Archive for the 'People' Category

Significant moments

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

Marjorie and Eszter (in a rush as Marjorie boards a bus)I tend to avoid blogging random bits and pieces of my personal life, but this one is too much fun to ignore plus it made me think of something special from my past so here it goes. Over the years, I’ve had amazing luck running into people I know in the most random places from the streets of Paris to New York City’s subways. Such a fun encounter happened yesterday in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my home for this academic year. I’m going to give you a rather long version of the story to emphasize how incredibly random it was for this encounter to happen.

In case you don’t have time for the longer version, here’s the summary: I ran into a college friend of mine yesterday on the streets of Cambridge. I hadn’t seen her in probably over a decade (although on occasion we’d been in touch on email). But allow me to give more detail to emphasize the low chances of this meeting.

Having just gotten back from Europe, I was pretty jet lagged on Monday and had been up since 2:30am. I had planned on taking a nap in the afternoon. I had just finished a late lunch with a colleague and was extremely tempted to walk home for a nap instead of going to the office. I stopped on a street for almost a minute figuring out how to proceed. I rarely do that. I usually do contemplation of that sort while walking. But going home vs going to the office required very different routes so I needed to stop and make a decision. I finally decided to go to the office.

There I was, walking in Cambridge (crossing the Common to Massachusetts Avenue) on my way to Harvard Law School. I was about to cross a street when I saw someone I knew so I called out her name and stopped to chat with her. As I was talking to her, in the corner of my eye I noticed that someone stopped nearby. She was looking at me a bit puzzled. It took me about two seconds to realize who she was. Marjorie Victor. Marjorie is a friend from college, the year when we studied in Geneva, Switzerland together. I probably hadn’t seen her in about a decade (if not more).

Although Marjorie used to live in Cambridge, she now lives in Toronto and her work often takes her to Ethiopia. She barely comes to Cambridge anymore so what are the chances that this encounter would happen?! Wow. I was and am still overwhelmed by this wonderful coincidence.

This all reminded me of the last time I saw my very dear paternal grandmother. The day before she died, I was on my way home from school (eighth grade) and was deciding whether I would go stop by her place to show her my midyear report card. I was on a tram and was undecided. The tram pulled up to the stop where I would have had to get off if I was interested in going home rather than visiting my grandma. I was still undecided when the tram doors suddenly closed in front of me. That was it, the decision had been made for me, I was going to my grandmother’s. To this day I remember standing there thinking: well, that was easy. What I didn’t know at that moment was that this allowed me to see my grandmother one last time before she passed away.*

Although yesterday’s encounter doesn’t carry the same weight, it reminded me of that story. Of course, when we decide to take the route that doesn’t lead to such significant encounters, the moment is forever lost having little significance. But those few moments of this sort that lead to something special can stay with us for a long time.

* I posted three tweets on the 100th anniversary of her birthday this past summer that I’ll replicate here since Twitter messages disappear after a while:
1/3 Thinking about my amazing Grandma born 100 yrs ago today. Her husband was killed in a labor camp in WWII.
2/3 She herself was in a concentration camp with her sons & other relatives in Vienna. Then came other hardships back in Hungary.
3/3 But she remained a most amazingly kind & thoughtful person &although she died 20 yrs ago, to this day she continues to teach me so much.

Congrats to this person

Monday, April 7th, 2008

I didn’t know Brian Donovan until I saw this video he posted on YouTube after which I feel like I know him a tiny bit. He’s an alum of the Northwestern Sociology Department and he’d been involved with the excellent Culture Workshop that I attend whenever I can. That’s how I heard about his tenure and this fun way in which he’s decided to let people know about it. Congrats, Brian!

Tom Lantos dies at 80

Monday, February 11th, 2008

California representative Tom Lantos died earlier today. I’ll take this opportunity to mention the Oscar-winning film The Last Days (I’ve blogged about it before here). It’s a very powerful documentary in which Lantos is one of the five people featured. My one critique of The Last Days movie was that it ignored the plight of people like my grandmother (who died twenty years ago last week, at almost 80) and father who went back to Hungary after their time in a camp instead of emigrating. That doesn’t detract from the value of The Last Days. But I think it’s important to recognize that there is a sufficiently different outcome from very similar circumstances depending on where one went after those horrors. In any case, I learned about many things from watching that film, including details about Tom Lantos that may be lesser known. I thought this was a good occasion to mention the documentary again.

Taking care of Turquoise

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

I don’t seem to be doing too well playing rock, paper, scissors over on Facebook so I’ve decided to focus my energies on taking care of my adopted turtle Turquoise. It’s good prepartion for when I’ll get a real turtle likely in the near future (unlike some turtle plagiarists, it’s a plan I’ve had for a while).

