Carter meeting Mohamed Reza Pahlawi Shah in 1978

IRAN

So, I got to spend 12 days in Iran! Excitement! Of all the non-european vacations I’ve taken so far (well, thats mainly the USA, Ghana and India), this was definitely the most controversial to get into people’s heads. That’s because in our 24-h-hypecycle society, “Iran” currently mainly appears in the context of “anti-westernist” bs (thanks, 9/11). It’s a toxic mix of American/Israeli led propaganda (BEHOLD THE AXIS OF EVIL!) and Iranian/Russian counter-propaganda (BEHOLD THE GREAT SATAN!), that leaves the general western public in a “grey goo” of information, which anybody can choose and pick from to model their version of “the truth”. Quite unsatisfying, isn’t it? (Funnily enough, I met a guy on his way home to Nigeria at the Munich airport, whom I helped with his luggage. When I told him that I was going to Iran, he said, “Isn’t that dangerous though?!” Goes to point out once more that most places you might consider “dangerous” are probably inhabited by human beings living peaceful lives.)

The idea of visting Iran had been bouncing around in my head for a while now. Not just to confront the “grey goo” with a filter of actual experience, but also because somewhere at the back of my head, I remembered that “Iran” was actually “Persia” for the largest part of history; and “Persia”, I associated with civilizational galore, pomp and pop culture.

In a pencil stroke of fate, my former living arrangement at the University of Stuttgart brought me into a shared apartment with an amazing guy from -you guessed it- Iran. Kasra was (well, is) doing his M.Sc. in Environmental Engineering in Stuttgart, and there turned out to be a substantial intersection between our world views. So we got along pretty well. Him being a rare first-hand source of experience on life in Iran and the middle east, we spent hours on talkshow-like exchange of information, where I got to drop my questions, one oblivious belief at a time, and he had the joy of setting an uninformed foreigner straight on the status quo of his country.

I mainly learned, that I knew nothing! Thus, it was obvious to me, that I had to make my own experiences. Next payday, I booked myself a flight to Tehran for 25th September. First pleasant surprise: Travelling to Iran seems to be upsettingly cheap nowadays. I paid about 400 Euros for a roundtrip flight with Emirates, the no-compromise, 50s flair, luxury airline of the UAE, and got to travel in an A380! Shivers of joy! :) The visa acqusition was, after some initial confusion (half-assed online enrollment system and conflicting instructions on different embassy websites), determined to be something I could get done upon arrival at the airport.

TEHRAN

The thoughts that bolt through your mind when you confront a corner of insanity in your brain with facts can be funny in restrospect. In my case, the insane fear I had when I sat in the plane, and the constant thoughts about the things airport officials might do to me when they encountered the illegal bottle of wine I was carrying in my luggage as a present for Kasra. I pictured thorough stares, and guards who would be able to smell fear from a mile away.

The reality upon touchdown was quite more down-to-earth. I should mention that I arrived at 2:30 in the morning! Along with me, about 40 other people, who also had the same genius plan of getting their visas at the airport upon arrival, at 2:30 in the morning.

The officers in charge were decently challenged with the flood of eager foreigners. Anyway, long story short: After roughly 90 minutes, the first guy got his visa, holding his passport in the air like a trophy. 4:00 AM. The crowd was on fire!

After about 2 hours, I, too, had my victory lap, got my luggage, and exited immigration with a friendly nod from the customs guy. A minute later, I got to hug Kasra and his dad, who had been waiting for me for over 2 hours with no means of knowing whether I arrived or what was going on! I think we all had a tear in our eyes, it was an unbelievably great moment.

After a good day’s sleep, I was all up and ready to discover the land I knew nothing about. Come evening, we set out on our first tour through the city of Tehran… and, what can I say! It’s a gemstone! In retrospect, I can only conclude that Tehran is probably the most original place I have ever visited. It’s the silver lining of the fact, that Iran was mostly drained of tourists and sealed off from globalization throughout at least the last 10 years. A rare piece of well-maintained cultural uniqueness, “unbetrampled” by Tourism and Commerce. At this point, let me share a few pictures from that mother of evening walks:

During the first three days in Tehran, I also learned most of my Farsi vocabulary! Here’s what I memorized:

I’m Joseph! – Man Joseph hastam!
I’m from Germany! – Man almane hastam! (You get the pattern…)
Thanks/thank you! – Motshakaer/Motshakaeram!
Yes – Are
Hello! – Salam!
Sob Bekher! – Good Morning!
Good bye – Khodahafez (The literal translation being “God save you!”)

And, last but not least:

Man Iran ra dust daram! – I love Iran!
(Interestingly, the literal translation being, “I have Iran as friend!”)

To all those who are wondering what Farsi is: It’s what the Arabs made out of the word “Persian” when they invaded Persia in 651 A.D. They couldn’t pronounce the “p”, so, it became an “f”. Thus, over time, “pers” became “fars“.

Apropos: All in all, the Iranians, seem to have a fairly bipolar relationship with the Arabs. On the one hand, they share some culture (Islam, duh.) On the other, they aren’t united even on that front: Obviously, most Arabs (Saudi Arabians, in particular) believe in Sunni Islam while Iranians, on the other hand, are about 95% Shia. (The rough analogy with the former conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism are stunning: Just as the Protestants fought the belief in Pope Peter being the directly appointed successor of Jesus and therefore, leader of all Christians, the Sunnis are differing with the Shias on whether Prophet Mohammed directly appointed Imam Ali as his successsor and leader of all Muslims. That’s where the analogy ends, though, because the Sunnis really are NOT in any way the reformists among the Muslim community, and neither are the Shias.)

