Treading Water

January 11th, 2019

Our time in the USA has been full of novel experiences and surprises. I have started to write a little book, Treading Water, on my experience of the 2008 recession. Here is the Intro.

Pink Slips

3 November 2008. Tomorrow is Election Day. Obama versus McCain Day. Biden versus Palin Day. I come home from campus, expecting to be glued to the News channel and reports on election results and expectations in different States of America. My husband is upstairs in our home office, his face a brooding thunderstorm.

What’s wrong – you look as if someone just fired you!

Yes, they did. Indeed.

As Director of New Channel Partners at a start-up company in Mountain View, California, his position was made redundant – in fact, 30% of the company suddenly had ‘unneeded’ positions. This time, no golden handshake to the directors, no warning signals to employees. The CEO even took the trouble to invite all employees to a meeting the previous week to announce that the company had enough bank credit, so no one needed to worry about lay-offs. And after my husband signed the first million-dollar deal for that same company – well… that was meant as extra security.

Who would lay off people after so much reassurance? What duality would hand out pink slips on the evening when the entire country was thinking in red and blue… Republican or Democrat, Obama or McCain, Biden or Palin? Slowly realization sinks in. A pink slip on a red and blue evening is hard to digest.  I’ll have to plan ahead.

I am a PhD scientist with a part-time position at Stanford, expecting to move to full-time when the kids could manage without me in the afternoons. Stanford has made sounds of freezing positions and salaries in the sudden economic recession. I have been asked repeatedly when I would be willing to move to a full-time position. That time has now arrived. I grabbed the opportunity.

Over the next few weeks… which turned into months… and later more than a year… then three years… I had to redefine various aspects of my life. My comfort zone was shattered. There was no means of relief or escape. The world would narrow down to boundaries, procedures and regimens that I could define, and use as beacons to guide me mentally and emotionally. I had to follow instinct. I navigated a route for survival. My compass was my uncluttered upbringing, common sense, and often sheer guts. Some guidelines are described in the following pages. They paved the way to survival of the fittest.

Inhardloop

December 22nd, 2016
Ek het geleer om hom van agter af in te hardloop. Kleintyd. As ek hoor hy skakel die wit Peugeot se enjin aan in die sink waenhuis bo teen die bult en hy is op pad êrensheen sonder dat ek daarvan weet. Dan glip ek soos ‘n slinks akkedissie by die koshuis se agterdeur uit en wikkel my vierjaaroue beentjies om hom in te haal. Soos n klein stofwolkie in die grondpad sien hy my aangehol kom in sy tru-spieëltje. Witkoppie bonsend, armpies swaai en bene wikkel volstoom. Ek moet hom inhaal voor hy by die hek uit is. Dat ek kan saam. Saamry. Saamkyk. Saamsing. Saamluister. En dalk is daar n maatjie op ‘n ver plaas. Dan sien ek hy trap rem en hy wag vir my. En ons ry sandpaaie langs na plase agter duine en deur droë rivierlope vol doringbome met geel stofferblommetjies en skeletwit pendorings. Soms ry ons ver met die vinnige grondpad tot op Springbok. Dan lê ek met my kop op sy been en slaap op die voorste sitplek. As ek wakkerword is daar toebroodjies wat Mamma ingepak het. Hy weet ek wil weet as hy die pad vat, dat ek kan reg wees vir die saamry. Ek het my atletiekbene gegroei teen daardie bult, het hy vir my gesê. Met die inhardloop van sy kar. As hy my soos ‘n stofwolkie in die wit Peugeot se spieëltjie sien aangehol kom. Hy het dit hoeveel keer vir my vertel.
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Maar nou die dag, Pappa, toe vat jy weer die pad sonder om my te vertel en ek glip weer soos ‘n slinks akkedissie uit tussen al die mense en mure en vergaderings en toesprake en gassprekers en kom so vinnig as my bene my kan dra om jou bult-op in te haal. Net die keer was jy klaar uit by die hek en hoe ek ookal wuif en roep en uithaal tot ek brandasem moet bly staan,  sien ek jou nie remtrap om vir my te wag nie. En jy kyk nie om nie. Jy weet mos ek wil weet as jy êrensheen gaan. Dat ek kan reg wees met my toebroodjies en om teen jou been te slaap. Net die keer kon ek nie weet nie. En jy kon nie langer wag nie. Selfs al kon jy my in jou truspieëltjie sien uithaal om by te bly, kon jy nie rem nie. En toe staan ek alleen teen die sandpad en sien jou oor die verste bult verdwyn.
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Ek sal net hier sit en wag tussen die vygies en dorings en helder sterre tot jy later terugkom. Gelukkig is toebroodjies nie nodig vir die hardepad vorentoe nie. Daar’s n boere-oom wat vir ons biltong gee en jy gly nie weer op die nat misvloer en val jou beste pak klere in sy peetjie in nie. En daar’s n reuse-spanspek soos die ene by Baksteenhoek. En Diknek se roosterkoeke staan en rys al. Oubees se buitekamer is reg vir ons kuier.
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Ek sal bly uitkyk vir jou terugkom, maar dalk… net dalk… wag jy die keer agter die bult vir my. En as ek aanhou en uithou selfs al pyn my bene en brand my bors… dan sien ek jou wag oor die laaste bult. En jy loop in die veld en jy neurie saggies.
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Storytime

