Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On Pils and Pillows

We begin with a few words from our guest blogger re: her trip last week to Hannover to meet the other Humboldt Fellows from across Germany. She writes:

Hannover is not the most exciting location, especially during a snowstorm in March, but when in Hannover here are some things to do: 1) Visit the famous mathematician Leibniz's house and turn the ring in the fountain out front to be granted a wish. 2) See the ever-changing sign in the main square that displays the current world population. Germany wants to remind people that the Earth’s resources are running out and fast. [Main blogger's note: I didn't put her up to this one]:

3) See the Rathaus. It’s really the only building left from before the war.

4) Find the monument to the 7 professors (including the Brothers Grimm) who were exiled from the city/University when they disagreed with the King (Ernest-Augustus). Apparently the gardens are amazing too, but I wouldn’t know because it was 20 degrees and windy. It snowed almost the entire time. I’m sure a flower could not have lived through that weather. On the upside, Leibniz Universitat does have a beautiful lecture hall, and I was fortunate to hear the former minister of education (a woman!) speak to the fellows. It was refreshing to hear a politician speak openly about climate change and the need for sustainability. [Main blogger's note: I didn't put her up to this one.] I also made some new international friends who will, no doubt, be a welcome site at our reunion in Berlin in June. Maybe we’ll have a reprise of our tequila shots while being serenaded by a lounge singer playing Santana’s “Maria Maria” on a synthesizer.

As Jeanine was already pretty far North, we met up in Frankfurt Friday for an urban weekend (we knew it was urban because the Hotel Bristol plays lounge music 24-7). We both were feeling the need for a little bit of Americana, and given that its residents seem to have pretty much abandoned the use of German in restaurants and stores, Frankfurt is the perfect city in which to forget you're in Germany. And we really liked the city, despite the absurd end-of-March cold and wind. The manageable scale and the river Main reminded us of D.C. The Rathaus is almost all postwar.

Frankfurt is very cosmopolitan: we could find bankers from every nation but also one of my favorite Pils(es?) from Baden-Württemberg. Trust me, I am under-dressed.

To get our American fix, we went to a relatively un-German restaurant. Indeed, the Druckerwasse reminded me of mid-90s Minneapolis, when opening a restaurant in an old brick warehouse was the height of hip.

My duck was downright American, though Jeanine went with the schnitzel, which she deemed the best she's ever had. And further caving into Germania, I enjoyed the Radeberger Pils, which is damn good despite being a macro-brew by German standards. So much for the the multiple cask conditioned beers on tap.

The pillows in Frankfurt also remained resolutely German. Jim, please tell me what I'm supposed to do with this feathered monstrosity, which, despite being over-sized, still could not keep my head more than 1/16 of an inch above the mattress after I folded it over twice.

After a miserable night's sleep (folding up the extra comforter I had asked for worked in the pillow department, but I subsequently froze), one of our first stops Saturday (after watching angry vegan protestors storming through one of the central squares -- look, I wanted to say, I am eating vegetarian at home in this country. Who knows enough German to order those strange meats at die Metzgerei?!) was a department store. Kein Paradies hier.

Thinking about pils(es?) and pillows so much got me thinking about path dependency, the phenomenon whereby something exists in the form it does simply because it has existed in this form for a long time. The classic example (Sam, was it used by the political scientist who coined the term?) is the QWERTY keyboard; there's no way we should be using it, as many other keyboard designs are more efficient, but we do because that's the way it's always been. Path dependency helps explain everything from the superiority of the Lakers over the Clippers to the higher salaries of political scientists compared to historians to the conservative voting patterns of Wyomingites. It's a very powerful force, so much so that even in a country that has spent the better part of three-quarters of a century remaking its culture after the horrors of the Nazis -- yeah I know: until now I had observed Basil's famous exhortation from Fawlty Towers: "don't mention the war" -- it explains why Hannover is a pretty boring city and why, in Germany, pils prevail and pillows are perverse.

After unsuccessful pillow shopping, we did find enough time to tour Goethe's (postwar reconstructed) family house, which made me realize that a) I didn't read squat in college and b) Goethe was one rich dude.

