Thursday, July 25, 2019

another conference

Periodically I launch the project of a daily diary.  Of course, etymologically a diary is already daily.  The fact that I need to emphasize this (to myself) explains in a nutshell what's wrong.  Even without this you know what's wrong from looking at a recent list of posts.  Going back a handful of entries will send you back to May.  I'm not good at keeping book.

The other day I bought a book with a few blank lines per day.  A diary, but with a twist.  Every page had space for the same day recorded over the course of five years.  You could note down your thoughts for the day and, down the road, directly compare them to thoughts from one year or two years ago.  I found this quite intriguing.  If you're trying to improve certain aspects of your life, it's good to look back and see how things have developed.

I started filling the top fifth of the pages when I went to Berlin earlier this month, but my enthusiasm has already petered out.  I didn't take the book (a sizeable hardbound volume of nearly 400 pages) on my trip to Cincinnati for this year's annual meeting of the American Crystallographic Association, which is now drawing to a close.

I had smaller, more travel-friendly notebook but didn't add anything after the first day.  When I started looking back tonight, after the closing banquet on a boat in the Ohio river, the last few days have already passed into the haze of half-forgotten memory.

Conferences are hard work.  If you're a regular delegate, conferences can be good fun.  You attend the session you're interested in and skip the rest.  It can be quite relaxing, depending on how strict you are with yourself.  The drawback is that no one's doing your research while you're away.  This sword hangs over your head while your heaving fun.

If you're a regular exhibitor, conferences are good fun.  You spend your days at the booth, chat with people that come your way, give away freebies, catch up with things back home via email, and go for nice dinners at night.  As being at the conference is your job, there's not much work that accumulates back home.  On the flip side, you have to show some achievements for the money spend on the conference.  This means sales, new leads or business connections.

My situation is halfway between the two.  I'm an exhibitor, but I'm also a scientist.  This can kill.  With no research project of my own, my interests are broad, and many sessions are tempting.  I could spend all day listening to presentations and learning new things.  But I also have to be at the booth for the commercial aspect of my job.  During coffee breaks I try to catch people I set out to talk to or am being stopped by random strangers.

I record these conversations on pieces of scrap paper that accumulate like dirt in a college dormitory.  At night I try to sort and digitize these notes.  There is no spare time.  With the last bit of work done late at night, I collapse into bed and sleep soundly and without dreams.  I do not find the time to summarize my day in a few lines that might help me figure myself out and see patterns.

Does that sound negative?  I love my job!  I'm a well-known part of a community that I didn't really get into by myself.  People tell me about their work, and I hear about the latest trends.  I contribute posters and presentations as if I were a scientist.  Coming from a company representative that's maybe not always taken entirely seriously, but I'm trying to be rigorous and leave the marketing bullshit to others.

Nevertheless, there's only so much rigor I can put into the job.  It's like doing three things at once – being a scientist, being a salesman and being a marketeer.  The scientist part required preparing two oral presentations and two posters and paying attention during talks relevant to our business (X-ray and electron detection – essentially everything at the conference).  The salesman part requires keeping track of conversations, faces and personal details.  If I know fifty people out of an attendance of 500 and I speak ten minutes to each one of them, that's nearly ten hours right there.

The marketeer part would have liked me to conduct an interview for a success story with one of our customers, fill social media with morsels, and interview a business partner to understand his needs and desires better.  For lack of time, I didn't do any of this.  I also haven't copied a few dozens of notes into my computer, and I haven't added any words to my every so hypothetical diary, even though it's midnight already.  It was a busy conference.

Friday, June 21, 2019

my words

Today was the girl's forth birthday.  She's big now, and she knows it.  For dinner, she refused the booster seat that lifts her head above the surface of the table.  Without it, she remained half hidden, but she enjoyed her new status as one of the big ones.  Teaching her useful chores should now be on my list.

The birthday was jam-packed with presents, activities and merriment.  It started early when the boy decided the night was over and demanded his milk.  The girl was the only one left sleeping, but she got up soon enough to discover song's sung in her honor and a living-room floor full of boxes wrapped in pink paper.  She had her own milk and then tore through the paper with delight.

