Monday, January 28, 2008

Barber shop

Getting a haircut used to be something I’d look forward to as a kid growing up in the then sleepy town of Bangalore. It was the main event of a lazy Sunday. You’d go to the barber shop, and settle down on a bench while waiting your turn. The place would be typical, surrounded by mirrors, with a display of rather exotic looking colored liquids in bottles, and plenty of colored bottles with water in them, with a siphon-spray attached. And the barber shop would have its clear hierarchy. You’d know in a moment who owned that establishment. Usually middle aged, with a dash of white amidst mostly black hair, a bristly moustache and an air of satisfaction as he’d carry out conversation with his customers, pass judgment on the happenings in the country, and manage to subject the barbers working for him to some of his strong opinions. Meanwhile, a TV (which was black and white when I was a little kid, but soon became color) would have either the news or a cricket match on, while my turn would finally come, and I’d be treated to delightful splashes of water, the steady snipping of scissors as they removed a load off my head, and finally the all relaxing head massage (“champi”). Born again, I would return home delighted with the proceedings of the day.

Those seem like distant memories, and many years have gone by, with a haircut becoming something of the mundane. TGF or Supercuts are fine, and my haircuts are satisfactory, but somehow it had become too much of a sterile routine. Go, put name on the waiting list, wait for name to be called, get a “number 3” haircut, pay, tip, and leave. Sure, there was nothing bad about it. In fact, it was a streamlined process, and rarely took more than 25 minutes (from the time I reached the store and put my name down on the list, to the time I left).

I had almost forgotten what those days in the little barber shop at the corner of my street was like.

A few months ago, after moving to Dallas, I think I might have rediscovered something. There was this little barbershop unimaginatively called “Barber Shop” a block away from my former apartment. Now, never a person willing to go great distances to get my hair cut, I decided this was well worth a try. So one fine day I decided to walk in and get my hair cut. The moment I entered the store, I knew it was something a little different. There wasn’t any nice waiting corner in the store, just a long bench in front of a seemingly endless mirror. About half a dozen people were waiting their turn, and I sat down besides them. There was nothing resembling a wait-list, we just sat, and the place slowly began to seep into me. The music was Spanish pop. The proprietors seemed to be big fans of gangster movies. There were vintage posters of Pacino and De Niro (from their Scarface and Godfather days), in black and white, right next to a poster of the real Al Capone (and not De Niro). The TV was on, but in some almost invisible corner, on mute, showing a Spanish channel. Having become a little used to the unisex salons of TGF and Supercuts, I was a little startled to rediscover a “guys only” barber shop. But there were guys of all ages, from slightly obese kids munching on bags of chips to middle aged men waiting their turn as they flipped the pages of a Sports Illustrated printed after the previous year’s Super Bowl. Most of the customers were either Hispanic or black, and there was a new atmosphere of relaxation and enjoyment in the barbershop, as some kids ran around in some improvised game of “pull the shirt”. I noticed an old poster hanging in a corner that read “for colored only”, in mock jest.

I looked at the barbers. They’re all Hispanic, rather well built, and many have some extremely artistic tattoos on their forearms. I noticed that they almost always stuck to clippers and rarely (if ever) used the scissors. A couple of them have tattoo tears, and looked like people I wouldn’t be comfortable running into in a dark alley.

And then I got my haircut. I’m usually not a talker while getting haircuts, but I couldn’t help striking a conversation with the barber here. He was a delightful chap, and while his English had a typically strong Hispanic tinge to it, it was more than fluent. I’m not sure who owns the place, but he said a couple of them had been convicts once, but had long since reformed, and now had families and kids to take care off, and enjoyed their jobs as barbers. I of course didn’t press questions about tear-tattoos, but was almost tempted to ask if that was why they used only clippers and not scissors. Many of the customers around me seemed like regulars, and there was plenty of interesting banter about their lousy jobs, or wives/girlfriends, or the latest in cars. One kid said something about wanting to drop out of high school, only for a barber to call him an idiot, and tell him to “stay out of trouble and in school”. One customer was complaining about the inmates of a halfway house located next to his house, and his wife wanted them to move to another place, but he liked it there!

