Friday, December 19, 2008

The evolving world of this blog

Photo from Clinton Steeds

Blogging is tricky. I get a bout of inspiration but cannot reach a computer, or I'm busy and so then forget what I was to write, or get halfway done and back-burner the project until it collects too much dust and I give up. I find myself either wanting to write lots and not having the time, or not really wanting to write much when I have the time, either way resulting in not posting as frequently as I might like. And when I recently committed (at least to myself) to taking this blog more seriously, I subsequently found it even harder to put together a post as I effectively raised the bar for myself.

So how shall I fix this? Well, I think the first step is to dissuade myself of the belief that I might have the commitment of the myriad of other blogs out there with the tenacity and devotion to their readers to frequently put together well thought out and coherent posts on a regular basis, often involving photoshopping one's own images and responding in nearly real-time to other posts in the blogosphere. I both lack the technical know-how to do lots of what some bloggers do, and the time to keep up on all of what gets posted around. While it would be cool to give myself a pseudonym such as "Kinked_Strand" or "Tryptophaniac", (both of which I considered, both discarded) I just don't think I can live up to such names. I have a bit of a fight between goofiness and creativity (goofivity?) and a professional, more scientific tone. While a pseudonym might allow that, it's a little beyond me to keep up with posting as such a presence requires.

So I've decided on a different type of pseudonym - in fact not pseudo at all. Just nym. I noted before that most of my readers will know who I am as it is, and so for them this is just a formality. But for those who don't know, it's Shane Caldwell. I just wrapped up my undergrad at the University of Guelph, and who knows what the future has in store for me. There are other blogs from my university who write under their own names, and so unless I am able to justify putting in the time and effort to really maintain a pen name, it seems silly by comparison to do so when I can only manage a post or two every week.

So that's that. Big secret revealed. I imagine no one really cares. Anyone who really di could have pinned me down quite a bit anyway, to one of >10 universities, and if they supposed that the name I was writing under was my initials, actually finding me wouldn't be excessively hard. I hesitated to put my name on the web to begin with because I was nervous of privacy issues and such, and to feel confident in expressing an opinion without worrying about backlash. I'm comfortable now with people knowing who is behind the words, and am willing to own up to my opinions.

Needless to say, I won't be picking on anyone I know on here, including information of anyone else's lives, nor will I be discussing my own research of any sort. This is my space to express my thoughts, experiences, and opinions, and not to release information that belongs to others. Posts in line with my opinion on Craig Venter may still materialize, but as a public figure, he is fair game for anyone. In fact, I get the feeling he would be flattered by what I wrote, should he ever care what a lowly blogger would think. I know that sometimes I can write things that might put off some readers, as I no doubt offended some friends by riling on cell phones back in the summer, or talking about pre-med programs before that. I ask those that read to be understanding and to know that while I may be blogging on a frustration, I don't mean to insult anyone, and if I do, please let me know, and I will do what I can to remedy the issue. Everyone has their own views on issues; and I allow others theirs, and only ask in return that I be allowed my own.

So what does the future hold in store for Helical Translations? We'll have to wait and see, because I still don't completely know. Grad school is on the horizon and by taking a brief survey of some other similar blogs out there, many write about day-to-day lab life, interpersonal challenges and the like, but in keeping with what I have written above, this is something I want to keep clear of. I want to continue to use this space to put together information so that those reading can learn something. And if it isn't new information, I hope that I might at least be able to provide a unique perspective. It may take more work to put these together than some of the random updates I wrote during the early days of the blog, but I hope to shift my balance a bit from quantity to quality. I also hope to use this as a way of allowing myself to learn of things I otherwise would not have looked into. The issues I know I will deal with is to know whether a post is complete enough to finish with or to just continue to leave it in limbo to hopefully complete later. Perfectionism versus productivity, if you will.

So, if you will excuse me, I must go back to putting off the 10 posts half-complete in my queue. I'm getting used to this all, but it is still taking time.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Where did half of December go?

It has been too long. My, how two weeks of waking up, studying, eating if possible then studying more before sleeping again can just fly by.


This undergraduate can, barring final exam scores in the minuses, consider himself a graduate of the Baccalaureate program.

Now on to another 2-4 years of education. Woo.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Ode to Boring Science

Photo from umjanedoan

I've never been that into dinosaurs and fossils. When I think of space, I think of coldness and emptiness, not "boldly going where no man has gone before". Neuroscience baffles me and as such I have little interest*. And yet, a large amount of the mass media coverage of science revolves around developments in these and select other fields. Not that they're unimportant, but I find it tiresome that the coverage of science is so one-sided.

I would like to see more emphasis on ordinary, bread-and-butter research out there. It seems that if the news isn't covering classic post-Sputnik science such as robots, rockets, and space, it's something contentious like stem cells, vaccines, or climate research. Big news to the media outlets out there: there's more to science than fighting over embryos and forecasting doom! And they often miss great stories, those stories may just unfortunately be a little harder to tell.

I want to celebrate "boring" research. The ordinary, non-press release research that constitutes the bulk of what one will find if they open up a non-Nature or -Science journal. Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking bad research; good-versus-bad is a different classification altogether than sensational-versus-boring research - there's lots of crap at the top and bottom. I want to talk about what you find when you flip open a textbook. What is published on a regular basis in the hundreds (thousands?) of respected journals out there. Just because it's ordinary science doesn't mean that it can't be fascinating once one gets into the details.

Boring research is interesting research that does not necessarily promise to change the world or advance our ultimate understanding or cure AIDS or discover the Caramilk secret. Boring research makes up the bulk of what is published, and while the loudest stories are cried out over the crowd, the progress of boring, everyday research moves forward. It is the blue chip stock in world of science, where the big trading happens in cloning, robotics, and gender studies.

I would like to see the story of boring research told. Research that perhaps is not ground-shattering** but still tells us important things about the world. Things that in time are more valuable than isolated studies that make major headlines. Things that are established to the point that even scientists ignore the interesting story behind them. I want to to celebrate the unsung heroes of research, and what it contributes to scientific progress.

