guest post: horoscopes!

This is the first in a (hopefully long-running) series of guest posts, so everyone be on your best behavior! Today’s contribution is from The Mystic Ivan, a man from whom I once bought a map in the brumous mountains of East Anglia. I later found that the map was from a batch of rejects, having all been printed backwards and upside down. Ivan’s advice was equally prescient, so I pass it along to you, dear readers.

by The Mystic Ivan – “Guaranteed accurate within a tolerance of +/- 0.75 inches.”

You already know the importance of good eye contact, but avoid overdoing it on public transportation.

Your patience will be put to the test when your puzzle is found to be missing its final piece.

You will be tempted to fall into an inconsistent routine. Just to be safe, start doing everything in groups of three.

Now is the time to put your natural healing abilities to the test. Throw on a mask and join the next shift at your local surgery.

You are the lion, so act like it! Shout from the treetops, finally tell that barista you don’t actually like milk in your tea, cough up a hairball, live!

It’s okay to brag now and then. Some people are just better than others.

It’s time to patch things up with that person you swore to hunt down in an action packed, adrenaline filled, vengeful rage.

You will have a breakdown when you learn from a close acquaintance that Pluto, your ruling planet, was downgraded to a dwarf planet in 2006.

You will completely change your worldview when you discover that Oreo Cookies has released a Sour Patch Kids flavor.

You will suddenly become aware of your insignificance in the grand scheme of the world. Use this moment to reflect on your Tupperware situation.

Don’t let self-doubt and obvious red flags keep you from making a massive change your life.

As a natural creative, you will soon develop a new way to repurpose all that Tupperware that your neighbor keeps throwing away for some reason.

a perspective on capitalist society

Terry Pratchett described humanity as “the falling angel meets the rising ape” – a succinct description of our journey. We began on earth as base animals, ruled by the cruel doctrine of evolution: survival of the fittest. Over millennia, however, we achieved a great many things. Our opposable thumbs and excellent pattern recognition skills allowed us to create tools and learn deep secrets about our world. The ability to use language, both spoken and written, allowed us to pass this knowledge on to strangers and subsequent generations – who were able to use and build upon it.

Eventually, we conquered our environments. We developed agriculture, and were freed from relying on gathering wild food. We domesticated animals and grew beyond the capacity of what we could do with our own bodies. Soon, the principle of evolution: “survival of the fittest” became less applicable to human development. In the contemporary world, this is more evident than ever. There is virtually no environment in which we cannot survive, or indeed thrive. Medicine and science have made it so the biological development of our species is no longer guided by the forces of nature, but rather by our own whims. Vaccines, mechanized farming, eyeglasses, and dialysis machines (to name a few examples) have all made it so that “survival of the fittest” is no longer the rule for our biology. Instead this phrase has become a relic of our early days on the planet, when life was short and harsh, that we can observe as applicable to less-developed beings.

In conquering our environments, we discovered ourselves. We developed self-consciousness, and began to wonder why we exist. We developed things like religion and sets of morals to guide us, and most importantly, we realized the soul of mankind. This led us to the humanistic philosophies of today, where we realize that every human life is uniquely valuable, and all people are equal.

Yet, this principle of competition, so vanquished in our evolutionary development, persists in another sphere of human life. The strategy of capitalist society is neatly summarized by the phrase “survival of the fittest” if one now interprets “fittest” to mean economically fit, rather than biologically fit. It is a system in which all members are pitted against one another, in competition for limited resources. In such a system, those with advantages (i.e. the “fit”) succeed at the expense of those without. Such an endeavor is coldly, brutishly in contrast to both the path of human development thus far and the humanistic morality we have developed. Rather, modern morals would logically require that all lives be provided for, regardless of “fitness”.

In history up until now, mankind has shown that we are capable of overcoming the animalistic and competitive dynamic of nature. Indeed, we are masters of our own world, capable of twisting and forming the world around us to suit our needs. Yet the idea that the strong should win and the weak should lose somehow persists in our society. One might say that our collective memory has been so brutalized by this aspect of nature that we cannot think of another way to organize ourselves, but this explanation assumes a level of mental indolence on our part that has been since disproven.

In the next stages of human development, we must show that we have not only mastery over nature, but mastery over ourselves as well. To do this, we must quit the capitalist principles of competition and fitness-determined survival, just as we have banished the same principles from our biology. As we sit between Sir Terry’s rising ape and falling angel, we must choose to continue to rise, and leave behind our primitive nature.


Vincent, chapter 1

chapter 1.


Vincent’s head exploded.

