Friday, December 22, 2006

merry christmas

For the last few days I've been off work, and I've not been so stressed out and exhausted in a while. I think the biggest reason for my fatigue is doing all the daily chores with one hand only. Everything I normally just do becomes a deliberate effort.

What the stress is not due to, this year for the first time, is buying gifts. Our family decided on not having gifts because what's the point really? We don't need to prove we love each other. Instead, we're going to Prague for a few days to have a good time all of us together.

The only person who didn't keep her end of the bargain is my grandmother who decided she would like to have a new shoulder. To get this, she took a dive on the pavement and broke the old one into a million pieces. That was two weeks ago. The doctors patched her up for the moment, but she is certainly in a much worse shape than me. And we're gonna be dragging two disabled people through town.

Merry Christmas everyone and a Happy New Year. I'll be back in January.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


There's a particularly persistent bot out there that just can't keep away from my site and leaves the same stupid comment on my blog every other day. I've got a bit sick of this and have now modified the settings so it won't require a blogger account anymore to comment. Anyone can do it. But you have to be able to recognized a word of six warped letters. Let's see if that keeps the machines out.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

scratching my head

While I was going through my flickr photo stream to decide which pictures to put into the little story I'm writing about the trip to Rome I took in September, I noticed that the photo of my arm in a cast (part of a post a few days earlier) got 102 hits. This is about 100 more than any of the other images. And I'm left wondering what's so exciting about an arm in a cast. Believe me, it sucks!

Friday, December 15, 2006

thinking ahead

It's been two days now that I have my arm in a cast, and I hate it. It feels like my hand got stuck in a big earthen bowl, and I can't get it out. Sometimes I feel like smashing the white glob against a wall to see it shatter into a million pieces. The doctors probably wouldn't like this, and neither would my thumb. Sometimes the thought to simply take it off crosses my mind. I've tried it. It doesn't work.

So I'm klutzing through life with one useless arm. Last night I took a shower. How am I supposed to clean the arm that holds the soap while the other is idling hidden underneath a plastic bag? How do I do dishes? Do I have to get disposable plates, knives and forks? Or should I rather get a wife?

To keep my mind off the rather depressing present, I decided to replace some of my cycling gear. I went to Veloland, which had a going-out-of-business sale, and focused on the future for a while. Spring is around the corner, I tried to tell myself, and the cast will be gone.

Sidi Genius

Besides cables and tools I bought a new pair of cycling shoes to succeed my old ones. Both are Sidis, the best road shoes in existence, but the first pair is now, at eleven years, beginning to show its age.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

next stop morgue

This morning after breakfast, I went back to the hospital to keep the appointment I got yesterday after receiving a handful of stitches in my tendon and skin. My hope was to have my fist liberated from its boxing glove of gauze and the tendon and thumb declared in good shape and to leave shortly thereafter with only a little patch on my thumb that wouldn't impede my goings-about. Maybe I'd even be able to go back to work before Christmas.

This is not at all what transpired. The nurse who removed my bandages didn't look much at the wound. She had a colleague call the emergency room to see what damages they had actually see the day before. Then a powwow was held in the examination room where it was concluded it would be beneficial for my healing process if I wore a cast henceforth. And so it came to pass.

my first cast

I'm mildly excited as this is my first cast, and I'm grateful that I have regained at least partial command over the fingers of my left hand. I imagine that two ends of a tendon will grow into one more easily if the assembly is held as still as possible, but I think that the treatment might be just a little excessive. What's gonna happen the next time I return to the hospital? Will I leave in a wheelchair - or worse?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

dangers of a sharp knife

I cut myself surgically with an exceptionally well sharpened kitchen knife the other day. The real surgeon, later in the hospital, discovered that I had not just cut through skin as if it was butter but in fact severed a tendon. A dozen stitches and three meters of bandages later I looked worse than after any of my many mountain bike crashes. People in the tram home offered me their seats.

no broken wrist

I'll post what exactly happened when the brace is gone. Typing with one hand is no fun.

Monday, December 11, 2006

savoir vivre

As I was walking my Mexican friend home from the theater tonight, I noticed two little things that I thought were worth sharing. I even went back out into the cold to take a few pictures. As it is too late to have my tired brain produce smart lines, I'll let the images speak (and demote this highly self-regarding blog to a measly slide show).

side of burned Audi

This poor Audi was parked only yards from where I live. It's well known that French kids like to torch cars, a hundred of them are burned in an average night across the country, but this takes normally place far away from the safe cradle of Bourgeois life, in the banlieues, where French society is mostly absent and a parallel dog-eat-dog world has developed. There is nothing to interpret into this. It's just the first time I've seen a car brulée.

merry tropical Christmas

On a lighter note (no pun intended), Grenoble put up Christmas decoration last week. This year is the first time I see brightly flashing lights, almost strobes. I'm not sure how they convey the holiday spirit. I also saw for the first time Christmas palm trees. My friend immediately took a liking to them, but I'm in doubt. This is not Yucatán or Puerto Vallarta here. Anyway, it's French living, I guess.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

cold filtered

Today I went to see Martin Scorsese's The Departed, which is, in a singular case of translation-being-better-than-the-original, being called Les Infiltrés here in France. It's a double game between the Irish mafia and the Boston police who each have a mole inside the other organization. Both operate with extreme delicacy and care, and for two hours the suspense rises, the action mounts, brutality increases, and the nets tossed out to fish in the moles tighten suffocatingly.

These first two hours are extremely well made and highly entertaining. There is no blatant silliness to make all but the most imbecile viewers cringe. There is no positive face recognition from six blurry pixels taken by a security camera at night (see Enemy of the State). There is simply a dark, blurry photograph. The intricate schemes to capture the bad guys and how those bad guys subsequently extricate themselves are a pleasure to watch. The exhilarating soundtrack supports the action marvelously.

There is some fine acting in the movie, but it's not all gold. Jack Nicholson plays Jack Nicholson like no one else could possibly play Jack Nicholson. (This reminds me of a cartoon I saw in the newspaper the other day of a guy saying, You know, the new James Bond, I think he plays Sean Connery better than most before him.) It's a pleasure to watch his lunacy. Leonardo DiCaprio oscillates between trying to look extremely mean and genuinely looking like he is suffering from excruciating mental disturbances. It's a nice change for infrequent movie-goers like myself who remember his perfect incarnation of male bimboness in Titanic. Mark Wahlberg has rough lines but not much of a role. Matt Damon is lame. It's been all downhill for him since the Bourne Identity. He should go and find Forrester.

For all the elaborate edifice of mutual trust and suspicion, of one rat trying to bite the other before the other bites the one, the end is sadly unfulfilling. In the last fifteen minutes, the Byzantine construction is blown into little pieces for no good reason, and what's left doesn't make much sense. Most end up dead, and two mysteries remain. What's in the envelope that Billy gave Madolyn, and who put the baby in her belly?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

firefox extensions

Since early 2004, back then still in version 0.x, I've been using Firefox. Despite initially lacking mouse gestures and being a bit slower, it quickly replaced Opera as the browser of my choice, mostly because of better support of non-standard web pages. Today I discovered two great additional features that show why Firefox is fantastic. Both of them are extensions.

In case you don't know what I'm talking about, I explain quickly. Firefox can be customized by the user with add-ons. These are little jiffies that help tune Firefox according to a user's predilections. They sit on top of the browser and won't mess with the system.

Mouse Gestures came out a long time ago. They allow you to navigate (back, forward, new tab, close tab, up, etc) by gesturing with your mouse while holding the right button down. I've got so used to them that I get upset at other programs, especially file managers like Windows Explorer or Finder, for not supporting them.

The next great thing is Adblock Plus, which prevents most advertisements from loading. You'll be amazed how much faster you'll browse and how much cleaner your screen will look. While I'm ready to accept ads if I get content for free in return, I'm less inclined to suffer them when I already pay for the content. This is the case with my Economist subscription. What's worse, their roll-over ads sometimes refuse to be closed and block content. Now they're gone.

Today I installed two more add-ons. The first, Chipmarks, allows you to save and organize your bookmarks on a central server and access them wherever you are, essential when working on different computers all the time. I was so sick of permanently synchronizing bookmarks. I trust Chipmarks more than similar services like or Google Notebook because it's an open source project developed at a university.

Lastly, there is Greasemonkey, an extension that I'm totally excited about, though I've only scratched its surface. It opens a new dimension of customizing your browsing experience by running scripts on webpages that will change the way the content is presented. Sounds cryptic and complicated? Yes, but it's not. The (extremely sluggish) scripting repository contains more than two million scripts. The two that I've downloaded take me directly to the print version of Economist and New Yorker articles I chose, saving me a click each time. Laziness might just be the mother of all inventions.

Friday, December 08, 2006

freaks at the economist

This past September I visited a friend of mine in Rome for her birthday. At the party she was given a book that I had long wanted to read, Freakonomics. In this book, two economists look at many instances of what is conventional called common wisdom and show that, oftentimes, it should be more accurately called common stupidity. I was the first to open the book at the party, even before the new owner had a chance. I read the first chapter, then went back to France and forgot about the book again.

