Sunday, May 31, 2009

what's cooking?

I am not a cook. While I'm at work, I take my meals in the cafeteria. In Utah, this was synonymous with waterboarding. I could never get over the Styrofoam plates and plastic crockery at the Union. The Burger King that attracted customer in the medical school like you wouldn't believe it kept me shaking my head forever.

Well, forever is a strong word. I'm not shaking my head anymore, so forever isn't the right word to use. I haven't exactly found out yet why people go to Burger King, but I did it myself once, late one night, when I was working longer than most people do, facing another five hours when most had gone home already. I was hungry and got a Whopper. I can still not explain why I chose this, but I can now understand those who eat there. Well, with limitations. I can understand it somewhat, but people eat fast food more than they work serious overtime. Where's the logic? If you're going home before ten, there's no reason to stop at Burger King or McDo or Chicken Cottage.

In Grenoble, things were the exact opposite. The refectory (to use a word that an Italian coworker surprised me with) served magnificent dishes, justifying a good hour every day. Every day around eleven, shouts would reverberate across the lab. "Are you coming for lunch?" "When are we going?" In the end, everyone went, the boss included. I tremendously enjoyed this daily break, especially after escaping the crude life in the US. The Imperial College cafeteria is somewhere in between.

When I started this post, I was in the thick of making a fine vegetarian gratin. The deal is this: In the lab, we have a lunch club, an exclusive gathering, invitation only, of friends who cook for each other. Every Monday, another member of the lunch club cooks and the others enjoy. Currently, we are four, though we could probably deal with six. Add any more, and the cooking would be too cumbersome. You'd need an army provisions officer to put things in place. For four cooking isn't too difficult, and every week, every Monday, we have a good lunch. The only problem with this scheme, at least as I see it, is that every four weeks, I have too cook. Tomorrow is my turn, and tonight I'm cooking.

The gratin I had set out to make is already in its final stages. All it takes it an hour in the oven. The potatoes have been sliced and washed, the milk and cream have been heated, the vegetables cubed. The first time it was my turn to cook lunch, I had remembered the gigantic tin of confit de canard in a drawer and decided to pair it with a Gratin Dauphinois – an appropriate selection given that I had lived in Grenoble for two years where this dish is from, approximately.

I heated the ducks in the skillet and cooked the gratin in the oven and was quite delighted with the result. What I was much more delighted with was that two colleagues who grew up very close to Grenoble liked the gratin very much and commended me on my cooking. Wow.

This time around, I went for a variation of the theme. I wasn't ready to invest another tin of confit de canard, which is nearly impossible to get outside of France, and decided to go for vegetables instead. To make a long story short, when everything was ready the oven, which was supposed to be preheated, was cold. I stuck my hand inside and there was nothing. Damn. How do you make a gratin with a broken oven?

For the last hour or so, the ingredients of my gratin have been sitting, in their approximate spacial order, in a skillet on my stove top. The result is not a gratin, and it never will be. But maybe it will be something that my labmates will accept and eat without much complaining.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


At the end of a week shortened by a Monday off work, I'm headed in the direction of Shepherd's Bush Market. Expertly weaving through the crowds on the sidewalk, I make rapid progress and approach the Hammersmith & City line tube station less than ten minutes after leaving my house. The sun has the vigor of the late afternoon still in it, but the LondonPaper guy has for some reason already called it a day. He and his stacks of free newspapers have disappeared from in front of the old library. I climb the stairs to the platform empty-handed, facing the prospect of a dull journey without reading to keep me entertained.

Three minutes later I board a Central London-bound train where the evening commute is in its last throes. The train is crowded but not overly so. I find one last available seat and slump down in it. With nothing to do, I lean back and disconnect from life for a while. Around me, people are chattering animatedly or bop their heads to silent tunes, fed directly to their brains through white cables hooked up to their ears. Most just sit there motionless. I follow suit and pay scant attention to what's going on. My head is heavy from an exhausting work at week and all I want to do is kick back. I stare at my knees as if I were reading the newspaper that isn't there. Then I look left. The guy next to me has his legs crossed so that one of his feet almost touches my knee. I have to cant my legs to avoid contact.

His left leg, propped up as it is on top of the other, forms a flat surface on which he has unfolded some newspaper of his own. I browse lazily and without much enthusiasm. The small font blurs before my eyes. Only the bright photos penetrate the haze that my tired brain has put before my eyes. I sink back in slumber, but before I doze off, I berate myself for wasting another fine opportunity. I should be observing the goings-on around me, taking mental notes of curious folks and unexpected actions, imaging colors, noises and atmosphere. My blog would benefit, but I'm not seeing.

My gaze touches upon the many faces and bodies on the train for one last time, but there's nothing interesting. The nugget of wisdom from the Bruce Gilden documentary boils into my awareness. When out doing street photography, one sees many more characters than if one just wanders the streets with some other business in mind. It's amazing how much truth there is to that idea. When I embark on a day shooting and hold my camera ready, the city looks very different. There seem to be different people in the streets.

The blogger's and writer's camera is his notebook, a tool for recording curious encounters and random details that can later be added to a post or story to spice it up and give it life. Tonight, I don't carry my notebook. My wallet and phone swell my pockets enough already. There is no room for more. And while I've convinced myself of the perspective-changing quality of a camera, I'm not so sure about the powers of the notebook yet.

