Our KPBS trip to England Scotland and Wales

Our San Diego public radio and TV station, KPBS, has organized an August trip to England, Scotland, and Wales and most specifically to Highclere Castle, which is where the interiors for the Downton Abbey TV series are filmed. It’s the second KPBS tour Teresa and I have been on and we’re looking forward to it.

Tonight was the first night we 48 participants got to meet each other and hear about tour details from a Collette (the tour operator) representative. To my disappointment it was not really a reception for us to meet each other, but a classroom-style meeting to receive some specific information, which we did, and get our questions answered, and get our travel documents.

Jennifer Majors and Trina Hester from KPBS were with us tonight. Trina is going to be on the tour, as well as Tom Karlo, GM of the station, and his wife Julie. They are fun people. They are going to arrange a tour of the BBC studios, an extra, not on the Collette tour. Sounds interesting.

Teresa has read, and I am reading, a book about the real residents of Highclere Castle, written by the current Countess of Carnavon, who is living there now. She tells the story of the last two generations of Carnavons and it’s pretty interesting. I don’t think she is holding anything back.

The next time you hear from me will probably be from London, and you’ll see some pictures.

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28 May – Thinking

I’ve just read one book, and I’m reading another on the subject of thinking. The first, “Think Like a Freak” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, was published just a few days ago, was a quick enjoyable read. The one I am part way through is “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, is also readable, but a little heavier going. They both deal with how we think, and among other subjects, how we should think if we want to make better decisions or be more effective.

The first book is the third in a series on “Freakonomics”. The first two books exposed fallacies in the way we look at issues and explain them. For example, there was a marked drop in crime in New York some years ago and many theories were put forth to explain it, some quite plausible.
However, the authors pointed out that approximately 20 years before, the abortion laws in New York had changed, so that many unwanted and un-cared for children were never born, and never grew up to be criminals. It took these authors to point out the relationship, and also many other surprising phenomena.

The purpose of the book (in addition to being highly entertaining) was to point out the ways we can improve our methods of coming to conclusions. The first point is to realize when you don’t know the answer. In one example, children are read a short story and then asked questions about the story. When the information was in the story they mostly got the answer right. When there was no information in the story about the question, the children guessed at an answer instead of saying “I don’t know.” With a little training, other children were able to make assessments of what they knew and didn’t know. For us, that’s a first step.

Another aspect of human behavior is that we respond to incentives, and sometimes those incentives are not so easy to determine. For example in soccer, why does a player taking a penalty kick aim to one side or the other of the goal? To have the highest probability of scoring, right? Well the statistics show that a ball kicked to the center has a higher probability of scoring because the goalie will normally jump to either the right or the left. So why not kick to the center? The answer may be that if the goalie happens to block the shot to the center of the goal, it will make the kicker look really stupid. There is an incentive to miss shooting for the corner rather than to look stupid getting a center shot blocked.

Therefore when designing incentive systems, one must really be on he lookout for unintended consequences, because humans are clever at gaming the system.

The second book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”, gives considerable insight as to how the brain works. The brain appears to have a fast mode, executed by so-called “System 1″, and a slower, more analytical mode, “System 2″. Kahneman says there is a struggle between the intuitive snap judgments made by System 1, which are then processed by System 2, and either confirmed or rejected. The struggle between System 1 and System 2 is constant. He also makes the point that System 2 is “lazy” and will spring into action only when absolutely needed. He gives many examples of fascinating research projects, showing how people’s intuition can be led astray by various forms of prior information.

Both books are fascinating. The second book is more scholarly and at times, heavier going. Written three years earlier, it supports many of the concepts described in the newer book.

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24 May 2014 – Lumosity

Before I get to the topic for today I want to say that Teresa and I had a wonderful birthday couple of days. The Lodge at Torrey Pines was great, with beautiful views during the day, followed by a delicious birthday dinner.  That night we walked on the paths of the golf course where pedestrians are not allowed during the day.  The next day at San Diego Zoo Safari Park we had a fine time also. We got to the park a little late, so the only show we were able to watch was the Cheetah Run where they had 100 yard course set up and dragged a lure to entice the cheetah to run at 70 mph.

