Monday, December 14, 2009

Change in Perspective..

Before this job, I worked in the same department for a different researcher.  

He was not an easy man to work for.  He is incredibly intelligent, and equally demanding.  I was thrown into the deep end, immediately doing some fairly difficult animal work (when I'd never even gone near a mouse before) alongside my coworker, who'd been doing it for 3 years, oh, and was one of my best friends.  Demoralising, to say the least.

Within three months, our friendship was fractured (it's since recovered, for the most part) and I would start each morning with a round of violent dry retching. He was never abusive.  He was just so mercurial, changing his mind at the last second (case in point, when we trialled a new technique he made me ensure that both the head of the animal ethics committee and himself could be there to watch me. Three days later, when I was still trying to finagle the schedules of two very busy people, he asked me why I was expecting him to attend. Uh, because you ordered it?) .

And he was intense. The man was so intense you'd feel him coming before you saw him. I'd be buried knuckles deep in a mouse, calmly doing my thing, when all the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up. Then he'd be standing behind me, demonstrating a complete lack of the concept of personal space, and bang! my fingers would turn into thumbs.

He scared the hell out of me, and I was convinced he thought I was a useless skidmark in the lab. He deliberately kept a huge distance between himself and his employees/students, something he openly believed was the right way to run a lab. To be fair, this technique worked - the lab was certainly collegial.  The 'underlings' banded together in mutual fear/hatred of him.  This was what he wanted. 

Despite all that, I do respect and admire him.  And, if I'm honest, he made me a better scientist.  But it's taken me a very long time to stop feeling like a failure.  I still haven't got all my confidence back.

Today I learnt that, the year I was there, he had a, well, let's call it a mild nervous breakdown.  Nobody knew this, not even my coworker/best friend, who was about as close to him as it was possible to be.  I knew he and his wife had divorced and his attempt at venture capitalism was failing (well, I certainly knew it by the end of the year, when I lost my job), but, with no previous experience of the man, I had no idea if his behaviour was out of character.   Turns out, it was, and the year I was there was when he was at his worst.

I've been thinking about it ever since I found out.  It's a little shameful to realise I took his behaviour personally, when, actually, it had nothing to do with me at all.  Okay, he went to enormous effort to hide his problems, and it's hard NOT to take it personally when someone's looking at you like you just took a steaming dump on their desk.   But still, I'm a bit ashamed of myself.  

And, selfishly, relieved.  Maybe that year wasn't the disaster I thought it was. 

Saturday, December 12, 2009

CBRII - Book 6: The Lucy Family Alphabet by Judith Lucy

Judith Lucy is a well-known Australian comedian.  Her humour is self depreciating and dry, in the same way desert sand that's been left in a dessicator for three weeks is dry.  This is a woman who's most famous tour was about being sacked as a radio host, called 'I failed'.

Like most comedians, her family has provided much of her material.  The Lucy Family Alphabet is, in many ways, the work of a woman trying to come to terms with having two very complex parents.  Who, actually weren't her parents at all, which she was told when she was 25.  The book is also about the fallout of that discovery, and meeting her birth mother.

She uses a set-up where the chapters begin with a letter of the alphabet (eg A is for adoption), followed by a few pages of explanation, to tell the many smaller stories that make up her history.  There were a few times I longed for a flowchart of the order of major events with all the chapters slotted into their proper place in that chain of events, but for the most part, I really liked the format.  Judith has a gift with words that takes a lot of the sting out of the tales.  I often laughed out loud, even when I was cringing.  One chapter had me howling, but that's probably because my sense of humour is ten years old and thinks small mad dogs that aim directly for the testicles of larger dogs is the nadir of funny.

I think a lot of people with 'complicated' families will relate, if not to the experiences, then to the tone of the book.  The anger, and the love.  The pity and the regrets.  Judith's mother is probably the most interesting person.   She was a very intelligent woman, but so desperate for the attention of an indifferent husband that she ended up sabotaging any hope of a comfortable relationship with him.  There's also a lot of truth in the bond between Judith and her older brother Niall.  He's such a sweet, protective presence throughout the book, even though he's as damaged as she is.

This is a fantastic book.  

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Memories, like the cesspool of my heart.

Our climate control has lost its marbles.

One of our labs is 18C, the other (which is located exactly opposite) is 24C. Our office is currently a balmy 27C, the corridor connected to it is 21C. A couple of hours ago, I stood with one leg in the office and the other in the corridor and my body got very confused. Hell, my body's getting confused just walking around. Certain parts of me are are going up and down like a kid on trampoline.

It's strange how it's affecting us in the office. Headaches, nausea, exhaustion. Three went home early yesterday, one couldn't come in at all today. I'd study the phenomenon, but living through it is enough. Really. Somebody fix this now? Please?

To distract me, I searched through the files on my eeepc during lunch. In my current state, a file named 'killmenow.doc' is sure to get my attention. It was a diary entry, from (about) December 20 last year. See, every now and then, I get the urge to write a journal. It usually last a week, at most. Often, it's just a single entry. I've got dozens of notebooks with two pages of whinging, and that's it. Switching to computers has probably saved at least half a rainforest.

I decided to share. I’ve changed it a little for the sake of posting, adding explanations and stuff, but otherwise, everything is exactly as it was. As a reminder that my gut may be rioting and I may have just high-beamed the Head of the department, but I've survived worse.


It’s Saturday night. I’ve worked 13 days straight, never less than 10 hours a day. It’s Christmas day on Thursday, and I’ve only bought a quarter of the presents. ITGeek’s family will be down on Tuesday, and the house looks like a factory after a particularly violent rave party that ended with a swarm of ferrets. Usually, I don’t give a fuck about the state of the house, as long as I can still find the cat, but it’s his ENTIRE family, and since the move has been put back AGAIN, I’ve gotten a little depressed about all the boxes. Morgan, is, of course, perfectly fine with this new arrangement, especially the part where he can climb up the boxes to the curtain rod and amble along it, until he falls off and hangs there, yowling in fifteen octaves, until I rescue him. I thought cats were supposed to be graceful and shit. Just my luck to get the munted one.

Oh yeah, work. I’m beyond tired. This has been a bitch of a study. The mice are bl/6 (black 6) and they are angry, angry little mice. Our usual breed are balb/c, which look like the traditional white lab mice and act like stoned Buddhists. If I’m honest, I kinda hope that, should reincarnation be in my future and I come back as a lab mouse, I’m a bl/6. I respect their rage, I’m just not a fan of being on the receiving end of it. So far, I’ve been bitten three times, which wouldn’t suck so much if two of the bites hadn’t been in the same damn place. Of course, they’re also in the worst place to be bitten – the upper knuckle of my index finger. This is an area where the skin is usually stretched over the bone, so when those tiny little teeth dig in, they start mining for calcium.

These aren’t just any bl/6 mice either. They’re knock-outs (genetically engineered so a gene or two in their DNA has been removed, or ‘knocked out’, which very slightly changes how they function. It’s a good way to figure out what the protein that gene encodes actually does in the body). They were engineered overseas, then sent to us. I think they were about 6 weeks old when that process started. When they got to us, they were 8 months old. Ah, bureaucracy. They weigh, on average, 33g. The ones we usually deal with are around the 22g mark. 10g may not seem like much, except when it’s all muscle and rage and launching itself at your face, teeth-first.

