Microscopic Orchestra [Weekly Head Voices #53]

Dear friends, I was planning to write a nicely focused post, but it’s definitely not going to be this one. There’s just too much we need to talk about, and by “we need to talk” I of course mean that “I need to do my monologue”. Do strap yourselves in, as this edition of the WHV has tea, peanuts, chocolate milk, general nerdery, some ground-breaking science and even some thought-provoking art.


Will the real Rooibos please stand up?

Rooibos is a brilliant herbal tea from the Western Cape province (the same one that spawned me) of South Africa. It is both tasty and super healthy. As I was shopping for my stash in the local Albert Heijn (huge grocery chain here in Dutchieland), I found all kinds of Rooibos blends, for example with honey or even with orange. Now while I appreciate the fact that you can even find Rooibos in any old store over here, the only good Rooibos is of course PURE Rooibos, so I was quite happy to find the most non-descript Albert Heijn box stating just “Rooibos” (not an orange or honeypot in sight), and also the Pickwick box proudly proclaiming “Pickwick Rooibos Original”. I was considerably less happy when I noticed in the list of ingredients (list? it’s supposed to be just tea!) that the addition of cardamom, cinnamon and ginger (!!!) to these supposedly original specimens was apparently acceptable. In the words of an entrepreneurial friend of mine: MUPPETS. Fortunately, the boys and girls at Zonnatura do get it, and have the right stuff on the shelves, pure and uncut. As if fate needed to equalise this advantage however, their website is pure and absolute Flash suckage. Go figure.

On the topic of healthy nutrition, there are two more tidbits I’d like to mention:

  • Peanuts are of course not nuts, they’re officially beans, or legumes. When further perusing the wikipedia page on peanuts, one is most pleasantly surprised to find that this delectable snack is in fact also super food! Allegedly the favoured core nutrition during (Ant)Arctic expeditions, peanuts contain more protein than any true nut, oodles of carbohydrates (570 kcal per 100g) and also 30 other hardcore nutrients and vitamins. No Vitamin C though, so the perfect diet would unfortunately still require more than just peanuts and beer.
  • This one surprised me more: In a number of studies, for example this one from 2006 and this very recent one from the University of Texas, it was found that (low-fat) chocolate milk works really well as a recovery drink after strenuous exercise, better than those really expensive sports drinks you always see real athletes prancing uselessly around with. CHOCOLATE MILK people!


  • HTC’s Android phones run Sense, a graphical user interface layer over mostly Google’s smartphone operating system. Sense is really quite cool, except for the fact that it’s too easy accidentally answering or declining calls when fishing the phone from your pocket, as HTC has mapped these actions to vertical swiping instead of horizontal swiping. On my nerd blog, I’ve written a short post on how to work around this problem.
  • I’ve recently installed the Rapportive plugin for GMail. Whenever I view or compose a mail, Rapportive shows incredibly detailed information on the recipients or senders in the right sidebar, detail that it grabs from services such as facebook, LinkedIn, twitter and so forth. Obviously you also get to see recent emails between you and said senders or recipients. This context information makes a huge positive difference in the mails that you are able to craft.


I had the privilege of accompanying Genetic Offspring Unit #1 to Naturalis, National Museum of Natural History, in Leiden. On the ground floor, they have a reproduction of the Miller and Urey experiment published in ’53. This was a landmark experiment during which Miller and Urey tried to show that under the conditions on primitive Earth, organic compounds, such as amino-acids, would be synthesised from inorganic precursors. They built a relatively simple closed setup containing only water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen, added water evaporation and an electrical spark (simulating lightning) to the mix, and voila: amino acids, the building blocks of proteins in living cells!

Although more recent evidence suggests that the general atmospheric mix was probably not exactly like in the Miller-Urey experiment, their work did pioneer the study of the origin of life on earth. Current scientific opinion varies from organic compounds arriving here by meteorites, or that organic molecules may have indeed been synthesised in localised reducing environments such as those proposed by Miller, for example near to volcanic plumes!

Now that’s just hardcore.

Art (and a dash of backyard philosophy)

On the top floor of Naturalis, I arrived at what was to be my absolute highlight of the visit: An art installation by Matthijs Munnik called “Microscopic Opera”.

There are better photos of this installation online, but this one is mine.

The installation consists of 5 petri dishes filled with mutated C. Elegans worms, each moving differently due to their mutations. Above each petri dish is a microscope-camera feeding the video to an analysis algorithm that turns each worm’s motion into a different choir voice. The total effect is altogether eerie and quite mesmerising. The artist intriguingly writes:

… I’m also fascinated by the worms, who have no idea of the world above them. We are like gods to these little lab worms, following them from their first cell division to their death, manipulating their bodies and mutating their DNA. Are we really like gods, or are we like the worms, unaware of the things above us in a different dimension, the biggest thing becoming the tiniest.

I think I’m going to leave you with that. Have a beautiful week, worms!

Weekly Head Voices #4: The New Roomie, MedVis at MeVis, Fairy Tale Beach.


"Haringeter" by Tom Otterness.

Depending on the particular reality that you find yourself in, which itself could be a function of how hard you’ve been partying, we have now left week #38 of 2009 behind us.  I took a significant part of this week off to spend some quality time with visiting family.  On Tuesday, I popped by my work (that’s the TU Delft for the uninitiated) to pick up some stuff for my planned official visit to MeVis in Bremen on Wednesday.  Two noteworthy points spring to mind:

  • The New Roomie (TNR) has moved into our shared office.  This is cool for at least two reasons:
    1. TNR (PhD) is inherently cool.  I’m not sure how this happens to someone, I’m thinking it’s genetic, or perhaps he got hit by a radio-active astroid at some stage.
    2. TNR has all kinds of hard-core looking VR equipment (including a table-top VR system) that he has brought with him.  Our room has a decidedly more hard-core ambience, and this tends to impress upon people how hard-core we are.  Or him, and me by association.
  • Visiting work from right in the middle of my small vacation was an energising experience that amplified the big smile I already had on my face.  This is a Good Sign(tm).

