Tag Archives: zurich

Things we wish we’d know when planning a trip to Zürich

Welcome to Zürich ☺. If you are moving here there are a few things you might want to know, in no particular order :). This is especially geared towards folks living in ETH university housing.


(most of these things take around 30 mins – 60 mins once you find the right place)

  • To register, you will need to go to Kreisburo 6 first, then Berninerplatz (a stop on the 10 tram, the Kreisburo will give you an appointment there)
  • To leave, you will need to go to the migrationsamt (in the city hall, next to the fraumünster church) and register to leave
  • To get a half-pass (half off all tram and train travel) you can go to Bellevue (on the 9) and go into the office in the building that’s right at the center of the stop OR go to the main train station and go into the “travel agency” (take a ticket and be prepared to wait a bit
  • To get a monthly pass (free travel all month long) with your half pass you can go to the train station or use any of the newer (“fancy”) electronic machines (like the one at the Winkleriedstr. Tram stop). The “fancy” machines have an English button. There is no “fancy” machine at the airport, so don’t expect to renew your monthly pass at the end of a trip back and forth to Zürich

Money & Phones

  • I would get a Bank account at the post finance (in the post office, if you walk from Winkleried str Tram stop to Rigiblick Tram stop, you’ll see it on the left).
  • When you get bills, you typically get a “pink slip” – bring it with some cash to the post office, and you can pay it there.
  • The post office is closed over lunch
  • ETH pay can be picked up between 11 and 2 in the back right corner of the 2nd floor (I think) of the main ETH building
  • Sunrise pre-pay is the simplest mobile phone plan. You can “top it up” at any Co-op grocery store (just ask for, say “50 CHF on my sunrise)
  • Sunrise pre-pay charges you 1 CHF on each day that you make a call, text or use internet (up to 3 CHF per day total). You can get an add-on plan for unlimited internet if you use it a lot, for about 10 CHF a month.


We’re not big shoppers, so this is just the basics.

  • H&M has reasonable clothing. The big Co-op and Migro stores have inexpensive clothing options too. There are also lots of sales in the “mall” under the main train station
  • There are a number of farmer’s markets worth checking out.

Things to check out that you might otherwise miss

  • Feminist Zürich: The labrynth and Feminist Tours of Zürich
  • The rooftop swimming pool & spa (“Thermalbad Zürich”)
  • Dolder ice rink 
  • Swimming in the clear cool clean lake of Zürich (‘nough said)
  • Tour the archeological ruins of Zürich (register at City Hall to get a “key to the city” and a map). Takes time to get the key, so this is really only for folks living here.
  • Lots of wonderful places to walk in the Züriberg (Look for the life-sized elephant fountain in the woods) and the Jütliberg. Enjoy them.
  • There’s lots of festivals in Zürich and Switzerland worth checking out. Basel Fasnacht in the spring, independence day parade in mid August, etc. etc. Google to find them. Don’t necessarily confine yourself to Switzerland – for example Austria has numerous “balls” in dance season (winter).

English speakers

  • The expat forums are a great place to find advice about all sorts of stuff
  • There’s some great meetup groups for childless expats – they do all sorts of sporty stuff in the mountains, if you’re into that. They tend to hold separate from the swiss
  • If you prefer to mix with the locals, try a yoga class, join an orchestra, etc. Downside is you have to speak some german and it helps if you’re working on understanding swiss german.
  • The ETH has a tandem-partner program. You can sign up to practice german and offer to help someone with English. We had great experiences with it. They also offer German classes (1x week)
  • If you have kids, the public school has an amazing program for helping them to learn german before shifting them to “regular” school. The teachers are wonderful and for my kids at least, the class worked wonders. Just register with the school system.
  • Be prepared for younger (even 1-3 grade) kids being done with school at noon two days a week or more, and having no school from 12-2. Don’t worry though, Hort will feed them a warm meal and let them play/do crafts during lunch, and as late as you need on weekdays.


There’s an English speaking doctor’s office that has long hours at the main train station. There’s also a 24 hour pharmacy there. You should receive accident insurance through ETH, and you know better than I where you get your health insurance.


  •  For ETH folks, you just buy regular garbage bags. For everyone else, there’s special taxed bags
  • Recycling: plastic goes inside the co-op in their wall collection unit. Metal and glass you can find bins for around the city 2-4 times a year (unsure how often) you will find a garbage bag in your mailbox for clothing and shoes. Anything else of quality, if you put it outside, someone is likely to take it.


  • The climate makes gardening easy. The abundance of green space also makes foxes quite common. As a result, you can’t eat greens raw: they can leave a parasite on plants that is deadly in the rare case you catch it.
  • There is a community farm that you can help out at near the botanical gardens, if you want more than that. I’m sure there’s other options if you want an actual garden bed, but a year is short.
  • We were able to get permission to garden in the non-grassy areas of our yard.
  • We went to a Tot Shabbat service at a local liberal temple, the Jüdische Liberale Gemeinde. It’s a bit out of the way in what looks like an apartment building, but the people we met were wonderful and very welcoming. Be prepared for swiss german though :).

Have fun!

More technology?

I just came across a call to arms by Kristina Höök, “A Cry for More Tech at CHI!” in Interactions this month. I was so glad to see her writing about this and I hope the article bears fruit. She talks about the ways in which technology can inspire design — I would argue also enable design — and why alternate forms of publications should be given archival value as one way of supporting tech research (such as videos, demos, etc). Imagine if videos at CHI were valued as much as videos at SIGGRAPH!

