Monday, May 15, 2017

shades of mud

Flying to Santa Fe is a pain no matter which one of the two airlines serving its municipal airport you choose. From Zurich, it involves three flights, the last of which is a short hop in a little tin that's rattling and shaking like an ill-tempered wind chime. In the time it takes you to get there, you'd make it to San Francisco and halfway back. It is not a journey to take lightly but one with rewards.

By day, Santa Fe is delightful. The sky is blue, the sun burning, the air is dry and brown the dominant color. At 7000 feet, the town often seems to hover in the translucence of the high desert. Adobe buildings in Pueblo style give an impression of architectural congruence and carefully preserved history. Not all of this is what it seems, though. A marker by an old officers' quarter in the historic center reveals that Pueblo style took off only in the early 20th century when a local authority in these matters decreed that henceforth, no other style would be tolerated. Existing buildings were plastered over to create the mud-façaded ensemble that now dominates New Mexico's tourism marketing.

For me, this works. Walking around town, I was reminded of a visit to New Mexico a good fifteen years ago, when I road-tripped around the southern half of the state, from Albuquerque down to White Sands and back. The highlight of that trip was a walk around Acoma Pueblo, along its dusty lanes, the skyward-pointing ladders that enable access to the homes through holes in their roofs forever out of reach. What jarred at first what the flat drone of our native guide's voice. How had he got the job? At some point – whether prompted by an aggravated question or not I don't remember – he explained that the monotony was on purpose. He wanted to make sure the stories of his forefathers that he had to tell us outsiders as part of the tour would stay in the pueblo. To me, this only added to the magic of the visit.

Thanks to the early local authority with a vision, you don't have to go to a pueblo to get a bit of the pueblo vibe. Santa Fe is all adobe buildings, in more shades of clay than are on my chino shelf. Exposed beams of Ponderosa pines long gone from the surroundings and accents of light blue crack through the mud here and there. Wooden ladders are conspicuously missing, but at least the Eldorado Hotel at one end of town and the Pruma at the other give the impression of impregnability by any other means.

The town sees itself as a destination for refined tourists. On one side of the central plaza, by the old Palace of the Governors, dozens of Native Americans spend their days slumped against the wall, offering necklaces, earrings and bracelets in turquoise and silver to a steady stream of discerning customers. Art galleries, pottery shops, jewelry boutiques and enough museums to fill the entire state's quota three times over give Santa Fe a cultured vibe. Acoustic sets and skillful street musicians pop up at odd hours. This is not the place for rowdy crowds to let their hair down.

Or is it? At night, Santa Fe turns into a different beast. When most tourists are back in their hotels, the hicks come out in force. The streets fill with vehicles of dubious value, pimped primarily for acoustic incontinence. Camaros with roaring oven pipes, ricers whose wheels had slumped to pathologic camber and humping lowriders performed a parade of sensational combustion. I saw a motorcycle spinning its rear wheel as if in a drag race and a Fiesta leaving rubber on an intersection. A Fiesta! What a sad spectacle, violently at odds with the sophistication of the day, but maybe not so surprising after all. Thirty miles from Santa Fe is Los Alamos, reputedly the town with the highest density of PhDs in the US. Around it, however, is New Mexico, one of the poorest states of the US. The behavior of the kids reflects that.

I was at a structural biology conference with an impressive line-up of speakers. Talks ran from right after breakfast to after dinner. There was little time to leave the hotel and none at all for sightseeing. Most conferences have at least an afternoon off to see a bit of the locality. This one was so focused on science, it sometimes felt it was losing itself. Flying out of Santa Fe this morning was thus a bit of a pain. So much was left unseen, it was a shame to leave.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

tonight in Sweden

This morning, I got on the plane with considerable trepidation.  The trip to Lund could have been the start of a major disaster.  Thanks to recently unearthed high-level intelligence, disseminated during a speech that attracted global attention, Sweden is a failed state, a basket case, worst place to visit in Europe (where catastrophe and collapse is never far off anyway), a total mess.  In Sweden, Islamic terrorists roam freely, rapists own the streets and assorted immigrants riot nightly.  How criminally irresponsible of my employer to send me there.

The last time I was in Sweden, a few months ago, the situation hadn't quite deteriorated to the same degree, but it was already bad.  While I survived, my telephone fell victim to a heinous attack by a terrorist stretch of pavement.  I went running one morning, as I usually do when I'm traveling.  It was still dark outside, cold and snowy.  For the first time ever, I took my phone.  I had just downloaded a running app and wanted to start tracking my activity.

