Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Second Paris Trip, Sept 17-24

This is a really overdue post. So much has been happening in the past few weeks, and I have really been slack at posting. This one is particularly overdue-- I had visited Paris a month ago. We had this conference on our group's direct area of research in Paris and the whole lab (excluding the techincian) went. Anton was an invited speaker, and Karen gave a talk, and the rest of us presented posters-- except Hiro, since he has arrived since six months or so. Tatsuya presented his a poster about the work from his previous lab.

The conference was from the 17th of Sept through the 21st and we stayed on until the 24th. It was good fun. Since there was a big group from our lab, we tended to stick together, and didn't get to meet and make friends with as many other people at the conference as I would have liked to. Nevertheless I did manage to meet some other people.

The conference was organized by two leading scientists in the field from Paris, from Institut Pasteur and Institut Curie, respectively. Most of the who's who in the field were there, including the "founder". It was very stimulating. It was reassuring to see my results fitting well in the current line of thinking.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon, and checked into our hotel in Rue Mouffetard, a very lively street close to the Pantheon. Anton, as an invited speaker, had been put up into another hotel. I was sharing a room with Dieter. After freshening up, we strolled towards the Pantheon-- the registration and welcome party was being held at the City Hall of the Ve arrondissement, opposite the Pantheon. We were among the first people to arrive.
The party was fun, also because we were a group, and so didn't feel lost, but then again, we never talked outside our group. Later, we went for a drink near St. Michel and actually ended up in a Mexican bar.
The conference started from Monday. The pre-lunch sessions were held in the Ecole Normale Superieure which is close to the Institut Curie. Rather crappy lunch at this college was followed by a long poster session at the Institut Curie and further talks there. There were three poster sessions, I was scheduled for Thursday.
We had dinner at an African place in the evening sans Anton (he reluctantly went for dinner organized by one of the organizers), and then went for a stroll to the Louvre complex, but after a while we split up and I went to Le Marais to meet a guy I had been talk to on the internet.

For Tuesday evening the organizers had arranged a Barge trip along the Seine. It was beautiful to see the lighted Eiffel Tower from the Seine. It was good fun. In the beginning I was hanging out with people from the lab, later on went to the top and talked to other people, especially Sebastien. By the time the trip ended, most of my colleagues were quite drunk, particularly Ruben. People still wanted to go for a drink and we planned to buy drinks for a supermarket near our hotel and sit on the square/roundabout there. But just as we were about to enter the supermarket, Neil, one of the big names in the field ran to us and suggested we join them at the (expensive) bar close by. Ruben was completely drunk since the barge, and he kept us amused with his antics. Afterwards we went to yet another bar along the street until it closed at 2 am.

Wednesday afternoon was free. Karen went shopping with a couple of girls Martin and Dieter had made friends with; and Dieter, Martin, Hiro, Tatsuya and I strolled around; went to the Arc di Triomphe, and walked back to the Louvre where we met Karen and Anton. The others went to the Louvre. I had been invited to dinner by Renaud and Christophe, my Couchsurfing hosts from my last visit.

Thursday was the last day of the conference, and it ended with a gala dinner at the Evolution Gallery of the Natural History Museum-- a grand setting. I hung out with Sebastien, for a large part of the evening, and then went to a bar near the hotel afterwards. I also met Damian, a colleague of Sebastien. Damian is Swiss-German and did his PhD on plant epigenetics. His current work is similar to mine, so we decided to meet the next day at Institut Pasteur to talk about our respective data. We left at 2 am.

We changed hotels on Friday, and Anton too moved into the second hotel close to the Jardin du Luxembourg. The weather wasn't great. Since I had some time in hand, I strolled to the Institut Pasteur and had lunch with Damian and Sebastien. The food at the Pasteur is great. After lunch and coffee (I required it!) Damian and I discussed work for around 3-4 hours and then at 6pm, we dragged Sebastien for a drink that turned into dinner. It was great fun chatting with them.
[Damian's work had not going great. After returning to Vienna, I sent him some of my data, he sent me some of their lab's... they didn't seem to match. And earlier this week, he told me that he was quitting the lab, and joining a company in Switzerland. That's a shame... it would have been so nice to continue this interaction.]