Or at least it felt that way. As he was falling asleep, in a half dreaming state where ridiculous notions and outlandish thoughts reign, he had a vision of himself. His perspective was altered, so that he saw his own form, curled up in his bed, as the trappings of his bedroom faded away. One by one, the faded carpet, the dresser, the linear shadows cast by the moon shining through his Venetian blinds, all faded into nothingness and his body was suspended there, in infinity. That’s when a blinding light and deafening blast overwhelmed his primary senses, violently jerking Vincent into waking. POW! Right on time, as every other night for the past three years.

The sleep specialist that Vincent had consulted last spring had diagnosed it as “Episodic cranial sensory shocks”, commonly referred to as “exploding head syndrome”. Outside of naming the phenomena, the diagnosis had not helped Vincent much. As the doctor explained, the causes of this syndrome are poorly understood, and treatments are numerous and varied.

Leveraging himself out of bed, Vincent fumbled for his slippers under the bed for a moment before donning his tattered bathrobe and padding softly toward the kitchen of the single story bungalow. The glow from the moon spilled onto the thin carpeting in the hallway. He declined to make use of the piercing fluorescent light as he reached the kitchen, settling for the soft glow of the refrigerator lightbulb as his groping fingers found a can of beer and cracked the top. The combination of low-dose alcohol and carbohydrates had proven effective at damping the reverberating echoes of his exploded head.

As he sipped the elixir, Vincent crossed the combination dining/living room to the sliding glass doors at the back of the house and stepped out. The pale, full-moon glow lit up the entirety of the small concrete patio that took up half of the fenced yard. Gently lowering himself into one of a pair of nearly vintage plastic lawn chairs occupying the space, he looked up.

“Aldebaran, occluded by the glow of the moon” he muttered to himself as he scanned the sky for his favorite star. “Lambda tauri, not far behind”.

Vincent sat in the lawn chair, absorbing the view and the gentle July atmosphere. It hadn’t been particularly hot that day, but the evening didn’t seem to want to cool much further. He listened as the various birds and insects gently hummed and chirped in the sparse vegetation between the houses of his suburban development, and a gentle, if not cooling, breeze blew across the yard. Stretching into the distance directly behind the house, was an expanse of tremendous nothingness, the plains of western Nebraska extending towards distant mountains. Living on the edge of this development sometimes afforded Vincent the opportunity to hear coyotes howling on the distant ridge. Whenever he heard the wild dogs, a jolt of adrenaline would shiver down his spine; the sound having an ancient fight or flight response in his hindbrain. But he heard no coyotes tonight.

As Vincent stared absently up at the gently illuminated starscape, a gentle prickling made its way up the back of his neck like a pinch, or a backwards drip of ice, not unlike the aforementioned fight or flight response. Before his fuzzball brain could remark about how strange the feeling would occur without hearing any wild dogs, he was blinded. The entire night sky had turned a brilliant white, luminescing with all-consuming intensity. The bizarre glow had turned every object in Vincent’s field of view into a halogen bulb that burned his retinas. Barely after he registered the light, he became aware of two things. First, the air that had moments ago been whooshing lively across his face had become deathly still. Second, the temperature of said air, and indeed his lawn chair and concrete pad patio as well, was dropping rapidly. However, before he could shiver, or even shout his surprise, the odd event was over, as rapidly as it had begun. In a blink, the sky returned to normal, and the wind resumed as if it had never left. The nighttime birds and insects, as if they had not just been stunned into silence a moment ago, resumed their gentle susurration.

Sitting stunned in his lawn chair, Vincent’s conscious mind caught up with the more efficient lizard hindbrain after a moment, and began to parse all that it had registered. He realized the whole event had lasted only a second, perhaps less.


Alongside an almighty crash, Vincent woke up again.

For an instant, he thought his head had exploded again, before a tremendous shaking overwhelmed his senses. Had he not be already in bed, he would have surely been bowled over by the wild undulations of his previously-stationary living room. The walls were vibrating violently, while the floorboards began to buckle and crack, pulling themselves away from wall seam. The word ‘earthquake’ had barely formed in Vincent’s mind when he became aware of another sensation, a rapid rotation, causing the points of daylight that streamed in the windows to whip haphazardly across the room – the entire house was spinning! A glimpse out the window (currently unencumbered by a curtain rod, which had sailed across the room a fraction of a second before), showed a blur of orangey-red landscape rush by.

Nearly as soon as he had become aware of the motion of his house, the shaking and spinning were beginning to ebb rapidly. Like applying the brakes in a car to bring it from sixty to zero, the house ground to a halt with unnerving suddenness. As he still lay in his bed, which was now canted at a dramatic angle due to the exciting new arrangement of his floorboards, Vincent tried to wrangle his brain to form a cohesive thought, and after most of a minute he managed to eek out, to no one in particular:

“What. the. fuck.”

