Archive for April, 2010

Apr 16 2010


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We don’t know how many people get their information first-hand from us, second-hand from other friends and family, or second/third-hand from a mailing list that may or may not have correct information, so I thought I’d better give some long overdue updates. First, to dispel rumors due to some sort of event being advertised on some Harvard e-mail lists, I am not, nor do I ever plan to be, a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. That’d be the Other Seth Flaxman, Columbia BA ’07, Harvard MPP ’11. Confusing, I know. Maybe a reason to change my last name?

Which brings me to announcement #1: Jackie and I are engaged! Here’s a pic to prove it:

And announcement #2: Jackie and I are staying in Switzerland for one more year. Jackie has decided to continue on to her PhD at IHEID. This requires two more semesters on campus. She has the support of a Davis scholarship from the same incredible woman, Kathryn Wasserman Davis, who funded the 100 Projects for Peace (now just called “Davis Projects for Peace” since I guess it’s way more than a hundred) on the occasion of her hundredth birthday. Davis got her PhD from HEI (the institute that turned into IHEID) in 1934. Her husband was the ambassador to Switzerland from 1969 to 1975. More here. After next year, Jackie will be free to go wherever she needs to do archive-based research for her dissertation and to write her dissertation.

Specifically, she’ll be based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA due to announcement #3: I’ve deferred my admission to a new program at Carnegie Mellon University, a joint PhD in Machine Learning and Public Policy. This program is joint with Heinz College, CMU’s public policy (and information) school. So I’ll start in the fall of 2011, and Jackie and I won’t have to do the long-distance thing. (What this really means is that with me at a public policy school, the potential for confusion with the other Seth Flaxman only grows.)

A final word: I was very fortunate to start a PhD this year at EPFL. I’ve really enjoyed my time here, gotten to work on a few hard and interesting problems and hear about the work of many other people on many other such problems. I benefited from the experience greatly. The reason I’m leaving is ultimately because of the CMU program’s unique focus on computer science and public policy. Recently created new conferences like the Artificial Intelligence for Development suggest this is an exciting new area. Like every new application of computer science to other fields (biology, economics, linguistics, epidemiology) it’s really important for the work to be rigorous as far as that other field is concerned, which means an understanding of that field’s particular methods, tools, questions, and formalisms, many (most) of which may be foreign to computer scientists. In particular, I have the chance to take classes in public policy and receive training and a strong grounding in public policy with other doctoral students in public policy, while being part of the world’s best (only?) department of machine learning. I’m excited.

Now, the final question: what am I doing next year? A good question. A very good question. Got a job in Switzerland for me?

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Apr 15 2010

On the Bonnie, Bonnie Banks

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…of Loch Lomond:

Loch Lomond

We were in Scotland for spring break.  We spent an afternoon walking along the edge of the famed Loch Lomond.  We had difficulty not pronouncing it Lac Léman (French name of Lake Geneva).

We spent a day or so each in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and then drove around the Western and Central Highlands for a few more.  Josh drove up from Oxford to chaffeur us around over the weekend, which was awesome, hopefully for him, too.  The weather was gorgeous and the daffodils were in bloom.  I came to like whiskey, and I remembered how much I love good Indian food (every night, except one, saw us in some kind of Indian restaurant).  We had a good time walking around the mountains, forests, and lochs, gazing at sheep, trying to understand the various English dialects in Scotland (uh, it is even more embarrassing to ask English speakers to repeat themselves than to ask French speakers to do so), taking the train from Glasgow to Fort William in the same car as a jolly group of young men on a stag party, going to pubs, and the like.  There was a dour B&B and a nervewracking drive when we got lost in Glasgow, not to mention too many pounds spent for our student budgets, but we had a good time.

Copper Fields and Snow

Good thing we got out before the volcano in Iceland.

Selected pictures are up on flickr.

