13 July 2014

Besuch in der gläsernen Molkerei in Müncheberg

Durch die Kampagne Kuh und Du bin ich wieder einmal auf das Thema Tier- und Umwelt-freundlicher Milchproduktion gestoßen. Zufällig habe ich mir dann auch mal eines der Heftchen “Bio in Berlin und Brandenburg“ im Biomarkt mitgenommen und habe dann dort von verschiedenen regionalen Molkereien gelesen. Dazu gehört übrigens nicht nur die gläserne Molkerei in Münchehofe, sondern auch die Hofmolkerei des Ökodorfs Brodowin, sowie die Bio-Molkerei in Lobetal und die Hofmolkerei des Büffelhofs Bobalis.

Wie der Name schon sagt ist die gläserne Meierei am ehesten für Besichtigungen eingerichtet: man kann dort Montag bis Samstag zu jeweils zwei festen Terminen an einer Führung teilnehmen. Deswegen habe ich sie auch als erstes besichtigt. Hingefahren bin ich mit dem Rad ab Königswusterhausen und zurück mit dem Rad bis Halbe, wo auch eine Regionalbahn nach Berlin zurückfährt. (Das ist mit 10 km die kürzere Radfahr-Strecke. Ab KW ist es eher für Menschen, die gern auch mal 25 bis 30 km Rad fahren.)

Hier ein paar Dinge, die ich besonders informativ für mich fand:
  • Camembert wird an einem anderen Standort produziert als Schnittkäse, denn der weiße Schimmel des Camembert verträgt sich gar nicht mit der Rotschmiere der festen Käse. Die gläserne Molkerei hat für Camembert den Standort interessanterweise auf der Insel Rügen.
  • Roh-Milch wird bei Bauen durch Molkerei-Fahrzeug abgeholt. Verpackte Milch wird von Groß-Händler (Terra) abgeholt. Beides ist tatsächlich sehr lokal. Nur Käse wird Deutschlandweit vertrieben.
  • Rahm wird immer abgetrennt und für Vollmilch wieder beigemischt. Da auch fettarme Milch verkauft wird, bleibt noch Rahm für Butter-, Quark- und Käseproduktion übrig.
  • Milchpulver wird auf einem fremden Trockenturm produziert, der dafür periodisch gemietet wird.
  • Bio-Milch ist im Laden sogar günstiger als die Milch von bestimmten Marken, die sehr viel Werbung machen.
  • Frischmilch aus Münchehofe wird unter verschiedenen Handelsmarken vertrieben. 
  • Die Molkerei hat ihre eigenen Marken Heu-Milch und Spreewald-Milch, wobei es sich um Milch von bestimmten Erzeugerhöfen handelt. Bei der Heumilch besteht die Ernährung der Kuh zu mindestens 60% aus Gras (im Sommer) und Heu (im Winter). (Für Neugierige gibt es die genaue Regeln hier.)
  • Die regelmäßigen Salzbäder für die reifenden Käselaiber werden von einem Roboter verabreicht. Leider sind wir so schnell daran vorbei gelaufen, dass ich kein Video gemacht habe.
  • Die Maschinen zur Verarbeitung der Milch (Pasteurisieren, Entrahmen, ...) kommen von spezialisierten Betrieben aus Süddeutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz – eine Gegend, die so sehr darauf spezialisiert ist, dass sie ihre Maschinen in die ganze Welt exportiert. Mir gefällt dieser Kompromiss zwischen Globalisierung und regionaler Produktion: Bei den Maschinen profitieren wir alle von der Spezial-Kompetenz einer Region (und sie werden ja nur einmal transportiert und laufen dann viele Jahre), aber bei den landwirtschaftlichen Produkten bedienen wir uns bei den Schätzen aus unserer eigenen Region.
  • Der zur Molkerei gehörige Hofladen hat neben der Käse- und Milch-Theke aus lokaler Produktion parktischerweise noch ein gemischtes Bio-Sortiment und andere lokale Produkte. Damit dient er gleichzeitig als Lokalversorgung für die Dorfbevölkerung. Ich habe z.B. zwei Gläser speziellen Spreewaldsenf dort für mich gekauft. :))

Noch mehr Infos in den Beschreibungen meiner Fotos vom Ausflug.

Drinking milk and eating cheese – is it natural, is it healthy, is it economic?

The rise of factory farming of cows brings with it destruction of the environment and suffering of animals and people. There are two ways to react to this dilemma. The vegan way is to boycott all animal products including milk and all milk products. The "organic farming" way is to specifically support traditional, sustainable agriculture. I personally think that both ways are good and feasible for today's consumer since both vegan and organic products are available on the market. The question of which way to live brings up another question, namely: is it a good thing in general for people to consume animal milk and products made thereof? I find it interesting to shed light on different aspects of this question: the evolutionary, the biological, the medical, and the economic.

Nature and Evolution

Some adult humans are intolerant to lactose (a kind of sugar which naturally occurs in milk) and therefore can't consume any milk products (unless lactose has been removed in a technical process). This intolerance brings our attention to the fact that some ten thousands of years ago, the entire human race was lactose-intolerant during the adult life. This actually makes sense: mother's milk is a food for babies and infants. As soon as children can consume other food, they don't need to be able to digest milk any more. 
If we take a broader perspective, humans are just mammals and the function of milk, namely feeding babies, is not different in humans as it is for cats and dogs, or pigs and cows, or bats and kangaroos. From this viewpoint it makes sense to say that nature has made milk for babies and adults have no business drinking it. In other words, the vegan lifestyle (as it relates to milk) is quite natural!
On the other hand, we can say that the relationship between human farmers and their dairy animals (cows, sheep, and goats) is also a product of evolution, since both humans and animals have adapted over a course of thousands of years: the animals produce more milk than they need to feed their small, while humans have adapted to be able to digest milk even as adults. Over time this co-evolution of humans and dairy animals has slowly turned into controlled breeding of animals, which we could see as a form of artificial evolution, but its historical beginnings still seem to have been a quite "natural" process. After all, co-evolution and symbiosis of different species occurs in other places of nature, too. In one case, the term "dairy farming" is even used by zoologists to describe how ants live with a certain kind of lice.

