Friday, February 24, 2012

health and safety

In the middle of the day today when I could have crystallized that protein that has been resisting too long or cloned a version more amenable to structural work, I had to go over to the Learning Centre for an X-ray Safety Awareness course. I had enough before the course even started.

I had had enough, truth be told, when a rumor first surfaced about this course. Attending it would be a requirement for continued work in the x-ray suite, even for those who enter the facility merely to appraise their crystallization experiments through the microscope and who never get close to ionizing radiation. This sounded like bureaucratic red-tape.

I have nothing against safety. When I'm exposing crystals to x-rays I don't want to expose myself as well. I appreciate shielding and safe operating procedures, but I'm not responsible for them. The facility manager gets paid for this, and he should get training. I, like any other user, am primarily concerned with safe behavior, most of which revolves around common sense. Don't do anything stupid and report it when something looks funky. This has worked well for me.

But every few years, ill-advised training courses come along that serve the institution designing them more than the captive audience. The one today was a fine example of this. A good twenty of us gathered in a classroom whose most notable feature was a set of automatic blinds that lowered and rose noisily every quarter hour. In front of us, next to a stack of handouts to cut down Epping Forest, stood the radiation safety officer, boldly facing our hostility.

At least he wasn't pretending he thought we should be grateful for the session. By way of an introduction he told us we were here to "protect the College … from possible enforcement by the Health and Safety Executive" and that the course was "a legal obligation", which goes a long way towards explaining the curious title of the course. It was not a safety course. It was not for us; it wasn't meant to teach us safe working practices. The course was concerned with safety awareness, designed to make us aware of safety features and policies in place at Imperial. Ultimately, its purpose was to help Imperial tick a box.

I would have gladly given my signature at the outset and gone back to work, but that would have been too easy. The course was two hours long and followed by a quiz. No passing grade on the quiz, no access to the x-rays in the future. Here I tried to be clever, funny and disruptive at the same time, as if I were still in high school. "Can I do the test right now?", I interrupted. My reasoning was that if I ace the quiz, no one can expect me to stay for the lecture. I expected the instructor to deny my request, but he just handed me the fifteen questions. I could answer three or four.

This was because the quiz didn't deal with safety issues and sensible behavior but with radiation physics and procedural details. The course provided that information in an unending torrent of phrases and numbers that went in one ear and out the other: How thick shielding must be, who to contact when you want to build your bespoke home source, and what the official exposure limits are. None of this is relevant for my work, none of this makes me safer, and it didn't help with the quiz either. Without the handouts, we would have all failed. With the handouts, we were done quickly and back to the lab, getting some experiments done before the weekend turned the lights off.

Monday, February 20, 2012


The power went out at Imperial yesterday. I wasn't there, but I was notified, which didn't help one bit. My molecular dynamics simulation that was setting my boss's graphics card on fire had unceremoniously crashed. While I have restart files, I don't exactly have the time to restart things. But it could be worse. Colleagues' protein purification runs hung halfway, wasting their prep and days of work, and the computer farm that calculates three-dimensional reconstructions from thousands of electron-microscopic images went down.

It wasn't the first time. In November of last year, there were three instances when the lights went out and the computers down - it seemed to happen once a week. It got so bad that I sent an irate email to one of the building managers asking whether they had considered putting a damn emergency generator in some under-utilized basement to mitigate the situation.

I wouldn't have gone so far as to request a reliable power supply. This is England, after all, the nation that started the industrial revolution and still lives off it. London got electric street lights in the 1870s and, aside from a few coats of paint to keep it from completely falling apart, not much has changed since then.

The building manager pointed out that the cost of installing effective generators would be astronomical. Fair enough, but it seems to me that it is more of a question of priorities than of money. At the same time the power went down regularly last year, the central library at Imperial got a new door.

This would normally require a trip down to the DIY store and an hour of a handyman's time, total cost a few hundred quid, all done in an afternoon. What happened instead was a month-long operation during which a kind of aquarium was grafted to the library entrance, a glassy tumor the protrudes out onto the walkway in front of the building and encroaches onto the Queen's Lawn.

