Monday, October 18, 2010


I entertained friends at home for the first time last Wednesday. Interestingly, of the five people that came over for dinner, four, if you include me, were from CA. This speaks volumes about how well I am integrating with the local populace. I should make sure I have a dinner for non-american friends at some point soon. But, I need to make enough non-american friends first. The fifth person was another Indian, in case you were wondering.

The plan for dinner sprung up the night before at TTT. At some point in some conversation, cookies came up. I strongly support the discussion of cookies in any context, so I offered Megan and Barbara, the two girls from CA who first mentioned them, that I would be glad to offer them the services of my oven and ply them with dinner in exchange for cookies. Of course, A would join us, since she is Californian too, was hitting it off with Megan and Barbara, and this would give her an excuse to see my apartment and where I lived. Towards the end of the evening, there appeared to be some sort of connection developing between Amit and Megan, so I eventually invited Amit as well. He seemed nice enough, though a bit older than all of us (me included, and I was the daddy till that point).

The next day, I tidied up the apartment, and did some hoovering and mopping (see below for my still-very-deep appreciation for mops). Then, I did some groceries, and went to pick up Megan and Barbara from the U-bahn station. They didn't show, so I did more groceries and waited for the next train. They were not on that train either, so I did even more groceries (at this point, my bags were all filled up). Eventually, the girls turned up. They had gotten lost on the trains, gone the wrong way and gotten stuck in a retired train for 15 mins :) And I thought I was bad with the U-bahn system. In any case, they arrived too late to buy stuff for cookies, since the stores in Garching close by 8pm! Dessert would have to be the fine choice of thirteen 3-day old dates I had in my fridge. However, I had stocked up sufficiently to make my main course: Fusili with chicken, mushrooms and cherry tomatoes in a fine pesto and prosciutto sauce. I cracked open a bottle of Spanish rotwein and got cooking, while the girls told me stories. The pasta came out marvelous and I wrapped up just in time for Amit to start making his Achari chicken, which was also very tasty. A came by around 20:15 and we sat down to comfortable dinner, with techno tunes from the radio and four bottles of rotwein. Despite the cookies, I think we had a really nice time, full of stories from back in CA, Jabooty dub commercials and a couple of Russel Peters comedy runs (!Xobile) from YouTube. Awesome!

The girls managed to catch the very last train back to the City and I retired to half and hour of dishes, a bit of ice-cream (hah, I had my own stash for dessert!) and a good night's sleep.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Old Black Holes and New People

I think I learned something new about the Universe this week. Of course, it may all just be wrong because all science in done in fits and starts. There's this common view among non-practitioners that Science progresses linearly. The next Newton climbs up on the shoulders of old Galikeplernicus, sees over the horizon, and then walks along a geodesic right into a new wonderful paradigm. Nope. Nothing even close. A number of times we fall off trying to climb up the shoulders of the scientific Ozymandias; frequently the false paths that lead to fake horizons; a number of times we get stuck in the bogs that litter the fields of Science. It's a slow painful slog, to say the least.

But I digress. What, pray, did I learn about the Universe this week? I learned that far in the distant past, galaxies which were busy growing big black holes in their centers were not the same as the ones we see today in the Universe around us. Today, these galaxies with black holes are big and round things, and some process, probably the merging of two big galaxies, made them what they are. Things like M87, which sits in the center of the Virgo cluster.

This is M87, one of the largest galaxies in our immediate vicinity. It looks pretty boring as galaxies go. No lovely spiral arms, no brilliant young stars and limpid clouds of luminescent hydrogen gas. But you see that strange comet like thing pointing to the center of the galaxy. That's no comet. It's a stream of very, very diffuse plasma streaming out of the center, so fast that it stays in a thin stream for a 100,000 light years. The jet, as we like to call it, is shot out by the massive magnetic field of a black hole at the center of the galaxy, with a mass more than a billion times that of our own Sun. That's a thousand, million, million times the mass of our own Earth! Oh they're out there all right. I'm trying to figure out how they became the way they are.

For a black hole like this to grow, you need a lot of gas. It's hard for a lot of gas to fall into black holes today (in the Local Volume, as we like to say - that's everything out to a 100 million light years or so). Too much is locked up in stars or too hot to get close enough to the center of a galaxy. That stuff must have fallen in back when the Universe was much younger and there was a lot of gas to spare. That's where what I do comes in. I'm looking at a small number of very old galaxies that have black holes back when the Universe was 2.6 billion years old (it's now 13.7 billion years old). And the cool thing I see is that these early galaxies are not big round things like we see today. Instead, as far as I can tell, they are forming lots of stars and seem to have a whole bunch of gas. This is exactly what is needed to grow these distant black holes, so maybe this is another useful piece in this puzzle that we astronomers are putting back together. The picture on the puzzle is telling us how the gargantuan black holes we find around us today first came about. It's exciting and, boy, I need to work hard to get it out soon!

