Sunday, August 31, 2008

selective reading

Today in the Oxfam bookstore, I bought Wisdom of Crowds by The New Yorker’s financial columnist James Surowiecki. I’m a sucker for The New Yorker, but I have to face it, hard to believe as it is, that while their staff writers excel at what they're employed to do, they suck at writing books. This book is bad in the same way that Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, which I bought a while back, is, though not to the same frightening extent. The third book I got is not by a New Yorker staffer but effortlessly completes the triumvirate of mediocrity and wasted opportunity. Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat used to be freely available as an audiobook – that’s how I got it.

The topics covered by these books don't matter so much, and certainly not for this post. What's crucial is that all three books drown the many valid points they make in an ocean of stories and anecdotes, in verbal fluff and gild. The stuffing is chosen and prepared with an expert hand – and thoroughly amusing. Unfortunately, it's not intellectually stimulating. The sweet goo of diversion sequesters the essence of the books, out of reach of the casual reader. Style dominates over substance, and reading these three books is entertaining much like browsing through thelondonpaper on your way back from work or zapping through the channels when you get home is, in a mindless and profoundly mind-numbing way.

That's sad because surprising theories worth a thought or two are proposed in each of the books, gems of creative thinking. Judging their validity is hard because they're buried deep inside an elaborate written edifice full of distracting metaphors and self-serving linguistic constructs. Hundreds of examples are mini narratives in themselves, and even if the point they're supposed to illustrate is repeated time and again, a superficial reader goes home with a set of stories but not the underlying message.

More problematically, there are countless analogies and metaphors that are strained to the point of breaking. Inevitably, they're amusing to read. On closer inspection, they present themselves as vacuous and sometimes seriously misleading. I can only guess that the writers accept these stylistic flaws willingly, that they cover substance with so much style in the desire to distract from the weak points of their arguments or to prevent the reader from noticing them in the first place. W.C. Fields suggested to dazzle them with bull if you can’t baffle them with brilliance. New Yorker staff writers and seasoned New York Times columnists certainly know how to wield the pen dazzlingly, but maybe it would sometimes be better to read something by a less accomplished writer. The thoughts might be less obstructed by ornate embellishments.

Baroque decorations are tiresome but not lethal. What kills all three books is the same severe methodological flaw. Giving example after example doesn’t prove a point. It just proves that you found examples that agree with the thesis you’re presenting. There is no such thing as corroborating evidence. Examples are just that, examples, and presenting dozens or hundreds of them doesn’t elevate their stature or add to the argument in any substantial way.

An idea can only be developed with the help of counterpoints and dissent, by disagreeing with what has already been presented. Only when flaws in the logic of a hypothesis are uncovered and ways found to get around them can one refine a model. Only through questioning can one further understanding of the problem at hand and advance one's knowledge. This is a point, I’m happy to report, that a fourth book doesn’t tire of making, example after repetitive example.

In The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb, the eponymous bird is a metaphor for the unexpected and the book an impassioned plea not to take reality at face value, not to base judgment on examples, no matter how many there are and how convincing they seem. The potency of examples &ndash and experience – extends to the present only, and they are thus poor tools for the prediction of the future. They help us make sense of today, but tomorrow already, the unexpected – a Black Swan – might happen, forcing us to reinterpret all we've seen so far and pick up the debris of established models.

This book was insightful and truly eye-opening, well written, challenging to the mind, and a pleasure to read – not only on the surface. As I had only read about a third of it before returning it to the library when going on vacation in July, I keep returning to the Oxfam bookstore to see whether they might have it for me. Sadly, all I ever find are the same old books by glorified magazine writers and journalists. Nassim Taleb would certainly point out that these observations mean nothing for the future. One day, a Black Swan will wait for me on the shelf.

sprayed art

At the border of fancy Notting Hill and gritty Shepherd's Bush is Holland Park roundabout, a busy intersection mincing London-bound commuters from the east, north and south into one dirty noisy mess. The roundabout has five lanes. Strands of cars arrive from four sides, relentlessly pushing into the pulsating hub. Traffic jerks to a halt whenever one of the frequent buses, the size of small houses as they are around here, blocks three lanes of traffic in an attempt to make a turn. Delivery vans honk in vain while suicidal cyclists weave through in smug efficiency. Were it not for the traffic lights and lane markings trying obstinately to organize the flow, drivers would get stuck in the central circle as they do at the Place de l'Etoile in Paris, orbiting with increasing desperation but without end.

