To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Happy birthday, F! (And you too, Bunny.)
Well, we knew this already:

Why Men Don't Listen to Women

Bottom line: Men have to work harder deciphering what women are saying because they use the auditory part of the brain that processes music, not human voices. Men's brains are not designed to listen to women's voices. It's not the pitch of the woman's voice, but rather the vibration and number of sound waves that cause the problem, notes Discovery News.

[May I point out that pitch is directly related to frequency, which is number of waves per given time interval. Duh.]

But guys have no trouble at all hearing each other because men use a much simpler brain mechanism at the back of the brain to decipher another man's voice and recognize it as speech.

On a related note, check this out:
How to tell the sex of a bird

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

deja vu all over again...

I was sitting at my desk this afternoon after everyone had left, heard a sound behind me, turned around ... the pipet washer had been left on again.

What am I going to do?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

My poor kid ...

F was on spring break week before last, but she HAD to make a flying visit home this weekend in order to attend MidSouthCon - she would have burst into flames if she could not. So she came home Friday evening and her dad and I drove her back to school this afternoon. We got to her little college town in time for her to run up to her dorm room real quick and then we took her to dinner.

The waitress mentioned that she was tired, and we said we were tired too, and that we had to drive back to Memphis after we ate (3 hour trip). Why were we there? Well, we had to bring the kid back to school. The waitress, looking puzzled, asked F what school she goes to. F looked puzzled back at her. I told the waitress, well, she's a student at [name of F's college], and her jaw dropped. Look of utter shock. F ducked her head in embarrassment. I gently told the waitress that F will be nineteen at the end of the week - double shock. Well, at least she didn't give F the kids' menu - that happens sometimes. And someday she will appreciate her youthful look.

Friday, March 24, 2006

What an extraordinary story.

Famed Conscientious Objector Doss Dies

via the Redneck Texan

It reminds F and me of Mary Renault's The Charioteers. It's sometimes billed as a "gay love story" (and apparently is disappointing to readers when they read it expecting that) but there's a sub-plot about the Quaker noncombatants during WWII who signed on as army medics and whose lives were made hell by those who resented the fact that they were not fighting. We couldn't have liberated Europe from the Nazis, nor those Jews who managed to survive the camps until we got there, if we hadn't gone in and fought; on the other hand, one has to wonder what would happen if they gave a war and nobody came.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Here is an article on Drudge - I'm posting it in its entirety because these things come and go.




A top producer at ABC NEWS declared "Bush makes me sick" in an email obtained by the DRUDGE REPORT.

John Green, currently executive producer of the weekend edition of GOOD MORNING AMERICA, unloaded on the president in an ABC company email obtained by the DRUDGE REPORT.

"If he uses the 'mixed messages' line one more time, I'm going to puke," Green complained.

The blunt comments by Green, along with other emails obtained by the DRUDGE REPORT, further reveal the inner workings of the nation's news outlets.

A friend of Green's at ABC says Green is mortified by the email. "John feels so badly about this email. He is a straight shooter and great producer who is always fair. That said, he deeply regrets the sentiment expressed in the email and the embarrassment it causes ABC News."


He sent this on his Blackberry wireless handheld. WIRELESS.

Somehow people apparently still have not realized that they must think twice before they push that "send" button. You can't call an email back. You can't control where it goes after it leaves you. You especially can't control it if it goes out on a wireless device. It's fine to express an opinion like "Bush makes me sick" but you have to realize that if you send it in an e-mail you'd better be sure it's something you don't mind the whole world seeing with your name over it. "Deeply regrets the sentiments" ... I doubt it. He deeply regrets his own lack of discretion.
Change Destiny thinks it's cool that optical illusions give us information about how our brains work. I do too.

F is interested in synesthesia. She wrote her informative speech about it last semester and sent me a copy. Here is an article in Scientific American about synesthesia.

F has a touch of it; I remember that when she was a little girl she told me one day about the characteristics of various numbers, the way she saw them. Various words make her feel one way or another. What were those three words you told me about, F? Spoon? Police? Can't think of the other.

And I have it too. I was in the band when I was in school, and I associated certain notes on my clarinet with colors. It's not that I saw the colors, it's that I knew what colors they were. And now, when I am in a dark room, if I hear a sound I see a flash of light. I thought at first that I must be flinching, that that was what caused the visual phenomonon, but I'm fairly sure now that that's not the case.

