A year in Bergen

In the summer of 1994, while working on a one-year contract for bioinformaticists and geneticists in Cambridge, I discussed an idea that was rattling round my head with my friend Dave and his (then) friend Steve Thornton, who was visiting Cambridge at the time. I imagined I could apply linear algebra to combine several metrics in a way that could prove useful to an evolutionary algorithm (though I knew only the dimmest little about such algorithms). Steve claimed he could talk some folk in Bergen into funding me to do research into that. That November, I went to Bergen to pursue this line of research. I had been earning well the previous year and living frugally, so could afford to live off my surplus for a while, even if no funding came through; and a change of pace and scene had much to commend it in the aftermath of what I had lately lived through.

The physics institute of Bergen University (fi.uib: Fysisk Institutt, Universitetet i Bergen) – especially Ladislav Kocbach – made me welcome, let me use a machine in their leikestove and helped me find cheap places to live. When, eventually, I did get some funding (for two months, starting after I'd already worked on the idea for three), it was thanks to them, too. Steve managed to over-sell my idea, where I merely thought it would be instructive to explore it; but then he is rather prone to talking things up, especially if he's involved in them in any way, and to talking up his own involvement in anything positive. He'd done that with my chances of getting funding and I was to see him do it plenty more times, particularly when trying to impress women.

I learned a lot about bullshit that year, mostly from observing Steve's antics. Fortunately, I could afford a little chaos – I had no financial commitments beyond survival, had savings I could live off for a while and had a follow-up (albeit part time) contract with the geneticists to help them integrate my earlier work with a new project; my stay in Bergen was thus punctuated with trips back to Cambridge (on ferries across The North Sea) to do such work – so I could laugh at those antics, though I did get somewhat concerned when he dragged various young friends into impractical plans with potentially serious economic consequences and little likelihood of success – for all his protestations to the contrary. I was at least well-placed to warn others not to take his delusions seriously.

He was living with a Norwegian girlfriend and she kindly let me crash in a room of her flat for my first days. They practiced a new-age religion and I had the interesting experience of observing some of that community's rituals (all very unremarkable); the room in which I was crashing also served as the local temple. Much of their belief and practice derives from Aleister Crowley, so Steve's penchant for bullshit fitted in just fine. There are, however, more interesting and constructive folk in that community, with whom I have had more rewarding discussions; their thelema isn't all bullshit, it's just often hard to tell them apart. Many years later, I was delighted by a young adherent's perfectly apt characterisation of Steve as an ego-dominated fool.

I arrived in Bergen on 1994 November 16. That evening I was taken to a party just up the road from my initial host. There was much drinking (including a memorable home-brewed blueberry mead) and I met several students who were to be fast friends thereafter. Somewhat late in proceedings, the brewer of the blueberry mead managed to pass out while on the toilet and sleep through until morning, obliging the rest of us to make do with a bucket for the duration. My last memory of the evening was a conversation across a table, sat on one sofa, with someone on another sofa the other side of the table. When I woke in the morning, on that other sofa, I was a bit disoriented and very hung over. My new friends were rather startled to discover that I had walked barefoot to the party; I had to go home to retrieve shoes before we all headed off to the big student cafeteria. As we set off, I distinctly remember calmly and carefully opening a rubbish bin, leaning in and vomiting vigorously. Then we all went and had breakfast.

Through the assorted folks already mentioned, I got to know diverse amiable folk in Bergen and the places they frequent for music and drink. Many of those I met were students; coming from Cambridge and mixing in the social circles I did there, I was used to drinking with students and getting drinks for a few of the others at my table whenever I went to the bar – partly because I had free hands so might as well use them, partly because I was used to being able to afford it and aware that students' budgets can be limiting. Of course, others often reciprocated, but I was used to a sub-culture in which such things don't have to balance; from each according to the means available, to each as long as they want to continue drinking. Early in my time in Bergen, I carried on this habit, which was a novelty to those about me, used to each buying their own; soon the English practice of buying rounds spread among those I knew. That was to stand me in good stead later, when my money was running low, and others were kind enough to buy me drinks, even though they knew I wouldn't be reciprocating.

