Archive for: February, 2012

Bis sextum

Feb 29 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Happy leap day! I learned today that in the Julian calendar, feb 23 was the leap day. The bis sextum, or "double sixth" was the sixth day before the Kalends (first of the month) of March. Thus, six days before March 1 is feb 23. On leap years this day was doubled. So there were two Feb 23ds. At least it's not like the Jewish calendar where every so often they add a leap month.

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Here, there, everywhere.

Feb 29 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

So obviously I've been a bit remiss about posting. You, guessed it, I've been busy! Counterintuitively, faculty life has become busier and more hectic post-tenure. The reasons for this are varied. For one we have a few folks in the lab that are getting ready to leave and there's a rush to get papers published, projects wrapped-up, etc. There's also a whole other crop of new folks which need to be trained and assigned projects. Teaching has remained about the same, with the difference that I've done it often enough that it can run in the background of other activities and yet still remain high-quality (yes, you get there, eventually). Also I'm being called up for all sorts of committees and meetings. Once you go through tenure it becomes difficult to fly under the radar of the dean and provost and other admin folks, since they will just have reviewed you cases. Also, one's department becomes less invested in protecting your time and asks you to do all sorts of extra stuff. My lab is also a bit bigger, so there's all sorts of folks to mentor, problems to solve and fires to put out. I've suddenly been asked to review a whole bunch more papers, and things like that. My grants are also turning over soon, so I'm on a grant-writing spree.

It is tempting to scale down my lab, take on another course and take the summers off (I already have my weird-professor chicken). But in truth, although I'm busier, this is not nearly as stressful as when you are trying to get tenure. So, it's actually not bad. It's just work. Plus now I can do some rabble-rousing without fear. And I get to collaborate again with my postdoc mentor, without worrying about making my work not seem "independent enough".

I found it quite helpful pre-tenure to just basically fly under the radar and not participate in any university-level or division-level committees. I got asked a couple of times and I just said no. I did chip in with some departmental duties which I didn't mind doing, plus you want folks in your department to like you, they will be your colleagues for years. Deans and admins, on the other hand, come and go. In my experience it didn't really matter whether the dean knew who I was or not in terms of tenure. Ultimately your departmental colleagues and outside letter writers will speak in your behalf, as will your track record. I also never served on any grant review panels or study sections, though I think this would have been useful to do, if only once. I know some junior faculty that serve all the time, but I think in the end this would be detrimental, due to excessive time commitment. Also, doing something like becoming an associate editor in a journal as an assistant professor is crazy. It certainly won't count towards your tenure, and it sounds like a bunch of frustrating gruntwork.

I'm not saying these activities are bad, in fact they're part of being in the scientific community. Just don't do them as junior faculty, you can pay your dues once you get tenure. And that, is seems, is what I've started to do.

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The Chicken Knight

Feb 15 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

In the last few months I somehow got sucked into reading George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books which include Game of Thrones, of which they made a recent TV series. I'm still not done (I'm somewhere in the 4th book) since I'm an impossibly slow reader and I'm usually reading two or three other books at once, but I'm really enjoying myself. One thing I really like about the series is how lived in that world feels. He managed to create levels and levels of culture, stories, geography, history that go along with the main plot lines. He describes many aspects of daily life and even the food in great detail. There's even a website dedicated to recreating the food described in the book series. I also enjoy reading the descriptions of the different cities and places, and I like the fact that the geography and culture of this world (does it have a name?) can roughly be superimposed onto medieval Europe and maybe the Middle East. Martin takes great pains to describe the rich heraldic symbols of the various houses that have a role in shaping the plot, and I always assumed that they were somewhat fanciful versions of actual heraldry used in the middle ages. Recently, a friend showed me a link to an exhibit of various illustrated books from Flanders made during the late medieval period, and the website for the exhibition has a nice series of interactive electronic books, which are scans of some of the original manuscripts. The first of these books is a so-called Armorial, or book of heraldry depicting the various symbols, helmet and costumes worn by the various knights. And they're amazing, they have all sorts of crazy stuff, like the dude with the giant fish or lion helmet. There's even one fellow with a chicken on his helmet. I certainly couldn't imagine going to war with that shit on my head. If I were a knight I wonder what my symbol would be? A giant neuron on a background of whining undergrads? A laptop? I could simply then challenge grant and paper reviewers to swordfights in lieu of peer review. These would also make much better covers for Martin's books than the inexplicably ugly ones he (or his publisher) chose. Here are some of my favorites (including the chicken knight):

Chicken Knight

Lion Knight

Fish Knight

Valentine's Day Knight

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Teal Beret

Feb 10 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I saw this old grizzled prof go into the building where I teach the other day. He had a grey beard and was wearing an old wool sweater with moth holes, a tweed jacket, rumpled khakhis and brand new running shoes. He had his worn, Land's End canvas briefcase and was wearing a teal beret with matching gloves. He really looked like he didn't give a shit about anything. And I thought "Yeah, he's cool."

