Monday, November 30, 2009

cooking science

I was digging in the dark underneath the desks in the office, threading category-five cables around table legs, splicing them into thick braids and plugging them into the battery of jacks in the wall in an attempt to stop the networking from not working when a sudden commotion of feet almost hurt me fatally. Chairs were pushed back simultaneously, and people leapt up and ran off, chattering agitatedly. After diligently connecting the last cable, I resurfaced with a questioning look on my face. The lab had gone for a talk, I was informed by one who had stayed behind, on cooking.

Any other day, this answer would have completely mystified me. It's not as if Imperial had much to do with gastronomy. But today, upon hearing seemingly incongruous words, understanding clicked in my head. The talk in question was given by Hervé This, director of the molecular gastronomy group at AgroParisTech and developer of some of the crucial concepts of molecular cooking. I had booked two tickets for the talk a fortnight earlier. Now just five minutes remained to make it across to the auditorium.

When I got there, it was nearly packed to capacity. Professor This was obviously popular. I had never heard his name before but I had encountered the term molecular cooking, in reference to two acclaimed restaurants – The Fat Duck a few leagues outside of London and El Bulli on a deserted stretch of the Costa Brava – and their way of whipping up culinary wizardry. I had mostly been skeptical and had gone to the talk to see what was behind the hype.

Hervé This had set out, in the 1980s, to discover and understand the processes at the interface of chemistry and physics that take place when a dead cow is transformed into a juicy steak or an egg into an omelette, or when milk, sugar and flower join hands to create a cake. In the process, and over the years, he had learned how to modify seemingly pedestrian systems to create the most startling effects.

The talk was a Powerpoint presentation generously interspersed with practical demonstrations that were live-cast onto the big screen behind the podium and workbench. This whipped egg whites up with water to create voluminous foams, but he wasn't a pastry chef. He was a scientist, a devoted physical chemist full of questions. What determines the maximal volume one egg white can be whipped up to? What happens if you use orange juice instead of water? Or coffee? What if you heat the foam in a microwave?

He demonstrated the last one. The water bubbles trapped in the foam come to a boil. Evaporation causes the foam to expand; heat causes it to solidify. After fifteen seconds, he knocked from his beaker a fluffy cylinder that wouldn't taste like much but could be the carrier for anything, the above-mentioned orange juice, for example. More can be done with eggs, all to answer the question, What if? Whip them up with oil and heat them, fry them and uncook them with a strong reducing agent, or poach them in alcohol.

The last experiment was done with laboratory-grade ethanol, but any strong liquor would do. This claimed to be using Scotch Whisky, which was oddly fitting given that it was St. Andrew's Day, the Scottish national holiday. Outside the fair island of Great Britain, it has probably not registered, and it doesn't matter, but Scotland aspires to be an independent nation. Breaking free from from the yoke of England is the goal of the Scottish National Party, the strongest party in the Scottish Parliament.

My opinion matters even less than Scottish independence, but I'm all for it. It would make a bunch of funny-speaking people very happy, and the only difference for me to notice would be a lighter tax bill. And if the import of Scotch Whisky were suddenly taxed, I'd buy the Irish variety and could poach an egg just the same.

The ovular overture set the stage nicely. The experiments could be admired by people without any scientific background. However, This insisted that this was not fun. He kept posing questions, the answers to which he happily admitted not knowing, and made the audience think. Why do we cook, why do we cook the way we cook, and how could we prepare food differently for maximized taste and texture? More chemistry and physics are needed to contemplate these questions than you would ever imagine.

Take a dish that a famous chef and friend of This's cooked, smoked salmon with grapefruit jelly. The salmon smells but the jelly tastes. How to give the dish the taste of smoked salmon but the fresh smell of grapefruit? This kind of reengineering is called molecular cooking. Taken to the extreme, it means extracting exactly and only the desired flavors and recombining them with appropriate carriers to give bite and shape. This is what's happening at The Fat Duck and El Bulli, if I understand correctly.

I won't find out soon because I don't have a reservation for either restaurant, but I am motivated to try my luck with foamy eggs infused with foreign flavors. I hope to have a microwave, which I'd need to give these dishes structure, in the kitchen of my new apartment. Of course, I'd have to find an apartment first. Good thing the network is back up.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

hunting house

Two weeks ago, I sent notice that I would vacate my apartment right before Christmas. The decision took shape when increasingly desperate appeals for necessary maintenance and upgrades of the apartment were met with something worse than a deaf ear. For months I heard sweet words of projects just about to start, and would I just be a little bit more patient?

