Monthly Archives: March 2014

Vironevaeh on Mad Scientist Journal

Check out my story “Carnivorous Fog: Avoidance, Survival, and Eradication Strategies” on Mad Scientist Journal today. Mad Scientist Journal publishes stories in the form of fictitious scientific papers. This paper is set in the same place as my fairy tales, although at a different time. The inspiration for this story came from my Nanowrimo novel; the novel is sort of a wreck, but it gave me several fun ideas.

Most excitingly, this is the first thing I’ve published in the Vironevaehn universe, one that I started nearly 17 years ago. Hopefully it doesn’t take another 17 years for the next publication.

Here’s an accompanying illustration I did after the story. On the left is the “encapsulated” insect, while the free insect is on the right.



Food and Science: Caramelization and the Maillard Reaction

When we cook food, we want it to be as flavorful as possible. Two types of chemical reactions contribute to browning; both of these reactions create hundreds or thousands of other molecules, which then add aroma and flavor. The higher temperature reaction you may be familiar with: caramelization is the breakdown and reaction of sugars. The Maillard reaction occurs at slightly lower temperatures (still usually above the boiling point of water); this reaction occurs between the amino acids of proteins and sugars.

Both of these reactions are so complex that scientists don’t know everything that occurs during them. We understand the basic nature of each reaction, but any plant or animal food contains literally thousands of different molecules that can all react together. Fortunately, we can still implement the process without a full understanding (and we have been for millennia), and a lot of very nice foods undergo either or both reactions.

The Maillard reaction and caramelization often occur at the same time, and produce similar results visually, so they can be tough to separate. If something contains both proteins and sugars, both reactions can occur with heat. Fortunately, they both taste good. They’re also easy to do at home. If you want to brown your food, get a skillet nice and hot. Make sure you’ve patted the food dry (this allows the surface to get hotter than the boiling point of water, thus allowing the reactions to occur), and sear away.

Writing prompt: the woods burst into flame

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“The woods burst into flame”


The sky seemed to darken in an instant. Heavy clouds swirled, and lightning flashed. Only a moment ago, it had been a perfect summer day. Around Nadya and Vanya, the woods burst into flames.

“How?” Vanya cried.

Nadya grabbed Vanya’s hand and ran. Vanya had such a habit wanting to know the why of things, and as the flames licked around the great trees, the why was not currently important. Nadya saved her curiosity for the relevant time.

Flames seemed to repel them on all sides. Above, dark clouds still swirled. Flocks of bird and animals also fled the uncanny fire too, and so the air and trees were full of frightened motion. Nadya and Vanya were encircled by flames. There was nowhere to run.

Vanya sat on the ground and began to cry. “It’s so hot, I just want to go home.” He was only six, and even in her frustration with her brother, her heart ached for him. As the big sister, it was her job to provide safety, but she too was tempted to collapse onto the ground and give in. It seemed inevitable at this point.

“Vanya, come with me,” Nadya said, a sudden idea in her mind. It might not save them, but it was something. “Climb this tree with me.”

“But—” Vanya tears paused as confusion took over, “Papa says we must never climb those trees. That children who do are never seen again, or fall to their death.”

“Vanya, look around,” Nadya said, suddenly manic with the idea, “we could use a miraculous disappearance. I don’t know where we’d go, but it couldn’t be worse than here.”

Nadya and her brother climbed the tree. The texture was odd under hand, untreelike. When they neared the top, she heard a sound. It was the piercing cry of an enormous bird. Nadya was so startled she almost fell as the six-foot bird emerged from the storm clouds. One bird grabbed Nadya, and the other grabbed Vanya. The two birds flew high into the sky, and the children looked down onto the burning forest. Nadya hoped that the birds were kindly disposed to children.

Science communication

Science communication is hard, but it’s something scientists should always be striving to improve.

