Thursday, October 30, 2008

shopping redefined

After years of construction, months of preparation and at least four weeks of thelondonpaper stories and radio specials, Europe's largest shopping center within the confines of a city opened today. The confining city is London, but given my ardent detachment from consumerism that wouldn't warrant a post. However, since the gods of commerce are striking in my immediate neighborhood, I can't isolate myself completely from the center's allure. Not knowing what to expect besides ungodly crowds, I stopped there on my way back from work this afternoon.

Before I could behold the fabled architecture, the much talked-about undulating glass roof or any of the shops at the edge of Shepherd's Bush, I almost drowned in a deluge of people. The recently reopened Central line and newly build National Rail stations were both disgorging dense streams of shopping tourists into the little plaza between them as if easy credit were still in everyone's purses. Right at the confluence of the two human streams were hundreds of bike racks, and that's were I carefully steered my steed. Five minutes later, I had escaped the frigid drizzle outside and found myself sprayed with bouncy music instead.

My first impression: This thing is ginormous! The developer must have nuked a good part of west London to execute their plans. The center doesn't pretend to be the Mall of America – it doesn't even have an amusement park – but as Mall of Shepherd's Bush, it takes size and glitz to a level above and beyond anything nearby (or even far). The West 12 shopping center on the other side of the Green looks so pathetic by comparison that I doubt it will survive far into 2009.

Underneath the stunning roof, which alone might justify a visit on a sunny day, there is an immense number of stores but sadly nothing special. Corporate world has opened its doors, and no one is missing. It feels a little like the malls of this world were congealed into one. There are no unique features or nifty details that might make you value your shopping experience above any other. Boring.

On the bright side, there is no atrocious plasticky food court, and fast-food outlets are entirely absent from the complex. Instead, a wide variety of small and quick restaurants are scattered all over the place. Unfortunately, they all seem to have been decked out with goodies from a cheap home furnishing catalog strictly following seventies style. If wood paneling that looks like synthetic bamboo, garish colors and scary sofa benches are dernier cri, they'll look old a year from now. Otherwise, and in my eyes, they already to.

Because of the sheer size, all the people that funneled through the entrance doors dispersed quickly, and it was much less crowded inside than out. Nevertheless, the clamor was deafening. At the heart of the center, a stage framed by gigantic video screens had been erected to celebrate the opening with credit crunch-mocking swank, and in all corners speakers and more screens were set up – some selling Sky subscriptions, some broadcasting fashion shows, some just making noise, unapologetically.

After a quick walk around the digital-watch-inspired figure 8 and before entering the first store, I was already shopped out. Luck had it that my eyes fell on a Foyles branch, so curiously deserted that at first I thought it hadn't opened yet. But it's doors were agape. When I entered, my mood lifted immediately – bookstores do this to me. While they are supposed to offer solace to distressed minds, this one was quite literally a sanctuary from the madness out there.

I slumped into a chair by a big window and surveyed the situation. Despite the November rain falling two days early, I would rather walk outside than breathe the filtered air of even the most glorified mall. Down on Oxford St. the crowds are ten times worse than in the Westfield, but at least you can step into a side street if you feel like you've had enough. I also prefer the grittiness of a real street over the Disneyesque factitiousness of polished walls and constantly swept floors. Lastly, in times when airports redefine themselves as aggressive shopping centers with travel not much more than an afterthought, large malls inevitably recall airports and all the misery associated with them, the feeling of wanting to go somewhere but not even being on the way yet.

As I was sitting there, browsing through travel literature, I knew I'd be back. Foyles might not even serve coffee to augment the experience, but they are the only bookstore around. And for that, for offering choice where there was none, for coming with their wares to where I live, I appreciate the Westfield. Good luck, guys.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


For a brief moment this afternoon, ExxonMobile had to relinquish its position as the most valuable company (by market capitalization) in the world. For a few minutes it was overtaken by – and I'm not gonna make you guess – Volkswagen. The German carmaker might be a powerhouse of engineering, but in the current economic climate it should be feeling the pinch in the form of consumers reluctant to part with their cash as much as anyone. What made its stock rise from just cents above 200 euros on Monday morning to more than 1000 euros 24 hours later in an explosion that made the bubble look like a bear market in comparison?

