Sunday, December 16, 2012


It's 12 o'clock. Lunchtime. I stagger out of Imperial like a boxer after a lost bout. It feels like the end of a long day at work. Even the bright sun up high can't convince me otherwise. I shouldn't feel like this. Bright sunlight and such utmost tiredness don't go together, but my inner clock has been completely messed up by another night at the synchrotron. This time it was a proper one. We wouldn't have needed the rooms in the guest house. There was no time for sleep. Our shift started last night at 10 and ended when the hour hand had come full circle, much like the electrons in the accelerator but much slower, at ten in the morning today.

The twelve hours on the job were only interrupted by frantic dashes to the toilet. Time was precious and our samples doubly so, and we were loaded to the brim. It was impossible to finish everything, but we kept on target. There was no proper break until some monkey tripped the beam shortly after six in the morning and the whole facility sat in the dark for forty minutes. The student working with me tried to sleep for an hour when I took charge of experiments but he looked much worse for wear when we got back to London. Better not give your body ideas.

Shivering with tiredness, I walk through Kensington, heaving periodically with yawns that could swallow entire beds. For long second, I inhale liters of oxygen in an attempt to stave off sleep. I'm only half successful. There's not much I notice going around me. I can't even tell if it's cold.

If I had a real job, I'd receive some compensation for the suffering, overtime, double overtime even because of the ungodly hours, but my time isn't clocked. I can't even enjoy the per-diem because the only place to have dinner was the on-site refectory where a perfectly adequate meal costs all of six quid, soup and desert included.

Breakfast came with the room but by the time we were done with our shift, they had stopped cooking. Dead tired and starving, we hurled back to London. It's amazing what speeds are normal in a country where the speed limit is seventy. But in my state, traffic would have been a blur even at thirty miles an hour.

Everything was clear when we had started out. Pumped by excitement, anticipation and a sense of formidable challenge, we went through the first few hours without looking left or right. We immediately fell into a routine of shared responsibilities, changing samples, taking data, processing and analyzing it, logging our progress and laying out plans for the hours to come, plans that evolve with every sample that adds a little dot to the developing picture. Seamless robotics, a comfortable user interface and six big screens in front of us make efficiency easy.

In Atlas Shrugged or its Soviet brother, How the Steel Was Tempered, the heroes don't feel pain or get sleepy because they can't be bothered. The future of mankind is on their minds and they have no time for distractions. We had our experiments (and our own futures by tenuous extension) to keep us focused, and time flew until way past midnight. But there comes a time at night when the will is no match for body anymore. For me that's usually somewhere between four and five. Cracks appear in smooth procedures, speed wanes, errors can go undetected.

Our planning had accounted for that. We did the hard stuff first and made a clear list of the easy things that just needed ticking off later. With the sun returns our energy, and the last hour of our shift is a mad rush. Another dataset and another one and maybe we can squeeze another one in if we push hard enough. Then we're done – and fall off a cliff. The drive back is a struggle.

Shortly before noon, we get back to South Ken, drop the Golf outside campus and carry the Dewars up to the lab. The sun is shining brightly. It shapes up to be nice Sunday, wonderful even, considering it's the middle of December, and totally wasted on me. If a blizzard went down and dumped three feet, I wouldn't know the difference. I'm sleepwalking home with a empty stare into a non-existing distance.

Friday, December 07, 2012


They say one needs balance in life. If you work with your head, you should play with your feet, for example. The works for me, but only to an extent. I play football most weeks, exhausting and exhilarating myself in equal measure. I don't think about work when I chase after a ball that seems to roll faster every time. I leave the post-game shower fresh and mentally ready to go, but all too often, the aging body weighs down my intellectual efforts for the rest of the afternoon.

At the other end of the spectrum of activities to counterbalance work is chess. There's no motion involved besides nervous rocking but like football, it manages to take my mind completely off work. It has a different place in my schedule, though. Football is squeezed into an hour at work, between a miniprep and gel electrophoresis or whatever fills the schedule on that particular day. Chess deserves its own day.

I play online some evenings – on the wonderful Schacharena server these days – but most of the time I'm too tired from work to pull off anything special over the board that would justify the time spent playing. You know where this is going already.

Every now and then, precisely six times since discovering this gem last summer, I hop on the tube and go up to Golders Green for the monthly rapidplay tournament. It takes the entire Saturday and I'm drained afterward – you wouldn't think this was the kind of thing to do to recover from a hard week at work – but I have great fun and that's what matters, isn't it?

Last Sunday, I walked up to Olympia, as I did the year before to play in the rapidplay tournament that's part of the London Chess Classic. I did much better than last time, winning the kind of games that I lost last year and swindling my way not only to a highly dubious draw when I had been losing for twenty moves already but also to a place in the final standings way beyond my most optimistic expectations. (This has less to do with improved abilities than with the pendulum of luck swinging both ways if you just wait long enough.)

The London Chess Classic itself is a grandmaster tournament with one drawn-out round per day, up to seven hours of tedium for the uninitiated but fireworks of creativity and skill and breathtaking action for those who know how to appreciate that kind of thing. It also looks to become a tournament for the history books.

Magnus Carlsen, the world's best player, is shooting for the highest strength rating ever achieved. By the way he's been playing so far, there's no doubt he'll get there. He's not where Bobby Fischer was at his best – winning all games in a tournament – but he's damn close. He's won all but one so far, an incredible performance against opponents who are all top players. The London Chess Classic are likely to confirm Carlsen as one of the best ever.

This week, the Financial Times ran a terrific profile on Magnus Carlsen, worth reading even if you're not interested in the game. One line in particular went a long way towards explaining top players: "Of course, analysis can sometimes give more accurate results than intuition but usually it's just a lot of work. I normally do what my intuition tells me to do. Most of the time spent thinking is just to double-check." The best of the best don't out-think their opponents. They out-imagine them.

Pieces of wisdom aside, I found the article most impressive for the joy it exudes. It becomes obvious that Carlsen doesn't play because he's the best and winning pays the bills. He plays because he has a blast on the board whenever he sits down. By that criterion, as ridiculous as it sounds, I'm just like him. Playing chess is fun. Unfortunately I'd need to work with my arms or legs to enjoy it more.

Monday, December 03, 2012

in the kitchen

Despite living on my own for most of the last decade and a half, interrupted only by a few shared years in Utah, I haven't exactly developed a sense of domesticity. I don't do DIY, I don't do electricity and I certainly don't plumb. What I sometimes do is cook.

My cooking has two dominant reasons. First, I like to eat good. Second, I don't like to spend money unnecessarily. For these two benchmarks to meet, I have to cook my own food. (Note that for this logic to work, desires and essentials have to be disentangled, potentially causing the disruption of our economic system: Eating good cannot be considered a necessity. Note also that eating good might just work grammatically, if I understood Johnson's arguments over at the Economist correctly.)

My skills in the kitchen are limited and are reflected in my repertoire. I do mostly single skillets full of stuff, some carbs, some veggies, some sauce. I rarely cook meat, not because I'm a vegetarian but because I can't be bothered. I almost never bake, but tonight I went back to a baking incident of many years ago and made plans for more.

When I lived in France I bought a little bakebook called Petits Gâteaux, not even three dozen recipes with pictures taking more space than the instructions, rather encouraging for a neophyte like myself. The recipes had lovely names like Demi-lunes au citron and Palets aux pignons and added a few words to my vocabulary. Baking paper is called papier sulfurisé, for example, not very appetizing but apparently true to the original process of making it.

I think it was in my first year in Grenoble that I toiled in the kitchen an entire Advent Saturday to bake petits gâteaux or biscuits or cookies or Plätzchen or whatever you want to call them, and surprised myself with the result. They came out really well. I took some to the lab, eat the best part over tea and took what was left back to Germany when I went home for Christmas.

This year, I'm not going home for Christmas, or rather, and this corresponds much better to how I feel about it, my definition of home has changed. I'm gonna be home for Christmas, but it will be with Flucha in my flat. Home in that case is not a physical space. I will be leaving London soon and wouldn't call my flat my home. Instead, home is togetherness and traditions.

One of the traditions that I will contribute to the incipient home is Christmas Plätzchen, and so next weekend I will once again get sweaty in the kitchen and bake. I'm slightly doubtful about the success. Technically, it's about even. My oven is a bit sketchy but an accurate balance and a hand mixer should just about counterbalance that. But in terms of following the recipe, I'm seriously handicapped.

This is not because I forgot to read French. As I said, there aren't that many words in the book in the first place. The problem is that I'm trying to follow in England recipes that were written for the French market. The available ingredients aren't the same. It starts with something as simple as flour. If it doesn't have the same texture or strength, just using the right amount won't do. Baking power is another issue. Last time I checked, a sachet was not an internationally recognized unit.

At least the recipes are forgiving in terms of time management. Many call for the dough to be stored in the fridge for at least an hour, precluding the dramatic situation when everything culminates at once and alarms go off and there's no more space in the oven and definitely not on the counter tops and what happened to that medium size bowl?

If everything fails – and I have no reason to assume that it will be that bad – there's still time to go to the Lidl. Normally I don't go out of my way to shop there, but the chain's origin is very visible in the offered products. Lots of German things. Lots of baked goods for Christmas. Just the thing I'm trying to do myself.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

rain and shit

The weekend was a washout. It started raining on Thursday and didn't end. Cornwall was flooded. The trains between Bristol and Exeter stopped running. There were even puddles in Hyde Park. It was unprecedented.

