Monday, September 24, 2007

pidgeon power

Yesterday, I rode my bike to the Queen's to see how London Freewheel would turn out. This event promised to promote city cycling and tried to get everyone on his or her bike on this sunny day that Sunday was. A number of roads were closed along the Houses of Parliament and the Embankment, and Londoners were encouraged to find out how cool cycling is. The roundabout outside Buckingham Palace and nearby St James's Park were the hub of all.

While I passed underneath Wellington Arch in my approach, I could already tell that coming wasn't a good idea. Too many people. Congestion. Stuck. I did the loop anyway, and then headed to Trafalgar Square. I had no special business to do, just wanted to buy something to read and hang out in a coffee shop, to read and watch. There's a lot to watch on the streets of London.

What I didn't see, in my infinite ignorance, was the drama of the day, reported today on BBC news. The pigeons are starving. Apparently, the no-feeding rules are being enforced, and the pigeons go hungry. Good, I think, they'll go someplace else or cut their flock down to sustainable size. Bad, even catastrophic, says The Pigeon Action Group. What the hell, ask I.

Why do sewer rats with wings deserve loving attention and special care? All across town, everything is done to control this pest. So why should they have carte blanche on Trafalgar Square to shit happily and spread disease? I'm not even talking about human misery and starvation in Africa. Feed the pigeons – how much more vain can one be?

Friday, September 21, 2007

river of opportunity

Today I skipped lab most of the day. I stopped by early in the morning (no witnesses besides the cleaner, a kind and most diligent Nigerian), around lunchtime and late in the afternoon, just in time for some birthday donuts. The rest of the day, I attended the eagerly anticipated Source Event, a science career fair organized by the friendly folks at

It was the first time they've done something like that, and there were times, in the weeks leading up to it, when it showed. They were probably overwhelmed with the reaction. Over a thousand people signed up. At some point they asked for re-confirmation of attendance, combined with the opportunity to shell out ten pounds for the coffee breaks. I did both, but three days ago I received an email claiming I hadn't re-registered and telling me to "NOT attend The Source Event". I've just started a new job and am quite happy with it, so I didn't mind too much, but the ten pounds were bugging me. I went anyway.

At the door, I got my badge with no questions asked, and later tea and biscuits. I could have got an information packet from Pfizer as well, but that wasn't what I had come for. I was more interested in the talks. Going with the fluid theme of the event, three streams of talks were offered, one primarily for Ph.D. students, the other for post-docs eager to stay in research and the third offering career alternatives.

After getting stranded in the wrong room in the morning, I was in the bench-to-business section in the afternoon, and I was treated to some fine talks, covering intellectual property, finance and policy development. I learned of an opportunity I had never thought of before, something that seems to fit my skills, talents and interests perfectly. A clear alternative to my present career has budded, and I know in my heart that it's a viable option. Let's not name names at this points because the last two times I decided with my heart, the result was disastrous. But I'm mildly excited.

Back in the lab I briefly scanned job ads in that particular field. For the fourth or fifth, I was the near-perfect match, with only one qualification missing. I know what I'll do this fall. If nothing else, it will get my brain exercised and my body out of the cold rain. And who knows, maybe my professional life will start flowing in a different direction at some point.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

the world

Every time chance strikes and things work out as if there was a guiding force I'm left wondering how many times chance doesn't strike, and how many things I miss but not really because I'm not aware.

The other day in the lab I make tea, and while the water is heating up, I glance at the newspaper someone has carelessly tossed next to the kettle. I read something about the upcoming mayoral election. Should be entertaining with Ken and Boris running. Everyone else will be extras. I guess, in the end even Boris will be just an extra, but I digress. What caught my eye was the statement that EU and Commonwealth nationals will be eligible to vote, providing they are registered to do so.

A week or two earlier, I had found a letter from the Council inviting me to do just that. Thinking (correctly) that I'm not British and (incorrectly, as it turns out) that elections are none of my business, I didn't even open the letter. I tossed it onto the ever-growing pile of orphan letters in the hallway, and that was it. (We get mail for a good dozen people who don't live here anymore. It adds up.)

When I came home tonight, I dug deep into the pile and indeed, the letter was still there. Opening it, I found out that, while it might be my right to vote, it is my obligation to register. Penalties for refuseniks were not detailed, but canvassers and admonitory calls promised. I dutifully filled in the form and sent it off.

