Thursday, March 31, 2011

sudden death

Just about three weeks ago, I was happily going about my business, doing work on the MacBook Pro that was forced upon me when I joined Imperial. I had actually resisted the temptation for a few months, but when the lights went out on my Thinkpad (i.e. the VGA output died and I couldn't connect to my external screen anymore), I made the jump. Much to my surprise, I've been quite satisfied – a big change from my earlier, exasperating experience with a true lemon. I came to like my Mac so much that I recommended it to others.

Now the situation has changed again, drastically. It started a week ago when I found myself without a working computer but a pet cemetery of three nearly useless Macs. A colleague preparing to leave the lab had entrusted me with his dying iBook. Hours later he also bequeathed his wife's PowerBook G4 upon me. This machine still looks great and works passably but carries the heavy burden of old age. My own Mac was aging rather gracefully and worked flawlessly, but then one day when I came back from a run in the park, it had fallen into a coma and wouldn't wake up. It booted neither from the hard disk nor a stick nor from the DVD. (Thanks to a missing mechanical ejector, the DVD remains trapped to this day.)

Luck had it that another colleague had left the lab a while ago, leaving his Mac behind. After sitting idly in a drawer for a good year, it now came to my rescue. The new computer is a simple MacBook compared to my old MacBook Pro, but it's newer and the specs are very similar. I was excited to make the transfer, primarily to get a working computer but also to see if the highly regarded Time Machine would copy my data, applications and settings as promised.


Time Machine is Apple's back-up solution. It works quietly in the background and backs up changes pretty much as they happen. (My computer's death entailed no loss of data.) I had restored files before without problems, but an entire hard disk transfer is a different game. In the end, after less than an hours of churning, the new computer looked and felt as the old one had. The only problem was related to Adobe's requirement to deactivate Creative Suite on one computer before transfering it onto another – which is impossible when the one computer is not working anymore. I couldn't be bothered to deal with Adobe customer service and reinstalled/upgraded the suite.

The similarities between my old Mac and the new one are vast, a sign of the frightening homogeneity of the Apple universe. Most differences that I see have to do with what Apple would undoubtedly (and misguidedly) call technical progress between different generations of their notebook families.

Before I start moaning, I admit that some progress is real. There is the kind that's standard everywhere else but which Apple's marketing department nevertheless manages to introduce as brilliant innovations. The MacBook, for example, has now reached the level of upgradability of my 12-year-old Sony Vaio: The hard drive can be removed at the simple flick of a mechanical lever. No tools required. Having changed hard drives in my MacBook Pro (21 screws) and, surely the worst box imaginable, the dying iBook (about 35 bolts, and 40 steps before you even see the drive), I can say that this will make a difference.

Some other changes are for the better as well. The computer is smaller and weighs less than the clunky Pro. It feels much more solid too – the unibody is structurally sound. The rest, however, are changes that cause me to wail and complain: Why, oh why, must a computer be so rubbish?

Take the screen. It's covered with a glaring coating that causes one to see with more clarity the things that go on behind one's back than those on the screen. That's probably a lifesaver for those working incognito for the CIA or undercover for the London Met, but why is there no civilian version where one can focus on the screen without distraction? Distinguishing between background reflections and details on the screen is no easy job and quickly gets extremely annoying.

Besides being as reflective as a supermodel's bathroom mirror, the screen is also smaller than the Pro's. This comes with the laptop's smaller size and weight, but why does the frame around the screen take up nearly an inch in all directions? A sizable chunk of the MacBook's footprint goes to waste this way.

The keyboard isn't much better. It was shit on the Pro, at least when compared to its counterpart on the ThinkPad, the epitome of ergonomics. The keyboard on the MacBook doesn't even deserve its name. They keys form one flat, featureless and feedback-free surface that's not unlike the onscreen typing aid on an iPad (for which the MacBook must thus be a stepping stone – the devious work of Apple marketing, no doubt). Great for updating your twitter feed, I'm told, but useless for work.

Despite these shortcomings, the keyboard marks in one important aspect a significant advance over the Pro's: You can identify the keys, black with white labels. The Pro's keys were silver, the labels translucent white, and they would fade into each other at the slightest bit of light shining from an angle.

The touchpad is truly abysmal. It's horrible. It's the worst thing I've ever laid my hands on. It's bigger than an iPod Touch's screen and as much in the way as an iPod Touch would be, were it lying on the MacBook when you're trying to type. It's inevitable to touch the touchpad by accident. There is software that deals with this, but at the expense of functionality in the bottom part of the touchpad, as I discovered when I tried to carefully move a label in Illustrator. (As it happens so often, a frustrated engineer has come up with a simple solution that I'm going to give a try.)