A number of years ago Teresa and I were invited to the research part of the park where a friend of ours was doing research on the breeding of cheetahs, which had been unsuccessful up to that point. We were allowed to go right to the enclosure and pet the cheetahs through the fence which was a treat for us, and apparently for the cheetahs as well. What was interesting was that we were suddenly told to move away from the fence, the reason being that some children had arrived at the breeding station, and since they were “prey-sized”, it altered the mood of the cheetahs significantly and it was no longer safe to pet the cats.

Seeing the cheetah chasing the lure reminded me that I had worked on a lure system for the cats for my friend, but we never built it. It would’ve been a triangular system with three automobile wheels, more complicated than what they are using now, which is simply an enticing looking bundle of rags on a rope dragged for 100 yards in a straight line.

Now we come to Lumosity. It’s a brain exercising system in which you play five games a day involving various mental skills. There is a wide variety of games that can come up each day, so the challenge is always different. The skills involve sequence discrimination, logic, mathematics, eye-hand coordination, words, perception speed, memory, and others. At first it was relatively easy to keep my score improving, but as the games progressed it became more difficult, and now I really have to concentrate to do well. It gets intense. It allows you to compare your score with other age groups and Lumosity is telling me that my score is at about the median of 35 to 39 year-olds. I’m not sure I believe that but it makes me feel good.

You may have noticed I didn’t say “brain training” system, and that is because I’m not sure whether it’s training general capabilities, or just learning how to play games. I actually think it’s both, and I figure there is nothing wrong with that.

I think my favorite game is a train track switching exercise in which you have to set switches to route approaching locomotives to go into barns of the same color as the locomotive. There is never quite enough time to set all the switches correctly as the engines come along, but you have to do your best.

Some games cause the brain to display its amazing capabilities. There is one game where you have to predict where a pool ball will hit the cushion, and to do that you have to remember where some bumpers are set before they disappear. You make your guess, the bumpers reappear, the ball shoots out and you find you either guessed right or wrong. Quite frequently I lose track of where the bumpers were but I take a guess anyway, and amazingly often my guess is correct even though I couldn’t really remember where the bumpers were. The brain knew.

In another game a silhouette of a bird and number are flashed on the screen for a very short time and you supposed to see and remember the number and the location of the bird, which may appear on the screen widely separated from the number. Sometimes I don’t even recall seeing the number and yet I guess right. Amazing.

Try it, you might like it. Lumosity.com.

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May 22, Happy Birthday to me

Today is my birthday (79) and I intend to resume my blog, something I’ve been meaning to do for some time. Usually it’s a trip that we are going on gets me writing again, but this time it’s not that at all. I have no explanation, nor do I think one is needed.

P1050060Teresa and I are having a birthday event for the next two days. It starts with a Birthday
Breakfast at home and a visit to Torrey Pines Park this afternoon, and a night at Torrey Pines Lodge. Tomorrow we spend the day at San Diego Zoo Safari Park, using passes given to us by our houseguest, which expire on the last day of May. One of the features of our excursion is that I’m not taking my laptop, something I’d never done in my life before, since owning one. I hope it’s going to be liberating. (I’m still taking my cell phone and my Samsung tablet, though.) I’m taking the tablet because I’m reading a book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”

Relaxing at The Lodge

Relaxing at The Lodge

by Daniel Kanehman. It’s a fascinating discussion of how the brain works in two modes, intuitively and analytically, and why in today’s world our intuition often fails us. I’m just getting into the book but I am sure part of the reason is that our brains evolved in simpler times, and is having trouble coping with the complexities and scale of today’s world. This is a very well-known book, but one reason I found it is that it is referenced in my previous book, “Think Like a Freak” by Levitt and Dubner, which is a follow-on to “Freakonomics” and “Super Freakonomics”.

The point of the third book is that to think like a Freak you have to first of all be willing to say “I don’t know,” instead of making your best guess. Then you have to be willing to look at the evidence, and if necessary, go get it. And finally, when you are thinking about how people behave, make sure to realize the “incentives” that people actually respond to, which are often counterintuitive.

