16 May 2006

The Blog Interview (as told to Karen)

Thanks, karen little, this was pretty difficult! Apparently, the first five persons to comment on Karen's interview get to be interviewed by me. So there you go.

1. Explain your Masters project to us, but pretend we're five year olds. Tell us in a way that makes us want to go home and tell our mothers.
Five year olds, huh? How about I pretend you're fourteen year olds, yeah? Here goes. Aphids are evil insects that damage the food crops we plant across the globe. The Russian Wheat Aphid is an especially nasty plague: it causes yellow streaks to appear all along the leaves of wheat as it sucks the plant juices. New leaves come out all warped and grain filling doesn't take place properly - Fewer loaves of bread per acre, see? Certain kinds of wheat are naturally resistant to aphid pests. Such plants grow in the wild in places like the Caucasus Mountains where the Russian Wheat aphid originally came from. This natural resistance has been transferred into some cultivated wheat varieties through conventional breeding. What happens next? Somehow, the resistant plant can pick up signals that it's under attack and responds drastically. These resistant plants actually kill off their own cells in an area around the aphids, literally cutting off their food supply. Cell suicide for the good of the whole organism. Cell walls in other parts of the plant become thickened with deposits, strengthened against subequent probing by the aphids. Hectic molecules like hydrogen peroxide and other free radicals come spilling out of special vesicles in the cells. Some plants become foul tasting to aphids, others actually do something to the aphids themselves, causing them to have fewer offspring. Others just tolerate the aphids and never die. How does this all work? The answer is that we don't know yet. What I'm trying to discover are the changes in gene expression that natural resistance causes. So far, I can see that several known genes are only turned on in the resistant plants, or are turned on faster in these plants when aphids arrive. Oh, and I've discovered 26 new genes that nobody in the history of the universe has ever even seen before, let alone figured out what they do. My voyage of discovery is just beginning.

2. What's the best night out you've ever had?
The night I saw Depeche Mode at Wembley doesn't count, right? I don't go out that much, and when I do, I don't find it that memorable, really. Bad music, expensive drinks and people all around me doing the mating dance; I find it depressing, frankly. I have quite enjoyed going out with you and Rowan and Wendy, though. Remember when we went to Cranks in Rosebank for my birthday? Oh, wait, something's come to mind. I went to this Bacardi Party at Saints in Rivonia a couple of years ago, which was hugely enjoyable. I remember that I arrived at my friend's house shod in footwear slightly under the dress code and had to borrow shoes from the friend's brother's friend. I think I slipped them back to him through the bedroom window of his apartment at four in the morning, or so. There were several packed dance floors with high quality live music and good ventilation. Quite unlike the murky dives in Hatfield, bleargh.

3. What was your proudest moment?
In my matric year I made a clean sweep of the National Afrikaans Expo, taking gold for poetry, prose and dramaturgy. They invented a new prize just for me, for versatility. At the award ceremony, Jannie du Toit (the one who sings all those Jacques Brel songs) read one of my poems aloud in front of an audience of people from across the country, some of whom were quite high up in Afrikaans literary circles. As soon as I recognized my piece, my heart started beating so fast. I was elated when it was well received. I knew then that I had a command of this one talent and that it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

4. Who is your favourite book-fiction character of all time? And why?
Aargh. There are so many great characters that I love: Aunt Ada Doom from Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, who saw "something nasty in the woodshed" and wouldn't let anybody leave; Hannibal Lecter from the Thomas Harris trilogy, with his raspy voice, mind palaces and taste in friends; the Discworld's Granny Weatherwax, especially in Witches Abroad, for her wit, unabashed selfishness and surprising wisdom; Francis in The Secret History by Donna Tartt, who made being an eccentric outcast seem like such a wonderfully chic thing to be; Sarah, the narcoleptic in Jonathan Coe's The House Of Sleep whose cataplexy causes hilarious misunderstandings with incredibly serious consequences; Natalie in Fag Hag by Robert Rodi, who'd rather keep her best friend hostage than see him in a happy relationship. But my favourite character is Grady Tripp from Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. He's an overweight, self-medicating, washed-up loser of a guy. He teaches creative writing at a Pittsburgh college, but the manuscript for his fourth novel is about a million pages long and completely directionless. He's funny and intelligent, but flawed and human. We feel comfortable with him - we're naturally on his side all through his lost weekend with the dead dog and half a boa constrictor in the back of his car, the loss of his manuscript, the uncovering of his indiscretions with the head of the English department's wife and their consequences, his friendship with that oddball student James Leer and his yummy editor Terry Crabtree, and onto salvation. A hugely enjoyable, 3D character.

