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

Monday, February 23, 2009

I read a couple of comments on another blog that put me in mind of this story.

This is about a coworker I had. I've written about him before. He's the first person I had to fire (sadly, not the last). He was/is super-smart, but that didn't translate into his being able to do the job.

We butted heads on a few things. Before I was his supervisor, this happened, which wasn't him and me butting heads, but anyway: The EPA requires certain testing to be done on soil and water around underground storage tanks containing gasoline and diesel. They started requiring the samples from around gasoline tanks to be tested for benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene by purge-and-trap, GC/PID (PID is photo-ionization detector) and gasoline-range organics by purge-and-trap, GC/FID (FID is flame-ionization detector.) (GC is gas chromatograph.) PID is sensitive to conjugation and it does well with aromatic chemicals like benzene, etc., while FID gets all of the hydrocarbons. EPA had started adding MTBE to the list of chemicals to be tested for and the engineers asked that we add it to the PID analysis, as other labs were doing. The coworker told the engineers that that would not work. There's a number associated with molecules - can't think what it could have been - but he could look it up on a table, and did; and typically for molecules whose number was less than X, PID didn't work. The engineers said that other labs were analyzing MTBE by GC/PID. The coworker said it simply wasn't possible. "We have to do it." "It won't work." This went back and forth and they were in a complete standoff when I walked in upon this. I wasn't the guy's boss yet, but I said to him, "Why don't you just go and make a standard with MTBE, and run it; and when you don't get a peak on the PID, we won't have to talk about it anymore."

This was acceptable to him. He went and made a standard with MTBE and ran it. Well, you know what happened, ha ha. He added MTBE to his BTEX standard and we heard no more about that table with the numbers.

I am more pragmatic than theoretic. There's a time and a place for theory, but empirical evidence trumps theoretical every time. Trust but verify, I always say. You have less of a chance of looking like an idiot later.

But the coworker had problems submitting his internal set of requirements to the requirements of the job; and most of these were bona-fide necessities. He did things his way, and if they were the right way, fine, and if they weren't, the rest of us needed to get over it. Eventually he had to go because the liability was too great. I was very irritated to learn that the lab manager who retired before I was promoted, when he heard about my promotion, immediately asked whoever told him about it if that person still had his job. He knew the guy needed to go and wouldn't take care of it himself. I guess he liked him. I liked him too. Liking him wasn't the issue, it was the responsibility I had to all the other people who were doing their jobs correctly, including the tedious parts, and who were vulnerable to losing those jobs if we lost work due to this guy.

This coworker told me a story once that I thought later was very significant. When he was a third-grader his mother gave him an algebra textbook. Algebra fascinated the hell out of him, and so he blew off his third-grade arithmetic, never did his assignments and so forth, and received an "F" for the course. They were going to make him repeat the grade until his mother took him in with his algebra textbook and demonstrated that he was way ahead of 3rd grade, and then they passed him on to the next grade and left him alone about the math.

I tend to think that this was handled incorrectly, because what the boy apparently internalized was that rules and structure were for people of normal intelligence. If you're smart enough, you don't have to do the tedious dumb stuff. Except that you do; everybody does. I think his mother probably should either have tried to get his 3rd grade math assignments changed to match his capabilities, or else have explained to him that you just can't soar with the eagles 24/7/365. As smart as he was, he had a real disability when it came to functioning in the workplace.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

...And now Molly has a cold. She has sneezing fits in which she sounds like a hydraulic piston. This has been going on for a few days, so R's going to call the vet tomorrow to see if they think she needs an antibiotic. It nevernever ends.

R took the car for a brake job and it needed a new master cylinder - they showed him and he agreed that it must be had. The car will be paid off in June so if it needs things here and there I suppose it can have them. Beats a new car note, for sure.

Work: I have to send back my three-week-old UV/Vis spectrophotometer because it doesn't want to complete the self-calibration when I turn it on. I have to turn it off and on several times before it will, which isn't normal. We (I and the people I bought it from) have done all we could but it won't be fixed. They were very nice, apologized for my trouble and thanked me for trying to work through the problem. They think the main board must have been hit by static. I reckon I will put a surge protector on the outlet before I plug the new one in, which is all I probably will be able to do by way of power conditioning. R will give me his tester so I can make sure the outlet is grounded properly. The unit was probably like that before I got it but one does what one can.

