Tuesday, August 2, 2011

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Hi there, it's me again. I've been on vacation. But now I'm back to tell you about the trip I took to a distant and exotic land. I journeyed to a place where the inhabitants speak a mysterious language, wear a distinctive native costume, perform peculiar dances, eat their traditional foods and, in general, jealously guard their ancient cultural traditions. You guessed it—I went to Bavaria.

In the years since we moved from Germany to the US, back at the turn of the century, we have gone back to spend a few weeks every summer. We mainly spend our time in My Favorite Wife's native village in the Palatinate (die Pfalz, just north of the French Alsace region), visiting with her family and especially giving our kids an opportunity to spend some quality time with their cousins, with whom they've managed to maintain a fairly close relationship over all these years, despite the distance. It's not an inexpensive proposition and I agonize over the cost every year when I book the flights, but it's important to me that the kids have a sense of their larger family connections, especially since they don't have any cousins or other close relatives of similar age on my side of the family in the US. MFW and I of course also enjoy seeing friends and family that we only get to see once a year.

We don't spend all of our time in MFW's home village. We generally spend a day or two in Mainz, where we lived for many years, and visit old friends who live elsewhere in the general area. In recent years, as the kids have gotten older, we've been taking the opportunity to spend some of our German vacation time doing traveling a little further afield. This year the destination of choice was the land of beer and Lederhosen.

One of the things that I find fascinating about Germany is that in a country about the size of Montana, there can be considerable differences in culture within the span of relatively short distances. The most obvious manifestation of this is how dialects change from place to place. These are not subtle differences either—a German from one area can travel 50–60 miles in any direction and find people speaking a local dialect that is somewhere between difficult to understand and completely incomprehensible. Other cultural features change from place to place too; for example, the type of Weinfest at which wine is normally served in a half-liter (about a pint) Schoppenglas is something peculiar to MFW's area that you won't find anywhere else in the country. There are also many food specialties associated with specific areas. But for the most part, these kinds of things are minor variations on a more or less widespread base culture.

We'll Just Have A Small Glass, Thanks

Bavaria somehow stands apart. As you might expect, there's a distinctive Bavarian dialect (or family of dialects, actually) that is largely impenetrable for many outsiders, especially when you get out into the countryside, where many of the inhabitants won't make even a token attempt to speak to you in the standard ('High") German that is used in business, government, mass media etc. And there are various culinary specialties (such as beer served by the liter—my personal favorite) that are typical for Bavaria.

The Bavarians somehow go further, though, in expressing their cultural identity. One aspect of this is the style of dress. Many regions of Germany have a traditional folk costume of some sort, but it's not something that anyone would actually wear on the street. Not so in Bavaria; it would be an exaggeration to say that everyone runs around wearing Lederhosen (men) or a Dirndl dress (women), but it's also not highly unusual to see people wearing that kind of clothing, especially on festive occasions of one kind or another. There are distinctively Bavarian styles of music; what we Gringos refer to as "oompah music" immediately comes to mind, but there are many other styles of folk music, some of which is played on specifically Bavarian (or, perhaps more accurately, alpine) instruments. Bavarians also maintain a tradition of folk dancing in their own peculiar style (more on this later).

We Really Dress THis Way

My own first brush with Bavarian culture occurred around 1989 or so, when I worked for one of the Big Eight consulting companies (back in a previous century when there still was such a thing) in Frankfurt, Germany. I was sent to Munich for about six months to work on a project. My partner in this enterprise was a certain Herr L., who was representing our client, the Frankfurt office of a major electronics company; together we were supposed to be overseeing some work that was being done by a third company in Munich that was developing some banking software for our client. Herr L. and I worked mainly with Frau W., who was an outside consultant to that third company.

Herr L. was an interesting character. He was some ten years my senior and wore suits that were elegant, but about 20 years out of date. (Yes, this was back when we all wore suits and ties to work, something which I am surprised to find myself kind of missing sometimes, because it gave my job at least a thin veneer of professionality and dignity.) Herr L. was a skinny guy with thin, jet-black hair that was carefully glued into place by some kind of pomade, and he sported a jet-black, pencil-thin moustache à la John Waters; I always thought he looked a lot like a riverboat gambler. He never really produced any useful work in any of the various projects I collaborated on with him, but he was pretty amusing. His most prominent talent was his ability to drink copious quantities of beer, all the while chain smoking. Dinners with him generally started around 7 PM or so and inevitably ended about 1 AM with me suggesting that we might consider heading back to our respective hotels and him saying yes, but we should at least have one last Gute-Nacht-Bierchen (a "little goodnight beer"). For Herr L., getting the assignment to travel to Munich, the city of beer halls, was a little like Charlie Bucket winning the golden ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

Six months was more than enough time to experiment with the local cuisine. There was one restaurant I remember that served pretty much every part of the cow except the hooves; I can't recall ever seeing cow's udder on any other menu, for example. Another weird thing that I encountered in various restaurants was Kalbsbriesmilzwurst, a word which I still can't say without laughing. It's a sausage made of calf's thymus (or "sweetbreads", a term which has always sort of mystified me) and spleen (which is another fun word to say). I swear I'm not making this up, even though MFW remains convinced that Kalbsbriesmilzwurst is just another word I made up for my own entertainment.

Munich is kind of an interesting place. It's full of imposing monuments and buildings that are meant to impress on you the power and majesty of Bavaria as a political entity, sort of like a Bavarian equivalent of Paris or London. Its culture is an odd mixture of snooty urban chic and provincial alpine charm. Frau W., who was a local, gave herself the assignment to ensure that Herr L. and I would be properly impressed by the city. We happened to arrive in Munich at a time in March, which, Frau W. needed us to know, is Starkbierzeit, or "strong beer time". It seems that the tradition, started by monks around 1630, is that during this period that coincides with Lent (Bavaria is highly Catholic), one drinks a particularly nutritious—and highly alcoholic—Doppelbock beer, ostensibly to maintain one's strength while fasting. Over the centuries, the two weeks of Starkbierzeit have taken on the character of a major festival, sort of like Oktoberfest but not nearly as overrun with drunken tourists. Strongly encouraged by Frau W., and with the enthusiastic participation of Herr L., we of course did everything in our power to maintain our strength, though we skipped the fasting part.

