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Thinking Slower, Solving Problems Faster

Dan Kahneman’s model for better understanding human cognition opens our eyes to how humans can “upgrade” how we interact with the real world. The key point is that we act based on our beliefs about reality (our “System 1 or S1). These beliefs are fixed. But we solve problems by asking ourselves questions that open up mental room for new beliefs to form  (using our “System 2” or S2).

So what is the big deal? The big deal is that Dan offers us a way to build confidence in problem solving. We all have the capacity in S2, but we are not all using that capacity. Nor do we all believe that using this capacity adds value. As we grow more comfortable with the idea that beliefs drive us forward, we will get more comfortable with how to use S2 to update our  belief structures without unduly stressing ourselves.

Here is an interesting example. In the modern world, we rely on the advance of science and technology to develop solutions to our real world problems. Given the nature of our problems, we need these advances. And we tend to believe they occur. But in fact, we have not asked ourselves how this happens. Not asking this question leaves open the more important question or whether we can build institutions that more systematically develops science and tech based solutions to urgent problems.

But some folks are asking those questions, and are coming up with ideas about how to better link problems to research. This is just getting started.


Need Some Good News about the Future? Read This!

There is always reason to be nervous about the future. That is especially true these days as we face global issues that might make our planet significantly less inhabitable.

So what is the good news?

Step one – keep in mind that accelerations in improved standards of living have been facilitated by access to cheaper and more efficient energy sources. From the 18th to the 20th century, we went from wood to coal to oil and gas. In other words, upgrading our capacity to find and use energy is imperative. No, that is not the good news. It is just background.

Step two – We are just waking up to the problems with our heavy reliance on oil and gas. The two problems most often mentioned are that there are limited supplies of these resources, and they emit carbon into the atmosphere that causes climate change. BTW, there is a third that is less mentioned. To further raise living standards, we need more energy in the 21st century than oil and gas can provide us. Yes, that was just more background.

Step three – The solutions to our reliance on oil and gas are emerging. And here is the good news — the use costs of solar and wind energy are falling faster than anyone expected. And those costs are expected to fall further which will make building gas fired power plants non-competitie.

In other words, the switch to renewables as our major source of energy may occur a lot faster than anyone thought possible. That will have major positive implications for climate change.

And, btw, this leaves out another story that is unfolding. New nuke technology may give us access to a lot more power than we thought possible. I refer to thorium plants as well as fusion reactors. Neither of these technologies is close to coming online. But both hold promise of vastly expanding our access to clean power over the next half century.

And btw, battery tech is evolving rapidly as well. At present , it is still expensive, with a limited life span. Those problems are being addressed. Batteries are not just getting cheaper, they are getting better.

So cheer up! All is not lost … yet.

Paris at its Best

I refer to the Hoxton

Image result for Hoxton Paris

From Fathom

Not many stylish, millennial-friendly hotels make a point of incorporating 300-year-old architecture into their design aesthetic, but — perhaps because this is Paris, where history is ever present — Hoxton Paris did. The hotel is housed in an 18th century hôtel particulier that was built for Etienne Rivié, a top advisor to Louis XV, and served as his private residence. Its three buildings, the oldest of which is a designated monument historique, have undergone a scrupulous restoration effort to preserve original design and structural elements: The facade (a leading example of high rococo), fifteen staircases, iron columns, timber beams, and even decorative tiles (all of which have been renovated or repurposed).

And then there is this!

Image result for Hoxton Paris

What to Read in London

There is a virtual tsunami of  “what to do  in X” posts that flow through the web every day. I like this, and I post on them But I liked this idea even more — what to READ when you visit a given place.

Let’s face it. You probably don’t want to read something heavy. So no “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” for your next stop over in Rome. But fun books that get you into the spirit of a place? I am all for that. And this post got me thinking about this subject. Here is the post for what you might want to read in London

Forget Charles Dickens and Martin Amis. The best book you can possibly read to enhance your trip to London is the hilarious 90s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary. This diary-style comedy about a single woman in her 30s living and working in London is still one of the funniest books ever written. The book paints a fond picture of what it’s really like living in London with a group of friends who are like your family — although, thankfully, Bridget’s panic at being single amongst “smug marrieds” now feels like something from an outdated era.

The films are great too, of course (well, the first one is ;)) for gratuitous shots of London to retrace when you visit, but Helen Fielding’s witty words need to be read to be truly enjoyed.

