Bitter is the coffee

Many of us don’t go through the day without having at least one cup of coffee, and some hardcore enthusiasts I’ve met spend the whole day drinking coffee instead of water, only to finish strong with a 9pm espresso. No later so it won’t affect their sleep.

Our dependence on coffee is partially due to the functional addiction caffeine induces: once it leaves the body, we feel more tired than before, and we crave more. We believe we can’t function without it and see it as our means of coping with constant demands for performance.

To a large extent, however, we drink coffee because we have a lifestyle dependence on it. It fills many gaps in our often boring days and we like it for its taste and flavour, and for its bitterness. This latter liking is acquired, and many drown out the bitter taste with sugar and dairy products. But if you’re a true fan of coffee, you probably want the bitterness and appreciate the additives for the new experience they create.

I was intrigued when I found that in 2016 a US company called Senomyx claimed in patent number US 9.247,759 B2 a way to reduce consistently the perceived bitterness of coffee. The food and pharmaceutical industries have been masking out bitter tastes for a long time. The additives used are trivial – sugar, salt – or already widely used and derived from natural sources: gluconate, carboxymethylcellulose or beta-cyclodextrin. But early in the 2000s companies started looking at ways to block the taste, rather than just mask it. Some potential uses appeared sensible, for example to make very bitter drugs more palatable to patients.

Tasting bitter

We can taste many different compounds as bitter, but can’t tell them apart based on taste, i.e. we can’t discern different kinds of bitter. The intensity of the sensation determines how we react: coffee and tonic water earn our liking, but intensely bitter substances, such as denatonium benzoate, make us so strongly averse that they are used as deterrents to prevent accidental poisoning. Little was known about the molecular basis of our tasting bitter before a team of scientists (Elliot Adler, Mark Hoon, Ken Mueller, Jayaram Chandrashekar, Nicholas Ryba, Charles Szuker, Luxin Feng and Wei Guo) reported in the year 2000 the discovery of a type of taste receptor called T2R (Taste receptor type 2, also abbreviated as TAS2R) responsible for bitter taste detection in mammals.

The biology

Taste receptor cells are found on taste buds covering the surface of the tongue, and in other areas of the mouth. You can see an illustration of a taste bud here. Receptor cells contain structures which allow for interaction with a tastant (a chemical entity eliciting the sensation of taste). Sour and salty are detected by channels in the cell membrane, but sweet, bitter and umami are detected by TRs (type 1 deals with sweet and umami). Adler et al. showed that taste cells contain T2Rs and proved they function as bitter taste receptors. Some only responded to a single compound, like mT2R5 (m for mouse strain) which reacted to cycloheximide, while others were not so selective. Using cell experiments the researchers explained why mice with mutations in T2R5 were about 8 times less sensitive to the repulsive cycloheximide.

Adler’s team showed how a bitter compound can be detected by one or more receptors, and that by blocking those receptors it should be possible to reduce the sensation of bitterness experienced. They also predicted from genome analysis the existence of 40 to 80 different T2Rs in humans.

The chemistry

A study published in 2010 (by Wolfgang Meyerhof, Claudia Batram, Christina Kuhn, Anne Brockhoff, Elke Chudoba, Bernd Bufe, Giovanni Appendino and Maik Behrens) investigated the detection range of human T2Rs (25 known at the time) against a selection of 104 compounds from natural and synthetic sources. A complex picture emerged with most T2Rs detecting multiple compounds – hT2R14 (h for human) was the least selective in this study and responded to 33 compounds – and more than half of the compounds activating up to 3 receptors, with one (diphenidol) found to activate 15 different hT2Rs. This complex detection pattern probably emerged from the evolutionary process which shaped it into a sophisticated means of preventing poisoning. For example, the studies of Meyerhof et al. showed how hT2R46 detected the toxic compound strychnine and the very similar, but about 100-200 times less toxic, brucine. The sensitivity for strychnine over brucine was just about as high as the toxicity factor and orders of magnitude higher than required to detect the poison in food.

It is no surprise that with so many receptors responding to so many different compounds, we end up finding bitter things that are not toxic to us today. Caffeine itself is bitter, but not dangerous in the amount we usually ingest.

Senomyx reported that compound C (below) can be used in taste tests to reduce consistently the perceived bitterness of a coffee fraction (i.e. instant coffee, medium roast or medium-dark roast) to which it had been added. The receptors targeted were hT2R8 and hT2R14, found to respond to bitter compounds in coffee. Compound C was also found to block to different extents the response of 19 other T2Rs, indicating it could be used broadly to reduce the bitterness of products.

Reported synthesis of compound C by Senomyx.

