Tuesday, December 04, 2018


During the drive back from the workshop near Oxford, the pundits on the radio were arguing whether the government should reveal, for the sake of transparency, what it considers state secrets, and whether revealing them would compromise Britain's position in the negotiations with the European Union over Britain's exit from said Union.  Like almost everything that has happened in the UK since that fateful day in June, this discussion is a bit bizarre.

It is bizarre because a deal for the exit of the UK from the EU has been laboriously negotiated over the last year and a half.  The negotiations are now over.  A deal has been agreed on.  It's up to the British parliament to ratify it and sever for good the ties that many were not happy with.  That many fewer consider this deal a good one is beside the point.  Negotiations end in compromise – or they end in tears.

When it comes to Brexit, the idea of compromise is not popular in the UK.  Those who voted against leaving the EU still don't want to.  Those who did would rather cut all ties, whatever the cost, rather than remain, in whatever way, associated with the EU and bound by its rules.  The leavers, as they are called, talk of sovereignty and strong borders and control over their own affairs without foreigners' interference.

Bizarre then that one of the sticking points during the negotiations was the Irish border, which the UK doesn't want for fear of upsetting those in Northern Ireland who identify as Irish – and the smooth flow of goods.  The latter is of course one of the key principles of the customs union that's at the heart of the EU.  Bizarre that the idea of strong borders loses appeal as soon as it is to be put into practice.

The border issue is actually trivial to resolve.  There are three options:

  1. Stay in the customs union.
  2. Hand Northern Ireland over to the Irish.  Whether they'd want to pay for its maintenance is a different question, but it would be in keeping with the Olympic spirit.  In the Olympics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland competes as Team GB – as if Northern Ireland had nothing to contribute.  Unifying Ireland would risk upsetting those in the North who identify as British.  It might be construed as democratic, though.  Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU by 11 to 9.
  3. Build a strong border.

It's really not that difficult.

It wasn't difficult from the beginning, and yet the process is drawn out, unclear and unresolved.  By the time my flight back to Zurich was ready to board, the parliamentary debate hadn't ended.  Even if it had, the Brexit saga would go on.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

whisky and tea

When I learned that I would need to travel to Japan for work, I came up with the title of this post almost immediately.  I like Japanese whisky and I like green tea.  In the end, there was no whisky – the duty free shop at Haneda had even run out of Hibiki – and very little tea.  But the title stuck.  I still like it.

I had business in a town an hour outside of Tokyo.  For these two days, an eleven-hour flight was hard to justify.  I tagged on two days in Tokyo to make it more bearable.  Here's what happened.

This was my first time in Japan, and I came somewhat prepared.  I had purchased a compact guidebook on the city and noted down some points to visit.  Almost all of them turned out rather silly.  The guidebook also didn't tell me about the two-day travel card I could have bought at the airport.  I survived that first day anyway.  Here's what I did.

The sights of Tokyo

  • Shibuya is famous for a crossing that inspired the one at Oxford Circus, except in London they did it right:  They painted two intersecting diagonal crosswalks for maximum chaos.  In Shibuya, there's only one.  This means no collisions but also no reward for skillful weaving.
  • The Meiji Shrine was full of tourists.  Maybe they walked up from Shibuya as I did (without a map but with a good sense of direction).  There were also plenty of Japanese there, doing the things the Japanese do when they visit a shrine.  There was even a Shinto wedding, but overall the vibe was mixed at best.  Kevin from New York had left a votive tablet exclaiming that he "felt so much", as if traveling were about reliving your favorite movie and doing better than the protagonists.
  • The Tokyo Municipal Government Building attracts unsuspecting tourists with the seemingly unbeatable offer of a free view over the city from the 45th floor.  It's hard to turn that down when the lights come out in town – and I didn't – but other viewing platforms might offer 360-degree views and less glare on the windows.  Paying for the view might pay.
  • The number one spot on this list of ignominy goes to Roppongi Hills.  What a waste!  Walking around this shopping center with its brands of international exchangeability I lost all sense of being in Japan.  One doesn't have to fly halfway around the globe for this.  Any major city will do.

What about experiencing Tokyo?  This I did on my second day, but I can't promise that the post about it will follow this one quite as closely – or at all.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

reluctant immigrant

Over the twenty years that I’ve lived outside Germany, I’ve never seen myself as a migrant.  I was first a student, then a mercenary of science, drifting to where the opportunties were, signing with smart laboratories in interesting cities.  It worked out well for me, life was exciting, and even though I stayed rather long in some places, I didn’t have permanence on my mind – even when my job in London finally offered it – and I never grew roots.

I left Germany as an exchange student, only to become a regular graduate student within a week.  When you spend all day in the lab and whatever is left riding the trails or hanging out with friends, you don't think about migration.  As long as you're in status, as immigration language has it, graduation is much more important.  How far off is it, and would you please stop asking me how things are coming along?

Once I had reached that goal, I moved to Grenoble – at a time when France started treating citizens of other European Union countries almost like their own.  The carte de sejour was a thing of the past and with it the dreaded annual renewal at the Prefecture.  I don't remember if I voted in European and local elections, but I think I could have.  This didn't make me French and didn't light in me the desire to settle in France, but it made life easy.