Medicine and Health

If we start with what contemporary nutrition scientists label as "the Western diet" we find that it contains more saturated fats than would be optimal to maximize health and longevity. We can also see that most those saturated fats come from animal products such as meat on the one hand, but milk and dairy products on the other hand. From a viewpoint of optimizing our fat consumption we'd be better of to consume plant fat such as olive oil, lin seed oil, many kinds of nuts, as well as soy bean products instead of animal fats. (By the way, if the mention of "soy products" makes you think of soy milk, soy protein powder, and different kinds of soy-based meat replacements, it might seem that soy products are a kind of artificial/technical replacement for "natural" and "traditional" meat and dairy products. However, this is not so: different human cultures have developed many more different soy products over the course of history. Besides soy milk and tofu, there is Natto, Miso, DoenjangKongnamulEdamameTempeh, Tofu Skin, Tofuru, one of my favorite desserts: Douhua, and propably many more that are only know in their cultures of origin. Also, almond milk has a long tradition as a food.)
On the other hand, animal products including dairy are the only "natural" dietary source of vitamin B12 for humans and they also contain some other vitamins in useful doses. So, if you want to optimize your own diet for health and longevity, it is possible to simply take factory-produced B12. If you still want to be somewhat traditional, then some animal products are required.


The economic side of nutrition asks how can we feed a growing population of humans on a single planet of constant size? The argument brought forward by vegans is that contemporary factor farming uses a lot of high-value plant foods (such as soy beans, corn, and other grains) to quickly fatten animals at reduced cost for the farmer. Given this type of production, a lot of food that would be perfectly suited for human consumption is used up to produce much less of another food. For example, from the wheat needed to produce one kilogram of beef, we could produce many kilograms of Seitan and even do this with less adverse side-effects for the environment. Similarly, one liter of cow milk from soy-fed cows, uses soy and water from which we could make several liters of soy milk (healthier and more environment-friendly).
For those reasons I think that even though factory-farming evolved under economic pressures of efficiency, its products are not at all resource efficient compared to plant-based alternatives.
Now, if we look at traditional meat and dairy production, the picture looks very different: grass is not a very tasty food for humans, yet cows love it. Cows grazing outside all day are tending the meadows better than any lawn mower could while at the same time fertilizing it with their dung. Consuming milk and dairy products from those cows, therefore seems a very sustainable form of nutrition. The only thing we need to ask ourselves is if the large spaces and prairies used for grazing should better be used to produce crops with higher yields. In pre-industrial times, letting cows graze was efficient because it didn't take much work compared to planting, tending, and harvesting other crops. (Additionally, oxen were used for ploughing and pulling carriages even up to my grandfather's day!). But in our industrial times, machines do the hard work and it might be that agricultural space is becoming the limiting factor. So maybe, eating grass-fed meat will become obsolete except for nostalgic reasons? Or maybe, grazing will be restricted to places where more intensive crops are not feasible, such as mountains where only mountain goats can go?


I think that everybody has to find their own way of living and this short article only serves to weed out some contradictions that people might have in the rationalization for their own life style.
My own way of living, at this point of my live is a mix of vegan and organic. I hardly eat any meat at all (except for very little quantities from small animals raised by my family). I avoid dairy ingredients in products where I think they are unnecessary (especially chocolate, cake, and pastries). My milk consumption is totally plant-based (mostly soy milk, some almond milk and others, as well as coconut milk to replace cream in cooking). For cheese and other dairy products, which I do occasionally consume, I am very conscious to buy products based on organic and animal-friendly farming. Preferably from creameries that I have personally visited to have a real sense of what their ethical guidelines are.
Yesterday, for example, I did my first visit to a regional organic creamery and wrote about it on my blog (in German). But there are also pictures!

1 June 2014

hoaxes, opinions, but not many facts on nutrition

Non-vegetarians like to point out, that the vegetarian or vegan lifestyle isn't that great for the environment either. For example, I heard several people cite to me "rain forests are being destroyed to make space for soy farming". And vegans/vegetarians eat a lot of soy products, so they part of the destruction.
Now, my readers are probably aware that most of the world's soy production is actually for animal feed, not for human consumption. (Incidentally, the US produces much more soy beans than China, although China is has the largest human consumption of soy products because Tofu, Topi, Soymilk, and many other soy products already have a century-old tradition there.)

So the cited argument is blatantly irrational and obviously self-serving. It doesn't make any sense as an argument other than giving non-vegetarians something to say when they have "an argument" with a vegetarian person.

Now, I certainly don't want to say that non-vegetarian people are stupid. To the contrary I have heard this or similarly stupid arguments even from people who I otherwise respect for their opinion (in fields where they actually have expertise). What actually bothers me is that all kinds of people often carelessly come up with spurious arguments when defending their own position. Being smart to me, doesn't mean that I know better than other people. Being really smart actually means knowing that

Sometimes (as in this case) those arguments can quickly be dismissed, but at other times, they are making claims which just can't be directly verified. When it comes to my own well-being I can make simple experiments (like eating completely vegan for six weeks in a row) to find out my personal truth. But when it comes to issues of like the effects of diets on life-expectancy and cancer-risk, or the heated topic of pregnant mothers and the diet of their unborn babies, self-run experiments can't be the solution.

