Friday, March 30, 2007

Big Talking Head Syndrome

I really hate it when the Big Talking Heads in upper management make snap decisions about projects. Inevitably it's me, or some other lab rat, who has to "make it happen", then we get screwed because the idea was half-assed, yet we are the ones tasked with making it work and get blamed if it doesn't. IF the idea actually works, guess who gets the credit. Not me.

I've seen several of these ideas in the years I've been at my current job. Here's how Big Talking Head Syndrome goes:

Step 1: The smooth-talking founder of a tiny startup biotech gets the ear of someone in upper management and convinces them that their niche product can cure cancer, regrow brain cells, make the blind see again, and bring world peace, all while making a million bucks a year for us.

Step 2: Upper Manager passes the buck to Business Manager, saying, "We've got a new break-through technology, and we're at the ground floor! Delegate it."

Step 3: Business Manager passes the buck to Middle Manager, saying, "I'm not sure what the business opportunity is here, but it must be good if The Boss says so. Do it."

Step 4: Middle manager passes the buck to Angry Lab Rat, saying, "I'm not sure what this technology is good for, but the business manager says Do It. So go make it happen."

Step 5: Angry Lab Rat says, "What the f*ck? Don't you realize we've got 50 other projects on our plate that are already behind schedule?"

Step 6: Middle Manager says, "Sorry, it came from the top. Try to squeeze it in. Oh, and it's top priority. Oh, and you still have to adhere to all your old deadlines for the other projects when they were deemed top priority. Come see me when you have results."

Of course, there's almost never any criteria for pass or fail for the new technology, no scope, no end date to the project, and no organized project plan. Big Talking Heads are apparently immune to the bureaucracy that hinders progress at my level. Eventually, almost all of these projects stretch on for months and months before they give up the ghost, unable to meet expectations. By then the folks at the top have gone on to chase other will-o'-wisps, while I still have a failed project on my record for my annual review. Those projects that actually "succeed" inevitably turn into a low-selling niche product that is discontinued after a few years.

I'm in the midst of one of those projects now. Some yahoos in a new biotech startup have invented a neat little technology. They got the ear of none other than the CEO of my evil global biotech company. The CEO passed it on to the business manager and my R&D director, who called a meeting with the yahoos. I was in that meeting. Admittedly it was a neat technology, and I did a quick analysis of it. After the meeting, I talked with the business manager. Though the technology was "neat", neither he nor I were able to see how the technology could in any way benefit our company. It wasn't the sort of thing we sold, and we couldn't think of a way it could be partnered with our products. Nonetheless, a couple weeks later, my middle manager and I were told by the director that I would be hosting the yahoos and training them how to use their own technology.

Yes, you read me right. They don't know how to use their own "amazing" technology, and I have to teach them. They've been getting suckers (like us) at various universities to do the analysis for them. So I've had to drop two days out of my exceedingly tight schedule to bring them to our site and show them how I do things. Unfortunately, I still have no clue how this is supposed to benefit us, or what, exactly, I'm supposed to be looking for. But when I raised the alarms with my manager, he shrugged and said, "Better do it, since it came from the CEO." This won't be the end of it, I'm certain.

I feel like I'm trying to play chess in the middle of a busy highway while someone at the top of a skyscraper a few blocks away broadcasts strategy tips to me with a megaphone.

The funny thing is that a year ago we instituted a whole new program management system, eliminating gobs of little projects like this one so we could focus on just a few, and requiring a great many hoops to jump through to get any new projects rolling, with complicated and lengthy business plans to justify it all. I can't tell you how many innovative ideas I and others have had that have lingered and died a slow death because lab rats like myself are too low on the totem pole to get through those hoops. Maybe some weren't good ideas, maybe some were "big hitters." We'll never know, since they never came up for debate or had time allocated for pilot experiments. And yet, like I said, Big Talking Heads are immune to this process.

Now, folks at the top are paid to see opportunities and move the company toward them. I can respect that. I can also respect how, at their level, they see more of the "big picture" than I do. But there's a right way and a wrong way to "make it happen." If, by chance, you are one of those Big Talking Heads, here's a word of advice: use Big Talking Head Syndrome only in rare cases which are sure to pay off, have a plan for its implementation, and communicate the plan down the ranks. Otherwise, just let me do my frickin' job.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Is The Company Logo Branded On My Ass, Or Am I Just Square?

A coworker of mine hurt herself while exercising yesterday. Today it hurts her worse, and there is some swelling. We think she pulled a muscle. She needs to go to a clinic or see her doctor, but despite urgings to do so from me and others, she hasn't gone and has continued working, including operating equipment that likely makes the wound worse. "Yeah, I should go," she said, "but I have all this work to do, and I have a meeting this afternoon."

"Why do you continue?" I asked. "Why are you so devoted to this place that you won't even attend to your personal health?" But then I followed this with a self-reminder that I have continuously sacrificed my own personal time and health (usually sleep) to come in late at night and on the weekends to try to catch up with work.