A few years later in London I did vote.  Don't judge me too harshly, but I helped Boris the Clown become mayor.  This didn't make me British, and I didn't need to be.  Living in London, not belonging was normal.  London is a city of foreigners.  Meeting the first British person took me several years.  Life in London is transitory, and for me it was good.  This was of course before the idiocy (or, depending on where you live, hilarity) of Brexit.  When I moved to Switzerland, everything changed.

What changed primarily was my personal life.  Instead of a free floater without any responsibilities, I suddenly found myself with wife and kids, almost like a normal, boring family.  When things had calmed down – the child born and a flat furnished – I found myself in yet another foreign country but much less at home, the foreignness of my existence forcefully impressed on me.

Switzerland is not in the European Union.  Foreigners are different.  I have a special identity card that I need to renew every five years.  The administration is efficient, but it's obvious that I stand apart.  I'm barred from voting in elections or referendums, no matter how much tea I throw into the Limmat (taxation without representation, anyone?).  I'm more of a foreigner in Switzerland than I've ever been before.

With my children growing up here and, frighteningly, speaking the local dialect like all their friends, I find this situation difficult to stomach.  I live in a country where I plan for a future but don't belong.  How's this gonna work out?  What am I going to tell me daughter when she asks me whether she's Swiss?  Not by birth and not by nationality, but certainly by habit.

Habit counts for something here.  For the first time in twenty years abroad, I started reading up on the regulations surrounding nationalization.  Habit has something to do with it.  The details have already escaped me because it's not relevant yet, but I need to have lived in the country for a certain number of years, somewhere between five and ten, to be eligible for Swiss nationality.

That I would even consider this freaks me out.  I'm not a nationalist, but I like my country and feel a sense of attachment.  My German passport has always served me well.  Why would I want to supplement or replace it?  But once our children start going to kindergarten here and then to school, I think I'll need to help them fit in better - and formalize what they already feel like.  And before that happens, I'll need to start thinking of myself as an immigrant.

Monday, September 24, 2018

storm chasers

Today I flew to the wrong airport.  Back when I was still following pointless news, back in the days of The London Paper and then the Evening Standard, there were stories like these:  A woman takes Ryanair to Rodez, gets off, and asks for the beach.  There is none.  This is not Rhodos.  A man's request for a shuttle into London is met with incomprehension.  LGA is not London Gatwick.  Kids without tickets make it onto planes all the time.  My story isn't like these.

I needed to be in Regensburg for a chemistry conference.  Regensburg is a bit out of the way by Germany's standards.  The closest airports are Munich and Nuremberg, both more than an hour away.  The train from Switzerland is not an option.  In Munich, the annual binge and puke festival had just started.  Flights were correspondingly expensive.  I chose to fly to Nuremberg.

Buckled up for landing and with our seat backs in their upright position and our tray tables folded away, we were alerted by the captain to the meteorological situation on the ground and above.  A storm front was passing through Germany, bringing 70-knot winds and buckets of rain.  Right now it was centered just below us.  Nuremberg airport was temporarily closed.  There were no take-offs or landings.

Our plane, a shaky Dash 8, turned around and headed to Munich, 100 miles back.  Maybe I've been lucky in my years of flying, but these fifteen minutes turned out to be the worst ever.  The plane jerked like a derailing roller coaster train, rolling and pitching and bouncing up and down.  Only by focusing on stationary objects near the horizon did I keep my stomach inside.  We landed surprisingly smoothly and were then rudely dumped at Terminal 2.  There was no one there to help the stranded crowd.

Since Munich had been my first choice anyway, I knew how to proceed, and ten minutes later I sat in a van to Regensburg.  I was lucky that two bookings had been canceled because of a delayed arrival.  The driver headed into the night with the courage of an ancient warrior.  On the radio, talk was how the eye of the storm was moving from Nuremberg to Regensburg.  It started to rain.

On the road, nothing changed.  Traffic embodied the vain belief in the superiority of technology over nature and the knowledge that bad weather happens elsewhere.  In England, snowflakes close Heathrow for days and leaves close railways, but in central Europe, weather's no bother.

Up ahead, strobes of lightning flashed across the night sky.  The rain came down harder now.  Gusts of wind were buffeting the tall van.  Heading straight into this mess, our driver was just doing his job.  On the lane next to us, someone towed a wooden shed on a trailer.  The line between stoicism and idiocy is sometimes very fine.

Was I an idiot for disinterestedly observing the ride and the storm instead of seeing the risks and getting freaked out?  Fallen trees had closed the motorway parallel to ours.  What if an oak came down in front of us?  The road already looked like artisanal gin, infused with all sorts of botanicals.

And just like this, we were in Regensburg, almost on schedule.  The storm had moved on.  With just a drizzle remaining from the tempest, it was almost a pleasant evening, though my carry-on trolley got repeatedly stuck in the debris on the sidewalks.

"How was your trip?", the night manager asked when I arrived at the hotel.  "Indirect", I said, "but relatively uneventful."

Sunday, September 23, 2018

hands or feet

This afternoon I sent my daughter off into a dilemma unwittingly.  We were having tea out in the garden, one of the last days of summer if the forecast was to be believed.  The winds were already howling fall.

As a treat on a Sunday, the girl got a chocolate egg, a Kinder Surprise.  The surprise was less the egg itself than who had bought it.  I don't normally do this.  For decadence such as sweets and cartoons, I rely on Flucha.  Normally.

