Monday, October 21, 2013

philosophical transaction

With a freshly opened bottle of 1995 Carta Roja Gran Reserva next to me – and how long has it been since I started a blog post with the wine I was drinking when I wrote it – I happily submitted to the second episode of Brian Cox's Science Britannica. It's not only the wine. It's also been ages since I reviewed anything on the iPlayer.

Brian Cox is one of the outstanding science communicators in the UK these days. To my uneducated ears, he's the foremost singer of the English language – there's really no way you could call speaking what the the guy is doing in front of the camera – and an enthusiastic scientist to boot. Today's episode (today referring to the day I downloaded the episode) was about scientific breakthroughs and achievements. Bletchley Park was mentioned and Cavendish's laboratory (as opposed to the Cavendish laboratory), as well as the Royal Society and the Royal Institution. Never mind the language of the presenter, the show was amusing and also edifying, reinforcing and breaking public conceptions of scientists in equal measure.

Sometimes I wonder whether I can consider myself a scientist at all. If that happens on a Sunday night and I look back onto a weekend spent getting a manuscript ready for publication, the answer is unambiguous. But if it happens when I survey my professional development, I'm less sure. The true scientist, the searcher of truth, the ingenue (for which the dictionary, in its engrained sexism, does not have a male equivalent) on a quest for reason – this is not something I see in myself.

But maybe science is more than is shown on TV. I grab a bottle of Bushmills that had made its way over from Ulster a good year ago, grab a glass and get into a thinking pose. A memorable contributor to the documentary was a mathematician who said that seeing him work wasn't much different from seeing him sleep. The tinkerer, the searcher, the solver of problems – that is a scientist, and I can surely identify with that.

The BBC show I was watching ended with the presenter being credited as Professor Brian Cox. What the hell is a professor? Is that someone being paid for professing? Is it a professional professor, someone who professes for a living? What would be the point of that? Semantics, I know, but worth thinking about nevertheless.

Tomorrow, I'll go back to the little crystallography facility I run at Imperial, trying to keep things going smoothly for the few dozen of users that stop by on a regular basis, users that try to crystallize their proteins and solve the structures of the proteins thus crystallized. It doesn't sound like much, but it's all part of the scientific endeavor.

Monday, October 07, 2013


Just about a week ago, the US government shut down.  Ramifications are impossible to feel this early in the madness and this far away, but one can only hope that the Tea Party is right, that government is bad and that everything will run much better without.  Businesses near recently closed national parks are apparently already learning that relying on tax dollars (for the maintenance and running of said parks) isn't a sensible business strategy and that they should do the American thing and stand on their own two legs.

How long can a government shut down for?  Quite a long time, to go by a few recent examples.  Not too long ago, Belgium ran on autopilot for nearly two years.  No one noticed because nothing happened.  Chaos and pandemonium stayed away, and the Belgians kept selling waffles, diamonds, lace and Smurf-colored chocolates.  Late in 2011, they went back to having a government, out of a European sense of tradition presumably.

Italy has been without government for a few decades now, at least in spirit, for anything involving Berlusconi cannot with a straight face be called government.  Even before him, things hadn't looked good, more theater of the absurd than politics as you know it.  Italy is going through rough times now but not any rougher than those of its neighbors, and it's hard to make the case that the lack of government has anything to do with it.

Somalia, to complete the triumvirate that the US now turns into an unlikely quartet, has not only had no government in ages, it has also been a complete basket case, and a place of war, violence and everything that comes with it - with one qualification:  Despite not having a central bank, the country's currency is running as strong as ever.  There has been no authority behind the notes and no official effort to print new ones for more than 20 years, but they're still used daily.  Proponents of the gold standard will tell you the worn 1000 shilling notes are just shreds of worthless paper – and then faint from exasperation.  You can still trade them for qat on the market.

Conclusion:  None!  The three examples are just that.  They prove nothing because examples can't.  They're funny to contemplate and somewhat edifying – the world isn't going to end because civil servants aren't paid, and the dollar won't collapse – but they don't mean that any of what's going on at the moment is sensible or healthy.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

history walk

When the Olympic and Paralympic jamboree was over, a little more than a year ago, one of the things that I was most excited about was the Olympic Park.  Half a decade of decontamination, regeneration and construction had turned a no-man's-land of crumbling warehouses, disused factories and abundant pollution into the bucolic dream of idealized Britishness of the opening ceremony.

What for decades used to be derelict land surrounded by leaden canals and busy A roads and cross-sected by railway lines, was turned in parkland with green hills and wildflowers – if that's the right term – meticulously chosen to ensure joyful colors throughout the year.  It was a huge project, and in the end it would be handed over to Londoners as new public park.

I had thought handover would be shortly after the last Paralympians had left, after the rubbish scattered by the crowds had been cleaned up and security fences and temporary venues torn down.  When talk was of summer 2013, I was baffled.  Why would it take so long?

When summer 2013 came, the first bit of park, christened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, was indeed opened to a restless public, but it was only a small area, a tenth of the total maybe.  The question of why it takes so long rings even louder.  Today I tried to find out.

I took the DLR to Pudding Mill Lane, a station surrounded by hoardings, constructions sites, railway arches and a pumping station.  It's not immediately obvious why anyone would want to get off there.  The sign to the View Tube gives the answer.  View Tube is a heap of half a dozen bright yellow shipping containers that house a visitor and education center and a small café.  It used to be the best place to see the Olympic stadium rise during construction.

I don't quite remember when I was here last time.  It was some weeks or a few months before the Olympics.  Now, the site looked much the same at first glance.  The stadium is there and the Orbit, and acres of construction.  I walked down the Greenway as I had done before.  The ten-foot fences of unscalable mesh that provided security during the Games were still there, as was the tunnel for safe access to the stadium.  In the distance were housing developments but next to the path were construction sites and rubble fields.

The Greenway is built on top of the Northern Outfall Sewer, the main conduit for raw sewage out of central London.  Not the most pleasant thing to contemplate, but there's no smell and what goes on underneath the path stays mostly invisible.  The exception is where the sewer crosses the River Lea.  By that point, I had dropped onto the towpath, which, like the river, passes underneath the sewer.  Ahead, I could see two pipes, three feet in diameter, old, corroded and dark.  Beyond, massive chunks of riveted iron, the pride of Victorian engineering, allowed the effluent of millions to slowly slush to the treatment plant.  A black sign informed that the structure was built in 1863 (and not exactly kept up to date).  I ducked my head and scurried into the gloom, thirty feet of crossing but at least there was no dribble.

On the other side, ignoring the stadium on the right, it looked much as it must have before the Olympics.  (Check out the photos here, especially the sixth.  Taken in 2007, they show what I saw today.)  Old locks and rotting narrowboats spoke of better times.  Some warehouses sat empty; others had been given new life by the cultured underground, canal sides turned into café terraces.  One had a big yellow sign advertising a German deli.

German delis are rare in London.  There are two in Richmond, one of which bakes excellent bread.  They've been there for decades and sell things they've always sold, products from the west.  This one was different, full of things I connect with emotionally.  There were Spreewald gherkins, Dr. Quendt biscuits, Born mustard, and pasta from Riesa.  It was a bit of a homecoming for me, but as always in such places, the prices were horrifying.  The owner, East German thirty miles down the river from me, told me he cries when he puts beer on the shelf.  The price he has to charge after the supplier and Her Majesty have taken their cut is physically painful.

With mustard, gherkins and a bread, I continued my walk.  Footbridges crossed the canal, so new that they weren't even open yet.  Then there was a sign to the park.  It pointed towards a busy roundabout, but I could see the curved roof of the velodrome in the distance and approached.

The park is small and hemmed in by access roads to the Olympic-size shopping center and railroads, but it's been creatively laid out and landscaped with great aspiration.  The waterway that passes through it, part of the River Lea/Lee Navigation network, got reed beds, artificial marshes and irregular shores, and meanders out of view like a natural river, though it quite clearly isn't.

There are amazing playgrounds for kids, a non-profit café run by a disability charity and viewpoints up on the hill.  There isn't much to see yet, but once construction is finished and the extensions are added – and connected with footpaths like everywhere in London – this will be a lovely place.  On the other hand, the bespoke landscaping will take great effort to maintain.  Some parts already look rather worn, though this could be a result of the unusually warm and dry summer.

What baffled me for a while were two bridges across the river/canal.  They were far too wide for a little park, wide enough for four-lane traffic.  Then it occurred to me that they weren't built for a little park that will accommodate hundreds but for Games visited by millions.  Downsizing is why the park couldn't be opened earlier.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

new acoustic dimension

During one of the periodic lab cleanup sessions that I enjoy because I like throwing things out and reducing clutter, my eyes fell on a box towards the bottom of an ignored shelf, the abandoned property of an investigator who had long left College.  Dust blurred most labels but I could read quite clearly three capital letters inside a black square.  This is why I had never given the box a second look before.  NAD is an originally British manufacturer of audio equipment with no place at all in a biochemistry lab.

I had always assumed there was some random junk in that box and ignored it, but when I wiped the dust off and opened it now, an integrated amplifier appeared, causing mystification all around.  There were no speakers or input source and no trace of ownership.  It was decided that I should carry the box home to test the content.

