Saturday, August 29, 2009


Yesterday started a three-day weekend, the last of the year, affording me the chance of doing something I haven't done in ages: hang back and relax, wasting hours doing nothing, stepping firmly onto the quite side of life. During last week, I've been to Bristol twice and before that, two Italian friends of mine kept me company for a week. The days were filled with work and the nights with fun, and tiring it was.

Only a month ago, I returned from a two-week vacation, but not in the least rested. Two road trips in two different countries, the lack of repose, never staying more than two nights in one place – all took its toll. I was tired when I boarded the plane in Toronto. I disembarked even tireder at Heathrow, and I haven't recovered or rebuilt my strength. That's why I've been looking forward to this weekend.

The plan is to do nothing, to stay at home and go nowhere. Not to the Saatchi for its show of young American painting, not to the Proms for another concert and not to Camden Town for a multicultural and globe-spanning shopping tour. Also not to Whitechapel Gallery, even though this has been near the top of my to-do list ever since it opened several months ago.

Instead, I might clean out, as well as I can in a quick burst of activity, the jungle in my backyard and then spend hours in the deck chair that my neighbors have left between the weeds. With coffee and a generous supply of biscuits, I might read the books I took with me to Canada, never to even open them there. I might work a little on my homepage, give it a new face after its forced move from its past home at the University of Utah to its own spot in cyberspatial permanence. Or I might process the photos I took under garish light of former class mates at my high-school reunion nearly three months ago. I'm sure my friends would like to see them.

I will certainly spent some time in front my computer, tune the web to the iPlayer and watch a highly praised travel show on the Frankincense Trail or listen to Prom shows that I wish I hadn't missed. Of course I also have to prepare my own travels.

Less than a month from now, I'm going to the Middle East again. When I went last year, head-over-heels and almost out of nowhere, my sister was mighty disappointed she couldn't come. This year, we're doing it together but without the help of local friends. Now I have to reserve some rooms, rent a car, and plan a route. Most importantly, I have to make sure that the trip won't be too frantic and end up stuffed like a bell pepper. Vacations are supposed to be relaxing, after all.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Banksy, consummated

My last trip to Bristol, just five days ago, was a disaster, at least with respect to the original purpose of coming. The Banksy exhibition that I was interested in has grown in popularity beyond anyone's expectations and attracts ungodly crowds. We were turned away at the tail end of a long queue because the museum would close before we could reach its doors.

Last night, I was back in town, for one day only and with the sole objective of seeing the show. This morning, while everyone else was supposed to go to work, I joined the crowds anew. I arrived a bit later than originally planned but at a time I thought would get me in comfortably before the trip back to London, but what I saw quickly subdued my optimism. The end of the line couldn't be seen from the museum's entrance. It turned out to be very near where it was five days ago. The museum didn't open for another hour.

Soon, there was a commotion and with a shiver the line came alive and starting moving – slowly, in fits and starts, but determinedly and unidirectionally. People moved with it, but to most it seemed like a distraction. They were reading newspapers, having coffee, playing cards, or chatting animatedly. Some knitted, hopeful they would finish a scarf in a day. Those with comfort in mind had brought camping chairs and stretched their legs while everyone else stood. Several groups of street musicians entertained the masses and earned a quick pound. And every two or three minutes, the line jerked forward another five meters. The "Two hours to go" sign was quickly reached.

Things turned for the worse after that. The sun shone stronger and stronger, and a strange torpor fell over those waiting. Progress slowed down and seemed to come to a halt. The museum in sight, I nevertheless started to fear I would have to abandon my mission yet another time lest I should miss my bus.

My fretting was unnecessary. After nearly four hours, I reached the doors and entered the coveted halls just in time, though I had to hurry through the exhibit. What was there? Well, irony and self-deprecation in copious amounts, irreverence towards the art establishment, but also lots of creativity and talent. One room showed a staging of his studio. Stencils outlining his famous images were scattered on the floors and projects from hastily sketched idea to the photo of the result.

