Monday, August 25, 2014

late summer

To me, the term bank holiday always had a slightly absurd ring to it.  I understand Christmas and Easter, First of May and Independence Day.  Even Pioneer Day.  Why not commemorate the arrival of the first settlers in Utah, celebrate the delusion that turned a desert valley green?  But what is is about banks?  What have they done to deserve not just one but three holidays?  There's one early in May, a second one late in May and finally one at the end of August.  That one's popularly known as late summer bank holiday.

I'm sitting on a bus into town, on the upper deck but not in the first row.  There's room, but there's no point.  There's nothing to see.  Water washes down the front window in a flood, and only the driver downstairs has wipers.  It is August, but it doesn't feel like summer.

Over the last couple of weeks, I started listening to 2fm, an Irish pop station.  My stay in the Republic a few weeks ago got me into it.  It was the station we were listening to in the car.  Back in in London I started listening to it in the hope of catching the Irish farmers' road safety appeal again, to give my travel piece the authenticity that comes with getting detail right.  When this wasn't happening, I stuck around for the voices.  The Irish have their own way of speaking English, and it's very pleasing to my ears.  There's also a dash of disconnect that gives drab programs spice.  Words and meaning have different trajectories sometimes.  There was talk about the Rose of Tralee and much time spent on the hurling scores.  It was all done in flawless English, but I could make neither heads nor tails.  It's like a different country.

As I'm getting closer to town, the bus gets fuller, rescuing the unprepared from shelters by the road.  It's still raining.  The queues into the Natural History Museum are long and frayed like old rope.  The weather's wearing good manners thin.  It looks as if the most determined will get to see the dinosaurs first.

Last week there was a giveaway on 2fm that didn't seem quite right.  If you've turned the heat on this week, the radio host tempted, give us a call and tell us the story.  You could win a full tank of heating oil.  This was in August.  A woman called and said her living room was arctic.  It wasn't a joke.  Two days ago, Radio 4 reported Northern Ireland's overnight low with considerable incredulity.  It was -2°C.

The bus's side windows remain largely clear.  Outside, tourists scuttle through the dreariness of a day with no hope.  Traffic is denser than it should be on a public holiday.  The driver is not in a good mood.  He's honking his way through the jam with considerable irritation.

The seats in the front row are all taken now.  You can't visit London and not sit up front at least once.  It's part of the experience.  I hear American, Spanish and French voices.  The paths in Hyde Park glisten.  A few people walk colorful umbrellas.  Speakers' Corners is abandoned.  This is not a day to be outside.  I leave the bus at Oxford St.  The big Metro Bank, a tasteless aggregation of bright red and equally bright blue, is doing good business.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

more signs

Fat drops are hitting the metal box underneath my window into which the internet café on the ground floor rolls its shutters when it's open.  The rain comes down at a sharp angle.  In the middle of August, this doesn't surprise anyone in London.  Summer is relative.

Last weekend, I went away for four days, the closest to a summer vacation I will take this year.  My destination was Ireland.  I went in full possession of my senses.  A longer account of the time spent there will soon appear on my website.  Here, I want to revisit a topic that fascinated me the last time I was in Ireland, a few months ago.

Ireland has some of the most hilarious signage I've ever seen, what with no removal of rocks from the beach warnings or mind the step signs in Braille.  My friend had later sent me a find he had made while getting on the train in Dublin.  Under a printed "Days without accident" by the ticket barrier someone had proudly scrawled a big 1 – not exactly something I would advertise to my customers.

My recent trip to the west coast didn't offer the same rich pickings in that regard.  There was a post with three highly creative signs that, once you'd interpreted their unusual nature, might have warned of the dangers of the sea.  The bottom one agreed most with that interpretation.  Rather conventional, it showed a crossed-out diver about to hit the water.  The middle sign was harder to read, but became clear together with the one below.  What looks like deep pools, the sign seemed to say, might have submerged rocks protruding that are invisible from above.  If you jump you might hit them and get hurt.  That's a long message for one sign to convey.

The sign at the top showed a stick figure bodysurfing a mighty wave.  There seemed to be more excitement than danger in this sign, and I started to reassess my initial interpretation.  Maybe the signs weren't warnings at all but invitations?  Next to the post, a narrow trail led into the cliff.  At the end of it someone had installed a competition diving board on top of a proper concrete foundation.  A local business sponsored the operation.  It's name was on the diving board in capital letters.  There was no more talk of submerged rocks, though with the tide out they were clearly visible below.

The sign I liked best was leaning against a shopfront in Limerick.  J.T.Spratt's advertised washed roosters, ten kilograms for only €3.99.  The shop was closed and its shutters drawn.  I was left with many questions.  Was the business selling washed roosters or offering a washing service?  How do roosters react to being washed?  Why would you want your rooster washed in the first place?

washed roosters
"Do you have dirty cocks?" – "No, we have washed roosters."

There was no one to answer these questions.  We continued our walk on King's Island, increasingly hastily, as heavy clouds bunched up above us.  Three days of summer had come to an end.  Before long, we hit the motorway east, hydroplaning back to Dublin through rainbows, sun and storm.

Saturday, August 02, 2014


Yesterday after work I went up to Kensington High St to unwind – have a coffee maybe or a drink and spend insane for half a burlap sack of groceries at Whole Foods, every aspiring epicure's first port of call.  The air was hot after yet another week of un-English summer and with a protest march in full swing.  Fists, slogans and shouts rose where the usual disturbance is Lamborghinis accelerating out of the Royal Garden Hotel.

This is not a place for protests.  Nothing kills prime real estate like noise and masses of common people.  But it wasn't the first protest down that street.  Fridays are for marches, ever since Gaza exploded, the numbers of protesters swelling with the body count.  I had forgotten about this and now wondered whether I'd get through at all.  The T.K. Maxx on the other side of the street seemed a world away.

The protest wasn't a march anymore.  It had come to a halt as close to the Israeli embassy as possible, not threateningly close in other words but probably in shouting distance.  The embassy sits in Kensington Palace Gardens, together with many other embassies and assorted billionaires' mansions.  Lakshmi Mittal has a second home there, as does the Sultan of Brunei.  The street itself is owned by Her Majesty – who locks the gates when things might just get out of hand a little.  It was probably at the southern gate that the speeches were made, out of my sight but within earshot.

It was it this point that I wanted to intertwine my own thoughts on the conflict, but I find this impossible to do in a coherent and balanced way.  I would never broach the subject with Israeli friends.  It's easy to dismiss what's unacceptable when you're not always on the lookout for rockets, when you didn't grow up with suicide attacks.

But I have to write something because I don't understand.  When rooting out terror is your objective, killing children and bombing homes seems a questionable strategy.  If it weren't a hundred times more powerful, the response would mirror the terror that triggered it.  It could be read as a legitimization of the means, and the last thing Hamas needs is encouragement.  If you know the enemy takes civilians as shields, you can either not care about life or adapt your approach.

The protest didn't address these issues.  It didn't present solutions either.  The protest was a gathering of like-minded people, a demonstration of dissatisfaction with something out of control.  It was ill-focused and inconsequential and wonderfully epitomized by the Stop the War Coalition whose signs were everywhere.  I couldn't figure out whether they were a coalition to stop the war or whether the War Coalition needed stopping.

