Sunday, April 17, 2011


After boring you almost to death with word of my running exploits, recently in ever-increasing succession, I feel obliged to write about race day itself, though I would much rather just lie on my sofa and do nothing.

Kick-off was at 9:45, a time I was comfortable with. I got up at 7, had porridge and tea, and then jogged (to kickstart my metabolism) to the tube and changed to the train at Waterloo East. The crowds were already there. I managed to squeeze into the first departing train but being crammed in like a sardine for twenty minutes wasn't pleasant. The ride took longer than expected because of frequent stops between stations, presumable to wait for the train ahead to disgorge its millipedal load.

The crowds continued at Blackheath where a colorful stream surged in the general direction of the three starts. The Blue Start was a modern incarnation of a wild-west wagon fort, surrounded by twenty identical 18-wheelers that would later transport 20000 kit bags to the finish. As I am good for my age, I had what almost felt like a VIP starting area. Only 1500 people and one truck.

What began at the start gun can only be called a stampede. The road was hardly wide enough to hold all the runners that were jostling for position, passing each other, cutting left and right for water and often no reason at all. Three miles in, the course descended from the heath to the Thames, but there were so many runners I couldn't let it rip as I normally would on a downhill. Throughout the race, the crowd didn't thin appreciably. If anything, it got worse towards the end when people were delirious or surging or stopping. The running of the bulls in Pamplona can't be much different, except it's over after a few manic minutes.

I was running with a friend and tried to settle into an easy pace. Our goal was to get a negative split, that is running the second half faster than the first. The rational behind this is that if you start too fast, you run out of glycogen and fall off a cliff later. It almost worked for me.

The crowds that make running a steady pace nearly impossible are reflected on either side of the course. People line the streets densely packed, and they are loud. Running across Tower Bridge with thousands cheering was a special experience. Over the last five miles along the Victoria Embankment I felt like a racer on the last stage of the Tour de France, hammering up and down the Champs Elysées. The noise was deafening.

By that time I was already on my last legs. A mile or two earlier, I had suffered intense stitches and had to slow down to regain my breathing and drive the pain away. Now I was being rushed along by the frenzied excitement all around. It was madness. Turning the corner by Buckingham Palace, I knew I couldn't go much farther. I had no eyes to check whether our fair Queen was standing on her balcony, waving benevolently to the crazies below. She probably did. Such an event doesn't take place every day after all.

I crossed the finish line after 2:59:11 according to the chip on my shoe. The official clock, much to my dismay, passed the three-hour mark a few seconds earlier, in defiance of my final sprint that only served to drive up the goo and water I had ingested over the course of the race and splash it on the ground before my feet in fitful convulsions. Seeing this, the Queen turned in disgust and retired to her drawing room.

It was at the finish that the disadvantages of running among 35000 became obvious. There were no showers; how could there be in St. James's Park? Getting the kit bag from the truck took a good fifteen minutes of being jammed in among the sweat and smell of hundreds who had finished at the same time. There was no more support, no water, no food. The race was over, and good-bye. The Oberelbemarathon is certainly a much nicer experience in that regard, as would be any small, well-organized race.

Just a nick under three hours wasn't what I had imagined at the outset of the season, but preparations weren't optimal, and I can see the positive side of today's race. Last year's sub-three-hour finish was clearly not a fluke. There's nothing more to say now. From this afternoon, I'm officially a retired runner. No more of this nonsense for me.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

race ready

The London Marathon is less than twelve hours away. I feel well prepared, though certainly not optimally so. I've trained with verve and dedication, and I've eaten tons of pasta over the last three days. All is ready.

I took the kit out a while ago, to be ready tomorrow morning. Once again I'm struck by what a low-key operation running is. It doesn't take much. There is almost no technical equipment, nothing that can break. Shoes wear out after a year or two but the rest is practically eternal.

