52 States in 8 Months

Wood fire — they have plenty of them in Yellowstone National Park

Posted in Rapid City and Yellowstone by Ulf on November 6, 2009

Hi all!
It has been a couple of months since I added something to this blog. There are a few draft posts which I didn’t publish so far. Well, here is one of them!
Cheers, Ulf

When I hear about wood fire, my first thought is always that they are a useless waste of energy. The energy stored in the wood is released without making any use of the heat. The only good thing is that wood fires burn only regenerative fuel, but that doesn’t change their uselessness. Until the 1970s, the National Park Service (NPS) had a similar opinion. They didn’t care about the energy, instead they simply didn’t want those fires to destroy their National Park. But when they studied those wood fires in detail, they discovered really interesting processes. Nowadays wood fires are only fought if buildings or men are in danger. So what made the NPS change its mind?

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Let’s have a look at two different families of trees that grow in the Yellowstone National Park: the “spruce and fir” and the “lodgepole pine“. At a first glance they might look similar, but there is a qualitative difference. The spruce-fir-trees give much more shadow than the lodgepole pines. The result is that only the (adapted) seeds of the spruce and fir can survive in a spruce-fir forest. With this knowledge you would probably assume that eventually the whole national park would be full of spruce and fir, since its spreading seems to be a one-way road.

However, there are wind damages, diseases and naturally caused wood fires that burn down the Yellowstone forests. This is where the lodgepole pines can play their joker card. They use two kinds of cones for reproduction: The first type grows, falls off the tree after some time and opens normally. The other type of cones is more interesting: it is “serotinous”. It doesn’t open itself at all. In fact, it doesn’t even fall off the trees on its own. However, if there is a fire, then its sealing melts and the seeds are spread. The advantage is obvious: the lodgepole pine seeds are at the right place at the right time. Right when the old trees burn down and no longer shade the ground, they can start their living!

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Although the lodgepole pine seems to be only a transient tree which would under ideal circumstances loose again the spruce-and-fir, it’s reproduction mechanism makes it the most common tree in the Yellowstone National Park.

However, besides the fire and the diseases, there are also other natural enemies of the trees in the Yellowstone. During my discovery tour I noticed that at least water and deer try their best to eliminate woodland:
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Here are some more pictures to keep record of some wood fires:
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(Please note the height of the snow in May compared to the height of the trees on the next picture!)

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Homecoming Announcement

Posted in Europe, USA by Ulf on June 24, 2009

British_AirwaysMy time in the United States is almost over. I’ll arrive in Germany around noon today, then I’ll spend a few days in Lower Saxony. Starting July 1st, I’ll attend the University of Stuttgart again…

Last year in November Pingu asked me how long I would manage to publish a blog post every day, and when my rhythm would break down. Pingu, here is your answer: from now on, there will only be irregular updates to this blog. Although there a lot of this that I have to tell you about. I have to tell you about our flight over the Grand Canyon, about our hike down into the Canyon, tell you some more stories about what we did in Las Vegas. I rarely mentioned the trip which I did with my cousin; we’ve been to New York again, we’ve been to Maine and to Boston. In Boston I bought my own copy of the GPL license in the office of the Free Software Foundation, which I’m a member of right now. And of course we’ve played “Boston Tea Party“, throwing some tea into the Atlantic at the very place where some others had already done that in 1773. Then there was my trip to the Northwest: I stopped in Chicago to see the Cloud Gate, I visited some relatives in Iowa (I have never met people before who were so proud of being German — especially not in the center of the United States!), I was invited to the house of someone who lives on a golf course, I saw the Mount Rushmore and I had my finger on the launch button of a Minuteman II ICBM, I visited the Badlands, and of course the Yellowstone National Park (which is the first national park — every Delawarean has to go there *g*). I attended the American Control Conference in St. Louis and gave a talk, so I now have my first scientific publication. I visited some more relatives in Columbus, Ohio. That’s where they have the (replica) of the Santa Maria, which Columbus used to come … well, not to the United States, but that doesn’t matter ;-). And I have to tell you about a lot of trips to DC. I’ve been to almost all museums (they have a lot of them in DC!!), I was in the Capitol, in the Library of Congress, in the Bureau of Printing and Engraving (one of two places in the world where Dollar bills are legally made), I saw a spaceship called Enterprise and I visited the National Archives and had a look at the Strategic Bombing Survey files from World War II. That basically means that I read a couple of discussions why some places in Germany and France should be bombed, and how they looked before and after the attacks. There are so many things I could tell you about… I hope I’ll find the time to write about them all before I forget all these stories! Oh, there are also some trip in this area that I can tell you about. There was this list which mentioned the zip code areas with the highest income in the United States. You’ll find names such as Montchanin, Rockland, Yorklyn, and Greenville. All Delaware. All within bicycle-distance from Newark :-).

