Monday, January 31, 2011

Too Much Electronics

"Maybe I need one more lab coat. This one is too much electronics." 

- Bao Kong, referring to his lab coat's static electricity.

The past week could be appropriately described as warmly stimulating in scientific aspects while mind-numbingly cold outside. I think the two have balanced each other out for a fairly consistent overall experience.

The coldest day passed at -22C, with a windchill factor of -40C. On that day, I walked ten minutes from the bus stop home with 4 layers of clothing, and when I got inside Bao exclaimed "Wow, look at your face!"
I still have no idea what he was talking about, because I immediately sat on the kitchen chair, stared straight at the wall and tried to mentally accelerate my blood flow to wake my body up from cryostasis.

Now I know how frozen cell lines feel.

While acutely aware of the growing foci of this blog on trivial minutae, one can't help but express a number of qualms about the label on this laboratory refrigerator. My future ambition is now to work at a lab where they test claims such as these.

This particular myth is sure to be busted, due to the inescapable existence of a bigger possible explosion.

Ji-Young is a Korean post-doc in our Ottawa lab, bringing all of the necessary Korean quirkiness that every lab requires. In this photo, she's isolating rat follicles using a 40X objective and associated glassware. Rat follicles are the essence of the rat species, in the same way that flowers are the essence of beanstalks.

You can take the boy out of his local Toastmasters, but you can't take the Toastmaster out of the boy. That's because Toastmasterness is an intangible element that exists in fluidic space, parallel to our own universe. Last week I went to Above and Beyond Toastmasters, an advanced club also based at the hospital here.

I was mulling over signing up for a prepared speech at one of the clubs in Ottawa, but a schedule packed to the brim has ensured otherwise.

I enjoyed the night here and spoke during Table Topics.

Some time in the distant future, humanoid cyborgs will note that the ancestors of their Ewok friends once looked like this little fellow here.

I heard that a pack of starving squirrels once attacked and ate a small dog in Central Park, in a rare case of necessity-based carnivory. Either that or they had long wondered what dog tasted like.

A hookah is a special middle-eastern apparata for inhaling fruit flavoured tobacco fumes. The physics of the device are particularly fascinating, whereby the operator uses their diaphragm to create a localised region of low pressure in their lungs. Due to a myriad of pipes being the only avenue in existence between their lungs and the outside world, the weight of the atmosphere forces air past the smouldering tobacco and into a goldfish bowl. This bubbles as a result of gravity pulling more on the water than the air, allowing the fumes to dissipate upwards and into the unassuming windpipe of the operator. What the operator then does with the fumes is up to them.

I generally try to blow rings, like Gandalf.

Alaa and Nadeen are two extremely new students who joined the OHRI lab a week after I arrived here. They're Saudi Arabian, and good to hang out with. Both of them have their own pipe, and smoke their own favourite tobacco on surprisingly frequent occasions. Last week I found out that if you're in pleasant company, apple-flavoured tobacco smoke and Apple laptops are more than adequate to chill with, even if you don't have any furniture.

While acutely aware of the link between smoking and cancer, I've only recently understood that there also exists a link between smoking and making new friends in far away places.

Ottawa's Chinatown has a nice gate, nearby which Professor Tsang and I ate yum-cha, the circulating cart-themed dining experience colloquially known as dim-sum. Back in Adelaide, Hong's mum used to take us out on Sundays to yum-cha at Adelaide Chinatown's Mongkok restaurant.

My favourite dish is har gow: prawn dumplings steamed in mandatory bamboo containers.

The Rideau Centre is Canada's version of Westfield at Marion. The similar building layout, the names of the shops and the foodcourt all reflect the glorious global homogeneity of modern consumer culture. From this beehive of retail activity I purchased a pack of gum and some bus tickets.

There's no doubt in my mind that beer drinkers throughout the world can tell a HoneyBrown from a Moosehead, without having to take some kind of educational course that costs money. However, my beer tongue is slightly less sophisticated and can only distinguish between polar comparisons like Miller Light versus Guinness.

Canadian beer tastes good to me. One brand in particular is imaginatively named 'Canadian.'