But, the differences go beyond religion, in light of the fact that a large share of Iranians that are deeply unreligios, but attached to Persian culture. If that comes as a surprise to you (Like, “What? Non-religious Iranians?” or “Persian culture? What on earth is that!”), here be knowledge upon you: Until 1979, The Islamic Republic of Iran used to be the Kingdom of Persia. And the Persian Kingdom was a fairly progressive, luxury-loving realm. In fact, so progressive (as in western-inspired) towards the end, that large parts of the Muslim population got offended and united in anger around Imam Khomeini, kicking the Shah out of the country. Up until today, though, there is a big shadow population of non-Muslims who then went in the other direction, and now, to my experience, tend to idealize the former monarchy. Let me explain this in detail:

A COUNTRY, RETRACTED INTO IT’S SHELL

Everybody has met bullies in their lives. I’ve met a couple, and to some degree it probably influenced my personality. It made me more modest, wary of overly popular kids, and more likely to sympathize with underdogs. The country of Iran, in its long history, especially in the youngest part of it, though, has encountered many bullies, one of whom is certainly among the biggest in history: Winston Churchill.

Perserreich_500_v.ChrFor a long time, Persia was a bully itself. 550-330 B.C., the Kingdom of Persia (The Achaemenian Empire) was spanning across Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and northern India (much to the credit of Xerxes). “India” (then actually the Mughal Empire) was invaded by a Persian king for a second time in 1739, when Nadir Shah, the so-called “Napoleon of Persia”, invaded Delhi. (This is, by the way, how the Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light) and Daria-i-Noor (See of Light), the world’s two largest diamonds, left India for the first time.)

Things changed over the course of the 19th century. The ruling Qajar Dynasty was faced with a less and less influential kingdom, which increasingly lost power to the Russians from the north and the British from the north-east. A century of modern-day bullying began. Along that trend, British and Russian forces occupied Iran for the first time during World War I. British plans to incorporate Iran into the Empire through the Anglo-iranian treaty of 1919 failed to take off, though. In 1925, the burned out Qajar Dynasty was replaced by the Pahlawi dynasty, spearheaded by Reza Shah Pahlawi.

Interestingly, Reza Shah Pahlawi strongly aligned Iran economically with Germany. He was looking for a counterweight to the British influence, and according to Wikipedia, “(Nazi) Germany was happy to take that role”. (I feel tempted to mention, that the etymology of the word “Iran” stems from the Persian “Aryan”.) Thus, coming up to the beginning of World War II, Germany became one of Irans most important trade partners. An unfortunate choice of friends, that turned out to be. But, the sympathy with underdogs certainly seemed to be developing.

When World War II began, Iran was caught between the frontlines, and therefore, chose neutrality. Again, an unfortunate choice. Neither the Soviet Union nor the British were willing to accept a resource-rich, strategically well-placed, quasi German ally anywhere. Thus, they occupied Iran, again, forcing Reza Shah Pahlawi into exile, handing power over to his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlawi. Bully on, y’all!

The Anglo-Iranian Oil company being renamed.

After World War II, Churchill probably knew Iran pretty well (after all, one of the deciding war conferences among the allies was the Conference of Tehran in 1943). The reason why Iran became important was because of its oil reserves. And, although, Iran was never a British Colony, British oil companies (*cough* BP *cough*, formerly known as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company), were invested into Iranian oil reserves in quasi-colonial ways, carrying home huge profits.

One may be inclined to allege the British of at least a little nostalgia for their fading empire after World War II. And one may further conclude, that this nostalgia might have resulted in a significant perception of entitlement, or victimization, to say the least. Thus, over the course of the 20th century, the British foreign policy seems to have turned from “We’re peace-loving benefactors” into “We’re annoying bullies, seizing every opportunity to remind everybody of our self-proclaimed importance”. (If this sounds slightly passive aggressive to you: Yes, I’m holding a grudge against the U.K., mainly because of their involvement in the Iraq war, the role of the GCHQ within Five-Eyes, their obstruction of financial regulation in the EU, and their unwillingess to participate in a European solution to the current refugee crisis.)

Such an opportunity arose in 1953, when the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, attempted to nationalize the assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Churchill convinced Roosevelt that Mosaddegh had to go, and thus, the CIA and the MI6 joined hands in “Operation AJAX”, which brought the son of Reza Shah Pahlawi, Mohamed Reza, back to power. (By the way this is, after years of denial, declassified information now, and Obama formally apologized during his Cairo Speech in 2009.)

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlawi was as inspired by western utopian visions, as he was detached from the realities of his country. Empowered by the western bloc, he felt like nothing could stop him. He fought socialist movements in Iran with ruthless brutality, and maybe, he thought, that would buy him unlimited sympathy from his benefactors. He overstretched it, though, when Iran joined the founding of OPEC in 1960, and thus, indirectly supported the Oil Crisis of 1973, which OPEC triggered in protest to U.S. Aid to Israel during the Yom-Kippur War.

The detachment from his people, along with the gradual detachment from his international supporters, eventually resulted in freefall. In 1979, the Islamic revolution in Iran ended the monarchy. The new Iran was, tormented by the toxic foreign involvements of the previous 100 years, vigilant of foreign influence. And, the way I feel about it, it’s still rectracted into its shell. So, next time you hear about this missile being tested or that Journalist being detained: Maybe, think of it as a very emotional reaction to a long history of abuse.

MOVING ON

In the following 3 days, we explored more of Tehran. Not enough by any means to get a complete picture of that 9-million-people mega city. But “sufficient to cover the most important sights”, which is what most of our planning revolved around (agreed: it sounds pathetic and I should have spent way more time there!) On Sunday, we visited Golestan, the palace of the Qajar dynasty. We hit a lucky streak and managed to arrive on “National Museum Day”, so we got free entry! Golestan is mainly a typical 19th-century palace. But, certainly interesting in that it displayed the degree to which those 19th-century monarchies were globalized. I saw a royal American-built typewriter, German porcellaine and looking glasses and Russian samovars. The monarchies loved each other!