Just as in the IT craze of the 90s, economic fundamentals have nothing to do with it. No established company increases in value fivefold in a matter of hours. VW didn't introduce a new engine that runs on cold fusion nor did they sign a contract for the exclusive supply of Phaetons to Martians (though I bet they wish they had). The stock price has no relation to what VW is worth. But what made it climb so much?

According to reports, short sellers, those frequently maligned devils of doom, are to blame. Short sellers make their living by selling borrowed shares with the intention of repurchasing and returning them to their owner once the price of the stock has fallen. To put it simply, they bet on falling markets. These days, it ought to be like paradise for them.

VW was considered overvalued and ripe for a fall. A lot of hedge funds went short and waited for the crash. Then, over the weekend, Porsche announced it controlled 3/4 of VW's stock, practically removing these shares from the market. The German federal state where VW is headquartered controls another 20%, and they're not selling either. Only 5% of VW's stock are circulating. Funds that are short of VW and obliged to return the shares have to buy them, no matter the price. Apparently, more are short than are shares out there. And the prices go up and up.

No one will cry over hedge funds losing a few billion, and no one should care whether VW is valued at 100 euros or at 2000. At the latter price, no intelligent investor would buy. But some potentially serious problems are looming at the stock market's horizon, most related to automated mechanisms or herding behavior. For example, were VW to fall back to healthy levels, it would take the German stock index, to which it currently contributes 27%, down with it. Sheepish investors and poorly programmed algorithms would panic and might crash the whole market.

At the end of the day, who's to blame? I don't profess to really understand what's going on and wish I knew more, but one thing is for sure. If people learned to see the difference between price and value, many of the excesses, be it up or down, in stocks or in real estate would be alleviated. Crashes always follow bubbles, and bubbles develop because money can be won – in the short term – by turning your brain off and blindly following unsustainable trends. Life is better with a working brain, though, and completely independent of who the world's most expensive company is.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Last night, I went out to dinner with a friend. Ambling aimlessly about Fulham, we happened upon a small but welcoming Vietnamese restaurant. The smells emanating from the open door were delicious, but what nailed it for us was the long list of glowing customer reviews taped to the window next to it. It sounded like we were about to enter a culinary paradise on earth. What didn't occur to me was that the website the reviews were taken from might allow for sorting by overall score.

The dinner started out well enough. My companion found a starter on the menu that she loved and ebulliently got the process of ordering food going. I followed up by picking a bottle of wine, which was the first item to arrive at our table. It was up to me to judge its quality, a task I have performed often enough but never with much conviction. What am I looking for? This time it seemed obvious. Upon the very first sniff, my nose vehemently objected to further contact with what was a rather foul bouquet.

Only five years earlier, one could have been reasonably sure to find the culprit in a rotten cork. These days, corks are often made synthetically, and more and more bottles come with a screw cap. It would be very embarrassing indeed to have a bottle returned as corked and be met with incredulous stares because no cork ever stuck in the bottle's neck. So it was with some trepidation that I handed the bottle to the waitress.

My fears were unfounded because my nose had been right. We got a new bottle and hastily mumbled excuses – though bizarrely our excuses for causing trouble (surely a British thing) were more vocal. Never mind. With a tasty Portuguese white finally on our table we could commence the meal. The starter was as delicious as my friend had promised, but with the entrée came the second unpleasant surprise of the evening.

I had chosen one of the house specialties, a grilled fish platter rarely found outside the Hanoi region, dish number 100 on the menu. What I received instead was a fried noodle bowl sprinkled with miniature spring rolls, also known as 99. Granted, sometimes I mumble, but 99 and 100 are far enough apart phonetically that I can't possibly find fault in me. My only explanation is that the name of the dish I didn't order sounds similar to 100 in Vietnamese. The waitress offered to quickly cook up my initial order, but I declined. We hadn't come for two dinners in sequence, but to dine together.

Going through the rice noodles of number 99, I realized the hilarity of the incident. Just recently I had received someone else's pizza but only noticed the unexpected presence of olives after taking a few hearty bites. With some luck, the pork sausages hadn't made the pizza I had ordered unpalatable to the other party in the swap. On yet another occasion, I had ordered a cheese cake with my coffee but had received something decidedly squishy. I couldn't convince the waiter that he had mistakenly brought me angle food cake.

