Friday, April 27, 2012


I've been a London commuter for about four years now. Every day I get on a train from Ladywell or Honor Oak. I get off at London Bridge and walk down the long passageway from the platforms. I then weave my way through the milling crowd in the connecting passageways and go down the short escalator to the ticket barriers. I beep through, (usually on the right-hand-side barriers, as they're less crowded) and duck through the tourists in the underground station concourse. I beep through another set of ticket barriers and go down the long escalators to the northern line. I then cut right and walk down the tunnel that leads to the far end of the platforms (the exits at Angel are at the end of the platform). I get off at Angel and go up the short escalator, then round the corner to the long escalator (longest in Europe, fact fans) though the barriers and up the street to my office. In the evening I do the same thing backwards (backwards as in reverse order, not literally backwards, that'd be unsafe). I estimate I've made this journey (there and back) about a thousand times now.

On the days when one of the escalators in this sequence was out of action (which is quite often on the London Underground) I'd be faced with a choice between a crowded escalator that I would have to stand still on, and sometimes queue to get onto, or the broken one.

After a few years I noticed something really strange was happening to my body when I got on one of these stationary escalators. I found that as a result of this constant repetition, my inner ear  has developed an automatic reaction to escalators. It compensates for the slight acceleration and deceleration experienced when getting on an off, keeping my sense of balance perfectly even at all times. I only notice this when I get on an escalator that isn't moving: my inner ear does its usual thing, but there's no acceleration to compensate for, so instead I just feel my sense of what is 'up' tilt slightly forwards. On a few occasions this has nearly sent my crashing face first into the steps in front of me. The reverse happens when I get off.

I've learned to expect this now, so I don't topple over, but I can't seem to stop it. It means that if I get on a stationary escalator (something that I now avoid doing if I can possibly do so) then I get off feeling dizzy and slightly sick.

I was interested, therefore, to read in this fascinating article that this is not an unusual or undocumented condition. It's known as the Broken Escalator Phenomenon and has been studied by people at Imperial College (train to Charing Cross, walk down to Embankment, get the District over to South Kensington).

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I've just found another person for my 'Nerds at War' series (a general interest book that I'll get round to writing one day).

Abraham Wald
Abaham Wald was born in 1902 in what was then Austria-Hungary. His hometown is now part of Romania, but he belonged to an earlier map of Europe, in which you could be German or Jewish (he was Jewish) but hail from just about anywhere in eastern Europe.
He studied mathematics at the University of Vienna, which even before the Nazis arrived wasn't the most Jew-friendly of institutions. One of his supervisors, however, managed to get him a position teaching in the school of economics, where he remained until 1938. When the anschluss came, Wald was already putting the finishing touches on his escape plan, and he was gone long before the knock on the door came.
He ended up in the United States, working at Columbia university, where he was was finally able to work on research for publication (something that he had been previously barred from doing). He specialised in the more complex and abstract branches of statistics, though he also undertook some economic analysis work for the government when the war began.
His most notable contribution to the war came in 1944, when the US Air Force asked him to look over their damage statistics. The strategic bombing campaigns of the European theater were exacting a heavy toll on aircraft and airmen, with the airforce losing hundreds of bombers to anti-aicraft fire every week. They were always looking for ways to improve their aircraft, and to this end they collected vast reams of information from the mechanics who fixed the planes when they got back to base. They had diagrams showing where planes got hit most often, and had resolved to add extra armour plating to those vulnerable spots. To make sure they were not making any mistakes they showed their statistics to Wald.
Wald got back to them a few days later with some surprising news. They were, he explained, looking at the statistics the wrong way round. The data set they had was corrupted by what statisticians call 'selection bias' -- it did not show the damage sustained by all their planes, but  rather the damage sustained by those planes that made it back to base to be repaired. In other words, what the diagrams and statistics showed were not the aircraft's most vulnerable points, but its least vulnerable points, places that could be hit again and again without bringing the plane down.
Wald produced a report that was a mirror image of the previous one, the spots he highlighted as being in need of extra armour were those where the air force had few, if any records of aircraft being hit. Wald saw that these were not places where no plane ever got hit, they were places where no plane ever got hit and survived. 
History does not record what came of his insight, but even if his work only marginally improved the survivability of a US bomber crew, then it would have saved hundreds of crewmen's lives.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Canterbury West, 2004.

