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

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Happy 22nd, F!

and happy 21st to Bunny. I guess she can drink now ... she most likely needs it.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Evolution of American Women's Studies

I read this, and I still can't wrap my head around what "women's studies" could be.

Finally, I can speak here from my own experience as one of the first generation of women who had the opportunity to actually major in women’s studies. I was constantly bombarded by questions such as: “What are you going to do with it?” I finally got fed up and published my answer in a prominent spot in Temple University’s alumni magazine: “To ask, What are you going to do with it? implies that education is a passive process. It implies that we learn and then we do. But in many ways the very nature of women’s studies, which grew out of and alongside the women’s liberation movement, is attractive because it is already active. Women’s studies grew out of the political realities of women’s lives…. I learned that theory and practice should go hand in hand. I learned that education should be about change and evolution, and not just about reiterating what is already known. I take that knowledge with me to each job I do, and do with it – whatever I can.”

Get it now? Me neither.

And then

One thing is clear, whatever we call it, women’s studies needs to be feminist in nature, and to make use of feminist pedagogy, or it risks losing what makes it unique. As someone posted on a women’s studies e-mail list: “We need to destabilize gender at the same time we insist that historically and politically a category or class of individuals called women have been systematically oppressed.” This is a tricky position to be in, for sure.

Well, I get that all right. Politically neutral, this field is not.

The "Laura" in the comments is me.

It's not hard to find stories about women who have been discriminated against in the past. Emmy Noether went through some crap before her work in physics and algebra was recognized. Marie Curie ruffled some feathers during her remarkable career, still being the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes: Physics in 1903, and Chemistry in 1911. Here's a blurb from my biography of Lise Meitner, for whom Meitnerium, element 109 on the Periodic Table was named:

The Chemistry Institute [at Friedrich Wilhelm University] was completely off-limits to women: Emil Fischer was afraid they would set fire to their hair, having once had a Russian student with an "exotic" hairstyle. (He must have believed his beard to be flame resistant.) As a compromise, Lise was allowed to work in a basement room formerly a carpenter's shop, where Otto [Hein, her chemist-collaborator] had set up for measuring radiation; she was not to set foot in any other part of the institute, not even the laboratory upstairs where Otto did his chemical experiments. Fischer relented only because the wood shop had a separate outside entrance; to use a toilet Lise walked to a restaurant down the street.

You don't have to embellish this stuff, and it isn't diminished if you acknowledge that times have changed. I have to say that when people point out that men's names are attached to most of the great theories and discoveries I silently roll my eyes. Find out why Beatrix Potter is known for Peter Rabbit rather than mycology.

But I can't get past the political ideology to figure out what women's studies people are really studying and learning. I can't say they don't have something of value there. I can't make heads nor tails of what they do have. In the comments, there's this:

I believe that all knowledge, as all teaching, is political in some way. We just don't like to admit this. It is easier to think that knowledge just "exists" outside of human perception and experience, which in many instances is simply not the case.

Knowledge can't possibly exist outside of human perception and experience. Facts can. Knowledge implies somebody or something knowing a fact. So when she says that all knowledge is political, I don't know what she means. Sloppy language? Eccentric, personal definitions of words that in common use have other definitions?

I guess I won't worry my pretty head about it any more, har har.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Gates: U.S. Not Prepared to Respond to North Korea Missile Launch

The United States can do nothing to stop North Korea from breaking international law in the next 10 days by firing a missile that is unlikely to be shot down by the U.S. or its allies, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday.

Appearing on "FOX News Sunday," Gates said North Korea "probably will" fire the missile, prompting host Chris Wallace to ask: "And there's nothing we can do about it?"

"No," Gates answered, adding, "I would say we're not prepared to do anything about it."

Last week, Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said the U.S. is "fully prepared" to shoot down the missile. But Gates said such a response is unlikely.

"I think if we had an aberrant missile, one that was headed for Hawaii, that looked like it was headed for Hawaii or something like that, we might consider it," Gates said. "But I don't think we have any plans to do anything like that at this point."

If it was headed for Hawaii we might consider it?


I suppose Gates would have shrugged at Pearl Harbor?

Gates conceded that North Korea will likely get away with thumbing its nose at the international community by test-firing the missile. He also said that six-party talks aimed at curbing Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions have been largely fruitless.

"It's very troubling," Gates said. "The reality is that the six-party talks really have not made any headway anytime recently."