We also went by the Frankfurt stock exchange. We called a (short-term) market top here.

Then it was time for Frankfurt am Main's main attraction, the Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie (ok, let's call it the Städel). Serious variety of art here, from Bosch to Warhol. They also had this very famous painting:

Oh no wait a second, sorry, I got jumbled up here with the other entry I have open about my damn back injury returning after merely a 25-mile week. This is a painting called "The Back Operation." I'll delete that entry. 

Ever since I went to Oslo I've been a huge Edvard Munch fan. I mean, doesn't this one just make you want to throw back a few 12€ beers in a rustic tavern on the Norwegian coast? 

And look, if you can't have Brueghel's "Hunters in the Snow," imitations are fine.

Undeterred by the arctic invasion, we then walked three times around the city looking for a particular tavern that's been selling Frankfurt's renowned Apfelwein since 1847. I dunno: the stuff has a weird metallic aftertaste. Maybe it's not a coincidence that a revolution broke out the year after this tavern opened. But luckily here we met some business students who directed us to a great pizzeria (Pils on tap: the available-in-America Bitburger). 

On Sunday we checked for frostbite relapses and went to the German Film Museum, specialist in pre-camera moving-image shows from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They also had a special exhibit with memorabilia from every Oscars. And look at these special effects! 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Still Banging My Head Against the Wall

No, I don't have a third gaping head wound to report. Instead, I'm referring to ongoing pleasant but frustrating conversations I've been having with various human-induced-climate-change skeptics. 

One of the things I love most about being an academic is having friends who study a variety of fascinating subjects -- for example (relevant here) the economics of human migration, water quality in streams, emotion and perception, environmental and agricultural history, state conflict, and so on. So I'd love to hear people's thoughts on how to tackle climate change denialism. Then maybe we can tackle climate change itself. 

I realize we can only do so much when half of Americans reject science. (I'm not saying here, btw, that most climate change skeptics reject science, but surely a lot do). And as the brain scientist with whom I live often reminds me, most of us believe what we want to most of the time. Who among really turns on System 2 thinking more than the average person, especially when it concerns a reality with potentially grim consequences for us all?

But, as the Dowager on Downton Abby says, "Don't be defeatist dear. It's so middle class." If I can concede that the Democrats' line about the rich paying their highest taxes in 50 years is spurious, then surely anti-environmentalists can admit the biases (and funding) behind climate change skepticism.

The way I see it, there are two main arguments against the overwhelming consensus shared by 97% of scientists. Hockey anyone?

Argument 1): Both sides make good points. Probably the truth is somewhere in the middle.

I attribute this one to the unintended consequences of the Fairness Doctrine. Until the Reagan administration wisely abandoned it, the FCC required broadcasters to present both sides of a controversial issue. Today, it's quite common to see one mainstream scientist and one outlier interviewed on the same talk show, which obviously obscures the actual ratio between the two camps (as does learning science from a handful of newspapers as opposed to the thousands of scholarly articles published on a topic, but I can't be the one to throw stones about not reading the primary research ...). And if Americans are nothing else, surely we are fair! Sure you may sleep in an alley, the logic goes, but darn it you had a fair shot in a competitive society, and regardless of your SES, we take seriously your First Amendment right to be heard! (Exception: on Fox News, this rule does not apply to atheists and center-Left individuals as opposed to caricatures of the Left put on simply to look stupid.) In addition, our society is so polarized politically right now that I think some people treat scientific debates as if they were another budget scrape in Washington, thinking, "well surely both sides are posturing and exaggerating, so as a reasonable and logical person immune to all that noise, I'll just split the difference." Too bad science doesn't work that way.

In response to this argument, I usually ask, "Ok, so what are the other prevailing scientific consensuses with a 97-3 ratio that you reject? And if this is the only one, then why this one?" 

Argument 2) Scientists are sometimes wrong. Look at how Galileo was treated. You need to stop following the herd.

