Category Archives: Lost in the Maize

Lost in the Maize

Last September, I started posting my reflections on the weirdness of  academia – amongst other things – every Friday, under the title Lost in the Maize.  In part this was to document the shift from being a pseudo-academic to a real one.  But it was also to provide some motivation to keep on blogging when things threatened to drown the practice out.

Well, four months on, I’ve reached a point where I no longer feel the need to continue the series.  And the reason?  The rather disturbing realization that the solution to the maze is the rather Zen-like revelation that there is no solution – being lost in the maze (or maize if we’re talking Michigan) is the natural state of being in academia!

Actually, the truth is that other things are demanding too much of my time – including the just-launched Risk Science Center blog.  And I’m not sure how many people were really interested in these musings anyway.  But they served a purpose.

So this is the last Lost in the Maize.  The regular posts will continue as normal – so please do keep on checking in.

Which just leaves me with one niggling concern – will anyone notice?

Lost in the Maize

A weekly reflection on life in academia

I wasn’t intending to post a Lost in the Maize blog today, having been struggling to get back from a fog-bound UK to the US for the past 48 hours.  But reading Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail on the flight back, I came across this rather delicious critique of academic life that I couldn’t resist sharing:

“The techniques learned in lecture theatres and later honed to perfection in faculty meetings were proving their worth at last.  He could vaguely follow what was being said without needing to bother with the detail.

“When he’d been a student he had assumed he could do this because he was just so damn smart and basically already knew all they were trying to teach him.  Later, during seemingly endless committee sessions, he’d accepted that a lot of what passed for useful information-sharing within an organisation was really just the bureaucratic phatic of people protecting their positions, looking for praise, projecting criticism, setting up positions of non-responsibility for up-coming failures and calamities that that were both entirely predictable but seemingly completely unavoidable, and telling each other what they all already knew anyway.  The trick was to be able to re-engage quickly and seamlessly without allowing anyone to know you’d stopped listening properly shortly after the speaker had first opened their mouth.”


Thank goodness it’s just a piece of fiction…

Lost in the Maize

Hegswarm – what a great word!  Far more elegant and versatile than the “Gray Goo” that has nibbled at the heels of nanotechnology for the past decade.

Over the holiday break, I’ve escaped academia for the relative sanity of family reunions and mince pies, and have been catching up on some reading.  Currently I’m in the middle of Iain M. Banks’ latest novel Surface Detail – which presents a disturbing yet compelling vision of a future where mind-states can be moved between biological (i.e. gray matter) and digital (i.e. computer) media, and the idea of an afterlife becomes an engineered reality.  However, what grabbed my attention yesterday while reading the book was Banks’ concept of a “hegenomising swarm,” or “hegswarm”.

These he describes as outbreaks where

“…by accident or design – a set of self-replicating entities ran out of control somewhere and started trying to turn the totality of the galaxy’s matter into nothing but copies of themselves.”

He adds

“It was a problem as old as life in the galaxy, and arguably hegswarms were just that; another legitimate – if rather overenthusiastic – galactic form of life.”

Passing over his rather delicious allusion to questionable human traits, this seemed the perfect extension of the idea of self-replicating nanobots – the mythical constructions that turn everything in their path into copies of themselves.

Maybe as the nanotechnology is re-invented under the “Nano2” banner we need another nano-bogeyman to help it along – in which case, I nominate the nano-hegswarm as the number one contender.

But, I must confess, all this is really just an excuse to pull out one of my favorite nanotech videos for the holiday season – Ransom Riggs‘ rather excellent if entirely fictitious short “Destroy Civilization with Nanotechnology… in Just Six Amazing Steps.”

Enjoy, have  great holiday, and watch out for those hegswarms!

Lost in the Maize

My son Alex’s school puts on a highly prestigious musical each year. Competition for the lead roles is tough. Closed-door auditions are held to ensure the most talented kids get the leading roles – reward-through-merit in action you might say.

Apart from the fact that some parents involved in the production appeared to be giving their kids an insiders leg-up: passing on privileged information that would give them a rather large edge over the competition.

I’ve been pondering this as I have been thinking about one of the more subversive ideas floating around in academia – the idea that someone’s achievements should depend on their abilities; not on color, creed, sex, or a leg-up from the “old boys” network.

Of course everyone knows that reward-through-merit is a wonderful idea that is usually the first against the wall come the metaphorical revolution – just look at politics if you doubt that. Which is why academic adherence to the concept, while seemingly mainstream, is so wonderfully subversive.

