Exactly one year ago today I defended my doctoral thesis in Delft. Fast-forward one year, and I find myself writing these words in the California sun. How different life has become! Having embarked on an exciting new project, I am now challenged to think about a whole new universe of fascinating problems. Yet I do enjoy looking back every now and then to remember the good times of grad school. The good times of a protein in a box.
What is life? At the very least it is a concept that we humans find surprisingly difficult to define. Though generally wet and dynamic1, arguments about what defines life inevitably involve terms like ‘reproduction’, ‘growth’, and ‘adaptation’ – matters very common to cells and viruses alike, yet whether the latter belong to the category of living things is a matter of ongoing debate. For the purpose of this thesis (as well as for my own understanding), I adopt a less materialistic and more conceptual definition of life:
Life is a process brought forward by the self-organization of molecules, a process that seemingly violates the second law of thermodynamics2 as it increasingly acquires and maintains information over timescales that vastly exceed the lifetime of the molecules holding this information.
In this manner the distinction between a virus and a cell becomes rather meaningless: viruses are just as much part of the process that we know as ‘life’ as a homo sapiens like you or me is.3 In addition, it allows me to conveniently classify my thesis work as “an effort to gain better understanding of the molecular processes and building blocks of life”. Though this classification is rather broad – as myriads of doctoral theses written over the past century or so belong to this category – my thesis belongs to a relatively small and novel subcategory of the ‘gaining insight into the building blocks of life’ class by making use of two concepts: single-molecule and bottom-up approach.
True elegance is often found in deducing striking and sound conclusions from very simple observations – observations that are accessible to all. Michael J Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy – The moral limits of markets” seems to me a case in point. Sandel starts off with a couple of simple premisses and takes it from there, going roughly along the following lines: 1) The pre-2008 era of market triumphalism has come to an end. The financial crisis did more than cast doubt on the ability of markets to allocate risks efficiently, it also prompted a widespread sense that markets have become detached from morals – and that something needs to be done. 2) While some argue that (an increase in) greed is the cause, the most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed, but the expansion of markets and market values into spheres of life where they do not belong. 3) Inveighing against greed would therefore be a symptomatic treatment at best, we need to rethink the role that markets should play in our society. We need to think through the moral limits of markets, to ask whether there are things that money should not buy, because 4) the more money can buy, the more affluence or the lack thereof matters. 5) This can be expressed in terms of inequality, as experienced by lower and middle class families over the past decades, but also in terms of corruption. Markets are not inert as economists often assume, markets leave their mark. They can crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about. 6) Some of the good things in life can and have been corrupted or degraded into commodities. 7) The discussion of where the market belongs and where it does not has not taken place during the era of market triumphalism, as a result we have drifted from having a market economy to a being market society without realising it or deciding to do so.
Consider the proliferation of for profit schools, hospitals, and prisons; the outsourcing of war and security to private military contractors and private security firms, respectively. Consider pharma’s aggressive marketing and prescription of drugs to consumers in first world countries. Continue reading “Less mindless drift, more flavor”
Upon finishing Tony Hseih’s book that had ‘feel good’ written all over it (perhaps even a bit too much sometimes), I started reading Luyendijk’s immersion into the world of London City bankers; ’Swimming with Sharks’. Boy, the contrast with Tony’s book could not have been starker. But like with Luyendijk’s former books on journalism in the Middle East, this book was an absolute page turner. And like he did for the making of his former books, Luyendijk submerses himself into the world of his subjects and manages to paint a picture that is human, balanced, and – perhaps what gives the account a lasting impression – very non-judgemental.
He describes his initial struggle to find bankers willing to share their version of City life, shows that ‘the banker’ does not exist and that – unsurprisingly – how the world of finance entails a vast collection and wide variety of jobs. The people occupying these professions come in as wide a variety of character traits as any other profession, and though the classic stereotype ‘Master of the Universe’ loudmouth alpha does indeed exist, Luyendijk also identifies ’teeth grinders’, ‘blinkers’, and a bunch of other types of character traits that constitute this world. In short, Luyendijk shows that the people in this profession are as human as any one of us.
