Wednesday, 24 February 2016

You want to do what?

This is another of "those" posts. The ones were I get excessively technical and start talking about ions and mass spectrometers and stuff. I build them (mass spectrometers, not ions) and they do end up taking up a lot of my brain space. Or the bits that are left over after I've had to decided what my favourite species of rorqual whale is...

So, let me introduce you to a few basic concepts of time-of-flight mass spectrometry, just to lay the groundwork for introducing you to the true depths of frustration I have at dealing with my customer.

Step1: make some ions. It doesn't really matter how, just make some and keep them in a tidy place.

Step 2: hit all of the ions with the same big cricket bat such that they all fly off down a long tube.

Step 3: count how long it takes each ion to get to the other end of the tube. The lightest ions will get there first, the heaviest ones last. By timing how long they take, you know how heavy they are.

Step 4: while those first ions are hurtling down the tube, be busy making some more in the tidy place.

Step 5: as soon as you're certain the heaviest ions have got to the other end, hit the second set of ions with the big cricket bat.

Keep doing the above, over and over and over again. Generally you can manage to do that 20,000 times a second. Quick isn't it? Each time you do it, you add the ions you've counted to a bar chart, and gradually you build up a record of which ions you're making and collecting. You might, for example, make a nitrogen ion every time, and so you'll collect 20,000 nitrogen ions every second, and get a really tall bar on your chart. Meanwhile you might only collect one sulphur dioxide ion every now and then and have maybe 200 of them every second.

There's a catch in all of this though (of course there is). Detecting a single ion is quite tricky. They're awfully small. Just as an example, there are roughly 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 of them in a grain of salt. Like I said, one is awfully small. So the equipment you use to detect one of the little buggers has to be very, very sensitive. And if something is very, very sensitive, it will have a tendency to notice other things happening. Like fleas farting. Actually, not quite that bad, but if you turn a computer on next to it, it will (falsely) believe it's just seen a load of ions. It picks up electrical noise like small children pick up rude words. So there's always low-level background noise being added to that bar chart. One or two false ions being recorded all the time, randomly scattered all over the chart. Which means that to be absolutely certain that you are actually seeing whatever you're looking for, it needs to have more real ions arriving than there are false ions.

There's some clever statistics you can use to work out whether you really believe you're seeing your interesting chemical, but roughly speaking, on one of our "normal" instruments, we get thousands of ions per second in things we're interested in. Thousands every second. Remember that please. We can, usually, manage to spot a bar on this chart and say it's definitely due to a real chemical if there are, say, at least 10-20 ions per second.

Here we go, this is what I'm talking about:

That scrubbly red line along the bottom is noise, and the spikes sticking up show the number of real ions that have been counted arriving at any given time. The things that take a long time (about 27 microseconds in this case) are the heavier ones, the things that take less time (about 14 microseconds) are the lighter ones.

Now, when you first get an instrument working, chances are it won't work very well. It will need tuning. Just like a piano - you'll get something out of it straight away, but it won't be very pretty. And to tune a mass spectrometer, the best thing to do is ask your software just to show you a running total of how many ions it's counting every second. Nice big number in the middle of the screen that you can see from the other side of the lab. And then you start knob-twiddling.

Up a bit, down a bit, left a bit, right a bit, more gas, less gas, stronger magnet, no magnet. Tweak everything while watching that total, and try and make the number as big as possible. Bingo! You've just tuned a time-of-flight mass spectrometer! (OK, to preserve some dignity and respect here, I should point out that it's not quite as random as that, and frequently takes quite a lot of thinking too, but once we send one of these things to a customer, it's all basically tuned, and they just need to tweak a few things to get everything just perfect. They might get as much as two or three times as many ions once they've fine-tuned things.)

And now we get to the ranty bit.....

I have spent the last few weeks attempting to help a customer via email. He didn't have very much money, so he refused to pay for us to install his instrument. He assured us he could assemble and commission it himself. Never, ever, ever believe a customer who says this. He has bleated about not having any signal, and I have tried every single test I can think of, most of which he has completely ignored because he thinks he knows better. Now, however, he's gone on holiday and his boss has taken over. On the plus side, his boss seems to be intelligent, competent and capable of following instructions and providing meaningful feedback. On the minus side, this has coincided with my boss getting involved because I was stomping round the office muttering about incompetent fuckwittery and he realised I needed some back-up. But now things are beginning to go smoothly, the customer (erroneously in my opinion) thinks it's because my boss is awesome and I'm useless. Sigh.

And things are also only beginning to go smoothly. We finally, in desperation, asked the customer how many ions he actually thought he was making in his tidy place.