The chemistry for making compound C is nothing to write home about. It’s a simple three step procedure. The sulfonyl chloride starting material is reacted with 4-methoxybenzyl amine to form a sulfonamide, which is then N-alkylated with benzyl bromide under basic conditions. This results in the carboxylic acid being benzylated as well, so the final step involves a base hydrolysis of the benzyl ester to give compound C.

Bitter is the coffee

Animals have developed complicated systems to detect bitter chemicals as a means to avoid poisoning. Although we are now far less reliant on these defense systems, should we try to block them out? I agree there is value in applying this strategy to medical products, especially if intended for children who are more sensitive to bitter taste than adults. But what about foods and drinks?

What got me thinking was the structure of compound C and others Senomyx exemplified. They look to me more like drug molecules than food additives. The compounds chosen would have to be approved by regulatory agencies, so I don’t think there is any real danger there, as far as the science is concerned.

My question regards the principle. Cheating your own senses to avoid disagreeable sensations covers a range from necessity to indulgence. Taking painkillers is a valid improvement to our quality of life made possible by modern science. It is necessary if we are to function normally. Numbing our tongues to eliminate disagreeable taste from a drink we consume for enjoyment is luxury.

Where do we draw the line between necessity and luxury? Is it wrong to make use of any opportunity to increase our satisfaction and make life as enjoyable as possible? No, if it doesn’t contravene legal and moral principles. Is there value in denying ourselves this then? I think the value is in pushing ourselves to pursue more elevated means of satisfaction. Rather than spend time and energy fixing every nuissance, we could be thinking of better ways to find joy in our lives. Or how to acquire a liking for the bitter things.

Turning red into gold

Quinacridone gold, also known as PO49, Pigment Orange 49, was a golden pigment used in the automotive and artist’s paint industries until 2001, when production reportedly stopped. The pigment had gathered somewhat of a following within the artists’ community. Artists such as Jane Blundell explored alternatives on the market, and others like Sandrine Maugy bemoaned the last supply of pigment having been used to mix lesser colours.

Quinacridone gold appears to have been special even by the standards of the quinacridone family of pigments, which Bruce MacEvoy at handprint described as follows: “Among the miracles of modern industrial chemistry […] one must include the discovery and development of the quinacridones.”

Quinacridone gold PO49 is described at The Color of Art Pigment Database as “a mixed crystal phase of Quinacridone & Quinacridonequinone; C.I.Pigment Violet 19 (C.I. 73900) and C.I.Pigment Red 206 (C.I. 73920) co-precipitated. The exact derivative has not been disclosed.” Bruce MacEvoy at handprint claims “PO49 is another mixed crystal form of PV19 alpha and beta.”

Not surprising that the formula was proprietary, but still, what is it? And what is PV19?

The discovery

PV19 stands for Pigment Violet 19 and is one of the forms of the original quinacridone, patented in parallel as alpha (bluish red), beta (violet) and gamma (bluish red) forms by DuPont in the 1950s.

Chemical structure of linear quinacridone

Let’s look at our glossary of terms before discussing further.

Polymorphism describes the existence of a solid compound (containing more than one type of atom) in different crystalline forms differing in the way molecules are arranged in the solid. Polymorphs have different properties, which is why controlling their formation is crucial in pigment manufacture. Polymorphs are often referred to as crystal phases.

Crystal phase refers to a form of a solid in which the comprising atoms or molecules are arranged in an orderly fashion throughout. The crystal is said to have long range order, i.e. it is possible to predict with a high certainty what atom will be found at a specified position.

Powder X-Ray diffraction pattern is a graphical representation of the crystal phase features still distinguishable in the powder, i.e. after the crystal has been ground up, or if only a collection of minute crystals is available. X-rays are diffracted through a crystal like visible light is diffracted through a prism. The X-ray diffraction experiment records where the light ends up and how intense it is.

Solid solution describes a homogeneous mixture with structure and properties different to those obtained by simply mixing the components in the same ratio. It shows an X-ray diffraction pattern different to the sum of the patterns of its components.

First (amusing) bit of information is the mention how better red pigments were needed in the 1950s due to it having recently become a popular colour for cars.

The alpha, beta and gamma crystal phases of quinacridone and the method for controlling their formation represents the scope of the three DuPont patents, together with the characteristic X-ray diffraction patterns each phase exhibits.

The crude quinacridone formed by oxidation of dihydroquinacridone (more on this later) is subjected to a milling process under defined conditions which generates a material fine enough to use as pigment, and with control over the crystal phase. The process looks deceptively simple: quinacridone is mixed with salt, mill balls or cylpebs (little cylinders) and nails (the latter to prevent caking), and the mixture rotated until the pigment particles are fine enough. The material is then washed with dilute sulfuric acid to remove the salt and any metal contamination introduced by the milling process. The quinacridone can then be used as a paste, or washed with methanol (to remove water) and xylene (to remove methanol) before drying to obtain the powder.

