Cross-Country Connections: Craving

Cross-Country Connections is a Biodork weekly blog entry dedicated to telling stories in pictures of three family members – me, my sister and Mom – living in very different locations across the country. Every week we choose a different theme and then take or contribute a personal photo that fits the theme. This week’s theme is Craving.

From Mom in Carbondale, Illinois: 

CCC Mom Craving
Always sushi and often in Minneapolis!

From me in Minneapolis, Minnesota:

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In a couple of days I’ll be in Belize and I can’t wait to get into the water there! I managed to pack my snorkel, mask AND fins into my carry-on bag. I’ve got my diving log so I can record any dives I do, and my textbook to refresh my open water knowledge, so I don’t do something stupid like, you know, hold my breath and make my lung explode while I’m down there.

From Erin in Takoma Park, Maryland:

CCC Erin Craving
I’m already craving a redo of my homemade shrimp and kimchee (with hoisin sauce loitering in the background).

Cross-Country Connections: Craving

Dining Out for Life 2013

A bright and early good morning from Victor’s 1959 Cafe!

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Aside from my love of fried plantains, I’m out with two of my best friends, the Hubby and Courtney, for the annual fundraiser, Dining Out for Life.


Dining Out for Life: Dine Out, Fight AIDS!

I’ve been to several of the Dining Out for Life events and they’ve always been fun. Dining Out for Life Ambassadors are in every restaurant to give out stickers and information about the event.  In Minnesota, the funds raised go to The Aliveness Project, a community center in South Minneapolis that provides services to members of the AIDS community, and the Rural AIDS Action Network, which serves those affected by HIV/AIDS throughout Greater Minnesota.


The Aliveness Project and Rural AIDS Actions Network logos. Click on either for more information about these groups.

Dining Out for Life is a project that recruits restaurants to donate a portion of each meal sold. Cities across the United States and in British Columbia have Dining Out for Life events. Many of them are happening today, but they can occur at any time. Click on the image below to go to the DOFL website to learn when the cities below are hosting events.

DOFL Sites

In Minnesota you can find participating restaurants in many major cities: Twin Cities, Duluth, Harris, Lanesboro, Mankato, Rochester, Alexandria, Stillwater and St. Cloud!

So now for the really important question: What did we order?

Me: Dia y Noche

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Eggs, black beans over white rice, fried plantains.

The Hubby: Create Your Own Omlette

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Omelette-y goodness with wild rice, cheese and peppers. English muffin with butter

Courtney: Cuban Hash

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Ground beef, creole sauce, green olives, capers, raisins. Eggs and fried plantains.

It’s not too late to participate in Dining Out for Life. Head out for lunch, maybe grab some coworkers for happy hour, take a friend out for dinner. You can find a list of participating restaurants and the amounts of their contributions here. There are many different styles and costs – even a few coffee houses if you want to participate but don’t have a lot of cash to spare. If you can get out and want to get out, then today’s your day to Dine Out, Fight AIDS!

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The awesome Dining Out for Life ambassador for Victor’s 1959 Cafe, moi and Rena Sarigianopoulos, a KARE 11 TV anchor, reporter and Dining Out for Life supporter.

Twitter hashtag for Dining Out for Life: #DOLMN (Minnesota) and #DOFL (Dining Out For Life)

Dining Out for Life 2013

Cross-Country Connections: Lake

Cross-Country Connections is a Biodork weekly blog entry dedicated to telling stories in pictures of three family members – me, my sister and Mom – living in very different locations across the country. Every week we choose a different theme and then take or contribute a personal photo that fits the theme. This week’s theme is Lake.

From Erin in Takoma Park, Maryland:

Well it’s not a lake, but a lake animal! Seen at the National Zoo. 

From Mom in Carbondale, Illinois: 

CCC Lake Mom
Lake Mead from Hoover Dam – 2012  when the girls and I went to Vegas.  The white stone shows how low the lake was/is.  A couple of towns closed up shop because of the below-average run off that feeds the Colorado River which in turn supplies the water for Lake Mead. 

