Thursday, August 25, 2011

eat animals

It's been a while since I philosophized about eating meat in an increasingly crowded and affluent world. My own take at being a facultative vegetarian kept me mostly meat-free through the first half of 2010. Every now and then I had a little treat, a good way of eating meat, I thought – and very tasty. As the months passed, though, I fell a bit from the veggie gospel. During lab meeting I pick the roast beef sandwiches, I buy prosciutto di Parma from time to time and sometimes, if I need a condensed dose of animal flavor, a saucisson sec. I had chicken gizzards in Jordan and Rojões à moda do Minho in Porto (both surprisingly tasty). But my basic position hasn't changed.

Meat tastes good and there is nothing inherently wrong with eating meat. The evolution of the big brain that distinguishes us from animals would have been impossible without a meat-based diet. It is for this reason alone that I refuse to condemn, whatever happens to the state of the world, the practice of eating meat. It has done us good. It has pulled out from the jungle and put us in nice warm flats. That said, evolution provides no compelling reason to continue the uninhibited consumption of meat. In contrast, it should serve as a reminder of literally leaner times. Even at the cusp of becoming humans, our ancestral apes consumed only a fraction of the meat we stuff into our faces today.

My favorite restaurant – aside any that sits adjacent to and in perfect harmony with a well-run farm – would be Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In case you've forgotten your Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, at Milliways the cow comes to your table, introducing itself most friendly: "I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?" Arthur Dent, the somewhat benighted but quite likeable terrestrial, is aghast and goes for a salad. I wouldn't share his compunction and instead go with Zaphod Beeblebrox who orders steak.

Comedy as aside, the question of what animals want is a good one. Peter Singer, the godfather of animal liberation, is very clear. An animal wants to live. But how can he be sure? An animal might have reflexes to live, but a will to live? That's asking too much, in my opinion. I think an animal wants to be our meal. That's its greatest satisfaction. Try to argue me on that! You might complain that I am taking the argument ad absurdum. But I content that Peter Singer's original position is already absurd.

Do animals have moral rights? Absolutely, but they are not inherent in their existence. These rights are drawn up and granted by us humans and they matter to humans only. No animal cares about animal rights (just ask the lion feeding on a gazelle). Humans came up with the concept of animals rights, which hinges on us being human and them animals. This means domestic animals must be sheltered, fed and treated with respect and compassion. But it also means livestock will be slaughtered and eaten – again with respect and compassion. Animals must be treated humanely – but not humanly.

In talks and articles I've been introduced to the speciesism, which argues that members of different species have different inherent values or rights. Animal rights activists frequently vilify speciesism with the help of an analogy: Just as discrimination on the base of race was acceptable fifty years ago, discrimination on the basis of species is acceptable now. And just as racism is being wiped out, speciesism will be wiped out sooner or later. But if you deny speciesism, you deny that there are differences between species. You might say that one should treat a sick house cat as one would treat a sick child. Or, if you're a cold-hearted bastard, you might equate the murder of kids on an island in Norway with the slaughter of chickens and cattle. In either case you'd be wrong because animals are not human.

Here's a thought experiment: At a time when slavery was the norm, you have a pen of fifty slaves. Over the course of the next two months, you proceed to kill one slave every morning. How long do you think it will take until the slaves riot, thus proving to even the most bestial masters that they are human? But do the same with cattle or pigs. Will they even notice that their numbers shrink? Will they care? Will the start an animal farm? I don't think so, and that's why the argument against speciesism is specious.

A dog doesn't dream of being a TV presenter, a frog doesn't want to learn Greek and study the ancient world, and a cow doesn't desire chatting up the cute horse at the other end of the barn. An animal doesn't have plans for the future. And thus, by making the present as comfortable as possible for the animals, we're paying them the ultimate respect. If we kill them tomorrow, today the animals don't care.