The chemistry

The control over phase formation is achieved using solvents. Milling without DMF (dimethylformamide) or xylene converts quinacridone to the alpha form. Adding 25% xylene with respect to quinacridone during milling results in the beta phase forming. Adding DMF during milling or stirring quinacridone in DMF either prevents the gamma phase from turning to alpha, or turns other phases to gamma. Long story short, the gamma phase is the most stable and will form (predominantly) when sparingly soluble quinacridone crystallises from solution.

Such crystallisation also occurs in the high temperature oxidation of dihydroquinacridone with nitrobenzene-m-sodium sulfonate under alkaline conditions in a water/alcohol mixture. DuPont patented their way of making dihydroquinacridone.

DuPont synthesis of dihydroquinacridone in Dowtherm A

The condensation of diethyl succinate was performed in Dowtherm A (23.5% biphenyl and 76.5% diphenylether) and after a quick water wash, the resulting diethyl succinyl succinate (name which I find terribly confusing) solution was treated with aniline and catalytic anyline hydrochloride and heated under vacuum (no further detail here). Another quick wash to get rid of the catalyst, a distillation to remove aniline and the resulting substituted dihydroterephthalate can be used as a suspension in Dowtherm. The discovery here is the closing of the quinacridone ring system by heating the dihydroterephthlate at a high temperature (which is why Dowtherm is used) in the absence of oxygen to give dihydroquinacridone. The last step is an oxidation to remove the extra two hydrogen atoms, which is preferably achieved using the soluble oxidant meta-nitrobenzenesodium sulfonate. The great thing about the (dihydro)quinacridones is they are so insoluble, and isolation by filtration provides pure products.

The background and chemistry covered, let’s return to the question of PO49.

Turning red into gold

A number of other developments made by DuPont over the following decade resulted in what is most likely PO49. This patent from 1964 describes a number of inventions which allowed for extending the range of colours quinacridone pigments can attain. First of them is the incorporation of a derivative of quinacridone called quinacridonequinone, which can be formed by extending the reaction time in the oxidation of dihydroquinacridone described above. This sounds like a cost effective solution – tweaking a known process rather than having to develop a whole new one.

Quinacridonequinone

A mixture of quinacridone and quinacridonequinone can be processed to form an intimate mixture either by milling or by co-precipitation from concentrated sulfuric acid in water (known as drowning). This mixture, on solvent treatment (DMF) converts to a solid solution. Solid solutions, having properties different to that of a simple mixture, can have a colour different to that of their components. A solid solution containing quinacridone and quinacridonequinone is reported to have a maroon colour, quite different to the reds that quinacridone alone can generate. By varying amounts of components and their nature (various other quinacridones) a whole range of colours shifting towards yellow or blue was reported. But no gold.

Finally, a technical improvement on the precipitation step from sulfuric acid afforded “a bright gold pigment.” This invention adds the sulfuric acid solution to a high velocity flow of water to form very fine particles, which is believed to favour solid solution formation. The resulting slurry is then heated to convert the solid mixture into the solid solution. There is no need for any solvent treatments, which makes the process even more attractive.

I would say the story of PO49 going out of production sounds plausible. For whatever reason, the automotive industry didn’t want PO49 anymore. No demand – I would imagine the amount of pigment used by industry is far greater than what artists go through – means no supply, even if to the outsider chemist the gold pigment does not stand out as anymore of a challenge than red. Quinacridones are still being produced, and since PO49 does not appear to have any special challenges associated, its demise really might be due to gold falling out of favour while red is still going strong. Perhaps PO49 was superseded; chemists are always mixing something up.

The value of trying and failing

I tried working a copywriter job. I wasn’t good enough, so I was let go. It was a positive experience because it was the first time I could accept rejection. My qualities were acknowledged alongside my failings. It was a balanced evaluation, it was based on evidence, and that is why I accepted it.

This was the first time I got sacked, but not the first time I failed. In the past I interviewed for patent attorney and consultant jobs. I didn’t even get hired. Some other things I interviewed for, got rejected and was very bitter over: undergrad student accommodation supervisor (or something along those lines), prestigious PhD studentship working on cancer research, posh doctoral training programme. There’s also all the things I applied for and never heard back, or only much later. If you send me a rejection email after two months without any other contact, I wasn’t really holding my breath at that point really. But thanks, better late than never.

I think this is good proof on the value of honest feedback. Not the ‘we’ve had a very strong selection of candidates.’ Not the ‘you’re good, but not good enough.’ Empty encouragement is wasting people’s time. Telling them what they can and cannot do right now will set them on the right track.