By Tuesday late afternoon, I had to get on the train to Bremen to attend the German Visual Computing in Medicine meeting, hosted by MeVis. The previous sentence will now expand, Transformers-style, into a number of derivative thoughts. Watch:

If you’ve ever had to book an international train journy via nshispeed.nl, the official site of the NS (Dutch Railways), you’ll know of the pain and frustration involved. Attempting to book the train journey to Bremen was no exception, I have two hours of wasted life to show for it. On a tip from Frits and Jorik, I phoned the Treinreiswinkel in Leiden. LO AND BEHOLD, a friendly person answered, and managed to book the exact journy nshispeed claimed was impossible for a really good price. My tickets were delivered to my house exactly one day after the phone call.

For the first time on such a longish international journey, my computer (in this case Asus eeepc 1005ha-h netbook) had a significantly longer battery life than the duration of the journey: 5 hours of quality time in the train, a whopping 9 hours left on the battery. Score 1 for the 21st century! By the way, I think I might be developing feelings for my netbook.

The meeting in Bremen was great: 10 research presentations, ranging from the latest (working!) user interface ideas for the surgical operating room (Ritter) to DTI-based brain parcellation (Roerdink).  After some serious PowerPoint 2007 love the previous night (yay image shadows!) and more importantly mental rehearsal, my talk on our Visualisation for Molecular Imaging project (Peter Kok is the guy actually doing all the work) went quite well. I think. Well, people seemed to stay awake mostly.

The MeVisLab software is really great, especially when the very capable Dr. Felix Ritter demonstrates on a ginormous plasma screen how one goes about visually designing complex medvis applications in no time. I’m a fan of MeVisLab. In spite of that, DeVIDE does have a niche to fill (hint 1: extreme Python, hint 2: open source), all apart from the fact that one day it will be the preferred operating system of MedVis geeks the world over. :P

The Amazing Transforming Sentence will now take a break until the concluding paragraphs of this blog post!

On Thursday I spent the day at the TU to catch up with some Real Work, pleasantly surprised by the continued hard-coreness of my office. Meanwhile, the amazon.de swag I had ordered during the weekend (they have free delivery in NL!) had arrived at my house. My netbook (I love you netbook!) now has 2G of RAM, my Wii has Rayman Raving Rabbids (you get to see who can fling a cow the furthest, need I say more?) and my keychain has a tiny little 8GB USB memory thingy:

Super Talent Pico-C 8GB USB flash drive
My Keychain with the new Super Talent Pico-C 8GB USB flash drive.

Friday was absolutely gorgeous weather-wise, so I took my guests to Scheveningen (the beach, that is). I’ll spare you the details of both the preceding visit to Immigration (turns out all foreign visitors that are NOT staying at hotels HAVE to pop by Immigration within 3 days of arrival, what a schlep) as well as the lovely lunch on the beach, all in order to get to the high-light of the day: A coincidental visit to the stunning outside sculpture exhibition of Tom Otterness, called “SprookjesBeelden aan zee”. The first photo of this post is of the “Haringeter”, probably the largest of the sculptures. The playfulness of the sculptures somehow amplifies the messages they contain and made quite an impact on me.

The week’s coincidental art theme was concluded with a Sunday visit to the Kröller-Müller museum in the Hoge Veluwe, home to a beautiful collection of statues by the likes of Rodin and Rietveld, and to a sizable collection of Van Gogh’s work, with some Picassos thrown in for good measure. Especially for you, I took this photo of Van Gogh’s “Landschap met korenschelven en opkomende maan”:

Van Gogh: Landschap met korenschelven en opkomende maan, taken at Kröller-Müller museum.
Van Gogh's "Landschap met korenschelven en opkomende maan", taken at Kröller-Müller museum.

Walking through the museum, I did have to spare a thought for the fact that on this casual day, I had on my person at least 3 processors, 12G of flash and a 160G hard drive. I’m probably not completely average in this regard, but I’m not that far from it. The future is very bright. I have already said that I love the 21st century, haven’t I?  Next time you run into me, ask me about it and then watch me go off on a tangent at ludicrous speed!

I’d like to conclude this post with interesting (to me, perhaps to you) aspects of an extremely pleasant conversation that I had with an Anonymous MedVis Friend (AMVF, PhD). We were discussing matters like social networking, for example facebook and twitter, and blogging, what roles these things play in one’s life and how they’re in fact slowly changing the nature of modern human society by becoming an integral part of social interaction. At one point, I made the statement that social networking, micro-blogging and blogging were all new forms of self-expression (doh).  This in itself is not such a revelation, were it not for the fact that I realised at that moment that this is exactly the role these things play in my life, and quite prominently so.  In spite of only fully externalising the thought at that moment, I have always been acutely aware of it.  Every post I make, every apparently inane status update is in fact preceded by quite some thought as to How This Little Piece Fits Into The Big Picture, what it might mean to a potential reader (hi mom!) and whether someone might be entertained or find some form of value in it.

So kids, on that slightly personal note, I am now officially concluding this edition of the Weekly Head Voices.  It’s been yet another fabulous week, and I’m definitely looking forward to number 39.  Please feel free to self-express in the comments!