Tuesday, October 24, 2006

freedom to insult

Today, towards the end of the afternoon, I walked down the hallway of our institute to chill for a few minutes in the sun that shone strongly through the bay windows of the lobby. I got a coffee and sat down at one of the wooden tables, greeted by several recent newspapers. Included with this weekend's Le Monde was the New York Times supplement, English content deemed fit to win the hearts and broaden the minds of the French.

My idling mind – I was on a coffee break, after all – was gripped by the line "Certain Grown Men Find Delight Rises With Rockets", below the fold but on the front page. The story was about a bunch of self-proclaimed nerds meeting in Nevada to shoot home-made rockets into the sky. I was reminded of a ballisticist friend of mine in Utah and looking forward to reading about him and his baby, Dasypygal, but they were apparently not there. (Once the googlebot comes by, this will be the only page on the known web to have the words ballisticist and dasypygal in it.)

I leafed over and was treated to Thomas Friedman's ineludible opinion. I own one of his books (purchased in off-season Malta when I was dead-bored at night), but there's only so much I can take of his I-understand-the-world-and-will-explain-it-to-you-so-be-quiet attitude. He's oftentimes dead-on when interpreting current events, but sometimes so positively wrong that it is frightening.

Such a day was today. Friedman denounces the disintegration of "Iraq in the heart of the Arab world, with its destabilizing impact on oil prices and terrorism", ably demonstrating why Americans are loathed in some parts of the world. With stupefying arrogance he predicts his own future problems but is blind to Iraq's present. The situation there has first and foremost a destabilizing effect, to put it mildly, on those who live there in chaos and amidst the violence of civil war, those who might still keep the hope that the US will, one of these days, accomplish its mission and bring freedom and democracy to the country.

I could have got all worked up, but I only had a few minutes before returning to my test tubes. I moved on and my eyes fell on this lovely title: "Freedom To Insult Needs Protection". Though the column was written with acute self-interest, deploring the difficulty to do good journalism in a country (Iraq, again) that has made it illegal to "publicly insult the government or public officials", I couldn't agree more.

The staggering number of people that eagerly declared themselves deeply offended by all sorts of trivial things was the major gripe I had during my last few years in Utah when life was truly splendid. Back then, no one defended the right to offend. In fact, people were defending the offended, one had to judiciously pick one's words, and an open discussion was often made impossible, certainly for public figures.

Luckily, Utah is reasonably civilized. Despite insults being perceived left and right, no embassies were ever stormed and no Danish flags burned. That is more than can be said for other, more brain-washed parts of this world where dissonant opinions are grave insults and broadened minds are a criminal offense. It's certainly not the French that need the New York Times supplement.

Monday, October 23, 2006

head on

After a few glasses of a sublime Faugères, I sat down tonight to watch "Head on". This movie, made by the Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin, had won the Golden Bear, the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, in 2004, and I had read glowing reviews on several occasions.

"Head on" showed on Arte, the Franco-German TV station that fills its niche with culture and is usually the more aloof the more popular culture is. They can be trusted on showing films that no one else wants to present, and often those that no one wants to see really. In artistic self-delusion, they're happily and barely scraping by. They're manna for the excentric, and this time they hit the jackpot.

Simultaneous French subtitles and two narrators that sometimes corresponded and other times didn't over mostly synchronized French but frequently Turkish lines filled the movie with an energy that would have yanked a drunk from the gutter, and there were plenty of drunks in the movie. I sat on my sofa like supercharged instead of calmly letting the Faugères sedate me, trying to keep up with too many sensations being hurled at me by a small glowing box.

The story is quickly told. A Turkish-German girl suffering from traditional Turkish values and a twenty-year older Turkish-German loser, both recently defeated in their suicide attempts, meet in a nuts-clinic and decide to get married, mostly to escape their respective miseries. They happily live their separate (sexual) lives, but slowly grow to each other. People die, people go to jail, people run off to Istanbul, people get raped and, shortly thereafter, beaten up in the streets, all over a thumping soundtrack. Turn up the volume and lose yourself in the rush.

As if guided by fate, the lovers are reunited for one last night of mad joy, before being left to weep over lost opportunites when a blunt future with no place for both of them kicks the happy end into the Bosporus. And slowly, at first almost imperceptibly, the bus leaves the lot and soon the city. Are you strong enough?

Now get up and go get the movie already. Don't say I didn't tell you.