A few minutes into the run – I wasn't even properly cold yet – the attack happened, out of nowhere.  Thereafter it was utterly ignored by the mainstream media.  No surprise, maybe, but remember:  Here's the only place you'll read about it.  Share freely to show that your voice won't be ignored!

From one nimble step to the next, my phone slipped out of my pocket, innocently and without guile, choosing, with charming naiveté, the ground to break its fall.  The ground, probably shipped in from abroad and laid down in this very place by a team of illegal immigrants, took wicked advantage of the opportunity, whipping the poor phone around and cracking its screen into a million bits.  The cost to repair it still brings tear to my eyes, but this time around, I fear for my life, not my phone.

Sweden is lost to civilization, a total nightmare.  The airport serving southern Sweden needed to be moved to Denmark for safety reasons.  These days, you fly into Copenhagen.  Before letting you on the train across the Øresund Bridge, fierce immigrants with bushy beards check passports where only a few years ago one could travel freely.

In Sweden, I wasn't immediately confronted with mob violence or street violence, and I have no injuries to prove the danger I was in.  Society seems to be hanging on, but the thread is thinning.  To buy a bus ticket with a value I could just touch-pay with my credit card in Switzerland, I had to give my pin, then show an ID and finally sign the receipt.  When I was asked for an iris scan, I ran off and walked to the place I had to be.

Tonight, after dinner by the train station, still peculiarly undisturbed by the mayhem that was surely going on outside, just out of sight, I saw that the Islamists had taken over a pub.  Their first act of business was pricing all beer out of every infidel's consideration.  Bastards – but what a way to make Switzerland look cheap!  I had a local stout anyway, dark and cold like the night outside but much sweeter and more wholesome, pondering with friends and colleagues the sad state of the world where a deranged tweeter is taken more seriously than all the wisdom in the world and where assorted absurdities are taken at face value when a simple check would reveal their falseness.

I hasten to say that this post contains its own share of prevarication, though maybe less than the critical reader might think. Not all of it is nonsense.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

so close

There are essentially two grocery store chains Switzerland, Migros and Coop.  Both are organized as cooperatives and don't compete all that fiercely.  Their selections are meager and their prices high.  They also pay their employees exceptionally well.  This is how Switzerland works in a nutshell.

As do grocers in other countries, Migros and Coop organize periodic competitions to get customers to spend yet more money.  One just ended.  For every twenty Francs spent, Migros handed customers a little booklet that held, out of sight, two stickers.  Fill the card with stickers and you'd win a pantry.  Look at the ticket.  We were so close to securing our grocery budget for at least a year.  Just one sticker missing.

Almost winning

Halfway through the excitement of the game, I first realized the postmodern self-reflectivity of the game and then the simple point behind it.  That excitement I felt was supposed to cloud my vision and make my shop at Migros even though what I wanted to buy was slightly cheaper elsewhere, or it would have if there had been an alternative.  With two grocers comfortably sharing a customer base suffused with affluence, competition is not part of the strategy and price not a selling point.  The game seemed to be more about giving something back to generous customers than to entice spending.

To build excitement, the game was exceedingly well designed.  Look at the picture again.  The card on the left promises 25,000 Franc to those who fill all twelve spots with stickers.  A few weeks into the competition, we were two thirds done.  Then only two stickers were missing, then only one.  At this point, I realized what was going on.

The point of the game is of course to get the winning sticker.  It's a game that's played in infinite varieties, with more or less fluff around the main objective.  The simplest version is to raffle off the prizes directly, printing a line on the receipt that would say, "Big loser!  So sad.", most of the time and announce the big win when it happens.  So far, so boring.

Not much better in terms of customer engagement is providing a code and a web address.  Barclay's Bank in the UK used to do that on receipts from their ATMs.  There's a bit of excitement while you navigate to the site and a light buildup of tension while you wait to have your code verified.  There's also an element of play to it, but it's still bad.  I never even looked at the codes.

A step up is handing out tokens of some sort that need to be opened or unwrapped.  The activity will draw people in.  But if all tokens are losers and only three win the big prize, participants will soon tire of the game.  Who wants to be a loser every day?

Migros doesn't call its customers losers.  With every colorful sticker one gets for shopping, one fills the card and feels like getting closer to the big win.  But these stickers are only padding.  Reduced to its essentials, the game is nothing more than three winners and a million losers.  The brilliant thing is that the losers aren't called such.  Quite the contrary, the losers are steps one needs to take on the way to the win.  Instead of spreading frustration about losing, the game keeps building hope.  Only three stickers matter, but this fact is cleverly hidden in the design of the game.

