Walking The Green Mountain College Labyrinth

Up in Poultney, Vermont, a 30-mile drive west from Rutland, sits Green Mountain College, one of the more progressive colleges in the country.

With roots going back to 1834, the college today has a strong focus on the environment; its 25 undergraduate majors include Adventure Education, Environmental Studies, Natural Resources Management, Renewable Energy & Ecological Design, Sustainable Agriculture & Food Production and Sustainable Business & Writing.

Its 710 students have no baseball or football team; instead they play rugby, ultimate Frisbee and quidditch.

Best of all (in my opinion), the college has a labyrinth, which looked like this when I visited recently.

labyrinthA labyrinth is not a maze. It’s a path—with a beginning and an end—that’s designed to be walked in meditation. Ideally, the walker focuses on the process of walking and lets thoughts of the outside world slip away—and that’s what I tried to do.

The good thing is that I was alone.

The bad thing is that it was snowing and raining at the same time, a heavy wet early-December mix. And I was holding an umbrella. And my head, as usual, was full of questions, which I found answers to soon after.

When was the Green Mountain College Labyrinth built? 2006

Who designed it? Bill Vanderminden, copying the most famous of all labyrinths, the one in Chartres Cathedral.

chartres-labyrinth

Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth, built in the early 13th century.

Lastly, who built the Green Mountain Labyrinth? Students of the college and other volunteers, who laid slabs of Vermont slate on the designated path.

Despite these intruding thoughts, however, when I finally attained the center of the labyrinth, after several minutes of walking, there was a good feeling, which I won’t try to define further.

But I wasn’t at Green Mountain College simply to walk a labyrinth in cold wet snow. In fact, if you look back at the first photo, you can get a clue to the other feature of the college that attracted me.

The photo shows the edge of the college’s main solar array.

And this photo shows my Tesla Model S charging near a smaller array—for free.

tesla-feuling Now, as the sun wasn’t shining that day, the electricity I got was produced in some other fashion. But it wasn’t necessarily from hydrocarbons!

In fact, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “About half of all electricity consumed in Vermont comes from renewable sources, the majority from Canadian and New York hydroelectric generators. Vermont has several dozen small hydroelectric dams, which typically produce about one-tenth of state consumption, and several generators using wood and wood waste products.”

If you ever find yourself near Poultney, I recommend the Green Mountain College labyrinth.

In the meantime, for more info on labyrinths, click here.

Contrary Opinion Forum

Contrary Opinion Forum

basin-harbor-clubI recently attended the 52nd annual Contrary Opinion Forum at the beautiful Basin Harbor Club on Lake Champlain in Vergennes, Vermont, a haven characterized at this time of year by colorful foliage, crisp fresh air and spotty cell phone reception.

The Contrary Opinion Forum, to put it simply, is a cozy gathering of investment professionals and individual investors (often retired) who hear speeches from leading economists and other investment luminaries and then share opinions over drinks and dinner—over two days.

It was my 26th attendance at the Forum in 28 years. When I began, I was one of the youngest attendees, and I viewed the snowy-haired gentlemen around me as fonts of wisdom to be tapped. Now, my hair is rapidly graying and I’m becoming one of the old-timers!

But I continue to enjoy the Forum, for the opinions, for the camaraderie, for the chance to reflect in a peaceful environment, and for the buttons. At every Forum, two buttons are distributed that typically convey some worth of investing wisdom—frequently based on contrary thinking.

Here are two of my favorites.

concern-yourself-leastwinds-blow-hard

 

 

 

 

You can see my whole collection of buttons here, along with my own explanations.

So what did I learn at the Forum this year?

Well, more and more, it’s not about learning; it’s about hearing opinions and incorporating them into my own. In investing, the only certainty is that things will change!

That said, there was quite a bit of love for gold at the Forum, and not much love for equities. And since then, he stock market has fallen apart, making these guys look pretty smart!

My favorite speaker was Walter Zimmerman of United/ICAP, who covered a lot of ground.

He noted:

That Russia has transitioned from a Communist state to a Mafia state,

That countries get the government they deserve,

That Putin is therefore the chief thug of Russia,

And that in the same period, the U.S. has evolved from a democracy into a Capitalistic Commercial state.