From me in Minneapolis, Minnesota: 

CCC Lake Brianne
Sunday afternoon – Lake Calhoun is starting to thaw. You can see a hazy shadow of downtown Minneapolis in the background.


Cross-Country Connections: Lake

Godless and grieving about Boston

Hi! My name is Brianne, and I’m godless!

I have something that I want you to know, and then to deeply and fully understand and accept: “godless” doesn’t mean “evil”.

The idea is that to know God means to know love. And that must mean that if you don’t know God then you don’t know love. And “love” means “good” in this version of the story.  And if God = Love = Good, then Not God = Not Love = Not Good, i.e, Godless = Bad.

All of which is bullshit…and poor logic to boot. But these ideas about the relationship between god, love and goodness abound in our culture, and “godless” gets rolled out every time people do bad things, with the Boston Marathon bombing being no exception.

Yesterday Michael Sullivan, a Massachusetts Senate candidate, was reported as having described the bombing as a “horrific, cowardly and godless act”. After the news hit social media, his campaign quickly offered a clarification that the would-be Senator did NOT say “godless”, but rather “gutless”. A quick glance through the comments on that FB status update show that a lot of people support the originally-reported “godless as synonymous with evil” label.

You don’t have to believe in God to be a good person (hi!), and you can feel that you have a devout and healthy relationship with God and still do horrifying, cowardly things. Belief in a god or lack thereof are not strong predictors of one’s behaviors or attitudes. So let’s stop using “godless” as a negative term, k? 

Grieving and Interfaith Services – A note to those advocating for interfaith services in times of tragedy.

Atheists in Boston (and across the state, nation and world) are grieving, as are people of many different faiths. Most people would agree that after a tragedy of the type and scale of the Boston Marathon bombing, we need a place to gather, to share our grief across many shoulders, to heal. That place, for me, would not be an interfaith service. When it comes to grieving and honoring our dead, interfaith services leave me cold. Here’s why:

A major part of being an atheist is coming to grips with the idea that we are mortal creatures and that there is no afterlife. Because of this belief I feel that when people say things like, “they’re in heaven now, they’re with the angels, they’re with god” we trivialize our loss. As an atheist I believe that after death a person is very much gone, erased from existence, never to reappear. There is no do-over in heaven or through reincarnation. There is no silver lining to an unfair death from cancer, accident or intentional violence, or from a death of old age for that matter. Upon someone’s death, we have well and truly lost that person. Many atheists hold this life to be so very precious and strive to make it better because we believe there is no afterlife. This is the only chance we get to have a fulfilling life and a positive influence on the world around us.

When people are robbed of their lives through tragic circumstances, I don’t want to join in at your interfaith service if the congregation will be singing praises to god (who via his omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence could prevent all tragedies), and listen to sermons about god’s divine plan and afterlife and how victims are in a better place.  It causes me pain to realize that I am suffering what I perceive to be a permanent loss, while others have the confidence that the loss is merely temporary (this happens anyway, but when the person leading the service is authoritatively talking about heaven and such, it makes it worse. It draws a line – believers on the comforting afterlife side, me feeling like I’m on the cynical side refusing to be comforted) . We’re on different wavelengths, and we are grieving differently.

What we do have in common is our shared grief over the suffering and tragedy that has befallen us, and that we have lost friends and family and community members who are no longer with us in this life. This is the shared human experience to which we can all relate. And together we can mourn our losses, and remember and celebrate those lives. But I have a hard time doing that at a religion-based service that praises your god and thanks him for “calling them home”.

And I’m not saying don’t have interfaith services. If you insist on following a religion, I implore you to do your damnedest to reconcile the conflicting views and attitudes that you have with other religions, as they do with yours – for all of our peace! Join hands in prayer to your various gods and take comfort in the fact that you all believe that your loved ones live on somewhere else (and try to avoid banding together against those who don’t). But don’t make your interfaith service the only service. Don’t make your interfaith service a government-sanctioned service. And don’t make it the PRIMARY service, with a little secular vigil tossed out as a bone to those of us who don’t believe in gods or an afterlife. As a representative government, let’s make the primary, official memorial be a secular recognition of the loss in our community, so that all people can gather to share our grief and to unite against the darkness of our own eventual mortality.

