Saturday, February 20, 2010

He Already Has a Clipboard

A friend of mine watching videos (like the one below) at Know Your Meme was entranced not so much by the pseudo-scientific approach to pop culture, but by the fact that all the "Internet Scientists" in the videos had lab coats with their names on. "Oh!" he said, with a longing normally reserved for Lamborghinis and private islands full of bikini-clad bodyguards, "I wish I could have a lab coat with my name on it."

How could one not indulge someone on such a simple desire? Lab coats, I knew, are cheap and how hard is it to get anything customized these days? "I am going to get you a belated Christmas present." In minutes I had selected a website selling lab coats. "What colour would you like your name to be in? What font? Any other text?" He was bug eyed with joy at the prospect of having his very own lab coat. Bizarre. I thought we'd all come to terms with the fact that if it exists, you can buy it on the Internet. And lab coats are fully legal without a licence in Canada.

So of course I was doubly amused when the extremely Internet-savvy comic artist Randall Munroe through his comic xkcd expressed the same glee at the availability of lab coats for purchase. It's true that the lab coat is a universal badge of geeky authority, but hey, you can buy laminating badge-making machines on the Internet, too.

The Canadian shipping charges were insane, so I specified that the order be shipped to a receiver in a US border town. They e-mail you when the package has arrived and then charge your $3 to collect it. I know someone who lives near the border on the Canadian side, so arranged a trip to visit her, and then on my way home drove across the border to collect the goods.

At the border the US Customs official closed his booth just before I got to it, in order to go and talk to someone in another booth. I had become distracted reading my passport or something and didn't notice immediately when he returned to wave me forward, so I started off the conversation on a bad note. But this should be routine.

"Where are you going?"

"Just to <border town>."

"Purpose of your visit?"

"Just picking up a package."

'What sort of package?"

"I think it's a lab coat."

"A lab coat?" Suspicion hackles raised on his neck. "What is it for?"

I should have just said, "It's a gift for my friend, who is a scientist." True, and the customs guy didn't have to know he works in a branch of science that doesn't use labcoats. But I'm stunned by his need to know what a lab coat is for, cursed with the need to answer the question that I know he is asking, "To wear," I manage. I mean what else would you do with it? "It keeps stuff off your clothes."

He offered me an out, "For your job?" I could have said yes, but there's a really good chance that the screen of information my passport has pulled up on my identifies me as a pilot, so I continue trying to explain why my friend wants a lab coat.

"Because it's a ... lab coat. It's cool and science-y. Like on TV." Is he contemplating the possibility that he's about to bust up an international methamphetamine ring? Do terrorists wear personalized lab coats while building bombs in cheap hotel rooms?

He looks at the computer screen again to see if I'm a known threat, and I guess I'm not, as he finally waves me on with "Have a nice day."

I pick up the package and open it to get the invoice and to make sure the order is correct. As I cross back into Canada, I prepare to again justify my purchase.

"Where do you live?"


"Purpose of your visit?"

"Picking up a parcel." The wrapping is evident on the passenger seat.

"What did you get?"

"A lab coat. It cost twenty-four bucks."

I brandish the receipt but he doesn't look at it. Lab coats are not suspicious objects in Canada. He was waving me through to Canada and looking at the next driver in line before I'd even finished speaking. I wasn't even asked to go inside to pay duty on my purchase. I guess it isn't worth it for them for three dollars.

So I conclude that there are three types of people with respect to lab coats: those who consider them a useful but mundane piece of apparel, those who consider them to be a cool badge of scientific authority, and those who are suspicious of anyone who would want one.

Looks like this has become the unofficial blog week for exterior markings of authority and worth.


dpierce said...

The previous entry, "Professionalism", had to do with (amongst other things) your appearance at work. I've found that a suit and tie has nothing on a lab coat. Throw a lab coat over a polo shirt and jeans, and blam-o ... instant customer credibility. They sometimes wonder why I show up with a stethoscope to talk about re-engineering their business, but nobody has demanded that I remove it. One guy even asked me to examine a boil.

Ward said...

