Thursday, November 30, 2006

Let's All Take Up Smoking

Yea, yea, it's bad for you. It can kill you (and will if you smoke and live long enough). So are a lot of things. It is bad for others around you--primarily as an inconvenience. Actually the biggest reason I see not to smoke is because of the dismissive-of-human-life huge tobacco companies. Aside from that, however, look at the benefits. Smoking is a conversation starter (from asking for a light to being asked to do it elsewhere). Smoking curbs appetites, helping the disgustingly overweight USofA to drop a few and keep 'em off--hell, we're probably all fat because we decided to get so healthy by not smoking. Low levels of nicotine potentially help to keep the mind more acute with age. It will piss off those damn hippies (unless it's cannabis you've sparked). And it provides a necessary source of tax revenue to city and state governments that have become increasingly wary of taxing anything that resembles "the wealthy," and we all know that cigarettes are the tobacco choice of the poor and working classes.

This post is the result of this article on a smoking ban in the Virgin Islands which includes a ban w/in 50' of a doorway or window to an enclosed public space. I understand non-smokers not wanting to be around smokers, and I can even agree with keeping kid friendly areas smoke free, but I don't think that government should dictate where people can and cannot smoke except for within government buildings (and airplanes), and I do realize that the British Virgin Islands are not US territory, but Cal, NY, Chicago and many more here have enacted similar measures. If I owned a bar/restaurant/etc. and wanted to allow smoking then I do not understand why government thinks that it can tell me "no." It is not their place. People who don't want to be around smokers: don't come and don't apply for jobs. It can kill you, sure, but so can cheese and bacon, and so can beer wine and liquor, and so can biking to and from work, and so can running a marathon... Point is, I see no reason to demonize people who smoke or cast them to the fringes of society, especially since, from personal experience, they are much friendlier people.

Tobacco companies on the other hand...

Monday, November 27, 2006


So I mentioned a few posts back a promise that was made in the '90s to double the federal funding for fundamental scientific research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) was first. The number and sizes of NIH grants jumped, and research boomed. The National Science Foundation (NSF) was supposed to be next. Unfortunately congress decided that decrying and impeaching one president for getting a blowjob, and then hopping in bed with another to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans and large investors and to wage a war against a country that had not attacked us were more important than funding science (or providing troops with armor, or taking care of wounded veterans or...).

Since the NIH windfall a large number of researchers have applied for funding. At first it was a party that everyone was invited to. A good scientist with a good idea could get themselves a good grant. Anyone who could modify their research or phrase it in a way that would imply a health related aspect did. But that switching has made things tighter. Many (most) of these research switchers came from chemistry. Biologists and Medical researchers were already primarily funded by NIH, and physics researchers can't really retask too easily, but chemists, being a mixture from more pure physical to more pure biology, got money from both. There were a few problems that resulted. First is that bio and med people started having to compete with more chemists for funding (which did not keep doubling). This has led to some researchers having a harder time getting funding, keeping students, getting tenure, etc. The number of chemists has actually grown quickly in that time because many chemistry departments have expanded as a result of the increase in the NIH budget, and they have looked for more bio-leaning chemists (even when looking for analytical/organic/inorganic positions).

Then there was the fellowships issue. NSF used to provide post doctoral fellowships for chemists. Now they do not (they still provide graduate chem fellowships). Now any chemistry post doc who wants a fellowship must either make him/her self a health researcher or a materials scientist. Those who are neither get stuck in a middle ground where they try to be one or the other or both, but can not.

Now, we've just about swung into a (distorted) equilibrium again. Grants are hard to come by for everyone, and more fellowship applicants have not gotten their money (cutoff scores have dropped). However, and this is important, fundamental research is very bio-heavy right now, and that is not really good.

Health research is something that always gets lots of public support. It also gets lots of private funding from various non-profits and corporations. Fundamental, physical science gets less so. Not that people think it is unimportant or that there is no private funding (lots of tech companies invest heavily in their own as well as others' research). Both physics-leaning and bio-leaning research is important, and to push on one side only will short change the other. There are some amazing possibilities coming out of NIH funded research, but there is so much that is not understood on a basic level that requires better understanding of the physical nature of the various molecules and interactions. Moreover, certain research, like energy, lies almost entirely outside the realm of NIH funding, especially since the fundamental studies that lead to improvements are seldom packaged as "energy" research (electrochem, spectroscopy, materials, ...).

