Monday, December 30, 2019

the last post

More than 800 posts and fourteen and a half years ago, this blog came into being with its zeroeth post.  Now it's time to turn off the lights.  This blog was about my life as a single, which to me meant cycling and traveling more than chasing girls.  My life is different now.  I have a family and do boring things.  Nothing to write about.  This is why this blog is now closed.

Except, there is something to write about.  Something very different from what I used to cover.  Something not particularly funny or even amusing, but something I need to get out.  That's why I've started a new blog.  More than forty posts since September attest to its vigor, though the pace has slowed a bit lately.  If you want to know how (as opposed to what) I'm doing, visit me over at Hemicolon.

For everyone else, it's goodbye.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

back in London

My first return to London since leaving four-and-a-half years ago, my first time in the city instead of hurtling around it on the M25 in a small rental car, couldn't have come at a more apposite time.  When I lived in London, right to the end I think, Boris Johnson clowned his way from event to meeting, from PR stop to self-inflating pronouncement.  He bounced around erratically, bumbled through pompous speeches, entertained with generous buffoonery, and was generally indulged by Londoners like a harmless wayward child that everyone hopes will eventually come to his senses.

He was indulged because he was correctly perceived as harmless.  As Mayor of London he couldn't hurt the city much because he didn't have all that much power and was surrounded by sensible advisers.  The Garden Bridge, a horticultural folly across the river in central London, which he sank £43 million of public funds into before it died a silent death in the murky waters of the Thames, was the biggest damage he did the city.  A few years later he campaigned for Brexit, and everything before, good or bad, was instantly forgotten.

The gorgeous day, airy, warm and sunny with just the right amount of fluffy white clouds against an expanse of blue, belied London's reputation as dreary and grey.  The city's weather is much better than non-residents believe, but such days as today are rare nonetheless.  It would have been perfect to wander around and reminisce in my home of eight years – not for a few hours or a day, but an entire extended weekend – but I had come for work and the best I could do was look out the windows of the Dockland Light Rail that took me from the airport to town.

The City Airport is the best way to arrive in town.  It's the fastest, and it affords the best views.  Heathrow depresses with endless rows of drab Victorian terraces that always look as if it were raining.  In the east, lots of poverty has been pushed out of sight.  Dismal 50s housing, charmless two-up-two-downs, and industrial shanties have been razed to make way for nice but soulless apartment blocks, lively and livable, and different from anything in the center of town.

It's at Bank station that the London experience truly begins.  The first-time visitor will be baffled and scared by the maze, the crowds, the airless heat, and the pulsating power.  At rush hour, people are disgorged from jammed trains and pushed down narrow corridors, up and down stairs that cross invisible Underground lines, shoulder to shoulder against their will.  Decisions concerning the eventual destination are taken early and irrevocably.  This is what toothpaste must feel like when it is squeezed through the nozzle.  Maybe that's how the Tube got its sobriquet.

I caught a train towards the center, the last one on, with just enough space for my slim body and obese daypack.  The spot by the door has the benefit of slightly less stale air, but this comes at an enhanced risk of decapitation.  The doors of the deep-level trains curve inwards at shoulder height to let the trains fit through the narrow round tunnels.  Getting off unharmed I noticed a curiosity of London Underground corridors.  Every third or fourth ceiling panel is missing, as if someone had realized this project would never be finished, so why create the illusion.

Around my hotel, a faux-historic palace with confused decoration – statues pretending to be Egyptian and Greek key motifs throughout – that can only be explained by its proximity to the Museum of Imperial Pillage and Loot (a.k.a the British Museum), traffic pulsates and people run in throngs.  Any new arrival is in awe, gaping at the incomprehensible, trying to see meaning, figuring out where is left and where is right.  The contrast to Switzerland is staggering.  I had half-forgotten about this, maybe not about the fact but at least about the effect, but I reconnect fast.

The Evening Standard, still gloriously clad in a coat of paper, is handed out every evening in front of Tube stations.  Fopp still sells music the old-fashioned way, on disks silver or black, with geeky shop assistants so in love with song that they'd rather share their passion with an equally fanatical customer than move on and serve the next two that wait in line to pay.  Maybe it's good business to culture fervent customers even at the cost of losing the occasional shopper.  I outlasted the wait and, at the ripe age of 45, bought my first, and then my second, Rolling Stones album (Beggars Banquet, Aftermath).  In the Standard, Boris grinned from every page, innocence and fun drained from his face.

Boris had just been humiliated by Parliament.  Members, including some of his own party, don't share his excitement for an exit from the European Union without a deal to manage it and have sent off legislation to outlaw it.  It is not necessary to understand British politics to be entertained by it from the safety of another country.  It's a bit more delicate in the UK.  I decided not to make a Brexit joke during my talk the next day.

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.