Godless and grieving about Boston

MN State Science & Engineering Fair

Last week I had the pleasure of volunteering as a judge for the Minnesota State Science and Engineering Fair. The top projects from Junior High and Senior High schools all over Minnesota were displayed. “Junior High” or “Middle School” projects encompassed grades 6-8 (which means the students were approximately 11-13 years old) and “High School” projects encompassed grades 9-12 (~14-17 years old).

There were literally hundreds of judges in attendance. It seemed like most of the judges were recruited from the Minnesota Academy of Science membership and from local companies that employ scientists, but anyone with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree or at least two years of experience in the relevant project fields can volunteer to judge those areas. The areas were:

  • Animal Sciences
  • Behavioral & Social Sciences
  • Biochemistry
  • Cellular & Molecular Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Earth Science
  • Engineering: Materials & Bioengineering
  • Engineering: Electrical & Mechanical
  • Energy & Transportation
  • Environmental Analysis
  • Environmental Management
  • Mathematical Sciences
  • Medicine & Health Sciences
  • Microbiology
  • Physics and Astronomy
  • Plant Sciences

There were two types of judges: Grand/General Judge and Special Awards Judge. The Special Awards judges are usually supplied from organizations and businesses that are giving awards to students. Awards criteria for Special Awards can be anything that the organization chooses, and are usually certificates of recognition or cash prizes.  My company sent about a dozen people to judge awards in the fields in which we tend to specialize: Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, Chemistry, Engineering, Medicine and Health Sciences and Microbiology. We were giving out cash prizes and we split the job of reviewing relevant projects up among ourselves.

However, organizations can send in an award without sending in a person to judge for that award. They leave judging up to the discretion of the science fair organizers. If there are judges who finish their assigned categories early, or more judges than are needed, they can get recruited to assign these awards.

Because we sent so many people from our company, a few of us were recruited to be Grand Judges. I was one of those and was to be judging the Plant Sciences, but I arrived (a teensy, miniscule, just a little bit) late and the organizers had assigned that job to someone else by the time I arrived. So I was asked to be a special awards judge for two certificates of recognition, specifically recognizing excellence in science by women presenters.

And I was all like:

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The first award was recognition for Women in GeoScience. There was to be one certificate for a Junior project and one for a Senior project. The second award was recognition for Women In Science, for which there were to be 10 certificates, with three spots to be dedicated to Junior projects.

There were SO. MANY. poster presentations, so this turned out to be a hell of a lot more work than I understood when I first agreed to judge for these awards. To put things in perspective, the goal for my company was to have each person judge no more than 5-7 posters. Grand Judges (those who determine who will advance to the International Science and Engineering Fair) each judge about the same. Depending on the complexity of the project, it can take quite a while to read the poster, grasp the author’s intention, evaluate the quality of the methodology and interview the author.

These special awards, by their definition, required viewing much more than 5-7 posters.

The Geoscience Award thankfully limited the categories to Earth and Planetary Science, Environmental Science and Analysis, Physics and Astronomy, and Plant Sciences. But because they wanted to give one award to a Junior and one to Senior, that doubled the number of posters to view. They had, however, given some criteria for what they wanted to see in a project: Special consideration was to be given to projects that increase public awareness of the geosciences, illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of the geosciences, or promote the sensitivity to the earth as a global system.

The ten Women In Science awards gave ZERO criteria for judging and essentially required that the poor sap who took on the judging consider EVERY FREAKING POSTER that was being presented by a woman. This was rather poor planning on the organization’s part, and I wrote them a letter explaining the difficulties of leaving things this vague. At half time I asked the organizers if there were any other volunteers who could give me a hand, but the stores were tapped. I was advised to do the best I could and was thanked profusely for not throwing in the towel! Since the criteria were vague and the awards were certificates of recognition – not money and not advancement – the consequence of potentially “screwing up” on my part was relatively minor.

