Tuesday, April 28, 2009

timely news

Psst, I'm gonna tell you a secret. Move close and hold your breath. This is news for a select few only; it's gonna blow you away. Here it goes. "As flu seasons go, this one isn't bad." Sounds a bit like old news you say, like honeyed reflections of a golden past, sweet dreams that were brutally smashed by a cruel reality? It's all a question of where you get your news, I respond.

The earlier quote was taken from an article on influenza in the May 04, 2009, issue of TIME magazine, which I still receive in my mailbox every week, even though the person whose name is on the plastic cover hasn't lived at my address for at least two years and isn't known to me. I don't take TIME seriously. I read it for amusement and diversion, but even with this forgiving approach, it was very hard to accept this article as something that would actually make it into print.

Later, investigating the subject in more detail, I discovered that the article was actually recycled into the magazine after being published online a month and a half earlier. How pathetic. Are there no current affairs to report on? What about diplomatic rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia? What about robots doing hypothesis-driven research? What about Sergio Marchionne's visions of economic grandeur? It might say TIME on the cover, but there's no news inside.

On the other hand, it might not say MAD on the cover, but it's nearly unbeatable when it comes to satire. Read the article on influenza and be amused (as long as you're not affected yet, knock on wood), though it's not nearly as funny as the hilarious bomb of a one-liner that opened it. The real killer comes a few pages later, an esoteric three columns on "embedded food", "foods with embedded positive intentions".

What the hell, you might think, pictures of hungry TV reporters in Iraq flashing before your mind's eye. You'd be completely off. The article goes like this: A bottling company infuses their water with wishes for love, joy and perfect health. A chocolatier plays tapes of praying Tibetan monks' brain waves while cooking up the brown goo. A protein maker has his employees dance around the packaging robots chanting invocations of some divinity.

It seemed to me that in a devious ploy of cross-marketing, TIME magazine had imbued their pages with limitless hilarity. Once my brain had finally accepted what my eyes were trying to communicate, I laughed myself off the sofa. Yet there is not a hint of sarcasm in the lines. Even a supporting statement from a researcher at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, Calif. (I'm not making this up, I promise!), is presented with dead seriousness. Are people really that gullible? And what kind of character buys TIME?

The answer to this last question comes a few pages later. The ten top things to do in Singapore include (and again, in spite of my best efforts, I didn't make this up) "Plastic Surgery": "You might not have time for a full makeover, but squeeze in a spot of Botox or a nonsurgical face-life with local celebrity surgeon Woffles Wu." Idiots – the target group of TIME.

I was gonna wrap up this post with some clever twist to the tune of my pumping my best wishes for my esteemed readers into these lines as I write them, for you to feel them and feel invigorated when you read them, no matter how far you are. But I lack the energy. All I manage to do is point out that both MAD and TIME belong to (AOL) Time Warner and conjecture that they merged their editorial boards reflecting harsh economic times. Next week's issue will show how much truth there is to that. I surely will keep reading, for entertainment though not for news.

Monday, April 27, 2009

brains off

The train is packed, so much that the announcement comes at every stop: “Please keep the doors clear or we won't be able to proceed.” I sit on the top deck and wonder. All seats are taken but there's no one in the aisle. It is not nearly as crowded as it seems from the announcement. Another stop, another delay: “Please keep the doors clear.”

I've been on the train for a good forty minutes already, roughly following the Elbe upriver. From my parents' town it is twenty kilometers to Dresden and another forty to Königstein where I'm headed. Where, in fact, nearly everyone in the train is headed. I'm leaning back, trying not to think about what I'm about to take on, what's about to hit me. I withdraw to my music but the announcement makes it through “We won't be able to proceed.”

I am not alone and I can't deny that a thousand other idiots have the same destination. It is the last Sunday in April, the date, traditionally now already, that the Oberelbe-Marathon is held. This year, yet again, more runners have registered than ever before. A good 1300 are on their way to the start. I am one of them.

It's my second time. Last year, I ran my first marathon here, with legs that were already hurting before I crossed the start line. I had old shoes and undiagnosed shin splints. After a swift first half, the pain in my legs became excruciating, overpowering all other feelings and sensations. There was no exhaustion in my legs and no thought of giving up in my head. The pain wouldn't allow it. I kept all my mental energy focused on my legs to keep them from exploding. After a bit more than three hours, I crossed the finish line, but the suffering was far from over. I could hardly walk for the next week and didn't run for another two months.

