Reading, fast and slow

It’s been too long, but now it’s challenge time.

When I started this blog two years (!) ago, it was with the purpose of documenting my progress on three challenges I had set up with my back-then-fellow-blogger Gonçalo. The challenges eventually went to waste, and so did Gonçalo’s blogging, but my blog remained more or less active… until about half a year ago. Since then I’ve been struggling with updating my blog, one reason being that I haven’t had much excitement to write about.

One of the very few benefits of being unemployed is that one can (with a little bit of self discipline) dedicate oneself to hobbies and interests one otherwise doesn’t “have time” for—for one reason or another.

A problem with learning new things, however, is that it nearly always requires a fair amount of reading. And every time I enter phases of intensive reading I get reminded of how slow a reader I am. I don’t think I am very much slower than an average reader, but I certainly read much slower than some of my friends. And although I generally don’t bother comparing my own skills with others, reading speed is one where I actually do. Why? Because I realize that reading faster would allow me to absorb more information in less time, which in the long run equals more knowledge with less effort.

So I have decided that it’s time to bring back challenge into this blog. This time I am challenging myself to increase my speed of reading. My current reading speed seems to lie at around 200-220 words per minute (wpm), which (apparently) is right on the average. My initial goal is to double that to 400 wps. I do not know how reasonable this goal is, but I will be documenting my progress here… taking this blog back to its roots!

Some initial Googling shows that there are great services available for free online for this. My first candidate will be Spritz, but this will be subject to change as I go along and try it out.

With me luck!

Food to die for, or not

I don’t consider myself particularly brave, but neither very cowardly. I am generally up for new things, even when they have a clear risk factor involved. At least as long as I can have a personal impact on this risk.

Yesterday I was visiting some friends for a board game evening, and we were all invited to have dinner at their neighbors’ place. Nice and all good, until I heard that my flatmates were discussing one of the main ingredients rather worryingly.

My flatmates told me that he neighbors were about to serve a pesto made from a plant called ramsons (bärlauch in German and ramslök in Swedish). They also told me that the only problem with this plant (which is picked before it flowers can be rather easily confused with two other plants.

One of them is the lily of the valley (German: maiglöckchen; Swedish: liljekonvalj), well known for being poisonous, with pretty painful symptoms. But small amounts are unlikely to kill you.

The second of them is the autumn crocus or naked lady (German: herbstzeitlose; Swedish: tidlösa). This one is also poisonous, but in contrast to the lily of the valley, the autumn crocus kills you even after consuming only very small quantities. Symptoms appear only 2-6 hours after consumption, are very similar to those of cholera, and no antidote is known. Nice!

After having researched this for over an hour together and even sent one of us downstairs to have a look at these plants the neighbors had picked, we were all getting more and more paranoid about this dinner. And especially I, who barely know their neighbors, wasn’t exactly sure how good these guys are at selecting their harvests.

Although we did prepare our own sauce to bring to the dinner, we all ended up trying a bit from the pesto in the end, but I think most of us decided to stay below the four grams that were stated as the deadly dose. Now, about 14 hours later, I still don’t have any cholera-like symptoms, so I suppose it would have been safe to dig in much deeper into that bowl of ramsons pesto—which indeed was very delicious!

But it was an interesting feeling to be truly worried over such a simple thing as food, and to realize that my braveness is rather limited to situations where (I feel like) I have some control.

Beautiful Baselbiet

One thing I will surely miss from Basel—especially if I end up in Buenos Aires—is the surrounding nature. Get on the bike in the city center, head for any direction, and you won’t have to ride longer than 15 minutes until you’ve reached the country side. Not that I’ve been making use of this fact on a very regular basis, but the times that I have I have highly appreciated it.

Yesterday was one of those days. With spring slowly but surely arriving I decided to make the most out of the beautiful Saturday weather with a long bicycle trip. I literally just picked a nearby village from the map (Reigoldwil) and set out. After 2h30min, 30 km, and quite a bit more climbing than expected I was awarded with this nice view, followed by a 5 min high-speed downhill ride taking me to my final destination:

Heading for Reigoldswil.

Heading for Reigoldswil.