One question which is actually of practical importance to me is whether a purely vegan diet actually requires supplementing vitamins (B12 in particular). But a similar question is relevant for non-vegetarians, too: do humans in northern countries get enough vitamin D in winter? For both questions I have found all kinds of answers on the internet: yes, no, yesbut, nobut, and of course the always-valid answer: "it depends". (As a friend jokingly said: it depends on whether you want to rationally optimize your health and life-expectancy or just want to confirm to a certain lifestyle, for example, by eating no "artificial supplements".)

I find that people tend to trust other people who they know more than they trust other sources of information. (After all, the internet can confirm or deny any claim depending what search terms you use. For instance, the query "soy healthy" actually gives pros and cons alike in a way that left me more puzzling than I was before. But on second look on, for example, this article, it seems that a lot of actual definitive health benefits are quickly listed, followed by a much longer list of potential problems, but which are all prefixed by some "might" (harm) or "could" (have negative impact). It seems that in the desire to paint a complete and balanced picture, the actual benefits are all too liberally compared to the potential risks.)

But as the stupid rain-forest-meme above has shown, people in your social circles (even if they are otherwise smart and reasonable) can't be trusted either. So how can I really know things?

Let me leave this question open for you and instead conclude with a Zen-spirited motto: Often it is better to know that we don't know, than to have a wrong belief.

make it simpler

I just had the thought that we so often get into heated abstract discussions about design patterns, because in many cases (and especially in most small cases) the actual design doesn't matter: the code will work either way. It's only when a program becomes more complex that some designs make extensions easier than others.
Simpler designs make the least assumptions and are therefore the most flexible. And here's the way to create designs that are as simple as possible:

  • First, write all your code in a single method.
  • Then, extract repeated code into submethods (your IDE probably has a shortcut for this). The scope of local variables is also a great guide on what code to extract into a submethod. The number of local variables in a method is a great estimate for its complexity and coherence. (For example, if one variable is only used at the top and bottom of a method, but not in the middle, then maybe some of the middle code should be extracted.)
  • Once you have several methods which all use the same variables (either in their argument lists or by accessing a subset of the object's instance variables), then that's a good sign to extract all those methods into a new class.
  • Finally, use interfaces to capture common behavior and use superclasses to extract shared instance variables from different subclasses. In most cases, this will satisfy all your abstraction needs! Abstract classes, super() calls, all those features and almost never needed!

31 May 2014

The Template-Method-Antipattern

I had been skeptical about the GOF pattern book ever since I read it many years ago. Many of the patterns in the book seemed so trivial that I was irritated by how much attention they are given. Others have examples that seem overly simplified and never quite fit what actually happens in practice. Looking back now, I find that the premise of the book seems to be the early OO memes of "avoiding repetition" and "finding the right design for the application domain". The latter relates also to graphical modeling and model-driven-design. While those ideas are doubtlessly important, I think that early OO philosophy over-optimizes in that one direction and forgets about another very important direction: keeping the code as simple as possible. Instead of over-designing and already including space for "later extensions", realize that there are usually unknown unknowns and the later extensions might go into quite a different direction. It is the new agile world where running code and automatic tests are more important than fancy diagrams and great designs.

There are many guidelines which help us to write simpler (and thus more flexible) code. Before criticizing the template method even more, I want to remind you the two most powerful ones:

  • Number One law of procedural programming: favor pure functions over mutators. (And if you have mutators, separate them from the pure functions.) Note that this law fully applies to object-oriented programming as well!
  • Number One law of OO programming: favor composition over inheritance. (And let most of your inheritance be implementations of pure interfaces.)

I have always had trouble explaining why certain patterns were bad (especially those which over-use inheritance), but it was nonetheless very clear to me. I always found it hard to describe succinctly and precisely what the template does without going into the details of inheritance and the subclasses. Other people just didn't need this kind of clarity it seems. But yet, every time I had a debate with someone over a particular and specific piece of code I could convince them that my simpler variant was better in that particular case. So I am right in all cases, but still couldn't give a generally convincing reasoning why this is so.

Now recently I realized that rigorous unit-testing is a great way to validate a design: if it is hard to test, then that's a big smell and motivation to simplify! In a template method arrangement it is definitely hard (even though it's still possible) to test the template and its instantiations separately.

But instead of going on explaining what I find hard to explain, let's hear what others have to say:

2 May 2014

The start of my virtuous life

I recently finished working through the best self-help book that I have yet come across. "Ab Heute erfolgreich" (Successful from Today on) by German trainer and coach Alfred Stielau-Pallas. What makes the book so effective is the approach to read just one chapter per week (I usually did on Sunday) and then practice its teachings for an entire week. I liked this so much that sometimes I took a week off from the book to practice another important thing that I just had learned or been reminded of.
One of the many great ideas the book contains is Benjamin Franklins concept of 13 virtues which he practices one week per virtue for his entire life. (Going through all of them four times a year.) When I read this chapter I instantly thought that this would be a great way to continue the "weekly focus" which I liked so much about the "success book" (as I like to call it). But I also realized that Franklin's virtues aren't just right for me and the success book's practices are better, but still not completely reflecting my own virtues. So I knew from the moment of reading that I would have to come up with my own list.
Now, this actually wasn't easy and I procrastinated over it quite a bit. Fortunately I had already decided to go on sailing holidays for the May day long week-end and since sailing only takes a few hours each day, that's the prefect opportunity to do such kind of important work in the morning. (I only like be outside in the afternoon and evening anyways!)

