Small Pockets of Nature Everywhere

Germany is one of the most densely-populated countries in Europe, and the Rhein-Ruhr region, where I live, is the most densely-populated in Germany.

But thanks to German regional planning, there are enclaves of nature even here. And they’re not created thanks to some misguided Corbusier-like mix of giant residential housing blocks surrounded by parks. The vast majority of Düsseldorfers live in 4-5 story buildings, not high-rises.

Yet the city is still compact, with beautiful greenery in the middle and at the edges. The key here is small parks and enclaves. One example is the Urdenbach marshes. Ages ago, the Rhein changed its path near a place called Urdenbach. It stopped following large curve and began flowing more directly, in a straighter course. Since the entire area of the former curve was only a few meters above the new course of the Rhine, it flooded whenever the Rhine flooded. This created a marshy wetland area.

Long story short, over the years the wetland was partially destroyed, some used for agriculture, some paved over. The old course of the Rhein was hemmed in by dams, and gradually dried into a small stream. In 2013 the city, and local government, and local nature organizations (these things take lots of consultation) decided to increase and broaden the flow of the “Altrhein”, and make parts of this nature preserve into a genuine marsh again. Here’s the picture from the official city-planning brochure (g).


The red is the small stream of the former Rhein, the light-blue is the part that would be be reclaimed as a wetland. The two yellow dots represent large breaches in the dam, letting the water flow in the lower area to the east. On the right, you see a residential area, the lower-middle class suburb of Hellerhof. On the left, agricultural land and rich pasture for sheep and cattle. I’ll come back to both the suburb and the fields a bit later.

The plan worked. The wetlands brought birds. In only one 5- minute span on a bench, I saw coots, cormorants, gray herons, swans, ducks, Northern geese, Nile geese, and grebes. And was surrounded by the awkward croaking of horny frogs. The brochure from which this photo was taken lays out the strategy the local authorities pursued after after breaching the dam: nothing. They just let the water find its course and build ponds of its own design. A few dead trees were scattered in the riverbed to adjust its flow. And then allowed to rot, creating natural temporary dams. Existing trees which couldn’t tolerate the higher moisture are slowly collapsing, leaving room for more moisture-tolerant trees.

The marsh area is only narrow strip hemmed in by farmers’ fields to the southwest and a thickly-settled suburb to the northeast. But still, it’s there. And it’s beautiful:

Other nearby areas have also been declared nature areas. Some of these areas cover no more ground than, say, a department store (example not chosen at random). Here’s part of one of them, near the suburb of Baumberg:

Meadow near Baumberg.JPG

This meadow directly abuts a farmer’s field, and is just a few hundred meters away from a suburb. But since it’s been left in its natural state, it’s enough to provide nesting and hunting grounds for hundreds of birds, frogs, mice, and other creatures. And a soothing vista for human passers-by.

Regional planners in the Rhineland don’t have vast open spaces to work with, so they make the most of what they have in a spirit of compromise, creating small but viable islands of nature right next to streets, railroad tracks, high-power lines (one of which goes right through the Urdenbach Marshes), crop fields, and housing complexes. Give animals an area in which they are completely undisturbed — even a small area — and they’ll be able to adapt to nearby human influence.

All of this nature-civilization compromise takes careful planning, much consultation with “stakeholders”, a strong state, and a sophisticated strategic vision. All things which Germans are quite good at creating and maintaining. It makes their sophisticated regional-planning system (pdf) a model for the world. Other countries would do well to adapt it, before it’s too late.

German Word of the Week: ‘Agathe Bauer’

I hope everyone enjoyed the excursion into game theory and the Estonian Museum Locker Paradox. Many of you are now probably harboring doubts about my mental state, but that’s the risk I took in the name of Science.