When I went to Paris a few months ago, the underground that was to take me to St. Pancras got stuck between stations for torturous minutes. There was no announcement and no one had any idea when our trip would continue. I didn't know whether I would make my train. To keep anguish at bay and apprehension contained, I distracted myself by observing my surroundings. There quite a few characters but not much action. Neither the yarmulke-wearing Red Cross volunteer nor the exhausted man with two indefatigable toddlers bouncing on his knees was in any way perturbed by the interruption in service. Seasoned tube rides that they seemed, they had experienced it all and knew that agitation will only drain your energy but never make the train go faster.

A few seats down sat a massive-bottomed lady who mercilessly invaded her neighbor's space with her bulk and loquatiousness, completely burying the armrest between them in the process. The poor fellow that was the target of her overbearing sociability took it stoically, looking at her but focused at infinity. He wished himself far away, a feeling I that shared. Paris!

I took the little calendar out that I frequently carry and a pen and started scribbling in the spaces left by days where nothing had been scheduled. I revisited the Red Crosser, the undaunted dad and the dozens of passengers in between. What struck me most was that the mood in the carriage hadn't changed at all from the moment the train stopped. It was as if nothing at all had happened, as if the train was still rolling at cruising speed, about to enter King's Cross station in a few moments.

A large crowd in a dark tunnel with nowhere to go, in the worst place one could be when disaster strikes – you could forgive people for panicking, for at least fretting. Disaster has struck here before. The existence of danger is on the news on occasion and surfaces regularly in panel discussions. It must be on everyone's mind – just not when they are inside the tube making their journey home. There, the (real or adopted) Englishness takes over. No one whose eyes wander the pages of London Lite looks up. No one removes even one iPod plug from the ear.

Foreigners recently arrived in London learn quickly and assume the English ways. Traveling flips the switch. In the tube, life is suspended. Until one arrives at one's destination, nothing can do about the outcome of the journey, and no one does a thing. No one expends energy on what's obviously pointless. I was still scribbling, hopeful that the characters I was observing would later grace a post and make it interesting. Alas, my exercise was one in futility, because nothing ever came of my notes. Committed to paper, they were long ignored and eventually forgotten.

It was with this in mind that I resign myself to idleness, following the example of most other passengers on the train. Only a few individuals try to stand out from the amorphous crowd. A mentally disturbed fellow sits at the other end of the carriage entertaining or annoying everyone with music blasting unbelievably loudly from the tinny speaker of his telephone. A little boy with wayward teeth of the kind that would only go unfixed in England explains his view of the world in a shrill voice that can't possibly emanate from his tiny chest.

He points his fingers every which way, sticks them in his mouth and nose and later in my face. His dad is vaguely apologetic and clearly excited about his kid's many talents, among which also counts the forceful ejection of spittle, as I discover with great dismay. I wipe my face and overhear a tall woman proudly reveal to her friend how the eyes of the entire train are fixated on her boobs when she rummages in the bag that sits by her feet. To prove her point she bends down again. Heads turn but I stare straight ahead gloomily. Much is happening in the train but it doesn't make a story. I lack the inspiration to see something worth telling. With a slight rumble, the train pulls into the station where I alight. Maybe stories wait for me outside.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Her Majesty's money

The Queen sent me a check today. It came out of the blue and arrived in an unmarked envelope. I almost threw it out when the letter said nothing but "Advanced Mail Second Class". What could I really expect? When I lived in the U.S., it was credit card offers, but they're not that popular here. It could be my bank offering me another obscure way of parting with my money. If history is any guide, that's nothing I'm particularly interested in.

It could also be the BBC that reminds me every six months that I must not watch TV without paying the license fee. I don't have a TV, but that doesn't mean that I'm not willing to contribute my share to let the BBC's develop its awesome programing. Radio 4 alone, which wakes me up every morning, is worth a fortune. But radio is not liable to the license fee. Listening is free.

Watching is also free, as long it is not the TV that holds your attention. I watch iPlayer frequently, a flash-based repository of BBC programing that gives new meaning to TV. Most shows stay on view-on-demand for seven days after they aired, and from time to time, old shows are resuscitated for a second chance at dazzling audiences. This is how I caught nearly all Top Gear episodes of the last four years. Though it's infinitely more convenient than the TV, Watching the iPlayer is free.

Real TV costs, but I have no idea how much. I remember getting nasty sounding letters from some licensing fee recovery agency right after I had moved in here, but I didn't pay them much mind. They were addressed to "Current Resident", which is not my name. I admit that I opened each letter in a fit of inexplicable curiosity but then tossed them without reacting to them. If someone can't go to the trouble of finding out my name, he or she can't be too serious about my money either – and certainly won't get it.

The Queen knows good manners. Her letter was addressed to me, personally and politely, my academic title showing in the address field. In the absence of a sensible return address or the name of the sender, it was still a highly suspicious mailing and could have been from anyone. Once I ripped it open, what fell into my hands were a few pages of tax advice and a refund check. I doubled over when I saw the amount, a couple weeks of rent.

What amazed me was not so much the amount. It wasn't even the check itself. What blew me over, what I hadn't expected in a hundred years, is that someone's actually counting. Income tax is exceedingly simple in the U.K. I have no idea how it works and I get by just fine. I barely know my tax rate, and I don't care. I'm not opposed to paying taxes is fine. As I see it, this money holds society together. What I really like and what I'm infinitely grateful for is that I don't have to deal with it.