Looking at my puzzle of experience and its missing piece finally found I can write these three lessons:

  1. I like chemistry the way a nerd does, not like a professor or like an entrepeneur.
  2. I don’t care for lofty ideals. I care about a job well done.
  3. I’m not good at saying what needs saying, the way it needs saying. It’s bad for me whenever I do it.

I’m happy I tried doing all the things that are not for me, I failed with, I stopped caring for, or never cared for at all. I have a better idea what is for me, what I can do and what I like.

I am a bit more confident. Maybe I can make some better choices.

Information makes me quiet

Imagine you believed your entire life the primary colours are red, blue, and yellow. Then you find out they are cyan, magenta, and yellow. There is also red, green, and blue. But you can also create a palette with any three colours you choose. But you might want to include more for a larger space and more accurate reproduction.

Sustained learning makes me unwilling to talk. It also makes me angry.

I am a simple creature, and like all humans, I like to share my thoughts and feelings. I thought until now that the value is in being acknowledged and, hopefully, appreciated. It made me happy, but it also caused me trouble when I didn’t get the response I hoped for. Now I understand why.

Keeping my mind busy with a constant flow of information gives me comfort. It does a good job, but not perfect, of keeping me from feeling lonely. If I feel less lonely, I have less motivation to talk. Being in company does the same thing: I listen and say less. And if a book or person is not talking, I talk to myself.

That is the value of sharing: it sets the scene for others to talk, providing me with the information flow I crave. I am not angry for not sharing what I’ve learned, or what I wanted to share before knowing better. I am angry because an information overflow is followed by a dry spell.

The quality of what I have to say becomes more important to me as I learn more. The problem is, of course, the more I learn I come to realise how nothing I say can possibly be of much value. I then don’t say anything. And I get angry.

So then, why was I seeking approval? I wanted the new information to build on or agree with what I had already learned. Not to disagree. I got angry when I learnt cyan, magenta, yellow are the primary colours. Maybe so did you when you read that.

Lady in waiting

What is better suited to this fantastical art style potpourri than a cringy play on words? A lady-in-waiting was the aristocratic version of a lady’s personal assistant. The lady in my painting is waiting, the poem is about waiting, you see where this is going:

A windswept emptiness
Fills my restless body,
Prodding corners of my mind 
For leftovers of peace. 

Nights come early and grow short 
Days are scattered,
Fallen leaves under a barren tree
Waiting for rhythm. 

Waiting casts its spell
Parting patient from impatient. 
Waiting matters more than
What, whom, or why. 

Patience turns children old
And vulgar into virtuous. 
Impatience demands sacrifice
And gives it to the wind. 

Art making-of

The cover image is another painting I’ve put a lot of effort into (~3 days work). The positive with these longer works is that having plenty of time for my mind to wander while painting, I keep changing the idea; alone working on something for more than a day almost guarantees the way I feel about it will change. I call it exploratory painting: first I want to identify what it is I want to paint, then I can think about structuring my study to gain necessary skills.

This way of working shows clearly in this piece in more than just the mistakes, impulse decisions, and leftovers from previous versions: the head of the lady I’ve left in a simplified style resembling Japanese art, mostly because attempts to put detail on that scale got me nowhere. I aimed for a reasonably accurate anatomical construction, I tried to paint the body with some volume, and after all that work I mostly covered it up in an attempt at mythical, entrapping garment design. To add the third piece to this concoction, I constructed the setting with a fairly accurate representation of a reddish sky, a distant darkened landscape, and a foreground affected by the supernatural, rendered with a decent amount of solidity, but perhaps questionable colour matching with the background – I was aiming for supernatural after all.

The joy of waiting

I can thank the Bob Ross shows for title inspiration here.

I am an impatient person. It’s a double-edged sword: it pushes me to do a lot, try new things, cut corners if I have to, but it also works against me: poorly thought out decisions, less than polished work, and just a waste of energy at times. Striving to make some better quality paintings requires patience, dedicating enough time to work on them to achieve decent results. And investing that time apparently pays off, although I’ve previously argued it probably wouldn’t. I think the value in finding this patience is the time it opens up to thought, as mentioned above. The idea evolves, even if the execution is only going to be as good as my ability at this time.

And that’s how I am beginning to find the joy of waiting. Active waiting (in this case meticulously applying paint) seems to be the way forward.

Stop burning fossil fuels to warm up your car

Three times a day I witness a long column of traffic form outside my house, stretching as far as I can see to both ends of the road. I suspect by now locals will know of bad traffic times/areas. Why do they choose to travel anyway?

For this article I am not going to try to uncover some great wisdom. In fact, I am sure it will make most readers think I am stupid. I still have to write it. I am baffled.

