Monday, May 26, 2008

grey misery

England is a wet and wretched country. It rains in sheets most of the time. The sky is of such uniform greyness that one doesn't even see clouds. Like a soggy old towel, heavy with the dirty spills of ages, it lies above cities and the land. Murk and mist suck the red from bricks and buses and the green from parks and trees. No highlights remain, no color, no light even, if the fog descends densely.

Inside, it's warm and dry, but get out the apartment and you'll be hit by woeful slaps of wetness, by pounding gales, cold with misery. Step out on the street and you'll feel despair weighing down your shoulders. You'll see people scuffle by, completely soaked after the few steps from the tube to the bus, or from the bus-stop home. Pitiless buses splash deep puddles onto the sidewalk, yet passers-by hardly notice. Even if you managed to dodge the filthy fountains from the side, there'd be no avoiding the downpour from above. The rain will never let up, pummeling you relentlessly with fat drops, every hit like a bucket of water emptied over your head.

Why would you leave the apartment in such conditions? I don't know about everyone else, but I had to get breakfast this morning. My fridge was empty, my bread eaten up to the last piece of crust, fruits had left their bowl. I was glad that the Polish grocery store was only three minutes away. That little walk was enough to drench me thoroughly, and while the sweet smile of the saleswomen cheered me up for a moment, I had the walk back ahead of me. I was doomed – and got wet.

Once breakfast was on the table with coffee steaming the windows and smelling so good, there was no reason to leave the apartment. Today was a holiday. All could have been good, except I had made plans to go to Richmond for a stroll in the park and a picnic. Since picnic invariably means a pub or coffee shop these days, the plans were not entirely incompatible with the weather. I went on my way.

Out in Richmond, in zone four of the transport grid, farther out than I have ever ventured, it didn't look quite as bad. It wasn't a day I would have picked for a walk, but area was beautiful, the views pretty, the green fresh and full of life. Everyone agreed to start out in a pub, and half called it a day after that. I hung one for a half hour by the river and across the lock. By then, the rain was just soft drizzlets stroking my face. Gore-tex kept my body warm and dry, and I could have gone on, but afternoon tea was beckoning.

After looking into this place and that and not being satisfied, or the place being full, we happened upon The Tea Box, a delightful little tea house. Their list of teas is several pages long, all is served loose and paired with homemade cakes. I had my favorite for a lazy afternoon, a cream tea, oh so lovely. So what if it rains every once in a while?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


I just got back from the Holland Club. This is the Imperial College pub, on campus and wildly popular. It's a nice change from Grenoble and, especially, Utah where socializing was not on the official agenda. It's a place for students, staff and faculty to mingle and have a few cheap beers. So cheap, in fact, that when I paid for the gang earlier, I was convinced the chick at the counter had mad a mistake. She hadn't – Imperial had subsidized my drinks.

Most have probably realized that cheap is relative. In this particular case it means that the beer is cheaper by far than anyplace else (except the Shepherd's Bush Green pub). It is unfortunately not any better. That's something that has been bugging me for a while. I have discovered that English beer doesn't slide down my palate like an otherworldly delicacy. Instead, I tend to order Czech beer, which is widely available. No matter where you get it, it is inevitably worse that what you can buy in Germany or the Czech Republic. It always tastes sweet and far from fresh, as if someone had tapped it through a hose coated with caramel. Yuck.

Nevertheless, when it's beer drinking time, it's beer drinking time. Today, it started after an in-house symposium that ended with plenty of beer and wine. We were in the building where the talks were held when the fire alarm sounded and shooed everyone outside, straight onto the Queen's lawn. As it was a nice day, we just grabbed another beer before leaving the building and continued the party outside. I had abscond for a moment to finish a few things in lab before rejoining the merry crowd right before it readied itself to move to the Holland Club.

We went to see the Champions League final. Manchester United was playing Chelsea. Some other team against the locals, for those with benevolence in their hearts. Others mights say new money (raiding Russia in the 90s – Abramovich and Chelsea) against old money (Glazer and ManU). Whatever it was, it was a good game. The things Cristiano Ronaldo does with the ball are stunning. If he learned to score penalties, he'd be a great, and if he played for another team but Portugal, he'd have a good chance at winning in a month. He missed what seemed like a decisive penalty, but ManU still won, because Chelsea missed even more. Someone should tell them that it takes more than one German to be safe in penalties.

In any case, I didn't care much about the score. It was just nice to be out with friends, have a few beers and discuss random things. We'll get serious when the Eurocup starts on June 7th. And then I really need the Germans to score.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


The other day, for the first time ever, I bought a marketing book. Doubts concerning my sanity are in order at this point, but I have a few reasons that, bunched together, might just form a passable excuse. Here it goes.

I didn't know it was a marketing book. Maybe I shouldn't tell, but I only figured this out after the first ten pages. As I had found the book in the one-shelf business section at the local Oxfam store it didn't come as a total surprise. But I didn't buy it for its content – it was the name of the author that caught my eye.

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at the New Yorker, and though I don't recall any of this stories, I'm always ready to read something associated with that publication, my favorite weekly for many years now. Without further contemplations I shelled out two pounds (for a good cause) and obtained The Tipping Point.

The book doesn't claim to be primarily interested in marketing, but that's what it is. With much simplified psychology and prolific pseudo-scientific obfuscation, it is explained how trends are created and propagated and how they, eventually and in the best of cases, become generally accepted. That's the tipping of the title. Something goes from fringe to mainstream in a short period of time, much to everyone's surprise.

The concept is intriguing. Most of the examples are fascinating and some deeply thought-provoking, but nothing has ever been proven by examples. Examples serve to illustrate, but in this book, the author makes them carry the story all by themselves. Inevitably, correlation is mistaken for causation, and points are being made for the sake of the story only. In other words, solid explanations for the described phenomena are lacking.

Despite all this, it's an interesting book, and I learned quite a few things. As I said, I've never read a marketing book. The Rule of 150 was news to me, as was the Broken Windows theory. Either might not be of any practical relevance to me, but stickiness surely is. The question of how to package a story so it sticks with readers or listeners is important in the sciences as well. You want your talks and papers to be remembered, you want colleagues and competitors, peers in short, to associate your name with your discovery. Like it or not, you have to sell it. If you know how, you'll do a better job. And you might get a better job in the end.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

pants pains

So I went out the other day to go clothes shopping. The significance of this can only be understood by taking into account my usual shopping habits. I normally don't go shopping. I like to think that I have everything. There might be quite a few things I'd like to have and some that I really want, but I'm not beset by actual needs.

Statistics announcing slowing retail sales progression and consumers' reluctance to part with their money make me smile. To me, maybe naively optimistic, this indicates that others have also reached this state of material bliss, that they have opened their eyes to the fact that blind consumption is not the key to happiness, that the only effect buying more things has is cluttering your home. I live in a small apartment, and it's been full for a long time.

Sadly, I've had to part with at least three pairs of pants over the last few months. Riding to work means rubbing of thighs against the bike seat, and doing this every morning causes steady damage to the garment. The fabric becomes increasingly thin, up to a point when it rips. At first, a thin hole opens, but soon it starts to gape. Because of the ergonomics particular to cycling, this happens inevitably right below my buttocks. Not even the toughest jeans last more than five years. As my last purchase dates from about half a decade ago, a shopping spree became unavoidable.

On Saturday, I set out to refill my closet, first in Camden Town, then on Oxford St. I was quickly reminded why this is not one of my favorite pastimes. The quantity of T-shirts out there is stunning. To buy one hundred, one would have to select by the most stringent of criteria. Pants is a different story altogether. There were hardly any at Camden Town, and most stores on Oxford St. had only size 30 and up. I'd have to eat a lot to fill that. I was also struck by the fact that waists often came in even sizes only. These are national and sometimes international chain stores and they only stock every other size. Shouldn't it be possible, with globalized economics of scale and cheap sweatshop labor around the world, to make pants in every size the Western consumer could possibly want?

