Saturday, December 30, 2006
Take yesterday as an example of my poor memory: My ever-responsible wife came in to wake me, as I had tried to sleep late for the remainder of my vacation, and said, “You need to get up. We’re leaving in an hour.” I scratched my head and quickly tried to think of the things I had been planning (eat, sleep, play with the kids, eat some more, and maybe bathe) when she reminded me that we had planned for days to take the kids to an interactive museum. “Is that today?” I muttered. “I thought we were planning to do that tomorrow.” “No,” she said, rolling her eyes, as if to say she wondered why she married me instead of someone more dependable, like the spider plant in the corner.
Short of getting tested for early-onset Alzheimer’s, paying for one of those infomercial products that are supposed to boost my memory “in just two weeks!”, or simply going into a vegetative state that would justify my condition, I instead live with the problem and rack it up to the usual male cluelessness. Maybe it’s all the solvents I’ve sniffed from years of lab work.
Well now Science may be able to help, as reported in Scientific American:
In yet another attempt to better humanity through curious and “shocking” applications of electricity, a study of 13 hapless German college students at the University of Lübeck has shown that application of mild jolts of electricity directly to one’s brain during non-REM sleep can improve memory recall of word pairs the next morning by about 2%. The theory is that these pulses of electricity “exert a synchronizing effect on individual neurons and produce beneficial effects” with no apparent negative side effects or disruption of sleep. Guten nacht!
So what does this mean for me? Hmm. Let’s see. Send jolts of electricity through my brain or continue to appear like a dolt every time my wife sighs and says, “Don’t you remember?” Hard choice. Even a 2% increase in memory could mean the difference between my complete cluelessness and the appearance of mild retardation (a step up for me). Maybe it’s worth it.
I’ll book my tickets to Germany just as soon as I remember where I saved that spreadsheet with my Travelocity ID and password….
Friday, December 29, 2006
The truth is that most of us scientists are more like your local librarian than Dr. Frankenstein (although I can name a lab rat or two who resemble Dr. Frank-N-Furter). There have been a few real-life mavericks out there who fit the bill, though, like Nikola Tesla, John C. Lilly, and Edward Teller.
Well now we have a real-life Dr. Frankenstein, of sorts. Imagine, if you will, how you would react if someone brought a person back from being very, very dead. It would be weird and wrong, unethical, but probably not nightmarish since it’s easy enough to avoid, kill, or in some other way control your average zombie. Now imagine how you would react if someone brought back a horrible and naturally extinct virus like smallpox. Okay, that’s nightmarish! By the time the last victim died in 1978 and the disease was eradicated in nature, up to 500 million people had died worldwide in just the 20th century alone.
Finally, imagine that you had the ability to bring back an infective virus from millions of years ago with an unknown pathogenic effect and known human infectivity. What would you do? A French (mad) scientist by the name of Thierry Heidmann recently faced this question:
Heidmann took sequences of a retrovirus found degraded in human DNA, which infected human ancestors five-million years ago and resequenced it (basically bringing it back to life). This resequenced retrovirus, which he named “Phoenix”, was put into human and mammalian cells and found to be “mildly infective.” They used only biosafety level 3 (comparable to studies of 1918 flu pandemic, compared to smallpox which rates a 4) and apparently did not have national or international oversight. They do not yet know what, if any, clinical effect if would have on an organism.
Eek! So let me see if I have this right: Heidmann brought back to life a very ancient but extinct virus which was known to have infected human ancestors, without knowing how infective it was, what clinical effects it might have, and without the highest level of safety or oversight?
Do I hear a “Mwa ha ha ha ha”?
Thursday, December 28, 2006
But not me. It’s a strange paradox since I am conversant in so many areas of science, yet if you ask me anything about home gadgets, I’d just shrug and say, “Ask Ian” (even if you didn’t know him); I’d be too unsure of myself to give good advice. I don’t have a high-speed internet connection, don’t have an MP3 player, don’t use a cell phone, and don’t own a PDA of any sort. My laptop is too primitive to run on anything newer than Windows 95. And don’t even ask me about my digital camcorder and digital editing fiasco. Yet I am eager to be part of the techno-world. It takes money (that I don’t have) to get into all these things, but educating myself about them, at least, is free.
A recent ABC News report says I’m not alone with my condition:
Purchases of products like HDTVs, digital cameras, and GPS tracking devices are up sharply. And yet, folks are more perplexed than ever at the increasingly difficult maze of wires and operating functions (and, I might add, can’t remember which damned remote to use). Consider, if you will, that 50% of people who own HDTVs don’t subscribe to the high-definition programming necessary to make their purchase worthwhile. I’d like to think that I’d be more savvy about such a purchase, looking into the best systems, subscribing to high-def stations, hooking up the wires in the right manner, understanding the basic technology. But then I should remind myself that my car stereo (for example) doesn’t even have a working tape deck much less MP3 or even CD capability, and that my recent attempt to install a new ceiling fan resulted in no light and no moving blades. So what are the chances I'm going to purchase and install my own high-tech gadgets? I feel downright primitive. Tsk tsk! Bad scientist, bad! Oh, if only becoming "modern" were as easy as getting assimilated by the Borg.
Maybe I should ask Ian for help.
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Well, even in academia things don’t always work that way, of course. All of us lab rats can think of examples of science faculty who have manipulated data, hidden negative results, or kept important findings under wraps until they had a chance to publish and get the coveted grant monies or patents. This is human nature and self-preservation at work. Still, even *my* jaded mind thinks that academia still strives to reach those lofty goals.
