Monday, June 30, 2008

It's Dr. mink from now on

Today I had my phd examination and yes, I am now officially Dr. Mink.

I want to quote from the acknwoledgments of my thesis:

Finally, I want to dedicate this work to my many London friends and housemates, without whom I could not have undertaken and completed this project. You gave me a home, cooked me dinners, stood by me in rough times, and shared my moments of joy. You not only taught me much, from fixing bicycles, [and changing locks] to cooking dahl, but also gave me a chance to challenge my once-firm beliefs about the world; an invaluable experience for everyone and especially for those in the field of intellectual production. This is for Sara, Fiona, Michael, Tanya, Guiller, Soraya, Caterina, Justyna, Pillar, Blu, Kali, Amy, Gary, Saul, Luke, Natasha, Pete, Elvina, Renneck, Greg, Chris, Jenny, Oscar, Eleanor, Paola, Medina, Latifa, Sammy, Mario, Iris, Mada, Rowyda, and many others, with gratitude, solidarity, and love.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Sometimes the workers of cafes take special care to destroy left over food; to frustrate attempts to live off this waste; to dissuade you from opening their bin-bags. They retrace their steps: unwrap the humus wraps, open the sandwich packaging, empty the sealed salad trays. After spending much time preparing these food items, they now destroy them, or rather, create a big pile of couscous, bread, and chopped salad.

Whether this is a company policy or a local initiative of the branch boss - you do not know. You suspect the reason is "health and safety": these corporations fear that someone could sue them for catching some disease from eating their leftover sandwiches (one hour out of date, one hour out of the fridge). A number of people have suggested this but there could also be other reasons - some people leaving a mess when digging for food, or perhaps some basic spite against freeloaders.

Other people would perhaps call in the branch to enquire, and ask the workers: why are you doing this? Were you told to? Do you mind leaving it for people who eat it? - the workers are after all only workers, not corporate pawns, but this is not your style. There is the cafe in its working hours, where you would not venture by; and there is the closed cafe after seven, where you search for food. The two worlds cannot meet.

Today, again, you encounter this depressing sight of a heap of discarded food. But this is such an infuriating sight that it makes your leisurely adventure into a mission. It is simply wrong, to throw away so much food, but making it inaccessible is criminal. And so you dig in. There must be something you can find. And of course, there is: with so much packaging and wrapping it is simply impossible for the poor employees (probably dying to go home) to unpack each and every salad. You take them out, one by one: two ham and cheese baguettes; a hummus wrap; a bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice; a small tub of yogurt with honey and forest fruits; two sandwiches with free-range chicken; two small side salads, one of green beans and the other of courgette and feta cheese. All had to be shaken a bit from couscous, but still in their wrappings, still ready to be eaten. You look over your bounty with pride; saved from the landfill, despite everything. Food scavenging is such an empowering experience. On the way back to college, you look at your reflection at the bank windows, and notice that, for the first time today, you smile.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

10.00-12.30: Analysis

Write using quantifiers what it means, when

a) lim f (x) = ∞,


b) lim f (x) = b,


c) lim f (x) = ∞

The exams period presents to invigilators the question of difference in the high education system. Put simply: the exams papers are of a standard rectangular shape, and so are the answer booklets. One finds oneself often in the same class room day after day, filling the same forms, announcing the same announcements. All exams are the same for us, but the students are different. The computer science people never resemble the medieval history crowd (crowd may be a bit exaggerated term in the case of medieval studies). As an invigilator one has a lot of time to stare at a group of people and you inevitably starts to think of gender, race, and social reproduction through choices of learning. When it gets really boring, you start playing the equal opportunities (affirmative action) officer, counting categories: male/female, black and white, pensioners and below 30.

The college is relatively a progressive one and was established in order to make university education accessible to people who could not afford to take three years off. All classes are in the evenings and most courses are part-time, so people with jobs and families can take them. As a result, it represents better than other colleges (you believe) London's population in its diversity. From your position as a bored invigilator collecting haphazard impressions you can establish that women make a third to two thirds of students, and that "people of colour" make typically a third to half of classes, like they do in the metropolitan. But this of course varies from one exam to another. In this mathematics exam this morning eight out of twelve were black (African) or Asian (i.e. from the Indian subcontinent). Only one woman student out of 12.

