Saturday, November 29, 2008

changing gear

Last night, a friend of mine celebrated her farewell from Imperial. While I've only been around for a year and a bit, I've known her for longer. She was working in the same institute in Grenoble that I joined early in 2005. Half a year later, she moved to London, but we stayed in contact. When the opportunity opened for me to go to London as well, she was instrumental in alleviating my fears about living in the big city and the financial sacrifices I thought I'd have to make. But what I valued her most for were the long chats about possible lives outside of science and the conspiratory coffees we've had together, exploring alternative careers paths to pursue.

I appreciate her for finally following through. She has always been a bit geeky and was my primary and most reliable source of advice when I switched from PC to Mac. From December she'll be working for a hedge fund (Who'd have thought that those still exist?), doing tech support and system administration. She's very excited about the challenge, and I'm happy for her. I'm also curious to see how it's going to work out for her. I imagine that the financial services industry provides an environment much different from academic science, though I have no idea what it might be like. Good thing my friend stays in London. We might have to keep our tradition of occasional coffees so I can pick her brain to help with my decisions about the future.

Friday, November 28, 2008


This quick little post flows in the same vein like yesterday's, mainly because I forgot to make some of the points that were on my mind when I set out but inexplicably dissipated when it was time to put them into words. Radio 4 reminded me of some during their talk show this evening. The opinions of some of the guests cut through the ubiquitous rubbish with impressive clarity and sense. It's a safe bet to turn to the BBC if you're looking for nuggets of truth – though they might be well hidden.

The first point concerns VAT. I noticed this morning that Amazon won't ship my lens before 1 December, effectively delaying my purchase to have me benefit from the decreased rate. What Amazon advertised as a discount was just a scheme to trick buyers. I don't care. I wanted the lens and would have bought it for the higher price. As long as it gets here before Christmas, I'm happy. Of course, it would be even better if I could take it to Paris ten days hence.

What really bugs me about the VAT decrease is that it is generally being presented as a godsend for cash-strapped shoppers, a maneuver that will single-handedly jump-start the economy into an eternal boom. That's total bullshit. Walking through London's high streets, one is struck by endless sales. Last weekend, Marks and Spencer threw their merchandise at shoppers for 20% off, no matter what. Cars are apparently unsellable these days if they don't come with a gigantic discount, a full tank of gas and a weekend trip to Barcelona for two thrown in for free. I doubt anyone will even notice the two percent by which the lower VAT will decrease prices. Certainly no one will base any purchase on that.

As it is too late to continue this post if I want to stay on good terms with my friends, I have to stop here (and run out into the night). But rest assured that I carry more gripes in me, and that I'm eager to vent them. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Christmas in November

Back when I lived in Utah, Christmas was in July, and that didn't have anything to do with Mormons. If I remember correctly, it was a big sports and outdoors store that ran a huge sale that month. According to the sales pitch, everyone would go home happy, laden with gifts and full of joy. I'm not sure how much I benefited from these commercial opportunities, but the term has burned itself into my cerebral cortex. Whenever I get goodies, it's Christmas for me.

November has almost run its course. It's miserable outside, but the lights have been turned on. The flicking of the switch is a big thing here in the U.K. where opulent street parties are held to mark the occasion, be it just around the corner in Regent Street or as far away as Blackpool. Christmastime is upon us, but it's not a given that people are in a particularly generous mood and ready to rush out and part with their money. The somber mood of economic darkness has engulfed England. It's amazing how fast irrational exuberance has tipped to irrational despondence.

At the beginning of the week, the government acted. A multi-billion-pound economic stimulus package was passed. Much of the detail passed me by and probably doesn't concern me, but one measure caught my attention. From December, VAT will be decreased from 17.5% to 15% – in order to make people go out and spend the economy out of recession, never mind exorbitant levels of personal debt and tighter conditions for refinancing. Even if the financial situation of the public were healthier, such a move wouldn't make sense in my opinion.

I have experienced three successive VAT increases in Germany and seen the rate rise from 14% to 19%. Each time, the immediate effect was nil. Stores were afraid of losing customers and passed the increases on with much delay only. Plus their prices had been calculated by some algorithm in the marketing department well in advance. Changing all the numbers would presumably have been costly. Now, with a change in the opposite direction, I'm afraid we're going to see the same effect. Prices might decrease with time, but at the beginning, they'll stay the same. Shops will pocket the difference. They won't complain either – in tough economic times like these.