So I came up with my own list of virtues and some practical exercises to go along with them, because I know too well, that just focusing on an abstract topic alone doesn't make it appear. It always needs concrete actions to take and finding those is not easy either. In fact, I plan to still spend at least one half-hour of focused thinking time per week to customize and concretify that week's virtue.

To start off, I wrote down some virtues which I think I already embody perfectly and which I don't want to practice in a focused way. Of course, I hope to still get better at those virtues, but I practice them spontaneously often anyway, so it doesn't feel just to give them even more weight. Those intrinsic virtues are Positive Outlook on life, Appreciation of small things, Gratefulness for what I have (and what I additionally get on each new day).
  • Not criticizing myself or others and instead focus on what's great about myself and others.
  • Thriftiness, frugality, and humility.
  • Humor.
  • Curiosity.
  • Creativity.
If you, dear Reader, now feel that I am at little arrogant and presumptuous here, praising myself so much, I can only reply that this is a simple exercise of my second virtue! While I hope to be well-aware of my shortcomings, I simply decided to focus on my strengths first! As the success book says: accept and love yourself as you are and only try to improve yourself one weakness at a time. I also want to add that this list is not set in stone. After each iteration through all my virtues (and especially after the first time through) I might decide to move any item from the "already perfect" list into the focus rotation list.

But now, let's get to my focus virtues. For each one, let me briefly call it out, define it, say why I want it, and sketch some actual concrete practice exercises.
Mindfulness: The full and untainted awareness of what I am doing, what I am thinking, and what I am feeling. Also the knowledge that my thoughts can be mistaken or can focus on entirely unimportant things. And the knowledge that all feelings are temporary and fleeting and most of them even go by without any action by myself. There's actually a lot more to say about mindfulness and there might be better definitions, but let me just explain why I intentionally put this in the number one spot. You might know the saying "what you can't measure, you can't manage." Obviously what you're not aware of is even harder to improve!
As with every other virtue I want to practice mindfulness every day (and in every moment) and specifically I want to keep up my daily sitting meditation practice and weekly visits to a meditation group. During the regular mindfulness focus week I might then do extra activities like trying out new kinds of meditation, doing longer stretches of meditation or on different times of the, or visit new practice groups, read or reread some books or articles on meditation, and finally try to plan the week so that every activity can be done in a mindful fashion

Empathy and Listening to others: Everybody loves talking and by listening we give the gift of our attention to the other person. It's a great way to become liked and also to learn a lot. For practice, revise some deep questions to ask others, don't be afraid of silence and long breaks to give them room to think and answer, and finally be aware of how much you are talking yourself and keep it to the minimum of things that the other person actually wants or needs to hear. 

Compassion and Listening to myself: This is based on the idea of a silent retreat for one week, but still going to work. I will restrict myself to only professionally needed conversation, and spend my private life in complete isolation for this week. While that sounds really extreme, it is just one week after all and I don't have that many private interaction with people anyway. I think that by offsetting such a Silent Week with its opposite –a Connection Week– I might even get more socializing and certainly higher-quality socializing than by just floating along through life.

Generosity: You might have heard about that psychological study which showed that people actually become happier by spending money on others instead of spending it on themselves. So there's not much here to say: just do at least one good deed per day and don't let it just be tipping generously. Spend some quality-time to think creatively about possible gifts. When you buy something, think: who of my friends or acquaintances might like that, too? Sometimes I just buy two of a thing and later decide who to gift the spare one to! When you see some advertising, think: who of my friends might like this? or something like this? 
Creativity is important here! Don't just dismiss an initial thought because you don't think any of your friends will like it. Just continue a theme with a chain of associations until you get to something that will actually be appreciated. For instance, when I see another beautiful Porsche car at the traffic light, I might think of a friend who's going on a road trip (be it by car or bike or by hitchhiking doesn't matter here!) Now I can think of anything that my friend might need for that trip, be it a map, a guidebook, a dictionary, a scarf, or some nice tires for the bike. 

Decisiveness: Now we get to the core of self-improvement and to the harder stuff (at least for me). I grew up as a rather indecisive person and liked to go with the flow and with the opportunities that present themselves. One of the big things I have learned from the success book is that decisions just have to be made to get anywhere. Going with the flow only takes you where others want you to go or think or should go, but finding your own way requires to make decisions! I was so very fortunate to have read a great (despite the cheesy title) book on decision making just before starting the success book. I found it very helpful to have some decision-helpers (like simply sketching up a pros-and-cons list). It's also important for me to avoid procrastinating on decisions by asking myself "until when do I need to decide that? and what additional information do I really need to decide well?" I can also unblock my own undecidedness in a question by setting myself a timebox of five to 30 minutes (or more for harder decisions) and use that as quality thinking time just for this one decision. 
But even with all those techniques (and many more in the decisions-book), I can still be in a circle of thoughts without realizing that a decision is needed. Therefore it is important to regularly practice explicit decision making in the hope that it will become more and more automated with time.

Vision and Planning: After a strategic decision is made, nothing will happen unless I have some concrete action-steps that I can follow. That's why setting aside quality time for planning things is so important. I also include "vision" in this point because planning becomes much more powerful if it's done for medium or long-term goals. If I plan a project for three months or even a year then I can include many more cool things in it, while still being in sight of a clear finish line. I am not sure, whether a focus week is the best way to practice this, but since the topic is so important, I just mention it here.

