Wednesday, December 21, 2016

back and forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 04, 2016

Dutch swindle

The other day, before setting off on a family trip, I asked a colleague with a professional history in the region what were the redeeming qualities of the Netherlands.  Belgium, which sits equally uncomfortably at the nexus of regional powers not always on good terms, has waffles, beer and Islamists so rabid they make the murderous child molesters of an earlier generation seem like a minor scourge. What does the Netherlands have?  My colleague didn't know either.

I got my first idea upon disembarking at Schiphol.  Like any good airport, it has a train station in the basement.  Any part of the country is only a short ride away.  We were on our way to Den Haag.  Similar to what I had seen in Nice a few weeks earlier, the ticket machines in Schiphol only accepted cards and coins.  We paid by card and were served a pair of tickets each with a €1 surcharge imprinted on it.

Was this for using the machine?  Maybe it was for paying by card.  Somewhere I had read something like this.  The next morning, I bought our tickets to Leiden at the ticket counter.  Another pair of €1 surcharges was the result.  It turned out not to be a particular overcharge but a fee to pay for the ticket itself, as if what you were buying wasn't the right to travel from A to B but a little piece of paper.

The reason behind this is that Dutch Railways is pushing its customers to use a rechargeable electronic card much like the Oyster card in London.  However, in contrast to the Oyster, whose initial cost is refundable upon return of the card, the Dutch smart card costs €7.50, money gone for good.  As a visitor for four days only, I felt swindled.

An expatriate I spoke to felt swindled as well.  Her rechargeable card requires a minimum balance of €20 to pass through a ticket gate at the station, even though her daily journeys between Den Haag and Leiden cost only a fraction of that.  How will she recover her money when she leaves the country if she's not allowed to run the balance down?

Perhaps the swindle is the defining characteristic of the Netherlands.  No one- or two-cent coins are in circulation but goods are still priced ending in 99¢.  This is not something imposed by the government.  Retailers have elected not to use the small denominations, which remain legal tender.  For the stores' convenience, the customer has to pay.  When you buy a t-shirt at the local chain or a jar of green goo for the baby, your bill includes a cheerful afronding, a cent you're obliged to hand over to the store so it can do better business.

In Switzerland, where 1-cent coins were removed from circulation in 2007, prices tend to end in 10¢.  If your bill is indivisible by 5, at the local discounter that can't do without 99¢ prices, for example, the amount to pay is always rounded down to the nearest 5¢.  In the Netherlands, in contrast, you get swindled.

At the end of our day in Leiden – nice place by the way though the homicidal cyclists are a steep price to pay for a nearly car-free city, how they shoot, projectile-like, through streets and bike lanes, on sidewalks and footpaths, and alongside canals, with utter disregard for traffic and pedestrians, imbued by a powerful sense of entitlement that causes their faces to contort in anger when they have to slow down, and you can count yourself lucky that you weren't hit and hurt – at the end of that day we sat down in a bar and a had a drink.

Bistomath is notoriously difficult, complex enough to drive a starship, but in this case, it was easy.  We were three; each of us had had a drink.  The third drinker, by the way, wasn't the baby.  It was Flucha's sister, the expatriate mentioned above.  When the bill came, it was four items long.  This was quickly corrected and the amount reduced by a quarter.

When I paid for dinner later that night, I checked that bill as well, just to be sure.  The chocolate milk could have been there by accident.  I went back inside the restaurant the claim the difference.  It should have been €2.95.  I got my money with a friendly smile but without an apology.  When I counted it, already out of the door again, it added up to €1.95.

If there was one good thing about the Netherlands – and I haven't even talked about Hotel Patten yet where I had to ask for a vacuum cleaner because none had been used in the room for several weeks or the Chinatown restaurant, its menu entirely in pictures that bore no relationship whatsoever to the plates on the tables around us, where we waited for dumplings until we got bored and left – it's that you can order a bottle of Trappist beer at pretty much any restaurant or bar.  I know it's Belgian, but that's as good as it gets.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

left behind

Cash is slowly dying.  I love to just touch my Swiss credit card for purchases up to 40 Franc.  No need for swiping, no need for a pin, and no signature either.  In the US, you still need to swipe, but up to 25 dollars, your signature isn't required anymore.  A tad more complicated maybe, but it doesn't require any new hardware.  Once the phone can be used for payment reliably and universally, everything will change again.

