Monday, August 9, 2010

In the true spirit of Fulbright

In the last two weekends I have met up with an old friend from the my Fulbright days. A German guy (Sven), that I met during the Arizona Enrichment seminar of 2006, and then I went to visit him and his roommates (Mo and Romy also German Fulbrighters) at Indiana University during the Little 500 weekend of that same year.

The first weekend he came to visit me here in Zürich. I tried to give him as best a tour as I could, given that I have only been here for a couple of months. I showed him the old town, the major churches, the Google office, the lake, the river and Uëtliberg.

Then last weekend I went to visit him at Stuttgart, the capital of the Baden stat. This was my first trip to Germany. In comparison to other cities, Stuttgart is probably not the prettiest place, as most of it was destroyed during the Second World war. It is mostly an industrial city, and key a player in the automotive industry. It is the birthplace of Mercedes Benz, Daimler, Porsche and Bosch. Stuttgart is currently in the middle of a political battle, where the local government wants to pass a project called Stuttgart 21 in which they will re-route the main train tracks under ground. The locals are opposing the project due to the high cost, the limited benefits, a good deal of corruption in the process and the contracts and the demolition of the current somewhat historical station.

On Saturday we toured around the city. We went up the tower of the endangered train station, walked on Konigstrasse (their Magnificent Mile equivalent), walked by the old & new castle on Scholssplatz, and went to Schlossgarten (a nice park in the style of Central Park). We also visited the Weissenhof Estate, which is an architectural experimental estate created the famous architects of the 1920's, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who also built a lot of stuff in Chicago. For lunch we had some local Swabian food (the locals here are called Swabians due to a German dialect that they speak). That night we went to a Korean party with Sven's Taekwondo friends, and then to a club.

On Sunday we went to the Mercedes Benz museum which was really cool. It showcased the evolution of the brands Benz and Daimler, from the invention of the combustion engine to the future concept cars. It was really nice because besides showing the cool cars, they set it within the historical context of the time. From the end of the 19th century, through the depression, the world wars (including their participation in the Nazi army), the fifties & sixties with the 'freedom of the car', the seventies with the oil problems, the technological advances of the 80's and 90's, to the modern times and the search for fuel efficiency and independence from hydro-carbons.

It was a nice couple of weekends, and it was great to see an old friend. These are the kinds of connections that truly add value to the Fulbright experience.

Here are some pics:

A Tico and a German in Switzerland:

Outside of the apartments built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe:

A protest of Stuttgart 21:

Aerial view of Konigstrasse:



The new castle:

Swabian food: Spätzle with Frankfurts and lentils:

Inside the old castle, Sven with the guy who founded Tübingen university:

The old castle:


The Mercedes Benz museum:

The first Benz after Karl Benz patented the combustion engine:

The first Daimler's Mercedes, named after the daughter of a key investor Jellinek:

Cool cars:

Monday, August 2, 2010

Happy Anniversary!

Just wanted to give a big shout out to my beautiful wife on our anniversary! Sweetie, two years ago you made me the happiest guy on the world when you came walking down the aisle with your pretty white dress! And every day since I love you more! Can't wait to see you! Te amo!

Google and Academia

One third of Google employees has a PhD, and I believe this percentage is closer to one half here at the Zürich office. There are tons of people walking around with PhDs and post docs from the world's top universities. Many of them used to teach and work at traditional research centers.

I kept wondering to myself: what is it about Google that these people, highly trained in academia, find so compelling?