And now for something completely different. I can’t believe I’ve been living in Dear Old Deutschland forever, but just learned what ‘Agathe Bauer’ songs are today. Let me clarify. First, let’s fade into 1990, with the dancefloor classic ‘I Got the Power’:

Parachute pants, flat-tops, primary colors, sampant rampling, — it’s all there. Still holds up pretty well, I’d say. When Germans heard this song, many thought ‘I Got the Power!’ was ‘Agathe Bauer’.* It turns out that native German speakers constantly hear phrases in their native language within English pop songs. Some of them absurd, some perverse.

Eventually, the entire phenomenon came to be known from its most famous instance, “I Got the Power/Agathe Bauer’, and songs which are misunderstood by Germans are now ‘Agatha Bauer’ songs. Here’s a recording of a radio call-in program (all in German, except the song titles and lyrics) in which Germans discuss their favorite ‘Agatha Bauer’ songs:

The irony is that “I Got the Power/Agathe Bauer” is a song by a German group, Snap! Here is a fun fact from the Wikipedia article about the song:

The song opens with the somewhat enigmatic line in Russian“Американская фирма Transceptor Technology приступила к производству компьютеров «Персональный спутник»” (meaning “The American company Transceptor Technology has started production of the ‘Personal Companion’ computer”). “Personal Companion” was a computer-like device for the blind and visually impaired. Released in 1990, it was controlled by voice and could, among other functions, automatically download articles from USA Today by a built-in modem. It was made by Transceptor Technologies of Ann Arbor, Michigan

Continue reading “German Word of the Week: ‘Agathe Bauer’”

The Politics of Museum-Locker Psycho-Experiments

There are two entrances to the National Art Museum of Estonia (called KUMU for Kunstimuuseum) which is built into a hill. One entrance leads you straight into the main ground-floor ticket and reception area.

But if you approach the museum from the nearby park, you enter one level below the ground floor, a basement level where the cafe and auditorium are located. If you enter from the lower level, you must walk up an inclined pathway to reach the ground floor and buy your ticket. However, even before you go up to buy your ticket, you have a chance to stow your bags and coats in storage lockers on the lower level.

This is what I decided to do. As I was stashing my stuff, I noticed a sign on the lockers which read (from memory): “There are also storage lockers at the main entrance one floor above which are free.” I chuckled and thought to myself: “Why would a museum have two sets of identical storage lockers, one of which doesn’t require a coin, and one of which does?”

You see, I took “free” to mean “you don’t need a coin to operate them.” At least half of the museums I visited in Finland had storage lockers which were totally free: you just turned the key and put it in your pocket, no need to deposit any coins. “Very civilized,” I mused, “another benefit of a high-trust society.”

As it turned out, I had a 1-euro coin handy, so I decided to just use the bottom lockers. “What’s the difference?” I thought, “I’ll just get the coin back anyway. These lockers are ‘free’ too, unless you count the opportunity cost incurred by not investing that 1 euro in an interest-bearing account for 3 hours, which I calculate at €-.00000043. I can afford that.”

So in goes the 1-euro coin. I then go off to enjoy some art. When I return, I insert the key in the lock, open the door, and reach down underneath the lock mechanism to retrieve my one-euro piece from the little plastic tray.

But there was no 1-euro piece.

There was no little plastic tray.

There was only a sealed box underneath the coin slot. The locker had taken my coin. Forever. It had been designed to take my coin. Forever. The locker wasn’t free, it actually cost 1 euro.

I have never seen this before in any European country. Museum storage lockers which permanently eat your money! What a bunch of stinking chiselers! I had to fight off a strong urge to whip out the old pocketknife and get that goddamned 1-euro back, by hook or by crook. Damned if I’m going to let a bunch of Estonian aesthetes fuck me over! But then I decided that might not be such a hot idea, Estonian prisons being what they are.

Here is a handy illustration of the KUMU system:

Finland - 3

But my mind-shredding rage was soon replaced by mind-shredding curiosity: What on earth was going on here?

First I checked to see whether I’d been a dummy. Granted, the sign did try to warn me that these lockers weren’t “free like the ones upstairs. Shouldn’t that have warned me? After a period of searching and fearless introspection, I concluded: no.