It easy to be a cynic.  There's incredible suffering all around.  Hotspots flare up periodically, if not regularly.  You can read, discuss, raise your passions, fight – live active democracy, if you will – and nothing will change.  Or you can close your eyes and enjoy the benefits of living in a democracy:  pretend that sun and the sales and your salary are all that matters.  I know what the right approach is, but conscious powerlessness is hard to endure.

I went into Uniqlo to buy pajamas.  The air conditioning was turned up so high that I almost froze solid.  Outside the fight continued.  Ill-defined fundraisers sold Palestinian flags, sweatshop-made somewhere in Asia, for five quid.  Socialist workers paraded placards that mostly advertised themselves.  The call for the death of Israel was verbal only, from a man with a megaphone whose accent clearly identified him as a disinterested party.  He didn't draw a crowd.

Monday, July 21, 2014

idiots abroad

The other day, there was a story in the Evening Standard of a woman traveling on her daughter's passport.  She had taken it by accident from the pile in her house.  The woman looked nothing like a her daughter, but she made it down to Spain with no troubles at all.  She had a blast, the story went, but on the way back, airport security didn't let her pass.  Her error was discovered, and she was denied boarding.  Somehow she obtained valid papers and made it back to the UK a few flights later, but she paid dearly for the service.  This wouldn't be a story, had the woman not made it one.  Upon discovering that stupidity costs, she bitched and moaned in public instead of just quietly paying up and learning a lesson.

I hate people like that, people with a false sense of entitlement, with the conviction that the world revolves around them, where any mistake is someone else's.  Plus I hate travel rookies, people who don't know what it takes to move smoothly in a world of transcontinental mobility.

When the automated passport gate in Frankfurt flagged up my biometric chip the other day, I blamed it on the box.  The name scanned all right, as did the photo.  Surely the chip was just a read issue.  I removed my passport from the scanner to give it a wipe and start the process again.  Before reinserting it, I had a good look.  I was surprised.  I looked young.  The passport was eight years expired.  My current passport, still good for a year and a half, was back home in London.

Getting on the plane had been no problem at all.  In Heathrow, no ID is required to enter the terminal or clear security.  A boarding pass is enough.  One has to register travel documents before checking in online, but they aren't verified.  A big deal is made about showing identification before boarding but again, the documents aren't checked properly.  My face aged out of matching the photo in my expired passport a long time ago, but that was no impediment to boarding.  As long as the name on the boarding pass matches the ID, anyone can board a plane.

This is how I got to Frankfurt.  As I stepped away from the antagonistic machine, my stomach dropped.  I was in a familiar place but in uncharted waters.  How do you travel without valid documents?  How would my journey continue, and where?  I decided to take a chance on an overworked border agent, crossing the border as if nothing had happened.  The man was rather alert.  "This passport is expired", he announced calmly.  There was no alarm in his voice.

I dithered for a second, unsure what to say, when his colleague next door leaned over for advice.  He held up a Chinese passport in an irregular situation.  The owner looked on in some confusion.  Her passport contained a British visa that was all good.  Another one was needed for Germany because the Brits never joined Schengen.  Problem was the German visa was only valid from September.  "What do I do with her?"  my border agent's colleague asked.  The only correct answer was, "You have to send her back."  It came without hesitation or feeling.

This did nothing to comfort me.  "Is it?", I asked.  My head was empty of rational thoughts, their place taken by increasingly colorful worst-case scenarios.  "Yes", he said, all business.  "Can I see it, please?" I asked.  I couldn't come up with anything better to say.  I had a job interview scheduled for the next day and I really needed to enter the country, but I could see that these were not reasons to further my cause.

I needn't have worried.  Had I been thinking clearly I would have realized that was nothing to worry about.  They wouldn't send me back to London, deport me, whatever.  Because once back in London Her Majesty's border force would have send me straight back to Germany because I didn't have documents to enter the UK.  It was unlikely I would become a international ping-pong ball, forever trapped in transit between countries that denied me, and I didn't.  The border agent asked to see another form of identification.  I showed him my driver's license and was on my way.

The first hurdle cleared, the next loomed even taller.  My flight back to the UK was on Monday morning.  It was now Thursday night.  The interview would be on Friday.  How to get my situation sorted?  I must have been near despair because I did something I don't normally do.  I asked for help – and was sent to the Federal Police, their office just next to the terminal entrance.

Two officers exited as I approached.  Over the next five minutes, one of them enumerated in great detail the options available to me.  It seemed simple – and not out of the ordinary at all.  "Go to Municipal Services and they'll sort you out", he said.  "If that fails, go to the Frankfurt office early on Monday morning.  They're used to this.  And if that fails as well, the guys here will help you as a last resort, though you might have to pay a fine because you're passport is so old."  Full of useful information, I rushed from the airport to the station.  I caught, with five minutes to spare, the train I had originally planned to take.  There was even time to buy a ticket.

The next morning at five to eight, I was in front of Municipal Services, willing the clock to advance.  In Germany, you have to be registered in your home town.  Where you're registered defines your home town.  All administrative business, driver's licenses, passports, IDs, must be done in your home town.   Where I was that morning, in Heidelberg, I was not a resident.  Would they be able to help me out?  And how long would it take?

The answer to the second question was half an hour.  This included time spent in the photo booth in the building lobby to have a set of mugs shot.  It also included a bit of a palaver when the requested fax arrived from my home town.  It declared that I was without fixed abode.  When my mom had moved in February, I had failed to notify the authorities of the change in address.  They had somehow found out, maybe when they started razing the building where my mom had lived and I used to be registered, and struck me from their files.

The administrator in Heidelberg was unconcerned.  "This happens all the time", she said.  My temporary ID was already printing.  "If you could just fill in this form here.  It will formally deregister you and make everyone happy."

I was happy and relieved beyond words when I sauntered out moments later into morning air that was still fresh from the night.  My job interview was ninety minutes and only a tram ride away.  I was officially homeless but in possession of a valid ID again.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

public viewing

Last night I took a beer shower.  It was three minutes into the game and England had just scored a goal.  People around me screamed, jumped and waved their full glasses.  I got soaked.  After the spray had settled, the score was still 0:0.  When the Italians farther back in the pub realized that, half a minute later, they erupted into cheers of their own, celebrating the hypothetical equalizer after England's goal that wasn't.  No beer reached me this time, or maybe none was thrown.

Watching England play with English supporters in a crowded pub late at night was not a pleasant experience.  The game had started at 11 and a large part of the audience seemed to have prepared by binging on ale all evening.  The game began optimistic enough, with singing and hoping, but the atmosphere soon degraded into something vaguely rowdy.  England isn't supposed to win in World Cup finals, but the self-deprecating humor that this country does so well was missing from the spectators' perspective.

The night before, in another pub, things had been different.  The Goose is not a sports bar.  It's a regulars' local, with carpets and cheap food, that even spiffed up after recent remodeling retains an air of home away from home.  The Goose shows the games, but it seems as if many customers don't come to watch them.  They sit there having dinner or a drink and chat with friends.  Overhead, the TV's on, but that's just a distraction.

I was having dinner and a drink with a friend, but we had also come to watch the game.  It could have been a quiet night, had it not been for the large group in orange that clustered near the entrance door.  When Holland scored goal after goal against a shockingly lethargic Spanish team they got more and more noisy.

