Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Part 6: The Student's Tale

Previously: Part 5. The Music Pirate.

August 24, 2014. Los Angeles International Airport.

Today I flew to California. Back over the Andes. Now I'm in the land of good burgers and free drink refills.

After clearing security in LA, the first thing I did was log in to the free airport wifi. And I had this waiting for me. It's my last guest post, and I think it's the best yet. It's from a woman who was a fellow PhD student with Prick; they even worked together on their thesis projects. What a scoop! Listen to her story...

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Part 5: The Music Pirate

Previously: Part 4. The Postdoc's Tale

August 20, 2014. Cordoba, Argentina. 

Bangalore was a lot of fun, but my visit was obviously engineered entirely by my old friend, so that I could meet Prick's old rival. It was time to move on. Besides, after nearly a month in this vegetarian's paradise, I was in dire need of a good steak.

As luck would have it, last week I received the following email, and my culinary situation quickly changed. You'll see why in a moment. The email's author was one of Prick's early employers. He was Prick's boss on his very first postdoc. Here's the email:

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Part 4: The Postdoc's Tale

Previously: Part 3. Scientific Skullduggery

August 12, 2014. Still Bangalore.


One of Prick's old postdocs contacted me immediately after I began this story, three weeks ago. He worked for him for two years, and offered to write a guest post on his experiences. This is what he sent me. I publish it only reluctantly. Disgruntled postdocs are notoriously unreliable, and from his final paragraphs it's clear that he's deranged.

The Postdoc's Tale:

Dr. Rival told you that Prick rejected his paper and stole the idea and wrote it up himself. That's not the whole story.

I was Prick's postdoc, and I'm the one who solved the big problem. Prick didn't do a thing, unless you count coming in every day and going berzerk and demanding results.

Right from the start, I was the one who understood that problem, not him. I knew I could solve it. Then I could get a job somewhere else. That was why I worked so hard. And man, I worked hard. Everyone did at that place. It was one of the top U.S. universities, not like whatever English dump you work at. Everyone was in the office until past midnight, and on weekends. All the time. Everyone was driven, and I was driven even more.

There was me and one other guy working for Prick. We had both been there almost a year. He gave everyone one-year contracts, and renewed them only if you got him results. He gave us both the same problem to work on, and said that next year he'd re-hire whoever solved it.

It was miserable. There was only one person in that place who could have made my job bearable, and that was the other postdoc -- but we were in competition. We talked plenty, and shared anything we worked out, but only because we wanted to make sure we knew what the other one was doing. If either of us knew we were on the right track, we'd have shut up fast. He was about the only friend I had, and I spent every waking moment trying to screw him over.

It was August. Our contracts ended in only three weeks. Seriously. We had no other jobs lined up. We had no papers written. We had nothing. We were both just desperate to do something to get Prick to renew our contracts. And we knew that he'd fire both of us without a moment's hesitation.

Then Rival's paper showed up. Prick read it, but he didn't understand it. He thought it was crap. He gave it to us. It was a good paper. Prick had no idea. But it wasn't like the answer was just sitting there, like it was just Equation 10, and we could copy it out and we were done. Rival hadn't solved the problem yet, he'd only done bits of it. He talked like he knew what to do next, but everyone says that, don't they?

Those were horrible sleepless nights. A lot of coffee. A lot of arguing at the blackboard. Falling asleep on the sofa in the grad-student kitchen.

Then I worked it out. It was obvious. It's always obvious once you've got it. It was so obvious I couldn't believe the other guy didn't see it as well. But he didn't, and I worked out the details and wrote it up as quick as I could. He guessed I was on to the answer, and it drove him nuts, but I didn't say a thing. What else could I do? I took it to Prick, and my contract was renewed. The other guy was out.

Of course, Prick had plenty of money. He had already hired someone else to replace the other guy -- New Postdoc turned up before Old Postdoc even finished packing up his desk.

Even though I knew Prick was a complete asshole, I expected some gratitude. But you know what deal he made with me? He extended my contract on the condition that the first paper had only his name on it. Then we would write a second, longer, more complete paper, and on that one I would be first author. And can you believe it, I was so desperate and so exhausted and so crazy, that I agreed? I'd just solved a major fucking problem, and my name wasn't even on the paper!

At the time I was so screwed up that I thought it was Ok. I half killed myself writing that second paper, which was a goddamn masterpiece, and I thought I was lucky, like it was a real privilege, that he let my name go first on it. And he didn't have a single idea.

No, that's not true. He had loads of ideas. Every day he had a new idea. And every one of them was wrong. I wasted half of my time arguing with Prick to convince him that his latest brainwave was a steaming pile of shit. So his contribution to that paper was negative -- every other scientist in the world did more for that paper than him, just by staying out of my hair!

