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.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

imprisoned in India

So far, this has been a bit different from what I had expected.  I'm in Hyderabad to attend the Congress of the International Union of Crystallography, an epic bash that happens once every three years and brings thousands of crystallographers together.  I left Zurich last night after an ominous evening when gale-force winds nearly blasted our backyard furniture into oblivion.  At the airport, it was as if nothing had happened.  No delays and no cancelations.

After a stop in Muscat, I arrived in Hyderabad in the midst of monsoon.  It seemed as if we had landed in a field.  From the airplane, I saw no evidence of civilization and certainly no traces of the town itself.  My doubts were dispelled quickly.  The airport was well laid out and nearly void of people.  Immigration took less than a minute.  I made it from the gate to the curb in about five minutes, so fast that I missed the change wallahs and stood by the taxi rank without a single rupee to my name.

It's curious that I should have thought about money at this point.  Exiting an Indian airport, in other words setting foot on Indian soil for the first time, I expected to be overwhelmed, hit in the face with noise, litter and chaos.  I found none.  Instead, the muggy heat, spacious ground level car park and slightly sloppy driving vaguely reminded me of Marseille.  And where were the begging cripples?  This didn't look like India at all – except that prices were in rupees, which I didn't have.

"No worries", said a fellow with a managerial air.  "We'll charge an estimated maximum to your credit card.  The driver will run the meter and, at your hotel, return whatever you didn't owe."  Does this ring your alarm bells?  It should.  This sounds like the perfect recipe to milk clueless tourists.  My fears were allayed somewhat when the manager and the driver discussed the fare and the driver insisted on a lower amount to be paid up-front.  In the end, the actual fare fell short by a bit, but there was never any talk of returning the difference.  There was my tip taken care off.

If the airport didn't match my ideas of India, the drive to the hotel didn't either.  Apart from a set of axle-breaking speed bumps at a tool booth, the infrastructure seemed in good shape.  No potholes, and the bridges looked fine.  For the first part of the drive, the verges were positively beautiful, with neatly trimmed grass, trees in yellow bloom and what vaguely looked like crane flowers but white.

There were three lanes to the highway but hardly any traffic.  There were no cows and no rickshaws.  Later, in more urban surroundings, yellow three-wheeled micro-taxis, mopeds and a lonely cyclist added elements of adventure, but life on the motorway was rather staid.  Here and there, cars stood in the emergency lane, their drivers hurrying back and forth in what might have been dodgy business.  Here and there again, small groups of women seemed to be just hanging out but were in all likelihood engaged in crucial but invisible maintenance work.  It didn't matter.  There was enough space for everyone.

The most notable features of the countryside were rocks.  In places, the road seemed to be machined into the topology of the land, with a wall of rock like in a quarry left behind on either side.  This was reflected by solitary formations near and far that wouldn't be out of place in Utah, huge boulders precariously balanced one on top of the other.  Here, they weren't of sandstone but of grey granite.  Many developments, among them the hotel I'm staying in, incorporated these piles as centerpieces.

The hotel, to get back to the point of this post, and the adjacent conference center sit on a piece of land all to themselves.  Around is an impenetrable fence.  The access road passes through a gate with a security check.  There is no footpath and no easy way out.  Going for dinner requires a taxi, which seems a bit of a faff.  If not carceral, the hotel is at least a gilded cage of dubious value.  Richard Marx wafts up to my room from a dozen outdoor speakers.  From my window I can see grass, a terrace and a pool, but not India.  After eight hours in the country, it is as if I weren't here.

It gets worse.  Times Now TV has just exposed that the #CowardChineseArmy has pelted stones at Indian braves in what's claimed to be a major altercation at the shared border.  The Indians have pushed back valiantly, but there's no guarantee the two countries won't go to war tomorrow.  What am I doing here?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

growing up

They say you grow up, from one moment to the next, when your first baby arrives.  I don't know if that was true for me.  In my mind at least, I haven't changed a bit.  There's a now child to take care of and a family to support, but I can see myself blasting the foothills behind campus in Salt Lake, riding up the cols around Grenoble or floating around London on each day's new whim.  I don't do these things because I don't have time for them but they're still there.  You might say other things have become more important, and if that's what's growing up is, then maybe I've grown up after all.  But this post is not about me.

