21 Jan 2017

Prime Time

I am about to go on a trip, so I needed a travel guide. And I needed it quickly. Which meant that my standard supplier of all things printed, Amazon.com, was asking for a rather ridiculous amount of money for expedited shipping.

Cunningly, though, the e-commerce giant also offered to send the book for free within two days, if I signed up for a free 30 day trial of its Prime subscription service. This will then start costing $99 a year on day 31, should I forget to cancel in time.

Instead of paying for shipping, I signed up for the trial and set myself a reminder to cancel at the end of the month. Little did I know that this would change my daily routine far beyond receiving free shipping.

Immediately after enrolling, an email arrived in my inbox welcoming me to Prime, and highlighting the many features the service has evolved to include. Front and center is a gigantic amount of free digital content to stream, from music to movies to TV shows, the latter including the series that Amazon has started producing exclusively for its subscribers. 

The only time I had previously heard of Amazon's own film studios was at the announcement that the three intrepid Brits behind the BBC's Top Gear were moving over there, putting a new label on their highly successful motoring show. It is now called The Grand Tour and sure enough, was included in my subscription. So perhaps I could watch an episode or two?

Fast (indeed, very fast) forward two weeks, and I have caught up on the 11 episodes made available so far, and am eagerly waiting for the next weekly release. And I haven't stopped there: A friend recommended the dystopian The Man In The High Castle, set in a world in which the Allies had lost World War II and the United States is now split between the two victorious powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The show is brilliantly adapted from Philip K. Dick's novel, lavishly produced and instantly addictive.

Inevitably, in these cold grey January days, we have become true couch potatoes, curling up every night in front of the tube for a new episode. Or two, for in the days of streaming content, the viewer decides when and how much to watch.

So Amazon is clearly very smart in offering these free trials - the digital content is extremely engaging and boosts customer "stickiness", while data shows that once people are signed up to Prime, they will buy a much wider selection of products at Amazon, and become less price-sensitive.

Will it work for me? The TV shows are a tasty bait. But I will still cancel my membership at the end of the trial month. After all, it started when I bought a travel guide. I need time to read it. And soon, I'll embark on a Grand Tour of my own.

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3 Jan 2017

Tunnel Vision

57km. That is quite a distance. More than a marathon, and half the distance between Zurich and Berne. And as of a few weeks ago, the length of longest railway tunnel in the world. Connecting Erstfeld in the north with Bodio in the south, it crosses the Swiss Alps at base elevation, avoiding the tortuous climb of the routes.

The Gotthard is but the latest in many Swiss tunnelling achievements, and a testament to the enduring passion the Swiss have for drilling holes through anything that stands in their way. This is not restricted to railway lines: Roads are routed through many hills, hydroelectric galleries connect dams and turbines, the cogwheel train to Jungfraujoch was blasted through the famous North Face of Mt. Eiger, and Zurich is about to get its first tunnel dedicated exclusively to cyclists. Meanwhile, the post office has published a series of stamps coated in ground rocks from the latest dig.

These days, no new transport link in Switzerland can even be contemplated without at least one tunnel. New stretches of highway are routinely planned to punctuate as many hills as possible, and villages in busy valleys leading up to resort destinations are relieved of transit traffic, as the wording has it, by rerouting the roads into curvy bypasses in the mountainside.

The digging is incessant. Every time I drive to Davos, a new tunnel has been added to the route, making the ascent ever quicker. When I took a train to Zurich the other day, I got lost in a new underground section of the main station. I hadn't realized that I had just travelled through a new tunnel involving a 180 degree turn, landing me in Zurich facing the opposite way than before.

One could be excused for thinking that there is a set number of tunnel boring machines in Switzerland, which must constantly be kept busy. While many projects have indisputable merits, there are also cases where tunnels are built in the complete absence of mountains. They are called "highway covers" and are meant to relieve nearby residents of car noise. Little does it matter that the first such edifice was built in spitting distance of Zurich Airport, meaning that citizens can now enjoy the roar of departing jet airliners undisturbed by the hum of cars.

When she first joined me on a trip to Switzerland last year, my better half was so amused with this national obsession that she jokingly suggested stacking one tunnel above another, as to better use the available mountains. I decided not to bring up the idea with my friends in politics and media, for fear of them pursuing the idea in earnest.

Ever since they built the world's first road tunnel in 1707, the Swiss were tunnel visionaries. But these days, they could just as well be accused of tunnel vision - randomly drilling holes through everything. Even cheese.

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