The only reason my four trips to the US this year weren't entirely cashless was the San Francisco Bay Bridge where you can't pay the toll by card.  In Sweden, cash has all but disappeared.  There are shops where you can't trade pieces of paper or metal for goods or services anymore.  It's electronic transactions only.  As long as the electronics are working, this is all fine.

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself at the main train station in Nice – a little bit in conflict with my plans, but all right.  I had flown into Nice to attend a workshop on detectors and X-ray sources in a town an hour west of the airport.  It made sense to take the train there.  According to online maps, the station closest to the airport is Nice-St. Augustin.  The airport website itself was silent on the subject.

The bus I took to the station, after consulting with the airport information service, cost more and took much longer than I expected.  The driver ignored all signs to St. Augustin and stopped his bus only in front of Nice main station.  This is a wonderful place, straight from the glory days of railroad travel, with a glass awning on delicate wrought-iron supports all around the building.

I didn't mind being at the wrong train station because no matter where you start, when it comes to traveling, it doesn't get much better than taking a train along the Mediterranean coast from Nice towards Marseille.  The tracks run along the water half of the time, and the views are like being on vacation, but before I could enjoy this, I needed to obtain a ticket.

I tried one machine, I tried another machine.  Both offered me a ticket for the next slow train, half an hour away, but refused my card.  At the third machine, I tried a bit harder.  But punching the screen with my fist instead of touching it with my fingers didn't improve things.  The screen seemed impervious to violence.  I got the same offer and was met with the same refusal.  There was no option of paying in cash.

There was a second type of machine, for long-distance trains.  I learned that one was to leave in ten minutes that would stop at my destination.  Lucky me, I thought, as I inserted my card.  The fare was even a few euros lower.  At the third machine I realized I should have wailed.  How do you pay when your cards keep being refused and there is no alternative?

There were ticket counters, but they were few and the waiting customers many.  No way I could advance towards a ticket within the seven minutes that remained until the departure of what I hoped would be my train.  I tried a couple more times on machines I had ignored earlier but didn't make progress.

The maintenance workers that kept rebooting select machines didn't have words of encouragement.  The network is down and foreign card tend not to work were their explanations.  Possible but not satisfactory.  Cash I can exchange at the bureau de change.  Two employees were sitting there waiting for my business.  But what do I do with a foreign card?  If electronic payment systems aren't universal they're for the bin.

All of a sudden and for no reason at all, one card worked and I got my ticket with a minute to spare.  It was luck against all odds.  The last thing I saw before dashing off to the platform was a sign on the machine that read, "For your convenience, we've restricted the ways of paying for your ticket".  If that's how a cashless world will be, I rather stay behind.

Monday, August 22, 2016

best buddies

Cycling in California tends to crack (no pun intended initially) me up.  I can't see why you would do it.  California is basically one big freeway interspersed with shopping mall parking lots and residential developments' dead ends.  It doesn't look as if riding around on skinny tires connected by a few pounds of carbon were fun in the parts of the state I have seen

Yesterday, I spend the night and a few hours on either side of it in San Francisco, one of the epicenters of cool, a hotbed of political correctness and the green conscience of the United States.  At Old Navy, you can't even get a plastic bag anymore.  Never mind that San Francisco has what must surely count as the world's steepest urban roads and that it is part of car-horny California, I expected to see a few cyclists.

More than that, there were plenty.  Boris-bike stations dot the city (though luckily there's no Boris) and there are rental outfits for tourists all along the waterfront.  The train I took out of town towards Stanford this afternoon had bike parking inside the station, accessible only to those with a valid ticket as a practical measure of theft prevention.

