Saturday, February 28, 2009

name recognition

Just about a year ago, Daniel Barenboim came to London to play the complete Beethoven sonatas in a heroic two weeks and a half. Tickets to his shows were the hottest items in town, and he managed to sell out Royal Festival Hall during all eight nights. A friend of mine came over from the US last February at least partly motivated by the opportunity to enjoy the concerts. He went to four shows and took me to two. It was absolutely outstanding.

With music of this quality in my mind's ear and on my stereo, I would be bound for severe withdrawal symptoms in any other city, but London never fails to surprise and frequently exceed expectations. This year Jean-Bernard Pommier is repeating Barenboim's feat, but on a less monumental scale. Over the course of a generous eight months, he is playing, like his predecessor, Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, to the tune of one concert a month.

His chosen venue is King's Place, a brand-new multipurpose cultural center comprising two concert halls, a commercial gallery, a tony restaurant, a café, and plenty of exhibition space. The complex shares an airy atrium with the new Guardian headquarters, and some of the events – talks on current affairs or podium discussions – show that the proximity is no accident. I most like the place for its very affordable tickets. If you book the net specials, you can't pick a seat but pay just under a tenner. You're guaranteed a seat but learn which one only an hour before the show when seats are disbursed by order of booking. As the halls are fairly small and there are no pillars obstructing the view, these surprise tickets are among the best deals in town. I guess the venue is so new that they need to get the word out – and people in.

The other day, I went to hear Monsieur Pommier play four of the sonatas. We arrived just in time for a quick drink from the bar and few chords from the jazz trio placed somewhat incongruously in a corner near the entrance to the restaurant. I was really excited about this concert. Three of the sonatas were new to me played live, but one I had heard a year earlier. Revisiting pieces is something I enjoy a lot because it teaches me a great deal about the music and lets me compare interpreters and venues.

This year and last couldn't have been more different. Kings Place is intimate. Hall One holds about 500 people. We sat in row 8 and heard the piano that was standing right in front of us clearly and crisply. Last year, in the vast Royal Festival Hall with its 3000 seats, I was up on the balcony far from the stage and what I heard was not the instrument itself but the sound of it, bouncing off the walls and the ceiling, immersing the audience in an aura of sonic brilliance. The essence of music was laid bare in a way that is impossible in a smaller space.

There was also a marked contrast between the artists. Pommier quite literally worked the piano. His concentrated face reddened with effort occasionally and his body swayed back and forth with every crescendo and every pause. Barenboim was infinitely more majestic. It was almost as if his hands were playing the piano on their own accord. His body simply provided a way to hold them. The person Barenboim seemed to be in a completely different place altogether. This was exemplified two or three times during quite parts when only the left hand was playing. The right hand was then free to move over to where a towel hung from the side of the piano, grab it and dry the face of the maestro. In no hurry whatsoever, the towel was put back and the hand returned whence it had come, to resume playing when the score called for it. This poise was stunning.

The most striking difference between the two virtuosi came at the end of each sonata. After the last key Pommier would jump up explosively as if released from an ordeal. The sound of the piano was brought to an abrupt end when his foot left the damper pedal. He turned toward the audience from which wild cheers erupted. When Barenboim finished playing a sonata, the last harmony was allowed to linger while he slowly returned from his trance and became a mere mortal again. As he leaned back, the silence that he considers as much part of the music as the sounds preceding it developed until taking over the entire hall. At some point, the tension in Barenboim broke visibly, and the audience erupted in ovations.

I liked Barenboim's performance better. It gave a full-body experience of the music and accorded it the dignity it is due. Pommier felt more rushed, but being a musical tenderfoot, I could be completely wrong. Both are clearly accomplished musicians. Barenboim's record speaks for himself, but with a First Honorable Mention in the Tchaikovsky Competition, Pommier doesn't have to hide behind anyone either. I wonder if, by an objective measure, one is really better than the other. And how come one easily sells 3000 tickets per show while the other doesn't come close to 500?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

hello world

I must have been just a little bit bored this morning when I took the time to read an email that had arrived in my mailbox earlier that day. It was from Delta Airlines and contained my frequent flyer summary. Normally, I wouldn't be too interested. I haven't flown with Delta in several years and can't even remember the last time I sat in a Skyteam plane. These days I'm more often traveling with budget airlines with twenty-pound tickets but no frequent flyer programs and thus nothing to keep track of.

