That’s no moon…

During last month’s Stone Concert, the CT scan showed two unexpected somethings.

Dramatic reenactment: The noisy TIE fighter? It is the least of your worries.

I went into my primary care physician ask what, if anything, I should do about them.  Because I’m generally feeling fine, the gallstone can be ignored. (Update: Until next year.) I will probably have to cut back on the butter fried bacon twinkies smothered in bacon, wrapped between a pair of glazed donuts, sprinkled with Oreo bits, and surrounded by a moat of heavy whipped cream. (I really have never had such a thing, nor would I really want one. I have my bacon-limits.)

The second unexpected thing is a mass on my adrenal gland, technically known as an “incidentaloma,” because it’s found while looking for other things… like Alderan. Though I didn’t have any obvious symptoms associated with The Bad Kind of these masses — excessively high blood pressure, thinning of the skin, hypoglycemia, balding (okay, one out of four) — it’s big enough that the doctor recommended checking various hormone levels before forwarding me to a specialist. He did caution that it’d likely need to come out.

I was a little antsy.  The specialist does a day a week at the nearby office, but was booked through December. The scheduler found a mid-day slot at the main hospital in Seattle. Done.

After running up the stairs to the seventh floor, I emerged in a lobby of visibly sick and worse off people roaming the halls. Mercy! Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad.  The specialist gave me a pretty nice explanation of these, later supplemented by online resources. He drew a makeshift lower human endocrine system on the paper covering the exam table, explaining that the size means it would need to come out. Before doing so, he wanted to get a contrast MRI to better determine its composition. Upon hearing I traveled all the way to The 206, he had his scheduler set me up with the portable MRI machine in Issaquah.

It looks exactly like this:

Oh, boy, breakfast tacos! .... wha?

On the inside, it felt like any medical facility I’ve ever been in, sans the smell of alcohol. One end has a dressing room, the middle is the technician’s “pit”, and the other end is the actual magic donut itself. While in the dressing room, I was asked a series of questions to identify any potential metallic materials in or on me that would cause problems: pacemakers, cochlear implants, shrapnel, prison tats, piercings, stainless steel rapper teeth, and so on. An MRI is a giant frickin electromagnet, where “frickin” is 1.5 Tesla, or about 35000x more powerful than the than the earth’s magnetic field. Metallic objects become projectiles, credit cards are cheerfully erased, and hard drives are reformatted.

Han. Fired. First. (Photo: Photo By Bonnie Burton --

They strapped on imaging coils above my abdomen and sent me into the chute. As soon as my head was fully in, a really awful claustrophobia set in.  Luckily, the machine was open-ended and my head was close enough to the edge.  They advised me to look straight up.  Seeing various distant office furniture eased up the tension, after which I just kept my eyes shut and pretended I was on a tropical island somewhere.

Source: How Stuff

The general procedure was I’d do a couple of deep breaths, then hold (and remain still) for up to a minute and a half while the machine did its thing. Even with the Ye Old Timey airplane-style headset, it’s pretty frickin noisy inside. There’s a low, rhythmic percussion sound that my feet wanted to interpretively dance to. When the machine was actively scanning, I heard four types of jack-hammery sounds. Here’s one of the noises.

The adrenal gland sits on top of your kidney, ready to rock out on a moment

They ran a bunch of scans: in phase, out of phase, wash, rinse, spin.  At some point the radiologist came in and wanted an additional set of contrast images. The lady running things did the IV and she was top-notch.  It didn’t hurt at all.  The contrast agent was a gadolinium chelate that’s given intravenously.  Before injecting it, they did a quick blood test of kidney (creatine) function to rule out any renal problems.

So, bottom line: that’s no moon…

This is the view as if you were looking at my belly: my left is your right.

And looking down from my man boobs:


If the blobby thing were under 4cm, they’d just keep an eye on it. However, it’s big enough that they’ll remove it. The reasoning is the larger it becomes, the more likely it’ll turn to the Dark Side.

So far, signs point to having it removed (Warning: NSFL = Not safe for lunch) laparoscopically in January.    Each time I watch this, I alternate between fascination at the technology and creeped-outness that we are self-aware meat sacks.  If they have to take the more invasive route that Ted underwent with his kidney, there will be … a much longer recovery period.

As I write this, it’s penciled in for mid-January.  It’s like bullseyeing womp-rats in beggar’s canyon, or something.

Bad Feng Shui, Good solar system


Each exhibitor was set up with a rectangle table covered with the ANSI-standard White Top and Black Shroud (whose purpose is to prevent the table from looking as fugly as it really is).  It didn’t work well with the man-sized pop-up poster I came with, especially in the spot I had right up front.  I couldn’t move to the left because I’d be blocking a door.  I couldn’t move right because there was a pillar.  It was bad Feng Shui.  I was a cheap, plastic scuba diver toy from being in an aquarium.

