Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: August, 2008

This Is No Techno Joint

To the weird post-doc next door,

Your music is too loud. How do I know this? My desk is vibrating with the bass beat as I type this. You might want to try headphones.

A grad student who is not abnormally sensitive to seismic waves.

Taking Personal Hygiene Too Far

To the grad student who practically lives in lab,

You know that you’ve slathered on too much perfume when you smell more strongly than the hazardous chemicals I’m working with in the hood. It’s so noxious that I’m seriously considering a recommendation for using the emergency showers.

A grad student with fingers itching for a gas mask.

The Journey of the Calculating Engine

The world would be dull place if every creative endeavor was geared toward immediate practical utility. But doing things just because they are fun or interesting isn’t well regarded in a lot of circles. And if spending money is involved, well, one might as well just forget it. This is why whenever people request grants to do something, there are always justifications involved. Saying that it’s totally cool and awesome doesn’t cut it.

Of course, this bureaucratic financial wrangling isn’t only confined to now. A cursory glance might show that history likes to view past scientists as titled gentlemen with enough cash to throw into their lofty intellectual pursuits. But it’s more complicated. As Doron Swade demonstrates in The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer, the flow of money–or rather lack of–could very well be a major factor in delaying technological progress.

Charles Babbage began as a promising student at Trinity College, Cambridge until he decided on a “blasphemous” subject for his final thesis which nearly got him kicked out. This began as merely the first of many incidents where Babbage’s vocal protests hampered much of his efforts in building the difference engine and the more advanced analytical engine. In the end, Babbage never got to finish his machines due to opposition that argued its lack of practicality compared to the price tag.

On a more modern note, when the author proposed to build the difference engine for the Science Museum in London by the bicentenary of Babbage’s birth, funding was also a major issue. Backers pulled out and a manufacturing company went bankrupt–problems that Babbage similarly faced. The organizers of the project had to scramble desperately to make ends meet and completed the machine at the very last minute.

Although some of the prose was a bit dry, Swade managed to make the case the Babbage was not just some eccentric genius that everyone else willfully ignored. Lack of money was definitely a major reason why the difference engine wasn’t completed, but Swade shows other reasons that may have contributed. Babbage was complex, surprisingly sociable, stubborn, and outspoken. His personality and views may have rubbed others, particularly influential others, in the wrong direction. The Difference Engine isn’t exactly light reading, but it will be definitely of interest to those who want to look beyond the current fad for Babbage inspired steampunk aesthetic.

Absolutely No Inclination To Install

I like links as much as the next blogger, but my enthusiasm for them really depends on how I find out about them. Take, for instance, Photosynth. I’m sure it’s cool and all, but I’m not too gung-ho about some application which puts photos of your cats and drunk friends into some 3-D thingeemabobs. I’m definitely not impressed when some flaky grad student interrupts me in the middle of an experimental procedure just to regale about and demonstrate all of its supposedly totally awesome features. Hello? I’m busy here.

The Lentil of Disappointment

I drove all the way to Pullman for the National Lentil Festival in order to sample some lentil chili. And was disappointed and disillusioned. The Festival started at 6PM. I got there at 7PM and all the chili was already gone. Theoretically, they were supposed to have enough until 11PM. Or maybe that was the beer…

Of course, I could have enjoyed the rest of the evening, but I wasn’t particularly interested in booths selling useless knick-knacks, advertising for local businesses, or handing out political propaganda. Making my way back to the parking lot, I saw some Lentil Festival beauty queens traipsing among the hoi polloi. Though I have no use for beauty queens either.

Memes, Again

Booking Through Thursday: Libraries

What is your earliest memory of a library? Who took you? Do you have you any funny/odd memories of the library?

I remember my mom taking me to the public library in Brockville, Ontario. I was probably around four or five years old. The place was a little intimidating–especially the grown-up books. And the children’s section was in the basement.

As a library patron, I don’t have any unusual memories about being in the library. Once I’m there, I tend to avoid places where other patrons are browsing unless there’s a book or article I really need. Studying in the library is another matter. No matter how isolated the spot that I choose, there will always be people trafficking around (and talking!) to disturb my concentration.

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The Thursday Threesome: “You find out who your Friends are…”

Onesome: You find out– all sorts of interesting stuff here on the net. How’s about serving up a factoid or site link you’ve found lately that you are pretty sure no one but you found interesting…

The last thing I found that wasn’t on somebody’s blog was the latest episode of No Reservations on YouTube. That’s pretty much the only show I’ve been watching. Mmm. Food Pr0n. With prawns.

Twosome: who your– information sources are can be interesting: who/what are you looking to for information this political season?

I guess everything and anything. I wouldn’t trust just one source for info of any sort.

Threesome: Friends are– the people who bail you out when you need it? …or maybe they’re the ones waiting in line after you to use the phone looking for bail saying, “Man, that was fun!”? Just wonderin’…

Are people really friends if they get you in trouble all the time?

Memes Old and New

Booking Through Thursday: Gold Medal Reading

First: Do you or have you ever read books about the Olympics? About sports in general? Fictional ones? Or non-fiction? Or both?

I do not recall reading anything about the Olympics or sports in general in fiction or non-fiction.

Second: Do you consider yourself a sports fan?

No. This is probably the reason for the answer in the first part. I usually do not go out of my way to read something in a subject that I do not care about or have any interest in. (I also have not seen or read about the current Olympics. At all.)

Addendum: I apologize for sounding so abrupt, but I’ve been really stuck in lab lately. Generally, I work 50 to 60 hrs a week (this week, it’s more like 70), at least and lately, I am feeling very paranoid after overhearing a post-doc complaining about grad students working even less than flaky undergrads.

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Booking Through Thursday: Other Worlds

Are there any particular worlds in books where you’d like to live? Or where you certainly would NOT want to live? What about authors? If you were a character, who would you trust to write your life?

As I told someone yesterday, it’s hard to articulate what to like. It’s much easier to say what to dislike. I definitely do not want to live in a world where there’s violence going on all the time. This means YOU, epic fantasy novels with constant warring. I also do not trust any authors who are into torturing their characters.

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The Thursday Threesome: “Leggo’ my Eggos!”

Onesome: Leggo’– of that! Okay, is there something (sure, food works!) that shows up from time to time that you’d really like to have and someone else usually makes a grab for it? I’m thinking Christmas is coming and maybe those ‘special’ cookies need to be planned for…

Good food always disappears before I get a crack at it.

Twosome: my– how time flies: Back to School sales are already over and I’m seeing Thanksgiving stuff in the stores! Whaddayathink: are you ready for Summertime to be over and done with?

I haven’t seen Thanksgiving stuff, but then again, I haven’t done much shopping lately. And no, I’m not really ready for summer to end, but what can you do?

Threesome: Eggos– and the like: do you have a frozen food you keep around just because you actually like the darned thing?

Frozen food is easy to cook when I get home feeling really tired. I like fresh food better, though.

Recommended Reading

The Eight by Katherine Neville is being offered as a free e-book until next Monday. I’d definitely recommend it since it is one of my favorite books. (Ignore the cover quote comparing it to The Da Vinci Code. The Eight is a kazillion times better.)

On an almost unrelated tangent, while I was waiting to pick up a package at the local UPS store (which turned out to be an advance reading copy of The Fire, squee!!, ahem), the guy in front of me was mailing out a huge box containing two thousand dollars worth of shoes. I don’t think I’ve even spent half that much on all the shoes I’ve worn in my life.