All good? In the train I was on, there was an advertisement for a bike challenge, illustrated with a small pack of riders on a road by the ocean and a lineup of retired athletes below.

Challenge yourself

At first glance, this looked like one of those charity rides popular all across the US where you can combine something you love to do (ride a bicycle along a beautiful course in this case) with something others hate to do (give you the money you need to raise to participate in said ride).  At second glance, it's a blatant promotion of the use of illegal, performance-enhancing drugs.

Do you see the three names headlining the ride? Barry Bonds is notorious for turning "the cream" and "the clear" into 73 home runs in 2001 and never living up to the truth of it.  George Hincapie and Christian Vande Velde were keen consumers and beneficiaries of cycling's favorite drug (EPO) over many years while busting their asses for Lance Armstrong – who has somehow fallen out of favor with Americans since his tearful admission of transgressions that everyone had been sure about for years.  The Big Buddy Challenge thus uses three high-profile drug users to draw in the crowds.

Looking at the advertisement for the Best Buddies Challenge, I wonder whether Armstrong wasn't invited or whether he couldn't show because of scheduling conflicts.  He would have fit wonderfully.  I also wonder why Pepsi, Chevron and Cannondale support this event and thereby promote drug use.  Maybe Pepsi and Chevron didn't do their research, but Cannondale should know.  The bike builder sponsored a professional cycling time during the dark years of the late nineties and early 2000s when everyone did drugs and they sponsor one now.  Shouldn't they try as hard as possible to show that cycling is clean now? Or maybe it isn't, at least in California.

Monday, July 18, 2016

worst airline

A few months ago I read that United wasn't the world's worst airline anymore. I don't know where I read that. And maybe what I read what that United wasn't as bad anymore as everyone thought it was. Small matter. The splotch of misinformation was somewhere on my mind when I booked the flight for a conference in Maine.

I could have flown Swiss to Boston and taken a car, but a two-and-a-half hour drive was not something I fancied after being sardined up for eight hours. Instead I opted for United, the appeal being, besides its possibly exceeding expectations, two airports added to my record. I had never flown to Newark and I hadn't been to Portland, Maine, either. Portland Jetport, to be precise in a space-age way, and less than an hour from the conference venue. Better than Logan, I thought.

It started going wrong pretty much from the beginning. We were sitting at an early Sunday family breakfast when United alerted me by text that the equipment to carry me across the Atlantic was late in arriving and my departure already delayed. The indicated delay was less than an hour and no reason for concern, or indeed for changing the train to take me to the airport, but it wasn't the end of the problems.

Once I was at the airport, departure got shifted back in half hour increments, all dutifully announced by text on my phone - not as delays, by the way, but as new confirmed departure times. The list grew longer. It was beautiful to watch and miserable to ponder. The connection in Newark became increasingly unlikely, but when I called United to see whether I could transfer onto what should have been my first choice from the start, they said the Swiss flight to Boston was full. Shortly after noon, boarding for Newark started, and not everything seemed lost.

When boarding a plane, one of the things I don't want to see is engineers with worried faces sticking their tools into the wing, but this was the picture. I had a window seat right next to the left wing, and for the next hour I beheld yellow-vested men on a hydraulic platform underneath the wing, while the crew on the ground dispersed a large pile of absorbent material to soak up the kerosene that had leaked out of the fuel dump. It didn't exactly instill confidence, but then, four hours later than scheduled, the flight departed and proceeded without another hitch.

When we landed in Newark, two flights for Portland had already left, but on the last one of the day, there was a seat reserved for me, and United even compensated my inconveniences with a most generous ten-dollar meal voucher – but only after I asked for it.

At Newark, all food outlets have gone Jetsons and put tablet computers on every table, in front of every seat. It looks as if it had rained iPads one day. How can someone have thought of this as a good idea? The aggressive glow of the LCDs evokes offices rather than restaurants. Diners in opposite chairs don't face each other because the tablets between them block the view. Traveling doesn't get lonelier than this.