But not evil global biotech companies. This is one reason I label them “evil.” Oh, sure, they talk the good talk. Every biotech conglomerate has snappy mottos like “Getting closer to the patient” or “Bringing vision to medical discovery” which they splatter on all their marketing publications and preach to their employees at pep rallies, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one of their employees who truly believes that company profits don’t outweigh the good of mankind. I’ve led the development of dozens of products for my company, and these days no innovative idea moves forward until it goes through a gauntlet of business cases, voice-of-customer calls, and marketing considerations before any significant amount of lab testing is conducted.
What? That novel compound to study multiple sclerosis will only make a profit of $500K in its first year? Chump change! We only deal in millions, baby! Secret away that brilliant idea until we think we can earn more on it, if ever.
And that brings me to my main point. Given that this is the “season of giving” and our thoughts are supposed to be on the good of mankind, let us in biotech pause for a moment to make a New Year’s resolution, shall we? Repeat after me:
“I, Lab Rat, do hereby swear, on pain of my kidneys exploding, that I shall consider the good of mankind above profits. If the good of mankind matches the profits, I shall continue to shamelessly make millions for my evil global biotech company. If the good of mankind is not profitable, I shall henceforth find a legal way to let the academic community in on my secret, such that their brilliance may build upon my genius and help the world thrive. Amen.” [insert heavenly music again]
Personally, I like my kidneys unexploded. When I get off my vacation and return to the hectic life of my company, I think I’ll dredge up an idea or two and find a way to get them “out there.” My company could use some good karma.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
The last mission to the moon happened the year I was born. Space exploration is in my blood. I used to sneak up late at night to watch reruns of Star Trek on my grainy, rabbit-eared TV. I think I’ve seen every sci fi movie ever made (except some of the old black and white Flash Gordon sorts). I still thrill at news about the shuttle missions, like the one that just landed, and keep up on the news. Yes, it’s in my blood. If I pass gas, it’s likely to be solar wind.
But when Bush made his announcement, I rolled my eyes and thought, “Yeah, right! Can you spell d-i-v-e-r-s-i-o-n?” If he were serious about going to the moon and Mars, he wouldn’t cut NASA’s budget even more while continuing to expend the nation’s debt on the war in Iraq. The last time we went to the moon, we spent something like a quarter of the gross national product on the effort. No way that’ll happen now. I refuse to get my hopes up, since Bush isn’t serious about it, the Democrats are more interested in spending money on the social good (for good reason), and further presidents and Congresses aren’t likely to stay focused on the goal for that long (the goal is to be on the moon by 2020).
Lately, the celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking took it one step further. Like me, Hawking is a Trekkie. He even appeared as himself in an episode of _Star Trek: The Next Generation_, playing poker with Data, Einstein, and Newton. This month, Hawking gave a speech as he accepted the Royal Society Copley Award, the highest science honor in Britain (also given to Darwin, Faraday, and Captain Cook), for his contributions toward understanding gravity. Speaking in that trademark computer voice of his, he called for us to develop a Star Trek-like warp drive so that we could travel to distant stars, colonize planets, and preserve the human race against global catastrophes like asteroids, nuclear war, or global warming. He thinks it’s theoretically possible (though certainly far-fetched), and he ought to know. He also expressed a desire to be a space tourist. Can’t you just picture it? Hawking floating around in a space station, sans wheelchair?
Cool. The geeky teenager in me is smiling broadly. Now I’m jazzed. After all, who are you going to listen to more on this issue, a president with a failed domestic and foreign agenda who is likely creating yet another diversion tactic to draw our minds away from those failures, or a renowned scientist on par with Einstein, Newton, and Darwin who is hot on the trail of a Unified Theory of Everything despite being able to move only a single finger? Is there any way to name Stephen Hawking as Director of NASA?
Let’s just hope we’ve solved our earthly problems before we start spreading them across the galaxy, eh? That’s the future portrayed by Star Trek, after all.
Sunday, December 24, 2006
Okay, I admit, I’ve never had a sugarplum. Probably wouldn’t recognize one if you shoved it in my mouth, let alone be able to picture one dancing. I’m guessing it looks like a prune coated with sugar, and that doesn’t sound so good. But I’ll assume it’s some form of decadent food, which I am definitely into. As for the good of mankind part, I’m all over it (as I do a great deal of volunteer work for my community).
Okay, I just found a link describing sugarplums and a modern sugarplum recipe. Enjoy. Maybe I’ll make them this year.
Being an atheist, my personal concept of Christmas isn’t exactly traditional. Though I am willing to believe there was a Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I don’t believe for a moment Jesus was from a virgin birth, or that he was God-incarnate (since I don’t believe in a god, either), or any of the Jesus miracles. Like most Americans (I imagine), Christmas for me is more about having a time to spend with family, give and receive pretty gifts, and, oh yeah, eat lots of decadent food. And as the years go on I find myself less involved in the surface niceties. For example: my lovely wife and I got each other a little something. I got her a field book for identifying birds. We had a decorative plastic bag with tissue paper that another gift had come in. With a shrug, I wrapped the book with the tissue paper, put it in the bag, and handed it to her to open. She was pleased. Then she walked to the bedroom to get her gift to me, wrapped it in the exact same paper and bag, and gave it to me to open (a wonderful silvery Christmas ornament). I was also very pleased. Who cares that we reused wrapping? Call us efficient. We’ll spend our decorative energies on stuff for the kids. Someday, when the kids are grown and we have more time and energy (yeah, right!) maybe we’ll get back into the decorative aspects.
