Friday, May 10, 2013

A fun trip and a serious anniversary

I am back from a few days in Germany, which have made me appreciate some things about Germany and some things about the US. I was in Berlin and Dusseldorf, and I love how open and uncongested these cities are, with quiet, efficient streetcars everywhere (by contrast, I took the Green Line home from Logan, and was crushed and suffocated). There is a lot of green and many open areas for walking; in Dusseldorf several downtown blocks near the Rhine are given over to pedestrian walkways with shops and restaurants, streetcars providing the only vehicular traffic.

On the other hand, I was struck by the absence of two things I take for granted in the US: (1) A robust consumer health products economy -- there is nothing like a CVS or Walgreens, so small purchases like aspirin, reading glasses, and some diabetic supplies I needed, things that can be gotten on any block in any American city, require finding an Apotek -- which may not have them and probably is closed on Sunday. And (2) simple fire safety regulations -- in one of my (otherwise superbly well appointed) hotels, the only way to lock the door against possible intruders was to insert a key in the inside door handle and turn it 360 degrees to throw a deadbolt. Getting out requires reversing that process. That could lead to disaster in case of a fire -- I think the way doors work in hotels has been tightly regulated in Boston since the Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942. (See today's New York Times for a gloss on fire safety: the lack of regulation is an object of pride in Texas, where some communities lure businesses on the basis of their lack of fire laws.)

My main reason for going was to speak at an awards ceremony for the Vodafone Foundation at Vodafone's Dusseldorf facility. The Foundation recognized several scientists and engineers, in particular cryptographer Ueli Maurer. I was asked to speak on Anonymity, and was glad to have the opportunity to pull together some thoughts on the issue. My basic question was, how can we protect the right to anonymity (which is stronger in the US than in Europe, cf. Common Sense and the Federalist Papers) and yet try to keep the (sometimes systematiclally generated) anonymous dreck in the comment sections of news stories and so on from influencing public opinion destructively? I hope I gave the audience something serious to think about in an occasion that was otherwise celebratory and fun.

My hosts were kind and generous and the event served as a kind of pre-opening gala of the new Vodafone facility, a spectacular building with many green features. Many local dignitaries and politicians were present--including the head of the Dusseldorf Opera, whose controversial production of Wagner is written up in today's New York Times. On opening night, the staging included scenes of Nazi executions and gassings. After a public uproar, the production eliminated most of the staging and stuck to singing and music. It did not help matters that the murder trial of a defiant neo-Nazi woman had begun in Munich almost simultaneously.

In any case, my visit could not have been nicer. The weather was beautiful, and I was able to walk down to the Rhine from my hotel and stroll along the embankment, pausing to enjoy some fresh fish in one of the cafes that line the river in the area near downtown.

As as side trip, my old friend Prof. Johann-Christoph Freytag of Humboldt University invited me to Berlin. (Christoph is second from the left in my 1982 "family photo," next to Margo Seltzer.) I spoke on my "flipped classroom" experiment at the University and then on engineering education at Harvard to a gathering of the Berlin Harvard Club. The talk on the flipped classroom was well attended and the audience was quite engaged in the topic. At the Harvard Club talk I was able to spice up a general discussion of SEAS and the excitement surrounding the growth of engineering at Harvard with some details of the life and loves of our great donor Gordon McKay. I won't retell the story I wrote up a few years ago for that Harvard Magazine article, but I'll share some of the illustrations that I showed in Berlin but could not include in Magazine. Here, for example, is a photo of part of the ceiling of the grandiose mausoleum McKay built to glorify himself in Pittsfield, MA.

And here is a section of one of the five codicils to McKay's will, each of which crosses certain ladies off his list of annuitants and adds others.
There is not much doubt, even at the time, what was going on here. Here is part of an anonymous semi-literate letter which I excerpted and cleaned up for Harvard Magazine:

Ironically, McKay more or less followed these instructions, to "do some good in this world" and "take some poor little waif and educate them." When the last of these many female annuitants had died, Harvard got the full principal, whose value is now in the hundreds of millions of dollars, to support education and research in engineering. This was a fun talk to give, especially to an audience (including one of my AM 110 students from the early 1980s) which had been sipping wine for an hour or so before I started speaking.

I met up in Berlin with my Roxbury Latin classmate and old friend John Fortunato, a civilian clinical psychologist for the US Army posted to one of the bases in Germany. John is doing important work on the treatment of soldiers affected by PTSD -- see this recent article to learn more about his influence.

Christoph kindly showed us around Berlin, a vibrant and youthful city with many green spaces and, again, a wonderful riverbank cafe culture. Our hotel was in the old East Berlin, where I had visited for a few hours in 1970; most of the grim architecture is now gone, thank goodness, and there is ongoing construction everywhere. With all the building and rebuilding, the old buildings retain the pockmarks of the blasts and gunfighting in the closing days of WWII; a few sections of the Berlin wall still stand but its full trajectory is marked with cobblestones. A one-hour riverboat tour took us past some stunning modern architecture (given many American failures, I wonder how Germany managed to do so well in its selection of daring architects for important public buildings) We were a few blocks from the memorial to Marx and Engels, which the Berliners have had some trouble figuring out how to think about.

This photo of the three of us was taken at the Bebelplatz, and the building behind us, known as the Kommode for some reason, was originally the Royal Prussian Library (it's now occupied by the Law Faculty of Humboldt U.). We are standing on the very spot where, exactly 80 years ago today, the Nazis burned the books of Jewish authors and anything they decreed to have "un-German" ideas.

There was a kind of "read-in" going on; visitors were welcome to pluck books off shelves set up on the plaza and settle down on one of the cushions and hammocks for the privilege of reading whatever they wanted in the sunshine. It is a great reminder that when we hear things from our politicians like "No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality!" as they try to control the free flow of information, they are echoing the words of Joseph Goebbels on May 10, 1933, inciting the mob to throw more books onto the Berlin bonfires. Let us remember: Never again.

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