Friday, December 16, 2011

At last......

Our 5-YEAR REPORT can now be downloaded here. Packed full of awesome action, gorgeous graphics, heart-warming heroics, petrifying press releases, regal revelations and luscious lists.

The Problem with Cellulosic Ethanol

Here's a recent article by Leo Williams on some of our calculations regarding cellulosic ethanol - this is about lignin clumping together.

Friday, December 2, 2011

High Productivity - an Aging Phenomenon?

The soccer field is so frustrating. With age I have learned exactly what to do on the field but physically am no longer capable of actually doing it. Meanwhile the young punks mindlessly whizz by and crash out of bounds. Is it the same with science?

The conventional wisdom has been that scientific productivity dwindles with age - brilliant young scientists making outstanding conceptual leaps. However, recent work suggests that this is not the case, and that prime productivity is maybe around 50 years old.

Well, I'm beginning to come round to the idea that older folks maybe aren't as clapped out as we all used to think. For example, members of our center had the pleasure this last month of lecturing on "The Molecules of Life" to ORICL - the Oak Ridge Institute for Continued Learning. The class was mostly retired scientists and engineers and, let me tell you, they were the liveliest bunch of students I have lectured to in quite a while. This begs the question as to whether they were always that engaged or have perked up with the advancing decades. I know the latter is true of myself - the reason I interminably interrupt and yap about in seminars others give is experience - whereas 30 years ago I could understand hardly anything scientists were talking about, these days it comes much more easily, and I think the same may have been true of our ORICL audience. And some scientists I know keep working for ever and ever, it seems. Rita Levi-Montalcini, a 102-year-old Nobel winning scientist (pictured above) said: 'Above all, don't fear the difficult moments - the best comes from them."

So maybe instead of prematurely fretting about retirement planning, 51-year-olds like myself should realise that the best years of our lives are still ahead? This maybe true in science, but it doesn't alter the fact that I'd still like to punt those mindless young punks off the soccer field - if only I could catch them!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Who needs supercomputers? - Just use your cell phone.



As a specialist editor of Computer Physics Communications I regularly get issues in the mail, and was amused to read in the latest edition an article entitled "Mobile Phone as a Platform for Numerical Simulation" by Filip Sala of Warsaw University. Today's cellphones have about the CPU power of PCs of the late 1990s, and there are 5 billion of the pesky little things. Sala managed to use one to simulate light propagation in linear and nonlinear media based on the one-dimensional Schrödinger equation and molecular reorientation in nematic liquid crystals. So who needs supercomputers? - just get your daughters off the phone. Well, maybe supercomputers are easier after all......

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Imagine your computer working 18,000 times faster. This guy doesn't have to....

On the Volunteer TV web page. Well, I DO have to, in fact, because I don't actually sit down in front of Jaguar myself and use it - my co-workers, such as Roland and Benjamin, do. But the spirit of the article is what counts......

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book recommendation

Not often that you get a book recommendation from Club Mod, but this one - A Renegade History of the United States - was raucously entertaining. Thaddeus Russell shows how the dregs of American society - the slaves, drunks, prostitutes, Irish (!) etc - shaped many of the freedoms that we take for granted today - in direct disobeyance of the authorities, such as being able to go to a dance, wear what we like, play rock music etc. It also provides evidence against some of the conventional wisdom we have all internalized, showing, for example, that ex-slaves wanted to go back to being slaves, the deep unpopularity among the populace of going to war in World War II, and so on.

I loved it.

Monday, October 10, 2011


..and the Honorary Doctorate.

I'm back in Heidelberg and gave a talk at a Chemistry Symposium here today (as, by the way, did Stefan Fischer, Petra Imhof and Tomasz Berezniak of our group). Tonight, at the symposium an Honorary Doctorate was awarded to Carl Djerassi, known for his 1950s work on the synthesis of norethindrone, the first effective oral contraceptive.

This invention effectively divorced sex from reproduction - a truly world-shattering effect of science on society - and contributed more to women's liberation than has any political act, allowing millions of women to pursue a career without sacrificing a sexual relationship.

