Thursday, April 25, 2013

Austria 2: Everything I knew about Austria, I learned from "The Sound of Music"!

OK, I'm exaggerating a little.  I also learned some stuff about Austria from the film Amadeus.  (It's kind of interesting that they were ruled by an emperor, isn't it?)  Plus, in addition to Mozart, there are a few other famous people from Austria you can't help but have heard of:
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Hitler
  • Sigmund Freud
Interestingly, the guidebook on Austria that I bought there had a list of famous Austrians, yet it somehow neglected to mention those first two.  While I was there (in Graz), I saw plenty of advertisements for the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, though.  (I was not tempted.)

Continuing my theme of learning stuff that was obvious, I'll admit that (as far as I recall), I don't think I'd ever heard of the city of Graz until my husband organized some kind of math thing with a colleague there.  So, when people would ask which part of Austria I was planning to visit, I'd tell them "Graz" -- and then wait for the reaction.  Everyone I talked to clearly already knew about Graz, which led me to conclude that (a) it's probably a relatively important city, and (b) I'm pronouncing it correctly (or at least close enough).  In fact, it's the second-largest city in Austria!

I was also pretty surprised by how dang far away it is.  I mean, Switzerland and Austria are both small countries that share a border.  So it should be no biggie to hop from Zurich to the major cities of Austria, right?  Nope.  Zurich-Graz by train takes about nine hours (and the night train takes 11 hours because they have several stops where they stop for a long time).  By contrast, Paris by train is a little more than four hours from here.  Going to Graz by train is almost comparable to taking the train all the way to London -- except that you get a breathtaking mountain view during a big part of the trip.

Austria borders Italy, Switzerland, and Germany -- but those borders are all along the narrow strip of Austrian Alps.  The more populous part of Austria is farther to the East.  (This is a part where "The Sound of Music" really stretches its believability thin -- they seriously walked all those kids from Salzburg over the mountains to Switzerland?!  Good luck!)

Given my Cold-War-influenced perspective, I was kind of surprised so see that the Austrian's population's real neighbors are Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Czech Republic.  I mean, I somehow always thought of Austria as being squarely a part of "Western Europe", but the closest major city to Vienna is Bratislava (trains depart every hour for the one-hour trip between them).  The surprise bonus:  there was plenty of opportunity to sample delicious Hungarian goulash!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Always learning: Austria edition, part 1!

Do you ever have one of those moments where you learn a new thing, and immediately realize "Duh, that was obvious... Everyone else probably already knew that... lol"

If you find experiences as entertaining as I do, then I recommend learning new languages and visiting new countries!  And if you read the title of this post, you're probably thinking "Well, Austria isn't that exotic..." -- which is what makes it all the more amusingly ridiculous to discover my own misconceptions!

Here's an example:  Before I moved to a German-speaking region (five years ago), I didn't know what "schnitzel" is.  I'd heard of "wiener schnitzel" and I knew that "schnitzel with noodles" was one of the von Trapp children's favorite things.  Now, everybody knows that wieners are, like, hot dogs. So, if I thought about it at all, I guess I assumed that schnitzel was a dish somehow involving wieners and pasta.

(Note: It was only maybe fifteen years ago that I learned what "pesto" is, same for "wasabi" -- and Germanic cuisine is simply not as popular as Italian or Japanese.  My dad likes to tell tales of his first encounters with that crazy new foreign dish called pizza.)

Imagine my surprise when I learned (a few years ago) that schnitzel is, in fact, a thin slab of meat, generally served breaded!  Then one day, in a German class, the teacher asked the students to give an example of a dish that is typically German.  One student piped up with "Wiener schnitzel."  This response surprised the teacher, and she explained that wiener schnitzel is typically Austrian, hence the name.

"Wiener" = from Wien, where Wien is the German name for Vienna (that is, it's what the people in Vienna call their city).  This was a duh! moment for me because I'd always known that hamburgers and frankfurters were named after Hamburg and Frankfurt respectively, and I even knew about "Berliners" (thanks to a famous JFK speech).  But I somehow had never made the connection that "wiener" isn't just a random word for sausages, it means "from Vienna."  This is probably mostly because I had no idea it was called "Wien" until I recently started learning German.  (I like "Vienna" better anyway -- sounds more elegant, don't you think?)

And I learned a bunch of other silly stuff during my recent visit to Austria, which I will tell you about in upcoming posts! :D

Back when I was still living in France, I came up with this theory:

learning a new culture tends to merely increase your mental "us" category, but doesn't stop you from stereotyping other other groups. It helps, but learning a new culture doesn't automatically confer some sort of blanket enlightenment.

