Saturday, April 30, 2011

Architectural Rant

Given that I am relatively oblivious to my physical surroundings most of the time, it's rare that a building makes me angry. But earlier tonight I spent several hours in a building so atrociously designed I actually wanted to hit someone. Hard.

Here is a picture of the offending structure:

It is the Paris Geode, one of many architecturally innovative buildings in the complex known as the Parc de la Villette, erected on the site of the former Paris abattoir. This evening, to quench my thirst for Verdi, I attended one of the New York Metropolitan Opera's simultaneous broadcasts ("Il Trovatore") in the "IMAX Theatre" situated in the Geode. All the other Paris venues that were transmitting the broadcast were sold out, while there were plenty of seats left in the Geode. I think I understand why.

Before you gasp in horror at my blasphemy, let me reassure you. I know all about Buckminster Fuller. Or at least enough to know that everyone should love a geodesic dome. Only an architectural philistine could fail to appreciate its omnitriangulated tensegrity. Well, tickle me with an icosahedron and call me Phil, because tonight's experience was so annoying, I can barely find words to describe it. I can understand the attraction of an aesthetically pleasing form - and there's no denying the geode looks pretty cool from the outside - but we don't erect buildings just to admire them from a distance, they are actually supposed to perform a useful function. Sacrifice function for form and you are missing the point.

Wikipedia has a fairly illuminating discussion on why geodesic structures never really attained the popularity that Fuller and his disciples hoped they might. The form imposes so many constraints that they end up being largely impractical. The builders are forced to cut corners, literally and figuratively, at every step, often resulting in structures that are remarkable for their lack of functionality.

This is sorely obvious in the case of the Geode. First of all, try getting into the thing. You see it from the distance, you approach, you get so close you can almost touch it. But there's only one entrance, very poorly signposted, and it took me about 20 minutes to find it, from a point just a stone's throw away from the building. I bought my ticket and joined the queue to get in. Now, given the program, this was not your typical audience of teenagers - safe to say that I was one of the junior members of the audience. So when we were finally allowed into the screening area, it was a startling sight to see all these Parisian 60- and 70-year olds being forced to clamber up the equivalent of a fairly steep cliff face, using steps that would be treacherous for a 16-year old to manoeuvre. But opera-goers are a dedicated bunch, so eventually everyone found a seat. From then on, it was basically a case of hanging on for dear life, as the banking in the auditorium was so steep, one false move could land you at the bottom, forced to start the upward climb again, to regain one's perch. There were a couple of very fraught moments indeed, as the steps (incredibly high, and unevenly spaced) got the better of two little old ladies, who, when they toppled, almost tipped a downward avalanche, before having their falls stopped by some of the sturdier gentlemen.

Eventually, the performance began, and for the next 90 minutes we all risked severe neck injury, as we were forced to fix our gaze at the impossibly banked screen, whose curvature imposed a weird distortion on the images being projected. If this is the IMAX experience, forget it. I kept thinking to myself "I paid 25 Euros for this"!

But the coup de grace came at intermission, when a little sign came onscreen, informing us that "exit from the auditorium is possible only at the top of the room". So to get to the restrooms, each one of those frail senior citizens (I include myself among their number, as I was pretty exhausted from the day's earlier trip to Versailles), was forced to clamber up to the top of the cliff, go down four levels to the ground floor, only to start the Sisyphean upward trek once again. This might not sound so terrible, until you realise that, because of the constraints of the dome, it appears that placing escalators from each level to the next was impossible, so that two of the levels had to be traversed by a set ot treacherously banked, inadequately lit, stairwells. Yes, there were elevators to accommodate the handicapped (presumably a legal requirement). Each held four people, and one was out of commission.

Had there been a fire, I wouldn't be writing this today. Nobody would have made it out alive.

"Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"

Well, it was "Il Trovatore", so what do you think? Probably the most ridiculous plot* in the entire operatic repertoire, but some of the most glorious music. So I liked it just fine.

*: OK, I know that Verdi's "Othello" wins on a technicality, because Desdemona sings an entire aria, after she has been strangled, for crying out loud. But the sheer looniness of each of the four main characters in Trovatore, together with the whole "friccasseed the wrong baby, oops!" element, surely make it a strong contender

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Nasal Drip

It was bound to happen sooner or later. All that contortion of the nasal passages into the kinds of unnatural positions required to approximate the correct French pronunciation of even the simplest of words takes its toll. Mucous membranes that last saw the light of day when one was a fetus are suddenly exposed to the ravages of any passing spirochete. I blame it on that, and on the highly inconsiderate German woman who insisted on attending class all last week, hacking and sneezing away all the while, to maximize the likelihood that the rest of her classmates would ultimately share her misery. She is presumably now safely back in Germany; her germs, on the other hand, have taken up residence in my bronchial passages.