January 21st, 2016

Long long ago, in a land far far away, there lived a group of young girls, led by a smart woman who was a role model as charismatic as Sheryl Sandberg, and teaching us immensely more than Lean-In skills. With her we swam in raging rivers, slept on open beaches, camped in pouring rain, and prayed on mountaintops.  At the foot of a majestic mountain we sang serenades under oak trees before sunrise. Weekends at her home on the edge of primeval forests our nights were immersed in poetry and prose. There she would read to us, recite poems to our eager minds, enrich our lives with wisdom and whit.

When I became a mother a decade after school, she sent me a very precious gift, a tape (i.e. analog cassettes with side A and side B, allowing home recording and sharing with snail mail…) – an hour long voice recording of her poetry readings. Through the years I listened, absorbed, recited… to never let go. The magnetic recording became worn out, and after digitizing the tape awhile back, I now uploaded it to SoundCloud, to listen to this recording when and wherever I feel inclined to.  I am honored to share this snippet – poems by two great South African brothers, WEG Louw and NP Van Wyk Louw – poets whose words I can now recall at will. The poems are in Afrikaans, and even if you are not familiar with the language, listen to the rhythm, enjoy the emotion in the voice. Here’s to Este and all she meant to us.

Este: WEG Louw – NPvW Louw

Na al die kophou en  koershou en die klein bende pikkewyne was ‘Salute!’ nog nooit meer gepas.

USA11 – Ik ben een Afrikaan

December 31st, 2015

New Year’s Eve 2015

Today marks the 11th anniversary of our arrival in the USA. I can say with pride that I speak English like a Californian and Afrikaans like a Bolander. I am also now the proud owner of a Blue as well as a Green passport, and have citizenship on two continents, on both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed on both sides of the equator. At times this balancing act resembles the wild ride on two circus horses, an unrehearsed trick that threatens to tear you right apart.  Contrary to Fiddler On The Roof’s Tevye, I cannot ‘tell you in one word’ that it is Tradition that allows me to keep my balance in this wild gallop, this treadmill around the sun. It is rather a tedious process of molding around a central core, chiseling and grinding till you become a changed person from the one that arrived here 11years ago, and also different from the one you would have been, had you never taken that giant leap acrosse the ocean. In one of the most complex societies and the most multiplexed cultures in the world – this life in Silicon Valley – one has to decide who you are and what you strive for, and I ofen reflect on the words preached to us in High School ‘you have to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything’. I now recognize how my family has gradually shaped a South-African-Californian fusion in our taste of cooking, reading and activities. This is not a true fusion of cultures. Culture is one of the qualitative aspects of humanity which is hard to  define, and impossible to quantify – especially in an era where data and computational significance are increasingly demanded. Through trials and tribulations, often treading water in a raging current, my changed form has been molded and my new being is gradually crystallizing. Above all I have new clarity, and it dawns on me with every new sun. I know my foundation, I am comfortable with my inner core. I cannot deny it. Ik ben een Afrikaan. And I agree with Chris Barnard who describes it so eloquently: it is not a uniform I am wearing, it is a roof under which I find shelter.