Half of them are male, too. You can keep a bunch of 8 week old males in the same cage without too much trouble. Female mice hang together happily forever, the worst they’ll do is groom each other bald. 8 month old males will eat each other’s faces off. Literally (guess what I found three days after they arrived? Faceless mouse corpse. Yummy). Obviously, this is something we watch for, but older mice that previously were fine with each other may randomly decide to brawl, and they’re most likely to do that at night. I just don’t love this job enough to be here at 2am to keep an eye on the wildlife. Hell, times like this, I barely love the job enough to be here at 2pm.

At least we appear to have results. That’s always heartening. Worst day ever was a 16 hour cull day, also on Saturday, for a 4 month smoke study. That was the day I started ranting about goats planning to take over the world. At the end of that awful day, the cells from the lung lavage were counted, a good indication of how well the study went. There was no difference between the mice that had been smoked, and the mice that hadn’t. So we’d worked our arses off for 4 months, had done one hell of a cull day, and we went home, knowing that we were only halfway through, and the study was a bust.

So it’s worked, even if it’s nearly killed us in the process. Can I just say, in passing, that, should you ever need to send something even remotely important, I would not recommend FedEx. They are as pleasant to deal with as enormous genetically engineered, angry mice. The whole reason this study has been so demanding is because the previous study went over. This is because we had to wait for the company who ordered the study to send us their compound, and they sent it via FedEx. Who, despite being a courier company, somehow didn’t know that everything sent between countries requires a commercial invoice. This isn’t a complicated document – it’s a list of what you’re sending, on company letterhead. Our shipment didn’t have one, so naturally, customs didn’t let it through.
The first time my co-worker rang, asking where the shipment was, they claimed to have contacted our clients about the invoice. When she rang again the next day, they admitted they’d ‘made a note to call the company’. But hadn’t actually made the call. By this time, the package had been sitting in customs for about three days. God only knows when they were planning to actually make that call. Sometime next year, I imagine. They also don’t provide or top up the levels of dry ice, a bit of a problem when everything you’re sending has to be kept below -20C. I hope every one of those incompetent pieces of walking excrement gets syphilis for Christmas.

The file ended there. Possibly because I passed out from a combination of rage and exhaustion. If you’re interested, I got all the presents I needed and even cleaned up the place before the ITGeek’s family arrived. I have always been pretty good at last-minute cramming. The cat eventually learnt to just leave the curtain rod alone. A water pistol may have been involved in that education.

The study, on the other hand, didn’t go so well. The cells in the lungs increased as a result of smoking, which meant it worked, but there wasn’t any difference between the knockouts and the wild-types. Which, as far as the company was concerned, meant it didn’t work. And there were further, hellish misadventures with courier companies. Although we sent the samples via the best courier we’ve got (World courier, and they’re awesome), they apparently arrived in two separate shipments (we sent them in one) and the contents of one was leaking everywhere. We were told this on a morning we had to start at 6am. I then spread the joy around by calling the courier company, expecting to get a voice mail, but getting a salesperson instead. Who I then assumed must be on the night shift, so I unleashed a torrent that could basically be summed up as ‘WTF and you DID send our stuff to the dangerous goods officer to pack properly, like you said you would, right? You didn’t send highly flammable liquid on a plane in an old cardboard box I swiped from the store room, did you, please? I signed the dangerous goods document, I’m liable for that, pleaseohplease?’ After five minutes, the salesperson managed to interrupt the panic babble and I realised my call had diverted to her and she was actually at home. In bed. I was all ‘Oh shit, sorry! But, uh, I really need to know what’s happened here,’ and she was all ‘You’re absolutely right, and I’ll get on it as soon as I wipe the sleep from my eyes.’ It’s been months since that awful day and we still don’t know what went wrong. Far as we can tell, the couriers did everything right, but the company has gone all fourteen year old girl and won’t talk to us anymore, so for all we know, the courier company are lying and they played football with the damn thing.

Monday, November 30, 2009

CBRII books 4 and 5 - Heavenly Pleasures and Forbidden Fruit by Kerry Greenwood

AKA I went back for more, and liked it.

One thing this Cannonball Read is going to make embarrasingly clear is my love for Chick Lit. Well, Detective Chick Lit, but really, that's just the normal variety with some corpses added. I know they're fairly predictable, with the plucky heroine and hunky hero, but sometimes, I just can't resist. Actually, I've just realised that four of the five books I've so far read for the CBRII have involved hunky heroes. Wow.  That's REALLY embarrassing.

Heavenly Pleasures and Forbidden Fruit are, respectively, books 2 and 5 of the Corinna Chapman series. HP was first published in 2005, FF in 2009. Why do I mention that?  Because in that time, Bush and Howard went bye bye, their legacy either the economic destruction of their nation, or the internal destruction of their party (as of today, the Australian Liberal party, who happen to be our conservative party, because we're weird like that, have elected, by one vote, their third leader in two years). It turns out that when Obama was talking about Change, it wasn't limited to American politics. 3 pages into Heavenly Pleasures, you're slapped in the face with some gloating over Iraq, and that's just the start of a steady stream of agenda-filled remarks. It's interesting, but only from a historical perspective (especially when there's references to economic jitters and insurance/bankers having trouble). Aside from the standard, perfectly acceptable grumbling about the state of the world in general, Forbidden Fruit was devoid of politics.

Hence, I whole-heartedly recommend Forbidden Fruit. It's set during Christmas, and there's a wealthy pregnant girl on the run with her poor-but-good boyfriend. There's also Freegans, and Vegans, and Gypsies and a Donkey with a thing for muffins. This is because it's a Detective Chick Lit where The Worship of Shoes is replaced by Wacky Characters (see: Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, which I also enjoy, because unfortunately, it appears that my Taste may actually be in my butt).

That said, aside from the politics, Heavenly Pleasures is probably a slightly better book.  It's a little more tightly woven, a few more surprises, and I found myself much more emotionally invested in the subplots.  This time, there's a mysterious new tennant in the World's Best Apartment Block,  Insula, and he's brought trouble with him.  The kind that carries weapons and explosives.  Meanwhile, the Heavenly Pleasures of the title, a high-end chocolate shop, is also under attack.  Somebody is replacing the chocolate filling with chilli and soy sauce, and destroying the business.  The owner, Juliette Lefebvre, hires Daniel, Corinna's private detectin' boyfriend, to catch the culprit.  Oh, and Heavenly Pleasures' shopgirl has gone missing, just to add to the tension.  
The characters, with the exception of the villans, of course, are all utterly charming, and once again, Greenwood has researched the hell out of her subject matter.  There's a lot of information slotted into these books, on everything from chocolate and chess to old christmas carols and the proper care of pampered bunnies.  And they're based in Melbourne.  Which makes me happy, for reasons I can't fully explain.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Perks of the job.