3 ions per second.

Yes, that's right, 3. Not 3000, not 300, not even 30, but 3 piffling little ions per second.

And he's been complaining that he can't see them. He actually, honestly thinks it's unreasonable that an un-tuned mass spectrometer is failing to see this. When it was gently pointed out to him that he might have, perhaps, just maybe, not quite enough ions, he did concede we might have a point. So he ran an experiment overnight. And he finally saw some ions.

So now we have to try and tune his instrument with him.

With, say, 3000 ions per second, we can tune an instrument perfectly in a couple of hours. But then, we can watch a nice big number on screen changing in real time as we make adjustments. He has to run an experiment for several hours before he can tell if an adjustment improved things. That couple of hours it might take us will translate to hundreds, or possibly thousands of hours worth of experiments to get to the same point. Weeks or even months of work. To achieve something that should take an afternoon. I can understand why he might be a trifle disappointed.

To say that I'm irritated that he didn't mention this sooner would be an understatement.

To say I'm vexed with the colleague who sold him this instrument without discovering a fundamental problem like this would be putting it mildly.

To say that I'm annoyed that my boss has come up smelling of roses while I look like the incompetent numpty would be a pale shadow of the truth.

To say that I'm peeved that when my customers don't follow my instructions they conclude that I'm the idiot would be to wholly miss the point.

To say that I'm sick and tired of my customers blaming fundamental physical principles on me would be failing to grasp the magnitude of my ire.

On the other hand, the customer seems to be happy now, so I guess I'll just keep my head down...

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Then and Now

Back in the mists of time, there was no internet. No world wide web. No Skype, no Facetime, no Google chat, no text messages, no e-mail. In those days people communicated with each other via the medium of letters. They picked up an actual pen, applied it to real paper, tucked it in an envelope, affixed a stamp and entrusted it to the care of the ladies and gentlemen of the Royal Mail in the fond hope it would be delivered to the recipient intact within a relatively brief period of time. The Royal Mail in turn made reciprocal arrangements with the postal services of other nations, allowing these letters to transcend national boundaries and travel on aeroplanes from one country to another before reaching their final destination. Rather surprisingly, this system mostly worked.

And thus it was that my parents, in England, communicated with my grandparents, in South Africa. When I say "my parents", what I actually mean is my mother, who diligently wrote to her in-laws at least once a week for something close to a quarter of a century - the time between my parents moving from South Africa to England and my grandparents' deaths. My grandparents didn't simply treasure these letters, they returned them to my mother at intervals as a lasting record of our lives. (I assume that, given my mother's ability to horde cherish everything, she also possesses the other half of the correspondence somewhere). And now my mother is gradually lending me batches of letters to read, written during my childhood, which is giving me an interesting insight into what it was like to raise me as a pedantic, willful, obstreperous but affectionate small object, just as I face the same characteristics in my own small object.

This week I have been reading letters written in the second half of 1977. At this time I was not-quite-3, and BrotherBear was not-quite-6. Alongside the usual family events of school fetes, babysitting circles, coughs, colds, chicken pox, visits to friends, gardening, decorating, entertaining, broken-down cars and trips to the dentist, one event stuck out like a sore thumb...

One Sunday afternoon, my mother lay outside in the sun, in the garden, reading her book.

Just in case you read that a bit too quickly, and weren't paying attention... one Sunday afternoon, with a 2-year-old and a five-year-old, my mother lay in the sun and read her book.

She read her book. 

Lying in the sun.

There were two small children alive, awake and present at the time.

I still dream of the day I can read more than one and a half sentences before LittleBear asks me to be a penguin, or build a dinosaur den, or find his missing snake (the one that's on the floor, about two feet from where he's standing), or play ludo, or fetch a snack, or race sharks, or mend his lego monster, or find videos of beet harvesters on Youtube, or the thousand and one other ways we pass our day.

Clearly my mother not only supped from the elixir of awesome parenting, but she has subsequently willfully refused to let me in on the secret. I still haven't quite got over the idea that she lay in the sun reading her book. I was two. Two, and somehow well-trained enough that I didn't need supervising and entertaining every waking minute. I'll admit that she does also say that her LittlePhysicsBear trotted over every couple of minutes for a kiss, so she wasn't entirely left in peace, but I'd take intermittent kisses in return for reading my book.

In the interests of unbiased reporting, I should perhaps point out that, in the three years worth of letters that I have so far read, this is the first occasion on which my mother appears to have had a chance to sit and read her book, but that's still one more occasion than I've managed and I've had one year longer and possess half the number of children. I have clearly made some severe and serious mistakes in my rearing of LittleBear.