This mental hibernation almost cost me dearly. My Delta account contains nearly enough miles to make it across the Atlantic in style – or two times in cargo. The email I read because I had nothing better to do at that moment alerted me to the fact that my miles would expire by the end of June. By the end of this June, to be more precise, 2009.

This came as somewhat of a shock. How could I reset the clock? I have no plans of using Delta in the next four months. In fact, I have no plans at traveling by plane at all. Good thing that there is something called the internet. I googled my problem and found an answer in no time. The brilliant suggestion was to order something little through the airline's shopping portal, earn miles for this and restart the count-down on the existing miles in the process. Dutifully, I signed up. Now what? The portal is geared towards American shoppers and presents a million sites that all pride themselves in free shipping in the lower 48. That wouldn't be of any help to me. And while I'd like to get some new Banana Republic chinos, I've never been happy to by clothes without trying them first. I was in need of something virtual.

Thank goodness there's iTunes. They are in cahoots with Delta. I can buy a little song and get two miles in return, neither of which I need. But the completed transaction will have the side-effect of causing activity on my Skymiles account. And life begins anew.

I was wondering how iTunes would know that I've made my way because of Delta, that Delta in other word caused my sudden outburst of commercial desire. I understand how refereeing works on a website, but iTunes is a separate application. Once again, the font of unlimited wisdom helped me out. The bottom line is it just works, and there's no reason to worry. With my United credit card, which is about to expire (There's another little problem.), I opened an Apple account and got Chess/Backgammon for my classicPod. This, you might have guessed it, propitiously reset the count-down on my Mileage Plus account as well, although that wasn't quite as urgent. When all was done and I was dizzy from signing up and shopping, I realized that I had made the deadline for 1000 bonus miles by two days. Signing up to Skymiles shopping is currently sweetened by a little promotion – of which I knew nothing prior to all this. I'm clearly not bored enough to read all the email advertisement I get.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

brain fry

The teacher repeats her question but doesn't get an answer. Ten pairs of eyes reflect the effort back at her. In these eyes she can read a spectrum of misery, from bewilderment and puzzlement to confusion and complete loss. She tries again, going back to words that the class should be familiar with, trying to reach out and get some understanding, however ephemeral. It's her only hope. Every now and then, one student or another will show a brief sign of comprehension, a vision expressed by verbal articulation. The utterance is always in a tone of surprise, as if it had come completely unexpectedly and the ears can't believe what the mouth says. As quickly as the insight lights up, it goes dark again. The face goes blank and the eyes fall back into a stare focused on some point of hope in distant eternity. The class is held by torpor until another unlikely connection is made in some other student's head.

I've been attending Arabic classes for half a year now. Tonight was the 15th session. I've sat through thirty hours of self-imposed linguistic torture and still can't quite explain why. It must be the challenge. Arabic is unlike any language I know, and this difference breeds difficulty on a massive scale, especially for a brain that has fallen into a state of poor malleability (for fear of using the word rigidity) four years after being released from the rigors of university study.

We have reached page 100 of our textbook and still not encountered the first verb. This is just one of the little curiosities that characterize the language to the neophyte that I am. Another is the existence of an ungodly number of plural forms, different for different classes of nouns with no logic yet revealed. While this might baffle, pronunciation is bound to exasperate remorselessly. Only half of the sounds in Arabic have a counterpart in English or German. Some I've figured out rather easily once they were properly explained, and the fact that I can produce these sounds amazes me every time, but others remain shrouded in densest mystery. I've tabulated words with one particular letter with the goal of identifying a pattern, something that would give me a handle for trying to shed some light into the blackness of my comprehension. It's been in annoying vain. The sound makes no sense to me. My problems of understanding are compounded by dialect and variation. Vowels change their verbal identity as if every day were carnival. It's a mesmerizing spectacle. Too bad I'm not a passive audience but trying to learn.

