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Aidan O'Hare
Last night was the first date in this Spring's Show of Hands tour. Read more...Collapse )
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Having recently acquired a new car, I was reading the instruction manual the other day. I can't remember exactly what one of the lamps was suppposed to say, but it was something along the lines of "there's a problem with the engine". This initially made me think of the quote I saw somewhere in a UNIX fortune file:

'Ken Thompson has an automobile which he helped design. Unlike most automobiles, it has neither speedometer, nor gas gauge, nor any of the numerous idiot lights which plague the modern driver. Rather, if the driver makes any mistake, a giant "?" lights up in the center of the dashboard. "The experienced driver", he says, "will usually know what's wrong."'

I was going to write some sort of blog post poking fun at the unspecific nature of all this, but then it occurred to me that this is actually exactly the correct level of detail to show me about my car. Apart from a few lights which I might be able to do something about - handbrake, lights, indicators, that sort of thing, I have a number of lights in my car with various designs and colours, which all mean exactly the same thing to me: "Take me to the garage".

Life's getting this way with just about anything these days. As technology gets better and better, and things get more complicated, we are increasingly unable to fix them ourselves. Hell - I'm an electronics engineer and if my DVD player stopped working tomorrow, I'd take the lid off, spend about ten minutes looking for anything obvious, throw my hands up in dismay and go to amazon.co.uk. Once upon a time, expensive bits of electronics like hi-fis came with circuit diagrams or even service manuals but there's precious little you can do now. Even with cars, where you can get a Haynes manual, people who know which end of the socket wrench to hold tell me that very soon, you have to take it to the garage where they have the right computer.

So what does this mean? In the short term, lots of kit in landfills. Cars are worth getting repaired - they cost a lot. DVD players? Maybe - depends on how good they are. MP3 players? Starts getting marginal. And that's if you *can* get someone who knows what's going on in there to fix it - good luck if it's a few years old.
This is hilariously funny.

What is less funny is that I've been learning about Six Sigma in the last few days as part of my shiny new job, and it actually seems to be vaguely useful when applied in conjunction with common sense. Hrm. I may have to re-evaluate my innate mistrust of anything with the word "methodology" in the description...
Today's post is about a fantastic new CD. It's only new in the sense that I've just bought it, not in the sense of having been recently released, but all the same, Kate Rusby's Awkward Annie is just great. Despite being fairly well exposed to the whole folk scene thing, I'd never really listened to any of her stuff - folk singers aren't always my thing and I hadn't realised just how good the production of the CD was.

She produced the whole shebang herself according to the CD case and the production is just lovely - rich and deep where it needs to be to prop up a slow melody, but dropping away in other places so as not to get in the way. No brass band, but you can't have everything and she's got someone playing a nice plunky bano from time to time. There's a fun track at the end, too, as she covers the Kinks' We Are The Village Green Preservation Society. Apparently this was on the TV, or something.

Anyway, buy it. It's sublime. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on her back catalogue soon.
Having moved back to the UK (we live in Leicester now), there are several differences between here and there[1] which I notice on a regular basis. However, one difference of which I was hitherto unaware - when did coffee bars in Britain start serving coffee[2] in a vessel with the approximate dimensions of a bucket?

[1] "There", or I suppose "là" in this instance, being la belle Suisse
[2] Yes, coffee. Not syrupy gloop with a shot of espresso hiding at the bottom somewhere, but an Americano, which is what I believe normal coffee is called these days.
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I'm writing this sitting on a seat in front of the stage in the Conservatoire de Geneve, halfway listening to a rehearsal that's going on. It's not the first time I've been sitting around listening to other people rehearse - that tends to happen quite a lot when you're a musician - but I never thought I'd be doing it with the musical commentary going on in French and certainly not sitting here. The event? One of our good friends, Rachel Clerc (no web site - she's not that sort of girl - but if she gets famous later on then you read it here first...) is just finishing her postgraduate course thingy[1] in Baroque music, and it's her recital tomorrow. She's performing a selection of dance music with her friends and thought it would be fun to throw in a bit of diddly-dee (which should probably be spelt diddli-di over here), since she also plays Irish whistle.