Apple also managed to completely fuck up one of the touchpad's essential capabilities. Double-tap-and-drag lets me move windows, extend selections or highlights, and change the volume. On every other laptop in the world, I release the drag by briefly removing my finger from the touchpad. When I put it back, I move the pointer, it's job of dragging done, where it needs to go next. On the Mac, the dragging is sticky for a second or so, and when I move the pointer to its next appointment, the window or the highlight come along. Bloody hell, and there's no way to fix this.

Over the last ten years, Apple has worked hard to improve their computers, shedding, successively and bravely, a crap CPU (PowerPC), an atrocious operating system (OS 9), ridiculous hardware (an upside-down glowing apple on early PowerBooks), and stone-age peripherals (one-button mouse), and making them useful tools. At this point, I'm happy with the cumulative benefits of Apple hard- and software. To me, the Mac presents the best of the two worlds of Linux and Windows, and I can do most aspects of my work with the machine on my lap. (For hardcore computing there's a cluster in the basement.)

Unfortunately, I'm not sure that this development will last. It seems to me as if laptops, arguably Apple's greatest strength over the last decade or so, are not getting much attention anymore. The company's focus seem to lie on the various iPods (iPod Phone, iPod Giga ...) and on entertainment at the expense of productivity. Mac desktops, those fearsome beasts, are already critically endangered.

Then there is the question of durability. My MacBook Pro died without suffering injury or external trauma after just 40 months. Obsolescence cycles are notoriously short at Apple. This keeps profitability high and cult followers blissful. But it's not something I would buy into, and I'm not sure I can still recommend Apple hardware to my friends.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

willing it

The season started well. I've mentioned it before. I'm not gonna bore you with heroics, but I did my share of training in January and February and I could feel it. The Roding Valley half marathon marked the end of the first half of the preparation for London. I struggled mentally in a strong field but finished with a new personal best – and a surge (wind to 6:25, and you'll see). I was buoyantly optimistic at this point.

Things turned sour shortly thereafter. Three weeks ago, I sprained my ankle badly doing nothing more than walk through a genteel borough of northern London. A dint in the pavement twisted my foot underneath me and took me out for almost a week. One weekend of no training – no big deal maybe overall. When I had sufficiently recovered I went for a long one by the Thames. After two hours, my knee started pinching and I hobbling. I tried a recovery run the day after, but couldn't do more than slow intervals interspersed with breaks spent massaging my knee in the hope of dulling the pain.

I took it easy the week after that, going out for very controlled lunchtime runs only. My knee didn't seem to mind and I grew great hopes for the weekend, last weekend. On Saturday morning I woke up with a throat as if the Libyan civil war were taking place in there, heat, dryness and all. I had to decant a small bottle of fish oil into my pipes before I could swallow again. (It's always the oil, by the way.) My memory is dim but I recall that the sore throat quickly developed into a full-fledged cold, with a congested nose, puffy eyes, a dry cough and hardly enough energy to breathe. The weekend passed my by. I didn't go outside.

Three immobile weekends in a row are not the best preparation for anything unless the competition is for couch potato of the year. As I'm also not in town and my trainers this coming weekend, drastic measures needed to be taken. Yesterday, I was still a wreck, but today I could feel the cold on the wane. My fortune cookie said, Make it or break it, my colleague advised to drive the bastard out, and I went back to the park this evening – against better judgment and any sort of common sense.

The first lap was a hard: slow progress, lack of hydration despite gallons of water over the last few days, mucus – I'll spare you the details. For all the suffering, I knew one lap wouldn't do, and that's where it gets interesting. As I soldiered past the Albert Memorial to start the second lap, I could feel my body change. I picked up speed, breathed more freely, felt better. In the battle between me and my body, a winner was being declared.

I have my work lined up for this week, two big laps tomorrow night and three on Thursday, and then a recovery run on Friday before I head out to the airport. But even if things won't go fully according to plan, I'll rest assured in the knowledge that I can will myself into a decent run if I really have to. And if nothing more, London will be a decent run.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

census day

About a week ago, I found a large envelope in purple and white in my mail, sent by the Office for National Statistics. It was the 2011 census for England and Wales. My response was not simply requested, it was required by law. Strong words, but what is the census?

