Wednesday, July 30, 2008

No, not a desk JOB.....

....but a desk would be nice.

One of the pitfalls of the undergraduate lab experience is you have to do everything from a single lab bench, as being at the bottom of the totem those are the resources you get (and that is if you are lucky!). This is wonderful if the lab bench is all you need, but when it comes time to do work that doesn't involve pipetting, handling Eppis, or streaking plates, it is nice to sit in a real chair, work at a desk and write things down.

The worst is when it comes to reading papers, because it is nearly impossible to concentrate on the material while hunched over the high bench space sitting on an uncomfortable lab stool (They make them uncomfortable on purpose, so you aren't tempted to sit down for long). Never mind the other lab workers to your left and right who crowd you when all you need is somewhere to sit and read.

I look forward to some day when I may have a small desk space and dare I suppose, even a computer, to call my own and work at. "Be careful what you wish for," you say, and I take that advice, but my aching feet and lower back really just need a break.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Double the nerdity

Doing calculations for how much of a chemical I needed this morning, I found I needed to weigh out 0.1337 g. Easy to remember. In a way, I'm ashamed that it is for me.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, good. Keep it that way.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Hanseatic and Mecklenburger for a day

So I took a weekend off travelling to big European destinations and had a look around more local Northern Germany. My travels took me to Lübeck, the former "capital" of the Hanseatic League, and also to Wismar, which is a smaller town that has retained a lot of Hanseatic character, and seems mostly frequented by German tourists. Also in the same day trains took me to Schwerin, the capital of the Bundesland Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the government still operates out of the impressive, fairy-tale-like Schweriner Schloss.

So one at a time:


Surrounded by the river on both sides, the city centre of Lübeck is an island of terracotta roofs in a more-or-less modern German city. The city is full of brick Gothic architecture (get used to the term, it shall come up a lot). Spires of the churches and cathedral are visible from far away and are very prominent in the skyline. Two city gates remain, the Holstentor, and Burgtor, which are both very impressive, and tell me that I did not want to screw with the medieval Lübeckers, even though they are famous for inventing marzipan*.

I spent most of the time in this town on the run, and got to experience the lovely weather one gets near the Baltic. Basically, it is sunny, then 5 minutes later it is raining, then 10 minutes more it is sunny again for an hour. I noticed locals who made a habit of waiting under shelter with the (correct) expectation that the rain would stop shortly. Truly bizarre to someone who experiences rain or sun for days at a time. As a pedestrian, the city sucked, because there was no public transit but buses, and even early in the morning, buses dominated the roads in the city centre. Traffic signals were also unbelievably long. It took me more than 5 minutes to get across both parts of an intersection.


This tiny town is quite off-the-radar for international tourists, and I would never have known about it had my supervisor not highly recommended it to me. The city centre is a UNESCO world heritage site, and the three enormous brick Gothic churches are particularly marvellous. And by three I mean one and two halves. Two were destroyed in the war and are in the process of being rebuilt. This is where UNESCO's money helps out. This is the first place in Germany I've seen what could be resentment about the WW2 bombings, and very likely because it is a smaller town with less international influence (I was it).


So except for the supposed only remaining statue of Lenin in Germany (which did not want to be found), the only truly notable thing in Schwerin was the Schloss. But what a Schloss it was. I was Cinderella for a day. The most important thing I took away from this city was that I want to be insanely successful so that I can build my own castle just like this one and live in it.

Apparently the castle and city has a local pöltergeist, known as Petermännchen (Peter, the little man), and even has a museum devoted to him. Also odd was the prevalence of painted rhinos throughout the city. Toronto had Moose once upon a time, Berlin has Bears, Hamburg has little men carrying water buckets (more on that later), and for some reason, Schwerin has Rhinos. I could be wrong, but I really don't think they're native here. *shrugs* Oh and this city had a brick Gothic cathedral too, but by this point brick churches were lost on me.

*although my sources tell me this is still hotly debated

An experiment in the Czech Republic

Anecdotal evidence: A bilingual friend of other travellers reported that she felt she received better service when speaking English than German in Prague.

Hypothesis: Service workers in Prague give better treatment to tourists who speak English than those who speak German.

Introduction: It was previously reported (unpublished data) that service varies in The Czech Republic based on the language used. While it is tempting to believe that this is the case, a lack of formal, controlled experimentation means that no definite conclusions can be made.

Prague is a worldwide tourist destination. Virtually untouched by war, the city is a beautifully preserved example of architecture of all periods from Medieval times to modern day. The city is dense with tourists and a gigantic tourism industry has grown out of this. In Wenceslas Square, in particular, many fast food stands make particularly good business serving various American and German-style fast foods all along its length.