Know what makes a scientist move? Free food. Seriously, a pack of famished wolves spotting a fat lamb with a broken leg does not move faster than a lab full of scientists when the words 'food in the tea room' are uttered.
Normally, these are arranged by companies that want to sell us stuff. They know the only way to get us close enough to hear their pitch, they have to entice us within hearing range with food. This happens about once a month if we're lucky.
If you really want the free stuff, work for a doctor. Pharmaceutical companies give them shit like you would not believe. In the single year I did clinical research I got breakfast twice a week, lunch once a week, every form of stationary known to man, sim card readers, USB sticks, mugs, bags, and, best of all, an all-expenses-paid weekend on the Gold Coast in a 5 star hotel (but only because I was filling in for the PhD student, a doctor herself).
Part of the reason I got this stuff was because my boss, a cardiologist, was adamant that he would have nothing with a drug name on it, and if the sales rep snuck something into his pidgeon hole, he gave it to me. I admired the hell out of him for that stance, even if it meant I had to buy pads of post-it notes on my way to work every month or so. The stationary cupboard at this job had very little that WASN'T covered in a drug name.

So what free shit do you get with your job? (yep, trying out that blog thing where you finish with a question.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cannonball Read II, book 3: Keeping it Real by Justina Robson

This is the first in the ‘Quantum Gravity’ series. The premise is that in 2015, a large Hedron collider impersonated Chernobyl, and now there’s about 7 different realities all intersecting one another. And they’ve always done this, or something. There’s a lot of confusion about ‘before the quantum bomb’ and ‘after the quantum bomb’. Come to think of it, there’s just a lot of confusion.

Lila Black is 21 and works for Earth (Otopia)’s spy agency. She got torn apart by an elve, and through a bit of magical technological fiddling, they turned her into the 6 million dollar woman. Only with a lot more weapons. The book opens on the day she starts her first assignment since being rebuilt, to protect an elven pop star who’s been getting a lot of hatemail from, oh, about four dimensions. She doesn’t quite succeed, and she has to follow his kidnappers into the elven reality to rescue him. There’s a lot of political manoeuvring in the elve dimension, some philosophising about knowledge and power, the bad guy is actually a good guy, Lila is possessed by an elven necromancer who used to have a thing with the bad-guy-actually-a-good-guy, and there’s some sort of Game between her and the elven popstar.

It’s a very complicated book. Probably too complicated, because I spent so much time trying to work out what the hell was going on that I found it impossible to be dragged into the story. Books have always been my escape hatch, I get grumpy when it doesn’t take me anywhere. There’s a lot of plot holes and dropped threads, but I gather this is going to be a series, so, presumably, the holes will be filled and the threads picked up in latter books. It also suffers from what I call ‘Laurel K. Hamilton syndrome’. See, I have a way of scoring the quality of a movie by the number of unnecessary tit-baring. I have a theory that the makers are just throwing those tits in as a distraction, or to make them appear edgy, because they’re either lazy or not talented enough to make a good film. I see more than one set of unnecessary tits, I know I have to decide to switch off my brain or the movie. ‘Laurel K. Hamilton syndrome’ is the book version. Toss in a sex scene with a hottie, under the most flimsy of pretexts. If you've ever read anything she's written in the last ten years, you'll know what I'm talking about. It tends to show up a lot in science fiction/fantasy books with a female lead, and a female writer, and I always find it distracting. I’ve no objection to a bit of romance with all that technology, but I hate it when the main character fucks one hot guy after another under that flimsy pretext of ‘it’s the hot guy’s culture/power source/whatever’.

I really liked the characters, Lila, all fire and insecurity about her appearance, and Zal, so passionate and brilliant, but so naive; and I think it had a lot of potential. But the author has tried to cram too much in, and complicate everything. Things like the Game, which has a role later in the book, but felt so unnecessary. Science fiction is at its best when the human characters are still bound by recognisable human reactions and motivations, despite the unusual setting. Justina didn’t need a Game with a special capital letter, she could have just given the characters a bit more time and a lot more flirting (which was one of the best parts of the book), and helped us fall in love with them while they fell in love with each other. Presumably, even power-mad rulers would recognise the usefulness of love in manipulating an adversary.

I’d recommend this book to a lover of science fiction, but not a person unfamiliar with the genre.
I think you’d need to be in the ‘zone’ to truly enjoy this book, able to fill in the gaps with your own past experience. In a lot of ways, this book is very much like it’s main character - a clever merging of magical and biological and scientific, sexy and smart, but not entirely comfortable with itself and or put together quite as well as it was aiming to be.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Long overdue Halloween post


I'm engaged to an awesome man, ya know that? He did most of the work, because he wanted me to be able to talk to my friends. Who are as awesome as he is, but I don't love them like I do him. Sorry guys, but that's the way it is.

There were a couple of downsides, like discovering my car had acquired a dint sometime while I was running around getting shit and finding, at the last minute, that the invite I thought I'd mailed to my favorite cousin was, in fact, still in my bag, but the night, the actual party, with my friends and my family and more food and drink then I could ever imagine, was wonderful.

We got spoiled with gifts, which we had told people they didn't need to bring, but they did anyway. Morgan escaped after about an hour and spent the rest of the night utterly charming everybody who hadn't met him, and reaquainting himself with everybody he'd already wrapped around his paw (although he probably wanted back behind a shut door when my friend's 2 year old was chasing him around the house. Seriously furball, next time, remember they're short and head for the high ground, okay?). He spent the rest of the weekend passed out on various soft surfaces, much like his owners. My oldest, bestest of the best friend, Metal, stayed back and we talked for hours, which was the perfect end to the night.

To finish, here's a pic of the ITGeek and I, in our 'the couple that kills zombies together, stays together' costumes.

By the way, those soft toys in the side of the shot? Plushy Microbes. Yes, I'm that fucking geeky, okay?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Can rattling ettiquette

I've done a bit of fundraising this year of the 'waving a tin can at an intersection' variety.  Both times, they've been for well-known organisations/charities, and I'm always stunned by how generous people are.  Still, I thought I'd offer a couple of tips, because I'm arrogant and ungrateful and stuff:

1.  Chances are good that the tin-rattlers have been in your shoes at least fifty times.  So if you don't have change, or you're not interested in giving, just shake your head, okay?  We won't think you're a turd, I promise. Don't, whatever you do, start scrambling with something in your passenger seat.  You might think you look distracted, but from our point of view, you look like you might be reaching for your bag or wallet, in order to donate.  So we walk over, and then it's awkward for all involved.  

2.  Don't throw the money.  If it falls on the road, our insurance doesn't allow us to pick it up, because when we're bending down, a) we reduce our own visibility and b) drivers have a harder time seeing us.  I can kinda see their point, even though it sucks to turn down decent people's donations. 

3.  Don't do what one guy did to me and try to have a conversation, forcing me to stand between cars on a busy road when the lights were about to turn green.  I wasn't being rude when I turned and ran off, mate, I was just trying to not get smeared all over the tarmac.  

