Monthly Archives: December 2010

Christmas Eve the scientist way

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I spent Christmas Eve at the lab. How geeky can you get?

:D

No, seriously, I did spend Christmas Eve in the lab, but it wasn’t (really) by choice. As has been the case since last Friday, my internet connection at home is still broken, and thus the lab is the only place to connect to the world. I could’ve of course stayed home and watched a movie or so, but we decided to make full use of modern-day technology and I ended up spending Christmas Eve at Ts place. Via Skype.

Webcams on on both sides, they actually put the computer at the dinner table so I could join in the conversation, and later dragged ‘me’ along to the salon for the gift exchange ritual. We always (well… the tradition started last year…) do a Secret Santa thing with the whole family (2 parents, 5 kids and 3 gf/bf make it a big enough group to make it fun). The catch is you’re not allowed to buy a present, you have to make it. Since all of them attended hippie school they are pretty good with crafts and the like (they can sing and each play 15 instruments or sth), so I always feel a bit daunted when I see their presents. Last year for example, I knitted a hat for SE – which I was very proud of, since I had never knitted 4 needles before. This year, NE made a tea hat for her sister, including holes for the pout and the handle, with wool she had made herself. Like in, take what comes from the sheep, clean it, turn it into threads, then knit.

This year, my target was YE, the boyfriend of Ts middle sister. He works at customs in the harbor of Antwerp. And he likes to cycle. That’s about all I know about him. Oh, and he doesn’t like sweets, so baking cookies (always the easy way out ;) ) was out of the question. Finally, I came up with this:

I bought the cheapest water bottle I could find and painted it. Maybe not the most masculine gift ever, but I was pretty pleased with the way it came out, especially when he said that he never drinks enough when he goes cycling – so it will be actually useful. Of course, it’s not a candle shaped like St. Francis or a wooden candle holder, or a mosaic mirror. But I tried :).

And then, as the evening drew to a close, I was silly enough to check the Brussels Airlines site to see if there was any news about my flight tomorrow morning. There was :

This is nót what you want to see on Christmas Eve. I completely freaked out and Ts dad almost jumped in the car to come and get me (which, under good weather conditions, would probably take at least 10 hours. however, there is a reason many flights are delayed: the weather sucks). A refresh of the page 5 minutes later showed the “on schedule” icon, but I’m still pretty shaky. The flight is at 11:40 am, and the train to the airport takes half an hour, so normally I would leave around 10 am, but since a colleague of mine had a train delay of 2 hours, I will be getting up at seven to be on the safe side. T will also be getting up since I can’t check tomorrow morning whether my flight is still leaving (how did people live before the internet??) and if it is even worth it going to the airport at all. Meanwhile, we have decided I will be leaving my christmas presents here and travel with hand luggage only, because there are huge delays in Brussels in the luggage delivery and if there is trouble, I will be more mobile with just a backpack.

This does have the advantage I won’t have to pack too much :D.

Fingers crossed!

1 am smörgåsbord

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It is 1:11 am and guess where I am?

At the lab, that is very correct!

Now, honesty requires me to say that I did go home from around 4 to 9 today (bacteria had to grow… could as well clean up my apartment before I leave than sit and wait in the lab), so I’m really just working my hours… at different hours. And thanks to hormones, once or twice a month I get a special no-sleep-required night, how convenient is that?

So before I gather my courage to walk home through the snow, so here are some random thoughts I wanted to share in case I don’t get near a computer before I get back from Christmas Holidays:

