Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Electric Wheels

Although I try to keep this blog light, I do like to read about the world’s big issues now and again. You probably do as well. One of my favorite news topics these days is that of ‘modern electric vehicles’. This issue has a fascinating history woven together with nice blend of economics, politics, and lots and lots of science. I'm going to tell you a bit about it today. First, here are Kate and Lib in our fun little gas-guzzling Suzuki.
Contrast that with these two younger (and more environmentally aware) ladies in a battery-powered vehicle: the ‘Fisher-Price Power Wheels Barbie Jammin' Jeep’.
Americans spend something like 500 billion dollars yearly on the importation of oil from other countries. You and I, and pretty much all Canadians, Australians, and Europeans also behave in this manner. Sadly, we promptly burn our sweet purchase and have little to show for it at the end of the year except for debt and cancer. Oil producing countries, on the other hand, certainly don’t burn our money. They build ‘palm islands’ and ‘km-high buildings’ and I suppose they probably buy up assets all over the world. I would be buying North American real estate now while it’s cheap.

For those that consider this situation a problem, and many wise people do, the most obvious solution to an undesired ‘oil dependence’ is an overhaul of vehicle technology. Many people do not realize that battery powered cars are not at all new. They were on the streets (what streets there were) a hundred years ago and have since simply gone extinct (Go ahead and Google it, along with Thomas Edison). Those of us with climate concerns will quickly point out that ultimately, a battery-powered car must run on energy most likely obtained from power-plant-burned coal – hardly carbon neutral. But this is not true everywhere (not in Ontario for example where we have The Falls and the nuclear reactors). It's good to see that clean (CO2 emission-free) electricity is not that uncommon anymore. But even where the electrical grid is ‘dirty’, driving on home-mined coal seems preferable, for economic reasons, to shipping foreign oil across the oceans.

So to the point: if economic, environmental, and health arguments all point to the benefits of ‘gasoline free’ transportation, and battery cars were invented 100 years ago, then why I am I unable to buy one today? Why, if there is a lithium battery in my cell phone, laptop, and even my golf cart, is my sweet lil’Suzie is always thirsty for more petrol? Of course, this is all changing. But the change is surprisingly slow given how fast some things change in the world today. Why the slow pace? Because no company with billions of dollars in active infrastructure (much of it probably borrowed) should be expected to begin producing something that will quickly outcompete its current line of products and make its expensive factories obsolete. That would be financially stupid.

So what is the simple solution? Your guess is as good as mine. Some tax money would certainly help. Actually, the truth is that it all seems to be working itself out while you and I sit and watch television. Isn't that convenient? I suppose my personal contribution can be this: when I can afford a ‘bigger, faster, and more spacious’ golf cart, I won’t hesitate to buy it. Until then, like I said, I enjoy reading about the topic. If you would like to read more about it: start with this article, or this one.

And on the bright side, even Ford is already taking care of some drivers (and for only about $500):

Sunday, November 30, 2008

International Arrivals

Whenever given the opportunity, I have always enjoyed people-watching in the airport’s international arrivals area. It’s entertaining. I like the multitude of languages and the fact that everyone is very happy. Often the people I see don’t know whether to shake hands, hug, or kiss the person they are meeting. I find this kind of awkwardness refreshing. It’s real.

A few weeks ago I sat and watched people arriving in Brisbane for about an hour while waiting for these two fine young ladies to clear customs.

We recently shared some of 'the QLD' with two of Kate's London-based (Ontario) friends. Tiff-n-Heather spent a busy three week holiday with us - the majority of their time spent laughing at anything and everything. For one of their highlights, our lovely guests took my lil’wifey on a three day sailing trip through some of the more island-filled coastline of Northern Queensland. In the back of this next picture (taken as they returned from the sailing trip) is the captain of their fine vessel, on the dock carrying a case of beer and demonstrating his masterful proficiency at the challenging sport of 'photo bombing'. I am told he was also a good sailor.
The girls chose a good time of the year to visit and spent much time in the sun and in the ocean. We took them to Moreton Island where they survived an hour of snorkeling in the shark water.

Here's Kate in action. Our friend Rob has invested in a great camera.

The girls also took a few surfing lessons in the shark water. Here are they are with their instructor fine tuning their techniques during a lesson.

And they all caught on to the surfing like pros. This is Heather in the pipeline... carving away.

Tiff and Heather also went bungee jumping from a bridge in Cairns - something I personally have no interest in trying. But I always appreciate the efforts of a talented sign maker.

Kate and I have now returned to a simpler rhythm for the next few months until our next visitors arrive. I am happy to say that this rhythm includes a fair bit of beach volleyball for us both lately. (Kate is getting awesome!) And for me it will also include some posts on this blog. The occasional interesting idea has come and gone in recent months before I have had a chance to write it down. Maybe I can change that in the weeks to come.

Today, let me leave you today with this thought: the Australia Zoo, not far from here, houses a lot of large hungry crocodiles and displays signs like this one illustrating proper use of their intricate two-fence system.

But when we went to the Zoo last week, I somehow missed the memo:

And here's one for those of you who might be confused or concerned:


And thank you for your visit ladies. I had an awesome time... an awesome time!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

senseless babble

I spoke on the phone to a couple good’ol friends from good’ol Canadia this week, first to ‘Hot Prof” and then “Big Cheese’ (… to avoid names). Anyway, these are good, good people - truly solid individuals. And they were entertaining as always. These two conversations reminded me that I have been out of touch with many of the finest dudes and dudettes in my life during the past year. I’ve missed two weddings, one Alumni weekend, and countless other less-formal adventures. And it blows.

