Tuesday, January 30, 2007

the world in 2007

Is it too late for a New Year's post? Here it goes:

I missed out on all the 2006 recap TV shows and magazine issues. I must have had other things to do. Plus, I lived through 2006. I still remember some.

What's up with 2007? There are fewer shows and magazine articles that predict the future because it's always easier (though not foolproof, mind you) to predict the past. The Economist is an exception I know of. At the beginning of each year they fill a little book with how the world is going to look in the twelve months to come. Over the last few years, I have tired of their vision and haven't read their wisdom this time around.

For all the guessing and crystal balling, there's one thing I know for sure. No one in the world could have predicted what happened today.

Docandreas got a cell phone, ignominiously bailing from the battle for last one standing without one. As if to make up for years of deprivation, I didn't just get one but two numbers, one for France, the other for Germany. The rush of being part of the in-crowd is racing through my body and making my feet go numb. I feel like a thirteen year-old. Now I just need to shrink my fingers accordingly so I can operate the little beast without constantly hitting three keys at the same time.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


The weekend has come. It's still bitterly cold. The sun shines but decidedly glacially. I'll go out later this afternoon to see if there's anything good left after three weeks of official winter sales and three reductions already. For now, I'm amusing myself with various media, and I'm going to share.

Dick Cheney gave an interview on CNN. Renowned news analyst Jon Stewart interprets it for us here:

A Bengali photographer saved his skin just barely by coming to Germany. In Bangladesh some people apparently didn't like what he photographed and threatened to take his life. It's akin to killing the weatherman for the cold. Here are some of his photos. The first shows a kid strongly attached to his Koranic school - triggering fits of rage and threats of violence against the photographer but not against those running the school.

Lastly, two CDs I've been listening to lately. The first one is Emigrante by the Orishas, music that some call Cuban hiphop. I don't know, I don't listen to hiphop. I know that the band is composed of three or four guys who left Cuba for Europe and try to save their musical roots by recklessly transposing them into modernity, pumping up the beats, writing about being away from mother Cuba and singing with the force of a European winter day. It's to Compay Segundo what Irish coffee at San Francisco's Buena Vista Café is to a tall Starbucks.

The second CD is a musical riot by Mahala Raï Banda. Despite what you might guess from the name, they are not North African but Romanian. They supercharge their traditions by fusion with unlikely additions. On the CD, a Moldavian army brass bands duels with a Haiduk folk ensemble in a frenzied turmoil of unstoppable energy.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

a rush

A short two days lie between my last post, deploring the lack of snow, and the arrival of snow in Grenoble. Yesterday, rain fell all day without mercy. I arrived in lab completely soaked because I left home in the middle of the worst downpour. I had forgotten to look outside before I took off. During the day, it got progressively colder with each passing hour. When I went to bed, car roofs were covered with a thin layer of frozen powder, and this morning, everything was white. It was also glacial, and the fresh snow was lying treacherously on frozen streets. I rode my bike anyway - had been a while since I've last velo-danced in such precarious conditions. One time, my front wheel tried to take a left turn while I wasn't looking. I yanked it back on the right path just in time.

This adrenaline rush got the day off to a dynamic start. Curiously, the day ended in a way that made my heart race even more. I had written that I'm preparing application for the next step in my life/career/whatever you call it. Sunday night, I had actually finished a few and sent them off. On Monday, I noticed that one had a deadline three days earlier and the requirement of an institutional application form to be submitted, which I hadn't done. This was my favorite offer. I guess I should have read all of it before getting excited.

On Tuesday, my boss told me she got a request for a reference letter from the person who had posted the exhilarant offer. Before she even replied, I got an email this evening asking me to come to London for an interview tomorrow.

Ok, I'm kidding, I've got two weeks, but it feels as if it were tomorrow. I am not at all prepared. I have no idea what to talk about - my unsuccessful but promising post-doc work or my successful thesis work - which is old and fading from my memory? When will the job start? I didn't read the offer. What does the lab work on? I won't be reading Pamuk for a while. How is the institute? A quiet reader of this post who is working there at the moment will have to let me in on the details. Do I want to go to England? I have said no on two occasions in the past, but maybe three times is a charm? And I'm reasonably convinced that I'm not going to pick my next job for the city or country it's in. Will I go on the interview?

I am not going to stress.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

no snow

This could have been a post about the Orhan Pamuk novel I've been reading since the middle of October. As the title indicates, it is not. Since starting on Snow I've finished two other books (and I'll write something about the Kite Runner soon), but the prize-winning Turkish translated into spasmodic French is meeting fierce resistance at my eye-brain barrier. More than a hundred pages remain untouched.

Since it's January, I should be able to talk about snow in the mountains if already there is no snow in my reading. Unfortunately, the mountains are bare. Since what now seems like a cold spell early in December, Grenoble has hardly had a day with the temperature not reaching double digits on the Celsius scale. The mountains surrounding town are barren, a depressing dark grey. Snow can only be seen high up in the Belledonne mountains. Lifts will take you there, but then there's nowhere to ski because the white carpet ends a few hundred meters further down.

