Archives For NZZ

Setting the Scene

A month ago I got an e-mail from a good friend asking if I wanted to attend the “White Dinner” picnic in Zurich on the 3rd of August. While thinking about it, I logged onto Facebook and saw that the event was advertised there. The pictures looked wonderful, the concept unique and many friends had said they were going. I’m the kind of guy to make a spontaneous decision and after checking my calendar, I thought, yes, I want to be part of this beautiful event.

White Dinner

Picture from White Dinner Zurich Facebook Page


Your track record determines others expectations

After quite a few e-mails between the group of friends, we bought a table for 10 people. I wasn’t quite sure what was included in the price, and didn’t worry about it too much. Worst case scenario we had to buy food and drink, best case it was provided. Already here, there was a potential of being clearer. I would suggest this be put on the webpage under a simple and easy to read table/chart. The location was also not clear, but with the pictures from Berlin in years past, we thought for sure it would be in Zurich at the lake (China Garden) or maybe Lindenhof or Irchel Park. No worries though, for 59 CHF / Person we knew we’d be in for a treat. When I read most of the unfriendly and frankly irrational comments of many complaining about the event, what is clear is that the past locations of the White Dinner in other cities set very high expectations for where it would be held in Zurich.

Not exactly in Zurich City

A week before the event I saw on Facebook again that the location would be at the Rennbahn (Racetrack) in Dielsdorf. This is not too far from my part of the city, but isn’t really Zurich city either. Not a bad location though, a horse race track is often quite beautiful and Dielsdorf is a few minutes with the S-Bahn. It did however change my expectations of the event. Added to that was the first article about the event in the NZZ. While I found accusations of the event being a ripoff to be exaggerated in a city where restaurants get away serving tap water for 3.50 a liter to otherwise paying guests under the guise of donating 2.00 francs to charity, the fact that the organization only put in for a permit for the event a mere few weeks before the event shoes a lack of planning. A person n the ground in Zurich and in every city the group hopes to have their is necessary. That the rules are the rules and businesses cannot, with short notice, have huge swaths of a public park for their use is understandable. However, even here one could argue that concert venues like open airs do just that. In short, the OC needed someone in Zurich organizing and things and working with the city earlier, but a horse race track a mere 10km from the city centre is not a scandal, in fact it’s a beautiful location.

Image from NZZ Article

Image from NZZ Article


It’s not a Ripoff, it’s a business

Regarding the accusations of being a ripoff, I fully support the OC in their statement, that, yes, they are a company looking to make profits. It takes a lot of people and time to organize such an event and they need to be paid. As an event organizer myself, I know exactly the labour, time, and resource costs of putting together even smaller conferences and events. There are also risks, such as deposits that might not be returned and not finding enough guests. Because events are such a great place to do marketing the cost to attendees is often vary little, as large sponsors foot the majority of the bill. Being bombarded by advertising in our modern lives we simply fail to acknowledge that companies often pay huge sums for the right to flurry us with their logos. The Oper für Alle was an example of this. It was wonderfully done, a brilliant experience that I enjoyed greatly, but it was sponsored by Zurich Insurance and the thousands of chairs selling for 15 francs a piece with the Zurich logo on it helped make that clear. The White Dinner is meant to be elegant and communal. Would logos, banners, posters, trinkets and such everywhere be appropriate? No, it would degrade the event some to a marketing stunt from a bigger company trying to get people to buy their product or at least increase brand awareness. Paying for goods and services directly in cash and making money is honest and fair. At least you know what you’re getting and you can demand something for it. (Read “What Money can’t Buy” by Michael Sandel for a more indepth study of the omnipresence of advertising.)

One last thought on the claim that it’s a ripoff. A ripoff is when I’m put in a situation where I have little choice and then made to pay a much higher than normal price. An example is not being allowed to take drinks through airport security, and on the other side having to pay 1-2 francs more for a bottle of water. That is taking advantage, of travellers and is a ripoff. This event, by its nature can’t be a ripoff because anyone buying a ticket has the option not to attend and not pay. If you think I want to be there and pay 60 francs for it, then that is your choice. Some people buy 100 franc bottles of wine, and some people buy 4 franc bottles of wine. Value for money (Preis Leistung) often comes down to the individual.

