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.