The only trouble is, this subversive streak doesn’t often stretch to a primary source of merit-distain – parent politics. Or to be more precise, what we teach our kids about what really matters as we try and get them to the front of the queue by any means possible.

Alex didn’t make the cut in the auditions. I suspect it was because he auditioned in the voice of Gollum – the musical is Grease! But I do wonder whether there were other children that may have made on merit, if it wasn’t for the insider-parent network.

More significantly, I wonder where these early lessons of “merit is for loosers” take us. Wherever it is, I’m rather glad that, in the maze of academia, merit still has some standing.

Of course, I am fairly new here…

Lost in the Maize

My son Alex (13) and I have had a long-standing head-to-head on video games – should he be allowed to play first-person shooter games?  For those of you not plugged into the the gaming community, these are the games where you play out scenes and scenarios from the first person perspective of someone wielding a plethora of deadly weapons.

I’ve been vehemently against the idea – I struggle with the concept of how playing out morally questionable fantasies supports social and moral development.  But as Alex constantly reminds me, I’m in a rather small minority here.

Things came to a head with this year’s Christmas list – at the top of Alex’s list was an XBox 360 with Kinect that, I was assured, was only worth getting if he was allowed to play first person shooters!

Being rather devious parents, my wife and I decided to resolve the issue by suggesting Alex write his weekly English essay on why he should be allowed to play these games.

He did.  And it was a good one.  So good in fact that I thought I would post it in this week’s Lost in the Maize: Continue reading Lost in the Maize

Lost in the Maize

As you’ll have gathered from last week’s Lost in the Maize, I’ve been on the road this week.  In fact, I am writing this on the plane back to Detroit, looking forward to a quick wash, shave, sleep, and catch-up with family, before heading off to the Society for Risk Analysis annual meeting in Salt Lake City next week.  It’s been a long, busy week, but overall a good one.  I succeeded in getting in and out of London, despite the snow.  I had the luxury of expanding a 20 minute talk to a 40 minute lecture at the British Thoracic Society (we were two speakers down due to the weather).  I even managed to get a bit of real work done.

But the highlight of the trip was probably the World Economic Forum Summit on the Global Agenda in Dubai.

This is a rather unique meeting. Continue reading Lost in the Maize

Lost in the Maize

I’m writing this at Detroit airport, en route to Dubai via Heathrow.  By rights, I should be writing the usual stuff about how traveling to exotic places isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – the mantra of the seasoned traveler.  But as it’s the day after Thanksgiving, I thought I would suck it up and – in the best of American traditions – write about something I’m thankful for.

Three things in fact.

So here we go (and I should add at this point that I’m only doing this because I know no-one reads these Lost in the Maize blogs!)

My job. I’m constantly reminded of what I am not good at.  I can’t run a mile.  I’m cack-handed when it comes to anything practical.  I don’t take directions well.  I’m easily distracted.  So it’s pretty amazing that I’ve ended up in a career where these things don’t matter!  OK so it can get wearing chasing after funding, working 48 hour days and being chased around by 101 people who all – mistakenly – seem to think that you work for them.  But let’s be honest, when you have the freedom to work with interesting people, explore fascinating new ideas and sometimes even make a small difference to people’s lives, what is there not to be thankful for!

My wife. Despite appearances, I’m not sucking up here or being overly-sentimental.  The fact is that everything I’ve done over the past twenty three years has been possible because of the love and support of my wife.  In fact, we’re really team-Maynard, with me the flash tip-of-the-ice-berg, and Clare the hidden but vital stuff that makes everything possible.  OK so maybe that sounds a little schmaltzy (and glosses over the reality that we’ve had to work as hard as everyone else to keep things together). But the truth is that we are a great double-act, and for that I am very grateful.

My kids. OK so this is beginning to sound a little over the top, but, let’s be honest here, my kids are awesome. Just don’t let them know I said so!  What gets me every time – and I’m sure other parents see this – is when they are clearly better at things than I am.  Alex – my youngest – is already a way better musician that I ever was (he plays the oboe).  And My daughter Jade can actually write – compared to me, who just pretends.   She is currently within a hairs-breadth of completing a 50,000 draft novel in 30 days, as part of NaNoWriMo – now that’s impressive!

Of course, there are plenty of other things I’m grateful for – my parents and wider family for a start.  But these are the three things that floated to the top as I sit here getting ready to board the plane.