The show host offered a smaller, taller round table.  This was a great solution, except they couldn’t affix my vendor sign on the front.  This made it indistinguishable from the other round table being used to hold dirty dishes trays.

You can see where this is going.

Any time I was gone for more than ten minutes to attend to any of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, something bad would happen to the spot.  By “bad,” I mean like my table would go missing with the stack of business cards and the 2Gb USB drives I was giving out.  The first time the hotel staff took it, it was kind of funny in the retrospective ironic way, “okay, bring it back.”   We finally got that straightened out.

The table’s proximity to the front, where the food and traffic were, made it an attractive area for people to convene.  I could have had some fun talking up the “captive” audience, but frankly, the spilling of partially-consumed food bits was gross.   When I was walking back to the table, some guy dumped his dirty orange juice glass on it.  (Insert daydream of asking him if Marcellus Wallace has wings.  ‘Cause he sure isn’t the dirty dish fairy.)  Sprawling out my stuff a little more felt territorial, but worked.

On the last day of the conference was very slow, a completely different group was holding meetings in the rooms near the exhibitors.  When they’d shuffle between rooms, they’d take the most direct route: through my display.  How you can not see a 6′ x 4′ black sign with a brightly-colored graphics of a plane dropping “intelligent payloads,” graphics of swimmers, floating plots of airplane, gas burners, and turbine performance? By noon, I hadn’t had any more visitors.  Rather than spend three hours worrying whether my display would survive a collisions, I rolled it up and left.  The inexplicably nice weather was too good to pass up.

Rowr'sup, geocacher?

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around downtown Boston, seeking out geocaches.   The most memorable one was a scaled version of the solar system, hosted by Boston’s Museum of Science.  Logging the cache as “found” required one to find four planets and take one’s photo in front of the display.  I’d found “Jupiter” in Boston’s South Station during the peak of Friday rush hour.

“Mercury” was right outside the Museum of Science, and very easy to find.  “Venus” was up on the fourth floor of the glass-walled stairway of the Museum of Science parking garage.  With the … large scary bright yellow thing … out, the room was oppressively hot.  In July, you could probably fry bacon.  “Earth” was located next to Charles River, near the Royal Sonesta hotel. “Mars” was pretty challenging as it was inside the Cambridgeside Galleria.  After a lunch break, I walked the perimeter to triangulate likely positions.  The display was up on the second floor.  I wonder what mall security thought when I started taking photos.

I walked back to the museum to find the “sun” — Yes, Seattle has conditioned me to not easily recognize the brightest, hottest thing in our solar system.  I completely missed it the first time — and some additional geocaches on the way home.  According to the GPS, my total walking distance for the day was just over 17 miles.

I learned:

  • It’s very hard to take clear, self-photos in front of a scaled planet.  Full-size would probably be harder.
  • The emptiness in the solar system is mind-boggling.  I walked ~11 miles while visiting the sun, inner four (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars), and (re-visiting) Jupiter.  Covering the rest wouldn’t have been doable in one day, on foot.
  • The sun’s not as bright indoors.
  • Indoor geocaching is hard.
Solar System Compendium

Pasta puzzle

I’ve been having a lot of fun reading “How to Fossilize Your Hamster“[1], an entertaining and enlightening collection of quirky science questions and experiments one can do to observe the the principles. It’s very conversationally written with abundant humor. For example, in answering the best way to get ketchup out of the bottle, where they detail seven methods to “exploit the thixotropic nature of ketchup,” they begin with:


  • A meal requiring tomato ketchup (it’s not essential, as you can do this experiment using an empty plate, but there’s no doubt that French fries enhance the experience)
  • a glass bottle of tomato ketchup” [1, page 48]

What’s not to like about that?

My favorite question was “Pasta Puzzle:” if you hold a strand of spaghetti at both ends and bend it, why will it nearly always break into three or more pieces? Audoly and Neukirch[2] made some fun-to-watch videos of their experiments. In the first phase, they did high-speed filming of spaghetti breaking. To add control to their experiments, they then held bent spaghetti while inducing a break with a pair of scissors. They eventually reduced the problem to a catapult experiment, in which they demonstrated that spaghetti can be broken by merely releasing one of its ends[2]. In their paper, they also come up with an “analytical prediction of breaking events” in “perfect spaghetti.” It should come as no surprise they earned an igNobel award.

Their conclusion:

“[T]he sudden relaxation of the curvature at the newly freed end leads to a burst of flexural waves [that] locally increase the curvature in the rod and […] is responsible for the fragmentation of brittle rods under bending.”

