Sunday, June 27, 2010

Day in the life of a ScienceGeek.

4.45am: Alarm goes off. The ITGeek and I discuss who will be the first to get up and hit the shower (and, by default, who gets to lie in bed for another 20 minutes). Conversation consists entirely of statements like 'Oh, I don't mind getting up... What do you want to do?'. Before 5am, I am extremely passive aggressive. In the end, I get up first, but on the condition that I get to lie in bed for an extra 5 minutes first.

5.40am. Leave for work. Walk to station, get on train, try not to fall asleep and drool all over the ITGeek's shoulder. Last time, the people at his work thought he'd been attacked by snails.

7am. Arrive at work. Eat the two sandwiches I'd prepared for breakfast. I'm going to need the energy today.

7.15am. Head upstairs and weigh and prepare 50 mice for transport. Unfortunately, the animal house is out of the normal sized transport boxes, so we have to use the big ones. They're a little too big for the hood I'm weighing the mice in. Usually, mice are about as sleepy as I am at this hour of the morning (it's the equivalent of about 4am after a long night out for them), but there's one or two who have woken up with an urge to try out Base Jumping. Wacky hijinks ensue.

7.50am. Start the cull. My two co-workers are lavaging the lungs and dissecting the organs respectively. I am injecting the mice with the overdose of anaesthetic, weighing the organs and preparing any and all samples. The anaesthetic is delivered by injection, and death, if you're wondering, occurs within minutes. They run around their cage for a minute, then they lie down. This method is a million times better than 'cervical dislocation', a very PC version of 'put your thumb on the back of their head, grab their tail with the other hand, and pull until the neck breaks'. It's a bad day when a mouse is so sick (or the fucking anaesthetic's too unavailable) that you need to do that.

Coworker 1 had a banana for breakfast. Coworker 2, the youngest and least experienced, had a cup of tea. By 10.30am, both coworkers were begging for a break. (As a side note, I also turned around at one point to find co-worker #2 waving a pair of scissors very close to his facemask/ear. He's really not very good with knots tied behind his head, this one. Aside from cutting him out of his mask, I've had to untie him from his own lab coat a dozen times).

11am - Time to start making the lung homogenates. This was a virus study - the mice had been given a respiratory virus 4 days earlier, and we were to determine what effect (if any) the test compounds had upon it. This means, among other things, assaying the amount of virus in the lungs.

Since it's a cell culture model, the work had to be performed in a hood. One day, when I'm bored enough, I'll describe the differences between all the types of hoods in your average lab. Suffice, this one kept the bugs from getting in AND from getting out. In this particular study, this feature was good for more than my desire not to be patient zero in the next animal/human pandemic. But more about that later.

The homogenizer looks a little like Satan's sex toy. There's a hollow metal tube with holes at the bottom. Inside it is another metal tube, with a pair of metal bars at the bottom. The bars are large enough that they just barely fit inside the hollow tube. Turn it on, and the inner tube spins, extremely fast. Stick something squishy in its range, like a lung, and said organ is immediately sucked through the holes at the bottom of the hollow outer tube and liquefied by the rapidly spinning inner tube.

Come to think of it, the homogenizer probably IS Satan's sex toy.

I had to be extra careful with one particular set of lungs. The 'positive control' (ie a treatment that worked) was teratogenic. In layman's terms, it's a baby-killer. In fact, this one is such an effective baby-killer that it'll damage the reproductive cells of both sexes for six weeks after exposure.

Fortunately for us, the amount we were using in the mice translated to an ineffective dose in humans. Using it in a fume hood meant the chances of exposure were completely negligible. But, people get understandably nervous about mutating their kids, so I'm happy to be paranoid in this case. In most workplaces, a person's reproductive matters are their own damn business. Not mine, not today. Today was a day that included several awkward conversations. We might all be rational scientists in the pursuit of knowledge, but that doesn't make it any easier to discuss the potential mutation of a workmate's sperm.

2pm. Lunch. I had about twenty minutes, and I could have eaten some of the snacks I keep in my desk drawer. But the lure of breathing air that didn't smell like the inside of a mouse was too strong. I took a walk to the university's union building, where I then couldn't resist the lure of greasy food, and ended up eating a bag of chips on my way back to the lab. It's days like this that are the reason I got fat.

2.30pm. Back to weighing, spinning, and rescuing coworker #2 from his own lab coat. I spend half an hour preparing cytospots. How do you prepare a cytospot? Take one glass slide. Put it in a metal contraption that looks like the result of a mating between a bulldog clip and a small tray. Add a piece of filter paper with a strategically placed hole, then a special funnel. Load about a fifth of a millilitre of lung lavage fluid into the funnel, and place the whole thing in a special type of centrifuge. Press 'On', and the centrifuge starts spinning. Ever been in a Gravitron? Remember being plastered against the wall? That's the basic principle of making a cytospot. The centrifugal force splats the cells in the lavage fluid against the slide, and, once they've dried out a bit, we stain and cover-slip and count those fucking things until our eyeballs start bleeding.

