Category Archives: Minor celebs

On dragons and bunnies

It’s my birthday. And I discovered this week that a fellow blogger suffers from the same humiliation as I do: having been born prematurely in January of 1976, and thus contrary to what you would think based on years of education via placemats in Chinese restaurants, I am a rabbit, not a dragon. Sigh. Read all about it via @unbravegirl here. And just for her, here’s a picture of my couch.

A Very English Adventure

I was back in the Brighton area this weekend, for the arts festival that I’ve now visited three times. The first year I went, I saw jazz and sculpture. Last year it was modern music and AfroBeat. This year it was classical chamber music. All fun. As a former serious musician, I love to see live music, and I don’t do it often enough in my own town. So the now-annual Brighton trip is an excuse to spend a few days immersing myself in concerts and related things, to re-visit a town I really quite like (and now know my way around) and to tour around a bit of the English Countryside, which I–as a non-driving (when in England) person–don’t get to do much. I always be sure to convince at least one friend to join me for the weekend, and said person has to either have a car or rent a car in order for the trip to work.

The first big adventure this year was a piano concert at Glyndebourne. I have to admit, when I booked the tickets I did not even notice it was NOT in Brighton, as it was part of the festival and I was going gaga over the performer. It was Leif Ove Andsnes, who is one of (IMHO) the best pianists in the world right now. He is also Norwegian, which triggers my geeky “I’m Norwegian too” side. And the first time I saw him play, it was the Grieg piano concerto, which was my high school graduation piano lessons piece. So I had to go see him, even if I had no idea what a Glyndebourne was. Well, I was schooled. It turns out that Glyndebourne is a full-scale professional opera house that is entirely on private property–it was built by the wealthy-and-eccentric owners of a country estate in the 1930s. The current incarnation is world-class and holds well over a thousand, and it just sits in the middle of the house along with restaurants, gardens, sculptures of world-quality art, and other oddities. The tickets said “opens at noon for picnicking” but I did not know where to even begin with that, so had lunch in town and then went out with my friends in their hatchback vehicle, they parked in the grass space in the parking lot, and we wandered around. So apparently because this is private property, it’s only on concert days that you can just tour around and look at the gardens and the sculptures and the like. And the place was jam-packed with picnickers of an elaborate sort that I had never seen before. Almost no one was sitting on blankets on the ground eating chips out of a packet. No. Not only did they have lawn chairs, but tables with table cloths, wine and glass goblets, elaborate picnic baskets that held proper plates and real silverware (not plastic) and really exotic picnic food. Note to self: must up the level of picnickery when in England. Whew.

The concert was, as I had hoped, amazing even though I was suffering from elaborate-picnic-envy. Somehow, again without realizing it, I had tickets in the third row on the “good side” for a piano player, so the views were amazing (as was the music). So a good day. Back to Brighton, right? We went out to the car, and realized much to our chagrin that because it was parked on grass on a slight down-hill gradient, and the grass was a bit damp, the thing would not back up and the wheels were just spinning on the grass. There was an enormous SUV parked directly in front of us, else we could have just pulled through the slot and drove off. After about 15 minutes of waiting, no SUV owner had yet arrived to save us, and the driver was getting pretty antsy. I was very much against the “just get out and push the car” idea, especially when it was floated that I as the smallest should drive and the larger driver should get out and push. I could just see myself getting disoriented and doing something wrong so as to pin my friend against the SUV and require emergency medical care in the middle of nowhere, when the car park was flooded with cars trying to LEAVE the estate. So we left the driver in the car and I and another small female got out to push. This was immediately noticed by a middle-aged British man getting into a car in the next row, and he came running over to help, along with his gray-haired wife in her floral dress.

We did it. We managed to free the car, and I with my American accent thanked the nice couple profusely for helping us out of a bind. They made some hilarious comments about how useless that (German) car brand was and how they would never have travelled anywhere in such a heap. I kept my composure long enough to get into the car, but once we drove off I couldn’t stop laughing; the entire situation was so ridiculous as to be almost unbelievable. American girl with a few nice Brits, pushing a German car uphill through wet grass after a Norwegian pianist played a concert at a world-class opera house on a private English countryside estate. Seriously, you cannot make this sh*t up.