Another room was full of original images, graffiti on canvas, full of sarcasm and hidden wisdom. I liked the two malnourished children standing on a landfill in an unnamed third-world country. One of them wears a t-shirt that was undoubtedly distributed by a charity organization. I hate Mondays, it said, but what is a Western Monday to the grim existence of a child with no future? I had been a bit suspicious about the street confined to an Edwardian museum, but this worked, and his subversiveness remained intact. I could see him have his gallery selling gentrified graffiti-on-canvas, while he was out spraying the real deal on walls, illegally.

The exhibition was smoothly integrated in the museum, and most rooms showed what they always show, local history, ancient history, natural history, and art, but there was a hidden twist. The floor dedicated to paintings had Banksy's take on masterpieces sprinkled throughout. Mary with an iPod, Des Glaneuses with one of the grain pickers cut out and sitting on the frame, taking a smoke break and, hilariously, a Damian Hirst Dot Painting, Improved by adding a rat with a paint roller painting the dots over in gray.

The official exhibition brochure calls Banksy "one of the region's most overrated artists", a valuation his is obviously proud of and massively cracked up about. One of his paintings shows a cartoon-style stick figure looking down to the bottom right of the image. Above the little dude is a speech bubble reading "You have got to be kidding me...", and off the bottom of the frame dangles a price tag of £10,000. I have no doubt someone would buy this in an instant. But for all his success, for all the hype surrounding him, I can totally see him (or her, who knows) sitting at home and laughing his/her ass off about all the craze and about all the nutters that queue for four hours to see his show.

What was clear from even a quick run through the museum is that Banksy is a highly talented artist who deserves big exhibitions. How this might happen in light of his desire for anonymity is the big question. I hope he will come to London at some point, taking over the Turbine Hall or even Battersea Power Station. Until then, I'm happy to have seen the exhibition, even if I had to rush through in thirty minutes. It was a monumental event.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Banksy vs. me

This weekend I went to Bristol, a city of half a million people two hours west of London that used to be an important slave trading port in the dark ages. These days, the city is more likely to emphasize its cultural achievements (Wallace and Gromit, Massive Attack, the Arnolfini), though Edward Colston's name still (dis)graces many buildings.

I had come for art of a particular kind, the kind that normally graces walls before it gets painted over mercilessly. Banksy, the famously anonymous graffiti artists, comes from Bristol, and his stenciled pieces have shown up on more and more walls since city authorities relented to public opinion and didn’t remove the lucky escape at the Sexual Health Clinic on Park Street, which I had seen on an earlier trip. After an inspired Google Maps search, we spent Saturday chasing around town in search of murals, and saw a good handful. It was exhilarating, like a treasure hunt.

narrow escape

Sunday was supposed to be a day at the museum. At the City Museum, more precisely, where Banksy vs. Bristol Museum has been going on for the last three months. The exhibition, and with it the official recognition of Banksy by the city of Bristol, had arrived out of nowhere. In June, the museum closed for three days, for filming, as the public and non-essential staff were told. When the doors opened again, a bomb of creativity and irreverence had detonated in the venerable halls of the museum, and nothing was as it had been. The exhibition is free, and crowds have been lining up since the first day. Those that could be bothered to wait for an hour during the first month now grudgingly do so for three or four. There's only one more week before the exhibition closes.

On Saturday night, we went to a milonga in town and found out, incidentally, that on Sundays no buses run to the place where we were staying with friends, half an hour outside of town. Our friends were ready to drive us but not at the hour that we would have liked. Eight would have been nice, but when you don’t get back home before two, that’s a lot to ask even of good friends. We bargained them down to ten.

At half past eleven, we were dropped off in a side street near the museum, at the end of a long line of people buzzing with anticipation. A member of the museum staff, grim and sullen in his black uniform, welcomed us and told us that the sign we could see half a block down the road denoted the point from which the wait was expected to be five-and-a-half hours. Last admission would be at 4:30. He didn’t encourage us to stay.