Specifically, we often see the difficulty in communication between scientists and the general public. The concepts discussed are often complex and not fully settled. Scientists often use jargon or scientific methods of communication that don’t translate to the public well. The final result is that scientists and the public don’t understand one another as well as they might, which is a loss for all of us.

On Friday I went to a science communication workshop run by The American Association for the Advancement of Science (or AAAS) to learn about science communication. The AAAS tries to help scientists communicate in all ways–such as with policy makers, with other scientists, and with members of the public. They outlined three points of emphasis to improve communication. We then practiced talking about our research following these guidelines (perhaps I’ll post my spiel in some future post).

  • Communication structure: Scientific papers first provide the background material before stating the outcomes or results of a paper. Popular writing starts with the results and then provides the supporting arguments. In discourse with the public, scientists must follow the conventions the public uses.
  • Audience: A scientist must understand the communication’s audience. Jargon may work within the field, but even scientists from nearby disciplines probably won’t know it. The general public or children definitely won’t.
  • Message: A brief talk or article cannot communicate an entire field. It must communicate two or three salient points. It can be tempting to explain everything to an interested member of the public, but it simply isn’t possible.

In particular, I think the public might be surprised to learn of the difficulties different scientists have in communication. I recently earned my PhD in chemical engineering. When I was writing my final dissertation, I asked my father for help with editing. He has a PhD in chemical engineering as well, and works on advanced data management. It might seem strange, but he struggles to understand my work, and I struggle to understand his. With effort, I made the more general parts of my dissertation accessible to him, but the truly technical parts would have taken him much longer to understand. This graphic of what a PhD is partially illustrates the nature of this problem.

The difficulty two people with the same kind of PhD face in communication highlights the need for us to discuss science communication. As I initially said, science communication is hard. But many important problems today have a scientific aspect or could be examined in a scientific way. As scientists learn to articulate their concerns and findings better, that paves the way for better discourse with the public.

Writing prompt: using an illustration as inspiration

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

I wrote this prompt while looking at the image below, which I made for my worldbuilding exercises, discussed here.


Enh and Della sat at the table, staring out the window rather than at each other. Enh hadn’t seen Della in fifteen years, not since that terrible night. And now they sat in a beautiful café, staring out at the sea rather than talking. Out of the blue, Della had contacted her two days before. She still hadn’t explained why, and Enh was growing uncomfortable. In the distance, a sailboat skating gracefully by. Enh wished she were there. Anywhere but here.

“It’s good to see you again, Enh,” Della mumbled again. Enh just nodded this time. Della’s voice, so distinctive, was unchanged, and she mumbled just like she had so many years ago. She paused for a long time. “Don’t you have anything to say to me?”

Enh sighed. “You contacted me. And you still haven’t told me why yet. I didn’t come here to reminisce. I came here because to asked me to, and I’d prefer you get to the point.”

Della’s eye’s narrowed. When she was young, she might have cried, but evidently she was past that. “You always make everything hard. Fine, I’ll just say it. I found out that Intira might be alive.”

Enh dropped her fork. Visions of that night came unbidden. The night they found the bike on the beach, but not Intira. Intira’s angry note, condemning all their undermining, how they had never really been friends. A man who’d seen her running into the ocean. Her clothes, found a month later on the coast.

(As it happens, the end of this prompt became inspired by another illustration, see below.)



Whenever I travel, I bring my camera. It remembers the little details I can’t. Then I come home and the photos take me back to those places. They are also great resources for illustration and imagining. Last week I posted some word building illustrations. When I try to imagine and build what doesn’t exist, photos of what does provide invaluable insight. Between my photos and google searches, I work toward my vision for each piece of each illustration. Below are a few favorite cityscapes I pulled out of my files. Whether from street level or from above, each provides a window into the culture of each city.

Cabo san Lucas waterfront.

Cabo san Lucas waterfront.

New York City from the Rockefeller Building.

New York City from the Rockefeller Building.

On the street in Portland, OR.

On the street in Portland, OR.

Ghent, Belgium.

Ghent, Belgium.

Bergen, Norway.