An entirely different line of argument against eating meat concerns the carbon footprint of a steak, the health consequences of meat consumption, the waste generated in hog farms, and the suffering of cattle in feedlots. Non of this is much of an issue with responsibly-sourced meat eaten on rare occasions. And so I will continue to be a flexitarian and enjoy every bit of meat that I eat.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


The last few nights I had tea with dinner, and I'm not talking about iced tea. Iced tea is good when it's hot. When the sun burns through the windows and heats up my living room like a greenhouse, it's time to put the kettle on, boil a liter of water and steep a few bags of cheap tea. Then I squeeze half a lemon and pour the juice into a carafe filled to the brim with ice cubes. The hot tea is then poured over the ice. If the ratio is right, only cubelets remain when the liquid has been transferred. I add a bit of sugar, stir vigorously and have the perfect drink for a hot summer night in.

Tonight is not a hot night, though it's still summer, very much so according to the calendar. But if anything can be said about this summer, it's that it's been a stereotypically British experience, and very consistently so. The sun showed for the last time late in June. Since then, it's been gray, wet and cold. I've been trying to keep up appearances and go to work in shorts without fail, but this morning I donned a jacket because it was freezing and didn't look as if it would improve. On Radio 4, the weather forecaster chirpily offered a warm day, 19 degrees. For me, it's not summer until the mercury hits 25, and when I was still cycling I wouldn't abandon long-sleeve jerseys until that mark was reached.

When it was time to leave work I was even happier about the jacket than I had been in the morning. It was pouring as if God had sent another flood. Puddles sat on sidewalks and the sewers overflowed into the Thames. And though I took the bus for all but a brief connecting walk, I arrived home wet and cold. It wasn't anywhere near the optimistic 19 degrees promised this morning. This is when I put the kettle on and made a cup of hot tea.

Tea and dinner are words that go together in the English language but not in ways you would assume. They're not a collocation, and the British don't habitually have tea with dinner. But some British have tea instead of dinner or, to put it less ambiguously, they call dinner tea.

British society, outside the cosmopolitan and linguistically challenged bubble of London, remains surprisingly class-aware, even functionally stratified. An English born-and-bred knows what defines the classes and, at least subconsciously, can assign class to a person by the way of speaking. Tea is such a word; it is distinctly working-class when it means dinner (*).

Coming from an upper-class mouth, it means something entirely different. Tea is taken a bit earlier during the day, served in the Ritz and other upscale hotels or at home by the butler. The occasion is often called afternoon tea, though not by members of the upper class themselves. They see no need for qualifiers. Tea says it all. Curiously though, afternoon tea is not really about the tea. It's a light bridging meal between lunch and super and features tea, but the tea is not always good.

It's a great paradox that while the British are among the world's most insatiable tea drinkers, they frequently consume the worst tea, prepared from heavy bags that instantly turn a cup of boiling water turbid and unpalatable unless cut with milk.

I had good tea, but anything would have done. It was about warming up and coming back to my senses. The tea did its magic on me but couldn't deal with the situation at large. It's cold outside and rainy, the recession has almost healed its wounds and is getting ready to strike once more, the stock market has tanked yet again, and science isn't what it's supposed to be.

Manuscripts carrying the promise of boosting my career are being returned with reviewers' comments that belie a marginal understanding of the subject matter. Our advances are being trivialized and our approaches mocked. The work of many years is rotting in limbo, and I'm wondering if now's the time to jump ship. But the one interview I had outside academia didn't exactly fill me with excitement and anticipation.

If this were less of a blog and more of a collection of stories – it is both, of course – I would have written it in the third person. At this point of a dead-end I could have elegantly tied it up by saying that he took a last, tepid swig and put down his mug. He stared into the distance, piercing the rain clouds, imagining putting it all behind. Thoughts of a bonfire of wasted opportunity making space for new, exciting things to come burned in his mind. But wouldn't that be rather defeatist and, worse, overly impulsive? In the spirit of the English – mustn't grumble – he went to the kitchen to put the kettle on again.

