Friday 28 May 2010


Can anyone guess what this guitar playing and singing is all about? It is not evident and I misjudged the event completely myself. To keep up attention to the full, let me wait with telling you the story behind the picture. Maybe we can come back to it towards the end of this posting, provided there is room for it there.

The week before last was Finals week at UCB. All week long, students were sitting around campus, not moving a limb, staring at books or computer screens wherever you went. Hardly a seat available at the cafés outside the various libraries, not to speak of inside the libraries proper, and a huge crowd was seated in a lofty “ballroom”, located behind the café in the Chávez Student Center close to Sather Gate.

The latter crowd intrigued me, since there was no silence to speak of in this huge hall, rather, a consistent low-volume buzz reigned, created by small groups having semi-silent discussions. Curious as I am, I immediately investigated the situation. It turned out that this was the locality for student-to-student tutoring in the “hard sciences”. You had to reserve time with a senior student, who would help you with your last minute issues prior to exam. Well, I have studied at four academic institutions and it is the first time ever I have seen anything so neighbourly and well organised in higher education. This serves as a good example for other universities!

This being the second term of the academic year, finals are, of course, to be followed by graduation ceremonies, for those who have done their homework in time, and have done so the necessary several years in a row. So, seeing all this diligence, I was starting to gear up my camera for the big graduation ceremony for those leaving campus, but thought that there would be plenty of time for my preparations, given the need for faculty to correct exams and pronounce results prior to the ceremony. But this is America, folks here are more in a hurry than elsewhere.

On Saturday of Finals week I ambled in the general direction of campus after my usual post-luncheon coffee at Peet’s on Telegraph, not expecting any special activity at Sather Gate, the week having been characteristically devoid of joyous prancing at Sproul Plaza. But I had hardly put my foot on campus grounds when being met by a shock of people, half of them youngsters in black gowns and funny hats, carrying flowers in their hands, as well as around their necks, and the other half, somewhat older, with big smiles on their face and shining cameras on their waving hand.

It dawned on me that graduation ceremonies were already in full swing. But how could this be? Finals were barely over and dons could not possibly have corrected all the exams during the night between Friday and Saturday? Whilst shaking my head at this unwarranted degree of urgency, suddenly, I heard a fresh voice shouting “Emiiiil”! And who came towards me with a big smile on her face, and graduation attire draped over her shoulder, if not my old (or rather, young) friend from Memory Glade, Catherine!

She was just back from her graduation ceremony near – you guessed it – Memory Glade, but told me that the post-graduation party was still in full swing on this huge lawn, as made for partying. Catherine, if you read this, permit me to extend to you my most hearty congratulations, also on behalf of all the readers of this blog, who have learnt about your sophisticated games at “Big Games down Memory Glade”. If you have time, we would also appreciate a comment from you, telling us, which school or department you graduated from.

As Catherine rushed off, together with her parents, I hurried in the opposite direction, to get at least some pictures from the UCB graduation festivities, the main part of which I thought I had sadly missed. When I arrived at the glade, the party was already over and youngsters were again beginning to frolic on the lawn, the main difference being that black gowns now dressed their young bodies – well, kind of.

At that stage, I felt thoroughly sorry for myself for having missed what I conceived as the grand finale of UCB activities. It may surprise you, but graduation ceremonies appear to affect me deeply. They represent the end of a long and hard, but at the same time charming education period, a turntable in life, a looking forward to forthcoming careers. Education has meant everything for me. Has it not catapulted me from life in a, granted cosy but, poor village at the outermost corner of Austria to a fulfilling working life with high administrative posts, first in Sweden, thereafter in Geneva and, finally, in Europe’s Capital?

So I know in my bones what education must mean to American, as well as foreign guest, students, often coming from families with moderate means, for whom economic advancement through successful careers is the quintessence of life. Being allowed to celebrate with them the fulfilment of their dreams, in a great ceremony, would constitute a privilege for a person with my background. The more so since I never found occasion to partake, despite my 22 years of academic studies, in any graduation ceremony of my own. I even missed my Ph. D. ceremony in Stockholm’s town hall, where they would have saluted me as new Laureate with cannon shots and all.