A guy at work told a story about crossing the border with an assortment of odd equipment used to take core samples from trees. They were pretty scruffy after some time in the woods and with all the stuff in the back of a pickup truck. When asked what they had been doing in the US, the guy said that they were scientists, and the border guy asked what type of scientist and her replied replied in a very authoritative voice "we're dendrochronologists, of course!" and was let through.

Cirrocumulus said...

BUY a lab coat? Never! Relevant international conventions list lab coats among the things that MUST be stolen from your employer or educational institution, though there is an exemption for articles left behind by previous occupiers of a shared house.
Giving a lab coat as a present simply undermines the foundations of life as we know it!

arcady said...

I don't know about lab coats, but Erlenmeyer flasks are definitely illegal in Texas. Something about how, being lab equipment, they can be used for making drugs. Maybe they should ban dihydrogen monoxide too, I hear that's often used in making drugs, explosives, and all kinds of other nasty stuff.

zb said...

I have considered getting a lab coat for a long time. Not yet achieved. However, I do have Birkenstocks that prevent buildup of electrostatic engery that's a potential threat to some electronic devices. That's a start.

I'm tinkering with electronics as one of my hobbies and as a job, and I do notice how it's a thing that's not only becoming increasingly rare (who does ham radio and the like any more, anyway?), but also how it's something that more and more people feel is reeking like terrorism (as in: bomb timers). Thinking about how the only times you see someone with a soldering iron in movies or on TV, I can guess at where these assumptions come from...

Looking at some real recent attempts by terrorists to blow stuff up, and at the way how these attempts failed because of really poor craftsmanship, we can be glad how little knowledge these folks have about getting circuits to work. They sure didn't wear lab coats while putting their stuff together, I'm sure.

Here's a semi-fun story a fellow worker told me once. It involves a (i) lab coat and (ii) a gun in the hands of the person not doing electronics:

The guy who related the story to me was working as a TV technician many years ago, visiting homes with inop TVs, often fixing them right there. The story happened back in the days when TVs still had many tubes inside. He went to the home of a farmer's family somewhere in a tiny village in the 'outback' in the very South-West of Germany. At the TV servicing business he worked at, everyone wore green lab coats.

As he entered the farmer's kitchen, the farmer, obviously very drunk, grabbed a large gun and aimed it at the technician. Because of the green coat, the farmer thought that the TV repairman belonged to a company selling cattle food and other farming supplies that had billed him too much not long ago, thus making him major angry.

Only by opening his toolbox and the case with spare electron tubes, the repair person was able to convince the farmer that shooting him would not solve his issue about having been billed too much money for farming supplies.

The moral: If you get a lab coat, make sure it's a white one.

Aviatrix said...

Erlenmeyer flasks are definitely illegal in Texas.

Wow, just wow. Can you get busted for mere possession, or just for trafficking in somewhat conical glassware? Do they have an amnesty program where wayward youths who might have happened to have acquired an Erlenmeyer or two can trade them in, no questions asked, for guns?

zb said...


Maybe we should do away with physics and chemistry classes in schools anywhere, for the sake of safety?


Should I surrender my soldering tools and electronics books to authorities?


(Just how are kids supposed to get interested into science? I fear that and the curiosity show won't do the trick.)


Sarah said...

Have no fear, zb. Texas is an outlier, and if it exists, you can buy it on the Internet.

Sarah said...

I forgot to mention "Edmund Scientific", much more suitable for kids. I loved that catalog as a child... wonderful stuff. Ah, the nerdy memories.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I enjoyed this because since my partner and sister cross the border frequently, the things certain border officers are obsessed with never fails to amuse and somewhat disturb me. Like why the 'immigration officer' to determine if you are coming on a legal visa questions you for five minutes about if you are hiding an orange. Or the most common one I get in a wheelchair, "Are you carrying over $10,000 cash?" - Wha? So I can see how the idea of someone buying a lab coat is just the first step toward terrorism, because of course terrorist want to LOOK scientific while they build terror thingies. And so anyone who is not lab coat designated (and I am SURE there is a list at the border of 'appropriate lab coat designatee') becomes suspect. Oh, if only they were as vigilent for say, bad Hawaiian shirts or shorts with black socks.