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Things I learned in Sweden – part 2

November 11, 2011 4 comments

4) Drinking more coffee than ever before: To say coffee is big in Sweden is an understatement. I’d say it’s one of the irreplaceable threads in the social fabric there. Two folks can discuss anything, so long as coffee’s been offered and accepted :-) If you have a day full of meetings, my thought is to select the espresso shot from the machine. The smaller volume of liquid will save you from repeated bathroom trips.

5) Meaningful relaxation: Interestingly, when you go to a coffee shop over there, you don’t see people studying. No laptops. (Working all afternoon in a cafe while hunched over that single coffee you grudgingly paid for – a most American phenomenon!) I was never a study-in-cafe type in the U.S. but being over there certainly nurtured my love for going into places that serve cake and pie along with their coffee… in the company of friends… to have actual conversations.

6) Identifying ways to create value: I was extremely fortunate to complement my research work with a program on how to commercialize new technologies originating in research. During the program, I got to actually develop some new partnerships along the way of testing one of my ideas on graphene dispersions. (I won’t go into the details here; I did give a presentation about it in Stockholm last month – watch it if you’re interested.) The great thing about doing this program was (a) the new thought processes I absorbed and can implement for future ideas, and (b) discovering that I find this new area of work – related to technology transfer, not the same as basic research – super interesting, challenging, and worth pursuing further. And of course, (c) getting introduced to a fantastic mentor who wasn’t hesitant to share wisdom from his broad life and business experiences. Thanks, Sten.

I’m going to end here. This is by no means an all-inclusive list. For example, I learned plenty of other good and useful things from my colleagues at Uppsala University. But those are for only me to savor, right now.

The first part of my list is here.

[Picture: This cat lived at our house. She came to me for all her head-scratching needs. Yes, even in the bathroom sink.]

Is it Un-American to Ride Public Buses?

November 5, 2011 4 comments

The driver’s voice crackled over the speakers with his request for us to step further backward so new riders could board the bus. Step back to where? This bus was already loaded with folks going home from work. If the sardine were alive in the can, it would know our plight. On this hot Pittsburgh day, visions of a refreshing shower in the evening flashed through my mind, interrupted only by the riders wriggling past me to get off the bus. Although Pittsburgh’s buses have doors in their midsections, riders here are required to exit the bus at the same front door where they enter the bus.** On the crowded afternoon bus, this rule burdens riders seated at the back with the Herculean task of maneuvering to the front and ensures that we all trade sweat with our fellow riders. To further prolong our discomfort, on portions of the route the bus picks up and discharges passengers at successive blocks. Is it not excessive to have stops that are literally a stone’s throw apart from each other?

By the time I got home, I was eager to prescribe remedies for making the Pittsburgh bus experience a comfortable and efficient one. In a given neighborhood, for example, designate stops that are spaced farther apart. People can walk an extra block! The rest were similarly straightforward. Later, though, refreshed after my shower, I pondered if there were reasons—beyond my immediate perception—for the current mode of operation. Perhaps numerous stops were designated to accommodate riders with limited mobility?

** This rule seems to apply only during afternoon rush hour. All riders are allowed on the bus, and pay when they step off. Still, the question remains: WHY?

I wrote the above two paragraphs as part of an essay to work on transportation policy. You could call it my “Pittsburgh Bus Rant” – well, due to limited space, I couldn’t include my favorite bus-induced indignation: you’ve waited for a while (the bus rarely comes on time) and when it does arrive, it drives right past you because it is too full to take on new passengers. This has happened at all times of the day.

Clearly, I’m not the only one frustrated by this situation. Some clever people at CMU designed an app called Tiramisu to crowd-source in real time the bus timetable in Pittsburgh, so you’re not endlessly wondering when it’ll arrive at your stop. But this doesn’t address the underlying problem.

