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Deep thoughts

I bought myself a tailored suit recently. I needed one for my wedding, and I do work in a position where sometimes you need to look presentable, so I blew five hundred pounds on a really nice grey suit made for me and fitted to my body.

I have two observations.

One, it looks really good. You can see this suit was made to fit me, and was not just taken off some rack in an outlet.

Second, James Bond is even more awesome than I thought. You literally have no ability to move; for example I can’t really lift my hands over my head, let alone climbing over balconies, winning fist-fights and jumping off buildings.
Seriously, though, the Secret Service is either dressed in special suits, that actually allow you to move, or they are absolutely and utterly useless: all looks and no bite. I don’t think I could jump in front of anyone to protect him with my own body even if I wanted to in my expensive, good-looking suit.

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“Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This is one of those sayings that everyone utters while nodding to themselves, with the warm glowing feeling in their tummies of being very smart.

Except it is not true.

Just a quick look at recorded human history is sufficient to see why this saying is stupid. The reason is simple: for most of our history, we were ruled by absolute rulers. Sure, there is the occasional Nero and Caligula, and other crazy kings (or effective kings), but the fact is that by and large the institution of absolute monarchy has been quite successful as a political system; and this would not have been possible if the long line of absolute rulers were absolutely corrupted by their own power. (By the way there are some indications that neither Nero nor Caligula were as crazy as they were made out to be.)

On the other hand we do have the examples of people getting into power and being corrupted by it, so there is some truth in the saying, though. But can these two things (long line of absolute rulers ruling relatively successfully and power-crazy tyrants popping up here and there) be true at the same time?

I think the context is the key here. Most rulers were brought up with power; their education focused on how to be rulers, how to handle the responsibility –even if they were not singled out for succession, by large they came from the “upper classes”. These people were very well equipped to deal with absolute power –within reason, of course. There are no saints here; Ivan the Terrible and Henry VIII were certainly not nice people, and they did abuse their power, but they were not consumed by it, as the saying would suggest.

However, in the more modern age, people who are quite unprepared for it can grasp absolute power now and then –and I think this is what the saying is referring to. A regular Joe, such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler and the rest (all your petty dictators and revolutionaries who turned out to be worse than the monsters they replaced) will probably fare much worse resisting the siren song of absolute power than someone who was trained to wield it from childhood.

I understand that nuances and sayings do not exactly go well together, but it still annoys me when I hear it; it puts a lie to at least six thousand years of history. There are way more Dariuses, Sun Kings, Ramseses and Hamurappis than Napoleons.

bombers-star-wars

The movie was bad. I mean, really, really bad. (Spoiler alert, though.) I’m not talking about the complaints/accusations of “liberal agenda pushing” and whatnot; I don’t care about anyone who has a axe to grind from the absolute fan boys to the different left/right wing ideologues. I just wanted to see a fun movie, and I honestly don’t care about the genitals and the pigmentation of the lead actors.

But the fact is that the story itself was, well, shit. Insultingly so. Like the silly chase scene of Star Destroyers not being able to overtake a couple of rebel ships (first of all, if the Resistance won, why are they still called “The Resistance”? And where did the supposedly vanquished Empire got all its stuff from?), so they just kind of trudge along until their fuel runs out (?) – OK it’s Star Wars, we don’t need to discuss inertia and whatnot in interstellar space. But our heroes just take off from said ships, travel to a different system to hire a hacker, randomly meet a different hacker in a cell, and then go back to our battle scene of escaping ships, where their whole effort turns out to be absolutely useless, so they might as well have stayed… well, it was just a mess. (Let’s not talk about the whole issue of just discarding our mysterious evil overlord without ever getting to know who he was, which is just lazy story writing, and the rest of stupidity and inconsistency in the story.) You know that saying about infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters and Shakespeare? Well, this script might have been a result of that. I just blows my mind that extremely expensive movies (and this is not the only one) have no actual script; as if they wanted to save on writers, so they asked the director’s ten year old son to put something together. Honestly the Quantum of Solace (cobbled together by Craig and some other non-writers) is a better written story. (Ironically Spectre is another mess of a script.)

