Thursday, June 26, 2008

Nominative Determinism at Argonne

I read that a scientist at Argonne named Khalil Amine received a performance award this week. Another example of nominative determinism, though I rather think he should be an organic chemist rather than being involved with batteries.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Fine country for old men

This is my third summer at Argonne National Laboratory; each time I enter its gates I feel as if I am going back in time thirty years. Is it the buildings, the people or both? Argonne began to take shape after the Second World War as nuclear energy research was wisely moved from its location at the University of Chicago. Buildings have been added over the years; but until recently they have all followed the same drab low, red-brick style. I work in 205 which is the home of the historical Chemical Engineering Technology Division (CMT - always curious as to how CMT derives from that name), though a reorganization late last year has the name changed to Chemical Science and Engineering (CSE). Outwardly little has changed. The interior of 205 is fantastically drab and depressing; not a single cent has been spent on decor or upkeep. The floors, wall coverings and furniture are ancient (there are apparently some WWII surplus desks floating around), dull and sterile and appear to have never been subjected to rehabilitation. The lavs are a delight to anyone interested in WC archeology, though perhaps less inviting to those who enjoy their evacuations in modern shiny porcelain. I wondered if it was just me so I shared my observations with my office mate, who joined Argonne about five years ago from Northwestern. She admitted to being in culture shock for about six months after arriving from the comparative luxury and modernity of NU; and she had been a graduate student.

A fascinating feature of 205 is the haphazard layout of labs. There is no rhyme or reason to it; the labs belonging to the various groups are randomly dotted throughout the building making lengthy treks along corridors from one to another part of the routine. Occasionally one is required to ascend an ancient grey iron staircase into a gloomy attic where will be revealed a secret room containing perhaps an NMR spectrometer or XRD machine.

The walls of 205 are hung with rows of aging black and white portraits of its storied engineers and scientists. They are stereotypes of the fifties scientist: male, short hair, tie, glasses. One looks up and finds the living members of 205 to be little different from the faces staring down from the walls; in some cases they are the same ones. Argonne is an aging population: too old, too white and too male, or so it seems. Because of, or maybe in spite of all this, Argonne is a center of basic research across many scientific frontiers. The cracked avocado tiles in the lavs not withstanding, my annual exposure to its inner workings are a rewarding experience.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Splendor in the grass

The SSCP and his moll indulged in a rare taste of culture en plein air and a little dejeuner sur l'herbe the other weekend when they took in ELH's concert at Morton Arboretum just down the road in Lisle. It is a sure sign of encroaching middle age when a two-mile drive seems like a major adventure. I find it a little odd to find myself, a one-time hardcore Rolling Stones fan, now getting all misty-eyed over a similarly aging country star. Not sure exactly how it happened but it might have been the evening I turned on Prairie Home Companion (another sure sign of age) to hear Mark Knopfler and ELH sharing their then new Road Running album. About once every two decades I hear a transcendent song and If This is Goodbye was one such. Of course, being a huge Dire Straits fan FROM THE VERY BEGINNING (not just from that infernally popular song about fridges) didn't do any harm.

Anyway, the Arb, as we affectionately call the salt king's garden, was the perfect locale for ELH's mellifluous, melodic, melancholic music; as we sat back in the fading light the songs swirled among the rustling leaves of a pleasant summer evening.

The occasion was not without its annoying aspects though: surprisingly biting insects was not one of them but the other humanity there was. Perhaps I have led a sheltered life and know not the ways of the modern world; but when I attend an event of the performing arts, it is my expectation that the audience is indeed there to be auditors: silent listeners in other words, and participants only when called upon. It seems I am mistaken; for at the Arb, at our somewhat distant location from the stage, the gentle vocals of ELH had to compete, often unsuccessfully, with the constant, clanging chatter of the crowd. Does this happen at the theatre, at the Lyric, even at the local cinema? I think not for the most part. Okay, being a college professor (not that kind of doctor) means I am not the world's wealthiest man, but I still think $50 is a significant sum for most people (to put it in perspective we are inclined to wait for films to make the rounds of the Glen ($6.50) and tolerate the ancient seats and the sticky floors); so why do they bother to spend $50 just to sit and chat. One woman in front chose the beginning of the set to show the rest of her group some photos on her camera; our view of the stage was compromised by the girth of her not inconsiderable rear end. To our left two young women continued an animated conversion in which one of them had her back to the stage the entire time; fortunately she left early. Why bother coming in the first place?

