Sunday, February 27, 2005
Grumpy, sorry for myself and feeling ripped-offWell, for the last couple of days I have been feeling generally grumpy and sorry for myself. Thursday evening, I came down with the Flu. After staying up all night with a bad chest, temperature and aching all over I decided to ring in sick Friday morning. Unfortunately, the only paracetemol I had in the house to lower my fever and stop the aches was in Beechams cold remedies - which also contain mild stimulants to combat drowsiness. Great for keeping you on the go in work, but no use if you want to try and get a good night's sleep. I've since bought 2 types of Tesco paracetemol.One is a Paracetemol/Aspirin/Decongestant mix with caffeine - great for daytime. The other is just Paracetemol that should let me sleep.
Of course, Friday was due to be a busy day for me. My "Progress" meeting on Wednesday resulted in my being told to redesign some of my experimental approaches, meaning that I have to choose new enymes to cut my DNA before my southern blot and design new PCR primers to amplify a different section of DNA for my probe. Unfortunately, when I take into account all of the different criteria required for this, it becomes a classic case of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. It simply can't be done. Mother nature rather annoyingly didn't design the genome with SaneScientist's Southernblots in mind (the bitch!), so I had to come with an almost as good compromise. Ideally I wanted to discuss this in lab meeting. However, walking to the bathroom on Friday morning left my legs wobbly and me needing a sit-down, so there was no way in hell I was going out in sub-zero temperatures and walking to work.
So I sent a proposal to my boss from my sick bed (gotta love Wi-Fi), to which he hasn't replied. Oh well, I'm going to go ahead Sunday evening anyway since I want them to be ordered Monday AM. With my next meeting potentially 2 weeks away, and it taking up to a week for new custom designed PCR primers to be synthesised and despatched, I want the order processed ASAP.
My mood wasn't improved any by the extortionate amount the trainline.co.uk want to charge me for a train ticket to London. My best mate has landed the lead role in a play in our mighty capital and I'm going along as head cheerleader. It's in 3 weeks and I've decided to make a weekend of it and stay with some other friends whom I haven't seen for months. Despite booking 3 weeks in advance, all of the apocryphal £12 tickets are gone. I wonder if under the new Freedom of Information Act I can get Virgin to tell me just how many of these alleged Value tickets exist? The cheapest option is £54. WTF? For a 2 1/2 hour journey? Are they taking the piss? The only alternative is to fly, unnecesarily environmentally damaging and requiring a taxi journey at each end that will negate any cost savings, or a bus journey. The problem is that the bus journey is almost 6 hours each way and I suffer from mild travel sickness. The sickness itself won't be an issue - unless I try and read a book. I can't travel 6 hours without reading or something. At least on the train I can read or even plug my laptop in and watch a DVD (or even work!). And I really don't fancy a 6 hour journey if I have partaken of el vino the night before, that would be really bad...
So in conclusion - I am grumpy and pissed off. Probably the perfect time to start composing this week's Twat.
PS What has happened to this year's Oscar coverage? I can't find it any where. I'm not a fan of award ceremonies as a whole, except that this year Chris Rock is presenting and I want to see it live and unedited, rather than chopped up piece-meal. The Beeb never seem to understand that nobody really gives a toss who wins - we just want to see Billy Crystal/Steve Martin/Chris Rock take the piss out of Tinseltown Royalty. Billy Crystal sitting on Clint Eastwood's knee singing "Old Man Eastwood" to the tune of "Old man river" was priceless. Lets hope Rock ignores "Concerned Mothers for America" or whoever the Fuck they are and says exactly what he wants.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
Result!!! (of a sort)I finally appear to have cracked my southern blot problem. This morning I printed the results of my latest southern blot - a whole 11 minutes before my "progress" meeting with SWMNBN.
Over the past few days I have worked truly horrendous hours. Friday I worked from 10am until 11pm, on my last attempt at blotting. I then came in saturday and washed my membranes - only to find that there was no radioactivity showing on the membrane. Nevertheless I laid it down in a cassette overnight before going to a birthday party. Sunday, as expected - no result.
The way a Southern blot works (continuing from Stress is making me ill), is that genomic DNA is cut into fragments and spread out along a gel. The DNA is then "blotted" - transferred to a Nylon membrane. The DNA then needs to be "probed" with a radioactive DNA fragment for visualisation.
Probing relies on an intrinsic property of the DNA double helix - strands of DNA like to pair up. They do so because A always binds to T and C always binds to G. So if I have a single strand of DNA consisting of the sequence ACTGACTG, then its "complementary strand" TGACTGAC will stick to it, forming a double helix. The DNA bound to the membrane has been chemically treated so that all of the DNA is single stranded - and thus is looking for a complementary strand (my probe) to stick to.
After making my probe (a short stretch of DNA identical to the gene that I am looking for that I have made radioactive), the last step is to boil it. This causes the 2 strands of the double helix to separate and become double stranded. Left to its own devices, this single stranded DNA, will form double stranded DNA again as it cools to between 50C to 60C. To stop this, the probe DNA is plunged onto ice to snap cool it as soon as it is boiled, thus remaining single stranded.
The membrane from the blot is placed into a heated oven, in glass tubes with caps at either end. In to this is poured a soapy solution called hybridisation solution. The bottles rotate slowly, ensuring that the solution sloshes constantly over the surface of the membrane. To this bottle is added the radioactive DNA probe. The single stranded DNA is heated to 65C in the oven. Now single stranded DNA at 65C is ready for action! Its all loved up and desperately wants to partner up with another, complementary piece of DNA! Woohoo! Party! As the probe sloshes around the bottle it inevitably comes into contact with some of the single-stranded DNA stuck to the membrane. If it finds a piece of DNA complementary to it self is sticks. That spot on the Nylon membrane is now slightly radioactive. After about 16 hours (ie overnight), the solution in the bottle is discarded and the membrane is washed repeatedly in a slightly less soapy buffer to remove any unpaired single stranded probe molecules. Crucially, the paired probe remains bound to the DNA stuck in the membrane. Thus the membrane has patches of radioactivity on it.
All previous blots have failed at this stage, with no radioactive probe bound to the membrane.
After getting completely shit-faced at the birthday party on saturday night, I dragged myself delicately into the lab sunday evening. I had a little over 60 hours until my next "progress" meeting with SWMNBN and had no choice but to start again from scratch.