Answered my coworker: "The way I see it is I'm less likely to get fired this way."

I laughed, in a sad sort of way, like chuckling when you see some hapless guy on TV's Funniest Home Videos take a hit in the crotch when his kid misses a baseball and accidentally slams the bat into the family jewels.

Then she asked me why I devote myself to my work so much. I shrugged and replied: "I guess I do it out of an innate desire to innovate and an unquenchable scientific curiosity."

She gave me a shocked and horrified look and uttered: "Oh . . . my . . . god. That sounds like something you would find printed in the company's propaganda magazine."

Yes, I admitted, she was right. I shook my head in self-disappointment. Have I been at this so long I'm starting to talk in corporate-speak? Is my unconscious devotion to my work really that bad? I rushed to the bathroom mirror and check out my forehead. Luckily there is as yet no company logo stamped there above my uni-brow. Then I went to the logbook that shows who was at work after-hours and tallied up the time I'd spent there late at night and on weekends. I counted a total of 12.5 hours in the past month, usually between the hours of 9PM and 1AM. This doesn't count the hours that I came to work early or left late. And I plan to be there several hours tonight, too. I drooped my shoulders and stumbled back to my office, where data analysis awaited me.

I don't work out of a desire for promotion or raises (which are almost non-existent at my company), and getting fired or laid off actually sounds appealing in a weird way. Quitting would be "my fault" and would surely lead to my family living in a cardboard box, yet I'd love the chance to escape. So my coworker's excuse doesn't apply to me. But I must admit to giving in to some of the pressure from my boss. See my previous post on the subject of work hours (HERE).

No, I honestly believe what I said, even if it's in the words my HR department would use. I think any good scientist would feel the same. It's in our blood. Even if we were ditch-diggers we would experiment with the best grip on the shovel, measure the average shovel-fuls of dirt to reach optimum digging efficiency, or examine effects of digging the ditch on neighboring plant and animal species. As long as I am at my job, I will do the best I can – not for the sake of my boss or the welfare of my company, but out of a sincere desire to excel at what I do and to humor the little scientist within me (some would say he's a mad scientist, but he would respond that he is perfectly sane and the rest of the world is mad!). It's sort of like what Gandalf said about Gollum, in The Lord of The Rings. "He both loves and hates the ring, as he both loves and hates himself." Yes, my Precious, I both loves and hates my job. gollum. gollum.

So, yeah, innovation and curiosity are part of who I am, like so many great scientists and lab rats. Someone once said I had the mind of a genius. They're right. I keep it in a jar over my lab bench. (pic)

But would I stay here if I were wounded, instead of seeing a doctor. Hell, no! I know you're reading this, Coworker. Go see a frickin' doctor already!

UPDATE (3/30/07): I wound up going back to work that night from about 10:30PM until 4:15AM! Jesus Christ! When I told my boss about it, all he did was shrug and say, "Oh." No pat on the back for my devotion, no sir-ee-bob. gollum.... By the way, Coworker went to a medical clinic a couple hours after I posted. After several hours of waiting, they finally admitted her, confirmed it was probably a pulled muscle, told her to wear a padded brace where the injury was, and told her to come back if it didn't help.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

See The World Through Rose-Tinted Lenses, Or Any Other Color You Wish!

The other day I was talking with a couple co-workers in the hall as they were preparing to leave work. They put on their Transitions sunglasses and complained about how they weren't changing back and forth very well anymore from clear to dark. "Yeah," said one, "when they get about a year old they slow down in their change rate and it takes too long. They slow down when it gets cold, too."

At this point I remembered watching a sci-fi movie called The Man Who Fell To Earth, staring David Bowie. I wouldn't call the movie excellent, but it has a cult following. It's from Bowie's glam days, after all, back in 1976. Bowie plays an alien (no stretch there!) who has come to Earth in an effort to save his dying family, who waits for rescue back on his home planet. He fits into human society using a facial mask (decades before the Mission Impossible movies) and cosmetic contact lenses, and quickly becomes a wealthy entrepreneur by patenting inventions based on the technology of his home world. There were some interesting inventions in the story which have since come true: self-developing film, cosmetic contact lenses, music spheres (which play like CDs), and UV light-sensitive ("photochromic") sunglasses, like Transitions lenses. Bowie's character possesses a pair of these sunglasses. They protect his alien eyes against the harsh Earthly light, they allow him to see in other wavelengths, and, in the presence of sunlight OR at the press of a button, they turn from clear to dark or back again. I remember thinking how cool it would be to change at the touch of a button, and that we couldn't be technologically far from making it.

