Tuesday, December 20, 2005


... Non-Denominational Festive Season to All!

Tomorrow we're off to the in-laws to celebrate Hannukah etc. It's likely that I won't post again until the New Year. So, to all my readers (both of you) have a great festive season and here's wishing for a wonderful New Year!

And for those who get upset with people like me who won't go around wishing everyone a Merry Xmas... Get over it. It's been decades since this season has really had anything to do with a major religious event. Heck, churches around here (including a mega-church) have even decided to not hold any services Christmas day. And I'm in the so-called Bible Belt. Before you get upset with others, perhaps you should set your own houses right.

See you in the New Year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Google and plagiarism

Educators today are well aware of how easy it is for students to plagiarise. There are even web sites out there set up so that students can buy papers and assignments... What students don't seem to be aware of is how easy the internet has made it for educators to catch them. Find a suspicious phrase/sentence/paragraph? Type some of it into Google, press return and, ta-daa!, the original source pops up.

A graduate student found that out today. The hard way. During his dissertation defense.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Stockholm here I come!

No, no. No big, Nobel-winning breakthroughs. Yet.

I'm reading "The Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize" by Peter Doherty. He's an Australian who won the 1996 Prize in Medicine or Physiology for his work in immunology. My older, piratical brother gave it to me. I think he's trying to give me some kind of hint... Anyway, it's not the best written book - Doherty tends to ramble - but it is a fascinating look at science as a career. I can't wait to get to the part where he tells you how to win the Nobel Prize... I only hope I get to that part before too many other people do. Otherwise I might end up with too many people on the waiting list before me and the Nobel can't be given posthumously. Who'd want it when they're dead anyway?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Life is good

There are lot of reasons to be pessimistic at work nowadays. My department is in danger of having five faculty not make tenure over the next three years. That's a lot, which will make us look really bad and probably lead to a fall from favor with the administration. The department chair is thinking of retiring in a year or so, but Big State U. here doesn't have the money to recruit a new chair. We may well end up with a current member of the department as the new chair. The problem with that is that the people who would be good at the job don't want it, while the ones that want it would be disasters. On top of that the US government, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to cut back on science funding at the NIH and NSF. This is not so much in the form of cuts, but rather increases so low that just maintaining current commitments chews up almost the entire budgets of the two institutions. (I won't go into a discussion of the wisdom of cutting programs that benefit society at this point in time.) This level of funding has lead to extremely low success rates for people submitting grants. Single digit success rates. And it looks like this will continue for a few years. That means even less chance for our struggling five faculty to obtain tenure. Also less chance that the rest of us will be able to renew our current funding, leading to some labs struggling to stay afloat. And less money for the department (and Big State U.), leading to increased financial problems...

And yet, life is good. I remain curiously optimistic. In part this is fueled by the fact that my own laboratory is pushing ahead and being very productive. In part it's fueled by the peculiar euphoria that comes only from discovery. This euphoria is, I believe, unique to those who pursue discovery, such as scientists. My current euphoric state has come about because I think I know the answer to a big part of the major problem I'm studying. Don't get me wrong, I haven't proven anything (yet), and I'm not about to go out and buy an expensive bottle champagne for when the Nobel committee calls. I have a long, and no doubt hard, road ahead of me, but I think I know where that road leads. I study protein structure, and in particular how proteins adopt their various structures. This is important because protein structure leads to protein function, and protein function leads to life (DNA isn't all it's made out to be). I don't know how proteins get to their various structures (we call that folding). I do however think I know where they start (unfolded proteins). I think I know what unfolded proteins look like. That won't mean much to most people, but I think it's pretty damn cool. I'm excited and will continue to be until I manage to prove myself wrong, I can demonstrate to everyone else that I'm right, or someone else beats me to either of those outcomes. Now I must off to the lab to work out the crucial experiments...

But first, another cup of coffee.

Monday, December 05, 2005

We have entered the Twilight Zone...