Seeking consolation I headed, with my head bowed in contemplation, towards the small park adjacent to the Campanile. All was calm and only a lonely couple kept me company when I raised my camera to the elegant fountain located in the middle of this small greens interspaced by sycamores. However, when turning my head in the other direction, I could not help noticing a great number of chairs being placed just below the tower. At the same time people started to drop in and it became evident that a ceremony of some kind was in preparation also here, in the absolute centre of UCB.

Imagine my joy when I was informed that this was to be the graduation ceremony of the School of Information, the youngest institution on Campus, placed just in the vicinity of the Campanile, in the oldest building on Campus, South Hall. This was a special treat for me with my background as information economist. The school was founded as recently as 1996, with, of all people, Hal Varian as founding Dean.

Hal is well known as the author of THE famous textbook on microeconomics, which has delighted generations of budding economics graduates, so it came as a surprise to me that he also was a specialist in information economics. But, if you study his publications, he managed to embrace the new computer world with a vengeance at a mature age, when people, such as myself, start thinking about a life of leisure. Besides having been Dean for this new school and being professor at Haas School of Business he is also Google’s chief economist, helping them with their pricing schedules. Another Genius on Campus, albeit not (yet?) a Nobel Laureate.

But back to the main thread! Soon the graduates from the school came bouncing up the steps to the park and aligned themselves, with boisterous eagerness, for a first group photo session. Up to the Campanile another group ascended, much more colourful but with far less bounce, and convened for a preparatory session; this being of course the illustre Faculty. Notably, the female Dean was dressed in the most colourful dresses of them all, befitting Dons in the young and spritely School of Information.

Musicians on the lawn soon started to play, to get everyone in the mood and line up for the ceremony and, among hushed excitement of the visitors on their chairs, the graduates started to defile, past the fountain and down the aisle, towards their seats in front of their relatives and friends, all conveniently located just below, and in the shade of, the Campanile.

The Dean, Professor Annalee Saxenian, opened the ceremony in a delightful blend of pomp and funky gestures, thereby indicating, subconsciously, that a new age had arrived, asking for reform of modes and mores. The Gentleman behind her to the left was Tim Brown, the CEO and president of innovation and design firm IDEO, and also the keynote speaker at the ceremony. To his right, always deliciously smiling, was Professor Kimiko Ryokai, who soon would receive, as the ceremony progressed, the graduates’ Distinguished Mentor Award. To her right was sitting, I believe, Professor Hal Varian, already presented to you.

Soon speeches started to roll around the little park, with Tim Brown setting the high mark. But my personal favourite was the impromptu performance of the pair of graduate speakers, one of which bore the, at least for some of us, familiar name of Erin.

In line with the boisterous nature of American students, the speeches were regularly interrupted with enthusiastic clapping of hands and loud hoots from the audience. At a certain stage of the graduates’ speech the two made an “attempt” to define the School’s holy mission, by reading out loud the official mission statement. This was met with thunderous laughter, not only by the students, but also by the faculty. All in all, this was ceremony in a relaxed and excellently humorous mood, quite unlike the pomp and circumstances we apply for such occasions back on the old continent.

In line with this, when it was time for the Master students to get their degree, many of them came on stage with light dancing steps, winking and cheering to the audience, who answered with boisterous clapping and hooting. A specially touching scene evolved when the always deliciously smiling, but also slightly minute, Professor Ryokai had to crown her Ph. D. graduate with the insignia of his new degree, whereupon he jokingly fell on his knees to provide her with the necessary leverage, all of this amidst great laughs and cheers from the audience.

Greatly relieved to having been granted the opportunity of witnessing this wonderful ceremony, I followed the crowd, who was wallowing down the steps in leisurely pace, towards South Hall’s outer yard, where tents had been raised and refreshments prepared for the great post-graduation party. But before indulging in those renewed pleasures, permit me to show you some clippings from the ceremony, so you can judge for yourself the relaxed and happy atmosphere of the event.

To those of you, young enough to be able to follow the remarkably speedy sequence of words emanating from Erin, I recommend to listen to the official recording of the student presentation, to be found at:

But now back to our story. When I approached the happy crowd, with the intention to mingle, munch a sandwich or two and sample the champagne, I was, to me regret, not permitted to join the party, being without the company of a graduate. But this was understandable and did not prevent me from documenting this leisurely after-event. People enjoyed themselves greatly under the tents, and in the cool shade cast by the oldest façade on Campus; above it all the Campanile towered, as if watching out for this fledgling school and its joyous events.