Order and Finishing small projects: This one is also very important and fits perfectly to be the end spot in the list. I enjoy creative chaos as much as I like some order and having one week per quarter year where I really clean up, sort through things, tie loose ends, and absolutely don't start anything new (unless it takes less than, say, thirty minutes) seems like a perfect compromise. This is also a great ime to decide what to do with projects that have been stagnating for a while. Do I want to finish something (and, if yes, to what degree?) or just archive it? Also it's great to have a "clean house" before starting off with new plans for a new era of my life...

Finally, there are some other virtues or focus which do not fit well with the weekly rotation, but I want to mention them anyways:
  • Most importantly for me, there is reading text books and writing my blog (often inspired by what I have read). I try to read some pages of a book every week and write a blog post for at least every book that I've read.
  • Next, there is learning new skills.
  • And finally, there is finding role models, mentors, and advisers and spending quality time with them.
While reading and writing works well since I resolved to do it more regularly about a year ago, the other two items need some more thinking about how I'll go about them. But this post is long enough already, isn't it? Let me know in the comments if you are inspired by this or not. ;-)

30 January 2014

Sky-borne urban transport: introducing the FlyWay and the FlyPod

In a blog-post about one year ago I wrote about how ridiculously expensive it is to build underground transport in existing high-density cities and how much better it would be to transport people and things in the airspace over existing streets and other free space. I also wrote that elevated railways (including monorails) and elevated roadways are unacceptable in people-friendly dense cities, because they create too much noise and remove precious daylight from the streets below.
I have also discussed that hovering, flying, or floating in the air are all impractical for urban transit vehicles, so we have to find some kind of support structure to hold unto, but which takes up as little airspace as possible. Obviously, the smaller and lighter that structure is, the smaller and lighter all the vehicles have to be. This brings us to the question: how light can people-transportation vehicles possibly be? Here are some numbers:
  • Bicycle: 10 to 15 kg
  • Velomobile (fully faired, recumbent bicycle): 30 kg
  • Motor Scooter (electric or combustion engine): 50 to 200 kg
  • SegWay: ca. 50 kg
  • Renault Twizy (faired two-seater, electric): 450 kg
  • Mercedes Smart (two-seater): 730 kg
  • ULTra PRT vehicles (Heathrow Aiport, 4 seats): 850 kg
  • SUV car: up to 2000 kg and more
As you can see, light vehicles like bicycles can transport up to ten times there own weight, while the heaviest ones often transport less than even a tenth of their own weight (because the usual load is much less than the permitted maximal payload).

Thinking of transit you'll probably think of large buses and train cars which weigh several tons a piece. Those will obviously be too heavy for a light-weight approach. But don't worry about getting enough transport capacity in our system: instead of big vehicles with big gaps in-between them, we'll just have to make sure that our small vehicles can draw really close and even form emergent trains without any coordination.

Using this idea we can design a vehicle, our FlyPod, to transport people together only if they really want to travel together, not (unlike buses or trains) if they just happen to travel in the same direction. The minimal payload would then be just one person with clothing and keys while other luggage could already be transported in a separate, trailing, vehicle. However, there is lots of convenience associated with having your luggage with yourself and furthermore, if the vehicle has enough space and the seating flexibility, this space could be used for either a second passenger or for some luggage! Taking this into account our design payload would be 200 to 300 kg depending on the country of usage. (People sizes and weights vary quite a bit in the different regions of the world.) The empty weight of the vehicle would then be between 50 and 150 kg depending on other factors of the design. 

Note particularly that the resulting overall loaded weight is much less than that of typical areal lift vehicles (gondolas) which usually transport between 4 to 20 people per vehicle. And there we have the solution to our problem: just hang the vehicles on cables! Cables are so slim that they are almost invisible and small pedal-powered or electric vehicles running on those cables with less than 50 km/h will not make much noise. Supports will have to be spaced closer than for areal lifts (because vehicle density is higher), and they will have to be a bit sturdier than those built for streetcar overhead-wires, but otherwise they can be customized and integrated into the urban landscape adapting to whatever style is already present. And that's the FlyWay on which our FlyPods will travel!

FlyPods bring cycling to a whole new level

I have to admit that I personally prefer the pedal-powered variant because I love bicycling myself. It actually has so many advantages compared to a regular bicycle that it becomes a whole new experience. The best thing for me is that a passenger does not need to stop at red lights and crossings, you don't even need to look out for traffic! You could be reading on your phone, playing on your tablet or just gazing out the window for the whole trip! Totally like in a taxi except that you have to pedal a bit. And the pedaling will be easier, too, since most of an ordinary urban cyclists power is used for accelerating themselves after a stop. But if you don't stop, you also never waste energy for braking and speeding up again! Also, even though the vehicle is a bit bigger than a normal bicycle the recumbent position and the fairing make for a very aerodynamic shape which doesn't need much more power than a bicycle to get moving. In fact, vehicle weight only matters when accelerating and we just need to do that one single time per trip. (And there's help for that too, as we'll see later.) The next advantage is that you are protected from rain and wind and even excess heat, since a simple yet effective cooling system could be powered by solar panels on the vehicle roof. (The sun creates the heat, so it's always available when we need energy for cooling!) Fleet management of the FlyPods is very similar to how public bicycles (like Paris' famous Velib and numerous others around the world) are managed except that empty FlyPods can be moved around in little trains along the wires itself without taking up any extra road space for maintenance vehicles. If a station has surplus empty vehicles which need to go somewhere else, these can even be just pushed onto the main FlyWay and then pushed around by other vehicles, but this leads us to the next exciting topic: emergent trains and smooth merging.