Given the occasion, I'd like to thank all of you who read this blog. I hope you find my chatterings interesting. Please leave comments so I can see your footprints in the snow (and my thanks to those who do).
Merry Christmas to all! Have a sugarplum on me, and if you see visions of them dancing, I suggest seeking help.
Saturday, December 23, 2006
Their idea is to honor the trend of posting content on blogs, websites, MySpace, YouTube, and so forth that has heralded an unprecedented explosion in expression of the common person. Nifty. Yeah, it's a little lame, but I agree with their point. It's another step toward a one-world community (and maybe an internet-based government to rule them – but that's the Napoleon in me talking. We could call it "The United States of Google"). _Time_ is right to recognize the amazing contribution of the internet and the way common people are utilizing it. Thanks to this technology, I can hold a couple simultaneous text conversations with my friends on MySpace (assuming I HAVE friends) talking about, let's say - my cat's hairball problem, paraphrase the conversations on my blog, and upload a video of my cat barfing to YouTube, all within minutes, and it won't cost me a shiny dime. But then, would you really care to watch it?
Of course, there's no accounting for taste. I'm honored just as much as the next person, including all those porn freaks (the #1 business on the internet, according to surveys) and fringe criminal groups. Being lightened by the Christmas spirit, I'll assume for the moment that they aren't included, since Jingle Bells is playing in the background, I smell like eggnog, and the world is sparkling with snowflakes and silvery presents. Only *interesting* content like this blog are included in their consideration, right? RIGHT?
My first thought was to call this a cop-out. "You" isn't a person. But it's not like this is the first year _Time_ has honored an entire group or technology since they started in the honor in 1927. I count eleven years:
1950, The American Fighting Man
1956, Hungarian Freedom Fighter
1960, U.S. Scientists [Thank you very much!]
1966, Twenty-Five and Under
1969, The Middle Americans
1975, American Women
1982, The Computer
1988, Endangered Earth
1993, The Peacemakers
2002, The Whistleblowers
2003, American Soldier
Here's a complete list. I'm not certain I feel so honored. There are some amazing folks on the long list, like FDR and Ghandi, but Stalin and Hitler are there, too (and George Bush – twice!).
Given that I've designed and posted three websites and this blog, I guess I'm deserving. Maybe I should celebrate somehow. Tell you what, I'll go create another blog, punch up my eggnog, and sing a rummy version of Jingle Bells on camera for YouTube so that you can relive my merriment any time you wish, at the click of a mouse. I suggest you do the same. Happy uploading, Man of the Year!
Friday, December 22, 2006
I like to mentally rate names on an "Interesting Name Scale" from 0 to 10. A name like Bob Smith rates a big fat zero. There is absolutely nothing interesting to me about a name like Bob Smith. It blends in and gets ignored, at least here in America. I'd say most of us have a name around 4 on the scale. If you do "the hyphen thing" when you get married, or name your children, that will likely move your rating up a number or two. At one point I had a coworker whose last name was Karen Prettyontop. Now that's an original last name. She was Native American, and, I assume, it was a family name given to her at birth. I was sad when she got married and her last name changed to Martin. Her name fell on my rating scale from about an 8 to about a 4. She didn't seem to mind the name change. When I recently told another friend about the name (they didn't know each other), she remarked, "Prettyontop sounds like a stripper name." I never thought of it that way, so maybe I can understand how Karen didn't mind the change.
Names that get top scores on my Interesting Name Scale are the ones that people make up for themselves and really use. In 1994, a 17-year old named Peter Eastman, Jr. (ranks about a 3 or 4) changed his name to the title of his favorite book. His full legal name is now Trout Fishing In America. Wow. Give that boy a 10. He goes by "Trout". I heard another one the other day that blew my mind. A friend of mine has a friend whose name was Jerry Williams. Pretty boring. Ranks maybe a 2 or 3. He changed his name to "Jerry!". No, I didn't just mess up my punctuation. That's Jerry with an exclamation mark and no last name. Unfortunately he wasn't able to make it legal, as punctuation isn't allowed in official names, but that's how he signs his name. Give him a 10!
But are we really more creative in names than chimps? I wonder if chimps have names for each other that we just aren't aware of. Maybe a chimp was given the name of "Ooh Ohh Ahh" by his mom, but has now changed his name to "Ooh!" How would we ever know?
What names have you heard of that would rate high on the scale?
Thursday, December 21, 2006
From time to time I get pretty bothered by what I see as stupidity in the lab, or even just inefficiency, especially if it affects me and slows down my work (it's all about me, don't you know. Call me Prideful). So I've decided to list what I feel are the Seven Deadly Sins for lab rats like myself. You know the normal Seven Deadly Sins, right? Lust, Gluttony, Greed/Avarice, Sloth/Laziness, Wrath, Envy, and Pride. Well throw those out the door, Bubba, because none of them actually bother me in the lab. Heck, many of them are major drivers for biotech and academics! And I wouldn't mind a little more lust and gluttony. So here are the seven sins (in no particular order) that I feel are more appropriate for folks working in lab settings:
Disorganization: I'm guilty of this one. My lab book is a mess, and my desk matches it. My lab fridge could use some organization, too. At least my lab bench is clean. But let's face it, if you aren't organized you could lose all those tidbits of protocol and innovation that spring from your genius mind (at least, *my* genius mind – remember, Pride is not a sin in the lab!).