Income tax is deducted automatically from your paycheck every month. The numbers are calculated according to some formula that either HR or the revenue service knows. The tax payer has to do nothing; unless one wants to claim exotic exemptions, there are no returns to file. I'm living a simple life, and I can't be bothered. I appreciate that everything is taken care of.

Tonight, I also appreciate that there's someone in some brightly lit but depressingly grey cubicle assiduously going over all the numbers in the database and figuring out if the deductions, exemptions and charged tax have been applied properly. If they haven't, as in my case, a check is sent, payable by Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs, also known as The Queen.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


If you want to pare it down to the bare minimum, all of life can be split three-ways. There are opportunities taken, opportunities missed and foggy ambiguities. Between them is not much else, and nothing of significance. At every crossing in the road through the years stands a dilemma. Do you go left or right, choose the easy way or the struggle, opt for the obvious or the obscure? The decisions you make will become your life. If you're happy with a decision, it will enter memory as an opportunity taken, one of hopefully many bright moments. You'll look back on it with fondness, recall the courage it took to make the decision or maybe the luck that helped you along.

In contrast, if you later look back with anger or dissatisfaction on a particular moment in your life, it was probably a missed opportunity that's causing you grief. Maybe you had picked the winning numbers on the lottery ticket but were too late to hand it in, or your spouse goes on to cheat on you and destroys everything that's dear to you. Not many events in life to which you retrospectively assign negative outcomes are as clear-cut as the two preceding examples. Most of the time, even with the benefit of hindsight, the waters are murky.

Your past is full of points of doubt where the decision was hard and the alternatives close to each other in terms of possibility and potential gain, almost too close to call. But decisions needed to be made, even if it was by sitting it out and waiting for the situation to resolve itself. Looking back later, you will still have uncertainty in your mind. What would have been had you done things differently? What if you had said yes instead of no or 'I'm sorry' instead of 'whatever'. Depending on your mental strength and stubbornness, these issues can resurface frequently, tormenting you in sleepless nights or revisiting you in a quiet moment when a familiar smell or a sound pulls a long-forgotten detail from the travel chest of your past. You swirl what had been options around your head, trying to figure out how things would have turned out.

Everyone knows that this is an entirely futile exercise. The past is so called because it has passed. It is gone and won't come back. And the decisions that you have made continue to stand and define your life. No one has ever argued this better and more convincingly than Milan Kundera in his stunning novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Over the first few pages, a brilliant philosophy is unfurled that argues that whatever decision anyone ever makes can only be the right decision. As there is no way of ever going back on a decision and trying out the alternative, one can never say that it was a bad one because there is nothing to compare it to. There is no point of imagining all the things that might have turned out better because they might as well have turned out worse. Had you crossed the street which you didn't cross because the light was red, you might have made it to the newsstand to submit your lottery ticket in time and claim the big prize. But you might have also been run over by a truck.

You weren't run over. You're alive, and every breath you've taken since that fateful evening is based on the decision not to cross the street. This was not a missed opportunity, and the decisions you're doubtful about are even more convincingly right ones because your ideas about potential outcomes in a parallel world are less certain. It is from these considerations that I derive the conviction that everything I've ever done was right and good for me. I don't obsess about what might have caused me sleepless nights in the past.

However, there are sleepless nights in the present. Kundera's life-assuring philosophy only applies in retrospect. It doesn't excuse you from agonizing over options and analyzing potential outcomes of actions you're about to make. Time turns all decisions into right decisions by default, but before you make one you won't know which one is the right one, and what you do can have an enormous impact on your life. These concessions are contradictory. You might be tempted to decide something as quickly as possible to get it over with, move on and be able to look back and say, 'This moment defined my life.' At the same time you might be tempted to procrastinate, to give yourself more time because you're worried about the kind of life you're about to define.

This is quite silly and only appealing to those who enjoy the limbo. I'm only very rarely plagued by sleepless nights. I like to make decisions without thinking about them too much, certainly without overagonizing. Lay out the facts, get on with life and assess the impact later. If something turns out to be completely wrong, changes are it can be bent back into shape with some effort. The reasons I'm writing all this in long, tedious sentences is that I have to remind myself of it from time to time. Make decisions!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

reclaiming the fun

My dad used to be an avid photographer. When I was little, he used to spend entire Saturdays locked up in our bathroom, which he had turned into his little darkroom, a refuge of old-school creativity. When he was at work, no one else was allowed to enter, lest his work be ruined by the destructive power of stray light. My sister and I spent many a morning stepping from one foot onto the other fighting the power of too much milk for breakfast. My life is now richer for the many black-and-white memories hanging framed on my walls, but back then his passion wasn't good for family harmony.

When I was in middle school, I got my first camera, a simple and entirely manual viewfinder model, and started attending extracurricular photography classes. Now it was my turn to spend hours in the dark, in a tiny dungeon in the basement of our school, far away from the bathrooms and in no one's way. I have only the faintest memories of mixing solutions, processing film in a cylindrical container with developer sloshing around noisily, and making prints. This last activity entailed quite a bit of artistry. Besides prints of the photos we had taken, we also made greeting cards and reproductions much like one does today on the computer, but with more effort and wet hands. I didn't get hooked and left the photo club after a short while. The camera continued to lead an uneventful life.

In 1996, I went on my first big trip, venturing far from the comfort of Central Europe and the safety of home. With two friends from high-school, I went to Romania which had at that time an unenviable reputation for organized crime and brutal violence. Romanian gangs dominated German red light districts and fought for control in the drug trade. It was all over the news every night. Our parents were close to panic over our plans but we allayed their fears with a brilliant piece of logic. If all the Romanian criminals are in Germany, only the friendly folks are left behind and Romania must be a charming place. Little did we know how accurate this statement was. Romania was brilliant.

