Thursday, November 30, 2006

So it's been too long again... Oh well, that sort of thing happens when you're busy. But I've got loads of stuff to write about, perhaps a bit retrospective, but you'll still get all the news, just later rather than sooner, if you catch my drift...
First I've got a little article for y'all to read:
A couple of weeks ago I went to my first Cafe Scientifique in Bath. For those who have never heard of the concept it's a world wide scheme based on the French cafe culture, based around the informal way philosophers and artists like Picasso, Sartre and Beauvoir used to sit and discuss the great problems of existentialism and what not. This informal exchange of ideas allows a free and unrestricted way of talking about things between people with all kinds of backgrounds. The theme for Cafe Scientifque is perhaps is not surprising - science. There are many, many different topics - check out the website for details on the nearest event to you.
The event in Bath is in a really nice pub called the Raven - actually it's the pub of the year. They serve a marvellous Merlot and cook delicious food as well. But most importantly it is the host for the Cafe Scientifique.
On the evening of Monday the 13th of November the speaker was James Randerson, The Guardian science correspondent who authored the front page article ‘Revealed: the lax laws that could allow assembly of deadly virus DNA’ (16/10/2006). I think I should just mention that Mr. Randerson is actually a Doctor Randerson, as in PhD in Evolutionary Genetics (which he happened do at Bath University). Anyway, in his report Randerson showed how small segments of the genetic blue print (oligonucleotides or oligos in ‘science slang’) for smallpox could be purchased from companies who produce DNA segments. The report resulted in a public enquiry as to whether this technology should be more restricted. Randerson, himself, had his sample of DNA smallpox sent to his very own flat (much to his girlfriend’s horror, we were told at the Raven).
The title of the talk posed the question ‘Is scientific openness fostering bio-terror?’. As usual during a Cafe Scientifique event the guest speaker talks for no longer than 30 minutes, which is then followed by a lively (and sometimes rather heated, but always polite) debate between the speaker and the audience.

Randerson is not the first to question the safety in recreating virus that has long been extinct. The New Scientist has published quite a few articles on the same theme, notably on the level of safety in the labs that the various dangerous viruses are stored. For Randerson, though, the issue isn't so much about storage, he asks the much more basic question as to whether scientists should just because they could. The crux of Randerson’s argument was that even though “Intellectual freedom and sharing of information are central to scientific progress, and any restrictions on that will make science harder to do and could limit society's access to future medicines “, he still asks whether there should be “restrictions on who has access to the materials and equipment that can be used to make viruses in the future, and are the scientific benefits of resurrecting a strain of flu that killed more people than the First World War worth the risks?”
During the debate that followed it was widely recognised that there are limits to what legislation can do. The consensus was that to some extent researchers and research institutions should legislate themselves, perhaps by signing some kind of anti-terror declaration. This type of self-legislation could create an awareness around the potential dangers involved in the day-to-day research that most biology students and staff deem safe.

Although I think that that's very much in the academic spirit and all, then there's currently a slight problem with implementing such a lassez-faire approach. Namely, due to another article in the Guardian ("Universities urged to spy on Muslims" 16/10/2006) where it leaked a document sent out by the Department of Education which stated that it wanted Higher Education Institutions ( HEI - such as universities) to keep an eye on Muslim students (!!!).

Now I can't really see how that would work together with a "self-legislative" attitude. Something smells very fishy to me, it smells of Hitler's Germany to me, where everybody tells on everybody else, just to be on the safe side and in return no one feels safe and nothing gets done. So perhaps academia should just be left to its own devices and instead the HEI could be used to create a debate about the types of chemicals, tissues, and other biological artefacts are available to them, what they are used for, why they are used and indeed be there to educate people in general about safety. I think that would make people feel much more safe. Another thing could be to look at how other countries deal with this particular situation. I know that in Denmark they have an anti-bio terror unit, which specialises in bio attacks if and when they should happen, rather like a Fire brigade. But when I suggested this idea, at the Cafe Scientifique, Randerson seem to think that prevention was better than minimisation of damage. Well, of course, I agree with that, but on the other hand he also admitted that if someone was going to do it, they could do it whether or not there was self-legislation, government legislation and so forth. This is why I suggest, create a debate, make people (and especially the companies supplying the goods) aware and educate about how it can be avoided. But definitely not by creating some kind of watchdog culture, that just breeds more hatred (hence more attacks) and more insecurity for all parties involved.