This is a fair -- and yet ultimately disingenuous -- point. As a student of population debates, I know all about eugenics and the sometimes dark side of scientific consensus. (We'll ignore for the moment the rise of peer review, which the Inquisition did not use.) And boy, I hope the tiny minority of non-Koch-brothers-funded legitimate scientists is right. Then we could move on to things like improving women's rights across the world and realignment in Major League Baseball. But gee, it sure is amazing that so many conservatives with a vested interest in the maintenance of the fossil fuel status quo, many of whom attack science elsewhere, are all of a sudden such fans of beleaguered scientists in the minority. My response here is usually along the lines of: "As you are such a friend of the persecuted Galilean free-thinker, what are the other prevailing scientific consensuses with a 97-3 ratio that you reject? And if this is the only one, then why this one?"

Honestly, all the times I've asked this question, I've only ever gotten one satisfactory response. One day in class an earnest student responded un-ironically: "yeah I can name one. Evolution."

Speaking of which, I read a piece today on a cool new book blog I discovered called The Page 99 Test suggesting that if "Darwin had fallen overboard on the voyage of the Beagle, there were other versions of evolutionism that could have carried the theory forward. Natural selection would have come much later, and would have seemed less revolutionary. In this counterfactual world, religious believers would have been less traumatized by evolutionism, because it would have been easier to imagine life progressing toward moral perfection."

In any event, you can always make change at home. So last night, the activist spirit burning in my heart, I walked to meet Søren at the local, vowing to drink only regional beer.

First up was a Berg Ulrichsbier from a little brewery across the forest east of us in Ehingen called Berg Brauerei Ulrich Zimmerman

Not bad, and a very-cool-in-the-1980s bottle, but not much to blog home about either. Falling somewhere between a brown ale and a Viennese lager, it left me craving Epic's hoppy Copper Cone pale ale.

Then we had a Zwiefalter Kloster-Schwarzes. Also perfectly well made, but it reminded me that I don't like black lagers very much. They always leave me craving either a serious stout or something hoppy like a Copper Cone. And these negative comments don't contradict my last entry: the Pils(es?) are great in these parts.

By now, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. After all, I could have ordered a Carlsberg trucked in (trained in?) from Denmark. But someone has to take a stand for the planet. Think of all the hops I'm not consuming over here.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Around Town

Before a refreshingly short less long entry, a couple of quick items. First off all, I'd like to announce improvements to the blog itself. I've added a blogroll of the blogs that I follow (most purely for entertainment) in case you have even more time to kill. And I've figured how to make web links in the text open a new window. Well, OK, my friend Nate showed me how -- in general, historians and code don't mix. So now you can click on all the great links I provide without worrying about losing your place.

Speaking of Nate, if anyone needs web work, I highly recommend him. To see his craft, please visit the new page he's designed for my book: stateandthestork.com (yeah I know, pretty lame subterfuge for a self-promotional aside). But if you can spare the minute, I'd appreciate it if you would quickly Google "state and the stork" or "state and the stork Derek Hoff," try to find the site, and then open it. This will help improve the site's Google ranking. And please feel free to send along to your policy wonk friends. 

We've enjoyed a quiet last ten days getting to know our city and working on our German, ok restaurant German, well ok Denglish. If you want to understand something of the absurdity of us trying to learn how speak this language, go to Google Translate and enter the words "Italian" and Chinese." Then click on the little microphone icon to hear the pronunciation. And suffice it to say that my pronunciation and usage of "chicken breasts" left our language instructor in hysterics.

After this great stretch in town, I thought it was time to offer a few completely random, unsolicited, mostly cliched, and low-N observations about Germany.

