Sunday, February 28, 2010

after the race

There are those who consider periods of acute suffering essential for appreciating the beauty of life and for knowing what happiness is. Macolytes queue through the night in front of the Apple store, though the could buy the gadget they so desire much more comfortably on the internet. Muslim fast during Ramadan, in part to avoid taking food for granted. And outdoor enthusiasts often forgo the most basic elements of comfort like a soft chair or a warm lighter to experience nature more intensely. I don't describe to this philosophy. I know that life is good, and I don't need the deepest lows to appreciate the highest highs. A succession of different highs will suffice. Nevertheless, quite regularly and to my never-ending bafflement I find myself deep in the swamps of suffering.

In March of 2003, I went to Saint George for the season opener of the Intermountain Cup mountain bike race series. Southern Utah is all but guaranteed to be sunny and mild early in spring. On that occasion it was cold and snowing. At the start of the race, the red of the desert was hidden underneath a thin blanket of powder, which the first rider of the day churned into icy crimson mud that splashed mercilessly on those behind. I was behind, and soon indistinguishable from a soldier in Qin Shi Huang's terracotta army, if they had mountain bikes. Gushing desert streams washed the soil off again, instead turning me into an icicle on a bicycle. It wasn't pretty.

A few years later, I was half a world away, living a leisurely life at the foot of the French Alps. Most weekends would start with coffee and croissants, and maybe a stroll to the market. Life was good, which is why the second of June, 2007, is forever burned into my memory. On that day, I drove up into the Vercors to take part in a cyclotouristic event, basically a race for non-racers that's supposed to combine serious riding with extreme fun. As it turned out, the day combined serious suffering with extreme pain. After five hours in freezing rain, I was stiff as a poker and more exhausted than I'd ever been. I couldn't use my hands properly for about a month. The day taught me nothing about how good life is.

Yesterday, I woke to the BBC predicting a comparatively nice day, with showers interspersed with moments of sunshine. Sunday, however, they warned, would be grim. After living here for nearly three years, I know that the infamous one-word weather forecasts portend meteorological catastrophe. They are lacking detail for the sanity of the listener: The full truth would be unbearable early in the morning.

So when I rolled out of bed at a quarter past six this morning, I wasn't surprised about the pounding rain, and I wasn't fazed. I put my gear on, grabbed a water bottle and, in a moment of brilliance, even stuffed an extra pair of trainers into my backpack. It would be good to change into something dry after the race, I thought.

The race I ran was the Roding Valley Half Marathon. I had done it two years ago and have good memories. Back then, it was warm and sunny, and my time as good as expected. Today, it was cold and rainy, torrents of misery pelting from the low grey sky. Leaving the track that housed the start involved crossing a ten-meter puddle of ankle-deep water, icy and black with filth. It was good to start this way because obviously it couldn't get much worse.

It could have got better, but it didn't. It never stopped raining. The course was riddled with constantly replenished puddles, and there were many more encroaching on the roads that the course skirted. I was lucky not to get a power shower from a passing car but others got drenched. They also got angry and ran fast, whereas I just stumbled sluggishly. I've never before ran with such a lack of inspiration.

As cold as it was, it was no surprise that I didn't break a sweat, but I didn't get my heart rate up either, except at the two climbs, and kept my breath under strict control until the very end. At the same time, my watch announced splits that hinted at a good time, and half a mile before the finish line, my left calf was on the verge of cramping.

How these observations fit together I don't know. What I know is that I finished a minute and a half slower than two years ago but pretty fast considering the conditions. If I can stretch that speed to twice the distance I'll run a glorious marathon indeed. I was running on water (on the course and in my shoes) most of the time, but I didn't get too cold. Moreover, the knee that had been biting me a bit over the last week didn't give me any trouble.

After crossing the line and receiving my finisher medal, I dashed straight over to the changing room and took a nice hot shower. I had a big towel and was looking forward to dry shoes, shoes I would have appreciated even more, had I remembered to bring a change of clothes as well. I didn't, and I had to slip back into wet synthetics. But even that dark cloud couldn't dim the overall impression.

I'm sitting in my warm living room a few hours after the race. I have finished a huge bowl of fusilli and an appropriately sized tankard of ale. The soothing veil of retrospection is starting to waft over this morning. The harsh memories have softened, and the suffering seems less stark than it felt five hours ago. Let the good times continue.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

big smoke

If you pare away all the fuss, the embellishments, the puns and brightly colored metaphors, what remains of a good story are observations and connections, musings on seemingly unrelated incidents that fit together perfectly if one just bothers to look the right way. Looking and seeing are thus the fundamental skills for crafting a compelling story.