I bought my stereo late in high school, probably more out of a desire to impress than from audiophile inclinations, but once I had it, I took it seriously.  Half a year in, I got rid of the tape deck and went CD-only when most of my friends didn't even own a CD player.  This severely limited my exposure to music – I could afford a disc only ever other month – and kept the teenage institution of the mix tape from me, but I got hooked on good sound.

When I swapped my Sony for the NAD, the effect was immediate.  The music sounded much more open, much clearer, alive.  Instead of coming from the speakers, it filled the room.  It was an epiphany.  My system was all I could afford as a student.  I've been reluctant to upgrade because I doubted I'd be able to hear the difference to something truly HiFi.  Now I know better.

I dropped onto the sofa, closed my eyes and let the music flow through me.  It was a different game.  North End Road isn't exactly the place for quiet enjoyment – unless you're deaf and get a kick out of ambulances passing in rapid succession – but here I was contemplating a new pair of speakers to go with the amp.

It is ironic that as recorded music has become ubiquitous, the quality of its playback has dramatically decreased.  Just take the kids on the bus playing the latest hit through the speakers of their phones.  My grandma would have sent her first gramophone straight back, had it sounded like this, and vowed never to listen to music outside a concert hall again.

Headphones have become tokens of trendiness, a visibly worn membership card to the club of the cool kids but also a display of conspicuous consumption.  White shone brightly when the iPod was new.  Now red is the color.  The headphones have grown in size and price but it's still style over substance.

I have all my music on mp3, which is fine for traveling or to drown out the noise of equipment at work, but when I want to listen to something that matters, I turn to CDs.  Maybe I should also get a new CD player to max out the sound?  It was while entertaining these thoughts – nonsensical because I won't buy anything into the geographic uncertainty of my present life – that I was rudely awoken.

The left speaker started crackling, then fading, handing over the dissonance to its mate where it stayed for a while and then returned.  It sounded as if a connection were failing, corroded contacts or some audio circuit warped by oxidation or dust.  I swapped the speaker cables, cranked up the volume, cleaned the connectors – the sound came and went.  One moment it was sublime, then it faded and grated.  Instead of taking music to a new dimension, a tired and exhausted NAD 314 is now cluttering up my living room.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


On Sunday, another general election is held in Germany. In the rag that's handed out daily in front of London tube stations, I read that the election will be "the most important for Europe in decades". This is utter nonsense. Any conceivable outcome – and there are at least four – will retain the status quo. Economic policy will continue as before, in the country as well as in Europe. The only changes will be symbolic.

Germany is run by either of two (and occasionally both) parties in various coalitions. Which party has the upper hand doesn't matter one bit. There aren't dramatic differences between them. Both parties support higher taxes and promote suffering as the path to happiness as if this were the Vatican. This would be of little concern to foreigners, but Germany has shared economic pain generously and incubated fertile ground in southern Europe.

The thing is, the German insistence on austerity is not going to stop. As long as there are studies out there claiming that even Greeks, whose nominal wealth is inflated by random piles of brick deposited on various Mediterranean beaches, are wealthier than Germans and stories of grandfathers buried in the yard surrounding the pile of bricks because it was their favorite place in the world – and the continued transfer of a monthly state pension is an unfortunate oversight, a fluke that no one noticed, honestly – public opinion will not shift away from austerity no matter who wins the election. And since the media love this kind of story, public opinion will not shift, period.

Yesterday, I received a pale grey envelope marked Official containing two smaller envelopes, one bright red, the other pastel blue. I had been waiting for this letter. In a perfect world, it would have arrived much earlier. But when you live abroad and your mom does the right thing and takes summer off to travel, there's no one back home that could tell you your number on the electoral roll, which your hometown sends to your registered address. This number being required to request a ballot for absentee voting, my hands were tied while the countdown ran.

I would have had all the time in the world to watch the news, read editorials and follow debates to educate myself on the various party's stands on the pressing issues of the day, but there wasn't much noise. There wasn't disagreement and there weren't discussions. This was, it seems to me, not so much because everyone agreed but because no one cared. Slaughter of civilians in Syria, an economy on continued life support, energy costs that are the highest in Europe by far – I don't know what this election is about.

In any case, my mom returned home last Sunday, found the postcard from the city and send me my electoral roll number. Five clicks later I was much closer to fulfilling my civic duty, and last night I did it, putting a pair of Xs inside circles on the ballot paper that had tumbled from the big grey envelope together with the little ones. This morning, I recursively stuffed the little envelopes in the correct order, bought a stamp and sent my democratic right on its way. Three days away from election day, there's not much of a chance that the letter will make it back on time but, as illustrated above, it wouldn't make a difference anyway.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

old man

Beyond a certain age, it's essential to see your friends frequently. When you're young, time doesn't matter. It doesn't pass; it's just an abstract concept. I was for the longest time convinced that the best friends were the ones you saw the least. Can there be a stronger connection than with someone you only see ever year or two and still feel closely connected with?

I used this rationale to feel good (or at least not suicidally bad) about not seeing friends I had left behind in various corners of the world for months or years at a time. I knew that my friends would always be there for me – and I for them – whenever necessity or opportunity arose.

Tonight, I went for drinks with a former colleague, a friend I had worked with for years. Two years ago, after too many years in London, he took his family and went back home. Tonight, he was back for the first time, for just about a day.

It was good to see him again and to chat about how things had developed for him, how life is where's living it, how work is progressing and a career shaping up. He had missed fish and chips and was happy to dig in, never mind the pub we went to wasn't exactly haute cuisine. Fish and chips isn't haute cuisine anyway. It was good to catch up with him and hang out having fun.

The good times took a while. My first impression was one of mild shock. My friend had aged. He didn't look the kid he used to be. Wrinkles in his face, lines around his eyes, bits of grey in his hair, skin grooved by age – he probably looked as old as he was, but he didn't look the guy I remember.

The mild shock about my friend's appearance was followed by a much more profound shock, an eye-opener, a turning point possibly, a shock that hit home in the most painful way. If he looks like this to me after a couple of years, I must look the same to him. I couldn't deny the evidence in front of my eyes. I'm not immune to age – no matter how I burst about the football pitch – and time is gnawing down my edges.

I've always considered myself a kid, young at heart with a body to match. In grad school a senior student told me that it's downhill beyond 25. Another friends was petrified at the thought of turning 30. I've always laughed it off. Not anymore. It seems that forty is a turning point. Eternity is suddenly not a vehicle for debauchery anymore but a void that holds the unmentionable horrors of old age.

The post could end here but it would be odd. There's no connection to the start, and it's the sentiment expressed in the first paragraph that made me write all this. Tonight I realized that time isn't measured in minutes or hours or years but in the faces of your friends. I have to make sure to see my friends again before it all falls apart, and see them again and again to soften the blow of the passage of time.

Monday, September 02, 2013

another way

Visiting Paris with your son has good sides and bad sides. Not having a son, I wouldn't know, but I take the opportunity to imagine. I imagine a weekend that starts on Friday afternoon with a nice coffee in a rather busy place.

I was picked up by my son who had left work early and talked about a trip, leaving all detail unsaid. He steered me with gentle determination from one train station – of Harry Potter fame – to another, just across the street. My eyes were opened as we approached the gothic glory of St. Pancras but before I had the chance to comment or even be surprised, we were already through security and passport control and at the Caffè Nero that's apparently at the beginning of every trip to the continent – as the English are fond of calling it.

The journey passed in a blur; there wasn't much to see. The panoramic windows of the buffet car gave way to rural expanse on either side of the tunnel. If southern England is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, where does everyone live? When the dominant color changed from green to grey and the train slowed down, we were in Paris – unbelievably.

The train had stopped, we were disgorged, but I remained dazed. It was all a bit much. Looking left, looking right, first impressions engulfed me – sights, sounds, motions – but there was no time to process. We had arrived with delay and my son was pushing ahead with a purpose. I had no reason to doubt and no mind for it, and fifteen minutes later we stood in front of the hotel.

Traveling with your son is the easiest thing in the world: no responsibilities, no immediate expenses – not knowing we were going to Paris I hadn't even brought euros – nothing to see and nothing to miss. It's an exercise in trust and discovery, following a guide with an aversion to maps (men!). The weekend was sure to be packed with as much as is possible to pack in a weekend, the attractions rising left and right wherever we would go, too much to remember even for a nimbler minds.

Quiet time came during meals only, and that's why I was happy to sit in this little place in the Marais, carefully neglected for the full Bohemian experience and next to a park, airy and relaxed. It was the last night, and dinner was almost over. My son has just ordered a coffee and the check with it, though urgency was the last thing on the mind of either of us.

To the contrary, I want to shout, but who am I to spill the mood? Urgency is not just on my mind, it's at the risk of tipping over into an acute frenzy. Our tickets warn that check-in closes thirty minutes before departure. That mark has just been passed, and we're nowhere near the station. I finish my coffee, grab what little change there is from a rather big bill and then my backpack and my mom and start flying down the street. I imagine a boulevard just ahead, a wide street that runs straight up to the Gare du Nord. With a cab, we should be fine, but flagging one down, once arrived on Beaumarchais, proves impossible. They're either occupied or blind to tourists. When the recreated art nouveau of a Metro stop appears ahead of us, we dive into it, relinquishing all control to a force majeur that at first doesn't seem to be on our side.