I understand people have to go to work in the morning and get back in the evening (are people with desk jobs actually more productive at work?). But what about lunchtime? Where is everyone going? Does spending that much time in your car not defeat the purpose of having a car in the first place: so you can quickly cover short distances and save time?

Are they just going out for lunch? Where I live is really not the kind of place full of fancy restaurants catering to wealthy people having power lunches. Are they getting lunch from the supermarket? Is that not just a waste of time and (fuel) money, and not to mention bad for the environment?

Are they running errands? Well then, why choose the busy hours?

I suspect the car-loving, driving fananatics head out for a drive just to satisfy their craving. It is beyond me why travelling one metre at a time counts as satisfying.

And really, my only problem with this nonsense is that it causes so much pollution for nothing. I believe that the air pollution we cause as a species could be easily mitigated if people weren’t so lazy and selfish and didn’t drive when they shouldn’t. It seems like this won’t be so much of a problem anymore once electric cars become the norm. But we are far from achieving that goal.

I am sure some car lovers will say: ‘But modern cars have the engine cut off automatically when stationary.’ Yes, but most people don’t drive modern cars.

Another option that comes to mind is public transport. Unfortunately, the service really is bad in general. And here I can’t do anymore than point out the stalemate in the debate between users and providers: authorities don’t offer more service because people don’t use it; and people don’t use public transport because the service is bad. Also, because they’re posh.

If there’s a sidewalk, use it. Walking a mile will make you feel better.

Growing up in three months

Three months ago I left my chemist job. I had been working there for two years. This was my first employment after having studied chemistry for eight years formally and many more informally. I posted an opinion shortly after talking about what the more conservative would describe as a childish impulse.

I had no good idea of what I could or wanted to do. I had dreams carried with me from childhood and lessons learnt as to what I didn’t want to do. I don’t regret my decision, but it is reasonable to say I have growing up to do in some regards. This is my three-month update on the process. During this period, I produced a smorgasbord of content, spurred on by the frustration of not having had a chance to before and seeing others apparently breezing through and being successful. I had a go at many things, strategy just as sensible as it often is in experimental science. There is a lot of failure, but you learn and maybe discover some things with potential.

What have I learnt or understood that might be of use to other people?

  1. Anything can become boring when turned into a routine. Even the task of trying something new is a chore if you have to do it everyday. The saying ‘Do what you love and you won’t have to work a day in your life’ is just absolute nonsense. Work, like anything else, is enjoyable only if you don’t stop to think about what you are doing. And if you never stop to think you are missing out.
  2. Working alone is not fun. You come to realise the problem with working with people is whether they match your character or not. Unfortunately, it can be almost impossible to end up working with just the right people, or ones that are at least tolerable. It is, however, interesting to note how certain jobs seem to collect the same kinds of people. It would be helpful if career advising looked at personality compatibility, rather than solely what kind of work you like or are able to perform.
  3. What you’re good at and what people appreciate are different things. There is no substitute for hard work. I value it and I think everyone should. However, it is rather frustrating to see people mistake achievement for inclination or suitability. It negates both: you get patted on the back for being good at something without having your hard work acknowledged and it denies you the chance of developing those things you would be good at without breaking your back.
  4. We shouldn’t live by other people’s standards. Back when I was in uni, I asked one of my tutor’s something along the lines of..what should I do? I find this just ridiculous. His answer at the time was infuriating, but actually brilliant: ‘You can do whatever you like.’ This might have been phrased differently, and I’ve heard it from other people in the meantime, but only now I appreciate and understand. At the time I thought this to be an easy way out, a way of saying a lot without saying anything. I don’t know if these people hold the same position for family and friends. But if they do, I now have the wisdom to appreciate them. Unfortunately, people do in general like to tell others what to do, especially children or younger ones. They probably mean well and feel they are entitled and compelled. But they should just stop. Two people’s lives are not the same. I hope I never make this mistake. If I have, I apologise.
  5. It’s awful chasing success. I have not reached full enlightenment on this point yet. I am still chasing and I blame my upbringing for it. Perhaps, I will make progress in time for the next update.
  6. Being fickle is not shameful. One thing that is paradoxical in the modern world is the craving for consistency and novelty. We consider everything that is not immediate progress a failure, but we forbid any experiments that are not solidly justified and edit any variation in form. We prize content and originality, but we find gratification in criticising format. We want the same thing as yesterday, but we want it to be new and exciting. Changing your opinions and ways seems like a recipe for disaster. I am learning to be proud of my attempts and failures. This is perhaps the true value of not living on someone else’s money (e.g. parents) or being on the payroll (employed). This brings me to the final point.
  7. Being your own boss. Whether I still want to or whether I would succeed, it is too soon to tell. The value I find is, as mentioned above, in the freedom to make mistakes. Three months ago I used to believe I wanted to be my own boss so that I wouldn’t have to do as I am told. I don’t think I would have ended up having this thought if it wasn’t for number 4 on this list. I am actually sensible and I like following rules as long as they’re not moronic.