Not quite six degrees of Kevin Bacon

As an American working in Engineering in the UK, I am often asked if I was a student at MIT. Although I attended some very good engineering institutions in the US, I was never registered at MIT. It was a childhood dream of mine (geek confession, I had an MIT sweatshirt aged 10 and I thought my life plan was set) but it never happened formally. However, when I was in the last months of finishing my PhD, through a collaboration I had a chance to spend 11 days at MIT. In visiting Singapore, I have found that my life boils down to two, maybe three, degrees of MIT. Not six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Eleven days does not sound like much in terms of building a career. But I have found that, when I attend conferences of the sort that I am at now, in Singapore, the people with whom I hang out are people that I met during those eleven days at MIT. Or, at very worst, people who I met through one person that I met during that time. I can sort my entire professional life into either two or three degrees of separation from MIT.

Clearly those who attend MIT are more likely to exist in my world of research, compared with those people I know from my own undergraduate or graduate days at Big-10 schools in the midwest. I could guess this based simply on the number of my MN high school facebook friends who are still in Minnesota, compared with my work friends who are from everywhere. My MIT friends are from all over the world and have been willing to travel all over the world for employment, which is similar to my own circumstance.

But, I have to admit, I never thought those eleven days at MIT would play such a strong role in my life over five years later. In the end, the collaboration for which I was there did not even yield a publication (critical in my world of science), but just a Master’s thesis. I now enter into collaborations with other universities more aware of the potential results of the long-term benefits from having been associated with each other, although I honestly think MIT is an island unto itself and not following any pattern or mould associated with other engineering institutions.

I have one more very full day of work to do before I leave on the near-midnight flight back to the UK tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed this Singapore trip more than my previous two, if only because I’ve had so many interesting meals with interesting people (all who I know through my MIT connections). I’ve talked on this blog before about professional friends , and the longer I am in my job, the more convinced I am by the need to attend out-of-town events either with someone from my own group or in serious meeting-up-with-professional-friends mode. I’ve had a great time this trip, because I had three different friends (who did not necessarily know each other, despite the MIT connections) to have food and drinks and conversations with. So I leave Singapore knowing that this trip was worth it, and that the worth was mostly in the connections I’ve strengthened through our common interests in science and in which we might all have just managed to mentioned MIT in passing. I have no degrees from MIT, but I do have a strange connection. And I adore my “professional friends” in their second and third degrees of separation from a marvelous institution.

Famous people. And not the Big Brother sort.

I have tickets to go see Philip Glass in concert, playing “Music in 12 parts” with his own ensemble, in two weeks, here in the UK at the Brighton Festival. Anyone who has been following this blog for any period of time will know that I’m a musician by hobby, nearly by trade (I started out as a double major at University, music + engineering, and have a few professional music recordings under my belt) and so I’m pretty excited about this in my usual geeky manner. I was chatting about the concert tonight with one of my fellow-concert-goers, and an interesting question came up. Relative to others we’ve seen, where does Glass rate in terms of the most influential, eminent, important, dare I say famous, person that either of us have seen in real life?

For a musician, Glass is definitely one of those for me. I see him as a 20th century Mozart or the like, and I’m pretty excited to see him in his 70s but still performing his own compositions. But an interesting discussion arose: my fellow conversant and I were trying to weigh seeing Glass in concert against things like meeting a Nobel-prize winning scientist. Or even just seeing them speak. I feel like there should be a points system somehow, including how important the person is in their field and how close you got… seeing Glass in concert will not be a personal experience but I suspect it will be a transformative one. An opportunity to see someone who is really a genius doing what they do live in person with a few thousand others (when the global population is billions). In a culture soaked with celebrity of the infamous sort, I’m only interested in people who have made a demonstrable contribution to history and society–no Jade Goody sightings would make my list here.

