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I’ve been thinking about this a long time. If you asked me one thing that I think should be hammered into anyone and everyone -and what took me a while to realize- is to be aware of things around you.(Self-awareness is important, too, but it’s not today’s topic.)

I was about thirty when I realized that things just happen around me, and I’m not exactly aware of them; I don’t pay attention. I let things happen, I let things play out; I’m passive in my own life. My mother is like that to this day; and I suspect many other people are, too. And it’s not necessarily some big revelation, finding god or anything like that. It’s simple things.

How did I end up doing molecular biology? I wanted to be an etologist, after all; a scientist working with animal behavior. I found the lecturer really antagonistic and unpleasant, the department was outside the city, so I gave up on this line. While looking for alternatives I got into plant physiology, because a friend was working in a lab there, and asked me if I was interested, and finally I helped out my then fiancee a couple of time in her lab. She left the lab, I stayed; and hence my career in molecular biology was born. Instead of focusing, instead of figuring out the best way forward I just bounced all over the place, letting things determine how my future will be shaped, and accidentally ending up somewhere. I let my mother bully that particular girl, hoping things will get better; I tried to balance between the two effectively ruining our relationship, her state of mind, and my relationship with my mother at once. I still feel shame for what I’ve done -or rather, what I have not done. My only excuse is that I was young, and had no idea what being a man (and not a child) actually means.

I let time pass by without actually looking at what was happening not realizing I will not get back those years I spend living in a waking dream. (This is the best way I could find to describe this state of mind when you are not making an effort to be consciously aware of what is happening around you.)

It was the same story with my first PhD. My supervisor and his wife who was the lab manager, were horrible. (They haven’t had a PhD graduate in seven years prior…) Instead of drawing the necessary conclusions, and getting the f… well, the hell out of there, I stayed around, hoping it will work out. It did not. I got depression, thought of suicide, I wasted years of my life, and when I left finally, I realized I made my first really conscious decision in my life. I can thank Jenni Fields that much at least. She taught me what matters really in this life.

I also realized I lost friendships, important people from my life, because I let things drift apart. The best case was my high school class… I was in a boarding school in Sopron, a small town in Hungary, and almost all my classmates ended up going to Budapest for their university courses. It would have been trivial to keep touch, to get people together regularly; yet nobody tried and now we did not even hold our 15th anniversary of our graduation. (It’s a custom to do it every five years.) We could have met every week in a pub, and yet we are strangers now. Now I make an effort to keep in touch with people, even if they live on the other part of the world.

Don’t get me wrong: planning will not necessarily get you where you want to go. As the elder Moltke said, plans do not survive the first contact with the enemy. But HAVING a plan is essential. Having it and constantly revising it is important; otherwise you’re just like a driftwood carried by a river.

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So she feels under the weather, and just wants to get under a duvet and “watch a nice, lighthearted comedy or TV series”.

 

Half an hour later I go into the room to check on her. “So, what are you watching?” “Ripper Jack”

 

 

Ooookay.

 

 

I often wonder how much effect things really have on us, and how much is determined by our brain. The placebo effect is a very well known phenomenon: it is clear that taking sugar pills (even if the person knows they are just sugar pills) does help alleviating pain, or even curing certain conditions.

That in mind I would like to share a little amusing story from my Florida days, when I was working in the hell that was called the Chemistry Department of that tiny little university north of Miami.

I was responsible for the running of the coffee club in our little lab of horrors, and that meant I took the money from the collection box, and transmuted it into coffee in the supermarket, to make sure the laboratory kept running smoothly.

If you ever have been around academics, you know that we are practically coffee-based life forms. If you listened to the postdocs and fellow PhD students in the lab you had an impression that nobody was able to function without a good dose of daily caffeine, moreover even the slightest decrease in the daily dose would cause immediate withdrawal symptoms, the inability to function as a human being, migraines, shakes, and in general, transform a relatively functional adult into something that resembles a zombie more than anything.

Well, I got to test this hypothesis over two weeks.

Now, I know, ethics committees are pretty strict on human experiments, but please keep in mind that it was not premeditated, and the people in questions were horrible human beings, anyhow. (Seriously. The place was the definition of how not to run a lab.)

Anyhow, one day the money stopped coming into the box. And despite my repeated warnings, nobody felt it was important to replenish it. Since I bought the last batch of coffee on my own money, I thought I’d just substitute the next batch to the decaf that was on sale -hence cheaper than the regular coffee, since it was I who paid for it anyhow.

 

For two weeks everyone had coffee with absolutely no caffeine in it.

 

Nobody noticed.

 

And this is why I am happy to have decaf at any time; it makes absolutely no difference. You get the same hit out of it, even if you know it’s decaf – and this is the miracle of placebo.

 

…so we had this workshop about changing policies in a changing world, and at the end we had to come up with a superhero who embodies this idea of bold change.

 

And then it hit me. Superheroes are not the agents of change. That’s the supervillains’ job. Superheroes are keeping up the status quo. They are by definition against change.

I think I found something really profound.

I noticed something quite a long time ago: people in the UK think themselves outside of the European continent. The term “leaving Europe” keeps propping up, used by the most “remain” proponents, even though the British Isles are still going to be part of the same continental shelf. There won’t be changing their population or culture suddenly. They still be part of Europe. They are just leaving a political/economic entity.

It think it says a lot about how British people think of themselves and of the rest of Europe. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; they do provide a sort of reality check to the rest of the continent. It’s one of the greatest issues of Brexit: with them this dissenting voice will disappear. Tiny, poor and irrelevant countries (Hungary I’m looking at you) can’t make up for this, no matter how much Orban is shouting. There is a great risk of the EU becoming an echo chamber for Germany, and this is a truly bad thing.

I’ve been experiencing sciatica for some time now; it is not exactly a joyride. (And yes, I know, people go through worse, which makes me feel ever crappier for complaining now and then).
Anyhow.
I’m slowly limping home while feeling the mixture of some pain and sleep deprivation in equal measure, while Metallica is blaring from my earphones (so that I don’t fall asleep standing up on the Tube).

This little kid on the street looks up at me, sees my face, and I have no idea what he saw, but his eyes grew big, and said in a very thin, very scared voice: “Good evening, sir”, then passed me real quick.