Oddfellow 2018

J.A. McStea, Teemacs GmbH

Dübendorf 16 May 2018

Post haste

I file my priority applications in the UK (cheap – although as of recently a wee bit dearer – good, cheap and quick search report, usually within 4 months of filing). I have a PO box in Germany to receive stuff from the UKIPO, which will send it anywhere in the European Economic Area, but not to Switzerland. This was opened using the German home address of old Sandoz/Novartis colleague and IP book author Philip Grubb (there needs to be a German address). And everything in the garden was fine, until one day, when I emerged from the underground car park at the Bahnhofplatz in Lörrach to find Lörrach Postamt silent and completely surrounded by a fence. A notice on the fence said that the office had moved to Walbrunnstrasse 24. Not having any idea where Walbrunnstrasse was, I departed, wondering whether I still had a PO box.

I found out the next day, when Philip Grubb rang, telling me that mail for Teemacs had started arriving at his house, redirected from the PO box. In Lörrach, I walked right past Walbrunnstrasse 24, largely because it had POSTBANK in very large letters all over it and inside I could see ATMs, but no counters. The parcels depot just up the street pointed out the error of my ways. On the second run, I noticed the Deutsche Post’s posthorn and DHL logos, added almost as afterthoughts. Inside, around a corner, I found the counters, many fewer than before. There the guy told me that it was now primarily a branch of the Deutsche Postbank, that there were no post boxes and that he couldn’t say when, or even whether, they would come again to Lörrach. He added that, if I’d been a good boy and emptied my PO box weekly, as I should (there never was enough mail to justify a weekly trip), I’d have known sooner. A letter from Deutsche Post apologised for the “kurzfristig” (short notice) closure of the post boxes, but said that I should retain my postbox keys, for when the boxes came back (it didn’t actually say that they WOULD come back).

So, I get to try out a new growth industry that has arisen in the German towns bordering Switzerland – receiving centres for Swiss customers. Because Swizzieland is not in the EU or EEA, costs for delivering to Switzerland can be prohibitive. In many cases, providers will not deliver at all. For example, Amazon Deutschland will generally deliver books, CDs and DVDs to Switzerland (sometimes with free delivery and always with the 19% German GST deducted), but that’s nearly all – most of the rest of Amazon.de’s vast catalogue is off limits. However, with a German delivery address, all is possible, and how you get it across the border and deal with Swiss customs is your affair. (The Swiss customs are generally not interested in anything costing less than CHF300). I’ve passed one of these places on a Saturday and have noticed people trucking out large mounds of Amazon boxes. So, having made sure that they will also receive letters, I signed up for one. It’ll cost me (i.e. the client) a wee bit more, but not much. Furthermore, it’s close to the big shopping centre in Weil am Rhein, strategically placed about 200M from the Swiss border, so I can get German stuff required by SWMBO at the same time.

So, the Brits actually did it – they ratified the UPC agreement. Who would have thought it? This raises the next question – when Brexit comes (only a year away, remember), can the UK remain a participant and keep the court that was going to handle the chemistry/pharma cases? I personally have my doubts, but opinions vary. One of the big arguments of the Brexiteers is that they didn’t want to be subject to the rulings of the CJEU. The UPC is not the CJEU, but there will be the possibility of appeal to the CJEU from the UPC. Will the Brexiteers be able to stomach this? There’s no doubt that the UK’s absence from the Unitary Patent/UPC will render the whole thing pointless for many participants – certainly Givaudan would think twice (at least).

So, all we need now are two things. The better known one is German ratification. There, the situation has become even more complicated. Ingver Stierna has been joined in putting the ram in the rama-lama-ding-dong at the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Federal Constitutional Court) by the AfD, the Alternative für Deutschland, the right-wing party that did very well in the last German General Election and is now the third-biggest party in the Bundestag. The grounds under which it has lodged its appeal appear to be substantially similar to those of Dr. Stierna, namely, that the UPC Agreement is in conflict with the German Constitution. Any German citizen can bring a case before the BVerfG, and something like 5000 a year do, but the court accepts very few of them for hearing. The fact that it has accepted Dr. Stierna’s (and requested that the President not yet sign the ratification documents) is evidence of something perceived to be substantial.

The other relatively minor thing is that a minimum number of countries need to ratify the Protocol to the Agreement on a Unified Patent Court on provisional application, starting what is referred to as the Provisional Application Phase (PAP). This allows some parts of the UPC Agreement to be applied provisionally, which means that final decisions can be made on the practical set up of the Court, for example, the recruitment of judges. Provisional application also means the start of operation of the UPC’s formal governing bodies. Ten countries are needed and we’re currently two short. Some are problematic – for example, Ireland needs a referendum to sign. However, Malta appears ready to sign up (it appears to have been waiting on UK ratification) and Bulgaria is rumoured to be close to signing. So, assuming the BVerfG gives the go-ahead for Germany to ratify, the show could be on the road by next year, certainly by 2020.