A framed photocopy of an unused diploma that had been courageously clinging to the wall crashed to the floor in response. The house was obstinately silent. Vincent took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He closed his eyes and laid back again – perhaps this was a hallucination, and he had finally gone insane as he long suspected he would. Slowly, he opened his eyes again, and threw a glance about the room as this thought melted away, he’d no such luck. An intrusive beam of sunlight pierced in the curtainless window at a strange angle, and the motes of dust, and more likely former bits of house, were suspended in the light. The air was oppressively still, and the house so quiet that Vincent now wondered if he had somehow also gone deaf in the course of events, but the crunching slide of the bed down the floorboards as he shifted his weight to sit up provided an excellent counterpoint. Taking another deep breath, Vincent looked futiley about what was left of the bedroom for his slippers, before realizing what a ridiculous notion that was. Picking his way over to the toppled chest of drawers, and being very careful to not disturb the unstable flooring, Vincent pried his work boots from the bottom drawer. Feet now protected, and clad otherwise in his bathrobe, and underclothes, Vincent kicked the bedroom door in the middle, where it had already cracked as it wedged in the doorframe. A few stiff blows, and the door gave in, and Vincent was able to push his way into the hall.

This part of the house seemed less disrupted than the bedroom, although the floor still buckled nonlinearly as Vincent carefully picked his way toward the kitchen. Upon arrival, he repeated his earlier assessment, with different emphasis:

“What the FUCK?”

The far end of the kitchen had been rapidly updated with a enormous, jagged hole in the wall that offered an unobstructed view of a red, alien-looking desert landscape that was now littered with a trail of what appeared to be bits of Vincent’s house. The linoleum covered concrete of the kitchen floor seemed to be relatively solid as Vincent picked his way over the refrigerator that had fallen on its doors. He nearly slipped on a pile of broken dishes that had accumulated, but caught himself on the wedged-halfway silverware drawer. His mouth was agape as he ducked under the hanging timbers and scraps of insulation that lined the opening of the hole to step out onto the dusty sandstone plain.

“What the…”

His voice faltered before he could finish vocalizing his third assessment of the situation. He stood in bewildered reverie as he took in the scene around him: a wide, sandy desert stretched away from his feet. In the distance ahead and to one side, the shapes of large stone formations loomed, creating long shadows that stretched horizontally across the field of his vision. These environs were most definitely not the Nebraskan suburb where Vincent had last seen his house. The sun beat down, and Vincent could feel the heat radiating from the ground beneath him, and already beads of sweat had broken out across his forehead. He turned and observed what was left of his house, letting out a small whimper as the scene came into view.

A short survey around the building revealed that what Vincent had felt when he was rudely woken a few minutes prior seemed to be the result of the entire house, concrete slab included, skidding and bouncing along the ground for roughly a half a mile. This had taken quite a toll on the structure of the house, ripping off huge chunks of siding and splitting several walls at the corners. This impossibility took Vincent several minutes to process entirely, and he kept walking to the back of the house to look at the huge marks in the dirt, gouged out dramitcally by the house and extending into the distance. As he stood in front of the gaping hole in what was once his kitchen wall, he turned his face to the sky and wondered – not for the first time – if he was hallucinating.

This notion was quickly dispelled when a small projectile, roughly the size of a pencil tip, came whizzing out of the sky, punching a blazing hole in the cartilage of Vincent’s left ear before impacting the earth behind him with a thud and a small dust cloud. Vincent screamed. Clutching his ear, he crumpled, yelling in confusion and pain, and for the fourth time since he awoke, Vincent inquired of the universe:

“What the fuck!?”

After a moment, the stinging pain ebbed away, and Vincent pulled his hand from his head and was surprised by the lack of blood. He probed his ear with his fingers, and winced as they brushed a small hole that had not been there previously. Looking around, Vincent spied a piece of broken glass that had fallen from one of the windows of the house. He picked up the shard and held it in front of him, angling it such that he could see the side of his head in the faint reflection.

