Sunday, July 31, 2011

one year

The other day, a momentous mark was passed. In just about a year, another Olympic Games will be kicked off. Speeches were held and banners unfurled, and the Prime Minister was interviewed by a newspaper. I don't know much about the progress of the Games. Most of the action happens at the other end of town and I'm pretty certain that July next year I won't notice any commotion or disruption, or even a departure from the ordinary.

This was quite different ten years ago when Olympics came to my hometown for the first time. Back then I lived in Salt Lake City, studying at the University of Utah. Light rail was courageously introduced to Salt Lake Valley, Salt Lake 2002 schlock filled the stores, and the Olympic Village rose on campus. My daily life wasn't disturbed but excitement grew nevertheless, mostly concerning the question of how the Mormon establishment would handle the sudden massive influx of boisterous infidels.

To everyone's surprise and delight, the Mormons lay quiet when the Games came around. Where before you couldn't get a half a pint of beer without filling in a four-page membership application to a private club, people were now spilling Bud on Main Street as they sauntered from the Gallivan Center to the Medals Plaza, a full plastic cup in each hand. I didn't recognize my city of four years, but the liveliness wasn't to last. When the flame had been put out, the fire within died and the Zion Curtain fell back upon the state.

In London, such ups and downs won't happen. The Olympics might be big - and politicians and the media promote them as much as possible - but they're just another thing happening in this most happening of cities. Overall, the week before the Olympics will be just like a week of the Olympics: Transport is crazy, tourists wait on the wrong side of the escalators and clog Oxford Street, fifty concerts and exhibitions take place every day, be it Olympic or not.

Things look a bit different to those living in and around Stratford, site of the Olympic Stadium and Village and of a park of new venues. When I, rather optimistically, wanted to check out the area late in 2009, I found my progress blocked by vast construction nearing completion. Now, the Olympic Park and all venues have been finished, and, rather incongruously, a gigantic mall is ready to be handed over to the eager consumers of what by many measures is a deprived area of London. Take the DLR to Stratford, and the contrast to five years ago is just as big as the contrast between Mormon and Olympic Utah.

I personally, however, don't need the Olympics in London and don't care about them. I haven't applied for tickets (You can't simply buy them.) or signed up as volunteer. One year from now, I'll go through my city much as I do now, mouth agape and eyes in wonder, in awe of the diversity, pumped by the energy, intoxicated with culture and deliriously happy to live here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

raving lunatics

It's been a few days since the last post. I could mention, by way of excuse, that I've been working a lot. Taken four proteins from cloning to crystallization in ten mad days. Those in the know might argues that that's next to impossible. The sequencing alone takes two days, after all. I might retort, in the hope that not everyone reads this line, that I've just applied for another batch of jobs and exaggerate my workload in the lab ever so slightly to impress the HR departments that spent half of their time on the internet these days, trying to dig up dirt, incrimination and scandal on social networking and photo sharing sites. As my face is notably absent from those ventures, I must get exposure otherwise. Where was I?

Right, it's been a few days, and not just any few days. It's been a few days of extraordinary madness, a week for the history books, and if not that, then at least a ball for the disgruntled and grumpy, whose ranks I join tonight, for no other reason that to add a post to this languishing collection.

Last weekend, a devil worshiper with a confused mind of epic proportions ripped a hole into the streets of Oslo and then slaughtered five dozen kids on a heretofore peaceful island. As the police force's helicopter pilots were on vacation, no one got to the massacre until the devil worshiper had run out of bullets. The Norwegian prime minister, an unemotional character by all accounts, admonishes his shocked compatriots to keep their spirit of tolerance.

Who's more dangerous, I wonder, I gasp, I gape? I'm speechless at such delusion and even the mocking written word fails me temporarily. A week later, words have come back to me, but I'm still stupefied. How can one advocate tolerance, unquestioning accepting in other words, of a mass murderer, of his actions and beliefs? Tolerance is always the easy escape for the weak. Tolerance never solves conflicts and only delays escalations. If you need a catchword for community cohesion and an inclusive society, try respect. Argue all you feel necessary with those you don't agree with, never tolerate opinions you find intolerable, but always do it with respect. If someone had engaged with the devil worshiper instead of tolerating his ranting and muttering, he might have blown up earlier and in a much less destructive way.