I’ve also had zero face time with my brothers, who I’m pretty sure are getting more interesting as they get older. The little brats have yet to find me on skype. If you two are reading this… you’re both tools! The rock climbing programmer tool is comfortably settled in Vancouver and is now spending time with a young lady that I won’t get to meet for a while. And the younger pilot tool is Calgary-based, and teaching pilot stuff to younger-still pilot wanna-be’s, and also has a good woman making his life interesting. That’s probably why I don’t hear from him. Here's recent picture of Greg having a mid-mountain rest.

And the folks, left by themselves in K-W, have to be wondering what they did wrong to deserve the huge distance between their home and their three sons. I suppose pushing us to perform in school in the hope that it might open some doors without realizing that these doors might lead a long way from Ontario was their mistake. There ain’t much doubt they would like to see more of us (and preferably with some grandchildren of course), but they haven’t complained much lately. They’re good at keeping busy.

So my point… I’m not sure. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that as awesome as living here in Aussie Land has been for me this past year… roots are roots. (The Aussies will like that expression.)

In any case… Kate and I are down-under for another year or so before we head back to a mildly ‘colder’ reality that we hope may involve a couple kids, a dog, a nice porch (… sadly not to be confused with a nice porsche), and a real job.

Like everyone else, I’ve been observing the impending global economic tragedy and wondering what it means for me and the people I know. Pharmaceutical industry's not looking too impressive lately so medicinal-chemistry, the only career I had in mind, might be a tight find. I might have to ‘widen the grid’ a to include available jobs if bread becomes scarce. Maybe I’ll learn to bake bread :) I do like bread.

I’ve been reading about economic theories and world history and the more I read about these topics the more I realize how little control we have over ‘ourselves’ as a society. It’s hard to explain what I mean. Basically: I can control what I do, and you can control what you do, and yet somehow ‘we’ have very little control of what ‘we’ do. Does that make any sense? It’s a bit frightening to witness just how intrinsically unstable the global economy might be. Even more troubling is the thought of economists arguing and presenting conflicting 'theories' to explain it all. Not only is today's society a long way from perfect, it also remains very poorly understood. (Probably because so many of the things around us are so new.) And to a science-nerd like me ‘poorly understood’ is bad. The problem is that if I decide to try to make the world a ‘better’ place, how do I know which actions are ‘positive’ and which are ‘negative’ in a big-picture sense? I don’t have a clue. The bio-fuel business is a prime example: good or bad for us? It's looking pretty bad. Nor can I do any thing positive if it costs too much (in dollars, or time, or even effort). Maybe I’ll deepen these thoughts in another post soon. I’m actually enjoying a book about math right now… one of the few subjects available with some occasional straight answers. How nerdy is that?

But enough of this senseless babble.

I’ll leave you with a recent picture of my wife and I taken by our friend Craig between games one of these weekends. I don’t think he’ll mind if I borrow it. Cheers.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

chemistry is not for everyone

For years during my PhD effort I worked as a TA (teaching assistant), babysitting undergraduate students as they struggled with basic chemistry experiments. I have some fun stories from those many lost hours. Here’s a lil’nugget from my lab mate Sean O’Connor’s more recent experience. Sean is a cynical young man (an effective strategy for maintaining one's sanity around here).

Student: “Excuse me sir, the lab instructions say: ‘add water to the flask, remove from ice bath, and warm to room temperature’. What should I do?”

Sean: “Do what it says: add water and warm to room temperature. Why did you just ask me that question?”

Student “Because I didn’t want to do anything wrong.”

Sean: “But you did do something wrong.”

Student (worried): “What?”

Sean: “You asked me that stupid question.”

Thank you Dutchman.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

the law of gravity requires no enforcement

Here's a picture of my little cousin Ula and I in the lab not too long ago. I borrowed it from her facebook album. I brought her to work with me for an afternoon and tried my best to make 'science' look appealing. I asked her to do an aqueous workup of an mid-sized DMF reaction and she said something like: "This stuff is a lot of work - it's no wonder it took you so long to get a degree". Yes it is cuz, and yes it did :)

I’d like to tell you about one of my ideas for a book. I’d like to write a popular science book – don’t laugh! I have been thinking about it for almost a year. My goal is something that I would have enjoyed reading about ten years ago when I was starting university. The topic will be the ‘mechanisms of life’ (as we understand them - obviously :). I don’t want give away specifics, but I see a 200’ish page paper back that simplifies some of the fascinating complexities of biology and chemistry and hopefully leaves reader with appreciation– rather than fear – of the unimaginably small details of the living world around us. If we understand how gasoline is converted to motion in an internal combustion engine, why should we not also understand how an apple becomes muscular movement in your arm? Do you know how that works? Do you think it is something worth understanding? It’s not magic. It probably once was. But today, it's just chemistry. And I believe that the only reason biochemistry is considered so ‘difficult’, is that so few people have tried to simplify it for us.

No doubt this book would be difficult to write. I suppose that is why I have yet to find it on the shelves. But it’s not impossible I think. Perhaps I might make a contribution to bridging the growing gap between us and them – between the nerdy scientists and the ‘regular folk’.

Why write such a book? First, I’d love to write a book, and chemistry is what I know. But also, I feel like front-line scientific research these days is becoming more and more like ‘black magic’ to Joe Average - and not just because it’s pretty boring but also because it takes so much effort to comprehend the boring stuff. In the good’ol days, I think the public could better appreciate discoveries like electricity or radio because, although remarkable, the practical details of these ‘miracles’ were easier to grasp than today’s ‘particle accelerators’ or ‘small interfering RNA’.