Bergen, Norway.

Prague, CZ (a place called nazdrazi holesovice, if my notes are to be trusted).

Prague, CZ (a place called nazdrazi holesovice, if my notes are to be trusted).

Cesky Krumlov, CZ.

Cesky Krumlov, CZ.

Baltimore waterfront.
Baltimore waterfront.


Food and science: understanding and cheating lactose intolerance

A person is lactose intolerant when they no longer makes sufficient quantities of the enzyme lactase. Because the enzyme no longer breaks the lactose sugar down, bacteria in the large intestine do instead. The bacteria release a lot of gas when they do this, which irritates the large intestine and causes the symptoms we observe. 

Below is a quick run down to understanding lactose content in foods, and what I’ve done to continue eating awesome dairy food despite my own very inconvenient sensitivity.

What contains lactose?

As a short answer, more than you would think. Obviously ice cream and milk do. Hard cheeses contain very little. I often read that yogurt is well-tolerated by lactose-intolerants due to the bacterial culture, but I do not tolerate yogurt. Sour cream made by traditional methods is low in lactose, but many manufacturers add milk solids.

It gets more complicated. Many foods contain milk powder or whey. Milk powder is 50% lactose by weight, and whey is 10%-70% lactose. Pastries, hot chocolate mixes, pudding mixes, and even Doritos can contain milk powder and whey. Most annoyingly, products do not list the quantity of lactose contained.

Fortunately, several websites tabulate the lactose content of various foods (at least dairy– if you find one for prepared foods, I would love to hear about it). Steve Carper’s Super Guide to Dairy gives a great explanation of the lactose content of a wide variety of dairy products. This link has a decent list.

Circumventing lactose intolerance

Thanks to modern science, we can synthesize the lactase enzyme. The enzyme can be taken as pills and eaten with food, or added to the food as a liquid. I used to take the pills, but as my symptoms progressed, that method became insufficient. The stomach is a mixing chamber, and mixing is imperfect, so enough lactose still got through to cause issues.

After going a year without ice cream or yogurt, I decided to investigate my options. Online, I found the lactase liquid drops, which can be added to any liquid. In 24 hours, these drops reduce the lactose content of a product roughly 70%. I usually add more than the recommended quantity and wait three days to be extra sure. (A side note: I read in the amazon comments that some batches of the enzyme didn’t work; you can test the enzyme’s effectiveness using diabetic glucose test strips. Lactose splits into glucose and galactose, but food doesn’t normally contain glucose; a test strip indicating its presence in a treated food means the enzyme worked. I bought my enzyme in August, and did the test because heat can de-activate enzymes; it was super easy.)

Then I made lactose-free yogurt. I made lactose-free fresh mozzarella cheese (although I wasn’t very good at it). I bought an ice cream maker and made ice cream in any flavor I wanted. I made chocolate mousse. For Thanksgiving, I made ice cream and pumpkin pie with sweetened condense milk and mashed potatoes with sour cream.

Basically, you can add the enzyme to the cream or starting dairy product, let it be for a couple of days, and then cook as you normally would. In milk, the treatment slightly changes the flavor of the milk (it becomes a little cloying, because glucose tastes different than lactose), but in prepared foods I can’t tell the difference. Below are a couple pics of some projects I enjoyed very much. Hopefully this brief run down helps a few of you, or a least gives a picture of our complicated food science lives.


Green tea ice cream, made with matcha green tea.


Chocolate mousse.


Writing prompt: The Little Viking

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“The Little Viking”  (this prompt inspired by a little Viking figurine in my office, as pictured.)

It wasn’t easy for Olie to be the littlest Viking in his boat. Big Thorvald stood two heads taller than him, and most of the others stood at least one head taller. Olie even had a special sword made to be lighter and shorter for him. The others were mostly polite to his face, respecting his moniker of “mad herring”, but they laughed when they thought he couldn’t hear. He heard.