F also has the trait that sunlight makes her sneeze. We always used to laugh about that, because every Sunday when we left church at noon the sun was right in her face and she would inevitably start sneezing. Less funny is that full sunlight sometimes gives her a migraine. This all has to do with stimulation of the optic nerve having cross-effects in her brain. We've speculated as to whether there is a connection to synesthesia; don't know.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Here's an interesting article: Law allows babies to be adopted without notifying unwed fathers.

I have some strange ideas.

What if an unwed mother has no right to financial support from the father of her child, other than what he chooses to give her, and she knows that from the get-go.

What if an unwed father has no custodial or visitation rights and no rights to block adoption, other than what the mother gives him.

We have a framework in which the law can regulate relationships between men and women and their rights regarding offspring: it's called marriage. Don't want to get married, fine, but then perhaps the courts should not be called upon to sort things out.

Just, you know, some ideas. I imagine there would be a lot of hungry lawyers.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Here's a funny thing that happened at work. It happened Wednesday before last, but because I left to go out of town at the end of the day and didn't come back until the weekend, I forgot to tell my family or blog about it.

My group has a meeting every Wednesday at 10:00. On this day I told them that late in the day on the previous Friday I was one of two people left in the building and was sitting in my office when I heard a noise. It turned out to be the pipet washer, which had been left running in the lab behind me. I turned it off, of course. I told my group that while they might think it wouldn't have been a big deal to leave it running over the weekend, since it just drains into the sink, you never know when a drain will get clogged somehow. We would have walked into a huge mess on Monday if that had happened. So if people turn on the pipet washer, they should keep an eye on it and be sure to turn it off. They're all too polite to openly roll their eyes but I knew they were thinking, yeah, whatever.

R and I had to run an errand at lunch that day, so I left at noon and didn't get back until 1:40. When I came in, I saw one of those "wet floor" things in the lab next to my office and I wondered about it briefly. Well, you can guess what had happened: someone had left the pipet washer running when she went to lunch, and somehow a funnel tumbled into the sink and stopped the drain. Just in that short period of time a whole lot of water ran into the floor and it took five people and a shop-vac to clean it up.

They all told me it was my fault.
: )

Friday, March 17, 2006

Yesterday F went to Shiloh with a friend who is still in high school. The friend had to visit a historic place during her spring break (the concept of which this high school does not seem to grasp.)

F is one of those people who like history and who like knowing interesting and useless things. We visited Shiloh when she was studying the Civil War during her high school U.S. History class and on the way there she told us all about what we would see, who fought there, what happened, the outcome and effect on the war, and so forth. So when the friend had to go, and her mom told her to try to find someone to go with them because of the long drive and so forth, F asked to be put on on the short list. Actually, she was the only taker.

Various states have put up elaborate monuments to their soldiers who died there. F says an equal number of soldiers from Tennessee fought on each side. Here is a picture she took of the Tennessee monument:

And here is a detail of the dying flag-carrying boy:

I am reminded of The Red Badge of Courage, that godawful thing they force helpless high schoolers to read (or did in my day), and of Ray Bradbury's short story "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh", and of Kipling's Drums of the Fore and Aft although that was a different war. This last story F and I read together last night. I miss sharing things like that with her when she's not here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

"There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit." - One of Ronald Reagan's favorite sayings.

F is on spring break. I took her to lunch today and, as usual, talked her ears off. She's very indulgent. I don't know whether she's interested or just very respectful, which is appropriate, I suppose, for a well-mannered young lady.

Besides the babysitting that I had to do that I mentioned here, wherein I had to put in a lot of (unpaid) overtime making sure one of my coworkers got his work done, there was another episode with a different coworker in which I had to do virtually the same thing. He had to use purge-and-trap technology, which he was familiar with and at that time I was not, together with a Hall detector which neither of us had any experience with, and the data collection software was the package I was using for my humble pesticides rather than what he was familiar with for GC/MS. This coworker had more get-up-and-go than the other one and neither of us understood why I had to be there, except that I had more familiarity with the software and perhaps the boss thought he had a tendency to give up too easily. We did have a lot of problems with the detector, getting a decent baseline, and so on. One evening I was working late on his dadgum project; he was there, and the boss was there, and I had bronchitis and was so tired that I kept coughing until I lost my breath. I wondered what kind of idiot I was, to risk pneumonia like that. Both of these men were paid considerably more than me, as was the boss, naturally.

But later, when that boss left and I was promoted to a supervisory spot (another story) one of those men's pay was cut and both of them had salary freezes for several years because the big boss thought they were overpaid. Meanwhile I had nice increases every year until I caught up and passed them.