TLDR

My main argument three months ago for leaving my job was that I shouldn’t be doing something that is turning me into a worse person than I actually am. My main argument now for having made a good choice is that I feel I’ve grown up more in three months than in ten years.

What is Xmas?

It’s not Christmas, perhaps it is Crossmas or Eksmas. And to be fair, I think it will serve me well to work with Eksmas for defining this end of year experience, alongside the traditional Christmas for comparison.

Eksmas

Is for me invariably one of the worst times of the year. The period leading up to it has ended, leaving most people (or just me?) sick of decorations, tunes, and festive compulsory cheer, the proceedings fail to deliver, the end of the year is coming up with its forceful pondering on the state of your life and annoying and mediocre firework displays causing noise, and then perhaps the worst part: the January-March season, with equally horrible darkness and cold weather as the previous three months, but lacking their suspense.

Having firmly set the depressing tone, I will now proceed to be a fastidious grinch and elaborate on these points.

Eksmas/Christmas

  1. The season’s madness. Starting November, especially if you live somewhere large enough to have the commercial potential, shops get decorated with glittery wonders, baubles, tinsel and who knows what else. It really only looks good if it’s been planned by an interior decorator and funded from corporate accounts. If you try buying the stuff and doing your own decoration, you are doomed to fail. Even if it looks good, it won’t look as good as in store. There is the overload factor. If you have two months to enjoy the beauty, it won’t be that amazing really by the time 25th December hits. Then there is the weather factor. Not all parts of the northern hemisphere enjoy proper cold weather and December snows. If it’s 10 degrees Celcius and raining, the magic of the sparkle is really just bloody insulting. You only need wear gloves to stop the mulled wine burning your hands. And then there’s the carols. If they weren’t supported by their festive purpose I think people would hate them as much as they hate Abba songs. They’re nice to listen to, but not more than a few times. And I quite like some Abba songs.
  2. Unsatisfactory proceedings. This is the main thing that annoys me. You want Christmas, but get Eksmas. I believe most would ascribe the value of Christmas to be spending time with loved ones (family, friends). Some also value it for its religious significance. These are both fine reasons, but unfortunately people just mess things up. This one day of the year should be a celebration, the cherry on the cake for a year spent building and enjoying meaningful human relantionships. It is not meant to be a substitute for these things. Slaving away to fulfil whatever requirements and preparations the ritual in your part of the world requires and then being forced to socialise with relatives – this flavour of the issue mostly applies to families – whom you don’t get along well with is a recipe for disaster. Going through the motions on a background of aggravated fatigue is just insult and injury in one convenient package. Eksmas is this celebration of empty ritual and maintaining appearance. Conversely, if you happen to have people you care about, but can’t spend Christmas with them, all is not lost! You might be surprised to find that people have not forgotten you. Christmas is like meeting an old friend for a half-hour chat once a year. You are still best friends, and have a lot to say.
  3. Future plans. Once Christmas or Eksmas have passed, you have the New Year to look forward to. Traditionally people celebrated the changing of season, so I guess there is nothing wrong in finding reason to celebrate in changing calendar year. If you like to party New Year’s Eve is a great opportunity to change the cosiness of the table with the glamour of the ball room (one can dream). But don’t try to sort out your life plans for the next year in one day. If you didn’t do this over the course of the past year, forcing yourself to do it in one day is probably not a productive exercise. On a different note, I don’t get what is up with the fireworks? First of all the ones for the public should be banned. If it’s got enough power to pop or fly it shouldn’t be handled by children (or adults) who don’t know any better. Pyrotechnics should be kept for professionals. And on this point, can’t someone come up with some way of making them more quiet? They scare pets and are just a pain if you’re not celebrating and can’t even see anything from your window.
  4. The worst part: the bulk of the winter season. Holidays are gone, it’s still dark, cold or miserable outside, depending on where you live, and there’s nothing to look forward to.

It seems a bit too much that I’ve managed to complain about half the calendar year under the umbrella of one holiday, but that’s the risk you run when you mark living with compulsory milestones. It’s a bit of all or nothing.

It’s not all doom and gloom

I started this article a few weeks back planning to make it an indictment on people’s foolishness in complying to organised celebration. It isn’t so much an accusation anymore, but a warning. I’ve mellowed, people have remembered me, and that made me happy. Christmas day is not as bad as the run-up to it. If you don’t plan too much, if you keep expectations reasonable, there is no pressure. You might actually enjoy the day, even if you just light up some tea lights and sprinkle some biscuit munching onto your daily routine.