Afterwards, I saw an even more impressive display of monarchical heritage: The Iranian royal jewelry collection (“The National Treasury”). Locked down in a (probably) nuclear-grade bunker under the Central Bank in Tehran, they are keeping stuff like this:

An approximately 1.5m tall, jewel-studded globe from the Iranian National Treasury, dating back to the Qajar-Era.

sadobod-002

Cyrus Reza Pahlawi, the Sha’s son, who now lives in Maryland.

The next day, we visited the Palace (or rather, Palaces) of the last Iranian dynasty, the Pahlawis; the Sadobod complex. Nowadays, it’s actually a park of museums, with the Pahlawi’s Mansion just being one of them. We visited the royal car museum, which contained an expensive looking collection of bullet-proof Mercedeses and Rolls-Royces. The most thought provoking item, though, I found to be, was this picture.

sadobod-003

A bored recruit at the military history museum.

We then visited the military museum, which had weapons and was hilariously overstaffed by bored recruits for whom apparently no other occupation was available. And finally, the royal mansion, or “The Green Palace”, as they call it.

Carter meeting Mohamed Reza Pahlawi Shah in 1978

Carter meeting Mohamed Reza Pahlawi Shah in 1978

Since that was actually a 20th-century building, where even Jimmy Carter set foot, it felt slightly too close to be “just another palace”. I’ve seen talks by Jimmy Carter and I’m a huge fan of the Carter Foundation (their first rule being “Failure is an option”, which I straight up adopted). Anyway, in September of 1969, the Apollo 11 crew visited the Shah. Almost 10 years later, on the 31st of Dec. 1978, Carter celebrated New Years at the Palace, in what amidst growing anti-american sentiment within Irani society turned out to be another nail in Pahlawis coffin.

The next day, Tuesday, we took a break from history, and went for a morning hike in the vastly beautiful mountains that surround Tehran from the north (bringing to mind images of Minas Tirith from LOTR. Insane!) :

TIME TRAVEL

time_travelTehran has been the capital of the Persian Kingdom since 1789. Before that, it used to be the city of Esfahan. Before that (about until 1509), it was (roughly) the region of Shiraz. And WAY before that, Darius and his son Xerxes used to rule from the halls of Persepolis, until Alexander crashed the party around 330 B.C. This is what it looks like on a map:

The obvious observation: Throughout history, the capital moved north until it hit the mountains, which gave it a nice protective shell from the top. Anyway. In consequence, a trip south along that line does feel like a trip back in time.

ESFAHAN

esfahan-000

Me befriending a particularily attached cat in Tehran

So, on Wednesday, the 30th of September, we hopped into our bus-sized time machine and started on the journey southward. We had roughly half an hour before the bus set off, and decided to take a little walk. The oblivious foreigner I am, I immediately decided to befriend a cat in a nearby park.

After about 5 hours of driving through an, at times, upsettingly photogenic desert, we arrived at our hotel in Esfahan. Nowadays, the city is mainly known as Iran’s cultural capital (Disclaimer: The “cultural capital” title seems to have competing claims to it). Also, it is significantly more conservative than Tehran. Being home to the elite of the Persian carpet manufacturers, it used to be a very popular tourist attraction, and was nicknamed Nesf-e-Jahan, which means “half the world”: Because you could literally meet half the world there.

Esfahan was mainly built by the Safavid dynasty (1501-1722), which managed to unite Persia for the first time in almost half a millenium. Certainly, the most impressive site there is a humongous square, the Naqsh-e Jahan Square. In retrospect, this was probably the most memorable location I visited, for the sheer number of things to look at. First of all, there is that huge square. But then, that square is surrounded with exclusively interesting things: There is the former royal ceremonial platform, the so-called Ali-Qapu palace. (Funnily enough, I met a bunch of German tourists there, and we had a pretty good time.) Then, on the other side, there is the most beautiful building entrance I have ever seen: the entrance to the Sheich-Lotfollah-Mosque. And then, wherever there is no palace or mosque entrance, there are shops that offer exclusively nice things. I don’t know how much time I wasted looking at those, but in the end I spent about 100 Euro there on delicatly embroidered carpets and camel bone boxes :)

Also, it has three of the most beautiful pedestrian bridges in the world; The Marnan bridge built in 1599, the Si-o-se Pol built in 1632, and the Khaju bridge built in 1650.

I and Kasras brother enjoying some free tea in Esfahan.

I and Kasras brother enjoying some free tea in Esfahan.

Certainly contributing to the beauty of the experience was also the fact, that the whole city was in a good mood because of the Eid celebrations: Everybody got together to give each other free food in appreciation of the fact that Abraham didn’t murder his son Jacob, and therefore passed God’s test. I received free tea, yoghurt and snacks, and was subsequently also happy about Abraham’s lack of insanity.

All in all, Esfahan was just great. On a side note, it was the place where I got to befriend the most shop owners. Like this guy, who happily told me in broken German, his memories from Hamburg.

esfahan-009Or this guy running, an outrageously tantalizing fruit shop, from which I purchased a kilogram of grapes.random-006

SHIRAZ

After a good night’s sleep (and some good grapes for breakfast), we continued our time trip, taking the bus to Shiraz. The landscape on that trip was even more photogenic than it was on the way to Esfahan. Check this out:

shiraz-004Our hotel was a slightly 80′s flair-ish site in the north-east of the city, carrying the inspired name “Tourism Hotel” (so there was definitely no ambiguity to its purpose.) Shiraz is also home to Iran’s most expensive Hotel, the Grand Hotel Shiraz, built during the Pahlawi era (of course). Memorable, because when entering Shiraz at night, it looks like passing a giant spaceship.

