Wednesday, March 21, 2012


The other day, a story exploded all over the media that was a long time in the making, details percolating with slow deliberation until their impact could be felt across the Atlantic. The story isn't exactly news anymore, but it's being picked up enthusiastically here in Europe because it seems to corroborate commonly held stereotypes about the US. It's a story about gratuitous violence, loose guns and the position of minorities.

The story I'm referring to is the killing of Trayvon Martin, a kid on his way home from the store, by George Zimmerman, a volunteer vigilante who had a queasy feeling about him and took the law into his own hands. The kid is dead, but the man is free. He was never even taken in for questioning by the police. The reason: He claimed self-defense.

Wikipedia tells me that self-defense is "a legal justification for the use of force in times of danger". In the case of Trayvon Martin's killing, has the existence of any kind of danger prior to the killing been established? What is the evidence? Is it just in the words of the perpetrator? Shouldn't there be a clear threat before self-defense can become legitimate? How can a perceived threat be sufficient? Couldn't then just anyone go and kill a person – only to claim self-defense afterwards and walk free? Has, in the light of the expected impunity, a Self-defend against George Zimmerman-Facebook group been established already? Or one against the local police chief who let the incident pass without investigating, in what looks like an attempt of obfuscation? And if this is so, is this really what people want?

I wonder what it takes to have the claim of self-defense accepted and get out of jail free – or not into it in the first place. Do you have to carry – besides a loaded gun – the membership card of a registered armed neighborhood watch group or local militia? Do you have to call 911 in advance and inform the police of your intention to self-defend? Do you have to tell the police you have a weird, intangible apprehensive kind of feeling before tracking down and killing a kid? Is it enough you see someone suspicious out in the streets at night?

A few months before my departure to the US, the organization that provided the initial funding for the project and – more importantly, as it would turn out – opened a few doors organized a preparatory meeting where returned exchange students dispensed their wisdom to us impressionable neophytes. One girl who had spent a year in Florida warned us: "Don't walk the streets." Exploring her new home one afternoon, she had learned from a friendly neighbor that there were only two kinds of people out in the streets – the homeless and criminals. You don't want to be mistaken for either. Back then, the girl didn't tell us about the potential consequences, and all we did was chuckle about the American obsession with driving.

Now there are more sinister connotations to that bit of advice, and I’m not chuckling anymore but considering the potential ramifications. With self-defense as a legal catch-all, is there room left in the book of law for murder and manslaughter or have the relevant pages been removed? Who defends those who don’t self-defend? Is it perhaps every American’s patriotic duty to self-defend?

By analogy, are there in Florida provisions like self-defense in other kinds of disputes, provisions where the word of one party is all that matters? If you steal a brand new Silverado off a dealer's lot, will the police believe your claim that the truck is lawfully yours? Wouldn't it be their job to investigate? Why haven't they done this in the case at hand? The police, by claim of the city manager, were "prohibited from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time". How is this possible?

Pervasive institutional racism is mentioned in all articles I've read as a compounding or maybe even causative factor in the incident. I'd like to disregard that in this post, even though George Zimmerman is a name that would make any white supremacists turn light brown with envy. I'd like to ask instead: How do people who aren't racist square what has happened with how a free and equitable society should work? Where is the response of the silent majority – of those that wouldn't go for a walk in Florida but wouldn't track down and kill a kid that does, either.

The previous paragraph would have been a powerful way of ending this post, had I already made up my mind and decided to accuse. But I haven't. I'm utterly confused. Did the tragedy come about because of disregard for or misinterpretation of the law by a few? Can the cause be found in the passing of blatantly idiotic laws by lawmakers elected by many? Or is it all a misunderstanding blown out of proportion by scandal-hungry media? Please enlighten me.

Friday, March 16, 2012

unclear outlook

Busy was the word I had in mind when I opened my computer to start this post. I'm so busy I don't have the time to do the things I normally do, blogging among them. In the first two-and-a-half months of the year, I've only read two books (and one of them I didn't even finish). Extrapolated to the year, this is much below the average. I haven't written a proper blog post in a long time, either.

