Remembering the People of Hiroshima & Nagasaki

August 6, 2010

They say that history is written by the victor. In my experience, history is far too often hidden by the victor. You mightn’t know exactly how many people died in Chernobyl. You might not even know that Chernobyl is in the Ukraine. There’s little doubt, though, that you’re aware of the disaster and the devastating effects of the immediate and longer aftermath. This is mostly because it happened in the old U.S.S.R. and the west made sure you knew the extent of the damage that resulted. The west cared not about the people of the Ukraine. They cared very much about victory in the cold war.

Today marks a historic anniversary. Sixty five years ago today, Harry Truman, the president of the united states, sent the enola gay to drop the world’s first nuclear bomb on a highly populated city in Japan, a country that had so callously and cowardly attacked them. The city was dense with military supplies and resources and even more so with innocent human beings. What kind of psychology underlies the naming of this bomb the ‘little boy’? Astonishing, right? At a little after eight in the morning approximately eighty thousand souls lost their lives. Many of them instantly disintegrated. Casualties are estimated at between one hundred and two hundred thousand lives directly from radiation. The radiation contributed to illness among the newborn for generations. Of course it did, somebody dropped an atomic bomb there. Where? A good few hundred kilometres from Tokyo.

Did you know that? Have you ever considered the fall out from these bombs? Not in the way that you’re quite aware of Chernobyl, right? The information was always there. Right?

Today the world is rifling towards a nuclear-restricted state. We certainly need to deal with the crazy men in Iran, Pakistan and North Korea. It gives me hope that successive presidents of the United States are at least attempting to denuclearise the military. But I still fear that my children’s world will be forever wounded by what looks ever increasingly likely to be a third world war.

President Obama today sent a representative of his government to Hiroshima for the memorial service. The impact of this extraordinary gesture should not be underestimated or lost, no matter what Paul Tibbet’s son declared today.

You were aware, of course, that an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and contributed massively to the end of the Second World War in the pacific. You were likely taught of this incident, depicted as a glorious victory. There are lessons we should learn from both great wars. And they are lessons of persons perished. We should never again let this happen.

In a few days time another anniversary will take place. Maybe you’ll take a minute to remember the people of Nagasaki. Don’t think about mushroom clouds. Or glorious victories. Think about a similar number of our fellow humans dead. Disintegrating. Imagine it was your people. Your family.  Just maybe, if ever our world leaders attempt to do this again, you’ll join me in saying no.

In remembrance of all souls lost during each and every war that has been fought in our world. May our children reach a place where lives are not lost in this fashion.

Today I met an Anti-Semite

June 1, 2010

Today I met an anti-Semite….I was as astonished and angry with the bigot as I had ever been in my life. I still can’t quite believe it. But, we’ll get back to that

There is so much access to history these days. One can spend a lifetime devouring texts describing in minute detail the events of the distant, far and near past. One of the real challenges for both reader and writer is to form an appreciation and understanding of the context. How the events that happened could have ever occurred in a world like ours. How nobody sounded an alarm bell for the horrors that punctuate our past. I wonder how my Grandfather would express his memories of the war with England, the emergency we labelled the second world war and then the awesome power displayed in the six day war. But pick up any newspaper of merit today and you can see a world in chaos. And I wonder how I will explain what is certain to unfold to my kids.

You couldn’t make this up. If you did, nobody would credit it.

In Malawi this weekend the largest NGO in the world, the UN, was joined by every western power with any influence in that place, to secure the release of the two men jailed for having a homosexual relationship. Their fourteen year hard labour sentence was pardoned by the president under direct intervention by the UN secretary general. With no shame the president of Malawi stated that there was nothing wrong with this original sentence and that these men would be re-imprisoned should they continue their relationship. I found myself conflicted. Should we be delighted that human rights prevailed for two individuals or still disgusted by countries harbouring such laws? I take heart that, at least in some places in the world, wrong-doers can be forced by good people to undo their horrors. Not so in Israel, where it appears that one may be able to commit any crime and be left unpunished.

Malawi is sickening. But thankfully there are places in the world like the UK, where a minister was forced to resign this weekend for unlawful expenses claims rather than his homo-sexuality, all of which emerged at the same time. A person should be punished for being corrupt but not for being gay.

