Trip Report

My trip through Thailand, Italy and Austria stoked my writing spirits, and I came up with some general ranting about travel, a post about awesome Thailand & Muay Thai, disrespectful reflections on medieval painting & modern neuroscience, and on scuba diving addiction. I also wrote why I am bored shitless by soccer, a crass parody of current world politics, a reflection on Austrian history, and a post about some fully symbolic art. Thanks to everyone who hung out with me during this trip!

Yeah, enough of the dry-ish stuff now, though, I am back on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, and will dive and shoot pictures underwater soon. Come back soon for reports on these adventures!

 

 

Fully Symbolic Art!

The Euro Zone is in a semi-permanent crisis and this piece of art symbolizes the constant struggle like no other. An Euro, minted in Germany, covered in a patina of corrosion. Mounted on a solid Austrian chestnut, the artwork nevertheless hints at the solid base of the joint European currency. Or, does the Euro split the organic, wooden, base of the European economy? That will evoke many discussions, no doubt.

The artwork is for sale for 1000 Euro. The irony! Euro!

Strong symbolism. Yours for only 1000 Euro.

Strong symbolism. Yours for only 1000 Euro.

This is of course not an Euro coin which became a bit rusty after laying in my drawer for three years, since my last Europe trip, and which I then spontaneously stuck into a chestnut. Anyone saying that would be totally ignorant of all that’s sophisticated and artsy.

Falling over or rising from the dead?

Falling over or rising from the dead?

Walking Through Austrian History

“Always bring your camera!”
1st rule of photography

“Es lebe der Zenttralfriedhoft, mit allen seinen Toten”
(“Long live the central cemetery, with all its dead people”)
Wolfgang Ambros

This July I went on a Euro trip, after not having been in ze fatherland for 3 years. In Vienna my mate, the famous but enigmatic A.F. Klein, took me on a unique historical tour of the Zentralfriedhof, the central cemetery of the city. This is not just some graveyard – it’s an area the size of an average district of Vienna, all dedicated to the dead.

There is ample history in the Zentralfriedhof, most famously the graves of music greats such as Beethoven and Strauss, where during our visit, like on most days, Japanese classical music aficionados can be found. In a very Austrian trick, W.A. Mozart does not have a grave there – his place of burial is not known with certainty since he died in poverty – but a monument, with an inscription not clear about the fact that Wolferl’s bones don’t rest below it. The stone pillar surely looks like a grave, and probably many tourists think it is.

In the section with the honorary graves also rest all of the Austrian Republic’s presidents, and a number of world-famous painters, writers and scientists. Ludwig Boltzmann, whose work on thermodynamics is very (very!) central to our understanding of nature, lays there – right next to a number of former vice-majors of Vienna. And these 2nd-tier politicians have noticeably more pompous grave stones than the man who revolutionized physics, chemistry and biology with his thinking! The cemetery is such a mirror of living society: if you are poor, you get a simple grave, for merely a decade, with only a small wooden name sign. Dead people with at least a reasonably financially stable family are buried below a nice looking stone. If you had been an intellectual giant of the 19th or 20th century you are honored with a special grave in a special spot – but not as special as if you had been a B-level politician on a communal level. The bureaucrats always win, even when they are dead.

A section the size of several city blocks is dedicated to Jewish graves. Starting with deaths in the 1800s, the graves house the bones of some of the intellectual and societal elites of the late Habsburg monarchy and the first Austrian republic: doctors and lawyers, government officials and artists. Some of the gravestones from the early 1900s are true Jugendstil masterworks, and this is where I wished most that I had taken my camera: A Lion with bulging muscles supporting a plate with the deceased’s name, or vines and flowers engraved in marble, all supremely artistically worked. The inscriptions are both in Latin and Hebrew fonts. Then, in the 1940s, the death dates almost stop: a whole segment of Austrian society was either murdered in the holocaust or driven into exile. And as a consequence, none of the families of the deceased folks are there to take care of the graves. As far as I know, the city of Vienna maintains the Jewish section of the Zentralfriedhof, and while the grave stones look shiny, vines of ivy overgrow many of the graves. The place does not look desolate, but certainly not like a cemetery in use by a community; more like a historical site than an in-use part of a city.

