Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Ok, maybe I should not have been quite as ambitious with my previous post. Four days have passed, and nothing new has been added to the blog. The reason for this is simple. I am at a conference by Lake Como and don't have time to write during the day. At night, in contrast, I have no internet. All throughout the day, I have my head full of more things than I can handle. Let's just say that four posts a week will start when I get back.

Friday, September 26, 2008

the future

I've just come home from the Business Design Centre where the second Source Event was held. This is a science career fair of sorts, organized by naturejobs.com, Nature Publishing Group's career and jobs portal. I had attended the inaugural event last year and been quite pleased with it. There were three sets of talks directed at, respectively, graduate students, traditional post-docs, and those ready to leave academia. Attendees were free to switch between the streams depending on their interest in a specific talk. Surrounding the whole operation was a career opportunities exhibition with universities, companies and Switzerland handing out information, pens and assorted goodies. The best thing I got that day was a seed for a chili plant from Nature that, over nearly nine months, grew, took roots and sprouted three chili peppers, only to die when I didn't water it during my summer vacation. Best of all, the entire event had been free.

A few months later, I received an email from the organizers inviting my for a feedback session at NPG's headquarters near King's Cross. This was the closest I've ever got to Nature, and besides drinks and sandwiches during the afternoon, I received, as a compensation for my efforts, a free six-month print subscription to Nature, which I've really enjoyed. I'm happy to read scientific papers on the screen most of the time, but to leisurely browse through a journal, I'd like to have it in front of my in paper. Additionally, surveying the job advertisements is so much more efficient in print than online.

Scanning job ads and reading the Futures section on the last page were the two things I always did first upon receiving a fresh issue. Sadly, the subscription has expired now, but I'm hopeful someone in Nature's offices will remember me and invite me for another brain storming session. I'd certainly have something to tell them.

In contrast to last year's event, this years wasn't free. Far from it. Attending the talks cost the stiff sum of 45 pounds. For this, one got the exact same setup like last year, three streams and all, albeit in a much nicer venue. The career opportunities exhibition was much bigger than last year and the hall vastly more spacious. However, entry to the exhibition was free.

Attending the exhibition only would be the way to go if the format is retained next year because there is no way the charge can be justified. Alternatively, you work at Imperial whose well-funded and very proactive career development unit funds events like the Source Event for all interested students and staff. That's how I got in, and if I hadn't been able to freeride, I'd have really regretted the day.

With someone else's picking up the tab, I enjoyed the day without remorse. To me, and that certainly reflects how I picked the talks, the dominant theme was writing. A current editor of Nature Cell Biology described, under the theme of "Getting published", what work on the other side entails and a former editor of Nature Reviews gave a very insightful presentation on how to get one's foot in the door.

There were two take-home messages, generously reiterated. Firstly and most importantly, make the right contacts. Get to know people and, crucially, get people to know you. I certainly won't miss another Nature Network pub night and will remind the organizers that there hasn't been one in months. Secondly, write. I've been doing this on and off for the last three years but without much focus or dedication. My website has been deprived of new content since I moved to London, and my blogs goes through phases of activity and hibernation with monthly seasonality.

This will change, and this post is the stepping stone. From now on, I'll post at least four times a week. The reason I haven't always done that is that I have never assigned sufficient priority to blogging. It has always been an activity that I did when everything else was done and in total obscurity.

Very few people read this blog – in part because very few people know about it. I have never told anyone, and I've never used blogging as an excuse for being busy. Not anymore. I am officially a blogger now and maybe, just maybe, one year from now I'll be working as an editor at Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. Wish me luck, keep reading, and tell your friends.

Friday, September 19, 2008

auction results

In other news, Damien Hirst's 223 pieces went for 110 million pounds at Sotheby's the other night. Not only is this half a million per piece, it is also close to 13 million per month, as everything had been created by his team of craftsmen in 2008. Nice job Damien!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

another day

I don't know how much time has passed since I posted the last time. It's been too long. My memory only lasts a few weeks, and I've got only ten fingers to count days. Embarrassing, in other words.

