If On a Winter’s Night a Publisher

Brings forth the fiftieth and last of its great novels of the twentieth century, a resolutely head-spinning inquisition of a book by Italo Calvino, one that keeps introducing a novel titled If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. In this, the coldest week in Munich in twenty years, the series not only takes notice of the weather, it refuses to end, spiraling instead into this ouroboros of a book.

Over the last four weeks, the editors have toyed with the readers and the season, jumping from Peter Hoeg’s tale of Greenlanders in Denmark, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, to the hothouse of colonial Vietnam in Margeurite Duras’ slender, tender The Lover, and now, of course, to Calvino’s winter night.
Continue reading


I’m still thinking about Vienna. I didn’t especially like the anti aircraft towers, but I think the toilets were excellent.

I am quite serious. You see this is a problem for transatlantic comprehension. In the USA toilets have a large pool of water. This can cause an unfortunate problem called splashing.

In Italy the toilets have a tiny pool of water and uhm material lands on a porcelain surface which is in theory (but not in practice) washed clean when the toilet is flushed. Normally one has to clean the toilet after every 2nd type use. Innocent failure to do so by people used to different toilets can cause tension.

Now in Vienna they have figured out how to make toilets. There is a serioius pool of water down which the toilet is flushed then further back towards the wall a shelf which is very slightly concave so that one or two milimeters of water pool there after each flush. This is too little to splash but plenty to prevent sticking.

I haven’t seen such toilets anywhere else.

I think that squemishness about discussing this very practical issue is preventing the diffusion of this brilliant technology around Europe.

In fact, I would even be in favor of EU toilet standards if I weren’t sure that they would be dictated by larger countries with inferior plumbing.


Heraclitis said that you can not step in the same river twice.
Wolfgang Pauli said that you can not be an identical fermion twice
that is that there can’t be two identical fermions.
Some Heraclitian said that you can’t step in the same river once.
This is clearly silly.

Similarly, I think that an honest application of the basic assumptions of quantum mechanics (as listed by Von Neuman) would imply that there can’t be one fermion.

A Fermion is a particle with spin + or minus hbar/2. For example, electrons are fermions. The word spin suggests that it refers to well spin as in the Earth spins around its axis and elementary particles spin around. Spin has the logical implication that charged particles with spin have magnetic fields. The magnetic properties of atoms are logically implied by the spin of their electrons, the orbital angular momentum of electrons and confusing stuff going on in the nucleus making extremely weak magnetic fields.

The spin of photons makes perfect sense if it is interpreted as an intrinsic angular momentum. I mean you know spinning. The strongest reason to interpret spin as angular momentum is that, if it is so interpreted, total momentum is conserved as particles are created and destroyed.

The Pauli exclusion principal (no two identical fermions) could have been accepted as a mere fact. However, physicists aim to explain results in terms of more fundamental principles. In this case, they note that if there are two identical fermions a and b and one switches a and b, then the wave form describing the system of particles is multiplied by -1 (I think the proof is hard in any case I never made head nor tail of it). Now clearly switching two identical particles changes nothing. That means the wave is equal to minus itself, which means it is zero. That means the probability of their being two identical fermions is zero.

OK back to spin and angular momentum. I argued at length that spin is, as the name suggests, a kind of angular momentum, because quantum mechanics has a clear interpretation of momentum and therefore angular momentum. The momentum operator is the gradient with respect to space of the wave form. Thus angular momentum is the derivative with respect to the angle.

Now what sort of wave form does a particle with angular momentum hbar/2 have ? well the derivative of the wave form with respect to the angle measured from a point is angular momentum around that point divided by h. That means that if one rotates the waveform of a fermion 360 degrees it is mulitplied by e to the power i times Pi which is equal to -1.

As far as I can tell, the only natural quantum mechanical interpretation of spin implies that the wave form of a fermion is multiplied by -1 if it is rotated 360 degrees. Clearly nothing changes if it is rotated 360 degrees. That seems to me to mean that the wave form of a fermion must be equal to zero, that is, the probability that there is a fermion is zero.

So why is the same argument a proof of the true Pauli exclusion principle and not a proof of the false claim that electrons don’t exist ?
Continue reading


These are my impressions of a recent trip to Budapest.

My father’s parents grew up in Budapest. The Waldmann family has returned on 5 or so occasions. Caroly, Erzebeth and Thomas (dad) went back in 1937 to tell the folks it was time to bug out of central Europe (they didn’t listen). Dad went back in 1989. I was there in 1997 after hopping on a train from Vienna. My sister was there on her honeymoon but didn’t take photos. I was there a month ago.

The main sight I went to see is Hojos 3, my grandmother’s family’s apartment. Dad took a camera to document the effects of war, 70 days of siege and 44 years of communism. Grandma didn’t notice any changes.

I was there in 1997 and found a used car dealership on the ground floor. Also the sweet shop across the street had turned into a bar. I had alarming thoughts about the relative power of the market and bombs in making everything solid melt into air.