After this enticing interlude I was quite satiated with graduation festivities and directed my steps firmly back towards Sproul Plaza, with the intention of finding a suitable eating place on Telegraph. But, when reaching Bancroft Avenue, the street just outside Campus, I was suddenly greeted by a tremendous noise, issuing from a happy crowd of Latinos, with the leaders turning great “rattles” (we are talking here about “Ratschen”, the turning wheels, creating tremendous noise, used at Carnaval in the Alpine countries, and apparently also in use among the Hispanics) and mounting the street in the direction of Sproul Plaza.

They were engaged in, what appeared to me, a post-graduation round-up, in a special Hispanic style, much enjoyed by the numerous spectators, not least your author of this posting. Soon, the crowd congregated on Sproul Plaza where, suddenly a Mariachi band materialized, with fully three guitars, a harmonica and, to put the high note on the ceremony, a silvery trumpet, glittering in the golden sunshine of late afternoon. No need for a singer in this noble company, the parents having had talent aplenty to accompany the music with mellow throats, as being witnessed by the title picture!

After a brief mêlée at the Plaza, the party moved briskly onward, past Sather Gate and up the slope towards the Campanile, having a brief improvised performance at each place of architectural prominence. Delighted by this exotic manner of honouring graduates, I pursed this happy party for a while. So on we went together, climbing the hill past venerable Wheeler Hall, when I suddenly was confronted with a cosy looking pair of females, one of them attired with a welcome offspring. But was the lady on the left not a face well known from the graduation ceremony witnessed earlier? Indeed she was, no other than the always deliciously smiling Professor Ryokai, albeit this time in civil attire. Being able to watch her smile at closer distance this time, I discovered that it was not only delicious, but also very warm and kind, and I started to understand, why the graduates had honoured her with the Distinguished Mentor Award.

But back to our procession of Hispanic clamour! By then we had arrived, back again, at the prominent UCB bell tower, which inspired the band to ever more intensive melodies. I could not refrain from trying to catch the rolling tones from Mexico with my pour videoing abilities, which can be observed by copying the reference below onto your internet reader’s address line:

By then I was somewhat satuated with Hispanic music and gestures and looking forward to a well deserved rest among the Sycamores below the tower, before returning, at last, to my earlier search for a suitable temple of refreshments. By the way, do we now have the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this page? “Yep”, kind of, but we are not yet at the end of the story. More about this issue at a forthcoming posting.

In the meantime, let us continue where we left off, with me resting among the sycamores. Alas, it turned out to be a short rest indeed. Hardly had I sat down on a bench under the trees, that a group of cool youngsters appeared, strapping what looked like police straps between the trees. Was I witnessing the scene of a recent crime? Far from it, it was time for the “Slack-liners” to make their entrance. It appears that this is a permanent event, taking place every weekend among the sycamores. Are these UCB students, practising for their finals in a Department or Programme hitherto unknown to me? Or are they just relaxing from their harsh studies by engaging in a demanding hobby on one of the more beautiful spots on Campus? Meriel, the young equilibrist on the line, if you read this, it would please me, as well as the readers of this blog, immensely, if you could place a comment, explaining the rationale of this intriguing training scheme.

Well, dear readers, this is the longest blog posting up to now, but there was a long list of events to tick off this time. Could you believe that all these marvellous activities, witnessed by me and reported here, took place within the short time of only three hours and a half? This shows again what a wondrous and exciting outdoor theatre is UCB Campus!

Sunday 23 May 2010


The person you are looking at is Professor Thomas Marschak, an eminent authority in Economics of Information, son of Jacob Marschak, an even more eminent authority in the same field. More importantly, he was also my teacher and mentor way back in 1976/77 and is still conveying bonhomie, as well as knowledge, to ever younger student generations glad to be his pupils.
Has time stood still? Is it possible, after long and successful service, to become a Professor and Teacher Eternal? 

Before answering this and other weighing questions, permit me, as a prelude, to explain about my own dealings with UCB, that is, about my reasons for coming to Berkeley back then and my experiences, once arrived. In order to make this more palatable to you, let me intersperse it with some pictures of flowers I took at a rainy day on Campus.