Here is all I need, spiraling clockwise:

race kit
  • My number starts with a three. I hope my finish time won't.
  • I'm wearing the same shorts and vest as last year and as the year before. How anyone would set out without a full zipper is beyond me.
  • Compression socks rule! Your grandma wears them because they fight varicose veins. I love them because they keep shin splints in check and my calves from flopping all over the place.
  • The same shoes that caused my feet great suffering last year, but they have improved since – and are 60 grams lighter than the ones I bought earlier this year.
  • A watch for split times. I know my body well enough not to need a heart rate monitor.
  • A Livestrong wristband won't make me faster but might remind me in the toughest part that there is such a thing as iron will, which I will then deplore not having.
  • The chip, tied to the laces of the right shoe, will time my race.
  • Three Clif Shots to boost my effort. The last one has caffeine.
  • The kit bag will hold all the stuff I'm not taking on the race, like warm clothes and a water bottle, while it's shuttled to the finish area.
  • Lucozade gave me a pace band. I must finish each mile in 6:52.

taking a ride

Last night after work, after a day spent in front of the computer, fixing crucial details in an important document and sending dozens of emails in rapid succession, always to the same three people, I dove into the London Underground system for a ride on the tube then another on the tube and then, at Canning Town, one on the DLR.

The DLR is not part of the Underground system, though it is integrated with it. The acronym stands for a number of competing three-letter monikers that all mean the same thing. I use Dockland Light Rail, and I always get a kick out of riding it, not the least because it features in the clearest memories I have of my first trip to London, back in 1993 when our high school tutor group went there by coach and ferry. This was before the advent of budget airlines.

Reading up on London before going, I became fascinated with the Docklands, back then a nascent office development with an attitude. While only a few skyscrapers had been completed, the scope of the project was stunning. The idea was to transform docks and wharves that had fallen into disuse and decrepitude into shining beacons of successful capitalism. One fabulously long-lived but recently failed moneymaking machine, the Port of London, was supposed to be replaced with another, an extension of the City that had prospered since the 80s.

Back then, the few towers stood like searchlights. The development was confined to the area around Canary Wharf. I took the DLR from Bank and was immediately catapulted into the future of ambitious science fiction movies. The train skirred silently into motion. There was no driver; the thing seemed to move on its own volition. After a minuted in the dark, we had tunneled out of Bank and glided (so disappointed that the past of glide is not glid) along elevated tracks, towards an artificial landscape of vertical glass and steel. Sitting in the first car, I could see the synthetic panorama in all its glory.

The illusion of timelessness persisted once I got off and explored. There was no one there, no people on the sidewalks, no cars in the streets. The docks were silent; there was no activity. The whole area looked like one big movie set, illusory, unreal. There was no dust or dirt anywhere. I kept looking for the shrink wrap on the buildings.

Almost twenty years later, the Docklands have grown beyond anyone’s dreams. There are headquarters of financial institutions and square miles of office buildings, but also thousands of apartments. People live and work there, but it still looks and feels like a project, clinical, lifeless. Signs of the past abound and are often craftily incorporated into new structure, but there is no sense of historic continuity. Roaming the area on a sunny day is pleasant enough, but I couldn’t see myself living there.

Last night, I stayed on the DLR for two stops only. I got of at the ExCel, a huge conference center right at the end of the City Airport runway. While propeller planes were taking to the skies noisily, I followed the crowds into the ExCel, which feels a bit like an airport itself. A few minutes down the main avenue, there was a big entrance to the left, decked out in red, screaming Virgin London Marathon 2011. I had come to pick up my number and chip.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

bikes matter

Given that I've been a cycling nut for the better part of two decades, it might come as a surprise that I haven't owned more than six bicycles. It started in primary school when I got a compact blue single-speed that was foldable. I never folded it, but I rode it everywhere in the environs of our town and took it with me when I went away for high-school. There, it disappeared.

That didn't matter because I had already got a proper cycle, a single-speed again, but larger. Continually upgraded, the bike morphed into a tourer that took me to Hungary one summer and to the western edge of France the next. When I left for college, it disappeared.

That didn't matter because I had splurged on a proper road bike, a budget-price Cannondale with more drool than the tag justified: Clipless pedals, oversized aluminum frame, integrated shifters. I rode it in the hills around college and discovered the Tour on TV. When I crossed an ocean to go to grad school, I had to leave it behind.

That didn't matter because Utah was made for off-roading. I bought a proper mountain bike, another stellar bargain, and went head first down the Roller Coaster and the Bobsled. A year later I had swallowed so much dust that I brought my road bike to Utah for more civilized fun and promptly had it stolen outside Orson Spencer Hall.