That because investors focus on dollars instead of the Golden Rule, Wall Street has a gigantic ethical blind spot. As a result, a lot of rich people are miserable.

That Reagan didn’t beat the USSR with arms; instead Volcker bankrupted the country with high interest rates (and maybe we can repeat that success with a strong dollar and cheap energy).

And that stock buybacks, so common these days, are an easy way to boost a stock but that they actually do nothing to make a company better or build true value, and this is a troubling trend.

One minority position was voiced by Steve Leuthold of Leuthold Strategies in Minneapolis who’s been coming to the Forum for years. He said that his biggest long-term investment is in rranium, which no one likes now (thanks to the Japanese nuclear power plant leak) but which he expects to soar as China begins building nuclear plants to solve its pollution problem.

That’s the kind of long-term story I like to hear, especially if few other people are hearing the same story, so I’ll be watching uranium (the biggest uranium stock is Cameco CCJ). Right now it looks terrible.

Lastly, I’m very happy to report that Basin Harbor Club—run by the Beach family for over a century—recently installed a Tesla charger, and I was the first to use it! The drive from Boston to Lake Champlain over two mountain ranges is one of my favorites, and it was even better in the Tesla!

Savannah Theremin Summit

On a recent visit to Savannah, Georgia, my wife and I visited the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, which holds a fine collection of ship models, many of them named Savannah, like this one, which was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

ships of the sea maritime museumIf you love ship models, it’s worth a visit.

But even better than the museum was a serendipitous bonus. While there, we saw an ad for the Savannah Theremin Summit, which was occurring on the museum grounds that very evening at 7:00!

And since we had dinner reservations for 8:45, I said, “Let’s go!”

So we returned just before 7:00, paid $5 each, and were lucky to get a seat in the front row. Theremins aren’t that popular in Savannah—or anywhere.

In fact, most people don’t know what a theremin is.

So: Invented by the Russian Leon Themerin, who patented the device in 1928, the theremin is the only musical instrument that is played without touching it. It’s composed of two metal antennas—one horizontal and one vertical—that sense the position of the musician’s hands, and thus control oscillators for frequency and amplitude.

If you think of the Beach Boys hit, Good Vibrations, you’ll recall the eerie electronic noises of a theremin (though that device was actually a Tannerin).

Most theremins these days are built by Moog, the company that became famous for early synthesizer music. Prices range from $319 to $519. But one of the thereminists at Savannah, Philip Neidlinger, built his own, using vacuum tubes! And he played it superbly.

Here’s my video of Philip playing America the Beautiful.

After Philip came Ricardo Ochoa, who played a theremin while Richard Leo Johnson played a custom-made acoustic Martin guitar fitted with an integral theremin—all in an alien design. This one-of-a-kind guitar was on loan from Martin’s museum.

Here’s Richard with the alien hybrid.

richard leo johnson with martian guitarAnd here’s a video of the two musicians.

The last player was Melissa Hagerty, a singer who used her theremin mainly as accompaniment for other recorded pieces. She was at the far end of the stage and I didn’t get any good video.

The musicians played individually, in round robin style, several times, sometimes accompanied by mother nature’s thunder and lightning and rain (though we were outdoors, we were under a roof).

And they promised that after intermission, they would attempt to play together—not an easy feat. For the record, these four musicians comprise the entire theremin-playing community of Savannah.

But we were out of time, so we left for our dinner reservation, where we had a fine time discussing one of the oddest musical performances we’d ever seen.

St. Johnsbury, Vermont

St_Johnsbury_Welcome_SignA few weeks ago, driving up to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont to attend a wedding, we stopped in St. Johnsbury and enjoyed not only a great lunch but also two marvelous historic attractions.

To appreciate these attractions in their proper place, however, we need to go back to 1823, when a man named Thaddeus Fairbanks built a foundry in the city and began turning out cast iron plows and stoves.

Business was good, and Thaddeus was soon joined by his older brother Erastus.

But Thaddeus had a restless mind, and before long the company had expanded to include a hemp growing enterprise. And it was in that business, while weighing bales of hemp, that Thaddeus saw the need for an improved scale.

So he devised and built one, more accurate than any made before. Going one step further, he made a scale that sat at ground level over a pit, thus eliminating the step of lifting heavy goods.

