Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Eyes Have It

Homebrew tells an important message to all you kids out there on safety and why only European hockey players wear visors (I added that last little bit for the Canadians out there).

He also posted an extreme close-up of his left eye which got me to thinking that eyes tell alot about a person without actually revealing their identity.

So I changed my profile picture to my eye for at least a day or so to see if the other anonymous bloggers jump on the bandwagon. I do not want to wander into naturopathy and other fringe pseudo-sciences but the eyes do tell a story.

Just for the record I wore prescription safety glasses under a full face faceshield for most of my graduate work (I can still see the column of flame shoot out from a reaction tube I was sealing and feel it hit my faceshield and then wrap around my head, I should have kept that faceshield to scare undergraduates). As a lab instructor my students all wear face-fitting safety goggles and I have a rule of no contacts and an instant grade of 0 in the lab if a students takes a phone call or text message. My heart goes out to those students that get contact dermatitis from the goggles but I don't see any really good options beyond prescription glasses like I wore.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Science Sells: Blue Rage Bullet

One more set of marks to compile and a meeting with the Biology Department and my time is mine to manage. Of course the lab is a tip, I am teaching Biochemistry after the break and my old text is no longer available so I will have to use a new text etc. , etc. etc. By the way, has anyone noticed that the students seem a bit dimmer than usual this year?

Anyway, in the name of work avoidance I have given into something that I have noticed now and then in the last little while. Items that are sold or merchandised using either science itself or the icons of science.

This was highlighted in my mind recently by a second year student who had just won a class assignment contest and I announced that as a prize she could pick out any piece of standard lab glass to have for her own. Now in the past when I have done this students had tended towards beakers (candy dishes, pencil holder) and graduated cylinders (bud vases, window decorations) but this young woman announced that a beaker wasn't "Sciency" and her selection was an Erlenmeyer flask. In my opinion that fits with the idea that an E-flask a higher level icon for science than a beaker. Just by it's shape alone pretty much everyone identifies an E-flask as relating to science.

Now science has been used in the past and currently to sell things. It seems that the cosmetics industry is constantly going through a science / anti-science cycle where one year the hair molecules are scientifically matched to the the amino acid balance in the hair dye and then the next year only ingredients squeezed from some rare root by artesimal means (never touched by a scientist!) are used.

This is what caught my eye recently:Now I have to admit that as symbols and icons go it is indeed possible that there is a much higher level symbol being used to sell this energy drink. But then again isn't that one of the endearing things about the test tube ... just the sheer ... manliness ... of the object?

Anyway, the good people of iSatori who make Blue Rage Hardcore Energize Bullet describe the drink as contained in a "vial" (just like a mad scientist potion). Not only that they say that the container is "virtually unbreakable".
A quick look at the ingredient list tells us that the caffeine dose in the "vial" is 300 mg. Now the amount of caffeine in a cup of commercial drip coffee is about 100 mg so this this pretty much the same caffeine load as two large coffees. The rest of the ingredient list seems relatively unremarkable.
I have to comment on the iSatori website. Could someone please explain to me where the young lady has her right hand and does it have anything to do with the shape of the "virtually unbreakable" container of Blue Rage Hardcore Energize Bullet?

I gotta go finish my marking. Take care people, have a blessed break and I hope the New Year is a good one for you. The economists all say that if you didn't have any investments to lose in the first place and if you keep your job through this period that the financial meltdown should have a pretty low impact on your life. That is my prayer.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Maybe You Have to be American

I was reading "Canada's National Newspaper" The Globe and Mail today and there was this add encouraging Canadians to join the medical research community in Miami. Now the add sort of stuck out to me because it seemed to look so awkward and uncomfortable. It looks like a bad add you would see in Chemical and Engineering News. I mean they obviously have played the diversity card as far as they can (they do not have anyone with a visible disability but if you have watched any action movies from the past two decades you recognize the hairstyle of the white dude as hiding pure distilled and repressed evil). The fact that they are all standing to a kind of smug attention and the guys are all wearing ties (half Windsor knots I would say all tied by the same wardrobe chick) suggests the sort of fixed stock actor assembly.

