Wednesday, June 29, 2011

strange strikes

Last night it happened again; London was struck. It is not exactly a rare occurrence but the response is always an explosion of complete confusion and chaos, as if the world, to everyone's utter surprise, had decided to end. Last night, there was weather. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, nothing catastrophic, no typhoon or tornado, no celestial avalanche or once-in-a-century flooding, just weather: a change of atmospheric conditions, a disturbance of generally calm patterns. Things were different from the days before, catching meteorologists off-guard and triggering a chain reaction of pandemonium that radiated outward from London with every person on the move, a particle-wave of interference in everyone's daily routine. Last night, it rained.

Rain, every well-informed tourist who has never set foot in the city will tell you, is London's default weather. In the absence of a forecast to the contrary, wet clouds hang low over the Tower. You shouldn't go sightseeing without an umbrella. This is as simple as it is wrong. The last twenty years have been good with the city. Global warming has pumped up the days of sunshine and cut down on the rain. London is no desert, but it's far from the damp cold misery it used to be. The Met Office even declared a drought earlier this year. Still, sometimes it rains.

Yesterday was such a day. The rain fell fast and hard in the afternoon and there was lightning – not a mad storm but considerable atmospheric activity. Nevertheless, when I embarked on my way to the airport, things had calmed down already. It was the time to go home from work and the usual hordes did, picking up, at the entrance of their tube station, a free newspaper that they would then be unable to unfold and read in the packed train. The streets were almost dry.

At Victoria Station, throngs were crowding the main hall as they always are, throngs of people staring at the big screens with all departure information except the platforms. Their commuter trains depart the same time every day, yet leaving the platforms unchanged and putting them into the timetable is too much to ask of National Rail. That's why the main hall always looks like a teachers' union demonstration. In irregular intervals groups dash off towards the trains as if retirement at 50 waited there.

I waited for the train to Gatwick to be ennobled with the whereabouts of its departure, but all I got was the cancellation of the train to Brighton, due to depart a few minutes before mine and to go in the same direction. Then everything happened at once. Crisp announcements of delays, more cancellations and rerouting filled the air, all united by an excuse that turned heads. Lightning had struck a set of points near Gatwick.

The English don't do indignation or anger – unless they're part of a teachers' union demonstration. There's no point. They've seen it all before. They might not have heard the lightning strike excuse – who would think of that anyway? – but they know that when there's rain, when there's weather, when it's not a mellow 20C and cloudy, things will go wrong, and creative excuses are cooked up with more energy than good and lasting solutions.

The day before the light-enhanced downpour, the temperature had exceeded 30C, leading to transportation mayhem much worse than what was going on right now. Dozens of trains got stuck and thousands of passengers spent hours locked in boiling carriages – unless they managed to break a door and walk home. One of the excuses that was produced to (successfully) prevent the media from commenting on incompetence and criminal neglect was sagging overhead lines. Your high-school physics teacher told you that metal expands when heated. Public-relations officers at the railroads tell you that the line has nowhere to go but down. Engineers in France, Germany and Japan shake their heads in disbelief. And prospective passengers stand patiently, waiting for the chaos to be resolved.

I had no time to wait. My flight's scheduled departure was less than an hour away. I went over to the Gatwick Express platforms, a place I normally stay away from. The Express is twice as expensive as the regular train and doesn't stop en route to the airport, thus saving all of five minutes. That's not worth my money, but it looked as if the Express were the only train still running.

A conductor shooed me on as I approached. "Get on quick. We're about to depart." Just the right words, but spoken in vain. Desperate travelers hung to doors much like fare-dodgers do in India. There was no way in, and the train got moving without me. The doors closed only with difficulty. I would have let panic take over at this point had I had any hope that this would help. Instead, I followed the swarm of fellow travelers to the platform where the next train to Gatwick was announced. This changed a minute later to a train to Croydon (not good), then to one to Brighton without stopping (not good either) and finally reverted to the first option, but with some added stops on the way. The doors opened against the assault of the crowd and the carriages quickly filled. I was flushed in and then, a little while later, taken away as the train left the station where confusion still reigned. I had fifty minutes left.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

linked out

Today is a day that should have been a while ago. Almost a year back I was for the first time seriously contemplating the course of action I took today. Back then, I was dithering, reconsidering and eventually failing to pull through. Today, with unlikely decisiveness, I did what needed doing. With just a few clicks, I deleted me LinkedIn account. With even fewer clicks – though they were preceded by an internet search and followed by a bit of typing – I bailed from Facebook. I'm not socially networked anymore.

