Tuesday, November 17, 2015

religious rabies

Last Friday in Paris, three heavily armed gunmen were walking by as I sat in the Gare du Nord, waiting for a train whose platform, despite imminent departure, hadn't been announced yet.  People around me didn't pay them much attention.  To them, it was nothing out of the ordinary.  I tend to doubt the sense of deadly weapons in crowded spaces and gazed with some confusion, but I was also tired and not in the mood for internal debates.  I was on the way home from a workshop, a few hours away from the weekend.

It hadn't been the most pleasant visit to Paris.  The workshop was in the middle of nowhere, on a plateau far outside town, and I didn't set foot in the city.  The commuter train that took me there subnavigated the center, bypassing the Eiffel Tower, the islands in the Seine and the cafés of the Left Bank as if they didn't exist.  Underground and far from the light, I experienced a disturbing lack of civility.

Fare dodging is a Parisian tradition, and people breaking through ticket gates without paying is so common one doesn't have to wait to observe it.  It happens all the time.  And while everyone has to pay more for everyone who doesn't pay at all, it isn't such a big deal.  Much worse was the man who inhaled deeply from his cigarette before getting on the train, only to release the foul air inside.  Another man, a bit down and out but that's no excuse, urinated at a pillar right next to the platform, sending a flow of steaming piss washing against innocent feet.  Getting off at the Gare du Nord to change into the TGV, I was nearly pushed back into the commuter train by a crowd without the most basic manners.

Later that day, a gang of cold-blooded killers put things back into perspective.  Concerted attacks on a football stadium filled to capacity, a music hall, and packed cafés by weed-bearded cowards who rather die than answer for their crimes left 150 dead and a city in shock.  Football?  Music?  Cafés?  Why?

When Charlie Hebdo was attacked just ten months ago, some people said that "This is wrong but – they had it coming/they shouldn't have made fun of Islam/they were disrespectful".  These statements are nonsense and probably more dangerous than terror attacks to the world I live in and treasure because they threaten my freedom more than any deranged gun-wielding motherfucker.

After Friday's bloodbath, no one will speak like this.  The wanton killing of innocent people exposed the utter vacuousness of the terrorists.  There were no scores, however imaginary, to settle.  This was terror for terror's sake, murderous nihilism empty of demands.

After the attack on Charlie Hebdo's offices, the world stepped up to the challenge.  The circulation of the magazine increased by an order of magnitude.  The publishers were flooded with money, all donated so they could continue their irreverent work.  There's now an English edition to spread to joy even further.  A couple of sad terrorists had killed individuals but unwittingly launched a great advertisement campaign, with slogan, logo and all.  If they had survived their crime, they'd still be punching themselves for it.

I can only hope that this attack will have a similar effect.  The civilized world has thus far reacted with shameful hesitation and pathetic indecision to the outbreak of religious rabies in the Middle East.  Packs of deluded murderers are rampaging with impunity through large swaths of Syria and Iraq, raping and killing thousands.  If the terrorist attacks on Paris trigger a serious response, there will at least be one good aspect to the atrocity.  The world would not only become a safer place but a better one as well.

Like a rabid fox that behaves unpredictably, rabid religionists are capable of any atrocity.  There's no point debating them.  Like rabies or any other infectious disease, Islamic fundamentalism has to be fought with force, determination and persistence.  In campaigns against malaria, a scourge of humanity even more deadly than roaches from sandy wastelands, the generally accepted best strategy is aggressive protection – with nets impregnated to kill on contact.  No one would argue that we don't need to protect ourselves better.  But we also need to fight back.  Malaria was eradicated from Italy when swamps were drained and the breeding grounds of the disease vector eliminated.

A lot of the draining to eradicate terrorism must be done in Europe where the contagion persists.  Many terrorists have links to one particular neighborhood in Brussels, for example, and thousands have joined jihadist training camps from Europe.  But eventually, the unified response of civilization to the Paris attacks must focus on Syria, not only to rid the world of disease but also to bring peace to a people that's been brutalized for too long.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

inside and out

When I took up my current position at DECTRIS in March, I was confronted with copious travel from day zero.  Day one was Monday, 2 March, my first day at the new job.  One day before that, very early in the morning, I was on the way to the airport for my first assignment, a crystallography workshop in Athens, Georgia, that I later wrote about in an oblique blog post, the best way I could come up with of preserving souvenirs of work travels.

Oblique was the key ingredient in what has by now developed into a little series of posts.  They were written without artificial urgency or slavish adherence to schedule.  Not all trips were commemorated – even though that was my intention at the beginning.  Sometimes I was too busy or too lazy to write.  At other times, I couldn't find anything curious to associate with the trip, nothing that would make a good story.

I would have expected the most exotic destinations to be the best sources of material, but this hasn't happened.  The week in Taiwan passed without mention, though much happened that I wouldn't want to forget and even started to write up.  In contrast, a single night in Prague and a drive to Göttingen offered unexpected returns.  In this regard, business travel is like any other travel (and, incidentally, like the writing of this blog):  I enjoy it best when I don't know what will happen.

The conference I attended the last couple of days didn't promise much in this regard.  It was in Germany, down south in an area that's beautiful but also rather familiar to me, and the program, fixed from 8:30 in the morning to 11 at night, left little room for serendipity or imagination.  On the train to Munich I started thinking about the dominating topic of discussion in Germany these days, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants, and my strange lack of reaction to it.  To form an opinion, which I currently don't have, I'd need to organize my thoughts, which I do best by writing them down.