May this great Afrikaan rest in peace.

swaerste

March 25th, 2015

die nuus het raafswart deur die oggendlig gevlieg

my pa se stem kraak 10,000 myl ver

teen my oor

ons harte breek

tyd versplinter en word weer langsaam

volkome

verblindend finaal kon ons 30 seconds-wenspan

nie die akute antwoord uitstel nie

tussen Londen Dakar en Kaap

is n onbekende grenspos oorgesteek

en verward brand ek ver kerse en tulpe en gebede

my suster! my suster!

nou is ons vrae nietig

sonskitter karooswaer

die gordyn het gesak met die applous

jubelend ses-en-veertig

ons encores en einders

strek blinkblou na jou toe

The victory of the unseen

March 22nd, 2015

And then the news came from Science: Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge winners have been announced! First I got a phone call… THE CALL. Delightful news! (though I was sworn to secrecy… no sharing, telling, tweeting, rejoicing or celebrating before the press release in the new year….) And so we waited. Science Writer Mark Peplow contacted me for detailed information, more congratulations, and support with the writing of the skills applied and science behind my Illustration entry – and then a delightful Sherlock Holmes hunt to find the sculptor of the Hand used as background for my Illustration of microbial victory. Science had a beautiful story in their press release – and the rest of the world followed… What a thrill!! National Geographic Today, Wired, Popular Science, Science News, Daily Mail, in LumiByte, my own Stanford Medial School, Stanford Daily (the best of), Stanford Scope (blog) and Stanford Medical Facebook Page… and recently their Alumni page under ‘Buzz Worthy’. NIH director featured it in his Director’s blog, and BBC contacted me for use in their upcoming series ‘Human Universe’. Further media coverage continues, highlighting biofilms in context as recently in Live Science (NSF).

Heritage

January 31st, 2015

Tanya’s Heritage

This is one of the most imaginative and delightful series of art I have laid eyes on. The perfect antithesis, and at the same time complementing each other: Norwegian ice and white, and African sun and black, both filled with legends and folklore, cultures known for their stories, their tokens, their rituals and gods. Opposite hemispheres and landscapes, yet filled with similarities that seem perfectly logical (now that it’s done!) to blend in art. I am not sure why I am so drawn to this series… it may be the whispering to my roots and soul, black-and-white harmonies in my bones, a perfect piano keyboard resonating from Tanya’s lens and legends into printed media. Growing up in the hills of Zululand, close to Umgungundlovu in a house of science and arts, she has an invigorating foundation to create something amazing – as this series has just proven. Tanya, you did something extraordinary here, and I am looking forward to more!

Reductionism to Oblivion

December 21st, 2013

During the past few centuries we have turned science into a reductive analysis of complex natural systems, and to such an extent that we’re left with a chaotic distribution of small parts, of substructures of the whole. In reassembling the whole, we now resemble children on a play-mat strewn with Lego bricks, but with little appreciation of what we’re aiming for. The diagram for reconstruction got lost. Why?

Descartes, according to historians, paved the way for reducing complexes to a multitude of simplexes. The process of reduction makes it easier to analyze smaller individual units than endeavoring to give meaning to the sum total of the whole. Holism, on the other hand,  views concepts from the opposite side, looking at the large entirety, with integration of all components, but generally not analyzing every individual component to the molecular level. The interaction of smaller parts, and influence of individual parts on the whole, is viewed as integrated, for a full understanding of the complex structure. In holism the function of the whole cannot be understood in terms of the sum total of the fundamental parts. The whole is always more than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, in reductionism the interaction of individual parts is not accounted for, and the contribution of fundamental influences of substructures on each other is not integrated into a full picture. And we are dedicated to reduction. We dedicate our minds, our time and funding to the reductive approach. We study the gears of a machine without putting it in motion, we describe the wings of a bird without watching it fly, we analyze the contents of a brook without letting it flow. We break apart the physics and chemistry of the smallest fundamental components but lose the perspective to recompile them all into one functioning structure, organism or concept.