Thaddeus patented his improvements and before long the scale business had outstripped the other Fairbanks businesses. Younger brother John joined the company. Orders started coming in from all over the country—and then from all over the world!

Eventually, Fairbanks was the biggest employer in the state.

And when the Civil War started, Fairbanks Scales were the best-known American product in the world.

Two years after the war ended, the company was manufacturing 4,000 scales a month. And by 1880, the company was making an astounding 80,000 scales per month.

But the Fairbanks family, at one point the wealthiest family in Vermont, couldn’t hold on to its company!

In 1916, the company was sold to Charles Hosmer Morse, an employee who had been born in St. Johnsbury and worked his way up.

Renamed Fairbanks-Morse Scale Company, the company has survived to this day, though along the way there have been more mergers, divisions, spin-offs and buyouts than you can shake a stick at.

Today, Fairbanks Scales is headquartered in Kansas City, and it still makes a wide variety of scales, including animal scales, bench scales, floor scales, forklift scales, health sales, parcel scales and railroad scales.

Also, the company still has a modest operation in St. Johnsbury.

But there are three other big reasons to remember the Fairbanks family in St. Johnsbury today.

The first is Fairbanks Academy, a school that was founded by the three brothers, in part so that their own children would be well educated. Today the school has 930 students in grades 9-12.

The second is the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, which was founded in 1871 by Horace Fairbanks, son of Erastus. Horace was elected governor of Vermont in 1876 and served one term, but his greatest legacy is the beautiful Athenaeum, shown in this photo from 1906.

athenaeumInitially stocked with 9,000 books, the Athenaeum added an art gallery in 1873, which was dominated by a canvas, ten by fifteen feet, of “The Domes of Yosemite”, by Albert Bierstadt. It’s an impressive painting up close, with an impressive history as well.

NYC financier (once treasurer of the New York Stock Exchange) and railroad tycoon LeGrand Lockwood commissioned the painting by Bierstadt in 1867, paying an astronomical $25,000 for it (roughly $410 million today). In 1869, however, Lockwood’s fortunes were devastated by the collapse of gold prices, and after his death in 1872, the painting sold at auction for just $5,100.

It was then bought by Horace Fairbanks, who made the painting the star attraction of the Athenaeum’s addition. Illuminated by natural light from the overhead skylights, and surrounded by custom-built oak paneling, today it’s simply magnificent.

Respecting the Athenaeum’s rule that digital copying is not allowed with permission, I’ve refrained from including it here.

But you can see it there.

Technically a private library, the Athenaeum gets an annual appropriation from the town and serves as the public library of St. Johnsbury. If you’re in the neighborhood, I recommend a visit.

The third reason to remember the Fairbanks family is the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, which was founded in 1889 by Horace’s brother, Franklin Fairbanks.

fairbanks-museumFranklin’s greatest passion was natural history, and his museum is chock full of the flora and fauna and curiosities that Americans of a century ago flocked to see—and some still do. Attractions include bird trees (with stuffed birds wired onto the branches) numerous mammals (including a musk ox and a polar bear), miscellaneous swords, a Samurai warrior, curiosities from the South Seas and—most fascinating to me—the bug art of John Hampson.

Born in England in 1836, Hampson emigrated to America and settled in Newark, New Jersey. He once worked for Thomas Edison. But he’s famous—or at least notable—for collecting thousands of common insects, butterflies and moths and arranging them into two-dimensional works of art.

john-hampson-artEach work contains between 6,000 and 13,000 bugs, and each took from three to four years to complete. Hampson completed nine in all. His daughter inherited the collection, and when her estate tried to sell them, the only museum interested was the Fairbanks.

john hampson bug artA bit creepy for some viewers, but memorable!

http://www.fairbanksmuseum.org/bugart

The Giant’s Causeway

In the far north of Northern Ireland, just three miles from the oldest distillery in the world—Bushmills, lies The Giant’s Causeway, one of the most curious geological formations on earth.

To my eye, it looks like a giant began building a garden path along the sea but stopped before the job was even half done, leaving piles of paving stones, some orderly, others in complete disarray.

Scientifically, however, we know that the formation of roughly 40,000 interlocking basalt stones is the result of a volcanic eruption more than 50 million years ago and the cooling process that followed.