And that's my 2 cents worth!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

So I’m a little bit behind with keeping you all up to date. I think it may symbolise my life in general at the moment. Just busy, busy, busy - trying to keep on top of things and ending up feeling very stressed. Not good. My thought was, perhaps I will catch up with myself by updating the bloggetiblog? Maybe just in my mind, but that’s where it counts!

OK, lots have happened. The excitement started on the 27th of October - 3 days before yours truly turned 27 years old (we’ll get to that later!).

In fact it’s quite an adventure and so should be told like one:

Stage 1
We were going to a party in London, New Cross - a friend of mine (her name is Ilona) is a arts student at Goldsmiths and it was her 21st birthday party. It was all planned, we would get there around 21.00, which was late but it was impossible to bend time any further. I finished uni at 16.15, Alan worked ‘til 17.10 and Eccles finished at 17.00 in Bristol. The plan was to rendez-vous @ 18.20 Bath Spa Station. Of course, sod being sod and the law being what it is, the buses were experiencing serious problems getting anywhere on time. Apparently, a gas pipe was leaking somewhere and roads were duly closed. It took me 2hrs to get home (it usually takes 20mins), I was not even dressed and the party was fancy dress (theme: gory vaudeville), I was not even sure if my skeleton tights which I had ordered from Ebay would arrive on time. It was all very stressful!
I got home, the tights had come by post (yes!) put them on, packed too much shit (had to bring sleeping bags, presents, change of clothes, beer, vodka, mixers...) got changed and got out of the door all in the space of 10mins! I had to walk to the station, because of the bus problem, but literally made it with TWO seconds to spare. Alan had cleverly gotten ready from work so he was on time and Eccles was waiving at us from the train. Stage one completed successfully....

Stage 2
The train journey itself was rather uneventful, just the usual spillages of alcohol whilst trying to mix drinks on a train, refusal to use public lavatories resulting in pee crisis (fortunately catastrophe was avoided), excruciating ticket prices, battling boredom, putting on make-up whilst on a moving train and going somewhere you’ve never been before.
Stage two was successfully completed when we arrived at Ilona’s house.

Stage 3
Final touches were put on my skeleton dolly costume and I entered the public domain of a beginning party. Much alcohol was consumed and much annoyance was experienced due to my inability to engage with people who refuse to have any opinions on anything (wtf?!). I’m recently encountering this type of person more frequently than I care and I don’t understand where it’s coming from. I especially see it in people in their early 20’s - I don’t know what they talk about amongst themselves. I ended up getting too drunk (mostly to numb the iritation and anger I was experiencing) and went to bed without making a complete arse of myself (and without throwing up)
Ilona in the background, Me, Anna and Eccles
Stage three successfully completed.

Stage 4
Eccles suggest we go camping with Chris (another ex-fellow flat mate from Colchester, now in Torquey) - today! Since I love camping and being impulsive, I’m very enthusiastic and optimistic about this turn of events. Besides I don’t enjoy London very much and prefer the great (healthy) outdoors. But before all that, we must restore our energies by eating an absolutely lovely breakfast (next to a not so lovely road). Breakfast and goodbye’s accomplished we jump on the train to journey back to Bath and Bristol.