Wait, where was I? I've kind of lost the thread there. This was about my family vacation, wasn't it? I guess I should go easy on the brandy when I'm writing this stuff.

Enduring the Deprivations of Lent

Anyway… We started our Bavarian journey in the small town of Füssen, visiting what I assume to be one of Germany's most photographed landmarks, namely, the Neuschwanstein castle of King Ludwig II. You may not know the name, but I'm sure you've seen the picture of the fairy-tale castle that looks like it could have been designed for Disneyland.

A Modest Home

Neuschwanstein is one of three castles that King Ludwig II had built for him to feed his fantasies of how a monarch was meant to live. Ludwig was kind of a tragic figure. Crowned king of Bavaria at the age of eighteen in 1864, he reigned during a period when monarchy was becoming an obsolete model of government. He fantasized about living the life of an absolute ruler (he idolized Louis XIV of France), but the reality was that his power to govern was greatly constrained by both the Bavarian parliament and by the power of Prussia, the major center of power in Germany, who, sort of like that tough-looking kid from down the street who your parents constantly warned you not to hang out with, cajoled or coerced Bavaria into various adventures that weren't exactly in its best interest. Ludwig escaped into a kind of fantasy world, fueled by the heroically-themed operas of his idol Richard Wagner, and embarked on building projects intended to create a kind of physical manifestation of that fantasy world. His extravagant construction projects, of which Neuschwanstein was only the first, practically bankrupted the Bavarian treasury, ending with his removal from power by a government commission on grounds of insanity and his death under mysterious circumstances a day later.

I had been to Neuschwanstein a few times before, the first time with MFW alone, then later when my mother and then my brother came to visit us in Germany. One of the things I noticed was that the crowds seemed markedly smaller this time. In particular, there was an amazing absence of Americans. On previous visits the place was always crawling with GIs spending some of their free time seeing the sights, and with American tourists and students. The GIs mostly disappeared from the picture during the drawdowns of US military bases during the 1990's, but there were always still plenty of tourists. This time I noticed hardly any of my countrymen, though. I imagine it has a lot to do with both the state of the economy back home and the relatively high cost of turning dollars into Euros.

We went to look at a few other things in the area around Füssen. One of them is the Wieskirche, which is a fantastically ornate church built in the mid-eighteenth century in the rococo, or late baroque, style. From the outside, the building, which sits in the middle of what is basically a large cow pasture, is fairly plain-looking, so it's all the more remarkable when you step inside and see the amazing fresco and stucco work.

Go For Baroque

One of our other destinations in the area around Füssen was a place called the Partnachklamm, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The entrance to this place is very close to a stadium that was built for ski jumping in 1921 and used for the 1936 Winter Olympics. The stadium was open, so we could wander in and have a look around. Those ski jumping towers look big enough on TV, but it's even more impressive to see one up close, reinforcing my general feeling that ski jumping does not look like a good idea.

I'll Stick to the Bunny Slope

The Partnachklamm, our actual destination, is a deep alpine gorge that has been made accessible to hikers by means of a system of platforms and tunnels. The trail takes you past a thundering river that goes shooting down through the narrow spaces between the sheer rock walls of the gorge. I can't really describe the experience in words, so you'll just have to go and see it for yourself.

Built to Last

On the way back from the Partnachklamm we stopped at Schloss Linderhof (Linderhof Palace), another of the extravagant building projects of Ludwig II. Linderhof is comparatively small (by Ludwig's standards), but it's pretty opulent inside and surrounded by meticulous landscaping on the outside. It's the only one of his three residences that he lived to actually see completed. One of its features is an enormous artificial grotto that Ludwig had built into the hillside above the palace for the purpose of performances of Wagner's operas for himself and his guests.

A Tasteful Little Cottage

The next stop on our journey was Munich. As noted previously, I have been there many, many times, but the last time was well over ten years ago, so I didn't know my way around all that well anymore. I took the family on something of a wild goose chase trying to find one particular restaurant that I used to frequent while I was working there (the one with cow's udder on the menu). As far as I could remember, it was kind of diagonally across from the Hofbräuhaus, one of Munich's more famous beer halls.

As it turned out, we never did find the place. I think that it may have been on the site of what is now the Munich Hard Rock Cafe, which I have since learned has only been open at that spot since 2002, well after the last time I had been there. Curse you, Hard Rock Cafe! I have poked my head into a couple of those establishments and have yet to figure out what exactly the attraction is. It seems like nothing more than a place to buy an overpriced sweatshirt with which to commemorate your overpriced meal. I don't know what's wrong with me that I can't get all excited about seeing a few random relics like Jimi Hendrix's belt or Madonna's sunglasses on display.

While wandering around the inner part of Munich, which (like most larger German towns and cities) is a pedestrians-only zone, I observed a phenomenon which I didn't really remember from my previous trips there. Maybe it was because we happened to be there on a Saturday night, whereas when I traveled there for business it was always during the week. Anyway, apparently it's the custom for guys who are getting married to dress up in silly costumes with a bunch of their friends to celebrate Junggesellenabschied, or "bachelor's farewell". To finance the evening's festivities, the soon-to-be-married young gentleman collects a bunch of random odds and ends and then goes around with them in a large rectangular tray that is supported by a long strap attached to both sides, enabling the tray to be hung from one's neck. You may have seen something like this being worn by the cigarette girl in a nightclub in a movie from the 1930's or 1940's. In German it's called a Bauchladen, or "belly shop".