Today I remembered again when I found an article in the Economist that attempts to debunk what it calls myths surrounding organically farmed, fairly traded or locally grown food. Given that the Economist is, despite honest attempts at fairness and objectivity, the official publication of big money capitalism, the conclusions must be taken with a grain of salt. But like all unorthodox opinions, they are worth being considered and debated. Here are my two cents:

  • Maybe apples shipped from New Zealand to Old England are environmentally and energetically more sensible than the home-grown varieties, but surely apples from closer orchards (eg. South Tyrolean) are even better.
  • Kenyan green beans are flown in overnight, but maybe they should better be sold where they were grown, in a country that's suffering from famine, instead of being exported to a highly protective market.
  • A much larger percentage of people walks to the local market (that's the point of it being local) than walk to the grocery store. That should give the market an uncontested edge in the food-vehicle mile game.

Will anyone share his or her thoughts on this topic?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Nikon or Canon

Over the last several weeks, my desire to get a real digital camera has grown stronger and stronger. My two-year old Canon A95 is a fine digicam, but doesn't come close in ease of use to the film SLR I used to own. Last night I finally sat down to do some research. I see two contenders in hot pursuit of my money. Canon's brand new Rebel 400D (XTi) and Nikon's D80. Both cost less than 1000 euros, and both can be equipped with Sigma's 30/1.4 lens, basically the only normal lens in the APS-C sensor digital world.

As I understand photography, every good camera should first and foremost be equipped with a normal lens. It is lightweight and makes taking good pictures easy. The perspective of the lens is similar to that of the human eye. Something that looks good to the beholder will be a good picture. No difference between Nikon and Canon in this case, just persistent indecision on my part.

While I was clicking around on, trying to get some more information to help me decide, I came upon a picture that reminded me of another great lens, the second essential in a photographer's bag. Just as Phil Greenspun's Glen Canyon Dam, the shot below was taken with a 28/2.8 mounted on a N8008 body. The wider the lens, the more dramatic the sky will look. I loved the 28, though these days I'd probably go with a 24.

acoma pueblo

Now here's the problem: With the magnification factor of about 1.6 due to the smaller sensor size compared to 35mm film, you cannot buy a wide angle lens for a digital camera. All that exists are very few wide angle zooms, and who wants to lug those around? So it's still 0:0 between Nikon and Canon, and zero points are not a good score.

I was looking forward to testing my new digital SLR in Prague at Christmas. Instead, it looks increasingly likely that I'll just borrow my dad's N70 and shoot the few rolls of slide film that still hibernate in my fridge. I might even find one last Velvia there.

should I stay or should I go

Nature Jobs, the career guide section of Nature, arguably the most prestigious scientific journal, posed a dilemma this morning, very pertinent to my current situation. Before doing anything else in the lab I had to read the article, as I am really in the same predicament. Should I stay or should I go? My boss thinks one way and I the other, but I have no good arguments to back up my case.

The article points out some of the things to consider when attempting a career change or simply trying to further one's career. Networking, talking to people in different fields, finding passion, testing the waters before making the jump. Five or six scientists by training are presented. None of them adhered to career path orthodoxy, and almost all work in jobs that they didn't go to graduate school for.

Doing something else has been tempting me for a while now, though I have no idea what this else would be. I'm trying to find my talents and interests by doing a course in patent law and developing my writing skills. You are the victims and the judge.

Maybe I don't have to look far. For a week now, my enthusiasm for science has been inexplicably rekindled. There has been no identifiable trigger for this, no dramatic break-through in my projects. Hell, there are hardly any positive developments. And yet, I find myself in lab at ungodly hours, working happily and almost as hard as in graduate school. This means being pretty much alone in lab after most people leave around five. It's not motivating, and I don't know for how long my spirits will hold. But they're flying high right now.

High enough that I almost lost touch with reality today. This afternoon, I sat down at my bench with a fully charged miniPod in my pocket, ready to set up hours of crystal trays. Before getting into the zone, I was lucky to remember salsa night. My dancing partner is back after a lengthy absence. And while I will spin her around on the dance floor, a question will spin in my head. Should I stay or should I go?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

new email address

Normally, I try to fill the space this blog accords me with accounts of curious events and incidents that are out of the ordinary. Today, in contrast, I have something rather prosaic to share. My old email account has been disabled. Since this happened a good two years after I left the place that gave me this address in the first place, I have not much reason to complain.

I have all reason to be sad, though. The old address had been with me for so long that I've come to be associate with it. This is all the more true for various commercial and scientific sites that use this address to send me infomation. It was with horrified apprehension that I turned my computer on tonight to set the records straight wherever it was necessary.

To my great surprise and satisfaction, changing email addresses never took more than a few clicks and ten minutes after I started, a handful of airlines, banks and mailing lists knew the new data. Two mass mails were supposed to distribute the information among my friends. For those I missed to add to the mails—a heartfelt sorry goes to you—here you are: Docandreas now lives at gmail. You'll figure out how to make this work. The address-collecting search-bot hopefully won't, and my account will stay clean.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

et vous?

This past week, the Economist ran a series of articles, basically a five-day miniblog, by their Paris correspondent. They're well worth reading except the Friday entry, which effuses American one-sidedness that made my eyes hurt. The Economist is a British publication. Why does it dress up as an American in the worst possible way sometimes? Do yourself a favor and scroll down.

I suggest scrolling all the way to Tuesday to learn about vous and tu, the two ways of addressing your counterpart in a conversation. Basically, tu is for friends and vous is for strangers. To me, it seems very similar to the German system, but what do I really know. I haven't lived in Germany in more than eight years, and I'm increasingly uncomfortable addressing someone in a language other than English.

English is easy. It's always you, and if you're doing science in the Western half of the United States, it's always first name as well. It was always a great honor and equal pleasure to address mighty professors face to face (Hey Dennis, how ya doing?). Hierarchies were flat, and doors were always open. Like I said, it was easy.

Here in France, language and culture add a whole zoo of difficulties. The lab is no different from the US, everyone is first name, and everyone is tu, though I sometimes forget, especially with members of the administrative staff. With everyone else, it's confusing as hell.

Take the Alliance Française for example, a rather informal gathering where the organizers don't tire of reminding us that "on se tutoie ici". We say tu. This is not only difficult for the linguistically Americanized or for recently arrived foreigners with fresh memories of what their teachers told them but also for distinguished retired ladies who grew up in a different world altogether—in a world where tu was reserved for scolding little kids—who now volunteer with much heart at the Alliance. So most of the time, it's vous after all.

Then there is Bernard. He's a teacher in the Monday's conversation circle, and he seems more like a buddy than anybody else standing. (The students sit, of course.) I've been calling him tu from the beginning, head down and through the wall with no regrets. Now I'm reconsidering. Maybe it's really a basic question of respect, as the Economist guy suggests? And if Jacques and Bernardette, the elected king and queen of France, vouvoient each other, should I say vous to Bernard, the avowed royalist? Maybe I'll print the article and ask him.

Friday, November 24, 2006

lutefisk and loonies

Oh what a memorable dinner it was. Let's start with the loonies. They are always there, my boss's two kids, three and five. They have more energy than the synchrotron downriver and bounce around the apartment aimlessly and tirelessly. When I walk through the door, they suddenly find focus and climb up and down me. I get rid of them by throwing them on the sofa in a nice parabolic arch. They don't seem to mind but come back for another toss. Fifteen minutes later I'm exhausted. Water for me, please. Wine would knock me out.

A while later, dinner is ready. This is when lutefisk comes into play. Here's the background. I went to Oslo two weeks ago. My boss likes fish. She asked me to bring something. In Oslo I heard lutefisk mentioned a lot, apparently something that Norwegian gourmets eat during Christmas season. On my last night, I went to a grocery store and happened upon it, an innocent looking fish, virginally white meat, a full four pounds of it, vacuum-sealed for convenience. I bought it and brought it with me. I was oblivious of what I had got.

My ignorance was dispelled yesterday when I read about lutefisk on wikipedia. The dinner suddenly didn't seem like such a good idea. Eating a bit of lutefisk is apparently like vomiting a little. It's just as bad as a lot. This has to do with the way the fish is prepared.

It starts out as cod and is dried. Nothing unusual so far. Fish is dried for preservation in a lot of places. The Norwegians figured out it'd be a good idea to rehydrate the thing and then soak it in sodium hydroxide for two days. It's still considered food at this point. To make it non-toxic, it's washed in water for another six days. I was praying the fish I bought had gone through the washing step.

In its plastic wrap, the fish looked like any self-respecting fish, but it didn't take the half hour cooking too lightly. What came out of the oven was hardly recognizable, a translucent gelatinous mass spreading across the baking tray.

In good agreement with all the malice on wikipedia, the fish tasted very foul indeed. It was as if the animal had swum one too many laps in a hyperthermal pond and then been mashed into goo, from which strong sulfurous odors were now exuding. The challenge was substantial, but all guests braved it and tasted their share, though the host declared it inedible almost upon seeing it. I tried to trick the loonies into eating by claiming this was "que pour les grands" but after one try they would have no more of this nonsense.