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Thursday, September 27, 2012 – Mainz and Rudesheim

Rain again

[A few more days to go to complete the trip blog.  To read about it from the beginning, click here and go to the following days in turn by clicking on the upper or lower right.]

This morning most of our group went to Heidelberg, ostensibly to see the University, but I think many went to shop at a huge Christmas ornament store we had been told about. I think Cathy and Gordon were the only ones from KPBS that came with us to the Gutenberg Museum. Mainz was built by the Romans in the first century. We saw an unusual sight for this part of the world:

A tropical paradise on the Rhine River

A sand beach with thatched huts and folding chairs on the Rhine!  It was built as a project by university students and has been very successful commercially.

Our guide for Mainz and the Gutenberg New Zealand was Irmi. The castle of Mainz took 150 years to build, but one of the Queens didn’t like living there and moved to the building next door.  I guess the Royals can do pretty much what they want.

The King (left) and his seven electors

The Romans were here 2000 years ago. It seems like the Romans were everywhere we went, either 1000 or 2000 years ago. We saw a monument to the election process for Kings, with the elected King on the left, and seven electors. We saw another Monument to Richard Wagner, built by his publishers with whom Wagner had financial difficulties.

Originally Mainz was on both sides of the river, but when but when Germany was divided after World War II, the other side wound up in the American Zone and eventually became Wiesbaden.

The Matchstick House

There was a meeting of historians going on in town at this time with dignitaries so notable that the Cathedral was off-limits to tourists and so we could not enter it. The contrasts of architectural styles in Mainz is astounding. After World War II, concrete blocks were the fashion, but now both residents and visitors hate it. We saw a structure that looks like huge broken Venetian blinds but turned to be a design in slats of plastic.

The other side of the Matchbox House

It was called the Matchstick House, and the residents hate it. What is surprising is that the other side (the front) of the same building is composed of three beautiful examples of a more traditional style.

We saw a remarkable multi-splined sculpture from a Spanish artist who named it “Power of Life”. Teresa calls it “design” and not sculpture at all.

The Power of Life

We saw St. Martin’s Cathedral which was burned down the day it was completed. The tower itself has burned down seven times.  They have no business building anything called a Matchstick House.

A replica of Gutenberg’s printing press,.

We then visited the Gutenberg Museum which was really interesting. Before Johannes Gutenberg was ever interested in printing, he studied alloys with metallurgists and bell makers in Strasbourg, and then began the invention process for movable type. A local investor loaned him 800 guilders, which amounts to half $1 million today. But it was not enough, and he had to borrow 800 guilders more. Eventually he failed to repay the money on schedule, and in court he lost his establishment to his creditor and an apprentice. He was saved financially by being appointed courtier to a king who provided him with lodging and more than enough food, which he sold to make ends meet.

Here I am, printing.

There are several steps to making movable type. A punch of hard metal is carved with the image of the letter. It is then used to make a negative impression in a “matrix” of softer metal. The actual type is an alloy of tin, lead, and antimony which melts at only 300 Fahrenheit and yet is strong enough to withstand the printing process.

The finished product!

Each line of type is assembled in a composers stick which is then assembled into the galley which is the size of the page. If the page is to be multicolored each section of color is inked separately before it is assembled into the galley. Although our demonstrator used rolling inking pads, in the early days they used inking pads made of inflated dog skin because a dog skin has no pores to leak air.

Gutenberg’s columns of text are perfectly justified both left and right, which couldn’t be done if you simply had one version of the 25 different letters of type to work with. Gutenberg actually made 290 versions of the typefaces to handle the 25 characters. Gutenberg’s Bibles were printed only in black, but later, color was added. A rubricator added colored text, and an illuminator embellished the page with other colors and gold.

After the museum we decided to walk home exploring the town and do a little shopping. We were so surprised and disappointed to find that a souvenir Gutenberg plate was not available anywhere to add to our little collection at home. What a missed marketing opportunity for someone.

Finally the sun came out.  What a wonderful sensation that was!

St. Augustine Church

We found a wonderful little St. Augustine Church with not a single explanatory word in English. It was marvelous. I think the parishioners wanted no part of the tourist trade in their church.