That said, I went to their website and found pretty much the symmetry opposite picture and not much more. Does anyone know these people? Would anyone want to work with any of these people? Is it just me or does the white guy seem to be standing separate from the non-whites. What kind of message is this? Is it a "yeah we work with the white dude but there are more of us than him so when that evil haircut takes over we will take him down" message or a "come to Miami and you can work NEAR minorities but not WITH them (if you know what I mean)"

And then there is the badly arranged display of "scientific" equipment. Who advises these people? Why couldn't they have gone to a real lab with real people and photoshopped in the palm trees and water?

On the other hand the Asian guy has a clipboard and I was wondering if it had chemical nonsense on it so I scanned it and an zoomed in. If only I had the magic zoom lens that they have on CSI Miami that renders fine detail from traffic cameras but this is what is on the clipboard. I don't recognize it but it looks legit.

Anyway, I am avoiding marking final exams. I have miles to go before I sleep ...

Monday, December 8, 2008

Legalisms That Knit the Wounds of Liberty

There are times when being Head of the Science Department in a small university are less fun than other times. The endless meetings are one thing ... why is it that the default debating philosophy of most faculty is "I am so brilliant that if you disagree with me you must not have understood what I said so I will repeat what I just said ... only louder"?

This was a new one for me though. I got a call from Security at 1o:30 last night. It seemed that there were students in the Biology Lab that refused to leave. The end of semester is now on us and the students are confusing necessity with permission again. The Botany professor had told the students in her course that they were required to submit their plant herbariums (is that an aquarium for Herbs?) first thing Monday morning. The students interpreted that as not a call to arms to get the things done before the due date but somehow the professor giving permission for them to be in the lab at any hour they pleased. It turns out that one student signed out the lab key and it simply got passed around from one student to another until finally we ended up with non-Science students in the lab at 10:30 on a weekday evening with the professor of record having no clue that the students were there. The students even got uppity with Security because they were securing the building and the students wanted to be able to continue.

It would appear that our well articulated policy on handing out keys to students was in fact pretty much ignored and they were following more of a honour system in the Biology department. And they wonder why we have thefts in the building.

So now I am crafting a bulletproof, shoot-all-offenders policy that also includes discipline items for faculty. It is hard to do this because as an Honours undergraduate I had complete 24/7 access to the Chemistry Department and it meant a lot to me. To my eyes it is the faculty that are the problem but I am at a loss to teach them anything approaching common sense. Most of them are eat-the-rich-socialist, pot smoking hippies to start with while I like a little structure to my chaos.

Oh well. If I can plow through my mountain of marking, end of semester department meetings and set my exams I might be able to put my hand to a paper I have half written before New Years. That would be nice.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Stretching the Metaphor: Semester Transition State

I drew this diagram this morning in a conversation about how "tight" all of our students are these days.

If we think of the semester as a reaction with an initial state and a final state then the difference between the states must be the retained knowledge. The progress from the initial state to the final state requires input of existing knowledge, money and time, up to the transition state. I think some would put the time axis so that the transition state is the day of the final exam but I disagree. I think that the transition state is defined as the first moment after you are sure that the last student has dropped the course.
We are now past our official course drop deadline but some students are producing medical notes that they are flashing like some sort of get-out-of-jail-free coupon. So whoever is still on the ride at this point will probably ride this roller coaster to the end. Between now and the end there will be some screaming, some crying and in some cases there will be loss of bodily functions ... and then there are the students ... ba-dum-bum. But in any case we must hope that the money, time and effort results in an endoknowic transition where the student ends up knowing more than what they did initially. I mean this isn't some fool post-modern humanities course where doubt gets you an A. We all know students that were exoknowic in our courses (and you spent a lot of time with them so they could "fail ugly").