If you’re going to work with eyes half shut with sleep, leaning against the window of a double-decker bus, the roundabout is not a pretty sight. It is worse when you walk by. On the sidewalk at the perimeter, the dust and rattle of traffic transform pedestrians into rushed refugees whose only objective is to get away, quickly. The serene verdure of Holland Park is only ten minutes away but worlds apart.

In the center of the roundabout, shrouded in a cloud of exhaust and covered with the soot of years of tires grinding on concrete, stands Thames Water tower, the world's largest barometer and a veritable landmark and attraction if it were anywhere else. As it is lost in the grey of its sordid surroundings, few people ever notice it. Even the grass at the foot of the tower is ashen.

Underpasses used to let pedestrians walk to the tower, though what they were supposed to do there, in the middle of the fumes of traffic and with nowhere to go, is anyone's guess. Another guess is that these underpasses were discovered by drug dealers and then drunks in need of bladder relief. That would be consistent with their current state. They are now closed, their foreboding openings covered with stubborn wire mesh.

Despite the odds, the tower has briefly risen to fame recently. The other day, a Banksy was discovered at a corner of a sad little concrete enclosure at its base. With Banksy being the artist-of-the-moment, his honoring the neighborhood should have been cause for celebration. Instead, the little piece has been greeted with the customary condemnation of graffiti as vandalism and was quickly removed. Only a patch slighter lighter in gray remains on the wall and reminds passers-by of a day of notoriety or two of the borough.

To me, Banksy is art not vandalism, but the perception of what he does as vandalism is integral to the power of his message. Be it bitter comment on society or light-hearted completion of the cityscape by adding little details to a boring wall, his trademark is being spot-on and outrageously funny. He sprays onto walls that are not his, without asking the owners. What he does is not legal, and dodging the law is part of his game. He is creative and follows his passion, with complete disregard of conventions regarding ownership. His art is for the moment and given away freely.

That's what I like. I'm all for eternal pieces that people can enjoy for centuries in museums, but there must also be room for spontaneous outbursts of creativity, for art for art's sake, here today and gone tomorrow. Christo likes to transmogrify ordinary building or familiar surroundings into experiences the public doesn't dare to expect. Two weeks later, brutally and cold-heartedly, the installation must go – only preserved in the memories and photos of those who saw it and the magical drawings Christo created in advance.

In much the same spirit, Banksy puts graffiti on the walls of London and increasingly the whole world. Sometimes they're being painted over within a day. Sometimes, a wall is removed from a building and sold on eBay. The owner of that house will not complain about vandalism. Sometimes, graffiti remain, just so. I'm glad about all three reactions.

The third is my favorite. I might spot a Banksy if it just stays in one place long enough. The other day in Hampstead, I saw a graffito that could be his and took a picture of it (shown on the right). But it's just as valid a reaction, and arguably just a important for Banksy's art because it pushes him to continue, if people paint his graffiti over or sell them off on eBay. It just seems to me that inspired grafitti is the most democratic of arts – there's something for everyone.

Monday, August 25, 2008


Yesterday, I went to Tate Britain to see the "The Lure of the East", an exhibition of British orientalist painting. After my vacation in the Orient, I was excited to see how painters 150 years ago had seen the same area.

By the first two rooms, I was not disappointed. There were a few views of Damascus and glimpses into souks just like I had seen. Unfortunately, my initial delight was ruined, much like the cities on the canvasses were by centuries of marauding armies, by an increasingly madly screaming child. Why don't parents take their kids to the playground? The kids would enjoy it much more and the parents probably too, in the end.

As it was, with incessant wailing echoing through the hallowed halls of Tate, I ran to the exit and escaped into the main lobby, mercifully quiet. On my way out, my glance caught a painting of the Petra amphitheater, carved into rock for all eternity, that I wouldn't have missed even if I had driven by on a sports car in high gear. Out in the lobby, catching my breath among the distinguished crowd of Tate Britain-goers whose average age is significantly higher than that of Tate Modern regulars, I noticed how appropriate my precipitous retreat from the exhibition had been.

