Beer And Cheese

I enjoy a meal of beer and cheese every now and then. And in that regard, I’m part of a long line of human beer-and-cheese fanciers–a line that, as a recent discovery shows, dates back thousands of years.

A study published in Modern Biology focused on well-preserved human droppings found in salt mines near Hallstatt, Austria–salt mines that have been existed for thousands of years. People who worked deep in the salt mines over the millennia took their food to work, and they weren’t shy about answering the call of nature in the mines rather than journeying back to the surface. The dehydrating salt in the soil had the effect of turning the solid human waste deposits from days of yore into desiccated samples (non-smelly, the article linked above daintily points out) that have their biomolecules still intact. That means scientists can analyze the dried-out dung to see what the humans were eating over the years.

Ah, the romance of science!

The study of the fecal remains from the Iron Age, 2,700 years ago, showed traces of brewers’ yeast–the kind that produces traditional beers like pale ales. The paleofeces also showed lots of whole grains and fibers, as well as traces of blue cheese. And the study’s authors note that the ancient working man’s diet produced healthier, and more biodiverse, gut microbes for the ancient salt miners than are seen in most modern humans because none of the food was processed.

So there you have it: beer, bread, and cheese have a long history and are healthy, to boot. And those of us who still enjoy those long-term human dietary staples, 2,700 years later, get to use modern amenities like bathrooms, too.

Eurotrip 2011: Vienna

A public square in Vienna.

I only booked three nights in Vienna because someone told me it was ugly. I don’t remember who told me that, but the idea took root in my head. I imagined a bombed-out city of wide streets, awkward green spaces and glass office buildings, like the worst parts of Berlin and Hamburg.

Actually, Vienna was an exceptionally beautiful city, and I regretted not spending more time there. Maybe the person who misled me about Vienna held a personal grudge against the city because he was mugged there. Maybe he was thinking of another city that was ugly. Or, maybe I was mistaken and it was another city he said was ugly.

A surprisingly high percentage of Vienna’s center consists of beautiful baroque buildings, giving it an architectural uniformity almost equal to that of Paris. While walking through the crooked streets downtown, I often had a flashback to the scene in Amadeus in which Mozart drinks a bottle of wine while walking to his apartment past horse-drawn carriages and street-performers. The architecture in Vienna was so similar to that of the movie that I assumed it was filmed there – especially since it takes place in Vienna – but a look at the IMdB page shows that it was filmed in Prague, where I will be soon.

A typical beautiful building in Vienna.

The Stephansdom cathedral.

The Votivkirche, blocked by an unfortunate advertisement.

There are also a few magnificent Gothic buildings scattered about, including two cathedrals and a Rathaus. Unfortunately, all three of these wonderful buildings were undergoing renovations during my visit, and one of the cathedrals had an advertisement hanging rudely from it. I also stopped by the Secession center, an Art Nouveau building used as a meeting place by artists like Gustav Klimt who rebelled against the conservative establishment in Vienna’s art scene in the late 19th century.

The Secession building.

One of my favorite buildings in Vienna was Karlskirche, a baroque church framed by two triumphal columns inspired by Trajan’s column in Rome. According to Wikipedia, the columns illustrate scenes from the life of St. Charles. I think it’s very interesting, although probably not totally appropriate, that an architectural form originally used to trumpet the military exploits of an emperor is used to tell the story of a Christian saint.


My hostel – the Hostel Ruthensteiner – was wonderful, with a great kitchen and a beautiful courtyard with plenty of comfortable chairs. However, it became so crowded during breakfast and dinner-time that it was difficult to cook or meet people, simply because of a lack of space. Luckily, I already had a friend in the city. Dhika, the Indonesian student I met in Florence, is completing her Masters in Vienna, so she showed me around.

The day I arrived Dhika took me to the Schonbrunn palace, once the summer getaway for the Holy Roman Emperors, now surrounded by urban sprawl. It reminded me a lot of Versailles. We strolled through the gardens to the top of a hill with a great view of Vienna.


The last day of my stay was the first day of Donauinselfest, an annual rock concert held on an island in the Danube river. That night, Dhika and I took a train there to watch a German rap-rock group perform. They weren’t playing my kind of music, but they weren’t bad. I had a good time despite cutting my hand while attempting to open a bottle of beer with a key.


Later that night, back at the hostel, I was awoken by someone who seemed to have had too good of a time at the festival – one of my roommates was puking onto the floor by the window. Everyone in the 10-bed room seemed to wake up, but no one said anything as he heaved a few times and walked casually to his bed. I simply returned to sleep so that I would be well-rested for my bus ride to Budapest the next morning.

Eurotrip 2011: Hamburg and Munich

Eurotrip 2011: Berlin

Eurotrip 2011: Copenhagen

Eurotrip 2011: Bruges and Amsterdam

Eurotrip 2011: Lisbon and Porto

Eurotrip 2011: Madrid

Eurotrip 2011: Barcelona

Eurotrip 2011: Rouen, Le Havre and Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Eurotrip 2011: Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Istanbul

Predicting The Extinction Of Religion

The BBC has an interesting article on the efforts of scientists to predict the extinction of religion in certain countries.  The scientific study considers the number of people who indicate no religious affiliation in census data and then seeks to identify the “social motives” behind being a religious person.  The study predicts that religious faith will die out in Australia, Austria, Canada, The Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland.  (Ireland?  Really?)

The scientists apply a “nonlinear dynamics” model that seeks to measure and predict the social and utilitarian value of putting yourself in the “non-religious” category.  As one scientist explained, the concept of nonlinear dynamics “posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.”  Nonlinear dynamics has previously been used by scientists to predict the death of certain spoken languages, where individuals have to decide between a language that is spoken only by a shrinking pool of participants and learning a more popular alternative.

I think the scientists may have missed the boat on this one.  To be sure, religions and languages both have a cultural element, but for many religious people their belief is rooted much more deeply.  Adherents to the world’s various religions, after all, are motivated at least in part by faith.  If joining the larger social group was all there was to it, history would not reveal such a long and bloody list of religious martyrs who were burned at the stake, stoned, and tortured rather than repudiate their beliefs.