Category Archives: Research

Mini Sewing Project #1: Draft Blocker


While it’d be awesome to be able to sew this flawlessly and right out of the gate, I’m trying to be realistic.


In my quest to create an Agent Carter costume, I knew I’d have to undertake a few smaller projects along the way.

I just finished my first one: a draft blocker for my front door!

Skills acquired:
– Pinning fabric along a seam
– Sewing in a straight line
– Re-threading the needle
– Using a seam-ripper
– Changing a broken needle (yup! Broke one on my first trip out!)

Lessons learned:
– Oh my god this is going to take so much patience.
– No, really. SO MUCH PATIENCE.

wpid-0301151455.jpgSince I didn’t start off thinking I was going to make anything useful, I kind of just folded over one of the fabric remnants I’d bought last weekend and started sewing. It fast became obvious that I had to actually pin the edges of the fabric together if I wanted to have something that didn’t taper into a point at the far end.

Enter the seamripper. It took a little googling to figure out the most effective way of using it, but once I had that down, easy-peasy.


Next, the tedious part: pinning along the entire outside of the folded fabric so it wouldn’t slip and become uneven as I sewed. That took about ten minutes. I played videos on Hulu while I worked on that.

wpid-0301151526.jpgOnce that was finished, it only took a couple of minutes to sew the seam, then flip what now looked like a sock flag inside out – so the hem would be on the inside. Not bad!

wpid-0301151534.jpgFinally, I stuffed it full of actual socks, those with holes and some that I’d lost the mate to, until it was long enough to fit (almost) all the way across my door. Since I didn’t feel like getting back up to grab a needle and thread and finish sewing by hand, I just tied off the very end, which I think is kind of cute anyways. And – ta-da!


My suit fabric is meant to arrive tomorrow, so I’m hoping to share a few photos of my supplies later this week. I also have a second length of fabric and one more door that could use a draft blocker, so I might try and do that later this week-  though I’ve used up all my dead socks, so we’ll see how it goes.

For now, I’m feeling pretty accomplished. So accomplished, in fact, that I’m going to go eat a bagel pizza. Nom!

Stretching Your Writing Limits

This is going to be a bit of a ramble. I hope you don’t mind, and would appreciate your thoughts at the end via comment.

For the last year or do, I’ve been working on an ambitious project: a series of novels spanning epic concepts of philosophy, religion and mythology, with my friend @sareliz. Both of us wrote first drafts of two chunks of narrative last November as part of NaNoWriMo, then earlier this spring I knocked out a 50K first draft of a third book. As I’ve chipped away at rewrites, however, I’ve become more and more aware of one simple fact: in order to be true to the reality of my protagonist’s world, things are going to have to get a lot darker and more brutal than I ever anticipated, which is going to require a metric f*ckton more research than I’ve done so far.

The book isn’t supposed to be gritty or hard-hitting in a way that features depictions of extreme violence or torture, so there’s also going to have to be a balance stuck between realism and the fantasy world of the series. The more I research, the more I question: can I do this? Have my ambitions gotten ahead of my ability?

This story story, currently planned as the first novel in the series, involves a reporter who travels to a corrupt county to look for a friend and colleague who’s gone missing. As part of my research I’ve been reading about reporters in war zones and oppressive regimes (which plays into another aspect of the series’ overall plot), and with each article I read I realize that the draft i have so far actually features what could be called “danger-lite.” Terrifying things happen to journalists who travel abroad to investigate corruption. They are beheaded, jailed, tortured, ‘disappeared’ and more. The citizens of the countries they investigate are far from immune to brutal treatment, too: look at the kidnapped/murdered Mexican teachers, girls kidnapped and sold into “forced marriages” by Boko Haram, and activists murdered by drug cartels. Even in America, police Senn able to act with near impunity when out comes to summarily executing American citizens in the street.