When you're a student, and you have no particular reason to get up in the morning, December is a month made entirely of evenings. The evening seems to start at around lunchtime, as the light begins to fade and keeps going until you go to sleep. If the stars come out at 4pm, it's easy to lose track of where evening ends and night begins, and if it doesn't get light until 8am, the shift from night into morning is similarly hard to spot.
On this particular evening me and Kristen had woken up at around noon, showered, and then gone our separate ways. We'd spent the previous evening shopping for presents that she could take back to her family and making our goodbyes to those who were getting on evening flights -- I think we finally went to sleep at about 4am.
In the half light of the early evening, I walked the eight metres back to my house, and settled down to finish writing my paper. It'd been a week or two since I'd last slept in my room, and longer since I last made any attempt to make it look lived-in. Most of the flat surfaces -- including the bed -- were covered by a thick layer of unwashed clothes over which lay piles of handwritten notes, photocopied academic journals, and dog-eared library books.
The next few hours were spent writing. With the curtains drawn and my headphones on, I was completely cut off from the rest of the world and so didn't notice the time passing as evening turned to slightly darker evening. I emerged from my cave at about 9pm, having gotten so hungry that nothing I was writing was making sense anymore. I made myself a giant sandwich with the remaining edible items in my fridge and wandered across to Kristen's house. This had been more or less my daily routine for most of the last month -- unlike every other house in Homestall, Kristen's front door didn't lock automatically, so me and the flat's various other nocturnal inhabitants used to come and go as we pleased.
I found Kristen upstairs, neatly folding things into her enormous bag while intermittently carrying on a conversation with one of her friends back home on messenger. I tried to help, but it soon became apparent that my folding abilities were way below par, and so I was relegated to the task of keeping her entertained. Eventually the time came for me and Kristen to head down to the station so she could catch the shuttle bus to the airport. It was about 4am at this point, and even the hardest partying kids at gone to sleep. The only lights left on in parkwood were those of the students who were either really obsessive about their work, or were even worse at managing their time than me. As we walked down the hill I was stuck once again by how alien Canterbury could still feel to me. Even in the dead of night, there are still signs of life in London — night buses and minicabs plying the roads, the odd dog walker or insomniac. In Canterbury, on the other hand, all was silent. We didn't see a single person in the 40 minutes it took to walk down to the station, I only saw a few houses with lights on. We talked in whispers, like we were walking through a dormitory in the middle of the night, and listened to the click-clack of the suitcase’s wheels running over the cracks in the pavement. Every sound we made seemed to echo off the buildings around us, which was a little eerie after a while.
While waiting for the bus to turn up, we curled up into a ball on a bench and talked about our plans for the holidays. We were both curious to know if our friends would think we'd changed in the time we'd been gone. The bus turned up early, and we made our goodbyes. It would have been romantic for me to have stuck around, but I didn't. I was really tired. I walked back up to campus and slept until the next evening. I had a dream that I was in South Carolina with Kristen. South Carolina looked an awful lot like Norfolk in my mind, but it made me wake up with a big grin on my face. I was woken up by my phone telling me I had a message. It said “I got through security with no problems and I've spent the last of my English money on coffee. I'm missing you already, see you in the new year.”
Up to that point I'd not been entirely sure what the status of our relationship was, so the realization that she was still thinking of me left me floating somewhere above my own head. I wrote something back, but I don't think Kristen got it before she got into the air.

I kept that text message on my phone for years, saving it to my SIM card each time I changed phones so I didn't lose it.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Homestall Court, 2005.