I remade all of my solutions from scratch, adjusting them to a precise pH and digested more DNA. I finished at 3am.
Monday I dragged myself into the lab after lunch. Time until meeting: 44 hours. I ran the gel, before using a new protocol to blot the gel. 8 hours later I had a nylon membrane, hopefully with DNA bound. Normally, one would wrap the membrane in clingfilm, stick it in the fridge and come back the next day. That wasn't an option, with the meeting looming. Wearily, I started to make my DNA probe, before adding it to the bottles with the membrane to hybridise overnight. I left the lab at 6am and caught the first bus of the day home to bed.
At lunchtime, my alarm clock woke me so that I could write the pre-meeting progress report demanded by SWMNBN. Time until meeting: 22 hours.
After snatching a few hours more sleep, I headed back into the lab to wash the excess probe off the membrane. Now things were looking promising, as I ran the geiger counter over the membrane - it started to click. Yes!!! Some radioactive probe had bound to the membrane. It wasn't much granted - the radiation level rose from 0.5 counts per minute (normal background in the lab) to 2 counts per minute (probably the same as a large lump of granite!), but I'll take it!
I carefully laid the membrane flat in a lead-lined cassette and placed a radiation sensitive screen in there with it. I then placed it to one side.
Time to meeting: 10 hours.
After lying awake most of the night worrying, I crawled into the lab.
I placed the radiation sensitive screen into the scanner and sat back.
Miracle of miracles an image appeared of a the nylon membrane - complete with faint black bands where I hoped the gene I was looking for would be. YES!!!!!!! Time until meeting: 11 minutes....
The meeting went as expected. I had been prewarned that SWMNBN was furious with my lack of progress to date and "looking to tear me a new arsehole". It came to my turn to get grilled, and she turned over a copy of my "progress" report - covered in red ink and angry looking scribbles.
"Before we start," I said, "I just want to show you this - hot off the laser printer" and handed her the printout.
Flummoxed!! I could see that she was seething and absolutely torn. On the one hand, we had the first positive results in months - on the other hand I am sure she had spent hours in front of a mirror practising what she was going to say.
After grilling me for 30 minutes with little conclusive to say the meeting concluded.
"Well you've made some small progress. Now can you press the accelerator pedal a little harder and get us the data we need for the conference next month.."
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
The Tuesday Twat(s)No. 6. Vending Machine Manufacturers
"Please insert exact change only"
Flashed the little green LED display.
I stared morosely at the rows of nutritionally vacuous, yet oh so tempting crisps and chocolate bars. Then at the £2 coin in my hand.
How could it have run out of change already? It was only filled 2 hours before.
Well I suppose its obvious really - its an easy way of making more money. Instead of charging 50 pence for a packet of McCoy's crisps and risk customers saying "How fucking much?" and going somewhere else. Instead, charge 45 pence and don't give change. Thus customers tut at the expense (after all 45p is still very expensive) - but still buy the crisps. Crucially, when they only have a 50 pence piece they'll grumble - but figure "its only 5 pence" and push it in the slot.
But it gets worse. Not only do they not give you change - they don't let it carry over into the next sale. So lets do the maths. Sanescientist wants a packet of crisps (45p) and a chocolate bar (another extortionate 45p). Its 4am - nowhere else is open. SaneScientist's wallet has four 20 pence pieces, two ten pences an old bus ticket and a USB memory key. Sadly, there are no 5 pence pieces either in my wallet or in my sock.
How an honest person would design the machine:
Its out of change (genuinely - everyone has paid with pound coins and the float has emptied).
Sanescientist puts two 20s and a 10 in (50p) and asks for crisps.
The crisps drop, crushed and split the metre or so from their shelf. The display reads "Amount entered 5p". Sanescientist has a choice he can either think of his waistline and walkaway now, leaving the 5 pence to put a smile on a colleague's face in the morning - or he can put another two 20s in and get his choccie bar.
He thinks "Fuckit - the next person might be SWMNBN - I'm not giving her 5p" so opts for the chocolate bar.
Total cost 90 pence.
How major vending machine manufacturers design their machines:
Set the display default to "Exact change only please" and don't, under any circumstances, give change. Ever.
Sanescientist places two 20s and a 10 in the slot. His mangled crisps emerge from the other end of the machine. The machine displays "Next customer. Exact change only please".
Sanescientist needs his chocolate fix, so against his better judgement he stuffs his remaining two 20s and 10 into the slot. Chocolate bar is unceremoniously dumped in the tray, display reads "Next customer. Exact change only please".
Total cost £1
11% additional profit - none of it earned honestly.
Of course this sort of thing has been going on for years. How often has the machine "Swallowed" your money? And why, if the machine has run out of a certain item, will it still take your money if you accidently enter the wrong code?
Recently, they've gone one better.
It used to be that the machine in our canteen would swallow money on a regular basis. Fair dos. I would speak to the pleasant woman on the till, who would note my name down (and I wear an ID badge - I can't lie!) and give me the money out of the till. When the technician arrived to fill it, she would tell him how much she reckoned we were owed - he would check the money in the machine against the inventory and pay up.
A year or so ago, we could no longer have money out of the till since it affected the canteen's cashing up. Fair enough. So she would make a note of your name, show it to the technician and then next time you came in to the canteen reimburse you.
Now, the affected customer has to write to the manufacturer of the vending machine, who will post a cheque to the customer, to reimburse the cost. Who in their right mind has time to write a letter to recieve a cheque for 5 pence?
How much extra profit do vending machine manufacturers make from this? Are they cynical enough to actually include it when estimating their profits over the next quarter?
So, this week I am temporarily renaming the post "The Tuesday Thieving bastards".
Labels: The Tuesday Twat(s)
Monday, February 21, 2005
A Touch of the William H Macys...Three o'clock this morning (yes that really was "sunday night") I looked in the mirror in the lift at work and saw this:
William H Macy
No not the moustache! Jeez!
The eyes! Or more specifically the bags under them.
Now first of all, let me say that I have nothing against Mr Macy. Indeed, I think he is an absolute stonking actor and very undervalued. He adds a touch of class to every film he stars in - without him Jurassic Park III would have been as bad as Jurassic Park II. He was superb in Return to Collinwood, and I look forward to seeing him in Desperate Housewives.