While there are certainly overlaps in how oppressive regimes the world over treat their citizens and their media figures, (Pakistan and Myanmar are currently in the spotlight on this issue) specificity is key in writing what you don’t know, perhaps top an even greater degree than when writing what you do know. After all, I might take poetic license if I’m writing about a bar in Buffalo or a subway route in New York City, but that’s an informed choice. Blundering the details in a novel about another country or another culture just comes across as lazy ignorance.

Even the small chunks of reading I’ve done so far have highlighted my own ignorance while at the same time pouting my research in stark contrast to lived experience. Reading books like THE BRIEF WONDEROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz, being immersed in a world where a revolutionary leader reigns over the lives of citizens with sadistic whim, is nothing like living under such a regime. ‘They’ say to write what you know, but what chance do I have (thank goodness) to understand the lifestyles of people in those circumstances with any degree of accuracy in fiction? How does someone like me write inclusive, relevant, diverse novels on topics like this without fucking it up royally?

The only answer I have is research.

So I’m trying. Really hard. I’m reading what I can, trying to get a feel for both the human, day to day lives of people living under the repressive circumstances the story needs to portray, but also trying to gain more knowledge of the truly horrifying acts oppressive governments can subject their citizens to. At the same time, Itry to find a way to retain the ability to see the monsters responsible for these reprehensible acts as humans, with motivations that made sense to their own internal logic, because it’s a rare human being who sees themselves as a villain, no matter how vile they might be. I try to think of ways i can portray the horror of human suffering at the hands of others while being honest but while avoiding graphic depictions of circumstances that don’t fit the tone of a series of fantasy novels. And then I question myself and start to feel paralyzed. And then i remind myself I’m still working on a draft. There’s always time for another rewrite.

There are bright spots in my research. My trip to St. Martin last year and the one i just took to St. Thomas both informed me on climates, terrain and cultures that will also figure in to the stories my cowriter and i will be telling. And I keep reminding myself of the importance of this, whole trying not to get to bogged down in the details. But when a simple hike through a national park demonstrates that you’ve completely miscategorized your story’s setting, how can you ever know when you’ve researched enough to get on with the writing? And even writing  this, I cringe, because I feel like I’m wading into waters where it would be so easy to give offense.

They say to write what you know, but it’s also critical that writers be willing to learn what we don’t know so we’re can write accurate, diversity populated fiction in terms of our characters, settings and cultures. Whether it takes the form of readings, conversations or traveling, the only answer to this conundrum is research.

Oh, and asking for recommendations. Anybody got any suggestions on trying material or media I can consume? Please leave them in the comments. Your thoughts would be very much appreciated.

Would You Like a Robot on Your Board of Directors?

Groundbreaking (for its time) computer ENIAC being operated by two women

Back in its day, ENIAC was pretty darn advanced, too. [Photo credit: PD image of ENIAC. Two women operating the ENIAC’s main control panel while the machine was still located at the Moore School. “U.S. Army Photo” from the archives of the ARL Technical Library. Left: Betty Jennings (Mrs. Bartik) Right: Frances Bilas (Mrs. Spence)]

I’m geeking out over this article.

While the title of that piece is a little misleading (the artificial intelligence tool in question, called VITAL (from Aging Analytics Agency), will be used to create comprehensive reports but humans will still be making the decisions), this is the kind of piece a sci-fi junkie salivates over. One more step on the way to the singularity, Skynet is just around the corner, etc., etc. A venture capitalist firm called Deep Knowledge Ventures, where board members wait for reports from a robot before making decisions? I can already see the film rights getting optioned.

As the above article points out, of course, this isn’t the first time machines have been entrusted with making decisions that affect the course of human business. Remember the Flash Crash of 2010? The Dow Jones lost around 1000 points within a matter of minutes, all because a computer algorithm misfired. (As far as I’m aware, the issue quickly self-corrected when the programs in play recognized the sharp drop and shut down trading.)