Oh, and if you were the person who bought 6 cups of soft drink from McDonalds and gave them to some SES fundraisers in Knox today, you are a wonderful human being.  Thank you.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

CBRII: Earthly delights by Kerry Greenwood

Initially, I planned to review another book, Keeping it Real, but I've been having a very hard time getting into it, and I'm not sure if it's the book, or me.  I'm beginning to wonder if it's some sort of Pratchett backlash, because I hated the book I read immediately after Nation, his previous work.  Then again, that book was Twilight.  Because the main character in Keeping it Real has not incited a desire to stab her in the face, I felt I owed it to her author to just put the book down and come back to it later, after a literary palette cleanser.  I've been a fan of Greenwood's series about Phryne Fisher for a while now, so the first book in another of her series seemed like an excellent choice.

It was.  Hell, I fell in love with this book when she mentioned the patrician of Ankh-Morpork.  Kerry Greenwood has degrees in English and Law, and an interest in history, particularly, 1920's Melbourne, which led to the Phryne Fisher books about a female detective in, of course, 1920's Melbourne.  Earthly Delights is the first in a series on Corinna Chapman, a thoroughly modern Melbourne baker, and she's clearly applied the same diligence to researching every aspect of this character's world as she did to Phryne, from the lifestyle of a baker to the reality of soup kitchens.  She even includes recipes at the end of the book.  It's a commendable effort.  

The plot goes as follows: Corinna Chapman, owner of Earthly Delights, a Melbourne bakery, starts work one day at her usual time of 4am.   Then one of her three cats crawls back in with a needle in its paw.  She goes out to rip strips off somebody, and discovers a girl dying of an overdose (and I kinda love how her immediate reaction to being told to do CPR is 'ew, junkie germs!').  The ambulance arrives, the paramedics revive the girl, who promptly abuses the fuck out of them for killing her high, and refuses to go to the hospital until Daniel, a 'heavy' for the local soup kitchen, shows up and gets her to act like a human being.  Of course, a worker for a soup kitchen is not going to pass up the opportunity to ask a baker for their leftovers, and Corinna is not going to pass up the opportunity to spend time with the gorgeous specimen of man-flesh that is Daniel.  The OD victim is one of several - it appears that somebody is distributing heroin that contains 10 times the regular proportion of heroin and it's killing the users.  At the same time, the women in Corinna's apartment block are being targeted by an utter creep with a can of spray paint and a love of all the most misogynist parts of the bible.  Through the course of the book, Corinna adopts a street kid, helps a broken alcoholic search for his missing daughter, deals with her greedy ex and his shitty plans for the apartment building, helps at a soup kitchen, hangs out at an S&M club, solves the mysteries, bakes a lot, and yeah, spends time with Daniel.

I live in Melbourne, so this book feels very real to me.  I also really, REALLY want to live in Corinna's apartment block/workplace, inspired by ancient Rome, where the ground floor is composed of shop fronts and every apartment in the floors above are named after a Roman God or Goddess.  Corinna is endearing, ruled by the instinct to help people, but Greenwood keeps it fairly matter of fact, so it's not too smaltzy.  Yes, the happy endings are a little too pat for a book about junkies dying of overdoses, but the most sugary of concoctions won't make you sick if the cook's good enough.   

That said, it's not without flaws.  Greenwood does a fair pit of politicing.  While I agree with her (or Corinna's) opinion on the war on Iraq and the policies of our former prime minister, I found the repeated references a little distracting.  Perhaps authors should be warned that politics is as short-lived as pop culture, and equally adept at destroying a book's longevity.

Then there's the whole fat versus thin debate.  Greenwood goes to great effort to paint Corinna as a woman who is fat, and perfectly okay with it.  But she repeatedly mentions that the two very slender characters (both female) are anorexic (yet working in a bakery???), and one particular scene made my skin crawl.  Earlier, Corinna had crowed that a corset gave her breasts 'a plastic surgeon would weep over because they're so perfect'.  But while in bed with Daniel (who is, natch, conventionally perfect in build), she asks him why he's with her instead of a thin woman.  No, wait, Daniel guesses that she wants to ask him.  The answer could have been 'because I don't care about weight, I think you're smart and funny and not a morning person' or even 'I'm a tits man and being the sub to your dom was an incredible turn-on', but instead, he gives her a speech about how he's into long term investments, and when they're older thin women will be 'mottled, haggard and wrinkled'.   Charming. With one ugly bout of thin-shaming (which, regardless of the advantages bestowed on thinner people, is no less reprehensible than fat-shaming), Greenwood undermines the entire message of healthy body image that she's trying to convey.   

Still, I enjoyed the book.  Very much.  It's light and fluffy, and quite delicious.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Regulation of inflammatory responses by gut microbiota and chemoattractant receptor GPR43

(Alternative title: Eating Poo is good for you!)

The information in this article relates only barely to my field of study. But it intrigued me, so I decided to review it. It’s also relatively short, which, given that I spent the first half of this week passed out in a sugar coma, made it very attractive.
It was the ITGeek who passed this article onto me. A media-fied version of the results had been published in a newspaper, he mentioned it, and I asked him to pass on the details. The media version of this was: Fibre will stop asthma, and, of course, referenced an Apple a Day (which must, by journalism law, appear every time the story relates to fruit or health. In fact, journalists have a quota of homilies they must include in their work. Otherwise your press pass is revoked and the other journalists don’t shout you at the bar).

The basics
Your intestines have a normal level of bacteria. They’re usually harmless, or, at worst, what we call opportunistic bacteria, ones that only do harm when a person’s already sick. They’re so normal that we use some of these bacteria to check that the sewerage hasn’t gotten mixed up with the drinking water. For a long time, these bacteria have been credited with keeping the bad bacteria at bay (by competing with them) and assisting with breaking down food.
This study suggests that they could also help regulate the immune system’s response, particularly allergies. The bacteria ferment fibre into Short-Chain Fatty Acids, which bind to G-protein coupled receptor 43, commonly found on eosinophils and neutrophils and decrease their production of inflammatory mediators.
If you’re thinking ‘WTF?’, I’ll break it down. Short-chain fatty acids are a type of compound, very common, that include acetate. They’re an end-product of bacteria breaking down fibre (or, as I prefer to think of it, what they vomit up after getting pissed on the fibre). The entire body runs on a system of proteins and receptors that connect like keys in a lock and set off chain reactions that control everything from making new proteins to cell proliferation. There’s a billion of the fucking things, and they’ve usually got a stupid name (one day, I’ll rant about naming conventions in science and why it hurts cramming undergrads). In this case, the short chain fatty acids connect to a receptor that’s part of the g protein coupled receptor family. Think of this like, oh, saying your car is a Ford sedan. For the sad obsessive types, there’s lots of varieties and types of engines and number of horsepower, but for most of us, it’s a car. Four wheels, four doors and a boot. All you need to know about GPR43 is that when something slots into it, a message is sent to inside the cell, and, like a Ford sedan, they’re just one of a million, and they’re everywhere. Eosinophils and neutrophils are two types of immune cells, and, particularly eosinophils, they’re common in allergic reactions. 'Inflammatory mediators' is just a fancy way of saying ‘proteins that fit into immune cell’s receptors’.

