Wednesday, June 30, 2010

sunny afternoon

Welcome with as much anticipation and excitement as a fat rain cloud in a spotless sky, the English football team touched down at Heathrow yesterday morning. The boys were back, but they didn't come as heroes. Heads bent and shoulders slumping, they made a show of trying to come unseen and unnoticed.

Having stumbled off, after a dismal performance that looked as if half the players were on strike, the hostile environment of the Free Stadium in Bloemfontein, they couldn't avoid stepping into the hostile environment of public attention for long.

During the game already, the BBC couldn't stop castigating the team that never played like one. They showed Germany's first goal a good fifteen times, from all angles and in increasing slow motion and invariably accompanied by an exasperated cry for deliverance from the disaster that was the English defense. During halftime of the Argentina-Mexico game, talk still swirled exclusively around the earlier game, as if the half that had just ended had never happened.

A panel of football experts debated reasons for the inexplicable melting away of English ability and resolve. There was no will, no desire, no passion. So what if a goal had been disallowed? After such a pathetic performance, Team England didn't deserve better than be thrashed said the BBC, and the rest of the media agreed. The question of why came up quickly. How does a team full of football superstars that aced the qualification fall into pieces almost overnight?

The question was posed to Fabio Capello, the stern Italian coach of the team. He mentioned tiredness as if it would explain everything but didn't elaborate. Hasn't every player in the World Cup played a long season? If anything, after flopping out of the Champion's League early in April, the English players had all the time in the world to recover the bodies and focus their minds.

It's more likely that the alleged tiredness betrays a deeper malaise in international football that's particular noticeable in England. The Premier League is one of the richest in the world. Russian oligarchs, sheikhs from the Gulf and assorted billionaires own most of the teams and run them like an expensive hobby, with blithe disregard of economic considerations. Salaries go through the roof because no one checks the accounts.

Top players earn upwards of 10,000 pounds a day. With money like that, it's clear that they're none to eager to run their hearts out in the cold South African winter. Habitually pampered and overindulged by an awestruck media, and with more money than brains no matter how good their brains, they're more likely to drive the recently bought Ferrari around the ring road or jet to the Seychelles for an afternoon by the beach.

I'm not saying that money corrupts or fries your brain, or that you become a worse footballer if you're generously remunerated for you efforts. But I've seen it again and again that it's teams that win tournaments, not outstanding individual players. An assembly of arrogant, overpaid sportsmen who are living the life of a retiree at 30 might make for good marketing opportunities, especially if the guys stay present in the gossip columns with speed limit infractions, marital betrayal and drinks spilled on strangers, but it won't win the World Cup.

It's for these reasons I'm excited about the German team. The spirits stayed high for a good four years; even the lyrics of the unofficial song were changed to reflect new realities after 2006 didn't work out as anticipated. No prima donna or instant millionaire poisons the collaborative atmosphere. Now the entire country awaits the game against Argentina on Saturday, with respect for the opponent but also with excitement and much anticipation. Go Germany!

Monday, June 28, 2010

day out east

Yesterday was a lovely day, sunny, dry and the brilliant blue sky scattered with a few random clouds. They say it was the hottest day of the year. Here, that means just about scratching 30°C. Fine by me, though I could do hotter. But being out on Sunday reminded me, for the first time since I moved to London, how much I love a proper summer, with sweat, thirst and burning skin.

We went out to East London to take some pictures. Brick Lane, the traditional heart of the Bangladeshi immigrant community, was our destination. Since the rebirth of the East London line as part of London Overground, the underpass that links Spitalfields with Shoreditch has turned from a bottleneck of shoving pedestrians to a colorful food and drinks market. A half-naked Jamaican hacked open coconuts for people to drink, a big canopy sheltered half a dozen tables holding carrom boards and a juice bar of philanthropic pursuit, and a French bakery flogged baguettes and pains campailloux where there used to be dust, gravel and building-site fences only months before. In a nod to tradition, the ad-hoc workshop fencing stolen bicycles is still there.

I experimented with my super-wide angle lens and didn't take any pictures to take note of. But I had a good time – and I was focused. We didn't go inside much, though there is so much there, and more on every visit. It seems that soon enough every single building, warehouse and yard of what used to be the Old Truman Brewery will be a market, gallery, world food hall or vintage clothes exchange. There's a bike shop specializing in single-speed, highly fashionable though not very practical; live music venues that double as organic burger joints or fair-trade coffee shops during the day; and Rough Trade, the only recorded-music retailer that's hip and making money.