While one likes to think that VITAL won’t have that kind of access to major markets, it isn’t hard to see where it might have deeper repercussions for both venture capital firms and the field of life sciences research. It will be interesting to see how other venture capital firms react. If the machine works as advertised, the firm will be able to make safer investment bets on new companies, operating less on human emotion than on raw data. If one VC firm is able to make decisions that pay off with more regularity, it’s almost guaranteed that others will want to use this technology as well, just to remain competitive.

Think about it as a data arms race between private companies. Where could it wind up? And what does it mean to the life sciences companies? (And what consequences could it have for disease and other biological research?)

I’d like to know more about how VITAL will calculate an investment with the potential for success – in knowledge gained? In jobs created? Or (as I suspect) in terms of the most profitable bottom line?

It’s definitely a story I’ll be trying to stay informed on.

Additional Reading:

Swimming with Turtles in Sint Maarten/Saint Martin

If you read my last blog post, you’ll know that about a week and a half ago I had a wonderful adventure. Magical, you might even say. But…

allmagic graphic for site

All Magic Comes With A Price








…and the price I paid for this piece of magic was the worst sunburn I’ve ever had in my life. (Yes, I wore sunscreen, and yes, I re-applied; the sun in the Caribbean is just different from the sun in New York.) As burns go, and looking back, I would now compare this to the burn I got when I was a kid and I stepped in the ashes of a burnt-out fire on the beach. I had scaly, peeling skin, two giant blisters on either side of my back, and my thighs were so badly burned that I literally couldn’t sit down or turn over in bed for the pain.

The thing is, I’m a Libra – a sign that’s all about balance. I don’t know how much stock I put in horoscopes, but the horrifying recovery of the last ten days was well worth the six hours of excitement, adventure and fun that I had two Saturdays ago in Sint Maarten.

The reason I went to Sint Maarten was to do research for a project that’s coming up over the next couple years. It was important to me, for the sake of the project, to learn how not to be terrified when swimming in the open water. So I signed up for a snorkeling tour that would allow those on it to swim with turtles.

The snorkeling was amazing. Here are some of my favorite photos from the journey.

One of these days, I’ll get to writing the rest of the trip up. Till then, my review of the trip for TripAdvisor, and some turtles: (If you’re viewing this from an email, you may need to click the link to this entry to see the photos…)

0001138-R1-013-5 0001138-R1-023-10 0001138-R1-037-17 0001138-R1-051-24 0001138-R1-053-25 0001138-R2-032-14A 0001138-R2-034-15A 0001138-R2-038-17A0001138-R2-040-18A0001138-R2-036-16A

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Everybody’s Free (To Get Burned If They Don’t Wear Enough Sunscreen)

I had an adventure over the weekend involving turtles and a tropical island. More about that later – I’m waiting for some photos to come back before I blog about the actual adventure.

But one part of my adventure was less enjoyable than the rest, and it’s the one I want to write about today:

I am currently sporting one of the worst sunburns I’ve ever had in my life.

Crispy baked human cracklings, anyone?

Crispy baked human cracklings, anyone?

Before the lectures start: yes, I wore sunscreen. Yes, it was sport/waterproof/sweatproof. Yes, I re-applied. And then I ran out. And somewhere between getting on a boat and getting off the boat, I set up a crispy baked pork rind situation on my back. Those glossy bubble-shaped things?

I’m sorry to be graphic (who’m I kidding, no I’m not) but I take sunburns and suntanning pretty damn seriously. My everyday moisturizer is SPF 50. The sunblocks I had with me were SPF 30 and SPF 55, respectively. I usually wear a spray-on Neutrogena spray with an SPF of somewhere between 70 and 100, even though everybody says it doesn’t make a difference at that level of sun protection, because I’m a very pale lady with no “base coat” tan. I get about one mild burn a season when I get caught unawares, but this level of YUCK has not been seen since I was in second grade and we went to Florida and two weeks later all the skin peeled off my nose and started bleeding everywhere in the middle of one of the church services I went to every week with my mom and siblings.