In retrospect, the fact that I only spent 2 days in Shiraz and 1 day in Esfahan gave me a false sense of the size of those cities. Shiraz has a whopping 1.4 million inhabitants, Esfahan has 1.7. But, since I never really moved beyond the city centers, they felt much smaller to me. I’m still a little befuddled by the sheer scale of my underestimation, especially Shiraz’s, where I missed by orders of magnitude. On another random note, Iranians seem to have a pretty good taste in picking German partner cities: The partner city of Esfahan is Freiburg on the German southern border, and the partner city of Shiraz is Weimar, home to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe!

They call Shiraz “the birthplace of Persia”. But, more importantly, according to Wikipedia, it is also apparently the birthplace of -wait for it- … wine! The oldest archeological sample of wine EVER found was at a digging site near Shiraz, and dated to a whopping age of 7,000 years! It still funds government operations to this day. Kidding you, I am.

The city itself is about 4,000 years old, with numerous Persian kings establishing it as their capital throughout history. Interestingly, Shiraz was rarely the capital itself, but always in close vicinity:

  • It was about 40 km away from the capital of the Achaemenian Empire, Perspolis (550-330 B.C.)
  • It was equally close to Ishtakhr, the capital of the Sassanian Empire (200-650 A.D.)
  • For a brief 110 years, it was the capital of the Buwayhid Empire (945-1055)
  • Slightly breaking with the whole time travel story, the Zand dynasty made it their capital again, briefly, from 1762-1789, until the Qajars finally rose to power and moved the party to Tehran (this transition of power, by the way reads like an old testament bible chapter, or a season of Game of Thrones: The last son of the Zands, Lotf Ali Khan, took refuge in the city of Kerman from the Qajar army. After some of his men betrayed him and opened the city’s gates, he took revenge on the people of Kerman by extracting 20,000 eyeballs from them and pouring them in front of the victorious Qajar leader. In retaliation, Lotf Ali Khan was blinded, castrated, imprisoned, tortured and raped by the first Qajar Khan, Agha Mohammad Khan). Anyway.
shiraz-010

Scene depicting Kharim Khan Zand in his citadel with the royal ministers.

The buildings that I got to look at were mainly built by Kharim Khan Zand during those brief 30 years in the 18th century. Kharim Khan Zand refused to adopt the title Shah, instead he opted for Vakil e-Ra’aayaa; “Representative of the People”, which explains why the Zand dynasty only really lasted for 30 years.

First, we visited the Kharim Khan Citadel, which was built in a staggering ONE YEAR, from 1766 to 1767, although it looks more like an 11th century castle. From the inside, it has a super nice garden, impressive wall art and a bath house. But, nothing overly luxurious, which definitely makes Kharim Khan look like a bearable person. Afterwards, we also visited the public bath house that Kharim Khan built for his people. He’d certainly have my vote!

Finally, we also visited the largest mosque in Iran, the Vakil Mosque, also built by Kharim Khan. It was actually the first mosque I ever visited! The whole thing was super beautiful, but one detail I found most interesting: During prayer, in order to de-emphasize the social rank of the Imam, he descends about 50 cm into a hole in the ground. Progressive!

PERSEPOLIS

Come next day, we continued our stride on towards the halls of Perspolis, the final destination of our journey. I feel slightly unqualified trying to convey the enormous power that still radiates from those ancient blocks in a couple of paragraphs. Perspolis is just the go-to tourist attraction of Iran, sharing historical rank of significance with the pyramids of Gizah and the Acropolis in Athens.

Perspolis was originally built as one of king Darius I’ many residences, but, it’s main purpose was to serve as a gathering point for the representatives of the Achaemenian empire’s provinces during the new year’s celebrations. A symbol of power for the minions to look up to.

persepolis-005From a linguistics point of view, it turned out to be a treasure chest of corpus material, reaching from foundation stones inscribed by Xerxes himself to bookkeeping plates proving the fact that Perspolis was not built by slaves!

persepolis-002After the fall of the Achaemenian empire, it served mainly as a materials resource for the surrounding cities, especially the capital of the Sassanian empire, Ishtakhr. Over time, knowledge about its origins was gradually lost. The first serious archeological exploration was conducted at the beginning of the 1930′s by no other than German archeologist Ernst Herzfeld, yet with funding from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Who else.

WRAPPING THINGS UP

In the morning of the next day, we boarded a regional flight back to Tehran. The last two days I spent with Kasra roaming through the city, buying last-minute souvenirs and taking deep breaths for the oxygen to process the volumes of experiences I got to make in the previous 10 days.

There are a couple of things that I still really need to talk about, though:

  1. Currency and numbers: Spending money in Iran is not a trivial undertaking. First of all, you need to get the money into the country, which you cannot use credit cards for because of the current sanctions. Then, you need to determine how much you need. If you’re good at counting zeros, you have a clear advantage because the exchange rate from Euro to Rial is a staggering 1:3800. random-002Then, once you have the money, you need to determine how much you are actually holding. Even though Europeans adopted Arabic numbers, many arab countries and Iran too adopted the so-called Hindu-Arabian numbers, which look like this: ٠‎ ١‎ ٢‎ ٣‎ ٤‎ ٥‎ ٦‎ ٧‎ ٨‎ ٩ . Now, you can almost read the price tags. Almost, because, you need to know that there are mutiple currencies used in Iran: There is the official Rial (1:3800), there is the semi-official Toman (1:380), and there is the street currency  that just omits all the zeros (which Kasras brother introduced to me as “G”):  1:3.8. Confusion ensues mainly between Rials and Tomans.
  2. Hijab ineffectiveness: Islamic rule dictates that sexuality carries an inherent evil in it, and therefore, it must be denied in every way possible. Particularily evil and in need of oppression was apparently female hair. I know, self-explanatory. Therefore, Iranian women are legally required to cover their hair in public by means of a piece of cloth over their head called the “hijab”. Women being sneaky devils found out how to wear the hijab in ways that are by no means supportive of its original intention.
  3. Iran’s relationship with Germany: As already mentioned before, Persia (and later, Iran) had a very interesting relationship with Germany, beginning with the rule of the Pahlawis. Iran’s rivalry with two allied powers (Russia and the UK) put it in into a natural alignment with Germany, resulting in massive constructimonument_germany_support_iraqon projects stretching from railroads to nuclear power plants for German companies in Iran, and huge trade volumes, with Germany being Iran’s largest trade partner for most of the 20th century. On the other hand, things were not always hugs and cake between the two: Germany supplied Saddam Hussein with knowledge about ABC weapons and technology, which resulted in the chemical weapons stockpile that Saddam later used against Iran in the 1980s. There is a tight-lipped commemorative memorial in front of the German embassy in Tehran to remind people of that.
  4. On the OTHER hand, the Iranians did this in order to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the German reunification, which coincided with my stay.
  5. Calendars: Iranians have to know not one or two, but three dates every day: The Persian solar date, the Arab lunar date, and the Gregorian date: In Iran, it is currently simultaneously the year 1437, 1394 and 2015, respectively. Source: http://www.iranchamber.com/calendar/converter/iranian_calendar_converter.phpend-004
  6. Cats: The Persians love for pride and luxury puts them into a natural friendship with cats. It is stunning how many incredibly photogenic cats I saw during that trip!
  7. Food: Persian food is some of the best food I have ever had. It ranges from sweets and pastry to incredibly well seasoned rice and many different kinds of bread to all kinds of meat.

So. Visit Iran! I’m definitely gonna go there again (I totally missed out on the Caspian sea, the Persian gulf, and the desert!). It is a historically vastly significant country, and I can only recommend you to take a deep breath of it.

Why NLP is cooler than Rocket Science: Language as a tool for understanding cognition and accelerating the advent of ASI

[<TL;WR>: It mostly says it all in the title.]

In the past two or three weeks, approaching the end of my second semester at the University of Stuttgart, I spent quite a bit of time contemplating what I am learning in a broader context, and trying to understand what it actually is that I want to accomplish.

This challenge was amplified by the fact, that over the past two years, we have seen rise to two companies which I have admired for quite a long time; SpaceX and Tesla. I loved cars and rockets growing up as a kid (and I spent a lot of time drawing my own). Especially the emergence of the F9R (Falcon 9-Reusable) Rocket, which for the first time in the history of mankind tries to commercialize a propulsive landing system, seemed to violently awaken my less abstract engineering spirits, because, lets face it: Propulsive landing is insanely cool.

Falcon 9 CRS-6 Barge Landing Attempt

Now as exciting as that is, it was also a little depressing for me, because upon first glance, my studies of NLP could not be further apart from the kind of hard engineering knowledge that is required in building these incredible machines. I seriously questioned whether my line of studies was really the best way to maximize my personal contribution to the technological progression of humanity.

It took me a while, but I have come to the conclusion that that is not the case. This is not to disregard the enormous importance of “hard engineering knowledge”, e.g. electrical, mechanical, chemical & materials. But as much as those more traditional fields are an important foundation, I think it is fair to say that by themselves they do not generate a lot of progress. It is the contributions from Information Technology that really makes their applications exciting. Take for example the F9R. Yes, fundamentally it is a culmination of exploiting every possible bit of hard engineering knowledge. But there seem to be key contributions from IT without which this would have been impossible (at least given the resources of SpaceX):

  1. Simulation Technology (see this excellent presentation by SpaceX Director of Research Adam Lichtl and SpaceX Lead Software Engineer Stephen Jones on how SpaceX is exploiting sim tech)
  2. Advanced Avionics (to quote the Falcon 9 User Guide: [...] Avionics include rugged flight computers, GPS receivers, inertial measurement units, SpaceX ‐ designed and manufactured controllers for vehicle control (propulsion, valve, pressurization, separation, and payload interfaces) [...])
  3. Advanced Computer Aided Design (Including 3D Printing). (See this video from SpaceX featuring Elon Musk talking about the future of HMI.)

This is the first important observation: What really made the difference was not advances in engineering, but advances in IT. I challenge every reader to argue with that.

My second self-convincing observation (I call it a hope-servation, as in maybe I see what I hope to see) is that we are probably not nearly at the limits of said three areas of contribution from IT to engineering. (Especially processing-power wise, of course, but that is more like an engineering contribution to IT than vice versa.) But this is where NLP comes in. The holy grail of NLP of course is ASI, Artificial Strong Intelligence. Yes, there are more mechanical approaches, that try to neglect the role of cognition in Speech Generation and Processing, but I think there is a trend towards at least incorporating “Statistical Approaches” (Machine Learning), deviating from the purely rule-based approaches proposed by Chomsky.

For a nice introduction into the subject, watch this video by Google:

And this is exactly where I see my contribution to engineering: With the advent of strong NLP, culminating in ASI, there will be an explosion of ever more advanced applications of traditional engineering knowledge. Engineers will be able to literally discuss designs with their computers. Simulators will be able to identify border cases and design very effective test plans on their own.

SpaceX CRS-7 disintegrating after second stage failure.

Events like the Falcon 9 explosion on June 28th 2015 remind us, that human engineering is far from perfect, because the complexity of our machines tends to increasingly exceed our cognitive capabilities. This is why we need artificial intelligence.

 

 

 

Life imitates Art: Learning to like Germany through electronic music

(Dies ist ein Artikel, den ich größtenteils am 8.8.2014 verfasst, aber zu dessen Veröffentlichung ich mich erst heute entschieden habe.)