The process to reassemble a multitude of subunits into a meaningful whole, is complex. And since we are hooked on reduction, we analyze the reconstruction process, the steps of reassembly, and break it into smaller units, tasks, or project steps, each well defined and eventually fitting into a cost structure, in paid-for services, in milestones, stage-gates and project aims. Since the process to put the parts together into an integrated entirety has now also become compartmentalized, and ultimately reduced to itemized projects, we have lost the natural flow in the assembly of the greater. The holistic approach has once again been put back even further through our stubborn persistence with reductionism. First we took things apart to analyze them, and now we take the reconstruction process apart to find out how to put things back together. We’re reassembling a complex structure from reduced entities, and through further reduced steps of assembly. This sound very similar to Tinkertoy, Meccano, Lego, Lasy… all the great construction toys on the market. The main difference is that without a proper diagram for assembly, every player may end with a slightly altered product, even when rebuilt from the same sub-units. We reconstruct entities that we understand to the minutest detail – but the original composition is hard to find, altered or misinterpreted. And since the reassembly is now done in a time-constrained regimen with financial targets, the paradigm for scientific reassembly and reasoning has changed.We have broken down the reconstruction into project stages, charge monetary value to every action, and in a business-like scientific world, where budget constraints throttle every minute, every action is monitored, logged and paid for. Every scientific process is a race against money, a challenge in time, and no longer a challenge in understanding. Oftentimes the final conclusion seems like a reminder of something we have known all along, and then we wonder, how could we NOT have realized that right from the start.

The face of science is altered, once again. The quest for its true soul is intensified.

Mense van klein plekke

December 12th, 2013

My sus ken Fraserburg se mense en die mense van die plek ken haar. As jong onderwyseres, vars gegradueer in BA-Tale-met-HOD-van-UPE begin sy daar skoolhou in 1979… Afrikaans letterkunde, literatuur, poësie, stelwerk, drama, dialoog… sy voer Hoërskool Fraserburg tot wentrofee in die eindronde van die ATKV toneelfees. Op Fraserburg ontmoet sy ook vir Tian, wat haar geliefde en sielsgenoot sou word. En wat té vroeg en onverwags sy tentpenne uitgetrek en die ouderdom gefnuik het… om net in ‘foto’s-tot-46′ te verskyn… maar in herinneringe en impak ad infinitum. Deur die vloedwaters swem sy en haar drie meisiekinders kop-omhoog en hou mekaar bo. Sink is nie ‘n opsie nie… mens hou aan tot jy weer grond raak. Oor die verlies van ‘n ander bekende Karoomens  stuur sy vir my die harts-essay aan: ‘Kwaad vir God en die dood‘. Ek lees weer van mense se gewoontes, kostelikhede, kombuise en kos. Gasvryheid (wat meesal saam met kos gaan). Familiebande. Veld en natuur. Ek besef hoe verweef is ons Afrikanerbestaan met ons gedigte. Met trots. In my tuiswêreld kán almal nou trots wees op hul eie unieke kultuur. Wat vir ander net ‘n kort sinnetjie is (‘en aan ‘n God kan glo…’), herken ek in Toon van dan Heever se ‘Hoëveld’. Wat ook oop en hemelwyd is, met huppelende kuddes gras, en ‘n huis wat mens vir geld (geleenthede, loopbaan, roem?) moes agterlaat. En eindelik vir die ewige wegtrek.

En ek onthou. Soos ek seker is sy ook doen…

Mense van klein plekke is groter, hulle voetspore dieper, en met die weggaan, hulle plek leër… Maar die krag vir opstaan is wyer en sterker en hemelhoog.

Hiking with the boys

October 28th, 2013

Setting out on our overnight hike in the Outeniquas: Niels (8), Dieter (5), Pierre-Henri (2).

Summer 1995, when the boys were 2, 5 and 8 years old respectively, we decided it was time to spend a night in the mountains – and what better wilderness than the area around my hometown George? We would hike the first day of the famous Outeniqua Hiking Trail, overnight at Tierkop Hut, and hike down to Saasveld Forestry Station the next day. The young family Joubert was in high spirits when my dad dropped us off at the foot of the mountain, where the trail started. Two backpacks, 5 sleeping bags, food and liquid for 2 days, and warm clothes for the night. The youngest was just out of diapers… After a lovely (though strenuous) uphill hike through forests and pine plantations we found the cabin, made a huge fire and dinner, went to bed early and tried to settle down for the night. The cabin was dusty, and looked weather-beaten and dirty, as if people had not slept there for quite some time… But we decided that was simply part of the bundu experience, cleaned up as best we could, and got into our sleeping bags. We were exhausted and finally all fell asleep.