This is just BIZARRE. Not even Karl Rove would be this heavy-handed. Would he?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Having a fat day?

The media has spent a lot of time telling people about the obesity problem in this country. Apparently not enough people are paying attention since it seems to be getting worse, particularly among children. The consequences of obesity at any age can be devastating. Or troubling, in a mildly amusing way.

Microsoft is aiming high with its Xbox. And no doubt they'll suceed. Now I'm not blaming Microsoft for obesity problems. More I point this out as an example of our society's hypocrisy. On the one hand we decry the growing obesity problem, on the other we deify technology that keeps us firmly planted on the couch.

Pass the deep fried saturated fat and the DVR remote.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

It's just a GAME people...

The Mirky$oft Xbox 360 was released last night. The local newspaper reported that someone paid US$5999 for one on eBay. And it doesn't even have digital output (i.e. won't give you high def on a HDTV among other things).

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Let's twist again. Not.

We had some nasty storms come through last night. They spawned a few twisters (tornados) along the way. Thankfully none of them were near here. Still, we had a tornado watch all through the evening. So I sat up late, after my wife and kids had gone to bed, watching the weather forecaster on the television. These guys live for bad weather - you can see the gleam in their eyes. Anyway, tornados are scary. They're so random. I've watched hurricanes and cyclones. Sure, they do more damage in total, but you generally have plenty of warning, many hours, often days. Their paths can be predicted reasonably well. Tornados form and disappear quickly. Their paths seem random. You get warned minutes before they hit. If you get warned. Some poor buggers first realize there's a tornado when their houses explode... Thankfully it's rare for tornados to penetrate far into a city. Mostly it's the outskirts of cities or small rural places that get hit. We have tornado warning sirens here, but I have my doubts that we would hear them above the roar of a thunderstorm. So I sat up and watched the weather forecaster try to conceal his glee. Tornados are scary.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Signs of intelligent life...

Apparently people are smarter than the religious right thinks.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Now I get it!

This was forwarded to me - I have no idea where it originated, but it all makes sense now...

Dilbert's "Salary Theorem" states that "Engineers and scientists can never earn as much as business executives, sales people, accountants and especially liberal arts majors." This theorem can now be supported by a mathematical equation based on the following two well known postulates:

Postulate 1: Knowledge is Power.
Postulate 2: Time is Money.
As every engineer and scientist knows: Power = Work / Time.

Since: Knowledge = Power,
then Knowledge = Work / Time,


Time = Money,
then Knowledge = Work / Money.

Solving for Money, we get:

Money = Work / Knowledge.

Thus, as Knowledge approaches zero, money approaches infinity, regardless of the amount of work done.


Okay, so Halloween was a week ago and this is sort of late. Life happens...

We had a blast trick or treating with the kids. My eldest was a witch (a very cute witch) and my youngest a cat (also very cute). The amount of candy they collected was simply astounding. My favorite moment was when my youngest looked in her bucket, which was almost overflowing, turned to me and said "Daddy, I need to stop and eat a bunch of this so I can get more." A week later and her bucket is still a third full, despite the best efforts of my wife and I...

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

What was he thinking? What is he thinking?

This weekend it was announced that 2000 members of the US military have died in Iraq. It's Vietnam II. What was Dubya thinking? Was he?

With apologies to "The Cranberries"...

Another head hangs lowly,
Child is slowly taken.
And the violence caused such silence,
Who are we mistaken?

But you see, it's not you, it's not YOUR family.
In your head, in your head they are fighting,
With their tanks and their bombs,
And their bombs and their guns.
In your head, in your head, they are crying...

In your head, in your head,
Georgie, Georgie, Georgie,
Hey, hey, hey. What's in your head,
In your head,
Georgie, Georgie, Georgie?
Hey, hey, hey, hey, oh, dou, dou, dou, dou, dou...

Another mother's breakin',
Heart is taking over.
When the vi'lence causes silence,
We must be mistaken.

It's the same old theme since President you've been.
In your head, in your head they're still fighting,
With their tanks and their bombs,
And their bombs and their guns.
In your head, in your head, they are dying...

