Tuesday, December 30, 2008

sorting it out

I'm back from Germany after ten days there. I enjoyed a family Christmas right in the middle of this decimal week and a few days of peace and quiet at either end. A friend from high school who I hadn't seen in about three years and who lives in Los Angeles at the moment, tried to get a hold of me. In the end we managed to meet, minutes before I left the country, at the airport for a coffee and a chat that was not nearly long enough. He is in a similar position professionally as I am, and I should have been eager to see him from day one. That I wasn't shows what kind of mood I was in.

Whoever asked, the high-school friend included, got to hear that I had retired into a Christmassy silence. In this silence I brooded, contemplating my life, reviewing first the present year and then the four years since my Ph.D. (Believe me I was shocked to realize it's been four years, but that will be the subject of another post – once I've driven my deliberations to some sort of conclusion.) The process was fruitful. I realized some things that weren't clear to me before, and I'm in a better position to make New Year's resolutions than I would have otherwise been.

It must be evident from the previous paragraphs that I was in no position to contribute to the jolliness and merriment that characterizes Christmas. Walks and drives would often take place in silence. As all my family are a bit on the introverted side, this behavior didn't strike anyone as particularly odd.

However, I frequently found myself withdrawing into thoughts in the middle of a board game. When the game was not to my taste, all hope would be lost at this point. I would continue playing, but the game would fizzle out pretty soon. Unless everyone wants to win at least a little bit, games are no fun. And since board games are what we enjoy most together as a family, something needed to be done. Luckily, there was one game my mom had got from the library that was so exciting that it kept my thoughts at bay and availed us of hours of fun.

My thoughts didn't stop, though. The hamsters kept running in their wheel, as a friend of mine was fond of saying. At night, I would sit down on the sofa, turn on the little Eee, and massage its tiny keyboard, putting words to the screen as they streamed from my brain.

A few days have passed. I'm back in the city I call home for now. My immediate perspective has changed, and the philosophical silence around me has been crowded out by urban noise. Looking at the files I created over Christmas, I find incoherent ramblings for the most part. But no matter how disorganized and chaotic they are, I have the feeling that they hide something important, something that didn't have any other way of getting out. I'll spend the next days sorting them out. There should be material for a few nice posts, and maybe I even learn something about myself.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

musings on the Eee

Being home for Christmas with nothing much to do but read and relax, I've spent quite a bit of time on the Eee, writing down my thoughts but also simply getting used to the computer. In the process, I can't help but discover the limitations of the preinstalled, customized Linux. I had mentioned earlier that VLC, the universal video player, isn't installed. I learned that it can also not be added by the user too easily. The preloaded Linux is an esoteric flavor, and there is no VLC package specifically for the Eee.

I didn't worry. I dumped a handful of movies on a USB stick anyway. There's gotta be a video player, was my thought. There is. Mplayer is installed, a GUI as well, but that program doesn't by default know what to do with H264 encoded mp4 files, and I don't know how to teach it. The result is that sound is playing but there is no video. And while I like the sound track on O Brother, Where Art Thou, I'd really like to see George Clooney and his gang ramble along with it. Instead I'm left to contemplate why a computer without a DVD player, a machine that seems made for downloaded or ripped movies, comes with a DVD playing software but nothing useful for movie files.

Then there is the hard drive, which comes in two bits. A small flash unit carries the operating system whereas an ample solid-state disk holds user data. The flash unit is formatted with a non-erasable file system, which makes system restoration easy. All original applications and files will always remain there and can be restored at the click of a button. Updates from the Eee server are also easy, but the installation of third-party programs is clearly not encouraged. The space would fill up quickly. Removing originally installed programs doesn't free up space because only the icons on the desktop are removed while all files remain on the disk. Some advocate such a strategy because it's safe. But with such little memory, it seems to me unnecessarily constraining.

Another limitation is that the preloaded Linux has been proprietarized to such an extent as to make it almost unrecognizable as an open system. This is to get all the hardware to work and to configure the computer for maximal ease of use. Fair enough, I guess, if you want to sell Linux computers to an easily frightened public that's used to the warm glow of Windows or Apple. The Eee looks and feels much like an XP box, while its usability philosophy was taken from old Macs. Most applications are easily accessible via large friendly icons on the screen and work flawlessly with their standard parameters. All the user has to do is click. Steve Job's grandmother would be delighted, but I'm not a grandmother. I like to tweak my system and make it most useful for me. While most system tools exist, their use is clearly not encouraged. Customizing the Eee is difficult. Sooner or later, an ambitious user will start banging his head against the wall.

I am at this point, but I'm also asking myself if I'm not asking too much. I see the Eee as a regular Linux computer whereas it is really only a netbook of limited use. Its power lies in its mobility and portability more than anything else. Maybe I should just live with it and appreciate it for working as it does, for bluetooth that talks to my mom's phone, for wireless that talks to my router at home, for its featherweight that's perfect in my backpack.

On the other hand, I'd like to watch movies on it when traveling, and I know that I won't be satisfied until things work exactly as I want them to; it is going to nag me. I have to investigate which Linux best supports the Eee's own very particular hardware. With some luck I can install something like Ubuntu or Fedora, be more at home with it, and everything would still work. A project for after the holidays.

traveling hours

It was the Friday before Christmas. At a time when even the sun wasn't ready to say hello to the new day yet, I had to pry myself from the warm and comfortable cocoon that is my bed, peeling the sheets off one by one before getting up and setting off into the approaching morning. It was not only dark outside but also numbingly cold.

The night before had been short. A lab had organized a Christmas party for everyone working in the building and asked them to bring their friends. Music, booze and merriment were provided in copious quantities, and included in the meager entrance fee. With such ingredients it is easy to predict that a rough edge would develop as the night progressed. And indeed, helping you ease into the serene spirit of the holidays is not what English office parties are meant to do. There are always plenty of revelers that take the occasion to make up for all the parties they didn't go to and to consume all the drinks they were too reasonable to drink throughout the year.

I had taken it easy, but after just a bit more than three hours of sleep, I must have looked like I've had too much. I certainly felt that my rightful place was in bed. But I had to get to Hammersmith to catch the first tube – leaving at 5:27 – to Heathrow. For this I was too early. As the train was meticulously on time, I spent a good quarter hour at the platform, recalling the macchiatos and cappuccinos I've had over the past few days to keep me warm with memory.

Heathrow is a disaster. This used to be an absolute truism, an opinion shared by all, too trivial to deserve words and certainly up to discussion. Some say things changed with the opening of Terminal 5. Initially, to everyone's surprise and shock, they got worse. The chaos that ensued when baggage-handling computers broke down cannot be described. Now that the early glitches have been smoothened, Terminal 5 is by far the nicest airport space in London.

Flying from Terminal 2, I didn't expect too much, but I didn't fear much either. At six in the morning, travelers should be scarce and the luggage drop and security checks swift. But when three Lufthansa flights are leaving within twenty minutes, all potential advantages of the early hour evaporate instantly. Lines are long and people frazzled, and an air of despondency hovers above all. The usual Heathrow experience evidently knows no off-peak hours.

Most depressing or most annoying, depending on my mood before I arrive, are the security checks. I hate their futility and ostentatious pretense. There is no rhyme or reason to these checks. They differ between countries and even between airports in the same country. Sometimes one has to go through several during one journey, though it would make more sense to get rid of opportunities for acquiring illicit or dangerous materials once inside the supposedly secure zone. What do they sell at the duty free shops anyway?

Have you have considered that your liquids are confiscated on the grounds of being potential explosives? Yet all are collected in one big bag where people are around. If there were any real danger, if there were even the remote possibility of an explosion, wouldn't you expect the security personnel to be a bit more careful with them? If you have a thousand little charges, you wouldn't put them all in one place so their power and destructiveness can multiply. How can I take security seriously as a passenger if the authorities don't take it seriously themselves?

Recently, a new screening policy was implemented. One is not required anymore to take the laptop from its bag and place it in a separate box to be x-rayed. The reason for the original policy was that the high density of laptops might mask weapons or dangerous tools next to the computer. Have laptops suddenly become less dense or x-rays more selectively permeating? Though I was tempted, I avoided a discussion with the screeners. Arguing, even constructive criticism, is never appreciated at the airport.

In a weird way, I was upset I wouldn't be required to take my laptop out. I'm still so happy about my little Eee and feel so cool with it; I wouldn't have minded showing it to the entire world. It's a feeling very similar to when I got my ThinkPad, a computer I had been drooling over for months before I finally made the financial sacrifice required to own it. In between these two, I have felt the complete opposite. When I unpack my MacBook, I wear a uniform and become invisible in the crowd. These days, so many people buy Macs to be cool, it makes the gadgets decidedly uncool in my eyes. I'm quite embarrassed to have joined to cult and feel like I should be hiding all Apple product I own. I am not a lemming, I don't do worship in the Church of Steve, and I don't wait outside stores to be the first one to buy products. All these pathetic behaviors make me cringe and deny Apple wherever I can. The MacBook is a good computer, a great tool for my job, but it's as far from cool as sandals with socks.

My musings were interrupted by an authoritative voice reminding everyone to take off their shoes and wade through inches of filth in their socks. It's all in the service of air travel safety. I complied grudgingly. The Peas in my iPod make the nonsense a little more bearable. Let's Get Retarded. I put my shoes back on, quickly left the duty-free bazaar behind me, and hurried towards the departure gate. It was nearing seven, and though the sun still hadn't risen yet, my plane was about to. I made it just in time.

I wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and/or (depending on when this post sees the light of the day) a happy, successful and challenging New Year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

the year 2008

Before I disappear into the uncharted backwaters of incommunicastan on Friday, let me review the old year a little. It's been nuts on a global scale. No one will argue with that. Before I comment, I want to go back to my New Year's resolutions post and have a look at this past year from a personal perspective. What have I achieved?

  • Run a marathon.I did, though it could be argued I only ran for the first half of it and limped sufferingly through the second.
  • See a new country. – Jordan and Syria have been added to the list, a whole new world.
  • Write more. – It can't be denied that I've written more than average in the last two or three months. Whether I can be proud of this is another question. I oftentimes suffer from vague thoughts and don't even come to close to writing down what is traipsing around my brain. I have added nothing to my website.
  • Learn Spanish. – I went to a Spanish class for a few months but got bored with it. I understand the language fairly well. To speak properly, I'd have to immerse myself. Who's joining me on a half-year sabbatical in South America?
  • Find a job in Germany. – That was mentioned jokingly. I didn't want to leave London but had it on the radar for 2010. More on this in due course.
  • Live happily. – The year had moments of overboiling happiness but also of profound sadness. Happiness eclipsed sadness most of the time. It was a good year.

The original resolutions post ended with a video from the Iowa caucus and the warning that we weren't there yet. Well, now we are. Hope is back in the world of politics, but it seems to have vanished from most quarters associated with the economy. There was only one way this year, down, down, down. Being an optimist, this makes me think that it can only go one way in 2009 as well, up, up, up. This would be one for the New Year's post, though, whose time hasn't come yet.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

teaching evolution

Charles Darwin's 200th birthday is coming up next year. To commemorate the bicentenary, a number of renowned museums have teamed up, shared their resources and expertise and put together a major traveling exhibition that has just touched down in London after being shown in New York City, Boston, Chicago and Toronto. Darwin and his ideas are on show at the Natural History Museum just across the street from Imperial College.

Even two hundred years after it was first proclaimed, the theory of evolution by natural selection still manages to create controversy in certain circles. I had thus far assumed these circles were restricted to the backwaters of rural America, but nonsense is apparently spreading. The museum has been specially training its facilitators, volunteers and any staff that's bound to interact with visitors.

One of the touchy subjects is the presence of fossils in the exhibition, pieces that have been dated to hundreds of thousands or even millions of years ago. Teachers of religious schools have asked museum staff if these fossils could be excluded from display because it would confuse the students. Confuse them because they have been miseducated to take Earth to be a few ten thousand years old. Don't ask me where this number comes from. It's obviously rubbish, and I get really angry when I hear the religiously confused (the teachers, not the poor students) spreading nonsense like this. I'd love to volunteer at the museum, though I fear that my combativeness wouldn't be appreciated.

Given that a rational approach has failed so many times in bringing sense to the discussion, I'd go all out, get irrational myself and try to beat the god-mongers at their own game. I have found out that religion cannot be debated with facts. The Mormons have taught me that. What I would like to achieve is the acceptance in my opponent that science explains life as we know it, whereas religion explains nothing and cannot be explained.

How do I try to achieve that? Easy. I invoke god. For the sake of argument, I accept religion and the presence of god. However, the god that I accept is the coolest, best and most powerful of all. At the beginning of time, he created the universe and gave us the laws of physics. He has been playing dice ever since because his creation was so successful that it started running itself pretty much immediately, with no reworking required. For day-to-day business, god is out and physics is in.

If someone tells me Earth has been created 16,000 years ago, I call him blasphemous. My divine laws of physics let me find out easily and with certainty that Earth is four-and-a-half-billion years old. If someone claims all living things were created, I ask if Darwin was created as well, and if so, if that wasn't a pretty poor move, given all the ruckus he has caused. If someone gets high on intelligent design, I'd have to point out the precariously dangling testicles of a bull and the misery and excessive death a colony of Emperor penguins suffers down in the Antarctic. If there's a designer, he was clearly not very intelligent. Laws of physics, in contrast, don't claim to be intelligent. They just explain how things work.

I could go on, but maybe it's a good thing I'm not often confronted with benighted religious views. Discussions without a rational base tend to fray and disintegrate. Explaining things without invoking god is much more gratifying because it's more direct and clearer. As one sees connections and relationships, things will start to make sense and one will remember them better and longer. I feel I wouldn't waste my time by going to the Natural History Museum and checking the Darwin exhibition out myself.

not my fault

Over the past half year or so, I have expanded my repertoire of skills and made myself important to the lab in ways I wasn't hired for. I have campaigned for the organization of our DNA constructs in electronic form and have implemented a database and web interface to take care of that. This done, I kicked a wiki into life and started harassing my colleagues about contributing their wisdom, about making their experiences and knowledge available to everyone. You can always ask, but only as long as someone remains a member of the lab. Whoever leaves – and academic labs have a dynamic turnaround – takes what he has learned and improved in the lab with him, irretrievably. Lastly, I designed and coded the lab's new website, an effort that's not complete yet because people drag their feet about adding content. But my part is done and I'm happy with it.

I know there's no reason for complacency, though. An IT project is never done when the last modification is saved and the site goes live. It requires diligent supervision, constant maintenance and painstaking error prevention. That's why I'm equipped with administrator and root passwords and have turned into some sort of mini system administrator.

Our lab's web and database servers sit on a computer that's used for regular work. In fact, it's a student's primary workstation. Today, this computer went down. Its juice was mysteriously cut and it just blanked. When the power supply was restored, it came back to life as quickly as it had faded, and everything seemed to work. Everything, that is, but the wiki. Accessing its start page only gave a cryptic php error. Something wrong with the database, apparently. And something was very wrong indeed. The database server was fine. The plasmid database worked as it should. But the wiki database hadn't shut down cleanly when the computer zonked. Data had been compromised beyond repair.

It was then that two thoughts flushed through my brain almost concurrently. First: Damn, I don't have a backup. Why did it never occur to me to be prudent? Second: I'm so damn glad I'm not professionally responsible for this database. Imagine I worked in some commercial operation that would stand lose a million pounds every minute their databases are not operational. Someone would find his way to my desk very quickly and start yelling at me as if had I gnawed through the power cable with my own teeth.

There is very little yelling in academia, thankfully. Were my boss to hear about this meltdown, he would ask with honest concern, 'Will you get it back up? Will get the data back?' And I would reply that all would be easier if I had read all the pages of the MySQL bible I bought many years ago, and not just those immediately relevant for what I was doing. We would share a laugh.

The server wasn't critical, but the database would need to come back to life eventually, and I'd like to have the data back. I went down to the department's system administrator who, professional that he is, assured me that he had done weekly dumps of the database's content and he would send me the latest version he has on backup. It will be up to me to restore it and to make sure that future backups will be more frequent. What a nice environment for learning this is.

Christmas spirit

This year, for as long as I can remember, I have experienced the least Christmas spirit. I'm walking through the streets and it doesn't strike me as if Christmas were just around the corner. I haven't heard a traditional song or the clear sound of a trombone. I haven't smelled mulled wine or the twigs of a freshly hewn spruce. I haven't seen snow. Each day, I pass my time like I would any other day.

The town is full of grandiose but ultimately pathetic decorations like blinking Santa Clauses and diode arrays to make you go blind. Inevitably, they surround advertisements and shop displays. As I don't go shopping much, I'm not much touched by how Christmas is misrepresented. And last weekend on Oxford Street, it could have been any weekend – there was absolutely nothing seasonal about it.

Living where I do doesn't help. Shepherd's Bush is full of diversity but devoid of values that are dear to me, devoid of things I associate with home, with warmth, with happiness. There are no trees, no lights and no carols. The Green has been taken over by a fun fair. Apparently, going on rides and shooting numbers for prizes is what the British like to do in winter, but it doesn't do the trick for me. Further down on Uxbridge Road, the Arabic stores do business as usual.

Maybe the lack of snow exacerbates things. In the northern hemisphere, Christmas is in winter, and I associate the sparkle of fresh white snow with the peaceful days at the end of the year. In Grenoble and Salt Lake, even if there was no snow on the street in front of your house, there were always the mountains, less than an hour away and clearly visible from town, their rich coat of snow reflecting the sunset in bright orange.

There will probably be no snow on the ground when I go to Germany this Friday. The airport will be full of blinking Santas and diode lights, and so will be the big malls. But at home, in the small town I grew up in and certainly in my parents' house, Christmas how I know it will rule. To me, Christmas means peace. Christmas means slowing down and kicking back. Christmas means Bach's Oratorio, cookies baked by mom, and a real tree with real candles. When these candles are lit for the first time, the Christmas spirit will finally hit me.

Friday, December 12, 2008

welcome, little Eee

When I came back from Paris yesterday, my latest toy had already arrived in the lab. It was an addition to my growing family of laptops but very different from the rest. Bigger is better is a thing of the past. The day it was announced, I had fallen in love with the Eee PC for its uncompromising mobility. It weighs about a kilo, fits in a lady's purse, and the battery lasts longer than you'd ever want to sit in front of a computer. Last week, I finally ordered mine. The idea is to take it with me wherever I go, letting me sit down and write wherever I am, whether it's a coffee shop in London, a plane over the Atlantic or the Syrian desert.