So last night was the third time in as many months that I didn't get to eat what I had ordered. As I don't have food allergies or religious dietary requirements and I'm open to new experiences, I take it with a smile and enjoy what's on my plate. But just imagine I would already be running the project that has been going through my head for quite some time now. Mistakes would be inexcusable.

I have long been looking for a creative way to rate restaurants, somewhat objectively but with a fair measure of playfulness. Ordering the same dish would allow for direct comparisons but only work with restaurants of the same kind. I do this already whenever I eat Indian. The taste of the saag paneer serves as proxy for the quality of the restaurant. Between different cuisines, objective comparisons are more difficult. Pretty much the only thing that remains constant are the numbers on the menu, and ordering the same number could substitute for ordering the same dish. While it might be too philosophical to pick 42, any other number higher than 20 – to avoid the starters – would do. Who could argue with a nice prime number like 37? Incidentally, this would be the rating, out of 100, that I give the Vietnamese restaurant where we dined last night.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

big city

For all my fascination with London, there are a few things I don't like about it. For example, this city has too much to offer. While I mostly enjoy that I can find an event exactly matching my interests, there is also a disadvantage to this fragmentization. It's hard to find people that want to do the exact same thing as you. You might be interested in 14th-century flute music or an Italian naturalist poetry recital, while your friend loves 15th-century music or Spanish expressionist poetry. Chances are both competing events take place the same night.

If you find something you agree on, it's easy enough to meet somewhere in town and enjoy a night out, but for more spontaneous outings, the size of the city presents another problem. People from work live all over town. Some have a short commute like me, but others spend an hour each morning and evening in tube and bus. If you want to go for a quick drink, you have to do it right after work because later everyone is gone.

Yesterday, our department celebrated the arrival of new PhD students, the promotion of one investigator to professor and the award another professor had received. Everyone gathered after work for wine and nibbles, provided by the department. It was a good evening filled with fun and great conversations, but in the end I was left sad that I can't call the people I most like to meet me in the local pub in half an hour because everyone's local pub is different. Though I feel close to them when we talk, some colleagues will never become friends simply because of adverse geography.

All this is going through my head while I contemplate the future of my habitation. The massive exodus of migrant workers because of the poor economic outlook in Britain is apparently putting pressure on the rental market, even in London, which makes now a good time to move. One friend of mine currently lives far away but changes jobs and needs to be somewhere where I would also happily live, and there's a third person willing to share.

Should I abandon the freedom of my own apartment for the pleasure of company, for the possibility of frequent beers at a pub all three of us would call local? I'm undecided. I'm not sure I'm sharing material, and I have too much stuff to fit into one room. But if we start from scratch and move into an empty apartment, it might work. I'll have to see potential flats before can make up my mind.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

message on a bus

This morning, wasting time on Facebook, I found out that a friend of mine had just signed up in support of the Atheist Bus Campaign. Two days earlier, I hadn't even known such a campaign existed. But as is sometimes happens, more frequently that it should by pure chance, I read and heard about this campaign three times over the last forty-eight hours. Maybe it's some sort of Gladwellian tipping point.

In case you haven't heard yet, here's the scoop: Ariane Sherine, a blogger at the Guardian, saw a bus ad about son, man, faith and earth, recognized it as a religious message, chose to visit the advertised website, and developed wild bouts of indignation about religion invading public space and terrorizing innocent infidels.

I consider myself an innocent infidel, but I don't feel terrorized. I don't even understand the problem. As I see it, these ads are created to pay for public transport. That's a noble cause that everybody should be free to contribute to. Given that they are ads, their messages shouldn't be taken too seriously and, for those who don't like a particular display, can easily be ignored. Ask me what's currently splashed to the outside of buses – I wouldn't know.

Anyway, Ariane Sherine got all worked up but didn't just go home and fume at the monstrosity of what she had seen. She came up with a way of retaliating in kind – by plastering an atheist message on London buses. "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." This would cost just a bit under 25000 pounds per bus for a two-week run, and this is where the Atheist Bus Campaign comes into play. Over the last few days, lots of people have donated small amounts, and some have choked up big money. The tally stands at 100 grand at the moment, enough for four buses.

Again, I don't get it. What's the point? Who benefits? The benevolent altruist in me wonders if there aren't any more-worthwhile causes that deserve 100000 pounds. On the other hand, Transport for London recently acknowledged losing 40 million pounds in an Icelandic pyramid scheme (known as savings bank before the whole country melted down). I guess they could do well with a little extra. And I'm happy if buses run smoothly and frequently, be it with God or without.

