What’s New

It has been six weeks since I moved to Milan, and I am not yet completely settled in yet.

For example, although, as of yesterday, I finally have working wired internet access in my place, I still do not have a bus card (obtaining the latter has been one of the most stubbornly intractable problems I have encountered) and all the stuff that I did not carry in two bags is still in transit in a container.

Meanwhile, the busyness of handling the move, getting settled, trying to get a bus card, and teaching two courses, has meant that I did not really have time to sit down with my thoughts and process my feelings about such a major life change. If people ask me what I miss about San Francisco I will, truthfully, say something like UberX, or Thai food, or getting a bus card from a vending machine, because I still have not had a chance to miss the bigger stuff. Similarly, this post will be about random small stuff.

Milan is lovely this time of the year. Unlike most other Italian cities, there is no well-preserved historical neighborhood: the city was devastated by WW2 bombings, and then rebuilt; in the center, majestic old buildings are scattered among generic 1960s era condos. Nonetheless, walking along the Naviglio Grande (a canal running roughly in an East-West direction flanked mostly by 100+ year old buildings) at sunset is quite beautiful.

Milan is one of the most expensive cities in Italy, but one can have an awesome sit-down multi-course lunch for 12 euros (tax included, no tip), or a sit-down coffee for one euro. In one of my new favorite dinner places, the old but energetic lady that runs the place comes to the table to offer a choice of a handful of first courses, a couple of second courses and a couple of desserts (no menu); last time I was there she charged 4 euros for two glasses of wine.

Bocconi keeps rolling out its strategy to expand into computing. After introducing an undergraduate degree in Economics, Management and Computer Science, and a masters degree in Data Science, next year will see the start of a new PhD Program in Statistics and Computer Science. The deadline to apply is in February, and I would be happy to talk to students interested in applying. The language of instruction, like for almost all degree programs at Bocconi, is English. A new undergraduate program on computing is in the final planning stages, and I will say more about it when it is official.

Between teaching two courses, getting settled, and trying to get a bus card, I have not had a lot of time for research, but the local physicists have been giving us a crash course on the replica method to study optimization problems on random instances. I plan, in the near future, to complete my series of posts on online optimization, and to write whatever I understand of the replica method. An example of what is going on:

physicist: “so the smallest eigenvalue of this nxn matrix is {n \choose 2}, which is negative, and this is a problem because it means that the matrix is not PSD”
me: “wait, what?”
physicist: “don’t forget that we are interested in the limit n \rightarrow 0.”

Coming here, I thought that my command of the Italian language, which I haven’t spoken on a regular basis for a while, would be almost perfect, and this has been true, except that the “almost” part has come from unexpected directions.

For example, one can find a number of places serving real (and very good) Chinese food, which was not the case at the time I grew up in Italy. However, I have no idea how Chinese dishes are called in Italian, for the most part I don’t know how they are called in Chinese either, so I have to resort to the English menu, if available, or to guesswork. Quite reasonably, dumplings are called “ravioli” and noodles are called “pasta” or “spaghetti.” In some places, buns are called, also quite reasonably, “panini”. That dish that I like that is usually called, with much understatement, “boiled fish with preserved vegetables” in America? “Zuppa di pesce”. How do you say “bok choy”? I am still not sure.

In Italian, like in French, you can address someone in a formal or an informal way (in Italian the formal way is to use the third person) and the subtle cues of when to use which form have shifted a little with time, so I have been feeling a bit confused and I have mostly been following other people’s lead.

Bocconi is an exceptionally well run institution. This is true in many ways, from maintenance and cleaning all the way to campus strategic planning, but one of the things that most impressed me, a luxury you do not see on American campuses any more, is that they have secretaries. Not directors of operations, not grant administrators, not coordinators of this or that with lots of underlings, but people that you can go talk to, describe a problem you are having or something you need, and then walk away and forget about it, because they will take care of it, with lots of common sense and professionalism. This is amazing! The cognitive load of worrying about lots of things other than teaching and research is something that it feels just wonderful not to have.

Despite this, the Bocconi administration operates on a shoestring budget compared to American universities. How does it do it? I am collecting figures and I plan to write a separate post about it. If only the Bocconi administration was in charge of issuing bus cards for the city!

It should be noted that, while it has a lot of autonomy as a private university, Bocconi is not a sovereign entity and it is subject to Italian law. For example, I recently had to see two doctors who had to certify that I had no medical condition that would make it dangerous for me to be a professor, and the procedure to hire postdocs is a bit Byzantine (but the secretaries take care of most of it!).

In conclusion, I had some very intense, very exciting, and very rewarding six weeks and, while I do not yet have a bus card, I have a medical certificate that I can teach and do research. Now I am off to eat some Chinese ravioli and maybe a Chinese panino.

2 thoughts on “What’s New

  1. It has only been a month. So far, they let you drink wine at dinner and they don’t mind what airline you fly with, so they are still winning

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