Flucha had prepared and organized everything.  Not every detail but all aspects of the day – from the food over the activities and the presents to the cake.  She had also planned the party that will gather four of the girl's friends with their siblings and parents and the extended family of a neighbor in our backyard.  To say that my contribution had been humble is a bit of an understatement.  I had brought two little presents when I visited my mom the other day and assigned another one to my dad.  And yet I expected the day to follow a pattern I'm familiar with.

Here's what I remember about birthdays from when I was young:  I couldn't sleep the night before and got up early to discover the presents.  They were humble back then but made me happy.  I would leave them on the small sideboard where they had been waiting for me and come back periodically – and certainly the next few mornings – to make sure they were still there.

At breakfast there was always a cake with candles.  We didn't sing.  I blew the candles and we ate the first pieces of the cake before finishing the rest off in the afternoon with grandma.  I don't remember any big activities or trips taken on the occasion of my birthdays.  They were largely normal days.

Things are different now, more opulent, with countless elements coming together to build a beautiful whole.  Beholding these changes – driven by time and culture and abetted by my passivity – I suffer pangs of loss and disappointment and cannot always be as elated as I should be about my daughter's birthday.  This frustrates Flucha and me in almost equal measure.

There are a few obvious answers to questioning the elements of my daughter's birthday.  I had never realized this with such clarity up until now, sitting in the quiet of a half-empty living room, the entire family asleep with complete exhaustion.  It's really not difficult and the key to happiness in other aspects of my life as well.

Flucha organized everything, prepared everything, took charge and took care.  Without saying much, I judged her as overdoing it and absolved myself of involvement – trying to compensate for her high energy with apathy.  We didn't discuss the day except in the broadest terms.  Most presents were as much a surprise to me as they were to the girl.

There's a better way, and it's really quite simple:  We need to talk about what we do together.  We do too little of that, and it's mostly because of me.  I'm not much of a communicator, especially of things I don't like or consider unwise.  I hold back too long and often burst out aggressively or negatively.  How Flucha and I have remained together for more than ten years is a mystery.

I don't take the time for considered and constructive discussions, but that's really what is needed.  I need to speak about my wishes and tastes, not with an eye on imposing my will or rejecting Flucha's ideas but with the aim to understand her reasons for preferring one thing or another and make her understand mine.

The boy's second birthday is coming up in just about four weeks.  I've got something to work on until then.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

aging gracefully

During one of the laboratory rotations during my first year of graduate school in Utah, just about 20 years ago, doing real-time PCR to determine expression levels of some genes implicated in aging, Bernadette, the senior graduate student or junior postdoc who took me under her wing, told me she felt the first ill effects of old age when she turned 25.  At 23, I considered this utter nonsense and indeed, turning 25 didn't change my life.

Thirty didn't have much of an impact either.  The day I reached that milestone, after a journey on the night train down from Grenoble where I was by then living, I rode my bicyle up the Col d'Aubisque in the Pyrenees, the Tour de France hot on my wheels.  I had never felt better physically.

Forty didn't bother me either.  Among my friends, only one had deemed this birthday worth a grand celebration.  He invited his companions over the years to a bash in Jena where he and I had gone to college together.  I didn't see anything special in the date.

This was four years ago, and what a difference four years can make!  I was young back then, relatively independent, accountable to no one and responsible for nothing. Life flowed, and I let it take me with it.

Since then I have acquired two children - amazing creatures that no one and nothing could have prepared me for - and a woman that might very well be my wife.  I share responsibility for my little family, am a teacher to my children, a hero in their young lives.  I have aged in the process.

Riding my bicycle to work this year has been an exercise in pain.  My average speed is more than 3 km/h lower than in earlier years.  When I go running on business trips, I hardly ever faster than five minutes per kilometer.  Sometimes I take more than six.  I might as well be walking with a cane.

Dashing up the stairs at work, I can quickly exhaust myself, as if doing Olympic-level interval training.  When I played football for the first time in many years the other day, I was rewarded for my animation on the field and the goals I scored with a sustained back pain so piercing that it felt like being perforated with knives.  I lay in ruins for more than a week.