Said bachelor then accosts random passers-by, entreating them to spend a Euro or two to purchase one of his random pieces of useless merchandise. At least, this is the explanation I was able to puzzle together while talking to the somewhat inebriated gentleman in bright red lipstick and a Dirndl dress who was eventually able to talk MFW into spending our hard-earned cash on a sort of pocket-sized disposable raincoat, something which we had not previously realized that we need. I saw a few groups of women engaging in a female variant of this custom. Trying to find a picture of this somewhere on the web (my daughter, who was standing by with a camera, was too shy to take a picture of our bachelor friend), I came to know that this is apparently something done all over Germany, but I can't recall ever having seen this in all the years I lived there. Maybe it's something that's become popular more recently—just another thing to make me feel old.

Embarrassing Himself in the Name of Freedom

While in Munich we went to look at another curiosity, something that I had read about but never actually seen. Munich has a very large city park called the English Garden. The English Garden is to Munich what Central Park is to New York City (in fact, the English Garden is larger than Central Park). Through part of the English Garden there runs an artificial creek called the Eisbach ("Ice Brook"). The Eisbach enters the park at the southern end; it comes shooting out from under a bridge with a fast current that I think I read somewhere is created by a pumping station. The current creates a small but fast-moving wave that has turned the spot into a well-known place to go surfing. This has been going on since 1972; the city tried for years to ban it as a safety hazard, but finally gave up and officially legalized it in 2010.

The surfers take turns jumping from the concrete bank of the river with their short boards into a spot where the current creates a sort of upward stream. A surfer typically rides the current for around 30–60 seconds before either getting washed off his board or just losing the wave. It doesn't exactly look easy, but all of the surfers we watched seemed pretty skilled; I just wonder how much practice, including getting smacked up against that concrete, it takes to become proficient.


From Munich we moved on to Salzburg, Austria. Admittedly, Austria is not Bavaria, but culturally they're pretty much cut from the same cloth, so I'm still counting it as part of our Bavarian vacation, especially since Salzburg lies more or less directly on the border with Bavaria. Salzburg is well known as the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a fact which Salzburg milks for everything it's worth, touristically speaking. The other dominant feature of Salzburg is the Festung Hohensalzburg, a forttress built in 1066 and then successively improved and expanded through the early sixteenth century. It was the seat of power of a long line of archbishops who derived considerable wealth through their control of the salt that was mined nearby.

The City That Salt Built

I had been to Salzburg around 25 years ago, but I didn't remember very much about it, so walking around the old part of the city, visiting the cathedral, the forttress and other landmarks, it was almost like being there for the first time. There was one place I really wanted to visit, a beer garden at the far southern end of the older part of the city that I recalled from that earlier trip, but I was afraid that I might be leading the family on yet another wild goose chase, similar to the one we went on while looking for that restaurant in Munich; MFW didn't remember the place at all. However, in this case my memory proved correct—we located the Augustiner Bräustübl on the map about where I remembered it, and once we got there (me leading the way with my skeptical family in tow) it turned out to be the place I remembered.

The Augustiner Bräustübl is housed in a massive building that I think is part of a monastery. Inside the building there is a long hall with a number of alcoves that sell foods of different kinds. Off of the hallway there are a couple of really large beer halls, but on that day there were only a handfull of people in those, because the real action was happening in the outside beer garden, it being a pleasant summer day.

There is supposedly table service in the beer garden, but it didn't seem to be on offer the day we were there. Instead you go to a cashier and tell him what you want (either a liter or a half liter of beer, or a soft drink), pay and then he gives you a receipt. You take your receipt to the service area where you either select your soft drink or give your mug(s) to the guy manning the tap to be filled. You select your mug from one of the shelves that line the wall. These are heavy stoneware mugs; before you give it to the server, you wash it under a cold stream of running water in a big fountain-like thing. I am not sure what the purpose of this is; the mugs I got off the shelf all looked perfectly clean to me, and I can hardly believe that Germanic hygiene concerns would permit any such establishment to provide its customers with unwashed eating utensils of any kind under any circumstances. My guess is that the point of this may be more to cool it down a bit before filling it with beer than to clean it.

We enjoyed not only the beer and the food, but also the general atmosphere. Part of the atmosphere was a group of six or eight boys at the next table. They looked to all be around 16 or 17, and from their general demeanor I would have guessed that they had already made quite a few trips to have their mugs filled (the drinking age for beer and wine is 16 in both Germany and Austria). Most of them were in regular street clothes, but a couple of them were dressed up in fancy Lederhosen.

At some point both of our kids were up to get food from one of the stands that were along one side of the beer garden, so it was just MFW and me at our table. Without warning, one of the Lederhosen boys sort of stumbled over from his table and sat down at ours. He didn't say anything, he just kind of sat there with a foolish smile on his face. Unfazed by this unexpected visit, MFW immediately began interrogating him. His name was Roman and he and his buddies were in town for some sort of school trip, and were just having a few refreshments before getting the train home. He explained all of this in thick Austro-Bavarian dialect. He claimed that a few of them were dressed up in the folk garb because they just like it.

At some point our kids showed up and joined the Austrian guys at their table. Having been raised bilingually, they speak German well, but it was clearly a challenge for them to understand their new hosts. Roman continued to sit with us. Periodically his cell phone rang; each time he explained that it was his father admonishing him not to miss his train home (again).

When MFW and I see someone dressed in this kind of costume, we generally think of one thing: Schuhplatteln. Schuhplatteln ("shoe paddling") is a sort of Bavarian folk dancing style for men that involves hopping about while rhythmically slapping ones knees, thighs, and feet in time to music. Usually this is done by a number of men in unison. It's a lot harder than it looks, which we verified when MFW asked Roman, "Can you platteln?" "Of course!", he replied, looking faintly insulted. He cajoled one of his friends to join him and with MFW and I doing our best to imitate a generic oompah-band type song, the two of them flailed about wildly, an event which was captured on video by my daughter for your viewing pleasure.

Not for Beginners

During our stay in Salzburg we took a little trip back across the border into Germany, to the Berchtesgadener Land. At MFW's insistence we went on a little boat ride on the Königssee, a long lake nestled between alpine peaks. She has this thing about riding on boats; somehow, no matter where we go on vacation, we end up on a boat at some point. About half way through the trip, the boat stops before an enormous sheer rock wall, and one of the guys from the company running the boat tours plays a tune on his trumpet so that you can enjoy the very clear echo.

