Please Her With Your Genome

One of the nice things about science blogs is that they can help transmit the “life stories” of the scientific lifestyle, making a written record of the hitherto unwritten folklore our community generates. In an earlier epoch, each student had to learn the hard way the lesson that whatever you do in lab will not work the first time. Now, the student can receive a tiny foretaste of the pain which awaits and thus, perhaps, live better for it. So, in that spirit, I offer the “life lesson” for this week:

Do not oversleep and miss a meeting because the meeting announcement was sent to the e-mail address you don’t use because it’s continually broken, or else you too may draw the short straw in absentia and find yourself in charge of assembling a volume of conference proceedings. I enjoy working with the written word, perhaps more so than many of my fellow physics boffins, but I can easily think of more interesting things to edit than an overpriced book which nobody will buy and fewer will read. Hooray, academia.

And here’s another thing: the downside of working in an “interdisciplinary” environment (other than the episodic crises of “I’m not doing real science!” conscience and the assertions from specialists in field X that they can solve problems and lead revolutions in field Y without actually having the ground-level knowledge of Y) is that you might be one of the select few who know LaTeX. This is a death sentence: much as being the guy/girl who knows how the Web server works means that all the Web-related tasks fall onto your lap, being the one who knows LaTeX brings all sorts of “little,” er, “action items” your way.

But it’s not all bad. Even digging through the conference e-mail pile for the revised papers people have sent in has a few compensations. There’s the Big Name who doesn’t want to bother with the “Procrustean bed requirements” imposed by the publisher and forgoes inclusion, but even better, there’s the entertaining spam attracted to an e-mail address which was, after all, publicly announced on the conference Web site without the slightest bit of preventive obfuscation.

“We offer the clone-by-phone service of your dreams,” proclaims the e-mail. In just twelve days, their company will “synthesize and clone a 1 kb gene, with all mutations, deletions, fusions, epitope tags and codon optimizations you can think of.” Increase the size of your DNA by four micrograms in only two weeks!

The same firm — which, on casual investigation, looks otherwise legitimate — has been spamming other addresses. The linguist Mark Liberman got a similar message, for example. (“I expect they got my name and email address from some bioinformatics conference I attended, or something like that,” he notes.)

MEMO TO GEN SCRIPT: Mass, unsolicited mailings are not the way to generate good will or impress the world with your netiquette. Thanks for the laugh, though.

Upon reflection, this opens an entire new avenue of exploration. What other scientific services can be hawked by spam, and what would the messages sound like?

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