Saturday, April 20, 2024

Fantastic Finland Fieldwork For the Fictory!

I am currently in the most wonderful Helsinki airport, waiting to go back to Berlin.  I have been in Helsinki to study the Finnish case for the Phil/Ora/Steve book on Defense Agencies.  It has been a great albeit cold and mostly wet week.  Definitely glad we have this case in the book, and, yes, it is making it imperative to go to Sweden to see how NATO membership is a common process with perhaps not entirely common politics.

First, the joy of Helsinki before I discuss what I have learned for the book project.   It is on the Baltics, so when the wind blows, brrrrr.  Yes, we got some snow here last night, deep into April.  Makes me feel like I am back in Canada, except Ottawa has more sun and not as much cold winds. This is only my second time here, and the first one hardly counts as it was a brief layover between Leningrad (that tells you how long ago it was) and NY.  I got used to tramming around town, never using the metro as everyone was very well located in the center except a couple of interviews--one requiring a bus ride to beyond Helsinki and one or two requiring cab rides.  

Two parliament buildings
and funky sculpture
 One of my fave new experiences for interviewing was that they had a conference center where folks could hold meetings with far less security and inconvenience than going out to the ministries.  I still did manage to go to the Ministry of Interior, which was not far away, and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that was a 20 minute walk or 15 minute tram ride.  The Parliament buildings were not just huge (everyone kept reminding me this is a small country with a small population, but their parliament buildings suggest otherwise), but also had more security than any other legislative building I can recall.  Sure, everyone has a front entrance with thick windows, x-ray scanners, etc, but to get from point a to b inside, my escort had to badge the doors every five or ten steps.  And, yeah, my escort in was the counsel to the defense committee, and on the way out ... a parliamentarian who was recently the chief of defense!  They don't have much of a history, by the way, of senior ex mil leaders serving in parliament but Ukraine changed that.  More on that below.

reindeer on potato
I am not a huge fan of fish, so I tended to look for non-Finnish food (not all Finnish food is fish, to be clear), so I had Chinese, Italian, Mideast, and Georgian.  Pretty sure that was my first time having Georgian food, but the waitress didn't understand my order, so I didn't get the classic big bread thing dish, so I will have to try that in Berlin (I found a Georgian place near my apartment).  The people were very friendly, even though I have no Finnish.  They all understand that no one speaks Finnish besides Finns, so they all speak Swedish (there is a sizable Swedish minority and the Swedes used to run the place), and English.  Some folks remarked that the kids these days are less interested in learning Russian.  So much for Russia's soft power....

Yes, Russia loomed large here, as the Finns have a strong memory of the trauma of the Winter War--their fight with the Russians during World War II.  Apparently, the Ukraine war hit the old folks very hard.   I did wonder where the bunkers are, as  I had heard that civil defense is a big thing here.  I didn't recognize the signs apparently, as I was told that pretty much all of Helsinki has underground facilities.  The difference between old US bomb shelters and Finnish bunkers--the latter are used on a daily basis--parking lots, swimming pools, gyms, etc that are underground.  This keeps them fresh, their air good, and also, most importantly, has the Finns comfy with going to these places.  The economy is not doing well, and it may or may not have much to do with the fact that the Finns have pretty much cut off most trade with Russia.  

The whole of government thing Canadians and others have a problem doing?  Finland has whole of society, comprehensive security.  In its history, it has always been alone until ... the last year.  So, they are ready to mobilize the entire society if the Russians attack.  This means a draft (just for men [all young men including one NBA player], women can join the military but their conscription is voluntary [holy oxymoron]), an extensive reservist system so that the small army can swell to 280,000 and then 900,000, coordination of all parts of society to respond to an attack.  The drafted are paid about 5 Euros a day.... which does not go far in super expensive Helsinki. 

Decorations inside Parl building
The military has been running a month-long defense course 4x/year for a long, long time, where they create cohorts of 50 people, elites from across society, to learn about the military and the rest of comprehensive security.  This is a hell of a public diplomacy effort--it is not cheap although some companies provide the food and booze and such for free.  Companies apparently don't have a big problem with losing an employee for a month.  To provide a comparison, the army exercise I did in 2019 was one day.  This experience is really important as it came up in almost all of the interviews and mostly without my prompting.


In ye old comparative politics, the phrase is war made the state.  While not entirely true, the idea is that societies developed more and more extensive political institutions in order to fight and win or survive in international relations.  It may be the case that NATO membership has the same but smaller impact.  That joining NATO has caused Finland has to dramatically enlarge and perhaps empower its very small Ministry of Defense.  NATO requires meetings, document vetting, preparation, the sending of personnel to NATO hq's in Brussels, Mons, and elsewhere.  AND most NATO policy is made by civilians even though NATO is far more an organization about military stuff than civilian stuff (hence why much of the effort to build an Afghan government was run by separate national governments (foreign affairs, development agencies) rather than by NATO.  The relevance of this is that it gives the MoD a greater role in making defense policy than in the past.  That is, the Finnish defense forces made much of the policies but that may be changing now.  Oh, and it was the first EU country I have been in where the NATO flags easily outnumber the EU ones.

In terms of the project, Finland is an interesting case with a largely autonomous military, that their number two in the MoD is always a retired senior military officer, their MoD is tiny (150 now, swelling recently thanks to NATO), their President is commander in chief which means the military can try to sideline the MoD and the PM by insisting that the President is the one who oversees them, the President and PM have tiny foreign/security offices, and that conscription deeply shapes everything.  Sweden will be a fun case to compare since the Swedes had a draft, dropped it, and have recently started it again while also joining NATO recently.

