The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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Taxpayers’ Money

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The phrase taxpayers’ money is often deployed as the clincher in political discussions where a politician has little other justification for their policies. (So, most discussions.)

We don’t, the MP will say, as they remove their monocle and begin polishing it, want to waste taxpayers’ money.

Some will even go so far as to claim that it is a fundamental right, equal in importance to the right not to starve to death.

I am all in favour of rights, the Prime Minister (Tony Abbott) said. I am also in favour of the rights of taxpayers not to have their money abused.

That’s a right now, huh? We’ll come back to that.

It’s interesting that it’s even referred to as taxpayers’ money, rather than citizens’ money. By definition, once tax is paid, it’s no longer owned by the payer. And when I say by definition, I mean the definition of pay, not of tax. That’s the entire point of paying, really.

And while there isn’t really any fundamental right for taxpayers to avoid having their money abused, there is a widely recognised right that everyone should have representation. And this means that tax revenue is owned by every citizen, to an equal extent — no more by a citizen who pays more tax than one who doesn’t pay any at all.

What this language really means is, we believe that those who pay more tax are entitled to a greater say in public policy, no matter whether it’s sensible or not.

The irony is that invoking taxpayers’ money is pretty much always used to justify irrational use of tax, through policies that are emotionally satisfying to the wealthy but end up costing more and being less effective than alternatives. And nonsensical allocation of public funds clearly is an abuse of taxpayers’ money, so for all the posturing about it, anyone using this phrase doesn’t actually respect such a right after all.

Punching Above Our Weight: Not Actually a Good Thing

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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

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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

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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.