The lawn, in preparation of the elaborate door change, was clipped on the side of the library and a set of wide stairs was built that seemed designed to connect the building with the lawn. Nice, except the new door doesn't open onto the lawn. When you exit, you see the grass in front of you through floor-to-ceiling glass panels, but you have to turn left to find the sliding doors. You might be momentarily confused because on your right is a similar set of doors, but they don't open. I dare not guess whether that's a design feature or a flaw.

In either case, deceiving people exiting the building with clear glass panels and an inviting set of steps onto a leisurely lawn seems to me a particularly idiotic idea, stupid and dangerous. I was reminded of the entrance block at the Citadel of Aleppo that boasts a daunting bent entrance where potential invaders would see their progress slowed by six turns up a vaulted ramp with concealed defensive features. In the early 13th century, this was the state of the art of fortress architecture.

It is beyond me why anyone would adopt this design for a library entrance. The disadvantages are too obvious. Let me point out just one, relevant in this health-and-safety obsessed country. In case of a fire or other accident, you want people to evacuate quickly. Seeing them get pushed against a glass wall by the panicking masses behind won't be pretty.

Had the door stayed as it was, by the way, everything would be all right. The door was working fine. After an investment of millions and an effort of four weeks during which students chilled to the bone in the Library Café because side doors needed to remain wide open when it was freezing outside, it still does, but less so.

Meanwhile, the idea of assuring a reliable power supply for a university that likes to see itself near the top of the world is unthinkable. But I insist; finding the money can't be that hard. How about negotiating a third-world discount with the power supplier or taking out an insurance policy against power cuts and enjoying frequent pay-outs?

The best solution would of course be to start at the root of the problem and bring the infrastructure into the 20th century, but even I see that it would take more than a few interrupted simulations and wrecked experiments to bring that about.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


Earlier today, while I arranged a few crackers on a plate for a little lunch, I was confronted with the question of how spelt is spelled. This is not as obvious as it sounds. The cereal that is at the heart of this story – an elderly cousin of wheat that is making an unlikely comeback in healthy food trying to be hip – is spelled spelt and if you're American or under the influence, the past participle of spell is spelled spelled. However, in the archaic spelling that dominates Anglican English (burnt, dreamt, spoilt), the past participle of spell is spelt. Could confusion arise? Even when they're spelled identically, it takes some effort to mix up the two words.

The folks at Fudges who made the crackers I had on my plate managed the unlikely feat. They call their product Spelt Flatbreads. So far so good; I have no objection to this. However, the three translated lists of ingredients – a testament to the Dorset Village Bakery's international ambitions – are of a different kind. In all three languages, as far as I can tell and discounting a missing accent here and failed capitalization there, everything is translated to exacting standards. Everything, that is, but spelt, the defining ingredient.

The French crackers contain blé épélé; the Spanish ones, trigo deletreado. While my Spanish isn't particularly good, the root of deletreado gives away what dictionaries later confirm. Both terms mean spelled wheat. So does the German one. Buchstabierter Weizen doesn't make any literal sense. (I'd call this a dyslocation, the combination of two words that never go together, the opposite of a collocation.)

Normally, when a machine or a minion in China butchers a text, the sense can be extricated. You can still operate the toaster or assemble the shelving unit, but there are spelling errors and oddly chosen words, and the grammar can be off. Mehl des buchstabierten Weizens, in contrast, is grammatically flawless, using the challenging genitive case masterfully. All inflectional affixes, the constant scourge of learners of German, are used correctly and in the right places. No one would be able to make sense of flour of the spelled wheat, but everyone would understand its literal meaning*.

Who is responsible for this printed nonsense? At first I thought a local high-school student on work placement wasn't quite as strong in German as his C.V. had promised, and creativity took over where ability left off. But that wouldn't explain the same mistranslation in three languages. Maybe a dissatisfied intern played a practical joke that went undetected?

Maybe it's much simpler than that. Any printed dictionary will at the very least prevent you from getting it wrong and, most likely, give you the right translation of spelt. Google Translate gives it to you as well. Curiously, tough, Babel Fish, now part of Yahoo, doesn't. It only finds the inflected verb. Douglas Adams would be turning in his grave if he knew that his invention of a universal in-ear translator were responsible for nonsensical crackers.