Emergent trains are very simple to explain: since we are dealing with slow vehicles that have no obstacles on their way except other vehicles of the same sort (which in turn have no obstacles in their way...), a train simply forms by a faster vehicle bumping into a slower one! This bump is cushioned of by springs in the vehicle ends which contract as the vehicles approach and slowly expand again as the front vehicle gets pushed and the rear one consequentially slowed down. The spring also compensates for the normal small variations in pedaling power which would otherwise result in repeated bumping into each other. The nice thing about those emergent trains is that the air resistance of two closely travelling vehicles is almost the same as for a single one. In other words, not only the front vehicle profits by being pushed, but the follower also profits because they now have less resistance to overcome.

Smooth merging is also simple and it is necessary to keep vehicles from stopping at intersections. But, of course, there won't be shared intersections in the usual sense. Instead, crossing FlyWays will be on different heights such that vehicles just pass above and below each other. Just like on grade-free highway crossings turning onto another FlyWay means merging out onto a ramp and then into the other main FlyWay. Therefore, the only traffic conflict possible in this system is two vehicles merging into one lane. And this is accomplished by an automatism which uses the kinetic energy of the vehicle which enters the merging zone last to speed up the vehicle which is ahead. The second vehicle will thereby lose speed such that the first one will clear the merging point safely ahead. Note that if the vehicle being slowed down is a train, then all the vehicles behind it will also be slowed down, while the vehicle being sped up is always pulled away from the train so that the other vehicle can sneak in. If two trains meet this results in vehicles being sped up from the front of the trains in alternation while the tails of the trains get slowed down more and more.

Flying Bicycles, so what?

Of course, this great invention of mine is not going to appear in reality very soon. I found one project, called Shweep, which is very similar to what I described here (they use a very narrow metal rail instead of the cable) and which itself is still in the research stages, especially for the switching technology: how to merge in and out of lanes. I admit that my description is very fuzzy in this regard and while the rest of the system is pretty low-tech and could have been build 50 or 100 years ago, the best solution for switching might actually use quite a bit of high-tech.

While doing research into this topic I found a lot of information about "Personal Rapid Transit" (PRT) systems, a combination of mass transit and private vehicles (basically a transit system that never requires transfers and always takes you from your starting station directly to the destination station). Despite much research this never took off big and the above-mentioned ULTra system at Heathrow airport is probably the example which handles the most traffic. ULTra with its vehicles driving on normal asphalt also shows that PRT now becomes less like rail-based systems and more like ordinary cars. To me, it actually seems quite likely that self-driving cars will popularize enabling driverless taxis and thereby fulfill all of PRTs promises plus picking people up at their door without the need of any stations at all! Isn't it fun to think that SciFi also imagined flying cars which were driven by people, but now in reality we seem to be getting the boring old combustion-powered asphalt-rolling cars, but they will drive themselves?! (I know that burning fuel to drive might get out of fashion soon with electric cars, but that's not a point I want to argue here. Besides: (1) electric traction (in street-cars) was commonplace in big cities many years before cars arrived at the scene, so it's not really a new technology, and (2) there are ways to produce engine fuel from other than crude oil, so maybe combustion engines will stay with us for longer than it seems now. See XtL (sorry German), English: CtL, BtL.)

Driverless cabs might make commutes much more relaxed and save a little space on crowed streets (for example, by separating the car into two compartments and taking two passengers on the same ride, or by taking a full four or more, for a cheaper rate than a bus and still end-to-end, with a minimal detour to drop off or pick up others), but they will not make obsolete the need to create higher capacity for transport in general as in new subway construction. The FlyWay, on the other hand, can take between 10% and 30% of inner city traffic which in itself might be just enough to considerably reduce congestion on the streets as well as in subways and buses. So the FlyWay isn't just a very relaxed, comfortable, and quick way to travel for those who use it, but it's also a great service to everybody else on the road.

28 January 2014

I just donated eight percent of my 2013 net income to GiveDirectly, a charity that directly transfers this money to some of the poorest people in the world.

I have learned about GiveDirectly the charity via GiveWell, a charity evaluation project founded by two people who wanted to donate heaps of money for good purposes, but didn't find good information on what best to invest in. I already donated a smaller amount to GiveDirectly twelve months ago. What I like about GiveDirectly that they are the first organisation who do a very simple and obviously good thing efficiently on a large scale: directly giving donations to people who need resources. By donating such a large amount to one single cause, I am not neglecting all the other important causes, but I am following GiveWell's detailed analysis which says basically that most of the really good causes and efficient charities already get a lot of funding and sometimes even have trouble absorbing and using more funding with their existing staff.

Recently I read a lot of interesting articles on "effective altruism", the science of doing the most good with the little money that each of us can spare:
So Warren Buffet gives away 99% percent of his wealth during his lifetime or in his will. In the meantime he talks to other billionaires to convince them to give away at least half of their wealth and it seems he's quite successful at that. 

There's also a more inclusive club for non-billionaires (like you and me) called Giving What We Can. All you need to do to become a member is commit to regularly donate 10% of your regular income to any good altruistic cause. 

Twice in a row, I have used my winter-holidays in January to decide on and make a yearly donation. This time I realized that I can make my giving much more social by doing it in the traditional holiday season. Then I can talk to others what and where they intend to give this year. This will be much more fun and probably also do more good. I am looking forward to a great year!