Today, a friend invited me up to Alpe d'Huez. She claimed there was snow, but you had to go up to above 2500 meters, and even there it wasn't great. Normally, when someone who doesn't know Utah powder calls snow good, I'm suspicious. When the same person calls snow bad, it must be atrocious. So I went without my board, just for dinner.

The drive up was truly frightening. The Romanche valley was ashen like a crumpled industrial site with not a wee bit of wintry white on the ground. The little town of Oisans was equally naked. All the way up to Huez, there was no snow in sight, neither by the road nor on the steep slopes rising up into the clouds. Shortly after we entered the clouds ourselves, we arrived in the resort, and still saw no snow. In fact we saw hardly anything, so dense was the fog.

We went to a lounge for drinks and a chat, but the pounding music—yes, this was a lounge—soon drove us out and into the more inviting setting of a restaurant serving regional specialties. I took the tartiflette, a gigantic scalloped glob of potatoes, cream, lard and cheese (oh, so delicious), while my friends shared cheese fondues. Each dish contained enough calories to heat the atmosphere another half degree.

For Wednesday and Thursday night, -17 degrees are forecast.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

better pictures

One of the reasons pushing me towards a digital SLR is the unacceptable amount of lens error in cheap digicams. The A95 I own is a nice little toy and takes pictures mostly as I want it to if I have the time to set all the settings properly. But not matter how many menus I click through to get it all just right, when I look at the photos later, something is amiss. Most often, this is due to pincushion or barrel distortion.

On the image below, showing the building in Prague we stayed in over Christmas, the façade seems to be bulging at you, and the horizontal lines are bent more than young Beckham's feared free kicks. In reality, both were perfectly straight.

Langhans Galery, Prague

The other day, I installed a little piece of software that I've had on my computer for a while. PTLens quickly, automatically, reliably and correctly removes lens distortions according to a built-in library of cameras and lenses. You download your latest photos and run PTLens on the entire directory. After a minute or two, all is finished, and your original files are preserved. The tool is available for all of fifteen dollars. You can download a test version and correct ten images to see if it fulfills your expectations. I highly recommend it.

Langhans Galery, Prague

The image above was fed through PTLens. You might say that a little bit of pincushion is not a big deal. You might also say that I should buy a digital SLR if I was particular about nice images. You'd be right on both counts, but I'm not one to resist a quick fix.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

my way

Initially, I had planned to start looking for a new job in January. My current position will have run its course once summer is in full swing. I thought it'd be a good idea to get a little head start on unemployment/summer vacation. For reasons outside my control, I haven't done anything besides reading job offers.

You might think that's nothing, but in my situation, that's not necessarily true. It's not so much that I haven't made up my mind, it's more that my mind is hanging loose, unfocused to the point that anything will get it excited. It's eagerly following French road signs.

any way

I'm not ruling out opportunities outside science, but since I'm getting most ideas from scientific journals and a crystallography mailing list, I'm somewhat restricted at the moment in the breadth of choices. But already, geographically, anything seems to go. I have seen interesting offers in Germany, Switzerland, England, Sweden, and maybe even the US, if I read the offers indulgently.

For all the reading, I have to get started writing at some point, polishing my CV so I can be proud of it and writing a few cover letters fit to cover most scenarios. I guess I should also loquaciously summarize my research experience. With an approach like this, I might just be that my way is in the sciences.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

private practice

After liberating me, with much noise and dust, of my cast last week, the doctor in the hospital gave me a referral to go see a physiotherapist. Twenty sessions of doing something (exercising my atrophied arm, lasering away the scar, stretching the tendon so the thumb will move normally - it wasn't specified), paid for by my health insurance. Since I'd never done this, I was mildly excited. Incidentally, this is identical to the situation when I got the cast in the first place, and that didn't turn out too enjoyable.

After procrastinating for a while, I made a list of physical therapists (kinesitherapeut in French, what a fine name) in the neighborhood. The first one I called, the closest-by, gave me an appointment, which I went to keep late this afternoon. Like most of the doctors, therapists of various kinds and, most beloved by the French, psycho analysts, he has his practice in an apartment building. You wouldn't know from the outside except for the little black plaque by the entrance door enumerating in golden characters the name, phone number and specialization of the doctor in the building. Walk through any town in France, and you'll see them everywhere.

I rang the bell, climbed the stairs to the second floor, rang another bell, and found myself in an apartment converted into a medical practice about a hundred years ago. The furniture and, I would later see, equipment were all original pieces, stuff that you won't even find on ebay anymore. The therapist was old as well. He ordered my butt on a little stool and my hand on the table in front of it. I was apprehensive.

The first thing my therapist did was trap my hand between two wet sponges, which he proceeded to hook up to a power supply, much like an SDS gel or Western blot. I'll be able to continue this therapy in the lab - when no one is looking. After a good ten minutes of variously spaced current pulses, my hand was apparently charged for real work.

