I am scientist by training, inclination and temperament. However, this is a blog, not a lab. The title reflects my passion for hyperbole, so don't take me too seriously. I don't. I was a technician in a physiology lab, got my PhD in molecular genetics and neuroscience, was a postdoctoral fellow in biophysics and now am a Project Manager in a Clinical Science/Biomedical Informatics institute. I am a scientific jack-of-all-trades, and very happy because of it. I write about science that catches my eye, making the transition away from the lab bench, and the slightly odd and moist boundary where science culture meets the public. I am an Englishman by birth, an American by temperament and if I were you I wouldn't lend me money.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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Originally published at www.lablit.com
It’s the time of year dreaded by most motorists – when your car has to be subjected to its annual road-worthiness test. Over here in the States things are done a little differently from the UK’s standard MOT. For starters, each state sets its own standards. This is very handy if, say, you’re my friend Rob, an impoverished Ph.D. student living in Pennsylvania, but hailing originally from West Virginia. Pennsylvania driving standards, though by no means strict, are positively draconian compared to those from neighboring West Virginia, a state the size of Ireland with the population of Birmingham. Therefore enterprising young academics like Rob simply kept their cars registered in West Virginia and, once a year, made a trip home to get the car inspection done. This often seemed to entail nothing more than someone adding yet more duct tape to the undercarriage in an effort to stop the transmission dropping out. Just ignore the plumes of foul-smelling and highly toxic fumes pouring from his exhaust pipe – there’s no way one state will impinge on the rights of another. No siree! Let’s just hope there’s no Pennsylvanians nearby when she finally blows up.
I’m now living in Tennessee, in the Mid-South of the US. In the interests of journalistic integrity, and on the lookout for more fun facts, I visited the CIA website and can reliably inform you, with the full weight of this august national institution behind me, that Tennessee is slightly smaller than Bulgaria and slightly larger than Guatemala. For reference, the UK is slightly smaller than Oregon. Oregon is about a third larger than Tennessee; therefore, Tennessee is about two-thirds the size of the UK. However, the UK has about 630 people per square mile, whereas we only have 133. So, Tennessee is really rather big, and also comparatively sparsely populated.
This mathematical and geographic preamble leads to the following point: because Tennessee is like West Virginia, in the size vs. population ratio, we too have fairly lax car inspection rules. You quite literally drive into a large shed and prove that your headlights, brake lights, indicators and wipers work. A nice, uniformed gentleman then violates your car’s right to privacy by sticking a sensor up its exhaust, and providing the output is no worse than the smog over Tehran, you’re good to go. I went through this a year ago when I moved down here. I think my surprise and naiveté were evident by my disbelieving “But, is that it?” at every step of the process.
Now, a year later, it was time for me to go again. I carried with me the surety that the test would go as smoothly because, only a few weeks before, I had to spend over $1000 on car repairs. Mostly my fault; I accidentally forgot to change the oil for a few thousand miles. And kind of forgot to get the 50,000 mile inspection done. Little things, really. So imagine my surprise when the nice man with the probe said I had failed my inspection (notice the “my” – it really does get terribly personal).
“Failed?” I cried.
“Now lookit here in yonder mirror,” – pronounced mirr’ – “and that taillight don’t work.”
That was the gist of our conversation, but he assured me that all I had to do was replace the bulb and come back, at which point they’d confirm the lights worked and I’d pass inspection. This seemed, at the time, like excellent news. After all, how hard could it be to change a brake light?
About two days later I had finally found an auto-store which carried the right kind of light bulb. Who would have guessed that my car manufacturer would change their mind half way through production of the particular model I drive and altere the bulb specifications? Nonplussed, I girded my loins and, light bulb in hand, strode to the trunk of car and got ready to install it. I have Ph.D. in molecular genetics. I can splice together genes. How hard could it be to change a light bulb?