The worst thing about sunburn is that it takes a few hours to start showing real damage, so you don’t even realize that while you’re hanging out on a boat, sipping Carib beers and taking the occasional tequila shot from one of your fellow adventurers, that you’re also slowly broiling yourself. Because you’re re-applying sunscreen, see? So how could you possibly be destroying your skin cells?

In the last 72 hours I’ve rubbed more plant- and foodstuffs all over my body than Samantha Jones in a foodkink episode of Sex in the City.

About 18 hours after I got burned I finally found an aloe plant (craftily hidden in plain sight outside my hotel room door); as one friend said:

I even stripped a few leaves for gel, which I put in a small container and brought back on the plane with me (and yes, I declared it at the border back into the states). Once I was home, I headed straight to CVS and picked up:

  • Solarcaine spray with numbing agent
  • Ibuprofen
  • Vitamin C
  • 70 SPF sunblock spray from Neutragena

I also heard (and did some research to back up) the idea that olive oil can be helpful for retaining moisture in your skin and helping keep it from peeling (though I feel like by 48 hours after the fact, once the blisters had really come up, it was probably too late to keep that from happening), so I slathered on some olive oil last night. Whether it’s ultimately helpful or just makes my skin feel softer where there aren’t any burns, I dunno, but by that point I didn’t even care. (Some research showed that coconut oil might also be useful – unlike other oils, these two get absorbed into your skin, so don’t lock heat in and worsen the burn, according to what I was able to find and read.) One friend recommended using witch hazel or having an apple cidar bath, but a nurse friend veto’d the witch hazel idea (while saying the rest of the plans sounded like they might be useful).

I remember the moment in my adventure when I thought, “Maybe it’s time to sit in the shade for a while.” Then I smeared more sunscreen on and got back in the sun anyways.

It’s not that I wish I hadn’t – I had an absolute blast – but I do realize the wisdom in a move made by two more experienced adventurers: early on, they both pulled out close-fitting long-sleeved nylon shirts and put them on. “I wonder why they’re doing that,” I thought, because I’d seen them both putting on sunblock for most of the morning.

Now I know why.

And next time I go adventuring, I definitely plan to get a long-sleeved nylon top of my own. And maybe some pants, because for the first two days after I got the burn, I could barely sit down.

My lesson? If you’re going somewhere sunny, bring along at least three times as much sunscreen as you think you’re going to need. And some aloe gel. And maybe a large sheet to wrap yourself up in to keep the sun off your body.

Oh well. The rest of the adventure was a blast, and the blisters will fade in a week or so. (And then in 30 or 40 years, I can deal with the fallout from the skin damage that’s been done). Until the blisters fade, though, I’m rummaging through my closet for the loosest fitting, non-bra-est-needing clothes I can find, and hoping my stock holds out until either the blisters go down or we hit the weekend. Whichever comes first.

Please, please, if there’s anyone listening with the power to affect that – let the blisters go down first.

Everybody else: I have sunburn now, but sunburns aren’t cool.* Wear more sunscreen.

2013-09-07 10.28.26


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*Obligatory Doctor Who reference.


Context and Bagels


I was talking to my roommate earlier tonight and mentioned people saying that bagels were fattening. We talked about it for a while, and neither of us was able to think of why bagels, of all baked goods, would be particularly fattening. Full of carbs? Yes. Low in fiber? Sure. But where was the fat coming from?

I started asking around on Twitter, and @TwinnerCat chimed in. Bagels used to be made with lard – okay, but “used to be” in what sense, that we would have heard this said in our lifetimes? That there would have been a time when it was so widely used that its absence was noted so strongly? While I waited for an answer, I looked for a recipe for bagels that used lard.

bagelsWere the bagels being fried in lard? Was lard somehow mixed into the dough? Because if it was, wouldn’t that result in something more like pastry?

Digression: A few weekends ago, my mom and I made cookies; I accidentally dropped the sugar in with the dry ingredients instead of beating it into the wet ones (including butter). What resulted was a cakey, floury thing, kind of like a scone. Instead of a cookie. The order you mix things in matters. 