Waiters bring the orders but don't take them. At a restaurant, you find your own seat, submit your order, pay for it, all without human contact. If this is the future, I prefer to be a Luddite. As I was hungry and had a voucher, I roamed the tentacles of Terminal C in search of something more conventional. I spent half an hour but failed. iPads as far as the eye could see, which, if you were sitting in front of one, wasn't very much.

The café I chose at the far end of one of the concourses was far quieter than the rest and had great natural light. The evening sun streamed in from one side, and on the other side you could see planes taking off and landing in front of the gilded silhouette of New York. I could have watched for hours but moved on when the scheduled departure time drew near.

I should have stayed. My flight's crew arrived late and then waited with everyone else for an hour while unspecified maintenance issues were put right. Again, frequent text messages relayed updated departure times that quickly became obsolete. It was a sad rerun of the morning's events, except I couldn't see whether the problems lay with the wing – and there wasn't even a theoretical alternative to waiting. Seven hours behind schedule, and here the discontinuity reflects my mind that had stopped paying attention to the proceedings, we arrived in Portland, from where the conference was only a short taxi ride away.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

looks like

This is what stupid looks like.


This is what lucky looks like – and I'm not going to show you my ass.


This is what my bike looks like. Luckily (see point 2), my body suffered only minimally more damage.


This is what the profile of the Engadin bike marathon looks like.

I'll be riding this on Sunday. With training limited to riding to and from work, infrequently for a month and only rarely over the hill that's in the way, I thought getting up these mountain would be a formidable challenge. If tonight's experience is anything to go by, coming down alive on the other side might proof even more challenging.

Saturday, June 25, 2016


Last night at City Airport, it looked a bit like a refugee camp at the border to freedom.  The airport was overcrowded, with no room to sit and hardly space to stand.  There were long lines for tables in the few restaurants, and huddled masses everywhere.  Everyone was trying to get out – the right reaction but a bit premature in my opinion.

The day before, Britain's voters had decided to leave the EU in a nationwide referendum.  Though it took counting until 7 the next morning until the final result was announced, the outcome was clear much earlier.  I went to bed at three when the gap towards Leave kept increasing.  A few hours later when I woke up, nearly a million and a half more people had voted to leave the EU than to remain in it.  There was no arguing with that, and the consequences are obvious, but beyond the surface, the situation is more complex.

A number of very clear divides go through what is still one country and increasingly unbefittingly called the United Kingdom.  England voted by 55 to 45 to leave the EU and got its will.  Scotland wanted to remain by 62 to 38 and failed.  The referendum on Scottish independence a few years back was narrowly lost, in part because of the unresolved question of whether Scotland might have to leave the EU if it leaves the UK.  If another referendum were drawn up now, the outcome would likely be different because leaving the UK would present a clear path for Scotland to return to the EU.

London, whose votes I didn't include in the numbers shown for England in the previous paragraph, would have preferred to stay in the EU, by 60 to 40.  The BBC points out that seven of the ten areas most wanting to remain were in London.  I've always argued that London would be better off outside England.  This is now truer than ever, but I don't think a serious independence movement will develop there.

As I drove down to City Airport in the afternoon, I contemplated the irony that the campaign to leave was led by the person who was Mayor of London for eight years.  Throughout this time, he gave the impression of deeply caring about this city, and was largely liked in return.  In the morning after the referendum, he was booed by angry crowds as he left his home, but London will suffer much more.

Boris Johnson doesn't care, of course.  He hitched onto the Leave campaign to pursue his own agenda.  I used to see in him a harmless clown, but my eyes have now been opened.  He is the most devious, mendacious and megalomaniac politician in the UK.  If imagining him as Prime Minister doesn't make you shiver, envision summits with President Trump.  The lunacy of it!

When I returned the rental, a middle-aged man with a sweaty shirt and a harried look tried to secure a car for the weekend.  Avis had run out and so had Europcar and Hertz.  The man was being sent to somewhere near Birmingham with hopes but no promise.  There were no cars anywhere closer.  "Busy weekend?" I asked the woman behind the counter.  "Everyone's leaving?" I was proud of my joke until I entered the airport.