Nothing else in the world today was as prominently reported on as the Israeli storming of a humanitarian aid flotilla, which resulted in the death of fifteen people, according to the latest reports. What interests me is how history will treat this incident. I look at this flotilla and recognise it as a symbol of peaceful protest that was potentially mighty enough to bring down the Israeli blockade of Gaza. But if these people choose to attack the Israelis who stormed this boat then they have made a dreadful mis-calculation.

The press is astonishing today. The Israeli newspapers carry stories that the humanitarian ships ‘came prepared for war’ and that these aid workers de-armed the commandos. Now hang on a second. They are commandos! If you want me to believe that they were over-whelmed by the force they encountered on the flotilla then I want to see evidence of the commando-comparable training that these aid workers underwent before the attack. Israel may feel we are stupid, but we’re not that stupid, Sirs, we’re not that stupid. These are elite and fully trained members of one of the most advanced militaries in the world. They had weeks to prepare for this event, for advertising its arrival was the whole point. Their superiors knew the whole world would be watching. And then people died. Interestingly, many western paper editors didn’t notice that these people were human beings that were murdered. They simply refer to the event as a horrendous PR day for Israel.

If at all possible Israel will find a way to wriggle out of this, while the world writes reports. Once again the enemies of Israel will learn a lesson: we can kill thousands or just fifteen, white or Arab, we can do as we wish, we are Israel.

In the back corner of the newspapers today one story hid. There’s a very dangerous man in this world and all the satires don’t seem to generate awareness that he must go. It’s not enough for China. Sure, North Korea blew up the South Korean submarine but no worry. It doesn’t care enough to publically condemn them. But how could it? China watches on a daily basis across the border. The people of North Korea are suffering far longer than those poor souls who were lost on that submarine. Their lives deserve to be recognised too. This man has very serious weaponry and is not fearful of using them. Yet China doesn’t mind, too much.

In the context of such enormous events the story of an individual can easily seem paltry. But this should never be allowed to be the case. Today the archbishop of Nigeria had his resignation for having broken his vow of chastity accepted by the cardinal rottweiler. Interestingly, the fact that this vow was broken via a ‘relationship’ with a fourteen year old girl was not a matter for resignation. Reading between the lines, this child continued to be abused by this man until she was an adult, at which point the entire abuse became ‘a relationship’. As such ‘there was no evidence of child abuse’. Enough of this! A child is not capable of having a relationship, under any circumstances. But apparently there’s a god somewhere who doesn’t care that you forced yourself upon a vulnerable young girl but only that you had sex when you said you wouldn’t. No sir, I don’t think so.

Today Israel murdered fifteen members of a flotilla bound for Palestine with what we have every reason to believe was a purely humanitarian cargo. In the aftermath everyone I met was angered. The Irish Taoiseach and Foreign Minister were strong in their condemnation. Remember, we haven’t even got the report back on the use of Irish passports by mossad. The Israeli ambassador in Ireland tonight announced that he was not ashamed of what had happened. That was calm compared to the other statements from Israel. He said that Ireland would have done the same thing. Actually, we would have taken in this flotilla, fed and watered the crew and announced to the world’s press that we are listening to the concerns of these peaceful protesters. We understand conflict over territory very well in this country, Mr Ambassador, and we never stormed a humanitarian aid group to my knowledge.

I was heartened as country after country of merit, which off course excludes the US when it comes to matters Israeli, came out to condemn what took place in international waters today. The US is a tricky one. In the US it is not about right versus wrong but republican versus democrat in the up-coming half-term elections. It seems that for the US voters murder is not murder when the victims are non-US citizens. Thankfully, the voters of much of the rest of the world are still distracted by right and wrong. I’m starting to believe that the world might not take this one lying down.

And in the background the Elders met to discuss the development of Africa. Mandela, Tutu, Carter, Robinson. Such wonderful persons, such a contribution to the world. What must they have thought as they learned of the news.

But then I met a man who said the most dreadful anti-Jewish sentence possible. I wouldn’t dishonour Jewish people by repeating it here. But needless to say, it was disgusting anti-Semitism at its worse. I was angered and sickened and left him in a clear understanding that there was no place in our world for words like that. I was astonished that people like this existed in our world today. I still can’t believe it. There is no justification for this. No matter how much you disagree with Israeli foreign policies, decent people do not do that. You are the worst of the worst in this world. How dare you, how dare you!

