Danger, explosive material: the dynamite plunger plot

(This was originally written with University of Toronto immunologists in mind, but this material certainly applies to anyone else thinking about committing this sort of atrocity. Hopefully I’ll get around to posting some R code later as well.)

You tremble with excitement and fear at the front of the conference room, your fingers reaching for the trackpad on your laptop, about to display the first glorious bit of results from your project. Sitting in front of you are three other people – it’s your first committee meeting.


Your nervous grin slowly gives way to confused look as your eyes wander to the committee member to the right. She firmly sets her coffee cup on the table, her fingers trembling.

“Martha, what’s wrong with this figure?” asks your supervisor, seated to the left.

Martha splays several fingertips on her forehead, ventilating heavily in an attempt to avoid an outburst of anger.

“Is it the data?” asks your supervisor.

“No. The problem,” mumbles Martha, “is how it’s displayed. No one should ever use these types of plots.”

“Martha, I demand that all my students use these plots. Every single time. No exceptions. Why complicate things? They’re easy—”

“What?! That is complete garbage and you know it!” growls Martha, staring into the soul behind your supervisor’s eyes.



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The urbanite

Upon my arrival at Pearson airport, a friend asked, “Sad or glad to be back?”

That question gave me pause, if only for a few minutes.

Certain large cities offer a vibrant, ever-changing dynamic that you can’t find in a smaller town. Think of all the wonderful things that could happen in a large city — the sights and sounds you surround yourself with walking down the street or the incredible tastes to whet your appetite. The abundance of festivals that seemingly celebrate the most inconsequential of things. You know, things that are hard to find in a tiny bedroom community or a city whose downtown exists purely, in the most literal sense, as a commuter destination.

My origins date back to a now non-existent hospital in Calgary, a quaint little pocket called Northlake in the northwest corner of Waterloo, Ontario, and Richmond, British Columbia, a suburb where Chinese people form the majority. Central Richmond certainly doesn’t feel small anymore — walk 10 minutes from my parents’ townhouse and you enter the very beginnings of an urban jungle, dotted with new condominiums and galvanized by a SkyTrain line (i.e., subway for you Torontonians!). Walk down King Street in Kitchener-Waterloo and it’s obvious that the governments there have grand schemes in mind to bring that area past its sleepy-backwater reputation.

Living across the Fraser River from Vancouver and living in Toronto have always brought some sense of wonder into what makes large cities tick. It’s genuinely astounding how quickly these cities have managed to forge their own new identities over the past several years. I still remember when there wasn’t much around False Creek in Vancouver, or when Toronto, in the early 1990s, was nothing special and only a place for my family to get our fix of Asian groceries every month at Spadina & Dundas. (Case in point: Toronto is in the New York Times’ list of places to visit in 2016.)

And whenever I visit places like San Francisco, Boston, or New York City, I can’t help but dive right in — eyes wide open — blend in with the locals with camera in tow, and experience these cities first-hand by foot and train — no guides, no tour buses. Just a rough plan and a sense of adventure.

I have essentially become a proud urbanite.

So, my final answer to that question? Of course I’m glad to be back in Toronto.


As I stood at the vigil at Toronto’s City Hall on Saturday, I noticed that not only French or Québecois people had shown up. It was a mixture of people in so many ways. I wondered how the events that unfolded in Paris became so personal for so many people, myself included.

I still remember when 9/11 happened. It was a strange, numbing sensation – almost surreal – to wake up at 6:30 a.m. in Vancouver, only to hear about planes flying into buildings through the radio.

New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, in hindsight, seemed to be attacks on institutions: the financial might of New York, the military prowess headquartered in Washington, and the institutionally symbolic target of Flight 93, whatever it may have been.

But something was different about Paris.

It’s not to say that the horrific events 14 years ago weren’t personal, and these observations certainly don’t diminish the catastrophes of that day. The attacks in Paris may not have been strictly on institutions per se, but rather, an assault on a way of life – a certain freedom to celebrate whatever brings us together: the freedom to enjoy a coffee on a café patio, to celebrate others, to attend concerts, and especially to practise whatever religion we wish to…to congregate for common causes, all without a sliver of an expectation of being massacred by operatives of a group seeking to spread an extremist interpretation of a holy text.

Another rather disturbing thought is that while what happened in the United States dealt with buildings, what happened in Paris dealt with people. It’s distressing to think that once the motives of the assailants in Le Bataclan were revealed through the media, it was hard to believe that any of the hostages there would survive the ordeal. It becomes very personal when we realize that innocent individuals are losing their lives in the face and presence of cold-blooded executioners.

So now we’re left praying and/or hoping (and whatever other related term you wish to use) for some sort of healing and understanding in the aftermath of not only Paris, but also Beirut, the Russian airliner, and more.

And yet, in the face of lethal bigotry, we ourselves must avoid becoming bigoted in the process. What good is it for us to embrace and feed that positive feedback loop that begets such misfortunate attitudes time and time again?

Go vote, dammit.

tl;dr: go vote, dammit.

I have talked with several friends over the past several weeks about voting in tomorrow’s federal election. Some of them have mentioned the following: “My vote won’t matter,” or even worse, “I don’t care.”

Excuse me?