Friday, June 24, 2016


Gibraltar has just declared. With overwhelming majority, they decided the UK should stay in the European Union. Why they would have a say in this matter is an interesting question, but not one for this post. I'm sitting in the bed of a hotel on the side of motorway north of Cambridge. What anyone would want to do north of Cambridge is another question that's not one for this post, but the drive up from town this evening took twice as long as predicted because of heavy traffic, so there must be something about it. What is also not a question for this post is why there has been no activity in this space in four and a half months because that answer is clear, not very surprising and utterly consuming.

Tapas celebrated her first birthday two days ago. In a scary development towards petite bourgeoisie, I used the occasion to install a sandbox in our recently revegetated backyard. Tapas took possession of it and started eating the sand almost immediately. And that was another evening when, in the past and in another life, I would have added a post to this blog to comment on what moves me but didn't.

There was also the aspiration, at some point in the past when all this was new, to keep the memory of business trips by writing about them in an oblique way. This fizzled out after half a year, but now there's a good moment to resuscitate that – though sadly not this blog.

While I'm sitting in the bed of this ambitious though ultimately dreary roadside hotel, the TV high up on the wall opposite is reporting on the first results of the British EU referendum. By a fortunate coincidence, I'm experiencing this momentous evening right here at the source. A pub would of course be better than the bed, but at this advanced hour and by the desolate motorway, the options are few. As Newcastle has just decided to remain, it's unclear to me how this referendum could be contested at all.

I've lived and worked in France for two years without being bothered by bureaucracy, visa requirements or the obligation to justify my residence, and I've subsequently done the same in England for more than six years. I couldn't have done this as easily without the EU – and was in fact asked to leave the US at some point in the distant past. As if it were a kind of geography trivia, the results keep trickling in. Orkney is in and Crickmannanshire is in. Sunderland is out, and the pound has tanked.

I'm probably not a good benchmark for the average Brit. I've worked long years for a good education, and I have a good job now. Polish plumbers don't threaten my economic comfort, nor do Romanian baristas at the coffee shop where I pick up overpriced caffeinated beverages, and not only because I rarely pick up overpriced caffeinated beverages.

It is probably the share of the population that doesn't pick up overpriced caffeinated beverages either that is concerned about the presence of foreign labor in Britain and particularly, maybe because that's closer to their frame of reference, the hypothetical presence of foreigners on benefits, sponging this country, and I'm paraphrasing here, of its hard-earned wealth.

Wealth often drives elections and referenda but this time the big story is power. The Prime Minister, despite a history of frustration with the EU, threw his weight behind the Remain campaign and all but staked his political future on its success. In a display of implausible opportunism, Boris the Clown, the ex-Mayor of London who presided for eight years over one of the world's most colorful cities, led the Leavers, risking parochialism in the hope of overthrowing the Prime Minister after a win. The London Borough of Lambeth, incidentally, voted to remain by 79%.

It is almost 2 o'clock now and, as the BBC doesn't tire of saying, still too early to call. Besides upending my retirement account, piled up during my seven years at Imperial and valued in pounds Sterling, the referendum should have minimal effect on my life. In all likelihood, I'll be able to leave the country tomorrow to return to Switzerland without needing an exit visa or official travel permit, and things will remain like this. Good night.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

getting worse

Back in London, I kept abreast of current events, much more abreast than was good for me or sensible in any way.  It should be evident that checking the news more than once a day is a waste a time.  Such immediacy comes with no benefits.  Back in my previous job, I used to have a browser window open with a news site at all times.  Whenever thinking got too hard or I had to wait for experiments to finish, I would read little stories that would become irrelevant shortly thereafter.  I told myself I was relaxing, meditating on the world, maybe even learning something without trying, but in the end I was just stuffing useless crap in my head.

At my new job, the thinking is still hard, but there aren't experiments to wait for anymore.  Quite to the contrary, I'm usually working on at least five different tasks, most of which are crucial and need to be finished right a way – or so they tell me – keeping me busy from early to late.  I'm not complaining; the work is interesting and satisfying, and I've been weaned off news without really noticing.  When the weather is bad I get pointless snippets cut from the regional newspaper projected on the screens of the bus that takes me to and from work, and sometimes I get the (pathetic) free paper to read on the train, but that's about it.  No more time wasting.