How the hell did they prove that?
I had to find out what colitis is here. Turns out, it’s an inflammatory bowel disorder and something I’m kinda glad I’ve not had much experience with. Scientists induced this in normal, bacteria-filled mice, and the same breed of mice that were entirely germ free (and man, that must have been fun to maintain). Then, by measuring a series of symptoms, including rectal bleeding(!), they showed that the germ-free mice were much, much sicker.
This doesn’t necessarily prove that it was the gut flora. In order to do that, they had to give these germ free mice the very same germs that their healthier counterparts had. Which means they were fed shit from the germy mice. For anybody dry-retching, they delivered the shit by taking a small tube and inserting it into the corner of their mouth. The mice swallow it, and that’s when you deliver the substance, bypassing their breathing tube and, most importantly in this case, their tastebuds. Regardless of the ick-factor, the germ free mice vastly improved.
The scientists already knew that bacteria could make certain short chain fatty acids. So they chose one, acetone, and gave it to a new batch of germ-free, colitis-y mice. And yay, they also improved!
At this point, the scientists felt pretty confident in saying that a) germs produced short chain fatty acids which b) improved the symptoms of colitis. But that’s not quite enough (well, not to get you in Nature, the Boffin’s Bible, anyway). They needed to know HOW.
Again, calling on the work of other scientists, they learnt that acetate was found to work on GPR43. When they looked a little closer at this receptor, they discovered that it liked to hang around with a lot of other innate immunity receptors. Well, the cool ones, at least. So they found themselves some mice that had no GPR43 and got busy.
First, they took a good look at the mouse’s immune system, and found it to be pretty normal. They worked out that GPR43 only really worked on short chain fatty acids. They did the colitis thing again, and, sure enough, the GPR43 deficient mice got much sicker than their normal counterparts. They did some stuff with bone marrow to prove it was all due to the immune cells.
Then they got bored with colitis (or their poor research assistant/student refused to look for any more bum bleeding) and moved onto the hardcore auto immune diseases – arthritis and asthma. And lo! The GPR43 deficient mice were royally screwed here, too.

So, following the logic path here – bacteria turn fibre into short chain fatty acids. Short chain fatty acids activate GPR43. GPR43 is mostly found on cells that cause allergic reactions. Specially bred mice that don’t have GPR43 get more sick from immune-related diseases. Mice that don’t have germs get more sick. Germ-free mice that get short chain fatty acids don’t get as sick. Hence, short chain fatty acids, bacteria and GPR43 work together to keep an out-of-control immune system on a leash.

Why is this important?

Trying to figure out anything involving the immune system is like trying to untangle your Christmas tree lights in the presence of fifteen hype-up kittens. Figuring out why modern western society has such a high rate of allergies and asthma has been a pretty big knot. As the scientists behind this study have suggested, this may be an explanation, especially when you consider our over-reliance on antibiotics and antiseptics, and the decrease in fibre that comes with all those processed foods. Basically, this study has loosened that knot, enough to see where a few of the cords are going. In order to have untied it completely, they’d have had to worked out how to use this information to reverse the existing conditions, which is a possibility now.

Despite my suggested alternative for a title, this doesn’t mean you should eat healthy people’s shit. No need to go that far. A bit of extra cereal will be fine.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

I know I promised to talk about the party, but I was looking through the photos of me and my family, and it reminded me of who I'm missing.  Well, multiple whos, actually.

See, my family has issues.  Not the awful, encylopedia-sized issues of abuse and mistreatment, but a couple of decent-sized volumes caused by my dad's first marriage and general shitty behaviour.  And letters.  Sweet fucking godopus, my family are *great* at letters.  

I'm the middle child, but the oldest from my dad's second marriage.  The sibling line goes: older half-sister, older half-brother, gap of about seven years, then, across four years, me, my younger brother and my younger sister.  This means I get all the responsibility of the eldest child, while still being totally ignored like most middle children when the other siblings are going postal.  Which, with the exception of my younger brother, happens with depressing regularity.  Although, to be fair, my older brother jettisoned himself from the entire mess with relatively little fanfare, and has since stayed well out of it.  I'd like to get to know him one day, but I respect why he'd rather stay out it.  Hell, when I read HIS letter, basically saying, 'look, I bear you no ill will, but I want out of this shit', I had to bite back an 'amen, brother!'

My dad's first wife was from the 'leave you for another man, sell all your stuff, turn your kids against you and sue you constantly' school of divorce.  Obviously it was all before I was born, but this lady sounds like a fucking nutjob.  She tried to sue my parents over a fruit bowl.  That was given to them when THEY got married.  Apparently, the judge took one look and told the ex-wife to get out of the hell out of the courtroom, or he'd have her charged with contempt of court for wasting all their time.

So life was pretty shit for my older sibs.  My older sister went off the rails for a while, but by the time I was old enough to pay attention, she'd well and truly pulled herself together.  She started her own beauty salon, and did really well.  She met and married a man from Israel, and they've got two gorgeous kids.  She sold the business and is now a stay-at-home mum, and is building a new online business.

She is still ravaged by insecurity.  I know this, so I accept the occassional bitchy comment, how she compares herself to everyone and everything. She's got more than enough good points to outweigh the bad - she's generous, loving, incredibly creative, and very, very smart.  She's got gorgeous skin and perfect hair.  She's gregarious, outgoing and strong.  She built her own fucking business, for crying out loud!

In other words, she's my complete opposite.  Always has been, and it's never bothered me.  Yes, when I was younger, I wished I was as cool as both my sisters, but I never had that gift, that way of putting people at their ease.  I was too weird and plain to be popular, and I knew that was my problem, not theirs.  Now I'm older, and I've got a group of wonderful friends who are brilliant and weird in all the best kind of ways.  The ITGeek thinks I'm beautiful and sexy, and that's all I need.  

The last five years or so, it's like all my hard work and study has paid off, like I'm somehow being rewarded.  The ITGeek and I got together, and we've managed to build a basic compatibility and a lot of lust into something deeper, and stronger.  I'm lucky to have found someone as dedicated to me as I am to them, but it's been a hell of a learning curve, figuring out when to bite back words that wound, and rearranging my life to fit in another person.  I have something that, if you look at it the right way and squint a little, could be called a career, but I work a hell of a lot.  We just bought a Mary Poppins House - Practically Perfect in every way, except for that mortgage, but what homeowner doesn't have one of those?  I even get along wonderfully with my fiance's family.  

I've built a relationship with my parents that's warmer than it ever was during my upbringing.  Don't get me wrong, they were damn good parents.  But my younger sister was... well, demanding and a spoilt bitch, and then she got into drugs and alcohol and added abusive to that list.  I had great parents, I really did, and I don't want to sound like one of those pathetic whingers, but I had to fight to get a bit of attention, you know?  I'm not going to go into the details, because I'll be ranting enough, but let's just say she's written her own letter and I haven't spoken to her in about 4 years, and I actually kinda prefer it that way.

Anyway, my parents.  My dad, especially, is an emotional amoeba.  Saying 'I love you' just wasn't part of his upbringing, but he feels it, big time.  Put it this way: I had to tell him that I'd still like to hear the words, once in a while, at the end of a visit or phone call.  Now, every single phone call or visit ends with an 'I love you'.  I'm all 'Dad, little more than I expected, but okay.'  My mum, on the other hand, is incredibly loving, but broken.  She can't make a decision or a stand unless she's told to.  Usually, that person is me.  Yay.

