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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Tuesday Twat(s)

No. 77. Idiot construction workers.

Here is an absolute gem that I feel will go down in the annals of Fuckwittery. Hell, it's a contender for the Darwin Award! I saw this example of gob-smacking idiocy out of the bus window on my way to work. It was all I could do not to jump off at the next stop, run back and present him with a redeemable token for a gold-plated Tuesday Twat Award there and then.

My daily commute is slowed down (hopefully for not too much longer) by major roadworks on the bus route to the train station. Today I watched agog as a worker trimmed a piece of wood with a circular saw. Leaving aside his lack of eye protection etc, what got me was the way he used his right leg as a brace to hold the wood still. Standing, right leg extended, he balanced the 50 centimetre piece of wood against his shin, using his right foot to stop it sliding off. Using his right hand, he then proceeded to cut (and I saw the blade spinning) the wood upward toward his body. Cutting downwards, any slip would probably have meant he got 50% off at the shoe shop. Moving upwards... well, Mrs Construction worker could probably come off the pill at the very least. He then flipped the wood around and did the same on the other end.

Standing watching him was the brains of the outfit, fag hanging from mouth as he waited, either for the wood his mate was cutting for him, or for a chance to test his first aid skills. I'm not sure which.

I really wish I had a video camera with me. Forget YouTube, this ones destined for those gob-smackingly dull and patronising Health and Safety videos. Or Canada's funniest Home Videos. Definately worth $250, I reckon.

The annoying thing is, that if this genius did slip, you can bet that the poor construction company that made the mistake of employing him would be fined and his managers sued for neglecting to tell him NOT to cut his own leg off with a circular saw.



Monday, November 27, 2006

Hot Sushi

It looks like the conspiracy theorists and spy novelists have just been handed a godsend in the supposed murder of the former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, by all accounts with radioactive sushi.

It's certainly an intriguing tale and one, I suspect, that'll never truly become public knowledge.

The fingers, inevitably, are pointed at President Putin's [sarcasm] free and democratic [/sarcasm] government. If so, it is a very worrying state of affairs. However the conspiracist in me sees several other possible culprits. Not least because of the immense political damage this could cause to Comrade Putin. By all accounts Litvinenko was a pain in the arse, but not a huge one. Unless he was building up to a big disclosure that could do serious damage to Putin, it would seem perverse to kill him in such a technically sophisticated manner. There are plenty of nasty little poisons equally capable of doing the job available pretty much off the shelf or through wide-spread suppliers. Killing him with a rare isotope that, although present in minute quantities in nature, realistically had to come from a source with access to nuclear technology seems to be clumsy at best. Is this a warning to other dissidents to keep their mouths shut? Surely a public shooting by men described as "speaking with Russian accents" would have done the job just as well?

The political fall-out could be immense for Putin. Russia has ambitions to fuly join the "World club". They are increasingly being invited to join talks with groups such as the G8, and they are increasingly influential in arenas such as the UN Security Council. However Putin's autocratic, even dictatorial, style back home, has raised public disquiet among other world powers. The US in particular is becoming increasingly critical of Russia's clamp down on press freedom etc. It's worth noting that GWB has an increasing number of advisors from his father's presidency - many of whom probably don't quite believe that the "good old days" of the cold war are over.

Thus I can think of two other possibilities. Please feel free to post your own!

1) It was a huge cockup by "rogue elements" in the Putin government.
Putin may or may not have been aware of plans to "do something about" Litvinenko - ultimately the decision to kill him by such a method may have never come across his desk. If this is the case, it'll be interesting to see if the entire sordid affair is dealt with internally or if any scapegoats will be made public to repair the damage done. Keep an eye out for senior advisors retiring/resigning due to "ill health"/pursuing new and exciting career opportunities in Siberia.

2) It was an attempt to bring down Putin.
That Comrade Putin is not Comrade Popular in his own governemnt is hardly news. Perhaps this is an internal attempt by his political enemies to kill two birds with one stone? It was obvious that the world's fingers would be pointed directly at the top guy in the Kremlin - himself a former KGB man, let us not forget. If the Russian people see their hard won international respect being eroded by Putin's apparent recklessness, perhaps the next elections won't go his way. And as a bonus, the conspirators get rid of someone who would probably have been equally critical of their regime. Everyone's a winner - except of course for poor Mr Litvinenko and his family.

Either way, lets hope that somewhere, somehow justice is done.

As a side note, I had my radiation safety training a few weeks ago and therefore feel qualified to opine on the subject of Polonium 210 as a public health issue. The UK government has been offering the worried well who may have once met Mr Litvinenko at a wedding, the chance to piss in a bottle and have all of their worries taken away. Realistically, unless they uncover a few asymptomatic diabetics, this is unlikely to have any impact on public health.