  • Not having internet at home for 6 days straight sucks. I fear I might have to conclude I’m an addict.
  • I got inspired by the Tomterna I made during Jane’s birthday challenge, and decided to make my own Tomte-christmas cards. I’m feeling very crafty and country now.
  • I managed to get my DNA sucked up tonight. It was one out of 4 samples, which basically means 25% of my work down the drain. To top it off I almost dropped DNA sample #2 on the floor. Losing DNA on the floor is like losing contact lenses: very hard to spot and impossible to get clean afterwards.
  • Fortunately, the pellet didn’t fall out of the tube. As an added bonus, it was mutated. 3 mutants done (unverified though… cross your fingers), 3 to go.
  • I’ll be spending Christmas Eve alone this year. My family now knows how much I’m prepared to spend to be with them – not much, lol. I will by flying on Saturday morning though.
  • Some people say there will be 10 cm of snow in Copenhagen on Friday. I hope they’re wrong.
  • I kept postponing going to the alcohol-shop to buy Swedish gluhwein for the people back home. Now if I go tomorrow the place will be PACKED.
  • I am starting crystallization trials on a colleague’s protein at MAX-LAB tomorrow. It is actually more impressing than it sounds.
  • I sorted all my pics of the last 8 years, backed them up, burnt them on a cd (in case the external hard disk got stolen), sorted my .mp3 files, … . That part of this was done during working hours is not too guilt-inducing now I got might have a new mutant.
  • I’ve been having great fun with the Ikea home planner. Although it might be another year-and-a-half before I can start my renovation plans, I have decided : it will be lime green. Oh yeah.
  • At any temperature below -5ºC, the right way of dressing is a pair of thick trousers AND long underwear and/or socking pants.
  • My professor missed his bus by seconds today because he was counting on it being late. Maybe I have what it takes for professor-hood after all.
  • My arms are too long. Or all sweaters are too-short-sleeved.
  • My fingers are too long. There is no lab glove that ever fits.
  • 2 am is a good time to go home. Being late for an appointment at MAX-LAB cannot be good.

I am not giving myself any schedule for the upcoming holidays (I’ll be home for 2 weeks), rather I’m just gonna try something else and post whenever I feel like it. Or not. It’s an experiment. We’ll see how it goes. In either case : merry christmas, happy new year, enjoy the holidays and don’t forget to close off the decade in style.

Happy belated birthday, Jane

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I was hesitating whether or not to post this. After all, the present was the ACT, not the writing a post about it. And I believe you’re not supposed to brag about the “good” stuff you do. Coincidentally, I also believe I should be able to write about what keeps me busy on my own blog. So here it goes.

Let’s start with a confession: I’m not a good commenter.

Most often, either of the following situations occur: 1) 10 people have commented before me, saying exactly what I was planning to say (including that witty joke), or 2) nobody has commented yet, and I’m too chicken to actually write something because, well, it might not be as funny as it sounds in my head and, I commented yesterday already, they might think I stalk them or feel obliged to start reading my stuff just because I read theirs. Or something along those lines.

So when Jane from They call me Jane came back after almost one month of absence, I almost didn’t say anything. 8945 people welcomed her back already, she wouldn’t care about my little shout out. Would she?
But see, Jane was one of the first blogs I subscribed to. She was one of the first to leave a comment here. Her birthday challenge was the first I participated in. And she’s just funny and smart and great. I wànted to welcome her back, regardless of whether she wanted to be welcomed back by me (does that make sense?). So I did. And I got myself in a mess :D.

See, it was her birthday 2 days later.

How that gets mé in a mess? Well, she challenged us. Me. She asked everyone who welcomed her back (and everyone else, for that matter) to pull a Random Act of Kindness that weekend, as a birthday present.

Now, this is a very strange concept to me. I mean, I’m kind and all, of course, I give to charity, I’m polite to strangers, I give up my seat on the bus to let older people sit, I help people when they have 3 big grocery bags and a buggy. I do that. Everybody does that. But when it comes to money, I’m not very comfortable with the whole RAOK-thing. I mean (imagining that I would own a car and there would be a drive-thru Starbucks here) I don’t think “that’s kind” would be the first thing that would pop my mind if somebody would ‘pay it forward’ for me. I would find it strange, and scary (what does this person want from me?), and I might even feel offended (do I look like I can’t afford a coffee?), only to conclude that probably, they must have thought I was someone else. However, it most certainly would never cross my mind to do that for somebody else (on a spontaneous basis).

This is what you get for a Google Image search of "starbucks drive thru". I'm hoping most of them are more car-friendly.

I’m not too keen on giving stuff or money to beggars or homeless people either. Don’t get me wrong, I am such a devoted socialist I’m almost a communist, but I refuse to give anything to beggars. I will donate to organizations that work with homeless people, if I ever get the time and courage I might even volunteer with them (I should just DO that, I know – what can I say, there’s room for improvement), and I buy the newspaper they make and sell to support themselves. But I won’t give them anything directly. I am convinced (maybe wrongly, I admit) that our social security system is sufficiently broad so that people who need help, can get it when they want it. I need to believe this is true, because it is the basis of our society (or the ideal one in my head, at least). And giving them… anything, kinda messes up the system. To me.