I didn’t realize that my haircut itself had taken nearly half an hour. And that seemed to be the average time, as the hair of each customer was cut and shaped to perfection. My hair had never felt that good since I moved to the states.

It’s been many months now since that first visit, but you can bet your bottom dollar I make it a point to visit every few weeks, when I decide my hair needs some grooming.

I only wish they’d learn to offer a champi.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Book mini-review: Landing a Job in Academic Biology

An enduring memory of most Indian cities are the book sellers on pavements. They’d usually set up shop at any convenient street corner, and spread out their collections of used and new books for sale, including an enviable collection of pirated “ammonia prints” of the latest bestsellers, some textbooks (engineering, medicine, MBA) and, surprisingly, a collection of “self-help” books. These would be on everything from improving English to becoming a salesperson, to inspirational books like Lee Iococca’s biography. I’d always look at them with more than a mild sense of amusement, and never thought I’d ever read a “guide book”.

But I’m taking all those thoughts back, since I now feel those books might have immensely benefited numerous readers. The reason for this rapid reversal of thought is that I recently came across The Chicago guide to landing a job in academic biology by professors Chandler, Wolfe and Promislow (from different universities in Georgia). This is a slender little book, a mere 150 pages thick, and can easily be read in a couple of hours, or packed on a flight (hopefully not the flight taking you to your job interview though). But in those two hours, you’ll pretty much know every little thing you want to know about the process of getting a job in academia.

While this is titled “academic biology”, I think it is equally valuable for someone who’s looking for a job in academic chemistry, and there’s plenty for just about any academic who has dreams of climbing up the academic ladder, but first needs to get that very competitive assistant professor position. Most of us spend years in graduate school getting PhDs, and then often grind it out as postdoctoral fellows for a few years. We’re told that (or it appears as if) the only thing that matters for getting an academic position is your research and publication record. Except that while the research and publication record are indeed of paramount importance, there are dozens of other things that can determine the success rate of finding a job. But most students emerge out of these years of training with little knowledge of all the little things that they need to work on, in order to be successful in getting that job.

This is where this book comes in. The authors have a breezy writing style, filled with humorous anecdotes and personal examples, through which they go through every little aspect of getting a faculty position in academia. No detail is considered too trivial. They start out by stressing how competitive the academic job market is, and begin by saying how important it is to choose the right graduate program. They distinguish between the different types of positions in academia (from extremely research intensive institutes, to exclusive private schools with a focus on teaching), and how different the application packets to any of these should be. There is a whole chapter on writing the correct type of resume for a particular job opening (generic resumes just will not do), and give valuable tips on the things search committees look for in teaching/research statements. They dwell at length on the type of experience you need to gain as a student or postdoc while preparing for any of these positions, and then jump into the details of preparing for the interview, the all important job talk itself, targeting the job search, all the way down to your clothing and the statement it makes, and how to negotiate the best deal with the institute if an offer comes your way. And they also have tremendously useful tips for problems that are increasingly common; the “two body problem” (where couples, both academics, are looking for independent academic positions), potential problems while raising a family (during the stressful tenure track years), issues women might face in science and how they can best overcome them, and many more little details most of us would not even think about.

If you are an aspiring assistant professor in the greater biological sciences (from pure biology to the physical and chemical sciences), I think this book is a must have. At a price of ~12 dollars, it is an absolute steal.

Now that I have most other things covered, all I need to do is to crank out some fantastic publications, and I think I’ll be on my way.

The Chicago Guide to Landing a Job in Academic Biology.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The last cookie

A big part of academic life is spent in seminars, listening to speakers talking about their latest and greatest research. It is that place where one goes to expand horizons, learn about new science, keep up with breakthrough research, and stuff of that kind. (That’s the official version. It is also a great place to catch up on sleep).