Unfortunately, you can only earn munny to feed your pet by having your pet pet by someone else or petting other people’s pets. (That’s not as hard to say three times fast as it may seem at first read…) And it turns out that despite having over 150 friends on Facebook, only three of them have (fluff)Friends, one because I asked him this morning. So this is a request that if we are linked on Facebook (or should be since we know each other) then can you please come over and show Turquoise some affection? Thanks!

Anyone wondering why I would spend time on Facebook has to understand that it is imperative for the legitimacy of my research to familiarize myself with these services. It’s a sacrifice, but all in the name of science.

I should add that I have been thinking about a more substantive post concerning Facebook and hope to get around to it one of these days. Lots going on there, it is spreading like wildfire way past college students, and there are some understandable reasons for that. More later. It’s time to check in on Turquoise now.

I’d prefer an ordinary afternoon…

Monday, June 25th, 2007

Comparing the hills during and after the fire

Just this morning I was contemplating how horrible it must be for the people who suddenly lost their homes in the fire around Lake Tahoe. By the afternoon I was watching firefighters from my office window battle flames on Stanford’s hills.

I was sitting at my desk already unable to work having just received word about the death of Peter Marris, Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at UCLA, dear husband of Dolores Hayden who was a fellow Fellow at CASBS this year. The two of them had to end their year at the Center early, because Peter was sick, but I don’t think any of us expected things to escalate so quickly.

Unable to concentrate on work, I turned around to look at the beautiful view from my office. I spotted some big red flames. Soon I realized that a large area around it was completely black with smoke and flames on the periphery. Eventually sirens and helicopter appeared, as did firefighters. Some of the smoke was now white not just black, apparently a good sign. But not all the black smoke disappeared and an hour later there was still much activity. I went to an event and by the time I got back to my office, another hillside was completely black (see the difference in the left area of the two photos above).

How quickly things can change.

Charles in space

Saturday, April 7th, 2007

with Charles Simonyi Few people with an interest in space travel have the resources to make that dream a reality. In a few minutes, Charles Simonyi will be one of those people. He’s among the few space tourists who’ve paid the $20-$25 million for the experience. He has been chronicling his adventures at, an interesting and informative Web site where users can get answers about the various aspects of his preparation and travel. (You can watch the launch live here or click on the link above to choose your preferred player.)

I had the opportunity to meet Charles Simonyi last October when I was in the Seattle area giving a talk at Microsoft Research. I consider my experience a classic case of cultural capital at work. Both of us having grown up in Budapest – and it turns out just a few blocks from each other, although a few decades apart – likely was not enough of a reason for him to bother responding to my email. Rather, I suspect it was our shared interest in the Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely that prompted him to invite me for a tour of his house. It was super fun, Charles Simonyi has some wonderful works by Vasarely and others, and I very much enjoyed the opportunity to see his collection.

We also took a brief tour of his library in which he has some interesting original documents related to space travel. His passion for the topic is obvious and contagious. I look forward to the updates on his site about this amazing adventure.

In the above picture, I stand next to Charles Simonyi (he’s holding my father’s book The Martians of Science) with a Vasarely sculpture behind us. Photo credit goes to Marc Smith who kindly invited and hosted me on this visit to MSR.

Project 365: #5

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

Princeton-Stanford intersection

Taken: October 28, 2006 (What is Project 365?)

I decided that my photo for this past weekend had to include something about the schools I have attended. Why? Interestingly (and very pleasantly) several people from my past decided to get in touch with me recently. In fact, when I stopped to think about it, I realized that one of these old friends was from Smith, one was from my time at NYU, and one was from my first couple of years at Princeton. Can you spot a theme after reading a bit about these people?

Wendy I met in college while hanging out in the Computer Science Department lab a lot. Cecil was our tech support guy at NYU where we shared an office, sort of, since as the departmental Web master I got to have some nifty space in the IT corner. And Paul was getting a Master’s degree in Engineering from Princeton where we were part of the same entering cohort of graduate students (me in Sociology). I haven’t been in touch with any of these people in at least five years so it was a delight to hear from them. And all on the same weekend, it had to be commemorated.

It occured to me that Stanford has a row of streets named after colleges and universities. On Sunday night I went looking for the street called Princeton and the above photo is the result. Here it is from another angle. But I picked the above photo, because I preferred its composition.

Being overqualified

Monday, August 21st, 2006

I was catching up with a friend recently who, after receiving a Master’s degree, decided to move to a professionally less-than-ideal location for personal reasons. She’s been doing okay by picking up work here and there, but it’s been a long process. She was explaining to me the frustrations of being told that you are overqualified for a job. I could definitely see her perspective and was nodding throughout her desciption of various recent experiences. But after the responses I received to my recent post (posted on Crooked Timber, I seemed to have forgotten to post it here as well) about outsourcing advice, I am starting to understand the other side’s position better. A few people emailed me offering their services. The problem is, pretty much all of them seem to be overqualified, which puts me in a difficult position.