Communication is Nr. 1

This brings me to the communication element of White Dinner. The concept behind White Dinner is very simple and the website needs to reflect that. Confusion quickly ensued via Facebook as to what was included in the price of a ticket and what was going to happen. Already on July 12th an interested person had asked on Facebook what the plan was should it rain. As an event organizing company, information needs to be clearly communicated to attendees. Facebook is not a good place to relay this type of information. Facebook allows too many people to engage and causes information to be lost in such cases. Perhaps the folks at Facebook will come up with a better event organization platform, but for now an event website is best with e-mail and/or text updates is best. Here is a rough sketch of what it should look like:

White Dinner ZurichMy disappointment

The OC of the While Dinner suffered through a barrage of hateful comments and bad reports when they decided to make a judgement call on postponing the event so that the spirit of it would be held – that is a fancy picnic in beautiful surroundings. Having a picnic on a parking lot in the rain is not that. The call to postpone it was smart and those who will take part on the 10th of August will surely have a great experience. My disappointment came from calls from people writing things like “Go back to where you came from, we don’t want you here anyway.”  These comments are ignorant and make the rest of us Swiss look bad – a real shame. I wish people would think twice before posting on public forums. The other thing that disappointed me was the second NZZ article that there are plans to organize a free White Dinner at the lake. While I believe that people can organize quickly and cheaply thanks to the internet, those hoping for a White Dinner of the quality you will get in Dielsdorf are mistaken. Furthermore, I believe this is merely an attempt of someone trying to capitalize on someone else’s misfortune.


I wish the organizers of the White Dinner much success. Myself and my friends look forward to dining with others in the August sun and enjoying good company, great food and fantastic wines. I also hope that people see the work it takes to organize and event and why it can’t be free if it’s going to be truly organized. I also hope that future event organizers stop using Facebook, at least at the moment for event communication. Use it for marketing and shut off comments.


Neuenschwander with pacers

The weather conditions, despite the forecast, in the early morning hours of April 23, 2012 looked promising. Perhaps the sun would shine, or at least the rain hold off. It was marathon day in Zurich. I was hoping for a new personal best and so was the Maja Neuenschwander from Bern. Only Neuenschwander’s time would give her more than just the feeling of elation one gets when one beats a personal best, it would give her a ticket to represent Switzerland at the 2012 London Olympics this summer.

Hardly five minutes after the starting shot was fired the skies opened and started dumping their contents on the runners from some 40 nations. This was no summer rain, but rather a bitter early spring rain. The participants pushed on hoping that a quick dump would get it over and done with early in the race.

About 1.5 hours in to the race the sun decided to show up, but the wind picked up and everyone running back towards Zurich from Meilen am Zürichsee faced a strong headwind.

Despite these conditions Neuenschwander persevered and achieved a new personal best of 2:31:56. That was 1:04 minutes faster than the qualifying time set by Swiss Olympic. Jubilation for Neuenschwander, she’d be going to the Olympics, or so she thought.

This past week allegations were made that Neuenschwander cheated by having pace runners in the Team-Run event running the distances: 9.7, 10.8, 4.0 und 17.7 kilometers. According to official IAAF rules athletes are not allowed to have pacers running different distances. These rules are clear.

Swiss papers like the boulevard paper Blick called out “Bschiss beim Züri-Marathon!” and then went on to defend Neuenschwander. Even the NZZ’s reporting on the event suggests that Neuenschwander should be allowed to go to the Olympics. And a poll of Blick readers suggests that some 41.1% of people believe that Neuenschwander should represent Switzerland in London.

I’m a runner and while I have great sympathy for anyone who runs long distances at at that  speed in those conditions, I believe that Neuenschwander should not be sent to London. Her victory in Zurich is tarnished and even if it is accepted, should she do well in London, it will give the press material for calling her eligibility into question.

Yes, she ran the 42.195 km on her own, but pacers help one run more controlled and calculated without having to totally listen to one’s own body. It is an advantage and having your pacers run different distances is even more of an advantage as there can be more calculations made.