(*) This is something I remember learning from the Kate Fox's brilliant anthropological study of the home team Watching the English. Wikipedia doesn't agree and makes a north-south distinction between the two meals called tea. Either way, the beverage called tea is usually crap.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


I sat in the Korova Milk Bar this afternoon, sipping on a summer special, sweet but refreshing. Horrorschau was blaring from the speakers, Campino at his best. It was a bit surreal. The newspaper in front of me went on about the riots, but outside, droogs weren't roaming the streets anymore, ready to trade the menacing bricks and sticks in their hands for wide-screen TVs and shiny sneakers. The center of Clapham was nearly back to normal. It would be any old afternoon in a popular neighborhood, were it not for the charred shell of the burned-out Party Super Store that fell victim to the rioting mob.

The Waterstone's nearby looked as it did last month. It hasn't changed a bit. It was a bit disconcerting, in fact, to see the shop in all its glory in the middle of the riots, standing impregnable like a fortress though with its doors open, when around it the high street was burning. But the looters, the lice, the rotten scum couldn't care less about books. They knew exactly what they wanted. And so the riots were not primarily about destruction, and they were certainly not about grabbing essentials. What drove the rioters was consumerism. They went out to pick up vanity items, things to impress the neighbors with, or their peers. What we saw was capitalism in action but at the same time a perversion of capitalism. The rioters might have thought they were using the system against itself, but in reality they used it against themselves.

To residents, bystanders, the police and those on TV, it was just plain frightening. Nights of lawlessness, of chaos and anarchy were sustained by the compounded energy of unorganized crowds delirious with power and violence. As darkness fell, any hint of civilization evaporated. Granny didn't dare walk her poodle anymore, cautious people stayed inside, and off-licenses shuttered their windows, even when they all they were facing was perceived danger. But by Monday, fear had grabbed London.

By Tuesday, the wild energy was gone, as suddenly as it had burned up. I doubt that police or televised speeches had anything to do with it. It had simply been enough. The madness had fizzled out. London is not Karachi; even the wildest vandals saw that this couldn't go on. The devastated high streets, destroyed properties and ruined lives of small shopkeepers made that clear. It was their own front yard that the rioters had pissed on. But instead of making them clean up the mess and learn something in the process, society and the judicial system decided to mete out draconian sentences with scant consideration of the circumstances. Authorities seemed intent on emphasizing their victory by coming down hard on the other side. Thousands were detained and hastily brought before judges who almost instantaneous sentenced them – as harshly as possible, by popular will. It was time to set examples, to teach lessons.

When Boris, the circus clown masquerading for mayor of London, reluctantly came back from his vacation in Canada, he suggested that defendants found guilty be put to work in community payback schemes. I was shocked that something as obvious as this wouldn't be self-evident. It should be blatantly obviously that the only effective punishment for rioting kids can be community work, blistering hours of clearing rubbish, painting shop fronts, restocking shelves, trimming hedges, and cleaning parks. The kids might even pick up skills in the process.

What has happened instead are gung-ho courts sentencing a kid with no relevant previous convictions (whatever that means) who pleaded guilty of taking a £3.50 case of water from a Lidl to six months in prison. Another guy who pleaded guilty to having a looted flat-screen television in his car but had no previous convictions for offenses of dishonesty (again, this sounds he had some sort of a record, but the report doesn't elaborate) was jailed for 18 months. To me, this sounds vindictive and vengeful rather than just.

It gets worse. Two kids in Northwich Town and Warrington set up Facebook pages to stoke unrest and incite riots in their sleepy towns. One woke up the next morning, regretted his action and deleted the page. In either case, no one showed for the scheduled rioting. One week later, both kids have been sentenced for four years in prison. Four years for inciting riots that never took place!