London is full of stories. They develop and unfold constantly, blooming and erupting in front of our eyes. Nevertheless, most go unnoticed. As people rush home from work, they stare into the comfort of infinity instead of reading the material that's alive around them. They take the bus and bury their eyes in books. They hurry through the city, listening for the twentieth time to their Favorite Songs playlist.

One man begs to differ. Matt Haynes is the creator of Smoke, a London particular, as the tag line reads. For the last five years or so, he's been putting his talents for seeing and writing to good use, producing a handy magazine that combines outstanding local writing with artful black-and-white photography. The periodic "love-letter to London" contains local history and fiction, trivia and personal stories, blended skilfully to capture the essence of the city. The Big Smoke has never looked better.

I've grown partial to Smoke over the last year or so, purchasing issues as they appeared, at their own unpredictable pace. I bought a few eagerly, but never got around to reading them entirely. Every piece in the book, as well as in Matt's blog, seems to have a bus ride in it, thus inspiring me to read on the top deck. Problem is I'm hardly ever on a bus. I spend a lot of time riding my bike to work, but there's not enough time for reading, not even on the eternal red light blocking Upper Addison Gardens. And so it came to pass that before I could ever finish the magazines, I found myself deprived of them.

One I gave to a colleague who has a proud history of composing scientific posters entirely in iambic pentameters, baffling her audience more than any Gaelic symbolistic balladeer could, while the other somehow left on its own, unnoticed, and never returned. To this day, I carry a small black handkerchief of sadness.

The other day, as is my habit, I went to the Oxfam store on Gloucester Road. From its wooden counter heavy with used books shone, in cyan and scarlet, the cover of the latest Smoke. Just barely could I hang on to myself and keep myself from bagging it. Haiti is dissolving in unaccountable meteorological catastrophe and homegrown violence, and my money must serve to allay the suffering. With the proceeds going to charity, I bought Downriver by Iain Sinclair instead, a novel as local as Smoke but unfortunately without photos.

I could go out and take my own; the Thames a short walk from my house. But the last time I crossed the river, returning from Vauxhall, it was without my camera, which I had left at a camera shop tucked away nearly invisible behind a white, unmarked storefront next to a gas station off Kennington Lane. I took it there two days ago because of erratic overexposure issues that made half of my shots look as if I had pointed the camera straight into the blinding sun – impossible, as I haven't seen the sun in months now.

Today I got a quote for the repair and learned the cause of the problems. The sequencing unit needed replacing. Whatever that is, it costs plenty of money to effect and is a complicated procedure, the photographic equivalent of open-heart surgery if YouTube is to be trusted. After much cutting and patching and stitching, I was assured, the patient would behave as if reborn.

I hope I'll get the camera back before the weekend comes around, repaired and recuperated, convalesced and ready to shoot. Rumor has it that the thick grey blanket between London and the sky will rip open for a few moments. It would be a shame to miss the light. And if I won't have my camera back I'll go out and collect a few stories.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


After another afternoon with legs ankle-deep in mud, I'm wondering what keeps me going. There are days when the same old task is as exciting as it has never been, and there are days when I don't get off the sofa mentally or physically. In my preparation for the marathon in April I was afraid I would hit the wall or get bored or become burned out long before race day.

So far there's no sign of it. I've been going out nearly every weekend day since the snow stopped in the middle of January and clocking up base miles. During the week, it's me this year who nags my coworker to go for a quick one in the park, not the other way around as it used to be. Having run as many kilometers as at the beginning of March last year, I'm way ahead of my old self.

Yet why this is I cannot explain. It's not that I enjoy running. I never have, and I never will. There's too much pounding, too much suffering, and not enough action. One doesn't get too far from the start and consequently ends up on the same loops day in, day out.

It happens that these same loops are pretty nice around here, especially since I moved house in December. I'm now close enough to the Thames to go running by the river. The Thames is bordered on either side by a footpath that never strays far from the water. Frequent bridges allow one to shorten or extend runs al gusto. The only problems are Craven Cottage, the home of Fulham F.C., which spills its supporters onto the path whenever there's a game, and the tide.

The North Sea pushes into the Thames way beyond London with a staggering might. At full and new moon, tidal rise can be up to seven and a half meters (25 feet) and the effect is dramatic. At low tide, the river is a reduced to a trickle and the rowing boats slalom around boulders that stick out from what little liquid there is in the bed of rocks. At high tide, many of the low-lying embankments are flooded. The Putney riverside is regularly engulfed by a murky surge, and the unpaved path just upstream becomes a mire of slowly changing consistency, from liquefied morass to heavy bog.