The ticket machine speaks my language but doesn't understand my needs. I press buttons in vain at first and then in panic. There is no ticket for anxious minutes, until a station agent helps as if this were London. On the platform, the departure board shows a big five, more minutes than we have – and we have to change at République. It seems impossible; we're doomed to a costly rebooking and potentially an equally costly extra night in Paris. But giving up is cheating, and so we run as the orange arrows indicate and hop into a number 5 towards Bobigny just as the doors close.

Three stops later: Gare du Nord. A mad dash from the second subterranean level all the way to the Eurostar departure hall in the mezzanine ensues, a race towards the finished line just ahead of the broom wagon. Good thing I've done this before and don't have to look left or right. We scramble up escalators and wave at uniformed staff in the distance, triggering a response of shrill encouragement: "Une minute", the check-in lady calls, "une minute". We get our tickets stamped, our passports scanned and our luggage checked, passing a few less able travelers in the process. My mom looks at me with the elation of a challenge squashed and pants: "We're not the last ones!"

Indeed, as we sink into our seats there are still two ticks on the clock. For a moment I wonder where I could have used them better. Maybe I should have enjoyed my crème brûlée with more abandon? On the other hand, I've probably pushed luck hard enough already. My mom, still gasping from the unexpected steeplechase, will never forget what it means to travel with her son. Missing the train wouldn't have improved the experience.

one way of telling

Many people have written about traveling with relatives. I have added to the pile in disconnected bits and bobs in posts every now and then, mostly in the form of reminiscences, but I haven't written much about traveling with my mom.

This weekend, we were in Paris. I've been there a good half-dozen times. For her, it was a first. It was also a birthday present, and I had lined up attractions she would want to visit, mostly places I had seen before – not because I've seen it all but because the things I've seen are the only ones I know and can find without a map, places like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Champs Elysées, Notre Dame and St. Germain des Prés.

Saturday, we climbed up to Sacré Cœur, a place best avoided but you have to see it once. The church is like a huge white turtle. Hardly anyone bothers to enter. Hardly anyone even sees it, faces pointing towards town, though the view is much worse than from the Eiffel Tower, except you can see the Eiffel Tower. On the stairs at the feet of the church sit hordes of exchange students and the international gap-year jet set, overdosing on drinks and noise and asking their neighbors to remind them once more whether they're in Barcelona or in Rome. It all looks and feels the same.

To the left of Sacré Cœur is the Place du Tertre, the habitat of limners of the quick pencil that whip up portraits nearly as aggressively as they whip up business. Around the action are restaurants with menus in many languages and food that's bad in all of them. We were quick to climb back down to the Boulevard de Rochechouart, ready to call it a night I thought, but my mom had other ideas.

"Can we go to Pigalle?" she asked, and all of a sudden we were in uncharted waters. I had a vague idea in my mind that Pigalle was just down the road, and that's where we went. The neighborhood became seedier as we progressed and singularly focused on entertainment of the anatomical and human biological sort. Neon Xs appeared everywhere and shops with toys and dress for the enhanced enjoyment of copulation. My mom was delighted at first but then a bit disappointed. The window displays and signs were too tame by today's standards, she thought.

And indeed, Boulevard de Clichy looked stricken, punched in the gut by free porn on the internet. While many Xs still glowed in orange and red, and adult-only baths and live shows promised excitement beyond the power of a screen, other letters had gone dark. The OL ES Pigalle missed an F and an I. The Red Mill (how unenticing the name sounds translated) had a line at the entrance so long it needed to be chopped into bits to prevent visitors from waiting in the face of people eating in streetside restaurants, but other than that, the mood was subdued. The only two hookers we saw were crouching in a doorway as if in hiding.

Twenty minutes later we were back at our hotel (the New Hotel Lafayette, which I'm happy to advertise here for its comfort, quiet and good value). Sunday was upon us, but that's something for another post because the tables will be turned. It won't be traveling with my mom anymore but she with her son, an entirely different story.

Friday, August 02, 2013

riding high

There was a time when this blog was losing readers by the handfuls.  The numbers still haven't recovered.  I wrote about cycling twice a day, telling stories of me on the bike and in front of the TV.  Cycling was big in my life.  I rode hard, I rode often, and I watched the epic battles fought in the professional circuit.  I picked heroes for inspiration, amazement and awe.

In 2007, in my memory anyway, I went to see the Tour at the Col de la Croix de Fer, raced the Maratona dles Dolomites, almost dying on the Giau in the process, and put my Cannondale away, missing the bin only for faintness of heart.  Then I moved to London, and nothing was as it had been.

There was no riding apart from the daily commute, no terrain that could tempt me away from the city.  And there was increasing evidence that doping was endemic in professional cycling and that there was no interest whatsoever to change that and clean things up.  I left the world of cycling.

While I was in London, the Tour started in Hyde Park, the Olympics road race passed through my borough, and a couple of Englishmen won successive Tours, creating a hype for the sport that's only topped by that around tennis.  (Some guy won a tournament he had failed to do so for years.)  I didn't notice any of this more than in passing.  I couldn't care less.

Also during my years in London, Lance Armstrong, seven-time dominator of the tour, finally confessed that his doping efforts were as world-class as his efforts in the saddle.  His confession made a splash that even I couldn't ignore but only served to increase my emotional distance.

Professional cycling has been rotten for a long time.  Everyone took drugs, at one point or another, and most probably did it with as much diligence as they followed their training regimens.  (Laurent Fignon says in his autobiography that "We didn't feel like we were cheating: each of us settled matters with his own conscience.  And in any case, everyone did it.")

I don't have much of an issue with doping itself.  Doping might make you a better racer, but it doesn't make cycling easy.  It's never the best doper who wins but the best racer (who dopes).  Lance won seven Tours because he was the hardest ass in the peloton.  I wouldn't have wanted to train with him for even a day.  I would have cried after ten minutes.  His name might have been purged from the palmares, but he will forever remain the best cyclist of his generation.

What I have an issue with is the hypocrisy, the false profession of surprise whenever things come to light that were supposed to remain secret forever, and the piecemeal admissions of guilt, only when it can't possibly be denied any longer.  Last week, a French Senate inquiry revealed the names of dozens of riders with fishy blood values, calling some confirmed doping offenders.  Erik Zabel's was one of them – six years after his tearful admission that he had tried blood doping once but it hadn't worked for him.

Like Lance, Erik was a great cyclist.  Doping didn't make it easy for him to win stages or suffer through the Alps.  You only have to watch Hell on Wheels to see that for yourself.  Eight years later – and knowing the outcome – it's still gripping entertainment.

But I'm having none of it because the duplicity of the whole business is just too much for me.  With cycling booming in the UK at the moment and RideLondon, a festival with 27000 participants, sucking in converts left and right (and clogging the entire city this weekend), I just wanted to remind myself of this – even at the risk of losing a few more readers.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

letter of reference

Typing away last night it struck me how futile a letter of reference is despite its ubiquity early in scientific careers.  A former student had asked me to provide one for him, which I was only happy to do, especially since (1) the student was really good and (2) I had already written a letter for him a while back for a different but related opportunity.

This time it was for a degree program at a prestigious university.  I had to log on to a website provided by a third party, enter my personal details and upload a letter.  There was no information on the nature of the program, nor on the qualities sought in applicants.  No preselection of candidates took place before letters of reference were requested.  It was rather absurd and a massive waste of time.

The administrators of the academic program were in effect leaving it to me to select criteria by which to judge a candidate.  They should of course have created a shortlist of promising candidates first and then contacted only their referees and asked specific questions.  That way much tedious work could have been avoided, and the letters of reference would have been meaningful.

But meaning is not what is expected of them.  Generic letters of reference serve nothing but administrative (and possible legal) purposes.  Before I was allowed to continue my employment at Imperial in July, in the same environment and, disappointingly, at the same salary despite changing focus from research to management, the procurement of letters of reference was of the greatest concern.

To the box-tickers in HR it was irrelevant that I was the only candidate for a job designed to run for three months only, a job created to keep essential instruments and procedures going while a new manager was being recruited after the sudden departure of the previous holder of the post.

There were procedures to follow, and it didn't matter that I had already worked for the hiring manager in the past and, temporarily, in that function.  Specific qualities and past achievements were irrelevant.  Instead, two other professors' time was wasted.  They had to copy and paste empty phrases that were then dutifully filed with the recruitment paper trail.  I doubt any of it was read.

The student who had asked me for a letter of reference was acutely aware of the dual gravity and pointlessness of it, and helpfully provided me with keywords without which a letter wouldn't be complete.  No one would want to pursue higher education without "scientific curiosity, passion, determination and persistence".  The student went as far as to suggest entire phrases that he felt would make him stand out.

In all likelihood, all other applicants will do the same.  If they choose their referees wisely, the letters will blend seamlessly into an ocean of vacuousness.  Doing without them entirely would have the same effect but save a lot of time writing and, just possibly, reading.

Friday, July 26, 2013


The journey to Brussels that formed the basis of the previous post was only the first in a long succession of train rides over the last week.  Right after my accidental but not entirely unpleasant stopover in the Belgian capital – three days before the abdication of one king and the coronation of another – I took an ICE to Cologne and a Swiss-liveried EC to Hamburg.  It was deep night already when I hopped onto the last train of the day, a regional service to Kiel, nearly in Denmark and at the heart of sailing in the Baltic Sea.