There's some discrepancy in the reported numbers. How much does it cost to turn a bus into a billboard? According to this recent post, not a whole lot. How many buses are we getting with the kind of money that's being raised?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

gifts and consequences

This weekend in Dresden, it felt a little like my birthday. There were neither candles nor cake, and nobody sang for me, but I got gifts. When it was my birthday, months earlier, my sister had ordered sheet music through amazon, but the delivery failed, and she was refunded her money. Instead of paying lots for sending the paltry booklet by mail, she decided to give it to me in person, the next time we saw each other. This was only now, three months after a birthday that already had two threes in it.

Having saved a lot on stamps not stuck on an envelope, my sister had money over to add to a few sheets of music that I will probably never be able to play properly anyway. When I went to the Middle East this summer, no one was more wishful to join than my sister. She now made her point forcefully by giving me a guidebook to Syria and Lebanon. 'We're going in spring, aren't we?' were the accompanying words.

Of course we are. There can be no doubt. I liked my trip this summer but felt shortchanged. Too many things I didn't see, too many avenues I didn't explore. Syria can't be reduced to Damascus, the only place I visited, and even there, I only got a small glimpse. This summer I traveled under the protection and guidance but also constraints of a Jordanian friend of mine. Next spring, we'll be on our own.

This prospect is exciting but also scares me considerably. While I read everywhere that Syrians are a friendly bunch and the country is as safe to travel as a country under authoritarian rule should be, my friend imbued me with his own views. I learned that Syria is highly corrupt and its people pathologically wicked and criminally deceitful, axis-of-evil material if you will.

In order to deal better with potential double-dealers and racketeers and to avoid the worst scams, maybe even to ingratiate myself with the locals, I decided to get a basic understanding of the language, to advance beyond reading road signs to actual speaking. This morning, I registered for an Arabic class at Imperial and tonight was my first class.

The teacher, a jolly woman in her forties, hails from Egypt. She speaks Arabic natively and knows her way around the language. She also knows, like a storyteller from thousand and one nights, how to embellish meaning with baroque verbal ornament. This is highly entertaining and, as I'm starting from close to nothing, highly edifying as well.

Among the students, four stand out. With their mixed British-Syrian origins they promise to be more important for preparing my trip than any guidebook could. They might have an opinion on what to visit and what to avoid. And if they haven't been to Syria in years, they might at least know a place in London that sells knafe. I'd mark that with a celebration.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

running behind

In April I ran my first marathon. It was a painful experience that I'm not too keen on repeating but will have to since I missed my stated goal of a three-hour finish. In a brief moment of courage right after that race I chose the Dresden marathon on 19 October as my next goal. Before the determination could wear off, I booked a flight and was ready to go.

However, for over three months, I suffered from the consequences of that first race. My shins kept hurting and got better only slowly, painfully slowly, if you forgive the pun. I set out training again upon returning from my summer vacation, only two-and-a-half months away from race day. Two weeks later, I had to accept the devastating truth that the pain in my legs hadn't vanished yet and that I wouldn't run another marathon anytime soon.

In my frustration I couldn't help but see a doctor, a general practitioner, as she is called here. That – and the National Health Service that organizes everything medicine-related – is a whole other story that I should have posted but didn't. I promise some words for when I have to return. With luck that won't be anytime soon.

In any case, I went to see the doctor who wasn't much less clueless about my legs than me, but she consulted with a colleague and conveyed me his verdict by email. Shin splints are killing me. I must take it easy, put up my legs, and certainly not run. Had I told her that I had twisted my ankle playing football the day I got the diagnosis, I doubt she would have appreciated, even though that means I will surely not run in a while.

In the grand scheme of things, my injury does not matter. The marathon will take place on Sunday. Since I have the ticket, I'll fly to Dresden, taking the opportunity to enjoy a long weekend off work and with my family. I might even go to the race. To cheer the racers on, for sure, but also to make my first New Year's resolution for 2009. I will run a marathon in under three hours.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

in the country

I'm at King's Cross early on a cold fall morning. When I left the house to catch the tube, it was still dark. Now, standing on the near end of the platform, I can see dawn peek into the great hall of the station, letting the first light of the day slip underneath the arch at the far end.