Before taking off into the history of Transylvania and the mountains of the Carpathians, I got my dad to get me an SLR. After three weeks in the wild, I returned with good photos (but nearly without my camera – having left it at a restaurant in Tîrgu Mureş for a few hours), but one of my friends shot slides, and his photos were so much better. The colors were more intense and the images more detailed, especially projected onto a ten-foot screen in a darkened room. Another camera faced a long, dull life in a cardboard box.

I unboxed it and brought it back to life when I went to the US where my days were flooded with the new, the curious and the unexpected. I had an obligation to document my daily life and later relate it to friends and family, of which none had ever been to America. As the months and then the years passed, I slowly evolved from tourist and visitor into local, and my habits changed yet again. I made friends who were into photography as well and became more serious in the process. I acquired an old semi-professional SLR and a few lenses, similarly second-hand, and discovered Fuji Velvia. Colors were suddenly my friends.

Late in 2004 I went digital and early last year I finally purchased a DSLR.

What sounds like a natural progression certainly felt like one. I never questioned my motives nor doubted my motivation. I thought I drew comfort from taking pictures, but it might have just been the habit. I shot with little passion and without great results. My images were decent enough to impress most relatives but didn't satisfy my too much.

A few weeks ago, one of my friends from Salt Lake, my closest photography buddy and companion on countless trips, shocked me with the news that he had put his trusty Canon aside. "I used to take pictures", he said nonchalantly in a conversation, and suddenly I couldn’t help a critical evaluation of my hobby.

Honestly, I had got bored and slightly frustrated. I have good equipment and take good pictures but there's something missing. The thrill is gone. I had got into a rut and kept on keeping on because that was the only thing I knew how to do. Putting the camera to my eye, I see the same things over and over again. Historic buildings, exotic markets, ruins in the sunset, Eiffel Towers, Southbank and clouds – the list could go on. Only over the last months did I become aware of what I was missing in my photos. It's blatantly obvious once I saw it, but I've only seen it now. There are no people in my shots. Most of my photos are dead.

I could have stopped at this point, and it wouldn't have been for the worse. It might have even been for the better. Deprived of the documentary might of the camera around my neck, I might have found myself forced to pick up a pencil more often and record the goings-on verbally or as drawings. That it didn't come to this is owed to my joining, a few weeks before what could have easily been a fateful conversation, a photography group where I rediscovered some of the fun that had been conspicuously absent for too long. The current high point of this recent development took place on Saturday when I tasted the kick of street photography for the first time. Since then, I've been trying to find out why I was so massively affected by the experience.

I think it has to do with excitement. Pacing down the sidewalk with camera en garde, simultaneously looking left and right in search of moments worth immortalizing suffused me with the most curious rush. I'm not one to go out and get in people's faces, and yet this is exactly what I found myself doing on Saturday, and I enjoyed it tremendously. In two short hours in the most hideously touristy part of London I witnessed more memorable moments than I normally do in an entire week. Many I captured on my chip. It was as if someone had unblindfolded me, and I could suddenly see.

I came home with three or four shots that might not have ultimate artistic merit on their own but easily stand up to critical evaluation as part of a street photography series. Since then I've been doing some reading and discovered some great clips on YouTube. One video in particular, a vignette on the peculiar work style of Bruce Gilden, was immensely edifying and spoke to me in an uncanny way. The first bit of wisdom hides in only little sentence. "I see in black and white", says the artist, and what he means is that his equipment is never in the way, that is camera is an extension of his eyes, never mind that the film doesn't see colors. Secondly, there is his confidence. This guy behaves as if he owns the streets, and when he takes a picture, he only takes what is his already. He is brash, even brazen. While this is certainly not my attitude, I get his point. If you want to get good shots in the street, you have to be bold, even brave.

Toward the end of the film is a third piece of insight that might just be the most important of all. It's a bit indirect and thus hard to relate properly, but it goes something like that. A friend points out that he only sees interesting characters when he is with Bruce Gilden but never when he's on his own. Gilden is a magnet, he concludes. In reality, Gilden’s focus allows him to see where others walk obliviously. I noticed the same thing this afternoon when I was walking along Kensington High Street in the middle of the afternoon shopping rush. I don’t recall one single interesting person, not one moment I would have wanted to commit to memory. The reason for this stark difference to last Saturday? I wasn’t out with my camera, and I didn't look with the eyes of a photographer.

London is one big playground; it's full of characters. So far, I haven't seen many of them. In Camden Town one can't help it even if one is engaged in a treasure hunt for birthday presents. Southbank is one big stage also. But the rest of the city might seem like any other place. However, with newly discovered open eyes and a trigger-happy finger I should be able to start seeing. I'll dive into the crowds and shoot from all angles. With time, I may build the skills to undertake topical projects, showcasing particular facets of my city. And later that year, when my dad retires and rebuilds his darkroom, maybe I'll get a classic camera and go black-and-white again. The street is grittier, realer, more honest without color.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

in the street

Yesterday, I meet with a large number of photographers for an afternoon dedicated to the street. I attended a workshop on street photography. Inevitably, in these parts of the world, we met in a pub. Gary Alexander, a professional photographer specializing in street and urban photography, gave an hour-long introductory talk, not so much sharing secrets and tricks of the trade but rather spreading enthusiasm. He ran through much of the history of this genre, showing plenty of photographs taken by some of the great players in the game and letting the audience draw their own conclusions.