Residents of other cities might smile the resigned smile of inveterate sufferers, but in the UK, the categorization of weather follows different criteria. First off, the occurrence of weather itself is a notable event. Normally, it's between 10 and 20 degrees with changes between a mild mist hanging languidly in the air and feeble sunshine. As soon as conditions stray from that, weather is invoked and chaos breaks out. Every afternoon above 25 degrees launches a heat wave, officially sanctioned by the Met Office.

When, as newspapers report with honest panic between the type, "a severe blizzard is expected to blanket the country with up to four inches of snow", people freeze in anticipation. "Drifts of up to eight inches" are predicted as a bona-fide threat, not a contradiction. They make sure that public transport collapses, the electricity goes out and the provision with victuals becomes patchy. In London, first to break down is the Circle line, the only Underground line that runs true to its name in its entirely.

The last observation holds much to the understanding of the situation. The Circle line doesn't break down because of snow on the tracks or frozen points. The Circle line fails because it's old and fit for operation only in perfect conditions, the above-mentioned drizzle to sun at 20 to 25 degrees. Leeway to deal with deviations from the average is not built into public infrastructure.

As another example, when rain falls, not an unusual event by any stretch of the imagination, the sewers in London, designed more than a century ago, overflow. Thousands of colorectal expurgations come to float on the turbid waters of the Thames. If that's not a pretty thought, it's an even less pretty picture, but no one seems to be bothered unduly. Worse, those with the responsibility and, if it can be believed, the will to change something, are hindered by local authorities, foremost among them the Council of Hammersmith and Fulham, which governs my neighborhood in glorious ineptitude.

Upgrading the sewer system after decades of criminal neglect will not come cheap and it will inconvenience residents. It will also ensure that less shit is washed into the Thames and that kids can play by the water without fear of gastro-enteritis or Salmonella. But who cares about kids when you paid a million quid for a big house in a quiet street? You wouldn't want excavators to shake your foundations or wide lorries to scrape withing inches of your Jag, parked off-street because the library extension you put on your house took the space that used to be the garage's. Thus you have residents' groups fighting a temporarily annoyance only to prolong a persistent evil.

I can understand this attitude. I would assume the same, had I a Jag and a mansion near the river. I wouldn't want to have something in my expensive backyard that's of benefit to everyone. If I wanted to run a charity I would run my own and promote it properly and make sure that my involvement is publicly acknowledged. I can understand all this thinking. What I can't understand it that the Council not only accepts this reasoning as valid but makes it its own. I can't imagine that there's really that much campaign contribution money in local government.

Despite prolonged and serious cursing, a mailer from the Council makes it into my mailbox in painful regularity. This publication, funded with council tax in all likelihood and thus paid for in part by me, is the most partisan news organ I have encountered since the GDR fell to pieces. (It's probably worse than Fox News, the single most socialist aspect of the United States.)

A few weeks ago, the Council News warned of a "Stink-pipe to force World War II style evacuation". Demagoguery before facts, screaming before discussing, frenzy before sense: things I remember well from my childhood when nothing ever got fixed either. What I also remember is government only addressing the problems of a small minority of the citizens and not simply ignoring the rest but mocking them relentlessly.

This is not how things should go. If I stayed longer in London, I'd be tempted to get involved in local political, if only by spreading dissent in local meetings or promoting my mock-pressure group "Don't shit in my river". Alas, I'm leaving soon and anyway, it was only the rainy weekend that made me think about these things.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


One of the advantages of living in an affluent area is the high quality of food one can purchase effortlessly. In London, the number of Waitrose stores, an upmarket grocer, correlates roughly with the wealth of an area. Specialty shops add international delicacies to the mix. At least once a week, a farmers' market brings fresh produce from just outside London.

I don't live in an affluent area. North End Road is grubby and cheap, lined with pound stores, off-licenses, betting shops and bingo halls, though curiously few kebab houses. Six days a week, a market sprawls from the infamous double roundabout at Lillie Road down to St. John's church, with traders pitching their booths, vans and tables every morning on the eastern side of the road.

There's a cheese man who's French, an egg lady, two olive vendors and a felafel frier, but most of the space is taken up by various fruit and veg businesses. It's good to go out there on a Saturday morning before the crowds show up, before nine in other words, and scoop up some vitamins. At prices that can't be beat, universally a pound a bowl, I get apples, mangos, kaki fruit and, if they're in season, figs, cherries or grapefruit.

The problem is that the produce doesn't always meet the expectations raised by the presentation, acres of red, yellow and green shining in the morning sun. The veggies are often limp, the cherries quick to rot. Peaches are best avoided because they won't last beyond breakfast. I imagine the traders' business model hinging on getting to New Spitalfields Market right before closing and scooping up for bargain prices what other retailers shun. The result is that every purchase should best be consumed the same day.

When I got up one morning after coming back from Marseille a few weeks ago, I noticed a strange smell in my living room. Should air out the room, I figured, and went to the window. That's when I saw the source of the smell. It didn't come from inside.

In front of my window was a tenant new to the market, his blue-and-white tarp half covering a table displaying styrofoam boxes full of fish. It was early in the morning and the market had hardly opened, but the fish already smelled. There were token piles of ice but the carcasses didn't look good. Glistening scales, crisp fins, vivid colors – all the signs of freshness had already been drained from the abused bodies. God knows when they had been dragged from the water and how they had got to the market.

At this point I was fairly confident that the fishmonger would quickly pack up shop. He probably got a load of fish for cheap and now sold them off for quick profit, notwithstanding possible danger to the consumers. When the first locals had died of food poisoning, he would have long moved on, I predicted. But three weeks later, the proprietor of the internet café downstairs keeps fumigating his shop with incense so thick it's hard to see the screens and cries into my shoulder whenever we meet. The fishmonger is still there and the noxious smell of old fish hovers heavily. But no one has fallen ill, and maybe what's on sale simply reflects the purses of the local residents.

At Marylebone farmers' market where I went this morning, the atmosphere couldn't be more different. On a small backstreet parking lot, hidden unless you know where to look, are a few dozen little stalls that visibly favor quality over quantity. Everything is organic or free-range and, what's more important, farm-fresh and crisp.

Telling from the little signs by nearly all poultry and game stalls, pheasant is currently in season. There were also fruits and vegetables as they should be, small flavorful apples, heirloom tomatoes, freshly baked cakes and breads and fish that looked as if they had just come in from a little swim this morning.

I had come for dairy products. England produces cheeses as good as they are underappreciated. A farmers' market is a good place to sample some. I ended up with a cheddar from Glastonbury and a Mozzarella from Somerset buffalo, but what I really wanted to buy was a bottle of raw milk.

Raw milk is a bit of a rarity, a bit like whale meat, its trade prohibited by law in many places. In the UK, grocery stores are banned from carrying it. Only farmers are allowed to sell untreated milk. When I found out about this a few months ago, I was first surprised that unpasteurized milk existed at all and then got curious about trying.

Unfortunately, the guy who usually sells milk at Marylebone wasn't around today. I'll probably repeat the journey into central London next week. How I wish I lived in a posher area with a good farmers' market nearer by, but then this post would only be half as long.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

no flight

"Ladies and gentlemen, this flight is fully booked."

Normally I'm already dazed off at the point of such an announcement when boarding is nearly complete, or sunk deep into the first story of the latest New Yorker. This time, I listen up. Fully booked. It's a fully deserved stroke of good luck that I'm on this flight, albeit in a middle seat.

An hour earlier, things looked bleaker, roughly in line with the weather, which in Germany tends to be incredibly dreary and grey in November. Rising from the train station underneath the airport in a glass elevator, the first thing I beheld was the large departures board, glowing in a promising orange.

There aren't many flights out of Dresden. The entire day fits comfortably on the board. Though it was still early in the morning, the first few of tomorrow's flights were shown as well. Not shown was my flight, just about an hour away. It wasn't that it was canceled; it simply wasn't there, as if it had never been scheduled to take place.

Five days earlier, at the end of a long night at the synchrotron and a short few hours in the sagging bed of a countryside inn, I had made my way towards Southend, the Victorian summer resort by the Thames estuary, a place with its very own charm. If you're glum, Southend, with endless mud flats when the tide is low and carefully preserved decrepitude, must be unbearable. If you're cheerful, the place is hilarious.

It tries to cover the decay brought about by decades of neglect with bright neon lights and noisy entertainment. It boasts, at one-and-a-third miles, the world's longest pleasure pier, the only way to see the water at low tide. Tacky, with cheap bed-and-breakfasts, untold chippies, and dismal amusement arcades – and though it isn't even by the sea – it's the epitome of the English seaside resort. It's a must-see.

I had visited Southend-on-sea last summer. This time I came for the airport, a former military field that was converted to civilian use about a year ago. Now, a few budget airlines fly to a few European destinations. There are fewer flights than in Dresden and the airport would hold no interest for me at all, were it not for a novelty of two weeks: The connection between Southend and Dresden is the only way for me to get home without changing flights.

The flight is the third try of an airline to connect Dresden and London in an economically viable way since I arrived in London. British Airways was first, four years ago. Their flights were full, but they only lasted a year. Then came Lufthansa through their budgetesque subsidiary British Midlands. When BMI was sold to British Airways, solely for the valuable landing slots it held at Heathrow, the route was quietly cut.

Now OLT Express is trying its luck. The (German) acronym stands for East Frisian Air Transport; the company was founded in 1958 to connect intertidal islands of the North Sea with the mainland. It operated in obscurity for a few decades until it decided to enter the burgeoning market of low-cost air travel. At this point things went awry. Bankruptcies, acquisitions, loss of contracts – I don't know the details, but when I first heard about the company at the announcement of the Dresden–Southend service two months ago, I booked a return trip anyway.