It's a cool place for a leisurely Sunday afternoon, especially if you're looking to buy quirky t-shirts or gifts that are one-of-a-kind. Brick Lane itself is lined with blankets and tarps on which drifters, low-downs and art students bridging a rough patch barter second-hand treasures of breathtaking variety. Books, broken cameras and fogged lenses, peacock feathers, faded undershirts, and boxes full of domestic detritus, smelling foul after years in a damp basement, are all hopefully looking for a new home. When we were walking back from the northern end of Brick Lane, the decrepit traders had just been busted by the borough police, proving that the disorganized and alternative flair of the area is nothing more than a carefully maintained mask.

We didn't stop to watch the proceedings or pity two devastated Japanese girls; we were hungry. More than for its market, Brick Lane is famous for its restaurants. On its southern end, one curry house abuts the next, each one advertising the Best curry in London in bright letters. Each one was also frighteningly empty, as if all the locals and even all the tourists knew something we didn't and had cautiously avoided Curry Lane.

We were unsure, but then a waiter strategically placed outside one of the restaurants approached us and made us an offer we couldn't refuse. Two free drinks for each of us and 30% off our food bill. It sounded like a deal too good to be true, but my companions of subcontinental heritage bravely took the plunge and me along with them. We had a great lunch, got the free drinks and in the end the discount we were promised. All the while we were eating, no other customer set food inside the rather nicely decorated place. It felt like economic meltdown, financial crisis and global recession all over again.

After lunch, the sun was shining even stronger than before. With two (slightly watery) beers buzzing around our heads, we ambled down to the Whitechapel Gallery, but didn't make it far beyond that. Just next door, in fact, was a smashing bar, with low tables, black leather sofas and two big screens hanging from the ceiling. We settled down for another drink – and for ninety minutes of World Cup action. It was to be the loveliest part of the day.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

only a game

Wimbledon goes into its second week today. It's warm and sunny and for many the perfect day to spend mulling around the grounds of the famous All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, drinking ice-cold Pimms and eating strawberries with Jersey cream. There are benches everywhere; people sit down to read the weekend papers and get a tan. Some even watch the matches on the courts.

I was asked to join that leisurely pleasure yesterday. Despite its renown and upper-class traditions, Wimbledon has evolved into a great party for everyone – though the rules are still very strict and rowdy behavior is not tolerated. Despite temptation, I declined the invitation. The Queen's visit had already happened, as had the greatest match ever. John Isner beat Nicolas Mahut after more than eleven hours, with a basketball-like fifth-set score of 70:68. What more could there be?

From the pictures on TV, you wouldn't guess much was happening at all. Spectator are seated peacefully, almost sedately, as if enjoying an opera at Covent Garden. There are no flags, no screams and hardly any cheers. If there is love for the game, people carry it inside, confidently.

Things will look much different this afternoon in the rest of London. Tennis will be worlds away outside the universe of white down south. Today at three, England faces Germany in the second round of the football World Cup. It's the mother of all matches apparently. Not even the Falkland War foes Argentina elicit such an emotional response in English fans.

In 1966, the English team won the Cup at home. Their victory over Germany in the final included a goal (known for all eternity as the Wembley goal) where the ball didn't cross the goal line. That's how Germans saw it, anyway, and they have never forgiven the English. Instead they started the tradition of beating England every time they've met in European Championships or World Cups, and they've won both trophies a couple of times each. The English have never again won a thing.

Nevertheless, English newspapers and especially tabloids have always been quick to verbally trounce the Germans in the run up to a game and bestow premature greatness on the home team. Knowing the English predilection for self-deprecation, these martial words of certain glory may sound strange, but they probably arose from a silently felt certainty that they were doomed. In other words, the English were ridiculing themselves even before they had reason to.

This is why I find this year's press a bit frightening. It seems that for the first time, the English feel they have a realistic chance of beating Germany in the game and don't need to win the war of words before. The Sun, the most linguistically aggressive of the tabloids, had a picture on its front page yesterday showing the German team on a safari bus watching three cute little lions from safe distance. "Germany afraid of Three Lions", the caption read, with reference to England's sobriquet. On Friday already, The Guardian had titled, without even a hint of fanatical home support, "The good news: We're through. The bad news: Germany's next." All this verbal foreplay was topped yesterday by The Times, which titled, in German, on their front page, "Entspannt Euch, es ist doch nur ein Spiel (relax, it's only a game)".