It is a deplorable sign of the times that Norwegian politicians aren't the only ones who've been abandoned by their senses. The UK Foreign Secretary, for example, has swapped the inhabitants of the Libyan embassy in London as if they were on an assured shorthold tenancy lease that had run out. Everyone agrees that Gaddafi is an asshole, a tyrant, a criminal and a menace, but that's not a recent development. He took control of Libya when the Foreign Secretary was in primary school.

In recent months, when new-found courage and the desire for freedom burned hot in North Africa, the opposition in Libya, whose sheer existence came as a surprise to most, became emboldened and took up arms. Now, in the middle of a civil war, where enough loyalists support the old dictator to prevent him from toppling like Mubarak or Ben Ali, the UK delegitimizes a regime that has been illegitimate for too long – only to replace it with another that has never been democratically legitimized. The people's will (as in the people of Libya) has never been expressed. Yet the UK and the rest of the EU scheme much like the US has done in Afghanistan. As painfully as it was acquired, the knowledge that one ragtag group of militants is just as bad as the next seems to have been forgotten already, or at least ignored for the moment.

Talking about ragtag militants and raving lunatics, what is going on in Somalia? I see pictures of children will bellies bloated to bursting from starvation (kwashiorkor, did you know?), I see dusty plains devoid of vegetation, I see desperate families fleeing a hostile land on their bare teeth. Aid organizations exhort us to give: These people need food. That goes without saying, but they've been needing food for decades because they have never had what they need most, a competent government that can organize life and build a functioning society. A government that builds infrastructure, educates its citizens and brings the modern agriculture to those who farm the land.

Instead, what Somalis have is tribal warfare and al-Shabab bandits, marauding insurgents on horseback, their piously betoweled heads belying their barbaric actions (devil worshipers, again). When concerted international aid efforts got underway to parachute tons of food onto the parched plains, the shababs flatly denied the need, professing to see a mild drought where everyone else has a hard time comprehending the extent of the famine. Were Somalia not a worthless bit of geography in the poker of international politics and weren't the US and Europe already overstretched to breaking, another regime change-inducing aerial campaign wouldn't be far off, but it's hard to see how the people could benefit.

Tonight's mad dash around the globe is almost over. Only one stop remains. I wouldn't go so far as to call it the maddest of all (though history might prove me wrong – knock on wood it doesn't), but it's certainly up there. In the US Congress, stubborn and inflexible parties of various affiliations continue to argue – eminently reasonably in their own eyes – about how to spend a certain amount of money (aka the budget) while only spending a smaller amount of money (aka the debt ceiling). If that were possible, I would live in a grandiose loft in Kensington and have dinner at Joël Robuchon's every night.

There's much whining, especially in high finance, about the end of the world in four days' time. I don't believe that the world cares much if the US doesn't pay interest on its debts for a month, but you never know. Financial markets have been spooked by lesser things (for example the possible default of a southern European country that's as insignificant as its history is glorious), and acted irrationally more often than not. So if the world really ends, remember that there's a summer weekend before that. Go out and enjoy!

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Yesterday I got back home in the middle of the night, tired and sweaty after a long day at work that was followed by drinks in a couple of pubs. In the hall of my building I noticed bright red fire extinguishers and shiny escape route signs that I hadn't seen before. Someone must have stapled them to the walls while I was out. Nice, I thought, now I know which way to run when a fire licks at my life. Front door, in case you were wondering.

Then I got into my flat and – at the risk of giving out too much information – went straight to the loo for important business. When I was done, I realized that there was no water. The cistern emptied itself with a tired gurgle and wouldn't refill. The tap was dry. I don't buy bottled water and don't have a pitcher in the fridge. I was thirsty from drinking too much and needed a shower, but there wasn't any water in the house.

It is in situations like this one that one realizes what's truly important in life. Water is prime among those things, but it's so taken for granted in our world of ignorant affluence that the shock is almost physical when there isn't any. If the boiler breaks and there's no hot water and no heat, so what? It's not the end of the world. If a fuse blows and the lights go out and the radio, one adjusts quickly. Trains and buses seem essential but are delayed and canceled almost daily. Newspapers come and go. But stop the flow of water for five minutes and utter misery sets in.