After the synchrotron, a train took me to Paddington, the tube to Liverpool St. and then another train straight to the airport in Southend. It was painless and quick. Getting from the station to the gate was even quicker: just a walk across a small parking lot and then security just for me. The flight was equally pleasant. Plenty of newspapers were for grabs at boarding; free refreshments were served in flight. The plane felt new (though its manufacturer is long gone), the seats were big and there was tons of knee space. All the pieces were there to build success.

Hardly anyone knew about it, though. I shared a plane for 100 with only 16 other passengers. OLT Express had launched the service two weeks earlier with minimal fanfare. A press release made it into the local newspaper, but there were no announcements on billboards in Dresden and the trams didn't carry advertisements. Posters in tube stations in London didn't invite people to come and see the Frauenkirche, as they had when BA had tried its luck.

I don't know if OLT's senior vice president for marketing got the sack for this fiasco. He should have. But maybe they don't have one. They're a small airline, provincial as their name and quite obviously overwhelmed by the challenges of operating Europe-wide. They're not about to get bigger either. In light of the lack of bookings, the decision was made to cut flights and limit the service to school holidays, my mom said. She had heard it somewhere. I heard nothing, though the holidays have ended. There was no email from OLT and no word on their home page. I assumed I would fly and went to an internet café to check in the night before. After a few clicks, I had my boarding pass, the schedule unchanged.

This morning at the airport, as the glass-enclosed elevator took me up to the departure level, reality caught up. My flight wasn't on the departures board and, OLT being a no-frills internet-only operation, there was no one to talk to. I insisted on talking and was sent from counter to counter. In the end, it was good old Lufthansa, one of the few reliables in fleeting times, that bailed me out. They called OLT and let me speak to their service.

The first thing I learned was that "it is technically possible to check in, even though the flight won't take place". Whether this is considered sensible wasn't revealed, nor whether IT should be outsourced someplace competent. I also didn't learn whether I should expect the airline to notify me of flight changes and cancellations. Not surprisingly, there was no apology. On the plus side, Lufthansa took charge and rebooked my flight.

Throughout the process, I wasn't frazzled. Things happened as I expected them. When you're checked in and your flight is canceled, it's the airline's responsibility to ensure your travel. I relied on that and took the new boarding passes, stiff and Lufthansa-yellow, for granted. I didn't appreciate how (relatively) lucky I was until the announcement on the plane right before take-off. I had barely squeezed in.

Thursday, November 01, 2012


Enthusiasm is often borne out of ignorance, the manifestation of a lack of understanding that makes the remote seem achievable if one just tried hard enough. The enthusiasm of a student who's willing to work like a slave for years in defiance of the supremacy of instant gratification, instead pursuing a vague dream of success and glory that shimmers just out of sight, is a powerful example of that.

"You can sleep when you're dead", my Ph.D. adviser used to say at times of experimental intensity, when a project was heading for culmination and endless rounds of double-checking, replication and confirmation were required before our results could be unloaded onto an unsuspecting world. Odd as it sounds now, I found these words deeply moving. It was as if deep wisdom had been revealed to me. But it wasn't so much the words that inspired the many sleepless nights by the bench that paved the way to my Ph.D., it was the way they were spoken. My boss burned with the near-self-delusional motivation that characterizes good scientists, and he was always ready to spread the contagion.

Since those days of youthful exuberance, my passion has somewhat cooled. It would be far from the truth to say that the fire has died within, but sense has frequently demanded to be heard in discussions over future directions, definitions of success and balance in life. Things besides science are on my mind when I go home and sometimes even at work, and when projects move slowly, I sometimes get tempted by the devil, imagining alternatives to the life of a bench scientist.

Recently, things have gone at a crazy pace. One project went from zero to sixty in a few days in summer and has been accelerating ever since. Another came out of nowhere, success now a distinct possibility where only an ignorant student or a deluded PI could have seen it before. I'm in the middle of it, too weak to say no to passion, focus and dedication.

So it happened that last night, the night of the dead, a student and I found ourselves at Diamond, a large research facility in the Oxfordshire countryside. Time there is precious and used with relentless efficiency. Widespread automation has piled the pressure on humans, driving them to perform machine-like, with hurried glances over vast arrays of screens and quick gestures onto what'd better be the right button. Occasionally, you can see what looks like zombies on the loo run, zonked researchers slotting hurried toilet breaks between successive experiments.

It was Halloween, but the night was all business. Access control prevented any stray trick-or-treaters from finding their way onto the site and lighting up the mood. Had they come, they would have had rich pickings. Wherever work continues through the night and especially in those dreary places where night and day are but abstract concepts, mere numbers on the clock because light comes from neon tubes overhead that are always on, cheap fixes of instant sugar rule. Where people have nothing but their will to fight the pernicious pull of time, discarded chocolate wrappers and empty pop bottles mount.

There were no trick-or-treaters, but shortly before midnight, data knocked on the door of our hutch. I opened the detector wide and slurped up reflections by the thousands. Software wizards started their magic as soon as the experiment had ended and congealed all the information into neat little columns of numbers. Fifteen minutes later, I had assurance on my hard drive that the trip wouldn't count as a complete failure. Thanks to the student, his eyes burning brightly with desire when his body could hardly take the abuse anymore, we had to go a little longer and push a little harder, poking into the unknown with an ever finer stick. When we finally packed up, it was deep into the next day. Shortly thereafter, we collapsed into beds, our bodies like dead but our dreams still alive.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


I wouldn't blame you for stopping to read, for having stopped reading, to be more precise, before the first sentence in this post. Does it still count as a blog if it isn't updated? Are my serialized pontifications a thing of the past that you think about fondly when you've already thought about everything else? I wouldn't blame you. Even to me it feels as if this blog has been abandoned. This post, which isn't really one as you will quickly realized, is only the second one this month. Nothing has happened in these pages though in life a lot has.

I would have liked to write about Lance Armstrong, for example, who was stripped of his unprecedented seven Tour de France titles last week for concocting an epic doping scheme. I was tempted, in a moment of confusion, to heap first scorn and then ridicule over him and flaunt my "Cheat to Win" wristband, which should now for sure replace the identically shaped and colored "Livestrong" strap on everyone who likes to wear yellow.

But when I stopped to think I realized that besides a lot of talk nothing has changed. Lance is still and will always be the symbol of an era. He won the Tour seven times because he was the best. He was the fastest up the mountains and the best-organized when it came to "supplements and recovery". He didn't do anything the others didn't do. He just did it better.

I have no time to go on about this because I have no time. With visits and visitors and work that's going well and a job search that's going on, the hours in each day fly by and then the days do the same, at almost the same speed. Only days ago I was walking by the beach, burning the soles of my feet in the hot sand, and now it's almost Christmas.

Thus I have no time to rave and rant about Hammersmith & Fulham council, my local authority and author of unrequested emails that pollute my inbox every week. Each purported newsletter (to all residents) manages to alienate and aggravate readers not in complete agreement with the council's policies with their aggressive and tendentious language. One glaring example warned that "Stink-pipe to force World War II style evacuation" where the war is something you don't use for rhetoric effect unless you've suffered through it and the stink-pipe a proposed upgrade to London's sewer systems that's designed to decrease the amount of stinking untreated sewage in the Thames. This is a subject that's dear to my heart and that I've mentioned in passing before. I'd love to get something eloquent on a page and into the hands of my elected representative, but I'm afraid this isn't going to happen to soon.

Work is going so well at the moment that I stay longer, think harder and do more. When I'm done at night, there's no brain left and hardly a breath for frivolous activities like keeping a blog up to date. It's sad because even when my brain stops working, the thoughts keep coming. They're just too incoherent and fragmented to add up to anything. Twitter would be the perfect medium, but this blog lies fallow. The only thing I can say in the hope of keeping you tuned is that I've plenty of notes that wait to grow into something. This blog here is definitely still the place. Keep the faith!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

books and T-shirts

A few days ago, a man was sentenced to eight months in prison for wearing a T-shirt.

If you make a list of the countries you think are likely to play host to this scenario – Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea, no, scratch that, they're too dismal for T-shirts there, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Cuba, Pakistan – you'd be going on for a long time until you reach the place where the story really unfolded. It was here in the UK.

The T-shirt celebrated the cold-blooded murder of two police officers in Manchester with the ill-chosen words "One Less PiG Perfect Justice". Even without the poor grammar (fewer, not less!), that's a stupid thing to say – and highly offensive to grieving relatives and good taste. Despicable and reprehensible, no doubt, but criminal? And eight months of jail? What happened to free speech?

Talking about free speech, last night I got to see the BBC documentary on Salman Rushdie's time in hiding after the call for his head by Iran's chief criminal demagogue. Much like the other events surrounding the book launch, the show can be considered an extended commercial for Salman Rushdie's recently published memoir, but it was also rather insightful, more so than any interview I've heard or comment I've read.

I realized for the first time the depth of darkness the author found himself in when the world as he knew it collapsed. From one the day to the next, he was forced from his home and family, and then it got worse. He lived as a prisoner of his protection officers and couldn't make a single free step in years. I can now understand the relief when the ordeal was over and the endless parties that followed. It was the celebration of a second life.

Just a few weeks ago I started reading The Satanic Verses, the book that triggered the violence, confinement and death, but I'll have to withhold my judgment until I finish it. So far, I'm not much impressed – and actually getting more confused with each chapter, full of allusions and hidden significance. Maybe you'll have to be religious or even Muslim to fully appreciate the book and to be moved by it on a raw level.