However, I am 28 years old. I don't want to be described as "Lugubrious" for another 50 years.
I MUST get more sleep.
Saturday, February 19, 2005
What they spend your council tax on.No. 1. Moped repairs.
If, like me, you have to pay council tax you may have wondered just what it is they spend your hard earned money on. My council, like many others, zealously enforces car parking. Tribes of uniformed council workers patrol the streets, usually on mopeds, recording the licence numbers of anyone foolish enough to try parking. Today, as I rounded a corner into one of the most patrolled areas - the streets around the university - I heard a mighty howling and squealing. Expecting to see St George going 10 rounds with a dragon, I was instead surprised to see another medieval tradition, cleverly updated for the 21st century - moped jousting. Two uniformed parking facilitators were facing one another, front wheels locked, using all the awesome power of their mighty machines to try and force one another backwards. Being on identical machines, they of course were going nowhere. The air was thick with haze of exhaust smoke and burnt rubber. A small crowd had gathered. Finally, obviously deciding that they had done enough damage to council tax payers property, they rode off to gather some more revenue from the hapless university staff not lucky enough to have got a car park pass.
An amazed looking man on the kerb summed the whole spectacle more eloquently than I fear I could ever.
Pointless Precision"University, please" I ennunciated slowly, loudly and clearly.
"Yuwha?" asked the bus driver, looking as if I had asked for Lake of Tranquility.
"U n i v e r s i t y, p l e a s e" I repeat more slowly.
"sthpgrum" mumbled the bus driver, incoherently.
I placed 60 pence on the slot, and after a few seconds waiting as the diver stabbed at the ticket machine like a gorilla using a symbolic language board to ask for a banana, retrieved my ticket.
I sat down and waited as the whole scene was replayed another 30 times by the increasingly impatient and rain-soaked queue.
"How the hell did you get 60 pence from 'sthpgrum', Sanescientist?" I hear you ask in amazement.
Well, its simple really - 60 pence is the only fare this bus charges. Whether you are travelling from the outskirts of town to the city centre or simply nipping 4 stops up the road to avoid the pissing rain damaging your laptop, the fare is 60 pence. No exceptions.
I look at my ticket and its says
Boarded: Outskirts of Town
Alights: City Centre.
So this begs the immediate question: If there is only one fare and the ticket is identical regardless of your journey - why do the drivers insist on a lengthy conversation about your destination? Further, given that this is the student shuttle and about 90% of passengers are going to the "University" stop - why does that destination elicit so much surprise?
Funny old world.
Thursday, February 17, 2005
Stress is making me illI've finally come to what, in hindsight, is a bloody obvious conclusion. Work is making me ill. For months I've been controlled by my insomnia, with no desire to shake myself out of it. For the past few weeks I've had headaches and undefined nausea. Several times I've rang in sick with my headaches and nausea and sleep deprivation making me unable to face getting out of bed. I typically spend all weekend in bed. That then makes me feel more stressed as I feel that I am not getting enough work done. The 3-weekly meetings with SWMNBN seem to loom over me as I face yet another meeting getting chewed out for not having enough results.
Tonight it came to a head. I was ill yesterday, with a splitting headache that left me feeling nauseous. I rang in sick again. Today my headache was improved and I went back into work, making it in in the early afternoon. The day started well. I have been trying to get those blasted southern blots to work. However, I had nice new DNA had made up some fresh solutions and was going to use a new improved technique. I was feeling better than I had in weeks. It didn't last.
The "old" style of southern-blotting is decidedly low-tech. You spread your DNA out by running it through a gel, so that the larger fragments get deposited near the top of the gel and the smaller fragments run toward the bottom. You then soak the gel in 2 different solutions, before covering the gel in a special membrane that the DNA can bind to. You cover the gel and membrane with a stack of paper hand towels (yes you read that correctly) and stick a weight on top. Fill the tank underneath the gel with another solution and leave overnight. Capillary action draws the solution out of the tank, through the gel and into the paper towels. Along the way, the DNA is released from the gel and binds to the membrane which you can then analyse with radioactive probes at a later stage.
As you can imagine, that is a lot of hassle, and the need to blot overnight adds another day to the whole procedure. So instead I decided to use the a vacuum blotter. In this case, a vacuum is applied to the gel so that the DNA moves faster. All the solutions are poured on top of the gel and are pulled rapidly through by the vacuum. It takes about an hour. I set everything up and was good to go. No vacuum pressure. I checked all the tubing - 50 millibars of pressure at every junction as I wanted. But nothing when I connected it to the gel tank. After 2 hours of fiddling and re-reading the blotting machine's manual, I was at a loss.
It got worse. To analyse the membrane I need to make a radioactive probe. This is simply a stretch of DNA matching the gene that I am looking at, created by a simple technique called PCR. To make the probe, a simple reaction is performed that involves replacing the normal Cs in the DNA with radioactive Cs (DNA remember is a stretch of A, C, T and Gs in a specific order). One problem that we may have had in the past is that the PCR reaction that produced the DNA probe may have left behind enzymes and other chemicals that interfere with the making of the radioactive probe. So I decided to purify the DNA first, using one of the kits that I talked about in yesterday's Tuesday Twat. I loaded about 5000 nanogrammes of the DNA (loads) onto the column and cleaned it up. I then checked the DNA concentration of the cleaned up solution to see what volume I would need to use to make the probe. Total DNA left? 100ng. Where the Fuck has the other 4,900 ng of DNA gone?
With not enough DNA to make the probe, and the vacuum blotter refusing to work, everything seemed to come crashing down. The thought of another meeting with SWMNBN with no data to show seemed overwhelming. I kicked my stool across the lab and threw my lab coat on the floor in disgust. Fortunately at 9pm no one else was in the lab (although a few people were still in the write up room). I went for a walk, before locking myself in the toilet for half an hour. I am glad that no one was there to see me as I was swearing uncontrollably and unable to form a coherent sentence. The headache had come back and was making me feel nauseous.
I phoned my parents and to their credit they didn't comment once as I used the word fuck more times than I have ever done in their presence in my life. I have never come so close to simply getting up and walking out of the building never to return.