But as I got ready to write, rationalizing some of the ideas I want to lay out, I realized that busy isn't the right word to describe the state I've been in. I haven't had time, that's true, but the reason is different: I've been extraordinarily occupied. My job is coming to an end in April and nothing is sorted out yet. I'm constantly thinking about finishing up here and about moving, but I have no facts to base my thoughts on. I don't have a new job lined up and my thoughts are floating without purchase, unable to hang on to anything that would give direction or purpose.

When I set out as an equally ambitious and clueless undergraduate studying biochemistry, I didn't think for a minute that I would be at the end of my wits fifteen years later and completely unclear about the path lying ahead. It's a disconcerting experience. I've made the steps largely as they were laid out in the academic book of wisdom, but something appears to have gone wrong.

I don't want to sound negative, mostly because I don't feel negative, but some things are clearly not as a wide-eyed undergrad would have envisioned them. In the past, near the end of every engagement, another one materialized that could be interpreted as the logical progression of my career, though the word is grander than what I was experiencing. I worked as a postdoc and then a senior postdoc, and I got the respect and appreciation that I felt I deserved. I made contributions and didn't go unnoticed.

And yet, at the end of five years in London, there's a big wall blocking my way. One way forward would be to scale the wall and find independence and responsibility beyond it. I could run my own lab, in other words. Unfortunately, the accumulated evidence of my academic success is poor in the category that matters most. I haven't first-authored papers reporting the results of my research. I still think that I'm cut out for the job, that I'd be good at running a lab, but I doubt I'll get the chance to prove that. The wall appears sky-high, daunting and insurmountable.

In the face of painfully hurdling the wall, the smart alternative is to go around it, changing direction and reinventing one's career to some degree. This is what I'm trying to do. I've searched broadly over the last year, applying at universities, research institutes and companies. I have a good idea of what would make me really happy, plus there are a few more options that I'm sure would get me out of bed and to work full of excitement every morning. I had interviews for a large variety of positions, but none has worked out.

There was the best job ever. Unfortunately, another candidate was much better qualified. I would have done as the bosses did and preferred him. Then there was a plush but less ambitious job in the sticks of Germany. Flucha would have been a bit out of her depth there, so I didn't take the process overly seriously and missed out on an offer. The only corporate interview I had only taught me what I wouldn't do. When they asked me to come out again, I declined.

I stand proud and my principles hold, but I will soon be out of a job. This is not the end of the world as such. Rest might be beneficial, and the increasing financial constraints on life might focus my energies after I've rested enough. Hauling all my things down to Marseille for what might only be a few months will be painful but beat staying in London without an income.

I'm aware of the options but don't contemplate them seriously yet because there's still time to enact plan A. I have several applications running and new jobs are being posted daily. In addition, I have come under the tutelage of a recruitment agency the other day, even though I hadn't been aware of their existence in the world of science.

They replied positively to my CV and cover letter, and a few weeks later we had a long telephone interview. At the end of it, I was told that the position I had applied for had already been filled. Days later, I was sent another offer, again for a job that has been filled, this time months ago. "To give you an idea and help you decide whether a position like this would work for you."

It would, but I'm not quite sure whether I'm talking to the right people. Are they helping me or mocking me? I haven't got an interview or even an opening to respond to. But I should be patient. They wouldn't be talking to me if they weren't optimistic about my future. After all, my success is their income.

Besides being in contact with recruiters and preparing documents for them, I've also embarked on what is possibly an absurd undertaking: I'm applying for a position that is nominally in the French civil service. The application procedure, inflexible and confining like a full-body cast, has me shaking involuntarily, trying to break imaginary bonds. The position will offer freedom and a good life, but the path there is beset with mighty roadblocks – and I'll be sharing it with dozens of applicants with better language skills, a better understanding of the system, and a degree issued in the right country.