Relax? Only a game?? Are you kidding me? I know I'll be joining the crowds this afternoon, in some pub somewhere, and will be glued to the big screen. I might take my flag and wear my black-red-and-yellow plastic flower necklace; maybe I'll even paint my face. Like everyone else outside of Wimbledon this afternoon, I'll be screaming my heart out so my team play theirs out. Because it's not just a game. It's football, it's the World Cup, and it's about time to remind the English of some fine traditions.

Friday, June 25, 2010

summer night

I'm lying on my brown faux-leather sofa with nothing to do. The games are over tonight, and I didn't even watch them. Germany will play England on Sunday, and Argentina waits for the winner, so who cares who else goes through? Pink Floyd is on the stereo, electric guitars wailing distortedly, "What do you want from me?" But neither my drowsiness nor the music is enough to blot out the sounds from the street.

My window is wide open. Now that it's warm outside, that's something I treasure. Never again will I live in a ground-floor flat. Traffic bursts into my living room. Cars, buses and the all-too-frequent ambulances and cop cruisers invade my space, unfiltered. The noise is no nuisance. Every double-decker that pulls away, with howling engines, from the bus stop just across the street reminds me that this is London, the greatest city of all, home of everything imaginable, a kaleidoscope of possibilities. When I praised this place the other day, I didn't even mention the spectacular Picasso exhibition I had seen that same day. It's that kind of place. You must be nuts not to live here.

On my coffee table are fresh pistachios and dry gin. Both go well together and fit the music's melancholic tunes. The last two hours saw me go through the last 100 pages of the The Black Album, the second Hanif Kureishi book I've read. After The Buddha of Suburbia, I was ready to admit the author into my personal pantheon of great writers, but now I'm not so sure anymore. I know I'm reading a fantastic story when the process of reading becomes transparent, when I smell and breathe the story, when I'm sucked in to live the lines of each page as if they were an experience or sensations projected straight onto my brain. The Black Album was words someone had written. Reading it was like observing the action from a distance and literally through a layer of densely printed black characters on pulpy paper. I didn't get half as much joy out of it as I had expected.

This morning my orchid, which, after a sustained diet of invigorating neglect mixed with nourishing care, had sprouted buds and then bloomed, shed its last blossom. After nearly six months of mottled pink incredibility, the last limp corolla sailed to the floor when I wasn't looking, leaving a proud plant looking exposed and wasted. I cut the two naked shoots and relegated the comatose monocot to the darkest corner of my apartment, giving it the calm and time to recover its strength.

As Roger Waters croons the honeyed lines of A Great Day for Freedom I realize that I'm in need of rest myself. When the latest paycheck hit my inbox I was shocked to discover that it's already the end of June. What has happened to 2010? It seems that just days ago we had entered the new year, only to discover that it was cold and miserable. Six months have passed, but somehow they have passed me by. I have worked hard enough and maybe also, knock on wood, successfully, and I've had my share of fun. But it feels like I've been racing since last summer. Even the holidays I took weren't particularly relaxing. While most people travel to unwind, I always seem to go on projects rather than vacations. This was fine when I lived in more sedate places and was hungry for action, but now there's craziness and speed around me at all times. When do I get away? If nothing else, an easy evening on the sofa is a good start. The Division Bell has rung out, but there's plenty more music on my iPod, and plenty of gin in the fridge.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Arabia continued

(This post continues an earlier one.)

It was late afternoon one day after visiting the vast area of Roman ruins just next door. I strolled through modern-day Jerash, searching for a tea house that would let me watch the World Cup game that had just started. With every step I took, I kicked up the dust that the town was heavy with. As my lung slowly filled with warm powder, I remembered a friend who had once declared that the only honest tagline to advertise Jordan would be "The finest dust on earth". That evening in Jerash, I saw no reason to argue.

