Wednesday, November 22, 2017

second chance

About a year ago, an exciting opportunity came up at my job that I was nevertheless not quite sure about.  It was an extension of what I was doing then (and am still doing now), but it meant a direction and an approach that I was not formally qualified for.  I talked to my boss and we both agreed – at least that's how I remember it now – that it wouldn't be the right time for me to attempt this transition.  A number of external candidates were interviewed and one of them took the job.  I was enthusiastic to work with him and learn from a professional.

This professional is moving on now, and what was an exciting but rather distant and possibly missed opportunity less than a year ago is suddenly very hot.  Recruitment is internal only, and the required skill set reads as if copied from my CV.  My boss scheduled an unspecified "brief conversation" for tomorrow morning.  Colleagues make allusions in the corridors.  Is there something that I don't know?

With all this as a backdrop, I'm sitting on my sofa weighing the pros and cons.  The main problem appears that I really like my job.  It combines aspects of science with marketing into something that could be called science communication for commercial gain.  I didn't think I'd enjoy this as much as I do.

More than two decades ago, I started training as a scientist.  I proved my worth – or at least my persistence – by gaining a PhD in biochemistry.  After that, I worked as a research scientist for exactly 10 years.  The intellectual freedom, the collaborative approach and largely pleasant colleagues and bosses made this a difficult environment to break out from.

By one definition, I am not a scientist.  Scientists are driven by burning curiosity and the need to answer obscure questions.  They make personal and financial sacrifices because nothing is as important as the quest for knowledge.  I was never such a person.

And yet, I'm a scientist according to my job title.  I communicate and mingle with scientists all the time.  I read scientific papers and submit abstracts to conferences - many more than when I was working in a lab.  I'm also a better crystallographer now than when being good at it was a key to success.  Now I travel around the world for talks and conversations, giving the impression of expertise and schmoozing the community.  It's science a few steps removed.

Would doing less of it be so difficult, especially if it meant doing more of something else I like?  Would the transition into full-time communication be in the least painful?  Am I resisting change not to disturb my comfort?  Or do I possibly fear the unknown more than I desire growth?  How do I get out of my box?

The other day I finished Sheryl Sandberg's Lean in, my Christmas gift to Flucha though I was the one who read it.  Promoting equality, the book contains lots of insights relevant to men as much as to women.  Regarding career choices, the book speaks of jungle gyms instead of ladders.  Ignore where what you've done is expected to take you.  Look left and right to identify opportunities.  If they present themselves, take them, even if you're not formally qualified.  You will grow with every challenge and succeed with hard work.  I think I'm on my way already.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

coach to Cambridge

On the last day of the conference I was attending in Cambridge two things occurred that combined into a rather scary epiphany.  First, I talked to potential customers about experiments they wanted to do and how to do them best, and connected them to a partner that might be able to help with equipment.  Partner's equipment is excellent but because of a troubled history, they're having a hard time getting the word out.  It's not that they have a bad reputation.  It's more that they don't have a reputation at all.  Most people are surprised to hear that the company still exists.

Their website could be improved, in general terms as much as in details.  Quite a few things are obvious to me.  I surprised myself relishing the challenge of doing this, of firing up their communication, getting the word out and generating excitement.  It's called marketing, and it can be fun, even though to a scientist it doesn't get much darker than that.

Later that day, I visited a midsize biotech company where I would notionally fit very well with my skills and qualifications.  I saw their lab and talked crystallography with the resident expert.  It was a smoothly run operation with fine kit, but seeing pipettes hang above benches in the lab next door gave me such a jab I knew I'd never go back to science.  I had never seen this so clearly.  I enjoy my job, but it wasn't clear to me that it isn't just what I am doing (scientific marketing).  It is also what I'm not doing (science).  Maybe I'm a marketer after all?

Getting to Cambridge hadn't been easy.  From Heathrow, it's never easy.  There are three options.  All are bad.  One can rent a car.  I've done this in the past.  The drive takes about an hour and a half if traffic is good, and it's not what I need after getting up at five in the morning and taking an early flight.  Plus, parking in Cambridge is impossible.