Monday, October 16, 2006

bring back the king

For three weeks now I've been attending a two-weekly conversation circle organized by the local chapter of the Alliance Française and run by an eclectic bunch of volunteers. Despite its name, it's almost a full-fledged language class, sauf the focus is not on Grammar, and it's free. I talk less than I do in lab these days, but I learn a lot about French language and culture. And I have a great time.

Today, we spoke about history. No, hang on, Bernard, the volunteer, spoke about history, and he held the entire little group spellbound for more than ninety minutes. When I was in high-school, this was the subject I detested the most. Millions of seemingly unrelated events, all with their own particular significance. No logical flow ever revealed itself to me. Plus, too many numbers to remember.

These days I have the suspicion that history is very similar to chemistry. It is completely impenetrable to a school kid, but once you get older and start to think about it seriously, you'll eventually see the light. The bits and pieces, be it hydroxyl groups or defense forces, nucleophilic attacks or revolutionary wars, just fall into place, and everything makes perfect sense at some point.

Usually, when this point is reached, complacency takes over, and you'll slowly but inexorably lose your acumen. My vision of chemistry is getting dimmer each day spent without explaining the reactive properties of an aldehyde group to someone. In contrast, I've read quite a bit of history and I'm hopeful that the fog will clear.

That's why I was mesmerized by Bernard. His history of France started with the Gauls but was all kings shortly after. The revolution of 1789, the greatest day of the country according to popular opinion, was a complete disaster. Public order was overturned, countless were killed, the country slipped into darkness. France's best days were over. What came after it – Napoleon, one more king, an invasion by Prussia, and two world wars – fit easily into one sentence.

Bernard is a royalist. After the class, we talked a little and he complained that a president elected for seven years by a minority of citizens, a person hardly representative of his subjects, can't be expected to do anything good for the country. In light of the current president I have to concur, but I don't think that 20% of the vote, which fell to Chirac in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, are worse than the 0% that a king would get.

While I might not like having a king, I like hearing unorthodox views. Not much beats a fiercely fought argument – concluded with a beer afterwards.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Looking back today, yesterday's blog entry seems oddly unfinished. I talked about great literature and about Turkey, and I ended it by saying I should go get a new book to read, without further specification. This afternoon, after a little pointer from the news, I went to get a novel by Orhan Pamuk, a brilliant, calm writer who has the guts to stare down fundamentalists, fanatics and other assorted idiots. He's now also a Nobel prize winner. And that's how snow arrives in Grenoble a month early this year.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Today is a special day. I finally finished La Peste, one of the key novels of Albert Camus. Even though there is no plot to speak of, only the plague taking unremitting hold of a city, the first two thirds of the book are an amazing read, a density almost comparable to the first 300 pages of Der Zauberberg, which cover three action-free months in the most captivating of ways. The last third, however, with the plague slowly receding and scores being tallied philosophically, seemed to stretch endlessly.

I started reading La Peste almost one year ago, on a dreary Saturday afternoon in November. The trigger was the idea a friend and I had of a vacation in Algeria. The book is set in Oran, the country's second biggest city and music hub, and was supposed to prepare me for the trip, get me acquainted with the locality and into the mood. On these counts, the book probably failed, but that doesn't matter anyway. We didn't go to Algeria.

The reason for our change of plans lay in the difficulties associated with entering the country. For naive Western Europeans it comes as a shock that a country would require a visa to be visited, but Algeria does one better. In order to get a visa, one has to have the trip planned ahead, hotels booked and train itineraries prepared. We were not in the mood for that. With the present political development of Algeria, drifting away from Europe while strengthening ties with the Arab league, conditions for a visit won't be as good as they were this spring for quite a while.

Despite a missed a window of opportunity, I have no regrets because we spend a marvelous week in Istanbul instead. Like any good vacation, this one offered plenty of what can't be found in any guide book. Flirting wildly across language and gender barriers at Cafe Munzur, for example, or being treated to tea and olives in Ali Osman's living room.

I had to think of this last encounter after reading a travel essay the other day. The writer took the Deccan Odyssey, a luxury train circling from Mumbai to Goa, the Ajanta caves and back to Mumbai. The stay aboard and all visits were splendid and nothing was left to be desired on this perfectly organized trip. Or so it seemed, because in her last sentence, the writer invalidated the many paragraphs before by writing how she talked to a member of the board service and learned about his life and culture. "Suddenly, the temples, palaces and natural wonders outside didn't matter anymore." She had finally arrived in India, on the last day of her journey.

While a professionally organized trip often sounds exciting at first, I certainly prefer beating my own path. It's time I go back to the book store to see which book grabs my attention and might direct my eyes on a land I haven't set foot on. Yet.