October 2006

Had another great weekend in Seattle with M. We went to a halloween party, and man do I feel old. There wasn’t a major age difference between myself and the other party-goers, but it made me realize how long it’s been since I was in college. Things have changed. Those of you who know me were as shocked as I was when I got a cell phone just a few months ago. I am only now discovering the drastic lifestyle changes it brings; things ten year old children have known for at least 5 years. Take, for instance, the drunk dial.
When I was in college, you had to really want it. It typically involved braving sub-zero temperatures in a t-shirt and flip flops on an epic hike through gail force winds and snowbanks to the nearest payphone to make a collect long-distance phone call to the proud recipient. You usually lost a toe or two to hypothermia. These were the things Hemmingway novels were made of. It built character if nothing else.
Nowadays the young and intoxicated have to undergo no such discomfort. At this party I witnessed at least two people simply step off into a corner of the heated apartment and make the call while standing on plush carpet, food and drink in hand. You don’t even have to embarass yourself by speaking to the other person anymore. You can simply text them and hide your level of severe drunkenness. And trust me, these people needed it.

While grading for the 100th hour this week I almost lost it. It’s insultingly repetitive. To know that I’m capable of doing what I do, but having to suffer through this monotony is not what I signed up for. I thought for a second, “can’t we just hire someone to do this crap?” But then my next thought plunged me deep into a pit of despair. “Wait a second, I am that person. And I still have 200 more hours of grading to do. Then next week I get to start all over again.” Trying to constructively criticize 50 something feeble attempts to construct sentences wears on you after a while. The worst part of it all is that my research has been non-existent for the last week or two.

(*Disclaimer: the above post is purely hearsay*)

This is wild. Definitely worth watching. Nothing to do with science. Or everything. You decide.

When I chose my current field of study I was promised fame and glory. I was told that I’d be seen as a liberator and welcomed with flowers and candy. I didn’t have enough foresight to envision the resistance from those I’ve tried to free from the shackles of ignorance.When people ask me what I do I use one of two responses depending on my audience. For most people it’s a simple, “I’m a chemist.” Which almost invariably elicits a response about drugs. On the east coast it’s which pharmaceutical company I work for, while on the west coast it’s whether or not I make crystal meth. Yes. I am spending nearly a decade of my life, putting myself into major debt and working on a PhD. so that I can make crystal meth to support the habit of the people that stole the old shoes and flashlight out of my car at 3 AM.
The other response I give to people that I don’t particularly feel like talking to is, “I am a theoretical chemical physicist.” That usually does the trick. The only response I ever get is a genuinely disinterested, “hmm.”

These examples highlight a major problem facing scientist everywhere. The image that society holds of scientists is one of crazed anti-social lunatics that adhere to no moral or ethical standards. On the contrary I’d say that scientists, who have been trained to thoroughly analyze and reanalyze everything until they’ve exhausted any potential ambiguities, are in a better position to make moral and ethical decisions regarding their research than the average citizen and by proxy any politician. We have to live with the personal responsibility of our decisions. While there may be a collective guilt regarding the atom bombs used in WWII, think about how Oppenheimer felt.

When the words “cloning,” or “stem cell,” are brought up in conversation, people automatically envision growing babies in glass beakers. This is simply a misunderstanding grown from misinformation. People just don’t keep up with science like they used to. It’s the “what have you done for me lately” syndrome. During Oppenheimer’s time it was honorable to be a theoretical physicist since they were “ridding the world communism” and people were more informed. Modern society has chemists and physicist to thank for almost every little thing that defines our day to day lives. The computer you are now on, the CD’s, ipods, cameras, LCDs, anything digital are all by-products of quantum mechanics. But somewhere there is a disconnect between the people that make the things and the things themselves. We don’t get credit for doing anything for people lately and end up invisible, so we end up with a bad rap and people are afraid of us and what we do and feel they need to control us with legislation and purse strings. It is an image problem. Doctors, by the way, don’t have this problem. They have George Clooney and the entire staff at Seattle Grace to help them out. We get people like this.

This is why more scientists should be getting involved in politics. And not the Bill Frist kind. He should be stripped of his degrees for his involvement in the Terri Schiavo debacle. We need to restore our image as upstanding citizens, not as rogues setting out to dismantle society. A few TV dramas couldn’t hurt either.