Turns out our Queen counts her subjects (and the scum that floats about the nation) every ten years in a massive statistical effort that goes back to 1801, a 210-year tradition of comprehensive data gleaning that was disrupted only once, in 1941, when the United Kingdom needed more for its survival and prosperity than numbers. These days, when wars are fought elsewhere and battles are distant, the numbers are back, which is why I have a 32-page booklet with lots of blank fields lying on the table in front of me.

Before I get to answer the questions, I have what the creators of the census think are my questions answered. And so it says that "taking part in the census is very important and it's also compulsory." There are rewards for compliance and fines for defiance. The fines can reach £1000. The rewards are less tangible. Information gathered in the census "is used to help plan and fund services for your community – services like transport, education and health," proclaims the form.

Since the Wall fell in '89, I don't have issues with authority, and I'd be perfectly happy to complete the census questionnaire in all honesty, but there are some details that bug me. First is the painful self-conscious seriousness of the undertaking. The questionnaire is mailed to all addresses in England and Wales that the government can get a hold of including holiday homes. Consequently, the first question of "Who usually lives here?" has the option "No one", which should be the end but isn't. You still have to go and fill in five questions regarding overnight visitors and the type of home.

Then there is the intrusiveness. The census asks for my name, address and date of birth. The last two bits of data I'm happy to divulge. After all knowing where people live and what the age distribution in the country is is the whole point of the census. But why the full name? I can see now benefit to that. It's not as if the driver is going to greet me by name the next time I catch the bus. So I'm still torn between filling this in and using the pseudonym the form was sent to, The Occupier.

What I will fill in for sure is the question regarding religious affiliation (the only voluntary question). I'll reveal (and you're the first to find out) that I belong to the country's fourth biggest religion, which, as the 2001 census told us, is Jediism, with 0.7% of population claiming adherence. That's more than there are Sikhs, Buddhists and Jews. Hindus and Muslims are not much ahead, and with all the media coverage the Jediism phenomenon has triggered in the run-up to the census, it might very well overtake these two.

After name, address and religion, only one mystery remains. This is questions 17. The questionnaire informs unapologetically that "This question is intentionally left blank." In the Principality of Wales, which shares the census form with England, questions 17 is used to ask about the respondent's proficiency of Welsh. Couldn't the makers have come up with question specific to England, like "Which country to do you prefer to kick England out of the World Cup next time around?" or, relevant for those living in London, "Have you ever met an English person?" Alas, there is only a gaping hole where there should be another intrusive question.

Today is the 27th of March, census day. I've ticked my boxes, declared my affiliations and revealed more personal information than I've handed over to Google over the years. From Google I get email, a blog, a search engine and a photo database for my mom. From the government I get a health service, public transport, road works, street lights and crime prevention in the right places. All things considered, it might not be a bad deal.

Monday, March 21, 2011

bit of science

Today, Prof. Leslie Vosshall from the Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior at Rockefeller University stopped by Imperial to give a talk on mosquitoes, sweat and smell. It wasn't the first time that mosquitoes had taken center stage. There is in fact a solid research effort going on in house. The world's first transgenic malaria mosquito was created at Imperial and work is underway to genetically manipulate mosquitoes to render them immune to the parasite that causes malaria in humans. It's science fiction stuff.

Leslie Vosshall's talk was more exploration than science fiction. She discovered the receptors that allow insects to react to smell and taste (A member of the same family of receptors is responsive to UV radiation – these bugs can smell light.) and is now working to design inhibitors to confuse insects or maybe even actively repel them. The gold standard in insect repellents is DEET, which does the job but you need a lot and apply it frequently. Her inhibitors, pharmaceuticals with a new career perspective, aren't quite up to the task yet but show promise.

Repelling insects is only one side of the story. The other is the question of how insects identify their victims. It turns out that they are very picky. They don't just bite anyone. He or she has to smell good from a distance and then taste good when the insect's proboscis scans the human surface it has landed on.

Back in the fall of 2000, when I traveled Mexico's Pacific coast with my sister, I realized this clearly. After seeing the spectacular little island of Mexcaltitán – two pairs of parallel roads that intersected at a square half a meter higher than the surrounding sea – we drove to San Blas to spend the night. According to my Moon Guide, San Blas was the gateway to tropical mangrove marshes, tunnels of lush vegetation alive with orchids, egrets, turtles and fish. This we wanted to see the next day, but first we had to survive another dweller of the mangroves, the invisible biting gnat that comes out at night in large swarms and terrorizes the town.