Random things I heard along the way:

  • five different Baltic pipelines have had "accidents" since the war in Ukraine started!
  • Finland has reached 2% of GDP on defense because it frontloaded the cost of buying the F35s, which means that when that goes through the system, Finland may have a hard time procuring enough to keep at 2%.  
  • Womb chairs!  Multiple waiting rooms in govt buildings reminded me of Oberlin's library way back in the day.

 

 

I do love my job even if it requires me to transcribe my interview notes.  I have many more countries to visit and I still have to do some work to figure out the German case as well as write up the Finish case.  All I know is that comparative civ-mil relations has been mighty good to me.

Next week, Mrs. Spew hits Europe, so we drive through Germany and then fly to Italy.  So, a very different bit of fieldwork ahead.  Much more focused on comparative cuisine.  

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Berlin, Week Acht!

 Wow, time is flying by.  I have one week in Finland, two weeks of tourism in middle Germany and Northern Italy with Mrs. Spew, and then two weeks left of research and speaking and networking and Berlining. I have really enjoyed my time here, have made significant progress in the project, learned a lot about how Europeans are thinking about Ukraine (haven't had a chance to talk with them about Iran-Israel yet), and eating a lot of great baked goods. 

 The research has been good but not great.  Parliamentarians have been too busy to talk to me, so I am hoping for better luck next winter when I return for another three months.

This was a fun week as I started it having a beer in a beer garden with Erin Koenig, a Canadian diplomat I know via her work as chair of Women in International Security-Canada.  Tis a CDSN partner, so we had much discuss on that as well as comparative Berlin experiences.  And she was a great photographer as she patiently endured my interview on the Canadian defence review for the home crowd.  Had I had more warning about the DPU (I learned it was dropping a day before it dropped), I would have gotten my hair cut.  Shaggy, beer swilling Steve on the CBC

 

I had a very productive visit to Potsdamn.  The Bundeswehr's Center for Military History and Social Sciences is in a very scenic location, right on the river.  I met with a couple of folks there to discuss future cooperation with the CDSN as we move towards our next big grant application which will focus more onc civil-military relations and will involve international partners more directly and more extensively.   


I had a fun conversation with a Canadian student studying at Hertie about why Canada doesn't produce foreign policy reviews.  Tis is his project, and he guessed right that I might have opinions.  I have interacted with a handful of Hertie students regarding their projects.  They are sharp and engaging and fun--kind of like NPSIA students, as Hertie is the closest thing to NPSIA in Germany.  

I spent my Saturday walking to and from an excellent small Indonesian restaurant.  One of my basic rules of life: if I can find such a place with a good rating, I must go.  And it was pretty terrific.  The walk was great too, as it was a spectacular Berlin spring day.  My only regret was that I discovered a street market too late in the day to enjoy it--it was closing up when I arrived.  So, something to do when Mrs. Spew is town in a couple of weeks.  I walked past some neat murals and a funky park (see pics below).

I am finishing this now as I am about to board my flight from Frankfurt to Helsinki.  It has been one of my best Frankfurt experiences--incoming and outgoing planes eight gates apart, a small coffeeshop with sandwiches in between.  I may start to hate this airport less!  Anyhow, enjoy the rest of your weekend.  Next weekend's post will be about my first trip to Finland since a very short layover going from Leningrad to NYC long ago. 





Monday, April 8, 2024

Defence Policy Review Review!

Like others in the Canadian defence community,  I got my copy of the Defence Policy Update early so that I could sound semi-informed when the media asked me about it.  I, of course, have taken the opportunity to blog about it since I am not sure what the media types will ask if they manage to reach me in Berlin.

First, wow, that was a lot about threats.  Lots of discussion in Ottawa about how Canada does not have a foreign policy, how can you have a defence policy?  The answer here is to put a lot of text in to essentially draw out what Canada's foreign policy and thus defence policies are.  Or one could read it as filler so folks don't notice that the document may be a bit thin and vague.  The annexes are more specific, and that is helpful, but lots of generalities in the first 40 pages or so. 

I will jump back on this hill and say that while I understand that Canadian authorities have to talk a lot about the threats from the north (the doc is entitled Our North Strong and Free) as that is what gets Canadians to care, the threats really aren't up there.  Russia is a threat but not because it is going to snatch some islands or do some mining on our side.  China is a threat, but not because it will bug us from on high.  Their threats are through their aggression in their regions and through political interference and cyber attacks.  None of that requires fear mongering about the arctic, but hey, the smartest people in Canada on defence have pushed back on me about this (yes, you, Phil).  I did find focusing on climate change (not just an Arctic thing), autocracies, and disruptive tech makes sense.

That was my first gut response.  My second: $8b over 5 years and $73b over 20 is really not that much money.   Sure, it sounds like a lot, and might get Canada closer to 1.76% of GDP (if the economy slows down, so should we root for that?).  But there is so much to spend money on to get the military up to snuff and then some.    I am bad at accounting, but I think the basics are clear: everything is getting more expensive, defense inflation is worse than the regular kind, delays cost money, buying Canadian-made stuff is more expensive than buying off the shelf elsewhere, and so on.  This stuff is very, very costly. 

The key is that we are already far behind--the personnel crisis requires spending more money on salaries (demographic change and good job markets means we have to pay folks more as there are options elsewhere), the money for infrastructure and housing in this document probably help catch up to decent levels but to attracting talent I am not so sure, we don't have ammunition, etc.  So, one thing is to get to where we need to be, another thing to get to where we want to be in the future.  I just don't think this is enough money.