We should be grateful that we live in a country with some semblance of a working democracy – one where we have a reasonable expectation that voting is not a potentially lethal adventure. This alone should be reason enough for you to consider voting. To abstain from voting, in light of the struggles citizens in other countries encounter to democratically vote their officials, smacks of self-entitlement: that one would be so actively selfish as to avoid contributing towards a common cause that ultimately affects our country as a whole.

But I believe there is another reason why you should vote: the legitimacy of your opinions in the political discourse. If you had the opportunity the vote but chose not to, your opinions in the political discourse are frankly worthless. It does not matter whether, a few months the road, you absolutely loathe the elected officials or wax lyrical about them.

What if, at this point, you still believe that your vote does not matter? Consider the following: what if everyone else held that same opinion? How incredibly intimidating it would be to have an very tiny minority of the portion of the population define who runs our country. Of course your vote matters. It counts as a tiebreaker in the closest of votes. It might count as affirmation of a lopsided result. Or it might serve as inspiration for a less popular candidate, knowing that he or she has a voter base to build upon for the following election. Your vote matters, regardless of circumstance, and to think otherwise would be myopic at best.

If you have no clue where to start or who to vote for, here are some useful links:

So tomorrow: go vote, dammit. There are few excuses when it comes to electing your own officials.

The awakening of the leadership mindset: a reflection after U of T’s Student Leadership Conference

Last Friday, I did something I never imagined I would have done when I started my PhD studies. I attended a leadership conference – the Student Leadership Conference at the University of Toronto.

Life can throw twists and turns at you. In my case, it was reluctantly being thrust into the limelight as a Co-President for the Immunology Graduate Students Association (IGSA) last year. Yes, leadership can be stressful, but through the appropriate lens, leadership becomes genuinely fun and rewarding. It is probably safe to say that the experience has irreversibly changed me.

As a result of being IGSA’s former Co-President, an opportunity arose for me to attend this conference. Frankly, I had no clue what to expect going into it. What lesson, skills, and knowledge could I possibly gain from attending a leadership conference?

  • Anyone can lead.
  • By extension, there are different styles of leaders.
  • Finally, what irks you about the state of our world today? What issues do you wish to tackle and how will you commit to approaching them?

And all of a sudden, I realized that I do in fact genuinely care about important issues:

There are numerous other issues around our world begging for solutions, such as the gun culture in the United States and the growing inequality gap. But it is also comforting to know that there are talented individuals who are capable in leading the charge on crafting these solutions – individuals with different perspectives who I have had the enormous pleasure of meeting on Friday.

At this juncture, this will probably not be the last you will hear of me, but there are important priorities to deal with at this time, especially writing and defending my PhD thesis. My mind – political and otherwise – has been awoken. Perhaps this marks the beginning of an exciting journey – just don’t expect me to be as soft-spoken as I often am going forwards.

Vancouver transit debate: punishing your transportation agency by punishing yourselves?

Over my past couple of weeks in Vancouver, the local news here has exposed me to a substantial chunk of the debate over a 0.5% increase in the provincial sales tax to fund transit. Of course, the Canadian Taxpayers’ Foundation would rather have not see this happen. Here are a few thoughts now that I’ve returned to Toronto.

It’s easy to think in terms of what’s popular — of course you’d probably want lower taxes! I absolutely would love to have lower taxes.

But I also remember when Torontonians elected Rob Ford as their mayor — just before I arrived in Toronto — and when he mandated a 10% cut to every service including the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). The TTC is still recovering from the cuts they had to make, on top of steadily rising ridership. The “No” side’s demand concerns me in this same vein.

What’s more, the TTC’s mandate is mostly public transit. Remember that TransLink manages roads and bridges as well. Of course, the “No” side is howling that TransLink wastes money and time and mismanages projects. I don’t think there is little doubt about these aspects, given how, for example, the Compass card (Metro Vancouver’s version of PRESTO) rollout has gone so far. (Personally, I’m rather disappointed that I still haven’t been able to use the fare gates for two consecutive winters now.)

But if you deny TransLink funding, what will happen as the population of Metro Vancouver continues to grow? What about the roads you rely on to get around Metro Vancouver? How will TransLink maintain them or build new ones? Or the transit you depend upon to commute to and from work? How will TransLink reduce crowding on your beloved SkyTrain? Unlike your financial planner or barista, whose services you can decline, you have no choice with TransLink. They provide at least one service that you can’t decline (unless you don’t move beyond a scant few square metres) and their services affect you in some way, directly or indirectly and whether you like it or not. In that regard, it seems utterly strange that the “No” side wants to punish TransLink by effectively punishing themselves. What weird logic that is.

Should TransLink be taken to task over how they have mismanaged things? Of course — this is your money that they’re frittering away! But you should be lucky that you even get to vote on a revenue tool to raise funds in return for improved transportation options — and that your civic and provincial leaders are generally united in supporting this revenue tool. It’s hard enough to propose such a thing in Toronto, where merely the mere suggestion of revenue tools leads to completely acrimony.

So, dear people of the Lower Mainland: don’t blow this — because there may not be a next time as politically, the well could be heavily tainted, so to speak. You should demand accountability on TransLink’s side, but don’t shoot yourselves in your feet doing so.