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Coffee Capers

Feb 10 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I don't really think I'm a coffee snob, because I will pretty much drink any coffee swill that's put in front of me. That being said, I do like good coffee, and good espresso in particular. Back when I started my postdoc I decided to treat myself to a decent espresso machine and after some research I opted for one of those lever machines that look like some sort of steampunk contraption with chrome tubes, and knobs and buttons. After some research into pricing, etc. I trekked into Manhattan to buy it and returned home with this beauty:

Mine's a lot greasier and battle-scarred.

I had been warned that these lever machines were temperamental and unforgiving and that everything had to be just right before you could pull a decent shot of espresso. After experimenting with multiple beans, roasts, grinders and tampers (and drinking lots of test shots) I finally came up with a fairly reliable formula and have been drinking delicious espressos for the last 10 years or so. Last month, however, my espresso world was turned upside-down. First the grinder broke. It was actually a somewhat inexpensive grinder that just so happened to grind the beans fine enough for my machine, something that much more expensive grinders do. I had bought some new beans and they were so oily that they gummed up the grinder and blew its motor (I think, I haven't attempted to repair it). So I figured, well, the grinder can't last forever, so I bought a newer version of the same grinder. Of course it was not nearly as good, and the grind did not seem to be quite fine enough, and I was in the process of doing some adjustments when my espresso machine decided to break. The way the machine works is that you have a lever which you lift, it lets hot water into a chamber and when you pull the lever down it pushes a piston down that forces the water through the coffee grounds. Well, now, whenever I pulled the lever, it would not generate any pressure. I knew that the piston had gaskets around it and likely these just had to be replaced. This had happened once before and when I looked into getting the replacement gaskets I also found the parts diagram for the machine and was confronted with this:

That's a lot of parts!


It did not look promising, so I sent it all the way to faraway Seattle to be repaired. This time, when the gaskets blew, I decided not to be daunted by the complicated diagram and go for it. So I ordered a gasket kit, got a tool I didn't have from Home Depot and set off to work, with the eager help of my 6 year-old son. We first removed the group head (the part where the coffee grounds go and where the piston and lever sits) and I gave my son the job of scrubbing the gooey residue off of all the metal parts. We removed the main gasket and the filter screen, undid the lever and pushed the piston through. At this point I looked at all the little parts and panicked. What have I done? How is all this going to go back together? Where did that little ring come from? But it was too late, there was only one way now, and it was forward. And we found that the problem wasn't the gaskets, but rather that the piston itself (which has little grooves to hold the gaskets) was made of plastic (!) and was cracked.

The cracked piston, the shiny new piston.

Except for a few knobs and handles, this machine is made almost entirely of metal. Why would they make the part of the machine that receives the most stress out of plastic? I'm sure it was hard plastic, but over the years it looks like it got brittle and finally cracked. I blame the super oily coffee beans which did in my grinder. Back on the internet looking for the missing part, I found out that now they make it out of brass instead of plastic. Except all the places that sell it  appeared to be sold out. Finally I found a place that had the piston in stock (quite expensively) along with parts for all sorts of coffee and slushie machines, put in an order and waited for the part to arrive. A few days later, the piston arrives!! It took a while to get all the gaskets to sit right, I added a little dab of silicone grease to make things glide nicely, and miraculously everything went back together with no extra parts hanging around (I think). And, just like that, we're back in business!


Some 'spresso coming up!

I'm still not terrible happy with the new grinder, but apparently you can adjust the burrs a bit, and maybe I can get the old one to work again. It's kind of funny how I'm always so reluctant to take apart any appliances/electronics at home but in the lab I'm all about "lets screw this very expensive piece of equipment/microscope open and see what we can get it to do". My lab is covered with kludged-together pieces of equipment, often held together by duct tape, aluminum foil and cardboard boxes. I guess lab equipment somehow seems more accessible and open, while many home appliances are basically impossible to break into without breaking the case. We had this toaster that stopped working about a month ago and just to open it up was a major undertaking; it was basically impossible to do without damaging the outer case. It turned out it was simply a loose contact, but the thing was impossible to put back together. My wife didn't want one of the kids electrocuted by the toaster so she made me throw it out. The nice thing about my espresso machine is that it's got so many exposed bolts and screws, that it's just too tempting not to take it apart. Almost like an old steam engine, or something. Now, if only I could learn to fix the fucking leaf blower.

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In the groove

Feb 06 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

So I'm still here. I've just been busy! There's been a grant to write, classes to teach, lines of undergrads wanting to talk to me, papers to revise, turnover in the lab, equipment breaking and getting fixed, all stuff that takes my attention away from here. Finally this weekend we were able to get away for a bit, then come back and relax, watch the Superbowl and dismantle my espresso machine. Obviously the lack of decent espressos has been making me work slower. But now that the semester is in the groove, hopefully I can get back with new and exciting posts.

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