Downtown Ottawa reminds me of downtown Adelaide. For those rare few who have had the luxury of visiting both, Ottawa's Bank Street is Adelaide's King William Rd. And the Byward Market Road is Rundle Street.

The resemblance is uncanny.

This is downtown Ottawa at night, with the canal serving much the same aesthetic role as The Torrens does for Adelaide. Only ours remains unfrozen during the winter months. And our winter months also have enough sunshine to give your regular Ottawite a tan. Speaking of which, I still haven't found an answer to the question of how to refer to an Ottawa resident.
Ottawanians, perhaps?

In fact, apart from our Québécois friends, most of the names for Canadian city residents continue to elude me. Possibly on purpose.

Torontinos? Vancouvorians?

I wonder who's responsible for such nomenclature, and how I can find them.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Skating on Thick Ice

"No, you can't leave the laptop in the car. It'll freeze."

- Professor Tsang to Dr Sridaran (highlighting climate differences between Canada and India)

When the windchill is lower than minus 25 degrees, frostbite can set in on exposed skin within a few minutes. And according to the radio, if you mumble, fumble and stumble, it's a sign that you're suffering from hypothermia.

Either that, or you've been drinking too much Moosehead.

This is the bus stop right outside our house. In order to keep warm, I continually shift my weight from my left foot to my right foot, at a rate of approximately 60 kilohertz.
By the time the bus has arrived, I've usually melted myself two rather impressive foot-shaped grooves into the icy ground. Sometimes when it's really cold, I try to melt my way back to Australia.

But not every day is cold and dreary. Some days you can even see what colour the parked cars are.
Here in Ottawa, I'm beginning to think of snow as a friendly reminder of warmer times. Moreover, the sky at higher latitudes has a cleaner tint to it, which I'm sure has a fascinating scientific explanation. It gets dark around 5pm too, which is great for reducing my melanoma risk.

Seasonal Affective Disorder has been granted no foothold in the eye of this blogger's mind.

And of course, one can always warm up at Toastmasters. Being the international behemoth of social pleasantness that it is, I was invited to a club night on campus as a representative of the greatest club in the universe, SRTM.

The Ottawa Hospital Toastmasters Club is held in the Kaminski room of the main building and meets on Monday nights at 7:30pm.

If you're ever down this way, you should drop by. They're a very friendly bunch and do things a little differently to what we do back home. For example, they have a warm-up and a 'Thought for the Day.'

Some of them are French speakers with exotic accents. I thoroughly enjoyed my time here and hope to visit again before I leave. And that's not just because of the accents. There's some good speaking going on too.

On my flight over, the attendant who checked my boarding pass greeted me with "Bonjour." That made me blink a little, until I realised that my surname really is more befitting of a French Canadian than a Korean Australian. The Farrands hail from Huguenot origins in western France and their lineage can be traced through the Scottish highlands.
And I happen to be adopted by them.

Previously, I only knew a couple of French words. Those words were chocolat (chocolate) and parachute (parachute). And also I guess, by default, chocolat parachute.

Now my French is starting to pick up. Guy de Maupassant would be proud, if he were still alive. These days I can say all sorts of things in French, such as... sortie (exit), and... crème de la crème (cream of the crop).

And also I guess, crème de la sortie.

My goal is to be fluent before my departure.

This is where I spend the days, in the Loeb Building at the Ottawa Hospital Parkdale campus. Note the large pile of snow to the left in the photo above. It was shoveled there by a large shoveling device, of which Canadians have many. If I were a large giant with an affinity for collecting large shoveling machinery, I'd call this place home.

And I'd just like to point out that all of those little snowflakes happen to be unique, just like humans.

This is Bao Kong, in the confocal microscopy room.

Me and Bao get along like a house on fire. Even in a snowstorm. His last name is Kong, which means 'bean' in Korean. A more frivolous friend could possibly refer to him as Mr Bean, but I refrain from partaking in such activities.

To the best of my ability.

We Australians are not well-known for our figure skating prowess. We are, however, famous for giving things a go. The main canal through Ottawa freezes over during the winter and transforms into the second largest skating rink in the world. Like all warm-blooded Aussies, I could not resist the opportunity to walk on water.