5. If you could change just one thing, about anything, what would it be?
About me: probably the paunch. But I'm getting there. I feel like I have more energy these days.
About South Africa: I would undo the destruction of our precious ecological heritage. I'd remove all the golf estates and greedy developers who look at virgin forest and go "Hmm, this'll make a nice backdrop to our luxury security village. Let's rip it up!" There are amazing things out there which we've never discovered, never studied, beautiful things we need to conserve so that you can take your children there and show them how awesome this place is. Why do we need another golf course?
About the world: I would undo the population explosion. People should have one child and then be sterilized. I'm serious. For a couple of generations, at least. Overcrowding is where poverty comes from, disease, violence. If I could change one thing, it would be this: I'd give human existence dignity. A life lived with dignity is a life of pride, grace and beauty. Paradise regained.


Karen Little said...

What a fab interview! (you can't interview me back, btw...) You must be sure to become famous so that we can see lots more interviews with you.

Is there anything you don't do well? Anything at all for us mortals to cling to?

Lexi said...

ooooohhhhhh wow your sooooo coool......sorry i get overexcited :p your masters project especially seems really interesting, where can i learn more about the cells killing each other off [in an easy to understand manner]??? and do you know anything about string theory??it's something i read about and want to learn more and cos you do science [i know broad] you could know lots [i hope]........your ending poverty plan seems good,china semi does that :)

arcadia said...

probably the best answers i've seen to any of these questions we've all been posing.

the phd seems quite interesting, although i'd be lying if i said i even understood all of the 14-year old's version of it :-)

ever post any of your poetry?

arcadia said...

hey. placed your blog under my list of links - is that ok? if you have an issue with it i'll remove it.

gm said...

I agree with Arcadia - your answers are really cool.
I think Aunt Ada of Cold Comfort is probably one of the funniest things I have ever read ("I saw something nasty in the woodshed" being her random answer to almost anything). Can't compare!
I haven't read Wonder Boys, but I loved the film. I'll make a point of reading it.

~d said...

Everybody else has these wonderful rants for you about your accomplishments ( which I must admit are impressive! ), but the reason I popped in was to say that we have 2 children. Our theory was not to let the number of children out number the number of adults.

Unknown said...

karen little:
I shall make my own rules in this garden, thank you very much. And I'd rather be rich than famous, I think. You shall be the first to be interviewed (evil scientist laugh).

Apoptosis, or programmed cell death, is a very important biological process. It's what makes wood fibres in trees hollow so that water can flow in them, it's what cleaves the webs of skin from between your fingers and toes in the womb, so that you're not born with flippers, it's what causes the leaves to fall in autumn, it's what protects you from cancer by telling senile old cells to die. But wait for my post on 10 books you must read before you die. All shall be revealed.

I enjoy your blog so very much. It's honest and well made, and therefore I've linked to you -if you don't mind. It's just an MSc, not a PhD, but thank the Lord that it's almost over; can't say I understand all of it myself! I only write poetry in my mother tongue: if you're interested, I might put some of it up.

The book is very similar to the movie, but expanded, somehow. There's a lot more that happens, extra characters, funny situations. It's my favourite favourite.

I'm quite embarrased now, this wasn't meant to be some kind of resumé, but thanks anyhow. And I laughed out loud when I read that last sentence. In my Utopia you'd be allowed more children if you could care for them properly and give them the dignity they deserve. Suppose I'm some kind of Eugenist at heart (hopefully a moral one).

arcadia said...

asseblief! afrikaans bly tog die beste digtaal.

arcadia said...

thanks for the link, just please change it to

danke wel.

Lexi said...

ok, thanks......hope to see the list soon :)