Maybe this shouldn't surprise me.  Aging is nothing to complain about or bewail.  The arrow of time flies one way only.  But it is frustrating nevertheless.  I'm falling apart physically.  Forty-four is my personal tipping point.  Halfway through my statistical life expectancy, the forces of destruction are gaining the upper hand.

How do I live with this?  Will I finally break down and buy a car or even a TV to support age-appropriate listlessness?  Probably not immediately.  The new flat, which we'll finally move into this weekend, is much closer to work than the old one.  Cycling won't cause me to break a sweat.  I could even jog.

A friend of mine who sensed impending doom a few years back signed up for CrossFit and reached the best shape of his life at the age of forty.  He put more hard work and suffering into this than I'd ever be able to sustain.  With some regular exercise, I could probably also raise my fitness levels and feel better when I move, but it's more important that I learn to live with the inevitable.  I might be able to slow down my decay, but I know that it is unstoppable.

Friday, May 10, 2019

the new situation

We've got the flat.  Everything went smoothly.  A week after applying, we got the yes.  I'm still not convinced it's the right flat for us, but it's ok, we're going to survive, and the school's really close to it, a short walk away.

Getting rid of the old flat was painless.  In Switzerland, leases are taken seriously.  You rent because you want to live somewhere.  You can make long-term plans based on this, as can the landlord.  When I lived in London, one month's notice sufficed.  Here you can move out only twice a year.  Choose any date beside the end of March and the end of September, and you're liable to pay for the remaining months.

We didn't want to wait until September.  Kindergarten starts in August, and it would be good to get the move done before we fly off on vacation in July.  We gave notice for the end of June, leaving us with three months' rent to be paid for nothing.

The way around wasting all this money is finding someone to take over the lease.  Given the tight rental market, which we experienced ourselves over the last year or two, this should be easy.  I had mostly been searching on, and I figured I'd advertise there as well.  This idea seemed less sensible when I found about the listing fees.  At around 180 Francs, I didn't even bother to find out how many photos were included.  There had to be a better way. offers online classifieds that let you find anything but not search very specifically.  Size of the apartment, price tag and number of rooms, that's for you to glean from a long list of hits matching your town of interest.  The large majority of ads are probably obsolete, as are the two I put on (one in English, another in German), but after I'd listed them I got a call the same night and a viewing the next evening.  There was only ever this one call.  It was enough for a family very similar to ours to secure a flat for July.

We have since registered the girl for kindergarten and identified daycare options for the boy.  An after-school program for the girl is a bit more of a challenge.  Baden doesn't combine this with kindergarten, for whatever bizarre reason.  There's a central daycare for all children with working parents, in the old town, close to but not right next to some of the kindergartens.  Children will be walked between daycare and kindergarten, at least at the beginning.  But how much will they be taken care of?  When we visited the place today, it looked slightly abandoned, with most children out and about, out on their own, it seemed.

The apartment situation might be sorted out, but daycare is a bit unsettling.  I'm far from freaking out, though.  Other parents are facing similar challenges, and many more will have gone through and survived this situation over the years.  There will be an obvious way, and we will find out.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

The 7 best chocolates

Earlier today in California, between two lectures on basic concepts of crystallography, I spoke to one of the other teachers of the workshop on the topic of chocolate.  Chocolate is a fine topic for a crystallographic lecture itself, but the different phases, how transitions change the texture, and how heating it too much causes it all to go to hell weren't on our minds.

There is, of course, plenty on the internet on the science of chocolate.  If you're crystallographically inclined, you might appreciate the talk by Elspeth Garman (fast forward to 15:15 min).  Coincidentally, she used to teach at the same workshop as my chocolate-loving friend and I.

Chocolate comes in many guises.  Switzerland is famous for milk chocolate, though they didn't invent it.  Thirty years before M. Nestlé and colleagues stirred cocoa powder into condensed milk in Vevey by Lake Geneva, gourmets at the court of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden had already been enjoying something very similar, concocted by the company of Jordan & Timaeus, and found it rather delicious.

I frequently get into trouble for this, but I don't like Swiss chocolate much because I don't like milk chocolate much.  Since that random discovery all these years ago, I much prefer darker varieties.  They have so much more to offer than the sugary sweetness of milk chocolate.  Somewhere between 60 and 75% of the right cocoa gives delicate flavors without being too tart.