At the beginning of this year, I eased back into running, encouraged by a swelling belly and supportive stockings that my mom had found somewhere and given me. My legs were pain-free and my spirits high. Fifteen minutes before the deadline, I registered for the marathon for a second time. Now I am sitting in a train that makes its way to the start only hesitantly. People blocking the doors at every stop and always the same announcement.

Suddenly, a surprised murmur sweeps through the train. What did the guy say? We look at each other, puzzled glances are exchanged, but everyone has understood correctly. “Because of a passenger incident, this train will terminate at Rathen.” The information screen in the car confirms what most know and I feared. Rathen is one stop from our destination, and it's in the middle of nowhere. It's a stunningly beautiful place in a National Park, by the river that the race will follow but far from any sort of alternative transportation. Even big roads are distant.

The feeling of consternation is palpable. Besides the odd hiker and a fair number of supportive family members looking forward to cheering their heroes on from the steamboat on the river, every single person on the train has worked hard for this day. Countless hours of sweat, hundreds of kilometers on lonely paths, frequently with pumping music as the only companion. They have followed a training regimen to have their form peak on this day because they want to do good in a marathon, no matter how much suffering this will entail. Now it seems as if the railroad is letting us down. “There will be shuttle buses”, another announcement promises, but warns that “because of the short notice there might not be enough.” It is Sunday morning. Where will the drivers come from?

The train was scheduled to arrive in Königstein at 8:40, forty minutes before the start and with plenty of time for everyone to take a leak, drop personal items in the truck that will carry them to the finish, and warm up. Now, the clock has just reached 9, and we are still on the tracks. Nervousness is spreading. Ripples of despair bounce through the aisles. People's jokes can't hide their worries. “We could just start in Rathen, would save us 6k.” What they really want is simply run the race, the full distance, as planned. Suddenly the train jerks back into motion and slowly makes its way into the next station. “The buses will pick passengers up on the main parking lot in town. It's a ten minute walk.”

With this last announcement, the first race is on. Most of the runners, myself included, had long turned the brains off – or maybe never turned them on in the first place this morning. In a marathon, too much thinking is dangerous. Your brain might argue what nonsense it is you are engaged in and convince you to bail. There is nothing rational in a marathon and rational thought has no place in it. With brain activity suspended, more than a thousand runners are now descending on this quiet town's parking lot like a human avalanche, but no bus is to be seen.

I am worried like everyone else and imagine having come out for nothing, missing a race because of a silly incident with the train. That's when I run into a race official who, like a lighthouse in a raging sea, just stands there offering guidance. "The race will take place", she says, "and everyone would be in it." The start will be delayed until everyone has made his way to Königstein. No worries at all.

Not everyone hears her or heeds her words. The first three buses are besieged like food aid trucks in the Congo. It is utter madness, fists of desperation banging against glass doors, hapless bodies squashes tight against warm metal – and all for nothing, as we find out a little while later. When I finally get on a bus, the forth of fifth one it was, the railroad is back to normal again and a bright red train pulls out of the station, six minutes of journey ahead of it compared to our twenty, just when we are leaving the parking lot.

The chaos at the beginning, owing to a suicide on the tracks, could have completely ruined the day. Instead, the railroad and the organizers showed amazing flexibility and pulled everything straight in no time. The race continued like this, flawlessly organized and in perfect conditions. Too bad my legs couldn't compete. There might have been no pain, but there wasn't any power either. After 25 km, I felt like collapsing and when I saw my mom and sister standing at the side, I did. I took a five-minute break, drinking, eating and being miserable. As I hadn't turned my brain on in the morning, I didn't think of giving up. When enough racers had passed me, I got back up and tackled the last 8 km. After 3:15, I finally crossed the finish line, exhausted, frustrated and certain I wouldn't do such a foolish thing again. We'll see.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

last steps

The jury is still out about whether it's a sign of the times, a harbinger of global warming-caused meteorological mayhem, but this year has been pretty crazy regarding the weather. Right after Christmas, a serious cold spell started that lasted far into February. According to news reports at the time, it was the coldest winter in nearly two decades. When the cold released its grip a bit, snow struck, and Londoners were reminded of what a precarious existence they lead, utterly dependent on a fragile network of public transport to get to work, to get around, to get anywhere. Snow paralyzed the buses first and then the tube. Only foolhardy drivers and massively suicidal cyclists ventured out into the streets. The sidewalks were full of people walking their commute, but even more called it a day before the day even started and stayed at home. Many smaller shops remained closed. Imperial College was eerily quiet. The cafeteria offered free coffee to all the nutcases who had braved the white element and then closed when not too many showed up. The sports center also closed before the sun set to give those working there enough time to walk home. When I shopped at Tesco that night, the shop looked like it had been raided by a horde of rabid Barbarians. Debris littered the aisles, and the shelves were empty. There had been no delivery that day, and people stocked up like the world was about to come to an end – and that's exactly what it felt like.