Good for us that there were also potatoes and ratatouille and, best of all, ice-cream and cake. There was also no way of avoiding the wine now, excellent as always in this house. As the aftertaste of lutefisk was fading out, we started to arguefy why Norwegian ever came up with lutefisk and why it is considered a delicacy. Does it come down to guilt for Viking aggressions? Are they still doing penance for sins committed centuries ago? And why did I decide to join them? I could have gone over and played with the loonies just so.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

quail and turkey

I was following a seminar this morning where the speaker, a guy from Delaware doing a sabbatical in Grenoble, lucky man, had a few really bizarre slides. To be more precise, it was the same bizarre thing that showed up in several slides, a little animate gif, Elmar Fudd stalking a chicken. This was a scientific talk.

Now it happens frequently that scientists try to be funny. Those who know me can attest to that. So I tried to find the reference to chicken in the protein structure that was presented, and on one slide it even looked like one. I didn't think much about it. I was too busy keeping myself from falling asleep while at the same time trying to come up with something smart to ask at the end, to fool people with well-chosen words.

Before the end came, the speaker pointed out the obvious that would have otherwise remained dark to the audience forever. Elmar was trying to shoot himself a turkey. Happy Thanksgiving!

Funny thing is, I had a Thanksgiving-worthy dinner myself last night, though I was not aware of the coincidence. With the Alliance Française I went to the Hôtel Lesdiguières, a local hospitality and gastronomy school of national renown. Tenue de rigeur exigée. I even had one of the older gentlemen tie a tie around my neck. Maybe one day I'll put the picture up on flickr, as there aren't many of that kind.

We were treated to a banquet, just so. Four hours of potable, edible and, since this is the Alliance Française, sociable delicacies. It started with Kir and hors d'œuvre followed by salty crème brûlée with a hint of foie gras, a true taste of the extraordinary. The real meal kicked off with grilled tuna on creamy/crunchy vegetables. The bird of the night was - not a turkey but a quail. French cuisine comes in tiny but ambrosial dishes. The dessert was divine. A coffee and a shot of Chartreuse, and midnight was gone.

Tomorrow I have what I hope will be another memorable meal - Lutefisk with the loonies. But that's worth its on post. Stay tuned.

Friday, November 17, 2006

know thy enemy

Here is something I wanted to put into the previous post, but it just didn't fit.
It was of course this morning on the radio that I heard about the primary results. But it was on Al-Jazeera English that I read about it.

Al-Jazeera and English, how does that go together? Isn't that the Arabic station that caters to fundamentalists and never fails to show a beheading? I don't know. I get Al-Jazeera TV but I understand nothing and I don't watch it. This might change now because today I discovered the English version on my TV, right next to CNN. Quite fitting actually, as CNN has just started an Arabic outlet. And the fight to shape opinions has entered a new level.

I should also like to point out that I love the spell checking in Firefox 2. No more typos in my blog. The incoherence comes straight from my brain.

madame la presidente

Last night, primaries took place in France where Socialist Party members determined their candidate for the presidential election, about six months away. In a blast-from-the-past kind of event, a former finance and economics minister ran against a former prime minister and a former education minister. And no, the point was not to elect a former president or to take France back to the glory of the 70s.

Over the last half year, the candidates stressed the importance of looking forward, of taking courageous decisions, and of making France fit for the futures. At first glance, this is incongruous with this trio of candidates. At a second glance, with knowledge of the primary results, there might be hope for the Socialists.

A full 60% of the vote fell to Ségolène Royal, the most unorthodox of the candidates. This 53-year-old unmarried mother of four came out of nowhere about a year ago. She wasn't part of the hierarchy, and the party bosses (admiringly called elephants here) first ignored her coming to popularity and then ridiculed her with proudly presented chauvinistic idiocy. Now she has driven her point home. She can connect with voters better than the other two candidates combined.

The problem is that connecting with voters is very different from doing what's right for a country. She must work hard to transition from working for her popularity to working for her country. The next half year will show if there is more substance than show. A show might suffice to round up a pair of elephants, but it won't be enough to win a presidency.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

whaling and deering

I could have extended the previous post a bit, but I thought this one would easily stand on its own. As I said, Oslo is a bit drab. Maybe that's what must be expected in November, but it was not the weather's fault. There was sun, some snow, not too much rain and temperatures right around freezing. Problem is, Oslo doesn't have too much to offer. It's a bit provincial. I visited two good museums and walked around in the pedestrian-friendly center, but with the sun setting before five, evenings were long, and I wasn't intent on spending them in bars with 10-dollar glasses of beer.

I did spend 10 dollars on a glass of beer the first night, but that was in a restaurant. The meal goes down as one of the best ever, right up there with quail at Lugäno in Salt Lake, lamb at Bistro Lyon in Grenoble and, of course, Massimo's magic in Mentana. It started with thin slices of raw whale meat topped with salmon roe and dill sauce, which I ordered because Norway is one of the very few places in the world where one can eat whale. I had heard nothing good about this meat, yet I had to try it. I was absolutely stunned by its strong flavor and incredible tenderness. Next time Greenpeace comes around I'll have to abstain from signing their petitions.

The main course was reindeer filet over Brussels sprouts and cranberries, another incredible delicacy. Unique and strong tasting meat and a perfect combination of the soft sweetness of the sprouts and the tanginess of the berries. My eating slowed down to a crawl because I didn't want it to end. No dessert or coffee to top it off because I didn't want the flavor to leave my palate. Oh, how it was good!

den kasakhstanske blockbusterfilmen

I just got back from Oslo, after a long weekend mixing work and pleasure. All of Monday I spent in a workshop, but the three days prior I explored Norway’s capital city. Middle of November might not be the best time for tourism high up north, but I was lucky. It was not colder than a German would expect this time of the year, and the sun shone. Granted, light lasted for less than eight hours each day, but that was still enough to see Holmenkollen’s bright white structure rising high into the clear sky, take a trip out to Lillehammer, and perambulate through town till my legs got tired.

With tired legs and a setting sun accompanied by dropping mercury, there is only one place to be, a coffee shop. Oslo is full of them. There are chains like Kaffeerösteriet and Deli de Luca, but also countless small unique places. The first afternoon I chose Stockfleth, a hole in the wall in downtown with three small tables and a handful of bar stools. It was warm inside, and there was light. They had coffee and walnut brownies. The day was reborn.

After a while I got bored looking through the window watching people hurrying by, disfigured by heavy coats, scarves and hats. Thick clouds of condensed breath concealed the ethereal faces of too many nordic beauties. I grabbed a free newspaper lying on the counter and flipped through it absentmindedly. Norwegian makes some sense to those speaking English and German (see the title of this post), but it’s not enough to read articles (or follow conversations). I came upon an interview with Borat. The answers were in English.

Starting to read I burst out laughing almost instantaneously. This guy is funny. I had so far kept away from the hype and taken a skeptical approach. What’s the point of ridiculing Kazakhstan, a country whose only claims to fame are a bunch of combattive cyclists and the aging space port Baikonur. Done with the interview, I was still unsure what the point was, except that making fun of something can indeed be hilarious. Maybe I’ll even go see the movie.

The magazine I had grabbed purported to be a treasure chest of nightlife and events suggestions. I didn’t find them. Thus I spend most of the dark hours in my hotel, reading, relaxing and catching up on sleep that had been sadly neglected over the last few weeks. By the time Monday came around, I was fit. And the workshop turned out to be totally worth the trip.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

election aftermath

Today was a day I regretted not living in the US anymore. So much action. I wouldn't have got any work done for all the elated chatting and debating in hallways and, later, coffee shops. It was a day where every hour precipitated news more unbelievable than what had just been told.

Who would have expected Montana, the land of free-range firearm fanatics and devoted Kaczynskis, to elect a Democratic Senator. Who would have expected red-necked Indiana to kick out not just one or two but three Republican Congressmen and replace them with Democrats. And who would have expected Kinky Friedman to be elected Governor of Texas.

Oh, hang on, Kinky didn't win, but the day was quite a wild ride anyway. I had made sure to be home on time for President Bush's press conference, given the circumstances a spectacle not to be missed, and I was not disappointed. The sacking of Donald Rumsfeld, overdue by several years, got the crowd started, and more or less mean questions were directed at a visibly and audibly irritated President who was at times almost yelling his answers.

But in contrast to his usual good/evil, with-us/without-us, my-way-or-the-highway rhetoric he rambled on in reconciliatory tones, sounding eerily balanced. A week after accusing them of wishing disaster over America, he praised Democrats for their patriotism and their dedication to fighting terrorism.

One might think he was offering a hand with a newly found sense of moderation. What's closer to the truth, however, is that he was wildly waving his hands with a newly found sense of desperate isolation. His efforts are in vain, he is surely dead politically. The reason for his demise are not the Democrats who have gained seats in Congress, for they have now responsibility but still no strategy, but all those Republicans who lost seats, for they know who their scourge is. And they will work hard to make sure he doesn't mess it up for them again.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

go vote!