Since being in the UK, the ante has been raised for me. I personally know Sirs and Dames on a first name basis. Several of each. Which is odd. I’ve also bumped into British royals twice on the street near my office, but I don’t count that as transformative. Heck, I’ve also bumped into Stephen Hawking on the street, in his wheelchair. Which is just strange. And surreal. I have not been to see him speak, but that’s been a conscious choice. I could have.

So, readers, I ask you now: who is the most “important” person that you have seen live and in person? Concert, random meeting, whatever. Hopefully you’ll get from this post that I’m hoping they will have had some lasting influence on society, and not just be an internet celebrity of the moment. I’m interested in people who made a big contribution in whatever field they were in: music, theater, dance, science, art, whatever. I’ve been to quite a few jazz concerts, but I think Glass is still going to top that list. And I’m not sure that any of the rock-star scientist types that I’ve seen or met would quite meet that bar in terms of lasting legacy. What about you?

Dear So-and-So, overdue edition

Dear So-and-So is a Friday thing, but I had a busy week. And I’ve been saving up the rants and things all week long, so here goes.

Dear British Newspapers,

Confirmed. You lie!

Still can never remember which ones are associated with which political faction, NFAH

Dear Charlie Brooker and Other Outraged British Citizens Upset over the Kraft-Cadbury Thing:

I do hope you realize how ridiculous you sound. The world is NOT actually ending. And oh yes, did you ever buy a bar of your precious Cadbury chocolate in the US? Lookie here:

But I’m sure you knew that. In fact, I’m sure you walked around America talking about how inferior this Cadbury’s chocolate was to the “real” stuff back home.

And Charlie Brooker, if you can stop ranting long enough to try something, have one of the extremely popular jalapeno crisps/chips that are currently the craze in America.

Tired of the whole “the sky is falling” thing, NFAH

Dear Tesco,

I thought it was a joke when I heard about the whole “pyjama ban” thing. I thought it was one of those over the top British things associated with the “social dis-ease” and avoidance of the possibility of embarrassing others, especially when I saw the quote of the supposed sign.

“To avoid causing offence or embarrassment to others, we ask that our customers are appropriately dressed when visiting our store (footwear must be worn at all times and no nightwear is permitted).”

But when I found out you tried to block the entry of a D-list celebrity into the store because she was wearing a posh tracksuit, I realized that no matter how ridiculous this seemed, you were serious. Seeing as I do occasionally run out in my lounge-wear on the weekend, I’m feeling ever so grateful that my local shop is a Sainsbury’s.

Hoping my local shop doesn’t decide to follow in your footsteps,

Dear Person Suing Simon Cowell Because You Were Rejected from Britain’s Got Talent,

Thanks for making it clear that the Brits have passed the Americans completely when it comes to frivolous lawsuits.

Hoping this person’s 15 minutes are about up, NFAH

Dear Two People Who Came Back Into My Life This Week After Years-Long Absences,

It’s wonderful to have you back.

In awe of the magic of the internet, NFAH

Just another ordinary day… aw who am I kidding?

It eerily echoed a recent scene. I was walking to work mid-day, after a morning teleconference on my home computer. I was wearing jeans. Not carrying a Starbucks coffee this time. I was about three blocks closer to home/further from work but along the same road, which is one of about three different roads I can take to work. I hadn’t taken this one in a while, and I don’t know why I did today. I’m on the right-hand side of the street. I’m approaching a small intersection, just a tiny one-way road branching off to the right. I look up to see if I can safely cross. Just ahead of me to the left a car is approaching me. I notice it has a front brand badge that I don’t recognize, and I think that’s odd. I’ve become quite used to the logos for Vauxhall and the like. The car quite peculiarly stops when it is directly in the middle of the small intersection, blocking traffic going into or out of the street (had there been any). The front passenger- and back driver-side doors open and men in suits get out. At this point I’m on the corner about to try and cross the small street, but slowing as I approach this unusual scene. Do I cross? Wait? Then the back passenger-side door opens. A man in a suit exits the car. No, it couldn’t be… yes, yes it was.