While the French letter of motivation is trying to take shape in my head, other cover letters need composing. The recruiters want this and that. My dad is here; other visitors are on their way. I'm also still working, full-time. I can hardly think straight for five minutes without being distracted by something that appears momentarily more important. There's so much going on – just don't expect to read about it here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

intangible appeal

In the previous post I highlighted some of the places, features and events that have endeared London to me. I have now a shorter list of less tangible things that had largely the same effect. The items are not limited to London but can be enjoyed all over the United Kingdom, though I haven't ventured out to try that.

  • Radio 4 – This is radio as it should be, and I listen to it daily. The Today program accompanies my breakfast with news and snappy weather, and the Shipping Forecast soothes all worries off me when I happen to catch it. Between them are culture, comedy, and quiz shows, all presented at the moderate pace of old. The sense, civility and humor that permeate Any Questions show what's great about Britain.
    The Archers supplies a daily quarter-hour of life in the countryside, with neighbors, farmers and quiet conflicts. With over 16,000 episodes, this is the world's longest-running soap opera, going strong since 1951 and forever true to its roots. The show seems to come from a different world and a different time. It's set in the West Midlands, but removed from the hectic life of London as it is, it might as well come from Middle Earth. I only listen to it occasionally and reluctantly, but I will probably still miss it.
    Radio 4 epitomizes so many quintessentially British traits. I've mentioned civility and humor above. More importantly, there's the sense of tradition and the strength that people draw from it. It seems that most of the shows on Radio 4 are at least half a century old. They've got woven into the fabric of society. People grew up with them on their parents' or grandparents' wireless. That consistency has created patterns without which few would want to do. Many regular listeners could probably not name the characters on the Archers, but the familiar chatter and the known voices are irreplaceable markers of the time of the day when professional obligations slip off and the private evening starts. Similarly, no one needs the Shipping Forecast and few can read sense in it, but the hypnotic code offers wordless comfort when the night is darkest.
  • Aunty Beeb – I listen to one station only and don't have a TV, but the BBC is dear to me. They stand for sense in the media and for good programs, good programs that I can pick up on the iPlayer, an online repository of last week's shows, and throw on my wall. I've seen my share of documentaries and travels shows, Sherlock and Top Gear, all in ten feet of glorious HD, though lately I've missed more shows than I've watched thanks to a pressing lack of time.
  • Top Gear – The mother of all motoring shows is now in its 18th series. You would think they can't possibly be funny anymore – it's not like they're the Simpsons or something – and you'd be wrong. Convulsed with laughter I watched an off-road wheelchair test in a Welch village earlier this season, followed by a race of said wheelchairs up a muddy hillside. The Top Gear boys were competing against a trio of army veterans that shared three legs and five arms among them. Needless to say, the veterans won.
    Top Gear has slow moments. Even some of the specials are disappointing, and there's no chance they'll ever reduplicate the sheer madness of the race to the North Pole or the authenticity of giving up high in the Andes, deprived of oxygen at 5000m and out of their wits. The slapdash hilarity of the Vietnam special, eight days on rickety motorcycles, braving the torrents of Ho Chi Minh traffic and later the monsoon, will forever stand as the pinnacle of adventure entertainment. But as long as the presenters stick to their routine of irreverence and self-deprecation and keep their creative team on powerful stimulants, there's no end to where they can go.
  • Waitrose – I'm not much of a consumer and I have few favorite shops or brands. But wherever I'll go next, I'll miss the solidity and quality of Waitrose groceries, the quietly confident good looks of their stores, and the naturally friendly staff. Here's something I'm unlikely to say again soon: I like to go shopping there. Their pistachios are divine, and sometimes also their tomatoes.

The preceding list almost sums up that country outside the gates of London for me. And that's just as well. I moved to London, not the UK, and I've lived accordingly. There's not much time left when one lives London properly.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

the end, yet again

On Friday, I submitted an grant application to extend my stay in London for a few more months. I'm not sure how optimistic to be about the outcome but my happiness doesn't hinge on it either. Living in London is a bit like being on drugs. I've done this for nearly five years now, and it's time to move on. It's also time to move on in life, and leaving London is a requirement for that.