Radio-Isotopes typically emit one of three types of radiation.
Gamma Radiation. This is the strongest, and is the type associated with nuclear bombs etc. It requires thick lead shielding. Large doses turn you into a nine foot tall raging pschopath with superhuman strength and green skin.

Beta radiation is a fast moving electron. I use this at work, in the form of Phosphorous 32 and its less energetic cousin Phosphorous 33. P32 will give a satisfying screech from the geiger counter at close range, but can be easily blocked by a centimetre of perspex. I can carry it quite safely in a perspex box with a lid from bench to bench and unless I place it down my underpants, my kids are unlikely to have two heads. The biggest danger is actually from X-rays that are released if you use a metal container to block the beta radiation. That's why we use perspex.

Polonium 210 is an alpha emitter. These are funny things. Paradoxically they are both very safe and very dangerous. Alpha particles are fast moving helium nuclei. They can be blocked by a sheet of paper. Sit next to an alpha source, and the radiation probably won't make it through the air to reach you; it certainly won't make it past your clothing and failing that through the layers of dead cells that form the outer layer of your skin.

BUT if you ingest the source, it is extremely dangerous. All of the radiation is absorbed in less than a millimetre of cells - not a problem if the cells are dead already - but potentially extremely dangerous if the cells are alive. The radiation will wreak havoc on the cells DNA, lipids, proteins - you name it. Alpha radiation is therefore extremely deadly if ingested, inhaled or administered via an open cut. Mr Litvinenko may have ingested it. The metal, toxic in its own right, will then have been distributed throughout his body killing every cell it came in contact with. Hence his systemic radiation poisoning - the hair loss etc. Unfortunately, doctors could wave a geiger counter up and down him all day and find nothing. It would only be detectable, in minute traces, in his urine etc. That someone suggested Thallium at such an early stage is a credit to them. Despite the whinging on the BBC Have your say pages, I doubt the doctors could have done much for him.

All this means of course, that unless you finished his Sushi off for him or somehow ingested his urine - you could have sat next to him all day and received no dose at all.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Tuesday Twat(s)

No. 76. The makers of powdered gloves.

I'm sorry, but it's 2006 - why in god's name do manufacturers still make bloody powdered latex gloves? Normally, we use powder-free gloves. Unfortunately, some muppet ordered powdered gloves from stores. Being a relatively small lab, on a tight budget, we are stuck with the bloody things. We can't really justify chucking them, and we can't get a refund.

For those readers whose hobbies/sex-lives don't involve the regular use of latex gloves, let me assure you that you aren't missing much. My entire work area is now covered in a fine coating of talcum powder; my progress around the lab can be tracked by following the white hand-prints and my brand-new, worn-for-the-first-time-today, black winter coat has two bloody great handprints on it (it was hanging on the back of my chair). My hands look like Kate Moss' top lip and I've found that if I clap them together, it looks like she's sneezed. Call me a whinger, but surely it says something profound about the design of powdered gloves that I actually need to wash my hands after wearing them?

Of course, it could be worse. These days they are full of talc. Years ago, before people started getting alarmed at the rapid numbers of people developing latex allergies (some of my friends never suffered from exczema or psoriasis on their hands before they started their PhDs), the powder was latex. Not only did you run the risk of making yourself allergic to most condoms (I have it on extremely good authority that it does happen), when you returned to work after a weekend away, your hands still smelt like you'd finished a 16 hour shift in the Durex factory. Even an obsessive compulsive handwasher couldn't get rid of the smell.

So to Sempermed et al - for christ's sake, STOP making the damn things. I've used powder free for years and they work perfectly well!!


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Who ate all the pies?

It's the little things you miss most when you are abroad.

For example, Thursday is "Free Pizza Day". What this actually means is that as a reward for snoozing through this week's research seminar, the organisers lay on a stack of free pizza. As a man who invariably rolls into bed thinking "it's OK, I'll get up 5 minutes early to make my sandwiches tomorrow" - then wakes up 10 minutes late, to find he hasn't thawed out a loaf of bread - this seems like a pretty good deal.

Unfortunately, this week our own lab meeting, which takes place before the seminar, ran over and so when we went to collect our free pizza (and listen to the talks naturally), all the pizza had gone. Although tempting, we felt it would reflect badly on our lab if, having turned up 10 minutes late, we then walked back out again because there was no free food.

So - lunchtime. What to do? In England the solution is simple. Greggs. Pies, Pasties, even sorry looking burnt "baguette pizzas" - everything a hungry man could possibly want for lunch. Here - not so simple.