So here we are folks at the "high point" of the semester. Gird your loins, sharpen Big Red and buy a box of Kleenex 'cause the next 30 days are going to go fast.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

not all tears are an evil

We all mark time in our own way and as Einstein said time is relative. The reality of my job is that the success of an individual year and the continuation of my university depends on 18 year old girls and the decisions that they make. The demographics of my university (and pretty much all universities in north america) are now heavily skewed towards female students and a program that it not attractive to 18 year old girls is doomed. Thus it is that this is the time of year that we meet the parents. I have over the past week (and will for the next week) met any number of girls and their parents. The parents all want to be reassured that our university is not some corrosive bath of liberal thought and that we will somehow open their daughter's minds but not their lives. And through it all I have been distanced from the delusional parents who somehow think that their children are intellectually and biochemically made from a different cloth than they were at the same age.

Now it was my turn.

My son was fated to attend the university that I taught at (no matter where it was) because my academic career has been marked by decisions based on ideals rather than rational thought. This has meant that we have never been able to save a small fortune for our children's education. But that was OK, if my children attend the university where I teach at then they can live at home and they only have to pay half tuition. Nothing, and I mean nothing beats the 75 cent bowl of cereal for breakfast.

When I explained this to my son he thought about it for a long time and about half way through high school made an important decision. If I could not afford for him to go to a larger university and he refused to go into debt for his education then there was only one solution. He worked very hard for two years and got a full ride academic scholarship (tuition, residence and fees for four years) to a good university. It was like hitting the lottery.

I dropped him off yesterday and all the emotions that I have seen ripple across the faces of parents must have rippled across mine. At the end, he was surrounded by young people that moments before were complete strangers and now could quite possibly become lifelong friends and there was only time for a manly handshake and a long look into his impossibly independent eyes and the tide pulled our boats apart.

It was a long drive to get him there and we listened to selections from my vast collection of "driving" music from my youth all the way. Somehow the music sounded different on the lonely drive home. It was all rather melancholy and it reminded me of the end of Lord of the Rings where Merry and Pippin show up flying Deus ex Machina Airways to accompany Sam back to Hobbiton. Gandalf famously says "Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep;for not all tears are an evil."

I had to get past it so rummaging around under one of the seats I found an old tape of Monty Python skits. It got me home.


I have work to do and my son has a life to get started but I think I can look into the eyes of those parents with a bit more empathy now.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Sad Sad Situation

It seems like the return of the regular teaching semester has renewed people to the point where blogs once laid down have been revived. I am speaking of course of the resurrection of Post Doc who has re-named her revived blog Lecturer Notes. One can only hope that her new position will afford some of the vitriolic public catharsis that made Post Doc a must read in the early days (shades of Professorial Confessions but written by Hemingway not the editors of Teen Heat).

My sabbatical ended horribly with my appointment to Head of the Science Department which means that I get to attend committee meetings until my ears bleed.

Today I spent a lot of time with physical scientists and I realized at one point that I was trying to solve the unit cell of the graph paper shirt being worn by the professor in front of me. I realized that what we need is a decent classification system of graph paper shirts. I pulled a couple of shirts out of my closet and saw this ...

So this shirt is dichromic with a slope of 1/1 and each repeat unit diagonal crosses 5 lines so I came up with D11x5. Leading to these ...

I dunno I think I might be missing something. Any crystallographers out there? And then there is the sad fact that this is but a small subset of the graph paper shirts in my closet. At least with the return of fall I can stop wearing socks with sandals.

Anyway, my ears have stopped bleeding so it must be time to go to a meeting with the Biologists. Light a candle for me.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Homebrew and Chemistry Bump

I have neglected this blog for a number of reasons some of which include:

1) a natural disaster involving a river and my family home in which the high point of the ordeal was where my mother had to choose between me or 39 sewage soaked garbage bags of debris from her basement (she chose the garbage bags).

2) having my "secret identity" exposed. I mean really the blogosphere is really an honour based masquerade and with a little effort we could look behind anyone's mask the point is that we wear our masks for personal reasons that should be respected.

3)"interesting but not publishable" results from both the primary and secondary sabbatical projects.

But then I got called out by Homebrew ...

And the hits on my blog jumped from 2 a day to 7 (yes 7, that is a 350 % jump)!

Thanks for the shout out, but along with the "must read" chemistry blogs that have been shutting down recently I just don't see myself blogging much now.

Although I have changed textbooks in all my courses and adopted a whole new set of laboratories for one course that will, no doubt, be cause for much hand wringing and foam flecked invective in the coming semester. I don't know but I do appreciate the mention.