This post is about the growing up, from one moment to the next, someone else had to do when my second baby arrived.  Our son was born on Friday, and on the face of it, it should have been routine, at least for me.  Things went pretty much as with the first one, except for my cluelessness.  Five days later, mother and child are home and we're the same happy family, just bigger.

Two things took me by surprise, though, and they're related.  The first is the size of the baby.  He's tiny, despite weighing in at a good 800 g more than his sister when she was born.  But I've got so used to holding my first baby that holding the second one was positively shocking.  He seemed to weigh nothing by comparison.

The second surprise is the other side of the same coin.  All of a sudden, my daughter has grown in one big leap.  She used to be the fragile little creature who I held, all puzzled and full of doubt, in the hospital only minutes after she was born.  She cried and I had no idea what to do.  Over the next two years, she grew and developed and started performing all kinds of tricks, but she remained our baby.

By comparison with her little brother, she's suddenly big, her body heavy and her legs strong.  It's four years until she goes to school, but how much more will she mature?  She's a real kid already.  Despite looking exactly the same as one week ago, she's changed beyond recognition – grown up if you will.

In the next few days we'll see how she handles the situation.  For us it's easy.  We saw it coming and see, however vaguely, where it's going, but she has no clue and no control.  All she knows is that there's a fourth member to the family and she's not the undisputed number one anymore.  Mommy is dividing her attention and will frequently have to say no.

So far Tapas is handling it well, but one can tell that she's struggling.  At home, she kisses her brother gently and behaves in a rather grown-up way, but all her emotions escalate dramatically.  When I pick her up from childcare, she clings to me neck in desperate need of love – never mind that she bounces there in the mornings as if to join the town's biggest party.  Growing up isn't easy.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

two years

With my daughter nearing her second birthday, I want to take the opportunity to contemplate her development and take some notes.  Things happen so quickly, there's amazing progress, unbelievable and beautiful, and a few weeks later all these first steps have been taken a hundred times, become routine and don't merit a second thought.

Tapas started walking when she was thirteen months old.  This was unsurprising.  Three months earlier, on one of our many trips to IKEA, she had grabbed a little plastic stool and, pushing it around, started exploring the store.  The joy in her eyes that betrayed excitement about being able to move around by herself was quite a sight, not something I would have expected of a child that wasn't even one year old.

Physically, Tapas is where she belongs.  She slides the slides without fear, climbs stairs up and down, swings on the swing despite a recent fall that can be blamed almost entirely on her dad, takes little jumps, steers a tricycle with skill despite not being able to pedal because her legs are too short, and runs every which way with little high-frequency steps.  This is what I might have thought a toddler would be like, had I ever bothered to think about this.

What would have never come to my mind is the mental skills toddlers develop early on.  Tapas is bilingual at least.  I speak to her in German, while Flucha does Spanish.  We talk to each other in English but try not to address Tapas in this language.  There's enough confusion already, especially since childcare adds another dimension in being a Swiss-German environment. Tapas called food "fein" the other day.  This is not a word I use.  It's German, but it came straight from childcare.

So the child is challenged.  Books in the library and scientific studies tell me that this challenge will eventually be overcome and the experience leave a positive mark in terms of heightened cognitive skills later in life, but early in life it's a burden likely to cause a delayed development a linguistic skills.  Whether this delay is outside normal child-to-child variations is another question.

If Tapas is delayed, it's not in a way that would cause me any worry.  In contrast, I'm frequently stunned and left speechless by what she has already figured out.  She has figured out, for example, that there are two languages, and that mommy and daddy speak differently.  Most of the time, as long as she knows the word, she will address either of us in the correct language.  She can also do translations.  Ask her in Spanish what the German word for hat is, and she will tell you.  This is nearly automatic for the translations she's done before.  If she encounters a new word, she tilts her head sideways and stares blankly in the distance.  After a bit of a think – for this is what she's having – she often comes up with the right translation, without having to consult a dictionary.

This thinking is something I still find astonishing.  Toddlers aren't supposed to be thinkers.  But when you ask her to find a particular animal in a picture book, she will scan the tiny page very carefully and then purposefully point out the requested critter.  After she's done this a few times, she knows where all the animals are and points almost without looking.

Her memory shines in other ways, too.  After she's practiced a few times, she doesn't solve puzzles where wooden shapes (e.g. animals) fit into cutouts by matching the shape to the cutout but by remembering where each animal goes.  Before picking up a shape, she will point at all the cutouts and identify the animal that goes there.  I sit there baffled, watching in surprise, asking myself, how does she know.