Now the decoupling of sex and reproduction is so highly unnatural that society never has learned how to deal with it. When sex was robbed of its primeval physiological potency, millions of years of evolution, that have hard-wired instincts and associated morals into us arising from sex causing babies, were, in an instant, rendered obsolete. This hard-wiring meant that society could not change as quickly, and, anyway, the sustained association of sex with disease persists. But what will happen should scientists eventually take the next step, eradicating the sexually-transmitted diseases, thus removing all physiological 'danger' whatsoever? Society challenges scientists, and then vice versa.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Peer Review, Again

Peer review can be exasperating, but also fun. A while ago I reposted some amusing reviewer comments from the journal "Environmental Microbiology". Well, just after that we submitted a paper for which one reviewer was raving about the work and the other thought it boring - chalk and cheese it was.

Of course I can't repost the above anonymous reviews here. But I thought it would be fun to compose two reviews myself, the first scathing and the other glowing.  Although fictitious, they are composed of actual reviewer comments about our manuscripts submitted over the last year or so. (And, yes, one of the reviewers, who presumably has a Ph.D., does spell the word "know" as "no".)

Reviewer I.

 Essentially, the paper either tells us what we already know, or makes novel assertions which are uncheckable and based on needless ad-hoc-erie. The authors should change the tone of their paper to be constructive rather than "criticizing" the work of other people - by comparing to such works (sic), the authors are doing themselves a disservice, as they should no (sic) that is really no longer acceptable. This submission will not help the reputations of any of the coauthors as it is really not at the level one would expect for three of the main authors. They should all provide a bit more guidance, mentorship and advise (sic)  to the apparently junior author, in the opinion of the review (sic) who is very familiar with the very nice high quality publications of Smith. The impression left on this reviewer is one of being cheated, as if only the first half of a fine review article was provided. Poorly designed and provides only trivial results, if any. The ball-and-spring model is too simplistic and I do not think that any of the conclusions can be reliable.

Reviewer II.

An important and sorely-needed contribution to the field and will have an impact, or should have, not only on practical strain development, but also in basic research into microbial physiology. The approach stimulates new ideas, is interesting and very promising judging from the results exposed in this manuscript.  The paper is clearly written, well executed, and richly supported by an abundance of supplemental materials. The work is thorough, complete and well written. This interesting paper provides new insights and suggests a scheme which has many interesting elements and should make an important contribution to the field. In summary, this manuscript is an important physical contribution to our understanding of conformational transitions in proteins.This is an outstanding piece of work: an exciting and unexpected discovery that may also be of importance to other biocatalysts. It is an important step towards interpreting neutron scattering data and obtaining quantitative agreement between MD results and neutron data. The simulations are carried out competently, the mathematical analysis is thorough, the results appear to be of very high quality and the presentation is clear. The work should be of general interest for all kinds of organisms. It provides a good example of this type of approach and has been carefully performed –

Hmm...accept or reject, I wonder?

Friday, September 9, 2011

UT Supercomputer Predicts Revolution

Well, I knew the UT supercomputers were good. After all, we have peered into the origin of life, probed biofuel barriers, helped design drugs  and done myriad other things with them. But I didn't know they were capable of predicting revolutions. Apparently so, according to this BBC report on data mining with the UT SGI Altix "Nautilus" machine. 

"S'ils n'ont pas d'ordinateur, qu'ils mangent de la brioche!":

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Reasons to be Cheerful..Part 3

The productvity (in terms of publications) of the UT/ORNL Center for Molecular Biophysics has doubled over the past year: from about 20 publications per year to about 40. And so we build, adding more bricks to the edifice resting on the great laws of science, laws that I see in "The Settle Bed" by Seamus Heaney (above):

" inheritance

Upright, rudimentary, unshiftably planked

In the long ago, yet willable forward

Again and again and again"

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Art of Splette

My ex-graduate student Thomas Splettstoesser is very talented in scientific graphics. The images below of his graced the front page of the ORNL web site and various other places. (If he sends me more I'll post them too). See more of his work here.

Mighty Microbes (again)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Americanese versus Britishese

Heads up, guys! (Take notice, everyone). While standing on the track (platform) in England a while ago I thought I'd spend a half hour (half an hour) or so writing about train travel. But in which language - Americanese or Britishese? Why not both?