And, if I was completely honest, I’m actually grateful for the chance to travel.  Alright so I bitch about traveling as much as the next person.  And admittedly it is a bit of a killer at times.  But how else could I travel to places like Dubai, London, Salt Lake City, even Cincinnati (the next two weeks’ itinerary), and have stimulating conversations with intelligent and interesting people?

So I admit it – I’m even grateful for the travel.  Just don’t expect me to admit it ever again.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Lost in the Maize

Here’s something that keeps me awake at night (seriously): why, in this age of super-slick graphics and innovative multimedia resources, is it nearly impossible to give presentation that looks as good as they should?

How come I can guarantee that when I give a presentation, the slides will be cropped, the color balance will be off and the contrast will make the clearest image no better than watching a black cat in a dark cellar (or a white dog in the snow – it can go either way)?

I’m probably alone in worrying about this, but it does bother me that all those hours crafting insightful, attention-grabbing and enlightening slides come to naught as soon as that signal is squirted through someone else’s projector.

Years ago I started working with Keynote exclusively and insisting on using my own computer for presentations, to avoid the vagaries of relying on PowerPoint on someone else’s machine (a combination guaranteed to lead to disaster).  But I’ve never worked out how to cope with what happens after the digital signal leaves the computer.

Call me anal, but this matters to me.  When I give a talk, I try to communicate – not just present.  Which means that each element of each slide is there for a purpose.  And when the presentation system mucks up those elements, the communication gets just a little bit harder.  Quite a lot actually when you end up having to explain what the black bits on the black background would have shown – if only they were visible!

Of course, I could throw in the towel and revert back to plain old bullet points.

But then I’d end up being just another presenter, rather than a communicator.

Better to persevere within this culture of presentation-mediocrity.

And hope that, just occasionally, the equipment works with me rather than against me.

There’s always hope!

(apologies for those that came across the unedited version earlier!)

Lost in the Maize

Next week I am being “installed” here at the University of Michigan.  Not in the sense of installing a carpet – as one friend suggested – but in the sense of being installed as an endowed professor.  The Charles and Rita Gelman Risk Science Professor to be precise.

To mark the occasion, I’m expected to entertain the crowds here with deep, expansive and probably incomprehensible thoughts on risk science.

Not sure I can deliver that, but here’s the ‘teaser” that was circulated on what I might be touching on:

By 2050, over nine billion people will be placing unprecedented demands on the earth’s resources – a demand that will only be met through developing and using new technologies.  But in today’s complex and interconnected world, the safety and success of technology-based solutions is by no means assured. As we strive to build a sustainable future, we need to think differently about how rapid social and technological change are leading to new risk-challenges, and how they are best addressed.  In effect, we need a new risk science for a new century. Professor Maynard will be talking about the new challenges of enabling sustainable development in a complex, interconnected and risky world.

A more accurate – but substantially more boring – account of what I’m likely to cover is given in the lecture’s abstract:

Risk is intimately intertwined with human life.  From the earliest beginnings of life, risk has been part and parcel of natural selection; forcing evolution along paths that minimize risk while maximizing benefits.

Risk has by turns stimulated and limited our own achievements as a species for thousands of years.  In fact everything we do – or don’t do – as individuals and as a society has the potential to lead to beneficial or adverse consequences.  So it’s not surprising that we have evolved sharp instincts for dealing with possible risks.

These instincts have served us well in the past. But they have proven increasingly unreliable as we have become ever more reliant on complex technologies.  To overcome these limitations, we have turned to science as a means of developing systematic and evidence-based approaches risks that aren’t compromised by human vagaries.  The resulting “risk science” – built on sound scientific principles – has supported the rapid development of many significant technologies over the past hundred years.  But heading into the 21st century, it is increasingly doubtful whether this “old” risk science will continue provide the necessary support to build a sustainable future.

We are entering a unique time in humanity’s history:  We face a future dominated by complex and rapidly developing technologies; unprecedented global interconnectedness; and dwindling natural resources.  These three factors are converging to shake up not only the challenges and opportunities we face as a global society, but also the very methodologies we use to get to where we need to be.  As we embrace this future, we will need a “new” risk science – one that draws on “science” in the broadest possible sense to enable evidence-informed and socially-responsive decision-making in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Whatever I end up saying, I’m toying around with some new presentation techniques for the talk.  These might work, or they might bomb – either way, it should be entertaining for the audience, if not for me!