Even if the Yahoo translation got it wrong, I'm not sure who got the grammar right. Someone must have read this and modified it before it was printed on the box. How come no one realized the mistake? The French blé épélé doesn't exist on the web as a phrase. That's as strong an indicator as you need.

My solution, by the way, for difficult translations is Wikipedia. Never mind the precision of the definitions, the articles in different languages give you not only the word you're looking up but also context, usage and often pictures. Spelt, unambiguously, is Dinkel in German, épeautre in French and espelta in Spanish.

(*) It is a bit beside that point that even if anyone would want to use that term for some reason, no one would say it like this. In German, spelled wheat flour would be buchstabiertes Weizenmehl, just like in English, except for the compound noun so beloved by Germans.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

book review

Another year has passed, and though it has almost slid out of view already, it's still time to hoist the lot of last year's books onto the table in front of me and give them an eye-over. Over the past three years, the habit has become so much of a tradition that I've now formalized it by giving it a tag, helping to recover all previous literary retrospectives.

Twenty eleven was a good year for books, judging by the number of entries in the list. It was also a good year in that I read more books than I bought – and I gave away even more. My Billy has never had it so easy. Unfortunately, that also means I'm writing some of these lines from blurry memory.

  • What am I doing here? and Utz by Bruce Chatwin – An unmissable best-of by the reinventor of travel writing and one of his efforts at fiction, which didn't blow me over, though he tells the curious tale of a Meissen china collector in communist Prague that's very close to home for me.
  • Handy by Ingo Schulze – From the author who's praised for best describing the mood and mindset of East Germans in the decade after the fall of the Wall comes a new collection of stories. Some are just about average, but others are amazing. I went to a reading of his here in London.
  • Der Turm by Uwe Tellkamp – Set in Dresden in the decade leading up to the fall of the Wall, this is another book that should have struck a cord, but the lack of a plot (over nearly 1000 pages) seriously undermined its effectiveness.
  • Delikt 220 by Stefan Wachtel – Chronicles of a political prisoner ("public vilification of the state") in East Germany that served the facts at the heart of the second half of Der Turm. In this case, facts that are stronger than fiction.
  • Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras – This fictionalized account of a childhood violated by the rise of the military dictatorship in Argentina shows that we had it quite well in East Germany after all.
  • Wie der Stahl gehärtet wurde by Nikolai Ostrovsky – Who had it unspeakably worse were those dissenting from the party line during the Russian Civil War and in the years thereafter. I read this book (whose author's name my secondary school carried) expecting something like a communist Atlas Shrugged, and while there's plenty of superhuman heroism, there's no hilarity. Instead, a truly frightening view of people, history and the world: Brainwash, murder, destruction. To think that I grew up with this…
  • Cathedral and What we talk about when we talk about love by Raymond Carver – Two collections of bone dry short stories by the reinventor (or at least reinvigorator) of the genre.
  • The Looking Glass Club by Gruff Davies – An initially clever and gripping thriller with two narratives, one set at Imperial today and the other in New York City twenty years hence. The end explodes, unfortunately, but it would make a wild movie.
  • The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – A sweeping tale of family, love, art, religion, history, and contemporary India; skillfully and confidently told, but not nearly as strong as Midnight's Children.
  • Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski – Synthesis of the author's life with that of the Greek historian Herodotus. A traveling memoir that didn't work for me.
  • Les croisades vues par les Arabes by Amin Maalouf – With focused and united Crusaders against eternally bickering and deceitful Muslims and cruelty on one side exacerbated by backstabbing on the other, the Lebanese author has a hard time painting a picture of vice against virtue. Even the great Saladin wasn't that great after all (as a recent BBC documentary agrees).
  • The Curtain by Milan Kundera – The author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (one of my all-time favorites) philosophizes on the subject of the novel. I can't say that I retained any of his arguments.
  • Der Proceß by Franz Kafka – This unfinished novel takes a most astounding first sentence ("Someone must have made a false accusation against Joseph K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.") and runs with it. Non-sequiturs, lapses of logic, and the impossible are told in the rational voice of the K., a bank clerk who is convinced that everything will turn out right though nothing even remotely does. Brilliant.
  • The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson – Hyped with a bunch of prizes last year but couldn't convince me. A Jewish writer explores Jewishness through Jewish characters. I couldn't care less whether someone is Jewish or Mormon or Atheist or Satanist or just doing his thing.
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck – Full of soft-spoken words of great wisdom, but when the non-action shifts from the farm to Salinas, things peter out. A good read but much inferior to The Grapes of Wrath.
  • The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Marquéz – With 200 pages split into only five paragraphs and sentences habitually running over two pages, this is a pain to read. I valiantly struggled through 50 pages before giving up.
  • Blow-up and other stories by Julio Cortázar – Mind-boggling stories like nothing else. There's one told by a frequent visitor to the zoo who slowly transforms into the axolotl in the aquarium watching a visitor to the zoo, and one where a man remembers fragments of a frightening dream only to realize to his horror that he's dreaming.
  • My Father's Tears by John Updike – A collection of the master's last stories. Wistful, melancholy and a pleasure to read.
  • On the Road to Babadag by Andrzej Stasiuk – Rambling excursions through an Eastern Europe of back roads, Gypsies and an inexorably crumbling past. Renewed my desire to lose myself there one day.
  • The GRANTA book of travel – I can't go wrong with collected highlights of travel writing.