It's a Rachel-and-friends sort of a deal: current musician count> three recorders, two things which look like early versions of bassoons (hautboys?), one long wooden tube with a hole in the top that I don't recognise at all and a tambourine-type thing which also probably has a much posher name. It amuses me somewhat that later on, all these posh baroque instruments being wielded by presumably extremely erudite and capable players will be replaced by a few of us that Rachel met in the pub. A guy's just walked in with a large wooden box, which is presumably some sort of keyboard instrument. This is fun. Were I a baroque musician, I would be greatly tempted to find the oddest looking thing I could and learn to play that[2].

Ooh: They've just started to play in a large group. I remember now why I don't usually enjoy performances on period instruments - the damn things are hardly ever in tune with each other[3], albeit through no fault of the players. They're making a lovely noise, though. Suppositions about finding good musicians in a conservatoire were well founded. I suppose I should stop typing, or at the very least, press the keys in time.

[1] I've never quite got the hang of what all the different bits of Swiss education are called
[2] Says Aidan, the owner of a set of uilleann pipes and therefore with little room to comment...
[3] Says Aidan once again, the owner of a set of uilleann pipes and therefore with little room to comment...
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This weekend, for those of you who weren't aware, was the 9th Festival international des très courts. It's an international competition for short films (maximum length of three minutes): there's a judging committee who give out prizes for the overall winners, and the best 50 are shown to the public in cinemas all over Europe. There's then a "Popular Vote" prize.
We'd been last year and I was looking forward to going again this year - it's a really fun evening and the entries are of a pretty good standard. The overall winner as judged by the committee was the hilarious American entry Not so Small Talk; my three favourites were:

  1. Ten thousand pictures of you
  2. Apnée
  3. Changes
It's a musical link day, today.

Firstly, an absolutely superb story in one of the Washington DC newspapers: Joshua Bell (yes, the Joshua Bell, the virtuoso violinist) went busking and was, largely, ignored. Story here.

Also, my little sister alerted me to Monkey Swallows The Universe, A Sheffield band who do some lovely stuff. She bought me their first CD which is beautifully mellow, but you can hear their new single (complete with video) on their web site. Great stuff.

Another Sheffield band of note are Fury of the Headteachers, who are most decidedly not mellow but who have an good sound. Musical goodness behind the link.
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Now that the hour has changed and we're officially in summer time, things look very different on my way to and from work. I've got used to leaving the house in the daylight, but the dawn is just too late for that at the moment and it gets lighter as I make my way to the station. It's only a temporary hiatus - in another week or two it'll be fully light when I leave - but it's quite nice to see the day start.

On the way back, I'm now leaving in bright sunshine (temporary weather conditions notwithstanding) and it's getting dark on my way back. I've always liked crepuscular light: I find it has a certain fragility, since it doesn't last for long and it accents different parts of the surroundings to full daylight. I walked back from the station last night along the shore of Lake Geneva, watching the sun setting over the Alps, which went a delightful shade of pink. I really must take my camera with me one of these days.
One of the things that we've been doing recently is playing string quartets with some friends. We're currently working on Mozart's "Hunt" quartet and an arrangement of Corelli's Christmas concerto for quartet. It may be unseasonal, but it's still lovely.

A serendipitous discovery just before we started rehearsals a few months ago was the Mutopia project, a collection of free (as in both beer and speech) sheet music, transcribed from editions on which the copyright has expired. Printouts aren't as nice to play from as a properly bound edition (they have a habit of falling off the music stand at page turns, even when sellotaped together[1]), but you can't argue with the value for money.

It's all typeset using Lilypond, a program comparable to LaTeX. There is some flavour of TeX which can do music, but from what I remember (having played with it once, some time ago), it's a bit fiddly. Lilypond is quite nice - bashing the notes in takes a little while (and unfortunately isn't directly compatible with abc, the other ASCII standard for music, although that's nothing that a few lines of your favourite scripting language couldn't sort out) but once that stage is done, it's remarkably easy to produce pdfs of scores. It does all the things you'd expect, such as jiggling the notes around if you tell it that you want a part for a transposing intstrument.

