Wednesday, December 21, 2011

three days

Three days to go, and this is the last post before Christmas. Tomorrow I'm flying home to Germany, as is tradition. And as my mom still contents herself with dial-up while my computer doesn't have a modem, I'll be cut off from the world for the week around Christmas. This is good.

Admittedly, it's not immediately good. My departure is less then twelve hours away, and I haven't written a single Christmas email. I cowardly wish I were on Facebook and could just post a Merry Christmas to all my friends on my wall. But I'm not, and I'll have to sit down and crank out the well-wishing prose when I'm done with this post. But when I'm done I'm done, and the computer will stay off after that.

Christmas for me is intensely familial. I don't want to see anyone or talk to anyone or read anything or see anything not related to family. It's the only week of the year to shut down completely and stop the world. Reading this you might say that instead of writing this post, I could have linked to the one I wrote last year, but there's a little twist. Things will feel different this year because it will be the last time they are as they have always been.

With my life on an uncertain, unpredictable and often shifting trajectory through time and space, Christmas in the embrace of my family has been the only constant through the years. I've only missed it twice, when the distance was prohibitive and I had been home not too long before. Both times marked the low points of their respective years. Quite undeniably, something was missing.

Over the course of the last few months, prodded by events outside my control, I have come to the conclusion that life cannot continue like that. The comfort I keep drawing from tradition is hollow. Knowing where to be for Christmas, feeling the love and being able to share, has shut me off from my own life in a way. It has prevented me from making the holiday my own, from creating my own tradition.

As life inexorably progresses, some changes to even the most treasured routines become inevitable. I don't expect to see myself in Germany next Christmas. Next year there will be no family Christmas as I know it but my own, as it will be. It's not because I'm moving on but because I'm growing up, and it's high time for this.

Merry Christmas, all my friends!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

buy me

Christmas is coming up; there's less than ten weeks to go. With my flight home booked as it is, only one weekend, all of two days, remains to be devoted to the most important activity of the festive period. Here in Britain, there's nothing clandestine about the priorities of Advent. Christmas is called Christmas, and not matter whether you're a Muslim or a Mormon, whether you worship the tooth fairy or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you're exhorted to do your patriotic duty of supporting the high street and, by extension, the national economy that threatens to slide back into crisis.

When it comes to rescuing economies, I'm not a good citizen. I don't go out and shop because the economy needs me. In contrast, blasphemy of blasphemies, I think that the economy should work for my benefit, not the other way around, and that if it doesn't do it, it needs changing. But let's not talk revolution quite yet. Let's talk shopping.

There was a time when shopping filled basic needs. Sometimes it still does that. I go to the market to buy apples, kaki fruit and tomatoes because I need energy and vitamins. I buy clothes when what I wear is so ripped that it doesn't protect me from the elements and the eyes of the people I meet from what they don't need to see. Sometime I even buy shoes, though that often develops into a project that even Odysseus wouldn't have taken on. But need is a negligible driving force of commerce these days.

It is telling (and it never fails to crack me up) when high-street stores explain poor results with the weather. There was snow in the run-up to Christmas last year. There was a cold and wet summer this year, and few fall days so hot the Met Office had the lunacy to call them heatwave. The rest of fall was unseasonably warm. All of this served as excuses for slower sales than expected, by John Lewis, New Look, makers of luxury ice cream, and pretty much everyone else.

If people can easily be deterred from shopping, it means that they don't need the things they're being tempted with. Otherwise they would simply catch up when the weather turns more clement. Retailers wouldn't see a difference besides a marginally delayed cash flow. But they are worried, mortally concerned in fact, because they don't meet people's needs. They try to fulfill people's desires but have to compete with other attractions, like a park when the sun's out, a gallery when it rains or home when it's miserable.

Frivolous consumption is s a poor business strategy and explains much of the current misery in the retail sector. The park, the gallery and home are free. Shopping is not. In a time of austerity, who's losing? In London, charity and various pop-up stores have been able to fill most of the space already vacated by failing chains, but outside the capital, the situation is apparently dire. Boarded shopfronts stretch for blocks. Not a pretty sight.

But even after some initial pruning, the scale of retail is staggering. In Germany, all I've ever heard since I started listening, nearly two decades ago, was the plight of retail, the hesitance, even reluctance, of consumers, their unwillingness to part with money in exchange for things they don't need. And yet, the retail sector accounts for 57% of GDP. That's in the country that leads the world in exports. In the UK, the figure is in the 60s, and in the US, closer to three quarters. Who buys all that stuff?