This time, I had bought the eggs.  A generous pack of four advertised a guaranteed two collectible figurines, two out of a total of ten urbanized smurfs (or is it smurves?) going about their business in town.  My days of collecting are long over (and weren't overly long to begin with), but one of the smurfs on the picture did X-rays, and I wanted this for my desk.

The girl unwrapped her egg eagerly and started eating the chocolate halves. "Open, please", she said, handing me the yellow ovoid container previously hidden inside.  I shook it.  It rattled.  Not a smurf.

Except it was.  It was a smurf in three parts, to be assembled like a sofa from IKEA and with similarly dubious resilience.  Back in the days, all Kinder figurines were monolithic and from much heavier material.  Plastic, sure, but solid.  People used to collect them because they were cute and exuded durability.  What I unpacked was utterly worthless.

The girl wasn't interested in it either.  She had finished her chocolate and took off to wash her hands.  "Shoes off before you go inside", I hollered after her.  Her head appeared from around the corner, then her body.  She pointed at her sandals, then held her hands up in the air.  What to do?

Her thinking was flawless.  To go inside, she had to take off her sandals, but to take off her sandals, she needed clean hands.  To wash her hands, she needed to go inside, and thus she was stuck – until, seconds later, I rescued her.

I undid her sandals and sent her in, mighty proud that she had seen the dilemma and acted accordingly.  That almost called for another egg.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

impressions of a return

Three days in Salt Lake reminded me of what I love about this place and why I was happy to leave. My first morning run was like time travel. I was experiencing the city as I had 20 years ago. The things that struck me when I first arrived struck me again. A lot has changed in these years, but a lot has also stayed the same. A place cannot shake off its character, no matter how many new buildings try to hide the old.

The Salt Lake Valley is a high desert. Arriving through canyons in the Wasatch Mountains, the first settlers declared it to be the place of their dreams. Little did they know, and the first years must have been a huge disappointment of constant toil, but they turned the place around and made it hospitable.

Life is dependent on water from snowmelt and meager streams, a scarce resource that is dispensed to abandon to keep parks and front lawns green and trees strong. Landscaping is as important as it is in the rest of the US. When I used to live here, anything but Kentucky Blue was frowned upon. Now creativity has noticeably increased, with native plants, dry yards, and wildly sprouting sunflowers.

There's an incredible sense of spaciousness. Mountains border the valley to the east and, almost invisible in the haze, to the west, but the north and south are wide open. Single-story homes and surface-level parking lots don't block the view. This is the wide west.

The streets are wide and there's no traffic. Very few cars are visible, whether moving or parked. This is true for most residential streets. In stark contrast, the big through-streets that pump commuters into town from the suburbs are avalanches of metal.

Despite the best efforts of UTA Rideshare, whose 2004 t-shirt I continue to wear, few ride bicycles, though it's more than when I lived here. The fault line with its brutal gradient and the unforgiving heat in summer and the snow in winter conspire to keep the numbers down. Only the most committed cyclists will commute by bike here. E-bikes would help, but I didn't see many. Instead, lime green electric scooters roost in unexpected corners, waiting to be picked up, ridden for a small fee and discarded. Their range is probably limited.

Fewer yet than cyclists are pedestrians. Salt Lake is not walkable. The blocks are large and people (living in single-family homes for the most part) sparse. There are a few bus lines, and light rail has been extended to the airport, but you still need a car to go almost anywhere.

Many streets and many more sidewalks are made from concrete. Water seeps into the gaps between the individual slaps, freezes in winter, and crumbles the material to dust. Roots of trees push from below. The result is an obstacle course of canted slabs. Few care because few walk.

Driving is relaxed. At four-way stops, no one forces their way. Sometimes, no one takes the initiative, either, and for a while four cars sit idly waiting for one other to make the first move.

The campus of the University of Utah is a thing of beauty. Sitting on the slopes above the valley, it offers stunning views into the haze. Imagine this after rain has cleared the air. Campus is the place that has most changed since I last saw it. A handful of big new buildings at the southern rim of campus have displaced the football fields where I used to play. The dorms where I spent me first year wanting to leave had to make way for an athletic center and softball stadium. Good riddance. Only the parking lot remains.

Return missionaries are enthusiastically welcomed at the airport, with balloons, cheers, extended families and "Welcome home, Elder Berry" signs. When I first arrived in the US, these celebrations took place at the gate. One would frequently have to jostle through crowds blinded by religious devotion. Now these parties take place in the arrivals hall, one of the few positive aspects of the security theatre.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

memories of a beginning

It was 20 years ago today, starts one of the Beatles' famous songs.  This catchy line has been playing in my head for a while now.  It was twenty years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, but it was also twenty years ago, almost but not quite to the day, that I climbed aboard an aircraft for the first time and flew to Salt Lake City – to get a PhD and start what would become my life.  That's the short story.

The long story goes like this.  I had to climb aboard three aircraft, first in quick and then in not so quick succession, to make it to Salt Lake City via Frankfurt and Chicago.  In Chicago I stepped onto American soil for the first time.  I spent my first dollars on an ice tea straight from America for Dummies.  A plastic cup half gallon big was filled to the brim with ice cubes onto which a brown liquid was then dispensed.  This wouldn't be the last cliché I'd find true that day.

With seven hours to kill, I purchased a CTA ticket and hit the town.  I remember being distinctly unimpressed, but cannot recall anymore why.  Chicago has one of the most stunning skylines in the US.  Walking in canyons formed by buildings seemingly rising forever is quite extraordinary.  Maybe it was the 20-pound backpack that prevented me from enjoying this.

