Monday, March 29, 2010


I was dredging in the deep recesses of eBay the other day, trying to unearth treasures overlooked by the surface-scraping masses. A classic film camera to supplement my digital SLR was on my mind, but those that are popular (e.g. Contax G2) are expensive and those that say Leica are just ridiculous. Yes – in reference to my previous post – I'm in the market for a rangefinder camera, tempted by its near-silent shutter and quick and accurate manual focus. The Canon 7s could adequately substitute for an unreachable Leica M6 and has some fine glass of its own, but is exceedingly hard to find.

I didn't get the chance to make a bid, but I stumbled upon a radio receiver for next-to-nothing, an enormous flat box with a good name on it that would fit nicely on top of my stereo stack. Why was it so cheap? I guess these days people don't buy radios much. Everyone has a few already, and when it comes to spending money on something new, something really new holds more appeal: a digital radio, a radio alarm with iPod dock or a computer to stream any of that millions of stations that are online. I like the simplicity of one-button operation and might still fall for it, but there's an issue creeping in the dark.

Much like TV transmission, the radio signal is bound to be converted to digital, with FM frequencies going the way of the Shellac record or Betamax. Well, worse actually because if you have the player, you can still enjoy your records or tapes, but soon enough you won't be able to do anything with your radio. 2015 is apparently the final year for FM in the UK, though I can't believe the government is going to make millions of perfectly fine radios obsolete overnight. Seems like a most wasteful operation to me, especially since radios tend to just work.

And this brought me to another thought. Radios are a kind of messenger from the past, evoking memories of times when electronics developed calmly and cautiously. Even as little as fifteen years ago, you could grab any old bit of kit from your grandparent's sideboard and you'd recognize it and know what to do with it. You'd take it to your room, plug it in, and it would work as if new. A record player would play records, a tape deck tapes, and a radio whatever was on the air. Things didn't change much and didn't need replacing.

Now, everything is being upgraded all the time. What can't keep up is sent down the dreary one-way road of technological obsolescence. My old iPod mini has way too little storage to be useful. Thus, I got another. All of my laptops were powerful and furious beasts when I got them. Now they sit on my lap like old cats. They purr but don't have much bite and are reluctant to move.

I like stuff that lasts, stuff that's as good today as it was ten years ago. And if the FM signal is extinguished, there's really only one technology that remains with any sense of vigor – the good old film camera. Many old Nikons, Canons or Leicas still do exactly what they were designed to do, even if that was fifty years ago. It's enough to go out and stuff one's shelf.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Today I went out with a bunch of friends of mine for a photographic project. I have known these guys for quite a while now, and we have gone on little trips here and there that all revolved around photography. Lavender fields outside town, an all-nighter at summer solstice, a brilliant day in Richmond Park, a afternoon shooting street – the main objective of all of these outings was to take pictures and to talk gear.

I've been recently wondering what the point was. I take decent pictures, but they generally disappear on my hard drive, never to be looked at again. Some make it to flickr, but I could live without that. And if I hadn't taken any of the photos that I have – outside trips, obviously – I wouldn't know the difference.

During one of my many visits to The Photographers' Gallery I realized that I like images most when there's a story behind them. Any single photo, even if its creatively composed and flawlessly executed, doesn't get me drooling. If there is, next to the photo, a little plaque that expounds why the photo was taken and what hoops the photographer had to jump trough to get it, I'll generally like it better. And if there are a series of even mediocre frames that tell a story, highlight an issue or make a point, or have simply been put together for a convincing reason, they will please me greatly. It's the thoughts behind the images that turn them into art.

With this in mind, I proposed a little project of our own. Instead of taking ever more accomplished snapshots, we could take our craft to the next level and create something special. I suggested a journey on a tube line to my friends. At each station, we would alight and take a photo according to some theme we had decided to follow. It could be architecture, street life, urban flora, local history, or the color blue. The field was wide open. The tube line would provide direction, but our ideas would lead to the photos. My proposition was received with obliging sympathy and mild bewilderment, and this Sunday set for its execution.

As late as dinnertime on Saturday, I had no idea of what I would focus on. Then I saw Fast Food Nation on the iPlayer. The film is a fictionalization of the investigative masterpiece by Eric Schlosser that exposes the brutal economics and the physical cruelty that lie behind the cheap meals at fast-food places. (I cannot make myself call them restaurants, and I'm always thrown off when an article or a documentary talks about restaurants but means McDo or Burger King.)