On the way back to Salzburg we stopped to look at the Kehlsteinhaus, a sort of mountain retreat built by the Nazi party high atop a tall mountain peak as a gift for Hitler's 50th birthday. We were expecting some sort of museum, but there's actually not all that much to see, much of it being not open to the public, and apparently Hitler himself only made ten or so very brief visits to the property, so the historical value is sort of limited. The most interesting part of the visit is really the journey up the mountain on a narrow, winding road; you have to take a special bus up and down. The view from the top is pretty spectacular.

Leaving Salzburg, we moved back into Bavaria, to a little town called Aschau im Chiemgau. Aschau is a somewhat nondescript little town situated at the foot of a chain of high alpine peaks. Our interest in it is almost purely a matter of family history. My son was born with a fairly nasty congenital deformity of the feet, and it was here, after much stress on the part of his parents, that he was operated on and his condition more or less corrected in a specialty orthopedic clinic for children. He has heard about the numerous trips made there for pre- and post operation care over the course of a good two years, but since he was just a toddler at the time he has practically no memories of the place, and he wanted to see it again. His sister, who was a couple of years older during the period, also wanted to visit some of the places she remembered from that time. The fact that it's located in a fairly picturesque area made it an appealing place to spend a couple of days anyway.

One of the things the kids wanted to do while we were there was to hike down a long trail from the Kampenwand, a long rock face high atop one of the mountains surrounding Aschau. One way to get up there is to hike, but that's a multi-hour trip even if you're an avid hiker in good shape. An easier way is to take the Kampenwandbahn. The Kampenwandbahn is one of the many cable lifts that operate throughout the Alps to enable hikers and skiers to get to the top of high mountains with relatively little effort. At the bottom of the mountain you get into a little gondola that seats four people; the gondola is suspended from a wheeled contraption that rides a cable that looks to be a little over an inch thick; a second, somewhat thinner cable pulls a whole string of gondolas along the thicker cable and up the mountain (around 5,000 feet high).

It feels reasonably safe as you leave the little station at the foot of the mountain because you're traveling maybe 30–40 feet off the ground at first; it's high, but not unreasonably so. But then… at some point you look down and realize that you're hanging from a little piece of wire, easily several hundred feet off the ground, and it's too late to turn back. Not for the faint of heart—MFW, for example, who does not like heights. It doesn't help that all the way up the kids are saying things like, "Look, mom! Look! Look how high we are! Look down!"

Don't Look Down

Against all odds, we did ultimately make it to the summit, where we found ourselves surrounded by breathtaking views and… cows. One of the features of Bavarian alpine culture is that in the spring, the dairy farmers drive their cows up to the Alm, a high mountain meadow where they will spend the summer grazing. Each morning the cows are milked and the milk is then more or less immediately processed into cheese. At the end of the summer the cows are decorated with flowers and driven back down the mountain for a sort of homecoming festival.

You Look Lovely, Darling

Making our way through the cow herd, we did eventually reach the cow-free part of our journey. Going up a mountain is strenuous, but hiking down a steep mountain trail for several hours is also pretty tiring. The last time I did this, I had my two-year-old son on my shoulders most of the way; I'm not sure how I did that, but I was a much younger dad then.

Aschau is not far from the Chiemsee, another large lake, in the middle of which are a couple of islands. One of these is called Herrenchiemsee, and is the site of Ludwig II's third major building project, Schloss Herrenchiemsee. This particular palace was intended to be a copy of Versailles and a monument to Louis XIV of France, who, you will recall, was Ludwig's great idol. This place is absolutely enormous, but only a small part of it was completed before Ludwig's untimely end. The parts of the interior that are finished are, as in Ludwig's other palaces, pretty overwhelming in their opulence. The building, huge as it is, is also only a fraction of its originally intended size; the plans were for another huge wing on either side of the main building, but only one of them was partially completed at the time of Ludwig's demise, and that was later demolished.

My, That's A Big One

While we were there, in one section of the palace they had an exhibition on the life and times of King Ludwig II. It was one of the better exhibitions of its kind I have seen; being something of a lightweight history buff, I found it tremendously interesting and was sorry I wasn't able to see more of it before the family began admonishing me that we needed to get moving so that we wouldn't be late for the Heimatabend in Aschau, which was to be sort of the crowning event of our trip before we returned to home base the next day.

The closest translation I can think of for Heimatabend would be "folklore evening". It's basically a show of music and dancing in the local style. You would think that most of the audience would be tourists, of which there are quite a few in Aschau in the summer, but it looked to me like there were plenty of locals there as well.

Our master of ceremonies was an old guy who told jokes and introduced the various acts, providing a little bit of historical or anthropological background for some of them. He spoke in a thick Bavarian that I had to strain a bit to understand, although he probably would have told you that he was speaking his clearest High German. His jokes were a rich source of cultural insight, such as the one about Fensterln, a practice in which a young man leans a ladder against the side of his sweetheart's house in order to secretly climb in through her bedroom window to, um, visit her. In this joke, old Alois sees young Sepp sneaking through the village, carrying a ladder and a flashlight:

Alois: And just where exactly do you think you're going?

Sepp: I'm going Fensterln, you old fool! Can't you see that?

Alois: Of course I can see that, but in my day, we didn't take along a flashlight!

Sepp: When I see your old lady, I believe it!

Ha ha! Most of the jokes were in this somewhat bawdy vein.

Bavarian Standup Comedy

There were a lot of musical acts in this show. It opened with about a half hour of the brass band just playing their music. They then became the providers of background music for the various folk dances that were performed by an adult group and a separate children's group. Now, these guys knew a thing or two about Schuhplatteln!