After the first great war the world believed that a forum for settling international disputes was required and generated the League of Nations. The League proved useless against the rise of the Nazis. So the world created a new version of The League, The United Nations, with one major difference: the UN would have a military arm. Since then we have seen the two sides of the UN. For certain countries the UN is a massively influential NGO, particularly when it comes to Human Rights. For others, the UN is an organisation that can be hamstrung with bureaucracy at any time by use of the infamous veto. I fear that this lesson may only be fully appreciated after another great war.

There is quite possibly a storm coming. And if we survive my children will ask me, Dad, how did this happen? I’ll look at them and try to explain the chaos of the time. The circumstance from one corner of the world to the other. But really, I won’t be able to explain the most important part: why not enough people choose to say No, not enough people decided to say No.

Gandhi Policy is Thankfully Ignored in Cork But Sadly Missing in Listowel

May 24, 2010

A few months back an extraordinary situation unfolded in a far from extraordinary town in a rural part of Ireland. The situation punctuated the conviction of a man for the sexual assault of a young lady. Just before and after the sentencing took place a crowd emerged. When I originally read this story I assumed that I was about to be told about the convict being attacked by an angry mob. Far from it.

The crowd was there in support with the convict. This might be considered loyalty for a dear friend or relative, I guess? I don’t approve of what you did but you’ve shown remorse for this horrendous mistake and I shall stand by you? They hugged and back-slapped, shook hands and shared words of support.

This was a man who has not shown remorse. Who denied the incident to the end. Whom a court decided drugged a young lady, took her to a secluded place and sexually assaulted her. Sexual assault is one of most horrendous of crimes. Let’s not understate this.

I’m not interested in this convict. I’m interested in the action of his supporters and the people of Listowel.

Now catholic priests don’t have a leg to stand on in the Ireland of 2010. And the guy who went to the court to embrace this convict led down every catholic in the world. I somehow don’t remember that part in the bible. Counselling a man who feels he was perfectly right to sexually assault a young lady in the dead of night.

What emerged during and after this case was that a large proportion of the Listowel community had hounded and harassed this lady. This poor victim. From the moment she reported the crime this continued. Our country was divided once again. People in Listowel in support of the convict. Every other person outside of that town in support of that victim. I mailed the rape crisis centre in Kerry to pass on my support to this young lady and was joined in thousands of Irish people, the vast majority of whom were from outside Listowel.

And so the situation calmed. Or so we thought.

Today’s Irish Independent reported that this victim continues to be harassed in her home in Listowel. Several incidents have taken place, involving the door of her home being kicked down and her side entrance being forcibly opened. It took some time but the council have now provided her with extra security locks and flood lights. Gardai, the Irish police force, are reportedly supportive and I hope they bide their time and take those responsible down.

The Gardai get an awful lot of slack when they make mistakes. I guess that’s true of all police forces? Well this week I shall be mailing the Garda Ombudsman and the head office of the Gardai to congratulate them on a wonderful job last Friday evening.

In the county bordering Listowel, an armed man walked into a bar and threatened staff and customers with deadly force. A newly formed, armed wing of the Garda happened to be in the area and were quickly on the scene. They entered and were threatened by the gun-wielder. The Garda made the decision to shoot this man and did so without placing his life in danger. The man is in a stable condition in hospital.

In the Ireland of 2010, a police officer shooting a criminal remains an extraordinary event. These brilliant Gardai handled this situation with control and due care for the assailant, the customers and themselves. They are a credit to the force and should be commended for their work. In my opinion we have no right to say No when No should be said if we do not say Yes when Yes needs to be said.

And then a parallel stuck me.

Should the harassers in Listowel be allowed to inflict this undeserved punishment upon the young lady that was sexually assaulted? If someone kicked in your door? If this continued? If this was reported to the authorities and they were unable to collect enough evidence for a conviction?

A gentle Indian man once wrote a letter to the government of the British Empire. It explained that violence should not be met with violence. His reasoning? ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’.

Gandhi showed the world the power or an unarmed group or peaceful protesters who stand up and say No! The Listowel situation shouldn’t be met with vigilantism, in my opinion. But there are other options. There must be decent people in Listowel, lots of them. People who can stand up and say No!

Malawi Solidarity With the HomoHatred of the Catholic Church

May 22, 2010

I feel powerless and I despair. How is it that so many injustices populate the twenty-first century? And how is it that so many of us feel that no action we could take could make any difference? We see activists around us making valiant efforts to change the world for the better. Often to little immediate effect. But we can inform ourselves. And we can say no when no needs to be said.

