Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Widows and Orphans

Typesetting that the Editor our employer accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being scooped by the competition.

(Based on James 1:27)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cicero for President

A friend just sent me the following quote:

"The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. 
People must learn to work, instead of living on public assistance."
----Cicero, 55 B.C.

Monday, October 27, 2008

O Learned One

It's not often that I'm approached with the words "O learned One, please share your knowledge."  So, I'm understandably a little taken aback when it does happen.
   An undergrad here is doing a report on life in grad school, and I just got done with an interview with him.  One of the questions he asked was what were the biggest stresses in my life as a graduate student.  This was like handing a compulsive gambler a blank check. 
   First off, I did give him a positive.  This is my first semester without TAing, and I have been incredibly relieved to be able to focus on research without the distractions of TAing or working through my own courses. 
   Then I hit on the rest.  I told him that this experience is full of uncertainty.  Your work causes you to question the fundamental idea that "if I do the same thing twice, I should get the same result."  You begin to view success and failure with uncertainty.  If you don't exactly know why experiment A failed, do you exactly know why experiment B worked?  Sometimes you feel like you'd be at the same point if you try 10 experiments that fail, or if you don't try any experiments at all, but you sit and stare at your lab book.  But then you rethink it, and realize that's all wrong. 
    The beauty of the process is also the ugliness of it: that there is no prescribed path.  You're constantly trying paths, hoping that one will bring you to success, but there are no guarantees.  Time spent does not by any stretch translate into good results on a regular basis.  You're always asking yourself "am I compotent or incompotent?"  There is no such thing as "working late."  What is "late"?  7PM?  12PM?  2AM?  Even though you're living and working in the midst of uncertainty, you're often feel like others expect you to be constantly at peak performance.  There's always the constant pressure to succeed.  But succeed by whose standards?  Ah!  That's the question.  Your own?  Your advisor's?  Your parents'?  Your committee's?  God's?
   You find that even if one unit of success is the number of papers you've published, another (smaller but important) unit is the day-to-day, unglorious learning that nobody but you cares about that carries you to where you want to go.  Success is when you find out how to run ImageQuant on your Mac so you can actually process your data.  Success is counting the number of mistakes you've made in a week, because those are the true signs of effort.  Success is finding a fixed width font that allows you to rapidly compare DNA sequences and determine their hybridization.  Yeah, that's success.  Those units keep on adding up, and can be translated into other units of success.  But it's like grams and kilograms: how sensitive is your and your evaluator's balance?  If someone else can only measure kilograms, it's going to take a lot of your grams of learning to register on their scale of success.
   Your life is an ocean of failure with a few seahorses of success.  If you only look at the ocean, you feel like throwing yourself in.  But if you can find the seahorses, you rack up points, your advisor can talk about you results, and *ding, ding, ding* you graduate -- and move on to the next level of purgatory.
   Of course I didn't go into all that during that interview.  I didn't want to scare the poor guy.  But in the midst of my opining, I did stop and say that I wasn't sure how the process could be improved.  After all, even though I was describing this place as purgatory and "an ongoing hazing process," how else are you supposed to learn all this stuff?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Clone Ann Coulter

(That was the sign my mom recently spotted on a van...!)

Reagan on Socialized Medicine

    I just came across an audio file of Reagan (while he was a private citizen, before the presidency) speaking against socialized medicine.  In just ten minutes he shows the true question behind socialized medicine.  It's not "do you have compassion on those less fortunate than yourself?" but "do you value freedom?"  Reagan asks you to look at what would happen if your own job became socialized.  You would no longer have the freedom to choose where you would want to live.  This and other details of your life would be dictated by your employer: the state.
    He makes the point that our own American Revolution is distinct from any other revolution in history.  In our revolution, we were not exchanging one set of oppressors for another.  We affirmed the freedom God gave to each and every person.
    What's amazing to me is that this recording is from 1961.  The more I hear about the 60's, the more parallels I see between that time and my own time.  After reading Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative and hearing Reagan's clip, I strongly believe that Biblical Christians need to gather these types of materials, study them, understand how they relate to today's issues, and pass on their wisdom!  We speak to our own times, but we can learn from those who successfully combated the false ideas of their time.  This is even simpler when we're speaking to the same issue! 
     It cracks me up that socialized medicine is supposedly a grand and brand-spanking new idea.  Hold it: it's neither grand nor new!
     But it's not just enough for you and me to realize that truth.  We've got to communicate that idea to others.
     As the president of Wheaton college has said, the goal of education is eloquent wisdom.  Our country has a rich heritage of wise men, and we can learn from their eloquent wisdom. 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cytoskeletons and spreadsheets