My life isn't different from anyone else's – I don't have excuses. Just a lot of work during the day and social life at night. Yesterday, I found myself in a mixed group of French and Germans having a beer in what looked like a trendy teenie bar. We were out of place but having fun. On Monday night around eight o'clock, you're out of place in any night-life venue. It's not the time to go out. The evening was memorable because among the five Germans, four (one of whom I was) had studied in Jena. It was good to share memories and mention places we used to go to, place where you wouldn't be out of place even on a Monday night.

Tonight, the group was different, all people from lab, and even though two others were German, no one came from the East. Our conversation had to focus on other subjects. Our boss set the tone, passionately merging current world affairs with recent lab events. A couple of months ago, the room where we store our delicate equipment and run most of our experiments, normally held at 4C, froze solid.

When I came in the morning after, I didn't immediately realize the full extent of the disaster. I walked into the cold room and was surprised at how chilly it felt. A few minutes later, a colleague pointed out that all water was frozen and everything containing water had burst. My eyes opened by his words, I went back for a better look. Believe me, a more miserable sight I've never beheld. Broken glass was everywhere, surrounded by all the good things the glass held when it was still intact.

This disaster would have easily broken the back of a less pecunious lab. We were lucky that we could just order what we had lost and rejoice in getting replacements where we used to run old equipment. However, and here's the tie-in with the dinner conversation, we tried to cut our losses by submitting an insurance claim. The situation was clear. The cold room had failed. The policy was against failure. We should get our money back, close to 50 grand all bits and pieces summed up.

I was reminded of the movie Crash when the insurance agent got back and declared, with fake sorrow in his voice, that his company couldn't cover anything because of this reason or that. My boss was much aggravated until yesterday, when American International Group, one of the world's biggest insurers was transferred to state ownership in a way that would have made Fidel Castro cry. It went bust and was mopped up by the government, bringing redemption to the world in the eyes of our boss. Those damn insurers!

I'm following the economics news with much interest myself. Who'd have imagined a year ago that socialism would progress in great strides in the United States, or that major turmoil would grip the global economy. Keeping up with the failures, mergers and bail-outs that are by now daily occurrences, takes all the time I don't spend working, eating, sleeping or socializing, and sometimes even the time that I do.

Monday, September 08, 2008

last on art

I'm somewhat sorry for this post. No, make this really sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry. But rest assured, if you are getting too much of the dull old art world from me, I'm also boring myself to death writing it. However, after coming across a spectacular and most unexpected exhibition this weekend, I can't refrain from covering the same old topic. Damien Hirst has enlisted the auction house Sotheby's to run a huge yard sale.

The sale is big enough to merit the cover of the most recent Time magazine and a seven-page article inside where Hirst is plugged like a pierced rubber dinghy about to go under. – Hey, wait a minute. How come I'm referring to Time? This rag is not normally on my reading list. Well, ever since moving in, I've been finding a copy of Time on my doorstep every week. Someone must be faithfully renewing his subscription without ever noticing that no issue ever arrives. Thank you, Marouf.

Of course I don't need Time to tell me who Damien Hirst is. I saw his bisected bovine preparation, presented in four huge, brilliantly clear glass tanks at the Turner Prize retrospective at the Tate last fall, and I was mighty impressed with it.

It was a first impression, and it didn't last. Once the novelty of a pickled farm animal in an immaculate tank has faded what remains is a painful lack of creativity and artistic spirit, albeit highly sellable. This guy has assistants churning out canvasses day and night that roughly follow Hirst's direction but need not necessarily have had any input from him. While he's sitting on his farm in Devon or in his suite at Claridge's in London, the assembly line never stops, popping out nearly identical pieces by the hour.

On Sunday, I went to Sotheby's. As always before an auction, a public viewing was held, an event that would be a major exhibition in any other context but scarcely merits a footnote here. 223 of Damien's Hirst's pieces, all manufactured in 2008, were assembled and luridly longed for attention. Colorful dots were on dozens of images, real butterflies and fakes diamonds on dozens more.