I should also note that, when October swung round, and my parents held a 3rd birthday party for me, there were nine three-year-olds and no other parents. One family friend attended to help out, but otherwise the accepted protocol appeared to be to dump your child and scarper. So while the rather less interventionist approach to parenting had its advantages, the disadvantages were loud, terrifying and filled with potential catastrophe. I'm not even sure I can bear to think about 9 three-year-olds in my house at one time, with only two other adults to help...

Now I come to think about it, I'm not sure I'd trade the odd opportunity to read my book for holding unaccompanied parties for three year olds. Or for the countless occasions on which my mother appeared to have up to five or six children in the house at any one time for whom she was solely responsible. Not on any paid basis, this was simply the little boys from down the road appearing in the house almost unannounced and being cared for and catered to. Maybe that's why I was content not to have my mother's constant, unwavering, single-minded attention; maybe by giving so much of her time to herding so many children she earned the brief golden period of reading her book in the sun; maybe being the world to my LittleBear is the penalty and reward for having an only child and not having a free-ranging extended neighbourhood of children wandering in and out of the house; maybe there's no magic elixir of motherhood that my mother has hidden from me after all. Curses. I was hoping for an easy answer that would give me some quality time with my book...

Monday, 22 February 2016

A letter to my best friends

Dear Tigger and Piglet,

Thank you for being such lovely friends. Recently I spent too long dwelling on residual hurt from twenty-plus years ago. Instead, what I should have been doing is thinking of the twenty-two years since I met you two. The twenty-two years of love and laughter, and pain and tears, and joy, idiocy, comfort, in-jokes and gin.

I'm so glad, Tigger, that you manage to come and stay during half-terms, bringing your two deranged little tiggers with you. I'm so glad that, despite being older, your little tiggers play with my LittleBear so gently and kindly. I'm so glad that we can leave them happily playing together in another room while we natter away as though we still lived in each other's pockets as we did at University.

And Piglet, I am blessed that you and your little piglets still live only a few miles away, and that GirlPiglet and LittleBear are more or less mastering giving each other a cuddle that doesn't turn into a bout of wrestling every time they hurl themselves upon each other with such gusto one of them topples backwards.

Instead of thinking about the cutting words from a girl I haven't seen in sixteen years, I should have been thinking about the phone calls that kept me going as I swam through the darkness of post natal depression. I should have remembered how both of you always had time to talk to me through my tears as LittleBear napped and I wondered how I would get through the next feed, the next hour, the next day, the next week. Neither of you ever told me you were busy, or didn't have time, despite your own children, your own jobs, your own homes, your own problems. You are the friends who have shown me true friendship.

Instead of wondering what I did wrong, and why I was rejected, I should have been wondering what I did right to have not just one, but two, fantastic, loving, giving, sharing friends. Wondering how I have been lucky enough to form friendships that don't need us to see each other every day, or every week, or every month, friendships that are ever-present no matter how many months may go by in between seeing each other. Friendships that provide days of joy and laughter when we are all together, herding our small menagerie around the botanical gardens, trying to stop them climbing into frozen ponds, falling out of trees, trampling on precious alpine plants or escaping onto the main road.

It turns out there are a lot of unspoken thoughts in my head, and that they're not all negative. And while it may be therapeutic to get the negativity out of my head and into actual words, it's much more affirming to get the positive out as well, not just to remind myself how lucky I am to have such good friends, but also to make sure you know. You are the most incredible friends a Bear could have. Thank you.


Friday, 12 February 2016

A letter to my ex-best-friend

Dear E,

It's been a long time hasn't it? Sixteen years since we last saw each other, at my first wedding. I invited you because you were my oldest friend. We'd been inseparable throughout secondary school, almost from our first day as new girls. We used to spend every Monday night together, either at my house or yours, after school. We grew up together. We did each other's hair, experimented with make-up, went clothes shopping for the first time without our parents, did our homework together, ignored our siblings together, went on holiday with each other's families. Like I said, we were inseparable, closest of friends.

And then... what?

Sometime during our last year at school something began to go wrong, and to this day I'm not entirely sure what. Being me, I assume it was something I did. Something I was. Some deficiency of mine. Some way in which I hurt you and you needed to lash out. You became increasingly hostile. Aggressive. Cruel, even by the standards of teenage girls in a single-sex school. So many throw-away comments to cut me down. So many ways in which you disapproved, disagreed, sneered, condemned. I was never good enough. I was "too big for my boots". I was nothing special. I was no cleverer than anyone else. I was no good at sport.  You didn't see why I was bothering to apply to Cambridge, it's not that special. You looked down on me for wanting to study Physics - apparently I was only doing so because my brother did, and my parents expected it. Whereas you were going to study medicine because you wanted to, not because your mother was a doctor, not because both your parents worked for Big Pharma, oh no. I was dictated to and led by my family, with no mind of my own, but you weren't.