One has to wonder where the proportionality is, especially considering that the dude who inflamed, before Parliament, a war that did take place and cost the lives of thousands is not only still free but also gives lectures on his experience for five-figure fees. The cohesion of society is certainly not served by such egregious double standards. Good thing that the rioting kids for the most part are not the kind to contemplate these issues. (They are content to stick their smelly feet into new trainers and collapse comatose in front of big TVs, numbing their brains on the X Factor and Big Brother.) Otherwise they might also wonder how stashing a looted TV in your car deserves the same prison term as fraudulently claiming £20,000 pounds in expenses, as David Chaytor, MP, did.

You might argue that rioting and looting are offenses on a different scale than bending the rules for expense reimbursement. You might say that riots cannot be dealt with harshly enough because their mere possibility threatens society at its core. But then you might also want to consider that mendacious and criminal members of parliament bring democracy into disrepute, something no less evil in a democratic society.

I hope I didn't go too far off track. I'm not excusing or condoning the horrors that happened. The rioters must be dealt with, there is no question. They must be punished, and punishments must be severe. But they must also be constructive, otherwise you're sending the wrong message. Some of the run-down estates probably deserve an injection of unexpected opportunities as much as the iron fist of the law.

In the milk bar, by the window, I slurped up my drink and leaved over to the next page in the Guardian. That was it for politics and national affairs. Culture and Arts was next, but I wasn't in the mood. I was happy listening to the Hosen for a little longer, then wrapped up my stuff and walked back to the train station, side-stepping the odd bit of broken glass and passing a few ply-boarded windows. The sun was out; it was a beautiful day.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

the box

I stepped into the tube station with a heavy box in my hands, carrying it awkwardly in front of me like a precious treasure, one eye on the way ahead and one on the box. A bulky gentleman of placid complexion turned his heads towards me slowly and gaped for a second. This was more than the kids at the bus stop had done. Those lads, not old enough even – and this is a reference these days – to have been involved in the rioting last week, didn't move their heads as I moved by. They stared straight ahead at the lawn of the council estate where a football game between an inept dad and his uncoordinated sons wasn't going anywhere. There hadn't been a bus in a while but they were more bored than anxious to get away.

I was anxious too. The train was a few minutes off when I stepped into the tube station and the gentle giant astonished me with his question. "Is this a heart?" he asked. I held the box up questioningly, tilted me head and brought an ear to its side. "Is it still beating?" I asked back, trying to look worried. "I thought the guy was dead." The man's face fell, his mouth opened but no words came out. I climbed the stairs to the platform, the box tugging heavily on my carefree gait. I sat down on the wooden bench and studied the box.

It was white and quite obviously Styrofoam. The edges and corners were rounded to emphasize its innocuousness. Each side was about a foot long. It was covered all over with Life Technologies stickers and a paper trail of shipping labels. Before leaving the institute where I had picked up the box I had surveyed it for Toxic or Radioactive labels that might spook my fellow passengers or even get me arrested by transport police. I had no desire to feature in the kind of story that's used to impress and educate rookies.

Long ago, a box outwardly very similar to mine but boldly labeled HIV and containing mysterious samples in clear plastic trays was discarded at Long Island airport by overworked researchers returning from a few days of sleepless experimentation at a national facility. The researchers, who could have been colleagues, were detained two hours later at O'Hare airport and only released after fierce and protracted negotiations when their boss – who would be my boss a few years down the road – offered to fly to Long Island and ingest the discarded samples to prove their benignness.

Much less long ago, another researcher who is a colleague got ready to board the train to Paris when he noticed that the shipping Dewar containing his samples leaked steam. He had forgotten to pour off the excess liquid nitrogen after cooling the interior. For lack of a better alternative, he poured it in the gutter on the quiet side of St. Pancras station, creating a cloud of vapor so thick that he didn't even see the cops coming for him. He learned the hard way that after the terror attacks on London's buses and the tube in 2006, the British don't take suspicious activity around their transport infrastructure lightly.