After the game, karaoke started.  The World Cup doesn't break Friday night traditions at The Goose.  Exuberant men head to toes in orange don't normally feature, but they're easily absorbed.  I know it's unfair the compare the behavior of supporters of a winning team with those of a losing team, but the Dutch were a rather enjoyable bunch, never mind their competitive drinking.

From the small to the big, why are we watching football in pubs in the first place?  In Germany, big screens are erected all over big cities.  People gather from all over to watch together.  The German term for this is "public viewing", as if it were something imported.  The friend who visited me this weekend ask where we'd watch the games, expecting something like "by the Thames" or "on Leicester Square".  He was disappointed that no such showings exist in London.

I told him, half in jest, that it wouldn't work, that English supporters drink too much and get too rowdy, that their doomed passions couldn't be contained if thousands were gathered.  The truth is probably that the pub owners who already operate in a rather dense marketplace, see the World Cup as theirs and wouldn't want competition to spoils the takings.

The Famous 3 Kings where I saw England fall to Italy certainly makes a roaring trade during big games.  Last night it was so busy that everyone through the door got a stamp on their hand and only those with a stamped hand were allowed reentry after the smoke-and-fresh-air break at half time.  They sold their beer as fast as they could.  There was never any slack on the bars.

For me, this works as well.  I'll be back to see the Argies in an hour and for most of games afterwards.  I want to watch in a crowd, with shared emotions and the energy of something important.  But it needs to be contained.  A hundred drunks, with superfluous beer showers, groping and stomping on feet, is all I can take.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

transport for London

This afternoon, after abandoning the idea of a pub lunch that had been high up on the agenda until time started to crawl while the clock hands raced, I had a coffee and a carrot cake and poked around my mailbox a bit.  I was out in the sticks, in clear view of ambitious vegetation and falcons hunting in packs, but there was internet.  You can't escape it these days, it seems.

An email from stopped me cold.  It asked me, the "Dear Customer", to "Please open the attached file to view correspondence from Transport for London".  The subject line was "Email from Transport for London".  Does that sound dodgy, or what?  I have one reason to correspond with Transport for London, but that correspondence hasn't been sent yet.

The unsent correspondence concerns Jane, TfL employee and member of the station staff at West Brompton tube station.  Last weekend, with a friend in tow, I had got special-fare tickets to go down to the coast.  It was supposed to be a sunny weekend, an entire summer in two days.  The tickets were for Southern, printed paper incompatible with TfL's touchcard system.

We wanted to get on at West Brompton.  I had picked an all-Southern itinerary and wasn't concerned at all.  With my cheery sunny Sunday morning face, I approached the ticket window.  "Could you please let us through?  We got these Downlander tickets?" I asked.  "No", came the curt reply.  There was no smile.  The woman was not happy.

I tried again, "Look, this is a ticket for Southern for today.  Our train leaves in five minutes."  I threaded the folded paper through the hole in the glass.  The woman studied it for a while, then shoved it back.  "To me, this is not a ticket.  This is a piece of paper."  That's when I wrote Jane's name down.  This will not go unpunished, I thought.

First was the matter of the train, though.  Faced with two options, I gave up on principle (jumping the gate with a finger in Jane's face) and did the deed of the meek, using my Oyster Card for the first part of the journey, effectively rewarding TfL for awful customer service.  My only consolation was that I'd get back to them with an inspired rant to the Complaints Department, and hopefully be reimbursed.

Ten days later, the complaint still waits to be written, which is why I was rather surprised to see an email purporting to be from TfL.  The invitation-to-click was signed "Business Operations Customer Service Representative", as if this meant anything.  To me the whole thing screamed Nigerian inheritance scam or maybe Russian spybot, depending on the content of the attached file.  I didn't open it but navigated to the sender's website to learn more.

Turns out that is the home of the congestion charge, which is administered by TfL.  Things fit, all of a sudden.  The sticks I was in was Oxford.  I had come to pick up kit to be moved to Imperial.  I had rented a van in the morning and paid ten quid for the privilege of later driving into Central London.  The email was indeed for me.  It contained my receipt – and quite a bit of material for a critical assessment of TfL's customer focus.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

In Brugge

Belgium is an absurd country.  This statement is as good as any to resuscitate a moribund blog, maybe better.  It seems to come out of nowhere, spiteful and inexcusable, but was chosen with care.  It will turn out to relate to the unfolding post and, by doing so, recall one of the main themes of this blog.  Last Friday evening in a Eurostar somewhere under the Channel, I remembered that sentence as the beginning of a Streiflicht column in the Süddeutsche many years ago.

The Süddeutsche is a serious newspaper, Germany's best, a quality daily in the lingo of the trade.  The Streiflicht, on the left side of the front page, above the fold and just below the masthead, is a comment on one bit of the day's news, somewhere between humorous and satirical but never malicious.  Belgium has its bit of daily news, but I don't remember what triggered that particular column.  I had laughed hard and clipped the column from the paper.  Since then, most associations with Belgium have been purged from my brain.  Now all I can think of is cherry beer.  (The post could end here, having neatly made it back to the first line.)

My preparation for the trip that started on Friday consisted almost exclusively of imagining things and trying to remember what I had once heard or read.  It didn't come to much.  There was a Scientific American article on Lambic beer when I was in college, but that's not at my fingertips anymore.  A week or so before departure and increasingly lost, I went out to buy a film that appeared to have been issued by the local tourist office.  It was a bit of a scam.

In Bruges provided much factual information on the prevalence of cobbled streets and lovely canals roamed by swans, of brick houses half as old as time itself and soaring gothic monuments, romantic enough to make you cry, and featured the belfry in all its splendid octagonality.  But it also contained a joke about chocolate and murderous child molestation and had an elderly gentleman hurl himself off said belfry and land with a thud of crushed bones on the town's market square, next to tourists halfway through their comprehensive beer sampler, cherry, Trappist and all.

Late at night I was sitting underneath the belfry and had a beer.  It was not a cherry beer, and no one crash-landed on the cobbled ground.  The belfry had long closed for the night.  The beer was a bit frustrating.  I could only get taster sizes, chosen from what seemed like 178 varieties.  Being German I prefer a simple beer in a big glass.  But this was Belgium.  Sample sizes kept appearing on my table, the liquid evaporating faster than I could sip the foam off the top.

In Brussels earlier in the evening, announcements were made in three languages, here transcribed into a fourth.  "For trains to Holland, take platform three.  For Germany, press 5.  If you want to stay in Belgium, please hang up now." My connection was half an hour off.  As I ambled by the departure displays with no rush whatsoever, I realized that the earlier train was five minutes late and made connection with a nominal gap of zero (being luckier than Flucha who had to do an overnight pitstop in Frankfurt because for her seven minutes weren't enough).

On the market underneath the belfry, the good vibes lasted long past midnight.  It was mild, almost seasonal, and chatter wafted from table to table.  I learned that hello is Flemish for hello and that swearing in Mexican gets you a cheap beer.  I also learned that cheese as a snack is best consumed dipped into thick mustard.  Before, this would have struck me as absurd, but it went down a treat, one of many oddities we would encounter and enjoy over the weekend.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Sometimes I think a smartphone would make my life easier, keeping information at my fingertips at all times.  Sometimes information is all I need.  Monday morning, for example, yesterday, to be precise.  I found myself in a comfortable chair at a table with an enviable view, in front of me a delightfully presented breakfast.  It could have been so much better.