This morning, I went online to buy a new lens for my camera. Somehow it didn't occur to me to wait a few days to save a handful of pounds. I guess I'm not too financially astute. Luckily, right before taking my shopping basket to the check-out, the friendly folks at Amazon reminded me to enter a promotional code to benefit from the lower VAT even before it's law. This is clearly a ploy to get people to spend their money now. My cynicism makes me predict that the lens and all other merchandise on Amazon will revert back to their original prices once people don't need to be reminded that they can save money, in December when they take it for granted. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that Santa Claus came early this year and I got a nice gift for my tree.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

no free lunch

They say there's no such thing as free lunch. Someone has to pay. Normally, though frequently indirectly, it's the person having lunch. I've had my share of free lunches as a graduate student. Usually, the cost was in the lengthy talk one had to attend before the feast. More recently, free lunches have often been part of conferences that, even if they're interesting, can be excruciatingly exhausting. Turning the argument on its head (with severely stretched logic), it follows that you'll get something in return for hard work. That's how the world should work.

A while ago, my boss asked me and another research associate into his office and presented a little challenge. Collaborators of his, working on human homologs of a protein whose structure is known, wanted to get theoretical support for the idea that their proteins interacted wildly, forming all sorts of hetero-oligomers. Thus spoke the boss, Who can model putative dimer interfaces? While my colleague mumbled evasively, It's possible, probably, gotta check some servers, maybe, but I'm busy, must go back to my desk, I was more interested and replied that I'd look into this and get the computers fired up. This was half a year ago.

Since then I've had intermittent contact with a researcher at the Pasteur Institute that has somehow morphed into a collaborator of mine. I have also spent an ungodly amount of time learning about protein prediction and energy minimization software, which must be among the most cryptic entities existing in the world of zeros and ones. Processors have burned and gigabytes of files accumulated. At this point, I might have some numbers and be ready to make statements regarding the interactions in questions, but probably not with the sort of conviction and boldness that the collaborators had hoped for. I guess, overall, I haven't delivered what I had been asked to though whether that's the problem's fault or mine is not obvious.

I had started to wonder what good would ever come from this. Maybe it was just a big waste of time. Then, out of nowhere, I got a call today. The collaborator was inviting me to come to Paris for an exchange of ideas. They'll cover the train and the hotel and, I have no doubt, my lunch as well. In the end, there might even be a publication, if only I get my data in order. The work for the next two weeks is clearly laid out for me.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

reading patterns

I finished a book today. Given how often I visit the Oxfam store, make a little donation and pick up a good read in return, this should be a fairly common event and not merit a post. But I've noticed recently that I read in the most erratic of ways. Right after buying, I like to dive into a book with spontaneous excitement. If I have chosen well, this initial effervescence turns into frenzied enthusiasm. As I read more, I fall in love with the characters (fiction) or ideas (non-fiction) and the language. Then the curious thing happens. I become saturated. Having convinced myself that the book is indeed great, wild exuberance cools down to warm satisfaction. The book starts to spend more time on my coffee table than in my hands and is finally relegated to the shelf, replaced by some other volume. There is so much to discover.

At this moment, I'm surrounded by at least ten unfinished books, all purchased this year. I have lost track of most older acquisitions that have merged into my substantial shelves over the years, though some keep standing out. I'm painfully aware that I'm still not done with Orhan Pamuk's Snow, which I purchased a good two years ago, right after its author was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Now the novel is sitting by my bedside, nagging me about bad habits.

As I'm thinking about this, it occurs to me how my distractibility also shows when I read scientific papers. These are very different from the books I buy and read at my leisure. Fascinating content is frequently hidden under a thick layer of gooey prose that's hard to cut through and can make reading a pain. On the other hand, there are numerous references to related papers, which often lead me on an electronic paper chase (thanks to the internet, this bottomless well of information). When I'm tired of a given publication that is nevertheless an essential read – like a report of results pertinent to my research or something assigned for a journal club – I find it easy to seek refuge in another paper. It might be easier to read, and it might even offer complementary insight. What it certainly does is keep me from wrapping up the initial, painful paper in the shortest time possible. However, in contrast to my books, I have to eventually finish the paper I set out with. Many a long afternoon is wasted on such an exercise, often with a pot of slowly cooling coffee by my side.