The second option is the train, but in England autumn is prime season for leaves on the track and associated disruptions.  It's also not just one train but two, with a few stops on the Underground thrown in just for thrills.  Even without leaves, that's bound to be painful.

The third option is the coach.  It takes one from the airport to the city center of Cambridge in one go, but it takes forever because of stops on the way, and if traffic is bad, it will take even longer.  Which pain to pick?  I spent an absurd amount of time weighing the options to find the least bad.

In the end, I needn't have worried.  The worst part of the journey was just before arriving. Rolling up to the gate, there was no air bridge and our door remained closed.  We sat in the plane for 30 minutes while ground staff at Heathrow recovered from their surprise of needing equipment to disembark passengers.  In the end, stairs were rolled up from afar and we were on our way out on the tarmac.

The coach ride itself was uneventful. In the seat in front of me a long-haired fellow with tightly trimmed facial fur and a delicate English accent lectured his baffled neighbor on the deficiencies of the human eye – retina, visual nerve, blind spot and all – and how the octopus's independently evolved version was so much superior. It was evident we were going to Cambridge.

Families of apparently happy brown cows were grazing on land inside the M25, the motorway the circles London and is the closest the city has to a natural border.  I had never seen cows in London.  Was this an effort at self-sufficiency in the run-up to seceding from an increasingly dysfunctional Union?  What a twist to Brexit this would be.  But it was probably just evidence of the parochialism of the natives.  They need English countryside even inside a megacity.

The cows fading away on the right, the coach soon made a turn to the left, heading up north for a while before stopping at Stansted and then reaching Cambridge exactly on time.  In the hotel, the meeting was about to start and I to have an epiphany two days later.

Monday, October 09, 2017


It would have been apposite, had it happened today.  I was in the UK (and stayed up into the wee hours to be sure of the result) when the ill-fated Brexit vote took place.  I'm in Spain today.  But the feared declaration wasn't made.  The fairly autonomous province of Catalonia is still a part of Spain.  Independence is still hypothetical – a dream or a nightmare, depending on your disposition.

The inaction is calming nerves that have been frayed by recent events.  The synchrotron whose user meeting is taking place in Madrid over the next few days is located in Barcelona.  Continued improvements to the facility depend on shared funding from the Catalonian and Spanish authorities.  Spanish authorities would be less inclined to part with their money, should it go to a foreign country.  For this reason alone, independence doesn't have much support among the scientists I talked to during the first day of the meeting.

Independence looked like a foregone conclusion just a few days ago when a referendum on the issue took place in the province.  It was called unconstitutional and meaningless by the Spanish but was at the same time elevated to an honorable struggle for freedom by their police who clobbered old ladies senseless in makeshift polling stations.

By this time I was ready to wear a Catalunya forever t-shirt on my flight to Madrid – not so much because I'm a separatist but because I support the Catalans' fight for what they think is right and just.  The case that the fight wasn't right and just wasn't made anywhere.  There was talk of economic disaster caused by the break from Spain.  But has the prospect of hard times ever held back idealistic fighters for freedom? There were warnings of a domino effect that might bring down the European Union.  But isn't the Union doomed anyway if it doesn't concentrate power and focus disparate voices?  What does the political organization a few levels down matter? And there were endless arguments that the whole thing was an unconstitutional charade without any legal basis. Why would the Catalans care?  The whole point is to throw off the yoke of centuries of Spanish oppression, starting with their constitution and laws.

This past weekend, the separatists' momentum was broken, at least momentarily.  In Barcelona as in the rest of Spain, hundreds of thousands marched for national unity.  The 90% who voted yes in the referendum turned out to be just about 40% of the total and thus a minority if the turn-out of 45% is taken into account.  Even if not everyone who stayed away was against and didn't want to dignify proceedings by their presence, independence probably has much less support in Catalunya than seemed obvious after the Spanish police's orgy of violence.