For the sake of scientific accuracy, it's worth mentioning that the guidebook's gnats were in fact Phlebotomus, sandflies also known as jejenes. Neither gnats nor sandflies are mosquitoes, but the bites hurt the same and the physiology is probably similar given that all three of them are diptera, insects with two pairs of wings.

We went to bed with apprehension. The room in the little guest house we were staying at were grouped around a central courtyard and open to most of the elements. The windows didn't close properly – nor would we have wanted to close them given the heat that burned through the night. There was no air conditioning and the ceiling fan whirled only feebly.

The next morning I awoke, stretched myself, rolled from one side to the other and patted my arms to check for damage. There was nothing. I woke my sister; the jungle beckoned: "I don't know what they're talking about. There's no mosquitoes here." "Oh, shut up," she replied with suffering in her voice. "I'm bitten to pieces." The mosquitoes has feasted on her all night, while I got away unscathed.

How to explain that? That's something Leslie Vosshall is also interested in. What constitutes the smells they're attracted to? Epidermal bacteria, body odor, components of the sweat? If you're in New York, give them a ring and they'll let you stick a hand into a long tubular contraption full of mosquitoes. With this, they'll count the percentage of bugs that find you attractive. I'd love to give it a try – in the hope of setting a new global low and help science in the process.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I'm not of the loquacious kind. Late last night it occurred to me that I had published five posts to this blog in as many days. That was it, I thought, 'nuff said, that's it for a while. There's no need to apply a tourniquet to my neck; the excessive verbal efflux can be stemmed in other ways: Football in the pub, a night at the symphony, the movies at home, a book. But when I got home tonight, I couldn't resist yet another story.

In my mailbox I found the 2011 London Marathon race info, a fat magazine of nearly 200 pages full of advertisement, charity shout-outs, last-minute getting-ready frenzy and, go figure, race info. The thing couldn't have come at a better time.

Race info + kit

For the past week, I've been laboring with a sprained ankle. When it happened, late last Thursday, I feared I'd have to cancel London. That's how bad the pain was. The next morning, the ankle felt better but didn't look good, swollen to the size of a small grapefruit. I took it easy on the weekend, applying bandages and unguent and resting. The ankle slowly improved.

The swelling was still there this morning, but I couldn't wait any longer. I thought I'd test my ankle in the park, reasoning that the forward-rolling motion of running wouldn't interfere in the least with the healing of a laterally injured tendon.

I did one lap around the perimeter, a meager four miles, slowly. It wasn't quite all right, but it didn't hurt too much, and it didn't feel worse after the run than before. I had lunch at my desk with a strategically placed bag of lab ice on my left foot just in case. When I got up to go back to the bench an hour or so later, the swelling was completely, and miraculously, gone.

London will take place with me. The pack I got today reminded me that only one month of preparation remains. It offers helpful advice of how to make the most of it, noting that it's almost time to taper and decrease the effort, so as to focus all energy on the big day. Having done hardly any sustained running so far, I'll have to push a bit harder. I'll have to go out this weekend for at least four hours and probably again the next one. There won't be any time for gratuitous blogging for a while.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

radio math

This morning I learned that there is such a thing as Radio 7. My dial only goes to 4. My dial, truth be told, is permanently stuck to 4. I listen to nothing else. BBC Radio 4 used to wake me up in the morning and fill me with a sleepy hour of news, hard-hitting interviews and pithy weather reports. Now that the relentless buzzer has taken over the unenviable task of annoying me out of bed, the radio only comes on in the kitchen, but the program is the same. For the rest of the day, I don't do radio.

Radio 7 is broadcast digitally. I doubt that any of my radios receive it. The same holds true for 6 Music, which was at the center of an internet storm a year ago when the BBC proposed to shut it down because of general austerity and a particular lack of audience. The digital radio world is filled with any number of obscure broadcasters that don't reach more than a handful of listeners. 6 Music made headline news when a strong online campaign managed to save it. Being a 4 person, I have yet to listen to it.

It wasn't quite true when I said earlier that I don't do radio for the rest of the day. Sometimes at night I turn it on when I prepare dinner. Tonight, a familiar voice was on the air, but one that didn't quite fit. Garrison Keillor had left the quiet life of Lake Wobegon behind to be interviewed on Front Row. He presented his first collection of poetry, published as a book and read out by the author himself.