Ireland, my home, was a theocracy for many years. In the 1930s our leader, An Taoiseach, Eamon deValera wrote a new constitution for a nascent nation. This was proofed by the head of the catholic church in Ireland, a fact that astonishes many Irish people today. But in the Ireland of the 1930s, sales to the Irish people had to be wrapped with a Vatican Shroud and topped with the bow of Sunday homily support.

In the last twenty years this has changed. In 1991 we were first allowed to purchase barrier contraception without a prescription from a general practitioner. And today our government is moving towards the legal recognition of same sex marriages. This is supported by many people in Ireland, but perhaps not the majority of voters? No matter. One of the wonderful aspects of European legislation is human rights law. It doesn’t matter whether you dislike homosexuality. We Europeans recognise the right for any two adults to be have a relationship. To receive the same legal rights, regardless of the gender of those involved. It may not be utopian yet, but we’re getting there.

I was astonished this Wednesday! An article on the bbc website reported that a judge in Malawi had jailed two men due to their homosexuality. I was stunned to read that the judge had imposed a 14 year hard labour sentence! I was further amazed to hear the basis for this sentence: to keep these men away from Malawian society and to place fear in the hearts of all. I was finally saddened to silence by the HomoHating taunting of ordinary Malawians as these men were taken away to prison.

Thankfully, I was heartened to read the response of the United States and United Kingdom governments, though the Irish response is noticeably absent to date. Both governments reacted with astonishment. However, one can be certain that no action will be taken against Malawi for this despicable act.

Interestingly, many of the HomoHaters in the world believe they are going to heaven. One religion professes that same sex relationships are the basis for paedophilia. Yes, it would be hilarious if not so bigoted. Another professes that a camp person should be beaten with a stick day after day until they come back one day de-gayed and thank you for curing them. It appears that HomoHatred is their way to heaven.

This week was also defined by several articles relating to the Pope. I held up such hope for this guy. He once stood in the site of the World Trade Centre in New York City and apologised to the victims of child abuse committed by members of the catholic church in the United States. I held out such hope.

This week also embraced the one year anniversary of the Ryan report. This publication detailed an astonishing collection of abuses committed by members of the catholic church upon children in Ireland. Some of us protested by signing the book of support for the victims of this abuse. Some of us protested by refusing to go to church. Some of us protest by letting no pro-church comment go unchallenged. I just don’t understand. The vast majority of people who attended catholic mass one year ago continue to do so today. In doing so they applaud and legitimise the churches’ response to this holocaust, as I believe it will one day be recognised. Perhaps I’m being very naive, but I believe that many of these assailants will be successfully prosecuted in the Ireland of the twenty-first century. We’re not prefect but we’re not Malawi.

Of course this is about money. If the church admits responsibility then it will have to financially compensate each and every victim. So from the Pope to the person who still attends church without protesting, money is placed before justice for abused children. The irony of the next newspaper article was not lost on me. A Bishop in Northern Ireland is reported to have spent a week visiting different parishes to perform confirmation ceremonies for catholic children. This guy is reported to have asked each set of these children to donate some of the money that is traditionally received though confirmation gifts to the church! No protest of any kind is reported to have taken place in the church. No doubt upset parents felt they should not ruin their child’s special day any further. This is totally understandable. But yet will they return to church next weekend without a word of protest?

In Portugal this week the Pope stood up and pronounced that same sex marriage is a threat to the very existence of the Universe or something. It was typically HomoHating, the man is consistent. I think your organised protection of multiple child abusers might be more of a threat Sir. Shame on you.

The Pope no doubt sleeps soundly in his bed tonight, secure in the knowledge that his system of HomoHatred is being fully supported in Malawi. Perhaps he’ll pay them a visit some day soon to celebrate the incarceration of those without sin.

The words of the enlightened are so often ignored by those who profess to support them the most. There is one religious text that can be summarised in one line: Love one another as I have loved you. There’s another text too, which can be summarised in one sentence and should be adhered to by anyone who proclaims that they work in God’s name: God is always watching.

Footnote: On May 29th 2010 international pressure resulted in the pardon of the two Malawians convicted for homosexuality. Please see the post related to this, which will be entered shortly. Mic

Credit Card Kid

April 19, 2010

I had a really nice time last night. When I was a boy my Dad took me to so many football games, which are many of the fondest memories from my childhood. So when I get to take him to a game these days I jump at the opportunity.

