Sunday, October 27, 2019

Where can I get to in 12 hours from Konstanz without flying?

The Scientists4Future at the HU Berlin have launched a project to eschew short-haul flights, provided that the journey can instead be completed within 12 hours by rail. This blog post gives an overview of some of the places you can get to this way. (Hopefully, a few of them will SHOCK you!)

The Deutsche Bahn website was used to calculate all the below journey options, with 28th Oct 2019 as the (fairly arbitrarily chosen) notional day of travel.

So, what are your options...?

1. Anywhere in Germany

Okay, this is a slight exaggeration. The shortest time I can see to get to Westerland, on the island of Sylt, is 12:25. And Ostseebad Binz, on the island of Rügen, takes at least 12:59, with the quickest route to Stralsund coming in at 12:06. Hopefully you won't begrudge me the extra few minutes, though, especially since none of these are particularly common destinations for academic business trips.

Hamburg, on the other hand, can be done in 8:13 with only one change. Berlin can be done in 8:36, and Köln in a mere 5:01. This may not be particularly surprising to anyone, though, so let's move on.

2. Anywhere in Austria, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, or Switzerland

Austria is not as long as it looks. Graz can be got to in just over 10 hours, Klagenfurt in just over 9, Vienna in less than 9. The longest trip I've been able to find is to Jennersdorf, on the border with Hungary, and apparently a fairly unremarkable place. Still doable in under 12 hours.

As for Belgium, a trip to De Panne, on the North Sea coast near the French border, will be over in the blink of an eye (9:59). The pretty little town of Couvin, at the end of a branch line in Wallonia near Namur, will take you 10:26. More usefully, you can reach Brussels within seven hours.

Liechtenstein is obvious, as is Luxembourg (just over 6 hours). Almost everywhere in Switzerland is accessible within 5 hours; if you want to train it to Brusio with its spiral viaduct, high in the Alps on the Bernina railway, you'd better leave 6:20.

The Brusio spiral viaduct (CC-BY 3.0, by Kabelleger)

3. Most places in Czechia or the Netherlands

Ostrava, the Czech town that's the furthest from Konstanz (near the border with Poland), will push you over the limit at 12:20, as will Olomouc at 12:09 (just). But Prague can be reliably got to in a piffling 9:32, and Brno in 10:38. Meanwhile, Amsterdam is a comfortable 8:35, and Groningen or Rotterdam can be reached in under 10. If you want to go right to the North Sea coast on a branch line, brace yourself for a longer journey, though.

4. Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia

Bratislava is only 10:13, and Ljubljana a mere 10:24! As for Denmark, Hungary and Poland, admittedly, you probably won't get to anywhere useful within these countries in 12 hours. But Budapest, for instance, is only 12:09, Poznan is only 12:16, and places like Aarhus, Copenhagen, Warsaw and Wroclaw are doable as part of a longer day. Zagreb, in Croatia, is only just out of reach at 12:44, and there's also a sleeper that goes there from Zurich.

5. Northern and Central Italy, and almost all of France

At 5:41, Milan is embarrassingly easy to reach. From there you can travel onwards to lots of other major cities within the 12-hour limit: Florence at 7:37, Rimini 8:29, Venice 8:31, Rome 9:14, Trieste 10:30, Naples 10:47. Only the far south and Sicily take longer.

France is astonishingly accessible. With Paris less than five and a half hours away, you can be there in time for a leisurely lunch. Connections via Paris, Dijon and Strasbourg will also get you to places like Lille (7:17), Marseille (7:42), Bordeaux (8:16), Nantes (9:07), Toulouse (11:05), Bayonne (11:07), and even Brest at the very tip of Brittany (an incredible 10:08, if you can leg it across Paris fast enough). You'll only struggle with getting somewhere in France within 12 hours if it's at the far end of a tiny branch line.

If you are a fan of micro-states, Vatican City (via Rome), San Marino (via Rimini) and Monaco (10:15) are all within your grasp. And Barcelona is SO DAMN CLOSE to being under the limit (12:21), putting you not that far from Andorra (okay that's a stretch but work with me here). Another Spanish destination that's easily doable within a day is Irun, in the Basque country, at a fairly comfortable 12:36. And if you stay on that last train you'll end up in Lisbon in the morning.