As I walked by decapitated goats sluggishly dangling in the breeze of powdery sand that hung in the air, I realized that I wasn't in just another god-forsaken place decaying into a mystic netherworld. The shop fronts on both sides were bright windows in crumbling walls, but the bulk of the dust came from a complete municipal infrastructure upgrade that the city was undergoing. The blacktop had been stripped from streets and sidewalks, optimistically and entirely, as if just starting the project would ensure its completion. But the new surface was nowhere in sight yet, and what remained of the foundations of the streets was disintegrating.

Half an hour into my walk, the sunset prayer ended and crowds spilled into the streets, kicking up even more dust. The fruit vendors took the opportunity to flog their wares right at the main gate of the mosque. Noisy little cars honked their way through the madness. By now, the oppressive heat of the day had subsided, but the dust was deathly dehydrating. Settling on clothes and skin, on the tongue and in the lung, it was a real killer – and it made Raban's descriptions of car dodging and old-town expeditions in Sana'a come to life, though otherwise the Yemen has not much in common with Jordan.

The search for a tea house did eventually prove futile. Driving back to my friend's house, I was manically scanning the frequencies on the car stereo to find a station that would broadcast the game live. There was nothing. Instead, I was treated to the news, read in English on Radio Jordan, and experienced a feature of Arabic culture that has prevailed since ancient times. "His Royal Highness Prince Faisal received the Pakistani Air Force Chief and a delegation for talks concerning cooperation in military fields", claimed the first item.

Brilliant clouds of hot air such as this are apparently de-rigueur in Arabic countries, where the press is not free as we understand it and where the status of the printed word (and by extension the radio and TV news) is different from that which we accord it. Raban noted that for a devout Muslim "ideas of 'the book' and 'the Koran' were indissoluble. Written language for him meant the language of scripture. It meant the revealed truth of God, and the printed words were there as objects of mystical contemplation. [...] the news on television, like the newspapers, told the Truth about events by avoiding any description of them."

It was for this reason that Raban's idea to write a book was greeted with much suspicion. Many acquaintances he made on his trip just shook their heads when they heard of his intentions. The Saudi authorities did one better: They wouldn't even let him into the country. My favorite reaction came from Raban's Arabic teacher in London who cautioned that haktab kitab (I will write a book.) can also mean I'm getting married (as in: I'm signing the contract of marriage).

Raban didn't get married, but he wrote his book as planned. It ends with the author's return home. What hit him most, on his drive back from the airport, was "the silence of London. The roll of traffic down the M4 from Heathrow seemed like a funeral cortège after the hooting din of every Arab city. There was a sleepy placidity in the way we shifted lanes all the way along the Cromwell Road, without a single horn being sounded. Home was a grave, staid place."

I finished reading the book as my plane from Amman descended into Heathrow. On the tube ride to West Kensington, I found myself living the last pages of the book. Boring civility and the complete lack of the extraordinary soothed my nerves. Plus, it was raining – slowly, unimaginatively, in a very English way. When the doors opened at Osterley, a whiff of wet air and fresh grass entered the carriage, leaving everyone else untouched but wiping from my mind any remnants of desert dust that might still have laid there. Enormous was the contrast between where I had come from and where I was going.

Some say that traveling is dead, that all is the same and true adventures cannot be had anymore. They say that all has been explored and the exotic is just an extension of the familiar, with most differences in the world homogenized by the flattening forces of globalization. They say that today's travelers are merely tourists. This is emphatically not the case. With instant communication and jet travel, the world might feel smaller. But it's still a big place, full of curiosities and oddities, outrageous and mind-blowing.

I've just returned from a friend's wedding, enjoying the comfort of an instant and wholly undeserved family connection, but had I been a bit more adventurous, I could have traveled much like Raban described it more than thirty years ago. His book serves as a potent reminded that time doesn't kill traveling. Go out and explore!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

between the games

Yesterday, I had lunch at the Union. I got a burger from the barbecue and a large cup of cola, but that was not the reason I was there. Far greater appeal had the large screen hanging from a side wall of the student bar. All World Cup matches are projected there, and yesterday, Germany was playing Serbia. After the damage the Germans inflicted on the hapless Australians in the first game, I was justifiably excited, and looking forward to a continuation of the glory. I was in good company; the room was filled with a cheering crowd of compatriots.

