Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Relativity

Today is Thanksgiving, which is always something I look forward to; but more importantly, at least in my little world, Maggie and I are finally moving into our new flat tomorrow. And yes, I did say flat. Contrary to popular belief, the word "flat" is used occasionally in the US, but it usually refers to an apartment that occupies an entire story of a building. Our new flat fits that bill, plus the listing was posted by a British expat, so either way it's a flat.

Just for fun, let's compare the two flats, our London flat vs. our new one:

UK: ~700 sq. ft. in a 40 unit building
US: ~1700 sq. ft. in a 3 unit building with a garden

Now take a guess which one costs more per month.

No matter how you tweak the exchange rate, out London flat was much more expensive even without considering the council tax. We don't have council tax in the US, instead we have potholes, bad schools, minimal public transportation, and lots of homeless people, which is apparently a fair trade-off.

Living in London is crazy expensive, a well known fact, but then again London also has by far the highest average salaries in the UK. The interesting bit to me is the comparison of average household incomes in London and San Francisco: ~£40,000/year in London vs. ~$70,000 in San Francisco (1,2,3). Now some might say, "Sure, but the pound is worth more than the dollar," and this is true. In fact, when we moved to the UK the exchange rate was 2:1 dollars:pounds, and when we left it was around 1.5:1 (which means we got royally screwed in both directions, but that's a story for another time while sobbing into a glass of wine). But exchange rate means nothing when you're living in a country using the currency, what really matters is purchasing power, i.e. how much the money in my hand buys me in terms of goods and services. What we found overall was that most things cost about the same in dollars that they do in pounds. If a sandwich costs you about $5 in New York, it will probably cost about £5 in London. This is all a very long-winded way of saying that (a) cost of living is much higher in London, but (b) London salaries don't adequately compensate for this. Which brings me to the inevitable question, one of the questions we were most frequently asked by our American friends: how and why does anyone afford to live in London? As to why, there numerous factors such as culture, trendiness, alcoholism, and curry. As to how, the question can be answered by what I like to think of as Andy's Special Theory of Economic Relativity (ASTER for short).

Most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about relativity — I know I don't. I freely admit that I spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about lots of pointless things: What movies would I pick for a special Dan Hedaya movie night? (Initial thoughts: The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension, Blood Simple, and Running Scared - maybe Clueless or The Usual Suspects); What would be my audition song for American Idol/The X-Factor (current favorite: Sister Christian by Night Ranger); If I opened a restaurant that served only fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and ice cold milk, would people come? Anyhow, I'm rummaging through my various pointless lines of thought, and relativity doesn't seem to factor heavily in hardly any of them. But ever since I visited Einstein's house in Bern, relativity has been creeping into my mind, and I think ASTER helps explain some of the economic situations people live in around the world.

Night Ranger is relatively cool in Japan

The classic way that the basic premise of relativity is explained always seems to involve a person on a train and a person on a platform while the train moves by. I'm going to consciously buck this trend and use a new set of images that I think will be more vivid: a clown on a jet-powered tricycle, and a hitchhiking mime on the side of the road. While the clown zooms by the mime, completely ignoring the mime's exaggerated hitchhiking gestures, the clown is expertly juggling three bowling pins. In the mime's frame of reference (the roadside), the clown is moving very fast as he roars by on his festively decorated jet-powered tricycle and the bowling pins are moving forward with the clown. In the clown's frame of reference (on the jet-powered tricycle), apart from the slight vibration caused by the jet engines, the clown isn't moving at all relative to the tricycle and the bowling pins are going straight up and straight down with no forward motion. The point (I think) is that both are accurate depictions of what is going on, but the observations are only accurate relative to the frame of reference. In other words, words that would probably make a physicist wince, a particular reality only makes sense if you are the one occupying that reality.


ASTER is the economic extension of this concept. When we first moved to London, we couldn't do the math. We looked at our salaries, we looked at what things cost, we looked at the weekly rents that were scarily like our monthly rents in the US, and we looked at how we liked to live, and life in London just didn't seem to add up to something we could realistically afford. 8 million people couldn't possibly afford to live in London, yet they did somehow. After several months of adjusting to the way of life in London, all of a sudden the math worked and we could start to accurately get a picture of our budget. I imagine someone from London moving to the US would probably look at the math and think, "Blimey, I can afford a 6 bedroom mansion and a Lamborghini," then they'd get to the US and wonder where all the money went.