Third gut response: eight missions for the military with the domestic emergency stuff at the end of the list.  Whenever you list a bunch of priorities, those listed last are ... lesser priorities.  Which has harmed Canadians more: Russia in Ukraine or floods/fires/pandemics?  Again, I get that the point of a military is to do war stuff, but since we will not get anybody else to do the major domestic emergency stuff (don't count on the provinces to get their act together--they see the advantages of sucking the feds for as much as they can), the CAF will not be last responders.  Sorry, but I am a realist when it comes to domestic politics.

Ok, what are some of the big news items (for me, anyway):

  • National Security Strategies and Defence Policy Updates every four years!!! Hell yeah.  We definitely need this so that we can adapt, evaluate how we are doing, and make policy changes.
  • Probationary period for recruits.  How to get recruits in faster?  By reducing initial standards and then being able to kick out people.  This has been much discussed and is more than about time.  I know more than a few people who wanted to join but were turned off by how long it took (years!) to get through the initial stages.
  • A big omission--we need to reform personnel strategies so that folks don't have to move so often.  Today's military involves people who have spouses/partners who happen to have their own careers/lives and moving around is a huge burden.  The doc includes money and text regarding housing, which is good, but reducing the frequency of movement would make a big dent in that.
  • A mentioning of thinking about new submarines.  Nothing specific, because any specifics would be like a torpedo, blowing a hole in the hull of the defence review document, since subs are super expensive.

There is more in it than that--build more capacity to make artillery ammo, maybe get HIMARS or something like that for the army, more drones and counterdrones, more specifics about what is being spent on NORAD, etc.  I would suggest folks read the annexes first as they are far more specific.  

Lastly, after interviewing a retired German admiral after reading the doc but before the DND briefing, his consistent point on taking responsibility for hard decisions, my big question that I can't ask in this briefing is: what was the hardest thing to reject?  What did folks want that you ultimately decided not to do?

Like the Defence Review of 2017, the document suggests everybody wins, and that can't possibly true.  If one tries to do everything, something will not work out and some will lose...  I just don't see the hard choices that need to be made.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Berlin Week Sieben

I am now more than half way through my time in Berlin, which is flying by.  The weather has mostly turned to spring so this weekend I walked around in shorts!  I am making progress on both the main project and other stuff, while embracing the best doner I can find.  

Upon returning from the Austrian Alps, my research project picked up.  I not only interviewed a German admiral and a former adviser to the Defense Minister, but I also interviewed a Finnish general via zoom.  I am headed off to Finland in a week to study that case, and I got a head start since the aforementioned general couldn't meet with me while I am in Helsinki.  

No, we didn't hold the workshop in the elevator
but I did selfie us when I had the chance.
The latter part of the week was focused on a workshop run by Christian Gläßel, a Hertie post-doc, and Adam Scharpf, a U of Copenhagen prof, on authoritarian politics.  They presented drafts of their chapters of their amazing book--it focuses on the logic of careers within autocratic institutions and how losers in the career competition either get detoured to the icky jobs (secret police) or try to force their way up (coups).  They also invited sharp folks from around Europe and North America to present their work.  I was tempted to play a favorite Sesame Street bit as I did not really fit.  But I got super useful feedback.  

I spent this Saturday enjoying the weather by walking around an old neighborhood with much Jewish history.  It reminded me of a commonality between Jewish sites and US embassies: you know you are close as you notice increased security measures.  Not great that this is necessary.  On some of the buidings, there were plenty of references to Kristallnacht, the night that the Nazis incited much violence against the Jews across Germany, a major milestone towards the Holocaust.

 

 

So, for a lighter Sunday, I went to a park that had heaps of people enjoying the sun, a very nice beer garden, and, oh yes, one of the largest Soviet WWII memorials.  I was struck not just by the size but by all of the Stalin quotes.  I remember enough Russian from way back when to


understand Stalin's name when I see it, even if I can't understand the quotes. I could not help but notice that there was hardly any German writing anywhere except in the room at below the big statue.  On my way out, I learned that there are still 20,000 or so Soviet soldiers here who were buried at the end of the war.

Whenever I am in Berlin, I can always feel the dark history, more so than anywhere else I have ever visited.  Whether it is hearing or seeing the train directions towards Wannasee or Spandau or the little markers in the sidewalk noting where Jews lived before the Holocaust and what their ultimate fate was (more often Auschwitz),* the Nazi period is inescapable, and so is the Stalinist period.  The Germans do a far better job than other folks of remembering their dark past, which is a good thing.  Even after seven or so weeks here, it has not faded or gotten old.  

 

Good thing I could embrace my favorite things to lift my spirits: ice cream and beer but not at the same time. 







Sunday, March 31, 2024

Why Does It Take So Long to Publish Academic Books?

Today, I assembled all of the chapters of the Dave, Phil, and Steve book, and it came a day after someone asked Phil on the old social media site why it took so long.  So, a timely question for a still timely book (we hope).  It is also a fair one, as this book has taken longer than any of my other projects.  It took me eight years to turn my dissertation into a book, but much of that time was focusing on other stuff (job hunting, moving, learning how to teach, moving again, pumping out articles since my tenure case was going to rest more on articles than books) and not on the actual book.  My second book came out seven years after my first, and that is a bit deceptive since I spent one of those years in the Pentagon doing no research except one trip to Budapest.  My third book came out six years after the third. My fourth, a spinoff of the third, came out two years later, and it might have been a year faster if not for one picky reviewer who wanted me to cite his unpublished work.  This book, my fifth!, will be coming out nine or ten years after my previous book, depending on the vagaries of the academic publishing process (see below)

I have two sets of answers to this question--some inherent in the academic research and publishing enterprise and some specific to the project. Let's dispense with the dynamics that were specific to this project before I discuss why it takes so long to publish any academic book.