And now that I'm learning another other culture, I realize how right I was.  By learning to be French, I kind of thought I was learning Europe in general, and I was right to some degree.  But it's also true that I was learning the culture and history and tradition and trends and attitudes of the francophone world -- and learning German has been like opening a window on a whole additional, unfamiliar world; making it no longer foreign to me.

In Austria, we had one dinner one night with my husband's German colleague (the person we were there to see), and we got to talking about how in both Switzerland and Austria the locals are perhaps even more hostile to immigration from Germany than they are towards non-German-speaking immigration, for fear of cultural imperialism (or something) from their big, powerful neighbor to the North.  (See here, for example.)  The colleague explained that, since Germany is so much more populous than Switzerland and Austria, naturally, as people move around, there will be a lot higher proportion of Germans in Switzerland and Austria than there will be Austrians and Swiss in Germany.  (If you assume that, say, 1/3 of the residents of each German-speaking city came from some other randomly-chosen German-speaking city, the Hamburgers will perhaps hardly notice the presence of so many Frankfurters, whereas the Wieners are sure to notice that so many of these new residents are not Austrian.)

He's right, yet I found his assumption quite interesting -- that among the major German-speaking cities/regions of Europe, there's obviously going to be a lot of mobility, and that moving across a national boundary is ordinary, whereas crossing a language boundary isn't.  I totally agree -- not just from having done it myself, twice, but also from hearing from French-speaking Swiss people who have moved to this side of the Röstigraben.

(Next up:  tales of my trip to Austria!  Stay tuned!)

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Why can't we have nice things? Savoia & Sowa's "Marzi 1984-1987" (Part 3 of my "rethinking economics" series)

Three young girls in a friendship triangle, jostling over which two are best friends. One friend is distraught about not getting accepted into a coveted ballet class (pronounced "not skinny enough" by a teacher who had, herself, not quite made it into a prestigious ballet company), and the other two are left with mixed feelings about their own elation at getting accepted. Seeing strange new things while visiting cousins in the country; enduring marathon mass services with a very pious mother. Sylvain Savoia & Marzena Sowa's Marzi is full of scenes from growing up that are easy to relate to -- making the unfamiliar aspects of the setting all the more vivid and striking. You see, the story of Marzi takes place in Poland, under communism.

As you might expect, Marzi's young experiences involved things like standing in long lines in the bitter cold, waiting for the opportunity to buy a little bit of meat from a tiny shop that doesn't have enough for everyone, and rushing out to another shop to buy as much toilet-paper as possible as soon as the neighborhood gets news that there's been a delivery. Marzi's experience involved being downwind from Chernobyl and not knowing whether she would be permanently affected, despite the precautions he family took. She also recounts getting fine new refrigerators from Russia (and having almost nothing to fill them with) and seeing her parents hoarding cash (including US dollars) to buy things on the black market in case of emergencies.

Yet even the seemingly-unfamiliar components of the story recount universal human experiences. Marzi was happy with her cloth doll until her friend got a Barbie doll. As always, the joy of having stuff is relative, not absolute. If you're reading this, you probably have a phone and the means to occasionally buy nice clothing and a Barbie doll -- and you don't think much of it. But the key wasn't so much that Marzi's friend had all of these things, it was that she had them and the other kids at her school didn't. (I'm sure I don't have to provide you with any illustrations of how this applies to your own childhood, and possibly also adulthood.)

Marzi's friend's parents worked in the meat industry, hence had the opportunity to buy themselves as much meat as they wanted, including some to sell on the black market and/or sell preferentially in exchange for kickbacks. So they could shop in the one big store in their town that was always fully-stocked with anything you could want -- but where they only accepted payment in US dollars.

This is the part, naturally, that brings to mind a brilliant observation by Jared Diamond:
[T]he values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.
This is one of the main reasons why -- for Americans -- the private sector is the only true sector, as I discussed earlier. It's why Americans today have a pathological fear of public sector providing any kind of goods or services.

A related story was featured in the book The Collapse of Belief, which I reviewed at Main Street Plaza:
Years ago, during the Soviet reign in Eastern Europe, a visiting diplomat from that region had his belief in the superiority of communism collapse when he first entered an American supermarket. He thought the store was fake at first. "If it were real," he said, "there would be long lines of people to buy all that food." But when he instructed his driver to take him across town to another store not on the planned route, he saw the same thing, and his conviction cracked.
It's a neat tale of how new evidence can help you think outside of the box, which is the point of the whole book. Yet, ironically, (though the book is good overall) this particular story pats its American audience on the back for thinking squarely inside the American box. America has giant stores chock-full of any goods you could possibly want -- always plentiful and inexpensive! That's what makes America great!! That's why we won the Cold War! Boo-yeah, go team!!

