Bach that rach up

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After a 6 hour drive from Paris to the Rhine river in Germany, my friend Marissa and I ended up in a small town named Bacharach. We quickly understood why this is such a tourist town: it’s impossibly charming and fits most every German stereotype.

We stopped in to a lovely restaurant that serves local wines and each ordered a wine flight, which consisted of 6 full glasses of wine. Oops! We learned that the wine that comes from the steep slopes along the Rhine is best–something about the slate directly underneath that holds more of the sun’s warmth and let’s the grapes stay on the vine longer.

The following day we saw those vineyards in action as we cruised up the Rhine. The plots are tiny and precipitously placed all along the cliffsides, which made us more fully appreciate how much work went into every single glass of wine.

Well done, Bacharach.


2 days in Paris

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When I was traveling from Minnesota to Paris fellow travelers asked me one question: “Is this your first time visiting Paris?”

I can understand the question: I’m young- and perhaps idealistic looking. But when I answered that it wouldn’t be my first time in Paris, but that I’d also be visiting Germany and it was my first time there, they’d invariably be disappointed. By the third time I realized I should just lie and say, yes, this will be my first time in Paris and I’m so excited to see the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower in person. There is, after all, a magical quality to Paris that seduces all without exception.

My fellow travelers need not have worried: Paris is a city that never ceases to amaze. After an arduous process meeting up with my friend who lives just outside of Paris I went into the city again the next day. I visited the gorgeous Palais Garnier and finally went inside Notre Dame. And my favorite moment from the whole day was emerging exhausted from the Cite metro station and finding a huge flower market in the middle of the main island of Paris.

That’s the thing about traveling: as much as we can plan for wonderful experiences, it’s the unexpected ones that take us by surprise and linger on in our memories.


How to road trip around Europe

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What you’ll need: Euros

Songlist: The Muppets singing Movin’ Right Along, From Paris to Berlin by Infernal

Further reading: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I don’t know a lot about this topic yet, but I will soon since I’m flying to Paris in a few hours. After a few days in France, I’ll take off for a road trip in southern Germany to see mountains, medieval towns, and a metric ton of castles.

Thus I’m going to temporarily highjack this blog while in Europe and make it a travelogue. Hopefully I’ll be able to write brief updates (on my iPhone, so they’ll be very brief) and post a few pictures along the way.

Dilettante will resume as normal on May 8th when I return to the USA. Frankly, stories and pictures from Europe will probably be more exciting. Á tout à l’heure!

A brief history of the universe


I know I’ve been really into TEDTalks lately, but they’re just so darn informative and entertaining! In this video, David Christian explains how complexity has formed over the history of the universe:

All that work, just to lead to this!

Whiskey + history

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What happens when you down a bottle of alcohol and live to tell the tale? (Or, at least, a tale about an American president). One brave director and several famous actors found out:

The next one is disabled, but you should seriously SERIOUSLY watch it on YouTube:


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A few months ago I went to a show called the 1968 Exhibit at the Minnesota History Museum. It was devoted to the events of that singular year, of which there were many: the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and MLK Jr., the election of Nixon. The exhibit was also filled with music posters, toys, magazine advertisements, clips of movies and TV shows, and plenty of avocado green and harvest gold.

I had not been particularly interested in attending, but was extremely impressed with the amount of material displayed and its presentation. In the January room was a full-size helicopter from the Vietnam War and in the December room was a space capsule next to a broadcast of the Apollo 8 mission that orbited the moon. You could make your own album cover and vote for one of the presidential candidates who ran for office in 1968. (Tangential story: the results of the vote were shown realtime on a monitor above the voting booth and were heavily skewed toward Robert F. Kennedy. There were also plenty of votes for candidate Ronald Reagan, while Nixon and Humphrey lagged way behind. After I “cast my vote” I stepped outside the blue curtain to see a high school kid wearing a Romney button–Santorum had won Minnesota’s primary the day before–who was watching the results closely. And then I saw him beckon over one of his classmates and give him $5 to vote for Reagan. Voter intimidation, buying elections? Start ’em young).

One potential implication of the exhibit was that 1968 was more important than neighboring years. Certainly it was a year of great change, politically and culturally. But while the significance of some events is immediately apparent, others can be understood better only in retrospect. It makes me wonder what 2012 will look like, what shape it will take, when it matters only to historians.

Garden of Love, my 1968 retrospective

How to be a historian


What you’ll need: A vivid imagination, a tolerance for dust

Songlist: John Lennon’s Remember or any of these songs about historical events

Further reading: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

25,000-year-old handprints at cave in Lascaux

I had an epiphany during college. It was sophomore year and I was walking with a friend who had chosen history to be his major; I was still undecided. History, he told me, explains how the world came to be and gives us guidelines for how to live our lives in the present. Only by studying history will we ensure a better future.

It occurred to me then that history is a lens like any other potential college major, and our field reflects the way we understand the world. An economics major could easily argue the same point: decisions are driven by economic factors and economics therefore explain the way the world works. A psychologist would say the same thing for psychology, as would a physicist for physics, and so on.

