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Friday, June 30, 2006

Off on my travels...

Is it wrong that a small part of me hopes that England doesn't make it to the World Cup finals? It is a purely selfish whim, because if they do, I shall spend the duration of the match at 30,000 feet halfway across the Atlantic - and you just know that US Air won't be showing the match as part of the inflight entertainment...

Finally, I have booked my tickets for a job hunting tour of North America. Two labs in the US and two in Canada will be enjoying the privilige of my company as I beg them for a job.

It has been stressfull beyond belief though. First the quibbling over who pays what (only partly resolved, but I at least have agreements in principle), then the seemingly simple job of getting my references to the labs. Problems with emails, absences and the loss of one of the references by the referee have had me tearing my hair out for nearly two weeks - and I still haven't got one of my referees to answer my emails or phone calls yet!

But perhaps I shouldn't have bothered. One of the labs contacted me today to say that they had grave concerns over the contents of one of my references. My abilities as a team player and commitment were both questioned. I was absolutely pole-axed. I feel completely betrayed. I thought that the long heart-to-heart I had with my "good" supervisor had cleared the air over that. Apparently not.

Now I am completely paranoid. Is this the reason that I have had a half dozen really, really good interviews, only to be let down a week later by a short note mumbling vaguely about "more experienced candidates"? Is this one reference the reason I have spent nearly 12 months sitting on my arse in a fucking sport centre getting more and more depressed?

One silver lining is that this unusually candid potential interviewer has asked me to explain what the problem was. So this evening, I wrote a lengthy email explaining how the project was not what I had hoped for and the many problems that I encountered(such as other lab members quitting unexpectedly, leaving me to sort their mess out and the absence of any technical support). I was careful not to come across as whiney and studiously avoided identifying anyone by name (or even gender). I then finished with a paragraph emphasising the good that came out of the project and the positive feedback various audiences have shown when I have presented my work to them.

As always, I sought the advice of the two wisest people I know before hitting Send. Both Mum and Dad agreed that my reply was balanced and told my side of the story, without being too whinging. Time will tell.

Ultimately, we decided that even if this lab withdraws its offer, I should book my tickets any way and still split the cost 4 ways. We'll just cover the cost of the 4th stop and I'll simply go sight-seeing for 2 days. I can't delay any longer, already the cost has risen £50 over the past 48 hours as I've waited to hear back from my references.

On a related note, MSN Passport sucks! It refused to recognise my login details when I tried to book my tickets. Although it's all sorted now, I've just spent 10 minutes retrieving the contents of my wallet from behind the wardrobe after I grabbed the nearest non-breakable object (it was either the wallet or my cell phone) and hurled it at the wall in frustration. I'm glad I live on my own - my little temper trantrum ill-behooves a man of letters.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Tuesday Twat(s)

No. 69. The inventor of the mobile music phone speaker.

I confidently predict that there will be a special place in hell for the twat that decided to marry a mobile phone and an MP3 player, then beef up the speakers. In only a few short months, my daily commute has changed from a chance to quietly reflect upon the day's events, whilst appreciating the subtle bouquet of my fellow passengers' body odour into a deafening assault on the ears from some gob-shite's music player.

It was bad enough listening to the muffled boom boom boom of some dickhead's iPOD, as they destroy the last hair cells remaining in their cochlea by listening at full volume - now they have speakers. I know that when people first started buying "Ghetto Blasters", some anti-social arseholes would sit in public places and share their music with the world, but the quick arrival of the Sony Walkman personal stereo soon killed the idea of lugging a stereo system the size of a small suitcase around. Either that or Mr Spock's nerve pinch in Star Trek IV scared more people than I thought...

However, these are already portable. And take a look at the offenders. They fall in to 2 camps mostly. Schoolkids, who are by definition anti-social little animals with questionable musical taste and Scum. On my daily route, it's schoolkids on the way to work and Scum on the way back. Try telling the kids to turn it off and you'll just get a mouthful of abuse. Try telling the Scum to turn it off and they will smile, having finally provoked a potentially violent confrontation with someone. Says a lot about their self esteem I suppose that they live for a fight, but there you go.

Unfortunately, until wearing headphones becomes cool again or someone develops a remote control similar to the ones you can buy to turn off pub TVs, I don't see it getting any better soon. I might have to invest in an MP3 player of my own with sound-supressing earphones. An alternative might be to start playing Barry Manilow at high volume myself. Or perhaps that really irritating high-pitched squeal that only the most youthfull in society can appreciate.


Friday, June 23, 2006

Use it or lose it!

The BBC has an interesting article on the loss of local libraries.