I knocked the Women in Geoscience awards out in the morning. The ten Women in Science awards took the rest of the day. To review more efficiently I scanned the abstracts that were printed in the fair catalog, picked out the top 10 (IMHO) exciting or novel Junior projects and top 20 Senior projects and went a-knocking. I had already seen a number of the geoscience categories, so those plus the thirty extra projects made up the sum of my evaluations. Some projects took less time to review, some took more. I read projects and spoke with students up until the last possible minute and then went and made some very hard decisions.


Judges reviewing poster sessions before the stampede of students was allowed in.

At the Junior level, the most common project format was “How does variable x affect a particular outcome?” For example, the dreaded “What kind of music do plants like most?” One of the gems of participating as a Junior-level judge is being challenged with some of leaps (and misses) of logical and scientific thinking. For example, many of the students had a very lax understanding of how to set up their hypotheses; I saw many abuses of the null hypothesis last week. And while most of the students claimed to have controls, many of them got it wrong (e.g. one participant who wanted to know if yoga relieved stress said that her control was that all of the study participants took the same yoga class). To be fair, study controls are a tricky thing and I’ve met a number of graduate-degreed associates who are unclear on the concept.

At the Senior level (and for several Junior posters), some of the projects were so advanced that I had to bring out my smartphone and/or ask presenters to explain things more than once. These kids were mindblowingly AMAZING. I met one girl who had published her study (which she had conducted as an intern at an Ivy-League school) as the first author in a peer-reviewed journal, two who were submitting their projects for publication, one who had discovered three new species of bacteria, and one who was doing a study involving electromagnetic fields who wanted to more precisely measure one of her inputs, so she learned the basics of the programming language, C, and built her own computer to make sure she was accurate…before returning to the larger question.

There were many projects on the topic of climate change and global warming. That was heartening to see as I believe climate change is one of our top scientific challenges. We’re going to need some smart, passionate scientists working on how to keep this rock running for us in the years to come.

At the end of the day I hobbled down to the judge’s lounge for a much-desired cocktail, met up with and shared war stories with my coworkers, and then drove straight home. I was drained for the rest of the night and most of the next day – and that’s not an exaggeration. I was delighted to be exposed to the youthful enthusiasm of the presenters. I was introduced to so many new concepts as well as to truly unique questions and novel research that attempted to fill gaps in our understanding of how the world and technology around us works. It was beyond inspiring – it was exhausting!

I can’t wait for next year’s fair.

MN State Science & Engineering Fair

Cross-Country Connections: Happy

Cross-Country Connections is a Biodork weekly blog entry dedicated to telling stories in pictures of three family members – me, my sister and Mom – living in very different locations across the country. Every week we choose a different theme and then take or contribute a personal photo that fits the theme. This week’s theme is Happy.

This week Mom is suffering from a horrid sinus infection and will not be participating in CCC.

From me in Minneapolis:

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This is me looking on the bright side that it’s warm enough to wear a light jacket, even though we were surprised by another April snowstorm.

From Erin in Takoma Park, Maryland: 

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Husband enjoying the unintended joke. Also awesome Chinese food in DC’s historic Chinatown.

Cross-Country Connections: Happy

End Street Harassment


I learned on the Twitters that today is the end of Anti-Street Harassment Week, a awareness campaign organized by a group called Stop Street Harassment. Stop Street Harassment has a heady goal of ending gender-based street harassment worldwide. Their front page shows a message that says “More than 80% of girls and women worldwide face street harassment: catcalls, groping, sexual comments and public masturbation.”

I number myself among that 80%. Here are a few of my stories. I invite you to share/unload/rage your own experiences in the comments below. And if you feel comfortable and/or want to share your stories on Twitter, you can do so under the #EndSH and #Ithink hashtags.

Street Harassment Haiku


I feel your eyes on my ass.
You weren’t invited.


He hoots and slobbers;
They say it’s a compliment.
I feel small and used.

Years ago I was on a bus and I caught the gaze of a man who was sitting across the aisle. He saw me look over and gave me that…that look…that “you know you want it” sneer…and he slowly moved his hand under his coat to his crotch. He stroked himself while he stared holes through me. Much later I wished that I had caused a scene, that I had been like one of those YouTube heroines who calls out the asshole, that I had stood up, pointed and loudly exclaimed “Dude, are you masturbating!?” and shamed him off of the bus. Instead I scowled, moved as far toward the front as I could, took the next stop (making sure he didn’t follow me), and waited 15 minutes for the next bus on the route.

