Sunday, October 31, 2010

will do later

I was gonna finish this post quite a few days earlier, but after an enthusiastic start I didn't get very far. The first paragraph fell onto the page as if it were meant to be there, but in its wake a gaping void of thought opened and sucked in all the energy and creativity that I had at my disposal. It was a fitting sequence of events because what had got me excited in the first place was an article in the New Yorker about procrastination.

In it, James Surowiecki, the magazine's economy and finance writer and author of the bestseller The Wisdom of Crowds, reviews the recently published anthology on the subject, The Thief of Time. A hefty hardback with a price out of this time, it's not a book I'm likely to buy. But the review introduced a number of intriguing concepts and idea that I'm sure I would enjoy reading more about. A Christmas present, anyone? (But no, I wouldn't enjoy 300 pages that I know someone paid sixty bucks for.)

Some background and general blah-blah to start with: Procrastination, the delaying of inevitable tasks without rational justification, is painful and stupid – yet everyone does it. For every crucial item on a to-do list, there are at least a dozen distractions and mindless activities that intervene. Somehow they appear irresistible and are allocated a priority they don't deserve. And as the initial task was inevitable, getting it done after much procrastination causes great suffering, a painful hustle before it's too late, midnight-hour bouts of drowsy industry that are usually regretted.

I do this all the time. I prepare presentations at the last minute, at a time when I would rather sleep than assemble reaction pathways and remember minutiae of collaborators' publications. I remember the brainbone-breaking take-home exams in the first year of graduate school. All references were allowed – and the expectations correspondingly high. One biochemistry exam was due in class Monday morning at 9. I put the last keystroke to my questionable masterpiece at 8:15, with just enough time to get a coffee before I collapsed, in good company, in the auditorium. I don't remember this, but I probably spent most of the preceding weekend out riding the Wasatch.

When I took Arabic, the last two years, I would remember fifteen minutes before each week's kick-off that I had homework to do. In the panic that ensued, I couldn't even recall how to write my name, let alone ask a Lebanese fishmonger for directions to the nearest World Heritage Site. And every fall I put off booking my Christmas flight back to Germany until I have to pay more than the dilapidated plane is worth. (Ahem, this actually reminds me of something...)

So far, so bad. If my tedious rambling has driven you from the computer and into the outstretched arms of pending duties (doing the dishes or paying the electricity bill), I'd have done a good job. You would feel the warmth of aprocrastination – but you would also miss the interesting part of this post, nicked from the New Yorker but worth reading if you don't want to make the trip to a few sheets of Big Apple.

By procrastinating you and me act in what is ultimately against our best interests. We're going to have to pay for it, and we know it. So how come we can usually not overcome it? Some of the assays in the anthology in questions go some of the way towards answering this puzzling question. Others suggest how this behavior can be avoided or at least contained, and throw up theories to explain and maybe even justify it.

I don't want to repeat all the points made by Surowiecki, especially since I didn't read the book and don't have anything original to contribute, but some ideas deserve mentioning. There is the divided self, for example. It's a mild form of schizophrenia, if I understand this correctly, an inherent in almost all of us. At every point of decision, the hedonist and the utilitarian in us are battling it out. Will we do work no? Will we enjoy? Unless we're Lance Armstrong, the hedonist usually wins and the utilitarian has to catch up later, and maybe there's not even a point fighting.

But maybe there is, and if so the key is willpower. According to scientific studies, will can be trained, rather like a muscle. And rather like pumping iron, training one's will probably takes dedication and stamina. For the feebler-minded, there are tools, instruments to cut out distractions and short-term attractions. There's a small script for download that cuts the network upon request, guaranteeing up to eight hours of uninterrupted work. Or you can chain yourself to your desk much like Odysseus had himself chained to the mast of his ship to hear the Sirens without losing himself.