Now, once again, science fiction has become reality. In fact, it's even cooler:

A chemist named Chunye Xu and colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle's Center for Intelligent Materials and Systems have invented photoelectric glass coatings that, at the touch of a button, can go from clear to any color you wish in just a second. Need your glasses to match your teal pumps? No problem. Just dial in the appropriate electrical signal to get the right color and darkness. The coatings are made of special polymers, and come in red, blue, and green. Combinations of these polymers can make just about any color. The color change happens with the application of a very small electrical charge from a small battery and a gold/silicone actuator, or can be stimulated by pH, temperature, or light changes depending on the formulation. They have a number of patents. Go HERE for a short PowerPoint presentation of the physical details. This technology will also be developed for goggle lenses, face shields, aircraft windshields, and office windows.

Eyeglasses should be available within a couple years. I'll be waiting for my pair. Ooh, wouldn't it be wicked to have the color and darkness change rapidly, on purpose, shifting color every few seconds? Or have each lens a different color? I wonder if you could have the lenses vary in color and intensity across their face? Could you apply this technology to home windows, or church windows, or Christmas ornaments, or my friggin' aquarium? You could do all sorts of gimmicky things, I imagine.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Sweet Technology

Despite my admittedly bad eating habits, my wife and I do a really good job of making our kids eat healthily. We feed them mainly organic food, with as much vegetables and fruit we can get them to consume. We keep them away from processed food, and never give them fast food. We also limit the amount of sugar they consume – no colas or candy, and almost no desserts or even fruit juices. Of course, if you've read any of my blog, you know I'm a gluttonous freak when it comes to just about any food that's bad for me. Sooner or later the kids will catch on to my hypocrisy, but so far I'm in the clear. I've been known to munch cookies behind pantry doors, just out of my kids' sight. "What are you eating, Dada?" one may say. "Oh, nothing, son!" I reply, crumbs flying.

Tonight I and my family attended a little party to honor a friend of ours. There was no hiding, as folks all around us were shoving chocolate cake slathered with icing down their throats, and washing it down with punch. We finally gave in and fed a piece of cake to each of our adorably healthy children, but with the best of intentions we made them wash it down with water. Moments later, though, a friend innocently gave them some of that bright red punch to drink. We couldn't very well deny them what they had already started drinking. They wanted more. We were cruel and said no. Nonetheless, the amount of sugar they had consumed kick-started them into Nitro mode, and they spent the next hour running around the meeting room. Luckily, it was a beautiful day, and the same friend who gave them the punch paid penance by baby-sitting them on the lawn and running back and forth with them. After yet another half hour at a neighboring playground, the kids were about ready to crash land.

I thought to myself, "If only we could harness sugar in our technology the same way my kids do." Every living thing converts glucose into energy, after all.

Well imagine my surprise when I got back to my computer and read that my wish had come true:

Researchers at Saint Louis University in Missouri have developed a fuel cell battery that runs on virtually any sugar source. Their findings were described today at the 233rd national meeting of the American Chemical Society. That's right, sugar-holics like myself can now extend our addiction to our technology. The battery contains natural enzymes used to convert sugar into electricity, leaving only water as a byproduct. And it's all biodegradable, unlike metal batteries which contain heavy metals. Right now the researchers are testing a sugar-powered calculator battery, but intend to extend the technology to cell phones and even laptops and other portable electronics.

Oops, is your cell phone running out of "juice"? No problem, just inject a little flat soda into it (which I have on-hand at just about any moment, just as long as it isn't carbonated, which harms the charge). Out in the woods and can't power your iPod? Just find some tree sap. Camcorder battery low and you're at a party? Don't give the punch to your kids, put it in the camcorder instead. Any sugar source will work – really! Plain ol' sugar water is best, though.

Imagine the potential for economically-depressed areas, emergency situations, or military uses.

So some day you may be walking through the mall when your battery starts dying. Just walk up to your local vendor and say, "I'll take a Pepsi. Make it a medium size, please, and add a little extra for my cell phone." Just don't give any to my kids, or you'll be the one babysitting them for the next couple hours.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Alphabet Soup - Micro-Scale!

I can't remember when I first tried alphabet soup, but I'm sure I must have been thrilled. Here it is, food you can play with! Spell your name. Make up words with the letters in your spoon. Learn your alphabet. All at the same time! I'm sure I didn't really care that it was cheap, mass-produced pasta in chicken soup. My son, who is 2 ½, has pretty well learned the alphabet song and gotten a good hold on eating soup, so I think it's time to introduce him to alphabet soup, too. Besides, if he has some, it gives me a good excuse to eat it, too (sort of like getting to play with toys again. Yay!).

