Wednesday, June 13, 2018

turning a page

Halfway through the year it's high time to compile and blitz-review the books I read last year, keeping a tradition of eight years that was only interrupted once.

In 2017, I read a pitiful nine books.

  • The Maples Stories by John Updike – Stories about the same middle-class East coast couple that realize early on they're not doing the best for each other but are unwilling or unable to change, written over two decades. Vintage Updike.
  • Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski – Autobiographically inspired coming-of-age story by the man who between gloom, drink, gambling and women wrote persistently underrated poetry and the truly wild Tales of Ordinary Madness.
  • Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro – Proving that even I am not immune to hype if it shouts in may face, I read this, one of Flucha's contributions to our bookshelf, right after Ishiguro's Nobel Prize was announced.  Five stories about music and loss that I didn't find too impressive.
  • Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg – An exhortation for women to be more present, active, brave and decisive in the workplace that helped me understand some of my behaviors a bit better.  I bought this for Flucha's birthday but was the one to read it – with considerable impact, even though I didn't get the promotion whose desirability I justified partly with the arguments put forth in this book.
  • Our Moon has Blood Clots: The Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits by Rahul Pandita – A book of suffering across time and space too grim to believe and maybe true for exactly that reason.
  • Soumission by Michel Houellebecq – In a France where Islam takes over, all changes happen by majority vote and without effective resistance.  In the end, the narrators gives in, and the Western world as we know it is lost.  An excellent book and easy to read in French.
  • The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing – Another Nobel Prizewinner on an off day.  This book is truly awful.
  • Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge – An escape from a life without purpose in the big city to a village on a harsh coast.  The search for meaning is aided by a cat, and that's about it.
  • Bob Dylan by Willi Winkler – The third Nobel Prizewinner, this time the object of, variously, adoration and incomprehension.  Though written by a fan, the book keeps a healthy distance from its subject.

Looking to the right of this page, it's hard to imagine that there will be an eighth instalment of this column.  I still haven't finished reading a single book this year.  There has been ample opportunity, with already three transoceanic flights for work (and thus without children), but I tend to sleep through the night these days and read magazines or, gasp, work, during the day.  A few books lie on my shelf half read, though when I get to finish them is anyone's guess. 

The O'Henry Stories will probably be first.  It's slim and easy to read because each of the stories, one very different from the next, takes only a few pages.  I'd love to get through Blood Meridian, a tour de force of staggering power, but with the violence and savagery piling up relentlessly, it seems unlikely the ending will provide a turning point or closure of any sort, and certainly not vindication.  I'd also love to finish Thinking, fast and slow and learn from it, but I've started three times already and given up each time upon reaching the point where I couldn't ingest and process any more insights.  I'd need to read this like a scientific paper, with annotations and my own summaries, but who wants to read a 300-page paper?

Keep your eyes on the list on the right to see what progress I'm making.  On Sunday, on my way to Chicago, it's probably going to be an Economist and work.

 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

kids like

The boy likes

  • to walk.  He isn't very good at it.  In fact, he can't keep himself on his little legs.  When he manages to pull himself up to a low-lying sofa or his sister's Bobby car, he stands shakily, unsure of himself but mighty proud, and falls over before too long.  He has banged his head a few times this way.  But when mom or dad hold his hands, his feet make little steps in the general direction indicated by his guide.  There's a grin on his face as if he were on the finishing stretch of a successful marathon.  Dad knows this grin.
  • pebbles.  Sit him down among them and he'll take a handful and swallow them one by one unless stopped by a responsible adult.  He has learned that sand is not tasty but pebbles haven't registered yet as something to be left alone.
  • throwing things to the ground.  He's very good at it.  Sitting on his high chair, he can turn dinner in front of him into a mess on the floor in seconds.  Maybe that's revenge for the floor hurting his head when he falls over after pulling himself up to the sofa.  Sitting on his high chair outside mealtimes, he throws toys to the ground almost as soon as they are placed in front of him.  Then he cries because he has no toys.
  • eating bread.  He east almost anything, including pebbles, but bread is his favorite. It tastes so good that he sometimes forgets to throw it to the ground.  The other day he discovered sweet corn and fell in love with it.  It had the shape and vague appearance of the pebbles outside but he was allowed to put it in his mouth.  What a blast!
  • to laugh.  As a baby, his sister was grumpy like a caricature.  He laughs at anything, and sometimes cracks up as if watching an Adam Sandler movie for the first time.  His laughter is contagious, and he cheers up the family, even when they're busy cleaning the floor around his high chair.
  • his sister.  He often stares at her with something between admiration and adoration.  Whatever she does, he likes to join.  Whatever she builds, from Duplos or wooden blocks, he likes to dismantle.  The girl doesn't like that.