But I thought all of the international problems were caused by GWB and his cowboy diplomacy! And that Obama was going to sweet-talk everyone into getting along!

The Obama administration has signaled it wants to scale back the deployment of a missile defense system that was initiated by former President George W. Bush. The White House is also talking about dropping plans for missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Looks like the suicide gene has chosen this generation to activate. Lucky us.

"Frankly, from my perspective, the opportunity for success is probably more in economic sanctions in both places than it is in diplomacy," Gates said. "What gets them to the table is economic sanctions."

Okay, they're already starving in NK and their Fearless Leader doesn't give a damn. What are economic sanctions going to do? And isn't that one of the wretched things we've done to the innocent peace-loving Palestinians, that cause "them" to hate us?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

There are lots of little dramas in catland that I do not get.

Friday, March 27, 2009

We did some of our safety training today, from 8:00 to about 3:30. Actually, the forklift training happened at the end but I skipped it. If your straits are so dire that you have your lab manager driving a forklift you have bigger problems than her training. The day started with fire safety training and the ritual lining up to discharge a fire extinguisher and then continued with the safety presentations got up by the members of the management group. Mine was hazard communication: labels, MSDSs, and so forth. We also had slips, trips, and falls, bloodborne pathogens, housekeeping, signs including lockout/tagout, and electrical safety. We ordered pizza in but didn't really stop for lunch. For some reason this wore my butt out. I am tireder than if I'd spent the day on my feet in the lab.

I'm always kind of irritated by the absolute statements that some people insist on. Our EHS person, when we had one, would always chant, "You can't pour any chemicals down the drain," shaking his head from side to side. Well, water is a chemical. Could you pour a 0.000001% solution of table salt in water down the drain? Of course you could. So can we have a discussion of what you can actually pour down the drain? Evidently not.

On fire extinguishers, one might initially be trained that you always call 911 for any fire before you start trying to put it out, regardless of how big it is. Okay, I'll say it: that's stupid. We worked it out that if it's a fire you are utterly convinced that you can put out with one brief squirt of a fire extinguisher, then you can do that and call 911 afterward if need be.

And then there's the mandate to report ANY spill or release. So if my methanol squeezebottle dribbles a couple of drops out onto the benchtop and they evaporate immediately, I have to report that? We got that worked out too. I did remind the guys that we don't need to improvise when we're trying to remediate a spill. I have some material in the lab for the purpose of cleaning up acid spills. It's labeled for that. I happen to know that you can use sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) but the stuff that's labeled for it is formulated to absorb it and deal with it without much of a reaction. But I've known of people who tried to remediate an acid spill with sodium hydroxide and this is a bad idea: you get a violent reaction, lots of heat and choky fumes.

Bloodborne pathogens - you're supposed to report ANY injury. I nick my finger on a piece of glassware and a drop of blood oozes out - I have to report that? The accounting clerk gets a papercut and puts a bandaid on it, and she must report it? Well, no.

I think these things are like zero tolerance. They come about because person X doubts person Y's judgment and allotment of common sense. Well, sadly, I sympathize, but rules that reasonably can't be followed all the time quickly become ignored even when they can and should be followed. So this absolute stuff is actually counterproductive to what the safety program should accomplish.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Today I interviewed a college kid who will be my 1/2 tech starting in mid-April. He's about to graduate with a chemistry major. Seems pleasant and sharp. I'm definitely looking forward to getting some help.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Yesterday I got a call from F with some really great news. She had to take an exit exam which would determine whether she gets to graduate with her B.S. in May. We didn't have those in my day, and I think it's kind of horrifying that you can invest 4 years of your life, not to mention tuition and so forth, to get that degree, and be prevented from getting it by not doing well enough on a single test that you take in your last semester. OTOH, having met people with science degrees who were pretty horrifying in the lab, I understand what the school is trying to do. They're trying to fix it so that if you have a diploma saying that you have a B.S. from that school, you have at least a minimal knowledge base. The test she had is given to senior Biology majors at various schools and is nationally normed. She had to score at the 20th percentile at least, meaning that they don't want anyone who would be in the bottom 5th nationwide to have that degree.

She scored at the 70th.

Way to go, F! I am so proud of my girl.

Chip off the old block, if I do say so.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

So I took this quiz offered by the Center for American Liberals Progress and my score is 149/400, making me "very conservative"; the "average score" (meaning I suppose the average score of people who have visited this liberal site) being 209.5.