Helen Fielding?

Image result for Helen Fielding

Yes, this is a so-called “rom-com” (romantic comedy). I  do not admit to being a huge fan of this genre. But in fact, they are a great stress killer. Want more on rom-com’s`Here is your article!

This is an apt comment about Briget Jones

… it’s loosely the plot of Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, with Bridget as Lizzy Bennet, Daniel as George Wickham (albeit one who cheats on Bridget rather than eloping with her sister), and Mark as a literal Mr. Darcy—a character Firth had actually played in the beloved 1995 Pride And Prejudice miniseries. But it also probably sounds familiar because virtually every rom-com that followed would incorporate at least some element of the Bridget Jones formula, often to diminishing returns.


The Distorted History of Alfons Rebane

You probably have not heard of Alfons Rebane. His name is not among the famous figures we think of when recalling 20th century history. And yet, his life story reflects a side of that history that is worth remembering.

Rebane was born in Estonia in 1908, and during its first independence time, he enjoyed a distinguished career the Estonian military.

On Estonian Independence Day on February 24, 1933, Rebane was commissioned as first lieutenant. From 1935 to 1939 he served as junior instructor in the Defence League Viljandi County Territorial Regiment, between 1939-1940 in the Lääne County Territorial Regiment. From January to June 1940 Rebane was the Commandant of Lihula

Here he is as a young officer

Image result for Alfons Rebane

You might notice that in the above personal history, there is no hint of any tendency in young Rebane to extreme politics or ideology. He was a young soldier. Period.

Things suddenly changed in 1940. The illegal and treacherous secret protocols of the Molotov Ribbentrop pact put Estonia and other countries in the Soviet sphere of influence. This enabled the Soviet Union to occupy Estonia in 1940.

The Soviets disbanded and absorbed most of the Estonian Armed Forces and arrested and executed the entire Estonian high command. Many junior officers, such as Rebane, were dismissed due to their lack of “political reliability” and were liable to be deported. For a while, Rebane worked in construction, then fled into the forests when the Soviets began mass deportations in 1941. (emphasis added)

Not a pretty picture.And in my view, it understates the crimes that were actually inflicted by the Soviets on Estonians during that occupation.  Rebane resisted.

He established and led an anti-Soviet Forest Brothers unit in Virumaa (Northern Estonia) in May 1941

Things suddenly changed again in 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and rapidly swept up the Baltic coast on their way to lay siege to Leningrad. Soviet forces fled the Baltics and the Germans occupied Estonia. In light of what had been going on there — things that are not widely known about outside of this region — the Estonians felt liberated from an oppressor.

A quick question, If you were an Estonian there at that time, would you have seen it any differently? And what would you have done if you were Rebane? If you were brave enough, there is a good chance that with your military background, you would have done exactly what Rebane did. You would have joined the German military to fight against the Soviets.

… he joined the German Wehrmacht and went on to fight against the Soviets in Northwestern Russia, subsequently becoming the captain of the 184th Security Battalion, then Major of the Estonian 658th Eastern Battalion. In February 1944 Major Rebane’s unit was transferred to the Narva Front and attached to the Wehrmacht‘s 26th Army Corps on March 2. On April 27, 1944, the unit was released from the Wehrmacht. Rebane, after initially refusing, was forced to join[4] the newly formed 20th (Estonian) Division of the Waffen-SS, eventually becoming colonel of the 47th Waffen-Grenadier Regiment.[1] The Estonian division played a significant role in the Battle of Narva and the Battle of Emajõgi, holding back the Soviet re-occupation of Estonia until the Soviet Tallinn Offensive, September 1944 while suffering heavy casualties. Rebane’s unit was then evacuated to Germany for refitting and saw more action on the Eastern Front in the spring of 1945.

A word about “joining the Waffen SS”.  For Estonians wanting to fight against the Soviets, the Germans did not give you choices. There was only way to do it – join the Waffen SS. In other words, Estonians did not join the Waffen SS because they were nazis. An important but overlooked point. and one that will be important in this post a bit later on.

We might also keep in  mind that the fighting that Rebane saw on the eastern border of Estonia in 1944 was particularly fierce. He and the others who fought there were trying to protect their homeland from an aggressor who had demonstrated vicious intent. No quarter was asked for, and none was given. As an example of how fierce this fighting was, the city of Tartu where I live now, was for 6 weeks on the font lines of that fighting. Over 50% of the city was reduced to rubble.