Now, I’m a scientist by both training and long experience. One thing that clearly defines scientists is that we love a puzzle. We’re professionally curious, highly trained problem solvers; the more abstract the puzzle the better. So you can imagine my cries of delight when I opened the trunk of my car and found that the “easy access” panel I had expected was actually a hermetically sealed unit.
In the lab setting, when one is faced with a dilemma like this, there are two steps to be taken. Firstly, one consults a fellow professional for advice. This often saves a lot of time because an expert will be able to guide you through the initial steps of a new preparation or experiment. Secondly, or firstly if there is no professional to consult, one turns to the literature. Scientists live by the maxim publish or perish. In my field, about thirty high-profile scientific papers are published every month, as well as countless “lower profile” ones. Naturally, that’s a lot of reading, but it’s also a great resource when tackling a new problem.
I looked around my parking lot for the requisite professional and noticed a dearth of auto mechanics. Not too surprising considering that I was in the parking lot of a medical school. The second natural step was therefore to consult the literature. Ph.D. metaphorically in hand, I opened the glove compartment and fetched out the User’s Guide – an invaluable thesis that has helped me numerous times to locate arcane pieces of equipment like the oil gauge dibber thingy, the wiper fluid holder thingy and the spare tire. This time, however, I was undone.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult on modern cars for the user to replace burned out bulbs,” it began. Well, no shit Sherlock, I thought, you’ve hermetically sealed the fucking access panel. The manual continued: “Hardest of all are the front lights due to the proximity of the engine. It is suggested you consult your local professional dealer for all necessary repairs.” I’m sure you can see the obvious non sequitur in that statement: I needed to change the rear light. And I’m expected to pay someone $60 an hour to do a two minute job for a $2 part. I think not.
When a scientist has availed him or herself of the two primary options and found them wanting, there is but one recourse: The Internet. God bless search engines. Back in the lab, I located a site explaining how to enter the sealed access panel and change the tail light. During this process, I discovered some new features about my car. For example, the highly skilled technician who changes rear lights for $60 an hour would have had to use a flat head screwdriver to wrench open the sealed access panel. And even more exciting was the discovery that you have to remove the whole light fitting, cover and all, and replace the bulb from the outside. Thankfully I also discovered that my “modern” car is built like a child’s Lego set and is mostly constructed of snap-together plastic parts.
I like to think my highly trained scientific mind was of great use to me as I applied The Scientific Method to solve a novel and interesting problem. Perhaps in the long run it was – it certainly saved me $60 and the humiliation of going to a mechanic for such a trivial problem. In the short term, however, I have to dash off and get the trunk of my car re-sprayed, have the boot-dents knocked out of the side panels and then head to court to appeal my citation for public indecency.
Fortunately, I’m pretty sure that screaming abuse at a car in a public lot is covered by my right to free speech.
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Yay!! I love this post, almost as much as I love not having a car.
Where I am there are no car inspections. Some of the things considered "vehicles" here are a sight to see...
@Becca: I miss my easy, carefree and cheap BMW days from DC (bus, metro, walk)
@Odyssey: really?! No inspection? Wow.
There's no vehicle inspection in California, aside from a smog check every two years for a car over six years old.
I'm impressed you were able to dent the side panels. I'm also surprised by the lack of weekend grease monkies amongst the MDs. Not a single one constructed a kit car? For shame.
We don't even have inspections here in Florida and it shows. I get stuck behind oil burning beaters all the time. I feel like I'm going to get black lung living in this state.
huh, I thought TN was backward, but the more I look the more I find we have rather progressive laws!
Speaking of certificates metaphorically in hand. I keep my PhD hanging above the toilet so that when I take a piss I am reminded that the most important people for keeping the populace healthy are plumbers and not scientists or medics.
Are incredibly profound!
I have mine mounted in my office because I am vain, narcissistic and want people to know, the minute they walk in, that I have an inferiority complex.
On the subject of Vinny Jones
1. A soccer player
3. Can act
Can anybody name another example or is Vinny a one off?
I wanted "auto mechanic rage" on Google images. I ended with VJ (gone in 60s).
you win the secret prize of one new Internets Dollar!