Too soon it was time to find our way back to the boat.  We had no real idea where we were. We were able to find our way to the water because in Mainz the blue street signs run parallel to the river and the red signs are perpendicular. But when we got to the river there was no boat in sight. We were much farther along the river then we realized, so it was quite a walk.  We got back to the boat a couple of minutes late, but we were not the last to arrive.

The train to the Rudesheim wine cellar

The afternoon expedition was to Rudesheim and a wine tasting. We took a Disney-like train through town to the Ādolf Störzel wine cellar which was built in 1580. The town itself seemed rather modern but it had its older areas too. Our wine “explainer” was a comedian and an actor and put on a pretty good performance. We tasted three Rieslings.  They always start with the driest and end with a dessert wine. He said the first wine had had the taste of apple, pear, limes and cypress.

The Ādolf Störzel wine cellar

I’m a skeptic when it comes to the tastes people say a wine has, and I would like to see independent wine experts describe some wines and see if they come up with the same fruits and vegetables.  I would bet they won’t.

As we’ve heard before, 80% of the grapes grown here are Riesling grapes. We also learned that 15% are Müeller Tur Gau (phonetically) grapes and 5% are Pinot Noir. Their Pinot Noir has lower alcohol

The first wine

content and is paler than the typical Pinot Noir and is generally considered inferior. Wine that is left over from various operations including wine tasting, is turned into schnapps.

The second wine was sweeter with less acid and was bottled in 2011.

The second wine

2000 years ago Roman legionnaires arrived here and planted grapes to satisfy the requirement that soldiers must drink at least 1 liter per day for medical reasons. The grapes and wines the soldiers produced were not good at all. Then the French Cistercian monks arrived and introduced the Pinot Noir grape and wine which was a big improvement.  But the region came into its own when it was found that the topography, soil, and weather really suited the cultivation of the Riesling grape.

The third wine

The third wine was much sweeter with 60 g of sugar and was really a dessert wine. Cultivating grapes on the steep slopes here is much more expensive than on flat land. What can be done in three hours on level ground by one man operating a machine, takes eight pickers three days on the slopes. This wine had the name Spätelese which means late harvest. There’s a story about that. It seems that when the grapes were ready to pick they had to send for permission from the governing cleric. The long wait for permission angered the vintners. But what they found was that the 10 day wait made the wine much better than it would have been had they picked the grapes earlier.

Our wine “explainer”. Funny guy.

Our host also discussed ice wine, which is made from frozen grapes.  To make the wine it takes three consecutive nights at -7° C (19°F) , which typically happens only three times in a decade. The last time was in 1953-54 and 35 pickers went out at 4:30 AM to pick the grapes at -9° C. They produced 400 L (106 gallons) of ice wine from 1.8 acres of grapes which would normally have produced ten times that amount of wine. That’s why a half bottle of ice wine costs €60 ($77). In 1921, a bottle of ice wine sold for €27,000 ($34,5000).

During the wine tasting the rain came down in buckets, judging from the sound, but when the wine tasting was over the weather was clear and sunny. What timing! We then wandered through the storybook town of Rudesheim. I bought a geometric steel mobile with a motor to make it slowly spin.  I plan to hang it over our bar from a beam.  [UPDATE: I put it up when I arrived home and it's been spinning there ever since.]

Teresa and John on the sundeck

Back at the boat, Teresa and I bundled up, made hot chocolate, and headed to the sun deck for the little bit of sun that there was. It was a good place to be. When it was time, we headed for the lounge to listen to Dejean’s pitch for the evening in which he covered disembarkation procedures and tomorrow’s activities in Cologne.

Marcia’s birthday party

At dinner we celebrated Marcia’s birthday with a sparkling fountain cake, presents, and a song.

Then it was time for an evening visit to Rudescheim’s Music Cabinet Museum.

A Major music box

The first machine we saw was huge and simulates 19 instruments and was built between 1925 in 1929. It was wonderful to hear it play 12thSt. Rag, a song my mother used to play. We heard an 1877 Edison phonograph play “Que sera”. Another music box we saw originally sold for 15,500 marks, the cost of a countryside home today. Today its value is €300,000 ($383,400).