Now I will go gently into the night. Since is seems to be de rigueur to quote Douglas Adams at this point I will go with a quote that is much more useful to synthetic chemists and simply say ...

"Don't Panic"

Monday, April 14, 2008

Big Pharma Take a Hit

The recent problems of the big pharmaceutical companies have been expertly detailed and dissected in Derek Lowe's blog (LINK). So this cartoon is a bit like kicking a guy when he is down. In addition Big Pharma provides a lot of high salaried jobs to over-educated chemists that are dis-inclined to academe. One should only poke fun at the hand that feeds you so much.

On the other hand the commercials on TV that have more time devoted to the potential side effects than the purported benefits, the sweeping disclaimers on the sides of the boxes and the way that current medicine believes that any problem can be medicated sets this cartoon up really well. I mean, how many of us have a friend or a relative on a drug regime that eventually made them sick because of missed incompatibilities or the masking of true symptoms? They end up in hospital where some genius takes them off all medication ("to establish a baseline") and they get better?


PS By the way, how does Forrest Gump know that penguins do or do not have nipples anyway?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

On the Road Again

Spring has finally come to our part of Canada and while the snow still covers most of the ground and the rivers are still frozen we are clearly entering the days of mud and hoses. The Sleek Greyhound of Death has been pulled out of the snow and is now giving good service as I commute back and forth across the province.

For the past few months winter has kept me close to home even though I am on sabbatical the boys have school and I was not conceited enough to completely disrupt their lives for my interest. So I worked away on a couple of publications, a big grant proposal for one of the groups I collaborate with and two (perhaps three) conference presentations. I did not want to spend my sabbatical writing I really wanted to work at the bench in inorganic synthesis but the commute was not possible in the winter (especially after my adventure in off-road driving).

The roads are clear and dry and the visibility is good so the two hour drive goes pretty well. There is a small problem with the local white tail deer population starving to death due to the long winter and they are now congregating near the highways where the shrubs are budding and the foraging is easier. It makes for some very distracted drivers and a number of accidents. I counted seven places this morning where it was clear that a deer had been hit and killed. And I saw this guy.

There is a river that I cross three times on the commute and near the end I can decide to continue on the huge McHighway which is divided and dead fast or the more scenic old river route through farmland. Yesterday I chose the river route and drove by this guy.

It was kinda weird. I could see him from a fair ways off and as I approached him I slowed down and rolled down my window as if I was going to ask directions. He was very aloof and indifferent to my presence so I took his picture. That is the frozen river behind him that keeps him from fishing so I guess he is pretty intent on roadkill as a source of food and since I wasn't roadkill (yet) he could care less about me. Still pretty cool though.

I am now in the process of re-starting the work I left in the fall. It feels good but I can feel the sabbatical running away now. Gotta run.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A Topic of Current Interest

OK, I am going to get in trouble for this but it has to be said. Environmentalists as a group tend to be self righteous and inconsistent. Take Jabba the Hut ... I mean Al Gore and his Nobel Prize for Environmentalism. It seems that his movement itself does not seek carbon friendly alternatives for transportation and he has not significantly changed his own mansion or lifestyle to be more environmentally friendly. It is always easier to harangue others and make them feel shame then to change ones own behaviour. Perhaps that is why the modern media take delight in pointing out hypocritical inconsistencies in the lives of evangelists. Life is hard in the unblinking light at the top of the pedestal.

So, there is a chemistry blog that I monitor and the young man that maintains the site has been blessed with a child. This prompted a debate on the disposable versus cloth issue.

LINK TO BLOG: Milo's Chemical Musings

Now, thankfully our family has ceased to be blessed with children and ours are graduating high school and getting drivers licences. I would expect that the next time we have to discuss the whole disposable vs cloth debate will be when the children have children or when I become incontinent (probably a close race). I do remember however the horror and pain inflicted on my wife and I when we openly (and one might say gratefully) mostly used disposable diapers. It seemed that people we did not know would go out of their way to let us know the damage that we were inflicting on the environment by using the Devil's Nappies.
Now, there is a whole articulated debate out there about the issue and if one counts the "whole cost" of cloth diapers they seem to not be as benign as originally advertised. And that is one point that bugs me about environmentalists. In any accounting they make of the cost of an item they endorse they assume that time = $ 0. I mean, they invoke an earlier, simpler time when rural folk naturally "reduced-reused-recycled". What they forget is that that ethos was developed between the twin grinding stones of Poverty and Necessity.