Finally, it should be noted that this research isn't boring to me, nor should it be boring to you. If you think it is, I'd like to change your mind. Dig a little deeper and there is often a story to be told. By celebrating the tons of quality ordinary science out there, we see the true elegance and amazing subtleties of the world around us.

Here's to boring science!

Image from velorowdy

*Hypocracy acknowledged by this biochemist
**Keep in mind many Nobels have been awarded for work not appreciated when it was done

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lüttje Lage - drink of the Niedersachsische Hauptstadt

See above the preparation of a round of Lüttje Lage, the traditional drink of the German city Hannover. Hannover is the capital of the state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen) and where I spent my last summer. Note the lesson on proper drinking etiquette occurring in the background, as is common to see where this drink is served.

According to my extensive research on the subject, Lüttje Lage (pronounced loot-cha lahg-a) traces its roots back to the 16th century, to the Broyhan brewery, which established a tradition of drinking spirits with beer. German efficiency being what it is, the Hannoverians decided to do it at once. But it can't just be as simple as mixing them together. Oh, no. What followed was the formation of an amusing and bizarre way to drink beer.

Despite the oddness of it, the drink has persisted to present day, and every summer young and old take advantage of this traditional drink to celebrate their hometown pride. There's a lot of tradition surrounding the drink, and costumes. There's even a local men's club that among other things, preserves the culture of the drink. The local tourism authority offers Lüttje Lage tours a couple times each year, which are of course topped off by a sample.

So what is the drink itself? Well, the big glasses you see are 5 cL glasses full of beer, typically a variety specific to the purpose. The small glasses are 1 cL of corn schnapps. It tastes about as good as that sounds. However, people don't consume the drink for it's taste.

Lüttje Lage is mostly seen at local fairs, most notably the Hannover Schützenfest and Maschseefest. Purists would grit their teeth to hear this, but the drink is pretty much a novelty, specific to Hannover, or more specifically, Hannover's festivals. You'll find few who drink it on a regular basis, or at home. People travelling to Hannover from other parts of Germany will most likely have never heard of the drink. That being the case, when in Hannover one must have one, or you did not truly experience the city. Berlin has the Berliner Weiße, Cologne (Köln) has Kölsch, and Munich has, among other things, the Radler, but those are much better known and widespread. Lüttje Lage is strictly unique to Hannover, and no where else.

The best thing about the drink is the method in which it must be done. Typically, it requires practice, and a lack of prior impairment. One must hold the two glasses in one hand, and tip them properly so that the schnapps flow into the big shot as it then goes down. Things can get messy at the best of times. Step-by-step picture instructions are here.

Should one like to try for yourself, and just can't wait until you find yourself in this fair city, the site offers to sell you everything you need. Not that I would recommend it, you may as well just make your own.

One can see it all properly done here, which appears to be at Schützenfest. Of course, this style of drinking is not unique to Hannover, but the class and prestige at least pretended to be associated with it is. Also, keep in mind there's nothing that restricts one to a single schnapps glass........

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

There's-a gonna be some changes round here

Pay attention, all 4 loyal readers. With my undergraduate classes drawing to a close on Thursday

>>break for celebratory dance<<

it's time for some changes in my life, and of course the most important thing for me to consider is how I run this blog*. Unfortunately it has not been quite what I had hoped it would be when
I started. That being said, I started with the intentions of updating friends and family on my goings-on in Germany this summer, but decided to keep on with it indefinitely. Because of this setup, though, I haven't established a particular style**, or carved out any specific niche.

While a number of posts of quite widely varying format have appeared on here as I test out what works and what doesn't (at least in my mind), I have not been able to make postings as regularly as I would like, and I often find I have interesting things to write but am too busy, lack the inclination, or just plain forget. I am particularly proud of a few articles, and not so much with some others. I hope that a bit of a reworking might help out, and a commitment to a specific style. I also hope that a consistent style.

Expect a change of pseudonym. After having surveyed the various other blogs out there, I notice one thing I seriously lack is a cool-ass name. While one can get an idea of me from the profile information provided, I feel a cooler science-y name would much better express my attitude than a paragraphs would. I just need to figure out what that might be.

Another thing I will do my best to stop doing is saying (even if it's just to myself) that I will write something in the future***. While I continue to say that I'll fill in the stuff and post pictures from the summertime, I have come to realize that it's been a while, and no one really cares that much anymore. I had a blast, and it was great, saw lots, did lots (and had a difficult time this fall coming down from that 4-month high), but when it's so far removed now as to be silly. There are stories to be told still, and they will eventually make their way out, but I'll stop being in such a hurry when I don't actually get it done. I've got some ideas now, but I'll keep those cards close to the chest for now.

Interestingly, while this started last time I had exams in April, the first time I will have felt I have the time to sit down and write out thoughtful stuff is now the next round of exams. In some ways, I'm just an anti-student, I guess. While my peers are pulling all-nighters in the library, I'm bored in between tests and take to writing online. I dunno.

So onward I go to my final batch of exams. I must value this time, as some complaints about other students may only be valid while I am still an undergrad. My time to still whine about my peers is shortening. I must make haste. Oh, and perhaps I might benefit from doing just a little studying. We'll see if I can fit it in.

*The first of many changes, I am owning up to what this is. Though I wish someone would have come up with a better word for it.
**Any suggestions are, of course, welcome. Whether I use them or not is up to me.
***A post on amino acids is still forthcoming, however. I don't have the impact to get it to those that probably might benefit the most, but it's good practice for me in several ways, all the same.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

No pressure.....

So I just handed in the major project for my "Protein and nucleic acid structure" course, the notes for which will essentially be the rules I live by for the next few years at least. Being interested in doing pretty much exactly what I just submitted more or less full time, it means I better have done a good job. But who knows.

I'm not happy with my submission, a lot more could have been done, and a lot was omitted that
a) I spent a lot of time on and
b) is relevant given enough space to explain it
We'll see. I'm not happy with it, but that doesn't mean I'll do poorly.
I've left tests before that I thought I failed and in fact aced them (albeit following a generous bell curve). Let's hope this assignment is like that too. With the expectation that I do well, even an 85% might be a disappointment, though. We'll see.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

All laboratory research ever has just been invalidated

Well, not quite.