Good chocolate can come with eye-watering price tags.  I remember a little shop in St-Rémy-de-Provence, full of tiny delicacies expensive enough to make you want to cut your ear off.  (If you're lost, use the Google to make the connection.  Better yet, visit this beautiful town.)  Some are advertised as luxury products, better flaunted than enjoyed.  Do not purchase chocolate by price!  Purchase it by this guide:

  1. Valrhona Ampamakia 64% – This single-estate chocolate comes with a vintage, which always cracks me up a bit, but it tastes like heaven.
  2. Madecasse 70% – A chocolate with a story to match the taste.  Two Peace Corp volunteers in Madegascar see the value in turning locally sourced cocoa into locally produced chocolate.
  3. Grenada Chocolate Company 71% – Purchased at Rococo Chocolates' Kings' Road store in London mostly because I was working with a student from Grenada at the time.
  4. meiji THE Chocolate 70% – A random purchase in one of the few proper grocery stores in Tokyo, this turned out to be a much better pick then the matcha milk mix I bought at the same time.
  5. L'Amourette Grenada 75% – This bar and the next shouldn't be on this list, but I need to reach seven. I've bought this in Palo Alto just today to see whether Grenadian cocoa is a thing.
  6. L'Amourette Nicaragua 80% – Another purchase from today.  This is a bit outside my comfort zone, but one needs to be adventurous to be rewarded.

If you read this far, do you still remember the title?  Internet wisdom has it that listicles sell best, that links with a number in them get the most hits.  It said 7, there's only six.  Two shouldn't be there.  I wonder how the views will compare.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

big decision

Moving house is a pain.  There must be very good reasons to do it, to uproot one's life and start again.  There's so much effort and time involved, before, during and after the move.

We have been looking for a new flat for about a year now.  Finding one isn't easy in Switzerland.  The real estate market is rather tight.  Not being Swiss probably doesn't help.  And my standards are high, one of the perks of living here.  I've seen a few nice flats but not a single one where I was devastated when I didn't get it.

I like our current flat a lot.  There's not much wrong with it.  It's large enough for the four of us, relatively new and in good shape, close to the train station and the childcare right next to it, and halfway between my and Flucha's places of work.  It has a large garden that the children love.  It doesn't get much direct sun but is very bright nevertheless because it has more windows than surface area.

The things I don't like about the flat are the relatively small and impractical kitchen with insufficient counter space, the lack of a separate freezer compartment, the sad balcony that has never invited us to spend much time there and the single curtain rails.  If this sounds like nit-picking, it's because it is.  Were it for the flat only, I would not seriously consider moving.

A bigger problem is that the flat is in Dietikon.  Dietikon is a town without attractions, at least in my eyes.  Besides a lovely little library, there's nothing that makes me want to spend time there.  The neighborhood where we live, north of the train station, is even worse.

It's a new development that has grown over the past ten years to cover a former industrial site with rectangular buildings of concrete and glass, in the style of international tedium, with no obvious flaws but no charm either, disconnected from the place, entirely without identity.  There's no decent café, the bakery is closed on weekends, and the few restaurants are pathetic.  With two thousand people living here, our neighborhood should be thriving but it just doesn't take off.  The main square epitomizes all that's wrong.  A gravelly expanse of nothing, it seems abandoned, though it's more likely that no town planner was involved in the design of the neighborhood in the first place.  None of this matters much to us.  We're a happy family and we'd happily stay.

The real problem, the issue that will drive us from this place in the end, is the lack of a school.  How you can build an entirely new neighborhood and not think of a school is beyond me.  (There's word of one for 2026, but don't hold your breath.)  School children as young as six currently have to walk to and then through the train station and then a fair bit on the other side, across the busiest street in town to reach the city center schoolhouse.  It's not something I'd like my children to do every morning.  A kindergarten – more relevant for the next two years - is only a few steps from our flat, but it's a depressing, sterile place in a lifeless courtyard, surrounded by concrete, artificial.