Childcare is a source of great joy to Tapas.  She loves to go there.  Are we bad parents?  Is it horrible at home?  I don't think so.  But she's thrilled about childcare and tells us every night before going to bed what she will do there the next day.  The most unexpected part to me is that what gets her going most are two children there.  When she thinks of them and says their names, her eyes light up.  She likes playing with them.  They have developed a bond – and yet they're not even two years old.  There's no way they'll remember when they're older.

In studies and books I've read that children cannot distinguish between reality and fiction or simulation.  This is utter nonsense.  Tapas got a wooden kitchen for Christmas.  This appeared in the living room of our flat when we got back from Argentina.  In Argentina, it was summer and, touching the exposed surfaces of playground toys, she had learned to concept and (thanks maybe to an overprotective father) German word for hot.  Hot was the first adjective she learned, the first property of things and the first abstract idea whose implications she grasped.

On the play-kitchen are two buttons to light red diods underneath the hot plates, making them look like ceramic cooking surfaces.  She describes them as hot when they're clearly not.  When playing with her kitchen, she associates hot not with temperature but with the cooking surface, even if it's not a real one, and she will point out to us the dangers of touching it.

Or take her baby doll.  Over time, this acquired one of her diapers, and now from time to time the baby makes kaka.  When it has, Flucha or I take the baby's clothes off.  Tapas then takes the diaper off and cleans it and the baby's ass with her hand.  Then she goes to the bathroom to pull one (!) sheet from the roll of toilet paper and cleans her hand, throwing the paper in the toilet when she's done.  The complexity!  The mixing of the imagined and the real!  I could watch for hours.

I could also write for hours about this, and yet I sit down all too infrequently.  And so most little details will fade into oblivion in a process called aging, which starts the day we are born.

Monday, May 15, 2017

shades of mud

Flying to Santa Fe is a pain no matter which one of the two airlines serving its municipal airport you choose. From Zurich, it involves three flights, the last of which is a short hop in a little tin that's rattling and shaking like an ill-tempered wind chime. In the time it takes you to get there, you'd make it to San Francisco and halfway back. It is not a journey to take lightly but one with rewards.

By day, Santa Fe is delightful. The sky is blue, the sun burning, the air is dry and brown the dominant color. At 7000 feet, the town often seems to hover in the translucence of the high desert. Adobe buildings in Pueblo style give an impression of architectural congruence and carefully preserved history. Not all of this is what it seems, though. A marker by an old officers' quarter in the historic center reveals that Pueblo style took off only in the early 20th century when a local authority in these matters decreed that henceforth, no other style would be tolerated. Existing buildings were plastered over to create the mud-façaded ensemble that now dominates New Mexico's tourism marketing.

For me, this works. Walking around town, I was reminded of a visit to New Mexico a good fifteen years ago, when I road-tripped around the southern half of the state, from Albuquerque down to White Sands and back. The highlight of that trip was a walk around Acoma Pueblo, along its dusty lanes, the skyward-pointing ladders that enable access to the homes through holes in their roofs forever out of reach. What jarred at first what the flat drone of our native guide's voice. How had he got the job? At some point – whether prompted by an aggravated question or not I don't remember – he explained that the monotony was on purpose. He wanted to make sure the stories of his forefathers that he had to tell us outsiders as part of the tour would stay in the pueblo. To me, this only added to the magic of the visit.

Thanks to the early local authority with a vision, you don't have to go to a pueblo to get a bit of the pueblo vibe. Santa Fe is all adobe buildings, in more shades of clay than are on my chino shelf. Exposed beams of Ponderosa pines long gone from the surroundings and accents of light blue crack through the mud here and there. Wooden ladders are conspicuously missing, but at least the Eldorado Hotel at one end of town and the Pruma at the other give the impression of impregnability by any other means.

The town sees itself as a destination for refined tourists. On one side of the central plaza, by the old Palace of the Governors, dozens of Native Americans spend their days slumped against the wall, offering necklaces, earrings and bracelets in turquoise and silver to a steady stream of discerning customers. Art galleries, pottery shops, jewelry boutiques and enough museums to fill the entire state's quota three times over give Santa Fe a cultured vibe. Acoustic sets and skillful street musicians pop up at odd hours. This is not the place for rowdy crowds to let their hair down.