Perhaps ASTER isn't that groundbreaking of a concept, and it is probably not even worthy of such a cool acronym. Yes, London is expensive, but people that want to live there make it work by adjusting the way they live (e.g., not owning a car, eating in a lot, etc.) or by going into massive credit card debt. From the outside looking in, it's easy for one to wonder why people don't just move somewhere more affordable; in fact, people elsewhere in the US ask this same question about the San Francisco Bay Area, which is much more expensive than most parts of the US. The point (I think) is that you live where you want to live and you make it work. We couldn't be happier to be back home in the Bay Area, enjoying a real Thanksgiving with circular pies, and moving into our new flat. I just can't wait for the Lamborghini to arrive.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Towering Achievement

With the exception of three weeks we spent in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Maggie and I lived just a few minutes away from Tower Bridge and the Tower of London in Wapping for the 14 months we lived in London. We walked over Tower Bridge countless times and took more photos of it than I know what to do with. I walked past the Tower of London twice a day when I was taking the tube over to South Kensington, and I often had the boasting thought, "Hey, what a cool commute I have." Yet, somehow, after 13 months neither one of us had been inside the Tower of London nor had we gone up inside Tower Bridge to walk across the upper catwalks.

And we've definitely never tried the lemonade

It's far too easy to put off doing things when you live close to them; I can't tell you how many people live in the San Francisco Bay Area and (sadly) never go to Alcatraz much less make the drive up to Yosemite. Also, we had heard mixed reviews of the Tower: some loved it, some thought it was overrated, and all thought it was too expensive. To make it even less interesting, several people were adamant that the highlight was the crown jewel exhibition. While this may appeal to some, royal regalia doesn't really lift my tunic, so to speak, and the fascination with the English royalty will forever be a mystery to me. Nonetheless, I was still interested in the Tower as an important historic locale, and of course I'd feel like a complete putz if I lived that close and never went in. Finally, during our last week in London, when we were both off of work and Maggie's friend Cabernet was in town visiting, we got around to doing both the Tower Bridge Exhibition and the Tower of London.

Hey, I can see our house from up here

The Tower of London (foreground) from the upper catwalks on Tower Bridge

Looking west along the Thames

The Tower Bridge Exhibition is definitely worth doing for the spectacular views up and down the Thames on a sunny day. In addition to the views, your £6 admission also gets you two short films on the history of the bridge and admission to the "engine room" on the south side of the bridge (not actually the engine room, just a small museum with many parts of the old steam engine). Parts of the engine exhibit were working, and they tried to enhance the experience with lights and sound (you be the judge):



Fortunately there was some fun to be had in the engine room:

I think Maggie lied when she said this was where they hid the fun

These two kids didn't really know what to make of the engine room

I know I'm not the first to make this observation, but the Tower of London looks more like the Castle of London; it's kind of squat and not so tower-like. In fact, the very first day we were in London we walked across Tower Bridge, strolled right by the Tower of London, and I remember saying something like "Hey, check out that cool old castle thing. I wonder what that is." Idiot. I honestly thought Tower Bridge got its name from the towers on the bridge — it never occurred to me that it had something to do with the Tower of London.

Our Yeoman Warder guide, no doubt yelling about something

We wanted the full experience, so we joined one of the tours guided by the famous Yeoman Warders of the Tower. By far the best part of the Yeoman Warder tour is when they start yelling with gruff gleeful voices when they get to a particularly gruesome part of the story. Hooray for gore! Given that the history of the Tower is one long string of gruesomeness, there was quite a bit of Yeoman yelling to enjoy.


From the outside, the Tower looks fairly small, so I was surprised to find quite a bit of open space in the center, and essentially an entire village, pub and all, inside the walls. I always thought the Yeoman Warders went home at night and went out to the pub — well, they actually do, except both home and pub are inside the Tower of London.