Riding the train is an alternate (alternative) to the car in Britain. Trains run there 24/7 (all day, every day) and can be convenient transportation (transport), there being a million and a half (one and a half million) journeys per year. You do the Math (Maths) - that's a bunch (load) of trips. But riding on the railroad (railway) isn't always easy. Waiting on (waiting for) a train in Britain is oftentimes (often) the height of ridiculosity (can be riduculous) due to (owing to) endemic lateness, never permitting a sense of normalcy (normality), and sleeping passengers even risk being burglarized (burgled), but in the end train travel can be the least worst (just bearable) option (while not always the 'most best').

During my last train trip I recognised the waiter so I reached out to (talked to) him, asking whether I could get (have) a couple (couple of) newspapers. He said that, no I couldn't get them, he'd have to get them for me, and, anyway, he hadn't wanted to be disturbed and couldn't care less (could care less) so I told him he was nauseous (nauseating) and asked whether I had to write (write to) him to get them, and told him that I had just wanted to touch base (chat) with him, but, being English that last comment must have sounded rude to him because he smacked me one up the bracket, Queensbury rules. I apologised and said it was my bad (fault). He soon perked up when I started talking about soccer (football), and especially about the two-time (double) European champions, Liverpool, and their winningest (with the largest number of wins) coach (manager). A team of much physicality (physical strength) they are, that, I said, going forward (in the future) in upcoming (coming) years will surely win again, but not with the deliverables (potential things to be delivered) expected to be gotten (obtained) from their American (Yankee) owners leveraging (mortgaging) their stadium. He sighed and said that it is what it is (it is what it is). And so indeed it was.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Stardom, Sex, Scandal, Shame, Suicide and Soccer..

While playing for the Norfolk U15 and U18 soccer teams in the backwaters of England in 1975-1978 we players had no idea we were at the birth of the making of social history concerning sex, racism and sport - only years later did we learn that we were witnessing the making of the first openly gay and the first million-pound black soccer superstar, and that our coach was perpetrating child sex abuse that would trigger a worldwide revolution in sports management.

Justin Fashanu (above) was in our U18 team, then became the first black million-pound soccer player, and was the third highest goalscorer in the English Premier League in 1980-81. He was also the first gay to out in the sport, suffered greatly for it, and committed suicide in 1998 after allegations of an improper relationship in the US with a 17-year-old (although the charges had been dropped).

Nick Baker is now writing a book about him, and this is what I communicated to Nick about the quiet, tall striker:

"Justin told me he didn't really want to play football - he was more interested in boxing as a kid, having, I believe, won the English Schools championship. At the time it struck us as weird that a kid with talent actually wouldn't want to play football.

Later on I wondered how many gay boxing champions there have ever been - to me that concept in itself invalidates the perception that no gays can be tough, aggressive and manly, a perception that I suspect underlies the public distaste for gays in the US military.

But in our games on rainy, windswept, muddy Norfolk fields, Justin wasn't the hardest fighter, and would sometimes lose enthusiasm completely, shivering, standing around with his arms folded while the rest of us were huffing and puffing. But then, before anyone noticed, the ball was suddenly in the back of the net and he had put it there. It was like he played in a different dimension.

I remember trying in vain to mark him in practice games (I was a defender). In one of these he twice just popped out of nowhere, stuck a foot out and the ball was in the net. The U18 coach, Graeme Morgan, knew what talent he had (and let the rest of us lesser mortals know about it!) - and within a year or so Fashanu was the Norwich City side in what is now the Premier League, and scoring profusely"

We were just tough, scrapping footballing teenagers.

We had no idea what a star Fashanu would become or that he was gay.

We had no idea what News-of-the-World style tabloid controversy would haunt him later.

And we had no idea that our U15 soccer coach, Paul Hickson, would go on to become Chief Coach of the British Olympic Swimming team, leading them to their best ever performance at the Seoul games. His record-breaking 1988 squad had seven Olympic finalists and included stars like Adrian Moorhouse and Nick Gillingham, who scooped three golds, and silver and bronze medals.

And we had no idea that while we were playing for Hickson he was abusing young female swimmers from our local schools, that he would be doing this for over ten years, that 15 years later, he would be jailed for 17 years for the sex attacks on teenagers in his elite squads, and that his conviction would trigger an ongoing worldwide clean-up.............