The lecture is being held between 3:30 PM – 4:30 PM on Wednesday November 17 in the University of Michigan School of Public Health – feel free to drop in if you are in the area.  There’s a reception afterward – which is never a bad thing!

Lost in the Maize

A weekly reflection on life in academia

Note to self: Try not to fall asleep before important interviews with smart journalists.

It’s been a tough week.  My gift from last week’s meeting in San Francisco was a lovely ripe cold – something of an occupational hazard these days being cooped up in airplanes with gem-infested travelers it seems.  I struggled through most of the week’s lectures and committee meetings before my voice gave up and I became too antisocial to be around, and thought I’d done pretty well as I hit the home straight heading into the weekend.

I should have known better. Continue reading Lost in the Maize

Lost in the Maize

A weekly reflection on life in academia

Most of this last week was spent in San Francisco, at the NISE Net (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) network-wide meeting – possibly my favorite meeting of the year (I might have mentioned that before).  This year I had the additional pleasure of opening the meeting in a double-act with Kathy Sykes.  Readers in the UK will be familiar with Kathy – for others, she is a rather smart scientist, communicator, broadcaster, science-festival co-director (she helped create and co-directs the Cheltenham Science Festival) and all-round good egg.  She is also a fellow physicist.  Two Brit physicists opening a US conference on informal science education – not bad eh!

One aspect of this meeting that I love – apart from the glorious location right by Fort Mason in San Francisco – is the eclectic and engaging mix of participants.  It’s one of the few meetings I know where artists, performers, teachers, exhibit designers, communicators, “natural” scientists  (bit of a dodgy term), social scientists and others can get together and share their knowledge around a common theme – in this case, nanoscale science and engineering. Continue reading Lost in the Maize

Lost in the Maize – Poster Day at the UM School of Public Health

A weekly reflection on life in academia

Today was my first Poster Day at the School of Public Health.  For those readers not intimately attuned to the School’s calendar (i.e. most of you), it’s a chance for second year Masters students to present and talk about their Summer field experiences (something all students are required to do).  As a result, I spent an enlightening couple of hours browsing through over 150 posters from three departments in the school, talking to students about their summer placements, fellowships and internships, and helping evaluate the posters.

This was a really energizing event. The posters ranged from super-professional looking PowerPoint creations to artistic hand-built montages of text and graphics, and covered everything from social epidemiology research to occupational hygiene work experience.  Interestingly, the hand-built displays often conveyed more than the PowerPoint builds – although I’m sure that was nothing to do with PowerPoint stifling creativity! The constant here though was the enthusiasm and articulation of the students in talking about what they did and what they gained from it.

In fact, while it is the quality of the posters that is evaluated in this event, I left really wishing the one-one presentations that accompanied them were also part of the evaluation process.  This is where you got the best sense of how students are beginning to make sense of their training under real-world situations – and reveling in it.

All in all, an enjoyable afternoon.

Lost in the Maize

A weekly reflection on life in academia.

Ann Arbor in the fall is beautiful. It’s possibly the closest I’ve come to an English Autumn since arriving in the US nearly eleven years ago. Walking the dog the other morning, there was a definite scent of damp, decaying leaf-litter in the air; a scent sharply reminiscent of afternoon strolls through autumnal woods back home, with a slight nip in the air and the promise of tea and crumpets to come. For some reason, the scent was never quite the same in Northern Virginia or Ohio – probably something to do with needing the right combination of dampness, temperature and flora.

I had a similar flash of nostalgia walking across the University’s damp, gray campus earlier this week. In the late afternoon drizzle, students were hurrying between classes under dripping trees touched with fall colors – it was a scene that brought back vivid memories of undergrad days at Birmingham University 25 years ago.

Forget the sun, the warmth, the stunning blaze of fall colors that people usually associate with the best of an American Fall – what make Autumn for me is a dampness in the air perfused with the smells of gentle decay, and subtle fall colors artfully enhanced by light rain at the tail end of a gray day. I think it’s probably a genetic predisposition that’s evolved in response to the British climate – but it means I’m right at home here.

Of course, people tell me that this weather won’t last – just round the corner they say are months of flesh-stripping cold and days so gray they suck the color out of life itself. That may be. But for now, I’m quite happy enjoying this little slice of England, in blissful denial of what’s to come.