Over the next few days, I bounced to Hamburg and back and then to Hamburg again and took the ICE down to Munich.  Germans like to think of their country as at the forefront of railroad technology and comfort.  The future happens here, goes the dogma, which has somehow spread far beyond national borders.  Foreigners marvel how German trains are wicked fast and always on time.

Going from Hamburg to Munich I realized for the first time how wrong this is.  The distance is less than 500 miles.  Germany is a small country, yet my train took six hours.  The same distance between Paris and Marseille takes half the time.  Sevilla to Madrid tops out at 200 miles per hour.  When I got on the train, the fastest service possible, there was another one on the opposite platform with a more indirect route that would reach Munich after eight hours.

The reason for the sluggishness is twofold.  Firstly, the nominally fast trains have to share the tracks with regional trains on many routes, which severely curtails the achievable top speed.  Secondly, the trains stop. all. the. time.  Every little town with a politician of some import bargains for regular high-speed access in return for land for the railroad.

Still, it could be worse.  This morning's journey started almost stillborn.  The ICE I was supposed to take to Nuremberg turned out not to stop there at all.  I realized this at the last moment and, well-deserved luck, was shooed two platforms down to another train going in the same direction and stopping where I needed to change.  All looked good until I got on the train that was to take me to Dresden, four hours through the green hills of rural Germany, with few towns but lots of unassuming natural beauty.

The train was a Diesel-powered anachronism, as noisy as an airplane, its engines screaming in pain on every incline.  It was small, crowded and about as comfortable as the tube out to Heathrow.  I was shocked speechless.  Lenin had electrified the railroads in his first five-year plan.  How come in 2013 we're still rattling on by noisily burning Diesel?  The low ticket price had surprised me initially.  Now I know the reason – and also what to avoid when traveling between my sister's and my parents'.  An intercity coach would be more comfortable that what I was on.

But in the end – after a cumulative 27 hours on rails, through bits of England, France and Belgium and the four corners of Germany – I got home, and what can be sweeter than that?

Thursday, July 18, 2013


The trip didn't start particularly auspiciously.  Sitting in the departure hall at St. Pancras, crammed in with hundreds of travelers on their ways to Brussels or Paris, I broke with convention and didn't get a coffee and a muffin from Caffè Nero.  I was too tired after four hours of sleep and couldn’t bother to get up.  Earlier, a failing alarm had almost foiled my travel plans entirely, though in fairness I have to say that it wasn't technically the alarm that had failed but my skill setting it.  Thinking that 5:05 might be a bit too late, I had changed it to 5:55.  Luckily, my phone had bailed me out.

On the train, a faded first-generation Eurostar, things started to look up.  Last week's Economist was free, and a lovely breakfast brought to the seat.  "Pain au chocolat?", the steward asked, and later, "Encore un café, monsieur?"  I said yes to all questions, not realizing that the service personnel were lulling me into a false sense of security.  We reached Brussels 20 minutes late.

I missed my connection by two minutes, seeing the tail end of a bright white ICE leaving the station as I clambered off the train.  A service person quickly printed out alternative arrangements.  The next train to Germany was leaving in four hours.  It didn't upset me in the least.

I could have questioned the point of promoting a pan-European railway network when one provider doesn't take another's delays into account.  I could have complained that trains shouldn't be late in the first place if railroads want to compete with air travel.  I could have doubted the wisdom of running trains between Belgium and Germany every four hours only.

In the end, I did none of this.  I didn't see it as a four-hour delay as much as a break in a journey that was too long to take in one go.  I locked up my luggage and stepped out of the station, ready to see the city like a tourist leaving his hotel after a leisurely breakfast.

It was 11 o'clock and noticeably cooler than in London a few hours earlier.  Out of nowhere, I had been given three and a half hours to spend in a city I'd never seen.  I was quite pleased already.  Then I realized I might be able to claim compensation for the delay.  In effect, I might be getting paid to see Brussels.

Getting to the center of town from the station takes a short walk through a colorful neighborhood with a distinctly Moroccan influence.  There were mint tea houses, the patisserie Marrakesh, and a travel agent offering direct services to Kenitra and Meknes, but also a Greek Orthodox church, a business sign in Hebrew that I couldn't decipher and, most hilariously, a Chicken Cottage.  On the left was the Zuid Paleis, a great warehouse/market monolith from the 19th century, and on the right the office of BXL Laïque, an organization providing a nebulous "service of moral assistance".

The heart of the city is Grand Place, the great market of yore and an ensemble of such stupefying outrage that it's impossible to describe.  Lining its four sides are palaces to mercantile success and institutions of civic pride, their architecture wildly over the top in every single case.  Bread Hall is all gothic arches and columns; Brewers' House has gold-leaf decorations.  The façade of city hall is saturated with hundreds of sandstone statues, all in their own ornate alcoves.  Over everything dances a mosaic of a million tiny shadows.  It's totally bonkers.

The streets leading to Grand Place are called Butter St. and Herring St., but these days, the trade is in other flavors.  There might be luxury watches and lace curtains and tourist trinkets, but the vast majority of shops sell artisanal chocolate.  For variety of vice, there are dark beer halls in rich Belle Époque decoration.

One ring removed from Grand Place are tourist trap restaurants with picture menus in four languages.  Confronted with those and local favorites Quick Burger and Hector the Hen, I walked on until I found a small restaurant with tables underneath a vast sycamore tree and a lunch menu for locals.  Lounge music wafted over from the cocktail bar at the corner that had diversified into the lunch business.  A cast-iron spiral staircase led to the first floor where a stage with big speakers and a drum kit hinted at what happens at night.

In the distance beckoned the cathedral, but time wasn't in my favor.  I rose from my table and, entirely by chance, soon found myself next to the Little Pisser, a fountain replenished by a bronze cherub's renal effluent.  It's become a symbol of the city, adored similarly by locals and tourists.  For all the fame, it's disappointingly small.  I continued on my way back to the station and was soon enough on another train and off to other adventures.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


For the last three years, I've got my hair cut not only in the same barbershop just across the street, but also by the same barber, a kid from Egypt in his early 20s.  He's friendly, always waving from behind the picture window of his shop when I walk by.  He's also not very good.

My hair doesn't deserve much attention.  There's not much left of if and what's there doesn't have to impress lucrative clients or a judge on a desperate case.  The only point of cutting it is getting it shorter.  This is always achieved.  But within days, ragged edges grow from my scalp like the Alps folding at a billion times their rate.  The generated crags and crenellations are sharp enough to cut the teeth in my comb, and my head looks badly out of shape, one step away from people throwing me coins.

Nevertheless, I keep returning to the barbershop.  As any barbershop should be, it is a hub of the community.  It's situated at the entrance to a mini-mall with a Russian café, a discount jeweler and a mobile phone repair shop.  The last business is just a guess.  I've never entered the mall.  But I know that neighbors enter the barbershop all the time for chats, tea or simply a change of scenery.

Tonight, there was no tea.  But a man came in borrow a razor.  He gave himself a quick shave on the spot and left a minute later.  Another took a spray bottle off a shelf and squirted instantly vaporizing water over his head, the only permissible relief during Ramadan, which has been sizzling in London as if this were the Gulf.

Neither interruption distracted me from the second aim of my visit – to find out what's going on in Egypt.  I've had sought out conversations before but was always left disappointed by the paucity of words we had in common.  It wasn't as if this guy updated me on community gossip, as a barber should.  He just cut my hair.

But tonight he engaged more.  The topic was evidently dear to his heart.  He opened up and let the words flow, getting increasingly agitated.  I heard about army and people and politicians and corruption, but sadly these keywords weren't imbued with meaning or opinion intelligible to me.  Without a sense of grammar and proper use of vocabulary, most of his articulations remained noise to me, an indecipherable stream of consciousness.

As for the first aim, my hair took a beating in the process.  It was clipped even more scraggily than last time, fault lines zig-zaging above my ears.  It was also clipped very short, a great comfort with the heat showing no sign of letting up.  I know I'll be back in a few weeks' time.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

end and beginning

Yesterday was my last day at work.  That had been the plan for a long time.  I was looking forward to saying good-bye, moving on, taking a new position with new challenges and giving my life the kick in the right direction that it has been waiting for.

As befits a last day, there were leaving-dos and words of farewell.  There were also unexpected good-luck and we'll-miss-you gestures that were as simple as they were touching.  On Thursday, the group went for drinks till late (by London working-day standards).  Yesterday, we had lunch together.  I enjoyed both a lot, particularly so since they were rather undeserved.

While I've talked about leaving London for about two years now, I'm not actually doing it.  I'm staying here, at least for the moment.  I've found a new job, but it's not exactly adventurously novel.  It's what I've been doing for the last half year besides my research.  Now I'll do it full time, leaving research to play a distant second fiddle, at least until it get the facility I'll be in charge of running smoothly.

Yesterday was my last day at work, but I'm not leaving.  On Monday, I'll be in a different lab but still at the same university.  I will be a different building but on the same floor as before and won't have to change my routine much.  I'll still press 5 in the elevator.  I'll even keep my old desk, in case I crave the company of so many years, and my locker, and I'll keep playing football with the same guys.

Not much is changing, in other words, but I feel a profound sadness, the sadness I've experienced many times before.  It is unquestionably the sadness of leaving, though it obviously can't be.  I can only interpret it as the sadness of not leaving, a much deeper pain because it doesn't come with the excitement of the new and the realization of dreams.