If someone grew up with this bus system, they might come to accept it as just-the-way-things-are. On the other hand, moving to Pittsburgh from a place where you could set your watch to the bus, I see room for improvement. Certainly, I acknowledge that European cities can have different layouts and can be more compact than American cities, but I refuse to believe that our engineering and logistical skill can’t address our unique transportation inefficiencies. Call it a sense of American exceptionalism, or whatever else you like. [Brief history recap: mass production of the automobile, the polio vaccine, sending men to the moon - all accomplished in the USA.]

So what are the hang-ups? Well, it looks like there’s been some short-sighted financial judgment by the Port Authority, and with the credit markets going south in 2008-09, now they’re short on cash. [Quick aside: The creativeness of the financial engineers on Wall Street has been, well, exceptional. When you have to invent words like "swaption" to describe your product...]

Now, these guys would like to rehire the bus drivers and mechanics that got laid off when the money dried up. Fine sentiment, but if you look at the bus schedule now, some of the routes have pickups every 15 or 20 minutes. If the buses were timely, that would suffice going through most neighborhoods. People who ride the bus care about the bus getting them to their destination at the time they planned for it to get them there. With a fraction of that cash, my recommendation would be to do an actual study of # riders vs. time of day in order to know who’s using your bus, when they’re using it, and where they’re getting on and off. So you can deploy regular-size buses when passenger traffic is light, and send the buses with the accordion-midsection when it’s known to be super busy. Also, stop charging $2.25 – people who don’t have the good fortune of using their ID card or monthly pass are subject to the annoyance of digging for that quarter. Alternately, avoid the transaction costs of cash ENTIRELY by switching to a pay-by-mobile-phone setup. This would not discriminate against anyone – everyone and their purse dog has a cell phone these days.

At the risk of sounding cynical about U.S. politics – these issues won’t be resolved because the decision makers are sequestered from the users. Could someone help me formulate an argument that goes like “PNC Bank / PPG / Heinz shareholders could see a steep improvement to their company’s bottom line as a result of (fill in the blank) which could be achieved with a more efficient Pittsburgh bus service”? After all, those folks have the lobbyists! :-)

Bonus read: A young lady romanticizes her endeavor to be a bus rider in San Francisco; nearly gets put on anti-depressants as a result.

Things I learned in Sweden

November 4, 2011 3 comments

This is a list, in no particular order… of some things I learned and skills I cultivated during my 14 months living and working in Sweden.

1) Playing acoustic guitar. A winter with 4 hours of daylight means you need to have a good indoor hobby. Glad I picked up the guitar in October last year. Thanks for the tips, Josef and Gunnar. And Raili, thanks for letting my guitar accompany your ukelele at xmas.

2) Cooking without recipes. Having a properly stocked kitchen means you can experiment and not fear mistakes. Also, doing more chemistry at my job somehow led me to think about various cooking techniques in terms of heat and water distribution, for example, and a better understanding of what exactly was happening inside the pot or pan. And, thanks, Farid, for keeping such a lagom kitchen.

3) The Swedish language. My first month in Uppsala, my pronunciation was so bad, I would ask for something in Swedish at the store, to have the clerk reply to me in English. Thanks, Daniel, for all the useful social phrases; Henrik, for all the stuff I’ve asked for help with translating at work and over gchat (cumin, coriander, what?); and, the municipal gov’t, for covering the cost of the Sfi language course. What a difference it makes when a trained teacher explains the nuances of pronunciation to you. I felt I turned a corner in the winter, when I called a restaurant and booked a table, entirely in Swedish. And then again this summer, in Copenhagen, having an extensive conversation with a Swedish-speaking Dane in a noisy bar. So I try to keep up with the language. And thus, thanks go to each one of you who continues to tolerate my suboptimal listening comprehension during our Skype calls. Vad sa du? Igen?

… It’s getting late, so I will write the rest of my list in a second post, sometime soon, while the thoughts are still fresh and interesting!

[Photograph: I took it in Smögen, on the west coast of Sweden, when I was there for a workshop last summer]

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