That night in early February was like a climax. It got slowly warmer thereafter and winter was defeated. The snow came back once again but not nearly as strongly. There were quite a few rainy days. March was unremarkable. There were a few nice spring days but the rest dissolved in a bucket of grey. Easter was the turning point. The first few days were still grey, cold and miserable, but on Monday the sun started shining. It hasn't stopped since and with much hesitation, the temperatures have started to creep up. Yesterday it hit twenty for the first time this year, and it was lovely.

Today, I enjoyed the sun for three quarters of an hour. Over lunch, I went out with two friends for quick jog in the park. It was my last run before the marathon on Sunday. I have finished training and am coasting towards race day. One of my friends is in the same situation. She's doing London on Sunday and is taking the effort out just like me. So instead of pushing ourselves eternally around the park in pursuit of base kilometers or punishing ourselves around the pond doing intervals, we just took it easy. Without breaking much of a sweat, we did eight kilometers, enjoying the sun and the fresh air of spring, and put an official end to our training program.

She did, anyway. What I did over the first four months of the year can hardly be described as a training program. I went out when the weather was nice and I didn't have anything better to do. I kept track of my miles and somewhat sheepishly reported to my friend, who's approaching six hundred kilometers for the year, that I had done 275. "That's pretty good for you", she said, and while this might be true, I'm not sure it is enough.

I didn't do a single race in preparation of the marathon. I ran fast only once. I left the intervals to my friends and only did one long run of more than 20 miles. On the other hand, I've cranked up the intensity in March and especially April, my legs are nearly pain-free and, most importantly, the weather forecast is golden. Twenty-two degrees and mostly sunny – a great day for a fast race. Wish me luck and a three-hour finish.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

two cheers for bankers

It's all the bankers fault. Wherever you look, it's blatantly obvious. The housing bubble has burst and Iceland collapsed, the recession is suffocating bewildered citizens, and the lousy weather makes everyone grumpy. Good thing that there's a an easy scapegoat, someone somewhat abstract to put the blame on. The bankers are at the root of it all.

That's what the radio and the newspapers don't tire of telling, and even the Economist contributes a verse to this popular tune. In more ways than one, the blame is entirely justified. Institutionalized greed facilitated millionfold individual greed that ballooned the financial system out of all proportions. Now that the whole thing has exploded in a spectacular mess, cerebration is essential and change will need to be effected. But if that task is approached with the same kind of closed-minded persistence that caused the disaster, the result is not going to be any prettier. Thus, for the sake of balance and reflection, here two recent encounters I had with the much maligned species of banker.

I have been with the University of Utah Credit Union since I arrived in Salt Lake City for my Ph.D. in the summer of 1998. I had no understanding of the differences between banks and credit unions. All I knew is that I needed a bank account. The Credit Union had two branches on campus and got me started within ten minutes, with no monthly fees. This deal still holds. What changes from time to time is the ATM card, which has a finite lifetime.

My current card's expiration date was last June. I don't want to withdraw any money or use the card for purchases, so I never worried. But the other day I booked a trip to Canada with a possible detour into New York State, and I got to thinking... I called the Credit Union to see if they'd be willing to send me a new card. The rep kindly suggested I come pick one up in a branch. "It won't take more than five minutes, sir", she said, proudly. I insisted on mailing. Her pride turned to incredulity: "But it's a Salt Lake address."

I didn't feel like explaining my situation in too much detail; I'm always afraid the line will be drawn at some point and my physical presence in the country required for the continued activity of my bank account. I managed to convince her to send the card and will even, as an additional and priceless benefit, get a new PIN number. I had long forgotten the old. Now I just need to replenish my account with some fresh cash and there won't be anything in the way of my summer vacation. Is there still anything of this stimulus package money left? How do I access that?

To those who argue that credit unions are technically not banks and that their friendliness, competence and flexibility just goes to show how rotten the banking system is, I reply that they do banking, and that's what this post is about. But to make the point for nuance more forcefully, here's a story from J.P. Morgan Chase, the Wall Street giant that provides me with my credit card.

