Interview with a Chemist: Borek

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Give us a brief history of Borek

Note: text below is of a negative pedagogical value, don’t read it if you are younger than 20, attending school or still naïvely hoping for the best.

I was born half a century ago, in a galaxy far, far away. So far away our laws were all shifted to the red, shifted so heavily I would risk a crackpot ban if I would try to post about them in Social Sciences. Despite that I don’t think my childhood was significantly different from the childhood of other PF members born around that time, even if I didn’t drink my first Coke before being ten, as it was not sold earlier in our galaxy for political reasons.

I attended schools as they were organized here, I even managed to finish some of them. As I read fluently since I was about four, during first week at school I learned I don’t have to learn, because I already knew everything they were teaching. Because of that lesson for the rest of my life I never paid attention to school, so everyone thought I was dumb. That actually didn’t change since then.

When I was about thirteen I read a science magazine for teenagers, and there was a chemistry related question there. I read the question, I read the answer, I didn’t get anything, but I declared I am interested in chemistry. It was about two years before the first chemistry class that I could attend. To better prepare to the classes I started to blow everything, including myself, up, but I was lucky and my right hand is still with me.

My chemistry teacher didn’t recognize me as a chemistry prodigy and initially didn’t allow me to start in the chemistry Olympiad, but later out of pity she agreed and I became the first Olympiad winner from my school (to put things into perspective, there were around 100 winners on this level). To be honest, I had one of the first electronic calculators in Poland that my Dad brought me from USA and it won the Olympiad without much effort on my side. I was quite lucky – having parents traveling abroad was rare in this part of the world.

If not for the Olympiad I would not get into any good next level school, as admissions were based on grades, but the regulations were such that they had no choice but to let me in. As everyone knew I was a chemistry prodigy, I got best grades in chemistry always, regardless of whether I was really knowing anything, and other teachers always let me pass, whether I was knowing anything or not. Usually it was the latter.

In the summer before the final year I bought personally in London another calculator (Casio fx-58), which became a winner of National Chemistry Olympiad (this time it meant best 30). Again, they had no choice but to accept me to the next stage of the education, which meant Warsaw University.

That was the end of my academic career, as my study habits didn’t work on this level, especially as at that time I got married, Junior was born, and I became busy with computers that were just starting to rule the world. In today’s terms I got enough credits for BSc but it was not awarded at the time, it was either MSc or nothing – and I have the latter.

After leaving the school I got conscripted. As I already knew a little bit about computers, military master minds decided to put my knowledge to use and I was assigned to mopping floors in the computer center. It took me over 12 months to convince them it was too difficult to me. (Geopolitical note: in our galaxy obligatory 24 months military service was considered waste of time and an unnecessary burden by all conscripts.)

After leaving the military I was invited to work at Warsaw University Chemical Department as they were looking for someone knowing something about computers, and I already had a year of the first hand experience in mopping. For the next two years I was plugging cables, teaching people around how to use Norton Commander and trying to finish a huge project written in FORTRAN and running on a RIAD mainframe computer. Problem was, calculations required several hours, and RIAD never worked without interruptions for more than half that time. Finally I decided to rewrite the code in Turbo Pascal and to run it on PC XT with 8087 – it was slightly slower, but it was guaranteed to deliver the result.

As I had plenty of time while waiting for the calculations to end, I started another project that ended with my only serious paper – simulations of the noise at microelectrodes. These simulations required plenty of waiting time too, so I started to write about my mopping and cable plugging experiences for the emerging computer press (Bajtek magazine). It was much more interesting and much more profitable, and soon I switched to a new career.

As a journalist I was first writing about ZX Spectrum, then about IBM PC and its clones. One day internal housequake put the whole publishing house on the head, and we started a battue for a new Editor in Chief for the computer games magazine (called Top Secret) abandoned by its earlier team. To my surprise I became the only victim.

For the next few years I had the best job in the world – not only I was playing computer games all days around, I was also paid to do so. But it was too good to last forever, publishing house went out of business in 1996 and I had to look for another job. I decided to start my own business.