The Giant’s Causeway is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern Ireland, thanks in part to a new visitor center, run by the National Trust, which opened in 2012.

We visited on a beautiful day in May, and had a wonderful time. I recommend it highly. My only regret was that because I was driving—and on the “wrong” side of the road to boot—I couldn’t sample the wares on the tour of Bushmills Distillery.

giants-causeway-pavinggiants-causeway-wallgiants-causeway-watergiants-causeway-cliffgiants-causeway-islandgiants-causeway-tim

In Praise of Irish Follies

One of the greatest pleasures of vacationing on one’s own is discovering the unexpected. For example: step-pyramid

Driving through County Mayo, Ireland a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I spied this step-pyramid, looking like something that had escaped from the jungles of Central America.

So I took this picture—complete with posing sheep—and we drove off.

Six hours later, in a charming country house named Coopershill, some 100 kilometers to the north, I was browsing in a book titled “The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland,” by James Howley, and I stumbled upon this photograph.

old-step-pyramidIt looked like the same pyramid, and the text confirmed it.

The step-pyramid… still survives in Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo. This is a much taller and altogether more impressive structure of nine steps rising to a height of 30 feet, from a base of over 40 feet in width. It stands in a field beside the road to Cong, a great massive crumbling pile of dry-stone construction like the surrounding field boundaries. On the rise of the fourth step is a cut-stone plaque with a long Latin inscription which reads:

TEMPLUM FORTITVDINIS
MEMORIAE DILECTISSIMIERATIS
GEORGII BROWNE ARMHIHVIVSCE
PATRIAE QVONDAM DECUS & TVTAMEN
VIXIT • AD 1750

“The structure, which was at one time crowned with a lead figure of Apollo, is reputed to have been designed by the Earl of Charlemont for his brother-in-law, Sir John Browne of the Neale—a house now vanished.”

Happily, the folly of the pyramid lives on. In fact, while Howley’s Book shows a crumbling structure, my photo clearly shows that it’s been restored. And a little Internet research reveals, in fact, that this restoration was completed by the Office of Public Works in 1990. Well done.

A Few Thoughts on Communism

I haven’t been to Russia, North Korea or Cuba, so I have no first-hand knowledge of heavy-duty communism.

But I have been to China, Ukraine and Grenada, so I have some experience with communism-light.

Grenada?

It’s a little island in the Caribbean, down toward Venezuela, with a flag that looks like this. I was there this winter for a very relaxing one-week vacation.

granada flag

The country’s chief business is agriculture, particularly spices like nutmeg, mace and vanilla. But what most folks remember about Grenada—dimly—is that the U.S. once invaded Grenada.

To simplify, back in 1983, the government of Grenada was leaning toward communism, abetted by Russia and Cuba, among others. But some people in Grenada were impatient with the country’s leaders, thinking they should change faster. So there was a coup—in which the Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop, was killed. This worried the leaders of the neighboring islands, so they asked for help, and Ronald Reagan obliged, sending in U.S. forces just six days later.

After a few days, the rebels were ousted, and less than two months later, all U.S. forces were withdrawn from the island.

The following year, the island’s airport—whose expansion had been a factor in justifying the U.S. invasion—was completed, and unveiled by Fidel Castro. It was renamed for Maurice Bishop in 2009. And today, communism is nowhere in sight.

In fact, the government—which follows the British model (people drive on the left, too)—is rather conservative. People have seen the prosperity that tourism can bring, and today Grenada’s GDP per capita is a substantial $12,000.

As to other Communist countries:

China I visited in 2007, when it was already well along in its transition from communism to something I might call capitalist socialism. Today it’s even further along—buying more cars than the U.S., for example—and trends are very positive, economically. GDP per capita is $6,800 and climbing, not least because the Chinese are so industrious. But the country retains a very strong culture of imperialism, and there’s no sense that its leaders are even considering the benefits that a truly democratic free society can bring.

Ukraine I visited in 2010, to attend a wedding that was absolutely marvelous. But fear of the government was high in the country because corruption was a fact of life. (A car we were riding in, for example, driven by the cousin of the bride, was stopped for no particular reason; policemen were just looking for bribes.) So today, as Ukraine works to break free from the grip of Russia, I sympathize, and I wish them well. Last year Ukraine’s GDP per capita was just $3,800.