I strongly doubt any of my friends and readers of this blog reads the "Army Times", a weekly that is distributed on US Armed Forces' bases around the world and reflects the mood in said Armed Forces. As it is, treasures can be found in the most unlikely of places. Here is a remarkable article that is very much worth sharing. The "Army Times" editorial demands that "Donald Rumsfeld must go".

While there is general consensus in the civilized world that Donald Rumsfeld's mangling of Iraq has been an abysmal failure, it hasn't been acknowledged in the military or government thus far. An encouraging development, I agree, but more serious steps need to be taken to bring the US back to sanity.

All those who have the opportunity, please go vote this Tuesday, and let public opinion be reflected in the election results.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

blue screen of death

The other day, my office mac got an internal facelift. OSX was upgraded from beta 3 to beta 4 (aka 10.4.8). I was stoked, mostly because I was so fed-up with this ill-working box. Hopeful that the major glitches were finally fixed, I started some serious scientific computing, running at 100% CPU load for several days.

Before I obtained publishable results, my hopes for improvement were dashed when the screen went dark and a nice quatro-lingual notice lit up, telling me with no uncertain terms that the computer thought it had done its job and that resistant was futile. I had seen this screen many times before, and I knew what would come next. This time I was bent on preserving the madness.

restart your mac

I ran down to the lab, grabbed the digicam and sprinted back to my office where the Mac was screaming at me like a deadly injured bear. Its fan was running at full speed at a noise level that would make any P4 Dell laptop turn itself off in embarrassment.

I turned it off in anger, ending suffering for both of us. You might say Macs looks good, and you're cool when you use them. But I'm old-school. I like things to work. And the Mac doesn't.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

freedom to insult

Today, towards the end of the afternoon, I walked down the hallway of our institute to chill for a few minutes in the sun that shone strongly through the bay windows of the lobby. I got a coffee and sat down at one of the wooden tables, greeted by several recent newspapers. Included with this weekend's Le Monde was the New York Times supplement, English content deemed fit to win the hearts and broaden the minds of the French.

My idling mind – I was on a coffee break, after all – was gripped by the line "Certain Grown Men Find Delight Rises With Rockets", below the fold but on the front page. The story was about a bunch of self-proclaimed nerds meeting in Nevada to shoot home-made rockets into the sky. I was reminded of a ballisticist friend of mine in Utah and looking forward to reading about him and his baby, Dasypygal, but they were apparently not there. (Once the googlebot comes by, this will be the only page on the known web to have the words ballisticist and dasypygal in it.)

I leafed over and was treated to Thomas Friedman's ineludible opinion. I own one of his books (purchased in off-season Malta when I was dead-bored at night), but there's only so much I can take of his I-understand-the-world-and-will-explain-it-to-you-so-be-quiet attitude. He's oftentimes dead-on when interpreting current events, but sometimes so positively wrong that it is frightening.

Such a day was today. Friedman denounces the disintegration of "Iraq in the heart of the Arab world, with its destabilizing impact on oil prices and terrorism", ably demonstrating why Americans are loathed in some parts of the world. With stupefying arrogance he predicts his own future problems but is blind to Iraq's present. The situation there has first and foremost a destabilizing effect, to put it mildly, on those who live there in chaos and amidst the violence of civil war, those who might still keep the hope that the US will, one of these days, accomplish its mission and bring freedom and democracy to the country.

I could have got all worked up, but I only had a few minutes before returning to my test tubes. I moved on and my eyes fell on this lovely title: "Freedom To Insult Needs Protection". Though the column was written with acute self-interest, deploring the difficulty to do good journalism in a country (Iraq, again) that has made it illegal to "publicly insult the government or public officials", I couldn't agree more.

The staggering number of people that eagerly declared themselves deeply offended by all sorts of trivial things was the major gripe I had during my last few years in Utah when life was truly splendid. Back then, no one defended the right to offend. In fact, people were defending the offended, one had to judiciously pick one's words, and an open discussion was often made impossible, certainly for public figures.

Luckily, Utah is reasonably civilized. Despite insults being perceived left and right, no embassies were ever stormed and no Danish flags burned. That is more than can be said for other, more brain-washed parts of this world where dissonant opinions are grave insults and broadened minds are a criminal offense. It's certainly not the French that need the New York Times supplement.

Monday, October 23, 2006

head on

After a few glasses of a sublime Faugères, I sat down tonight to watch "Head on". This movie, made by the Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin, had won the Golden Bear, the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, in 2004, and I had read glowing reviews on several occasions.

"Head on" showed on Arte, the Franco-German TV station that fills its niche with culture and is usually the more aloof the more popular culture is. They can be trusted on showing films that no one else wants to present, and often those that no one wants to see really. In artistic self-delusion, they're happily and barely scraping by. They're manna for the excentric, and this time they hit the jackpot.

Simultaneous French subtitles and two narrators that sometimes corresponded and other times didn't over mostly synchronized French but frequently Turkish lines filled the movie with an energy that would have yanked a drunk from the gutter, and there were plenty of drunks in the movie. I sat on my sofa like supercharged instead of calmly letting the Faugères sedate me, trying to keep up with too many sensations being hurled at me by a small glowing box.

The story is quickly told. A Turkish-German girl suffering from traditional Turkish values and a twenty-year older Turkish-German loser, both recently defeated in their suicide attempts, meet in a nuts-clinic and decide to get married, mostly to escape their respective miseries. They happily live their separate (sexual) lives, but slowly grow to each other. People die, people go to jail, people run off to Istanbul, people get raped and, shortly thereafter, beaten up in the streets, all over a thumping soundtrack. Turn up the volume and lose yourself in the rush.

As if guided by fate, the lovers are reunited for one last night of mad joy, before being left to weep over lost opportunites when a blunt future with no place for both of them kicks the happy end into the Bosporus. And slowly, at first almost imperceptibly, the bus leaves the lot and soon the city. Are you strong enough?

Now get up and go get the movie already. Don't say I didn't tell you.

Monday, October 16, 2006

bring back the king

For three weeks now I've been attending a two-weekly conversation circle organized by the local chapter of the Alliance Française and run by an eclectic bunch of volunteers. Despite its name, it's almost a full-fledged language class, sauf the focus is not on Grammar, and it's free. I talk less than I do in lab these days, but I learn a lot about French language and culture. And I have a great time.

Today, we spoke about history. No, hang on, Bernard, the volunteer, spoke about history, and he held the entire little group spellbound for more than ninety minutes. When I was in high-school, this was the subject I detested the most. Millions of seemingly unrelated events, all with their own particular significance. No logical flow ever revealed itself to me. Plus, too many numbers to remember.

These days I have the suspicion that history is very similar to chemistry. It is completely impenetrable to a school kid, but once you get older and start to think about it seriously, you'll eventually see the light. The bits and pieces, be it hydroxyl groups or defense forces, nucleophilic attacks or revolutionary wars, just fall into place, and everything makes perfect sense at some point.

Usually, when this point is reached, complacency takes over, and you'll slowly but inexorably lose your acumen. My vision of chemistry is getting dimmer each day spent without explaining the reactive properties of an aldehyde group to someone. In contrast, I've read quite a bit of history and I'm hopeful that the fog will clear.

That's why I was mesmerized by Bernard. His history of France started with the Gauls but was all kings shortly after. The revolution of 1789, the greatest day of the country according to popular opinion, was a complete disaster. Public order was overturned, countless were killed, the country slipped into darkness. France's best days were over. What came after it – Napoleon, one more king, an invasion by Prussia, and two world wars – fit easily into one sentence.

Bernard is a royalist. After the class, we talked a little and he complained that a president elected for seven years by a minority of citizens, a person hardly representative of his subjects, can't be expected to do anything good for the country. In light of the current president I have to concur, but I don't think that 20% of the vote, which fell to Chirac in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, are worse than the 0% that a king would get.

While I might not like having a king, I like hearing unorthodox views. Not much beats a fiercely fought argument – concluded with a beer afterwards.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Looking back today, yesterday's blog entry seems oddly unfinished. I talked about great literature and about Turkey, and I ended it by saying I should go get a new book to read, without further specification. This afternoon, after a little pointer from the news, I went to get a novel by Orhan Pamuk, a brilliant, calm writer who has the guts to stare down fundamentalists, fanatics and other assorted idiots. He's now also a Nobel prize winner. And that's how snow arrives in Grenoble a month early this year.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Today is a special day. I finally finished La Peste, one of the key novels of Albert Camus. Even though there is no plot to speak of, only the plague taking unremitting hold of a city, the first two thirds of the book are an amazing read, a density almost comparable to the first 300 pages of Der Zauberberg, which cover three action-free months in the most captivating of ways. The last third, however, with the plague slowly receding and scores being tallied philosophically, seemed to stretch endlessly.