I am reminded of a book I've been reading on and off for a good two years now.  Among many other amazing and thought-provoking things, Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow describes how the brain reacts to observations and triggers, and how different ways of presenting the same information can get drastically different reactions.

For example, when a patient is asked to consent to risky surgery, the response will be much more positive when the risk is framed as a survival rate of 90 percent.  Alerted to the mathematically identical mortality rate of 10 percent, the patient is much more likely to decline.  By collecting stickers, I had fallen into the same trap.  But what fun it was!

Monday, March 06, 2017

typically Swiss

Three weeks ago, I thought I had a topic for a post.  It was an episode that brought some common stereotypes of Switzerland in such sharp focus that I was left blinded for a few moments.  It was perfect little story.  Lack of dedication to this blog killed it.  It now turns out it was all for the best.

To drive in Switzerland, one has to have a Swiss license.  Holders of a license from what are commonly known as civilized countries have one year to exchange their license for a Swiss one.  Within that year, no test beyond one of eyesight is required to be eligible for a Swiss license.  Swapping licenses is nothing more than a formality.

This sounds sensible but the idea didn't appeal to me.  Being European, I've driving like a local while living in France and in the UK.  No one ever asked questions.  Before that, in Utah, getting a state driver's license required a written test (open book) but let me keep my license.  What right do the Swiss have to retain my license?

It was over questions like this that a year passed.  With the second year nearing its end, it was likely too late to take action.  When it says one year in Switzerland, one year is what it means.  When the bus leaves at ten past three, it's ten past three and not a quarter.  Twenty-three months after my arrival in Switzerland, the train to a new license had left the station.

Except maybe it hadn't.  A colleague at work, told about my predicament, gave me hope.  "You can do it within two years, but you have to pay more", had said.  This made perfect sense in my understanding of Switzerland.  There are plenty of rules.  Enforcement is strict.  But if you part with some money, you'll discover hidden flexibility.  In the end, reality turned out quite different.

Three weeks ago, I went to Zurich to have my German driver's license exchanged for a Swiss one.  The office opened at 7:15.  Not being as hard-working as the Swiss, I entered the building five minutes later.  A further five minutes later, I was back out, and all was done.  The clerk had taken my application form and my license, thoughtfully given me a copy for my records, and sent me on my way.  "You'll get your new license by mail within a week."

If the license had arrived exactly seven days after my visit, it would have been the perfect story of Swiss efficiency.  A job done as expected, without any faff, quickly, competently and friendly.  And who has ever heard of a government office opening just after seven?

First doubts arose on the tram ride back.  There had been no question about my arrival in the country.  What happened to the one-year rule?  Nor had any money exchanged hands.  This gave it away.  Nothing is free in Switzerland.  There would be more to this story.

Eight days after I handed over my German license, I received a letter asking me to get a medical exam if I wanted to keep a particular lorry class I had obtained all those years ago and never used.  I opted out, but then it took another four days until my license arrived.  The promised week was broken, at least in part because the clerk at the office hadn't checked that all the boxes were ticked on the form.

With a new license in my wallet, this is where the story would have ended for me, but the Swiss had other ideas.  Today I got another letter.  Inside was a bill.  The exchange of licenses was one item and hard to argue with.  The issuing of a new license was also listed, though this might have been included with the exchange in more generous jurisdictions.  Finally, an ID check brought the total into the triple figures, not something I'm particularly happy with, but at least it's in line with common preconceptions of Switzerland.  This is an expensive country.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

bike to work

There are three ways of getting to work by bike.  By far the easiest is in the valley, vaguely following a busy road but mainly on bike paths. In violation of one of the fundamental laws of cycling, the wind always blows from behind.  Last summer, when I had reached a modicum of shape, I managed to do the round trip, all of 31 kilometers, in just under an hour.

The second way of getting to work involves such a sustained climb right at the outset that I've only ever done it the other way. It's a way of getting home from work, and a very good one.  A gently rising road opens increasingly impressive vistas of the Alps when the weather is good.  At the end, there's a hilarious descent into tow where I was almost taken out by a bus once.

The third way is by far the hardest.  Going to work across Heitersberg involves a two-kilometer climb that averages close to 10%.  This is quite literally a steep challenge on an empty stomach.  It trims the commute by 3 kilometers, but I don't consider it a short cut.  The ride will inevitably take longer.  Going back is easier, but you need to have the legs for it.

Today I rode across Heitersberg for the first time since my two crashes there last year.  The road is narrow and steep, there are some 90-degree turns without much warning, and one morning a turn was soiled with wet grass.  You get the picture.  It's not a pretty one.