There is one cliché I am inclined to agree with now. It’s the small things that matter. Merry Christmas, or whatever else you might be celebrating!

English and I – overcoming the second language barrier

English is not my mother tongue. Can I hope to overcome this ‘disability’ and be given a chance to use the language as my tool of the trade?

I imagine with English being a dominant language currently, many find themselves in a similar position. Is there a real barrier? I am going to analyse the practical and psychological factors, starting from the job applicant’s perspective and moving to the language learner’s experience.

Proficiency

The Oxford Languages definition ‘a high degree of skill; expertise’ and the Cambridge Dictionary definition ‘the fact of having the skill and experience for doing something’ are broadly comparable; the former attempts to quantify skill and set a bar for the ‘proficient’ person, and is what people have in mind when they use the word ‘proficient’. I find the latter pragmatic: being good enough to accomplish the task at hand.

When searching for a job, we often find ourselves faced with demands for ‘proficiency’, especially when it comes to using software or language, the latter potentially having the twist of asking for ‘native speaker’. As I do like to provide context for my opinions, let’s first analyse this from the employer’s or recruiter’s position. It is understandable that they would ask for nothing but the best (which is what I assume they had in mind), knowing they are unlikely to find a perfect candidate anyway, but it is not sensible. And it is counterproductive on all sides involved. As mentioned above, proficiency should be about being good enough to do the job. Hoping to find an English language scholar to write promotional material is unlikely to get you results. They are more likely to be writing books or teaching university courses. And neither is the ‘native speaker’ necessarily going to fit the bill. Just because someone was raised on the English language does not guarantee they have the ability to write good quality text. I think providing some detail as to what level of skill the candidate ought to have would be more useful; do you require someone with vast vocabulary, ability to write complex sentences, or who can just write in plain English so that the proofreader doesn’t need to spend more time on the text than the writer?

The right candidate

The problem with having vague, excessively demanding job descriptions is that it might put the right people off applying, or get you, the job advertiser, too many applications altogether. An under-confident person will maybe give up on applying when faced with an employment litany. The over-confident or past caring will apply anyway. And this leads us to the psychological factor relevant to all jobs, even the recruiter’s: what you can do vs what you think you can do.

Most people have a good ability to learn. It seems unlikely to me that any job will leave you perfectly prepared for the next. On the first day on the job you are ‘shown the ropes’, introduced to the idiosyncrasies of the place, and told what it is exactly you are expected to do. You learn. And you probably will find you can do the job and that what you learnt previously is only relevant incidentally. You become proficient at doing this exact job, because you don’t have a choice. You are either good enough to stay, or you will probably have to leave. But you can only find out if you applied, were offered a chance, and gave it a try. Otherwise said, if you and the employer had the right mentality.

My experience

I started learning English sometime before the age of 10. I quite enjoyed it initially since someone drawing a duck and telling you ‘duck’ is quite fun when you are that age. After having a few private teachers set up the basics, I ended up in a school with lots of English classes. Having for the most part been useless in school, and faced with a boring and perhaps too challenging English language education (grammar!), I lost interest. For the next 6-8 years I made negligible progress compared to what I could have achieved. I learnt English from TV and the internet.

Because I wasn’t actually a complete moron, and some things worked out, I ended up applying for universities in the UK, for which I had to take an English language test. Following a month of study with the help of a tutor, I passed the test, and eventually ended up studying in the UK. And I guess I have been improving my English ever since.

How do I rate? Well, I guess I’m alright. I am sure there is plenty of room for improvement, and I am working on it, but can I assess myself? And going back to the point discussed earlier, assess myself using what standard?

The gap

So here is my list of to-dos, with the added perspective of the foreign vs native language learner:

  • Improve knowledge of informal language. This is perhaps the hardest to do. Because much of this vocabulary is only heard, and rarely written, it can be hard to get enough exposure to it. This, I believe, doesn’t have to do just with the amount of social interaction you have; the spoken language varies among regions, times, and depends on the speaker’s preference. This is in contrast to the formal language which changes more slowly and is heavily edited in publications. For the foreign learner, I am afraid it is down to having time and good memory: being exposed to the language and wanting, and being able, to remember it. The native speaker has the advantage.
  • Write without grammar and punctuation mistakes. Control of these two interdependent features of the language is something the professional writer should indeed have. Is anything perfect? No, but I assume an editor will expect to find less than a handful of mistakes in a book. This is my idea of how publishing works. For the foreign learner, just like the native, study is the solution. I don’t think there is an intrinsic advantage here for the native speaker: grammar is not studied everywhere.
  • Improve spelling and pronunciation. These two form another pair, but making mistakes with the latter is more easily forgiven. Some variation is expected in pronunciation (i.e. accent), but none is tolerated in spelling. The American/British spelling situation does not make for an example in tolerance, and it surely confuses the foreign speaker of English. Having a good memory helps with both skills, either by allowing for enough examples to be learnt to make pattern recognition feasible, or by learning common rules. What I find more useful for a foreign learner is studying phonetics. Having a basic knowledge and being able to read phonetic spelling for dictionary entries does wonders for your progress towards listening and spelling like an (educated) native. I only have basic knowledge, but I have found it useful and very rewarding. It goes miles towards dispelling the myths about the chaotic English language. The native speakers have an advantage, which they can grow through study.
  • Expand vocabulary. I guess this is the complementary entry to the first in the list; I am using it to talk about formal language. This is just down to memory and probably the volume of reading one goes through. Any advantage on the native’s side comes really in the form of time and education.