As fierce as the fighting was, there is no evidence that Rebane was anything other than a soldier doing his duty.  Moreover,

Rebane had a reputation for tactical skill.[5] With most of the Estonian forces captured by the Soviet Army in Czechoslovakia, Rebane managed to reach the British Occupation Zone with a number of his men at the end of the war.[4] Soldiers who fought in units under his command were colloquially referred to as “fox cubs” (Rebane translates to “fox” in Estonian)

There is more to Rebane’s life story, but you get the picture.

Now let’s take a look at a headline I saw in the media today

Estonia Celebrates a Nazi Criminal

For the record, this inflammatory headline refers to a private ceremony in the small town of Mustla, honoring none other than Alfons Rebane. In the ceremony,  a plaque was unveiled that is placed on the side of a private building. A more accurate headline would have been

Private Estonian citizens celebrate Aflons Rebane

Not as eye catching, but far more accurate. And what about the content? Was Rebane a  “Nazi criminal”?  There is no record that Rebane was a Nazi party member. Nor is this assertion carried through in the article. So we are left with the idea that he must have been convicted of crimes.  Was he? And what crimes?

Here is a quote from the article

Alfons Rebane collaborated with the Third Reich, holding the position of Standartenführer in the SS. He committed several war crimes in the Soviet Union.

What to make of this? Before getting into the text, did you notice the subtle shift in argument? The headline asserts that Rebame was a “nazi criminal”. We already know that he was no nazi. And when you read the article, you find that there is no claim that he was ever convicted of a crime. In other words, he was NOT a criminal. at all. The article merely accuses him of “crimes”. And such an accusation without evidence amounts to smoke and mirrors.

So what is this all about? Was Rebane a criminal because he allegedly “collaborated”? In fact,  Rebane was an Estonian soldier who fought for his country in the only way he could against an enemy that had committed outrageous crimes against the Estonian people. If that is collaboration, you probably would have done it too. More basically, it is no crime.

But did joining the Waffen SS make Rebane a criminal? After the war, there was a knee jerk reaction to say that any person who fought in the German Waffen SS was part of a criminal organization and automatically a war criminal. As I wrote above, this misrepresents why Estonians joined. It is also not an accurate statement of fact.

The Nuremberg Tribunal in declaring the Waffen SS a criminal organization explicitly exempted conscripts who had committed no crimes from that judgement, which included the Baltic Waffen-SS divisions. (emphasis added)


. The United States officials have declared the Baltic Waffen SS units not to be hostile to the Government of the United States and the units were “considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities and qualification from the regular SS”.[17] According to Andrew Mollo, a British writer who specialises in the SS uniforms: “the Estonian SS were very different from other SS units: Estonia had been occupied by the Red Army in 1940, the Estonians fought for the independence of their country and were brought under the SS umbrella against their will.”

Ruling that out, we are left with the notion that Rebane must have done something individually that was criminal. Long after the war, two journalists did accuse Rebane of perpetrating war crimes.

In 1977, Patrice Chairoff (fr) and Beate Klarsfeld alleged Rebane was a war criminal.[11]

But here is the end result.

According to a 2005 report published by the Estonian State Commission on the Examination of the Policies of Repression, investigations conducted by the KGB after World War II found no documents confirming the accusation against Colonel Alfons Rebane and his “army unit”. (emphasis added)

No evidence. And as far as I know, there is still no documentary evidence. The notion that Alfons Rebane was a “Nazi criminal” should be ignored as hyped up hogwash.

And yet, The Independent ran an article about this as well which sets forth

Jewish organisations have claimed in the past that Rebane, … was a Nazi executioner and that he was responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Jews and Russians between 1941 and 1945. (emphasis added)

The phrase “in the past” gives the game away that the claims are stale. There is no new evidence- But the charges are far more sensational than just committing “several war crimes”. Executioner? Responsible for the slaughter of thousands? Where? When? What records?  Again, none are offered and as far as I know, none exist.