This event is a great analogy though for the current Swiss political and financial attitude. We read the rules to our advantage and find loopholes that help us and when we’re accused of not following the spirit of the rules or to not do that anymore, we throw a temper-tantrum and say that we are being unfairly persecuted by other countries.

Even if our banks officially say that they do not accept untaxed money from customers, the fact that they didn’t verify that means that they were working in a grey zone. The same applies to recent laws that limit people’s freedoms and other initiatives. While they are decided by the people in a democracy, Switzerland ergo the people did sign onto international treaties guaranteeing all people exactly those rights that we are now trying to revoke (reference to Minaret initiative).

What Neuenschwander and Switzerland need to understand is that they are not being unfairly punished. There are rules and those rules need to be respected. The spirit of any rule always favours the higher moral ground. Seeking out loopholes is the opposite of that. I didn’t achieve a new personal best on that day, but there are other runs. I think Neuenschwander is a talented runner and sincerely hope that she keeps trying for the Olympics, if not 2012 then 2016, but without pacers.

When I was in the second year of my bachelor’s degree at McGill University in Montreal, I remember blogging about how unjustifiable the European, at the time French, debate surrounding headscarfs was.

Almost ten years later, the topic has come up again, but this time in the canton of Zurich in Switzerland. The incident was made public last week, when a public school made it known that they wanted to forbid teachers from wearing headscarfs at work. The school has one Muslim teacher, who wears a headscarf.

The initial news article brought on a flurry of comments on the Tages-Anzeiger’s website with a great many people trying to defend the school’s decision. Others, many from other minority groups, but not all exclusively Muslim, stated their disapproval with the school’s decision. In terms of the legality surrounding the issue, a professor for workers’ rights at the University in St. Gallen, one of the countries most respected higher education institutions, said that the school does not have much of a legal leg to stand on, as the argument for religious neutrality at the school would mean all religious paraphernalia would need to be banned.

While I find this trend as troubling as the anti-minaret initiative that passed the people’s referendum in November 2009, and is currently being examined by the European Human Rights Tribunal in Strasbourg, I find the existence of this debate and the media’s lack of competency even more alarming.

What I mean by lack of media competency can best be illustrated in an examination of the first article on the Tages-Anzeiger online:

The first issue does not even require an understanding of language – it’s the picture. The article is about a headscarf ban in one Swiss school. The picture shows a female teacher in Iraq with a British soldier in the room. This image is inappropriate, as it has nothing to do with the debated issue. Furthermore, it suggests, through the presence of a white soldier holding a weapon, that there is a potential for danger.

Let’s move on. It is not just the picture that makes this article worrying. The choice of diction also conveys the wrong idea. The headline reads: “Muslime rüsten gegen Kopftuchverbot”. The problem is with the choice of “rüsten gegen” which can mean both “to arm against” or “to prepare for”. The ambiguity of the headline will lead many to believe that the Muslim population in Switzerland is preparing for violence because of the proposed infringement on their civil rights. If one reads to the end of the article, which, if we are honest, many don not, we are told that the Central Islamic Council of Switzerland (IZRS) is planning on building up a fund to cover the legal costs involved in fighting discrimination.

Last week I watched the film Page One a documentary filmed over a year at the New York Times. Having watched that documentary a few things become clear. First, the newspaper publishing industry is at a turning point. This was also what Peter Hogenkamp (@phogenkamp) told the audience at at his Zurich Creative Mornings talk on the challenges of technology at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) last autumn. The second thing that stands out in the documentary is that quality reporting is not a given for all newspapers. And finally the third thing is that quality news is not free, nor should it be. News is knowledge and knowledge is power. Power is never free.

As the Tages-Anzeiger is one of the Swiss newspapers that carries a thin copy of the New York Times once a week, it was troubling to see such reckless and sensationalist reporting. The article may have been short and factual and a great deal of it did address the actual issue in a neutral way, but in the age of mass everything, the images and headlines for the news must be chosen with more scrutiny than ever before, so that they convey a fair information. And a message to new consumers — read past the headlines.