At the weekend we saw the very funny comedian Rachel Parris, whose show Keynote was about how silly and counterproductive advice to children often is. We shouldn’t tell them to live their dreams, we should tell them to try out different jobs and lifestyles to help them find out who they are and what they’re good at. I’m not sure that always works, but it would probably be better for most people than a ‘Hollywood or bust’ approach. This is also the theme of a children’s book I recently drafted.
She asked the audience about bad jobs we had had, in the hopes we would admit we had learned from them. I couldn’t really chip in, because I’ve never done hard labour picking crops or dealing with livestock like other audience members. (Actually that’s not true, I have done both those things, but I haven’t been paid for them). The worst job I ever had was as a postdoctoral research scientist at Imperial College London working for an emeritus professor doing the dotty outdated experiments he thought up. It was mostly boring and pointless, but I doubt many people would pity me: there were some interesting bits here and there, I was paid enough to live on, and I had some fun colleagues (and some other monstrous ones we could enjoy mocking).
Ironically, the job I did for the lowest pay, while I was still in high school, is the one most people envy. I spent 2 summers working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre outside Washington DC (where I grew up). The tasks were routine, doing daily backups and relaying commands to the Solar Maximum Mission satellite, but my colleagues were kind and interesting people who taught me computer programming and treated me with respect. And there was a full-scale model of the space shuttle for payload testing right inside my building – how cool is that? I still miss it sometimes.
A while back I attended a course on project management. Why can I never have a 30-minute lecture telling me what I need to know about a subject? No, if it’s to do with HR in any way then it has to be a full-day course filled with breaking into small groups to brainstorm over a flipchart, and doing a godawful team exercise.
This one was a classic: we had to build a tower out of spaghetti with a marshmallow on top, and it had to remain upright for 2 minutes: tallest wins. I immediately said I thought a tepee structure would be the most stable, with a thin bundle extending out the top to support the marshmallow. We all seemed agreed and started mocking out how to put it together. Then when we were told to move from the planning stage into execution, the senior manager sitting next to me said, “I know, let’s build an Eiffel tower!” and scooped up the spaghetti and started trying to tape a square together. I kept saying things like, “I really don’t think that will be stable,” and “I don’t see what is going to keep the sides from collapsing in,” while she ignored me, and her recently-hired assistant played along to humour her.
Then halfway through the moderator swapped her with someone from another group, and after a short period of continuing her nonsensical design we abandoned it and threw together a quick tripod. It held together well and was only an inch or two shorter than the winner (which was a tepee structure exactly as I had originally suggested).
In the post-mortem afterwards, the manager said the problem was that she had missed the criterion that it had to be the tallest. That’s right: one of the 2 requirements passed her by, and this was said as if it were the moderator’s fault for not communicating more clearly that the tallest structure won. No acknowledgement that she consistently ignored the advice of a physicist that her design was never going to stand.
So in the end the exercise was a poignant metaphor for the state of the world. Expert is a dirty word these days, and the towers are collapsing all around us. But never mind: at least we have strong leadership.
I love what a melting pot Cambridge is. Recently I was impressing a friend that I still remember the entire vocabulary of Hebrew I picked up from my fellow PhD students in 1990. I’ve no idea how to write the originals, but the English translations are toilet, big dick, and poached eggs. Not sure what sort of holiday in Israel that would give me.
A few days ago there was a Chinese girl behind me on the bus explaining there is no exact translation in Chinese for ‘fuck you’, although they do have ‘fuck your mother’.
The guy told her that was more extreme in English – didn’t they have something a bit milder?
“Well….there is also ‘fuck your sister’. Or ‘fuck your grandmother’. Is that any better?”
No, no, not really.
Just when I thought I couldn’t get any more depressed, Donald Trump won the White House.
I’m quite active in politics, running the Cambridge branch of Democrats Abroad, and Tuesday night I was co-hosting a party for hundreds of people. At midnight I did a live video interview with the NY Times, although I don’t know if it ever was shown. More merciful to sweep under the carpet my optimism of that particular hour. Probably the journalist was only even doing the interviews as an excuse to come to the party, which she had adored as a student in 2008.
But these are different times, as it slowly and painfully became clear. For the next 24 hours I dragged myself through work and didn’t even have the energy to watch TV in the evening. I went to bed at 9PM and slept for 10 hours.
Then I got up and started a political movement. The Simpsons foretold a Trump Presidency 16 years ago, in an episode where the grownup Lisa becomes President immediately following Trump, so I registered on Twitter as @Lisa4_President and started her campaign. I posted policy statements as Lisa Simpson and started assembling her cabinet for 2020. The campaign slogan is “Sensible policies for a post-apocalyptic America”. I already have more followers on Twitter as Lisa than as myself.
Obviously this is a joke, but if I had the commitment to follow it through, who knows where it would lead? Who can say that a nation who elected Trump wouldn’t vote for a cartoon character? Who can say that a cartoon character wouldn’t do a better job at the Presidency than The Donald?