[1] Or scotched together, as they say here. Fie, I say. Everyone knows that Scotch is liquid, and no use at all for holding things together. In fact, it's rather counterproductive - I certainly have problems holding myself together following too much Scotch.
Everyone's busy in Neuchatel at the moment filling out their tax declaration forms. Contrary to what you'd expect in Switzerland, where adherence to the rules is a national sport, this is an activity normally reserved for the three or so weeks immediately following the deadline. As Johnny Foreigner, I'm exempt from this process and do a sort of PAYE thing - it's assumed that these foreign gaijin will head for the border clutching large sacks of colourful Swiss bank notes[1] the instant that anyone mentions tax. Well, either that or they got fed up with explaining the form to people who don't speak the language very well. I rang up the other day to make sure that I really, honestly didn't have to do anything at which point the nice Madame told me that I could fill in a form, which might even save me money, but at the point where it became evident that said form was in French legalese, I went off the idea rather quickly.

The system, you see, is rather complex. As far as I can make out from my colleagues' comments, which went something along the lines of "Blah blah des impots blah blah compte bloqué blah ca me fait chier", you don't actually pay your taxes as such each month. Instead, there's some sort of escrow account set up which automatically receives some of your salary, then at the end of the year you sift through the filing cabinet, curse the missing records, do a big bean count, fill in a 503-page form in triplicate, attach annex 23(F)[ii], take away the number you first thought of and pay the cantonal authorities. People started to explain all the things that you could deduct but my eyes glazed over after a few minutes - it's typically Swiss and in inordinate detail. You can claim for your journey to work, but only for bicycle or scooter costs if you live within x km of the office, then for buses if you're a bit further away, and so on. Apparently you can also deduct the cost of lunch if you live far away, but there's some amount calculated according to the local cost of a menu du jour and the price of eggs in the local supermarket... On top of all this, every canton has its own set of rules and then there's presumably a similar ritual that goes on between them and the federal authorities. It is, of course, entirely possible that I misunderstood (I would be lying if I pretended that this was anything other than a fairly frequent occurrence at coffee break) but there was definitely something about the distance you lived from work and the right to claim for different sorts of transport. If you want factual accuracy, I would be willing to bet large sums of money that there are countless web pages explaining the Swiss tax system in fine detail, but you're on your own.

When they asked about English taxes and I explained that unless you (a) earn super-wonga or (b) are a special case then you just get taxed at source and it's all over except for the obligatory complaining, they were all for it. They obviously know how, since we etrangers effectively do PAYE, but it's just not an option for the vast majority. Methinks that the vast industry spawned by the system has too much political presence. Well, either that or they found out about this whole tax-at-source thing a few decades ago and are trying it on the foreigners for a while before making their minds up. It's not the sort of decision that would be rushed here, after all. Decisions are things to be taken carefully after careful review[3].

[1] Really. The things look like rave tickets[2].
[2] OK, so they resemble what I'd imagine rave tickets to look like. Having never been to a rave, I can't be sure. At any rate, I don't think it's a coincidence that LSD was invented here.
[3] Careful review usually taking a considerable number of years and endless referenda
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So, dear reader, here I sit, pen in hand (more on that in a bit), wondering where to pick up. As you may have noticed, Aidan’s blog has been somewhat inactive of late, making even the local bureau des habitants look efficient[1]. This was largely due to the damn commute, which eats into the parts of my day normally reserved for such activities, and partly due to laziness. However, fear not. The recent acquisition of a new toy (an Asus R1F laptop if you’re interested, which is one of these Tablet write-on-the-screen jobbies, hence earlier comment about pen in hand) means that I can merrily while away those train journeys writing drivel for you to read.

I’ve been deliberately avoiding writing about how good the Swiss public transport system is, since it seems to be something that all expat bloggers in Swissland get around to at some point, but it really is pretty good. The trains are on time, clean and cheap if you live here. Highly recommended. I realise that Network Rail have more problems in terms of passenger density (did you know that the Swiss population is about the same as that of Greater London[2]?) but every time we go home again, the contrast is risible. Oh well. If it comes down to having either a reliable public transport system or beer that tastes of something, I can put up with quite a lot of leaves on the line.