Or maybe it's all just wrong. The future will tell (if peer review doesn't get me first).

Another person who is doing similar stuff is Angela, who I met for the first time today. I know of her work, but didn't know that she is a very entertaining and interesting person. I was hanging about, wasting time in Benjamin's office, when I heard someone come up behind me and say, "You're big!" Now, this is a fact I am well aware of, but it's not something a total stranger would say as a means of introduction. Which immediately suggested to me that this person was interesting. After moving out of her way - yes, that person was Angela - she remarked that she was merely stating fact, and that she had made the long journey across the building to talk to Sri, whose office this also was. Sri was not around, so the three of us instead retired for a bit of coffee and some fun discussion about Ikea, Alexis, nightmares and alarm clocks. Very pleasant, I tell you. That intimated to me that she was entertaining. Both very good things. So is Benjamin, btw. It's nice to meet good new people.

Incidentally, I don't believe I ever mentioned the number of excellent coffee machines all around the premises. Euro 0.30 will get you a steaming groß Tasse which is a perfect pick-up whenever I want to stop thinking of big black holes, for fear of getting stuck in one those bogs. Certainly, I make frequent use of this resource. Also, I need to get an alarm clock.....

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wiesn and all that ...

  As I'm sure you have noticed, I said, in my post on Sammstag, that I was going to Oktoberfest on Sonnetag and there have been no posts since then. To tell you the truth, I've been avoiding writing one. The Oktoberfest is a huge rambling enormously crowded party that has no equal. It's hard to encapsulate one's experience there in a short set of paragraphs and the fact that one has rather fuzzy memories of about half ones time there doesn't really help matters at all.

  As I had my morning coffee on Sunday, with a bit of Leberwurst on toast, the morning fog broke and die Sonne broke through the chinks to bring a bit of brilliant color to the garden outside my window. The day would only get sunnier, warmer and more beautiful, till I stopped remembering things. I dressed up in my finest Coldplay T-shirt and jeans (at least the shirt was the color of Lederhosen) and caught a train to Piccistraße on the U6 line south of Marienplatz. From here, it was a short walk to the Wiesn and the fair. The crowd plugging the side entrance was only a taste of things to come. After fighting my way through and separating not a small number of couples from each other by crossing their T-s, I found myself on a crowded street surrounded by tents, fairground rides with crazy German barkers and a vast number of people, many of whom were dressed in their Bavarian best. I stopped to get some Kassewurst and fries, and finished this second breakfast with a coffee from, guess what, the San Francisco coffee company. Wasn't too good really and, at Euro 3.90, not worth it.

  I decided to walk down the street of Bier tents and scout out the landscape. Each is a sight to see, with ornate facades and funny clockwork decorations, as well as throngs of people walking in and out. After walking the length of the street, I entered the nearest one, which was Armbrustschützen, serving Paulaner. As I walked through the large entrance, the door engulfed me and I was surrounded by rustic German music and the roar of the crowd. I walked into the main hall and there were literally hundreds of tables and benches, one after the other in rows, surrounding a high stage, packed shoulder to shoulder with people. Serving girls in Dirndls carrying armloads of Masse, almost like magic. Big plates of roast chicken, knödel, pork knuckles and other bavarian treats were being ferried around on large trays at high speed, frequently with loud warnings of 'Vorsicht!' The place didn't smell as bad as I thought it would and it was well lit, with sunny beams streaming down from large skylights above.

  I spent all of 20 mins walking down most aisles trying to find a seat. No such luck. All the free-looking seats were being held by someone or the other for their friends, who were themselves at this moment emptying their overworked bladders. So I tried the next tent across the street: Spatenbräu-Festhalle. No luck. And on to Hacker (I skipped Hofbräu, cos I could). Rejected again. At this point, more than an hour of searching for a seat, I thought I'd never get a chance to drink some of the bier. I gave one last try: Bräurosl, serving Pschorr. I almost didn't make it, but then a bunch of Italians told me that the seat at their table was free. Turns out it wasn't, but these guys were so nice, they gave me one of their friends seats. When Willem, as he called himself, came back, I had to squeeze in really nice and tightlike with them. But it was a raucous mess and, even though they spoke very little English and I spoke no Italian, we were all brothers, singing 'Ein Prosich' or something similar, and lifting our huge mugs to Hans across the aisle - a stocky elderly Bavarian man, with a groomed and curled mustache, old-fashioned Lederhosen and a feathered cap. Apparently, he reminded several of my table of Heidi's grandfather from the old cartoons which, I think, had been quite popular on Italian TV.