So what I told F is that sometimes you have to pay your dues and not worry too much about getting credit for all your hard work in the immediate future.

THE PROBLEM COMES IN when you have a boss who is very willing to let you work your butt off and has no intention of ever paying you what you're really worth. Sad to say, this probably happens a lot more often with black people and women. Some folks have it in the back of their minds (or even at the front) that black people and women ought not to expect to be paid like white men. Even some black people and women think that and won't stand up for their rights. Plenty of white men are overworked and underpaid too, of course. It's an individual decision that a person has to make, what he or she is willing to put up with and how long to wait to see if things are going to be made right. If you demand too much up front you tick people off. Bosses want to see consistent effort over a period of time. But if you hang around too long not getting paid enough, not only are you not getting money, but it looks bad on your resume. From my experience, mom-and-pops, meaning any really small company with only one or two owners, are the worst. They'll tell you how wonderful you are and how much they love you and couldn't do without you, but as long as your last name isn't theirs, you will never, ever get anywhere. A person might decide to work for a mom-and-pop for a short period of time, say 2 or 3 years, if doing so will allow him to gain some skills and experience that make him more marketable. Longer than that is probably a bad idea.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

I've been out of town since Wednesday, got back in this morning and am still kind of tired. We're getting ready to implement a new computer thing which has been implemented at another facility, and three of us on the steering committee decided we needed to go to that facility and see how they're using it and the problems they're having.

One thing that I can see is that I am going to have to be proactive in my role as specification writer. Once we implement this thing, it will be my job to go between all the lab and office folks and the IT department and ask very specifically for changes and bug fixes. We discovered that the person who fills this role at the other facility isn't getting much information from some of the staff because they're not in his department and he's not in their chain of command. The IT people and top management were surprised at this, because they thought everyone understood that his role in this thing is interdepartmental. But you know, that's just how people are. So I will make it a point to walk around the building and ask all sorts of people how it's going, if they're having problems, what could be changed to make things easier and more efficient, and so on. Another issue is that although everyone was trained, there was possibly too much training all at once. More than one person told me that when they actually sat down to do some work they found themselves staring at the screens and thinking, "Now what?" So some of the problems they're having may be training issues. I'll have to try to identify those too. Some people identified as problems things that others thought were the best features. People had different ways of approaching the same tasks, which is fine as long as everyone works in the way that's most efficient for them. But that may not be the case if there is not enough communication between users; for instance, if one person finds a really quick and convenient way to perform a task, but he never has an opportunity to show others in a group meeting.

Another thing is that the user interface is confusing and inconvenient. We have some ideas about what to do about that. The people at the other facility are not making use of a very flexible tool, and that is the export to Excel. The pre-saved report functions take too long and have the wrong information for many tasks, but you can export virtually everything to do with your specified data set to an Excel spreadsheet. They know that. The spreadsheet still has too much info and it's large and unwieldy. But you can set up a second spreadsheet to link to specific cells in the first one, pulling out exactly what you need to see and putting it in any order that makes sense to you. You can write a macro in that second sheet if necessary to format it further. You can save several of those second spreadsheets to various names that make sense to you, for various reports that serve different needs. Set it up so that when you do the export you save the exported spreadsheet to a predetermined file name, to which the report spreadsheets link, and then any of those report spreadsheets you open is instantly updated. I realize this may look weird to people who do IT, but for seat-of-the-pants users like me, it's very easy and useful.

We're also going to work on customizing data entry screens using a different application wherever possible. So I'm going to be fairly busy for a few months. Our go-live date is May 1 and it's going to be heck for a couple of weeks. Most of the actual bugs were found at the other facility and already fixed, but most people resist change and find it very stressful. (Not me. I guess I'm weird.) We kicked around the idea of doing some things those first couple of weeks to lighten the atmosphere and keep people from feeling too grim - like bringing donuts one day, a popcorn machine another, pizza for lunch, and so on.

So we'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Okay, this drives me nuts.

I read this:

Teacher beheaded by militants

SUSPECTED Islamic militants have beheaded a teacher in a lawless Pakistani tribal area bordering Afghanistan, officials said today.
Said Badshah, 35, who ran a private school, failed to return home yesterday in Barwan village, near Wana, the main town in restive South Waziristan tribal agency, a local administration official said.

His headless body was found in a remote area this evening, the official said on condition of anonymity.

on the same day I read this:

Teens with disabilities enjoy last-ditch reprieve

"We're pushing for them to pass because it will make them feel better about themselves," said Vice Principal Cyndi Swindle, who oversees special education.