Firstly, there appear to be no bakers within a half-mile radius of where I work. Oh sure there are donut [sic] shops. But we had donuts at lab meeting and diabetes looks like a real pain in the arm. There are some Kebab shops - but frankly, half a kilo of spicy meat at lunchtime will simply result in me falling asleep in a smelly heap in the corner. Not ideal when you are working with isotope. Even in England however, there are places that aren't within easy walking distance of a pasty shop (except in Devon of course - where they invented the Cornish pasty, snigger). So the next option is to go into a convenience store and buy a chilled Ginster's pasty or some sandwiches. Convenience stores in Canada sell cigarettes, crisps and newspapers. The refrigerators at the back might sell some over-priced cheese and bacon. But probably not.

Over the past few weeks, I have tried in vain to find somewhere that sells sandwiches (NOT a bloody sub - I just want two slices of bread and some filling) or a chilled pie. Nada.

In the end, I admitted defeat - what did I get? A slice of the exact same pizza everyone else managed to find - I just paid $2 for it, from the pizza shop around the corner.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


Oh, if only real life was like Borat the Movie!

Earlier in the week, went to see Borat the movie. I decided to go and see it after finding out that my local cinema runs a singles evening. Pathetic yes I know, but there's only so much pr0n a man can watch on cable TV before he fancies meeting a girl who doesn't answer the door to the postman in nothing but a pair of crotchless knickers - I have standards!

The evening was actually good fun. The organisers set up speed dating, which was just a hoot. Unfortunately I was late, after playing spin the bottle and spending 5 minutes trying to engage a woman in conversation who admitted from the outset that she only came because her friend was too shy to come on her own. Therefore, being late I was assigned a corner of the room, rather than getting a chance to pick which direction I fancied heading. Needless to say the blonde Amazonians were at the opposite end of the room and I was stuck with the extremely friendly over forty divorcees. Lesson learned for next time! I'm no expert on speed dating, but I realise that there are certain things you shouldn't do.

For example, the forty-something who mentioned her ex-husband in the first sentence then said she was "feeling old", so she decided to try speed-dating. 10/10 for honesty. 1/10 for for choice of conversational gambit. I had 4 "dates", with several very pleasant women, but we didn't click and the little card with my cell phone number stayed firmly in my pocket. I'm embarrassed to say that I wouldn't recognise them if I passed them on the street. The best looking women I spoke to at length were actually the girls organising it. I got talking to another guy and we both decided to see if we could pull one of these lovelys. Sadly they must be lesbians because, despite my having bothered to shave and put on some nice trousers, neither offered me their cell phone numbers.

That's me on the left, trying to pull the organisers.

The movie was fantastic though! It's a movie for the whole family I think - everyone in my family would certainly have found something to be offended about anyway! I'm not going to give anything away, except to say "the scene in the hotel". Those of you have seen the film will probably have thrown up a little bit in your mouth now at the memory - yet will also be trying not to laugh.

Basically, if you go to see the movie with the expectation that you will be offended - you will have a great time. Speaking to people afterwards, I found people saying the same things "bits of the film stepped well over the line and were just plain wrong - but I was laughing so hard I didn't mind".

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Tuesday Twat(s)

No. 75 Luciano Mares

BBC News

Yes - the Tuesday Twat is back!

And here is a classic!

Nothing quite beats seeing somebody being needlessly cruel - then seeing it backfire spectacularly!

OK, so you have a mouse infestation. You finally manage to capture one of the little buggers. So what do you do?

A) Take the mouse for a nice long drive, then chuck it in a hedge somewhere, confident you've seen the back of it?

B) Humanely kill it - easily done, HM Government's approved method is to break its neck. Equally effective and just as painless as long as you get it first time is to wallop it with something heavy. Mice are vermin, but no need to be nasty about it.

C) Chuck it on the bonfire?

Well guess what this sick fuck did? One assumes the mouse eventually perished - in a lot of needless pain. But it got it's own back - the flaming rodent raced back into the house - and promptly set it on fire, destroying it and everything in it. Sadly, Mr Mares was safe outside.

Call me a cynic, but if Mr Mares was a 13 year-old, he would be branded a sick little hooligan, and he and his parents would be booking weekly appointments with a child psychologist for the next 20 years. But Mr Mares is 81, so he'll probably get away with it. What's next, dragging unwanted puppies beind his pickup truck? Skinning kittens with a blunt potato peeler because he can't find a burlap sack, a brick and a deep enough pond?

I really hope the insurance company refuses to pay ou!


Monday, November 06, 2006

Some humour translates across the world

Humour is a funny thing. Some things translate across culture better than others. Candid camera is the same the world over.

Over the last couple of years, the BBC has ressurected the old candid camera staple in the form of "Just for Laughs". Good clean family fun involving a jaunty soundtrack, meticulously set up stunts (often remarkably simple) and a gullible public. It's not clever, it's not sophisticated, but it's bloody funny!