Also included in his presentation were short clips cut from documentaries on those photographers. It was interesting to hear their views but infinitely more edifying to see them work. One question the novice has is how to get close to your subjects without getting into trouble. The most radical answer was provided by Bruce Gilden who just walks up to whoever tickles his interest, sticks his camera in that person's face and fires – the shutter and the flash. Most of the time, his subjects are too shocked to react, frozen like deer in the headlights, and he walks off unperturbed. I wasn't quite sure I could be this bold, but to find out I had to get out and give it a try.

Much to my amazement, out on the street is when the fun really started. I kept my camera close to my face and my finger on the shutter release. "Take lots of pictures", was one of the few concrete hints Gary had given us. As prime example for that philosophy he had mentioned Garry Winogrand who left behind more than 300,000 (that's three hundred thousand for those not good with counting zeros) unedited images and more than 2500 unprocessed rolls of film when he died. Street photography is about capturing the magic of the moment. The more moments you immortalize, the higher your chances of capturing something magic. I absorbed this advice and by the end of two hours on the street, I had taken more than 150 photos. This is a lot for me, more than one per minute, and I was exhausted – but I had had a great time.

It all started in my head. I was determined to let go of my usual inhibitions and be a true street photographer for a few hours. So from the beginning, I stuck my camera into people's faces, sometimes getting so close that I was afraid they would collide with my lens. At some point I even took the lens hood off, just to be on the safe side. During the first ten shots or so, I was very self-conscious. I would take sneak up on someone, take a picture and then, while walking away and with much trepidation, check their reaction out of the corner of my eye. One head-scarfed lady tossed me a mean look early on but by everyone else I was ignored – so much that I soon found myself eerily detached from my subjects.

I was reminded a little of zoology lab in college. When I looked at the frog in front of me, I saw an animal I was familiar with, a creature I wouldn't hurt or endanger gratuitously. As I put my eye to the microscope and, very hesitantly, almost despite myself, my scalpel to its dimpled green skin, the animal was transformed into a subject of study and I filled with the rush of discovery as I cut through layers of dermis and revealed the details of the nervous system and bone structure.

My eye on the viewfinder, I felt similarly scientific wandering the streets of London. Driven by the desire to uncover the city as I hadn't seen it before, I wasn't fearful of people's reactions. And guess what? I got some great shots, some of which I put into a set on flickr. The one below, of a street artists putting some love into his chalk drawing, is easily the best I've taken since I got my SLR fifteen months ago.

street painter

I saw this man near the National Portrait Gallery. He was on his knees, hunched over the pavement, handling his chalk. I felt it would make a good picture but I had to get down to him. While I dropped my camera, finger on shutter release but eyes nowhere near the viewfinder, he bend down himself, to blow some loose chalk from his creation. I took the picture guided by nothing but luck and captured the precise moment. Look at the chalk dust!

For the most part, though, I took headshots of pedestrians around me, mostly tourists and shoppers. While it was easy to get carried away in the rush of excitement, towards the end of the two hours, after getting my umpteenth technically sound portrait of a person caught unawares, I was tiring a bit of the repetition. This is the point where it really gets interesting, I guess, the point where you take it to the next level and make it your own. You evolve away from plain heads and develop a style or narrative that's your own. That's something I'm really excited about trying.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Today, Liverpool Cathedral set their veteran bell ringers a special challenge, one for the pros, if you will. They were asked to play the tune of John Lennon's Imagine. As the singer was born in the city, it seems very appropriate, until you remember the lyrics. "Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try." Is this is a message to ring from the bell tower of one of England's greatest houses of god, the fifth largest cathedral in the world and the home of the Bishop of Liverpool?

Apparently so. It was the church, after all, that allowed the music to be played, and they advertise it on their homepage. Three times this afternoon, it was heard throughout the center of town. All is fine then.

All might be fine for the church, but the rest of us are still wondering. I heard about the performance on the BBC this morning when a morning host reported it with a hint of doubt in his words. For the record, he had a representative of the Church of England on the phone, who proceeded to explain, softly and in plain words, why this was nothing out of the ordinary and certainly far from any controversy.

I'll get back to his reasons later, but let me spend a paragraph or two on that curious organization that is the Church of England or CoE, as it is known to its friends and followers. CoE owes its existence to the sexual voraciousness of King Henry VIII who was married to Catherine of Aragon but had his eyes on Anne Boleyn and wanted to lay his hands on her. He needed a divorce (I don't quite follow the logic here.) that the Pope wouldn't grant him. In a quick move of historic proportion, Henry refused the theological authority of the Pope and declared himself the head of the church in England, severing spiritual ties with Rome in an act not unlike mutiny. Later, he had Anne Boleyn beheaded and went through another four wives, but that's a different story.

CoE is unlike any other Christian Church. For example, it manages to be Catholic and Reformed at the same time. How this works is unclear to me even after a lengthy study of the relevant Wikipedia entry. I grew up with the understanding that, after revealing all the failings of centuries past, Reformation had categorically assigned Catholicism to the pyre of apostacy. This is also a different story.