The interview is vintage Keillor, a rambling contemplation on poetry, life, love, and the non-existing significance of the number 77. The words are carefully chosen to sound as if they had spontaneously popped up. The elocution is soothing, almost sedative. This is not a good show to listen to when you're driving – it nearly put the interviewer to sleep – but it's great for relaxing after a day at work.

At the end of the broadcast the presenter let it be known that Garrison Keillor's radio show can be heard on Radio 7, which, I forgot to mention earlier, is to be renamed Radio 4 Extra. That's what the news was about this morning. I can't see how it would matter to me.

Monday, March 14, 2011

positive for a change

I have a category for posts called collected moanings. Stuff that aggravates me gets dumped there from time to time. I'm mellow for the most part, but I've had my moments. There was the time when rental car agencies, online auction houses and credit card companies were trying to rope me in with the long lasso of customer fraud. Curiously, there isn't a category for the opposite. What if something positive happened? Well, it did today, and that reminded me that some other issues need setting straight as well.

What happened today is that I got an email from Delta notifying me that mileage expiration would henceforth be a thing of the past. Whatever the small print, I'm delighted. In my six years in Salt Lake City, a Delta hub, I've acquired plenty of miles, but since leaving the US, I haven't added to them. Once, only weeks before losing them, I had to buy a silly game for my iPod through the Delta SkyMiles website, investing three bucks to reset the countdown on my balance. Now, the countdown itself is a thing of the past. Thank you, Delta.

The two things that need to be setting straight concern Santander and eBay. Santander had charged me late fees and interested when their system failed to debit my current account with the outstanding balance. Phone calls got me nowhere, but in response to a physical letter, everything was sorted out. I received a response that had been signed by a human being and some remuneration. I still use the card.

eBay really frightened me with their handling of what was an obviously fraudulent user. I had paid for goods I never received, but the auction had disappeared online and it felt as if eBay were stonewalling the issue. This farce lasted a few more days but in the end I was refunded and there was no loss. I have since used eBay again, grudgingly.

Taking about grudges, Hertz couldn't even be bothered to respond to the letter I sent them complaining about the many disappointing rentals I had got through them last year. I was under the impression that if you want to make it absolutely clear to a company that you care, you should write and old-fashioned letter. Maybe that's not true anymore. Or maybe Hertz is just absolute rubbish. But saying this would be a bit too negative for this post.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


The UK Hot 40 is blaring from a flat-screen TV whose frame is still covered in shrink wrap. Enrique Iglesias just took a big tumble down to position 27. I'm surprised there is still a channel out there showing music videos. I didn't know, to be honest, that there were still music videos to be broadcast. But what surprises me even more is that Enrique’s song – title, lyrics and all – was washed clean before being aired in the UK.

Just a few weeks ago, I heard the same song in France – where people are apparently expected to be ignorant of foreign lyrics or not liable to be offended by the inanities of pop music – as Tonight (I'm fuckin' you). In the UK, it's lovin'. Says the same thing, but sounds better, you might say, but then why not say it in the first place?

Yesterday, Intermountain Healthcare rejected an email response I had sent to a friend working there because of the word bastard, which my friend had used to describe the guy who had stolen his mountain bike that was locked inside his garage. I had unwittingly quoted it in my reply and was advised that the offending word needed to be removed before the email could be delivered. I have to say I was aghast.

You've got no mail!

I'm using Gmail as my email provider, so maybe I shouldn't make a big fuss. Google scans my emails already and places content-related advertisements next to them if I open them on Intermountain Healthcare is probably within its legal rights to do the same. But it would be good fun to indignantly complain to them for not protecting me from abuse by their employees. Since they're already scanning email traffic, they might as well do it properly – and piss off those staff that don't subscribe to tight-assed Mormon restrictions on speech.

Writing this I'm sitting, you might have already guessed, in a coffee shop, leisurely, with nothing to do and my legs up. Outside the window, the detritus of the street is blowing by. The bus shelter forms a meeting point of sorts for the down-and-out. I'm in an area that's famous with Imperial students for its unique combination of proximity to college and affordable prices. North End Road is nevertheless not a place of urban hipness, and there is nothing collegiate about it. On the contrary, the cheapness of the area attracts the kinds of people you'd be reluctant to meet during the day and afraid to run into at night. People don't hang out here.

However, mildly out of place opposite West Kensington tube station, is the coffee shop where I'm presently enjoying a steaming cappuccino and free wireless internet. I've come for inspiration. Sometimes, the lowlife in the street spills into the coffee shop. The homeless scour the tables for muffins left behind half-eaten, the delusional engage in high-pitched diatribes against invisible forces, and yobs from the estate down the road warm up for a night of turf war. There are stories in all of this, no doubt, but today is a calm day. People come and go, but they look like you and me and behave the same, civilized, boring.

