Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A damp pilgrimage to Lindisfarne

I awoke before the dawn; as I dressed, a faint red glow seemed to emanate from the entire clouded sky. Dawn itself did not arrive.
By the time I arrived at the train station, I was already soaked from the pooled rainwater on the roads (and my own sweat - almost late for my train!). The weather was not improving. Should have stayed in bed, I kept thinking. Then, hurry up, you've come this far, don't miss your train now.
More rain along the journey - the sea was not even visible from the coast. I disembarked in Berwick, had a diet Coke from the station's single cafe, waited for the bus. There is only one bus service to Lindisfarne -the "Holy Island," home of the famous Lindisfarne Gospels - and it only ran one day this week. That would be, you guessed it, today. Thanks to the lonely nature of this island, and the unruly tides which periodically separate it from the mainland, it is difficult to get there. The bus arrived, I paid my return fare (I had but one chance to get there, and one chance to return, unless I wanted to wait for the next bus... on Saturday), sat, and waited. It was impossible to see anything from the shuttle save the small patch of road immediately ahead; the large side windows were all plastered with sand and seawater, and the rain kept coming. We were dropped unceremoniously at the single bus stop on the island, just outside a large shop where you could sample the famous mead.
I grumbled my way around; first a small fee to English Heritage to visit the remains of the Lindisfarne Priory (rather windswept and cold on a day like today) and, after lunch, another fee to the National Trust for the privilege of touring the iconic castle (did you know - someone lived there after it was a garrison?). It was wet and cold and miserable, a terrible day to be out and an even worse day to be out on an isolated island in the North Sea. Why did I come today? Why didn't I come last week when the weather was better? The wind tugged at my jacket and pulled my umbrella like a petulant child; unwilling to be placated, it wailed and screamed through the rigging of the ring of beached sailboats along the small harbor. But it only occurred to me as I stepped out past the shelter of a sandy bank and directly into tiny rain droplets driven until they stung like needles that this was precisely the day to visit the island. I suddenly understood.
For sixteen hundred years, this tiny island has been inhabited, mainly by cloistered monks, in weather just like this. They not only survived on this harsh strip of sandy soil that rises barely above sea level and is subjected to the full brute force of the harsh North Sea winters, they were able to create some of the most beautiful Christian works ever made - and here I was, unable to even keep myself dry, let alone a parchment! I was soaked to the bone, eventually conceding to the rain and humid wind as I walked the completely exposed mile between the minuscule town and the converted castle (of which the interior was surprisingly cozy, though humidity damage and drafty windows have plagued it all its life). My jeans had soaked up enough water to turn a different shade of blue. But these monks, they lived here, and they worked here, too. I was overwhelmed with the effort.
Even the myth of St. Cuthbert takes on an altered hue when seen in this unforgiving, damp light. Legend has it that Cuthbert's body, after being entombed for 11 years (in a process similar to the Jews, the saint was dug up after a predetermined amount of time to retrieve his bones as relics), is found to be in perfect condition, without decay. The story takes on a tone of believability if we assume it takes place somewhere arid; "unassisted" mummification is not unknown. But here, on this dreary, waterlogged island, for remains to be lacking any sign of decay? It's impossible. But perhaps that's the point. The monks opening Cuthbert's casket knew as well as I that it simply wasn't feasible for his body to remain intact after all that time. But the story wouldn't be a miracle - and the saint wouldn't be a saint - if this essence of disbelief is absent.
I stood on the upper garrison of Lindisfarne Castle, the melody of "Lone Shanakyle" running through my head, and learned what I would from the sea. Things I would not have learned had the weather been clear, the ruins dry.
Sad, sad is my fate in weary exile
Dark, dark are the night clouds round lone Shanakyle
Your murdered sleep silently pile upon pile
In the coffinless graves of poor Erin...
I boarded the return bus several hours later with a weary, clammy happiness. And just south of Newcastle on the train journey home, the rain dissipated, and the clouds parted just enough to reveal a spectacular sunset.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Scientific findings

This is a blog post about a news website article about a scientific finding.

Please, please go over to the Guardian and read this editorial. Aside from being absolutely hilarious, it points out the weaknesses of the current "methods" for science reporting.