I'm not death on self-esteem like a lot of people are, but I still think this statement is pretty silly. But this is the part that irks me:

About a week after learning in January that he had again failed the math part of the exit exam, Juan Calderon did something he probably should have done months before. At the urging of his counselor, the 18-year-old signed up for a math class.


While some students with disabilities are still trying to pass the exit exam, others appear to have given up. Now that they know they don't have to pass the test to graduate, some seniors are making a habit of skipping class, said Schlim, the special ed teacher. She identified Kevin Muhammad as one of those students.

"It's a mixture of senior-itis and 'I don't need (to pass) this to graduate so I don't need to be here to learn this,' " she said. "Disappointing, but true."

Attendance records show Kevin was absent for six days, from the day Schwarzenegger signed off on the exemption until he had to take the test again. Schlim considers that no coincidence.


Larissa was glad to learn she can use a calculator on the exam this time, yet complained she didn't know how it would help her with fractions, word problems or algebra.

"It won't," Carter said. "If you don't know which buttons to push, it won't help."

Then he handed Larissa a calculator and chastised her for her last-minute approach to studying: "Why are you here at 4:15 the day before the test asking me how to use a calculator?"

So education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where a teacher in a girl's school was recently beheaded, is so precious that teachers risk their lives to offer it. And it's regarded so lightly by the kids in this story, and I suppose their parents, that the teachers beg and cajole and just can't get them to take it seriously. I can't box up educational opportunities that go to waste here in the U.S. and ship them off to Pakistan and Afghanistan, but when I read stories like these I sure wish I could.

I wonder sometimes what the goal of our public education system ought to be. The big picture is that every child should be educated to the limit of his or her ability and ambition. If we really did that, what would it look like? Would the kids in this story be cut loose at age 14 or so, more or less literate and able to add 2+3, to get jobs and make their way as best they can? Maybe two or three years of pushing brooms would motivate them to try to go back to school and take it more seriously. Or maybe they really can make it without more schooling - they must be able to, because they're mostly marking time until they can leave school as it is.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

You Are Wind

Strong and overpowering
A force to be reckoned with, no one dares cross you
You have the power to change everything around you

You are best known for: your wrath

Your dominant state: commanding

My wrath?

If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy!

Ha ha ha!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Received my own PE today. I haven't discussed it with my boss but it's very nice. I told her so and she was surprised because she thought there might be too many negative statements. Well, there are some, but they're fairly accurate. I get flustered when I'm trying to multitask and my priorities get changed. I need to work on getting paperwork done in a timely fashion. Overall it is very positive. She notes that I am "aggressive" in improving efficiency in my department using new technology as it becomes available, and that's true, and it's the thing I hoped she would mention.

There's a thing that happened with another boss at another company about 15 years ago.

My job at that company was to analyze environmental samples (soil and water) for pesticides by GC/ECD. Another chemist analyzed environmental samples for semivolatiles by GC/MS, which is more complex and sophisticated. (And nothing like what one might see on CSI.) His instrument went kablooey, and while it was being repaired the boss elected to lease an instrument from a different manufacturer, one that had different mass spec technology and whose software was still in beta-test stage. And he asked me to oversee this other chemist (who was older and much better paid than I) in his task of getting his work caught up on this thing, because he was the most scattered and unfocused person you can imagine when faced with a bunch of work. So I did. He and I worked 11- or 12-hour days, 6 days a week, for about a month, and got his stuff caught up. Actually, frequently I was working while he napped, but whatever. F was only a toddler then, and she acted out a bit because she wasn't seeing enough of her mommy. I felt very bad about that. But we got it done and got back to a regular schedule.

A couple of months later, F got sick. She had pneumonia, and I stayed at home with her for one week. When I got back, my boss told me that I didn't have a week's worth of vacation, having only been there a year and having taken a day here and there, and that I would have to make up my time. What about all that time I spent running an analysis that wasn't even my analysis? That didn't count, because it was before. This had to be after. Maybe I could come in and work with the midnight-shift techs on their extraction techniques or something. Well, I did that already as needed, it was part of my job. But no one kept track of my time, because I was exempt. It seemed to me that when the company needed me, the clock never ticked, but when I needed something, suddenly that clock started ticking away.