But does that mean that we shouldn’t try to understand science? And do scientists not have some responsibility to simplify physics or biochemistry and teach it to non-professional-academics? You might argue: what’s the point? Well here’s the point: when you and I stop trying to understand our world, society seems to take a nose dive into ignorance. Unfortunately, it appears to be human nature to fill knowledge-gaps, wherever they exist, with endless fiction. If the word ‘ignorance’ is offensive then call it ‘unawareness’ or ‘naivety’ or maybe even ‘ill-judgement’ but there must be a good term that describes what possesses so many of the people around us to act in such strong defiance of basic logic.

Examples of this ‘ill-judgement’ will undoubtedly offend, so forgive me, but if the law of ‘gravity’ requires no police enforcement and then neither should evolution, or coincidence. These are observable facts. I believe the world would be a better place if no adults believed in: magic, miracles, astrology, creationism, alternative meds, seances, ouija boards, UFOs, elves, bigfoot, Rudolph the red nosed reindeer, and even the seemingly harmless concepts of fate and destiny. In my ideal world, everything observable would be left to reason - and everyone's actions (and prejudices) would be sensible. So believe me when I say that, as cool as he is, David Blaine can not fly. No one can read your mind. No house is haunted. And nobody communicates with the dead.
If any of those things were actually true, would they not also be ‘ordinary’? Yes they would. They would be about as 'mysterious' to us all as microwave ovens or the clouds in the sky. And they would be studied by reputable researchers like all other observable truths.

I should add now that I am neither an atheist, nor would I ever object to anyone’s belief in a ‘higher power’. I believe that any sort of faith makes finding some honest meaning in life (and in death) a whole lot easier. But as to the question of what to do when faith and science cross paths? The only answer that makes any sense to me is that they don’t. They really don't. I am thankful to live in a time when a religion that tries to challenge and disprove observable facts faces a real uphill battle (although many still stubbornly try). I see no need for man made mysteries in a world with so many real ones. We have plenty of questions that no researcher will ever answer - the biggest one, of course, is the question of why this universe of ours exists in the first place. That one you can ask a priest :)

And as for 'right and wrong' or ‘good and evil’ or human ethics and human rights, and all other morally tricky lil’issues are concerned: if you really don’t believe these can be tackled without religious input, then perhaps you will at least agree that a priest who also reads science books can offer better judgments about the today’s world than one who just reads scrolls.

So… back to the point. (I see that got carried away again) I keep thinking about how much I would enjoy writing for living. But the thought of taking the time to get started - and then actually becoming good at it - is pretty daunting. Maybe by posting my intentions to write this first book I will be motivated to get going. I wish I had a few months off to get a draft out… hey, I wonder what would happen if the lab burned down :)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Carlsberg Years

First: I was born in Poland and raised on smoked sausage. I keep meeting vegetarians in Australia. It occurs to me that I have never met a Polish vegetarian. Isn’t that funny? I wonder if many of them exist? If you are one, please pardon my ignorance and identify yourself.

To the point:

I am recently thirty. In the wise words of the MFDLC I am in my “Carlsberg years”. (The closest thing here is ‘Carleton’ so it’ll have to do.) And although the pursuit of sport and education has delayed some of life’s more standard milestones, I do indeed feel at least thirty because:

I can’t remember the last time I cut myself shaving. I stubbornly think Van Damme is cooler than Vin Diesel and I have fond memories movies like ‘Days of Thunder’ and ‘Commando’. I regularly call other adults ‘young’in’ or ‘rookie’ and although I may be in debt, I am not in overdraft. Silence is rarely ‘uncomfortable’ anymore and I can see 'insecurity' in the eyes of people in their early twenties as they move around a bar. When Weird Al sings the words: “I don’t feed trolls and I don’t read spam”, I wonder what he means by ‘trolls’. I can’t think of anyone I know that that I need to impress although I try never to look like too much of a tool in front of my wife. I am very comfortable watching a person make a harmless mistake without feeling like I have to help them. The thought of an independent research career does not seem frightening and now that it’s way too late, I am finally winning beach volleyball games against truly talented opponents. People I meet often remind me of people I have known and I firmly understand that true friends are very hard to find... and time is the obstacle.
That last one was a lil'deep. There was one more that in retrospect was a bit depressing and not entirely true so I removed it... and now let me finish with a recent picture of me on the beach.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A year in Oz

Brisbane at night from a friend's balcony. How about that :)

I’ve had less and less desire to write on here in recent months. Life has been busy. But I'll try for an honest, albeit quick, update today. First, I’m happy to say that Kate and her Kokoda Team successfully completed their rough and rugged 98 km walk in just over 24 straight hours. My lil’wife then passed out and slept for bout’three straight days. This is her team at their first checkpoint (after 13 km)... those expressions didn't last long :)