On Saturday Karen went shopping, Hiro's and Tatsuya's families were here since Friday, and so Anton, Dieter, Martin and I went to the Eiffel Tower. I had missed it during my last visit, but this time we climbed it. It's really a fantastic structure. I went quite crazy with my camera... and in this post I will inflict upon you some of the several shots I took. From there we walked to Arc di Triomphe because Anton wanted to see it. Then we split up as Anton wanted to go to Versailles and Dieter and Martin wanted to go shopping for presents for their respective girlfriends. I called up a guy I had talk to on the internet, and we strolled around Le Marais, went to a very interesting exhibition of arty stuff, browsed in a gay bookshop and had a drink at Open Cafe.
Later I strolled around in a huge supermarket near the Hotel de Ville.
We were supposed to go for an oyster dinner that evening. Although Ruben is supposedly allergic to sea food, he knew a seafood place and we went there. We had a huge tumbler full of oysters. They were ok, but I'm not crazy about oysters.

On Sunday morning, Martin and I went to Pere Lachaise. I had gone there during my last trip, but did buy a map and hence couldn't find Wilde's and a few other graves.
Later Martin joined the others at Pantheon, while I met up with this guy from yesterday and strolled around in the Jardin du Luxembourg and around the Pantheon.

The flight was in the afternoon, and rather eventless.

I really love Paris. It would be great to go back again, but I wouldn't go there for mere holidaying in the near future, considering that there are so many other places to go to. If Damian had stayed on in the Avner lab, there might have been scope for exchanging information, and reason for exchanging visits. Anton and Phil are in touch about our projects, but I don't see a reason for visiting Paris. Which is a pity.
But lets see...