I made it all the way to the top of the world.  Sears Tower still carried its original name, the distinction of being the tallest and its original vertiginously vertical walls – with no glass alcoves to tempt the fearless.  What struck me most looking down was that most space was given to parking lots, roads and multistory parking garages.  Was this a city for people or for cars?

A few hours later in Salt Lake, my preparation had ended.  I had the vague hope I'd be met at the airport, but this wasn't certain.  Back then, communication wasn't it is today.  Some emails were exchanged and some assurances give, but very little detail, and not every email was answered.  There were people in the same situation as me, signing up for a few more years of education, and there were some who'd been there for a year already, but that was about as much as I knew.

I got off the plane, ran to the luggage carrousel in undue haste, picked up my suitcase and backpack, and was lost.  The backpack weighed a nick above 40 pounds.  The suitcase tipped the scales at slightly above 90.  This was already not legal back then, but somehow I got through without having to pay an extra penny.  Now heavy punishment loomed.  What was I to do with this stuff?

"Are you Andreas?"

Sean was the first American I met.  He had come to pick me up with as little information as I had.  Without knowing what to look for, he approached guys looking German to his eyes.  To find me on the second try was unlikely.  To talk to another Andreas before me, even more so.  But the most unlikely of all is how well we got along.

We went to class together, rode bikes up (my thing) and down (his thing) the canyons along the Wasatch Front, became friends and then roommates.  Our years in the Avenues eventually ended but our friendship remained.  We should hang out and go biking more much often, but what if that takes a twelve-hour flight?

This year's commemorative trip to Salt Lake takes only two flights.  The layover in New York is just long enough to finish this post.  Instead of ice tea, I had a cold brew.  With a job and family somewhere else, Sean won't pick me up at the airport.  When the sun rises tomorrow, I'll see what else has changed in the nearly 15 years of my absence.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

creativity relaunched

A few weeks ago I started a course called, gloriously, "Brand Journalism and Corporate Storytelling".  Any guesses what that might be?  I'm not a storyteller, but I've got to do with brands in the corporate world.  I work in a marketing department and communicate products, brand and company.  Telling stories is one way of generating interest, raising awareness, getting the word out; but it's more than that.  Storytelling is the latest attempt to rise above the noise of too many ads, too much obvious marketing and too many jaded consumers with ad-blockers and no mind for the 10001st message targeted at them.

The first module of three days focused exclusively on strategy.  What's your core story, what themes do you want to cover, what topics fit those themes, and how can they be illustrated with stories?  How to write these stories was covered in module 2, which ended today.

Storytelling is creative writing, something I've dabbled in before, without much success.  Back then, at Imperial, I was pushed to free expression in the spirit of the surrealists and to ponder my identity.  This time, the formal aspects of writing stood center stage.  It's been quite edifying.

I had not heard of the universality of the hero story, preserved in its structure across time and cultures.  I had not considered the story as simply being something that happens to someone, told with the purpose of enriching the reader.  Formulate this purpose (including something and someone) convincingly and a passable story will result, the teacher asserted.  A certain way with words is probably still required, but seeing building blocks, rules and patterns felt rather reassuring.  Maybe I can do that.

To assess the degree of formality in what I consider good non-fiction storytelling, I decided to look at last week's Economist.  How do the first sentences of articles set the scene?  How much of protagonist, place, action and scenery is in them?

  • As Italians trickled back to the cities from holidays on the coast and in the sun-baked countryside, the scene was set this week for what promises to be a difficult autumn.
  • Last year, Saudi Arabia's young and powerful crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, pulverized Awamiyah, a rebellious Shia town near the eastern coast.
  • A row of health workers in blue gowns and face masks sit at tables outside the tin-roofed bungalow that was the home to Kambale Vincent, one of 75 people who have died from Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo this month.
  • A year ago, insurgents armed mostly with makeshift weapons attacked a series of police posts in Myanmar's Rakhine state, killing a dozens security personnel
  • Tucked away in a corner of Gerrard Street, in the heart of London's Chinatown, three middle-aged Chine women sit on the ground, their legs tightly crossed, in silent meditation.
  • When loudspeakers in Kouzi, a village in the eastern province of Shandong, blared out urgent warnings of floodwaters heading towards them, residents were anxious, but they did not panic.
  • Prosecutors are still investigating what caused Genoa's Morandi bridge to collapse on August 14th, killing 43 people.

This looks as if there were a common theme.  People, place and vivid detail – how hard can it be.  Turns out these are only seven beginnings out of maybe 100 article in the magazine.  The rest didn't follow the template.  There might be more to creativity than ticking boxes.  Good thing that there's also six more module to my course.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Swiss day

Switzerland is an easy country to dream about.  Beautiful mountains, economic prosperity, low crime, and a benign climate.  And don't forget the chocolate.  Who wouldn't want to live there?

The dream of Switzerland simmered inside me for years.  It didn't exactly burn hot because I always like where I lived, be it Salt Lake City, Grenoble or London, but Switzerland was always there as an option.  Something that would be great if it worked out.

Switzerland is a hard country to get used to.  It's so quiet it's almost boring, even the big cities are villages, the rules can feel stifling, and the cost of living is absurd.  Former farming villages understand urban design as ladling up concrete until there's nothing else left.  Why would anyone choose to live there?