I now have a new bicycle, nearly identical to the old one, which languishes in the basement as a pile of spares.  The steer tube of the fork was ripped in two when I hit a curb sliding fast but rather comfortably on a pad of wet grass.  The rest, including my body, survived the crash almost unharmed.

This is only a dim memory now.  Slightly more recent but fading fast is winter.  January was cold.  There was even some snow.  It has all melted, and the ice on the ponds is gone.  While mornings are still a bit too cold for my comfort, I've been riding.  It's the only thing that keeps me moving at the necessary intensity to shape my legs and clear my head.

Today it was warm for the first time, a glorious day with sunshine and clear views in all directions.  I could see the Alps from the office, glowing orange in the evening sun as a packed up for the day.  The valley wouldn't do, I thought, as I hopped on my bike.  I rode along the hills and then up towards Heitersberg.  This being the easier side, the suffering was manageable.  On the other side, I descended calmly, almost like a responsible person.  Whichever way I take, this is the way to go.

I'm surprised that I shouldn't have used this title in almost twelve years of blogging (if the last three years of rather rare activity still count), but that's what the search says, and who am I to argue with Google on this?

Friday, January 27, 2017


Here's a post I wanted to write a while ago.  I let the opportunity pass, but today it came back with a vengeance.  The post is about Switzerland and money, but it's not what you think – no matter what you think.

This morning, like most mornings in winter when it's cold and foggy, I bought a ticket at the train station for my commute to work.  For some reason my card wasn't working, but a ten-franc note did the trick.  Among the pieces the machine spit out as change was one particularly dark and grimy.  Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be minted in 1884.

ten cents
spot the difference

I give you some time to digest this.  A coin (like anything else) from 1884 is 133 years old.  The little ten-cent piece has been circulating since the time the first Gotthard tunnel was dug through the Alps, doing duty like any one of its much younger cousins that gather in wallets and registers.  If it didn't look exactly the same, it would be on display in a museum.

Some of the trams in Zurich or Basel could also rightfully claim their place in a museum, maybe the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne.  Some regional trains might also make the cut, not to say anything of the historic mountain railways.  A casual visitor might infer that Switzerland is too poor to afford modern transportation.  A better explanation is they're taking good care of things and don't need to replace them so often.  The money saved helps make them rich.

They might take good care of their coins, but care of coins is not what makes them last more than a century without being replaced.  The 133-year old coin tells you that there was no change of economic systems that required new money, no devaluation, and essentially no inflation.  It sounds like the world's most boring places from a historian's point of view.

As such, the ancient little coin is an apt symbol for the country.  Switzerland is a collection of villages.  Though painstakingly on time, things move slowly.  Not much is happening.  And even a coin minted 133 years ago probably doesn't have all that many stories to tell.

The reason I wanted to write this post a while ago is that I found an old coin in my wallet before – and before.  The first one was a twenty-cent piece from 1919, from right after the end of the First World War.  The second was another twenty-cent piece from 1926.  These two identical coins neatly bookend a period that saw twelve zeros slashed from the currency just north of the border.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

dead cows

This year again, the highlight of our trip to Argentina was the time spent in Uruguay.  This is not something I would like the folks I, not being married, like to call my outlaws know.  They have welcomed me as a family member and put much love and effort into our now annual two-and-a-half-week stays with them.  We celebrate Christmas and New Year's like Argentines do, let our daughter discover the second half of her identity, eat ourselves silly, and do family time.  For my benefit, we also go out and travel a bit.

Last year, Flucha and I took the boat across the Rio de la Plata to spend a day in Colonia del Sacramento, one of the first European settlements in the Americas and now a World Heritage Site of considerable beauty, by the Rio de la Plata and under the full sun of a perfect summer day.  We explored the old town, had a few drinks, rented bicycles to check out surroundings that rewarded with a relaxed vibe and friendly locals, and cruised back to Buenos Aires late at night with few concrete memories but a desire to return.

The opportunity presented itself this year when the outlaws gave us for Christmas a night in a hotel in Fray Bentos and a car with a full tank of gas to get there.  Fray Bentos is another World Heritage Site but nearly completely under the radar of international tourism.  We didn't even see Argentines, and they'd just have to cross a bridge to get there.

The first thing we saw after crossing the bridge was a huge paper factory on the right side, on the bank of the Rio Uruguay.  For many years, the flames of protest burned high on the other side of the river.  Argentines feared pollution would destroy tourism.  Uruguayans were excited about the jobs, especially since Fray Bentos's traditional industry had died decades earlier.  The atmosphere between the countries became toxic.  The river continues to run clean, if the Uruguayans swimming in it happily are anything to go by.