I know that I will miss London terribly. First in a series of related posts that tries to preserve memories and moods for later, here are a few of the things that make London special for me:

  • Free art and cheap music – London is notorious for its high cost of living, but that's not quite deserved. Outside housing, which is positively ridiculous, prices are moderate. Art is outright cheap. Public museums are free. The Tates charge for their special exhibitions, but with an annual pass, the cost comes down considerably. Completely free are the hundreds of galleries all over the city. They sell expensive artwork but show them to anyone that dares to enter their slightly intimidating spaces, frequently with bouncer-like doormen or unmarked bells to ring. Another treasure trove are auction houses that have public viewings before every auction.
    On the stage, the situation is almost as good. The selection is huge, with quality to match. Free cultural events, festivals and celebrations are staged almost every weekend. Classical music is incredible value, with the cheapest seats going for less than a tenner.
  • Diversity – Not much in London is one of a kind. There's usually a wide variety. The culture is so incredibly varied, there's always something for everyone. Whether it's Italian poetry from the 13th century or west Laotian card games, you'll find someone to share your passion with.
    Around three hundred languages are spoken in the streets of London, and that's before tourists are taken into account. No matter where I go on vacation, whatever food inspires me there, I can buy it here. And if I don't like it in tins, I can go to a regional restaurant that will cook it up for me. The world is at home here, and I love it.
  • Friendly cops and underground staff – Cops in central London are two-legged tourist informations as much as guarantors of public safety. Members of the station staff often help hesitant tourists in front of ticket machines with the ticket purchase, without prompting. Both conspire to make London a friendly place.
  • Public transport – At any time of the day or the night, I can get anywhere I want, reasonably quickly and in good comfort, though these two were long inversely correlated. The tube is quick but often madly crowded. Buses are slow but have great views from the top deck. Trains travel is quick and comfortable at the same time but available only in outer London and during the day.
  • Canals, towpaths and past industrial glory – There is so much royal history in London, so many memories of kings and queens, so many bright lights, gold and glitter, that it's easy to overlook the grime, rust and decay that testify to a parallel past. The industrial revolution changed the face of the city as much as that of the country, and while many of these changes have been superseded by relentless progress, the remaining brownfield sites are only slowly regenerated and the canals are here to stay.
    The connection between peaceful canals and rotting industry might appear incongruous but it is close. The canals were built for industrial transport, for getting goods from the factories in Birmingham and Manchester down to the port of London. I got my first taste of the Grand Union canal near Camden Town but soon ventured further afield, along the River Lea and near Brentford. The Thames itself also offers great post-industrial walks, in North Greenwich for example or back to town from the Docklands.
  • Tides in the river – Even without remnants of industrial glory, the Thames is an amazing river. Its character changes with the moon in a twelve-and-a-half-hour cycle. At low tide, there's but a trickle. At high tide, overflow threatens riverside walks and turns dirt paths into bogs of heavy black mud. It boggles the mind to come to the same place at the same hour of the day a few days later and find it transformed. Ever-changing vistas beyond an ever-changing river were the only thing that kept me sane during lonely runs in preparation for my marathons.
  • Central London – The area of Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, China Town and Covent Garden is full of tourist traps. There are precious few good restaurants there, only few decent coffee shops and not a single pub worth visiting, but I still like to go there every now and then. The energy and the buzz that suffuse London are focused there. Faces shine with excitement and anticipation, tourists gape, laugh and take photographs, lights blink and music blares. At the end of a tough week, this is a concentrated does of positive energy that's priceless.

In all likelihood, I'll be gone from London before summer. My dad and a friend from college have (independently) realized what that means. It's their last chance for a combination visit, seeing me and enjoying London. March is thus fully booked at Hotel Andreas. Then I'm on Easter break. When I'm back towards the middle of April, the end will have already begun.