I might add that after the war, the Soviet Union did allege that certain Estonians who had fought on the eastern front against them were guilty of war crimes. These persons were accused of executing Jews and Russians. Some were tried in abstentia. In one case, an in abstentia conviction led to an Estonian losing his US citizenship and being sent back to Soviet Estonia where he died mysteriously soon after his arrival. It is likely, therefore, that if Rebane indeed had “committed several war crimes” or had “executed thousands”, the Soviets would have acted against him as well. They did not. Nor were they any documents in their files that would support these claims. The lack of action by the Soviets as well as the lack of any documentary evidence in their files speaks volumes.

So, “Nazi criminal”?  A man who “committed several war crimes in the Soviet Union”? “Executioner”?  “Responsible for the slaughter of thousands”? I think not.

The bottom line — in the first linked article, the author makes allegedly factual statements that are not supported by the historical record. And there is no reference in the article to any sources for the assertions. The article in the Independent offers even more serious accusations, but once again, no basis to believe them. This is pure innuendo.

So why are these published? Why tarnish this man’s name and attempt to discredit Estonian citizens who want to remember Rebane as a brave man who fought for his country? Why lash out at Estonia as a country for remembering the past? I do not know the answer to those questions. But at least, I think, laying out what we do know helps us see the context of what happened, and what is alleged to have happened more clearly.

Many, many people suffered in that terrible war. Many died. We should remember them all. And we do. But the fact that one group suffered greatly does not give license to rewrite history to advance their agenda. If I am wrong about what happened or about Rebane, show me the evidence. Without that evidence, I suggest we all calm down.

The Basque Scene by Marti

A while back, my friend Eneko sent me a link to a blog about Basque Cuisine I took a brief peek, but at that moment, I was up to my eyeballs in lots of “stuff”.

Stuff`? What else can I call it? Stuff is what pops up in life that you cannot ignore. It might be planned, like my son’s graduation from university. Or it might be a surprise, like the unfortunate decision of the Estonian government to plan for a huge wood pulp mill upriver from Tartu (btw, now stopped it would appear). And then there is consulting and teaching.  You know, stuff!

Be that as it may, I have now had  time to consider this blog (called Blank Palate) more carefully. It is by Marti Buckley Kilpatrick,

a writer and cook living in San Sebastián, Spain.

Well, that is not all she does. Marti further writes

I created a little thing called the International Society for the Preservation and Enjoyment of Vermut, which is going strong worldwide. And makes me an official expert on vermouth by sheer quantity consumed,

And that is not all

My personal projects include an artisan popsicle business, called Pololo; a  2013 pop-up ice cream sandwich bakery bicycle called The Cookie, where I sold my artisan ice cream sandwiches, cookies, and donuts to unsuspecting Basque people.  You can read more about it in my interview with La Ser, Spanish radio, or via video on Basque television.

Artisan popsicles? Very cool!

Image result for Marti Buckley Kilpatrick

Here is a snippet from a recent post

As has been well established here on my blog, Asador Etxebarri is one of my favorite places to eat around these parts (see blog post titled Etxebarri : The Best Asador. Ever. or Etxebarri, The Return (It’s Even Better)).  I know…but it is just that good.  That’s part of the reason I begged and pleaded until Bittor Arginzoniz agreed to write the prologue of my upcoming book on Basque cuisine.

One things jumps off the page for me — celebrating what other great people can do. I love it! And I will be linking more to Blank Palate over the summer

Thanks Eneko!

Still Can’t Get Beyond Bourdain’s Passing

At first, I thought it was just me. I thought I was one of a small number of fans who felt a personal connection to Tony Bourdain, even though we did not know him. Perhaps it was because we are of the same generation. Or perhaps it was because of the central place food culture had in shaping his values.

Whatever. I was greatly saddened by his death. More so because he took his own life, leaving behind a young daughter. How could that have happened?

We will probably never know the answer to that question. We can only speculate that whatever demons Tony had inside him, on that particular night, they overwhelmed him. The better angels of his nature lost out.

So it goes. But the surprising thing is that Tony’s passing has brought out a lot more tributes than I would have expected.

Here is an example – from a younger chef whom he mentored.

And here, Carolina Miranda writes for LA Times that Tony’s work was not just about the food.

That last idea came through for me last night when I watched Tony’s portrait of Manila and the Philippines from Parts Unknown. It was not Tony’s first trip to the Philippines. But in this trip, you sense some sadness about how difficult life is for average people. They are good people, but the goodness and kindness does not translate into shared prosperity.