Don't Try This at Home

The musical acts were all of the folk variety, in keeping with the theme of the evening, but very professionally performed. There was an instrumental duo consisting of a guy who played an accordion while accompanied by a woman who played a harp, both instruments, as our MC explained, being of a specifically alpine variety. There was also a trio of three women who sang several lovely but mostly incomprehensible (for me) songs in harmony while one played a guitar.

The Real Deal

The final musical act was three guys playing the Alphorn. Our MC explained that this is really a Swiss thing, originally developed as a means of communication between mountain tops. I have seen pictures of these funny-looking things many times over the years, but it was interesting to finally get to hear what they actually sound like. Doesn't seem like a very efficient means of communication, though.

More Charming than a Phone

And that was my vacation. Then I flew home and went back to work. The end.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cybercrime Revisited (Verbrechen und Bestrafung)

I periodically look at the stats from this blog to see who's reading it and from where. I can make a reasonable guess based on the location data that gets logged as to which friends and acquaintances periodically look in (you know who you are—remember, I'm watching you). But most of the people reading it are clearly people with no connection of any kind to me personally, and who are just being directed to this posting or that through Google searches on some topic that coincidentally happens to have shown up in this blog at some point.

I'm sort of amazed at the number of readers who end up at the brief post I titled "The Monkey Clock Conundrum" back in December because they are searching for terms like "no one would ever shave a clock onto a monkey". It just seems sort of strange that anyone would be searching for that half a year after the cartoon in question appeared in The New Yorker, but it comes up surprisingly often.

But far and away the most popular post I've ever published is the one I called "Cybercrime and Punishment". Long-time readers (both of you) may recall that it was about a peculiar spam email I once received. Well, I guess the same people continue to send out wave after wave of that message, or maybe variations on it, because about once every six weeks I will get bunches and bunches of hits on this one posting from people who have Googled some search term related to it.

But now this story takes another strange twist. When I checked my email today, I found that I had a new spam message—in German, of all things—that nonetheless looked strangely familiar with respect to content and style:

Wirklich toll:

Vor kurzem fand ich eine sehr gute Seite, ist es verkaufen Handy, Computer, TV, GPS, MP3-und Motorrad und so weiter. meisten Artikel sind zu Großhandelspreisen verkauft, werden Sie viele tolle Schnäppchen finden Sie hier. Und sie haben eine Verkaufsförderung von nun an, mehr kaufen, mehr sparen und weitere. Ich denke, es ist ein guter Ort für Sie geeignet. Registriere Login Check it out!

Das Firmengelände ist: :

w w w/p o L o a a/c o m 

r arms are free to treat their own woman.

This is beyond weird. It's not enough that I got the fractured English version; for some reason I am now getting it in impenetrable German (sprinkled with some random English) as well. My attempt to translate for my non-German-speaking readers, while trying to retain the gist of the mesage and to approximate its peculiar grammar, is as follows:

Really cool:

Recently I found a very good page, it is sold cell phone, computer, TV, GPS, MP3-and motorcycle and so forth. most articles are sold at wholesale price, are going you to find many good bargains here. And you have a sales promotion from now on, more buying, more saving and other. I think it is a good location for you suitable. Register Login Check it out!

The company campus is: :
w w w/p o L o a a/c o m 
r arms are free to treat their own woman.

I guess that I am at least recognized as a Man of the World by these spammers since they have chosen to approach me in multiple languages. I am certainly flattered. Of course, in either language the same element of incomprehensibility remains. That last "sentence" ("r arms are free…") just baffles me. And once again there's a URL sent in a non-standard format that I can't click on; I'll guess that maybe this was done to try to get around spam filters. But when I type it into my browser in proper URL format, I get redirected to the same bogus-looking site as discussed in my previous posting.

I can't wait to see what version I will receive next. I'm hoping for Esperanto.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Crop Is In

So, Memorial Day weekend is winding down, and with it my spring planting extravaganza.

From Saturday until today I've been out digging up beds and working compost into them, transplanting the various things I started around the end of March and sowing the various items that get planted as seed directly. I'm tired now.

Off to a Good Start

View from the Garden Gate
I did take some time out on Saturday to watch my daughter run a couple of events at the state track meet, for which her high school team had qualified in various events. La Principessa is an avid runner and has the good fortune to be on a high school team which is one of the better ones in Massachusetts. As a result she ends up running not only in the regular season events, but often enough in the state-level meets as well.

LP takes after her father in a lot of ways, but an urge to run around a track is not one of them. I went to high school in a small town in the North Valley in California. When we came back to school each year in late August or early September (I forget which, exactly) the daytime temperatures were still usually in the upper nineties or sometimes even the lower hundreds. And what was the first unit we did each year in PE? Track. So there we'd be, running in circles in the heat on this dusty dirt track, and I found it utterly unfathomable that anyone would want to do that voluntarily. That's still the association that I have with running in general. I prefer to walk, thank you.

But I digress… At any rate, after days of toil I'm glad to say that everything is planted. Now it's a matter of watering, weeding and waiting. And trying to foil the plans of wildlife of all sizes. My arch-nemesis for now is the flea beetle, a little black beetle about the size of a pinhead that likes to eat little holes in the leaves of my eggplant, peppers and tomatoes, so many that it can stress the plant to the point that it withers and dies. I can see that my jalapeños have also been getting munched on by what I suspect to be Japanese beetles. For both I've sprayed rotenone-pyrethrin spray, which is supposed to be an organic compound approved for organic gardening.

Bigger things I have to watch out for are squirrels and robins. You wouldn't normally think of either one as a typical garden pest, but they cause me some headaches. The squirrels are a problem because they see from the disturbed soil that someone or something has been digging in the soil, so they start digging indiscriminately in search of whatever hidden treasure might be buried there and in the process make a mess of things. The robins are a nuisance because they go hopping through the beds in search of worms and in the process may break off bits of the leaves and stems of cabbage or broccoli seedlings, which at this stage can still be a little brittle. The defense against both is to protect whatever we've planted by surrounding it with a little wall of sticks that we've stuck into the ground. It looks sort of weird but so far it's generally worked.