One of the more tower-like parts of the Tower of London

I was expecting to be underwhelmed by the crown jewels, but I was in for a bit of a surprise: the crown jewel exhibit was both underwhelming and extraordinarily surreal as an added bonus. Before you even get to the jewels, you have to walk through a series of rooms with videos projected on the walls of various royal ceremonies (e.g., the coronation of Queen Elizabeth) and loud triumphant music playing in the background. This would be fine except you are forced to walk through a switch-backed labyrinth of banisters in an attempt to slow you down as you walk through (because you really don't want to miss the exciting part of the coronation, lemme tell you). Once through the cattle maze you finally get to the jewels, but the really cool ones (the diamonds the size of kiwi fruits, etc.) you only get to glimpse for a moment because you're on a moving walkway. To add insult to injury, as you leave the exhibit where you just saw countless millions of pounds worth of precious stones and metals, they ask you for a donation to support the exhibit. Um, yeah, that's going to happen. There's nothing like charging £16.50 for entrance and showing ostentatious displays of wealth to make people open their pocket books.

Apart from the jewels (which, admittedly, Maggie and Cabernet liked far better than I did), I quite enjoyed the Tower of London and found the history and the long maintained traditions of the Yeoman Warders fascinating. With free admission to the British Museum, the V&A, the Imperial War Museum, the Natural History Museum, and countless other wonders in London, the price of entry to the Tower of London is hard to swallow; still, I find myself wanting to go back and explore the parts I missed, so I don't regret a single pence.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hope Floats

Well, it looks like we have returned home to the US at precisely the right time. There's no need to go into the details of just how bad it has been here in the US for quite some time. We did the best we could during the dark years, and some of us even sought greener pastures abroad. But little did we know that just as we were returning home someone would come along just when we most needed them to provide us with something we never even knew we needed before: a pre-made root beer float in a bottle.


That's right, if you haven't seen them already, the crack team of beverage scientists at Dr. Pepper Snapple has put out two new beverages for those out there who are too lazy to pour a soda over vanilla ice cream: the A&W Root Beer Float and the Sunkist Orange Float (or in true soda lingo, an orange cow). And before I let my rampant sarcasm run this post straight into the ground, I'm forced to wonder: who asked for this?


I was alerted to the upcoming release of these several months ago through a comment on the blog by a lurker pretending to be A&W founder Roy Allen, but we were unable to find it in the UK (unsurprisingly). I bought both flavors immediately upon return to the US — lest you think I am really that obsessed, I didn't hunt them down, I just stumbled across them in the supermarket...while looking for normal root beer.

So how were they? Well, despite my best hopes, they were utterly disgusting. Complete abominations. I can't possibly describe how much I disliked them. I would love to know how they managed to get either flavor past a panel of tasters without the help of heavy narcotics and/or bribery. The Sunkist float tasted okay at first, but it was sickeningly sweet, left a bitter aftertaste, and had a mucous-like thick consistency akin to drinking Jello just before it solidifies. The consistency was really hard to stomach. The root beer float was even worse — while the orange float at least resembled orange and cream flavor, the root beer float tasted like an unfortunate hybrid between a buttered popcorn Jelly Belly and a campfire-burnt marshmallow, with no discernible resemblance to root beer. Now I know it must have been challenging to recreate the effect of a real ice cream float in a shelf-stable package, but (a) I have a hard time believing that there was a clamor from consumers for such a product, and (b) I have to think that they could have done better than these super-sugary foul-flavored snot-slicks in a bottle. To summarize: unless you're looking for a new way to haze inductees into your fraternity, avoid at all costs.

I guess we, the American people, will have to roll up our sleeves and do it the hard way. Can we manage to extract several scoops of ice cream from a container, put them into a glass, and pour soda over them? Yes we can.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Popular Science

The Natural History Museum in London is one of my favorite places in the whole city and on my must-see list for any tourist visiting London. Working there, however briefly, was truly an amazing experience. The old, dusty, antiquated feeling to the place to me represented its greatness not its shortcomings, whereas the modern wings felt cheap and soulless in comparison. While I would never argue that natural history is a thing of the past, I would say that it needs a bit of dusting off and rebranding to be interesting and relevant to the world today.

I have been waiting for years for the California Academy of Science in San Francisco, one of the 10 largest natural history museums in the world, to reopen in its new building in Golden Gate Park. I loved the old museum, but the last time I was there it felt kind of shabby and out of date, so I was happy to hear of their plans to rebuild and start afresh. I also visited their temporary home while they rebuilt in the original location in the park, but this felt, perhaps unsurprisingly, small and impermanent.