There were about ten more tanks with various preserved animals or parts thereof. One, a white dove, was truly stunning and made the exhibition worth my time. The bird hovered near the top of the upright tank, its wings stretched, as if it were about to fly off towards a better world. The liquid inside this tank was highly transparent and acted like a lens, clarifying and magnifying the object inside. The dove seemed to float, held by nothing, in complete disregard of the laws of physics. Only close inspection revealed the presence of the finest of pins that attached the tail feathers via a hidden steel skeleton to a nearly invisible glass plate inside the tank.

Beyond the technical finesse of the taxidermies, the exhibition was a tepid, but the amount of work invited contemplation. Damien Hirst is unashamedly commercial. It seems to me that, every time he's creating something, he's upping the ante and climbing one step further on the ladder of spending craziness. Art this is certainly not. Sotheby's is in New Bond St., right next to Prada and down the road from Louis Vuitton and other boutiques. Damien Hirst fits right in. He is a purveyor of luxury goods. Just as much as stitching a crocodile to a cheap t-shirt puts it on the top shelf, so does the Hirst signature and seal elevate the value of paper and paint.

For him, the challenge now is not to be creative but to distribute his different products in a way that the market can support. Make a hundred spot paintings to many, and you won't find enough billionaires stupid enough to buy into the craze. The same goes for animals tanks, butterflies glued to cardboard or medical-cabinet installations.

There was hardly any creativity in the exhibited works. Initially, I was imagining that the auction was a devious ploy by Damien Hirst to expose the utter foolishness of the arts establishment, a biting criticism of art following money, but I've come to the realization that it was just a ploy to get as many gullible suckers as possible to spend as much money as possible.

That's a valid goal. Just don't call it art.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

taking pictures

Yesterday, I left my house shortly after nine, much too early for a Saturday morning. I had neither had breakfast nor coffee and was dead tired. Sitting in the tube, I wasn't quite sure that what I was doing was a smart move. Earlier in the week I had signed up for a photography group. Now I was on my way to their first meeting, a workshop on travel photography.

I'm so glad I went. The group met in a pub where a full English breakfast with lots of coffee waited for us participants. The 40-minute talk that followed didn't hold much new to me, but when it gave way to the assignment of the day, taking tourist pictures of London that are easily recognizable but offer a twist, the fun really started – and it wasn't necessarily because of photography.

The seventy photographers in attendance, most weighed down with several kilos of equipment worth more than a thousand pounds, self-assembled into little groups and took off into the rain. We went to Covent Garden, through Theatreland and to Leicester Square, taking some pictures but mostly chatting and sitting out the worst showers in coffee shops. Right before returning to the pub for lunch and a presentation of the results, we paid a visit to The Photographer's Gallery. It was too late for inspiration by then but the coffee was good.

Lunch was a roast and as heavy and unhealthy as breakfast had been, but it tasted great and our conversations kept flowing, only interrupted by individuals' staring at the tiny screen of their cameras to pick the one best shot to be shown to the group. While I had nothing on my card worth reproducing here, others were more creative. It was a good slideshow that followed lunch. All pictures showed familiar sights, but some in the most unexpected way.

By five, the group dispersed. I ambled about the grounds of Somerset House, seeing whether some artistic genius would befall me, but gentle rain drops were all that was falling. On my way to the tube I ran into a German I had met earlier at the meetup who proceeded to take me to meeting by Germans in another pub, in a part of town that I had never been to and would probably avoid alone at night. No worries, though. When we got there it was still light outside, and when we left, after eating more greasy food and watching Germany beat Liechtenstein in exactly the manner one would expect Germany to beat Liechtenstein, we did so in a big group.

I finally got home at eleven, my legs as heavy from walking as my stomach was from pub grub. Had the picture below, of Millennium Bridge and St. Paul's Cathedral, been taken that same night, I could claim at least one moment of inspiration during the day. As it is, I had already bagged it a day earlier.