My patience had run out. The flat is still nearly as nice as when I moved in, but it also still has the same flaws, notably broken windows and poor thermal insulation. In addition, increasing amounts of humidity have recently crept in, threatening not only wallpapers and carpets, but also my clothes and electronics. With the landlord refusing to take action, I had to.

For about a week now, I've been on top of the rental market in the W12 and W14 postcodes. The experience hasn't been in the least satisfactory. I have called a number of agencies and viewed a handful of properties. They were all advertised, without fail, as spacious, nice, and good value for money. All were disappointments.

On Thursday I caught a brief glance of a one-bedroom at the tail end of fashionable Portobello Road. The tenants hadn't left yet and clearly resented the invasion of their privacy. The agent was aware of this and very considerate. We didn't spend more then thirty seconds in the flat. This probably made the tenants happy, but didn't give me much time to look around. The only impression I could form was that I was being rushed. I chucked the property off my list before I even left it, about 27 seconds into the viewing.

On Friday I saw two more places, on one of which I had pinned high hopes. It was in a desirable area, dating back to Edwardian times when building standards were considerably higher than during the Victoria period that preceded it. In Victorian times, London's urban poor were moved from the slums they inhabited to quickly constructed cheap hovels meant to last for a few decades. They stand to this day, a hundred and twenty years on, their decrepitude only poorly concealed under thick layers of heavy paint.

The Edwardian building I rode up to looked nice, the agent drove up in a Mercedes, and there was space to park my bike. I was ecstatic. When the door was unlocked and opened, I entered the paradise that had formed in my imagination – and was rudely yanked from my dreams. The kitchen was relatively large but old. Someone had shoved a sagging sofabed next to the fridge to create the illusion of a living room. Where I would put a painting or some art acquired on my travels hung the boiler. A generous storage closet was filled wall-to-wall with a mattress. This was the bedroom. The surface area of the entire apartment was hardly more than twenty square meters. My disappointment was almost physically painful. Wincing audibly, I left. I ran.

And yet, what I had just seen was nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing was obviously broken or rotten. Spacious accommodation is rare. Kitchens turned to living rooms, deceptively called open-space kitchen reception areas, are quite common. I have my own ideas, though. I don't want to see dirty dishes when I kick back to watch a movie, or hear laundry slosh around the washing machine. I also need space for books, clothes and stuff accumulated over the years. I fear that it's going to be a tough slog to find the right place.

Hope comes from an encounter I had three weeks ago, while I was still only toying with the idea of terminating my lease. I wanted to see what was out there, get an impression of what could be expected in case I make the jump, and saw two apartments. One was on the second floor of an Edwardian building in a quiet side street. Large and empty, it was nearing the end of thorough overhaul. The carpet was brand-new. The kitchen had just been redone and contained all new appliances.

It was clear to me that I had a good deal before me. What kept me from putting a hold deposit down there and then were the cracked windows and the lack of furniture. That, and the fact that I was holding the lease to another flat. Now it feels like something of a missed opportunity. With less than four weeks to go, would another brilliant place please come up?

Friday, November 27, 2009

ethics in words

Over the last two years, I've been quite happy to amble to the Oxfam bookstore about once a week, to check out their latest arrivals, and I've been a good customer. Of the twenty-one books I've acquired this year, a full seventeen have been handed to me in return for a small donation (and several have found their way back onto the same shelves after I was done reading them).

Oxfam is unlike other bookstores in many ways. It is run by a recognized and respected charity and sells books people donate. Each store is small – with the exception of the flagship in Marylebone – and carries a very limited and totally random selection, which for me is part of the appeal.

Of course it's nice to get what looks like a brand new copy of a recent bestselling paperback for two pounds, three pounds at most. Of course it's pleasant to do good while you spend, sending pounds down to Africa to help people endure the atrocities of tribal warfare or the famines caused by corrupt governments just a bit longer.

But before the altruistic and thus highly satisfying action of handing over the money that I'm not going to miss comes the thrill of discovery. My eyes expertly scan shelves they have seen countless times, looking for a difference, a spine that wasn't there the week before, a name imprinted on the to-read list in my head.