Here’s my train of thought:

  1. Ordinarily, “free” and implicit “not free” would normally imply a contrast between something which costs something, and something which does not.
  2. However, this was not an ordinary context. This was the specific, narrow context of museum storage lockers.
  3. In the context of museum storage lockers, the word “free” is ambiguous for several reasons:
    1. First, nobody expects museum storage lockers to cost something. After racking my brain, I was unable to think of even one museum I’d been to which charged a non-refundable fee for merely using a locker for a few hours. I mean, this isn’t a bus station.
    2. Second, the word “free” had an obvious alternate meaning in this context: “You can use the lockers on the upper floor without a coin.” Not everyone is going to have a 1-euro coin on them, and there was no place on the bottom floor to get change. So the sign was saying: “If you have no 1-euro coin handy, no sweat! Just go upstairs!”
    3. Finally, and most compellingly from a logical perspective, the ordinary museum visitor, confronted with the reality of how this museum operates, would say to himself: “Wait, what? There are lockers on one level which cost a non-refundable fee of €1, but the exact same kind of locker on the higher level cost nothing? Why? Who in their right mind is would ever use the €1 lockers? Nobody could have created such a stupid system.” As the old German saying goes, was nicht sein darf, kann nicht sein: that which cannot be, must not be.

So I concluded no, I hadn’t been a dummy. It’s point 3.3 that really gets me: Who thought up this system, and why? Did somebody just check off the wrong box on a “museum locker” order form during construction? Is there some at least hypothetically logical reason for this?

All I could think is that maybe the museum wants to profit from high visitor numbers: if all 100 lockers on the upper floor are used, then we get to charge all the poor saps who have to use the ones on the lower floor. But then again, why? This is a huge, brand-new art museum, with tons of lockers. If they want to make money from the lockers, why not charge for all of them? Why, instead, create a two-class system of the privileged elite who get free lockers, and the downtrodden masses who must pay? That only increases the risk of civil unrest, which is not what you want in a museum.

I can only think that the lockers at the KUMU must be some sort of psychological experiment. Some behavioral economist at the University of Tallinn conceived of this experiment, and has been running it since 2006, when the museum opened. You know, like those experiments where you can split a cash payment with a stranger, but only if you choose to share it, or where you can have one cookie now or 5 tomorrow.

But what could this experiment be designed to prove? This question has been torturing me now for a month. Can anyone help?

Estonia is Culture-Mad and Who Can Blame Them?

Estonia seems to enjoy being perched between the Baltic countries and Finland. Its language is Finnic, but not mutually intelligible with any other of the other odd languages in that dysfunctional family. I got the distinct impression that Estonians prefer to compare themselves with Finns rather than their Baltic neighbors. Esties enjoy a high level of education, a reputation for being reserved, a good school system, a much higher GDP per capita than Latvia and Lithuania, and a thriving cultural scene eagerly supported by state policy, to the extent that funds permit. All that’s missing, a few of them joked with me, was an Estonian Nokia.

The ferry trip from Helsinki to Tallinn is splendid. You begin with this amazing panorama at the Helsinki Ferry Terminal:

helsinki ferry port terminal

And then get on an Estonian-flagged ship. The Estonian flag is blue, black and white, cool Nordic colors:

hel leaving helsinki on estonian ferry

Finland taxes hard alcohol at a high rate, so plenty of Finns take booze cruises to Estonia, where prices are much lower. This means that ferries are basically floating malls and complexes of bars, but you can still fight your way outside to see some of the dramatic scenery.

There are a few distinct bits of Tallin. First, the Old Town, which is compact and built on two distinct layers, with the Parliament house on top of a hill called Toomea. It’s a nice old town with narrow, winding streets climbing up and down hills, but it has the sort of artificiality you associate with these places: There’s not much there except for souvenir shops, restaurants, and kiosks. I got the distinct impression that it fills up with drunken Finnish tourists during the summer. Estonians don’t like being the cheap-booze getaway destination of choice for Finns, but they grit their teeth and accept it, since it brings in significant cash.

