Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Dilemma

It's gone three in the morning now, and I can't sleep. It must have happened about; maybe four-and-a-half hours ago, and I just thought to myself, "Well, there's nothing I can do about it." So I decided to go to bed. I slept a bit, but then I started to toss and turn, and now I can't sleep for my dilemma.

You see, I live alone on the top floor of a crumby old Stalin-era apartment building in Kiev. It's a one-room apartment (or "kvartira" as it's called in Russian) consisting of a small living room-cum-bedroom, a cramped kitchen, and a tiny toilet/bathroom. The latter seems to have been designed to double as a sauna in summertime, as a hot-water pipe snakes across one entire wall. It's useful for drying clothes and towels, but it turns the bathroom into a sweatbox when the temperature outside is above 30 degrees Celsius.

The one redeeming feature of the flat is its small, open-air balcony. True, the concrete floor is set at an alarming slope, and the sparse metal bars that support the waist-level, sunlight-degraded plastic handrail are badly rusted. True, you can see the ground 70 feet below through the gap between the floor and the asbestos panels that have been roughly tied with plastic to the handrail supports - apparently in a vain effort to inspire some confidence in the structure. True, the concrete slab that protrudes from the side of the building seven feet directly above, which forms my balcony "roof", regularly drops chunks of itself onto the floor below. But nevertheless, I like the place: It faces south, I can grow plants there in summer, and I even have a small metal barbecue there for cookouts.

For a building with 169 apartments, it's a pretty lonely place. I'm on nodding terms with a few of the neighbors on my floor, but everyone keeps themselves to themselves. I've exchanged perhaps a dozen words with my neighbors in the eight months since I moved in.

I did have one "friend", however, who would meet me nearly every day on the short trudge along the hallway from my door to the elevator – a cat with long, sandy hair, whom I imaginatively named "Sandy." I can't decide whether Sandy was male or female, as the telltale parts of his or her anatomy were obscured by riotously fluffy fur, and he or she was never inclined to grant me a closer inspection of his or her hindquarters – I still have some quite deep wounds on my hands. I suspect Sandy was male, judging by the animal's size, but he or she didn't have the broad face of a tomcat. So I gave the animal the gender-neutral name of Sandy, and will use the pronoun "it" from now on.

Sandy obviously wasn't a street cat. I would only ever see it on my floor, it was friendly and playful in human company, and its long sand-colored fur was always clean and well groomed. It must have lived in one of the apartments on my floor. However, in the time since I'd moved here I'd seen it being admitted at more than one door, and pretty soon it would come into my apartment too, if it met me coming home in the evening. I guess it was a "shared" cat, which has an official owner, but is quite happy to spread itself around to gain extra attention and food.

At first I was wary, and followed Sandy as it sniffed its way around my flat – I didn't want it marking its territory, if it was indeed a tomcat. But after a few inspection visits, I was happy to let Sandy get on with whatever it wanted to do unattended, while I pottered around or sat in front of my computer. I quite liked the company, to tell the truth, and I didn't see any harm in it; well, not until this evening.

Sandy met me, as it quite often did, as I came home from work this evening, and did its irritatingly endearing trick of running beside you and then trying to rub itself against your lower leg, causing you to stop every few steps to avoid squashing the beast. That reminds me: I still have some long sandy-colored cat hairs on my jeans. I must remember to get rid of them before morning.

When I got to my door, Sandy twined itself around my feet and waited expectantly as I got out my keys and fumbled with the dodgy lock. As soon as door swung open, Sandy trotted in to perform its inspection, and I flicked on the light, locked the door behind me, and started to pull off my boots. It had been a sweltering hot day, and the brickwork of the apartment had soaked up the warmth and conducted it into the interior of the kvartira, so the next thing I did was open the balcony door to let in the evening breeze.

Then I set about preparing my evening meal, listening to the BBC news streamed over the Internet, through my wireless router and into my phone. I forgot about Sandy, and anyway, when it wanted out, I knew it would sit by the door and mew. I wasn't worried.

After eating, I sat myself down before the computer and was soon engrossed. But as I browsed, a nagging feeling started to tug at my consciousness. After a few minutes, the feeling suddenly leapt in front of my attention, waving its hands and shouting, "Where's Sandy?"

I don't know if you're one to believe in simple coincidences - two or more events that happen at the same time that you feel could somehow be connected, but are actually just the workings of randomness. According to the laws of probability, bizarre coincidences happen all the time, and are a lot more common and, indeed, probable, than most people think. I actually knew that, but I have to admit that the coincidence I'm coming to shook me.

I looked slowly around, and then got up. First to the kitchen – no Sandy. Bathroom – no Sandy. Back to the living room – no Sandy. To the balcony…

The coincidence was that just at the very second I got to the balcony door, I caught sight of what looked like a fat, sandy-haired rodent whip out of sight in the gap between the balcony floor and the asbestos panels fixed below the handrail. For a fraction of a second I thought I had a hamster problem, but then came a rapid series of sounds that announced that the problem was worse than that: First came a swish of tree leaves, followed almost immediately by a sharp cracking of branches, and then an ugly, furry thud. Then silence.