Russia, by contrast, has a GDP per capita of $14,600, in part because of its mineral wealth. But Russia is losing power, because it is not evolving.

Venezuela also has a relatively high GDP per capita of $11,527, thanks to oil.

Cuba, close to the U.S. geographically but oh so far politically, has a GDP per capita of $6,500.

And North Korea is particularly poor, with a GDP per capita of just $1,200.

Note: technically, Russia’s government is a Federal semi-presidential constitutional republic, while Venezuela is a Federal presidential constitutional republic, Ukraine is a unitary semi-presidential republic and North Korea is technically a hereditary single-party state.

Whatever you call them, they are not countries that we envy, and they are not countries that attract immigrants.

China has a bright future because it has changed its government in recent decades, and Ukraine as well can prosper if it can get free of the grip of Russia. But change takes time, in part because changing the mindset of a country’s populace takes time.

Road Trip in the Tesla

by Timothy Lutts

There’s an interesting sign on the Route 90 in Massachusetts (also known as the Massachusetts Turnpike or Mass Pike).

Highest Elevation on the Mass PikeIt reminds us that even though Massachusetts is not known as a mountainous state, you’ll find nothing higher between it and South Dakota if you travel this interstate highway.

The sign has been there a long time, and until recently, it was nothing more than an intellectual curiosity. But then I got my Tesla Model S, which runs solely on battery power. And after a few weeks of ownership, I took a 250-mile road trip, out the Mass Pike, around Albany, New York, and up to Lake George.

I’ve already written about how the Tesla delivers an unparalleled driving experience, thanks to its ability to deliver as much power as the driver wants, instantaneously and quietly. But this road trip would test the limits of the Tesla’s rated 265-mile range. And I was a bit worried about getting over those hills—because going uphill takes more power. Happily, going downhill uses less, and in the Tesla, going downhill actually puts energy back into the battery!

That 265-mile range was the government’s number, and as we all know, most drivers fail to equal the government numbers, especially if they like to drive 80 mph, like me.

Fortunately, Tesla’s web site includes an excellent user forum with every topic of interest to owners of these revolutionary cars, and the topic of long-distance driving has been covered at length.

The main pieces of advice are these. Make sure tires are properly inflated—something I always do anyway, charge battery fully (otherwise, it’s best to charge the Tesla to 80% of capacity to prolong battery life), and go slow, using cruise control when possible. Finally, start the journey at a relatively slow speed and monitor battery status along the way; you can always finish at a faster pace if the battery has power to spare.

So that’s what I did, monitoring distance to destination, “rated range” of the battery (based on Fed numbers), “projected range” of the battery (based on the past 30 miles of driving), kWh used for the entire trip, and Wh/mile. This is a great car for people who love numbers!

Also, I had located a few places on the route where I could stop and recharge if necessary. And after 200 miles, just north of Albany, I did stop for an hour in Clifton Park, New York to charge for an hour at Kohl’s—for free.

Which brings me to the pleasant tale of ChargePoint, the world’s largest provider of electric charging stations—there are now more than 13,000, including eight in City of Salem public garages. ChargePoint doesn’t make the charging stations, but it does market them to property owners (typically, cities, hotels, restaurants, stores and universities) and it operates the network that makes the system work. And the cool thing is that the property owners choose what to charge their users, and it’s typically nothing! So for an hour in Clifton Park, I took a walk, bought a newspaper and did the Thursday New York Times crossword puzzle while adding 18 miles of range to the Tesla.

In the end, I didn’t need that charge, but I wasn’t 100% certain that I’d find a charge in Lake George, and as there were no other chargers up there but the one I was aiming for at the Holiday Inn, the Clifton Park charge was a bit of insurance. Happily, the Holiday Inn charger was all I expected, and it was free, too.

Bottom line, the trip out was 250 miles, I used 68.8 kWh of electricity, at 267 Wh/mile.

Coming home three days later, I did the trip non-stop (knowing my garage charger was at the end), and the final tally was 247 miles, using 66.3 kWh, at 267 Wh/mile.

And going over that peak on the Mass Pike was a piece of cake.