The locale used to be part of the fast-expanding Coffee Republic chain before it overheated and went into administration about two years ago. Creative debt and ownership reshuffling led to the emergence of a leaner chain that includes an improbable fully branded hotel lobby outlet in the Quality Crown Hotel on Cromwell Road. The branch in North End Road was sold but retained, beside the name, all original features and looks and feels as before. It is now called Coffee 4 U and is run, like each one of the newsagents, off-licenses, internet cafes and grocery stores up and down the street, by a family of hardworking immigrants, each trying to make its fortune in a bold economic struggle.

When I ordered my coffee, the resemblance in the foreign faces behind the counter was uncanny. The oldest son mans the till, while the youngest gets his first idea of business just by soaking things up – when he's not distracted by his matchbox cars, his games-enabled telephone, or the TV blaring the UK Hot 40. Wholesome Adele is on top of the charts for the third week in a row.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Lying on my sofa with my left foot, still swollen but not hurting, high and tightly wrapped in an elastic stocking, I wonder what I can do with the opportunity of an entirely wasted day. Rest is my motto today, a motto that suffered a difficult birth because I was out for victuals this morning and also searching for something to read with breakfast.

My grocer had heaps of papers with pictures and reports about yesterday's earthquake, but this was not what I was after. For breaking news, for the addictive but futile immediacy that goes stale after an hour, I turn to the radio or the internet. Traditional printed media I value for altogether different reasons. I look for profound analysis and contentious but well-argued opinion, pieces that surprise and challenge me.

One of the great strengths of newspapers is static content. Once it's printed, it can't be changed. It's on the table before me and defies me to read it, whether I’m interested or not, whether I agree or not. I can't navigate from it at the click of a link and I can't ask a search engine or a feed aggregator to take me to sites that I know I'll agree with. So tend to skip the current-events coverage and be ambushed by the unexpected.

There's no better provider of the unexpected than The New Yorker. If the name weren't so fitting for a magazine devoted primarily to the goings-on in the Big Apple, The Non-Sequitur would be even better. Its assays seem to sprout out of nowhere – you can imagine the hard work it takes to give them this appearance – and cover every topic of interest, however obscure, under the sun. No two issues are alike, always creatively novel and delightfully insightful.

Printed it is thus nearly perfect and far superior to The New Yorker's annoying website that blinks with dynamically updated content and dishes out inconsequential blog noise of the kind that already pollutes the internet wherever one looks. So it came to pass that I spend a good hour this morning ambling through a surprisingly primaveral Fulham, giving my ankle more of a workout than I had intended for the entire weekend, hopping from newsagent to newsagent and searching through their shelves. No one stocked my favorite printed fix. I returned with yogurt but otherwise empty-handed, to a sofa that had almost given up on me already. But now it's my home for the rest of the weekend.

Friday, March 11, 2011

good, considering

Last night, I made my way up north in search of the flat of a friend who had left London only hours earlier. We had been colleagues for the last four years, my desk next to his and my bench just opposite his ever since my arrival at Imperial. Now he and his little family were moving back to the country they call home, closing the doors on an eight-year stretch of their lives.

On the night of their departure, literally minutes before a minicab was about to pick them up and take them to Heathrow, my friend had called me in the lab to ask if I wanted to take his PowerBook G4. Not being up to speed with ancient Apple hardware, I had no clear idea of what he was talking about, but I said yes anyway. Another toy maybe, or an addition to my growing collection of vintage notebooks.

With an Evening Standard in my hand and a podcast in my ear, I made my way up the Northern line, clear instructions hastily scribbled onto a scrap of paper. I was to get off at Highgate and walk east into the unknown, but I traveled in a dreamworld of my own acoustic and visual stimuli and only realized when I had exited through the ticket gates that I was in Archway, not Highgate.

To me, there's no difference. I had never been up there and couldn't tell one from the other, Karl Marx's grave notwithstanding. But I had to get to my friend's flat. Refusing to spend another quid and a half for one tube stop, I started walking along the main road, passing by some rather derelict stretches but never unsure of my way. Thank goodness for clear area maps in virtually every bus shelter in town. Twenty minutes later I was where I should have been just about twenty minutes earlier.