The area around the Old Town has a number of streets with charismatic crumbling old wooden houses:

est house on endla.JPG

The other beauty spot is the Kadriorg Park, site of a Baroque castle and gardens:

Also in this park is the Estonian national art museum, called KUMU for KUnstiMUuseum. It’s in a fine modern building by Pekka Vapaavuori, opened in 2006, with the long walkways and slice-shaped architecture that are getting to be clichés for contemporary-art museums these days. Cliché or not, it’s a spectacularly successful and inviting building. It cost $50 million, which would seem to be a staggering sum for a nation of only 1.3 million people. This shows you how dedicated Estonians are to culture.

You won’t find many masterpieces of European art here, but the curators have done an outstanding job presenting Estonian art and culture. The permanent exhibition devoted to art during the Soviet Occupation is particularly interesting, since it’s basically also a history lesson in adaptation and resistance. It introduced me to the term “Soviet Pop”, which is just what it sounds like. There were also interesting photorealist works, and a number of moody, slightly eldritch paintings and sculptures. A selection:

There’s a strong German influence in Estonia; the word for ‘artist’ in Estonian is ‘Kunstnik’, which never failed to crack me up. Estonia is nominally mostly Lutheran, although only 14% of Estonians go to church regularly. Like all the Baltic countries, Estonia has a sizable Russian minority, mostly of people who were moved there to “Sovietize” the Baltic SSRs and their descendants.

The official description Estonians give of this problem to outsiders is carefully and diplomatically framed. The occupation of Estonia by the Soviets is portrayed as illegal and unjust, but Estonians seem to not want to look like they’re obsessed by historical grievance (unlike certain nearby nations who will remain nameless), and discussion of the occupation and the current status of the Russian minority is couched in euphemisms, at least among the class of Estonians who speak fluent English. Of course, this careful reticence is also driven by the fact that Russia, which has 378 times the land mass of Estonia, is highly concerned about the treatment of the Russian minority (to put it diplomatically), and the EU also monitors Baltic countries’ treatment of the Russian minority.

Outside of the beauty spots, Tallinn looks like the somewhat-more-prosperous-than-usual Eastern European country it is. Shopping centers are cheap, warehouse-like buildings thrown up in the early 1990s. The typical pattern holds: public areas and building exteriors are often shabby-looking, because Eastern European countries never really developed an economic infrastructure for keeping these places tidy and modern-looking; there wasn’t enough money for that. The flat I Airbnb’d in was pristine and newly-remodeled, but the apartment block it was located in wasn’t, and the entry way was an obstacle course of crude, dangerous concrete blocks and crumbling stairs erected by some state contractor in 1974 who obviously didn’t give a shit.

Unlike in many Eastern European countries, though, you get the sense that Estonians are quite aware that some bits of their country still needs a bit of sprucing-up, and they’ll be getting around to it once their economy begins generating enough surplus wealth to support an nationwide infrastructure of architects, landscape designers, building renovators, park-management specialists, and urban planners. The talent and the love of culture is there; the money will soon follow.

Estonian bookstores are as interesting as you’d expect. and feature a surprising number of English-language books on Estonian culture, folklore, and history, written by Estonians in nearly-flawless English. My favorite find was a small pamphlet on Estonian folklore and traditions, which are as interesting as you might think. I plan on scanning it in and posting excerpts later. For now, here is the text from the back:

2018-05-06 12.31.24

How and Why Countries Reconstruct

The example of Finland recovering after World War II without any Marshall Plan funding and under an obligation to make massive war “reparations” to the Soviets reminds me of a statement by the economist George Horwich:

Destroy any amount of physical capital, but leave behind a critical number of knowledgeable human beings whose brains still house the culture and technology of a dynamic economy, and the physical capital will tend to reemerge almost spontaneously.

The more I read about other countries and travel within them, the more convinced I am of something which sounds like a truism, and would be one, if there weren’t so many people who dispute it: Countries are the way they are because the people who live in them are the way they are.