Tuesday, May 30, 2006

solidarité part 2

Seems like I posted prematurely. A fine detail, supreme in its irony, had escaped my notice the first ten times I read my employer's email trying to bring sense to absurd phrases. It says there very clearly that the "Day of Solidarity" holiday only applies to those working for the CEA (Atomic Energy Commission) not the CNRS (National Scienctific Research Center). And thus, while my boss will be working in the lab, I'll be riding my bike through the mountains celebrating solidarity. Whatever it is, may it be blessed.


If you want to understand French politics (a wild challenge not an attainable goal), you have to grasp the concept of the word solidarité first. Whenever grey men engaged in the affairs of society enunciate their ideas in front of a TV camera, solidarity takes inevitably center stage. No matter whether you disagree with your opponent or whether you want to shut down the country with a grève général, if you solidaritize it, the French public will swallow what you say.

Having grown up in the east of Germany, I am not completely foreign to the concept of solidarity. We used to support rice farmers in Vietnam and children in Mozambique (but never Polish dock workers), anonymously, distant and abstract.

These days, solidarity is even more abstract, and equally imposed from above. I got an email today from our institute's administration that this coming Monday is the "Day of Solidarity", a holiday created to make up for the loss of Pentecost - on the same day. Solidarity with whom, why and how exactly, nothing was elaborated.

What the letter elaborated was that the "Day of Solidarity" covered only seven hours. Full time is eight hours. We have to compensate - and I'm not making this up - for "the difference between the theoretical daily work time and the theoretical duration of the holiday". Quite naturally, we get an hour off on Friday to make up for the one hour we can't take off on Monday because it's already a holiday.

If you don't understand this even the third time your read it, I'd say there's a fair chance that you're sane, and that you'd be shaking your head till your neck was stiff if you were living in France. And maybe it's not solidarity that's the foundation of the French system, but utter and complete lack of logic, abstruse obfuscation, and impenetrable nonsense, a metaphysical kind of dark matter that powers the country with the most bizarre of effects. Just watch the news.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Förster wins Giro stage

This morning, after three days off work and a grand total of 97km on my odometer (yes, that is all of 60 pathetic miles in three days), it finally occured to me blame it all on the bike. Under the stimulating influence of my weekend morning coffee, I even briefly toyed with the idea of buying a new baby.

I'm much too cheap for that, of course. As long as something works, there is no need for replacement. But action needed to be taken. My fork had given me strage vibrations lately. Nothing I could pin down, nothing moved in the wrong places, but something was odd about it.

I went down to my basement and rebuilt the fork. One hour, two black hands and three pounds of grease later, everything was reassembled, and I was ready for a long ride. As soon as I was out the door, I could feel the difference. It was like day and night, and the bike behaved like new, its fork smooth and stiff.

And lo and behold, Silver still knows how to run. It took me through the Vercors for much longer than I was comfortable. My bars were eaten after 110km, and I hadn't packed a twenty for ice-cream and espresso. I ran out of water several times. Luckily, French villages present plenty of opportunities to refill, which narrowly saved my ass today. I reached home, delirious and shaking, right before darkness fell after six and a half hours out riding, easily beating last year's longest ride.

When I turned on my computer I read with great excitement that a fellow with the fine name Förster won the last stage of the Giro today. Turns out my namesake is riding for Gerolsteiner, and he is a fine sprinter. Today he surprised himself by winning in Milano, on the Giro's Champs Elysées. Chapeau!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Ze Germans

What's up with "ze Germans" is a question I hear quite often, usually accompanied by weary shaking of heads. I am a German, but I am hard-pressed to explain what Germans are, exactly, and why they do things they way they do them. Sometimes I don't even know they do them the way people tell me they do.

Germans are surely a strange people. Good thing Der Spiegel has started to compile a survival guide/manual about Germany consisting of short articles mostly written by foreigners who live in the country or Germans who don't anymore. It is quite an instructive read and funny as well. I recognize myself in many of the pages. I have never taken aspirin, I think there are only two ways of doing things (exactly right or not at all), and when you tell me we should have tea some time, I'll be in your living room faster than you can brew some fine Elam. The one thing I got away from quickly when moving to the US, though, was shopping when I'm supposed to.

