a sort of quaint or old-fashioned look. But at least the Chart B section will look better because of it. And I must apologize to Emily Ross for my thoughts about the triple decrease - it wasn't her choice of decrease at all. It was my failure to actually go and look up the stitch so I knew how to do it correctly.

Well, we knit, and (hopefully) learn.

As a side note, this project has been really good at teaching me techniques. I learned the proper way to do a sl2,k1,psso, of course. I tried using lifelines for the first time today, and I came up with a really convenient way to run one - I'm sure other people have unvented this, but I was proud of it. I tied a piece of sewing thread through the keyhole of my interchangeable circulars (knitpicks Harmonies, by the way, and I love their pointiness) and just go through the row. As you work along it, the circular will pull your lifeline through for you (I used unwaxed tape floss - strong, won't leave any residue, and small enough I could poke it through the hole). If you try this, watch out for one thing - it will run your lifeline through any stitch markers you are using. Either take them out for this row or use a different method, especially if you have lots of stitch markers.

Unfortunately, I discovered on the next row that I don't really like knitting a row with a lifeline through it. I ended up pulling it out because it got on my nerves.

I also learned how to frog edge stitches. This pattern has a three-stitch wide garter stitch border, with a slipped stitch edging. Last night I realized I'd forgotten to slip a stitch about 30 rows back. I tried to ignore it, but as I am becoming increasingly aware, I just can't ignore things like that. Eventually I pulled up my big girl panties and dropped the three edge stitches and unwound it all down to the row below the missed slip. I've dropped stitches in the middle before, and I'm used to working with free strands. I had thought trying to work with free loops would be a lot tougher, but it's actually pretty easy to tell which side the is 'lower' side. As long as you start with the bottom side, it's not really any different than knitting it the first time was.

So let's close out this rambling post with two pieces of advice I wish someone had told me a long time ago.

1. If you aren't sure how to do a stitch, look it up. Preferably find a resource that shows you what the finished stitch should look like, so you can compare yours to that.

2. Don't be too afraid to try a new technique. If you're really worried, try it out on a swatch instead of on a real piece of work, but do try it. It can really pay off in adding something super useful to your repertoire.