I've been here for three years and a half.  The observations above still ring true, both the positive and the negative ones.  But I notice that the positive aspects are slowly gaining the upper hand.

To what I mentioned in the first paragraph I can now add a few more upsides.  Public transport is nationally coordinated down to the last bus up a lonely mountain road and always on time.  Water is potable unless the opposite is indicated, including lakes and rivers.  Prices look ridiculous only when converted into other currencies.

Today is Swiss National Day, which celebrates the founding of the Confederation.  In 1291, representatives from three adjoining areas got together by Lake Lucerne to swear they would be there for each other and kick any invaders' dirty butts.  The oath has not only held but also attracted a couple dozen surrounding territories to join, making the Swiss Confederation what it is today.

We went to Zurich today, not to participate in any festivities but to escape the heat.  Summer has been scorching for a few weeks now, with temperatures in the 90s and no rain to speak of.  Going to the city might not seem the smartest escape, but Zurich's got the lake.

Lake Zurich connects the city with the mountains, creates a steady breeze and offers limitless diversions.  There are parks, playgrounds, cafés, bars and ice cream stands, but they all pale relative the to the main attraction.  In summer, people come to the lake to jump in and swim.

We went to a lido a bit up the eastern shore.  The grass was green and soft, our spot in the shade, and the city all around us.  The water was warm and clear, though I didn't drink it, and the slide provided what felt like hours of entertainment for the girl.  Even the boy slid down a few times.  When everyone was exhausted, we took a boat back to the station for the train ride home.  Switzerland is a good country to live in.

Friday, July 27, 2018

spilled milk

Shortly before my alarm went off at 6:30 this morning, Tapas puked on our bed.  She had just finished her morning milk and chucked everything back out in a gush.  At a time when, in a previous life, I wouldn't even have opened an eye, I rolled out of bed, grabbed the mop from the bathroom and cleaned the mess off the floor.

As always, I had it easy.  Flucha kept sitting in bed, petrified.  She was covered in all the puke that hadn't made it to the floor for me to clean.  The ratio was about 50:50, and it wasn't a pretty sight.  Tapas also had some splashes of white on her body and face.  What a way to start the day.

It was in fact the way the day before had ended.  Tapas had had her evening milk and we were fooling around a bit.  I held her on my shoulder when I heard something that my mind couldn't interpret but my subconscious was fast enough to react to.  The ominous retching sound, my pushing my daughter back by just enough, and the spill of warm milk happened almost at the same time.  When I turned, there was a white puddle on the chair.  My t-shirt was unharmed.

A couple of months ago I had got a call from an insurance agent.  The guy had sold us renters' insurance and now wanted to know if we'd like to augment coverage for our belongings.  We had opted for the basic package.  In light of our growing family, this seemed a bit modest to him.  "You must have bought quite a bit since we last spoke," he said.

I almost laughed in his face.  "No worries," I told him.  "We're fine with what we have."  We might have bought a bit, but with a toddler and a baby, we had stayed away from anything precious and picked our furniture to be essentially disposable.  Stains, chips and cracks don't scare us.  There's nothing of value that might break.

That's why I wasn't concerned about the chair.  If it were ruined, I'd simply get a new one, and maybe a few more to fill the space around our dining table in its extended configuration.  We were running embarrassingly short during a recent family visit.

The chair wasn't ruined, though.  We took it out to the garden, hosed it off, and let it dry overnight.  Not something to do with fancy furniture, but good enough for us.  The chair is back in use now, looking good as new.  With the bed, the story was similar.

Tapas took it easy today.  When I left the house to ride to work, she was huddled up with mommy, clearly shaken from what had happened, weak and a bit frightened.  As the day progressed like any other, with no further disturbances, she let go of the sour memory.  She started eating, playing, running.  By the end of the day, she had fully recovered and was happy to finish a big bottle of milk before going to bed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

turning a page

Halfway through the year it's high time to compile and blitz-review the books I read last year, keeping a tradition of eight years that was only interrupted once.

In 2017, I read a pitiful nine books.

  • The Maples Stories by John Updike – Stories about the same middle-class East coast couple that realize early on they're not doing the best for each other but are unwilling or unable to change, written over two decades. Vintage Updike.
  • Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski – Autobiographically inspired coming-of-age story by the man who between gloom, drink, gambling and women wrote persistently underrated poetry and the truly wild Tales of Ordinary Madness.
  • Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro – Proving that even I am not immune to hype if it shouts in may face, I read this, one of Flucha's contributions to our bookshelf, right after Ishiguro's Nobel Prize was announced.  Five stories about music and loss that I didn't find too impressive.
  • Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg – An exhortation for women to be more present, active, brave and decisive in the workplace that helped me understand some of my behaviors a bit better.  I bought this for Flucha's birthday but was the one to read it – with considerable impact, even though I didn't get the promotion whose desirability I justified partly with the arguments put forth in this book.
  • Our Moon has Blood Clots: The Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits by Rahul Pandita – A book of suffering across time and space too grim to believe and maybe true for exactly that reason.
  • Soumission by Michel Houellebecq – In a France where Islam takes over, all changes happen by majority vote and without effective resistance.  In the end, the narrators gives in, and the Western world as we know it is lost.  An excellent book and easy to read in French.
  • The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing – Another Nobel Prizewinner on an off day.  This book is truly awful.
  • Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge – An escape from a life without purpose in the big city to a village on a harsh coast.  The search for meaning is aided by a cat, and that's about it.
  • Bob Dylan by Willi Winkler – The third Nobel Prizewinner, this time the object of, variously, adoration and incomprehension.  Though written by a fan, the book keeps a healthy distance from its subject.