It doesn't have much support in Madrid either.  Walking around in search of dinner after the meeting's first day, I noticed an abundance of Spanish flags hanging from the windows of apartment buildings.  It couldn't have possibly had anything to do with the World Cup qualifier taking place at the same time.  At least to me it seemed this wouldn't justify quite such a strong outpouring of patriotism, meaningless as the game was after Friday's success against mighty Albania.  I sit down in a bar, order a beer and some jamón ibérico and let the day fade out.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

old books

It feels as if I haven't read anything in a few years.  As a new-year's resolution, I subscribed to the Economist this January but never finished an edition before the next one hit my mailbox.  On my desktop, scientific papers pile up, even though I don't enjoy institutional subscriptions anymore and can only read what's open access or published in the two journals a colleague and I subscribe to.  And books, don't even talk about books.

Wait, the astute reader might exclaim, this is not true.  There are entries in the Books I finished reading box on the right.  Not only this, two were added just a few days ago.  Indeed – and this is the reason for this post.  Thanks to the inflight entertainment provided by Oman Air, which was copious and varied but didn't excite me in the least, I managed to read two books on the way to India and back.

One of them, Our moon has blood clots, was in my conference pack in India.  The organizers had given one of fifty books on India to every participant.  A great idea, though the exclusion of Midnight's Children, a neat 70 years after India's formation, is inexcusable.  The other, Soumission, had been on my list ever since it was published, but I only managed to pick it up as a paperback a few months back – in a bookshop in Zurich main station by the way.

These two books will be part of the 2017 book list, which will continue a tradition started in 2009 and upheld until 2014.  I didn't summarize my reading in 2015 and 2016.  In 2016, the reason was lack of activity.  A purgatory of half-finished books kept growing on my shelves when I didn't finish a single one.  In 2015, I was too lazy to write but kept my notes.  Here's getting back on track, belatedly:

  • Das Blutbuchenfest by Martin Mosebach – Detailing the lives of a loosely connected group in Frankfurt during the Balkan war, this book was much hyped in Germany but didn't live up to my expectations.
  • Swiss Watching by Diccon Bewes – This was a parting gift from a contributor to the fastest paper I've ever published (less than a year from idea to print).  The book reveals Switzerland in tedious jokes that become oddly appropriate as the chapters pass.
  • Sechseläuten by Michael Theurillat – This Swiss number-one bestseller is lively crime story set against a backdrop (of indentured child labor and Yenish travelers) so stark that my first reaction was to take it all as fiction.  Turns out there's yet another dark chapter to Swiss history.
  • Homo faber by Max Frisch – The most famous work of Switzerland's most famous novelist is a rational engineer's journey across the globe driven by emotions, memories, desires and misunderstandings. It's a good read, too.
  • Die Physiker by Franz Dürrenmatt – The most famous play by Switzerland's (Do you see a theme emerging?) most celebrated playwright was performed by some of my classmates in high school.  More than 20 years later, it still strikes me as superficial and inconsequential.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

one German last name

A few months ago I watched a hilarious Spanish movie called Ocho apellidos vascos, which centered on the concept of Basqueness.  To count as Basque, one needs to have the eight Basque last names of the movie's title in the family, i.e. all eight of one's great-grandparents need to have been Basque.  To have any sort of future with his Basque obsession, the Andalucian protagonist needs to come up with a list of eight Basque names and use them consistently.  Otherwise, grumpy dad will kick his ass back south.

As lighthearted at the movie was, there's quite a bit of darkness in the degree of racial purity claimed to be required for acceptance into Basque society.  It's a brutal system, hostile and exclusive.  Even the Nazis weren't quite that strict.  To count as Aryan, none of one's grandparents must have been Jewish, but no one asked what the great-grandparents had been up to.

The Swiss establish belonging differently.  Here, everyone has a place of origin.  This is not where the person was born, grew up or currently lives.  For most Swiss, it is the town where their family originates, frequently a hamlet up in the mountains and possibly a place they have never seen.  The place of origin is required on many official forms and might come up in conversations when people try to appraise each other.

When I first heard about the concept of origin, I naively thought it would provide an easy way of nationalistically separating the wheat from the chaff.  No matter how many rules you follow and how much on time you are, you can't be truly Swiss if your place of origin is Pristina, I thought, but it turns out that naturalized immigrants don't have their foreign birthplace as their origin.