At the request of some of my more mentally challenged readers, I’m posting something positive about NJ. Beside the superfund sites, petroleum holding tanks, nuclear power plants, water treatment centers that dump raw sewerage into the ocean, and overall social depravity lies the Pinelands National Reserve. But no self-respecting Piney calls it anything but the pine barrens. This was the first national reserve (1978), and is classified as a United States Biosphere Reserve. It really is an amazing place with high- and low-land forests, sleepy rivers, a diversity of wildlife (including some would say sasquatch), and crazy redneck hunters (think My Cousin Vinny meets Deliverance). And let’s not forget that pesky, ever elusive, 13th Leeds child, The Jersey Devil, which I have seen personally. The south jersey school districts thought it would be a good idea to frighten all local small children by showing them video batona trailreenactments of the birth of the jersey devil and it’s screeching flight directly from its mother’s womb, out the window, and into the pine barrens, where he is to forever torment us in our dreams. Thanks.
There’s also the Batona trail.
Overall it has its own unique environment and while it is as flat as a pancake, and the sand sucks for hiking, and the rivers run dry in the summer, and it’s too easily accessed by vehicle, it has something that the mountains don’t. It is its own entity and I’ll always love it.
Coffee snobery is something I never would have thought I’d suffer from, but alas it is true. The pacific NW has done a number on me. The land of Starbucks, Tullys, and the one and only Espresso Roma has shown me the light and I cannot go back. While out to dinner in Atlantic City this weekend (overpriced and gaudy, but high quality), we had the opportunity to order some drinks after the meal. “Espresso, cappuccino, coffee anyone?” asks the waiter. I thought about it for a second and wondered if it would come like everything else here: trimmed with neon lights and smelling like an ashtray. But I decided I’d give it a shot. “I’ll have a latte, thanks.” I cannot begin to explain the blankness of the waiters face. “Do I have a squirrell on my head,” I thought. “No lattes here. Only esspressos and cappuccinos.” Whatever. Then we go to a dessert place and get three course desserts. Same thing. “No lattes. Only esspresso or cappuccino.” You’ve got to be kidding. If you can make an esspresso and a cappuccino but not a latte, I don’t even want to risk it. I’ll have wudder, thanks.

I had a lab mate fill in for me while I was gone. He said he was amazed at how trained I’ve got my students. They walk in (on time) with finished lab reports in hand, ready to go. No excuses about broken printers, or sleeping late. They know I’ll have none of it. He said he asked them how I was as a TA. The unanimous decision: “He’s a hardass.” Maybe. But at least they’re learning to get work done, in proper form, and on time. And this lab mate of mine has actually beaten me. Yes, he has made a student cry already. My class average is usually at least half of his. But my little troopers have learned to grin and bear it. Maybe I am actually teaching them something while getting my kicks.

I’m back in NJ for my cousin’s wedding. Being here reminds me of a few key reasons why I left in the first place. There are 270,000 people in the 700 square mile Atlantic County, while here there are 150,000 in our only 36 square miles, but the traffic there is INSANE. Our streets are desolate in comparison. As much as I dislike some of our local transit’s labor policies, I must admit they provide a necessary service and without them our roads would be transformed into a NJ-esque mad max free-for-all. For example, if you are the first person at a red light and are not at least
halfway through the intersection by the time the light turns green you will have 12 angry mobsters flipping you off while laying on the horns of their hummers/escalades/nina/pinta/santa marias. Now the trick with this is that the cross-traffic always continues through the intersection for a good 2-mississippi after their light has turned red. The chaos that ensues is …well… mad max-ian. And this happens every single time a light changes, all across this great state. People wonder where my colorful vocabulary comes from. Learning to drive in this atmosphere I used to think that this was the way everyone drove everywhere, was normal, and not the borderline sociopathic behavior that it really is. I’m telling you, surviving a NJ drive is no small feat. Let’s not even discuss circles. More later.

Undergrads are a funny breed. When congregating amongst themselves there is much posturing, and they seem to be comfortable with one another, joining forces against their evil TAs and professors who all hate them. (I heard part of a phone conversation while on campus yesterday that transpired as such, “… Yeah and my TA who like totally hates me ….” I was walking the opposite way so couldn’t catch the tail ends.)

But when they need help they become the most deflated insecure creatures alive. Sitting in my office hour with the door open I can always tell when one is coming for help. There are three tell-tale signs:

1) The faint smell of urine-soaked denim.
2) I only have 2 minutes left to my hour.
3) Someone passes the door and peers in while trying to look as cool as possible with a facial expression of utter confusion. This person continues exactly four steps (every time) past the door, stops, turns around, and walks as silently as they can into the office.

I can only surmise that the “hallway shuffle” is either the latest dance move, or a feeble attempt to buy an extra 3 seconds for composure. But the second they walk in it’s all over. I know they’re coming and I’ve got my game face on.

I like to break them down with the belief that their bloated egos can only hinder academic and intellectual growth. Floating around with an ego problem can give one a false sense of security. One day they will be dealt a problem that they cannot handle or don’t yet have the skills to tackle because they have not been thinking critically enough about things, and they will be crushed. And just like with chicken pox, the older you are when it happens, the worse it is. They can thank me later.

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