Jul 23, 2012

Travel and other thought-provoking summer events

10 days in a bus can still teach one a thing or two. Like how asphalt will tent in extreme heat, blocking the whole autobahn. Or how upsetting Norwegians find dealing with older German tourists who speak fondly of their time in Norway back in the 40's (I'm sure some US GI's have made the same faux pas when visiting Europe). Or that whatever may be going on financially, the Germans and Austrians still manage to keep the sides of their roads manicured. Or that words like "cup" and "large" don't translate at all. It's "large cup" in English, "grosse Tasse" (more or less) in German and "stor kopp" in Norwegian. My German was terribly rusty, but I did manage to use it. And I discovered that German-speakers have something in common with the French: They love that you try to use their language.

So, this year's summer vacation was a bit early for me, and it feels like I didn't actually have a vacation. Still, I'm happy I took the bus trip to Bodensee (or Lake Constance, to you foreigners).

My grandparents loved traveling in Germany and Austria. I do, too. Our bus driver was part Austrian (another WWII-related faux pas) and I have roots from the Berlin area and Bavaria. We talked about genetic memory—whether or not our genes not only gave us physical characteristics, but also a bond to the place those genes evolved in. We both felt there is something to the hypothesis. Something about feeling very at ease with the people and the landscape.

Since last I traveled on the continent, I've gone low-carb. Avoiding bread went well. I love that Germans and Austrians like soup. I had several good ones, and our hotel in Bregenz had very good food. I had Steinpilzensuppe in Meersburg for lunch, simply because the waiter knew the English word "mushroom". Also on the menu there was Flädlesuppe but our waiter didn't know enough English to explain, and said something about shellfish, so I took the mushroom soup. I have now learned that "Flädle" means pancake. Just as well.

We ended up in Meersburg on the day we took the ferry from Bregenz, a regular ferry service. Lake Constance is huge, and our ferry took 3 hours to Meersburg with several stops on the way. At one point, the wind picked up and made the sea choppy; on land, we could see lightning striking. I wandered off on my own, only to discover that I should have paid closer attention when the guide said "a good 20 minutes to the top". The top I got to after 10 minutes wasn't the top she meant. Long story (10 minutes of trying to not panic): A taxi took me to the tour bus parking lot. Yes, I got to be a typical tourist: Lost. (I also discovered that cell phones are like currency: They function best in the country of issue. I wish somebody would figure out how to make the things global, like credit cards.)

I was quite charmed by Bregenz. Just the right size, and conveniently located for seeing the Bodensee area. Photos with comments are here. There are three pages and none of them link back here or wherever. The reason for this is that I can't figure out WordPress (after all) to get my website going, and I don't like publishing photos without captions. I'm always wondering what I'm looking at when I view other people's non-captioned photos, so&hellips; If and when I get things fixed, this blog post will have updated links.

When I got back to Norway, I just vegged. Tried to figure out what to do my last week off from work, and did nothing. The newspapers were mostly about the Romani people camping in Oslo and who have received a lot of vitriol in person and in online comments. And then the newspapers started revving up their articles about last year's tragedy and how people were doing now a year later and what the commemoration on the first anniversary would be like.

Sometimes I wonder about the timing of these things. Sometimes it seems to me that the Universe is setting us up deliberately so that we humans can learn our lessons. A traditionally undesired group of foreigners camping in our capital is juxtaposed with the anniversary of one of our own killing other Norwegians because they represented (in his mind) a too lenient attitude towards foreigners.

Norway has traditionally been a homogenous and skeptical country, easily xenophobic even towards strangers from other parts of Norway. There are voices now suggesting that we do need to address this side of ourselves. We can't pick and choose who to like and support. We know now that we too have crazies who will act on their beliefs and with violence, and that the target isn't necessarily the people we don't like. Quite the contrary: Innocents are always the victims.

I found myself swayed by the headlines and comments until some good journalism made me read up a bit on the Romani. I discovered that how they fare in each country they are in depends a lot on the country. The country's own attitude about the Romani determines whether or not they become a problem. Just like with individuals, expectation and assumption influence outcome.

Gypsies in the streets, former German soldiers on vacation… I once said to a friend that ultimately the past doesn't matter; there is no healing those wounds. What matters is how you handle the present. Try not to add to the injury. Try to create something good right now.

Jul 9, 2012

Bats, birds and turbines

Sailing out from Copenhagen, on the ferry bound for Oslo, we pass by a long line of wind turbines standing tall out in the water.

As "green" as I am, I have never liked the looks of the modern three-bladed wind turbine. There is something about them that bothers me. When I watch them turn, I find that there is no evenness to their rotation; visually, it looks to me like three Barbie doll legs, one "falling" down after another. (I have rarely seen these things moving so fast you can't make out the individual blades.)

