Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Let the festivites begin!

Contrary to popular belief (i.e., my wife’s belief), I actually quite like Christmas. What I don’t like is all the commercial razzmatazz associated with it, and the fact that it drags on from somewhere in the middle of September until coming to an abrupt end as soon as Christmas dinner has been completely digested.

But anyway, obviously I’m going to make a video about Christmas in Germany, and so here it is. And most of what I say in the video is not far from the truth. The dreadful singing in church is the thing that really makes me wish I hadn’t been born: German churchgoers have a special knack for taking all the joy out of, well, everything. It’s not so much that the organists are all incompetent (although many of them are), but that there’s a strange, unshakable belief that singing in Church has to be dignified, or something. Happy songs are for TV shows. Hymns sung in church, even if the words might naturally suggest something different, must sound like funeral dirges.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The storm that wasn’t

A couple of days ago, Germany was about to be battered by gale-force winds as a windstorm swept across central Europe, leaving destruction and mayhem in its wake. This I had to document, so I set up my camera for some awesome timelapse photography.

In the event, of course, the storm had petered out by the time it got here, and while it was wet and blustery, it wasn’t anything like on the scale we’d been promised.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The first sign of madness

This is a video I just did more-or-less on the spur of the moment, and it involves me talking to myself. Which you can do in a video, of course.

It’s a simple enough video to make, and I even decided not to bother with a costume change. Already, one viewer congratulated me on a great parody of an interview given by a the politician Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, but I have to admit that this was furthest from my mind when I wrote the script. I suppose you could analyse the hell out of this one, but really… it’s just a bit of fun.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Why I want to learn Humpback Whale

Sometimes, it’s difficult to know what to make a video about, and this is one of those times. Thankfully, I have my faithful viewers and subscribers on hand to help me think of stuff to talk about.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

It’s that time of year again

With a certain inevitability, the calendar creeps towards that special holiday where we all have to be fun-loving and jolly and yet peaceful and with goodwill to all men in our hearts (“goodwill to all people” would be more in keeping with our more egalitarian times, but doesn’t really sound right).

All of this is fine with me as far as it goes, but if you really want to put me off a festival, you only have to impose on me the sort of enforced jollity over a period of several weeks that makes me feel I’m somehow letting the side down if I have a bad morning. Suddenly, I go all cynical to the point where it’s fun to pointedly refuse to join in the fun.

Around here, people go slightly insane from the first Sunday in Advent, although it all begins as early as September when the first chocolate Santas appear in the stores. Suddenly, people are draping their houses in LEDs, inflatable snowmen and dummy Santas hilariously hanging onto rope ladders (if you want to burgle a house in Germany between Halloween and New Year’s, just get a Santa costume and practice moving like a lethargic sloth). Oh, and relentless Christmas music, most of it almost as old as me, is played at you everywhere (and while we’re on the subject, Last Christmas by Wham! is not a jolly Christmas tune, it’s a song about the break-up of a dysfunctional relationship).

Of course, it’s not Christmas itself I object to, but all the stuff leading up to it and the stuff you’re expected to do. My ideal Christmas would start on Christmas Eve, the house would be simply and tastefully decorated, there would be a nice meal, an exchange of small but meaningful gifts, and the next twelve days would be full of slightly more alcohol than usual, visits to and from friends and relatives I actually like and punctuated by a big party on New Year’s Eve.

Call me a killjoy if you will, but an even bigger killjoy is the Catholic Church in Germany. Every year in the run-up to Christmas (the new word for Advent), the Catholic Church has a campaign to ban Santa Claus. You see, Santa is an American tradition which has usurped the much more venerable tradition of St Nicholas, whose day is 6th December. The original German tradition is that St Nicholas brings small gifts for children on that day, while the big Christmas gifts are brought by the Christ Child on Christmas Eve, rather in the manner (we are led to believe) that someone having a birthday is expected to buy everyone a round of drinks.

Glossing over the fact that the Christ Child dispensing gifts in Germany is almost universally associated with a pubescent girl in a nightie and sporting angel wings, the Church sort of has a point here: Santa did get here from America. Having got to America from the Netherlands, and getting a bit confused with Father Christmas from Britain.

But how mean-spirited do you have to be to actually launch a campaign banning Santa from Germany? Demanding that shops remove their chocolate Santas and replace them with chocolate St Nicks (the only difference being that St Nick, being a bishop, wears a mitre) seems like a pointless gesture. Putting up posters with the face of Santa with a red diagonal stripe through it (“Say No to Santa”) is just spiteful.

So what if five-year-olds imagine their gifts are delivered not by a winged girl pretending to be a baby boy, but by a jolly fat man in red? Seriously.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Beer mugs: untold possibilities

Now, here’s a video that caused me more trouble than I’d expected. The actual filming and editing went smoothly: it’s not difficult, just me talking in front of a green screen with some small amount of technical wizardry. It’s just that when I uploaded it… closed captions weren’t showing up. Well, that’s sort of what happened; it’s more accurate to say that English captions were sometimes showing up in the track list in the video settings (at one point three copies), but not on the video at all, only to vanish again and then reappear. Eventually, the system got its act together and I was able to let the video go public.