Cytoskeletons are like spreadsheets.  Both can be used to arrange objects according to a highly controlled framework.  If the lines are hidden, however, it can be very difficult to discern the framework.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Welcome to Irrationality.

The propaganda about socialized medicine is hitting the med school hard and fast.  The last two times I was in the med school building (last week and today), I was assualted by socialized medicine propaganda.  Last week it was signs plastered everywhere announcing the showing "Salud" (Spanish for "health"), which celebrates the socialized medical system of -- brace yourself -- Cuba.  Today it was a free health magazine that shows a blue pill and a red pill: Obama and McCain's health plans characterized as "universal healthcare" versus "free market." 
     I've got a problem with social engineers highlighting "crises" that "only they" know how to fix.  And their fix inevitably involves increased government control, i.e. less freedom for citizens.  Cases in point: global warming/climate change and the supposed "healthcare crisis."  If Al Gore or Obama don't cast their respective issues as crises, then no citizen in his right mind would consider the "solution" being presented.  But what happens if anyone tries to challenge the claim that either of these issues is a crisis?  Let's see, I've heard more about the results of challenging the climate change dogma.  In that case, a person's called a "denier," and reminded that "the debate is over."  The healthcare debate is being framed in terms of compassion, and since this is becoming so ingrained, anyone denying universal health coverage is likely to be seen as a heartless person keeping people's rights (especially children's rights) from them.
    (And to be fair, the economic upheaval we're seeing isn't made up by social engineers.  It really is a crisis.  But so many times the social engineers rush to bring forward "solutions" without accurately addressing the cause of a crisis.  And how can a realistic solution be develped unless the cause of a problem is known?  Can the (actual or imagined) crises of climate change, healthcare, and the economy all stem from evil, big business (industrial factories, insurance companies, Wall Street)?  Is that what we're actually supposed to believe?  C'mon, only Marxists-Leninists believe that every problem results from the clash between the upper and lower classes.  Americans need to critically evalute these acutal or imagined crises and understand the actual causes.  (And ask themselves why many actual crises -- the holocaust of abortion, the rampage of STDs, the epidemic of school shootings, the assualts on free speech, the flagrance and aggressiveness of homosexuality, the kowtowing to Islam -- are worsening under the radar while so many Americans are so concerned about the real issues: obesity, smoking, diversity-training, and tolerance.)  Are Americans only to care about those issues highlighted by the mainstream media?  Are they to gain their understanding of an issue through the media's presentation of a fuzzy "cause" and the absolutely necessary "solution"?   Who wants to be a mindless minion that can be mobilized at will by a manipulative media?)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

If that's so, we're pretty stupid

As the Femi-Marxist history goes, once upon a time, there were women.  These women did not have basic rights, such as voting, shopping on demand, cooking the food they liked instead of the food their male-captors liked, keeping their own last name, or (and most importantly) abortion.  They were owned by men, who sometimes took multiple women as wives, and usually carried a club to keep their women in check. 
    Things continued like this well into the 20th century, when liberated women took charge of their own bodies and left the chauvantistic cage in which they had been confined.  Women like Margaret Sanger, Margaret Mead, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ellen, Rosie O'Donnell, and Barbara Boxer broke out, and have been leading the rest of us out.  By their example, we can see what we as women were truly meant to be.
    I hope you get the gist of this, because I can't bear to write like that anymore!!!  Suffice it to say that if that truly was the history of womankind, then we are a poor lot indeed, and deserve to be subjugated!  C'mon, 50% of the people in the world are women.  If (and that's an if) our history up until this century has been one of consistent slavery to men, well then, who's to blame but we ourselves?
    Fortunately, no one believes this kind of crackpottery except for Femi-Marxists and their converts.  It wasn't until one day that I was trying to sum up their view to myself that I was struck by its ludicrousness.  Just thought I'd share it with you.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Cookery and chemistry