I don't have much willpower and I suffer great regrets. But I still wouldn't go out of my way and restrain myself from temptations. I rather sit on my desk, imagining websites I'd visit if I weren't working so hard and feeling, with a physical force, the power of my developing will. Two hours later, my writing hasn't progressed much but I feel pride in not having giving in to the cheap temptations of procrastination. I have simply wasted my time.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

work

A few weeks ago, I had visitors from Germany, a high-school classmate of mine and his family. A highlight of their trip, by their own admission, was an extended tour of the institute I work in. They had never been inside a scientific laboratory and were quite excited by all the instruments, chemicals, noises and messy benches.

They were less impressed with the office area, despite the 3D screen that I fired up in their honor, spinning proteins until they nearly smashed into their faces. My friend liked the graphics, but he didn't like the desks. We researchers sit shoulder to shoulder, working on desks that are big enough for a laptop and a massive screen with no space to spare. My friend thought it worse than cubicles.

I told him about my previous job in France. I worked in an office shared with on other person, with enough space for more stuff than I use daily and a stunning view of the Vercors mountains. I hated that office. It was one floor up from the main lab and moving from the bench to the desk involved climbing two flights of stairs and crossing three sets of doors. With the thoughts on the transfers I could have written half a dozen research proposals.

My favorite setup is the exact opposite. I want to have a little space next to my bench, just enough to unfold my MacBook and look up papers or protocols and write emails when reactions are incubating. This is how it was in Utah when I did my PhD, but in Europe such an arrangement can't be found. It probably has to do with overly ambitious health-and-safety regulations.

The lab I'm visiting in Colorado is run as a tight ship. There are a few rudimentary desks, some shared computers that people can use if they have no experiments to run, but the rest of the space is devoted to the practical aspects of the business. Experiments are running in every corner and on every available surface, and the scientists are always right there, in the middle of the action.

The dense environment exudes intensity. The excitement and enthusiasms of my temporary colleagues are infectious. I'm rekindling my own excitement for science. It helps that I'm learning new things, that I'm doing experiments of the kind I've never done before, and that I'm as busy as I was in graduate school. It also helps that Fort Collins is not London and I'm not living in perpetual fear of missing the action out in town.

Lastly, it helps that I'm here for only ten days and working on a very tight schedule. It feels a little bit like graduate school, but in contrast to that interminable slog, my tenure here will end come November. Maybe that's a good thing. But maybe my present enjoyment reveals something deeper, a discord between where I am and where I want to be.

Friday, October 22, 2010

homecoming

After a hiatus of nearly six years, I'm back in the US working. I haven't changed jobs; I'm still at Imperial. But I was sent to Fort Collins, CO, to pick up some skills that the lab back in London desperately needs. After a ten-hour flight across seven time zones, I spent nine hours in the lab today as if I had never left.

I didn't do my thesis in Colorado, but it felt a bit like coming home. (I even ran into a former classmate.) The lab is small but has the same laid-back intensity about it like my degree lab did. People don't wear lab coats but t-shirts they got as freebies ages ago. They have desks right next to their benches. They come in early and stay late and know how to pass the time in-between. The biggest draw of the departmental seminar this afternoon were the cold Odells. Even the speaker couldn't resist and punctuated his declamations with regular sips.

Reminiscing isn't the point of this trip. I came for work and won't relent until I've learned and produced what I've made the trip for. But there's the odd minute here and there that I look left or right, and what I see fills me with joy and dismay at the same time. I would love to come back and live here again. I would hate to come back and live here.

Fort Collins is spacious and airy. The houses are low and the front yards wide. The streets were laid out, with a sort of Messianic forethought, so that a Suburban towing a trailer with two quad-bikes can do a U-turn without having to negotiate inches. This is not a place made for walking. But the historic center, roughly four blocks by three, a bit narrower by design and full of quirky little shops and fun restaurants, is busy with pedestrians and cyclists.

Quirkiness and littleness are quickly lost away from the center. In fact, it seems that vast space between urban compactness and rural backwardness is one gigantic stripmall, an uninterrupted chain of colorfully and brightly advertised chain stores, providers of culinary monotony, and drive-through financial institutions. What is it with the American fascination for uniformity? When did individualism get lost?

