Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rage Against The Machine

"Zone Three please board." We present our boarding passes at CLT.
"You have fallen out of the computer system. You cannot board." says Rayna, unapologetically.
"Magically fallen out of the system, huh?" I say, in a soft voice.
"If you intimidate me I will have you arrested", and she exits, slamming the door.

 Jessica puts us first in line on standby for the next flight, at which we are treated to:
"Your standby boarding cards are invalid. You are not in the system" as seven other standby passengers board before the door slams again.

Ah, well, at least they will pay the hotel overnight.
"Which hotel would you like, sir?"
"We don't care as long as it has a restaurant where we can eat"
 and, of course, Jessica puts us in a hotel with no restaurant.

US Airways and American: "working hard to become the greatest airline in the world".

Monday, February 16, 2015

West Country Wassail

Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson - from Norfolk.
Through Southern England on the train from London  to Plymouth on a cold, sunny Winter’s day. The train passes Aldermaston, the atomic weapons establishment, the British Y-12, where  Bertrand Russell and others vented their spleens, founding the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. In an equine interlude we nip past Newbury racecourse, which was a German POW camp in World War II, and onto the Bronze Age Uffington White Horse on the Berkshire Downs.  Past Stonehenge then through some curiously-named places: Littleton Panell, Marston Magna, Nunney, Potterne, Urchfont. Next is Glastonbury (the world’s largest rock festival), Taunton and Exeter. My train, arrives at Plymouth, where my daughter, Serena meets me.


We’re in the West Country now, and the people are somewhat annoying.  First and foremost, there’s no decent football team here for hundreds of miles. Then, some of the locals claim their accent to be at the origin of Americanese.  But I know that the dialect of Norfolk, where I come from, has the closest ties to that of Eastern New England; I don’t care whether Plymouth, MA came before Norwich, CT. What’s even more galling, though, is that they claim to have had Britain’s greatest sea-dog, Francis Drake. Now, we from Norwich had the brilliant Nelson (above), who single-handedly thrashed Napoleon. This guy Drake, supposedly a Vice Admiral (but really a pirate) was (or wasn’t) playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe in 1588 when informed of the approaching Spanish Armada. He (maybe) said there was plenty of time to finish the game before sailing out to singe the beard of the King of Spain, or whatever….Peasant!

Monday, February 9, 2015

When I had the measles...



...back in the 1960s there was no vaccine. Of course, like all the other kids, I also got the mumps and chicken pox (then, annoyingly, shingles) . Was never a big deal; created those moments of closeness between mother and young child that reappear in the core of your mind in your fifties.

 So what is all this fuss about measles vaccines about?

Well, I don't like forcing people to do anything. But they must take responsibility for their actions.

So here's my suggestion:

 - no mandatory vaccinations, but

 - those who do not vaccinate their children bear the legal and financial liability for the harm that they thus cause to others, via increased insurance premiums and collective exposure to law suits from those harmed.

 Why is such a solution not being discussed?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Appalling Lack of Responsibility




DOE photo - degraded conditions at Y12



Frank Munger has reported on inexcusable neglect at Y-12, the nuclear weapons plant at Oak Ridge. Apparently there are buildings there that are being simply left to fall apart, with equipment contaminated by radioactive and other hazardous material sitting in standing water from roof leaks (see DOE photo above). These buildings are primed to release their contents into the groundwater.

Roof leaks!!! ?

What tiny fraction of the trillion dollars spent yearly on US defense would have sufficed to prevent roof leaks from happening?  Instead, like small children bored with new toys, we just ignore our past actions. We send our youth to foreign wars then neglect them when they return and are of no more use. We build nuclear weapons  then simply leave dangerous material unattended to leach into the groundwater,  willfully and negligently destroying the environment in doing so. Where on earth is our sense of responsibility?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

KTS - Think Beyond the Limits!





Klaus Tschira
SAP cofounder Klaus Tschira donated 7 million of his shares in 1995 to found the Klaus Tschira Foundation, a nonprofit established in Germany  to perform research in computational science and foster public understanding of mathematics, informatics and natural sciences (an amateur astronomer, Tschira has a small asteroid named after him). 

Last Friday was the 20th birthday party of KTS, entitled "Think beyond the Limits". KTS has funded projects to the tune of $300 million so far. I gave one of the two keynote lectures (Computational Science: Curing Disease and Saving the Environment) and the other was given by Mark Vogelsberger of MIT, who has used supercomputers to perform the most ambitious simulation yet of the evolution of the universe. Check his video out here!


Not all very rich people are greedy exploiters of the working class. Klaus Tschira - self made - a demonstration of  how some billionaires can be true forces for good for humanity. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cow Tipping






Let's go cow tipping in the Spring, shall we? That, of course, is when "rural citizens", for want of anything better to do, sneak up upon an unsuspecting cow and push it over. Apparently, it's been all the rage for decades down our neck of the woods in East Tennessee.

Udder chaos? A tiresome form of lactose intolerance? Disrepect for Sir Loin? ........Or simply impossible?

 A UBC student, Tracy Boechler, calculated a few years ago that  a cow of 1.45 metres in height pushed at an angle of 23.4 degrees relative to the ground would require 2,910 Newtons of force, equivalent to 4.43 people. That means ya can't do it alone, yer know. What's more cows have the annoying tendency to notice you coming and move away. And further complicating the task is that cow tipping protagonists must of course be uniformly plastered. Therefore, it must indeed be extraordinarily difficult.  

But it  really doesn't sound impossible to me. Earplug the cow, get a team of five,  start  drinking but plan on carving out  a moment of lucidity, concentration and coordination to creep up soundlessly and all push together simultaneously. Whaddaya think? Worth a try, worth a try....

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Save Us Some Day from Sauvadet




Francois Sauvadet
I want research in France to succeed; it's where I got my start as a principal investigator. But the guy above is not helping one bit.

When I first arrived there in 1989 I wished to hire a postdoctoral researcher, and was informed that such contracts had a maximum of 18 months due to  what the French call the fight against "precarious jobs". Conditions eased off, but now the screw is back with a vengeance with the "Loi Sauvadet" of 2012, the effect of which, as I found out from a chat with Chris Chipot,  is that there can be only one temporary employee for every three permanents in government-funded jobs. This, when allied with the quickly disappearing number of permanent contracts available, is a sure-fire prescription for killing off research in France and strangling opportunities in science for young people.

It's easy for me to preach, up here from my safe, tenured professorship, and I do understand the attraction of job security and the society-wide exploitation of low-paid workers. But young scientists are not like others - temporary jobs are an essential part of research training, giving experience in different labs and techniques. Moreover, the demand in society for trained scientists is such that most of these can get a job in industry. They're not like dead-end unskilled jobs. Permanent contracts given to scientists who are too inexperienced kills innovation - I saw that myself in France in the 1990s. The  relative success of research in the USA owes much to the element of competition, and a permanent job is basically simply part of the package that employers may offer candidates they are courting, if they have the means. In research, as elsewhere, the most important task to create jobs by creating ideas. The Loi Sauvadet is bad for France, and particularly bad for scientific research.

France: save us one day from Sauvadet.