1) As I've already described on this blog, the coffee culture here is different and better. I love the ubiquity of properly served espresso. (As Loss writes, coffee culture in Europe its completely superior to "what we have on this side of the pond: paper cups, frappa-this and that, a total zoo.") I was roaming around our neighborhood one morning and popped into our Joey's pizza, which looks like a walk-in Papa John's with no tables in a seedy neighborhood in the states. But even here I could get an espresso served in a porcelain cup. (Indeed, one of my favorite things about Germany is the culture of almost all food being served with real glasses, silverware, plates and trays, even in pretty-close-to-fast-food-e.g.-Donar restaurants -- haven't been to our McDonald's yet.) But they drink so little drip coffee here that Jeanine and I spent a very pleasant couple of hours walking around Old Town looking for a little electric Kaffeemühle (grinder) and honestly couldn't find one, only hand-crank manual machines. I'm as much in favor as the next guy of the smugness points that come with a hand-crank Kaffeemühle, but not for 90€. After a couple weeks of grinding our precious stock of Jack Mormon beans in a food processor -- too coarse even for our French Press -- we've been reduced to freeloading off the big machine in the Kaufland so we can use our American-style maker. Also, it's different in Berlin, but coffeehouses where one can sit and work are still unknown in Tübingen. Every little neighborhood spot that would be a coffeehouse in a U.S. university town is taken up by a salon or a florist or a bakery. German per capita flower consumption is off the charts compared to America ... and as for bread consumption, well, you can read all about that here in this classically German extended white paper on the baking industry. Ireland has 7 bakeries for every 100,000 people -- Germany 47.

2) Despite our stereotypes, Germans aren't that orderly, at least as measured by their failure to rack their weights in the gym. (They also don't use trash cans the way you think they do: see next item.) It is true that one of the employees at Clever Fit was getting awfully perturbed by the fact that he kept spending the time to put the barbells back in place, only to see them get messed up again soon thereafer. But when I suggested -- after some difficulty -- that the gym purchase stickers to label where the weights should go, he was absolutely floored by the novelty of my idea. And then there's the little matter of the gym providing no water of any sort (except for the bathroom sink -- and yes, I've been reduced to as much) unless you pay an extra 5€ per month for the fancy and sometimes-flavored mineral water. But I could write a whole entry about water ...

3)  [writing credit: Jeanine] The trash is Kafka-esque. We have a calendar that the previous tenants left us that theoretically tells us when to put out which type of trash. There is Gelber Sack (plastic and recycling), Bio (compost), Restmull (anything not recycling, compost, or paper), Papier (paper), and about four times the rate of large-item pickups as in the states. At first we were stressed about the elaborate calendar, but it turns out there's no need to stress at all -- everyone puts out their trash so far in advance (I'd estimate Tuesday morning if the pick-up is Wednesday), that you can always tell what's next, especially as they don't use bins (other than the collective large but not as large as in the U.S. dumpster for our building's Restmull, which comes complete with a padlock). That's right, here in one of the neatest countries on earth, on trash day the sidewalks are pretty much strewn with trash bags (even if these bags do hold compost).

4) All joking about trash aside, the sustainability ethic here is absurdly ahead of the American ethic. The mail is delivered on bikes, the bottle deposits are massive, the dryers are tiny, etc. (One exception: even if you can't get a plastic bag here at a store, they use plastic for everything else liberally: I mean, even a pint of strawberries will sometimes be ensconced and sealed in plastic.) And the results, by the way, are real. The average American produces twice the greenhouse gases as the average European.

5) Germany has a wonderful look-we're-happy-with-pretty-darn-good, we-don't-need-an-overpriced-boutique culture. If you want to find some of the world's best artisan bread, cooked in a 600-year-old oven imported from Spain brick by brick, go to Brooklyn. If you want truly innovative beer, go to Salt Lake City or St. Paul or Portland or Jackson Hole or any number of American cities with our over-the-top high-end craft beer culture (about which even young German computer scientists are woefully ignorant). But if you want damn good Kürbisbrot (pumpkin seed bread), not made with crap and available everywhere -- even if chains have swallowed up a lot of the Mom 'n Pop bakeries and much of the bread is made in big facilities in the suburbs -- come to Tübingen. (What will my Dean think when, for my sabbatical-activity report, I record that my next research project is now a history called "How Did American Bread End Up So Crappy?"?). If you want amazingly good Pils(es?) day in and day out, cheaper than water, and you can make due without triple hopped Barley wine aged in organic whiskey barrels, this is the place. Jeanine has a theory that Germans do more things pretty darn well in higher volume than we do because they have a more vibrant and still-expanding middle class that can still afford pretty darn good. I think she's on to something.