Runner up would be the entire “In the bathroom” chapter. I find a lot of humor value in offering a formula quantifying the effects of fiber as observed in human, uh, “output.” One better suited for public conversation is why orange juice (and many things) taste awful after you brush your teeth. Reason: sodium lauryl sulfate is added to many toothpastes as a foaming agent to disperse the paste. It temporarily disrupts sensitivity of sweet taste buds while increasing the bitter ones.[3] (It’s unpleasant, but does not cause cancer.[4])


  • [1] How to Fossilize Your Hamster (and other amazing experiments for the armchair scientist), Mick O’Hare. ISBN 9780805087703
  • [2] “Fragmentation of rods by cascading cracks: why spaghetti does not break in half,” Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch. Physical Review Letters 95, 095505 (2005). Movies available here.
  • [3] “Surface active taste modifiers: a comparison of the physical and psychophysical properties of gynemic acid and sodium lauryl sulfate,” John DeSimone, Gerard Heck, Linda Bartoshuk, Chemical Senses 5:317-330, 1980.
  • [4] “Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Shampoo,”

How many shots?

While waiting for my mocha, I noticed the customer before me had ordered a “triple tall yatta yatta.” The “yatta yatta” is unimportant, because what piqued my curiosity was the “triple” part.

A “Tall,” rhymes with “small,” is twelve ounces. Their “medium” is “Grande,” or sixteen ounces. Their largest size, “Venti,” is twenty ounces. Since a shot is one ounce, the maximum theoretical per drink is twenty in the “venti.” From field research, I know the small and medium are typically one shot of espresso. The large drink has two. So, I asked the barista, How many shots would they put into one drink? Her answer:

“Poison control limits us to eight. I’ve tried ten. It made me feel miserable.”

Inattentional blindness

Today’s keynote speaker, Daniel Simons, talked about inattentional blindness, the inability to perceive features in a visual scene you’re not paying attention to. It’s used in movies. For example, in The Matrix, the scene in which Neo and Morpheus first spar Kung-Fu style, there’s a stunt double for Keanu. Unless you’re looking for a tall Asian guy doing flips, you’ll perceive it as Neo opening a can of whoop-ass.

Simons’ first example was a powerpoint “card trick” where he presents five face cards. A person in the audience secretly picks one. The presenter then shows the next slide and the card’s no longer there – magic! Try it here.

In an especially funny video, he had someone ask a stranger for directions. As the stranger is explaining, confederates carrying a large box go between the two and they swap out the original requester with another person. The new person was 3″ taller, different color/more hair, Brooklyn accent at least an octave lower. In nearly all cases, the stranger kept trying to help.

They did another, similar one where someone lined up for an experiment and filled out a consent form. In the middle of a sentence, the person behind the desk ducked down, as if to pick something, then another person stood up and resumed the conversation. The person was handed back their consent form and asked if they noticed anything. Nearly all did not.

I failed most of the tests given, but surprisingly did okay in this example only because I didn’t hear the original directions (count the number of times the balls were passed around). Instead, I was focused on the quirky way the players were moving around.

The point was that one’s memory is busy storing what it thinks is most the relevant information. In the first switcharoo case, it’s the directions. In the second, it’s filling out the form. Conversely, you’re less likely to pay attention to what you don’t consider relevant, like what the person giving the directions looks like. Interestingly, an issue autistic people have is that they aren’t filtering on relevance, leading to all sorts of social miscues and obsession with tiny details.

Very cool stuff.

Continue reading Inattentional blindness

Massed particles

In my particular line of work, I get to see a lot of scientific data representing fluid flows or structural mechanics. They’re all interesting, though I have to admit seeing Yet Another Mach Yatta Whoozit lacks the pure excitement it did a year ago.

Luckily, the analyses my product offers are applicable in many other disciplines. For example, earlier this year I was working with a researcher studying rat lungs. Though I was subconsiously hoping for an immediate relevation that would address some invasive homeowner issues,
the science nerd in me was stoked at seeing the analyses capabilities of my product being used in different ways. To be sure, there were some subtleties that we have to address, but watching sample particles flit around as the rat breathed was fun.
Continue reading Massed particles

S happens

Because I’ve been swamped at work, and the book’s due back at the library, I blew through “Why Things Break.” It was a page turner, literally and figuratively, covering topics like the history of Pyrex, why the Titanic’s hull failed so spectacularly, and the engineering of Cassini’s power system. (History buffs may recall the predictions of doom.) As much as I enjoyed it, the highlight of the book was a scribbling about thermodynamics in the margin on page 200:

  1. You can’t win; you can only break even.
  2. You can only break even at absolute zero.
  3. You can’t reach absolute zero.

Continue reading S happens