Professor Tsang lent me his skates, and his jacket too. Another jacket I bought from Korea that looked warm to me, merely aroused a frown from him. Now I travel the streets of Ottawa sporting a rather rugged Columbia jacket that I believe has real fur that was once keeping some unfortunate animal quite warm.

Luckily for me, I'm only a part-time vegetarian.

Here's Yingying and me, jacketed up and ready to hit the ice, in a sprawling manner. 

Actually I thought I did quite well, and was only flat-bottomed once or twice, or perhaps three times.

The Rideau canal has an enormous surface area, and one could conceivably skate to one's heart's own contentedness. Which was what was done by this awkwardly speaking, and skating, blogger.

The Professor told me that some people skate to work in the mornings.

At night, lights come on in the distance and you suddenly become aware of the vastness of the ice block that you're standing on. In some parts, where there are no people, the solitude is quite peaceful.

I was reminded of Buzz Aldrin's firsthand description of the moon: "Magnificent desolation."

Except for the people and lights.

Yingying and Ji-Young having a good time. They're both studying follicular development and Ji-Young says that rat follicles look 'cute' under the microscope. If you know Ji-Young, you'd know that this is not a particularly unusual statement coming from her.

My fourth favourite food in the world is Mexican. Here they do it pretty well.

Taking a photo of people taking photos - is this a case of metacircularity?

We ended the day with our professor, who spent the day working on his laptop in the restaurant. Professor Tsang will be returning to Korea soon after I get back, for a semester that I'm sure will be an interesting one. For the meantime though, I need to stay focused and do the things that need to be done.

Two weeks down, and two more to go. 

So far, so good.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

100K hits

Yesterday night, the hit count on this blog's overperforming sitemeter clicked past the 100,000 mark. An arbitrary value perhaps, but this little blog author welcomes any excuse for a celebration.

A big thanks go to you, the readers, for all your kind comments over the years, as well as all of the people who have been a part of life worth posting about. Of particular mention is my wonderful wife, who is currently 5 months pregnant and looking after herself in Seoul until February, when I return. I'll continue to blog for the foreseeable future and will try to make it more interesting and informative as time goes on.

Here's to the next 100K!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Life in Canada

"As cold as cold can be, during the coldest of times, in a land of coldness." 
- description of Ottawa in January, Lee Farrand.

Before coming to Canada, the only things I knew about this place I learned from the South Park song 'Blame Canada.'
I've since determined that song to be an oversimplified parody. During my short sojourn here thus far, I've developed a strong affinity for all things Canadian. I like the twinkling snowflakes in the morning. I like the Canadian flags on the local snowploughs. And sweeping generalisations aside, I like the intensity of French Canadians.

The only drawback is that when the wind blows, it's as cold as a witch's nipple buried in solid methane ice on the dark side of Pluto.

In the weeks up until my arrival, Professor Tsang was trying to find accommodation for me here. There aren't many options for a one-month stay. Luck arrived, in the form of Bao Kong, one of the PhD students in the OHRI lab. He has his own place, with his son and wife, as well as two other Chinese students. We all go shopping together on Saturdays. The house is nice, and I've got my own little basement and bathroom.

They've been very gracious hosts and Bao even came to the airport to pick me up at midnight.

This little fellow is Ethan, Bao and Wei Wei's three year old son. He's a good little boy and speaks English to me and Mandarin to his parents. Sometimes he offers me sweets covered in toddler goo ('You waaant?').
In the third photo here, he's watching over a large bowl of rice just outside the back door. We put it out there to harden it up to make fried rice, and he was making sure no neighbourhood squirrels got their paws into it. With such a fearsome Keeper of the Rice standing guard, the squirrels were reduced to shivering hesitation from unseen vantage points among snow-covered branches.

Being able to cook reasonably well is my third most important design feature. I haven't settled on what the first two are yet. Since Friday, I've cooked three times for the Kong family and it seems to have hastened my ready access to the kitchen and all manner of utensils.

Three essential ingredients to seal the deal, that I haven't been able to find here: unwhipped cream (carbonara), coconut milk (laksa) and Elephant Brand thick soy sauce (soft pork belly).

I'm based at the Ottawa Hospital Civic Campus, a sprawling medical institute not far from downtown Ottawa.