I personally think that NSF should have had its budget increase first, because the NIH one would have been easier to push through amid political bickering. I also think that, within the next five years the NSF will get its due and I will (hopefully) already be in the door, making it easier for me to go bigger upon renewal.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Academic Research Laboratories

They are funny places. There is no standard for how they are run and what works for one person could easily be considered awful to another. That said, there are a few generalities for how things will work.

PI: The principle investigator is (usually) the professor in charge of the lab. He/she can be identified on journal articles as being an author to whom correspondence should be addressed (typically named last). The PI is the idea person. PI's, of course, do lots else: teach (generally), write papers, write grant proposals, give seminars/lectures, sit on committees (for doctoral students), and generally guide the direction of the lab. Typically these all go hand in hand and the best PIs are good at all of them. Universities tend to care about grants first and teaching a distant second (at smaller schools, not so much).

Grad students: Graduate students are the backbone of the lab. They know the techniques, who/where to go (to). They are the experts within a lab. They are there longer, and generally have at least one year of training before anything is really expected of them. They may take time to find what they like doing best, and they may drift through several projects, but they are where the work comes from.

Post-docs: Post doctoral associates are a bit of an oddity. Their education makes them senior, and they are typically experts in a field, but they are not (usually) the most capable lab members. This is not because they are poor technicians or that they can't learn, but because that is seldom their focus. Post-docs are stuck in between PI and grad student. Under the best of conditions a post-doc will come into a project that has others working on it and will provide some new idea/ability. Maybe they will have better ideas on how to analyze a molecule/material. Maybe they will know a technique that is well suited to a problem. Maybe they will have a background that makes them better able to judge a technique and determine what should be done to improve it. Utilizing a post-doc's strengths is, in large part, the responsibility of the PI. Failure to understand what those strengths are, is the fault of the post-doc.

Obviously post-docs are problematic. But even more so than was mentioned. In chemistry most post-docs are around for two years, three tops. They are often interested in becoming PIs on their own at other universities and have to spend a large amount of time preparing for that (research proposals, teaching philosophy, grant searching, ...). This also means, however, that they have research goals which they wish to pursue independently. This creates problems. In graduate school, much of the time a student spends thinking about research, they are thinking about their research in the lab. A post-doc spends some portion of that time thinking about their potential future research. The time frame for applying means that a PI is not likely to get nearly as much dedication from a post-doc as a grad student (this is financially sort of fair as post-docs are often cheaper than grad students because of the no tuition thing). Post-docs that come into a situation in which they are expected to pursue research largely independently are not in a good spot. Things become worse if the research (techniques, background, etc.) is fairly new to them, i.e. not what they did as grad students.

In fact the primary motivation for productivity as a post-doc is that it is helpful/necessary to get that next job. In the face of things not going well: bad results, highly tuned techniques, little in the way of bench assistance (provided or offered), motivation ebbs. ...I would say that the primary motivation should be learning, but I've been told that I'm somewhat of an idealist in this regard and that universities prefer lock-step productivity to idealistic intellectualism (ignoring the fact that it is the latter that provides society with its greatest breakthroughs and achievements).

Friday, November 17, 2006


I mentioned before that banks are evil. That position still holds, and for the same reasons (the Washington Mutual commercials really piss me off), but the Nobel peace prize this year went to Muhammad Yunus, who was on the Daily Show last night, "for their efforts to create economic and social development from below." I like this guy. A whole bunch. Now, I'm paraphrasing but one of the first things he said was that in wealthy countries (US) you need to have something to get a loan. If you want to borrow $10000, then you need to: give the bank $10000, give the bank something worth at least $10000 or pay credit card interest or worse. This is not something that makes sense, unless you are a bank owner and want to make bucketloads of money for doing next to nothing. If you want people to have some sort of upward mobility or for people to get out of debt and be able to live decent (meaning able to provide food and shelter) lives, then this is backwards.

Dr. Yunus' bank provides loans for only a few tens to hundreds of dollars to people with very little (including beggars). They do get their money back, and people move upward. This will never, ever, ever happen in this country. There is no motivation (especially from GOP types who promote their "moral values") to do something that will help people without providing a profit, but imagine that there was. Someone homeless, who is panhandling on the city streets could go into a bank and get a loan for $100, which that person could use to get some clean clothes and a cheap hotel room where they could clean up, and embark for job interviews. (You may not be aware, but ragged, smelly people have trouble finding employment...even at McDonald's.)