I started academic studies (in Vienna) already in 1962, but it took me ten more years to get my major in economics and be accepted as a graduate student in Stockholm. My first thesis adviser, the markedly creative economist Bengt Christer Ysander, encouraged me to write a thesis in the field of information (My main adviser was Professor Lars Werin, who aptly guided me through the thesis' final stages). 

In those days, it was deemed important to improve the assessment of investments in public information systems, in particular the large scale EDP (electronic data processing) systems being introduced overall in Swedish administration during that time.

If you are an economist you realise, of course, that any assessment method for a given class of investments must start with developing an identification model for that investment class. For you normal people, this means that you have to know, and be able to describe, the things you are assessing. But how do you identify the changes in information flows generated by buying a huge mainframe computer, letting systems analysts run amok for a couple of years and, as end result, driving office staff to the brink of exhaustion by forcing it to enter data, on a video screen, according to procedures defying established logic?

Whilst I was pondering these strategic questions, and not going anywhere with my thesis, Roland Andersson, a good old friend, came to rescue. He was just back from Berkeley and looked the part, with a long blond moustache and hair cascading down his shoulders. He advised me to go to UCB and said: “Whatever problem you may have with your thesis, there will be someone there to make sense out of it for you.” More to the point, he also lent me his UCB General Catalogue, in which I saw an interesting interdisciplinary graduate course with the impressive title “Economics of Decision, Information and Organisation”. This course was stretched out over the full academic year and appeared to solve all my problems.

So off we went, my wife Alice and myself, to this temple of knowledge. Upon my arrival, I was well received by two advisers assigned to me, George Åkerlöf and Daniel McFadden, both still young then but, I am glad to say, Nobel Laureates by now. They had bad news for me: the one year course had been reduced to a short seminar, to be given during the third quarter in spring 1977 and taught by Thomas Marschak.

The good news was however, as they put it, that this would enable me to garner the necessary prerequisites for the seminar, which consisted of courses in mathematics and statistics at intermediate level and which I had been sadly unaware of. With those digested, I would also be able to take a third quarter course on Game Theory, taught by John Harsanyi (another Nobel Laureate; where do all these geniuses at Berkeley come from?).

So a major part of my stay was not to be spent on studies directly relevant for me, as I saw it then. But how I was mistaken! These preparatory courses were among the most interesting academic exercises I had ever experienced. The course I remember most fondly was about “elementary” classical mathematical analysis. It was given by Tosio Kato, an amiable, somewhat absent-minded, scholar.

He distinguished himself by rarely being able to finish the day’s lecture topic within the allotted hour. He would put the proposition of the day on the blackboard, hesitating about its precise phrasing, and keep changing details for about 15 minutes, mumbling to himself, with his back to us faithful students. Once satisfied with the topic of the day, he would then proceed by outlining the proof of the proposition, but soon lose himself in all kinds of diverting arguments; and so it would continue until the clock tolled and us confused students were released from his guardianship.
Professor Tosio Kato in 1988 (UCB Website)
All this led to some frustration among the younger students in his class, but I had already some 12 years of study behind me, so I did not mind that much. In fact, a bit slow in oral understanding that I am, I always had been neglecting lectures in my early student years, concentrating instead on reading the written course material. So this is what I did also in this case, plowing the thick course book “Elementary Classical Analysis” by Marsden.

Unfortunately, every two pages or so, I would get stuck in the mathematical arguments. This forced me to permanently occupy the poor professor’s premises during, and often also after, his office hours. Fortunately, I was the only one daring to do so. The often heated discussions that resulted usually ended with realising that my lack of understanding had its cause in printing errors or errors of presentation, and with Tosio congratulating me for pointing out these small issues in the book.

When it was time for the finals, Tosio had thought to make things easy for us students, by starting with two very simple warming-up questions, that actually belonged to the basic course, which I had never taken (not being prerequisite for the seminar I actually was interested in). Naturally, I was unable to answer those, but did my best to scribble in some formulas nonetheless. The last two questions were far more interesting and to the point, since they consisted of propositions we had to prove, but which had hitherto not been treated in class. Fortunately, both had been given as exercises in Marsden’s book and solved by me at home. I guess that only a few of the students were able to provide the right answers.