I started reading La Peste almost one year ago, on a dreary Saturday afternoon in November. The trigger was the idea a friend and I had of a vacation in Algeria. The book is set in Oran, the country's second biggest city and music hub, and was supposed to prepare me for the trip, get me acquainted with the locality and into the mood. On these counts, the book probably failed, but that doesn't matter anyway. We didn't go to Algeria.

The reason for our change of plans lay in the difficulties associated with entering the country. For naive Western Europeans it comes as a shock that a country would require a visa to be visited, but Algeria does one better. In order to get a visa, one has to have the trip planned ahead, hotels booked and train itineraries prepared. We were not in the mood for that. With the present political development of Algeria, drifting away from Europe while strengthening ties with the Arab league, conditions for a visit won't be as good as they were this spring for quite a while.

Despite a missed a window of opportunity, I have no regrets because we spend a marvelous week in Istanbul instead. Like any good vacation, this one offered plenty of what can't be found in any guide book. Flirting wildly across language and gender barriers at Cafe Munzur, for example, or being treated to tea and olives in Ali Osman's living room.

I had to think of this last encounter after reading a travel essay the other day. The writer took the Deccan Odyssey, a luxury train circling from Mumbai to Goa, the Ajanta caves and back to Mumbai. The stay aboard and all visits were splendid and nothing was left to be desired on this perfectly organized trip. Or so it seemed, because in her last sentence, the writer invalidated the many paragraphs before by writing how she talked to a member of the board service and learned about his life and culture. "Suddenly, the temples, palaces and natural wonders outside didn't matter anymore." She had finally arrived in India, on the last day of her journey.

While a professionally organized trip often sounds exciting at first, I certainly prefer beating my own path. It's time I go back to the book store to see which book grabs my attention and might direct my eyes on a land I haven't set foot on. Yet.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

the pleasure of rain

Out of the seven days I spent in Rome last week, it rained on three. This was a blessing in disguise, and not even very well disguised. I stayed with a friend outside of Rome, and when I ventured into town for the first time three days into my little vacation, rain had cleaned the air so diligently that the dust, dirt and fumes that Rome is notorious for were nowhere to be seen or smelled. It was a pleasure just strolling around and being impressed.

It was an equal pleasure snapping pictures because, even though the rain had disappeared, the clouds were only slow to follow. I enjoyed most marvelous sky and light. And I was painfully aware what an inadequate tool a little digi-cam is for taking serious pictures.

S Luca and Septimius Severus

Two years ago I spend about $300 for a small Canon, an amazing little gadget, great for taking tons of snapshots and good for an occasional photograph as well. But it is not satisfying as a main camera because:

  • It does not have a viewfinder that deserves its name. You have to hold it at arm's lenght and squint at the LCD screen to shoot. Consequently, the orientation of your image is somewhat aleatory, and a horizon at a five-degree angle is already good.
  • The camera is fairly light and sways in the wind like twigs of an aspen tree, especially if you hold it at arm's length. Forget about sharp photos at one-over-focal-length seconds.
  • Forget about sharp photos anyway because the little lens wasn't made for that. Hell, the entire toy weighs less than a serious lens alone.
  • While your photos won't be crisp as they should be you can't take portraits with a blurry background either because the pathetic little joke of a lens can't be opened far enough.

The N8008 and two prime lenses, a 28mm and a 50mm, that I used to own (before I sold it when I couldn't carry it out of the US because my bags were too full already) combined into a system that left little to be desired. The 50mm lens in particular amazed me every time I used it. I would look at something and think, hey, this would make for a nice picture, and as if by magic, my lens would capture it just right. It really improves your pictures when you don't dig around with a zoom.

Now that I'm deprived of a good thing, I'm pathologically salivating every time I read a report about digital SLRs. Today was such a day. Philip Greenspun has published an article on how to build a digital SLR system on $1200 get you into the game, but you'll probably need twice as much if you want to add a wide-angle lens and a tripod.

The problem is, if I actually break down and buy something useful, I'd have no excuse for taking shitty pictures. And I'd have to go to places where it rains to find the right light.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


I'm sitting at home hitting my head with a big wooden mallet, inflicting pain onto myself to show how much I repent my sins, much like the flagellates did in the Middle Ages, only I'm taking it more seriously. Today I went to the Alliance Française for the first time. I thought it was about time I finally learned some French, after eighteen months of being deaf, dumb and mute, and the Alliance is the place to go. They offer courses, gatherings and the like.

Before the hard work can start, one has to undergo a test to assess one's abilities. After much sweating, flailing and winging, I was attested the language proficiency level of "avancé superieur anterieur sur-composé" or some such thing, almost falling off the sheet. The friendly elderly gentlement manning the triage ward told me I shouldn't bother with a regular course because I'd bore myself to death.

Now I have to say that I don't mind a little sacrifice here or there, especially if it finally gets me to learn some French. But there was no arguing with him. Not even the prospect of several hundred euros tuition made him change his mind. He was resolute in insisting I should just sign up with the Alliance Française for a nominal fee of 15 euros a year and religiously attend the conversations circles, held twice a week.

It was at about this time, when he told me that the conversation circle meets about forty seconds from my home, that I considered getting the mallet for the first time. Why have I not been going there for months now? My brain needs some serious reshaping.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

how to write

I've been writing quite a bit over the last year, on this blog but also on my homepage. I have never had a formal education on the subject of creative writing and remain mostly clueless about the inner workings of a good story. But I know one when I see one. Today it struck me again, harder than in a long time.

Dave Sedaris is an American in Paris who happily, and hilariously, shares his everyday trials and tribulations of the City of Lights. His latest story, a linguistic promenade, had me laugh so hard that I literally had to walk away from it for a moment to calm down. I recognized myself in the story – with two notable exceptions. First, I have not given up on French completely yet. Second, I don't go see doctors much and in the rare case I do, I make sure to wear presentable undergarments.

The piece also told me something about the composition of kafkaesque narrative. While talking about nothing in particular, random encounters, unrelated in space and time, are craftily woven together to create an effortlessly flowing, highly enjoyable read. The end is in the reader's head.

This Thursday, I'm going to Rome for a week. I'll keep my eyes and ears open for bizarre observations and unusual anecdotes that might later serve to illustrate my own peregrinations. I'll have to be careful who I talk to, though. The only thing I know to say in Italian is d'accordo.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

wine and vinegar

Drinking wine in France is immensely satisfying. The selection is incredibly wide, the quality excellent once you know your way around, and prices are enticing. I always buy more than I can drink. My bikes have to share the basement with increasingly many bottles.

At the same time, bitter complaints can be heard about the hardships producers face because of rude weather, feeble consumers, low prices due to the bargaining power of gigantic grocery stores, and markets being eroded by imports from Argentina, Australia and South Africa. Not that I've ever seen foreign wines in a store, but that's a different question.

The situation is indeed dire for some. Bad wine does not sell. If you produce lousy quality, you're left with hectoliters of red piss in your cellars that you can't get rid of. Instead of letting the market reward the good and weed out the bad, the French ministry of agriculture pays winemakers handsomely to have excess wine distilled into ethanol.

This policy has come under strong fire from the European Union recently as they rightly see it as misguided. Ripping out poor vines to moderate supply is the advised solution instead. However, this policy does not find eager followers here. I wouldn't even be surprised to read about road blocks and strikes in protest.

I was VERY suprised, on the other hand, to read an article in L'Express detailing the problem as it is, presenting French wines as world class and in an enviable position, and denouncing mediocre producers for their failures. If your French won't let you understand the article you can at least go through the list of recommended wines, exquisite in their quality, mostly moderate in price, and almost entirely unknown to the grand public. A treasure trove for you to discover.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

back to school

This weekend marked the return to normalcy of French society. Stores have unboarded their windows and people are ambling in the streets. Roads are clogged and parking is hard to get for those who need it. I can buy cheese again because La Crèmerie has reopened shop. Kids are sent to school. The two-month hiatus that is summer has come to an end.

Traditionally, on this back-to-school weekend French political parties hold their summer universities, gatherings in scenic places to chew the fat and soak up the last rays of sun before tinted office windows with block any exposure. Besides, the meetings also let the higher-ups discuss strategy, interact with party activists, and present their faces to the media and thus the public.

Le Monde, this most serious of newspapers, page after page of content with hardly an advertisement to repose the eyes of the weary reader, has been doing its duty to the fullest. Epic article follows epic article ruminating over every word that was uttered and withheld and the ramifications for France. I often find myself in my institute's breakroom sifting through the overabundance trying to skim the cream.

My pot is so full already that the planned entry in this blog has evolved into a lengthy essay I'll publish on my webpage soon. It's so exciting to watch what's going on now that the paralysis of summer has been lifted.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

the alpe, once again

When I rode up l'Alpe d'Huez today, all the painting from the Tour stage a month and a half ago were still visible and legible. I was struck by the discrepancy in representation between different countries. Names of Spanish, French, Dutch and German riders (and even a very fitting "Quäl Dich, Du Sau") were written on the tarmac, but hardly any Italians or Americans were eternalized. I encountered Erik Zabel an order of magnitude more often than Floyd Landis - this on a climb that might have decided the Tour. I know for sure that many Americans visited the Alps to cheer their heros, even after Lance. Do they not know how to buy paint in France? And what about the Italians? They could have just brought it over in their Fiats.