I started writing and translating manuals and localizing games for the Polish market as a freelancer. In parallel I was working on programs for dyslexia therapy – it happened my wife was getting involved in dyslexia and speech therapy at the time (no, not because of Junior) and it soon became obvious there are no programs she could use, so I wrote them and published CD version. That worked nicely for several years, but around 2004 sales of my programs in Poland dropped substantially – and that’s when I decided to dust off my chemistry.

The first program sold under ChemBuddy trademark – BATE pH calculator – was just a beefed up version of a program I wrote in 1984 for TI-59. In 2005 I learned a little bit SEO and registered at several forums to promote my programs. I managed to avoid ban for spamming, and some time later turned out I was lousy at promotion, but for some unbeknown reason people thought I was good as a moderator. So here I am now.

tl;dr – I am boring looser :tongue2:

What are some of your favorite spots or things to do in and around Poland in general?

My favorite places are those far from the beaten track and the crowd, so typically you will find me walking or biking somewhere in the country, or in a place that has tourist peak in different part of the year (so if you want to see me on the Baltic coast, you have to go there in the winter). You probably could have guessed that just by looking at the pictures I posted in the past. I love Mazury (lake district) and Tatra mountains, but they are way too crowded, so I am not going there as often as I used to 30 years ago.

What to see in Poland… It depends on what you like. I can easily imagine spending several separate weeks here, each time touching on completely different subject. There are several large cities worth of seeing for historical reasons – Kraków, which was a capital of Poland up to the end of the 16th century, and an important cultural center since, Warsaw, which became a capital after Kraków, Gdańsk, Poznań or Wrocław – all with a rich and long history, Katowice or Łódź – with interesting traces of their industrial history, and so on. Then, I would suggest to see some of the smaller cities – like Kazimierz nad Wisłą, or Zamość, or Sandomierz – these were important cultural or administrative centers somewhere in 16-17th century, and they kept some of the atmosphere. You can go to Lower Silesia, full of old picturesque cities, many of them funded in 12-13th century. I would also strongly suggest a day or two in some BF, just to see a typical nature/people here. For those interested in nature I suggest some less crowded National Parks – in Białowieża, over Biebrza River, Roztocze, in Pieniny Mountains. And if you are interested in military history, there are plenty of old fortifications, starting from medieval, up to WWII, built by Poles, Russians, Germans and Austrians.

And I am writing only about things I remember right now and mostly know in person, without trying to browse any sources. “Poland by Borek” kind of approach (which probably means it is skewed).

What do you see as the biggest problem in science education today and what are some ideas on how to solve it?

I don’t think there is a problem with just a science education, I think there are several problems with education in general. I am observing discussions on education in Poland and US, and I see there are plenty of similar problems in both places, even if they are not necessarily of the same importance here and there.

On one level, we told young people that education is a must and that educated people earn more. These are both half truths that effected in zillions of people spending money on education they will never put to any use. Nothing wrong with being educated, but when the school owners/teachers are the only people benefiting from your education, there is something wrong with the system.

Closer to the ground, we implemented the NCLB policy and the idea that teacher is 100% responsible for the student academic success, and it is teacher that is to blame if the student doesn’t know something. There is a grain of truth to that, but applied blindly it does more harm than good, as students show less and less effort. Probably not accidentally it coincides with the idea that education is a must – see above.

Also close to the ground – we are teaching in a wrong way. Most students think that solving problems means plugging numbers into a magical equation, they have no idea that these equations are derived from just a few basic principles and everyone can do it.

There are plenty of various other points (like teaching to the test, ideological battles around evolution or sexual education) that irritate me, but I find them of lesser importance at the moment. Doesn’t mean they can be ignored, just that’s not what I would start with.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any real ideas. I know there are people testing different approaches to teaching, some of them not without successes, but implementing any changes is a political decision, and it doesn’t make me optimistic.

Can you give us some background for your avatar photo?