Writing it down, it seems as though maybe there's an obvious explanation. Maybe you were jealous. Maybe I was arrogant about being top of every class. Maybe our teachers did heap praise on me, and never enough on you, despite the fact that you were just as bright, but always in second place. Maybe I should have realised that. But I couldn't change the teachers. And I certainly wasn't going to deliberately do less well than I could. Was it my fault? I don't know. But now, finally I know, that I didn't deserve the way you then behaved.

I didn't deserve the constant belittling. I didn't deserve to be told I ranked as "probably 6/10" for attractiveness. I didn't deserve to be told that I was a "soggy chicken". Repeatedly. And I certainly didn't deserve to have our friendship permanently and irrevocably severed, with no warning. Perhaps it was for the best, perhaps a "friend" like you who had reached the point of making me feel less than I am was not worth keeping. But twenty-three years after leaving school, and sixteen years after the last time I saw you, I am still hurt. Hurt to have been rejected by the person who I had been closest to for my formative years. Hurt to not be wanted, but to never know what I did wrong. Hurt to lose the friend who could make me laugh until I cried.

So, when I organised a get together of some old school friends last weekend, and one of them asked "Did you invite E?" my answer had to be "No. I have nothing to say to her and no desire to see her again." But it turns out I was wrong. I have a lot to say to you, and for a week I've been saying it in my head, and punishing myself for all my imagined failings. It's time I stopped doing that. In truth it's time I stopped doing that in many areas of my life, but I'll start with this one:

You behaved foully towards me, and I didn't deserve that.


Thursday, 11 February 2016

Damned if I do, damned if I don't

LittleBear has expressed two preferences for his holiday this year (other than, of course, the long-standing request to go back to the Isle of Wight and find fossils). Firstly, he would like to go on holiday to the Atlantic. After dinosaurs, oceans and their associated life-forms are his favourite thing. And he has been mesmerised by a documentary series about the Atlantic. Secondly, he would like to go to "one of my favourite countries. Russia or Spain." The geographically inclined amongst you will spot that it is slightly tricky to find an intersection between Russia and the Atlantic, but that Spain presents distinct possibilities.

Our current plan is to go to the Canary Islands. Atlantic Ocean? Check. Spain? Check. Sand for digging in? Check. Volcanoes? Check. And then I got really excited, because I discovered there's a really big aquarium on one of the islands, and if there's something I know LittleBear will love, it's a big aquarium.

And then I looked at their website.

And my heart broke.

They have captive orcas and dolphins, who they've trained to display.

I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that LittleBear would love to see an orca almost more than anything else in the world.

But I also know that there is absolutely nothing that will convince me to support the captivity of such intelligent, beautiful, powerful, social animals. And I want LittleBear to know that, one day. But not today. Today, I don't want to try to explain to him how awful it is to keep these extraordinary creatures confined and trained and imprisoned. I don't want to explain the cruelty, the suffering, the pain, the boredom. There are only two possible outcomes - either he wouldn't understand and he'd be heartbroken not to see them, or he would understand and be heartbroken that anyone could do that to an orca. He loves orcas. And I don't want to be the one to break my four year old's heart. He cried when David Attenborough said all the plankton would die during winter. I can't imagine how upset he would be to discover someone was hurting an orca.

And, the terrible truth is, there is some part of me that is a 4-year old child still. I would love to see an orca. I wish I could not know that captive orcas are suffering. I wish I could not realise that their treatment is awful. I wish I could go and see them, filled with naiveté and wonder, without knowing that I'm supporting something horrible. But I can't. And though I know LittleBear could, I can't let him. And that makes me sad too. Sad that there is something he could and would love, but that I will deliberately keep from him, because it's the right thing to do. It's the first time I've faced that situation, and thought it indubitably won't be the last, I'm not relishing it.

So now, I face the challenge of taking LittleBear to a group of islands that have captive orcas, where they will indubitably be advertised, and try and hide their existence from him. Or find some creative and yet plausible explanation for what a poster with a picture of an orca is doing there... Creative and plausible. That's what I'm looking for folks. Creative and plausible....

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

More swimming, more chicken

The world's turned upside down.

Last weekend, LittleBear ate a (very small) slice of roast chicken.

This week, LittleBear complained that his swimming lesson wasn't as much fun as usual because there wasn't enough jumping in. That's right, The Boy Who Wouldn't Jump now complains if there isn't enough jumping in.