In fact, one of the ongoing discussions on the Tesla forums is about the most efficient way to handle the downhill segment of such hills—whether it’s best to stay in cruise control at say, 70, and let gravity recharge the battery (at perhaps 70% efficiency) or let the car pick up speed (to as high a speed as is comfortable—maybe 85?) before engaging regeneration.

There’s no easy answer; it’s one of the intellectually fun aspects of the car.

23 museums in 16 days

by Timothy Lutts

We didn’t set out to break any personal museum-going records on our recent 18-day European vacation. It just happened. Here’s the summary, in chronological order.

London, England
1. National Gallery – Popular and absolutely wonderful, with the best paintings from English Masters like Constable and Turner, lots of French Impressionists, and exquisite Italian Renaissance pieces.

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/

national gallery London2. British Museum — Grandma’s attic on steroids, holding beautiful stuff from all over the world. Julie went alone, because I was attending a conference, and this is (some of) the stuff she loves.

http://www.britishmuseum.org/

3. Sir John Soane’s Museum — Soane was an architect by trade and a collector of beautiful things, and his linked houses are crammed with treasures. Again, Julie went alone and loved it.

http://www.soane.org/

Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
4. The Bank Museum — Located in the former tellers’ area of Spuerkees Bank, this little museum features old money, an unused vault, and the tools of the trade. It was interesting to note Belgium’s vacillation over the years between the French and Dutch languages.

https://www.bcee.lu/en/Discover-BCEE/Discover-BCEE/The-Bank-Museum

The Bank Museum5. Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean — Terrible. Poorly executed contemporary art. Weed-infested parking lot. Something is wrong in this young museum, most likely a lack of support (money).

http://www.mudam.lu/

6. National Museum of History and Art — We browsed the gift shop but didn’t enter because so much was under renovation.

http://www.mnha.public.lu/

Louvain-la-Neuve
7. Hergé Museum — Many Americans don’t know Tintin, the brave Belgian boy-reporter and star of comic books created between 1929 and 1976. But as a boy growing up in France in the 1960s, I sure did. Great museum. Louvain-la-Neuve is also the home of the Université Catholique de Louvain, where my second cousin Stanley Lutts teaches plant biology. http://www.museeherge.com/en

museehergeMaastricht, Netherlands
8. Bonnefantenmuseum – This fine arts museum is small, and mixes old masters (generally second tier) with contemporary art, including a domed room decorated by Sol LeWitt that was my favorite.

http://www.bonnefanten.nl/

(Note: At Bonnefanten, thanks to a friendly employee, we bought Museum Cards that allowed us to see all the Dutch museums on this trip and, importantly, to bypass some lines at the crowd favorites in Amsterdam.)

Brussels
9. Magritte Museum — Part of a trio (including the next two museums), the Magritte Museum is rather young, and lacks some of the artist’s most popular images, but it did a very nice job providing a picture of his whole (generally pleasant) life.

http://www.musee-magritte-museum.be

10. Old Masters Museum — Containing more Flemish masters than most people need to see, it occupies a lovely old well-lit space. Personally, I loved the precision and realism of these artists.

http://www.fine-arts-museum.be/en/museums/musee-oldmasters-museum

11. Fin-de-Siècle Museum — Not particularly memorable. Contains art from 1865-1914, and not much of it.

http://www.fine-arts-museum.be/en/museums/musee-fin-de-siecle-museum

12. Musical Instrument Museum — An unexpected treasure in a beautiful art deco building built of girded steel and glass in 1889, the MIM owns more than 8,000 musical instruments, many of which you have never heard of, never mind heard. Wearing a set of infrared headphones, you hear music played by the instrument you’re looking at, automatically.

http://www.mim.be/en

musical instrument museum13. Belgian Center of Comic Strip Art — This museum (in a beautiful art nouveau building that was once a fabric emporium) attempts to elevate the dozens of Belgian comic strip artists who’ve followed him to the level of Hergé. Uneven, but a great place to buy comic books.

http://www.comicscenter.net/en/home

Ghent
14. Ghent Design Museum — A hidden gem, featuring both original furnished rooms from 1755 and a bright modern wing with 20th century and contemporary industrial and residential design.