Apparently, these turbines are not as environmentally friendly as we are led to believe. In the county of Rogaland in Norway, one array is noise polluting a nearby neighborhood. I have read that the maximum three blades on modern turbines is chosen because it makes a minimum of noise. Still, anything that big, rotating in the wind, will make some sound.

Another array was put in a white-tailed eagle breeding area two counties north of where I live, in Smøla. Within months after starting up, more than a half dozen birds—a vulnerable species—had died from colliding with the wind turbines. However, it turns out that birds have a tendency to crash into man-made structures, anyway. It's not just wind turbines, and I saw myself a sparrow (most likely) fly right into the side of our office building one day. I have no idea if the poor thing made it, but since it flew straight into concrete, I doubt it. So, the real issue with the Smøla installation is that man-made structures are placed in a known breeding area for several vulnerable bird species, not that the structures are wind turbines. (A similar issue applies to the Altamont Pass energy farm in California.)

It turns out that the slower moving blades I've observed are due to newer turbine design, with larger blades. This slower movement helps birds detect the blades and avoid them.

Sadly, this doesn't alleviate another problem regarding flying animals. Bats are still crashing into wind turbines—or rather, next to them. Echo location means bats will not collide with the turbines themselves so researchers were baffled by bat deaths around turbines. The likely explanation is that because bat lungs are different from birds (i.e. bats have mammalian lungs—a flexible balloon-like structure which can collapse or over-expand), bats are more vulnerable to a sudden change in air pressure. There is a marked difference in air pressure in front of the turbine blades and behind them - like the difference in air speed flow above and below an airplane wing—and this is what affects bats. Bats are vital to insect control and therefore agriculture, and like birds, many bats are migratory. Bat death in one area could adversely affect all ecosystems along the bat's migration route.

I am sad that this is happening to bats. I like them. I have never found them creepy. Rather, this little flying mammal fascinates me. Happily, people are trying to solve the problem.

I started writing about wind turbines because I think they are creepy-looking, but I now have no reason to believe that they represent an energy source that is harmful to us or wildlife—not if we are careful about placement and try to solve the problems that some flying creatures can have with them.

  1. How Stuff Works' article on birds and turbines
  2. One of several reports from Smøla wind park on birds
  3. Bat death due to barotrauma

Jul 1, 2012

Writing sensation

There is something about a blank sheet of paper and a comfortable ink pen, and putting those two together. There is also something about having spent years preferring the speed and ease of touch typing and so ruining what legibility my handwriting used to have.

Girls seem to go through stages of testing our longhand more so than boys do. During puberty we try on dotting our i's with hearts or circles or inventing a new way to make the loops on our g's and y's, the same way we try on new shades of eye shadow or doing our hair. Some of the experiments become habit, while others are short-lived fads.

My lettering changed to a predominantly Norwegian style since it is simpler than the US style—even though the Norwegian lower-case "t" had me baffled at first. In school, we regularly practiced stringing letters legibly together with a fountain pen—the kind that uses cartridges; I still have my stainless steel one for sentimental reasons. The bump formed on my middle finger from where the pens and pencils of my youth would press is still there, never to go away even if its attending callous has no matter how much I type. I wonder if any of today's girls will ever experience such an alteration to a finger?

It is said that writing by hand demands a connection between thinking, seeing and doing that typing misses out on. Writing by hand demands that your hand make rather complicated movements to produce lines, loops and circles while you're simultaneously putting an entire unrelated thinking, the whole process monitored by your eyes. Typing takes away the attention to the actual form of the letter. (The things you learn, looking up Indiana school decisions.)

I sometimes think that computers remove us from using our sense of touch. And yet, my sense of touch is one reason why I love to type on a computer. I have the fingers on both hands racing across a jumble of letters. I delight in how speedily my fingers can move with hardly any error (aided by my eyes on the screen), how my digits can produce my thoughts almost as fast as I think them. Or, how my thoughts slow down just enough to let my fingers work, leaving me not knowing exactly where the thought will end, but constantly in the moment.

I type better than I write, and I can type faster legibly than I can write legibly. Therefore, I prefer typing. I don't really like editing handwritten things; I don't like the mess of crossed out words or redrawn letters because the first try (or two) was too sloppy. There are times when I can't read my own handwriting because I was moving too fast, and then I have to go back and retrace. Yes, I could use a pencil with an eraser (I never can use a pencil without), but I press hard and constantly wear down the point. I prefer ball point pens.

In the interest of adding more writing to this blog, I need to write—and write more. Since I don't lug my laptop around, and screen keyboards on tiny screens have obvious limitations, I have to write by hand. I still enjoy the feel of a good pen, a nice medium point, ink that flows smoothly, a grip that rests comfortably against the bump on my middle finger… And maybe, just maybe, I'll get my handwriting back. Maybe I'll be able to fill up page after page without too many retraces of lax s's that look like r's or m's missing some of their humps. I'm actually looking forward to finding out.