The real story here is that over the centuries, CoE has coevolved with the English to display much the same characteristics that the people are famous for, mildly amused aloofness, for example, and disarming self-effacingness. Like the English, the Church is never shaken by reality or moved to hotheaded responses by whatever turmoil besets the country. If someone disagrees with its views, that's no reason to put the tea down and get angry. If everyone is cool, everyone can be happy.

It is this spirit that the suggestion of the nonexistence of heaven is trumpeted from a church tower. Or, as a spokesperson says about the song: "We recognize its power to make us think. As a cathedral we do not shrink from debate. We recognize the existence of other world views." This is also what the Church representative said on the BBC this morning.

As an infidel and ready castigator of religion, I find this attitude refreshing and eminently uplifting. If all faiths followed a similarly relaxed path, the world would undoubtedly be a much better place. If you believed like many English that say "I like to have some religious guidance and a framework of moral reference, but I don't really believe in god. I find the idea of god somewhat arcane, but it gives me, inexplicably, a warm feeling." you would be getting the benefits of religion without the baggage. Just imagine.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

end of democracy

Hardcore politics – it's all over the BBC. Casual observers, of which I am not one (to get this out of the way), might be excused for believing that the nation that started modern democracy as we know it when it published the Magna Carta in 1215 has completely lost it. The BBC gave the word to a Nigerian anti-corruption campaigner the other day. He complained that if the U.K. continues as it has, how is his organization going to put the pressure on the Nigerian government and society. What is really going on?

It is more exciting than yet another incarnation of the Star Trek franchise, if you ask me. The U.K. likes to see itself as organized, reasonable, level-minded. The English are proud of their democracy. They know it's the best system in the world.

Recently, however, this belief has been shaken, shocked, nearly ruined by what's been coming out of Parliament. First – and I don't claim to be a rigorous chronicler of the recent past – there was the government minister who submitted receipts to get reimbursed for porn movies. When it turned out that it was her husband that ordered the movies, ridicule was added to outrage, but no personal consequences were drawn. The minister is still minister.

Then there were the emails that one of Prime Minster Gordon Brown's most trusted aids intended to send out. They were full off baseless allegations against members of the Conservative Party, full of personal attacks and lies conceived to the defame the character of opposition politicians. The emails were published in the news, and their story was told before they could be sent out.

By that time, most U.K. citizens were listening. What would be the next in the row of government failures? It came out of nowhere. The top anti-terrorist cop was photographed exiting his vehicle on the way to Downing Street. No big deal? Well, he carried the plans for a substantial anti-terror operation under his arm, the details clearly legible through the photographers' lenses. Amidst, again, much ridicule, the man stepped down, but the damage was done to the government.

Despite their severity, these snafus were all weathered spectacularly well. It didn't look like anything could really damage the government. But then, no one could have expected the storm of public outrage that broke when The Daily Telegraph (not a newspaper worth reading, I believe) published details of Members of Parliament's reimbursement claims. Average Joe (not a plumber because those are Polish here and don't vote) is incensed that politicians claim expenses for homes they have purchased and will sell for profit, that cleaners come around the prime minister's second home thanks to the taxpayer's generosity, that dog food and replacement sofas are eligible for expense claims.

Inevitably, the politicians that find themselves in the news for fraudulent (yes, yes, yes!) claims assert that these claims were legitimate, within the system, not at all illegal and fully reasonable and justifiable. And this discrepancy between the politicians' self-understanding and the public's perception of it is what's most shocking. How can politicians hide behind the system when it is exactly that system that fostered the kind of misbehavior that outrages the public? They legislated the system. What does it mean that they move within it? (Here it needs to be pointed out, with awe and gratefulness, that the Telegraph is exposing fraudsters across the political spectrum.)

Since the publication of these expense claim details, with name, amount and a copy of the receipt, exasperation has suffused the country and quickly spread to distant shores. The Nigerian anti-corruption activist mentioned above is just one example. I, on the other hand, am too busy considering the various implications of the scandal to get overly infuriated about it. The ramifications are manifold and too many questions are bouncing around my head.

How are parliamentarians' costs reimbursed in other countries, for example. Every member of parliament has to be in two places, his home constituency and the place where parliament is held. Is there a parliament's dorm in Berlin? Are nights at the Capitol Hill Hilton reimbursed in the US? I don't know, but it can surely not be expected of politicians to pay their own way. How is this regulated?

Another questions concerns a knee-jerk reaction by some pathologically over-sensitive politicians. They called for a police investigation to establish the identity of the person responsible for the leak to the newspaper of the information, and this really riles me. How can you go after someone that points out how rotten a system is, unless you're so irreversibly entangled in the system that you cannot hope to ever extricate yourself.

An investigation will go ahead, it has been reported, but not into the identity of the whistle-blower. Instead, all parliamentary expense claims submitted within the last few years will be scrutinized and validated. In the near future, the whole system is liable to be overhauled. Herein lies a clear positive aspect of this story. Democracy is healthy and very strong in the U.K. The BBC is sharply attuned to public opinion and stunningly capable of giving it a voice. There is very little politicians can get away with. The magnitude of the outcry over the recent shenanigans is a powerful reminder of how strong democracy is here, of what a great place to live this is. And the radio rocks.

Friday, May 08, 2009

mind your language

While browsing for nothing in particular, I came across an unintentional nugget of wisdom, a textbook example of poor writing exposed by time. I quote from Macworld, the Macintosh-focused magazine with the largest circulation in North America and sister publications all around the world. Macworld is certainly an authority in the field of personal computing, especially when it comes to the products from Cupertino.