Researchers have found that ordinary laboratory plastics contain contaminants that can greatly affect results of biochemical and other research.

Two things:

1. Of course they do! Plastics and the things we put in them are organic molecules, and biological systems use organic molecules extensively.
2. Why hadn't researchers, or more importantly, manufacturers, thought of this before? I know some definitely have, but

This makes me think of classic situations where one person gets results that no one else can replicate under supposedly the same conditions, or someone gets a result once and can never repeat it, or cells that were happily maintained spontaneously die with no discernible reason. I know that in my experience that if needed, different types of tubes, tips, can typically be used interchangeably, without needing to worry about controlling for this source of variation.

The good news is that researchers can hopefully take this effect into account and more effectively troubleshoot, finding the sources of error. Who knows, this could even reverse some file-drawering, and research "cold cases" could be reinvestigated if whatever shelved the research may have been plastic contaminants.

The bad news is this opens the possibility for some published research to actually be incorrect, as a common (and necessary) assumption in research is that your tools and implements are essentially contaminant-free.

Though this comes as a big "duh" moment, i.e. no one can be too surprised that this is the case, the publication of real data shows that plastic contaminants can be a real problem. In the past researchers by and large haven't been too concerned about this possibility. Maybe now they should be.

Science 322 (5903): 917

On Wired:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why they call me crazy

Most people shudder when you say the term "Organic Chemistry". In fact, I just shouted it out loud in a communal study area, which resulted in cries of anguish, weeping, 3 attempts to jump out the nearest window, and one student setting himself on fire. When I tell people that I am taking extra upper-level courses in it "for fun" or, if it needs to be at least partly plausible, for the skill set I gain from the courses, many think me batshit insane. Well, maybe I am.

The weird thing is, for a subject so feared and despised by pre-medical and pre-pharma students, I actually sort of enjoy it. To me, organic chem is in many ways the closest you can get to playing with Lego, yet still earn advanced academic credit for it.

It's problem solving, as in:

I have this compound

And I need to make this one

Using the tools available to me, and some tricky maneuvers that chemists have invented to circumvent problems that biological systems often find when trying to synthesize compounds. If one can't figure it out, it can be downright maddening, but if one is willing to work at it, it can be incredibly rewarding to be able to come up with the right answer.

While I could be taking apiculture (beekeeping) or intro English as a bird course to round out my degree, organic chem is just more fun. I'm glad to have taken it. Perhaps I am nutso.

Whatever they tell you, I am NOT in this to learn to make designer drugs. I am NOT planning on moving to Columbia upon finishing my degree, and putting my skills to use, unhindered by regulatory agencies. And I am certainly NOT hoping to come up with a hallucinogenic dust that will induce irrational fear in citizens of Gotham city in order to take it over and establish my evil empire. Anyone who says otherwise is Batman.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Quirks of the Deutsche Sprache

At times, the German language can be quite funny in how literal it seems to a native English-speaker. Perhaps I need to just take a better look at English as well, though. Following is a short list of things that are sort of odd in the German language from an English perspective. Given more time, effort, and initiative, I could definitely add to this, because I know there are TONS more examples. Feel free to add suggestions.

Glove = Handshue

Yes, that's hand + shoe

Mietwagen = Rental Car

And if a butcher rents a vehicle to make deliveries, well then I guess it works in both languages.

Nachrichten= News

Nothing special, but the interesting thing is you can use Nachricht as a singular, as in

Ich habe ein gutes Nachricht für Sie
I have a good "new" for you.

Leiter = Ladder
Feurzeug = Lighter

This has caused confusion several times, like when I got confused stares for needing a ladder to start a Bunsen burner

Food and drink = Lebensmittel

Literally, the medium of life. Which is, of course true.

Meat = Fleisch
Body = Korper

It's not just the accent. Some things in German just sound more offensive because they sort of are.

Protein = Eiweiß

Ei is egg, weiß is white - so yes, protein is actually called eggwhite.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Congratulations to those south of the border, you have made the right choice. The rest of the world now breathes a sigh of relief.

Glad that I took up an offer to go to the pub, because I would hate to answer "Where were you when history was made" with "reading for school". How boring.

Anyway, I'm finally a little bit optimistic about the future. I like how Jeremy Kinsman puts it, from a Canadian perspective:

"The rest of us [Canadians] should just celebrate the fact that our neighbour and closest friend has chosen the kind of leader that Canadians can instantly recognize because he operates in what used to be a very Canadian way of seeing and dealing with the world."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Pizza Crazy Dog

Ugh, this is terrible. I still have backlog of things from the summer I wanted to write about then and started posts of, only to stop after a few sentences. Here I start to remedy that.

During my last week of work, the boss happened to be gone on vacation, and so several informal gatherings and such were set up to just hang out without the pressure of a PI breathing down your neck. One of which was a pizza lunch, where we ordered in from the local place.

You may have heard how pizza in Italy is nothing like pizza in the US (Canada here falls in the same with the US). Well, while German pizza falls somewhere between, it is also in a way genuinely distinct. I was lucky to get to try out "Pizza Crazy Dog", which was just bizarre, with crisped onions, sliced hot dogs, pickles, and ketchup. Or rather I got to try half of one.....

During the lunch, the reality that I was leaving all the friends I had made for the summer behind hit me, and fast. Which will really kill your appetite. So, I left my food in the fridge, knowing that that meant I could save on lunch the next day (funds were starting to look extremely tight for me for the rest of my stay in Germany).

How absolutely terrible that the following day, my second-to-last day of work, I went to get my leftovers from the fridge, and empty box. After already in a lousy mood from the day before, this just sent my spirits crashing through the floor. Who the hell steals food from their coworkers?

This following the theft of the bicycle generously lent to me by one of my coworkers, I was not a happy camper.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Klaus Störtebeker

Legendary German privateer and pirate; seems a fitting name for a new aquatic friend.

He's about as surly and cranky as a weathered seafarer, too. Fits well.

Why I'm getting nervous...

