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Boris' IoT blog posts moved...

Well, they may still be here, but Boris’ IoT blog posts and tinker experiments are now available at iot.ghost.io.

Hosted Node-RED without budget

This blog post about Node-RED has moved: https://iot.ghost.io/hosted-node-red-without-budget/

How to make a battery last forever...

This blog post about power saving has moved: https://iot.ghost.io/how-to-make-a-battery-last-forever/

Introduction to the Internet-of-Things with Know Cards

This blog post about Know Cards has moved: https://iot.ghost.io/introduction-to-the-internet-of-things-with-know-cards/

Using SunSprite like an IoT device

This blog post about SunSprite and Node-RED has moved: https://iot.ghost.io/using-sunsprite-like-an-iot-device/

Writing therapy - Part III

This one should be called: When the Cloud bites you in the arse.

When I hear the term “digital nomad”, I oftentimes associate that with the modern scientist: The times are over when science was done in a cosy laboratory, and research notes were written into a big heavy book by candle light. Especially in the life sciences, it seems that i-products have become the norm as research tools. There’s a desktop machine in the lab. Maybe there’s another one at home. There’s a laptop for travels and presentations, and the occasional frantic grant writing in airport lounges. There’s a tablet for reading the literature and taking notes in seminars. Phone cameras are easily at hand and often written information is no longer copied, but just photographed. And, hell, my sequencing machine even has an iPod dock. Science has become fully digital.

While it’s great that all these “tools” have become affordable and intuitive to use, there’s the problem of syncing. How can you ensure that all information is up-to-date across all your machines? And there is the problem of sharing: How can you easily make files available for viewing or even co-authoring? Of course, we all know the answer: Cloud services.

Most of my team use at least one or many of the following: Google Mail, Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, iCloud, etc. Occasionally, I even get research updates via messaging services. We rely on this primarily because the University can’t offer similar functionality, and even if it would, it would not be compatible with our range of i-products. Is my team special? I dare say no. Sharing Dropbox folders for research data is frowned upon by many funding bodies, but it is happening everywhere.

So that’s all great as long as it works. Or better: as long as there is somebody who knows their login credentials. At this stage, it is my guess-timate that 80% of the information in regards to how our wet lab is organised and at what stage various long-term experiments are, is sitting in an Evernote database. That’s for a reason: They have understood that it’s not intuitive and automatic to organise things according to text files, spreadsheets, pictures etc all in separate folders, but that people like to save it unstructured and still be able to create meaningful searches and filters. Unfortunately, in our case, this stack (an Evernote term) was in my lab manager’s personal account. We had often discussed that it would be ideal to share that stack, but for some reason that’s never happened – I did not enforce that strongly enough. My top tip now: If you allow your team the use of Cloud services, make sure they hand you over an envelope with their login credentials for the day that nobody wants to see. (Or, in fact, as Evernote write in their Privacy Statement, make sure they list your name in their will with specific reference to getting access to Evernote stacks).

While I’m happy to take most of the blame for this digital mismanagement, there’s something that would indeed make my life easier: A University credit card so I can pay for digital services more easily. Almost everyone in my team uses Evernote and we should probably long have upgraded to professional accounts that (*drumroll*) allow note sharing and editing. The same goes for Dropbox. More space, more functionality, more security (in terms of management), but it’s a royal pain in the bum to register for these services for a humble university user without institutional Paypal account or credit card.

Writing therapy - Part II

In my previous post, I wrote about communicating the death of our lab manager (LM) to my research group. As I already pointed out, he was very central to my lab’s organisation and instrumental in implementing the research I’m directing.

A very good and constructive conversation with my Head of Department today -aimed at determining where I’m going to need practical support in the next few months- flagged a couple of problems where my management strategy was not bus proof, and where in the future I’m going to do things differently.

Problem 1: Built-in redundancy, but not on the most critical level. Over the years I’ve had nearly forty students on the undergraduate or graduate level coming and going. For those with computational projects, I kept DVDs, disk images and even external hard drives. For the experimentalists, I left it to my LM to organise their useful remains, throw away irrelevant samples, or document successful protocols.

The same is true for ongoing projects. While I’m very much on top of things in regards to my computational students, I’ve only set the aim for my experimentalists with the expectation that they’re going to be coached through cloning strategies, fly crosses and imaging experiments by my LM. I spoke to my LM every day and I was continuously updated about progress or setbacks, but I haven’t engaged with the details for a long time. In cases where my LM had offered my students to chose from different experimental paths without them fully understanding all possibilities, from their descriptions now I can only guess which ones they’ve chosen.

In that sense, whatever students worked on was always saved, secured and documented by my LM. It made those students “dispensable”, and many have disappeared as it goes, thus losing my LM equates the loss of my hard drive and master backup. (Yes, “his notes”, I hear you say… …read on).

Problem 2: Trust in systems that I didn’t understand. I used to joke that I’m not allowed in the lab as I only disturb the way it’s organised. In fact, my LM led a tight ship and while I know where my fridges and freezers are, he told me off a few times for rummaging through boxes in which I assumed my 10yr old cDNA library etc. With my role shifting from doing to managing research, over the past years I’ve totally lost oversight of how he kept things. Now that in itself might not be a problem, but he was probably the only one who knew how to navigate what just seems like a random heap of nondescript Eppendorf tubes to me at the moment. While it was great for the students to be served from LM’s enzyme bar (“lemme know what you need, but after you’ve taken your three units gimme me tube back”), losing the keeper of the invisible inventory of lab consumables and student project results is a problem.

