By 20th November 2020Presidents Log, Uncategorised

Mister Spock meets Doctor Strangelove!  Just in case these two phrases in the title aren’t recognised, the first is supposedly from Star Trek, and the second is the continuation of the full title of Stanley Kubrick’s tale of accidental nuclear armageddon, which in their different ways perhaps combine to form a reasonable summary of the current crazy times.

"Mister Spock meets Doctor Strangelove – the story of 2020?”

Actually Mister Spock never uttered that specific phrase!  The nearest he got to it seems to have been “It is not life as we know or understand it”, and it was left to a spoof song to popularise what everyone thought he had said.  But the sentiment is the same, as life for most of us right now is certainly very different from the one we had got used to.  So what to do about it?  As it happens, the two parts of this blog’s title offer diametrically opposed approaches to the current situation.  In Star Trek, they were boldly going forward into the unknown (although the suggestion from the song that it was because they couldn’t find the reverse gear may have slightly spoilt that impression), whereas in Doctor Strangelove the game-changer was a nuclear war, with the survivors preparing to hunker down in some particularly deep mines for a century or so.

There is indeed no reverse, so if it comes to a choice between moving forward or hiding away until it’s all over, then moving forward certainly gets our vote!  It should therefore come as no surprise that we at Cairn have kept ourselves pretty busy ever since this little pathogen hit life’s rotating blades.  However, we have certainly had to adapt.  We’re pleased to say that business is back with a vengeance, but when the first lockdown (yup, we’re in the second one now!) closed the universities, it meant that there was nobody there to place or receive orders for a while, so as many of you will have seen from our emails, we did furlough a number of us until at least some of our potential customers were allowed back in.  Actually we were quite taken back by the extent to which many people were literally locked out.  One of our academic collaborators was only able to gain occasional access to his institution by informing their security that his microscopy system needed regular checking to prevent the lasers from exploding.  Well, you can never be too careful, can you?



“He was too late, the lasers DID explode!”

But fortunately, at Cairn it’s down to US to decide who we let in and who we keep out, so we’ve been able to remain open for business throughout it all.  As I write this during the second lockdown, there is inevitably a sense of deja vu, but with the important difference that at least the universities are staying open this time.

In many ways though, it had felt that nothing much has changed in the months since this all started, but no sooner had I begun to put together this Cairn version of the “new normal”, then suddenly everything is up in the air again.  In terms of doing a blog, this is kind of annoying, as all the things I intended to say are being overtaken by events, but in terms of the world out there, it’s very definitely looking to be an improvement. 

First and most importantly, the mRNA approach for creating a vaccine looks to be a real game-changer, and not just for dealing with this current little illness, so we may well be able to get back to some sort of “old normal” after all.  That does just leave us with the other small global problem of climate change, for which denying its existence is definitely NOT a similar wondercure, but at least recent developments in American politics would seem to suggest that other methods may now be tried!  And for those of us in the UK, we also have the dreaded “Brexit” looming on the 2021 horizon, but a recent, for want of better words, “toy-throwing” exercise within the corridors of power of British government may mean that this whole sorry episode may perhaps now be dealt with in a rather more pragmatic way than it has been so far.  Although Cairn is definitely not a politically affiliated organisation, we are nevertheless yet another Company who would rather like to know a little more about the framework within which we’ll be operating next year, and the recent departure from government from some people with, shall we say, the more “extreme” views on these matters may perhaps generate a little more clarity?  But time is now very short, so we’re not holding our breath….

But enough of such issues!

While of course it’s vital to keep moving forward, perhaps to do so from the relative safety of a deep mine isn’t entirely a bad idea though!  In this respect, while we are still literally only at surface level, for all of us at Cairn the feeling of having our own little environment here in which to wait out the viral storm has been particularly welcome.  In fact, our little series of “Cairnland” spoofs [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

in which our farm dared to declare independence from the UK, have acquired some sort of reality, since it has carried on pretty much as normal through these recent little difficulties.  Only when we venture outside our borders to we realise that all is not quite right with the world, and if, as I personally do, you actually live on the farm, this feeling has been stronger still!  The important point here is that the crops have all been growing as normal, and also from a personal viewpoint, neither Vinnie, nor Bertie  my two Hungarian Vizslas, seem to know or care about such issues, so from a psychological perspective I’m sure I’ve found all this rather easier to deal with than it must be for many others.  But of course, in a more general sense, people have been questioning my sanity for years, and perhaps with considerable justification, but let’s not go there right now! 