388215_310795265609323_301206739_nGestern bin ich aus Ghana zurückgekommen. Was macht man so, wenn man zum ersten Mal seit 11 Monaten wieder so richtig in Deutschland “ankommt”, ohne im Hinterkopf zu haben, dass man das Land ja sowieso bald wieder verlässt? In den Zug steigen, Laugenbaguette mit Salami essen. Kraftwerk anmachen. Nachdenken. Man verspürt einen gewissen Drang, eine harmonische Beziehung zu seiner Umgebung aufzubauen. Also für mich speziell, eine harmonische Beziehung zu Deutschland aufbauen.

Warum ich Deutschland bisher nicht mochte

376239_454639147891600_482806894_nUm ganz ehrlich zu sein, ich mochte Deutschland noch nie so richtig leiden. Die “Seele” Deutschlands war nach dem 2. Weltkrieg zerbrochen. Die Mentalität der Deutschen ist aus meiner Sicht seit dem vor Allem von Bitterkeit geprägt, und der Frage, wie man sich als Volk eine neue Identität geben kann. Bedingt durch die unterschiedliche wirtschaftspolitische Entwicklung sind dabei in Ost- und Westdeutschland verschiedene mehr oder weniger ausstehliche Ideen entstanden.

52560_170562779632573_7748489_oVor allem Westdeutsche aus der Nachkriegsgeneration, haben das s.g. “Wirtschaftswunder” der 1950er bis 1970er Jahre hautnah miterlebt. Sie sind in einem Deutschland aufgewachsen, das von Wohlstand und einem kriegsbedingten Vakuum nationaler Identität geprägt war. Für viele dieser Menschen entwickelte sich damit eine neue nationale Identität, die sowohl den übermäßigen Wohlstand, als auch eine neue, viel subtilere Form von Nationalismus legitimierte: Die Idee eines Volkes mit weit überlegener Arbeitsmoral. Die damit verbundenen Werte -Produktivität, Präzision  und Ernsthaftigkeit- sind sicherlich konstruktiv und sympathisch in dem Sinn, dass sie teilweise eine sich selbst erfüllende Prophezeiung sind. Viele Deutsche fühlen sich tatsächlich wohl, wenn sie sehr produktiv, sehr präzise und sehr ernsthaft sind. Mich eingeschlossen.

10496006_785076991514479_1282326350185411380_oSchade bis gefährlich ist es nur, wenn mit der Erfüllung dieser Werte die Selbstkritik durch eine selbstgerechte, konservative Trägheit ersetzt wird. Das ist der Hauptgrund, warum ich mich bisher in Deutschland nicht wohlgefühlt habe. Das kriege ich jetzt besonders zu spüren, wenn ich bei meinen Erzahlungen über die wirtschaftlichen Probleme Ghanas bei so manchem Gesprächspartner sehen muss, wie er/sie sich ein herablassendes Lächeln im besten Fall noch verkneift.

Die “Quelle allen Übels” ist hier wohl die Idee, dass das deutsche “Wirtschaftswunder” der Nachkriegsjahre und die sukzessive wirtschaftliche Dominanz Deutschlands in Europa und weltweit (Stichwort “Export-Weltmeister”) einer grundlegend überlegenen “Deutschen Arbeitsmoral” entsprungen ist. Hier möchte ich eine Dokumentation empfehlen, die letztes Jahr vom ZDF veröffentlicht wurde: Die Ursprünge des “Mythos vom Wirtschaftswunder” der BRD sind demnach weitaus weniger glanzvoll. Hier eine Kurzfassung:

  1. Überbleibsel von Ingenieuren, Nazi-Managern und Industrieanlagen aus dem 3. Reich waren ein Katalysator für die Industrie.
  2. Eine große Nachfrage nach Industriemaschinen in Folge des Korea-Kriegs beschleunigte den industriellen Aufbau
  3. Der Verzicht kriegsgeschädigter Nationen auf Reparationen (mit Ausnahme von Russland) erlaubte ungestört die fortgesetzte Nutzung eines großen Teiles der industriellen Anlagen.
  4. Und vor Allem: Allierte Propaganda. Diese hat dazu geführt, dass die Deutschen nun Ludwig Erhardt als den visionären Erschaffer der D-Mark und die Amerikaner als die “selbstlosen Gläubiger” im Marshall-Plan verehren.

381878_305364289485754_575050699_nWas das für Implikationen in der Diskussion um die deutsche Schuld in der “Euro-Krise” nach sich zieht, ist sicher auch eine wichtige Frage. Aber die wichtigste Frage für mich ist nun: Wie kann man eine Nation, die von so viel Selbstgerechtheit geprägt ist, mögen lernen? (Vor allem wenn man gerade aus einem Land kommt, dass im wirtschaftlichen Vergleich zu Deutschland definitiv auf der Verliererseite steht.)

Gedankensprung: Kraftwerk und Roman Flügel

Ich denke, die Tatsache dass die Elektro-Musik-Szene in Deutschland so stark geworden ist, hat sehr greifbare Gründe. Die Gründer dieser Szene in der neuen Bundesrepublik waren dazu fähig, die neuen Werte -Produktivität, Präzision und Ernsthaftigkeit- nicht blind als Füllmaterial für das Vakuum der nationalen Identität zu nutzen, sondern in eine vom Nationalismus entledigte, nüchterne Ästhetik als neue Form von Musik umzusetzen.