We saw a machine that includes six violins automatically played. The method was ingenious: The bow was a horizontal

An automatic violin machine

circle inside of which were placed the violins. Each violin was set up to play a single string and when that note was sounded it was simply moved against the rotating circular bow. Siegfried Randall who is now 77 was the collector and whose sons are now operating the business. There are 350 instruments in the collection 95% of which are working. It was an extraordinary collection and an interesting visit.

Then back to the boat for the evening

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Wednesday, September 26, 2001 – Koblenz

It so happens that I read for the visually handicapped on the KPBS Radio Reading Service on odd Tuesdays of the month. At 2:30 AM I suddenly woke up realizing that I had not made provisions for a substitute reader for October 2, the first Tuesday. Right then, I sent an email to another reader asking if she could find a substitute for me, and by breakfast time I got a message back saying, “Consider it done”. What a relief.

Beheaded Luther Von Der Koben with rolling eyes and tongue sticking out on the hour.

This morning we took a leisurely 10:30 AM tour of Koblenz. It was a typical European town combining architectural styles from many periods, particularly Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque. Although it was not a particularly strategic city in World War II, it has, like many other towns, been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries. Our guide Heike Beaujean told us about Luther Von Der Koben who was beheaded for a crime while vehemently protesting his innocence. Legend has it that even after his head was separated he rolled his eyes and stuck out his tongue at his executioners. On a building wall is a relief with the eyes continually moving and every hour the tongue sticks out. We visited a church which had been a monastery or convent in the 11th century but was now a Protestant church. In a dark, four-foot wide opening in the ceiling there is

Both a medieval and modern procession

supposed to be an unexploded bomb but as hard as we looked, we could not really see it. Nearby there was a vertical mural depicting a procession held once before 1000 BC and more recently to a meeting to set the Germany-France boundary. We also visited the Catholic Liebfrauen Church which had tombstones on the wall to the right as we entered. Their City Hall has 24 windows and at Christmas time each window is opened in succession before Christmas. We also saw the Koblenz “Bad Boy” which is a popular tradition here. We learned that every two minutes he spits a substantial stream of water as one of his mischievous pranks. The only thing is I learned thaat fact a little too late and got soaked, but it provided a good demonstration and amusement for the group. We then headed back to the boat for lunch.

Castle watching

After lunch Teresa and I went out on the top deck with a blanket to see the Rhine River castles. It got colder so I wound up on deck by myself with a map of the Rhine and its castles. The  castle at Rhens was where seven electors came to elect their King. Four came from the Rhineland itself, and three came from other locations. We saw the Marksburg Castle which is the only one which has never been destroyed over the years, and is now the home of the Center for Preservation of Castles. It seems like a logical choice to me!  To defend themselves from sieges, some castles have long tunnels through which provisions were carried. Of course, they still use that technique across the US-Mexico border, but for a different purpose. Louis XIV spared no effort in his drive to convert the land to the French character.  I would say he did not succeed.  There are not only castles but villages along the river, and trains.  The trains looked like toy trains to me because the quaint buildings alongside the right of way look like the buildings you find in model train layouts. We learned that the Rhine River has a male “personality” while the Mosel is female. It is a more peaceful river.  Even though the Danube is two times bigger than the Rhine and frequently floods, it wound up with the feminine character.  Go figure.  As I heard the other day from a female presenter at Rotary, “If the world were logical, men would rise side saddle!” The castles were often built to support the collection of tolls. The nobles and the Cardinals were the landowners and extracted everything they could from the merchants. There were 30 toll collections between Mainz and Cologne. So trade was very expensive. There was only one castle that was successfully defended against Louis XIV.  That must be the Marksburg Castle.  In another part of the river, The Katz and Weinfeld castles on each side of the river held a stranglehold on river passage.  That must have been expensive for merchants. That afternoon I put out some pictures at dinner, with a key to who they were. I don’t know how many people actually saw the pictures before I was asked to put them away. That evening we had dinner with Art who is involved with medical statistics and Kathy and Andrew who has a medical research laboratory and does research on specially bred mice.  We had an interesting discussion of the general subject of medical research.