Just to remind folks, the book compares 15 democracies to assess what role their legislatures play in overseeing their armed forces.  Spoiler alert!  Not as much as most would expect!  The cases include countries in five continents (no African cases, no Antarctic ones). 

This book:

  • Did I mention 15 countries?  Yeah, that's a lot.  Medium n research (where one does case studies over a number of cases) is no joke.  One of us visited each country (except those where we reside) at least once and a few we went back a few times (Germany and Japan for me, UK and France, I think, for Phil).  That took time, and we had to do that either during sabbaticals, during summer breaks, or squeezed in where we could.
  • One of the challenges of doing 15 countries is that we didn't team up and visit the same ones together.  So, we very much had the classic problem represented by this cartoon.  It took us some time to figure out our results.
  • There was a pandemic.  Yeah, that.   Phil has small kids, so he was severely impacted (Ontario did perhaps the worst job in Canada of managing the pandemic and its impact on schools).  Dave faced a variety of challenges at his workplace (National Defense University) and at home due to the pandemic.  I was generally in a state of distraction for the first year or two of Covid, not because of family problems (Hollywood Spew handled the pandemic on her own and did so brilliantly. We could worry from afar, but her situation did involve me on any kind of regular, interruptive basis)
  • This project coincided with our launching of the CDSN, and I cannot lie and say it did not affect the attention I put into this project.

So, yeah, this was not a speedy project, but few academic books are super quick.  Why?  Let's go through the steps.

  1. Come up with a researchable idea.  This can be quick, but even the best ideas take longer than the shower than inspired them as one has to figure out the question, what the answer might be, whether it has already been asked and answered (our aim is to generate new knowledge, not just repeat someone else's project--replication is a thing but it won't get folks tenure, fortune, or glory), whether it is feasible, and whether one can do it (it might be feasible by somebody but not by the specific scholar due to skill/time/money limitations).
  2. If it requires some funding, then one needs to apply for a grant, which can take a significant amount of time.  In my experience, it takes several months to write a good grant and then several more to get the results.  In Canada, for the social sciences, the main funder (SSHRC) has a deadline of October and then informs us of the results in April.  So, the grant process can take about nine months if one is successful on the first shot (I have tended to be successful on the first time around but not always).  
  3. The research.  To do a serious, book length project requires some serious work, whether that is dwelling in the archives, building datasets, traveling to one spot for an extended period of time, or, like us, visiting a number of places.  And we have to do this while balancing the other parts of professing--teaching, service, engagement, etc. (For a more recent and exhausive and thoughtful version of the "what do profs do," see Paul Musgrave's take).  Most of the research for this project was done over four years.  This is why I tell folks to publish their dissertation work, as throwing away 2-4 years of research is a really bad idea even if one is tired of one's dissertation.  
  4. The writing.  Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes not so much.  One can write while doing the research, and then revise afterwards, but it still takes significant time.  Unlike the research, we often can only be done during breaks from teaching, one can write the results while doing the other prof responsibilities.  But that depends on one's teaching load, class sizes, teaching assistants (or not), and so forth.  Again, this is why summers are so important and why profs flip out when asked what they are doing with the summer off.  When collaborating, the writing takes both less and more time.  In this project, we each wrote up the cases that we had studied, but so I didn't have to write the British or Nordic cases.  But then we had to put in a lot of work to revise so that it looked like one person wrote the book, not three (we shall see if readers agree), and we had to do a lot of writing/revising for the jointly written stuff--the intro, the theory, the conclusion.  
  5. The submitting.  We had to contact a number of publishers, asking them to consider the book, they would then get back to us.  In general, the next step is for a publisher ask to see it, then they have to find reviewers, and then the reviewers have to read it and give their views.  This general takes between three months and a year (yes, it can take a lot of time).  The editor then communicates the reviews and then .... hopefully tells us to write a response letter.
  6. For my first first and third books, the reviews were positive, so I/we just had to write a letter explaining how we will incorporate the feedback into the revisions--a plan--and then that plan would go to the editorial board.  It might take a month or two or three (I forget) for the board to get back and say they will publish the book.  As long as the reviewers are not too demanding, these revisions might just take a couple of months.
    1. Ah, but the reviewers may not be that happy.  For my second book, the first press sent out an examination of the international dynamics of ethnic conflict to at least one comparativist, who wanted a very different book, one looking at the longer dynamics rather than a snapshot of 1990s dynamics.  Since that was not something Bill nor I were willing to do, we had to move to another publisher, so that review process took another several months.  For my fourth book, one of the reviewers again wanted a different book, a more traditional, academic, theory-focused book with, ug, more lit review.  My intent was to tell the Canadian public about what we could learn from the Afghanistan war.  So, the editor asked me to revise and he found another reviewer.  So, that added something like six months.  Did these delays make for a better book?  In the first case, no, as the book didn't change much as the primary review was quite unhelpful.  In the second case, somewhat.  I have generally found article rejection to be more productive, leading to better work, than book rejection.  But that is just my experience.
  7. Once the manuscript is accepted and sent off to the publisher, it will then take about a year before the book is published.  Part of the time is spent copy-editing, which is desperately needed.  The proofs always come back at an inconvenient time and a short fuse.
  8. Then the book is done and it is time to promote it