Scruffy, scrapping soccer kids unwittingly at the budding of a nexus of change, oblivious to the gathering storm that redefined homosexuality, racism and child abuse in sport....

Thursday, June 30, 2011


I'm back in dreamland for a few days!! Southern Germany!
Sailed through the recession.
Unemployment 3.9%.
Low national debt.
No housing bubble.
Lipi graduating.
(625th birthday celebrations of venerable Heidelberg University. )

A beautiful wonderland!! With one exception: the ass-numbingly boring Women's Soccer World Cup taking place here. Why 16 million people would want to watch that drivel I will never understand. Only when the day comes that they make the effort to stop the pinball lottery and control and pass the ball a bit will it become worthy of a few more minutes of attention. The potential is there, of course, but they've got a long way to go.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gaspard de la Nuit

My preferred classical music tends to be from the first half of the 20th century - relatively complex stuff. Among these is my favourite piece of piano music of all - the evocative "Gaspard de la Nuit" by Ravel, based on three satanic poems: Ondine, Le Gibet and Scarbo.

The music is virtuosic, one of the most difficult pieces ever written, and I keep an eye open for new renditions of note. Here's a performance of Scarbo by Valentina Lisitsa that is simply electrifying..


"I have heard him and seen him again and again, Scarbo the Dwarf. In the dead of night, when the moon was a silver mask on a dark wall, the stars a swarm of bees with stings of piercing light; heard his laugh in a dark corner, and the grate of his nails on the counterpane. I've seen him drop from the ceiling, twirl and roll across the floor like a spindle dropped by a dark enchantress at her wheel. Did I think he had vanished? No. He rose up between me and the moon, high and narrow as a Gothic steeple, a great bell swaying in his head. And then his form utterly changed—now blue and transparent as candlewax, his face as pale as the molten drippings—and into the dark he's gone..."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Frank Munger

Just had an entertaining lunch at Ruby Tuesdays in Oak Ridge with Frank Munger, Senior Writer at the Knoxville News Sentinel. As all locals know, Frank writes the Atomic City Underground blog, the main source of news on Y-12 and ORNL. Frank has written several entries pertaining to our work and Club Mod, most recently here and here. I was impressed to hear that his blog readership is growing and he now gets well over 1M page reads per year. He was also full of praise for Tuan Vo-Dinh, who was a Corporate Fellow at ORNL and is now at Duke. Tuan's departure was a blow for ORNL, but every cloud has a silver lining, and as a result we inherited his capable secretary, Julia Cooper.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What Really Drives a Scientist?

People often ask "What really drives you? What's your grand plan? Ultimate goal?"

It's interesting to briefly reflect on how this, in the case of J.C. Smith, has evolved over time.

When I was a graduate student: I was driven by deep understanding.
Unsure, I needed to find out whether I could do scientific research.
I was hooked into my narrow theoretical subject: I didn't know it at the time, but, maybe sadly, I would never again master any subject so thoroughly. (Conversely, I knew little about anything else, and most seminars, even in my field, were gobble-de-gook!).

When I was a postdoc: I was driven by competition.
There was maturation and widening of experience, becoming a senior member of a group rather than a dumb 22-year-old grad student. This happened, in retrospect, so quickly and with me hardly noticing. But towards the end I was driven by the stressful, cut-throat fight for an independent position that consumes some researchers at this age. This was a time of rejection after rejection. For my present postdocs going through the same purgatory, I've been there and understand. In a tough social battle, the subject sometimes seemed to take second place, and winning, reaching the promised land, mattered most. In retrospect I should have relaxed and enjoyed the science more: the spectrum of opportunity was, and is, much wider than I had imagined.

When I was a junior group leader. I was just driven! A time of networking, lecturing, and energy.
As a junior group leader one is young and liberated, so endless creative energy is expended. Nothing stops you (except wise old institutional bureaucrats). I gave 44 research lectures all over the world in one year!
Here's where the diversification really picked up, spreading out into different areas of chemistry and biophysics. It's not the best strategy for recognition, but I was just too interested in learning about new subjects to stick to one narrow sub-field, and was also a bit of a daredevil, sticking my nose into projects of which I knew nothing (I used to be the guy who'd put on a green wig to make a fool of himself in a crowd just for a laugh).
I also learned during this period just how important the social element of science is. Many excellent scientists achieve little because they can't get on with other scientists. But I was gregarious - got on well with most people. So when some colleague came and asked how we could collaborate, I'd often dream up some questionable way of doing so.
A junior group leader needs to be able to devise research, supervise it and write it up. I always knew I could do that, even as an undergrad: it was actually doing science I wasn't sure about early on. In one's twenties and thirties in science, as in many jobs, one learns one's strengths and limitations, comes to terms with them, and devises a way forward playing to the strengths with the limitations on board. If that way forward is beneficial to society, you have a career.