Stage 5

2 hours later the next stage commences. Well to be honest it never really stopped, because throughout the journey back I was umming and arring as to whether to go camping or not. It was pretty far away (actually I wasn’t even sure exactly where it was we were going), I was pretty damn hungover, fed up with trains, tired, grumpy, and very skint. Every ten minutes I would announce to Alan that I was either going or not going. Eventually, I packed a bag, ate some soup and went to Bristol where I met Eccles. We got on another train, to Exeter St. Davids and Chris met us when he got on the train at the same station, and then subsequently made us travel illegally (but honestly, we owned up to the train conductor by telling him the truth and he was very understanding about it) to Newton Abbot, where we got off. We got our final supplies (such as batteries for the single flash light we managed to bring with us) and jumped into a taxi. It was 22.30 when we arrived. The taxi driver seemed to have a bit of a screw loose himself venturing into a long tale of aliens, sectioned friends, neuro-scientific trivia (which was wrong btw) and some more aliens. By the time we arrived to our destination Eccles and I had spent more than 8 hours traveling, not counting the previous day’s journey. We opened the taxi door to a heavy mist and complete darkness enveloped us a the taxi drove away and left us alone at the edge of Dartmoor.

Misty weather - it looks like rain, but it's not
Stage 6
Fortunately we were in safe hands with Chris as our guide. Having grown up in area he had many a years of exploring the moor. But it was a bit scary anyway, it being the equinox and as all good pagans know the time of year when the border between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. I felt a bit .. hmm ‘flaunting’ in my skeleton sweatshirt, as if I was mocking the dead there on the moor (as if on cue we started talking about the many ghost stories centered around the moor, we never mentioned it again though, probably because we’re all yellow chickens). Let it be said, disappointingly, that nothing out of the ordinary happened that night, although I was pleased that I’d never finished watching “The Blair Witch Project”. I have not seen mist so thick for a long time, only in the mountains, Chris directed us to a location and we managed to circumvent most of the cow pat when laying down the tent. The tent was one Eccles had found in his house, it was a large tent and we’d never put it up before. But even though we were tired, it was late, dark and misty we managed without no problems and quickly made our little nest. The rum, beer and wine was opened and the relaxation commenced, followed shortly by a deep sleep echoed with drumming of rain on the tent (there’s nothing quite like it).

Stage 7
We woke at 06.00. Bright and early with the sun rising and giving us the first view of Dartmoor. It was beautiful, and worth every painful moment, all regret dissipated and being there was all that was on my mind.

Chris made us some kind of sausage-wrapped-in-bread breakfast (a speciality of his), a pot of coffee was boiled (a tea towel was used a strainer) and soon after we were of on a walkabout in the beautiful surroundings.

I found a small waterfall with a prayer cave next to it

I also came across "letterboxing" which I've never heard off before, so it was pure luck to find it.

Eccles' protecting me from the fierce (wild) Dartmoor ponies. First I was curious and started approaching them, but then I got a bit anxious when all 3 of them started approaching me curiously... Very cute. And as you can tell from this photo, we had quite nice weather too.

Stage 8

As we returned to camp several hours later for our lunch, we saw that many people were now coming to take their Sunday stroll. Which seemed quite surreal to me. It was as if we were camping in a public park (which of course we were, it just didn’t look like any park I’d seen before). And we did get a few odd looks, but most were friendly.

After our lunch we went for another walk and then came back to pack things up.

Our tent in the middle of (what we thought) was nowhere, but which was a both a popular tourist and local attraction.

A groggy "hello" from me...

The mist comes rolling in. In the photo we have Eccles and Chris and the side of a Tor (can't remember which now...)

Stage 9
Fortunately a friend of Chris, Richard, was kind enough to come and give Eccles and me a ride back Newton Abbot. It was supposed to be so easy. On the train and be home in a few hours. Instead we were unaware of a train change, and continued on our merry way to Reading, where we had to change to go (back!) to Bristol. I then had to wait 40mins at Bristol to get a train (two stops!) to Bath. It was painful, and this time around there was no beautiful scenery to take away the painful journey memories. I’m sure they’ll dissipate with time... But until then I’m very hesitant about boarding a train!
I arrived home at 23.30. And that my friends is the end of the weekend tale.