 

But then I’ve read it. Apparently it’s a common practice to hand out different fake scripts to the actors and other people who are involved in the making of a movie to lessen the chance of leaks.

I think there was a fatal mistake in the making of this movie, and they actually shot the fake scenes. There is no other explanation is possible.

I had a revelation on the way to the office today about violence in popular culture, and why John Wick might have been made.

I think John Wick -which, let me add is one of the best action movies ever made with very strong and intriguing characters- was made to put a mirror to our enjoyment of blood and gore.

Back in the days, ancient Romans unashamedly enjoyed blood sports in the arena. Yes, death was not a very common occurrence during gladiatorial combat, but the chance was always there- and they had animal hunts, executions and mock battles to watch, too; plenty of blood and death.

Our 20th and 21th century sensitives, however do not really allow for enjoy violence for its own sake even if it’s simulated – in a movie, book, or computer game. We need our hero to have a valid reason to go on a murderous rampage, which we can then enjoy to its fullest extent, since, you know, it’s all justified. After all his family has been murdered, he is forced by the baddies, he is trying to save his girlfriend, he is fighting the evil Russians, the enemies are computer programs anyway, or they are slimy ugly Nazis or aliens. It’s all good, you see; he has a good reason to spill all that gore, and he does not enjoy it at all while doing it (but he is very good at it regardless). This thin moral veil allow us, connoisseurs, to take delight of the masterful ways the blood is being spilled by our reluctant hero. Sure, there are people who would love watching a 120 minute action sequence without any context, but they are in the minority. (The closest to a 120 minute torture-fest is the Passion of the Christ, but even there you have the whole religious “they are killing your Saviour” angle; it would have not been so successful -or accepted- if they just filmed the execution of any random Roman civilian.)

It’s very difficult to make a successful action movie/thriller/whatever with a psychopathic protagonist who just kills for killing’s sake. Even if the protagonist is literally a serial killer who obviously has mental issues, you need some sort of a moral anchor that justifies his urges you otherwise would find reprehensible (…like only killing bad guys who escaped justice).

I think the makers of John Wick simply decided to do away all that; they have given people a really, really, really flimsy pretext (such as the killing of our retired hitman hero’s dog) for him to go on a rampage where he ends up killing over seventy human beings. All in the name of revenge for the dog (who was admittedly really cute). Don’t forget; most of these people are simply hired muscle who have nothing to do with John’s angst- the only person who does deserve death is the guy who actually killed the dog. The rest are collateral damage occurred while he was trying to get to our dog-murderer. I do not know if the screen writers really wanted us to face our need to justify violence, or if the script was just making fun of the whole “revenge killings” genre of movies, but they succeeded in making one -if not- the best action movies of all time. Perhaps it’s coming to a full cycle: we are slowly returning to the Romans’ unashamed enjoyment of bloodshed.

I have to walk about a mile to the Tube every day, and spend this time listenting to podcasts. Usually history (History on Fire, or Martyrmade), but sometimes I switch to politics or anything else that catches my fancy, really. The other day I left my headphones at home, and came to an uncomfortable realization.

I seriously debated turning back and walking home to grab them adding another twenty minutes to my commute. This is when I realized I don’t actually just think. I fill my time with books, podcasts, radio – while I don’t actually think, reflect on what is happening around me, or just explore my own thoughts. Weird, isn’t it? I honestly don’t know if I’m listening to Teddy Roosevelt’s life because I’m interested, or because I feel uncomfortable being left alone in my own head. I guess this is a good step in the right direction- realizing the need for change.

Next you know I’ll be sitting under a tree watching my belly button.

It has been nice to see the whole sexual abuse issue blow up; it was quite high time for that.