As a senior guy. Driven by impact and quality improvement. No longer needing to prove oneself to anyone (or to oneself) in quite the same way, things get more serious and focussed. A range of techniques has been mastered and these, while still evolving, will probably form the core of what I get involved in in the next 10 years. So what happens now is a gradual, step-by-step expansion of known territories, simultaneously on many fronts. Herschbach said it's like rolling out a big red carpet which has no end. For me that carpet is more an area than rolling in one direction, with each co-worker working on a different part of the perimeter. I am helping one co-worker to push it out first on one side, then going over and helping another push elsewhere. A body of work expands, about 15 publications a year, and much of my time is thus spent trying to understand what co-workers have found then helping them formulate language that expresses as accurately as possible what these findings are and mean. Thousands of other scientists are pushing out their carpets, too, and their pushing helps unroll ours and vice versa. Where and how we push gets to be more important now: I'm driven by trying to improve the quality of I do, by applications to fields of importance for society, and by communication to non-scientists.

But sometimes I look up at a plaque on the wall at home, made and signed with generous thanks by 50 ex-co-workers. As a grad student, and even 5 years ago, I never thought about such a thing, but maybe that symbolic plaque drives me more than anything else.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Amusing Quotes from Reviewers...

..of papers in Environmental Microbiology in 2010 can be found here.

These are my favourites:

* Done! Difficult task, I don't wish to think about constipation and faecal flora during my holidays! But, once a referee, always and anywhere a referee; we are good boy scouts in the research wilderness. Even under the sun and near a wonderful beach. 

*This paper is desperate. Please reject it completely and then block the author's email ID so they can't use the online system in the future.

*The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style.

*I usually try to nice but this paper has got to be one of the worst I have read in a long time.

*Well, I did some of the work the authors should have done!

* I feel like a curmudgeon, but I still have problems with this paper.

* The lack of negative controls. . . . results in the authors being lost in the funhouse. Unfortunately, I do not think they even realize this.

* Reject – More holes than my grandad's string vest!

* The writing and data presentation are so bad that I had to leave work and go home early and then spend time to wonder what life is about.

Monday, May 2, 2011


On 8 August 2009 Norwich City, who had just sunk to the doldrums of League One (the English Third Division) were hammered 7-1 at home, the worst home defeat in their 107-year history, by the tiny minnows of Colchester United. That day of humiliation will ne'er be forgotten. However, the hitherto useless Board then miraculously saw the light, as they then summarily sacked the Norwich coach and (ahem, illegally) stole the Colchester coach, Paul Lambert (below), instead!

..............................Tough Glaswegian................

Now, 21 months later, Lambert has steered City not only to the League One championship but, today, to the English Premier League. Back to back promotions, on a shoestring budget, and trashing Ipswich twice (4-1 and 5-1) along the way! Surely the greatest achievement in City's history? Although 23 million pounds in debt, the club will now receive a slightly obscene 90 million pounds for joining the big guys.

Now in 2009 I did write a bitter, angry poem to accompany them on the way down to oblivion. But somehow poetry excels only in times of grief so there will be no lines of verse this time round.

But, ahh, the heart could sing like a Norwich Canary!

Watch out Chelsea, Arsenal, Man U: you're all in for a serious pecking next season!

Update: this is why teams have difficulty in scoring against Norwich.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Hmm...despite being a wizened old republican, I can't begrudge 2bn viewers their gooey romantic feelings.

Notwithstanding, I couldn't help but chuckle at some of the wryer comments.

One, from a London Times writer, capturing Miss Middleton's strategic hoist from commoner to royalty, described hers as a tale of “shiny new money systematically raising a girl so perfectly to a prince’s eye level that she is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.”