The week after, I visited Tosio for the last time, to discuss some final issues with Marsden’s book and to ask him, how I should repeat the course, which I was sure I had failed. To my surprise, he had given me an A grade and motivated it by saying that it was more important for the students to have independent thinking than slavishly repeated knowledge learnt by heart. He also conveyed to me Marsden’s gratitude for helping him “proof-read” his first edition with my comments, which Tosio had forwarded to his colleague forthwith. I think this story shows a bit the highly intellectual, but at the same time free-wheeling, atmosphere prevalent in Berkeley in those days. Let me just corroborate this by a citation, mentioning just the first of Tosio’s many achievements as scientist,

“Kato achieved early mathematical fame with his proof, published in 1951, showing the self-adjointness of stationary Schrödinger operators for physically realistic singular potentials. This result crowned a program, initiated by John von Neumann, of providing a consistent mathematical foundation for nonrelativistic quantum mechanics.” (UCB website)

So, there you have it; both Professor Kato’s and my credentials firmly established! Now the time is ripe to tell the story of the reunion with Professor Thomas Marschak. We have to thank Lars for this, for he asked me, when he heard I would be staying in Berkeley, whether Thomas was still in office. I took this as a challenge and, already in the first week of my stay here, I trudged up to the newly built Haas School of Business, an impressive, if just a bit too bulky, building complex high up on campus.

You may recall that this was the mellow week of students having a good time on Memorial Glade. In the sunny weather of early April, also Haas seethed with activities, from free dancing to collecting funds for the graduation ceremonies to be held in May. As a former student of the good professor, I of course put some money in the collection box, asking the two youngsters you see below, whether they knew Professor Marschak. As answer I got an enthusiastic “Yes”; they knew him indeed, and appreciated him, as their teacher in decision and information theory. Somewhat taken aback by this amazing staying power of an octogenarian I rushed up to Thomas’ office, but had no luck in finding him there that day.
Fellow (young) students of Professor Marschak
Since I don’t have a phone here in Berkeley, I e-mailed him my greetings, asking for a meeting to pay my respects. Alas, no answer was forthcoming during the following weeks and I almost forgot about this initiative, having plenty of other blog postings to prepare and publish. But the week before last, bad conscience caught up with me, urging me to call Thomas on a pay phone, only to get a peep from his answering machine. Stating my business, I indicated that I would follow up the call with a renewed e-mail. This time I got a very polite answer, inviting me over to his office on Monday last.

I can tell you that the good professor still looked a spritely middle age, not at all like the wizened wizard you might have expected. His welcome was cordial and he was eager to recall the seminar I had the privilege of attending 33 years ago. His eyes lit up when I told him that he had asked us students, at every second meeting, to present our own topics of interest, leaving only half of the seminar to his prepared lectures. This made him recall the course and - at least I hope - my humble participation.

He added that it would be impossible to have such an educational set-up for present-day students, not even graduate students; the young generation was far to impatient and focussed on efficient transfer of knowledge to accept such a scheme. I thought that the students may have a point there if they had the ambition to finish graduate studies within four standard years, concurrent with extra-curricular activities such as the one shown below.

I then asked him how it was possible to stay in office at the venerable age of 80. Apparently, a relatively recent Federal Law had made it possible for tenured professors to stay on active duty after their normal pension age, if they so wished. There was a cut-off date however, the Law applying only to teachers born after – if I remember it right - 1924. This affected his colleague, John Harsanyi, who had to leave upon reaching pension age, so Nobel Laureate he was. He deplored that Swedish professors did not have the same freedom to stay on, whilst asking me to convey his regards to Professor Lars Werin, whom he had met shortly back in 1982.

From this we switched our discussion to two friends of mine who also had participated in the seminar, or in the more lengthy one-year course. The first, Pavel Pelikan, he remembered very well. He had met him already back in the sixties, whilst being a visiting scholar in Yugoslavia and participating in a conference in Prague from there. Subsequently, Pavel had received a grant to visit Berkeley for a year. Thomas was intrigued to hear that I knew Pavel from his time at the Swedish Institute for Industrial Research. He also recalled Eva (see my posting on “El Escorial en Alta California”) who not only had taken the course, but later also had stayed shortly as scholar at UCB.
Fellow (more mature) students of Professor Marschak
Finally we had a short discussion about his research activities. To my surprise, he was as active in research as in education. He was very occupied with a theme that appears to me as current in Sweden as in the States, the role of improved information, through computerization, in increasing productivity. He was not sure in his mind, whether computerized information was a complement or a substitute to traditional production factors and thrived to investigate this, treating information not as an on/off choice, rather, dealing with it in the form of increasing degrees of refinement.