I turned right and dove into a deeply residential neighborhood of considerable appeal. There were some houses that wouldn't be out of place in continental Europe and big-windowed and modernist apartment buildings. It was very quiet. It was also very dark, and on a side street a block from my friend's former flat, I stepped into a inconspicuous hole and twisted my ankle with a violence that brought me to my knees.

Twisting my ankle is nothing new to me. In college I once crossed a pedestrian bridge in wild pursuit of bus letting off passengers underneath. I made the bus, but only after slipping off the last three or four steps of the bridge. For the next ten minutes on the bus, the pain in my ankle receded and every time I thought the pain was gone, it receded more, like some inverse monopedal orgasm. It was the strangest feeling.

A sprained ankle was the reason for my retiring from leisurely indoor football a good eight months ago. With the London marathon coming up, I didn't want to risk another injury that would keep me off the streets and off-course for another sub-three-hour finish. The season had started rather well. In January and February, I had run more than in the preceding years and built up a good form. The first benchmark of the year, the Roding Valley half marathon, had gone quite well – surprisingly well even, considering how slow I had felt running it. The next test was supposed to be the Finchley 20-mile race this weekend.

As I sat on a sidewalk in Crouch End, whimpering into the night, the irony of the injury was hard to take. I hadn't taken any risks, but my ankle had already swollen to a degree to purge any thoughts of running from my brain, not only for this weekend, but also for the foreseeable future. The marathon seemed out of the question. I didn't even feel like walking. And yet I had to continue my strange journey, picking up a tiny silver notebook from a neighbor and hobbling back to the tube station, no eyes for architecture this time.

This morning, I slowly woke to the relentless buzz of my alarm. I had slept well; there was no pain throbbing through my ankle. It was still swollen and it hurt when I got up and put weight on it, but it felt much better than it had the night before, and infinitely better than after that fateful football game eight months ago. There is no way I'm going to run Finchley, but maybe London isn't out of the question after all.

I turned the radio on in time for the seven-o'clock news. The devastating earthquake in Japan was all there was; the tsunami had just rolled in, flattening the land and washing everything in its path away. The catastrophe was far, half a world away, but for me it struck home. The friend who had left London last night was flying back to Japan, scheduled to arrive shortly after the earthquake had struck.

My friend is ok. He sent me an email earlier today, telling me how they had learned of the earthquake while on their final descent into Narita, how they had circled uncertainly for an hour and then been diverted to another airport where they could land safely. Their nightmare wasn't over – they weren't allowed to leave the cabin for another six hours, turning their flight into an epic 20-hour ordeal – but he and his family are doing all right. Things are good, considering the situation.

Japanese 12-inch PowerBook G4

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

high impact

In an opinion piece entitled Science and finance: same symptoms, same dangers?, published in EMBO Reports nearly a year ago, Laurent Ségalat, a principal investigator at the CNRS Center for Molecular and Cellular Genetics in Lyon, describes modern science as dangerously analogous to high finance. Once one comes to terms with the obvious shortcomings of the simile – scientists don't do business lunches at Michelin-starred restaurants or buy a new Maserati just because the color of the old one went out of fashion – the essay proves enjoyable and highly instructive. To summarize it in one phrase, the finance analogy is based on the observation that publications accumulate at ever increasing speed, much as if they were part of a gigantic Ponzi scheme of knowledge.

To critically assess the current situation, one has to keep in mind that the point of science is to gain knowledge about the system under study and then, and this is crucial, to disseminate this knowledge freely, thus contributing to understanding and progress. Experiments, study, discussions and hypotheses are the essence of science. Results form the basis of further experiments; every answer spawns ten new questions that dig deeper into the system. The publication of results is necessary to spread the knowledge, and as long as a publication is properly indexed and freely available, the results and discussions in it contribute to the increase in human knowledge. In the traditional view of science, any publication is judged by how much it pushes the boundaries of knowledge and facilitates continued work down the road. This is not how it is these days, though.

In scientific publishing there is a clearly established and viciously defended hierarchy, as defined by the average number of citations papers in a given journal get. As science builds upon earlier findings – scientists really do stand on the shoulders of giants – these earlier findings are cited and acknowledged in a list of references at the end of each paper. The most influential papers are cited most frequently and rack up the highest citation score. The average citation score for all papers published in a journal in a given year is called the impact factor. The higher it is, the more prestigious and authoritative a journal is considered. The published papers inherit that prestige and a positive feedback loop ensures that papers in the most prestigious journals are cited most often. By being published there, they carry authority. Thus, the higher the impact factor of a journal, the more desirable publishing in it is and the more manuscripts are submitted to it by scientists wishing to benefit from the prestige of the journal. The higher the impact factor, the more ruthlessly the editor has to weed out the submissions.