And then, a commenter in our own beloved Knoxville News Sentinel: "She has perfect teeth. She can't be British. I demand to see a birth certificate."


Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Tennessee State Senate

..a venerable chamber that performs sterling work for the people of the state (and the University of Tennessee).

However, were the senators sponsoring bills to be a little less clueless about what it is they are actually proposing, then certain birth pains would be avoided ....

Monday, April 4, 2011

Good Science Takes Time

One of the things about Martin Karplus that many of us impatient, ambitious young co-workers at Harvard used to complain about was how long it took to get one's work published with him. One of my manuscripts sat on his desk for 18 months then he lost it. But Martin is a perfectionist - for him a piece of scientific research needs time to mature, to develop, and he wanted to make sure all was rounded, completed, cross-checked, watertight. And so now Stefan Fischer, another perfectionist, has an article on haemoglobin with Martin just accepted in PNAS. The work was started in 1992 and so they have been polishing on it off and on for nearly 20 years. One would work on it a bit, then the other, then neither for a while. The result was a high quality piece of work. I'm sure every sentence was thoroughly thought through.

So why am I bringing this up? Firstly, to demonstrate the futility of funding agencies micromanaging projects and asking for immediate impact. This distracts from innovation. The impact of the money funding the above PNAS paper will be felt only 30 years later. This is not to try to circumvent accountability. Rather, that more emphasis on judging us should be placed on what we did years ago, rather than last week. And secondly, to my irritated students complaining about manuscript slowness after hearing nothing from me for a few weeks - think yourselves lucky, you might have ended up at Harvard! Happy 81st, Martin.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Setting Fish Free Bridge

This is the Fangsheng Bridge in Zhujiajiao, a Venetian-style Water Village near Shanghai that our host Dongqing Wei kindly took us to visit a week ago. Fangsheng is a 16th century "setting fish free" bridge, at the foot of which vendors sell bags of fish and turtles. Buyers then set them free in the water, thus smugly gaining merit according to Buddhism. (Did anyone ask the fish and turtles if they would rather have not been caught in the first place?).

In some ways the fish are an analogy to what China is trying to do with basic science - set it free. Funding for basic science is now doubling in the space of two years. Sounds impressive (although the actual dollar numbers will in the near term only approach those of NSF or BES, not surpass them). But judging by what we saw at Shanghai Jiao Tong University the building infrastructure is also in place. What seemed to me to be missing was a critical mass of top quality faculty. SJTU has started this recruitment, and we talked to some recent recruitees - all originally Chinese who had been in top positions in North America. Indeed, one of the natural consequences for the USA is that this funding increase, when coupled to the equivalent defunding proposed by the US Congress, should lead to a potentially large proportion of the brilliant young Chinese, of the type that have been dominating the contests for leading science positions in the USA over the last 20 years, preferring the exciting challenges beckoning in their country of origin.

Scientists are fish in bags - we can swim only wherever we happen to be set free.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Baron Cut-and-Paste

The German Minister of Defence resigned today. "Baron Cut-and-Paste" was found to have copied large parts of his law doctoral thesis without attribution. He lives in a castle in Bavaria with a beautiful wife, an aristocratic "dream of a politician" earmarked as a possible successor to Merkel. The poor dear is now undone by "Xerox-gate".

Will he now be consigned to oblivion? Will anyone even remember his name? Unlikely, given the length of it: Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jakob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg. He could at least take out the "Maria". That wasn't serious for a defence minister. I suspect Donald Maria Rumsfeld wouldn't have had quite the same clout in the Oval Office back in 2002. Yes: shorten the name as well as the thesis, mate. After all, few remembered the name of Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern Schleppenden Schlitter Krasskrenbon Fried Digger Dingle Dangle Dongle Dungle Burstein von Knacker Thrasher Apfel Banger Horowitz Tikolensich Grander Knotty Schpelltinkel Grandlich Grumbelmeyer Spelterwasser Kurzlich Himbeereisen Bahnwagen Gutenabend Bitte Ein Nürnburger Bratwurst Gerspurten Mit Weimacht Lueber Hundsfut Gumberaber Schönedanke Kalbsfleisch Mittler Aucher von Hautkopf of Ulm(*), did they?

[There's something about stories such as zu Guttenberg's that makes me feel illicitly warm and smug inside.......]

