Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Closed doors

Here at the institute the work day goes from 6am to 8pm. Within these limits one is allowed to work, and that doesn't include weekends. This is France. So we're all trying our best to get our work done within these 14 hours. That's not always possible as science is notoriously unpredictable and experiments cannot always be planned to the point. Sometimes it is necessary to stay longer or, more rarely, come earlier. This is not forbidden, by no means, but it is strongly discouraged.

Sometime around 8pm, several things happen. First, a security guards does his round, checks that doors are locked and windows closed, turns off lights and gets everything ready for the night. Notably, he takes the names of those still working. What purpose this serves is not clear to me. There is no reward for working long, one is not given extra mandatory vacation, nor are there any penalties. I guess it is mostly symbolic, the first obvious sign that one is not welcome anymore. Go home, come back tomorrow.

The second sign is more direct. A voice so loud and with such authority that one instinctively stops and listens announces over the PA system that the institute will close its doors at 8pm. No reaction is advised, but the message is clear.

The third sign is the most insidious. After 8pm, all the lights in the hallways are controlled by a timer. Five minutes after switching them on they go black again. This strongly dampens any motivation and eagerness to get work done. By the end of the day, when the sun sets outside, everyone remaining in lab is tired and needs every possible source of light to stay performant. The dark hallways say louder than any announcement could that work is not tolerated at night.

I find this already highly irritating and scarcely compatible with my way of working. But imagine my surprise and later my anger when this evening the guard came through and took my name before 7:30pm and I went upstairs minutes later to discover that my office with all my keys inside had been locked. Someone here is clearly overly ambitious. Luck wanted it that the big boss was still around. He had a general key, opened my office and prevented me from having to sleep in the lab. To my complaints that if the guards need to do their work they should at least wait till it's time, he just laughed and said, this is the way it is.

At the end of it, this story is just one more example of how the institute is run by bureaucrats and science-illiterate rule makers who do not care if their decisions and procedures impede us scientists or slow our research. And the big boss does not raise hell to make sure science comes first and everything else has to be in its support. What a contrast to where I did my graduate work.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Die beste Mannschaft

Es sollte das Dreamteam sein, die beste Mannschaft, die es je gegeben hat, die Lance Armstrong den Weg zum siebten Toursieg in Folge ebnete. Bis zum Mannschaftszeitfahren ging das auch gut, doch dann zeigneten sich Risse. Was heißt Risse, die Mannschaft wurde am Col de la Schlucht im Elsaß komplett zerlegt und sah auch danach nicht immer souverän aus.

Eine andere Mannschaft, mit Vorschußlorbeer ebenso überhäuft, die Abteilung Mobilkommunikation der Telekom, startete weniger erfolgreich, steigerte sich aber immer mehr. Von Anfang an war Vino auf Angriff eingestellt. Er war dritter beim ersten Zeitfahren, zweiter in einer frühen Sprintetappe und riß in den Bergen immer wieder aus. Er wurde oft gestellt und manchmal abgehängt. Die Königsetappe in den Alpen gewann er trotzdem. Beim zweiten Zeitfahren wurde er wieder dritter und schnappte am Tag darauf der versammelten Sprintermeute den Sieg auf den Champs weg. Damit wurde er fünfter insgesamt.

Klödi entschied sich erst im Elsaß, an besagtem Col de la Schlucht, sein Können zu zeigen. Er beendete die Etappe als zweiter. Danach griff er immer wieder an und bereitete Attacken seiner Kapitäne vor. Leider erlitt er sich auf der letzten Pyrenäenetappe eine Fraktur des Handgelenkes und mußte aussteigen.

Und Ulle? Er startete trotz wenig Erwartungsdruck von seiten der Experten so richtig schlecht und wurde schon im ersten Zeitfahren von Lance deklassiert. Doch er ließ sich nicht unterkriegen, verlor zwar gegen weiter Zeit gegen den Dominator der Tour, aber griff auch immer mal an und machte gegen die meisten anderen Konkurrenten Plätze gut. Das zweite Zeitfahren war dann richtig schön anzuschauen. Mit der gewaltigen Kraft seiner dicken Beinen drückt die Menschmaschine Ullrich sein Giant durch die Menschenmassen, ohne auch nur einmal die Ideallinie oder den Sattel zu verlassen. Ulle fährt um den Tagessieg. Letztendlich war wieder einmal Lance schneller, aber der dritte Gesamtrang war Lohn der Mühen.