It started many years ago. I got a United card and collected miles assiduously. When I left the U.S. it became increasingly difficult to justify an annual charge for a card I hardly used. After ordering copies of my dissertation, in what I thought would be my last transaction, I called Chase to close the account. The person on the other end of the line was incredibly friendly and helpful and suggested I downgrade from Gold and get the free Classic card instead. He wasn't bothered in the least that I lived in the country of cheese-eating surrender monkeys by that time. I honestly got the feeling that he wanted me to have a free credit card. Who am I to say no?

But just like ATM cards, credit cards expired eventually. Mine has just about two more months embossed on its scratched surface. A few days ago I changed the address associated with the account to one that is still connected with me, and today I called to see that everything was going ok. It wasn't exactly. My new card had already been sent out to the old address and returned as undeliverable. After getting the right answers to a few curious security questions, the fellow answering to my problem was satisfied that I was I and promised to send the card again. And I am still waiting for my first bad banker experience in the U.S.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

civilized dissent

The British have many easily recognizable traits. Kate Fox's brilliant anthropological study Watching the English details many of them and is essential reading for anyone moving here. The country would make much less sense to me otherwise. How, for example, do you explain the long lines that frequently self-assemble in front of ATMs?

It has nothing to do with the scarcity of these machines but rather with the fondness of the English for cuing. Seeing a few people waiting at an ATM reminds them that they need money and they'll happily join the growing line. They probably withdraw only 10 pounds so they can enjoy the experience again soon, but that's just my guess.

Another fine example of Britishness is civility in argument. I frequently listen to BBC Radio 4, a station that does talk, news, opinion and features, and is a prime example of the high culture of debate. A show that exemplifies all that's good about arguing is Any Questions?, which pits four panelists from across the political and religious spectrum against questions put forward by the (live?) audience. The panelists inevitably disagree on most topics, and in no uncertain terms. But they do so with good humor and in mutual respect. If there's ranting, it's always good-natured; there are laughs and in the end everyone walks away satisfied for the most part.

Another show I only discovered tonight, the appropriately named Heresy. Here, three panelists "use their wit and wisdom to argue against narrow-minded thinking", as the show's homepage claims. Sounds like a fine mission to me. Tonight, when I heard the show for the first time, the big questions was whether religious believers, visitors to fortune tellers or those trying to make contact with the dead are more gullible. Hearing a priest and an avowed atheist battle it out only half-jocularly was hilarious. Why can't all religious discussions be led in such a joyous way? The world would be a much better place.

After the show I started to wonder, though. Where else do you have a publicly funded radio show whose goal it is to commit heresy? I find this very refreshing. And before you bewail the fact that the U.K. is doomed, full of lost souls and destined for hell, consider that the same station also broadcasts Sunday worship every week and the the prayer for the day. Something for everyone, just like public radio should be, embracing controversy and being disdainful of particular interest groups all the while holding the audience to the highest regard.

In contrast to TV shows, radio shows on the iPlayer are available for listening worldwide. A treasure trove indeed.

Monday, April 13, 2009

unanswered question

This morning I was attacked by an egg, not exactly in an unexpected way as I will detail below, but the effect was mildly shocking nonetheless. Pagan Easter traditions were only indirectly to blame for the incident, and black magic not at all. But how do you explain finding two bright yellow suns shining from your fried egg, your one fried egg?

I had looked for explanations for the first time when at high school where I had encountered double yolked eggs for the first time. They were dished up in the refectory of the boarding school I attended, much to the bewilderment of us students. None of us had ever seen such a thing before. They appeared out of nowhere and without a proper introduction, went strong for a while when nearly all eggs had two yolks and some even three, and then disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared.

We ate them without complaining and without any apparent ill effects, but it got us arguing. What could be the cause? At that time, the fall of the Berlin Wall was still fresh news. Sickening truths about the East were revealed daily. The environment had suffered toxic spills, chronic pollution and nuclear accidents. We had heard of such things only by way of rumor. Now they turned out to be true and worse.

Could this be the reason for the double-yolked eggs? Were mutagens raining on coops responsible for the deformations we observed daily on our plates? We abandoned that thought when we imagined the hens and envisioned more rational explanations. Our next theory that the chickens just happen to pop out twins at an astonishing rate was discarded when someone asked why. We were still not one bit closer to an answer when single-yolked eggs made a triumphant and complete return. Their twinned cousins, together with our inquisitiveness, disappeared in the dustbin of history.

