Sunday, July 28, 2013

letter of reference

Typing away last night it struck me how futile a letter of reference is despite its ubiquity early in scientific careers.  A former student had asked me to provide one for him, which I was only happy to do, especially since (1) the student was really good and (2) I had already written a letter for him a while back for a different but related opportunity.

This time it was for a degree program at a prestigious university.  I had to log on to a website provided by a third party, enter my personal details and upload a letter.  There was no information on the nature of the program, nor on the qualities sought in applicants.  No preselection of candidates took place before letters of reference were requested.  It was rather absurd and a massive waste of time.

The administrators of the academic program were in effect leaving it to me to select criteria by which to judge a candidate.  They should of course have created a shortlist of promising candidates first and then contacted only their referees and asked specific questions.  That way much tedious work could have been avoided, and the letters of reference would have been meaningful.

But meaning is not what is expected of them.  Generic letters of reference serve nothing but administrative (and possible legal) purposes.  Before I was allowed to continue my employment at Imperial in July, in the same environment and, disappointingly, at the same salary despite changing focus from research to management, the procurement of letters of reference was of the greatest concern.

To the box-tickers in HR it was irrelevant that I was the only candidate for a job designed to run for three months only, a job created to keep essential instruments and procedures going while a new manager was being recruited after the sudden departure of the previous holder of the post.

There were procedures to follow, and it didn't matter that I had already worked for the hiring manager in the past and, temporarily, in that function.  Specific qualities and past achievements were irrelevant.  Instead, two other professors' time was wasted.  They had to copy and paste empty phrases that were then dutifully filed with the recruitment paper trail.  I doubt any of it was read.

The student who had asked me for a letter of reference was acutely aware of the dual gravity and pointlessness of it, and helpfully provided me with keywords without which a letter wouldn't be complete.  No one would want to pursue higher education without "scientific curiosity, passion, determination and persistence".  The student went as far as to suggest entire phrases that he felt would make him stand out.

In all likelihood, all other applicants will do the same.  If they choose their referees wisely, the letters will blend seamlessly into an ocean of vacuousness.  Doing without them entirely would have the same effect but save a lot of time writing and, just possibly, reading.

Friday, July 26, 2013


The journey to Brussels that formed the basis of the previous post was only the first in a long succession of train rides over the last week.  Right after my accidental but not entirely unpleasant stopover in the Belgian capital – three days before the abdication of one king and the coronation of another – I took an ICE to Cologne and a Swiss-liveried EC to Hamburg.  It was deep night already when I hopped onto the last train of the day, a regional service to Kiel, nearly in Denmark and at the heart of sailing in the Baltic Sea.

Over the next few days, I bounced to Hamburg and back and then to Hamburg again and took the ICE down to Munich.  Germans like to think of their country as at the forefront of railroad technology and comfort.  The future happens here, goes the dogma, which has somehow spread far beyond national borders.  Foreigners marvel how German trains are wicked fast and always on time.

Going from Hamburg to Munich I realized for the first time how wrong this is.  The distance is less than 500 miles.  Germany is a small country, yet my train took six hours.  The same distance between Paris and Marseille takes half the time.  Sevilla to Madrid tops out at 200 miles per hour.  When I got on the train, the fastest service possible, there was another one on the opposite platform with a more indirect route that would reach Munich after eight hours.

The reason for the sluggishness is twofold.  Firstly, the nominally fast trains have to share the tracks with regional trains on many routes, which severely curtails the achievable top speed.  Secondly, the trains stop. all. the. time.  Every little town with a politician of some import bargains for regular high-speed access in return for land for the railroad.

Still, it could be worse.  This morning's journey started almost stillborn.  The ICE I was supposed to take to Nuremberg turned out not to stop there at all.  I realized this at the last moment and, well-deserved luck, was shooed two platforms down to another train going in the same direction and stopping where I needed to change.  All looked good until I got on the train that was to take me to Dresden, four hours through the green hills of rural Germany, with few towns but lots of unassuming natural beauty.

The train was a Diesel-powered anachronism, as noisy as an airplane, its engines screaming in pain on every incline.  It was small, crowded and about as comfortable as the tube out to Heathrow.  I was shocked speechless.  Lenin had electrified the railroads in his first five-year plan.  How come in 2013 we're still rattling on by noisily burning Diesel?  The low ticket price had surprised me initially.  Now I know the reason – and also what to avoid when traveling between my sister's and my parents'.  An intercity coach would be more comfortable that what I was on.

But in the end – after a cumulative 27 hours on rails, through bits of England, France and Belgium and the four corners of Germany – I got home, and what can be sweeter than that?

Thursday, July 18, 2013


The trip didn't start particularly auspiciously.  Sitting in the departure hall at St. Pancras, crammed in with hundreds of travelers on their ways to Brussels or Paris, I broke with convention and didn't get a coffee and a muffin from Caffè Nero.  I was too tired after four hours of sleep and couldn’t bother to get up.  Earlier, a failing alarm had almost foiled my travel plans entirely, though in fairness I have to say that it wasn't technically the alarm that had failed but my skill setting it.  Thinking that 5:05 might be a bit too late, I had changed it to 5:55.  Luckily, my phone had bailed me out.