Now researchers have produced a different sort of alphabet soup, but not the sort you eat. Scientists at UCLA have used nanotechnology methods to produce tiny letters, too small to see with the naked eye, which can be visualized using microscopes:

What's really cool is they can make the letters in different fonts, and, using the miracle of fluorescence chemistry, make them glow in many different colors under certain light conditions. As written in the article, "The research will be published March 29 in the Journal of Physical Chemistry C, where it will be illustrated on the cover." Called "lithoparticles", these little letters are so small they can fit inside cells. Can you spell N-E-A-T-O? But it doesn't stop with letters. These chemists can make other shapes, including triangles, donuts, crosses, and others. One of their goals is to make complex "lock-and-key" systems useful for making nano-motors. In an apparent fit of Scrabble-fever, the researchers got cheeky and spelled out the name UCLA with the lithoparticles using laser tweezers (a nifty method of using lasers to manipulate tiny particles, cells, or tissue bits). Man, talk about geeky…. I wish I could play!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Lost Data

This morning I lost an electronic folder of data. That data took about a day's worth to collect, fighting all the while against hardware problems. This was followed by almost a day of fighting software glitches to analyze the data. There was a lot of moving around of files during the process of de-bugging those glitches, and somewhere along the way the entire file got moved or deleted.

I panicked a little. But, being the paranoid sort, I had a couple of temporary backups on other computers that I had not yet deleted. Whew! I restored a copy of the original files back where they belonged, with only a half hour of time lost.

Then around noon today I read on CNN how another technician had made a similar screw-up – and lost nine month's worth of data from about 800,000 files for the State of Alaska Department of Revenue:

Yes, this technician, who remains unnamed, was doing some routine reformatting of government hard drives last July. Unfortunately, this person erased all the information on the drive that determined oil revenue money going to all Alaskans, one of Alaska's biggest perks to its citizens. Then the tech accidentally deleted the backup hard drive. Oops. But wait, they had a second backup! But when they went to that one, the files had somehow been corrupted and rendered unreadable! Data retrieval attempts by Microsoft and Dell failed.

Now, I would love to get a peek into this technician's brain at that point, just for the sake of morbid curiosity, as they stood there wide-eyed and mouth open staring down at the corrupted hard drive and the two erased hard drives which HAD contained data for $38 BILLION worth of revenue allotments. Yes, BILLION with a capital B! Can we say, "Oh, f*ck!" Somehow I don't think they were thinking about the next episode of "Lost!". More likely they were wondering if they would be allowed enough time to grab their office plants before they were escorted out of the building.

What followed was about four months of manic data-re-entry from the original paperwork, stored in 300 cardboard boxes. Half a dozen seasonal workers were re-hired for the purpose, and 70 employees worked weekends and overtime, at a cost of $220,000. Much to their credit, nearly all refunds went out on time. Interestingly, no one was fired over the incident, and there apparently hasn't been any public finger-pointing, but I doubt one particular technician will be getting their bonus this year.

This brings me to a somewhat related topic. Isn't it interesting that, for sheer reliability, you just can't replace paper with electronic files? I mean, in two thousand years, when the next "Dead Sea Scrolls" are pulled out of some office filing cabinet, do you think they'll be on a computer disk, or on reams of paper? I'd put my vote on paper. Hell, I can't read the disks I saved 10 years ago with my Mac Classic, and the fools up in Alaska couldn't read a backup drive that wasn't even a year old. Paper deteriorates, too, but even cheap newsprint is still around from hundreds of years ago. Even if we invent some super-hardy storage device, what are the chances the computer hardware and software will still be accessible to read it? With paper, all you need is your eyes.

Well, back to analyzing my data. Hmm. Now where did I save my restored copy, again?….

Monday, March 19, 2007

Cocoa For Life

If you've read this blog at all, you know I'm not exactly Richard Simmons when it comes to my food choices and activity level (but then, who really wants to be Richard Simmons!). Just this morning I ordered a hot Chai tea. The barista asked: "Would you like this with non-fat milk?" "No," I replied, "I'll take all the fat. Do you have whole milk?" She nodded, but then said with a gleam in her eye, "We also have half-and-half." "Half-and-half it is!" I replied. Ah, foamy goodness! Some day my arteries will finish clogging and I'll kick the bucket, but it'll be a milk bucket, by gum!

Yes, when it comes to food I'm a glutton. Give me all the fat, sugar, caffeine, and assorted other goblins of the food industry. Preservatives and artificial flavors? Sure, bring 'em on, my gut can take it.

So when I see studies that show actual benefits from what is typically considered to be "trash" foods, I make a point of sharing it with all of you. Spread the news, I say, and let's party together. Lump into this category stories like the health benefits of caffeine and caffeinated drinks like coffee, as well as red wine, and red meat (re: Atkins diet).

Now we can add chocolate to that list. A study came out in the last month which shows strong health benefits of cocoa:

Story, with links to journal abstracts:

The study compared the Kuna Indians living on the San Blas islands of Panama to a similar population on the Panamanian mainland. Members on the mainland died from typical rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes (83, 68, and 24 people, respectively, per 1000), while the Kuna were far less likely to die of these diseases (9, 4, and 6 people per 1000). Why? One thing that was different between the two populations was that the Kuna drink a remarkable 40 cups of hot chocolate a day! But this isn't Swiss Miss cocoa. This is a lightly-processed cocoa, which still contains all the flavinoids. Flavinoids are natural antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables, and it turns out cocoa is one of the richest sources, particularly of a flavinoid called epicatechin. The authors of the study carefully investigated this, first performing population studies, then confirming the benefits of that particular flavinoid on artery function. One author actually goes so far as to suggest epicatechin be reclassified as a vitamin.

