Thursday, April 28, 2011

Easter Holiday: Amsterdam Style!

Amsterdam:  tulips, wooden shoes, nearly as many bicycles as residents, legalized prostitution, and "coffee shops" that don't actually serve coffee.  Why wouldn't we spend the three-day Easter holiday weekend walking among thousands of blooming tulips, watch a Dutch craftsman make a pair of wooden shoes, wander among prostitutes idly standing by in red-lit window displays, and marvel at all the marijuana-smoking tourists frequenting the "coffee shops"??  We couldn't think of any reasons, either.  

Our first stop was Keukenhof Park, a wooded area along the coast where thousands of tulips blossom between late March and late May.  The quantity, color, and variety of tulips was surreal.
Tulips to be harvested
Work it, girl!
Not quite "Blue Steel".  Not even close.
Make a wish!
Wait, what?  You want me to smell what?  Oh yeah, those...
Jagged edges?!  What the?
Following the morning at Keukenhof, we spent the afternoon wandering around Amsterdam, trying not to get run down by beach cruisers or scooters driving in bike lanes.  Several people came to the rescue of a wayward swan.  I don't think a tourist would have been as lucky.
That way to the canal!
Cyclists dominate the city.  Nearly 40% of all commutes in Amsterdam are by bike.  Not surprisingly, bicycles are parked everywhere. 

I think mine is the black one.  Oh wait, almost all of them are black...
We saw bikes with baby seats fashioned to the front and to the rear, bikes with saddle bags, and a bike with a Heineken basket.  Now only if the Heineken basket kept the beer cold, they'd really be on to something:

Not willing to forgo the quintessential Amsterdam experience -- navigating the city & surrounding countryside by bike -- Lisa and I went on a four-hour bike tour.
The snapshot in front of a windmill:
Followed by a tour of a small farm that makes cheese and wooden shoes:
"I like cheese."
"I like cheese, too."
Lisa:  "Me?  Or the wooden shoes?"   Me:  "I like the shoes, but I like you more."
Our bicycle tour guide told us that the weather in Amsterdam, especially in spring and summer, can shift from sunny & warm to stormy & rainy within minutes.  Fortunately for us, we enjoyed three glorious days of sunshine and ~75F temperatures. This pretty much captures it:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Near the start line (photo taken from
Lisa and I have been living in Vienna, Austria for just over nine months.  And although coincidental, the nine month anniversary of our arrival happened to be on the same day as the Vienna City Marathon (VCM).  There are, of course, more leisurely ways to celebrate an anniversary (wine anyone?), but given that Lisa and I had spent the better part of the winter enduring cold, wet, and dark jaunts throughout Vienna, I suppose there was no better way than running 26.2 miles through that very city on a glorious, sunny day. 

As for the race itself, the organization is top-notch and the course is relatively flat and scenic.  Although nearly 30,000 runners participated, not everyone ran the full marathon -- a half-marathon and four-leg relay were also part of the VCM.  A reported 400,000 people lined the course to cheer on the runners.  As for Lisa and I, we went the full distance -- perhaps a little worse for wear after finishing -- but what kind of anniversary would it be without a headache, hangover, or sore body? 
Feeling decent at this point (~mile 10)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Side By Side

Whenever I start to think about how different (and similar) Austria and the United States are, I can't help but think of the scene from "Pulp Fiction" where John Travolta's character, Vincent Vega, is trying to explain how Europe is different from America.  So fitting that his first example is about beer:

Vincent Vega:  You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules Winnfield:  What?
Vincent Vega:  It's the little differences.  I mean they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it's just, just there it's a little different.
Jules Winnifield:  Example.
Vincent Vega:  Alright, well you can go into a movie theater and buy a beer.  And, I don't mean just like a paper cup, I'm talking about a glass of beer.

And he's right, you can buy beer practically everywhere (at least in Austria) then drink it where ever you please.  Insofar as I can tell, there aren't any open-container laws.  Perhaps their socialist, nanny state (the horror!) trusts that its citizens will exercise some common sense and drink responsibly?!  (Which, by the way, Austrians consume ~50% more beer and three times more wine than Americans.)   Of course, the nearly two weeks of extra vacation per year certainly make it easier to out-drink us. 

As for country growth, however, America comes out on top:  we have a younger population, we breed more, we have a higher population growth rate, and more migrants make their way to our borders.  America is also more ethnically heterogeneous and religiously diverse.  All of the growth and opportunity, though, is not without a downside:  the percentage of Americans below the poverty line is double that in Austria and the degree of inequality in the distribution of family income (GINI Index) places us in the company of countries we don't usually consider our economic peers:  Jamaica, Cameroon, Argentina, and Cote d'Ivoire.  Our Human Development Index score (a composite measure incorporating the health, education, and income dimensions of human development), however, redeems us somewhat as we are ranked up near the front -- fourth highest in the world. 

