Monday 22 February 2016


I haven't always been the sunny, committed, engaged teacher and researcher that stalks the corridors of The Institute each day. In the first job after my PhD, I ran out of steam after about three years as an independent researcher and nobody noticed or cared.  My HoD never once, in six years working under him, asked me how it was going or enquired about my teaching. The only bit of helpful information I got from him was his estimate that it took him a week of elapsed time to develop a new 1 hr lecture sufficient to give it a first run-through with students. This emerged when I mentioned, with a sort of incredulous despair, that I had spent the whole Summer researching, writing and preparing a new 10 contact hour lecture course which I called Evolution from [primeval] Soup to [hominid] Nuts. In my run-out-of-steam days I could spend the whole morning answering the mail. This was in 1985 when e-mail was barely invented and most communications came in envelopes.  It got a little bit more exciting later when I was recruited to beef up my bench skills and had a near-death experience. My point is that I was for many months a 'useless mouth' who was not earning his salt and nobody seemed to notice or care.

At least I didn't die at my desk, like the Finnish tax-inspector, and make all my colleagues feel guilty about not noticing. That story is from the BBC, so it must be true, but other tales of dead-at-desk-and-nobody-cared have become the stuff of urban legend in eg Snopes. The Finnish story has, for me, the ring of truthiness because of my scythe.  For a few years in the late 20thC I taught short courses in a couple of Finnish Universities. Over lunch one day, my minder said that twice every Summer he went North to the family farm to mow the 4 ha. hay meadow - with a scythe.  I was impressed and confessed that I long-long-time desired to be as capable as him in this respect. That perked him up because I became a solution to a problem which had hung over his Institute for some time:

Several years early one of his colleagues decided to switch jobs and, like in Ireland, the tradition is that the remaining work-mates have a whip-round and buy a token gift as a memento.  The chap in question was very shy and retiring and hadn't found it easy to make friends. Someone owned the process, gathered the money and went to the hardware store to buy . . . a scythe. The message being that the soon to be ex-colleague was so hopeless at the social aspects of life that he would be best put alone in the middle of a large meadow to cut grass by himself.  The last Friday came around, with the presentation scheduled for the afternoon coffee break. The coffee was poured, the cakes passed round, the HoD made a brief boring speech and presented the scythe.  The recipient received the gift, but quickly understood the intent; he put the scythe down on the coffee table and left the room and their lives without a further word. What to do with the scythe? It couldn't go back to the shop and the cash couldn't easily be returned, so the scythe was taken down to a basement store room and left there . . . until I turned up. Everyone in the building agreed I should take it away. Before 9/11 you could turn up at the airport with a scythe as part of your baggage!

I was reminded of all this because of a piece-to-Grauniad about a chap in Spain who was on the pay-roll in the municipal water board, Agua de Cadiz, but rarely-to-never actually turned up to work. Clearly a water-treatment plant runs itself: the effectives know when to pump and when to filter and when to add the flocculants without being managed. I bet that's true of some of the 83 EirGrid managers who are pulling in €100K/yr. The film Office Space, as ever, nailed waste-of-space managers. One of the issues exposed by the Agua de Cadiz enquiry was that the Water Board thought he was employed by the Council -- and the Council knew he was employed by the Water Board. You are exhorted to take this tale with a pinch of salt - the Guardian is not the BBC. A similar much repeated story about the car-park attendant at Bristol Zoo being employed neither by the Zoo nor the City turns out to have its origins in an April Fool's piece in the local paper.

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