On Speed Machines and Time Concepts

A few months ago, Cervélo landed a magnificent marketing coup when Craig 'Crowie' Alexander, until then sponsored by Spanish bike manufacturer Orbea, showed up to race the Half-Ironman Championships with an unbranded P4. He went on to win the race, and the interwebs were ablaze with rumours surrounding his equipment change. Orbeas, which I'll group together with most Italian manufacturers, do look the part, but are typically not believed to be particularly fast designs - a reputation that better befits technically-oriented brands, to which Cervélo is almost a synonym, but which also includes names such as Trek, Scott, BMC, Felt or Specialized - so it was not surprising he'd pick a supposedly much faster frame for one of the most important races of the year. But he didn't race on a Speed Concept or on a Plasma. He didn't pick a Time Machine, nor a Felt DA. Not even a Shiv from the Big S, which turned out to become his sponsor, announced only a few weeks after his 70.3 win. No, he was on a P4, the distinctive downtube features clearly giving away a product from a certain Ontario-based design office...

Now, without a doubt, all recent designs from any of those in the latter list are fast, as in wind-tunnel fast. Their relative ordering is disputable and depends on a number of not-so-well-agreed-upon criteria (just a few days ago, I was reading yet another interesting discussion on this topic on Slowtwitch), but it's undeniable that the proper engine is capable of winning aboard any of those überbikes. Nevertheless, it's still interesting to note that, whenever someone fast is paying for their own bike (or rebadging their sponsors'), they somehow tend to end up with, yes, a Cervélo.

That all said, and while still a fan of their products, I am genuinely considering other options for my next time-trial machine. I currently ride a P2C, which is no slouch by itself, but the bike has had its years - and if I am to put down so much on the line for that one ride in the summer, I want to have access to all the help I can afford. Now, I'm sure that a P4 - or even a well-set P3, for that matter - wouldn't be, just as I argued above, a sub-par performer, but it's got some features missing that I'd really like addressed before committing myself to a new ride. It's precisely the process of electing a new successor that motivates the writing of this post, but I'll get to that in a moment.

First, as most of you already know, I'm switching teams for the next season, joining the fine folks of Magnesium Pur in idyllic Upper Bavaria. Regardless of the other sporting reasons that motivated my move, one major selling point was the team's fascination with all technical aspects of cycling, and in particular, aerodynamics. Wind tunnels tests, airflow simulations, detailed studies on skinsuit design, you name it - a typical team gathering will have bike geeks fervourously discussing airfoil shapes and wheel test results published in the latest issue of Tour. Befitting this level of attention, the team is heading towards a stance of independency with regards to its equipment suppliers. While at first glance one could expect that our performances would warrant sponsorship from different cycling-related brands, this approach is not entirely unreasonable: if we accept that different races have different material needs, and that the best equipment is not always provided by the same company, then remaining "independent" can actually be an asset, enabling team members to cherry-pick components according to their own criteria.

And so I come to my dilemma. While touted as "the world's first fully integrated...", the P4 still requires an external front brake, thus denying itself of a clean, cable-shaven front-end, and its integrated aero bottle design has been ruled illegal by our adorable friends in the UCI. I would also add to the list some compatibility issues with the wider Stinger wheels, but I'm not completely sure what the current status in the latest 2012 frames is. Maybe the new P5 will adress these issues, but as with every new design, I'm sure that will come with a significant premium.

One of the main contenders is Trek's Speed Concept. Not only did the Wisconsin company bring out a wealth of technical data in its praised white paper, Trek happens to be carried by the local shop which will support our team in 2012, and they were quick to offer us good deals on next year's models. I must admit that, at first, I hadn't given it much attention, perhaps snubbing them due to my association of that brand with certain teams and athletes. After dissecting it more thoroughly, though, I can say that their engineering folks did a commendable job. Were it not for, again, a few minor features, it would be an easy choice - the Kammtail foil shape and the smooth headtube lines yield a surprisingly attractive package. But, while perhaps its biggest selling point, some of its integration choices backfire - for me at least. Its proprietary BB90 bottom bracket standard is incompatible with my current power meter; its integrated stem give me no choice but to go with a Bontrager aerobar, and - come on, no horizontal dropouts?

And then, there's the Time Machine. OK, let's be open here: since the day when I first caught a glimpse of her - and that was back in 2004 - my heart was sold. Already then, the early model of the BMC Time Machine had innovative features which only came to be adapted by other manufacturers many years later: notice the smooth, fast-looking bayonet fork, or the integrated stem, for instance. The latest iteration - the TM01, launched just a few months ago - received raving reviews, highlighting its clean looks and integrated features. It adopts an 'open' bottom bracket standard, and its modular stem allows me to pick my choice of aerobars. And, moving away from its former custom-made sizing paradigm - bare frames were then quoted at over ten thousand dollars, trip to Switzerland for fitting not included - and now based on more traditional mold sizes, the price dropped significantly, with framesets hitting the stores for under three thousand euros. Still a truckload of money, but now one no longer has to consider selling the car...

However, and depending on how you read this, it could be a deal-breaker, BMC hasn't released a single ounce of data to support the otherwise exciting features their marketing department is so keen to highlight. Now, Cadel and Raelert are definitively not riding a machine which is putting them in a disadvantage, and I can also understand Styrell's idea that BMC operates like a F1 constructor, refraining from sharing their products' data with the competition, but still, it would be nice to know that at least one wind tunnel agrees with your investment...
- - -
We may be on the brink of a new cold war, at least if you follow the more pessimistic analysis of what has been happening in Iran. The Euro has been hinging on the verge of collapse. Extremist right-wing groups are on the news spotlight every other day. Back in South America, a nation-wide debate is taking place over the construction of a major hydroelectric plant and the ensuing environmental consequences. With different degrees of interest, I've been following the developments in these and other equally relevant stories. But, in spite of it all, I'd rather invest my brain cycles writing about carbon fiber frames costing more than my entire savings - or the combined annual income of a small family in sub-Saharan Africa, for what it's worth.