The Eee is brilliant. It is tiny – and also extremely cute. It weighs next to nothing (The AC adapter is the size and weight of a Mars bar.) but feels rock solid, and it's almost silent. There is no hard drive that spins; just a quiet fan if loads of applications are running. Booting is nearly instantaneous. The pre-loaded Linux, some flavor I've never tasted, works out of the box. I was using the computer less than a minute after first boot. StarOffice, Firefox, Skype, and photo and video management software are already built in. (Strangely, VLC is missing.)

Eee on top

Where are the limitations? Well, the size of the Eee can work against you. The keyboard is tiny and some keys are nearly impossible to hit without looking. On the upside, there's proper delete key, something even the MacBook Air doesn't have. Typing is a bit of a pain, and I would probably use a USB keyboard whenever available. However, this post was entirely written on the Eee, and my hands haven't cramped up yet.

The screen is tiny as well, but it displays the same number of pixels horizontally like my first Vaio did, and I was fine with that. The touchpad doesn't feel right, but that might just be a question of getting used to. While it comes with system restore disks, the Eee doesn't have a CD player. Apparently, one can easily create a bootable USB stick. Films make their way to the computer via the same media. Internal storage is only 20GB, but one has to travel a lot and write a lot of stories to fill this up.

My verdict: I love it. I can't wait to trow it in my backpack when I go home over Christmas. I now have a mighty ThinkPad for sale. (Of course the MacBook Pro still rules whenever sheer power is required.)

Paris, part two

I love trains. That’s how I got around when I was little. The car was a clear second. I remember weekend outings with my buddies (and an adult or two to keep things sane), and sleeper cars to Budapest. When I was thirteen, a train took me non-stop from East Berlin to Vilnius to a three-week summer camp fit for the son of Politbüro member. I have no idea how my dad got it. He wasn’t even in the communist party. The ride took 28 hours.

Ever since they opened the Chunnel, the rail tunnel underneath the English Channel, I’ve wanted to fly through it. This desire started to burn hotter and into the foreground when St. Pancras was opened after a Milliwaysian refurbishment (where little expense was spared to give the impression that no expense had been spared), making it the new launch pad to Paris, just a bit more than two hours away.

On Tuesday afternoon, I was finally aboard one of the trains, and slightly dissatisfied. For all I had been looking forward to, the ride was spectacularly anticlimactic. When we left the station, night had already descended and it was completely dark outside. When we hit the tunnel, all went black, easy to miss unless you pay attention. My perception was blunted by an earful of music. Resurfacing in France twenty minutes later, it was still dark.

Besides the nonevent of the tunnel, there was also the nonevent of speed. While the train wasn’t as smoothly cruising as an ICE3 where you can leave a bic pen on your seat table and it won't roll off, it was infinitely calmer than the bone-rattling traditional TGV that is as much about speed as it is about communicating that speed to the passenger. The Eurostar moves, noticeably, but it doesn’t shake or bounce, and it doesn’t accelerate as madly as you would expect for a train hitting 180 mph.

You know it’s going fast, though, when, while passing a station, you can’t tell where you are because you can’t even read the signs three platforms away. It’s all blurry with speed. Once the train was on its way, I collapsed into my iPod and woke up, a few hours later, in Paris. Here are some of my first impressions, put to paper that same night, but only committed to the blog just now.

The metro doesn’t give a good first impression. Discarded tickets are all over the floor, and intricate scratch designs in the windows. The tunnels are dimly lit but covered in bright graffiti. At the stations, there are no attendants. People jump over ticket gates or squeeze through in pairs. A faint smell of anarchy hangs in the air. For all the ubiquitous whining about the London tube, it looks like a clear winner to me.

Once outside the underground system, the Haussmannian gracefulness of the city is striking. The ground floor of most buildings is extra tall, with enough space for a restaurant’s mezzanine or a shop’s storage space. All windows are really French doors. Only little metal gates prevent the careless from stepping trough these doors and falling onto the sidewalk. At night, all windows are closed with metal folding shutters.

In contrast, the textbook London dwellings are dilapidated Victorian terraces. They were built at about the same time as their Parisian counterparts but should have been demolished a long time ago. Substance is crumbling. Thin walls and rickety windows let heat escape unhindered. Paint comes off the walls or has been splattered back on in the most haphazard way. Trash bags are heaped by the front door because there’s no room for them in the entrance portal. Scratch this, there is no entrance portal in the first place.

There are exquisitely elegant buildings in London as well, in the posh central districts, characterized by enormous sash windows, washed brick façades and bright white trimmings. Not unlike medieval fortresses, these buildings are inevitably surrounded by ten-foot deep trenches, revealing troglodyte dwellings for those with the delirious desire for a prestigious address but without the financial means. Herein lies an enormous difference between the English and the French. I think a Frenchman would rather camp underneath a bridge on a Seine quai than degrade himself to living in a basement. After all, where would he put his wine?

I didn’t have the time to contemplate all this upon exiting the metro because my hotel was straight across the street. I didn’t have to look for it. I didn’t even have to think about where to look for it. It was like limo service without the car. I didn’t have to walk. I just climbed a few steps and arrived. Of course I went back out again after checking in and dropping my bags.

Talking about luggage, have you ever noticed the guys selling fake designer bags in Rome or Milano, scattering their wares on a tarp so they can grab everything and run off in one go should police appear? According to a story in the Economist a while back, they all belong to a particular ethnic group from Senegal. In the cities where they operate, they have communities, rules, safe houses and soup kitchens, and ways of transferring money back home. This doesn’t exist in London, but is alive and well in Paris, except what I saw them offer were trinkets for tourists, Perspex Eiffel Towers and Mona Lisas with blue LEDs for eyes, not bogus luxury goods.

I saw these guys—this is not hard to guess—underneath the Eiffel Tower, a very special place indeed. The perplexing, entangled steel construction is a marvel of civil engineering and a piece of art to my eyes. The tower is at the end of the Champs de Mars, a large public garden and park whose name derives from the Roman god of war.

These days, it’s a much less belligerent place. There’s even a monument to peace at its other end. As I was walking by in the quiet of a cold night, I couldn’t help but be infinitely grateful for living in peaceful times, when Germany isn’t invading France every half century and England doesn’t try to rule the world by force. I prefer economic prosperity over military mastery, and fast trains over fast bullets.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Paris, part three

Last night, right before leaving Paris on the fast train, I let myself be tempted. I tasted the nuts of Old Jack. My tongue painted slow circles on the substantially sized flattened spheres, tenderly tracing surface cracks and clearly defined edges in the process. The outside had a hint of ruggedness to it and betrayed only little of the explosive tenderness I was about to receive. So much pleasure in a dimly lit room!

The day had started more conventionally. I had met with collaborators at the Pasteur Institute. We explained to each other what we had been doing between sending emails to each other, and discussed how our efforts might be turned into a publication. The meeting went well, and it was quick. By one in the afternoon I was off to do sightseeing in a city that I haven’t properly visited in eleven years.

Right away, I took the metro down to the Arc de Triomphe and ambled down the Champs Élysées. It was a very cold day, but Paris is a city that will always warm my heart. When I see the Eiffel Tower, and it’s widely visible, a true landmark, my heart skips a beat and I start bopping down the street instead of walking. Eventually, I got to the Grand and Petit Palais. These have only recently been restored to and, in all likelihood, beyond their original splendor. All I remember from last time were heavy equipment, tall wooden fences and curiosity-tickling impenetrable plastic foil all the way up to the roof. Now, major art exhibitions are staged here in the most appropriate settings.

I also spent time in the Tuileries and around the Louvre. Just about then, the sun decided to play its games with me. For only a few seconds and seemingly out of nowhere it would paint the glorious architecture in a light that makes winter so great for traveling. It was frustrating because I would hardly ever be at the right place at the right time in order to capture the splendor with my camera, but chasing the elusive rays kept me warm at least.

By way of the two islands in the Seine, I got to the Marais and the Quartier Latin, two very relaxed neighborhoods right and left of the river that charm with their narrow cobbled streets, cafés, and quirky boutiques. I was frozen by now and looking for a place to have tea and cake. The day was nearing its end, and I knew I’d miss the sunset I had originally wanted to capture from Montmartre. But it was cold and the desire for cake stronger.

That’s when La Jacobine opened her doors for me, a small cozy salon de the inside an unassuming alley. The tea was six euros a pot and the cake eight fifty a piece, but who’s counting when you’re in Paris for the first time in a few years. I had my issues with the tea, though. If you charge an arm and a leg you’d better brew it right. Don’t just put the leaves into the hot water. Take them out when the tea is done. How do I know who many minutes have passed? How do I know how long this particular tea takes? And why do I have to ask for a little saucer to remove the leaves and prevent them from turning the concoction thick, dark and bitter? In any case, the chocolate cake was simply divine.

Warmed up and sweetened, I continued my stroll. I noticed the number of street markets and the quality of the produce. I seem to have completely forgotten about this. Carrots are orange and have lush green leaves. Apples are big, firm, and exist in a hundred regional varieties. A significant portion of the species on offer were unknown to me. This is the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy in action, the result of Germans’ paying high taxes and the French’s subsidizing their farmers. The most beautiful looking greens mankind has ever beheld, next to fresh, prime meat, poultry, and treasures of the seas.

Maybe it was from one of those markets that Old Jack’s nuts, introduced in the first paragraph, had come from. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I wasn’t talking about some pink sort of naughtiness but noix de St. Jacques, the adductor muscles of St. James’ scallops, a huge bivalve mollusc from France’s northern shores. I treated myself to this delicacy in a restaurant near the Gare du Nord when my train to London was still an hour and a half off. It was truly delightful.