I would give money if it was for scientific research, obviously.

Obviously, I could give something to someone. For once. After all, a birthday present is a good cause. But then I either needed to buy a car (to go to the drive-thru), or find a beggar. The first was… well, too expensive, and the second was not as easy as it sounds since there’s not so many beggars where I live. I think I have seen one a couple of weeks back… he could’ve just been a lonely old man though (although then again, that would be as good a RAOK-target as anyone else). But maybe I don’t see these people-in-need because I don’t get out. I get up, go to work, get home, read blogs, go to sleep, and repeat that cycle on a daily basis. I live a mile from work, out of the city – it’s a miracle if I see anyone on that walk. I see my colleagues, I go out shopping once every week or every other week. I simply don’t see that many people I could be kind to.

And then it struck me. I was making excuses. I was making excuses why I could not possibly be kind to people. Don’t wanna do this, don’t have the opportunity to do that, … . When did I become so lazy and self-absorbant? Whenever did “being kind” become such a task?

I had to work on Jane’s birthday weekend. I had a friend coming over the weekend after. Yes – I was making excuses again ;). But an idea grew – which was maybe not strictly a RAOK, since it wasn’t particularly random (very heavily planned, even), there was little acting involved and it was more nice than kind, but it was a gesture towards people I don’t know, to brighten up their day unexpectedly. And after all, that was the idea, right, to brighten up somebodies day?

So these were the accomplices I made to help me get Jane her present last weekend (note, carefully check how many you need to make and how much material you need for them, or you’ll be running back and forth to the shop a gazillion times) :

A whole army of Tomterna, Swedish Santa Clauses, were about to take over the apartment block. I didn’t want to take a picture when they were dangling from all door handles for fear of getting caught, so you’ll have to believe me on my word that it looked all kinds of merry!

Happy belated birthday, Jane – for fear of sounding like a cliché, I have the feeling you taught me more than I have given you. I’m sorry it took so long, but this is my present: I will be doing more of these.

How (not) to go to the sauna

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This looks great, doesn’t it?

It is Malmö’s kallbadhuset, a sauna-and-bath complex which is located at the end of a 200m-long pier. I’ve been a die-hard sauna fan ever since I discovered 3 years ago that what they call “sauna” in a 3-star family skiing resort (read: cramp 8 people wearing bathing suits in a 6-person sauna cabin) doesn’t even remotely resemble a true sauna experience : a whole day of naked bathing, sleeping, sauna’ing, relaxing, more sleeping, more sauna, and more relaxing. Yes, my dear blogging-friends, when I go to the sauna, I go to the sauna. And while Kallbadhuset is probably too small to be spending a whole day in, I still felt I needed to try it out. I had suggested it to T when she was here, but she inexplicably didn’t feel like it, but fortunately NR did when she was here last week. Opening hours were 12-22 according to the website, which left us some time for Christmas shopping.

And then we ran into RS. Well, we didn’t so much run into him as arranged to meet him, but anyway. Hey, if a cute Spanish guy texts to ask if you wanna go for lunch, what’s a girl supposed to do? (and yes, I realize I’m in a committed relationship. but I can enjoy what I see, right? but NR isn’t.) So we took him Christmas shopping, and we went for lunch, and for a drink, and by the time he left us where we were it was almost 5 o’clock. Not exactly what we’d anticipated – sure, the sauna was still open, but we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the great view of the sea which was really one of the main reasons why we wanted to go to this particular sauna. But it was bloody cold and since we’d been looking forward to it all day (and the day before), we decided to go anyway. Entrance was 60 SEK (around $8) so it would still be worth it.

Now, I didn’t take a map with me – or rather, I did, but as it turned out, the sauna wasn’t on it. Thank God for my photographic memory so I still remembered what Google Maps had said the night before. So let’s take a look at what trip we were supposed to do from the station:

Now let’s take a look at the tour we actually did:

It was -3ºC (26F) and we were walking on a small peninsula. I swear, if I had had balls, they would’ve been blown off even before they could freeze.