When Kate woke up from her coma she travelled to visit family and friends for a while in Canadia and has now returned safely to me - rested and happy as punch. While she was on the far side of the sphere, I worked a month of long hours in the lab trying to accomplish something useful (with moderate success). And, of course, the Olympics came and went. I considered writing some of my thoughts about the Olympics here but I had too much fun just watching them. The volleyball was remarkable, especially the indoor. It’s about time someone beat Brazil… and Lloyd Ball deserved to win one. Now he can finally step aside to make room for a less 'angry' setter. Meanwhile, on the beach court another American gold medalist named Phil Dalhouser managed to single handedly ruin the beautiful game of international beach volleyball. You see his blocking is too good so side-out play against him requires luck rather than strategy. It's just as effective to close your eyes and hope for the best as it is to try any sort of elegant well rounded offense. So now the beach game is ruined. I suppose the ‘volleyball gods’ could easily fix it again just by going back to the 9x9 metre courts. (They were reduced to 8x8 metres a few years ago because siding out was too easy… well now it’s difficult again - watch the tape!) Or better yet... take a look at this picture I took in Adelaide in March... how is that fair?
In other news Kate and I have moved into a ‘Queenslander’. This is a style of house-on-stilts you see a lot here. We’ve been crowded into a lil'appartment for a year and it was time for a change. I think this will be a good one. And to balance the budget we also took on a couple of good friends as roomies so we’ll see how that goes. Actually, it feels a bit like I’m back in undergrad but so far it has been pretty cool. Here's a shot of my 'ride' in front of the new place... yes I drive a lil'Tonka Truck now.
The city of Brisbane lit up its river again with a lot of ‘chemistry’ recently. It was a nice way for Kate and I to celebrate the end of our first year in Oz… the fireworks show was the first thing we saw when we landed last September. I will put a good little video of this show on Facebook... but here's a lil' sampler pic.
Finally, my lil’couzin Ula is here visiting us now and I’ve happily discovered that she’s become all grown up and very wise since we last saw eachother. I'm also happy to say that she seems to be having a lot of fun so far exploring this big country. She’ll be back in Brisbane near the end of her trip after adventures in Cairns, Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide, and New Zealand’s south island… the little lady knows how to holiday :).
That’s as quick an update as I could do… I hope to find some time to make this blog a regular thing again. I enjoyed it last year. There’s plenty here to write about. Cheers.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

my little tea pot

First - and briefly along the theme that ended my previous post - a book by Edwin Black entitled ‘Internal Combustion’ was much better researched and written than any ‘true-conspiracy-type’ book I could have imagined. There is a lot to be said for dedicated investigative journalism. I am now a big fan of this Mr. Black. A link from his Wikipedia article also led me to a website called ‘The Cutting Edge News’ and two articles in particular: one describing the current status of electric cars, and one about a project developed by Honda specifically. I wish we could see this stuff on main-stream news daily – but we don’t. I suppose the internet can really prove its worth when you or I stumble onto a site like this one.

But enough about people I don’t know – today I’ll tell you a bit about my wife Kate. Lately, I’ve just been working, reading, and working but Kate has been very busy and much more interesting.

In another life, before I knew her, Kate was quite a dedicated track-star and cross-country runner. She and her teammates racked up countless successes in her local Niagara region of Ontario and across the Buffalo border in New York. Unfortunately, a combination of injuries and unfriendly older female athletes on Queen’s University's track-team ended Kate’s competitive running aspirations in her early twenties. It disgusts me when senior members of a team fail to grasp the importance of their role as mentors – especially as they are themselves succeeding only on the backs of their own role models. The same dynamic exists in a chemistry research group and – as I'm sure you have experienced – in any other organization that involves ‘learning from senior colleagues’. Good leadership should not be taken for granted because bad leadership really hurts.

In any case, here in Brisbane, Kate has joined a running club and has begun to compete once again. In recent months she has crossed finish lines in 5 km, 10 km, 1/3-triatholon, and half-marathon races. Her feet, knees, hips, and back have all ‘complained’ but not nearly loud enough to discourage her. The distances have been getting longer, and Kate has been getting more motivated. It is a great thing for me to witness. This coming weekend, she is undertaking a task that I openly considered to be ‘ridiculous’ when Kate first suggested it. She and her three teammates will walk-run together for 96 km in a non-stop cross-mountinous-country race expected to last upwards of 20 hours (with a maximum permissible time of 39). I have been recruited as ‘support-crew’ with the job of driving their food-water-supplies to designated checkpoints where they will eat, change socks, and maybe cry a little. Not every team that starts this race will finish, and those that do (based on reports from previous years) will most likely become physically ill in subsequent days and weeks - but all sacrifice is acceptable when done in the name of a children's charity :). If you would like more details:
here you go.

This is a picture Kate decked-out and geared-up just minutes before a triathalon run a few weeks ago.

And here she with a big first-half-marathon-finish inspired smile for you.

And there’s more: Kate and our friend Lib have asked me to teach them the devilish game of beach volleyball. To my surprise, they have formally agreed to trust me completely and do exactly what I ask of them in training. And in return (as cocky as this will sound) I have promised them a mind-bogglingly successful season. Already, after only twenty-or-so practices, they are starting to display occasional ‘winning’ symptoms. I consider volleyball to be a very difficult sport but not a very ‘complicated’ one. I have seen athletes and coaches fail because of a lack of appreciation for the elegant-repetitive-simplicity of this game. My own views are heavily influenced by those of my father. Often Ziggy would tell me that volleyball is, first and foremost, “a game of serving and passing”. This is a truth applicable to rec-leagues and Olympic Games – and a truth that no volleyball coach should ever forget. ‘Passing’ is the foundation that all winners must stand on. Also, my favorite coaches have always been those who believed that my time was better spent doing reps than ‘listening to them preach”. Most athletes are not born with ‘confidence’ or ‘mental strength’ and I have observed that these skills are much better learned through ‘repetition’ and ‘competition’ than through ‘conversation’. In any case, I have never had any desire to commit time to coaching until now. And I admit it is selfish - an opportunity to see my wife enjoy a game I love. There is a talent threshold that I hope she will cross later this year from which there will be no going back. It is much like riding a bicycle, once you can play – you can always play!