The girl likes

  • to read books.  At less then three years, she cannot yet read.  She recognizes a few letters and, on a good day, her name, but it's not enough for literature.  She has dad read picture books to her, and no day's a good day without a book read to her.  When she wants something really bad that it's not exactly the time for, offering to read a book always solves the impasse.
  • to climb up things.  This can be contraptions on the playground or trees and rocks in the woods.  She's very good about not climbing up furniture and has fallen hard on the playground only once.
  • animals.  It doesn't matter whether it's a snail outside the window or a wolf in the animal park.  They're all fascinating.  Stories about animals are her favorite read.  When she's big, she wants to be a veterinarian.
  • to be a mom.  She takes her baby doll and changes the diaper, wiping the plastic butt clean and all.  She gives the baby doll the bottle and sometimes her non-existing breast, just as she has seen mom do it with her brother.  She puts baby doll asleep on a little pram, pulling a blanket over it to keep out the light.  Dad is worried about gender imprinting, but she just doesn't get the same kick out of Duplos or her wooden-track railroad.  Maybe she wants to become a midwife.
  • it outside.  She's nimble on her push cycle and likes to walk through town to the grocery store.  All hikes into the hills have been successes so far.
  • her brother.  She feeds him pieces of sweet corn or bread and pushes him around on her Bobby car, mom running alongside with her hands spread to soften the inevitable fall.  She also yanks her toys from him when he plays with them and wants to play with his.  The boy doesn't like this.

The boy and the girl are the best friends in the world.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

half dead

It started innocuous enough.  Three days ago, I noticed a light itch on the lower part of my face, two curious spots on my hands, and a discomfort between my toes as if from athlete's foot.  The itch went with a bit of skin discoloration, suggesting an allergic reaction to shaving that I've never had.  The spots on my hands were circular, with a white center and a deep red periphery.  They were about 4 mm in diameter.  Upon inspection, there was nothing odd between my toes.

Had these three symptoms not appeared at the exact same time, I would have dismissed them without a second though, gone to work and waited for things to improve.  Time heals most ailments better than much else.  But the strange synchrony kept me wondering.  What was going on here?  The next morning I did something I hadn't done in years.  I went to see a doctor.

The Swiss health system is a strange place.  Health insurance is mandatory.  This doesn't just mean everyone needs health insurance.  It means everyone is obliged to register with the national health insurance system that consists of what feels like a hundred providers competing for clients.  You have to choose one of them and prove to your local authority that you've done so.

The morning I went to the doctor, my condition had changed somewhat.  Yellow puss had started to appear on my chin. It had done so in small quantities and dried quickly, but it didn't look pretty.  That's when my family started avoiding me.  The soles of my feet felt as if a million small needles had been inserted in them.  Walking was a murderous pain, but I could still not see anything wrong with my feet.

I had picked my health insurance for its price.  All providers are required by law to offer the same benefits.  The differences lie in customer service, ease of obtaining reimbursements, and the availability of mobile apps and the like.  The monthly premium is calculated based on age, place of residence and deductible, the amount you have to cover yourself per year before your insurance kicks in.  There are no discounts for insuring an entire family and no employer contributions, but since premiums are income-independent, they are relatively low if you earn well.  My own contribution is less than what I paid in the UK.

I decreased my contribution further by accepting to have my freedom to choose a physician curtailed.  For every illness, unless in an emergency, I'd have to consult my family physician – who would pass me on to a specialist if necessary.  Being new to the system, I didn't have a family physician, but the walk-in clinic next door offered itself – with no appointment required and, it turned out, hardly a wait.

The assistant doctor was quick to diagnose something like foot and mouth disease, even though my symptoms didn't exactly match Dr. Google's.  I had no fever, no painful throat, and no pustules on hands, feet or in my mouth.  Plus I wasn't ten years old.  Still, the soothing words of the medic comforted me.  "Just rest a bit", she said.  "You'll be better in a few days.  Concern is only due when worms are starting to emerge from the spots in your face."

The concept of a deductible sounds rather strange with health insurance but it's common practice with car insurance.  And as with car insurance, you have to trawl the new year's offers to identify the best deal and switch health insurance if necessary towards the end of every year.  It sound unnecessarily complicated and rather inefficient to me, but it seems to work well – just like Switzerland in general.