 Let's do the math: a year to get started (to come up with the idea, to get the grant), at least two years to do the research, one year to write and revise, six months if one is lucky in the review process, and one year to publish: 4.5 years.  For this book, we finished just outside the money the first year we applied for a grant from SSHRC. They tell you where you ranked in the competition, and we were exactly one spot out of getting funded. The next year?  We finished first.  So, that delayed the book by a year.  We then got the money and started traveling--from 2016 to early 2020.  My last bit of fieldwork was a bit of follow up in Berlin in January of 2020 to get a better array of interviews with legislators.  Phil and Dave had some plans to do more fieldwork, but the pandemic ended those plans.  Phil and I did do some zoom interviews to finish up the Canadian case.  So, four years of research.  The writing took, gasp, three years essentially with much of the progress made last summer as we all had "free" time at the same moment so we could revise, send to a co-author, get some revisions quickly, send to the next co-author, get some more revisions and accepted changes, and then back to the first co-author.  

So, that would be eight years thus far from 2015 to 2023.  2024 is for hopefully getting through the publication process. Wish us luck for a speedy, positive experience so that the book is accepted this summer/fall, which would mean a publication date of 2025.  Which would mean ten years from the start and nine years from my last book.  

Good thing I am a full professor and don't need this book for promotion.  It does go to show that there is a hell of a lot of pressure to get a book done at places where one needs a book (and usually a good book at a good to great press) to get tenure.  As mentioned above, this is possible only if one is building from one's dissertation, where much of the research and writing has been done.  In my case, I added a case study (Yugoslavia) which had started and "ended" while I was working on the dissertation and then learning how to teach in my first job.*  And I added some quant work as mixed methods was starting to become the thing, and I had discovered folks had collected data that I could use (thanks to Ted Gurr and the folks at the Minorities at Risk project).  

Anyhow, this could all be read as a rationalization for why it took so long to write this book, but I think it is also a handy example for understanding why academics don't pump out books as fast as Robert B. Parker did in the old days.  We are faster than George RR Martin, so there's that.



 * Never study a moving object.  While I thought much about the Yugoslav case while writing my dissertation as the country broke apart the month I defended my dissertation proposal, I could only really study it once the war ended in 1995. 

 

 


Friday, March 29, 2024

Alpine for a Reason

Today, I spent much time thinking of Helmut Von Moltke and Mike Tyson.  The former, a Prussian general, said "no plan survives contact with the enemy."  The latter said: "everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face."  The skiing equivalent is that one can have a plan for the ski day, but it often does not survive contact with the snow and with the conditions.

Even looking away from the
mountains, Lech is pretty

Today, I wanted to do more of Lech, the biggest part of the various ski areas in the region that are part of the White ring.  And, well, it didn't work out so well.  Due to wind (I guess) and dangerous snow conditions (the morning started with explosions or artillery fire), the various ski areas in this region were operating at less than half capacity.  The lifts only went part way or only on one side (had I stayed at Zurs, I would have only been able to ski on the bottom half of one side).  Which meant a few things:

  • I couldn't retrace my steps on the second half of the White Ring.  I wanted to try it again with better visibility and fresh snow, but the lifts to that area and within that area were all closed.
  • The lift lines were longer and they don't set up long queues here, so a large mob has to merge into lines of four or six.  I didn't have to wait too long, but I am spoiled by my experiences this year.
  • The slopes had more traffic--instead of being distributed all over the mountain, the crowds were all in the same places.  Which made me a bit nervous as my ability to stop was impinged by the spring snow.

So, I ended my ski day early with my thighs quaking but my knees intact.  I had a good time, but didn't really get the fully experience.  To be fair, it took me several visits to Whistler to get to most of it including some of the very best runs, as they had been closed during previous visits.  

Which means I am now a bit conflicted about next year--with another three months in Berlin for my second half of the Humboldt experience, I will definitely ski some Alps again.  But the question will be whether to try this area again and enjoy it more as it will be earlier with hopefully better conditions and with much greater local knowledge or try Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany, Slovenia (?), or some other part of Austria.  Due to the overabundance of German (Franconian) food last week and Austrian food this week, the decision next year might be driven by culinary factors (Italy!).

 I ranked my fave ski days and areas after the Japan trip.  I don't really have to revise the former list, as I enjoyed myself but not as much as I did on those key days.  A large part of that is that I do enjoy skiing with other folks, and I was solo this time.  No ski buddy in the Austrian Alps.

Re the top places I have ever skied, I think this place--Zurs/Lech/Zug/etc fit in at 5th.

  1. Whistler and it remains not so close
  2. Niseko---just so much fun terrain including widely spaced trees and shrubs and a great gully and fun steeps.
  3. Lake Louise
  4. Copper
  5. Alberg Austrian Alps
  6. Alta
  7. Sunshine
  8. Rusutsu
  9. Jay Peak 
  10. Tremblant

Why?  It has a heap of terrain, which is great.  Not much in the way of tree skiing as most of the places are above the tree line.  The hard pack meant that I did not go off-piste much, and there is a lot of great terrain off of the groomed trails, but not for me this time.  The White Ring and other versions of it are pretty special.  But with such flat light and mixed snow, it got into my head so that I couldn't it enjoy as much as I would have liked.  I have enjoyed my trips to Whistler and Lake Louise in part because of I have a good understanding of those places--where to ski, where to avoid.  Here, I didn't have to avoid bumps much, but I did get stuck in some flat areas akin to Sunshine, and I only developed a sense of preferable runs when... they were all inaccessible.  Oh, and Niseko has this place beat in terms of food options as well.  And, no, no souvenirs because they don't have souvenir shops here, and the t-shirts cost 80 euros.  One last big complaint: they need better trail maps because every single map--on the app, printed out, the big signs at the ski areas insisted on having all of the different areas on the same map.  Which meant the scale was wrong, and it was hard to distinguish trails from each other.