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Writing Workshops

Vienna Lit is a new organization in Vienna that, in their own words, aims to provide a platform for live literature and the spoken word in English. They had organized a series of events a week ago, from Thursday through Saturday. These included four writing workshops (plus one for children) at the British Council. I attended all of them, and though I was disappointed that these workshops focussed much more on poetry than prose, I did have a great time, and gained some insight into poetry.
The first workshop was on Friday at 5 pm and so I rushed out early from the lab. I reached the British Council a bit late, but since only one other person was there, the workshop hadn't started yet.
The Sound of Poetic Sound was conducted by Anthony Joseph, and was probably the best one in the series. It is a pity that there were only two participants (well, Julia, the festival organizer participated for the first 20 min or so). As the title of his workshop suggests, Anthony emphasizes the importance of the sound words or phrases. He started off by asking us what were the stories behind our names. Both my first and last names do have interesting stories... and I tried getting away with that of my first name only, but he insisted that I relate the other story as well. He then asked us to pick up slips of paper with a word each and write down what taste, feel, sound, sight, memory do we associate the word with. Then we had to select a few of these associations and write four-five lines, and read them out. Unfortunately I don't have my write-up for this one (but I had written about the drone of a teacher teaching calculus and the wait for the bell to ring, and other stuff that I don't remember). The others immediately guessed that the word was "boredom".
The next task was to write an eight-sentence passage on anything without repeating a single word (not even articles). That was terribly difficult. I wrote:
A boy enters the room. His sister follows close behind. They stare around them, fascinated. He selects an interesting spot. She quickly does so too. What is in store for these two? Ah, wouldn't you like to know that? But I'm mean, won't say how this ends!
Then we were asked to randomize these words, so that mine became:
fascinated like ah the around is selects behind does I'm say sister spot too these she but follows for won't this his what an room close they mean he enters how so quickly wouldn't interesting a stare you store boy in them two know ends that to
We were asked to read it out, and the other participant (and he himself) was to write down groups of words that sounds interesting and/or beautiful. When Victoria, the other participant read out hers, I collected:
threadbare guardian
autumn leaf
only communicated
with they each beating
followed skeleton together
his became
only living hearts
We were to use these, add words wherever required, change tenses, cases-- whatever-- to write a poem. Mine was:
A Relationship
Threadbare guardian
His became.
Like an autumn leaf
Like life-followed skeletons;
Together, his became.
Only living hearts--
Each beating...
The others liked it-- the main purpose had been to create something that sounds nice and isn't entirely nonsensical, and I guess with a big or small stretch of imagination it could even make sense. In any case, the method was cool, and this was my first "poem" in something like 20 years. I do remember writing two or three childish ones when I was a kid.
The next workshop was on Saturday morning, at 10 am. I had gone dancing with Adam and Fabien at Why Not, and despite my resolutions had gotten back quite late, 2:30 am. Understandably, I was late for the workshop, nevertheless still before things had started properly.
The Voice Within was being conducted by John Siddique. Again, as the title suggests, the aim was to access one's "natural author's voice". The first exercise was to speak from the character's perspective. We were paired up and had to ask questions to our partners about themselves, take notes, and then introduce them as if we were them. That was interesting.
Among things he emphasized were
Never say what the author feels, don't make the reader emote. Rather show it.
Stay out of it, even if it has an "I" character.
As an example he gave us a poem:
My mother's old leather handbag,
crowded with letters she carried
all through the war. The smell
of my mother's handbag: mints
and lipstick and Coty powder.
The look of those letters, softened
and worn at the edges, opened
read, and refolded so often.
Letters from my father. Odour