So there's my dilemma. I'd like to pretend this never happened, of course, but my conscience won't let me sleep now. It wasn't my fault, but now I either have to go and fetch the mangled remains of a fall-death cat from directly below my balcony, and try to find the animal's owner, or leave them there and face the possibility of my neighbors drawing some conclusions, none of which are likely to place me in a good light.

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Great Einstein

Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr were together at Paul Ehrenfest’s home in Leiden in December 1925. The three friends were relaxing in the drawing room after enjoying an excellent meal, which Ehrenfest, a skilled cook, had prepared himself. Bohr sipped his port, gave a great sigh of satisfaction and complemented his host on the quality of the roast lamb they had just enjoyed together.
“I must say, you are a master chef,” said Bohr to Ehrenfest. “That lamb was absolutely delicious. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted such a fine roast, and lamb is such a difficult meat to cook well. You must tell me how you managed to ensure the meat was both tender and succulent throughout the whole joint. There was not a bit of it that was dry or overdone!”
Ehrenfest shot a shrewd glance at Bohr, and said, “I think the secret is to keep the heat constant throughout the entire cooking process, which itself must proceed very slowly.”
The three men sat deep in thought for a while.
Presently, Ehrenfest rose and drained his glass. He excused himself, telling his friends that an idea had just occurred to him. He left the room in search of paper and pen.
After their host had left the drawing room, Bohr turned to Einstein, who was lighting his after-dinner pipe.
“Albert,” said Bohr, “Are you not concerned over the antics of Herr Hitler and those brown-shirted ruffians of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party? It seems to me they present a grave threat to young Weimar Republic. Herr Hitler openly disparages the very idea of democracy, and proposes a one-party state. Do you think Hitler will come to power in Germany?”
Einstein first took a few thoughtful puffs on his pipe. Then he ruffled his unruly hair, and said, “It really depends on how you look at it: Power might well come to him.”
Bohr looked somewhat exasperated. The two of them lapsed into a silence, which for a while was broken only by gentle sipping sounds as they finished their glasses of port. However, after a few minutes, Bohr pressed on, as he valued his great friend’s opinion.
“But are you not in the least concerned over the way things seem to be going?” Bohr said. ”I have read some of the nonsense that that upstart Austrian corporal is spouting about ensuring the racial purity of the German nation. You’re Jewish, Paul’s Jewish, and although I’m not German I’m half-Jewish. In what direction is Hitler’s movement going? In matters related to the Jewish Question, do you know his position?”
Einstein leaned back in his comfortable armchair, and, stretching his right hand back behind his shoulder, rubbed the nape of his neck in luxurious contemplation. Then he turned to Bohr and gave the younger man a gentle smile.
“I think it’s very difficult to give a 100-percent certain answer to either of those last two questions, and I quite definitely couldn’t answer them both at the same time,” he said.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

On the Edge

Ukraine is said to take its name from the Slavic for "on the edge."

I have no idea if that's true. But living in Ukraine in 2011, it certainly seems true.

This place has got me on edge, anyway. Right now, we in Ukraine are being treated to a spectacle that appears to be bordering on lunacy - the trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymosheno, who is guilty, apparently, of the heinous crime of being in government when Viktor Yanukovych wasn't president of Ukraine.

"Guilty as charged!" I hear you cry, but actually things are a bit more complicated than that. We have to delve into years of oily, mucky, dealings with filthy lucre to discover anything like the truth, and pass great quantities of gas in the process.

The whole problem, in fact, lies in who was passing gas, at what time, to whom, and at what price.

Yulia Tymoshenko is up before the beak for signing contracts with Russia for the supply of gas. You might not think that is a grave crime, but apparently she didn't get a good enough price, lost Ukraine UAH 1.5 billion (about $200 million), and did so under duress, because of the pressure of debts she built up when she was Ukraine's "Gas Princess."

Tymoshenko, you see, used to run an outfit called United Energy Systems of Ukraine. Now read carefully: This is what you do if you want to make a huge amount of money out of a former Soviet Republic that has the largest gas transport system in Europe. What you do is insert your private company at the gas output nozzle of Russia, inhale deeply, and fart out some gas on the western border of Ukraine, while charging a grossly inflated price.

Before you get too excited about this sure-fire money-spinning business opportunity, I have to tell you that Tymoshenko and her old chum Pavlo Lazarenko (another former Ukrainian prime minister who, incidentally, also faces legal problems right now), beat you to it. Some years ago, in fact. Moreover, other people have since inserted themselves at the Russian gas nozzle, and in Ukraine, they’re much better politically connected than Tymoshenko ever was, or you will ever be.

Nevertheless, the legacy of these gassy shenanigans is now catching up with Tymoshenko, who, while no doubt being a beautiful, braided beacon of democracy, still carries more than a whiff of dodgy dealings about her. That’s a shame, because what with the importance of gas supplies to the European Union, nobody in the West is going to raise a stink about the obvious political repression now going on in Ukraine.