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Apr 03 2010

La Pâque Juive and le pain azyme

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This past week has been an interesting one.  Rather than fleeing to Israel, as we did last year, we did Passover here at home in Switzerland.  For this, Seth cleaned our apartment and hid our hametz under a towel (we don’t know any gentiles willing to buy it off of us).  I stopped at the Manor (nice department store with a food level) in Geneva, which has a kosher food aisle, to stock up on supplies.  I bought a couple boxes of matzah imported from Strasbourg (tasty stuff, and it is a different shape than American or Israeli matzah…rectangular), awesome macaroons from Italy, chocolate from Switzerland (the only kosher food actually made in Switzerland), and horseradish from Brooklyn.  When we were in Paris a few weeks ago, we additionally picked up some Bordeaux, Casher le Pessah, for something like 6 Euros (jealous?).  Having hauled all the stuff home, we also took multiple trips to the market and Migros, buying veggies as we needed them so our fridge wouldn’t get too stuffed.  Meanwhile, Seth cooked and cooked the whole weekend before Passover, following our carefully planned menu.  He even made chocolate macaroons, using a recipe which called for sweetened condensed milk, which he made from scratch using lactose-free milk.

On the first night, the two of us headed to our Yiddish teacher’s house, armed with beets, and did the seder there.  A few other people from Yiddish were there, along with some of her friends and her two sons’ young families.  Her four little grandchildren were adorable.  They were absolutely enthralled with the way in which Seth and I read their children’s books to them out loud, and we kept getting asked for encore readings.  Their parents, meanwhile, looked on in amazement as their kids quietly sat through several book readings.  Apparently Anglophone-accented Zoe et Theo au Parc is far more exciting than the normal Francophone version.

On Tuesday, we hosted a seder.  We’ve done it before with PJA, but then we didn’t have to cook all the food (then again, that food was the opposite of tasty).    We squished 5 Swiss, 3 Israelis, and 2 Americans besides us into our living room and used the Velveteen Rabbi’s online haggadah.  It was no PJA Haggadah, but it was pretty nice.  Our seder wasn’t quite as progressive and discussion-oriented as in PJA years past, but our vegetarian food went over quite well, including the vegetable stock for the matzah ball soup, and we all had a good time.  Dinner was capped off by some local greengage plum brandy (eau-de-vie reine-claude), purchased at the Saturday market.  Hopefully we didn’t disrupt our neighbors too much.

In the meantime, over the course of this week, I also sang Bach’s three-hour long, gargantuan St. Matthew Passion FOUR times.  Twice in the Lausanne Cathedral, once in Fribourg canton, and once in Montreux.  It was a singing marathon, for which huge numbers of hours got sucked in for rehearsal.  It was rather ironic to be singing this during Passover.  I have partially come to terms with the fact that, as a person who likes to sing in classical choirs, I am going to have to sing about Jesus in an adoring way on a regular basis.  On the other hand, I still feel uncomfortable when they are explicitly religious concerts, like Christmas concerts or Easter concerts, and I feel rather annoyed when those concerts get scheduled over my actual holiday.  The text of the St. Matthew Passion does not have the best portraiture of the Jewish people, and it felt pretty darn weird to be crunching on my matzah at the post-concert receptions.  My plate of Seth’s macaroon’s, hand labeled, “casher le pessah” and put out at one such reception, elicited fascinated attention, and everyone wanted to try this unleavened ball of something; if there WAS anyone else at the reception who was keeping Passover (doubtful), he/she probably didn’t make it to the macaroons before they were gone.  When fellow choristers observed my matzah, and inquired about it, I gave them a taste.  One said, “Oh yes, the two Pâques are at the same time this year!”  Yes, right.  French needs a real word for Passover, because the fact that non-Jews refer to Easter as Pâque and Passover as the Pâque Juive (Jews just call it Pessah) doesn’t work so well for me.  Ahem, if anything, I believe it should be Pâque and Pâque Chretienne, seeing as ours came first. On the other hand, one of our Swiss guests at the seder pointed out that, unlike in English, there is a French word for matzah: pain azyme.

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