So should I run out and munch on a handful of Hershey's bars each day? No, sadly, since the chocolate processing takes out most of the flavinoids. I might die happy, but piano-sized caskets are hard to come by. Already food companies are looking into this study to make healthier products. You'd better believe I've got my eyes (and mouth) open and waiting for their appearance.

In the meantime, perhaps I should at least go with regular milk in my Chai tea, eh?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Hot Ice

Riddle me this: How do you make ordinary water turn to ice while heating it above the boiling point?

It's all about pressure. At 0 degrees Celsius (or 32 degrees Fahrenheit, for you American, non-science types), water freezes to ice, but if you increase the atmospheric pressure, even a little, it melts back to a liquid. Increase the pressure a great deal, and it turns into ice again, but not the same sort of ice you're used to.

Take the planet Neptune, for instance. If you were to teleport a glass of water into its atmosphere, that water would suddenly be exposed to very high pressures, above 70,000 Pascals. At that pressure, it is more thermodynamic for water molecules to go to a close-packing arrangement, forming ice, even at high temperatures. Under these conditions, it only takes nanoseconds for the ice to form. This was recently demonstrated using the Z machine at Sandia National Laboratory:

The Z Machine was built and has been maintained by the Department of Energy for experiments on nuclear fusion. It can produce temperatures greater than the sun and magnetic rays comparable to neutron stars. How would you like to be technicians working on that rig? And to think their moms scolded them for standing too close to the TV! When fired in its usual configuration, Z releases in X-rays, for a fraction of a second, about 80 times the entire Earth’s electrical generating capacity. You can find out more about this gigantic machine HERE. The Z machine made ice by passing electric pulses of twenty million amperes through an aluminum container containing water. The magnetic field created by these pulses created a pressure of more than 70,000 atmospheres, forming ice at that pressure level, even though the temperature was hotter than boiling water. That will give you one hell of a headache!

What really blows my mind is that there are many forms of ice. Thirteen found so far, depending the temperature and pressure. Each form has its own lattice structure and thermodynamic properties. For instance, the sort of ice we are familiar with expands when it freezes, but all the other forms contract. The ice created by the Z machine is called "Ice VII". When you go home at night and have a refreshing glass of your favorite beverage, the ice you hear clinking around is what physicists call "Ice Ih". But if you increase the atmospheric pressure, the ice will melt back to a liquid. If you continue to exert more pressure, the liquid will freeze to a solid again, but this time it will be "Ice VI". Increase the pressure even more, and you get "Ice VII". HERE is a link to a page with an interactive graph showing all these different forms of ice and their temperature and pressure conditions, including notes on where these conditions match the ambient conditions of Earth, Mars, and Venus, with links to further information on each kind of ice.

Even though it is considered a gas giant, the center two-thirds of Neptune is solid, including water, and there is water in the considerably thick, gaseous atmosphere around the planet. You'll find two different water ices there, Ice II and Ice VI.

Of course, you'll never get the pleasure of cooling your drink or making Sno-cones out of these different types of ice, since in order to do so you would have to be willing to be frozen to death or crushed under incredible pressures, and you would either burn off or freeze off the insides of your mouth!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sleep Problems, Part II

I'm not a "morning person." Even on the best of work days, getting me out of bed takes a force of willpower comparable to running into a burning building. I've always been that way, even as a boy. I would stumble out of my bedroom in the mornings, skipping breakfast so I could get an extra ten minutes on the pillow, running late to catch the school bus at the last possible minute. I doubt I got many A's in the first-period classes. Still, no matter how much caffeine I pump into myself, I don't *really* wake up until about 10:30. I've also always been a "night owl," staying up 'til midnight or later. Unless I'm sick or totally exhausted (which happens more often now that I have kids), I simply can't fall asleep before 11PM, no matter how hard I try. It's my natural rhythm. Being sleep-deprived with kids has only heightened my morning pain. I'm certain when I finally croak it's going to be after trying to get up one early morning.

There have been times in my life when I've tried to change. Our society isn't very tolerant of night-owls / late-sleepers like me, viewing us as lazy for sleeping in, and as disorganized or party-crazy for staying up at night, no matter how much we do during the day. I had an agricultural science job for a little over a month, many years ago, where I had to get up while it was still dark, commute about 45 minutes, and report for work at the break of dawn. I tried very, very hard to change, going to bed by around 9:30PM whether I was tired or not, taking cold showers in the morning to wake up, and quaffing a higher-than-usual volume of caffeine. Have you ever seen "The Return of the Living Dead", where rag-dressed zombies shamble after hapless yet incredibly slow victims, arms outstretched and muttering, "Brains…."? Now take one of those zombies and put them in a field full of strawberries and fruit trees. That was me.