Also I had never felt so foreign. Here I was in the city 2 of 4 grandparents came from and I couldn’t read anything. I mean I look at a sign that says something street and I don’t know which word is the name and which word means street. Also, for the first time in my life, I had to look carefully at the little stylised picture of a man and of a woman to figure out which was the mens’ room.

Budapest in 1997 had embraced the market and was smothering it with hot kisses. The city is at least as beautiful as Vienna (OK I’m prejudiced) and not totally out of Prague’s league, but the Budapest approach to attracting tourists was Las Vegas East (sorry central). I personally stopped at the “Las Vegas” casino but I still had money when I left so it is OK. I also have to congratulate the guy who impersonated a police officer (with no ID) accused me of changing money on the street (for no reason) inspected my foreign currency holdings and gave back most of them to me. Embarassing and expensive, but that’s the way to treat idiot tourists who are being paid strangely large sums to teach about economics while clearly lacking the most basic concept (don’t hand over your money to every guy in a suit who asks to see it).

By 2004 things seem to be going pretty well. Budapest seemed markedly richer. In fact it seemed like a normal functioning European city. OK the Las Vegas casino is still right across the Danube from Buda (next time I am not going back to it). Also there is sign advertizing a strip joint legally attached to one of the poles of a fence around a municipal playground. Still the place looked clean efficient etc. Also instead of the Eastern tin can cars people were driving normal Western cars (that means cars made in the far East).

Also the language had changed. I mean people still spoke Magyar but about half of commercial signs and bill boards were in English.

Finally there was positive proof of integration into the global capitalist consumer society — billboard advertisements for “motercycle diaries” the film about the young Che Guevara.

The hills are just coming alive

This sounds like it should be one of Harry Hutton‘s Killer Facts but did you know that until tonight there’s never been a full stage production of The Sound Of Music performed in Austria? On top of that, the film has never been shown in Austrian cinemas (and only once on Austrian TV).

Which is a roundabout way of suggesting that you read this article from the Independent on that first production and what The Sound Of Music represents in Austria’s 20th century history.

Vienna Skyline

A thought on my month in Vienna (in 1987).

A very nice clean safe city full of nice people. However there are two extremely ugly buildings in Vienna. I tried to find a photo googling Vienna skyline but they seem to have been carefully kept off the web. They are huge rectangular towers with no windows. They made me think of miniluv in Oceania circa 1984.

Finally a nice Viennese person explained to me that they were anti aircraft towers from WWII and that, since the weakest material in them was concrete and the rest was steel no one had any idea how to knock them down without smashing all the nice little Viennese buildings near them.

This is a minor problem in city planning. I had an Idea. The towers have plain flat surfaces which are boring. How about painting them white and projecting something on them ? Now this would be very public and unavoidable (as the plain concrete is at the moment). That means that films or something would be innappropriate.

I would advocate taking extremely high quality photos of great works of art and projecting them. Also photos of beautiful Austrian nature would be nice.

The idea is that too much municipal eye time would be monopolised by a mural,l so a changing non controversial photo display would be about right.

Night. Dogs. Not Barking.

It’s still not certain who will lead the government in Germany’s northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein. Neither the Social Democrat-Green coalition nor the Christian Democrat-Free Democrat coalition won a majority of seats in the election this past Sunday, and talks on all manner of variants are continuing.

What’s certain is that the far-right NPD — which had attracted international attention with electoral gains in the state of Saxony, with a demonstrative desertion of the legislative chambers when the Saxon government commemorated the liberation of Auschwitz, and with backing a protest in Dresden on the anniversary of the city’s destruction in a firebomb raid — is nowhere to be seen. Not present in the legislature. Not playing any role whatsoever in the state.

Watch for a similar non-event after elections in North Rhine-Westfalia, Germany’s most populous state, on May 22 of this year.

Waiting for Extase

The always readable Timothy Garton Ash has another good column in today’s Guardian discussing how Europe’s inability to speak with one voice on the international stage weakens its impact. As he points out, the sheer number of people waiting to meet with President Bush this week help to show what the problem is:

Who knows what is Europe’s agenda for the world? The question always attributed to Henry Kissinger – “You say Europe, but which number should I call?” – remains posed. The baffling multiplicity of people the American president had to meet in Brussels, including heads of large-minded small countries and small-minded large countries, as well as those of competing institutional parts of the EU, not to mention Nato just up the road, shows how far we still are from an answer.

However, the situation isn’t quite as bad as that might make it seem. On some issues, there is unity and focus of action:
Continue reading

Old questions reawakened

Europe’s history is littered with questions, some answered, some left unanswered for centuries. For those of you interested in the Schleswig-Holstein question, Randy McDonald has an interesting post on how the remaining Danish and Frisian minority in Schleswig-Holstein could hold the state’s balance of power after Sunday’s elections and how that could affect the politics of Germany as a whole.