There were advantages to his stature. He knew that, he just wished he could convince the others of it. Once in battle, his enemy, a great hulking man with braided red hair, took a mighty swipe with his sword. Fortunately, Olie was so low the blow only took one horn from his helmet. And then he stabbed the red-haired man and danced on his corpse. But did his boat-mates remember that? No, they laughed at his one-horned helmet.

Then one voyage, Olie spotted a tiny Viking on another boat. Here was a man who could understand him, perhaps teach him battle techniques. At the very least, here was a man who he could drink a lot of mead with. When the boats landed in the trading town, Olie immediately rushed to the other ship, neglecting his duties, but not caring.

The other tiny Viking turned around—it was a lady. Olie’s village used to have women on the boats, but when there were enough men, they opted not to. Here, finally, was a Viking he stood over. He smiled broadly at her.

“Don’t get any ideas,” the woman said, smiling back. “I might be as little as you, but you know as well as I do how hard we fight to make up the difference.”

Her eyes glinted, and Olie saw that she probably would punch him as easily and effectively as any of his boatmates. “This is true. Let’s drink now and save the fighting for later.”

Science Fiction Worldbuilding

One thing I love about science fiction is worldbuilding. When you go to a new place, you take in the architecture, the language, the food, the weather, how someone enters a house, how someone insults another person… These things exist in any culture, but they vary, sometimes radically. In science fiction, the creator tries to imagine these things in a logical and consistent manner for a time that hasn’t happened yet, for planets unknown, with the very constants of life such as gravity and oxygen subject to change. And yet the end product, when successful, is similar to travel–we visit a place that is deeply familiar in the fundamental ways and yet different in ways that provoke thought.

(Some people think that there is too much worldbuilding–I don’t agree. I think the author can tell too much of their own personal worldbuilding process and not consider the reader enough. However, I speak from a place of no authority, so take my opinion for what it is worth.)

In the last few weeks, I’ve been working on illustrations of street life in my city inspired by Hiroshige’s 100 views of Edo. Even after 17 years working on this world, I see many new things this way.


On the hill in the background is the outline of an old storm tower, shaped a bit like a lighthouse. The old fortifications stood high on the hills with thick walls to withstand the storms.SONY DSC

The view west from a storm tower, to give early warning of storms. In the early days of the city, storms caused flash flooding and devastation.SONY DSCGleaming cities often have unsavory hidden parts, sometimes literally lurking around the corner.

So far I’ve done about 20 illustrations. I’d like to do at least 100. In each one I feel more comfortable with previous details. I’ve looked up references of European and Moroccan and Japanese architecture (mostly the European showing in these three samples). Now I’ve started incorporating old sketches over a decade old. The city feels all the more real to me (it’s great inspiration for story ideas and details), and the work is great fun.


Writing prompt: The Melt

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“The Melt”

Elijah strapped the packages and foodstuffs to the sleigh. When they were secured, he went and fed the dogs. It would be a long day for them tomorrow. It was the hard time of year. It was time for the Melt. Each year their small community packed onto sleds to escape the floods of the spring melt. One who left too early faced oppressive cold and winds in the high country. One who left too late faced mud and run off and risked the sudden floods. This winter’s weather had been tumultuous, and Elijah felt uneasily that they might both be too early and too late. This year, perhaps nothing would be right.


In the morning, Elijah and his neighbors left their communal home. It would not be there when they returned. Ahead of them stood miles of whiteness, the great fertile flood plain. The world was silent but for the creaking of the ice under the sun. All day long, the dogs pulled the sleds. Elijah and the stronger men and women skied alongside the sleighs. The children and the elderly rode the sleighs.

Late in the afternoon, the party came to a river.

“This ice is no good,” Elijah’s sister Elta said. “Look, cracks run deep into it, and the color is not right.”

“I said we left too late,” someone said.

“We’ll have to go around,” Elijah said, trying to force an air confidence he did not feel. “This has happened before.” It had happened before, but never without death and suffering. The fickle sun shone down, weakening the river further.