Now. Note keeping. I mentioned it earlier. Research data is diverse, and while back in my days a paper notebook, some sticky tape and the occasional gel picture seemed sufficient, my LM had the most meticulously organised collection of pictures, spreadsheets, documents, websites, notes, manuals, protocols and only-he-knows-what in… …in Evernote. We had often spoken about me buying Evernote Business that allows joint projects, but somehow he always convinced me that his personal account would be totally sufficient for his needs. Right. His needs. For those who don’t know Evernote, it stores all data somewhere in the Internet, and I’m royally screwed now without knowing his password.

Another issue that falls into this category: The University regularly sends out emails to update personal information. Changes of address, phone number, bank details, next of kin, etc. I always filled those out, I had assumed everyone else filled those out, but identifying where one of my best mates exactly lives turned into a nerve-wrecking six hour exercise. Enough said.

Problem 3: Disinterest in micro-management. The University regularly offers courses in all sorts of administrative hurdles. How to buy from Sigma. How to buy from Sigma when it’s more than £1k. How to order a £60k piece of kit. How to pay the facility on the floor above for media. How to, how to, how to. My LM dutifully visited all these courses, but I could never be asked – why should another person lose four hours of their life time just because the University doesn’t give out credit cards to their PIs? Needless to say that I’m aware of how we bought things about ten years ago, but as time has progressed, with the new ordering system I feel like a senile pensioner who’s confronted with an iPhone for the first time in his life.

It seemed like more problems when I had thought about them in the first place, but after a pint and with the same sort of humour I was used from him I managed to summarise them into these three critical issues. At the moment, it seems like none of my mistakes are actually going to be really disastrous (though unnecessarily annoying and inconvenient), but again, I thought sharing my thoughts might help other people at some stage.

Good night.

Writing therapy - Part I

You should see an empty page for the first hour when words failed me on the things I wanted to describe.

Purely factually speaking, my employee #1, lab manager and friend suddenly died this week.

I’m experiencing this situation in many different ways. Me and another friend were the first ones to find out when we went to visit for what we thought might just be a day off to recover from a cold. I’m hurting from the loss of a good friend with whom I had spent many happy and not so happy hours over the past few years, somebody I had shared many personal thoughts with.

But I’m also going through this situation as somebody who is running a research group. A research group that essentially has suffered a decapitation strike and that lost the go-to-guy for whatever problems they had. His death has huge implications on our ability to do our work and deliver scientific results, but also on the well-being of those who’ve worked closely with him over the past few years. Maybe my notes will be useful for somebody in a similar situation at some point. I feel I need to do this right now, it’s my way of clearing my mind.

Communicating bad news: The number one responsibility of a lab head is the well-being of the group members. And everyone is different. No matter how you might think they will take the message, don’t make assumptions. There’s no shame in whatever response people show, and with a large group I’ve seen the whole range from simple acknowledgement to angry disbelief to a surge of different emotions – just make sure that nobody feels alone with their thoughts. In fact, I was relieved to see that my group immediately separated into smaller groups that retreated to discuss their thoughts. Although it’s never been a problem in our group, I also encouraged people not to be all macho about it and man-hugging is currently part of our daily routine.

In preparation for breaking the news to my group, I had contacted HR and Counselling; services most academic places have. I’ve also discussed a lot with senior colleagues how they would handle the situation, and although I’m keeping this post as anonymous as possible, wish to thank them for their support. Although they didn’t know, just talking to them gave me some sort of reassurance that I’m not totally off. Here’s a brief summary.

  1. Tell them soon. Nothing is worse than hearing unconfirmed and probably untrue rumours. People can handle established facts much better than uncertainty.
  2. Make sure nobody just disappears after the announcement. After people had gone for a walk, had a coffee, even just visited a seminar in groups of two or three, most people actually gathered in a pub for a few hours to talk about it. I think that was useful in many respects: Nobody could do anything ‘stupid’ after hearing the news, and people are much less likely to suffer from long-term effects when there’s the immediate chance to talk about it (some people seem to have a low threshold for developing PTSD!).
  3. Seek professional assistance. I had been told that it’s not advisable to bring in the counselling team into the room, but I had their number and a dedicated counsellor available who had already been briefed about the case.
  4. Give people time. This week, effectively, is for grieving. And if people need more, that’s fine. I don’t want them to go back to normal, although I’ve already received a revised manuscript this morning as part of somebody’s “self therapy”, but look how I’m spending my time at the moment…
  5. Give people reassurance. I’m going to write about this in a separate post, but our lab manager’s death means a major blow to our work and the way we work. On the time scale of a laboratory’s life time (i.e. my career), it’s probably a hiccup, but students have deadlines to meet and theses to submit. They will need support. They need to know that they’re going to get that support. It’s the job of the PI to make that possible.
  6. Accept that things are going to be different. Social ties, alliances, everything can change in the aftermath of such loss. Expect the unexpected. Play it by ear.
  7. Self-care. A dear friend issued an early burn-out warning. There are so many things that I will need to take care of over the next few months, I simply cannot do them all. Nor should I attempt to do them all. It’s best to know that for myself, but also to communicate that to the people who will be affected by that.

I’m planning to write more about the practicalities of losing your scientific wingman in a future post. I’m exhausted for now. Learn to have patience with me.

Deploying a website on IBM Bluemix

This blog post about deploying a simple website on IBM Bluemix has moved: https://iot.ghost.io/deploying-a-website-on-ibm-bluemix/

Adafruit PiTFT in headless mode

This blog post about the Adafruit PiTFT and Node-RED has moved: https://iot.ghost.io/adafruit-pitft-in-headless-mode/