Tomorrow, I have to give journal club. The paper I'll present was easy to read and didn't keep me occupied for long. A lucky pick, no doubt. The same cannot be said of the book I just put down on my table, it's last page turned. Freakonomics was a publishing phenomenon, but its content does not live up to the hype. While there is original thought in the book, and some of the chapters are insightful, overall it's less than edifying. A few striking examples of common wisdom exposed as flawed thinking is entertaining for a moment but nothing more. The last chapter was just a list of statistics with no substance whatsoever. I'm glad I'm done with it. As I haven't been to Oxfam since, I can go back to an older book, to pages first turned with zeal and then abandoned.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

hard times

Yesterday, winter arrived in London, as much as winter does around here. It only snows every half eternity, but it can get cold on occasion. This morning, freezing air sat mercilessly on the town like a bulky old fridge. I couldn't see anything better to do than stay inside where it's warm and read a newspaper, but for that, I had to go out first and buy one. I stepped out for just one second to head to WHSmith, a stationer, and grabbed a Guardian, three pounds of paper for half that in Sterling.

Cuing at the till, I started reading the front page. Apparently, Damien Hirst is in dire straights financially, so much that he feels compelled not to renew the contracts for his workers, otherwise known as those who create the pieces he later puts his name on and sells. That recourse might not be surprising and is certainly in line with what other commercial operations – builders, banks, brokers, retailers – are doing, but there was one surprising element in the story.

Damien Hirst earns millions. His latest auction netted more than a hundred of them. He is considered the richest British artist by quite a distance and one of the richest in the world. And yet his assistants make 19,000 pounds, according to the article. Isn't that just ridiculous? I'm not so much upset about the fact that the salary doesn't cover much than rent for an average one-bedroom apartment. That's somethings scientists in expensive cities are very familiar with. But being paid a pittance when your boss makes millions? This sounds like China to me.

In contrast to China, though, where penniless peasants are forced to toil in sweatshops because there's just nothing else do to, artists (scientists) in the west have options. They can go wherever they please. They're highly skilled (educated) and can change jobs easily. All the information is at your fingertips. Yet being a scientist, I also see another, less publicized side of this argument. When you're young and and at least somewhat promising, you have high hopes for your future, but you have to remain within the system to succeed. You become an assistant to glory (brilliance), work hard and learn, bargaining that with time some of that glory (brilliance) will rub off. You gamble that word of your talent will go out and your star will rise to shine brightly.

In a nutshell, these are the chips that I play with. I'm not sure what I'd do if I had been a slave in Damian Hirst's studio, but knowing that my boss doesn't exploit me for his personal gain, I'm happy to continue. On Monday, I'll be back in the lab, pushing hard for that elusive discovery that will finally get my name out and set me up for success.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

tourist at home

The other day, and I know it's a bad post if it starts with those three words but I can't help it. The other day means what I'm about to relate happened so far in the past that I can't even remember the exact date. I'm breaking the cardinal rule of blogging, which is being current. But over the last two weeks my life has been filled with lots of work and lots of joy, and I just haven't got around to posting much.

The other day, I was tired of work and the same-old I see every day. I get up in the morning, ride my bike to work, work, go to the cafeteria for lunch, work, sneak out to check the new arrivals at the Oxfam bookstore five minutes from campus, work, ride my bike back home, (cook and) eat, and engage in a variety of evening activities that are pleasantly wide in scope but don't necessarily force me far from the familiar surroundings of South Kensington or Shepherd's Bush. I could be living in a village – as long as the village offers exactly the things that I'm interested in, I might be happy for a while – but I live in London. There is more to it than the little sliver I see daily.

The other day, I went to where normally don't tread and entered the touristic heart of the city. Normally, this is not a good idea. Tourists are a nuisance, always in the way, always stopping to gape or take pictures, always on the wrong side of the escalator and blissfully unaware of the rules. But if I choose to be among tourists out of my own volition, I instantly turn into a tourist myself. I enter vacation land and are engulfed by the euphoria that emanates from it. My face turns into a big grin. Buildings become attractions, portrait cartoonists cute, and shopping window decorations works of arts.

The other day, I spent about two hours just walking around the Strand, Covent Garden and the Royal Opera House, a bit of Soho, Leicester Square, and Piccadilly Circus. I didn't notice the crowds or felt the pushing and shoving that's inevitable. I marveled at the six-pointed carpets of light that hover above Regent Street, giving it a festive mood. I was enchanted by the giant inflated snowmen inspecting the proceedings on Carnaby Street from above. And I scratched my head over the oddly chosen minuscule lights festooned across Oxford Street. Was their dimness supposed to mirror the mood of the local shoppers, battered as they are by a deep recession? Being a tourist, I didn't care.