News should be consumed in weekly intervals at most, sufficiently matured for relevance and impact.  Unless you're a journalists or the leader of an army at war, you're deluding yourself if you think more frequent updates are needed.  Consistent with this philosophy, I buy an Economist to read on the train every few weeks.  The magazine's coverage is not sufficiently deep and universal for a well-rounded picture, but it's good enough for a vague idea, and that's all I or almost anyone else needs. I might miss the terror attacks in Paris (as indeed I did until my boss emailed me the next day to ask if I, having been in Paris the night before, was all right) or bad hair guy's latest antics in the US or some earthquake somewhere, but if it's important, it will eventually percolate through.  If it's not, it won't, and so much for the better.

I could leave it at that, and it would be a fine post for the category of "pointless musings", but what has been percolating through from Syria is so horrifying and barbaric that I can't remain silent – though I don't have anything to contribute as much as questions of angry incomprehension.

Syria is dear to meI visited it twice before the current hell broke loose, and spent wonderful vacations.  The picture on the right was taken at five in the morning six-and-a-half years ago in the middle of two thousand years of history, beauty and magic.  The rest of the country, with its welcoming people and unspoiled charms, was different in an infinity of variations and absolutely spectacular.

No one would make any kind of positive associations with Syria these days.  War – not between opposing forces but among them – has shredded the country to pieces.  I would be surprised if the columns in the photograph were still standing.  Jihadis of depravity have pillaged and killed there.  The petrified peacefulness imposed by a benighted dictator has imploded, with violence and devastation filling all space.

Every bit of news out of Syria seems to be more desperate than the last.  Half the country displaced, millions on the run from savagery, with no place to go other than camps of frigid tents in neighboring countries and very little hope.  Tens of thousands made it through Turkey last year and over to Greece and then up the Balkan route to central Europe, a migration of the dispossessed, tired masses self-organizing along shape-shifting tracks with nothing but a cell phone to guide them and a small pack on their backs.

From my comfortable flat in tranquil Switzerland, it seems impossible, unreal, that this could happen in Europe in the 21st century.  And yet it's true – a region I considered for holidays last summer has now turned medieval.  Ryanair has strung a dense net of flights across the entire continent, but here we have tattered multitudes staggering north, on foot, with no technology besides their telephones, walking as far as their feet will carry them, tired, miserable, cold.  The days repeat endlessly, the scrounging for food, the searching for shelter, the will to survive.  They keep moving and finding ways to proceed, but it's almost impossible now.  One by one, borders were fortified, fences were drawn, people were held back, vilified, sent back with nowhere to go.

Two weeks ago, when it seemed that every plague in the book had ravaged Syria and it couldn't get any worse, Putin started bombing Aleppo, a city of two million, and the world looks on.  Why is he wrecking Syria?  If he's done with Ukraine, shouldn't he take advantage of the lull and try to get the Russian economy out of the shit?  Is he trying to do just that by pimping domestic arms production?  Is he trying to swell the refugee stream in the hope of overwhelming Europe, hateful callousness that wouldn't be out of character?  How come he can commit atrocities in utter impunity?

There is no end to my questions and little understanding.  The situation is intolerable.  Fifty thousand of those who escaped Putin's bombs are now squashed against the Turkish border in unmitigated wretchedness, held inside a country that is disintegrating, a country that keeps being violated by old forces and new, by devil worshipers and by the ignorance of public opinion.  The amount of suffering is dreadful.  The inaction by those who should know better is worse.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

curious country

Since Flucha and Tapas are still in Argentina, enjoying 90-degree heat while I have to content with snow and frozen sidewalks, I had the weekend to myself.  Yesterday, I purchased some pieces of furniture to deck out a flat that's still empty two-and-a-half months after my moving in, among them a table of dubious value.  After two hours of assembling, the table stands strong and serves me well with its large surface, but Flucha has already logged complaints about material, color and shape.

