Tuesday, November 27, 2012

rain and shit

The weekend was a washout. It started raining on Thursday and didn't end. Cornwall was flooded. The trains between Bristol and Exeter stopped running. There were even puddles in Hyde Park. It was unprecedented.

Residents of other cities might smile the resigned smile of inveterate sufferers, but in the UK, the categorization of weather follows different criteria. First off, the occurrence of weather itself is a notable event. Normally, it's between 10 and 20 degrees with changes between a mild mist hanging languidly in the air and feeble sunshine. As soon as conditions stray from that, weather is invoked and chaos breaks out. Every afternoon above 25 degrees launches a heat wave, officially sanctioned by the Met Office.

When, as newspapers report with honest panic between the type, "a severe blizzard is expected to blanket the country with up to four inches of snow", people freeze in anticipation. "Drifts of up to eight inches" are predicted as a bona-fide threat, not a contradiction. They make sure that public transport collapses, the electricity goes out and the provision with victuals becomes patchy. In London, first to break down is the Circle line, the only Underground line that runs true to its name in its entirely.

The last observation holds much to the understanding of the situation. The Circle line doesn't break down because of snow on the tracks or frozen points. The Circle line fails because it's old and fit for operation only in perfect conditions, the above-mentioned drizzle to sun at 20 to 25 degrees. Leeway to deal with deviations from the average is not built into public infrastructure.

As another example, when rain falls, not an unusual event by any stretch of the imagination, the sewers in London, designed more than a century ago, overflow. Thousands of colorectal expurgations come to float on the turbid waters of the Thames. If that's not a pretty thought, it's an even less pretty picture, but no one seems to be bothered unduly. Worse, those with the responsibility and, if it can be believed, the will to change something, are hindered by local authorities, foremost among them the Council of Hammersmith and Fulham, which governs my neighborhood in glorious ineptitude.

Upgrading the sewer system after decades of criminal neglect will not come cheap and it will inconvenience residents. It will also ensure that less shit is washed into the Thames and that kids can play by the water without fear of gastro-enteritis or Salmonella. But who cares about kids when you paid a million quid for a big house in a quiet street? You wouldn't want excavators to shake your foundations or wide lorries to scrape withing inches of your Jag, parked off-street because the library extension you put on your house took the space that used to be the garage's. Thus you have residents' groups fighting a temporarily annoyance only to prolong a persistent evil.

I can understand this attitude. I would assume the same, had I a Jag and a mansion near the river. I wouldn't want to have something in my expensive backyard that's of benefit to everyone. If I wanted to run a charity I would run my own and promote it properly and make sure that my involvement is publicly acknowledged. I can understand all this thinking. What I can't understand it that the Council not only accepts this reasoning as valid but makes it its own. I can't imagine that there's really that much campaign contribution money in local government.

Despite prolonged and serious cursing, a mailer from the Council makes it into my mailbox in painful regularity. This publication, funded with council tax in all likelihood and thus paid for in part by me, is the most partisan news organ I have encountered since the GDR fell to pieces. (It's probably worse than Fox News, the single most socialist aspect of the United States.)

A few weeks ago, the Council News warned of a "Stink-pipe to force World War II style evacuation". Demagoguery before facts, screaming before discussing, frenzy before sense: things I remember well from my childhood when nothing ever got fixed either. What I also remember is government only addressing the problems of a small minority of the citizens and not simply ignoring the rest but mocking them relentlessly.

This is not how things should go. If I stayed longer in London, I'd be tempted to get involved in local political, if only by spreading dissent in local meetings or promoting my mock-pressure group "Don't shit in my river". Alas, I'm leaving soon and anyway, it was only the rainy weekend that made me think about these things.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


One of the advantages of living in an affluent area is the high quality of food one can purchase effortlessly. In London, the number of Waitrose stores, an upmarket grocer, correlates roughly with the wealth of an area. Specialty shops add international delicacies to the mix. At least once a week, a farmers' market brings fresh produce from just outside London.