The final bit of fun news in Kate’s busy life is her upcoming holiday to distant Grimsby, Ontario. In Australia, asking for a month or two of ‘unpaid leave’ from work is as normal as asking for a double-double at Timmy’s back home. So my lil’blondie is leaving me soon to spend some much desired time with mom and dad in Canadia (as the Aussies sometimes call it). I would love to join her but, for many reasons, it is not in the cards for me. But I am very happy that we are able to send her back for a visit. I am informed that she has emailed Sandy an advanced list of ‘Canadian’ food she misses most which included: Kraft dinner, ‘normal’ mayonnaise, orange cheese, any ‘normal’ hotdogs (especially juicy jumbos), mince tarts, Hungarian sausage, non-pumpkin-containing-Campbell’s-canned-soups, and most importantly normal-vacuum-sealed-swimming-its-own-juices-Canadian-bacon!!!

I think Kate is ready for a trip home. I am impressed with how well she has been thriving here in ‘ssssstralia’. She is not an experienced immigrant like me. Australia is her very first extended-culture-shock-experience. I do not need a visit home yet, especially with some welcome guests coming here soon, but I admit that I am also no stranger to a bit of home sickness. As highly as I rate the Aussies and their wonderful country - ‘home is where the bacon is’.
Home is Canada.

...although I have good reason to be comfortable here too.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

thoughts on 'sounding American'

They say Aussies are friendly folk. They are. And they like Canadians because they feel we're ‘similar’ somehow. I have the impression that a Canadian passport makes for pleasant travel in most parts of the world lately. In contrast, Americans seldom feel welcome across an ocean these days.

To the average Aussie I ‘sound American’. On occasion, I have noticed blunt anti-Americanism directed at me by strangers. Sometimes, if I tell someone I’m Canadian I hear: “Oh thank God!” Often my accent generates a sudden unprovoked irritation at the deli or video store. Apparently, the shop keeper is serving sliced ham to a citizen of a country undeserving of courtesy; a small scale protest against the Bush administration – being rude to me. It is sad. I will gladly defend Americans. I often do. My country enjoys many benefits as a result of a strong and healthy relationship across the long border. Plus, I like most of the American people I have met. I like them a lot. Certainly, I also agree with virtually all Aussies that US foreign policy is another matter. It is morally suspect and down-right embarrassing. But bad foreign policy is nothing new – it has been around since there were borders.

I have read some history-economics-type-stuff lately. I’m making an effort to learn a bit more about how the world works. Most countries, openly or not, make every effort to gain at the expense of other ones. Moral considerations aside, 'abusive' foreign policy it is biologically pretty natural. You and I are no experts but we both understand that strong countries have benefited at the expense of weak ones throughout history. The fact that military action in this respect is not so common anymore does not mean we should forget how recently it was very common. The actual ‘killing’ of foreigners on their own soil to gain economic benefits at home is traditionally associated with 'imperialism'. Perhaps the best historical examples are British, French, and Spanish. These guys kicked ass all over the globe for centuries – committing atrocities upon atrocities – usually in the name of both God and Country. In 1914 Germany-Austria-Hungary decided to try for a bigger slice of global pie but they were ‘one player too many’ and the issue was promptly settled. The Second World War was politically and economically simpler then than the first but imperialistic intentions again resulted in the death of millions of innocent young men on both sides of the issue. As for the imperial goals of Japanese and Russian leadership – same result.

Lessons learned? The current result is the maintenance of a somewhat sadistic and fragile ‘power balance’. I suppose world leaders now realize the penalties of trying to be ‘too powerful’. Strangely, today’s American leadership appears to be oblivious to recent history. The US has spread her wings pretty wide.

Why? Because human beings are pathetically self-centered; an obvious consequence of evolution by natural selection. It is ‘natural’ to break rules and take whatever one can from others - to 'extend’ the boundaries of morality - for person or country. So who knows if a real ‘global’ peace can ever work in the long run? I hope so. There is nothing ‘natural’ about treating your neighbours with dignity and respect but thankfully many people still do it. And they do it not just because of ‘fear of the Lord’ but also to try to fulfill their role in a ‘good society’ where we all get treated with dignity. Being rude to Americans is counter-productive.

A brief history-lesson interlude: I recently read that in the first half of the twentieth century, eighty percent of the world’s oil was American oil. Middle East oil fields were yet to be discovered. During both of the ‘big wars’ British and allied troops lugged American oil all over the world (even into the Middle East). For more than a half-century most of the industrialized world was essentially powered by Texas.

Consequently, the US (and many Americans) became ridiculously wealthy from oil exports. What would you do if you were a billionaire oil-tycoon from a billionaire oil-family and you found your wells getting dry? Imagine literally having been ‘growing a money tree’ for a hundred years and then running out of ‘fertilizer’. Imagine owning billions of dollars worth of infrastructure: distribution networks, refineries, and big’ol oil boats, but not having any more ‘crude’. A long list of wealthy Americans must be in this position. These people know the ‘oil business’ – and it is a rich business. The world is, after all, addicted to petroleum. These folks can’t simply let the ‘money tree’ die if there is some way to prevent it, can they? For them, any other energy source, translates into the loss of more invested capital than you and I can even comprehend. Thus, sadly, US troops are dying in Baghdad and not elsewhere. Similarly, by the way, Aussie troops are busy in East Timor and not elsewhere. But we already know that don’t we.

America has a lot of ‘back stepping’ to do in the next few years. A difficult task, but they can manage (assuming of course that they elect a democrat :). In all honesty, I am more frightened by American ‘hard-core Christianity’ than by their invasive military-economic strategies. Creationism? Intelligent Design? WTF? And they ARE serious. There is no room for laughter or debate when it comes to firearms and Jesus in ‘many’ of the United States; an attitude that was understandable three hundred years ago when we could not ‘prove’ the things that we can prove today.

Irrational and extreme organized religion frightens me because: “… sooner or later, God will be on both sides.” A great line from a pretty good Tom Hanks movie.