So, my shit is somewhat together.  Then, at the start of this year, my older sister kinda picked a fight with my dad, initially over how much he contributed to her wedding.  It escalated into  screaming and running out of the house and all that fun shit.  The next night, she called me to try to get me on side, and well, that didn't go well either.  Because she tried to claim my parents did nothing for her, when they did a hell of a lot.  Emotional support by the truckload, reminding her husband to buy her a birthday gift so she wouldn't get upset, helping with renovations, getting her whatever groceries she'd run out of.  And the one that kinda shit me - they babysat her kids three nights a week (my parents work full time, BTW.  I kinda have the philosophy that if you're a stay at home mum, that's your job.  I'm all for sanity time, but you don't put your kids in care four days a week and get Grandma and Grandpa to look after them as well).

It also didn't go well because she told me Dad was putting off his retirement to pay for my wedding, like I was some fucking Bridezilla who'd send her own father to an early grave for the sake of white dress.   First, fuck you.  Second, heard of this thing called a Global Fucking Financial Crisis?  It's all over the damn news, it's kinda hard to miss, and it's made a big mess of superannuation, you know, so a lot of people who were thinking of retiring this year have kinda had to put it off a bit.  In case you haven't noticed, they live in one of the crappy suburbs for a reason.  All those years of suing put a dint in their finances like a Mack truck slamming into a Mini.

So it was my older sister's turn to write a letter to my parents.  Some of it, I understand.  I do, really.  Her childhood was shit, and even if she's not completely right about the details, that doesn't change how much it hurt.  But for some reason, she fixated on me.  My favourite line?  'You'll have the perfect wedding for your perfect daughter and her perfect husband, then you'll move closer to her perfect house and her perfect kids and her perfect life'.  It wasn't just that line, but it does sum up the theme of the entire SIX pages of the letter.  On the upside, she's got previously unnoticed psychic powers and it turns out my wedding and kids are going to be perfect.  Hear that, people?  No rain on my wedding day, nosir, there's going to be a random shower of rose petals instead!  And my kids are going to be, oh, I don't know, writing concertas and rescuing kittens and solving world hunger by the time they're five.  Oh, and she told my parents they'd never see their grandkids again.  Which, yanno, makes her exactly like the mother she hates for doing the same thing to her.

My younger brother laughed at the 'perfect' bit.  That's because he's awesome.  I freaked right out, because I'm such a dumbarse that I never even realised I'd been in a competition.  Or that everything in my life, including my relationship with my dad, is something I've stolen from her.  I'm not returning the ITGeek.  He doesn't want to go.  You can have the 14 hour days though.

I haven't spoken to her since.  My mum recently had a heart scare, and my awesome younger brother, who had remained neutral (except for giving me shit about the perfect bit), used that as an excuse to get them talking to each other again.  It happened a couple of weeks ago and I know, it's my move now.  And today, looking at the photos, I wish she'd been there.  I wish they'd all been there.

But I'm still pissed, and hurt, and feeling guilty.  Because she's been damn good to me, and she's hurting, and needs my support.  I've talked this over with my RL friends so much that I'm surprised nobody's punched me in the head yet.  But none of them have any more of an idea than I do.  So I'm not even going to read this, I'm just going to post it and ask - does anybody have any ideas on how to approach this?  I'm not apologising for shit that's just in her head, but I want it sorted.  I want my sister, without the jealousy/resentment, but maybe that's too much to ask for.

CBII - Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals

I should announce from the beginning the prescence of a bias: I adore Pratchett.  I deliberately did not buy this book until today, because I wanted to review it for Cannonball and I knew, if I had it in my hot little hands, I would devour it.

I bought it at 2pm.  It's now 9.30 and yes, I've consumed it.  I'm going to come back and add more when it's had time to settle, but for now, here's my initial thoughts.

Unseen Academicals is about Football.  Soccer, as we call it. But, being Pratchett, that's just the set for a performance of much, much more.  I am completely disinterested in sport, so it took me a bit longer to get dragged into this book, but as always, he aimed his fractured mirror on humanity and showed me a side of us I'd only glimpsed, and perfectly articulated what I've never been able to.  I'm still not even sure how to describe it.

For starters, it's not actually about football at all.   It's about that question we ask ourselves, at 3am, when all our embarrassments and fucks ups are playing through our heads like a horror movie.  'Do I have worth?'

The story is wrapped around four people, who, each in their own way, are learning the answer to that question.    It's about the foundation of our way of life, those chains of history and familiarity, and how we change them.  How we fight changing them.  How, regardless, we, as humans, remain unchanged.  Colosseums became stadiums, gladiators became footballers, but we're still the screaming mob.  We might have moved away from the beast, but we're a long way from evolved. 

If you've never read a Discworld novel, this book isn't a bad place to start, although I'd still recommend Going Postal as a better introduction to his style, without the need for the back stories (do not, under any circumstances, start with the first book in the series, The Colour of Magic.  Mr Pratchett was still getting his footing then).  You have to understand that it's set upon a world, which is, in itself, a flat disc that stands on the back of four elephants, who themselves, stand on the back of a giant turtle who swims through space.  As you can imagine, this set up relies on magic, and for one of the elephants to occassionally lift their leg so the sun can pass underneath.  There's humans and dwarves and elves and vampires and werewolves and wizards and witches and a homical box with hundreds of legs.  It's satire at its best, because it makes you laugh and it makes you think.  

If you have read Discworld,  it's an Ankh-Morpork book, with a healthy dose of the wizards.  There's a few cameos, like de Worde and, of course, Sam Vimes stomps in and yells at people.  Vetrinari, who may have originally been no more than a sterotypical creepy dictator, has developed, like Death did, into a layered and quite likable character.  Or maybe I just have a soft spot for Tyrants with a sense of irony and a cynical affection for their subjects.  

Look, as I've said, I'm biased.  If you haven't read Pratchett, please do.  He's funny and wise.  He'll give you a stereotyped romance in the best tradition of sports movies, but the love he'll focus on will be the one that's built, tentiatively, between two wonderfully decent people.

P.S. I'll write about my party next time, I promise.  I'll even include pictures!  But I had a fantastic time and we didn't run out of drink.  (Although that hair dye?  Didn't work.  Serves me right for wimping out and using the barely-permanent stuff)

Friday, October 30, 2009


I'm having a halloween party tonight, combination of our housewarming and my 30th birthday.  I don't expect many costumes - halloween in general is still seen as an American holiday, I think.

The ITGeek wanted to go as Chris from the Resident Evil games.  I decided to do the dorky couple thing and chose a costume related to his.  But, realising that anybody who didn't play zombie-killing video games would have no idea who we were,  I chose Alice from the Resident Evil movie

I do not have the legs of Milla Jokovic.  Actually, I have nothing even remotely close to Milla, but I figure most of my friends are used to me and have lowered their expectations accordingly.  I do, however, have a pair of slut boots, a newly-made red dress, and bike shorts. With big thanks to my mum for helping me make the costume.  Because I like to sew, I have whole boxes of fabric, I have all these grandiose plans for outfits I can sew, but I suck at it. 