7 January 2014

my vegan cooking and meditation club

→ Deutsche Version des Artikels gibt's unten! ←

I am trying a mixed German/English post here and I am not a diligent translator, so only the key facts are the same in both versions and the narration/motivation is half English, half German. Feel free to read however much you understand or want to read. ;-)

I've participated in my friend's meditation meetups every week since I came back to Berlin. (Today is the first time that I skip it, because of the parallel LYL Berlin meetup.) I also feel the desire to contribute to the world by offering or organizing meditation or self-help groups. And additionally I have the desire to meet new people and cook together, and get to know each other to possibly do other stuff together. 

So this week I decided to bring it all together and organize a combined cooking - meditation - dinner - socializing event. The idea is simple: I want to give myself and others an occasion to exchange in a relaxed and social manner, but also provide a common theme: we are all interested in cooking and meditation. Also, I find that meditating together creates a nice, tranquil atmosphere by making people more open for others. (This way, we don't need alcohol as an ice breaker ;-) We could even add a listening meditation in one of the later meetups. 

Here's a sample schedule for such an event:
6 pm: people arrive and start cooking. if too many are in the kitchen, others can just sit on the couch and chat over tea.
around 7:30 pm: when the meal is prepared and the table is set, we keep the food warm and close the doors for 20 minutes of group meditation. Then we silently walk to the dining room, do some waiting meditation for people to fill their plates, and then 15 minutes of eating meditation. Then the social part of the evening begins!

That's the end of the English part!

Random picture of delicious vegan food to make this more viral on the social networks :-P

Also hier nochmal auf Deutsch, zuerst die Idee: nur wegen einer kurzen Meditation eine lange Reise durch Berlin zu einem Treffen zu machen, kostet vielen zu viel Zeit. Aber für eine lange Meditation am Abend bin ich persönlich meist zu müde. Deswegen habe ich mir einen Kompromiss ausgedacht: verbinden wir eine kurze Meditation mit einem Kochabend und zur Krönung des Ganzen noch einer Genuss-Meditation beim Essen! Danach sind wir dann nicht nur satt, sondern auch im Geiste erholt und können den Abend gemütlich ausklingen lassen.

Hier ist ein beispielhafter Terminvorschlag (je nach Wochentag/Wochenende bzw. den Teilnehmern anzupassen):
18:00 Uhr Gäste trudeln ein und wir beginnen zu kochen. Wer in der Küche nicht gebraucht wird, darf auch gern einfach bei einem Tee auf der Couch sitzen und mit anderen plauschen (die vielleicht ihren Teil des Essens schon fertig zubereitet haben). Dadurch muss niemand pünktlich sein und jeder kann kommen, wann er eben kommt.

so gegen 19:00 Uhr: wenn das Essen fertig ist und der Tisch gedeckt, stellen wir es warm und verschließen die Tür. (Jetzt kann niemand mehr hinzukommen, damit wir in Ruhe meditieren können.)
Wir machen ca. 20 Minuten Meditation in der Gruppe (z.B. zwei verschiedene Übungen à 10 Minuten). Gleich im Anschluss und ohne zwischendurch die Edle Stille zu verlassen, nehmen wir uns Essen, warten bis alle am Tisch sind und machen dann 15 Minuten Genuss-Meditation beim Essen. Dann können wir zu reden beginnen während wir fertig essen und fließend in den sozialen Teil übergehen.

2 January 2014

S-Bahn Leipzig

Der neue S-Bahn-Tunnel in Leipzig ist fertig und hat Mitte Dezember den Betrieb aufgenommen. Ich war dort und habe mir vieles angesehen. Die Stationen sind wirklich beeindruckend. Große helle Räume, kurze Wege, Prunk nicht durch Dekoration sondern durch Eleganz und Größe. Ganz das Gegenteil der Pariser Metro, an die ich mich im letzten Sommer nicht gewöhnen konnte.
Am Hauptbahnhof zum Beispiel kann man vom Tiefbahnsteig durch den nördlichen Eingangsbereich bis hoch zum großen Bahnhofsdach schauen. Am Markt und Wilhelm Leuschner Platz hat man die Tiefe von ca. 20 m genutzt, um die Decke entsprechend hoch zu machen, was beim Wilhelm Leuschner Platz dazu führt, dass man die Decke gar nicht mehr wahr nimmt. Schön einfach mutet es an, dass die S-Bahnsteige im Hauptbahnhof einfach als Gleis 1 und 2 bezeichnet werden. Tragisch ist dagegen, dass die alten Gleise 1 bis 5 allesamt stillgelegt wurden!

