Vegan birthday to you!

The most faithful readers of this blog might have my birth date marked on your calendar. Or you might not. Anyway, this year my birthday party was vegan—almost.

Indeed, I’ve been mainly vegetarian for a couple of years. The modifier means that in festive dates I might eat a typical dish with meat and that I usually eat a can of tuna a week. I don’t consume dairy, but I do eat eggs. My reasons to be a vegetarian are a combination of the ones you can imagine.

It may seem a hard sacrifice, but variety and creativity have increased in my diet. Should you be curious about it, I started as a weekday vegetarian, which is a very good compromise to get the best of both worlds—like Hannah Montana.

Back to my birthday, the guests didn’t know about the vegan food. There are people with lots of prejudice and willing to mock those who don’t hurt anyone. However, nobody pays attention to the ingredients when the table is ready laid. Some won’t even notice that none of the ingredients of the pizzas and the cakes are of animal origin until they are told.

You won't miss the cheese, not its texture nor its flavour

You won’t miss the cheese, not its texture nor its flavour

In order to make a vegan pizza you can buy the dough or make it yourselves. You just need to pick ingredients excluding meat (fish meat is meat), eggs and cheese. Don’t you worry about cheese; there is vegan cheese. But instead of resorting to imitations, you can do what I do and spread hummus on the base before spreading tomato sauce. Toppings may include pepper, onion, fresh tomato, mushrooms… and don’t forget about spices and a trickle of oil.

The vegan cake is a bit more complex, but not too much. Mix 250 g of flour, 150 g of sugar, 1 packet of baking powder and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Stir and add a trickle of olive oil and 250 ml of soya drink. Keep stirring until you get an homogeneous dough. Let it settle for 30 min and put it in the oven (inside a mould, please). About 25 min at 170 °C should be enough.

To add flavour, use chocolate or vanilla soya drink. If you choose chocolate, you can melt black chocolate with almonds and add it to the dough. If you prefer vanilla, you can spread margarine and grated chocolate on it after baking. Nuts and cinnamon are always a nice addition, both before and after baking. These are basic tips with great results.

To keep focused on the theme, avoid placing a platter of cold meats between the pizzas. Nuts and crisps will fill the gaps in the table nicely—I forgot my crisps in the cupboard though… By the way, that almost in the lead of the article refers to a potato and spinach omelette (with 3 eggs) I did serve.

‘In the Country of Last Things’

AUSTER, Paul. In the Country of Last Things. 1987.

‘This is the story of Anna Blume and her journey to find her lost brother, William, in the unnamed City. Like the City itself, however, it is a journey that is doomed, and so all that is left is Anna’s written account of what happened.’

Faber and Faber’s 2005 edition

Faber and Faber’s 2005 edition

A decade ago a friend joined me on a trip to the bookshop and recommended to buy something by Paul Auster. And I did. Only, I hadn’t opened it until this year. As the synopsis on the back cover says, this is a story of a hopeless enterprise in a hopeless place with little to no expectations of success.

From the very first page, the narrator describes the struggling life in the decaying City. At first, I was under the impression that it was an over-dramatic analysis of any city. As I read on and learned new facts, I realised it was the depiction of a specific post-apocalyptic City isolated from the rest of the world. It didn’t look like the happy-ending type of books—and I loved that.

A strong point of the book is that Auster keeps it real—within the fiction—and doesn’t try to explain everything. The reader never gets to know what happened to the City to start with or what the fate of different characters is after they separate from the main character, or even Anna’s own future. The novel is the letter she wrote and it can only tell what she knew and experienced until the moment she wrote the last line.

It also contains lots of food for thought. Isolated post-apocalyptic cities where people are trapped and lead miserable lives while the rest of the uncaring world remains the same are not that fictional after all.

1st SETAC science slam across the pond

It’s been almost two months since my post about the science slam in SETAC Nantes (video of the whole show included—check it out!). If you got any ideas from that, you should know that it’s happening again soon in Orlando.

It has now been three years of successful science slams for SETAC Europe. In exactly three months SETAC North America is going to hold their first edition at the other side of the pond. The good news is that an extended deadline means you can apply to the session until next Friday! At first it was last Monday.

Of course, to apply you should be a researcher who’s willing to work some extra hours in August and provide a fine product before a ridiculously close deadline now. Same old, same old.