I knew that my box posed no danger to anyone, but for a second time I made sure that it couldn't possibly appear dangerous to anyone else either. For all I could see, it was just a box, featureless for the most part, but as the platform filled, I noticed more startled looks and furtive glances than public transport in London normally provides. I was waiting at a station so far out of the way that the pocket tube maps for grabs by the stairs showed a picture that had gone out of fashion quite a while ago. October 2010, it said on the cover, and Tottenham Court Road was still shown as a Northern line stop. How would the reaction be once I reached the busy center of the network?

The train pulls in, people get on, I take a seat and put the box between my feet. My backpack goes on top, a thin cover. Minutes later I start traversing London like the courier of kidneys in Dirty Pretty Things. But not carrying organs, I'm in much less of a rush. The tiny tubes of protein and DNA that I've picked up from a collaborator are good for hours on the five pounds of dry ice that fill the box. As the anonymity of the tubes pulls its invisibility cap over me, I relax. No one even sees me.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

after the storm

While I enjoyed a calm and safe night last night, other parts of London stood in high flames. Croydon – halfway down to Gatwick airport – was burning and so was Hackney, up in the northeast of town. The looting continued, the violence spread, the police were helpless. In most instances, things quieted down only when the yobs got tired or their urge to try out that freshly looted TV became irresistible.

This afternoon, the question buzzing around the lab was whether the riots would continue, possibly even get worse, or abate. The good news was that the police presence had been increased three-fold in the city (though water cannons were not deployed). On the other hand, College had sent an ominous email late in the day warning of "violent outbreaks" and encouraging staff to work from home or adjust their travel times for the sake of their safety. I walked home as always, when I was done with work.

I didn't go home directly, though. Through the old-stone-cross storage yard called Old Brompton Cemetery I made my way to Fulham Broadway, the hub of my neighborhood, to see if any evidence of last night's unrest remained. Word on the street had it that the local Footlocker had been the target of looters but had withstood their assault. But whatever might have happened the night before (not much had), business was back to normal as I passed by. Union Market was selling pricey quality food, as much for the eye as for the palate, the pub next door was drawing beer as always, and hordes of commuters spilled from the tube station in short intervals.

I was a bit surprised. Earlier on my walk, I had stopped by the big Sainsbury's on Cromwell Road to pick up some cider for dinner and some veggies for a stew. The access to the parking lot was blocked with half-hearted barriers. I squeezed through and saw a gaggle of willing shoppers in front of automatic doors that remained persistently shut, no matter how many people jumped up and down in front of the motion sensors. "Due to the incidents that have taken place across London over the past few days, we have taken the decision to close this store early. [...] we apologise for the inconvenience", read a notice pasted against the glass from the inside.

In light of the location of the store – very close to the poshness of South Kensington and distant from rough estates – I saw this as excessive. Maybe the store manager, an honest man, wanted to impress his mom by saying that his store was also affected by the riots. But maybe the dark clouds of doom were ready to settle over London again, never mind the bright summer day that was coming to an end.

From Fulham Broadway I walked up North End Road, and here the mood shifted slightly. People were walking down the sidewalk as they always do, relaxed and without undue hurry, but there was almost no commercial activity. The Footlocker had its shutters drawn. Costa warned its customers that it would close at 4 today – more than three hours ago. There was no one at McDonald's and many of the Arabic grocery stores whose prime selling point is long opening hours were closed. Only Chicken Cottage was still serving customers.

Gerard, the proprietor of a busy internet café, stood next to the entrance, key in hand. Behind him were boxes piled high, the cell phone accessories, batteries, cables and memory cards that were normally pinned against the wall behind the counter safely stowed away. "I'm not leaving anything here tonight", he said by way of greeting me. "The violence is coming closer. On the other side of Fulham, shops are burning already. I'm closing up as soon as these guys" – he pointed at three figures behind screens – "are finished. It will get ugly."