This morning, later than I usually have a coffee at work, I sat down on the new table for tea and a newspaper that spread open without interfering with my breakfast.  I had bought the NZZ, the most respectable Swiss daily, and so I got, with bread from the bakery across the street and Ovomaltine chocolate spread, a heap of Swiss news that set the course for the day.  Switzerland is such a curious country, it's a shame I haven't written anything about it yet.

Take the market for agricultural products, for example.  It is highly regulated and protected to a degree that would make French farmers turn green with envy.  Competition is excluded and prices are commensurate.  On the upside, consumers are promised quality without compromise.  This is something the Swiss value more than a bargain.  A suggestions was floated a few months back about imports (in general) having to conform to Swiss environmental and labor standards to prevent cheap products from giving good Swiss farmers and manufacturers a hard time.  This was received quite positively.  If families on tight budgets struggled, it would presumably be their own fault.  They could go and do their weekly shopping in Germany.

Back to agriculture.  Nectarines, grapes and oranges arrive from Italy or Spain, but of the fruits and vegetables that can be grown here, most that are sold in stores are Swiss.  The same is true of meat, which is said to be excellent.  I don't know if there are feedlots, but I doubt it.  Cows graze everywhere, in small herds of content animals.  Last summer on one of my few bike rides I saw a pasture with pigs, with little huts for them to sleep.  My boss told me later how it works:  Cute little piglets arrive early in summer.  Great fun for the children.  Many Sundays spent watching them play and grow.  Then, at Christmas, they're all gone all of a sudden.  And the children have learned an important lesson about life.  I don't know where the poultry come from.  I haven't seen chickens roam freely yet in significant numbers, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's how they spent their days.

Meat of any provenance is incredibly expensive.  Just a few weeks ago, the new Argentinian government cut export duties on beef.  This was reported in the Swiss media, with the happy corollary that one will soon be able to buy good Argentinian steaks for less.  The reports chose to ignore that the import duty Switzerland levies on beef is 23 Francs per kilogram, easily outweighing any export duties abroad.  The decision far away will have no effect on prices in Switzerland.  And anyway, even if the Swiss started buying their beef, they would still not know how to barbecue it like the Argentines.

None of this was in my newspaper this morning.  What I read was that the hot and dry summer had pummeled potato fields.  The harvest was correspondingly poor.  Now there aren't enough potatoes in the country for everyone.  The larger ones, critical for frying and baking, are especially rare because the lack of water had stunted their growth.  The idea surfaced that potato imports might be necessary to ensure an adequate supply.

In Switzerland, this isn't so easy.  You can't just go and drive a few trucks over from Germany when you see unmet demand.  There are quotas and duties and permits, set or handed out weekly by a ministry in what looks to me like a bureaucratic nightmare.  The Economist would call this restrictive system incompatible with prosperity, but the Swiss don't seem to read that magazine or heed conventional economic wisdom.  Rail transport here is government-owned, as is the postal service, which also runs one of the country's largest financial institution.  Retail is dominated by two players that don't act as if they were in competition.  Both are cooperatives, as is the largest insurance company.  Trade is restricted and the currency overvalued.  There are rules and regulations for everything.  The country is highly protectionist and suspicious of international integration.  It joined the UN in 2002 only and stays apart from the EU, even though it's surrounded by it on all sides.  One could assume that globalization happened elsewhere.  It's a curious country indeed.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

first year

Instead of choosing an internet provider and picking a plan or figuring out how the heating works, I leaned back on the bean bag that's one of the few pieces of furniture in an otherwise empty flat, and tried to extract meaning from a few more lines of Borges.  Most people agree that Spanish is an easy language, but for some reason it refuses to reveal itself to me.  Nevertheless, even Borges gets easier when the subject matter becomes familiar.  One of the stories in the collection I was reading described a nocturnal walk around the Once neighborhood.  Just last week, I was walking around Once myself.