Last week, all of a sudden, they came back when I went to Waitrose to buy eggs. The selection is overwhelmingly broad. How do you choose? All are free-range and good for the chickens – at least that's what the boxes proclaim. I picked this box up and that. The eggs were large or high in cholesterol-defying omega fatty acids or extra yellow; no product stood out. At the end of a five-minute process, I was left unsatisfied. I already reached out for cheapest when I suddenly struck gold, hand-selected eggs all but guaranteed to have too yolks. For such a surprising find, I'm happy to spend the extra pound. I tossed half a dozen eggs into my basket and left my worries about toxins and mutagens on the shelf. It can't be bad if Waitrose sells (and proudly advertises) it, can it?


Cracking the shell open to prepare the meal, it was indeed two yolks that came tumbling. So it came to pass this morning that chicken twins failed to see the light of day in my kitchen, that two little chicks, and not just one as usual, gave their infinitely short lives for my breakfast. The eggs were very tasty and it was with great pleasure that I ate my meal, but somewhere deep inside nagged an old question. How do two yolks get into one egg so frequently and consistently that one can base a major retail product thereon?

Friday, April 10, 2009

flash fiction

How many words does it take to make a great story he wondered, sitting on the loo of the shopping center. He read another paragraph; the words flowed on. It was Good Friday, but the day wasn't good to the center, which was half empty. The intellectual magazine, his only purchase so far, lay on his bare legs. Five pages make an assay. Shorter are only the funnies. He turned the page. Above him, a single sun dispensed cold light.

As his eyes were about to bite into the next column, the light flickered briefly. It turned orange, then black. There was a slap on the hard tiles next to his left foot. Before he could startle in surprise, the light came back. Where there had been the clean geometry of the stone floor now lay a book, it's black-and-white cover facing up. The White Road it said in big bold letters.

"Hello", he inquired, and "Anyone there?" but there was no response. The room was as quiet as an abandoned train station. He picked the slim volume from the floor and scrutinized it. It was brand new, never been opened. The back promised an exciting collection of very short stories, and though he wasn't sure he needed any more excitement, he began reading. He was soon absorbed and entranced. The story hypnotized with skillful minimalism. No words were wasted.

"We wish our customers a Happy Easter", a cheerful voice said from above. The announcement came out of nowhere and brought him back to earth. As he stood up, the New Yorker slid from his knees but he failed to notice. He stuffed the book into his backpack and left the stall, stepping into a new world. Water roared into the white bowl behind him.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

along the high street

The long weekend isn't even one entire day old and I've already defaulted on my resolution not to think about lab issues, science and Imperial College. It was my fault. The day developed as I had envisioned. I took it easy in the morning, ate, read, wrote and practiced the flute for the first time in nearly four months. At some point in the afternoon, I started to make my way slowly towards town, in the general direction of Imperial College. As I said, training runs were high on my to-do list for this weekend.

Before I could take off into the late afternoon, my long wait rewarded with a mellow sun appearing from behind thick, moist clouds, my student got a hold of me and wanted another question answered. And there I was, thinking about science again. I gave him brief advice, basically telling him to enjoy the Easter break, wriggled from his grip, and off I was in the park. It was late already and I was lazy. Good thing I had planned a fast run. I was back at the start line quite a bit less than forty minutes after I had taken off, out of breath, surely, but very happy with my performance. Now if I can just get one long run in...

Turning my back on College, I walked back towards Kensington. A lovely network of back streets connects Imperial with Kensignton High St, free of traffic, noise and dirt. Left and right are Edwardian buildings with white-washed fronts and naked brick that looks as if it had been cleaned only days ago. The cars in front of the gates hint at the wealth of the occupiers and so do the little shops that cluster here and there, vertiginously upmarket for the most part. A small gallery epitomizes the poshness of the area.

I noticed Hackel Bury for the first time when they had a wide selection of Salgado's for sale, monumental black-and-white photographs from his Genesis project. The majestic iceberg that advertised the show in the shop window would have been perfect for over my fire place (the small jpg doesn't nearly do it justice), but the price, oh my god the price... To be able to afford it, you probably have to live around the corner.