I would talk about something else, though, with the full knowledge that it might upset people. Academia is rife with abuse of all kinds, not just sexual, and it seems like this part is very much forgotten by everyone. The sole focus on sexual abuse is not conductive to addressing the real issue: despite of being the strongholds of liberal thinking, academia is more feudal than any modern systems I’ve experienced or heard about. Your line manager, your PI holds absolute power over you, and abuses of this power are rife. And guess what? You have absolutely no recourse or protection -unless, ironically, the abuse in question is sexual in nature. I’ve witnessed two professors dismissed for making repeated passes on their students. They behaved inappropriately: they were essentially trying to hook up with the attractive young women in their labs, and suffered for it. (One of the few ways of losing a tenured position.)

 

I’ve never seen anyone suffer the consequences of terrorising their students or for sabotaging their career. Just like sexual abuse it’s hard to prove. And unlike sexual abuse nobody takes the side of the victim if he or she comes forward.  I am not trying to relativize one form of abuse over another, and I’m not trying to depict myself as a greater victim; I’m trying to point out that the problem is much deeper rooted than the present flurry of articles and revelations imply. I have some personal experience with abusive PIs; I was driven to depression and thoughts of self-harm during my first attempt at a PhD in the US, and frankly, nobody gave a shit.

 

The situation was typical, really: a husband and wife team, with the husband, professor Fields, being a widely acclaimed peptide scientists, and the wife being an ex-MSc student of his. As a side-note: she always liked to talk about how difficult it is for women to succeed in science, how much harder they had to work. Well, she certainly did: she seduced her MSc supervisor who divorced his wife, and married her. Boom, instant advancement to laboratory manager. She was quite famous of her ambition: anything you did in conjunction with her husband’s lab (even if you just used the CD Spectrometer or the MALDI-TOF instrument), her name went onto the paper coming out of the results. Highly unethical, but who’s going to argue with the wife of the head of your department?

 

She was also a horrible human being. (I suspect she still is.) She had obviously an axe to grind, and since her husband left her free run of the lab, she used her power to make the lives of students a living hell. Perhaps it’s no surprise that before the batch of students of which I was part of nobody managed to get their degree in this particular lab for seven years. True story: I actually chatted with some random guy at a bar in Fort Lauderdale (some 30 miles from my university), and when he heard the name of the wife, he said: “man, I heard she is a real bitch”. So yeah. My problems weren’t unique.

 

Because she made the three postdoc’s life miserable, they were all too eager to pass this misery onto the students, especially students who were not directly managed by either of them -me, in other words. When I arrived, none of the three gracias (the postdocs) returned my greetings; they slammed doors in my face, and in general ignored me. After six months someone told me: this was an initiation period. We’re talking about women over thirty with husbands and kids here- yet, here we were, re-enacting Mean Girls. The other students obviously read the writing on the wall- nobody likes to be friends with a leper, so the atmosphere was just perfect.

 

Everybody who worked in that lab had serious issues (except for one golden boy, who was groomed to be the first in seven years to acquire a PhD, so he got tremendous support from her). One student was actually mentored by a postdoc from another laboratory, and, since our dear lab manager refused to order supplies for him, the said postdoc supplied this guy from another professor’s funds. Let it sink in a bit: a student could only work in the lab managed by the head of department, because some other professor’s money was used to order him supplies.

 

Well, I did not have anyone buying me stuff. Apparently until you were successful, the lab’s finances were closed for you; none of my orders went through, none of my primers got ordered. (I don’t have to detail how insane this attitude is, I hope.) After three months of repeated requests I went directly to the PI who was quite livid when heard of this issue; the orders were approved for a short while, and then they stopped again; the wife became even more openly hostile, on the other hand for daring to go over her head.