The new Cal Academy building, which just opened at the end of September, was designed by Renzo Piano, known for his work (with Richard Rogers) on the unusual and controversial Pompidou Center in Paris, the Whitney Museum and the new New York Times building in Manhattan, and other large-scale projects. Beyond the elegant design of the new building, it is also the greenest museum in the world and the largest building yet to receive the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. What amazed me was that you could easily walk around the musuem and never notice most of the innovative energy-saving measures used in the design. The museum uses insulation made from recycled blue jeans, which is safer and more energy efficient than fiberglass. The canopy that covers the entrance and surrounds the building on all sides is not merely decorative, in fact the patterns that I mistook for simple artistic designs contain thousands of photovoltaic cells that provide around 10% of the museum's power needs, proving, as I had always suspected, that solar panels don't need to be clunky and ugly.

The photovotaic canopy at the Cal Academy

The most noticeable green aspect of the building is the living roof, a bizarre landscape of undulating hills, skylights, and solar panels. This roof provides insulation for the building and takes advantage of the rainwater which would otherwise be wasted. As far as what will happen during the dry Mediterranean summers in California, I'm hoping it won't dry to a crisp, but we'll find out next year (maybe they're storing extra rain water for this time, I'm not sure).



The living roof at the Cal Academy

I certainly like the roof, despite it's odd mumpy appearance, and I spent at least a small amount of time being incredibly nerdy and identifying the plants they were using on the roof and showing off my Latin prowess to my friends. The glazed-over distant look they always get when I do this is clearly a sign of how impressed they are. While I enjoyed the roof and the views over Golden Gate Park and the De Young Museum (even on the grey morning we were there), I can imagine some people making their way up to the roof and saying "Hmm, there's a weird looking roof covered with weeds, awesome" and going right back down to the penguins and sharks without another thought. If only they had me there to tell them about the origin of the name Achillea millefolium, I'm certain they would have a much better time.

As a fish lover, the new Cal Academy's aquarium was definitely a highlight. I do miss the old Steinhart Aquarium, especially the circular fish room where you stood in the middle of a huge ring-shaped tank. Hundreds of fish would all be swimming in one direction and one oddball would be going the opposite way; I liked that guy. The new aquarium is much snazzier in every respect and the new tanks look amazing so far. I particularly loved seeing some of the more unusual animals like the chambered nautiluses and the leafy sea dragons.

Spooky Nautilus

Kelp and fishies

The indoor rainforest, a multi-story glass sphere that occupies the greater portion of one wing of the building, is perhaps the most talked about feature of the new museum and certainly the busiest attraction.

People inside the indoor rainforest sphere

The nifty futuristic roof of the rainforest sphere

There are some impressive things in the rainforest dome, such as lots of live butterflies flying around and some nice live plants...

...and then there are some disappointing aspects like the fake ferns (Pteris plastica)

View down to through the water to the aquarium tunnel

As far as when to visit, might I suggest not going on a weekend only a few weeks after the grand opening on kind of a chilly day where everyone was trying to think of something to do indoors. It was packed. On the plus side, it's great to see people voluntarily lining up for anything even remotely science related, and it was impressive to see that the building and staff could handle the massive crowds. On the minus side, I think I stepped on about a dozen children (sorry kids), got my ankle repeatedly smashed into by strollers, the slow crowded shuffle through the hot humid rainforest got intensely claustrophobic, and with thousands of babies inside of a large greenhouse the aroma got increasingly diapery throughout the day.

A small portion of the long lines waiting to get into the museum

An unruly herd of wild strollers (Currus infantulus)

Overall, I was very impressed by the new Cal Academy, and I can't wait to return once the excitement has died down a bit so I can take longer and more fully explore the museum's exhibits (and actually be able to get into the planetarium). Most importantly, I think the museum succeeded in the most fundamental challenge: through clever architecture and carefully planned exhibits, they have managed to truly bring natural history into today's world, so much so that people are willing to stand in long lines and pay a rather high price to get in to see what they have to say. And I'll bet you some of these people slept through science in high school.