Der extrem kaltschnäuzige Etappenerfolg von Guerini und der Gewinn der Mannschaftwertung waren zusätzlicher Lohn für die harte Arbeit. Leider stimmte manchmal die Kommunikation zwischen den drei Topfahrern nicht so recht. Sie fuhren teilweise alleine am Berg mit nur wenigen Sekunden Abstand. Da wäre mehr möglich gewesen. Was nicht möglich gewesen wäre, war Lance den siebten Sieg zu nehmen. Die beste Mannschaft nutzt nichts, wenn der besten Fahrer so frei von Schwäche ist.

Guantanamo in England?

Two days ago, police in London shot and killed a 27-year-old terror suspect from Brazil. It turned out, rather quickly, that the guy was an innocent electrician just going about his business. The government of Brazil is outraged. The police in London are embarrassed and speak of a terrible mistake. The public in general is asking why suspects can be shot on the open street without trial or jury. Are the police allowed to act as a lynch mob?

The outrage is understandable, but for me the shooting is just another step on the frightening course of our civilization into anomie. The previous was the incarceration, for about three years now, of terror suspects in the United States off-shore penitentiary at Guantanamo Bay, an area deliberately chosen to be beyond the bounds of law. The prisoners are just as lacking of basic rights as the poor Brazilian electrician was. They are still alive, but their lives are suspended. They are locked up indefinitely with no idea why exactly and with no opportunity to address the charged because there aren’t any and no one is listening to them anyway.

Terror needs to be fought relentlessly but not with any means possible. The question that needs to be asked is what is possible, what is acceptable. It is intolerable that people are being killed because, well just because, for no reason whatsoever. It is also intolerable that because of the acts of lawless terrorist our society is itself becoming lawless. We are fighting terrorism not emulating it. Before you accept everything our governments cook up, ask yourself if you want to be the next entirely innocent person that is shot by police just because you are commuting to work. Is it any better than being killed by terrorists?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Good rides and bad beer

I’m sitting on my kitchen table suffused with the sweet juices of nostalgia. I’ve just returned from a great ride and am enjoying a second-rate beer. I’m thinking of my years in Utah. That’s what we used to do. Riding and beer. I thought this time behind me, I thought I had gained sophistication. Wine has become my beverage of choice. But the hotter it gets, the less enticing does a red wine seem. So the other day I went to get a twelve-pack, and now I’m looking back on my day.

I rode two cols in the Chartreuse that I had not done before. The first one, the Col de Coq, is impressive. Over an intensely steep 12.8km, the road climbs 1100 meters from the floor of the Grésivaudan valley, through two tunnels and later high above everything else. A beautiful ride, very quiet, and great road surface. Unfortunately, the descent on the other side can’t quite compete. The road is narrow, winding and covered with pot holes. Oncoming cars provide strong challenges. Suicide material. The road through the Gorges de Guiers Morts is much better, freshly repaved. Right before St Laurent du Pont at the end of the gorge is a sharp turnoff to the left, where the forest road to the Col de la Charmette starts. 700 meters of climbing over 10km shouldn’t be too challenging, but then it’s not only the average pitch that makes climbing hard. I had no idea what kind of epic I was in for.

While the noise from the main road was still fading away, the surface of the forest road already had. The climb was much steeper than the average seven percent, and I was left with ample time to contemplate the science of pot holes. It seems there are an infinite number of holes that can fill one square meter of road. Further up I added archeology to my studies. At least three layers of tarmac were visible on top of one another and sometimes next to each other. Some prehistoric Chartreusians must have built this road when no one was imagining cars. From there, more blacktop was added in fits and starts over the years. My bike was hopping over the bumpy surface like a horse in a military event. I had long stopped trying to avoid the holes. My goal, more sensible for sure, had become to navigate them sustaining as little damage as possible. With the state of roads here in general, and this pathetic example in particular, I’m really amazed I haven’t got a flat yet. 110psi in the tires is none too gentle to my backside, but it beats walking home after the second flat any day of the week.

After four kilometers of climbing the monastery of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Chartreuse rewarded me with a smooth surface and a very manageable gradient. Both lasted for half a kilometer, after which the gradient picked up again whereas the road surface simply disappeared. I was riding through gravel, over remaining bumps of tarmac and between rocks. Where the hell was my mountain bike?