And, just to prove it, here's my boy swimming 5 metres, unaided, in his own unique variation on the butter-breast-fly-crawl-paddle-stroke.

The upshot of undertaking this Herculean task several times yesterday, is that LittleBear is utterly, catastrophically, inconsolably, enragingly, frustratingly tired today. But other than that, he's happy. And he loves swimming. Who'd've thought it?

Wednesday, 3 February 2016


Sometimes LittleBear likes to play I-spy.

Sometimes LittleBear likes to play snap.

One day in the car he played something that I think of as I-snap.

Imagine if you will our daily routine. I am driving, LittleBear is in his seat in the back. Clutched in his hands are a small white bunny and a dinosaur. I am expected to provide the voice of Bunny, while LittleBear provides the voice of whichever dinosaur is gracing our presence today. We discuss the world around us; we muse on the wonders of the moving box we are in; we contemplate why the sky is turning pink. Bunny is expected to be woefully ignorant of all aspects of the physical world, while the dinosaur solemnly educates his imbecilic leporine companion. Every day we drive over a bridge, from which (miraculously, as we are generally travelling at about 50mph, with the windows closed) the dinosaur manages to catch some fish. And some ichthyostega. And, for bunny, some underwater carrots. I don't know, I didn't make this game up.

On the day in question, Spiny the Spinosaurus caught hundreds of underwater carrots...

Spiny: Let's play snap with underwater carrots!
Bunny: <mystified> Erm, are we going to play snap by matching the sizes of the carrots?
Spiny: <witheringly> Nooooo. They've got little pictures on them.
Bunny: Oh, I see.

"Spiny" then proceeded to inspect each virtual carrot in turn, and announce what was on the picture. There then followed a stream-of-consciousness declaration of the things that LittleBear Spiny could see.

Steering wheel!

It was a tricky game for Bunny to play, not being able to see the imaginary pictures on the invisible underwater carrots....

Bunny attempted to join in by announcing things she could see. This was All Wrong and Strictly Forbidden.

Spiny then moved on from I-snap to what I suppose we might call imaginary-snap (i-snap?) Spiny started shouting out the names of dinosaurs and various other prehistoric creatures, occasionally repeating himself, declaring "Snap!" and winning the pile of carrots. A little while later, Bunny was informed that Spiny had won all the carrots. And thus the game ended. I think I prefer I-spy.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Silence is slightly gloomy and grey

I don't seem to have written anything for a while. It's probably not even a week, but it feels like longer. It feels like I have lots of little things to write about, but nothing coherent. It feels like I'll forget half the things I meant to say because my brain is fried. It feels like my thoughts are too occupied with the broken central heating, and the falling down fence, and the defunct extractor fans (yes, plural). But most of all it feels as though I'm just too damn tired to write anything.

Four out of the last five evenings, I've had this laptop on, and spent a couple of hours tapping away... but it's been work every time. Because we're just so overwhelmed that I have no hope of completing the designs I need to complete, on time, with any semblance of accuracy, unless I do the work at home. And because I have some kind of deranged loyalty to my company, instead of shrugging and saying "sod it, they should have hired the two new people we need", I'm battling to keep my head above water. And today I signed the paperwork for a £365,000 contract to build another five experimental instruments, for which I now have to start the electronics design. And I had too much to do before that contract landed on my desk.

On the up-side, the fifth night, I went to the pub. After I had an episode of wallowing in self-pity about being an outsider, I was gently, but firmly, corrected on this misapprehension by various friends. And one of them suggested that perhaps we might setup a network of local mothers who liked going to the pub. Obviously, I bit her hand off at the elbow at this suggestion, and we have instituted an open-invitation policy to meet on the first Monday of every month. And so far a varying mix of mothers have turned out and we've had a blast. The chance to get out, let our hair down, complain about our children, families, jobs, houses, politics, religion and anything else we fancy with no fear of being judged has been brilliant. I got home from this little outing, however, to the following exchange with BigBear:

BB: Did you have a good time?
PB: Yes! I had beer!
BB: <sniffing> hmmm, you did, didn't you? Bitter I think.
PB: Of course if was bitter. That's what I drink.
BB: <sniffing some more> A bit like Wherry... no... a bit sweeter than that. More like Tribute.
PB: <indignant> You only know that because we went to the King Bill!
BB: Oh, I thought you went to the Red Lion...

I am left truly, deeply disturbed that I am married to a man who can identify the exact beer that I have drunk two pints of, just from the way I smell. It wasn't as if I'd been bathing in the stuff.