Archive for October, 2009

Oct 29 2009

Here from

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Today, Seth’s review of Mary and Max was featured on  Yay, Seth!  Speaking of Mary and Max, the Boston Jewish Film Festival is showing it, so if you live in Boston or Cambridge…go!

In case you are new to our blog, or you haven’t visited in a while, we have been writing at a rate of about a post per week on topics all things life in Switzerland from the perspective of Jewish-American graduate students living in the outskirts of Lausanne.  You can read a bit more about us on our about page.  Some recent posts that might be of interest to you:

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Oct 27 2009

EPFL in 3 minutes

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I just happened upon this promo video for EPFL while surfing on facebook. Boy does it make EPFL look cool:

I feel like it needs a hyperlinked list of all the labs and research projects featured. A brief list of what I caught: SensorScope (avalanches), SwissCube (satellite), Distributed Intelligent Systems and Algorithms Laboratory (salamander, other robots?), Rolex Learning Center (futuristic looking building, currently under construction), Balélec (big concert/party), Alinghi (sailboat/team competing in America’s Cup.)

Alas, there’s no video of anyone drinking coffee and staring at lemmas, definitions, and theorems.

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Oct 25 2009

Experiments with technology (new and old)

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I finally upgraded my Android (i.e. Google) phone—the G1—to the new operating system (1.6), which allows the camera to shoot videos and upload them to YouTube. So you may see more gratuitous use of YouTube on SwissWatching soon. Here’s a video of the two things currently growing in our fridge:

One is sourdough starter. I found the Carl Griffith Sourdough Page awhile back and sent away for it on a whim. They mail you a packet of dry sourdough starter purportedly descended from an 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough or at least descended from the starter Carl Griffith himself began sending out in 1994, as advertised on the usenet newsgroup

Thank you for your many requests for the family starter. I’ll be glad to mail it
but will need a self addressed stamped envelope from you – cost of mail is

The other is soy yogurt, which we made from soymilk, using real yogurt we bought from a local, small distributor as our starter. It’s got some lactose in it, but not enough to bother me and the next batch will have much less.


  • The yogurt tastes pretty good, actually. I was quite surprised.
  • We haven’t made any sourdough yet.
  • You can judge the quality of the video camera on the Android G1 by watching the video above.

Oh, and no instructions for making either here. We’re no experts, and the Internet is nothing if not a treasure trove of instructions for things like this. Just check usenet! or Google.

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Oct 24 2009

Debriefing Dog-sitting

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This weekend (Thurs-Mon), Seth and I get to dog-sit for a 6-year-old maltese. He speaks English, as he is originally from the US, and he looks a bit bigger and a bit curlier than your average maltese. His name is Max. What we have learned:

  • It would be nice if all dogs knew how to say “let me outside.”
  • There are hardly any green patches near us that don’t have signs saying “Dogs forbidden.”
  • Jackie does not like touching dog food.
  • It is easier to sleep when there is no dog in the bedroom functioning as an alarm clock that can’t be set to a specific hour.
  • Dogs are too treat-motivated.  Seth likes giving treats more than Jackie (see touching dog food, above), thus dog likes Seth better than Jackie.
  • Dogs are expensive (but from the dog-sitter’s viewpoint, lucrative!).
  • Dogs are warm and cuddly, excepting when they refuse to cuddle or come in out of rain.
  • It is nice to make someone so happy upon return home.

In conclusion:

  • We want a dog.
  • We do not want a dog.

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Oct 22 2009

Go see “Mary and Max!” (a movie review)

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Last Friday, Jackie and I went to see Mary and Max, an Australian claymation movie directed by Adam Elliot. Adam Elliot won an Oscar in 2003 for Harvie Krumpet (available free on YouTube). This was actually the first time we’ve been to the movies in Switzerland, so of course this blog post will be a commentary on the Swiss movie-going experience in addition to a review of the movie. I’d been working non-stop for a day and a half on a take home test, so we decided to celebrate. We made sure to check that the movie was being shown in version originale (i.e. not dubbed) and the trailer was fantastic, so off we went.

Buying our tickets and passing through the lobby made enough sense—overpriced candy and popcorn, weird decor—nothing surprising. The ads and previews before the movie weren’t a surprise either. One mystery was that there was a Credit Suisse ad dubbed into French, presumably from the original German ad. (Credit Suisse’s only regular banking market is in Switzerland—would it have really cost so much to have shot the ad in both French and German?) Another mystery was the humor we were evidently missing in a trailer for a French movie. Everyone around us was laughing wildly, while we were mostly confused. But once the movie started, we’d have our chance to laugh wildly at an English and Jewish joke or two. Of course, being the only ones laughing was a lot more noticeable than being the only ones not laughing.