These are the times I’m happy I’m a woman. You don’t have to be embarrassed to ask for directions.

The friendly bartender at the only café we were able to locate suggested he’d call us a cab, but armed with his beautifully drawn map we were pretty sure we could make it. And sure enough, half an hour and a sprained ankle later (did I mention that whole peninsula was a huge, unlit construction site?), we found it. Extending from the snowy coast, over the floe-covered sea (I mean ice. on the sea. Google Translate says it’s floe. Google Images says it’s floe. I always thought /floe/ was an infectious disease, but who am I to argue with Google?), was the pier leading to eternal heat and happiness. Or at least some hours of it.

It was closed.

No joke.

You don’t wanna hear the sauna is closed if you’ve just walked over an hour in the windy cold craving for warmth. But some things are what they are, and the sauna was closed. The fact that I wrote an e-mail of complaint right after we got home illustrates how very pissed I was – I will usually rather eat a cold, dry steak than even think of complaining about it.

And look what I got:

Hello

We apologize for the mistake with poorly update website.

We would like you visit Bjerred Saltsjöbad again but without paying for a sauna and bath.

I would need a postal adress to you and how many people were thought to bath so I can send gift card for bath and sauna.

Thanks for your email.

Free sauna!

Somehow, this made it all worth it.

(turns out… there are 2 websites… we looked at the wrong one…)

Santa Lucia

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Ah the options of a story today: how my friend and I missed the biggest Christmas market in Sweden (we searched high and low, but simply couldn’t find it), how I missed the lecture by Konstantin Novoselov, one of the receivers of the Nobel Prize in Physics this year for his work on graphene (on a regular lecture, you can make full use of the academic 15 mins – however, it doesn’t quite seem to work that way when the speaker recently won a Nobel Prize), or how I decorated my house with Swedish Christmas decorations (I will get you some photos of that later, though). But since I know how much you love hearing about foreign traditions ;) (although it seems to be celebrated in some parts of the US also), I present to you: Santa Lucia!

 
You are really supposed to be celebrating it by the crack of dawn, but I was lucky enough to be in a lab where the Lussetåg only came by around 3pm. So while enjoying my lussekatt and a hot chocolate, I saw my very first Lucia procession: first comes Lucia, a girl dressed in white with long blonde hair, 5 candles (fake ones!) on her head and a red ribbon around her waist, followed by a number of other girls (virgins, supposedly…), dressed similarly but for the candles and the ribbon, and stjärngossar, and boys dressed in white with a princess-like hat and holding a star. And yes, that looks very gay. Subsequently, they sing. There appear to be a finite number of Lucia songs, but they ALL have to be sung. Which, if you don’t understand the lyrics and the singers aren’t very well trained, can be… a bit long. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun to experience and see – they were clearly very nervous and not always sure which song was the next, with the occasional girl starting to sing on her own and then – oops! – shut up :).

Lucia up front, with the virgins and the stjärngossar behind her.


For the occasion, they also brought a gingerbread girl, Santa, and a Christmas tree.

So because I also needed to see a ‘real’ (read: serious) Lussetåg, I had subscribed to an event organized by an organization for foreigners, and this is what their Lucia looked like:

They could sing. Really. And yes, that are real candles on her head (on of the stjärngossar was carrying a bucket of water, just in case).

 
For those interested in some background history, you can read up on it below – for everyone else, I give you a picture of myself being very proud of my first home-made lussebullar (saffron buns), and the recipe!

Ingredients: 1 stick butter (8 Tbsp.), 1 1/3 c. milk, pinch saffron, 3 Tbsp. yeast, 2/3 c. sugar, 1/2 tsp. salt, 2 eggs (1 in dough, 1 to brush), 4 c. flour, raisins for garnish
Melt butter in a small pan over low heat. Add milk and saffron and heat until about body temperature. Mix milk mixture and yeast and let sit about five minutes. Add the sugar, salt, one egg, and about half the flour. Knead the dough on a floured surface, adding flour to make a smooth dough. Let rise in a warm place about half an hour. Punch down, and then form into buns. Lay it on a parchment-lined baking sheet and tuck raisins into them. Let rise again in a warm place. Brush the risen buns with beaten egg. Bake at 400 degrees F about 15 min, until buns are golden brown.

