Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The many faces of Leviathan

In his treatise on the ideal form of government, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes articulated the idea of the State as an entity with a monopoly on the use of power, in particular, violence. The right to use such violence as was necessary to maintain peace was to be vested in the Sovereign, and a social contract between subjects and Sovereign would abdicate to the Sovereign all rights of the subject to determine themselves. Most strikingly, the Sovereign (a monarch, an aristocracy or a democratic group) could never be accused of injuring his subjects. Though Hobbes argued that his Leviathan (a state vested with absolute power) was preferable to a State of Nature he described as a war of All against All, it was never particularly appealing to those outside of power. Never more so then when the State wields its monopoly on power against its own citizenry. At such a time one may justly ask if an implicit social contract that is so far reaching is truly a sensible philosophy.
Ferguson, MO, has occupied a lot of my mental energy this past week. I was glued to twitter on the night of the first heavy SWAT response. As a white European man living in a rural area of the US, I feel that it is not my place to discuss the specificities of Ferguson. I have retweeted many of the observations made by African American and other people of color from around the US. This is their story to tell, not mine.
That being said, coming from a country with a mostly unarmed police force, the shooting of Mike Brown is a particularly jarring reminder that I am not in Kansas anymore. I can only view the gunning down an 18 year old unarmed man in the street as evil, cruel, and excessive act. Having lived for five years in Baltimore, I have learned a lot about the context of oppression of inner city black populations by the state in which these shootings and subsequent riots happen. I also have friends in law enforcement who have patiently shared their perspective with me, despite my strong a priori distaste for sanctioned police violence. I have come to realise that, in the context of a racist and oppressive system of institutions, these events end up playing out as a kabuki theater where roles are pre-determined by a greater narrative. It is difficult to see a way forward sometimes. I believe shit is fucked up.
There is a tendency for transatlantic comparison to occur whenever these incidents happen in the US. The fact is always brought up (as indeed I just did) that policemen in the UK  are unarmed. The resulting statistics from this are pretty striking. And yet, if you look at the UK police force's history of dealing with civil unrest, it's less lethal perhaps, but seems hardly edifying. In the 1970s and 1980s,  police charged striking coal miners with batons, severely wounding many. Towards the end of the 80s, the poll tax riots and protests were challenged by policemen on horseback riding into the crowds. When a crowd panicked at Hillsborough football stadium in 1989, the police's refusal to open the stadium doors led to the death of 96 people. The subsequent attempt by the police to cover up their action and smear the dead as drunken hooligans was only uncovered in 2012 following a public enquiry. Getting that enquiry set up took 20 years of campaigning by the survivors against an uncaring establishment. Those events were marked by the clear class distinction between those being attacked (working class men and women in the North), and those in power.
More recently, the Metropolitan Police (London's police force) has come up for repeated criticism for its handling of protests and anti-terrorism measures. There was the routine containing of globalisation protestors for hours in the street without access to water or toilets. There was the shooting of Brasilian plumber Jean Charles de Menezes on the Underground at point blank range by armed anti terrorism officers, despite a complete lack of evidence that he had anything to do with any bombings. No officers were convicted or even disciplined for this, though the police commissioner eventually resigned. In 2010 following the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police, rioting erupted throughout the country. In 2009, during anti-G20 protests, Ian Tomlinson died as a result of being struck by a police officer. The Met police initially tried to claim he died of natural causes, yet video footage soon surfaced showing the police violence. Eyewitness accounts directly contradicted the police narrative, which is a recurring theme throughout all these events.
In 1999 the McPherson report came out on the wake of the murder of Black British teenager Stephen Lawrence. The Metropolitan Police had made a mockery of the investigation, convinced that the perpetrator had to be black (they were both white), that the murder was not racially motivated (it was), and that Lawrence had been involved with drugs (he wasn't). The report accused the met police of institutional racism, a term I suspect few White British people fully understood. And despite that, Stephen Lawrence's killers were only convicted in 2012, after years of campaigning by Stephen Lawrence's mother. The met police still has a difficult time with ethnic minorities, and accusations of police brutality (particularly in custody). The fact most police officers are unarmed does not reduce the level of mutual distrust between police and some communities. The Leviathan in the UK may wear a slightly different mask, but its actions are surprisingly similar, even if the targets are somewhat different.
Yet, what Ferguson really reminds me of is the police in my other home country, France. In France, the police doesn't even really pretend to deal fairly with French citizens of North African descent in the suburban projects (banlieues) around the big cities. In fact, after several years of annually escalating unrest, a minister of the interior who would later become president famously declared he would clean out the suburbs with a pressure hose. In 2005, two children died while running into an electric fence to escape the police. Rioting, looting, protesting followed. France's dedicated, quasi military riot police, the CRS, rolled out in their distinctive black vans. CRS cops are armed with water canons, batons, tear gas, black visors and the more or less complete support of the State to do whatever they want. My mother was involved in the 1968 student uprising, and from her I learnt that if you see the CRS coming, you run. For days running battles raged in the suburbs of Paris and other major cities, while life continued as normal in the city centers. The comparison with the situation in the US is all the more chilling when you remember that French Algeria essentially operated under Jim Crow-like laws until the war of independence in the '50s. Again, the detail of Leviathan's actions are shaped by a State's history, but in the broad behavior there are repeating patterns.
I can see these patterns in all these places. When Leviathan strikes, it does so with brutality, and with a disturbing precision in its targets. Knowing the specific histories of oppression in France, the UK and the US, one can predict with a fair degree of confidence who will be on the receiving end of physical violence wielded by the State. Another pattern is therefore also clear. In all three cases, I and people like me are never the target. In all three countries, I can walk mostly unaware of Leviathan. I see these patterns affect others. If these others did not have means to make me see them, I might never even notice the cost of Leviathan, I might think this arrangement was for the greater good. I might think all was well in the best of all possible worlds,
I am glad that I do not. I am thankful that enough people have raised their voices, their camera phones, their keyboards so that I can see these patterns wherever I live. I do not yet know what I can do about them, but it is good not to be blind.