The tales of lines and shortages under a centrally-run economy are, of course, true. But look where clinging stubbornly to this triumph has led us.

Yes, America is the land where you can buy anything you could possibly imagine at any time of day or night. Consumer spending is practically the measure of the strength of the economy. If we're surrounded by crumbling public infrastructure, the electrical grid, rail network, and waterworks have had no improvements beyond emergency patching for thirty years, aging bridges are in danger of collapsing, the young population continues to slip behind in terms of the getting the education necessary to contribute to current and future technology, etc., at least we can always go to Target.

It's part of the reason why reasonable health care reform is such a battle in the United States. People can invent stories of waiting in long lines for a tiny ration of health care under "socialized medicine" and Americans are primed to believe them. It doesn't matter that it's as simple as in the tale of the diplomat above to step outside the US and see that the stories aren't true. It doesn't matter that such tales don't even make sense when you think about them for two minutes, or that US healthcare is among the most expensive in the world, by a lot, for the same treatments, or that the closest thing I've seen to the "waiting in long lines for a pitiful scrap of health care" is the model where people hold out until their problem is an emergency, and then go wait in line to have it treated at the emergency room because they don't have any health insurance. Communism made Marzi's family have to wait in a long line to get a few sausages -- while their American counterparts had as many sausages as they wanted -- so why should "socialized medicine" be any different?

Why, indeed...?

Maybe it's difficult to keep past triumphs in their proper perspective when planning for the future.

See also Rethinking economics 1: the private sector is the only true sector and Rethinking Economics 2: Lessons from Switzerland!!.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Books I like to watch from afar...

Do you ever have books that you don't actually want to read yourself, but are interested in reading about?

One of those books, for me, is "Sex at Dawn." This is a popular book that argues for human non-monogamy by claiming that early humans were happily, harmoniously non-monogamous. I have not read this book, but everything I've read about it (pro and con) leads me to conclude that it's one of those pop-evolutionary-psychology books that drives me nuts, where the author decides how society should be today, and then justifies it with a bunch of dubious claims about what early human hunter-gatherers were like, and then calling it Science.

Entertainingly enough, two cool bloggers have done series' on this book. On is by "sex nerd" Emily Nagoski, see here for her series on it. Here's a key quote to give you an idea:

To the extent that the book proposes that monogamy is not the innate sociosexual system of humans, it is correct. However. Through a number of serious problems in their reasoning about and/or understanding of evolutionary science (which I’ll discuss in more detail below, for those who are interested), they come to the wrong conclusion about the nature of human sexuality. Human sexuality is not designed to function in open relationships any more than its designed to function in socially and reproductively monogamous relationships. What human sexuality is DESIGNED to be is massively variable, plastic, adaptable, and diverse. ALL of it is “natural” – and that’s all evolution can tell us. There is no system that is easy and comfortable for everyone; all sociosexual systems involve rules about what is or is not okay, and those rules will feel oppressive and wrong to SOMEONE.

I completely agree with her on this. It is not only more accurate, but a more positive argument for normal, healthy human non-monogamy than a bunch of just-so stories arguing that monogamy isn't a normal, healthy choice for humans.

(On a related note, it's kind of the same thing that drives me nuts about the "Paleo Diet." If you feel healthier giving up grains and dairy, then, fab, go ahead. But the "Paleo" reasoning behind the diet is so riddled with factual and logical errors, that it's maddening to even hear about it. I was tempted to write a post about it once, but (a) I don't care enough to bother since it's far from being the most ridiculous thing out there in popular culture, and (b) the wikipedia article actually summed it up pretty well.)

Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism also reviewed Sex at Dawn in these two posts. In one of his comments he gave a quick summary of one of the key problems:

You could look at it this way: on the fitness landscape, there are two peaks, two attractors. One is the state where paternal investment is high and males care about females’ fidelity; the other is the state where paternal investment is low and males don’t know or don’t care about fidelity. Bonobos occupy the latter peak. Most evolutionary psychologists would say that humans are on the former. But Ryan and Jetha would have us sitting awkwardly in the middle, in between the two peaks, yet feeling no selective pull one way or the other. I’m not convinced that this is plausible.

And now Adam Lee is doing a series on Atlas Shrugged. This should be fun!!