Lost in the Maize

A weekly reflection on life in academia

This week I’m well and truly lost – tomorrow I’m being initiated into the mysteries of collegiate football, and I’m terrified!

Just in case you are one of the 6.5 billion people in the world who doesn’t eat, drink and sleep American football (a perceived minority, if not an actual one), collegiate football is big here – and I mean BIG.  I would have realized this if I was into team sport in any way before coming to Ann Arbor.  But though I don’t know the pointy side of a football from the other (I think that’s the correct technical term), even I couldn’t fail to realize that football is important on a game day here.  The literally billions (it seems) of people dressed in blue and maize, all asking you “are you going to the game?” is a bit of a giveaway. Continue reading Lost in the Maize

Lost in the Maize

One thing they don’t warn you about going into academia is the business of making sense of your paycheck.

When I started working for the US government in 2000, I was bowled over by the bureaucracy. Compared to the lean, mean government of a UK emerging from the Thatcher years, it was like going back to the dark ages. There must have been a memo somewhere that stipulated it was a federal crime for one person to do a job that two could do more slowly.

But the federal government hasn’t got a patch on academia!

Take the business of getting paid for instance. Seasoned academics can tune out at this point, but for everyone else, here’s the dummy’s guide: Continue reading Lost in the Maize

Lost in the Maize

This week my life has been dominated by writing a new review of nanotoxicology.  Not that the world needs another review – far from it, as there are a number of excellent ones out there (I’ve even contributed to some).  But in a moment of abject weakness, I agreed to help a good colleague out on a paper he’d committed to.  And now here I am, two slipped deadlines later and an absolute drop-dead date just around the corner, struggling to find something new to say about stuff that has already been covered ad nauseam.

Not that I’m not making progress – I have a great title!  That just leaves 11,991 words to go before Monday morning…

However, enough of nanotoxicology – what I was really looking for was a few minutes’ distraction from reinventing the nano-wheel before I have to get down to business again.  So I thought I would post a few words about an old technology that still has the capacity to surprise – electrostatic loudspeakers! Continue reading Lost in the Maize

Lost in the Maize

Well I guess it had to happen one day – after hanging out in QUACs (QUasi Academic Concerns) for more years than I care to remember, I am finally a bona fide academic!  Last week I shed my visiting professor status at the University of Michigan and took up the mantles of Professor of Environmental Health Sciences and the Charles and Rita Gelman Risk Science Professor – an honor so weighty I’m in danger of getting neck-ache!  But of course with the titles (which I’m learning seem to replicate faster than Tribbles within academic circles) comes a boatload of responsibilities, not to mention a precipitous learning curve!

As any rookie academic could have told me, I’ve just embarked on a lifestyle that requires at least 72 hours a day worth of effort – 24 hours for the stuff I want to do, 24 hours for the stuff I have to do, then 24 hours for all those things that total strangers inexplicably think I should be doing!  No sweat – as my long-suffering family will tell you, I’ve been playing that game for a while now.  But playing it as a newbie within a venerable academic institution – that’s where things get interesting.  Because at this moment it seems like I’ve just been thrown into the deep end of an alternative universe that is almost, but not quite, like the real world.

To help me come to grips with these murky yet fascinating new waters, I’ve decided to start a weekly diary on 2020 Science – this is the first one.  The intention is to post a “Lost in the Maize” blog each Friday on my new life as an academic.  The fact that this is being written on a Saturday shows that I’m already learning that time in academia is a rather fluid concept!

I’m not sure anyone will want to read these ramblings, but it seems a pity not to capture something of the new opportunities, new challenges and new lifestyle that I’m coming to terms with.  It also means I can still continue to post stuff on the 2020 Science blog when I’m too knackered to say anything intelligent! (Just to be clear, I will be continuing to post the usual “insightful, innovative and cutting edge” stuff I’m sure you’ve come to expect from 2020 Science – but maybe not as often!)

For now though, I need to go off and spend some time getting my head around this coming week – I fly out to China at some unearthly hour tomorrow for a World Economic Forum meeting, followed by a committee meeting at the National Academies in Washington DC on Friday.  I’d like to say it should be fun, and it probably will be – as long as I can carve out those other 48 hours a day while I’m on the road for all the other stuff that needs doing.

I’ll let you know how I get on in next week’s Lost in the Maize.

Note:  Just on the remote off-chance that you’re scratching your head over the title of this series, the official colors of the University of Michigan are Maize and Blue – but you knew that!