Fray Bentos was the site of the Anglo meat processing factory, a huge facility where the industrial production of beef extract turned the world's finest carrion (before, cattle were raised in South America primarily for the hides) into something to be sold in Europe, where millions of cows were stuffed into tins as corned beef and where, after the second world war, a cold chain was developed to make the worldwide shipping of fresh meat possible.  Four thousand people worked there during the busiest years, and nearly half that many cows were chopped to pieces every day.  Today, the abandoned complex, nearly fully intact, is preserved as a museum.

How I came across Fray Bentos in the first place is outside my memory.  It might be as banal as reading the corresponding section of the Lonely Planet guide to Argentina that has a chapter on Uruguay as if it were a renegade province.  Why I was enthusiastic is easy to explain.

I am a sucker for industrial heritage, the more outrageous the better, and we had come for the tour.  At slightly more than an hour, it was a bit on the short side but impressive nonetheless: A cavernous hall full of engines and generators used to turn charcoal into electricity for power and refrigeration.  The slaughterhouse resembled what Eric Schlosser described in Fast Food Nation 60 years later.  Huge iron vats, now slowly rusting in the humid air, held minced cows that were stewed until all the goodness has been released.  The juice was then vacuum-evaporated to leave the extract behind, much like you make instant coffee.  It was vivid and real, but I wish I could have explored more.

On the drive to Las Cañas, a low-key resort were Uruguayans who can't afford the Atlantic coast (or want to avoid the craziness) spent their summer holidays, each turn in the narrow road revealed another picnic spot occupied by a family sharing mates.  Trees cut though the worst of the heat, and from the river came a refreshing breeze.  We found a spot by the water and got our own mate out.  Across the river, the sun set in a flood of orange and gold.  Time passes slowly in Uruguay.  There's no better place for a vacation.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

back and forward

This year, unlike last, I work until the day before Christmas.  Last year, when Flucha and the baby were still in Heidelberg, I was gone a weekend earlier to get the trip to Argentina going.  The trip is the same this year, but getting there is easier.  It doesn't require hours on the train.  It could have been even easier, at least for Flucha, if I had traveled on the same day, but somehow our communication suffered a serious breakdown when we booked the flights.  We only realized a few weeks ago that I'd be traveling two days later.

Flucha and the toddler are now on the plane to London.  I'm sitting in the café by the terrace overlooking the gates at Zurich airport.  It's time to take stock.  The film of the departing year rolls by my mind's eye.  What was good and what can be improved for next year?

In terms of work, these considerations are rather acute.  I had my annual performance review this morning.  There was nothing surprising in it.  The year was good overall.  But looking at it with eyes sharpened by a sales training I attended over the last few months, I see that there is definitely room for improvement.

Before I commit two goals, formulated without too much thought, to writing, let's briefly review the year in trips.  The most shocking realization is that I didn't add a new country to my paltry list of 30 or so.  I traveled to the US four times, picking up 600€ delay compensation from United and Silver status with Star Alliance in the process.  Reading about my status achievement with considerable excitement I realized that there are almost no benefits.  Gold is where it starts.  I'm nowhere near it and hope I my travel intensity won't be high enough to reach it.

All other trips were in Europe.  I went to Germany, Sweden, France and the UK – multiple times and not for the first time.  Scrutinizing the trips I surprised myself by identifying one to the south of Bavaria, just a few hours in the car from Zurich, as the highlight of the year.  Murnau hosted a stellar conference and is situated in beautiful surroundings, but what made the trip a standout is that Flucha and the baby came.  We spent a few extra days and met my sister and family.  There was also beer and good food.  This trip had it all.

Regarding my goals for next year, focusing more strictly on achieving formal goal is an obvious point.  This was mentioned during the sales training, but one shouldn't really need training for this.  Still, my work is so varied and interesting that it's easy to get distracted and do what seems important (and maybe even urgent) at the moment.  I'll prioritize better next year.

Knowing how I spend my time is another point.  Often, when I look back on a day it seems all I did was read emails and reply to them.  Better than meetings, you might say, but it's not good enough.  I will group my tasks in eight to ten categories, install a time tracking app on my phone, and see how the categories fill with minutes and hours.  Maybe after a few weeks, I'll be able to prioritize and find enough spare time to read at least a couple of scientific papers a week.

Tomorrow will be busy at work.  Everything needs to be finished before I go off the grid for two-and-a-half weeks, but Friday is off.  A good opportunity to plan for next year and set concrete goals for myself – before I'm too busy with steak, ice cream and the beach.