Now, here's the rub. Is that true in this country? I would like to say "yes," but I really don't know. Quite a few people have entered this country illegally and they seem to be getting their share of employment despite incurring heavy debt to get here and to get fake documents (more to bring family), and despite speaking little to no english, so is that homeless man who wants change I don't have really unable to get a job? I don't know, but I suspect the answer is yes. Anti-wellfare/unemployment types would say "no" but I suspect the ability to get a job is not something as easy as "can you get cleaned up?" and "can you use a shovel?" Of course this comes back to whether giving out $100 loans would help. Somehow, I really do not think it would much. Some people, sure, but not all, and maybe not most. Part of this is because $100 really does not get you much in this country, but part of it is because people are probably not unemployed and homeless for such easy-to-solve reasons.

Speaker Pelosi

I wonder if there would be as much gossip style reporting about Speaker elect Pelosi if her first name was Nathan. There is talk of personal vendettas and cat fights and it seems to me that there is far more of that on the other side of the aisle. Executive employees who stepped out of line w/ Commander Codpiece's dictums would find themselves on the outside looking in. Senate minority leadership was a 25-24 vote in favor of the borderline racist Trent Lott, who was supported by McCain (who has spent the past 2+ years destroying his credibility among moderates by planting his nose firmly in dubbya's derrière and pleading for GOP base support).

Pelosi may be great and she may be a miserable failure, but her supporting someone who will agree with her over someone who will not is hardly surprising and Murtha's loss there isn't really, either. If this congress can not take action starting in January, then, maybe, there can be discussion regarding how fit she is for the job. Until and unless, shut it. There are issues this lame duck president and congress want to deal with in the last session, and there are more that the Dems want to deal with come January. I don't care if Nancy holds grudges and uses personal grievances to dictate her policy. I just care if she can be effective, and there is no real indicator yet that she can not, unless you are sexist of course.

Friday, November 10, 2006

New congress!

There are all sorts of reasons to be happy about this, but I am really excited about 2: education, and civil liberties/personal freedoms. I put research funding under education, otherwise it would be on the list too. There are more, of course, and there are selfish reasons for my choices.

Like one of the things that I am personally hoping for is for congress to make good on a promise back in the 90's to double funding for fundamental sciences. The NIH got it money, but the NSF did not. I think that quite a few problems have come out of that discrepancy, and straightening it out will lead to another boom in technological advances. (Things really have slowed up over the past ~10 years.) I may come back to this.

In an extension of the personal freedoms thing I also have a hope that they will be able to stop corporate profiling of consumers. I hate the notion that every (credit/debit card) purchase I make is tracked and used against me somehow, but I really like using plastic and shopping/paying bills online. Republicans have made heavy use of such corporate machinery to target voters with specific issue mailers and the like. It's more than a little creepy.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Death Penalty

I am opposed to the death penalty. It is not fairly implemented (state to state, rich vs poor, ...). It is not really sufficiently punative--a criminal who does not understand the wrong of his/her actions is always getting off easy. Mostly it dehumanizes the punishers: the prosecution, victims families, excecutioner, etc. While I am opposed to it, however, I think arguments like this are a total sham. We can kill people, but potentially causing them pain is wrong? Fat people have a greater right to stayed executions than the skinny? Unadulterated bullshit. If anyone wants to argue against the death penalty, then go for it, but this pussyfooted crap is sickening. Most people would probably rather be beaten than killed, even if it were to result in permanent damage (loss of limb, disfigurement) but we can't do that. Breaking someone's leg is cruel and unusual but killing them is peachy. It is a hypocritcal double standard.

As much as I am opposed to the death penalty I would support punishment that would be considered cruel and unusual. Criminals should spend every waking hour with chatising words (recorded) assaulting them. The recording should cover 12 hrs of total material and should be changed (volume, tone, etc) on a daily or weekly basis so that it does not become background. Criminals who show no remorse should be forced to do so by such means or others. No need for sleep depravation or torture, in fact the opposite. "These people died while you live in relative comfort in this cell." Pain and fear are not restorative tools. The do not breed truly sorry individuals. Guilt, illicited through psychological tools, on the other hand, can be devastating. Of course that would be wrong, so just kill 'em instead, but make sure it doesn't hurt.