Never has shopping felt so good, and I could have easily turned my brain off and settled into the bliss of smug self-righteousness. But I can't help thinking – and I like to write – and I made a disturbing connection. It occurred to me that buying books second-hand is not much different from downloading music illegally or copying chapters from a friend. The unsurpassable prices come at the cost of no compensation for either creators or publishers. How ethical is that?

There are a hundred arguments that this is no problem. Buying new is no necessity. The capitalist system might be dependent on excessive and ever-increasing consumption, but that doesn't mean everyone is forced to buy in. There's nothing healthier than people giving away things they don't need anymore, and a business model based on the facilitation of redistribution is a natural extension of that attitude. Looked at it philosophically, books, like ideas, should travel and spread.

And yet, quite a few arguments can be made against the Oxfam stores. With their volunteers and the free stock they drive commercial second-hand book sellers out of business. They also, eventually, reward need and not ability by siphoning money from writers into the bottomless financial bogs of humanitarian aid.

As so often, there are many sides to this story. I've decided to rediscover the one that's less familiar to me. This weekend, I'll break with tradition and buy a book in a regular bookstore. Good thing Foyles offers 15% off.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

more sleep

A zombie is traversing town, dragging his heavy body through narrow lanes full of tribesmen billowing to the sounds of the shopping dance. He staggers down an alley with stiff legs, as if walking on stilts. His gaze is firmly directed at an infinity that is eclipsed by the urban landscape. He is a world of one, oblivious of the bustle of heated commercial activity, a mechanic man in a soup of floppy toys.

I notice him when he bounces into a flock of elderly ladies with silver hair and shopping bags of nauseating fluorescent beige. I raise my head and look through the foggy windows of a cozy teahouse when I hear the dull chatter of subdued anger, an emotion that the British are masterfully adept at expressing stealthily. A scene of minor mayhem unfolds outside.

After smashing into the first two ladies and nearly spilling them onto the wet cobbles, the zombie just marches on, not noticing the hot hisses of reproach behind him. A few moments later, he is gone, engulfed by the Sunday-afternoon crowd that fills the space between the shops to either side most efficiently. The physics are bewildering.

Crowd displacement is a science that is poorly understood and incompletely reconciled with the fundamental laws of nature. The motions of individuals in a sea of people cannot be modeled and the ramifications of two streams of people on collision course cannot be predicted. Immobile object add another level of complexity. Outside the coffee shop remains the gaggle of lady shoppers, bewailing the cruel attack they have fallen victim to. While they are still collecting themselves in a way that, again, only the British are capable of, the crowd sweeps them up and washes them away, towards the lights of Regent Street.

Darkness set in hours ago, swallowing the skies overcast with sadness, but it is not night yet. Star-shaped nets weaved from points of light stretch between the buildings on either side of the street. A constant blue twinkle dribbles sluggishly from the swaying meshes, replacing distant stars invisible behind invisible clouds.

Darkness has contracted the space above the pre-Christmas rush. Façades are lit to the third floor at most, and beyond the carpet of light that blankets Regent Street, the void of space remains unseen. The town has been compacted into two dimensions, oppressing anyone who attempts to walk with his head held high.

I look up again. The zombie is still there, but the window is different this time. Warm clothes for the Scottish gentry are draped over boxes of sienna and ochre. I'm outside, looking in and realize that I stare at my reflection. The zombie is me. Cold, wet, cross-eyed and dead-tired, I've been erring through Central London for the past hour and a half. I've been looking for a coffee shop to warm up and for a quick nap, but all tables were occupied and all seats taken.

Now I'm left with Tartan vests and cardigans. Suddenly, a 94 screeches to a halt next to me, yanking me from my textile reverie. With a terminal effort, all that I'm capable of today, I climb aboard, struggle upstairs and slouch into a seat. My head, already unconscious, bangs against the window with a thud. While the bus takes me west, I dream of sleep.

Friday, November 20, 2009

early morning

My alarm rang at 7 this morning, loudly, but not piercingly enough to cut through the thick layer of sleep shrouding me from the world outside my dreams. Nearly an hour later, I jumped out of bed in a mad frenzy of the body, though my mind was still suffused with soporific lethargy. I hopped on my bike and rode to College to meet a friend for a writer's breakfast.

Note that I said writer's breakfast, not writers' breakfast. My friend is not only astonishingly skilled with the pen but also a rich reservoir of creativity from which the most unexpected thoughts spring freely. She had just come back from a creative nonfiction writing workshop and was eager to put some of the strategies for increasing output and productivity suggested there into practice.