I'm not religious, and while I grew up in a vaguely religious environment I've always felt that for my family, religion served primarily as a counterbalance to the madness of the "real existing socialism" that stifled and demeaned us. But even oppression has its good sides. Living under communism firmly impressed upon me the value of free speech.

I am convinced that the freedom to offend always surpasses the freedom from offense. I don't accept that offense is something that happens to you. You have to actively take it. With this in mind it was that I got all worked up about the business of the T-shirt and the jail sentence, which should have never been imposed. But maybe I reacted too rashly.

Yesterday on Any Questions, one of the panelists said that it wasn't about the T-shirt, and he wasn't dodging the question. It isn't about the T-shirt, he said, it's about the context. If you say it's good someone died, that's free speech. If you call his mom and say the same thing to her, it's harassment. By that reasoning, if the fool in the T-shirt paraded around town, it should be his choice, but if he got into people's faces, he deserves punishment.

I don't know the details of that story, but I know that Salman Rushdie never got into anyone's face. Whatever offense is in The Satanic Verses, it's hidden between two covers and behind the doors of a bookshop. If you think you won't like it, don't read it. There's nothing more to say.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


At the airport – a topic more thoroughly beaten to death than any Pony Express mare but nevertheless offering crumbs of novelty anytime I go there – things might have looked normal, but I had no eyes. I had booked with British Airways and made my way to Terminal 5 without thinking. The shiny new terminal, the early embarrassment and now justified pride of the British flag carrier, is the point of departure for all their long-distance flights, but I was whipping towards the elevators, away from the action.

The night before, I had got as far as choosing a seat but wasn't able to finish check-in. "Check the errors below", admonished a warning in red, but the only thing I could find further down was the content-free remark that "This trip cannot be completed as booked" and a Check in now button that sent me back to the warning at the top.

I wasn't particularly disturbed. I had to check luggage anyway and didn't expect to be in much of a rush. Plus, I remained hopeful that at least my choice of seat would have registered with the system and I would be able to fly in the comfort and safety of the fourth-to-last row even if I showed up at the airport without documents to prove my case.

Just a few days ago, I had read about a 727 stuffed full of dummies that was deliberately crashed into the harsh sands of the Sonoran desert for the sake of science (of the popular kind, instigated by documentary makers). The results of this unusual experiment are rather amusing in a macabre way. All of the first-class passengers would have perished. There was no doubt. Further back in the plane, survival rates rose dramatically, averaging three quarters on the cheap seats and all but guaranteeing worry-free travel in the last ten rows where I had thus picked my seat.

Thus I went to Terminal 5, but the check-in troubles continued. As far as I could tell – more than half of the information screens showed nothing but an apology for being broken – my flight wasn't on the departures list. The check-in kiosk rejected my passport and advised me to contact a human for help. I got in line and five minutes later the mystery was resolved: While I had booked with British Airway, the flight was operated by American Airlines who despite the hallowed "special relationship" didn't deserve the privilege of top-notch surroundings. I would have to make my way to Terminal 3.

Heathrow is a patchwork of solutions to a permanence of problems. Designed in quieter times, the airport had to grow with rising passenger numbers over the decades and be rather inventive in their ways of dealing with challenges, finding resources from within as local residents are fiercely opposed to any expansion. There are five terminals, but only the first three of them are properly interconnected. Terminal 5 is a bit of a world to itself. I was getting worried and started to run.

Down at the trains into central London that stopped at Terminals 1-3 on the way, the express had just left and the wait for the next one was 15 minutes. Next door at the tube, the picture wasn't encouraging either. Next train in 9 minutes, the platform indicators showed. There is no dedicated shuttle. My departure was less than ninety minutes away but instead of fretting and rushing and trying my hardest to avoid the worst, I had to sit and wait and try to breath calmly.

Zen is not my forte. Having to let things happen frazzles me. When the doors of the tube opened after a journey of physically painful inactivity, I exploded into action and let it rip down the tunnels under the original terminals. I ran my heart out, battering shoulders though shocked travelers and plowing my duffel through legs too slow to get out of the way. It was a most un-British thing to do.

When the American Airlines counters beckoned, the first thing I noticed was a warning that "Check-in closes 60 minutes before the scheduled departure". The second thing I saw was a clock. I was three minutes early.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

open house

This weekend was the 20th anniversary of London Open House, the city's annual showcase of architecture. I had attended for the first time five years ago and been more or less faithful to the idea over the years. Open House, a charity, strives to educate the public on architecture, on buildings new and old in the city, by opening doors to offices, private homes and past industrial glory that would normally be locked.

Some landmark buildings – the Gherkin, the Bank of England, Llyod's – get all the attention, but it is the unexpected treasures on the way that make the Open House weekends so satisfying. Being Open House veterans, we had picked a number of more obscure targets. Unfortunately, the early examples of urban sanitation that have always featured prominently on my private wish list – King George V Pumping Station, Markfield Beam Engine and especially Crossness Pumping Station – once again didn't make it because they're too far out.

We didn't get off to a good start. Our first calling point, artists' studios near Barons Court station were only open on Sunday. It would have helped to read the directions properly. At least we had all the time in the world to leisurely travel to Waterloo for the next stop. The 1901 Arts Club is a Victorian schoolmaster's home transformed into an intimate performance space resembling a turn-of-the-century salon. The building itself was an unexpected delight and the short flute and piano recital the best possible advertisement for their concerts. Go there!

This highlight of the day was followed by two duds. We didn't find Marlborough House and ended up in the Royal Society, and then missed out on the Caledonian Club, a private club for gentlemen in skirts, because, again, it was only open on Sunday. Who did the planning here? The day ended on an upward trajectory with visits to 1508, a luxury design studio with rather decadent projects for oligarchs and petro-royalty, and the Channel 4 headquarters.

On Sunday, we wanted to see the Gherkin. The ballot that used to be on that building had been lifted this year. We expected a wait but weren't prepared for what we found. People queued down the road and around the block. There was no hope. We went to a nearby church instead where the tour guide claimed the wait for the Gherkin was five hours. With rain falling harder outside, our decision had been right.

The church was St. Helen's, a rather curious and quite charming Church of England outfit. The church arose from two medieval buildings erected side by side with a shared wall, a footprint I hadn't encountered before. Today, it serves a far-flung community of City workers, economic mercenaries and students. The tour guide matched the vibe after the service: positive, inclusive and happy.

Our next stop was few minutes east, near Liverpool St station. 30 Crown Place is an office tower just outside the city and proudly the mightiest building in the adjacent borough of Hackney. An associate of the building's architect and an employee of the building's tenant, a law firm, gave a tour of the top-floor client reception area and the mid-level cafeteria. How come richly remunerated corporate lawyers pay less for their lunches than postdocs slaving away at Imperial?

We lost our focus somewhat after this visit. There were a few places we didn't find (smartphone, anyone?) and some time we spent wandering around the wet pavements of Brick Lane. As the hours passed, so did our options. A surprising highlight remained. Not far from Kensington Olympia station and right along the tracks is an architect's wet-dream-turned-reality, a modern home hidden at the end of a crumbling mews.

The architect himself was at hand to show off his home, and what a place it was: a psychedelic LED dance floor next to an indoor basement fish pond, a sauna with a glass door and mood lighting, a kitchen whose ingeniously hidden appliances were offset by the 16-foot-long golden sofa, kids' bedrooms that looked like Japanese pod hotel rooms...

The house was staggering in size, especially given the unassuming entrance door, and awesome in its details, but when my initial amazement had worn off I had to admit that I was glad not to live there. Everything – and I mean every little thing in the house – was designed to be in its place. Nothing could be moved, presumably because doing do would go against the architect's vision. Furniture was bolted down, sunk into the floor or extruded from walls. Anything of use was hidden behind clinically white sliding doors.

In stark contrast to these strong currents of enforced minimalism were the dance floor and the light, which periodically changed from pink to light blue but always remained artificial and neon. It looked like a party hub with a flat added as an afterthought. Living there I'd go mad quickly, I think. But when do you get a chance to see such a folly? Only in Open House.

Monday, September 17, 2012

book launch

What I didn't say in the two earlier posts is how ironically timely the violence is. It can, with only slight mischief, be seen as fireworks for a most unusual anniversary, heralding an array of activities whose culmination will be tomorrow. If the rioters knew what they were celebrating, they'd pack up their sticks and go home in a second.

A good twenty-four years ago, Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses and got believers' knickers in a twist the world over, much like they are now. A few months later, on Valentine's Day of 1989, the chief spiritual hooligan of Iran called for the murder of the author who went into hiding and lived under police protection for the following decade. (The hiding is long over now, the ayatollah has died, and Rushdie lives freely and continues to write. This is all you really need to know about god and free speech.)

Rushdie has now written his memoir of those years, to be published tomorrow. The propaganda around it is quite extraordinary. The New Yorker, for example, carries a long excerpt that should probably be called paid advertisement, and short comments here and (possibly soon) there. Radio 4 has abridged the book into five episodes that will constitute this week's Book of the Week. Earlier already, Andrew Marr sat down to interview Rushdie for Start the Week, which broadcast today. To round off the publicity blitz, the BBC will show a documentary on Rushdie's years with the fatwa on Thursday.

I've listened to the interview and will probably have Joseph Anton put me to sleep this week because I don't know exactly what to make of Salman Rushdie. I've had my share of his prose, having read Midnight's Children (initial breathtaking literary beauty petering out towards the end) and The Moor's Last Sigh (not nearly as good and also too long). There is no doubt that he his an exceptionally talented and creative writer and a very courageous man. But there are also no fewer than four broken marriages and trophy girls paraded around celebrities' parties in New York.