Despite my earlier rantings on how annoying it is that Canadians seem more interested in American politics than our own, as the election down south draws near, I start to become quite nervous, much more than I was for Oct 14, in fact.

Perhaps it is because in Canada, the worst case scenario was returning the same party to power that already was, and in my opinion - even with my liberal-leaning tendencies - haven't done a bad job. More likely the real discrepancy is that as a student of science, Sarah Palin terrifies me. The Bush administration have been negligent with regards to science, but she goes further and insults the scientific process. And with a reported 22% chance that McCain could die in the next four years (as per an article in The Lancet), that makes things even worse. And that article didn't even take into account the very real possibility that by cutting funding to important studies on wild bear populations, he be mauled alive by angry Grizzlies.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Fettes Brot ist toll!

Since getting back home in late August, I've had more reliable internet access than I had over the summer, and so have been able to look into some bands I learned of this summer in Germany. By far my favorites, who I have listened to far too much over the last two months, are a Hamburg Hip-Hop group called Fettes Brot. König Boris, Doktor Renz, and Schiffmeister make up the group, and something about their style harks back to 1980's American Hip-Hop. If you're looking for upbeat stuff with the exotic-ness of being in a nother language, check these guys out. My favorite is a story about the heartbreaker Emanuela:

Was weißt denn du von Liebe? Von Liebe weißt du nichts.
Dich ham deine gefüle mal wieder ausgetrickst.
Du hältst dich für gefärlich, doch siehst nicht nie Gefahr.
Das hier ist die geschichte von Emanuela.

What do you know about love? You know nothing about love.
Your feelings are playing tricks on you again.
You think you're dangerous, but don't see the danger.
This here is the story of Emanuela.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Trial and error .....and error......and error......

One of the hardest things I've had to learn to deal with so far in working in labs is the fact that not everything works on the first try. When I express frustration, others tell me that that's just the nature of lab work, and I shouldn't worry about it. The thing is, I can't help but let it frustrate me, as I view myself as a competent, capable and smart lab worker, and so when things don't work it ends up being a bit of a kick in the face.

I guess my problem is that I beat myself up for things that are not my fault and are beyond my control. Nevertheless, if I continually make mistakes and get nowhere, then eventually things start to look less like random chance and more like a systematic problem - a systematic problem known as me - and so I shoot to avoid this problem altogether. But when you aim for 100%, then even 95% is a failure.

The rational me understands that everything does not always work out when you run experiments, but the irrational me does not. The irrational me expects that I should be accomplishing everything perfectly from the start through to the end and so sets himself up for disappointment.

I have been known to actually blow experiments by rushing too much, often following one or two rounds of wrecked ones, as impatience begets errors. This sort of thing can turn into a dangerous spiral, and one must remind themselves that not all problems are their fault. My supervisor from this summer put it quite nicely on my review at the end: "Sometimes slow is fast enough"

I guess I just have to stop being so hard on myself. If not, grad school will be really interesting.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Who has time to vote, we have to see if Palin does something funny!

Now that the Canadian federal election is over, and we are back to where we started, it's time for conversation to turn again to why more people don't vote in this country. With a precedent-setting 59.1% voter turnout, I am ashamed in a way that 2/5 of my compatriots don't feel strongly enough about their nation to exercise their democratic rights.

Perhaps more so, however, is my frustration that more Canadians seem to care at present about the upcoming American election, than the one we just had here. Putting aside the comparison between campaign times, (this Canadian election took just over a month between being announced and having the result), it really bothers me that many Canadians seem to be much more interested in the politics of a nation that's not their own. A recent clip from The Hour quizzes Canadians on this on the street and shows it quite well.

Perhaps the best example of this problem was with the Canadian English-Language debate, which by unfortunate luck happened to occupy the same time slot as the American vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. Many Canadians opted to watch this American showdown, instead of the more relevant Canadian leaders' debate, which was the only real chance to see the leaders speak this term for most people. t really concerns me that Canadians are more concerned with who is elected in the States when who is elected here will have a much greater impact on their day-to-day lives.

Perhaps for that 40.9% of voters politics are just entertainment. Or maybe they just don't care. Either way, it bodes ill for the future, as there will eventually come a day when this sort of thing matters. If we continue to be complacent about our government, we'll regret it sooner than some may think.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Reality at the atomic level

Reviewing my Protein Structure course notes, I came again across the slide in which the professor writes "Reality is quantum, but classical approximations are convenient"

He made a very convincing case for why, a hundred years past the development of quantum theory, we still think of atoms as "balls on springs" when in reality, they are nothing like that. They are grains of sand held at the appropriate distance from each other, with a fuzzy cloud of mist in between that manages to hold it all together.

The things is, it's really hard to quantify just how fuzzy that cloud is, and so it becomes difficult to know how the system will behave when you want to do something to it. In addition, even our fastest computers just can't seem to manage the calculations beyond the simplest of systems, and so it's not just that we're too dumb to grasp it, the problem really is hard to calculate.

So we use the balls on springs, but we must not forget how we know the world actually works at that level, because certain phenomena just don't work if we only think of things in terms of classical approximations. I'm perfectly happy to leave it to the real chemists and physicists for now, but should I need to explain something I don't understand, I will be sure that the first thing I do is throw the Dalton model out the window, and remember to embrace the world of the fuzzy at the femto scale.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Memorization and the amino acids

A student of biochemistry, I've often heard the complaint "I have to learn all my amino acids again?"

The trick is not to forget them. And this extends beyond my little corner of the academic world to the periodic table, taxonomic groups, irregular verbs, and schools of philosophy. One must be able to speak the language of their subject so that others can understand them, and so that one can effectively communicate in their discipline. But good luck convincing those who don't want to bother learning.

As much as I dislike the procedure of memorization for school, as I believe that it does not really test your ability as a student, there are cases where it is just plain necessary. At those times if you are doing it right, you shouldn't be working on memorizing each thing, because they should come with an understanding of the process. Past scientists may not have been the smartest when it comes to nomenclature and systematics, lacking the hindsight that we now have, but usually there is still a reason for the names and that helps to know what we're talking about. For example, isoleucine is an isomer of leucine. Did not see that coming. Histidine is the protonable ring. Cysteine forms bridges, proline forms kinks, and glycine is flexible because it's smallest. Glutamine is the amide of glutamate, asparagine is the amide of aspartate. Sure, they're not easy to know but the things that make each one unique are what makes them memorable, and by learning this way, it is a lot easier than beating one's head off the wall trying to figure out how to draw arginine again from thin air memorizing how the N, C, and H's line up.