Ours was a variation on the theme of morning pages. Traditionally, one would sit down every morning and write two or three pages of random stuff, not with the intent of publishing but simply as an exercise. Like a fictional diary or a rough blog that no one will ever read. I guess the idea is to write profusely about anything that comes up and to collect material that might later come in handy when penning larger pieces. Creating your own source material, in a way.

This is quite a bit different from how I use the blog, though quiet similar to what I had initially intended. The blog was supposed to be a writer's laboratory, an incubator for originality and an immediate workshop for the training of my paltry skills. Write often, quickly and spontaneously was to be the motto. Improvement will inevitably come with practice.

I write often and sometimes spontaneously but never quickly. It takes me as long to edit a post as it takes to write it in the first place. The reason is that I write for an audience, though I'm loth to admit it and never planned to. Over the years, the only change I've noticed in my writing is that it's become more prolix, with a-thousand-page posts nothing out of the ordinary. Something clearly went wrong. I took this morning as a change for redress.

The problem is that I am not very creative. Sitting down behind the bluish screen hovering above my coffee, I chose the most straightforward and predictable topic conceivable. Staring into eternity beyond the white wall of the library café didn't inspire my imagination to run circles around reality. But at least it got me to writing, out of the blue, with no preformed thoughts in my head, in less than thirty minutes, a few paragraphs that I'm not afraid of showing. That's surely worth getting up early for.

on my way out

When I opened the door to my apartment this evening, a smell of cold, wet leaves greeted me. There's nothing wrong with such a smell on an autumnal walk through Holland Park, on an early Sunday morning before the sun rises above the mansions flanking the park's eastern boundary. But the wet slap hit me while pushing my bike into my bedroom, to its place of shelter for the night. My apartment is rather damp, with tendency to become positively dank when it's rainy outside.

It didn't rain, and yet the smell was there, fed by moisture creeping through floorboards sitting directly on the cold ground below. When I had moved into the apartment, two and a half years ago, all had seemed fine. The first winter was ok, besides some rather cool nights. During my second winter I noticed a drastic deterioration in the habitability of my residence. There's no point drawing out all the details. Suffice it to say that I vowed not to spend another winter here.

I've had all the time in the world to take the appropriate steps. Months upon months have passed, but I am still here. Early in the summer I contacted my agency to ask what it would take to end the lease and see how they would react. They didn't. They just told me. I was surprised. I had assumed the efflux of people cause by the recession and the return of migrant workers to their home countries had turned a highly dynamic place like London into a buyers market.

It had. A month after my initial call the agent called back to wonder that he still hadn't received my notice. I told him I was still wavering, whereupon he asked why I wanted to move out and what it would take to change my mind. We reached an agreement quickly and settled on a decrease in rent of nearly ten per cent. I figured that some extra money in my pocket wouldn't be all that bad, and winter was still far off. I was also happy to stay because I was about to leave for North America for three weeks and my lease would have ended during that time. With the renewal signed, I could sleep (and travel) without worries.

Over the last six weeks, summer has turned into a mild fall. I'm still happy about the money I'm saving each month on a very competitive rent. But I'm also upset that my concerns about windswept windows and moist walls haven't been answered, and I'm remembering my vow. Not only that, I've actually acted on it. This Tuesday, somewhat on the spur of the moment, I gave notice of my desire the end the tenancy agreement. The decision was a bit rushed because a month hence on that day, I'd be leaving for Christmas in Germany. It was literally my last chance.

I wasn't sure whether it had been the right decision. Moving is always a pain. It's not so much the leaving of a space I have grown fond of and become familiar with – I'm too much of a drifter to care about this – but rather the physical pain of moving all my stuff. Then there is the struggle of finding an apartment I like in an area that's convenient for cycling to work. And there is the substantial financial burden of a new deposit, a higher rent in all likelihood, and potentially overlapping leases. Should I have stayed on and braved the conditions?

When I opened the door to my apartment this evening, and a smell of cold, wet leaves greeted me, I grinned broadly and my spirits rose. It became blatantly obvious that I had done the right thing. I was filled with happiness at the thought of getting out of this damn place and finding something nicer, dryer, warmer, fresher. Now I just have to start looking.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

meat on the plate

A few weeks ago, Lord Stern, an authority on climate change, caused quite a stir in the land of our beloved Queen when he lectured royal subjects and the rest of the world in an interview with the Times: "Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better." People were up in arms. The government wants to take our meat away.