Anyway, l'Alpe d'Huez was only the first challenge of my day. If one continues climbing instead of turning around at the Arivée du Tour de France one gets to the Col de Sarenne and to the base of les Deux Alpes on the other side. Or, to be precise, this is what happens if one climbs the right road. What I did, ignorant of the local topography, was pick the wrong road, a sustained effort that took me to the Lac Besson where the road ended. Very nice view into what looked like a 1500-meter hole surrounded by cliffs, but not really what I wanted.

A few minutes later, I was back at the Arivée and picked the alternative road, which did in fact turn out to be the old postal route over the Col de Sarenne. There were turns, a high-Alps panorama, dry and wet water crossings, and rudimentary pavement. It felt like mountain biking on 23-milimeter tires. The descent on the other side was of a different class. Good surface began about a kilometer down, and then the fun really started. I'm glad I didn't ride this up because the road drops about a solid K in only ten.

As it was, I was already toast when I got to the base of les Deux Alpes. I tested the first 200 meters but then wisdom prevailed. Another HC climb wouldn't have been possible. Easily possible at this point, even with the customary headwind, was the ride into Bourg d'Oisans, downhill for the most part. Seven kilometers farther, I got to the place where my car was parked, and gladly traded bicycle for motorized tetracycle because I'd had enough of the pounding wind by then.

Life was better half an hour later when I sat in Vizille refueling on a delicious Italian ice cream sundae. So what if they forgot the paint?

"Quäl Dich, Du Sau", which can be translated with "Suffer, Asshole", is what Udo Böltz famously advised Jan Ullrich when the young German was about to lose the 1997 Tour in the Vosges mountains. Wiser words have never been yelled at a cyclist.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

the one mighty and strong

Sometimes the many pieces making up the puzzle that is our world combine in curious ways, conjuring meaning from what is really just a freak coincidence. The other day I listened to X96 for the first time since I left the US. Literally five minutes into the stream, excerpts from a newspaper article on Warren Jeffs were read, detailing what a fine teacher that fellow was at the Alta Academy, scolding girls for being too cute and not sweet enough.

For the uninitiated, Alta Academy was a private educational institution almost in the middle of Salt Lake run by fundamentalist, polygamist Mormons of a particularly fervent, radical, and dangerously nutty kind, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Warren Jeffs became the leader and prophet of this sect and is now the husband of most women in the community, which is restricted these days to a desolate strip of dirt on the border between Utah and Arizona. He also considers himself the One Mighty and Strong, sent to earth "to set in order the house of God".

Having finished Under the Banner of Heaven, John Krakauer's captivating account of religious fundamentalism in Utah, not too long ago, I was left wondering what the sudden attention was owed to. The mystery was unshrouded a little further down the show when, probably for the umpteenth time that morning, the story of Jeffs' apprehension outside Las Vegas was run. The man had been on the run from worldly authorities for several years. Now, out of nowhere, a highway patrol cop had taken him into custody. Apparently, the invisibility shield on his Escalade was defective.

So much for today's edition of Stories from Zion. In other news, we have music and, against all odds, it blends with the theme. Passionate debates can be held around the question of who might count as mighty and strong in popular music. Without a doubt is Bob Dylan's status as the one singer-songwriter mighty and strong. Two fine articles in the New Yorker, a very recent book review and a profile from 1964, paint a vivid picture of the man and are certainly worth reading. If words don't do it for you, get the complete collection of Dylan's recordings at iTunes, 773 pieces for $200.

In case you are, just like me, still and always looking for new and interesting music, here are three French stations I discovered recently. They're far removed from the charts, don't annoy with excessive commercials, and have decent sound quality streaming from the web. Radio Nova plays mostly world music, TSF is full of jazz, and France Inter Paris plays everything, or so it seems. All have a playlist that goes along with their songs, vastly more enjoyable than anything X96 offers musically. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

liberal press bias

Just saw this on Google Video (beta forever) and thought I share it with those who haven't seen it yet. White House Correspondent's Dinner on C-SPAN. I've always loved this channel, but better than wasting an hour and a half on the entire video is spending a quality half hour on the two snippets below.

Here is Stephen Colbert analyzing politics.

George W. Bush even brought a look-alike to be able to convey his message with more vigor.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Deutschland Tour

Ignored by most in the world, especially with Landis's denials taking up most of the space, the Deutschland Tour, Germany's answer to the Tour de France (ha!), is currently taking place. Here in France, I have hardly a chance to follow the race. TV is keeping its distance, and newspapers are quiet. My source of information is radsport-news.

Tonight, coming home from a party with plenty of wine swirling around in my head, I read that Jens Voigt won the biggest mountain stage of the tour. Two things are notable. First, Jens is not a climber - he's the guy who aggravates the peloton on every other stage with epic escapes. Second, he's been riding in yellow since yesterday. It's not quite clear how that came to pass, but I'm very happy for him.

He's an extremely sympathetic guy. For him, riding hard is his job. Riding himself into a coma is what he thinks he's getting paid for, and he always finishes with a smile. Tactical considerations bore him. He attacks like being stung by a tarantula, and nine out ten times he finishes empty handed. The tenth time, the world of cycling talks about him. Like earlier this summer when he won a Tour de France stage, and like right now, when he's really close to winning the Deutschland Tour.

The other thing that made me very happy was Eric Zabel's riding. Over countless years, this guy has been one of the best sprinters in the world. He's now reaching the autumn of his career, and he still hasn't won the Tour de France. Today, he woke up and decided to attack like he's never done before. With another guy, he set the pace for close to 190km. As I said, this was the Tour's biggest stage, and a king of sprinters was doing most of the work. He didn't win, but he had a lot of fun - and the good spirit to high-five his partner for the day, and laugh when they were finally caught.

That's what cycling's supposed to be. Heroic adventures, great stories to talk about, and no testosterone. Face up to it, Floyd!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

minus two

Last weekend I went out both days for medium long rides, totaling 250km and 4000 vertical meters. It's far into the season, almost halfway back out of it in fact, and I'm still suffering from what should be enjoyable rides. Sunday evening and all through Monday, my legs felt abused and I was very tired.

Tonight, after two days of resting, I was ready for more. The air was somewhat chilly after literally two months of canicule - dog days - when I set out to make myself suffer on the Col de Porte, to test my new wheel and old legs on a long steep climb.

The col is very steep in its first half, seven kilometers averaging above eight percent. Taking it easy, frequently cruising in granny gear, I tried to conserve power for the push to the summit. My strategy worked well. I knew I had gone fast even before checking my bike computer when I came to a stop panting, coughing and chucking up lung as if I had just finished Puke Hill to start the Wasatch Crest Trail.

15.3km and 1100m elevation took me exactly 58 minutes, two minutes less than the hour that I've managed to scratch before but never convincingly beat. The next goal is obviously a 10 mile average, requiring to chip another minute off the climb. If I did the ascent once a week instead of once in a while, I'd be there already, and I'd be in better shape for epic rides on weekends. But sloth is often harder to overcome than a seven percent col.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

obscure strategies

Another little war started in the Middle East 19 days ago. At least it seemed that way for the first few days. A border skirmish lead to Israeli incursion into Lebanon. Missile launch installations were targeted and terrorist infrastructure. Smart weapons doing the job but causing hardly any collateral damage. So the Israelis claimed. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and watched as the campaign unfolded, then stalled, and quickly degenerated into indiscriminate punishment of the Lebanese people. Civilian casualties were mounting. Today, 50 were killed at once. Important strategic goal were surely met.

What's up with the Israeli government, and by extension with the Israeli people who strongly support their government and its actions? Is Ehud Olmert on steroids? Is he trying to impress? ("Look Arik, I can do massacres also!" But Sharon doesn't look - he's still clinically dead.) Or did he get trapped in a situation from where he feels like he can't escape? Since there is no military success to report, he might feel that concessions to Hezballah or a cessation of hostilities would make him lose face and strengthen Hezballah.

But does he have any face left with the Israeli goverment acting like a bunch of terrorist nutcases. Hezballah is a serious threat to Israel's security. So why is it that Isreal changed their haphazardly conducted attack on Hezballah positions and infrastructure into the biggest recruiting drive that Hezballah has ever enjoyed? Is no one alarmed at all that Lebanon is rallying behind a terrorist organization? Christians and Sunnis hand in hand with the Shiite would be a cause for jubilation, except they're chanting Hassan Nasrallah's name. Even Iran didn't see this coming and is speechless.

Why does Israel support terrorism? Is Olmert really so stupid to think that every killed jihadi means one fewer jihadi? I'd say it means at least nine more jihadis. And every slaughtered child surely means a hundred more jihadis. With every passing hour, with every Lebanese cilivian who is brutally murdered, terrorism gains ground. The reason is the current Isreali goverment and its shockingly inept way of dealing with a threat that is real but not more so today than it was last week or would have been next week. Except now it will be more dangerous next week because Olmert is recruiting terrorists.