One floor up, a second exhibition comprised a set of runners who, one thirty seconds after the other, sprinted down all 86 meters of the Duveen Galleries. I went up to check it out but was less than impressed. Unless you actively wait for the action and stare down the central axis of the galleries to see the runner approach, you hardly notice what's going on. After all, we're not talking about a bejeweled lady in twelve-inch heels noisily clambering along. The sprinters in their trainers are hardly audible and are gone before a casual bystander even notices what's going on. If the point of the work was to contrast fast running with a still museum, it failed miserably.

I'm not sure that this was the point, though. Martin Creed was commissioned to make good use of the Duveen Galleries, and his first thought upon learning of the commission, according to an interview that is shown in one of the adjacent rooms, was to make runners sprint. In the same interview, he babbles about speed and velocity and fast and of running as being a symbol of speed and of fast as being the hallmark of life, whereas death is still, if you think about it. Throughout the five-minute loop, the guys comes about as particularly thick, as if he wasn't sure what his next word would be and why he had uttered the one before. It is hilarious.

Martin Creed is not a novice. In 2001, he won the Turner prize, the biggest award that can be bestowed upon a British artist, for his "Work No. 227, the lights going on and off", which was an empty room, painted white, where neon lights would go on and off every five seconds. It was by far the worst piece in a Turner prize retrospective that I saw last November and, if I was one of the guys winning the Turner prize afterwards, I would have probably rejected it on account of not wanting my art to be seen as just another set of lights turning on and off.

Anyway, I'm not an artist, and I'm not attacking Martin Creed for what he does. I think he's a genius for exposing the idiocy in the arts establishment and milking it for all it is worth. How much less can one do than putting a computer in a room that turns the lights on and off? Far from being the laughing stock of that year's exhibition, Work No. 227 won the big prize, as I mentioned, and Creed has arrived at Work No. 850 now, which, if you think about it, is nothing else than a variation of his biggest hit and could be called "Guy running down the hall on and off". Seven years of utter lack of progress, and the Tate loves him for that.

I shake my head and hold the firm opinion that what I have seen is no art at all. It's fine with me that my opinion isn't shared because I know that not all that's exhibited is art, and not all that's art is exhibited.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

strange encounter

Yesterday, I opened my vacuum cleaner for the first time in more than a year. Ever since I came to London, I been cleaning my apartment with the same vacuum bag. No surprise then that the bag had ballooned with dirt and dust, accumulated over many months, and threatened to burst at its seams. I threw it out, popped a new one in and, driven by a feeling of guilt over my neglect, cleaned the motor and exhaust filters.

This morning, I reassembled the contraption, eager to see what a difference a clean Hoover makes. Although I expected better performance, but I was not in the least ready for what would come. Were I to say that I was caught completely off guard, it would be a dramatic understatement. Let me relate.

The moment I flicked the switch and the vacuum roared to life, a black sock that a second ago had lain on the floor in perfect innocence turned into a wild beast. With the ferocity of a starving Rottweiler, it lunged at the brush head as if wanting to protect me from an deadly intruder, covering the fifty-centimeter gap between the two faster than my eyes could follow.

Of course, it was a sad case of self-overestimation on part of the sock. While a true hound dog would have sunk its teeth into the black tube touching the floor, the hapless sock was sucked into the vacuum much like into a black hole. It disappeared instantaneously and completely, and now it was quite audibly the vacuum that was ferocious. It had tasted blood and started to howl as if it craved more. My eyes wide in shock, I looked around me. What would be next? My carpet, my sofa, myself? It was then that I found the off switch and kicked life out of the mean machine, creating an appropriately post-apocalyptic silence in the process.

My heavy breathing the only sound, I surveyed the battlefield. My room was still intact, the walls hadn't bulged inward from the suction, and an annular patch of clean carpet surrounded the cleaning head, alien like crop circle in its field of dirty grey. The sock stuck deep inside the vacuum's main tube. With the help of some off-duty kitchen tools, I managed to retrieve it without doing much damage. After I had freed the floor of other loose object, the cleaning resumed without further incident, and my rooms are sparkling now.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

a pawn in their game

For two weeks, a war has been going on in the Caucasus. Although a ceasefire was signed that both parties in the conflict, Russia and Georgia, claim to abide by, the conflict is still smoldering, to say the least. Despite Olypics coverage wherever you look, I couldn't help reading about it, and I can't keep myself from thinking about it.

Much has been written about this little war, about the Georgians' foolish assault on Southern Ossetia and about the Russians' brazen foray into an independent country. The Russian never claimed to be in it for the flowers. Maybe that's why the US reacted so allergically against this invasion.

As I read Western news only, mostly German and English, some American as well, my understanding of the situation is biased. I think the Russians should retreat to their barracks in Novosibirsk or wherever they came from and resume pumping oil and gas for the glorious Western democracies.

That this is not the entire pictures is clear to me. I was happy when I came across one dissenting opinion. Gabor Steingart, the Spiegel's Washington correspondent, calls Georgia Russia's Cuba, a neighboring country threatening to become the stepping stone for an opposing power. If that doesn't sound familiar, you should read your history books and pay special attention to the chapter about 1962, if there is such a thing. We all know what has happened to Cuba in the intervening 45 years.

I'm not saying that Russia is right on Georgia any more than the West is. But it's screaming obvious that, never mind the criminally incompetent bungling by its president, Georgia is only a pawn in their game, to speak with my favorite philosopher. The little country will suffer for the power games of the big guys, but they mustn't complain too loudly for they brought the misery upon themselves by thinking of themselves as more than, again, pawns in a game.

Friday, August 22, 2008


The Olympics are on air for another two days. What an impressive two weeks it has been. Who could forget the Phelpsian gold rush or Usain "Lightning" Bolt's record sprints? At the same time, the jaded observer must be forgiven for wondering if everything went all right, if all these amazing performances came about clean and honest.

Beside a horse on drugs, and an also-run here or there who messed up a test, not much has come up, though. The Games have been mostly unblemished. But since absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence, speculations can be shot off in any direction.

I don't want to speculate. I want to drag out an old story that came to some sort of a close a while ago without many people taking notice.

Two years ago, Floyd Landis won some wild stages in the Tour de France and lost some equally wild ones. In the end he was up on top and finished the Tour first. But he was also down at the bottom when evidence of exogenous testosterone was detected in his urine. He was recently declared a doper by the Court of Arbitration for Sport and stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title.

So far, so good. The casual reader absorbs this information and thinks not much of it. A cheat. Take him out. Keep the sport clean. If you dig deeper, however, you'll find that not everything is as black and white as it is presented to the casual reader.

Last week's Nature had an interesting commentary by a certain Donald A. Berry, a member of an Olympic doping defense team ten years ago, as the conflict-of-interest section below the article informs in fat print. Berry spends two full pages denouncing the current drug-testing practice for statistical flaws and logic inconsistencies. And he's not just some self-educated expert-in-court, he runs the Department of Biostatistics at MD Anderson, Texas.

My initial doubts fading rapidly, I read the article with great interest. Berry doesn't say Floyd Landis is innocent but he is adamant that one can't pronounce him guilty based on existing evidence and poorly substantiated and validated testing procedures. Basically, the take-home message is that a positive drug test doesn't necessarily mean a drug was involved.

And the conclusion? Drug testing and the fight against doping must be put on a firmer scientific footing. It's an uphill battle against the money and glory involved in professional sports, and it's far from clear that the good will prevail in the end, but better testing is clearly necessary if winners don't want shadows of doubt clouding their glory.

If anyone is interested in a full-text copy of the Nature article, drop me a line.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

first night

Last night, I went to the first prom of my life. But not only was it a prom, it was a Prom, a concert in London's traditional summer series, staged for the first time in 1895. The vast majority of concerts take place in Royal Albert Hall (right next to Imperial College), a venue with 4000 seats and standing room for 1500. It is this standing room that's at the heart of the Proms.

Standing-room tickets are sold only on the day of the show, for the pittance of five pounds. The quality of the acts on show means that sometimes the lines are outrageous. I was apprehensive when walking by Albert Hall yesterday in the afternoon after working out in the park. At two in the afternoon, a good twenty people were already waiting.

They had come to see Gustavo Dudamel, a 27-year-old conductor and one of the brightest light in classical music these days. I joined in around six, an hour and a half before the show, and the length of the line was still within limits. Half an hour later, ticket sales began, and another half hour later I was inside.

Royal Albert Hall is a stunning sight, especially from the middle of the arena looking up. The highest bleachers must be a good sixty feet up. As I hadn't come for the architecture or design but for the music, I directed my gaze towards the stage. Where I stood, fifteen feet away, I had a great view.

When the music started, my legs were already a bit tired, on account of the hour-long work-out in the park earlier during the day. The music was great, no doubt, but I also noticed things I didn't like, behavior that annoyed me. One has to accept tourists as a fact of life here, but do they have to take their pictures during a concert? And what is it with the uncultured folks on the cheap seats starting to clap not only before the post-music silence, so essential for the enjoyment of a work, has faded, but while the last harmony was still reverberating through the hall? To the credit of the rest of the audience, despite the barbarians' insistence (check out minute 52 of the first broadcast – quite hilarious in retrospect) the transgression didn't catch on and they finally relented, most ignominiously. Shortly thereafter, applause broke loose like a raging bull.

The concert continued, just as spectacularly, after the intermission, but this post is too long already. I fear I'll have to expand this experience into a full-length piece for my web site. Conclusion for now: I prefer a comfy chair over standing for hours, but last night's concert was hard to beat. Dudamel is a dedicated conductor, his musicians work hard for him, and the audience appreciates it passionately.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

ride to work

In yesterday's Guardian, which I've only managed to read tonight, was a long article about cycling and helmets. The reporter went to Paris and discovered that the percentage of cyclists with their heads protected was much smaller there than in the UK. He goes on to analyze the reasons and make some curious observations on the way.

His conclusions are ambiguous. He cites studies that support wearing a helmet and finds statistics that attribute no benefit to them at all. Paradoxically, wearing a helmet might give a cyclist a false sense of security or create in a passing driver the illusion of a cyclist's invulnerability, enhancing the danger to the cyclist in either case.

I cycle to work, and I wear a helmet – every day. It's not something I like to do; it's not even something I consider sensible in any way. I like my helmet and would never ride a mountain bike without it, for fear of hitting a rock unprotected, but as there are few rocks on the streets of London, I consider the helmet a superfluous accessory. The plastic shell does not protect in the jungle of the city.

It won't make a difference if a double-decker cuts me off to make the bus stop at the last moment and forty tons of metal intersect with the front wheel of my bike. It won't fend off injury if a taxi driver suddenly opens a door into my bike, whacking me into oncoming traffic. The delivery van on the other lane will just jolt a little when it squashes me. And if a Maserati takes me out from below, hitting me from the side despite the stop sign, my legs will be pulp, helmet or not.

What will prevent serious injury in these cases – and all have almost happened to me – is luck and quick reaction, having one's senses sharply focused on traffic and ignoring everything else. Barely scraping by and avoiding getting hit by a millimeter happens frequently. It's the unfortunate way things go.

It would be much better, and the streets would be safer, if these situations didn't develop in the first place. Obviously, a bigger difference can be made by the party that inflicts injuries than by that which tries to avoid them. Bus driver, cabbies and motorized commuters must be more aware of cyclists if dangers are to ebb. And what better way to educate them than to be out there and bike-commute to work in large numbers? Get on your bikes – helmet or not!

Monday, August 11, 2008

the years pass

As I posted on Friday, the plans for the weekend were reasonably clear. They still looked good on Saturday morning. Before heading off for the Tate I chose to start it slow – printing some vacation pics to send to my mom and cleaning the apartment, this and that. Out of nowhere, I got a call from an Italian friend I've known for eleven years. She told me she was two hours outside of London, deep in the countryside, spending a lovely week there with her husband. Why don't I come out and join them for the weekend?

Why not? After ten minutes of last-minute preparations, I had a car waiting for me for that evening. I finished what I was doing at home and even managed to go to the post office to mail the letter to my mom before I took off. Of course there was no time for Tate.