The other day, I returned late at night from a quick city break. A quick tube ride took me to the heart of London with all its sparkle and lights. Back in my apartment I realized how blessed I am to live here – and also how wise it was to take residence in a city others have high on their vacation wish list. I can visit London any time I want, at the spur of the moment, and for small change.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Just a short note to show that I'm still alive. I remember, years ago, when email became the tool of choice for instant communication. Some friends of mine didn't seem to get it, though. Only after weeks, sometimes months, would I receive their replies. Their excuses were invariable. After working on the computer all day, they had no desire whatsoever to go back to the glowing monitor at night to write emails. I couldn't quite understand it. Computers were fun, and communicating with friends was fun.

I might have finally arrived at a point of saturation. Lately, I've been using the computer a lot. A digital crescendo saw me spend more and more time in front of my two screens at work. Over the last week, I've been putting together a new website for the lab and hardly left my desk. At night, I don't even turn the computer on. I need to get away.

Getting away was provided tonight in the form of the Arabic class I've been taking for a few weeks at Imperial College. I'm still very excited about the prospect of learning the basics of a language that is certain to be extremely useful when I go back to Syria next spring, but I'm not sure how long the excitement will last. I have doubts because the teacher is far from what I'd consider optimal.

She's from Egypt; that's a good thing. Arabic is her first language, and she has lived long enough in the U.K. that her English is of nearly native quality. Unfortunately, teaching is not a god-given talent of hers. She is very loose with terminology. Alphabet is frequently used to mean letter, and she doesn't seem to be clear about the difference between vowels and consonants. When you start out a language, these are crucial bits.

Instead of explaining issues, she frequently tells elaborate stories that might or might not be related to the question. A student asked today if there are Arabic book specifically tailored to learners, with vocabulary restricted to a few hundred words. She replied that there is a grammar companion to the text book we are using – and I am forever discouraged from asking her to clarify point that make no sense to me.

The first twenty minutes of each class are invariably filled with expansive rambling. This is quite entertaining but not what I paid my fees for. And while storytelling might be a revered craft in the Arab world, it doesn't add too much too my learning experience.

On the other hand, given that the course runs from six to eight at night, a bit of diversion might be essential. Hard-core teaching of such an unforgiving subject would leave us students stranded after half an hour, unable to take up anything. Maybe this lighter approach is exactly right for an evening class. Right before releasing us, our teacher explained the hamsa in a way that my Jordanian friends never could. I think I finally understood. For me, that's a good reason to be very excited.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

dreams come true

In the year 1963, Martin Luther King gave a speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. A crowd of more than two hundred thousand listened themselves into ecstasy as he illustrated his vision of the future, a future where color wouldn't matter anymore, where people would be judged by the content of their character. The speech was full of hope, a dream turned into words. It was a monumental event in American history. Even Bobby had showed up and sang a song with Joan. Change was in the air and faith in people's hearts.

Over the next years, things did indeed change, but whether for the better was not immediately clear. The U.S. invaded Vietnam, battling blindly in the jungle. A bloodier war hadn't been fought since the North stood up against the South. Tens of thousands were killed and countless imprisoned and tortured.

One such prisoner of war survived six horrible years in a military prison in Hanoi and entered politics shortly upon returning to the U.S. The culmination of his astounding career came last night when he stood in the U.S. presidential election. A tale like John McCain's sounds barely believable, as if taken straight from the storybooks. The papers should be full of words of disbelieve.

That they don't only shows how truly mind-blowing last night was. John McCain would have make a great president. After pathetically pandering to the Republican base for the duration of the campaign, he reverted to honesty and integrity in his concession speech. The fact that he had to concede, the fact that he was clearly only the second best in this contest must fill every American's heart with pride. What a blessed country this is.

Barack Obama will be the next president. Enough has been said and written already about the incredible tale of his life. I just want to note that next February, when the Lincoln Memorial will be rededicated in honor of Honest Abe's 200th birthday, a black man will once again climb its steps and give a speech. This time, though, hope doesn't need to be evoked. Change has already happened. A new era has begun. I'm grateful to those who voted for making this happen.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

memory lane

By now it's too late to call on my readers to get out and vote. Either you've done so already or you're standing in a line waiting. Even more likely, though, is that you're not eligible to vote in the first place. In that case, relax. The world will keep turning whether you worry or not. It's best not to fret.