People around me have largely failed to make the transition from night to day. They sleep standing, motionless hands locked to coffee cups that slowly dissipate their warmth. White earplugs disconnect dormant brains from the outside world in momentary autarky.

Suddenly, as if a switch were flicked, a ripple goes through the human pegs that stud the station floor. Heads turn, bodies are shaken awake. Approaching lights outshine the rising sun, and soon a dark blue train comes to a halt on platform 1. Door open silently but to tumultuous effect. Hundreds of commuters spill from their confines and bounce energetically towards the exit or down to the tube station. This train was packed.

Thousands migrate into London in the morning and back at night, spending an hour or more each way packed like sardines in a can in return for affordable homes and the clean air of the countryside. In the opposite direction, traffic is much lighter. There is not much reason to leave London during the day, and there are not many people around me eager to get on the train that I'm about to board.

I'm going to Cambridge for a day of seminars, a software workshop with most of the developers present, an opportunity to meet people I know only from mailing lists and ask them questions that have been bugging me in my work. Soon after settling into a seat and getting some papers out to wake up my brain, I see the station move and then the northern towns of London. Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal, flies by and then Alexandra Palace. Beyond that, the land is flat and featureless.

The talks are good, though too numerous. Sandwiches at lunch and coffee and cookies during the breaks keep me going, but when all is over, I'm glad it's over. A bus takes me from the university to the town center where I meet a friend for dinner. I've been to Cambridge only once before, and my memory is sketchy.

While I find my way around and arrive at the right place at the right time, I'm shocked at how dark and quiet this town is, looking deserted at 6:30. All stores are closed, even the big chains, and so are the coffee shops. It seems as if someone had turned the street lights down. The few people in the streets hurry by as if they were aware they shouldn't be out at this time. Restaurants and pubs are open and plentiful, but only some afford a glimpse of what Cambridge is famous for – vibrant student life. To repeat it, I am shocked.

After dinner, my friend takes me back to the station where my train has just arrived from London. Much like twelve hours earlier, it spills thousands of commuters onto the narrow platform. Some jostle for position in the race for the bus while others, clearly at the end of a long day, float passively like corks in the stream of people. Once the crowd has cleared, I get on the train that will take me back home. I don't know about the others that sparsely populate the navy-blue seats, but I'm happy that I call London home.

Monday, October 13, 2008

correlation and socialism

Paul Krugman got the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences today for explaining how trade works and how we can benefit from it. In London over the last few years, no one needed any explanations of how things worked economically. In the City, self-confident wizards conjured money out of thin air and got incredible returns from shuffling debt back and forth, from lending and back-borrowing billions in a sort of financial ping pong. It was cool stuff, and everyone drove Maseratis.

Things have changed a little. Investment banks have gone bust and plain vanilla banks been nationalized. The economic downturn is upon us and deep recession looms. Maseratis are on sale much like t-shirts made in China used to be. The previously unlimited power of money has been reined in (I almost wrote 'reigned in', fool that I am.), and the free market exposed as the fallacy it's always been. Is this the return of socialism?

You could be excused for believing so this morning when the government that I currently support with pounds of tax money nationalized yet more banks. If I understood the news correctly, I now own a stake in a couple of Scottish banks. As this is more than could be said last time I lived under the sweet sun of socialism, maybe not all is doom and gloom then. In fact, this weekend I was baffled at how things of a kind that normally don't go well at all in this country are going extremely well.

In Shepherd's Bush, a huge shopping and entertainment center is nearing completion. In the exuberance of the planning days back when Charles Ponzi's ideas flew sky-high in the business world, the developer proposed all sorts of amenities to the amazed locals: a new rail link, a refurbished tube station and another one built from scratch, a new library and free ice cream during the grand opening.

I was most interested in the transport links, which initially failed to materialize. The Shepherd's Bush Central line station closed down for six months for the replacement of an escalator, whereas the National Rail station had to delay its opening indefinitely because the platform turned out not to conform to code. It was a few inches too narrow. As the missing inches couldn't be added to the one side without precluding trains from passing, a massive wall had to be shifted on the other. Not a job one finishes in an afternoon.

At the beginning of this year, I was chuckling about the predicted (re-)opening dates. Things just don't get done in time here. However, over the last months, roughly in line with the melt-down of investment banking and credit markets, things fell into place and as of last Sunday, all three stations are up and running.

