‘Mein Pate’ and the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program

Helmut Kohl and Congress-Bundestag students in 1986

From left, Jochen Messemer, Caecilia Hanne, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Todd Neff, and Frederic Pflanz on April 9, 1986.

We had been scheduled for 15 minutes, but between Helmut Kohl’s meetings with economic advisors, discussions with coalition partners about what to do about the assumed bombing by Libya of a Berlin discotheque four days before – plus having to squeeze in a meeting with East German Politbüro member Günther Mittag – there was only time for a quick photo op.

It was April 9, 1986. My host brother Frederic and I had woken at 6 a.m. in the Ludwigshafen suburb of Oggersheim, West Germany, a bit earlier than for a normal Wednesday school day at Carl-Bosch Gymnasium. We were going a bit further than downtown LU, instead taking the train to Bonn, the capital, to meet Helmut Kohl, the country’s chancellor.

I had turned 17 a few months earlier; Frederic would turn 18 in a few days. I was an exchange student; he had been an exchange student the previous year. Both of us were part of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program. It had launched a couple of years earlier. The program, jointly funded by the U.S. and West German governments, sent an American high school student to each Bundestag district in Germany and a German high school student to each U.S. Congressional district. The idea was to deepen U.S.-German ties in a Cold War era during which the threat of Soviet tanks rumbling through the Fulda Gap was quite real. Frederic, from Oggersheim, had spent a year in Kankakee, Illinois. I, from Dearborn, Michigan, was now in Oggersheim, the temporary third son of a family named Pflanz.

Oggersheim happened to be where Helmut Kohl was from. In the West German parliamentary system, the chancellor is also a member of the Bundestag. I had landed in Helmut Kohl’s district. And so, three-quarters of the way through my exchange year, Helmut Kohl’s staffers arranged for us to meet – actually, they had arranged for quite a bit more. This was an overnight trip, one that included a stop by the equivalent of the FBI headquarters in Wiesbaden, where we watched an anti-terror exercise, and also by the German Space Agency. All because, by random chance, I had ended up in the big guy’s district.

The moment crystallized in my memory is that of entering the enormous office and seeing the man at his desk, hurriedly checking something on a short stack of paper. He stood, confirming his famous size – six-foot-four, though at that point he was far short of the 300 pounds his obituaries last month cited. He wore a silvery suit that seemed to glow.

He shook all our hands, his grip soft, as if to offer comfort in the presence of such mass and gravitas. As we lined up for the photo we chit-chatted – he was surprised at my German: “Er spricht doch schon gut Deutsch.” I’d been immersed in a German family for nine months, so my German was in fact getting there, the fruits of countless hours of cramming and smile-nodding at things I scarcely understood. But Kohl’s infamous lack of foreign-language skills lent an irony to the comment that even a 17-year-old could grasp.

Within a minute or two we were hustled back out, to a conference room where an old reporter named Klaus Hoffman soon arrived. As a journalist now, I recognize this visit by teenagers as something between a very soft story and a nonstory. Hoffman was the equivalent of a White House reporter, though, and Die Rheinfalz was a big regional paper. Hoffman was a verygood writer, which I might have recognized at the time had I been able to read his product without consulting a dictionary. The headline: “Todd Neff Proud of His Godfather in the Chancellor’s Office.”

The real story would unfold much later, and it has to do with the Congress-Bundestag program itself. I can’t find the above article. A friend of mine WhatsApped it to me (notice the “Ü” on the keyboard above the headline, and the “€”, and the “Z” where the “Y” should be). That friend, Christian Volz, was a classmate of mine in 1985-1986. He and his family are visiting my family in Denver – tomorrow, in fact.

Last summer, his sister and her family visited, as did Frederic and his family. The summer before that, my family met that of Andreas Macha, another classmate, in San Diego. The summer before that, Andreas rented a big van and drove the two families around Southern Germany, and Christian hosted a “Welcome Neffs” party for about 50 folks.  I’m a godfather myself now – to Frederic’s son Phileas. If you include the kids, there are several dozen people in Germany whom I count as close friends, and my kids are friends with their kids now, too.