We didn’t budge immediately. The force of the disappointment had made us momentarily motionless. We got absorbed in the crowd and weighed our options. Should we stay or should we go. On the one hand was a day strolling through an attractive city with charming historic quarters, was the opportunity to admire the glorious Clifton Suspension Bridge not drenched in rain, were coffee shops waiting for our business. On the other hand was the faint possibility of seeing a street artist confined in a museum.

Even if the artist had chosen to confine himself, the decision was relatively easy to make. After a dark five minutes spent grieving in line, feeling as if a deer friend has just departed, we put on our happy faces and sauntered off into the sunny afternoon. In Banksy vs. me, the score was 1:0, but the game wasn’t over yet. There’s still a week to go, and some spontaneous craziness on my part might yet happen.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

fetching a fork

Starting a blog is easy – sign up with blogger, choose your name and hammer out the first post in a burst of exuberance. Keeping it going is much harder. It requires dedication, passion and, when that's not enough, sheer dogged persistence, the bloody will to pull narratory rabbits out of nonexisting hats. With this approach, I've turned this blog from a fitful curiosity that would make unannounced visits into a rather well-fed regular, and I'm enjoying myself.

At the same time, I'm sometimes wondering what I'm writing for or, to pose the reverse question, what I could gain if I wrote differently. My experience in life is obviously science. That's what I've been doing for more than ten years now, that's what I spend most of my waking hours thinking about. And every once in a while, in a lull in my cerebral activity, the same thought pops into my mind. Shouldn't I be writing about science?

Science writing is a grislier beast than leisurely personal blogging, and I've shied away from it thus far. I have an account with Nature Network and could set up a targeted science blog just as easily as I opened the one you're reading, but I haven't done it. I'm held back by the impossibility of the double commitment and, to a lesser extent, the seriousness of the endeavor, a double-edged sword. I couldn't help but take science blogging very seriously indeed. Among the readers that Nature Network attracts are potential future employers, in the fields of academic science or scientific writing, and representatives of grant-giving bodies. Fear-inducing and motivation-boosting, this is not something to take lightly.

It would also be no place to indulge in the gratuitous use of the word fuck, which is indeed what the rest of this post is about.

Fuck, the audience thinks, is a clear sign of a limited vocabulary and a frightening lack of eloquence. Shut up already. But I won't shut up, and I'm not saying fuck because I can't think of something better, something more precise or descriptive. Each word in this post has been picked with utmost care, and fuck does in fact describe astonishingly well what I'm going to say.

The other day I read about a research project whose goal it was to test whether there was any inherent benefit to inspired swearing. Specifically, a bunch of college students were asked to stick a hand in a bucket of ice water and leave it there until they couldn't take it no longer. The first time around, they were only allowed the power of their will and required to sit in silence as the pain increased and quickly became unbearable. For the second experiment, the volunteers were encouraged to swear as loudly and passionately as they could.

The results were unambiguous. Swearing helped the students endure the pain of a freezing hand much longer. Better yet, it made them feel the pain less. Directly responsible for this was the act of swearing. Yelling neutral words had no effect at all. Digging a bit deeper, the researchers found that their subjects' heart rates increase when they started swearing. They seemed to enter a state of heightened alert.

Fuck, then, is nothing else but a sophisticated (and you'd never thought you'd read this adjective describe the word fuck) articulation of the warthog's grunt when it jumps in panic to escape a hunting lion or the lion's roar when he explodes into a merciless chase after the unfortunate warthog. Fuck is an evolutionarily developed way of coping with extreme stress and pain.

But while the judicious use of swearwords can be extremely beneficial, the authors are quick to point out that the effect wears off. Men, who tend to swear more than women, especially when repairing cars or watching football, gained less from uttering profanities in the study. Their freezing hands hurt nearly as much as when they were silent. The benefits of swearing had most likely been stunted by overuse.