I don’t want to say much more because I hope you go and read what she had to say, but I will note that her sentiment doesn’t just apply to CHI. How about other conferences? And a question I’ve been asking myself recently — what can I do to encourage more tech in my own research group? The answer, I’ve discovered, is to uncover what technology research means to me. That I will say more about.

As I mentioned in a recent post about my sabbatical goals, I have spent some time recently trying to reposition myself. I am and will always be driven by real-world problems, usually ones that come out of personal experience. However, if that is the sole driving force in my work, why am I not a sociologist? Or a politician? Or a anthropologist? Why don’t I run a non-profit? Why am I a computer scientist? The answer that I keep coming around to is that I like to build re-usable solutions to problems, solutions that are (ideally) bigger than the problem I started with. In addition, I believe that technology has value in part because it can solve problems in new ways, sometimes better ways, if we are innovative about how we use it, rigorous, and willing to push the boundary of what technology is capable of. So I am also driven by a wish to build systems, hard systems, systems that do things that have not been done before or create new ways of doing things. In fact, when I look back over the technical work I’ve done, after years of trying (for every job search, tenure review, and so on) I think I finally have put my finger on the unifying theme in my work.

I have always, in some way or another, built what I think of now as data-driven interfaces. I’m certainly not the first person to use this term. Nor is it confined to my area (HCI). But to me it describes one of the most important roles that technology has to play in the world. Many of the most revolutionary impacts of technology have centered around its ability to show information (think of spreadsheets and visualization tools), share information (think of everything from email to the web to facebook) and process information (think of the work in context-aware and ubiquitous computing, machine learning, and so on). And my own inspiration has been similar — my honors thesis as an undergraduate centered around exposing what was going on inside of programs; my PhD work on managing the uncertainty that arises when recognizing sensed input; my PhD students have developed/are developing tools for building ambient and peripheral displays (a form of visualization), rapidly prototyping and field testing ubicomp apps (providing essential data about what information belongs in the application in the first place), measuring and predicting which users have difficulty with an interface (a type of information processing), handling uncertain input within the user interface toolkit, and sharing information about energy use in the home. Of course when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail (and there’s many aspects of each of these projects that I left out so they would look more nail-shaped) but I do believe there’s a theme here.

Having recognized the theme, a natural question that I, as a toolkit builder, find myself asking is: What is hard about building these sorts of interfaces, especially in situations where we expect people to use the resulting applications. I think there are many unsolved problems, along the entire pipeline from deciding what data to use all the way through to acting on it in some way. Ideally, this should all be put together, in a fashion that scaffolds the process as much as possible and enables communication of constraints and other information from one end of the pipeline to other and back.

The idea of a pipeline for data-driven, interactive systems leads to a whole host of interesting questions I hope to begin answering. What should be communicated within the system? What should be communicated to the user? How does all of this change the way we construct toolkits at the input level? What about the output level? What abilities might we want to give end users with respect to data-driven interfaces? How do we help people build effective classifiers when they have not studied machine learning? How do we help people to select and integrate visualization techniques? What new sensors can we construct and what should we sense? When and how might we involve people (i.e. the crowd) in gathering, labeling, extracting features from, interpreting, even visualizing information? How do we trade this off with machines? And finally, how does the interactive nature of the end systems affect the way we should answer any of these questions?


A different academic model

Zurich in the snow, from our apartment
Zurich in the snow, from our apartment

The next phase of our sabbatical is in Zürich, Switzerland, where we’ve been since the beginning of January. There hasn’t been much to post here because, I suppose, things feel so familiar. We have a “group” to be part of, thanks to our wonderful host, Friedemann Mattern, which makes a big difference in how integrated we are into the university community. The university setting itself is much more familiar somehow than in India, perhaps for the same reason: We had to work to ensure that our office was near that of other faculty, and actively pursue integration with the department in Hyderabad. Here, we still have to actively pursue potential collaborations, but this is facilitated by the support that Friedemann and his group have given us.

ETH is also familiar in the sense that it functions like most other universities I’ve been part of over the years, as a homing ground for students, an organizer of talks on a wide breadth of topics, a place to discuss and teach and learn. One thing that differs from american universities is the structure of the department. The model here is one person per area. For example, a friend at the University of Zürich is the only person in Human Computer Interaction in her department, and is expected to carry the entire field. Critical mass is built across all of computer science, not within sub-areas. Instead, one recruits a productive and diverse set of post docs, doctoral students, masters students, and so on who work together to make the area a success. This is the polar opposite of a place like Carnegie Mellon, where entire departments are formed around sub-fields.

One of the more interesting things about being on sabbatical is the opportunity to rethink and think through who I am as a researcher. I am frequently given the opportunity to speak about my work to a variety of audiences, and I have written a number of different talks over the year attempting to summarize my work in assistive technology, my work in sustainability, overarching themes for the technical aspects of my work, and deeper questions about the value of the projects that I have chosen to do. Along the way, I have studied machine learning (I will have to write about this, as I took the Stanford ml course last fall) and am now studying hardware in more depth, finally finished a paper on the value of futurism (or rather Futures Studies) in guiding research (an enormous stretch for me, as it is primarily what I would consider a design/thought paper) and an article for interactions questioning the focus of sustainable human computer interaction research, based on a recent blog post on the topic.

To me, the ability to see and think about new models for academia as a whole, my own research, and everything in between, is one of the most valuable things about this year away. It’s a chance to rethink, question, and consider what works, what should be done, and what will make a difference.