I went up to my flat and cooked dinner. Then I ate it. It was quiet outside. I hadn't heard a single siren dopplering by my window. When I had finished, I pulled up the sash and peered outside. An eerie silence hung over the street. There were fewer people out than yesterday, not many pedestrians and no kids on bicycles or in groups. Two cops stood next to The Goose with nothing to do. A solitary helicopter circled above in increasing confusion. And fortunately it was thus all over London. The riots had stopped as suddenly as they had erupted. Peace has returned.

Monday, August 08, 2011

all calm

Riots in London, you've probably read about it, seen pictures on the BBC or watched news clips. It started last Thursday when – during the arrest of an alleged gangster, drug dealer and criminal – the, in other news reports, caring father-of-four was shot and killed. Talk of excessive police force circulated quickly. Infuriating stories of past injustices were retold. Jean Charles de Menezes was executed on the tube because someone heard somebody say that he might be carrying a bomb, or something like that. There was nothing to it. Ian Tomlinson got beaten by a cop for finding himself in the crowd during the G20 protests, and later died. Convincing conspiracies have been woven with fewer facts.

On Saturday, while an investigation into the death was ongoing, the family of the victim and members of the police were scheduled to meet to exchange explanations and defuse the situation that was building up. The opposite happened. Kids from rough estates (and a fair share of middle-class youngsters in for a festival of kicks, I would guess), mere teenagers but possibly goaded by criminal elements, started rioting then looting in Tottenham where the killing had happened. Patrol cars were torched, buses and taxis went up in flames, shops were destroyed, several buildings burned to the ground. People apparently carried big TVs from raided Currys to their waiting cars. The police were helpless, and hapless.

The next night, the same pictures, except the violence had spread a bit. It was unnoticeable to me. Tottenham is in zone 3, in the north east, on the other end of London. Tonight, the rioting spread even further, down south and west, and it drew closer. I opened my front window. There was something in the air. The night was not like every night.

North End Road is always busy, always loud, the noise frequently pierced by the wails of ambulances or patrol cars. Tonight, there were many more patrol cars, driving at speeds that conveyed a strong sense of urgency. Cops walked down the sidewalks, not in riot gear but in groups of up to six. Kids in dark hoodies, almost invisible against the night, baseball caps pulled low over their eyes, stood in boisterous groups. It was easy to read menace into their presence.

I went down to talk to the shop owners. It is they who would suffer the most because their street-level properties are easy targets. Gerard who runs the internet café was tense. "Fulham is burning, Hammersmith is burning. I'm gonna sleep here tonight", he said. His shutters were down by ten, an hour earlier than usual. At the grocery store next door, they wrapped up their wares at the same time.

Subjectively, there was something going on. Something clearly lay in the air. Objectively, nothing much was different from any other day. Buses were still running and around eleven, a street sweeper made its way noisily up the road, an orange-vested man with a broom walking next to it, diligently clearing rubbish from the sidewalk. Civilization was hanging on.

It's interesting to consider the factors that ensure peaceful and orderly communities. Just laws and fair enforcement would probably come out on top in a poll. But the last few nights have shown that acceptance and compliance are much more important. If a sizable portion of the population decides that the laws don't apply to them, anarchy descends, at least in the short term, until the police presence has been reinforced to deal with the troublemakers. It's scary how narrow the gap between peace and disorder is, the potential for violence that exists underneath the surface.

The last three nights have also shown how large the potential for violence is. The perpetrators are almost always kids and adolescents, from disenfranchised backgrounds, from walks of life that are dead-ends in all respects, from broken families and bad schools or no schools at all. These are the Londoners one doesn't see unless there's another charity drive. These are people that have effectively dropped out of the mainstream, leading an existence on the fringes of society. With few formal qualifications, with no respect for anyone or anything outside their peer group, with no motivation or confidence to achieve anything, they are a time bomb waiting to explode. Anything can blow the fuse, for example the fatal shooting of an alleged drug dealer that the vast majority of people couldn't care less about.