When it comes to race, these generalisations are crude as some black people are third generation British, while the "whites" are - very often - Greek or Lithuanians who have not been here long. And how do you count Turkish people? Does being Muslim make you black? Are Jews white enough by now (they weren't a century ago)? The whole thing is quite tasteless. But then, unavoidable. Difference exists in society, and it informs people's choices. Black students, for example, are more likely to take science and business classes, and less likely to take English and History. It's been interesting to follow the Polish immigration through the invigilations: four years ago there was barely one polish student, but in last week's psychology exams they made some 15% of the class, all of them women (yes psychology is overwhelmingly women students). The fact remains that British History students are white, older, and have English names. And so the generalisation that immigrants and their children go towards "useful" or "practical" subjects. Is learning "un-useful" things like Art History derived from privilege, then? Or does it (still) represent a discourse which excludes most Londoners?

These thoughts starts to resemble a sociology exam, so you return to look at your book on Family and Court in Late Ottoman Palestine.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Invigilator's diary (2)

Let n be a positive integer, and let p be a prime. State
Legendre's Theorm for determining the exponent ep
of p in the canonical representation of n! Hence find the
canonical representation of 17!.

Three mathematics and statistics exams this morning. I was invigilating with a crystallographer who started her PhD this year. After years of supervising exams with so many crystallographers, and still I can't quite understand what they do. I guess it has something to do with crystals.

She came from Sri Lanka. "Such a waste of paper, all these exams" I said. I'm always annoyed by the amounts of paper that goes to waste at the end of the exams; and by those students who insist on writing with a gap of three rows between each of their lines. "And there's not even a recycling bin in this room".

As it was a science exam we were distributing notebooks and graph papers. She told me she used to do invigilations as an MSc student in Sri Lanka, and there they would only give the students one graph paper. "We would tell them that they have only one page, that they should be very careful not to make mistakes because we cannot give them extra paper, the university cannot afford it. We would repeat it about three times. But then there would always be someone pleading for an extra paper, and we would give them one."

"But here we give them out as if they were nothing. And the students take it for granted, as if it is only natural that they are allowed to use three papers for one question".

Friday, June 06, 2008

No bread? Let them drive to the supermarket instead

Yesterday was a black day. The Rome emergency summit on food prices ended with a watered-down statement, some peanuts thrown at the global poor, and nothing that could actually stop the price escalation. More specifically, nothing on stopping, limiting, or even re-considering grain-biofuels.

It is hard, if not impossible, to assess the exact impact of biofuels on the recent doubling of wheat and rice prices. This is how I see it, from the reading I've done: biofuel demand pushed maize prices, and this had a knock-on effect on other agricultural commodities, something like a balling game. Hysteria builds up, governments become worried about feeding their citizens (otherwise they will overthrow them) so they block exports of grains, and this drives prices even higher.

True, other factors play as well: more people in Asia eat meat, and meat eats grains. Climate changes have caused a 10-year drought in places like Morocco and Australia; and the rising price of oil makes everything more expensive. And then there's the speculators: they smell the blood and circle above the commodity market, making a profit from bread-queues and empty stomachs. Yes, whatever we do, we have a problem, and it is not going away. But one thing is clear: the answer is not to burn the food we've got in fuel tanks.

How did this happen? Firstly because of US and EU subsidies and mandates, which saw 100 million tonnes of corn diverted into fuel last year. But with oil at US$ 138 a barrel, it may well be that biofuel subsidies are not necessary. That is, it might be profitable anyway to turn corn (or wheat, or rice, or any other grain) into fuel. It needs to be stopped now, and taking the subsidies away will not do. We need a moratorium on grain-based biofuel. We can't allow the world's car drivers to compete with the world's poor and hungry. This is the biggest food crisis we've ever seen, and it's only beginning.
Do you agree with the statement "Operations management can 'make or break' any business"? Explain why.

It's the fifth year that I am supervising exams in college. It's been an element of constancy in my life which otherwise has been far from constant. In almost each exams period, every year April to June, I found myself moving home. But then this exams job gave me something to do, a job to attend to. Amid confusion and transience, spending hours in quiet concentration in Bloomsbury can do no harm. And then there's this strange novelty, of having to be somewhere every morning at 9.30am.

The predicament of the freelancer laptop-nomad is the flexibility in time and space. It may appear sexy on adverts but we who have been doing it for a while know it feels like ball and chain leg shackles. Wouldn't it be great to have a normal job where you go in the morning and forget about it in the evening? Well, probably it wouldn't, but still for a few weeks in spring time it's great. Just leaving home at 9am makes one feel a beneficial member of society. Parents taking their kids to the nursery, office people on the way to work, cyclists and more cyclists, the smell of shampoo and eyes still half closed.