As has happened throughout my life, I got to know several bar-staff and bouncers; I treat them as human beings – which most customers don't – and the resulting conversations turn to friendships. One bouncer, a SHARP punk, was particularly memorable: he was a sweetly amiable lad, but superficially scary, mostly in how he dressed and behaved until strangers were friendly to him. He was consequently very good at his job: idiots were intimidated, nice people felt welcome. At another bar, early in my stay, I remember carefully asking for a beer using a literal translation of please may I have a beer, to which the barman replied by explaining that, had he not recognised that I was obviously English, he would have interpreted my request as so hyper-polite as to be necessarily sarcastic; he taught me to just say what I want – en øl – and if I really felt the need to be polite I could stretch that to en øl takk. Much of the time, however, there was loud music and the only language worth using was signs: point at the thing you want and hold up fingers to indicate how many.

Bergen is famous for its rain. One local joke has a tourist ask a lad in the street Does it always rain here ? to which the lad replies How would I know ? I'm only four. I wasn't much bothered: I come from England, after all, and had been living in Liverpool only two years earlier; I'm used to rain. I have a hat and a long coat; to paraphrase a Norwegian saying, there's no such thing as bad weather as long as you have the right clothes. The weather's reputation is also exaggerated: there were plenty of fine days, particularly in spring and summer. There were even times when I noticed folk sun-bathing in the parks – including some topless women. Furthermore, the proportion of women who are remarkably pretty struck me as much higher than I'd seen anywhere else; I was often happily distracted when out and about, especially on warm sunny days.

I implemented my linear algebra and a rather clumsy evolutionary algorithm library, with which I experimented in diverse ways; the results were unimpressive, which I think owes mostly to my failure to properly learn the state of the art in evolutionary algorithms. I should probably have found an existing library for that and adapted it to use my linear algebra ideas, since the latter is my particular area of expertise while my knowledge of the former was distinctly limited. As I was sharing the leikestove with Steve, who was messing around with his own toys, I got to see his efforts at writing code (hint: you can't bullshit a computer into doing what you want – you actually have to write a program that works): I was not impressed.

As an example, he sought to implement Crowley's English Qabalah, in which letters of the alphabet (starting with A = 1) are assigned to numbers; step forwards 11 letters (cyclically, with A following Z) to get the next number. (Thus L=2, W=3 and then H=4.) The literal reading of that needed him to pre-fill a look-up table mapping letters to numbers: a trivial exercise even for a novice, at which he failed. The further code to read data from a file and process it, using that table, is a basic set-piece of simple programming at which, again, he failed. (As it happens, though I would not expect anyone but an algebraist to spot this, the look-up can be avoided, by exploiting a consequence of 11 and 26 being coprime: 11 necessarily has a multiplicative inverse modulo 26. Indeed, 19×11 = 209 = 8×26 +1, so 19 and 11 are mutually inverse mod 26. Thus (19 * (tolower(ch) −'a')) % 26 + 1 simplified the mapping of letters to numbers.) Steve managed to write some entirely useless code; to silence his endless requests for help, I simply rattled off an easy implementation. He was, at least, able to hack that around to amend it to his wishes, once there was something working. I dread to think how many others must have done his home-work for him over the years, just to silence his mithering; somehow, he has managed to get paid for programming since.

My year in Bergen was interspersed with periods away. I suppose I must have visited England for mid-winter with friends and family; and I went on a skiing holiday in Austria with some friends early in 1995; I'd paid for that the previous year and had a great time. I was away again for most of May, narrowly missing a chance at a job because my return was delayed by bureaucratic problems. During these excursions, I worked for the geneticists; the pay I got funded my on-going adventure. Each trip back to Cambridge involved giving up a flat; the kind folks at fi.uib repeatedly helped me find cheap accommodation. I spent a while (ending on May 1st) living in a studentby in a narrow little room that was sufficient to my needs. I got to know some of the students with whom I shared facilities, particularly a kitchen. They were nice folk and generally amiably curious about the stranger in their midst. In the summer I ended up in a rather ramshackle old flat in the old town, which was nice while I had it to myself; however, Steve and his girlfriend broke up – and I was persuaded (against my better judgement) to tolerate sharing the place with him. From the experience, I would not recommend him as a flat-mate.

In the spring (of 1995) the two months' funding (for March and April) we eventually did get (yes, we; of course Steve had talked up his involvement and was part of the project that got funded, so got his name on the eventual report on my work) ran out; and I could see that I'd learned as much as I was likely to from my experiments. I wasn't in a hurry to leave Bergen so I set about applying for jobs, albeit somewhat incompetently. I also spent some time juggling in a park sometimes, mostly to practice my rather clumsy work with clubs. A friendly young woman took an interest and we got to know each other. For a time we were lovers but she decided to move on after a while; we remained friends.