In the end it was too much. I was burnt out. I got an offer from a hot-shot software start-up, and I left.

I could have made it. I was better than most of the other people who got faculty jobs. People like you. I could wipe the floor with you gravitational-wave clowns. Just a bunch of quantum gravity rejects and python scripters who think you get a Nobel prize for writing down Bayes' theorem. Or do you think you're a numerical relativist? Is that what you are? Jesus! A numerical relativist is just someone who doesn't know numerics, and doesn't know relativity.

And I read that thing you wrote about academia. It's a lie. That start-up company I joined, they went bust a year later. No millions for me. And no millions for any of the other good people I know who gave the finger to academia. Maybe it makes you feel better, in some perverse way, to point out some guy who made it on Wall Street, but what about the rest of us? To start Google or Apple, you're smart enough to drop out before you even finish your undergraduate degree. If you quit in grad school, or right after your PhD, maybe you can do Ok. But after six years going crazy as a postdoc? By that time you're so fucked up that academia is the only place for you. To anyone else you're useless. But, you know, thanks for thinking of us.

I'm glad to hear that Prick is getting what's coming to him. Now someone just has to come after the rest of you.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Doctor Who Review: Death in Heaven

Let's get the spoilers out of the way.

Humanity's most desperate spiritual hopes become a typical 21st century let-down: the afterlife is in fact The Cloud. The Master (aka Missy) puts the NSA to shame, and doesn't just back up and peer into our lost lives, but also uses them to reboot our rotting corpses as Cybermen. But even for a megalomaniacal Time Lord turned deranged Mary Poppins, human consciousness remains an unsolved puzzle, and the heartiest of our forebears stay loyal to their former species even from within their shiny new bodies. Chief among these diehard heroes were of course good old Danny Pink, and a clever reappearance by that old hand at human preservation, the Brigadier.

A cursory glance at some of the early reviews suggests that the episode went down well. None of Robin Hood's meta madness, no sign of the poorly set-up faux-foe of Listen, the blatant scientific ignorance of Kill the Moon (science is long forgotten by now), or the fairytale sappiness at Midnight in the garden of good and evil (or whatever it was called). This time the superlatives were flying thick and fast, like the Cybermen jetting out of St Paul's.

It didn't really work for me, but I can see their point. There were many great ideas. The Doctor got to be the President, and on Air Force One no less. Then he got to skydive to the free-falling Tardis -- which then whipped back up into the air with a dematerialisation roar as victorious as the theme tune ringing out when Indiana Jones swung on that vine to the escaping seaplane. There were even Thunderbirds references. There were also encores from earlier in the season. Clara pretended to be the Doctor again, and Missy re-enacted the Mummy's death countdown. And amongst all of the soap-opera-turned-tragedy Danny drama and moral pontification, I can at least appreciate the sentimental power of the final scenes. Danny was able to achieve the impossible, and bring back the child's life he'd once taken, and, even more impressively done, the Doctor and Clara parted while jokingly covering up their respective personal heartbreaks.

As I say, it didn't work for me. The set-up felt clunky, and I had never been able to believe in the characters anyway, and there were just too many moral dilemmas and "impossible choices". The BBC voice-over before the episode was very clear on this: "Up next, the Doctor faces an impossible choice." What an understatement: in this episode he faced about five of them. I didn't understand why Cyber-Danny left Clara in a graveyard, or why the Doctor couldn't have ordered the Cybermen to incinerate the acid raincloud himself, or why the Cybermen believed Clara's bluff about being the Doctor, when she must have failed the first test of every alien scanner in the history of the show, i.e., having merely one heart.

You may complain that I'm analysing the show too much. I should just relax and enjoy it. Well, shame on you! That's not how it works. A piece of fiction should cast a spell. It should be a piece of modest hypnosis. We should forget reality, we should forget plausibility, and we should be carried away. A poor piece of fiction will fool no-one, and an incredible piece will work on almost everyone -- even the doubters, even the cynics, and even those who have turned up to knock it down. It should certainly work on those who have avidly followed what went before, not just for the last three decades, but also the first half of the story just the week before.

The reviews were mostly positive, some exceedingly, and so perhaps it did work its magic for the majority of the audience. Perhaps I am just a statistical anomaly. Bad luck for me. Oh well.

In another of the Third Doctor's favourite expressions that has come to mind lately, "Where there's life, there's hope." The Christmas Special teaser trailer with Santa Claus himself suggests we're in store for something even more appalling than what we got last year -- but I'll live in hope that my doubts will be cast aside in a flurry of sharp Arctic wind, and I'll be blown away by 45 minutes of spellbinding entertainment. There were episodes in this shaky season that have done that (precisely three: Time Heist, The Mummy, and Flatline), and I'm confident there will be more again.