Monday will be my first day at work.  I will be doing a job that I've convinced myself over the years is the right kind of job for me, a job that matches my skills and inclinations and the visions that I have of myself much better than the slog of research.  It's a job where I can make a real difference quickly, sort things out and make my mark.  The alarm will sound sweet on Monday.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

recorded and live

A few years back, for my birthday or Christmas, my mom gave me a CD from the small French alpha label.  About the music she said "this is da bomb" (not her actual words) and that the CD had got rave reviews.  The man in the record store had also highly recommended it.  Plus, it had a cello on it and "you still like cello, don't you?"

I do like the cello but it took me a long time getting into the music.  It just didn't make any sense.  All of it was composed by Gabriel Fauré, but there were too many bits, and it all blended into a mush of medium grey.  There were two sonatas and a trio, interspersed without apparent justification with a handful of disconnected short pieces.

One reason I kept playing the CD is that it was recorded at MC2, the Maison de la Culture de Grenoble.  It is to my great regret that I never once attended a performance there when I lived in Grenoble.  I can't really explain why, except to say that it was a bit out of the way from where I lived and getting there would have taken two buses.  Getting back at night after a show would have been even more complicated.  With the recording, I can at least imagine being there.

Another reason I kept playing the CD is the clarinet in the last piece.  With time, this Trio in D minor (for piano, cello and clarinet) crystallized in my ears as the high point of the CD, rising above the rest, distinct, recognizable, and a pleasure to listen to again and again.  Have I mentioned that I like the clarinet?

This morning, I went to Wigmore Hall for yet another of their Sunday morning coffee concerts.  The clarinet trio that I've grown so fond of was on the program, performed by the same three musicians that play on my CD.  It was wonderful to hear the music unconstrained by poor speakers and a small room.  Let me try a few inept words of description:  Over three movements, the anguish of the clarinet and the serenity of the cello were distilled to their essence.  The last few bars created a heavenly clarity, an intense sense of peace that filled the hall and seemingly the entire world.  I was rapt.

Then the audience, excited way beyond their age, burst into wild applause.  A few curtain calls later, the performers sat down for an encore, a bit of Beethoven, lighthearted, joyous and in stark contrast to the tranquility that still lingered in my ears and mind.  I wished they hadn't done it.  I wished they had let me leave with the echo of Fauré.  Much like a coffee after a perfect meal, Beethoven spoiled the mood and the magic was gone.  Good thing I have the CD to return to.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


After the knife scare of ten day ago, I'm glad to report that things didn't turn out too bad. Garrad was back in his shop a few days later, almost as if nothing had happened. Something terrible had of course happened, and it was impossible to deny it. From what I could gather, the attacker had been caught but then quickly released. He was apparently mentally unstable, though I can't say how that's a justification for anything.

In my conversations with him, Garrad saw the positive side to this mess and appreciated the fact that nothing serious had happened to him. Notwithstanding the stitches he got and the scars he will keep, he was lucky. Physically, he'll be fine. Mentally, he seems to have suffered more. He keeps talking about moving on, about closing shop and leaving North End Road.

I can't blame him. You're rather exposed in a brightly lit internet café that's open late. But I don't think the street or the neighborhood is all that bad. London has much dodgier parts. What happened here was a freak incident that's by no means representative of the area. But if you're on the receiving end of casual violence, this matters little.

This post could end here, but speaking on the subject of what matters, I have to share an article I saw in the Daily Telegraph today (and don't ask how I came across it). The Telegraph is the newspaper for tweed-and-corduroy conservatives of a certain age. It's not a newspaper I ever buy. Yet the article that caught my eye is absolutely brilliant, not so much for its content, which is just a rehash of what's been published elsewhere but for its clever use of stock photographs.

The previously published information appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the U.S.A., a science weekly of considerable esteem, and concerned the correlation between male attractiveness and penile length. This is your tax money at work. The conclusion: Size matters. This is what the Telegraph highlights. But whose idea was it to illustrate the point with Condi's fierce face and a gesture that must surely be fortuitous?

Saturday, June 08, 2013

too close to home

I was on the phone last night when a commotion arose outside.  I contemplated dividing my attention but the conversation quickly won out.  When the shouting got too intense and then sirens added to the noise, I took my computer to the bedroom, which faces away from the road, and heard nothing more.  Hours later, before calling it a night, I threw a curious glance out the front.

A police van was parked directly underneath my window and two Astras across the street.  North End Road was blocked to all traffic, even foot traffic.  Cops manning the cordons up and down the road prevented drunks from staggering onto the scene and diverted traffic into side streets.  A 28 bus was parked at the side of the road, hazard lights flashing, while a smaller 391 made an apprehensive three-point turn and went back towards Fulham.

A narrow lane was open from up the road to The Goose.  This was one-way only, to let people leave.  But even at midnight, the pub was still heaving, an anomaly in the ghostly street, depopulated and eerily quiet.  Whenever the door opened, music was thumping into the night where police officers contemplated their options.  Something serious had happened.

I remembered a story of a friend in another big city. She saw an explosion from her window and, being in tune with technology, took to Twitter for answers. In less than five minutes, the mystery was no more.  I forgot the details but it was an accident, not an attack.

My Twitter account has lain dormant since I opened it a few years back, but last night it rose to the occasion.  Googling (if that's what you do on Twitter) the various possible keywords, I learned not only that José Mourinho, the Chelsea manager for the next half year, had had breakfast at The Goose a few days back, but also that a man had been stabbed multiple times in my street.

twitter news
News from home

This is not the first time I've come close to violent crime, but this time was the closest so far, and certainly the closest I ever want to be.  The stabbing took place in the internet café below my flat.  Had I not been on the phone, I might have heard the victim's cries.

In London stabbings are intolerably common, but the chances of being run over by a garbage truck are probably still higher.  I'm not losing my head or start feeling unsafe.  A freak incident like this has no bearing on my life.  For the victim, the story is different, but last night, I could only guess.

This morning, the lights were on in the internet café, but the door was locked.  The shutters were up, but there was no one there.  The place looked hastily abandoned.  I feared the worst for the owner, whom I'm friendly with, but there was no one I could ask.

This afternoon, when I came back from a day in town (Genesis – highly recommended!), I was relieved to see Garrad in his shop, but he didn't look good:  exhausted, worn out and much older than I know him.  He had been stabbed six times last night – here, here, here and here, he pointed up his left side with a tired gesture – while cleaning his shop.  For this horror he was in great shape, standing tall like a hero as he told the story, though his face was stiff with pain.

From up in my flat a few minutes later, I could see him walk off with a friend, slowly, with hesitation in each step and agony in his body, but with determination and the will to return.  As he passed by, neighboring business owners stepped from their stores for well wishes and encouragement.  As shouts reverberated from the market – 3 pound a box, 3 pound a box – and traffic pushed down the road relentlessly, he disappeared into the crowd.

Get well soon!

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

matters of taste

Germany doesn't usually come to mind when one thinks of gastronomic delights. Yet for me, one of the great pleasures of going to my home country is always eating. So many things I love are made and sold in the right way only in that country. Last weekend in Heidelberg, I had plenty of time to sample the riches.

  • Germany is full of bakeries. This is good when you want to buy bread. Germans love bread so much that every supermarket has a bakery associated with it. Only very few people buy the factory bread that the store itself sells.
  • Very many people, in contrast, get up a bit early on Saturday and Sunday to walk down to the nearest bakery, which is usually not more than a few minutes away, and buy fresh rolls for breakfast. Some bakeries open only for the morning rush on Sundays.
  • Besides the bakeries that bake breads and similar items, there are pastry shops, which emphasize the cake-and-sweets aspect of baking. The cakes can be amazing!
  • Germany has American-style coffee shops for the hip crowd but I much prefer old-school cafés. The older the clientele and the more out-of-date the decor, the better. The best of these cafés are part of the above-mentioned pastry shops. We went to one in Neustadt that looked so painfully unhip, I could see only one reason why people would patronize it, great cakes. I wasn't disappointed.
  • Italian migrants have opened a million gelaterias. Every town center has plenty of them and people eat ice cream all the time. There's nothing that says summer more convincingly than a cone of lemon freshness, especially if it pours buckets.

You can tell already that I had a sweet weekend, but there was more.

  • On the trip back to the airport and then at the airport itself, I realized that most of the little stalls and shops where you buy snacks sell sandwiches of fresh bread rolls filled with cheese, cold cuts, salami or ham. Tasty and healthy, though no one would buy them for the second reason.
  • Another fine thing to do with a bread roll is slap a pickled herring, a slice of gherkin and a good serving of raw onion in it. Do it in the morning and sell it as Fischbrötchen in the afternoon. They're best when they're stewed for hours in their own juices.
  • Besides the stalls selling freshly made sandwiches, there are those grilling sausages over charcoal. Every region has its own sausages, but the best (from Thüringen!) are available everywhere.
  • With a sausage, nothing is better than a cold beer. In Germany, you can have that anywhere – in the University cafeteria, in the market square next to the church, in a garden by the river, and on any domestic Lufthansa flight. Prosit!
  • May is spargel season, which extends far into June this year because of the dreary weather. White asparagus is everywhere, for sale in roadside stalls and on special menus in every restaurant. Cooked the same day it was picked it is a heavenly treat.
None of the above involves supermarkets, which tend to be dismal experiences. Food prices are the lowest in Europe, but the quality often reflects that and the presentation is dreadful. You scour what you need from cartons strewn about. Price is king. Other variables don't enter the equation.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

high up

Bayern beat Dortmund in the Champions League last night.  They were a bit better.  They scored one more goal.  There's nothing to argue with.  Even disregarding the game, the win is deserved.  If you make it to the final three times in four years and beat Barcelona 7:0 on aggregate in the run for the win as Bayern did, you have a good claim to being the best in Europe.  For the manager who's leaving the team in mildly dodgy circumstances after this season, it must have been the sweetest victory.