In the early summer, Steve talked a friendly (but sadly gullible) Turk into hiring premises to him in which to run a cafe. He wanted it to be an internet cafe, but had only one computer. My hands were free and I like feeding people, so I worked in the cafe with him; as we both juggle, we named it The Jugglers. Steve dreamed of making money from the cafe: I was skeptical of his ability to even make rent, so declined his offer to employ me. I preferred to work for the fun of it (and to see folk happy eating what I served them) as a volunteer rather than keep track of how much back pay he would have owed and never been likely to pay. One thing he can do, at least, is cook – so we had nice (if simple and cheap) food to offer. The prices were low enough that we were mildly popular with a pleasantly bohemian clientelle; albeit we were making little more money than enough to cover the cost of nipping up the road to the supermarket to buy raw materials.

There was a week in the summer when I ran the cafe entirely on my own – that was a pleasant time. At other times, Steve did much of the baking (and taught me how to make scones) and cooked main courses while I took care of snacks, coffee, serving folk, tidying up, washing up and stock management (i.e. ensuring we had all the ingredients we needed). We had an old man upstairs who sometimes berated us for the alleged smells wafting up his stairwell: it was hard to take this seriously, though, as what he described bore no relationship to what we'd actually been cooking. Apparently he was used to giving similar grief to the businesses that had been there before and hadn't noticed that we weren't a kebab house, or whatever it was he was so cross to think he was living upstairs from. On the bright side, he had an extremely pretty grand-daughter, who worked as a nurse in a local home and sometimes stopped by in the cafe for a snack; I was always happy sit and talk with her, especially one warm sunny day when she wore the most delightfully summery dress.

The cafe did, in fact, make slightly more than the cost of raw materials (including, usually, even paying its electricity bill). It was enough to buy us a few drinks, or other treats, from time to time. I was careful to make sure Steve didn't take from the till for that unless there was going to be enough left to cover needed raw materials: he lacked the fiscal responsibility to check for that himself. Steve never did pay the rent to that friendly Turk, yet continued believing the cafe would become a money-spinner. He needed to believe it would succeed, to keep his ego afloat, so he conned himself into believing it would, which made him sound convincing when he talked about the cafe's inevitable success to others. This may have helped his efforts to chat up various women, but it was all delusion.

His efforts to chat up one young woman included asking her whether she'd like to work in the cafe: she declined but her friend expressed an interest in the job, so he ended up hiring her and my former girlfriend; I got to explain to both that any claims he'd made about pay were hot air (which indeed proved all too true). When he talked two young lads into joining him as partners in the business, I worried for their sake: it made them jointly liable with him for the business's debts, notably including unpaid rent for several months. He deserved to be liable; they did not, and didn't even know the true situation – until I took them on one side and explained what they were up against. I was prompted to that by having to stop Steve taking cash from the till for treats when the till lacked cash for necessities (and he'd neglected September's electricity bill).

The other bill Steve neglected in September was rent on the flat we were sharing: I'd paid rent through the summer and, running short of cash, asked him to cover September, to which he agreed – but he didn't actually set aside money for it. I knew he spent plenty on treats (often persuant to failed courtship) that month, more than enough for the (minimal) rent. We lost the flat: on the bright side, I no longer had to put up with sharing with Steve. (Ladislav paid September's rent for us: I managed to pay him back a quarter year later.) Some friends who lived in a squat opened up another room in their building for me and I moved in, albeit only for October, as the building was due for demolition in early November – when I was, in any case, heading back to Cambridge for my last slab of contract work. I actually had quite a pleasant stay in the squat; the amenities were basic, but the neighbours were friendly and the space was sufficient. It is a curious thing, that those with almost nothing are among the most generous.

While I was back in Cambridge in November, the friendly Turk finally got round to insisting, sensibly enough, on pay the rent or get out: I think he even had a real tenant willing to take the place on. Some of my belongings were in the shop's cellar (including a mah jong set and my copy of The Little Prince); allegedly, Steve managed to rescue those, but they never made their way back to me. Having nowhere to return to in Bergen, I stayed in Cambridge, where I found temporary work – webmastering and writing perl scripts to help businesses put up their first web-sites – while looking for a proper job. I'd enjoyed Bergen and the memory of it was one of the reasons I eventually moved back to Norway, to work in Oslo. I may censure the fool who dragged me into it, but only for his impact on others: for my own part, it was a pleasant year, distracting and refreshing in several ways.

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