For those who've loved Doctor Who, or loved complaining about it, an interminable desert of dull empty weeks lies before you. But fear not: you can join me on my own fantastic round-the-world adventures in Real Science Fiction. Who knows -- maybe the shady villain will turn out to be the Master?

Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Time Heist
The Caretaker
Kill the Moon
Mummy on the Orient Express
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Part 3. Scientific Skullduggery

Previously: Part 2. Bangalore Briefing

Part 3. Scientific Skullduggery

August 2, 2014. Bangalore.

Today I learned some of Prick's dark past.

We left for Shravanabelagola at 6am this morning. The Institute rented a bus, which was full of students, postdocs and a few faculty, all excited at the prospect of four hours of high-speed peril on an Indian highway.

I sat next to Dr. Friend. We immediately embarked on a serious, hushed, urgent conversation. Partly because we were anxious to discuss the scandal of Professor Prick, but mostly we just wanted to avoid the group Bollywood singalong.

He told me all about the scandal. I asked many questions, and revelled in just how much hot water my recently acquired enemy had got himself into. As explained last week, I can't give away any details just yet.

But after we had arrived and got off the bus, I realised that I had not asked Dr. Friend why he personally was so gleeful at the prospect of Prick's downfall. The man may have screwed up, but he was still a brilliant scientist, clearly a genius, a pioneer who had revolutionised his field and turned it into one of the most active and exciting research areas in science today. He had also become a popular public figure, defending science from ignorant attack, and advocating successfully for greater funding. Ok, he has decided to destroy my career, but what did Dr. Friend care about an irrelevant plebeian like me?

The centrepiece of the Shravanabelagola complex was an 18-metre-high statue, which was at the top of a hill. To get to it we had to walk up a path of stone steps barefoot. The steps were polished smooth from the passage of many thousands, or perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands, of bare feet. At the top of the hill was the huge statue. A guide gave us a tour, and a commentary so colourful that he might have been making it up. My scientist friends certainly thought so. He only got away with it because they couldn't get a 3G signal on their smartphones.

I paid little attention, because I was getting stories of my own from Dr. Friend.

"Prick may be brilliant, but he's also a monster. He's bullying, vindictive, cruel and unscrupulous, and will do anything to satisfy his ambition."

"Doesn't sound unusual to me."

"He goes too far. Everyone knows that one of his biggest results was stolen."

"As I said, doesn't sound..."

He cut me off. "I want to introduce you to someone."

The tour had finished, and Dr. Friend pulled aside a middle-aged professor. He was not Indian, but did wear a kurta.

"This is the man whose result was stolen."

We made our way back down the stone steps, and this poor fellow (I'll call him Dr. Rival) told me his story.

"At that time Prick's field was unknown. But there was one problem that he knew, if he solved it, would be a truly major discovery. Unfortunately he didn't know how.

"I also knew about the problem, and I did have an idea how to solve it. But I was junior faculty at a small US university, with one weak PhD student, no postdocs, and a heavy teaching load. So I applied for a grant to fund a postdoc to work with me. My proposal went to Prick to referee."

It began to rain, and the steps became slippery. We held tight to the railing.

Rival continued undaunted. "He reported that I had a feeble track record of only minor results -- my case was weak and lacking in details -- my basic idea was a fantasy. The grant was rejected. He was free to try my idea himself, with his own little army of postdocs and students."

Rival told his story calmly, but I was getting angry. "Wasn't there anything you could do?"

He smiled at my naivete. "You are still young. So was I, back then. I knew nothing about Prick, and I was determined to keep working."

He was so relaxed that when we reached the bottom of the stairs, he left off his story to engage with the incessant crowds of souvenir sellers. The persistent pedlars led him off to their dilapidated little shops, and I didn't see him again until we got back on the bus.

Then he fell asleep until we were almost home. That was when I witnessed another property of that miraculous emergent state of matter, the Indian traffic fluid. I had observed how it interacted as it sloshed along roads, but that was nothing compared to how it behaved when someone tried to stop it.

Up ahead was a railway crossing. A train was approaching, and the barriers went down. The traffic -- two lanes one way, two lanes the other -- had to stop. But to be truly stationary was anathema to its nature. Every vehicle edged and jostled forward as far as it could go. Some drove along the currently empty oncoming lane to get closer to the front, and then tried to wedge into the queue. Soon the oncoming lanes were bulging with cars and buses and trucks. Motorbikes weaved around the edges until the space directly in front of the barrier roared with a throbbing swarm of them. By that time the entire road leading to the barrier was blocked in both lanes.

It was the same situation on both sides of the crossing. Two implacable walls of vehicles faced each other across the railway line.

While we waited, Dr. Rival woke up and I urged him to finish his story.

"As I said, I kept working. I was determined. Utterly single-minded. After some months, I made progress. I proved that my idea was workable. I had the key to the solution. It was enough to write a paper, which I hoped would finally get me a grant. No such luck. It was a small field, there weren't many experts, and the journal sent my paper to Prick to referee."