So this is 22 items struck off the list of unread books and not that many added. But since I didn't read many works of any heft, there's still much to go. Les Bienveillantes, The Satanic Verses and A House for Mr Biswas come to mind. I'll keep you up to date on the right and provide a summary next year, as is tradition.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


The best books tell a compelling story and they do so without effort. The best writing is transparent. As the reader goes through the pages, the ideas filter straight into the brain. The printed words, the ink, even the pages themselves are invisible, mere vehicles for the communication of thought that have no substance themselves. The blood and sweat that inevitably went into the writing cannot be felt.

Iain Sinclair's Downriver doesn't fall into that category. It is the antithesis of it, with every sentence deliberately penned to inflate the presence of the author. The reader never penetrates beyond what is written and how the sentences are crafted. The novel is set in East London, but that is irrelevant. There's a nominal plot, but the writing isn't driven by it, nor does it much advance it. Sinclair uses elements of narrative as nothing more than a scaffold from which to flaunt his writing. The dramatic element is lacking entirely.

The characters are ephemeral and their actions arbitrary. One character "once made basecamp for a three-part miniseries push-on-the-pole; which was routed, for the convenience of the Money Men, through Amgmagssalik, Greenland". The sentence is typical in that, out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, it lands on the page and baffles the reader, then disappears quickly and without a trace. Neither the miniseries nor the moneymen or Greenland make another show in the book. And the person so described? I don't remember, and it doesn't matter.

The novel opens with a question spoken – no, "insisted" upon – by the improbably named Sabella. I almost stopped reading right there. This is wrong on so many levels: the unusual name betraying ideas of creativity lifted from a textbook, the stilted dialog tag, the "and" that starts the question. But the worst offense is that Sabella never returns after that initial scene. The book is phony from the start and sticks with it determinedly.

I didn't know that and stumbled on, hoping that what I perceived as superficial creativity was Sinclair's surplus of creative powers naturally oozing from saturated lines and not a deliberate effort at distracting from fundamental flaws. I was sadly mistaken but quickly disabused.

For its vacuousness and artifice, the novel would be lethal, were Sinclair not such a skilled wordsmith. But the read is intriguing and captivating despite the shrouded subject matter. Sinclair paints colorful pictures with his words, erects sophisticated verbal edifices that rise improbably and stuffs the reader's brain with circumlocution. The breadth of the employed vocabulary would assure the book's success, were it a dictionary, and lingophiles will feel curiously entertained. But the practice is hollow. Every penned construct is quickly abandoned and left to rot when another mighty tower of wordsmithery cross-fades with Apple-like ease onto the scene, with no substance whatsoever underlying the polish.

