The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

...now 7% more viral!


Punching Above Our Weight: Not Actually a Good Thing

| Comments

There is an oft-repeated phrase you might hear if you hang around disgruntled scientists for long enough, and it’s that “Australian science really punches above its weight.” I certainly heard or read it dozens of times while doing research for science policy, and it was always said in this proud and hopeful tone, like this is a good thing.

I don’t think it is.

Punching above your weight is a colloqialism that refers to boxing. Boxers are typically divided into classes by their weight, and a boxer who punches above their weight is one who is unexpectedly strong compared to others in their weight class. A very similar colloquialism might be “gets more bang for your buck.”

It’s worth noting, then, that Australian scientists tend to use the phrase that evokes the image of an overlooked underdog fighting for recognition, rather than the phrase associated with sleazy sales pitches. It also implies some sort of struggle or competition, as though our scientists are in a violent, high-stakes battle with scientists from other countries. That’s really the opposite of how global science is meant to work.

All it really means though is this: even though we don’t invest much public money in scientific research, we get an unexpectedly high return from it.

So isn’t this a good thing? Why shouldn’t we proudly proclaim this as we dance around the ring?

Ubuntu + Mac: Pure EFI Boot

| Comments

Don’t need the wordy tutorial? There’s a shorter version.

I recently bought a Mac Mini 6,1 (late 2012 model) to replace the giant tower PC I was using as a household server. Oddly enough for an Apple product, out of all the small-form-factor PCs around with a decent amount of power, it was by far the cheapest.

When I installed Ubuntu Saucy (13.10), I was initially faced with an unbootable system, which I eventually got to work. When Ubunty Trusty (14.04) came out I was hoping things would go better. Sure enough, there was a +mac variant installer available (buried behind several download pages), but ths used legacy BIOS booting. The non +mac variant simply gave me an unbootable system again.

This wasn’t good enough for me! I used Mike Hommey’s Debian EFI boot instructions, and adapted them for recent Ubuntu systems. The result was a Mac Mini that would boot Ubuntu Trusty in pure EFI mode, with no rEFInd and no OS X, and with an Ubuntu entry in the Mac’s bootloader menu.

Thank you Mike. They were excellent instructions.

Note that I’ve only applied this process to my situation: single-booting Ubuntu Trusty (14.04.1) on a Mac Mini 6,1. If you’re knowledgeable enough, you should be able to use this to dual/multi-boot, or boot other Linux distros, or use other Mac devices. But I haven’t tried any of that myself, so be prepared for some surprises.

Why EFI? Why Not rEFInd?

Because I can. Because of aesthetics. Because I’m an engineer, and if there’s a simpler way to make something work, I’ll try to find it.

If the legacy BIOS boot mode works for you, and you don’t want any fuss, use it! If rEFInd works for you, use it! These instructions are for people who just want to try it out, or perhaps for installer developers who want a starting point for a more general process.

Are there any benefits at all then? Sure:

  • I couldn’t actually figure out how to install rEFInd without keeping OS X installed, which meant giving over about 100GB of my 500GB drive to it. No thanks.
  • The Mac bootloader firmware seems to boot about 30s faster.
  • You have access to various EFI-related utilities.
  • You can make yourself a pretty Ubuntu entry in the bootloader menu!

The Pants Theory of Unpaid Internships

| Comments

Having read a few articles describing the climate of unpaid internships, I am starting to feel frustrated with how people are framing the problem, and with the solutions they are proposing. It’s that special kind of frustration, where you see people kind of arguing in the right direction, but consistently missing the point. Everyone seems to be interpreting the problem as: businesses who want free labour luring the unemployed with some ephemeral promise of eventual work.

I think it’s considerably more complicated than that.

This article is going to come off like a defence of unpaid internships, but it’s not. I am against them. If you really can’t see anything wrong with very vulnerable people being manipulated into working for free, then we probably have no common ground upon which to base a discussion. Off you go then.

The point here is that without understanding the real allure of unpaid internships, no-one has a hope of putting an end to the practice.