So far, so good. Interesting little bit of research, but only good enough for NeuroReport, a rather obscure journal. I got my Ph.D. at the University of Utah, and reading about this study I immediately had an idea of how to take it to the next level. With some luck, there might even be an IgNobel Prize around the corner.

In Salt Lake City, I was surrounded for six years by Mormons, fellows so gentle and friendly that I couldn't help but start considering myself a honorary member of their cult. There was only one thing that always disturbed me. Mormons swear like sailors, but in disguise. Open expletives are against Church policy and apparently the Lord's will, and never heard. Instead, young Mormons turn innocuous words like fork and fetch into offensive curses. When they use these words, it's obvious from the context that they're swearing, no matter what they say.

The notion that God could be tricked so easily always elicited convulsive laughter in me, but the really interesting question is whether the Mormons manage to trick themselves. Take volunteers in Utah or from your local LDS ward house and perform the same experiment as above. Ask them to scream fork and fetch. Does their heart rate rise. Does the pain stay bearable? Is it swearing?

Alternatively, if you believe in doing things yourself, you can just scream the word fork in quick repetition. What do you hear? Don't say it. It's not something that's fit for my blog.

Monday, August 10, 2009

gift exchange

When I came home tonight, after opening the front door to the deteriorating Victorian conversion where I reside, my eyes fell onto an thick white envelope with my name on it. I was surprised. It didn't look like anything commercial. My name was written in ink and by hand. Had anyone belatedly remembered my birthday and sent me a wonderful gift, I wondered. Then I recognized the handwriting. It was my own.

Now I really started to wonder. How pathetic am I? Did I send myself a birthday present? And why so late – did I forget my own birthday? I carried the padded envelope into my apartment, my head softly shaking with bafflement. Slowly the origin of the letter dawned on me. I had sent it, about a month ago, to my mom, for her birthday. In it were a card and two CDs. It turned out the letter was returned because it had the wrong address on it, her old address, of six years ago, which is different from the current one only by a number and a letter, but that was enough to derail delivery.

The good thing was, it could have come worse. A frustrated mailman could have thrown the letter into the rubbish bin or taken it home and enjoyed sweet music. Instead, I had it back and could send it again, making sure to correct the address first. But first first, I'd rip both CDs. A month earlier, there was no time, not even the few moments to slide a disk into a computer and press the burn button. My head was everywhere else, trying to get stuff ready for the conference and things organized and packing. The next day, I slept from exhaustion on the plane.

Now I'd have all the time in the world. I opened the envelope, slicing through a sealed plastic bag that contained it. A label informed me that the envelope had unfortunately been damaged, but Deutsche Post had taken great pains to ensure the integrity of the shipment by enclosing it in this transparent pouch. I was reassured, tipped the torn envelope aslant and let the contents slide out.

Now my head started bopping in bafflement again. I didn't remember gift-wrapping the CDs. Surely there had been no time. And I didn't recognize the wrapping. What was going on? Who was playing tricks? I shredded the thin paper and held, in trembling hands, a set of twelve tea-lights, red, strawberry-scented, and made in England.

That was two hours ago, and I still have no explanation. As I reordered the CDs from Amazon, having them sent directly to my mom's correct address, I tossed hypotheses around my head. Has someone stolen my CDs? But why the birthday card? And why put something back into the envelope? And why gift-wrap it?

It seems most likely that there was a little accident in a sorting office and several letters spilled open. Some unlucky postal worker tried to puzzle the contents back and didn't get it right. And some lucky bastard is now listening to the CDs that I still haven't ripped to my computer. At least I got a post for my dormant blog out of it, something I didn't expect when I walked into my house this evening.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

flying back

It is shortly past midnight. The craze of a long evening at the airport, of madness at check-in and chaos at security, has finally calmed down. The flight attendants have passed through the aisles with generous offerings of food and drink. I'm enjoying a gin and tonic as I did on my way out. This time, sadly, I got no Bombay Sapphire, but with double shots how can I complain?