The power of the moon is astonishing to contemplate, but it can make for a rather aggravating run. Shoes stick to black goo at every strenuous step, legs become caked in mud and increasingly heavy, and deep puddles of cold water stop the heart when not carefully avoided. Every miles extends by a bit in conditions like this, and little bit of sense in me is asking why I am doing it.

I'd much rather ride a road bike up the Col de la Porte or, if getting muddy is the objective, a mountain bike round Lake Placid. No such luck, though. Trapped in the plains of urbanity, I haven't used my bike for any serious riding in years. In fact, the last time I saw it was when I rode it to work before Christmas. Since then I've been walking. And running.

Over the last two years I have discovered, at the price of substantial pain, that I cannot run a marathon to my satisfaction without putting a little bit of effort into the training. Giving my chronic abhorrence of training, this discovery could have been rather dispiriting, but I have somehow managed to channel the discomforting truth into the positive energy of self-delusion. I've set my mind to achieving a good finish and convinced myself that a serious preparation will get me halfway there before the race has even started. If this sounds self-evident to you, it was revolutionary to me.

As I was running this afternoon, skipping the puddles and dodging the bushes, I listened to a podcast produced in the run-up to the 2007 London Marathon, which for years had withered on my iPod in utter neglect. My runs being fairly substantial by now, I went through quite a number of episodes. Most were, not quite unexpectedly, total rubbish. Shoe-picking 101 and how to tell you're dehydrated are not skills I'm lacking.

There were a couple of little gems, though, and I'm going to share them, mostly to not forget them myself. The first was carbo-loading. It was suggested to gobble up as many carbohydrates as possible in the three days leading up to the big day. That's something I've never done. I've always just had a substantial breakfast and thought that would be enough. This lapse might have cost me dearly in the second half of either race.

What has certainly cost me dearly in the second half of either race was my ripping first-half speed. My only half marathon, two years ago, was slower than the first half of either marathon. The knowledge I should start slowly didn't help in the least. Maybe the podcast's second tip will: Try to pass more runners in the second half than pass you. Easier said than done, maybe, but if I make that my primary goal in the race (and drop the three hours), a great time will automatic follow.

A third tip was not given directly but percolated through many episodes expounding on proper preparation: Don't race the race until you're in it. Now it not the time to contemplate goals or conceive of strategies. Now is firmly the time for training. With this in mind, I'll go out again tomorrow, hoping for sun and a low tide, and the strength to carry my legs to the middle of March of last year. I'll need them as good as I can get them.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

the new meat

The other night I had a bit of Hungarian salami as a starter to a creative dinner. The sausage came in red chunks, soft and warm, and it tasted marvelous. It had been cooked up on a hog farm in the puszta only days before landing on my plate, by the father of a friend. It was the kind of meat I'd like to eat – produced lovingly and with care for the animals involved.

For various reasons but mostly to avoid the worst food industry abominations, I have decreased my meat consumption dramatically this year. Meat is cut from animals, and as long as animals are not treated as such but considered meat-production facilities, I want nothing to do with it. I will stay away from meat whose origins and peri-slaughter I cannot assess. The gobs of sausage on my plate were only the forth bit of meat I've eaten this year, and my body soaked up the B12 with immediacy of an addict on withdrawal.

I don't curtail my meat intake because of health or environmental reasons, but I can see how this could be important to others. In fact, the discussion about the perceived unsustainability of an omnivorous diet has been waged with increasing intensity. Thirty percent of all landmass is apparently dedicated to raising livestock, either by using it as pasture or to produce animal feed. And more greenhouse gases are emitted in the process than by all means of transportation combined.

At the same time, more and more people start eating meat, mostly in developing countries where people can finally afford a bit more than beans and rice. This bit more is often a chicken, and on lucky occasions a steak. As a scientist, you have to wonder what happened to those dreams of the futuristic fifties that meat would soon be prepared synthetically, without the time- and energy-wasting detour through the animal. It turns out that there is still no viable artificial meat, but researchers all over the world are working on it.

I found out about this by chance, when I happened upon an article in the journal of Trends in Food Science and Technology that reviewed the current state of the art in tissue engineering of skeletal muscle, as artificial meat production is called among the in-crowd. As not many will hold a subscription to this journal, I'll take the time to briefly summarize the article, to review the review if you will.

What we like to eat is muscle, slowly matured and well-exercised. How hard can it be to grow it up in gigantic petri dishes and do away with the hoofs and heels and the skin and bones, and also with the farts? Very difficult, it turns out. It begins with a good starting material. One needs stem cells of a sort that live long enough and can be triggered to differentiate into muscle cells. No one has a golden bullet yet, but if that were the only problem, things would look bright indeed.

