I am a lab rat!

June 15, 2010

Everyone likes to read about people who have had brain injuries, and what those pathologies have revealed about normal brain function. I mean, you can’t exactly go around tinkering inside people’s skulls to see what the various headmeats and glands do, can you? So the scientists have no choice but to lay in wait for people to have brain problems, and then snatch them up and take them back to the lab. Eventually the results of the study may help healthy people too, if they lead to better understanding of how the wetware works.

Today I got to make my own little contribution to Science [say Science in that Thomas Dolby voice!] by being part of a Stanford-Veterans Administration study of pituitary function after head trauma (including subarachnoid hemorrhage, I guess the blood leaking into your brainstem does your pituitary no good). The pituitary programs the other glands, and therefore controls a lot of stuff related to growth, metabolism, hydration, sex, and reproduction. People who have had brain traumas can experience subtle changes in their ability to grow muscle and burn fat, because the brain-body connection expresses itself through hormones as well as electrical impulses.

Which is where your humble lab rat comes in. It seemed like a noble goal to serve Science by volunteering, and besides I owe Stanford Hospital a lot so helping them out with their research seemed like a small downpayment. Even after a night of fasting, early morning appointment, mandatory pregnancy test, an hour of multiple attempts to slam a catheter into my scarred veins, and the drawing of approximately 40 vials of blood at half-hour intervals… still good. I reminded myself that I was also helping soldiers with brain injuries, and even “normal” people having trouble losing weight due to subtle hormonal problems.

But then I got to sample the joy of drug-induced hyperglycemia, and it’s not as much fun as it sounds. To measure Human Growth Hormone production, they gave me a common medication which also forces your liver to dump glucose into the bloodstream really fast — in fact, the stuff they give you if you’re in a diabetic coma from too much insulin. Not only were the symptoms unpleasant — vomiting, dizziness, feeling like my legs weren’t working, headache, sweats — but the whole experience was just a bit too reminiscent of my hemorrhage. The doctor did hold my hair back while I puked, which I thought was a nice improvement from last time. I reassured everyone that it was OK because I was suffering for Science… I think that nonplussed them :).

Somewhat to my surprise, I made it through the whole day of testing! The last bit was the most fun since it involved a full-body composition scan — e.g. lying on a moving table, lightly taped down, for 6 minutes — rather than blood draws. But I’m glad I gutted it out for Science! Not that I’d wish a brain injury on anyone, but it’s consoling to know that from the misfortune of a few can come knowledge for all.

OSBridge 2010

June 6, 2010

Portland’s OpenSourceBridge just finished up its second annual conference, and although I had to leave early I just wanted to join the chorus of rave reviewers who claim it was even better this year than last. I dunno how much of it was luck and how much was planning, but it sure felt like the whole event was sprinkled with serendipity. The Portland Art Museum venue was not as inhumanely huge (or air-conditioned!) as the convention center and it was surprisingly pleasant to be surrounded by art, there was a farmer’s market just outside on Wednesday with yummy food stalls, and attendance was mysteriously the perfect size.

There’s no point in hating on OSCON or any other large conference for having become the victims of their own success… but that doesn’t mean I enjoy the corporate gigantism aspect. As always Rasmus put his finger on it when he noted that OSCON is now so huge that you can’t process much except dealing with the people you already know — so the big dogs just end up drinking beer with the other big dogs. OSBridge had a spirit that was much closer to the OSCON of years ago — everyone was just so open and relaxed and genuinely interested in sharing. Corporate interest was minimal, amounting to little more than Facebook sponsoring a bar-hop… in fact, one happy-hour event was open-bar only for the first $250 worth of drinkies! 🙂

I suspect that there’s a little bit of development-cycle luck involved in the era of good feeling too. All the excitement this year was around new datastores and server-side JavaScript engines… which maybe haven’t yet reached the stage where people feel compelled to champion one product at the expense of another. In the years where the new hotness is a programming language or toolkit, things can be more prickly or at least awkward if you don’t happen to be personally interested in the hot thing of the moment. Also, the inevitable demise of MySQL under Oracle seems to have resolved a lot of ambivalence and freed a bunch of people to wholeheartedly pour their energy into alternatives. And finally the extremely low cost of OSBridge — $300! — meant that people could kind of relax and follow their true bliss, instead of feeling like they had to justify some big conference fee by learning stuff relevant to their enterprise.

I don’t want to make it sound like a candy-coated paradise, cause that is not Troutgirl’s style :). It wouldn’t be Open Source without big egos, small social skills, and the dude in the Utilikilt standing around holding a pole with a parrot puppet impaled on it. Also Portland in early June seems to alternate between rain and humidity, unlike Portland in early August where every balmy evening invites an outing to an al fresco beergarden. To be fair, hotels and restaurants were bizarrely cheap and not very crowded in the “shoulder season” before the festivals of summer.

Lots of other OSBridge-lovers have mentioned the other unique aspects of this con — the perfect blend of proposed talks and unconference, the relatively large number of female speakers, the utter lack of vendors (I think Mozilla sent a dude to give away stickers, but that’s it) — but I just wanted to give one last shout-out to the volunteer army that puts on the conference. Selena, Christie, everyone who stayed up all night to man the 24-hour hacker lounge — I really appreciate all the hard work you put in, and I heard so many raves about the conference from others too. Thanks for giving us a space to revive our faith in what Open Source should be all about.