Yet there is one overlooked but critical driving force that draws us to seminars, like the proverbial moths to a flame. The cookies and coffee. The quality and profile of a seminar, in scientific terminology, is directly correlated by the quality of food provided in it. An average department seminar with an invited speaker will have cookies and coffee. The difference sometimes is in the quality of the cookie. Large chocolate chunk cookies are satisfactory, but anything less than large M&M cookies would be absolutely unacceptable. Oreos or Chips Ahoy? Naaah! And a seminar with only coffee is as good as worthless. No coffee? Fuggetaboudit. If the seminar offers cheese and crackers and a fruit platter along with the cookies and coffee/coke, you can almost be assured of a superb talk. And one should always be weary of decoys, such as presentations by graduate students that are accompanied by pizza. More often than not, greed draws you to that seminar. But the quality of that seminar is suspect, with a few good ones making stray appearances between lots of mediocre ones. Pizza is almost always bait the department throws in for a seminar that otherwise may not be very well attended. Attend the talk at your own risk. Almost every department has an individual or two (likely profile: senior PhD student, male, highly sociable) who has a reputation of surviving on free seminar food alone. That person is rumored to spend breakfasts at a morning seminar, lunch at the early afternoon ethics lecture and dinner at the evening physics workshop.

When it comes to the real biggies (annual endowed seminar named after someone or the other with super-famous person speaking), you can expect the real deal. Brownies, fruit tarts, fruit platters and cheese and crackers, perhaps some tasty baked treats, or perhaps even some wine and a catered spread. Those seminars come with the cardinal unwritten commandment; thou shalt not miss the seminar that provides a grand banquet.

Here’s the thing though. I attend only a couple of seminars a week, and don’t really plan my day around them (I no longer fit the profile of the department legend surviving on seminar food). But when I do attend a seminar, I want my free food. As the popular misquote goes, "cookies are my birthright, and I shall have them" (original quote). Unfortunately, I make it to most seminars just as they begin, and not 5-10 minutes early. This means more often than not someone, someone, would have eaten the last cookie.

I can see you all gasp in utter shock and horror. Who would eat the last cookie? Isn’t it just like the last piece of cake? Isn’t it something you desire but do not eat because it is embarrassing to be seen taking that last piece away and denying the next person his/her share? Is there no code of honor left in this world?

Every time this happens (and this happens almost every week), I look around the room and see the satisfied faces of people clutching two or even three cookies in their hands.

They do not realize that it is not cookie dough but blood that they have on their hands. They have all, yes all, committed the crime of stealing the last cookie, and denying me my right. I’m sure there is a special place in science hell for all of them. May their experiments never work.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dinosaur hunters

The 19th century was perhaps the last century of the true adventurer-scientist. It was a time when the earth had largely been charted, but there were still large swathes of unexplored land. It was also a time when we were beginning to understand a lot of things about the earth, moving beyond simplistic religious versions of the creation of the earth, to a complex geological and biological understanding of it. The work of Charles Lyell and many others had revealed that the earth was in fact millions of years old, and slowly but constantly changing. The 19th century was also the last era of the amateur “gentleman” scientist. The scientist would almost always be male, invariably would be a person of moderate to affluent wealth, and would dazzle society with his wit and wisdom, or amuse society with his eccentricities, or both.

The 19th century was an exhilarating time for paleontology and (in my mind) a great time for fossil hunters.

While reading about these stories, I recently came across the story of a remarkable person whom I’d hardly heard about, Mary Anning. Mary was one of the great pioneers of fossil hunting, and her work laid some of the foundations for understanding early life, and actually helps explain the fact that animals DID actually go extinct (and the world has not remained unchanged for ever, with all the species intact). Mary was just twelve (or thirteen, depending on the story) when she discovered her first fossil on cliffs along the English Channel. She discovered the fossils of a giant sea-monster called the Ichthyosaur. She spent the next thirty odd years unearthing fossil after fossil, including those of the first plesiosaurus and a nearly complete skeleton of a pterodactyls, (more popularly known as those flying bird-like reptiles in Jurassic Park).