However, there are more obstacles to growing meat in-vitro. Here's a list of considerations: Meat is not only muscle cells, but intact muscle fiber. Muscle fiber needs connective tissue and fat cells. Growing three different cell types at precise relative rates in culture is a veritable nightmare. But three cell types might not be all it takes.

At some point, a cultured tissue reaches a thickness where diffusion isn't sufficient anymore for the delivery of nutrients to the center-most cells. Blood vessels are necessary. Inducing their growth and assuring their correct function is not trivial.

Developing the right culture medium is another challenge. Besides energy and simple nutrients, which suffice for bacterial cultures, growth factors and hormones are required to grow mammalian cells. These factors are currently derived from bovine serum, for which alternatives have to be found. Otherwise the entire scheme would be self-defeating. It has been suggested that bacteria or fungi could produce the growth factors, but this would add another layer of complexity.

Illustrating just how far from reality any dreams of artificial meat are, even if all the problems above were resolved, we still wouldn't be assured that what's harvested from the incubator is a tasty, juicy steak. The color might be off. The flavor might be distinctly artificial. Both can be helped by the food additive industry, but what about texture? What you feel between your teeth is muscle that has been worked out for years. How do you work something out that floats languidly in an enormous stainless-steel vat?

There are quite clearly countless stumbling blocks on the road to artificial meat, but the biggest will only be faced (if and) once such meat is actually produced. Will people eat it? In light of the unending hysteria about genetically modified food it is baffling to me that the article ends by claiming cheerfully that "the idea that people would eat meat originating from the lab does not seem so farfetched". This sounds wildly over-optimistic to me, and I know that I rather have the real stuff, even if it's less of it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

writing better

Most of the time when I sit down to write I have a vague idea of what it is that I want to write about. Most of the time, the urge to write comes from something I saw, experienced or read. I have formed an opinion and feel the need to share it. With some thought fragments in my mind, I sit down, fire up the fox, and type away.

Normally the first paragraph rolls out smoothly, as did the one that started this post. Then, in the second paragraph, the troubles start. I hesitate, undecided on how to proceed, and write, edit and erase sentences in fits and starts. Over the course of the next half hour or so, the second paragraph slowly take shape and by doing so defines the shape of the post. Either of two things can happen.

Most of the time I mentally flog my brain through frustrating moments of cerebral paralysis, punching it with the fists of my imagination and driving it to think in the direction I had initially set out on. Usually, this works but the result is not always pretty and always takes hours longer than I had planned. Before I start, the thoughts always seem to be ready in my brain, just waiting to be put to paper. In reality, what exists is a mashup of stimuli, opinions and intellectual fragments that make sense only in the nonlinear environment of my own brain. As soon as they come to light, the extent of their incoherence becomes painfully obvious. They resist all but the fiercest attempts at structurization.

Sometimes and not too rarely, something amazing happens. My subconscious takes over and starts guiding my typing fingers. Some internal linearity of my thoughts manifests itself, and a perfectly rational argument or coherent story starts to emerge. This takes no time at all but my breath away. At the end, I read the result with eager surprise because it's as unexpected to me as it will be to any reader of the blog. And it has only a most peripheral connection with my initial thoughts.

For a blog this is good. Fewer thoughts about structure and organization mean a more intense and immediate presentation. And it's easy to wing it over the course of a few hundred words. However, the approach shows its limits when something longer, something more serious is the goal of the writing process.

Over the last few months, ever since returning from the Middle East in October, I've been trying to put words together to fragrantly describe the experiences and encounters I had in Syria. This will be more than a diary; I want to make my essay enjoyable by the wider public. The goal is to have it published in a newspaper or magazine. I want to paint a vivid picture of the country as only I saw it, distilling the essentials of two weeks into a few pages. Space and time have to be rearranged to make for convincing reading, all the while factual truth must reign supreme.

I haven't got very far. I've long gone beyond two thousand words but they exist in several disconnected heaps, none of which is logically and dramatically sound; and in two languages. They read like a writing exercise gone wrong. Despite the topical focus, there is no thematic consistency and no narrative drive. Some structure is clearly needed, a framework for presenting illustrative episodes intertwined with background information.

Last night, out of nowhere, the strings of letters in front of me started to turn into something like a travelogue. The heaps of words are still not connected, but they're beginning to blend into each other. Order is starting to emerge. It will take a bit more work and certainly much more time to transform the accumulated verbosity into a convincing story, but for the first time since writing the first paragraph, I'm not mired in bleak despair.

