I’ve long felt a slight kinship with Kurt Vonnegut’s character Winston Niles Rumfoord from his “The Sirens of Titan” novel, who one day had the slight misfortune of “running his private space ship right into the heart of an uncharted chrono-synclastic infundibulum two days out of Mars”. This had the effect of converting him into a wave function, so he would no longer be at any fixed location, but instead there was a certain probability at any given time as to where he might be found. And so it seemed with me, as for a fair few years I have tended to be teaching in Plymouth every spring and autumn, Paris in the early summer (as long as I didn’t leave it to them to make the travel arrangements), and the USA in October or November. I even worked out the percentages once!
However, this situation suddenly changed – twice! First, I was caught in what was clearly a superposition of quantum states, as for a bit of variety this year I had provisionally arranged to visit Woods Hole at around this time, only to find that I was simultaneously expected to be in Paris. I actually found myself thinking along those quantum physical lines, until then my whole wave function collapsed completely, along with just about everyone else’s. Suddenly nobody is going anywhere, so for the foreseeable future I shall be at the farm, at the farm, or at the farm! But at least I’ve been left at a rather pleasant location. And in full compliance with the Uncertainty Principle, I now know exactly where I am but I don’t know how long this situation will last.
Yes these are indeed weird times for us all, but in a strange way I think that they are also an opportunity for at least some of us, to do at least some of all those other things that we were going to get around to one day, if only we could fit them in. I’ve not been the only person in the business to remark that suddenly it’s rather easier to just knuckle down and “get things done”, so we’re all trying to make the most of it. Less talk and more action!
This brings me to one of my pet hates. English is a very “mongrel” sort of language, as its ancestry is, to put it politely, “diverse”, and accordingly it has an unusually wide vocabulary to draw from. But it can also be amazingly lacking in style! I’m steadily learning German, which I can now understand pretty well – although speaking it remains a rather different matter – and I enjoy the fact that it’s full of wonderfully expressive words like Götterdämmerung and Arschloch (sorry about that second one). And Dutch has some really cool composite words like papegaaieieren and angstschreeuw which are wellnigh unpronouncable even for a native (with that second one potentially causing considerable viral transmission). So what’s the best that this particular tongue can do by comparison?
Well, dear reader, I hereby give you what must be just about the ugliest word in any language, let alone this one, namely “WEBINAR”! It is truly cringeworthily awful, especially as this same language actually has the power to generate much more interesting ones (like “cringeworthily”, for example). I’ve been invited to a number of these things during the lockdown period, but because the word is such a turnoff it’s been correspondingly easy not to accept them (and most likely get on with something useful instead!). The cynical part of me cannot help but feel that it’s a way to persuade “head office” or “investors” that you are still sort of doing things even if nobody is actually buying anything at the moment, whereas fortunately we don’t have such “image” issues to look after here!
But of course, this IS a good time to update (or in our case possibly even write!) manuals and “how to” guides, and which may well have a video element, but I’d hate to taint those activities with that dreadful “w” word. Yes, we ARE still here, and we ARE getting on with things, but we really don’t feel the need to bombard you with a stream of ever more exciting emails about some sort of web-based “broadcast” that’s now only a few days away! And we are still communicating with people in our own particular way, as I suppose I’m doing here, and Jez our CEO in particular seems to be spending even more time than usual on the phone (with or without video), talking to real people about real current and future projects.
And I have no problem with proper “virtual meetings”, where a group of people get together via computer links rather than physically. Indeed, we’re regularly doing that very thing here at Cairn, although I do have to say that it’s not quite the same without the coffee and the cakes. However, such things can be taken only so far. In at least one case where a major scientific meeting has been cancelled, we have nevertheless been asked to continue to take a trade stand as before, at the same rates, and which presumably delegates will now visit on a virtual basis rather than a real on one during the coffee breaks. What other possible response could there be to such a generous offer, other than our payment for this enormous opportunity also being virtual?
This brings me to something else concerning these computer links. As part of my interest in the world beyond the sadly increasing insularity of the UK, I do watch a fair amount of foreign TV, and increasingly their news and current affairs broadcasts, so that I can see how those societies are responding to our current little viral difficulties. A further attraction is that their broadcasts don’t seem to rely to nearly as great an extent as the UK does on interviewing people at home via their laptops, which can be rather offputting, as these people often seem to set up their screens as if they are bearing down into yours. If you have a biggish TV this can be quite disconcerting!