That I had been at all is something I can't convincingly explain. It's not exactly my nature to follow the herd. Friendster passed me by unnoticed. I was never on MySpace or the virtual kindergarten playground. I had repeatedly refused membership at Hi5, despite invitations from people I strongly cared about. Then, four years ago and out of nowhere, I got sucked into Facebook. A couple of years later, I linked myself in without anyone's prompting me, but I never fully understood what the buzz was about.

A year ago, when I didn't find the strength to go all the way, I trimmed my friends list to people I would call good friends in real life. The next morning, I had an email in my inbox from an acquaintance asking me why I had defriended her. "Did I offend you with something I said?" she asked. With mumbled apologies, I added her back and stumbled on.

Yesterday, I read in the paper that there is now in London a company that offers social networking concierge services. Not quite knowing what that's supposed to mean, I read on. Turns out that – who'd have thought? – advertising your holiday abroad to the whole world is not a good idea, especially if you have a house full of nice things. The company thus proposes to post engineered updates to clients' profiles in an attempt to confuse and deter burglars.

Think about this for a minute. The concern is that too much information exposes your privacy. Instead of stopping the flood of updates, you add to it. How about just cutting it? Because if you mix fake and real updates, how are your friends gonna know? And if they already know, you don't need to post at all. (This all is besides the dubious value of posting an invented piano lesson in your living room while you also upload photos of yourself on the beach in Ibiza.)

The story is unrelated to my situation. I kept a tight lid on my bucket of friends and I always updated my privacy settings to the strictest possible value whenever Facebook diluted their standards again. But it made me stop and question the status quo, and I realized what a pile of crap Facebook and LinkedIn are. I'm so glad I'm out.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

quick drinks

The thing I'm going to miss when I'm not in London anymore is pub nights. There's no other place like the UK for going for drinks and then going home and the evening has barely started. It makes for a surreal experience in the middle of the week, as if reality were something of someone else's concern.

Never mind workdays starting at ten, the lab always takes off to the pub shortly after five. Today's a beautiful day, the sun is still high and shining strongly. I'm a bit late to leave the lab because I'm discussing a structure with a collaborator, but when I get to the Builder's Arms, the pub is still deserted. We're occupying the first-floor seating, enjoying ales and assorted soft drinks.

I grab an IPA for me and refills for the fastest drinkers and join the conversation. Over the next three hours, drinks will be replenished several times and food will arrive. The Builder's Arms is no gastro-pub but they cook up decent chow. I'm having a cassoulet that gets me into a decidedly French mood. My first ale is horrible, as ales are supposed to be, but even worse. The next drink is a Sierra Nevada, also called an ale but of industrial heritage and an altogether different beast.

When I walk home, not the first one out the door but leaving a good-sized group behind, the sun is getting ready to set. The light has red-shifted and every illuminated brick wall radiates love. It is barely nine o'clock, and I get home earlier than I have the two days before when I stayed working late. I pick up speed on the twenty-minute walk, hoping to sweat out the alcohol to make room for a few more hours of work at home. I've got a presentation to prepare and a structure to sort out.

It doesn't quite work out. A certain dizziness obscures my brain, and back home the sofa feels more appropriate than the desk chair. As the laptop works equally in either location, I just sink down and get on with it. The Beatles are on the stereo; the shops below are still busy with custom. The night hasn't started yet.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

good deal

"Fifty quid", my friend said when he had come to the conclusion that he wanted to sell. "It's yours for fifty quid."

The quid is a curious creature. No one knows how it made it into the English language. Hateful of the letter s, it objects to being followed by one, or preceded. There's not much it does; mostly is just sits there, impassively, in the place of a pound or of pounds, giving meaning to numbers.

"Two hundred quid", I said. "There's no way you're getting away with less. I've seen auctions on ebay start at that. I'll pay you two hundred."

Bargaining is an essential component of successful business transactions. Fuller, Smith & Turner wants to buy Capital Pub Company, a rival chain, and submits an offer of 175p per share. Capital deems the offer without merit, tears it up and flushes it down the toilet. The bargaining has started. Fuller makes an improved bid of 200p, which is rejected again, but in the near future the two will meet at a point where both are happy.

In the interaction with my friend, something similar is happening. "This is ridiculous", my friend says. "It's a good camera, but it's been used. Give me a hundred if you must."