The man in white started massaging the scar with much focus and dedication. Obviously I had expectations before coming. I thought I would get to work out my left arm that's still noticeably thinner than the right one. Or my thumb would be bent into places a thumb is supposed to go. But nothing of the kind. After fifteen minutes of massage, I was sent home - with another appointment for Friday.

While my injury was certainly more serious than it appeared at first, it now seems to me that everything is mostly ok. I can move my thumb almost normally, have no pain, and the scar is beginning to hesitantly fade into the skin around it. It would have never occurred to me to get professional help at this point. Luckily France is taking good care of me.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

corporate flexibility

Yesterday, I went to lufthansa.fr to book a flight to Germany. To go from Lyon to Dresden, one has to make one connection, either in Munich or in Frankfurt, and the ticket inevitably costs 350 euros. However, there is a way to beat the system, as there always is. Tickets for direct flights from Lyon to Frankfurt or Munich and from Frankfurt or Munich to Dresden can be had for only 99 euros on occasion. You can't be too flexible, and often the flights that are available don't match well. I have in fact never before built my itinerary from pieces like I did last night.

Two good friends of mine live in Munich. A weekend there would give me the opportunity to see them and hang out with them but also some flexibility for choosing my flights. It took a little effort navigating two Lufthansa windows at the same time, finding flights, matching days and then times, and fitting a weekend in. It all worked out. After twenty minutes of searching, shuffling, modifying, and picking legs, I submitted two reservations in parallel, hoping that the server wouldn't get confused and that by the time the first went through, the second would still be available. I got two confirmation emails. All had worked out.

Except it hadn't. I printed the itineraries and noticed that on the way back, I had exactly twenty minutes to change flights in Munich. That would be a bit wee even if the plane arrived at the gate, but in Munich you always have to the shuttle from way outfield. It's not Paris, but it still takes time. I was hosed.

My ticket allowed for modifications, with a 50 euro fee. I found another flight out of Dresden, an hour earlier, same price. But it was Saturday night, and the Lufthansa telephone service guys had already gone home. The internet was of no help. I spent an unruly night. Would the earlier flight still be available?

This morning I called again. The lady took my request to change the flight and told me, with the sweetness of Sunday in her voice, that my credit hadn't been billed yet and that the flight had thus not been booked technically. She would just cancel the reservation and let me make a new one on the net. No monetary penalty was imposed. I was stunned. Five minutes later I had another reservation, giving me an hour and a half in Munich. All is well that ends well. Let's hope that the first reservation got indeed canceled.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

for excess of a better title

I'm back! Today my cast was removed after four long weeks and I can once again type without restrictions. Over the last week or so potential titles for this post started coming to my head, one better than the previous, and certainly too many to fit into one line comfortably. In the end, none would have been totally fitting because reality is different from what I imagined it.

Free at last was my first idea because it described exactly what I thought I would feel when I wouldn't have to lug around anymore the two pounds of plaster that were weighing my left arm down. I didn't reckon there would also be a good pound of muscle missing after clandestinely evaporating from underneath the thick white shell. Despite my mind being buoyed by excitement while I was strolling through town after leaving the hospital, it wasn't my head that hovered highest but my left arm. Relieved of the double burden it constantly wandered skyward looking down upon me.

What it saw was not delightful. I felt sensations of unease coming from my thumb strong enough to wrap my stomach into a tight knot. The cut in my finger was still deep and every time I moved my thumb it felt like ripping back open. My hand was not fully functional, despite what I had hoped for. I felt no pain, but the anticipation of it in case of a jerky move made me sleepwalk uneasily all the way to lab.

Another idea for a title I had was cast away, but before the cast was gone I had to suffer through minor hell. The first thing the nurse did was plug a heavy-duty power drill into the outlet. On its tip was a two-inch disk with a hundred teeth gleaming menacingly in the unforgiving light of the hospital. Flicking a switch, the thing roared to life and my eyes grew wide. The nurse assured me it wouldn't hurt. I was ready for a little scratch on my forearm, but worried about the powderized plaster getting into the fresh wound. Small beads of sweat formed on my forehead, trickling pearls of fear. It would have been hugely reassuring if the nurse had told me the disk didn't rotate but only vibrate before she started cutting a quarter inch from my skin.

Decastrated is what I expected to feel after regaining control of my left arm. Unfortunately there is nothing macho about the limp appendix that's now hanging from my shoulder. Power has whithered away after a month of disuse and the contrast with the other arm, well fed after holidays rich in calories and poor in activity, is striking. Skin and hair have died in unison and form a thick layer of dead cells that will take days of scratching to get rid of. My hand looks like I'm 120 years old. I'd probably get senior discount if I handed my money over with it.

Despite all I'm mighty happy that most is over. A dozen sessions of physiotherapy remain, after which I hope I'll be as good as new. Looking at the fourteen little holes surrounding the still gaping cut, I know I was lucky. I've learned it the hard way but share it with you: Have your mom prepare the grapefruit for you.