The idea of making a bid for an Olympic spot next year has been growing on me, perhaps precisely due to its almost intangibility. As I have already noted, I have this inextricable urge to sail uncharted waters, to dare facing the risks. To go for broke. There are innumerous roadblocks and question marks which will have to be addressed, the selection of a new timed-race machine being but a small cog in a much larger wheel, even if a cog that I want to have particularly well oiled. Finding out more about the performances of my adversaries, the likely obscure selection criteria, and my own capability for pulling the ride of my life, all while somehow managing to put together a Ph.D. thesis and finding an economically-viable occupation afterwards, will surely keep my side of things very interesting for the next few months.

It may well be the end of the world as we know it, but I feel fine. Yay!


Something rotten in Aigle

[Note 1: This post is based on a recent commentary to a piece discussing the UCI radio ban.]
[Note 2: Enough of Academia for a while. Time to bring out more cycling pieces.]

Cyclingnews recently had yet another story on the much-debated radio ban issue. While it has received attention from many in the upper echelons of the sport (this piece by Gerard Vroomen of Cervélo comes to mind), I believe that the amateur racers are the ones most negatively affected by the lack of electronic communication - and I say this while wholeheartedly agreeing with all the points presented by my colleagues in the professional ranks. See, a ProTour race will typically have an armada of commissaires ahead of the race, police escort on motorbikes, and a large number of team cars following. If a rider breaks away, or drops back, with sufficient likelihood he won't be entirely on his own across some desolated landscape. On the other hand, and I speak with sufficient experience from events across South America and Eastern Europe, amateur races may sometimes have only one or two cars with race officials, and most teams, if at all, can only afford one car to follow the race. In these situations, the ability to convey a message to your team becomes crucial, lest one is left stranded in the middle of nowhere with over 50km to the nearest village - a situation that happened to me once in Northern Uruguay.

Also, to the argument presented by the UCI, that radios take away from the excitement and tactical unpredictability, I guess this makes even less sense in the amateur ranks, where the performance spectrum among competitors in a typical race is much broader than in the typical ProTour race - I assume the pro field is much more homogeneous, though this may be up for argumentation. Nevertheless. The few amateur teams capable of summoning their riders up front to coordinate a chase and bring back a breakaway group already do so independently of radios; I'd venture to say that the only occasion when the lead riders gain a significant, multi-minute advantage on the (amateur) field is when the stronger riders are riding in it; and would hold such lead independently of exact splits being communicated by radio or otherwise to the peloton behind.

Unfortunately, amateur riders have very little leverage to question or protest such rulings (and don't get me started on the material regulations!), and rely on the voice of our pro representatives in the hope that the concerning decisions will eventually trickle down to the lower ranks. Perhaps it's time the concerned amateurs voice their opinion, if not to the Aigle officials of the UCI, then to the responsible regional and national federations, which could still overturn the ban for the sake of improved racing and safety conditions.


Something rotten in Denmark

Columbia Lake, Waterloo, Ontario. A beautiful, if windy, Autumn afternoon. I took the opportunity of my adviser being half way across the globe to also head out of Erlangen and spend a week with my girlfriend, working from home during my stay.

I actually had the intention of attending a conference in Los Angeles in the beginning of December, which would have brought me to Waterloo a few weeks later. But that didn't follow through, and as I walked back in that sunny afternoon, I figured the reasons, or lack thereof, were worth writing about.

As some of you know - and this is all largely irrelevant to the story at hand, but helps better situate those unfamiliar with my research - my Ph.D. revolves around quantum information theory, with an emphasis on possible quantum optical implementations. One long-standing question in the field is, "what are the minimal resources needed to accomplish a certain task?" - which has different answers depending on which task is being considered. I'm working at answering this question with some particular assumptions on the resources, where the 'task' is error correction - in other words, safeguarding the information being transmitted through a potentially lossy or noisy channel. Anyway. I'm trying to generalise a certain previous result, lifting some assumptions on the resources to better match what is currently experimentally achievable. At first, we thought this would be a fairly straightforward deal - maybe so simple as to have been overlooked by the original authors. As we progressed, we identified a number of roadblocks, and as usual, overcoming them involves developing new tools, or, as we have it, expanding an existing method to other classes of systems. Simply put, I want to expand the result of A. et al, using a generalisation of the method developed by B. et al.

As of this moment, the formal proof is still pending, but I have a fairly good idea of how the structure of the result looks like - and this is what, a few months ago, I intended to submit to the conference. By the time the event came around, I thought, maybe I'd have managed to find the missing pieces of the puzzle; if not, A., B., and other experts on the previous results and methods I'm working with, would be in the audience, and could eventually provide insightful comments helping me put together the definitive solution. How naive of me.

My adviser vetoed the submission. He believes that presenting an incomplete work could give rival groups (more on that in a second) an edge, and they, being experts in the subject matter at hand, could end up arriving at the intended result before we managed to get ours ready for publishing. I countered, saying they could be brought as co-authors in an eventual paper reporting the findings. Nope. "It's probably best not to bring additional people on board the project at this time", his words. As most people in Academia will agree, this is a simple case of protecting our investment, just as any industry will not reveal a new product before its patent is applied for.