I pondered these questions not just on my drive to campus but also during lunch. The student union refectory looks like the food court of a shopping center that has fallen on hard times. Under harsh neon lighting, a handful of fast-food outlets promise satiation and happiness, and the world's greatest immigrant nation is reduced to Taco Bell and Panda Express.

Had it not been for lunch, my lunch break would have been awesome. The day was gorgeous. The trees were aflame with fall colors, but the sun blasted as if summer had never ended. I wish I could have stretched out on a lawn just out of sight of the lab and dreamed the day away. The thin mountain air was crisp and fresh and felt much warmer than it was.

When I finished work in the evening, things had changed. The sun was gone and with it the warmth of the day. Because the Rockies rise just west of town, the sun disappears behind them long before it gets dark. As I left the lab, the sky still glowed brightly but the city was already plunged into the shadow of the night.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

whizzed by

I shouldn't laugh. I really shouldn't. It shows the scabby character of a contemptible person, but I can't help it: I'm laughing my cold heart out. Last night, a G-Wiz slammed into a wall near Cricklewood and neatly broke in two. I'm only laughing about the vehicle. For the driver who lost her life in the crash, I feel sorrow. There is no need to ridicule her for driving a thing that deserves nothing but scorn.

I am not Clarkson, the rambunctious presenter of Top Gear, but like him I know a good car when I see one, and I certainly know a crap car when I see one. The G-Wiz is a crap car. It's a cheaply made box that flouts the most basic safety standards. It moves at the speed and comfort level of an old bicycle, but takes up much more space and resources. People call it green. Some would even go as far as to hail it as a revolution. To me, it's revolting.

Reading the newspaper today, I learned that the G-Wiz isn't even a car. It's classified as a quadricycle – and yet it is allowed on London roads. It's exempt of congestion charge and parking fees and is allowed to recharge, at Imperial at least, its battery for free. All of this because of a warped understanding of what environmental consciousness is.

Let me explain. It's good for the environment (and for your wallet and ultimately happiness) if you do more with less. The G-Wiz doesn't do that. It's the exact opposite. It does less with more. It puts a cardboard box on wheels where wheels would suffice. It's in the way where others would like to go. It is ugly and useless. And yet, people who should know better drive it around, their faces contorted in forced smiles designed to convey smugness and mask the pain the box undoubtedly is to drive.

May the sad loss of a human life give these people the impetus to think and reconsider. Take a bike or take the tube, and if you need to drive, take a car.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

musical journey

When I was twelve years old, I bought my first radio. I had saved for a year; electronics weren't cheap where I grew up. The radio was a small grey brick with a telescopic antenna and a tinny speaker. I loved it. Every Thursday night I stashed it underneath my pillow, set the volume as low as possible, lay down in my bed and secretly listened to the charts, way past bedtime. I discovered East-German rock and alternative tunes that I would now pay dearly to re-experience.

From there on, my taste in music developed predictably – off the mainstream but away from any sort of experimentation. I did punk and Queen and The Doors, and had no idea what else there was. The first time my eyes were really opened to what music could do was when my then-girlfriend gave me Congo to Cuba, which is one of my all-time favorites. It started an unhealthy habit of buying every Putumayo CD I got my hands on, an addiction that was only broken four years later when I test-listened to two in the store and didn't think much of either. I haven't bought another one since.

Putumayo opened my ears to the world of music, quite literally, but Congo to Cuba did more. It showed me what can happen when music is transplanted from one culture into another and how the fusion of different musical understandings makes the tunes more interesting. The fusion can be facilitated by trade (even as contemptible as the slave trade), by war or simply by proximity.

Geographical nearness and cultural interchange are the forces behind Radio Tarifa. When I got that CD a few months ago, I didn't think much of it at first. It was just another recording of North African music with a slight hint of fusion to it. Only on the third listening did I realized that the lyrics were sung in Spanish not Arabic as I had assumed, and my appreciation changed. I can't wait to see Tarifa, the harbor town in the south of Andalucía that's close enough to Morocco to receive radio signals from across the Strait of Gibraltar.