You might have noticed this covers most aspects of language learning. A language, not just English, is vast. You can keep learning for as long as you want.

The Conclusion

Unsurprisingly, the native speaker does hold an advantage when it comes to language. If during a lifelong ‘race’ both native and foreign learner put equal amounts of effort in, they will find themselves closer and closer together the longer they ‘race’ for, with the native holding a shrinking advantage. But does it matter for job prospects? I would like to believe it doesn’t. The problem with answering the question is, in fact, one of general relevance. How can an employer know the candidate is any good without hiring them?

How Should Scientists Look at Art?

Ever since the days of me vaguely paying attention in school to literature studies I carried around the simplistic view of scientists being apollonians and artists being dionysians. Not to say that this was expressly taught, but having been presented with an aggrandised view on the virtues of knowledge by the power of metaphor, I proceeded to (mis)understand and retreat into my sand castle of scientific study. The Apollonian and Dionysian are in fact collections of fundamental traits in humans, and therefore found in members residing on either side of the science/art divide, and contrary to what a keen highschool teacher might have suggested, imply in no way one being better than the other.

On my journey of crossing from the science to the art side, I wanted to understand why would the proponent of one be often against, or at least ignorant about, the other? Having highlighted above that one’s nature does not direct one way or the other, I need to find another strategy for analysing this problem.

I would like to reference an analysis carried out by professional musician Adam Neely in his episode on ‘What does music mean?’, where he reviewed relevant historical background and then concluded in his eloquent and dizzying way that, in spite of music not meaning anything, it results from the power of metaphor to transform the physical basis of music.

I am going to take creative writing and the visual arts of painting and drawing to subject them to the same analysis involving the physical basis and the means of eliciting consumer response. I think the issue of message is fundamental to consider for understanding the scientists’ apprehension towards these arts, and I will include it as well. Scientific knowledge values the terse argument, the communication of immediate and comprehensive information on the topic under discussion. Failing to obtain this cognitive gratification, scientists divert attention and worse, sometimes, as the public in general tend to, develop a derogatory attitude towards art.

  1. Creative writing. I don’t think there is a physical basis here. Unlike music, which can be experienced through the recognition of sound, with the exception perhaps of musicians’ ability to hear music while reading sheet music, writing is only a surrogate for speech. It records auditory information in a visual fashion. As far as eliciting response goes, I don’t think creative writing is limited to the use of trope, because unlike scientific writing, it leverages the value of the body of writing. By stripping text of any superfluous content, all possibility for it to contain meaning beyond the explicit is removed and it thus becomes just a ‘skeleton’ of writing. Furthermore, I think well-written text offers the opportunity for vicarious enjoyment of existence: you become immersed in the action and briefly, and in a limited fashion, you live inside the writing. So, next time you are reading a book and are exasperated by the author describing the colour of the sky, remember these two things: you don’t have to try to assign meaning to the colour and if the author had failed to include enough detail to create a world, you would have been reading an instruction manual.
  2. Painting and drawing. The physical basis is the obvious use of colour and tone to record an image, which we can see because of the interaction of light with matter. There is no obligation on the author’s or artwork’s part to convey meaning: art can have purely decorative purpose. What matters is that by making clever use of visual elements, the artist manages to elicit a response from the brain of the viewer and its hardwired image recognition mechanisms: light/dark contrast, bright colours for food, dark colours for the unknown, smooth/ragged shapes for comfort/discomfort, etc. Use of symbols and visual metaphor in an attempt to convey more sophisticated information is optional, and would make use of the image recognition the viewer has learnt, rather than inherited.

Having argued my way through the fact that scientists and artists are people, and that art doesn’t have to have a meaning for it to be appreciated, I can now answer the title question: There is no way for you to look at art. Just look at it! And if you don’t feel anything, don’t believe that no one else will, or that another piece of art will not bring you to feel something.