Towards the end of a long day, with one lonely pair in my bag, I made my way down to the recently opened Banana Republic store in town, more to see than to buy. The store is the first not only in London but in the whole of Europe, a true flagship, occupying a lavish building on Regent St. and marketed strictly towards the posh. I quickly found my way to the pants shelves and was disappointed on three counts: They had only one line of casual chinos, it sold for forty pounds and, the definite deal-breaker, started at waist 30. My closet at home is better stocked than that, but it's still sadly low on jeans.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Northern Ireland

I've been away from the computer for four days. Here's what happened. On Thursday, I voted for Mayor of London. By the time I left London on Friday afternoon, counting had barely started, and the final results were still a few days off. Now I can spin the story to go like this: I leave London for just a few days, and all hell breaks loose. Rational thought is being suspended and a retired circus clown, bent on banning bendy busses, elected mayor. For all my feigned interest over the weekend, I don't really care. If London is well-run and remains an attractive city, I'll stay. If not, I can leave any time I want. The world is big.

Somehow fitting then that I spent the weekend in a corner of the world that was new to me. I went to Belfast. According to the unvarying reaction I got when I told them, the violence between Catholics and Protestants, between Republicans and Unionists, between those cheering for the Irish and those cheering for the British is still very much on people's minds. It was certainly on my mind. I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

Well, Belfast is like any old boring city. It has a shiny new downtown mall and plenty of redevelopment, cafes and restaurants aplenty, a university with an impressive facade, and a lovely botanical garden. It could make much better use of its waterfront and do with more nightlife, but these are about the only complaints I have after two evenings' worth of strolling through its streets.

From articles I've read I remember a concrete wall sneaking through some neighborhoods. The wall was intended, as similar constructions are in other parts of the world, to bring happiness and prosperity to those living to either side of its drab grey face. Reality, not much surprisingly, is different, and this wall, as all others, mostly underscores hopelessness and defeat.

I didn't see the wall. The closest I came to seeing any traces of conflict was in Londonderry. There, the Unionist minority lived nicely around the historic center of town, whereas the Republican majority lived in a dilapidated neighborhood called Bogside. Between 1969 and 1972, major insurrections broke out in what called proudly itself Free Derry, with barricades being erected and police prevented from entering. Eventually, the army was called in and tanks tore down the hopes of thousands – with little concern for the damage caused. Today, eleven stark murals stand tall to tell the story.

Oh, and I must not forget to mention police stations. Being highly visible and symbolic signs of the presence of the occupying force (as the British were seen by many), they were natural targets for the Republican rebellion. To withstand potential attacks and demonstrate strength, even small police outpost, often just cabins with three rooms and a cell, would be surrounded by gigantic black fences equipped with motion detectors, night-vision cameras and the like. And around it, sheep were grazing.

Yes, Northern Ireland is relaxed and scenic, a place of great natural beauty and mostly unspoiled by mass tourism. The North Coast is stunning succession of high cliffs, sandy beaches and quiet towns. The water is as clear as the air. Just a few miles inland stretch green hills with forests, glens, creeks, and waterfalls. And, as suggested earlier, everywhere are sheep.

The Irish have a reputation of being genial and warmhearted. They also have a way of speaking English that is beyond me. My localized friend had to interpret more than once. All problems dissipated in the pub. Our vocal cords properly lubricated with Guinness we had no problem communicating.

I got to Belfast on the most viciously cut-throat airline in the world. Ryanair is famous for its low prices and infamous for its total lack of service, friendliness or flexibility – and for its hidden fees. Airport check-in costs four pounds each. The first piece of checked luggage costs eight pounds each way, the second 16. Priority boarding adds three pounds and paying by credit cards another five. Traveling the traditional way will cost you a fortune. On the other hand, if you play the system, your fare won't be beaten. My direct flight cost 12 pounds. Round trip. Final cost with all taxes and fees included. And for the first time, I don't find a word to complain about Ryanair.