Born in the USA, part 6

There should be little doubt that America is the current world power. Bank crises and war debts aside, the US dominates the world both socially and politically.
I'm not saying this to be boastful. I'm saying it because it's important to my point.
Last night, I watched an episode of Horizon about the frontiers of science and the "death of God." After two minutes, it was already failing to live up to any standard its name might imply. The show - a clip show of older episodes of Horizon (some from the 1970's... I'm sure that science is up-to-date) - was narrated, not by a scientist, but by a science historian. I should have known to stop watching when the very first topic of discussion was Galileo.
But I soldiered on, determined to learn something from this otherwise useless show, but about twenty minutes in I hit a major snag. They were discussing the Scopes trial, the Dover lawsuit and the teaching of evolution in schools, but making no effort to show that these were exceptional cases; in fact, the narrator even made a comment implying that all American school children, for decades, have been taught nothing of evolution.
Now, I was there. I know this isn't true. I was an American schoolchild in past decades. I realize that there is still something lacking in the way we normally communicate the scientific subjects to students, but to blithely gloss over the whole of a nation with a derogatory statement like that - and you call yourselves the standard of news reporting! Shame on you!
But here's why I stated before that the US is a world power. Not to say "I told you so" to anyone who thinks our education system isn't good enough, but to point out that the rest of the world is interested in our education system simply because we are a world power, and they hear about it constantly. Everyone in the UK has seen US television. Most people with televisions around the world, or radios, have heard news from the US, because it propagates like wildfire. We're the popular kids, so rumors spread quickly. Would the BBC even think to make an entire hour-long program about the curriculum in schools in Romania or South Korea? No. The world is overly critical because the US is so much of what they see, and yet make sweeping (and usually incorrect) generalizations because all they see from the US is the exceptional cases. If you lived in Oman and all you saw of the US was episode after episode of Jersey Shore, you'd think the US was pretty... well... expletive deleted.
I can understand why the Horizon episode ended up as superficial as it did, but I do not excuse it. The BBC, bastion to what the idea of information dissemination should be, owes better to its viewers (the UK taxpayer, myself included at the moment). Americans are not all inbred, uneducated hicks, just as the British are not all Cockney chimney sweeps.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

On fairness and the refereeing system

Recently, I have encountered one of those highly specific dangers particular to the sciences - being sniped by a concurrent publication.

While there is a great deal of collaboration in my field, there is also a fair amount of competition, arising mainly between facilities with similar experimental programs. This competition serves its purpose when approached in a friendly manner; results published by different groups using different facilities but studying the same reaction help to quickly converge on the real (physical) values desired. But it can sometimes lead to a conundrum, when two differing (though not necessarily contradictory) results are submitted simultaneously.
The authors behind these two manuscripts, both vying for a quick and painless publication, may - in all likelihood - be completely unaware (at that point) of the other's work. If no conference proceedings or earlier talks discussed the work, the publication would be the first appearance of it, and thus two as-yet-unpublished papers would have no knowledge of one another. But each goes to a different referee, and perhaps one referee is faster, more efficient, less critical or simply not on vacation at the time - so that paper is published first.
Now, let me tell you, it is an unpleasant shock to discover (while still waiting for your own referee to do his/her job) that someone has published results similar to yours at the same time as you. From here on out, you're already in the negative, because people outside will only see that the other paper was published first (even if you submitted for publication on the very same day). Even if your work is concurrent, your submission simultaneous - even, in fact, if your work was completed first - you now carry the stigma of being a follower. This is tricky ground to navigate, and it leads to a rather obvious question.

Does your referee have the right to ask that you incorporate the other author's work (or a reference to it) into yours?

In other words, is it fair that you be asked to reference the other author's work, when, were the (random) referees swapped, it would be the other author referencing you? You had no knowledge of their work before submitting your manuscript, nor did they know of yours. In theory, your work is just as timely as their work is, but this is not something that outsiders will see (as it will not be fairly reflected in the differing publication dates). And you, already being on the wrong end of the "leader vs follower" stick, are now to be asked for even more effort, which will seemingly make your own position even weaker?
There is a positive, of course. If your work is just as timely, but you are able to include reference to (and perhaps refutation of, as the case may be) their work, then your (finally) published paper becomes the one more often referenced, at the cost of one reference, on your part, to the other authors. But you still lose, in appearance, the contemporariness of the published results.

So what's the best way forward? This situation, while reasonably rare, appears to be a weakness in the current way refereeing is handled in publication. Maybe making publications only released once a month? Sorting by submission date instead of publication date? I really don't know.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Man, I love xkcd.