Last night was a tight four-point win by Leinster over The Ospreys at the RDS. Jamie Heaslip was again a warrior: tireless and bullet-proof in the tackle exemplified by an astonishing double-tackle in the dying seconds.

I remember seeing football games at the RDS when I was a wee boy. The RDS is a different place now. The transformation that Leinster rugby has managed is a credit to their organisation. The RDS is now a wonderful place to attend a game. Good facilities, easy access and a wonderful approach to making the spectacle child and family-friendly.

One of the mysteries of the big Croke Park games of my childhood was the turnstile. Inexplicably, my Dad could arrange for me to be lifted over the turnstile to attend the game for free. This was never explained to me. I was at one stage on one side of the barrier, then being lifted high and finally placed for a safe landing. We know now that every child was the recipient of such generosity from the GAA but at the time it was novel and magical.

Half-time was another moment of great excitement. Having watched the game with real emotion for thirty-five minutes you had a big decision to make. Which packet of sweets or chocolate bar would you choose today….. It was understood that this was not a time for gluttony. This was a wonderful treat for a Sunday. One to be pondered deeply. One to be respected. My Dad was straight as an arrow consistent in his choice of a single chocolate bar, much in contrast with the whims of my choices in sweets. One bag or one bar, what a treat!

Back to the game we went! There was genuine emotion now as it crept into the last quarter. Dublin football was our usual love. I knew not only every player on our team but most of the opposition. Meath were a particular nemesis at the time. Hayes, O’Rourke, Flynn, Coyle, Stafford, Dowd and so on. The rivalry and emotion was unparalleled in my tiny collection of experiences at the time.

About ten minutes into the second half last night and Leinster were on the attack. My Dad and I were stunned into a stare by the sight of a Leinster-supporting ten/twelve year old boy returning to his Dad, whose hand was outstretched for his change. A wonderful memory from my childhood, the change from the sweets money returned as part of the deal. This kid hands back a platinum credit card……My Dad and I looked at each other in astonishment. Had the kid popped across the road to pick up a new toy from the Volkswagen or Mercedes showrooms that adorn one of the main arteries to the stadium? The child sits down, gets comfortable and reaches for the platinum purchase….My Dad and I are on the edge of our seats. Would Charlie Redmond score the penalty or would Mick Lyons put him off…..We held our breath a second…..The treasure emerged and glistened in the setting sun…..A small bottle of Pepsi…..Different world

The Other Nine

January 13, 2010

I spend an awful lot of time listening to podcasts while out for the walks that keep me on the leanish side of powerlifting. I choose to listen to one particular interviewer who specialises in speaking with Irish citizens who have been successful, very successful, in their chosen careers. Only some of these were successful as human beings, spouses or parents in my opinion. Yet each and every one of their tales is one that teems with lessons. Lessons for the person who’s trying to figure it all out. When to make that strategic move. To foresee when there is an opportunity for success or, more importantly, no dice. I listen and learn from them as best I can and I ponder what decisions I should make and when.

Eddie O’Sullivan is the former Irish rugby coach. He uttered the sentence that I felt most enlightened in this respect upon hearing. I approached every job as the interview for the next position. Suddenly it became so clear. You don’t start behaving like the best in the world when you reach the world championships. You begin now. You behave and act like the best. Learn your trade. Pay attention. Develop. The obvious inference from Eddie is that you will reach your plateau as soon as you stop thinking about being better. It’s one thing being happy with one’s lot but one can still continue one’s personal and professional development at this point.

Michael O’Leary is the man responsible for making Ryanair the most used and profitable airline in the world, though criticised for his poor treatment of employee and customer rights. He talked about his childhood. He spoke about how he had an affluent upbringing but that at times money had been tight. His primary motivation was never being poor. He talked about how his career changed one day when he phoned up a client and suggested he did something dodgy with respect to his tax returns….he definitely wasn’t telling fibs then! Still, he is the CEO of the most profitable airline in the world and a man who revolutionised air travel, making it affordable to the average punter.