It would have been better, had I known the departure time of my flight back to London before setting off to the airport.  Had I known that, I would have still been in bed by the time thoughts about non-existing smartphones and breakfasts soon to vanish started swirling around my head.  It was not even seven; I was two hours early.

Two and a half days before that, I had arrived in Dublin and picked up a car in a convoluted procedure that might have owed something to the city's experience in the bubble before the recent bust.  My credit card was leveraged 40 times the rental value, with promises that I'd be a happy man when the chips were counted three days hence.  It was a frightening sum to sign over, however temporarily.

The most striking thing on the drive into town were the traffic lights.  Every single one was red, an engineering marvel for sure, an accomplishment not unlike free traffic flow throughout, but diametrically opposed in its effect.  Getting to my friend's house took three times longer than Aunt Google had promised.

Driving in the Pale the next two days showed traffic organization to be serious problem in Ireland.  Road signage is exceptionally poor.  Often, it is absent entirely and one has to guess directions.  Kids might not remember, but without a telephone of recent incarnation tethered to a satellite, this is difficult.  After encountering a sign for Wicklow where we were headed on Saturday, there were half a dozen intersections where it didn't feature.  I picked turns with intuition as my only guide.

At other times, signs were ambiguous or outright misleading.  On the road back from the Wicklow Mountains, after a hike up what can only be described as a hill with aspirations – dark, brooding and substantially more desolate than its height warranted – there were no signs for Dublin at all.  I understand that all roads in Ireland lead there eventually, but a clueless tourist would appreciate a bit more orientation.  Every exit advertised a local place name and An Lár, a phrase I had interpreted as Gaelic for city center on my drive from the airport the night before when I missed a postcard-sized sign with the same five letters and gone wrong for the first time.

After a dozen An Lárs, with a toll road into hostile territory looming ahead, we couldn't avoid getting off the motorway.  No idea where we were, but we had widely overshot Dublin without ever seeing evidence of its existence from the car.  It is possible that An Lár doesn't refer to generic city centers but only to Dublin's.  How would I know?  Returning from a day out on bikes the next day, things went better until a tunnel to the port was announced and a toll plaza threatened with fees to pay.  There was a road around it, the road downtown that we were not only after but already on, but it was perfectly camouflaged and it took the courage of the desperate to take it.

It was at this point that I came up with a theory.  I was reminded of Iceland where farm gates all over have to remain open to give free passage to huldufólk, elves whose traditional life and charitable business must not be impeded.  Ireland has leprechauns, but they are not considered unequivocally good.  Maybe the road sign confusion is meant to send them astray.  Alternatively, it could be designed to bamboozle tourists like me.  Most likely, it's simply negligence.

The most outrageous signs weren't road signs at all.  In Bray, a quiet place by the sea that avoids most of the traps English seaside towns inevitably fall into, there were stern warnings against the removal of stones from the beach.  Usually, towns by the sea advertise their fine sand.  Bray is proud and possessive of its vast expanse of pebbles and rocks, the sand buried safely underneath.

Bray stones
Beach pride

On Sunday, we went mountain biking.  We rented hard tails so fresh they still smelled of paint and lungbusted our way up a fire road that spilled us onto a system of trails engineered into the hill by someone with a fine touch for such things.  The trails were single track for the most part, closed to hikers and to be ridden in one direction only.  The climb was a pain, but the hour-long downhill – technical, rocky, twisty and so tight in parts that my shoulder still hurts from grazing trees – was epic.

In the lobby to the trailhead café was a bright yellow Mind the step sign with an explicit pictogram and Braille dots underneath.  My senses blunted by what we had experienced so far, the idiocy took a moment to register.  But unless there is an internationally agreed standard for where to place warning signs for the blind, Braille isn't of much use when the only cue is visual.

My friend attempted a second lap after our pit stop; I only made it up the fire road and decided to call it a day.  Years of long-distance running have atrophied my leg muscles to strings.  There was nothing left to do the downhill safely.  Not much had returned the next morning, which is why was happy to sit and have breakfast after walking, painful walking, through airport security and then towards my gate.  A break was a good way to start the day.  Smartphones be damned.

Friday, April 11, 2014

hot and cold

The previous post was rather positive and cheerful, much to my surprise.  It took me a while to recover from that.  The post did not exactly mirror my state of mind in the hours leading up to the delivery of the oven and during its installation.  I feared the worst.  I don't expect anything good when it comes to workmen, repairs, or anything to do with building infrastructure.  Things are oftentimes not done as I would expect them or in ways that make sense to me.

Take my place of work as an example.  The lifts are regularly out of order, as if they were there to provide backup for the stairs.  Steam leaks that take down heating, the hot water supply and sterilization facilities occur regularly.  At least once a month, there's a building-wide email warning of an impending emergency steam shut-down so another leak can be patched.  It would certainly be better and in the long run cheaper to install a new reliable system instead of patching the old one again and again, only for new leaks to break open only weeks later, but no one seems to take this option into consideration.

That is because doing it right is not how it's done here.  Making things work is usually the goal, fudging things to arrive at a temporary solution, to give the appearance of a solution, in other words.  Most external building work is done with a brush and a bucket of thick paint.  Coat after coat is applied until the paint itself provides structural stability while the walls below are rotting away.  Indoors, duct tape, glue and putty play similar roles.

I expected the oven business to go along those lines, and initially it did.  When the technician unpacked the appliance, the first thing to tumble from the box was a handle that had broken off from the oven door.  That's how the thing had been delivered.  Behind the door were a number of trays that made sense and various implements that didn't.  There were grips supposed to clip to the trays that I still haven't figured out how to use and a floppy piece of aluminum that looked as if it had fallen off somewhere.  The technician explained that it was a guard to keep the oven door open while using the grill.  This seemed strange to me.  Why would I want to keep the oven door open?  Was the idea to use the grill as a fireplace and warm the kitchen on cold winter days?  There was no good answer, but it didn't matter.  Even though both of us tried, we found no way of locking the guard in place.  It might have been too bent out of shape before its first use already.

It's entirely possible that the thing was bent out of shape by design.  It's not always easy to tell function from design.  I was reminded of this the other day when washing my hands at Imperial.  Washing your hands in the UK is often a journey into the dark past.  Many homes have separate faucets for hot and cold water.  They are called period fittings by estate agents as if functional moribundity were something to be proud of.  I've never understood the appeal.

In many homes, mine included, appeal plays no role in their continued existence.  It's simply a question of money.  If a fifty-year old faucet works, why replace it?  I understand this.  What I don't understand is why you would replace it with something equally obsolete.  This is what I observed at Imperial the other day:  Two faucets controlled one spout, but the hot and cold water weren't mixed.  Instead, two parallel streams of water exited the spout, scalding my index finger while chilling my thumb to the bone.

Imperial tap
Hot and cold

Three sets of questions are in order.

  1. Who invented this and why?  What problem is this a solution for?  When would you ever want hot and cold water separate?
  2. Who built this?  Who thought money could be made from not mixing hot and cold water?
  3. Who bought this?  Who decided it would be a good idea to install this idiocy in the bathroom of a university that carries in its name the word technology, referring, presumably, to the cutting edge of it?

There is so much that I will never understand about this country.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

new cooker

The cooker was a legal requirement.  So many things are legal requirements in this country that it's impossible to keep track.  Even so I was surprised when I got a call the other day from a number unknown to me.  The man at the other end of the line inquired when the new cooker could be delivered.  I hadn't ordered one.