Eric Schlosser's book was an eye-opener. I read it in one frantic weekend too many years ago when the rain and a painful ankle swollen after a heroic football game kept me from going outside. It exposes all the dirty little things that go into a Big Mac: pollution, exploitation, cruelty to animals, brain-washing of children, food chemistry – most of the evils of the world, it seemed. There were only few good characters in the book, most notably the morally upright rancher and his happy cows.

The morally upright rancher featured in the movie as well but his cows were absent, as was good meat. And even though the film's end was visually disturbing, most of the explicitness of the book had been purged. Schlosser's writing, after visiting a meat-processing plant and talking to people working there, is so much more convincing than the featureless proxy recreated in the movie studio. And the heart-warming story of immigrant love and loss distracted from the story more than it contributed to it.

In other words, I didn't like the film much but it helped me connect some dots. London is full of little chicken shacks, all modeled on the same template: A name recalling American geography, a grinning chicken and a star, a nameplate in garish red, white and blue, and cheap fast food. These places are independently owned and run and directly compete with the likes of KFC, and I find them hilarious. There is no limit to the creativity in naming and branding, though they all serve the same unpalatable crap.

My idea was thus: Document the chicken shops near tube stations. Maybe a cool pattern would emerge. Even if not, I'd have a series of amusing photos, which I intended to shoot in stark, over-saturated colors. And since every project needs a catchy name, I launched Chickens on the Tube.

My friends didn't reveal their plans when we met this morning outside Tottenham Court Road station. We decided to go for a coffee to confer and lay out our ideas. Then it started raining. In a break of the clouds, we rushed over to Covent Garden and found shelter in an Italian restaurant right before fat drops started pounding the pavement again. It was 2pm by the time we reemerged and too late for any excursion into a distant Underground zone.

It was drizzling as we made our way towards Leicester Square, shooting apathetically during moments of atmospheric clarity. When darkness doubled down again and the sky drew menacingly close, we dove into the nearest coffee shop and ended the afternoon sipping cappuccino and tea and arguing over the relative merits of rangefinder cameras and medium-format black-and-white film.

None of us had taken a single shot that would contribute to our artistic venture, but no one complained, either. Being in the company of friends is precious no matter what you do, and the chicken shops are not going anywhere. In fact, I noticed one on my way back from my local tube station when I walked home. Hollywood is a quintessential London chicken shack, and it has jump-started my project.

Brompton chicken

Friday, March 26, 2010


Last summer, the full force of super-charged Banksy hype hit upon Britain. As a sprayer, Banksy had gained notoriety for his foolhardy stunts and inventive grafs, but his fame hadn't spread beyond a small minority. But when, out of nowhere, Bristol's City Museum let Banksy desecrate its hallowed halls with spray cans, cardboard stencils and disrespect for the orthodoxy, the crowds streamed in, and his name was in everyone's mouth. The exhibition set the region ablaze, and people happily spent four hours or more in a line to see what it was that everyone was talking about. It was a scream.

I loved the show, and I love Banksy's graffiti for their creativity, irony and fun, but also the skilled and daring execution. When I heard that a Banksy film featured at Sundance, I was all excited. It's been a while since I lived next door to the festival, but I knew I'd catch the film in a theater sooner or later. About a month ago, an official poster advertising it went up in the tunnel connecting the Science Museum and South Kensington Station. March 5th, it said.

Before that was the Berlin Film Festival, which also ran Exit Through the Gift Shop, as the film is called, but did one better than Sundance: It promised a speech by the intangible sprayer-turned-filmmaker. The art world was abuzz. Would his scrupulously guarded anonymity be lifted? No, the speech was prerecorded, the frames filled with a black silhouette jabbering with an electronically altered voice. Never mind – the critics like the film.

The trailer doesn't do the film justice, and neither does this little synopsis: A Frenchman living in Los Angeles who runs a vintage clothing store and captures every moments of his life on video runs into a bunch of street artists. He starts filming them and gets sucked into their world. First, he just documents what's happening around him, but soon enough he's out there with them as assistant and side-kick.

By chance, he meets Banksy whose confidence he gains by skill, perseverance and sheer madness. Banksy pushes him to edit his endless reels of tape into a film but doesn't like the result. He decides to make the film himself and, to get the persistent Frenchman off his back, encourages him to try art instead. The madman becomes Mr. Brainwash, fills a vacant TV studio in LA with his pieces and becomes an art world sensation overnight. Banksy is pissed, as are the other sprayers he used to film.