Then came the tunnels, five of them, crudely carved into the rock before the advent of power tools. The fourth is about 200m long and completely dark. After ten meters, I saw nothing but a tiny bright circle in the distance that marked the end. I was going slowly, it was still steep, and I was hoping I wouldn’t hit a rock and fall off my bike, or fall into a hole. I didn’t see a thing. Riding completely blind, with no idea of pitch nor sense of surrondings or what was below me was one of my weirdest road biking experiences ever.

When I thought I had reached the top, after the gradient had leveled off anew and I was giving my big chain ring a workout for a change, the mountain hit back with a vengeance. The last kilometer and a half must have been quite a bit above 10%. It was a fight that I nearly lost. Nearly, but not quite. From the top at 1262m, it’s 20km back to my apartment, all downhill.

I’m taking another sip from this concoction the French call beer. It’s very similar to what Utahns called beer. Not only does it taste foul, it also leaves an offensive aftertaste in your mouth. To top it off, it has 4.2% alcohol, just like in Utah.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Fascination Tour

I’m sitting here with glass of Cote du Rhône and watch the Tour. For one week now, I’ve been shown daily what I have missed over the last six years. The Tour is rolling through France, and I’m vraiment a part of it, just sitting here in my chair. Not much beats French TV for watching the Tour. It starts with all mountain stages being shown in the full beauty. Even the flat days deserve three hours live. Barely any commercial interrupts the broadcast.

But time is only one aspect. Another is the dense atmosphere. No one else can be as close to the action as someone watching TV here. Laurent Jalabert is reporting the action of the day and after the stage, at least three racers join the spike-haired announcer, Gerard Holtz, in Velo Club to keep us glued to our screens even longer. The foolhardy guys that film the race from their motorcycles have a direct line to the studio, as has the camera man sitting in the helicopter. There is always someone right where something just happened. Moto 2 might be filming the pack while moto 1 is telling details about the break-away. Suddenly the dude in the helicopter screams something about a crash.

And since the language everyone speaks is French, it’s very easy to get interviews from truly everyone. Today, Bjarne Riis and Johan Bruyneel were both live on air during the race, giving interviews while navigating their team cars through the zoo that is the Tour caravan. Same goes for the managers of almost any other team. After a while I lost track. Lance is totally relaxed and quite happy to chat with the guys on the motorcycle. Vinokourov speaks French, Hushovd speaks French, Boonen speaks French. And I’m sitting here in my chair and listen.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Der Toursieger

Mit einem Glas Bordeaux habe ich es mir vor meinem Fernseher gemütlich gemacht. Wie jeden Tag zeigt France2 die Tour ausführlich und live. Draußen regnet es. Auf der Strecke ist das nicht anders. Christophe Mengin begeistert die Massen mit einer couragierten Fahrt. Er will dort, wo er zuhause ist, unbedingt gewinnen. Es sind nur nur fünf Kilometer, aber der Abstand wird nicht geringer. Sollten die Sprinter diesmal leer ausgehen? Ich genehmige mir noch einen Schluck.

Die ersten fünf Etappen der Tour sind Geschichte. Eine knappe Woche, in der viel passiert ist. Schon im ersten Zeitfahren hat Armstrong den dicken Jan in Grund und Boden gefahren. Für viele ist die Tour zu Ende, das Ergebnis klar. Für mich hat sie gerade erst angefangen. Lance ist stark und von Ullrich auch dieses Jahr nicht zu besiegen. Das heißt aber nicht automatisch, daß es wieder den gleichen Toursieger wie in den letzten sechs Jahren geben wird.

Vor zwei Wochen gab es ein großes Theater, weil Team Telekom den verdienten Frontkämpfer und Frankreichveteranen Erik Zabel zuhause gelassen hat, um das Team ganz auf Ulle auszurichten. Nach dem Einzelzeitfahren schien sich meine ursprünliche Meinung, daß Zabel der Mannschaft zehnmal dienlicher wäre als Andreas Klöden in seiner gegenwärtigen indiskutablen Form, auf breiter Front durchzusetzen. Da hatte ich aber schon längst erkannt, daß Ulle und Klödi fein aufeinander abgestimmt sind. Die können sich gegenseitig im Grupetto die Berge hochschieben. Nein, Ullrich gewinnt auch diese Tour nicht.