Its pretty random. That was just a crazy party at our place, the idea was to dress the way you would never dress in real life, and we ended with house full of whores and pimps. Someone brought the green wig, I put it on for a moment, and someone took a picture with my camera. After I uploaded the picture it started to live its own life.

What are some of your favorite movies, books and musicians?

I will ignore these that you know, as I doubt anyone is interested in another old fart listening to the Yellow Submarine, or Child in Time :p

My real favorites are things that you have probably not heard about, as they are in Polish. Let’s start with Science Fiction books. My favorite author was initially Lem (and I still consider him to be the top notch writer), with things like Cyberiada (The Cyberiad), Bajki Robotów (Fables for Robots), Dzienniki Gwiazdowe (The Star Diaries), Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie (Tales of Pirx the Pilot), or Głos Pana (His Master’s Voice). Somewhere in late seventies Lem was replaced on my private list by Andrzej Zajdel, his best book is Limes Inferior. Sadly, Zajdel died young, and I am not aware of any translation of his books into English. When it comes to fantasy, you have probably heard about Wiedźmin (The Witcher) – this was a cycle of popular Sapkowski’s novels/short stories long before becoming a TV series, movie (both of which you can safely ignore) and finally a computer game. Of new things there is a tetralogy by Jarosław Grzędowicz, Pan Lodowego Ogrodu (Lord of the Icy Garden) – and IMHO it is in quality comparable with The Witcher (but not available in English). Not many SF movies, but there is one with a cult status here that you should definitely watch – Seksmisja (I can watch it any time :smile:).

Movies – I already mentioned Seksmisja, but there are plenty of non-SF titles that I like, like Nóż w wodzie (Knife in the water), Ziemia Obiecana (The Promised Land – the story takes place in Łódź, during its fast industrial development), Zaklęte rewiry, of the lighter ones – Dzień Świra (Day of the Wacko, must see if you are over 40), Vabank, Sami swoi. There are some new titles definitely worth watching, but somehow they are all quite depressing – Pokłosie, Dom zły, Róża.

Music – I posted these things in the best songs thread in the past. In early eighties we had an explosion of fantastic rock groups like Perfect, Republika, Lady Pank, Lombard or Budka Suflera. IMHO rock has stalled now in Poland. I listen quite often to a genre known here as sung poetry – with singers like Grzegorz Turnau, Renata Przemyk, Marek Grechuta, Maria Peszek (although I am not sure she would like to be classified this way).

Disclaimer: none of the above is guaranteed to be right, nor wrong.

Note: English is my second language. If you feel like something is wrong and doesn’t make sense, you are probably right. That being said, it is also quite possible you are wrong, my life was never intended to make any sense.

That’s it! Thanks for participating Borek!

37 replies
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  1. Chestermiller
    Chestermiller says:

    What a wonderful and fascinating presentation/story!!!!!  I loved it!!!!  When is the next chapter?I must say, I totally agreed with your assessment of the current state of education.Chet

  2. UncertaintyAjay
    UncertaintyAjay says:

    The red shifted galaxy is the most brilliant piece of writing I have read recently. Not sure if that speaks to my recent taste in literature or your skill. But kudos nevertheless. Thoroughly enjoyable interview!

  3. Bandersnatch
    Bandersnatch says:

    I can’t believe it.
    Borek is the same Borek that was also Naczelny, Kopalny, etc., of Top Secret!

    I blame you guys for spoiling my childhood. I should have gone out more, instead of playing games and reading your irreverent, absurdist magazine.

  4. lisab
    lisab says:

    You’ve had a fascinating path through life, Borek.

    Your thoughts on education really resonated with me. Every time I think about the education system, I get this nagging feeling that something is really not right. I just can’t quite figure what it is.

  5. turbo
    turbo says:

    Love the narrative, Borek.

    My early life was a series of stop-and-start issues, so I can empathize. I don’t know if growing up in Maine was better or worse than in Soviet-controlled Poland. No way to compare.

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