Well, tommorrow is another day. After regaining my composure I placed the gel in the fridge. I will get anyone who has ever used the vacuum blotter to come and take a look at it. I will make completely fresh solutions and try purifying the DNA probe again. I have until Wednesday to produce a decent southern blot. If I don't, then I don't know what will happen. I will have to try and have a chat with my more sympathetic supervisor before the meeting with SWMNBN. Tonight I considered simply refusing to attend Wednesday's meeting - but that is a hell of a line to cross. I could probably pour my heart out to my doctor and union rep and get myself written off on stress leave - but again there is no going back after that.
I think that I have finally realised that this project was a waste of 2 years of my life. It was poorly conceived from the start, with my role too poorly defined and dependent on other people's success. They haven't produced the goods and have now left, leaving me to pick up the pieces. I took the job because I had no option. My PhD funding had finished 9 months prior and my parents were having to pay my rent for me. I don't think that I am going to get any publications out of it, making it a disaster for my career. My contract is due to expire in July. I have decided that I will start applying for jobs now and explain to the person interviewing me that the project was a waste of time and simply hope that I find someone willing to give me a second chance in a crowded job market. Fuck waiting for July, I'm out of here the moment I get another job. I'll simply work my notice and walk out the door. Only the need to pay rent, and not fuck my career completely, is stopping me writing that letter now.
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
The Tuesday Twat(S)No. 5. The Sales Rep.
As a bench biologist, I get through a lot of stuff. From big shiny pieces of equipment, to my day-to-day consumables, such as disposble plastic tubes and pipette tips and enzymes. Molecular biology has changed over the years. For example, take DNA purification. An experiment may involve several, different manipulations being performed on the same piece of DNA. After each manipulation it is typically necessary to repurify the newly modified DNA to get rid of the enzymes and chemicals used in the previous step to stop them interfering with the next step. Years ago, DNA purification was a lengthy process involving the use of nasty chemicals such as phenol or chloroform. Each procedure typically reduced the amount of DNA product left in the reaction, as some was inevitably removed with the solvents. Today, a DNA purification simply involves inserting a little column into a tube, pouring your DNA solution into the top and spinning for 60 seconds in a centrifuge to draw the liquid through the column, where the DNA binds. A couple of solutions are washed through the column to remove all the gubbins from the previous reaction and hey presto! As if by magic pure DNA is eluted out the bottom into a tube. Total time is typically 20-30 minutes and dozens of clean-ups can be performed simultaneously for £1 or £2 per reaction.
Most of the consumables are available in the university Central Stores and can be delivered to my bench within a few hours after ordering online. Most of the lab's consumables not stocked in stores are ordered in bulk by our technicians who keep an eye on the communal stock levels.
Unfortunately, every so often I need to order a slightly unusual item directly from the suppliers. This is where the "rep" comes in. Sales reps are the bane of every biologist's existance. Sure, they may enter you in a free prize draw for a bottle of champagne occasionally, and I never have to buy a pen or a mug - but that's just public relations.
Many biological suppliers refuse to list the price for what you want in their catalogues - either the 2 kg paper catalogue that fills your pigeon hole whether you want it or not, or the somehow slick but entirely unusable online catalogue. Since a price has to be given to our finance department before they will authorise the order, its therefore necessary to phone for a price:
"Welcome to Large Supplier Inc. If you want to query an order, please press 1. If you want to cancel an order, please press 2. If you want to order the 2005/2006 catalogue, please press 3. If you want to ask about this month's special offers, please press 4. For all other enquiries, please press 5."
Naff music plays for 30 seconds.
I grab my pen expectantly.
"I'm sorry, your call is important to us. Please wait whilst a customer service advisor becomes available"
Naff music starts all over again.
This repeated for 10 minutes or so.
"Hello, this is Emily speaking, please may I have your customer service number".
"I don't have one. I'm just ringing to check on the prices for a little piece of revolutionary labour saving plastic"
"Do you have the catalogue number?"
"Yes, its 12345."
Clicking of keyboard
"Is that a little piece of revolutionary labour saving plastic?"
"Yes, I just need a price"
"I'm sorry, I will have to foward your call to the little piece of revolutionary labour saving plastic department, please hold."
Naff music plays for 30 seconds.
"I'm sorry, your call is important to us. Please wait whilst a customer service advisor becomes available"
Naff music starts all over again.
This repeated for 10 minutes or so.
"This is the little piece of revolutionary labour saving plastic department, John speaking. May I have your customer service number please."
"I don't have one. I'm just ringing to check on the prices for a little piece of revolutionary labour saving plastic"
"Do you have the catalogue number?"
"Yes, its 12345."
Clicking of keyboard
"Is that a little piece of revolutionary labour saving plastic?"
"Yes, I just need a price"
"May I take some details please? Where are you caling from, sir?".
"I just need a price"
"I'm sorry sir, I need to now where you are calling from,"
"Large English University".
"Could you tell me your name please, Sir?".
"Thank you Dr SaneScientist - how may I help you?"
"I... want... a... price".
"Your local representative is Claire, her mobile phone number is 07xxxxxxxx".
"I just want a price, so I can send an order this afternoon."
"I'm sorry doctor, in order to give you the best possible level of customer service, all of our prices are negotiated individually with your local sales manager. Please phone her mobile phone number. Is there anything else I can help you with?".
So I phone Claire,
"Welcome to the Orange Voicemail messging service for *Claire*"
I leave a message complete with my contact details.
2 days later
"Sanescientist - somebody called Claire to talk to you on the phone"
"Who?" I shout, putting down my pipette and removing my gloves, labcoat and eye protectors, before leaving the lab.
"Hello, Sanescientist - its Claire from Large Supplier Inc. You left a message for me?"
"Err, yes, I wanted to know the price for a little piece of revolutionary labour saving plastic".
"I'm afraid that I don't have the price lists with me. However I am at your University on wednesday, which lab do you work in?"
Wednesday arrives, as does Claire in power suit clutching a diary the size of a small country and a £3,000 lap top. The smell of too much perfume follows her like diesel fumes from an old lorry.
"I would like the price of a little piece of revolutionary labour saving plastic, please".
"What do you want to do with the little piece of revolutionary labour saving plastic"
"How many do you think you will need?"
"Well if you buy 50 or more you will get a 10% discount."
"I just need one".
"Does anybody else in your lab use a little piece of revolutionary labour saving plastic?"
"No, I just need one"
"Do you think that your stores manager would be prepared to stock them in stores?"