That's nonsense, of course. Lord Stern didn't speak as a government authority, and he probably doesn't want to take anyone's meat away. I'm convinced he wanted to cause some controversy and get people to think about what he considers an important subject. He was successful. I've followed his cue and been doing some thinking.

My first conclusion was that meat is tasty. I didn't have to think much about this. A life with a steak from Santa Maria del Sur is better than a vegetarian life, no matter what. Sushi from Hiro or Kiraku in Ealing can elevate spirits more than the most creatively prepared turnip. Whale carpaccio and reindeer filet in Norway or andouillette in France – vegetarians have no idea of what they're missing.

They knew what they're getting, though: a ride on the moral high horse. I've been on the receiving end of many a lecture on pointlessly suffering animals and detrimental effects of trans-fatty acids on human health. Now a new weapon has been added to the vegetarians' arsenal. Eating meat destroys our planet.

A lot of people thought that was taking it a bit far and came out forcefully to denounce Lord Stern's pronouncements and defeat the vilification of a diet that contains meat. The strategy employed by most commentators was that it's not the meat, it's the industrial way of producing it. With this I can agree, but only to an extent.

In the New York Times, the opinion of a "lawyer and livestock rancher" was published who found vegetarians just as guilty of heating the planet by eating soybeans grown on large swathes of land that used to be Amazonian rain forest – the same kind of soybeans that cows eat in much larger quantities, while belching and farting methane, so they can become a steak. I don't think this argument sticks. Another point was that everyone could just get meat from small farms that raise livestock in traditional ways that are not nearly as bad for the environment.

It's worthwhile putting a little farm with happy cows and pigs and a bunch of chattering chickens fluttering about the yard before your mind's eye. The farmer has a personal connection with each animal. He provides for them, feeds them and shelters them, and when their time has come he kills them most humanely. Idyllic, isn't it? Now picture McDonalds, selling millions of burgers each day. (Americans alone eat three cheeseburgers a week on average.) Will all that meat ever come from non-industrialized farms? Will fast-food chains and their customers be willing to pay what it costs to raise livestock slowly, ethically and in keeping with the environment?

I don't think so, and that's one of the crucial points of the discussion. The industrial production of meat might contribute to global warming, but changing that takes much more than saying, close the factories. There would be much less meat around, and prices would rise significantly. Add to that the fact that the number of meat eaters is actually increasing globally (owing to increased prosperity in developing countries), and it becomes clear that, as so often, change must begin in the head.

People must become aware of the consequences of eating a three-quid chicken or two burgers for two bucks. No one needs to become a vegetarian, but everyone should look at his or her meat consumption and decide whether it's sustainable and morally defensible. If behavioral change comes from these ruminations, Lord Stern is to be saluted.

It would be a rather vacuous post if all I did were copy articles from across the internet and regurgitate opinions. Lo and behold, there is some substance. Sometime this year, way before the current controversy erupted, I stopped eating chicken, mainly because most chicken tastes like the misery the birds endure in their caged hell-on-earth. How is it possible to raise a chicken on what the carcasses fetch in the stores later? I can imagine the living conditions. I can imagine them vividly by eating the chicken. It's in the taste, and it was the taste that made me abandon it.

This happened quite naturally, a decision stemming from a gut feeling, my taste imposing its will. But drenched by recent waves of public discussion, I've made another premature New Year's resolution. The first came to light nearly three weeks ago and concerned training with passion and running fast. Today's resolution concerns meat. Starting in 2010, I will only eat good meat from happy animals. I will stay away from chicken unless the bird was hand-raised by a loving farmer in Bresse, and I won't touch pigs from factories. That implies that I will eat vegetarian at the Imperial cafeteria until they convince me that they get their meat from sustainable sources. That also means asking for the provenience of meat at restaurants and maybe cooking more at home.

I questioned my eating habits for the first time in 2003, after reading Fast Food Nation, an eye-opening book. Interspersed between the gore and graphic violence of the slaughterhouses were inspiring episodes of ranchers lovingly grass-feeding their animals and deeply caring for them. Some ranches had websites with live-streams from their barns, so potential customers could verify the proper treatment of the animals. (They couldn't pick their favorite cow, though.)

