Archive for October, 2008

Oct 30 2008

Des Bonbons! Or, how to say Trick-or-Treat

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About 30 seconds ago, we heard a knock on our door.  No one EVER knocks on our door.  I opened it, to a group of costumed children who said in unison, “Des bonbons…” (“Some candy…”).  To, Seth, midst preparing to cook dinner, I said, “uh oh, do we have any candy?”  All we have are large chocolate bars, not well suited to giving a group of children (we’d be out the whole stack and each child would have so much chocolate!)…ok, so we’re not the biggest candy eaters.  We did have some stroopwafels, Dutch waffel and caramel cookies I adore, so they each got one of those.  But they had to eat them on the spot, since they didn’t go so well in their trick-or-treat bags.  I was planning on getting a bit of candy tomorrow in case we had trick-or-treaters, as we had gotten mixed statements of how celebrated Halloween is in Switzerland. One of said statements was this funny explanation from an RCS alum a few years older than myself who spent four years in Zurich and is generally hilarious; I highly recommend reading her archived blog if you want a funnier version of what my life is like.  Apparently in Zurich, they say trickletree? Also, I learned from her post that it was ok to give them non-individually packaged goods, which American children are taught to fear–and hence, why I decided stroopwafels would be ok.

Now, don’t ask me or Seth what they were dressed as, because we were too surprised and in desperate search of sweets to take much notice.  Seth claims “generic monsters,” I claim, “black clothes.”  So anyway, for all of you who keep asking me what Halloween is like here, now I have the answer (or rather, advice): buy candy in advance, because Swiss people like to do things early, and this holiday is no exception, apparently.  Yikes.

P.S  The Phillies won the World Series!  If there is any team of which I am a fan, this one is it.  So many childhood memories, particularly of the time they were in the World Series but didn’t win.  Yay!!!!

Update: Today, actually Halloween (October 31), I just got a ring to our door by a child wearing a green mask. At 3:52 pm. Really, are people supposed to be home with bowls of candy right now? He got another stroopwafel. Seth, get back home with some candy already, before it’s actually Halloween and the trick-or-treaters stop coming!!!!

Final Update: On what I would actually consider Halloween (as in the evening of October 31), we got one more pair of trick-or-treaters who rang our doorbell. Seth managed to come home from the supermarket having not been able to find the candy section (as I’ve mentioned before, aisles don’t list what they have and are categorized strangely such that small pieces of candy might be found in a totally different part of the store than chocolate bars). So we broke up and wrapped up the pieces of a large chocolate bar, two chunks of which these two girls received. Seth was then planning to go to an expat Halloween party hosted by someone from his lab dressed up as Harry Potter, but then decided he was too lazy, and I, of course, had to stay home and do work anyway. Basically, we fail at Halloween. And Swiss people fail at on-time Halloween.

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Oct 30 2008

Wochenende in Zürich

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Over the weekend Jackie and I went to Zurich for the first time. (As always, our photos are available on Jackie’s Flickr photostream. Follow the link on the left sidebar.) Billed as the world’s smallest metropolis, Zurich is a really cool city. It’s in the Swiss-German part of the country, a bit over two hours from Lausanne. Upon our arrival, we found ourselves still in the same country—our Swiss francs were still accepted, chocolate was still revered—but our French was no more useful than our English. Fortunately, we weren’t at a complete loss because Jackie’s Yiddish proved somewhat helpful in understanding signs. We managed a few “danke”s as well.

When you think of Zurich, you think banks and bankers. Lots of banks and bankers means lots and lots of money—and the weekend was not cheap. We stayed with Jackie’s friend’s older sister, who claims 90% of her friends are bankers. Hanging out with her and her friends gave us a window into the social scene of young internationals with disposable income—quite a change from student life in Geneva and Lausanne. I was on the lookout, but I don’t think we met any of the “Gnomes of Zurich”. Maybe next time.

Check out this sign from the 80’s. In a prank, some anarchists painted “Zureich” on a building visible from trains entering the city to look to look just like the real railway station signs. “Zureich” is German for “too rich.” But at least the money isn’t wasted: Zurich ranks #1 on Mercer’s Quality of Living index, and it’s not hard to see why.