You can see them in your churches. They are dying out now, in the same way that our war veterans are passing from society. They are older women who have lived the "simple life". And while it absolutely consumed them the pressure also changed them into the beautiful saints that they are now. (Of course, that also means that they cannot throw out a bread bag or moldy food but that is another point for another day). No these women, and reduce-reuse-recycle always depended on the women, lived in a time when there wasn't money for new anything. They had to make babies, fix meals, clothe the babies and chop wood (more often than not on the same day). This task consumed them and their bent and quite often broken bodies are testament to the harshness of their lives. This was also the reason why a lot of farmers where I grew up buried three wives before they died. Mormon farmers were just parallel not serial husbands, I would like to know if Mormon wives in polygamous marriages lived longer.

My point is that labour is never free. Environmentalists always assume that people will forgo luxury and pleasure AT THEIR OWN COST for the warm glow of environmentalism. That gets me to me second point on inconsistency. Let's take the disposable diaper and assume that Junior soils five diapers a day for a year and half (about 600 days) so that means the "waste load" = 3000 soiled diapers. Each soiled diaper might have the mass of half a kilogram (we had big babies) so that is 1500 kilograms of waste.

Now, let's examine the issue of consistency (and this is where you WILL be offended). I want to address an issue that no man may discuss. As any man has thought (but never said for this is one of those things that cannot be discussed) ... Have any of you ever noticed the similarity between advertisements for diapers and "feminine protection". They use the same words and the same illustrations. When they want to show how absorbent a diaper is they pull out a graduated cylinder with a blue liquid in it and pour it onto the diaper while extolling the "absorbency and dryness" of the item in question. Then the feminine napkin ad comes on and they do the exact same thing. I must confess the idea of a thick blue liquid coming out of my body creeps me out but this wouldn't be the first day that I thanked the good Lord for making me a stand-up pee-er.

Any man that has gotten lost in Shoppers and wandered into "The Valley of the Pads" knows that in fact there is an amazing complexity to "feminine protection" that we can never understand or even contemplate. Then of course there is the napkin versus plug debate that again most men can't think about.
Can we agree that in essence a feminine napkin is a small diaper? Now then let's do some math. If we assume that a woman needs "protection" for 13 weeks a year over 40 years (from age 12 to 52). By the way, does anyone else think that the word "protection" in this context is a bit odd? So anyway, if we have a woman using an average of 3 pads a day for 7 days for 13 weeks a year for 40 years we have a total of 10,920 pads. Math rocks.

Now, I know that pads are smaller than diapers but I would assume that 3000 soiled diapers are at least somewhat in the same ballpark as an environmental problem as 10,920 pads. And ask yourself the garbage man's question: which would you rather stick your hand into ... a used diaper or a used pad? So here we are ... why have the environmentalists not taken on the feminine protection industry in the same way they have the disposable diaper industry? My guess ... PMS.

How do you tell the difference between a woman with PMS and a terrorist?
You can negotiate with a terrorist.
How do you tell the difference between a woman with PMS and a pit bull?
I got a million of them, I'm here all week ... try the fish.

I mean, imagine you are an environmentalist and you have a choice between making a woman feel guilty about being a lazy mother who uses disposable diapers and telling that same woman just before she needs them that she shouldn't use disposable napkins. Well, no one ever accused the environmentalists of being stupid, just mean and inconsistent. It is always easy to make women guilty and insecure about motherhood ... and it is always heartless.

No, the environmentalist lobby will go a long way towards consistency when they start spreading the news that 13 weeks a year a woman needs to be closeted with cloth napkins and a bucket of hot water. Until that day, let's agree to leave the whole disposable versus cloth diaper debate behind us (if you will forgive a little joke at the end ... oops I did it again there didn't I ... sorry about that shout out for Brittany ... now there is a lady we can all get behind ... ugh that was really bad, maybe I will just settle for Good night and Good luck).