Can you tell I'm having trouble adjusting to the new time change?

In an interesting coincidence, many years back I landed in a doctoral program studying circadian rhythms of insects (a "circadian rhythm" is the scientific term for natural day-night cycles for animal behavior and physiology). To do this, I dissected about a zillion fruit flies under a dissecting microscope, pulling them apart with very fine forceps and teasing out their organs (Yes, the flies were usually alive when I did this. There is sure to be some sort of karmic retribution waiting for me. Any day now a thick swarm of fruit flies will descend on me and eat me like a gigantic banana, their natural prey). Anyhow, part of my studies was to examine the role of a gene called period (named for its periodic cycle of expression through the course of a day). This was also the only job I've ever had where I could choose my own hours – not unusual for academics. I usually wandered in around 10AM, worked until around 5PM, then came back in the late evenings for two or three more hours of work. I loved it (the work, that is. I can't say the same about the manic scientist who ran the lab and was my doctoral advisor), but I couldn't make a living on the meager earnings of a grad student and had to get a "real job."

Now it all comes full circle. Like so many other conditions related to our health and behavior, science has now linked my "night owl" circadian rhythm to my genes, even when it comes to effects of sleep deprivation (such as children crying in the middle of the night for, oh, two and half years). Molecular biologists and psychologists have been able to link human circadian rhythm to genes in humans which are analogues of the genes I studied in fruit flies, including period. One, in humans, is called period3, which comes in a "long" form and a "short" form, and has been shown to play a role in determining if humans are "larks" or "owls". The study to be published in the next issue of Current Biology demonstrates the role of this gene in the effects of sleep deprivation:


The journal abstract, for you science-types: HERE

Apparently, my period3 is "long" (No, I'm not menstruating). According to the article, "individuals with the longer variant of the gene performed very poorly on tests for attention and working memory [in the early morning hours]. Cognitive Psychologist Professor John Groeger, says: 'the early morning performance problems of those with the long variant have important implications for safety and efficiency at work.'" Those with the short form of the gene performed well.

So there ya go. I haven't been tested, but I'll bet I'm "genetically challenged," at least in the early morning. So if I come to work looking dreary-eyed and you try to bug me, I'm going to hold up may hand and snarl, "Talk to the genes!" then continue on my way to my morning dose of caffeine.

Now get some sleep!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Sleep Problems, Part I

Come, Sleep; O Sleep! the certain knot of peace.
The baiting-place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man's wealth, the prisoner's release…

-- excerpt from "Sleep", by Sir Philip Sidney

Ah, Sleep! Without it the "knot of peace" becomes a knot in my back. Trust me. It hurts.

I get too little of the "balm of woe" these days. We really can't get much done while the kids are awake, so I spend late hours most nights catching up with things. Sometimes I even go in to work. If we want to relax and decompress, it happens in that time, too, typically with a movie or TV show. Usually I'm up until midnight or 1 AM. The kids still wake up most nights, too. Since I'm the one most likely to hear them, I'm the one most likely to get up and soothe them back to sleep. I'm f*ckin' tired. Maybe I should just sleep at work.

A couple of studies were released last week regarding sleep. The first one, from the Journal of Family Psychology and a researcher named Boergers, shows that children with sleep problems negatively affect the sleep patterns of their parents:

Boergers found that parents with sleepless children are more likely to have daytime drowsiness, more likely to be impatient with their children or spouse, and be less productive at work and home.

Really?? Let us please pause a moment to tilt our heads, take a deep breath, then utter a deep and sarcastic DUHHH! I rate this study right up there with the one that found people who go to bars with country music are more likely to be depressed. Come on! Is this what our government money is funding these days, stupid ass studies to confirm that parents with sleepless kids are friggin' zombies? Hey, Boergers, here's a sleep study for ya: Does standing over you while banging cymbals and screaming the Star Spangled Banner keep you awake at night? How can you be sure? I think you should commission a study and let me help!

Friday, March 9, 2007

The Beer Launcher

Need experience catching metallic, flying projectiles? Afraid to miss even a minute of Desperate Housewives? Thirsty for a beer, but that long walk from the couch to the kitchen gets you down? Well fling those blues away! Now you, too, can enjoy the simple delight of the Beer Launcher:



Official website:

Command your new robotic frig to toss a beer from up to 20 feet away. Your can of carbonated brew will be lifted from the cool insides of a mini-frig, rolled off of a loaded magazine into a throwing arm, and catapulted right to your waiting hands. Quench your thirst, wow your friends, and get stinking drunk, all while sitting on your ass in the comfort of your La-Z-Boy.

But wait, there's more! Order in the next 10 minutes and you'll also receive a remote-control keychain. With the click of a button, this modified car-fob commands your Beer Launcher to load a deliciously cold beverage, adjust the angle and direction of the launching arm, and lob a 12 oz elixir to you and your pals. Fire! Pop. Fizz. Glug glug. Ah!!! Airborne alcohol never tasted so good!