This is explained by the curious three-tired nature of Swiss citizenship.  In Switzerland, you're first and foremost a citizen of your place of origin.  This must be an ancient tradition.  Your first loyalty was with your village.  This local citizenship gives you the right to further citizenship of canton and Confederation.

For the Swiss, this is how it's always been and not worth a second though.  For foreigners wanting to become Swiss, there are some interesting consequences.  First, you don't submit your application to a federal agency.  Your current hometown, the place where you've spent the last few years, handles the process.  Second, it's not only formal criteria that qualify you for citizenship but also the consideration of your future fellow citizens.  They will be asked to come forth and voice any objections they might have.  Third, the issuing town will become your place of origin if you're application is successful.

When we went to the local registrar's office the other day, questions of citizenship and place of origin where not on our minds.  Instead, to come back to the beginning of this post, it was the last name of our son.  Despite our best efforts at torpedoing the system, the Swiss administration had done things right.  Not being married, the mother is the only point of reference.  Our son carried Flucha's last name.

This put him at odds with his sister and presented us with a wrong in need of correction.  It wasn't difficult.  A pile of documents from three countries and an hour at the registrar's office sufficed to establish my paternity and gave our son a German last name, at least as far as the Swiss were concerned.

At the German consulate, where we had gone this week to claim citizenship and apply for the best passport for traveling, a different story emerged.  The Swiss might have done things properly and filed all documents in the right place, but no one else cares.  I save you some of the rather absurd details but over the course of an hour, our son went back to carrying his original last name, only to revert to the right one a few minutes later.  He's not even two months old, but he's had four official identities already.  And – fingers crossed that it stays that way – he has one German last name.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

imprisoned in India

So far, this has been a bit different from what I had expected.  I'm in Hyderabad to attend the Congress of the International Union of Crystallography, an epic bash that happens once every three years and brings thousands of crystallographers together.  I left Zurich last night after an ominous evening when gale-force winds nearly blasted our backyard furniture into oblivion.  At the airport, it was as if nothing had happened.  No delays and no cancelations.

After a stop in Muscat, I arrived in Hyderabad in the midst of monsoon.  It seemed as if we had landed in a field.  From the airplane, I saw no evidence of civilization and certainly no traces of the town itself.  My doubts were dispelled quickly.  The airport was well laid out and nearly void of people.  Immigration took less than a minute.  I made it from the gate to the curb in about five minutes, so fast that I missed the change wallahs and stood by the taxi rank without a single rupee to my name.

It's curious that I should have thought about money at this point.  Exiting an Indian airport, in other words setting foot on Indian soil for the first time, I expected to be overwhelmed, hit in the face with noise, litter and chaos.  I found none.  Instead, the muggy heat, spacious ground level car park and slightly sloppy driving vaguely reminded me of Marseille.  And where were the begging cripples?  This didn't look like India at all – except that prices were in rupees, which I didn't have.

"No worries", said a fellow with a managerial air.  "We'll charge an estimated maximum to your credit card.  The driver will run the meter and, at your hotel, return whatever you didn't owe."  Does this ring your alarm bells?  It should.  This sounds like the perfect recipe to milk clueless tourists.  My fears were allayed somewhat when the manager and the driver discussed the fare and the driver insisted on a lower amount to be paid up-front.  In the end, the actual fare fell short by a bit, but there was never any talk of returning the difference.  There was my tip taken care off.

If the airport didn't match my ideas of India, the drive to the hotel didn't either.  Apart from a set of axle-breaking speed bumps at a tool booth, the infrastructure seemed in good shape.  No potholes, and the bridges looked fine.  For the first part of the drive, the verges were positively beautiful, with neatly trimmed grass, trees in yellow bloom and what vaguely looked like crane flowers but white.

There were three lanes to the highway but hardly any traffic.  There were no cows and no rickshaws.  Later, in more urban surroundings, yellow three-wheeled micro-taxis, mopeds and a lonely cyclist added elements of adventure, but life on the motorway was rather staid.  Here and there, cars stood in the emergency lane, their drivers hurrying back and forth in what might have been dodgy business.  Here and there again, small groups of women seemed to be just hanging out but were in all likelihood engaged in crucial but invisible maintenance work.  It didn't matter.  There was enough space for everyone.