Andererseits gibt es neben all der Schönheit und dem Glanz auch andere Dinge zu beobachten, die das "Halle-Leipziger-S-Bahn-System" zu etwas Besonderem machen -- und zwar nicht nur im positiven Sinn. Alles in allem ähnelt es in vielerlei Hinsicht eher einem "Regionalbahntunnel" als einem eigenen Stadt-und-Vorort-Bahn-System wie wir es aus den größten deutschen Städten kennen. Es ist ja eigentlich das wichtigste Kennzeichen der Stadtschnellbahn oder Vorortbahn, dass sie den Stadt- und Vorort-Verkehr vom restlichen Eisenbahnverkehr trennt. So hat in Berlin und Hamburg die S-Bahn (fast) komplett eigene Gleise und Bahnsteige. In München, Frankfurt und Stuttgart hat sie zumindest eigene Bahnsteige und die meisten Stationen der S-Bahn werden auch nur von der S-Bahn und nicht von Regionalzügen bedient. Die S-Bahn bedient den nahen Einzugsbereich der Stadt mit maximal 30 Minuten Fahrzeit zum Zentrum und für den Rest gibt es eigene Linien. So sind S-Bahn-Züge auf kurze Fahrzeiten, häufige Halte und einen schnellen Fahrgastwechsel ausgelegt während die Regionalbahn zum Beispiel mehr Sitzplätze bietet und Toiletten im Zug. (Die S-Bahn Berlin hat ja nichtmal Mülleimer im Zug!) In Leipzig vermischen sich beide Verkehre total. S-Bahn-Züge von Leipzig nach Hoyerswerda sind zum Beispiel 2,5 Stunden in einer Richtung unterwegs und fahren nur alle zwei Stunden so weit. S-Bahn-Fahrgäste in den halbstündlich fahrenen Bahnen zwischen Leipzig und Eilenburg mischen sich also alle zwei Stunden mit den Regionalfahrern der längeren Strecke im selben Zug. Bei einer richtigen S-Bahn würde der Zug aus Hoyerswerda ab Eilenburg (oder ab Torgau) ohne Halt durchfahren.
Am Hauptbahnhof steigen so viele Menschen ein und aus, dass in manchen Zügen kein Platz mehr ist. Ich stelle es mir etwas unschön vor, wenn der Zug nach Hoyerswerda voller Leipziger ist, die nur ein paar Stationen fahren wollen, und deswegen Reisende nach Hoyerswerda selbst keine Plätze mehr im Zug finden!

Auch die Transportkapazität liegt einer anderen Liga als die der großen S-Bahnen. Die Bahnsteige sind so lang wie in Berlin (140 m), aber die Züge fahren meist nur in halber Länge (meist 3 oder 4 von 7 möglichen Wagen). Die Taktfrequenz liegt aber mit 30 Minuten weit unter dem in Berlin zur Hauptverkehrszeit praktizierten Zehn-Minutentakt oder dem Hamburger System mit 5-Minutentakt pro Linie. Andererseits haben Systeme wie Frankfurt und Stuttgart zwar auch einen 30-Minuten-Basistakt, aber dort sind die Züge mit bis zu 210 m um 50% länger. (In München wird diese Zuglänge sogar teilweise im Zehn-Minuten-Takt gefahren.)

Das "Regionalbahngefühl" kommt nicht nur in den Zügen auf, die übrigens auch ganz im Gegensatz zur typischen S-Bahn alle mit Zugbegleitern fahren, sondern auch auf den Stationen, die ganz "wie auf dem Land" gestaltet sind: moderne Bahnsteige mit wenig Mobiliar, Automaten auf dem Bahnsteig und nicht wie bei S- und U-Bahn in einem Zwischengeschoss oder Empfangsgebäude. Selbst in der Haltestelle Wilhelm-Leuschner-Platz mitten in der Innenstadt fühle ich mich ob der niedrigen Bahnsteige (55 cm), der DB-Regio-typischen Ausstattung und der kaum wahrnehmbaren Decke ganz wie auf einem dörflichen Regionalbahnsteig.

Aber das alles soll keine Kritik sein: die neuen Stationen machen den öffentlichen Verkehr sicher sehr attraktiv und verkürzen Reisezeiten für viele Menschen. Nicht zuletzt wurde hier eine Infrastruktur geschaffen, die über Jahrzehnte oder gar Jahrhunderte den Menschen dienen soll. (Die Berliner Stadt- und Vorortbahn ist ja schon 125 Jahre alt, der Nord-Süd-Tunnel 77 Jahre alt.) Durch die Auslegung für und Ausstattung mit ganz normaler Eisenbahntechnik ist das Bauwerk sicher flexibel genug, um sich auch zukünftigen Herausforderungen zu stellen. Vielleicht gibt es ja irgendwann einen getrennten S- und R-Verkehr und vielleicht fahren einige R-Bahnen trotzdem durch den Tunnel. Vielleicht sieht man irgendwann ja auch mal Doppelstockwagen im Tunnel.

Hier noch mehr Photos von meinem Besuch.

from better decisions to better motivation to a better life

To prepare a training session on Rational Decision Making (slides here, if you are curious) I read really quickly through half of the book The Three Secrets of Wise Decision Making and I also started applying it to my own decisions right away. To get more practice, I decided to also apply proper decision making to rather small decisions or things that one wouldn't normally call decisions -- I call it challenges to the status quo -- and I found something wonderful: there's a big flexibility in my life that I haven't seen before. Many things of which I thought they have to be this way or that are actually just decisions that I once made in a bad or biased way and if I look deeply at what I really want, I can choose to have it any way I want!

In the past, I often thought that I need to train my concentration or prop up my willpower to get things done that I had decided to do. But now I see that maybe all I was lacking was real deep motivation to do those things. Megan Hayes just wrote a piece that's talking about the same thing.

All to often we get our life goals (or nasty todo-items) just by looking at what others do (house, car, kids, career, ...) or by viewing ourselves as a specific type of person (hard-working, health-conscious, ...) or member of a specific group (vegans, bike fans, train spotters, ...) or we just internalize expectations that others (parents, bosses, spouses, ...) have for us.

I found that rational decision making helped to refocus on my values and what I really want. It helps me see objectively what is good for me individually. It helps gain perspective and set priorities better.

In a world where we have more and more options, more and more possible life styles, more and more choices, it's important to be able to sit back and find your own way. I have found that a certain mindfulness is important to become aware how things affect me and what influences me. And explicit, creative decision making is the perfect counterpoint to design my response to life.