The cheering turned into stunned silence first and then into angry shouts. The game started poorly, less spectacular action in the box than continuous inept tackles. The ref seemed as baffled as the audience and tried, by handing out harsh punishments, to steer the game to where it should have been. Serbia and Germany saw plenty of yellow cards until, to our complete astonishment, the German striker Klose saw his second and was excused from further participation. Shortly thereafter, the Serbs scored. It was to be the only goal of the game, despite some inspired efforts by the Mannschaft. But they didn't seem to wear their winning boots that afternoon. Even a penalty wasn't enough to equalize the game. An hour after finishing the burger, my mood had turned sour and I had to return to work.

I didn't go back to my lab, though. Earlier, on my way to the Union, I had made a detour to the Bioengineering building to do an enzyme assay. I had carried with me an ice box with a few little tubes inside and a sheet with careful instructions, scribbled in code illegible for anyone but me. If you know a little about biochemistry, you probably think you know what I'm talking about. Add substrate to the enzyme you study, start the reaction by transfer to the right temperature, by addition of ATP or a pulse of light, and observe the development of the signal over time. This is how the textbooks describe it.

My assay was a bit more involved. The enzyme under study is a large oligomer, but it doesn't do much by itself. It needs a accessory complex for activity against what we think might be physiological substrates. Another protein of more than two dozen subunits is needed to clear the substrate of that reaction; otherwise no signal can possibly be observed. With so many components, the little reaction vessel I put into the analyzer came closer to a cell's make-up than most assays, though of course it remained artificially short. Science is, after all, divide and conquer most of the time.

When I returned to my experiment after the game, the assay was done and the results very encouraging. I took the data back to the main lab and prepared another assay, with a few controls. In the process, I was getting rather excited – certainly more than I had been during the game earlier. We had purified the main enzyme, a long-standing object of the lab's interest, and also the accessory proteins. The clearing complex came from a collaborator in the US. So did one of our substrates, but from a different lab. The other substrate was provided by scientific contacts in the North. As I combined the solutions for the second experiment, I counted the different places and people involved. My not-so-little assay was all but a global effort.

While the US tried its best not to lose to Slovenia (ultimately successfully) in the afternoon game, my assay progressed, and when I returned to get the numbers, they confirmed what I had seen earlier. It looked like we were really up to something. My boss, alerted by an email with a little Excel chart attached, came over to my desk, bouncing with possibility. He was imagining all the mutants we could test, all the other combinations of ingredients, possibly other substrates. For him, the sky is never the limit. We had a few jolly moments of joined enthusiasm but adjourned further discussion until after the weekend, as both of us wanted to go home – and watch the third game of the day.

England was playing Algeria. Normally, for the evening games, I would go to The Famous Three Kings, a pub that used to be, under a different name, a punk music venue in the 70s and is immortalized as such in Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia. Now it is widely known as a sports bar that caters to all fans with blissful disregard of their colors. World Cup games are shown on gigantic screens in both teams' languages. One half of the pub is filled with supporters of one team, the other half with their opponents. It's always a great atmosphere, but as England were playing, it would be impossible to get in.

Instead, I decided to go to The Goose, the pub across the street that I only recently discovered. It's a nice enough pub but completely free of pretense, old-school but not traditional in a historic way. Its large and spacious interior suggests a living room, and indeed pubs used to provide poorer people with the space they lacked in their cramped apartments. The Goose preserves this long-gone era. You can go have a beer and then sit there for hours and read a newspaper. The only people disturbing you would be other regulars greeting you. In line with its down-to-earth vibe are the food and drinks prices that are almost cheaper than reasonable and the very warm staff. It might not be the best venue for football, but it's a good place to hang out for an hour or two, and this was exactly what I needed given that the game was short of highlights and ended in a dissatisfying goalless draw.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


In 1978, Jonathan Raban flew to the Arab world, visiting seven countries at the periphery of the Arabic peninsula in the time of about three months. His initial interest was triggered by the influx of Arabs into London in the late 70s and nurtured by the curious traits and patterns he observed in his neighborhood, around Earl's Court Road. In the time it took him to secure visas to the countries he had put on his itinerary (minus Saudi Arabia, which stonewalled his visa requests) – a considerable project in itself – he picked up Arabic writing and reading and then some rudimentary understanding of the Arabic language. Both would prove priceless on his trip, which resulted in a fairly entertaining book.