Looking to the right of this page, it's hard to imagine that there will be an eighth instalment of this column.  I still haven't finished reading a single book this year.  There has been ample opportunity, with already three transoceanic flights for work (and thus without children), but I tend to sleep through the night these days and read magazines or, gasp, work, during the day.  A few books lie on my shelf half read, though when I get to finish them is anyone's guess. 

The O'Henry Stories will probably be first.  It's slim and easy to read because each of the stories, one very different from the next, takes only a few pages.  I'd love to get through Blood Meridian, a tour de force of staggering power, but with the violence and savagery piling up relentlessly, it seems unlikely the ending will provide a turning point or closure of any sort, and certainly not vindication.  I'd also love to finish Thinking, fast and slow and learn from it, but I've started three times already and given up each time upon reaching the point where I couldn't ingest and process any more insights.  I'd need to read this like a scientific paper, with annotations and my own summaries, but who wants to read a 300-page paper?

Keep your eyes on the list on the right to see what progress I'm making.  On Sunday, on my way to Chicago, it's probably going to be an Economist and work.


Thursday, May 10, 2018

kids like

The boy likes

  • to walk.  He isn't very good at it.  In fact, he can't keep himself on his little legs.  When he manages to pull himself up to a low-lying sofa or his sister's Bobby car, he stands shakily, unsure of himself but mighty proud, and falls over before too long.  He has banged his head a few times this way.  But when mom or dad hold his hands, his feet make little steps in the general direction indicated by his guide.  There's a grin on his face as if he were on the finishing stretch of a successful marathon.  Dad knows this grin.
  • pebbles.  Sit him down among them and he'll take a handful and swallow them one by one unless stopped by a responsible adult.  He has learned that sand is not tasty but pebbles haven't registered yet as something to be left alone.
  • throwing things to the ground.  He's very good at it.  Sitting on his high chair, he can turn dinner in front of him into a mess on the floor in seconds.  Maybe that's revenge for the floor hurting his head when he falls over after pulling himself up to the sofa.  Sitting on his high chair outside mealtimes, he throws toys to the ground almost as soon as they are placed in front of him.  Then he cries because he has no toys.
  • eating bread.  He east almost anything, including pebbles, but bread is his favorite. It tastes so good that he sometimes forgets to throw it to the ground.  The other day he discovered sweet corn and fell in love with it.  It had the shape and vague appearance of the pebbles outside but he was allowed to put it in his mouth.  What a blast!
  • to laugh.  As a baby, his sister was grumpy like a caricature.  He laughs at anything, and sometimes cracks up as if watching an Adam Sandler movie for the first time.  His laughter is contagious, and he cheers up the family, even when they're busy cleaning the floor around his high chair.
  • his sister.  He often stares at her with something between admiration and adoration.  Whatever she does, he likes to join.  Whatever she builds, from Duplos or wooden blocks, he likes to dismantle.  The girl doesn't like that.

The girl likes

  • to read books.  At less then three years, she cannot yet read.  She recognizes a few letters and, on a good day, her name, but it's not enough for literature.  She has dad read picture books to her, and no day's a good day without a book read to her.  When she wants something really bad that it's not exactly the time for, offering to read a book always solves the impasse.
  • to climb up things.  This can be contraptions on the playground or trees and rocks in the woods.  She's very good about not climbing up furniture and has fallen hard on the playground only once.
  • animals.  It doesn't matter whether it's a snail outside the window or a wolf in the animal park.  They're all fascinating.  Stories about animals are her favorite read.  When she's big, she wants to be a veterinarian.
  • to be a mom.  She takes her baby doll and changes the diaper, wiping the plastic butt clean and all.  She gives the baby doll the bottle and sometimes her non-existing breast, just as she has seen mom do it with her brother.  She puts baby doll asleep on a little pram, pulling a blanket over it to keep out the light.  Dad is worried about gender imprinting, but she just doesn't get the same kick out of Duplos or her wooden-track railroad.  Maybe she wants to become a midwife.
  • it outside.  She's nimble on her push cycle and likes to walk through town to the grocery store.  All hikes into the hills have been successes so far.
  • her brother.  She feeds him pieces of sweet corn or bread and pushes him around on her Bobby car, mom running alongside with her hands spread to soften the inevitable fall.  She also yanks her toys from him when he plays with them and wants to play with his.  The boy doesn't like this.

The boy and the girl are the best friends in the world.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

half dead

It started innocuous enough.  Three days ago, I noticed a light itch on the lower part of my face, two curious spots on my hands, and a discomfort between my toes as if from athlete's foot.  The itch went with a bit of skin discoloration, suggesting an allergic reaction to shaving that I've never had.  The spots on my hands were circular, with a white center and a deep red periphery.  They were about 4 mm in diameter.  Upon inspection, there was nothing odd between my toes.

Had these three symptoms not appeared at the exact same time, I would have dismissed them without a second though, gone to work and waited for things to improve.  Time heals most ailments better than much else.  But the strange synchrony kept me wondering.  What was going on here?  The next morning I did something I hadn't done in years.  I went to see a doctor.