It's good. Minds are active here.

This is what beeps me into the building every morning. On the black card is a list of colours that signify particular emergencies. A code red announced on the loudspeakers means fire/feu, a code orange means disaster/un désastre and a code white is a 'Violent Behavioural Situation/Comportement agressif ou violent.

An ice hockey game is therefore a code white situation.

After four years of the ubiquitous overpriced coffee-flavoured hot water they sell at cafes in Korea, I had quite forgotten that the same was not true for the rest of the world. Coffee here tastes like coffee. It's like drinking a hot cup filled with capitalized letters and exclamation marks.

And if the general rule of thumb were to be that coffee should be cheaper than sandwiches, the score would be 1:0 to Canada.

This is the farm belonging to the agricultural department, over the road from the hospital. Patrik gave me a cyber tour around here, long before my arrival. We had a look along this road using Google Earth street view and so when I actually arrived, the force of the deja vu led me to believe there was yet another glitch in the Matrix.

The graduate student culture here is similar to Australia and worryingly more vibrant than what we have in Korea. Open seminars are held frequently, with students and professors often interrupting powerpoint presentations with inquisitive questions. Student presentations in Korea are rare, and frequently consist of 30 minutes of overdescribed technical details, followed by a half-hearted applause and perhaps a single question from one of the professors. What goes on here is much more 2-way interaction, free from the hierarchical nature of Korean education and the need to save face. 

One of the reasons I'm over here is to bring ideas and experience back home. There are some restrictions to what we can do in Korea, but there's also a lot of excellent points and the time is ripe for change. The way I see it, change is necessary, and we'll definitely be testing the design specifications of the World Class Universities program at SNU.

For the time being though, I need to do a lot more and work harder. This little blogger has much to learn, and the Canadian education system has lots to teach.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Chronicles of Ottawa

"Let me tell you something. It's my first time wearing long underwear, and I'm thrilled."

Mildly dazed from an abrupt change in timezone, I stepped onto Canadian soil at 11:59pm  EST. Various warbled thoughts scrolled across my mind, like the digital messages on Ottawa Airport's looming timetable billboard. Baggage, in French, is bagage.

"Yes, bagage. That's what I need to pick up."

Air Canada provided a fairly pleasant ride over. A small exception to the experience was a yapping chihuahua in a cage, about 3 rows down. I didn't know that you could bring dogs into the passenger area.

Well there you have it, you can.

The constant yapping though, was not a fair trade-off for the small amount of new knowledge gained from the ordeal. You're not allowed to bring nail clippers onto a plane, but you're allowed to bring a potentially well-trained killer terrorist chihuahua. Not to mention that the dog itself could be full of explosive liquids.

Where was I? Oh yes, bagage.

Ottawa's airport is fairly well designed, and I was able to locate my bagage by following the ample signage even though my brain's CPU was running at only 25% capacity.

An amiable PhD student called Bao came and picked me up. Heading into the suburbs of Ottawa, it struck me that Canada looks a lot like Australia, but covered with snow. The traffic lights are extremely similar, as are the wide open spaces and large numbers of caucasians walking around. Perhaps I've been in Korea a little too long. By the time the odometer in Bao's Hyundai Sonata had clicked up ten kilometres from the airport, I had formed my first conclusion about Canada.
Canada is quite similar to Australia. And I love Australia.

Long live the Commonwealth!

With that jubilant thought ringing in my mind, I soon fell fast asleep in the Land of Maple Leaves/Syrup. 

I'm here for a month of overseas research experience, funded by our department. My professor is based here and I'm going to be in his lab, shadowing some unfortunate PhD candidates and slowing them down with my Australian accent and learning speed.

During my time here, I hope to see a bit of Ottawa and learn a lot of new laboratory know-how.

Also high on my agenda is to see a muskox and a sundog.

These are muskoxen  (Ovibos moschatus).

Warm, wise and probably unfriendly.

This is what a sundog looks like.

And here's what Bao's street looks like. I haven't seen any muskoxen around these parts, but I have yet to check out his backyard.

This week I'm scheduled to get rid of my jetlag and learn more about this strange icy country and the lab protocols contained within.

Will report back soon. Stay warm and stay tuned.