Er ist zwar der selbsternannte stärkste Rivale Armstrongs, aber objektiv gesehen nicht einmal die Nummer eins im eigenen Team. Der zweite Pfeil im Köcher und Cokapitän der Mannschaft heißt Alexander Winokurow. Er hat mit seinem Sieg bei Lüttich-Bastogne-Lüttich und mit starker Fahrweise bei der Dauphiné Libéré gezeigt, daß 2003 kein Zufall war. Damals hatte er an einem dramatischen Dreikampf mit Armstrong und Ullrich mitgewirkt und für die spannendste Tour seit langer Zeit gesorgt. Nun sagt er seit Monaten mit leiser und doch bestimmter Stimme, daß der stärkste Fahrer im Team alleiniger Kapitän sein wird und die Tour gewinnen kann. Er hat keinen Zweifel, daß er das sein wird, und sieht Ullrich inzwischen sicher als seinen Helfer. In der Mannschaft scheint das allerdings noch keiner verstanden zu haben, am allerwenigsten Ullrich selbst.

Inzwischen sind die Fahrer auf dem letzten Kilometer dieser sechsten Etappe angekommen. Es regnet immer noch in Strömen. Mengin führt immer noch. Jetzt die letzte Kurve, für die das Tempo mit Bedacht gewählt sein will. Mengin überreißt, will unbedingt gewinnen und verliert letztlich alles. Er schliddert über den nassen Asphalt in die Absperrung. Das Peloton folgt wenige Sekunden später, mehrheitlich auf demselben schmerzvollen Weg. Im allgemeinen Chaos, keiner weiß genau wie, sind zwei Rennfahrer losgestiefelt, haben den Sturz vermieden und machen jetzt den Sieg unter sich aus. Ein unwichtiger Italiener gewinnt, Alexander Winokurow wird zweiter.

Mit meinem zweiten Glas feiere ich Winos zweiten Platz. Jetzt ist alles klar. Es gibt im Feld nur einen einzigen Fahrer, der sich nicht mit Armstrongs Allmacht zumindest unterwußt abgefunden hat. Nach den Zeitfahren hat Lance einen beträchtlichen Vorsprung, doch Winokurow weiß, wie er zu besiegen ist. Er muß ihm Zeit abnehmen, bis der Vorsprung dahin ist. Der erste Schritt ist getan, 19 Sekunden sind verschwunden. Und die Bergen kommen erst noch. Der Weg nach Paris ist lang. Prosit.

the loser in the end

Yesterday, Paris lost its bid to host the Olympic Games 2012. Today, in a display of empathy with the loser, I came to lab sporting my "Leipzig 2012" T-shirt and a sad look on my face. My fine sense of humor didn't go entirely unnoticed but all lightheartedness vanished when we learned that, as the song goes, the winner takes it all. London will not only host the Olympic Games but an unpredictable bunch of psychopathic killers as well.

It is a truly frightening prospect that the attacks on London buses and subway stations might be a reaction to the city's winning the Olympic games. That the terrorists attacked the after the announcement means that they do not oppose the idea of London holding the Games. In fact, one could suspect that they rather like the idea. If I lived in London, I'd be very scared indeed and looking for opportunities elsewhere.

I don't live in London, though, but in Grenoble, and the reaction here reminds me very much of what I had to suffer through for more then three years in Salt Lake. A self-conciously provincial city is schizophrenically fearing an attack and priding itself in being the next potential target. In Salt Lake that was plain ridiculous. A city that can't even be identified on a map by half the US population is not more a target for terrorists than Ondorkhaan, Mongolia, or Grootfontein, Namibia.

I thought I had escaped that manically energized paranoia when I moved to France, but I was wrong. I should have known. France likes nothing more than competing with the US and proving that it's much better in any respect than the evil empire across the ocean. This oftentimes fruitless competetion is sometimes baffling and mostly ridiculous. Today, a audibly frazzled voice annouced via the PA system that the security level has been kicked up a notch at the center where I work. Colorful schemes as in the US aren't employed to make people more likely to buy into the general paranoia, nor was the brainless consumption of duct tape advocated. But the fact alone that someone in Grenoble thinks the terrorists might march into town any minute now has me scratching my head.

After London will be as after 9/11, as after Madrid, as after Istanbul have been. People will be scared for a short while. Governments will try their damndest to freak people out even more for immediate political gain or for lack of rational thought. A short while later, everything will go back to normal, everyone will go about their business as usual. We will remember that every year, every month, every week - and almost every day, more people die in car accidents, of the effects of smoking, of cancer, of malaria, and of AIDS than because of terrorist attacks. We know that the terrorists are the real losers. And no-one is going to wear a T-shirt to empathize with them.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

the zeroeth post

It was all Nate's fault. He got me started. He got his own little blog, aptly named thenateblog, that I find myself checking every once in a while. Thanks, Nate.