None of the current interviews, articles and documentaries are probably any useful for getting any closer to the man. There's more available online (interviews for Desert Island Discs when he was just the author of Midnight's Children and for Book Club nine years ago when memories were fresher, for example), but the key to Rushdie is probably the careful reading of his defining work.

I've had the The Satanic Verses on my bookshelf for a few years now, but I've been hesitant to dive into it, afraid of not understanding or enjoying it without at least a master's degree in Religious Apocryphology. But in the current times, with the fear of offending increasingly dominating over the freedom to offend, I will make it my next read – and how I wish I commuted to work on the tube.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

calm down

This week's madness continues undiminished. The United States is withdrawing most of the staff from its embassies in Sudan and Tunisia. It's like a Facebook party gone wrong or, more to the point, a carefully choreographed flash mob. Sheep drunk on aggravation and the energy of the crowd throw their anger at anything in their way. Fire, stones and sticks are hurled to give meaning to apoplectic shouts of honor dignity.

The German embassy in Khartoum was one of the targets yesterday. There wasn't at first any concrete reason for that. Neither the ethnic Egyptian that's responsible for the movie nor youtube, where extracts were posted, nor any of the Arabic TV stations that fanned the flames by showing snippets is German. This wouldn't do, a minor German party with xenophobic inclinations thought and promptly announced that it would show the film in full, in public, in Berlin – and in retrospective vindication of the violence.

From the extract on the web it is hard to see how anyone could possibly want to attend besides – in an endless ping-pong of action and reaction – mortally offended protesters. And this is the crux of it. What plays out on global TV, what keeps analysts and pundits up all night and newspaper circulation high is a tightly orchestrated tug-of-war between clearly defined groups of conflicting interests.

At first I was tempted to see in what's going on the rape of free speech because it came along in a red miniskirt of provocation. But the filmmakers didn't go for an innocent stroll in the park with their idea. They developed and executed it to bring about maximal damage. They didn't want to provoke (an acceptable thing in my rulebook) but incite violence.

It's not that the streets are filled with demonstrators voicing ire and indignation at an acute insult. No, anger and dissatisfaction that have long accumulated are now being stoked and exploited for political gain by outside forces. On both sides are fanatic fringes that would like to enter the political mainstream, either by presenting themselves as immutable defenders of the faith against the onslaught of infidels or as antipoles to senseless violence and rage, precursors to international terrorism no doubt.

The few voices of reason that persist drown in screams of fury and deafening explosions. But that doesn't matter. Like the riots in London last August (where trigger and causes were similarly unrelated), the current violence will peter out soon enough, independent of any external actions once the built-up tension has been worked off. Calm will return – until the next trigger finds the tinderbox of public resentment recharged.

(with apologies for the metaphor overkill)

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Fires are burning again in various parts of the world that have a curious predisposition for fires of this kind. Much damage has been caused, material and political, and lives have been lost. The cause/excuse is the same as last time: Something to do with religious sensitivities and offense, neither of which I fully understand. What I see in the news reports are brainwashed masses deliberately taking offense and running with it, much like schoolkids in the corner shop take sweets without paying, enjoying a little bit of thrill and the belief that they can get away with it.

Who are these demonstrators? Some just shout their hearts out, others injure and destroy. The BBC sees Islamist extremists in the latter. I prefer to call them marauding lunatics or raving fanatics or manipulated idiots (though idiots wouldn't do full justice to what's going on). What they really are, if you need to bring religion into this, is devil worshipers. The ransacking of embassies, torching of cars and killing of proxies is clearly the work of the devil.

What hasn't got much exposure, ironically, is the content of the offending movie itself. It wasn't too easy to find initially because none of the news sites carries the link. I dug deep and found something that could easily be it, but before you click be forewarned: The content is offensive to good taste and intelligence. What a load of crap! How this can be taken seriously I don't know.

Despite my best intentions (to be fully informed and able to participate in the discussion) I only lasted halfway through the third minute. Painful bluescreen action and vitriolic language can have no other purpose than to drive those so inclined to take offense. A devilish ploy, and it worked like a charm. The connection between Islam and violence has been strengthened in the eyes of the world.

Are both sides in this devils' duel equally at fault? Absolutely not! If I had to pick between lunatics, I'd take the ones that make atrocious movies over those that ruin and slay any day of the week. But I wish the filmmakers would stop uploading their crap to youtube as much as I wish the easily offended would stop watching it.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

polo in London

Over the last few months, pretty much since the beginning of this year, this blog has suffered from attrition. Time invested in its upkeep has been cut and the number of posts has dwindled. There are a number of reasons for this, most significantly the fact that my mind isn't in it anymore.

I've been in London for more than five years and the enthusiasm and wide-eyed amazement of the first few years has suffered. When I push through the crowds around Leicester Square or hang out in a bar overlooking the Thames, I'm still buzzed with excitement and feel like pinching myself to see whether this is real, but I don't feel like sharing anymore. You've heard it all a hundred times.

Things still happen as they always have. How could they not? London is a crazy place, full of life, full of diversity, full of people from different worlds. I'm in the middle of it, watching, interacting, participating. But when it comes to reporting, to reflecting the day onto a screen, my energy dissipates quicker than I can log on to Blogger.

Yesterday, for example, I spent a day with a friend who had flown in to see Paralympic athletics, a triple-special birthday treat from his wife. My friend would get to see the Greatest Games Ever™, spend time with a mate of many years and be relieved of his paternal duties for a day.

After watching sports on Friday and a night out in Soho afterwards, we took advantage of the brilliant late-summer day straight from a Visit London commercial to stroll along the Thames, from Richmond to the lock at Teddington. It's a stretch of river with infinite charm, lined first with the perfect pubs and residences of a posh borough and later the dense bushes and ungroomed meadows of rural England. The metropolis feels far away, though one is well within the orbit of London.

I had done this walk before – it is among my favorites – and I know the area a bit. I know, for example, that there is a strong German presence there, almost a German community, though I find it odd seeing these two words together. But there's a big German school, a beer garden much like in Bavaria, the bakery that makes the best bread in all of London and a little deli of many delights.

I also know that there's a famous polo club nearby. For some reason, my mom is fascinated with polo and nearly every week when we talk on the phone, she broaches the topic. I, being here, am supposed to check it out as her proxy. "Have gone to see the polo?", she keeps asking. Only yesterday did her quest came to a successful end.

As my friend and I were raiding a blackberry hedge, we noticed strange goings-on beyond. An event of some sort was taking place, spectators, an announcer – could it be? Further down, there was a gap in the hedge: Polo was being played on a large green. Our access was blocked by a low farm gate, closed and topped with barbed wire, but the view was great. When we realized that the gate wasn't locked, we hesitantly made our way through to get a closer look. It turned out that the spectators were far more interesting than the action.

Requiring horses, polo is a sport for the upper class. It is also a place to mingle for the same crowd, and we clearly didn't fit. The women all wore flowing dresses, heels and careful hairdos. The men were in chinos and button-down shirts in pink, violet and assorted pastels. It's likely that the posher you are, the bolder the color of your dress. One gentleman strutted by in a navy blazer and yellow slacks. In our T-shirts and jeans, we stood out like pimples on a prom queen's face.

Everyone can fake dress, I guess, but adopting the correct behavior is more difficult. The picnics on the sideline spoke volumes. Big tables stood heavy with food and champagne, cigar smokers sat in wooden folding chairs and the ladies lingered in canopies to keep their skin pale. It was unclear how all the kit got there; there were no cars. But no detail had been missed. In the back, I saw smaller tables with seconds protected from insects with little mesh structures.

The game itself was not much to behold. I was intrigued to note that, much as in poorly played pick-up football, everyone was charging after the ball at the same time, galloping horses overshooting their target and long-handled mallets windmilling about. "Spread the game!", I wanted to shout, revealing my ignorance, and "Pass the ball!", but then our escape wouldn't have been so smooth.

The day continued for many sunny hours, with beers by the river and dinner al fresco, a slice of London that hasn't got much exposure on this blog. Yet, when I had put my friend on a train to Gatwick and got myself back home, writing was the last thing I wanted to do. With my mind occupied in many other ways – work, job search, the future – there just isn't the drive to babble about London.

In addition, I find myself in and around Marseille more frequently and begin to see my life there. It isn't yet, and as I can't even tell whether it will be, I can't write about it as if I lived there. What you get instead from time to time are ill-composed travel pieces, mostly relating to time spent at airports or otherwise in transit, that I can't imagine you enjoy reading any more than I enjoy writing them.

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that I am neither here nor there at the moment. My two half-lives don't fully add up. This is not exactly a new situation, but it's becoming increasingly draining. The good news is, it's going to end. My contract at Imperial ends in October – this time for sure – and I'll move away from London. After that, the frequency of posts will surely pick up again.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

the real Switzerland

Yesterday I came back from a quick trip to Switzerland. Each August, Italian friends of mine take possession of a converted farmhouse in the Simmental, an unfashionable valley near Bern, and have a good time, enjoying clean air, dairy products fresh from local cows, strenuous hikes, relaxing hours in the municipal swimming pool, and loads of good food cooked in large batches. They've been inviting me to join them with increasing insistence for at least five years. I've promised to come for at least three. This year, the seemingly impossible finally came to pass.