Or is it? At night, Santa Fe turns into a different beast. When most tourists are back in their hotels, the hicks come out in force. The streets fill with vehicles of dubious value, pimped primarily for acoustic incontinence. Camaros with roaring oven pipes, ricers whose wheels had slumped to pathologic camber and humping lowriders performed a parade of sensational combustion. I saw a motorcycle spinning its rear wheel as if in a drag race and a Fiesta leaving rubber on an intersection. A Fiesta! What a sad spectacle, violently at odds with the sophistication of the day, but maybe not so surprising after all. Thirty miles from Santa Fe is Los Alamos, reputedly the town with the highest density of PhDs in the US. Around it, however, is New Mexico, one of the poorest states of the US. The behavior of the kids reflects that.

I was at a structural biology conference with an impressive line-up of speakers. Talks ran from right after breakfast to after dinner. There was little time to leave the hotel and none at all for sightseeing. Most conferences have at least an afternoon off to see a bit of the locality. This one was so focused on science, it sometimes felt it was losing itself. Flying out of Santa Fe this morning was thus a bit of a pain. So much was left unseen, it was a shame to leave.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

tonight in Sweden

This morning, I got on the plane with considerable trepidation.  The trip to Lund could have been the start of a major disaster.  Thanks to recently unearthed high-level intelligence, disseminated during a speech that attracted global attention, Sweden is a failed state, a basket case, worst place to visit in Europe (where catastrophe and collapse is never far off anyway), a total mess.  In Sweden, Islamic terrorists roam freely, rapists own the streets and assorted immigrants riot nightly.  How criminally irresponsible of my employer to send me there.

The last time I was in Sweden, a few months ago, the situation hadn't quite deteriorated to the same degree, but it was already bad.  While I survived, my telephone fell victim to a heinous attack by a terrorist stretch of pavement.  I went running one morning, as I usually do when I'm traveling.  It was still dark outside, cold and snowy.  For the first time ever, I took my phone.  I had just downloaded a running app and wanted to start tracking my activity.

A few minutes into the run – I wasn't even properly cold yet – the attack happened, out of nowhere.  Thereafter it was utterly ignored by the mainstream media.  No surprise, maybe, but remember:  Here's the only place you'll read about it.  Share freely to show that your voice won't be ignored!

From one nimble step to the next, my phone slipped out of my pocket, innocently and without guile, choosing, with charming naiveté, the ground to break its fall.  The ground, probably shipped in from abroad and laid down in this very place by a team of illegal immigrants, took wicked advantage of the opportunity, whipping the poor phone around and cracking its screen into a million bits.  The cost to repair it still brings tear to my eyes, but this time around, I fear for my life, not my phone.

Sweden is lost to civilization, a total nightmare.  The airport serving southern Sweden needed to be moved to Denmark for safety reasons.  These days, you fly into Copenhagen.  Before letting you on the train across the Øresund Bridge, fierce immigrants with bushy beards check passports where only a few years ago one could travel freely.

In Sweden, I wasn't immediately confronted with mob violence or street violence, and I have no injuries to prove the danger I was in.  Society seems to be hanging on, but the thread is thinning.  To buy a bus ticket with a value I could just touch-pay with my credit card in Switzerland, I had to give my pin, then show an ID and finally sign the receipt.  When I was asked for an iris scan, I ran off and walked to the place I had to be.

Tonight, after dinner by the train station, still peculiarly undisturbed by the mayhem that was surely going on outside, just out of sight, I saw that the Islamists had taken over a pub.  Their first act of business was pricing all beer out of every infidel's consideration.  Bastards – but what a way to make Switzerland look cheap!  I had a local stout anyway, dark and cold like the night outside but much sweeter and more wholesome, pondering with friends and colleagues the sad state of the world where a deranged tweeter is taken more seriously than all the wisdom in the world and where assorted absurdities are taken at face value when a simple check would reveal their falseness.

I hasten to say that this post contains its own share of prevarication, though maybe less than the critical reader might think. Not all of it is nonsense.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

so close

There are essentially two grocery store chains Switzerland, Migros and Coop.  Both are organized as cooperatives and don't compete all that fiercely.  Their selections are meager and their prices high.  They also pay their employees exceptionally well.  This is how Switzerland works in a nutshell.

As do grocers in other countries, Migros and Coop organize periodic competitions to get customers to spend yet more money.  One just ended.  For every twenty Francs spent, Migros handed customers a little booklet that held, out of sight, two stickers.  Fill the card with stickers and you'd win a pantry.  Look at the ticket.  We were so close to securing our grocery budget for at least a year.  Just one sticker missing.