I have no regrets as I had a good time and my body survived the experience.  I wish the conditions were better and the maps were a little more helpful, but I had fun even as I flopped around far more than usual.  My one fall today was trying to stop at a restaurant near the top end of a chairlift.  I just laughed.  

And here is a shot of the Lech ski area from inside that restaurant



Thursday, March 28, 2024

Skiing is So Psychological

One of my basic rules of skiing is that if the mountain gets in my head, my skiing turns to shit.  Well, it was one of those days.  I had an ambitious plan--to complete the White Ring, which connects Zurs to Zug to Lech to Stubenbach and then back to Zurs.  The map below is incredibly deceptive.  It makes it seem like the longest route was through Lech.  Pretty sure it was not.











This sign showed that
a) I was on the right path--the white ring
b) the path was hard--a red diamond
(see yesterday's post about Euro signs)
The first leg, which seems kind of short took probably half of the time--it was quite a long, incredibly downhill set of runs.  I had read enough to know this was the most challenging section--could have been worse if the snow was more moguly or icy.  Instead, it was a mix of fresh stuff and pretty hard stuff.  It was pretty clear so visibility was not a problem.  Instead, it was mostly the deep steep and narrow
traverses.  I let the mountain get in my head, so I lost my form and skied mostly in survival mode--lots of sliding and turning to keep my speed down.  It wasn't harder than trails I have done elsewhere, but it really did feel like I was doing down the mountain side, which made me nervous about my speed and control.  And it went on and on and on, and down and down.  So, I sweated a lot, my legs didn't tire, but my lungs did.  I fell maybe once or twice, mostly trying to stop.  Nothing traumatic.

Near the top of the endless decline is a spot
where one can climb to the right to get a
great view. Um, no thanks.  The round
thing on the right is the Ring
View of the run down to Zug
from the gondola on the
opposite side.  I skied from that notch
at the top all the way down
And then I got to Zug. I sat on a spare chairlift bench and rested for about ten minutes and then took the lift to the top.  There, I was greated by a rope tow---a horizontal one to get from the lift to the top of Lech.  It was fine although different from any rope tow I had done before--and I have mostly avoided any kind of lift that involves dragging (until today x 2).  Once there, I was able to take a very long (but not as long as the map suggests) ride down from the top of Lech to nearly the bottom.  I took a break at the first sign of cafeteria where I embraced my addictions:
 

 The strudel was pretty good.  Not life changing but definitely much needed after the exertion to get there.

The luxurious heated/leather seated lift to start
the adventure had a pictogram to explain when
the safety bar and the protective hood would
automatically lift.
Once done with my snack, I skied to the bottom of Lech, and it is a pretty neat place.  A river runs through it, so I had to carry my skis across the bridge and over to the gondola.  It was a huge, 30 person or so, gondola.  Today was definitely my day for experiencing pretty much every kind of ski lift: 2 person chair, 4 person chair, hooded/heated/leather chair (see the pic), small gondola, huge gondola, rope town, t-bar (always so much fun--their scarcity these downs shows their evolutionary inferiority).  Anyhow, I chatted with the gondola operator since I was squeezed in next time.   Several Brits were signing various songs, which apparently is not normal.  Maybe they had a nip early in the day?  The gondola took us to the top and other side of the mountain range, and the reviews said the next run (blue, so it was easy) was scenic.  Not with the snow that was falling.  Again, I used the trick of following the neon people to stay on course.  The signs were good enough that going off the edge was not a problem, but following people would tell me where the dips were since the light was so flat, it was hard to tell what the pitch of the slope is.  Anyhow, despite the vision challenge, this was a fun run and I might do it again tomorrow, depending on the snow/visibility conditions.  

My hotel has the BEST ski lockers--
the things holding up the boots and
mittens are air dryers.  So, my boots,
helmet, and gloves should be dry
tomorrow.  My coat?  We shall see.
At the bottom was, alas, the aforementioned t-bar.  I have little practice with them (deliberately so), but managed to do ok.  It went up higher than I was expecting.  So, then I had a nice long but not so visible blue run to the bottom of a lift I had taken yesterday, which meant I was back at Zurs.  I forgot how high up it went, so it turns out that my last run was much longer than I was expecting.  Which gave me enough time and space to have one last fall in the wettest snow.  So, I am hoping my jacket dries by tomorrow.  

The good news is that the visibility problems today (unlike yesterday) were due to fresh snow.  So, the conditions should be good for my last day here.  The big question is whether I go back to Lech (by bus) and ski some terrain their or just use the accumulated local knowledge to ski Zurs.  

Oh, back to the psychology of skiing, having so much time alone while doing all of this and sitting on the lifts had me thinking about and being frustrated by letting this stuff get into my head.  I didn't have that problem playing ultimate--I never really choked, as I was always pretty confident in my throws and my ability to see the field. 
I did remember a notable moment long ago--the finals for my weight class in the middle school/high school inter-scholastic tourney.  I choked, losing to a guy I had beaten earlier in the season.  That was the only time that happened, as I won pretty much all of the tourneys at camp despite usually (always?) being the underdog.