My British work colleagues were stunned again, that’s 3 royals for me in the space of as many months, and all while walking along the same stretch of road. Maybe I should be taking that route all the time…

Dear so-and-so, Tuesday edition

Normally this is a Friday thing, but I’m bubbling over and can’t wait three more days.

Dear December,

I am not ready for you. Could you please wait a few more weeks?

Time-crunched, NFAH

Dear British ladies of a certain age:

Yes, you are right in thinking that those neon colored tights with black skirts and shoes are making a statement. That statement is, “I’m not young enough to pull off this look.”

Helpfully yours, NFAH

Dear Gym,

I know you must think I don’t love you since I don’t visit you very often. Hopefully the three visits in the last eight days will help reassure you that I really do love you. And I do plan to visit you more often in the new year.

Yours with sore muscles, NFAH

Dear American boys,

Your shameless self-promotion is really starting to wear on me. I know this attitude would work okay in America, but here in England it’s a bit much. Why don’t you just whip that thing out, and I’ll grab my tape measure.

Glad I don’t have one, NFAH

Dear team,

I promise you that in the next 48 hours my flat will become tidy and food and drink will be obtained. I realize that from the look of things right now, it does not appear that a holiday party will take place on Thursday.

Channelling Cinderella (but not until tomorrow), NFAH

Dear Social Media people,

There are really only a few ways to piss me off, I swear. But you’re very good at them:

  • Be a (very) minor celebrity but refuse to be facebook friends with anyone you don’t know. Send a message explaining how you don’t want to have too many facebook friends. Excellent, I will be sure to delete that post I was writing about your self-produced CD
  • Actually do tweet what you are eating for every meal and when you are bathing. TMI and I don’t need to know.
  • Or tweet the name of a new song every 3 minutes
  • Or keep tweeting the same message day after day
  • Or keep trying to advertise your latest scheme
  • Or make your blog content unreadable due to advertisements

Helpfully yours, NFAH

Dear Huffington Post,

Thanks for providing me with such interesting reads today. While I was utterly appalled with the patriarchal and heteronormative message found in “Don’t forget to have kids” I was totally and utterly delighted with the profile on my favorite Indie rock star and uber-Twitter genius Amanda Palmer. 1/2 ain’t bad.

Child-free, single and happily yours, NFAH

The blogosphere abuzz

Actually it was probably more the Twitterverse. Regardless, either way the breaking news earlier this week was that sex-blogger and author ‘Belle du Jour’ was a PhD scientist about my age. Not a professional writer. Suddenly the lines about how it was so well-written make sense–in this business, doing science or research is only a small piece of the pie, we have to communicate our results both in person and in print. So I’m not terribly surprised that she is an academic type in the sciences, we have to be able to construct sentences.

Overall, my interest in the story should be obvious: blogger, female, PhD, similarly-aged, in the UK, etc. Although I confess now, I am not, nor do I ever intend to be, a sex-blogger OR a prostitute. There we go, you’ve heard it first. I promise that my semi-anonymity on this blog has nothing to do with a secret life as a lady of the night.

What interested me most about the ‘breaking news’ was the apparent contradiction that I saw in how Belle du Jour, now Dr Brooke Magnanti, was described. In the above-linked article, she was in one paragraph “an obscure research scientist” and a few paragraphs later “a respected specialist in developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology in a hospital research group in Bristol.” Surely there’s a contradiction in being both obscure and respected? In order to be respected, someone must know of your work (and I mean the science kind, not the other thing) and thus by definition one could not be obscure,

relatively unknown: as a : remote, secluded b : not prominent or famous

Although when I entered her name into the search engine for finding academic publications (the mark of respect vs. obscurity in the research world) alas there were only a few, which tends towards ‘obscure’ in the general community (although perhaps respected by immediate colleagues).

The obvious mind-game that an expat in this situation must play is to imagine what would happen had the same thing transpired in your own country. Here in the UK we saw lots of press and a great deal of publicity for bit-players related to Dr. Magnanti (her father was apparently not happy, but I don’t link the story here as it reeked of spotlight-gathering). Other ousted sex bloggers took to the ether in the form of twitter, blogs, and daytime chat shows. There was commentary about the glamorization of prostitution. Apparently Dr. Magnanti is supported by her employer and work colleagues. And here is where we see the big difference between England and America.