Recklessness: Safety first, folks! Put on your lab coat, gloves, and safety glasses, keep an extinguisher and first aid kit nearby, and don't do anything stupid. Nearly every lab has explosive, mutagenic, radioactive, pathogenic, or corrosive chemicals or materials. We have a lab assistant at work who cleans glassware. He routinely handles potentially-contaminated glassware without gloves, puts broken glassware back into drawers, and walks around in "clean" areas in his stained lab coat (including the bathroom, ew!). I keep expecting him to keel over any day from self-poisoning, and no doubt he would glow from all the dyes he has exposed himself to. I just hope he doesn't poison my fat ass in the process!
Bias: Go ahead, be optimistic. But check that optimism (or pessimism) at the lab door, cuz I want the ugly truth to my data. We had a director here a few years ago who had pre-conceived notions about what the results should be for a product in development. When the product sucked, he blamed us for "not thinking optimistically." We were eventually vindicated when the data was overwhelmingly bad and the customers were complaining, but things would have been so much easier if he had just seen the light. Hiding bad data to make yourself look good counts here, too.
Sloppiness: My first boss at my evil global biotech company had been a man who had no lab skills whatsoever. He could never stick to a protocol or measure anything. He'd throw in a little of this and a little of that and let the solution mix for, oh, a *while*. Yet he thought he was hot stuff. "I worked with a Nobel laureate," he'd boast, but he could barely operate a pipettor. Funny, he couldn't repeat any results 'til I got hired. Lab work ain't Granny's cookin'.
Shyness: I've heard it said many times that one of the greatest phobias people have is public speaking. No scientist can go long in the biz without giving presentations on their data, at least to lab groups, but also at conferences, and sharing their techniques with their peers. Schools and colleges don't do enough to teach public speaking and writing courses. Do you have a fear of public speaking? Don't worry, we'll only laugh at you on the inside.
Ignorance: You've got to know your science and techniques, and *admit* it if you don't. At the very least you should know who to go to or what references to check. I can think of plenty of examples where I got projects or compounds passed to me from others to do R&D on, but spent most of my time figuring out all the stuff they messed up. I don't want to take the fall for their incompetence. It doesn't pay to be a dumbass, folks. Sadly, I think most people don't realize how little they know.
Fraudulence: This is by far the worst. Oh, it won't kill you like Recklessness might, but at least if you die it's your own damned fault. Nothing gets me angrier than when I spend months developing some innovation of my invention only to have my boss take all the credit, or when some beautiful image of mine gets the cover of a science journal but some other scientist gets their name listed (or there is no name at all). Both have happened to me. Science if rife with lab P.I.'s (principal investigators) who get authorship on papers but fail to give co-authorship to the technicians who actually did the work. I keep waiting for a news report of a lab rising up and lynching their P.I. for this. Watch out, you frauds out there: rope isn't very common in the lab, but there's plenty of tubing.
So there you go. If you avoid these seven deadly sins, you lab rats will go straight to Science Heaven, where Saint Darwin will issue you your golden pipettor and open the gates to that great lab bench in the sky.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Can't reach that kitten in your redwood tree? Want to leap small buildings in a single bound? Have a burning desire to become a human cannonball? Well look no further! The "Controllable Launcher" is your ticket to fun and excitement!
It's not just a technological marvel, but a means to amaze your friends and reach new heights in your life. Like a combination sling shot and jet pilot ejector seat, simply position the launcher at the correct direction and angle, dial in the appropriate launch pressure, then sit in the launcher seat and yell "Pull." Next thing you know, you're in the air and on your way to adventure! No need for tedious stairs or pesky elevators. No more dangerous extension ladders or escalators. With the Controllable launcher, reaching those upper levels is as easy as one-two-fling! Don't wait to impress the girls in your life. With the Controllable Launcher, high balconies are a snap to reach. Your Juliet is waiting to catch you in her arms. Order now.
Strap me in, Bucky! I'm goin' flyin'!
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Oh, how the sexual revolution continues to echo, empowering us, but forcing us to protect ourselves and advance our reproductive responsibilities with better technology. Yes, today is a time of modern choices, my sexually-active friends, but things are not exactly in equilibrium in the bedroom. Consider this recent article. The
Basically, this is a potential product that a woman could use to coat the inside of her vagina with a thin layer of gel containing an anti-HIV drug. Upon insemination, the pH changes in the vagina causing the drug to be released and fight off any pesky HIV viruses, protecting at least 50% of the time (the future may bring a better percentage). The ingenuity of Science never ceases to arouse me! But wait, before we pat ourselves on the back (or any other area) for this marvel of reproductive science, let's back up a little, shall we?
First of all, let's consider something that is all too often overlooked: it's the woman who has the burden of responsibility here. Oh, sure, being the average sex-crazed male who can't find the responsibility to cut my toenails much less stop in the heat of the moment to put on a condom, I can sympathize with the idea that men should be able to sink their battleship without a care in the world. However, let me for a moment engage my feminine side long enough to point out that, short of sterilization, there is only one contraceptive designed for use by males: the condom, first used as long as 3000 years ago by the Egyptions. Women, on the other hand, have the Pill, the diaphragm, the female condom (which I call "pool liners"), hormone implants, hormone injections, IUDs, the "rhythm method", cervical caps ("shower caps"?), Plan B "morning after pills", and hormonal vaginal rings to consider, all of which require them to ingest, inject, or insert something in some form or fashion (with varying degrees of discomfort, safety, and, in some cases, training) and watch their cycles carefully. Having choices is a good thing, but do you notice that the list is a bit lopsided?