When I, sufficiently enthusiastic about a farm in Park City that was mentioned in the book, went down to Wild Oats on Fourth South and inquired about grass-fed farm-raised beef, the guy behind the meat counter just stared at me blankly, and my enthusiasm waned (but I turned into a flexitarian). Now, six years and several green, organic and ethical hypes later, I'm sure that Whole Foods sells some fine steaks from hand-fed cows. They might not come cheap, but that's the point. Eat better, eat less, and pay the same. Save the planet by doing something good to yourself. Time to get my own high horse to joust the vegetarians from theirs.

Monday, November 09, 2009

glory night

Winter has come suddenly. The weekend was fine; it was even sunny on Saturday. But today, a harsh cold befell this town. After riding my bike home from work, I was frozen to the bone, my fingers numb and my chest paralyzed. Despite the physical pain, the cold is only superficial. My heart is warm with impossible memories, stories of a lifetime compressed into a few months. Twenty years ago today, the Wall came down.

It was the most important day of my life, it changed everything, and I, like every other East German, remember it as if it were only yesterday. With my family, I was sitting in front of the TV, following the evening news peter out to make way for one of the American action series that had recently arrived on our little black-and-white screen. The A-Team or Knight Rider or some such glorious monument of TV entertainment.

Our TV was tuned to RTL, a private West German station which, like any other West German station, East Germans weren't allowed to watch. Independent of the rules, in the Elbe valley where I lived we weren't able to watch them in the first place, shielded as we were from reception by the steep hills to either side of the river. However, around Easter of 1989, a huge parabolic antenna appeared mysteriously on top of the tallest building of our neighborhood. Henceforth, thanks to cables that were presciently laid when the building were constructed, a good 15,000 people could watch three officially illegal stations in all clarity, and countless kids would attend their Ideology and Interpretation of History classes in school with intellectual ammunition that their teachers didn't have and certainly didn't approve of. The installation of this satellite dish is my personal crucial moment because it showed clearly that things were not only changing but falling apart. A totalitarian system that can't keep its citizens' sources of information and thus opinions under tight control is doomed to fail.

RTL Aktuell, the news show, became our window to a new world, our voice of freedom, telling us about the storming of the embassies in Prague and Warsaw and about the cutting down of the Iron Curtain in Hungary. It told us about heroic demonstrations in Leipzig, swelling in numbers and courage every week, and about the official 40th birthday celebrations of our republic where the awkward guest of honor, Michail Gorbachev, received bold chants for help from dissidents that had crept into the parade.

Here's an aspect of recent history that's easily overlooked: Throughout its existence, East Germany was beholden to the Soviet Union. That huge country was always the model to emulate, its ideology pure and strong, its achievements breathtaking. It legitimized and protected our government and helped oppress dissent, sometimes brutally and sometimes subtly.

In the late 80s, the tables were slowly turning. Criticism was encouraged in Moscow, whereas East Berlin preached ideological austerity. Like Catholics sneering at the Pope for his leniency in questions of doctrine and faith, the East German regime turned away from its Soviet brother and defender for its lack of dogmatic rigor.

But the more East Germany withdrew officially, the more East Germans looked east for guidance and reassurance. The Soviet Union was omnipresent militarily, and the dissidents' only hope was that it wouldn't use its power, that it would avoid another 1953, 1956 or 1968. Gorbachev gave signals that Germans were on their own, that he wouldn't interfere. What precipitated the fall of the wall was thus the determination of the East Germans encouraged by the vision of Gorbachev. There were no other major players.

But we're not quite there yet in this story. It's still 1988. Like many others, my parents had subscribed to the Soviet monthly Sputnik that enjoyed a brief period of popularity because of its critical discussions of politics and bold reinterpretations of history that was uncontested before and whose questioning would get you jailed. When Sputnik was unceremoniously banned (in our country only), all the more people started asking questions.

Not only that. People started meeting, forming what were considered subversive groups whose only purpose it was to fill the official name of East Germany with life. While the west ridiculed the "so-called German Democratic Republic", East Germans started living it. In the chaotic months of 1989, one phrase stood above all. "We are the people." No slogan was more powerful, nothing united people more. Sick of decades of deceitful tyranny, people went on the streets to demand their voices be heard.

It brewed mightily in the little country. Demonstrations had spread to all major cities. The government had closed the last remaining borders for fear of an exodus. Suddenly all other socialist countries were off-limits. The situation became so ludicrous that only a sudden eruption could shake things free. On November 9th 1989, that day had come, and the blast, thank goodness, was peaceful.