Almost winning

Halfway through the excitement of the game, I first realized the postmodern self-reflectivity of the game and then the simple point behind it.  That excitement I felt was supposed to cloud my vision and make my shop at Migros even though what I wanted to buy was slightly cheaper elsewhere, or it would have if there had been an alternative.  With two grocers comfortably sharing a customer base suffused with affluence, competition is not part of the strategy and price not a selling point.  The game seemed to be more about giving something back to generous customers than to entice spending.

To build excitement, the game was exceedingly well designed.  Look at the picture again.  The card on the left promises 25,000 Franc to those who fill all twelve spots with stickers.  A few weeks into the competition, we were two thirds done.  Then only two stickers were missing, then only one.  At this point, I realized what was going on.

The point of the game is of course to get the winning sticker.  It's a game that's played in infinite varieties, with more or less fluff around the main objective.  The simplest version is to raffle off the prizes directly, printing a line on the receipt that would say, "Big loser!  So sad.", most of the time and announce the big win when it happens.  So far, so boring.

Not much better in terms of customer engagement is providing a code and a web address.  Barclay's Bank in the UK used to do that on receipts from their ATMs.  There's a bit of excitement while you navigate to the site and a light buildup of tension while you wait to have your code verified.  There's also an element of play to it, but it's still bad.  I never even looked at the codes.

A step up is handing out tokens of some sort that need to be opened or unwrapped.  The activity will draw people in.  But if all tokens are losers and only three win the big prize, participants will soon tire of the game.  Who wants to be a loser every day?

Migros doesn't call its customers losers.  With every colorful sticker one gets for shopping, one fills the card and feels like getting closer to the big win.  But these stickers are only padding.  Reduced to its essentials, the game is nothing more than three winners and a million losers.  The brilliant thing is that the losers aren't called such.  Quite the contrary, the losers are steps one needs to take on the way to the win.  Instead of spreading frustration about losing, the game keeps building hope.  Only three stickers matter, but this fact is cleverly hidden in the design of the game.

I am reminded of a book I've been reading on and off for a good two years now.  Among many other amazing and thought-provoking things, Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow describes how the brain reacts to observations and triggers, and how different ways of presenting the same information can get drastically different reactions.

For example, when a patient is asked to consent to risky surgery, the response will be much more positive when the risk is framed as a survival rate of 90 percent.  Alerted to the mathematically identical mortality rate of 10 percent, the patient is much more likely to decline.  By collecting stickers, I had fallen into the same trap.  But what fun it was!

Monday, March 06, 2017

typically Swiss

Three weeks ago, I thought I had a topic for a post.  It was an episode that brought some common stereotypes of Switzerland in such sharp focus that I was left blinded for a few moments.  It was perfect little story.  Lack of dedication to this blog killed it.  It now turns out it was all for the best.

To drive in Switzerland, one has to have a Swiss license.  Holders of a license from what are commonly known as civilized countries have one year to exchange their license for a Swiss one.  Within that year, no test beyond one of eyesight is required to be eligible for a Swiss license.  Swapping licenses is nothing more than a formality.

This sounds sensible but the idea didn't appeal to me.  Being European, I've driven like a local while living in France and in the UK.  No one ever asked questions.  Before that, in Utah, getting a state driver's license required a written test (open book) but let me keep my license.  What right do the Swiss have to retain my license?

It was over questions like this that a year passed.  With the second year nearing its end, it was likely too late to take action.  When it says one year in Switzerland, one year is what it means.  When the bus leaves at ten past three, it's ten past three and not a quarter.  Twenty-three months after my arrival in Switzerland, the train to a new license had left the station.

Except maybe it hadn't.  A colleague at work, told about my predicament, gave me hope.  "You can do it within two years, but you have to pay more", had said.  This made perfect sense in my understanding of Switzerland.  There are plenty of rules.  Enforcement is strict.  But if you part with some money, you'll discover hidden flexibility.  In the end, reality turned out quite different.

Three weeks ago, I went to Zurich to have my German driver's license exchanged for a Swiss one.  The office opened at 7:15.  Not being as hard-working as the Swiss, I entered the building five minutes later.  A further five minutes later, I was back out, and all was done.  The clerk had taken my application form and my license, thoughtfully given me a copy for my records, and sent me on my way.  "You'll get your new license by mail within a week."