 
Lucia was a Sicilian virgin who died as a martyr in the 4th century after she was denounced to the Roman authorities as a christian by the man she refused to marry. The Romans, unable to move her, even with a 1000 man and 50 oxen pulling (try to picture this… does anybody else find it hilarious??), decided to burn her. Which obviously didn’t work – as it never does with saints. Wikipedia states that a soldier got annoyed by her continuous reciting of encouraging words to other christians and stabbed her in the throat to shut her up (which… didn’t work, indeed), but my colleague claims she was complimented on her beautiful eyes by one of the Roman guards, after which she took them out (as only saints can do) and offered them to him. In return for her cheekiness, she was then stabbed in the side (hence the red ribbon).

If you’re wondering how the Sicilian Lucia came to be one of the few saints to be celebrated in protestant Sweden – I haven’t got a clue. It was probably a mixture of traditions, since December 13 was previously believed to be the shortest day of the year, and the most dangerous one, for Lussi, a female demon, would then ride through the night to take away naughty children (through the chimney). The importance of light (lux – lucia) in this time of year melted together with the day of Lucia (who is claimed to have put burning candles on her head to have both hands free while working in the catacombs). According to the same colleague though, it was just an excuse for students to party – but that in turn might derive from the custom of staying awake during Lusse-night, to make sure nothing bad happened. However it came to be – it is a must-celebrate for every Swede, and I’m happy to join in, if only because I love the lussekatten/lussebullar/saffron buns ;o).

Nerdy comics

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I have a friend over to visit and unfortunately didn’t have time to prepare a decent post today, so I’m gonna leave you with these two “nerdy” pics I encountered lately which I consider incredibly funny…

Let me tell you something about Santa Claus…

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… he’s not real!

(I shocked you there, didn’t I?)

THIS is the real Santa Claus, aka Sinterklaas:

Portrait of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.

Image via Wikipedia

Although I had to let go of the brilliant idea that Coca Cola invented Santa Claus, even Wikipedia agrees that we, in the Low Countries, have the true and original saint. Ha! Moreover, we’ve managed to get the Americans to adopt him for Christmas, only to have them export him back to Europe. It is ironic, in a way, but since it means I got presents TWICE in december as a kid, you don’t hear me complaining ;).

See, for us, Belgian kids, the highlight of the year is December 6 – sure, you get presents from your parents and family with Christmas, but the true event to look forward to is when Sinterklaas arrives in the country. Days, even weeks before the big day, we would put out our shoe near the window, hoping Zwarte Piet (Black Pete, Sinterklaas’ servant) would know we didn’t have a chimney and he’d have to get in through the window. We’d leave our letter to Sinterklaas, with a long list of the presents we would like to receive, a carrot or a sugar lump for his big, white horse Slechtweervandaag (Badweathertoday), and occasionally a beer for Zwarte Piet (not always – we didn’t want to get him drunk). The next morning, the letter was gone, the carrot was left half-eaten and the beer bottle was empty, but some candy had been left instead. The proof was overwhelming: Sinterklaas had come! And he had taken our letter!

via Google Images

My mum was sure sometimes she heard the horse on the roof, but I never did… but then again I wasn’t such a good listener. Sometimes though, Zwarte Piet would slam open the door and throw cookies and candy around – you never knew when he would come, or from which door (although attentive children might have noted it was the door through which their father disappeared 5 minutes before) and you had to be REALLY quick to see him. But when the doorbell rang on the night of December 5th, and Sinterklaas and 3 or 4 of his Zwarte Piet’s entered the room, everybody froze. Excitement, because the big bag Zware Piet was carrying promised presents, but also fear: Sinterklaas had a big book in which all your mischief was listed, and you could only hope the list wasn’t so long that Zwarte Piet would be tempted to put you in the bag and take you back to Spain with them… . The way they were standing behind their boss, looking very big and black (it’s not racism. it’s from going up and down the chimney.) and serious, was pretty daunting, so I generally tried to please them by singing or playing a song on my flute – and it worked every time ;). Of course, the Sint couldn’t make it to our house every year – there were just too many kids to be visited, but even when he was busy he’d make a quick stop during the night and left our well-deserved gifts in our shoes.