Shellfish is usually banned from my plate and palate because of its gummi-like chewiness. Only once before, at a tapas bar in Barcelonta, have I been satisfied with octopus. That was an eye-opening experience because it told me what such things can taste like if they’re fresh and prepared with care and love. Tonight was no difference. The noix had been grilled for a few instants and its slightly charred exterior hid a soft heart much like a good steak or magrait de canard does. The meal came with rice, slivers of carrot and a sauce that looked creamy and rich but was delicate and unimposing and left the meat the uncontested king of the plate. Enjoying the last little morsels, I almost missed my train.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

a day to forget

Christmas is coming up in gigantic steps. It seems just a few weeks ago it was still months away. Now, it's here, in your face, everywhere, and impossible to avoid. Although our family will mark the festivities largely gift-free for the second time, I'll have to get a few little things, not the least of which is the five-pound item for the lab Santa. As every year, so I'm told, we'll each buy a small gift, wrap it neutral aluminum foil, gather the lot in the middle of the table during our Christmas lunch, and play for it. It goes like this: Each one in succession throws a die, and with a six or three, you can take from the heap what you fancy. By the time the table is cleared, some have acquired a gift while others have not. Obviously, some have amassed more than one. So far, so unfair.

Traditional Christmas values of generosity and kindness are completely thrown out of the window in the second part of the game. With no unallocated gifts left, the throwing of the die continues, except now you get to steal someone's gift with a three or a six. That's when the screaming and scheming starts in earnest, generously fueled by booze provided by our boss. Five minutes later, the game is halted, the lucky ones open their gifts and celebrate while the unlucky bewail their fate.

I've known what I wanted to buy for a while now, and today I went out to make the purchase, if that's an appropriate word for something that costs only five pounds. After a short ride on the Central line, I found myself in Oxford Street, surprised that there was not a single bus in sight. The street is normally closed to private vehicles on weekends, but on Very Important Pedestrians Day, it is complete traffic-free. To appreciate the impact of this, one has to see Oxford Street on a regular Sunday. Two parades of buses, one slowly moving west, the other equally slowly east, fill the street in its entire length. It's a spectacle in itself, and that's why stepping out of the Bond Street tube station gave me such a startling surprise this morning.

This other surprise, a few days old already, was that I've got sick in the most bizarre of ways. At night, I lie in bed, being boiling hot and freezing cold at the same time, and cough my lungs out as if I had smoked since age thirteen. In the morning I'm drenched in sweat but cold. During the day, all open symptoms vanish, no runny nose, no sore throat, no teary eyes, but my head feels as if it had been smashed into a pulp. I'm drained of all energy and can hardly keep myself on my feet.

This morning, I popped my new wide-angle zoom into my backpack to take some epic pictures. A band of Salvation armists, the bells of their eight trombones shining in the sun, would have made a good shot, if I had just dared to squat down in front of them to take it. However, I was too afraid I wouldn't get back up and, lying on the ground twitching, become an attraction myself. I continued zombiing along the street, feeling and maybe looking as if I had died last night, and blended in smoothly. Snow princesses on stilts, half the cast of Star Wars in all their shiny armor, mechanic nutcrackers, and plenty of musicians kept the crowds entertained and me invisible.

In the end, I couldn't take it any longer. I had planned to go to Southbank for some creative input in the Landscape Photographer of the Year exhibition and maybe take a shot or two along the Thames when the sun set, but I had to accept defeat. My body was so weak that even my will couldn't make it move anymore. I hopped back into the Central line and am now lying on my sofa, waiting that this episode of fatigue will pass. Oh, and I have the gift in my backpack.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

bikes and cars

Riding home from lab tonight was a total nightmare. The temperature hovered near freezing and bit my fingers with insistence, but that was the least of my worries. What drove me nuts was traffic. Kensington High Street was clogged in three lanes, though the road is only two wide. Buses, garbage trucks, taxis, fat Bentleys, and ridiculous G-Wizes were all idling about and turned the road into one big parking lot, most resourcefully packed. The efficient packing led to minimal space between vehicles, making passing or squeezing through on a bike nearly impossible. One van's side-view mirror almost got me. I could only dodge at the very last moment and felt it scrape my shoulder as I yanked my upper body to the other side, nearly hitting a black Mercedes in the process.

With these obstacles, in the way but big, highly visible and immobile, my commute would be a bit slower than on a normal day but not necessarily unsafe. The danger comes from unexpected sides. Pedestrians, lurching behind these bright red buses, feel compelled to cross the road as they would a Tesco parking lot, without looking left or right, and inevitably only split seconds before a cyclist passes the bus. When your focus is on a massive wing mirror on collision course with your head, a wayward pedestrian is the last thing you need. Then there are the other bikes and scooters that all zigzag through the maze according to their own perfect trajectory, trying to make the trip home as fast as possible. These paths often intersect and only aggressive brake control will avoid disaster.

Traffic tonight was denser than ever before, a sad culmination of a few days of constant deterioration. This degeneration coincided with the news that Boris Johnson, our circus clown of a mayor, was going to scrap the congestion charge for the part of town that I ride through. What a fool he is. As the congestion charge, despite my initial fears, won’t go until 2010, it must have been the time that caused my experience tonight. London’s streets are free of charge after six. During the day, you pay, but a night, you glide (if you excuse my ill-conceived poetry).

In light of the obvious effect of free driving, a three-year old can figure out that scrapping the charge will do nothing good. The number of vehicles in the streets will go up, just as it went down when the congestion charge zone was extended almost two years ago. I’m puzzled that all drivers do not support the charge. I’d hate to ride in traffic like that every day, but I’d hate it even more to be the traffic, to be sitting in a car, in a hurry to get somewhere but unable to move, burning gas and wasting time.

In the end, it all comes down to this: Even on a day like today, when fingertips slowing going numb from the cold, riding a bike is the best way to commute here. If you don't find a better way of spending your time than being stuck in traffic, why do you live in London?

Monday, December 01, 2008

research explained

Here's a colleague of mine from Imperial College illuminating his lab's research in a six-minute video. Well produced, Stephen, well explained, and clear enough that my parents could watch it without getting confused halfway through.

Antivirals research explained by Stephen Curry on Vimeo.

Given that my research is in a closely related field, and using the same techniques, the video explains my work as well. I can thus save the effort and time of science communication and go back to the lab. Maybe once I have results, I'll give the video business a shot as well.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

changing gear

Last night, a friend of mine celebrated her farewell from Imperial. While I've only been around for a year and a bit, I've known her for longer. She was working in the same institute in Grenoble that I joined early in 2005. Half a year later, she moved to London, but we stayed in contact. When the opportunity opened for me to go to London as well, she was instrumental in alleviating my fears about living in the big city and the financial sacrifices I thought I'd have to make. But what I valued her most for were the long chats about possible lives outside of science and the conspiratory coffees we've had together, exploring alternative careers paths to pursue.

I appreciate her for finally following through. She has always been a bit geeky and was my primary and most reliable source of advice when I switched from PC to Mac. From December she'll be working for a hedge fund (Who'd have thought that those still exist?), doing tech support and system administration. She's very excited about the challenge, and I'm happy for her. I'm also curious to see how it's going to work out for her. I imagine that the financial services industry provides an environment much different from academic science, though I have no idea what it might be like. Good thing my friend stays in London. We might have to keep our tradition of occasional coffees so I can pick her brain to help with my decisions about the future.

Friday, November 28, 2008


This quick little post flows in the same vein like yesterday's, mainly because I forgot to make some of the points that were on my mind when I set out but inexplicably dissipated when it was time to put them into words. Radio 4 reminded me of some during their talk show this evening. The opinions of some of the guests cut through the ubiquitous rubbish with impressive clarity and sense. It's a safe bet to turn to the BBC if you're looking for nuggets of truth – though they might be well hidden.

The first point concerns VAT. I noticed this morning that Amazon won't ship my lens before 1 December, effectively delaying my purchase to have me benefit from the decreased rate. What Amazon advertised as a discount was just a scheme to trick buyers. I don't care. I wanted the lens and would have bought it for the higher price. As long as it gets here before Christmas, I'm happy. Of course, it would be even better if I could take it to Paris ten days hence.

What really bugs me about the VAT decrease is that it is generally being presented as a godsend for cash-strapped shoppers, a maneuver that will single-handedly jump-start the economy into an eternal boom. That's total bullshit. Walking through London's high streets, one is struck by endless sales. Last weekend, Marks and Spencer threw their merchandise at shoppers for 20% off, no matter what. Cars are apparently unsellable these days if they don't come with a gigantic discount, a full tank of gas and a weekend trip to Barcelona for two thrown in for free. I doubt anyone will even notice the two percent by which the lower VAT will decrease prices. Certainly no one will base any purchase on that.

As it is too late to continue this post if I want to stay on good terms with my friends, I have to stop here (and run out into the night). But rest assured that I carry more gripes in me, and that I'm eager to vent them. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Christmas in November

Back when I lived in Utah, Christmas was in July, and that didn't have anything to do with Mormons. If I remember correctly, it was a big sports and outdoors store that ran a huge sale that month. According to the sales pitch, everyone would go home happy, laden with gifts and full of joy. I'm not sure how much I benefited from these commercial opportunities, but the term has burned itself into my cerebral cortex. Whenever I get goodies, it's Christmas for me.

