Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What were those languages?

Since posting my note about the languages used on the Western Australia bus system, TransPerth, I have had a lot of questions from people who didn't recognize several of them.
For those who are interested, here are some details on some of those that may not be familiar to our colleagues in the Western Hemisphere:
Amharic is a Semitic language spoken in North Central Ethiopia.
Dinka is a Nilotic language from Southern Sudan.
Karen is a group of tonal languages spoken by three million people in southern Burma, considered unusual among Tibeto-Burman dialects for not having any Chinese influence.
Kirundi is the Bantu language of 8.7 million Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi, Tanzania, Congo-Kinshasa and Uganda.
Dari is a variety of Persian spoken in Afghanistan.

So what we have here is not only an indication of some of the important groups immigrating to Perth over the centuries, but also in some cases the languages spoken by groups, who when they leave their homeland, march to the nearest ocean, and set sail in a perpendicular course away from the shore, the next significant piece of land they encounter happens to be Western Australia.

Monday, November 15, 2010

When in Rome...

Here's a handy tip for those of you working in a foreign country, or a different culture. If you want a quick overview of the demographics of the community you are working in, hop on the local public transport, whether it be bus, train, the tram at the international airport, or subway, and notice what languages are represented by the signage and announcements. Very telling.
In Houston, Texas, you are likely to see English, Spanish and Vietnamese. At the KLIA International Airport in Kuala Lumpur, announcements are made in Bahasa, English and Mandarin. On the Quebec subway signs are in French first and only grudgingly in smaller print in English, on the Tokyo train system, Japanese (and tellingly, ONLY Japanese!). The ferry from Helsinki, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia will print tickets in Finnish and Swedish, but not Estonian.

I recently gained some interesting insight into the Western Australia melting pot of cultures when I found myself gazing at the information placard on the TransPerth bus system. It was a veritable Rosetta Stone, with the same blurb repeated in:
English, Amharic, Arabic, Burmese, Chinese, Dinka, Farsi, Karen, Swahili, French, Kirundi and Dari.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Lessons Learned

Rare Earths are in the news (no not the disco band from the 70's, but the 17 elements and their alloys that are essential to many high tech applications), see: http://www.proactiveinvestors.com.au/companies/news/11256/china-rare-earths-are-not-a-bargaining-tool-11256.html, and since I am working in part for the mining industry these days, it took me back to my earliest encounters with these strange and wonderful outliers on the Periodic Table. In 1978 I was doing lab work in the Michigan State University geology department with Dr. Thomas Vogel, who was investigating immiscible magmas from Mt. Desert Island in Maine (the work was published in 1980: http://www.jstor.org/pss/30062379). My job was to grind up core plugs from opposite sides of flow boundaries in the samples and take them over to the nuclear reactor in the basement of the old Engineering building for neutron activation. Got to wear a dosimeter badge and then bring back the “hot” samples in the back of Vogel's Volvo station wagon surrounded by lead bricks. I've often wondered since how much stray radiation that vehicle picked up and what would have happened if he tried to drive it across the Canadian border with today's detection technology! Anyway we did neutron activation analysis using a pulse height analyzer attached through a teletype interface to the University CDC 6500 mainframe to store and analyze the data (high tech stuff at the time). I did the linear regression analysis to calibrate against standard samples on a programmable TI calculator that stored the programs on a magnetic card. And it was notable for me because it marked one of two key learnings for me early in my scientific career.
I remember distinctly we were plotting the relative abundances of the REE's based on the pulse heights from the multi-channel pulse height analyzer. I was fitting a best fit linear regression to the data, and Dr. Vogel wanted all the plots to go through the origin, because theoretically, with none of the element present, there should be no reading. Being the one doing the lab work, I knew from experience that there would always be some cross-contamination of samples, so I insisted that the plots should be a best fit to the real data and not include the origin as a valid data point. After a few discussions over beers at the Peanut Barrel, Dr. Vogel agreed, and the lab and data analysis procedures developed by a third-year undergraduate student went into the paper published by two PhD's and a Master's candidate. Lesson learned: never forget it's all about the rocks.

My willingness to argue the point was informed by an experience the summer before as a student geologist in Exuma Sound on the research vessel R/V Gillis out of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami (http://search.datapages.com/data/doi/10.1306/212F7B99-2B24-11D7-8648000102C1865D). We were mapping turbidites off the Bahamas using deep water piston coring and I was part of the deck crew. As one of the core barrels went over the side, I noticed that it did not look the same as the others, as if the weight drop had already been triggered or not set correctly, but I didn't say anything because I was just a student watching from the deck. Four hours later the barrel was retrieved with no sample and considerable waste of the ship's time.
Lesson learned: sometimes the junior members of the team are the ones who see things that the experienced hands have gotten complacent about. That's why a co-pilot can abort a takeoff and any member of an offshore rig crew can shut down the operation without retribution if they feel a procedure is unsafe.