I don't think that I have many prejudices, but upon some reflection I suppose my decision to post-doc here in Australia may have been somewhat ‘anti-American’. There are hundreds of good quality chemistry labs in the US. It should have been an easy post-doc option and a good career move but I applied to just one American school, and that was in Hawaii. I sent the bulk of my applications to Europe and Australia. Why? Mostly, I wanted to live ‘abroad’ and that sounds more real across an ocean. But I also preferred not to be in any way associated with American foreign policy or religious extremism. Also their immigration and VISA options were a bit silly: I was welcome to come and work in America but my wife was not. In any case, I had great options elsewhere. I wish all the best for Americans. I hope their foreign policies improve. I hope they balance the books AND give everyone free healthcare like most of the rest of us. They do live in a good country. Admittedly, some of them would benefit from toning down the: ‘Greatest country on earth!!!’ attitude. Can humility really be so forgotten in such a great place?

But the globe is much bigger than the US and the whole thing is far from a perfect sphere. What can you or I do to make a positive contribution to the greater good? Surely you can do more than be rude to Americans and I shouldn’t just ‘rant’ in some quiet-lil-on-line-corner that nobody visits. For one thing we can do our best to get off the 'C-sauce'. Huh? The C-sauce!! In a few years, Kate and I hope to be home-owners with a bit of financial breathing room and I hope try and ease off of the CARBON-energy-grid. I have the impression that even non-hippes are allowed to do that now. The tools are getting cheaper. Canada is trailing behind many other countries in the effort. Australia is even farther back (but man can they save water!). Assuming I can afford it, why would I not put some panels or a windmill on my rooftop and plug in not just my TV and furnace but also my car? You might wonder just what is available and whether the numbers can ever possibly add up. I don’t know. But I won’t knock it till I’ve tried it, or at least had a good look. I believe that ‘customer demand’ constitutes a simple solution to some of the world’s most complicated problems. Why couldn’t informed customers make demands that are partially based on the ‘greater good’? Put their money into smart purchases. That is why reading some non-fiction and watching the occasional documentary makes sense. I realize that the real world can seem pretty depressing if you're not used to it. But it is what it is. Ignorance is counter-productive too.

To continue off-topic: perhaps C-sauce-free ‘sustainability’ is not economically possible. That would be bad. I was born in a country lacking in food and fuel. My family left before I was old enough to worry. You have probably never been faced with an ‘empty’ grocery store either. You and I both love food so we should also desire a healthy economy. You might be happy to know that there are smart people working hard to make ‘sustainability’ a mathematical feasibility. Not surprisingly, some of the smartest ones are Americans.

The world has changed very quickly in recent centuries. I don’t expect the ball to stop rolling at ‘coal and nuclear generated electricity’, the ‘Ford F150’ and ‘America: World Police’. But beyond a few years, the future is hard to predict. One certainty is that you and I are just here for a short visit. Gravity and time are the only real winners so I prefer to be curious rather than worried about what happens to us next.

On that note, I’ve been meaning to buy Barack Obama’s book. They say it’s pretty good.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

State of Origin

Four professional sports leagues in Australia are referred to as: ‘footy’. The meaning of that word depends on who says it and where they live. The leagues are: Rubgy Union, Rugby League, Aussie Football League, and A-league Football. The two most popular, Rugby League, and AFL, are sports I had never seen played before coming here. I like them both. Rugby Union is the ‘international rules' rugby that we are familiar with in Canada. A-league is just soccer.

The most popular sporting event in Brisbane (and all of Queensland) is the Rugby League three-game all-star series know as ‘State of Origin’. I will do my best to describe it today - it's awesome.

The sport of 'Rugby League' is much like the rugby that we know but much faster with fewer stopages - muchos entertainment! The people of Brisbane (Queensland) and Sydney (New South Wales) are very much rivals. There is not much real hatred - they're all Aussies first - but a general 'dislike' is very much present. Their differences are settled annually by the 'Maroons’ and the ‘Blues’ in three violent and bloody games. Every player on an ‘Origin’ team plays for their 'home' state. Their current pro-team and city are irrelevant - professional friendships between athletes mean nothing.
'State of Origin' is the equivalent of a hypothetical NHL all-star game between the best of Quebec versus the best of Ontario (only players born, raised, and taught the game in each province are eligible). And unlike the gentle and friendly all-star attitude we are familiar with in Canada, Origin is very serious business. Pride is very big in Australia. Perhaps a better analogy would be an NFL all-star game between the ‘Southern States’ and the ‘Northern States’. It could be called ‘Civil-War’. Unfortunately, the racial implications of something that foolish might keep it from being as entertaining as what the Aussies have done here.

In its two-decade history, State of Origin has been very closely contested. The 'overall' score is pretty puch perpetually tied. The encounter is admittedly more important to Brisbane than it is to Sydney because NSW is bigger and 'Sydney siders' consider themselves… well… better than the Queenslanders. So one might argue that the northern state has developed an understandable inferiority complex and STATE OF ORIGIN is their ultimate equalizer.

Every year home field advantage swaps. Two games are played in the home state, one away. This year games 1 and 3 are in Sydney. Game 2 was played right here on Wednesday night. The entire state shut down and watched as Wednesday became the night of the year for Brisbane: the Maroons skunked and embarrassed the Blues 30-0 to tie the series at 1-1. One of our friends saw the show live and claimed that he has never experienced anything like it. It gave him ‘shivers’ - 52 000 people (most of them in Maroon uniforms) mostly on their feet cheering and chanting for the whole game, in a stadium that is known as ‘The Cauldron’ because of how tightly the field is cramped by the massively-vertical grand-stands. At the start of the game the Sydney team was greeted with a collective BOOO that ‘shook the earth’. And they played accordingly. Home field advantage means a lot in game like this. Even the referees have to know (consciously or not) that some of their whistles will cause 50 000 people to cheer and others will cause them all to become angry.