That didn't matter because I found a replacement that exceeded the original in all aspects save the label on the frame (which was the same) at a bike swap a few months later. For the next five years I ripped myself to pieces with these two rides. When I went to Grenoble, they came with me despite the hassle, but the mountain bike was quickly stolen from my basement.

That didn't matter because in Grenoble the road bike ruled supreme, conquering the steeps up and down. For riding around town I got a vomit-green Motobecane that was older than me and in worse shape. Its feeble breaks promised prospective thieves certain death at the next intersection. The bike was so fragile that I abandoned it in front of the train station when I left for London.

That didn't matter because by that time the second Cannondale had neared the end of its life. It couldn't serve a higher purpose than commuter beater and took me to work almost daily, with a creaking bottom bracket and a whining chain. Battered from years of faithful service, it wasn't not a looker anymore.

It wouldn't matter if the bike died on me because there are Boris bikes all over town, sturdy cycles that are rentable by the hour upon insertion of a electronic key, perfect for a quick hop. The convenience is priceless and renting free if the bike is returned within the first half hour. I've been making good use of them already.

The other day, I found my account suspended. The telephone wallah told me of an incomplete journey. My last bike return hadn't registered. The bike was missing, and now it counted stolen. I was concerned about the financial ramifications. After all, I had responsibility for the bike.

"That doesn't matter", I was assured. "There are still a few problems with the system and we believe you didn't take the bike. We'll reenable your account and let you continue as before. We want users to benefit from the system and enjoy the bikes."

As I rode home from work today, my head bent forward to get the horizontal sun of a late afternoon out of my face, I contemplated the odd collection of bikes in my life. There was no rhyme and only the faintest reason, a succession powered by chance. Over the years, there was only one thing that never changed: When I have a bike, not much else matters.

Monday, April 11, 2011

dodgy dealings

It's sixteen months now that I've been living in my present apartment. The memory of the old place faded quickly. The new one was nicer in most regards. There are the little issues that are inevitable in England – the windows don't seal, the plumbing works on hope, the kitchen is ancient – but apart from that my apartment is nice and I feel at home.

Despite this generally positive situation, the odd dark cloud here and there has kept me cautious from the beginning. The agency that mediated the transaction operated from the back room of a terrace in Paddington. The emailed me the tenancy agreement once it was signed all around but never a hard copy. They also never emailed me proof that they had payed the deposit into the government-backed deposit protection scheme. Nothing to get worked up about, I think, but something a diligent agency would take care of.

The landlord is another issue. It's not a person but an obscure company by the name of Kingstar (UK) Ltd. According to the internet, they don't exist. According to the address and Streetview, they're someone's home office effort. None of this mattered initially. The hallway and stairs of our building are being cleaned weekly, and problems with the flat are being dealt with quickly. When my sink didn't drain, a geriatric handyman arrived the next day to botch it back together, doing the plumbing equivalent of painting the damage over to make it go away.

All was good, but one day I came home to find my door locked. I never lock it. It snaps shut by itself which is good enough for me. I called the landlord and was told the rent collector, on his way to the flat above, must have entered by accident. Why there is the need for a rent collector in the 21st century is a different issue, and why I have to write a physical check every four weeks yet another, but back then at the phone, there was only room for my exasperation at, first, someone unlawfully entering my flat and, second, the person I was talking to not being particularly contrite or apologetic. It almost sounded as if this were the way things were done. I told her this was not the way things are done, and please tell the rent collector.

I have no proof the rent collector ever returned, but when I had boiler issues earlier this year, when the heating failed or the hot water and sometimes both for no obvious reason, I called the guy in charge of the building, then called him again and, when nothing happened, again, leaving messages on voicemails and being cold. When I finally got hold of him, he told me he had checked the boiler and it was ok.

Maybe the boiler was – it keeps acting up but can usually be tricked into producing hot water to fill the bath or the radiators – but entering my flat without my permission most certainly wasn't. I told the guys in anger but he did what felt, through the telephone, like waving me off. That's when I changed the lock.

On Friday I got a letter from my landlord, telling me (quite correctly, it must be admitted) that I am in breach of contract for having changed the locks and relating, with perfect nonchalance, the third attempt at trespassing. Worse yet, the letter concluded with eastern promises of forcing my locks and breaking into my flat.