Gonna Grow Me Some Sticks
So now I look forward to following the progress of my little farm from now until harvest time, and of course enjoying the fruits (or vegetables) of my labors. I'll be sure to bore you, dear reader, with regular updates.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Gentleman Farmer

Memorial Day is coming up fast. Here in eastern Mass, that means planting day is just around the corner. You don't want to put your seedlings out until the danger of frost is definitely past, and here that's not until the end of May. I've occasionally seen snow here in mid-April, fer crissakes. But even before the seedlings go out, there's plenty to do.

There are lots of signs that spring is finally on its way. The first harbinger of warmer days ahead: Slime mold!

What's that I spy?
Every fall I rake up a ton of leaves, run over them with the lawnmower and then dump them in a little pen for storage so that when lawn-mowing time comes I can mix the clippings with the chopped up leaves for a fine (and truly delicious) compost. At some point every April, when the pile of leaves is still wet from rain but the weather has gotten up into the 40's and 50's for a day or two, a small patch of pale yellow goop will appear on the leaves and rapidly grow for about three days, then dry out and die off as suddenly as it appeared. I'm pretty sure that what I'm seeing is slime mold. To be more precise, I believe that what is inhabiting my leaf pile is Fuligo septica, the Dog Vomit Slime Mold.

Why, it's my old friend Dog Vomit!
Slime mold is fascinating stuff. It isn't really mold or any kind of fungus, apparently. Although it reproduces like a fungus by producing fruiting bodies that send out spores, it's really sort of like a giant amoeba that just cruises around looking for something to eat, and then surrounds and ingests whatever tasty morsel it happens upon. Apparently a lot of people are afraid of slime mold. I can see why. Look out! Here come Dog Vomit! Maybe we can outrun it!

A lot of wildlife starts showing up about the same time. Most notably, the turkeys will appear. For a few years we had quite a few that would go parading through our yard a couple of times a day. More recently there have been a number of coyotes showing up, and since then we've seen far fewer turkeys each year. The interesting thing is that this is all happening around eight miles from downtown Boston.

The turkeys are kind of amusing. The males put on quite a show on my lawn every spring, parading around with their wings and tails all fluffed up. All they would need is a polyester suit and a string of puka shells around their neck to be largely indistinguishable from some people I knew in high school. The downside of having the turkeys around is that they like to roost in some trees not far from my bedroom window, and as soon as it gets light in the morning they're making a huge racket with their "gobble gobble gobble" call.

Your place or mine?
Baby, don't you want a man like me?
Another annual rite of spring is the ceremonial first mowing of the lawn. I do not enjoy mowing the lawn, because I have a big one. All told it's about a quarter of an acre, which is a fair amount of lawn to be pushing a mower over. Since I compost all those clippings, the mowing time is increased because the bag-thingy that catches the clippings fills up fast and then I have to haul it over to the compost pile and mix the clippings with the leaves from my leaf pile (you can read about that exciting process here).

All told, it takes me roughly three hours to do the whole job. My neighbors, an older couple whose lawn is contiguous with mine (I don't think either of us knows exactly where the property line is), have a gardening service that comes and shaves their lawn down to stubble once a week. I manage to do mine about once every two or three weeks, so by the time I do get mine mowed, the contrast between the two is pretty stark.

Guess which side is mine.
I've never thought seriously about hiring a lawn service to come mow it for me. My kids will tell you it's because I'm a notorious tightwad. Actually, I am perfectly willing to pay good money for the level of quality I want in a good or service. I pay extra for quality tools, for example, because I know they will probably last a lifetime and will be more accurate and dependable than the cheap version from the bargain bin. (Also, I just really like nice tools.) And I don't mind paying someone to cut my hair or fix my roof or provide some other service for which I lack the the skills or the necessary equipment. But the idea of having someone come to mow my lawn or clean my house or some other such homekeeping chore that I'm perfectly capable of doing myself seems kind of decadent and pretentious, regardless of how tedious the task in question may be. I'd venture to say that there would be a lot more humility in the world if there was a law that everyone has to do his own laundry and clean his own toilet.

Last summer I did pay my son a token amount to mow a few times when it was getting urgent but I just had too many other, equally urgent things to get done over the weekend. I wanted to do that again the weekend before last, when it was pretty clear that the time for mowing was upon us, but unfortunately The Young Master recently whacked his head pretty hard on the ground while playing goalie in a soccer game and ended up with a concussion, so he is now excused by doctor's orders from most physical and mental activity while he convalesces. I took him to see the doctor, who ordered that until the test he has to take weekly indicates that he is back to normal, TYM is to (doc's actual words) "avoid using his brain". You can imagine the spontaneous response this advice will elicit from the father of any fifteen-year-old boy, but before I could open my mouth, TYM already was saying, "Now my dad's going to say I never use it anyway." Knows me pretty well, he does.

I spent a lot of the weekend cleaning up the garden and getting it ready for next weekend's planting extravaganza. One of the things I had to do was to replace the wooden planks that contain the dirt for the raised beds. I had not originally planned to use raised beds, but the spot we selected for the garden was nearly impossible to dig up for gardening purposes. As I discovered when I tried, there are some fairly huge boulders buried in there. There's also a bunch of old asphalt chunks and other crap that was apparently dumped there as fill to level the whole area out when they started building on our section of the street in the early 1960's (I am told that our back yard was once a pond before they developed the area). You need something to hold in the dirt for raised beds, so after considering a bunch of alternatives, I chose to go with construction-grade 2x12's as the most cost-effective option. They last 5–6 years and then rot out and need to be replaced, so I had to replace a bunch of them this year.

A Sorry State Indeed

You never know what you're going to find when you start peeling the old boards off. When I was taking one of the box frames apart, a little vole came running out. I could see the little tunnel leading to its nest, which was now exposed. In the nest were eight or nine little baby voles. I hate voles in my garden. They dig in the beds and chew on my vegetables. I am not putting all that work into this in order to keep the local rodent population well fed. But being a live-and-let-live kind of guy, I collected the entire vole family (the adults are pretty slow and clumsy, so they aren't hard to catch) and carted them off to their new home in a little wooded area further down the street.

