Basel

A short visit to Basel for a lecture at the oldest university in Switzerland.

I took a daytrip to Basel today, to give a lecture at the university.  The University of Basel is the oldest university in Switzerland (founded in 1460), and yet the computer science department is in a nondescript modern building in the center of the city.  I had many fascinating discussions with the faculty and students about their cutting-edge research.

My host professor is a native of Basel and kindly gave me a brief tour of the central city, which straddles the Rhine River.  Despite the gloomy weather, it was fascinating to stroll the narrow streets of this ancient city and to hear the story behind the various buildings – from the 11th-century cathedral to the 21st-century headquarters of pharma giants like Novartis and Hoffmann-La Roche.  This small city, nestled in a corner of Switzerland adjacent to both France and Germany, is the third-largest city in the country and is a major economic engine for the region and for the country.  This role dates back centuries to 1225 when the city built the first, and for a long time the only, bridge across the Rhine.2020-02-25-81206.jpg

We took a ride across the Rhine on a tiny ferry boat, big enough to seat perhaps a dozen passengers, which required no power at all – a cable on its bow is fixed to a pulley on a cable crossing the river, and by angling the bow against the current, the current pushes the boat across the river.2020-02-25-81178.jpg

At the end of the day he dropped me off at the Swiss Museum for Paper, Writing, and Printing (founded by his grandfather), which was absolutely fascinating.  Its water wheel still turns the machinery indoors, converting rags into paper; upstairs, restored printing machines spanning many centuries still run and demonstrate, often hands-on, how the printing process works.  They even have the first Macintosh ever used in Switzerland, and the notebook used by the designer of Helvetica, the most successful font ever. My 40-minute visit was far too short.2020-02-25-81199.jpg

Basel has a fascinating history and is well worth a read – and a visit!  See the photo gallery for a few more pictures.  It was not the most photogenic day, but I hope to visit again!

Obersaxen ski day

A beautiful day for the annual ski outing for my ETH-St.Gallen research group.

While on sabbatical I am a visiting professor affiliated with the Center for Digital Health Interventions at ETH.  Each year, the professors that lead this center (and related centers) sponsor a ski day, somewhere in Switzerland.  Today a couple dozen students, staff, and faculty enjoyed a day of skiing at the Obersaxen ski area in southeast Switzerland.   Although this winter has been uncharacteristically snowless, and record-breakingly warm, the snow was good and the skiing excellent.  The weather, initially a bit cloudy, turned into a blue-sky day.  Stunning views of the surrounding peaks vied for my attention with the trails below my skis.  The group generally skied together, spanning a wide range of ages and experience.  We gathered for a hearty lunch at the cozy Restaurant Stai in the village of Miraniga.  One reaches the restaurant by skiing directly off the trail, past a barn, across a driveway, and into their front yard.  The sweet smell of rural Switzerland wafts over from the barn, reminding you that these same slopes are used for grazing cows in the summer.  Inside, an Olympic Gold Medal is the centerpiece of the many medals and memorabilia from a local star skier, and the menus offer classic regional dishes and local beer.  It was mid-afternoon when we stepped back into our skis for one last ride to the top, and down the other side back to our starting point – just in time for a round of aprés-ski beers.  All in all, a fabulous day.  Check out the photo gallery.

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Aarburg castle

A sunny Sunday-afternoon hike from Olten to Aarburg, with views of its 12c. castle.

Inspired by the sunny weather on Sunday morning, I sought a nearby opportunity where I could do a little hiking and find some interesting photographic subjects.  Twice I had caught a glimpse of this stunning castle while my Zürich-bound train crossed the river Aare, and I had made a point to return.  My goal was to find the Aarburg castle, first built in the 12th century. “Today it houses the Kantonale Jugendheim, for holding and rehabilitating juvenile offenders” [Wikipedia].   Interesting!   Read on, and check out the photo gallery.

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Referendum on discrimination

The Swiss voted to ban discrimination against lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, and public displays of homophobia.  

The Swiss have an interesting system that enables almost any issue to be brought to a national vote.  Only 50,000 signatures are needed to create a referendum, including those that result in a constitutional amendment.  I’d recently seen a few signs around the city that appeared to be in support of (or in opposition to) some referendum or another, but few of the signs included enough context for me to discern the topic of the referendum. (There is no English-language newspaper in Switzerland, so I remain in the dark about local issues.)  I heard there was a referendum about a new road/rail tunnel to be built.  As it turns out, there was a far more interesting referendum underway.

Yesterday, the Swiss voted to ban discrimination against lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, and public displays of homophobia.  From the New York Times story:

Swiss voters agreed on Sunday to penalize public homophobia, greenlighting an amendment to an antidiscrimination law that had not provided protection for lesbians, gay men and bisexual people. …

Voters were asked in a referendum whether they wanted to extend Switzerland’s racism statutes to sexual orientation, and on Sunday 63.1 percent voted in favor of it. The extension was backed by the government and most of Switzerland’s political parties. …

In 2018, lawmakers voted to add sexual orientation to an existing law that penalized discrimination based on race, ethnicity and religion. Under the amended law, homophobic comments made in public would be punishable with up to three years in prison. …

Yet, opponents argued that such an extension was counter to freedom of expression, and that they should be able to express their views on homosexuality publicly. They gathered the 50,000 signatures necessary to force a national referendum.

Kronberg

A beautiful hike to Kronberg in the Appenzell region, under blue skies and with spring-like conditions.

Today I went hiking with a colleague from the University of St. Gallen, about an hour to the east of Zürich.  Our goal was the summit of Kronberg, 1662m, with fabulous views of Mount Säntis and the Alpstein region to the south, and deep into the Swiss Alps to the west and the Austrian Alps to the east, as well as to the grand expanse of Lake Constance to the northeast.  Read on and check out the gallery.

Someone has stomped out a Heart in the snow.

 

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Northern Lights in Sweden

A weekend above the Arctic Circle in an effort to photograph the Northern Lights.

I recall a warm summer evening, about forty years ago, when I reclined on the rocky shore of Lake Champlain to watch a distant aurora borealis dance across the stars of the far northern sky.  Ever since then I’ve held a quiet fascination with this phenomenon, determined to see the northern lights “for real” some day.  I’ve longed to visit the Arctic, in part so I might see the northern lights.  This weekend – capping a week of academic travel in Finland and Sweden – was my first opportunity to travel above the Arctic Circle.  I flew to a tiny village in the far northern tip of Sweden – so close it was practically in Norway – and spent two nights standing in the snow, watching the sky above Abisko National Park.  Did I see the aurora?  yes!  Was I satisfied?  no; if anything, I want to return to see more!  From the other people I met there, it is clear that Abisko has that affect on many people.  Read on, and check out the photo gallery.

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A reindeer seen beside the road in Abisko.

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Hunting grouse in Finland

A day of skiing and grouse hunting, outside Oulu Finland.

Yesterday I visited the University of Oulu to give a talk about my research and to engage in some collaborative discussions with faculty in computer science.  (Impressive and fascinating work underway there!)   Timo, the professor hosting my visit, grew up in the fields and forests of northern Finland; he offered to take me out today for a day of skiing in a nature reserve an hour east of Oulu.  As he noted, this week was a special opportunity – the first time since 1981 that the wildlife-management folks were opening a winter season for hunting European Grouse… and for just 10 days.  Timo is an accomplished hunter and fisherman, as was clear from the many stuffed grouse and the fishing awards in his den at home.  This mid-week opportunity was too good for him to pass up, and I was delighted to join.  Read on, and check out the photo gallery.

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