Mary and Max tells the story of a pen pal relationship between Mary, an Australian girl growing up without friends in Melbourne, Australia and Max, a Jewish man with Asperger’s living in New York City. The relationship begins in the 1970s with a letter sent out of the blue by Mary to Max when Mary is 8 years old and Max is in his 40s. As the two exchange letters, they share the stories of their lives, equal parts heart-breaking and hilarious: Mary is teased at school because of a poo-colored birthmark on her forehead, while Max, once a Yeshiva-bochur, is a staunch atheist—but he still wears his yarmulke because it keeps his head warm.

An anxious Max, his yarmulke adorned by a pom-pon knit by Mary

The story follows Mary growing up, going to university, and getting married, while Max struggles on in various jobs, tries to stop overeating, and generally finds it impossible to relate to other people. I’m sure that there were many hilarious particulars of suburban life in Australia we missed, but as I alluded to earlier, Jackie and I were alone in erupting in laughter a few times, like when Max places his first letter to Mary in a mailbox and intones “Gey gezunterheyt” (go in good health, in Yiddish) or when he lists for Mary the foods he eats on each day of the week, mostly bought prepared from the deli.

Most compellingly, the story has a very intelligent treatment of Max’s Asperger’s in the context of questions about how people with disabilities relate to others and to society. While Max has carried around a book of expressions with him since he was a kid because he cannot read people’s faces, the prospect of ever being “cured” is something Max firmly rejects. And of course, Max’s problems in society have as much to do with society’s ill understanding of how to include him as they have to do with Max.

In sum: Philip Seymour Hoffman was fantastic and the story and claymation were really great. And now we’re looking forward to watching Harvie Krumpet when we find a spare 22 minutes:

Update: Harvie Krumpet was enjoyable enough, but Mary and Max was definitely better—more complex, insightful, and funnier.

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Oct 18 2009

Clangs and Coings in Romainmôtier

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Yesterday, Seth and I with friends HSF and Lorenzo decided to go on a daytrip.  We were going to see a desalpage (a…de-alping?), the traditionally rural Swiss ceremony wherein the cows are herded down from their summer pasture in the mountains down to the barns in the valley for the winter.  We went to the town of Romainmôtier in the Jura mountains, just a 30 minute or so train ride north of Renens.  There was hardly any information on the town web site (like, we didn’t even know if we’d be able to get there, wherever there was exactly, from the closest train station), so we were hoping things would just work out, which is rather risky in this country where we tend to lose out whenever we hope that things will sort themselves.  However, this outing, amazingly, was all successfully undertaken, if not entirely what we expected.

Cowbell Exchange

On a hillside above the town, there was an autumn fair and cowbell exchange.  Huge cowbells, little cowbells, old cowbells.  I really don’t know much about cowbells, but I think if I did, I would have been in cowbell heaven.  There were also several cheese stands, other traditional food stands, vineyard stands, jam and other farm-made goodies stands, and farm equipment stands.  We surveyed several times said stands, wondering what was happening with the cows.  HSF finally asked if they’d already passed, which they hadn’t.  She was advised that we would hear them coming because of their bells, and that when we did, we should RUN to the road so as not to miss them.  This was good advice, because soon after, around noon, a small herd of cows rushed down the mountain road past the fair.  It was not the elaborate procession we had been expecting at all, and it was over in a few seconds.  Perhaps to make up for this very short cow-run, there was a troop of cow-bell players who were dressed in traditional outfits and carrying two heavy bells apiece on yokes.  Their performance consisted of them all swaying and making a huge racket, without melody, without rhythm, with the clanging bells.  It was loud.

Rushing cows

We stopped in town to check out the famous Clunisien abbey, which is remarkably well-preserved and light-filled and pretty, along with an excellent salon de the across the way in the Maison du Prieur and a boulangerie up the road.  Said establishments are rare in their independence and deliciousness, and I felt like we were in France instead of chain-store Switzerland.

Romainmôtier Abbey

Before we headed home, we picked up some veggies, some wild strawberry jam, a slab of cheese, and a bunch of free coings (quinces) that someone had left on their stoop with a sign that read “servez-vous.” I could imagine why the owners of the quince tree were happy to give some away—though Lorenzo likes to eat quinces raw, which doesn’t seem toxic, these fruits typically need to be cooked before consumption.  Not so easy to do.  Quinces are one of the traditional fruits used for jam because one does not need to add pectin to make it gel.  So, last night, during dinner at our place, we set a pot of grated quince, water, sugar, vanilla, and lemon juice on the stove for about 3 hours.  And we made about 5 jars worth of quince jam.  It’s actually pretty good!  Very fragrant, a little bit like one might imagine the taste apple-citrus-flower blossom.  Being in Switzerland really has led to all sorts of culinary adventures.

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