Thursday, 24 November 2016


I am thankful for my health, mental and physical.
I am thankful for my husband, his unwavering love, his patience, his endless zest for adventure.
I am thankful for my mother, her wisdom, her strength, her clear eyed intelligence, the model she sets for me to remain excited and optmistic and engaged with the world throughout your life.
I am thankful for my brother, his support for all I do, his sense of joy, his commitment to the small pleasures of life.
I am thankful for my sister, her energy, her love, her willingness to challenge me.
I am thankful for my in laws, their generosity, the fact they give me a home away from home.
I am thankful for all my friends, old and new, near and far, for all I learn from them, for all they give me.
I am thankful for my mentor, her commitment to my training as a researcher, her respect for my experience as a scientist, her friendship.
I am thankful for the career successes of the past year, and for people's recognition of them.
I am thankful that a decade of progress on gay civil rights means I can look at the next four years with some confidence our life will withstand them.
I am thankful to have been able, regardless of what happens next, to do what I wanted with my career for ten years. That's not a bad innings.
I am thankful for my dual citizenship, and my three languages.
I am thankful to have grown up in a city of 8 million people, to have gone to a school where students came from seventy countries, to have grown up immersed in two cultures.
I am thankful to have lived five years in Baltimore, to have learnt that America was both like and unlike what I knew from the movies.
I am thankful for three years in Ohio, and summers in Michigan, and all that has taught me about a life other than that I grew up to enjoy and expect.
I am thankful for the beautiful autumn we have had.
I am thankful for dinner surrounded by loved ones.

My thoughts have been dark of late, but I still have much to be thankful for. More than many, less than others, but by any standard, enough. Tomorrow I will be frightened, and angry again. But not all the time, and not today.

Happy Thanksgiving

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

On not falling over

Once, when I was on a skiing holiday with a friend, we got to talking about our week so far. I said that I was glad I hadn't fallen over yet. My friend responded "If you haven't fallen over, it means you're not trying hard enough". I was surprised by this. I'd just done the hardest run in the resort that day. To my mind, not falling over meant, simply, that I was good at skiing.
I have a feeling similar to this every time people discuss grades at school and university, and, more specifically, the importance of failure as a learning tool. I don't doubt that recovering from failure shows determination (though when we praise those who overcome failure, we should be careful of survivor bias). And I don't doubt that evaluating someone solely based on grades, without looking at grade progression, background, research experience and so on is foolish. But the description of straight A students, therefore of me, that tends to accompany these debates, sticks in my craw somewhat. Because, like my friend's assessment of my skiing ability, the fact that I'm good at what I do is taken as prima facie evidence that it's all effortless and, somehow, a scam.
Being a straight A student is not effortless. It takes work. In my case, it took discipline, a lot of it. Furthermore, the idea that just because the grades don't show a progression, there is no wrestling with concepts, ideas, no struggles, is erroneous. Those things happen. It's just that, for some reason, with the straight A student, the breakthrough happens before the test, so there is never any evidence of it. The illusion of effortlessness is just that: the straight A student is the swan, gliding gracefully across the mirror like lake, legs paddling furiously underneath.
The other idea that attaches to straight A students, which characterizes me even less, is that somehow, we do not learn the material, we merely learn to take tests. I won't deny that good grades can act as a motivator (and, more tellingly, that bad grades act as a discouragement). But the relationship is more subtle. For me in particular, the good grades worked in combination with my genuine interest in the subjects to create a virtuous circle, one where the external rewards of effort combined with the internal drive of interest to make working for school fun. Yes, fun. As much as exams stressed me, there were times when being given 3 hours to write essays on topics I loved (looking at you general paper from part II zoology) was actually almost a pleasure. 
There are limitations to being a straight A student. Most obviously with me, the fact that I started out good and became excellent in most academic subjects meant that it took me a long time to learn how to deal with those things I wasn't good at from the start (sports comes to mind, but also the violin).  But that doesn't mean that I wasn't good at the things I was good at. It just means that I didn't devote much energy to things I wasn't good at. Then again, many not straight A students do this too (we all do, in fact). The other issue is that straight A students have trouble differentiating adequate performance from actually bad performance. It also took me a long time to recognise that, when hard work yields a reward (a good grade), it is easier to do then when it doesn't. I have immense respect for the C and B students of this world who work their arses off consistently, despite never seeing a consistent A.
As for the question of failure, I have mixed feelings on this. I never failed academically by any measure. Perhaps my first true failure was failing to secure employment straight after my PhD. I overcame that failure, but I'm not sure what I learnt from it. That I was tenacious? I think I learnt that from teaching myself linear algebra in grad school just as much. And besides, my failure would have been impossible to overcome without the successes that came before it. When we focus on failure, we deny people the joy of success that comes from practiced skill.
When we overly lionise the educational importance of failure, and fail to recognise the effort that goes into sustained success, we undermine a lot of hard work. And when we suggest that all straight A students are intellectual frauds, we deny them the joy of their achievement, and the value of their work. These messages reach straight A students early: I think I was nine or ten when my teachers first started telling me to expect to start failing at some point, some as a warning, others, somewhat more gleefully. No one likes a tall poppy. I can understand teachers not focusing on straight A students. I have more trouble with teachers undermining them. It happens more often than you might think.
It is possible to critique the narrowness of our systems of evaluation, and the flaws inherent in our educational systems, without casting aspersions on the efforts and joys of those individuals who do well in them. There is pleasure in racing down skillfully from mountaintop to village, carving into the snow with practiced ease knowing that this, you are good at.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