"I don't know. I am not the stores manager."
"Ok, they cost £4 each".
Labels: The Tuesday Twat(s)
Friday, February 11, 2005
Constitutional AnarchySo, Camilla and Charles are due to marry.
They dropped the "bombshell" at 0900 yesterday morning, a totally unexpected move that had shell-shocked presenters on every channel cutting off guests mid-sentence. The whole thing was sadly predictable however. The announcements were made by press-release as the happy couple went about their daily business separately as if nothing had occurred. They weren't even seen together until that night. The rest of Britain's answer to the Simpsons telephoned in their congratulations from afar.
Now I'm no expert - having never announced an engagement - but if you were going to announce such a joyous and important event - wouldn't you want just a bit of ceremony? Perhaps the parents turning up with a bottle of bubbly and a tacky card? Wouldn't you be showing off your engagement ring to everyone who asked (and quite a few who hadn't)? The two Princes are supposed to be very happy - why weren't they there giving their new step mum a bit of a cuddle and a big bunch of flowers?
That really is one weird, cold family.
Immediately of course the press circus has begun. With entirely predictable results. Much to their disappointment, the happy couple have managed to pretty much circumvent all the constitutional wranglings and limited the impact of her "replacing Diana". Although she will legally be the "Princess of Wales" she won't use the title or be referred to by it, instead she will use one of the lesser known titles "HRH Duchess of Cornwall". If Charles becomes King, they will not follow the age old tradition and crown her Queen (not a legal or constitutional requirement), instead she will be the "Princess consort". To get around the niggling fact that the future head of the Church of England may be a divorcee who cheated on his missus, they will be married in a civil ceremony and have their wedding simply blessed. Charles divorce isn't a problem since Diana is dead. Camilla's divorce would be a problem, since her husband is still alive, and Charles can't marry a divorcee - but that's OK, because in the strict religious sense they aren't married! Clever eh? As far as the CofE is concerned, Camilla is simply his mistress.
Nevertheless all the usual tabloid suspects are running polls asking if "Camilla should be Queen". Channel 5 news, in a feat of journalistic ingenuity worth of Machiavelli or even Alistair Campbell, ran a poll asking "Should Charles marry Camilla" (90% No) and solemnly declared that 90% of people don't want Camilla to be Queen - nice one Rupert!
I think that anyone seeking an honest reflection of the publics view on the matter should ask two separate questions.
1) "Should Charles Marry Camilla".
In my opinion, its none of our damn business. Personally, I figure he should have married her back in 1971 when they fell in love, rather than buggering about with Diana. Had Diana not died in 1997, thus triggering the nauseating "St Diana of AIDS Orphans memorial industry", then they'd have been married years ago, using similar jiggery pokery to circumvent the wrath of the church. C&D divorced 10 years ago. Get over it.
2)"Should Camilla be Queen".
This is a perfectly legitimate question, in an abstract sort of a way. Yes the public should decide how much they want to bend the rules of the constitution - but lets not turn it into a popularity contest. It never has been in the past, why should it be now? The monarchs have always been dodgy characters and the public doesn't usually have a say in matters. But the point is that she won't be. So why all the fuss - the press are just gutted that the issue has been decided already, with no input from them.
So the only really good news is that the wedding will be on April the 8th - if Camilla were twenty years younger you'd be wondering if she's up the duff - this gives us less than 2 months to be sick to the back teeth of the endless bickering over the rights and wrongs.
They're doing it folks - deal with it.
Blogger ate my fucking postJust typed a long post about upcoming royal wedding.
Hit post and Blogger failed, losing my post.
Thursday, February 10, 2005
Daytime TellyI'm afraid that SaneScientist has been a little bit poorly the past few days. Don't panic! Its nothing too serious and the virus is unlikely to be passed on by reading blogger. Difficult to define, it largely involved tummy trouble, bit of a fever, headaches and an inability to sleep properly. Probably stress related, if the size of my to do list is anything to go by.
Anyways, I have been watching daytime telly. Despite 8 years at University, I had never really watched Richard and Judy. This is probably because as a science student rather than a humanities student I was expected to do more mundane things, like visit campus more than twice a week. So as I channel hopped this evening, imagine my surprise when I came across our dearly beloved Prime Minister sitting on the cushions! Sadly, I missed the indepth probing about the Iraq war but did enjoy seeing his Blairiness squirming uncomfortably over the question of whether he buys his wife flowers. The missus, spurred on by an obviously fearsome mother-in-law, had cheekily rung Richard and Judy the week before to let the world know that hubby had never bought her flowers - unexpected or otherwise - in all their years of marriage. Tony claimed that he had other ways of being romantic - but seemed at a loss to name one. A word to Mr Chirac or Sr Berlusconi - at the next EU summit meeting why not take Tony aside and give him a few tips? Maybe then he'd look a bit more relaxed.
Of course the piece de resistance was Blair being ambushed into taking over Richard's role in "You say we pay". In this quiz, a large screen behind Richard and Judy shows an image of an object or a famous person. The caller (today the lovely Vivien) describes the object and R&J try and guess it. Each correct answer wins the caller a grand. Blair had that slightly bemused look that Rabbits adopt when faced with 2 large lights, travelling toward them at 60mph, as they are trying to figure out why the smooth surface they are sitting on has no grass to nibble. Even with Richard yelling the answers from off stage (and surely he could see the screen), Blair didn't even seem to understand what he should be doing let alone what the answer could be. Amusingly, the only one he got correct was "Sharon Stone" - in response to the description "Starred in a movie opposite Michael Douglas where she uncrosses her legs".
Maybe Tony spoke to Bill last week about his marital problems...
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
The Tuesday Twat(S)No. 4. Opinion for Rent.
OK, this one is a mixed bag. TV these days, seems to be saturated with cheap, low-budget, cobbled together, nostalgia shows e.g. "Top 100___", "I love the 19_s"; "TV's greatest___" etc etc etc ad infinitum. The quality of the shows depends largely on the subject matter. Lets face it "TV's greatest soap moments" is never really going to compete with "The Top 100 Films of all time - ever" is it? Some of these shows are also quite good. There are a couple of very watchable music shows that take a particular year or decade, highlight the most interesting music (good and bad) and place it within the social, political and musical context of the time. Frankly, if I were a history teacher I'd record these shows and show them to my GCSE class as a taster of the period under discussion.