The Italians in this group had been making the pilgrimage every year for 9 years to drink and make merry for a whole weekend. That's some sort of dedication there. Eventually, after about an hour, the Italians left to catch their bus to Milano and were replaced with a bunch of Ausssies, a bunch of girls and two guys. And Mario. Mario was one of the Italians who wasn't taking a bus that evening. Unfortunately, he spoke not a word of English and knew no German either. We connected on the simple fact that neither of us could understand a word the other was saying and hand gestures are useless when you have more than 2 litres of Bier in you (as I had had by that time). However, while the Aussies were friendly, they really were not as welcoming as the Italians had been. Now, I've heard many bad things about the annual Italian invasion of München at Oktoberfest and I'm sure some of it is very true. But, for all its worth, the Italian group there, with their almost instantaneous acceptance of a total stranger who didn't really fit into the Oktoberfest at all, was heart-warming in a very special way. After all, isn't that the modern view of Oktoberfest, a party for all? I bought one of the token picture keychains of Mario and I (Euro 8 - total rip-off) and it will be a good memory.

 At about 5:30 and after two more litres, I tottered out of the tent with the departing Aussies, hoping for perhaps some more company at one of the other tents. They looked like they were leaving instead, so I broke that off and headed over to get some food. My recollection is vague, but I ate a currywurst, a boar sausage in a bun, a bag of mixed nuts, some other sausagy thing and finally, walked out of the Wiesn, at about 7pm, with a paper cone filled with candied peanuts. I had, somehow, managed to smear mustard in large blotches on my shirt and I was still pretty drunk.

  The train ride back to Garching was loooong! So loooong! During the ride, I became sleepier and sleepier and when the U6 pulled into Garching station, I was ready for bed. As soon as I stumbled into the apartment, I hit the mattress hard and passed out for about 5 hours. I woke up at 1:30 in the night, with a massive hangover and a throat as parched as Bedouin hell. I finally went back to sleep again at 6 am, with 2 litres of water back in me and the hangover had mostly subsided by the next morning.

  Well, that's that. Hell of a day and I'll be sure to make it to the Wiesn next year. Maybe then, I could wear my own Lederhosen and speak to people in German. Also, I will pace myself, cos, goddamit, waking up at 2am with a headache is no fun at all.

  In other news, it's ON with the CA girl. How do I know? Lets say, I just know :) Bis dann! Tschuss!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Ich bin Putzmann

  Cleaning day number Eins. One of the distinct advantages of a spartan apartment is that cleaning is a piece of small cake. How small is this place I'm talking about? I can essentially lie across the diagnol of my bathroom (shower stall included), and I can't really fit across my kitchen except when curled up almost to a ball. Thus, cleaning involves:
  a.) sweeping the tile and lino surfaces with a hand brush and dust-pan (< 10 mins)
  b.) hoovering the carpeted areas in the main room and down the hallway (15 mins tops)
  c.) mopping! (slowly and with love)

  I really do like mopping. Back at the homey pad in Santa Cruz, mopping was not our preferred (read 'not Mark's preferred') way to go since the mop was a pain to use, left a lot of water on the floor and needed a bucket. Instead, we paid our mop dues to the Swiffer® company, buying their WetJet® liquid, and patiently investing in their newest designs, which, of course, were rarely compatible with their older designs. I'm sure they had our best interest at heart.
  Mop technology is different here. Well, it still leaves a sheen of water on the floor, but that's nothing that a dry spell of 20 minutes won't fix. What got me was the fact that mops here are designed like Swiffers, with the swiveling pad and long ergonomic handle, but with nice, thick, mop-like, removable and washable pads that grab water and gunk gloriously like a mop should. The pad is large and can easily clean the un-carpeted surfaces of the entire apartment in one sitting. It is heavy, so it wipes off stains beautifully. And it's washable, and made to fit heads of different sizes. I say we have a winner.

  Also, there is space in the laundry room here to line dry ones clothes. Now, I'm a fan of this. Dryers are nice and all, but they are energy hogs and, why, line drying is being green and solar at its best. Plus, I like the smell of line-dried clothes myself. They smell crisper. So, yes, I will be drying my clothes on a line from now on, I do believe.