This leads the reader to a conclusion that is much darker and more worrisome than the picture of ‘a handful of rotten apples that ruin it for all’ would have painted though. Luyendijk points out how the whole incentive structure in banking is set up to favour short-term gains over sustainable growth and prosperity, how incentives push one to ‘eat or be eaten’, and urge every entity – the banks, the employees, the politicians, etc. – to care for nothing else but the self. In many ways the world of (investment) banking is a world of ‘grab all you can grab, because tomorrow the party might be over’. Continue reading “Shark-infested waters”
When recommended to me a couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of Tony Hseih. However, while I had hardly heard of Zappos, I had on many more accounts heard of and read about some company who offered new employees the choice to quit with a $2k bonus anytime during their 4 week introduction period. I had heard of some online retail store with an incredible customer service that did much more than was asked for. Tony turns out to be the man behind this all, and he tells his personal story in a real, open, down to earth and humorous way.
His story starts how he as a young boy wants to become rich by growing a worm farm, and takes you through his youth, college, founding LinkExchange and selling it off, and his almost religious experience at a rave. Eventually a turn of events leads him to take all of his experiences, acquired wealth, and efforts to bet it all on growing a small online shoe store in the way he thought it should be done. That is, growing it such that not only revenues or profitability would grow as fast as possible, but grow the shoe store such that everyone connected to the business in one way or another – employees, vendors, customers, investors, partners, local communities – could grow and prosper – prosper in the broadest sense of the word – with this company known as Zappos.
In 2016 this mindset has not become the standard of business just yet, but in 1999 this was a truly revolutionary way of thinking. In fact, I think many of the companies that are very pleasant to deal with these days (from my own experience I can think of Groupon (NL) with their tongue-in-cheek product descriptions and Coolblue.com (NL) with their amazingly fast deliveries, the game it offers you to play as soon as you have placed your order (to kill the time until your package arrives…), or just the very human way KLM customer service talks with you for instance) have borrowed their ‘fun’ in doing business strategy from this pioneering company.
While the second part of the book is dedicated to explaining what exactly the core values of Zappos are and mean, and stresses how they should not become a ‘meaningless plaque on the wall of the corporate lobby’, Tony’s own personal story is what truly appeals to me. He signs off with an attempt to quantify happiness, with thoughts along the line of understanding the principle components, you will become better at pursuing. Most convincing there I found the three types of happiness found in time-happiness space, where pleasure, passion, and higher purpose together form a positive slope.
Allow me to explain: first, with the lowest amount of gained happiness for the shortest amount of time comes pleasure: the thing we are all after when seeking thrills doing sports, going out, going travelling, etc. This can be seen as seeking the next high. Then, what leading to more happiness that lasts longer is something felt when totally engaged and in a ‘flow’ doing something, like anything from matters at work or during hobbies can give you. Finally, the largest chunk of happiness to be gained, which could be enough to last a lifetime, is the happiness – or satisfaction perhaps – felt when serving a purpose that extends beyond yourself: this, as I see it, is your raison d’être: it can be anything from having kids and building a happy family to building that company you believe in, pursuing scientific discoveries, helping people in your job, or doing charity work.
Personally, I read this at a moment when my raison d’être had ceased to be: my contribution to humanity’s scientific endeavours – though humble of course, yet personally fulfilling in a lasting way – had come to a pause as I had defended my dissertation months earlier. Upon reading this particular view on happiness, I caught myself at being unnerved by the sudden (apparent) disappearance of a life goal: I caught myself at pursuing the other, less sustainable types of happiness instead: mostly the thrill-seeking kind. The graph made me realise what we all already know one way or another: that while being in search of the next rush in sports, the next party, big dinner with family or friends is for most a necessary addition to a happy life, one should see this as it is: an addition. For if this is the only happiness one seeks, thorough unhappiness is never far away.