In fact, according to them I am off the chart.

Quelle suprise. I will cry all the rest of the day.

(Edited to add: Look where Obama voters land on this thing. I suppose that progressives are cool with making fun of the disabled.)

(Edited to fix "quelle".)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"You know what the difference is between a hockey mom and a Special Olympics hockey mom? ...Nothing!"

"I bowled a 129 ... it was like the Special Olympics or something."

And that's our President. h/t: But As For Me.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Well the shoe has dropped. My 0.5 tech has regretfully offered her resignation due to health problems she can't seem to get on top of. I am back in the soup.

We are still, after a year and a half, operating with a skeleton staff. The latest thing is that we have to divide among ourselves the duties of our nonexistent safety officer, so I have to do a presentation on right-to-know, and then on the emergency action plan (which will have to be extensively edited) and then on the chemical hygiene plan. That last being for lab personnel only, I suppose I will present it to myself. Well, it is one more thing for my resume.

Monday, March 16, 2009

We did make it to Cocoa Beach on Sunday. Jetty Park was closed when we got there (presumably full) but the beach was cool.

Here's a helicopter enforcing the no-fly zone ahead of the shuttle launch.

And I think this is a coast guard boat - it's hard to see in the picture for some reason.

We spent all afternoon at the beach. LOTS of people were there doing the usual things. We had hot dogs for supper at one of the food stands - they were delicious.

Toward evening a strange thing happened: people oriented themselves toward the north and started drifting slowly up the beach. We were like a flock of migrating birds aligning ourselves with some invisible electromagnetic field, waiting for the signal to take off. You can't see from these pix because I wanted to get the delicate colors of twilight on the water and the wet sand but there were still lots of people, some setting up some fairly sophisticated camera equipment.

R asked me if I planned to video the launch. I told him, not if it was going to interfere with me watching it. So he took the camera and walked back to his viewing spot and shot this. Yes, that's R saying "holy crap".

The smoke afterward - it glowed where the sun could reach it.

What we didn't anticipate was the amount of time it would take to get out of there. It took about 2 hours to get from our house to the beach, with the extra traffic and all, and it took 2 hours just to get off the cape to the mainland. We didn't get home until 2 AM.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Okay. So.

I had to work both Sat and Sun last weekend b/c my 1/2 tech is having unspecified health issues. So I had no time to prepare, really, for our trip to Memphis last week. We went on Tuesday and came back on Thursday. My family and R's family took care of our daughter's transportation to Memphis. (Her professors have been very kind about her missing school, and due to her grief, not expecting her to do her presentations and tests even when she was there. This is what you get when you always attend class, are always prepared, participate in discussions, have your assignments ready on time or early, and are generally pleasant and respectful.)

Our experience in Memphis was about what you'd expect when the matriarch has gone.

While in Memphis, we learned that F's roommate was able, last-minute, to get tickets to come here to Florida for spring break ... to arrive Friday. We knew this was a possibility, and we're pleased to have her b/c we like her, but there was NO preparation b/c we got in Thursday evening and I had to work on Friday. So she had to go into the closet to find sheets to even put on her bed. But she's cool. F flew in Friday as well. Had I had a moment to think I could have arranged all this better, but I didn't and that's that. F missed her flight connection in Atlanta and that was kind of traumatic on top of everything else that's happened but she managed to get on another flight and we all ended up where we were supposed to be.

So we've got the two girls here. Yesterday we grilled hamburgers on the patio, went downtown to Lake Morton to look at the birds and all, and spent a little time at an outdoor mall before coming home so R could do his evening shift. This afternoon we're going to try to get to Jetty Park on Cape Canaveral in time to see the shuttle go up. We can see it from here but we'll get a much better view.

Friday, March 06, 2009

We received some sad news today. R called me at work this afternoon to tell me that his mother was gone.

We knew this was coming. She had been in poor health for a few months and it seemed that things were winding down.

My MIL was born in Shreveport, LA, IIRC, in 1923. (I'll go back and clean up any details that I get wrong.) Her family moved to Memphis when she was a little girl. She had two sisters, one who died several years ago and one who lives in Louisiana now; and a brother, a Merchant Mariner who died when his ship was torpedoed in WWII. My MIL went to work during that war, repairing shot-up airplanes with sheet metal and such, so she was a real-life Rosie the Riveter. She worked in telegraphy too, and did some other stuff, and then after the war she married my FIL and they set up housekeeping and had some kids: 6, over a 21-year range. There were four boys, of whom my R was the last, and then two girls. And there are numerous grandchildren, and a couple of greats.