I almost gave up on encountering "suppurating light". Maybe you're as confused as I was with the phrase. The parts sound familiar but their association grates. The context didn't help. The context never helps in Downriver. It is always subordinate to the words in this novel. I consulted the American Heritage Dictionary that's enjoying a state of semi-retirement on my shelf. On the topic of suppurating, it says, "forming or discharging pus", just as I had thought.

To make sure there are no obscure secondary meanings to the word pus, I checked that as well. Says right there: "A generally viscous, yellowish-white fluid formed in infected tissue, consisting of white blood cells, cellular debris and necrotic tissue." Sound like something I would read in a clinical research paper, but where's the connection to light? Yellowish I can see, but viscous, fluid, infected, tissue? Even in a book with outrageous similes and strained metaphors, this one stood out. It's just nonsense. Light doesn't suppurate, and there's nothing pussy about it.

It was at this point that the essence and origin of the novel dawned on me. Take any five pages, and they read like an assignment from the second week of a creative writing workshop. Maybe Sinclair read it to the group. His teacher was excited. Creativity, agility with language, boldness! Slowly, over the following months, the initial breath of fresh air was turned it verbal halitosis, a writing program's graduating work that's self-conscious and self-important in the extreme.

A reviewer's blurb quoted on the back cover declares the novel "the reader's delight and the reviewer's nightmare" when it is in fact the exact opposite. Reviewers will admire the ornate writing, the cultural and historical references, and the fact that they can pick a few randomly chosen pages and extract a comprehensive and relevant review in half an hour, quickly earned bucks if that's how you make a living.

Readers, in contrast, will struggle in the maze of affected pompousness, trying to extricate some sense from beyond the wall of impenetrable wordiness, reading on in the belief that a novel deserves a bit of effort. It's a struggle they're bound – and lucky – to lose. After about 300 pages, a bit beyond the halfway line, I put Downriver aside one final time, drained and exhausted.

Monday, February 06, 2012

road improvement

In the previous post, I talked about Exhibition Road, but this is far from the only road project in London. In a different part of town, a small change was made to the street layout a bit more than a year ago, limited to one intersection but nevertheless hailed as visionary, the beacon of a bright future that would spread from this one point until it engulfed the Big Smoke in its entirety. The vision was a better integration of different modes of surface transport, the safer and more efficient coexistence of buses, cabs, cycles, cars, delivery vans, and pedestrians. The change that pointed towards happiness and mutual respect was the redesign of Oxford Circus.

Oxford Circus is the intersection of Oxford St., Europe's busiest retail strip, and Regent St., its upscale sister. Oxford Circus is chronically congested, by private cars crossing as you would expect but even more so by public transport and pedestrians, so much so that the tube station underneath can be inaccessible during rush hour because its four entrances, one at each corner of the intersection, are clogged with crowds stuck trying to get in and out. When I go from the Photographers' Gallery to the Wallace Collection for a quiet tea after an arresting exhibition, I reach my destination quicker and with less shoulder-bashing if I stroll a little to the north or south, avoiding Oxford Circus.

Hordes of bargain-hunting tourists from Europe's various economic disaster areas wash along the sidewalks at all hours of the day, frequently spilling into the streets, blocking black cabs, red buses and colorful cycle rickshaws. People that have evidently given up all hope for their embattled countries' economic survival conspire to bail out England. They invest the cash they've accumulated in decades of property speculation and tax evasion in Chinese-made fashion and gadgets, by way of England's busiest high street, which has become famous for exceptional value ever since the pound tanked four years ago.

Alleviating congestion must have been on the mind of planners when they set out. Safety was probably another concern. Oxford Circus never felt particularly dangerous to me, but it's easy to see the potential for disaster with crowds constantly pushing across asphalt tributaries where traffic never stopped. The borough council thus decided on a radical redesign of the traditional light-controlled crossroads.

The solution, modeled on Tokyo's famous Shibuya crossing, is characterized by a third phase of lights. Besides the customary two green phases for vehicles – one for east-west, the other for north-south traffic – there is now one reserved for pedestrians: All traffic is stopped and people are allowed to cross any which way including, for maximal exchange and confusion, diagonally. When traffic moves, all pedestrians are stopped.