But before I tell you about all that, I’ll come back to Germany. Looking forward to seeing all of you!

How Delta/NWA became my favorite airline

Posted in St. Louis and Columbus by Ulf on June 21, 2009

250px-Northwest_Airlines_Logo.svgYou might remember that I don’t like Frontier Airlines. Here comes a better story! On my way from Philly to St. Louis I decided to go by NWA. They have a hub in Detroit, Michigan. Therefore I had to go from Philly to Detroit and then from Detroit to St. Louis.

Jun 09, NW1765, Philadelphia -> Detroit, Departure 9:17am, Arrival 11:08am.
Jun 09, NW1681, Detroit -> St. Louis, Departure 12:05pm, Arrival 12:46pm.

Unfortunately there was a thunderstorm over Philly, so all planes where grounded. This included not only NW1765, but also the flight NW1775 which was supposed to leave Philly early in the morning:

Jun 09, NW1775, Philadelphia -> Detroit, Departure 7:20am, Arrival 9:17am.

Now,bild9794 how did NWA become my favorite airline? When it became apparent that NW1765 wouldn’t make it to Detroit in time for my connection flight, they booked me into NW1775. And I didn’t even have to ask for it, they proposed this! That was really a nice service! But that’s not the end of the story: After the thunderstorm was over, a large number of planes wanted to depart from Philly airport. We spent about 30 minutes on the taxiway. The result was that NW1775 arrived in Detroit at 12:10pm, almost three hours late.

bild9796But you know what? NWA is a nice airline! While we were taxi’ing in Detroit, I noticed that NW1681 was still at the gate (although it was scheduled to depart at 12:05pm). The machine really waited for us (or maybe even for me alone). All passengers were already seated, the overhead bins were closed, but the gangway was still open! So the end of the story is: We arrived in St. Louis at about 12:50pm, perfectly in time!
Thank you, Delta/NWA!

A short note on the DC-9 planes they’re using: They’re really quiet since the engines are tail-mounted, but the intercom system is rather strange. Both on NW1775 and on NW1681 I could understand the captain very well, but whenever the cabin crew made an announcement, there was almost pure static coming out of the speakers…

Edit: Andi, I remember that you once got a free upgrade to first class. Seems like I’m not the only one who likes NWA’s great service :-).

University of Delaware Directions — and getting around in the US!

Posted in Newark, USA by Ulf on June 20, 2009

At first, there are travel suggestions on the homepage of the UD Office of Foreign Student & Scholars. However, they’re not really complete. Here are the options which I’ve used during my stay here. I wrote this in Summer 2009. I hope that it helps you finding your way around in the United States!

Philadelphia Airport <–> Newark. A very expensive but flexible option is Delaware Express. This is a shuttle service between Philly airport and where ever you live in Delaware. It costs about $50 (including tip) if you make a reservation. I once took them without a reservation, there I paid more like $55. Go to the Ground Transportation Desk at Philly Airport.

septa_logoPhiladelphia Airport <–> Newark, but also: Central Philadelphia, Wilmington. A very nice option is to take the SEPTA R1 train between Philly Airport and “University City”, and the R2 between “University City” and Newark. Some R2 trains don’t go all the way to Newark, in that case you can use the R2 to Wilmington. The ride costs $9, you can buy the ticket at the station.

dartWilmington <–> Newark. There are a number of DART buses going all through Delaware. I often used the Route 6 because it stops close to where I live. That bus takes me directly to the Amtrak Station in Wilmington. Greyhound and the Double Happiness are at the same place. Cost: $1.15, buy the ticket in the bus, have exact change.