The day in the Cotswolds today was lovely, despite the weather changing about a hundred times as if it were April. The area is one of the few dark spots on the English map, just rolling hills, farmland and small towns forgotten in history. Shriveled reed-covered houses with curved walls, drooping beams and bumpy windows line the village streets. Sheep rule the meadows. The narrow country roads lead through tunnels of vegetation, especially impressive at night. Churches, castles and ruins vie for tourists' attention, but in an eerily humble way, much like you would imagine an English gentleman to present his country estate. With its swathes of grass being immaculately mowed lawns, the Cotswolds is like one big country estate, but, with all stone enclosures being perfectly crooked walls and any signs of modernity being conspicuously absent, it seems to come from a parallel world of fairy tales.

Now I'm back in London, sitting on my sofa sipping a glass of Cognac because today's a day to celebrate. Today, inasmuch as the night is part of the preceding day, is the tenth anniversary of my departure from Germany. On August 10, 1998 at Frankfurt I boarded a 747 bound for Chicago. I went abroad for a year. It's been a decade now. But no matter how much longer I'm drifting around, as long as I pick up good friends on the way, I'm happy about it.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

speed or slow

The most recent TimeOut contains a special on slow life, certainly not a concept that the common Londoner is familiar with. People buy TimeOut precisely because it lists enough leisure, culture and entertainment opportunities to keep everyone's interests engaged and everyone on agitated toes. The creed is to never miss a thing.

This is not even remotely possible, and yet we try. We run from event to event, have a beer in the pub, see an exhibition, go to a dinner, then a concert, see a movie, and then dance in a club. All in one night, every night of the week. Relaxing this is not and can even be, despite hours of enjoyment, oddly frustrating – namely when you read a glowing review of an event that you had either decided not to attend or didn't even know about in the first place.

It is in moments like these, when the futility of doing-it-all becomes apparent, that slow seems most attractive. How about cherry-picking just one activity, one that one is passionate about, and enjoying it fully, without worrying about reviews, opinion or judgment, without trying to pass one's life off as the fullest or the fastest?

This is an approach that appeals to me. It's validity dawned on me a good nine years ago when my dad and I spent three weeks touring the American West. We started out with snow at Bryce and sun at Zion, stopped in Vegas, stared into the Grand Canyon, drove through Monument Valley, hiked up Mesa Verde, were awed by the San Juans, and continued via Vail to Denver. Through Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone and the Tetons we looped back to Salt Lake. We saw all the sights and took all the pictures. To anyone's questions, did you go there, we could reply, yes.

It was good for a first trip, but it was also the rookie approach. There were so many nice places by the road where I would have loved to stop for a week. I've never since done such an epic road trip. I'm not interested, and I'm certainly not afraid of friends' doubtful looks when I didn't do all the guide-book stops on a vacation. I feel I gain much more by restricting myself, by choosing one region and exploring it.

In contrast to tourists, I can afford follow the same philosophy with museums here. Take the National Gallery, the perfect venue for the relaxed enjoyment of art. It's free and full of spectacular paintings. Whenever I'm near Trafalgar Square, I just pop in for half an hour or so, pick one room, and enjoy. There's really no point in trying to see it all.

The same goes for the Tate. I like to go there before a concert at Royal Festival Hall, pick a painting and just stare at it for fifteen minutes, study it, if you will, but without any rational thoughts. Let time pass.

It is somehow paradoxical that the latest installation in Tate Britain, praised by TimeOut, is nothing like slow. The unsuspecting visitor encounters a sprinter darting down the long central nave of the museum, close to 100 meters in less than 15 seconds, every two minutes, every day, for four and a half months. Is that a suggestion of how to view the other pieces? I'll find out this weekend.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

pain and rain

This morning I went running for the first time in more than three months. After the marathon at the end of April, I was struck with a persistent pain in my left leg that seemed to come straight from the bone. Sometime in late May, I started playing football again, though the legs weren't really ready. Throughout June, I had to pay with days of grave limping afterwards.

Lately, football has been pure joy, and I started thinking about running again. At the beginning of July in Hamburg, I picked up a pair of Adistars despite my best intentions. While I needed new running shoes, I had wowed not to support Adidas anymore after a friend of mine, in marketing there, had failed me on a promise of a London Marathon sponsor entry. Unfortunately, the Adistars were the most comfortable and best fitting for my narrow feet.