We ventured to London in May to see Frances (elder daughter) graduate from Imperial College with a Masters in Science Communication. She wasn’t that keen in going to the graduation ceremony, but when we heard that Imperial holds its graduations in some minor local facility called the Royal Albert Hall (just across the road from Imperial), we had to go. Both venue and ceremony were suitably impressive, the academics entering with the Albert Hall organ roaring out the traditional Gaudeamus igitur. There were a lot of graduates (and this was only the post-graduate degrees), but, with only a few glitches, it ran like clockwork, and the speeches were few, short and to the point. I was impressed by the fact that the announcers handled the Chinese names well (and there were a LOT of those!). Chinese surnames (Yang, Li, Weng, etc.) are no problem, but the given names can be. (One of the Givaudan inventors was Xiaogen Yang. That first name is pronounced something like “sho-gun”. This sounded sort of Japanese to me, but I decided not to mention this). It naturally rained (outside the hall, he hastened to add), but this stopped just after the ceremony finished and we got some photos in bright sunshine.

So, our elder daughter now has two Masters and is still serving tea and coffee for Swiss on a freelance basis. Still, they have to make their own choices in life (and their own mistakes). Frances never did want any sort of desk job (“Couldn’t do what you do, Dad, so BORING”). The wee one, on the other hand, has a desk job, except that the “desk” varies in altitude between sea level and 10,000M during the working day. She appears to be as happy as a pig in fertiliser, and doesn’t even appear to mind that she now has a third stripe on her shoulder, meaning that she gets to go out in all weathers to kick the tyres, check that an engine hasn’t fallen off, that sort of thing.

While in London, I took the opportunity to see other bits of British clockwork, which I’ve long desired to see, John Harrison’s marine chronometers, which revolutionized marine navigation and which are housed in the Museum of the Greenwich Observatory (the one with the famous meridian). In the 18th century, a flotilla of 4 Royal Navy ships, along with the vast majority of their crews, was lost when they thought they were several hundred miles from the rocks of the Scilly Isles, whereas they were right on top of them and couldn’t see land in a storm. The problem was that longitude was difficult to measure, because of a lack of suitably accurate timepieces for use at sea. The Admiralty offered a prize of several million pounds in today’s money for the creation of a suitable timepiece, and the challenge was accepted by John Harrison. Oddly, Harrison was a carpenter, not a clockmaker, and he set about things in a very unorthodox fashion. His first model, H1, is an enormous, wondrous bit of brass, with two spring-connected, contra-oscillating bars instead of a pendulum. Time-keeping wise, it was not quite there. Eventually Harrison worked his way to H4, which was a large pocket watch (for very large pockets), and it delivered the goods. It was a copy of H4 that Captain Cook took with him on his voyages of discovery and which led indirectly to my writing this to you, so it’s all Harrison’s fault. The Admiralty was particularly mean about the prize money and it took the intervention of the King to get Harrison his reward. The story is nicely told in Dava Sobell’s book “Longitude”.

Still on the subject of timepieces, I am amazed at what good investments old mechanical watches can be. When it comes to investing, I am quite monumentally hopeless. Any bets I’ve placed on shares meant that the shares promptly did an impressive impersonation of a ship’s anchor. As a result, I tend to play it very safe and keep the few francs I have under the mattress, or rather its Swiss equivalent, the UBS, which claims to be the world’s biggest wealth manager, in the vain hope that it might actually generate some wealth for me. However, I accidentally got something right. In 1975, I did a brief stint in a Swiss private attorneys’ office in Geneva. It was on the third and fourth floors of 22 rue du Mont-Blanc (well named because, on a clear day, you look down the street and there in the distance is indeed Mont Blanc, gleaming brilliantly in the sun). On the ground floor was a branch of Bucherer, Switzerland’s biggest retail jeweler. There I fell in love with a watch in the window, a Rolex “Pepsi” GMT-Master. On my very last day in Geneva, I bought it. It cost nearly $AU300 (current equivalent about $2100 according to the Reserve Bank’s calculator). I’ve had it ever since, and it has never let me down. Then the other week, in “The Economist”, there was a full-page advertisement for a watch auction, and the watch depicted was my GMT – price estimate 6000-8000 POUNDS. This is kid’s stuff when you consider the prices paid for ex-Royal Navy Submariners with their tritium dials and sword hands, or for the price paid for some Daytonas (especially Paul Newman’s). And this is generally some distance from Patek Philippe territory, where the prices paid at auction resemble the gross national product of Belgium. Nevertheless, perhaps I should have bought a dozen. My history as a hopeless investor continues…

As I finish this off, I’m in Dübendorf at Givaudan. Outside my window, in what was once the lab car park, a very large machine is boring very large holes in the ground into which then go very large cylindrical cages of reinforcing rods, followed by very large quantities of concrete. These will be the foundations for a tower block that will rise there. On the other side of the labs, a large block of flats rises. This is all part of a major redevelopment of the area. You can see it here:


Curiously, in one depiction of the Giessenturm, the Givaudan lab is still there, still bearing the Givaudan logo! However, we’ll be long gone to our new home by the time this is finished – the move to the new super-dooper, all-singing, all-dancing ZIC (Zürich Innovation Centre) in Kemptthal, out near Winterthur, is slated to take place in February 2019. The Admin and IT folk have already gone and their building has been flattened. The lab inhabitants are the last (wo)men standing. It’ll add 20 minutes to my usual one-way journey of 2 hours, but it’s only twice a week. I do it by train – nobody in their right mind drives from Basel to Zürich for work, especially to Dübendorf and environs – the Nordtangente around Zürich reminds me of the old joke about London’s M25 ring road being London’s biggest parking lot. Judging by what I see on the Autobahn as I zoom past in my comfy SBB train seat, an awful lot of people are not in their right mind.

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