I hobbled back to my flat and stretched out on my sofa.  I had a certificate of incapacity to work – one beautiful long word in German – and no other option that to lie flat and wait.  By Friday afternoon, most needles had been removed from my feet and I could walk nearly normally.  In return, my hands felt as they had after the Challenge Dauphiné when I had cycled for seven hours through freezing rain.  Back then I couldn't open buttons or turns keys with my debilitated hands for a week at least.

Today, the changes continue, for the better for the most part.  My feet are almost fine.  My hands have become speckled with hundreds of dark red spot, some large and translucent like a bag of old blood, but they've got some of their strength back.  The dried puss on my chin is falling of.  My body feels weaker overall than yesterday, but there are no worms.

With the sun shining strongly outside on what feels like the first day of spring at last, my hope runs high that tomorrow will be beautiful, spent by the river or on a ride to the convent where the children can see rabbits, cows, pigs and sheep.  I might not look it, but I consider myself back to normal already.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

reversal of fortune

On the one hand, there would be £350 million a week to spend on health care, full control over all and everything, and a once-in-a-generation moment to shape the destiny of a country.  On the other hand, there's the feeble reassurance that the country won't be plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction.

If you've guessed that the statements above relate to Brexit, you've kept up your Brit-watching over the last two years or so.  Britain has decided to rid itself of the strangulations of the EU and march into a bright future.  That's what the leave campaign promised, and that's what the first three statements above reflect.  This was the mood of the leavers before the referendum.

The year and a half since the country voted to leave the EU haven't exactly gone to plan, assuming there was or is a plan.  It doesn't much look like it.  British politicians occasionally visit Brussels to figure out if there anything good for them for when they're not part of the club anymore, only to leave empty-handed.  They've yet to visit with concrete ideas or suggestions to shape the process.

Consequently, it looks as if it's all going down the drain.  There doesn't seem to be a week without revelations of what won't be wonderful in the future. There was the story about Britons needing new licenses to drive abroad because their EU licenses won't be accepted anymore.  A nuisance for vacationers, for sure, but hell for hauliers.  There's just a few hundred commercial permits to the EU for thousands of trucks.

Then there is the staff shortage at the NHS.  It doesn't help that Europeans are leaving in large numbers as long as their post-Brexit migration status is unclear.  Lastly, Kentucky Fried Chicken is temporarily closing hundreds of outlets because of supply problems.  Ok, this last one wasn't related to Brexit, but you get the picture.

It is going to be a total disaster, which is probably why David Davis, the government minister in charge of the process, today tried to reassure an apprehensive country.  Far from the lofty promises before the referendum, Brexit won't be like Mad Max was the best he could come up with.  It's not the brightest prospect, but it's probably all the country can hope for.

Friday, January 26, 2018

lack of respect

No need to revisit a long history with many false starts.  Let's just say that bike sharing properly took off with Paris.  Ten years ago the Velib project was launched.  It was the first major bike-sharing program in a major city that was a major success.  It was also part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce automotive traffic and make the city a better place to be.  Today, motorized traffic in Paris is substantially down compared to ten years ago.

Correlation is not causation.  This bears repeating in these increasingly un-scientific or even science-hostile times, with the loudest shouts from the least literate people.  Correlation is not causation, and yet it's an interesting observation.  At the very least it suggests that traffic can be reduced.

Other big cities followed the Paris lead, London in 2010 and New York in 2013.  There are probably bigger cities in China with bigger bike-sharing schemes, but what do I know?  I know London and New York, and I was a user of the shared bikes in London from day one.  I really liked the bikes.

It seems to defy the laws of engineering, but the shared bikes in London appear not to have any moving parts besides the wheels.  Cables are routed inside the bulky frame.  The headlight is part of it.  The chain is completely enclosed.  Nothing is exposed and nothing can break easily.  The bikes are solid, sturdy and unbelievably heavy.  It's hard to get them to move, but once in motion, they roll like tanks and demand respect.  Notoriously aggressive black cab drivers brake because in case of a collision both sides would suffer damage.  Between rides, the bikes slot into hefty docking stations much like a door shuts on a Mercedes, with a stifled clonk.  The whole system is engineered for durability.