Rather more fun though is to see what is behind them, as at least some people are clearly out to impress you with their local environment. If you’re an “artsy” person, then there may be some nice pictures or photos behind you, whereas if you’re some sort of technical expert then a backdrop with shelves crammed full of books is very much de rigeur. That can be quite interesting, especially if the interviewee is not, as you can at least have a stab at evaluating their literary tastes while they are droning on. However, the resolution of these video links is usually insufficient for you to identify most titles, although for all I know that might at least keep some of these people out of jail!
Everything usually looks so neat and tidy behind them though. Of course there’s an incentive to make a good impression, but in my view if you want to make a better impression you should follow Simon Schama’s lead and have a backdrop that looks rather more like this video capture which I show below. As his father apparently told him, “Never trust a man with a tidy desk!” That sentiment also reminds me of a previous life while I was marooned in those crazy Shell labs . The research (I use the term loosely!) group of which I was a part at the time was suddenly pretty much reorganised away, which for a while left one lab at least nominally run by just about the most uncreative dogsbody I’d ever met. The situation was beautifully summed up by one of their better scientists, who said “That man is now in charge of SOOO much equipment that he doesn’t know which piece to dust next!”.
And it should also go without saying that we’ll miss seeing you face-to-face at all those meetings that will no longer be going ahead this year. No Plymouth, no Paris, no Olympics, no Faversham Hop Festival! In fact it’s increasingly looking as if just about any other public gathering scheduled for this year isn’t going to take place either. These are strange times indeed, but at least the scientists are coming out of it better than the politicians. The days when one of the UK’s leading politicians could claim that the people had “had enough of experts” now seem long ago, although they were sadly real enough. The current political debate in the UK seems to be primarily about broken promises in respect of who said what when, whereas the real problem is that lack of planning has left us with not enough of anything.
I don’t want to get too deeply into politics though, since to the extent that science and politics don’t mix, which does seem to be a large one, I definitely know where my own colours are nailed. But in respect of the politics, a particularly ironic situation appears to be developing. It’s being quite convincingly argued that the UK government were too busy leaving the EU at the start of the year to pay sufficient attention to this little problem with a highly infectious pathogen, but now they are too busy with it to conduct proper Brexit negotiations before their self-imposed end of year deadline. As ever, you just can’t make it up! But seriously, we really would like to know how to best look after our European friends from next year onwards, but we do assure you that we most certainly will. In the absence of any sensible progress (which is clearly the case so far), we are having to assume a “no deal” type of outcome, so we are planning accordingly. Wir schaffen das!
And the good news for me on that point (although not perhaps for you if you are one already!) is that I am on target for remaining an EU citizen myself. As related in my last blog , my ancestry entitles me to Irish and hence to continuing EU citizenship, and the application has now been duly made. The decision will be theirs of course, but the paperwork does look particularly well in order. I’d wondered if I might be able to get the application in before “Brexit Day” on 31 January, but I was still waiting for a couple of documents then, and in any case the British don’t officially become outcasts until 31 December.
So, in spite of having missed that particular day, I still had a fair amount of time to get my act together – or so I thought. Seems to me that applying to become a different nationality is no small thing; in fact, it’s tantamount to defecting (no, wait, it IS defecting). Fitting it into one’s normal daily activities just didn’t feel right somehow – as in get up, walk dogs, have breakfast, do emails, actually do a bit of useful work, apply for Irish citizenship, have coffee, return phone calls….. It was just too important to be done in that casual sort of way. Instead, I had to feel READY to flee across the border, although I almost left it too late! I needed to get some documents notarised, and I got that done and posted off to safety only just before the lockdown kicked in.
So from here on it should just be a matter of waiting, although I guess that’s something that most of us are having to be rather good at right now. And that waiting means that I’ll also have to wait before I can visit my ancestral part of Ireland for the first time. However, the wave function was already intruding here too, as my favoured time was exactly when I was due to be simultaneously in Woods Hole and Paris, so it had had to be postponed once already. And to add insult to injury, the local town of Killeshandra seems to be famous for the number and quality of its local hostelries, which I guess won’t be able to reopen any time soon, even though Ireland seems to be making a better fist of things than the UK has managed to.
But meanwhile I’ve managed to find out rather more about my Irish ancestry since writing that last blog. It turns out that the father of my Irish grandmother, Grimes Morrow, was the steward at Killegar House, and the family lived in one of the houses on the estate. The house was the ancestral home of the Godley family, who were later ennobled as the Kilbrachens and it is still in the family ownership. There is also a facebook page.
It somehow seems strange that I didn’t previously know anything about this, as even though it’s a scientifically rubbish thought, there is still the feeling that all this information should have been genetically encoded in me somehow. I wonder what it must have been like there in those days? It would be so interesting to know! Perhaps chrono-synclastic infundibula can smear you across time as well as space? If so, I must save up for one of those nifty new Tesla electric spaceships!