Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sound of Silence

ATLAS control room is awfully quiet at night, all of us at shift are intently staring at room full of monitors, spitting out plots, and color coded status of detector components. There are about a dozen of us, but I barely know who the guy at the next desk is. When I think about the shifts at CDF control room years back, it was very different. There were only 4 of us, but we chitchatted, cracked jokes, shared food. And then there were alarms, very audible ones. For anything unusual, animals barked, trains whistled, elephants roared, and water flowed loudly, accompanied by a mechanical hard-to-ignore female voice. Those alarms were as much a part of the CDF control room experience as anything. I miss them in ATLAS.

That brings up an interesting question, the importance of sound in situations where it is not strictly necessary. I was watching the superbowl on a French TV channel here - the same plays, the same pictures, but with the commentary in French. Worse, the commentators seemed to be sitting in Paris, so the crowd noise was real muffled. Somehow I could never get the feel of excitement associated with such a high profile game - a closely contested one too, and I am convinced it was the lack of usual "football sound". How often have we realized were speeding driving a super-smooth car with no sound? Sea beaches do not feel like sea beaches without the roar of the sea, specially so at dark.

A while back, I had an interesting discussion with a friend about the effect of dialogues in performing arts in general, especially in movies. Her argument was, the story can still be followed without understanding the conversations, and a movie in a foreign language without subtitles should be equally enjoyable. I disagreed, saying the cultural references are often integral to the storyline, and without understanding the dialogues at all will be a serious impediment to enjoying the movie. A movie like " Big Lebowski" is dependent fully on dialogues, while "The Last Tango in Paris" is not." What is your take on this?

Monday, February 21, 2011

A travelogue without pictures

My camera and laptop are my constant travel companions. This time I ditched both for my short dash to Dresden, since this was just a trip to bring my belongings to Geneva. Nothing remotely exciting can happen, as I told myself, and no point in carrying more stuff than absolutely necessary. While my cute little Nookcolor did not allow me to miss my thinkpad much, the camera was sorely missed.

That was not because of the day long bus ride from Dresden to Geneva. To all fairness, this was my first long roadtrip in this continent, and while the scenery as we entered Switzerland was pretty, nothing was spectacularly new. The highways looked as boring as US freeways, with Mcdonalds' sprouting up in the middle of nowhere. The rest areas had the same look and feel, except one big difference. US is not just the "land of the free", but also the land of free restrooms, while here every usage involved paying.

But I digress. The day before, I flew to Dresden, and nothing seemed unusual till we landed there. The airport was full with police helicopters, and I suddenly remembered that was some kind of demonstration day for neo-Nazis. That thought slipped away somewhat as I boarded the train to the city center, and nothing could have prepared me for what I saw after arriving at the main train station. It was full with police, all in full gear. All the exits were heavily barricaded and guarded. I still thought it is just a preventative measure, but then I was told no public transit is running. No tram, and no taxis. Undaunted, I stepped out, and it looked like a battlefield. Shouting mobs contained by police barricades, armored cars, circling helicopters overhead. All the main roads were hopelessly blocked, hoping to contain the neo-Nazi marchers, with friendly policemen and women warning me of Nazis. Soon it became clear there are not only Nazis, but a battalion of anti-Nazi protesters too, and it was not obvious which group was which. They also sat on the main roads and tried to block the right wing folks, and the police had a tough time to keeping them apart. Later reports put number of neo-Nazis at about 4000, while the protesters were about 5 times larger, but its hard to get the global picture standing in the middle of it. Ironically, the more damage was done by the the protesters, setting trash cans on fire, and provoking confrontation (an aside: they should really learn from Calcuttans how to burn things. This looks pathetic, we burn buses and trams with much less ado). I had to walk all the way to my destination, taking many detours, before a good samaritan offered me a ride at the very end. The city was tense till late evening, with most shops closed, and random groups of people walking around.

Too bad I could not get any pictures. You do not get to see such a mayhem often.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Horrors of house hunting in Geneva

No, I have not found one yet. I have serious doubts if I will ever find one.

So I landed up in Geneva a couple of weeks back, eager to start working at CERN, where all the action in our field is. All was great, except the small problem of finding a place to live. To all fairness, I heard it is a non trivial task, but I could not have found anything until I was here. After sorting visa issues, I started looking around.

Geneva is a beautiful city, and very international. While that feels nice, the presence of all the international organizations and the associated workforce is the main source of housing problem. In last ten years, for example, CERN has gone from an European lab to a truly international one, with a huge American presence. Unfortunately the housing market has not kept up with this population explosion.

That makes house owners and renting agencies the king in this skewed market. For each available dwelling, people apply. From my limited experience so far, I realized that putting together this application is no less harrowing than grad school application. They ask for copies of the work contract and pay slips, to be sure than that I will be here and can afford to pay the rent. Of course proof of identity and valid residence permit is required, as a document called "attestation de non poursuite" (obtained after waiting for an hour in a government office), which effectively proves that none is pursuing me for non-payment of rent or any bills (Is not the US credit history system wonderful?). One also wanted a letter of recommendation. I gather many people here also have a template for it, saying the applicant is among the top 5% of the renters, whatever may that mean. And then there is the application form itself. Usually in French, it has such probing questions like why I want this place. Next time I will answer because I have not found any other places - not sure that bare truth will exactly help me.

So after collecting all these materials from a bunch of people, they select one. Positive discrimination is blatantly in effect, so families and women get preference, and single guys like me are rarely picked. So many of the people from CERN end up sharing houses. Now after living alone for all these years as graduate student and postdoc, I am not very thrilled by the idea, and I do not exactly think my living habits will endear myself to prospective housemates. The other option remains getting a room in a house. I seen one, a window-less room in a basement of a house, sharing a common entrance with the family living there, who did not seem to get the concept of flexible working hours and omni-present deadlines. That was not cheap either.

I lived in a spacious house, minutes away from the my institute and the train station in Dresden. Here, a place one third of its size, will probably cost thrice. If I find one, that is.