"And he rejected it?"

"Of course. Six months later he had his own paper, and the rest is history."

"He just copied what you did?"

"Oh no, there was a lot of extra solid work in his paper. It was really a brilliant piece of science. But I had found the key."

"What did you do?"

"Nothing. I was ruined. I had thrown everything into that paper, and I just had nothing left. The next year I was denied tenure." He stared out of the window at the impatiently shuddering traffic. "My wife is Indian, and a university here was hiring, and now here I am."


The train had passed. I turned to watch the narrow sliver that remained of the oncoming lane. I couldn't believe we would ever see any traffic on it.

But several minutes later the first vehicles came: the motorbikes. Then a small car, somehow squeezing through. Then more cars, and then buses. I felt like I was witnessing a miracle.

Later our own bus began to move. As we inched forward, the multiple jumbled lanes on our side of the road slowly merged together.

When we finally crossed the railway line, I turned back to Dr. Rival and said, "But now all that is changing. Right?"

"Let's see," he said. "Let's see."

Next: Part 4. The Postdoc's Tale.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Doctor Who Review: Dark Water

This week's episode certainly needs a spoiler alert -- the whole point of the episode was to spring surprises.

Some of the surprises were cheerfully revealed in the pre-transmission publicity. We knew that the skeletons in the tanks were going to be Cybermen. That just changed the nature of the surprise: how the skeletons could be Cybermen. The trick was that the fluid in the tanks made all non-organic matter transparent. Once that was explained, we could sit back and wait for the shiny soldiers to emerge.

Last week I said that no finale could justify some of the terrible episodes in this series. This first installment of the finale was, for the most part, fantastic, but I stand by what I said. What went before turns out to have no justification at all. The finale required that Clara be upset by Danny's death, but no extra setup beyond that -- we didn't need all that nonsense tension between the Doctor and Danny, or Clara lying to Danny about the Doctor, or any of it. If all the Clara-Doctor drama was purely in aid of setting up the TARDIS-key stand-off in Mordor, then it was all for nothing. That scene was a good idea, but with a lame resolution: it was all a dream, and afterwards everyone got to speak some cheesy lines and move on with the story.

The setup did require a tumultuous relationship between Clara and Danny, but his character and their romance have both been so poorly rendered that my main reaction to his death was cursing that we didn't get to see it in more graphic detail. It just happens that I drove along that very road in Cardiff earlier yesterday afternoon -- it's a pity I didn't get a chance to run over the bugger myself.

After his death he was transported to the Nethersphere of the dead, which was conveniently located only ten meters away in the Cardiff National Museum. From there he had to prove his identity to Clara on a flaky Skype call, in a scene that would have worked much better if he had actually had an identity. Or, for that matter, if they actually had an on-screen relationship for him to cite. But throughout the entire season we've seen no evidence of any personality, or of any plausible emotional connection with Clara. All we've been told is that they're in love, and now that he's asked to provide proof, all he can do is repeat, over and over, "I love you." If his head had been full of poignant memories that he nobly elected not to mention, it would have been far more powerful.

In short, all of the character/drama/emotive parts of the story that have been "building" throughout the course of the season were a flop. Fortunately, though, the lurking plot was a success. The afterlife really is the afterlife (at least, so far), and Missy turns out to be the Master. Some fans decoded her name, but the sex change was enough to keep me guessing.

The original Master was an exceptional villain. He was introduced as a recurring character when the Third Doctor was restricted to Earth; presumably the only way to justify the continual appearance of new alien menaces was that some villain kept summoning them purely out of spiteful rivalry with the Doctor. His appearance was usually accompanied by a signature tune, rapidly followed by him hypnotizing some weak-minded minor character (always by staring directly at them and chanting, "I am the Master. You will obey me!"), and perhaps by zapping a few people with his creepy miniaturization ray. The character disappeared after the actor who played him, Roger Delgado, died in a car accident. Several years later he was introduced again, and although there was a complicated regeneration story involved, the new Master was chosen to have a very similar appearance to the original.

There is nothing more heartening than seeing the Master reappear, although I'm not sure why. I felt the same excitement when he appeared in Utopia back in the David Tennant days. "All right," I thought, "Now it's going to get good!" They even had Derek Jacobi as the Master. But then he quickly regenerated into a giggling fool, and the character became a huge disappointment. The same could happen again. Just because the Master holds out so much promise as a villain, that doesn't mean that the writers will take good advantage of it.

There is great potential for the final episode. Moffat has written excellent stories before, and this one is off to a flying start. But he's also penned absolute stinkers, and he's helmed what can most generously be described as a patchy season. And so we are left with a true cliffhanger: will the final episode be incredible, or will it be a dud?