This all has political implications. Particularly in our current environment, there are dozens of Germans who know that not all Americans agree with what’s being currently purveyed as public and foreign policy. They have a personal connection to the United States they wouldn’t otherwise have. The real story is that the Congress-Bundestag program, as relates to this kid from Dearborn, worked in ways neither its creators nor its participants could have imagined.

Autonomous SmartDesk 2 sit-stand desk: a review

Autonomous SmartDesk 2 image

The Autonomous SmartDesk 2, Business Edition, shortly after assembly.

It’s probably an overstatement, and it’s become cliché, but there’s enough truth to it that it bears repeating: Sitting is the new smoking. And so when shopping for a desk, the smart money is on sit-stand.

There are, obviously, simple standing desks. I have two problems with these. One, standing can become as monotonous as sitting. Two, I’m a writer and work odd hours, which means I play odd hours – in my case, this can mean going for a run over lunch. After running 6-7 miles, I typically want to take a load off my legs. So whatever the solution, it would have to be a sit-stand desk.

The folks at Autonomous sent me the equivalent of a review copy of such a desk. In this case, it’s a 53-inch by 30-inch, walnut surfaced, grey-undercarriaged SmartDesk 2 Standing Desk Business Edition (the link defaults to the $299 Home Edition; the Business Edition retails for $399 and pops up when you scroll down a slight bit and click on the Business Edition option; shipping and handling is $49 for either one).

At about 29 inches, just right for sitting.

The Home and Business Editions look the same. The difference is under the hood, so to speak: the Home Edition has a single motor that moves the desktop up and down from 29 inches to 47 inches, with a 220 pound capacity and a one-year warranty. The Business Edition on which I now type sports dual motors and rises from 24 inches to 51 inches, with a 300-pound capacity and a five-year warranty. Another difference between the two, and perhaps decisive to the highly impatient, is that the Business Edition moves up and down 2.3 times faster than the Home Edition’s one inch per second.

And at 51 inches, roughly armpit height for the average American adult male, and well into power-forward territory as far as standing-desk height.

Unless you’re using Olympic plates as monitor stand, I have a hard time imagining why one would need the extra 80 pounds of desktop weight capacity. Being able to go as low as about two feet could well benefit folks with small children, as that’s low enough for the tiniest of chairs. On the other end, I can tell you that 51 inches is up to roughly the armpits of a 5’10” adult male. For the record, someone my height will probably find the 40-42 inch range maximally comfortable – I’m at 42.1 inches as I stand right now. While writing the previous paragraph, I was at 29.1 inches.

As far as the speed of motion, 2.3 inches per second may or may not sound like a lot, but it’s about a foot every five seconds, which is pretty damn fast, as the below video shows.

While functionally similar, I will say that having electric motors do the work is much more satisfying than manually raising and lowering the Varidesk I use in another workspace. It also allows for leaning on the desk, which Varidesk users do at their peril while standing.

In addition to the manual up-down controls on a sleek black keypad anchored to the bottom of the desk, there are four preset options. You set these by raising or lowering the desk to the desired height, holding a button labeled “M” until the LED displaying this height starts to blink, and then pressing one of four buttons labeled 1 through 4. I’ve set two, at 42.1 inches and 29.1 inches. Press a button and, 10 seconds of quiet whirring later, the table arrives at the desired height like a dog much more obedient than mine. I imagine that, in an office environment, this feature might attract pranksters – who could, say, change my 29.1-inch preset 1 to the maximum 51 inches. I will not be teaching my daughters about the presets.

Otherwise, from a functional perspective, the SmartDesk 2 Business Edition is solidly built, looks sleek, has nice silvery caps in the far corners for plugs and other wires to descend through. Weighing in at probably 80-90 pounds, it doesn’t move at all with my typing despite being on carpet. In all, this is a very nice product to use. The question you might have, then, is how easy or hard it was to assemble. So let’s talk about that.