6. The UK

London is reachable in 8:59 by Eurostar via Paris, if the patron saint of connections extends his blessing to you. More usually it'll be about 10 (you need to hang around a bit in Paris). The Eurostar will also allow you to travel on to Cambridge (10:23), Oxford (11:04), Birmingham (11:17), York (11:29), Sheffield (11:55), and even Manchester (11:56), just. Within a slightly longer day you can also get to the capitals of Wales (Cardiff, 12:36) and Scotland (Edinburgh, 14:22), as well as Leeds (12:07), Newcastle (12:44) or Lancaster (12:46).

So that's not a bad range of places for half the time it takes for the Earth to rotate on its axis. Here's a map giving an overview:

With options like this, why would you fly short-haul to any of these places?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Ritter Sport Winter 2019

The three new winter varieties Bunte Vielfalt varieties are here! Novelty value is low, however; two are repeats not only from 2018 but also from 2017. Spekulatius is a well-deserved 9/10 and Gebrannte Mandel is a worthy but not hugely inspiring 6.5/10. There's also:

Dunkle Minz Crisp: 9/10
Mmm, a dark chocolate variety with just enough crunchy minty sugary bits to taste like a gigantic After Eight – but without the annoying squidginess. I would dearly like to see this one again in future.

Monday, August 05, 2019

6 weird German things

Ever since I moved to Germany in March 2017 I have been an astute observer of local customs. These six quintessentially German weird things have made their way onto my Facebook wall, and here they are compiled for your reading pleasure. Most of them turn out to be related to buses.

1. Bus seating rituals

When someone sits down next to an occupied seat on a bus, the person on the inside will often immediately start a conversation about when they are planning to get off. If it then turns out that the person on the inside is getting off first, the two people will often permute. This whole process seems less efficient than the person on the inside simply saying "Excuse me, I want to get out" when it's time for them to do so.

2. Opening times for the bottle bank

Bitte beachten Sie die Einwurfzeiten!
Using the bottle bank on a Saturday? VERBOTEN. Using it at 2pm? VERBOTEN. Using it at 8pm? VERBOTEN. Using it at 7 in the ****ing morning? Yeah, sure, go right ahead.

3. Oh deer

"der Rentier" vs. "das Rentier". When the WWF started sending me emails about "Rentier under threat", I was a bit confused about why they wanted to protect pensioners/people living off their capital. Turns out that morphology, pronunciation, and gender are important. Who knew?

4. The vanishing bus

Fährt vom Pfingstsonntag bis zum letzten Tag in den Sommerferien.
A bus that only exists between Pentecost and the last day of the Baden-Württemberg summer holidays. Guess I’ll take the next one, then.

5. The Gutenberg gap

Your IP Address in Germany is Blocked
No access to Project Gutenberg in Germany. :'(

6. Stop the Germany, I Want to Get Off

By and large, Germans are awful at letting people get off the bus before they try to get on. They just stand in front of the door in a confused mass until someone asks them to move. I can only assume this is related to either a) the congenital inability of anyone without Great British DNA to queue properly, b) an apparently widespread German paranoia that minor things in daily life will go TERRIBLY WRONG, or c) both.

Then again, Konstanz bus drivers are psychopaths. They will quite happily lower the bus to ground level so that someone in a zimmer frame can trundle on comfortably, then close the door and stamp on the accelerator while that person is still looking for a seat.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

What's on George's bookshelf?

Having previously had fun with Mensa menus, I used the same methodology on the list of book titles to be found in my office. My research profile gives some indication of what to expect, and textgenrnn did not disappoint. Here are some of its plausible offerings:

Historical language change
The prose of the English phrase
A dictionary of complementation
Usage and context and syntax in dialect
English texts in English syntax
A dictionary of German linguistics
Syntax and the second language
The book of morphosyntactic finites
The beginning of English
Word order and comparative clauses in the English language
French accent in the Netherlands 1999
Germanische Grammatik
Old English phonologicalization

Of course it didn't get everything right:

Langenschrosy: a modision of complemanish
Historical languages verolant, II: Simpler Saga
Negation and the history of der Verbman of English language
Prose and a compronigonal comparative linguistics
The seastion of the Sprachwisch Strong Edenisher, I: Canbity 2001
Deutsche Sprachgeschichte III: Slaut-Proto-Germanic und a historical linguistic variation
Deutsches Sprachwisspecticalization
The and language productivity: a comparative linguistic comparation
The Bitcher of English attornal and what are theory case of index of syntax
Zis Grammatistics
Dialectologynical linguistics
Pissictional linguistics: a dictionary of the English language clause of the English
Cancelled to Prose Germanic Fellectoon
Historicle and the builds of proon on the history of English

And in some instances I would totally buy the book. Or maybe even write it.