On a different note, this handwriting recognition lark really is very impressive. It works straight out of the box – no training required – and seems to recognise the standard Aidan hieroglyphics rather than requiring me to use a funny alphabet. Loath as I am to use the words “Microsoft” and “good” in the same sentence (and so I shall avoid doing so, but it’s kind of implied), I’m impressed. They’ve really nailed it. I particularly like the way that I can scrawl on the screen in place of my big stack o’notebooks, leave it looking like my handwriting and then search for particular words later. I’m beginning to understand the reasons for all the fuss about this OneNote thing.

[1] That’s the office in the commune where one goes for the various pieces of paper that one needs to officially exist here, give or take a few months’ delay.

[2] This is one of Those Statistics of dubious nature. I looked it up once and seem to remember that it was true for certain values of “Swiss” and “Greater London”.
I know that there is at least one person who reads this and might concievably be interested, so:

Seen on cam.misc - advert requiring part-time proofreaders with scientific academic background and LaTeX knowledge. More details here.
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I awoke bright and early (well, early, anyway) on Saturday morning this weekend and toddled off to Geneva airport. There was a big family party in Coventry, you see, which I didn't really want to miss. The flights seemed to have been getting better, with increased numbers of aeroplanes taking off on Thursday and Friday, and after all BA were publishing lists of cancelled flights which didn't include mine.

The party was very good.

Less good was getting back to Heathrow on Sunday, four hours in advance of the flight time, to discover that all European flights had been cancelled. This was a decision taken late on Saturday night when the chaos reached bursting point at Heathrow and seemed understandable, so we were directed to join the queue for rebooking, happening in a tent in the car park.

Well, after three and a half hours and a goodly amount of rain and hail, we reached the front of the queue. I should say at this point that the BA/BAA staff were doing everything in their power to help people with free drinks, nibbles, raincoats etc. What surprised me a little was the way the rebookings were being handled - one arrived in the tent and milled around until finding a BA employee in a yellow jacket, who would listen to your story and then ring up the bookings desk on their mobile 'phone. Given that we were about 100m from the terminal, it seemed odd to me that they hadn't just run out Ethernet and connected up booking terminals to be used in the aforementioned tent, but I'm sure they knew what they were doing. Anyway, we got a reservation for a flight to Basel on Monday evening, although a hotel room wasn't forthcoming since there simply weren't enough to go round. Having British accents, not accompanying small children and not being in transit put us fairly low down the priority list as regarded hotels, which is fair enough. As it turned out, we went to stay with some friends - lovely to see them, but a shame we had to drop in rather unannounced.

Monday arrived and we spent a jolly morning at the Science Museum, booking a hotel room in Basel for that evening on the way. We decided to arrive back at Heathrow early (four and a half hours early this time) to minimise problems and arrived to find a new strategy at work: in order to prevent rugby scrums at security, they were keeping everyone outside until their flight was called, one to two hours before takeoff. This seemed like a good idea... until we heard that they weren't letting anyone inside for our new flight, since there was no chance of getting them through security in time.

Back to the queue for us, then (mercifully shorter and dryer today), where we got booked on a flight on Tuesday morning for Basel. Geneva was still apparently out of the question, but anything getting us back in Swissland would do. I think it would take nuclear holocaust to upset the Swiss railway timetable, and even then they'd publish an emergency service timetable running weeks into the future. We also got a hotel for the night, since there was no way we were going to be able to travel back to the airport for an 0830 flight. This, thankfully, left with us on it and I was back in work for Tuesday afternoon, coming straight from the airport.

Conclusions? Well, all the staff at Heathrow were brilliant - I'm sure they didn't want to be there either and they were obviously doing their best. Most of the other punters were pretty good, too. There were a few people who seemed to think that SHOUTING VERY LOUDLY would magically make their flight run, but not too many. The priority system seemed to be working quite well - it was never formally stated, but you could tell that they were looking after the people who needed it most. It seemed like BA hadn't really thought about it in advance, though, which is a little odd. I would have thought that they'd have rolled out contingency plan A and had something a little better than the mobile phone plan, although to be fair it did work very well. Maybe it really is the best way of doing it.