The Party

That evening we had a concert by a really good singer and keyboard player, and we had a great time dancing. Our host is DeJean Stansic, who really takes good care of us.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012 – Cochem

The Oldest Building

Our next stop was the town of Cochem. This town has never had a mining industry, so no silver. It has always a poor town, but a clean town, according to our guide. Its economy is currently based on wine and tourism. I guess our group fits their business plan. We saw the oldest building in the area, which has never been burned and now operates as a hotel. By law the buildings have black slate roofs, although recently, synthetic black slate roofs have been installed.

The trial of a goat for stealing grapes

We ducked through tiny, narrow FuchLock onto Coffee Shop Street where there were in fact many coffee shops. We saw a fountain commemorating the trial of a goat who had been accused of eating grapes from one of the local vineyards. The test was to be pressed in a wine press. If white wine came out he was guilty, but only blood came out so he was judged innocent although it was too late for the goat. In New England we’ve had witchcraft trials like that. If you drowned, you were innocent.
[Click on a picture to see it full-sized.]

The highest water recorded was in 1993.

We had our first rain this morning, but we were prepared with lots of umbrellas and hoods.

Umbrella day

Rain and water are no trivial matters around here.  Until very recently major floods were almost routine.  It was hard to imagine how that river way down there could flood so high up in the town here.  On the wall are high water marks over the years.  The highest was in 1993, two days before Christmas.  :-(

These days the vintners want to make ice wine because of the premium price it commands. Ice wine is made from crushing frozen grapes, so temperatures of -7°C (19°F) are needed. Temperatures that low are becoming less and less common. I guess we know why.

We then visited the town castle via a twisty narrow drive and a steep walk up through a series of gates.  It was a wonderful castle which had been burned down in 1689 by

More castle

Cochen Castle

Louis XIV who wanted to convert all the castles in the area to the French style. Almost 200 years later, in 1868, it was rebuilt by Louis Ravené. He built it to look like the original on the outside but was modernized on the inside. Unfortunately he died only a year after it was completed, but his family continued to use it as a summer residence. Teresa’s characterization of it is “regal but warm”.

The Mermaid Mascot Room. Touch the mermaid for good luck.

In the 1940s it was sold under duress to the Nazis by means of excessive taxation andlater was acquired by the national government. Much to the delight of the residents, the town of Cochem was able to buy it as their own for €332,000. A real bargain. The rooms were furnished in different styles: Renaissance, Romanesque, and Gothic with with interesting features everywhere, including secret doors and doors that lead nowhere for the sake of symmetry.

Sign inside Ravené’s well.

There was a well in one of the courtyards. On the inside of the well had Ravené placed the following quotation, “Be any drink blessed, water for you, wine for me.”

Instead of taking the bus back to the boat we chose to walk down the hill and through the town which turned out to be a very fine choice because we got another look at the shops along the way.

For dinner tonight, we were seated with our guide, Rebecca, and Cath and Chris Allen. Chris is responsible for the security of the Information Technoloy (IT) systems at Sempra Energy, and when I asked Rebecca what she did before leading tours, she said she hosted government figures around the country. Seems like a logical precursor to her present job. But it also turned out that she had worked in cyber security for the government and had a lot in common with Jeff.  It was fascinating to listen to them talk about the state of cyber security in general. It’s a very difficult problem.  We didn’t learn any national security secrets so it was not necessary to shoot us.

Doug’s Birthday

It was Doug’s 70th birthday today so Doug and Retha were seated at the head table and honored with a birthday cake topped by a sparkler.

We were also treated to Tom’s demonstration of juggling while eating an apple. He actually did it.





Looking for the “Peanuts Bar”

After dinner we wandered through town in the dark looking for the “Peanuts Bar” and eventually found it, although the only connection with peanuts is that the peanut shells were on the floor after we finished the peanuts. The German beers were excellent and so was the pole dancing demonstration by Doug and Pat. You had to see it to believe it.

Teresa and I left before the party is over and so I have no idea how long it went on. However, I do know we didn’t see Tom and Julie the next morning for breakfast.

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