I can't comment on my "local" library, but I visit my city's Central library to replenish my stock of novels at least monthly. As a child, highlight of the week was Monday night, when my sister and I would be taken to the library. I couldn't wait to get my own library card (you had to share your parent's card those days until you were eight). When I did, I would fill it (6 books) and beg my Dad to let me get more out on his card. I would rarely need to renew un-read books at my next visit.

However, I see less and less children reading these days. As a child I would sit on the side of the swimming pool waiting for my younger sister's lesson to finish and mine to start and would invariably amuse myself with a good book. Over the past few months I have seen literally dozens of children in a similar position waiting for a sibling's badminton lesson to finish - yet I don't think I have ever seen any of them reading! They either sit zonked out in front of the cartoons or they run riot.

Very often, their parents are present - but very few of them ever read anything either, prefering to gossip or whinge. I suppose if Mum and Dad never read, their kids probably won't either.

Interestingly, I have seen some interesting examples of why you should never judge a book by it's cover (pardon the pun). Of the many regular parents that I see, only a couple read novels whilst they are waiting. The most prolific readers are perhaps the least expected. One example is a low-income, single father who works as a cleaner. He speaks very slowly and counts the lesson fee out with great care. It is easy to make assumptions about him (and I confess, I did at first) - yet he sits in the quietest part of the centre, and in the months that I have worked there has worked his way through pretty much every John Grisham novel in the catalogue. We've been sharing authors, as he is now looking for someone new. He comes twice a week and I never see him reading the same book twice, so he obviously rattles through them at a fair pace. On the other hand, there are several wealthy mothers. They are the owners of the Mercedes convertibles or top-of-the-range people carriers that sometimes grace our car park. Their kids have 2 or 3 high-quality badminton rackets and expensive purpose-built racket bags. Reading matter of choice? "Take a break" Magazine.

I despair.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Conservation News

BBC News

Good news for the poster-child of the conservation movement. New research based on poo and published in Current Biology, suggest that there may be 2 or 3 times as many wild Giant Pandas than previously thought.

Japan is sending a team of chefs scientists to China to help confirm the research.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Tuesday Twat(s)

No. 68. Public dope smokers

OK, no matter where you stand on the whole legalise/criminlise debate - you have to admit that people who wander down a busy high street trailing "funny smelling" smoke behind them are fucking idiots.

It seems to be an epidemic near where I live and is getting more common. Sitting upstairs on the bus has always been a good way to get light-headed on the cheap. However, sitting downstairs is almost as effective these days. And with summer days inevitably leading to more people sitting outside, either in beer gardens, cafes or bus shelters, it seems that more and more people are quite brazenly smoking joints. I've also seen people wandering down the street carrying very obviously well-used bongs.

Why is this? Is there some misconception about whether it is now legal or not? It seems to me quite clear that the new guidelines on cannibas use simply allow Police Officers more discretion. They can choose to give you a warning for small amounts, rather than "hauling yo ass" down to the police station for a caution or fine. The keyword here being "discretion", in all it's meanings. I humbly submit that if PC Plod is searching you or your property for some reason and finds nothing more incriminating than a single joint - he or she may choose to give you a warning. If however, you are standing in the middle of the highstreet on a busy saturday afternoon, giggling like a school girl and puffing enthusiastically on a doobee the size of cuban cigar - most Police Officers would regard that as "taking the piss" and probably arrest you just for being a knob head.

I have an inherent dislike of people that behave like pricks and I can't wait for the day when some copper decides that arresting these twats is at least as productive in terms of cases solved as pouncing on someone feeding chips to pigeons in a public park. The look on their face will be priceless...


Sunday, June 18, 2006

I have a new boss!

... And already he's pissed me off!

The former General Manager of the sport centre has been promoted. I'd like to say that I wished him well on his new job. Unfortunately, I never actually met him. He managed to avoid visiting our corner of the centre for the entire time that I have worked here. With the exception of one notable occassion, when a minor celebrity turned up and he magically appeared just long enough to get his photograph in the local newspaper.

And so, we have a new GM. He was pointed out to me in hushed tones when I strolled into work last Tuesday. Naturally, he didn't deign to respond to me when I wished him a polite good evening as he left. Nevertheless, I seem to have made quite an impression. First thing the following morning my Agency "handler", phoned me to say that there had been a complaint about my standard of dress. WTF?

As I walked in to work that evening, the duty manager greeted me at the door with "I'm so sorry! That new General Manager rang up this morning, wanting to know your name and the telephone number of your agency. From now on, you have to wear a button up shirt and trousers".