 

Not surprisingly my research was not going well, and the pressure I was put under for it was tremendous. I felt trapped, isolated in a hostile environment; I really was a pariah in the laboratory, and I did not have many friends outside, since it’s kind of difficult to make new friends in a small town inhabited by millionaires, and not having anything more than an odd restaurant and strip mall. I wasn’t an undergrad, and the graduate students in general had families and were not interested in mingling with the same people they share their miseries every single day in the lab. I didn’t know how to deal with the situation. Obviously failure begets failure in both personal and professional levels. I became detached, angry, scared. I spent a tremendous amount of money of my mother’s to get to Florida, and felt trapped. Sure you can say: why didn’t I leave? Because I felt there were nowhere to go. If I left I had nothing to do but to go home and accept that I’ve squandered all that money, all those years, and face the fact that I’m unemployable with no PhD, having spent years abroad. (In retrospect it was not true; but you are not necessarily thinking rationally under duress. I felt I had everything to lose.)

 

And so I became suicidal. It wasn’t a conscious thing; no grand plans of killing myself in a spectacular fashion, or looking up ways to do it online. It just got into my mind uninvited. For example I would regularly refill the liquid nitrogen dewars in the cold room as part of my duties. It wasn’t like in the UK where you have very strict safety regulations: no oxygen sensors, no alarms, no buddy system or ventilated rooms. The dewars were kept in a small room and the only safety you had was to keep the door open. While I was waiting for the nitrogen to transfer I found myself thinking how nice it would be to close the door, and just spill the nitrogen out. Or, when I went out to the beach (which was almost the only way of stress relief, and ironically may have been the reason why I was able to hold out as long as I did) I felt like just letting myself taken out to the open water by the current.  This is when I realized that holy shit, my brain was trying to kill me.

 

My time in the lab ended with a bang, actually. Jenny dearest came over to me after a presentation I held in a lab meeting, and started shouting at me. She did that quite often, but this time I was really, really out of fucks to give. She had no justification for shouting since my research did not proceed due to her refusing to process and approve my orders, and giving me support, as you know she was supposed to. I had good grades (3.67 GPA as a biologist taking advanced organic synthesis classes), my presentations given for the department were excellent (they really were), and I felt absolutely hopeless and at that point I knew I had nothing to lose. So I did not pull my tail between my legs as I did before, but stood up for myself. I did not shout back even though I would have liked nothing more than to shout at her; however I knew I had to be better than her. My heart was beating so hard it almost burst my ribcage, but I (outwardly) calmly answered her. And then I gave her my mind. Factual, no insults (of which she had a lot), collected. And then I went over to the office of her husband and told him what happened and that I cannot remain in this lab any longer because his wife is ruining my life (and his lab incidentally).

 

He was stunned; I was told an hour later the whole department was echoing of him shouting at his wife. And I joined the lab of Vetter, the German a day later.

 

I should have known. I did not know it at the time but she went over to his office and told him half-truths and straight-out lies, poisoning the well for me even before I started. I did not understand why, but I was under immense scrutiny in my new lab. All my mistakes, all my words were actually recorded. I had two meetings with my new supervisor who made me sign statements which were not true -statements about how and why I failed in his lab or twisting out things I’ve said. I was there less than two months at the first meeting, so it is kind of expected to not succeed; this is the nature of research. I was numb and stunned in these meetings and signed without thinking -this way he made himself safe from any complaints later on, and then he just dismissed me just after four months. (Ironically none of his other students got along well, and dropped out one after another; he ended up moving to some little state university in North Dakoda. I wonder if he thought about his statistically improbable bad luck getting so many poor students one after another, or perhaps gave a deep thought about his management style instead.)

 

Anyhow, after this I just took three classes over the summer semester with the good will of a professor who approved my request, and graduated with a MSc degree. (Another one.) I felt strange. As if a huge stone was lifted from my shoulders. I had no job, no visa, and I was happy and free. I mean truly happy. The nightmare was over, and I did not even realize how bad it was until after… it was like that story with the frog who is slowly boiled alive without him noticing.