Who will pay for it is another question. Credit cards do the trick if you're happy to pay much more later than you could have saved before, but these days, everyone is talking about cutting back on debt. The British Prime Minister got himself into a bad pickle when it was leaked that the speech he would give the next day would recommend paying off credit card debt pronto.

Mathematically inclined commentators quickly noted that credit card debt currently stands at a sixteenth of GDP and that paying it off over, say, a year, would deprive the economy of that amount of money, basically depressing GDP by 4%. Not a healthy proposition if you barely grow by 2% as it is. I never understood the concept of officially leaking the content of speeches before they were given, but here it paid off. A bad economic blunder was broadcast to the world, but at least it wasn't imprinted on Tory party stationery.

The untouchability of credit card debt makes it look like a classic pyramid scheme. If people withdrew their funds, the system would collapse. If people don't withdraw their funds, i.e. pay back their debt and avoid future interest payments, they might collapse economically themselves. At this point, I can't help go back to an earlier point of this post. Between the economy and the people, who benefits and who serves the other? Without wanting to sound Marxist, shouldn't the economy work for the health and well-being of the people?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

out of work

This morning, like many a Tuesday, I arrived early at Imperial for breakfast with a colleague and friend. We meet at the Library Café when business is still resting, chat, have a coffee and a pastry when the bar opens, and write some. We call it writers' breakfast. This morning, I wanted to turn my recent experience with HR into a little story but my enthusiasm didn't burn hot enough. The café, its doors wide open to the chill of the morning, was so cold that the coffee cooled in minutes and my breath showed in white puffs. After less than an hour, we were out and on our way to the warmth of the lab.

What I had wanted to write about was that last week, I received an email from HR, reminding me that my contract is coming to an end or, as it was put in rather stiff language, that I was "staff at risk of redundancy". I have five months left, but administrative procedures have already been launched to make the end an event. I have never experienced that. When previous jobs had ended, I had left and that was that.

Not so at Imperial. A month and a half ago already, a departmental administrator sent me a leaver's form with the request to fill in my last day, a forwarding address and information on my new position. Back then, the event seemed so far in the future that I had nothing to say at all and ignored the email, but it drove the seriousness of the situation home to me, the inevitability of my departure. I started looking for jobs with increased urgency.

Now came the email from HR, a verbose, multi-paragraphed composition that promised to "start formal consultation" and "investigate thoroughly any opportunities for redeployment". By the second paragraph, my head was hurting, but the email also contained three attachments with the undeniable authority of office-speak. One was the Faculty of Natural Sciences Job Search Information Pack. Under the heading of Job Search Techniques, it includes this gem: "If you feel that you have enjoyed your present position and that it fulfills your needs, you can direct your search to similar positions". Thanks, will do.

The pdf is more than 20 pages long. Against the odds, there's some valuable advice but most of what's written is hollow drivel. Some is outright dangerous, like the recommendation to start a cover letter with the following paragraph: "I wish to apply for the position of [job title] within [organization], and I have enclosed my CV in support of my application. I feel this demonstrates my suitability for this position, and I shall expand on my strengths below." There's no doubt that the more people take this advice, the higher my chances of getting an interview.

I've had a few interviews already and overall, I'm rather optimistic about the next step, but inevitable, as I called it earlier, it certainly is not. Voluntary inevitability would be a better term. If I really wanted to, I could probably stay, even without taking advantage of college redeployment. My boss keeps engineering possible solutions and encourages me to find something related, nearby, but her suggestions have become fewer lately. She knows as much as I do that, for my own benefit and professional development, I have to move on. We both know that there's little for me to gain here.

I can't yet imagine the moment that I swipe my card the last time and say good-bye to College, but I know that there are certain things I won't miss in a hundred years, the aggravations that surround a largely happy work environment. Lately, for example, power cuts have been frequent enough to put a third-world country to shame. Twice, I had long-running computing jobs go down on me because the power went out campus-wide. The cuts are apparently caused by hectic underground work to bring London's infrastructure up to 20th-century standards in the run-up to the Olympics, and they drive me nuts.

What has driven me mad from day one is ass-tight security that keeps all doors electronically locked after six and before eight. Entrance doors should be locked at night, you might say, and I agree, but I doubt the sense in locking the doors between the lab and the office or, get this, between the office and the toilets. There's no point arguing with security, by the way. They have their own way of operating. They've given me access to the sixth floor of a building across campus where I need to use a particular instrument, but not to the building itself. Every time I go there, I have to wait to tailgate in.