The story is well known. The legendary press conference with its careless announcement, the unintentional promise of the freedom of travel, has been revisited a million times. East Germans could now get visas for travel abroad without having to meet preconditions. But where do you get a visa on a Thursday night? Hundreds went straight to the border, then thousands, and at some point the guards couldn't hold the masses back anymore. A human flood had forced a wall open that had stood for nearly thirty years and that had, just a few months earlier, seemed eternally impenetrable.

I remember the first time my grandmother was allowed to travel to West Germany. When she came back, after the gifts had been handed out and the shine of colors and smells elated our mood, my mom said pensively to us kids: "I don't think I will ever see this Wall gone, but I hope you will, some day." This was in 1988.

A year later, we were all sitting in front of the TV, watching the news with some attention but mostly looking forward to the Hoff when suddenly a live ticker appeared at the bottom of the screen, the first time we had ever seen such a thing. The borders are open, it said. At the same time, in my memory at least, the Scorpions started singing Wind of Change (though that song didn't come out for another year), and nothing was as it had been.

Friday, November 06, 2009

fire in the sky

At work today, I was oscillating between the bench and my desk, doing some cloning here and some modeling there. It was a good day, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, just as science should be. In the late afternoon, a succession of emails between me and a scientist in Sweden regarding some materials that we would like to give a try sucked me in.

I had to think about a bold model that this guy had presented and assess the likelihoods that different possible experimental strategies might succeed. It got dark; the office emptied. I had another tea and kept scratching my head, twiddling pencils forgetfully and tapping frantically on my keyboard – letter, letter, letter, backspace, backspace, backspace – but at some point it was time to go home.

Stepping out of the building, I was hit by an entirely unexpected flood of cold rain water. This morning, it had been nice. I was unprepared and quickly soaked, my jeans clinging heavily to my legs and impeding my movements. The ride could have been utterly sordid. It wasn't. Already on the home stretch racing straight west, I noticed the sky rip open and the rain stop. In front of me and above erupted, seemingly out of nowhere, a magnificent fireworks display, explosions of bright blue and sparkling silver.

The fireworks celebrated Guy Fawkes Night, but they were one day late. I hadn't been. Yesterday after work, I had trekked out to Lewes, a small town in Sussex near the English Channel seaside that's famous for Guy Fawkes Night parades and bonfires. It pulls off a show of such renown that it can hardly handle the crowds. This year, outside visitors were strongly discouraged from coming.

This didn't faze me. I left work at a reasonable hour and dove into the tube system with everyone else, thinking that Lewes can't be worse than this. Rush hour in London is crazy and positively invigorating as long as you're not forced to endure it every day. I've frequently talked about the energy that this town exudes. Underground, it's particularly palpable. Like a standing wave, it remains on platforms while people bounce around madly, appearing or leaving, getting on trains or alighting.

Nearly every person is in an invisible personal cocoon, reading a book precariously wedged between the shoulders of neighbors or sequestered under headphones administering music, language classes or the latest economic news as podcasts. This behavior is upheld while traveling on escalators, waiting on the platform and being squished in a train. Once the doors open, some people hatch from their cocoon, dashing off towards the stairs in an effort to minimize the time spent commuting.

Rush hour is a spectacle well worth watching, but I had a train to catch at Victoria, another cauldron of human bustle that I passed through rapidly, trying to keep up with the rush of experienced commuters. I made the train just in time.

In Lewes, it was hard to leave the station. People were everywhere. The narrow streets of the town were either barricaded off or totally crowded. Police and events stewards organized the human flow, in an impressively efficient way. We had no idea where we were going or what was going on. Nevertheless, after ten minutes of walking aimlessly and leisurely, we were in the main road just as the parade marched through.

And what a parade it was, unlike anything I've ever seen. It was part historical procession, part carnival, part infantry campaign, and it appeared out of nowhere. Not expecting it, we were shocked when ran into it and almost got burned. Walking up a hill towards flickering torches and loud shouts of excitement in a dense crowd, we caught glimpses of participants in historic costumes but had no time to appreciate them. We craned our necks only to see barrels of fire suddenly hurling in our direction.

In one delirious moment, the crowd in the street split, and each half hurtling onto the sidewalk with mild panic. Those that had waited patiently behind the curb were pushed into the walls behind them without much compassion. A few upset voices could be heard but most people took the madness stoically. The anarchy seemed to be an integral part of the event. As the parade passed by, people would venture onto the street to get a closer view, but soon enough another band of torch bearers would march by, wielding fire in people's faces and forcing them back like wild animals.