PS. A quote on diapers that I like.

Reason says “Why must I rock the baby, wash its nappies, change its bed, smell its odour, heal its rash? It is better to remain single and live a quiet and carefree life. I will become a priest or a nun and tell my children to do the same.
Christian Faith replies: The father opens his eyes, looks at these lowly, distasteful and despised things and knows that they are adorned with divine approval as with the most precious gold or silver. God with his angels and creatures will smile – not because the nappies are washed, but because they are done in faith.” Martin Luther, Concerning Married Life

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Sabbatical Takes an Unfortunate Turn

So it is winter in Canada. The cold hands wrap around your house and the restless fingers of cold probe to find gaps in the thermal walls of your home and psyche. In the old days, it was a time for "forting up". A time for reflection and repair. But now? Now we defy the weather and try to behave as if the weather is an inconvenience but life goes on 24/7.

So it snows again and again and I dig out the car again and again.

We have had some kind of snow every week since December and for the past month we have had about three snow storms (where accumulation is more that 15 cm) every two weeks. So the snow has built up to the point where the snow blower can no longer get the snow up over the snow banks. The school kids have missed so many days of school that a somewhat panicked school district had them go to school in a 20 cm snow storm two days ago. As a parent I am somewhat torn on one hand I need them out of the house so I can think and on the other hand I do not want them lost in a blizzard walking to school.

So, I make what accommodations I can for the weather but my sabbatical is slipping away so just like before I clean off the old Kia Rio and head out. To make a long story short, there was slush on the road, the Rio has a very light back end (unlike mine) and when the back end came loose in the slush I focused on getting the car slowed down and in control. By the time I started feeling good about control the car reached its "tipping point" and very slowly slid sideways down into the ditch.

There is a shocking disjoint when one finds yourself sitting in your car but with the gravitational orientation frame orthogonal to the visual orientation frame.
It would appear that my travelling days are over until spring. I guess it is time for some of that good old "rest and reflection".

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Dealing with Limitations

It has not been a particularly productive month. At the beginning of December I was working in the drybox preparing samples when I got a call on my cell. It was not good news. A close family member had an accident at work and within a couple of weeks he succumbed to his injuries and our shocked family was trying to cope with the aftermath. That was coupled to an astounding series of winter storms that left us housebound.
What that also meant was that at a very inopportune moment in the research cycle I was forced to walk away from the bench. Christmas, as somber a Christmas as I remember, came into the mix and suddenly it was a wintry January. It wasn't that it was impossible to do research as much as it was just the wrong time to have to leave the bench work. I had an agreement with my family that in the heavy winter months my commuting to the two research universities would be kept to a minimum and only on days where the roads and the weather were clear.So, with the work incomplete, I started the writing process by organizing and reading the pile of literature related to the research.

But writing (at least the way I do it) cannot be done in a vacuum. I need some back and forth discussion with other chemists, so to take part in the research group discussions I had to dig out the Silver Bullet and head out in the early morning.
When I get to the research university I first have to check on my neglected reactions and update my observations but my limited time on site means that all I can do is watch. This reaction has gone from a corn-straw yellow to a clear cherry red for no good reason. I wish I knew what was going on in there.
Then we have discussions and debates in my temporary office (borrowed for the year from an emeritus professor who had research contacts with an Italian chemistry group, thus the prints over the chalkboard).
Head stuffed with ideas and the light declining I turn the car towards home and the rising Moon for the two hour trip back. Back to the literature and trying to write a paper on incomplete research so that when we do get the bench work done the paper will be ready to go. Not the best way to do things but the way things have turned out. Four hours of driving for seven hours on site and a chunk of that spent in the library reading the industrial chemistry literature that almost seems like it is written in a chemical language I don't know. It is as if they have their own non-systematic name for everything. Ugh.It is always good to get home. I am happy to have the freedom to focus on research during this sabbatical period but as the half-way point slips by I feel that I am way behind and I need to start working harder and smarter. This must be what students feel like.

About Me

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.