A messy machine

This week in journal club, we revisited a classic paper of evolutionary biology, Stephen J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin's famous/infamous The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptionist Programme, a paper that, among other things, has made amateur architectural history something of a cottage industry among evolutionary biologists. "Spandrels", as it is often known, is almost impossible to discuss as a scientific paper among biologists of a certain age.* It is a cultural artefact, a signifier of its times. Any discussion of "Spandrels" immediately becomes a historiography, an attempt to, on the one hand, understand it in its context that is no longer around us, and, on the other, detect its influence on the different world in which we now live. "Spandrels" is, depending on who you talk to, either the hallmark of a small but significant paradigm shift in evolutionary biology, or the beginning of an unhelpful tangent that has needlessly distracted evolutionary biologists for decades.
But taken on its own terms, "Spandrels" is a bizarre thing. Certainly, it is a kind of paper we would be unused to seeing today. It is a straight up, unapologetic, highly (and variably effectively) rhetorical polemic. As its name implies, it is a critique, not of data, but of ways of thinking. "Spandrels" is all argument, no new data.**
What I think is most interesting about "spandrels" in that regard is the insight it gives us into the messy machine that is science. Specifically, it challenges simplistic notions about what science is.
In her speech accepting the nomination for  presidential candidate for the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton said at one point "I believe in Science". The reaction among scientists (on social media, because that's how I gauge reactions among scientists) was divided into two camps. One we shall call camp relief (as "Thank you, thank you, an existential dread has been slightly lifted from my shoulders"). The other we shall call camp epistemological frustration, best exemplified by this facebook response. Specifically point 2 "Rather, science is a philosophical approach to understanding one's world - one which is rooted in doubt, skepticism and formal testing methods". To which I would add only one thing:
"science, among other things, is a philosophical approach to understanding one's world - one which is rooted in doubt, skepticism and formal testing methods"
Because science is also a social activity, undertaken by people (Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin) supported by institutions (Harvard University, the Royal Society of Great Britain). And these are very much things we can believe (in the sense of have faith) in. Science is values, such as assumptions of good faith (sorely tested of late) and "nullius in verba". Science is also norms of ethics and even of esthetics. Some will argue that these things are ancillary to science's epistemological foundation. Which I think is nonsense. Unless you want to subscribe to some Walden-esque neo-Rousseauian vision where science is limited to ascertaining the depth of ponds we can measure by our own, the social and institutional structures of science, and the Trust which underpins them, are as crucial to science as any theory of knowledge. For without them, no aggregate, collaborative, progressive, growing science is possible.
Science is a messy machine, and like all messy machines we are tempted to make it seem simple, But when we say "science is self correcting", it is like when we say "markets find solutions", or "the eventual overthrow of the Bourgeoisie is an inevitable consequence of capitalism". It makes complex, non linear, messy human processes seem cleaner than they are. And in the process, it obscures all the awful things that humans do when they feel they actions are not being judged.
Because the attitude that limits science to an abstracted epistemological process, the attitude that obscures the social structures that allow science to work, even when it is for the best of reasons, is cousins to the attitude that tells people of color, and women, and disabled folk, and gay folk, and people from developing countries, that the barriers they face are not part of science.
Only an inclusive definition of science, that includes as parts of science the epistemology as well as the institutions, and ultimately, the people DOING the science, can argue that the structural inequalities of science are scientific problem. And to solve those structural inequalities, we must believe they are a problem, and we must believe we can fix them.

*I've noticed with some amusement, being at the tail end of that generation, that younger biologists are completely nonplussed by the paper's tone and cultural importance.
** In that respect, it is very similar, and knowing Gould I suspect this is no coincidence, to Simpson's slim Magnum Opus Tempo and Mode in Evolution

Sunday, 12 June 2016

There is work to be done

At our wedding a little over a year ago, my mother gave a speech. It was not the standard wedding speech, about me and my husband and our love. Rather, my mother, historian, 60s revolutionary, woman, gave a rousing barnstormer. She celebrated and reminded all of us present of all that had been achieved in living memory to make our same sex wedding, surrounded by friends and family, possible. And she ended with a warning, a warning that none of these things that had been achieved were set in stone. That there were forces set on taking them back. We all loved the speech; it is one of the things that everyone remembers from the day. But after today, I find myself looking back on my mother's speech, and wondering at her prescience.
Two men set out to kill LBGT today, in the midst of our month of celebration, in our safe places. One of those men failed, thankfully. The other succeeded, horrifically. Their stated reasons were probably radically different. And here lies a deep, sad, awful truth of today: there are many, many voices in the world today that will preach murderous hate of LBGT people. And many of those voices have great power and great reach. Some are adherents of violent Islamic sects, some represent strands of Christianity in Africa, or the US, and some are simply political viciousness. We cannot pretend those voices are not there, are not loud, do not have power. We cannot pretend that those that would harm us have been kept in check by recent changes. We cannot pretend those changes are  not still weak, and could not be taken away.
And so, there is work to be done. Have some of us become complacent? Perhaps, but let us not be too harsh on that. The illusion of normalcy, the scenery of security, how long some in our community have yearned for those. It was tempting to buy into that. I doubt there is an LBGT person in the US who still feels secure today, no matter how blue their postcode, how nice their wedding album. It is a hard awakening.
What is to be done? We must, in our communities, our schools, our families, oppose those voices, even if they are just whispers. We must affirm those who do righteous work, who support and embrace the humanity of queer folk of all stripes unequivocally. And in our communities we must censure those, no matter where they come from, who equivocate on this. Note I said censure, not censor. This is not about legislating hate speech, or tiresome debates about freedom of speech. This is about the values which we choose to uphold. We cannot allow these voices of hate to nourish the actions of those who desire to spill blood for infamy.
It is unacceptable that the humanity, indeed survival, of LBGT people are used as political tools in Africa and the Middle East. It is unacceptable for Islamic clerics, or evangelical church leaders, to preach death against non cis-hetero people. It is unacceptable when the Catholic church denies the full love of God to its gay members, and ignores its responsibility in their suffering as a result. It is unacceptable that the Anglican communion has chosen a fig leaf of unity at the expense of upholding the humanity of its LBGT congregants. It is unacceptable that the dignity of Transgender individuals has become the political tool du Jour in American culture wars.
And conversely we must affirm what we believe. If your school does not have a PFLAG chapter, found one. If your congregation is not explicitly inclusive, demand change or leave. Do not sit through homophobic sermons, or speeches, or thanksgiving tirades. Do not let children learn cruel patterns from the adults around them.
Some of these changes will require law, and we must agitate for that. But others, many, will require instead the difficult work of changing a culture, changing what is acceptable. And we must support all those who affirm our humanity, as much as we censure those who do not.
The epidemic of American mass shooting indeed has causes outside homophobia, or racism. But those who commit these acts do so in a complex cultural bath that involves gun culture, notoriety, and social rhetoric about who is other, who is less than, who is to be hated. We must fight those who provide justification for violent hate, and stoke the fires of murderous rage.
The arc of history does not bend toward justice; we pull it there.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

What my husband sees

A propos of many things preoccupying me right now.

My husband doesn't see the stalled papers, the floundering analysis, the discovery of unforeseen sources of error that send us back to the drawing board. My husband doesn't see that the first trial of new experiments to yield the preliminary results for my grant didn't quite pan out. My husband doesn't see the deadline get skipped, the need to do a second batch of experiments unplanned between now and the all hands on deck summer.
My husband only hears second hand the balancing act of resources between projects: the grant that pays me, the project that may be my own grant, the preliminary data for my PIs new grant. My husband isn't there for the meetings to plan what happens next, to allocate time, to discuss overcoming setbacks, to distribute tasks. My husband doesn't feel the continuous, ever present feeling that there are not enough hours to do everything. My husband isn't there when my PI and I have long, frank conversations about what I need to do to get hired, and how to balance that with what I need to do for the grant that pays me.
All my husband sees is that I have worked most weekends in the past two months. All my husband knows is that I asked to move our first year anniversary weekend trip by a few weeks to put in those few extra experiments. That almost all weekends between now and mid august are booked, taken by science. There'll be no back country camping trip, or trip to the beach, this summer. All my husband knows is that every get together with friends starts with a list of evenings I can't. "You go, but I have pigs. Maybe I'll join you later".
My husband also sees me exhausted, and defeated, when things go wrong. He sees me after I've been kept awake for hours wondering how I'm going to get everything I need to get done done. He sees me work long hours, then come home and always be tempted to run to my office to do an analysis, or read a paper. He knows when I'm going to negotiate a Saturday morning at work. He sighs wearily when I say "I'm taking my laptop with me on the weekend".
My husband has been with me since grad school, and he understands that I need to work hard. He understands this is a grueling game I'm playing. But in his eyes, I already put in more hours then I should. In his eyes, my work is already everywhere, like a Virginia creeper that needs to be watched and fought lest it stifle the house.
I'm currently working very hard on eliminating counter productive time sinks from my nine to five, to maximise what I get out of the day. Partly, it's for me. I need to be more productive, I need to use my time better. But partly, it's for him. I've begged and borrowed and stolen enough hours from us. There needs to be a limit.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Good advice I received

It's been a tough couple of weeks for me of late work wise, mostly of my own doing. I don't deal well with screwing up, or disappointing people. But amidst it all, I received some very good advice from my sister, who is a very wise woman:

"Don't be ashamed. Embarrassed maybe, but not ashamed. It is noble but unnecessary. You have broken some regulations, no ones limbs. Or hearts."

Learning to respond reasonably and proportionally to your own mistakes is also a skill, and for those of us who pride ourselves on our rectitude, not an easy one.

She also recommended good chocolate and a run. She was right on both counts.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

"We can live here"

We've been in Ohio nearly three years. Three years.
Neither my husband, who'd grown up in Orlando and DC, nor I, who'd grown up in a global city of 8 million people, had ever lived somewhere like North East Ohio. The closest I'd come were a couple of weeks spent with family friends in Western Michigan. The closest my husband had come was visiting his brother at university in Oklahoma.
Did we arrive with preconceptions? Yes, of course. He's east coast, big city. I'm a Londoner. There's a certain amount of unavoidable snobbery baked into both those world views. But there is also the very legitimate reality that the way one lives in big, metropolitan, cosmopolitan areas, the sources of pleasure, the expectations, the coping mechanisms, are very different to what one finds in the semi-rural rust belt. Putting aside judgments, it is simply true that, to an extent, a big city transplant out here is somewhat ill-prepared for this environment.
So there was some trepidation. Moving into the tiny town where the university I work at is based, just before the onset of one of the hardest winters in the region in years, did not help.
Perhaps the hardest thing to deal with initially was the isolation. In the winter especially, people don't leave their houses much. There are no pubs where one can find ersatz community as a newcomer. More subtly, people here are from here. Their families and friends from their whole lives are all nearby. Unlike in a largely transient city like DC or London, not everyone out here is desperate to make new friends. For newcomers, it takes a lot of work to build a social network, especially outside of work.
So it was hard initially. There were hard days, there were days when we both pined for our former lives in the big city. Yet also, from the beginning, there were good things: good jobs for both of us, good bosses who understood how hard life was sometimes, and, quicker perhaps than we thought, good friends. In this last regard, it helps that LBGT folk out here look after their own, once they find them.
And there are things to do. One has to drive more, and look harder, and develop new habits, but there are things to do. There are concerts and museums in Cleveland to explore. There are restaurants, ranging from country steakhouses unchanged since the '70s where you get an amazing steak dinner for 20 bucks, to fine dining restaurants. There are lakes and state parks aplenty. And there is space. And space means room to take up hobbies. I have my piano, my husband has a dark room in the basement and a painter's studio in the attic. We have two small yards, and for the first time in my life I can devote time to learning how to garden. There is cooking, and having friends over for dinner (as I say, our house is the best restaurant in our town, it's just hard to get a table).
For Easter, we had my husband's family over. Our large, old, slightly ramshackle, slightly run down but beautiful house has enough rooms that we had two couples over, each with their own room. On a beautiful, sunny Easter sunday, after service at the local episcopal church, I was finishing up supper in the kitchen. The family were out in the back yard, sitting around the table and drinking champagne. And it felt like home.
In the front yard, the daffodils and tulips I planted in the cold last days of fall have bloomed. When we moved to this house last October, I had also transferred to the soil a clematis and a rose bush I'd been keeping in pots on the balcony of our first place in Ohio. I trimmed them back at the end of winter, and they are growing like crazy. Soon the clematis will flower bright purple, and the rose bush will begin to put forth yellow flowers, as they will for years, even after we leave. We have left roots here now.
When I get up in the morning and look out on that front yard in the sun, like Tenar at the end of LeGuin's Tehanu, I know we can live here. I don't know that we will, but I know that we can, and that is an encouraging thought.

"One does not love breathing"

"Until I feared I might lose it, I never loved to read.
One does not love breathing" Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Two weekends ago I was in Washington DC with the husband. The weather, which was supposed to be cold, turned out lovely, one of those perfect DC days when the sun is warm but not hot, the sky is blue, and the exuberant mid Atlantic spring turns every yard and every park into a riot of colour.
We were staying in north east, just off H street, at a friend's town house. We've stayed there many times. In fact the husband lived there for the year we were apart after I had to move back to the UK after finishing my PhD. So I know the area well. On the Sunday morning (to overcome the over indulgence of the night before), I went for a walk in the glorious DC spring. Ostensibly, I went in search of coffee. In truth, I went in search of what has always been my third place.
I grew up (as I may have mentioned before) in the heart of a big city. A big city where driving is very much optional, and far from practical. From the time I was old enough, I walked with my parents throughout our neighborhood. I walked to the gated square at the end of the block for which we had a key. Then later I walked to Holland park. My school was a twenty minute walk away, so sometimes my older brother or sister would walk me home. At eleven, I was giving my own set of keys, and permission to walk to and from school on my own. And from that day, London was to me as the Shire was to Bilbo: a place to explore on foot. In my head I have a mental map of most of the center of that city. I have walked from Ealing to St Katherine Docks, and from Camden to Clapham.
Walking in London became my third place: the whole city, as long as I was on foot, a place for thought and escape, a place that was neither at home not at work but that was mine. Walking home from school, I would take detours through the parks if it have been a long day, or if it was a sunny day. I remember once stepping out of school into driving summer rain. Rather than go home, I went to Hyde park, and walked in the downpour until I was soaked through. Walking became how I process my thoughts, how I establish what's important, how I calm my nerves.
In French, there is a word for walking aimlessly in the city: "Flaner". The closest equivalent in English is to stroll, though one can stroll through the country, or one can stroll to a destination. "Flaner" can involve neither. "Flaner" invites, encourages serendipitous, aimless exploration of the city. "Flaner" is what results in stumbling on a tiny church park one has never seen behind one of London's busy shopping streets, or stumbling on the Monument to the great fire on a sunny day and climbing it.
As I was strolling in vaguely aimless search of coffee in DC that sunny sunday morning, I felt closer to home, and closer to myself than I had in long time. And I realised, not for the first time, how much this inability to walk chafes me living in Ohio.
One can, and I have, debated quite how inimical to walking my current situation is. But it was in DC that I realised it was not so much the physical activity of walking that I miss here. It is the impossibility of "flaner". When I lived in the small town (little more than a highway exit) where our university is based, there was literally no where I could walk from my doorstep, not effortlessly, not pleasantly. The roads had no sidewalks and narrow verges, cars went fast, and there were no paths through the countryside to explore, no byways. Even the state parks, pretty as they are, have limited walking options. Paths are short and disjointed, and one must drive to the state park which to me, limits the spontaneity. The counrtyside of France and England that I am used to has footpaths at every doorstep, leading to fields and forests and home again. My aunt's house in Alsace has the local equivalent of Bilbo;s map of the shire in it: each path marked from doorstep to mountaintop. I could write an entire blog on how my European hiking habits are poorly adapted to American hiking, even though the rewards of American hiking are breathtaking.
 Even back here in the city, the walking options are limited. The layout of most American cities, ravaged by the construction of transurban highways, is confusing to the pedestrian. One will quickly end up on a busy road, side walks vanish, and, for the most part, there are no shops to discover, no hidden pubs to find, no magnificent flower beds in tiny squares hiding behind rows of sedate houses.
And so, here in Ohio, I have been robbed of my third place. And I am often restless, frustrated, in ways that I cannot quite identify, until I remember how I used to deal with that feeling: by grabbing my keys and my wallet and walking somewhere, anywhere, through the streets of London, my own Shire.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Learning Bach to play Beethoven

I'm back on a piano playing kick. The urge has taken me and I feel the need to do something productive, but non work related. So I've dusted off the ivories and am trying to get a good half hour to an hour's practice in a day.
My long term goal is, as it has been for the past decade, to play the entirety of Beethoven's Moonlight sonata. It's been some years now that I've been able to play the first two movements passably to well (depending on time of day, phase of the move, and state of my motor neurons). But the third movement is this:

Technically, it's a very different beast to the previous two. Rapid finger movements in both the right and left hands, and essentially a style that is more baroque (and reminiscent of the harpsichord) then the other two movements. From a simple physical performance stand point, my hands cannot yet handle that sort of athleticism.
A few years later my mother sent me some pieces to practice that her piano teacher had recommended for me. One was a book of basic exercises I was familiar with, and hated. The other was Bach prelude #2 in C minor from his Well Tempered Clavier series, which is a series of preludes and  fugues written, in part, as exercises for the harpsichord. Unlike the other book of exercises however, these pieces are actually fun and pretty on their own.

So I'm putting aside the Beethoven, and focusing on this prelude (at quarter tempo, let's be honest). And while my aim is to be able to play the whole prelude, I'm also using it as a learning tool. I'm focusing on my finger work, and practicing my sight reading (which is terrible). I'm working on strengthening the little finger on my left hand, and making my movements quick and precise. These are all skills that will be vital for eventually tackling the 3rd movement of the Moonlight, but I'm working on them in a context that brings more immediate rewards.
In many ways, much of what I'm doing as a postdoc (though not all), is playing Bach. I'm funded out of my PIs R01 for now, so that means I didn't design this project. And my long term goals (by definition, as a postdoc is a training position of determinate length), are not going to be realised here. So much of what I am doing here is learning skills that I will need to fulfill my long term goals. Yet, on the other hand, I am also doing something that is important and interesting in and of itself in the science I am doing here. If that were not the case I would be as bored and resentful as I was playing scales on the violin. Finding the balance here, between learning what is needed for the future, and doing what is needed for the project now, is key.
Ultimately, I will move on from the Bach when I feel there is nothing more for me to learn from it, and I will tackle what I planned. But I will enjoy learning to play Bach (and who knows, maybe I'll take another detour, and another). And ultimately, I will move on from this postdoc and do my own, other thing. But I will enjoy doing this science while I learn. 

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Beauty and the Beast better ending

"I want to do something for her" said Beast on the first day, watching as Belle fed the birds in the walled courtyard.
"Well," said Cogsworth, who knew a thing or two about rules, "there's always the usual: flowers, chocolates, promises you don't intend to keep"
That afternoon, the Beast led Belle to the hot house on the castle grounds. "Open your eyes!" he said, excited. Belle opened her eyes. Around her were dazzling flowers, orchids from every corner of the globe, tall luscious ferns, flowers whose names she did not know. (But no roses. The Beast had been very clear to his watering can gardener on this. No roses).
Belle looked at the flowers, trapped in their pots, trained and tied to their trellises, bound within the glass walls.
"Do you like it?" asked the Beast.
"They are very pretty" said Belle.
"Then they're yours, all of them!"
"Thank you" said Belle, but she did not smile. And the Beast was angry in his heart, though he had learnt to control his temper and did not show it.

"I want to DO something for her" said Beast on the second day, watching Belle as she untied the orchids from the stems to which they were tied.
"Well", said Lumiere, who knew a thing or two about pleasing, "There is something special you could do".
That afternoon, the Beast led Belle to the library. "Open your eyes!" he said, nervous. Belle opened her eyes. Before rose books, thousands of books, tier upon tier of books in a room flooded with light. Overjoyed, she smiled with delight. How many stories to read! How many places to run to!
"Do you like it?" asked the Beast.
"It's wonderful!" said Belle.
"Then it's yours, all of it!"
Belle stopped.
"Thank you" she said, and though she smiled, it did not reached her eyes. And the Beast was sad, and he showed it, but this sadness Belle did not notice.

"I want to do something for HER" said Beast on the third day, watching Belle as she sat by the window, turning page after page of her book.
"Well", said the feather duster, who knew a thing or two about being a woman, "perhaps you should give her back what you took from her"
"And what's that?" asked the Beast, rounding on the feather duster.
"Her freedom" said the feather duster.
The other servants froze at those words, or hid. But the feather duster, who knew a thing or two about men, kept dusting.

That afternoon, the Beast went to find Belle. "If you would walk with me, I would like to show you something" he said. "Must I wear a blindfold?" she asked. "No longer" he said.
He walked with her to the courtyard. Philippe, her horse, stood there saddled and bridled. The gates of the castle were open. She looked at the Beast, and waited.
"Some months ago, I imprisoned your father for doing nothing more than asking for shelter. I was wrong to do that. You came to rescue him, and offered yourself in exchange for his captivity. I was ashamed at your bravery, but rather than release you both and beg forgiveness, I imprisoned you. In my shame, I wished to humiliate you."
She turned her head away, and bit her lip.
"Later, I threatened you and you fled the castle. I went after you, and finding you beset with wolves, I defeated them and fell in the snow. You carried me back to the castle, and tended to me until I was healed. I was ashamed at your compassion, but rather than release you, I bound you with guilt. In my shame, I hoped to keep you by my side."
Belle lifted her head, and looked at the Beast. Her face was set. Her eyes unreadable.
"I had no right to imprison you, or your father. And once you had reclaimed your freedom, I had no right to keep you by my side. I have done you wrong, and taken from you what was yours by force and by coercion." The Beast took a breath, and hand Belle the reins of her horse.
"I return to you what I stole, and I tell you to leave this place. I give you no magic mirror to watch me, no token of this place, only food and water to get you home. The gate are open, and will never close until you leave here".
Lumiere and Cogsworth leapt up.
"But master, what of us? Shall we remain forever trapped in this form? Keep her here for our sakes at least!"
Beast turned to his servants.
"I am sorry, my friends, but I do not think that true love can bloom from imprisonment."
He turned to Belle, and was silent. And she bowed to him, and bad him farewell, but did not thank him. And she rode through the castle gates, and the wood, and over the river. She rode and rode and never looked back. She reached the door of her father's house, and found him by his maps planning to rescue her, and she held him in her arms while he wept and wept for relief and joy.

Every so often, years later, sat in her own library (modest, perhaps, but hers) on cold, dark nights, she would find herself thinking of the magnificent library so full of light, and the huge fireplaces so full of warmth, and the great halls so full of splendor. And she would gaze out of the window to the distant mountains.
And then she would remember her father's ice cold hands, and the heavy door with iron bars, and the beautiful room that was her prison.
And she never went back.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Silly Blog Challenge: rescue me

@IHstreet challenged me, among others, to name five characters I'd most want to come to my rescue in a bad situation form TV or movies. I don't watch too much of either so my list has a bias:
1) Lin Bei Fong. I mean seriously, who else?

2) Lana Kane. As long as she can get away from the other idiots at the agency

3) Louise Belcher. Mostly because I never want her not to be on my side.

4) Valeria from Conan the Barbarian (the original movie with Arnold).

5) Bond, James Bond. Daniel Craig's James Bond. But only if I'm Bond girl number 2 the one that lives
Thanks for watching!

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The language of science

This is a post I've been elaborating in my head for a long time. The recent retraction of a PLoS ONE paper with unusual language that may have been a translation error, and the associated debate, has prompted me to get it written down. It does not directly address the so called  #creatorgate, but it may help think about issues of language and power in science. If science is truly to be an international collaborative enterprise, then we need to become more conscious of what conducting that business in a language that is not the native one of many scientists means.

Languages matter to me. Like my siblings, I was raised fully bilingual. I can read and write fluently in both English and French, and at one point was an in-house translator for the channel-spanning company I worked at. Yet, when it comes to science, I am functionally monolingual: I cannot write about the work I do in French with any confidence that the words I use are correct, and that my explanations are meaningful.
Oddly, it was not always that way. My entire schooling up through highschool was in French, so I went to University knowing all my scientific words and concepts in French, not English. I had to cobble together an English science lexicon quickly, and for the longest time, there were certain things (integration and differentiation in particular) that I would do in French in my head. Yet, after 15 years of doing science exclusively in English, the French has been displaced. At this point, the only thing I do in French is long division, which is a skill I maintain much as one might practice fencing with a rapier. And here is the point: there is no incentive, professionally, for me to learn to do science in French. I already do science in the de facto lingua franca.
When I joined my PhD program, my advisor lamented that previous students had successfully campaigned for the  abolition of the language requirement. At the time I was saddened, because I am always sad when people pass up the opportunity to learn a second language (and because I had just missed out on an easy credit). Now I am irritated. Irritated at the myopa of native English speakers decreeing that language requirements are unnecessary for PhD programs that demand English as Second Language certifications for all non native-English speaking applicants.
Because, when we get down to brass tacks, science today does have a language requirement: speak English. I want you to let that sink in for a moment. If you want to work where the jobs and money are, if you want your work to be cited, you have to speak English. So hegemonic is English's position as the language of science that, in many Universities with global ambitions, one can be hired as a professor there without speaking the local language, as long as one speaks English. Before you tell me that this is a sign of the internationalism of science, let me point out that the converse is not true. Anything but.
Let us take a minute to think what it means that a language that is spoken natively by 6% percent of the population is a sine qua non of doing science. If you've ever tried to master a foreign language to the point of being able to travel in that country, you know it's hard. Imagine doing it to the point of being globally competitive in your field. And let's add that we offer no help: no science societies, or universities, or journals, pay for translation services, or language classes. And, in fact, we scoff and are suspicious of letters by applicants from those countries as not having been written by the applicant (as if English-speaking applicants did not get their application documents heavily edited). We grimace when people have trouble clearly expressing themselves in English, without acknowledging that this is a challenge we will never have to face with anything like the same consequences (jobs, publications) for butchering a talk we might choose to give in Japanese or Mandarin or Hindi or Urdu (which we would only ever do as an outreach exercise anyway). Now, I want you to realise that every single foreign postdoc or grad student or faculty member in your department has put in the work to be good enough in English that she can just about communicate science with you. If you tried to order lunch for her in her native language, how far would you get?
Yet, beyond the obvious dreaded-P-word that is attached to being a native English speaker, and the obvious selection bias for people with ressources that it places on scientists from non English speaking countries, there is a more insidious effect, which I alluded to in the beginning. When certain fields are conducted only in one language, other languages loose out. For example, my mother speaks Alsatian (the Germanic dialect of her region of France). As a dialect, Alsatian is a language that important humanistic scholars (and Goethe's mentors) would have used. But, as French and Hochdeutsch became the languages of French and German nationalism, Alsatian, along with other dialects, was squeezed out of law, administration, science. Recent censuses put current Alsatian usage at about 60 to 70% of the population of Alsace, huge for a regional language in a country whose relationship to regional languages is ambivalent at best. And yet, my mother, who learnt her Alsatian from a woman born in 1870, knows words no one now knows. As the sphere of topics discussed in Alsatian has shrunk over the centuries, all the language associated with abstract or technical constructs has been lost. Yes, many people still speak Alsatian, but only when discussing the most mundane of topics.
As a Franco-British person growing up in England, France's often ham fisted attempts to promote French neologisms against English borrowing were often lampooned. And certainly there is a contemptible side to a former imperial power lashing out against another imperial power that has awkwardly gained ascendancy. Yet there is something equally contemptible in the tendency of Native English speakers to view the hegemony of English as a "natural" process. If we stop to consider the historical forces that have lead to this state of affairs, is this something to which science truly wishes to unequivocally yoke itself?
Because there are other models. At least two international organisations, the UN general assembly and the EU parliament advocate multilingual systems with active translations, because they recognise that equal participation cannot require someone learning a whole new language. And yes, both the UN and the EU translation administrations are hugely expensive. But if, as a publishing company, you're making billion of dollars in profits while maintaining a 40% profit margin, maybe translation services could be part of the added value you offer? And, if you're fighting for the creation of publicly funded open access repositories, and repeatedly tell me (because I've asked this question) that you have the long term digital archiving question all handled, then maybe you can also find money to broaden participation by supporting translation services?
Because, if not, and you're a native English speaking academic talking about how you're broadening access while requiring an ESL certificate from overseas grad students in your department? Then don't conflate the dregs of 200 years of imperialism and naked political power play with internationalism.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Harper, Maya, and me

This is a post about my growth as a person through encounters with books. I make no claims about how what understanding of American race relations translates into my activities challenging racism, and acknowledge I am still learning.

Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" became my favorite book midway through my teens, dethroning Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" with its resonant message about parenthood, precocious children, and difficult worlds. I read that book in school (it is one of the handful of great American books, with Gatsby and either Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, but not both, that have been allowed onto British school reading lists). I read it dutifully in the right way, as a story about injustice and segregated America, but that was only part of what captivated me. I preferred the story of Scout and Jem and Dill, their growing up, growing apart. I was captivated by Lee's evocative language, her rich complex female characters (to this day Miss Maudie Atkinson tops my list of fictional characters I would like to meet). In truth, I didn't yet have the historical knowledge or the analytical tools to understand all the parts of the story of Tom Robinson, or understand the monumental nature of Calpurnia's decision to take the children to First Purchase. Even back then, when I decided (to show how smart I was) to write an essay on "racism as a theme in To Kill A Mockingbird" i quickly felt ill equipped. My arguments were weak and I knew it. I should have written about " parenting as a theme in to Kill a Mockingbird" instead.
I've revisited that book so many times I can recite it. I have come to relish its depth more and more with every reading. The intelligence of Lee's device (to have an adult Jean Louise tell the story from a child Scout's point of view) allows such flexibility, deftly used. It allows the narrator to know things Scout would not have known. It allows the future to be alluded to. And it also leads to one of the great, and perhaps most questionable ellipsis in litterature. In the key scene where Atticus goes to sit outside Maycomb jail by night to protect Robinson from the lynch mob, at no point does Lee's adult Jean Louise spell out what is happening. We are told that the child Scout doesn't realise until later. But why does the adult Jean Louise hide from stating what is at stake, plainly, and clearly? Is it perhaps because the horror of that truth would make that scene's denouement hard to stomach, and make Atticus's pronouncement the next day sound hollow?
It was my encounter with another great American book that made me see the limits in Lee's novel as a tale of Southern Racism, and that made me see how much of a fiction even that book's limited victories were. While at University I read Maya Angelou's "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings". I do not know if Angelou had to Kill a Mockingbird in mind when she wrote her autobiography, but the parallels are very striking. Against fictional smart, white Scout, we have real smart, black Maya Angelou. Against fictional too good, too perfect Calpurnia, we have the Real Grandmother. So many of the scenes in Caged Bird echo scenes in Mockingbird, but tear down what little Lee left worth saving in white Maycomb.
Perhaps the key scene for me is the one where she describes how, one night, as a lynch mob is rampaging through town, the white sheriff rides up to the Grandmother's store to warn her, and tell her to hide her crippled adult son from them. The grandmother thanks him, and Angelou describes her uncle painfully squeezing himself into the space under a fruit display. Angelou concludes with a searing accusal of the sheriff that struck me forever (I am writing this from memory so forgive any error):
"If I came before God in Heaven and had to say a good word about that man I could not do it. He did nothing to oppose, and in fact supported, the system that made my uncle hide that night"
Through that book, I began to see all that was missing from To Kill a Mockingbird, that made it both a fairy story, and a flawed depiction of the Jim Crow south.
I still love to Kill a Mockingbird. But I am fiercely grateful to Maya Angelou, and all the other black writers who have helped me move past viewing as more than what it is: an exquisite piece of fiction, but no more a definitive portrait of the South than Gone With the Wind.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

When lightning strikes a crowded room

When I met my first boyfriend, lightning struck. We had never met before, but the moment he walked into my friend's kitchen, he was my sole focus that night. It turned out to be mutual. We talked to each other, and for each other all through dinner. We walked to the bus stop for me to catch a bus, he wheeling his bike so he could keep talking to me. It was only the part of my screaming "you're not out yet! To anyone! Do not make any rash decisions!" that stopped me from kissing him that very night.
We texted incessantly, and began a rapid, dramatic courtship. We went on dates, walked through London at night, kissed, fought, made up, spilled our hearts to each other. It was passionate and powerful and joyous and liberating and melodramatic in a way only the first encounter with those feelings can be. I have no regrets about that relationship.
It lasted three months. We broke up (with much elegant drama), saw each other a couple more times, then went off on our separate lives once again. The only fallout from that relationship was a bruised heart, and some lessons about how to treat other people.
I was young, and single, and my boyfriend was a stranger. Lightning struck us, and it was exhilarating. If any of those parameters had been different, the lightning strike would have been at least inconvenient, at most terrifying.
There is a reason Anna Karenina flees the ball after her encounter with Vronsky. There is a reason Olivia's response to meeting Viola/Cesario is "Soft, even so swiftly may one catch the plague?" There is a reason Elinor Dashwood will not speak of her feelings for Edward Farrars, when she does not know (and has reason to doubt) that any good may come of it.
The lightning strikes of love guarantee nothing: not that the lightning strike is reciprocated, not that the fit is good, not that happiness will befall. To use them as the sole guide of behavior is foolishness. To claim they are the pathway to goodness and happiness and should be given special consideration above all other factors is adolescent petulance that results in real pain.
People take risks for love yes. They sometimes must. And they sometimes pay a heavy price. You probably know several people who've moved for love, only to have it not work out. They rebuild their lives in a new place, alluding only rarely to the circumstance that brought them there. We often, if we are friends with people making those choices, have misgivings, fears. "Are you sure? Is this wise?"
Literature and personal history tell us that lightning love is a poor guide of behavior. And yet, when some suggest that, in situations were abuse of power is easy, where all outside factors conspire to suggest that following the guides of Eros's arrow is foolish and dangerous, and enables much worse behavior, how quick we are to demand that love be given primacy.
How many of you would counsel a friend or daughter to run off with someone they'd met only once? How many of you would counsel a married friend to start an affair because of a moment on chemistry, rather than to make quite sure they were never alone with that person again? And yet you would not counsel someone not to start a relationship with their subordinates? And yet you would not tell them that is ill advised? And yet you would not tell them to protect both themselves and the one they claim to love? I call shenanigans.
Edward Farrars, as it turns out, was as enamoured of Elinor as she of him. But he had gotten engaged to Lucy Steele much younger, and to break that engagement (because of the fucked up social mores of Austen's time) would have ruined the young woman. Edward chose to honor his promise to Lucy (until circumstances relieved him of it). Had he not done so, not only would he have ruined Lucy, he would not have been the honorable, kind man that Elinor fell for in the first place.
In contrast, Willoughby, the Villain of sense and sensibility, pursues Elinor's sister Marianne. Here is the point though: Willoughby's love for Marianne is not insincere. But because he is selfish, he does not recognise that pursuing that attraction can only harm Marianne. This is what Elinor cannot forgive in him: that he put his own pleasure ahead of her sister's wellbeing. Austen understood only too well that to be in love with someone, is not the same as to care for them.
If you wish to do well by people, you cannot rely on the lightning strikes of passion to guide you to goodness. Austen knew this, Tolstoi knew this, Shakespeare knew this. Scientists should remember it too

Thursday, 21 January 2016

On hard choices

A propos of nothing in particular.

My mother keeps her accounts in hand written double entry tables that would make medieval Venetian auditors weep. Her financial discipline is legendary (only a portion has come down to me). My mother's planner is similarly detailed, with colored blocks delimiting her time into discrete clusters. My mother is disciplined, strong willed, organised, and has been since she left her parent's house at 14 to go to a boarding school she was only able to attend because of her excellent grades.

At least five times in my mother's life, someone (her mother, her employer, her ex husband, her employer again, her landlords) has tried to take her livelihood away. Each time, my mother has doubled down on her organization and discipline. She has built a successful small business as a private tutor, and when necessary has expanded it to fill all available time so she could get money. She saves, she scrimps. She budgets her money and her time to the last penny and the last second. She doesn't give up, and so far, she has won every time.