The next day, taking the route down the eastern side of the mountain, we ran into trouble: signposts were flattened by recent wind-storms and rain, apparent new paths were washed into the mountain side by flood waters – and previous routes disappeared with vegetation blown over tracks and trails. After following gravel roads and minor tracks for half the day, we crossed an unexpected weir and noticed the huge Garden Route Dam (strangely) to our left. We realized we were no longer following the trail on the map – we were in fact not even on the map… but kept going. The town was just below us, down the mountain. We both had hiked the Outeniqua Trail before – twice. Though we could see the familiar landmarks, we were simply unable to reach them. It was indeed a strange and desperate feeling – especially since we knew the strength in these little legs walking with us, would not last forever, and many kilometers may be needed to get to a safe haven. Crisscrossing the river, unable to find our way to the forestry station, it seemed to be the right time to seek help. Then the sky became overcast, the first rain drops fell, and it was getting dark… Also, our food and water supplies were low, and we did not have a tent or any form of shelter with us. I already imagined us sleeping under a bush for the night.

In the 90s cell phones were rare and cell phone reception poor. We had the company phone with us, and decided it was best to walk till we found reception, and then call my dad for help. And, lo and behold, Dad got our call, and asked us to describe our surroundings. Through years of mountain biking and hiking in those mountains, he could more or less determine our position from a description of our surroundings: forestry watch tower to the right, Garden Route Dam to the left, pine plantation below us…. He instructed us to stay on our current path, and he would drive up in his ‘bakkie’, carrying his bike, whistle and flashlight. If he could not drive further, he would take his mountain-bike, and blow his whistle while flashing the light, till we could see him – and flash back. Surrounded by dense indigenous forests we were pushing our luck.  If his orientation was correct, he might be able to meet us in the mountain.

And he did. Seeing his light, and hearing him coming up the mountain was probably one of the most relieving moments of my life. He found us halfway up a deserted forestry road, the courageous family Joubert, quite timid but overjoyed at the sight of him appearing from the semi-dark forest. At that stage the youngest was wrapped on my back, African style, sucking his thumb, and the oldest two were dirt-smeared, holding on to their water bottles. But their eyes lit up like stars in the southern night, filled with excitement and delight in the face of so much adventure.

Dad drove us home where Mom had warm soup, a hot tub, and cozy beds.

We had a life story to remember.

Cape capensis

July 17th, 2013

Hiers n Trader Joe’s  ‘Organic for the working class’ naby my huis, waar ek onlangs die stokvis ontdek – en skielik wonder, het die outjie dalk by Vleesbaai gewei daar teen Kowa se bank… of Stemerklip? Of om die draai by Fransmanshoek se Malbaai… of voor by die Saal? Visplekke waar ek kleintyd saam met my pa gaan rots’hengel’ het, douvoordag opstaan as die gety reg is, en dan sit en sit en wag en wag… en as ek gelukkig is kan ons doodsveragtend teen die kranse afklouter en die stompkop/beenbek of kabeljou gaan ‘gaff’…! Aas uithaal was iets wat vandag in Discovery Channel opspraak sou verwek: my pa klim af in die diep skeure vir rooiaas en ’siffies’, ek sit bo en hou die deinings dop tot die volgende grote wat oor die rotse gaan slaan en my pa daar sal afslaan as ek nie betyds waarsku, of reg oordeel nie… Ja, ons was strandlopers en ons het dit nie besef nie. Getye was soos asemhaal en volmaan-springgety was die beste. Opstaan 4-uur in die oggend om 5-uur op die rotse te wees was nie vreemd nie. Laterjare het ek die duinepad Fransmanshoek toe gehardloop om reg te wees vir die atletiekseisoen. Ons was so bevoorreg. Ons was so mens! En my hart trek met n punt na daardie menswees.
Dit is nog daar, nie waar nie?
Ten minste die springgety is nog daar, en die stokvissie wat alliepad tot in Kalifornie getoer het om my te laat onthou.
En verlang
Na strandlopertye.

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Distance Runner

May 26th, 2013

I used to train to the rhythm of this poem… just found the original writer was the Australian coach Percy Cerutty, who took Herb Elliott to gold in the 1960 Olympics. So here, a stanza from ‘The Distance Runner’, as I ran to it, and still do: some poetic freedom may have been included by my coach.

Running, running hear the beat! Bursting lungs and pounding feet,

Straining gaining, till you’re done, or have the race well won.

Racing, pacing, rather die than give up or let them by.

Training, gaining wet or cold, you’ll complain and say you’re sold.

But you’ll stick to it every day, until you found you’ve made your way

And when the race of life is run, you will know that you have won.

Is there enough glue…?

November 27th, 2012

I just discovered Tim Flannery’s new book “Here on Earth”.

I read, Plato (The Republic): In the ideal society mine and thine means the same thing. That is what prevails in the ant colony. The interest of the individual ant is entirely concordant with the interest of the colony as a whole.