The class is from six to eight, after a day at work that can be mildly tiring or outright exhausting. The two hours are brutal – and yet pass surprisingly quickly. I'm looking forward to them because despite the glacial pace, the reality of progress is undeniable. The squiggly lines that have captivated me ever since I visited Tunisia four years ago have become less obscure. I can walk down the street in Shepherd's Bush and read the signs above the storefronts. I remember words. Grammatical constructs start to make sense. When the clock above the door shows eight, I'm near mental collapse. My brain screams at me to prevent me from hearing anything else, especially unintelligible kauderwelsch. I'm glad to hop on my bike and let my legs do some work for a change. But I also know that I'll be back the next week for more. And I'm grateful to the teacher who guides us with equanimity and patience and whose infectious sense of humor takes some of the edge off the subject and makes it vague palatable.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

out to shoot

The day started bad enough. Granted, it could have been worse. It could have rained, or I could have missed the alarm, or my house could have burned to the ground while I was slumbering peacefully. None of this happened. When I woke, brilliant sunshine welcomed me into the day.

It turned bad almost instantly. I got up before nine to make it to another PhotoGym that was scheduled to start at ten on the other side of town. Without breakfast or coffee I headed for the door when I noticed that my wallet wasn't in my pocket. No wallet, no money – and no money, no breakfast in the pub. Also no money, no Oyster card – and no Oyster card, no trip to the pub in the first place because the tube doesn't run for free even on a weekend.

Thankfully, two invaluable treasures stood by to get my out of this dire situation. My bike got me to Imperial, though my stomach angrily reverberated hollow grumbles, and my swipe card got me in. In my drawer, locked away for safety, I found my wallet. By that time it was shortly before ten already.

Ten is the time the museums behind Imperial open. This weekend ended half term, and the sidewalk outside the entrances was besieged by early-rising families wanting to be the first in. Loads of ecstatic kids were bouncing off the buildings' walls with screams of overboiling anticipation. I made only slow progress, digging trough dense throngs of tired parents and avoiding the interception of little live projectiles on indefatigable legs.

The starting bell of the photo gym had rung when I finally reached the tube station. I was late but still optimistic. Temple, the stop nearest the tube where we were meeting, was only a fifteen-minute ride away. My optimism was ill-founded, though. The District line only went to Embankment, and the Circle line didn't run at all.

Partial closures plague the Underground every weekend. I don't think there has been one with all lines running normally since I got here. Most lines are old. Some, notably the Circle line, are manifestly ancient and need constant care, life support if you will. They carry millions of commuters each workday, reliably for the most part, but on weekends they need to wind down a bit. Signals need to be mended, points fixed, the electrical system upgraded. The process is continuous and of no surprise really. Except I wasn't aware of it – again.

I stepped into a District line train that was as crowded as it must be during rush hour, as crowded as it could possibly have been with befuddled tourists standing shoulder to shoulder, and had myself ferried as close to my destination as possible. Together with everyone else, I was spit out at Embankment and released onto street level, left to my own devices.

A few hurried steps took me to the Strand from where I could already see the steeples of the churches at Aldwych. Taking in urban air that smelled spring for the first time this year, I raced toward them. Behind would be the pub, hidden in an obscure lane and out of view, but easily found as it had got its name from the lane branching off the Strand, and the sign was obvious. It was nine thirty by now, but I took a breath and coasted the last hundred yards. Not only would I be in time for the talk preceding the photography assignment, I would even arrive early enough to grab a coffee and some beans and egg.

after the show

The topic of the workshop was Composition, and the participants were asked to choose a format and then work with it. Naturally, I went for square. After some ambling, I got my best shots at the National Theatre.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

age showing

I'm sitting in my comfy chair enduring the brain-numbing velocity and fake drama of another Top Gear episode. Though I'm not a car fanatic and haven't owned a vehicle in more than five years, this show about the delights of fast cars entertains me just right when I'm too tired from work and play, when I'm in no state of mind to do things requiring a brain.