The drinks, and Moby on my iPod, are putting me in the right mood to spend the next six hours unconscious, trying to make the flight as painless as possible. But before I drift off into the psychedelically colored cushions of the airplane's seats, I want to record the memories of the past three weeks that are bouncing around in my head.

The conference was scientifically sound and some of the talks positively inspiring. Unfortunately, the days were so crammed with talks that there wasn't nearly enough time for socializing, chatting and networking, which is undoubtedly the main point of going to a conference. Otherwise, one might just watch live casts or recordings on the internet and save a lot of money and travel time.

The road trip through Ontario and Québec was good, though not spectacular in any way. Montréal and Québec City are both charming, but the true beauty and appeal of Canada lie in its outdoors. Of those, we didn't see much. The day we had set aside for hiking was drowned by unseasonable rains.

It had also started off in a horrid motel, and the stark contrast between the tattered room and the breathtaking landscape beyond its soiled windows made me question my way of traveling which, over the last few years, has become more grown-up and mainstream and less concerned about saving every last little penny. After crossing over into the U.S. (and after visiting the spectacular, awesome, in one word, unmissable Niagara Falls), I found out what I've been missing.

I spent four days in the Adirondacks, a moutainous region in New York state covered with dense forests and dotted with countless beautiful lakes. First, I stayed with a couple I had befriended in Salt Lake. I hadn't seen them in more than four years, but sitting on the floating dock in front of their camp at Big Moose Lake with a cool Saranac Lake Ale in hand, there was an immediate and intimate connection, as if we did this every weekend.

The next morning, I was gently but firmly awoken at six to go canoe before the ripples of motorized traffic scarred the dark green mirror of the lake. We glided across the water in near silence, the soft splashes of two paddles the only audible sign of our presence. That was enough for a blue heron to get spooked from his place of nocturnal rest, but the loons didn't seem to mind too much.

From Big Moose Lake it was only a short two-hour drive to Lake Placid where I was to meet my graduate-school roommate of two years and his sister, both of whom I hadn't seen in years. Sean had booked a canvas cabin at the Adirondack Loj and promised to bring the mountain bike formerly owned by his wife.

It was the same bike I had ridden the day of their wedding, when I dismayed Sean with my verdict of wet east-coast roots that he thought would proof deadly to me, metaphorically speaking. Not much different from sand-covered slick-rock, I said, and gloated about all the fun I had while he prepared to get married. This bike is the best I've ever ridden and it helped me easily clear all the muddy trails, watery holes, two-foot drops, roots and leaves that we encountered this time around.

Conditions for riding were far from perfect. It has rained all July and the terrain was soaked. Fifteen minutes into our Friday ride, we were dripping wet and our legs black from the mud. We had a blast. I decided there and then that the next city I move to will need to have good mountain biking close by. It's just too much fun to live without.

But the fun of blasting through the woods on a Canadian fully did not compare to the fun we had before and after the rides, hanging out in Lake Placid, by Mirror Lake or on our campsite. We chatted for hours, reveling in memories of our glorious past, reviving heroic stories of snow riding in the Wasatch or mountain biking in the desert, and enjoying the company of dear friends.

When I don't see friends for years, there comes a point when I wonder how things are between us. In emails, it always feels like always, as if no time had passed at all, but I'm never so sure. I'm suspicious that the positive replies I always get to my suggestions for get-togethers owe more to my stubborn persistence than to lasting friendships. In the case of the couple from Salt Lake and of Sean and Stacy, I found out that nothing had coming between us, and that good friendships don't die easily.

There is no doubt that the sojourn in the U.S. was the high point of my summer vacation. I could lean back and fall asleep in sweet memories, but there's one thing that's keeping me awake on my flight back. How I can keep staying in close contact with the friends I've acquired over the years in different places and who, themselves, have scattered all over the place? I'll have to travel more and you guys, please, come visit me.