Not surprisingly, she lived a life of relative poverty, without any support from the famous Royal societies (and only managed an honorary membership of the Geological society of London a little before she died). So much for being a woman in science.


But the most engaging story of the time (purely from a public entertainment perspective) in the world of paleontology came from this side of the Atlantic, in the highly cinematic bone wars. Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh ruthlessly drove a most improbably rivalry; of finding fossils. They seem to have been petty, ruthless, jealous, extremely mistrustful, and perhaps changed the world of paleontology for ever. Think of just about every famous dinosaur you’ve heard of (except the T. Rex). Diplodocus, triceratops, Stegosaurus, Dimetrodon……all of these fossils were discovered by Cope or Marsh. But their stories are far more engaging.

They started off (in true storybook style) as bosom friends and admirers, but somehow something went wrong between them. They then spent the next thirty years as proverbial archenemies, trying to outdo each other in finding fossils, while simultaneously destroying or sabotaging the work of the other. Their personalities were suitably different. Marsh was a supremely rich individual, but was incompetent. Some historians said that he couldn’t spot a pile of bones lying right in front of him. But he could buy just about anything he wanted. Cope was also born wealthy, but pursued extremely risky projects, like raiding Native American lands during a time of intense rivalry and war between the natives and the white settlers.

The rivalry between them reached ridiculous proportions. Diggers from one team would sometimes throw rocks at the other team, and each accused the other of serious sabotage. Apparently, Cope and his men were once caught using crowbars to open crates that belonged to Marsh. They publicly insulted each other, accusing each other of incompetence, treachery, and fraud. In between they managed to discover well over a hundred species of now extinct dinosaurs.

There is one story that might be the reason why Cope and Marsh became archenemies. Cope discovered the fossil of a species called Elasmosaurus. He proudly displayed it to his (then) friend Marsh, who told Cope that the vertebrae (backbone) were backwards. This was an almost direct insult to Cope, and another pioneering paleontologist, Joseph Leidy was called to determine who was right. After all, one of them had to be wrong. Leidy, it is rumored, took one look at the specimen, and then took the head off the assembled fossil, and placed it where Cody thought the tail was. Cody embarrassedly tried to cover up his errors in some published manuscripts, but Leidy exposed the cover up in the subsequent meeting of the Academy of Natural Sciences. The friendship of Marsh and Cody was toast.

Meanwhile, Cody lost his entire fortune by investing it in the “next big thing” of the time, silver (any one want to buy an oil well, please write to me). But in his last years, Cody came up with a rather novel obsession. He decided that he wanted to be the “type specimen” for Homo sapiens, that is, his bones would be the official specimen for the human race. Even though it was a rather crazy wish, there really wasn’t any ground to oppose it, since there wasn’t any official type specimen for humans. So, Cope willed his bones to the Wistar Institute. Unfortunately, when he died, they found that he had the early stages of syphilis, so with that his dream of his bones being immortalized died for ever.

Interesting times, to say the least. Here’s almost perfect material for the script of a Hollywood blockbuster (and an opportunity for Hollywood to move beyond sequels and comic books). There’s real Indiana Jones style adventure here, and drama and quixotic characters and action with fights and raids. Throw in a (fictional) love interest as the reason for their rivalry, and here you go, a potboiler is ready. Now, whom would you have playing the main cast?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The museum on the sixth floor, and history for the public

(Here's wishing you all a very happy 2008)

Just before I moved to Dallas, a friend told me to let him know when I “visited the spot where JFK died”. That visit was long overdue, but we finally decided to go downtown and take a look at The sixth floor museum, coincidentally timed a day before Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.