Tonight I could have slouched in front of the iPlayer watching Top Gear until falling asleep. I was dead tired when I was finally done with work tonight. The hours weren't brutal, even taking my early arrival to the lab into account. Supervising my recently acquired student wasn't so draining, either. There is an altogether different reason for complete exhaustion.

Early in the afternoon, I met up with a bunch of colleagues for an hour at Ethos, the Imperial College gym. We had rented the main court for a session of friendly footie. It's mostly staff that play with only a few students making rare appearances but even so I've recently come to feel that I'm getting too old for this pleasure. Even without hordes of young blood outrunning me mercilessly, I see my limits.

I'd be a shame if I had to retire from football because it's so much fun and such good exercise. Nothing gets my heart rate higher in a shorter time. But I've noticed that I'm not as quick anymore as I used to be. As lightning speed and deadly accelerations were my only asset on the pitch, I'm now left with aimlessly ambling about in the hope of receiving an errant ball, which I then promptly lose to a player on the opposing team. Today, the ball tumbled in front of my feet about a million times and I managed to whack it just past the goal on almost all the occasions that I hadn't been stripped off it by a defender. So much effort and so little to show for.

My glumness only manifests itself in the evening when my body and brain are worn down by the effort of the day, and the reaction is likely a slip. During the match I was elated and enjoyed running my lungs out. I might not be a Lotus to all the Ladas roving about anymore, but I still got legs, and they still move in ways unpredictable to the other players. The tackles I'm frequently awarded attest to that.

It is these tackles rather than my own physical deceleration that make me reconsider playing. My legs can't take the constant beating anymore, and my ankles are not as strong as they used to be. I haven't suffered any injury while chasing the bouncy yellow ball, but I have the hunch it's only a question of time. Even without serious hurt, my entire body is sore after football, and with an ailing body comes a sinking brain. At least that's how I have always experienced it. Instead of attacking the daunting mass of a rock of French literature that has recently appeared on my bedside table or writing something intelligent and edifying on my blog, I find myself watching Top Gear until my eyelids fall shut. Good night.

Friday, February 13, 2009

way with words

It has been a good two weeks now since I moved my lazy butt. I should be training for a marathon, but just looking out the window makes me want to curl up underneath the tea cozy. Nights are freezing, days are cold, rain is frequent, and sometimes it snows. Don't even talk to me about going outside. Is there still a park between Imperial and Notting Hill? I don't know; I haven't been there in weeks.

This winter is so dramatically different from last it's hard to believe it's the same country. Last year, I put my jacket away halfway through February. This year, I can almost ski to work. Riding home tonight, I was blinded by a million little ice crystals grating my pupils on their way to the frozen ground. Shivering and wet, I cursed the elements. Where is spring?

There is one good side to the misery – it's gone when I close the door, turn up the heat, make some espresso and sink into my sofa. The comfort of my home finds renewed recognition, an appreciation quickly lost on a good day and most weekends, when London is my living room. These days I'm content to kick back, listen to music or watch movies.

In light of some recently developed shopping habits of mine, the sloth imposed by the elements is quite welcome. It seems that word of impending economic doom has made people careful with their money. Stores, in return, are touting their wares with more vigor than ever before. Bargains abound, and I've been around a bit to scoop them up. My stack of unwatched DVDs, purchased mostly for three pounds apiece, is growing rapidly and starts to compete with my heap of unread books. I take every rainy evening I can get to watch a film and see the pile whither.

I also keep reading and I'm delighted to report the completion of the first book this year, a compilation of the best American short stories of 1998. The book is one in a long series, dating back to 1915 and still going strong. In case you're wondering, I didn't pick the year. This was what was on the shelf of the South Kensington Oxfam. Had there been others, I'd have bought them also, or I should have, retrospectively.