The book starts, in its introductory chapter, with on of the most concise descriptions of the basic concepts of the Arabic language that I know. It boils down to word roots and ambiguity of meaning, and is worth understanding. Raban has mastered this, but he has no illusions about his level of proficiency: "As a conversational instrument, my Arabic is useless. I am limited to greetings, street directions, words for food and thank-yous. Yet the Wehr Dictionary, and the comprehension of the alphabet, seemed to shed far more light on the Arabs I saw in London than either Thesiger, Lawrence or the Koran." I could say exactly the same for myself – the Wehr is still the standard thirty years on, though I haven't acquired one yet – and must encourage any traveler to the Arab world to pick up some basic Arabic – handwriting, the idea of roots, simple concepts. It is truly eye-opening, and much easier than commonly thought.

From the very beginning, writing a book was the motivation behind traveling. Raban would journey through lands that have been copiously written about (by Wilfred Thesiger, Lawrence of Arabia and Freya Stark most famously) and debunk some of the myths that have become entrenched over time. The attachment of the rural poor to their simple lifestyle was one. The intrinsic heroism of pre-Western societies was another. Raban set out to write a thoroughly modern account of contemporary Arabic life, and he refuses to be held hostage by earlier travel writing or by the romantic views of British Orientalism.

Nevertheless, and in spite of all the best intentions, the book is defined mostly by its historic context. The 1973 war between Israel on the one side and Egypt and Syria on the other was already far enough in the past to not weigh on every thought and conversation. The massacres of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and subsequent bombing of Beirut were still a few years off.

In the middle of this, the first global oil crisis had brought European and American economies to their knees and made the fortunes of oil-producing countries, especially in the Gulf. They found themselves, head-over-heels and through no doing of their own, in the epicenter of a major economic boom that shook the traditional way of life in its foundations. The countries were giddy with prospects and innocently afraid of losing themselves. It was time of bubbly optimism and happy/anxious anything goes. Arabs quite clearly seemed to have their fortunes in their own hands, and they're running with them.

The sentiment of change, sometimes with nauseating intensity, is nicely captured in the four chapters on Bahrein and the Gulf emirates of Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Striking for the reader of today is the description of Dubai as the most down-to-earth and quietly self-assured of the four. What is also surprising is that the overall makeup of society wasn't much different thirty years ago from what it is now.

Wealth seems ubiquitous if you move in the right circles but is forever out of reach if you don't. Thirty years ago, the gap between the citizens and Western expatriates on one side and cheap imported labor on the other was already a defining feature of Gulf societies. Pakistanis, Baluchis and Indians (and South Koreans back then) turned oil money into hotels, apartment blocks, private gardens, roads, factories, refineries, and new docks and wharfs. They watered artificial oasis in the desert, unloaded goods in the depth of the night and stand by for any services that might be required. Thus they form the backbone of a society that was ready, at a whim, to expel them from the country and send them packing. Raban tries to cross the boundary between rich/Western and poor and illuminate both sides of the economic miracle but usually gets stuck in his bushwhacking expeditions before reaching rarely seen and interesting sites.

Thanks to perspicacious observations and engaged writing, the chapters on the Gulf states make for pleasant enough reading but they're short of satisfying. This changes when the trip continues to Yemen and Egypt. Yemen is memorable for showing an unimaginable world of madness, a world of concurrent development and decay, and of hope and despair in the same people and at the same time. Raban's initial assessment is that "No one should catch their first sight of the Yemen before breakfast: it brings on vertigo and an alarming conviction that one must be suffering from some extreme disorder of one's vision." The following pages do their best to substantiate this judgment with observations and facts. This is done with much inspiration but without any mean spirit.

In Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, dust comes into its own for the first time. The city appeared to be crumbling before Raban's eyes. He writes, "If all enterprise in Europe had stopped dead in the middle of the Renaissance, and the whole edifice of civilization been left to quietly self-destruct, then London, Florence, Venice, Chartres and Amsterdam would look today much like my first impression of Sana'a." It was at this point that I thought I saw a connection to my own trip to Jordan for the first time.

(As this review is too long already, the continuation and conclusion will have to wait until tomorrow or whenever I find the time to type the rest into my little Eee.)