  Tomorrow, it's time for the Wiesn, so I'll call it an early night. I need to make sure my body is primed for all that beer. Cheers!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bianca's back

She's been stuck in a box all week, padded down and wrapped up. But now she's out. A little meddling with the brake lines, reattachment of the pedals and tightening of the cables and she's ready for the road. Although, it looks like her front wheel is now a bit out of true and she desperately needs some chain lube. Something for the weekend.

The Himmel is blau-ish today, so a late afternoon ride may be in order. The countryside here is nice for rides - flat, with many small unpaved paths and lanes. It's time for some exploration. It will get me away from the incessant sound of construction as work-crews insulate my apartment building for the winter months.

I caught up with Franzi and her colleague Kai last night at the Studentenstadt. This stop on U6 is right next to a set of tall apartment blocks that are reserved for students from all the various universities in the area. It has the feel of urban dorms in some City college; looming oblong buildings with spare furniture and sundry stuff in the balconies, dim lights, a central square littered with paper and, the reason we were here, a bar with really inexpensive beer.

In keeping with the environs, the bar is not unlike one you would find at a college. Not really run-down, but it has the feel of a hostel to it. The atmosphere is different somehow, the sound of the conversation is different from a normal bar. Everyone is much younger of course. The only older people are drunk loners and us (Ok, thats being unfair. There are a couple of groups of professor-types). The guy behind the counter is more hardened than a regular bartender. Also, you pay for the glasses and plates and get reimbursed if you return them in one piece. I guess that's the German way to save on the waste of paper plates and plastic disposable glasses. It seems to work.

All of this may turn one away, but the beer is Euro 1.80 for a half-litre von Fass, almost half you'd pay at a regular establishment! So, of course, I imbibed with gusto. There are some distinct advantages of knowing that you don't have to drive back anywhere.

Franzi is leaving tomorrow for Leipzig to take up a new job there. Upon seeing my disappointment that she would be leaving Munich so soon after I arrived, she clarified that the job enables her to spend half of her time in Munich, starting November, so she'll be back. The new job is a good step up for her to a new, expanding company and a position of management, so I'm happy for her. She is turning out to be a good friend and a connection to a larger social circle of German people of my age. Both good things for me.

After two days of late night drinking, today will be a quiet evening, for which I am glad. Time to bring out that tandoori mix, fire up some grilled chicken, crack open a cold non-alcoholic beverage and get some work done! Cheers!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


ToyTown Tuesday. It's a venue for the Englisch speaking community here in München to get together and have drinks. Which is why I went to Ysenegger on Ysenburgstrasse today at about 20:40. It was quite an evening and not completely in a nice way.

The pub was decent, but crowded, as a horde of Müncheners were there to watch Bayern fight (and defeat) Basel. The arc of the game kept the atmosphere loud, and this kept the couple of Englishmen in the group, loud by definition, to dominate a fair bit of the conversation. I don't begrudge them - they seemed nice, but like most loud Englishmen, were more inclined to split the group up on female oriented lines than work to bring us together. In any case, the girl from CA was very nice, and so was Kim, who isn't actually a Kim, BTW. After many beers, a split cheeseburger and lots of conversation, I accompanied the closing crowd to Rotkreuzplatz station, in the hope of catching a train back to Garching. The U-bahn took me as far as Sedlinger Tor, at which point I watched the Californian girl ride off in the opposite direction with a 17-yr old kid named Max who had just returned from his daily job doing lights for the Erotik show at Olympiapark. Ja, du hörst richtig! No, she wasn't taking him home (at least I don't think so, but, I mean, he has seen some things, hasn't he?). They just happened to be going on the same line. And, yes, he does have photos from work on his phone. Close ups, no less. Apparently, he works 7 hours a day, both soft and hardcore shows, and, whowudathunk, a lot of the "aktion" is choreographed. You think Californians are forward people? Both the CA girl and I were blushing and felt like prudes.

The CA girl said that we would talk at some point. Lets see how that goes. She is a pretty version of a young Linda Hamilton and she likes Firefly, so I'm game.

From ST, I realized that the U-bahn was not going in my general direction, so I walked to Marienplatz, by some fancy, well-lit and shut boutique stores. On the way, I put on my best American accent to ingratiate myself with a bunch of drunken American teenagers. I've no doubt that it didn't work. At Marienplatz station, I realized, with some trepidation, that all 12 of the people waiting for the train were foreigners. Three americans, five brits, two nice european girls ünd Irhen truly. On careful assessment, we realized, en masse, that the late trains were not running on account of the ongoing strike. So I talked the pretty European girls into sharing a cab part of the way with me. They were sufficiently impressed by my description of my work (the growth of supermassive black holes in the first third of the Universe's history - I mean, come on!) that an e-mail address was shared, and I hope (perhaps against hope) that a more leisurely and convivial meeting will ensue. They were pretty and smart and European. What?