When me and Kristen were both working on essays, we used to keep in touch using messenger. It seems like a slightly strange way of communicating with someone who lives a few doors away, but it allowed us both to preserve the illusion that were still working hard. It was near the end of the spring Reading Week – the University of Kent's term for a week where lectures were suspended so that students can frantically write their essays – and I was still a long way behind schedule. At about 11pm a message pinged up on my desktop that just said: ‘I can't see. please come over.’
I should explain at this point that migraines run in my family. My mum gets them from time to time, and when I was a kid my brother used to get these crazy ones that lasted for days and gave him strange hallucinations. I'd never had one at this point in my life, but I knew what they were and how they progressed. As a result, my reaction to the news that my girlfriend had gone blind was one of concern rather than panic. Unfortunately, Kristen had no such prior experience, and had recently heard that a relative had suffered an aneurism. She was getting increasingly panicky as her vision reduced down to a little circle of blurry light in the centre of her eye.
I was pretty sure that what Kristen was experiencing was a regular migraine, but I didn't want to be the one who had to explain to her parents that their daughter’s head had exploded. I dialled the number for the university infirmary, although I wasn't entirely sure that such a thing existed, and explained the situation. They confirmed that they did indeed exist, and told me to bring Kristen over so they could check on her.
The infirmary was over in Eliot College, about 20 minutes walk from Kristen's house. To this day I'm not entirely sure where in the building the infirmary was – both Eliot and Rutherford colleges were built on strange, eccentric floor plans that don't seem to obey the normal laws of physics. I was still frequently getting lost looking for lecture rooms even in my final year. We walked all the way over there with Kristen clinging onto my shoulder and me calling out various obstacles as we approached them. Given that it was chucking-out time at the campus bars, no-one gave a second glance to someone leading their partner though campus with cries of ‘step!’ ‘kerb!’ ‘gravel!’
In the infirmary a nurse gave Kristen some more painkillers and led her to a dark room with a bed. I was allowed to stick around, and settled myself in the chair next to the bed. For the next few hours I sat there stroking her head with one hand and trying to write notes for my essay with the other. Unsurprisingly, the notes I wrote in the infirmary were completely useless, if nothing else, because I can't write legibly in the dark.
At about 1am Kristen’s eyesight had come back, and she was feeling a little better. We walked back to Homestall and I set her up in my room so I could keep an eye on her. We talked for a while but she soon fell asleep. I turned the brightness on my monitor right down and went back to my work. A few hours later she was woken up by her phone ringing. It was her mom, who had come off work to a barrage of panicky text messages from her daughter and was understandably worried. Kristen explained what had happened, paused for a few moments, and then passed the phone to me.
This was the first time I'd ever spoken to a member of Kristen's family, and I don't think I made the best impression. Well meaning, caring, but more than a bit simple. Karen thanked me for getting Kristen over to the infirmary, and for staying with her until she felt ok. I stammered awkwardly and turned bright pink (luckily she couldn't see that bit). I've never been good at parents, or praise.
I fell asleep with my face on the keyboard an hour later, having brought the essay up the required length to hand in later that day. I doubted that it would be given a passing mark, but it actually did quite well. By a bizarre stroke of luck, my lecturer – probably under the influence of too much coffee – misread my argument as something much more coherent than it was. In her notes she even talked about its interesting subtext (I wouldn't know subtext if you hit me with it) and praised the validity of a point that, looking back, I am sure I never made. 

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Grimshill Court, September 2004.