To make the journey exciting, I came up with my very own Top Gear challenge. Flucha and I would leave work at precisely the same time, she in a car from Marseille, me on various forms of public transport, rail- and airborne, from London. First on parking 2 outside the Geneva airport would win. It would have been a tight race, had everything gone according to plan, but Flucha did a wrong turn and found herself visiting Gap. Nice place, but not where you want to be when you want to get to Geneva double-quick. It was inevitable that I got there first, with a lead so comfortable that it almost invalidated the idea of the challenge. A bit more than two hours later, we hugged our friends in Lenk.

The best day was the third when Flucha and I undertook a hike that was just within our capabilities, a bit more than nine hours of walking with 5000 ft of climbing. It was warm, the wildflowers were out in blinding force, and every half hour, the scenery changed completely. We started in the lush green of a wide valley, advanced through receding vegetation past forbidding cliffs and up slopes of debris to the highest point of the hike. Up there, the trail flattened but variety remained. The colors changed repeatedly between grey, brown and green, each vista different from the one before. We passed by gushing rivers that could have been in northern Canada, glacial lakes and roaring waterfalls. We ran into cows and were briefly held up by a shepherd dog when we got too close to the flock he was guarding.

The presence of livestock so high up in the mountains is a general feature of the Alps. I learned today that the technical term is transhumance, which describes the seasonal migration of livestock between valley in winter and high pastures in summer. All high pastures are organized around a small self-contained dairy farm where the animals return at night after a day of grazing. The farms are remote; there is no way of getting the milk into the valley. Cheese production is the almost logical consequence.

After maturing for a year, the cheese is sold locally, either directly from the dairies or from fridges placed in front of many houses in the valley. The fridges are an odd sight and a fine example of what a perfect place Switzerland is. Most fridges have a locked honesty box nearby where you drop the money for the cheese you choose. Some have second box, open that one, with change in case you need it. The cracker was a fridge with the entire honesty box open inside the fridge, stuffed full of notes and coins, more than 50 franks.

My friends commented that this wouldn't work in Italy. People wouldn't just take the cheese without paying but also the money if they could get their hands on it. Flucha thought in Argentina, people wouldn't bother with the content. "They'd take the entire fridge", she said to general hilarity. In Switzerland, honesty sells cheese quite naturally.

But Switzerland is a strange place anyway. I've come up with the theory that there must have once been a country, let's call it Suisse, of outstanding natural beauty, with diligent inhabitants, correct procedures and trains running on time. When the inhabitants' strive for perfection in their existence and surroundings reached a limit, they created a perfected copy in its place. In analogy to Disneyland, they called it Switzerland.

Upon payment of an admission fee of 40 franks (disguised as annual motorway toll), visitors can explore the country as they please. In the mountains they can see accurately mown meadows covering inclines up to 50% steep. They can hike to waterfalls and way beyond the tree line. Wherever they go, it's like a walk in the park, because it is a walk in a (amusement) park.

Visitors will see park employees leaning out of the windows of the most picturesque houses that immediately recall Christmas in Hyde Park. To keep a wall of fabrication, the employees will communicate with each other in an invented language that's not entirely unlike German but completely incomprehensible. When the visitors get home they can tell their friends about a beautiful place that didn't feel quite right, a place that was too perfect to be real. This place is Switzerland.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

like a bird

Today, the Olympic triathlon came by work, or least very nearly so. The running and cycling took place between Hyde Park and Green Park and the swimming in the murky waters of the Serpentine. At 11:30 on the dot, as the starting gun fired, the local fauna suffered the shock of their lives. Frantic flocks of coots, mallards and the Queen's own swans launched a narrow escape from the threshing of the swimmers' arms, only to be sliced into waterfowl carpaccio by a TV helicopter's blades seconds later. It was pandemonium – a theme of the Olympics since Brunel started the industrial revolution during the opening ceremony – and only a short stroll away, past the Albert Hall and across a street.

A British pair of brothers came first and third, and while China and the US fight a proxy war for global supremacy, Great Britain is quietly adding to its own tally and leading the rest of the world in the medals table by a huge margin. They Games are far from over and they've already accumulated more gold medals than Michael Phelps earned over the course of his Olympic career. The glory!

But Britain is a good place to emotionally share in success. People are humble and self-deprecating. There's never gloating when things go well, no teasing or taunting. Spiteful patriotism is reserved for football (with no risk of ever winning). The British are genuinely happy and charmingly incredulous about their team's performance. Go Team GB!

There isn't much negative about the Olympics besides the cost (which I won't have to stand for). Prices haven't risen, traffic hasn't collapsed, everyone is cheerful. Many residents gave left town to take their summer vacations. The city feels quieter and calmer for their absence and, unless you run into an Olympic crowd, easier to navigate.

Besides the branding, London hasn't changed all that much. It is full of international visitors, much like always, except this time around they're wearing patriotism on their sleeves. Free arts and entertainment events are being staged all over town, much like always, except they're now Olympic-themed, at least in name.

Tongue in cheek I could say that the biggest problem is the number of volunteers, greeters and helpers. There's just too many of them and too little to do. You can hardly walk down a street without running into some dude in pink who engages you enthusiastically and tries to force a venues map into your reluctant hand. I've got four at home already.

On my way home from work, just past the volleyball venue, there are two side streets leading to official parking areas. Each night, on either intersection, a brave soul in yellow high-visibility jacket engages with me to ensure my safety, holding the rare car and waving me across, irritating self-importance mixing most bizarrely with a genuine sense of service. I feel like in kindergarten and want to punch him or least yell at him to get real. At the same time I want to hug him for his passion and thank him for doing his part to make the games fly. Who would have thought just three weeks ago?

Sunday, July 29, 2012


It's not that I'm suddenly getting sucked into the hype – for that I lack live TV – but it's the first weekend of the Olympics and some words are in order. I managed to watch the opening ceremony yesterday, one day later but in all its high-definition glory and uninterrupted by commercial breaks. My thanks go out to the BBC and to the license fee payers (who, as a reward for their financial sacrifice, get to watch live TV).

I can't remember watching an opening ceremony before. I might have, as a kid, but it didn't leave a lasting memory. This one might pass into oblivion as well, but that would be a shame. It was a remarkable show. The British are known to be quirky and to have their very own, rather different humor. It showed. If I had to give the ceremony a leitmotif in two sentences, it would be: This is who we are. Get on with it. (If I had to do it in one, I would replace the full stop with a semicolon.)

Some parts were odder than others. The hospital beds and the actual nurses and doctors dancing about in a celebration of the National Health Service – who came up with that? The NHS is a national treasure, much like the Queen, but what is it doing in an Olympic opening ceremony? Who in the world could connect with this? You might not, so I will enlighten you.

The NHS is the best health service I have encountered. Once you've registered with a local general practitioner, she'll see you and help you when something is wrong, within days in my experience. I don't remember ever showing my insurance card and I've certainly never paid a penny. Substantial sums are deducted from my salary every month, but when it matters, it's peace of mind. When you have to see a doctor, that's priceless.

With a wild mashup of the last few decades of popular culture, in movie and music, the show bit of the ceremony ended and the pageant of the nations started. I started ironing shirts and pants at this point, knowing that the parade would go on for hours and not offer the same density of visual excitement as the first part. Some things caught my attention nevertheless.

Never mind the chests, bare and oily, of many Pacific Islanders and the colorful kit of most Africans, the award for most outstanding dress must go to the Czech. They helped the British make fun of themselves – a national pastime and one of the overarching themes of the ceremony – by waltzing into the stadium in Wellingtons.

Much has been made of the fact that, for the first time ever, no team excludes women on the base of their gender. What was even more striking was that the majority of the teams were led by female competitors, though none waved the flag like Hoy the Hulk, with one hand and no effort. But even Chris Hoy couldn't top the Kenyan flag bearer, a white dude in front of an all-black team.

Friday, July 27, 2012

lighting the fire

This morning, listening to Radio 4, I was reminded of the second big event of the Olympics. This morning, at precisely twelve minutes past eight, all church bells in the country would be rung and everyone was asked to join in, be it with bicycle bells, neighbors' door bells or car horns.

The ringing of the bells had been the idea of Martin Creed, a Scottish artist who first rose to fame with the Turner Prize-winning (and, in my opinion, -discrediting) installation The lights going on and off, in which he periodically filled an empty room with light or, in other words, turned the lights on and off automatically. Since then, he has built a career and reputation on turning things on and off, for example by having runners sprint down the length of Tate Britain's Duveen Galleries in intervals. If you wonder what the point is, you should listen to Creed describe it. The inarticulateness of the artists is in perfect harmony with the vacuousness of his works. He has nothing to say and doesn't know how to say it. On the other hand, he knows how to turn things on and off, a skill perfectly suited to the ringing of bells, and his involvement promised a majestic sonic experience, London awash in music.

The first big event of the Olympics was supposed to be majestic and uplifting as well. Boris Johnson, the clown-mayor of London, saw in it "the contagion of joy". When the Olympic flame passed in front of my flat yesterday, families and resident business owners, shoppers and visitors, lined the street in anticipation, yearning for that vibe. A solitary chain of Olympic pennants in primary colors and pink fluttered above as the excitement built below. What happened then be best described as the kid sister of the Tour de France: copious security with flashing lights, a paucity of floats advertising sponsors and a runner that passed by in a flash. Instead of magic, I saw self-importance pushed to ridiculous levels. The only positive aspect was the thorough cleaning of the street before the torch relay. All the detritus of poverty had been swept away by an army of temporary council workers.