I have learnt a lot from my mother's handling of tough choices, both from what she told me, and from being around for three of them. I have learnt to calculate compound interest, to track every penny, to scour sales. I have learnt patience. I have learnt to read the fine print, to check for myself, to ask questions. I have learnt the importance of rigor and discipline in getting anything done, and to never assume that things will sort themselves out.

I have also learnt other things. I have learnt never to trust what is not in writing. I have learnt never to put too much faith in the future. I have learnt that you should show up in court calm and collected in a sensible, freshly pressed suit you can barely afford to listen as your husband's lawyer explains that the house you both lived in and the education you both gave your children is too extravagant. I have learnt that you should not, under any circumstances, betray any emotion at this, though you may spend the next night raging into your pillow. I have learnt that when your employer looses track of ten years of your retirement contributions, they will tell you there is nothing to be done. I learnt that when you then spend two years tracking down pay slips from forty years ago, the lady handling the file that you have reconstructed will congratulate herself, and suggest that she really should come on a trip to London. I have learnt that you should say you would be glad to be her guide should she ever choose to do it.

I have learnt that knuckling down takes a toll. That going into crisis mode can become a habit. I have learnt your sleep can go to pot, and then your health. I have learnt that repeatedly getting screwed by people who are supposed to be looking out for you leaves deep wounds that stay fresh a very long time.

My mother never made us work as teenagers, and is always generous with her money. I have asked her why, and her reason is simple: no one was there to help her, and doing it on her own was hard. As she once observed to me when discussing her discipline and rigour "it might have been nice to know who I could have been if I hadn't had to be so disciplined and rigorous".

Mostly, what I have learnt from my mother is this. Tenacity, rigor, discipline, financial nous will help you in times of crisis, or when other people try to screw you over. But those efforts come at a cost, and one should not mistake the ability to endure adversity, with the adversity being a good thing. My mother is an amazing woman, but she would be the first to say that parts of her would have been better off without having to fight all these fights.

Pragmaticism is a necessity, but it is neither itself a virtue, nor a begetter of virtue. And tough choices, unavoidable as they may be, remain tough, and may leave us hard and hurt.

Monday, 11 January 2016


I came to David Bowie late in life. Growing up in the UK in the 90s', he'd already transitioned to Elder Statesmen of music stage. His classics were all pervasive, and as a cultural icon he was instantly recognisable, but like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and the Beatles, an intimate knowledge of his work was not required as a teenager. It doesn't help that all his musical offerings were judged by the critics to be inferior to his heyday, dismissed as the restlessness of an artist growing irrelevant. Listening to Heathen today, I have to wonder how world changing his 70s work must have been for anyone to dismiss that album as sub par. From any other musician, it would have been exceptional.
It was through his greatest hits CD that I came to a deeper appreciation of Bowie, and a greater interest in his work and career. It turns out I have a liking for restlessly inventive musicians that has over the years lead me to dive through the discographies of the likes of Tori Amos and Bjork. But, of course, Bowie laid the ground work, the basic template for these artists. Both Amos and Bjork play with his interest in personas, syncretic music styles, and vocal acrobatics.
Bowie has become synonymous with his continuous reinvention of himself, which pre dates his famous retiring of Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy, after all, was his second or third persona. There's been a lot written about the personas trick, and it's mostly been viewed as device by which Bowie could continually reinvent his music, to anticipate changes and trends from glam rock to psychedelia to electro soul to straight up electro. But I think there's more to it than just that. At least since the Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane change, Bowie's re-iterating transformations have been part of his appeal. The .gif of Helen Green's illustrations of David Bowie's changing faces that has been going around highlights our fascination with his reinventions.
Such free wheeling transformation is fascinating because, well, most of us don't get to deliberately reinvent ourselves all that much. There are a few moments in life when change is accepted (puberty, going to university), but by and large, we're expected to settle into some sort of stability, or at least of smooth continuity. Try coming into work with changed hair and a completely new style to test this out. And larger changes are more traumatic.
And yet, on the other hand, change, as Bowie himself noted in one of his most famous songs, is inevitable. Sometimes, life forces us into situations in which we must re-invent ourselves, construct new personas. Entering or leaving a long term relationship, becoming a parent, becoming an orphan. Becoming old.. Such events require some degree of reinvention, because some of the modes of existence  from our previous forms are no longer adequate. We can approach these changes more or less consciously, or more or less explicitly. Sometimes, we are unaware that we are transforming, until we realise that we are no longer who we once were. The risk here is that we change, but our image of ourself does not, and so one day we are strangers to ourselves.
As he was mulling over his affair with Albertine, Marcel Proust's narrator in the remembrance of things past realised how difficult it was for the version of him that was no longer in love with Albertine to understand the past him that was, or even to accurately remember what that person felt like. Memory is an active process, not a passive replay of the past, and so our current selves will tend to overwrite our past selves, declare them less authentic, less true versions of us. We are constantly engaged in a revisionist Whig history of ourselves.
The process of 'coming out' that gays such as myself go through in our modern western societies is an example of this process of active re-invention. In the standard narrative, the version of us before the coming out is incomplete, untrue, a cypher of the true self. And yet, this narrative never allows the actual pre-coming out version of the self (or several versions, I can count at least three for myself) to speak their truth, their experience.
I started writing a diary when I was 18 for precisely that reason: I felt my memories becoming less reliable as my adolescence ended and adulthood began. I wanted to leave a record of myself to myself. And sometimes, those old entries are like reading the notes of stranger. Things that are now trivial loom large, and dead ends of thought and growth long abandoned and forgotten are suddenly pressing and current.
In David Bowie's continuous re-inventions, we see a performance of our own lives, our own transformations. We have our equivalents of the man who fell to earth, Aladdin Sane, and even the Thin White Duke in our own lives. What Bowie allowed us to see was that we could be conscious of this change, and perhaps shape it at key junctures.
Our lives are being and becoming, until we become no more.
RIP David Bowie