It's really funny to me how cooking is so much like working in lab: assemble ingredients, mix in a certain order and ratio according to a protocol, heat treat, and you're done (well, actually, then comes storage of leftovers, and the concern about keeping whatever you've made intact for the next time you need it!).  Still, there's definitely things that cooks have figured out that chemists haven't, and vice versa.  For example, there's no chemistry equivalent of Pampered Chef, and boy, is that a shame!  That's why countless organic chemistry drones are stuck scraping product out of round bottoms with a teeny weeny spatula (that for some mystifying reason is never called a spatula, but a "rubber policeman").  On the flip side, chemists have better methods of dealing with moisture-sensitive materials.  I mean, which cook can put their brown sugar in a Drierite-filled container, then pull a vacuum on it?  And only chemists get to play in gloveboxes! 

Okay, okay, they're not identical: I have yet to see a chemist wearing the equivalent of a chef's hat.  And chemists do need to much more particular about stochiometry, and they tend to care a bit more about characterization than even gourmet chefs (the chef's analysis: does it taste good?).  But the times when it really hits me how similar these things are is when the tools and thought patterns both fields use are eerily similar.  I mean, both cooks and chemists use timers and microwaves to do stuff, both are based on individual innovation, and give ample arenas to share discoveries!  Still, it catches me off-guard when I'm doing chemistry and I think like a cook, or vice versa.  The other day I was waiting for my food to heat up in the microwave.  I must have been really absent-minded, because I thought, all of the sudden, oh no!  I forgot to put the stir bar in there!  For materials, both cooks and chemists have incredible variety in the outlets they buy from.  For bulk ingredients (flour, potatoes, milk, and the like) there's always the general place to go.  But for specialty items needed in tiny amounts, there's Rohm and Haas and gourmet food sources.

There's enough similarities that skill at one can help you with the other.  I can't put it any better than a gal from undergrad.  She was used to preparing huge stockpiles of bacteria for her microbiology course, and she knew how to multitask.  When she was getting ready to cook Thanksgiving dinner one year, she shrugged and said, "It's one big lab prep."  There's also the whole interplay of precedent and art.  The first time you're trying something, you better hunt hard to find somebody who's done something similar to what your trying.  Replicating what they've done, whether it's double chocolate mocha cake or supramolecular assemblies, can be a crucial first step to finding your way in your own work.  And you've got to master the basics before you can go improvising.  Those first hundred times, you're probably going to need that sheet of paper showing the exact steps to follow.  But later you can shake things up, and add your own twists.  This improvising can be the most fun part.  That's when you take a boring cornbread recipe and add salsa or sour cream or corn or chives, and come up with something new.  Or that's when you look at all the DNAzymes that have been isolated so far, and you apply the same selection method to an entirely new ion.  Then, of course, comes the process of screening your results.  That cake that was baked on "preheat" and got burned on top and was still runny in the middle?  Trash it.  That experiment where the first three timepoints were taken faithfully but you fell asleep on that fourth point?  Trash it.  But those great results?  Showcase 'em.  Take it to a potluck or enter it in a flour competition; make a slide and show it in subgroup or make a poster and take it to a conference.

After all, if everything was guaranteed to work in cooking or chemistry, success would be boring.  Not that I like failed curry chicken (c'mon, how was I supposed to realize how different vanilla and plain yogurt would make that recipe?!) or PCR trials that just don't amplify, but there's nothing like a series of bad results to make the good results that much sweeter!

So, whenever possible, keep a couple burners on at the same time.  (Pots and projects can be kept on a back burner!).  The more you try, the more you're going to fail, but the more you're going to find those couple of sweet successes that make the people at the table happy: either the ones eating the dinner you're fixing, or the ones staring at your prelim powerpoint presentation.