All would be well, but for the fact that we're not a for-profit research company. See, my scholarship is funded by the German Research Association (DFG, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) - which, in turn, is mostly funded by the State, which, as we all know, is kept by taxpayers' money. One could argue that the goal behind sponsoring my research is to deliver some contribution to the people - of the state of Bavaria, of the Federal Republic of Germany, or even of the whole European Community - however indirect this contribution may be. Now, one of the "rival" groups turns out to be from another university distant maybe 400km from ours, and, alas!, they are also sponsored by public-funded agencies - in fact, we have even collaborated in writing some grant proposals together. The other rival group comes indeed from a different continent, but once more, they are also funded by taxpayers' money, and, again, are our 'partners' when it comes to applying to joint European-North American research projects. Am I the only one seeing the irony here?

As I entertained thoughts of throwing the towel a few weeks ago - an activity I engage in, for now, for entertainment purposes only - I contemplated releasing all my unpublished - and sometimes unfinished - results into the public domain. Who knows, there may be another Ph.D. student somewhere, also stuck on similar points, who could learn from my mistakes and, if not arriving at the correct result, at least avoid getting stuck for months in the same issues that I spent so much time on. My loss could be your gain.
- - -
I love sharing my training logs, workouts and power numbers - besides technical and tactical advice - out in the open, fully knowing that my competitors may be reading it all as well (and no, I don't think I warrant such level of attention by my adversaries, but that's another story). If I am to be beaten, it's because the other man was indeed stronger. If I am to win, hopefully it will be in a race made as hard as possible by all other competitors - and that includes my, hopefully positive, contribution to their performance.

Funny how so many parallels can be drawn between cycling and academia. Supply - of both aspiring amateur cyclists and graduate wanna-be scientists - is ample, whereas demand - for research professors, or professional cyclists - is stagnant at best. That a competitive environment should result is not in the least questioned. But still, and specially so when such environment ceases to be healthy and stimulating, and acquires a crippled, poisonous stance, one must be able to realise that, sometimes, winning at all costs isn't winning at all.
- - -
Yet another whinny post to justify stepping down from my goals? Far from it. As I've said time and again, I believe in an extricate life-work-sport combination which, in its balance, includes a healthy dose of insanely unbalanced acts. Somehow, striving in adverse conditions has a very appealing factor - and even more so if it can be associated with "fighting the good fight", a perspective through which I can see both my sportive and academic endeavours.

Now, if you were to ask me whether it's possible for one to nurture a meaningful relationship while simultaneously defending a Ph.D. and attempting to make it in the highest sporting level? Hmmm... challenge accepted.


Another century of fakers.

It was a typical Fall day, grey, cold, and rainy. Mathematica was taking too long to calculate an expression, leading me to alt-tab to my browser, fire up google maps, and start daydreaming: "we should do this ride someday", "hmm, maybe one can drive all the way to...", or, "I should take the train and follow this route..." .

I drifted east, and further east. And, realizing I knew very little of some northern-India province, I wikipedia'ed it. And then clicked through to China. And further to the relations between those countries, and Taiwan. And some other countries in the region. And their takes on strategic nuclear war. Non-proliferation treaties, non-first-use policies, minimum credible deterrences. And somehow I landed at the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. (PapaTango, anyone?). Snap. Wake up, Neo.
- - -
Over the past week, my Brazilian friends were involved in a discussion on that country's local state of affairs, following a very revealing interview by the president. At one point, one noted that many of us had actually already left the country, precisely or in part due to some of the issues underlying the current problems. However, we were also quick to realize that other countries, including those which currently serve as havens to those in exile, may be doomed the same fate, however possibly through different mechanisms or in different time scales. Time will tell how different cultures will deal with this increasing entropy; nevertheless an exhaustive treatise on social thermodynamics is beyond the scope of the present rambling (for which this paragraph serves merely as some sort of reminder or placeholder).
- - -
One of the following is true:
- no matter how much I devote myself to understanding, classifying, and eventually working towards the solution of all those outstanding issues, I won't make a single, measurable difference; or
- there's a non-zero probability of causing change. Cue to the disputed Margaret Mead quote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. "
- - -
The staggering popular repercussion following Apple's CEO Steve Job's passing have astonished me. I remember wearing a black armband once, after the passing of a famous Brazilian sportsman, some fifteen years ago. For a moment I wondered if my relationship to sports, and athletes, was so different from that to technology, and its inventors - but found them to be more alike than apart. Still, all those the flowers and candles across, virtually, all countries which have access to a modern computer?

It's not that I want to defend my own sci/tech heroes - however I should believe that there are much worthier contributions from, say, Tim Berners-Lee, Richard Stallman, or Linus Torvalds. Rather, it's about those countless, virtually unknown, members of the community, who, maybe as a matter of principle, will never be in the spotlight, but yet, through their unsung efforts, keep the vast and complex structure afloat which enables this iGadget generation to enjoy those very instances for which they now praise but one single icon.
- - -
Behold, the calculation has reached some result... but, alas!, again, it doesn't match. Back to the drawing board - it seems I'll get to write more soon...


The Atlantic was (re)born today

It was June and we were in Munich for the weekend. We had camped by a lake, gone biking in the Alps, ran a 10k run, and were wrapping it up with a concert by Death Cab for Cutie. The final song played was Transatlanticism, for which we had been waiting the whole evening. The first few keystrokes of the intro led us to embrace; I cried joyfully throughout the whole performance as we celebrated a long-awaited victory over the dreaded waters which, for so many turbulent months, we had so often cursed.

Fast-forward 16 weeks, and our summer bliss went by too fast.

Yesterday, driving back from the airport, the soundtrack from that concert somehow made its way to my playlist. The ocean was back, and though some perspectives may be quite different this time around - it is still less of a lake, and more of a moat. May it be not for long.

I need you so much closer.