I was speechless for a while, but not hopping mad with anger. I felt reassured in my decision to change the locks, which I'm pretty confident they wouldn't dare to break. Trespassing might only be a civil offense without serious consequences, but breaking a lock to enter a flat someone else lawfully occupies is criminal damage. Just to make sure (which I'm not entirely, to be honest) the landlord understands the situation, I sent the following letter back:

I would like to draw your attention to the tenancy agreement, in particular clause 4 where it clearly states the following: “The landlord agrees with the Tenant that the Tenant paying the Rent and performing the obligations on the part of the Tenant may quietly possess and enjoy the Premises during the Tenancy without any lawful interruption from the Landlord or any person claiming under or in trust for the Landlord.”

Over the course of my tenancy, I have noticed two instances when persons working for you broke the law and trespassed onto the premises I’m renting. I alerted you to each infringement (rent collector and Xxx checking the boiler) and asked you to desist. You have failed to do so and admit in your latest letter that you consider trespassing your prerogative. It is not; it is a civil offense. Breaking the lock, as you threaten, would be criminal damage and a matter for the police.

I will not tolerate continued violation of the privacy of my home and will only restore the original lock once you’ve assured me in writing that you will refrain from further trespassing. Should you need access, please call me at xxxxx xxxxxx to make an appointment. Unless I’m out of town, I am generally available at a day’s notice.

I hope the tenancy will continue in mutual agreement and respect.

The aggressiveness has been toned down considerably since the first draft, but I think the message still comes across forcefully. Fingers crossed that it registers.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

buying books

There used to be an obscure bookstore behind Oxford Street, not too far from the Photographers' Gallery, that sold books in almost as many languages as there are versions of Wikipedia. Grant & Cutler was the name of the place. It was a bookstore of the old school, with high rows of shelves standing so close together that there wasn't room for one person to browse and another to pass by. There weren't any comfy chairs and there wasn't an espresso bar. There was no room for such decadence. The shop, only slightly less cavernous than the subterranean infinity of Sam Weller's on Salt Lake City's Main Street, was filled to the brim with books. The selection was split halfway between learning (textbooks, dictionaries and exercise books) and application (literature) of several dozen languages.

I went to Grant & Cutler today to see if they had a guidebook on Galicia in any language I am familiar with, (Nothing has been written on the northwestern corner of Spain in English in recent years), but I was to be disappointed. The bookshop had closed, a sign of the times perhaps. Unable to compete with the infinite shelves of, most bookshops are struggling for survival these days. Some have given up already, even chains. Those that still operate tend to be sad places, oozing an atmosphere of impending doom with their few customers and infrequently ringing tills, with customers walking out with a thin volume or a greeting card or a diode reading light to give as a gift.

Going into bookshops depresses me. The palpable feeling of desperation mixes with my guilt at not shopping more at bookshops and amplifies it. I love reading and I love books, but I don't buy many new books and thus contribute to the eventual extinction of bookstores. It makes me sad to imagine a world without bookstores. It would be a poorer world no doubt, but I see it as inevitable. The truth is that between used-book shops and, I don't need anything else for my literary needs.

In Grant & Cutler's window hung a sign that informed the potential customer and any idling passer-by that the store had found a new home inside the warm bosom of Foyles, the grandmother of London bookstores. Over its 100 years, Foyles worked hard at developing a reputation as the biggest independent bookseller in Britain and the most exasperating. There was not much commercial drive and disentanglable chaos on the shelves. Marcel Proust's 3,000-page A la Recherche du Temps Perdu was apparently filed under Short Stories. It was a very British oddity, but also a disaster.

About ten years ago, things started to change. Foyles became like other stores: brightly lit, modern, with electronic indexing and books in the right categories and sorted by author. Customers could grab a book off a shelf and pay for it on a till. It might sound obvious, but for Foyles this was a revolution.

After strolling through Soho, mostly on east-west running streets and always on the sunny side, I made it to Cambridge Circus and from there up Charing Cross Road. Foyles was open for business and looked inviting. The foreign-language section was enormous. Later, I would find a guidebook to Northern Spain in the travel section, but for now I was glued to Borges in a bit of a turn of events.

The other day, going out for the last long run before the marathon, I wasn't quite sure of what to put onto my Sansa. On a hunch, I went to the iTunes Store, searched for the New Yorker and subscribed to their fiction podcast. Among the episodes I downloaded and then listened to on an easy run along the Thames was Borges's The Gospel According to Mark, which I picked primarily because I love Paul Theroux, who was reading the story.