Monday, June 07, 2010


The other day, an epic scientific experiment was started. Its objective was to see how humans react to conditions that might be encountered on a manned (*) flight to Mars. Microgravity and enormous levels of radiation cannot be simulated, but isolation over a prolonged period of time – without daylight or fresh air – and the cramped working conditions of a space capsule can. To study this, a laboratory was set up in a suburb of Moscow and six volunteers, one of them an experienced space doctor, were locked up inside. The keys were tossed in the river, and new ones aren't expected to arrive before November 2011.

The crew will be boxed up for 520 days, and scientists will monitor them closely. As it happens so often with science, many of the insights will be more or less accidental. An MD studying the relationship between hypertension and salt uptake is taking advantage of the extremely controlled experimental setup, which permits the accurate monitoring of the amount of salt consumed. His team selected and composed every single meal the six make-belief astronauts will eat over a year and a half.

While this experiment is ongoing, findings have just been made public that no one had expected. Men have apparently a hormonal cycle much like women do (though without the physical manifestation). Aldosterone peaks every 28 days, for example. Testosterone and cortisol have similar cycles, though they might be shorter. This is early days, and it's not clear whether the results hold up or what they mean, but it's a neat demonstration of the power of hypothesis-free blue-sky research.

I was thinking of the male hormonal cycle the other day when I was suffering from a bit of London letdown. The great linguist and author Samuel Johnson once said that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." For the last three years, I agreed with Dr. Johnson. But recently, doubts have crept into my confidence.

What if I had more outdoor opportunities around me? I really got a kick out of mountain biking and kayaking last summer. What if my home town were a bit smaller, quieter and calmer? What if I actually knew people around me? With all these questions in my head, I was getting worried that I'd have to make a move. But maybe I was just having my days...

Today, as I came back from work, I was excited I could bolt across the street for a quick haircut, no matter it was already 9pm. Tomorrow I'm going to Jordan (direct flight, booked two days ago) for a friend's wedding, and I needed to get my hair in order before leaving. Tomorrow, I'll take the tube from work to the airport. With a city that does everything for me, do I really want to go anywhere else?

(*) I said manned flight to Mars not because I'm an inveterate sexist but because all participants in the experiments are male. An earlier, much shorter experiment, came very near a premature end when violence broke out between the sexes. The alternative solution, sending only women to Mars, has not been discussed much, but there has been a scientific study on it, published in the inaptly named Journal of Men's Health & Gender (This almost requires a second footnote: Men's Gender? Do you need a journal for that? And what is a Former Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine? This is how the author is referenced.)

Anyway, the paper claims that women, for a variety of reasons, are much better suited for space flights stretching over more than a year. The only caveat is apparently that one shouldn't undertake space walks when menstruating (great pub quiz knowledge). Still, I can't help but wonder what would happen to an all female crew out in space. Extraterrestrial cat fights, anyone? Lethal mood swings right before not going on a space walk? Did I mention I wasn't sexist?

Saturday, June 05, 2010


Going by the amount of shelf space in even the largest travel bookstores, the region between Nantes and Bordeaux holds little promise. I found only one book, a slim green Guide Michelin, at Stanford's in London's Seven Dials area. And it is true, the central portion of France's Atlantic Coast is short of spectacular attractions. While La Rochelle has a noble history of heroism and upheaval that's reflected in its fortifications, the countryside is rather quiet. There are peaceful villages on reclaimed land, endless beaches, and charming seaside resort that must heave with holidaymakers in summer.

An hour's drive east from La Rochelle is a small town that has given its name to one of the greatest brandies. Cognac and its surroundings are home to several hundred cognac-makers, and many of the businesses cater to tourists much like vineyards do, offering tours of their premises and tasting sessions. Many years ago, I toured some vineyards in Napa Valley. While the big operations like Beringer offered professionally polished tours, smaller, family-owned vineyards exuded a personal warmth that I found much more welcoming. Sometimes the proprietor would come out and proudly uncork his favorite bottle. My idea for this current trip was to recreate that experience. I had once encountered a smaller cognac-maker, Jean Balluet in the village of Neuvicq-le-Château, and decided to give it a shot, leaving out the big names that are resident in Cognac itself.

You can tell that this is the beginning of the story that was promised on my visit to Jean Balluet's. I thought I would write just another post, one that keeps the dignity of logic and refers to some of the things written earlier. But then it didn't happen that way. What I wrote is slightly less personal that a blog post and slightly longer. I posted it to my website, free to read for anyone with too much time. Enjoy!