I don't live in an affluent area. North End Road is grubby and cheap, lined with pound stores, off-licenses, betting shops and bingo halls, though curiously few kebab houses. Six days a week, a market sprawls from the infamous double roundabout at Lillie Road down to St. John's church, with traders pitching their booths, vans and tables every morning on the eastern side of the road.

There's a cheese man who's French, an egg lady, two olive vendors and a felafel frier, but most of the space is taken up by various fruit and veg businesses. It's good to go out there on a Saturday morning before the crowds show up, before nine in other words, and scoop up some vitamins. At prices that can't be beat, universally a pound a bowl, I get apples, mangos, kaki fruit and, if they're in season, figs, cherries or grapefruit.

The problem is that the produce doesn't always meet the expectations raised by the presentation, acres of red, yellow and green shining in the morning sun. The veggies are often limp, the cherries quick to rot. Peaches are best avoided because they won't last beyond breakfast. I imagine the traders' business model hinging on getting to New Spitalfields Market right before closing and scooping up for bargain prices what other retailers shun. The result is that every purchase should best be consumed the same day.

When I got up one morning after coming back from Marseille a few weeks ago, I noticed a strange smell in my living room. Should air out the room, I figured, and went to the window. That's when I saw the source of the smell. It didn't come from inside.

In front of my window was a tenant new to the market, his blue-and-white tarp half covering a table displaying styrofoam boxes full of fish. It was early in the morning and the market had hardly opened, but the fish already smelled. There were token piles of ice but the carcasses didn't look good. Glistening scales, crisp fins, vivid colors – all the signs of freshness had already been drained from the abused bodies. God knows when they had been dragged from the water and how they had got to the market.

At this point I was fairly confident that the fishmonger would quickly pack up shop. He probably got a load of fish for cheap and now sold them off for quick profit, notwithstanding possible danger to the consumers. When the first locals had died of food poisoning, he would have long moved on, I predicted. But three weeks later, the proprietor of the internet café downstairs keeps fumigating his shop with incense so thick it's hard to see the screens and cries into my shoulder whenever we meet. The fishmonger is still there and the noxious smell of old fish hovers heavily. But no one has fallen ill, and maybe what's on sale simply reflects the purses of the local residents.

At Marylebone farmers' market where I went this morning, the atmosphere couldn't be more different. On a small backstreet parking lot, hidden unless you know where to look, are a few dozen little stalls that visibly favor quality over quantity. Everything is organic or free-range and, what's more important, farm-fresh and crisp.

Telling from the little signs by nearly all poultry and game stalls, pheasant is currently in season. There were also fruits and vegetables as they should be, small flavorful apples, heirloom tomatoes, freshly baked cakes and breads and fish that looked as if they had just come in from a little swim this morning.

I had come for dairy products. England produces cheeses as good as they are underappreciated. A farmers' market is a good place to sample some. I ended up with a cheddar from Glastonbury and a Mozzarella from Somerset buffalo, but what I really wanted to buy was a bottle of raw milk.

Raw milk is a bit of a rarity, a bit like whale meat, its trade prohibited by law in many places. In the UK, grocery stores are banned from carrying it. Only farmers are allowed to sell untreated milk. When I found out about this a few months ago, I was first surprised that unpasteurized milk existed at all and then got curious about trying.

Unfortunately, the guy who usually sells milk at Marylebone wasn't around today. I'll probably repeat the journey into central London next week. How I wish I lived in a posher area with a good farmers' market nearer by, but then this post would only be half as long.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

no flight

"Ladies and gentlemen, this flight is fully booked."

Normally I'm already dazed off at the point of such an announcement when boarding is nearly complete, or sunk deep into the first story of the latest New Yorker. This time, I listen up. Fully booked. It's a fully deserved stroke of good luck that I'm on this flight, albeit in a middle seat.