But if there is one thing these shows all have in common, its the "Rent an opinion" Z list celebrity getting all enthusiastically nostalgic over something that they are patently too young to remember. There are two types of people that do these shows
1) The "New Face". This is somebody just starting to make it in their career. Their agents are tasked with getting them maximum exposure wherever they can. They fill in at short notice on "topical" News/Sports/Music/Comedy quizzes, fall out of nightclubs in the early hours of the morning and will give an opinion on any topic regardless of whether they are familiar with it or not. Examples include those two irritating women who tell other people what to wear; that security guard who shagged a Spice Kitten (or something - I really don't give a shit) and inexplicably appeared on "I'm a celebrity get me out of here" and Kate Thornton.
They do everything going for about 12-18 months before either making it and becoming too expensive, or finally going back to serve behind the bar at their local Wetherspoons. Think Jonny Vegas about 4 years ago or Jimmy Carr 2 years ago. Expect Bez to start pretending to remember the early 90's and to answer questions on subjects other than "How fucked in the head were you and Shaun Ryder when you starrred in the Happy Mondays?".
2) The "Old Face". This is a faded celebrity of yesteryear, grabbing their last chance at stardom - or at least making enough money to finish the repayments on their second hand Merc. You can smell the fear and see the desperation in their eyes. They were usually famous very briefly for one thing 15 years ago and have touted it shamelessly ever since. First they were able to sell their autographs and make a respectable living, eventually they were reduced to the second choice to open their old primary school's summer fate. Finally, they couldn't even get a booking for fresher's week in a New University. They have no transferable skills and no hope. They can however remember and reminisce about anything you ask them to and can usually read their pre-written responses unaided from the script. Libel laws prevent me from naming names of course - but frankly do I need to?
The most irritating thing about these people is the amount of air time they take up. A three hour show highlighting the best music of the 70s could hold 40, back to back 3 minute songs. Hell, it may even be worth recording and playing back as background music. But no. Less than half of the show is actually about the subject matter, most of the show is about the "memories" that these so called celebrities have of the event in question. And even when they do SHUT THE FUCK UP, they only play about 40 seconds of the song! Its like listening to the 30 second preview on one of those legal music download services. Do I need to make an analogy involving masturbation, late-night French films on Channel 4 and your mother knocking unexpectedly on your bedroom door to ask if you've finished your homework?
So to whom should the Tuesday Twat award go to? The Twats who accept £50 and a buffet lunch in TV centre to "Star" in these shows? Or the Twats who squander our TV budget on such drivel instead of investing in something actually worth watching?
PS If any TV producers are reading this blog I am quite happy to exagerate my 4 weeks blogging experience for a documentary on the subject. I am also quite capable of wearing a grey wig and reminiscing fondly about spam shortages during WWII.
Labels: The Tuesday Twat(s)
Monday, February 07, 2005
Diseases of the Biologist No 1.Biologist's Bladder:
The sudden, overwhelming desire, immediately after donning labcoat, gloves, sterile plastic overshoes, face mask and hairnet and passing through a sterile "airlock" into a controlled area - to urinate.
A commonly prescribed folk remedy is to "go before you start working". However, anecdotal evidence suggests that this simply postpones the desire until the worker is involved in a critical part of the experiment and cannot leave to go to the toilet.
There is no known cure.
Sunday, February 06, 2005
Forcing my hand?I like a woman I work with. She's about my age, we have a similar outlook on life and of late we have been getting on really well. When I have some downtime in the lab, such as waiting for something to incubate for 5 minutes or spinning a sample in the centrifuge for 10 minutes, I often wander over to her bench and have a chinwag. For the past couple of months I have been considering asking her out to the cinema or something.
Tonight, at a houseparty, another workmate whom I have also been getting to know well, told me that he is thinking of asking her out this week.
First of all, whilst I do like this woman, its a fairly vague "wouldn't it be fun..." sort of liking. I'm certainly not going to get in a pissing contest with a good mate over her charms. I'm not going to beat my chest, throw my dung at him and mark my territory by pissing on her lab coat. Indeed if they get together, then all power to both of them and I wish them well - plenty more fish in the sea, blah blah blah. Genuinely.
But it has got me thinking about how procrastination lets things slip through your fingers. It also has me wondering if I should see any rebuff of him as a potential second chance for me? And can I capitalise on that chance without causing a ruckuss? And do I want to? I think that He and I need a chat before I chat to her.
Dating her does raise a few problems. Some are minor - is a relationship witha workmate a good idea? Some labs in the US actually prohibit such things because of the problems it can cause. In our case that isn't such a huge problem. We are on separate projects, and the group is quite big. Assuming we are mature about it I'm not too stressed about that. The effect on work colleagues is slightly more worrying. One or two of my collegaues are rather cliquey and so any problems between us would have an adverse effect, with one of us (most likely me) falling out of favour. I'd rather that didn't happen, since I am fond of all of our mutual friends.
The major problem is a little more serious. To be specific the problem is a cute-as-a-button, metre high, blonde 3-yearold problem - her daughter. The fact is that I live a fundamentally selfish existence. With no girlfriend or even flatmates to consider I work the hours I choose (or rather my insomnia chooses for me). I come and go as I please. I don't plan my life in any way shape or form. Indeed, I dislike structure in my life so much that I almost resent my friends and family visiting me as I have to plan ahead. Naturally, I don't let that stop friends visiting me and miss them when they are gone - but the selfish part of me resents that. It probably accounts for some of my antipathy toward SWMNBN also, if I am honest with myself.
This woman's life revolves around her child. This is a tremendous thing. I have watched with awe and growing respect as single-handedly she has held down a demanding job and raised a charming little girl. The question is - how can I fit in? Quite rightly I will always be second place and will have to make compromises. Am I a big enough man to grow up and do so? My lifestyle at the moment is chaotic - hers is ordered with military precision. Just going for a drink of an evening requires the synchronising of her and Granny's schedule so the little one is baby-sat. Often it just can't happen. Spontaneously deciding that we should go to the cinema or for a drink is out of the question.
In many ways I am a very easy-going guy. I suspect that its not going to bother me too much if the evening has to be spent in front of a DVD or reading a bedtime story, rather than in the pub. But it worries me that she may feel bad.