Guy Fawkes Night marks the foiled plot on the English Parliament by a bunch of Catholic conspirators, among them Mr. Fawkes, and is celebrated all over England. In Lewes, the commemoration is deeper than elsewhere because another troubling story enters the picture. During the reign of the catholic Queen Mary I. in the 1550s, seventeen protestants were burned on the stake for the heresy of their religious belief.

Not surprisingly, fire is the main theme of the night, and fireworks and bonfires are its culmination. There are a large number of bonfire societies in Lewes and the surrounding region of Sussex, and they constitute the parade. Each society is introduced by barrels of fire whose purpose it is to clear the way, and two or three giants carrying signs ablaze with the initials of the society. All participants wear historic costumes, the identities of which were steeped in tradition, no doubt, but entirely meaningless to me. I only noticed how eclectic the choices were – tons of smugglers, pirates of the Caribbean, Ottoman nobility, Native Americans, Mexican mariachi, and Mongolians. Most marchers carried torches. Each society also had at least one marching band desperately trying to be heard through the blasts of firecrackers, and a float with an effigy to be burned later in a huge bonfire outside of town. It was loud, chaotic and seemed completely uncontrolled.

However, the mood was restrained, if restrained craziness is possible. The English have a tendency to overdo parties, to binge drink on every occasion until they puke their brains out. Last night, there was nothing of this sort. People celebrated, people partied, people drank, but when the last train left for London, everyone lined up at the platform and went back home without as much as a bruise or a singed cheek. In town, the litter was already being swept up while fireworks were still shooting into the midnight sky. It was a great night out for everyone.

Monday, November 02, 2009


The last post sounded a bit strange and has elicited reactions of perplexity. Despite my attempt at humorous obfuscation, it was plain that the post was about running and about my decision to do the Oberelbe-Marathon yet again. That doesn't sound extraordinary and you might wonder why I come back to it, but the devil is in the details. Unaware, you have witnessed a seminal event.

I signed up for a sporting event six months in advance and vowed to train with all due seriousness. My running colleague in the lab reacted incredulously when I announced it to him. "That's ways away. That's not you. Are you sure about this?" To which I replied: "Mark your calendar, my friend. In preparation, we're running the Roding Valley Half Marathon together on 28 February."

He won't be the only one shaking his head in disbelief at my approach. Back in Salt Lake, I had a riding buddy who got perennially frustrated about my erratic behavior. When he went out to the gym or tortured his legs on the trainer on the porch, I would lounge on the sofa slurping buckets of Ben & Jerry's. Sometimes I wouldn't ride my bike for weeks, and yet when we went out into the mountains the next weekend, I would usually be able to keep up with him, much to his despair. Like everyone else, I needed to get into shape at the beginning of the season, but once arrived, I stayed there without effort and no matter what I did. My friend, in contrast, had to suffer for his good legs.

The previous two years, I took the same casual approach to the marathon. I ran in the park whenever I felt like it, without rhyme or reason and never when the weather was bad or too good, never when there were things going on in London or I had plans to go out. Last year, I ran less than 300 km before race day, and I didn't do intervals or anything that had the potential of hurting.

On the course, I was able to keep up with most but, crucially, not with my expectations, and that's the worst kind of failure I can imagine. I really don't care if I win the marathon or if I come in last. What I do care about is whether I achieve what I think I'm capable of. I know I can do three hours, but so far I haven't shown this. Twice I crossed the finish line in bitter disappointment.

This year, which is really next year but has already started for the purpose of bookkeeping, things will change. I'm encouraged by the uncontested fact that three times is a charm, but I'm also aware that charm will not be enough. Charm will need dedication and hard work to come through.

The seminal event that you have been witnessing is that this year, 2010, is the year that I jettison my habitual listlessness and convert to a philosophy of focused hard work. Surveying my adolescence and adulthood, I'm struck that I have hardly ever worked hard for a goal. Things tended to happen in ways that pleased me. With the marathon, I haven't been this lucky, but I'm determined to win – over my legs, over my sloth, over my laziness, and over general physical feebleness. To achieve this, I'll have to have a plan and stick to it. I have to build a base of endurance and sharpen the spikes of speed. I have to put my aspiration ahead of everything else. Whatever happens in the next half year is peripheral to big goal. Maybe this revolutionary attitude will diffuse into other aspects of my life. But if nothing else, it's going to push me to a marvelous marathon.