An hour earlier, things looked bleaker, roughly in line with the weather, which in Germany tends to be incredibly dreary and grey in November. Rising from the train station underneath the airport in a glass elevator, the first thing I beheld was the large departures board, glowing in a promising orange.

There aren't many flights out of Dresden. The entire day fits comfortably on the board. Though it was still early in the morning, the first few of tomorrow's flights were shown as well. Not shown was my flight, just about an hour away. It wasn't that it was canceled; it simply wasn't there, as if it had never been scheduled to take place.

Five days earlier, at the end of a long night at the synchrotron and a short few hours in the sagging bed of a countryside inn, I had made my way towards Southend, the Victorian summer resort by the Thames estuary, a place with its very own charm. If you're glum, Southend, with endless mud flats when the tide is low and carefully preserved decrepitude, must be unbearable. If you're cheerful, the place is hilarious.

It tries to cover the decay brought about by decades of neglect with bright neon lights and noisy entertainment. It boasts, at one-and-a-third miles, the world's longest pleasure pier, the only way to see the water at low tide. Tacky, with cheap bed-and-breakfasts, untold chippies, and dismal amusement arcades – and though it isn't even by the sea – it's the epitome of the English seaside resort. It's a must-see.

I had visited Southend-on-sea last summer. This time I came for the airport, a former military field that was converted to civilian use about a year ago. Now, a few budget airlines fly to a few European destinations. There are fewer flights than in Dresden and the airport would hold no interest for me at all, were it not for a novelty of two weeks: The connection between Southend and Dresden is the only way for me to get home without changing flights.

The flight is the third try of an airline to connect Dresden and London in an economically viable way since I arrived in London. British Airways was first, four years ago. Their flights were full, but they only lasted a year. Then came Lufthansa through their budgetesque subsidiary British Midlands. When BMI was sold to British Airways, solely for the valuable landing slots it held at Heathrow, the route was quietly cut.

Now OLT Express is trying its luck. The (German) acronym stands for East Frisian Air Transport; the company was founded in 1958 to connect intertidal islands of the North Sea with the mainland. It operated in obscurity for a few decades until it decided to enter the burgeoning market of low-cost air travel. At this point things went awry. Bankruptcies, acquisitions, loss of contracts – I don't know the details, but when I first heard about the company at the announcement of the Dresden–Southend service two months ago, I booked a return trip anyway.

After the synchrotron, a train took me to Paddington, the tube to Liverpool St. and then another train straight to the airport in Southend. It was painless and quick. Getting from the station to the gate was even quicker: just a walk across a small parking lot and then security just for me. The flight was equally pleasant. Plenty of newspapers were for grabs at boarding; free refreshments were served in flight. The plane felt new (though its manufacturer is long gone), the seats were big and there was tons of knee space. All the pieces were there to build success.

Hardly anyone knew about it, though. I shared a plane for 100 with only 16 other passengers. OLT Express had launched the service two weeks earlier with minimal fanfare. A press release made it into the local newspaper, but there were no announcements on billboards in Dresden and the trams didn't carry advertisements. Posters in tube stations in London didn't invite people to come and see the Frauenkirche, as they had when BA had tried its luck.

I don't know if OLT's senior vice president for marketing got the sack for this fiasco. He should have. But maybe they don't have one. They're a small airline, provincial as their name and quite obviously overwhelmed by the challenges of operating Europe-wide. They're not about to get bigger either. In light of the lack of bookings, the decision was made to cut flights and limit the service to school holidays, my mom said. She had heard it somewhere. I heard nothing, though the holidays have ended. There was no email from OLT and no word on their home page. I assumed I would fly and went to an internet café to check in the night before. After a few clicks, I had my boarding pass, the schedule unchanged.

This morning at the airport, as the glass-enclosed elevator took me up to the departure level, reality caught up. My flight wasn't on the departures board and, OLT being a no-frills internet-only operation, there was no one to talk to. I insisted on talking and was sent from counter to counter. In the end, it was good old Lufthansa, one of the few reliables in fleeting times, that bailed me out. They called OLT and let me speak to their service.