So, is the anti-HIV gel a good idea? Sure, provided women don't mind having their love ovens coated in goo all day, and provided they could actually afford the high cost of daily anti-HIV drugs. Maybe the men reading this blog will call me a traitor for suggesting this, but perhaps before we introduce yet another reproductive product that women have to shove into themselves we could instead find ways of placing the burden on the guys. Well, fellas, next time you want to free Willy, how would you like inserting something down there?
Monday, December 18, 2006
For something like seven years in a row now my lovely wife and I have made a personalized calendar to be given at Christmas time, one for each set of parents, featuring photos we had taken over the past year. It used to cost a buttload when we had a printing business make it for us, but for the last few years I have printed it myself at home using special software, digital copies of our photos (I'm good at Photoshop), and our relatively decent inkjet printer. The overall cost is half that of having an office copy center print it for us. Unfortunately, I still rely on an office copy center to do the binding.
Now you wouldn't think it a terribly difficult job to bind two calendars: holes punched for the spiral wire on one side, a hole to hang it on the other side, and a clear plastic cover. It only costs a few bucks and should take about 10 minutes for them to do on their binding machine, right? It also requires a minimum of intelligence on their part to set the machine and follow my instructions. I'm not asking them to bind the Guttenberg Bible or anything. And yet, they always screw it up.
The last couple years they flipped a page, requiring me to go home and come back the next day with yet another printed copy of the page for them to try again. One year they punched multiple nail holes instead of one. This year I went to Staples and they said it would take three days for them to do it, *at the soonest.* Now, the place wasn't busy when I went on my way to work, so why the hell they couldn't find a few minutes to punch some pages is beyond me. "No thanks," I said, and was late to work. Later I took off lunch to go to their competitor down the street, OfficeMax. OfficeMax said "no problem" and told me to come back after work, so I left my calendars there. When I came back after work, they had only bound one of the calendars and had lost the other. When they finally found it, the worker said, "It'll only be five minutes." Of course I wanted to scream, "If it only takes five minutes, why the hell didn't you do it while I waited when I was here at lunchtime?" But I didn't, fearing that any disturbance in their concentration might kill off the last of their brain cells. The worker bound the calendar. I gave it a quick look to make sure the holes were there, that it was bound, and that no pages were flipped. Satisfied, I paid and left (of course they didn't offer any compensation for my trouble). Later that night we found that the worker had punched the nail hole on the wrong side of half of the pages (not the first or last half, either, but the middle half!), then apparently caught herself and additionally punched a hole in the correct side. You'd think she would have pointed it out and said, "Oops. Let me offer you a discount." It was too late to redo it, as our Christmas packages were waiting for the calendars before being mailed and would likely already arrive late to my mom.
So what the hell is wrong with these office copy places? Do they only hire morons? Is there a calendar-copy center conspiracy against me? Or is it that the instructions for the binding machine are written in Swahili? You know what, I think I'll finally be looking into binding my own next year!
Saturday, December 16, 2006
So here I am, a far older and less silly lab rat (and, I might add, much too tired to go running around). But nonetheless, when I go to work, I still feel like I'm chasing after something, only it's not a cute girl at the end (more like an oozing, sickly monster), and the only kissing going on is ass-kissing. Name your topic and I'm sure it applies: raises, promotions, getting programs approved, buying equipment, having more than a marginal voice in the projects I do. This certainly isn't specific to biotech, but before my company went public we at least had numerous projects to work on, including some of our own innovation. Now, to get a project moving toward any sizable amount of R&D time, I have to chase after the business case, which means chasing after the business manager, which means kissing up to my supervisor enough to have him approve even a cursory preliminary test of the idea, which means doing more work to make up for the other ten things I'm supposed to do instead, all the time wondering if I'll actually get any credit even if a good product comes out the end of it all, a year later. Whew. No wonder fewer products are coming out of my company these days! Just thinking about all of this makes me feel as if I've been running in circles trying to catch the girl, butt-ugly as she is, yet she teases and then runs away again before I can give her a peck on her slobbery lips.
Maybe I should just go play dodgeball with the guys….
Friday, December 15, 2006
In the beginning, Nareau walked alone in the oppressive darkness of Te-Po-ma-Te-Maki ("the Darkness of the Embrace") and from a mussel shell he created the world. Then from sand and water he created two beings: Na Atibu and Nei Teuke, man and woman. They created the sun and the moon from Nareau's eyes, the stars from his brain and from his flesh and bones they made the islands and trees. From the union of those first two beings came forth the other gods. Nareau still appears on earth, as a spider.
Oh, I'm sorry, were you expecting the Christian creation myth? My apologies. I thought you would first think of the ancient Kiribati creation myth, like I do. But really, can you disprove it any more than the Christian myth? Is this Micronesian story of Nareau and his children really any less silly than the thought of a god creating the cosmos and Earth from nothing, or of a little garden where lived a man made from clay and a woman made from one of the man's ribs, then they were kicked out because they were convinced by a snake to eat an apple, then they somehow parented the entire world?