What I had was a gas safety inspection only days earlier.  The engineer, a slight but energetic woman in her late twenties, didn't waste much time on my flat.  She bounced up step ladders to check mains valves and ripped out the plasterboard behind which the boiler was leading its rather uneventful life.  It all took just a few minutes.  She set the pressure a notch higher – to make sure the hot water's always hot – and stuck her head into the oven.  When I demonstrated, after she had taken her head back out, that the flames of the grill won't stay on, she marked down my report, and that was that.

Next thing I knew was a new cooker waiting on my landing a week later, tall, white and still shrink-wrapped, its cardboard box in tatters around it.  It's a mystery how the thing made it up the tightly wound stairs.  For delivery and installation, rather ambitiously, a two-hour window had been scheduled.  As the original gas inspection had been half an hour late, I anticipated a similar delay.  But when I arrived home with a backpack full of work, the first part of the deal had already been done.  Drilling and hammering in the flat upstairs indicated that the installation part would not be long in coming either.  I propped open the door to my flat and started reading a paper.

Not much later, the gas engineer was back in my flat ripping the wrapping off the new cooker with one hand and the old cooker from its fittings in the kitchen wall with the other.  It was a sight of focused frenzy much at odds with what one usually associates with those occupied in various trades of home maintenance and improvement in this country.  Plumbers, builders and electricians are considered slow, careless and unreliable – unless they are foreign.  A Polish plumber is apparently the best you can get.

That point was, somewhat obliquely, illustrated when the old cooker was picked up a few days later, by a gang of three migrants whose leader wore a yarmulke and curly bangs down his temples.  My narrow mind places Jews into the high-tech industry of Tel Aviv or the fruit orchards of the occupied territories, but that's not the story.  The story is that when I told him to grab the cooker and pull it out of the flat instead of delicately dancing with it as he did, he refused in accented English, saying he didn't want to damage the carpet.

The engineer in my flat was English, but before I could get too worried about this, my attention was diverted to the cooker.  I had never heard of the brand and dismissed it outright.  A Chinese manufacturer in European guise, with a name I was sure the vice president for marketing had chosen for sounding vaguely Dutch.  To me it sounded pound shop.  I wouldn't give it a second look if it came up as an option on my favorite e-commerce site.  It turned out to be Slovenian, made in Europe, its purchase by the landlord an act of Continental patriotism.

The installation was finished before the allocated two hours were up.  When I had been made familiar with the safety features of the new cooker – the flame on the hob stays on only when the regulator knob is held down for a good ten seconds after ignition and a wobbly sheet of aluminum has to be wedged between door and oven when the grill is on – the gas engineer asked for hand broom and dust pan and went on her knees to sweep up the Styrofoam beads scattered throughout the hallway.

I had just got back from a trip.  The flat hadn't seen a vacuum in weeks.  I told her not to worry.  I'd take care of it on the weekend.  "Aren't you supposed to leave a mess behind?" I asked.  We argued back and forth playfully while she continued to clean, catching defiant foam fragments in mid-air.  "We were told to do it, even if the customer insists otherwise."  Even the best stereotypes are far from universally true.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


The other day, my landlord sent me a letter inviting me to sign a new tenancy agreement.  Rent would be a few quid higher each week.  For the privilege I was asked to pay the same few quid as a one-off renewal fee.  This struck me as a bit over the top.

My rent is below average; I would stomach an increase without suffering too much indigestion.  Even with the new numbers, I'd be getting a good deal.  When I walk by estate agents, this plague of the high street that has overtaken pound shops in severity, flats similar to mine go by far higher amounts than what I pay.  How anyone in London can afford that is a question that won't be addressed in this post, but it's worth keeping in mind for anyone considering buying into this city.  There's only one way for prices to go, and it's down.

For the moment, all they do is go up, though.  The landlord has caught on and sees a chance of increasing his return.  There is no financial justification for this; it's pure greed.  Interest is so low that it's only a theoretical consideration.  The flat has benefited from no improvements at all over the last four years, all the while I've diligently increased the landlord's equity in the property, decreasing the principal and thus the interest paid each month on the mortgage.  I should be paying less, not more.

I understand that this reasoning does not fully reflect the reality of real-estate investing.  As I said above, I'd be quite willing to accept a small increase.  I'd pay it from next week without discussion if the landlord just asked politely.  What he does instead is get on my nerves about a new contract and about a contract renewal fee.  He sends me forms to fill in my personal details, banking and job information, and next of kin, as if I were a new applicant, not a tenant of four years.  What a waste of paper and time.  And even if there were the need for a new contract, which there isn't, a copy of the old one with a new number inserted would do just fine.  Nothing that would require a fee.

To battle what I couldn't agree with, I chose to engage in a passive aggressive confrontation.  Thanking him for his kind offer, I told the landlord that I was quite happy with the current tenancy agreement, and that we could all save ourselves a lot of trouble if we just kept it as it was.  If there was anything that needed attention, it was  gas safety.

The gas I considered a stroke of brilliance.  By law, landlords have to have rental properties inspected by a Gas Safe registered engineer once a year.  This ensures that the boiler won't explode and the cooker set the kitchen aflame.  Such an inspection had taken place once, but it was many years ago.  Mentioning this would keep the landlord occupied for a while, I reasoned.  He's not evil, just incompetent.  The outcome I was shooting for was a delay of the new tenancy agreement so I'd save the renewal fee by paying lower rent for enough weeks.  A month or two was all I needed.

It worked brilliantly at first, and then it didn't work at all.  Or maybe it did.  The story is so hot that I haven't made up my mind yet.  What's clear so far is that the new cooker I got as a result of the gas inspection works better than the old one.  But I might not have much time to enjoy it.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

new clothes

The best operating system in the history of computing, by life span anyway, is about to be disowned by its maker.  In April, Microsoft will stop providing security updates for Windows XP, effectively pulling the plug on it.  Most people who use Windows XP don't know why, which is why they're still using it, almost thirteen years after it was introduced.  XP is a fine thing indeed.  But happy consumers (as in consumers happy with what they've purchased) aren't lucrative consumers, and thus Microsoft keeps flogging new versions of their OS.  They're always advertised as upgrades but turn out to be anything but.

My mom's Gateway (boxy cows anyone?) isn't quite as old as XP but almost.  I purchased it in desperation in 2004 when my Thinkpad went blank just days from dissertation deadline.  When the Thinkpad came back a few days later, happy as a bunny, the Gateway in turn looked old, but my mom looked happy when it was hers a few months later.  That was, a quick dive into arithmetic reveals, more than nine years ago.  The computer was never top of the range, and outside a larger hard drive, it never enjoyed an upgrade.  It just got slower and slower until even my mom, a rather modest consumer, spoke up and inquired whether ten minutes was normal for the web to start.

The new computer runs Windows 8.  No need to be timid, I thought.  The interface is radically different, but mom's gonna figure it out.  First I had to, though.  Here are my conclusions:

Windows 8 is rubbish, not for what it is but for what it isn't.  It isn't innovative where it counts, it isn't novel, and it isn't progress.  It's XP in new clothes, garish and ill-fitting.  The radically new interface is, depending on how you look at it, either a telephone GUI that's utterly unsuited to the operation of a large-screen laptop or a revival of Yahoo! Widgets.  In either case, it's a layer of obfuscation on top of the clarity people are used to.