November has almost run its course. It's miserable outside, but the lights have been turned on. The flicking of the switch is a big thing here in the U.K. where opulent street parties are held to mark the occasion, be it just around the corner in Regent Street or as far away as Blackpool. Christmastime is upon us, but it's not a given that people are in a particularly generous mood and ready to rush out and part with their money. The somber mood of economic darkness has engulfed England. It's amazing how fast irrational exuberance has tipped to irrational despondence.

At the beginning of the week, the government acted. A multi-billion-pound economic stimulus package was passed. Much of the detail passed me by and probably doesn't concern me, but one measure caught my attention. From December, VAT will be decreased from 17.5% to 15% – in order to make people go out and spend the economy out of recession, never mind exorbitant levels of personal debt and tighter conditions for refinancing. Even if the financial situation of the public were healthier, such a move wouldn't make sense in my opinion.

I have experienced three successive VAT increases in Germany and seen the rate rise from 14% to 19%. Each time, the immediate effect was nil. Stores were afraid of losing customers and passed the increases on with much delay only. Plus their prices had been calculated by some algorithm in the marketing department well in advance. Changing all the numbers would presumably have been costly. Now, with a change in the opposite direction, I'm afraid we're going to see the same effect. Prices might decrease with time, but at the beginning, they'll stay the same. Shops will pocket the difference. They won't complain either – in tough economic times like these.

This morning, I went online to buy a new lens for my camera. Somehow it didn't occur to me to wait a few days to save a handful of pounds. I guess I'm not too financially astute. Luckily, right before taking my shopping basket to the check-out, the friendly folks at Amazon reminded me to enter a promotional code to benefit from the lower VAT even before it's law. This is clearly a ploy to get people to spend their money now. My cynicism makes me predict that the lens and all other merchandise on Amazon will revert back to their original prices once people don't need to be reminded that they can save money, in December when they take it for granted. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that Santa Claus came early this year and I got a nice gift for my tree.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

no free lunch

They say there's no such thing as free lunch. Someone has to pay. Normally, though frequently indirectly, it's the person having lunch. I've had my share of free lunches as a graduate student. Usually, the cost was in the lengthy talk one had to attend before the feast. More recently, free lunches have often been part of conferences that, even if they're interesting, can be excruciatingly exhausting. Turning the argument on its head (with severely stretched logic), it follows that you'll get something in return for hard work. That's how the world should work.

A while ago, my boss asked me and another research associate into his office and presented a little challenge. Collaborators of his, working on human homologs of a protein whose structure is known, wanted to get theoretical support for the idea that their proteins interacted wildly, forming all sorts of hetero-oligomers. Thus spoke the boss, Who can model putative dimer interfaces? While my colleague mumbled evasively, It's possible, probably, gotta check some servers, maybe, but I'm busy, must go back to my desk, I was more interested and replied that I'd look into this and get the computers fired up. This was half a year ago.

Since then I've had intermittent contact with a researcher at the Pasteur Institute that has somehow morphed into a collaborator of mine. I have also spent an ungodly amount of time learning about protein prediction and energy minimization software, which must be among the most cryptic entities existing in the world of zeros and ones. Processors have burned and gigabytes of files accumulated. At this point, I might have some numbers and be ready to make statements regarding the interactions in questions, but probably not with the sort of conviction and boldness that the collaborators had hoped for. I guess, overall, I haven't delivered what I had been asked to though whether that's the problem's fault or mine is not obvious.

I had started to wonder what good would ever come from this. Maybe it was just a big waste of time. Then, out of nowhere, I got a call today. The collaborator was inviting me to come to Paris for an exchange of ideas. They'll cover the train and the hotel and, I have no doubt, my lunch as well. In the end, there might even be a publication, if only I get my data in order. The work for the next two weeks is clearly laid out for me.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

reading patterns

I finished a book today. Given how often I visit the Oxfam store, make a little donation and pick up a good read in return, this should be a fairly common event and not merit a post. But I've noticed recently that I read in the most erratic of ways. Right after buying, I like to dive into a book with spontaneous excitement. If I have chosen well, this initial effervescence turns into frenzied enthusiasm. As I read more, I fall in love with the characters (fiction) or ideas (non-fiction) and the language. Then the curious thing happens. I become saturated. Having convinced myself that the book is indeed great, wild exuberance cools down to warm satisfaction. The book starts to spend more time on my coffee table than in my hands and is finally relegated to the shelf, replaced by some other volume. There is so much to discover.

At this moment, I'm surrounded by at least ten unfinished books, all purchased this year. I have lost track of most older acquisitions that have merged into my substantial shelves over the years, though some keep standing out. I'm painfully aware that I'm still not done with Orhan Pamuk's Snow, which I purchased a good two years ago, right after its author was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Now the novel is sitting by my bedside, nagging me about bad habits.

As I'm thinking about this, it occurs to me how my distractibility also shows when I read scientific papers. These are very different from the books I buy and read at my leisure. Fascinating content is frequently hidden under a thick layer of gooey prose that's hard to cut through and can make reading a pain. On the other hand, there are numerous references to related papers, which often lead me on an electronic paper chase (thanks to the internet, this bottomless well of information). When I'm tired of a given publication that is nevertheless an essential read – like a report of results pertinent to my research or something assigned for a journal club – I find it easy to seek refuge in another paper. It might be easier to read, and it might even offer complementary insight. What it certainly does is keep me from wrapping up the initial, painful paper in the shortest time possible. However, in contrast to my books, I have to eventually finish the paper I set out with. Many a long afternoon is wasted on such an exercise, often with a pot of slowly cooling coffee by my side.

Tomorrow, I have to give journal club. The paper I'll present was easy to read and didn't keep me occupied for long. A lucky pick, no doubt. The same cannot be said of the book I just put down on my table, it's last page turned. Freakonomics was a publishing phenomenon, but its content does not live up to the hype. While there is original thought in the book, and some of the chapters are insightful, overall it's less than edifying. A few striking examples of common wisdom exposed as flawed thinking is entertaining for a moment but nothing more. The last chapter was just a list of statistics with no substance whatsoever. I'm glad I'm done with it. As I haven't been to Oxfam since, I can go back to an older book, to pages first turned with zeal and then abandoned.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

hard times

Yesterday, winter arrived in London, as much as winter does around here. It only snows every half eternity, but it can get cold on occasion. This morning, freezing air sat mercilessly on the town like a bulky old fridge. I couldn't see anything better to do than stay inside where it's warm and read a newspaper, but for that, I had to go out first and buy one. I stepped out for just one second to head to WHSmith, a stationer, and grabbed a Guardian, three pounds of paper for half that in Sterling.

Cuing at the till, I started reading the front page. Apparently, Damien Hirst is in dire straights financially, so much that he feels compelled not to renew the contracts for his workers, otherwise known as those who create the pieces he later puts his name on and sells. That recourse might not be surprising and is certainly in line with what other commercial operations – builders, banks, brokers, retailers – are doing, but there was one surprising element in the story.

Damien Hirst earns millions. His latest auction netted more than a hundred of them. He is considered the richest British artist by quite a distance and one of the richest in the world. And yet his assistants make 19,000 pounds, according to the article. Isn't that just ridiculous? I'm not so much upset about the fact that the salary doesn't cover much than rent for an average one-bedroom apartment. That's somethings scientists in expensive cities are very familiar with. But being paid a pittance when your boss makes millions? This sounds like China to me.

In contrast to China, though, where penniless peasants are forced to toil in sweatshops because there's just nothing else do to, artists (scientists) in the west have options. They can go wherever they please. They're highly skilled (educated) and can change jobs easily. All the information is at your fingertips. Yet being a scientist, I also see another, less publicized side of this argument. When you're young and and at least somewhat promising, you have high hopes for your future, but you have to remain within the system to succeed. You become an assistant to glory (brilliance), work hard and learn, bargaining that with time some of that glory (brilliance) will rub off. You gamble that word of your talent will go out and your star will rise to shine brightly.

In a nutshell, these are the chips that I play with. I'm not sure what I'd do if I had been a slave in Damian Hirst's studio, but knowing that my boss doesn't exploit me for his personal gain, I'm happy to continue. On Monday, I'll be back in the lab, pushing hard for that elusive discovery that will finally get my name out and set me up for success.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

tourist at home

The other day, and I know it's a bad post if it starts with those three words but I can't help it. The other day means what I'm about to relate happened so far in the past that I can't even remember the exact date. I'm breaking the cardinal rule of blogging, which is being current. But over the last two weeks my life has been filled with lots of work and lots of joy, and I just haven't got around to posting much.

The other day, I was tired of work and the same-old I see every day. I get up in the morning, ride my bike to work, work, go to the cafeteria for lunch, work, sneak out to check the new arrivals at the Oxfam bookstore five minutes from campus, work, ride my bike back home, (cook and) eat, and engage in a variety of evening activities that are pleasantly wide in scope but don't necessarily force me far from the familiar surroundings of South Kensington or Shepherd's Bush. I could be living in a village – as long as the village offers exactly the things that I'm interested in, I might be happy for a while – but I live in London. There is more to it than the little sliver I see daily.

The other day, I went to where normally don't tread and entered the touristic heart of the city. Normally, this is not a good idea. Tourists are a nuisance, always in the way, always stopping to gape or take pictures, always on the wrong side of the escalator and blissfully unaware of the rules. But if I choose to be among tourists out of my own volition, I instantly turn into a tourist myself. I enter vacation land and are engulfed by the euphoria that emanates from it. My face turns into a big grin. Buildings become attractions, portrait cartoonists cute, and shopping window decorations works of arts.

The other day, I spent about two hours just walking around the Strand, Covent Garden and the Royal Opera House, a bit of Soho, Leicester Square, and Piccadilly Circus. I didn't notice the crowds or felt the pushing and shoving that's inevitable. I marveled at the six-pointed carpets of light that hover above Regent Street, giving it a festive mood. I was enchanted by the giant inflated snowmen inspecting the proceedings on Carnaby Street from above. And I scratched my head over the oddly chosen minuscule lights festooned across Oxford Street. Was their dimness supposed to mirror the mood of the local shoppers, battered as they are by a deep recession? Being a tourist, I didn't care.

The other day, I returned late at night from a quick city break. A quick tube ride took me to the heart of London with all its sparkle and lights. Back in my apartment I realized how blessed I am to live here – and also how wise it was to take residence in a city others have high on their vacation wish list. I can visit London any time I want, at the spur of the moment, and for small change.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Just a short note to show that I'm still alive. I remember, years ago, when email became the tool of choice for instant communication. Some friends of mine didn't seem to get it, though. Only after weeks, sometimes months, would I receive their replies. Their excuses were invariable. After working on the computer all day, they had no desire whatsoever to go back to the glowing monitor at night to write emails. I couldn't quite understand it. Computers were fun, and communicating with friends was fun.

I might have finally arrived at a point of saturation. Lately, I've been using the computer a lot. A digital crescendo saw me spend more and more time in front of my two screens at work. Over the last week, I've been putting together a new website for the lab and hardly left my desk. At night, I don't even turn the computer on. I need to get away.

Getting away was provided tonight in the form of the Arabic class I've been taking for a few weeks at Imperial College. I'm still very excited about the prospect of learning the basics of a language that is certain to be extremely useful when I go back to Syria next spring, but I'm not sure how long the excitement will last. I have doubts because the teacher is far from what I'd consider optimal.

She's from Egypt; that's a good thing. Arabic is her first language, and she has lived long enough in the U.K. that her English is of nearly native quality. Unfortunately, teaching is not a god-given talent of hers. She is very loose with terminology. Alphabet is frequently used to mean letter, and she doesn't seem to be clear about the difference between vowels and consonants. When you start out a language, these are crucial bits.

Instead of explaining issues, she frequently tells elaborate stories that might or might not be related to the question. A student asked today if there are Arabic book specifically tailored to learners, with vocabulary restricted to a few hundred words. She replied that there is a grammar companion to the text book we are using – and I am forever discouraged from asking her to clarify point that make no sense to me.

The first twenty minutes of each class are invariably filled with expansive rambling. This is quite entertaining but not what I paid my fees for. And while storytelling might be a revered craft in the Arab world, it doesn't add too much too my learning experience.

On the other hand, given that the course runs from six to eight at night, a bit of diversion might be essential. Hard-core teaching of such an unforgiving subject would leave us students stranded after half an hour, unable to take up anything. Maybe this lighter approach is exactly right for an evening class. Right before releasing us, our teacher explained the hamsa in a way that my Jordanian friends never could. I think I finally understood. For me, that's a good reason to be very excited.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

dreams come true

In the year 1963, Martin Luther King gave a speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. A crowd of more than two hundred thousand listened themselves into ecstasy as he illustrated his vision of the future, a future where color wouldn't matter anymore, where people would be judged by the content of their character. The speech was full of hope, a dream turned into words. It was a monumental event in American history. Even Bobby had showed up and sang a song with Joan. Change was in the air and faith in people's hearts.

Over the next years, things did indeed change, but whether for the better was not immediately clear. The U.S. invaded Vietnam, battling blindly in the jungle. A bloodier war hadn't been fought since the North stood up against the South. Tens of thousands were killed and countless imprisoned and tortured.

One such prisoner of war survived six horrible years in a military prison in Hanoi and entered politics shortly upon returning to the U.S. The culmination of his astounding career came last night when he stood in the U.S. presidential election. A tale like John McCain's sounds barely believable, as if taken straight from the storybooks. The papers should be full of words of disbelieve.

That they don't only shows how truly mind-blowing last night was. John McCain would have make a great president. After pathetically pandering to the Republican base for the duration of the campaign, he reverted to honesty and integrity in his concession speech. The fact that he had to concede, the fact that he was clearly only the second best in this contest must fill every American's heart with pride. What a blessed country this is.

Barack Obama will be the next president. Enough has been said and written already about the incredible tale of his life. I just want to note that next February, when the Lincoln Memorial will be rededicated in honor of Honest Abe's 200th birthday, a black man will once again climb its steps and give a speech. This time, though, hope doesn't need to be evoked. Change has already happened. A new era has begun. I'm grateful to those who voted for making this happen.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

memory lane

By now it's too late to call on my readers to get out and vote. Either you've done so already or you're standing in a line waiting. Even more likely, though, is that you're not eligible to vote in the first place. In that case, relax. The world will keep turning whether you worry or not. It's best not to fret.

One particular friend of mine, an Arab residing in California who's the proud bearer of a Green Card but would be even prouder if he had his American passport already, will certainly not have a minute of rest today, checking dozens of news sites in perpetual succession for any information that might reliably foretell the outcome of the election. Being a scientist, he knows that the future cannot be predicted, and yet he won't be able to contain his anxiety. He wants the right candidate to win.

Last time, four years ago, when we were both graduate students at Utah, he went as far as promising cookies for everyone at the weekly lab meeting, in case the worst president in history would be, well, history. By the time lab meeting came around, two days after the election, celebration mood had turned sour and a sobriety bordering on depression had beset my friend. No Kerry, no cookie.

Like my friend, I also retain vivid memories of the last presidential election. While I wasn't quite as much of a news junkie as my friend, I made sure to stay abreast of the latest exit polls. When the sun had set, number came in indicating Ohio had gone the right way and the election been decided. With a group of friends I then set out to see a mediocre movie at the dollar theater, which was true to its name only on Tuesdays. Imagine the devastation when I turned my computer on a few hours later and learned the truth.

This year, the stakes might be just as high as they were four years ago, but I find myself distanced, geographically as well as emotionally. Why get worked up about the big country beyond the sea? I rather spend my evening blogging and reading than getting unreliable numbers fixes. On the other hand, tomorrow morning, when the race is run, I'll get up early to see who the winner is. I might even have a cookie to celebrate.

Monday, November 03, 2008

rhythm of life

This weekend, I found myself in Bristol. This city in the southwest of England has never been on my list of places to see before the sea swallows the land, and I can't even say that I had been aware of its existence before the idea of this trip was raised. I must further admit, to my shame, that I didn't know Banksy hails from there. Well, well. Off we went on Friday morning, to discover the charms of a maritime city away from the sea and art in unexpected places.

This post is not about Bristol. While a friend and I spend two lovely but miserably cold and wet days in town, seeing the Avon and old docks, remnants of a proud harbor studded with new developments, Brunel's Clifton suspension bridge, and as many coffee shops as you need to keep warm when November is at its worst, the real reason for going there in the first place was dancing. My friend's friend, our host, is a tango enthusiast and teacher and a regular organizer of milongas.

A milonga is an Argentine institution, a place to practice and dance tango. Fanciness is not required, only passion. People come for their love of dancing, and the only thing they show off is their skill on the dance floor. A milonga can be held anywhere, even an old shed, if the music is right and the wood of floor smooth. The milonga we went to was in a community hall in a village outside of Bristol. The night was Halloween and fancy dress very much encouraged, black or white with accents of red.

I'm not a dancer. I took a year of salsa classes in Grenoble, and while I had fun, I never got the hang of it. I have a good dozen hours of salsa in my iTunes library, but the music doesn't speak to make, it doesn't make me want to move. I went to the milonga with the lowest expectations but walked away, hours later, rocked to the core.

Tango is easy. In its simplest form (might the aficionados forgive me for saying so), it doesn't require much more than shuffling across the dance floor, keeping step with the beat, more or less. Music controls the two bodies feeling each other. Subtle shifts of weight move a unity of two forward or to the side. After suffering through salsa with much dedication and some hard work, I was shocked how natural tangoing felt.

It probably didn't look much like tango to those watching (in horror?), and the other dancers on the floor must have wished we hadn't been blocking their elegant progress, but I had, for the first time in my life, the feeling that not all music might be lost on me. For this alone, it was worth going to Bristol.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

stressed out

I just found out that Wednesday will not only be one day after the U.S. Presidential Election, but also National Stress Awareness Day. Now I've always hated awareness days of all sorts, especially when I lived in the U.S. where they are so prolific. Cynically, I've always wanted to see a National Awareness Day Awareness Day, a day especially dedicated to awareness. With all these awareness days going on all the time it was entirely impossible to be aware of them.

It seems to me that a Stress Awareness Day is even more nonsensical than most. Wouldn't everyone be better off if unaware of his or her stress? Wouldn't life much more stressful if you are aware of your stress? I for sure don't want to be made aware of any stress that might be lurking in the dark corners of my life, just waiting to come out and bring me pain and misery.

I also wouldn't want anyone in the U.S. to be too stressed out to go vote on Tuesday. There are no excuses. The Economist is right. It's time.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

shopping redefined

After years of construction, months of preparation and at least four weeks of thelondonpaper stories and radio specials, Europe's largest shopping center within the confines of a city opened today. The confining city is London, but given my ardent detachment from consumerism that wouldn't warrant a post. However, since the gods of commerce are striking in my immediate neighborhood, I can't isolate myself completely from the center's allure. Not knowing what to expect besides ungodly crowds, I stopped there on my way back from work this afternoon.

