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!