What's this?

One Big Happy Family

The Proud Mother
Once rid of unwanted guests, it's a messy but simple job to put the new boards in place.

Ready for Another Five Years

Of course you need something to put in the beds once they're ready. Besides voles, I mean. We have a total of eighteen beds; nine are 4' x 10' and nine are 4' x 8' in size. One of the 4' x 10' beds is always reserved for lettuce, the growing of which, for some reason, has become the job of My Favorite Wife. I am not sure how exactly we evolved this system by which she tends exactly one bed while I for some reason do all of the weeding, watering, fertilizing, cultivating and harvesting of the remaining seventeen, but that's how we do it. From early April she's out there fiddling with her lettuce. I guess it keeps her out of trouble. But the box frame is falling apart, I protest. I need to fix that first. Sorry, she says, it's planting time; figure out a way to fix it after I plant, but don't mess up my lettuce! Lettuce waits for no man.

Kopfsalat is das halbe Leben
I planted my seedlings around the end of March, as I've reported previously. This year I put my planting bench in the garage, My Favorite Wife having unreasonably banished it from the dining room, and I'm not so sure that was a successful experiment. It was still pretty cold in the garage in March and April, and I think that the seedlings grew far more slowly than they ever did in the warm house, so they're smaller than I would like for them to be by this time of year. In the meantime I've transplanted everything into bigger pots and put them on trays on our funky sun porch. On sunny days I take them out on the lawn for "hardening off", so that they can get used to the sun and wind and also just enjoy playing together outside, which is important for their social development.

Almost Ready

The final step before being ready to plant is to generally clean up everything. Replacing the rotting box frames is part of that. The rest is pulling out all the old leftover vegetation from last year, pulling up all the stakes and frames that are still stuck in the ground, and especially pulling up all the weeds that now populate all of the beds and the spaces in between; it's amazing how quickly they take over the whole place if left to their devices.

It doesn't look so bad from here…

…but from here it looks like work.
So as it turned out I spent the better part of last weekend repairing the box frames and generally cleaning up. It's not the most exciting way to spend a weekend, but it was definitely nice to spend a couple of warm spring days outside after being cooped up in my basement office for the whole previous week, not to mention the whole previous winter. But I'm ready to start this year's farming activities and for me that's pretty exciting.

Now, doesn't that look nice?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Not Quite Enraptured

Hellloooooooooo… Anyone here? This blog's gotten pretty stale. There's sort of a mildewy smell. I'm afraid to look under the furniture because I have no idea what I might have left lying around on my last visit.

Blame it on work. The consulting business, in which I find my moderately gainful employment, is a real feast-or-famine kind of lifestyle. At one end of the extreme I'm between projects without a whole lot to do and generally just trying to find something useful to do to justify my continued employment. That's when I have plenty of time for some recreational keyboard work.

At the other end of the extreme I find myself working on multiple projects, maybe working on a proposal or two on the side, interviewing job candidates here and there, and generally so busy that I have no idea how I'm possibly going finish everything that I need to get done. Well, I've definitely been in feast mode lately. I sit down at my desk around 7 AM in the morning and work until 6 PM or so, with a few short breaks in between. A substantial number of the people who work on my projects (I'm the project manager) are in India, so I often come back for an hour or two after dinner to make sure I've communicated to them adequately to ensure that they have a clear understanding of what I need from them when they come in at the beginning of their day. When I'm working in that mode, my enthusiasm for spending my limited non-work time at my desk is pretty limited. It's all I can do just to sit down and write a few checks to keep the water running and the lights on. That's been the situation for the past five or six weeks.

But enough whining about work. I mainly just wanted to check in to note that the Rapture appears not to have happened. Who woulda thunk? Way back when I started this blog in, oh, 2010 (seems like so long ago), I put a link on my page to the web site of Family Radio Worldwide, the apparent chief sponsors of the event. I have of course been waiting with bated breath ever since to see what would happen on May 21, 2011. Would I witness all those True Believers suddenly exiting their clothes and flying up to heaven? Would I endure half a year or so of pain and tribulations? Would I finally be cast into the Lake of Fire?

So now it's May 22 and the only thing that's happened is, well, nothing. I have scoured the news for accounts of True Believers who have turned up missing en masse, but have found no such reports. I checked the FRW web site and it's still up, assuring me that yesterday was Judgment Day, but the home page is full of broken links so if anyone got "raptured" I guess it might have been their webmaster. I'll be curious to hear how Harold Camping, the guy behind FRW, will explain all this. I wonder what all of his non-"raptured" followers are thinking after quitting jobs, giving away their posessions and such. Beyond that, I guess I'll just wait for the next End of the World, which I am told the Mayan calendar has predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Opening Day!

April is here at last! Whatever it is that March is going out as, it's finally gone.

You thought it was spring? April fools!

April 1 brings us many things. It brings a lot of April Fools' Day jokes of course. For some reason it brings several inches of new snow to my yard—will it never end? But most importantly, it brings Opening Day.

I am referring to the first day of the Major League Baseball season. I have always kind of liked baseball. As a kid, my friends and I all had balls, bats and gloves. There was a big empty lot behind the house of one of my friends, and from spring to fall we would be out there playing. Not the kind of organized game that seems to be the only way the kids I know play today, but rather the kind of neighborhood game played by a handful of kids, involving imaginary runners and other bits of improvisation. I sometimes thought about playing little league ball, but my mother wouldn't hear of it, saying that the little league parents were all a bunch of fanatical nuts.

From the time I was about five until the age of thirteen, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. The East Bay, to be precise. So it was only natural, I guess, that when watching baseball my friends and I all followed the Oakland A's. This was in the late 1960's and early 1970's, which was a pretty exciting time to be an A's fan. There was a certain aura that surrounded the team during that era, partly because of their success on the field during the first half of the 1970's (such as World Series wins 1972–1974), but also because of the colorful image that their equally colorful owner, Charlie O. Finley, built up around the team.

