Of Angels And Demons

Saturday morning 8:00AM – the class is over and I have the weekend to relax and play through but also to prepare through for next weeks. iTunes plays my favorite easy listening music – Dean Martin….some of you may have taken a double take and think “Ain’t that a kick in the head”. Hey, that’s how I roll, I am big nostalgic fan of the Rat Pack. But we are no going to discuss my taste in music today.

As I said, I took a CAD program class this week near Zurich. The class was very interesting and I think I learned a lot – enough to be dangerous and to cause the system administrator a few grey hairs. Unlike previous CAD systems this system  is clearly aiming to meet all engineering needs fully!……no, I am not going to write a CAD program review either! The demon in today’s blog turns out to be the instructor of the class. We had two instructors. The first one e had until Tuesday was a German. He was very knowledgeable but ha a teaching style I was not used to – frontal teaching, watch me do it, rather than explorative. The instructor we had for the remaining three days of the week turned out to be …..SPECIAL. His instruction style was also more frontal, but with a boat load of expletives. I am not kidding, my jaw dropped when he first let loose of the first barrage. Fortunately not against the students, but against everything else: program features he was introducing, the example files used to teach the content, a fictional boss who needlessly demanded all kinds of changes to the models and so forth. To get a realistic picture imagine the Jeff Lebowski character in the Big Lebowski or the Walter Sobcek character teaching a class to professionals hey had never met before (but without the rug that tied the room together). I asked my co-workers about this person and they knew of him, too. Just based on this week’s experience the verdict is be: “Vast in-depth knowledge, however and that is unfortunate not suited for customer contact.” As if that were not enough he also showed a behavior that left no doubt, that the Swiss are a cut above the rest of the world, in particular the Germans. This was not normal heckling that you can experience with buddies or people you have known for a while, it was toeing that line from where you can see the ugly land of Racist-istan. Not a good experience, which I addressed without going into much detail. In my time in America, I have never experienced something like it – it’s not nice.

Anyway, it’s time for the introduction of the Angels. They came in the form of two girls in their mid twenties….(guys I am happily married, so get your mind out of the gutter, I can’t believe this)

I think I mentioned my first experience with Swiss customs a few weeks ago. Well, I still need them to play ball with me in order for me to get my car into the country. To speed things up a bit, I bought train tickets from Amsterdam on Tuesday for a Feb. 1st departure. How does this speed things up? Well the tickets are non-refundable and I the required documentation only partially. The prospect of being without my car and of flushing 90 Euros down the toilet encouraged me to approach the customs talk quickly. I walked in Wednesday afternoon and found a large office with six employees in t. Three just sat there turning on their office chairs and watching customers waiting. One female apprentice underwent an introduction to the computer system by her superior, which left one person to do customer work. This one person is the first angel I want to introduce. She listened to my immigrant story and my desire to be re-united with my car and within five minutes I as on my way. I had all the information and forms I needed and for the first time felt good about Swiss public services. I took off and went to a place similar to the DOT in the states. There I met the second angel. The customs angel told me to get transfer license plates from this department. So when I got there and had told my story. She, too, provided me with all the information and documentation I required to pick up the plates on Friday. Fast forward to Friday, I showed up again at the license plate department, presented my completed documentation and left about five minutes later with the plates, insurance and the biggest smile in weeks. This may not seem like much to you, but when you move abroad and you experience rejection rather than goodwill, events like the two Angels make your day and you find yourself writing about it in a blog. Thank you t the Customs and the DOT Angels or your guidance, information, help and overall attitude.

Take care and keep your fingers crossed for Transfer Monday, when our hero will encounter German customs followed by Swiss customs. This and much more in the next blog.

Cheers

Yours Markus \m/

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The Good And The European

This  week I am in class. At my new company we use a different CAD/FEA (computer aided design and simulation) system from any I know so I am attending a five day class. We are five students in class and one instructor – a German from Schwaben (Swabia). Oh, that reminds me I will need to write a future entry about our insane obsession with regional differences.

Anyway, class starts at 8:00AM and finishes at 5:00PM. We have a break in the morning then a lunch break and a short afternoon break. So far, so good nothing unusual. It the unusual when I tell you about the class itself. Having taken classes in the US, there is an instructor who provides maybe 20-25% guidance by talking, but then there are vast spans of time where the students learn by doing and simply put time in with the program, the machine or whatever they are training with. Not so much here. Our instructor reminded us constantly to watch him do each exercise to that we can follow his steps exactly. It took me some time to figure out that I was the only one working my way through the problems not paying attention to the instructor prescribed way of implementing the solution. When I noticed, though I was surprised to see that my classmates were indeed all paying attention to what the instructor did. Interestingly for me and I suppose for the instructor too, was that I was the only student who asked questions that went beyond the exercises we had to complete. And the more I think about it and mesh it with my experiences thus far here, the more I think that the American way of doing stuff may not always be pretty, but at least they do. That’s why research breakthroughs and cutting edge research happens in America. Not that Europe isn’t researching, but the quantity of research that happens in the US and not just basic research, but also product integration is just so much more that the stuff here. The reason I suppose is that Americans do stuff and learn as they go, while Europeans would rather like to know before they do. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense, because there was no knowing before you emigrated. The US i a country with a deeply rooted idealistic and optimistic DNA, that is based on learning by doing. May be that is why my wife and I felt so at home in the US. Don’t get me wrong I am not bashing the class, the instructor or Europe, I am just pointing out a fundamental difference the approach to exploring, learning and researching. Either approach has certainly got its clear advantages, but I happen to jive better with the American approach. For me personally the American way is based on seeing opportunities and openings, where the Swiss and German way is definitely much more structured, which means less deviation from “the path”. So much for the unusual from my perspective – keep in mind that I have never had a real job in Europe other than internships and Summer jobs, so I am feeling my way through the unwritten rules of corporate Europe.

Now, and this will make my American readers so jealous, well may be not all, but quite a few. Beer and wine for lunch! Yes, I know at least one of you is thinking”: What the hell! Food again, you cannot be serious!!”, but I am.

The class includes lunch for all five days. The cafeteria is a place that caters to a bunch of offices and a flower and garden warehouse. You can choose from five different choices and there was even a vegetarian one (Marsha, they really try). It starts out with a big bowl of salad followed by a soup which is followed by the entree. The food is hearty and very good, hence a beer over lunch has had no visible impact on people (it’s a CAD class, so there were no crooked or jiggly lines !-) ). Legal drinking age in Switzerland for beer and wine is 16, while for liquor and hard lemonade the legal age is 18. I was quite stunned at first when I saw people enjoy a glass of wine or  a small beer. As you may have guessed, this covers the Good portion of today’s Blog.

So, I will see what the next four days hold in store for me.

take care and I wish proper snow for the City Of Lakes Loppet next weekend, you guys put so much passion and energy into this race, you deserve that the weather co-operates, dammit!

Yours Markus \m/

P.S.: I bought the new Eros Ramazzotti album “Ali e Radici”  from iTunes and it’s great. The album title means “Wings & Roots”. C’mon be adventurous and buy it. Listen to it with your better half, sitting on the couch holding hands, at least that’s what I will do soon.

The Tree Today – Still Working In A Foghole

Despite the dreary weather, I have come to enjoy how the tree behind the building I work in helps me to show you what the mood is like here. Today, the fog was thick – about sixty yards visibility. I took the second image during my lunch walk around the building – I call it “Looking Up  A Tree”. By the way, I take these images with the camera in my iPhone, because I have not found a place that still processes film and I have not brought myself to put my name on the order list for the Leica M9 – the camera I really want. I have to say, I am quite amazed about the image quality. In the format I am posting the shots a sufficient amount of details is visible, while color rendition….well, you see that for yourself.

Morning Fog: Jan. 22nd 2010 – B/W

Looking Up  Tree – Noon Jan. 22nd 2010

Yours Mrkus \m/

Butchering For Cheap Money’s Sake

Those of you who know me know that I used to watch the Simpsons religiously – regardless how many re-runs I had seen. When I came to San Diego in 1996, the Simpsons helped me understand American culture and life in general. I can imagine that this sounds really scary, but the Simpsons usually treat the topics on two levels. The shallower level, that make them a good animated program and a deeper level that focuses often on current events, such as outsourcing to India or they deal with typical American topics, such as immigration, overzealous sports parents or perceived life in the southern states.

So, when I came to Switzerland and flipped through the channels, I caught the Simpsons on three different channels – Syndication rules, man. Of course, yet unfortunately the Simpsons are dubbed and this is my gripe. The dubbing ranges from “just acceptable” to “why do you do this?”

To say it up front, the German version is by far the worst. The voices are horrible – part of that may  that German voice over companies use a total of no more than six people who do al voice over work. So Gram’pa Simpson and Bruce Willis may share the same voice, great. This is true for the other voices, too. The translation of the conversations is also highly questionable. But this is not really surprising, because the Simpsons and the episode topics are so quintessentially American. The German episodes seem more aimed at pleasing children only and neglect the adult influences almost completely. But the absolute massacre is Homer’ trademark “D’oh!”. Until the Simpsons, there was no such word in the dictionary so roll with it. No, in Germany every word must have a meaning. So “D’oh”becomes “Nein!”, which really sounds like the Hitler character in Inglorious Basterds or my co-worker Jonathon, when he teases with his German which he collected over the years watching wold war II movies. Worst of all it is not even in the remote vicinity of being as funny as the original “D’oh!”. Marge, just became a regular mother – none of Julie Kavners rasp in the voice and the character that comes with it- think Marge without the “Mmmmmmh, Homer?!”. Lisa and Bart are just two kids that fight. They did a pretty good job with Maggie an Santa’s Little Helper……Oh wait, Maggie doesn’ talk and S.L.H. is a dog.

The French do a much better job, especially Marge’s character is very close. Well the Simpsons in Italian, I don’t know that’s just silly. I must admit, I have not heard or sen the Simpsons in SwitzerGerman, yet. That would be interesting – although Homer would to have to work in a Bank and develop mortageg backed securities, that eventually backfire….hm, on second thought may be he should just play in an Alphorn quartett with Apu, Moe and Mr Burns – the Horn Pals.

I can’t wait to watch the Simpsons again with real D’oh! and Marge nagging with her raspy voice.

Take care you guys and first count then enjoy your blessings.

Yours Markus \m/

Incentives And Peculiarities

As I mentioned in an earlier posting,  am reading Superfreakonomics, the sequel to the highly successful Freakonomics book by Dubner/Levitt. Among the ideas that resonate the most with me is the incentive idea. Basically, that people respond to incentives. Make a desired  behavior attractive or make the undesired behavior unattractive. So, I started to pay attention to occurrences where I can clearly identify the behavior and the underlying incentive. For example food (oh no, here I go again) is very expensive in Switzerland. A Mars/MilkyWay bar is about $1.70, completely unacceptable. I saw the good Citterio Prosciutto that they sell at Costco for $13 for 2 lbs, for a whooping SFr 75 for 2 lbs. Heck even chocolate, that is made in Switzerland or that at least is a Swiss brand is more expensive than in Germany or the US. So we can establish food is very expensive in Switzerland.

Now, when you travel through Europe and purchase something, you can ask as you pay for a VAT rebate receipt. What this does is that when you leave the country you get the rebate receipt stamped by customs and when you are at teh airport flying back to home sweet home you get the VAT amount of your purchases refunded…minus a small “processing” fee. Try it out it works great.

So what do people that live in the Swiss-German border region do? They circumvent Switzerland’s high prices for food, by shopping in cheaper Germany and as they leave Germany going back to Switzerland, they get their rebate receipts stamped and pocket the 19% VAT, that the Germans impose. So the incentive is clearly to save money which causes a consumer behavior, that  circumvents Switzerland’s higher food prices. This makes even fiscal sense for the consumer, when amount of good purchased exceeds the limit of SFr 250 when the consumer has to pay 7.6% Swiss value added tax. O.K., I have covered the incentive piece of today’s blog headline.

The peculiarity piece comes in like this. It appears as if the Swiss natives that live in the border region do not practice the same behavior. Now, I still have my doubts but if it is true, then there are many things you can call this….so let’s just call it dedicated patriotism. Contrast that with behavior in the northern states of the US where during election season, many politicians show their outrage over expensive medicine by arranging for bus tours to Canada to take advantage of the lower prices for the same medicine. Draw your own conclusions.

So that’s it for today.

You guys take care

Yours Markus  \m/

P.S.: It snowed today and that’s what the tree looked like this morning at 11:00AM.

Around the trunk of the tree, in the background you can see the fog hanging close to the ground.

Back To Normal Transient

First things first – I received a comment from a very good friend of mine with regards to the reports on food in the blog. I’ll make it short: Food plays a different role in Europe than in the States. When I talk about food, I am not just referring to the nourishment it provides but also to the experience I have with friends, family or co-workers. Heck, from a culinary point of view life is pretty damn good over here – no doubt about that, no siree!

Anyway, I wanted to give you another update on how things are going here. The day where I should get my car is getting closer – so I am pretty excited, of course. But as with any good thing, there’s got to be a grain of salt. In this case it’s a whole bag of salt in the shape of the Swiss bureaucracy. I talked to a customs employee yesterday about bringing my car in. He had quite the repertoire of answers that were absolutely useless. The funny thing was, that the incident reminded me of a comic I used to read growing up: Asterix (it’s great!!!). In one of Asterix’ adventure he is also sent from government employee to government employee all lacking any attitude to be helpful. I was pretty frustrated after having accomplished nothing, zilch, nada. So I went to my favorite cafe in Konstanz and after a Latte Macchiato the world didn’t look so bad anymore (I know someone is thinking:”Not again, foodsnob!”). Today, I switched from the public employees to those working in the capitalist branch of Swiss life – yes the insurance agents. After having received a few quotes, I made my choice and called the agency. The gentleman on the other end of the line turned out to be exceptionally well informed on how I will get my car into the country, all within the legal boundaries. In return I pay an annual premium and they insure my baby, the agent gets a fee, everybody’s happy. It’s apparently all about incentives – never changes.

Then I talked to the agent in the port in Holland where my car arrived and arranged for a pick-up date and got the information what documents I needed to bring to take possession. I had to think of my friend Hans, because the port guy displayed the same sense of humor, that Hans would have in the same situation.

So it appears as if the project”Get The Car Into Switzerland” will have a happy ending and I will have it when my wife comes here the next time.

Alright, after Monday’s enthusiastic posting you are probably wondering:”What is the weather situation like right now?” I am sad to report, that the sun’s appearance on Monday was a very short gig with a thirty encore on Tuesday. Wednesday and today looked like the image below. This also answers my rather optimistic question whether there was the smell of Spring in the air: NO!!!, there is not.

Clearly rather dreary. I just can’t think of a good reason, why I should go: “Yeah kick-ass, fog..I love living in a French art movie from the sixties.” I need sun, man, even it is cold. Minneapolis can have its grey spells , to, but one thing you just can’t complain about in Minneapolis –  usually the insane cold comes with sunshine.

Alright, time to close I want to read a bit in my SuperFreakonomics book.

L8rs Yours Markus \m/

Today’s View From My Office 1/18/10

Great!!!! The sun made an appearance today that can be comfortably measured in hours. While the sun couldn’t burn off all the fog, it burnt off enough to see the mountains that I eluded to in this morning’s post. Plus a lot of snow melted away over the weekend. Do I dare and hope for Spring. In Minneapolis, my friend Rick would lecture me know about my completely unrealistic expectations and he would advise me not to jinx the Winter we have at hand right now. But here, I see the mountains and I can feel how the sweat will run down my face when I ride in the Swiss alps in a few months. But I will heed Rick’s advice and not get too cocky, because there is still a lot of Winter to be had in mid January.

So enjoy the tree in a new light – Morning light and afternoon light.

Morning Light:

Office View AM

Afternoon Light:

Office View PM