Here's the deal.  After months of looking for a flat, we've finally got a yes.  It's in a thriving small town a few miles downriver, so close to work that I could ride my bicycle no matter how poor the weather, and right next to a nice kindergarten and school.  I should be jumping up in the air but I can't.

The flat is by far the worst I've seen in Switzerland.  The kitchen is so old I keep joking it would be like moving back to the UK.  The kitchen is obviously much better than that.  Maybe it's what a Swiss person – ignorant of the true extent of the misery – would imagine a kitchen in an English rental to be.

The flat isn't bigger than ours but 10% more expensive.  No big deal, but it doesn't feel right.  There are fewer windows than we're used to, though there's direct sunlight in the mornings.  We wouldn't be on the ground floor and the children couldn't just run outside when the sun's shining.  No more garden.

The basement is a frightening little dungeon – with washer and drier for our personal use but not inviting to store anything delicate.  I'd have to find some place else for the wine.  Bicycles were scattered all over the parking garage when we viewed the flat.  There was no dedicated space for them.

The floor of the living room is stone tiles, the floor in the bedrooms some sort of worn out plastic.  This might require carpets.  And while I'm traditionally a fan of carpets, I must admit that I've grown rather fond of the hardwood floor in our current flat.

I wouldn't think the flat worth a second look, but here I am considering signing a lease.  The flat is the least of the arguments pushing me in that direction.  School and kindergarten in close proximity, and the center of an enjoyable, happening little town within walking distance weigh much heavier.  Will I say yes tomorrow?

Saying yes would send us down a mad scramble of a few weeks to pack up our possessions, disassemble our furniture – not much, but not much for four people is still a lot – and deep-clean the flat.  We'd need to have the appliances checked, a job that I'd think in the responsibility of the landlord if I didn't know better, and find new childcare places.  Then we'd need to find replacement tenants or risk paying twice the rent for several months.  This is probably easier than it sounds because our flat is nice, but it will take effort.  Lastly, we'd need to organize the move itself, which I can't see as a walk in the park with two small children.

I'd much rather just sit on my sofa and update my blog, but this is not getting the children the education they deserve.  Strange how even big decisions aren't my own anymore.

Friday, April 12, 2019

failed democracy

I don't believe in the evil of taxation without representation.  When – many years ago when I still lived in London – a bunch of aggravated American expats threw three and a half bags of builder's tea into the Thames, I had nothing but mild condescension for them. If you don't like the way things are, go back to where you came from.  This was easy for me to say.

Back then, I didn't consider myself a migrant.  I was a mercenary of science, joining labs where there was excitement and staying until the money ran out.  I didn't grow roots, and I didn't want to.  There was no sense of permanence.

Things have changed over the years and my situation and my attitude are much different now.  With a job without an expiration date and, especially, with children, I perceive my surroundings differently.  I have already written that I don't find the idea of taking up another nationality as absurd as I did in the past.  I feel a strong urge to belong, but it's not easy.

Dietikon, the town I live in, is rather underprivileged by Swiss standards.  Unemployment is around 4%, and the ratio of people on benefits is higher than anywhere else in the canton.  The town is far from the picture-perfect Alpine village one often associates with Switzerland.  It is also full of immigrants, some naturalized but many not.

When Switzerland played Albania in the Euro 2016, the game shown on a big screen on the town square.  Excitement and good spirits were all around, but more flags showed black birds than white crosses.  I cannot blame the Albanians for showing national pride and for not picking up the colors of the locals, the colors, after all, of their adopted country.  They are – all we foreigners are – welcome to a limited degree only.

At 45%, Dietikon has the second highest share of foreigners in the canton.  The strongest party on the town council and the executive is the populist and angry Swiss People's Party, a right-wing outfit of questionable values.  Instead of representing immigrants, it detests them and tries to keep them away.  How can they win elections here?

This is easy.  Only slightly more than half of all (tax-paying) residents are eligible to vote.  Foreigners, no matter how involved they are in local issues, how much they care about their hometown, how hard they work to make it a better place, are ignored.  Elected politicians, even if they came close to getting every vote from every eligible voter, represent only a minority of residents.