The book is a fountain of some literary brilliance, as you would expect of a best-of. Less obvious is the breadth of talent assembled on the pages. There are some unavoidable luminaries (John Updike, Annie Proulx) who serve reliable quality, but they are all but drowned out by a cacophony of young authors who write ferociously at time and unconventionally at others.

The best story of all was Penance by Matthew Crain, a captivating tale of a landscaper who finds himself professionally in charge of a mentally challenged fellow half a boy and half a man. The plot pulled me along, the writing delighted me greatly, the narrative created suspense and threw up questions. On the last page or two, the questions were answered when the original plot was revealed as a decoy for telling an entirely different story, a story that drives all the main character's actions but remains invisible until the very end. It was as if the protagonist were safeguarding his inner self with a thick layer of distractive ornament, reluctant to admit his past even to himself. With their complexities within complexities, both the story itself and central character were like Russian dolls. Magnificent.

The other day, Amazon unveiled the second generation of their electronic book, the Kindle. With a price tag of a good fifty softcovers, it doesn't come cheap, and content isn't a bargain either. Why does a downloaded book cost more than one printed on paper? I'm not sure how much of an impact the Kindle will make, but I see that options open that have never existed in the time of the first-edition hardcover. Traditional publishers crave authors that can fill 500 pages because that's what can be sold profitably. Could the Kindle with its potential for impulsive downloads herald the return to prominence of the short story, flawless writing for your commute at a pound a piece? I, for one, would rejoice. The short story collection I just finished showcased 20 authors with their best works, filling slightly less than 300 pages. With so much diversity (and so little time), why would anyone read fat novels – never mind icy drizzle outside.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


Outside, the sun is shining. How long this will last is not clear. The forecast doesn't inspire confidence. Blizzards, they said on the radio as if this were Alaska, are supposed to hit home tonight. The sun is still sitting in the sky demonstrating strength in the face of the expected onslaught, but its forces are visibly waning. It was a tiny bit brighter when I started this paragraph than it is now.

Yesterday, I discovered parts of north-east London that weren't familiar to me and really enjoyed it. Today, in contrast, is not the best day for going out and strolling about. I'll stay in and give my sofa company, listening to some tunes and reading. The column of finished books on the right is still empty while I keep acquiring tomes. I also have to prepare the journal club I was scheduled to give last Monday.

If it snows as much tonight as it did a week ago, the presentation might be wiped out again, but I can't be sure until disaster strikes. Maybe if I wait, if I delay working some more, I can get a clearer idea of what's to come meteorologically, and maybe I can get away with not preparing at all. Over coffee and sweets, my mind starts to wander, and Madagascar is where it settles.

I've recently experienced nothing short of a revelation, and increased my awareness of the finer things of life. This post concerns chocolate. I used to eat – note the verb I use – the brown stuff because I liked it. The sweetness spoke to me, the endless varieties of flavor kept me satisfied, orange or cherry for example, or the more frequent additions of nuts, raisins or coffee cream. I hardly ever bought dark chocolate. It wasn't what I expected because it wasn't what I was used to.

Every once in a while though, I would give dark chocolate another try, fully aware that this is the serious alternative to silly milk chocolate, which is kids' stuff in the eyes of connoisseurs. I was never satisfied, but I kept looking. I'm not rigid in my opinions and preferences and like to have my convictions challenged. One day, Lindt Madagascar was on sale, at one pound a bar, at the local grocery store. Never one to say no to a bargain, I took the offer and another dive into the deep sea of dark chocolate.

At home, I unwrapped the chocolate, took a bite – and had a slowly unfolding epiphany. The piece tokk its time melting in my mouth and over several blissful minutes released a wealth of flavors that I hadn't found in chocolate before, a complexity that caught me unawares. It was breathtaking and remains impossible to describe. The rough intensity of the cocoa was softened by notes of vanilla and a curious sweetness, utterly unexpected and as distant from the usual sugariness of milk chocolate as possible.