I can't remember how the conversation with Ben had started -- perhaps it was inspired by song that came on the stereo, or by an offhand remark I'd made about his plaid shirt -- but after a few minutes I really wanted it to stop. He talked in a solid stream, seemingly without drawing breath, and before I could back away had told me more than I'd ever wanted to know about the recording of the Pixies' debut album Surfer Rosa. I'd only been at university for a few days -- most of my personal possessions were still in boxes -- but I'd already learned that there were some friends that I really didn't want to make.
He eventually stopped and asked me what my name was. I told him it was James, in the hope that this would inspire no further comment. I dread to think how different my life would be if he'd found out we had the same name. While he was digesting this piece of information and fiddling with the ringpull on his beer, I frantically scanned the crowd at the party for someone I knew.
I say it was a party, it was actually just what happened when a party had failed to materialise. I had set out that evening with a backpack full of beer looking for a party -- I'd made a few friends so far, but I'd not really clicked with anyone yet. I knew I wasn't the most interesting person around, but I figured that a man with a backpack full of beer is rarely turned away during Fresher's week. There weren't any parties to be found, however; the first few evenings had seen a few flats get trashed and no-one seemed willing to let a massive army of random strangers trample into the delicate social arrangements of a newly established student household. As the evening had progressed the various groups of wannabe-gatecrashers had coalesced into a small mob in the green space between two of the housing units. Someone had stuck their speakers out of an upstairs window, and an intermittently-functioning security light gave us enough light to see each other. It wasn't exactly buzzing, but there was beer and people to talk to.
So far the closest thing I had to a friend so far was my flatmate, Doug -- a lanky metalhead with a hundred-word vocabulary who hailed from the exotic suburbs of Guildford. He wasn't there, but I did spot a face I knew -- the flatmate of one of his friends from secondary school, a small kid with glasses and unkempt hair. We'd spoken briefly at the pub the previous night and he seemed interesting enough. John? Tim? Tom!. That was it. Someone shouted to Ben and he looked over his shoulder to see who it was. The light conveniently shut off at precisely that moment, plunging us into darkness and allowing me to make good my escape.
When the light began to warm up again I saw that Tom had moved slightly, revealing the person he was talking to. At first I thought it was a child, but as the light intensified I realised it was a very small woman. I hesitated at this point, I didn't really know Tom well enough to feel comfortable interrupting him while he was putting his moves on a lady. However, it was that or learn more about the microphone placement philosophy of Steve Albini, so I figured it was worth the risk.
The girl, as it turned out, was called Sarah, she was about three years older than me, and American. I'd never met an American before, at least not socially, so I was curious. I didn't realise at that point just how many Americans there were at Kent. If Tom was annoyed by my sudden appearance he didn't show it. We were all a little drunk, Sarah a little jetlagged. I don't remember what we all talked about, but I remember laughing a lot. As the crowd broke up in the wee small hours of the morning we discovered that we all lived in the same part of campus, only a few doors from each other, and walked back together.
The next evening Tom came and knocked on my window to ask if I wanted to come out to the pub. On the way we stopped off at Sarah's house, where we were introduced to her flatmates (who were all American). We put on our best English accents and said 'Jolly Good' a lot. They seemed to like us. One of her flatmates came with us to the pub. She was much taller than Sarah, with a shock of curly bleach-blond hair and a noticeably different accent. Her name was Kristen, she was from South Carolina. We spent most of the evening drunkenly arguing about something really trivial, I think it was whether Abbey Road was released before or after the White Album. Even though our first meeting ended with her calling me a "patronising asshole", she apparently enjoyed my company.


In later years I'd often see Ben around campus. He dated a classmate of mine for a while, and was in one of my lectures in the second year, but I never spoke to him after that first night. He will live his entire life completely unaware of what an incredibly important influence he had been on my life.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Giles Lane, November 2004.

[Me and Kristen are getting married in a week. We were friends for a while before we got together, so this is the closest I have to the story of how we met. The following probably conflates the events of several different evenings, as my memory is jumbled after all these years.]