I accept that national elections are for nationals and that the right to vote is bestowed upon citizens only, but for local elections, this is a farce.  Keeping residents from voting in local elections – with their direct repercussions on local affairs – is a travesty of democracy.

If national law doesn't let you kick foreigners out of the country, you have to make it possible to integrate them politically.  Otherwise, you'll create a parallel society of people who don't belong, don't care, don't do.  In Switzerland only very few cantons allow municipalities to let foreigners vote locally.  Zurich is not one of them.  I will thus be disenfranchised until I apply for Swiss nationality, which is a few years off if I do it at all.  Until then, why should I care about anything that happens in Dietikon?  It's all imposed on me anyway.

At the most recent local elections here in Dietikon, just a bit more than a month ago, participation was a pitiful 25%.  How representative are the representatives, even disregarding the residents that are barred from voting?  There's an easy way to fix this.  The silent majority would be much more eager to cast their ballot if hordes of Albanians or Germans were suddenly allowed to vote – and thus threaten to annihilate centuries of Swiss culture with their savagery.  You'd probably also find, at least locally, that the important issues – development, education, traffic, crime – remain the same no matter who is allowed to cast their vote, except now decisions would have much broader support.

Opening local elections to all residents would be an unambiguous gain for democracy.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

comfortable reading

The other day in Leipzig, I went into the huge bookstore next to the university to buy entertainment for the flight back to Zurich (and possibly any number of successive flights).  Strange how unappealing the seat-back screen is when you're not up to date with the movies anymore.  The books I had in mind, my personal shortlist of recent smash hits, were all bound in hardcover.  This is not very practical for traveling.  The only softcover I looked for was Dostoyevski's "The Brothers Karamazov", at 1200 pages not exactly a lightweight either.  It was then that I remembered the e-reader lying ignored in some dark drawer.

My mom had given me the gadget for a birthday a few years back.  I had read a few books on it but never really got into it.  Why would I spend the price of a good book to just get a file in return?  This is not my kind of reading.  But for traveling with Dostoyevski, a file sounded just right.

Back in Switzerland, I went, my source for German books.  They had a few hits matching my search.  There was the current translation at 15 euros and a handful of older translations out of copyright that could be had for a euro each.  After an exhaustive study of the relative merits of the various translators, I decided I wouldn't be able to tell the difference anyway and went with one of the cheap options.  "This item cannot be delivered to Switzerland," is not what I expected for a file.

To help the online retailers in their feeble efforts to sell me things, I went to, Switzerland's biggest booksellser, hoping for better luck.  I found nearly the same selection, at comparable prices, as on the German website, but then started to think.  If this new translation is really better than the others, as many claim, I might as well splurge for it.  At the cost of two Economists, it would keep me reading much longer.

The transaction was quickly finished.  The book showed up in my online bookshelf and invited me to start reading right there in the browser.  That had not been the idea.  After a while I figured out the download.  That's where the problems started.

In the Guardian, a number of British authors were just bemoaning the fact that a fifth of all ebooks were pirated and that the government, the "morally bankrupt government" wasn't doing anything against to stop this.  Not only are writers cheated out of their deserved rewards, literature itself was also suffering as a consequence.  Two thumbs up from me.  Why would you not just buy your ebooks legally, download it to your reader and immerse yourself in written beauty in seconds?

Here is why not.  My e-reader, a Tolino Vision 2, is not recognized as a removable storage volume by any of the computers I own.  It will only talk to natively because that's where it was bought.  Connecting to my just opened account on through the pre-installed browser failed because of unspecified technical issues.  Trying to open the Tolino's own web reader was met with an unsupported browser error.  How can the browser that's installed on the damn device fail to open the online library written for it?  By now I was getting rather aggravated.

My next long flight is still a few weeks away, but I don't want to have to leave without Dostoyevski's many words.  Adobe Digital Editions might be a solution, but I don't see this as very likely if the reader isn't recognized as a USB device.  Dropbox came to my mind for data transfer through the cloud, but this would require digging out credentials that might not work anymore anyway.  Then there's the option of linking my accounts at and to make my purchases visible to both.  Could this work?

For now, the file is online, on my two laptops and on one USB stick.  In a few weeks, it'd better be on the Tolino as well.