Bill Cullen is an Irish business man most famous for buying the rights to Renault cars in Ireland for one pound, his book about his upbringing in inner city Dublin and his role as the boss on the Irish franchise of ‘The Apprentice’. Bill talked about working very hard as a core value. If you work hard you will be the last person to be let go should redundancies be necessary and the first to be promoted when a position becomes available. He says that one should be up at four in the morning and on the phones soon thereafter, though many have ridiculed this in pondering whom Bill might talk to at this hour. Bill’s point though is well made. If you work hard you will often be successful. Bill is happy with his partner, Jackie, but admits that the numbers of hours he spent in work likely lead of the break-up of his earlier marriage. It’s impossible to argue with Bill’s monetary success but I found myself wondering about success and work-life balance. So there might be a bit more to it than just working hard…

We’ve all made decisions that altered the direction of our lives for better or worse. Some people play it safe. Others take chances. When we look at these chancers they seem almost reckless. But the truth, I suspect, is quite different. Rather than being afraid of making the change, successful people are afraid of the consequences of not making that decision. Of staying in the dead-end gig. Of that being their lot. Their family’s lot. Whereas one person might see this as a gamble, the successful see these times as the greatest of opportunities. If not taken, how could one live with oneself?

The list goes on and on. There seems to be at least one consensus sequence in their tales. Each made what appears to have been that very brave and profound decision at one point or, in most cases, continuously during their careers. Many of these involved moving to another country. In this there was a profound difference to the world I find myself in. In their earlier careers, they were almost all in the financial position to start a family and thus had this support when they arrived in this new location. I wonder if the science world would be better if they paid just a wee bit more. If they gave tuppance for a weekend of overtime. A few pennies bonus for publishing. Or just enough to live on as a basic salary. Simple gestures that might make a big difference…

A wise friend once said to me that only one in ten PhD graduates will do a post-doc. One in ten post-docs will become a PI and one in ten PIs will be successful enough to avoid struggling.

I sat last weekend with my best friend in Neil Connolly’s Lighthouse cinema in Smithfield Dublin. We drank tea and I contemplated the genius of moving this beautiful cinema from its previous location. The world didn’t make sense but somehow I felt surrounded by the dream of someone who understood. And as we talked it out, my dear friend and I thought little of the one in ten and wondered about the other nine and if they knew exactly what they were doing…..

Fisk’s Wisdom

November 5, 2009

 

Don’t send 40,000 more troops. Send 40,000 doctors and teachers

 

Robert Fisk, Dublin, November 5th 2009

Is The Grant Funding System Removing Creativity From PhD Studentships?

October 10, 2009

M.i.c.isms

There just isn’t enough cash to go around. I attended a seminar on grant writing last year where a study of grant funding was presented. Statistically, grant funding bodies in Ireland have the cash to fund only twenty percent of grants. This means that after all the substandard proposals have been thrown in the bin and there remains a group of perfect grants, there is only funding for twenty percent of these. A parallel study to this asked Principal Investigators (PIs) who are considered to be excellent grant getters about their success rates. Interestingly, these PIs reported that only twenty and thirty percent of the grants they’d written in their careers had been funded.

The result is that funding bodies must find some way of differentiating these grants to select the twenty percent to fund. So when we write grants these days we have to define each and every experiment that will be carried out. Every detail must be pre-designed, every chemical pre-selected. Should a grant not contain this detail it will be cast aside as a document prepared by a researcher who has not fully considered their project.

This has been compounded by an alarming increase in the demand from some funding bodies that researchers stick precisely to the detail of the grant. If the researcher develops a better approach or a new technology becomes available, this is deemed unacceptable as it was not detailed in the original grant. Any deviation may result in cancellation of the funding for the remainder of the grant. This might seem fair enough until one considers that if a grant is written today, it will be a year before the grant is reviewed and the awards decided and a further number of months before contacts have been finalised between the funding body and the research institution. Only at this point, one to two years later, can the studentship be advertised, candidates interviewed and the student appointed. In an industry where one can come back from a long weekend to find the entire research area has been turned absolutely by one publication, the idea that new ideas can’t be incorporated is insane.

A long time ago, in a lab far far away, I remember meeting my PhD supervisor. He had funding for a project. I was presented with a question. It was up to me to go to the lab and solve the puzzle. I learned from those with more experience than me and quite quickly I was bringing novel ideas to the project. I remember one moment when I met my supervisor in the lab and told him we wouldn’t be doing the experiment the way we had originally planned. He pulled up a stool, not ready to object, but ready to argue the merits of the new plan. I delivered one sentence. He smiled and nodded and walked away. I didn’t quite understand it at the time but now, as I supervise my own students, I understand what that smile was about. He saw that it was working. He was helping to create a scientist who was bringing new ideas to the project. Not just the physical skills to carry out the experiment but the intellectual skills of experimental design and analysis, hypothesis development and design.