There's two possible lessons here. Either socialism is a great system, or correlation does not equal causation. Paul Krugman, on the other hand, might argue that it was simply a case of the the right people doing the right job, and everyone benefits.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


Overall, London is a very safe place. In most neighborhoods, you can amble without fear even in the middle of the night. I have never had a bad experience. Only yesterday, a small encounter confirmed the general civility of the place. A teenager was wheelie-ing down the sidewalk, heading down towards me. Seconds before the inevitable crash, he put his front wheel down, swerved around me and yelled a friendly, sorry, man.

On the other hand, London is highly dangerous for those involved with gangs or simply living in the wrong part of town. In south and north London, there are areas where stabbings, particularly among teenagers, are shockingly common. Although outrage erupts every time another innocent kid loses his life, the problem doesn't seem to be taken too seriously. The numbers increase regularly and without remit.

Three months ago, two French exchange students were stabbed in their flat in south east London and then burned. Both of them had come to study at Imperial for a semester, and one, Laurent, worked in my department, in a lab just two floors up. His lab mates, his friends and colleagues, found a nice way to honor his memory and keep his name alive.

Steve Matthews, the boss of the lab, entered a team to run the Royal Parks Half Marathon to raise money for Victim Support, a charity that helps people cope after being the victim of a crime. Nothing can bring the dead back to life, but helping those who survived a serious crime is an important cause and deserves support.

While I have contributed financially, I can unfortunately not join the contest. My legs have still not recovered completely from the suffering I put them through almost five months ago. As tomorrow is not about winning but being there and making a statement, I will be at the course, rooting for what are also my friends, making sure they don't give in to the temptation to relent and stop. With every breath they take and every sweat they break, they speak out for stronger action against knife crime and the hope that all neighborhoods in London might one day be as safe as the parks they run through.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

roasting revisited

On of my favorite places in Salt Lake was an independent coffee shop whose fanatical owner traveled the world in search of the best coffees. He brought them to Utah, roasted and brewed them, and served them to a bunch of U students. Maybe not the most discerning clientèle imaginable, but his fastidiousness earned him a devoted following. The Salt Lake Roasting Company was a shining light in the darkness of Starbucks.

A group of friends of mine used to meet every Thursday night for coffee and chatting, firing up the place with our banter while around us more assiduous folks would work on their laptops. The Roasting Company had free wireless and no one was ever kicked out for consuming only one coffee over the course of five hours.

Ever since leaving Utah, I've been looking for a place to match the SLRC. There was nothing the like in France where people would, even in darkest nightmares, not imagine working when they're off work. Coffee shops offer beer and smokes but not wireless and comfy chairs for hours. In London, the situation is similarly dire. There are plenty of American-style coffee shops, but most of them belong to chains, are interchangeable and don't solicit more than a brief stop. I go there from time to time to have a coffee – which is excellent – but I'm not enticed to make any of those my second home, move in with laptop and iPod like some of my friends did in Salt Lake.

Every morning and evening, I cycle along Uxbridge Road, a busy thoroughfare that connects my street with the nearest transportation hub. It's a lively place. There are not many premises that do not house stores, restaurants or, curiously, barber shops. It all a bit run down and cheap, epitomized by the ubiquitous Chicken Cottage, a home-grown and rather dingy fast food chain with outlets every half mile. This is not a pretentious neighborhood, but it's very dynamics. Businesses open and close all the time.

I was surprised when Café Bliss opened a few months ago. One glance sufficed to see that it was different. The sign above the door was well-designed, the beefy leather chairs inside looked comfortable, everything was solid. The main room was light filled and extended over multiple levels. Outside were a few aluminum tables and dark wooden chairs. Everything fit together. However, the place was invariably empty.

Maybe there are no yuppies in Shepherd's Bush who would spend money on a coffee that they could also get a nutritious chicken meal for. Maybe the Arabs who can be seen smoking the hubbly-bubbly every night prefer to do this in a more Arabic setting. Maybe I just have to go see for myself.

