A note to those people who are praying for me

My chemistry has not been going well. Essentially nothing I’ve attempted in the last year has worked, which will make finding my next job very difficult. This has had me relatively stressed out with work for a number of months.

A bunch of people have been praying for me, specifically that I’ll find a breakthrough.

I really appreciate the sentiment. Maybe I’ve overthought this, but I’d like to make a humble request…

My life is easy. I’ve worked hard to do something I love but I’ve never had to overcome great hurdles, endure hardships or fight prejudice to get there. Every day I’m in a lab is a day I’m doing something I love. I get paid for it. I can support my family. My work is worthwhile (at least, I think it is). I develop my own ideas and follow them through. To pray for a breakthrough in my chemistry seems to me to be praying for a cherry on my massive, delicious cake.

The thing is, I could work harder. I could procrastinate less. I could be more organised, more efficient, more diligent. I could do more reactions.

So my request is, if you’re going to pray for me, pray for this: pray that I have the enthusiasm, determination, focus and stamina in my work so that if I do get a breakthrough, I will have damn well EARNED IT.

Dear drivers…

Dear drivers of internal combustion engine vehicles,

It’s not my place to preach to you about the rules of the road; you are, of course, more qualified in that area than me. In practice, most road users have not memorised the highway code despite legally being expected to abide by it.

But there is one small part of the law that many drivers wish to discuss with me. Disappointingly, this discussion invariably takes place at 25 mph, in 5 seconds and with a window between us.

Should you and I ever need to engage in such an exchange, allow me to take this (more appropriate) opportunity to clarify my position:

Highway Code #63:
…Use of cycle lanes is not compulsory and will depend on your experience and skills… [Law HA 1835 sect 72] (emphasis mine)

Many thanks,

My slow motion tattoo

Each day I take my bike to work. This involves a short ride down the A57 to Manchester Piccadilly station, getting on a train to Leeds, and then a shorter ride up the hill to the university. Taking my bike on the train means I have to carry it through the stations at either end.

I’ve been impressed at how quickly my body has become accustomed to taking the weight directly on my right shoulder. The bike isn’t heavy, but it’s not soft and at first my shoulder became quite bruised in this routine and I found myself throwing spare t-shirts and hoodies over my shoulder before picking it up. But after a few weeks the shoulder figured out what the deal was and now I can carry that elegant lump of metal indefinitely while using both hands to do something else.

There has been, however, another interesting consequence of hauling my bike around in the same way day after day: I’ve developed a tattoo. While carrying, my right forearm comes into close proximity of the chain and sprocket at the pedals. No matter how well or often I clean it, the drivechain of the bike is always black with grease - a product of regular road riding. So, at least once a day my arm will come into contact with the chain and I’m left with a chain-shaped stamp to carry around for the rest of the day.

The marks only last a few days, but this happens regularly enough to leave me with a semi-permanent, shifting and morphing chain-imprint tattoo. At first it didn’t bother me but I’ve grown to like it. It’s something of an identifying mark, a pointer to how my daily routine and lifestyle immediately affects me. I am what I do.

I really like the basic idea of tattoos, personal personalisation. An immediate and visual insight into someone’s personality. It always bothers me how many people draw conclusions on a person’s character just on the basis that they have a tattoo, but that’s another rant.

But there are a few items in the feature set of tattoos that preclude me from getting one:

1. They are permanent. My personality, character and personal style at the age of 50 will not be the personality, character and style of the man I am today. Hell, my character today is not the same as it was a year or two ago and, indeed, changes on a daily basis depending on my mood. And wouldn’t it be cool if you could alter a tattoo as you go?
2. They age poorly. The skin is a temporary, changing organ, shedding dead cells and renewing itself very very quickly. It changes a lot over the years and tattoos do not fare well in this process. They end up looking like crap pretty quickly.
3. They are stationary. Stuck where nobody can see it or where everybody can see it. What if you don’t think it’s appropriate for a job interview, a tiny fraction of your life? Tough. You should have put it somewhere less visible, or not got it altogether.

So here’s where my new ‘tattoo’ really wins me over. It is none of the above. It’s constantly renewed and changing. It’s not permanent (I can always be careful to avoid contact with the chain if I need to brush up for something at the weekend), and it’s not stationary (although I don’t pay any attention to whether or not my arm touches the chain ever, nevermind where it touches the chain).

Which makes me wonder, has anyone ever come up with a real tattoo that functions in this way? Something that would operate like a temporary stamp, that could be altered in design and would be reapplied every few days, weeks or months (depending on preference). Not just a temporary tattoo, but a semi-permanent, slow motion, stop motion personal animation. Use of 3D printing and computer-aided generative design could result in some really interesting applications of this.

I should say, by way of clarification, that I don’t consider the smear of grease on my arm to approximate the style or purpose of a tattoo in any way. It doesn’t. It’s a smear of grease. It does, however, embody many of the features I would like in a real, proper tattoo (visable mark relating to some aspect of my character, semi-permanent, changeable, etc.).

In which our author is an idiot.

There is a musician called Adam Wiltzie. I can’t really say how much I admire this guy, much of his music has redefined how I enjoy music and how I listen to it. He is half of the duo ‘Stars of the Lid’, for which he is most well known, who make stunningly serene, patient and beautiful ambient soundscapes. Their reputation in the ambient/experimental ’scene’ is massive. But for me, his solo album as ‘Dead Texan’ is the most amazing thing. Easily one of my favourite albums. Wiltzie has also made music in serveral other guises in collaborations with others and, as a rule, if he goes near a mixing desk I will purchase the result.

Low are another of my favourite bands. Perhaps top of the list. Just ask Nic and Noah. I’m pretty sure Low would be one of Nic’s favourite bands, too, if it weren’t for the fact that I play their records incessantly around the house.