One particular friend of mine, an Arab residing in California who's the proud bearer of a Green Card but would be even prouder if he had his American passport already, will certainly not have a minute of rest today, checking dozens of news sites in perpetual succession for any information that might reliably foretell the outcome of the election. Being a scientist, he knows that the future cannot be predicted, and yet he won't be able to contain his anxiety. He wants the right candidate to win.

Last time, four years ago, when we were both graduate students at Utah, he went as far as promising cookies for everyone at the weekly lab meeting, in case the worst president in history would be, well, history. By the time lab meeting came around, two days after the election, celebration mood had turned sour and a sobriety bordering on depression had beset my friend. No Kerry, no cookie.

Like my friend, I also retain vivid memories of the last presidential election. While I wasn't quite as much of a news junkie as my friend, I made sure to stay abreast of the latest exit polls. When the sun had set, number came in indicating Ohio had gone the right way and the election been decided. With a group of friends I then set out to see a mediocre movie at the dollar theater, which was true to its name only on Tuesdays. Imagine the devastation when I turned my computer on a few hours later and learned the truth.

This year, the stakes might be just as high as they were four years ago, but I find myself distanced, geographically as well as emotionally. Why get worked up about the big country beyond the sea? I rather spend my evening blogging and reading than getting unreliable numbers fixes. On the other hand, tomorrow morning, when the race is run, I'll get up early to see who the winner is. I might even have a cookie to celebrate.

Monday, November 03, 2008

rhythm of life

This weekend, I found myself in Bristol. This city in the southwest of England has never been on my list of places to see before the sea swallows the land, and I can't even say that I had been aware of its existence before the idea of this trip was raised. I must further admit, to my shame, that I didn't know Banksy hails from there. Well, well. Off we went on Friday morning, to discover the charms of a maritime city away from the sea and art in unexpected places.

This post is not about Bristol. While a friend and I spend two lovely but miserably cold and wet days in town, seeing the Avon and old docks, remnants of a proud harbor studded with new developments, Brunel's Clifton suspension bridge, and as many coffee shops as you need to keep warm when November is at its worst, the real reason for going there in the first place was dancing. My friend's friend, our host, is a tango enthusiast and teacher and a regular organizer of milongas.

A milonga is an Argentine institution, a place to practice and dance tango. Fanciness is not required, only passion. People come for their love of dancing, and the only thing they show off is their skill on the dance floor. A milonga can be held anywhere, even an old shed, if the music is right and the wood of floor smooth. The milonga we went to was in a community hall in a village outside of Bristol. The night was Halloween and fancy dress very much encouraged, black or white with accents of red.

I'm not a dancer. I took a year of salsa classes in Grenoble, and while I had fun, I never got the hang of it. I have a good dozen hours of salsa in my iTunes library, but the music doesn't speak to make, it doesn't make me want to move. I went to the milonga with the lowest expectations but walked away, hours later, rocked to the core.

Tango is easy. In its simplest form (might the aficionados forgive me for saying so), it doesn't require much more than shuffling across the dance floor, keeping step with the beat, more or less. Music controls the two bodies feeling each other. Subtle shifts of weight move a unity of two forward or to the side. After suffering through salsa with much dedication and some hard work, I was shocked how natural tangoing felt.

It probably didn't look much like tango to those watching (in horror?), and the other dancers on the floor must have wished we hadn't been blocking their elegant progress, but I had, for the first time in my life, the feeling that not all music might be lost on me. For this alone, it was worth going to Bristol.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

stressed out

I just found out that Wednesday will not only be one day after the U.S. Presidential Election, but also National Stress Awareness Day. Now I've always hated awareness days of all sorts, especially when I lived in the U.S. where they are so prolific. Cynically, I've always wanted to see a National Awareness Day Awareness Day, a day especially dedicated to awareness. With all these awareness days going on all the time it was entirely impossible to be aware of them.

It seems to me that a Stress Awareness Day is even more nonsensical than most. Wouldn't everyone be better off if unaware of his or her stress? Wouldn't life much more stressful if you are aware of your stress? I for sure don't want to be made aware of any stress that might be lurking in the dark corners of my life, just waiting to come out and bring me pain and misery.

I also wouldn't want anyone in the U.S. to be too stressed out to go vote on Tuesday. There are no excuses. The Economist is right. It's time.