Tonight, I did. On my way home from shopping with a heavy bag in my hand, I walked by its brightly lit window and couldn't resist diving into the emptiness behind. The baristo (if there is such a thing) was Arabic and served me a lovely mint tea. The chairs were as cozy as they looked and invited a longer stay. I hadn't had dinner; I had to move on. But I know where I'll come the next time I want to read the Zeit or The New Yorker in peace. All would be perfect if my friends decided to move into this area also.

night shift

There is no free lunch. Last week in Como, I had a lot of lunches that were very tasty and didn't cost me anything. I had been sent on a conference, and my boss paid with money from her grant. She also requested I bring something back to the rest of the lab.

Now, just a bit past midnight, I'm trying to piece together a presentation to edify my colleagues tomorrow. The situation is nothing new. At the last moment, with a steaming caffeinaceous (*) beverage by my side and a contently whizzing computer in front of me, I'm forcing memory and creativity. I'm reminded of the first year of graduate school when I had assignments to finish and the crazy last with a dissertation to prepare and proposals for fellowships to submit. In due frantic course, everything always got done.

It won't be any different tonight. The conference program and the notes I took guide me from slide to slide. The screen appears blurry sometimes because of the hour, but I'm soldering on. Most of the brain seems to function on auto-pilot. Sometimes I have to go back over a section to check what I've actually written. It is clearly time to sleep.

As I finish the last slide and save the presentation, I'm struck by how much a training in science prepares you for writing. Coping with deadlines and producing presentable copy are recurrent themes. With one last yawn and this post published, I'm finally done for the day. I hope the yerba that has kept me awake for the last two hours is also done acting on my brain and will let me sleep.

(*) Sadly, I'm not the first to come up with this word. Google finds it ten times on the web.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

eclectic explained

When I wrote the recent post that promised a steady stream of writing from your favorite source of information (about the author of these lines, if nothing else), I had one subject matter already in mind that needed airing. The question begging for contemplation was, what is this blog for, what is it about, and where is it going?

This blog is approaching forty and still going strong. Looking back over the months, I see a cornucopia of topics. Cycling featured prominently because that's what I spent most time doing in Grenoble. Travel is mentioned but mostly related to leaving and returning. Art and books have risen to prominence recently. The exhilaration of London contrast with the daily grind. Friends get the short shrift because this is not their blog and I don't see how I can expose anyone else on mine.

Rarer than appearances of friends is only overall focus, found exclusively in the odd photo I upload. From the progression of posts over the weeks and months, it is entirely absent. Rambling describes best what I do. Listening to the speakers at the Source Event, I fell in doubt about this strategy – or lack thereof. In order to capture an audience, I should present coherent thoughts on well-defined topics. Readers will only return if they get what they expect.

My blog doesn't offer this, everything is random. It was started as a tool to sharpen my prose – with a repository of memorable events as a fortuitous side effect. A thoroughly self-centered and self-serving exercise, in other words. Readers were way out at the periphery of my radar when all began.

At some point I became aware of my audience. Officially anonymous friends told me they use the blog to keep up with what I'm doing, one in particular complained about excessive bike posts, Sean finally started his own after reading mine for a while, and GC is the only one to comment. With these people in mind, I pick stories that I think might be interesting, entertaining or engaging, but the topics are still all over the place.

I became skeptical that this would be sufficient training should I ever aspire to a career in writing. Full of motivation after the Source Event, I readied myself to ask my audience the question: What do you want to read about. What is most interesting to you? Pick any of the categories mentioned above or name your neglected favorite. I'm writing for you!

By a funny little coincidence, my question was answered before I even got around to posing it. Yesterday I received an email from a reader unknown to me encouraging me to continue writing as I have, telling me how I mirror her own experiences as a scientist finding her way, jumping from place to place, settling in, discovering, forming habits, moving on. It is apparently the lack of focus, the arbitrary choice of topics that is captivating because it puts in words what many are familiar with.

This email filled me with happiness. Someone unbiased by friendship or shared memories likes to read what I write, likes the way I write, asks me to keep up the work. I was dizzy with elation, but once this ecstatic feeling subsided, a heavy weight sunk down on me. Someone out there is finding a voice in me, expecting words that comfort and stimulate. I am writing for someone – you, the audience!

While the ecstatic feeling might have subsided under the new weight on my shoulders, it has certainly not faded. I'm suffused with motivation and ready to take this as seriously as I should. The promise made two weeks ago holds even firmer now. Expect more posts and more-regular posts, and expect more of the same. Whatever comes to my mind.