I went to see Low play at the Academy a few weeks ago. The gig was great. My friend and I arrived early enough to catch most of the support act, a guy/girl duo. The girl was playing piano (fake piano/keyboard) and singing while the dude was making ambient string-style fades on both guitar and keyboard. It was quite pretty, chilled and enjoyable. But I didn’t really enjoy it too much because I had some opinions about the guy’s ambient noodlings.

Volume swells on guitar have become pretty standard in ambient music and its a style that has been used and abused in various areas of music ever since SotL (Adam Wiltzie) popularised the technique. I use volume swells ALL THE TIME. What bugged me about this guy was that that’s all he did. He made a wooey noise on guitar and then turned to his keyboard and made the EXACT SAME wooey noise on a keyboard. It was derivative and unimaginative and a bit cheap.

Basically, what he was doing is something I would have done on my guitar without thinking about it, at my least creative.

So, recently I heard that Adam Wiltzie had made a new record in a new collaboration called Sleepingdog. I got quite excited. I heard this album yesterday. I guess you’ve figured where this is going…

The dude whose ambient noodlings bugged be as derivative and unimaginative was Adam Wiltzie. The guy who redefined the guitar’s place in ambient music. The guy who can be heard in ever strum of my guitar. The guy whose creative output has been derivatised in everything I ever write.

Now there’s a lesson in humility.

The Sleepingdog album is beautifully haunting and hauntingly beautiful. Please ignore every opinion I ever have about any music ever.

Fish Don’t Know They’re in Water


Fish don’t know they’re in water.
If you tried to explain it, they’d say, “Water? What’s water?”
They’re so surrounded by it, that it’s impossible to see.
They can’t see it until they get outside of it.

That article goes on to talk about culture. People can’t see their own culture until they are outside of it. This strikes a chord with me and relates to how I feel about experiencing other cultures.

I learned so much from living in Japan. I don’t just mean I learned a lot about Japan, its people and language: I learned a lot about myself. Sounds corny and vague but I’m serious, every day was a revelation. Huge things that everyone in my own culture takes for granted I quickly learned aren’t universal. Sometimes the polar opposite dominates.

That experience is a weird drug. You’re disconnected from yourself for a moment. You’re outside of the water.

If you’re careful, you can catch it - you can catch your brain making the double-take - those moments to go from ‘my world view is wrong’ to ‘my world view is redrawn’. It’s beautiful and inspiring and it makes you a new person every day.

Live in a foreign culture. I can’t recommend it enough.

Trentemoller - Live at Roskilde

Trentemoller’s live EP is a thing of beauty, and one of my favourite pieces of electronic music.

It’s the crowd that make it. They’re right up for it, clapping out the basslines, cheering the recognisable and well intergrated samples and getting lost in a frenzy at every crescendo. They’re an instrument themselves, played by the DJ. And it results in a very human element over the dark, clattering electro.

As alchemy goes, it’s sublime.

Chemists make the best infographics

New phone is awesome

Having a decent smart phone has been awesome.

Getting my first computer was a revelation in my life. All of a sudden I could do so many things I hadn’t been able to do before: check my email anytime; watch dvds; digitise my music collection; download music; not have to go to the library to do work; burn cds; surf whenever I wanted (and without uni restrictions); play with graphics apps; etc. (it was a couple of years before I started recording music). It was then that I really became someone who made stuff. The PC was the single most useful and versatile tool I could employ, and now that I had one there were so many things I could create without needing more tools.

Since then, each new PC has been less exciting. They’ve each been accompanied by the ’shiny new toy’ feeling for their increased power, wireless capability or portability. But none since the first have embodied that same lasting excitement of a new tool that opens up new creative possibilities. Each PC since the first has been a slight improvement on the previous tool. Not a new tool.

Tellingly, despite successive upgrades, I’ve not created nearly as much cool stuff on any machine than I did on that first Dell desktop.

But getting a new phone recently has given me on many occaisions that same feeling of new possibilities and broadened horizons that I had back in the summer of 2002. Man, there’s so much stuff I can do with this thing! Read ebooks; run a task list; sync documents and files to anywhere with Dropbox; check email (work and gmail) anywhere; surf; geocache; read ebooks on the train; make notes anywhere (ubiquitous capture!); photograph everything (I’ve missed doing this since the days I carried a digicam everywhere with me), and upload it instantly; audio recording lectures; videoing anything; sat nav; get gps data and stats for bike journeys; Twitter makes more sense; maps (I’m never lost); watch TV; read comics! Having a digital calendar is really worthwhile now.

My new phone is awesome.

To cite or not to cite?

I’m writing the introduction to my thesis and going through the background chemistry. Part of this involves looking into Mitsunobu reactions of tertiary alcohols.

Here’s what I know, Mitsunobu reactions of tertiary alcohols DO NOT WORK.

Well, not under reasonable situations, only fundamental variations on reaction conditions or battering the hell out of the reaction ever affords the slightest trace of product.

Except for one example. One example in a natural product synthesis where an absolutely beautiful Mitsunobu reaction takes place in 94 % yield under very standard reaction conditions without as much as a comment from the author. A reaction that really should not work.

The paper is here (if you have access).

The problem is that this particular publication caused a bit of a stir. Mostly because its fake, or so most people believe. The story (if you haven’t heard it) is here (and somewhere on every chemistry blog ever).

So this is my problem: I don’t believe this reported reaction ever took place. But, it has been reported, peer-reviewed and accepted. It has not been retracted (yet). Do I cite the reaction and discuss it with the presumption that the author is telling the truth (like I do for everything else I write about)? Do I pretend it doesn’t exist? Or do I discuss it and mention the controversial nature of the report?

Melancholy is incompatible with bicycling

James. E. Starrs