Sunday, July 21, 2013

Copenhagen 2009

Originally posted May 30, 2009.

I just got back from Copenhagen, where I participated in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conference on Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Climate Change and the Environment. Last year I had been the only US government representative, and that had been a little scary, somewhat disappointing, and very cool – when they called on me for questions and comments they called on “United States” and before opening my mouth I reflected on what I was about to say :-). This year there were representatives from the State and Commerce Departments, and my (big) boss and I from NSF. I’m not revealing any secrets here – last year’s and this year’s are on the Web ( -- more on this later and elsewhere.

I took the red-eye from Dulles to Copenhagen late Monday afternoon, arriving Tuesday morning Copenhagen time. I was on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and I like it – every seat its own little screen with on demand video and music, a salmon dinner with not-quite-spaetzle pasta and lima beans (!?) to die for, power outlets for laptops, and stuff I’m forgetting. I watched two movies, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (on the way out) and "The Reader" on the way back, both of which I'd balked at when they were in theaters, but I liked them each, particularly Benjamin Button, which was especially moving.

I took the train from Copenhagen airport to downtown, stowed my big backpack in a locker, only keeping my government laptop around my shoulder for safekeeping. Last year I happened upon the National Gallery of Art just before having to return, and wanted to see it especially this trip, but in no rush, and in fact exhausted but with really no option but to stay awake for many more hours, so I walked.

Thus far in my experience there has been no singular global “Wow” image about Copenhagen – there has been nothing analogous to crowning a hill on a streetcar in San Francisco (Wow!), coming out of the tunnel overlooking Pittsburgh (Wow!), looking across Barcelona to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia (Wow!) or vice versa from one of the Cathedral’s towers (, or gazing on the Chicago skyline from the Lake Michigan shore (Wow!). What I notice first about Copenhagen are bicycles – they are everywhere – Copenhagen is a commuter city, but very different from LA, which was my childhood territory. The parks, and I’ve only touched a few, are among the more local ‘wow’s that I’ve experienced -- I walked through two on my way to the National Gallery, Orstedsparken and Botanisk Have, then King’s Gardens afterwards.

Bikes outside the Copenhagen Train Station

At Orstedsparken I came across a statue that struck me personally, as I think it would have struck many other friends of recently departed Vivian C right now – an angel watching over a man who is not conscious of it, but he is being watched over nonetheless. The angel’s face is almost impossible to see in the shadows, and I was tempted to use the flash, which generally I think is much overused, but like the statues of Gandhi and Saint Jerome on Embassy Row in Washington, I think that the artistic vision is that the faces be hidden in shadow and you only see the detail to the extent that you look closely, and even then, you can’t see enough.

Whereas the Washington National Gallery’s West and East Buildings separate classic and modern art, the Danish National Gallery seems to have no such segregation – modern and classic art are side by side, organized by other themes. I was able to get a couple of shots illustrating the juxtaposition. In addition, many of its walls are packed with paintings, an organization principle that elicits a ‘wow’ but at the expense of seeing many of the details, at least from casual inspection.

After a full morning, I took the train down to Helsingor, a beach town where the conference was held, did some brief walking around, talked to the tourist center, then a public bus to my hotel, a spartan place a couple of miles inland. I really wanted to sleep, but there was a conference reception that I thought I should attend for professional reasons, I wanted to stay up as long as I could for a better adjustment to the time zone, and frankly I felt isolated and knew connecting would help, and it did help.

 Kronberg Castle, Helsingor

The conference, in a nutshell, was focused on using information and communication technology (ICT) to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to humankind, and most notably what governments should do about promoting and supporting these efforts. There is great optimism that much can be done through virtualization (e.g., telework and conferencing with Web-based computer tools instead of the barbaric practice of flying cross country – yes, I recognize the irony :-), smart embedded systems (e.g., smart cars, smart buildings), which save energy through a large variety of computer-controlled mechanisms, and intelligent decision-making and planning systems that combine climate, economic and other social models. There is a lot of pushback though in implementing so much of this – for example, there are innumerable organizations that require that you keep your computer running 24/7 for reasons of “pushing” software and security upgrades, but my gosh, fixes to this should be 20 years old by now and the stupidity of designing such an energy-inefficient system is stunning -- it offends the engineer in me. I could go on and on with other forms of pushback and lack of awareness, and frankly, among other reactions, our failure to solve even simple, gross technological inefficiencies like the 24/7 computer-on policy has given me a certain sympathy for the disfunction that seems apparent in those trying to solve the planet's truly hard problems. I expect to be writing more on the topic of the conference. Generally, there is a lot that computer scientists and engineers can offer, both in terms of the products that they produce and in the ways that they think – my (big) boss Jeannette Wing has termed the latter “computational thinking”.
Just outside the Conference Center
It would have been fun having Pat with me to share the simple excitements and anticipations of a plane ride, train ride, castles, gardens, museums, and I hope that for next year as we are a good travel team, but next year I might be participating over the Web! So many decisions coming up, and even the “easy” ones can give me angst.

Full set of trip pictures at