Like my professor said a few years back, "You need to decide which amino acid you are like. Are you large and negative, like glutamate, or are you small and polar like serine? Maybe you're extremely bulky like tryptophan."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Antigravity Gene

Ever since LOST hit the air back in my freshman year, I've been sucked into the character-driven serial drama shows like 24, Prison Break, Jericho, and most recently, Heroes. Unfortunately.

I can forgive Heroes the terrible wrap-up of their second season due to the Hollywood Writers' Strike, and even the lousy start to season 3 so far (Does any character ever stay dead?!?). What I have a much harder time letting slip by is the abominable attempts of the show to explain the superhero phenomena in the show through science.

I have no problem to watching a show that deals with paranormal effects and accepting the weird stuff that happens there, as I routinely do watching LOST. The time-travelling and craziness, while it messes with my head, is ok too. I can even let slide the concept of a "mutant gene" that supposedly gives wildly different results in every individual who carries it (I allowed it with X-Men, so I have to let it go here too).

Where I do draw the line, however, is the use real scientific terminology and imagery, in distorted fashion, to try and describe obviously fictional effects. Perhaps the show's creators hope to make the Heroes world seem plausible, but to anyone who knows much about science, their attempts just end up ridiculous.

When Mohinder, the scientist who narrates the show, points at a computer screen with what looks like bacteria tumbling around in solution in HD, and says "there's the gene!", it makes me confused. When he spouts off incoherence about enzymes and the bloodstream and adrenaline and genes, I get annoyed. When he works for 20 minutes and completes what would be 2 years of lab work in the real world, I get angry.

The icing on the cake is the perfectly arranged rainbow-coloured solutions that sit atop his bench. I wish my lab benches were ever that nicely decorated.

While I suspend my disbelief about superhero powers and the like that is central to the show, I have a very hard time stomaching their complete misrepresentation of what science is, and how it works. If they want to make it mad science, the scientist should be a mad scientist, and not the more-or-less rational individual Mohinder is. It's fine to have him sit there and mumble on in some incoherence about something the viewer can't grasp, but when the character talks about things you actually find in the textbooks, the writers of the show start actually lying by making fake connections between real things. It's the same as introducing Bill Gates to the show as a character and giving him a super-geek-ray power or placing the Eiffel tower in the middle of New York. Make something fictional, even take inspiration from the real world, but don't make lies about things from the real world.

The writers of Heroes obviously know nothing about how science works, and that is fine. They just need to stop pretending they do. Or at least do some homework, and find out what a double helix really looks like.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

If only "Classical Greek Influence on Renaissance Architecture" were edible....

...then it might be of more value to students

Textbook publishers are assholes.

I've been lucky and smart and planned ahead enough through the last 4 years to have got by without buying hardly any more texts than I have needed all the way through. Nevertheless, in my first year I still fell prey to peer pressure and people telling me that I must buy overpriced bundles of paper and cardboard so that I could pass the course, then proceeded to leave them right where I could reach them, above my desk. That was where they stayed all year.

Fully acknowledging my hypocrisy here, I still shake my head when seeing all the freshman students at the start of the year lining up to buy their armful of $100 + biology, chemistry, physics, and math textbooks that I know sometimes do not even get the shrinkwrap removed before the course ends. I can only hope that it teaches them the same thing it taught me, and that's to never buy a text until you find yourself in genuine need. What would be better if they figured it out beforehand, but as I experienced as well, no matter how many times you hear you should wait before buying them, the pressure gets too much and you cave, forking over unnecessary amounts for books that you don't really need.

I'd like to know how textbook publishers sleep at night. They continue to charge obscene amounts of money ($168 for one of mine this term - which of course I have no intent of forking over the cash for, sorry Oxford University Press) for books that cost them a fraction the price to produce. How many textbooks sold at 1200% production cost does it take to break even? My guess is not nearly as many as sell. The rest of the thousands of sales go straight from the poor, destitute students into the pockets of Misters Wiley and Freeman.*

It's not just the text companies, either. Instructors, especially at the entry level, continue to push texts on students, claiming that you will not be able to complete the course without one. Sometimes true, but rarely (speaking as a student of the sciences, anyway). I still resent the co-ordinator of introductory biology who told students that the text was essential for the course and that we must fork over $120 for one, following which it was of no use in that or the following course. Multiply by a class of 1800, and we're talking a lot of wasted dollars. The whole thing ends up exploiting individuals known to be poor, helpless, and subsisting entirely on Ramen noodles.

This isn't to say that the texts are not good; a lot of them are excellent, and I have got a huge amount of use out of three in particular. But these are texts I knew I would need, and for every one like me that uses them well, there are 99 who never touch them, and it's quite sad that so many students buy texts that depreciate and become worthless within a few years.

I enjoy upper year classes that teach straight from the primary literature, and if not, then all you might need is a reference text should you need to check facts and for some reason Wikipedia doesn't suffice. Almost done my undergrad, I don't plan on buying another text ever for classes here. I can't foresee having to pay for any others, as all my classes are upper-year sci - oh...wait...right, I'm taking that one too.

Oh, speak of the devil. Hang on a second.

What's that, second year Personal Financial Management?

You say I need the text to complete the assignments for this course?

Do I absolutely need to?

60% eh.... What if I -

Or if I -

Ok, fine. You win. This time. Sleep with one eye open.

Sorry you had to hear that. Well, dammit. Seems there's one more text I need. Guess I'm off to feed the man once more. Till next time.