Instead of reading, slowly and often interrupted by reminiscences, I should have been blogging about our family vacation to Argentina that came to an end only two days ago.  This will happen in due time and, contravening the edict of the immediacy of the blog, retrospectively (unkeepable-promise warning attached).  I'm not afraid of posts inserted with an earlier apparent publication date.  Compared to the nimble tweet, a blog post is a mobility-impaired pensioner anyway.

When I finished the story, all of twelve pages, I started writing anyway, but on a different subject matter.  It's been only ten months, but I had my first-year performance review today.  The Swiss are organized and do performance reviews right at the end of one year or the beginning of another, no matter what.  The review didn't reveal anything particularly noteworthy but it got me thinking on how I've spent my time at work so far.

The largest drawback of the job is the inordinate amount of time spent in front of the computer.  I was never a big fan of lab work, of minipreps, pipetting and protein purification, of pouring gels and mixing solutions, but now I'd do I just for variety from time to time.  I write marketing material, pieces for our website, and documentation, and entangle myself lethally in discussions with remote parties about diffraction data formats and the best compression algorithms in all possible use cases, now and in the future.  A paper book, even if it's an inscrutable Borges, is a welcome relief at the end of the day.

On the other hand, I spent slightly more than 40 nights away from home and flew three times back and forth across the Atlantic (not counting the most recent vacation in South America) and once far into Asia.  If the airlines had compensated me fairly, I'd have accumulated nearly 50,000 miles, but the low ticket classes I was restricted to led to serious mileage reductions.  I visited ten synchrotrons and gave seven talks at workshops, conferences and one synchrotron.  In the process, I established connections with scientist whom I would previously only read about.

I was never much of a conference goer during my scientific career.  No one invited me, and I didn't nag the bosses too much about attending at their cost.  All of a sudden I'm a regular, seeing the same faces again and again and greeting acquaintances with joy.  We have beers and correspondingly interesting conversations.  I haven't sold a single detector.

On paper, the most exotic trip was to Taiwan, but it came at the cost of a 12-hour flight with a tedious layover in Hong Kong.  With strict time management and lucky connections between airport and the research institute in Hsinchu, I could have limited my presence to just a few hours on either side of the conference I was attending.  Instead, I arrived a bit early and stayed a day longer to explore Taipei.  For someone expecting the madness of densely populated South East Asia, the fumes and pollution of a megacity, and juices leaking from street kitchens to make walking treacherous, it was a bit disappointing, a bit too disciplined and ordered, too tame.  In that regard, Buenos Aires offered a similar picture.  It could have been Madrid for all I know.

The trip-of-the-year award must thus go to the meeting of the European Crystallographic Association, which was held in Croatia, in the town of Rovinj whose ancient core used to be an island.  It fused with the shore long ago to create a continuum of medieval lanes and walkways between slender ochre-colored buildings.  On the clear waters of the sweeping bay, sailing boats bopped idly.  At night, tourists ate steak and ice cream and promenaded in peace, imbued with the magic of the place.  On a quick run one morning that culminated in a dip at a nearby peninsula, I swore to come back for a proper vacation.  Apart from that, it was work pretty much from dusk till dawn, as conferences tend to be.

Two months earlier, during a five-day stay in New York, I had broken loose only twice for a few hours.  On trips like this, the wait in the airport and flight itself become periods of relaxation or even somnolent paralysis.  I tend to be so tired by the end of a long conference that I fall asleep on the airplane before even the first meal is served.  On the flight back from San Francisco, I debated whether I should wait for dinner before snoozing off.  I started watching a movie and got drowsy.  Then the smell of food was in my nose and the next thing I know is we're an hour and a half from Frankfurt and breakfast is being served.

The performance review ended with a friendly handshake and a verdict of keep-up-the-good-work.  That's at least how I understood it, and I intend to do exactly that.  I like the job for the challenges and the scope it offers for my own contributions.  This year, there might even be room for some science.  I'm eager to continue, but there's nevertheless a chance some words on my business card will change before too long.  Stay tuned, and happy New Year!