As it turns out, Germans are not the only strange folk out there. I am ready to assert to anyone who's not sure yet that the French are even weirder. Bonne soirée.

Friday, May 26, 2006

cryptic lines

For three years now, I have been pestered, most often good-naturedly and always with an implicit air of charity, from all sides to finally read the most revelatory novel in existence, the most stupefying marriage between fiction and investigative journalism, in short, the greatest book of all times, from here through all eternity. With the courage more befitting an ancient warrior than a sedentiary scientist I have fended off all bullies. I have not even touched "The Da Vinci Code".

Lately, though, I have not been able to avoid being touched by this phenomenon. The movie has just been released and is being promoted senselessly, in France as much as anywhere else. However, with the pride of a tired old mother at the achievements of her favorite daughter, France has shown special vigor in shoving the movie and its female star, Audrey Tautou, up everyone's throat. I read about it in my news magazine, I see it on TV, I hear about it on the radio. There is no escaping, it seems.

Yet, appearances can be deceiving. I still know almost nothing about the story except that it is based on the idea that Jesus and Mary of Magdala were lovers and parents of a child. This hypothesis is not entirely novel, having first been proposed in the Gospel of Philippe around 150AD and recently retold by José Saramago in his stunning "The Gospel according to Jesus Christ". I have thus not been tempted in the least by the book, and I have no intention of seeing the movie.

Here is someone who has done more than me. He has started to read the book but not got very far and has, thanks to the New Yorker's movie review budget, gone to see the film. He was less than enthused but shows himself very capable of articulating his disenchantment in very fine words, words you are not likely to read on an advertisement poster that has Audrey and Tom on it.

As for me, after "Amelie" I can't possibly see any other movie that has Audrey Tautou and her never-changing big-eyed stare of a cute rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car in it and neither one that is so violently overhyped as this one.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

both sides

A few hours ago, I got back from Milano after an enjoyable ride on the TGV. I had spent ten days out of town. First one week in Ticino, the southern part of Switzerland, attending a spectacular conference in a marvellous setting. Then I shared four lovely days with friends from college, exploring the lush countryside of northern Italy. Mountains just like around Grenoble, and lakes and gelato like nowhere else. I enjoy being part of the Western world, having a passport that lets me travel where I choose and having the means to do so. I also enjoy the benefits of globalization with shrinking distances, increasingly affordable consumer products, accessible information, and wealth created by those who work hard.

That I live a priviledged life is not lost on me, but sometimes it is good to be reminded just how unequal the world is, just how much my Western lifestyle is based on the exploitation of the poor and the ruthless machinations of globally acting powers.

Since Monday, textile workers in Bangladesh have been protesting their abysmal working conditions and demanding to harvest more of the fruits of their labor. The protesters have torched several factories to vent their anger and crashed violently with police today. Smug economists will point out how much the poor benefit from globalization, how much textile workers everywhere in the Third World are better off sewing t-shirts than they were before with no industry around. The protesters are just greedy, free marketers will tell you.

One look at the demands - 11 cents per finished sweat shirt plus paid overtime and ONE day off per week - should put any doubts to rest. As long as people toil 12 hours a day for $30 a month, just so you and me can buy 9.99 sale items, something is amiss. A stark disequilibrium of well-organized corporations on one side and uneducated, impotent workers on the other is at the core of this.

But that's not all. The article claims that textile making earns Bangladesh $7 billion a year. It doesn't seem like much of it is used to improve people's lives. Most probably ends up in corrupt officials' pockets. The lack of able and honest government in most of the poorest countries is a second reason of why globalization is still viewed with much ambiguity. As long as Nigeria, with all its oil wealth, is unable to feed its citizens, something is clearly painfully wrong with how globalization is handled.

In light of these contemplations, it is hard even for an inquisitive, critical mind to see how one can improve the situation, short of starting a revolution in some far-away country. I wish there were easy solution, and I'm not sure there is even a hard one.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Han Do Bi?