And of course, since I've drunk enough tonight to be honest, as a biologist I have to confess to feeling the warm breath of Charles Darwin whispering in my ear "its not your kid". True enough. And of course how much of what I've just said is fancy excuses to dress up that simple underlying fact in more palatable terms? As much as I may wish I could, I cannot simply dismiss 500 million years of evolutionary programming. My selfishness may simply be a result of my selfish genes. Not a pleasant thought. Next week could be interesting.
Friday, February 04, 2005
Enterprise flys off into the sunset...Well, its finally happened. The latest Star Trek incarnation has been axed. Its been on a sticky wicket since day one really. Many in Trek fandom were leery of the idea of a prequel Trek set 100 years before Kirk. Sure, there was potential for some cool ideas. Many suggested the Birth of the United Federation of Planets would be interesting (although Trek purists reckon that the Federation's start date had already been defined quite clearly and was unlikely to fall within the time frame of ENT, assuming it ran for 7 seasons at 1 year per season). Others suggested that the Romulan Wars would be a good story line. Many of us looked forward to perhaps seeing some of the aliens that turned up only once in the Original series (TOS to the uninitiated), and to be fair, the Andorians were given a cool makeover with moving CGI antennae and a powerful centerpiece in the character Shran played by the veteran Trek actor Jeoffrey Coombs.
What worried fans most though, was that the series was being developed and largely written by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga (B&B), who are largely responsible for the direction of Trek since the death of Gene Roddenbury in 1991. Star Trek the Next Generation (TNG) finished in 1993, and the pair launched into 3 trek projects simultaneously. Firstly there was the ongoing Star Trek Deepspace Nine (DS9) series that had run alongside TNG for the past two years (which to be fair these two had little to do with). Next there was the Next Generation crew's leap to the bigscreen, with StarTrek Generations. A rushed and flawed affair that saw the controversial decision to kill of Captain Kirk. They also started development of StarTrek: Voyager (Voy).
ST:Voy was, for many the start of the decline of star trek. Many felt it was poor and action driven. The ditching of the popular "Kes", played by the homely Jennifer Lien in favour of the catsuited, fullsome charms of former Borg drone "Seven of Nine", played by Jeri Ryan, confirmed for many that the producers were after the covetted 16-24 male demographic and were determined to use sex to get it. When Berman and Ryan became an item, many fans were unimpressed to say the least. At the same time however, DS9 was going to strength to strength (critically at least) with powerful character-driven stories, a truly talented and fully ensemble cast and long multi-episode or even multi-season story arcs. Voy in contrast seemed to have little direction and was entirely episodic. Whilst this worked well for TNG and TOS, based as they were within spitting distance of earth, many felt that Voyager, trapped on the far side of the galaxy 70 years from home, needed more epic story arcs. A good example of this was the overuse of the "Reset button". In the early episodes it was made abundantly clear that Voyager was on her own with none of the backup that the various incarnations of the USS Enterprise had enjoyed. There were no starbases to patch up the ship, no way to replace lost crewmembers, and even basic supplies had to be aquired from the uncharted and often unfriendly planets of the Delta Quadrant. However, on more than one occassion we saw Voyager get the mother of all beatings up against some foe before finally winning and limping off into the sunset at the end of the episode. Lo and Behold, next week Voyager is all gleaming and travelling at maximum warp without a care in the world. How? Where did they repair the damage? How did they replace the consumables destroyed in the previous episode? Relationships were similar, principle cast would fall in love one week (with an extra usually), the next week there would be no evidence that it had ever happened.
When Voyager finally finished her 7 year journey, many were left thinking. "Is that it?". The last episode was mediocre and dull at best. Nothing like TNG's swansong, "All Good Things...", a rip-roaring adventure with one of the fans favourite villains, culminating in a moving ending that left a sting in the eyes and a lump in the throat. Similarly, DS9 spent the last few episodes of its final season closing and resolving the many complicated and interweaving story arcs constructed over the past 7 years. Both of these endings were as good, in their own way, as Frasier or Friends last year.
So, before Voyager has even finished, the details of Enterprise are leaking out. When it finally aired in 2002, it was already up against it, with much of the series' premise out for all to see on the internet. Many fans loathed the soft rock theme music that replacd the traditional orchestral score. The ship, which supposedly predated Kirk's Enterprise by 100 years, looked more futuristic than both Kirk's Enterprise and the Enterprise-D from TNG. The stories were bland, cherished Star Trek legends cavalierly picked up and played with before being carelessly tossed to one side broken and damaged. T&A was even more in abundance than Voyager, with the pneumatic Jolene Blalock, supposedly playinga Vulcan, sharing nearly nude showers with half the cast, under the guise of "Decontamination".
I have only seen the first 2 seasons, since Channel 4 which won the rights to show it on terrestrial in the UK can't be bothered to show it. Ironically, some claim that season 3 improved greatly, but sadly the ratings didn't. Ominously, a fourth season of the show wasn't given the greenlight until almost the last possible moment - something that had never happened to modern trek before. Season four, it was claimed improved greatly. But already it had begun the death dance - the moving from slot to slot in the US schedules. Worries grew as it was revealed that this season would be several episodes shorter. A minor coup was scored with the return of Brent Spiner to play the role of an ancestor of Dr Noonian Soong, the creator of Lt. Cmmdr Data, the character he played in TNG. However the real coup - the possible return of William Shatner, possibly as a Kirk from an alternative future - foundered over money. Last month Paramount announced that it had sold the syndication rights for the show. Yesterday it announced that its 4th season would be its last.
There are no firm plans for a new series (although Paramount insist that the franchise is "resting", rather than retiring). Development of the next film is "on the back burner", the box office disaster of Nemesis making people wonder what lies in wait for the franchise.
So where next? Will we continue to boldly go, perhaps in a few years time with a new creative team? Or will Trek be put out to pasture. Now I know how those who lived in the dark days of the 1970's feel.
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
The Tuesday Twat(S)No. 3. The Health and Safety Executive
Health and Safety Executive
Please Note, that access will be required to all apartments on
Tuesday the 1st of February. This is to allow
Health and Safety stickers to be placed on all windows.