The same poll found that 18% of Americans believe in evolution that is, somehow, guided by an intelligent force (namely, the Christian god, whose rather unimaginative name is "God"). Thus, we have "Intelligent Design". Rationally, though, Intelligent Design is no different from outright Creationism, since neither can be tested using the scientific method. You cannot prove the existence of an intelligent creator any more than you can a god. And who created the creator? The leading advocate of Intelligent Design is the Discovery Institute, a politically-created organization with obvious neoconservative ideologies, whose main purpose seems to be to convince the general public that scientists are debating Evolution versus Intelligent Design and that this debate should be extended to our school children, when in fact you would be hard-pressed to find any scientists who buy into the Intelligent Design mumbo jumbo, and teaching this in public schools violates the separation of church and state. Recently, the Discovery Institute has funded another institute, the Biologic Institute, whose purpose is to try to skew scientific reasoning toward their wholly unscientific assertions by pursuing actual bench science. Sorry, but saying there is empirical evidence for a creator is no more plausible than saying a priest is a scientist simply because he puts on a lab coat.
Every year there are thousands of scientific studies that reaffirm the principles of natural selection which are at the heart of Evolution. It is so widely embraced by biology that it has progressed beyond a scientific "theory" to, in my mind and the mind of many others, a scientific "law." There are many researchers who have dedicated their entire lives to understanding Evolution. Yet those 42% of Americans who distrust the theory, the vast majority of whom never actually learned anything about it from an approved science text, are unwilling to listen to the biological professionals. Do they likewise disbelieve physicists about quantum mechanics? Or mathematicians about fractal geometry? Or astronomers about solar formation? Are they proficient enough in these areas to question them? I'm not, except for Evolution. If they aren't willing or able to educate themselves, then I suggest they defer to those who do.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go worship Nareau by placing a shell by a block of coral and calling forth my guardian spirits….
Thursday, December 14, 2006
"Philosophers are people who know less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything. Scientists are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing." -- (Konrad Lorenz? Web sources vary, so I gave up looking).
Lately I've been asked to talk to some high school sophomores about career choices in science, using myself as a model. Oh, how the little devil in me wants to warp their impressionable young minds! The possibilities are endless! Now is my chance to set them spiraling down that path to become the
I've worked in academic, government, private biotech, and public biotech settings, and I've sampled several fields of study as part of them, at least within biology. Does that make me some sort of an expert worth their time? Maybe they will think so, but my feeling about myself is that I am so much of a generalist lab rat that I specialize in nothing. I've made dozens of products, worked on countless projects, and put out some research papers, but the areas these address range from neuroscience to agricultural science, cell biology to ecology. It's not exactly the usual career path.
Every month in the vast realm of science there is exponentially more information about an ever-increasing number of fields such that one could get dizzy trying to comprehend it all. "The more you learn the less you know." The other day I was looking at a poster that showed a signaling pathway in cells and it occurred to me that every one of the thirty or so interacting proteins noted on the poster had surely been the subject of numerous published papers, and perhaps some doctoral theses, too. How many long nights did all those scientists, grad students, and work studies slave away to get to that point? Understanding even that one pathway in great detail would surely require me to burn the midnight oil for weeks and read many dozens of research papers. And that's just one of many diverse projects I could be working on at a given time. I could only be an "expert" in that area if I forewent anything else in my life, or gave up sleep entirely. I may be a caffeine junky, but not to that extent. And I don't think either my boss or my wife would be terribly thrilled.
So if these impressionable teenagers ask if I'm an expert in anything, I'll just tell them I know more and more about less and less, and that by the time I retire I should know everything about nothing. Then when I'm old and feeble, I'll be able to tell long stories to my grandkids that show off how much I know yet never seem to come to a point.
Do you ever feel this way about your profession?
(Update: the kids were great. But I did apparently warp them, because at one point, as I explained how a DNA dye we were using could be hazardous and mutagenic if handled unsafely, one of them said with a look of fascination, "So I could add it to a human egg and it would mutate the developing fetus somehow?" YES!).
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
I'm a sucker for eating out for lunch. It takes only the slightest suggestion from a fellow employee and I'm out the door. All they need to do is come up to me around noon and say "Hey, Lab Rat, you wanna go . . . ." and the next thing you know I'm in the car with the fellow employee driving to a restaurant. It could be a snobby eatery or the taco van down the road for all I care. Why am I this way? Who knows. It could be because I want an excuse to escape my company for a little while. After all, if I stay at work I'm either likely to skip lunch altogether or I'll eat in front of my computer while I enter data (HERE's a nifty link about "desktop dining").
Or maybe I eat out because my choices (using today as an example) are a small can of tomato soup or a little box of freeze-dried noodles (just add hot water!) – neither menu item is of particular culinary appeal to me. There's always the vending machine (do Rollos count as a "lunch"?). Yeah, it's more expensive to eat out, (HERE's a link to a lunchtime calculator to figure how much you're looking in interest), but look at the variety you get.
Apparently I'm not alone with my "condition":
Up to a third of employees skip lunch, and when they eat out, it's fast food. Additionally, the average "lunch hour" has fallen to less than 30 minutes.
Sadly, I've got an awful lot of work today. I think I'll get my can opener and chug down tomato soup in front of my computer. Bon apatite!
(Update: My tomato soup was awful. Time to bum some change from someone and get some vending machine Rollos….)