I was stunned motionless, waiting excitedly for whatever aroma would next creep from the brown lump under my palate. When the initial piece had dissolved, I took another little bite – the first square of the bar had not been swallowed in its entirety – and the pleasure ride continued. A little while later, I put the bar away, the first square finished but plenty remaining for many more extended moments of bliss.

This is how my conversion to dark chocolate began. It was accomplished just recently when I bought my dad a Christmas gift, a bar of Valrhona Ampamakia. 'Harvest 2007' declared the ochre wrapper, much like it would for a fine red wine. What's more, the chocolate was marketed as a Grand Cru, and the cocoa came from a single plantation. At nearly four pounds for 70 grams, this was no bargain, but I could easily justify the gift for my dad and, thanks to a two-for-one promotion, would keep one for myself.

My mind's journey ends as I finish, over another short story, the last piece of that little treasure, an incredible delight. I'm completely in awe and speechless at how such a symphony of flavors can be extracted from cocoa beans. The other day, I checked Whole Food's, but their promotion last year had obviously been intended to clear shelves for other brands. Ampamakia was nowhere to be found. Now, while I should be working on my presentation, I find myself scouring flights to Madagascar and reading about that blessed island. Outside, snow has started falling.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


Over the last week or so, I've shown some presence over at Nature Network. I've been reading Stephen Curry's blog and getting inspiration for a post or two of my own. I've been leaving comments and, most of all, noticed how many comments Stephen's blog commands.

I've been starting to think. Blogging is good fun, the putting of thoughts into words, the practicing of verbal skills, the writing under time pressure, the development of wordsmithery. The benefits are countless, but the occupation feels a bit lifeless if there aren't readers. Now I know that my blog has followers, and I value each one (that I know), but I'm wondering if there's a way to increase my exposure, especially in light of possible employment opportunities.

Nature Network seems to be a great place to put a blog. There are only few bloggers, but they post regularly and with much skill. The writing is generally good and focused on topics all visitors to Nature Network expect – something science-related. The audience appreciates that and comes back. Nature Publishing Group (NPG), in turn, appreciates that, and promotes Nature Network. (Truth be told, they started it.) They highlight active users and most-commented blogs and because of the manageable nature of the content, it's all quite helpful. Everyone who writes a decent amount will eventually get attention.

Contrast that with Blogger where a user is one in millions and each blog inevitably lost in abundance. That this is not the place to get the word out is obvious. So obvious, in fact, that others have approached me, by email and online, full of exasperation about my ignorance and urging me to move. The latest initiative came today from a most unexpected source, NPG itself. I found my mug on their main page (at the very bottom in the middle).

Not that there is any rationale behind a humble script's visible effects, but being on the front page of the home of the Nature journals is just one step from being on the cover of Nature, isn't it? Even if it isn't, it would have been fantastic to have a stimulating and insightful blog behind this behatted face. The move is inevitable.

And yet, and yet, I'm not convinced. I would lose the privacy of this blog, the freedom of telling my friends what's going on. I would have to write science and abandon nonsense like electronic New Year's resolutions and walks in the park. The blog would be by me, not about me. I'm not ready to make that jump, no matter the potential benefits. What I might do, though, is split this blog in two – continue here as I have and publish at Nature Network the smart things that might come to my mind. However, without a catchy title, I can't get started. Docandreas doesn't cut it among scientist. Any suggestions to help me move on?

Monday, February 02, 2009

white power

"Heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures across large parts of the country", reported a calm voice betraying just a hint of excitement this morning when the radio woke me up. I looked through my kitchen window and was treated to a world of white. Where Japanese knotweed had pollulated without mercy, turning a modest backyard into a dense jungle resistant to all eradication efforts, loads of snow had now buried everything, sucked life from the garden and imposed the austere rule of a Nordic god. I made two cups of coffee and went to sit down with breakfast.