(*) lifted from Monty Python (It's the Arts).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi

Two Moments of Life beyond my control, on New Year's Eve, and yesterday:

31 December 2010:
My partner Stephi is diagnosed with pulmonary metastatic myxoid liposarcoma. Multiple visits to Vanderbilt University Hospital ensue. Thoracotomy February 15th. Chemotherapy with highest-possible doses of doxorubicin (the "red devil") and ifosfamide (liquified mustard gas) planned starting in March. Prognosis: tough, uncertain battle ahead.

21 February 2011:
Pathology results indicate that the resected masses were histoplasmosis, a fungal infection. No chemotherapy. No life-threatening disease. Prognosis: A slow but sure recovery from the pulmonary surgery ahead, back to a normal life.

Fortune: Empress of the World.

We are powerless against the whims of Fortuna.
But when her wheel turns in our favour, we must grasp the chance she has given us.

Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar, wrote:

"There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures"

Saturday, February 12, 2011

My Salary over the Decades

It's interesting to look at salary ups and downs over the years. Here I have taken my earnings at the time then converted all amounts into approximate 2010 US dollars by converting the local currency to US dollars using the rate at the date concerned here and then correcting for inflation using this site.

1973 (Aged 13).

First ever employment: A Sunday paper delivery round paid by the local newsagent!
Salary: $2.85 per morning for about three hours of work.
Comment: This lasted about three Sundays. I had to get up at 6 a.m., which really went against the grain, then stuff papers through too small letter boxes in doors. I would get it wrong, and then be exposed to irate customers who needed their Sunday morning papers. Furthermore, the coins earned just got lost - I clearly had no desire for the money and only did the paper round because it was the thing to do at the time.

1978 (Aged 18)

Undergraduate stipend: $5,500 per year.
Comment: In retrospect we were very lucky, us seventies British undergrads. Not only had we no tuition fees but we received a stipend. $4000 of the above was sadly removed at source for food and lodging, leaving $1500 per year which went exclusively on beer (not books). That bought a lot of beer because the student union subsidised it.

1979 (Aged 19)

Summer employment: $150 per week.
Comment: pulling live turkeys out of a lorry then hanging them upside down on a moving rail for electrocution. Not very considerate of our squawking friends I'm afraid. Paid for a trip to India later on.

1982 (Aged 22)

Postgraduate stipend: $46,000
Comment: In the money!! The UK funded three stipends per year at the Institut Laue Langevin generously to attract good students and because tuition was subtracted. In my case I registered at a department with small tuition fees (Birkbeck College).

1985 (Aged 25).

Postdoctoral salary: $24,000

Comment: Ph.D. leads to near halving of salary! Anyone know other examples of that?
Interestingly, I didn't seem to notice the difference. I remember I never even asked what the salary would be - just showed up for work.

1989 (aged 29)

Ingenieur CEA: $53,387
Comment: Standard starting salary for a French goverment "engineer." Creeps up very slowly over subsequent decades, (almost independent of performance I would claim). Similar salary to those halcyon graduate student days.

2006 (aged 46) :

German Full Professor: $96, 000

Standard German C4 professor rate, I think. Need to take into account generous benefits when really comparing with US equivalent.

2011: Well, all TN state salaries are published and open information....:-))

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cantona: Director of Football?

Well whoever would have believed it? Eric Cantona, here seen Kung-Fu kicking a Crystal Palace fan, has been named Director of Football at the New York Cosmos. Maybe he was chosen because of the deep philosophy he will communicate to the team? His proposed solution to the global financial slump was a run on the banks. And here's a favourite Cantona quote of mine: "Quand les mouettes suivent un chalutier, c'est parce qu'elles pensent que des sardines seront jetees a la mer (Seagulls follow trawlers because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea)". Important for young players to internalize these things.

Why is it that clubs think the best players always make the best directors? Surely Cantona will go the way of that other footballing great - chemical-crazed Diego Maradona - who, for some reason undeciphered by rational humanity, was chosen to manage Argentina for the last World Cup. Maradona guided the country to a 6-1 rout by Bolivia and a 4-0 hammering by Germany before leaving with the team in chaos.