A. F. Klein and I went on our tour of the Zentralfriedhof on a Monday afternoon, when other sections of the cemetery are relatively poorly visited.  But devoid of any remaining family members alive or left in Austria, no one was in the Jewish section when we walked through it, other than a pair of lost-looking tourists and one gardener. For most of the half hour A.F. and I strolled along the orphaned graves, no one was there. There is a special monument to the Jewish soldiers who fought for Austria in WWI and were later killed in the holocaust. It’s a circular tower with the names of the enlisted men and officers separately written on its inside walls, and we also had this memorial to ourselves. Even though this was a week day, it was a sunny summer afternoon which was otherwise very inviting for walks (maybe a bit hot). The solitude was eerie – while on the surface, it was enjoyable to walk on our own through a lovely green part of Vienna, the reason for the absence of anyone visiting those graves was infinitely sad. It’s instructive to study those dark episodes of history from books, but it’s something completely else to walk through history like we did.

 

Final Scheduled For September

The final of the Eurasian warfare championships was scheduled for September by the competitive warfare committee of the United Nations in New York last Friday. There are currently two major armed conflicts underway in Eurasia: The war between the Ukrainian government versus the east-Ukrainian pro-Russian separatists, and the latest round of fighting between Hamas and the Israeli government. All four belligerents agreed on Friday that the winners of these two conflicts would meet in a championship war in September 2014.

“We are confident that we’ll steamroll the eastern Ukraine very soon, and are looking forward to the final, most likely against Israel. We hope to draw the final out into the winter, since we are better than them at not freezing.” said Igor Provnisky, a 6-star general in the Ukrainian army. “Shalom. Not.” the polyglot added.

General Uri Zvnik from the Israeli Attack Force (IAF) stated that “Depending on the outcome of the semi-final wars, we’ll either fight the Ukrainians or – ehm – the Ukrainians. It’ll be something new, to be honest with you, fighting the Hamas over and over again gets kinda old.”

Hamas spokesman Abu Humbug also commented that his side “was working very hard to pull off an upset”. He further stated that while “the Ukrainians are not occupying us, they are infidels nevertheless, and we’d be happy to fight them.”

We could not reach the Ukrainian pro-Russian separatists for comment, nor do we know the whereabouts of the Mr. Peter Hugnaz, the reporter we sent to talk to them. Please contact Pacificklaus Media if you have any information about his fate.

Is it tasteless to make fun of these events? Not as tasteless as shooting rockets at fellow humans! And not as tasteless as distracting public attention from these wars by covering cooking shows, celebrity gossip and soccer. My thoughts are with the victims on all sides of these conflicts.

The last Soccer Game I ever watched

In times like these I am in an ethical dilemma – should I boycott the Soccer World Cup? The Brazilian government is unleashing some really disgusting human rights abuses and police brutality excesses onto its people to get them in line for this corporate advertising event. So, I couldn’t possibly watch, could I? The problem is, I find soccer so debilitatingly boring that I would not watched these matches to begin with, which makes not watching not much of a boycott, does it?

The last soccer match I watched was the final of the last World Cup, between the Netherlands and Spain. I was in Holland, in Amsterdam, in the very center of this great city, the Leidseplein. A fun scene! Everyone was dressed in orange, and people really happy about their team making it to the final. Naturally, I headed for a coffeeshop to watch the match. The crowd was a mix of locals and tourists, and I started chatting with some Spanish folks. I took some pictures of the people streaming inside, and saw lots of smiling faces. The coffeeshop was in the basement, with the weed sales desk right next to the entrance, and a juice & coffee bar just past that. It had a lot of little tables in the corners where normally groups of friends would roll and smoke together. For the world cup, they had rearranged the seating and brought in a lot more chairs, and placed a large TV in the front of the large seating area. Everyone outfitted themselves with some smokeables and a drink, and after some preliminary ceremonies, the match began.