So reads the notice pinned to the door in my apartment block yesterday. What? Has the world gone mad? Already we have had window inspectors come around to ensure that I haven't disconnected the locking bracket that restricts my window's opening to a 4 cm gap. What precisely do they think I will be doing with the windows that is so dangerous? I live on the 8th floor. I estimate that there is 23 metres of fresh(ish) air between my window sill and the busy road below. Do they think that I am going to remove the window (it swings downward so I can't just push it open), climb on top of the bookcase and dangle my legs out of the window so that I can get an extra large lungfull of the exhaust fumes from the buses trundling past? Perhaps they are worried that I may be playing volleyball near the window and inadvertantly jump up, squeeze through the gap and fall to my death below? Maybe they are concerned that my parents will sue the Building Management in the event of my death
"He was a lovely lad, but a bit simple. If only you had placed a sticker on the window telling him not to smash through the reinforced double glazing with the nest of tables, then impersonate that scene from Bridget Jones' Diary, whilst listening to Geri Halliwell murdering 'its raining men', then he'd still be here to day".
When I signed the contract for my apartment, I had to fill in one of those nosy forms that ask your ethnicity, your marital status, who you work for, how much you earn and if you like a quick hand shandy before showering in the morning. If they had simply asked the simple question "Are you a stupid fucker?", then they could have saved the expense of printing all of those stickers. As it happens, Tuesday has come and gone and I haven't had a knock on the door from a Sticker Application Technician. I figure that if I jump out the window now, my parents could still sue Building managment and retire early. I really am selfless sometimes.
Whether these stickers are actually mandated by Her Majesty's Health and Safety Executive, is unclear. But it is the sort of thing that they would think up. Being a professional scientist, everything I do is governed by a remarkable number of Health and Safety regulations. Whenever I use a new chemical in the lab, I have to read and sign a COSHH form (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health). If it's a chemical that no one happens to have used in our lab before, then I have to create a new one. Sure, I can see the wisdom in making sure I've read the safety notice on the side of the bottle of concentrated hydrochloric acid - but sodium chloride (that's table salt) or (and I'm not exagerating here) WATER? Water by the way may cause breathing difficulties if inhaled. If splashed in the eye, wash out with copious amounts of warm water and seek medical advice.
Laboratory rules are quite straight forward.
1) Appropriate protective equipment must be worn at all times. i.e. a lab coat. Also safety glasses and gloves.
Sure I wear my lab coat when I am doing experiments - I'm too tight-fisted to buy a new T-shirt if I spill acid down the front for starters. But is it really necessary to wear one when I just nipped into the lab to take some DNA out of the freezer? And safety glasses? The days of wearing face fitting diving masks are long gone fortunately, but the glasses still resemble a cross between NHS glasses circa 1960 and those massive oversized novelty sunglasses that you used to buy at the beach as a kid. And the side protection (clear perspex shields that sit between the lens and your ear) make you feel that you are constantly being followed by some stalker who remains in your peripheral vision. I wear my safety specs when using the microwave (in case the stuff overboils), when using dangerous or corrosive chemicals (in case I splash) or when using radioisotope (stops splashing and reduces stray radiation damaging the retina - probably bollocks but it makes you feel better). I DO NOT wear them when standing at my bench working out my experimental protocol on the back of a post-it note.
And gloves - I get through countless pairs of latex surgical gloves each day. But that will soon be a thing of the past if HSE gets its way. They are getting increasingly concerned with the rising numbers of people with latex allergies. Recently they banned powered gloves. This was a good thing. Even after a weekend away from the lab, my hands would still smell like the inside of a used condom come monday morning. Now however they have decided that all latex gloves must go and be replaced by nitrile. The problem is that latex is stretchy. A good fitting pair of gloves is like a second skin - I take a medium size and find I don't even notice I'm wearing them. Nitrile gloves by contrast don't stretch at all and I am between sizes. Medium gloves squeeze my hands uncomfortably and the resistance means that opening and closing my hands makes my fingers ache after a few minutes. The large gloves hang of my hands in a manner reminiscent to that guy at the end of Robocop who falls in a vat of toxic chemicals and his skin falls off. There is no feeling in them and the loose rubber tends to bunch slightly on the finger tips. I have no history of any allergies (neither does anyone in my family), and don't suffer from dry skin or eczema - I figure the danger of developing either condition is far outweighed by the danger to my skin of me dropping a bottle of corrosive chemicals or to my self respect if I have a public temper tantrum because I've just cross-contaminated my samples by dropping the sterile toothpick I'm trying to manipulate aseptically.
2) No eating, drinking, smoking or applying of cosmetics.
This comes under the category of "No hand to mouth operations". Commonsense advice I'm sure you'll agree. We work regularly with E. coli in addition to various dangerous substances. But surely, this also covers most of the requirements of a COSHH form? I.e Chemical X is non-corrosive and doesn't give you breathing difficulties - but it'll make you as sick as a parrot so don't lick your fingers after weighing it out.
Surely, chemicals can be classified into two broad groups:
1) Poisonous if swallowed - so don't. No need to fill in a COSHH form.
2) Has other dangerous properties - fill in a COSHH form and take additional precautions.
So paranoid about health and safety are some lab managers, that I have seen people standing outside the lab frantically chewing a throat lozenge that they have been sucking in the write-up area, so that they can cross the threshold into the lab to get a marker pen or their lab book without breaking H&S. Unless they are one of those disgusting individuals who like to remove half-chewed food from their mouth and inspect it before putting it back in - what's the problem? We're supposed to be highly trained professionals, can't they trust us?
With all of that said, you'd think that the Health and Safety Inspectors would have a field day when they visit the lab. Funnily enough they don't. Firstly, our lab manager emails us a week before the inspection and tells us that, under no circumstances whatsoever is anyone to be actually doing any work in the lab when the Inspector arrives. And that we should all have a tidy-up before the big day. The result is a spotlessly clean laboratory with no evidence that anyone actually does any science in it. And 20 lab members drinking coffee and trying to look inconspicuous in the write-up area.
Our last inspection turned up two major faults.
1) The padlock to the isotope fridge was undone. We felt it best not to mention that nobody knows where the key is. The fact that to gain access to the lab requires swipecard access and a key is irrelevant. Al Quaeda are everywhere!
2) People shouldn't leave their lab coats on the back of their chairs - its a trip hazard.
I for one feel just that little bit safer...
Labels: The Tuesday Twat(s)
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