Anyway some shots around town ... here's our adorable local pub:

Here's Jeanine's first beer at said pub, captured a few weeks ago:

Here's one of the 2 bakeries we have within a 3-minute walk from us:

Here's the slightly larger bakery more like 8 minutes from us. Is anyone in Manhattan reading this?:

Here's our gym in the ugliest building in Tübingen, on an ugly day (but hey, at least they share a building with the offices of one of the local breweries):

Here's a first view of the Neckar River and Old Town (more of these to come I'm sure):

Here's the creek near our house where we go on unbelievably satisfying, what-a-great-break-from-Utah, completely flat runs on a nice path:

Here's my new favorite beer. Abt means Abbott. Aaron says the guy on the left looks like the new Pope:

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

WC Day 3, Saturday, aka I May Need to Start Wearing a Helmet

Before getting to Saturday, a couple of pictures from Cavalese Friday night.

By chance, Kari and Maijastïïna had planned to go skiing Saturday morning, so now -- it seemed -- our transportation luck had finally changed: after breakfast (and by the way, to state the obvious, European hotel buffets destroy American ones for similarly priced hotels; and could at least upscale American hotels get the memo on self-service espresso machines?), Jeanine and I were chauffeured just a few kilometers up the canyon behind our hotel in Stava, toward the downhill mountains, to Passo Lavaze. (The grass is not always greener: even though they had rented a car, Kari and Maijastïïna had determined that taking the buses to the events was easier than parking.) Forget about Oberstdorf -- this place is the Shangri-la of Nordic Skiing (and actually, I bet the grooming in the Himalayas isn't as good ...). Passo Lavaze has over 100k of development-free trails, and it's surrounded by craggy Dolomites on all sides. Didn't hurt that it was warm and sunny either. Sure the near-to-the-entrance "easy" trails were crowded, but most of the Nordic world had descended on Val de Fiemme after all -- and it was kind of cool to be dusted by members of the Greenland Ski Team, which, btw, could use some more Facebook friends. I guess this team employs only a part-time job coach; his page leads with a curling picture rather than a skiing one.) But anyway, it's now a goal to ski somewhere as stunning again -- we may not succeed, but the goal should generate some awesome travel. These pictures (some stolen) don't begin to do the setting justice:



Kari, we didn't make it to the pig farm like our Olympians did (photo credit: noahhoffman.com):
Liz Stephen with Pig and Dog

Kari then whisked us to the stadium in time for the women's 30k. The Norwegian party was still going strong, and yet somehow the buzz felt subdued the day after the Men's relay. People took their time filling into the expensive seats for this long race (sort of like a Wizards game), and we didn't even have to wait in line for my Forst ration. Thank you Lydia for the seats!

The race was exciting, although the American presence was also subdued: Liz Stephen (with pig) skied to a solid 16th, but never really threatened, and Jessie Diggins disappointingly dropped out after a hard crash. Kikkan Randall sat it out with an eye toward the season-long sprint championship. But the race did feature perhaps the three best skiers in the world duking it out alone for the final 10k, with Marit Bjørgen, who won 4 gold medals in the championships, prevailing in a final sprint.

Here's the start of the race from our vantage point and a couple more shots of us in the stands:

After a leisurely outdoor picnic and a "hamburger" (round sausage patty) up near our stands we made our way down to the finish-line stands for the Nordic Combined Team Sprints. But, of course, first it was ...

In case you don't often watch Nordic Combined Team Sprints, they're a blast: two skiers per team keep tagging off after 1.5k legs for a total of 10 legs and 15K. And because every team starts at a different time based on their jumping scores, and everyone is trying to catch each other going around short loops, it sort of looks like roller derby on skis. The Americans, Billy Demong (of both Adirondacks and Park City fame) and Taylor Fletcher, skied the second fastest, but, argh, once again weak jumping did us in and we finished 6th. Even with just a little better jumping, the Americans would have been passing skiers into the medal places right under our and Mr. Fletcher's flags.