My motivation for looking into outsourcing was twofold: 1. to see whether I could find additional assistance with work since undergraduate students don’t always have as many hours to give to a project as is necessary and there are a limited number of graduate students locally; 2. to see whether I could save some money by hiring people elsewhere.

Certainly, removing the geographical constraint of the job helps and clearly there are people out there who could use some work that is open to a flexible schedule. However, it’s not at all clear whether there is much money to be saved.

First, my impression regarding outsourcing services available online is that they may be cost-effective if you need highly qualified people (specialized tech skills, for example), but there was nothing on the various Web sites that made me think I would necessarily come out ahead by hiring people from elsewhere for the jobs of interest to me (some data entry, transcription and such). I pay undergraduate students $8-$9/hour and the sites I saw didn’t seem to compete with that well.

Second, I got responses from people who sound like they would be very responsible and could definitely do the job well, but they seemed overqualified. Years ago I paid graduate students $10/hour so today that seems inappropriate. However, I wouldn’t want to pay more for these tasks than I do to people working on them locally. I have no idea what the going rate is in various fields. I know in computer science it is much much higher, but what is it in humanities fields? Perhaps what seems inappropriate to me would be fine for some people who are really just looking for something flexible to supplement their income.

I definitely know from experience that I don’t always do a very good job of estimating what may be a perfectly acceptable job and wage for a student. I sometimes feel badly about giving out very simple tasks, but then I remind myself that I was just fine with cleaning bathrooms and dishes – those were two separate jobs:) – in my first year in college and was outright happy later on with my job in the library and doing simple tasks for professors.

But when it comes to graduate students or people with advanced degrees, this all gets trickier. I do not want to insult someone with an advanced degree by suggesting a rate that seems way too low to me. At the same time, the potential employee does not want to mention a rate with the fear of asking for less than what I am willing to pay. Regarding this latter point, the potential employees don’t know that I won’t pay people in similar situations less than what I already pay others. (I would if the person lived in a country with much lower cost of living. Thus my inquiry about outsourcing.) That is, if an undergraduate student came to me to volunteer his or her services for free in my lab, I would still only hire him or her with pay, because I believe that a person will take the job more seriously if he or she is getting paid for it. Moreover, because others in the lab are getting paid, I believe everyone should unless there is a different payoff to the assistant. For example, an undergraduate student might work without pay on one of my projects if he or she is getting course credit as per his or her preference.

Of course, it is too simplistic to see this as nothing but an hourly wage issue. It is completely possible that people with more training or background with related work would do the job more efficiently and thus would not cost more on the aggregate even if their hourly rate is higher. But this would require quite a bit of logistics to figure out. (There is some cost to starting work with a new person and training them for a task so you don’t want to get too many folks involved.)

I will be hiring for a full-time position soon. I will make sure to post the salary up front to avoid the above complications. If people see what a position pays then it should be fair to assume that even if they are overqualified, they are willing to work for the offered amount if they decided to submit an application. That still doesn’t solve all concerns, by the way, given that the employer may fear losing the employee to a better opportunity. But at least it removes one point of confusion.

Your view

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

Evanston sunrise x3
Andrew Sullivan is trying to get to know his readers by asking them to send him pictures of the view from their windows. Not surprisingly, photo-sharing site Flickr has a group devoted to this topic linking to a whole separate Web site on window views. Kevin Drum responds with a view from his window. I’m afraid on this one, I win. If you post on Flickr, tag your photo with viewfrommywindow or add it to the group and post a link here. Alternatively, post a photo on “view from where I read EBLOG”.:)

Flickrite meet-ups

Wednesday, November 30th, 2005

John in downtown Chicago     Jeremy in his office

I have started a Flickr set dedicated to pictures I have taken of Flickr contacts (I’ll restrict it to post-Flickring meet-ups). Of course, a good chunk of my Flickr contacts are people I knew pre-Flickr so this is not meant to suggest a grand expansion in my social circles. I just thought it would be fun to dedicate a set to it. Plus I really did need to join the group of people who have pictures of Jeremy even though with just one image in his photostream he’s still a Flickr toddler himself.

Julia Child dies

Saturday, August 14th, 2004

Just a few days short of her 92nd birthday, Julia Child died this week. You did not need to be a cooking fanatic to have watched her shows although you may have ended up as one after doing so. And a kitchen is hardly complete without one of her books. I also got quite a bit of exposure to her name while studying at Smith College as she was one of those alums such a school could be very excited about. Hat tip to ms.musings who links to all sorts of interesting sites for more background info. Here’s one nice little interview with Child last year in Ms. Magazine where Child is quoted as saying: “I was a Republican until I got to New York and had to live on $18 a week. It was then that I became a Democrat.”