I was miserable, thirstier by the minute and stinkier and sweatier now that I knew I couldn't clean my hands and face. Discomfort grew quickly. I couldn't even brush my teeth. Out on a limb, I called Thames Water, my supplier, and was more than a bit surprised when someone picked up, an actual person. He didn't know why I didn't have water. I had paid my bill and no disruption, excessive leakage or broken pipe had been reported in my area. He said he'd send an emergency responder before 4:10. It was shortly after midnight at that time and it didn't really occur to me that he was talking about the same night.

I went out to buy some water. Luckily, the nearest 24-hour off-license is only two minutes up the road. I got a 5-liter jug for two quid, imported for my convenience from Turkey, and started contemplating the post I would surely commit to my blog in due course. It would focus on the frequently neglected importance of water, the privileged life we lead with cold, clean water always gushing from the tap, and the economics of drilling a well in Anatolia and then shipping tons of water to rainy England for good profit. I got back to my flat, washed my hands and face in a teapot and brushed my teeth. Happiness and comfort restored, I went to bed, deferring all worries until the next morning.

Literally five minutes later – I hadn't even decided which eye to close first – the harsh rattle of my doorbell jolted me to my feet. From the window I saw a white Thames Water van and a person with a poker to check the water supply. To say I was speechless wouldn't do it justice. I was stupefied. How do you achieve a twenty-minute response time in a city of eight million? At half past midnight?

The Thames Water person didn't think much of it. She just did her job, uncovering the underground meter cave and braving spiders and unknown critters of the night to realize that there wasn't anything wrong. "It's inside your property", she said. "You need to get a plumber." Then she came inside and checked the pipes and the valves. All was fine, but there was still no water. The only thing left was the stopcock outside my flat, high up on the wall and hard to reach. When she fiddled with it, my toilet's cistern started noisily refilling, easily the most beautiful sound of the week.

It could be argued that I could have checked (and fixed) this myself, but one of the prerogatives of renting is an utter lack of responsibility. Something breaks? Let someone else take care of it. Make a call and the problem will be fixed. That sounds good in theory and gives me profound peace of mind, but in the middle of a duh!-situation, it risks making me look like a complete fool. The Thames Water woman was happy to help and didn't see it this way. We both agreed that the fool was the person that had closed the stopcock in the first place, in all likelihood the person that also installed the fire safety equipment, though why one action would lead to the other will forever remain a mystery.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


It has never happened before that my concerns were answered that quickly and that decisively. On Wednesday night I wrote concerning the phone hacking scandal that has embroiled the British media that "the true scandal is that the News of the World is still in business". Less than 24 hours, action had been taken and the News's demise had been announced. The last issue came out this morning. Tomorrow, 200 journalists, editors and assorted staff are looking for a new job.

On the one hand, I'm happy with the outcome, happy that the only possible course of action has been taken. No matter what the current staff claim, the News was not a good newspaper in the classical sense. Its contributions to the exposure of economic and political misbehavior of national significance and the checking and balancing of government were minimal.

On the other hand, people will suffer that had nothing to do with the phone hacking scandal. When that was initially revealed, many on the News's payroll were replaced and the paper got a new editor-in-chief. It also got a new face, claim its supporters, and had nothing to do with the lurid tabloid of yore, but its scoops that went national tell a different story.

Most notably, there were the sex parties of Max Mosely, then the boss of FIA, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile. Hookers engaged in bondage and S&M were first spread out in the privacy of his basement bedroom and then on the front page of the News of the World. News? Who cares? Which healthy, sane person anyway?

The present News of the World was by no stretch of the imagination a paragon of journalistic integrity and moral virtue. But it might have just been a collateral victim of the crisis it caused. It is worth noting that more than two-and-a-half million people bought the paper up until last week, unfazed by scandal, and many will do so today in the hope of getting a piece of history.