Dear Humans: you're doing it wrong, part II

Once upon a time¹, in a land far, far away², an Institution located in the distant, forgotten realms of its kingdom³ offered free meals during colloquium and seminar talks which were held over lunchtime. The exact reasons such noble act of charity took place is unknown; some defended the hypothesis that, by offering free food, graduate scholarships could be kept lower; others were adamant to a Dilbert'ian argument, in which the meals were just part of an intricate mechanism which, masked under a veil of convenience, had the evil intent of denying the poor students' of the bright daylight which shined outside, keeping them longer in the dark confines of their academic dungeons⁴.

One day⁵, a note was posted on the citadel's walls⁶. It read

Dear members,
Due to the unavailability of a speaker for today's talk it will be cancelled. Lunch will be for sale in the first floor kitchen at the price of $5 a serving (Cabbage rolls or Lasagna).
Sorry for any inconvenience.
So would begin the story of Joe Student⁷, who, being already on his way to the Institute when said email was sent, was denied of the chance to plan accordingly, eventually buying lunch elsewhere or preparing a more nutritious and less expensive meal alternative at home to be brought along. Fortunately for the readers of this post, our hero had long left those dominions, and, having sailed across the wide oceans back to his original dwellings, so avoided further instalments of this tragedy to develop.
- - -
Or maybe not. Still subscribing to IQC's mailing list, I couldn't help meddling with the affairs of others. Your struggle is my struggle, or something like that. Ergo, these ramblings.

Academia in general, and the Institute for Quantum Computing in this particular example, should strive towards a consistent and responsible behaviour with regards to its members. While it is commendable that, given the RAC buildings' inaccessible location, lunch is provided (and furthermore, in a free-of-charge fashion, usually thrice a week), and while still noting that it is not the particular monetary value in question that should matter - though graduate students living on a tight budget from a scholarship may fully disagree - still one should not impart on the students and researchers the hindrance or misfortune of a last-minute cancellation of a lunch talk, lest at some point the quest for a speaker may end up worded as "please deliver a seminar talk during lunchtime, otherwise we'll be obliged to pay for food".

A discussion on the benefits and disadvantages of the lunch seminar series, or furthermore on whether the offering of free food can be seen as (unqualified) social aid or alms, or even on the laughable conditions faced by students which leads to the above points at all being issues worthy of mention, is beyond the scope of this post - for now.
- - -
[1] "Nowadays" doesn't sound as nice.
[2] Waterloo, Canada.
[3] The RAC buildings, a good half hour walk from the University ring.
[4] The windowless 2003 or 2117 rooms.
[5] Today.
[6] An email sent out to the Institute's mailing list
[7] The author.


The Loneliness of a Middle-Distance Runner

This started as a meta-post, intended to test the theory, proposed a few weeks ago, that writing a post the day(s) before a race led me to win it. I've long wanted to name a post after this song, and, why not, I figured I could put together a few words and give this hypothesis a shot. (Edit: race results are posted on the comments - maybe I should write more often...)
- - -
I have a cold, not bad enough to take me out of the running entirely, but just sufficiently bothersome to spoil the good feelings which were otherwise leading up to the Franconian Time-Trial championships. Nevertheless, I had a good taper, and at least on paper have put solid performances in the past few weeks. It would be a shame to see it all stumble because of a slightly sore throat and aching joints, and yet - winning shouldn't matter, as the journey was, once again, a most delightful one.
- - -
All my hopes and expectations, though, revolve around much higher orbits than those of my cycling performance - or the current status of my doctoral research, for that matter. Curiously, sometimes nothing changes, and all is different. Equally, one can undergo earth-shattering turmoils, and in the midst of such changes, find that which still remains constant.

The future's looking colourful
It's the colour of blood, chaos and corruption of a happy soul
A happy soul will ride in the field
'Til the rain dies down.


Euphoria, delusion and sudden rushes of perspective.

Just a few days after "The Consecration of Spring" went online, I soloed to win the Cadolzburg "Frühjahrsstrassenpreis" classic, my third race of the season. Matched perhaps only to my prologue win in the 2008 500 Millas, my first 'real' victory in European soil was the first step in what I still hope to be a very successful campaign towards, well, higher sporting goals. It resulted in a healthy and most welcome dose of exhilaration and ecstasy, the result being celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic in the days afterwards...But aiming higher means facing higher challenges - and this couldn't have been better exemplified than my category upgrade following that victory. Racing as an Elite B rider, most of my races are now of the so-called KT/A/B form, which means not only the top Elite A riders (the top 200 amateurs in Germany), but also some professional teams (KT's). My first race in this new class proved to be a disaster: the fast pace was absolutely unforgiving of my absolute lack of handling skills, which, in the lower categories, could usually be compensated by sheer horsepower. Being shelled out after only a few laps was something I hadn't experienced since my first days racing as an amateur in Europe, and reminded me there's still a long way to go. A disappointing ride in the State Championships and a couple of interrupted training sessions, unable to meet the target power outputs, further kept my cycling bliss in check.

Still, a fortnight later, I've managed a top-20 placing in a B/C race, and even made my way into some prize money. And last weekend, my team-mate Ivo found his legs in the Passau circuit race, and netted a fine victory ahead of the charging pack, and now joins me in the B ranks. The entire team's performance over this early season has been commendable, and if such wave continues, I'm sure we'll soon have others making the upgrade - which should hopefully translate into loads of fun in the upcoming criterium season...
- - -
I've been continuously battling oscillating feelings about my PhD and Academia in general - as already extensively discussed in previous posts. Following a scientific career is becoming less appealing with each passing day, and as such, it's been a struggle not to throw it all to the wind when, for instance, an email sent out to the students insists we follow a more regular schedule in the office. Yeah, right, just like the lemmings working for a pay check...