I don't and I can't, but there's no reason to despair. Businesses that cater to a more modest audience are not far away. It's only a few steps to Tackeray St. and the Montparnasse Café, the best Parisian bakery this side of the Channel. I sat down, had a cappuccino and a pain au chocolat, and felt the effort of the last hour glide off of me. Around me murmured many tongues, but most conversations were in French. It felt like being in Paris, surrounded by fellow tourists and a few locals, only here, given how tucked away the café is, all customers are probably local no matter what language they speak.

As I lounged in my wicker chair nursing a coffee that was slowly losing steam, I pondered my strong reaction to the café. I absolutely love it. I enjoy being approached in French – it gives the place authenticity. When I go to the grocery store where I buy bread and the staff are Polish, my reaction is the exact opposite. I hate it when they speak Polish to me, which is always, and I hate that some of them speak no English at all. It doesn't make me feel welcome at all, and yet it isn't any different from the French bakery. The conclusion obviously lies in my command of the French language and complete ignorance of the Polish. I like to be in control.

From the little bit of Paris it is only a few steps to a big bit of the US. The first Whole Foods market outside America occupies a splendid Art Deco building that used to house a major department store. I went there because they offer a food and wine tasting on Thursdays. For five pounds you get to sample five amuse-bouches, each paired with a matching glass of wine.

For sheer variety – I had pork belly on lentils, tomato bruschetta and antipasti salad with chorizo, among others – this deal is hard to beat. The wine servings look stingy at first, but that assessment changes by the fifth glass at the latest. As always, not everyone is happy. One elderly lady asked my why I was shopping with a glass of wine in my hand. I explained the situation to her in term that would have had Whole Food's marketing department offer me a job on the spot, had they heard me, but the lady was less than convinced. "The wine is dreadful", she hissed and walked away, muttering, as if to herself: "But you wouldn't know. You're an American." "Ta-ta", I was tempted to shout after her in my poshest accent, "but the tea is splendid." Such exchanges only happen in the movies, unfortunately, and by the time I had formulated the reply she had already disappeared into the organic oil and vinegar aisle. I was left laughing at my chorizo starter.

When I reemerged from the food emporium with a full belly and a light head, it was already dark outside. Time to start the night. A few doors down the road, an inconspicuous sign above the kind of door you only want to enter if you really know where you're going advertised the Live Lounge. My friend knew where she was going. We descended the stairs and entered a dim jazz club, painted entirely black, that was almost empty. Only two other tables were occupied, and the mood was somber. Emma-Jane Thommen, an amazing singer and pianist, gave her best, but she didn't stand a chance against the void. She sang with passion and sparks were flying, but there weren't enough people to catch the fire. Nevertheless, and disregarding the eerie atmosphere, it was a great show.

I was wondering if the desolate audience – this was Thursday night – was a manifestation of the recession that everyone keeps talking about. Kensington High St. gave me more food for thought. During my first year in London, all commercial properties were occupied and trading briskly. Now, there are big holes, to the tune of one out of four. First, Zavvi's went bust. Then WH Smith and French Connection closed their stores. Sony and Sisley were next, followed by countless others. Boarded-up windows, especially conspicuous at night, mark the departed. It is a sad sight.

I'm not a frequent shopper, and as long as the Oxfam stays open, I should be happy, but even I can see the disaster that's building. Who wants to go shopping when half the stores are closed? Who wants to be continually reminded of the catastrophic economic reality when the personal situation is only marginally (and maybe temporally) better? It looks like a textbook example of a negative feedback loop to me.

Tomorrow, for breakfast, I'm going to get a Financial Times. Maybe some signs of hope can be spotted. And even if it's all doom and gloom, at least it's gonna take my mind off the lab.

off, finally

Since late in March I've been feeling crushingly fatigued. I go to bed late and probably don't sleep as much as I should, but I've always done that, and it has never hurt me. Over the last two weeks however, I've really come to suffer from what can only be described as complete physical exhaustion. I haven't done more than survive the days at work. Even last weekend didn't lift my spirits or bring me back to freshness and vigor.

It really couldn't go on like this. This week felt it would never end. It was the longest week in my life, longer than any in high school when vacations were rare outside summer and the days filled with relentless studying. It was even longer than the final week of my month-long bike tour to France fifteen years ago, days of horror when all I wanted was sleep in a real bed again. All that wasn't more than brief unpleasant moments by comparison. This week, in contrast, the week that has just ended, was eternal.