And I've been thinking, job-wise, trying to remember when I turned the corner to know more about my job than my boss. It must have been back around 1990. I had a period of time since then when I worked for a person with an MS in analytical chemistry, and have no doubt that he could have picked up what I did very quickly; and I had a couple of supervisors at that place who surely could have. But my boss now is an engineer and he has to trust me, that I know what I'm doing in the laboratory. I try to be very transparent and explain everything, show him chromatograms and calculations and control charts and all, in case he develops any doubts as to my competence, but it's not his thing. It is a funny feeling, not to have anybody to really ask about stuff - it's me or nobody. Mostly I think I am up to it. I am going to have to watch it about not letting my career path stagnate.

I have to say that I am really spoiled to doing things my way and not having a boss in the laboratory. I don't think I could go back to that very easily. I needed a way to measure lamp intensity on that spectrophotometer, since the method I'm running doesn't have calibration standards. I pecked around on the internet and discovered that EDTA absorbs at 240 nm, which is the wavelength I am using. There was some on the shelf, for some reason, so I randomly made a 1% solution in deionized water and read the absorbance, it turned out to be about 0.6 which is a good usable number, and I subsequently made up 1000 mL to use for a control. I'll measure it every time I have samples to run, and plot the absorbance of the EDTA solution on a chart, so that I can see how the lamp is holding up. Will the solution be stable? I suppose I'll find out. And I can think this is cool beans, and at this point that's really enough. I suppose Maslow would say I am self-actualized.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Molly had her checkup/shots yesterday. She weathered it better than I expected. They did have to wrap her in a towel because she was upset after they took her away to do stuff, and bring her back where she could look at me while they unsuccessfully tried to get a stool sample. But she cheered up right away when she got home. Bonnie was subdued for a day or two after her vaccinations, but Miss Molly never let up once she got back home. Today she caught and ate a lizard.

I did ask the vet about Molly's lizard-eating. He said that she might get a sick stomach but that it wouldn't really hurt her. His own personal cats confine themselves to eating the tails, so he has a lot of tailless lizards running around his house. For those of you unfamiliar with lizard physiology - they drop their tails pretty easily when they feel threatened, to distract predators, which clearly is sometimes a successful strategy. So it's not like his cats are partially eating live lizards, although I wouldn't expect a cat to care about the morality of such a thing at all.

Tomorrow I am off work. I think I'll probably go shopping.

I offer my readers this interesting graphic about the stimulus plan.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Saturday Night music

USF Dean Admits Role In Bike Theft

TAMPA - An associate dean at the University of South Florida has admitted to taking a student's bicycle this week in a theft that was captured on a surveillance tape and later posted on YouTube.

Abdul Rao, who oversees research grants for the College of Medicine, is on leave with pay until the campus investigation is complete, said USF spokesman Michael Hoad.

In a statement, Rao apologized and said he was trying to help a day laborer who needed transportation.

"I deeply regret this failure in judgment and the unfortunate attention it has generated," he wrote to USF officials. "... I gave a man who does odd jobs for me permission to use a bicycle that was parked at the center. I acted out of compassion for this nearly homeless man; but I failed to consider that the bicycle belonged to someone on our Alzheimer's team."

Rao, who makes $384,000 a year, took the bike on Monday night from a bike parking area on the loading dock of the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute.

Un. Believable.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Went to an American Chemical Society meeting last night. The local group is totally academic, except for me. I don't know how it happened that the Memphis group got such a good mix of academia and industry.

The speaker is retired from University of Washington, Seattle. He was here with his wife, which is not unusual for speakers, and usually the spouses are very interested and engaged people. After the meeting, he and his wife, and Carmen who is the professor at the local school who sponsors the ACS group, and I had dinner. And we talked about all the usual things - jobs, families, places we've lived.

Carmen asked if I would speak to her students some time about life after college. I said I would. I've had a different career trajectory than I would have had I gone to school past getting my bachelor's. One of the kids I met yesterday is a senior, she's having cold feet about what will happen after graduation (tell F about it), and I gave her a 45-second overview of my career path. The speaker told her she needs to hear stories like that from all kinds of people. Actually, all of the kids do. I've long thought it is very strange how we do education, although I don't know if we could really do it differently. It's as if kids get on a train in preschool, and the track runs through kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, at least into college and hopefully up to getting that bachelor's degree, and then the track comes to an abrupt stop and the kids suddenly have to get off the train and find a direction and a motive force. Some know what they want to do, of course, and they get off that train and onto the next one. Some don't make it to the end of the line, and of those, some do OK without their B.S. and some don't. But we expect 17-year-olds to make decisions about how they're going to spend the rest of their lives - and how do they know? How do they know what they even want to do? They don't know what all there is, or what they themselves are really like yet. Easier and safer to just stay on the train.