All-in-all I ended up doing around 70 km, which is not much for a regular rider, but was quite an exercise for me—since I usually don’t bike more than the 15 plus 15 minutes it takes me to go to and from work every day.

Hip science

I have less than three weeks remaining here in Basel before I return back home to Sweden—an adventure in itself, since I have decided to go home by train. More about that to come.

In contrast to my last two stays here in Basel, this time I have been given a pretty fun project to lead and work on in the lab. It also makes me feel very hip and cool, since it is one of the hottest topics in biology right now—namely CRISPR/Cas.

Without getting too deep into details, CRISPR/Cas is a DNA editing system that uses components of an immune system from bacteria to introduce specific modifications in the genome of other organisms. This has potential applications for everything from basic research (genetics, molecular biology) and biotechnology (genetic engineering) to clinical science (gene therapy).

My contribution will obviously be very modest, but what mostly makes me happy is to feel that I have reached a knowledge level where I can actually understand and start contributing to leading science.

From highland to lowland

This weekend saw the making of a relatively spontaneous trip to the ski resort town Davos in the canton Graubünden in the east of Switzerland. Apart from snow sports, this town is also known for hosting the World Economic Forum annual meeting, attracting influential and/or corrupt people from around the world for a few days each January.

Naturally, our trip was accompanied by slightly less media coverage—hence the lack of photos in this post. But we managed to fit two days of pretty nice snowboarding/skiing, and I also got to try out cross-country skiing for the first time. Big thanks to my fellow colleague and namesake for hosting us these two nights!

Now back in Basel (or rather Friedlingen, just across the border in Germany) where I’m about to fit in a few hours of sleep before getting up again at 2:30 AM, in order to make it to the town center in time for Morgestraich—the start of the three-day Carnival of Basel.

Not quite as quiet as it looks.

Since arriving in Basel my blogging activity has been close to none, giving the impression that nothing of interest is happening here. And indeed, winter might not be the most eventful time of the year in Basel. But nevertheless, I have been keeping myself rather busy — just not been writing much about it. Lots of science, quite some beer, a littlebit of opera — and a concert with Ennio Morricone!But instead of writing about things in retrospect, I will try to shape up my future blogging. Stay tuned!

Passionate thinking

I recently watched El secreto de sus ojos (The secret in their eyes), a great Argentinian movie with an 8.3 rating on IMDb.

Around halfway into the movie, the semi-alcoholic police investigator Sandoval proudly and convincing tells his colleague Benjamín how they will track down the suspect:

El tipo puede cambiar de todo: de cara, de casa, de famila, de novia, de religión, de Dios… pero hay una cosa que no puede cambiar, Benjamín… no puede cambiar… de pasión.

This line made a big impression on me, and for the second time in less than one week I was asking myself: what is my passion?

Most people I know have some sort of passion. Some people like cooking, others like photography. Someone is completely in love with dogs, another has his heart devoted to a football team, and another still lives for science. And people who don’t have a passion they are enthusiastic about are those I would generally consider boring.

But I’ve come to realize that I might have become that boring person myself.

My greatest passion used to be music… mainly playing it with friends. But since ten years or so, my guitar playing and music making has slowly been diminishing towards nearly never. Meanwhile I am now spending an immensely large part of my life studying and doing biology. And while I definitely have a great interest for science, I am not sure if I would take it so far as to call it a passion.

So what is my passion? What is it in life that inspires me and makes me enthusiastic? What is it that makes me long for the weekends and holidays? To be honest, I currently don’t know.

And why do I consider this important? Well, how can I set up goals and milestones for my life, if I don’t even know what I am pursuing?

Back at the crime scene.

It’s been almost exactly one and a half year since I started this blog. Back then, it was intended as a way of keeping track of my three summer challenges.

Since five days I am now back at the place where I started: Basel, Switzerland.

This will be my home for the next three months. Or to be exact, Weil am Rhein in Germany will be my home, Kleinbasel in Switzerland my job location, and a borrowed bicycle my shuttle vector. And to break the winter depression, Innsbruck in Austria will be my Christmas holiday host.

Most of all, these three months will give me a chance to think what should happen next.

Expect updates soon, but for now Sandman is knocking on my door.