Before I could behold the fabled architecture, the much talked-about undulating glass roof or any of the shops at the edge of Shepherd's Bush, I almost drowned in a deluge of people. The recently reopened Central line and newly build National Rail stations were both disgorging dense streams of shopping tourists into the little plaza between them as if easy credit were still in everyone's purses. Right at the confluence of the two human streams were hundreds of bike racks, and that's were I carefully steered my steed. Five minutes later, I had escaped the frigid drizzle outside and found myself sprayed with bouncy music instead.

My first impression: This thing is ginormous! The developer must have nuked a good part of west London to execute their plans. The center doesn't pretend to be the Mall of America – it doesn't even have an amusement park – but as Mall of Shepherd's Bush, it takes size and glitz to a level above and beyond anything nearby (or even far). The West 12 shopping center on the other side of the Green looks so pathetic by comparison that I doubt it will survive far into 2009.

Underneath the stunning roof, which alone might justify a visit on a sunny day, there is an immense number of stores but sadly nothing special. Corporate world has opened its doors, and no one is missing. It feels a little like the malls of this world were congealed into one. There are no unique features or nifty details that might make you value your shopping experience above any other. Boring.

On the bright side, there is no atrocious plasticky food court, and fast-food outlets are entirely absent from the complex. Instead, a wide variety of small and quick restaurants are scattered all over the place. Unfortunately, they all seem to have been decked out with goodies from a cheap home furnishing catalog strictly following seventies style. If wood paneling that looks like synthetic bamboo, garish colors and scary sofa benches are dernier cri, they'll look old a year from now. Otherwise, and in my eyes, they already to.

Because of the sheer size, all the people that funneled through the entrance doors dispersed quickly, and it was much less crowded inside than out. Nevertheless, the clamor was deafening. At the heart of the center, a stage framed by gigantic video screens had been erected to celebrate the opening with credit crunch-mocking swank, and in all corners speakers and more screens were set up – some selling Sky subscriptions, some broadcasting fashion shows, some just making noise, unapologetically.

After a quick walk around the digital-watch-inspired figure 8 and before entering the first store, I was already shopped out. Luck had it that my eyes fell on a Foyles branch, so curiously deserted that at first I thought it hadn't opened yet. But it's doors were agape. When I entered, my mood lifted immediately – bookstores do this to me. While they are supposed to offer solace to distressed minds, this one was quite literally a sanctuary from the madness out there.

I slumped into a chair by a big window and surveyed the situation. Despite the November rain falling two days early, I would rather walk outside than breathe the filtered air of even the most glorified mall. Down on Oxford St. the crowds are ten times worse than in the Westfield, but at least you can step into a side street if you feel like you've had enough. I also prefer the grittiness of a real street over the Disneyesque factitiousness of polished walls and constantly swept floors. Lastly, in times when airports redefine themselves as aggressive shopping centers with travel not much more than an afterthought, large malls inevitably recall airports and all the misery associated with them, the feeling of wanting to go somewhere but not even being on the way yet.

As I was sitting there, browsing through travel literature, I knew I'd be back. Foyles might not even serve coffee to augment the experience, but they are the only bookstore around. And for that, for offering choice where there was none, for coming with their wares to where I live, I appreciate the Westfield. Good luck, guys.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


For a brief moment this afternoon, ExxonMobile had to relinquish its position as the most valuable company (by market capitalization) in the world. For a few minutes it was overtaken by – and I'm not gonna make you guess – Volkswagen. The German carmaker might be a powerhouse of engineering, but in the current economic climate it should be feeling the pinch in the form of consumers reluctant to part with their cash as much as anyone. What made its stock rise from just cents above 200 euros on Monday morning to more than 1000 euros 24 hours later in an explosion that made the dot.com bubble look like a bear market in comparison?

Just as in the IT craze of the 90s, economic fundamentals have nothing to do with it. No established company increases in value fivefold in a matter of hours. VW didn't introduce a new engine that runs on cold fusion nor did they sign a contract for the exclusive supply of Phaetons to Martians (though I bet they wish they had). The stock price has no relation to what VW is worth. But what made it climb so much?

According to reports, short sellers, those frequently maligned devils of doom, are to blame. Short sellers make their living by selling borrowed shares with the intention of repurchasing and returning them to their owner once the price of the stock has fallen. To put it simply, they bet on falling markets. These days, it ought to be like paradise for them.

VW was considered overvalued and ripe for a fall. A lot of hedge funds went short and waited for the crash. Then, over the weekend, Porsche announced it controlled 3/4 of VW's stock, practically removing these shares from the market. The German federal state where VW is headquartered controls another 20%, and they're not selling either. Only 5% of VW's stock are circulating. Funds that are short of VW and obliged to return the shares have to buy them, no matter the price. Apparently, more are short than are shares out there. And the prices go up and up.

No one will cry over hedge funds losing a few billion, and no one should care whether VW is valued at 100 euros or at 2000. At the latter price, no intelligent investor would buy. But some potentially serious problems are looming at the stock market's horizon, most related to automated mechanisms or herding behavior. For example, were VW to fall back to healthy levels, it would take the German stock index, to which it currently contributes 27%, down with it. Sheepish investors and poorly programmed algorithms would panic and might crash the whole market.

At the end of the day, who's to blame? I don't profess to really understand what's going on and wish I knew more, but one thing is for sure. If people learned to see the difference between price and value, many of the excesses, be it up or down, in stocks or in real estate would be alleviated. Crashes always follow bubbles, and bubbles develop because money can be won – in the short term – by turning your brain off and blindly following unsustainable trends. Life is better with a working brain, though, and completely independent of who the world's most expensive company is.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Last night, I went out to dinner with a friend. Ambling aimlessly about Fulham, we happened upon a small but welcoming Vietnamese restaurant. The smells emanating from the open door were delicious, but what nailed it for us was the long list of glowing customer reviews taped to the window next to it. It sounded like we were about to enter a culinary paradise on earth. What didn't occur to me was that the website the reviews were taken from might allow for sorting by overall score.

The dinner started out well enough. My companion found a starter on the menu that she loved and ebulliently got the process of ordering food going. I followed up by picking a bottle of wine, which was the first item to arrive at our table. It was up to me to judge its quality, a task I have performed often enough but never with much conviction. What am I looking for? This time it seemed obvious. Upon the very first sniff, my nose vehemently objected to further contact with what was a rather foul bouquet.

Only five years earlier, one could have been reasonably sure to find the culprit in a rotten cork. These days, corks are often made synthetically, and more and more bottles come with a screw cap. It would be very embarrassing indeed to have a bottle returned as corked and be met with incredulous stares because no cork ever stuck in the bottle's neck. So it was with some trepidation that I handed the bottle to the waitress.

My fears were unfounded because my nose had been right. We got a new bottle and hastily mumbled excuses – though bizarrely our excuses for causing trouble (surely a British thing) were more vocal. Never mind. With a tasty Portuguese white finally on our table we could commence the meal. The starter was as delicious as my friend had promised, but with the entrée came the second unpleasant surprise of the evening.

I had chosen one of the house specialties, a grilled fish platter rarely found outside the Hanoi region, dish number 100 on the menu. What I received instead was a fried noodle bowl sprinkled with miniature spring rolls, also known as 99. Granted, sometimes I mumble, but 99 and 100 are far enough apart phonetically that I can't possibly find fault in me. My only explanation is that the name of the dish I didn't order sounds similar to 100 in Vietnamese. The waitress offered to quickly cook up my initial order, but I declined. We hadn't come for two dinners in sequence, but to dine together.

Going through the rice noodles of number 99, I realized the hilarity of the incident. Just recently I had received someone else's pizza but only noticed the unexpected presence of olives after taking a few hearty bites. With some luck, the pork sausages hadn't made the pizza I had ordered unpalatable to the other party in the swap. On yet another occasion, I had ordered a cheese cake with my coffee but had received something decidedly squishy. I couldn't convince the waiter that he had mistakenly brought me angle food cake.

So last night was the third time in as many months that I didn't get to eat what I had ordered. As I don't have food allergies or religious dietary requirements and I'm open to new experiences, I take it with a smile and enjoy what's on my plate. But just imagine I would already be running the project that has been going through my head for quite some time now. Mistakes would be inexcusable.

I have long been looking for a creative way to rate restaurants, somewhat objectively but with a fair measure of playfulness. Ordering the same dish would allow for direct comparisons but only work with restaurants of the same kind. I do this already whenever I eat Indian. The taste of the saag paneer serves as proxy for the quality of the restaurant. Between different cuisines, objective comparisons are more difficult. Pretty much the only thing that remains constant are the numbers on the menu, and ordering the same number could substitute for ordering the same dish. While it might be too philosophical to pick 42, any other number higher than 20 – to avoid the starters – would do. Who could argue with a nice prime number like 37? Incidentally, this would be the rating, out of 100, that I give the Vietnamese restaurant where we dined last night.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

big city

For all my fascination with London, there are a few things I don't like about it. For example, this city has too much to offer. While I mostly enjoy that I can find an event exactly matching my interests, there is also a disadvantage to this fragmentization. It's hard to find people that want to do the exact same thing as you. You might be interested in 14th-century flute music or an Italian naturalist poetry recital, while your friend loves 15th-century music or Spanish expressionist poetry. Chances are both competing events take place the same night.