You’ll find very detailed and useful information on the official website. You can also watch this video for lighter information. Yes, it’s me… singing… I should stop doing this.

Science slam: Enjoy learning science

A year ago I introduced some of you to the science slam world through my application. It’s about time to tell you about the consequences of that.

One of the slammers in Nantes last month [frame from the video]

One of the slammers in Nantes last month [frame from the video]

In April 2015, I performed in a special session of a scientific congress. The aim of that session was to present our work in a way that it was attractive, entertaining and easy to understand. Science for the people if you like. It was also a contest. And I won it. Indeed, my Disney musical about pesticides in salmon was a great success in spite of my singing skills. I guess that my moves, the unexpected on-stage costume change and the cheeky jokes made up for that.

Since that day, strangers approach me in every congress to remind me that to them I’m a showman and all my scientific achievements will never mean a thing next to that. I must say it doesn’t bother me as long as I can make a living out of it.

The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) seems to be trying to help with that. Last December they published an interview to me and the winner of the first edition in SETAC Globe. And they offered us to host this year’s science slam in Nantes. Needless to say, we accepted.

It is frustrating to answer ‘no’ every time someone asks if there’s a recording of my musical. But this year my co-host, Michele De Rosa, filmed the whole show, except the battery died during the last slammer’s presentation. However, they reconstructed the end with footage from Erica Brockmeier, who was making a documentary on the show. This is why now you can enjoy it yourselves. You’re welcome.

Posters at scientific congresses

A year ago I posted about scientific congresses, where researchers share their results. I mentioned posters and today they’re getting the post they deserve.

A great example I came across in Nantes

A great example I came across in Nantes

Last Monday I showed two posters at the SETAC congress in Nantes. Scientists present our results in poster format for different reasons. First situation is when we aim at an oral presentation, but the chairpersons of the session decide that other studies are a better way to use their limited couple of hours. Your work is therefore exiled to the exposition room—because an extra poster won’t take too much space in that huge hall. On the other hand, the deadline might be too close and our study is just beginning or we have only a few results. A poster can contain less information and this is less compromising when writing the abstract for applying. In other cases we know we don’t have the time for it or that our results are poor.

Posters are hung for a whole day and renewed next. Scientists look at them during coffee-breaks having a snack or at lunch time. Some even ask questions to the authors. I think it is actually a moment for socialising and networking rather than debating the studies.

More than half of the posters are aesthetic aberrations with silly fonts, colours that impede reading, chaotic distributions, low-resolution images or pictures made with Paint. Most of the remaining posters give too much information and have intricate writing or an unclear narrative line. And the 10 % that are worth reading don’t belong to my field of expertise; which is fine with me, since I can devote my time to eating pastries.

‘The Colour of Magic’

PRATCHETT, Terry. The Colour of Magic. 1983.

‘On a world supported on the back of a giant turtle (sex unknown), a gleeful, explosive, wickedly eccentric expedition sets out. There’s an avaricious but inept wizard, a naive tourist whose luggage moves on hundreds of little legs, dragons who only exist if you believe in them, and of course THE EDGE of the planet…’

Corgi Book's edition

Corgi Book’s edition

Having read and enjoyed Making Money, which was neither the first Discworld novel nor even the first of Moist von Lipwig saga; it was about time I read The Colour of Magic, the very first Discworld novel. Although the publishing order is not relevant to follow the plot of the individual books, it surely provides the background to better understand references in the books and the Discworld universe.

This novel sets the starting point for a well known collection offering the basic details on how Discworld works and the common knowledge of its inhabitants. It also introduces a style that mixes fantasy with our contemporary reality and somehow uses humorous fantasy to depict real-life issues—as I said almost four years ago.

Some argue that The Colour of Magic is not the best book by Terry Pratchett. It doesn’t need to be. After all, it’s the first of many and you’d expect him to develop and improve that particular style with time—otherwise readers would complain about a decrease of quality.

Finally, this book is divided in several shorter stories, all of them following the previous one and, nevertheless, very different from it in many aspects. And the plot is simple enough not to scare away the average reader, but not as simple as to bore hardcore geeks. This and all the aforementioned make it a great novel that could be either a nice one-off or the gate to a huge new universe.