As I wrap up my year-long sabbatical in Switzerland, during which I was a visitor at ETH Zürich, I am grateful to have been part of the innovative team at the Center for Digital Health Interventions (CDHI). Led by Profs. Elgar Fleisch and Tobias Kowatsch and jointly operated by ETH and the University of St. Gallen, the center is working on a range of important problems, interesting studies, and innovative technologies: passive health-sensing techniques in smartphones, smartwatches, and cars; stress detection; asthmatic cough detection and breathing-exercise games for asthmatics; machine learning to predict when a person might be receptive to health-intervention messages; chat bots to engage and encourage people involved in health interventions; systems to detect hypoglycemia in the driver of a car; passive interventions that can occur while driving; and more.
Although my visit has been scientifically productive and rewarding, it is really the people who have made the visit so delightful. The faculty welcomed me by encouraging and enabling me to be involved wherever I seemed interested; my officemates patiently answered all my questions about Zürich and Switzerland; the graduate students adopted me into their lunchtime group outings; and the staff assisted me with all the complex logistics of moving to, living in, and departing from Switzerland. Just a portion of the team is pictured below. I am proud to have been part of this group for the past year, and hope I can return again some day!
A curious (and historic) old building on the edge of campus.
I’ve walked by this curious old building a few times, and always paused to ponder its origin, its purpose, and its sad condition (never seen in this prim part of town). It sits snugly between a posh residential neighborhood and the focal point of three campuses: ETH, the University of Zürich (UZH), and the UZH hospital. Clearly, it once had a walk-up counter where one could arrange for the fabrication of chemical/technical apparatus.
Puzzled, a little Googling lead me to a brochure a local historical society wrote about this building. From what I can glean from that brochure (in German), this workshop was built in 1863 next to a small house, home to several generations of plumbers. The later generations apparently specialized in scientific apparatus as well as home plumbing solutions (Wasch & Badeeinrichtungen – wash and bathroom furnishings). After decades of disrepair, the property was protected under a local archaeological ordinance, purchased by the city, then restored into beautiful shape. It was left unused, however, and sadly became the target of graffiti vandals. It now appears likely to be demolished when the hospital next needs to expand. The adjacent house is now used by ETH as a daycare facility.
A mysterious pair of lamps outside the ETH main building.
On sunny days it can be nice to walk past the west side the ETH main building – where there is an expansive stone courtyard with spectacular views across the city and to the distant Alps. It’s long struck me as odd that the west entrance to this classical-style building, in rather drab grey stone, is flanked by a pair of golden lampposts.
Surely they are not made of gold, or even painted with gold paint, but on a sunny day they are nonetheless brilliant in their contrast with the surroundings. Each is supported with three legs, each of which is a buxom one-legged sphinx character. Apparently sphinx icons were quite popular in Europe during the Rennaissance.
I can find no online explanation for the ETH lamps, nor any nearby signage to indicate the meaning or import of these lamps and their golden paint. The base of each lamp indicates the name of its foundry, in nearby Winterthur, but no more. Perhaps they are a warning to the students who enter ETH, based on the traditional Greek origin of the sphinx: “She is mythicised as treacherous and merciless. Those who cannot answer her riddle suffer a fate typical in such mythological stories, as they are killed and eaten by this ravenous monster.” [Wikipedia]
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.
The weather thus far in Switzerland has been spectacular – blue skies, warm temps, low humidity. And this day, for my first hike, the weather truly delivered in top form. I joined a group organized by D-MTEC, the Department of Management, Technology, and Economics, which is the ETH department where I sit during this year in Zürich. The hike to circumnavigate a small peak named Gandstock was moderate in length and difficulty, covering 11.5 km (7.14 mi) in 4h55 at altitude ranging from 1610m (~5,280′) to 2167m (~7,110′), all of it above treeline. Check out the photo gallery, and read on beyond the break. Continue reading “Gandstock hike”