My PhD certificate is at my parents' house, with my BSc certificate and birth certificate.
My Mum won't let me have them.
It's a hangover from my student and postdoc days when I moved house at least once a year, on average - she was scared I'd lose them in the move. But even though I now own my own place and have lived in it for four years with no plans to move, I'm not allowed to have my certificates!
I have no car, so I don't know much about our local testing regulations, although I do know they have to pass an emissions test. I still enjoyed your post very much though!
@antipodean Hmm, I think I might have to take issue with number 3. He's in plenty of films, not so sure he can actually act though. And technically it should be 'was' a football player. He's definitely hard though, maybe I shouldn't be questioning his acting abilities, you never know he might read this!
What about Eric Cantona, he's been in a few films?
To make things even more complicated, don't forget that things can indeed vary by county. When I lived in Tennessee, I also lived in one of the few counties that required emissions testing. Part of this invovled checking the computer codes if the car was a 1995 or newer model. Mine, of course, was a 1995... that liked to light up the 'check engine' light for no real reason.
Inspection, round 1: Failed, due to computer code. Not necessarily any real problem, just a computer code. Nevermind that if my car had been one year older they wouldn't have bothered checking it.
Fortunately, I have a trusty expert to consult--my dad is a mechanic. He happened to let slip one day that if you disconnect the battery cable for about 30 min, the computer resets, and all the codes cleared. Being a poor grad student, this seemed the best option. Check engine light went off. Yay! Back to the station.
Inspection, round 2: Failed, because the car had not been running long enough to gather enough data to have any codes to read (i.e. 'insufficient data).
So I drove it around a day. Then went back.
Inspection, round 3: Passed!
This worked for a couple of years... then no longer. The catalytic converter had to be replaced. First quote on this model was $600 or so. Which sucked. Then 15 min after we dropped it at the shop, we got a call saying it would be over $3000!!! Because if was a V6... and they would have to take out the ENGINE to replace what was actually 2 converters and a pre-converter. Since the car wasn't even worth that much, the mechanic recommended against service... and suggested switching the plates for the inspection prior to registration We had planned to give this car to a family member anyway, so we advanced the schedule, as said person lived in a state not requiring emissions test.
I live in a big-ass city with pollution issues. It's pretty much bend over and grab your ankles every time you go in for ye annual auto inspection.
@Cath: Mom (mum) and dad bugged me for five years for a copy (original) PhD cert. I don't get a replacement though, so I ended up getting them a very high repo copy for the Wall of Family Fame (where I have top billing. not only did I finish high school, but I fucked us all up by going a bit further...)
@Jadede: How..."hard"..is Mr. Jones?
@Bbelle: My drinking partner has run out patience with my internetting. My reply must till the tomorrow..LOve you.
The state immediately south of TN also doesn't have inspections. I drove my poor little car to Current State and sold it a couple of weeks later as it would have failed the annual emmissions test here and it would have cost more to fix it than it was worth.
"@Bbelle: My drinking partner has run out patience with my internetting. My reply must till the tomorrow..LOve you."
Yes, Tiddles, when you start referring to yourself in the third person, it's time to take a break
@PiT: I'm glad they're as lax as they are here. I'd fail a UK M.O.T. And I think my car is now worth about $200, so no point in investingg in fixes...
@BB/DB: I was sharing a quiet beer or two with The Grand Inquisitor, I'll have you know.
@Tideliar Well according to wikipedia he was in that "soccer's hard men" video, was banned for "bringing the game into disrepute", was banned again for receiving more than 40 disciplinary points, was a hod carrier (carried big containers of bricks on his shoulders). Fairly hard I'd say!
I know what a hod is :)
Yeah, VJ is a fucking thug. Everyone knows this picture right?
I'm sure you in your infinite wisdom do know what a hod is, but I'm guessing many of our American friends won't have a bloody clue, hence my friendly little translation!
Hey, if the RTFM method didn’t work, I would go directly to the brute force method.
