Thursday, June 29, 2006

Best. Polka & Western. Ever.

Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen sailed into town at dusk, so I headed off to the Polish club for the circus. For those of you unfamiliar with the winter Canberra cabaret scene, the Black Sea Gentlemen are high weirdness of the finest kind. Talented musicians, brilliant lyricists, comic actors, and great performers, they are probably my favorite unplugged troupe between here and Salvador da Bahia. So if you’ve never experienced the urge to dance on a table to a cheery ballad of unrequited cannibalism, check them out.

On invisible wings
Even fools can fly
For dreams are made of water
And clouds are made of sky

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Anyone incipient librarians out there?

So, the top dog of our lab had a meeting with all of us under-rodents on Monday. One thing he wants done is a compilation of all the papers ever written with data that came out of our machine. When faced with tasks like this, I generally turn to my most trusted method of literature searching; I ask someone clueful. Unfortunately that option is not available right now.

In an ideal research community, this task would be simple. Journal publishers, eager to compete with each other to have the most user-friendly publications, would cross-reference and meta-label everything useful. In this publication paradise, one could search papers by author, or by sample locale, or by standards or constant values used.

In reality, such a system may well exist. But if it does, it is almost certainly owned by Elsevier, and they grant access only to those willing to donate their left testicle, with all subsidiary, genetic and IP rights that would ordinarily be attached (Could this explain the dearth of women in science?).

So if anyone can think of a less emasculating way to do this sort of literature search, my unborn children would appreciate it. In the mean time, I’ll try the personably technophobic method of asking everyone on the booking sheet (yes, we still schedule on paper) for reprints, and hope that the data pirates are not a statistically meaningful subset of the publication base.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Tip for Advisors

Here’s a Sunday evening tip for all those academic advisors out there. Don’t guilt trip your students.

This was originally going to be a post about a particular subclass of advisors who do almost none of their own lab work but razz their students about inefficient use of experimental resources. But as I thought about it, I realized that arguing against guilt-tripping in a particular instance could imply acceptance of the practice in a general sense. And the more I think about it, the more it seems like a bad idea in all situations.

First of all, Ph.D. students are generally fairly guilt-wracked to begin with. Undergraduate and masters work generally does not prepare them for the amount of screwing up and confusion that occurs in the practice of cutting edge science, and they often feel that it is their fault that the scientific world that unfolds so smoothly in textbooks is such a mess when they try to extend the bounds of knowledge.

If a student is arrogant and in need of cutting down to size, the best way to do this is to give them an appropriately difficult research project. And on the off chance that they knock it off stylishly without difficulties, as their advisor you will probably at least get a last authorship on their Nobel Prize-winning write-up.

Secondly, there are very few scientific, personal, or organizational problems that guilt-tripping can solve. And as the wet chemists say, if you haven’t been dissolved, you’re part of the problem. Before initiating a guilt-inducing protocol, look at your procedural design and determine if the problem you are attempting to solve is actually sensitive to the guilt variable. Chances are, the ideal solution will involve increased communication, not guilt. Most labs have a negative correlation between the guilt and communication variables.

And finally, if a student does need to be guilt-tripped, delegate the task to your technical staff. We are just so much more effective at it.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Rest in Peace, Harriet.

According to the ABC, Harriet the Tortoise died last night, aged 176. Harriet originally arrived in Brisbane in the 1860’s via England, after being captured as a young tortoise in the Galapagos Islands. It has been claimed that she was one of the three Galapagos tortoises brought back to England by Charles Darwin from his famous Beagle voyage. However, genetic tests do not support this claim.

Mrs. Lemming and I were saddened to hear this news. We had both been hoping to visit Harriet the next time we were in Queensland. After all, everything else from the Beagle voyage died years ago, and any surviving objects are probably moldering away in a British museum somewhere. Our last Brisbane trip got cut short when I sprained my neck in the Gold Coast surf, so we didn’t manage to get to the zoo then.

But when a tortoise lives for well over 150 years, it is hard to develop a sense of urgency. It is easy to take her existence for granted, and assume that she’ll always be there. And now it’s too late to do anything about it.

Mind you, we’ve made this mistake before. In August 2001, I took Mrs. Lemming (still only my girlfriend way back then) to New York. It was a sweltering, muggy day, with summer haze reducing the visibility to just a few miles. Our original plan was to head up the World Trade Center after Ellis Island, but we decided to postpone the trip until she came back to the US for Christmas. “The visibility is much better in winter,” I said, “And besides, the skyscrapers aren’t going anywhere.”