I think the combo of unfamiliar equipment (the rental helmet in particular didn't fit well), very mixed snow conditions, limited visibility at times, and the aforementioned steep narrow traverses all caused me to think rather than just ski.  I never did any mindfulness or meditation stuff, so I have no skills to push this stuff out.  I will try tomorrow to just focus on getting into rhythm.  
 
Even so, I had a great time, and am enjoying this completely different ski experience.
 
 
 
 

 

 


Wednesday, March 27, 2024

So Many Alps, So Little Information

A sign indicating that the
shortcut to shorten a long
trudge would be a bad idea.
 Since I am spending much of the winter/spring in Europe, I thought I would do something I have never done before: Alp!  I am spending three days on the slopes of the Austrian Alps, pretty close to Switzerland and Lichtenstein: Zürs!  It is part of a complex of several towns/cities/villages/reports/ski areas, which is mostly terrific, but presents one major complication: they
See!!!

provide a single trail map (even on the app) of all of the places, so that it is really hard to navigate the slopes at any specific place.  My modus operandi on my first day was to just take as many lifts to as many peaks near Zürs as possible.  I got lucky with my choice way back when as this area is higher up than other places, so it has less slush/spring snow and more good snow.  However, it has not been perfect.

Today was very much a Goldilocks day: some snow was too soft (slush), some snow was too hard (ice/hard pack) and some was just right.  My Japan trip was pretty much all terrific snow so I am spoiled.  The challenge here is that it is much harder to control one's speed on two kinds of snow: spring and ice.  So, yeah, it was a hard day of skiing.  One of the strange things here is that there are a lot of places to go off trail but still ski on reasonable, ungroomed slopes and few people choose to do that.  I understood why after trying a bit as the snow that is ungroomed is mostly quite hard--it ain't the fluffy stuff that is easy to ski through.  Overall, I figured stuff out even as the visibility varied.   I only fell a couple of times, but my skiing was tested much of the day.

Wow
Oh and I violated Steve's #1 rule of skiing: no last runs.  That is, quit before one is tired.  I was pretty exhausted early in part because the added difficulty of skiing on both super hard and super soft snow and in part because I have no idea how to navigate this place and ended up having to trudge quite a distance.  So, I went back to my room, napped, had lunch, and then wanted to try the gondola that was closed earlier in the day.  It took me to .... another gondola, so I went pretty high (most lifts seem to be aimed at getting one to the top of a peak).  The way down was mostly narrow traverses mixed with wider steepish descents, and the snow was meh.  The big problem was that the visibility was awful.  So, I adopted a family of skiers who wore neon jackets.  I stayed right behind them so I wouldn't ski off the edge.  They went down carefully (their kids were all pretty great skiers) and I slid behind them.  Once things cleared up half way down, they put on the jets and then I fell into a very wet patch of snow.  

Those dark spots on the trail below are people--
so, yeah, quite a bit of a traverse to go that way. 
I went the other way.
I did get a good sample of the slopes/peaks nearest to me, so, depending on the conditions tomorrow (it is snowing now but Lech, a nearby area, is apparently a sea of slush), I may try to do the White Ring tomorrow.  It involves skiing and riding lifts from place to place to place (clockwise).  I did a bit of it today, but it would require going further beyond where I have skied thus far.  The good news is that there is a free bus in case I get too tired or find a trail that is beyond what I can do.

Speaking of which, oh, the coding system here is confusing.  In the US and Canada, green is easy, blue is intermediate, black diamond is hard, double black is super hard, and triple black is downright crazy.  While each place rates the slopes themselves, so the ratings are mostly relative to each ski resort, I tend to be able to do all blues and some blacks. My basic rule of thumb is I can do steep as long as it is wide and not bumpy and I will avoid bumps most of the time, even if the run is relatively flat and wide.




The only lift line of any size today--
took about 10 minutes


My hotel from the middle of the slope.
There are lifts behind and in front on slopes
facing each other.  I did both today, a good mix
of runs on both sides.





 Here and in the rest of Europe, the ratings are blue for easy, red for intermediate, red routes as opposed to red trails/runs are pretty hard, and then there are a few blacks.  The reds here varied from pretty straightforward blue cruiser type runs to narrow, steep runs (which were harder due to ice or slush), and occasional bumps.  And because the trail map kind of sucks, I just have to guess from what I can see from where I am standing and from what I saw on the lift up.  I didn't make any massive mistakes, but I did find myself at the bottom of a peak that is behind the peak that is the main one near my hotel, and that bottom didn't have a lift taking me to the top. I had to skate/trudge for quite a distance, including some uphill to get to a blue run that took me back to the base and to my hotel.  

Overall, it was a fun day of skiing, and I look forward to two more. I may keep the days short to keep my body intact.  

How does this place rate to the other places I have skiied?  It definitely rivals and may beat Lake Louise and Whistler for views--the Alps are so Alpine!  I haven't found runs that I love as much as I love a few key ones at both W and LL, but maybe tomorrow will reveal a few super fun runs.

The food situation is kind of funky as the one restaurant I tried is a restaurant and not a cafeteria.  So, good hot chocolate and pretzel.  Will see what kind of lunch I can find tomorrow.  



The hotel's theme is stay sexy. Not sure why
but, yes, my room was/is equipped with a condom!