The film, in other words, is a documentary, and it's exceedingly well done. The magic of street art and the mystique of Banksy permeate the film but are never revealed. The narration is spot on, and the comments made by the protagonists are hilarious. Towards the end, Banksy points out that everything is just one big joke, but he can't decide who or what it is on. To me, the biggest appeal of the film lay in its total irreverence towards everyone and everything, Banksy very much included.

I left the theater bouncing with laughter and thoroughly engrossed in the world of Banksy, and then I did something strange. I took the tube back home. Normally I walk; the cinema is just around the corner. But the cinema just around the corner didn't show Exit Through the Gift Shop, nor did the majority of London's theaters. I had to trek down to Wimbledon to catch a showing, really bizarre after the hype of last summer.

On the train home, the film was still in my rioting in my head, and with distance I started wondering. Was this thing real or was it just a big sham? Was Banksy himself manning the projector, laughing himself to the floor with every new scene that the audience took at face value?

Thierry Guetta, the mad Frenchman, was traumatized as a child when he missed the moment of his mom's death. He sprouted a camera and started filming constantly, vowing never to lose a moment again. This may be good material for a psychology text book but perhaps just a bit too much for reality. Then I realized that the rising art star chooses Mr. Brainwash as nom d'artiste. It can't really be any more obvious, can it? The thick French accent and even thicker muttonchops, patiently slow-cooked for maximum impact, are just a disguise. Mr. Brainwash is Banksy, if not physically than at least metaphorically. Mr. Brainwash was created for the purpose of making the film, and the big exhibition in LA probably financed it. And the man without a name keeps laughing at whoever takes him seriously.

Monday, March 22, 2010

lower intermediate

When you keep listening to something for long enough, even without paying too much attention, it will get to you, anchor itself in your brain and become incorporated in your mental spectrum. You learn without effort. It's called immersion – and it's something I can't see working for me.

I need rules, structure and order. If there's no table explaining how things go or a list enumerating all the cases and exceptions, I consider myself lost without even trying. And yet, despite my convictions, sometimes things have their own way of going.

About half a year ago, I was sitting in the lobby of a cheap but friendly hotel in Palmyra, enjoying steaming pots of tea on the house before heading out to the sand and the ruins. The two kids that ran the operation had greeted us with words of warm welcome and a picture book of local sights. They showed us photos of a temple, the colonnaded main avenue and the castle rising behind the excavations. One picture, rather non-sequitur on a fiery September day, showed the site blanketed in snow.

It was at this point that I remembered the first of many lines of dialog from the hours of Arabicpod that I've been listening to, leisurely and with a floating consciousness. Hal sayatee thalj, I could have asked, will there be snow, and the question would have been grammatically correct and oddly fitting in light of the image I was beholding.

Saying a correct sentence in a foreign language is a dangerous thing to do. It gives the impression of knowing the language and impels the other party to drown you in an torrent of excited response. I've experienced this most dramatically at a friend's wedding near Milan when I presented myself to the bridegroom in one short but accent-free sentence, practiced for hours before. He was delighted to meet me, hugged me enthusiastically and told me about his life, how he had fought hard to win his wife-to-be's heart and how blessed he was to have succeeded. A 500-page romantic novel was emptied over my unreceptive ears, in two minutes and in Italian. It took me half an hour to set the record straight. I don't speak Italian.

To avoid a similar fate in Syria, I didn't inquire about the weather. In any case, the burning sun in the blanched sky unambiguously predicted the days ahead and the only response I knew, from the same podcast, was as inappropriate as the question. Faqat matah, only rain.

Since that day, this sentence has been in my head, popping up in complete futility from time to time. Only today was I in a position to make use of it. I was sitting in my Arabic class, surrounded by a curious crowd of rambunctious students. There was the Indian fellow in love with languages, an Iranian woman able to guess many Arabic words because of her knowledge of Farsi but blissfully unaware of the concept of grammar, and a couple of English girls who had spent their formative years resisting the traditions of their immigrants fathers and have now come to regret it. The teacher, a gregarious Egyptian, was dashing through nearly forty pages of the textbook, briefly introducing concepts, new verb forms, compound pronouns, and broken plurals. It was enough to make a Bedouin weep.