Anyway, Carmen is going to contact me about this and I suppose we'll talk about what I'll talk to her students about. I can think of several possible topics. In fact, I could probably talk their ears off, as F knows very well.

And I told Carmen my idea about teaching control charting; how I would do it if I taught a science course. I would set up a titration station to measure the chlorine in tap water. It's an easy sodium thiosulfate titration with a starch-iodine endpoint. The chlorine will vary a bit from day to day, hopefully within some reasonable range. I would have someone in each chemistry lab measure whatever the chlorine content is that day. The students would all cycle through doing that. They would plot their results on an Excel spreadsheet set up with date on the X axis and ppm Cl2 on the Y axis, and with horizontal lines showing the average, plus and minus 1 standard deviation, and plus and minus 2 standard deviations. It's not hard to set the spreadsheet up to do that; in fact, since you need about 20 data points before you start getting any decent stats, I'd probably let the students see if they could set that up themselves for extra credit. Then you could talk about upper and lower warning limits and control limits, and revisit what you learned if you took statistics (I never did, sadly) about how in a normal distribution, 68% of the data points fall within 1 standard deviation of the mean and 95% within 2 standard deviations; and confidence limits; and how many significant figures you can reasonably report; and how you'd do an investigation of out-of-spec results. Could the sodium thiosulfate have gone bad - can you restandardize it? (You can.) Could the amount of water taken for titration have been measured improperly? Did the tap need to run longer before the sample was taken? Is the starch solution still good? And so forth. It would be a good exercise and give them a running start, and help them stand out among their entry-level coworkers. Or probably even their experienced coworkers.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Sunday Afternoon at Clearwater Beach


What you can't see here is how incredibly white and cold and powdery and deep the sand is. And what a lovely day - I think the brightness overwhelmed the color of the sky and the sea.

R and I walked a good distance along the beach. We saw some really cool shells, including intact sanddollars - I think I've never seen those wild before. The water made pretty ripples and shadows against the sand.

Of course, cold as it was, I had to walk in it. I am constitutionally unable to refrain from walking barefoot in the ocean. At least I didn't wade off in it and get my clothes wet, as I usually do.

We went out onto the pier and looked at the crafts people had for sale. I bought a bit of artwork that caught my eye. The artist is local (actually a transplant from England I think) and his pictures are all very charming.

Driving back across Tampa Bay

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The founders understood the primary political dynamic was never faction versus faction but rather the people versus the state. I think the left has completely lost that concept. They think that bad people in the police or military could hurt people but it never occurs to them that any other form of state power or the people who control it could be dangerous.

Comment on

I remember discussions in civics class in high school (yes, I remember that long ago; I had an excellent teacher. Thank you, Mr. Horton.) in which we talked about right v. left, and compared socialism with fascism. You can draw a chart with


and list the characteristics of the "left" and "right" schools of political thought. Welfare v. personal responsibility (or sink-or-swim, depending on your own views) and so forth. I see liberalism being called "left-wing" and conservatism "right-wing". Perhaps it's really "socialism" and "capitalism" on the left and right? But when you look at fascism under Hitler and Mussolini, and communism under Stalin, you should use a u-shaped chart.

anarchy<-----limited gov't---->totalitarianism

__ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __communism
|__ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __fascism

Now "left-wing" and "right-wing" don't mean anything.

Under socialism, of course, the state was supposed to wither away, which makes socialism (in its pure form) and communism opposites, on this chart. Not that we've ever, ever seen that happen, of course, and given human nature, we never will.

Then conservatism, which in ITS pure form limits the power of government (which we learned in civics class was the underlying purpose of the writers of the Constitution) distances itself from both fascism and communism, and is a middle ground between these and socialism.

Actual free-market capitalism falls between conservatism and socialism on this chart, because any restrictions on the free market (truth-in-advertising laws, anti-trust laws), while not necessarily inconsistent with conservatism, are inconsistent with a free market.