All this, and much more eloquent descriptions concerning this topic can be found on deliveringhappiness.com, go see for yourself.
What would be the musings and thoughts of Adolf Hitler if he woke up in present day Berlin, thinking he had just awaken from another night in the furherbunker in 1945?
Timur Vermes gives this premise a shot in his novel “Look who’s back“, and a very intriguing one it is I must add. Though he still has his obviously ill and distorted world views, he also very astutely addresses the present day incompetencies, bureaucratic annoyances and inefficiencies that come with modern democratic politics in a way only an outsider with dictatorial urges can do. This leads to hilarious observations, such as this little gem here:
Him on a politician’s obligations to engage in sports of any kind:
“[…] And as for appearing in swimming trunks – well, that is the most preposterous thing imaginable. You couldn’t dissuade Mussolini from doing it. And more recently that suspect Russian leader has been doing it too. An interesting fellow, no question, but as far as I am concerned it is a foregone conclusion: the moment a politician removes his shirt, his policies are dead in the water. All he will say is, “Look, my dear fellow countrymen, I have made the most extraordinary discovery: my policies look better without a shirt on.” What sort of nonsensical proposition is that?”
and so he continues his musings:
“I have even read that a German war minister was lately photographed with a wench in a swimming pool. While his troops were in the field, or at least preparing for deployment. Had I been in charge, this would have been the gentleman’s last day in office. I wouldn’t have bothered with a letter of resignation – you lay a pistol on his desk, a bullet in the chamber, you leave the room, and if the blackguard has an ounce of decency he knows what he has to do. And if not, the following morning the bullet’s in his brain, and he’s face down in the pool. Then everyone else in the ministry knows what to expect if you stab your troops in the back while wearing swimming trunks. No, bathing larks were out of the question as far as I was concerned.”
All in all a witty and entertaining novel, I am not surprised the book made it onto the movie screens.
Mao’s antwoord op wat in zijn optiek het resultaat is van de Franse revolutie? Too early to tell. Westerlingen denken in eeuwen, Oosterlingen in millennia. Tom Lanoye is niet de eerste die tot een dergelijke observatie komt, maar in zijn roman Gelukkige Slaven verweeft hij dit soort clash of civllizations-gedachten intelligent met het hedendaagse thema waarbij we in onze steeds complexer wordende wereld het overzicht kwijt lijken te raken en grip verliezen.
Als zijn voornaamste bronnen noemt Lanoye er drie: “De blog van Joris Luyendijk, Centen en de City, geschreven door The Guardian maar ook afgedrukt in De Standaard en NRC Handelsblad [beide kranten gaven respectievelijk 4 en 5 sterren aan dit boek, BB]. Voorst de grotendeels fictieve non-fictiebestseller 1421: The Year China discovered the World van Gavin Menzies. Tot slot het even informatieve als entertainende naslagwerkje 50 People who stuffed up South Africa, met teksten van Alexander Parker en Cartoons van Zapiro.”
Dave Eggers speelde met zijn De Cirkel ook al mooi in op hedendaagse thema’s, maar in dit geval zal de populariteit van Gelukkige Slaven niet uitsluitend te danken zijn aan de themakeuze – het proza van deze roman is een stuk complexer, steengoed en leest nog steeds als een trein.
In het licht van mijn overstap naar de wetenschap, besloot ik dat het tijd was voor een populair wetenschappelijk boek van een wetenschapper die erg op mijn bewondering kan rekenen: Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is een van de weinige wetenschappers die zich tot het selecte clubje van bij-het-brede-publiek-bekende-geleerden kan rekenen.
Deze Britse evolutiebioloog hield tot 2008 in Oxford dan ook de Charles Simonyi Professorsstoel ter bevordering van het begrip van de wetenschap bij het brede publiek. Duidelijk dus dat hij daar in ieder geval wist wat hem te doen stond. Of je hem nou hoort spreken, of één van zijn vele boeken leest, deze man weet helder, boeiend en met een prachtig brits gevoel voor humor de essentie van een bepaalde theorie te verduidelijken.