In 2000, the utterly unqualified reporter Tom Negrino, spectacularly inept with words, wrote a little review of a web browser that had just come out. The article that can still be found on Macworld's website states:

Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5 is not only the best Web browser ever released for the Macintosh, but also arguably the best Web browser ever released for any computing platform.

Never mind that Internet Explorer was never released for the majority of computing platforms. It doesn't run under Linux, SGI, HP Unix, DEC Alpha – and those are only the ones I'm familiar with. More relevant is that I have been using Macintoshes for four years, and I have never once encountered this browser. I wonder how it can happen that I don't know of the existence of the best browser ever? Not even my Thinkpad, happily running Windows, has Internet Explorer 5 installed.

I could go on, but you get the point. Mind your words when you write for an audience (or even if you just talk to your neighbor). Ever means ever. If you want to say something is the best so far, what's holding you back? Just say it. Language can be clear, but it requires a little effort.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

between books

Today I took three books back to the bookstore. I had read each one of them; I had liked them somewhat but found much to complain about. In other words, it they were inspiring reads but nothing I would want to keep on my bookshelf to feel good about or brag with. My bookshelf is overflowing anyway.

Is it a sign of recessionary times that I take books back to the store after reading them, you might ask. Not exactly. You know that I get my books almost exclusively from the charity store, giving a little donation (whose magnitude is helpfully suggested on the inner cover of the book) in exchange for a few well-worn pages. I always find that I get the better half of the deal.

So today I went back to donate three books that I had purchased half a year earlier and long since finished reading, unorthodox economic studies that were publishing phenomena but didn't do much for me (Freakonomics, Wisdom of Crowds, The Tipping Point). Oxfam can sell them again – and I have done my part helping the world.

On the way to the bookstore, five minutes from college, I received a phone call from the agency managing my apartment. I had asked them earlier what the protocol is for terminating the lease. Do I have to write or is a call enough? One month before the first of the month, or one month before the day I want to move out?

I had asked these questions tongue-in-cheek. On the one hand, I really wanted to know because I'm considering moving. It is not something I'd do with enthusiasm; there's too much work and expense involved. But there are a few things amiss with my place, a few flaws that make me consider leaving. If they were fixed I would gladly stay.

On the other hand, I wanted to see how the agency reacted, if they'd ask why I wanted to leave, if they'd try to make me stay. With migrant workers leaving the U.K. in droves, the rental market is apparently not as bubblicious as it was two years ago. Nevertheless, the agent disappointed me bitterly. He gave me the information about how to terminate the contract and that was it. No questions, no interest, nothing.

However, today on the phone, he sounded much different. He said he hadn't received my letter yet. Obviously – I hadn't sent it. I haven't even made up my mind yet. I told him that I'm still looking around, whereupon which he wanted to know what I was looking for, and pretty soon we were talking money. He basically asked me how much rent I wanted to pay and, after a few backs and forths, agreed to suggest to the landlord decreasing rent by 75 pounds. I would have to commit for another year.

I haven't made such commitment, and I haven't heard from the landlord, but it would be a sweet deal and perfectly painless. On the other hand, there are still the things that need fixing. Even if the landlord consents to ripping me off less this coming year, I'd probably ask to talk to him, to walk him through the flat and point the things out I don't like and see how receptive he is to my ideas for improvement. Once this is done, I can agree on a new contract – with a substantially decreased rent. How likely that is I don't know. A year ago, such bargaining would have been impossible and got you kicked out in no time. These days, with the property market slowly approaching normalcy, it might just work.

Contemplating my options, I arrived at the Oxfam and handed over the three volumes I was returning. I had just enough time to make a quick round of the shop before I had to head back, but even in the shortness of time I couldn't fail to notice a certain massive tome with a conspicuous cover. Best American Short Stories of the Century contains what the title promises, according to the literary taste of John Updike. The stories are distilled from 85 annual Best American Short Stories collections, of which I already own one. I happily made a little donation and left the store with as much baggage as I had entered it, but with something infinitely more presentable for the shelf.

Monday, May 04, 2009

art and science

One of the most underrated museums in London is the Wellcome Collection. It is not on the tourist track and its location near King's Cross doesn't lend itself to deafening foot traffic. It doesn't have Tate or National in its name, and its presence goes mostly unnoticed. Once aware of it, though, you're bound to return.

The Wellcome Trust, the UK's largest charity and strongest supporter of biomedical research not only runs the Collection but also pays my salary every month. It is for this prosaic reason that I was curious about the organization, and when London Open House came around in 2007, I checked out their newly-built glass-and-steel headquarters. Besides an amazing sculpture of a hundred thousand glass balls suspended eight meters from the ceiling of the building's atrium, nothing attracted my attention. At some point I wandered, almost by accident, into the adjacent building.

I found myself in the Wellcome Trust's old headquarters that had been converted, in parallel with the opening of the new building, into a public exhibition space. The venerable Wellcome Library, which chronicles the history of medicine, had remained there and is also open to the public, but I have never been inside. The Wellcome Collection itself hosts two permanent exhibitions, Medicine Man and Medicine Now and a varying selection of temporary exhibitions, showing art from a scientific perspective or science through the eyes of an artist or art addressing scientific questions.

Currently, two temporary exhibitions explore the connection between mental illness and artistic expression. The first one focuses on Vienna in the early 1900s where Sigmund Freud had just developed his practice of psychoanalysis. He became quite a sensation, the display of mild mental conditions became fashionable among the higher classes, and serious efforts were made to house and treat those with serious mental illness. Sanatoria were constructed and scientific treatises publishes to popular success.