In your head, in your head,
Georgie, Georgie, Georgie,
Hey, hey, hey. What's in your head,
In your head,
Georgie, Georgie, Georgie?
Hey, hey, hey, hey, oh, oh, oh,
Oh, oh, oh, oh, hey, oh, ya, ya-a...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A life lesson in the making

We went to the horse races last weekend. It's not the nasty, filthy, smoky, full-of-drunks place you might imagine. The local track (which is quite famous) is a clean, well-run establishment that seems to encourage families to attend. It's fun. And my daughters had a blast picking out horses and watching them run. I picked out a horse in one race and placed a little bet ($2). My eldest daughter also happened to pick that horse (but didn't bet of course). So we cheered him on together. A nice father-daughter bonding moment. He came in third. At about 15:1. I had bet for him to show so I won a little money. My daughter announced that we were going to split the winnings since she had also picked that horse... Hang on. Who placed the bet? Who risked his money? There's a lesson in there for my daughter. Right?

Sigh. She's getting half the money... And my youngest daughter is also getting some since it wouldn't be fair otherwise...

Lesson for the day: Don't bet. Even when you win, you lose.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Vending machine hell...

Went to the cafeteria for milk for my coffee.
I love coffee.
Walked past vending machines. Decided to get spearmint Lifesavers.
(Good for breath after drinking coffee all day...)
Family of four is filling vending machine area so I wait.
Father feeds dollar after dollar into machine.
Dollar after dollar after dollar.
Son pushes buttons.
Dollar after dollar after dollar.
Is he buying food for a month?
Packet after packet of sugar-coated, salt-laden, artificially-flavored, partially-hydrogenated, trans-fatty, artificially-colored (blue 7 and red 6), deep-fried, over-processed saturated fat drop...

Nausea. I leave.
No mints.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Geekfest 2005

I'm back from the conference. The food was predictably bad, the beer was good, as was the coffee and the weather, and we geeks were in our element. Science, science funding and scientists was/were dissected, hung, drawn and quartered, chopped, diced and julienned, put under a microscope, stitched back together, given pats on the head and sent on their respective ways. The consensus was that great science is being done, the current government doesn't give a rats behind about funding science, the world will likely end as a result, and that the beer was good. Particularly the ale from the local microbrewery. Thus is science.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Meeting of minds... or just geeks?

I'm off to a science conference/convention/meeting tomorrow. There'll be about 180 scientists packed into a room for two and a half days of talks on various subjects. Well, not all day. We do have places to sleep and there will be (bad) meals. And alcohol (and good coffee). I think my wife thinks that's why we all go. For the alcohol. Not so. We go to meet and talk to one another. The talks are often a side show. It's the connections you make and stuff you talk about one on one that really makes for a good meeting. Of course liquid refreshments help with that aspect. So it is kind of vital. Much effort is put into making sure there is decent beer, wine and coffee. And plenty of it.

Conferences are an interesting anthropological phenomena. Especially the scientific ones. Imagine, if you will, a large group of scientists all in one place. Some of these people (fortunately a minority, despite the stereotypes) are socially clueless. Others are so immersed in in their work they may as well be socially clueless. Oh yeah, everyone wears name badges. Got that picture in your mind? Everyone is looking for Dr. Bigshot so they can ingratiate themselves to him/her. Dr. Bigshot is important in some regard. They may be a well known scientist, in which case knowing them may, in some magical way, translate into more exposure (yes, we can be a somewhat vain bunch). And/or Dr. Bigshot may sit on a grant review panel, in which case you really, really, really want them to think you're a good guy/gal who is doing something worthwhile. Just in case they should get one of your grants to review. Of course Dr. Bigshot is in all likelihood there to drink beer and talk science, and may not welcome the fawning overtures of the lesser known. Or they may bask in it. Both types of Dr. Bigshot exist.