After this interesting discussion, which took more than an hour, we bid each other farewell, somewhat sadly, for would we ever meet again? Thomas will go off to a well-earned holiday in France after the finals, whereas I will stay in Berkeley two more weeks for new experiences and blog postings. When I left Haas, trying to think about the topic for the next posting, the impressive staircase I had to descend welcomed me with a light drizzle. This brought back some melancholic thoughts and I decided to slowly amble home along the nature paths crossing campus, whilst paying tribute to my numerous memories from a time long gone.

Thursday 20 May 2010


On Saturday morning, a week ago, I was resting at what looked like the crest of the world. To my right a majestic mountain rose mightily behind hills after rolling hills on the distant horizon, to my left the Bay seemed at the grasp of my fingertips, with the San Pablo bridge spanning its bow to the Marine headlands, lying farther on and being covered in light haze. All around me was green splendour, with grass moving in the breeze like waves on the ocean and I felt refreshed and young again, taking long breaths of clean and flowery air.

The view I enjoyed was rather unusual for May since, in ordinary years, grass would already start to get brown on the open hills, underpinning the citation “The Golden Hills of California”. But this year is not normal. El Niño, hovering on the eastern fringe of the Pacific, is suckling low pressure and rain from the western fringe and spreading it over California. In the six weeks I have been here in Berkeley, there has not been a week without rain. As a result, the hills still look very much like home in the Alps, disregarding the ever present oak groves that bear witness to the hills’ true location.

But there is another reason for considering the greens to be like home. It may come as a surprise to you to that not a single straw of grass on these hills is indigenous. You don’t believe this? Then let me tell you that the true Californian per-annual grass populating these hills in the days of yore, the so called bunch grass, with roots as deep as 2 meters, never drying up and staying green in summertime, is long gone from the hills.

Cattle, originally brought by the Spanish rancheros, towards the end of the 1700s, had grass seeds from back home tangling in their hair. The cows found the bunch grass to be a delight, far preferable to their usual, less exotic and therefore drab, diet. As the seeds they brought started to grow, the new grass was generally left aside, with the cattle happily munching on Californian delights. And so, on it went, decade after decade, until all the bunchgrass was gone and the bovine race, nolens volens, had to retract to its original diet.

The authorities have started to fight back, by seeding native grasses on the hills and keeping the cows off the newly seeded areas. Gradually, there will be a revival of the good old days. But this will be past my time, I am afraid.

I see that I am starting to pontificate, as usually. Time to go back to the theme of this blog posting. Why and how did I arrive at the lofty vantage point described at the outset?

In the beginning was the word. And the word was with Dave, and the word was “Histogram”. On one of these sunny weekdays, when I was on my way to the UCB, I dropped into a nice little vegetarian eatery on Telegraph. In that place, you sit on long tables, often finding company to chat with whilst eating. On this very day, I shared the table with a couple of young white-collar workers, being engaged in an intensive discussion. The leader of the conversation was an engaging man by the name of Dave who repeatedly uttered the magic word. Now, this caught my attention, since I am an avid user of the histogram as the main tool to judge the quality of pictures taken with my trusty old Nikon. It had not occurred to me hitherto that the concept of histogram was used in other fields as well but, listening in on the conversation, I soon discovered that it is commonly used as a tool to sharpen the focus of search mechanisms in large databases. Later on I started to realise that “histogram” in general is just another word for “density distribution”.

Dave, who noticed my attentive listening, stayed on, whilst the rest of his company went back to work. He explained to me more in detail, how histograms were being used to refine the search formulas applied in databases, such as, Oracle’s, through methods having been developed by the small firm he had helped to found and which that very day was going public. Not to be outdone by the smart young generation, I responded by taking his picture and demonstrating, how I used the histogram to assess, whether the picture I had just taken had been properly exposed.

One thing let to another and it emerged that Dave, just like myself, was an avid admirer of nature areas within the Bay Area, which he often visited with his mountain bike, taking pictures along the way. Dave was kind enough to follow-up our conversation with some valid hints of places to visit and hikes to undertake. You may recall his comments under the posting “Is This Toscana?”. I was so delighted by his exact hiking proposals, as well as by the photos from the area he had sent me concurrently, that I immediately reserved a car at the closest rental station and started on my trip to the area he had suggested.