The name Gibraltar, by the way, is a bastardization of the Arabic term Jebel Tariq, which means Tariq's mountain and refers to Tariq ibn-Ziyad, the Berber conqueror who, in 711, crossed the 14 kilometers of salty water between Africa and Europe and proceeded to turn the Iberian peninsula from a benighted medieval jungle into a prospering haven of civilization. People started washing and life expectancy rose by ten years. Maybe that's why the Arabic name for the Strait is Bab az-Zakat, the Gate of Charity.

From the other side of the Straight, from Algeria, comes Rachid Taha, the drunken master of Rai. A few months ago he shook the Royal Festival Hall in its foundations and brought the house to its feet. For Rock the Casbah, it was a wild homecoming. Blending North African and Western influences is one thing, but the main act was supported by Vieux Farka Touré, and thus Malian melodies were thrown into the mix as a third ingredient. When Taha and Touré manned the stage together, the sounds they cooked up, drawing deep from their respective histories, traditions and musical identities, were for eternity.

Ali Farke Touré was a bigger star in Mali than his son, Vieux Farka, now is. Before he passed away four years ago, he recorded a killer album with his compatriot Toumani Diabaté, pairing his clarity on the guitar with Diabaté's technical brilliance on the kora. The result is sublime, and also a bit haunting, given vocals full of sadness and melancholy. When that record was made, I had no idea what a kora is. I only found out two years ago when a visibly unsettled street musician in Bristol drew incredible melodies from his 21-stringed instrument despite his frozen fingers.

Kora player in Bristol

The kora deserves a bigger exposure, and maybe that's coming. Diabaté and a bunch of other Malian musicians finally made the trip to Cuba that was foiled thirteen years ago when they were supposed to record some crazy off-the-beaten-path project that an American producer had come up with. Legend has it that their passports got lost or tangled up in Caribbean bureaucracy. When the Malians didn't travel, the producers recruited the aging luminaries of Cuban son to fill the gap. The result, the Buena Vista Social Club, brought world music into the mainstream and late fame to some amazing musicians.

For all its success, I never liked Buena Vista much. It is too simple, too straightforward, free of surprises, twists or unexpected turns. Would Diabaté et al. be able to remedy that by adding the spice of distance and difference? I had high hopes for Afrocubism, the collaboration between them and some of the remaining members of the Buena Vista Social Club that has just come out. Mali to Cuba, I was thinking, and imagining greatness.

I was disappointed; the record is lousy. It purls along placidly, the tunes flow smoothly, and the solos show what the musicians are capable of. But there is no excitement, no zest. The differences are allowed to exist, but they don't react to create something special. And despite the incantations of all participants that their hearts were driving them, that they discovered spiritual brothers they didn't know they had, the music sounds too much like business. I've only listened to the CD twice, but it appears to me as a missed opportunity.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

doomed

Back in the good old days of July, when the sun was strong and optimism suffused the land, I called The Famous 3 Kings my headquarters for World Cup watching. Nearly every night I strolled up North End Road to the pub that enjoys quite a renown for what it does, thanks to enormous projection screens, a generous TV subscription and proprietors that support fair-play and sportsmanship as much as they support their team.

The success of the pub right next to West Kensington tube station as a sports pub is quite surprising: Two decades earlier it was a wild punk music venue where, legend has it, a Sex Pistols concert inspired Joe Strummer to form his own band, and thus The Clash were born. The only thing connecting these two eras is the beer, which has never stopped flowing.

In pubs in London, most beer is interchangeable. Dutch, American, German, Czech, Italian and Spanish labels grace the taps, but the suds are brewed by the same international conglomerates, in industrial-size vats, on greenfields in Sussex and Wales. I stay away from that stuff. Instead, I'm tasting myself through ales, tepid but flavorful concoctions that have been making a national resurgence lately. They are crafted by smaller, sometimes independent brewers, and pumped with the force of a hand (as opposed to carbon dioxide).

Most ales have a wet-earth taste that always recalls in me that first encounter, in Utah in 1998, with Uinta Cutthroat Pale Ale. The assault of freshly harvested carrots and the soil that clings to them was something my taste buds weren't prepared for, and I struggled throughout my stay there with the local brews. Now I dig them – or rather their equivalent. Doom Bar, from a small brewery in Cornwall, has become a particular favorite of mine.