"If you need some help with the math, let me know, but that should be enough to get you started! Huh? No, I don't need to read your thesis, I can imagine roughly what it says."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The "facebook cycle"

I read a wonderful quote about a week or so ago about how facebook is a mirror; it allows us to focus on ourselves, hiding such narcissism under the guise of focusing on relationships. How many times have you heard someone complain, "so-and-so added me as a friend on facebook, but never talks to me!"? This led to the birth of the facebook cull: going through your list of online friends and removing them if they have seemingly ceased to communicate with you.
But what of the log in your own eye, I ask? You complain that they never speak to you, but when was the last time you spoke to them? A relationship cannot be one-sided. It takes two to tango, so to speak - it takes two to add one another as friends on facebook (even if someone complains, "but he/she added me!" it is worthwhile to remember that you're the one who still had to click "ok"), and it takes two to keep that friendship active.
Which is why I do not participate in the facebook cull. I have what is known in my inventive parlance as the facebook cycle.
I try, with a reasonable reliability and regularity (in practice, I'm still very bad at this, as I find it does take a significant amount of time), to contact everyone in my facebook friends list. To comment on a great photo from their vacation, to send them a link I think they'll appreciate, to write "Remember the time we...?" on their wall or even just poke them. And the response I get is amazing (because, of course, I have wonderful friends!). I hear hilarious stories, I enjoy fantastic pictures, I'm directed to the funniest and most sincere websites on the internet, and I get to stay in touch with people whom I consider friends. This is really the important point. These people are my friends, and I value that friendship - even on facebook - and so putting in the time and effort to nurture that friendship is important to me. It turns out to be important to my friends as well.
So the next time you're considering a facebook cull, trying contacting those people first. After all, if facebook really is about relationships, it means we're all in this together.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What religion should be

No one move
No one speak
Please don't say that it's just me
It's not just me

And even though
I won't forget
Just don't want this to end just yet
Not just yet

But if I had one chance to freeze time
To stand still and soak in everything
I choose right now

If I had one night where sunshine
Could break through and show you everything
I choose right now

If this is it, all we have
I know I've done all I can
If this is it

And we can't stop
And start again
We can't fast forward to the end
This is it

But if I had one chance to freeze time
To stand still and soak in everything
I choose right now

If I had one night where sunshine
Could break through and show you everything
I choose right now

Before the fears that I once had
Start coming back
And I can take the stings and stones and fire
'Cause I know you'll make it all worthwhile
And I ever time I thought it's over, ah,
You finally dragged me up again and again
Oh, please come back again
Oh, please come back

And I'm so scared
I might forget
Just don't want this to end just yet
Not just yet

But if I had one chance to freeze time
To stand still and soak in everything

I choose right now

If I had one night where sunshine

Could break through and show you everything

I choose right now

Before the fears that I once had start coming back

As is usually the case, enlightenment came when it was unexpected.
I hard a difficult time waking this morning - when the sun won't get up, neither can I. Regardless of how much sleep I've had, the SAD prevents me from waking refreshed and ready when the sun doesn't shine, and today the dawn was overcast. Mornings like this, my brain is as foggy as the clouds above the river; I switched on the solar-spectrum lamp, but it was too little too late. Desperately lonely music, songs of utter sadness, played through my head, unbidden and unwanted. Nothing comes together the right way on days like this; the sun was hidden, my teeth hurt from the grinding they'd been subjected to overnight, I couldn't get my hair right, none of my clothes fit properly, I chugged two full glasses of diet Coke only to nearly drop the glass; it was going to be "one of those days." I could tell from the moment my alarm sounded.
Walking through the allotment on the way to work (late, as is usually the case on overcast mornings when I suffer so), the sky still a back-illuminated grey like sunlight through dark, sheer curtains, a random Newton Faulkner song came on my iPod. And I was struck dumb, fastened to the spot. In his simple, guitar and soft voice way, he said: "if I had one chance to freeze time, to stand still and soak in everything, I choose right now." And that's exactly the point.
Religion should not be dogma; it should not be atonement or salvation or grace, or, at least, it should not try to define these things. Religion should be a way of experiencing the world, a certain light in which to view everything around you. Being able to see a world, which on the surface (both physically and psychologically) is only grey, as something beautiful and magnificent and worthy of freezing into eternity - "I choose right now" - that is true religion. Every moment is worth choosing.
The clouds burn away. The sun's out.