I went home that afternoon and I was so angry that I walked past my husband and daughter, straight upstairs, and lay facedown on the bed. I was like that cartoon of the angriest dog in the world. I couldn't even think, I was so mad. Finally I did start thinking, and I thought that I needed to find some way of dealing with the situation that wouldn't make me feel like I was being exploited. I needed to satisfy my boss that my time was made up, but it needed to benefit me, career-wise. Otherwise I would be so angry and resentful that it would make me sick. Working with the midnight-shift techs wouldn't do that because it was already my job. I thought, lying facedown there on the bed, about trying to work with the engineers, or the finance people, but I couldn't think of a way to initiate that.

Finally I thought about our lab manager, Dr. Marks. He didn't actually manage very much; he was kind of a chemist emeritus. He did a lot of special projects for the parent company. I knew he was in the midst of one project that wasn't going very well. Lying on the bed facedown, I thought about that project. Dr. Marks was trying to analyze benzyl chloride for benzene contamination. The problem he was having was due to the fact that benzyl chloride is very corrosive, so that he couldn't analyze it by purge-and-trap like one normally would. It ate the sparge needle. He was trying to analyze it using neat injections on GC/FID and not having much luck. I wondered if Dr. Marks had thought about codistillation, and lying facedown on the bed, I reviewed how that would work and thought about whether we had the glassware. I thought we did.

I got up off the bed and went downstairs. My husband eyed me cautiously because he knew something was wrong. He was appropriately indignant when I told him what my boss had said, but I was OK by then because I had a plan.

So the next morning after I found the glassware and looked up some boiling points I went into Dr. Marks' office and asked him how his project was going. He happily told me that he was having a lot of problems getting it to work. I asked him if he'd thought of trying codistillation. He was intrigued, so I told him how I thought it would work. Benzene boils below the boiling point of water, and benzyl chloride boils above the boiling point of water. So you would put some water in a boiling flask and a measured amount of benzyl chloride, and a measured amount (10 mL) of some solvent that boils above the boiling point of benzene but below that of water. Ideally this would be a solvent that doesn't respond well on FID, like a chlorinated solvent. You heat the this mixture until it starts to boil. The condenser directs the condensate into a graduated tube with a stopcock at the bottom. As the temperature in the boiling flask rises, the benzene evaporates first, and then the solvent, and then the water. The vapor goes into the condenser and condenses, and the solvent washes the benzene into the collection tube. When you've collected the whole 10 mL of solvent and a few drops of water for good measure, you drain the condensate. The benzyl chloride should all stay behind in the boiling flask. The condensate, which consists of the solvent you picked out with whatever benzene was in the sample dissolved in it, is what you analyze by GC/FID. I ended up telling him that my boss wanted me to make up my time that I was out with F, that he wanted me to work with the midnight crew, but I would rather work with him. Dr. Marks was cool with that. When the boss got there I was still so irritated that I could barely look at him. I told him I was going to work with Dr. Marks. In a friendly way, he asked me to sit down and tell him about it. He thought it sounded fine and just asked me to keep up with my hours.

Dr. Marks had about 30 samples of benzyl chloride, stored in a hood because the stuff actually ate the phenolic caps off the bottles. It was pretty nasty but I set my apparatus up next to the hood at the end of the day and went to work. And my method worked like a dream. I ran some reagent blanks and spikes, and some benzyl chloride replicates and spikes, and got perfect recoveries and great reproducibility. Once I had validated my method, I ran all the samples. I tabulated my data and put my name on it, which a former boss had told me one should always do, and organized all my stuff, gave it to Dr. Marks, and put the glassware away. And then my boss told me that I didn't have to turn in my hours, that I had been keeping track of. Nobody cared about that. He certainly didn't. Then what was that all about?

I thought all of that was over, but a few weeks later my boss called me into his office. It seemed that the corporate people had some kind of crisis, they were in a big hurry for some analytical work, and they needed Dr. Marks to do it right away. My boss told him that Dr. Marks was out, sick. Then have Laura do it, they said. My boss was fairly startled because I was actually the newest chemist and there were people with lots more seniority than me. But Dr. Marks had credited me when he used my data to report to them about the benzyl chloride. "You did yourself a favor when you worked with him on that benzyl chloride project," he said. Fortunately, what they wanted was very easy to do. They wanted Dr. Marks to repeat my work when he got back, and he told me that he got the very same results.

So when Dr. Marks retired, and subsequently my boss left the company, I was promoted to supervisor in the department. And I got to do lots of fun and interesting projects over the years. I'd still be happily working for that company except that after we remediated all of their hazardous waste sites, and with the worldwide downturn in the chemical industry in the 1990's they weren't making money, they had to cut the lab loose.

But that's my story about how I was the angriest dog in the world about a situation that I thought was very unfair and not nice at all, and it became a positive thing for me.