9 megatons dismantled

Given that the 9-megaton B53 bomb recently dismanteled at Y-12 reportedly had the potential to flatten most objects within a 10-20 mile radius, and that Y-12 is only a couple of miles from ORNL, I'm kind of relieved that the mission was safely accomplished!

No, seriously, I'm sure there was virtually no chance of a nuclear inferno happening, although the workers involved would have had to be careful to shield themselves from the toxic materials. The operation also demonstrates that Y-12 has an important role to play in peace through nuclear disarmament.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Cut Everything Except Seeding for the Future.

Now for a somewhat political statement - I don't make many of them here.

As we all are aware, many countries have experienced large reductions of government income due to the recent near-global recession. Now, although I do appreciate that 'stimulus' measures can be effective, and I don't pretend to master the fine art of recession economics, it does seem to my simplistic mind that income reduction should be accompanied by reductions in government spending.

So the question would be where to make the cuts? Well, in this question I tend to think like an average household might. An average household would cut down on the luxuries while keeping the essentials, and would shore up their financial situation for the future. So that's why, for example, I don't think government tax incentives to encourage spending on luxury items makes sense when you're trying to stimulate a healthy recovery. It might indeed help lead in the short term to economic activity and an increase in GDP/employment etc, but in the longer term it would just increase debt.

So cuts need to be made in spending that does not promote economic growth. This, in the US, should include the big three: social security, medicare/medicaid and the military, which together make up the majority of federal spending. As for entitlement spending, certainly truly disadvantaged citizens need help to remain healthy and get back on their feet, and I'm aware that federal money spent in these fields is indeed immediately ploughed back into the economy, but this money arguably does not stimulate longer-term growth. We need to think creatively of ways of maintaining and improving entitlement care without throwing $1.2 trillion per year of federal money at it. For example, how to get more, healthier food on the tables of the hungry while spending less doing so.

We need to cut social security benefits and/or raise the age of full entitlement. And what was the point of the recent reduction in the social security payroll tax without transparent concomitant recalibration of the benefits received in future years? Live now, pay later.

The US medical system, which is one of the least effective and least fair among developed nations, needs to be revamped including (i) coverage for all, (ii) controlling costs and (iii) more competition. The system existing until now has been effective in none of the above. The recent healthcare act goes towards (i) without significantly tackling (ii) and (iii). Phil Bredesen's recent book "Fresh Medicine" describes how to do all three.

As for the military, in my opinion most of the wars fought by NATO countries since WWII have been at best ineffective and at worst disasters, and, by the way, have also done little to enhance economic influence. The Afghan and Iraq wars have wasted trillions. Certainly, our nuclear deterrent needs to be maintained, although we should continually work assiduously towards multilateral reduction. Also, of course any existing threats to Western society must be tackled, but this in an effective, and cost-effective, way: the present, dumb, invasion-based attempts at doing this have proven useless and painfully expensive.

So, it's across the board cuts, then, is it? Well, no. Government investment that is likely to produce clear economic return should be maintained. This means education, science and technology. Now, some people think that the government should keep out of anything to do with R and D - market forces will create the demand, stimulating private research. But the problem is that the financial system is skewed towards short-term gain, so private investment does not represent the longer-term wishes of the people. The result of this is that we are failing on counts that are of prime importance to us and our families. Why, for example, do we we spend $900 billion per year on the military but $5bn on cancer research funding? Think of the relative suffering families endure at the hands of foreign foes relative to disease. Admittedly in 1940 we had to put everything we had into defending our patch. But, today, are we really 200 times more scared of the Taliban than cancer? I wrote at length about this in a previous blog entry, and to some extent this paragraph simply reflects what was written there. Science and technology are the way forward for the military as well, and in protection against terrorist attacks. In this the British government has led the way in recently proposing huge cuts in government spending while ringfencing science.

As for raising taxes? Certainly: in one way or another for those who got us into the mess in the first place, ranging from those responsible for extreme leveraging in certain banks right on down to the many individuals who borrowed too much. For the rest of us? Well, even if we don't feel responsible for the sub-prime crisis and ensuing debacle, maybe we should all chip in a bit. Higher taxes temporarily to get the deficit down subject to the condition that spending be also reduced.
Maybe economists would crucify this concept, but it is, in a way, what an average household would do.

Finally, will any of the above happen? No. I can't actually see any of it happening at all. None of it. Can you?