I could have done this by phone. There was even a number for foreigners, with-pick-your language options. And mighty curious these options were. Arabic and Somali I can understand. There's a ton of them around and many, Somalis especially, had other priorities than learning English before coming here – like surviving perpetual tribal warfare, for example. Serbian and Albanian I can accept also. There's not too many of them around, and it could be argued that the world would be a better place if they took English classes together instead of violently arguing over whose territorial rights are holier, but I admit they've gone through hard times. But what is it with Italian and French? How did these make it into the list? What's their excuse?

No one apart from asylum seekers has an excuse for not speaking the language of the country they live in. This is not accepted wisdom in the UK. When I got my National Insurance numbers today, a Romanian construction worker was sitting next to me. All he could do was say his name, gesticulate wildly and point at a calendar to indicate dates. Will he get permission to work? Well, if he does he will contribute to London's being the great, colorful, cosmopolitan city it is. Mulţumesc.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

live is live

The other day I got a text message from Orange telling me that my DSL had come live. A reason to celebrate, after being cut off from the world for the better part of two months? Not yet, as the modem they promised to send was still missing. I was a bit worried how the package would make it though the mail slot that chokes on anything larger than a postcard it seems.

My worries proved unfounded. Last night my neighbor, her wet hair held high with a towel, knocked on my door and handed me a package she had received in my name a bit earlier. In it was the long-awaited Livebox. I plugged it in and hooked my computer up. Configuration was a snap. Communication now occurs through thin air. I'm back online.

The following hours flew by faster then the internet hit my browser. I had some serious planning to do for London Open House, an annual event that lets the interested public see, for free, architecturally significant structures of all sorts, many of which are normally closed. I had already missed out on the most spectacular buildings like the Swiss Re tower and the London Eye. Those require prebooking for which I had been late. But with over 600 objects to pick from, the challenge wasn't so much finding something interesting, but minimizing the time spent traveling.

That's done now. Let's live the city.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


So Osama published another video the other day. I haven't seen it, and I'm not interested, but I heard that he is advising Americans to renounce democracy and convert to Islam. Besides the fact that statement two is completely non sequitur to the first, there is some bizarre development here.

First, you fly a couple of planes into tall buildings killing almost 3000 people, then you ask those still alive to join your party. I'm not sure there has ever been a colder dead start.

One really has to wonder about bin Laden. What happened to the devoted jihadist bound on sending Americans to hell. Now he's asking them to dance Kumbaya with him? It's bullshit. Just imagine: The day the last American converts to Islam and the entire country steps forward to receive the blessing of the big Bin, the fellow leans back in his chair, kicks back his head, has a good laugh and the says: Just kidding guys. You're all gonna die.

Maybe he's gone senile. Living the last three years in a damp, dark cave somewhere in the mountains of Stoneagistan didn't help his disposition. Now he's dreaming of peace and love. I wonder whether he'll be in the video dressed up in a tie-dyed shirt and wearing flowers in his hair instead of the usual towel.

Who can take him seriously? He's just like any other hobo living under the Third Street overpass and has about as much to say. The hobo doesn't get airtime to disseminate his drunken nonsense. Why does bin Laden? Think about it, but be aware that you're thinking about the wrong question. The right question is why thousands still draw inspiration from such a clown and kill themselves and others for his delusions.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

steeple-chasing dinner

Last night was mom's last in London. Something special was in order to celebrate two great weeks of vacation – and the imminent return of calm to my apartment. We decided to follow TimeOUT's advice and eat at Sushi-Hiro, apparently one of the best in London. The restaurant is far out in Ealing, in West London, and also far from expensive. Another contrast to overrated Soho kitchens: no risk of being polonium-poisoned.

Exactly as it should have, the evening turned out very nice, but getting there was like running a steeple-chase with skirts on. It started with the tube's maintenance workers going on strike at 6pm. Consequently, all but three lines shut down. Taking into account that three million take the tube every day, you can imagine that a strike has an effect similar to jamming a log into an ant hill. Chaos and pandemonium, in other words.

Riding my bike home, I was struck by traffic (though luckily not by a car). I've never seen so many vehicles in the streets. Most were sitting idly, waiting for the hundreds in front to move. The bus we took out to Ealing was packed like the proverbial can of sardines. I didn't mind so much. Loads of cute sardines were squeezed in along with us. A feast for the eyes as an aperitif. Maybe I should take public transportation more often.

In Ealing, we missed the right stop because I wasn't totally sure where the restaurant was. I noticed it by the road when the bus had just left the stop. The restaurant didn't look open. When we had walked back from the next stop, it turned out to be closed for summer vacation. "We apologize for the inconvenience."

This being London, there is no dearth of restaurants, no matter what out-of-the-way borough you happen to be in. Walking back the high street the bus had brought us up we passed half a dozen before settling on Siam Royal Orchid. I haven't had Thai in a while, mom likes it, and I was hungry. We walked in before the BYO sign registered. When the waitress asked us if we had brought a bottle as they were only offering soft drinks and tea, we stayed anyway – and ordered jasmine tea that was constantly being replenished over the course of the meal.

The restaurant was a modest family operation. After we had ordered, I deemed it wise to inquire whether credit cards would be accepted. Negative, only cash and checks. My fifteen pounds wouldn't get me very far. I slipped out for a moment in search of an ATM.

This was found quickly at a gas station, oops, I mean petrol station, right next door, but fate hadn't thrown its last stick between my legs. The ATM just sat there blinking, refusing any card approaching its dark toothless mouth. The grocery store inside the station didn't offer cash-back on debit cards. Anything else wouldn't have gone with the theme. I spent the next fifteen minutes running up and down the street before finding an ATM that worked and gave me money.

When I was back in the restaurant, the fishcake starters were cold. They were tasty anyway, as were the main dishes. I had picked Gaeng Massamam, a dish I always relished at Thai Siam in Salt Lake. Once again, it was excellent. But how can something with potatoes not be good?

Taking advantage of a mild September night, we forewent the bus. Walking leisurely down Uxbridge Road, we were back home after less than an hour. London is much smaller than one thinks. It just appears huge because motorized traffic is moving at a snail's pace. Especially with tube strikes.

Monday, September 03, 2007

bespoke words

One of the many little things I've noticed since moving to the Island is that the natives speak a strange kind of language. In print, most looks like English. Spoken, it's a different story. Pronunciation can be incredibly mangled, and I have oftentimes a hard time understanding what is going on.

It's worst on the phone. When I called British Telecom to get a landline, the bloke on the other end repeatedly asked me if I wanted a bisic lane. What kind of lane? I don't need a lane. It took me a while to figure out that he was offering the basic line, which I took.

Pronunciation is only part of the problem. You bounce the sounds around in your head a little, and things will eventually fall into place and become comprehensible. Words are a different story. Most probably know about the whimsies dear to English tongues like lorry, carriage, trolley, aluminium. But it goes deeper.

Take 'bespoke'. What could it mean? Knowing that it is the past participle of bespeak doesn't really help. In fact, nothing really helps besides knowing that the words means custom-made, used in particular with reference to clothes. Why you can't just say custom-made is beyond me, and don't go to your tailer asking him to bespeak a new pair of pants for you. I doubt that would work.

Another word is 'to busk', which describes an activity that is even more common around here than the word. It means, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, 'to play music or perform entertainment in a public place, usually while soliciting money'. Buskers are in the tube, at Southbank and all over Covent Garden. Often, they're lame, but sometimes deserving of my pound.

Something completely different is rhyming slang, a way of speaking that developed in Cockney in East London. Here, words are substituted with mates that rhyme. If you want to get fancy, you substitute with a phrase and drop the bit that actually rhymes. Sounds cryptic? It is. An easy example would be to call the football score 2:2 a 'Desmond', after the South African arch-bishop Desmond Tutu. 'Hello me old china' is even less obvious. China is short for china plate and rhymes with mate. 'Hello my mate.' There you go.

Living in West London, I haven't consciously encountered rhyming slang yet. What I encounter every day in the streets are people not speaking English at all. I hear Polish, Arabic, Hindi, and whatever it is Sikh speak. I've come to London to be back in a place where I understand people and can easily participate in conversations, but then I walk around the Bush and feel more foreign than in France. Fortunately enough, this changes as quickly as I open my mouth, because everyone understands me and I understand them – with a little effort. And I get to enjoy the incredible diversity.