Berk's Simpler English language
The strut of linguistic change
Fruits and the laws of the English structure in Middle English language
Word order and the history of the Endlands of English syntax
Syntax is the best century in the English vocabulary, I: a history of the English language clauses
A history of the English vocabulary, I: Old Old English
A dill of linguistics
The east of linguistic sociolinguistics
Der Saga des Urgermanische Sociolings
syntax on the syntax: a syntax of the English language
The grammar of linguistic cocainers: a comparative place in order and the history of English
Handwood: a syntax of linguistics

Once again, hat tip to, whose idea I've basically stolen here.

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Dominic Raab: "I deeply regret taking skooma"

Following yesterday’s explosive revelations, Conservative leadership hopeful Dominic Raab has expressed deep regret at his occasional skooma use earlier in life.

Raab, 45, admitted to taking the drug repeatedly when studying abroad at Winterhold College in the 90s. In his defence he claimed that his then-role as Dragonborn, destined to prevent the return of Alduin, was putting him under “immense pressure” leading him to make some “questionable decisions”, and that he had fallen into bad company.

“Some on the left will try to tell you that the skooma problem doesn't exist – that it's a fiction,” Raab added. “But I can assure you that the threat posed by skooma is very real.”

A former Brexit Secretary, Raab is known for his tough stance on Khajiit caravans and his unstinting support of leaving the EU, and has outlined plans for new trade deals with Elsweyr and Black Marsh in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Ritter Sport Summer 2019

Interestingly, these are now called “Bunte Vielfalt” (colourful diversity) rather than “Sommergenuss”. Moving away from the seasonal pattern...?

This summer we witness the return of Zitronen-Waffel, which previously received a respectable 7.5/10, and on justifiable grounds. The caveat that holds for regular Waffel also holds here: it tends to fall to bits.

The other two are new, as far as I can tell.

Himbeer Joghurt: 8/10. Deliciously tart, with crunchy bits. The only reason this one doesn’t get rated higher is because I miss Brombeer Joghurt (which I’ve rated twice before, once with 8 and once with 9), and this one is a smidgeon less good.

Erdbeer-Mousse: 5/10. I’m not a huge fan of the mousse varieties (with their 3x3 rather than 4x4 layout) in general, and this one isn’t great even by those standards. Strawberry really needs to be complemented with something very creamy, but this mousse is, I’m afraid, rather too dry and fluffy while at the same time sweet and sticky - almost candyfloss-like. Not my thing.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

What's for lunch at the University of Konstanz?

A fun post for my 34th birthday. Inspired by, I trained a text-generating neural network, textgenrnn, on a dataset of meals served at the Mensa (cafeteria) of the University of Konstanz. Some of their offerings are on the creative side anyway: Banane-Lauchsauce, for instance. So I thought the university might be able to save a bit of money by firing the people who design the menus and replacing them with a bot. Long live full automation!

It's a pretty small dataset, so the network struggles to learn what a German word is supposed to look like:

Gemuserauce "Joghurt" Joghurt (olikenkartocild) mit Vollgessauce
Brackarkuschsteet Ketchup | Kase-Artiatiraten | Paprika-Sauce
Kedablacher | Bokentomanela
Frollogghw | Blatter-Fractese | Blattsalat | Blattsalat-Balassauce | Blattsalat

Very often it settles on things that look at least like actual words, but which don't refer to anything (as far as I know):

Frucken | Kaperniger Wurst | Bratkartoffeln | Bratensauce
Gorgarbonn | Kartoffeln | Bratensauce | Romanescogressing | Asia-Quard | Pomulasus | Spatzle
Blattsalat-Balsamicodressing | Kot | Kartoffeln | Salat-Cordmendrondrick
Rindfleischstreinten | Paprika | Petersilienestreifen in Banane
Spatzle Burger | Put-Honig-Senf-Honig-Secktafartoffeln
Cannische Ripslauch | Kartoffeln, Zitronenecke | Brot
Frikaaghurt mit Rahmspinat | Salat-Balsamicodressing | Brot

It also doesn't have much concept of what combinations of flavours work best:

Kartoffel-Gemusesauce | Pudding mit Hahnchenfleisch | Brot
Milchreis | Kartoffeln | Karotten | Bohnen
Pasta | Gemuse | Karotten | Orangen | Bratensauce | Blattsalat-Balsa-Kase-Sauce
Hahnchengeschnetzeltes mit Kirschen

But there are also several dishes that are more than conceivable:

Kartoffelpfanne "Asia" | Brot
Currywurst | Paprika-Dressing | Kartoffelpuree | Brot
Hahnchenbrustschnitzel | Kartoffeln | Bananenjoghurt
Pasta | Schinkenberge | Basmatireis
Schweineschnitzel | Zuckerschoten | Basmatireis

And more that are not outside the realms of possibility at our Mensa:

Orientalische Frischkasesauce
Pasta | Apfelmus
Chili con Banane-Tomatensauce | Basmatireis
Kartoffelpfanne "Chili mit Kartoffel"
Fruchtige Bratwurst | Pommes frites | Ketchup | Krauterbutter | Brokkolisch | Batailin | Brot
Chili con Carne | Kabeljoghurt mit geriebener Bratwurst | Basmatireis
Lasagne "Cock" | Hahnchenbruststreifen in Bauernwurst | Blattsalat-Balsamicodressing | Salat-Balsamicodressing

One thing's for sure, though: this bot is Swabian born and bre(a)d.

Spatzle | Spatzle | Spatzle | Brot

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Remain tactical voting in NW: vote Green or Lib Dem

The tl;dr version of this post is:
  • If you want to vote Lib Dem, do that.
  • If you want to vote Green, do that.
  • If you want to vote Change UK, don’t. Instead vote Green or (if you can’t stomach them) Lib Dem.
  • If you are pro-Remain and want to vote Labour, consider voting Green or Lib Dem instead.
  • If you are pro-Brexit, spoil your ballot. None of the parties can give you the hard Brexit you know we all need. F*ck the system!
(This post assumes that you’re a voter in the North West England electoral district for the European Parliament elections on 23rd May 2019, and that your priority is to send the strongest possible pro-Remain signal, understood as electing the most MEPs for unambiguously pro-Remain parties. If you don’t want this, then this post is not for you.)

Remain United is recommending that all Remainers in England vote Lib Dem. The idea behind this is that everyone should simply vote for the predicted largest pro-Remain party in each region. This, however, is a bad strategy because it doesn’t take into account the electoral system. In an ideal world where all Remainers voted tactically for the predicted largest pro-Remain party, it would work fine. But this won’t happen, and sub-optimal tactical voting could seriously screw things up. In districts with several seats, as Heinz Brandenburg explains:
If, for example, tactical voting pushes one pro-Remain party close to 15% but reduces the two others to 5 or 6%, the bigger party will not have enough to win multiple seats ... while the others could both fail to win a single seat. That could reduce the pro-Remain parties to a single seat where three could have been won.
Indeed, Remain United’s own projections show that if 50% of all Remain voters in the North West vote in the way they suggest (Lib Dem), the distribution of seats would not change: 4 for Labour, 2 for the Brexit Party, 1 each for the Tories and Lib Dems.

It’s worse than that, in fact. In what follows I use the ComRes/Electoral Calculus estimates (also used by Remain United):
  • Conservatives: 12%
  • Labour: 36%
  • Liberal Democrats: 10%
  • Change UK: 8%
  • Green Party: 7%
  • Brexit Party: 24%
  • Other: 3%
I assume that this is a good model in what follows. Using the d’Hondt method, the seats would be assigned as follows:
  • 1. Lab
  • 2. Brex
  • 3. Lab
  • 4=? Lab/Brex/Con (it's not possible to be more precise)
  • 7. Lib Dem
  • 8. Lab
All else being equal, in order for the Lib Dems to get 2 seats rather than 1 by soaking up votes from Change UK and the Greens, they’d have to get 18-19% of the 25% Remain party voters, virtually doubling their vote share. Realistically that won’t happen; and it isn’t possible for them to get 3 seats that way. The most that shuffling the Remain votes around like this can achieve is to win 2 seats, the second of which would be at Labour’s expense.

There is another way, however. The question to ask is: Starting from the projections, what is the minimal change that would need to be made in order to get 2 pro-Remain seats? The obvious answer is that Change UK are sitting on 8%, just below the 9-10% threshold they’d need to nab a seat from Labour. If they could grab another 1-2% from the Greens’ share, they could get that seat.

As a tactical voting recommendation, that’s probably not going to fly, however. A recent YouGov poll suggested that, of the three pro-Remain parties, Green voters are by far the least likely to compromise by voting for one of the others (and congrats if you’re a principled Green voter and have read this far). Change UK voters, on the other hand, are much happier to vote tactically, at least insofar as tactical voting is comparable to an anti-Brexit electoral pact. And in this connection it’s worth mentioning that the Greens have an established supporter base in the North West, and came very close to getting a seat in 2014.