Kick-off. Lateral pass. Lateral pass back. Again. A grown man falls over and acts like a whiney little girl, pretending to be gravely hurt from a minor push, in the interest of procuring a penalty shot. This might or might not work. Another lateral pass. Again. Another pseudo-foul. Lateral pass. Repeat.  That went on and on and on for 45 minutes.  Certainly no one scored a goal. The audience in the coffeshop was reasonably anesthetized by the cannabinoids everybody had been putting into their central nervous systems and by the total absence of anything resembling an even remotely impressive athletic performance on screen. No one said anything, and while everyone directed the gaze match-wards, it was hard to notice any real excitement. About a hundred people jointly watched a lot of non-action for what seemed quite a bit longer than 45 minutes.

In Douglas Adam’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” there is a scene when the passengers of a spaceship are awoken from artificial hibernation for a few minutes, like every hundred years or so, to find out that their spaceship is stuck on a now-uninhabited planet. A few minutes of hectic activity ensue, before they are put back into artificial hibernation for the next hundred years. That’s what the world cup final half-time in this Amsterdam coffeeshop felt like. Everyone woke up, rushed to the bar and the weed sales booth, rushed back to their seats, had a few minutes of animated discussions with their mates, and then returned to their kicking-the-round-ball-in-circles induced stupor.

What followed were more lateral passes and totally undignified efforts at acting terribly injured from non-existent fouls. I have seen men during boxing matches barely flinch when half of their face was cut open from series of viscous punches. But the “men” on the green grass on the screen thought it was appropriate to whine, wince and grimace when they happened to fall on the soft lawn. Once they saw that a penalty shot was out of question, their torturous pain left them as fast as it had come. How can one act so shameless and whimpy? Oh, I remember, they get payed shitloads of money, that always does it.

Really, nothing much happened in the 2nd half either, or in the 1st overtime. In the 2nd, I think, overtime the Spanish happened to score a goal. Soon after, the game was over. I felt as if I had spent days and days watching really nothing much going on. I wasn’t feeling bad, for obvious reasons; but definitely not particularly inspired either. Had I watched the toenails of a homeless man grow for 2 hours, I would have witnessed a very comparable amount of athletic action. On a sports-action scale from 0 to 10, where 10 is the Ali-Frazier fight ’75 in Manila, and 0 is your little niece’s first ever softball game which you were made to attend, that soccer world cup final scored at a good 0.5 – just below the lawn boles the pensioners play in the residential suburbs of Sydney, on a Sunday when grandma had not slept well. At least grandpa and uncle Bob don’t need two hours for the first score!

The crowd streamed out of the coffeeshop and out of neighboring establishments onto the Leidseplein, disappointed but too good natured and stoned to riot. Well, at least that’s something! In Austria, where I grew up, soccer often serves as a nucleation point for violence by groups of low-IQ white-thrash men. In Amsterdam, I only saw a few people cry. I went back to my hotel and found some restful sleep after this good dose of inhaled and on-screen downers.

Sea slug humping, believe me, they are going at it slowly, but still with more excitement than you can find in a typical soccer game.

An interesting evening for sure. Would I visit Amsterdam again? Definitely! That coffeeshop? Yep. Watch another soccer game? I think I’ll pass. This, last, world cup final was the last soccer game I will ever watch. Please, Brazilian governmental fascists, no need to tear-gas your people to keep this sleep-inducing spectacle going for my sake!

Really?

I am at a neuroscience conference right now. Sounds fascinating, but is actually pretty mundane most of the time.

What always amazes me is how bogged down in detail most of my colleagues have become. Yesterday I was at a session about human brain evolution – a fascinating topic. Well, one of the speakers was talking about his work on one of the genes which is important in cell migration in the developing brain. The work by him and his group seemed technically solid, and he wasn’t a bad speaker. The genes he investigated were involved in microcephaly, a medical condition where unfortunate humans have abnormally small brains. So, at the end of his talk, I asked him about his take on Homo floresiensis, the fascinating small-brained human fossil found in Indonesia a few years ago. I was sure he would have intriguing insights about this topic.