Back When Life Was Simpler

I went to a few games a year during that period. It was pretty exciting as a kid to go to the Oakland Coliseum to see a live game. I think one of the first games I ever went to was a bat day ca. 1970 or 1971, at which I got a free bat that bore the signature of Rick Monday, who hit a grand slam during that very game; a very big deal at the age of nine or ten. That bat somehow ended up in my mother's garage and my son now has it. I wonder if bat day still exists? These days I imagine there would be significant legal concerns about filling the stands with thousands of potential weapons.

But these happy times were not to last forever… For one thing, I just got older and had other things on my mind. But more significantly, I watched as the amazing team I had followed for so many years disintegrated, as some of the players went on to other teams who paid them more, and others were sold off by Charlie Finley to other teams. It became pretty clear to me that this was all just a business, and that any romantic notions about these guys being a team who were always there for each other were a kind of youthful fantasy. Greatly disillusioned, I lost interest in not only baseball, but in professional sports in general for a very long time.

Fast-forward about 25 years, and here I am moving from Germany, where baseball is largely unknown, to the Boston area. Everywhere I look I see someone wearing a cap with a script "B" on it, and all anyone seems to be talking about is the latest exploits of "Nomah" (AKA star hitter Nomar Garciaparra) and "Manny being Manny", whatever that means. From April to September, the world seems to revolve around the Red Sox and their seemingly eternal quest to escape "the curse of the Bambino". People speak of Bill Buckner's error in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series in the same tones of anger, sadness and resignation in which they might speak of the unexpected death of a close friend.

A Famous Local Landmark (Since Retired)

At first I looked on all this with a certain air of bemused detachment. And then at some point I watched a game or two on TV, I think during the 2004 season as it started to look like the Red Sox would make it at least as far as the playoffs and the local fans, i.e., about 98% of the local population, were starting to show that peculiar mixture of excitement tinged with an undercurrent of an expectation of ultimate defeat that was so characteristic of Red Sox fans at the time. But then the unthinkable happened as the Red Sox went on to defeat the much-hated New York Yankees in the seventh game of the American League Championship Series after having lost the first three games. And then something even more unthinkable happened as they went on to win the World Series for the first time since 1918. And I think I watched pretty much every one of those games.

So I guess I've kind of made my peace with professional baseball. I find that I enjoy watching the games more than I might have been willing to admit previously, although I rarely watch an entire game from start to finish; usually I'll turn it on in the fifth or sixth inning and watch as long as there's still some suspense as to who's going to win. I like the fact that the season is so long; with over 160 games to be played over six long months, a team can't get into the post-season by getting lucky a few times, it has to be consistently good throughout the whole season. It's a marathon and not a sprint.

My Favorite Wife, being of the German persuasion and having grown up without any connection to baseball, will occasionally watch a game with me on TV, but still finds it utterly baffling. To me, it seems really straightforward: each team gets a turn each at being on offense or defense over a cycle of nine innings; the team on offense can keep batting until they have three outs; when batting, the objective is to hit the ball and them run around the bases; the pitcher throws the ball, and each throw can be a ball or a strike; it's a ball if it's thrown outside the strike zone, unless the batter swings at it, in which case it's a strike if he misses, or if he hits it foul (but only the first two foul balls count as strikes), but it's also a strike if it's in the strike zone even if he doesn't swing and, oh, never mind… I guess it is sort of complicated. Unlike MFW's beloved game of soccer, in which a bunch of guys try to kick a ball into a net, the end. What's so exciting about that?

And hardcore fans like to make baseball even more complicated by following the stats. I don't think there are any sports fans anywhere that are as numbers- and trivia-obsessed as hardcore baseball fans. Every game I hear the announcers saying things like, "You know, Bill, that hit by Ortiz is the first time since 1993 that a designated hitter got a double off a fastball thrown by a left-handed pitcher whose mother's name is Martha on a Tuesday during a new moon." Where do they come up with this stuff? Who cares? I just want to see if the guy can hit the ball.

I've only been to one live game since returning to the US. It was my first and only game at Fenway Park. Fenway is a fun place to watch a ball game because it's just so small. Seeing a game there is sort of like watching your favorite band perform in a small club instead of a huge stadium. But the downside of that is that it's also really expensive, at least by my standards; even the "cheap" seats typically go for well above $100, and I'm just not willing to drop five or six hundred dollars for an afternoon's entertainment with the family. Somehow that just seems frivolous and irresponsible (in other words I'm a cheapskate, as my children will explain it). The one game I went to was at the invitation of a sales guy at work who happened to be a college buddy of a major figure in the Red Sox organization and was able to periodically borrow that guy's season tickets. That one time we went he asked me when the last time was that I had been to a major league ball game, and it occurred to me that it was probably when my host was still filling his diapers.

Where Boston Goes to Worship

As for the Red Sox on opening day: they lost their first game 9-5 to the Texas Rangers. Not an auspicious start. Oh well, at least we have, what, another 161 to go?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Out Like… a Lion?

I have been pining for spring after all the cold weather and snow we had this winter. With the coming of March, things have started to take a turn for the better. We had some heavy rainstorms around the beginning of the month, but also some dry stretches with temperatures in the 40's and 50's (F). I've watched with pleasure as the giant piles of snow in my backyard and throughout the neighborhood have gradually disappeared until there is very little left.

Even a Very Faint Hint of Green Lawn

The seedlings I planted a couple of weeks ago are all pretty much up and growing too. Another sign that spring is coming! This weekend I'll plant a bunch more.


This past Sunday, March 20 was the equinox, the official beginning of spring (equinox… I've always really liked the sound of that word for some reason… equinox… equinox… equinox…). It wasn't exactly a warm day, mid-40's maybe, but it was sunny and dry. And then what did I wake up to the next morning? A snowstorm! Massachusetts, so cruel art thou. They say that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Here it comes in like a lion and goes out like a very slightly smaller lion.

Supposedly There's A Lamb In There Somewhere