Methinks that Eurostar will do well out of the current baggage restrictionsand delays, though, as British travellers are tempted to get the train to Paris and an ongoing flight...
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I’m still getting to grips with talking to people here in Switzerland. Specifically, with how to address them. Once upon a time at school, it was very easy. In French lessons, since you were only a teenager, your classmates were ‘tu’ and pretty much everyone else (hypothetical French penfriends apart) was ‘vous’. Easy. Of course, in real life, it doesn’t quite work like that – colleagues are ‘tu’, pretty much everyone you meet in the pub is ‘tu’, people you don’t know are most definitely ‘vous’ – but that does leave a gap in the middle for people you kinda-know, or people who you’ve got to know better and feel should have shifted from the ‘vous’ category to the ‘tu’ one.

Being English where we don’t have this sort of thing (apparently we once did, and 'thou' was the formal form), I tend to let the francophone conversational partner go first and follow their lead. This can lead to some interesting liguistic gymnastics as I try to formulate sentences without using either pronoun until I’ve learnt which one we’re using – this is made a little easier by the French ‘on’, one of these multipurpose words seemingly used for I/we/you/people/anything else you feel like, but is still something of a challenge. I started off by vous-ing everyone until otherwise instructed, but apparently this isn’t necessarily more polite, and can make you seem a bit stand-offish.

Interestingly, everyone whose maternal language has these different forms of ‘you’ seems to think that it’s really difficult in English to be sure of showing sufficient respect, since you can’t just play the ‘vous’ card and make it obvious that you’re trying to be polite. I suppose it’s not really surprising, although on the other hand it does actually force you to be polite, rather than just observing the form. It’s a bit like the opening ‘no offence, but…’ which seems to be universally regarded as carte blanche to continue as offensively as you feel like, safe in the knowledge that you’ve excused yourself in advance.

Once you’ve worked out how to address people, of course there’s the whole kissing thing. I have a very short list of people who I want to kiss:
1. My wife.
2. Other family members if I really have to
3. err, that’s about it

However, it’s de rigeur here, upon being introduced to a member of the opposite sex, to perform three air kisses. Well, I say air kisses, but cheek to cheek contact appears to be mandatory, judging from the surprised reactions that I get from people when I leave a gap. Maybe I’m British and repressed, but it’s all too intimate for me. I also suspect that the whole thing started from influential Gallic men wishing to get close to young ladies – if it’s all perfectly innocent, then why don’t men do the cheek kissing thing to each other? Hrm?
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Doing the daily commute as I am, it seemed to make sense to take the train. It’s greener, it’s cheaper, Swiss trains are pretty reliable, it’s less tiring than driving and it means I get a bit of time to myself during the day to read or whatever, which wouldn’t otherwise happen. However, it does present the social problem of what to do if I share a carriage with someone I know. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to particular people – I just don’t want to talk to ANYONE DAMMIT at that time and especially not in French (or, in fact, especially not with anything requiring concentration. Metaphysics is right out as a conversation topic, too). Coffee break, lunch time, hallway meetings, these are all fine, but somehow the journey to and from work isn’t. No, I can’t explain it. This, combined with either being half-asleep first thing in the morning or knackered after a hard day at work, can turn me into something of a grumpy bugger when confronted with such provocative statements as ‘bonjour’ first thing.

Of course, once people decide they’re feeling friendly and make contact on the morning train, you have two choices. Either you smile and acknowledge the other person’s presence (in all likelihood resigning yourself to a journey sitting smiling politely at either other, desperately trying to hold up a conversation whilst being half asleep) or you say hello and INSTANTLY RETURN TO YOUR BOOK, which usually has the desired effect of precluding prolonged contact but does make one feel rather uncharitable.

I once read a theory that this is why the iPod is such a success – you turn the music on, plug in and there’s a definite barrier there between you and the world. You can say hello to people you meet, but it’s clear that unless you unplug, you’re not going to be much use for conversation. Of course, the issue of whether or not it’s rude to keep listening in this case is another matter, but most people take the hint when the headphones remain firmly affixed.