“I’ll be damned. Completely cauterized.” He remarked, incredulously. The edges of his fresh injury were tender and ragged, but bloodless. Suddenly, about fifty feet away in the sand, another “THUMP” threw up another dust cloud, leaving a small crater. Vincent instantly dove to the ground by his house, pulling his arms and legs into a tight ball. Seconds later, several more projectiles slammed into the ground around the house. Throwing his body into a sideways roll, Vincent scurried around the corner of his house and back into the kitchen via the hole in the wall. He clambered through the wreckage and let out a sigh as he sunk to the floor behind the overturned refrigerator. He became aware that a rapid, syncopated cadence had filled the air; the sound of hundreds of small projectiles slamming into the roof and walls around him, as though a battalion’s worth of bb guns had opened fire all at once. Vincent hunkered down into the space between the upturned refrigerator and the wall, not eager to leave any more of his body exposed to whatever was flying out of the sky. Panic started to rise in his throat, as Vincent mind, which had been making feeble attempts at grasping the situation up until now, had finally caught up to the present and found its grip. At the same time, Vincent became aware of a burning sensation in his lungs. Before this revelation could exacerbate his newfound state of mind, however, the lack of breathable atmosphere that it portended overtook Vincent, whose vision collapsed to pinpoints before he slumped further against the wall, unconscious.


having a creative outlet

I lead a very busy life, which can sometimes lead to a lot of buildup of stress. Recently, a friend suggested that it might be good to have a Creative Outlet. I did some reading and it turns out that having a Creative Outlet can reduce stress, improve concentration and mindfulness, and even make you happier. So I decided to give it a shot, here is my Creative Outlet:


I think I will call him “Gustave”.


microfluidics 101

As part of a project I am working on, I needed to make some microfluidic devices. For those that aren’t familiar, these are usually chips that are made with channels, some few microns tall and wide that can handle a few microliters of fluid (hence the name: micro- fluidics). Typically, and indeed in my case, these channels are made of some soft material and bonded to glass, so that the channel exists as an impressed feature in the material and is bounded by the glass, creating a pipe that is easy to image with some microscope. Anyway, I made some earlier today and thought it would be neat to document the process here.

The first thing to do, is make or buy a substrate that has whatever channel design you want printed on the surface as a positive image (i.e. it sticks up off the surface) because this is what will stick into your soft material and create the channel; a process known as ‘soft lithography’. In my case, I have a silicon wafer with a simple design on it made with a UV-curable chemical called ‘photoresist’, which is also an interesting process, but is really best as a subject for another blog post.

The silicon wafer is highly polished and very reflective – which also makes it good for this application, as it is difficult for things to stick to it.

You can just barely see the raised up channels, which are about 25 microns tall and 500 microns wide. I needed to be careful handling this, as the photoresist could easily be scratched off or distorted, altering my final channel shape. Here’s a close-up image of the channels.

The details on this wafer are very small, and difficult to see with the naked eye.

Now that I have my wafer and channel design, I need the material into which I will actually cast the shape of the channels – the “soft” part of soft lithography. In this instance, I’ll use a substance called ‘PDMS’ which stands for polydimethylsiloxane, which is long and hard to pronounce, but the main takeaway is that it is a highly elastic silcone rubber with some neat properties (go check out the linked wikipedia page for more info).

The PDMS that I am using comes as a two component binary mixture. Once you mix component ‘A’ with component ‘B’, a chemical reaction starts and the rubber starts to cure. The neat thing about having a two component system is that some properties of the final product (in this case, namely stiffness/elasticity) can be tuned by the initial ratio of ‘A’ to ‘B’. With the specific PDMS that I am using, a 10:1 ratio of A:B seems to work best.

44g is only slightly more than I will need for this wafer, so 40g and 4g are good amounts to get the ratio correct.

Luckily, the aforementioned 10:1 ratio is of mass rather than of volume (although I think they would be pretty close). In this case, it makes it pretty straightforward to measure out the correct amounts.

40g (more or less) of the first component, ‘A’

Oops. Close enough.

4g (more or less) of component ‘B’

Now that I have my two components added together, I need to mix them together really well. For this I just used a plastic stirring rod and elbow grease. However, this opened the door to another problem – my PDMS now has a LOT of bubbles in it.


Normally, if I was mixing two component epoxy or something similar, I wouldn’t care about bubbles in the mixture. However, because I will be using this mixture to make channels with really small feature size, any bubble that sits on the channel imprint could completely disrupt the design. Therefore, I need to get rid of these bubbles.

De-bubbling the PDMS is not as complicated as it might seem. A common feature in laboratories and suspiciously-well-equipped garages is a vacuum chamber. High enough vacuum will increase the differential air pressure between the inside and the outside of the bubbles, causing them to expand and eventually burst. All I have to do is stick my cup of silicone under vacuum for a little bit and all the bubbles will be sucked right out!

Easy peasy. If someone you know has one of these in their garage, be cautious.

It can happen that the bubbles foam way up like a shaken soda – in this case it is best to release the vacuum slightly, or just gently slam the whole box down on the bench to disrupt the bubbles into bursting. After about 20 minutes or so, the last of the bubbles had burst and I had well-mixed, de-gassed PDMS ready to pour over my wafer.