Last weekend, I went to Cornwall, though there was no connection to the beer, not even tenuously in some remote twist of my brain. I just wanted to see the rugged western tip of England that's so beloved by holidaymakers that it's nearly impossible to enjoy in summer when its population temporarily swells from one to five million. Last weekend, everywhere we went was peaceful and calm.

We stayed in a bed and breakfast overlooking Perran Bay, one of many surfers' favorites on the north coast. The view from the breakfast room made up for the meal itself: Bacon, beans in tomato sauce from a tin, a scary little sausage, a frail egg, and a hash brown from the freezer. I have no idea how my dad managed to survive this for ten days when he toured southern England earlier this summer.

Saturday was grey as cold steel, and nearly as featureless. The grey sky and the equally grey sea were separated by a fuzzy band of ill-defined horizon. The sand on the beaches, still wet from the receding tide, was the heavy grey of industrial mud. On the positive side, it wasn't all too cold, it didn't rain, and what little color there was stood out like neon green. We went to St. Ives, a cute little town that has played a disproportional role in the fine arts. They've even got a dependency of the Tate.

On Sunday, the weather was better. As we made our way down to the River Camel's estuary a reinvigorated sun burned away the clouds and heated up their air to a degree that was quite frankly astonishing. With jackets slung around our hips and trousers rolled high, we chased the disappearing waters of the ebb tide across the ever-expanding beach, a stretch of sand from the town of Padstow to infinity.

It was a memorable walk. The sun, the balmy air, the vastness of the beach, the clear and refreshing air, the softness of the sand, and the sound of lapping waves combined to create a sensation of magic and uniqueness. There was a sense of tranquility that was unperturbed by people walking their dogs, and a sense of infinity. All boundaries were blurred by a distinct haziness that magnified the apparent size of the place.

River Camel estuary

We ambled for hours but didn't get very far. There was no need and no point. It was all beautiful. That's why I missed an aspect of the estuary that I now wish I had seen: Its mouth is blocked at low tide by a crescent sand bank that has over the centuries spelled disaster and death to hundreds of ships and sailors, earning it the sobriquet Doom Bar. These days, it spells success to Sharp's Brewery and their fine ale, an altogether more becoming association.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

going away

A friend I'm hanging out with from time to time, spending afternoons on excursion through town, taking pictures, chatting and enjoying the coffee of good life, is going away. He's bought a round-the-world ticket with unlimited stops and stitched together an itinerary containing India, China, Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, French Polynesia and Los Angeles – from where he'll fly back to London. This is only the first half of his sabbatical. He also has a ticket to Bolivia with a return flight from Brazil three months later.

I'm an avid traveler, but I'm in doubt whether I would take half a year on the road lightly, especially on a road that covers the world. Living oblivious of the time zone you're in is fine, but you should at least know which continent you're on. The way he travels, I couldn't do it. The never-ending flood of sounds and sight, of impressions and reactions, of memories in the making would probably confuse me completely and drive me nuts. Feebleness of mind would make me give up a few days after surviving the inevitable first stormy stomach of the transcontinental epic.

I'm sure of my response, but sometimes I dream of my own sabbatical anyway. It would be a bit less comprehensive, a bit more focused. I'd love to decamp to South America for a few months, either riding the backpackers' trail on rusty overland buses and connecting with new friends in shady hostels or buying a busted motorcycle and letting the road be my guide. I would keep a diary and might dream of writing a book, though I'd shy away from lighting the fireballs of revolution.

My friend will be gone by the end of the month, but I won't be following any time soon. Long travels require planning, a financial underpinning and, most importantly, a sufficiently strong stimulus to trigger departure. As long as no one kicks me out of my job, I'll stay here. In the meantime, I'm contemplating options for shorter trips, for next year's vacations if things go well. Here is what excites me at the moment.