We got to the top of the hill just after the sun had dropped below the horizon, it'd been a long and enjoyably unproductive day. A morning’s shopping trip had turned into an afternoon playing frisbee in the park, which then turned into an evening in the pub across from the cathedral. We four; Me, Kristen, Tom, and Sarah had just completed the tiring hike back up St Dunstan’s Hill from town. As we crossed into the field on the edge of campus Tom darted off to our left, rummaging around in his satchel for his camera. After a few moments, and a few significant glances at Kristen, Sarah walked off after him.
At the time Tom was using this crazy-looking Soviet camera that he'd found in a junk sale, it was a sort of rustic version of my own 80's Pentax, all odd protrusions and non-standard mountings. All the markings on the case, as well as the little instructional booklet that he'd found in the box, were in Cyrillic, so it generally took him about ten minutes to get the exposure settings right. His photographer’s eye had been drawn to the whimsical towers and gables of St Dunstan’s college, an eccentric, Hogwarts-like private school on the edge of the university campus. I could faintly hear him enthusing breathlessly to Sarah about the quality of the light, the word ‘chiaroscuro’ was carried over to us by a gust of wind.
While Tom was off in his own little world, fiddling with the arcane camera, me and Kristen sat down on the grass. The contrast between the two halves of the sky was now at its most dramatic – the thin clouds along the western horizon were glowing orange, while the first few stars were beginning to appear in the east. Kristen said something about feeling cold. I opened my mouth to offer her my jacket, but before I could say anything she burrowed herself under my arm.
She didn't feel cold, in fact, I could feel the warmth radiating off her after the walk up the hill. I was frozen for a few moments, not sure how exactly to react, my knowledge of American social customs was still a little shaky – perhaps she was just being friendly, I thought. After a brief argument in my head, I rested my awkwardly suspended hand on her waist, almost pulling it away when I realised that her top had ridden up a few inches and I was touching her bare skin. There was no stiffening of her body or pulling away, no response at all in fact. I relaxed and looked up and the stars.
I started talking about how strange it had been to me, coming to Kent from London. How I was used to being able to see five, perhaps ten stars on a clear night, and how I initially struggled to sleep without the glow of a million reflected streetlights. I'm not sure if she was listening, or if I'd told her all of this stuff before. I was only half paying attention to what was coming out of my mouth. The the rest of my mind was fixated on my hand, and on what it could feel –  the curve of her hips, the softness of her skin, which had a smoothness that no skin of mine, not even my eyelids or the backs of my ears comes close to. She started talking about her own hometown, about the glow from the headlights on the freeway, the drone of the cicadas. Her description conjured up a feeling of enveloping, comforting warmth, where the darkness was somehow thicker and deeper than anything I'd known.
At this point my eye was caught by something in the sky over to my right, a tiny pinpoint of orange light moving up between the stars. To this day I'm not entirely sure what it was – perhaps a piece of space junk burning up, or a meteor, or some strange optical illusion created by a high-flying aircraft. I didn't say anything to Kristen about it, and she had by this point stopped talking. We sat in silence while Tom and Sarah slowly walked back towards us. As I looked more closely at the light. I fancied I could see a faint trail streaming out below it, like the exhaust coming out of a rocket.
All of a sudden the bottom dropped out of my head, taking the warm feeling with it. I suddenly felt very sober, very old. The librarian in my brain, issued with the query ‘what sort of rocket-like thing would be launched out over the North Sea’, had returned with a folder marked ‘Trident Missile’. Inside there was plenty of detail, diagrams and statistics about blast radius and fallout, people burned into shadows and earth turned to glass.
I have no idea where this thought had come from, and the sensible part of me knew it was stupid. There had been no recent rise in international tensions, and the cold war was over, right? but some nagging part of my mind couldn't shake the terrified feeling that I was watching the first moments of a catastrophe, the little bouncing rocks that come before a landslide.
After a few moments’ thought, I realised that above all else, I felt cheated. I could smell Kristen’s hair, feel her heartbeat against my arm and the gentle rising and falling of her shoulders. My mind went back to how lovely she'd looked earlier that day, smiling and laughing in the pub – her big blue eyes widening as Tom told a particularly gory story from his teenage years. I suddenly saw clearly all the hints I'd been too nervous to pick up on at the time.
I pulled her a little closer, rested my head on hers, and closed my eyes. There was no flash, no blast, just the sound of Kristen’s steady breathing and the approaching footsteps of our friends.