*Make note that I make no claim that I understand Economics in any way, shape or form. The textbook was too expensive, and so I didn't bother learning. The statements made here are based completely on the assumption (granted, it is the correct one) that publishers are evil soul-eating bat-demons. And I've heard they have something to do with Osama bin Laden, too. Told you they were assholes.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Brussels - city of cartoonists, waffles and pickpockets

Grand Place in midday

So first mistake going to Brussels: assuming that Midi must mean the same thing as central. Nope. In French, it means "Noon". If I'd known the Dutch name for the same station (Brussels Zuid) I would have known I was at the South station when I exited my train, and not wasted 45 minutes desperately looking for street signs (Belgians are apparently above labelling their streets), and not finding the ones I did see on my map, because I believed myself to be at the central station. Regardless of that, I eventually found my hotel and met friends there.
Brussels Arc de Triomphe

Not wasting any time, we headed out to the Grand Place, the central city square, and even though it was 11:30 at night, the place was lively. The buildings surrounding the square were especially picturesque at night time and all through very cool.
Grand Place at night

The Manekin Pis, a famous sculpture of a little boy peeing (literally what the name means) was nearby, and visiting late at night was a great way to avoid the crowds that built up there in the day. Though a return the next day allowed us to see him in a change of clothes, as it is typical for visitors to give him clothes.
Manekin Pis at night

Manekin Pis the next day

Oh, and one must not forget waffles. WAFFLES. Unbelievable. I will never eat any again unless they come from this country. There is just no comparison.
Waffle shop!

The next morning we set out to go to the Atomium, the gargantuan monument built for the 1958 Expo in Brussels. I expected a statue of some sort, and did not realize we were headed to the highest thing overlooking the city. The 9 spheres represent the unit cell of an iron crystal, and can be entered through an elevator that runs up the middle, and escalators in between. The structure was built to last 8 months, but still stands to this day. As it is now the 50th anniversary, it was understandably quite busy.

The Atomium

We came back and visited the Place de Jeu de Balle (Ball Game Square) to see the local flea market. Quite interesting, there were things from around the world, from many different cultures, alongside your normal fleet of broken radios and sunglasses. Of note were a gigantic toothbrush, and guys actually selling couches.....somehow....

Flea MarketToothbrush!

Chocolate shops were a must on our trip round the city, but most proved too rich for my pocketbook. One that offered free samples made for some strong feelings of guilt when I discovered that even the cheapest stuff for sale was too much. They didn't like us.
Galleries St.-Hubert - the world's first mall

We saw the local Beguinhof on the map, and having heard of a Beguinhof in someone's research for Belgium, we decided to go there. It turns out that the one we were thinking of was the Beguinhof in Brugges, which we visited the next day. The Brussels Beguinhof was perhaps more interesting all the same. Arriving at it, with my rough understanding of German and speaking English, I figured out that the sign on the door said 'For 21 days the women have been on hunger strike" in Dutch. We were invited inside by men in their mid-thirties standing at the doors, and inside were were presented with one of the most unique scenes I've seen in all my time here. An old, Baroque church, housing dozens of protesters inside, mattresses covering the floor,neon pink and yellow blankets hung up to give some sense of privacy. The whole thing had to do with immigrant's rights, which apparently are not too great in Belgium (as in a lot of the rest of Europe).

Frites in front of a church
Top of a fountain - this motif is seen on all emblems of the city

Brussels is known as the "unofficial" headquarters of the EU, though it looked pretty damn official to me. EU parliament is based here, as is a lot of the big important agencies. Lots of shiny glass and pretty buildings.
EU Parliament


After missing a chance to get to the re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, but getting some Belgian frites to make up for it, we headed back into the city, and were lucky to stumble upon the music festival that was going on over the weekend. Granted, the music was......different....the crowd was still interesting, and cool to hang around for a while in. Walking through the park nearby on the way out, there were an unbelievable number of teenagers sitting, hanging out, drinking and smoking. There was hardly a square inch of grass free. (or a gram of it, either).
Outside the music festival

Our night ended at Cafe Delerium, as all three of us had independently heard of the bar, located just beside the Grand Place. The place was a tourist hole, but we put that aside for the evening. Perhaps we shouldn't have. Proudly advertising that "In 2002, it was determined that they had 2002 different beer varieties to serve", the place was definitely interesting. Leafing through their inch-thick binder of a menu, we picked out some for each of us, followed by a 2L novelty glass we has seen others drinking from when we stopped by to scope out the place earlier in the day. Where things went lousy was when we realized my friend's wallet was missing. Lost credit cards, passport, and 300euro is a rough thing to take away from a weekend in Belgium.
Cafe Delerium
Belgian Beer

Finally, Belgium is where a lot of the art of drawing comics has originated. You see this throughout Brussels, as statues, murals, and even billboard-like signs at the top of buildings. One thing that I wish I had more time to explore while there, but I did find Tintin!

.....?? Brussels is full of cartoon formsTintin! Atop a building

Monday, September 15, 2008

"Do"-ing while travelling

How does one "Do" a church?

Keep your obscene, inappropriate and/or blasphemous comments to yourself, now.

I spent a lot of time this summer travelling weekends, and have been doing my best to take in everything I can, experience as much as possible and to live life the German way whenever possible. I do my best to respect the people and institutions of the cities I visit.

Which is why it has started to drive me nuts to hear people talk about "do"-ing a museum "do"-ing a royal garden, "do"-ing a festival, "do"-ing a monument. When one has this mindset, they are just crossing things off a list to themselves. Which runs pretty much opposite to my way of travel. Not that I don't also have a list of priorities, and am usually short on time, but at least I try my best to avoid using the terminology that reflects just going somewhere so you can say you went there.

After some time, I developed a different travel philosophy, of merely wandering. If you are in the appropriate places, just wandering at random, stopping when something piques your curiosity, eating when hungry, stopping and listening to the street performers, sitting beside the banks of a river to relax, can be much more rewarding than speedwalking through a city to get from church A to town hall B to monument C. If the places are truly remarkable, you'll probably come across them on your way anyway.

So that's my vent about tourists for today. I fully own that I can fall into the same way of thinking, and in fact I am sure that most who travel do from time to time, but it is a way of thinking that in the future I will fight, and make sure that I make myself take the time to just sit back and smell the roses a bit. It's far less exhausting.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Breaking News

This just in.

