Sunday, May 31, 2009

Spanish Riding School

Last Sunday we attended a performance of the Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. I remember seeing them on the Walt Disney Show in the 1960s, but that's no comparison to seeing them in person.

The show lasts just over an hour. First music, then a moderator walks out on the floor and explains the next act in German and English. Then the horses and riders enter. The riders take off their hats in unison to honor the Spanish Riding School founder, Emperor Charles IV (whose painting is on the wall facing them). The first exercise was for the young stallions and riders to show the elementary steps.

What's most striking is realizing that these are living animals, they have personalities and minds of their own. The horses and riders work closely together, riders train their own horses for years. Actors never want animals on stage because you can never be sure what they will do. But here, horses and riders work together as partners.

At the end of each act the horses and riders leave, the moderator walks back out onto the floor and explains the next act. Then another set of riders and horses comes out. The program (pdf) is great, it lists the horse's names first (on the left side) and then their riders. In true Austrian style the riders have titles based on their experience.

We went with my wife's godchild (10 years old) and her mother Susan. They both love horses and Susan is an expert trainer. After the show she said that it was clear that the horses were extremely well cared for and trained. She seemed most impressed with the time the school takes; many "sport" horses end their career after only a few years.

In the second act a set of more experienced horses and riders performed all the main steps. Third was hand work, in this exercise the 'riders' walk along side the horses as they go through their steps. Fourth was Pas de Deux, two "senior" horses with riders performed a dance together, mirroring or complimenting each other in time with the music.

All the acts are set to recorded music by Mozart, Handl, Chopan, Schubert and others. Interesting to me was that the audience is almost silent during the performance - often more silent than in some classical concerts I have attended.

The fifth act was "on the long rein," in this exercise the riders were once again on the ground and the horses performed a set of stands and jumps. The sixth act was a highlight, five horses and riders performed a series of stands and jumps. Again, as the moderator pointed out, it is fascinating to see the horses react to each other; when one horse made a jump or stand you could see that the others wanted to do one too.

The final act was the Quadrille. Eight horses and riders performed a choreographed set of movements. This is what you often see on television, but it's fascinating in person. Amazing to see eight horses and riders dancing as if they were as light as a feather.

I highly recommend this show, even for a non horse person it was truly impressive. You are witnessing history, no where else can you see this type of riding in such a beautiful hall. It's expensive; we paid over 80 Euros for a children's ticket (with 20% discount) and we adults stood for 26 Euros each. But, it's worth it. They have full performances a couple times a week, but they are open Tuesday to Saturday morning from 10-to-12 noon for morning exercises, not a real show, but accompanied by music (I will try to go and blog on it again). They also have tours of the stables and "back stage" areas during the afternoon. Book ahead for a performance on the internet if at all possible and I recommend splurging on good seats (our standing place view was obstructed a bit), how many times will you have a chance to see living history?

After the show we enjoyed a nice coffee in the courtyard cafe. My wife said she needed to simply sit calmly so she could absorb the beauty and harmony we had just experienced before heading back out on Vienna's bustling streets.

My Spanish Riding School flickr photos are from this visit and also a dinner I attended several months ago in the building, so they give a horse's eye view. Here's a YouTube video of the Spanish Riding School building. Note that there are no horses in any of the photos or video since taking photos disturb them during the performance.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A failure to adapt: demographic problems to newspapers

Tim Harford has a nice column in the FT today It’s time to stop being shy about retiring – we can’t afford it about the "problem of demographics". As he puts it,
An ageing society is not, primarily, a demographic crisis. The problem is a failure to adapt – a failure that afflicts politics, management and society.

It's interesting because this failure to adapt is also true of so many other things. For example, in the railway industry it's not the lack of new technology that's the problem in many cases, it's the institutions that fail to adapt effectively to the new technologies. Slate's Jack Shafer in (The Beginning of the End for Newspapers) describes a similar failure of newspapers to adapt to new markets in the 1960s, with the results being felt in today's newspaper crisis.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Bethlehem Casino

My first professional job was as a management trainee at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna NY (just outside Buffalo). In June 1981 I was transferred to the Bethlehem Pennsylvania plant, since the company was closing my plant. I lasted about 8 months in Bethlehem before moving on to Boston and Northeastern University. So, I read with interest this story from the NY Times about a new casino that just opened in Bethlehem to take the place of the steel plant. Buffalo also has just opened a new casino - they tore down one of the city's historic grain elevators to build it - that city leaders hope will benefit the economy, but one wonders how large the market for casinos really is and what the real spill-over economic benefits will be as the number of casinos increases.