Interweaved with this dissatisfaction are a number of issues which may soon find their way into a second instalment of my critics of how mankind in general, or academia in particular, has been managing itself. From clearly less-than-optimally employing its resources, to using chauvinistic arguments in its selection processes, to steering otherwise fabulous minds into burnout, not to mention driving families apart - I'm sure we could have it so much better.

Nevertheless, and perhaps precisely for I'm currently facing issues of a more technical nature in my research, my stubbornness insists that I should soldier on, if only to ascertain the correct factors in this - eventually already made - decision. The first coffee in on the house.

(Yet, still in the PhD thread, I can add a small plug to a new paper with Dave and Xiongfeng, just posted on the arXiv (1105.2811). We take a previous proposal for implementing Device-Independent Quantum Key Distribution (DIQKD) with heralded photonic amplifiers, and find that a simple, experimentally-realisable modification of the optical circuit is capable of entirely eliminating the vacuum component on the conditional output state found after the amplification stage, thus enabling higher violations of the Bell inequality which lead, ultimately, to higher key rates. Now, I'm not particularly excited by QKD, and maybe my contribution was rather small, but I'm still happy to show some results. If only my main QEC theorem made it through the formal scrutinizing process... )
- - -
I made it to 28 (and am now just one year behind my count of transatlantic crossings, but that doesn't matter here). While growing old is apparently unavoidable, how one deals with it makes all the difference. For, as Seneca puts it, “it’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it". Peter Pan-ish feelings...

Thoughts from the past keep coming back to me. Some dating back to the beginning of my PhD - in a déjà-vu of an earlier summer night daydream - or from even more distant years - my plans of youth, of triathlons and the Pacific Northwest - have come to meet the still fresh ideas I've been developing in the past few days and weeks. Keeping them all in due perspective has been pivotal in enjoying the ride, and assuring me to continue with that which has been my most constant status phrase of the last few months:
Always Yay!


The Consecration of Spring

(Original em Português abaixo)

The season, once again, inspired his writing. A piece by Stravinsky, picturing an ancient pagan ritual, was elected to title his story - which could equally have been named "All the world's clichés": he experienced, at the time, a collection of all phrases he had been collecting since his youth. Torn between the two possibilities, and unsatisfied with titles spanning multiple lines, the image and symbolism of Springtime baptised the text.
- - -
The boy, who once believed to have understood the secrets of life by watching stones that wept motionlessly alone, but now understood, in all its strength, the distinction between knowing the path and walking down it, had slept little, being troubled with foolish concerns, foolish for he knew they would not be solved through his restless thoughts. He struggled not to focus his concentration on these troubles, and so, as one who, in the hope of falling asleep, remains awake precisely due to the perception of still being conscious, failed in his attempts by the very perseverance of his efforts.

His therapy, and the only which seemed to make any effect in light of the circumstances, was to ride his bicycle - and he found in the situation surrounding him the best motivation to devote himself to hard training sessions. That first day after the equinox, marking the beginning of the new season, he rode directly against the stiff northerly winds - and, despite its resistance, felt light, almost as if propelled, perhaps by the sun warmly shining on his back, or by the odours emanating from the fields, still fresh from the previous day's rain. He rejoiced the course he was about to tackle - the climb up the mountain of the Fire Stone Castle, an ascent, not particularly long or steep, but having some elements - the twisting hairpins, the section across a small village or through a forest, the view from the top - which reminded him of other climbs, popularised by the French mystic of the twenty-three days in July, whose glamour he had glimpsed when riding them, almost seven years ago. Dancing on the pedals, he was sent back to that period, where, climbing those very mountains, he knew no limits to his two-wheeled ambitions. Brought back to his current state by the lactic acid burning in his legs, sweating and breathing heavily, but with mind and soul clear as few times before, he decided to go for broke and invest in a new quest after those long-forgotten dreams.
- - -
Almost a week later, on the eve of the month of April, leaving his Institute's campus heading towards the parking lot, he was euphoric - and equally perplexed, for he knew not the reason to his euphoria.

The training sessions that week, and his performance in the first race of the season, had been good, but the numbers were nothing spectacular, and his placement, especially given the magnitude of his sporting goals, was not nearly as impressive as he would have expected.

Equally, the latest meeting with his adviser could have been described as productive, but he definitively had had better and more inspiring ones; even his attempt to gain support for attending an overseas conference had been met with only moderate enthusiasm, and he persisted with that partially cynical look towards the importance of his results, which he did not yet know how to fit in the context of those plans and ideals that had motivated him, years ago, to follow down the Thin Grad Line. Nevertheless, making sure that he had positive feelings about his academic developments, he concluded he was satisfied about them, but knew at the same time that the origin of his present state of mind was not to be found in his work.

He also believed that source was not to be found in the - even if far from being troubled, still highly delicate and very much peculiar - beginning of a new relationship. The situation surrounding it, and all its implications, he did not fully understand; and despite some promising signs, there were no assurances, and this was perhaps the only certainty that he took after extensively deliberating on the matter - the absence of absolutes, almost as if a requirement for love, or, on a more fundamental level - if something can ever be described as more fundamental than love - for one's whole being, to be experienced in its full extent.

Still walking towards the parking lot, he observed the beautiful sunset of that spring day - and remembering that he had trained on the inside, and so failed to improve his cycling tan, imagined this was not the reason for his unlimited joy. Heading home after shopping for groceries, he made plans for a romantic date with the revision of an absolutely unimpressive research article intended to be submitted in the coming days - and so, or even so, in complete absence of any indication that justified such, he had the sensation of being the owner of the world, or something very close to it, and felt fantastically well. He briefly recorded his thoughts and feelings in a quick note, and perceived himself to be happy, and did not understand why, but still yearned for comprehension.