of leather and powder, which ever
since then has meant womanliness,
and love, and anguish, and war.
-Ruth Fainlight
We were asked to write a few sentences about an object we associate with a person we love, and write a poem. I wrote about my brother's camera, but it didn't turn out to be satisfactory.
Dardis McNamee, professor of journalism and writing at Webster University, Vienna, conducted the next workshop on Literary Travel Writing. This was probably the most structured of all the workshops. She recommeded reading her favourite travel books, the ones that sound most interesting to me were William Dalrymple's In Xanadu and Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel. I don't remember reading much travel writing, but since I like to travel, and often try to maintain a travelogue I thought I'd do this workshop anyway.
Her tips were very interesting:
1. Learn about the place before and find out more while there. Have a knowledge of history. Keep in mind that history is the source of richness of the contemporary world. See things in light of their history. But do pay attention to the present.
Let loose the imaginative ability to see the manifestations of history in the present day.
2. Have a sense of wonder.
3. Quality of attention-- attention to details.
To go about the actual writing, she suggested,
1. Practise taking notes of a scene as if one is a set designer for a film. Key visual elements, colours, quality of light (recommended reading: books on painting and/or stage lighting), what is noticed first.
There are layers of perception. Pick out what is noticed first, what feels charming, what irritating.
2. Characters-- who do we think he is, why do we think this about him. Describe the people as with the setting.
3. Enter the scene and become involved. First person ("I walked into the room...") or first person invisible ("Entering the room...").
4. Little anecdotes of encounters. Conversations/dialogues, incidents etc.
5. The memories, experience etc that the scene stimulates one to think. Reflections, connections that one is reminded of from (a) history, or (b) personal experiences.
The last workshop was conducted by Peter Waugh on Place Writing Space. Peter is the co-founder of the poetry group Labyrinth, and it turned out that Ella from my theatre group used to go to this group. This workshop was about place, space and enviroment. He gave us a poem to illustrate two different places/spaces/environments in two parts of the same poem:
My Life in Two Parts
Outside my window is a row of poplars
growing from the turf of childhood.
Poplars grow in rows, never on their own.
It is Christmas. The sky is full of stars,
the branches are bare,
the wolves distant and menacing.
Now is the only time for oranges.
Their brisk fragrance fills the nails
as we lie in cold rooms high in the Balkans
dreaming of palm trees and the world.
Outside my window is a palm tree.
It is winter. The sky is enormous
and the ocean follows the moon.
Oranges are on the window-sill with other
tropical fruits no longer of interest.
Bright-plumed parakeets sway in the palm tree
and that's the only time I look up.
I lie in the low, stuffy rooms of adulthood
dreaming of poplars and the world.
Always, they come in rows.
-Kapka Kassabova (Someone Else's Life)
Next we were to write a similar poem describing two different times and space, yet somehow connected. My attempt was about the situation right there... a closed claustrophobic room where the workshops were being held versus the garden of the British Council where I went to write the poem:
A large well-lit room--
Scattered tables, white boards ahead.
Doors closed. "Stuffy" someone said.
Introductions-- there are seven of us.
Scribbling notes.
A task to be completed.
A lovely green lawn, a pleasant breeze--
Reddening autumn leaves on the wall ahead.
Flowers on the potted plants.
The sound of water from somewhere.
Judith at a distance writing her poem.
I guess my task is done.
Peter also told us about list poems and haikus. And our next task was to try them. I have a mental block against haikus, but nevertheless tried my hand at one. The concept of a list poem is interesting... taking a walk and making a list of things on a thing with short description, and then making a poem out of them. We were to go around in the British Council and do this.
I really did enjoy the workshops. Julia, the festival director had mentioned to me earlier that it had been extremely difficult to get the funding for this, and she isn't in a hurry to organize another such event, if at all. And that is a pity.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006