The ITGeek, who must only buy new tools/tech toys based on if they come with holders he can hang off his belt, only needed a H harness.  Well, until we discovered he's almost too good at weight watchers, and lost 8kg.  So then he needed new pants, as well.    (Between me and the entire freaking internet, I don't care a bit.  See, the ITGeek has a tush so gorgeous it turned me into a butt woman, and these pants show it off nicely. )

So I'm sitting here, writing this while trying to dye my hair vaguely blondish.  It's a gorgeous 28C day.  Our house is mostly clean, including the brand spanking new leather couches we got yesterday.  The cat has taken up residence in our garage, where we've set up our old couches.  He's going to be pissed when I chuck him into a room with a sign on the door asking people not to let him out.  Morgan is a complete attention slut and will be desolate at missing out on the chance to headbutt most of our friends.  Affectionate, but stupid, that's our cat.

I'm beginning to feel excited.  I hope I've got enough food, and the drinks will be cold.  I'm not an accomplished party-thrower, so please, cross your fingers for me!  

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I considered making this one my first article for the Papers Cannonball, but it's already written in layman's terms, and the authors have obviously fought off the Crowbar of Boring. Probably with alcohol. Basically, a bunch of epidemologists decided to perform an experiment on their co-workers regarding the availability of teaspoons atempting to answer an important question 'where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?'.

The case of the disappearing teaspoons

A couple of amusing/disturbing things - their science is pretty good, in a MythBusters sort of way, although a Teaspoon Half-life is not something I've ever considered.
-I worked in the same building this experiment was performed in, although for a different organisation. Our communal tea room was almost as awesome as theirs, though we didn't get a balcony. But we did get a great view over the park and surrounding apartments, where a couple often had sex on their balcony. That made coming into work on a Saturday all the more amusing.
-And other scientists did more experiments. Scroll to the bottom of the page and you'll find the links. I don't know if that makes us awesome, or really, really sad.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Am I insane?!

Okay, the answer to that question is, and probably always will be, 'Oh hell, yes!'.

So let me rephrase - I have a somewhat insane idea, and I'm not sure if I should go through with it or not.

My main weakness as a scientist is my lack of background knowledge (okay, that, and staying up to date with my lab book. Let's never mention that again). I don't read the literature. Firstly, because I'm spending so much time doing the actual lab work, which my boss, understandably, considers far more important than reading papers. Secondly, because it's boring. I mean, the science itself, the moment where you go 'So THAT's how it works!' and are all impressed by how the other people worked it out, is incredibly cool. But the language we're expected to use to convey this discovery beats all the excitement out of it with a crowbar made of Boring.

But, really, I have no excuse. It would only take an hour to get through a paper properly. Two if I happen to write a little bit on it. Like a mini review/explanation, basically all the fun stuff. On a blog. Say, once a week.

So that's my idea - to do a Papers Cannonball, alongside the book one. Would anybody be remotely interested in that? I'll try to write in layman's terms, and explain how/why it's exciting. It would help me out, and maybe if I think somebody is reading my 'review' (even if they're not!) I'll be more inclined to yanno, do that part of my job. Instead of just the parts that involve cutting out organs or dousing mice in cigarette smoke.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Liquid Nitrogen.

I'm writing this while slightly drunk, so bear with me and please ignore any spelling mistakes that slip through.

Liquid nitrogen has been part of my scientific life since I first entered a lab.  See, there's two types of cells you can grow (in petri dishes, flasks, 6-96 well plates, or, in the case of one microbiology undergrad, on the flesh of your back).  Primary cells have been taken directly from the source, be it a human or an animal,via biopsy or just by cutting it open and taking out an organ or two.  You 'split' (ie. take a smaller amount of cells from a container that's full of 'em and transport to a new, fresh container) primary cells about 20 times at most.  After that, you can't be sure they're the same cells you started with - primary cells have a bad habit of changing.

The second type are the immortalised cells. The first of these was the HeLa cells, and they were originally the cervical cancer cells of a woman called Henrietta Lacks (hence, the HeLa), who died from the disease.  She was also royally screwed over by the doctor who propogated these cells from her biopsy without her permission or knowledge and, eventually commercialised those 'progeny'.  You're not allowed to do that today (says the woman who had to write a 25 page ethics application to ask permission to use people's blood cells which we'd then dispose of, not alter and make shitloads of money off).  Immortialised cell-lines don't change.  This makes them awesome.   What little comfort Henrietta's family can take from the entire shitty mess is that HeLa cells have been instrumental in everything from development of the Sacks vaccine for Polio to understanding of telemeres and their role in cancer.  Next time you're having a drink, raise your glass to Henrietta Lacks.

Regardless of what type of cell you're using, you need a stock of them.  Here's where liquid nitrogen comes in.  Take one large container, fill it with racks containing boxes of your cells samples.  Add liquid nitrogen and there you have it, long term cell storage.  The temperature of liquid nitrogen is about -200C, AKA, Really Fucking Cold.  This stops the cells from doing, well, anything.  It's like those cold mornings when you don't want to get out of bed, multiplied by a million.  Here's a demonstration picture of a random scientist and their cells:

The Occupation Health and Safety demon would choke if they saw this picture. Sure, she's got the glasses and the gloves, but look at her feet!  Sandals!  While fucking around with a vat full of LN2!  She either hates her toes, or her job, and she wants rid of one/both.  

I'm ranting because one of my jobs is to keep the level of LN2 high enough to keep those cells nice and frozen.  This means I have been trained in using it, because LN2 will kill you if you don't respect it.

Obviously, being really fucking cold, spilling is an issue.  Whenever I take the (smaller, 10L) dewer down to the basement to fill from the (enormous, 120L) tank, I have to wear:

a) gloves that give me all the dexterity of a Disney employee in a mickey mouse costume AND

b) a big fuck-off face mask.  Because nobody likes their face frozen away.

c) Lab coat and (take note, Pink T-shirt) covered shoes.  Actually, I have to do this no matter what I'm doing in the lab.  Some countries have different rules, of course, but personally, I'd like as much between me and the -200C splashy stuff as possible.

But there's another feature of liquid nitrogen that isn't so well known.  At room temperature, it evaporates.  When it evaporates, it expands to about 7 times what it is in liquid form, shoving the oxygen and carbon dioxide away.  This has a bad effect on humans, because our lungs are set up according to the usual ratio of oxygen:carbon dioxide: nitrogen, and if it's not right, you're not conscious.  What makes it worse is that nitrogen is heavier than oxygen and carbon dioxide and when people pass out, they tend to fall downwards.  Where it's mostly nitrogen.  

This can be fatal.  That's not me being drunkenly snarky, that's a fact.  

So, here's your take-home message.  Remember that scene from Terminator 2?  This one?

(well, okay, the scene about two minute before when the tanker crashes, but I couldn't find a picture of that)

Sarah and John would have asphyxiated long before they got to blast the hell out of the T1000.  Which, given how hard they'd been fighting the bastard, would have been very anti-climactic.

I have a lot of respect for liquid nitrogen.  

Bonus helpful tip - if you ever find yourself filling a dewar with liquid nitrogen, they're not transparent, so it's hard to know how full it is.  Fortunately, the super-cold LN2 creates a vapour in the air, and how that vapour is behaving lets you know how full the container is.