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Need a drink, but you're too tired at the end of a long day at the lab bench to make one for yourself? Yet you don't care to go to a bar? No problem! Now you can have your very own robot that makes cocktails for you:
Yes, in this wonderfully Jetsons-esque age of household robotic technology (thank you, Roomba!), you can drink away those blues without the bother of lifting your own bottles or that potentially messy step of shaking the drink. Instead, Chapok the robot can do it for you. But wait, there's more! He doesn't just make drinks, he also throws mild and hilarious insults and pick-up lines at his customer, such as "Hey you sweet thing, have you ever had a date with a robot?" and "You want what? Order yourself a drink for a man, you girl!"
Ah, life is good in the modern age! Hey, Chapok, make mine a Mai-Tai, and don't forget the little umbrella!
Monday, December 11, 2006
The not-so-honorable senator from Oklahoma has been a stalwart warrior against science and reason, especially on the issue of global warming. According to Inhofe, the issue of global warming has been "the greatest hoax perpetrated on the American people," echoing views expressed by his leader, President Bush. He then went on to say that the media was at fault for keeping the hoax alive, naming all the great news networks and services (except Fox, of course). The media wasn't given a chance to reply. Go ahead and blame the messenger, James, it's a sign of desperation.
Inhofe dredged up a couple of unknowns to back up his statements, one of whom actually said that, instead of stopping the release of greenhouse gases, we should instead emit as much as possible, to "stop another ice age." Come again!? Never mind that all the great minds of science agree that mankind has been the leading cause of greenhouse gases and that the effects of global warming are being felt everywhere in the environment, including the destruction of Arctic and Antarctic ice shelves and the resulting rise in ocean levels, the death of coral and other sensitive animals, and even the greater strength of hurricanes due to warmer waters, such as was seen with hurricane Katrina. Adversaries of scientific reason used to say global warming was a hoax because there wasn't firm data. When scientists showed firm data, those people claimed it was a natural phenomenon, as seen in eons past. When scientists showed data that current temperature increases and carbon dioxide concentrations were far, far higher than anything in the past, those people now claim it is somehow good for us. Maybe next they'll say it'll be nice to go outside and enjoy a pleasant sauna in the wintertime.
It boggles my mind how conservative Republicans can think this way. We're talking here about nothing less than saving the world. Wouldn't you rather trust the word of thousands of scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying global warming, or would you instead focus on the opinions of a few outside dissenters and help corrupt industries and their lobbyists avoid anti-pollution legislation? Seems like a no-brainer if your goal is safeguarding our people, eh?
For a good treatise on the global warming, see Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth." Here's a link evaluating the movie: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/05/060524-global-warming.html
Lucky for us, Democrats now control both houses, and liberal senator Barbara Boxer (who agrees with scientists) will control the committee. Though Inhofe will still sit on the committee, he won't be able to call meetings or block legislation. Go, Barbara!
Saturday, December 9, 2006
And then I remember why we came. Free food. I can't say the food is great, and my wife and I are pretty picky eaters, but it's decent given the atmosphere, and it's free. To get to the food from my distant table I pretty much have to work my way through the gauntlet of employees again, stopping now and then to say hi so that I don't seem anti-social, but not lingering long enough to seem like a suck-up. Then we wait in line for our roast beast and mixed vegetables, and make our way back to the loser's table. The meal is occasionally broken up with "Please pass the butter" and "I'm sorry, I didn't hear what you said." The treat comes at dessert. Admittedly, that hotel is good at desserts. There is no shortage of good stuff of every chocolate variety, and it more than makes up for the other food. Call me a pig, but I typically get two helpings. Did I mention that it's free? After dessert, a significant percentage of folks leave. This includes most of the suck-ups, who have achieved their mission, and most of the folks there for the free food, like me. But the party isn't over.
To be fair, my company's Holiday Party is a lot better than it used to be, years ago, when the after-dinner entertainment was the presentation of an Employee of the Year Award (often going to the best suck-up) and a talent show (which was supposed to be a showcase of employee talents, but sadly was populated by children of employees showing off piano and violin skills). Now there aren't children (thank god!), and there are no more of the lame awards or talent shows. A couple years ago they had live disco music by a relatively-talented local band. I stayed that year by choice, as I am a disco junky. It's the only music I really dance to (of course, "dance" is a relative term which usually doesn't apply to my spastic attempts, but I enjoyed myself). Last year, and this year, it is "Vegas Night" with a rented company that brings tables for roulette, craps, and blackjack, complete with poker chips and dealers. You are given a certain number of chips to start, and your winnings can be turned in for prize drawing entries. There's no real money involved. Plenty of people enjoy it. Kudos. I stayed for it last year because my lovely wife thought it would be fun. She seemed to enjoy herself, so that made it worthwhile, but I'm too conservative a gambler, even with fake money.
So am I going this year? I'm pretty sure I talked my wife out of it. She wanted to go just for the food, but we have other (non-work) parties to go to around that date. I think it won't be missed. Perhaps we'll see "Casino Royale" instead.
(Update: We hung out with friends instead. Thank goodness, since I heard the company hired an Elvis impersonater this year who wandered from table to table and did a song & dance routine. People avoided him.)