http://www.designmuseumgent.be/

Bruges
15. Groening Museum — Featuring more than six centuries of Flemish and Belgian art in just ten main rooms, this museum is compact but very satisfying.

http://www.wga.hu/database/museums/groening.html

Amsterdam
16. Rijksmuseum — An absolute monster and absolutely splendid, featuring the best art that money could buy in the centuries the Dutch ruled the seas and after. Try to go when the crowds aren’t there.

https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en

17. Van Gogh Museum — Another crowd favorite, the layout is simple and effective. Again, try to avoid the crowds if you can. And remember that Van Gogh died when he was 37.

http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/

800px-Van_Gogh_Museum_Amsterdam18. Van Loon Museum — William Van Loon founded the Dutch East India company in 1602 and made a pile of money, and this house, which includes a garden and coach house, displays some of the furniture and art his descendants acquired.

http://www.museumvanloon.nl/

19. Foam Museum — The photography museum of Amsterdam, it’s modest but good.

http://www.foam.org/about/museum

20. Geelvinck-Hinlopen House Museum — Another beautiful old house (in the same neighborhood as the museums two above), this one is notable for its collection of antique pianos, which are played at concerts in the house.

http://geelvinck.nl/english/

21. Hermitage Amsterdam — Opened in 2009, this rather austere building (used for 324 years as a home for the elderly), works in partnership with the Hermitage St. Petersburg. When we were there, the highlight was an exhibit titled Gauguin, Bonnard, Denis. My favorite was an entire room decorated by Maurice Denis, portraying the story of Psyche and Cupid.

http://www.hermitage.nl/en/hermitage_amsterdam/

22. Stedelijk Museum — Amsterdam’s main museum of modern and contemporary art is very impressive, especially the vast new underground space.

http://www.stedelijk.nl/en

23. Nieuwe Kerk — Built in the 15th century, this “new church” is used by the Dutch royal family for investitures and weddings, but it is no longer used as a church. We saw a very good exhibit titled Ming: Emperors, Artists and Merchants in Ancient China.

http://www.nieuwekerk.nl/en/

Nieuwe-Kerk

Ten Facts About Belgium

by Timothy Lutts

Ten Facts About Belgium, after a long vacation in the region.

1. The country has two official languages. In the south, Wallonia, they speak French. In the north, Flanders, they speak Dutch. And in the middle, where the capital Brussels is, they speak both. All major signs are in both languages.

2. They have great beer. In my time there, I enjoyed Carlsberg, Grimbergen, Hoegarden, Leffe, La Chouffe, Piraat, Orval and more. Here’s a picture of an important spot in Brussels.

Bier Tempel

3. They really like moules (mussels) and frites (which we call French fries). The universal sign for frites is a paper cone, with the frites poking out the top. And they eat them with mayonnaise, not ketchup.

4. Belgians are a little boring, in a dependable way, which is why they were tapped to lead the European Union. And the European Union has brought a little economic boom to Brussels. But it hasn’t helped the rest of the country much. Belgium’s GDP shrank a little last year.

5. Unfortunately, Brussels is rather dirtier than we expected. After the cleanliness of London and Luxembourg, it was a bit disappointing.

6. However, Brussels has a big and beautiful main square, thanks to the fact that after the French bombarded it flat in 1695, the Belgians quickly rebuilt glorious architectural wonders, which miraculously escaped destruction in the World Wars of the 20th century.

Brussels

7. Belgians, like all Europeans, still smoke too many cigarettes. The weather was unseasonably wonderful for our entire vacation, so we ate outdoors when possible. Trouble is, that’s where the smokers are.

8. Like all Northern Europeans, Belgians are very good at obeying traffic laws, both in the cities and on the highways. It’s wonderful that they still keep to right on the highway unless passing, while in the U.S., the practice of staying in the left lane at all times has led to an epidemic of passing on the right.

9. Similarly, they obey the rules as pedestrians, which means no crossing the street until the walk sign is on. As a frequent visitor to New York City, where the rules long ago ceased to mean anything, I’m of two minds about this. It slows life down, and this is both good and bad.

10. Finally, bicycles. They ride more than Americans, but less than the Dutch, who are the European champions. It’s fun to dream about making America a less car-centric culture—and more fit as a result—but it’s very hard to see the road to get there, in part because our country is so diverse.