I started working with a new student this week. The first thing I did was print out a copy of her grant, e-mailed her an electronic copy for her records and sat down with her to talk about the experiments. Over the next couple of days I realised that this was what the department was now doing with all its PhD students. It suddenly hit me. There was no avenue for creativity. Some of the PIs in my department actually threaten to throw students out of their PhD programs for deviating from the experiments! There isn’t enough cash to allow for extra experiments to be conducted and the experiments in the grant must be carried out exactly as described lest our future with this funding body be compromised. It hit me. The system is strangling and suffocating creativity. It directly produces PhD students who are discouraged from developing their own ideas. This, the very essence of the PhD in my opinion.

So as a supervisor who wants to create good scientists to send out into their careers, how can I help them to develop their creativity, their ideas, while appeasing the funding body?

Decisions: Decisions & Luck

October 4, 2009

When I look back at my life there were countless times in which particular happenstances defined where I am today, either positively, negatively or in a negative taken positively fashion. I wondered why these things happened. Was there a pattern? If so, could I understand it? Could I take the world on in a different way resulting in different outcomes? I guess we’ll see….

In pondering this I choose to use two models that involve only me. With these understood I can perhaps escalate to appreciate what happened with something as dense as a relationship, with two such individuals’ happenings to consider.

I compete in a sport at a reasonable level. I’ve had the same injury in each shoulder that required surgery each time. The first time this was not covered by health insurance for a variety of reasons. The second was. The first took two years to diagnose and treat, the second took a week. The first took two years to rehabilitate while six months after the second I no longer felt injured and continue to get strong every day. All of these improvements in time were a direct results of my trusted physiotherapist and I taking what happened with the first rehab, learning from it and making the second rehab perfect.

It would be difficult to describe the negative impact that the first injury had on my life. The frustration was endless. You wake up everyday and once again live with the fact that you are mentally ready to train, ready to go! But you can’t. If you train a little you’ll make it worse. We have work and hobbies for a reason. Our hobbies keep us sane. For me the hobby was a sport that allowed me to see daily, weekly, monthly and yearly how I progressing through micro, macro and mega goals. The frustration of not being able to address these tasks challenged my happiness constantly.

Where did this injury come from? I know for certain it came from a decision. A decision based on two factors. First, cash. Second, wanting to train around an injury. It started as a niggle. At the time I was not in a financial position to pay a sports doctor to assess the severity or each strain. I decided to avoid that range of movement to allow the niggle to rest. The niggle progressed through other ranges movement. Then I stopped using the shoulder completely and while training something else I tore both deltoids slightly. When the swelling went down it was clear that I had a serious problem. I was eventually diagnosed as having torn the biceps tendon from the inside of the shoulder. I gave myself a career-threatening injury because of a poor decision.

Some years later I met a girl and fell in love with her and her favourite sport, snowboarding. I enjoyed the week or two a year that I got away from the world and just boarded. I was now at the point where I could board and was learning to do more complex tricks. I spent some time in the park. I took a jump on the last day of the trip and crashed, tearing the other shoulder in the same way. When I think back now I remember several conversations about how many people hurt themselves on the last day of s boarding trip, due to tiredness and knowing there was no opportunity to make an attempt the next day. I also remember hiking down to the jump to take a look at the potential problems. That I was even thinking this way, on the last day, meant it was not the trick to do that day. Once again, I gave myself a career-threatening injury because of a poor decision.

Contrasting this, the best decision I have made in my life was to walk away. I had been offered a full scholarship to a top school for graduate work. Accepting this, I left home and moved away from all my loved ones to be alone in a new country. I immediately realised that for a collection of reasons I needed to leave. A purely professional decision, staying would have damaged my career incalculably. The upset was something I hadn’t experienced in my young life. Not that I was making the decision but the consequences of the decision. I returned home. The shame, the failure, the home-sick child. But my career grew on from this excellent decision. Having succeeded and lived away from home for several years I can conclude that I was correct. I still consider leaving this once in a lifetime chance my best decision.

I extrapolate this onwards through the various decisions of my life. I find that every circumstance I can recall culminated from an individual decision that I made at some point in my life. Work. Love. Friendships. Sport. Life.

Luck. I hear a lot of people talk about luck. Luck definitely exists. I occasionally play the lottery. The decision is that the insane odds against winning are worth a couple of bucks to me. But if I win a substantial sum it is due to chance. However, life is not a lottery. Each and every day we are faced with choices that allow us to make decisions. We can place ourselves in an environment where we are more likely to meet a compatible partner. We can place ourselves in an environment that can further our career. We can train not just hard but smart. Training hard, resting soft and taking out time.