The game was all right.  It started out extremely nervous, with both team highly respectful of each other and didn't gain any measure of playfulness or levity until deep into the second half when the first and then, shortly afterwards, the second goal fell.  The last twenty minutes were exciting, with quite a few hairy moments.

In a break with tradition, I didn't go to the Famous 3 Kings or The Goose to watch the game.  Instead I headed up to the Kensington Roof Gardens, a venue high up above Kensington High Street on the roof of the Derry & Toms building.  This former department store, with ambitions as high as they were absurd, sports three distinct formal gardens around a central hospitality area that together cover one-and-a-half acres of roof.  The department store has long vanished; the gardens remain.

They are not normally associated with such plebeian pleasures as the public viewing of football.  During the day, locals and tourists in the know can gain access to these gardens for free and hang out among flowers, trees, ponds, ducks, and even flamigoes, relaxing in lawn chairs and forgetting about the madness six floors down where the Gap and Marks & Spencer flog their wares, commuters flood towards the tube station and traffic soils the air.  At night, the gardens are turned into one of London's more unusual night clubs.

Last night, an association of Germans in London had rented the space for a few hours, letting us mingle almost exclusively among compatriots and watch the game in style.  This being Kensington, style came with prices to match:  20 quid to get in, twice that for a round of five drinks (one of them a coke), ten pounds for a burger from the grill.

It's not a place I'm likely to return to, but it was fun to be there.  When the game was over and a DJ took over, we stayed on, chatting in the Moorish garden.  The drinks kept coming despite the cost.  After all, five people equals five rounds.  The conversations were all in German, something that I don't get much of these days.  Though I write in English and probably speak English better than German by now, German is my first language and speaking it touches different nerves.  Debating regional differences in usage is suddenly not a philological exercise but a question of identity.

I've long maintained that moving back to Germany as such doesn't appeal to me.  I'm not whatever the opposite of a xenophobe is, but there are too many advantages to being a foreigner.  Regardless, the move it drawing closer; it's probably going to happen early in July.  Last night, I got an unexpected buzz about it.  Maybe being among Germans isn't so bad after all.

When we left, late for a pub but much too early for a night club, the Kensington jet set was just arriving, jostling for positions in the line that was forming by the entrance downstairs.  Even deep pockets and sharp smiles were no match for the bouncers in black.  We felt as if we were giving something up by leaving.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


In September of 2000, if memory serves me right, I went to Mexico for the first time. It could have been in 1999 or 2001, but I don't think so. 2000 sounds about right. My sister lived there for a couple of months on an internship and I turned the benefits of a local contact and company on the road into a week's vacation. It almost ended badly before it even began.

I had been working hard in the weeks leading up to the trip, as graduate students do, racing to the airport pretty much straight from the bench. I'm making up the details because it's been so long but I clearly remember a layover somewhere in California and the thought that maybe I should have reminded my sister of my flight information. I had sent her everything weeks earlier, but there were no emails or phone calls after that. Had she written it down? This was the time before ubiquitous internet and smartphones – or indeed a cell phone for me. And it was a time when I still believed that every bit of information need only be transmitted once.

In León, after an unchaperoned walk across the tarmac, from the plane to the little terminal building in the distance, I picked up the car I had rented but my copilot, essential when mapless in unfamiliar surroundings, was nowhere to be seen. I test-drove the Tsuru around the airport parking lot, getting worried with the sinking sun. I had no address or telephone number, and no peso for the night.

My sister was there with an international student organization. Out of options, I hit the road towards town trying to find a university. The story would normally continue here. It's a good one. I'm laughing as I'm writing this, recalling episodes and encounters. But this post is not about the trip to Mexico. It's about Yahoo! Mail, which was down when I finally rustled up a computer after a few longs shots had hit the target.

To say I was shocked is putting it mildly. I had been with Yahoo!, the first web mail of note, for two-and-a-half years and never been disappointed. Email was my last hope, and Yahoo! let me down. This story, which turned out well thanks to a few late strikes of good luck, came to my mind when I was checking a reservation the other day.

mail down
Yahoo Mail! going down

Yahoo! Mail was unavailable for a little while only. What came afterwards is much worse. The content of some emails disappeared from my inbox. The header was still there, the placeholder saying that there was an email, but clicking it didn't open it. Instead I got the following window:

mail down
Emails getting lost

Now I know that one doesn't use Yahoo! for anything serious and I admit that this is only my spam-ads-and-other-random-stuff account. But, being an early adopter and all, I'm rather fond of it, and I would like it to work. Essential flight information that remained concealed added a certain spice to my feelings about this.

This all happened last week. I took the screen shots, including the one with the proposed solution – of mind-boggling complexity – that's not reproduced here, with the thought in mind of turning this into a post. I was going to bitch about Yahoo! and how they keep getting worse though that's hardly possible when out of nowhere, their only services that's any good, Flickr, is going big.

I've been putting photos on Flickr since early 2006. I liked their interface and their focus. No social networking, no location services, just photography. I've always been too cheap to go Pro. The most recent 200 photos that were visible on the free account were enough for me. But today, Flickr totally changed the game, unlocking all accounts and giving every user 1 TB of free storage. All photos I've ever uploaded are accessible again, way back to Istanbul seven years ago. Way to go!

Sunday, May 19, 2013


The first thing I noticed as I descended from Terminal 4, the gateway to obscurity at Heathrow, is engineering works. This is what defines London on weekends. Underground public transport shuts down in long stretches to facilitate the replacement of bits of track or signaling that have done their duty faithfully over decades. The tube has just celebrated its 150th anniversary, and some of the hardware hails from that initial period. There's a (potentially apocryphal) story that tube maintenance workers sometimes query the archives of the Science Museum to replace crucial bits of kit that have just failed.

This afternoon, the Piccadilly line existed in three separate segments that disconnected parts of London that don't have much to do with each other but I rather fancied as waymarkers on my final hop home. There was no direct train to London save the Heathrow Express, a ripoff for anyone who doesn't specifically want to go to the Paddington area. The tube from the airport didn't run beyond Northfields. The name already gives it away. This is not the place you want to be stranded.

I got off at Boston Manor where instructions were posted all over in black felt pen: Rail replacement buses were running to Ealing Common for connection with the District line, up and down the length of the Piccadilly line, serving all intermediate stops, and direct to Earl's Court for those with ambitions beyond. From Earl's Court, it's only a short walk home for me, and my backpack wasn't heavy.

Returning to civilization as I know it after four day in an exciting but rather unfamiliar place, the orderliness and regulation of London are striking. What looks like chaos and dysfunction when living through it is an example of sharp structure. All over Boston Manor were tube staff directing confused travelers, many coming in from abroad, some for the first time. Patiently they answered the same questions again and again, repeating for extra assurance what was already written down on big white boards at the tube stop exit. For buses to Earl's Court, cross the street. For buses to Ealing Common turn left. I crossed the street.

An orderly line, this most British of crowds, had already formed. The tourists, still dazed by airport security, joined in most naturally. Presently, a red double-decker arrived, and two manhandlers started triaging passengers by the heft of their luggage. Light goes up, heavy stays down. Two minutes later, the bus took off, running down the A4 without stopping until it got stuck in traffic at Earl's Court, pretty much right in front of the tube station. I brought my Oyster card up to date at the touch terminal and arrived at home ten minutes later.

Had the bus not been heated as if were still the middle of winter and not, as it happened, a most splendid summer day with sun insinuating itself through the clouds on occasion and the temperature reaching a toasty 15C when it did, I wouldn't even have broken a sweat.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

aide mémoire

In August 2001, I visited the White House.  This is what my sister claimed in a rambling discussion after the Sunday night crime drama that's mandatory TV watching in Germany.  I argued passionately with her.  It couldn't possibly be true.  I had no memory of this at all.

On Thursday, I had flown to Munich for a few days of escape, to get away from work and from the noise and dirt of the big city.  Munich is big in Germany, but it feels like a village, a village that has just been hosed down.  Everything is quiet, clean, in order.  My sister lives on the southern edge of town, near parks, the river and the zoo.  It's like a permanent vacation.

Every day, once the little one was fed and otherwise taken care of, we took off on a little excursion, on foot or by bike.  The destination was always the same and always different.  We followed recommendations in my sister's beer garden guide.

In Bavaria, beer gardens are institutions of quasi-religious significance.  Their design and mode of operation are strictly regulated by tradition.  Deviations are met with public disapproval and commercial defeat.  Beer gardens must be in the open, with large wooden benches along wooden tables under old chestnut trees.  There is self service and you are allowed (but not required – the grill is always on) to bring your own food to consume with the beer on tap.  There's always a play area for kids and plenty of bike parking.