Niederdorf and Lake Zurich

Public transportation in the city is really good, even by Swiss standards. The old part of the city is very pretty and the new part somehow escaped the ugly 70’s Mather-style architecture which has scarred other Swiss cities.

Seth in Zurich

I’m not sure it would be included in a Quality of Living index, but unlike Lausanne, Zurich has multiple options for really good vegetarian food! Zurich is the home of Hiltl, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Europe. It was founded in 1898 as the Vegetarierheim und Abstinez-Café (Vegetarians’ Home and Teetotalers’ Café). Now it’s a chic restaurant, frequented both by teetotalers and non-teetolers. It’s got a buffet of vegan and vegetarian food, carefully labeled (perfect for my lactose intolerance), and with lots of options, including a number of Indian dishes and traditional Swiss dishes. We liked Hiltl so much that we went to its sister restaurant Tibits the next day for lunch. We also bought their cookbook, which is useful because it’s metric and has some relevant notes for cooking food available in Switzerland.

Jackie on Munsterbrucke

Other events of note: while strolling by Lake Zurich on Sunday morning we noticed a street musician with a kippah playing marimba. It turned out to be Alex Jacobowitz, a classically trained musician from New York, who plays klezmer and Israeli tunes as well. Weird!

Alex Jacobowitz

Also, we went to a coffee museum and learned all about and tasted different ersatz coffees (alternatives to coffee for health or sociopolitical reasons). A very standard coffee replacement is chicory, but spelt “coffee” was pretty good too! Here’s a recipe if you want to try it at home.

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Oct 29 2008

Israel at 1:08 (“It’s strictly up to you!”)

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Below is a fantastic, catchy campaign ad for JFK from 1960. Notice anything around 1:08?

Now watch this video at the same spot (1:08):

“כן אנו יכולים” (ken anu yecholim, “yes we can,” in Hebrew)

Thanks to Josh, whose away message contained the JFK clip. Incidentally, while Googling for this post I came across this poster, “Yes Oui כן,” which perfectly sums up the status of Jackie and me as Jewish Obama voters in a French-speaking country.

Update: Samuel Wurzelbacher (aka Joe the Plumber) isn’t fooled. (via M.J.)

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Oct 27 2008

Jean and I wrote a letter…

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…and the Seattle Times published it (in their online edition), signed, Jean Yang, Cambridge, Mass., and Seth Flaxman, Switzerland. What are we doing in the Seattle Times? Here’s the story: Darcy Burner, Harvard ’96, is running for Congress in Seattle. Burner first ran in 2006, narrowing losing to Republican Dave Reichert. This year is a rematch, and Burner is neck-and-neck in the polls with Reichert. Burner, who used to work at Microsoft, is outspokenly progressive: she favors net neutrality, led the charge for A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq, opposed the FISA compromise, was endorsed by J Street, on and on.

And on a gut level, here’s a picture of Darcy Burner taken at 7am the morning that a fire destroyed her home (her family was okay):

Darcy Burner wearing a shirt that says </war>

(for those who don’t understand the shirt, which she was apparently wearing as PJs, </war> would be a rough way of writing “end war” in HTML.) In short, this is the kind of person we want in Congress.

Last Thursday, the Seattle Times published a tendentiously reported story originally headlined “Darcy Burner’s claims of a Harvard degree in economics aren’t true.” The story as reported was clearly biased against Burner and almost certainly fed to the reporter (off-the-record) by Republican operatives. The thrust of the story is that Burner has been misrepresenting her degree, which is in computer science, as being in computer science and economics.

The truth is that when Burner got her bachelor’s in computer science in 1996 the degree requirements required her to pick a subfield of specialization. She chose economics and took five upper-level economics courses. This does not appear on her transcript, since her degree is in computer science, and she did not precisely spell this out everytime she mentioned the fact that she studied economics in college. Former Harvard Dean Harry Lewis (for whom Jean and I were both TFs) was quoted in the original article in a misleading way which he subsequently clarified online, ultimately filming an ad for Burner:

Meanwhile, the push-back from Harvard students, faculty, and alumni came quickly and the newspaper started back-tracking, changing the headline to “Darcy Burner’s claims of a Harvard econ degree an exaggeration” and publishing a hastily written story about Rep. Reichert only having a two-year associate degree (which some sources erroneously report as a four-year bachelor’s degree).