A look at this recipe showed that the lard is not used the same way as it would be in a pie crust, where it’s mixed in with the dry ingredients. Interesting. It reminded me of the cookies. The order things were mixed in mattered, because a bagel does not taste like a pie crust.

Back to the original thought: bagels stopped being made with lard at the same time “they banned saturated fats.”

A ban on trans-fats seems to have arrived in America in 2007. This intersects with my last year in Edinburgh (I say, by way of excusing why I didn’t notice). By 2011, a BMJ (British Medical Journal) study recommended a global ban on goods high in saturated fats as a first step towards preventing cardiovascular disease.

But “they,” in this case, and according to Wikipedia, are the Food and Drug Administration, which makes the ban sound more like a labeling requirement. I’ll need to look further into this if obtaining lard for the cooking experiment becomes a problem, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it in specialty shops around NYC, so I don’t think things will get to that point.

If it does, I’ll be sure to let you all know.

Same thing for the baking project.

PS – Here’s someone else’s bagel-baking adventure. Enjoy.

Butchery, Part II: Start Spreading the News

Not sure WTF is going on? Track back to PART ONE of my butchery adventure before reading on.


It’s a little over a month ago, and my colleagues and I are gathered around a carrot cake that’s been brought in for a team birthday. As we pass slices around, eat cookies and make idle conversation, the topic moves toward how I won’t be in the office that Friday. I’ve been calling my trip to The Salty Pig an “exclusive cooking lesson,” for the sake of not upsetting the more sensitive souls in the department, but one of my friends decides it’s time to Ron Swanson that euphemism outta the park:

“She’s going to butcher a pig.”

The conversation may as well have been shot out of the sky, given how quickly it shut down. Staring at several levels of management as well as my teammates, I quickly sketch out how unsettled I was by trying to cook pork shoulder a few weeks ago, ending with the part about handing the half-a-shoulder I couldn’t touch off to my friend. Who then continues piping up: “She said, and I quote, its skin felt like a man’s.”

2013-01-13 16.32.25Now, for the record, what I said was that it felt like human skin, and what I actually meant was that handling the pork shoulder made me feel as I imagine I’d feel hacking into a dead human body, and the subtext was a mild reference to zombies and apocalyptica and so on, but his retelling landed with the desired effect.

The general reaction: “You’re killing a pig?!”

No, butchering and slaughtering are two different things.

“Are you gonna be okay?!”

If I ever want to eat Bacon again with a clear conscience, I certainly hope so.

”Omigod how are you going to do that?”

No idea, but there’ll be three of us so if I get too grossed out at any point, my guess is someone else can take over.

“How do you feel about it?!”

I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be a great learning experience*.

I posted more than a few pictures of adorable pigs in top hats and teacups over the next few hours. I’m not sure why, but it made me less nervous. My co-butchery-student informed me I’d get no sympathy if I freaked out, after that.


That evening, I was on the bus to Boston to meet the friend I’d be taking the butchery lesson with, reflecting on the discussions I’d had with people about the lesson since winning it. Some, like my colleague, were so excited about the idea of the experience that they were trying to find out if I could bring them home a chunk of meat. Others, like my roommate, assured me they had no desire to take part in that kind of activity, and probably wouldn’t want to look at the photos I was promising to come back with.

Riding in the bus, alone with my thoughts, I contemplated the reactions of others: my mom, who seemed kind of incredulous when I told her I’d even entered the competition, let alone won – and the friend I was going to be having the lesson with, who’d gone so far as to study up for the next morning’s teachings.

Then I contemplated something else: this was going to be one of the first genuinely new experiences I’d had in a while.

I was looking forward to it.

Stay tuned for part three…

*Pro tip: Tack “a great learning experience” onto most activities and people will think you’re less the kind of person who wants to have the experience of cutting a giant piece of meat to pieces, and more a sort of eccentric academic. Right?