I ended up choosing creative writing as a major because I understand the world as a vast network of stories. History is full of such stories. However, in high school, I never got that sense. I memorized dates and names of famous wars and men. But data doesn’t interest me nearly as much as narrative and so I never took any history classes in college.

It’s only after I started this blog that I realized how fascinated I am by history. If you’ve followed, you may have noticed that I often include a post about the history of the week’s theme, whether about spies, diseases, beer-brewing, or witches. I spend countless hours researching these histories and find myself engrossed in their richness.

Nazi soldiers sightsee in Paris

Two weeks from today I’m flying to Paris; I’ve been researching the city’s history in preparation. The period of the Nazi occupation particularly interests me. Whenever I learned about terrible historical events as a schoolchild, I would always imagine myself a hero: the person who gave food and shelter and transportation to the persecuted, the voice of reason that opposed the rulers. Though certainly there were some Parisians who “resisted” the Nazis, most inhabitants tried their best to continue their lives as normally as possible. I wonder what I would have done–written secret pamphlets and distributed them at risk of being executed? Helped foreign nationals escape into the unoccupied territory? Would I instead have accepted an invitation to a concert at the German Institute if it meant warmth and a filling meal? Or perhaps I would have clung to my ration cards, avoided making eye contact in the streets, and kept my mouth closed.

Each choice is illustrated in history by a multitude of narratives. And, due to my chosen major in college, I am of course creating my own.


The joy of games

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Today after our Easter brunch with friends we set out a game, Anomia, that involves calling out examples of whatever person/place/thing is listed on a card. Whoever calls out a correct answer first wins that card. This was only the second time we played the game, but we found that everyone seemed to behave in the same way: to a person, when we couldn’t immediately come up with an answer, we’d point at the card and mumble incomprehensible sounds until a correct word came out of one of our mouths. We wondered at the psychology of this, the pointing, the shouting. In the end, though, it didn’t matter what the psychology was or who won; we wound up laughing until we cried at the ridiculous noises and words we made. And thus the game was successful.

Queen Nefertari contemplates her move in Senet

Games have been an important part of human society for millennia. A three-thousand-year-old set of dice was found in southeastern Iran;  five-thousand-year-old Egyptian hieroglyphs depict a board game called senet, for which the rules have been lost.

So what makes a game? And what makes it necessary to human culture?

Many different philosophers and sociologists have given descriptions of what makes a game, but I like French sociologist Robert Caillois’s definition best. He defines a game as having 6 characteristics. A game is:

  • Fun: the activity is chosen for its light-hearted character;
  • Separate: it is circumscribed in time and place;
  • Uncertain: the outcome of the activity is unforeseeable;
  • Non-productive: participation does not accomplish anything useful;
  • Governed by rules: the activity has rules that are different from everyday life;
  • Fictitious: it is accompanied by the awareness of a different reality.

Are games just escapes, then? If they are nonproductive, fictitious, fun, and separate, they have no bearing on real life (except for on the lives of professional gamers and rabid fans, of course). And, since they are governed by rules, they provide some semblance of control in an otherwise uncontrollable existence. Still, Caillois’s description doesn’t address why games are necessary to existence. I imagine that that answer is anthropologically and psychologically much more complex.

Or maybe it’s not. The kind of hysterical laughter we were all infected with today is hard to come by. My favorite kinds of games are the ones that make me laugh hard or think creatively, i.e., provide joy. And who doesn’t need a little more joy in their lives?

Interactive decision making

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When I was a freshman at Dartmouth one of the classes I was most interested in taking was on game theory, which sounded both fabulously fun (games!) and incredibly interesting (theories!) Luckily I read the reviews of the class before I signed up which unanimously decried the class as not at all fun and not at all interesting.

Game theory encompasses a variety of explanations of relatively simple behavior in mathematically complex ways. For instance, in A Beautiful Mind, John Nash stumbles upon his famous equilibrium concept by checking out ladies at a bar:


Easy, right? Well here’s the mathematical equation for this phenomenon: \forall i,x_i\in S_i, x_i \neq x^*_{i} :  f_i(x^*_{i}, x^*_{-i}) \geq f_i(x_{i},x^*_{-i}).

Dr. Haim Shapiro, game theorist, calls this type of a equation a mathematical x-ray of a situation. Indeed it looks something like the bones of a complex organism. Here, in a TEDtalk, he discusses the Beautiful Mind scene as well as several other examples of strategy:


Well I’m off to meet up with friends for dinner. Now I just have to figure out how to make them pay for my filete a la rossini

Game of Thrones

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In nineteenth century India, the making of thrones was considered a high art as well as a competitive sport. Throne makers gathered for ten-day festivals; at the end of the festival, spectators voted on the best and worst thrones. The best was given to the Maharaja while the maker of the worst was killed. After all, in the game of thrones, you win or you die.

April Fool’s!

As I was trying to come up with a post about games today, I was distracted by a steady stream of friends getting excited about the Game of Thrones season 2 premiere tonight. Since I don’t have HBO, I had to console myself with YouTube clips. But now I’m even more jealous: