Saturday, November 24, 2007

ye olden days

My hood is a peculiar place. Shepherd's Bush is right next to Notting Hill, disconnected from its posh neighbor by nothing more than a busy road and a quiet railroad. But the bridge and the roundabout are like a warp hole between worlds. The Bush is cheaper, noisier, livelier, dirtier, and more colorful. It is also perennially up-and-coming, the new Notting Hill-in-waiting, if you will.

At the moment, a huge shopping center, ostensibly Europe's largest within city limits, is in its final months of construction. A new library will be part of the complex. One tube stop will be newly built and another substantially refurbished and updated. A new station will be built for the aforementioned railroad.

To the uninitiated, this might suggest vigorous economic ascension with its inevitable side effects: Starbucksation of this melting pot of cultures and the displacement of immigrants, exiles and guest workers of limited financial means to make room for City bankers, executives and fancy high-street stores.

Even if such a scenario exists in the dreams of the developers or the back of heads of the borough council members, it is highly unlikely to unfold in such dramatic terms. A keen reading of history cruelly invalidates the most ambitious hopes. I came across this by accident.

Today in the Guardian, I read a richly illustrated article about London maps. One, a tube map from the year 1908, grabbed my attention like no other. It showed the Hammersmith and City Line stop that is being built (rebuilt, we learn) these days and a District Line stop where the railway station will go. The Bush was a happening place a hundred years ago, no wonder with the Olympic Stadium and the grounds of the grand Franco-English Exhibition right around the corner. One could even take the tube directly to South Kensington, perfect for those working at recently opened Imperial College.

I don't bemoan that the District Line won't be extended to Shepherd's Bush (though I'd like it). I just want to point out that development is a curious beast. You never know what's going to happen. But with the Bush and its traditional identity, my gut feeling is that change will move only shyly.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

think same

There was, in the golden days of yore, a print advertisement campaign designed with the sole purpose of asserting that Apple still existed. Frugally designed, it featured, on a white background, assorted genii and the line "Think different". Nevermind the poor grammar, the line captured the mood at Apple at the time. They were the odd man out, fighting for their life in a market where their share was negligible. Simply by using a Mac, you were different.

Amazing what difference ten years can make. These days, Apple is the epitome of hip, everyone is in, drooling, buying, cuing up to get the latest gadgets. Tomorrow in the evening, shortly after six o'clock, the iPhone will go on sale in the UK. This afternoon already, devout Macolytes pitched their tents on Regent's St. to be the first tomorrow. The line will grow, thousands will want to be the same.

Similar craziness could be observed two weeks earlier when Leopard was unveiled, the fifth revision of Mac OSX. Back then also, people waited long hours to get their hands on software they could have ordered on the web and had delivered for free to their door just a bit later. I'm thinking, was the previous version really so atrocious and unusable that one can't wait a few extra days to have it upgraded?

The Apple lemmings aren't thinking, though. They're just following the call of the marketing department, getting high on announcements of Apple innovations like computers running on Intel chips, scroll mice (Whoa, why didn't anyone come up with that before?), shock-detecting hard-drives, and, just unveiled, multiple virtual desktops. I'm speechless.

I'm also the wrong person to poke fun. The day Leopard came out I had a chat with our IT guy. We prepared an order that went out after the weekend, and now I'm in possession (though not the proud owner) of a MacBook Pro. For the inveterate Mac hater that I am, this is an event so seminal it warrants two blog entries (in case you were wondering). But rest assured, I have survived six years of Mormonism with my soul intact. I will certainly not convert to Maconism. Same never appealed to me.

Christmas in November

Santa came early this year. Seven and a half weeks before the Holy Night, a big cardboard box was dumped on my desk this afternoon, just when I was about to meet a friend for coffee. Socially skilled as I am, I contained my excitement over the new MacBook Pro and had a chat and a brew, despite everyone in the lab bugging me when I left: "Aren't you gonna open it?"

When I came back, I did. I unpacked the silver star of the show, flat and slick but also heavy and with a large footprint, and the half dozen accessories that came with it, all spotless and white. I plugged the computer in, turned it on and fell immediately in love with the screen, wonderfully wide and bright.

I didn't start watching movies right away. Instead, I opened the handbook. "Congratulations. You and your MacBook Pro were made for each other." From what I know and have experienced, I have serious doubts. I'm a Mac skeptic on a good day and a Mac hater on a bad. The new laptop is probably not going to change that.

There is no right button on the touchpad. How do you navigate the web in the coffee shop, one hand on the cappuccino, the other on the laptop, and no mouse nearby? Short of cruising up to the arrow icon, there is only one way to go back. You have to activate two-finger tapping as secondary click. Works, but try mouse gestures with that.

There is also no delete key, only backspace. The enter key is one of the smallest on the keyboard, on mine anyway. Do Apple designers really use it that rarely? Strangely, there is another enter key just right of the space bar. What's it doing there? How did it get separated from his pal further up?

On the other hand, the back-lighting of the keyboard is lovely, putting to shame the lonely white diode above the screen of my ThinkPad. I also love the low noise level, almost silent with a barely audible hum of the fan. That's all I've noticed so far.

Why did I get the thing? Science – and in particular crystallography – can be done much more productively on a platform that combines hard-cord scientific computing traditionally done under UNIX and Linux with Microsoft and Adobe's office and image manipulation capabilities. As is only appropriate for a necessary tool, the lab paid for it. When a hard day's work is done, I get to play with it for free. That's what I call Christmas.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

unending days

Somewhere during the last two weeks I lost track of virtual life. My facebook adventures have come to a complete standstill not much more than three weeks after their celebrated beginning. What do people see in it? I haven't posted to my blog either. It not that nothing worth mentioning has happened. It's that so many things are happening that I don't find the time mentioning them.

My sister left town and vowed to come back. I can't blame her. How can ten days possibly give you more than a thoroughly unsatisfying glimpse of this magnificent town, an unfulfilled teaser that screams for more? The same feeling was experienced and voiced by two Italian friends of mine who spent the last few days exploring a town that continues to dress up in its finest.

Who would have thought November afternoons can be spend picnicking in the park – among hundreds doing the same. No one was braving the miserable cold. Incredibly and somewhat incredulously, everyone felt the gentle touch of sun on their faces, and some brave souls on recklessly exposed skin.

My guest left this morning, or rather I left them – at the airport at six. Redundant evidence that I'm not a morning person was given when I drove off following sign for "The West". I live in West London, but that's still East of Heathrow. Aided by thinning civilization and unfamiliar names, it still took me a good five minutes to notice my mistake while blasting away from the rising sun at seventy miles per hour.

Late in the afternoon, after another walk in St. James's Park, wonderfully lit by the low sun but noisily crowded with boisterous families feeding swans and squirrels, I went to Tate Britain to see the Turner Prize show. This retrospective assembled all the winners of Britain's most prestigious modern art award since its inception 23 years ago. The exhibition was as breathtaking in its depth as some of the pieces were stunning in their art.

I saw the first video art that ever captivated me, Gillian Wearing's "live group photograph" of some thirty police officers. They were asked to remain as still as possible for the sixty minutes of the shoot, but move and fidget with increasing discomfort. Nothing happens – in the most intense way.

Then there were Anish Kapoor's gigantic cups, covered in dark blue pigment and hung up on the wall with their open end facing the viewer. Looking at them was like taking a visual plunge in uncharted waters – and drowning inevitably, for there was a point in the cup where the eye could make out neither color nor texture. The blue became black, the walls invisible, and the cup bottomless.

My third favorite was the iconic Mother and Child, Divided (used to advertise the show). The rather formal title was probably chosen for effect, forgoing the tell-all directness of "Cow and Calf, Cut in Half", but that's what it was. Four large glass tanks house a cow and her baby, each cut in half and preserved in formaldehyde and silicon. Walking through the cow halves was spooky and the piece itself brilliantly irreverent.