I had no idea what I was in for. The story is absolutely brilliant. So much is said in these few paragraphs that it's hard to imagine cutting even a single word and retaining the full meaning. The story is so tightly composed and yet feels so effortless. Here was something I absolutely would have to read, and read again.

So it came to pass that I found myself kneeling in front of one of many shelves filled with Spanish-language books recently acquired from Grant & Cutler (the books, not the shelves), going through Borges story collections one by one. The selection was wide and each table of contents long, but I wasn't successful. I might have missed it, but maybe it wasn't there. In any case, I left the store without a Borges. At least I bought the guidebook, but when I later found El Evangelio según Marcos online, I pounded another nail into the coffin of conventional book selling.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

name recognition

Scientists are often considered to be less materialistic than average, and that's probably true. Given the poor pay relative to their qualifications, they couldn't possibly find satisfaction otherwise. If scientists chased after the latest trends out on the high street or coveted penthouse apartments in fashionable neighborhoods, they would set themselves up for disappointment.

It seems, though, that most scientists couldn't care less. It starts with fashion, which is all but absent from a laboratory environment where decade-old freebie t-shirts and faded trousers rule, and ends with transportation. Banged-up beaters and tired bicycles are better rides to work than the latest convertible, and they're ridden proudly and with conviction. For most it's a happy marriage between convenience and necessity.

As such science is an odd place is this world. A paper in Evolution and Human Behavior (certainly not among my daily reads, but The Economist ran a story on it), currently in the final stages of being published, makes the case that outward displays of status carry tangible benefits. The experiments all boiled down to having subjects wear certain clothes and scoring volunteers' or the general public's reaction to them.

There were three kinds of clothes: Plain, unlabeled clothes as a negative control; clothes conspicuously displaying a label that doesn't carry much weight in the battle royal of sartorial uptightness, Slazenger in that case; and obvious designer clothes, Lacoste or Hilfiger, which are considered highly desirable. That's what the authors claim, anyway. I wouldn't know; I'm a scientist.

Except I do have opinion, a highly favorable opinion, as it happens, of the firm Lacoste. I admire them for their skillful playing of the game. They're in a way the Apple of apparel, making products that are defined more than anything by their instantly recognizable logo. But Lacoste pushes marketing even further than Apple. There isn't much of a product to support the logo. In the most extreme case, a white t-shirt from a discount mill is turned from a penny item to a £40 fashion statement solely by the sketchy application of an embroidered alligator. The wealth creation is phenomenal. It's a brilliant corporate strategy – as long as people buy into it.

It turns out, and that is what the paper mentioned above shows, that people have good reason to buy into it. The paper's abstract summarizes the findings: "The present data suggest that luxury consumption can be a profitable social strategy because conspicuous displays of luxury qualify as a costly signaling trait that elicits status-dependent favorable treatment in human social interactions." In other words, there are tangible benefits in showing that one spends freely, at least on fashion.

In one of the experiments, the same research assistant would go collect donations for a charity on consecutive evenings, dressed differently each time. The takings were substantially higher when the person was wearing a Lacoste shirt. In another experiment, when two groups of volunteers rated mock job interviews of the same person, they judged the candidate much higher when he was wearing a belogoed shirt, and considered him deserving of a higher salary.

That's something to keep in mind for the next job interview but needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Volunteers can be forgiven for being blinded by a reptile. HR professionals are expected to cut deeper. In any case, it's questionable that this strategy would pay off in a scientific setting where people interviewing in suits attract doubtful glances.

However, scientists have their own status symbols, nearly as arbitrary is fashion labels. As I've described in an earlier post, where one's research is published matters at least as much as what that research is. The journals effectively act as logos sticking on published papers. If your work has the approval of a prestigious journal, it is considered of high quality and will help you greatly on the way to an academic position or to have a grant application reviewed favorably.

To give Lacoste full credit, the probably pick a cloth supplier of better than rock-bottom quality, to sustain the illusion that the logo justifies the price. This doesn't end the analogy to scientific publishing. Next to a considerable amount of bogus papers, the biggest splashes and the most stunning breakthroughs tend to carry the imprimatur of the most prestigious journals. In either case, it is advisable to study the underlying quality.