The most notable features of the countryside were rocks.  In places, the road seemed to be machined into the topology of the land, with a wall of rock like in a quarry left behind on either side.  This was reflected by solitary formations near and far that wouldn't be out of place in Utah, huge boulders precariously balanced one on top of the other.  Here, they weren't of sandstone but of grey granite.  Many developments, among them the hotel I'm staying in, incorporated these piles as centerpieces.

The hotel, to get back to the point of this post, and the adjacent conference center sit on a piece of land all to themselves.  Around is an impenetrable fence.  The access road passes through a gate with a security check.  There is no footpath and no easy way out.  Going for dinner requires a taxi, which seems a bit of a faff.  If not carceral, the hotel is at least a gilded cage of dubious value.  Richard Marx wafts up to my room from a dozen outdoor speakers.  From my window I can see grass, a terrace and a pool, but not India.  After eight hours in the country, it is as if I weren't here.

It gets worse.  Times Now TV has just exposed that the #CowardChineseArmy has pelted stones at Indian braves in what's claimed to be a major altercation at the shared border.  The Indians have pushed back valiantly, but there's no guarantee the two countries won't go to war tomorrow.  What am I doing here?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

growing up

They say you grow up, from one moment to the next, when your first baby arrives.  I don't know if that was true for me.  In my mind at least, I haven't changed a bit.  There's a now child to take care of and a family to support, but I can see myself blasting the foothills behind campus in Salt Lake, riding up the cols around Grenoble or floating around London on each day's new whim.  I don't do these things because I don't have time for them but they're still there.  You might say other things have become more important, and if that's what's growing up is, then maybe I've grown up after all.  But this post is not about me.

This post is about the growing up, from one moment to the next, someone else had to do when my second baby arrived.  Our son was born on Friday, and on the face of it, it should have been routine, at least for me.  Things went pretty much as with the first one, except for my cluelessness.  Five days later, mother and child are home and we're the same happy family, just bigger.

Two things took me by surprise, though, and they're related.  The first is the size of the baby.  He's tiny, despite weighing in at a good 800 g more than his sister when she was born.  But I've got so used to holding my first baby that holding the second one was positively shocking.  He seemed to weigh nothing by comparison.

The second surprise is the other side of the same coin.  All of a sudden, my daughter has grown in one big leap.  She used to be the fragile little creature who I held, all puzzled and full of doubt, in the hospital only minutes after she was born.  She cried and I had no idea what to do.  Over the next two years, she grew and developed and started performing all kinds of tricks, but she remained our baby.

By comparison with her little brother, she's suddenly big, her body heavy and her legs strong.  It's four years until she goes to school, but how much more will she mature?  She's a real kid already.  Despite looking exactly the same as one week ago, she's changed beyond recognition – grown up if you will.

In the next few days we'll see how she handles the situation.  For us it's easy.  We saw it coming and see, however vaguely, where it's going, but she has no clue and no control.  All she knows is that there's a fourth member to the family and she's not the undisputed number one anymore.  Mommy is dividing her attention and will frequently have to say no.

So far Tapas is handling it well, but one can tell that she's struggling.  At home, she kisses her brother gently and behaves in a rather grown-up way, but all her emotions escalate dramatically.  When I pick her up from childcare, she clings to me neck in desperate need of love – never mind that she bounces there in the mornings as if to join the town's biggest party.  Growing up isn't easy.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

two years

With my daughter nearing her second birthday, I want to take the opportunity to contemplate her development and take some notes.  Things happen so quickly, there's amazing progress, unbelievable and beautiful, and a few weeks later all these first steps have been taken a hundred times, become routine and don't merit a second thought.

Tapas started walking when she was thirteen months old.  This was unsurprising.  Three months earlier, on one of our many trips to IKEA, she had grabbed a little plastic stool and, pushing it around, started exploring the store.  The joy in her eyes that betrayed excitement about being able to move around by herself was quite a sight, not something I would have expected of a child that wasn't even one year old.