This turned out to be a regional park called Briones, located in the hills behind the Berkeley coastal hill range. It is an area of high rolling hills, broad valleys, creeks, meadows, ponds, waterfalls and forests. I had taken some hikes there 30 years ago and remembered it mainly as an area with dried out weeds, not very inviting, with oak glades and groves as only consolation. But with the frequent rains in the last months and to judge from Dave’s pictures, I hoped to find a more promising piece of nature this time. And I was not disappointed!

Briones is a large park, about as large as the Sunol Wilderness, and quite similar to it in nature and appearance. However, being very close to the Bay cities, since located just on the other side of the coast hill range behind Berkeley, it attracts more visitors, so there is less chance of seeing any wildlife, as we did in Sunol. It got its name from the original owner, Felipe Briones, who settled there in the 1830s.

Starting the hike as soon as the park opened, at 8.00 in the morning, I had first a pleasant stroll in the broad Abrigo valley dominated by the Cascade Creek, in the cool shadow of vast oak trees. But soon the valley opened up and the first vistas of high grassy ranges began to shine through the trees, with purple lupines presenting a coloured forefront to the huge green ranges I soon would start climbing up to.

My steady climbing, now with my right side pleasantly warmed by the morning sun, soon was rewarded by generous vistas over the rolling hills. In fact I was ascending the high hills myself, with their glorious, high country feeling to them – the sort of wild feeling that makes you want to break loose and run cross the rippling meadows. Far below me I started to glimpse the bunch grass annihilators, contentedly grazing the result of making their over-sophisticated choices.

But the scenery constantly changed. Whereas I initially could glimpse the Berkeley Hills on the horizon, suddently, when rounding the upper top of the hill, a completley new and far more engaging vista opened up. Shimmering in the late morning sun, as if rising from a green ocean, there a real mountain showed its face; nought else but Mount Diablo could be admired in the distant haze.

Now I was on top of the crest, feeling as described initially in this posting, but also feeling somewhat lost. There were no trail descriptions at a strategic crossing and I had no map at my disposal. Fortunately, soon a large group of fellow hikers strived along, the youngsters heavily loaded, but the more sedate leader gladly unencumbered. He enlightened me about the right way to proceed, so as not to get completely lost in this vast high country. I could of course, with the help of the sun as navigator, eventually have found my way back to the car, but maybe only after some delay.

As the fellow hiker had informed me, we were in the region of the “Sindicich Lagoons”, two rather large ponds rather incongruously placed on top of the hills. After some minutes’ hiking in the right direction, sure enough, the first lagoon blinked at me, as if inviting me to take its picture with Mt. Diablo in the background. Seeing it placed where it was, I began to understand how it had been formed. An ancient landslide must have dammed up the several small brooks running off the top of the hill and, most probably, rangers had followed-up by reinforcing the dam, since it provided a convenient watering place for their cattle.

But there was scant time to linger. I had plans for the afternoon and wanted to be back in Berkeley in reasonable time. So on I tracked on top of the crest, with the path now firmly ensconced in the greenery, leaving no doubt about the road to follow. That is, not until the next crossing, where two young ladies were glimpsed passing by, engaged in serious conversation. I sincerely hope that they took the right track.

I certainly did and arrived, after another hour’s pretty steep decent, back down in the valley, ready to engage in new pursuits. However, the intensively green colour of these rolling hills will be kept in fond memory, replacing, with a vengeance, my earlier impression of a burnt out, rather dreary pasture site.

Monday 17 May 2010


Although the UCB was originally founded to cater for studies in engineering, military sciences and agriculture, and is well known for its prominence in the ”hard sciences”, with many Nobel prices to show for it, the university has since long time back become a well rounded institution of learning, with letters holding their ground to sciences. The Arts are well represented among the departments and one has only to think back to Isadora Duncan dancing in the Greek Theatre to understand why UCB also has won the honourable denomination as Athenaeum of the West.

