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.