Image via Google Images

This year though, I have bought the Sint a gift. A GPS. Because my grandma has moved 3 times since I was small, but he still brings MY chocolate to HER place. And you know what I found in my shoe this year?

An un-eaten carrot!

If you want to know the whole story of Sinterklaas/Santa Claus, I refer to Wikipedia, here is the story of how I, as a Belgian child in the 80’s, experienced the whole thing – traditions evolve and differ slightly in the Netherlands, Germany, … so you might find other versions elsewhere.

Quote on a Sungday

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If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever is takes him.

— JFK

Read the rest of this entry

Saturday “Random Art” Smörgåsbord

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I’m not a very arty person. I could say: “Oh, but I went to a museum only 2 weeks ago, and I saw 4 plays last year”, all of which is true, but to be fair I don’t even remember when my next-to-last museum visit was, and the only reason I saw those plays is because a friend of Ts is an actress. It’s not because I don’t like arts – I just have a total and complete lack of passion for it. That, and it’s bloody expensive.
Still, I do believe art is important. Art is important because it is a way of expressing oneself, and expressing yourself is the start of everything, I feel. And it doesn’t have to be Art, with a capital. It can be small, it can be fleeting. The woman humming my favorite tune on the bus, she makes art. The drawings of my friend’s kids on my wall are art. Anything that was man-made, that moves you, in any way, is art. And you can see it on every corner of the street.

 
Ok, this may be a bad example of seeing art on every street corner, but it ís a very good example of how it can move people. Sand artist Kseniya Simonova, who won Ukraine’s got talent last year, draws a painting of how ordinary people were affected by the German invasion during WWII, which has moved audiences worldwide. The video has reached over 16 million views by now, so chances are high you’ve already seen it, but I never get tired of watching it… .

Have you ever gotten back from the supermarket to a dirty car which had “wash me!” written on it by some self-proclaimed comedian? Or even better: “also available in white”. I haven’t, but that has probably more to do with the fact I never owned a car than with being a good car washer. Now, imagine coming back from that same supermarket and finding your dirty rear window looking like this – wouldn’t that just brighten up your day? While I’m pretty sure Scott Wade, the artist who created this, is not exactly roaming on parking lots to surprise unsuspecting car owners, I feel it looks amazing. May this be an inspiration for you next time you see a dirty car!

 
I don’t know if I have any readers from London, but they might have seen this guy at work: for the past six years, Ben Wilson has spent days on end scouring pavements for discarded gum that he can bring to life. Each work of art can take anywhere from 2 hours to 3 days to complete, and so far mr. Wilson has created over 8000 of them, both for his own pleasure and on demand. It is more labour intensive than cleaning the streets of chewing gum with those steam-machines, but according to me the result is way nicer!

And if this is not Random Art, I don’t know what is. Knight Arts has been sponsoring Random Acts of Culture to take place in a variety of public places: Mozart at the Food Court, a little tango in an airport terminal, a “Hallelujah” in the shoe department – of the Handel variety, that is. They strongly believe in the potential of the arts to engage residents, and bring a community together – and for a brief moment in time, they do. Enjoy this performance of Toreador in a Miami shoe store, and be sure to check their website for more RAOCs!

Do you have too many friends?

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Is your social life too busy? Are you always running around here and there? Are you tired of that time-consuming job? Have you had enough of family gatherings?

Try the AIDS-stigma!

The AIDS-stigma is guaranteed to help you reduce your number of friends, will keep distant relatives you never cared about anyway at their distance, and has been shown to be an effective means of getting rid of your job! Over 38 million people (and counting!) worldwide can testify how the AIDS-stigma changed their lives.

 
How would you react when a friend/relative was diagnosed with HIV? Who would you tell if you were?

  • Every day 8000 people die from AIDS.
  • 15 million children have lost their parents to the disease.
  • More than 25 million people have died from AIDS so far. According to UN estimates, there will be 280 million by 2050.
  • 50% of infected people is between 15 and 24 years old.
  • Less than 35% of young people knows how to protect themselves from HIV.
  • 90% of HIV-patients lives in developing countries.

Yesterday was World AIDS Day. Did you wear the red ribbon?