As former Harvard compsci concentrators, Jean and I (follow the link for her take) wrote a letter which they finally published online yesterday. Here’s the original version we submitted—I think it has some nice parts they edited out, like my highfalutin use of the word “highfalutin.” You can read the edited version on the Seattle Times website:

As recent Harvard graduates, we have a shocking revelation we would
like to share with your readers. Darcy Burner may have received a
degree from Harvard in 1996, but she was neither a computer science
major nor an economics minor, and she was certainly not both! Let us

The terminology our university uses can be tricky when we try to
explain it in everyday conversation, so sometimes we’re not as precise
as we could be. It’s not that we’re trying to hide something (except
at parties, where the fact that we went to Harvard is something of a
conversation-killer). It’s just that as graduates of Harvard College
(which is part of Harvard University, but actually predates it), we
received artium baccalaureus (A.B.) degrees, also known as Bachelor of
Arts degrees in English; instead of majors, we have concentrations. We
call teaching assistants “teaching fellows.” And despite the addition
last year of secondary fields, there was and is still nothing called a
minor at Harvard.

As her profile on the Seattle Times website correctly state, Burner’s
education is, “Harvard University, B.A. in computer science with a
special field of economics, 1996.” And as she explains on her own
website, at Harvard Burner “earned a degree in computer science and
economics.” There is no contradiction here, no exaggeration, and
certainly no lying.

At Harvard, we have joint concentrations, which are like double
majors. As of this year, we also have primary and secondary fields,
which is like a major and a minor. And to make matters even more
confusing, when Burner was at Harvard, the computer science department
required students to choose an area of specialization. Burner chose
economics. As a result, Burner completed five upper-level economics
courses, in addition to significant coursework in computer science and
mathematics. With apologies to our many friends who majored in
economics, Burner’s course of study was almost certainly more
intensive than that of the majority of economics concentrators at

Voters in Washington’s 8th District have more important issues to
worry about than the silly, highfalutin terms in use at Harvard. We
hope that the Seattle Times recommits itself to investigating issues
that really matter as the election draws near.

— Jean Yang, Cambridge, Mass., and Seth Flaxman, Switzerland

The bigger picture of all of this, at least as Matt Stoller has been arguing, is that various groups (like insurance companies, telcoms, and big media) who have been enjoying the Bush years are beginning to come to terms with the inevitability of an Obama presidency, but they’re hoping to continue wielding power through a bipartisan coalition of pro-business Democrats and Republicans in Congress, thus restricting Obama’s ability to govern as a progressive. Candidates like Darcy Burner pose deep challenges to this power structure because they’re not beholden to it. And it’s not just an abstract idea, a vague hope or fear that once elected Burner’s going to “speak truth to power”; last year Burner successfully co-chaired the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, forcing the Seattle Times to shell out $24 million to keep its competitor, the Seattle PI, alive.

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Oct 23 2008

Heure d’Hiver

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The hour of winter is coming!!!!  Or so I was warned in an email I just received regarding Sunday’s Yiddish gathering: “ATTENTION:   DIMANCHE = HEURE  D’HIVER  !!!” (in English, “Attention: Sunday=Hour of Winter!!!”).  This looked important, seeing as it was the only content in this email.  Hmm, it sounds so ominous.  I can just see the picture book illustration of winter sweeping in and scaring all the small children.  Now, what does it actually mean other than snow, cold, and dark?

Heure d’hiver is the same thing as daylight savings. I had been wondering if such thing existed here and how I was going to find out about it, since no one tells us anything.  Says Internet: At 3 am on Sunday, I am to reset my clock to 2 am on Sunday (I may do that a few hours ahead of time…).  Now I will not accidentally arrive at class on Monday an hour early.  Well, thank you, thank you, Swiss Jews and Internet/Google.

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Oct 18 2008

Better Know a Bean

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Today, we went to the market in Lausanne.  Among vegetables, spices, and cheese, all of which we’re really excited to eat, our most remarkable discovery of the day was fresh, purple beans.  The internet cannot seem to tell me what kind of beans these are or how I might cook with them.  Do you know this beautiful bean better than I?

Leave a comment and share your knowledge!

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