Friday, December 8, 2006
Lately some researchers have studied the great tits of
You know how folks in the country talk slower than folks in the city? It's not just a stereotype. Coming from the rural South, I have an intimate knowledge of the Great Southern Drawl. Folks in the city just don't have *time* to stretch out their syllables. For instance, country folk in the South might say "How ya'll doin'?" where the "ya'll" is drawn out and even made into two syllables, and the overall sentence sounds almost as if they were yawning, whereas a city slicker would instead say "What are you looking at!" all run together.
Seems the great tits of
At least, that's the theory. Personally, I think those city tits miss the country. City tits are just too light and perky compared to the well-rounded, let-em-hang country tits, don't you think?
Thursday, December 7, 2006
I don't handle change especially well anymore. My evil global biotech company has a major shift in management or programs every six months to a year. In about 7 ½ years here I have had five direct supervisors and three indirect supervisors. One employee, who works in another department, has had eight bosses in two years. Ouch. In the eternal words of The Who, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
I remember a company-wide meeting over a year ago when the guy in charge of Global R&D at my company came to my site and gave a pep-talk to me and the other scientists. He said something to the effect of, "You have to have a sense of urgency. Keep changing. Keep on the razor's edge." He continued by discussing how that mentality affects career options. "You have to push yourself to learn more. Fight for that promotion. Your role will change with the company."
Okay, I agree to a point. Things shouldn't get stagnant in a field that is always changing. Always being one to stir the coals, I dared to raise my hand anyway. "Each change brings a degree of chaos that slows productivity and lowers morale," I said. "We've had three company-wide shifts in management in the last year. Doesn't it make sense to have periods of stability to improve productivity? And if I am good at what I do and enjoy it, doesn't it make sense for me to remain where I am?" Mr. Global R&D just looked at me and stuttered, blinked, then composed himself and tried to reiterate his message. No doubt he was thinking, "This stupid lab rat just doesn't understand. He must not be a Ph.D." I wonder if he learned my name, jotting down a mental note to punish me somehow for my insolence. I didn't get promoted again this year. Coincidence? Probably. I'm too low on the dog pile to get noticed by the likes of him.
It wasn't but a few months after Mr. Global R&D visited that we had another one of those massive shifts in site-wide program management, in early 2006, and I got a new boss. A massive restructure happened to the Business and Marketing side of our company a week ago. Another one is likely to happen to R&D in a few months. Sigh. I wonder who my next boss will be.
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
Okay, here's a little tidbit for all of you out there who are worried about the erosion of our civil liberties. In yet another blow to the privacy of ordinary citizens, the FBI revealed in a recent court case that it can use your cell phone to listen in to your conversations – even when the power is turned off:
So, to be clear, if you turn your phone off, they can still "bug" you by hacking in to your signal and digitally manipulating your phone to turn on, then listen to conversations that are within range. The only way to guard against this is to pull out the battery. Additionally, they can use the phone as a location device. The article doesn't say how, but I assume it is by triangulating tower signals.
An important part that was left out of the article was whether or not the FBI needed a warrant to do this. Given the recent NSA wiretapping flaps, I'm doubtful. Big Brother is watching!
Yesterday I read on CNN's webpage that the military of
Your first question was probably the same as mine:
How, I ask, can someone living in
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
I work for a global biotech company (who will remain nameless) that seems to have as its greatest purpose conquering all of biotech worldwide. Namely, it buys up smaller companies and eats them like chocolates. It doesn't even leave the half-eaten ones that no one likes, like marzipan. Instead of taking the considerable profits it gathers and reinvesting in its infrastructure (or its employees' pay, thank you), top management constantly has its eyes out for the next fish in the pond to gobble. They dangle a huge sum in front of the other company's eyes, and when they sell, we offer their employees "relocation packages." That's corporate-speak for "We are shutting you down and if you don't relocate to our site in
It brings back my nerdy remembrances of Star Trek: "We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile." You know what I'm talking about, right? Decent, ordinary space people are collected by human-robot hybrids and turned into new cyborgs by being plugged into all sorts of mechanical devices and mentally converted to become one with a hive mind. Somehow this process makes their skin turn greenish and causes them to walk around as if partly comatose. Even though they have cool laser-pointer eyes and drill bits for fingers, I wouldn't say they've experienced an improvement. But, hey, at least they've got team spirit!
The excuse Management gives for buying up companies is, of course, to look as if we are making a profit for that magical group of people called "the Stockholders." The other reason is to "stay on top of innovations." I'm a stockholder in my own company. I don't feel so magical. In fact, as a stockholder, I am guaranteed an opinion. Granted, my opinion is only worth the percentage of shares I own, and 0.001% isn't a very large percentage (if that), but here is my official opinion: "Stop buying companies for at least a year and spend the money to buy us some decent equipment and raise our pay." The other day I was denied the purchase of paperclips. Paperclips! Why? Because somehow my division had overpurchased office equipment. Not my fault. I haven't used anything other than a few pens (most of which have been lost in my recliner at home) and pads of paper. How are we supposed to "stay on top of innovations" when we have to beg for paperclips? So now I staple all documents together that would otherwise be paperclipped, and when it comes time to pull them apart, people will just have to deal with the little staple holes. If they ask why I can't produce neater copies for them without holes, I'll just tell them the hive mind told me to do it.
Monday, December 4, 2006
Speaking of Dilbert, here is the web address for the cartoonist, Scott Adams. He is the inspiration for me getting into the blog world. Read him for an excellent bit of witty insights into the world. I take him daily to cope with the real world, sort of like the Pepsid tablets sitting in my desk drawer:
Enjoy my blog, ye few who enter!