 

I spent an awesome August working at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, swimming in the Atlantic in the mornings, going home and looking for jobs in the afternoon. Probably the happiest time of my life.

 

What my point is with this story that it’s not a sexual abuse problem that we see in academia. It’s certainly a part of the overall problem. It’s a power abuse problem. And if you have power you will abuse it as many ways as possible -sexual or otherwise. Weinsten and the other creeps were not “just” horrible towards women (or men) they fancied. They were reportedly an absolute terror for all of their underlings. Demanding sex was just one part of the privileges they enjoyed. Completely breaking down, destroying human beings, derailing lives, because they can was also on their routine – like what the famous wife did described above. This should not be ignored, either, just because bodily fluids are not exchanged in the process.

 

As I mentioned before PI’s hold the power of life and death over their students – it really is a feudal system. A lot of them are aware of the responsibilities they have; but a lot of them -men and women alike- are willingly abuse it. Even if a PI is not abusing his or her students, PIs are incentivized to keep them in the lab as long as they can as essentially free labor. You know all those Nobel laureates and other successful researchers? The bulk of their work is done by PhD students and postdocs, who spend an enormous amount of their time in the lab. The chances are none of the graphs, none of the micrographs they present in their Nature and Science papers were done by them; the data and the graphs created by their peons; they managed and directed the work. It’s like the pyramids which were built by masses of slaves for the glory of the pharaoh. (I have to add that this is a historically incorrect view, but makes for a good hyperbole.)  I’m being unfair, of course; the direction, the management comes from the PI. But the contribution of the blood and sweat of their underlings is usually ignored.

 

Graduate students and postdocs -especially in the US- are exploited regardless of being terrorized or not. This exploitation is a form of abuse, no doubt about it. You are forced to work in a lab years longer than you should be working because your PI will not allow you to finish. You are making enormous sacrifices in your private life: you’re at least ten years behind financially than your peers, and forget about finding a stable relationship and having children. And you do this in return of the promise that you have about 7% chance to land a tenure position where you will similarly exploit students because the system implores you to. In order to succeed, you essentially are forced to hold on to students as long as you can.

 

Unwanted sexual advancements are just one aspect of this system. I too was abused in Florida by my PI and his wife. So were many people I hear describing their experiences in Ivy Leauge Schools where the spirit of competition is taken to an extreme, so students feel inclined to sabotage each other’s work (I’ve heard several stories; even my closest friend, who was my only ally during my trials in Florida had a camera set up to monitor her stock of reagents). It’s a system where your PI might cancel your visa while you’re on holiday, so you only learn you lost your postdoc at Harvard on the border when you cannot get back to the country… the list of horror stories is long. Reportedly even my dear PI had one of his fellow students blow her brains out in the lab one night when he was doing his PhD, but the circle has obviously not stopped.

 

I’m not sure how this could be addressed. But I thought I’d add my voice to the discussion. Even though I’m a white male and my abusers were female, and nobody touched my privates. They just took three years of my life, pushed me into a dark place from which I had to climb out alone and unsupported, and essentially killed my chance to fulfil my aspirations I held since I was a child to be a scientist. You will be the judge of how serious it is even if no gonads are involved in the process.

 

There are these commonly held beliefs that simply refuse to go away, and I have no idea why. They are entrenched in our culture, and despite of being blatantly untrue, and easily refutable, they hold on, like a tick onto a dog. These are successful memes that survive in our collective conscience despite of being useless -or in the case I’m going to mention, downright dangerous.

My most favorite one is the one about finding North by looking at what side the moss grows the tree trunks.

Honestly, have you ever seen a tree before? Just go out into any park; you don’t need a forest. Moss grows all over the trunk. Everyone who has ever taken a look at a tree knows it- yet people still keep repeating it, and the idea persist.

It’s weird how these memes got themselves into the culture so successfully no facts can make them go away. Perhaps it’s the cultural version of how a virus propagates its genetic information to the next generation.