It is likely that the redesign is both safer and more efficient. After all, turning vehicles won't have to yield to crossing pedestrians anymore. What is more striking, though, is that the new crossing is visually appealing and fun. People can be seen crossing several times in a row for the sheer joy of walking diagonally across an intersection in the face of an armada of mighty double-deckers standing to attention all around them.

According to pundits, authorities and the wider public in rare unison, the redesign of Oxford Circus has been an unqualified success. It did, as a direct consequence, focus attention on another road layout redesign that was underway at the time, a project that has now, after more than three years of work and the investment of 29 million pounds, been completed. This project was the conversion of Exhibition Road, a stretch of road barely three quarters of a mile long that runs from South Kensington station to Hyde Park's Alexandra Gate and forms the eastern boundary of the Imperial College campus where I work.

The result of all the effort: The pavement has now a pattern and the curbs are gone. Pedestrians are allowed to cross the road at an angle, but that's where the similarities with the Oxford Circus redesign end. In fact, the project has turned out to be such a disaster in my eyes that I have felt compelled to set down in writing every little flaw and failure. The sheer number of shortcomings has turned what started out as a regular post into a diatribe of such heft that I can't possibly hammer regular readers with it and have decided to post it to my much-neglected website instead.

I won't blame you if the summary is enough for you: Oxford Circus nice, Exhibition Road nasty.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

street party

This afternoon, by some degree of chance, I attended a ribbon cutting ceremony of sorts. The afternoon was dragging on with a desperate struggle against a protein that simply couldn't be bothered to come off the column I had earlier bound it to when I received an email about current goings-on at College. I scanned the list of teasers, ready to bin the whole thing, when one item caught my eye: Opening of Exhibition Road – today.

Exhibition Road, which forms the eastern boundary of Imperial, has been completely rebuilt over the last three years. The ambition was to transform it from a busy thoroughfare into an idyllic space shared peacefully by pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Nearly 30 million pounds (depending on whom you ask) was spent to, as I see it, remove the curbs. I had seen the result already because the new Exhibition Road has been open for a few months now. The reason I ventured out into the cold anyway was that the official opening – which was today – was headlined by Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, who is, if nothing else, always entertaining.

At the intersection of Cromwell Road and Exhibition Road, a small crowd has assembled in an anticipatory mood. I joined them congregating around a large tin elephant with two dignitaries in colorful costume in front of it. Behind the mechanimal a bearskin-wearing marching band readied their horns. Then The Final Countdown erupted in odd instrumentation, and Boris appeared. The music stopped, the watching crowd was parted, then the music started again, and a small procession started up the road.

Boris, dignitaries and a tin elephant

I had errands to run in South Kensington and bolted momentarily. When I caught back up with the proceedings, in front of the Imperial College Business School, the uniformed ambulant musicians were still playing. When the music stopped, I expected speeches but there were none. The ceremony didn't feel rigidly structured. Boris posed for the press and chatted with the crowd, no doubt hoping to convince them to reelect him in May.

Two token wheelchair users had been shipped in for the occasion. Boris eagerly grabbed their hands and delighted them with his gregariousness. Their presence might have been a cynical PR move, but it was clear from their faces that the meeting meant a lot to them. Suddenly, the harmony was shaken. The cameras were still flashing when a forlorn protester with a placard questioning the wisdom in all the spending sidled up to Boris. The guard who had earlier failed to deter him ("Please stand over there. The sign has sharp edges. People might get hurt. This is a health and safety requirement.") and now stood between the protester and the mayor looked dismayed, but Boris was unfazed.

Boris unfazed by protester

He didn't mind the protester or the prospect of having a picture like the one above serve as a visual summary of the event. He might be a buffoon with questionable effectiveness in office, but I appreciate his cheerfulness. However grim the situation, he always remains upbeat. So instead of getting security to remove the protester, he answered his question with a prepared soundbite about how the Exhibition Road regeneration would return many times the investment in increased spending by tourists.

With this, the street party came to an end. Officials and the press moved into the business school lobby for canapés, drinks and sermons, the crowd dispersed, and I went back to the lab. The damn protein was still stuck to the column.