3pm. Back at the hood, doing the next round of homogenates. Cull Day Drunkenness sets in. Cull days require more distance than usual, an extra barrier so my psyche doesn't know what my hands are doing. But during my lunch break, the barrier goes down a little. Unfortunately, once it drops, it's hard to get it back up.

When I'm working with others, Cull Day Drunkenness is usually a burst of energetic insanity. I talk to the mice a lot more. Another co-worker used to throw ice into the sink, just for the hell of it. There's singing, and very random conversations. One particularly bad day, I tried to convince my colleagues that goats were trying to take over the world. I'm still not entirely sure they aren't.

Unfortunately, today I am alone, and the drunkenness goes in the depression direction, instead of the manic. I'm not trying to homogenise myself or anything, I just drag myself around for an hour, tired to the bone. Coworker #2 gets cranky AND tired to the bone. I tell him it'll get easier. He looks at me like I'd suggested setting yourself on fire is a great use of your weekend.

5.30pm. Finished. Coworker #2 left half an hour ago. Coworker #1 is in the office with me, reading emails. I stare at my computer for a while, then get up and put my coat on.

"See you on Monday."

7pm. Home. I hug the cat. I hug the ITGeek. Head for the shower, where I scrub myself raw with something that smells strongly of flowers. We have take away for dinner, and I fall asleep on the couch sometime around 9pm. Yep, it's an exciting life, all right.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

CBRII: One More with Footnotes by Terry Pratchett.

I love Terry Pratchett. Seriously, if I could have one person on earth converted, Futurama-style, into a head in a jar, it would be him.
So when I saw this book in the library, I pounced like a kitten on a laser pointer beam. Yay! A collection of Pratchett short stories!
It's not great. It's not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but I can't escape the feeling that this book more accurately could have been called 'Once more For The Royalties'. The problem is, it's basically half a dozen very good short stories, padded out with random things like speeches he gave at dinners, or when being presented with awards. Articles he wrote for newspapers on fantasy writing, or his introductions to books written by other authors. Some of the padding is also good (after all, it's Pratchett we're talking about). Unfortunately (especially when it comes to the opinion pieces) there's a lot of it, so you end up with a lot of repetition, and an unpleasant whiff of Vanity Projects, especially when he includes an introduction to the introduction he wrote for a Discworld book by another author, or the speech he gave to people performing an adaption of one of his books. It just feels like padding. I can't help but wonder if Pratchett already knows this - the title of his introduction to the book is 'An Apology'.

Because I am weird, I actually did a count. There are 44 items in this collection (I left out the introduction by another author, the introduction to the book by Pratchett himself, and a closing statement by another author - that alone probably proves my point about padding), which I sorted into rough categories. 15 are journalistic-style articles, 9 are forewords, 4 are speeches and sixteen are stories. Although Pratchett used to be a journalist, so I'd understand that he'd include some of his articles, SEVEN of them are on fantasy writing/reading. Seven times, you hear his views on the role of fantasy in society, why people shouldn't look down on it, how escapism can be to as well as from. They're very good points. But seven times in the same book? Really?

Ideally, the book should have been about 70 pages shorter. Then the non-stories would have each been an interesting little amuse bouche between the story courses, rather than great big wrenches in the clockwork (and boy, didn't I mix the metaphors there?!). We're in desperate need of a firmer editor here. One who'd say 'Pick two opinion pieces on fantasy and two speeches. We probably don't need that 250 word obituary on your fellow author, as great as he was. Likewise, we're dropping the equally short article on your favourite word (again, really?). Choose just one of the introductions you wrote for books on Discworld and just one article on the type of technology you use. You've got some brilliant pieces here, we want them to shine."

And there ARE some brilliant pieces. The story he wrote when he was thirteen that he finds cripplingly embarrassing is better written than some bestsellers. 'Hollywood Chickens', '#ifdefDEBUG' and 'Once and Future' are excellent non-Discworld pieces. 'The Orangutans are Dying' is a worthwhile read. 'No Worries' and 'Thought Processes' are a nice insight into the man behind the typewriter. One of his speeches, entitled 'Alien Christmas' had me giggling on the train, which is always fun for the strangers sitting opposite me.

Ultimately, as much as it pains me, I'd only recommend borrowing this one.


I am so very behind on the CBR II. I've been reading, even wrote a review or two, but posting the fuckers? Nope.
I've got no excuse, just that work got busy and then I realised that oh, yeah, there's this wedding thing I'm supposed to be sorting out and HOLYFUCKI'VEONLYGOTTWOMONTHS!!!!

So, a fuckload of random stuff, including reveiws. Maybe even a metric fuckload, people.