I'd prefer he'd just send money and rockets instead of killing civilians. The effect would be the same, but the suffering less. I'm afraid when the next bomb explodes in Tel Aviv, taking innocent bystanders' lives, I won't have any tears left to cry after what I saw this weekend.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

drugs and cycling

Exactly one week ago, Floyd Landis delighted the world of cycling and a fair number of casual spectators with his inspired ride through the Alps, deciding to go solo halfway into the first climb of the day and never looking back. A small group comprising the top riders and a few of their team mates chased the American for the rest of the stage. Despite riding themselves into delirium, they couldn't bridge the gap, and Landis finish five minutes ahead of the second best that day. This was the same guy who seemed to have met his Waterloo only 24 hours earlier, all but dying on the last climb to La Toussuire.

Comparisons with the greatest of all cyclists were made. Eddy Merckx was famous for his brutal and audacious attacks, and his pitiless thirst for victories broke the will of many opponents. Landis was hailed like a savior, the man who single-handedly made cycling interesting again after more than a decade of domination by invincible riders with commanding teams.

Curiously, no one saw parallels with the previous heroic solo ride in a big tour. In the 2003 tour, Tyler Hamilton, his doubly fractured shoulder bandaged like a mummy, attacked at the Soudet and rode almost 100km in front of the increasingly frustrated peloton to win the stage in Bayonne. A little more than a year later, he tested positive for blood doping on two occassions, and his heroic feats are no more than dog shit in the sewer.

Today, Landis jumped into the sewer. Fishy testosterone values were detected in his urine after his unbelievable ride. If the results hold up after the second test, he's out and will never have won a Tour de France, in particular a tour in which more than a dozen riders were exluded hours before the start because of blood doping.


I rode up to the Bastille today. The climb is only two kilometers long, but averages 17%. The worst are the middle 400m, which are solidly above 20%. After that, one can lean back and enjoy the relative flatness of a 14% gradient. I know this because some joker painted the numbers and silly comments ("Don't brake here!") on the tarmac.

I made it to the top without taking pills. I have made it up l'Alpe d'Huez, the Charmant Som, the Luitel, the Croix de la Fer, and many other painful climbs around here. Much slower than the pros but without taking pills. In fact, I haven't taken any pills in at least ten years with the exception of a handful of vitamin tablets that my friends, fearful for my health in the land of burgers and fries, gave me when I moved to the US in 1998.

Is there any professional rider that is not on some sort of chronic treatment? Most have a doctor-approved list of exemptions that allows them to take drugs that are illicit normally but necessary in their particular case because of their dire state of health. Many claim to have asthma. (How this predisposes you to be a cyclist is my favorite mystery.) Pain killers seem to be around quite a bit. One is excused for assuming that there is not one healthy individual in professional cycling.

When a stage is finished, the cyclists are prepared for the next day by their doctors and rejuvenation wizards. Obviously, it's only a small step from revitalizing a tired body to pimping a tired body, and I'm not sure it's always the riders themselves that make the decision.

I'm not saying anyone is innocent. To the contrary, I think professional cycling is corrupt to the bone and needs to be cleaned up and out. The first step would be to rigorously ban any drugs. Those who are sick shouldn't ride their bike. If everyone were clean, maybe we'd see more surprises. We'd certainly have more reason to cheer.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

back alive

After working too late for shopping (which does not mean much in France) yesterday, I finally had the chance to drop some money on a new wheel today. As there are not too many (or any good) bike shops around, I went to the local sports chain with the intention of buying the most expensive wheel in the store.

That ploy was foiled when the only pricey wheel, a nice silver Ksyrium, was only available as front. I was left to choose between literally three mediocre wheels and pocketed a ridiculously cheap Rigida aero with 24 flat spokes fully built up with fond de jante, tube, tire and quick release, all for the price of a pair of Grand Prix 4000 tires. Fin de série, but not end of season.

The thing weighs a ton, substantially more than my old-school Open SUP. I won't cry about this. With the roads as abysmal as they are around here, sturdiness is a plus. When I took my once again happily running bike for a spin this evening, all seemed good. I made it up the Col de Quatre Seigneurs in near-record time and was most surprised to find that my bottom bracket, not more than an innocent bystander in the latest developments, had stopped creaking.

Deep inside, I suspect my bike has miraculously healed itself. It must have lived a few nights of fear and apprehension since I went on the rampage that cost it a limb and was probably afraid I would next lay hand on its frame and bend it into pretzel. But I wouldn't do this. Where would I get a new bike?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

demise of a wheel

Saturday afternoon, right before the 57km time trial that would decide this year's tour, I went out to ride up to Lans-en-Vercors. The climb up to the resort town situated on a lovely plateau is the only gentle climb far and wide. 19km with an average of just over 4% are perfect for testing one's will. Pushing hard until my lungs, legs and will hurt equally, I made it to the top in fifty minutes flat.

After a five-minute break coughing, panting and gasping, I hopped back onto my bike to calmly finish the loop, but I soon found myself back in the zone, willing myself to speeds I was dreaming of a few days ago. I surely helps not to ride with a backpack. I got back home after two hours with my bike computer claiming 57km. My personal time trial.

In the evening, I set out to give my bike a little treat. New tape was long overdue. Nothing remained of the fresh blue-yellow pattern that once adorned my bar. It was now gooey and black from hundreds of hours of sweaty hands. Five minutes later, my bike looked like it did when I bought it, and leaned against the basement wall shimmering contently in the dim light. It had no idea of what was to come.

I bent down to examine the rear wheel. Some spokes were fairly loose and the entire wheel ran a little off-center. Nothing a spoke tool can't fix. I started turning nipples and got nowhere. Sometimes the spokes would torque because oxidation had permanently glued the nipple to it, and when I let go of the tool, it would swivel back like some spring-loaded toy. Sometimes I would loosen spokes and the rim would seems to move into the same direction. At last, the spoke wrench decided to take the square profile off a nipple or two. By this time, the wheel was decidedly out of whack and I felt frustration rising up in me.

It's not that difficult to true wheel. Why is the little red wrench not doing its job? Frustration led to anger, and anger quickly got out of the way of developing rage. I kicked the rear wheel, which did not help. I didn't hurt either, and there is nothing worse when you're at the brink of an apoplectic fit than a kick with no effect.

I took the wheel out and slammed it against the stairs, and it's appearance finally changed. Hard to say at this point if that was an improvement. I really didn't look. I was acting in affect, oblivious of consequences. When the wheel came to rest on the soft packed-earth floor, I jumped on it, and this did it in. A sad figure eight, beyond repair, stared at me with profound sadness and quiet reproach. The quick release had assumed the shape of spoke, one end angled like the head of a man in despair.

When clarity had returned to my mind, I didn't even bother trying to explain what happened to me, but I found an excuse for what happened to the misfortuned wheel. After ten years of service it was old and decrepit, and I simply delivered it from its misery. All would be good except I don't have a operational bike. Thus I'm spending Sunday writing my blog instead of riding through the Chartreuse.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

tour de surprise

Today was the day to watch the tour on TV. With all that was going on in the pack, it was impossible to keep track on the road. I missed the dazzling finale up La Toussuire as I was rolling back to Grenoble from the Col de la Croix de Fer. It was a stellar day no matter.

I took the train to Montmélian this morning, the closest I could get to the base of the Croix de Fer on a direct train. When I got off, the opposite platform was filled with cyclists. Their destination was clear. I wavered for a moment but decided against taking the easy way. I'd ride the next 50km. So what if the road is undulating in the foothills of the Alps? If I had wanted to just sit around, I would have stayed at home.

Two hours later I was at the base of the climb. Cyclists were everywhere, obviously not deterred by the two huge signs that happily declared "Sommet 23km". I started easy, rolling with a small gear. Nothing major happened for the next hour and a bit. When my forces were waning, after 17km of steady up, the mountain finally dropped the hammer. Almost 3km at 10% average. Once arrived at the Glandon, it was only a short hop over to the Col de la Croix de Fer.

Col de la Croix de Fer

So what about the race? Floyd Landis lost it today. He might as well fly home and get a new hip. His days of glory won't come back this year. And Oscar Pereiro Sio who had lost 26 minutes in the Pyrénées is now back in the yellow jersey that he wore for the first time when he was in a break-away group that Landis's team let win by almost 30 minutes. That's how the tour goes when no one is in control and no one has even the faintest idea who really is a title contenter. More strange things will certainly come to pass until Paris.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Tomorrow is the big day. The tour will summit the Col de Galibier, the highest point of this year's big loop and a 40km climb. After dropping into the valley of the Arc, the Col de la Croix de Fer (via the Col du Glandon) is the next test. Twenty-two kilometers averaging 6.9%, certainly not for the faint of heart. This is where I'll enter the picture. I'll do the exact same climb a few hours before the peloton will come through, hopefully getting to the top in time to take a breath, enjoy the view and get ready for the caravan publicitaire, a trek of pimped-up vehicles promoting various commercial goods and handing out samples to the fast and fearless. The riders follow a good hour after that.