Probably the hardest thing about assembling the SmartDesk 2 will be getting in into your dwelling. That’s not all that difficult, either, really, thanks to the fact that it arrives in two boxes: The first, 38 pounds, holds the desktop; the second, 67 pounds, contains the legs, feet, motor(s), and control electronics. The desktop is unwieldy but not all that heavy; the legs etc. box is heavy but small enough to allow leverage. I moved them both around solo without a problem.

I will not drag you through the entire assembly process, which took just over an hour. My experience assembling various Ikea furniture was probably helpful, but this is straightforward, step-by-step stuff. The printed instructions sufficed; had they not, there are videos on the Autonomous website. I did take a few photos, which I’ll drop below. I will say that, unlike Ikea furniture, I assembled this with a sort of Christmas-morning anticipation, one which heightened right off the bat when I noted that the dual motors are called, technically, linear actuators. But you don’t rush these assembly experiences, I’ve learned from various Ikea fails (none cataclysmic). It all came together with impressive precision, and as with my Ikea constructions, I’m confident that the bolts are tight, having tightened them myself.

Bottom line: This is an attractive, robust piece of office furniture that looks great and is easy on both body and budget.

With that, I leave you with a few assembly-related images.

The SmartDesk in its travel duds.


The desktop upon opening of the box. The packaging, particularly around the edges, is damn-near bulletproof.


The undercarriage box upon opening. Lots of heavy foam padding here.


The desk, a little over an hour later, assembled and ready to go. The linear actuators are at the top of each leg, connected to the control box (center), which in turn is connected to the keypad (lower left). It is critical, at this point, to turn the desk over to enjoy optimum functionality. Note that Autonomous sends along cable stays for the truly organized; I made due with the twisty ties that had bound the cables during shipment.

Maps matter way beyond finding the nearest coffee shop

a vintage map of the world

A Skype conversation skips across continents with no perceptible lag. The manufacturing economy cranks forth like a containerized, globally integrated, seamless, just-in-time wonder. Hollywood films are released simultaneously in Boston, Berlin and Beijing, often finding larger audiences in China than anywhere else.

It’s enough to make the world seem flat. Not so fast, says Robert Kaplan. [more]

How the Chernobyl nuclear disaster led this woman to catch a wave

Inna Braverman

With wave power, it all seems pretty straightforward.

Waves come from the wind. Wind power is already a big-time clean-energy source (producing about 2.5 percent of the world’s electricity and growing). Water is 784 times denser than air, providing a lot more energy per cubic meter. Plus, people tend to live near coasts where the waves are: in the United States, for example, more than half the population lives within 50 miles of the ocean and all that potential energy.

It’s not straightforward. Complexities abound, ranging from where to site wave power installations (Offshore? Underwater? Free-floating or anchored?) to how to transmit the power they generate. And while not trivial, that’s the easy part. The hard part has to do with actually harnessing those wind-driven waves.

Wind blows in one direction, a relatively consistent, unidirectional power source, at least in the span of a few seconds. Waves are up and down and back and forth by nature. You can’t just miniaturize a wind turbine, sink it in the drink and fire up a toaster with water-born electrons.

So when Inna Braverman tells you that the company she co-founded — Tel Aviv, Israel-based Eco Wave Power — has come up with a really good way to harness those waves and fire up those toasters, know that it’s a big deal. [more]

Alex Szalay: Big data a big step forward for science

There have been three major eras in the history of science, as Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist and computer scientist Alex Szalay describes it. The first, which lasted for millennia, was empirical, involving mostly the recording of data: Chinese star charts, Leonardo da Vinci’s codices on how turbulent water flows, Tico Brahe’s recording of the motions of planets. The second era, which he calls the theoretical paradigm, launched when Brahe gave his observations to Johannes Kepler, who came up with the laws of planetary motion. [more]