Not unsurprisingly, the museum turned out to be a treat for a history buff. The museum, like the name suggests, is on the sixth floor of the infamous Dealey Plaza, from where the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald shot the most charismatic world leader of that time. I didn’t expect too much as I entered the museum, and probably would have been content to look at a few black and white JFK photographs, a description around the window where Oswald stood, and then step into the souvenir shop. But it takes American ingenuity to make sure that you feel the visit is worth the ten odd dollars you pay for entrance, and come out having learnt something.

As you enter, you pick up one of those audio-tour players which guide you through the exhibits on the third floor. Initially, I used to feel that the audio-players dictated every moment of these kinds of tours, sometimes injecting urgency when you want to just amble through exhibits. But that, of course, was before I discovered the “pause” button. Since then I’ve been a convert to these devices, which can (when made well) make a visit to a museum that much more informative and enriching. The museum itself had an excellent collection of documents and pictures from John. F. Kennedy’s life, up to his assassination, and tried to present a balanced view of his legacy. This ranged from becoming the youngest elected president of the United States, to his Catholic religion in a strongly protestant nation, the Cuban missile crisis, his Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco, and the beginnings of the Vietnam war. But the highlight of the museum, of course, was his assassination itself. This is nicely chronicled right from his arrival in Dallas, and snippets of newspaper ads that appeared in some Dallas newspapers, that said JFK was a traitor, or a communist or a servant of the Pope, and suchlike. These little snippets allow the visitor to step back into that time. The museum then goes on into details of the assassination, through the famous Zapruder film which caught the assassination on tape, and to the aftermath of JFK’s death. Oswald morphs from being just a name to a real character, and we can allow ourselves to enter the mind of the former Marine who defects to the Soviet Union and then comes back to the States retaining strong communist sympathies. There are photographs of Jack Ruby, who shot Oswald. And then there is the investigation of the assassination itself, and the many conspiracy theories around it, which the museum does not completely ignore, but tries to address using the facts and evidence at hand.

The “magic bullet” that killed Kennedy of course makes an interesting tale. This bullet supposedly not only went through Kennedy’s neck, but then continued to go through the hand of the Texas Governer John Connally, and then go on to embed itself in Connelly’s thigh. This bullet was not found on Governer Connally stretcher, but on another one in the hospital, and looked almost intact (after all this traveling). The Warren commission investigation the assassination claimed that the evidence that this was the bullet was “persuasive”, but thousands of Americans probably said what I did. “Aw, come on, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

I love the conspiracy theories. I was pleasantly satisfied to see some diehard conspiracy theorists standing outside the museum, with their pamphlets and booklets and posters of “evidence”. Only in America, and all part of the great things about this country. Sidetrack: to me the best conspiracy theory was picturized in Oliver Stone’s often historically inaccurate but thoroughly entertaining film, JFK.

Which brings me to some tangential thoughts that came to mind as we left the museum. There are no shortages of memorials (“samadhis”) of Indian political leaders in India. Some of these leaders died natural deaths, while others (like Mahatma Gandhi, or Indira or Rajiv Gandhi) died at the hands of assassins, not unlike Oswald. All of these leaders have monuments erected in their memory. And when you visit them, you encounter somewhat sterile, architectural monstrosities (or delights, perhaps, if you like that kind of architecture) in the midst of some pretty gardens. The events leading to and following their deaths aren’t depicted. There is little (or nothing) about the legacy of these leaders, or the incidents and controversies behind their lives and deaths. The identities, and more importantly the lives of their assassins remain outside the purviews of these monuments. And the visitor comes and leaves without having learnt anything about the dead or those who caused their deaths. There is no feeling that a sense of history or legacy ever existed. Is it too much to expect that the legacies (however flawed) of the leaders who shaped the modern destiny of a nation with a sixth of the world’s population, are remembered, at least at the monuments which mark their death?