Monday, 11 August 2014


Since July, our lab has been running experiments non stop. The way our protocol works, this is an all hands on deck, round the clock situation, as it involves bottle feeding very young mammals by. The data we need requires lengthy surgeries on USDA animals. The procedures are sterile, the animals are intubated and have IV lines. The surgeries themselves take four hours. The success of the surgery is only known afterwards, when the electrodes are connected up to the EMG system. Prior to surgery, our electrodes must be built by hand, and then be sent off for gas sterilization as they cannot go through a standard autoclave. Other parts of our system are also made in house, and require testing for electrical faults. Between surgeries, tools have to be washed, packed and sterilized. None of the materials we use are easy to come by, many of them have lengthy lead times on orders and all of them are expensive. Suffices to say, there are many, many, MANY things that can go wrong in our experiments. And, after six weeks of solidly being part farm, part electrical shop, and part hospital, I can say with some confidence that almost everything did.
Among the things that went wrong, the worst was losing an animal in surgery. In this case, the dominant emotion is not frustration. It's sadness, anger, disappointment. As we had three young summer students from the medical school in the lab, all of whom where involved in the surgeries to some degree, the priority was making sure that they were ok. Loosing an animal in surgery is too serious a matter to focus on your frustrations with the science. And, because my PI is awesome, she knows this. Those events exist in a separate space from the other things that went wrong this summer. They are matter for sober reflection, and no matter how much you want to get data that summer, you pause when that happens, and figure out what you can do better.
However, there were myriad other things that went wrong, of greater and lesser importance. Electrode placement in surgery failed to yield adequate results. Intermediate cables broke and had to be resoldered, sometimes as a surgery in which that cable would be needed was progressing. An inaccurate channel map of all the connections meant that two whole EMG channels were wasted (my fault). The lab was not finished, meaning our lab server could not be set up, resulting in all the data being fragmented across multiple 3TB external hard drives. Tools had to be autoclaved during surgery. IV lines were ripped out. Animals stopped breathing in the middle of surgery. Injectible aneasthetics everyone swore would make our surgery smoother had only bad effects on our animals. A vomiting and diarrhea bug tore through all our animals one by one. A cable came partially unplugged, resulting in us losing half our EMG channels. An xray c-arm we'd already had repaired twice failed again. Every day started at 8 and ended at six, if not seven. Most weekends involved data collection of some sort. As the summer wore on, everyone's reserves were ground down. Everyone's patience began to wear thin. As one of the chief surgeons, I began to be concerned about my ability to do the surgeries. I was, and am, exhausted.
In such a situation, frustration quickly comes to dominate your feelings. Every thing that hasn't been done, every logistical snafu that comes from something having slipped through the cracks, becomes an issue. Surely, someone was supposed to be on top of it. Surely this had been mentioned three weeks ago. Surely we had agreed it would be done (just not by me). The productive response in these situations is to figure out how the situation can be fixed here and now. The frustrated response is to huff, to use a sharp tone, to bitch. In reality, the best you can hope for is that both will happen, the frustrated response to let off steam, the productive response to keep things moving.
The worst aspect of frustration is how it blinds you to simple solutions. After a few weeks of experiments like these, it is most tempting, when faced with a glitch, to reach for the explanations that involve people, not things or simple stochasticity. Thus days are lost remaking cables, rather than checking that all the cables of the set up are still plugged in. The solution that involves people, work, effort, not accidents, is more appealing to the frustrated mind grappling with how little control it has over the situation.
Dealing with frustration is hard. It requires calm and perspective, in rare supply when surrounded by screaming animals and beeping machines. This is why we can't do our research year round. During experiments, the best that can be done, I think, is to take small breaks when it all gets to much. Send the med students home early if you can. Cancel a day's data recording, if you need to. Be kind to each other. Make sure that night shift burdens are spared.
I am thankful that the two people in charge of personnel planning (my PI, and SuperTech), have a good eye for how everyone else is doing. On one particular day, SuperTech noticed that after a long surgery, I was a mess. My hands were shaking, my motor control gone, my mood frazzled and incoherent. After I messed up a (not life threatening) routine procedure, I think she went to find the PI. The PI sent me home (in a nice way). Sometimes, that's the best thing you can do.
Frustration is friction: energy wasted as heat. At the end of long experimental bouts, or long field seasons, energy is at a premium. Managing an exhausted, frustrated team takes tact and sensitivity. That's not something you realise until you experience it. I hope that, when the time comes, I will be able to look past my own exhaustion and frustration and make the right decisions for the people and the science in my lab.