A reason to set the alarm

The common reason given (or assumed) for undertaking an unpaid internship is that it may lead to paid work, possibly with the company offering the internship. That may or may not be true, but it’s irrelevant. I’m going to conjecture that this is almost always a reverse rationalisation for what I’m about to describe.

You see, after you’ve been unemployed for even a few weeks, you start to feel.

Like.

Shit.

And this is not even considering whether you have enough savings to pay the bills, someone to support you, etc. Even living in reasonable comfort, if you have spent your days confined to the house, sending out dozens of applications and getting silence back, you will start to feel like crap. You will feel — and I mean genuinely believe — that you will never escape the situation.

You feel cheated and humiliated for getting an apparently-useless education.

You feel paranoid and stupid, like there is some secret (but at the same time, obvious to all but you) system that everyone else knows about.

If you started out in a stable relationship, you will possibly even question whether your feelings are real, or if it is just dependency that keeps you together.

These are not exaggerations. Unemployment is devastating to most peoples mental health. It is a poison. It is awful.

The mere act of getting dressed in smart-casual clothes, getting on public transport with hundreds of other people, and setting foot in a separate building can be an unimaginable reprive. The helplessness and feelings of futility that comes from having your letters ignored are swept away as you indulge in having other people notice that you exist and are able to do useful things.

Not only that, but you are now able to tell your friends and family that you are doing… something! Anything! You have actual news instead of… well, shame and awkward silence.

I cannot stress this enough. Just having a reason to set an alarm for the next morning has a profound effect on someone who’s been slamming their head in the car door of the job market.

Hence, trying to neutralise the claim of “it’ll lead to something paid” with well researched statistics is not going to work, no matter what the numbers say. That’s not the real reason. The hook is not the vague promise of future work. It’s the work itself, paid or not, and the change in psychological state that comes with it.

Crowdfunding Science into the Ground

| Comments

Update

After an exchange with Dr. Mel Thompson, I realised that I’d completely misinterpreted the quote about return on investment being less minimum wage. I had thought that money raised from from crowdfunding was forming people’s actual salary, and that this salary was less than minimum wage. What was actually meant was that the ratio of money raised through crowdfunding/time spent crowdfunding was less than minimum wage.

I think it is still the case that there are times when crowdfunding will exclude potential scientists, because it is paradoxically (a) considered to be “above and beyond” work (b) necessary to do to have job security. It is also the case that there are still people in research who work for less than minimum wage (including for nothing), and this is harmful. But that doesn’t really have anything to do with crowdfunding.

There was a time when I felt sorry for Australian scientists.

Caught between uncaring citizens, hostile politicians, and the grateful beneficiaries of their research… the lot of a researcher is not one to envy.

There was a time when I sympathised, and that time ended as soon as I read this: Young scientists use crowd sourcing to fund their research.

Now I just feel angry, and embarrassed for everyone involved.

I want you to imagine a different headline:

Labourers turn to crowdfunding to keep car factory open.

Now imagine that it’s not their factory, they get no share of the profits, and as a result of their efforts they’re on less than minimum wage. Could anyone possibly harbour the delusion that this would ever improve matters?

Oh sure, scientific researchers aren’t expected to be experts on the intricate details of industrial relations. Unlike, say, manual labour, science has slowly “descended” over the centuries from an indulgence of the upper classes. We don’t have the kind of lore that other vocations do about being wary of exploitation and piss-poor safety procedures.

But every scientist, at some point during an argument with someone who doesn’t know science, has had to draw the line. You know, that line, where you say, “your refusal to accept widely established facts does not deserve concession,” or maybe, “go to a goddamned library.”

This applies to industrial relations too. Working for less than minimum wage to buy essential supplies for a field that produces life-or-death-level drugs and devices is so far over that line you should be doing astronomy instead of medical research.

You can’t deride those who deliberately reject centuries of science, but then reject centuries of industrial relations wisdom yourself. That’s just absurd.