Tonight, the flame will reach the Olympic stadium and, culminating a quaint and bucolic opening ceremony, the cauldron will be lit. Tomorrow, the games will properly begin. But even though we're constantly being badgered into patriotism and enthusiasm, doubtful voices remain. The most recent bad news is the heat – never mind that rain would have really screwed with the show. Pollution levels have rising so much in London that athletes are not expected to be able to perform at their peak. I could feel the pain as I weaved across the Gloucester Road crossing, cutting through the hot exhaust of buses that should run on hydrogen and cars that shouldn't be in the city at all. The heat has now subsided and the next days are forecast to be properly English, cooler and wet. May the rain wash the dirt from the air.

Beside the weather (which one can't control anyway), the biggest headache of the organizers was transport. How would a system that runs at capacity most of the time cope with a million extra journeys? Early signs indicate that the worries were misplaced. Far from being afflicted with the contagion of joy, many people, residents and city breakers alike, have chosen to stay away from London during the Olympics. Colleagues of mine who commute to work have reported eerily quite trains. Hotels are far from fully booked. The bug has yet to catch on.

This morning, I was doing my best to catch the bug. I wanted to feel the bells around me. But it was still too early. Had I left home when the anchor reminded the nation of what was to come, I would have been locked away in the white noise of the lab when Big Ben set off three minutes of clatter. So I slowed my breakfast down to a crawl. Bread was buttered assiduously and jam spread most meticulously, with millimeter accuracy until I left at five to eight. Somewhere between Earl's Court and the Olympic lane at Cromwell Road, the minute hand hit the twelve, but I couldn't tell. There was no sound. I had my ears open and was receptive to even the faintest toll. But there was nothing. In the middle of London, the Olympics were going entirely unnoticed.

Friday, July 20, 2012

second person

Munich is the second biggest airport in Germany though Terminal 1, unmarked and anonymous, feels like Rodez or Innsbruck – gate, passport control, exit door with hardly an escalator in between and surely no lengthy moving walkway. Budget airlines don't pay for the fancy terminal, nor do they for gate access if they don't have to, dropping you off on the tarmac just out of sight of the airport facilities. A bus takes you to the terminal, and once you're there, you're out again.

It could be anywhere. There's a nameless city shuttle and countless signs giving directions to parking lots – not what you're looking for. Public transport is not advertised, nor is the direction of the main airport building. The sun shines harmlessly as you wander up and down along exit doors that open silently as you walk by. This could go on for hours, to no effect. You turn around and reenter the building.

There's a coffee shop, trying to be hip but abandoned of trade and prospects, and signs to Area B, C and F, though it wouldn't make the slightest change to you if someone came and swapped the letters. There's nothing. Inside you rises doubt whether the plane dropped you off at the right place. These things go wrong, don't they? After all, the staff had to get up earlier then you and be even tireder. More tired than it takes to make up wonky comparatives. Tired enough to mistake Munich for Nuremberg.

You wonder where you are. The words on the few existing signs aren't incomprehensible, but that's hardly reassuring. It doesn't exactly narrow down the location. Germanic or Romance writing wouldn't jar, especially in the stupor of the early morning, and maybe the writing is English, the lingua franca of our age.

Then you take the ramp to the lower level that you haven't noticed before. There's more anonymity and empty space. It feels like a mega-church where everyone knows his way or, if not, is guided by god. You discover a map, sufficiently out of place to make it's discovery an occasion. You find yourself at the periphery of the airport, not far from uncharted territories.

A few minutes on fast moving conveyors and you're in familiar surroundings. The central plaza of MUC is remarkable: drugstore, bakery, brewery, beer garden – everything the weary traveler might need. There's also a battery of ticket machines for suburban rail, sadly undersized. In front of each machine, buttons are pushed in confusion. Half a dozen people wait for progress, but that's unlikely to happen.

Munich has the world's most complicated transport system. Suburban trains, underground trains, trams and buses cut through zones and rings and spaces and areas. Tickets can be bought by any parameter. Two large files are available online, showing what looks like the same map at different levels of magnification. Either map can be zoomed to silly levels with no gain in usability. Ever more detail appears, an infinity of gradations. The grid radiates from the center, each stop and connections crisply drawn, but what ticket is optimal for a set of journeys remains forever hidden. There is no sense to any of this and no advice on what to get.

Overwhelmed by numbers and words, you take a step back, giving up your spot in the line. Lack of sleep and too much information don't go together well. You're a bit dizzy when a blond girl comes into focus. She looks at you with mild suspicion: "Do you need a ticket into Munich? I bought this day pass earlier." You strike a bargain, half-price of what a proper ticket might have cost, more or less.

You take an escalator down. The train is waiting. You find a seat and sink down, stupefied. Three quarters of an hour to go. You open The New Yorker that you've started on the plane and go back to Juno Diaz's latest exhortation that has been messing with your language so much already. Homies and sucias and second-person narration – all the gimmicks in the book, but powerful stuff nonetheless. The train starts moving noiselessly. It is half past nine in the morning. The weekend can begin.

Monday, July 16, 2012

olympic sprit

I've avoided it for as long as possible. I've closed my eyes and my ears and refused to acknowledge what has been building up. But this past weekend, something snapped. Maybe I woke up. Maybe I looked around me. The Olympics are in London. I am not excited.

I'm not much of a spectator sports person. I would not go into a stadium to see people run laps or dash down a track a sixteenth of a mile long, and I would certainly not pay for it. The Tour de France is the only sport I've seen live in the last ten years outside events I've participated in, like football, running and cycling. Football is the only thing I watch on TV. Whether there are Olympics or not makes no difference to my life.

Except it does. London is a big city, 8 million people by the latest count, but the two weeks of sports days can be felt everywhere, and the ramifications aren't pleasant. The venues are largely concentrated in the east of town but scattered throughout. Athletes, officials and spectators will shuttle around, clogging roads and putting strain on a public transport system that already runs at capacity. I have received several flyers warning me that bus routes will be altered, tube stations exit only, and roads blocked.

On my way to work, I walk by Earl's Court. In normal times, this is a dull conference center where trade shows like the Service Desk & IT Support Show and the Great British Beer Festival are held. During the Olympics, it will be the venue of the volleyball tournament. Pedestrian flows to and from Earl's Court tube station will be tightly regulated. I hope I'll be able to walk as I always do, even though I go against the flow of the crowds both in the mornings and in the evenings.

I hope but I don't bet I will. Some roads that I have to cross on my way to work provide Olympic routes, express lanes that are off-limits to regular traffic. Crossing them will be severely restricted. I will still make it to work with only minimal aggravation, but distant tube commuters won't be so lucky. People are advised to work from home and stay away from public transport during the Games. A recording to that effect by Boris the Clown, mayor of London, is currently played in all commuter rail stations across town.

Imperial is next to Hyde Park where the triathlon and marathon swimming will be held and the marathon, race walking and road cycling finish. Some days will be completely mad. All days will be at least a bit mad because the Japanese and Swiss Olympic teams reside in Imperial student halls. Every morning, the Senior Common Room will open late to Imperial staff so that the athletes can have their breakfasts in peace. Will they be served the usual fare, full English with tepid drip coffee?

Travel and breakfast will be minor inconveniences. Security looks like a big fiasco. G4S, the company that got the quarter-billion-pound (!!) contract for providing guards and screeners failed spectacularly. Fewer than two weeks before the opening ceremony it came to light that they were 3500 staff short. Soldiers, some just returned from tours in Afghanistan, were quickly drafted to fill the gaps. Yesterday, I saw the first platoon march through St. James's Park, nothing Olympian about their camouflage uniforms and lithified faces. But they were eerily in tune with other security arrangements.

These must be the most heavily militarized games ever. Air defense missiles have been installed on top of a residential tower block near the Olympic Park and on four further sites in London. Near Greenwich the Royal Navy's largest vessel has been moored for the last month and a half – to protect the equestrian events in the park at the expense of spooking the horses.

I could go on. But there's bright side. Today it was revealed that the Olympic torch will pass just outside my living room next Thursday, on the penultimate day of the relay. I won't have to jostle for space or get wet from never-ending rain to watch it. With a pillow under my arm I will lean out of my window and soak up the excitement. Let the Games begin!

Sunday, July 08, 2012

outside the park

The Serpentine Gallery is a small art space in Kensington Gardens that is run with an expert mind and the vision for making a splash. The exhibitions change frequently, are to the point and cost nothing to see. But it is the annual architectural commission that makes this place special. Every year, a practice is invited to design and install a pavilion next to the gallery that will provide space for visitors to relax, have a tea and contemplate the connections between art and architecture.

The commission has been run since 2000. At the beginning, only architects that hadn't worked in Britain before could be selected. This stipulation seems to have been relaxed this year, when Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron were asked to perform. Ai Weiwei has indeed not built anything in Britain, but he's an artist rather than an architect, despite his involvement with the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. Herzog & de Meuron, of course, created Tate Modern and are currently overseeing its expansion. Could it be that appointing this partnership served to send a reminder to the Chinese government of Ai Weiwei's standing in the art world?

Political considerations apart, I had reasons to be apprehensive about this year's pavilion. It was an excavated structure, an artificial cave, not exactly the first thing you'd associate with park and summer. As I approached the pavilion, I only saw its roof, a flat circular disk just about a meter off the ground that rain had turned into a reflection pool. The space below was dark. Rough shapes were all I could make out. I descended a few steps and exited the park. It felt a bit like stepping into a neglected pedestrian tunnel underneath a large railway station, solitary bulbs on the ceiling given a dim, rather localized light. Dullness and drabness engulfed me.

All around was nothing but concrete, the coarse mix of cement and rough pebbles that I remember from my childhood when city centers built or spiffed up in the 60s and 70s were clad and decorated with it. There is nothing pretty about the material. It looks like something unsuccessfully designed to look like granite, a cheap substitute, decoration intended to appear noble and elegant but with the opposite effect. Dreadful.