The widgets are also not as you would expect them, nimble jiffies for specific tasks.  Most widgets are nothing more than data hoovers.  Navigating them feels a bit like walking down İstiklal Avenue with touts at every corner, trying to drag you into club or bar.  The widgets try to get you to sign up for a Microsoft ID.  They won't run if you don't sign in.  I spent an hour removing widgets and installing proper programs with the same name, Skype for example or Microsoft Mail, that work just fine.

Some widgets work without registration, maps for example or a little calculator.  Nice, I thought, as I opened them.  I use the Dashbord calculator on my MacBook a lot.  Then the Windows widget opens – in full-screen mode.  I didn't find out how to make them smaller, to see the content of other windows for example.  It's like being in the stone age, on a Mac II, before the invention of multitasking.  You can also not close the widgets, short of hitting Alt-F4.  Instead they populate hot corners and do things that make no sense.  More than once I couldn't help but exclaim "Ooops, what was that?"  Something had happened on the screen that I might have triggered, but I had no idea what was going on or why.

Besides widgets there are Windows programs – this is XP in fancy dress, after all – but they can't be launched from the Start button.  The simple reason?  There isn't one.  Imagine Windows without a start button.  How do you operate it?  Everything that matters is there.  The first major update reintroduced the Start button, but only as a pacifier.  It doesn't do what it's supposed to but takes you to the widgets.  They tell you whether the sun's shining outside your window but don't list the most frequently used applications.  Many programs show up among the widgets (duplicating what's already on the Desktop) but they're hidden among crap and stretch off the screen.  Firefox, freshly installed, was nowhere at all.

Windows 8 is a spectacularly misdirected effort.  There is no end to the inanities.  As there's no start button, there's no obvious way of shutting down the computer.  Digging around a bit, I found it, hiding in a menu called Settings in a mobile element called the Charms bar, unrelated to anything else in appearance and experience.  Adding fog and creating confusion seem to have been major driving forces during when the new interface was thrown together.  Who puts the power button inside Settings?  (Alt-F4 off the Desktop does the trick as well.)

Another idiocy is the startup screen, entirely superfluous.  It shows a cartoonish picture of the Space Needle and tells you the time, but it doesn't let you log on.  You have to click in the startup screen to be taken to the logon screen, and it is again opaqueness that distinguishes Windows 8 from Windows XP, not innovation.

After a weekend of tinkering, the computer was running fine.  It starts wicked fast and shuts down as if dropping dead.  Mom's pictures are in place and all the software she's used to as well.  Another ten years of happy computing have just begun.

Monday, February 24, 2014

odd and ends

On the train to Portsmouth this morning, I started reading Nicholas Shakespeare's biography of Bruce Chatwin, one of my favorite writers, as percipient readers of this blog might recall.  The journey being short, I didn't get very far.  Chatwin is still at school.  But some defining characteristics have already been elaborated.  He's a collector of the unusual and happier alone out in the world that at home.

I don't know how much I will be able to identify with him, but I share his urge to see new places and the quest for the unknown.  On the other hand, my collector's drive is poorly developed and entirely immaterial, restricted to countries visited (32) and airports traveled through (76).  But I do like the unusual, quirkiness, efforts that have never seen the inside of a box.

Wherever I go, I seek out oddities rather than attraction.  Oftentimes, I walk in the opposite direction from the one indicated by the guidebook or dive into a dark alley just to see what's there.  I took this approach in Portsmouth and promptly got lost for an hour and a half.  In return, I saw a lot of grey and a lot of dilapidation, but nothing glorious, just general shabbiness.

Then I got to the Southsea neighborhood from where I felt it mandatory to travel to the Isle of Wight.  What's on the Isle, you might ask.  I couldn't give much of an answer.  Paul Theroux rode a train there during his royal encirculation, but I don't remember if he liked it.  For me, the island was only important as the endpoint of a ferry crossing of the Solent.  The journey was the real destination, a journey by Hovercraft as it happens.

Hovercraft are certainly on a special shelf in the cabinet of technical curiosities.  They are also amazingly fast.  Hovering, they are not impeded by the friction/drag/viscosity of water.  For three decades, there used to be a regular service across the English Channel.  A crossing took half an hour.  When I moved from Grenoble to London, this had been discontinued.  I crossed the Channel on a catamaran, which took 50 minutes.  The operator went out of business about a year later.  These days, service is safely back inside the box of tradition and takes two hours.

One has to travel to the Isle of Wight to experience hover travel in the UK.  The first thing I noticed was thunder.  The top speed of over 50 mph is achieved by 3 MW of air for lift and thrust.  A strategically placed fusion reactor would be most beneficial, but the boat has to make do with two pairs of diesel engines that are so loud I heard them before I even knew I was near the terminal.

When I got there, I noticed a second thing: there's no pier.  The craft hovers as easily over the pebbles of the beach as over water.  They just push a ladder to where it comes to rest.  You clamber in, the engines are thrown into gear and the boat (cause that's what it should be when you're crossing a waterway) roars, shudders, rises, turns and then takes off like a speedboat.  It takes waves rather smoothly, despite the idea that a simplified picture of the machine – world's largest outboarder strapped to a bouncy castle – gives, but the noise is furious.

Hovering on
Late start but fast

On the way home, my thoughts bounced around another technical oddity, not exactly related to hovercraft but also a way of getting across water without touching and highly unusual.  It's much to my dismay that I haven't collected a single transporter bridge in all my years of traveling.  Here's a list of those that exist with brief notes:

  • Pont Transbordeur, Marseille – Destroyed by the Nazis when they retreated.  I only saw the foundations on one side.
  • Rendsburger Hochbrücke, Germany – I learned about this when I researched this post.  A friend of mine lives nearby.
  • Rochefort-Martrou Bridge, France – I drove by, completely oblivious.
  • Vizcaya Bridge, Bilbao – I knew it was there but not why I didn't drive down there when I visited.
  • Aerial Bridge, Duluth – This is one that I actually saw, but when I was there, it had long been converted into an aerial lift bridge.
  • I also saw and even crossed the Royal Victoria Dock Bridge, London, but this isn't transporting and probably never will be.
  • Newport, Middlesbrough and Warrington Transporter Bridges, UK – Two within easy reach.  The third is disused.
  • Puente Transbordador, Buenos Aires – Rather far away and not transporting since 1947.
  • Schwebefähre Osten, Germany – For tourists only, though who's to say?

There's quite a bit to see left in this world.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

year in books

Here comes the fifth installment of my "last year's books". I'm not obsessed enough to count, but I'm pretty sure I haven't reached 100 yet. Nevertheless, going back through old installments, I'm sometimes surprised at what I'm supposed to have read. Who knows how much gets lost in the time between I read a book and write down my thoughts on it?

