Sunday, December 16, 2012


It's 12 o'clock. Lunchtime. I stagger out of Imperial like a boxer after a lost bout. It feels like the end of a long day at work. Even the bright sun up high can't convince me otherwise. I shouldn't feel like this. Bright sunlight and such utmost tiredness don't go together, but my inner clock has been completely messed up by another night at the synchrotron. This time it was a proper one. We wouldn't have needed the rooms in the guest house. There was no time for sleep. Our shift started last night at 10 and ended when the hour hand had come full circle, much like the electrons in the accelerator but much slower, at ten in the morning today.

The twelve hours on the job were only interrupted by frantic dashes to the toilet. Time was precious and our samples doubly so, and we were loaded to the brim. It was impossible to finish everything, but we kept on target. There was no proper break until some monkey tripped the beam shortly after six in the morning and the whole facility sat in the dark for forty minutes. The student working with me tried to sleep for an hour when I took charge of experiments but he looked much worse for wear when we got back to London. Better not give your body ideas.

Shivering with tiredness, I walk through Kensington, heaving periodically with yawns that could swallow entire beds. For long second, I inhale liters of oxygen in an attempt to stave off sleep. I'm only half successful. There's not much I notice going around me. I can't even tell if it's cold.

If I had a real job, I'd receive some compensation for the suffering, overtime, double overtime even because of the ungodly hours, but my time isn't clocked. I can't even enjoy the per-diem because the only place to have dinner was the on-site refectory where a perfectly adequate meal costs all of six quid, soup and desert included.

Breakfast came with the room but by the time we were done with our shift, they had stopped cooking. Dead tired and starving, we hurled back to London. It's amazing what speeds are normal in a country where the speed limit is seventy. But in my state, traffic would have been a blur even at thirty miles an hour.

Everything was clear when we had started out. Pumped by excitement, anticipation and a sense of formidable challenge, we went through the first few hours without looking left or right. We immediately fell into a routine of shared responsibilities, changing samples, taking data, processing and analyzing it, logging our progress and laying out plans for the hours to come, plans that evolve with every sample that adds a little dot to the developing picture. Seamless robotics, a comfortable user interface and six big screens in front of us make efficiency easy.

In Atlas Shrugged or its Soviet brother, How the Steel Was Tempered, the heroes don't feel pain or get sleepy because they can't be bothered. The future of mankind is on their minds and they have no time for distractions. We had our experiments (and our own futures by tenuous extension) to keep us focused, and time flew until way past midnight. But there comes a time at night when the will is no match for body anymore. For me that's usually somewhere between four and five. Cracks appear in smooth procedures, speed wanes, errors can go undetected.

Our planning had accounted for that. We did the hard stuff first and made a clear list of the easy things that just needed ticking off later. With the sun returns our energy, and the last hour of our shift is a mad rush. Another dataset and another one and maybe we can squeeze another one in if we push hard enough. Then we're done – and fall off a cliff. The drive back is a struggle.

Shortly before noon, we get back to South Ken, drop the Golf outside campus and carry the Dewars up to the lab. The sun is shining brightly. It shapes up to be nice Sunday, wonderful even, considering it's the middle of December, and totally wasted on me. If a blizzard went down and dumped three feet, I wouldn't know the difference. I'm sleepwalking home with a empty stare into a non-existing distance.

Friday, December 07, 2012


They say one needs balance in life. If you work with your head, you should play with your feet, for example. The works for me, but only to an extent. I play football most weeks, exhausting and exhilarating myself in equal measure. I don't think about work when I chase after a ball that seems to roll faster every time. I leave the post-game shower fresh and mentally ready to go, but all too often, the aging body weighs down my intellectual efforts for the rest of the afternoon.

At the other end of the spectrum of activities to counterbalance work is chess. There's no motion involved besides nervous rocking but like football, it manages to take my mind completely off work. It has a different place in my schedule, though. Football is squeezed into an hour at work, between a miniprep and gel electrophoresis or whatever fills the schedule on that particular day. Chess deserves its own day.

I play online some evenings – on the wonderful Schacharena server these days – but most of the time I'm too tired from work to pull off anything special over the board that would justify the time spent playing. You know where this is going already.

Every now and then, precisely six times since discovering this gem last summer, I hop on the tube and go up to Golders Green for the monthly rapidplay tournament. It takes the entire Saturday and I'm drained afterward – you wouldn't think this was the kind of thing to do to recover from a hard week at work – but I have great fun and that's what matters, isn't it?

Last Sunday, I walked up to Olympia, as I did the year before to play in the rapidplay tournament that's part of the London Chess Classic. I did much better than last time, winning the kind of games that I lost last year and swindling my way not only to a highly dubious draw when I had been losing for twenty moves already but also to a place in the final standings way beyond my most optimistic expectations. (This has less to do with improved abilities than with the pendulum of luck swinging both ways if you just wait long enough.)