981859_577608038928043_650572954_oDie wohl berühmteste Gruppe in diesem Zusammenhang ist “Kraftwerk”. Die Band wurde ursprünglich 1970 gegründet unter dem Titel “Organisation zur Verwirklichung gemeinsamer Musikkonzepte”. Laut Wikipedia bezeichnete die New York Times Kraftwerk 1997 als die “Beatles der elektronischen Tanzmusik”. Titel wie “Autobahn”, “Die Roboter”, “Das Modell”, “Radioaktivität” und “Computerwelt” zeichnen ein fast utopisches, von Technokratie geprägtes Lebensbild des Nachkriegsdeutschlands, auch vor allem weil die Original-Texte -und Titel- eben deutsch sind.

Dies ist für mich die politische Dimension elektronischer Musik, im engeren Sinne. Ein wichtiger Katalysator für mich zur Erkenntnis der oben beschriebenen Assoziationen war die Facebook-Seite von Roman Flügel. Dieser postete zur Ankündigung seiner Gigs immer zusätzlich scheinbar zusammenhanglose Fotos aus Deutschland.

 

Why I will leave Ghana: Telecommuting, the University of Cape Coast, Yandex and Natural Language Processing

As I just published, I am going to leave Ghana in August. I would like to explain the “Why” a little bit more.

Some of you know, that for the largest part of the past year I was very certain that I would stay in Ghana at least until the end of 2014. I went to some length to establish conditions that would allow me to do so: I struck a telecommuting deal with my employer in Germany whilst filling a temporary lecturing vacancy at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana; the combination of which would be reason enough to stay.

Over the past four months though, the bright outlook I saw in staying here transformed into a nightmare of power and internet outages, miscommunication and bureaucracy.

OneUniversity_of_Cape_Coast_(UCC)_crest[1] of my main conclusions is, that I was far too optimistic about promises made to me here. Primarily that goes to the UCC (University of Cape Coast). Prior to initiating the telecommuting agreement with my employer, I made clear to the University that the precondition for my lecturing there would be the availability of a secure work environment for my telecommuting job. It devolved into a bit of a carrot-and-stick situation: I was shown my office in the university, even temporarily holding the keys to it, and continuously promised that I would receive a contract for my work either tomorrow or next week.

Fortunately I learned through a series of happy coincidents that the program coordinator who originally invited me into the university was just a temporary fill-in for the actual guy, and probably didn’t even have the authority to create a contract for me. It is still puzzling me why he didn’t just admit that.

Now I got to know the actual program coordinator. He flat-out admitted that he didn’t have the authority to employ me. That left my dream of staying at the university shattered in pieces, until I had the idea of studying there. They would’ve actually permitted me to do a Master’s in Computer Science, which sounded nice to me. I wanted to stay in Ghana.

That was until I was contactYa logo 250ed by Yandex. Yandex is a Russian Company that operates, among other services, the 4th-largest search engine in the world. They picked up my resume on LinkedIn and invited me to participate in an interview for a C++ Software Engineering position in Berlin. I was really curious, especially because the job would have been about enhancing their maps service. I made it through the challenge tasks and the first interview, but didn’t quite make the second interview. Throughout the interview process though I came to peace with the thought of leaving Ghana for something that may not be as culturally demanding, but far more academically challenging (than studying at the UCC).

After I failed on the second interview with Yandex, I was obviously stuck with a very depressing thought: What if, even after getting a Masters Degree in Computer Science from the UCC, I still wouldn’t have the knowledge to make it through an interview such as the one I just failed?

This is not to discredit the ICT/Computer Science program of the UCC. But indisputably, I do have access to universities in Germany that have far more competence in the field. And also indisputably, Computer Science is one of my core interests.

ims-stuttgart stuttgartSo I started looking for academic “computer sciencey” programs in Germany, and actually found one at the University of Stuttgart that seemed to fulfill my urge for academic depth, especially towards creative algorithms and data structures. The program name is “Maschinelle Sprachverarbeitung”, translated to English  as “Natural Language Processing”.

This is a really important step for me. I had to choose between science and social engagement. After a year of social work in Ghana, I chose science.

 

Good bye Ghana

Ghana_Airways_VC-10_AMS_1965-8-1I now have roughly two weeks left until my departure from Ghana. On August 7th I will say my last “Yebeshia” – “We will see each other again”. I’m leaving with mixed feelings. I know that I learned a great deal about myself, but I’m unsure whether I have accomplished enough for the organization. I am loooking forward to visit Ghana again though. This amazing country is now a big part of my life that I am very eager to keep :-) .

Why I think that Africa will save humanity

Hello world!

last saturday, exactly three weeks ago, I arrived in Ghana. I would like to devote this blog entry to explaining some of my most significant impressions from living here. Although I’m giving my best, I feel like I’m trying to comprehend a forest by looking at a handful of dirt. Let me give it a shot though.

I think the first thing that jumped to my eyes coming from the airport and traveling to Komenda on September 7th were the remarkable effects of Globalization, at least on southern Ghana. I would tend to think that this applies to most of Africa though. Globalization for Ghana (as for most parts of Africa) started with British, Dutch and Portuguese colonialism, with the Brits getting the upper hand in the end. And it extends towards todays colonialism by transnational corporations. What used to be the British is now Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Nestle, etc and China. (China kind of being a transnational corporation of its own.)

In my experience, Ghanaians themselves see all of this much less critical. Nowadays they mostly endear the British as bringers of progress, as much as they love Coca-Cola for its taste, contemporary pop music for its sound, and the USA for its general coolness. They don’t give as much a fuck about Racism, Monopolism or Imperialism as we do because they are not on the supply side of it. They love being cool and not giving a fuck. Feel free is the prevailing attitude, very much resembling what I got to experience in the US. Except when Ghanaians don’t give a fuck, it seems much more lovable and genuine, as opposed to ignorant. Because Ghanaians are not on the supply side of the problems they ignore, as opposed to the U.S. or Western Europe. To continue on the parallels between rural Indiana and Ghana: Southern Ghana is extremely Christian, (and Ghanaians eat with their fingers). Consequently, the US have a pretty good relationship with Ghana (another reason for the good relationship might be Ghanas political proximity to China, more on that in another post). Obama was here in 2009, and the USAID (see http://ghana.usaid.gov/) is contributing a lot to Ghana’s economy. Kofi Annan (Former Sec. General of the UN) and Mario Balotelli (Player in the Italian national soccer team) are good examples of popular Ghanaians in our western bubble.

