this may look like it was taken at night but actually it was taken early in the morning. i'd gone to bed at 3am, only to wake up an hour and a half later to take an tao's wife to the airport. "i'll be back in a few minutes with the car," i told her, and walked two blocks away where i'd parked. turning the wheel to pull the car out however, i heard the spinning of wheels on ice as i suddenly realized i was stuck. i tried rocking the car back and forth but i couldn't get enough traction to get off the slippery surface. swearing under my breath and checking the time, i ran back to the house.

"the car is a little stuck, it might take a few more minutes," i reassured an tao and his wife, and i grabbed the ice breaker and ran back to the car, with them following behind me, to wait out on the street. with the plane leaving in about 2 more hours (7am), the pressure was mounting for me to dig out the car. alternating between chipping the ice, clawing at the snow with my bare hands, and trying to drive the car out of the hole (plus: this was all in the dark), i still couldn't make any progress. i didn't even realize i'd popped the blister that had formed on my hand from a few days ago. more swearing, another check of my watch, and i ran back out to inform my guests it'd take some more minutes.

about a block away i bumped into an tao, who followed me back to the car to help dig out the vehicle. by then we've been digging for almost 40 minutes, and in desperation i called my father at 5am in the morning to ask him if he'd mind coming out and driving an tao's wife to the airport because i didn't think i'd be able to make it. it was at that point that i finally managed to swing the front of the car out of the parking spot. i called my father to cancel ("drive slowly," he said, fearful of possible accidents with all this rushing around), an tao hopped inside the car, as we drove out onto the open street where an tao's wife was standing on the side of the road with her luggage. as they threw the suitcases into the back of the car, i was scraping off the layer of ice that'd formed on the windshield, using the metal lid of a can as a makeshift ice scraper.

with everyone inside the car (both an tao and i were covered in sweat from our backbreaking work in extricating the vehicle) we started driving into boston. the defroster on full blast (i could hardly see through the ice, a lid does not make a good ice scraper) and i was apologizing profusely for the first few minutes, one eye on the road, one eye on the clock (which was 5 minutes fast, which was seemingly making it worse). the good thing was it was still early enough in the morning that traffic was light and we might to get to logan airport in just 20 minutes, with 1:30 before an tao's wife flight back to shanghai via chicago. i hastily said good bye to them (an tao i'd see later, he's not returning to china until the end of next month) and drove back to cambridge, finally releasing a sigh of relief, but still quite numb from the sudden whirlwind of early morning excitement. circling the block a few times i managed to find a parking spot (with some ice, it's still impossible to find one without). the last thing i did before going into the house was to call my father to let him know i made it back alive.

still buzzing from the adrenaline, and seeing a rather colorful start of a sunrise, i grabbed my camera and went out to take a few photos. i watched some television in my bedroom, waiting for people to come online, until the sun completely came out. further invigorated by the sunlight, i didn't feel sleepy at all, and decided to start my day.

i brought out the new freshwater master test kit and decided to test my waters. these tests combine my love of chemistry (mixing stuff is fun!) and my passion for colors. basically you mix the water with an indicator chemical that reacts and changes colors which you then match up with a color table to figure out the reading. some tests were easy, like the pH, but others were hard, like the nitrate test, which required 2 different chemicals mixed together and a lot of shaking and carefully counting the drops in between. the tests include pH (normal and high range), ammonia (NH3), nitrite (NO2), and nitrate (NO3). i thought there was also a hard water test but apparently that's not included.

the tests revealed a lot of interesting stuff - or maybe just interesting for an aquarium chemist. if you ever read anything about keeping fish as pets, you must've seen stuff about cycling a new aquarium. why is this important? i ask the same question. i mean, if the water chemistry is okay, can't i start adding fish right away? well, i guess cycling is important because it allows the aquarium to produce a host of beneficial bacteria that will eventually "eat" the waste the fish will produce. without these bacteria, the water will become pollute often and you'll need to do constant water change to maintain the proper water chemistry. the bacteria help create a natural cycle where the fish waste are converted into relatively harmless byproducts. the problem is these bacteria are pretty much invisible, and the only way to find out if they're even there is to monitor the water condition and notice any changes (changes is good, it means something is happening with the water, no matter how invisible). in a nutshell, the bacteria converts harmful ammonia (ammonia from fish pee and fish poo) into nitrite. nitrite is less harmful, but it gets further converted into nitrate, with is relatively harmless in small amounts (nitrate is pretty much fertilizer, so if you have plants growing, they'll use it up).

10 gallon aquarium
pH < 6.4, NO2 0.50, NH3 0.25, NO4 5.0

7 gallon minibow
pH 7.0, NO2 0.00, NH3 0.25, NO4 10.0

anyway, enough background material, back to the results. currently i'm still waiting for my 10 gallon aquarium to cycle, but because i haven't been monitoring the water before today, i can't be sure if the tank has finished cycling. the presence of nitrite (NH3) byproduct is a definite sign that bacteria are working - but whether an equilibrium buffer state has been achieved, i can't be sure, and there are still trace amounts of both ammonia (harmful) and nitrite (less harmful). if i was a good fishkeeper i'd probably wait until both those chemicals drop down to zero, but in this case the overriding factor against adding any fish just yet has nothing to do with bacterial byproducts. the thing that will kill any fish i add to this tank is the pH level. it's so low (meaning acidic), my pH test won't even read it. how come? it's because i've been spiking the tank with carbon dioxide (acidic). i don't know how other people with plants in their aquariums do it, but i have the hardest time managing my CO2 level in the water. at this point, i'm beginning to wonder if the water is too acidic and it's hurting the plants. anyway, once the pH goes back to neutral, i should be able to add fish to the 10 gallon tank.