The reason for the haste was time, which was running out. Tonight was the last class of the semester, and our teacher wanted to hand us something (no, make that a lot) to think about before sending us off with our certificate of language proficiency at the lower intermediate level. At the end of the two hours, right before the farewell sweets were served and everyone started to speak in the hushed tones of unbearable loss, the talk turned to the seasons and the weather and it was here that I could shine because the sun didn't. There was only rain.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

book back

The books are back. Yeah! It's been a two-and-a-half-month drought, but now the book bar is back. How did you survive without it for so long? And how did I fare without a constant nagging reminder of the increasing shelfload on my Billy and towers of unread pages that, if stacked vertically, would nearly reach the sun – and catch fire if I added a single page.

I've done well. I've acquired five books and I've read five book, so the balance is even. That's more than I can say of last year, when I bought seven more books than I read. What I did read is summarized below, solely to comply with my obsession with structure and order. There are no deeply intellectual insights.

  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – A hilarious read, once you get through the first 400 pages, which are a bit tedious. A self-conscious attempt at intellectual depth results in the most unexpected satire. After reading, you will want a copper smelter in your backyard and a coal mine in your living room.
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin HamidA great book, giving an unconventional look at the causes of Islamic radicalization.
  • Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie – One of the most mesmerizing beginnings I know. Three drops of blood frozen into rubies and diamonds brushed from eyelashes by an angry young man who resolves to never again "kiss earth for any god or man". The writing stays brilliant throughout but the story struggles to hang on – as I struggled to finish it.
  • The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa – I found this on a dusty shelf in the lab, read it in a week and returned it. A mathematics professor who has lost the ability to form new memories in an accident rediscovers life and his housekeeper each day. Predates the movie with a similar idea, and is cleverly written. Touching but not cheesy.
  • Samarkand by Amin Maalouf – The sect of the Assassins, the Persian polymath and poet Omar Khayyam, and the court of Nishapur form the backdrop to the writing of a book of history and poems. Halfway through, the book turns into an adventure set at the beginning of the 20th century. Thoroughly enjoyable historical fiction.
  • The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi – Growing up in the desert of southeast London and then moving to West London where things were happening in the late 70s. The pubs still exist on North End Road but have different names and don't host punk shows anymore. Much more convincing than Zadie Smith.
  • The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri – Inspector Montalbano is a national hero in Italy. Dozens of books and several films chronicle his cases. There's probably a pizza named after him, but I couldn't get too enthusiastic.
  • The Iliad – The Trojan War retold by Menelaos Stephanides – Whenever there's a hole in the plot or the story threatens to get lost in contradictions, a god steps in and sorts things out. Not my way of doing things.
  • On the Black Hill by Bruce ChatwinAwesome writing about nothing at all, and utterly captivating.
  • Interpreter of Maladies – Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. A good read, and better than The Namesake, because it's more varied.
  • Palestinian Walks by Raja Shehadeh – A sorrowful book and probably also an important one, but I'm still not tempted to hike the West Bank.
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac – Supposed to be a highlight in the literary canon. I found it dull.
  • When you are engulfed in flames by David Sedaris, who can be funny, but this book is not.
  • Arnes Nachlaß by Siegfried Lenz – The writing is lyric and calm. All the drama happens between the lines. Siegfried Lenz is one of the great German writers.
  • The White Road by Tania Hershman – Short fiction for the 21st century? Writing on speed? It's amazing what a skilled writer can do with as little as half a page.
  • Wenn ich mal groß bin by Martin Reichert – Any randomly chosen three or four pages are funny, but the novelty wears off quickly.
  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell – Much better than many other books that collect an asphyxiating number of anecdotes to substantiate a point, which is not a scientific way of proving anything. But Malcolm Gladwell is even better when he write short and to the point. Some New Yorker articles have just been stapled together and hit the shelves of bookstores.
  • L'Etranger by Albert Camus – A guy goes to his mom's funeral, then the movies, then swimming, then kills a man. He's tried and sentenced to death, and none of this has much of an effect on him.
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – Whoever read this book was not afraid of the recession in 2007 and isn't afraid now. The (western) world has come a long way. This book is a harrowing description of the 1930s, when the dustbowl emptied its residents into the paradise of California that turned out to be a deep sea of misery with very few opportunities. The last scene is even stronger than the rest of the book, a rare feat.
  • Best American Short Stories 1998 – I lent this to a friend half an eternity ago and now count it as lost. Great Stories!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

you count

It was another beautiful day today, the third warmest-day-of-the-year in a row (and not just the third warmest day of the year – who'd be keeping track?), but I was holed up in a bleak seminar room for eight hours with no so much as a breath of fresh air or a tickle of sunshine on my increasingly substantial forehead.