Of course, the "Nazi" party, which we think of as the quintessential fascists, were the party of National Socialism. So maybe the chart should be a circle.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Too grim lately.

Today the boss happened to mention that he knows a woman who married into a lot of money, so that she is now the idle rich; she went off to California or somewhere to have some "work" done, and looks about 20 years younger.

I said that I don't understand the point of trying to turn back the clock by having "work" done, or even wanting to. "I am 48 years old," I said. "I lived every one of those years. I have no desire to delete any of them or to pretend that they didn't happen."

Kristina said, "When I die, I want to look like hell!"

We all cracked up.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Two NYT articles.

Daschle Withdraws as Health Nominee

Daschle Ends Bid for Post; Obama Concedes Mistake

There are some interesting sentences in both of these articles.

This is what caught my eye.

Obama told NBC "I'm frustrated with myself" for unintentionally sending a message that there are "two sets of rules" for paying taxes, "one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks."

"I take responsibility for this mistake," he told Fox News.

Well, I don't know if Obama said "unintentionally" or if that's helpful editorializing on the part of the NYT.

But back during the campaign, and up till now, we've heard about how this was going to be the most ethical administration ever, that business as usual was a thing of the past, blah blah. My question is, what did Pres. Obama think that meant? What did that mean he would have to not do? (for instance, appoint whomever he pleased regardless of whether or not it looked right, let alone whether there was a real concern.) Did he count the cost? It appears not. The no-lobbyist promise is already acknowledged to be a casualty of the suddenly-discovered reality of governing. Look at this: Obama spokesman defends ethics standards

Despite the tax problems faced by high-level nominees, and the exceptions made to the no-lobbyists pledge, President Barack Obama's spokesman is defending the administration's ethical standards.

Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday, "The bar that we set is the highest that any administration in the country has ever set."


During a briefing filled with questions about Tom Daschle's decision to withdraw from consideration to be Health and Human Services secretary, Gibbs pointed to experts who describe the administration's ethics rules as the strongest in history.

Rules are worthless if they're ignored when they get in the way. It's like people who think they have a quality program because they have a nice shiny quality manual sitting on the shelf. Or a safety program because they have hard hats lined up in a cabinet. You START with the rules. Anybody can have rules. That's the easy part. What matters is that you APPLY them, consistently, even when it's inconvenient.

He also said those experts recognized that Obama would need to make exceptions to his pledge to run an administration free of former lobbyists.

Obama's choice to become the No. 2 official at the Defense Department recently lobbied for military contractor Raytheon. And his choice as deputy secretary at Health and Human Services, lobbied through most of last year as an anti-tobacco advocate.

Once again, what do these people mean when they say they are or will be ethical? Do they even know what they mean? Do they go through any kind of thought-experiment: in situation X, where we have choices p and q, we'll do p. We'll draw the line here, but not there. We'll accept this but not that. It seems to me it's all look-good crap that no one thought through or takes seriously - they don't realize there's anything TO take seriously. Maybe I'm being too harsh. I sure hope so but I have a sinking feeling that I'm not. I wonder if there's always been a tacet "if you believe me you're a sucker" whenever they've made these promises. Because that whole "unintentional" message of there being two sets of rules is EXACTLY the kind of thing that ethical people don't have to worry about sending because for them there are not two sets of rules. We have a tax-cheater overseeing the IRS. How cool is that.

Words are cheap. You can say you're going to be ethical, or you can just be ethical. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but the first without the second makes you a hypocrite.
Bonnie had a good checkup on Saturday. No parasites. They called today and said her bloodwork was perfect. So she should be good to go.

Bonnie was very well-behaved at the vet's office. The vet said we had ourselves a real sweetheart there - we knew that. She sat up like the lady she is and let them do what they wanted, no flinching when she had her vaccinations and so forth. Molly, who goes Saturday week, will be a different story. She detests being messed with and growls like a dog - the vet in Memphis said she'd never heard a cat do that before. I never have either. We'll have to ask the vet if it's harmful to Molly to eat lizards, not that I'll know what to do about it if it is. They get in the house, she finds them and eats them from nose to tail, leaving not so much as a toe. Yes, it's gross. I guess it's the alley cat in her, hence her eating cornbread and popcorn and potato chips. Bonnie being a Himalayan mix is much more refined and won't eat anything not labeled CAT FOOD.