Another option, which usually works if you’re a girl, would be to go somewhere like Napa and purchase the $2 part, and then smile and ask the man at the store if he can ‘help you replace the bulb’. It’s worked for me on several occasions. Even in the pouring rain. *I say man at the store, since I have yet to ever see a woman working there, though I am sure she would be a customer fav.
I have at least one too many penises to pull that ploy I'm afraid.
I bought the part, wrenched the cover off, took out the light fixture, unbuilt the light, then stepped on the fucking bulb. Dude.Fuck.Sigh.
Everyone knows this picture right?
I was at that game! The only time I ever stood on the terraces. Terrifying, not long after Hillsborough, and my head was at the same height as the concrete bars people rested their beers on.
Bloody hell Cath! I was banned from Vicarage Road after Hillsborough. Took years (and substantial changes) before I was allowed to another game.
Yeah, my Dad and I got seats for the first two games I went to, but I'd never been to an FA cup game before and my uncle (well, I call him Uncle Martin but he's really my Dad's adopted cousin's husband) got a group of tickets. I was keen to go, but regretted it (and so did my Dad!). Although actually the drive back to my uncle's house, up the motorway from Newcastle to Morpeth, was much scarier - he had one of those old vans with wooden bench seats in the back running the length of the van. No seat belts, and he was a terrifying driver even when he was sober, which my Dad told me a few years later he almost certainly wasn't that day!
The Geordie part of my family tree has some very interesting branches!
And I just shelled out $500 to get my car past the PA state
extortion inspection. Can't pull the WV trick anymore. I didn't have to deal with inspections when I lived in Wyoming - the population was so low that one car was not likely to ever encounter another. Well, not really, but I think you are on to something with the population density hypothesis. I also liked your Tennessean pronunciation of mirror. In West Virginia, "tire" is pronounced "tar". Just to stick with the vehicular theme.
Hello mate! I didn't know you'd moved back to PA. I heard some of the other crew are back there too. I'm homesick for State College TBH.
Funny! And Vinnie Jones definitely suits your style.
The thing you didn't mention about the VJ-Gazza photo is that Gazza actually grabbed Jones' hand, and placed on his winky. Hence his look of distinctly pleased satisfaction.
I've had my motor for a year (after a lifetime of BMW), and just realised I also have to change the a rear lightbulb. I shall be attempting to replicate your carefully detailed methodology before too long. Especially as the manual tells me removing the covering requires a cross-head screwdriver, yet it's clearly one of those 6 pointed fuckers. And I've lost my 6 pointed fucker unscrewermibob. I shall therefore employ a steel toe-capped unscrewer in lieu of this, accompanied by the Scottish martial arts scream "Ya-cunto!".
@Khalil: Thanks LOL, I'll take that as a complement. Certainly his persona at the end of "Lock, Stock & 2 Smoking Barrels" (head in the car door scene) mimics my attitude when a grad student broke my filter cubes on my 'scope once.
@TFM: "Get tae fuck ya 'doirty, soap dodging, Weegie bastard!" seemed to work for opening the panel (! kick/noun). :) Thanks for stopping by, and I expect full documentation of your efforts. I've tried to fix mine twice now and the fucking thing is sitting outside my house undrivable. I might need your support.
I'm disappointed to report that an Alan key worked, all too easily - even though it was a Torx fitting (which wikipedia helpfully informs me is generically called a hexalobular internal driving feature). However, I shall save some of my pent up vernacular for the 2nd draft of a cover letter for a revised manuscript I plan to work on tomorrow.
Honestly, any reviewer who makes a vague reference to 2 different stats books, along the lines of "I think this might be dealt with somewhere in one or other of those" deserves to be sworn at. Profusely. And to be set about by Vinnie Jones and a car door. And possibly to have their own submission rights rescinded. Chuffin bawbags.
What a hassle. With all that going on, are you still intending to re-review the SfN blogs?
Hi Bride. I'm going to try and get to it before I leave, of course. I'm slammed at the moment though and finding the time is hard. My apologies to all....