Greyhound_logo_right_sizeWilmington <–> Washington, DC. Greyhound offers about 6-8 buses around the day. If you make an early reservation (three weeks in advance) you’ll pay $15.50, otherwise it might be $20 or so. Amtrak has trains running every 30 minutes. They cost $32.00. Once in a day the trains even stop in Newark, so you don’t even have to come to Wilmington. If you take the train in DC or in Wilmington, you can pick up or buy your train tickets at the station. In Newark it’s enough to buy the tickets after boarding the train.

fungwahNew York City <–> Boston. Yes, you could use Amtrak, but you don’t have to: Fung Wah will take you either way for $15. You can buy your ticket in advance, but that’s not necessary. The tickets can be used for any bus, so if you’re early or late, don’t worry.

Wilmington <–> New York City. Although you could use Amtrak for $39.00 (running every 30 minutes), I used Double Happiness for $20 (or $35 round trip), and I was completely satisfied. It is a Chinatown Bus service. You could use a combination of Septa and NJTransit to go to NYC by local trains only.

AK_SPVOther destinations in the US? This is how would I start planning my travel:

  1. Check if gotobus.com has some offer for you.
  2. Check out some other companies such as Megabus.com, Boltbus.com, Jefferson Lines, CoachUSA, … Wikipedia has a good list of intercity bus companies.
  3. Go Greyhound on greyhound.com. They have a station locator which might help you finding the closest station. You can buy tickets online (make use of their 7/14/21-days in advance offers!) and pick them up at any Greyhound station (“Will-call” tickets).
  4. Want a more comfortable ride than a bus? Go Amtrak! They have a PDF with all active train routes (Please note that not all stops are listed — they forgot Newark, for example *g*).
  5. I didn’t want to mention it, but if there are no other choices, you can also look for a flight. For example here, here or here. Sometimes it’s worth booking the flights directly on the websites of the airlines. Keep in mind that many flight routes in the US are subsidized — I don’t like that, therefore I wouldn’t buy tickets on those services. All other airlines just burn a lot of kerosene and pollute the planet.

The US Postal Service wants to have my money.

Posted in Stupidities, USA by Ulf on June 19, 2009

A few days ago I wanted to send a small letter to Europe:
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Nothing special so far. Sending this letter should cost $0.98. A few weeks ago it was still $0.94, but they’ve increased the fare. Alright, I can live with that. It’s still much cheaper than the Deutsche Post (they want to have about $1.40 for the same service).

However, there is one thing that I didn’t like. This automatic stamp dispenser doesn’t make any sales for less than $1. Now look at my options:
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The machine asks me whether I want to pay $1.42 or $5.38. The only alternative is to cancel the purchase. I decided to go into some other menu where I could manually buy a $1.00 stamp so that the machine is happy. Grrrr.

My last domestic trip

Posted in St. Louis and Columbus by Ulf on June 18, 2009

I’ve just finished my last domestic trip through the United States. I attended the 2009 American Control Conference in St. Louis, where I published my first paper :-). On my way back I visited some relatives in Columbus, Ohio. I have a lot of stories to tell, but at this point I’ll only mention two new states:

On my way to St. Louis I took the plane, and since the direct connection was awfully expensive I decided to take a flight from Philly to Detroit and from Detroit to St. Louis. Side effect: I’ve been to Michigan now! But I have only been in Michigan for less than a minute since my flight was late. Missouri itself is also green now, but I had seen it from a plane before, therefore Missouri doesn’t really count.

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My overall state counter is now at 55 states in 7 months and 17 days. Mission successful, I can return to Germany next week!

Our car had its own mind in Monument Valley

Posted in Las Vegas to El Paso by Ulf on June 16, 2009

When we arrived in the Monument Valley, we were shocked. In front of us would be one of the most famous landscapes of the United States, and we found ourselves in a snow storm!
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We were desperate. What a mess! Our only choice was to find some restaurant, eat some burgers and hope for the best! We found a nice small restaurant in a desert village and ordered everything they had on they menu. It was really great!

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And guess what happened? The skies cleared and offered great views of the magnificent landscape we were looking for. It’s unbelievable how lucky we were with the weather!
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But we were not the only ones who enjoyed this place. In fact our car liked this place so much, it wanted to drive all alone:

Here are some more pictures of our car. Oh, do you remember this blog post?

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Actually we were in some kind of a park which is run by the Native Americans. For the entrance fee they gave us a road map with the names of all these mountains. It turned out that the road map wasn’t too much of a help: We lost track of where we were immediately after the first off-road driving. And since we didn’t really know where we were, we also couldn’t tell the names of all the mountains. With one exception: The mountain that consists of fine sticks, it’s called “The three sisters”. You’ll find it on the fifth picture in the previous block, the one in the center of the bottom row.

Here are some more pictures of the area. It’s simply astonishing!

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Near Monument Valley there was one more place that I really wanted to see: It’s the Mexican Hat. The name says everything about this rock. Well, at least about the rock itself. The name doesn’t explain why there is a rear axle of a car laying around:

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After leaving the Mexican Hat we went further north in Utah. Our next destination: The Goosenecks State Park. I can probably best describe it by showing a satellite picture (click the link!). This is how it looks like if you stand in front of it. Amazing!
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Similarly amazing is the cattle that lives in this place. I really wonder how they survive (what do they drink?). The whole landscape looks really empty in the South West, but it isn’t. It’s just very sparsely populated — both with men and with animals:
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A few minutes later the road took us directly to a cliff. At first we were not sure how we would get up there (without leaving the car behind), but it turned out that they do have a road. Good for us. Andi, is this the place where you claim that my speed was about 4-8 times over the speed limit? Might well be that you’re right :-). It’s really a fun road! Unfortunately, as a driver, I didn’t have that much time to look at the great landscape :-(.

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There was of course an important reason for our driving speed: We wanted to reach our last National Park for this day, and we had to drive through a snow storm before we arrived there. Two snow storms on one day? What was up with the weather?

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(There are about 15 minutes between these to pictures!)

Our last destination was the “Natural Bridges National Monument“. We were the only visitors in that park, for a simple reason: Most of the bridges didn’t really look good at this time of day — you just don’t want to go there just before sunset. Many of our pictures look really boring, therefore I’ll only show you the pictures of the Owachomo Bridge (and two pictures of the magnificent landscape):

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Do you notice the two strangers on the bridge? How can they go there? That is not allowed!!!
Andi was really terrified that the bridge might crash under their weight, therefore he helped out as a temporary pylon:
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Oh, and if you want to know how such a bridge looks from the top, we somehow got this picture ;-).
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Our government is so out of fashion

Posted in Europe, USA by Ulf on June 6, 2009

usa-flag-photojpgA few days ago I’ve once again received an e-mail from the White House. The first time they sent me a mail it came directly from Barack Obama. That e-mail was about the American health care system (“Health care news worth sharing“). This time it was by some guy from his staff, David Axelrod. It was an address to the American people which asked them to watch the speech that Obama gave in Cairo (“A New Beginning — Watch the President’s Speech“). The White House has put it on YouTube. There are some remarkable things which I want to point out. It’s not about the content of Obama’s talk (it’s a very friendly and critical talk about living together peacefully). It’s more about Obama’s open attitude.

  • he publishes his speeches on YouTube. He is on Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter, …
  • he sends emails to the people in his country
  • and whenever he says something, I have got the feeling that he is honest. Listening to both opinions, and choosing the better one. He shows that he is a smart guy.
  • So… now comes something interesting: I understand every word which Obama uses. This is really remarkable since I don’t even understand everything what the German politicians say!

Oh, have I mentioned Germany?
CB013125Yes, Angela Merkel also has a podcast on www.bundeskanzlerin.de. But you know what? It sounds very much like any political talk. I just wished she would be a bit more honest. She says that she was invited by the “Initiative neue soziale Marktwirtschaft”. If she was honest then she would explain that this an industry organization. She talks about the economic stimulus packages, but she doesn’t mention the resulting government debts. Has any politician in the current campaigns in Germany explained how we want to pay all the money back that we’ve just invested into our economy? Merkel says what the government wants to do, but she doesn’t mention what the government cannot do. It sounds like an election campaign talk. And worst of all: Her podcasts come in weekly rythm. Why not whenever she has something to say?

And how open is the German government? Look at the election of the president a few weeks ago: Julia Kloeckner (MdB, CDU) and Ulrich Kelber (MdB, SPD) have published the election results on Twitter. I believe that this is a good thing: “#Bundesversammlung Leute, Ihr könnt in Ruhe Fußball gucke. Wahlgang hat geklappt!
Imagine what our representatives in the parliament think about this? Kloeckner had to resign from her appointment as a parliamentary secretary… Args!
If you have no idea what Twitter is, please read what Julia Kloeckner is doing right now. Suddenly our representatives are much closer to us, aren’t they?

Books — I read plenty of them in Yellowstone National Park

Posted in Rapid City and Yellowstone by Ulf on June 5, 2009

Or actually, I read them during the bus rides which took me more than 8,000 km through the continent.

bild9731The first one was “Chaos — Making a new science” by James Gleick. My room mate Inaki gave it to me a few weeks ago. When first published in the 1980s the scientific field of “Chaos” (or studying the complex dynamic behavior of nonlinear systems) was still pretty young. The book tells the stories of Lorenz, Mandelbrot, Feigenbaum and a bunch of other non-standard researchers. It’s really well-written, just one or two chapters got a bit too philosophical for my taste. As a control engineer I could see where many of the basic things that we learned in our undergrad programs came from. If you’re interested in the origins of fractals, strange attractors or period-doubling bifurcations, read this book (but don’t expect to learn too much that you can immediately apply — it’s more like a history book).

bild9738Afterwards I read “Simplicity” by John Maeda (you can check out this website). It was a present from Prof. Allgöwer. The author (a design professor) gives a set of ten laws of simplicity, and he explains them very lively with modern examples. The author’s Ipod (which he rarely uses) is introduced as a device which achieves simplicity by reduction, and by being something small and fragile. It’s nice to see that the authors really obeys his own theories, that is repeating himself as a method of teaching, and always giving a lot of context. In his case the contexts are often stories from Japan. I especially remember two of them. One is about “omakase“, something you can order in a sushi restaurant. It basically means that you leave what to cook up to the cook. (I wish fast food restaurants would offer this: I just give them money and they give me something to eat!) And there was a story about a fenced-off area next to a sacred place. Maeda had no idea what it was used for, until it turned out that people put their cars into it to receive an annual prayer against traffic accidents and breakdowns. :-)

bild9724The third book is “Das ist o.B.d.A. trivial” by Albrecht Beutelspacher. It was also a present from Prof. Allgöwer. Here the author (a math professor) gives an introduction to mathematical writing. Why should a ∀ always go before a formula and not behind it. And why should we really pay attention when we put a ∀ and an ∃ into the same formula: “∀m ∃f: h(m,f)” means something else than “∃f ∀m: h(m,f)”. Consider m=male, f=female and h=have a relationship. And when to say “eine Abbildung auf eine Menge” and when to use “eine Abbildung in eine Menge”. When to use “one”, “I” or “we” in written texts, and what a mathematician things about the ≡ sign (the answer is disappointing).

If one of you wants to read the first book, ask Inaki or check out bookcrossing.com or ebay.de or amazon.de. Amazon seems to be the best choice. If one of you wants to read the second or third book, I can give it to you. Just let me know, or steal-n-eventually-return it.

Disabled persons in the USA? Don’t worry…

Posted in USA by Ulf on May 31, 2009

One thing I like about the United States is how they deal with handicapped persons. Oh wait, “mobility-challenged persons”, of course. Every bus has a ramp which helps people on wheelchairs getting on and off, and they usually get free rides. This system works in the US, and it’s widely used (I remember having seen the ramp at least three times in about 10 bus rides here in the US).

A few days ago I noticed that my local grocery store offers electric wheelchairs to make their place more accessible, even though I’ve never seen one of these “Smart Shoppers” in action:

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Sometimes I believe that this system is even misused a bit. There are for example wheelchair dealers who say that they will give away their wheelchairs for free in the case Medicaid (or was it Medicare?) denies its funding for the patient who requests one. Haha. Oh, lot’s of funny stories around on this topic.
The American Public Health care system really has the same problems as the German “Gesetzliche Krankenkasse”. Paying for a spa, for example. What a nonsense!