Thursday, August 14, 2008

Oh the handshaking!

I've been showing my flat all week to potential renters. The one woman who came by a few weeks ago clearly was told to come to the wrong apartment, as the new ad for my place shows no rent increase (she'd been told 1200 CHF!). I had a little misunderstanding with my landlords--I thought they were going to choose one day to show the apartment so I gave them several to choose from. Instead, they took them all so I've had about 40 people traipsing through here over the past couple of nights. The first dude totally surprised me--I'd been expecting the landlords to call and warn me of when the showings were, but since they thought I knew, they didn't call, so this guy caught me in the middle of sorting some recycling and general chaos. He could barely get in the door, actually! And he politely didn't comment on the second surprise of the night for me (maggots in my trash can). It was a fun evening, let me tell you!

So I've been getting to practice my german a lot with all these folks. Oh joy! I have my little spiel down, though, so as long as they don't ask any weird questions I'm OK. There's also a lot of handshaking going on. The Swiss really like to shake people's hands. A couple months after I moved here I finally had to break down and ask one of my colleagues what the "rules" were about handshaking. I clearly wasn't shaking their hands every day, but I was always being taken by surprise when a hand would come flying at me from someone I already knew. Of course, my colleague couldn't really articulate the system, since he just knew how it worked instinctively. Finally we agreed that one shakes hands upon meeting someone for the first time, and then on any subsequent meeting (and departure!) if one tends to meet the person less often than once a week. This excludes daily-contact colleagues, but includes pretty much everyone else in the country.

I have to admit I'm not overly excited about shaking my doctor's hand (twice) at every visit. By definition the man is around sick people all day, right? Not what I want to be rubbing up against. But then, the viral theory of colds* doesn't really hold sway here, so spreading germs by pressing the flesh shouldn't be a problem either, I guess.

The other greeting/departure move is the cheek kissing, although when one gets upgraded to that was even less clear than the rule for handshaking frequency. Women seem to upgrade to kissing other women relatively quickly, with men less so, and men-men seems to be mostly a southern Europe thing. Here in Switzerland it's three kisses, although I still haven't figured out if you actually are supposed to make cheek-to-cheek contact or just kiss the air. I think it's really funny that the kissing thing really creeps me out--as in, it really violates my personal space--but hugging, which involves full body contact is fine with me. I guess it's all what you grew up with!

The handshake to kissing upgrade confusion is similar to the first name and informal-version-of-you confusion. It's extremely rude to use the informal version before it's been agreed upon, but I have no idea when or how that happens. With everyone in my group at work (4 people) we all started out on the first name and informal-you basis, and everyone else I've known in Switzerland has either been non Swiss (thus first name from the get go) or I've never really gotten to know them (hence we're still on formal-you and Mr. and Mrs. so-and-so). I did have one funny experience: after my knee surgery in 06 I was having a lot of muscle pain from walking all hunched up on my "sticks" (as they call crutches here), so I had several massages. At one of them, the masseuse was quite chatty and I was working really hard at making sure I used the formal-you (which definitely cut down on the "relaxation ambience" of the massage, but then since it was at a physical therapy place, there wasn't much ambience to start with), when suddenly in the middle of the massage the woman stops and sticks her hand out at me and keeps repeating "Hi, I'm Barbara". She said it about 4 times before I suddenly realized what was going on--she was introducing herself with her first name, meaning we should switch to the informal-you!

*People get colds here from drafts (even relatively hot air "drafts" in the hot summer) rather than from viruses, so fans and air conditioners (or even open windows) are very rare. I think it's similar to the idea that in the US we think we get colds from getting our feet wet in the rain....


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Really bad ideas

Zuska had an interesting post about the use of sexual metaphors in computing (specifically at a hacking summer camp)--things like "penetration" or "violation". I commented about how it reminded me of my undergrad days when I spent a couple of years working in a physics lab building electronics instrumentation. One of the components used to build analog circuits is a resistor, a tiny blob of carbon (or something equally not-very-conductive) painted with colored stripes to denote the magnitude of resistance that that resistor provides. Most people found the color code hard to remember, so there are all kinds of mnemonics to help out. The first one I was taught* was "Black Boys Rape Our Young Girls, But Violet Goes Willingly for Silver or Gold" (occasionally people would tone it down by saying "bad boys..."). Yikes! I'm almost as speechless now as I was 20 years ago. And, hey, way to make the first woman in your research group feel welcome!

In electronics there are also all kind of connectors (like the one from the TV to the, uh VCR? ok, DVD!) which were referred to as "male" and "female" connectors, for obvious reasons**. Anytime I was around someone I hadn't worked with before, the first mention of these would be followed with an awkward pause while everyone in the room had my (female) anatomy flash through their minds. Or it would be followed by some ribald jokes (sometimes these would continue even around people I had worked with for a long time). This is a good example of the kind of "uncomfortable climate" or culture that makes me think twice about being a scientist--do I really belong? Do I want to put up with this for the next 40 years? All these kinds of events that magnify our Otherness can have this kind of very subtle impact. But because each individual event is so small, it seems kind of silly to point to them individually. It's well known, however, that these things really do add up over time and also in quantity.

*Incidentally (and luckily), I never had trouble with the color code because it's simply black-brow-the_spectrum-grey-white-silver-gold. The spectrum was one of those things that seemed to come naturally to me, and even as a very small child I was pretty neurotic about needing my colored pencils to be in rainbow order! in their case. Ahem. And with the resistors, the package around the spectrum was just a fade out from black to white. I never had trouble remembering left from right either--it's funny how people just get that as a toddler or they never do (their entire lives!).

**I have to confess that some of the "male" connectors had such large and deep "foreskins" that I would occasionally get a bit confused!

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Rent Control

Because I gave notice on an allowed date, the company that owns my building is now looking for the next renter. They asked for specific dates and times when I could show it, so I was hoping we could do the open house style on just one or two evenings. Instead they opted for having individual renters call me to set up individual times to come see the place. This is more hassle for me--more phone calls (my absolute least favorite thing to do here), more of my time wasted. One person called and we set up a time, then she called an hour before she was supposed to arrive and wanted to reschedule for the next day. Grrr. She finally showed up yesterday and as soon as she walked in I could see she wanted to leave (and she did 3 minutes later). Turns out they told her the rent would be 1200 CHF (about $1200). This is a 25 m2 (250 square feet) apartment on one of the busiest streets in Zurich in a relatively dumpy (by Swiss standards) building. My rent is 841 CHF (about $841). I was already annoyed that it had gone up from 776 CHF in April (I know landlords raise rent, but why wait 2.5 years and then hike it all at once?). I'm glad I decided to give notice when I could walk away--if I had to find a follow-on tenant, I would be really stressed about trying to lie and sell the place, whereas now I can just be honest!

This blog post about the psychology of dealing with climate change (or not, as the case may be) and some more general thoughts about risk assessment psychology is interesting. I especially liked "The science of human behavior, particularly the psychology of risk perception, robustly shows that we use two systems to make judgments about risk; reason and affect, facts and feelings. It is simply naïve to disregard this inescapable truth and presume that reason and intellect alone will carry the day. That’s just not how the human animal behaves." This reminds me of something I consider to be a fundamental flaw of traditional economics: the idea of the rational actor as the basis for the entire economy.

I've been spinning a lot. I dyed a bunch of wool this winter, but I hadn't been spinning so much because my back always hurts after sitting all day. So I've been planning to sell my wheel before I move, but I just couldn't let go of all the wool I dyed! So I've been spinning in 10 minute spurts (one little ball of prepped wool), and it's going ok. I'm surprised at how much I can get done! Of course, now that I'm seeing results, I'm second guessing my decision to sell the wheel. Argh!

Recent yarn I've spun. The red yarn was spun in April, knit into bad, thick socks, and frogged.

One batch (the rusty stuff on the left) was so pretty I couldn't bring myself to ply it--I knew the colors would just kind of muddy out. So I've been dreaming up patterns that would look ok using energized singles which bias like mad. I was thinking of a tank top knit in the round--the leaning stitches would just add textural interest! However, when I finally skeined them up, I realized something about my spinning: my singles don't have much "energy" (twist). They hardly coil up on themselves. This explains why my plied yarn is never very plied--the whole idea behind plying is that twisting two yarns together in the opposite direction from how they were spun means that the over-twist in the singles untwists in a way that makes the ply tighter. Balance is achieved. Instead, I have these barely twisted singles, which turn into two strands that are more like neighbors than plies.

Rust colored singles without much twist

Blue and red yarn--note how the plies are barely plied in the red yarn!

I've also been working away on my bog jacket. I worked up the back and sides (the bottom part with the fold/phoney seams), then added extra stitches for the arms. I put in the red racing stripe at the neck/shoulder/top of arms, and now just reached the neck. The front shoulders/arms are worked separately--I've started on one side. I might rejoin the fronts when I get back to the long-color-change yarn because I would prefer the stripes to be the same on both sides. That means steeking the front top. I've had some bad steeking experiences---no disasters, but just a lot of hassle and not being so thrilled with the results. I stumbled across some advice recently about not steeking heavy weight yarns, and suddenly my past troubles made a lot more sense--yes, dealing with tons of bulky ends does add a lot of bulk to the steek opening! Since this yarn is pretty fine, I think it would go better. I'm trying to figure out crochet steeking on a little test square--no ends to weave in, or so I'm told! And this is definitely the yarn for that--it's super grabby. When I dropped the stitches for the phoney seams, I had to hand tug apart the stitch in every row! In fact, I could probably just cut without securing the steek at all...

Bog jacket up to the neck split

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