North End Road is still peaceful, though there's an edgy tension in the air. There's more noise that usual, noticeably more noise from people on the sidewalks, talking to each other with excitement in their voices. People are going back and forth, crossing the street left and right, getting high on the energy of the situation, dreaming of power and possibilities. They shove each other teasingly and laugh, but one can imagine how the situation could quickly change, how banter could turn into an altercation, how a discarded soda pop can could turn into a projectile that ignites everyone. But nothing's happening, just a few more patrol cars howling up and down the street.

Nothing continued to happen throughout the night, with three exceptions. There was a congregation of two dozen cops at a 99p-shop just three doors down, ready for action, four cars with their blue lights flashing parked in a semicircle. The standoff against invisible opponents lasted for five minutes, then the cops dispersed. Then there was the moment, at around 11:30, when things could have turned ugly. A narrow passageway leads into the estate on the eastern side of the streets. Kids started throwing a few rocks and two-by-fours and immediately the cops showed, still low-key, no riot gear, just knife-proof vests. Between barricades and retreat, the kids chose the latter, but they pelted the cops with anything they had as they did so. Half an hour later, riot police made a show and ventured into the alleyway, but there was no action.

This is good because I'm not sure I'd give the cops full marks for their approach these last few days. The beat cops of the Metropolitan Police are awesome. They are dedicated, friendly, approachable, helpful, guys you want to have around in your community. In contrast, the top end of the police force is incompetent or worse. The phone hacking scandals cost the two top cops their jobs (because the hacking was allegedly not seriously investigated, allegedly in parts thanks to monetary contributions by News of the World, the word allegedly used here to avoid conflict with Britain's savage libel laws) and the force is in disarray.

It is the worst of times. But chasing kids around the blocks they grew up in is tough even in the best of times. Prevention of a repetition of the riots (once they have been stopped) must consequently start at the source. Society, the law, moral values, respect, possibility and achievable dreams have to return to the areas where they have been increasingly excluded. Social cohesion must be rebuilt, the family strengthened. I don't know how, it's not a question with a simple answer, and in any case, now it's time for bed. It's all calm outside.


Last week a rejection letter landed heavily in my inbox, but it wasn't the one I have been secretly dreading for a while. This one came in response to a job application I had prepared after finding an opening (job 2) that seemed to be made for me. I was eminently qualified – if I may say so myself – and had prepared a convincing cover letter and C.V., a variation on the theme that had landed me an interview for a similar position (job 1) a month and a half earlier.

In last week's email, the HR manager was sorry to tell me that owing to "the large quantity of applications received for the [...] position in [...], it was a difficult task to short-list candidates and, after careful consideration we have decided not to take your application any further". I was briefly shocked – I had taken an invitation to interview almost for granted, especially after my success with job 1 – but laughed it off quickly. There were only two possible explanations as far as I could tell.

Either the application process was rigged. Certain organizations sometimes find themselves under the legal obligation to publicly advertise a job and interview candidates even if the prospective new team member has already identified. This approach is designed to prevent cronyism and make the selection process fair, but all it does is force the hiring manager to precisely tailor the opening to their favorite's strengths and experiences.

Alternatively, I could have misread the description and applied for a job that I was blatantly overqualified for. I didn't consider this likely but on another reading conceded certain ambiguities in the phrasing of the ad. The level of responsability was not clearly advertised. Maybe job 2 wasn't really for me. Anyway, it didn't matter. I was out.

I am still in with job 1, though. To say that I am expecting a rejection would be unnecessarily defeatist (though I keep saying and thinking it, mostly out of a superstitious belief that good things are most likely to arrive when you least expect them). Should I be rejected, I would certainly be gravely disappointed because job 1 represents the brightest opportunity I've come across in a few years, perfect in nearly every way, to die for. But job 1 is also – and that's the crux – wickedly challenging and quite scary in the expectations I would have to live up to, and I might just be that another applicant is better qualified. Which is why I wouldn't be surprised if I didn't come through.