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A sad day for the handpicking lab

Ashes to bentonite, dust to shale.

Our trusty old single haired brush has become a bristle-free stick. At least I got to go browse through an art store on the company dime. Although I must say, I’m not convinced that the poor guy at the counter understood exactly what I wanted. At least he wasn’t snotty about me buying paintbrushes just to cut the bristles off. And the new one seems to work reasonably well. Still, it is sad when a trusty old tool, even one as improvised as this, finally wears out.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Some things aren't meant to fly

Every now and then, a client asks if the best way to ship samples is in vials full of ethanol. The answer is no. Ethanol is a volitile, flammable liquid. It should never be mailed for any reason, and doing so is against the law in most countries. Ditto for acetone. Trouble is, scientists are so often concerned about the effect of flight on their samples that they forget to consider the effect of samples on flight.

It turns out that sending samples in ethanol is bad for the samples too, but that's beside the point.

Ethanol should not be mailed. Period.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

I shot Mars with a laser beam!

OK, so it wasn't the entire planet I hit, it was just a thin slice of a shergottite. And the laser only made a crater 54 microns wide, and 20 deep. But it was still pretty cool. I just hope the data turn out well.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A slow day in the Cambrian

If I earn my living by dating minerals for whomever wants my number, does that make me some sort of paleoprostitute? I hope not. I like to think of my chosen career path as a lifestyle choice, a way of liberating myself from the patriarchal oppression of grant application and troughside C.V. measuring contests. But days like today make me wonder. I spent most of the morning slumming it in the Cambrian. I’m not a big fan of the Cambrian; studying it is like trying to understand contemporary German history by starting with November 12, 1989. There’s a lot of rubbish and hungover fossils lying around, but the big event has already started to subside. Besides, the dates for the Cambrian have changed so many times in the past 20 years that I’m not even sure that’s where I was. I might have been trying to celebrate the fall of the wall in Hamburg. Or Paris.

On the other hand, it is hard to complain about what I am doing now when I don’t have any sort of alternative career goal to turning radiometric tricks. I’d have to actually get up off my ass, think up a research project, and get back on the research treadmill to nowhere. I’d probably also have to move halfway around the planet to take up whatever position I managed to find. And then repeat, lather, rinse for the next ten million years. It is just so much easier to lie on my back, close my eyes, and think of Cambria. Or Devon. Or the land of the Silures and Ordovices.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Ten things I hate about renovating.

10. Disconnecting the heating system during the first hard frost of autumn.
9. Cooking with a camp stove and microwave for two months.
8. Asbestos.
7. Eating breakfast in the -4 degree “sun” room before dawn.
6. The inability to do anything other than paint, plaster, saw, work, and sleep.
5. Going into work at 5:30 am so I can have the machine warmed up and tuned in time to dash home and liaise with tradesmen for an hour.
4. The credit card and mortgage withdrawal statements.
3. Plumbers who, before the first rains of winter, fail to seal the roof when installing a new flue above the brand new joinery.
2. Rules. Regulations, codes, standards, statutes, protocols, laws, and permits.
1. Fighting with Mrs. Lemming over trivial details that I wouldn’t even notice in anybody else’s house.

Friday, June 02, 2006

And I thought “Nanny Government” was just an expression

Today the Australian federal government has announced a plan to electronically track every Australian child in day care. I guess their idea is that if you want to impose a New World Order, you might as well catch ‘em young. The scheme, reported here, will require every parent or guardian to clock his or her child into and out of day care using either a swipe card or a PIN number. Parents will not be allowed to pick their children up without this computerized approval.

What practical effects does this have? First of all, the government, simply by deleting the access data, can prevent parents from legally collecting their child. In the mid-20th century, the Australian government confiscated thousands of aboriginal children. Now it can take babies of all race and ethnic backgrounds. Think of it as a bold stroke against racism.

Of course, the real purpose of this system is to create a cyber-Mecca for pedophiles. By breaking into this system, a would-be abuser would have access to the daily routine of every child in the country. The government is creating, at taxpayer expense, the perfect electronic resource for kidnappers, sex-offenders, and other perverts.

The government’s cover story? The system will prevent child-care subsidy fraud.

The opposition’s response? We think this might be too expensive, and a burden on parents.

What planet am I on?