now the water in the current 7 gallon minibow aquarium is a textbook case of proper fish tank water chemistry: a neutral pH level (7.0), no nitrite, some trace of ammonia (don't let the photo fool you: the final color was more yellow than green), and some nitrate (which is normal, anything below 40.0 is okay). i'm actually pretty happy to get these results, like getting back a test with an unexpected A.

tap water
pH > 7.6, NO2 0.00, NH3 1.0, NO4 0.0

high pH test (rightmost test tube)
tap water pH 8.4

now just for kicks, sort of a control, i tested regular tap water as well. i expected the water to have a neutral pH, but the pH is actually surprisingly high, 8.4. this could very well be because of the chlorine (basic, as opposed to acidic), which is strong enough that i can often smell it when i fill a cup of water straight from the tap, or when i'm filling up the tub, the water has a blueish hue (it could also be my imagination, but most cities and towns definitely chlorinate their drinking water). that's why the water i use in the aquariums, i first let it sit out for at least a day, to let most of the chlorine dissipate. continuing with the results, tests show zero nitrite and nitrate (which is good, means no bacteria activity - you probably wouldn't want to drink it if it did - and no nitrate - no fecal material, that's important for drinking water). the one thing that really surprised me though is the ammonia reading. why would the water have such a high level of NH3? could the high chlorine content be affecting the NH3? it's a mystery i've yet to solve. maybe i'll take another reading just to confirm it wasn't a fluke. even if there was ammonia, i wonder if by just letting the water sit out in the open for a day, will it dissipate like the chlorine?

with the water chemistry tests done, i moved on to another project, putting in the tank divider for the 10 gallon aquarium. it wasn't very hard but it was a messy job because it involved dredging the gravel to make room for the divider, which of course kicked up all sorts of dust particle into the water, clouding it up for a while. even though the divider has holes to allow water to follow between both sides, it still does act as a mild insulation and the side with the heater is slightly warmer than the side with the filtration. i had to increase the overall heater temperature to compensate for this difference.

at 10am i left the house and drove out to the allston petco to buy some more aquarium plants. i ended up buying a java fern ($4) and two bunches of elodea ($4). i'm surprised, but the fish department at the allston petco is surprisingly well maintained. no dead fish in any of the tanks, live plants, with real driftwood. it used to be that the everett petsmart had the best fish department out of all the large franchise pet stores, but recently i've noticed a substantial decline in quality, with petco (at least the allston branch) the new winner. besides, they also have marine fish, something that petsmart doesn't carry. i'm tempted to buy more driftwood but i feel like i can always go to the beach and just find them (except they'd be soaked in salt and would screw up the delicate water chemistry).

by 11am i went to belmont to return the car. by then i was feeling the effects of not getting enough sleep. i could feel my senses slowing down and i started to experience some slight tunnel vision. i probably shouldn't have been driving and was happy to get rid of the car. my father gave me a ride back to cambridge while he went to work. by the time i got back, i noticed new bug report messages in my inbox. despite feeling tremendously tired, i willed myself to stay awake and to fix the bugs, promising myself some quality sleep once it was all over. one thing led to another, and i found myself agreeing to take a conference call at 2:30, so i had to at least stay up until then. my father came by briefly to bring me some lunch (sleepy and hungry, not a good fit). when 3pm rolled around the client still hadn't called me yet, so i wrote them an e-mail saying i would be out running errands for the rest of the day (i didn't tell them i was actually going to bed). i went to go take a shower and by the time i got back, the client did call but i didn't catch it in time. i called them back to answer some questions. only at 4pm was i finally able to go to bed.

sleep was only temporary since i had to wake up at 5pm to get ready to go into boston, where joel and sara had invited me to catch a screening of black snake moan. i seriously wanted to cancel but went anyway, maybe just a glutton for punishment. an tao had already come back from work and was in the kitchen making dinner. riding the train, i felt like if i closed my eyes i'd fall right asleep. along the way, i bumped into mike kelly, on his way home.

the screening was at the boston common theatre. i was afraid i'd fall asleep but i caught my second wind (maybe the contraband soda and the candy helped) and managed to stay awake for the entire movie. the premise of black snake moan sounds like a horrible exploitation film, hot blonde nympho chained to the radiator of an angry black bluesman. however, they seemed to have pulled it off and despite the humor, the movie plays it straight without any tongue-in-cheek. lazarus finds a half naked beaten white girl named ray unconscious in front of his house. he takes her in and cares for her, and soon realizes that she's the town tramp. a religious man, lazarus comes up with the idea of curing ray of her wicked ways using some unorthodox methodology (including a chain to prevent her from running away). the film itself plays like an indie character study, not so much the story as it is about the characters. samuel l. jackson and christina ricci bring a certain level of name recognition, but both actors are so convincing that you quickly become lost in the characters themselves. jackson does particularly well playing these angry badasses, and even though it seems like you've seen him play this same character elsewhere, it's still fun watching him do it. and when did christina ricci get such a hot bod? those drawn to the movie for titillating glimpses of flesh will not be disappointed.

back at home, an tao had already retreated to his bedroom. i stayed awake watching television, finally eating some dinner around midnight in the form of two glazed donuts and a microwaved dish of pearl onions. with nothing particularly planned for tomorrow, looks like i'm finally going to get a good night's rest.