In four days, we visited four beer gardens, one down the river, one up, one in a small forest nearby and the last one way down south near the Alps, at the foot of mountains as mighty as only mountains rising from a plain stretching endlessly in three directions can be.  This last one was part of a monastery and the beer came, as in so many beer gardens associated with monasteries, from the brewery on the premises, run by the monks in a dual effort to augment their finances and win the locals for their cause.

On the fifth day, spent in town, we stopped at a coffee shop that was only notable for its spaciousness – it was one of few places large enough to park a pram – and a tradition, barely established, seemed broken already, but it was rescued, a few hours later, at the airport.

Munich airport is not very big and rather quiet, much like the city.  Between the two terminals is an open-air plaza surrounded by shops on the ground level and offices and conference facilities higher up.  It looks like a real-estate developer's dream of urban renewal – artificial and soulless.  It would be absolutely dreadful anywhere else, but on an airport, it's a little bit of paradise:  open, with space to breathe and stretch your legs, and the real sounds of departing planes instead of the constant artificial hum of enclosed commercial spaces.

In one corner is a large beer garden that benefits from its own brewery, on-site, at the airport.  I don't know how much of a gimmick this is – I got a Hofbräu instead of their own – but it's pretty cool in any case.  I had an hour to kill and did what I hadn't done earlier, sitting down on a long wooden bench, ordering half a beer and half a hock, and enjoyed dinner.

Then I was thinking about the earlier conversation with my sister.  She had been right.  There was photographic evidence, white columns towering above a much younger version of myself.  I had completely forgotten and can still not recall any specifics.  It was at a time when security screening entailed little beyond a jovial "How you doing, folks?  Enjoy your stay."  Maybe the terrorist attacks three weeks later had purged my memory.

My sister knew because she had documented her semester abroad in a scrapbook of photos, tickets and maps.  I sometimes imagine my blog fulfilling a similar purpose, sorting memories even when I don't remember them.  But it's not the same.  Some of what's published here is distorted.  Much more isn't mentioned at all.  The blog is not comprehensive.  Memory should be.  Diary, anyone?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

remote data

In complete ignorance of the world around it, work goes on as usual, at least for the time being.  My last day at Imperial will be 30 June, but the imminence of that date is impossible to tell.  Left and right, people leave and arrive.  The composition of the lab changes; my lunch-mate was the latest casualty last week.  Only very few of those that were around when I arrived are still around.  I'm doing my work like in a bubble.

What else is there to do?  Scientific projects never end, even when the funding ends.  There are always more questions than answers, and every good answer triggers a load of questions if a thinking person gets the answer.  This is the way of science.  Somehow, the personal tends to play second fiddle to the professional, for whatever elusive reward.

Yesterday, I absconded from the lab with a 24-inch screen under my arm, unnoticed by security, unchallenged.  I waited five minutes on Queen's Gate until an unoccupied black cab came by and picked me up. Six minutes later I was at home. I swiped the chessboard off my desk and moved the few chess books and the openings encyclopedia that I've acquired over the last year and that now clutter its surface in dismal neglect aside and assembled scientific infrastructure in their place.  The tired MacBook, an old keyboard, a mouse (mighty by name but painful to use), and a few feet of cable to connect it all.  Then I went to bed.  It was not even ten o'clock.

My alarm raised me shortly after one.  Far away in Oxfordshire, the earlier shift was coming to an end.  Colleagues there were about to pack up their things and rest.  I had seven dark hours of forced wakefulness ahead of me, the twelfth session at the synchrotron in nine months and the first time of collecting from home.  I was curious about new crystals but also, on a more fundamental level, how data collection would go from home.

At the synchrotron, one sits outside the experimental hutch and, with the help of graphical user interfaces and movable cameras, adjusts experimental parameters, controls the sample-loading robot, positions the sample, and collects data.  When there's a problem, a beamline scientist is only a phone call away.  It shouldn't matter where exactly "outside the experimental hutch" is, as long as the network is fast enough. A coffee shop or my living room should do the trick just fine.

It turns out that the network was a bit of a problem.  Despite plugging the computer into the router to avoid wireless congestion, which often slows things down, the interface responded only slowly.  Measured 10 Mb/s is not enough for smooth sailing.  Buttons only slowly materialized on the remote screen.  Efficient clicking required anticipation and a memory of where each function was.  It was awkward but good enough to do the experiments.  Had I worked from my desk at work, I could have screened a few more crystals, but in the end I got I needed.

The experience was much unlike being at the synchrotron where time stands still, the light is always artificial, and a barely tolerable drone persists.  At home, you don't need a clock to tell the time.  At five, with audible though never irritating purrs, planes started descending into Heathrow.  Shortly before eight, the first bus stopped outside my house.  (The night buses must have passed by the stop.  I never heard the rattle of their accelerating engines.)  Then, at nine on a sunny Sunday morning, the justification for doing it at home:  the pleasure of falling into my own bed five minutes after the end of the shift.

Towards the end of a long night

On Monday, in the lab and with the necessary computing and graphics power for data analysis, I will find out how much closer I've come to some sort of closure to the project I'm working on.  The structures that will rise from the data collected last night will certainly complement what I've found so far.  If all jells into a cohesive story, I'll have a strong case for employment in another lab in the future, and things will at last come to an end.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

coffee music

The Sunday morning coffee concerts at Wigmore Hall are an institution and a fine way to experience time travel.  Every Sunday at 11:30 the hall plays host to a soloist or a small ensemble for a concert of just about an hour.  Depending on the week, there might be piano sonatas on the program or lieder, string quartets or a clarinet trio, Bach's cello suites or something obscure by someone unknown.  I never check the program before I go:  The music's always great.

The pleasure doesn't stop at the ears.  Wigmore Hall was built around 1900 and decorated in the taste of the times.  Throughout the concerts listeners can feast their eyes on the big mural at the head of the hall and in the dome above the stage extolling the divinity of humankind, rays of progress, the new man.  I'm always vaguely reminded of the communist hero depictions I grew up with.

To complete a triumvirate of sensory experiences, after the show, the audience is invited into the basement café where tickets can be traded for glasses of sherry or, for those of austerer disposition, coffee.  Inspired by music and enlivened by alcohol, the grey-haired crowd mingles and contemplates in which leisurely way to spend yet another quiet Sunday.

It is here that time travel comes into play.  All through the concert but especially at this coda, I feel like 80, blending in with those around me, and start imagining the days of my retirement.  Breakfast cooked by the staff, a concert at Wigmore Hall, a stroll through Regent's Park and up towards Primrose Hill for lunch, and then somewhere lovely for tea.  Ta-ta, life is good.

Today it was easy to shake of the delusion of premature aging.  It was, to sing the refrain to a song that's getting increasingly tiresome, cold and blustery.  As I left the venue, still under the graceful glass-and-iron canopy that protects the entrance, all thoughts of leisurely strolls were blown from my mind.  I ran to Bond Street and hopped on the tube, off to activities more suitable for my age.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

four times

I've mentioned before that in the five years that I've lived in London, three companies have tried and failed to turn a direct air link between London and Dresden into a financial success.  British Airways flew for a year in 2007/2008, from Gatwick.  Lufthansa held on for two years and only abandoned the project when they sold British Midlands, their subsidiary that operated the flights out of Heathrow.

Late last year, OLT Express, an upstart budget airline entered the market with a whirl of, as the late Douglas Adams might put it, no publicity at all.  Their ineptness led to one of the swiftest corporate meltdowns I've ever witnessed.  As they abstained from marketing, no one knew about them and hardly anyone flew.  I was one of the few, but only for one leg.  Lufthansa bailed me out on the return trip, when OLT Express simply vanished.

After arriving at my home not much later than I otherwise would have (thanks to the quicker ride from Heathrow compared to Southend), I fired off an email outlining my rights as a passenger under EU regulations.  If your flight is canceled, you're owed compensation.  OLT Express eventually replied with the offer of a return flight to anywhere on their network, which I declined.  There weren't many places to go and, anyway, tickets were cheap.  I'm double happy that I insisted on the 250 Euros because seven weeks after I got my money, OLT Express folded.

One day before I pocketed the compensation, Air France announced it would fly its subsidiary CityJet between City Airport and Dresden from spring, "complimentary drinks & snacks" included.  Fourth Airline, fourth airport, fourth attempt: There is much to be learned from the mistakes of others.  My dad tells me that the rolls he buys for breakfast come in a paper bag with information about the new service stapled to it.  Here in London, the Evening Standards contains daily advertisements.  Could this be going well for a change?

The service hasn't started yet, but I'm already pessimistic.  It's not that experience has taught me or that three times a charm but four times's cause for alarm.  No, it's that the service will start on the first of April, the day after Easter, thus obviating financial gain from eager holidaymakers.  I give them half a year.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

saint patrick

The trip was bound to be a good one; I was looking forward to writing about it afterward.  The excess of St. Patrick's celebrations in the middle of the Christian austerity of Lent, a day of unrestrained drinking interrupting forty days of penance, penitence and repentance.  Ireland is a very Christian island.  I was wondering how the the contradiction would be squared.  My observations would be done in the north, on the fourth green field, as the Irish say nostalgically.

Over the years, the Northern Irish have become used to squaring contradictions.  Just a few decades ago bombs would go off on a weekly basis and people be killed regularly for reasons that don't need rehashing here.  Let's just say that the situation calmed considerably with the signing of the Good Friday agreement fifteen years ago.  There were still Unionists and Republicans, nationalists and loyalists, Catholics and Protestants – which are, by the way, not ingredients to a Venn diagram of the conflict but various ways of looking at the same two sides – but they decided to get along and try to make things work.