The News didn't close because it failed commercially. It was closed down by its proprietor, News International, in a highly cynical move calculated to have no negative consequences. The main reason is the attempt to save the long-planned and highly contentious bid for the broadcaster BSkyB. No matter that the News of the World was the most profitable paper in News International's UK portfolio, TV is apparently where the real money is. (And here I was thinking that the internet age had started and group viewing was out.) But with every new revelation regarding the News's phone hacking, public opinion and increasingly politicians turned against News International and the proposed takeover looked ever more likely to be blocked at the last minute. The News was sacrificed for damage control. It had become a liability to the larger business strategy but also threatened to taint its sister papers, most notably The Times. The gap left by in the publishing landscape will in time be filled by another, very similar title from the same company, probably by expanding The Sun to a seven-day schedule. The direct financial loss for News International will probably be small.

The loss for the employees that lost their job will be bigger, at least until they are absorbed in the Sun on Sunday. But I'm wondering, if you're creating not only a successful newspaper but one whose readership is higher than any other papers' in the UK, and you lose the support of your owner, why don't you just continue anyway? Find cheap office space somewhere in an unfashionable part of London, buy a few computers, call the advertisers that used to love you and get them to recommit, and put together the first issue of The New News. Then email it to a press, distribute the product and see what happens.

That's how capitalism should work, anyway. Selling a product that people want to buy should be good business. But something's wrong with capitalism. When a profitable newspapers goes under but failed businesses like banks, airlines and car manufacturers are kept alive by generous government handouts, something's seriously wrong. Capitalism is broken. There's a lot to say about this, more than fits into this post. And it will take more than 24 hours to say it, and especially to fix.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011


A scandal has gripped the UK. This wouldn't be news because the British dig scandals and there's one every other day, but this one is different. It's not a proper scandal. There are no drunk models, snorted lines, exposed boobs or corrupt politicians. The scandal is an anti-scandal by all accounts but it has grabbed everyone's attention. Let me elaborate.

The British print media are revered and reviled at the same time. At one end of the spectrum is The Guardian, the vanguard of serious journalism, a quality daily with few equals anywhere in the world. The Financial Times is another beacon of quality and seriousness, lean and focused as only a single-topic daily can be. The Times and The Independent aren't too bad either but have been slipping in recent years. They suffer, respectively, from an unqualified owner (Murdoch) and editorial bias that leans just a bit too far for my taste. These four are the only newspapers that I buy from time to time.

At the other end of the spectrum are The Sun, The Daily Mail and other members of the yellow press, simplistic rags with big headlines and few content, notorious for sensational stories, boobs on page 3 and celebrity gossip. They are populist in their editorial opinion and identifiably politically aligned. It's probably a bit harsh to say that they are the newspapers for those who can't read, but I wouldn't touch them even if they were free. (I've bought the Mail once when it was bundled with The Graduate but tossed it unread.) These newspapers are so bad it's hard to believe.

But it's not only that they are bad, it's also their entire business model that's questionable. They specialize in digging up embarrassing stories and exposing the private lives of anyone from celebrities to the unsuspecting granny next door. People love them. Their readership is huge. And no one asks how they get the material they then sensationalize.

No one asks but the truth came to light anyway. Over the last few years, the Sunday-only News of the World has been in deep trouble for hacking into cell phone mailboxes of various celebrities and royals. There was a police investigation (which might or might not have been obstructed), an editor resigned (and became the prime minister's communications director later), apologies were muttered. The public professed to be appalled but continued to buy the newspaper. Circulation remained at about 2.6 million copies. What the News was caught doing was illegal but seemed a sensible way of getting information from reclusive people, information that the public was keen on getting.

This week a twist was added to a saga that has been going since at least 2007. The Guardian reported that the News hacked into the mailbox of a missing girl that was later found to be murdered and into the mailboxes of relatives of some of the victims of the terror attacks on London's tube and buses six years ago. Tears flow, the public is horrified, politicians speak out against disgraceful actions, and advertisers end their contracts with the paper, but all I can see is stinking hypocrisy.

Everyone should know how tabloids work. No one should be surprised that they act unethically by default. Virtue is not their creed and journalism not exactly what they do. If you want to get worked up about something, why not target the more than two million freaks that buy this rag, thus perpetuating their strategy. It's their readers that call for ever more lurid and sensationalist stories.

Don't misinterpret my ranting. What the newspaper did was and is wrong and despicable, but it's systemically wrong and isn't any wronger now. Tabloid journalism is the scandal, not a particular hacked mailbox, and Prime Minister David Cameron's outrage that, "We are no longer talking about politicians and celebrities, we are talking about murder victims, potentially terrorist victims, having their phones hacked into." is misguided. This is not the scandal.