Monday, 4 August 2014

The Stakhanovite tendency

When the former Soviet Union was at the height of its productivity war with the West to demonstrate the superiority of Marxist-Leninist forms of production over capitalism, a myth emerged of the worker Stakhanov. Aleksei Stakhanov was a miner who allegedly dug up 102 tons of coal in 6 hours (14 times his quota) (source Wikipedia). Soon, Stakhanov was praised throughout the USSR. His example was one to be emulated, for the greater good of the people, the Soviet Union, and the cause of Marxism-Leninism. Medals were awarded by the Party to workers who lived up to stakhanovite ideals. Men and women worked hard and long in fields and factories to win honour for themselves, their collectives and the nation. The aim was always to do more, do better, to beat the previous record set by the workers in your collective. Like many of the impulses that drove the early Soviet Union, the Stakhanovite movement was both impressive in its achievements and appalling in its costs. Many people lost their health, even their lives in their pursuit of Stakhanovite goals. Many more simply cheated, adding a dark twist to the suffering of those striving to achieve impossible targets.
Especially today, the nature of scientific research means that sometimes we have a huge amount of repetitive work (data processing) to do in a short period of time. This is sometimes unavoidable. The Stakahnovite tendency haunts us at such times. When we brag about how long our experiments are. When we build overly ambitious schedules despite the voice in our head whispering "this is too much". When we power through the night editing data files on coffee and beer, convincing ourselves we have a strict deadline no one is imposing but ourselves. We come to pride ourselves on our ability to do these tasks. "I spent 14 hours yesterday writing my third chapter" (never mind that the last third of what I wrote is almost unintelligible stream on consciousness). "I was up until 3am editing these video data for analysis" (never mind that I have a nagging suspicion the last dozen or so are less than rigorous).
The Stakhanovite tendency is ingrained, and difficult to budge. It is at its most dangerous however, when dealing with members of the research group who have not bought in wholesale to the ideology of sacrifice for science. When we apply it to ourselves, we mostly have ourselves to blame for not checking our own destructive behaviour. When we expect it of others in our lab, especially those whose backgrounds and career directions are different from ours, we are being exploitative, and fostering unnecessary resentments in the group.
Our lab group for the summer has accumulated a significant amount of data throughout a series of exhausting and complicated experiments. Much of the work, in particular the grunt work of feeding animals, cleaning and wrapping tools for surgery, building electrodes and generally keeping track of things has been done by our three amazing summer students and my colleague SuperTech. Our daily experiments require out of hours commitment, long hours and a willingness to go above and beyond. This is understood and accepted by all parties, and all of us, regardless of position in the lab, chip in where we can.
As the experimental run reaches a close, however, we are faced with the need to begin to analyse the data from the summer, in part to answer broad questions from the grant, in part so that the summer students can complete their research projects. In a lab meeting last week to discuss how best to organise the analysis of a summer's worth of data in a few days, I went into full Stakhanov mode. I explained how all the data we needed could be prepared in a weekend, and I suggested task distributions by project, regardless of size discrepancies between projects. One of the summer students (as I mentioned above, these guys have already gone above and beyond), exhausted and anxious, eventually was coaxed by my PI into explaining that he felt the division of labor was unfair, the expectations too high. He was right. There was no need for me to put forward the grueling schedule I'd suggested. A day or two more would not hurt. I was channeling my graduate school experiences of processing all my data in a few days, and it was unnecessary, and insulting to the effort everyone had already put in.
The Stakhanovite tendency is destructive precisely because it undervalues the work already done. It demands endlessly more sacrifice from people, often when they've already given more than was required of them. For our own sanity, we should check it in ourselves. In order to be decent human beings, we must never let it govern our relationships to others.