Now this has pissed me off somewhat. First of all, I am the smartest person in the building. Standard uniform for managers and coaching staff alike is a polo shirt with the centre's logo, dark blue tracksuit bottoms and trainers. I turned up on my first day wearing a shirt, tie, smart trousers and smart shoes. I was told I could ditch my tie. A few weeks later, when chatting with the DM one night, I was told that the reason for the strict dress code for the receptionist was because a previous temp had taken to coming in wearing ripped blue denim jeans and T-shirts with dubious logos. When I mentioned that I only owned two pairs of work trousers - my normal attire being jeans and T-shirt (and I'm buggered if I'm wearing my suit trousers) - I was told that I could wear smart, black pressed jeans in lieu of trousers as long as I wore a button up shirt.

But no more, it seems. And it really pisses me off that he didn't have the guts to tell me himself.
"we'll have to watch our backs with this one" was the glum assessment of the only duty manager to have actually spoken to the new guy in the month he has been in post. And they wonder why staff morale is so low...

As if there was any doubt...

Proof that Bryan Singer is sticking with the original theme for Superman Returns.

Play this video, and feel those hairs stand up on the back of your neck!

Check out the HUGE grin on Brandon Routh's face. You just know that being Superman is like being a kid in a candy store!

In related news, it seems that the counter below may be a little inaccurate. There is a nasty rumour floating about that the UK has to wait an extra 2 weeks to see it released over here! Bastards! Another good reason to go an a wee tour of the US at the beginning of July.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Forget the Da Vinci code... here's the film of 2006!

Click Here to put this Superman Returns counter in your profile!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Coming home to roost...

Wow! I'm halfway through my mass "please give me a job" emailshot and thus far I have had
7 replies asking for references from lab heads with (unadvertised!) vacancies on fully-funded grants plus a further 4 who would like to employ me but don't have the funding for a new postdoc. If I can find a personal fellowship to cover my wages then they'll be interested in talking again. Suddenly, taking the time to put all of the PIs' details into a colour-coded spreadsheet doesn't look like the colossal waste of time it felt like when I was doing it...

It looks unlikely that I will get a personal fellowship - my disastrous last postdoc has pretty much killed that - nevertheless, it's put a much needed spring in my step. I also got 2 replies from PIs who would love to employ me but are busy tidying their desks one last time before taking up fishing and spoiling the grandkids.

My biggest worry at the moment is that my poor referees have been beseiged by almost a dozen requests in the past week. I have suggested that maybe my references could be deposited with the group secretary and I'll direct all inquiries to her. That way, the confidentiality of the reference can be maintained (and I won't be tempted to "edit" them, ahem).

I'm going to continue with the mailshot, but I have gone from depression last week (my first few replies were all negative) to mild (though cynically tempered) euphoria.

Since most of these labs are in North America, I may be faced with a travelling salesman problem over the summer, as I try and figure out how to visit as many labs as possible in as short a time as possible without making it too obvious that I am flying from lab to lab... could be tricky if I submit domestic US airline tickets when claiming back expenses...

Even better, this might stop Mum and Dad's increasing nagging when I phone at the weekend...

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Tuesday Twat(s)

No. 67. The buyers of "Celebrity" Biographies

Browsing my local bookstore a few weeks ago, I was confronted by an unbelievable sign.
"Jade Goody will in store be signing copies of her new autobiography"

Jade Goody... autobiography... signing. What sort of a fucked up world do we live in when those four words can be combined in a sentence without any negatives?

More importantly, who in God's name buys this shit? Recent "auto"biographies such as "Bbeing Jordan" have topped best-seller charts in their first few weeks, whilst still fully priced hardbacks. It's not as if they are being snapped up 2 for £1.99 from County Bookstores reduced bins.

Now let's get something clear rom the off. I don't have anything against Celebrity biographies per se, just "Celebrity" biographies. I can see why people might buy the life-story of George Best or Alex Ferguson. I'm sure that "Sir" Sean Connery's forthcoming biography will probably be a bloody good page turner, depending on it's author ("Sir" Sean is a self-confessed near-illiterate, the odds of him putting pen to paper are about the same as Stephen Hawking winning the Ladies singles at Wimbledon with 2 missing wheels and a flat battery).

But it is beyond me why anyone would want to read the biography of a twenty-something, one-time "Reality TV star", who thinks that East Anglia is abroad and refers to her lady parts as her "kebab". And surely, those who aren't entirely repulsed by Katie "Don't call me Jordan" Price are rather more interested in pictures than words. I'm surprised that "Being Jordan" wasn't a pop-up-book.