Phone hacking is illegal, even when it targets celebrities and politicians. The problem is that it makes good business sense for a tabloid. The incentives are high and potential punishment is low. If there is agreement in society that what has happened isn't acceptable, the laws that exist have to be enforced, and the penalties need to be increased. It's not enough that an editor is sacked while the company behind him rambles on. The true scandal is that the News of the World is still in business.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

probing strides

The events described in the previous post happened a week ago. The time stamp tells it all. But I was traveling without a computer and wrote things down on paper the night after the trip, copying them to digital only yesterday. I got to the airport with no time to spare but made it through security without delay and got to the departure area just on time. Maybe all the construction at Gatwick is actually improving things. Maybe the recession is still working its magic, holding the number of travelers down.

There had been no reason to rush anyway. The strike of lightning that had incapacitated the railroads hadn't passed the airport by without effect. Here, some essential equipment in the tower was knocked out, and no planes were starting and landing for a while. That was before I arrived but I could see the aftermath. My flight was delayed by an hour and a half. I was lucky. The Easyjet flight to Rome, originally scheduled to depart at 3:50pm, was "boarding at 22:00". An even earlier Ryanair flight was only offering "more information at 19:00". What a way to start a vacation.

I wasn't going on vacation, though. I was on my way to a job interview, and it was a big one. It was a job I really wanted, a job that I was well qualified for but in rather short supply of experience. Continuing where a master of the trade might bow out was a scary prospect, but I drew confidence and strength from the fact that I had been invited to the interview, making it past the application stage with ease.

Ease had withdrawn when I started preparing for the talk I was asked to give. The scientific part was easy, but what about my vision? I cooked something up and put it in what I hoped were convincing words, which I then spoke onto a dictaphone, to be replayed and worked with on the trip. I don't memorize my presentations but, like all scientists, speak freely, aided only by the cues on the slides, and like to know roughly where I'm going. I like to think of creative transitions and clever phrasings in advance.

The best implementation of this strategy was my thesis defense. After a nervous first few minutes, I got into a zone. I had two strands of thought unfold in parallel in my mind. I knew what I was saying and where I had to point to make my point, but I also knew, unambiguously and without thinking, what I was going to say a minute or so later. It was like being able to see into the future. I knew what the next slide would be and how I would introduce it – while I was explaining the current slide.

But preparing the presentation was for later, for when I had relaxed in my seat on the plane. I would go through the recording again, searching for inconsistencies while at the same time internalizing the flow of the logic. Right now I was too distracted with continuously updated information and quadrophonic announcements. I took the stack of scientific papers I had printed and tried to get acquainted with the interviewers' work – in between nervous glances to the screens, distractions by restless passengers and finally the walk to the gate and the boarding stampede.

On the plane I immersed myself in my talk. I was singularly focused, my brain burning towards the one goal of the trip, and as it sometimes happens when I think very hard of something very specific, something entirely unconnected jumped up and took advantage of my elevated state of mind. I figured out, just like that, without thinking about it, why two of the workstations in the lab had stubbornly resisted being upgraded. I had troubleshot the problem all week – to absolutely no effect. I knew what wasn't the problem – everything I could think of – but I couldn't think of the problem. And now, the solution stood before me as if it had been written down by someone who knew what he was doing. There wasn't a question or a doubt. It was absolute clarity – and so much more convincing than what I was listening to through a monaural earpiece.

It got late and my work pace slowed. We approached our destination and landed at an airport that seemed to have closed for the night already. There wasn't anyone at the counter that normally sells tickets for the necessary shuttle to the town I was going to, and no one else was waiting curbside, but the coach showed up on time, the driver took my money, and an hour later I lay in my hotel bed, phrases, arguments and metaphors still buzzing my head.

The interview went well. It was tougher on the interviewers than on us three interviewees because presentations, panel discussions and one-on-ones were held in parallel without overlap. The interviewers were thus busy from 9 to 7, while we candidates had occasional coffee breaks and even time for a walk around the block. I learned that the job is even better than I thought and that my chances are even slimmer. The talk was ok, but I'm not sure my vision was entirely convincing. All that remains to do now is keep my fingers crossed.