The London Chess Classic itself is a grandmaster tournament with one drawn-out round per day, up to seven hours of tedium for the uninitiated but fireworks of creativity and skill and breathtaking action for those who know how to appreciate that kind of thing. It also looks to become a tournament for the history books.

Magnus Carlsen, the world's best player, is shooting for the highest strength rating ever achieved. By the way he's been playing so far, there's no doubt he'll get there. He's not where Bobby Fischer was at his best – winning all games in a tournament – but he's damn close. He's won all but one so far, an incredible performance against opponents who are all top players. The London Chess Classic are likely to confirm Carlsen as one of the best ever.

This week, the Financial Times ran a terrific profile on Magnus Carlsen, worth reading even if you're not interested in the game. One line in particular went a long way towards explaining top players: "Of course, analysis can sometimes give more accurate results than intuition but usually it's just a lot of work. I normally do what my intuition tells me to do. Most of the time spent thinking is just to double-check." The best of the best don't out-think their opponents. They out-imagine them.

Pieces of wisdom aside, I found the article most impressive for the joy it exudes. It becomes obvious that Carlsen doesn't play because he's the best and winning pays the bills. He plays because he has a blast on the board whenever he sits down. By that criterion, as ridiculous as it sounds, I'm just like him. Playing chess is fun. Unfortunately I'd need to work with my arms or legs to enjoy it more.

Monday, December 03, 2012

in the kitchen

Despite living on my own for most of the last decade and a half, interrupted only by a few shared years in Utah, I haven't exactly developed a sense of domesticity. I don't do DIY, I don't do electricity and I certainly don't plumb. What I sometimes do is cook.

My cooking has two dominant reasons. First, I like to eat good. Second, I don't like to spend money unnecessarily. For these two benchmarks to meet, I have to cook my own food. (Note that for this logic to work, desires and essentials have to be disentangled, potentially causing the disruption of our economic system: Eating good cannot be considered a necessity. Note also that eating good might just work grammatically, if I understood Johnson's arguments over at the Economist correctly.)

My skills in the kitchen are limited and are reflected in my repertoire. I do mostly single skillets full of stuff, some carbs, some veggies, some sauce. I rarely cook meat, not because I'm a vegetarian but because I can't be bothered. I almost never bake, but tonight I went back to a baking incident of many years ago and made plans for more.

When I lived in France I bought a little bakebook called Petits Gâteaux, not even three dozen recipes with pictures taking more space than the instructions, rather encouraging for a neophyte like myself. The recipes had lovely names like Demi-lunes au citron and Palets aux pignons and added a few words to my vocabulary. Baking paper is called papier sulfurisé, for example, not very appetizing but apparently true to the original process of making it.

I think it was in my first year in Grenoble that I toiled in the kitchen an entire Advent Saturday to bake petits gâteaux or biscuits or cookies or Plätzchen or whatever you want to call them, and surprised myself with the result. They came out really well. I took some to the lab, eat the best part over tea and took what was left back to Germany when I went home for Christmas.

This year, I'm not going home for Christmas, or rather, and this corresponds much better to how I feel about it, my definition of home has changed. I'm gonna be home for Christmas, but it will be with Flucha in my flat. Home in that case is not a physical space. I will be leaving London soon and wouldn't call my flat my home. Instead, home is togetherness and traditions.

One of the traditions that I will contribute to the incipient home is Christmas Plätzchen, and so next weekend I will once again get sweaty in the kitchen and bake. I'm slightly doubtful about the success. Technically, it's about even. My oven is a bit sketchy but an accurate balance and a hand mixer should just about counterbalance that. But in terms of following the recipe, I'm seriously handicapped.

This is not because I forgot to read French. As I said, there aren't that many words in the book in the first place. The problem is that I'm trying to follow in England recipes that were written for the French market. The available ingredients aren't the same. It starts with something as simple as flour. If it doesn't have the same texture or strength, just using the right amount won't do. Baking power is another issue. Last time I checked, a sachet was not an internationally recognized unit.

At least the recipes are forgiving in terms of time management. Many call for the dough to be stored in the fridge for at least an hour, precluding the dramatic situation when everything culminates at once and alarms go off and there's no more space in the oven and definitely not on the counter tops and what happened to that medium size bowl?

If everything fails – and I have no reason to assume that it will be that bad – there's still time to go to the Lidl. Normally I don't go out of my way to shop there, but the chain's origin is very visible in the offered products. Lots of German things. Lots of baked goods for Christmas. Just the thing I'm trying to do myself.