This weekends meeting is a relatively small and intimate affair. It's being held at a rustic (translation: poor accommodations and bad food) conference center outside one of this country's most uninspiring towns. And you wonder why we need good beer. At least we won't be inflicting ourselves on the general public. Large meetings are something else. These involve scientists in the thousands. They descend upon a city like flies with dandruff. It amusing really. Often you get not only a name badge, but also some kind of cheap bag/tote emblazoned with the name of the conference and it's sponsors. The attendees will wander the city between talks looking for coffee, food and/or beer. Many forget to take off their name badges and will be carrying their bags with "Annual Meeting of the International Society of Science Geeks" in large bold letters on the side. If you should live in a city hosting such a meeting and you run into a pack of such geeks looking lost and bewildered, take pity. We're harmless. Just point us at the nearest bar/restaurant/coffee shop.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Thanks Apple!

My good friend Milo "dislikes" Apple. I don't. I've always been a big fan of their computers. That's despite my habit of buying the "lemon" model of each product family (anyone remember the PowerPC 7200? I had not one, but two in my lab...). I'm typing this on my old Titanium PowerBook G4 (not a lemon) - it's a little slow, but I love it. Anyway, none of the preceding really has anything to do with this post. I like Apple for another reason. Apple has really ramped up the music content in my life (and no, I don't own an iPod - wish I did). I've loaded my entire CD collection into iTunes and listen all day every day at work. Right now it's the Rolling Stones "Let It Bleed." But it's more than that...

Our local public library (something else I'm a big fan of) has a volunteer-run used book store. Proceeds go to the library. They have a section of the store devoted to CD's. I've noticed an increase in the number of CD's being donated, and hence going on sale there. This weekend I picked up an Eric Clapton, a REM and two Stones albums. $3 a piece. The CD's are in great condition. The jewel cases are a bit banged up, but who cares about that? So, what's my point? I think people are loading their music onto their computers and then dumping the CD's. In large part because of Apple and iTunes. Okay, there are other "jukebox" programs out their, but come on, who really uses those? So, because of iTunes, I get to buy great music really cheaply. And I get to listen to more.

I love Apple.

Just wish I had an iPod. iPod nano. White. The 2GB model would be fine, but 4GB would be better.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Holy smoke, Batman!

Pass my asbestos underwear, Boy Wonder.

Not so noble

A friend just asked me why the winners of Nobel prizes are "always guys". We were discussing the fact that two guys at our alma mater won Nobels this week (woo hoo!). Of course the winners are not always guys. Mostly guys. Why is that? Don't women do good science? Actually, women do great science. The most dynamic scientist in my department at Big State U happens to be a woman.

So what is it? I posit that it's because science is still a haven for white males. At least in Western nations. The "old boy network"? Alive and kicking. Life is hard for women faculty. There's the maternity and family thing. On top of that, they're asked to be on a disproportionate number of committees etc. Every committee wants diversity, but there's not much to pick from, so the women and minorities get asked a lot. And it's hard to say no when you don't have tenure. Of course saying yes too much can hurt your research and teaching, thereby reducing your tenure chances. That sucks. And then there are (thankfully fewer each year) older faculty members who are male chauvinist pigs of the first degree (also charter members of the old boy network). But I digress. I'm not trying to say there aren't many female Nobelists because they're too busy attending committee meetings, having babies and fending off dirty old men. It's more a matter of the current state of the system. There are fewer female science faculty (and scientists in general). Simple statistics tells you that most winners of Nobels will be male.

Thankfully the system is changing. In the life sciences there are now as many female graduate students as male. In our department more. The mid- and junior-level faculty, plus many of the senior faculty, recognize the need to increase diversity among the ranks. It will get better. It will take time. And vigilance. But it will get better.