The first thing I learned was that "it is technically possible to check in, even though the flight won't take place". Whether this is considered sensible wasn't revealed, nor whether IT should be outsourced someplace competent. I also didn't learn whether I should expect the airline to notify me of flight changes and cancellations. Not surprisingly, there was no apology. On the plus side, Lufthansa took charge and rebooked my flight.

Throughout the process, I wasn't frazzled. Things happened as I expected them. When you're checked in and your flight is canceled, it's the airline's responsibility to ensure your travel. I relied on that and took the new boarding passes, stiff and Lufthansa-yellow, for granted. I didn't appreciate how (relatively) lucky I was until the announcement on the plane right before take-off. I had barely squeezed in.

Thursday, November 01, 2012


Enthusiasm is often borne out of ignorance, the manifestation of a lack of understanding that makes the remote seem achievable if one just tried hard enough. The enthusiasm of a student who's willing to work like a slave for years in defiance of the supremacy of instant gratification, instead pursuing a vague dream of success and glory that shimmers just out of sight, is a powerful example of that.

"You can sleep when you're dead", my Ph.D. adviser used to say at times of experimental intensity, when a project was heading for culmination and endless rounds of double-checking, replication and confirmation were required before our results could be unloaded onto an unsuspecting world. Odd as it sounds now, I found these words deeply moving. It was as if deep wisdom had been revealed to me. But it wasn't so much the words that inspired the many sleepless nights by the bench that paved the way to my Ph.D., it was the way they were spoken. My boss burned with the near-self-delusional motivation that characterizes good scientists, and he was always ready to spread the contagion.

Since those days of youthful exuberance, my passion has somewhat cooled. It would be far from the truth to say that the fire has died within, but sense has frequently demanded to be heard in discussions over future directions, definitions of success and balance in life. Things besides science are on my mind when I go home and sometimes even at work, and when projects move slowly, I sometimes get tempted by the devil, imagining alternatives to the life of a bench scientist.

Recently, things have gone at a crazy pace. One project went from zero to sixty in a few days in summer and has been accelerating ever since. Another came out of nowhere, success now a distinct possibility where only an ignorant student or a deluded PI could have seen it before. I'm in the middle of it, too weak to say no to passion, focus and dedication.

So it happened that last night, the night of the dead, a student and I found ourselves at Diamond, a large research facility in the Oxfordshire countryside. Time there is precious and used with relentless efficiency. Widespread automation has piled the pressure on humans, driving them to perform machine-like, with hurried glances over vast arrays of screens and quick gestures onto what'd better be the right button. Occasionally, you can see what looks like zombies on the loo run, zonked researchers slotting hurried toilet breaks between successive experiments.

It was Halloween, but the night was all business. Access control prevented any stray trick-or-treaters from finding their way onto the site and lighting up the mood. Had they come, they would have had rich pickings. Wherever work continues through the night and especially in those dreary places where night and day are but abstract concepts, mere numbers on the clock because light comes from neon tubes overhead that are always on, cheap fixes of instant sugar rule. Where people have nothing but their will to fight the pernicious pull of time, discarded chocolate wrappers and empty pop bottles mount.

There were no trick-or-treaters, but shortly before midnight, data knocked on the door of our hutch. I opened the detector wide and slurped up reflections by the thousands. Software wizards started their magic as soon as the experiment had ended and congealed all the information into neat little columns of numbers. Fifteen minutes later, I had assurance on my hard drive that the trip wouldn't count as a complete failure. Thanks to the student, his eyes burning brightly with desire when his body could hardly take the abuse anymore, we had to go a little longer and push a little harder, poking into the unknown with an ever finer stick. When we finally packed up, it was deep into the next day. Shortly thereafter, we collapsed into beds, our bodies like dead but our dreams still alive.