Shops in the West have done away with bargaining for convenience and speed, and to be able to advertise not only the quality of an product but also the price, thus highlighting value. In the Arab world, however, bargaining is still part of the everyday fabric of life. You check out the shops at the bazaar and peruse the wares on display, feeling their quality and comparing. You might ask the shopkeeper for an opinion and he'll dish it out with flourish. When you find something you like you ask for the price, thus indicating that you're going to buy it. After inspired haggling, you and the shopkeeper will shake hands over a deal gone well.

My friend is no Arab, and neither am I. Bargaining is not engrained in our culture, and an observer would be baffled by our interaction. But however we're approaching it, our intention is orthodox. We want to arrive at a price that we're both happy with. "Hundred fifty is my last offer", I say, following the established protocol to the letter, even if not in spirit.

Despite my inexperience, I can sense that we're getting somewhere. I have never bargained before, though I came close once. It was in a carpet shot in Tunisia where, over two glasses of mint tea, I felt baby lamb carpet with my hands and eyes. So soft, so beautiful! But I didn't need one and I didn't want to buy one. Without asking for a price and certainly without making an offer, I walked out of the shop, empty-handed but happy. The shopkeeper waved at me without ill feeling.

This time around, I want the deal. I'm looking for a compact camera, for something to replace my heavy SLR when I travel light. My friend's Canon fits the bill and has proven its worth on recent extended trips with some spectacular shots. I realize that what I and my friend want is not that far apart.

"A hundred and twenty, can we agree on that?" my friend suggest after some hesitation. "I fear I'm overcharging you, that you're going to regret it, but if you insist, if you really want it..." His voice trails off. Our eyes meet. There are two nods.

Friday, June 17, 2011

world news

Pizza from the oven, a beer from the fridge, dinner is ready, the TV is on, the world is on flames. Prices rising, crisis peaking, higher and sharper every night. The beer tastes good. The crust of the pizza is crisp and the prosciutto juicy. A masterpiece.

For four months now, the people of Libya have been fighting their leader, their father, their ersatz god, their oppressor and tyrant. For four months they have been crying for freedom and dying for it. The world has been watching with interest at first, then they sent in forces that operate almost unknown.

On TV, what few pictures there are, I see sweaty faces, veins bulging from screaming, fear in eyes but also hope and and promise, exhaustion and determination. Tomorrow might be, tomorrow must be, tomorrow will be a better day, they seem to be saying, and they keep saying it, day upon day.

But I also see a stalemate that not even low-flying attack choppers can break. Is it a revolution if internal dissent is so sparse that a regime hangs on without troubles even when bombarded by a willing coalition of substantial military firepower? Do I do the rebels injustice when I ask how much they represent the people? Where are the people in Tripoli? Where are the people where it matters? And why is the West incapable of decisive action?

Why did they/we choose to intervene in the first place? A brutal dictator slaughtering dissidents doesn't normally raise eyebrows. But the exuberance of a new world order in North Africa led the West into a quick quagmire. I'm not denying the freedom fighters support, but I wonder why they among many deserving parties got it.

On 30 Sept 2009, I drove a rattling Kia north from the town of Hama, Syria. In a country of eternal history, where 3000-year-old walls are a matter of fact, Hama comes as a shock. The only old buildings are a lonely mosque and the palace of the former Ottoman governor. Everything else dates from the last 30 years. It's not that Hama isn't an old city. It counts among those with longest continuous habitation. But of its glory not much remains.

Hama has risen from the ruins of total devastation after President Assad punished an Islamist uprising in the town with heavy artillery and airborne shelling, killing a reported 30,000 and displacing many more. The day after the destruction of the city was like the day before. Life in Syria continued, and questions were not allowed.

I turned the Kia off the main highway at Maraat al-Numaan, an insignificant patch of dusty sprawl halfway between Hama and Aleppo. There was little grass and not much prosperity, just five roads to dubious destinations. I didn't even stop for gas (later regretted) and drove on towards excitement and adventure.

Yesterday I read that President Assad, son of the same and just as bad, has ordered his army to focus the guns of its tanks on Maraat al-Numaan where anti-government demonstrations have apparently been staged. With the world watching, history is repeating itself. People will be killed for the vanity and anxiety of a hapless ruler, people whose only crime has been to question authority.