Never mind, here goes it for 2013:

  • A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul – This is a spectacular book, a foreign resident's increasingly alarmed observations in an unspecified African country. Despite its age (25 years), it's fresh and relevant. My favorite of 2013.
  • A House for Mister Biswas by the same author is much weaker. The novel details the life of the author's father, which is uneventful and centers on a quest for house ownership, a passion I can't share.
  • The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall – A humorous novel about a plyg family, written by a Mormon. How could I not buy this book? It's often hilarious but never demeaning. If you have spent time in Salt Lake and can picture Southern Utah, you must read this book.
  • A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li – I first encountered Li's writing in The New Yorker, melancholic stories of displacement and loss. The stories here are in a similar vein, though the migrants are different. Some come back to China or look back on it, but most have lost their familiar ways in a country of enormous changes.
  • Me talk pretty one day by David Sedaris – This book provided sustenance on an epic train journey to Germany where I went to return it to its rightful owner. I realized that there is such a thing as too much Dave Sedaris.
  • In Morocco by Edith Wharton – When I traveled to Morocco last May, I exasperated my companion with warnings about the mystery and peril of her country quoted from this book, written in 1920. The bits on culture and history are still relevant, though, and astutely observed.
  • Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid – Published before The Reluctant Fundamentalist by the same author, this book is not quite as snappy, but the story of desire, injustice, duplicity and bitterness is vibrant throughout. The end rattles out of predictability several times to leave the reader dazzled.
  • Was wir nicht haben, brauchen Sie nicht by Dieter Moor – The author, a rigid Swiss straight from the freezer, bought a farm in an unimaginable backwater between Berlin and Poland and slowly, very slowly warms up and connects with the locals. Funny if you can relate to the history and geography of the place.
  • Open City by Teju Cole – A Nigerian grad student walking the streets of New York to find himself and his place could have been really good, but a lack of emotional connections between the protagonist and his surroundings makes the book deeply unsatisfying. It's just babble.
  • Letter to Daniel by Fergal Keane – Collected posts from a time when there weren't blogs, only From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4. Quiet but powerful missives from a changing world, Hong Kong, South Africa and Ireland.
  • The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker – A glorification of OCD that came into being when the author got worked up about the new paper towels in the toilet that weren't quite as nice as the old ones.
  • The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie – Mandatory reading, given the overreactions from all sides that its release triggered. I didn't think much of it, but it's important for the violence, cowardice and vice it exposed in so many.
  • The Living Great Lakes by Jerry Dennis – Most unusual, a rumination on the Great Lakes region performed while afloat. Concerning for the most part the transfer of a concrete-hulled boat from Lake Michigan to Maine, the book strays from its topic towards the end, but that's not to its detriment. A most unexpected delight.
  • The Road from Damascus by Robin Yassin-Kassab – A good read, but what does it matter? There are infinitely more pressing issues on the subject of Syria these days. The author knows this and tries to do something. Follow his blog and engage.
  • London Orbital by Iain Sinclair – I had earlier discovered what kind of writer Sinclair is, and that I didn't like it at all. This book is more of the same, and not just more but way too much. I struggled halfway through and then gave up, much like with Downriver.

Fourteen books, not bad for a year when I was often distracted and my mind rarely at home.

Friday, February 14, 2014

in a bubble

Because of homosexuals, those invidious sinners, Britain is drowning. That's what some nutter in politics was claiming, though it's unlikely to have garnered him votes. Despite his idiocy, he was right on the second part of his statement. The southwest of England and a bit of land called Wales have been battered by violent storms for weeks. Whenever the winds calmed, buckets of rain filled the void. Large parts of the country are disaster zones.

A bit of scenic railroad has fallen into the sea in Cornwall, and the Somerset Levels are a vast lake. The latter shouldn't surprise. The Levels are below sea level, land impoldered over centuries in gross contravention of divine purpose. Evangelic simpletons must see a connection. The more practically minded called for the dredging of rivers. But how could even the best-dredged river take water away from the Levels? It won't flow uphill to the sea.

Nearer to home, there are severe flood warnings, the meteorological equivalent of a red terror alert, in the Thames Valley. It was at this point that I started listening. I consider myself living in the Thames Valley. I go running by the river on weekends. It's not that far. What I heard when I opened my ears wasn't encouraging. Many names were foreign to me, but there was flooding near Teddington, which is one of my favorite walking destinations just upriver from Richmond, at the end of the District line. Teddington has a wonderfully intricate and ancient lock-and-weir complex designed to stop the twice-daily insurgency of the tidal river.

These days, the menace lurks upriver. With the wildest winter rains for 250 years washing into the Thames from a vast catchment, the river is expected to rise by inches every day. It's double jeopardy for London. The full moon brings spring tides, exceptional amounts of North Sea pushing up the estuary all the way to the lock at Teddington. The Thames Barrier, London's primary protector against the forces of the sea, has been closed 33 times since December, as much as during the first 17 years of its existence.

The curious bit about all this is that I could be excused for not noticing. London has been spared the worst excesses of nature. It rains almost every night, and two weeks ago something that could almost be called a tornado ripped through the market on North End Road and scattered bowls and produce all over the street, but the days are relatively dry. My lunchtime runs at work, shockingly numerous for no particular reason, have been held up by rain only once. Hyde Park is a bog, but the footpaths are mostly dry.

It's hard to comprehend why London is an entity apart meteorologically, a dry city rising mightily from inundated fields, but one can't say it's inconsistent. The city is already culturally and economically apart from the rest of the country. Everyone's talking about the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. For London, independence would make much more sense. Crazier things have been suggested.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

tube trouble

Last night, tube drivers walked off their mobile places of work, leaving the city increasingly immobile as a result. This is how I heard it on the news this morning. However, when I walked to work, I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Lillie Road was clogged as always but traffic wasn't immoderate further into town, and there weren't any more pedestrians on the sidewalks than usually. For a while, I thought I had got my dates messed up.

It wasn't supposed to be any old strike either. Drivers belonging to the two biggest unions would jointly walk out for 48 hours, longer than the usual but infrequent 24-hour strikes. Thinking back to my two years in France, I can't even remember a strike that went on for more than a day. This shows how working conditions have improved, but takes away from the heroism this story could contain.

Back in France, the only effect strikes, even the infamous general ones, had on me was an obligation to sign in at work, to prove that I was there and deserved to get paid for the day. It didn't exactly feel like crossing a picket line, but somehow a sense of moral failure was contained in this furtive signature.

Today, I didn't have to sign in. Many commuters, none of them on strike, would have been unable to do so. Transport for London had warned of severe disruptions to their services (though they also boasted of Olympic volunteers flown in from 2012 to keep things moving) and advised people to work from home. The labs at Imperial were consequently rather quiet. That the canteen was heaving doesn't fit the narrative, but there you go.

The strike, by the way, was about the proposed closure of ticket offices in most tube stations. The unions are worried about job losses while also flogging their favorite slogan - this will make traveling less safe. Proponents of the changes claim that ticket office staff will be redeployed to where they're needed, to provide advice and assistance by the entrance barriers and the ticket machines. No stations will be left without staff.

This sounds reasonably to me. Locals don't use ticket offices. Oyster cards are recharged on machines or online. And for tourists to ask questions, it's easier to approach someone standing there with a recognizable uniform and a big smile than leaning into a hole in the wall with a thick glass window making communication difficult.

From what I can tell, most stations already operate like this. My mom, for example, once complained jokingly that she tried to top up her travel card, but even before she could set the language of the machine to German, an attendant had walked over, figured out what she wanted to do and done it for her. It was a bit frustrating because she wanted to figure it out herself, but this is the kind of service that makes London such an easy city to navigate.

No matter, the strike was on. On the way back home tonight, I walked by the shuttered entrance to Gloucester Road tube station. No one was working there and nothing moving. That gave me an idea. I hopped into the Waitrose next door, not needing much but with some curiosity. The shop is usually full with people on their way from work and is a bit of a zoo. The aisles are bumper car tracks and waiting time at the checkout is long. Tonight it was rather pleasant, as if the unions had decided to improve the shopping experience of a clientele that's rather removed from the concept of militant industrial action. The walk-out will continue tomorrow.