He then remembered that, for one unable to listen to the music, those dancing were deemed to be insane. He smiled, and danced to the melody which, inaudibly, made up the soundtrack of his journey.
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He got to work on a Friday morning, where milder temperatures, contrasted with the warm summer evening experienced the day before, reminded him that spring was really just in its infancy. Greeting his colleagues, he entered his office and prepared himself a coffee (the cappuccino, he insisted, was the best north of the Danube). Tasting it, the sweet and now lukewarm milk contrasting the bitterness of the espresso, he contemplated the season, and all the metaphors represented by its unfolding. He was aware the epilogue did not symbolise necessarily an ending. Time was still passing, the wind outside still blowing, and the waters unendingly flowing - but, paradoxically, remembering that the journey was his destination, he concluded, filled with joy, he was continuously arriving.

A Sagração da Primavera

A estação, novamente, inspirava sua escrita. Elegia uma composição de Stravinsky, baseada na imagem de um ritual pagão, para intitular seu conto - mas, poderia, igualmente, empregar "Todos os clichês do mundo": vivia, naquele momento, um apanhado de todas as frases que vinha colecionando desde sua adolescência. Dividido entre as duas possibilidades, e insatisfeito com títulos espraiando múltiplas linhas, deixou a imagem e o simbolismo da primavera batizarem o texto.
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O menino, que acreditava ter compreendido o segredo da vida vendo as pedras que choravam sozinhas no mesmo lugar, mas agora comprendia, em toda sua força, a distinção entre conhecer o caminho, e percorrê-lo, havia dormido pouco. Inquietava-se com preocupações tolas, tolas pois sabia que não seriam seus pensamentos irriquietos que as resolveriam. Esforçava-se em não focar sua concentração nestas angústias, e, tal aquele que, na esperança de dormir, mantém-se desperto pela consciência de ainda estar acordado, fracassava em suas tentativas justamente pelo empenho de seus esforços.

Sua terapia, e a única que surtia efeito naquelas circumstâncias, consistia em pedalar - e encontrava na presente situação a melhor justificativa para dedicar-se com afinco aos treinos. Naquele primeiro dia após o equinócio, marcando o início da estação, pedalava rumo ao norte, contra o vento, e apesar da resistência deste, sentia-se leve, e quase como se propelido, talvez pelo sol a bater em suas costas, ou pelos cheiros que emanavam dos campos ainda frescos com a chuva do dia anterior. Alegrava-se pelo trajeto a ser cumprido - havia escolhido escalar até o alto da montanha do castelo da Pedra de Fogo, subida que não era particularmente longa, ou íngreme, mas tinha em seu trajeto elementos - as viradas, os trechos cruzando um pequeno vilarejo, ou atravessando um bosque, a vista do alto - que lembravam-no de outras subidas, popularizadas pela mística francesa dos vinte e três dias em julho, deslumbre ao qual ele havia vivenciado, quase sete anos atrás. Dançando sobre os pedais, era remetido de volta àquele período, onde, escalando tais montanhas, desconhecia limites para suas ambições sobre duas rodas. Trazido de volta pelo ácido lático a queimar em suas pernas, suando e com a respiração ofegante, mas de alma límpida, decidia investir em uma nova empreitada atrás daqueles sonhos de outrém.
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Quase uma semana depois, às vésperas do mês de abril, deixava o campus rumando ao estacionamento, e encontrava-se eufórico, e perplexo, pois não sabia o porquê de sua euforia.

Os treinos daquela semana, e sua apresentação na primeira corrida da temporada, haviam sido bons, mas os números nada tinham de espetacular, e sua colocação, especialmente dada a magnitude de seus objetivos esportivos, não havia impressionado como esperava.

Igualmente, a reunião com seu orientador havia sido produtiva, mas já tivera melhores e mais inspirantes; sua a tentativa de obter apoio para participar de uma conferência em além-mar havia sido recebida com entusiasmo apenas moderado, e mantinha aquele ar parcialmente cínico para com a importância de seus resultados, que ainda não sabia como encaixar no contexto daqueles planos e ideais que, anos atrás, o haviam impelido a seguir pelo caminho do doutoramento. Assim mesmo, apesar da certificar-se que dali emanavam sensações positiva, sabia que a origem daquele estado de espírito não se encontrava no trabalho.

Muito possivelmente, acreditava, também não estava esta origem no relacionamento, se não conturbado, pelo menos delicado e altamente peculiar, que iniciava. A situação e as implicações da mesma ele ainda não compreendia por inteiro, e apesar de alguns sinais promissores, não tinha nenhum posicionamento concreto, e talvez isto fosse a única certeza que tirava de uma extensa reflexão sobre o assunto - a ausência de absolutos, quase como exigência para a plenitude da liberdade de amar, ou em um nível mais fundamental, se algo pode ser mais fundamental que o amor, todo o ser e estar.

Caminhava ainda em direção ao estacionamento, e contemplava novamente o lindo dia de primavera - lembrando-se que havia treinado do lado de dentro, e assim deixado de aprimorar seu bronzeado, supunha não ser este o motivo de sua alegria desenfreada. Dirigia-se para casa, fazendo planos para, após as compras, ter um encontro romântico com a revisão de um artigo que intendia submeter nos próximos dias - e assim, nesta completa ausência de qualquer indicativo que isto justificasse, sentia-se como o dono do mundo, ou algo bastante próximo disso, e a sensação lhe era simplesmente fantástica. Saia do campus onde trabalhava, brevemente registrando seus pensamentos e sensações em uma nota rápida, e percebia estar feliz, e não entendia o porquê, mas deseja ardentemente compreender.