In the life sciences, three journals are considered to stand above the rest. Getting published in one or more of them is prerequisite for a good job and an accelerating career. It's also key to being taken seriously by peers. Papers published in the top journals count for more than papers published in lower-key journals. This is of course profoundly irrational and contradicts science as it should be. As mentioned above, papers must eventually be judged by the significance of the results they present, by the impact they make on science. The experiment whether publication in a top journal predicts high impact is impossible to do. After all, one can't just publish the same paper twice in journals of vastly differing repute without anyone being aware of it; or observe parallel realities in which the paper has been published in either one or the other journal. But it's easy to argue, at least retrospectively, that the scientific content or the quality of the work are independent of where a paper is published.

One could make the reverse argument – and this is indeed made by those in the publishing industry – that the top three journals attract the strongest submissions, and that the best of these submissions are chosen for publication. It's a bold argument to make given the abundance of manuscripts and the dense content of scientific publications. How could one possibly identify the best before their impact on their fields becomes clear? But much like commodities futures traders in the City, journal editors claim to have the ability to make predictive bets that will bear out. This is preposterous in both cases. In addition, the vagaries of fashion change what's hot and important from year to year, and editors always prefer articles that make a journal appear at the cutting edge of science as perceived by the scientific public.

Another problem is that the pressure to publish in top journals (for job, promotion and respect) and, more fundamentally, the pressure to publish first – because in the sciences, second winner is really first loser – can lead to hasty experiments and overblown conclusions. By some estimate, up to a quarter of all papers published in the big three eventually turn out to be wrong. By the time they are put right, these papers will have left a mark on scientific thinking that’s hard to erase because their readers have considered these papers more significant than they were by virtue of their place of publication.

Are scientists so stupid that they cannot see when something is wrong? Well it's not the case anymore – if it ever was – that any experiment is immediately repeated and verified by other researchers working in the same field. It wouldn't be possible, given the complexity of method and apparatus. Published results and, to a lesser extent, conclusions are important guides for the design of new experiments. They are always taken with a grain of salt, but a basis of trust in the quality of publications and in their veracity underlies all scientific work.

Ségalat calls flawed, incorrect and redundant papers the toxic assets of science and is rather concerned about their spread, and it is true that they have unhealthy effects on science and scientists. Publication of results that later turn out not to be true is a costly mistake, mostly in terms of time and effort wasted. It's costly to those who try in vain to repeat earlier experiments and to those whose experimental designs are based upon flawed premises derived from earlier conclusions. Until earlier flaws are exposed in follow-up papers, progress in a certain field of science will be held back for months, maybe years.

Between each of the steps in the path of warped scientific inquiry are long delays. Experiments need doing, and doing again; results need interpretation and writing up. Papers need reviewing and publishing, then reading. Experiments and resulting conclusions need independent verification, and repeating if doubts arise. A refutation of an earlier claim isn't straightforward or obvious, but relatively easy compared to the struggle to get the refutation published. The whole process can takes years, especially if the initial result was published in a prestigious journal or received enthusiastically and quickly accepted into the scientific canon. In this case, editors may categorically block submission and even if that first hurdle is surmounted, reviewers will want to see extra-rigorous proof. Unfair as it is, it's harder to right a wrong than to get something wrong accepted.

The current approach is potentially lethal to young scientist on their way into the profession. Graduate students and fresh Ph.D.s alike have only a short period of time to complete their projects and build a career that is defined by a paper trail of high-impact publications. There is no time to squander opportunities. Working on a project that turns out to be based on misinterpreted evidence, years are easily wasted and a nascent career is potentially wrecked.

At the heart of this problem is the artificial and misleading authority of the impact factor. If science weren't so focused on it and would instead concentrate on publishing results without discrimination and haste but with care and thought, knowledge would probably accumulate faster and more smoothly. I already get email reminders of new papers on all topics I'm interested in, as indexed in a public repository of science that comprises the vast majority of scientific publications. I don't really need to know what journal they're in. A quick glance through the abstracts tells me if I should invest the time reading them. Some community ranking, on a paper by paper basis, would let the important papers stand out, not the lucky ones. Flawed papers would be exposed and marked quickly, with no need for a drawn-out and contentious retraction process. Science could progress on merit alone.