Is that what King Solomon means when he says: go to the ant, lazy ones, watch its ways and become wise. That’s not the case with humans. Plato categorizes
democracy as among the imperfect forms of government, which it clearly is. But for a willful, upright ape it seems to be the best. As Churchill said, it’s the worst of all forms of government apart from every other that’s been tried. If you look around the world at the way democracies actually operate, I think you can see cause for hope. There is a commonality that is sufficient to make things work.

The basic question is – is there enough glue to hold a global superorganism together? To allow our commonality to bind us in sustainable actions? To allow some of us to formulate these actions and make the rest of us follow? What will this glue constitute? Religion has always torn people apart. Patriotism has divided nations since Paradise. Service, or work towards a common goal are abundant with socialist elements. We need a common mindset, a unified vision of Earth as unique and delicate organism that needs to be protected by her inhabitants. Our spaceship is under attack by the very people who travel in her. We seem like a viral invasion of a body that nourishes and protects us. If all could have the vision of a few tree huggers a peaceful symbiosis with our carrier organism may be possible. How do we propagate this thought through the collective mind of the human superorganism? How do we create this glue to unify us in vision? We not only need to get it right, we need to do it fast. Our media and social networks stretch around the globe like neurons, like arteries and connective tissue. Still this has not unified our mindset, has not brought world peace and a common effort to sustainable living. If we can formulate the glue that will hold us together, we may be able to propagate it through these nerves and veins, and travel a while longer on our precious spaceship Earth.

Spring

November 27th, 2012

Lynn, mother of Gaia

January 9th, 2012

A doyenne of science passed away, a diva of earth is silent. A maestro of microbiology died last week, a guru of geosciences is with us no more. And the world hardly shed a tear.

On 22 Nov 2011 Lynn Margulis, Microbiologist and prof of Geosciences at U Massachusetts died of a hemorrhagic stroke. On the internet I found a short announcement a few days later. She was a graduate of UC Berkeley. She was the wife of Cosmos guru Carl Sagan. Shall we ever forget those dazzling ideas and that captivating voice? She had 3 sons and 1 daughter, and “I quit my job as a wife twice,” she once said about the difficulties of balancing science and domestic life. “It’s not humanly possible to be a good wife, a good mother and a first-class scientist. No one can do it — something has to go.” Her supreme and extraordinary mothering skills are perhaps proved in the way she collaborated with her son Dorion  to publish scientific books containing her controversial ideas in more acceptable and ’softer’ approach to the general public. Her children all excelled professionally. They all honored her skills.

She also was known, somewhat controversially, as a collaborator and supporter of James E. Lovelock, whose Gaia theory states that Earth itself is something of a living organism. Atmosphere, geology and organisms form a self-regulating system, maintaining the conditions that allow its perpetuation. Earth itself is alive. Our Mother Earth. Gaia. And her endosymbiontic theory, that eukaryotic cells developed through symbiosis of prokaryotic cells, organelles like mitochondria and choroplasts originated as symbiotic bacteria, was rejected 15 times… 15 journals… before being accepted for publication. She never quite received the recognition she deserved for her great theories. She did get a Science Medal. She deserved a Nobel Prize.

She considered her ideas not ‘controversial’, she considered them ‘right’. She gave the world the female view of evolution, where competition and blood in the fight for survival of the fittest is replaced by symbiosis and collaboration. A peaceful approach for growth and excellence. A ‘do-unto-others’ view of life. And Gaia smiled gently at her vision and efforts, welcoming the struggles to find her laws.

A synopsis by one reporter caught my eye  Read the rest of this entry »

Seven years in the USA – Happy 2012!

January 6th, 2012

Today seven years ago, the little family Joubert put foot on shore on the West Coast… not of Africa, not from the small ships ‘Berg China’ and ‘Voorschoten’, and the year was not 1688… It was on the West Coast of America, California, 5 people with 2 bags each, a violin, guitar, clarinet and teddy bear…and with the same hope, passion, and enthusiasm as our Huguenot forefathers in the 1600s at the Cape of Good Hope. If I knew then what I know now, would I do it again? Quoting Carl Sagan: ‘What I’m asking is, are we happier…is this world fundamentally a better place?’ I’ll spend the next 48hrs contemplating just that. In the meantime 2012 is beckoning with a wide grin and waiting just around the corner! I may have to revisit Carl Sagan and conclude ‘Small moves, Ellie, small moves…’