Apparently, it’s quite common to keep wearing your earphones until the moment you arrive at your desk, thus avoiding social contact until you really have ‘arrived’. The fact that iPod earphones are coloured white and therefore stand out can only help to emphasise the ‘I’M NOT AVAILABLE FOR CONVERSATION’ message. Yes, it is probably indicative of society’s demise into selfishness. Yes, the world would probably be a more pleasant place if we all joined hands and had a moment of togetherness on our daily commutes. Yes, I’d still rather inhabit my own little world on the way to work thankyouverymuch.
And so, here I am again. After something of a hiatus in publication after last year’s events, I find myself once more trying to think of something to write here. At least it passes the time on the train.

It was with some surprise and not a little pride that I noted the first of July tick around this year, since it marked the date when, one year ago, I said goodbye to Merrie England, packed up my goods and chattels, and emigrated to Switzerland. In review:

Jobs found: one.
Job adverts read and discarded in the process: don’t ask.
Skiing lessons: two. Must improve on that next winter.
Number of times fell over during said skiing lessons: one. It was the only way to stop that presented itself at the time.
Knowledge of the French language: much improved, but still at the stage which would be considered “really quite foreign” back in Blighty. Rapidly came to the conclusion, however, that the alternatives were either to speak perfect French by dint of confining my daily utterances to “oui”, “non” and “merci”, or to stumble on and hope that by the end of the sentence, the intelligent Swiss would be able to retrospectively fill in the blanks and understand what I meant.
Knowledge of the 07:40 Morges-Neuchâtel train: sadly also improved. At least it’s better than whatever British Rail is called now. Train journeys back in Britain now rapidly lose their sense of allure and nostalgia, and become a cause for despair.
Number of times "y" and "z" keys confused on computer keyboards: countless. Bloody things.

In retrospect, it was pretty grim at the beginning, although it is now getting a lot easier. Switzerland is, objectively, a very nice place to live and life gets a lot better once you get over the language thing. The Swiss couldn’t be any more helpful with language barriers, but it’s still tough.

Anyway, we have no immediate plans to move, so it can’t have been that bad.
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My latest favourite link: The Human Clock!.

Other than that, if anyone could convince the Lausanne Hockey Club to win a game or two in the playoffs, that'd be good.

(Non sequitur: it's still snowing here in Swissland. It pretends to be Spring every so often, but it's not fooling anyone).
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As you may[1] have noticed, I haven't written anything for a while. This, sadly, is probably a fairly good indication of things to come, since I'm usually leaving the house at 0710, having a satisfyingly full day and then getting home around 1940. I haven't yet worked out how to fit in my daily half hour of wasting time on the web, so I haven't been writing stuff. I realise that an extremely large portion of the world are happily ignorant of this fact, but the fact that you're reading this at all means that you might have a passing interest.

Things of note:
  • I have, finally, found the Irish music in the area. It's not bad: there are actually more people than I thought, but they don't tend to come out so much. There's a weekly session in Geneva which has, thus far, ranged from quite good to less good, although it is at a pub with very expensive beer. We also went to Vevey the other month, which was even better, but it's only monthly. The next one's tonight, but I'm (a) sufficiently cold-ridden to not want to go and (b) awaiting visitors.
  • New job is still good and interesting. Real design work, which is a welcome relief. It's worth the commute.
  • One good thing about living in Switzerland is that I can indulge my taste for Ice Hockey which I picked up whilst working in Calgary last year - I've been to a few Lausanne HC matches. The standard's obviously not as good as the NHL, but the atmosphere's great and the tickets don't require taking out a second mortgage. Allez Lausanne and all that.
  • I've even found some beer that tastes of something in Lausanne. There's a place called "Le Chateau" which is a microbrewery aiming for something quite like English beer - it's certainly an oasis in this part of the world. Their "brun" is like a pretty nice mild with nitrogen in it, and they do a reasonable bitter. I still miss English beer, though.
That's all for now...

[1] Or may not - a high-traffic blog this is not.
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I've now been at work for a week! The commute is long but bearable (leave house circa 7:15am, get back circa 7:40pm) and the work is good. They're a nice bunch, I'm working on an interesting project and the facilities are really very good indeed. What's more, there appear to be enough secretaries and technicians, so someone else runs around collecting signatures/sorting out pcb production for you. Hurrah!

Still haven't managed to get to any music here, though :( I'm emailing some people from the Geneva area, but we've not managed to get together for tunes yet. Maybe soon...
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