Friday, January 24, 2014

trains and flaws

Two topics get people worked up around here. There's the weather, and there's public transport. There's always something to bitch about. I walk to work and most days that's just fine. I don't get stuck in snow or soaked, and I don't freeze to death. When I take the tube on weekends, it doesn't always – because of "planned engineering works" – take me where I want to go, but it gets me around in comfort and with speed. I entertain the notion that all the complaining is just social grease, to give people something to talk about.

Today, as I sat in The Eagle for a lunch of sausage and mash washed down with a pint of DNale, I reexamined my view. I was in Cambridge for the day to connect with two guys there who are in the same trade as me, to learn from them and share some tricks. Getting there hadn't been so easy.

I had started my journey at eight at West Brompton – or rather, I had tried. I got down to the platform, read, Next Train in 7 Minutes, and started yelling silently at the London Underground customer service representative that had taken residence in my head for the occasion: "Seven minutes? During rush hour? You can't be serious." Then the train came, the proverbial can of sardines. The doors opened, there was some shuffling, then they closed again. I was still on the platform. The next train was only two minutes away, but hope was misplaced. It was another can of sardines, and I stayed behind again. I stomped off in aggravation, annoyed at being left behind, annoyed at having been charged two quid for the pleasure, wondering how people endure this on a daily basis, and dashed for Earl's Court. My train from King's Cross wouldn't wait.

Once there, under the wonderful glass-mesh canopy of the new extension, I wrangled with a machine. I had bought my ticket online. To print it, I had to not only insert my credit card but also enter a litany of letters and numbers that had been communicated to me during the purchase. Why is my credit card not enough, especially if I have a booking for that day? Is this for my own benefit? Is this is to prevent someone stealing my credit card and then going to all the train stations in London every morning to see if any of the machines print a ticket out for him to go somewhere he doesn't want to go? Or is it just a design flaw?

English railroads are of course notorious for design flaws. There's the idiotic warning sign about doors closing up to 30 seconds before departure.

Doors closing
Doors closing

All this really says is that the train might not depart for up to 30 seconds after the doors close. No passenger could give a rat's ass about this, as long as the doors don't close before the scheduled departure time and arrival is on time. My arrival in Cambridge, by the way, was ten minutes late. This made me miss a bus and be late for my first appointment, but that's just a side note. This post is about trains and about flaws.

My favorite design flaw is on each door of First Great Western trains that periodically take me into the Oxfordshire countryside for experiments. These doors don't have handles on the inside. To open them, a sign (always too dark for me to get a good picture of it but the story is on the web) instructs you to

  1. Wait for 'Door unlocked' sign above door
  2. Lower window
  3. Open door using outside handle

If you've never seen this, you will think this is a joke, but it's not. The handle on the outside is so far down that it requires certain acrobatic skill to reach. Trains thus pull into a station with an arm dangling from each door. There's nothing to add to this.

Except maybe: The train back to London was canceled, some problem with the couplings between two half trains to be mated for the journey. We were diverted to another train. Overhead, an announcement: "Passengers to London please board now. The train is about to depart." At that time, the door locks were still engaged and we were standing in the rain. There were no curses or gasps. Bemused looks were vastly outnumbered by stoic immobility. This is England.

We got to London eventually. Ignoring the social compact of the land that stipulates standing back and apologizing whatever happens, I pushed into a Piccadilly line train that was at capacity already. The PA system buzzed about the Victoria line, which was largely shut down after a creative engineer poured fast-setting concrete into a control room. This was initially announced as flooding, giving people something familiar to talk about. It's been raining a lot lately.

Monday, January 20, 2014

delayed gratification

Sometime in 1999, after the sun had bleached all the wildflowers from even the highest slopes, I ran up Mount Timpanogos for the second time. Given that Mt. Timpanogos is the second tallest peak of the Wasatch Range and I'm not completely mad, it's not quite correct to speak of running. But it felt like it. The day hike is long and relentless and it seemed as if we never stopped.

I had done the same hike a year earlier, freshly arrived in the wilderness of Utah and rather clueless. A bunch of Mormons had taken me on, friendly fellows eager to share their way of life. That day, their way of life included sandals up to nearly 12,000 feet, flying down I-15 in the bed of a pickup truck, and root beer floats. I can't say anymore which was worst. The days back then were so full of novelty that each one felt like a week, and stimuli piled up without much processing.

The second summer, I was with international students, my company for the next five years. I remember Luis who had just purchased a camera from a pawn shop. This was before everyone defaulted to eBay. The camera was a Canon AE-1 Program, a classic by some accounts. To me it just looked beautiful, features pared down to the essential, no faff, just a few knobs and buttons and a good lens.

I envied Luis his camera. As it often is with this feeling, it wasn't rationally explainable. But I wanted one. I think I went to pawn shops myself once or twice, but I wasn't lucky. Then I got distracted and when I looked again, a Nikon appeared on my radar that was bigger, clunkier and arguably more powerful. I loved it, but I never forgot about the AE-1 P.

The Nikon is long gone, but my desire has remained. So the other day in Munich when I found myself in front of a used camera dealer, I hit it hard. I walked out with a little dream come true.

Canon AE-1 Program
Canon AE-1 Program

Now the question is what to do with it. I've bought some Ilford film. That was easy. Black-and-white is the only option. I can probably use the darkroom at Imperial. But what to shoot?

That's actually easy too. My fascination for dereliction, industrial decline and corroding steel can probably be married successfully to black-and-white photography. The walk I did a while ago and only now managed to document, illustrates what I mean – even though on that particular walk, color was better for most photos.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


Ever since this blog went into hibernation – or, more properly, given the second to last post before nothing happened for a long time, into shutdown – in October, I was wondering if and how this blog would restart. I don't have an answer. In any case, this opening sentence sounds excessively grand. I didn't wonder much about it at all. When I did, Syria popped into my mind. Around Christmas, I almost sat down and punched some of the thoughts that kept rolling around my head into the MacBook that was traveling with me. But then the snow was glistening fresh from the trees of the Black Forest and Flucha wanted to go on a walk into the white void, and what difference would my words make anyway? The world will keep turning no matter, grinding remorselessly, shredding to pitiful bits the people that were, moments ago, living their lives peacefully and not asking for much. My shock and exasperation are irrelevant. They find no release.

My words make a difference only to myself. I've kept the blog for eight years now, mostly to have flag posts for memory when my brain isn't enough. I can go back, read a post from way back, recall what triggered it and oftentimes closely related events, encounters, even feelings. Moonwalking with Einstein, quickly read over Christmas and since recommended to anyone who'd listen, builds entirely on the concept of memorizing by anchoring, of making little things big to make them memorable. Reviewing the book was another thought I had of how to restart the blog.

I could also write about an almost perfect Christmas, a week with Flucha in the snowy woods, the traditions that were started last year and diligently followed this year. The Christmas meal alone would be worth a post but then it did so last year already and didn't get one. Let's call it another new tradition.

In the end I have nothing to restart this blog with because I'm not sure I want to restart it. But a new year has begun and just emptying the book bar on the side without writing anything at all felt a bit silly. So there you go, it's just housekeeping.

Happy New Year!