I have been told that the departments of Art, among them the department of music, do not suffer from a dearth of gifted applicants. In the field of music, this gives rise to a range of high quality performance groups of a standard comparable to that of professional musicians. To participate in and train for these groups gives credit like ordinary study courses. There is, to mention just a few, a symphony orchestra, a jazz big band (the UC Jazz Ensemble), the University Chorus, the Cal Marching Band. In addition there are training courses with credit for all common, as well as some uncommon instruments. For instance, there are four courses of increasing degree of advancement in the Carillon, which all count for study credit.

You may recall that I promised, at the occasion of my visit to the Campanile (“Mission in sight”), to revisit the tower in order to experience its Carillon in action. Since promises have to be kept, I took the trouble of remounting the edifice on a clear and sunny day at noon. I was not alone, apparently the love of music is more widespread than commonly believed.

Soon a young, lanky, person arrived, whom we first thought to be the janitor. Surely, mastering the carillon must take many years of practise? But this is Berkeley, whose music department is attracting many highly gifted students. So, without further ado, the youngster started to trim the levers, so as to get the right leverage when playing the spiel.

As you can see in the pictures, the arrangement of levers looks rather elaborate. Granted that a concert piano has more keys than the levers of this carillon. However, you need room around each lever, in contrast to the piano, since you are pummelling them with your fist, instead of fingering them like you do on the piano. So, the 61 levers (there are 61 bells to play in the Campanile) are being organised on 4 levels, two each for the hands and feet. This provides a very agitated playing, with the player pummelling with all his four extremities, to get the bells in the right mood so to speak.

How does it all sound? Well, let me first point out that standing besides the carillonneur is not the optimal position, in particular if you are holding a camera and cannot cover your ears with your hands. The sounds are extremely strong and render it impossible to discern the melody actually played. But, even if you are standing at a safe distance of the tower, you may notice a certain discomfort in your hearing. This does not mean that you lack a music ear, quite the opposite. The bells are, due to their construction through founding, unable to produce clear sounds and give off all sorts of very strong over- (and under?) tones. So, when a convoluted tune is being played, notes and harmonies are far from being distinctly heard and tend to merge, which gives rise to the impression that the bells are badly tuned. Therefore it is advisable to keep the playing to simple, easily recognisable tunes, which our young carillonneur happily disregarded. From the note-sheet, looking at the cover picture, you see that the tune played was far from simple. Still, this was a memorable experience.

Stepping down from bell heaven to Campus proper, there is always other music going on somewhere on campus. When I was wandering around Sproul Plaza during the Earth Day week celebrations, for instance, the UCB Octet was performing, once again, and this time on the chairs of Sproul Hall itself. The Choir’s mellow tones chimed in well with the mood of the audience, standing captured at its feed, as if the melancholic music mirrored scant chances of success with getting the American public to accept the need for sustainable development.

Underneath the Sathergate stood a gentleman from quite a different league. Holding a giant Sousaphone wrapped around his portly stomach, he was recruiting volunteers for the Cal Marching Band, which is inspiring the Cal football team to ever greater deeds. With the instrument’s innards gleaming with gold, could anyone resist the call to horns to support the valiant Bear Athletes?

Just in front of him, under the trees bordering on Sproul Hall, the youngest “avantgarde” was sharpening its skills by giving its premier performance in public. We see here a first sign of the beginning cutting down of funds for education in California. The youngsters, being unable to get funding for their instruments in school, played in fact for money to be able to buy their own stringers.

No such problems disturbed the next group of performers, glimpsed on the left hand side of Sather Gate. Like the Octet, their instrument was built into their throats. This was no regular UCB group. These young enthusiasts, singing for a happy audience relaxing on their behinds, were determined to service Jesus and sounded quite happy doing just that.

If that was not enough for one day, melodious and, at the same time, rhythmic notes could be heard from down the stairs, at Lower Sproul Plaza. There was seated a full jazz orchestra, with piano, drums, a large saxophone and clarinet section and, last but not least, an ample trombone and trumpet section. These people knew how to draft their sounds! Even Quincy Jones might learn a riff or two from those enthusiasts!

I am well aware of the fact that pictures and text are insufficient to convey the full impact of the Berkeley Campus bouncing with mellow tones. But this is no reason to finish looking at this blog posting! There is still a finale in the making. As a special treat for you, my trusted readers, here it comes now, a video with both pictures and tones, which in its simple and clumsy manner still may serve as welcome rounding up.