Before I should do anything more with the polymer, I need to prepare my wafer to hold the PDMS over it long enough for the silicone to cure. Remember the tinfoil from the earlier picture?

a foil dish!


Now I am ready to cast the PDMS over the wafer. In order to not undo all my hard de-gassing work, I need to be exceedingly gentle when pour the liquid polymer, so as to not introduce any more bubbles that could disrupt the fluid channel features. I needed two hands for this, so luckily a fellow lab denizen was nearby who could take a photo for me.

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast

It is usually best to pour from one corner and let the highly viscous polymer gently creep across your wafer like so much molasses in a molasses flood or similar natural disaster.

Once the PDMS was poured, I set it on a level surface to cure for 48 hours. Alternatively, I could have stuck it into a 80 degree centigrade oven for an hour or two to cure it the same amount. This wafer won’t be done today, but luckily I had another wafer I had poured a couple days ago that was ready to go.

Once the PDMS is set, I now just have to cut away the foil and excess polymer, and cut out the individual devices.

watch your fingers and toes at this step

At this point, caution is essential, as the crystalline silicon is very brittle and putting too much force on it will snap it (which is bad because they can be fairly expensive).

Once cut, the PDMS peels off easily (and becomes blurry apparently)

Now I have pieces of PDMS that have a pattern negatively imprinted into one side, which will be bonded to a piece of glass to create a sealed channel. However, in order to access the channels from outside the device, I need to punch holes in the material that I can connect to tubing afterwards. For this, I use a small biopsy punch, but a polished, flat-end injection needle will work too (an angled needle is no good, as we need to punch out the ‘core’ of polymer, leaving a hole).

biopsy punch
pull out the cores of polymer and throw them away, but it will not matter as they will inevitably accumulate on your gloves.

It’s important to punch on the end of the channel feature so that the hole can access the imprinted channel.

Now I have to clean the feature side of each device to prepare them for bonding to the glass – luckily this is made very easy by one of mankind’s best, most useful inventions:

tape for everybody!

Scotch tape!

The tape will both protect the features on the PDMS from debris while I prepare the glass for bonding, and when I peel it off, the tape will bring with it any debris that is already there. Wonderful!

The next part is where I clean the microscope slides and prepare them for bonding, but since this step just involves cleaning the slides with isopropanol, we can skip the pictures. The critical thing is to make sure they are clean and dry.

Next, I take my cleaned glass slides and taped up PDMS chips over to the plasma cleaner. I won’t get into the details here (feel free to check out the linked wikipedia page) but the long and short of it is that the plasma both cleans the surfaces of the PDMS and glass, as well as activates OH groups in the PDMS and glass (both are silicon based) so that they will form bonds with each other without the need for any adhesives or clamping.

Side by side, and away goes the tape!

Into the science box!

not at all a menacing tube

Once the chip and glass are situated, the chamber is evacuated with a pump, and the ionizer is turned on, creating a bright pink plasma that bathes the devices.

pink plasma porthole

Once the plasma is active, I usually let the machine run for two minutes to make sure the surfaces are nice and activated. Once the time is up, I have to work quickly to pull the devices out, and flip the PDMS chip onto the glass slide (features down). Once the two surfaces make contact, they will immediately bond and pull together (no need to press on the PDMS). Then, I like to let the bonded devices sit on a hot plate at 80 degrees (centigrade) for a few hours to ensure good bonding.

bonded devices on a hot plate.

While the bonded devices are toasting to completion on the hot plate, I can prepare the fluid pin connectors that I will use to connect tubing to the channels on the device. You can buy specialty connectors for this, but I like to use blunt, flat end needles. If you gently bend the needle 90 degrees, you can twist it out of the syringe base, leaving you with a handy, L-shaped pin connector.

bent 90 degrees and twisted partially out of the base
a handy dandy connector

At this point it is lunchtime and so I leave the pin connectors and devices on the hot plate alone and go have lunch.

By the time I get back, the devices have bonded sufficiently, and I can hook up some tubing. To do this, I gently push the L-shaped connectors I just made into the holes I punched earlier, like so:

like a rabbit-ear TV antenna, only smaller

From this point it is pretty straightforward to hook up some tubing to the pin connectors and create a functional microfluidic device, which is exactly what I did for this example chip.

example chip with dye syringe (be careful with dye unless you want purple fingers for a week)

The application for which I need these devices is a little more complicated, and actually involves a second device that has an on-board, PDMS valve system, but that’s a more complicated post for another time. In the meantime, enjoy this video of the chip in action!