It's a good time to proceed to the next step of writing, graduating beyond the most basic accumulation of words. On Saturday, I'll be at the LSE Literary Festival, attending a few talks and panel discussions that I signed up for without much thought or expectation. I will also participate in a workshop on how to write a political novel that I'm very much looking forward to. Not that I want to write a novel, political or not. I have the hardest time to turn a few paragraphs into a consistent story and would mentally drown in anything vaster. But whatever tricks there are to get a novel done efficiently, clearly and convincingly, they'll surely be useful for my humble efforts.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


I had alluded to it already in an earlier post. On Tuesday I went to another concert of the Berliner Staatskapelle under Daniel Barenboim. Again, the two names on the program were Beethoven and Schoenberg. And while the concert series was generally referred to as The Piano Concertos – all five of Beethoven's were on the bill – last night Schoenberg played the first violin, and did so in a rather curious way.

First we listened to Beethoven, though. His Third Piano Concerto is an easy crowd pleaser, full of pleasant rhythms, with lyric melodies in the slow movement and catchy tunes in the fast ones, and bedazzling with lightning fast finger dances across the range of the keyboard. Like the first concert I went to, this was as much as feast for the eyes as it was for the ears. Seeing Barenboim live is a treat.

However, there's something a little wrong when you go to a classical music concert for the visuals. Barenboim is a showman, and he enjoys the challenge of playing and conducting simultaneously as an opportunity for showing off. There were occasion when I thought that the quick and very visible flick of a hand, in a brief lull between his playing, was excessive. It probably didn't help the orchestra, but it shoved it into the face of the audience that Barenboim can do it, removing a hand from the keys in the middle of a piano solo. This little gripe notwithstanding, it was quite a show.

Barenboim could have left it at that, and no one would have complained. Some overexcited members of the audience jumped to their feet almost before the last bar of the roaring finale had passed. By the second curtain call, the entire Royal Festival Hall was standing, something I've never seen before. This was before the interval, and the principal piece of the night was still to come.

Schoenberg's Variations were next, preceded by an illustrated talk, as the program promised. I had no idea what to expect and was mildly shocked when Barenboim turned to face the audience and took to the mike. All entertainer, he set out to explain the intricacies of the music that was to come. I thought that was quite a brave, even bold move. Most had probably come for Barenboim and the Beethoven. Many had heard of Schoenberg, but not necessarily in favorable terms. Difficult, complex, modern, different – attributes like these have kept me from listening to his music before, and judging by the audience's reaction to some of Barenboim's comments ("Some of you might not be totally familiar with Schoenberg" – relieved laughter in the knowledge that there wouldn't be a quiz afterwards), I was in good company.

For the next half hour or so, Barenboim pontificated on the Variations, explaining how the theme is transmogrified almost beyond recognition, and yet recurs in each of them. Barenboim would isolate certain instruments ("Von Takt 164, bitte nur die Harfen und die Mandoline.") and contrast them with the theme, again and again. What would to an uneducated ear be mostly noise slowly turned into something that made a little bit of sense. It was like a masterclass in music appreciation, and Barenboim was a great teacher, entertaining and enlightening.

Once school was over, the Variations were played in their entirety, and I'm sure that everyone listened extra hard to find the subtle trumpet or evasive double-basses that had been highlighted earlier. In fact, so engrossed were people in the music that they didn't realize it was over until Barenboim shouted "That's it!" over his shoulder. Then the auditorium erupted in the same wild ovation that had characterized the Piano Concerto, and Barenboim was visibly pleased. The great Schoenberg appreciation drive had been a triumph.

But was it? Would the audience go home with Schoenberg in their heads, whistling the theme on the train and knocking the beat involuntarily? Barenboim seemed to doubt that and recalled a part from Milan Kundera's Ignorance intended to explain what was to come. Schoenberg once claimed defiantly that people in the streets would whistle the tunes of his pieces just like they do Strauss's. "Maybe not in my lifetime, but surely fifty years from now", he's supposed to have said. Kundera derided Schoenberg for overestimating himself. Barenboim thought Schoenberg had overestimated the future. Either way, the conclusion seemed that it is not time for Schoenberg yet. To make this point, (which couldn't possibly have been his point, after all this expounding and explicating) he turned his back to the audience, ripped his baton high, and when he brought it down, the orchestra exploded in a tumultuous rendering of Strauss's Unter Donner und Blitz polka, music that didn't need a single word of explanation. Ten minutes later, as the audience filed for the exits, the mood was elevated and there were grins on all faces. It was a special night.