The other notable about the event was the TSA-like rigour with which the Arb staff interrogated our "carry-ons." Although we were not required to remove our shoes, belts or even trousers, the contents of the picnic baskets were subject to intense scrutiny for any contraband drink. Not that drinking was not permitted; only that drink purchased on the grounds was permitted. How I was quaking with fear as the Argentine Torrontes secreted in one of those ridiculously expensive environmentally conscious (supposedly) SIGG metallic bottles was likely to be exposed. Fortunately, the indolent youth that search our bag did not bother to open it, and we were able to dull the pain of the ceaseless chatter without recourse to the local beverage.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Night of the long knife

The Tuesday after Memorial Day began my third sojourn at Argonne National Labs, working with some COD students in the newly named Chemical Science and Engineering Division (it used to be CMT - Chemical Engineering Technology - how does one get CMT out of that?) on fuel cells. The previous day we had indulged in a quiet and meditative stroll around Oak Park gazing enviously at all the Frank Lloyd Wright houses and their knock-offs, remarking at the alarming number of Obama signs in front lawns. The day did not pass completely without incident as there was a tense moment at Poor Phil's over some incorrectly identified Three Floyds Dreadnaught. Just for the record, it's not Dreadnaught, despite their claims; but at least we didn't pay for it.

Anyway, back to the Tuesday, I did not get to read my e-m until early evening and so was completely shocked upon opening the mailbox to find an "Official Communication" informing the "transitioning" of President Sunil Chand to the position of "President Emeritus" effective immediately. In other words he had been whacked that very day, on the quiet of a Tuesday after Memorial Day, with all the students and most of the faculty gone to the country, in a hastily gathered and private board meeting. The gang of thugs, dummies and failed political hopefuls that is the BoT of COD had just performed its Soprano-esque dispatch of our leader.

Trustees of the College of DuPage regularly take the opportunity to say when the microphone is on that decisions are made with the interests of taxpayers in mind. Many decisions that have been made call this into question however. For the second time in five years the college will be paying for two presidents as Dr. Chand is under contract and a replacement, Hal McAninch, he of the Arts Center, had to be brought in as interim. The likely cost of this as-yet unexplained move is about $400,000. History reveals several other questionable costly actions by the Board. Notable examples include $650,000 for a parking lot that was never used, and $90,000 for a PR firm hired preemptively without discussion with the administration. One could go on: the soccer stadium fantasy, the Costa Rica cock-up...

More damaging to the COD infrastructure than these individual actions is the Board's intrusive, bullying and meddling style. Research revealed a review of the college performed in 1999 – 2000 by James Fisher, Ltd. In this breathtakingly scathing report the Board is described as being "…persistently guilty of inappropriate interference in the college's operations." There are other gems too: "Many of its actions provide text book case studies of how a board of control should not exercise its responsibilities."

Clearly the present group has neither read from nor heeded the message. Concerned taxpayers have a right to hear explanations about expensive and disruptive Board decisions. They also have opportunity and responsibility to make changes. There are four seats up for election in 2009. I urge voters to choose candidates that are committed to creating a board dedicated to strategic long-term governance rather than costly micro-management.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

FIA endorses spanky

As predicted in this column several days ago, Max Mosley was able to hang on to his seat on the FIA more successfully than he holds on to his trousers when there are whip-lashing prostitutes around. The margin of victory, 103-55, was larger than I had anticipated. Motoring federations around the world appear comfortable to have their figurehead indulge in S&M orgies in his "private" life.

The vote is not truly representative of the importance of the member organizations. As Paul Stoddart (an entrepreneurial former F1 owner from Australia that patrician Max despises) remarked, 80 % of the countries that voted yes people wouldn't be able to recognize. Those that voted no include places like American and Germany, and manufacturers of some note - Honda, Toyota... What does it matter that the United Arab Emirates chief of motorsport was fulsome in his support of the trouser-less one? Motorsport in the United Arab Emirates? Something about turbo-charged camels I suppose.

What these rich folks who get to play at being important in things like the FIA will find when they get to play favourites is that people will realize they don't need them. It is already happening with organizations that matter already leaving. Does the FIA actually do anything important? Certainly not for F1.