Physically, Tapas is where she belongs.  She slides the slides without fear, climbs stairs up and down, swings on the swing despite a recent fall that can be blamed almost entirely on her dad, takes little jumps, steers a tricycle with skill despite not being able to pedal because her legs are too short, and runs every which way with little high-frequency steps.  This is what I might have thought a toddler would be like, had I ever bothered to think about this.

What would have never come to my mind is the mental skills toddlers develop early on.  Tapas is bilingual at least.  I speak to her in German, while Flucha does Spanish.  We talk to each other in English but try not to address Tapas in this language.  There's enough confusion already, especially since childcare adds another dimension in being a Swiss-German environment. Tapas called food "fein" the other day.  This is not a word I use.  It's German, but it came straight from childcare.

So the child is challenged.  Books in the library and scientific studies tell me that this challenge will eventually be overcome and the experience leave a positive mark in terms of heightened cognitive skills later in life, but early in life it's a burden likely to cause a delayed development a linguistic skills.  Whether this delay is outside normal child-to-child variations is another question.

If Tapas is delayed, it's not in a way that would cause me any worry.  In contrast, I'm frequently stunned and left speechless by what she has already figured out.  She has figured out, for example, that there are two languages, and that mommy and daddy speak differently.  Most of the time, as long as she knows the word, she will address either of us in the correct language.  She can also do translations.  Ask her in Spanish what the German word for hat is, and she will tell you.  This is nearly automatic for the translations she's done before.  If she encounters a new word, she tilts her head sideways and stares blankly in the distance.  After a bit of a think – for this is what she's having – she often comes up with the right translation, without having to consult a dictionary.

This thinking is something I still find astonishing.  Toddlers aren't supposed to be thinkers.  But when you ask her to find a particular animal in a picture book, she will scan the tiny page very carefully and then purposefully point out the requested critter.  After she's done this a few times, she knows where all the animals are and points almost without looking.

Her memory shines in other ways, too.  After she's practiced a few times, she doesn't solve puzzles where wooden shapes (e.g. animals) fit into cutouts by matching the shape to the cutout but by remembering where each animal goes.  Before picking up a shape, she will point at all the cutouts and identify the animal that goes there.  I sit there baffled, watching in surprise, asking myself, how does she know.

Childcare is a source of great joy to Tapas.  She loves to go there.  Are we bad parents?  Is it horrible at home?  I don't think so.  But she's thrilled about childcare and tells us every night before going to bed what she will do there the next day.  The most unexpected part to me is that what gets her going most are two children there.  When she thinks of them and says their names, her eyes light up.  She likes playing with them.  They have developed a bond – and yet they're not even two years old.  There's no way they'll remember when they're older.

In studies and books I've read that children cannot distinguish between reality and fiction or simulation.  This is utter nonsense.  Tapas got a wooden kitchen for Christmas.  This appeared in the living room of our flat when we got back from Argentina.  In Argentina, it was summer and, touching the exposed surfaces of playground toys, she had learned to concept and (thanks maybe to an overprotective father) German word for hot.  Hot was the first adjective she learned, the first property of things and the first abstract idea whose implications she grasped.

On the play-kitchen are two buttons to light red diods underneath the hot plates, making them look like ceramic cooking surfaces.  She describes them as hot when they're clearly not.  When playing with her kitchen, she associates hot not with temperature but with the cooking surface, even if it's not a real one, and she will point out to us the dangers of touching it.

Or take her baby doll.  Over time, this acquired one of her diapers, and now from time to time the baby makes kaka.  When it has, Flucha or I take the baby's clothes off.  Tapas then takes the diaper off and cleans it and the baby's ass with her hand.  Then she goes to the bathroom to pull one (!) sheet from the roll of toilet paper and cleans her hand, throwing the paper in the toilet when she's done.  The complexity!  The mixing of the imagined and the real!  I could watch for hours.

I could also write for hours about this, and yet I sit down all too infrequently.  And so most little details will fade into oblivion in a process called aging, which starts the day we are born.