It's not the brutality of the regime that shocks me – it's a brutal regime, after all – but the silence of the watching world. Is it stunned surprise? Is it helplessness? Is it the painful realization that the defenders of freedom are stretched too thin? It's all of the above, probably, and it's certainly shameful. The free world gobbles pizza and beer instead of fighting for our values.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


An urge overcame me the other day to play chess again. It came out of nowhere, surprised me a bit. I play on and off on Yahoo! but don't get much pleasure out of it. Nothing compared to the times when I was a kid and played every weekend.

I was never a very good player, and my buddies weren't very good either. I never won an individual title of any sort, nor did my friends – except on the county level where someone had to win, and we traded honors. But we were all decent players and we congealed into a powerful team over the years.

You might not think of chess of a team sport – if you think of chess as a sport at all – but it is. Both. Even though every player plays his or her own game in a team event, it's a team sport because the presence of the other player spurs you on. The knowledge that your game matters for the team is a powerful driving force.

We always knew we were in it together. It was never about individual glory. This is probably why we, as a team, played much better than our individual ratings would have predicted. We exhausted ourselves to many narrow wins that let us forget the few big losses against teams that were clearly better. For four years ours was among the six best kids' teams in the country, without title hopes but consistently up there with the best.

The golden days ended when I turned fifteen. There were are other things on my mind, on all of our minds. Also, some friends moved and some found their passion elsewhere. We tried to keep the spirit on weekends during games but the fire was gone. It was a halfhearted effort. Yet it took until I left for college that I dropped the game entirely.

I had initially scheduled my weekend trips home to coincide with the men's team games. It was tradition, and it was good fun – being with the guys that I had known for a decade. But classical chess games can take up to six hours, and when the team plays you don't leave before the last game is over. There wasn't much more to Sundays than chess and the trip back to college. It was too much.

And so I haven't played in fifteen years, except online every rare now and then.

Yesterday, I played in the Golders Green rapidplay tournament, a North London institution, six games of half an hour per player. For an event with such tradition and popularity – running for over twenty years, the monthly tournament attracts up to 100 players – the event is extremely low-key and familial. It is held in a simple church hall filled with two dozen benches with boards and clocks. Volunteers sell refreshments, much of it homemade. Games are paired according to the organizer's famous hand shuffle algorithm as soon as a round's results trickle in. There's no computer. The only bit of technology is an online entry form. But it exists only to make it easy for the organizer to set up the first game of the day. You don't have to pay when you register, or even before you play your first game. Pay when it's convenient – but before you leave!

There were four subgroups: cracks, muppets, and two intermediate groups. I wasn't quite sure where to put myself but excluded the first two. At the risk of sandbagging, I chose the lower intermediate group. It was a good match. I played six good games, without being overpowered or overpowering, with some spirited attacks and some good strategies, and without serious blunders except the one to end the last game. I hardly remember opening moves but got out well in each game. In the end, I won some and I lost some, and I enjoyed the day a lot.

It wasn't so much the joy of playing, though that was real enough. The most amazing thing was the focus that a serious game of chess forces on the mind. I had forgotten about this, completely lost it. Throughout the six games, for a total of more than five hours, I didn't have a stray thought. It was amazing. There were only knights, pawns and queens, weak points, open files, and the ticking of the clock. I was in the game, calculating variations, conceiving strategies, balancing attack and defense, totally zoning.

I also completely exhausted myself mentally. On the tube on the way home, too wasted and worked up to read, I imagined how it would be to have that kind of steel determination at work. An ambitious thought – imagine what you could achieve – but I couldn't survive it for more than two days. Better play chess once a month and be dizzy for an hour afterwards.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

close to home

The trip wasn't over last night when I made it onto the bus that took us out to the plane. Though it was the middle of the night and there was no one around, the jet wasn't parked by the gate. It took us a good ten minutes to make our way out to hangar 2 where we had to wait some more before we were allowed to board.

The flight arrived at Heathrow at half past midnight, just in time to miss the last tube into town. By 12:45, I stood at the central bus station, waiting for the night bus, which was just around the corner, the first bit of luck on the trip. Less than an hour later I got off at Olympia and took the home stretch down North End Road in the darkness of what appeared to be a peaceful night.

Appearances can be deceiving. Very near my home, too close for comfort, a man was stabbed to death on a little patch of grass. I saw the police cordon and a solitary officer this morning on my way to work, but the night before I saw and heard nothing. The scary thing is that the crime happened only minutes and meters from where I was walking.