The first exhibition shows how artists, patrons and, lastly, patients expressed themselves against this backdrop. Most impressive to me were half a dozen self-portraits by Egon Schiele. His unique style of twisted features and contorted physiques is usually taken to kick-start the emerging expressionism. But how did it arise? The exhibition argued that Schiele projected then-prevalent notions of insanity onto himself and amalgamated them into his style. To me the drawings assumed an extremely powerful nature in that light, besides being stunning pieces of art.

A second exhibition charted the journey of performance artists Bobby Baker through depression, paranoia, psychosis, basically the whole spectrum of mental illness. After a frightening incident of self-harm, she admitted herself to a mental health day center and started a watercolor diary to chronicle her experience, which she intended to be shorts. Weeks turn into months and into years. In the end, she painted several hundred diary entries in spiral-bound drawing pads. 158 of them are on display in the show, in chronological order.

There is a cartoon-like, graphic quality about them, with bright colors and shapes outlined in pencil. What makes them extremely emotive is their sheer number and the dates written underneath each one. This woman battled demons for years. In the early drawings, there's a lot of aggressive red blood, then there's a phase with cascades of tears, sky-blue and optimistic-looking despite the obvious anguish. A lot of paint is spent analyzing the numerous health-care professionals that look after her. Amazingly, Baker managed to keep her art going and be successful, and to keep her family together throughout the years of struggle.

Or maybe it was her family that kept her together – that wasn't clear from the exhibition, which was so intensely personal that it was hard to judge objectively what was really going on. Everything was in the artist's head. And maybe the conclusion that must be drawn after this visit is that we as scientists still don't know what mental illness really is, how it can be treated adequately, how patients can be helped most effectively. Despite the latest brain-scanning and neuroimaging technologies, we still can't look into people's minds and see what they see. Time to go back to the lab.

Friday, May 01, 2009


How do you know you're getting old? I'm guessing that maturity, experience and wisdom are not reliable signs because while these characteristics depend on age, age does not depend on them. You can be a fool until you die, even if you die at 80.

I'm certainly still a fool. Everyone who runs marathons is one, and plenty are old. But with those guys, the really old ones, it is easy to tell. Their faces are emaciated, worn thin from sun and dehydration. Life has left their limbs, sticks of bone held together by nothing more than parched skin and a maze of tendons. I don't see myself in that category even after 42 kilometers.

In fact, this time around, I feel golden; infinitely, unbelievably better than last year when I couldn't walk for weeks and stayed away from running for half a year. The pain was unbearable. Today, in striking contrast, I felt good enough to go for a jog in the park, 10k with friends from work that had to slow me down because I was cruising. The only thing bothering me was a blister in the arch of my right foot, one blister that turned into two in the course of the run, but nothing major.

Right after the marathon, my thighs were all that hurt, much like they did the two times I scaled the Alpspitze without any preparation. The day after, I couldn't walk stairs down. I couldn't do so this time around either, but the pain only incapacitated me for three days.

Today in lab I showed a colleague how to use a particular instrument. The instrument was on another floor, in another lab whose occupants are young students, the spring chickens of science. Their presence irritated me greatly. One of the kids looks like a normal dude from a distance, spiky hair, frayed t-shirts, jeans and an attitude of haphazard carelessness. He looks like he discarded ambitions of climbing the ladder of traditional popularity a long time ago. His entire persona suggests that he doesn't care what other think of him.

This can be pretty cool if it's honest. But watch him for a while and you'll discover that his appearance is just a charade. I applaud his desire to build coolness from uncool, but he's trying so hard, so desperately that he makes a complete travesty of himself. Wearing Heelys everyday, gliding though the hallways with an aloof expression in your face is great for the king of kindergarten, but at a university?

I could rest my case here if this guy were my case, but this post is about age, and so I continue. The second thing that annoyed me in the lab today was the music that the kids were listening to, tunes that had their brief moment of fame but were already old when I was young. "Stop it", I was tempted to scream, "this teeny techno is rubbish." Every song, blasting from tinny computer speakers, irritated me more than the one before. I was glad when we were done, spitting impotent agitation as I left the floor like a cantankerous old man.

My lesson wasn't over. Back on our floor, my student was in the middle of planning extensive experiments. I reminded him that today was the last day of his project and that it was nearing six. The three-day weekend had basically started already. He wasn't even listening. "I could run native gels and we could do light scattering and I'll do another prep and I'll run the gel filtration column and I could work on the full-length construct and so much more, what do you think?" I thought a beer would be nice now or two but tried my best to guide him, guide him away from pathological ambition and towards happy finale. On Tuesday he has to start writing his report, but he's still going as if there were three weeks left.

I talked reason and humor, trying to get him to see the light, but he was blinded by youthful exuberance. During my Ph.D. I would have stayed till ten and helped him prepare a weekend of 14-hour days, but it was 6:15 now and I wanted to leave. And with every idea of his that I had to talk him out of, I felt a little older, suffering the heavy weight of routine where there used to be excitement.

So maybe age is in your head after all. Maybe there's a point when you lose the connection to those that are unambiguously young. Maybe at some point there won't just be a generation ahead of you that you look up to but also one behind that you look down upon with frequent bewilderment and occasional irritation. But maybe there's only two generations and I'm sitting in the middle and can't decide. That would really be something to get cranky about.