If the license had arrived exactly seven days after my visit, it would have been the perfect story of Swiss efficiency.  A job done as expected, without any faff, quickly, competently and friendly.  And who has ever heard of a government office opening just after seven?

First doubts arose on the tram ride back.  There had been no question about my arrival in the country.  What happened to the one-year rule?  Nor had any money exchanged hands.  This gave it away.  Nothing is free in Switzerland.  There would be more to this story.

Eight days after I handed over my German license, I received a letter asking me to get a medical exam if I wanted to keep a particular lorry class I had obtained all those years ago and never used.  I opted out, but then it took another four days until my license arrived.  The promised week was broken, at least in part because the clerk at the office hadn't checked that all the boxes were ticked on the form.

With a new license in my wallet, this is where the story would have ended for me, but the Swiss had other ideas.  Today I got another letter.  Inside was a bill.  The exchange of licenses was one item and hard to argue with.  The issuing of a new license was also listed, though this might have been included with the exchange in more generous jurisdictions.  Finally, an ID check brought the total into the triple figures, not something I'm particularly happy with, but at least it's in line with common preconceptions of Switzerland.  This is an expensive country.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

bike to work

There are three ways of getting to work by bike.  By far the easiest is in the valley, vaguely following a busy road but mainly on bike paths. In violation of one of the fundamental laws of cycling, the wind always blows from behind.  Last summer, when I had reached a modicum of shape, I managed to do the round trip, all of 31 kilometers, in just under an hour.

The second way of getting to work involves such a sustained climb right at the outset that I've only ever done it the other way. It's a way of getting home from work, and a very good one.  A gently rising road opens increasingly impressive vistas of the Alps when the weather is good.  At the end, there's a hilarious descent into town where I was once almost taken out by a bus.

The third way is by far the hardest.  Going to work across Heitersberg involves a two-kilometer climb that averages close to 10%.  This is quite literally a steep challenge on an empty stomach.  It trims the commute by 3 kilometers, but I don't consider it a short cut.  The ride will inevitably take longer.  Going back is easier, but you need to have the legs for it.

Today I rode across Heitersberg for the first time since my two crashes there last year.  The road is narrow and steep, there are some 90-degree turns without much warning, and one morning a turn was soiled with wet grass.  You get the picture.  It's not a pretty one.

I now have a new bicycle, nearly identical to the old one, which languishes in the basement as a pile of spares.  The steer tube of the fork was ripped in two when I hit a curb sliding fast but rather comfortably on a pad of wet grass.  The rest, including my body, survived the crash almost unharmed.

This is only a dim memory now.  Slightly more recent but fading fast is winter.  January was cold.  There was even some snow.  It has all melted, and the ice on the ponds is gone.  While mornings are still a bit too cold for my comfort, I've been riding.  It's the only thing that keeps me moving at the necessary intensity to shape my legs and clear my head.

Today it was warm for the first time, a glorious day with sunshine and clear views in all directions.  I could see the Alps from the office, glowing orange in the evening sun as I packed up for the day.  The valley wouldn't do, I thought, as I hopped on my bike.  I rode along the hills and then up towards Heitersberg.  This being the easier side, the suffering was manageable.  On the other side, I descended calmly, almost like a responsible person.  Whichever way I take, this is the way to go.

I'm surprised that I shouldn't have used this title in almost twelve years of blogging (if the last three years of rather rare activity still count), but that's what the search says, and who am I to argue with Google on this?

Friday, January 27, 2017


Here's a post I wanted to write a while ago.  I let the opportunity pass, but today it came back with a vengeance.  The post is about Switzerland and money, but it's not what you think – no matter what you think.

This morning, like most mornings in winter when it's cold and foggy, I bought a ticket at the train station for my commute to work.  For some reason my card wasn't working, but a ten-franc note did the trick.  Among the pieces the machine spit out as change was one particularly dark and grimy.  Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be minted in 1884.

ten cents
spot the difference

I give you some time to digest this.  A coin (like anything else) from 1884 is 133 years old.  The little ten-cent piece has been circulating since the time the first Gotthard tunnel was dug through the Alps, doing duty like any one of its much younger cousins that gather in wallets and registers.  If it didn't look exactly the same, it would be on display in a museum.