This being patch Tuesday, I decided to give my computer a full tune-up. The linux system was the easiest. 'yum update', and a minute later everything was up to date. Everything.

Windows is way more complicated. First of all, I have to log off and re-log on as administrator. What a nuisance. No wonder most choose to work as administrators permanently, opening door wide to all sorts of malefaction. This alone disqualifies Windows from consideration as usable computer software.

Once superuser, things go smoothly for the most part. 'Microsoft update' ensures the operating system and Office are running happily, 'McAfee AutoUpdate' keeps viruses at bay, and the 'Lenovo Software Installer' takes care of system utilities and makes sure the Chinese secrete service knows what's going on on my computer. Firefox and Thunderbird are kind enough to trigger their own updates.

What's left? A few gigabites of premium software, outrageously expensive in their full version and equally indispensable. For all its ingenuity, even the Creative Suite needs to be updated periodically. So I go and click on 'Update', and that's not even close to being done.

I'm taken to a webpage where I can pick the updates I need, download them, and install them. For every component in the Suite independently. Five big programs. There is no script or helper application that automates the process. Imagine you'd paid $1800 for the real deal, and then had click your way through a web page like a Yahoo freemail user. What's up with Adobe? Did they get stuck in the 20th century?

This brings to mind the days when my Thinkpad was new, back in 2004. There was no IBM upgrade tool either, you had to wield your mouse and click till your finger was numb. Now that the Chinese took over, it's all slick. Maybe I'll wait with the Adobe update till they are bought out as well.

Monday, May 08, 2006

rain, man

It's May. This wouldn't be worth mentioning if it wasn't for two little curious facts.

First, May in France is full of holes, worse than a good Swiss cheese. These holes are holidays, and they make the month completely worthless with respect to work. There is the First of May, the Eighth of May, Ascension, and Pentecost, if you're lucky. All these days off should make for good riding, early in the season but late enough for the weather to be nice.

That's where the second curious fact comes into play. I have ridden exactly two days during the preceding two three-day weekends. Out of six days that could have been great, four were literally drowned. Torrential rainfall, thunderstorms and impressive lightning, storm, broken branches on the road - enough to fill a year. The two remaining days I got out and rode, but compared to last year, I'm a complete failure. Last May I rode L'Alpe d'Huez before going to Salt Lake for my graduation. This year I'm ridden the Col de Porte once and have a less than impressive 800km on my odometer. There was just too much rain.

In a truly bizzare coincidence, M6 is showing Rain Man tonight. I can't exlude that they are trying to make fun of me.

Friday, May 05, 2006

words and meaning

I've mentioned it in an earlier post, I've been working with a student for a while. He's in his third year of university (which might correspond to junior, though I never paid much attention to the American collegiate monikers) and doing a three month lab rotation. He evidently picked the lab I'm in because it's a very fine lab. Why my boss picked me to guide him is less evident. Hardly anyone has ever applauded my mentoring qualities.

In any case, my student's stage is going pretty well so far. He is learning about crystallography and a little bit about the bigger picture of structural biochemistry as well. He's working hard and not lacking at all in dedication. What I'm wondering, though, is what exactly he's learning, what he's getting out of this.

I talk to him in French. I explain things, put forth suggestions, teach him tricks, and ask questions. Sometimes, when I'm finished, he stares at me evidently hard at work trying to figure out what it was exactly that just came out of my mouth - making sense of words. I don't claim to speak French. Instead, I'm kauderwelsching my way through a language that is still very foreign to me, using words that I think are right or deserve being used.

So while my student might have a hard time decrypting all the nuggets of wisdom that I lay out for him, I have an even harder time laying them out in the first place. But with a courage with words that even Giovanni Trappatoni would have envied, I make noticeable progress every day and feel like I'm actually getting somewhere. After more than a year, it's about time. My student's rotation will be a round success - at least for me.

On a side note, I put down my first-year experiences by request of ScienceCareers. They decided to publish only quotes and mis-captioned photos, but couldn't prevent the appearance of the full and unedited version on my home page. You go see for yourself if there is meaning for you in there.