Order now!

Wednesday, March 7, 2007


Isaac Asimov is one of my favorite authors. If you're not familiar with him, he's one of the "big three" science fiction writers (along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein). Asimov is the Jewish-Russian-American with the massive sideburns, who died back in the '90s. He's a fascinating guy, and one of my heroes. He wrote or edited over 500 books in every category of the Dewey Decimal System except for philosophy, was a vice president of the MENSA organization, and was an accomplished biochemistry professor.

One of the things he is best known for in the sci-fi community is his Robot series of stories, almost all of which seem to revolve around the same basic concept: his Three Laws of Robotics. Every robot in his fictional, futuristic universe was programmed with these laws, the purpose of which was to keep robots from running amok and harming humans. Here are his Three Laws:

1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Most of Asimov's Robot short stories seemed to revolve around the gray areas not quite clearly defined by these laws (such as, What if harming one human would save the rest of humanity?). For decades, as robots have become more advanced, I've heard again and again how roboticists have planned on implementing these laws.

In yet another example of fiction becoming reality, now some Roboticists in South Korea, and soon in Europe, will use Asimov's three laws as a basis for real-life "robot ethics":

Asimov would be proud.

Last September, South Korea designed a gun-wielding robot to help guard the de-militarized zone. At the same time, that country's robot designers are preparing for a boom in senior citizens who need round-the-clock care – by robots. As these robots become "smarter" and able to blast you away in the tiny fraction of a second of computing time, or inadvertently squeeze the life out of your all-important feeding tube, it's time to think about robotic "morals."

Fine. Go ahead and ruin my hopes for a world as chaotic and interesting as in Robocop II or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Given the problems I've faced lately with my sh*tty work computers, I'm getting used to computers running amok. Simply freezing while I'm analyzing my data is too boring. I want it to threaten my frickin' life! Hey, you wanna piece of me, Mr. fussy Intel computer? Well bring it on! You haven't got the Three Laws! I've got a magnet with your name on it!

Now if only we could apply Asimov's Three Laws to humans….

Monday, March 5, 2007

Get To Work, You Slacker!

People want more for less. I think it's a conserved trait for all humanity. Let's face it, most of us are cheap bastards.

Bosses are no exception. When you're a boss under pressure to produce more in the same amount of time and with the same number of workers, the immediate inclination is to ask your salaried workers to put in more time. I think most of us in white collar work give in to the pressure. Work later, come in at night, come in on the weekend, take work home with you, don't take breaks, work while you eat lunch, or don't eat lunch at all. Why do we put ourselves through this when we could be happier pursuing more rewarding life choices, like going home and watching "Dancing with the Stars" from your beaten-up recliner while eating Haagen-Dazs? Some of us might be fired if we didn't work extra, but I think it's more about the mindset that if you just give in a little more to the boss's urgings you'll be that much more likely to get that extra raise, promotion, or other recognition. To some extent it may be true, but more and more I get the feeling that extra recognition amounts to nothing more impressive than having a smiley-sticker put on your class essay.

I admit to giving in to "boss pressure." Recently my boss and I had a huge project dumped on us from above with a totally unreasonable deadline on it. Instead of pointing out the obvious stupidity of the deadline and the fact that we would be unable to do any of our other work in that timeframe, my boss gave in to The Big Talking Heads and sheepishly agreed to do it. Now I'm stuck with much of the load. So, being an obedient worker bee, I came in last Saturday to do a lab experiment, when I could have taken the kids to the park on that gloriously sunny day. After three hours of work, I realized I had made a mistake at the beginning and had to start over again. Damn! I came back later, at about 9:30PM and worked until almost 2AM. Sadly, these sorts of hours are not uncommon for me (though it isn't usually due to stupid mistakes on my part), but do I ever get a pat on the back for it? Hell no. It just sets the bar higher for my boss's expectations of me. I'm fairly certain I'll be here a couple more nights this week. Before long I may wind up like one of my coworkers who works constantly. He even takes his laptop with him when he camps so he "doesn't fall behind."

In a fit of depression and work-place burnout, I went to the website, where you can find hilarious (yet sad at the same time!) parodies of those stupid motivational posters you find hanging in work spaces. You can even make your own. I've attached a picture of the one I made for myself using their "make your own" webpage.

Yet, despite all this, be glad you aren't a worker in pre-1940's America. According to one study (HERE), Workers in the early part of the 1900's were expected to work as much as 60 hours a week, up to 6 days a week. In the 1880's, it was even higher, at as much as 70 hours a week. The downward trend in hours worked a week may have been due to increases in workplace efficiency due to emerging technology, but the downward trend was halted at 40 hours a week by Congress and FDR, for better or worse for the average worker, in the name of stimulating our economy.