If you find something you agree on, it's easy enough to meet somewhere in town and enjoy a night out, but for more spontaneous outings, the size of the city presents another problem. People from work live all over town. Some have a short commute like me, but others spend an hour each morning and evening in tube and bus. If you want to go for a quick drink, you have to do it right after work because later everyone is gone.

Yesterday, our department celebrated the arrival of new PhD students, the promotion of one investigator to professor and the award another professor had received. Everyone gathered after work for wine and nibbles, provided by the department. It was a good evening filled with fun and great conversations, but in the end I was left sad that I can't call the people I most like to meet me in the local pub in half an hour because everyone's local pub is different. Though I feel close to them when we talk, some colleagues will never become friends simply because of adverse geography.

All this is going through my head while I contemplate the future of my habitation. The massive exodus of migrant workers because of the poor economic outlook in Britain is apparently putting pressure on the rental market, even in London, which makes now a good time to move. One friend of mine currently lives far away but changes jobs and needs to be somewhere where I would also happily live, and there's a third person willing to share.

Should I abandon the freedom of my own apartment for the pleasure of company, for the possibility of frequent beers at a pub all three of us would call local? I'm undecided. I'm not sure I'm sharing material, and I have too much stuff to fit into one room. But if we start from scratch and move into an empty apartment, it might work. I'll have to see potential flats before can make up my mind.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

message on a bus

This morning, wasting time on Facebook, I found out that a friend of mine had just signed up in support of the Atheist Bus Campaign. Two days earlier, I hadn't even known such a campaign existed. But as is sometimes happens, more frequently that it should by pure chance, I read and heard about this campaign three times over the last forty-eight hours. Maybe it's some sort of Gladwellian tipping point.

In case you haven't heard yet, here's the scoop: Ariane Sherine, a blogger at the Guardian, saw a bus ad about son, man, faith and earth, recognized it as a religious message, chose to visit the advertised website, and developed wild bouts of indignation about religion invading public space and terrorizing innocent infidels.

I consider myself an innocent infidel, but I don't feel terrorized. I don't even understand the problem. As I see it, these ads are created to pay for public transport. That's a noble cause that everybody should be free to contribute to. Given that they are ads, their messages shouldn't be taken too seriously and, for those who don't like a particular display, can easily be ignored. Ask me what's currently splashed to the outside of buses – I wouldn't know.

Anyway, Ariane Sherine got all worked up but didn't just go home and fume at the monstrosity of what she had seen. She came up with a way of retaliating in kind – by plastering an atheist message on London buses. "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." This would cost just a bit under 25000 pounds per bus for a two-week run, and this is where the Atheist Bus Campaign comes into play. Over the last few days, lots of people have donated small amounts, and some have choked up big money. The tally stands at 100 grand at the moment, enough for four buses.

Again, I don't get it. What's the point? Who benefits? The benevolent altruist in me wonders if there aren't any more-worthwhile causes that deserve 100000 pounds. On the other hand, Transport for London recently acknowledged losing 40 million pounds in an Icelandic pyramid scheme (known as savings bank before the whole country melted down). I guess they could do well with a little extra. And I'm happy if buses run smoothly and frequently, be it with God or without.

There's some discrepancy in the reported numbers. How much does it cost to turn a bus into a billboard? According to this recent post, not a whole lot. How many buses are we getting with the kind of money that's being raised?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

gifts and consequences

This weekend in Dresden, it felt a little like my birthday. There were neither candles nor cake, and nobody sang for me, but I got gifts. When it was my birthday, months earlier, my sister had ordered sheet music through amazon, but the delivery failed, and she was refunded her money. Instead of paying lots for sending the paltry booklet by mail, she decided to give it to me in person, the next time we saw each other. This was only now, three months after a birthday that already had two threes in it.

Having saved a lot on stamps not stuck on an envelope, my sister had money over to add to a few sheets of music that I will probably never be able to play properly anyway. When I went to the Middle East this summer, no one was more wishful to join than my sister. She now made her point forcefully by giving me a guidebook to Syria and Lebanon. 'We're going in spring, aren't we?' were the accompanying words.

Of course we are. There can be no doubt. I liked my trip this summer but felt shortchanged. Too many things I didn't see, too many avenues I didn't explore. Syria can't be reduced to Damascus, the only place I visited, and even there, I only got a small glimpse. This summer I traveled under the protection and guidance but also constraints of a Jordanian friend of mine. Next spring, we'll be on our own.

This prospect is exciting but also scares me considerably. While I read everywhere that Syrians are a friendly bunch and the country is as safe to travel as a country under authoritarian rule should be, my friend imbued me with his own views. I learned that Syria is highly corrupt and its people pathologically wicked and criminally deceitful, axis-of-evil material if you will.

In order to deal better with potential double-dealers and racketeers and to avoid the worst scams, maybe even to ingratiate myself with the locals, I decided to get a basic understanding of the language, to advance beyond reading road signs to actual speaking. This morning, I registered for an Arabic class at Imperial and tonight was my first class.

The teacher, a jolly woman in her forties, hails from Egypt. She speaks Arabic natively and knows her way around the language. She also knows, like a storyteller from thousand and one nights, how to embellish meaning with baroque verbal ornament. This is highly entertaining and, as I'm starting from close to nothing, highly edifying as well.

Among the students, four stand out. With their mixed British-Syrian origins they promise to be more important for preparing my trip than any guidebook could. They might have an opinion on what to visit and what to avoid. And if they haven't been to Syria in years, they might at least know a place in London that sells knafe. I'd mark that with a celebration.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

running behind

In April I ran my first marathon. It was a painful experience that I'm not too keen on repeating but will have to since I missed my stated goal of a three-hour finish. In a brief moment of courage right after that race I chose the Dresden marathon on 19 October as my next goal. Before the determination could wear off, I booked a flight and was ready to go.

However, for over three months, I suffered from the consequences of that first race. My shins kept hurting and got better only slowly, painfully slowly, if you forgive the pun. I set out training again upon returning from my summer vacation, only two-and-a-half months away from race day. Two weeks later, I had to accept the devastating truth that the pain in my legs hadn't vanished yet and that I wouldn't run another marathon anytime soon.

In my frustration I couldn't help but see a doctor, a general practitioner, as she is called here. That – and the National Health Service that organizes everything medicine-related – is a whole other story that I should have posted but didn't. I promise some words for when I have to return. With luck that won't be anytime soon.

In any case, I went to see the doctor who wasn't much less clueless about my legs than me, but she consulted with a colleague and conveyed me his verdict by email. Shin splints are killing me. I must take it easy, put up my legs, and certainly not run. Had I told her that I had twisted my ankle playing football the day I got the diagnosis, I doubt she would have appreciated, even though that means I will surely not run in a while.

In the grand scheme of things, my injury does not matter. The marathon will take place on Sunday. Since I have the ticket, I'll fly to Dresden, taking the opportunity to enjoy a long weekend off work and with my family. I might even go to the race. To cheer the racers on, for sure, but also to make my first New Year's resolution for 2009. I will run a marathon in under three hours.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

in the country

I'm at King's Cross early on a cold fall morning. When I left the house to catch the tube, it was still dark. Now, standing on the near end of the platform, I can see dawn peek into the great hall of the station, letting the first light of the day slip underneath the arch at the far end.

People around me have largely failed to make the transition from night to day. They sleep standing, motionless hands locked to coffee cups that slowly dissipate their warmth. White earplugs disconnect dormant brains from the outside world in momentary autarky.

Suddenly, as if a switch were flicked, a ripple goes through the human pegs that stud the station floor. Heads turn, bodies are shaken awake. Approaching lights outshine the rising sun, and soon a dark blue train comes to a halt on platform 1. Door open silently but to tumultuous effect. Hundreds of commuters spill from their confines and bounce energetically towards the exit or down to the tube station. This train was packed.

Thousands migrate into London in the morning and back at night, spending an hour or more each way packed like sardines in a can in return for affordable homes and the clean air of the countryside. In the opposite direction, traffic is much lighter. There is not much reason to leave London during the day, and there are not many people around me eager to get on the train that I'm about to board.

I'm going to Cambridge for a day of seminars, a software workshop with most of the developers present, an opportunity to meet people I know only from mailing lists and ask them questions that have been bugging me in my work. Soon after settling into a seat and getting some papers out to wake up my brain, I see the station move and then the northern towns of London. Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal, flies by and then Alexandra Palace. Beyond that, the land is flat and featureless.

The talks are good, though too numerous. Sandwiches at lunch and coffee and cookies during the breaks keep me going, but when all is over, I'm glad it's over. A bus takes me from the university to the town center where I meet a friend for dinner. I've been to Cambridge only once before, and my memory is sketchy.

While I find my way around and arrive at the right place at the right time, I'm shocked at how dark and quiet this town is, looking deserted at 6:30. All stores are closed, even the big chains, and so are the coffee shops. It seems as if someone had turned the street lights down. The few people in the streets hurry by as if they were aware they shouldn't be out at this time. Restaurants and pubs are open and plentiful, but only some afford a glimpse of what Cambridge is famous for – vibrant student life. To repeat it, I am shocked.

After dinner, my friend takes me back to the station where my train has just arrived from London. Much like twelve hours earlier, it spills thousands of commuters onto the narrow platform. Some jostle for position in the race for the bus while others, clearly at the end of a long day, float passively like corks in the stream of people. Once the crowd has cleared, I get on the train that will take me back home. I don't know about the others that sparsely populate the navy-blue seats, but I'm happy that I call London home.