After reading up on the Croix de Fer today, I have to admit I'm a little scared. This climb is long, longer than any I've done around here. It's not excruciatingly steep, but 7% are not to be taken lightly, and it's gets progressively steeper the higher one gets. It will be an effort, certainly much more difficult than L'Alpe d'Huez.

What's worse, my bike is still not in prime working condition. Today, I was again not able to get the tools required to fix the creaking in my bottom bracket. I'll hate my bike with every stroke I do, and also France a little, because bike shops are so pathetic around here. (I just placed another order with a German internet vendor.)

When the last sprinter and Jean-Marie Leblanc's red Skoda have passed the Col, I'll cruise back to Grenoble, 60km down the hill, while the winner of the stage will only be decided up in La Toussuire, after two more gruelling climbs. In light of this program, the French surprise, third-place Cyril Dessel, admitted that tomorrow's stage scares him. Welcome to the team.

Monday, July 17, 2006

eclectic criminals

This weekend should have been dedicated to riding, but it wasn't. It all started ambitious enough. Thursday night, I rode the Col de Porte despite looming thunderstorms. Back in town and not completely soaked I attempted the Bastille. This road is not even two kilometers long, but averages a ridiculous 17%. Every 20 meters the current gradient is written on the ground in white paint. You know it's steep when you rejoice at the sight of a big old 14. Going back down felt like falling off a cliff.

Friday, on what should have been an epic ride up the Gorges du Nan and into the Vercors, I was kept from going with any sort of effort by the most bone-chilling noise coming from my bottom breaket whenever I pedaled hard. At the base of the canyon when sixty minutes of sustained effort beckoned, I turned around and cruised back to Grenoble leisurely following the Isère.

The next day, I set out to inspect the damage on my bike, but couldn't find the tools I needed. It appears that when my mountain bike was stolen about a month ago, other random things must have been overwhelmed by a desire for freedom and taken the opportunity of an open door. It couldn't have possibly been the thieves that took what disappeared: Old cleats that I tossed into a dusty box many years ago, used bottom brackets and chains that I mistakenly thought might serve a purpose some day, and an assortment of nuts and bolts whose origins I was always curious about.

Some other things are gone that I actually miss: My bottom bracket and chain tools, my Allen and other wrenches, a handful of inner tubes. For whatever reason, my pedal wrench, all lube and my snowboard remain. Also remaining, to my great delight, are two bottles of Sangre de Torre Gran Reserva, not to be opened before 2013.

Why am I telling this story? Because exactly ALL of the tools I need to take out and clean my bottom bracket are gone, and I'm slowly getting worried.

I want to spend Wednesday at the Col de la Croix de Fer, and I need a smoothly functioning bike to get up there. When I went to the bike shop today to buy tools, it was already closed. So I might have to sacrifice watching Alpe d'Huez on TV tomorrow in order to be able to watch the race on top of the mountain the next day.

And if you turn on the TV on Wednesday, watch out for the biggest of all German flags draped around me jumping up and down like silly.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


Yesterday was Bastille Day, celebrating the most famous of all French revolutions. Traditionally, flags are being raised, military parades take place, and fireworks light the skies shortly before midnight. The day is a holiday, and nobody works. This year, 14 July was a Friday, and thus the weekend was long. It wasn't long enough for all, though. My employer argued with the most original French logic that I must take Thursday off also. If Bastille Day had been on Thursday, the Friday would have been off as well. Why not the other way around? I only worked half a day.

When I went to lab this afternoon, the cold room was not working. Instead of cooling my experiments to a refreshing four degrees, they were toasted at almost 20. This was second time in as many weeks, and I was predictably furious. I called the number at the door, ready to vent my anger. The sleepy voice at the other end (French don't work on Saturdays) told me that this number was only valid on work days and I should call security instead. They have to authorize any intervention. He gave me the number, I called, and couldn't believe my ears. I was advised to call the cold room maintenance number, the number I had called at first. When I pointed this out, the security guy said that he couldn't really do anything because no alarm had been triggered. Well, if the alarm had gone off I wouldn't be sitting here calling useless numbers and getting increasingly more frustrated. I tried to convey these ideas to the guy at the other end, but he had already dozed off.

There I was, with a cold room that wasn't cold anymore but full of ongoing experiments in an institute that sees itself at the forefront of international research but doesn't even have the most basic support that makes this research possible. Nothing will be fixed until well into next week.

How am I supposed to do my work? Oh, I forgot, I'm strongly discouraged from going to work on weekends. And if I hadn't gone, I wouldn't have found out about the cold room failure and wouldn't be pissed off now. Expect for my experiments (minor detail), everything would be fine. I raise my glass to the French - a fitting thing to do on this Bastille weekend.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

two losers

Night has fallen over Grenoble. It is eerily quiet, and smoke is wafting through the streets. Just one hour ago, large crowds were gathered around bars. Only a minority had found chairs, the rest was standing. From time to time, the Marseillaise lit up and wild Allez la France shouts made the round. France played Italy in the 2006 World Cup final, the games was going overtime and everyone was anxious to see the Blue win.

After an exhilarating first twenty minutes, the game slowed down noticeably towards the end of the first half. French supporters deemed the gold trophy within reach when their team crushingly dominated the Italians in the second half. Was it that the Italians were tired, or were they waiting for the last five minutes to score? In any case, nothing happened before the ref's whistle sent the game to overtime.

Here it was the same picture as before: France attacking vigorously but ultimately haplessly and Italy defending smartly but near collective physical collapse. At this point, no team really deserved a win.

Ten minutes before the end of overtime, Zidane, in an inexplicable fit of brutality and idiocy, headbutted Matterazzi's sternum into a bony pulp. This ugliest moment of the World Cup made France the team that deserved to lose. And so it happened in the penalty shootout where the Italians didn't miss and Zidane couldn't help the team after his expulsion. Fabio Grosso killed the last hope when he put the golden ball into the net, and an entire country fell into deep sadness around me.

Walking home I was hoping the smoke around me was only from fire crackers that were lit copiously during the game, and not from vehicles and trash can set on fire. May the French not take after Zidane and let their anger out in violence. Cars burn easily around here.

four weeks down, two more to go

The Tour started a week ago and produced the first surprises unrelated to doping today. Levy Leipheimer lost the world in the time trial, while Floyd Landis and Andreas Klöden will take a little cushion into the Pyrénées. Four Germans are among the best eleven in the GC, and Team Telekom, long-dormant vigor apparently set free by the exclusion of Jan Ullrich, leads the team classification. Stay tuned for more of the unexpected.

Somewhat unexpected, at least to me, was the way Germany dominated Portugal in the little final of the World Cup tonight. Portugal is certainly not Argentina, but they've eliminated England and given France a hard time, and Germany was playing without four starters. The game went back and forth in the first half with the Germans having the edge and all of Portugal's opportunities ending in the arms of a clearly pumped Oliver Kahn. In the second half Bastian Schweinsteiger shot on goal three times, and the game was decided.

For his first goal, the ball moved in an bizarre way sneaking by the goalie's left hand as if by its own will. There seemed to be something odd about the ball for Kahn was tricked into the wrong corner a while later on a 35-meter free kick and barely managed to keep his goal clean. In the end, I was happy that the Portuguese also scored, so everyone could celebrate.

Celebrating football, the Mannschaft, and happily themselves is what most Germans did for the last month. Now the World Cup is almost over, only the final remains to play. I'll watch it, decked out in a France shirt, in a bar in Grenoble, secretly hoping Italy will win. On Monday, teamgeist will be retired, merchandise will go on clearance, and gloom will mark the day of many.

I don't low spirits, though. My post-Mondial blues will be lessened by two more weeks of le tour. Go Klödi!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

changing sheets

I've missed, by only a few hours, to mention the first anniversary of this glorious blog. The first post saw the darkness of near complete disregard on 5 July of last year. As it is, there is reason to celebrate, but my writing has nothing to do with it.

Yesterday, I got back from Germany where I spent one week in and around Frankfurt soaking up World Cup atmosphere. And what an atmosphere it was! It was hard for me to believe that I was in Germany, the country where pessimism, morosity and mental self-flagellation are higher virtues than punctuality, productivity and neatness.

This time I only saw cheerful faces, oftentimes painted in black, red and yellow. I was surrounded by singing, flag-waving masses professing their love for their country (by proxy of its national football team). The team, at the same time, reciprocated with its creative, inspired and offensive way of playing.

After the (deserved) last-minute loss to Italy two days ago, the mood didn't change much. All were sad after the game, many cried and some took their flags down. But the next morning, the same exuberance as before permeated the streets. The players and especially the coach were praised and everyone was looking forward to the last few games of this World Cup and, with quickly adjusted sight, to South Africa in four years.

As I said, Germany 2006 gives plenty of reasons for celebration. But it also stirred in me the desire to return to the country that presented itself so differently from how I knew it. I'll have to figure out my options over the next months. But first I'll have to hang up my French flag and continue cheering for football. Allez les Vieux!