The LHC is Online.

The Universe still exists.

Looks like the doomsayers need to go back to preaching to us from Nostradamus.

edit 27/06/09 as I reformat all old entries: sure missed things with this post.......

The show goes on

So I started this page before my summer started in hopes of providing family and friends back home a way of keeping up on my goings-on without specifically sending emails and cluttering everyone's inbox. I know lots of people don't give a damn about what I had done that week, and so I thought it best to register one of these accounts and write when I had the time so that anyone interested could check it at their leisure, and those that didn't care weren't obligated.

I gave myself the freedom, on the other hand, to keep this open this fall after returning home, should I enjoy it enough, and that's what I will do. I feel I've hardly scratched the surface of things I've thought of to write about and so I will keep going and keep writing here. In addition to being able to share my thoughts, this is actually quite a nice vent for me, and I enjoy it, so regardless of if anyone actually checks this anymore, I'm going to continue.

Still on my to-do list are half if not more pictures from my summer, additional comments on my experiences and what I found interesting, thoughts on science and the like from lab work this summer, and new stuff to do with my semester that's currently getting off the ground here back at home. Check in again shortly. Same bat-time, same bat-channel.

I'll be writing about something real next time. I promise.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


There's a new pastime that's sweeping the nation, and one can only engage in it for a limited time. You've heard of people-watching, well, for those of you not content with merely watching people, now you can watch frosh.

It wasn't too long ago I came to University from High School, and so I still remember quite well how I felt upon getting to my school for the first time. Which makes it all the more interesting to watch the brand new first-year students run around, trying to show off/look tough/pick up/get picked up and/or have people in awe of them as they brag about high school achievements. And they travel in packs. I would think some of what I see from the students were actual confidence and not just being loud an insecure, if it weren't for the fact that they cannot do anything alone. I'm aware of my hypocrisy, I was once in the exact same position, doing the exact same. But I think that gives me licence to make fun. I've done my time.

If I didn't have frosh-watching to amuse me, the 20-minute wait in line to get a coffee as they all ordered smoothies would have really pissed me off. And I got stares for being alone (heaven forbid) and drinking coffee. Oh, the naivete.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ich liebe meine Fahrrad

Fahrrad, Zweirad, Velo, Radl, Drahtesel. Germans love their bicycles. So much so that they have a complete repertoire of names for each part of one that you'll have a very hard time translating due to the multiple trivial names, none of which have anything to do with the English term. Makes for lots of fun when one tries to change a flat tire.

Going to any Hauptbahnhof (central train station) you will undoubtedly see a sea of bicycles somewhere where they allow parking for bikes. That is the best place to observe the huge popularity of this means of transportation in the country.

I was lucky enough to have one lent to me for the summer by a coworker, and let me tell you, the freedom of riding a bicycle in this country is amazing. Whatever stops automobiles is no obstacle für meine Fahrrad. Forest? No problem, there's paths through to anywhere you need to go. River? Oh look, a bicycle and pedestrian bridge, right over there! Autobahn? Kein problem, there's an overpass built there just for me. Oh how riding a bicycle simplifies life.

Unfortunately, the huge popularity of bicycles here makes them particularly attractive to thieves, even ones that one would consider not worth stealing.

My borrowed bike before getting stolen:

And after:

Thursday, September 4, 2008

My Pledge

So as you read this, I am now back in Canada, preparing for my next semester of school. I've had a great 4 months away in Germany, but now is time to face the real world again.

I've known other students who have lived abroad for a while, and often they come home with the "_____ is better than here" attitude, which tends to piss off everyone around them to no end.

Although while in Germany I have found a lot of things are really interesting when I compare to how things work back home, I know that talking about how certain things are better there will piss some people off to no end, and so here I make a promise to not be that guy.

I pledge:

Not to go on and on about the football - er- soccer teams and leagues whenever sports come up
Not to complain about the food and wax nostalgic about bakeries and bratwurst
Not to go on and on about the more liberal, accepting atmosphere one finds in Western Europe.
Not to change my entire tastes in music to German music.
Not to constantly put down the English language in favour of the German one.
Not to complain (too much) about the quality and price of beer.
Not to constantly compare cultures and talk about how Europeans are better than us here.

I do ask for some understanding as it will take some time to get used to gas-guzzling cars, crappy sports, lousy food, insensitive people, country music, and the flaws of the English language. You wouldn't understand. My European friends would, they're naturally better at this sort of thing.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Jet lag stinks

So I thought I'd beat the jet lag on the way back home to Canada the way I did when I went to Germany back in May. Unfortunately, I was wrong. This stinks.

Don't you worry, though, I still have lots to write about, about a half dozen posts in the works that I didn't get to complete yet from the summer, lots of ideas still, and pictures still to share from 4 months abroad. I just need to wait for my head to clear so I can write coherent sentences, and for a faster connection so I can get something accomplished. Stay posted. Stay classy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Bremen am Weser

Bremen is one of three cities in Germany that has retained independence as its own state (Bundesland) in the country. The others are Berlin (the capital, makes sense) and Hamburg (another huge city, also makes sense). But why is Bremen also an independent (and the smallest) Bundesland? Well that's history, folks.

Looking at the map of Bremen the fact that it was once a medieval port jumps out quite strongly, as the old city moat has remained largely preserved, and lies in the middle of a city park. Bremen was part of the medieval Hanseatic League (I have learned that in North Germany you can't escape this word) and as such became quite prosperous, and asserted itself as an independent city-state throughout almost its entire existence

The old city hall of Bremen is a UNESCO site and iconic of the city. Out front stands the enormous statue of Roland, a knight and sovereign of the city.

Bremen City Hall - Rathaus

More importantly than all that stuff, the sight that can't be missed in Bremen is the world-famous Beck's brewery. Forget the fact that so far as German beers go, it tastes like crap, I've been there!

Each one of those boxes is an entire crate of beer bottles. Jaw-dropping.

The conclusion to our tour

The Haake Beck Regatta

The day we landed in Bremen was coincidentally the day of the Haake Beck (local brew/brand put out by the Beck's brewery) Regatta. We caught Bremen on the day of this momentous event where brave souls compete to doggy-paddle up the Weser on inner tubes to claim victory over the other competitors. The prize? Guess.