“The farmhouse dogs. That’s Bertie with his paws up, with father Vinnie behind!”

Nevertheless, it has all felt rather strange.  Compared with our usual schedule, there was no “autumn Plymouth” at the Cell Physiology Workshop this year.  This will be the first time it hasn’t run since 1984, which I also managed to attend, and although I missed out on a few intervening years owing to a temporary entanglement with another “research” organisation

I’d been along every year since going full time with Cairn in 1989.  And again on a personal note, following whatever occasional visits that time had allowed during the 1980s, I’d been revisiting my old postdoc haunts in the Boston area every year at least once since 1996, but suddenly that didn’t happen this year either! Rather more annoyingly, I’d realigned my priorities for this year, as I do like to be in the US for Thanksgiving if I can, and in the past that’s generally been possible to combine with being at the big Scientific Society for Neuroscience meeting over there.  However, for the last couple of years the dates have been too far apart, so for this year I’d decided to be the hooky-playing schoolboy (a phrase I remembered from Tom Sawyer) and just do Thanksgiving instead.  But what actually happens this year?  Neither!  This is annoying.

“Thanksgiving in Boston, November 2017”

Actually, good riddance to all these big meetings!!!  I’m afraid I’ve always had my doubts about them, but only when they aren’t going ahead for a while at least, do you realise just HOW expensive they are in terms of both time and money.  It’s a threeway hit.  First, there‘s the cost of actually being there, in terms of hiring the exhibition space, for which many organisers are becoming increasingly unrealistic.  Second, there’s the cost of getting people over there, which is rendered even more substantial as big meetings tend to put up the costs of flights and especially of accommodation at their chosen venue, plus not to mention the entirely understandable desire (if not expectation) to socialise in the evenings.  It is indeed a tough life, but also an expensive one.  Third, and perhaps most insidiously, there is the huge amount of preparation work to get things “ready” for the exhibition, which inevitably tends to have a higher priority than preparing the sale of real products to real customers, and so does tend to further drag down the bottom line.  Good riddance indeed….

But even so, there is some sort of void that needs to be filled.  In the absence of so much personal contact, remote connections do become rather more important.  We in Cairn are doing our best here, and our CEO Jez in particular is spending ever more of his time in his office, glued to images of our contacts in the rest of the world, and only occasionally re-emerging into whatever there may approximate to sunlight in the northern climes of our little Cairnland empire, although to be fair the summer hasn’t been too bad at all in that respect.  But while your intrepid blogger may make a little bit of fun about such activities, and also of all those “webinars” on which he recently poured so much scorn, not to mention his offer of virtual money to support all these virtual meetings, he is nevertheless as hypocritical as anyone and more so than most when it comes to hitching a ride on this particular bandwagon.

So we’re currently putting some dedicated audiovisual facilities together!  In a previous blog about our new building  I explained that we achieved a great deal more useable space than is usual nowadays, by deciding NOT to have a huge multistorey hole in the middle of it.  However, I may have omitted to mention a second revolutionary concept, where, if for planning or other reasons your building has a pitched roof, you ensure that the space up there is both accessible and useable, and we elected to do this too!  It turned out that some of this space had so far been “unclaimed” for other purposes, and especially because of it being a kind of far corner of the building in layout terms, it’s correspondingly a bit more isolated from Cairn’s daily mayhem, so it’s about as suitable as it could be for “studio” use.  But hey, what am I saying, we planned it that way all along of course….

“Our new audiovisual area, which will be finished real soon now!”

Actually at the moment, we’re even struggling to find decent space for photography, as there is usually too much going on behind an otherwise potentially available bit of space, and as for anything that may involve a microphone, well dream on!  These new facilities will therefore be a very useful addition to our currently socially distanced world.  So be warned, more of our ugly mugs may be heading towards a screen near you pretty soon, so the more sensitive amongst you may well wish to look away now!