Lembrara então que, para aqueles que não houviam a música, os que dançavam pareciam loucos. Sorriu, e dançou ao som da melodia que, inaudivelmente, compunha a trilha sonora do seu caminhar.
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Chegou ao trabalho numa manhã de sexta-feira, onde temperaturas mais amenas, contrastadas com a tarde de verão experienciada no dia anterior, o lembraram que a primavera estava apenas por começar. Adentrou seu escritório, cumprimentou seus colegas, preparou um café (insistia ser o melhor cappuccino ao norte do Danúbio). Degustando-o, o já morno leite adocicado contrastando com o amargo do café, contemplou a estação, e todas as metáforas que eram representadas pelo seu início. Naquele momento, tinha consciência de que este epílogo não simbolizava o fim. As engrenagens ainda estavam a girar, águas ainda iriam correr, e o vento, lá fora, muito ainda viria a soprar. Mas, paradoxalmente, lembrando-se de que a jornada era seu destino, concluiu com felicidade que estava continuamente a chegar.


Of posts and plots

To a good measure, my writings in this blog do not differ, in content, to what I often discuss with friends over at the bar, or during a training ride, or having a mate in the park. Here, as there, I express my own opinions, on facts and people, and take full responsibility for what I write or say. However, in the other environments, I know - usually personally - my audience, and, if needed, can immediately discuss the implications of a strongly-worded argument, or even make a request for a subject not to be commented further. Clearly, that is not the case in an open-access blog such as The Thin Grad Line.

This very issue had already been pondered upon over one of the first posts here. At the time, I opted for a different approach to the different topics I wrote about, and thus a decision was made to keep the blog open. It meant avoiding some subjects, or writing only indirectly about others - but I figured those who knew me, or were sufficiently informed about the particular events at hand, could establish the necessary connections and enjoy the bigger picture. With time, however, I learned that others, reading this blog, had formed quite a different image of me than what I believe was, or is, the one I strive to project for myself. Maybe that was in part due to the writing style, maybe due to the subjects about which I wrote, specially as, more recently, I became increasingly willing to be open about my thoughts and feelings. The reason of such (in my view) misinterpretation doesn't matter. I wrote before, and I'll repeat the Pullman quote here: nobody has the right not to be offended. This includes, for instance, when reading this blog.

Now, if you disagree - great. Leave a comment, write me an email or, better yet, join me on a cup of coffee for us to discuss the subject further. Or simply let it be - live and let live...
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Regarding La Trama: what for me may represent "going for broke" may as well be someone else's typical day at the office, nothing more than the regular bread-and-butter. Or vice-versa. It's also clear that not everything must be done balls-to-the-wall - balance, as always, is key. In a sense, what I wanted to convey was the idea of aiming high above for the overall combination - of sports, career, relationships, experiences in general. And it's no secret that one must accept giving up on one side to be able to accomplish more in another - at least in most cases.

But sometimes, one just needs to go for the non plus ultra. I promise to keep you posted...

La Trama

Uruguayan singer Jorge Drexler's latest album is named "Amar la Trama" (Love the Plot), a name he justified on his passion for the plot, "the space between the beginning and end, to be completed, in which things happen".

Drexler sings, "to love the plot more than the outcome" (Amar la trama más que al desenlace). For a long time I insist that the journey is the destination. It doesn't mean goals are unimportant, but I believe getting there should bring at least as much satisfaction as the final objective - otherwise something is clearly amiss. Maybe a good explanation can be found in MacIntyre's inner goods theory - which was the subject of a previous post. But how exactly can one assert that a particular choice will lead to (better, longer?) satisfaction as one walks down the chosen path? Can such be quantified? And does departing from the path, giving up on the objective, invalidates the whole process undertaken until then?
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On a random discussion over in a cycling forum, someone posted "If a person never quits when the going got tough, they wouldn't have anything to regret for the rest of their life". Curiously, reading an editorial on (former) minister von Guttenberg's resignation this morning, I came across "Reue ist Verstand, der zu spät kommt" - regret is the understanding that came too late.

I was recently asked what I was truly afraid of. I'm scared of a number of things, but I was always afraid of feeling regret for a decision. Thus, for a long time, I managed to avoid situations that could lead to possible regrets - and that is precisely the only thing I have to regret when looking back.

As I went over a list of objectives for the times ahead, I found a plethora of possibilities that would be fun, exciting, and still allow for a balanced, unregretful life - many of those still very much fitting the overall Whiskas' Lifestyle theme. And then I had a glimpse of myself in a Radiohead Fitter, Happier song. No way. I'm going for broke. Maybe I'll bemoan trying, but I will not resent fearing regret. At any rate, "durch der Reue niedres Tor, wandern wir zum Glücke" (Through regret's lowered gate, we walk towards happiness). Thanks, Herder.
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Coming back from Brazil, after a short, but intense week-long visit, I realised the obvious, but absolutely non-trivial answer to the identity question posed in the previous post.

In an uniquely Whiskas way, I am both.

And together we're invincible .


Another instance of Whiskas' travel-motivated commentary

Echoing Monica's comment of a few weeks ago, Brazil impresses by its accelerated economic growth. Internationally-traded stocks are on all-time highs, exports blossom, and foreign companies invest heavily. Nevertheless, the magazine I picked for reading on-board still had as its cover story racism issues and the social disparities between races. Browsing through the articles, this contrast is strikingly visible: whereas one discusses the Central Bank's decision on interest rates and another reports of BMW's plans to expand its dealerships and even contemplates setting up a manufacturing plant, reports on the low levels of investment on primary education or a story about the lack of an effective witness protection program to safeguard the lives of those who attempt to raise voice against the ever-present corruption in the higher spheres of the Brazilian society show that the South American giant still has a long way to go before it can have the label of 'developed country' stamped upon itself.