When you first turn it on, there'll be a great jet of vapour, which will probably try to envelop your face.  This is because the bottom of the dewar is empty, and the hose completely exposed.  When the exit point of the hose is covered, the vapour will settle down, 'bubbling' over the edge of the dewar.  When the level of LN2 gets closer to the top of the dewar, the smooth bubbling will become much more irregular, with puffs of vapour shooting off in every direction.  This is the point where you should prepare to turn the hose off, because very soon, you'll find more than just vapour bubbling over the edge.

There you go, just one of the things I work with.  Which is why MY income protection insurance was 3 times that of the ITGeek and the same amount as Life, Death, Disability and 'big health problems' insurance for the both of us (guess what we went for in the end?) 

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Como Gardens

Today, I visited Como Gardens.  It was established in the late 1800's by Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller, owner of an awesome name and a huge love for botany.  He created Melbourne's Botanic gardens, and Como Gardens was his nursery and private gardening play area. Just over ten years ago, the property was purchased and the gardens restored, and, twice a year, it's open to the public to raise money for our local SES and St Johns Ambulance.  

Good friends of ours are in the SES, and we missed the last few open days, so hell or high water, we were going to be at this one (for the Americans, Australia is run on volunteers.  The State Emergency Service basically fix anything messed up by weather or circumstances.  Tree falls on a house? Search for missing person? Someone trapped in a car after an accident?  Our local SES handles all of that.  St Johns Ambulance are first aiders, mostly at sports and community events, but they also step up to the plate during national disasters.  Oh, and don't let the 'volunteer' bit fool you.  These people are trained harder than most people for their job, and have to be certified before they can even put on the uniform).

The ITGeek flexed his amateur photographer muscles, and was particularly enamoured of the owner's vintage car collection (especially a Bugatti that recently broke the lap record for a classic car at Eastern Creek raceway and nearly broke my eardrums when the owner revved it).  And I?  Fell in love.

This place is a maze of garden beds, the paths crossing and weaving like the steps of a dancer.  Every plant you could ever imagine is here.  There's no rhyme or reason to the garden bed, no occupational Health and Safety demanding ruberised concrete paths of regulation width.  The attitude could be considered respectful.  Plants have been placed in the ground with regard to their needs, but left to grow as they wish.  The asthetic enjoyment of humans come a distant second.

Today I discovered that the highly-imaginative five-year old who was obsessed with Enid Blyton is, in fact, not outgrown, but merely hiding inside this nearly 30-year old scientist.  And she can still make herself heard.  She will whisper that fairies could be real, and if they were, they would live here, up this tree, under this fern.  She will demand that every path must be followed and explored, and imagine where they lead.  To a chocolate tree.  A secret meeting place for bunyips.  A Faraway Tree.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Practice Review - Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.

In the past, any review I've done has had the nickname 'Lit review' in front of it, and science's version of Literature has nothing to do with fiction. Hopefully, Cannonball reviews won't need referencing, because, embarrassing but true, I'm no good at EndNote.

So, before November 1st, I thought I'd sneak in some practice. Just in case it turns out that I need to learn that fucking program afterall.

I bought this book because I was due to treat a group of mice via a nebuliser for an hour, and watching them bathe in the mist gets really boring after two minutes. It's a lot better than most of the stuff I do to them, but it's still boring. I read most of it in that hour, then finished it in my lunchbreak. I'm a latecomer to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, which makes me some kind of heretic amongst bookworms, but I'm going to make up for lost time, 'kay?

And Then There Was None is a classic 'strangers with secrets trapped in a house with a killer' story. I'd wager that it was this book that made it a classic storyline. Ten people are brought to an island via mysterious means, and trapped there by U.N. Owen ('Unknown'), who's got a burning desire to lay down some vigilant justice. Each of them are responsible for the death of another person. Some directly, some indirectly, and all of them exonerated by the law or society.

One by one, they're killed off, the manner scripted by a poem framed in each of their rooms ('Ten little soldiers', a variation on Ten little Indians). They quickly realise the killer is one of them, though they've got no idea who. The story moves fast, dragging the reader along with it, until the inevitable conclusion. Because it's a mystery, I won't give away the ending, but it's good. It's very good. Christie has a gift for sketching characters while keeping them utterly believable, so you don't end up screaming at the pages 'Oh for fuck's sake, why are you so stupid?!'. I found Emily Brent, the ultra-religious bitch, particularly interesting, and I found myself wishing she'd died a little later; that perhaps she might have then been introduced to an entirely different kind of Revelation.

If there's any problem with reading 'classics' it's that the plot has inevitably been diluted by repeated retellings by people who've clearly decided that, since the plot has already been figured out, they better focus on cheap tricks to keep the reader/viewer interested (I'm looking at you, Saw, but I'll give you a pass, Clue). The originals are still brilliant, but I always feel like both the author and I have been ripped off. The author, because, well, they've been ripped off, and me, selfishly, because I'm missing out on some of the sheer joy that comes with a good, original, storyline.

I discovered a bit of the history of this book, and I hesitated before mentioning it, but chances are good someone else will anyway. The bookcover claims it was originally published as 'Ten Little Indians', but, according to Wiki, the first title was actually 'Ten little Niggers', and the poem and name of the island reflected that (in the version I have, it's soldier island). I read that some people believe that Christie was using the predjudices of the time to convey just how 'separate' the island was, and play into the fears we're given in childhood. Personally, I don't think the story has suffered at all for the changes, and, whatever deeper meaning Christie was trying to convey, it's no longer relevant. Of course Christie may have possessed those same predjudices, but somehow, I doubt it. (Mind you, I'm basing that on a very small amount of evidence).

I just thought I'd better add, in case my countries recent stupidity with that Blackface skit gives anybody the wrong idea: there's no way in hell I want to see the original title in a bookstore.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Blame Pajiba.

If you've never heard of it, it's a website for reviews.   But, like everything else in my life, it has that fine veneer of insanity.

The heart of the site is the commenters, called Eloquents.  And, residing over our tiny, charcoal hearts is Amanda Amos, AKA AlabamaPink.  One day, I'll be able to come up with something that's good enough to honours her like she deserves.  She fought cancer with humor and courage and balls-out awesomeness, and it might have killed her, but it didn't beat her.  

When another Eloquent, Prisco, took on the challenge of reading and reviewing 100 books in a year, she challenged him to make it a competition.  Soon, other Eloquents started joining in, and thus, the Cannonball Read was born.

The second Cannonball Read has begun, renamed 'The Amanda Amos Kickass Cannonball Read', and changed to be 52 books in a year, rather than 100.  And for every Eloquent who signs on, reads and reviews those 52 books from November 1st, Pajiba will donate money to the college fund of Amanda's son (yeah, the Overlords might say they're scathing and bitchy, but when no-one else is watching, they cuddle kittens).

An incentive like that, to read books and babble about them?  Oh yeah, I'm in.  

This does mean I now have a blog, though, and face it, there's no way I'll be able to keep it just to reviewing books.

hehehehehe.  (which, apparently, is a very disturbing way to convey laughter).  (Hoping the link works, or I'm going to look like a twit).