Friday, September 30, 2005


The new fiscal year for the Federal government starts tomorrow. Why October 1 is beyond me. Anyway, for the ninth year in a row, the House of Representatives has failed to pass a budget before the start of the fiscal year. No worries. They've passed a stop gap bill that will ensure that government is funded and won't have to shut down tomorrow. One little problem. The stop gap bill funds almost everything at current levels. The big exception? State block grants. This is money given out to states to help the very poorest of the poor. Those block grants have been cut by ~50%. And the House? They're off on a break. Now when the Schiavo case was big news, members of the House came back en masse from their break. In this case, which affects millions of people living so far below the poverty line that reaching that line is a pipe dream? The House has gone on a break.

What's the odds the members of the House give themselves a big fat pay raise this year?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


This morning my five year old daughter told me I'm not very good at skipping.

Oh well. I'll survive.

I'm still basking in the comparison of scientists to rock stars.

I should give Bono a call.

Maybe he knows how to skip.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

You think science is boring? Think again.

"[Scientists] are people who by definition live outside the norm,... floating in zones that have never been reached before,... people with strong egos and God complexes.
That sounds like rock 'n roll to me."
-Publisher Bob Guccione Jr. last week in The New York Times

Well there you go. Spot on. Except the bit about God complexes. Honest.

Friday, September 23, 2005

We suck

God help you if you're poor, sick and/or elderly in the US.

No one else will.

Were the Flying Circus crew prescient?

Spam - Monty Python



What have you got?

Well, there's egg and bacon,
egg sausage and bacon
Egg and spam
Egg, bacon and spam
Egg, bacon, sausage and spam
Spam, bacon, sausage and spam
Spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon and spam
Spam, sausage, spam, spam, spam, bacon, spam tomato and spam
Spam, spam, spam, egg and spam
Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, spam and spam.

(Choir: Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! Lovely Spam! Lovely Spam!)

Or Lobster Thermidor aux crevettes with a mornay sauce
served in a provencale manner with shallots and aubergines
garnished with truffle pate, brandy and a fried egg on top and spam.

Have you got anything without spam?

Well, the spam, eggs, sausage and spam
That's not got much spam in it

I don't want any spam!

Why can't she have eggs, bacon, spam and sausage?

That's got spam in it!

Hasn't got much spam in it as spam, eggs, sausage and spam has it?

(Choir: Spam! Spam! Spam!...)

Could you do me eggs, bacon, spam and sausage without the spam, then?


What do you mean 'Iiiiiiiiiich'? I don't like spam!

(Choir: Lovely spam! Wonderful spam!)

Waitress (to choir):
Shut up!

(Choir: Lovely spam! Wonderful spam!)

Shut Up! Bloody Vikings!
You can't have egg, bacon, spam and sausage without the spam.

I don't like spam!

Shush dear, don't have a fuss. I'll have your spam. I love it,
I'm having spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans,
spam, spam, spam, and spam!

(Choir: Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! Lovely spam! Wonderful spam!)

Shut Up!! Baked beans are off.

Well, could I have her spam instead of the baked beans then?

You mean spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam,
spam and spam?

Choir (intervening):
Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam!
Lovely spam! Wonderful spam!
Spam spa-a-a-a-a-am spam spa-a-a-a-a-am spam.
Lovely spam! Lovely spam! Lovely spam! Lovely spam!
Spam spam spam spam!

I don't get spam. Well, yes, I get spam, lots of it. Just like anyone else who's had an email account for more than about 10 milliseconds. What I don't get is the rationale used by spammers. Just this morning I log into my email account and there, amongst many other spam emails, are no less than five from five different addresses all offering me the same "Genuine S W I S S R O L E X watches!" That's just one example. I get lots of the same spam over and over and over. What's with that? Do they think they can eventually wear me down? Do they honestly believe that one day I'm just going to throw my arms up, and credit card number out (on the Internet) and get myself a genuine Swiss Rolex low interest mortgage from an off-shore pharmacy that guarantees the Windows operating system they're sending me will increase the size of my penis, give me longer erections and help the widow of a Nigerian government official transfer millions of dollars into my bank account because, gosh darn it, I'm just so special?


Thursday, September 22, 2005

So now I have my own blog...

What to do with it? Let me think...