Some of the trams in Zurich or Basel could also rightfully claim their place in a museum, maybe the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne.  Some regional trains might also make the cut, not to say anything of the historic mountain railways.  A casual visitor might infer that Switzerland is too poor to afford modern transportation.  A better explanation is they're taking good care of things and don't need to replace them so often.  The money saved helps make them rich.

They might take good care of their coins, but care of coins is not what makes them last more than a century without being replaced.  The 133-year old coin tells you that there was no change of economic systems that required new money, no devaluation, and essentially no inflation.  It sounds like the world's most boring places from a historian's point of view.

As such, the ancient little coin is an apt symbol for the country.  Switzerland is a collection of villages.  Though painstakingly on time, things move slowly.  Not much is happening.  And even a coin minted 133 years ago probably doesn't have all that many stories to tell.

The reason I wanted to write this post a while ago is that I found an old coin in my wallet before – and before.  The first one was a twenty-cent piece from 1919, from right after the end of the First World War.  The second was another twenty-cent piece from 1926.  These two identical coins neatly bookend a period that saw twelve zeros slashed from the currency just north of the border.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

dead cows

This year again, the highlight of our trip to Argentina was the time spent in Uruguay.  This is not something I would like the folks I, not being married, like to call my outlaws know.  They have welcomed me as a family member and put much love and effort into our now annual two-and-a-half-week stays with them.  We celebrate Christmas and New Year's like Argentines do, let our daughter discover the second half of her identity, eat ourselves silly, and do family time.  For my benefit, we also go out and travel a bit.

Last year, Flucha and I took the boat across the Rio de la Plata to spend a day in Colonia del Sacramento, one of the first European settlements in the Americas and now a World Heritage Site of considerable beauty, by the Rio de la Plata and under the full sun of a perfect summer day.  We explored the old town, had a few drinks, rented bicycles to check out surroundings that rewarded with a relaxed vibe and friendly locals, and cruised back to Buenos Aires late at night with few concrete memories but a desire to return.

The opportunity presented itself this year when the outlaws gave us for Christmas a night in a hotel in Fray Bentos and a car with a full tank of gas to get there.  Fray Bentos is another World Heritage Site but nearly completely under the radar of international tourism.  We didn't even see Argentines, and they'd just have to cross a bridge to get there.

The first thing we saw after crossing the bridge was a huge paper factory on the right side, on the bank of the Rio Uruguay.  For many years, the flames of protest burned high on the other side of the river.  Argentines feared pollution would destroy tourism.  Uruguayans were excited about the jobs, especially since Fray Bentos's traditional industry had died decades earlier.  The atmosphere between the countries became toxic.  The river continues to run clean, if the Uruguayans swimming in it happily are anything to go by.

Fray Bentos was the site of the Anglo meat processing factory, a huge facility where the industrial production of beef extract turned the world's finest carrion (before, cattle were raised in South America primarily for the hides) into something to be sold in Europe, where millions of cows were stuffed into tins as corned beef and where, after the second world war, a cold chain was developed to make the worldwide shipping of fresh meat possible.  Four thousand people worked there during the busiest years, and nearly half that many cows were chopped to pieces every day.  Today, the abandoned complex, nearly fully intact, is preserved as a museum.

How I came across Fray Bentos in the first place is outside my memory.  It might be as banal as reading the corresponding section of the Lonely Planet guide to Argentina that has a chapter on Uruguay as if it were a renegade province.  Why I was enthusiastic is easy to explain.

I am a sucker for industrial heritage, the more outrageous the better, and we had come for the tour.  At slightly more than an hour, it was a bit on the short side but impressive nonetheless: A cavernous hall full of engines and generators used to turn charcoal into electricity for power and refrigeration.  The slaughterhouse resembled what Eric Schlosser described in Fast Food Nation 60 years later.  Huge iron vats, now slowly rusting in the humid air, held minced cows that were stewed until all the goodness has been released.  The juice was then vacuum-evaporated to leave the extract behind, much like you make instant coffee.  It was vivid and real, but I wish I could have explored more.

On the drive to Las Cañas, a low-key resort were Uruguayans who can't afford the Atlantic coast (or want to avoid the craziness) spent their summer holidays, each turn in the narrow road revealed another picnic spot occupied by a family sharing mates.  Trees cut though the worst of the heat, and from the river came a refreshing breeze.  We found a spot by the water and got our own mate out.  Across the river, the sun set in a flood of orange and gold.  Time passes slowly in Uruguay.  There's no better place for a vacation.