On the train, a faded first-generation Eurostar, things started to look up.  Last week's Economist was free, and a lovely breakfast brought to the seat.  "Pain au chocolat?", the steward asked, and later, "Encore un café, monsieur?"  I said yes to all questions, not realizing that the service personnel were lulling me into a false sense of security.  We reached Brussels 20 minutes late.

I missed my connection by two minutes, seeing the tail end of a bright white ICE leaving the station as I clambered off the train.  A service person quickly printed out alternative arrangements.  The next train to Germany was leaving in four hours.  It didn't upset me in the least.

I could have questioned the point of promoting a pan-European railway network when one provider doesn't take another's delays into account.  I could have complained that trains shouldn't be late in the first place if railroads want to compete with air travel.  I could have doubted the wisdom of running trains between Belgium and Germany every four hours only.

In the end, I did none of this.  I didn't see it as a four-hour delay as much as a break in a journey that was too long to take in one go.  I locked up my luggage and stepped out of the station, ready to see the city like a tourist leaving his hotel after a leisurely breakfast.

It was 11 o'clock and noticeably cooler than in London a few hours earlier.  Out of nowhere, I had been given three and a half hours to spend in a city I'd never seen.  I was quite pleased already.  Then I realized I might be able to claim compensation for the delay.  In effect, I might be getting paid to see Brussels.

Getting to the center of town from the station takes a short walk through a colorful neighborhood with a distinctly Moroccan influence.  There were mint tea houses, the patisserie Marrakesh, and a travel agent offering direct services to Kenitra and Meknes, but also a Greek Orthodox church, a business sign in Hebrew that I couldn't decipher and, most hilariously, a Chicken Cottage.  On the left was the Zuid Paleis, a great warehouse/market monolith from the 19th century, and on the right the office of BXL Laïque, an organization providing a nebulous "service of moral assistance".

The heart of the city is Grand Place, the great market of yore and an ensemble of such stupefying outrage that it's impossible to describe.  Lining its four sides are palaces to mercantile success and institutions of civic pride, their architecture wildly over the top in every single case.  Bread Hall is all gothic arches and columns; Brewers' House has gold-leaf decorations.  The façade of city hall is saturated with hundreds of sandstone statues, all in their own ornate alcoves.  Over everything dances a mosaic of a million tiny shadows.  It's totally bonkers.

The streets leading to Grand Place are called Butter St. and Herring St., but these days, the trade is in other flavors.  There might be luxury watches and lace curtains and tourist trinkets, but the vast majority of shops sell artisanal chocolate.  For variety of vice, there are dark beer halls in rich Belle Époque decoration.

One ring removed from Grand Place are tourist trap restaurants with picture menus in four languages.  Confronted with those and local favorites Quick Burger and Hector the Hen, I walked on until I found a small restaurant with tables underneath a vast sycamore tree and a lunch menu for locals.  Lounge music wafted over from the cocktail bar at the corner that had diversified into the lunch business.  A cast-iron spiral staircase led to the first floor where a stage with big speakers and a drum kit hinted at what happens at night.

In the distance beckoned the cathedral, but time wasn't in my favor.  I rose from my table and, entirely by chance, soon found myself next to the Little Pisser, a fountain replenished by a bronze cherub's renal effluent.  It's become a symbol of the city, adored similarly by locals and tourists.  For all the fame, it's disappointingly small.  I continued on my way back to the station and was soon enough on another train and off to other adventures.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


For the last three years, I've got my hair cut not only in the same barbershop just across the street, but also by the same barber, a kid from Egypt in his early 20s.  He's friendly, always waving from behind the picture window of his shop when I walk by.  He's also not very good.

My hair doesn't deserve much attention.  There's not much left of if and what's there doesn't have to impress lucrative clients or a judge on a desperate case.  The only point of cutting it is getting it shorter.  This is always achieved.  But within days, ragged edges grow from my scalp like the Alps folding at a billion times their rate.  The generated crags and crenellations are sharp enough to cut the teeth in my comb, and my head looks badly out of shape, one step away from people throwing me coins.

Nevertheless, I keep returning to the barbershop.  As any barbershop should be, it is a hub of the community.  It's situated at the entrance to a mini-mall with a Russian café, a discount jeweler and a mobile phone repair shop.  The last business is just a guess.  I've never entered the mall.  But I know that neighbors enter the barbershop all the time for chats, tea or simply a change of scenery.

Tonight, there was no tea.  But a man came in borrow a razor.  He gave himself a quick shave on the spot and left a minute later.  Another took a spray bottle off a shelf and squirted instantly vaporizing water over his head, the only permissible relief during Ramadan, which has been sizzling in London as if this were the Gulf.

Neither interruption distracted me from the second aim of my visit – to find out what's going on in Egypt.  I've had sought out conversations before but was always left disappointed by the paucity of words we had in common.  It wasn't as if this guy updated me on community gossip, as a barber should.  He just cut my hair.

But tonight he engaged more.  The topic was evidently dear to his heart.  He opened up and let the words flow, getting increasingly agitated.  I heard about army and people and politicians and corruption, but sadly these keywords weren't imbued with meaning or opinion intelligible to me.  Without a sense of grammar and proper use of vocabulary, most of his articulations remained noise to me, an indecipherable stream of consciousness.

As for the first aim, my hair took a beating in the process.  It was clipped even more scraggily than last time, fault lines zig-zaging above my ears.  It was also clipped very short, a great comfort with the heat showing no sign of letting up.  I know I'll be back in a few weeks' time.