A few weeks ago, the main entrance into the library started getting a make-over, though it had always done good and reliable service and never complained. Now, with a blue hoarding blocking the entrance, the only way into the building is through its side doors, big French doors that, in summer, would give the Library Café a pleasantly Mediterranean flair, were they left open. However, their outer door handles were removed when the building was refurbished a few years back, and they remain shut most of the time.

Now that these doors are needed, there's no way for people to open them from the outside and they need to be propped open permanently. And while the person who came up with this solution is in gainful employment in a comfortably heated office somewhere well-hidden, I can't even sit down and write about my end-of-contract tribulations because my fingers would freeze to the keyboard.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

among champions

When I was a kid, from first grade in primary school all the way to university, I was on a chess team, training every week and having games most weekends. Our team was successful and we had a blast as mates, but the activity took so much time out of my life that I abandoned it shortly after leaving home (though I had mentally given it up much before that).

For old time's sake, I hung on to my paraphernalia (board and pieces, clock, a few dozen books), leaving them in a box in my mom's garage that I didn't open for years. When I moved to France, I was formally evicted from the garage. Most possessions I took with me in a bulging Xsara Picasso that I had rented for the occasion, but the chess books had to go. I left the lot to my old club, to kick start their club house library.

Over the last half year, I've rekindled what had been a passion in suspended animation. I discovered the joys of rapid chess, games in length halfway between the mad dash of blitz and the torpor of classic chess, and tournaments where six games can be played in a day and a winner determined. In June, August and October, I made my way up to Golder's Green for mental jousting, but for December, their calendar is blank.

The reason is the London Chess Classic, a grandmaster tournament held at Olympia, just up the road from where I live. There, the world's four best players and another from the top ten plus England's three best players and another from the top 10 duke it out in a curious round-robin of nine participants. Games being played by pairs means that in each of the nine rounds, one of the players has a bye and, innovation by the organizers to rope spectators in, must do co-commentator duties while the others play.

Maybe you don't associate chess with spectators. Maybe you weren't aware that you can watch chess, much like you can watch baseball or pole dancing. But think back a few decades (or watch Genius and Madman, the Bobby Fischer biopic currently on the iPlayer), and you'll see chess as front-page news, chess holding nations enthralled. It must have been a strange time when news anchors debated the relative merits of queen-pawn and king-pawn advances.

As much as I like chess, I'm the first to admit that it's a hardcore niche activity. To the uninitiated, what happens on the board is totally obscure. It's not like football where, aside from offside, everything is clear, and every circle of drunk friends can talk knowledgeably, judge the proceedings and offer opinions, which is what you want to do when watching sports. You also want to cheer for your team. In chess, you can't do that.

The games at Olympia are played in a solemn auditorium in the atmosphere of a freshman physical chemistry class where half the students are in speechless awe of three-dimensional volume-entropy-internal energy graphs and the other half are fast asleep, lost from the first sentence uttered. On the stage, the players make their moves in silence; every breath of a spectator is shushed by his neighbor. A ringing phone will get you thrown out.

I stopped by the auditorium only briefly, right around when the games opened. In a back row, I could hardly see the players' faces and certainly not the boards. Overhead, the ventilation hummed distinctly. A sense of competitive urgency might develop as the clocks wind down or the positions turn decisive, but even then it will be rather muted. No one will cheer or wave flags. In the commentators' room, the spirits fly higher, but I gave it a pass. I hadn't come for the grandmasters anyway.

The grandmasters' tournament, all of four games a day over ten days, is surrounded by a hurrah of associated events, a dozen tournaments of various kinds that are for anyone to enter. The organizers are trying to create and exploit synergies – and give enthusiasts the chance to compete with their idols, though the preposition is used rather loosely. It's the with that lets cyclists ride the course of the Hamburg Cyclassics one day before the pros race it or me run the London Marathon with Emmanuel Mutai.

Going with the bimonthly tradition established in June, I had signed up for the first of two rapidplay tournaments. Walking into East Hall was much like visiting a car show - the buzz of males of a certain age walking about and chatting, their eyes aglow with inexplicable pleasure. The story of my day is quickly told. I played two games rather skillfully but lost both when that was all but impossible. I played two more games rather poorly and lost them as well. The fifth game I sat out and the sixth, finally, I won, though that wasn't an effort to be proud of.

My results if not necessarily my playing disappointed me, and it would have been a dismal day had I not discovered, in the second-hand book sale that accompanied the event, a book that I owned as a kid. Advanced Chess Strategy, translated from the Russian in the East German edition I knew, yellow dust jacket and all, lay there incongrously. With an investment of three quid, I've started rebuilding my library.