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.

Monday, October 09, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 03, 2017

old books

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 02, 2017

one German last name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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