Finally, the taxi driver, an Iranian man who has lived three decades in Munich, helped to end the evening on a high note. He spoke fluent Englisch with an American accent. He has never lived in the US, but had American trained teachers. This tells me that he certainly wasn't a taxi-driver's son back home in the 70s, but was probably from a well-to-do family. A refugee? Perhaps. In any case, he engaged me in a fantastic conversation about the value of science and the place of astronomy in the world, and with his obvious displeasure that his son has decided to whittle away his life as a dive instructor in god-forsaken parts of Asia.

So, 20:30 Uhr to 2:00 Uhr. Awesome! Time to finish my pasta munchies (did I say that I had many beers!) and go to bed. Guten nacht!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

King Scott

King Scott is an interesting man. I remember him from mid-grad life as a long-haired, buff gamer who loved meat and Tae-kwon-do. In the intervening years, he's filled up a bit, lost the hair, moved on to mixed martial arts, and aged a little (heck, who hasn't). But, man, anyone who comes to Munich and drinks more than 10 litres of Oktoberfest Bier over 3 days and can still walk straightish deserves my respect. I had a Mass of the Augustiner brew de saison and another Mass of Dunkel and I almost fell asleep on the U-banh home. But, it was fun to catch up. I think I am the more talkative of the two, but Scott begrudged me my verboseness. I get the feeling he has mellowed over the years, but it may be just my memory embellishing things from those heady days. Those days when I worked my PhD on a Sun Ultra-5, and 10 GB of disk-space was a gift from god.

So, now, as I enjoy my Herringfische mit Champignon saus (oh alright, I have the munchies) before bed, I reckon the weekend wasn't all that bad after all. A long walk into the 'forest' east of town during which I discovered the River Isar; curry pasta with chicken; 2 lt of bier and roast suckling pig while Scott and I caught up and got to know the English couple seated next to us  --- could be a worse Sunday. But, tomorrow I work!

Guten nacht.


Sri and I have a difference of opinion on why English is the predominant language of global communication today. We both agree that the stage was set by the British Empire in the few centuries preceding the last, but here we diverge a bit. I think the rising star of the United States as a cultural power since the turn of the last century, and certainly since the last Great War, has played a major role, especially as the form of English spoken in most of the world is currently replete with Americanisms (as we Commonwealth-educated ferners would describe US pop lingo). Sri thinks that English is a more accommodating language. He cites, as an example, the fact that French never quite borrowed the wide range of loan words that English seems to have done in colonial times. I countered that Spanish apparently did so, but has not achieved the wide-spread use of modern English. At this point in the discussion, we parted ways, at the intersection of Lehrer Stieglitz Str and Freisinger Landstr, since I, for one, was getting a bit too wet from the gentle Bayerisch rain. Sri appeared to be nonplussed by the weather in his fine black sport jacket. The dialog will no doubt continue, but let me bring up two points for the reader:

 a.) What the heck does a loan-word mean anyway? Is a language meant to give the word back to the rightful owner, or does the ownership pass to the new language when the old one is dead, or something such?

 b.) My decision to personify a language, as if it were French that did the actual borrowing (or lack thereof), is regrettable, but, hey, it makes the point, right?

As you may have guessed, discussions of language crop up quite easily when you have just moved to a new land. In this case, Sri and I had ordered kaffe at the Cafe Rathaus and I could tell that the woman behind the counter wanted to be friendly and make conversation, but our German was too poor (read non-existent) to serve this purpose, and it led to some embarrassment, at least to me (Sri's skin is thicker). This situation will occur time and again, I am sure. But I am resolved to fight this actively by working on my Deutsch. It's the least bit of respect I can give to the people of my new home.

It's been a rainy and grey first weekend, but I can see hints of distant bluishness in the fractal holes of the clouds outside my window, so maybe the weather will improve today. I wish I had my bike - as far as I can tell, it's safely in storage at the Munich Flughafen, probably till tomorrow. A ride would do wonders for my soul. Ah well, at least I found a website with US TV shows and, since I went to the store yesterday - despite the weather, I might add - I have coffee, clementines, cheese and, leberwurst(?). Guten morgen, Sonntag!