In the past seven years we danced on the mountaintops – but also trembled in the valley of death. We had soft rain on our faces, and also blizzards and hurricanes on our back. The gentle winds lifted our kites and we set our sails for new horizons – while wild storms tied us down and threatened to sink our ship. We survived! I guess we experienced the entire spectrum of life. We grew and flourished, holding on to our values, each other and the biggest of all, that is Hope. Home will always be where the heart is. And our hearts will always be tied to our roots. The dance of life is included in the fight for survival of the fittest. Our challenges indeed become our joys, and with faith, hope and love, we will not go quietly into the night. May the treasures of 2012 be reachable and the harvest fill our barns once more. And may we look out for each other and the small blue dot we inhabit.

Peace and Joy to all! Happy New Year!

We destroyed the soul of Higher Education, we killed the soul of Science.

February 8th, 2011

However, in a paper from 2001 I advocated just the opposite. I recall saying that the transformation in Higher Education could lead us back to its true essence. Could help us rekindle its Soul. And if a University is a ‘place of light, of liberty and of learning’ not a single transforming force would have the capacity to diminish any aspect of this spirit.

So what changed?

In my 2002 paper I highlighted 3 transforming forces: (1) corporatization (2) accountability (3) new technology. The evolutionary process by which higher education has been transformed through the ages is needed to adapt our structure to fit into a socially and technologically altered world. The knowledge centre around which higher education revolves would not be quenched by these transforming forces.

Or will it…?

Corporatizarion/marketing… new technology… accountability. Contemplating the changes in academia over the past few years, and the metamorphosis that science has undergone to enhance the pace of research, I can see (and feel) how the face of science has been influenced, how its soul has been altered. As with any reductive analysis, not a single one of these forces would indicate a capacity to cause a revolution in academic science. However, collectively the new corporate spirit in science, with paid-for services, kit-based analysis, and intellectual property demands have changed the face of science, and diluted its soul. Just how, I feel every day. The battle for the soul of science has only just begun.

discovery

January 21st, 2011

My cochlear stem cell SEMs!

It was only after seeing the structures with the electron microscope…
that these collaborators realized they were on the right track in producing stereocilia from cochlear stem cells. I do weekly imaging sessions for them to follow the course of their experimentation, improve on physiological conditions, wile optimizing correlative techniques between light and EM imaging. A lot of time is spent searching for the proper cell development (at 5,000x magnification that is quite a challenge on a 12mm circular plate!). Optimizing the SEM signal for high-resolution imaging of structures a few micron in length, and the tip-links at the nano-scale, this remains a challenge for Tungsten-filament Variable Pressure SEM. Eurekas and high-fives are common during the imaging sessions!

American poets

January 9th, 2011

I now know why, living outside America, we were never introduced to American poetry. In fact, we thought America never had any remarkable poets… Had their voices been known outside these borders, nobody would want to come live here. The rate of immigration would have slowed down… even stopped.
And where would America have been then?

America: I’ve given you all and now I am nothing (Allen Ginsberg)
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing…
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

We’re living in another recession
depression
and I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked
(yes Allen)
What is it with you, oh America, that you act like a flock of blind sheep without a shepherd
no direction till someone popularizes one iconic item, markets one flawed artifact
and you all jump into the river, a migratory stampede into over-indulgence
exploitation that leaves the weak naked and the rich spinning more gold
Rumpelstiltskin
demanding our jewels, our relationships, our off-spring
shameless America

our mother Earth is dying and her children dance in rags
and in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway
across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night
to free us with new poets
who can tell the naked
truth
and rekindle a flame in the mediocre minds of my generation
so the windows of the skull can again reflect the light
that called us here
to America
Oh yes, Allen
it also occurred to me that I am America

end of a romance

July 22nd, 2010

Today I installed my new Tousimis CPD. Then the first trial run. I was overjoyed. It was awesome. It was fully automated, efficient and precise. And quiet.
I was perplexed… Gone are the days of screeching, hissing, whining and bursting sounds echoing down the hallways, so that students turned their heads, and looked scared around the door when the critical point drier was running. We did call it ‘the bomb’ in the 80’s!
Is this the end of the romantic era of SEM processing? One lonely tube is still convulsing, exhaling carbon dioxide. For the rest… peace and quiet and precision.
I think I’m going to love it!