But back then I hadn’t heard of other women standing up to street harassment. I didn’t even know what street harassment was.

Next time I won’t be the one leaving the bus early.

End Street Harassment

Cross-Country Connections: Spring

Cross-Country Connections is a Biodork weekly blog entry dedicated to telling stories in pictures of three family members – me, my sister and Mom – living in very different locations across the country. Every week we choose a different theme and then take or contribute a personal photo that fits the theme. This week’s theme is Spring.

From Erin in Takoma Park, Maryland:

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A paper butterfly embedded with milkweed seeds. A giveaway at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum to promote planting milkweed, the only plant that Monarch caterpillars eat. The Monarch population has decreased dramatically in the past decade due to the loss of milkweed.

From Mom in Carbondale, Illinois:

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Crocuses are done. Trees haven’t started yet. This is Spring right now. 

From me in Minneapolis, Minnesota:

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The grass is trying really, really hard to be…well…not frozen. It’s a start.

Cross-Country Connections: Spring

Cross-Country Connections: Library

Cross-Country Connections is a Biodork weekly blog entry dedicated to telling stories in pictures of three family members – me, my sister and Mom – living in very different locations across the country. Every week we choose a different theme and then take or contribute a personal photo that fits the theme. This week’s theme is Library.

From me in Minneapolis: 

CCC Library Brianne
A friend’s library, sorted…by color!

From Erin in Takoma Park, Maryland:

CCC Library Erin
An “artsy” pic, my living room library reflected in the window at dusk.

From Mom in Carbondale, Illinois:

CCC Library Mom
Can’t believe I have to fall back on this. Not a single shot of the British Library, not one of the Tucson Library. Not even one of the SIU Library. So one taken in my library at home – Librarian Cat is keeping an eye out to make sure that the jocularity is kept to a minimum.

Cross-Country Connections: Library

SkepTech is This Weekend!

The past month has been super busy, but this week I’ve been even more blog-lax than my usual – my mom had to remind me that I hadn’t posted our Cross-Country Connections! I’ve been obsessed with reading and preparing for my talk at the community’s newest skeptical conference:

SkepTech Banner reads "SkepTech"

It’s being held at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and is sponsored by the peeps at Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists (CASH) and the Secular Student Alliance Affiliate at St. Cloud State University (SSA@SCSU).

I’m giving a talk on the Food and Drug Administration. When I started thinking about topics to present I found myself gravitating toward my favorite skeptical topic: alternative medicine. I wanted to understand WHY, when I walk into Walgreens, do I see homeopathic preparations in the same aisle as cold medicine – you know, things that (for the most part) do what they claim they can do? Why hasn’t the FDA – a regulatory agency charged with making sure our food and drug supply is safe and efficacious – done anything about these “natural remedies”? Thanks to groups like Science-Based Medicine and CFI articles like this, I had a casual understanding of the FDA and why things like alternative medicine and dodgy “healing devices” like this are on the market, but I wanted to know more!

The title of my talk is FDA – Where Are You? and I’m scheduled for the the bright and early Sunday 9:30am time slot. But the fun actually starts on Friday evening at 5pm: There’s going to be a gaming fundraiser, some mind-reading by David Gamut, and two talks that night – Jesse Galef and Zach Weinersmith. Speaking on Saturday and Sunday is this rockstar lineup: Ben Blanchard, Greta Christina, JT Eberhard, Tim Farley, Geeks Without God, Maggie Koerth-Baker, Scott Lohman, Hemant Mehta, Brendan Murphy, PZ Myers, and Stephanie Zvan.

You can view the entire schedule and get descriptions of the panels on the SkepTech website’s schedule page.

EDIT: I’m also participating on two panels on Sunday! I’m a panelist for “Real World vs. Cyberspace Activism” and I’m moderating “The Implications of Brain Tech”.

So that’s where I’ve been. Oh, and Cross-Country Connections will be up in just a few minutes 🙂

SkepTech is This Weekend!