She read a lot - there was always a book by her chair with a bookmark in it - and she especially loved mysteries. She loved the old romantic movies, the ones with Cary Grant and people like that, and swing music. And she loved her kids, and also everybody else who loved her kids.

Her Brunswick stew was a thing of surpassing wonderfulness. We had it every Christmas. That was pretty well an established recipe, but she loved to experiment in the kitchen. I remember once she made some kind of lemon dessert, and got it so tart that when I had the first experimental bite it grabbed my jaw like a case of the mumps. Fortunately I had a glass of milk near at hand. We all laughed about that.

Years ago, saddened when one or another of her kids got divorced, my MIL asked me to promise never to leave R - she wanted it in writing. I told her that I seemed to remember signing something when I got married, and she said that that didn't seem to stop some people, so I picked up an envelope from the table and wrote on the back of it, "I will never leave R", signed and dated it, and gave it to her. She put it away somewhere. Long after, my in-laws' house burned down, it took about a year to rebuild while they lived with my SIL, and afterwards when we had settled in the new comfortable living room, she said to me, "That piece of paper burned." So I wrote her another one. I suppose it's there somewhere still.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Two signs that I have seen in labs where I have worked:

... Pick Any Two


Lab Rates
Answers: $1
Answers Related to Question: $2
Answers which Require Thought: $3
Correct Answers: $4
Dumb Looks are Still Free

This last reminds me of when the engineers back at the environmental consulting business I used to work at would yell at me: "I need a number!" "Six!" I would answer immediately. "...Oh, did you want me to run your sample? That will take a while."

Monday, March 02, 2009

So among other things, my blog is a spot for me to park my internal monologue. Here are further thoughts on the supervisor/supervisee relationship.

A smart boss takes into account the personalities of the people who report to her. Why? Everybody is different. People have different motivations and priorities. They also have their individual sets of ethical standards. Bosses get into trouble when they tell an employee to do X, and the employee does it, neglecting Y in the process: "I never told you to neglect Y!" Well, some employees will always take care of the more important consideration, whether explicitly told to or not, and some will do whatever it takes to get the noise to stop. And since you can't design the perfect employee from the ground up, and then use the mold to make an army of clones, you have to work with what you get, and you have to know what you're working with and think about what kind of noise you're making.

So you have a lab employee who is compulsive about doing every single detail of a method exactly as written, but gets caught up in loops of minutiae and spends three hours on a twenty-minute task. And you have another who is very conscious of what has to be done by when, and takes little shortcuts to make sure she gets there. Both of these have weaknesses, but both have strengths. Managing adults is a lot like parenting - you get a lot further if you work from and expand on strengths rather than run head-on into weaknesses all the time.

One strategy is frequent, specific, and immediate feedback. This task can't take all day. You need to tighten up these duplicates - when you see a percent difference like this, you need to rerun. Look at your controls on this chart - they're the pink ones - see how much tighter they've gotten over the last month. Thanks for getting this stuff ready for my meeting; I appreciate you.

Another is to think about what's going on with the person and help her figure out what to do. When you start a task, estimate how long it should take. Look at the clock. Then look at it periodically while you're working, and challenge yourself to get through when you thought you would. Or: Let's pinpoint exactly where you're falling in a hole. Find that spot and then ssssslllooooowwww down.

Another is to teach beyond the task. This is really useful in the laboratory. I draw molecular structures and explain reactions so that the techs can see that, for example, heating the material with sodium hydroxide forms soaps, which are sodium salts of fatty acids. We're titrating the unused sodium hydroxide to calculate the amount of fatty acid we started with. So the volume of sodium hydroxide solution you use is a critical volume and you must use a volumetric pipet. And then as you get close - you see the pH changing. It's getting close to the inflection point, and it's not just the electrode not keeping up, the reaction is happening now. So this is where you stop and let it happen; don't try to rush it or you'll run past your endpoint.

These are all easy when the boss knows exactly what the employees are supposed to do. It's harder when the boss doesn't know. I've had bosses who clearly made a conscious effort to keep their priorities front and center: safety, of course, and then accurate, defensible results. If you're going to push people you have to know that they're not going to yield on the things that you tacitly expect them not to yield on, and those bosses aren't tacit about it. I wrote a little more about that here.