On any other day, the bustle of rush hour traffic, the droning of engines and the murmuring of tires, enters through my living room windows, muffled but unmistakable, and brings the city home. A bus goes by every few minutes. Today, in contrast, it was eerily quiet. Only the shrill voices of kids could be heard. Screaming with joy and sometimes shouting with effort, the little ones were engaged in snowfights and wild chases over treacherous ground, clearly overcome by the extraordinary scene.

While the steaming coffee fogged up my windows, the BBC continued its focus on the weather, obviously fascinated by what was going on. Heathrow had just shut its second runway and was now closed. City airport was also closed and so was Luton. Stansted had come back to live but was experiencing major delays, ditto Gatwick. Ten of the eleven underground lines were experiencing some sort of problem, and no buses were running at all.

In light of the harsh conditions, people were warned not to drive. The streets of London were slick with snow covering icy patches. With no snow tires and hardly any winter driving experience, letting drivers loose would lead to immediate and complete disaster. Take the train, people were urged. Dutifully, they went to check schedules and expected delays on the websites of British Rail and the various regional train operators and, reported the BBC with incredulity, promptly brought down the servers. Public transport, a celebrated and affectionately reviled system that normally transports six million people a day, lay in ruins as if having suffered the wrath of some invading army.

It was indeed an invasion that shut the southeast of the country down. Whirling in overnight and camouflaged in, ahem, brilliant white, the snow had come out of nowhere and with more force than anyone had reckoned. It was the worst storm in nearly two decades. Two decades hence, we might just sit down with our children, huddling by the fire and clutching a mug of hot chocolate, and tell them about that February of 2009 when a blizzard did what the German hadn't managed six and a half decades earlier and brought a proud country to its knees. Cue to some patriotic music. Never, never, never give up.

With the radio awash in stupendous stories and the thrill of the exceptional in the air, it might be defensible to get a bit carried away. My writing certainly did during the previous paragraph. Just now, a quick glance through the window served as a reality check and restored my balance.

The street in front of my house is easily passable, and the sidewalk doesn't present an insurmountable obstacle either. A good six inches of snow cover the ground. A few flakes are still dancing in the air, but they don't look determined to join their buddies on the street. It's undeniable that we were visited by a substantial snowstorm during the night, but it's nothing that should in any way lead to extraordinary incidents on the scale observed. In fact, it's nothing that would lead to raised eyebrows in the places I've lived before.

Here, the effects of a bit of weather – and you would think the English could do weather; it is, after all, what they're notorious for – are stunning. Last night, when I was done preparing today's journal club and ready for bed, I noticed the storm that showed such a pervasive effect this morning. I decided to go for a walk through my neighborhood, never mind it was one o'clock.

Uxbridge Road, the main through-fare, resembled a parking lot that some joker had turned into an ice rink. Cars stretched as far as the eye could see. They were haplessly spinning their wheels in vain hope of some traction or control. Once a car got moving, the problems got bigger. How do you stop? Everyone drove slower than pedestrians walked, but collisions were unavoidable. I saw vehicles softly banging into each other but slowly enough to avoid all damage.

The Green itself, blazing white for one night only, was a spooky site. More people were waiting at a bus stop than you would expect in the middle of the night. The 24-hour cafes were doing stiff business, better than I've ever seen. Clearly, a lot of travelers were caught by surprise and got stranded. Curiously, there were hardly any buses. The reason was found between the tube and rail stations.

A number of bendies had got stuck, unable to make the tiny hill leading to Holland Park roundabout. They had slid across the intersection, blocking most traffic with their 18-meter bodies and wedging into each other in what looked like a permanent embrace. With great caution and matching cluelessness, traffic tried to navigate around them. Volunteers, mostly by-standers in need of warming up, delighted in pushing whoever needed extra help. It was a symphony in slow-motion and a harbinger of what was to come the next morning when traffic actually needed to flow.

I'm still sitting in my living room. The buses are still down, and the tube isn't much better. As I worked until one last night, I don't feel a pressing need to make it to lab at the usual time, but I'll have to be there around lunchtime, to present a paper to the group. I might make my way to a coffee shop at the Green and see how the situation develops there.