So this morning out I went, hitting the familiar Hyde Park loop after a long hiatus. The going was good, my feet were happy, and my legs didn't complain. Even now, late at night, it's not the bones that feel the effort but my quads. The only bad aspect of the half hour in the park was the rain.

It is August, and I feel entitled to summer. However, the local definition of the term does not agree with mine. Sun, blistering heat, and cloudless skies are all but unheard of. In their stead, rain features prominently, in various incarnations. Today, a particularly curious kind hung over town, best described as transparent but thick particulate mist, a condensation of fog into what's not quite yet rain. Fine drizzlets just sat there, impervious to gravity but ready to smash into any moving object. My face was wet before I even broke a sweat.

I should be grateful for the misery. My next marathon will be in Dresden in mid-October. There's absolutely no reason to assume the weather should be as nice as it was for my first marathon. Fall in Germany can be a mean experience. But if you're mentally prepared for it, it might serve to overpower the pain coming from the legs.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

less hair

This morning, I had my hair cut for the first time in a good two months. It was getting long in the places where it still grows and tickling my ears. This weekend, after my ten-day vacation and free from the stress of organizing and preparing it, I finally found the leisure to walk over to the barber's.

Sometimes this little activity still startles me. In France, used to the single-digit dollar haircuts I enjoyed in Salt Lake, I couldn't bring myself to give my hair professional care. Given its increasing thinness, the expense didn't seem to be justified. Over two-and-a-half years I obstinately cut my own hair, with a machine that cost a third of a haircut in town. No doubt, the result was horrible.

In London, where everything else is expensive, haircuts are much cheaper than in France, and I decided to ditch the cutter. It took some looking here and there, but at some point I found a shop close by that gave me a good cut. For the last half year or so, the same friendly Algerian has been taking care of my hair, mostly just dusting off and wiping clean, neatly packaged in a French conversation about n'importe quoi.

This morning, I was treated to a bigger show. When I entered the shop, what turned out to be a Nigerian televangelist without a camera was pontificating before bemused customers, all of them Arabs. Striding up and down the tiny room, he vociferously bemoaned drinking, smoking and the relentless rise of the Arabic language in our neighborhood. The inflection of his stentorian voice rapidly alternated between religious and hilarious, sometimes within one sentence. The waiting customers couldn't avoid having a blast.

When it was his turn to meet the scissors, his sermon briefly stopped. His head lost its hair, then did his face. He rose a different man. When his voice came to life again, it was not to preach but to contest the charge for trimming his beard.

Though he sounded exactly the same as before, and defended his position with the same passion, he didn't stand a chance against the combined might of three increasingly irritated barbers. In the end, he capitulated and paid the two extra pounds, but didn't lose his good humor. With a booming Good bless you all, he walked out of the shop. It was my turn to take the chair he had abandoned.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

more hair

One of the things that struck me when I came back from the Middle East, after spending days in the dust of Amman and breathing the eye-wateringly polluted air of Damascus, was how clean London is. It hadn't occurred to me when I moved here, one year ago. In fact, initially I resolved to ride to lab before 8am in order to avoid pollution levels that would inexorably rise during the day. The difference between early morning and late afternoon is detectable with any modestly exercised lung. But these differences, and the levels of pollution in general, pale in comparison to what I experienced on my vacation. Sometimes one has no idea how blessed one is until one leaves one's immediate surroundings.

The second striking thing in Jordan and Syria was the number of veiled women. Obviously, the headscarf is less common in the Christian quarter of Damascus than in the rest of the city, but overall it's dominant. It's hard to put numbers to observations, but I'd guess no more than 10% of the women go uncovered – and that includes Christian minorities.

I don't want to dive into a discussion about this sartorial choice. That's something I've done before, and it has never got anywhere. Opinions were strong and unwavering on both sides of the debate. Instead, let me point out that I love hair. Walking through London today as part of the rush pulsating through Oxford St., I was delighted by what I saw. Women everywhere, and plenty of beautiful hair on sight. Long hair and short, black hair and blond, here and there a dab of blue and green, spiky hair and straight, flowing in waves over lean shoulders or curling intricately. And, maybe just for the sake of variety, about every tenth head was modestly veiled. London is such a lovely place.