The Bremer Stadtmusikanten

And no trip to Bremen would be complete without visiting (and groping at) the Bremen Town Musicians. These guys are from a Grimm's Fairy Tale that unfortunately everyone there but myself seemed roughly familiar with. All the same, they're cool guys. I'd sit down for a Beck's with them anytime.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

I learn

When I have done quite well (pat myself on the back here) in school all the way since I was young, I have started to ask myself more and more what makes me so much different? Why do I not seem to have the trouble my fellow students do with academics? Why, in my first year of college, did I ace every final exam without studying more than a few hours?

It's taken me a long time to come up with an answer to this, and I think I may finally have one.

I learn.

Others run, they read, they watch sports, they shop, they act, they build. The thing that I most enjoy doing is learning. And as a result, I think I'm well suited to the current academic system, which means that I am a lucky person as far as these things go.

Very lucky. Because, if I were born in a country that didn't have the sort of educational system that mine does, I probably would have fallen prey to some wild animal by now.

Being such a good learner is not always great, first of all you get jealous, competitive classmates in high school who hate you simply for doing better than them (thank God I'm not in pre-med), and going back even further, it makes for painful times on the grade school playground. It also means that when I'm not doing something that ends up being productive (i.e. caught up playing video games for extended periods, boring conversations, lectures about things I already know) it can get extremely frustrating.

I've taken to teaching myself when there's nothing there to teach me. Thus, this summer when my language instruction ended, I took it upon myself to learn on my own time, and now that I have got thus far, I intend to continue, because it is no good to be only one-and-a-half-lingual.

I have also taken it upon myself to learn about as much history, architecture, culture, and art and such that I can while in Germany.

I never really chose to go into science much more than went where people expected me to go. However, it appears that I'm quite lucky in that this is exactly the field I should be in, and I look forward to a lifetime of learning ahead of me. Should be a hell of a ride.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Things I have learned so far about food in Germany

1. Chocolate does not make for a great breakfast food. The sugar high lasts just long enough to get you to work before crashing.

2. Buying cheese when you don't understand the language can be a dangerous undertaking.

3. Gigantic German lunches kill productivity. The temptation to sleep through seminars becomes overwhelming.

4. No-name Nutella® is indistinguishable from the original, and half the price. Making #1 a lesson learned a second time.

5. Germany not only has strong beer; a cup of coffee in the morning can triple the speed of work. The concomitant jitters only cause twice as many mistakes.

6. Quark - something between cream cheese and yogurt, is delicious and filling.
6b. To make a German cheesecake, just add quark to a pie shell and bake it. Have not made up my mind on this yet.....

7. You pay for the fat in milk, and not the removal. 3.5% = 0.68 1.5% = 0.62

8. If you are in North Germany, fish can indeed be traditional German food.
8b. If you are in North Germany, fish is indeed the traditional smell.

9. Not only beer, but wine and spirits are ridiculously cheap, which begs the question of how much of the cost of alcohol worldwide is actually just tax. It also begs the question of why there are not noticeably more alcoholics running around.

10. An extra serving of meat can, in fact, count as a vegetable.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lingua franca

I'm glad I was raised in English, because working in the scientific field is much more accommodating to Anglophones. Those who naturally speak another language typically have to learn English to work in the scientific field, even if they are in a country where everyone speaks a different language.

In my lab, general conversation goes on in German unless there is a particular reason to include me or one of the other native English-speakers. However, once a presentation is taking place, the default language becomes English. Everyone who works in the scientific field pretty much has to learn English to get by, and I guess I am just lucky that it is my mother tongue. Or unlucky, because while here it means there's less incentive to learn a different language, as I can mostly get by in English.

So I have mixed feelings. It makes a career as a scientist much easier from my end, but I feel like I got ahead without trying when compared to my international colleagues. And I may in fact be losing out on the benefits of learning another language, simply because additional languages always aids understanding of ideas and processes.

I also have to wonder why, exactly, English is the language of choice? Before coming to Germany I did not realize that there would be so much of a requirement for students and researchers to speak English. I remain quite surprised to keep finding so many people who speak English, when in a lab back home almost all other students are monolingual Anglophones. Perhaps the history of science with the British Royal Society? Or the American influence in science in the 20th century? Or just luck?

I seem to recall Dan Brown had some idea about English being the language of science, but I'm not going to go there. I hope to keep the conspiracy theories to a minimum, unless, of course, they are MY conspiracy theories.

Question of the day: If WWII or the Cold War had ended differently, would we all be learning German or Russian to work in science? Or French? Or Japanese?

Monday, August 18, 2008

German Ingenuity

When the twist-off is regarded as something for the lower-class, the lazy, the North Americaners, the pop-top beer bottle dominates. And as necessity is the mother of invention, this means that the German Volk have invented multiple unique ways of opening bottles. Coming here I was familiar with banging a bottle off a table corner (Table Open), but that was a simpler time, and I was naive.

The quintessential way of opening you'll find here is the lighter. Meaning that many Germans who do not smoke carry around a lighter so that they can drink. Figure that one out. The method involves wedging the base of the lighter under the cap, getting some leverage, and popping the cap off that way. One must be a little brave as lighters have been known to (a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-mine) crack and trigger a small explosion. Like Russian roulette but involving alcohol. Appropriately, this is the Lighter Open.

More impressive than that is opening a beer with another beer, the I'm Really Unprepared Open. It doesn't get much better than opening a cold one using another cold one. If you want a rewarding feeling, successfully completing one of these Opens provides just that.

Rumor has it of a way involving two bottles, some sort of theatrical jump and a kick, though I'm not sure how this works, and apparently it is so rare many Germans go their entire lives and never see it. Hence the name, the Bigfoot Open.

The exact way not to open one was discovered by yours truly, when only a spoon was handy. The Spoon Open involves sliced knuckles and is not recommended to anyone. Important lesson learned in Germany: You are not German.

Ask later how I managed to open a wine bottle without a corkscrew. I don't think even the Germans have figured this one yet.