In fact, he hadn’t heard of Homo floresiensis at all.

How can you supposedly work on human brain evolution and not be aware of this most spectacular recent find? With all likelihood, the dude was simply not that much interested in human brain evolution, but only working on these few genes, and interested in publishing papers about them, and getting grants for this research. Any interest in the wider picture? It seems not. I’m sure he is an intelligent, hardworking person, and, by today’s standards, a more successful academic than myself, but is he an intellectual? Was this episode a fluke? No, unfortunately, this type of tunnel vision is very widespread in academic science. I don’t like it.

Bellini

I had some time during my stay in Milano and went to the Palazzo di Brera to see the exhibition of late medieval painter Giovanni Bellini. Interesting. On the one hand, I am in awe of these pieces of historic art, many centuries old, corner stones of European art history. The paintings are exquisitely done, with ample gold, and expressive, if a bit stiff, facial expressions. It’s a real experience to see these in their originals.

But what did Bellini paint? Jesus, then Jesus with some angels, scenes from the bible, Jesus with angels again and then more of Jesus. Jesus! And Jesus was also always bleeding in the same spots. Can’t you think of something else, Giovanni? That’s the most prominent painter of his age? I know that I am judging from a 21st century perspective, but it is clear that European creativity was crunched by Christianity for a good 1500 years, from the collapse of the Roman Empire to early Modernity. That’s why Nietzsche hated Christianity with such a passion!

Creepy: a lot of the angles looked like pre-pubescent children with wings. Is that what these people were hoping for in the afterlife? Church men’s tastes haven’t changed much in a few centuries it seems. Yikes!

Scuba Addiction

The update of the Handbook of Differential Diagnosis, DSM-5A, will contain the description of a new psychiatric disease of interest to scuba enthusiasts: the scuba diving addiction (SDA), a compulsive urge to spend time underwater at all costs. Victims tend to neglect other aspects of their lifes for the sake of repeated, prolonged dives at increasingly brief intervals.

“This is a serious psychiatric condition” says clinical psychologist Prof. Peter O. Bent from the New University of South Wales (UK). “The patients suffering from scuba diving addiction will frequently miss work and family events just to get underwater.  Once their residual nitrogen levels drop below a certain level, withdrawal symptoms include the shakes, itchy armpit rashes and recurrent dreams of being underwater.” According to Prof. Bent, the only known therapy is immediate submergence of the SDA sufferer in the ocean. This can be a real problem if the addict is in a land-locked country, and travel to such places is discouraged for SDA patients. “In Mongolia they are fucked” quipped Prof. Bent.

It is estimated that up to 5% of scuba divers will suffer from SDA at least once during their life-times.

A severe case of SDA, with the sufferer even breathing from a tank on the surface.

Muay Thai

I am a pretty peaceful person. I wish no violent harm onto anyone, maybe with the exception of some university administrators, and even there I’m not gonna do anything other than pray to Odin that they get hit by a car. Typically, I believe that in personal relations and in international politics, the negotiation and the compromise should lead to conflict resolution, not the fist or the cruise missile. But, at the same time, if everyone is a consenting volunteer, I love a good fight in a ring, on the grass or in a hockey arena. When I was younger, I played Judo and American football (that’s the type of football where you try NOT TO fall down, and get up like a man if someone knocks you to the grass), and I still love to watch contact sport.

So it was a real treat for me to watch some Thai Boxing in the famous Ratchadamnoen Stadium in Bangkok! This, together with the Lumpini Stadium, is one of the two traditional Thai Boxing arenas in the city. The stadium is in the center of Bangkok, near some government buildings and across from military barracks. When I got there, a small crowd of drink and snack vendors serving the fight fans was already assembled in front of the gates. I met up with my friend Ton and we even had ringside seats, only a few meters from the aktschn! We walked in just as the Thai national anthem was played.

And we saw an evening of good fights. Respect to every one of the athletes!

In Sydney, urban upper middle class couples outfit their precious little princesses and princes with helmets when they ride around on their push-bikes on the paved walkways in the parks. In Bangkok, 10 year old kids don’t wear helmets WHEN THEY COMPETE IN PRIZEFIGHTS! The first few matches indeed featured young boys, who already had remarkably smooth fighting technique and fierce fighting spirit. It was impressive to see! Halfway through the undercard, after the boys and the teenagers, adult men entered the ring and showed a superb level of fighting:  feints and good footwork, knees and elbows in the infight, push-kicks to keep the opponent at a distance, barrages of punches when an opening showed, and an occasional high-kick or throw.

Having watched scores of boxing, Muay Thai and mixed martial arts matches, I could expertly parse what was going on, and make an educated guess which of the two combatants would win. So I didn’t resist when and older Thai gentlemen next to us offered to take any bet I’d like to make. The fighter I put 500 Bath on was unconscious only a minute later. After taking some hefty elbows to the head, he collapsed in his corner in-between rounds. He was one of two guys carried out on a stretcher that night, but fortunately, so it was announced a few minutes later, he was ok.

In general, the crowd was really into the fights and a lot of the guys behind us in the cheaper seats were enthusiastically betting on the fight’s outcomes. They were greeting every kick with loud shouts, and wildly gesticulating whom they’d like to put some money on. While the two dudes in the ring seemed very controlled and cool, emotions were running super high in the stands.

The winner of the main event. Thanks to Nuengruethai Ponakngern for the image!

The winner of the main event. Thanks to Nuengruethai Ponakngern for the image!

The main event was an exciting back-and-forth between two very evenly skilled fighters, and ended in a points decision. We even got to take a picture with the winner. Congrats to him!

Bangkok is an electric place. I want to go back rather sooner than later!

Two Thailands

Thailand:

1. Superbly amazing women walk the Earth there.

2. I have only been in Bangkok for a few days, but I go around with open eyes, and I found it a cool place, and an unusual mix between the two poles of Asian cultures:  On one end, the commuter trains are punctual, clean, and have flat screen TVs inside. They are stacked full of folks in business attire absentmindedly playing with their mobile computing devices. The trains are packed, and there are arrows on the floor directing passengers where to line up to enter the train. And the Bangkokers are following these directions. This could be a scene from Tokyo! Well, not quite, the Thai public transport system lacked these totally exhausted and sad looking salarymen who, judging from their body language and facial expressions, are one bad week away from suicide. Still, the parallels were quite surprising to me. There are also the same convenience stores as in Japan, and I even saw some Engrish: A chick with a t-shirt reading “Bangkok city bitch” – the same type of hilarious English printed on apparel, worn by people who clearly don’t understand what it says, exactly as seen so often in Japan.

Stepping out of the commuter train and walking a few blocks towards the river, the scene all of a suddenly changes crassly: street vendors fry fish and chicken innards on sticks, a shack offering cheap home-cooked meals, and old geezers take a nap on the sidewalk. There is a bit of thrash on the streets, and motorcycle taxi drivers gesture at me that their services are available. This setting could equally well be in Cebu City. From what almost looks like Japan to what could be the Philippines in just a few steps – amazing!

On top of Wat Saket.

Thai culture historically seems to have been an interesting amalgam, a lot of the pagodas in the royal palace are noticeably Chinese influenced. But I don’t even think that the two cultural directions I observed reflect foreign influences, rather they are due to the old and modern ways of running a society. So far it seems that there is enough old Asia left to keep Bangkok a warm and friendly place. I would love to travel the Thai countryside to see how things look there.

Else: Thailand is under military rule right now, but I noticed none of that. There were no roadblocks, no military presence other than around the ministries I drove by, and no sense of gloom & doom. I am sure if you are a political activist, things look bleak, but for a tourist none of the political upheaval is noticeable.