Things have worked for the most part.  Outside the occasional riot, recently flag-related, Northern Ireland isn't much different from the rest of the UK.  Police stations still sometimes resemble set pieces from Total Recall, but the fortifications are coming down.  Replacing the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which was considered biased, even sectarian, with the Police Service of Northern Ireland went a long way towards building trust in the communities, and more relaxed security has been a result.  Another was the turning of Belfast from a city under siege to one of great economic promise in the early 2000s.  Now it is under economic distress like any other medium-sized city in the UK.

When I flew to Belfast last weekend, it was not only to quench my curiosity but also to see a friend of many years.  Culturally, he has nothing to do with Northern Ireland or the conflict.  Luck of the bad kind (denied entry to the country of his choice) and the good kind (an eager employer offering him an alternative to the job he couldn't do anymore) combined to bring him to Northern Ireland more than five years ago.  Now married, he has a small family and is unlikely to leave anytime soon, but he remains an outsider without passion or prejudice.

My friend lives in a terrace of British looking houses, narrow and tall and stacked side by side with no space going to waste.  Who needs a yard when it rains all year?  There's parking in the front and the next terrace in the back.  Inside it's cozy and cute and dominated by staircases.  I slept high up in the attic.  It was raining all night.

It continued to rain throughout the weekend.  It was also windy and miserably cold.  Divis mountain was covered with snow.  Every step outside was a challenge, and we didn't do much besides shuttling between St. George's Market and Caffè Nero, between restaurants for dinner and pubs for drinks.

At first glance, a visitor to Belfast notices nothing of the troubled past.  Then a garish white-blue-and-orange police Land Rover slowly rolls into view, heavily armored and with wire mesh protecting its windows and emergency lighting.  Among the doleful shoppers in a slightly dilapidated pedestrian area, it seems wildly out of place, but like cosmic background radiation, which testifies to the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, it's a reminder of what used to be.

Not an ice cream van

The conflict isn't over.  When Belfast City Council voted, on 3 December of last year, to restrict the flying of the United Kingdom's flag to certain holidays, loyalists objected on the grounds that this constitutes a grave disrespect to their country.  Protests, sometimes exploding into riots outside City Hall, have been simmering ever since.

When I was there, all was quiet, though it seemed to me a particularly propitious day to protest.  St. Patrick's day, the holy day of the patron saint of Ireland, is a celebration of Irishness and green and pride and, by extension, everything that's not British.  In what seemed to me a blatant display of cultural insensitivity, the Union flag flew over City Hall.  Youths shrouded in the same flag or wearing it printed on leggings as we saw that night are perceived as provocations.  But St. Patrick's day was chosen by the Council as one of the days to fly the flag.

On Monday we went to the Titanic Museum.  Titanic was built in the shipyards of Harland and Wolff, on the right side of the river Lagan, just across from central Belfast, but what should be a major tourist draw was for the longest time ignored with considerable embarrassment.  That the boat only sailed for five days might have had something to do with it.  That it took 1500 lives when it sank might have contributed as well.  But in 2012, a hundred years after the disaster, a shiny new museum is dedicated to the construction of Titanic and the historical context of industrial Belfast, the world's dominant supplier of linen before shipbuilding became big.

The museum is spectacularly designed and pulls out all the stops, trying hard to justify the eye-watering admission prices, but it falls short when the actual sinking is concerned.  Whose fault was it, I want to know.  Was the recklessness of the captain, so eager for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic that he ignored warnings of icebergs, to blame?  Was it the operator's delusion of the ship's invulnerability?  Was the shipmaker negligent in implementing safety features?  Who decided on the number of lifeboats and vests, and who was responsible for evacuation procedures?  After three hours immersed in history coming alive, these questions remained unanswered.

Also unanswered remained my questions about boozing to the hilt during Lent.  Due to the demands of the wee one, we missed the parade.  Later that day, my friend and I checked out various pubs downtown and near the university and had a pint here and there, but where was the party?  The mood around us was rather subdued.  People were drinking as they would be on any other Sunday, meeting friends, chatting.  There were silly hats and little plastic shamrock flags but no brawls and no puking in the streets.  No one appeared drunk.  I was left a bit disappointed.  What would I write about?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

two companies

Orange has been my broadband and home phone provider since I moved to London more than five years ago. Sometimes the internet is slow and once the landline went silent for a few weeks, but I've generally been happy. After the first two years, just to see what's possible, I threatened leaving though I had the hardest time identifying a decent alternative. Orange nevertheless dropped my monthly charges by a third to keep me aboard.

A few weeks ago I received a letter from Orange, telling me in self-congratulatory marketing speak that the plan I'm on is on its way out and I will henceforth benefit from drastically reduced services (notably one line instead of two), a pleasure for which I will be charged a meager ten per cent extra. If I don't acquiesce to this extortion and choose to remain on my plan, I will lose my free international calls, which, Orange claims, added up to nearly £150 the month before.

Orange UK has recently merged with T-Mobile, both mobile ventures of former state monopolists (in France and Germany, respectively), to form a mongrel called Everybody Anywhere or something similarly inane. Now existing contracts are destined for the shredder, treasured services discontinued and loyal customers squeezed like oranges. I am not exactly enthusiastic.

Today, to give my rant some perspective, I got a letter from EDF, my gas and electricity provider. I am told that the dual fuel discount that I'm eligible for hasn't been applied to my account for a year. This observation took me a bit by surprise. I haven't seen a gas bill in a year and a half. I pay, by direct debit, a monthly amount that over three years doesn't add up to the winter fuel allowance that every pensioner in this country, whether prosperous or penniless, receives each year.

I live a frugal life and am not beyond a bit of discomfort to live within my means: I take the bus not the taxi even when it rains, I fly economy class, and I turn the heat on only when it hurts. But my direct debit bill can surely not cover all the energy I'm using. My account must accumulate obligations like a Cypriot bank. I've tried to remedy the situation by phoning in current meter readings or submitting them online but have never been successful. There's something wrong with my accounts that no telephone wallah has ever been able to sort out.

Anyway, the letter continues that the missed discount has been a regrettable mistake and that "we are applying a credit to your account". It gets better: "To compensate you for this error we have also applied interest to the credit at a rate of 0.5% as a gesture of goodwill." Disregarding for the moment the 0.5% interest, which is plainly ridiculous on a balance of less than 20 quid, the letter is a nice example of a company giving the appearance of valuing their customers. "…please accept my apologies for this error…"

With this in mind and some ammunition I found in old contracts and current customer acquisition efforts by their competitors, I will call Orange this weekend to find out whether the terms on offer can't be tweaked just a little. There must be a way to make both sides happy.

Monday, March 18, 2013

sugar man

I'm not one to buy into hype easily. When I was in high school, Jurassic Park filled all eleven screens of the local cinema. I stayed at home and encountered the dinos only a few years later when I found myself on the rather insipid Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios. Then came The Matrix and so oblivious was I of any details that I later got excited about the digital rain of a neon green Unix screen saver without seeing the connection for years.

It's harder for me to claim distance from the cult of the bitten fruit, given that I've owned two iPods and four Macs. In my defense I say that I've never parted with my own money for the devices or any upgrades, and that while I've got rather comfortable with the computers, I believe the company lost its bearings two-three years ago and nothing worth getting excited about has left their factories since. The trajectory of the operating system has been downward at a frightening pace.

When I went to see a friend of mine in Northern Ireland for the weekend, I had something in my backpack that was the product of a hype, though one that took place long enough ago and far away for me to be comfortable with it. It was Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary that tells the story of Sixto Rodríguez, a singer-songwriter who released two records in the 70s that were quickly forgotten.

In the 80s, by an inexplicable twist of fate, Rodríguez became a star-in-absentia in South Africa, his songs endlessly bootlegged and handed on. It was the days before the internet and instant information, and just as no one in South Africa knew who the mysterious singer was, Rodríguez didn't know that his music had caught a nerve halfway around the globe. In the 90s, two fans started digging, and the story took off from there. Now we've got a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, an Academy Award and a musician who doesn't have to work in excavation and demolition anymore.

In case my friend had already seen the movie, I also bought the soundtrack. I don't quite understand the rationalization of Rodríguez's success that's given on the sleeve. There is no "Dylanesque anti-establishment punch". Lacking the poetry and overdoing the cheese strings, Rodríguez is no Dylan. His voice is unusual but what mesmerized me so much that I exhausted my free-account allowance on Spotify before buying the CD was the sound: old-school and hip at the same time, scratchy and scrawny but fresh. The sound of the original vinyl has been wonderfully preserved; there are strange stereo cross-fades, distortions and tape stretch. Background noises tell of master tapes roughly scraped clean of the grime of four decades. Thanks to brilliant production, all comes together with a sparkling rawness, as if the CD had been recorded last week.

I've got to keep the CD. Like me, my friend hadn't seen the movie. Belfast was rainy and cold. Even the St. Patrick's celebrations didn't encourage us out onto the streets. There was ample time to watch the movie, but with a one-year old, even simple things can turn into logistical challenges. My friend and I repeatedly fled to the warmth of the pub and the comfort of a Guinness, and I still don't know what Sugar Man is all about.