I didn't get very far.  Checked into the conference hotel by Lake Tegernsee, the misery of the world faded away as if killed, suffocated by the luxury that surrounded me, a luxury that was so profound that it was hard for me to grasp – and that it occupied all my mental faculties trying to.  The bathroom, generally a good proxy of a hotel's quality, was cladded in slabs of marble half an inch thick, like a hammam of Oriental royalty.  The fittings were golden, the floor heated and the bathtub immense.  The shower was ensuite, its own marble-clad room with a frosted-glass door.  The toilet was in yet another room.  Navigating this almost required a map.

In the corridor leading into the room were enough closets to store the necessities for a prolonged stay.  I was reminded of the grand residences where Europe's wealthy of the early twentieth century would spent entire summers in decadence, like Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain or Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice.  There was no ironing board – guests apparently have their shirts ironed here – but a pillow menu that included such wholesome choices as millet chaff and horsehair stuffing.

It was all a bit much, and it became positively absurd when contrasted with arrival centers hastily erected in high school gyms and hospital basements where groups of refugees spend their days in enforced idleness, surrounded by plastic sheeting that provides little space and no privacy, a poor environment to turn desperate hopes into a modest future.  Then came the evening, and housekeeping returned to my room to bring new towels and prepare the bed for the night, removing the bedspread, fluffing the duvet, and parking the slippers for their job the next morning.

Hotel management would probably argue that luxury is the little details.  The TV magazine was always opened on the correct page.  The first morning at breakfast, it wasn't the buffet that struck me most, incredible though it was, but a low cabinet in the lobby I had missed earlier when returning from a jog along the lake.  On it, fresh towels, water bottles, apples and granola bars waited for those whom the run had left in a better shape, their vision less dulled by exhaustion than mine.

But luxury is not the little details.  True luxury is big – it's time, and of that I didn't have any during my stay.  At the far end of the circular driveway in front of the hotel, RS series Audis, outrageous vehicles including a station wagon with a Lamborghini engine, were waiting to be taken for a spin around the lake by hotel guests.  I didn’t find out whether this offer applied to us bulk-rate spongers as well.  There wouldn't have been time anyway.  Of the spa in the basement, I saw pictures only.

On the train back to Zurich where I'm writing these lines, the situation is different.  I feel calm and relaxed, resting at last after an intense two days of work.  As it happens, I have two more long train rides lined up this week.  Maybe I'll even find the time to make up my mind about the topics that are really important at the moment.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

around London

A sizable portion of Monday morning's flights into Heathrow had been canceled.  There was no traffic from France at all, and Holland was suffering as well.  My Swiss service was waved through, but only just.  The pilot took a nap when we started our descent and let the machines take over.  Ten minutes later, an automatic landing brought the plane down on British soil, more smoothly than most experienced operators.  It was impossible to tell where we were.  The world was greyed out.

I was delighted.  My arrival couldn't have been timed any better.  For my first journey back to the UK, nine months after closing a door on a stay of more than seven years, I got the weather that the country is infamous for the world over – weather that, coincidentally, I experienced only very infrequently while living in London.  It has been mentioned before in these pages that London's reputation for thick fog rests of coal-fired furnaces whose soot helped condense the moisture in the air.

Through the ages up to the fifties, fog was all the rage.  There was no winter without, and maybe not even a month, consistency that shaped opinions globally.  This changed only with the passing of the Clean Air Act in 1956.  Heating switched to electricity or gas, the use of coal was discontinued, and the fog disappeared.  The weather remained dismal, but global warming changed that as well.  Over the last two decades or so, London has shifted south climatically, to the pleasure of Londoners in general and the wine growers in Surrey, Sussex and Kent in particular.  The south of England is now sunny, clear and mild.

On Monday morning, it looked quite different.  The sun was nowhere to be seen and neither was the sky.  Whether there was much fog on the ground on the drive west from the airport was actively debated.  I saw the motorway ahead just fine and nothing left and right, but there isn't anything of note left or right anyway.  When Slough and Reading are announced, it's best to focus on the road and let them pass like minor nuisances.  Still, some drivers were confused and switched their fog lights on, blinding traffic behind.  I turned my high beams on to fight back, and shot towards Diamond for meetings.

When you live in London, everything outside the M25 (an easy topographical boundary) or out of reach by the Underground doesn't really exist – with the possible exception of Brighton for a day by the beach.  The passionate debate about Scottish independence didn't reach haughty Londoners for whom the only independence worth debating is the independence of the city.  Let the rest be all Scotland.

My stay this week put me in the opposite position.  I didn't get closer to London than the M25, on which I quarter-orbited in a little plastic Fiat.  Nevertheless, it was a trip filled with memories.  Diamond, already mentioned a few paragraphs up, is where I spent many nights collecting diffraction data on the crystals that popped up left and right during the tail end of my tenure at Imperial.

Cambridge was the other destination of this trip, another place I've visited a few times, most recently after I had taken over the X-ray facility at Imperial and needed to scout good operating practices.  This time, I revisited one of the institutes I had seen back then, but the most vivid memories didn't relate to that.  They arose in the hotel, which was as English as my flat had been.  In the bathroom, the floor was warped, a cord dangling from the ceiling switched on the lights, and the loo wouldn't flush the poo.  The only disappointment was the faucet, which was able to mix hot and cold water instead of dispensing it separately, as is tradition.

Getting to Cambridge could have been a pleasant hour on the train, had the line between Oxford and Cambridge not been axed in 1967 by car-centric modernizers with rather foggy vision.  Instead, it was a painful two-hour drive through almost Californian traffic.  Throughout, I never caught a glimpse of London.  Just as the rest of the country is invisible to Londoners, London was invisible to me.  The fog had little to do with this.  For the most part, the M25 runs in a wide trench that cannot possibly be natural but would be a mightily impressive civil engineering project if it weren't.  Does London still exist?  It will take another trip to tell.