I am fully committed to Origin tickets next year. This game has (once again) reminded me of just how well sport can entertain and unite us. No point in denying it: we're are a strange animal you and I.
Here's what it looked like (with thanks to some talented photographers from a local newspaper - I hope they won't sue me... I don't have much to lose anyway :)

If you would like more: here's a news story. And here's another.

I have never lived in a city with even a single professional team. Now, for two years, Kate and I have more than we can handle.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Kenneth Lowe

First - about the previous post: I generally have neither time nor sympathy for poetry (quality rap music excepted of course). For instance, I do not think much of William Shakespeare. Why high school english teachers like him so much is beyond me? It seems a bit ridiculous. Plays are intended to be watched not read - we have plenty of books. Why does that change for Shakes and only Shakes? I suppose that many years ago - somebody simply realized that making me struggle to figure out what Shakes is trying to say provides a good opportunity to 'evaluate' me. I personally prefer to read about a complex issue stated as simply as possible rather than a simple story all twisted up with excess words and riddles. Always, always, content before form please. Plus, Shakes mostly kills all of the good guys!? I feel that all fiction should end happy. The evening news is tragedy enough for me. Will's comedies are somewhat entertaining and I appreciate that his word-play is quite clever (once it is explained to me) but jokes should not have to be explained. It's like watching 'Les Boys' on a bus full of French-Canadian volleyballers - I can see them all laughing but I can't join them because - like Shakes - the jokes are not in my language! So, my point is: I generally dislike poetry. That being said, when I stumbled on that Kipling number (on youtube of all places), it somehow managed to hit a real soft-spot for me. Who knew :)

Enough. The rain is falling something-awful in Brisbane right now. It began a few days ago just as my father-in-law was getting onto a plane back to Canada. But Ken had a sunny (and busy) two-week holiday with us. Fraser Island, Some-Big’ol-Inland National Park, Noosa Heads, Sydney, and naturally a thorough walk-about in good’ol Brizzy. We sent him home exhausted and minus a few pounds I think (although we did our best to feed him). He bought and brought a lil’video camera for the trip and managed to record six-full-minidisks of holiday fun.

Here are some pics: First, here is Ken braving a random Aussie plant.

And here is on sandy Fraser Island.

And here with Kate underneath the shark tank in Sydney Aquarium:

And here the happy pair is feeding parrots at a lunch stop up in the hills somewhere.

Ken is a World War II buff – with a particular interest in naval adventures. As you might imagine, Australia has some cool war boats. Here is Ken in Sydney standing on the ‘action-deck’ of retired destroyer.
After a look at both the Brisbane and Sydney maritime museums, he was most impressed by a climb down into the guts of a fairly modern diesel submarine parked in Sydney harbour. It was quite the machine – a lot of ‘stuff’ in there – but far too cramped for comfort. Here's Kate inthe engine room. The boat is powered by a huge battery which is recharged (in just 30 minutes once daily) using these massive diesel engines. It carries a crew of 68 sailors cramped into essentially one long hallway. I asked one of the 'submarine experts' if it wouldn't be more logical to build a boat with a smaller crew - say 7 - for example... thereby risking fewer lives. He gave me a few good arguments.

That's all I've got for today. We really enjoyed Mr. Lowe's visit. Kate and I were treated to some stories about his youth that really should be written down! Awesome stuff. Incidentally, when Ken landed, he told us we would not be able to make him swim in ‘shark water’ but when given the chance he jumped in as care-free as I expected. It’s different when you’re here… and you see with your own eyes that people are not being eaten.

By the way - Kate is fast becoming a very talented photographer. How about this for a g’mornin picture by the lil' cutie.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"If" by Rudyard Kipling (1885)

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

the office

Some of my friends from the UWO lab occasionally glance at this blog and it's time I offer them a bit more chemistry talk. If anyone else is interested, feel free to listen in :)

So…. this is my new office:

The lab is a bit different from Western: newer, cleaner, bigger, and not quite as crazy. Maybe a bit more mature - but I think that's just because there are post-docs here. The chemistry, though, is pretty much the same. Once you’ve done one Swern you’ve done them all. And benzyl bromide is no easier on the eyes in the southern hemisphere… I guess that was to be expected.

So I’ll start from the beginning: the ESKITIS Institute for Cell and Molecular Therapies is a new, and somewhat unusual, Griffith University research facility. We have just moved into a clean shiny building that houses a variety of scientists with one overall theme. It's fairly simple: we're all trying to find a cure for something, anything really. Ideally something important that’s just'a'been ichin’ for a good’ol curin!. This is a picture of the front of the building. There are not many windows. I’m pretty sure that the construction ran over budget and someone practical-minded was forced to decide to sacrifice a few windows to keep what's ‘inside’ as awesome as they could

One area of research that I had not seen before coming here is ‘isolation chemistry’. I now work with some very skilled isolation types. For many years they were heavily funded by AstraZeneca but have lately, and suddenly, they've been forced to become more 'academic minded'. Anyway, the 'Natural Products Development' team has assembled a massive ‘compound library’ with 500 000+ ‘potential drugs’ all of natural origin meticulously gathered from pretty much all of Australia’s plants and creatures (both on and off shore). These compounds are now sitting here ready and willing to be screened against ‘stuff’. (If you know what I’m talking about and you have a hot new therapeutic target - and buckets of money - come on down.) The compound library is housed in gigantic flashing units of robo-awesomeness that would look right at home if they were fitted onto the side of a space station. I was surprised to find out that we don’t actually know the structures of most of the molecules in the library. The idea is to first find the useful bioactivity – then go back and worry about the structure. Interesting eh? Here’s a pamphlet:

Incidentally, IY, the isolation people I work with are the same fine scientists who fished out all of those sweet compounds you have been busting your butt making for PB and ACIE! Professor Ron Quinn, the same gentleman you referenced a half-dozen times, is director of the entire institute, and is my boss's boss. ‘ESKITIS’, by the way, doesn’t stand for anything. Someone important just thought it would sound cool – like ADVIL, or VIAGRA.