If anyone, as a PhD and engineer/scientist with a good job in research, were to come out as a former prostitute while living in America, they would not be in the position of Dr. Magnanti. They would be in hiding. They would not have supportive colleagues or a job anymore. They would most likely have ruined their professional careers for life. Now some time will have to pass before we can ascertain whether Dr. Magnanti does or does not go on to have a fulfilling and productive career in research (and given the leaky pipeline we can guess that the odds are against her). Regardless, the fact that this is even an option is what makes England different from America, and makes me happy to be here in the UK as this story unfolds.

I need a costume for Hallowe’en

I have the most random of Hallowe’en plans, which is that I’m going to a party at the Australian embassy in Paris. Yep. That’s me; Ms. International. But it’s going to be hard to top the costumed performance of my sister last weekend. She lives in China, as some of you may know, and she has a bit of a ‘Mando-pop’ obsession. As do I, now that she’s been feeding me things to listen to. I love music that’s good no matter what the genre, and some Mando-pop certainly qualifies (Leehom anyone?)

Over the weekend, my dear sis went to a concert for the band ‘Sodagreen’ in Shanghai and apparently managed to attract more than just a bit of attention.



Now I can highly recommend Sodagreen as a band, as silly as the name sounds, it’s some of the most innovative music I’ve heard in a while–combining pop music with classical themes, and I’m hooked. Yes, I’m hooked on Chinese pop music. Welcome to expat life. It’s a bit random and global. But you can see the whole lime green hair thing. So then we have my sister at the concert:



These images were taken from a Chinese chat website or similar, where apparently my sister had become famous for wandering around Shanghai as an Anglo wearing a lime green wig. She tells me the comments are on the order of, “I spotted her on the subway” and she also appeared on the jumbo-tron during the bid for an encore, so clearly she became a ’15 minutes of fame’ local celebrity in Shanghai. The full concert story is archived on a blog from her friend here, along with this photo:


Now two things are true. I have never been as creative as my sis, and I absolutely adore that she was wandering around Shanghai in this wig. And using it as part of a greater plan to be the lead singer of Sodagreen for Halloween. Second thing, I still don’t have a costume for Hallowe’en and I need help, being not as creative as my sis I’m a bit baffled at the moment.

Oh and maybe a third thing, I can’t wait until spring break when I’m going to China to see my sister’s life in person! Planning must commence immediately…

I’ve missed my calling

Really, I blame authorblog. It was he who posted this story about a little old lady, past 100, and her use of facebook and twitter. Google around and it turns out this has been all over the recent British news. And I love, love, love it. I’ve followed her on Twitter, and had a great look around her care home’s website, which looks really cozy and like someplace I would love to hang around. Thus, my thinking I missed my calling, I’m spending all day every day with the wrong aged people. See, I adore “little old ladies” especially if they’re feisty, as this Ivy Bean appears to be. And my nonagenarian grandmother certainly is. I had at one point in my life entertained thoughts of being a doctor specializing in geriatric medicine; I suspect I made a better choice for me in that engineering is a bit less emotional, and I doubt I could have handled losing patients that I had grown attached to. But it’s certainly true that I look wistfully in the windows of my local care home when I walk to the gym, as I wonder if perhaps the little old ladies sitting there alone might like company. I’ve always been the girl who would rather hang out with the elderly and who is not so interested in the babies as in the stories about the 30s and 40s.

But hey, Britain has a cure for this: you can register as a volunteer on the “Help the Aged” charity site with the category “befriending”. That is totally the right type of volunteer work for lonely me, even better if I can make a “friend” who can teach me to knit! Fingers crossed that they do need a “befriender” in my area, as I really would love to hang around someone like the fabulous Ivy Bean. In the meantime, I’m trying to convince said nonagenarian grandmother to get on facebook, we could totally play long-distance scrabble (although I know she’ll always win).