It was also extremely short. Easter is coming up. Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays in England. Imperial College does one better, giving everyone Thursday and Tuesday off as well. The week that caused me so much suffering, the seemingly infinite week, only lasted three days. This paradox, the disparity between the length of the week and how I perceived it, told me in glaring terms that I was not only ready for a break but in dire need of it. Indeed, I've never craved a vacation as much as now.

Over the last few years, trips over Easter had developed into some sort of a tradition. Tradition because last year and three years ago, I went to Istanbul, and some sort of because I don't remember – not even after consulting this blog's archive – what I did in 2007. This year is another some sort of year. I'm not going anywhere but I'm taking a trip.

The resolution of this obfuscation? I'll be a tourist in my own town. For the next six days I'll be seeing London like I haven't before, and I'm really looking forward to it. I've never spent six days in London, just being a visitor, having nothing to do, no obligations, nothing to distract me. I'll go see exhibitions that have been so low on my list that they have continually fallen off when it came to deciding what to do on a weekend that was inevitably too short. I'll visit parks that have never been on my way and galleries that have either tempted me for too long or just recently opened. I might go shopping – which translates into hunting for books – or ambling, being driven along well-trodden paths by throngs of Easter tourists. But mostly I'll be sitting in coffee shops or on the springy boards of wooden park benches reading and relaxing.

The reading and relaxing part started this morning, when I whipped up a big breakfast and frothed up some good Turkish coffee to mark the break from the ordinary. I kicked back and started the day doing nothing in particular. Despite the general plans outlined in the previous section, doing nothing will really be the theme of the next six days. Marathon training in Kensington Gardens will require me to stop by at work, but only to change and feed. I won't have science on my mind, not until my energy has been restored. For now, I'm off and away. Happy Easter!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

easy way out

As I was pulling the laundry from the washer this evening, readying short, jerseys and socks for few nights of drying in my living room, I came across a t-shirt that's very dear to me. It shows a Kokopelli lookalike on a bike, expertly stylized in a beautifully minimalistic way, blue on white. I got the shirt for doing a mountain bike race in the Utah resort of Brian Head. Without any conscious effort, my brain started reminiscing.

Brian Header

Brian Head is in the South of Utah, far away from anywhere else, like most places in the state. I had driven down there a day before the race to go hiking in Red Canyon, across the road from Bryce Canyon, similarly beautiful and entirely devoid of tourists. Make a point of stopping there the next time you're in the area.

In the evening, I drove up to the resort, a forlorn place of just over 100 permanent residents. I had an ice chest full of beer (and Gatorade) and was looking forward to a burger in the local joint followed by a restful night. Pulling into town, I didn't see the forest for the trees. On the substantial parking lot in the center of town, at the base of the Giant Steps ski lift, not a single spot was left untaken. This was what you would expect a Wal-Mart to look like on the Friday morning after thanksgiving, right before dawn, but not a quiet mountain town at night.

I was puzzled. I pulled off the road and stopped the car, and it was in that precise moment that the fireworks went off. With a beer in hand, I kicked back and watched, awe-struck. The sky kept exploding for a good fifteen minutes, and somewhere during that time it occurred to me that it was the fourth of July, largely justifying the celestial exuberance. When all was over, it didn't take three minutes until the parking lot had emptied completely and I was all by myself on the high plateau. Brian Head is apparently something of a destination for Independence Day celebrations.

I don't remember if I had burger after that, but I'm sure about a second beer. At some point, I drove off into a dark corner of the woods and spent the night in the back of my Passat. With the seats folded, I managed (just) to stretch out but boy, was it cold. I was glad when the sun rose and race day was there. Had I known what was about to hit me, I would have enjoyed the moments of blissful ignorance a little longer. (Granted, that's a logical impossibility, but it came to me like that.)

The race started with a lunge up an impossibly steep forest road that was covered knee-deep in gravel and took us from just a nick under 10000 foot to somewhere hallucinogenic. The air was full of birdsong and the sweet scent of wildflowers but largely free of oxygen. The effect was stunning. Had I not worn sunglasses, my eyes would have popped out from the effort.

Cross-country mountain biking is basically one long time trial with more or less impossible technical elements thrown in just for fun. The pack charges from the start line like hungry wolves in hot pursuit of a tasty deer and never lets off. The moment of the start gun, heart rates reach max and just stay there. In order to race successfully, you have to whip yourself mentally like there is no tomorrow. This is an exceptionally painful experience.