I stayed home from class yesterday, not wishing to expose my classmates to the same fate. But I spent a very miserable night last night, so I dragged myself into school this morning, to see if they could recommend a doctor. Barely an hour later I had been seen by a very nice doctor at the walk-in clinic down the street, and emerged with a fistful of prescriptions. So I have started on a regimen of antibiotics, decongestants, and paracetamol and am already feeling much better.

The doctor's visit cost only 23 Euros and the wait was only 15 minutes, so I was pretty happy that I dragged myself out to see the doctor, instead of hacking away at home feeling sorry for myself. Hopefully, I will be in form to go back to class tomorrow.

Brad did his best to make me feel better, though I didn't have the heart to tell him that I don't quite share his faith in the restorative powers of Kentucky Fried Chicken! Bushmills, on the other hand, that's another story:

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Fine Easter Weekend

Brad and I had a joyous Easter weekend, even though some of the more traditional elements (gourmet dinner cruise by night on the Seine) had to be postponed. I have just three words of explanation:

fake crab salad

Personally speaking, this is a substance I would never ingest voluntarily, shellfish allergy or no, because the direct causal relationship to

projectile vomiting

is entirely clear to me. Let's just say that it is now entirely clear to Brad as well, and leave it at that.

But the angel of disease was not about to pass me over completely, nosireebob! Right around the time that Brad was recovering from his 24-hour malaise, I came down with a hideous fever (I WAS BURNING UP, I TELL YOU, BURNING RIGHT UP!) and started hacking away like one of those measle-thelioma victims those lawyers on late-night TV are always warning us about.

Naturally, given my normal hypochondriac tendencies, I gravitated towards this diagnosis first, given that they have been renovating the apartment downstairs ever since I got here, and the ambient levels of dust are spectacularly high. As the hacking subsided and my temperature spiked (at least in my imagination), I traded this diagnosis in in favor of lockjaw. There was this nail I had managed to cut myself on at school during the week, and though close inspection hadn't indicated a trace of dirt or rust, who knows where those wily tetanus germs lurk, and lord knows it had been a long, long time since my last booster shot? I felt abandoned and alone - Brad, now in rude health, was out cavorting, and my sister the doctor in Canada was not responding to my singing telegrams.

Fortunately, I woke up this morning to be greeted by a delicious hot Bushmills toddy prepared by the ever-solicitous Brad. It's amazing what two fingers of Bushmills can do by way of symptom relief.

But here's the odd thing. To celebrate my miraculous recovery I have been singing little nonsense-songs to myself around the apartment - sometimes in English, sometimes in French. For instance, to the tune of "Frere Jacques" -

I'm not going to
die of lockjaw
No I'm not
No I'm not.
Not gonna die of tetanus
not gonna die of tetanus
No, not me
No, not me

One would think that one's guest, and friend of over 12 years, would be touched by this spontaneous display of joy at my own recuperation. But such is, apparently, not the case. How else to explain the fact that, just half an hour ago, Brad stormed out of the apartment, hurling epithets too rude to be quoted in a family blog, the most polite of which was "You're f###ing weird, you know that?"

Go figure!

John Curd, RIP

I was shocked to learn, earlier today, of the recent death of a former Genentech colleague, Dr John Curd.

John was a brilliant clinical researcher. But it's not his brilliance that I will always remember, so much as his kindness. In his role as Vice-President of Clinical Research at Genentech, he always showed me (and others) remarkable forbearance and kindness, and is one of the people I will always remember for helping me, a greenhorn who could sometimes be very prickly indeed, to realise my full potential.

The world is diminished by his passing. My thoughts go out to his family and friends - he was a truly remarkable, and wonderful, man.

I don't have words adequate to express all that he did for me, and am truly saddened by the news of his death.

John Curd, biotech veteran, dies unexpectedly at age 65 .

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Joyeuses Pâques

A Happy Easter to all our readers!

In the U.S.A., we know that it is the rabbit of Easter who brings of the chocolate:

How does the Easter Bunny make his way into your home? According to one source on Google:

The Easter Bunny apprenticed with a locksmith many centuries ago, learning how to pick locks using his teeth.

In other countries, burglarizing bunnies feature less prominently. For instance, in Sweden, Easter eggs are brought, somewhat improbably, by a transvestite rooster:

In Australia, where wild rabbits are considered a major threat to indigenous wildlife, chocolate is brought by the Easter bilby:

Here in Paris, where all of the church bells in the city flew to Rome to visit the Pope on the evening of Holy Thursday, they all flew back this morning, bearing of the chocolate. Assorted chocolate figurines have been raining down on the city all morning. It's quite dangerous out there on the streets, as the bells, lacking eyes, are somewhat haphazard in their aim:

But we did manage to come away with some goodies to nosh on here in Rue Notre Dame de Nazareth:

A joyous and safe holiday, wherever you may be!