The new building also houses ‘adult stem-cell research’ facilities. I know roughly as much about that as I do about ‘being out of debt’ but apparently the stem-cell-stuff paid for most of the new building – so it has to be some sort of big deal. We also have a big X-ray lab run by a very bright young German professor who takes many pretty pictures of very cold proteins and requires very large flat panel monitors on the office computers of his students.

Most of the ESKITIS building, however, is full of biologists who go about doing their biology things with the ‘enzymes’ and the ‘rats’ and the endless ‘acronyms’. Truthfully, I don’t have time to know or care. The biologists (or 'failed organic chemists' if you prefer) live downstairs and we don’t talk to them. Yet. (I’m told we should start.)

Upstairs are the organic chemistry labs. In stark contrast to what much of the main-stream-regular world thinks of ‘science’, synthetic organic chemists generally believe that we are very cool. Some would even say, and I'm sure I have, that we are like the ‘naval aviators’ of drug discovery - and our labs are the aircraft carriers. Big-bad-and dangerous (and sometimes full of water). I'm sure this whole place would be safer, simpler, and smell more pleasant without us but it would be utterly ineffective because - try all you want - you can't find a new drug without good’ol organic synthesis.

Chemists and the biologists are like surgeons and docs. Sure, the hospital needs both but only surgeons are trusted with sharp objects just like only chemists are trusted with flameable solvents and explosive reagents. Surely I must be starting to offend somebody - if it's you, chillax, let a guy have his fun.

What else can I tell you? First, just to make sure that I don’t mislead anyone. ESKITIS is NOT a pharmaceutical company. We are a bunch of independent scientists each doing our own thing under the same friendly banner of ‘drug discovery’. Certainly the Coster group is far from ‘real pharma’. Nor could we ever compete – or want to compete – with a professional med-chem facility. I suppose I work in an ‘academic med-chem group’ – with a big emphasis on ‘academic’. We do standard total synthesis here and grad students learn the mad skillzzz. We use the ‘med-chem’ label simply because with every synthetic target there is some evil disease to consider. I am not just making a 'cool compound’, I am making a ‘cool anti-pancreatic cancer compound’. There is a subtle difference - day to day there is no difference - but the overall mentality of trying to do ‘something worthwhile for the world’ even in academia is one I like. Of course, the chances of actually discovering a useful drug are about the same as winning the lottery - all we have done so far is made sure to buy a few tickets. Also, this med-chem angle forces me make an effort to read a bit about disease pathology and try to stay current with respect to pharmaceutical gaps that need fillin’ – and there are plenty. I suppose some people would argue that such reading takes time away from learning ‘named reactions’ :)

Now for some pictures. First, I never imagined that I would be able to do chemistry on such an awesome chair! I spend my days rolling back and forth between these two positions

These are my nearest neighbours: Coster grad students Sean (running a Swernilicious reaction) and Adam (a column).

Incidentally, IY (and some others) will be happy to hear that all of my chromatography is now performed in a hood. It’s not a problem now with the vast fume hood space and the awesome chair. Strange how things change – I actually found myself turning off the UV lamp after someone the other day and feeling frustrated with them for it. How messed up is that!
For those that have not seen one: here is a ‘fumehood’. It’s big, it’s very well equipped, and it’s all wonderfully mine to destroy!
One wall of the lab is floor to ceiling glass and looks out into the office space. I figure it was designed this way for a number of reasons: cool-looking, open, bright, the safety of visibilty to others when something explodes or starts to burn quickly, and finally 'public relations'. This entire building is designed to be perfect for a walk through by a politician and some media with a camera crew – they can look through the glass at the ‘busy young scientists working hard to save the world’. Now... these two machines I am very excited about. The twins! These are the Cadillac and Ferrari of rotary evaporators! Big spender Dr. Coster just bought seven or eight of these slick little beasts. I can not even begin to describe how wonderful life has become with these pretty ladies on the bench. They're bright and digital and very friendly, everything is quick, nothing bumps, and I have yet to see a solvent peak anywhere. I feel like I’m cheating when I use one of these sexy rotovaps. Work is just not supposed to be this easy. The thick black foam is insulation around the chilled-water lines that run through the entire building and condense pretty much every drop of ether or DCM. Sweeeet!!

Well, that’s about it for today. Generally speaking, the lab is great. I am happy to say that this whole 'down under' business is turning out to be a pretty good decision for life, marriage, work, and all the rest. Obviously, I will need a publication or two this year just to make sure. And as far as project specifics are concerned, I’m going to keep that to myself for now because I’m pretty close to a neat little total synthesis and there is an American group also in the game. We would like to be the first to the finish line - so I will avoid any chance of 'encouraging' the competition. That reminds me – I have to get back to work.

Let me leave you, if I may, with another picture of one of my new lab mates. This is young Sean O’Connor, a Dutch-Aussie who wants to be an Irishman, who we often keep locked in the ‘inorganics’ closet when we feel that he is becoming too irritating. On this particular day, we let him open the door and get some light while he worked. Cheers.