I have been tagged.
It has been quite a while, but I have been busy with this and that and as you see, I haven't been posting since three weeks. Which is a pity, as there is certainly a lot to blog about.

I am not a very social blogger, i.e., although I do browse other people's blogs and follow quite a few of these... I'm not big into leaving comments and developing friendships with bloggers. I do leave comments once in a while, and if fact I had been having a great discussion with Sebastien (the French guy I met in Paris)... but he doesn't know my blog and I comment anonymously (he knows it is me) because I wouldn't want him to see my blog because of my post on him! But anyways, since I don't comment a lot, and prefer to "lurk" on people's blogs, I have escaped being tagged... until recently.
The Visitor came across my blog via a comment I had left on Prash's, mentioned mine on his blog about blogs, has been visiting my blog with reasonable regularity, and has been commenting off and on too. And now has tagged me too. I am happy to oblige, albeit a couple of weeks late :-)
The direction is:
State nine things (weird or otherwise) about yourself. Then tag 6 others, and also let them know that you've tagged them by leaving a comment on their blog.
I will skip the second part, i.e., tagging others... simply because of the asocial reasons mentioned above, I don't know enough of others. So if there are visitors to my blog who'd like to pick up the tag, please write me a comment and feel free to accept it.
Ok, so here goes.
1. Despite all my endeavours, the Second Law of Thermodynamics plays a very important role in my life. Hey, don't run away, I'm not going to teach you Physics (after all I am a biologist, not a physicist!). Simply put, the said law posits that everything tends to chaos.
My desk. My flat. My lab bench. Doing the laundry. Cooking on weekends. Going to the gym. Correspondence/email. You name it, and if it is a part of my life, it tends to go towards chaos.
I do try to deal with it. I used to invite people over for lunch dinner quite regularly on weekends as that'd force me to clean up and cook. Couchsurfing was useful too, as having guests staying at my place means I have to clean up! I pay a whole year's membership for the gym so that I'd have more reason to go. And so on.
The silly thing is that when one thing starts to degenerate to chaos, everything else does so to. And I function terribly, at work at home, everywhere.
2. Procrastination is another thing that governs my life and is of course related to, and is in many ways the cause of, the above too. This is one thing I really wish I could change in my life. Things would be soooo much better without it.
3. My interests are just too diverse. In a way I am proud of this. My interests really range from almost everything to almost everything, and I'd look forward to newer ones. There are exceptions-- football, cricket et al. But these exceptions have exceptions too... I do enjoy watching important matches with friends or colleagues especially when there are supporters from both sides around. Anyways, but because of my interest in so many things, I don't get to stick to any of these properly. I shuttle from one to the other and leave the previous one unfinished. For example, I should really take some time out to go to the woods and photograph the autumn. Haven't been out on a proper photography tour (not tourist or social photography) for quite a long while. I should go hiking before it starts to get colder. I should write another article. I should read up on poetry. I participated in a few writing workshops last weekend (to be blogged), I am rehersing for a play that'll be performed next month. There are movies to be seen, a performance of The Glass Menagerie to be gone to. Music I have bought to be listened to. I have already bought (rather expensive) tickets for a performance of The Swan Lake for next weekend. The classical music appreciation cassettes to be listened to. Indian, French, Hungarian, German, Austrian, British, American, Iranian, Israeli, Turkish, EU expansion, immigration politics to be discussed. So many books to be read on so many things. And oh, I have to remind Fabien to explain the basics of String Theory to me.
4. I have blogged about this before: I don't like and consequently rarely drink tea, coffee or alcohol. Never smoke or take drugs. Nevertheless, I have an addictive personality. I am addicted to reading (previously it used to be books, now it is more what I get on the internet-- news, blogs etc. Books are quite under control). And I sometimes (though very occasionally) get addicted to some people.
5. I used to be very religious when I was a kid. First it was Hinduism, then it was religions and God in general. But gradually I became a full fledged atheist. The change took a couple of years but was imperceptible. I certainly was deeply religious when I was 13 as I remember discussing it (Hinduism) with a close friend. But I was a complete atheist by the time I was 17 and I remember writing to the same friend arguing against the existence of God and decrying religion.
I am a staunch believer in the importance of the concept of God for human psychology and society. And I think religion play a very important (constructive-- as well as the obvious destructive) role in the evolution of human society. Hence it is my firm policy never to try to convince a believer that God does not exist. Discussion/arguement for the sake of academic debate are fine.
I still retain an extreme interest in mythology, especially Hindu mythology.
I also love to tease very religious (Hindu) people with "inconsistencies" within the Gita. I also love Sanskrit, and can still quote quite a few shlokas.
6. I love to study people, their psychology and behaviour. It used to be so bad that I would mentally make predictions about how certain people would react under certain conditions, and would occasionally provoke those situations to test my predictions. I was really terrible. I rarely do that now. But I still like to study people. It has happened that friends have telephone me to ask for possible explanations of behaviours of friends/acquaintences/love interests of their friends.
I could not escape my own analyses as well, and that was actually good for me (see below).
7. Growing up as a gay kid, rather introverted, I used to get depressed quite often. However studying myself (this happened in Pune, Bangalore and to an extent in Tübingen), I could figure out exactly why I was depressed and why that was silly, why and how I should rectify it. It was as if I was looking at myself as a character in a novel or movie. Gradually my analyses/therapy on myself worked. And nowadays I rarely get depressed, rarely get angry. Disappointed yes, sad yes, scared yes, irritated yes, but not depressed nor angry [exceptions of the former include when I am in love, and of the latter when I am trying to buy a ticket from the Südbahnhof ticket counter... again both rare events].
A few years ago I was chatting with a gay psychiatrist on a gay website, and we happened to talk about this. He told me that they use a similar method in therapy called Cognitive Therapy. I had apparently used it on myself.
Whatever it was, I am quite happy about this.
8. I continue with the above theme. Every time I move, I change a bit of my personality. Initially it used to be subconscious, now I do it consciously. That is one of the reasons I actually look forward to moving.
9. At school we used to be taught social sciences in three sections-- Geography, History and Civics (Politics, government, society etc). I used to hate all of them, but soon after I didn't have to study them I started getting interested in them, and now I love them. I also used to dislike Biology. Now of course it is my career!
10. I'll add another bonus one to round off. I often describe myself as an incorrigible optimist with my feet firmly on the ground.
Interestingly, each of these points could form whole topics for future blogging!