As for quality of life, Vienna has the edge (annual global quality of life rankings routinely place Vienna in the top three in the world).  I won't speak to the methodology used in the global quality of life rankings, nevertheless, some of the statistics I collected also point to a superior quality of life:  more maternity leave (16 weeks vs. 12 weeks in the U.S.), lower infant mortality rate (coupled with lower per capita health expenditures), higher per capita government social spending (i.e. money spent on infrastructure and public goods/services), less per capita carbon dioxide emissions (cleaner air), and more land protected by the government (i.e.. publicly accessible green space). 

So what to make of all this?  Is either country uniformly better than the other?  Of course not.  For better or worse, the United States shapes policy around the world and assumes a position and responsibilities that smaller countries can avoid.  And perhaps in doing so, this allows those countries to devote more resources to developing a high quality of life accessible to virtually all their citizens. So, odd as it sounds, I'm proud to be an American living in Austria (at least temporarily).


Total Area

sq km (3rd largest in world)

83,871 sq
km (113th largest in world)


Washington, DC (4.421 million)

Vienna (1.693 million)


(3rd largest in world)

(92nd largest in world)










Median Age

(males 35.6 / females 38.2)

43 (males
41.9 / females 44)

Population Growth Rate

(120th in the world)

(191st in the world)

Birth Rate

births/1,000 population (150th in the world)

births/1,000 population (216th in the world)

Death Rate

deaths/1,000 population (89th in the world)

deaths/1,000 population (54th in the world)

Net Migration Rate

migrants/1,000 population (23rd in the world)

migrants/1,000 population (42nd in the world)

Infant Mortality Rate

deaths/1,000 live births

deaths/1,000 live births

Life Expectancy at birth



Total Fertility Rate

children born/woman

children born/woman

HIV/AIDS Adult Prevalence Rate

0.6% (b)

0.3% (b)


(~80%), Hispanic (~15%) Black (~13%), Asian (~4%), Amerindian/Alaska Native
(~1%), Other/Multiple (~2%)

(~91%), former Yugoslav (~4%), Turkish (~2%), German (~1%), Other/Unspecified


(~51%), Roman Catholic (~24%), Mormon (~2%), Other Christian (~2%), Jewish
(~2%), Buddhist (~1%), Muslim (~1%), Other (~3%), Unaffiliated (~12%), None
(~4%)  (c)

Catholic (~74%), Protestant (~5%), Muslim (~4%), Other (~4%),
Unspecified/Unaffiliated (~2%), None (~12%) (d)

Education Expenditures

5.5% of
GDP (c)

5.4% of
GDP (c)

GDP per capita



Labor Force

million (e)

million (e)

Unemployment Rate

9.7% (e)

4.5% (e)

% Population Below Poverty Line



GINI Index

45 (c)

26 (c)

Military Expenditures

4.06% of
GDP (f)

0.8% of
GDP (b)


HDI (Human Development Index) (1)

0.902 (4th
in world)

0.851 (25th
in world)

Homicide Rate

5.2 per

0.5 per

Robbery Rate

142 per

62 per 100,000

Internet Users

75.9 per
100 people

71.2 per
100 people

Adolescent Fertility Rate

35.9 per
1,000 women aged 15-19y

12.8 per
1,000 women aged 15-19y

Carbon Dioxide Emissions per capita



Protected Area (% of terrestrial




Cannabis (2)

12.5% (h)

3.5% (h)

Cocaine (2)

2.6% (h)

0.9% (h)


Total Expenditure on Health (3)

16.0 % of
GDP (2008)

10.1% of
GDP (2008)

Health Expenditures per capita (3)

$7,285 (c)

$3,763 (c)

Maternity Leave

12 weeks

16 weeks

Beer Consumption among adults, 15+
(liters per capita)



Wine Consumption among adults, 15+
(liters per capita)



% Adults with…

Normal BMI










Total Tax Revenue (4)

24.0% (b)

42.8% (b)

Household Savings Rate (% of
disposable income)

5.7 (e)

10.0 (e)

Gov’t Social Spending per capita (5)



Vacation Days per year (6)

25 (3rd
from bottom)

38 (3rd

a.  July 2011 estimate
b.  2009 estimate
c.  2007 estimate
d.  2001 census
e.  2010 estimate
f.   2005 estimate
g.  2006 estimate
h.  2008 estimate

1.     HDI is a composite measure of three basic dimensions of human development – health, education, and income – and serves as an alternative to conventional measures of national well-being (e.g. level of income).
2.      Annual prevalence among the population aged 15-64 years old.
3.     Total expenditure on health is the total expenditure of all levels of government as well as private health expenditure on health, presented as a proportion (%) of gross domestic product (GDP). Per capita total expenditure on health is the sum of public and private health expenditure (in purchasing power parity, US$) divided by the population.  Health expenditure includes that for the provision of health services, family planning activities, nutrition activities, and emergency aid designated for health, but excludes the provision of water and sanitation. 
4.     Total tax revenue as a percentage of GDP
5.     Total public social expenditure per head, at current prices and Purchasing Power Parities (PPPs)
6.     Accessed from (accessed 4/9/2011).  Total # of available days off, including both public holidays and gov’t-mandated vacation days, assuming an employee has 10 years of service and works five days per week.  Forty-one countries included in the survey.