I was not the perfect candidate. My experience in that particular line of work is patchy and, worse of all, I didn't exactly convince myself during the interview. I spent the following day reliving the many stages of the interview and found ample room for improvement nearly everywhere. I'm afraid the selection committee were no less perceptive. But, against the odds, that rejection hasn't arrived yet.

What did arrive, this afternoon, was another email regarding job 2. There had been a mix-up. The HR manager apologized that she "did not want to send a rejection but actually tell you that you are one of the very interesting candidates." She goes on to say, strangely, that the job they have in mind doesn't come up until later, and would I mind to keep hanging around, in the form of my application, in their database?

I don't mind. It takes no effort on my part, and job 2 is a great job, in a great place, with tantalizing prospects. But I have to say this was one of the weirdest things happening to me on the job market. The only thing to top this would be an offer for job 1 in the mail tomorrow.

Monday, August 01, 2011


In yesterday's post, I mentioned our embattled Prime Minister. I didn't say he was embattled, but he is, barely staying afloat in a rough sea of bad news. There's the phone hacking scandal, deeply unpopular austerity measures and an economy that only Greece would be proud to have. Even Portugal would probably choose to keep its own, should a swap be offered. The one-year countdown to the Olympics gave David Cameron a welcome opportunity to step in front of the cameras with good news.

The spirit in which he took to the occasion says a lot about the English (and probably the British as a whole). He said, with delight in his words, that "normally you would be asking me, with a year to go, about strikes, why the swimming pool is leaking and the velodrome isn't built." He goes on to say, with obvious surprise in his words, that everything is pretty much ready to go, and bring it on.

I find this self-deprecating humor quite refreshing, though it can be exasperating in arguments, when a patriotic Brit will agree with every point you make about the miserable state of the railroads up and down the country and still insist that things are ok for the most part, and there's no need to bother. But it's a nice change from the uptight self-importance of France and the in-your-face patriotism of the US.

It's also much healthier than the Germans' obsession with flaws and imperfection. In Germany, if a train is late by two minutes or the weather forecast off by a degree or a façade not freshly painted and sparkling, it's a sure sign of impending doom, proof that the country is going to hell, and it's taken dead-seriously. It drives the mood down and embitters people. There's no love for the country or pride. There's no reason for it.

The British, in contrast, are patriotic. They love their country. They love it so much that even after centuries of successful conquests, they'd rather live in a council flat in Northumberlandshire than on an estate somewhere in the colonies. Ok, there aren't any colonies left, but you get what I mean. Like lifelong lovers, the British accept and cherish the limitations of their country – and there are a few: driving on the wrong side of the road, archaic orthography, the worst-quality housing in Europe, warm beer, atrocious railroads – as charming quirks. It's like the therapist in (the painfully gooey) Good Will Hunting who loved his deceased wife for her farts and smells, the intimate details only he knew.

Unless they're football fans and drunk, the British never get carried away too far with visions of glory. (If they're England fans, they never get carried away, period, though that's for different reasons.) Clarkson on Top Gear the other day gave a good example of what British patriotism is: To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Jaguar E type, the best British car ever and the best-looking, he took a fleet of them to Beachy Head and, to music of God Save the Queen, had a Royal Air Force commando attach a Union flag the size of a football field to the cliff. Filmed in sweeping panoramic shots, it was all very solemn. Then he turned the key to drive off but nothing happened. "Won't start", he said with a grin into the camera, popping the hot-air balloon of pompousness.

The Prime Minister followed the same logic in his announcement of the Olympic countdown, though in the opposite order. Once he had got the self-deprecation out of the way, he said excitedly that "we're in this good position of facilities being completed a year in advance. We are in the position to test and make sure everything is pitch-perfect." Nice – with one caveat: It wouldn't be very British if it actually turned out to be pitch-perfect.