From the Evening Standard

worn out

Despite the delay, almost two hours by now, agony hasn't set it. Not even pain. The suffering is still at a level where it could easily be mistaken for tranquility. People are sitting peacefully, calmly passing time, looking left and right for encouragement and shreds of information. But periodic announcements, mumbled and muffled, don't shed light. Weary individuals congeal into a community of confusion.

A flight to London is announced for Gate A12. Heads turn, soliloquacious murmurs turn into muttered questions, just loud enough to be accidentally overheard by the nearest neighbor, just in case that person is interested in an exchange of words, in bits of conversation to break the tedium, to rupture the cocoon of lonesome travel. What did it say? Is it for us? Did you hear that? Should we go over there? The announcement was only a short burst of noise, all but inaudible over the soft chatter of tired travelers that's amplified by the low ceiling. A group of return missionaries of an evangelical sect on their way back to Denver have gathered in a far corner, their palaver a constant company of the passing minutes. At least they're not singing hymns. Then a reply from my neighbor: "They're not exactly trying to be clear."

And so the announcement, joyful but misleading – it wasn't for us, and maybe we had all misheard – causes no commotion, no stowing of belongings, no frantic grabbing of bags. There is no hectic rush; no one starts it, and everyone is happy not to follow. No one leaves his seat in waste of precious energy. Who knows how long the night will be? People tilted their heads with a hope they didn't really believe in and listened with forbearing. Now they slump back into their chairs and withdraw into their books, iPods, Kindles and newspapers, escaping into separate worlds where time doesn't stand still and life isn't suspended. And so the common wait continues almost unnoticed, and ignorant apathy is the defining condition rather than resignation. It has been so long already that no one feels energetic enough to resign. We just sit stoically on our seats doing what we've done over the course of the previous three hours – nothing.

A woman stretches out in exhaustion, turning three molded chairs, each seat an empty hollow, into a bench that can't possibly be comfortable. But her body is so tired it couldn't care less about comfort. Next to me, a Pakistani fellow starts a solitary fight. Exploding in wanton optimism, he starts filling in his UK landing card. It doesn't seem justified to me, given that we haven't left yet, that there isn't even a sign we will anytime soon. "You're sure you're not tempting fate?" I ask.

When I had made it across security, one of the first to do so because I was at the airport early, a great orange sunset spread under boiling clouds beyond the runway. The wet tarmac glistened brilliantly as it reflected the last rays of the sun. The beauty wasn't static. Flashes of lighting whipped low above the horizon and thunder rumbled on. A great show, but it didn't look good for a timely departure. "Due to the current weather situation, we are experiencing delays in take-off and landing," chirped the PA system without the least concern.

I logged off and dove into East of Eden, losing myself in the beauty of Steinbeck's gentle prose. At some point, the chain-link curtain around the duty-free shop to the left was noisily pulled back. Enough travelers had gathered to justify commercial activity. But duty-free is only a marketing term in Europe. Duty and taxes must be paid within the EU. You might as well buy the booze on sale in your local grocery store.

Three chapters down, the announcement that weather-related restrictions had been lifted at the airport passes without direct consequences for our trip. Words don't have the power to cut through the universal listlessness. Either there's a plane ready for us to board or there isn't. There isn't, but there's another announcement, louder this time, seemingly urgent and relevant: "We should be in the air in 20 minutes." But we're still at the gate, and the gate is still closed. Boarding hasn't started yet, and there's no apology.

Two rows down a toddler tirelessly attacks his dad's smart phone. The abused instrument reciprocates, to general consternation, with irritating sounds of exuberant farm animals, spring action and cartoon escapes. Acoustic torture rises above the carpet-bombing of bad smell. It was the warmest day of the year before the storm and is pretty hot even after it. The airport tries to be green and lets its air-conditioning run at half load, barely keeping the temperature in check. Sweat pours from faces and soaks into shirts and blouses. It isn't pretty.

By the time the boarding call came, it was so late that the lights in the main part of the airport had already been turned off. Activity had come to a halt. We were the only ones around, left like lost luggage. Blank eyes stared into infinity as a queue formed at the jet bridge. Mentally asleep I crossed the gate to the stairs down, so wasted that I didn't even realize that the agent who checked and tore my boarding pass handed me back the wrong end, the longer stub. He comes clambering behind me and catches me before I enter the bus to the plane.