The Swiss health system is a strange place.  Health insurance is mandatory.  This doesn't just mean everyone needs health insurance.  It means everyone is obliged to register with the national health insurance system that consists of what feels like a hundred providers competing for clients.  You have to choose one of them and prove to your local authority that you've done so.

The morning I went to the doctor, my condition had changed somewhat.  Yellow puss had started to appear on my chin. It had done so in small quantities and dried quickly, but it didn't look pretty.  That's when my family started avoiding me.  The soles of my feet felt as if a million small needles had been inserted in them.  Walking was a murderous pain, but I could still not see anything wrong with my feet.

I had picked my health insurance for its price.  All providers are required by law to offer the same benefits.  The differences lie in customer service, ease of obtaining reimbursements, and the availability of mobile apps and the like.  The monthly premium is calculated based on age, place of residence and deductible, the amount you have to cover yourself per year before your insurance kicks in.  There are no discounts for insuring an entire family and no employer contributions, but since premiums are income-independent, they are relatively low if you earn well.  My own contribution is less than what I paid in the UK.

I decreased my contribution further by accepting to have my freedom to choose a physician curtailed.  For every illness, unless in an emergency, I'd have to consult my family physician – who would pass me on to a specialist if necessary.  Being new to the system, I didn't have a family physician, but the walk-in clinic next door offered itself – with no appointment required and, it turned out, hardly a wait.

The assistant doctor was quick to diagnose something like foot and mouth disease, even though my symptoms didn't exactly match Dr. Google's.  I had no fever, no painful throat, and no pustules on hands, feet or in my mouth.  Plus I wasn't ten years old.  Still, the soothing words of the medic comforted me.  "Just rest a bit", she said.  "You'll be better in a few days.  Concern is only due when worms are starting to emerge from the spots in your face."

The concept of a deductible sounds rather strange with health insurance but it's common practice with car insurance.  And as with car insurance, you have to trawl the new year's offers to identify the best deal and switch health insurance if necessary towards the end of every year.  It sound unnecessarily complicated and rather inefficient to me, but it seems to work well – just like Switzerland in general.

I hobbled back to my flat and stretched out on my sofa.  I had a certificate of incapacity to work – one beautiful long word in German – and no other option that to lie flat and wait.  By Friday afternoon, most needles had been removed from my feet and I could walk nearly normally.  In return, my hands felt as they had after the Challenge Dauphiné when I had cycled for seven hours through freezing rain.  Back then I couldn't open buttons or turns keys with my debilitated hands for a week at least.

Today, the changes continue, for the better for the most part.  My feet are almost fine.  My hands have become speckled with hundreds of dark red spot, some large and translucent like a bag of old blood, but they've got some of their strength back.  The dried puss on my chin is falling of.  My body feels weaker overall than yesterday, but there are no worms.

With the sun shining strongly outside on what feels like the first day of spring at last, my hope runs high that tomorrow will be beautiful, spent by the river or on a ride to the convent where the children can see rabbits, cows, pigs and sheep.  I might not look it, but I consider myself back to normal already.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

reversal of fortune

On the one hand, there would be £350 million a week to spend on health care, full control over all and everything, and a once-in-a-generation moment to shape the destiny of a country.  On the other hand, there's the feeble reassurance that the country won't be plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction.

If you've guessed that the statements above relate to Brexit, you've kept up your Brit-watching over the last two years or so.  Britain has decided to rid itself of the strangulations of the EU and march into a bright future.  That's what the leave campaign promised, and that's what the first three statements above reflect.  This was the mood of the leavers before the referendum.

The year and a half since the country voted to leave the EU haven't exactly gone to plan, assuming there was or is a plan.  It doesn't much look like it.  British politicians occasionally visit Brussels to figure out if there anything good for them for when they're not part of the club anymore, only to leave empty-handed.  They've yet to visit with concrete ideas or suggestions to shape the process.

Consequently, it looks as if it's all going down the drain.  There doesn't seem to be a week without revelations of what won't be wonderful in the future. There was the story about Britons needing new licenses to drive abroad because their EU licenses won't be accepted anymore.  A nuisance for vacationers, for sure, but hell for hauliers.  There's just a few hundred commercial permits to the EU for thousands of trucks.

Then there is the staff shortage at the NHS.  It doesn't help that Europeans are leaving in large numbers as long as their post-Brexit migration status is unclear.  Lastly, Kentucky Fried Chicken is temporarily closing hundreds of outlets because of supply problems.  Ok, this last one wasn't related to Brexit, but you get the picture.

It is going to be a total disaster, which is probably why David Davis, the government minister in charge of the process, today tried to reassure an apprehensive country.  Far from the lofty promises before the referendum, Brexit won't be like Mad Max was the best he could come up with.  It's not the brightest prospect, but it's probably all the country can hope for.

Friday, January 26, 2018

lack of respect

No need to revisit a long history with many false starts.  Let's just say that bike sharing properly took off with Paris.  Ten years ago the Velib project was launched.  It was the first major bike-sharing program in a major city that was a major success.  It was also part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce automotive traffic and make the city a better place to be.  Today, motorized traffic in Paris is substantially down compared to ten years ago.

Correlation is not causation.  This bears repeating in these increasingly un-scientific or even science-hostile times, with the loudest shouts from the least literate people.  Correlation is not causation, and yet it's an interesting observation.  At the very least it suggests that traffic can be reduced.