It may be mean of me (OK, I admit it is definately mean), but my first thought on hearing that Wayne Rooney might not play in the World cup was "that's fucked his five-book deal then. I wonder if there is an opt-out clause in his contract". Of course, his "heroic fight back fom devastating injury to score the winning goal in a penalty shoot-out against Germany in the Worldcup final"(*) is probably worth a sixth book. Indeed, if you look carefully at the photos of him flying back after his scan, you can see that he is still carrying a packet of crayons, despite having lent his colouring book to Theo Walcott. I wonder what he was writing about?

So, to all of those who buy this tripe. Stop it! You're only encouraging them. It's a waste of trees and ink. And for those of you have stooped so low to buy Jade Goody's autobiograph, shame on you! The Tuesday Twat Award was invented for people like you!

(*) this might be slightly wishfull thinking.


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Mail order tat

Every few weeks, my New Scientist is accompanied through the door by the "Dream Direct" mail order catalogue. This is a sort of middle-aged, tweed and country-folks version of the much-missed "Innovations" catalogue, which was full of gadgets that you never knew you needed so desperately until you saw them - then couldn't believe that you didn't already own three.

I regard it as a last-chance for presents for my Dad, since he is simply impossible to buy for (BTW any suggestions as to an appropriate Father's day present for sunday - feel free to leave a comment!).

But it really is full of crap. This week's special offer is a half-price 12 DVD set of famous train journeys. No, seriously.

However, in amongst the solar-powered lamps, fold up gardening stools with pockets for tools and leather holders for TV/Video/DVD remote controllers, there was something that made me feel smug and happy.

A 1Gb memory key for the "special" price of £149.99

Special indeed - I just bought a 2Gb key from Amazon for £29.99

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Tuesday Twat(s)

No. 66. ITV

OK, I make no apologies - this is a rant after being forced to listen to ITV1 at work all night.

What the fuck is the point of ITV1? For my readers abroad, ITV was the UK's first commercial TV channel. Launched 51 years ago, it was the only rival to the BBC. In recent years, it's original channel has been rebranded as ITV1 and there are 5 more ITV channels available on digital TV - ITV2, 3 & 4 plus ITV play (a 24 hour premium rate gambling channel) and Men and Motors.

I can honestly say that there is NOTHING that appeals to me on ITV anymore. Seriously, it is abominable waste of bandwidth. A look at the typical schedule of ITV1 lends support to my argument that it should be rebranded LCD1 - as in Lowest Common Denominator. It is Chav TV personified. Although the BBC has nothing to be terriby proud of these days, if ITV were the channel funded by our license fee, I would seriously risk a fine for not buying a license. The schedule of ITV is basically a mix of soap operas, reality shows, shit talent shows and even shitter "Celebrity" Talent shows. In fact, ITV will put the word "Celebrity" in front of anything in the hope that it sells. It's flagship News at 10:30 is just a dumbed down version of the BBC 10 oclock news for tabloid readers and it's "hard-hitting" documentary programme "Tonight" is basically a soundbite friendly Audiovisual companion to whatever stories are bothering the right-wing mid-market tabloids, such as the Daily Express.

Unfortunately, the Sportcentre has a TV with SKY and it drives me to distraction. When the kids are in it plays non-stop cartoons, whipping them up into a hyper-active frenzy. It is nothing more than visual tartrazine. I have actually taken to switching off the TV before the kids arrive and both coaches and parents reported an improvement in the kids behaviour, they were quieter and paid more attention. Unfortunately, some of the parents bring hoardes of non-playing kids to watch their siblings play. It would be unthinkable that these kids might read a book, do some colouring in perhaps or (heaven forbid!) talk to their parents or the other children. Instead the first thing that these parents do is demand that I turn on Children's ITV. And I am told we can't refuse. The worst thing is the noise. I don't actually mind the kids yelling and running around too much, it is a natural noise that I can tune out. It just seems that running around to a backdrop of Spongebob Squarepants or whatever the fuck is showing is impossible to tune out. It DEMANDS your attention, even though I actually sit with my back to the screen. I'm sure that there is something deliberately stimulating about the way the cartoons are constructed.

After the kids leave, the TV remains on. Most of the DMs are soap addicts and so I am treated to Cockney Scum screaming at each other in Eastenders, Manc Scum screaming at each other in Coronation Street and Yorkshire Scum screaming at each other in Emmerdale. After the last of the soaps, the DM then settles down to watch whatever mind-numbing, low-budget, hyped up bullshit that ITV1 is pumping out. A few months ago it was "Soap Star" X factor where former soap stars murder perfectly good songs. At the moment it is "Celebrity" X-Factor where former soap stars murder perfectly good songs. Are we spotting a pattern yet boys and girls?