I Love New York - Improv Everywhere

I just read about the group Improv Everywhere in David Pogue's NY Times blog. According to Improv Everywhere's website,
Improv Everywhere causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places. Created in August of 2001 by Charlie Todd, Improv Everywhere has executed over 80 missions involving thousands of undercover agents. The group is based in New York City.

They have a whole series of videos of their "missions" on the website, one of my favorites is High Five Escalator which is embedded above. It's so wonderful to see the diversity of New York riding up the escalator together, and, yes, high fiving Rob.

We'll try to participate in No Pants Subway Ride in Vienna next year. Contact me if you're interested.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Car Free Times Square

Wow, talk about big successes. Yesterday Times Square in New York was made car free. Here's the story and nice photos: The Crossroads of the World Goes Car Free from Streetsblog. Most interesting to me is the fact that the idea came from a group of activists and went from dream to reality in less than five years ... amazingly fast for a project so significant.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Congress for New Urbanism Video

Here's a great video by John Paget. It won a contest held by the Congress for New Urbanism (or as the film says AKA traditional urbanism) on the connection between urbanism and the environment.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mathmatics of Urban Infrastructure

Steven Strogatz, a professor of mathematics at Cornell University, just blogged about Math and the City in the NY Times. The article is fascinating because he describes mathematical relationships that seem to hold for city size and infrastructure, and how these are similar to those for living organisms. For example, large animals have a smaller circulation system (per unit volume) than small ones, just like large cities have fewer roads (per person) than smaller cities:
The same pattern holds for other measures of infrastructure. Whether you measure miles of roadway or length of electrical cables, you find that all of these also decrease, per person, as city size increases. And all show an exponent between 0.7 and 0.9.

In other words larger cities are more efficient than smaller ones.

Stift Vorau Austria

Stift Vorau Church Ceiling

Last week I attended a transport conference (VORAUsdenken) in the Augustinian monastery in Vorau, Styria, Austria. The conference was designed to make us think about the future of transport and our role in helping bring about positive change.

The conference site, Stift Vorau, was very cool. There are many monasteries in Austria that have conference facilities and offer places for staying overnight. The Vorau Monastery is fairly intact and has a wonderful Baroque church and library. More photos are on my Flickr set Stift Vorau, Austria.


I was in London recently. The city is always interesting to me, and though I am a city person, I am always surprised by the number of people on the Tube etc, but London still has many places with a very human scale. Of course riding on the upper deck of a double decker is always a thrill, why can't more public transport be fun? Here are a couple photos, more on my Flickr site London set.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Carbon Taxes to Reduce Hot Air

Tim Harford, one of my favorite economists, just reviewed David J.C. MacKay's new book Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. MacKay is a Cambridge physicist who analyzes the physics of various renewable energy sources to see how they can help reduce climate change. Short answer: No. But, read the book or Harford's article for the long answer.

Armed with a knowledge of the physics of renewable energy, it is clear as Harford points out:

Dealing with climate change will need many small decisions to be made differently. The government cannot micromanage these. This is why a carbon price, whether set through taxes or emissions permits, is needed. It is not so much a nudge as a shove in the right direction.

Slow Train Running

Great article By Tom Vanderbilt in Slate about "why trains in the USA run slower today than they did in the past.'

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Goethe Institute: Berlin versus Munich?

The Goethe Institute is a great place to learn German in Germany. I have received several e-mails asking me which Goethe Institute German course I preferred since I blogged about attending courses in Berlin and Munich.

I think the answer depends on your personality and what you want out of a "vacation". Berlin is an extremely exciting city with lots to do. Munich is very nice, but a bit more conservative and certainly more expensive. The Goethe Institute in Berlin is excellent, especially the culture program. The school is located in a very cool part of town with lots happening in the neighborhood.

The Munich program was also excellent, but since I took a two week super-intensive course there I did not have much time to take part in the formal culture program. But, there's also lots to do in Munich. In general I would say that Munich is a much cleaner and calmer city than Berlin, but still filled with culture, parks and good living.

I really like both cities, although I find myself thinking about signing-up for a two week culture and German course in Berlin this summer. There's something special about Berlin, its history and dynamism that's missing in Munich. On the other hand, I am sure I will return to Munich for a few days in the coming years and love it. I often think that it would be a perfect place to live.

If you have time, my recommendation would be to sign-up for a two-month intensive course. That gives you time to really feel at home in the city and do most of the cultural program (they repeat after two months). If you have more time, I would take some time off before starting again, after two months of intensive courses sometimes you need a break.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Maintaining London Underground

Here's a great video (well for us subway nerds) from Wired showing some of the work that takes place on the London Underground every night. The video shows some of the maintenance work and really gets across the problems involved in working in such a constrained environment (both in terms of space and time available for maintenance). And I thought we had problems with maintenance at Caltrain ...