It is also what stories are made from and memories, memories that were swirling around my head as I beheld the crumpled old t-shirt. I haven't ridden a mountain bike in nearly four years and I had somehow forgotten how much I liked it, how much I was addicted to it. The thrill of barely controlled speed and the kick of limits, either psychotropic or physically painful, depending on what side of the limit one is riding, are something I haven't experienced since.

Today, I went for a long run in the afternoon, twenty kilometers in the park. In contrast to what I said earlier, long-distance running is a much more peaceful activity than biking. I start slow and slowly get into the zone. It's me out there, against myself, even in a race. The other runners don't matter. In a marathon, going the distance might push me to the limits, but running itself doesn't. My heart rate is comfortably yellow, far away from the raging red of mountain biking. Piece of cake then? We'll see in three weeks.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

lack of interest

Over the last three days, London has been under a curious sort of schizophrenic siege. As everyone's been reading in the news, Gordon Brown had invited the G20 came to town to chat about the global economy and figure out how to slow the meltdown. Obama was here with an entourage of 500. Clearly, he has bigger things on his plate than the defense of Sparta, which took 200 less. The Merkel-Sarkozy tag team, rekindling Franco-German friendship with the full force of necessity, stood tall and talked bravely in the face of nearly uniform and only barely concealed hostility. The Queen served tea and scones before things could get out of hand.

Sixteen other heads of state were also there, and though they didn't matter and no one needs to remember their name or their presence, they all needed to be protected. In normal times, this would require law enforcement in all its incarnations, but times are far from normal. People hear, see and feel every day how the longest boom in the history of the U.K. has turned bust. Jobs are being lost, companies go out of business and banks need to be bailed out. In the public eyes, the culprits are obvious: Those who benefited most from the boom, those who engineered it through short-term greed and long-term blindness. Now those same people walk away from nationalized banks with million-pound pensions or get outrageous bonuses for running their companies into the ground. The tax-payer picks up the tab and doesn't like it at all. The streets are filled with outrage

The last few days, since the world arrived in town, presented the best chance yet to vent this anger. So it came to pass that London sank into a deep bucket of tight-fisted security. Under the watchful eyes of low-flying helicopters, police lines, armored vehicles, snipers on roof-tops and heavy concrete barriers painted the city yellow. Free movement became almost impossible, and normal life ground to a halt. IDs were checked at every street corner and shaggy guys in hoodies wrestled to the ground by stone-faced officers before they could go ransack the nearest Bank of Scotland branch or throw eggs at a passing elected leader.

The newspapers were full of warnings of chaos, painting in dire words scenes of mayhem and violence, with shielded and armed riot police battling bloodily against the apoplectic masses. Businesses were advised to close shop and board up their windows, tube stops were closed, and a permanent state of red alert kept everyone's nerves fraying.

The heat rose to its highest point right before Obama arrived. An apprehensive uncertainty filled the air. As the pessimists had fearfully abandoned town long ago, it was left to the optimists to publish new worst-case-scenarios by the hour. Would it be like Seattle? Worse than Genova? Would people get killed? Would London burn?

When the first reports came in from the battlefield on Wednesday, they were stunning in their silence. Nothing was going on. There were a few protesters, but they numbered in the high hundreds and not tens of thousands as people had feared. They were mostly peaceful, marching for a colorful collection of causes, and didn't cause much harm. The Bank of England was beleaguered by more demonstrators than was deemed safe, and police stepped with their batons en garde. All protesters near the Bank's entrance were cordoned off and detained until the surrounding streets had cleared, many frustrating hours later, when they were released in small, harmless groups.

Despite the anticlimactic development, I went to the City with my camera, to see and document what was happening. The Square Mile offered a curious sight. Police were everywhere, vastly outnumbering everyone else: Commuters looking for the nearest open tube stop, photographers hoping for actions and contenting themselves with the striking contrast between ominous buildings and high-visibility vests, concerned citizens hoping to defuse tensions with well-reasoned arguments, and hippies on the way home from a sit-in.

but seriously

Any sense of nervousness had long dissipated. At the end of a long day, the officers were glad about any distraction, happily giving directions or posing for poorly composed photos. Walking through the darkening streets in the financial district I could feel the calm after the storm, but the storm had never happened. And this is what really baffles me. Why were there no major protests? Are people not angry? When globalization was steaming ahead and nearly every country benefited from stupendous economic growth, multitudes went rioting and chanting. Now that economic hell has broken loose, all you can hear is music in the cafés at night, but there's no revolution in the air.