  • Lost in translation in Japan: Everything works and everything moves with unequivocal precision and a sense of natural force, and everything is absolutely incomprehensible and mind-boggling to the average Westerner. I'd like to be awed to complete silence.
  • Crossing all borders between Andalucía and Morocco: This was a trip I had planned for earlier this year but it fell through. The history of the region, especially the Muslim heritage in Spain, makes it unmissable. For now, all I have is Radio Tarifa.
  • Leaving Europe in Napoli: This city, distant from the central government and the commonly accepted rules of Europe, has long enthralled me. They also bake the world's best pizza.
  • Feeling history in Palermo: I've come as close as the stunning sea-view airport when I attended a conference in south-western Sicily, but I didn't see this town that's apparently like a diorama of history, with crumbling baroque palaces next to buildings damaged in World War 2 and left to decay ever since.

Anything to add to this?

Friday, October 01, 2010

down the drain

Scientists made it to the cover of the Guardian today, much reason to rejoice, one would think. There is always the assumption, among scientists, that we don't get the recognition we deserve, that our relentless work in the dark caverns of academic labs is not valued much by society, that the contributions to the economic well-being of the nation – through technological advances, spin-offs, start-ups and the general increase in knowledge – go unacknowledged.

At first glance, all seemed different today. The word scientists on the front page of Britain's most prestigious daily (that might be the Times for some, but I prefer the Guardian), and above the fold on top of that, must give a cause to celebrate the times we live in. Sense prevails at last.

Except it doesn't. The full headline read: Scientists quit Britain in new brain drain. Now you might think about the concept of brain drain as you like. A while ago, the Economist's took the unorthodox position of unequivocally praising it. To make its point, it compared several East African countries. Those with colonial histories tied to France were at the mercy of French immigration law. In other words, there was no migration. Those historically aligned with the UK faced open doors: nurses and doctors in particular were invited to come to the British Isles (to relieve a chronic shortage of care-givers and medics). The anglophile countries had much higher levels of public health and more motivated doctors than the francophile ones, possibly because the prospect of well-paid health care jobs abroad drew students into the field and stimulated their ambitions, leading to higher numbers of well-qualified nurses and doctors even when the best had left.

Brain drain doesn't have to be a bad thing, but what's going on in Britain is. The program of financial austerity pro- and all but imposed by a government constrained by the excesses of the past has dramatically reduced funding for all activities outside (incidentally) health care and foreign aid. In other words, there is going to be much less money for science than there used to be; the number brandished most often is 25%. The brains that will leave the country won't be replaced by fresh talent. There simply won't be the money.

The problem is acute and rather serious, which explains some of the reactions. A few weeks ago, the Science is Vital campaign got off to a flying start with a petition by scientists not to cut their funding and a viral load of essays and comments. Emotions were boiling high. The public needed convincing that while benefits might be cut and taxes increased, while transportation costs might soar and library and municipal swimming pool hours be curtailed, while schools might be permitted to deteriorate and infrastructure to decay, science must be left untouched. Only the best arguments would do.

Some honest campaigners, with best intentions and a passionate hearts, went over the top, though. My respected colleague Stephen Curry, Professor of Structure Biology at Imperial College, saw it necessary to invoke the glory of faded empires and bloody wars to justify science funding. The namesake of his institute apparently once designed armor to make British bombers safer for their raids on German cities.

We had a little discussion about his reasoning, which I find troubling and flawed. In my opinion, science can stand strong and proud without invoking war. The benefits are obvious all the same: Salk and Sabin's research on poliovirus led to the vaccine that all but eradicated poliomyelitis. Car tires, thermal underwear and IV drip bags wouldn't be possible if some chemist hadn't started polymerizing simple compounds way back when. And Röntgen's faffing around in the lab opened the way for x-rays, materials science and protein crystallography, the field that both Stephen and I plow. These examples provide generous support for the case of, well, generous support of academic research.

In any case, there's two ways of looking at the situation. A labmate of mine, when shown the headline, commented: "Brain drain? I wish!". And that's pretty much my position as well. I have no emotional attachment to British science and am (and always have been) more than happy to go where the jobs, the money and the opportunities are. If the cuts come, I'll watch the disaster unfold from a safe distance.