Recently, a number of bike sharing schemes of a much different philosophy have been launched in various parts of Switzerland.  They don't rely on (or even provide) docking stations.  Instead, they try to leverage the power of the internet.  The bikes are networked and locked.  If registered users of the service find one, either by coming across it or checking a live map online, they can scan a code on the bicycle with their phone and unlock it.  After riding around, they drop the bike wherever and lock it, thus ending the rental.

If this sounds eminently convenient, it's not very well thought out.  Everything about the system that I'm exposed to appalls me.  The bicycles look flimsy and are often irredeemably broken.  They seem like cheap Chinese trinkets, though the provider is Singaporean.  I don't see how bikes of such low quality can survive more than a handful of rides by users free of the responsibilities of ownership.  It doesn't help when they're not being ridden.  Not having docking stations, the bikes lean against trees or lie on the ground as if abandoned.  This is no way of treating bicycles.

Then there are the problems with free-floating, self-regulating systems.  Classical economists like them, but they rarely work in practice.  Without a maintenance crew, wrecked bicycles pile up, turning sidewalks into steeplechases and blocking narrow roads.  There's no redistribution of bikes to where they are needed.  The market doesn't sort this out easily.  Getting bicycles ready for masses of commuters arriving at the same time was a major logistical challenge in London.

With the arrogance of a self-proclaimed disruptive startup, the company dumps the bicycles everywhere, no matter whether they're wanted.  Externalities are for society to pick up.  I will have to pay for the removal of broken bikes with my taxes.  I pay for bicycles occupying bike parking spots downtown by having to look longer for a spot for myself.  Early investors might be happy with fast growth at any cost, but this is not a sustainable model.

Free-floating bike sharing has the potential to improve local transport much beyond what docked bicycles can offer.  The flexibility is wonderful.  But there has to be a system behind it that puts respect of the bicycle at its heart.  Once it looks like bike sharing and not like milking a trend, it has the chance to succeed.  I would sign up in a jiffy.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

happy anniversary

Trump is a complete idiot.

Most people probably voted for Trump for the entertainment.  It's like reality TV, but for real.  Trump does the deranged clown, and the masses can laugh and cheer.  After one year on the job, he is unlikely to have disappointed anyone.  Those repulsed by his ways see themselves confirmed anew every day.  Those who picked him for the wrong reasons would probably do so again.

It doesn't matter that he hasn't built a wall against Mexico with his own small hands and that the American taxpayer will pay for this wall, should construction ever start.  No one cares about the wall.  His tweets are a scream.

How good an entertainer Trump really is can be seen in the sad demise of Saturday Night Live.  This used to be the epitome of political comedy.  A few weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission had to reclassify it from humor to factual.  What used to be hilariously satirical is now documentary – though no less hilarious for it.

When Fire and Fury, Trump's anniversary gift, was released the other day, I read an interview with the author Michael Wolff.  He claims to just have walked up to the White House one day with the suggestion of covering the first 100 days of the presidency for a book.  No one was responsible for books, and no one showed him the door.  In a move that would have awed Tom Yates from House of Cards, he remained for 200 days, turning to inventory whose presence is not noticed or questioned.  He apparently picked up the best parts by overhearing conversations while waiting in obscurity for appointments that never happened.

The book reveals an angry child with staggering insecurity.  Trump's afraid of being destroyed by anyone and everything.  Fighting back is his default mode of operation (mostly through words rather than actions).  Wolff claims no worries of revenge because of Trump's short attention span.  He only focuses on what's in front of him – as long as it is in front of him.  When he engages in politics, it's in unrelated fits and starts.

There's no vision and no strategy.  Like a monkey throwing darts at a wall, he sometimes hits the target, but what looks like the first step towards success always turns out to be haphazard and of no consequence.  Trump started his job by talking to Taiwan as if it were a country.  This sounds sensible if you ignore diplomatic conventions that only exist because they've existed for ages.  As part of a foreign policy, it would start interesting discussions and might break the deadlock across the Taiwan Straight.  As a monkey's dart, it was soon forgotten.

There have been many more darts over the first year, and a few nuclear hand grenades as well.  They landed to great effect where no one would have expected them.  There were even some legislative accomplishments, though they need an unorthodox perspective to appear as successes.

If you think that earning less than $100k is un-American, the tax reform bill makes perfect sense.  There's simply no reason why anyone choosing to earn less should be rewarded.  Same goes for health care.  Instead of pitying the poor, Trump wants to liberate them from the yoke of socialized medicine.  If you don't want to have to choose between treating an illness and feeding your children, do your patriotic duty and earn a respectable salary.

The masses continue to cheer.

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.