Two weeks ago, the SKY box stopped working. As we don't have a regular ariel, we couldn't receive anything. I didn't even try to conceal my delight. Given that we have been waiting 6 months for someone to repair the nets dividing the badminton courts, I was ecstatic. By the next evening the SKY repairman had been in and all was fixed. Fuck.

So to the management of ITV1, I implore you - either give up your bandwidth to other channels or at least fire the current board of twats and look at poaching the people in charge of turning Five around and the Channel4/E4/More4 crew. Before I am forced to do permanent damage to the SKY box.


Sunday, June 04, 2006

A word to the advertisers

Of the last 100 visitors to my site, a staggering 26 arrived here because they searched for a video of Rebecca Loos wanking a pig off.

Just think about that next time you are trying to get visitors to visit your site. We've had the Pink Pound/Dollar, the Grey Pound/Dollar and now we have the Zoophile Pound/Dollar.

By the way, just in case you are one of the sick fucks looking for such a video, I don't have one. Seek help.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Going round in circles.

In my ongoing quest for a proper job, I am becoming something of an officianado of University websites. And I really need to let off a little steam! A few days ago, I was pointed toward a directory of PIs working in my field and have been preparing a mass emailing effort. The list contained a rather daunting 1200+ names, and so I have spent the past week whittling that down to about 100 who A) Interest me and B) aren't dead (nobody dies in cyberspace, their contact details just don't get updated). To do so, I have been visiting A LOT of lab homepages, checking email addresses etc and getting a feel for their work and their lab group.

The problem is that many University websites are absolutely atrocious. Most of the direct links from my list are out of date now (the database was started 10 years ago) and so I have to go in through the university's front page and look for the member of staff. I'm sorry to say, but our cousins across the pond are particularly bad at designing websites. Some of the biggest institutes in the world are almost impossible to navigate. Sure they look very pretty - tasteful colour schemes, photographs of an ethnically diverse range of unfeasibly good-looking students throwing their mortar boards into the air and lots of nice little icons. But navigating into the bowels of the site to find a lab's personal homepage can be make you grind your teeth in frustration.

Whereas most of the British Universities I've visited have a tab on the frontpage marked "Research", remarkably some of the world's most famous research institutes don't. One University (out of politeness I shan't name names) has just such a link, but it takes you to the page for the staff of the funding office. Now don't get me wrong, they are an indispensible and undervalued part of any research institute, but who in their right mind includes a link to the admin service on their frontpage (and after clicking every other link, I found NO link to the actual research departments)?

Another way is to search for the member of staff directly. Usually there are a couple of ways of doing this. One is to search the entire university's site for any mention of the lab head's surname. That's OK if they have a rare surname, but you can imagine how many hits you get if the researcher is "Smith" or "Jones". Several hundred hits for the surname of one particular individual at a large university had me banging my head on the keyboard in frustration. The second option is to search the staff directory. Assuming that the staff directory is available to outside visitors (it very often isn't), several of world's finest institutions returned "server down" messages. And even when the service does work, the information returned is often of limited use. Typically one gets the persons name and title, sometimes their email address, usually their phone number and their room number. That does confirm that they still work there and that their email address is up-to-date but still doesn't get you a link to their homepage, which is what I really want.

I will admit that I am a bit spoilt. At my old university, they upgraded the campus directory software to a newer version and allowed staff free reign to add extra details. They also allowed certain fields to remain invisible to external visitors eg exact room numbers - after all the last thing you want is Animal Rights Terrorists knowing exactly which office people work in. My profile had my name, title and position, building zone, direct dial numbers plus a link to my lab's homepage. Optional fields also included links to any modules that I might teach etc.

Eventually, I find the details I want, decide I like the look of the lab and its work and add it to my email list. However, one particularly irritating aspect of US universities in particular (and I apologise for picking on the US, it's just more exagerated) is their assumption that you know where they are! Many of the US' educational institutes are named after the philanthropist that funded their inception, so the name gives no clue. One particularly famous institution has several campuses in several cities. Perhaps it says more about my ignorance than anything else, but I didn't even know which end of the United States it was at! It took me almost a quarter of an hour to find what state the University was in (eventually I found it by looking to see which law firm is in charge of the University's legal affairs believe it or not!), since all of the mailing addresses were either internal or a PO Box. I finally gave up trying to work out which campus the lab I was interested in is actually situated on. I'll ask ifI get offered an interview.


That's better! I have about 50 more PIs to check, then it's time to start emailing! My CV is up-to-date and I have a basic cover letter that I will personalise to the email's recipient (stock phrases include "I am particualrly drawn to your lab because..."). If I get any reply at all from 10% of the recipients, I will be amazed. If I get any positive replies at all, I shall be ecstatic!



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