It was raining. Underneath the disk, a few dozen visitors were huddled in a grim underworld, mere silhouettes against the dark background. Quick first glances confirmed my suspicions about the design, but as I looked more closely, my perception changed. People appeared joyfully out of synch with the dreariness of their immediate surroundings, chatting, picnicking, having coffee from the stall just outside, or reading the newspaper the Serpentine hands out for free thanks to its media sponsor. Kids were bouncing about, screeching with bliss. On concrete, I wondered?

I had read that archaeology was a theme of the pavilion. Remnants of the previous eleven structures were apparently incorporated into the design. Foot-high walls crisscrossed the ground like foundations. The pillars and wall segments, twelve in total, that held the roof also referenced past pavilions. There was no repetition and no symmetry. Little stools stood here and there, solid, massive and wider at the top than at the bottom. Made from concrete, they were accidents waiting to happen, tipping over and crushing visitors' toes.

The previous big Ai Weiwei presence in town, the hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds on the floor of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, had to be fenced off despite the intentions of the artist because the walking and playing of the gallery visitors on them during the first two days had produced enough dust to give everyone potter's rot. Where was Health & Safety? The pavilion had been open for more than a month.

I sat down on a stool, and suddenly it all made sense. The stool was made from cork, as was the entire pavilion. Cork covered all surfaces, and the mock foundation walls were cork as well. The cork looked like bargain-basement concrete, but was slightly springy and a pleasure to sit on. And while it continued to rain outside, the cozy cove was dry and warm.

With the help of the weather, Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron have created an absolute masterpiece, spot on. In the heat of a real summer, it would be unbearably oppressive, but during the current wash-out, record-rainy already and predicted to get worse, the Serpentine Pavilion might just be the best place to be outside in London.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

recent walks

A huge weight fell off my shoulder. I walked out of the featureless office building and into a summer afternoon in Paris. I had just finished the oral part of the interview for a job that had taken me to Paris once before already. The process, with its frightening formality and insistence on the French language, had been drawn out. It had kept my brain engaged for months and my level of preoccupation slightly but steadily elevated. Now it was over. I could saunter off into the sunshine.

Except there was not much sun – the highrise across the street was brightly lit but the black sky framing it spoke of impending rain – and I was in no state to saunter. A walnut-sized blister had grown over the last few days on the ball of my right foot, between the second and the third toe, making walking almost impossible. I had hobbled to the station in the morning, and hobbling was all I was going to do.

The day would be much different from Sunday when I had developed the blister in the first place. Flucha had been in town and, as has become tradition over the months, we were out to make the most of the time we had together. We had started by going to Dulwich to spot evidence of Stik who had left street art based on pieces in the local picture gallery in a few places across town. When we had found them, we were halfway along a walk suggested in that most magnificent of local guides, Walking Village London. We did the second half as well and finished it off with cake and coffee at the Dulwich Picture Gallery café.

That was the first half of the day. After the walk, we took train and tube to North Greenwich where a couple of new attractions have opened to the public. The first is a walk/climb across a Himalayan bridge stretched over the spiky tarp of the Millennium Dome. Spending 22 quid requires a reservation but you'll get training with the biners and the rope and nearly an hour to bounce around on the blue elastic and have your hair tousled by the wind. Fun for city dwellers that have never seen rock.

The second attraction had been my reason for coming. A handful of swish helical towers have recently been stuck into the mud of the Thames. Cables were then strung across them and gondolas attached. In the spirit of a ski lift but without snow, they now ferry passengers from one largely abandoned side of the river to the other. Despite the cable car's integration into the public transport system, complete with a short line on the iconic map its own color (1) and the possibility of taking the ride with a simple touch of one's Oyster, this is clearly built for tourists. The special fare of £3.60 attests to that, as does the fact that no Londoner would think of traveling between North Greenwich and the Royal Victoria Dock.

It's a tourist trap in other words. In yet other words, it's awesome. The ride is breathtaking, though much too fast, and the view fantastic. Unlike the the London Eye with its I've-seen-it-on-TV vistas, the cable car lets you see the Thames barrier, the shiny towers of the Docklands, docks in various states of dereliction, the Olympic stadium and observation tower, and the river in a part that is rarely seen by tourists. If you come to London, you must take the Emirates Air Line, as it is officially called.

Our walk continued on the other side where regeneration has turned wharves into housing and a devastated wasteland into a huge conference center. Highlights for me where the dozen decommissioned cargo cranes lining the dock and the bridge crossing it. The bridge doesn't look like much, just two vertical towers and a straight span, all right angles, boring. But it was built with the possibility of a future upgrade to a transporter bridge, which deserves high praise for quirkiness. Plus, from on top, directly in the flight path, one can wonderfully experience the power of the aircraft taking off from City Airport, less than a mile away. Shame it's not a busier airport.

By the time we were on our way home, we had four hurting feet and one blister on its way. When it grew bigger, over the next few days, I took measures, the trip to Paris in mind: I consulted a dictionary. "Ampoule" I would say in response to the possible question of why I was walking so funny. But when I was asked into the meeting room to stand in front of the jury no one cared. The interview was all business.

Going through the questions of the past five years that were posted on the organization's web site, I had identified what looked like a consensus and duly prepared for that. In my practice talks, I clocked in at four minutes. Not too bad for a five-minute presentation, I thought. I always speak slower and with more stuffing than when I practice. Nevertheless, I prepared a riposte in case a member of the jury didn't like my brevity: I'm not a man of baroque decoration, I would have said, but I needn't have worried. Just three quarters through, I was rudely stopped and told my time was up.

Thirty minutes of questions followed. Some I could answer; with others I felt a bit lost. It's hard to make sense with a vocabulary of 150 and grammar that goes down the drain when nervousness runs high. But it went all right overall. I was stumped only once when one jury member asked about ticks. I know they can be a vector for Lyme disease but couldn't really see how this was relevant for the job or even how it fit into the question the guy had asked. When he rephrased his question, I realized he wasn't talking about "les tiques" (the ticks) but rather "l'éthique" (the ethics). It's pronounced the same but made much more sense. Shortly after that the interview was over, and I was out in the street hobbling towards the rain.

(1) Or rather the color of Emirates, the sponsor.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Much has been made in recent days of the publication by Microsoft Research of a paper detailing how and why Nigerian email scams work. The story went all over the news. It's not exactly groundbreaking work that provides unprecedented insight, but to those that had never looked at the issue from that angle, the conclusions were striking.

I had never looked at the issue from that angle. I had only ever found brief hilarity in these scams and then hit the delete button in my email client. I would have never been bothered to engage with the scammers in the hope of beating them at their own game and I've certainly never been tempted to take a word seriously of what was in these schematic emails. I was baffled that anyone could ever falls for these scams.

The sender is invariable Nigerian and tells, in broken or at least highly unorthodox English, an incredible story of betrayal, loss or legal injustice that magically transforms into a golden opportunity for the recipient of the email. Substantial financial assets are always involved – and need to be taken out of the country. The recipient is asked to facilitate the transaction, with the promise of a cut of the loot. Some minor financial outlay is demanded to get the process started.

There are alarm bells all over. The scams are instantly recognizable. According to the guys at Microsoft Research, they are supposed to be. Scamming is hard work. It takes time and the prospect of success is low. The straightforwardness and openness of the scam serves to filter out those that wouldn't be susceptible to it anyway. Only the gullible and the fools get sucked in, and no one should feel sorry for anyone falling for scams.

Scams are simply a tax on stupidity, more purely so than the lottery, which is frequently portrayed as the ultimate tax on stupidity. The story goes that it's a chance for those that don't know math to pay for their failure. But it's not as easy as that. Most people that play the lottery or engage in any kind of gambling are fully aware of the odds and that they're going to lose their money. They still do it, either because it's price worth paying for the dream of unimaginable riches or because it's entertaining.

I don't do the lottery and I've never gambled.Even when the jackpot stood at 50 million, I couldn't justify parting with my money. And when, on my first trip to Vegas, my dad suggested "losing twenty bucks on the roulette table" (his words), I told him I'd be happy for him to play but I wouldn't participate.

This is why it came as a surprise to me when I received a letter the other day that was from Euromilliones Loteria International, a multilingual affair that could easily be mistaken for Euro Millions, the transnational lottery famous for big jackpots. I had been one of 17 players who hit a 3rd category prize and could now claim my share of €15.5 million. €915,810 were waiting for me. All I had to do was call Señor Raúl Gómez in Spain.

The letter was unlike any scam I had encountered before. It didn't come as an email but in a believable looking envelope with name and address correctly printed on it. There was a stamp on it and a postmark from Granada.There were logos and tracking numbers and no spelling mistakes. I began to wonder. Maybe I had won after all.

It is curious how the human psyche works. For a few moments I was tempted to take a chance on the letter and act before the prize would fall to the Spanish Ministerio de Economía y Hacienda in a month's time. Then reason kicked in: The number to call was a cell phone. The return address didn't match the postmark. While the envelope was addressed to me, the letter itself was anonymous. The former Ministerio de Economía y Hacienda is now called Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad. Most importantly: I have never bought a lottery ticket.

The letter was bogus. If I had more time and less to do, if I were retired (and lucid) in a village in Wales for example, I'd call and find out more, see what it'd take to get the dosh, mostly to see how much I'd have pay upfront in "processing fees". But I don't. I have recycled the bizarre document and am left to contemplate how scammers choose their victims. Shouldn't I be exempt from taxes on stupidity?