My life is not as governed by luck as I might have thought. It is controlled to an infinitely greater extent by the decisions I make. To this end there is no point in my making the same mistakes repeatedly. The same decisions repeatedly. And then complaining repeatedly about the consequences. Blaming the world. Blaming other people. Blaming luck.

So how can I understand the decisions I have made? Sean O’Casey wrote a character whose eyes had a haunting way of looking in instead of looking out. In order to understand my decisions I’ve had to become self-analytical. I’ve had to be become self-critical. This is not an easy thing to do. No one likes to see themselves in a negative way. We will still make mistakes. But in doing so one can identify ones’ own mistakes. Once identified, one can endeavour not to make them again.

The world I live in is filled with randomness that we can not even attempt to control. But punctuating this are the aspects of the world that I have absolute control over. When I consider them more I come to the conclusion that I am an infinitely more determining factor in my world than luck. It takes courage to be introspective and self-critical. But in doing so we can perhaps move to a place where the decisions we make are more often the correct ones, the consequences more often those we desire and our world a resultant happier place.

Tales From the Legally-Threatened & Recessed

September 29, 2009

M.i.c.isms

I got a first in the post today. A letter from a man I’ve never met. Threatening to sue me. In fourteen days. If I don’t pay a fee that is due. And informing me that I will have to pay all the legal fees incurred. Which in this country brings figures to mind approaching hundreds of thousands of euros.

Now this letter is a mistake. I’ve been paying this fee in instalments as agreed. But this letter is impersonal and common. A blanket attack from a creditor. To a collection of debtors. And I just happened to be caught up in the blanket. No one is going to sue me and if they did it would be thrown out of court and they’d have to pay my fees.

So I’m not afraid today. Not concerned about being sued. I have the cash to pay the fee. I’m not flush. Far from it. But I have the few bob required. And I’ll continue to pay in instalments, secure in the knowledge that the average judge-type punter does not uphold court cases against debtors who are paying their bills.

But what about the people out there who can’t afford to pay? Those who don’t have enough money to pay all the bills in one month. Those in fear.

I live in Ireland. The land where the Celtic Tiger roared through a larynx of corruption. The bellows became a whimper and the land of the affluent changed radically. Where once graduates formed lines outside designer stores they now form lines outside fast food restaurants, begging for any positions vacant.

I’ve been relatively sheltered from this. My career advanced during this time. But no more than a persons career normally would following a successful completion of college and hard work over the first years of employment. I have a permanent job and my own home. The area in which I’m employed is relatively sheltered from the recession. We didn’t command insane salaries in the times of the hot air balloon nor did we loose immensely as the air gushed out. The government has taken some of my money away. I’ve had my taxes raised and a pension levy imposed upon me. There are luxuries in my life but I have cut almost all of them out. I’m not floating in money but I’m ok.

I regularly pass the welfare lines for the unemployed in the city. I am now wary of asking a person I meet about their work, for often their work is gone. I don’t patronise these people. I feel genuine empathy for them and I am delighted that I have a job today. I work hard, to drive my career on and make sure I have as good a chance as possible of always having a job. But I am constantly aware of the fact that I am fortunate.

Today I arrived home from work and my world had been invaded by a very unsettling letter. This letter stated that legal action would be started within fourteen days if a particular fee wasn’t forthcoming. This led me to consider the plight of people who are receiving such letters and have no means of paying the bill.

These are not lazy people. They are not people who did their job badly. These are people who made lots of money for this country. People who made extraordinary profits for the companies. People who had been told that if you work hard you’ll be rewarded. In many cases these are people who simply want to be able to pay their mortgage and give their kids a decent upbringing at the same time. People who feel that because they worked hard in college and then in their job that their careers were safe. We were told that certain purchases could end up as negative equity in the short to medium term, which we accepted when investing for the long-term. I read articles by economists who spoke positively and negatively about the economy. But I don’t remember being told that fifteen to twenty percent of my salary would disappear overnight. I don’t remember being told we would be taxed through a recession. That doesn’t work we were told. No country would be so stupid. Yet, for now, we live in one that is. I read and listened. And so did the people on the unemployment register today. The people who received those threatening letters today. The people who are just trying to send their kids to school. Yesterday they were in my world but now they’re in my thoughts.