Other big cities followed the Paris lead, London in 2010 and New York in 2013.  There are probably bigger cities in China with bigger bike-sharing schemes, but what do I know?  I know London and New York, and I was a user of the shared bikes in London from day one.  I really liked the bikes.

It seems to defy the laws of engineering, but the shared bikes in London appear not to have any moving parts besides the wheels.  Cables are routed inside the bulky frame.  The headlight is part of it.  The chain is completely enclosed.  Nothing is exposed and nothing can break easily.  The bikes are solid, sturdy and unbelievably heavy.  It's hard to get them to move, but once in motion, they roll like tanks and demand respect.  Notoriously aggressive black cab drivers brake because in case of a collision both sides would suffer damage.  Between rides, the bikes slot into hefty docking stations much like a door shuts on a Mercedes, with a stifled clonk.  The whole system is engineered for durability.

Recently, a number of bike sharing schemes of a much different philosophy have been launched in various parts of Switzerland.  They don't rely on (or even provide) docking stations.  Instead, they try to leverage the power of the internet.  The bikes are networked and locked.  If registered users of the service find one, either by coming across it or checking a live map online, they can scan a code on the bicycle with their phone and unlock it.  After riding around, they drop the bike wherever and lock it, thus ending the rental.

If this sounds eminently convenient, it's not very well thought out.  Everything about the system that I'm exposed to appalls me.  The bicycles look flimsy and are often irredeemably broken.  They seem like cheap Chinese trinkets, though the provider is Singaporean.  I don't see how bikes of such low quality can survive more than a handful of rides by users free of the responsibilities of ownership.  It doesn't help when they're not being ridden.  Not having docking stations, the bikes lean against trees or lie on the ground as if abandoned.  This is no way of treating bicycles.

Then there are the problems with free-floating, self-regulating systems.  Classical economists like them, but they rarely work in practice.  Without a maintenance crew, wrecked bicycles pile up, turning sidewalks into steeplechases and blocking narrow roads.  There's no redistribution of bikes to where they are needed.  The market doesn't sort this out easily.  Getting bicycles ready for masses of commuters arriving at the same time was a major logistical challenge in London.

With the arrogance of a self-proclaimed disruptive startup, the company dumps the bicycles everywhere, no matter whether they're wanted.  Externalities are for society to pick up.  I will have to pay for the removal of broken bikes with my taxes.  I pay for bicycles occupying bike parking spots downtown by having to look longer for a spot for myself.  Early investors might be happy with fast growth at any cost, but this is not a sustainable model.

Free-floating bike sharing has the potential to improve local transport much beyond what docked bicycles can offer.  The flexibility is wonderful.  But there has to be a system behind it that puts respect of the bicycle at its heart.  Once it looks like bike sharing and not like milking a trend, it has the chance to succeed.  I would sign up in a jiffy.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

happy anniversary

Trump is a complete idiot.

Most people probably voted for Trump for the entertainment.  It's like reality TV, but for real.  Trump does the deranged clown, and the masses can laugh and cheer.  After one year on the job, he is unlikely to have disappointed anyone.  Those repulsed by his ways see themselves confirmed anew every day.  Those who picked him for the wrong reasons would probably do so again.

It doesn't matter that he hasn't built a wall against Mexico with his own small hands and that the American taxpayer will pay for this wall, should construction ever start.  No one cares about the wall.  His tweets are a scream.

How good an entertainer Trump really is can be seen in the sad demise of Saturday Night Live.  This used to be the epitome of political comedy.  A few weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission had to reclassify it from humor to factual.  What used to be hilariously satirical is now documentary – though no less hilarious for it.

When Fire and Fury, Trump's anniversary gift, was released the other day, I read an interview with the author Michael Wolff.  He claims to just have walked up to the White House one day with the suggestion of covering the first 100 days of the presidency for a book.  No one was responsible for books, and no one showed him the door.  In a move that would have awed Tom Yates from House of Cards, he remained for 200 days, turning to inventory whose presence is not noticed or questioned.  He apparently picked up the best parts by overhearing conversations while waiting in obscurity for appointments that never happened.

The book reveals an angry child with staggering insecurity.  Trump's afraid of being destroyed by anyone and everything.  Fighting back is his default mode of operation (mostly through words rather than actions).  Wolff claims no worries of revenge because of Trump's short attention span.  He only focuses on what's in front of him – as long as it is in front of him.  When he engages in politics, it's in unrelated fits and starts.

There's no vision and no strategy.  Like a monkey throwing darts at a wall, he sometimes hits the target, but what looks like the first step towards success always turns out to be haphazard and of no consequence.  Trump started his job by talking to Taiwan as if it were a country.  This sounds sensible if you ignore diplomatic conventions that only exist because they've existed for ages.  As part of a foreign policy, it would start interesting discussions and might break the deadlock across the Taiwan Straight.  As a monkey's dart, it was soon forgotten.

There have been many more darts over the first year, and a few nuclear hand grenades as well.  They landed to great effect where no one would have expected them.  There were even some legislative accomplishments, though they need an unorthodox perspective to appear as successes.

If you think that earning less than $100k is un-American, the tax reform bill makes perfect sense.  There's simply no reason why anyone choosing to earn less should be rewarded.  Same goes for health care.  Instead of pitying the poor, Trump wants to liberate them from the yoke of socialized medicine.  If you don't want to have to choose between treating an illness and feeding your children, do your patriotic duty and earn a respectable salary.

The masses continue to cheer.