I dwell further. Brazilian science advances with the growing economy as local industries realize the potential of applied research in the vast - and capable - University environment. But at the same time, laboratories still struggle under the bureaucratic machine to maintain their expensive lab equipments running: a million-dollar atomic force microscope (AFM) employs probe tips costing, in Europe, but a few dozen dollars each. Boarding to Brazil, a fellow physicist asked me whether I could help out their lab by bringing some AFM tips, as they are hard to find - and then, usually prohibitively expensive - in the local market. I don't want to go Machiavellic here - that is to say, employ the "the ends justify the means" adage -, merely illustrate another point where the land still must come to terms with its own progress.

And then there is the Critical Mass incident. Critical Masses (CMs) are anarchic manifestations, mostly by bikers, attempting to call attention to the fact that today's urban (traffic) planning leaves alternative forms of transportation mostly sidelined, what in greater part can be blamed on the automobile-centred mentality which permeates the views of (almost) everyone living in an urban environment. The first CMs took place in North America, before spreading now to be found in virtually every continent, and in particular in cities and countries where a sufficiently large community of alternative, liberal minded cyclists attempt to fight, outnumbered, the status quo. As a cyclist, I took part in some of the first CMs in Porto Alegre, then dubbed "Bicicletadas". After a few rounds, I ceased to participate, as I had the impression such events would foster more annoyance among drivers rather then actually spreading a positive image about the idea. But I digress.
Two weeks ago, during the monthly edition of Porto Alegre's CM, as the manifestation cycled through a tight downtown street, a driver lost his temper and ran over over a dozen cyclists, knocking them out of the way or over his windshield, fleeing immediately afterwards. Behind, the almost one hundred participants were left in uttermost shock - amateur videos of the attack remind of a Carmaggedon game scene, and it was by sheer luck that no one was killed, no, wait, murdered. (Shameless plug: always wear a helmet!). After overcoming the shock from the news, and finding out that my friends who took part were mostly unscathed, I was, needless to say, relieved to be cycling in a way friendlier environment...
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I flew Business for my 26th crossing of the Atlantic. I'm terribly spoiled by having insiders in Brazil's largest airline - which usually translates into getting cheaper deals for a ticket or an upgrade for the 12-hour haul over the Big Water Pond. I figure I wouldn't have enjoyed most of these crossings so much, were it not for the added comfort of the extra leg room, fully reclining seat - and the wine menu, of course :) . Thanks again, Roni!
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Put together all the points above, the bending of rules, or their re-interpretation, and one should be able to draw a pretty good picture of the famous "Brazilian way" - the jeitinho brasileiro, which could be translated as the institutionalization of helping one's own (including oneself) out. This unique approach leads to innovation, flexibility and tolerance, but seems also to be, at the very same time, the most infamous character trait of the Brazilian society - precisely when it is translated to impunity, or lack of observance to valid standards, regulations or safety measures.
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Among the ponderings of the past few months, I've spent time trying to figure my identity more precisely. I was born and grew up in Brazil, but I don't fully grasp the culture or the people in its entirely. Most of the country is unbeknownst to me, being familiar only with the European-influenced southern states - and, in fact, I had never cooked the traditional beans dish until last week :) . At the same time, I am German, I live in Germany, and have grown up in a half-German family with many influences from my Old Continent relatives - and yet, in many senses I am still a foreigner.

During my time in Canada, I would often identify myself as Brazilian, but spent more time with German-speaking friends. Coming back to my home town this week, I again faced myself with the identity question. Fortunately, I came to realize that such lack of a properly defined answer must not be taken negatively: never mind that most of my closest friends have some sort of migration or living-abroad background; I am among my own in different countries, continents and cultures. Home, finally, is always where the heart is.


Roller coasters, road trips and power meters

It's been one incredible journey, both literally and figuratively.

I have gone, or maybe am still going, through some very intense ups-and-downs during these early months of 2011 - many of which have somehow made it to the blog or twitter/facebook updates over the last few weeks. Many former assumptions have been reworked from scratch; established ideas have been thoroughly questioned, some new future plans have been laid out, and, altogether, a lot has been learned about myself - and those around me. Facing my own weaknesses and confronting myself with the possibility of failure makes for an outright scary ride. But still a most rewarding one: "Life is made up of experiences, and the more experiences you have, the more you live" (Gordon Shrum).

The journey is not only abstract, thought. Movement is an integral part of my being whole, and road trips are a quintessential definition of that. In January, I drove halfway across the country to visit my cousins in Herten with my sister in tow (450km), then picked Carol up in Frankfurt (250km) and drove her to Ulm (300km), and from there went on to visit Jason, a former colleague from the Institute (150km). We took a hike through the hills of Upper Bavaria, before I drove back home (250km) - with a tad over 1400km in the extended Dreikönigs weekend. And last week, another trip was in store, picking Carol in Ulm and driving to Grenoble (1800km round-trip) where we met Kazik and Marnes for a weekend in the French Alps - including riding up a certain famous Tour climb enjoying the pleasant springtime weather and the company of friends to cheer me up during the effort.

Finally, and in spite of the whole turmoil, or maybe precisely drawing motivation from it, my early season training sessions have been quite encouraging . The addition of an integrated power meter gave a whole new dimension to quantifying, analysing, and planning workouts - and plain simply reminding me to ride harder. The resulting endorphins afterwards are just an added bonus...
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Good things come for those that make them happen. Sometimes, though, one must wait for that - and patience is, indeed, a most virtuous trait in those times. As the saying goes, it all boils down to "manter a mente quieta, a espinha ereta, e o coração tranqüilo" - keeping the mind quiet, the spine erect, and the heart in peace.