The situation here, from my perspective, is not as bad as you might think:

  • There is a thought-through 7-layer universal healthcare system
  • There is primary and secondary education with mandatory enrollment (81% literacy). Ghana is pretty offensive in highlighting that its economy is very much pointed towards the digital future. ICT (Information and Communication Technology) is on the schedule in every high school.
  • Also people (usually) are not starving, and the economy is in pretty good shape (Ghana’s GDP growth of 14% in 2012 comes in second in the world after Qatar!)
  • Clean water supply is provided via un-recycled plastic water sachets. (Selling at about USD 0.10 per liter)
  • Transportation works through a pragmatic system of trotros (taxi-like vans with fixed routes) and shared taxis
  • Infrastructure is in ok shape, most important roads are well paved.

The biggest and most obvious problem (in my view) comes from a missing garbage recycling infrastructure. Most Trash is undealt with and infesting everywhere.

money

“Little money”

Last but not least I would like to highlight the apparent insignificance of little GDP from my perspective here in Ghana. With an annual GDP per capita of about USD 6000, Ghana would be considered poor by most standards. That is a very limited perspective. Cash flow is (not yet) the definition of the Ghanaian culture (as opposed to western commercialized culture). The GDP is, for example, not able to measure the economic effect of privately owned and used fields or farm animals. It’s also bullshit because the local value of the currency is much, much higher. You can buy a bread for GHC 0,50 (about a quarter). You can get a haircut for GHC 2 (about a dollar). You can take a cab through downtown for GHC 1 (About 50 cents). It’s only imported goods that are expensive.

The agricultural, un-commercial orientation of Ghanaian society has a lot of invaluable benefits. For example, relative independence from western financial crises. Or relative freedom from individualistic pressure for economic success. And relative freedom from the cancer that is the western financial services and financing culture (loans, mortgages, economical dependence on financial services sector). If you look around here, the landscape is riddled with unfinished buildings, looking like it was hit harshly by the burst housing bubble. When in fact it’s the opposite: People here rarely take mortgages to build something. They just build it step by step, one paycheck at a time.

If you look for a solution to the impossibility of the indefinite economic growth, which we use to define our culture, take Africa as an encouraging (!) inspiration. If you are afraid of western society collapsing (for its general unsustainability), try to embrace a culture that survives off of a minimal fraction of the resources we consume on a daily basis.

I would like to make the cyncial statement that luckily, western financial capitalism is destroying a lot, but most of all it is destroying itself. Because it is built on indefinite growth. Be optimistic! Be aware, that the positive effects of Globalization (Sharing of knowledge and ideas, Political convergence, International collaboration) are not dependent on western financial capitalism, which makes up most of the bad effects.

Cheers!

 

Akwaba. Welcome to Komenda!

Hi everyone!

I want my first blog post to be about the beautiful city of Komenda where I am living in. Komenda has about 5000 direct inhabitants, and roughly 30000 people are living in its greater area. It is part of the K.E.E.A district (Komenda-Edina-Eguafo-Abirem), and the biggest town there. Situated directly at the coast of the Atlantic, fishing plays a very big role here.

The town is very rich in history and mystery. According to the legends it was founded by a man named Komen who came to the dutch side of Komenda and asked the Dutch for shelter. The Dutch though refused his bid, and told him to look for shelter west of the river that was the border of Dutch-Komenda. They warned him though that a monster was living on the other side of the river. The Dutch promised Komen, that if he was able to kill the monster, they would give him all of the land west of the river. So Komen killed the monster, and not only gave Komenda it’s name, but also founded British-Komenda, west from Dutch-Komenda.

That’s what the legends say. Who knows what happened. But one thing is obvious even from the legend. Komenda was very very much intertwined in the colonial fights between the Dutch and the British for Ghana. There are many remainders visible of that, most importantly the Komenda Castle. Although in really bad shape, damaged by war, age and careless treatment, a lot of it is still surprsingly intact.

Komenda has everything one can wish for in Africa. A central water supply, electricity during most parts of the day (especially at night), and cellphone reception from three different providers (MTN, Glo, Vodafone). Vodafone is even 3G, so I have a better internet connection here than in some parts of Germany, which is kind of amazing.

What gave Komenda most of its current status is a sugar factory that was in operation in Komenda until about 30 years ago. Nobody knows why it closed. A lot of excitement here right now is due to the fact that an Indian investor is planning on reopening the plant.

Enjoy the pictures!

Shout out!

http://mischverstaendnisse.blogspot.de/

I find it very hard describe all the experiences coming at me right now. I would like to refer interested readers to another blog, that of Leonie, a fellow volunteer from Germany working in Ghana as well, but about 2 hrs north-east of Komenda, in the city of Swedru.

She perfectly describes many of the features of living here.

There is one line I would like to highlight since I could very much relate to it. Paraphrasing from German:

You are probably going to do most things wrong anyway – and there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as I stay myself, at least I’m comfortable in my skin.

cat

Hello out there!

Hey everyone!

I finally got to create my blog. I’m going to use it to keep you updated on my stay in Ghana! I also want to use it beyound that to publish some of the projects I’m working on and give you some news commentary wherever I think its worth it.

Feel free to comment. I’m looking forward to your input.

Enjoy and have fun!

enjoy