I attended a workshop organized by the Postdoc Development Centre at Imperial, a well-funded resource for all postdocs in need of guidance, advice or constructive criticism. The handful of staff have put it onto their flags to make it as easy as possible for postdocs to succeed in their careers, whatever they may be. They organize workshops, retreats and mock interviews, and help spiff up CVs and covering letters.

At Imperial, and I think in the UK in general, postdocs have a right to ten days a year of training designed to further professional or personal development, to acquire transferable skills and the like. These days can be taken at will, without so much as talking to the boss. I doubt anyone takes all ten days, but it's good to know that one could. I feel that Imperial is well equipped and eager to maximize its employees' potential, even if the employees will soon move on, as is almost inevitable with postdocs.

I haven't decided to move on yet, but I'm keeping my eyes open, and my open eyes are telling me that I wouldn't be very well prepared, were I to apply to jobs outside academia right now. I went to an afternoon of presentations of potential career paths organized by the London Biotechnology Network ten days ago, and today, I went to a course on how to interview outside academia. It was quite an experience.

I have never properly interviewed for a job or, to put it differently, I have never interviewed for a proper job. In fact, I have never held a proper jobs. I have bounced from one academic position to another, without much structure or proper HR. Getting the interview involved sending an email to the head of a lab whose research a found interesting, and the interview itself was a conversation about scientific projects I might like to take on, followed by a lengthy tour of the lab and an evening in the pub so my future colleagues could judge whether it'd be good fun to have me around. In the real world, things are apparently different, and not only because you're supposed to wear a suit and tie to the interview.

No, the interview is serious business and rather similar to what you'd expect from the term. One or more interviewers have a bunch of questions that they ask you to probe your motivation and your character, assess you competencies and your qualifications, and find out whether you're suitable for the job they're about to offer. I guess employing someone outside academia is a bigger deal because it involves more money, for you and for the institution.

It was eye-opening to hear what kind of questions one can expect in interviews and even more so how one should think about them. Not like a scientist, most of all. Every question needs to be approached from the point of view of the company that's hiring and with the objective of presenting yourself in the best possible light in terms of requirements of the job. It's a different mindset, and quite foreign to me. For that reason, it was good to collect a list of questions that came up during the day – in the lecture in the morning and during the mock interviews later.

The mock interviews, without any preparation on the part of the postdocs took only seven minutes but were taped on video, which helped induce a level of stress in me that I would expect to encounter in a real interview. Some questions threw me off and some I didn't even answer, waffling aimlessly instead, but it was only during the feedback that I realized how much better I could have been (to put a positive spin to the whole exercise). I have a lot to think about and prepare.

One thing I've already done. During the interview I was talking about my writing experience and mentioned my blog. How many hits does it get, was one question. I don't know, and I don't care. This blog is still mostly a personal writing exercise. It's not advertised anywhere and not popular. Visitors or, worse, numbers are not why I write. But in case I'll ever use the blog in a real interview situation, I incorporated a visitor counter in the blog code. This post is to let you know that your presence is duly noted from now on.

Friday, March 12, 2010

on air

The best thing that can happen to someone with a pen in his hand is not that someone will read what he writes. That's arrogantly taken for granted. What else would be the point? The best thing that can happen is for someone to read it and disagree with it – and keep reading because the writing is good or convincing or interesting. It's the ultimate compliment.

When I started reading the Economist sometime in the early 2000s, I was frequently revolted by the opinions expressed or the points made – and nearly always bowled over by the presentation of the arguments. A balanced exploration of both sides of the story is the best basis for a constructive discussion.

I'm not a journalist and I'm not in the business of fostering debate. But the other day, in a comment, a friend of mine disagreed with my points and complimented me on my writing. I highlighted the day in my calendar to remember it in years to come. And I did some quick research to see how I could support my position more convincingly. Here is what I meant to say.

There is no need for any more images of natural disasters, war or ecological collapse. Everyone has seen enough and is sufficiently depressed by them. I am convinced that everyone knows what the issues are (and you might argue that this is where I am naively wrong), and I think people need inspirational examples of how to make a positive difference in the world to propel them to action.

For a good year or so, I've been subscribed to the LSE podcast. The London School of Economics and Political Science has the most impressive line-up of speakers of any educational institution that I'm aware of, and recordings of all their lectures go on-line shortly after the event. (This is all the better as tickets can be extremely hard to come by.)

Their latest offering at the time of writing is a talk by John Elkington about the role of innovation, finance and business in the transformation of the economic framework towards a more sustainable model. The talk is cautiously (and necessarily) optimistic about our ability to survive and gives examples of revolutionary ideas that, even if they don't lead to profound change themselves, will pave the way into a livable future. I wish I could have made my case like Elkington.

I listened to this talk over the course of three walks, two to work and one back home. Head-phoned sleepwalking is a habit I've picked up since ditching my bicycle for commuting. Seeing the same dirty terraces and the same quiet streets every morning and every evening, I need something to keep me entertained and distracted, and podcasts fit the bill.

Most of the time, my ears are tuned to Ehab and Mohammed at Arabicpod. But when I don't want to twist my brain into a Möbius strip of linguistic confusion, I seek lighter alternatives. As mentioned earlier, the LSE is a good resource. This American Life is obviously on my player, as are the News from Lake Wobegon. Recently, I added the History of the World in 100 Objects, a brilliant guide to history from the perspective of a British Museum curator, using nothing but objects amassed over the centuries in the museum's vast halls and archives.

This sounds a lot, but ten walks a day at 25 minutes each add up to more than four hours a week. And here's the reason for this post, a question: What else should I add to iTunes? What other shows, podcasts or recordings would enlighten, challenge and educate me between home and work? I'm sure you, my dear readers, have your own favorites. Please share them with me, especially if I'm likely to disagree with the content while appreciating the presentation.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

hard rain

Today was the first time I saw the sun this year. I had almost forgotten what it looked like; it was nice. I went to the lab for a miniprep, a restriction digest and a gel and used the time the experiments took to go for a run in the park. Mileage is really picking up. I will probably double last year's preparation, certainly in terms of distance and hopefully also in terms of intensity.

When I was done with the running and experimenting and had packed everything up neatly, I headed down to South Kensington for a coffee but got sidetracked as soon as I left the building. The entire length of the Queen's Lawn runs an exhibition of the Hard Rain Project.

I had noticed the open-air gallery from my office window and passed it frequently on my way to lunch over the past few days but never quite found the time to have a close look, despite the exhibition's alluring sell: A man's quest to represent in photography each line of Bob Dylan's eternal A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall. Sounds good? Well, this afternoon I finally spent half an hour contemplating the three dozen photos or so.

This is not just an exercise in illustration. The project's mission is to "Reinvent the modern world so it's compatible with nature and human nature". The strategy is to pair Dylan's most apocalyptic song with apposite photos, spreading the doom and gloom of human suffering and of the erosion of the natural world. I'm not sure this is the right approach.

Some of the photos are truly heartbreaking (though the one of Abu Ghraib seems to have been added only to blatantly flatter the liberal, Bush-hating target audience), and I was left rather despondent after seeing them all. After the oil scare of the last few years, water is making a big comeback as commodity of scarcity, melting off glaciers and being pumped out of aquifers left and right until the world becomes one big dust bowl. Our climate is on its way to hell, and we're going with it unless we do something.

The problem is certainly correctly identified, but spreading dejection and fuzzy catch lines is not going to lead to solutions. Visionary ideas and inspiration might, but optimism and can-do were nowhere to be found among the misery of wars, hunger and climate catastrophe. And yet, optimism and inspiring plans are the only way to go. As the saying goes, Whether you think you can do it or you think you can't, you're usually right.

Not many people truly care about glaciers being lost. They're too far away and don't have a perceivable effect on people's lives, important though they are. I lost an SD card the other day and was rather distressed. Some photos were gone forever and my camera went out of commission yet again. This loss had an immediate effect on me and caused me to act, though on a global scale, it didn't matter one little bit.

Similarly, you won't get Joe Public to passionately and tirelessly fight to end the war in Sudan or prevent the submerging of Bangladesh. There's always something closer to home that's more important. That's obviously where conservation and protection of the environment begin, but they need to begin in the same way all over the world.

La Paz is going to run out of water in forty years, or so the prediction goes (and if you believe 40-year predictions, you're a fine fool), but few people there care. There more concerned about getting a job for the day so they can put food on the table at night. This is where the solution starts.