Saturday, March 23, 2024

Bamberg and the Humboldts

 No, not a rock band, but my past few days of hanging out with super-smart folks and the folks who fund them and me.  The Humboldt Foundation held a meeting for awardees, which involved lots of Franconian food (oh my), several amazing lectures, and meeting these folks.  It is held in Bamberg where the spirit of Humboldt apparently lives.  Let me explain.

Despite Humboldt being a dead rich guy, the foundation is not what he created with his will, but by the German government to foster engagement with foreign scientists after World War II.  It funds, among other things, foreign scholars to spend time in Germany working with German scholars.  This foundation is why I am spending three months in Berlin this year and three months next year. The range of scholarship that is funded is pretty breathtaking, as our meeting includes philosophers and classisists (classics scholars, whatever they are called) and physicists and engineers and material scientists and folks in between.  I have been to such a multidisciplinary event although it did remind me of a conference in 1990ish where Dave and I served as rapporteurs but that was mostly physicists and nuclear engineers and the like.  

The program here involved opening presentations about Bamberg and Humboldt, lectures on optical networks, philosophical rationality, climate change, and the human genome and mutation (now the X-men are on my mind).  We also had small group organized by discipline-ish.  My group of 20 covered the humanities and social sciences.  And we had some excellent meals that exemplified the food of this region (heavy, really heavy).  

I was my first real European rail trip since my college days (except for some trips between Amsterdam and the Hague), and, yowza, are the rails smooth here.  Great tank country.  Anyhow, I got here a bit early on the first day so I walked around the town.  Bamberg is, well, really old and mostly undamaged.  It was founded around 1070 as the home to Holy Roman emperor types, and it was not bombed in World War II, which makes for a really amazing old city.  It is famous for a specific kind of beer: smokey!


The first evening started with a bit of history about Humboldt.  He was one of two sons of a rich family, and he really, really wanted to explore and engage in some serious botany and other scientific investigations.  Which he did once his mother died.  He documented heaps of nature in Latin America and in Europe.  His scientific interests were all over the place, so naming this foundation after him makes a great deal of sense. Alex said once: "Knowledge and insight are the joy and entitlement of humankind."  Indeed.


The first section of the first morning was by Polina Bayvel of University College London on optical networks.  She did an excellent job of talking to folks who were a range of sharp hard physicists and curious social scientists--she made the optics of fiber and of the cloud and the internet most clear.  The history of philosophy and religion prof lost me.  

In the afternoon, our roundtable was partly aimed at introductions so that maybe folks might find some people to work with down the road. The person at the table closest to me was... a former colleague.  Vincent Pouloit, who was hired at McG in my sixth year or so there, is also here.  That was a fun surprise as neither of us knew we are Humboldting this year until we read the program for the event. The group talked a bit about a variety of issues affecting contemporary social science including AI in the classroom.

And then there was the award ceremony.  It was really touching to have every awardee introduced and given a certificate.  I will be most proud to frame it and put it on my office wall.  I felt very outclassed here as some of the folks here are making tremendous contributions to science, but I am, of course, quite proud to be among them.  
Vincent!!!

The meals, other than the heaviness of the food, have been the best part.  The first night our table happened to be me and a sociologist and three super enthusiastic physicists who so much loved talking about their stuff and using their hands like fighter pilots to explain their concepts.  Last night, as it was before the ceremony, there were some friends/guests of the Humbodlt Foundation at the dinner.  So, I sat next to a very inquisitive chemist who asked me about NATO and other stuff, and explained his work--zapping things with lasers including ... coffee!  

The first presentation of the second day was by Tiffany Shaw (a Canadian!) who talked about Predicting Climate Change.  It was a fascinating talk about some of the dynamics of climate change and where the uncertainty is.  Nope, no uncertainty about it being caused by humans and that it is getting worse.  One of the things I had not known is that the temperature change was essentially additive--that the temperatures are rising in a relatively linear fashion but the effect on precipitation is non-linear.  That means it is getting to get much, much wetter.  Oh my.  I asked a question about 2023 since she had it on her final slide but didn't talk about how last year was beyond the predictions or at least at the outer end of the range of predictions.  She suggested this year might actually not be quite as hot as there were some specific dynamics last year that were temporary that pushed things hotter than the general trends. She finished by saying how this was an exciting time to be doing this kind of work, which reminded me of how I left about doing the International Relations of Ethnic Conflict in the 1990s--exciting but scary and depressing.

 

The next presentation was about the genome and mutation.  The first big surprise is that most/all mutation is bad--making it more likely for someone to die.  And, well, that ran against all the years of X-Men and Homo Superior.  Magneto had the wrong idea about mutation?  It turns out that what we think about evolution is wrong--it is not really progressive and more by chance!  That mutations tend to be selected out in a large population (like yeast?!) but may remain in smaller populations like elephants these days or homonids way back when.   This nearly neutral model of evolution has really shook things up even as it has not made it out of the genome scholars and into the popular understanding.  


I didn't stick around for the q&a as I had to get to a pharmacy before it closed.  And then I explored more of Bamberg, going into various museums and super old buildings.








My quest for life-changing strudel continues, alas, without success. It was fine.



 

 

 We have one last dinner, and then tomorrow, I take the train back to Berlin to prepare for my next adventure: skiing in the Alps!  Hopefully, the wifi will be better in Zurs, but, of course, I will need it less as I will be out and about on many slopes and chair lifts!

Once again, I am thinking--better to be lucky than good.  This winter has been amazing--my time in Berlin and Vienna has been fantastic. I can now add my Bamberg adventure.  Just a terrific time, learning a lot, and enjoying the Humboldt Spirit™.