Well Canada has its own version, similar enough that it's probably the same production company. As with the BBC version, it's mostly mimed, suggesting that it is intended for export. EDIT: I've just watched the credits and it's actually French "Juste pour Rire", filmed in Montreal.

The Canadian version is even more audacious than the UK version. I couldn't believe it when they had a "blind man" trying to find an empty sunlounger. I couldn't help but feel that when he groped women's arses he would probably have been slapped and/or arrested in the UK! The funniest gag had to be when a guy in a sports car pulls up to a passerby and tries to give them his Yorkshire Terrier. When they decline he climbs out of the car (surreptitiously switching the dog for a stuffed one) and hurls it, complete with comic yelp!, into the back of a passing garbage truck. Of course the strength of the gag relies on the reaction of the public. One old guy promptly set off on his bicycle wobbling dangerously across the road trying to flag the truck down. The look of relief, even as he burst into laughter was priceless.

Of course the BBC version has one Ace in the Hole that the Canadian's don't seem to have been able to secure - namely a pair of absolutely stunning, blonde, twenty-something identical twins. It's a staple of candid camera shows that gullible men will do pretty much anything if asked by a pretty girl - combine that with the ability to then do a seamless switch between them and the possibilities are endless. The best set up had to be at a supermarket. The member of the public is left standing at the till whilst the sales assistant goes to the stockroom. One of the twins stands slightly behind and to the left of the dupe. There is a CCTV camera above the till, and like men the world over the dupe can't help but check out the girl on the monitor. Except it's not. They've cleverly spliced the picture with a green screen of the other twin - who starts to strip. The look of bewilderment as these guys turn around in delight, to find the girl behind them simply demurely waiting in line is brilliant.

I've been relieved to see that Brits and Canadians have a broadly compatible sense of humour. Not everything translates of course, and I am careful not to be too crude until I've figured out the limits, but I've had a lot of laughs whilst I've been here. Jokes about US foreign policy seem to go down well, but I'm aware that I can't yet tell the difference between the two accents yet, so I have to be sure of the nationality of anyone within earshot! I've also been watching a lot of Canadian standup on the Comedy channel, and I am definately contemplating a trip to Montreal next summer to catch the festival live.

Friday, November 03, 2006

A couple of humble suggestions

Since I started work, I have done pretty much nothing but read. This necessitates me doing the "dreaded literature search".

As I trawl the databases and the reference lists at the back of papers, my frustration has led to a couple of ideas. One slightly more controversial than the other :-)

1) If you use a specific technique please either describe it in the methods - or reference an accessible source!

In order to save space, it is a perfectly legitimate for authors to use a phrase such as "the technique was performed as previously described (ref Jones et al 2006)". The problem is that it isn't always possible to track down or access that reference. Twice this week, I have found references to a technique in an out of print text book or in a paper too old to be accessible online. For myself, it is in an inconvenience - I can always take a 15 minute walk to the University library if I have to. But for researchers at independent research institutes the only option may be an interlibrary loan (a week or more and usually a few dollars) - for people in poorer countries, even the free access to journals that PubMed central etc have pioneered is useless if the paper hasn't been converted to PDF and posted online yet.

There are someways around the problem. For example, if the technique has been utilised often then a search for other papers that cite the original reference may turn up one that describes the technique in detail. Of the two I had problems with this week, one I managed to track down this way after an hour or so of hunting (the paper was worth it!). The other I will either give up my lunch break to photocopy or carry on hunting online for.

Obviously, that source may be the only written account of the technique, however it would be of great benefit if authors and journals considered this. One solution may be to cite the original (thus giving credit where owed) and then cite another more accessible paper. With online access to papers becoming the norm these days, authors should perhaps consider which journals to reference. If neither is possible, then perhaps editors could consider asking authors for more details in the text.

2) Compulsory Deed Poll.

I'm sorry for any offence this may cause, but if your surname is Smith, Jones, Wang or Xu, perhaps you could consider changing your name to one less common! Earlier this week I was advised to look at a paper by "Wang. Umm 2000 or 2001, maybe - I can't remember the title".

This confronted me when I put that limited information into Pubmed.
Items 1 - 20 of 14708

Even guessing at a few more keywords, such as organism and a couple of vague limiters (unfortunately, it was a general review paper, so I couldn't type in a specific gene name), I still had to trawl through the titles of almost 1000 hits.

So may I humbly suggest that if your name is rather common, you choose a new one. Seriously.
Just to help you, whilst "Kirk" had over 350 hits between 2000 and 2001, "Spock" only had 8 (and 2 of those referred to a neuromuscular proteoglycan called SPOCK).

Go on, you know it makes sense!



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