Average work hours per week are slowly increasing again, and working stiffs like me are feeling the pressure. HERE is an excellent report on some of the depressing statistics about work/life balance (Example: "The typical middle income married couple works 3,885 hours per year, an increase of 247 hours or nearly one week more than their counterparts ten years ago."). That work/life imbalance forces us to try to fit our personal lives around the longer work hours, such as making personal calls from work, taking lunch breaks to run simple errands, or necessary web surfing (I have grown very fond of browsing my NetFlix account from work, for instance). Some companies actually hire concierge services and such, in the incredible belief that saving their employees' time keeps them at work. Ptah! Weaklings!

Yeah, I know, you're reading this at work, aren't you? Get to work, you slacker! And I'd better see you at your desk this weekend, too!

Saturday, March 3, 2007


Tired of that unsightly grime around the house, but Swiffer dusters and dust rags leave you feeling dirty? Can't remove stubborn road filth from your car wheels? Worried about the radioactive uranium dust lying around your lab? Well fear no more! Now even microscopic dust particles are no match for the "Negligible-Residue Non-tacky Tack Cloth":

Patent: HERE

Yes, this cleaning marvel even wipes up particles too small for your eyes to see, leaving a sparkling, streak-free surface you can be proud of! Developed by a nuclear lab researcher for cleaning up radioactive beryllium particles, it picks up metal, ceramic, plastic, fibers, and radiological contaminants. Do chronic respiratory problems and cancer from radiological contaminants get you down? Simply use these cloths to rub away your problems! Wipe down your semiconductor clean room, polish up those titanium golf clubs, or clean up brake dust from your car, all without needing additional cleaners. Simply "Use dry, rub hard," and your cleaning worries are wiped away! Order now!

Friday, March 2, 2007

Stephen Hawking Is Going Weightless

Yes! In one of my posts back in December, I reported how the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, after receiving the Royal Society Copley Award, had expressed a profound interest in going to space. Now he's going to get his chance:

First, on April 26, he's getting a free flight on one of those "vomit comet" flights where they take you up and down at sharp angles such that, during the downward flights, you experience about half a minute of weightlessness. Hosted by a company called Zero Gravity Corp. in Florida, the flight has a value of $3750, and will afterward auction off a couple seats from the flight.

Then, Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic company will give Hawking a free suborbital flight to outer space on their spaceship (to be completed in 2009), at a value of $200,000.

Man! Can't you just see the gangly, nearly completely paralyzed Hawking floating around in zero-G, sans wheelchair (or even with wheelchair)? I can hear his synthesized voice going, "Wow . . this . . is . . totally . . rad." And I guess this will make him the first physically handicapped person to go into space.

And kudos to Zero Gravity Corp and Sir Branson! But then, how could they possibly refuse the greatest physicist of all time, gravity theorist extraordinaire?

UPDATED (4/27/07): Hawking took his ride, and went weightless, and loved it. See more recent post:

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Get Your Fiber From Coffee

Ummm! I love the smell of coffee wafting through the morning-time hallways as dreary-eyed employees mumble and bump their way zombie-like through the labs and offices. After a couple cups, they're wide-eyed and ready to make millions for the company again. One "perky" fellow I know practically lives on the stuff. A self-confessed "coffee snob," he drinks this super-concentrated stuff called "cold extract coffee" which is probably the closest thing to legal speed a person could find. Juan Valdez and his mule Conchita must be so proud!

Sadly, I cannot share in this passion, as I find the taste too bitter, even with loads of sugar and milk. My caffeine intake is primarily Pepsi. A shame, since I live in the Great Northwest where coffee rules supreme and every street corner seems to have an espresso kiosk. If the Northwest could have a statue of it's patron god, it would surely be a gigantic figure of Kurt Cobain holding an over-sized coffee bean, in Seattle, of course. Dancing fountains of Java would shoot out of golden espresso nozzles into crystal coffee pots.

Sure, coffee and its caffeine content can have some potential bad side effects, like keeping you up at night, mild hypertension, or shaking hands, but all the medical studies have pointed to far more beneficial aspects, mostly due to the caffeine and antioxidant content. This wondrous list of studied effects include: lower risk of diabetes, Parkinson's, liver cirrhosis, colon cancer, and even cavities. Your mood is elevated, thus an aid against depression. By drinking it, you can treat headaches, manage asthma, increase your energy level, and improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism.

A recent study has added a new, beneficial side effect: Fiber!

Yes, all you mocha drinkers, now you can sip away (or gulp if you dare) as much as your little nerves can take, because brewed coffee has been found to have more fiber per volume than other common drinks, including wine or even orange juice (somehow I don't think Metamucil was compared), at 1.8 grams per cup. I did a little math. The recommended daily allowance of fiber for most adult men is 38 grams. For most adult women it is 25 grams. That means that a cup of coffee contains 4.7% or 7.2% of your daily allowance, that's 21 cups for men or 14 cups for women a day to reach 100%.

So drink up, me hardies, and give a toast of the ol' bean to your health! Even your colon will thank you!