So I decided to conduct an informal survey and ask as many people as I could. Here is a summary of their comments and my observations:

  • Most told me that they really enjoy working on these sort of applied and large scale problems; and that their academic training has, in a way, prepared them to address these problems in a scientific manner. Almost everything here at Google is decided based on empirical research and data
  • Some also mentioned that they have a good amount of freedom to pursue their interests, albeit not at the same level that at an academic has of course.
  • One person mentioned that the number of good academic positions is usually fixed, whereas the number of PhDs is steadily increasing, making it very hard to get good academic positions.
  • Of course the salary also helps
  • Someone mentioned that they like the fact that it is the same crowd – I believe the word he used was 'clique'. The same level of smarts and remote interests as you would find roaming around academic halls or presenting at a conferences.
  • They also said that they like the immediate satisfaction that they get from seeing their ideas implemented. This is not always the case in academia, where a lot of the time the satisfaction comes from getting a paper accepted and who knows when (if at all) the idea makes it into practice.
  • And a lot of them were, to a certain extent, disenchanted with the academic process; where at the end of the day you are measured by the number of publications. This unfortunately produces lots of crappy papers with minute contributions to the scientific community.
  • This is not to say that they have estranged themselves from the academic world, most still publish every now and then. They are not required to, but Google supports them if they choose to. On the other hand they are heavily encouraged to file patents.
  • They also feel like they are contributing in other ways as well, such as their support to open source projects and releasing of useful stuff. During the conference in Mountain View the director of research mentioned that he would argue that things like releasing the API for Google Earth have contributed more to science than a lot of papers...

I definitely like this paradigm, and share a lot of their opinions.

Weekend trip to Bern & Thun

I know I am a little behind on my posts... but its just that I have been really busy lately. I am working really long hours on my project at work, so most nights I am too tired to write...
Anyhow, two weekends ago I went with the IAESTE crowd to Bern & Thun.

Bern is the capital of Switzerland, and it is located in the center part of the country, It is surrounded by the Aare river. The city has been around since the 12th century, and it has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

On Saturday we walked around the center of the city, which is really pretty. Legend has it that the first settlers had to kill a bear, and that's where the city got its name from. So to this date they have a few bears roaming around the river. I was kind of disappointed though when I heard that they had to bring these bears from Russia, as there are no longer any bears left in Switzerland...

That afternoon we went to the Einstein house and to the history museum where they have an exhibit about his life. Although he was born in Germany, Einstein moved to Switzerland when he was 16 and later became a Swiss citizen. He graduated from ETH (which is literally down the street from where I am staying), and then moved to Bern, where he conceived the Special Theory of relativity. The exhibit was really cool, as it told his life within the context of what was happening in the world. It also explained really well some of his theories and discoveries. What a genius that guy was! That day we also went up the Münster tower, and walked around the Parliament. That night, as is customary for the IAESTE events, we went bar hopping :)

Given that Bern is the capital, I figured I would write down a few political facts about Switzerland that I have learned so far:
  • Switzerland is a federal republic, with 26 cantons
  • There are three branches of the government: legislative, executive and judicial.
  • The executive branch has 7 ministries.
  • They have no elected president, the role of president is rotated every year among one of the 7 ministers. The current one is Doris Leuthard
  • They have a direct democracy, which allows the public to call on referendums for almost anything. According to a few Swiss that I spoke to, they say that this makes the system really slow, but ensures a public consensus.

On Sunday we went to Thun, which is in the same area (Bernese Oberland) as Interlaken. Here we went inside the St Beatus-Höhlen caves. The caves are named after St Beatus, who lived here in the 6th century. According to legend he slew a dragon in this cave, and then proceeded to spread Christianity in the region. The caves were really cool, filled with stalactites and stalagmites. I always confuse which is which, so this British girl told me that 'stalactites hold on tight', to the ceiling! That is about as cool as the 'Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain' thing for remembering the colors of the rainbow! Later that afternoon we walked around the downtown Thun and went into the castle.

Here are some pictures:

The Parliament:

The Bern bears:

The Aare:


Me @ Bern:

IAESTE trainees:

Bern from the Münster tower:

Bern from the Münster tower:

The man himself!!

At the Museum of History:

The Parliament:

The outside of St Beatus caves (pictures were not allowed inside):

Los hispano parlantes :)

St Beatus caves:


Thun Castle: