Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Wuppertal

Penguins, penguins everywhere / Follow-up: A few thoughts around myself and Asperger’s

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In a recent text on myself and Asperger’s, I mentioned two penguin coincidences. Doing so, I missed a third: Wuppertal, my city of residence, is filled with penguin statues.

Apparently, the Wuppertaler Zoo has a particular interest in penguins, which led to a festival/campaign/whatnot possibly fifteen years ago. (This was long before I moved here.) During this whatnot, a great number of mass-produced statues were placed around the city, and many still remain.


Written by michaeleriksson

November 8, 2019 at 8:50 pm

Follow-ups: A few thoughts on specialization and excellence (part I)

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Two follow-ups to an earlier text ([1]):

  1. Reading a magazine, I note repeated discussions of the need for Germany to have a high competence in this-or-that new field—matching the common politician’s panic when Germany fails to be world-class in any given field. Moreover, this is not uncommon in e.g. Sweden or the U.S. either.

    *Specifically, the members’ magazine of VDE—a German professional organization for engineers, of which I am (still) a member from my days in IT.

    However, is this really needed? Some of the greatest benefits of modern society come from cities, countries, groups, companies, …, specializing and gaining a high degree of competence in a more limited number* of fields. By gaining this high competence, they remain competitive in the market and the market benefits from the higher average competence level in the field. This is similar to specialization by individuals in [1].

    *The suitable number will depend on the entity in question: a company might do well with one single field, a country might need dozens.

    My own Wuppertal is one of many good historical examples: By ducal decree, Wuppertal* received a local monopoly** (the “Garnnahrung”) on certain steps of yarn processing. This lead to a great concentration of textile industry, making Wuppertal’s fortune for long after the monopoly was abolished.

    *Strictly speaking, areas since joined into Wuppertal, which has existed as a legal entity only since 1929.

    **Which should not be seen as an endorsement of monopolies: the monopoly caused the specialization; the specialization was good.

    Such specialization can have many positive effects, including building a higher competence through interaction and increased competition between different masters, but also e.g. lower transportation costs between specialists in various sub-sections,* better infrastructure,** talent being drawn where there is a better chance of work, etc.

    *E.g. that the weaving industry can get its yarn locally, in large quantities and with many competitors to choose from, without having to shop Germany-wide.

    **E.g. that the public roads, treatment plants, whatnot used by the one company benefit the others too. (Note that similar companies tend to have similar needs.)

    I strongly suspect that trying to be good at everything is counter-productive and that specialization, to be really good at something, is the better strategy. If so, politicians should stop complaining about how their respective country is falling behind at new technologies A, B, and C—and instead laud and support its excellence at new technology D. Export D; import A, B, and C.

    As a caveat, being too much of a “one-trick pony” and failing to adapt to new developments is dangerous (and here concerns are reasonable). If, e.g., D had been an old technology, it might not have been a valid argument against lack of excellence with A, B, and C. Wuppertal, again, is a good example: in the 20th century, the lower production costs of e.g. India killed much of Europe’s textile industries. Wuppertal was no exception—but it had some four hundred (!) good years before that.

  2. In [1], I am critical of the U.S. system of requiring a bachelor for certain professional degrees, the (potential) lack of specialization found in “general studies” or “liberal studies”, and the possibility to get a degree* in a softer field while being weak at thinking. I also mention the lower university-entry ages of older times. Factor in the shorter U.S. high school (compared to e.g. Germany),** and the use of variations of “bachelor” and “college” to refer to secondary education in some other countries, and I suspect that we have an unfortunate clash of ideas and terminology that lead us away*** from a better way to handle education, in that students are increasingly forced to go through two stages of education (high school, bachelor) that try to fill the same purpose.

    *Note that I do not necessarily claim either that it is possible to be good in a field while being a weak thinker, or that a weak thinker would profit as much from the studies as a great thinker. The point is that the degree it self is attainable and proves next to nothing about someone’s intelligence.

    **Indeed, it could be argued that at least the first year of a U.S. college is high-school level from a Swedish or German perspective. Cf. e.g. parts of an older comparison ([2]) of my own education with a U.S. J.D. “doctorate”.

    ***Including e.g. the “Bologna” reforms in Europe.

    How to do it better? Let a bachelor be something with a low degree of specialization* and let it be a pre-requisite for e.g. “med school”—but let it come at a younger age, e.g. 15 through 19. Either the students already have the brains to handle it, possibly with some softening to compensate for lack of experience and maturity, or they likely never will. For those that do not,** other educational venues or work should be available. Notably, the benefits of having both e.g. a German Abitur*** and a U.S.-style Bachelor are small when we look at suitability for higher (or even higher) education. Compared to today, this might or might not leave the student short in some areas, but these areas not being necessary for higher education, they can safely be left for the students’ spare time and private interests—should they be so inclined. (I also suspect that the loss would be much smaller than the official syllabus might indicate, considering both memory failures over time and that much of high-school would likely be subsumable in the bachelor. Indeed, when we look at the recent U.S. situation, a considerable portion of college is spent teaching the students what they should have learned in high school—but did not.)

    *As a consequence, more specialized topics, that might today be studied in the form of a bachelor, would earn another degree—as used to be the case in Germany (e.g. the various Diplom-X degrees) and partially still is the case in Sweden. This type of bachelor would be in the “general studies”/“liberal studies”/“liberal arts” area, possible with some hybrid traces of the old high school.

    **The implied restoration of the filter effect is a positive. Do not let PC thinking, unrealistic expectations on humans, and “no child left behind” ruin education.

    ***Secondary education which is longer and decidedly tougher than U.S. high school—but still well short of a U.S. bachelor. (The former is more comparable to the “mittlere Reife” than to the Abitur.) Also see [2]. Note that Germany, to some degree, already performs the type of filtering that I wish, but is increasingly falling into the “everyone must have the Abitur” trap and, thereby, moving in the wrong direction, towards less excellence.

    Disclaimer: This assuming that the traditional system of “go to school first; work later” is followed. I favor an entirely alternate system of mixing work and education (preferably, not school) through-out life.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 8, 2019 at 5:35 pm

A few impressions after a museum visit

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Yesterday, being driven out of my apartment by construction noises, I decided to finally visit the Wuppertal “von der Heydt” museum, renowned* as a high-quality art museum.

*In this, it was a bit of a disappointment, but my standard of comparison is likely unfair, as I, when it comes to art, have mostly visited major museums in considerably larger cities, including the Louvre and the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum.

A few abstract (non-art) observations:

  1. As with most other museums, there was little focus on providing information. A museum visit should be a learning experience, and while just looking at objects can be valuable, additional information can make a critical difference. All too often this opportunity is not taken, or not sufficiently taken through the information being too basic or too dumbed-down.

    This might be true to a higher degree for a non-art museum, but even for art it can be important, including (depending on the work and expectable prior knowledge) historical situation, biographic background, and the intentions of the artist. This especially with modern art, which is often obscure and open to a multitude of interpretations, and with artists that are not widely known (as with many in this museum).

  2. A pamphlet given to me when I bought my ticket went on at length about various measures to entertain children and to bring children into the museum. This not only repeats an ever-recurring error by museums, it also extends it to art museums, which is a new low. The purpose of a museum is to provide a learning experience—not cheap entertainment. The presence of children does little to help the children and much to ruin the experience for the adult visitors. Cf. e.g. an excursion on neglecting core groups in an earlier text.

    (However, I did not actually encounter any children.)

  3. The museum was in parts amateurish, starting with the truly sub-standard website, vdh.netgate1.net, which does not even bother with an own domain and is highly uninformative, poorly implemented, and out-of-date*. Other issues include an often too long distance between painting and descriptive plaque, a use of wrist-bands to identify paying customers**, and an either an absurd jacket policy or an absurdly behaving individual employee (see the next item).

    *Notably, at the time of writing, it speaks of a Paula Modersohn-Becker exhibition being extended to February 24th, while we have May (!) 25th and a current exhibition on Peter Schenk (cf. below).

    **As opposed to the more common spot to put on the clothing. The poor visibility of said wrist-band led to at least four different employees requesting to see it at different times. To boot, it was hard to remove, ultimately forcing me to simply tear it. (The most positive explanation that can be given is to assume that it relates to the stated ability to leave and re-enter the museum during the day. While this is a nice-to-have, it does not seem worth the trouble, a skilled cheater would likely still be able to remove and re-attach the wrist-band on someone else, and better solutions must be possible, e.g. making the wrist-band an additional option for those who wish to leave.)

  4. A very weird incident has the benefit of illustrating a central point from an older text—a good impression is often based on luck with events and correspondingly misleading.

    Specifically, I entered the museum with my jacket tied around my waist, bought my ticket, and entered the exhibitions with no-one raising one word of protest. I first went to the permanent exhibition, spent a considerable amount of time there, saw two individual employees repeatedly (and showed my wrist-band…), and no-one raised one word of protest. I then went to the temporary exhibit, briefly talked to an employee, who pointed out that I was about to go through the exhibit in the reverse preferred order and recommended that I go to the regular starting point instead (and who wanted to see my wrist-band). She raised not one word of protest concerning my jacket and neither did another employee whom I passed on the way to the starting point.

    At the starting point, however, an odd woman (after asking to see my wrist-band) requested that I take my jacket to the wardrobe one stock down. As I stated that I would prefer not to, she now claimed that it was forbidden to carry a jacket over the arm—yes, arm! As I pointed out the obvious, that I was not carrying my jacket over the arm, she now insisted that a jacket must either be worn in the regular manner or be brought to the wardrobe. She offered no explanation for this, and there is no obvious reason: I could see some point when it comes to jackets-over-the-arm, because they might provide some increased opportunity of smuggling something in or out—but the reverse applies to jackets-around-the-waist, because they provide a smaller opportunity than jackets-worn-regularly.

    I also note that I have never received a complaint in any other museum, including those with far more valuable objects.

    Now, if I had not taken the advice of the prior employee, if I had instead continued in the “wrong” direction, I would either not have encountered this moron or only done so while leaving, when a complaint would have been highly unlikely. (Based on the actual contents of the exhibition, the disadvantage of going in the other direction would have been minimal.)

Excursion on the art:
While the collection on display was well short of the Louvre, it did contain a number of interesting works by less known artists. Most notably, a small hall dedicated to Karl Kunz (previously unknown to me; see e.g. German Wikipedia or a dedicated website) bordered on a revelation, especially through (in the “Dante’s Inferno” images) taking the play on shapes and curves to a point that I* had never seen before. The influence of Picasso is often obvious, and a Dali influence often likely, but he goes well beyond what I have seen by either. (If Dali had attempted art deco while on a hallucinogenic drugs and after spending a few hours looking on paintings by William Blake, the result might have been similar.) Another point of interest was the temporary exhibit on Peter Schenk, one of the first mezzotint experts and a leading cartographer, who was born in Elberfeld, now a part of Wuppertal (indeed, the part in which the museum is located).

*Note that my interest in paintings has always been focused on more classical art, rarely going past the impressionist era, and that I am a layman. Others might have different experiences.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 25, 2019 at 12:00 pm

Living in Wuppertal / issues around heating

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After the true start of my much delayed sabbatical, I have now lived for roughly two months in a row in Wuppertal. My impressions so far are positive, and (to my relief) the reasonably-researched-but-speculative purchase of an apartment in a city that I had seen so little of appears to have worked out quite well.

Looking at the city in general, the one major issue is the potential deterioration of the city through population loss*. Major positives include many green areas, plenty of hills**, and a less “intrusive” environment compared to e.g. Cologne—noise levels, crowdedness of streets, traffic intensity, … are all much lower when comparing similar parts*** of the cities against each other. A major bonus is that the number of constantly traffic-violating bicyclists is far smaller****. (Living in Wuppertal is also discussed in at least one older post.)

*This, however, was something I was aware of in advance, and something that could turn around over time. It certainly helped in keeping the price of the apartment down.

**I like walking; I do not like running, spinning, tread-milling, … With the amount of hills, some steep, I can get a decent amount of exercise without boring myself.

***I.e. city center vs. city center, outskirt vs. outskirt, …

****This was a major issue in Cologne, to the point that there were more bicyclists (illegally) on the pavement than on the streets and designated bicycle lanes—and often riding with no regard for the pedestrians.

The vicinity of my apartment is particularly fortunate, including having a secondary city-center in close vicinity in one direction and a number of grocery stores, including a very large Akzenta* in the other—as well, as a number of kiosks, cafes, and whatnots. The Barmen train station is also close by, as are two stations of the “Schwebebahn”**. A potential particular bonus could be the Wuppertal Opera, which is also quite close by; however, I have yet to actually visit it, and cannot yet speak for the quality. And: Despite all this, I live in a quite street—much unlike what someone in e.g. Cologne could expect to do in a similar set-up.

*A super-market chain and subsidiary of the more well-known Rewe.

**An aerial tramway that stretches from one end of the city to the other.

Looking at the apartment, it self, I remain mostly satisfied and feel very comfortable. So far, I have three complaints: An incompetent property manager (as mentioned in an earlier post), a door bell that is so loud* that I actually chose to detach it, and the gas water-heater**, which is half the reason I felt motivated to write this post:

*Being awake without ear-plugs, the sound was outright painful. Sleeping using ear-plugs, I was invariable woken up when it tolled—and since the postman hits every single button on the bell system in a blanket manner to be let into the house, this is quite bad. I know that he does this, because when he comes when I am already awake, I have no problem hearing the bells going off in apartments on other floors of the building. (I will likely replace it with something more suitable in due time.)

**Here and elsewhere, my terminology can contain errors.

Instead of central heating, the radiators rely on a per-apartment gas heater (which also handles the hot tap-water). Originally, I thought that this would be a good thing, both because the otherwise quasi-mandatory, annual meter readings* disappeared and because I was now myself in control of the heating**. The latter part has panned out; the former not so much: True, the meter-reading has disappeared, but in turn there is both a yearly service and a yearly exhaust (and whatnot) inspection, effectively trading one day for two… This is the more absurd, seeing that German regulations ensure that the service company, which should have been eminently qualified to certify the exhaust situation, is not allowed to do so, this being the domain of chimney sweeps***. Costwise, the rule is that gas is cheaper than electricity when it comes to heating (including hot tap-water); however, much of this is canceled out by my now having to pay two consumption-independent base rates**** (gas + electricity) to the utilities company, instead of just the one (electricity). During my almost constant absence between my purchase and the beginning of my sabbatical, I certainly lost money this way, having to pay the dual base rate every month, but not using anywhere near enough gas to gain the money back. To boot, the heater takes up a very considerable chunk of space over the bath tub (much more so than the more common on-demand tap-water heaters), and it is placed in a manner relative the taps and the drain that a bit of carelessness easily leads to a head bump. Worse, only about half the bathtub is usable when standing, which considerably restricts flexibility during showers. (Worsened through the hose being a bit on the short side, but at least I can buy a longer hose.)

*Mostly, in Germany, there is a separate meter on every radiator of an apartment that (e.g. through condensation) tries to estimate how heavily used the radiator has been in the preceding year. This is then combined with the readings from other apartments and the known overall heating cost to estimate the cost for each individual apartment. Not a good system. (Problems include the intrusive annual reading, a great risk of errors during recordings and calculations, the influence of other heat sources, …)

**Central heating is usually handled quite poorly, e.g. in that the heating is only turned on during some months of the year without considering actual outside temperature, or that the heating is turned off during the evening and night (when most people are at home) and runs high during the day (when most people are at work). A particular complication is that some central heatings are manipulated according to time of day and external temperature in such a manner that the settings on the individual radiators become misleading and changes potentially harmful. For instance, assume that the central heating runs at a certain, low, temperature, that the outside temperature drops, and that I turn up the radiators—all fine and well. Now comes the next day, the building management decides to turn up the temperature of the central heating to (with a days delay!) compensate for the outside temperature, and I come back from work to an apartment that is uncomfortable hot—and where, to boot, nine or ten hours of this excessive heating have been wasted because I was not even in the apartment.

***Generally, the German system of chimney sweeps is under heavy fire from many directions, with several web sites dedicated to the topic, for reasons that include unduly frequent inspections of-this-and-that, unduly high fees, a very unfortunate mongrelisation of private and public roles (the chimney sweep being a private business often acting on behalf of the government and in a quasi-governmental role), and a very customer unfriendly attitude. To boot, the regulations are sufficiently complex that it is hard for the customers to know when the chimney sweep is acting as a private service company and when as a government representative, when he has to do want the chimney sweep wants and when he can tell him to shove it, etc. If I were willing to do the leg-work, I could likely write an article of several pages on this topic alone.

****A strong case can be made that base rates are unethical to begin with: They are usually far larger than the actual fix costs involved and appear to serve mostly to gain an undeserved profit on customers with a low consumption. This especially, when they are combined with other service fees, notably setup and installation fees. At least when it comes to gas, water, electricity, and (in the pre-flatrate era) telecommunications, a pure “per consumed unit” fee would be a fairer solution.

All-in-all, I would have been better off with central heating, which is the typical solution in Germany, especially if the tap water had been heated electrically and on-demand.

As an aside, I am surprised that gas is even still allowed considering the potential hazards. This partly through the risks per se, compared to electricity; partly because this is exactly the type of issue that tends to cause exaggerated populist demands for a ban. Cf. e.g. nuclear power, “gene foods”, or the German legal requirements to not only have smoke detectors, which I might be on board with, but to actually have them inspected once a year (!)—all of which have seen the counter-measures grow out of proportion to the danger.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 8, 2018 at 12:24 pm