Today's bus avoidance strategy was to walk up the hill from the stadium to Tesero, as seen here:

All was well on a warm day, when all of a sudden, right as I heard Jeanine say, "Watch your head!", I managed to run right into a metal beam that was part of the support for the walkway overhanging the sidewalk we were on. It's a good thing Jeanine doesn't faint at the site of blood, which was gushing from the front of my scalp after I got up from the ground. That's right, loyal readers: that brought the total of self-inflicted gaping head wounds to 2 in 8 days. I think the old woman near us was more traumatized than we were, and she escorted us up the hill and into the first store, which turned out to be basically Tesero's newsstand and bookstore. Jeanine seemed a bit worried at this point, but I enjoyed making friends with the owner and her son, who provided anti-bacterial spray and a guaze pad (I'll never forget where I bought that mug). They also pointed us to the "White Cross," where three ER techs in European-style orange jump-suits cleaned and examined my wound and declared it non-stitch-worthy. They didn't speak a lot of English, but they did say they were disappointed we were from Salt Lake City and Manhattan and not Springfield (as in the Simpsons). The view from the White Cross was especially nice:

For extra medicine we had a cappuccino and the trip's first cannoli (one of Jeanine's favorites), and then we ate in Tesero -- actually at the place where our hero had called his friend the gypsie cab driver two nights before. At this restaurant we met some Vikings on the comeback trail:

We were tempted by "Green Night," the concluding party back in Cavalese, but one night amidst throngs in the square was enough. Really the main appeal of Green Night was its fantastic webpage, one of the best ever in the butchered-translation genre, which urged us to "Live the show until the end" and then noted -- oh heck, it's worth quoting in full:

Like every show worthy of respect, also Femme 2013 must have an end that "wouldn't already end"!

After having felt the power of the World Championship's people during the warm up, Dj Fargetta, Andrea Dub and Ivana Lola reconquer their trone and lead the night caravan to a last "battle" fo music and wild fun.

The 2nd March's Green Night looks like the last page of a book of adventure stories: first you imagine how it will be -- you would like to know how the writer decided to finish it -- then you turn the pages carefully, as if the magic of those last lines could fly away... 

This night is like this, enjoy it until the very last second. In Cavalese, 0-km products, turned-off lights, little electric cars that will drive up and down the streets of Cavalese, where shops and stores will stay open until late in the night: this is how we do it!

Dear deejays, write the first words and your public will do the rest! Put your hands up for the Green Night!

Jeanine and I thought we had imagined how the night would be and reconquered our trone by carefully planning dinner to make the last scheduled caravan from Tesero up the hill to our hotel. But then, in (what we thought was) the culmination of the absurdity, the last bus simply didn't show, as the hotel later confirmed. It was if the bus drivers had been fighting and fighting against the stereotypes of their people (hey, I can say this: I married an Italian), but then, finally, when Green Night beckoned, could hold out no longer and joined the party before the magic flew away. Luckily, however, we had Kari's magical taxi company card, and the less-than-3k ride home cost a mere $30!

As for Sunday, our departure day, let me just say this officially on the interweb for all time: Jeanine is a great sport for enduring so much travel to humor my Nordic passion. And luckily we did have time to eat at Bolzano's only brewpub, in an 800-year-old building:

Having established myself as the master of logistics, you won't be surprised to hear that I had planned this lunch gap perfectly so that we could watch on TV the Men's 50k, the last race of the Championships. But I was foiled by the completely unpredictable -- who ever heard of a brewpub without a TV?!

Cue extended travel, but let me just note that the brakes on our train car from Munich to Stuttgart overheated, which filled the car with smoke, sent us into hysterical laughter, forced us to miss our connection and produced a full-on sprint to catch a train, and finally led to an 11 o'clock dinner in the Subway (30cm deal!) near the Tubingen train station. I would have perished had Lydia not mailed us some Cliff Bars. All in all, it was a great trip, but I'm not sure which we now hate more: Italian buses or German trains. Next time we're flying to Milan and renting a car. 

Thanks for reading such long entries. I leave you with two parting shots: 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Quick Addendum to Friday

Jeanine found, on an Italian webpage, an image of us on the set where we were interviewed Friday. Thanks for the beach party (and prosciutto-between-fried-potato sandwiches) Rimini Street Food.