The estimate puts the Greens on 7%, so if they can get another 2-3% from Change UK voters - or from Labour Remainers, who ought also to be shiftable - they could get a seat. To me, that seems the most achievable goal of the three.

It’s worth emphasizing, though, that all these scenarios involve the second Remain seat being pinched from Labour, not the Tories or the Brexit Party, who are the real hard Brexit flag-flyers. So at the end of the day it might not be worth it, depending on how you rank your personal principles. It’s also important that Lib Dems do get the seat they’re estimated to get, and that in itself is close. You wouldn’t have to massage the figures much for the Lib Dems to end up with no seats and the Brexit Party to pick up a third one (-2% Lib Dem, +2% Brexit Party would do it). So it’d be irresponsible to advise anyone who’s planning to vote Lib Dem to change their vote.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

A special place in hell for who?

European Council president Donald Tusk has been getting a lot of stick from Brexiteers recently for this comment:

Some on the Leave side have reacted angrily. Some on the Remain side have taken this reaction as a sign that they had no plan to begin with. For example:

James O'Brien is right about many things, but I don't think he's right about this. The crucial question is whether Tusk is describing all Brexit-promoters as having no plan (which is how I read it), or pointing only to those Brexit-promoters who had no plan (which is how James O'Brien read it). That's a linguistic question, and it has to do with how the prepositional phrase (PP) "without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely" is to be interpreted.

PPs within noun phrases can be interpreted in two different ways, just like relative clauses. They can be either restrictive or non-restrictive. Restrictive PPs pick out a particular subset of the people (or things) described by the unmodified noun phrase. Non-restrictive PPs add extra information about the people described by the unmodified noun phrase. Compare the following examples:

  1. The Brexiteers, who had no plan, are going to hell. (non-restrictive)
  2. The Brexiteers who had no plan are going to hell. (restrictive)
  3. The Brexiteers, with no plan, are going to hell. (non-restrictive)
  4. The Brexiteers with no plan are going to hell. (restrictive)

The first two examples involve relative clauses, and the last two involve PPs. In both cases it's the commas that make all the difference, at least if your intuitions are anything like mine. In the restrictive (2) and (4), only those Brexiteers who didn't have a plan are going to hell. In the non-restrictive (1) and (3), on the other hand, all the Brexiteers are going to hell, and in addition they're all described as not having a plan.

Looking again at Tusk's tweet, he used a comma, which suggests to me that the intended reading was the non-restrictive one. We can't be sure that was what he intended, of course: punctuation is one indicator, but it's not a particularly reliable guide to anything, especially on Twitter. But in the video version there's a pause, which also suggests a non-restrictive interpretation.

What's particularly interesting is that Tusk didn't actually assert that all Brexiteers had no plan, even under the non-restrictive reading. Non-restrictive modification is tricky like that: the information introduced by the non-restrictive phrase is backgrounded, which is one of the things that makes them particularly annoying to argue against.

Anyway, it's pretty clear that the point is mainly an academic one, since no one actually did have a plan for Brexit, either on the Leave or the Remain side (unless you count the weirdos and supervillains who were gunning for a no-deal Brexit all along; and even that arguably counts as not having a plan how to carry it out safely). But the broader point is that syntax and semantics are interesting! And hopefully I'll see you in that special place in hell that's reserved for people who turn serious political issues into fun linguistics problems. :)

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Ritter Sport Spring 2019

"Spring"? Well, these varieties were on the shelves on 1st February, so I guess so. The snow outside must just be an illusion.

We've had Johannisbeer-Streusel two years in a row, so no need to recapitulate its excellence (8.5/10). Buttermilch-Zitrone is also a well-known combo, though is more usually encountered during the summer months. Two new ones, though, one of which (Waffel) is not actually a spring variety, but a new addition to the regular line-up.

Haferkeks + Joghurt: 7/10
The crunch is very nice, but the yoghurt filling is not a favourite of mine, as it just tastes a bit too fake. So this one gets a compromise rating.

Waffel: 5/10
This one comes with a health warning: do not, under any circumstances, use the usual Knick-Pack technique to open this Ritter Sport. If you do, the whole package will explode, showering bits of waffle and chocolate everywhere. The structural unsoundness of this variety (plus the fact that I only ate about half of it, and the rest is still irretrievably lodged in dark corners of my sofa) contributes to my not-very-complimentary rating, which is probably unfair as far as taste and mouthfeel are concerned. Approach with caution.