This report details the investigation of the effect of language on service in the Czech capital city, Prague. Wenceslas Square was chosen as the experimental site due to the density and ease of availability of the same product in multiple locations in close proximity.

Materials and Methods: One hungry traveller looked for something to eat, and stopped at two stands consecutively for the cheapest fast food offered, the Hamburger (25 Kc). At one stand the experimenter requested "one hamburger, please" and at the other "einen Hamburger, bitte" and recorded the results in terms of service and food quality.

Sample size: 1

English: researcher received polite treatment, and an outstanding hamburger, complete with ketchup, lettuce and a perfectly toasted bun.

German: The experimenter received rude, rushed service, and hamburger was hastily thrown together, with a soggy bun and overall poor quality.

Relative quality of service ratio (E/G)*: 100

95% Confidence interval: Relative risk of approximately 0.1 - 10000

*Subjective judgement of the experimenter

Discussion: It was found that service was much better when English was the language employed, but unfortunately with the sample size employed, the difference could not be considered significant. Further studies are required to support the findings of this report. Nevertheless the findings are encouraging, and are what would be expected if the hypothesis is, indeed, true.

It should be noted that in both cases, the servers replied in English, regardless of the language the meal was ordered in, indicating a bias in service, and this could not be controlled for.

In addition, it was discovered afterward that although payment was made in the form of a 50Kc bill at both stands for a 25Kc meal, at the end the experimenter had only 25 + 15Kc in change, meaning that one stand did not return the appropriate change. This requires further investigation, as it is not known if this discrepancy occurred when the English or German transaction occurred.

Unfortunately, although both stands were owned and operated by the same company, location was a confounding factor as the "German" stand was noticeably busier than the other.

A limiting factor in this experiment was that the experimenter does not speak any Czech, and so an important control could not be conducted. However, after two Czech-style hamburgers were consumed, there was little desire for another and so this control would likely have gone unperformed anyway.

Conclusions: Although no significant results were obtained due to the limited sample size, the results support the hypothesis that English-speaking tourists do in fact receive better treatment in Prague than German-speakers.

Recommendations: Further testing is required. The sample size employed did not allow any definite conclusions to be drawn, although the observations recorded are encouraging with respect to the hypothesis. A randomized trial with multiple subjects and locations would prove very informative in establishing the presence or absence of an effect.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Anyone who has worked in a laboratory knows what I mean by "pipetting up and down". It is a pretty obvious thing to do, just hit the plunger a couple of times to make sure your liquids mix, except for such a vague term it actually has a quite specific meaning.

When one reads enough protocol that says to mix by pipetting up and down, or to avoid doing so, one begins to wonder, why the heck do they keep calling it such a terribly vague term? Like I said, everyone understands it, but in the scientific environment, it seems silly to go without giving it a verb, as it's a commonly used phrase.

Thus, I suggest: pipettomixenoscillation. Perhaps not shorter, but way cooler. And all the better to confuse lab newcomers.

"How do I prepare this reaction?"
"Oh just add the buffer to your reagents and pipettomixenoscillate"
"Pipettomixenoscillate. Don't they teach you anything in school? You're fired, stupid."

Oh and by the way, when this makes it into Webster's, I want credit for coining the term. And money. Lots of money.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Frugality and travel

I am cheap.

So what am I doing in Europe, a hugely expensive undertaking, you ask? Well I have to ask myself that quite a lot as well. The thing is, I hardly decided to do this myself, others nudged me into coming here. I am glad for it, but very likely would never have done it on my own.

I have resolved my cognitive dissonance on the matter by deciding that every Euro I spend must in some way enrich me as a person. Meaning I don't blow money on inconsequential things like cheesy souvenirs, the prettier-looking lunch options at the Mensa (Cafeteria) or expensive drinks at clubs. Even though I am here for 4 months, I still live like a backpacking traveller because it is not worth it to buy housewares I will never use again.

I am travelling to see Europe, but at the same time to learn, and I continue to learn more every day. About language, about history, about art, about people. I consider this trip an investment in myself. Every day I do not learn is a waste of my time and money.

Which is why I don't bat an eye at a 10 Euro museum admission, but get thoroughly pissed off when an internet cafe rips me off by 0.50 Euro.

My philosophy on this trip makes things difficult when meeting with other students who have very different views than I do. Some are only interested in their work, some just with partying, some don't want to spend money at all, and others have tons to blow. Meaning more often than not I have had to strike out and put my foot down for what I want to do. Which is perhaps the best thing I have learned so far this summer.

I decided to come here on the advice of others, but now here I am deciding what I want, and sticking to that. Money is a powerful motivator when it comes to making decisions.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What a great time to be in Europe!

No, not because of the weather....

Getting back in touch with the world after a few weeks with limited news access, I was interested in seeing that GSK now seems prepared to handle a flu pandemic and is beginning production of the vaccine in Dresden, Germany. Glad to be here, should anything come up.


Sunday, July 13, 2008


When I say Amsterdam, what do you think of?

If you're my age, you think of legalized pot and the Red Light District. If you are my grandparents', you think of tulips
and canals.
Well this city contains all those things, and everything in between. And bikes. Lots of bikes.

So sit right down and I'll tell you a tale of the most rockenest city in the Lowlands.

When I stepped off the train and out the doors of Amsterdam's Centraal Station,
it was no word of a lie to say that I stepped into the biggest party I've ever attended.
I don't smoke grass
or indulge in the consumption of hallucinogenic fungus, nor was I very interested in making the acquaintance of the lovely women in skimpy clothes winking at me from their windows,
but the atmosphere of everyone having a good time sure did rub off onto me. People who hang out in central Amsterdam love life, and I feel that I also gained the same appreciation while there.

All this culture is set in the middle of a medieval city, complete with canals, bajillions of bridges,
and bajajajajillions of narrow, gabled houses. Bizarre, but in an awesome way.
I had my share of problems during my trip, but everything that went wrong could not even begin to change my opinion of the city, which was just great in every sense of the word. Highly recommended to all.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Electronic excuses

I do not use a cell phone. In fact, I refuse to use a cell phone. People tell me that I should, that such-and-such deal exists, and it's really cheap*, which might be a valid argument if I actually wanted one. I do not. I do not want to be tied to yet another piece of electronic crap in my pocket. I don't need something else to worry about losing. I don't need the anxiety of hoping battery and/or minutes don't run out before I get a call I am expecting. I do not want to concern myself with turning the thing off whenever entering a classroom or theater.

And sometimes, just sometimes, it is nice to get away, you know?

Unfortunately, being a holdout on this technology is finally starting to make things difficult for me. It seems that when you can reach anyone at any time, there is no need to set concrete meeting times/places. Which means I have to fight to make people commit. Cellphones, or mobiles, or Handys, or what have you, have encouraged laziness and a non-committal attitude in my generation and I hate it. You don't need to have plans, you can just call and determine plans while you go. You don't need to be on time, you just let people know you're late, as you show up consistently late. You don't need to stick to plans at all, so long as you call and let those you are leaving alone that you decided to do something else.

I can't stand cellphone culture. I think the device is slowly making us stupider, and refuse to use one because I will not become yet another obnoxious person running around talking while trying to get things done, and constantly tied to an electronic device in my pocket. When people can't arrange meetings and keep their times without calling on the way with their phones, it is not a problem that I don't have a phone, it is a problem that they can't keep the arranged time.

Guess I'm just old fashioned. 2003, those were the days.

I have heard before from students who choose not to drink that they constantly get people asking them why, as if they must have something wrong with them to make them not want to. In fact, some just don't want to be part of a culture that they see (rightly so) as often irresponsible and rude. I am starting to feel the same way about my lack of adherence to the social norm when it comes to phones. It must be because I am cheap or confused that keeps me from getting a cell phone. I am both of those things, but first and foremost I just don't want one. Some people just don't grasp that.

So anyway, I'll sit here alone for now as I wait for my phone-dependent friend to show up. We'll see how long it takes him to get here......

*30 euro is only comparatively cheap - that is food for a week for me.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The research environment trans-Atlantically

It's actually quite surprising that you can fly across and Ocean, to a different land with different culture, and yet come to a workplace where everything is almost identical to a workplace back home, but when someone screws up they yell "scheiße", instead of "shit".

In Germany, superiors hate giving speeches about safety but because of law, have to begrudgingly run you through all the rules and regulations. In Germany, all the grad students start late and end later. In Germany, when salespeople come by, everyone ignores them and continues working as long as possible, and the technicians scoff at the offers once the salespeople leave. In Germany, everyone wears lab coats when important people are scheduled to visit, but can't be bothered otherwise.

There's so much more the same about day-to-day life in the lab than different, which is really the last thing I expected. I don't mind it. It's my island of similarity in this foreign land. They even present in English. More on that later.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Have a Poutine for me!

Happy Canada Day one and all! Be sure to have some Nanaimo bars, Montreal smoked meat, Beaver Tails, butter tarts, back bacon, and maple syrup for me!