What's needed are positive, constructive ideas that can be realized and make a measurable difference. Some of those already exist. Glaciers melt and sea levels rise? Just take the meltwater back out of the ocean. How hard can it be? Use solar power to drive desalination, creating freshwater in areas that are most in need. Pump the stuff up to La Paz if need be.

Closer to implementation is an plan that promises to solve much of the water problem of Jordan and save the Dead Sea from vanishing at the same time. Take water from the Red Sea, use the sun to recover drinking water and let the remaining brine jet down to the Dead Sea. Put some turbines right at the bottom and capture the potential energy of liquid that started its journey 400m higher.

A visionary approach is needed to prevent the world from collapsing, not another set of depressing photos. People must be galvanized to act, not paralyzed into despair. And the song doesn't need the photos either.

Thursday, March 04, 2010


This afternoon, for about half an hour, I was staggering through Whitechapel with no clue whatsoever. I had followed Commercial Road for a few blocks until Spitalfields came into view and told me that I was going in the wrong direction. I headed back to where I had come from and then continued, boldly blazing my way into the unknown. Soon I realized that the Commercial Road had taken a left turn at some point, unbeknown to me and unsigned. Taking what I thought would be a wisely chosen shortcut, I struggled past quiet blocks of disintegrating 1930s housing estates before I emerged back on the main road. As I had left the lab early, I was still not late when I arrived at Queen Mary University.

I had gone to Queen Mary because of a Career Track Event organized by the London Biotechnology Network. Though I picked up my Ph.D. nearly five years ago, I'm still as confused about my career as I was in graduate school. Or, if I'm honest (which this blog is not really the place for), I'm more confused than ever. Back then, I thought I'd become I scientist, pull off my own research and head a lab at some point. After struggling for half a decade with not too much to show for, I'm not so sure anymore. Confusion is clouding my mood in quieter moments. Which is why I go to nearly every career event on the calendar – and there's plenty of them in London.

Today's was different in that it didn't claim to simply showcase career choices that are available to benchside scientists. Instead, it promised to reveal what non-academic employers look for in career changers from the university. The selling point (for this free event) was that participants would be able to precisely tailor their applications after attending it because they'd know what skills, strengths and qualifications increase their employability. It was all about industry trends and business awareness. At least that's what the flyer puffed.

In reality, the talks were not all that different from those I had heard before at similar events. I even recognized one speaker from the inaugural Source Event. An equity analyst, he gave pretty much the same talk as two years ago, just toned down a little to conform to the currently prevailing air of austerity. Oh, and in contrast to earlier events, this time the audience measured a paltry forty, making interactions with the speakers during the coffee break easily possible.

Interactions and networking was the unifying theme of the afternoon, something the chair emphasized repeatedly and every speaker mentioned. Everyone probably knows by now that connections is what it takes to get that elusive dream job, launch a company or succeed in a project that thirsts for extraneous expertise. Everyone knows, and yet nearly everyone is more comfortable in his own realm than out in the vast ocean of opportunity, knotting the mesh that will net his fortune.

That's why I loved the last speaker, a Jay Leno lookalike with bulging guts and a royal chin. He strode to the dais, anxiously clutching a USB stick and declaring with the weary voice of a Luddite that it would take him a while to get his presentation started and why don't we get up and stretch our legs. It had been a long afternoon, after all. The reaction from the audience was subdued, to say the least, but he wasn't fazed. It was all part of his spiel, though we didn't know this at the time. "Seriously," he continued. "Please stand up." He slowed his steps and looked at us as if he meant it. We got up.

"Now I want you to think about what you're going to do in the next 24 hours to advance your careers. Please turn around." Dazed by too many commands, most did. "Now speak to the person you're facing, someone you haven't talked to today, and tell him or her." After two seconds of stunned silence, a thunderstorm of chattering voices erupted in the auditorium. It was a brilliant ploy to kick-start networking – too bad that the event ended after his talk and the participants dispersed more quickly than you could establish an inquisitive bluetooth connection and exchange details.

The last talk wasn't great, but others were. My imagination got tickled by finance again, the researcher from the tiny start-up was inspiring, and even intellectual-property law sounded interesting. Around 6pm, I hurried back down Commercial Road, sketches of possible futures swirling around in my head . From Aldgate East, I took the train to South Kensington and then walked up to Imperial, for a quick hour or two in the lab. Nothing beats a career in academia, after all.