But anyhow: the news report that inspired this video is typical of the sort of little article that finds its way into our local paper, and this being the sort of place it is, the police take this very seriously. It’s probably the most interesting case they’ve had to deal with in months.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Taking humour seriously

A while back, I made a video about German humour as it appears to non-Germans, especially Brits (since I am particularly qualified in that area). If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s this one.

Fascinatingly (if such a word exists), a great number of comments came from Germans pretty much proving my point by failing to notice the humour and talking it all too seriously. And then getting annoyed, thinking I’d just told them their humour sucked.

This is what prompted my latest video, a 16-minute run-down of just what it was I was trying to say. Which is quite the longest YouTube video I have ever made, so I hope everyone’s satisfied. I’m not upset, by the way; but I am very amused.

Friday, November 25, 2011

I have a new toy!

It’s a Chromebook. Google nicely gave it to me ahead of its official launch in Germany in order to put it through its paces, and tell as many people as possible about it. And this is what I’m using right now to write this post.

For those who don’t know what a Chromebook is, it’s basically a netbook with an operating system consisting of a file manager and a browser. And that’s it. The idea is that most computers these days are pretty much exclusively used to connect to the internet, so all you really need is, well, a browser. And since pretty much everything these days is done on the web — e-mail, social networking, and even (thanks to Google Docs) word processing and spreadsheets — that’s all you need, most of the time.

I’m still finding my way around it, but it’s an interesting little tool. Some are skeptical about whether it’s really any better than a tablet PC or a smartphone, but I do appreciate having a proper keyboard (as “proper” as is possible on a netbook).

Since it hasn’t any need for a hard drive, or any drive at all, and the OS really is just a glorified browser, there’s precious little to boot up, a process that therefore takes a little under ten seconds. It’s also quite light — about the same as a medium-weight hardbound book.

I’ve been given the Samsung version (Acer also does a Chromebook). The version sold in the US comes with a Verizon chip for those times when you can’t get a wifi signal, but that’s illegal in Germany (it ties you down to a specific provider), so instead it has a slot for a SIM card, and it’s really difficult to get the SIM card in and out. There is a SIM card provided free with a German Chromebook, with free three months’ flatrate internet access, but the provider Google chose to team up with happens to have the worst HSUPA coverage in Germany, so in my village I can only connect via GPRS which is horribly, horribly slow. So thank you, German lawmakers: I can switch to a different provider (which I may do when my three months free trial is up).

But it is a nice gift from Google all the same. Thanks, fellas.

Monday, August 15, 2011

I was not alive in 1945

I just thought I’d make that perfectly clear, just in case there was any lingering doubt. In other news, my trip to San Francisco grows ever nearer.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Germans are not calling for a ban on the workplace kiss.

“German call to ban workplace kiss” popped up on the BBC News RSS feed, which sounded scary enough for me to make me want to take a look. Not that I am in any way particularly fond of kissing at work — unless, of course, the other party happens to be my wife — but it’s not the sort of thing you want to see regulated by law. All sorts of scenarios present themselves, up to and including people being convicted of sexual harrassment for all sorts of minor infractions. Or worse, perhaps sexual assault is more common in Germany than I thought, with female workers constantly having to fight off the unwanted advances of their male colleagues.

In fact, as the article itself makes clear, it’s nothing of the sort. What it actually is is a society, with no legal status at all, politely suggesting that because the social kiss, common in countries like France, is very uncommon in Germany, it tends to make people a bit uncomfortable and perhaps it would be wiser to greet each other with a more traditional handshake, unless you happen to know that the other person is fine with a kiss on the cheek.

The “Knigge Society”, as the BBC calls it, is actually not a fan of bans, rules and regulations at all; quite the reverse, in fact: they’re trying to dispel the myth that Knigge was all about rules of etiquette. And what is Knigge? The BBC says “Knigge” translates as “proper behaviour”, thus neatly demonstrating that even the BBC occasionally gets confused between a “translation” and a “synonym”.

In fact, the correct translation of “Knigge” is... “Knigge”. It’s a name: specifically, that of Baron Adolph Franz Friedrich Ludwig Knigge, who lived in the 18th century and wrote a book called Über den Umgang mit Menschen, which can loosely be translated as “on dealing with people”, but is usually simply referred to as “Knigge”. The Knigge Society is fighting tooth and nail against the false perception that this was a list of rules of etiquette: instead, it was a dissertation on the importance of tact, and Knigge himself could probably be described as a sort of prototype sociologist. The problem is that various publishers have, for more than 100 years, been churning out rules of etiquette and using the name Knigge on the front cover.

“Let us put an end to the proliferation of inflexible rules of etiquette!” declares the society’s website. And then, referring to some of the more modern rules invented by random publishers in Knigge’s name, adds: “Anyone who wants to can say ‘bon appetit’ or ‘bless you’ and reverse these ridiculous exaggerations.” The society is not helped by a BBC article stating that the society has previously “ruled on the correct way to end a relationship via text message, and how to deal with a runny nose in public”. The society has “ruled” on no such subjects. The society has given advice to people who don’t want to cause unnecessary offence.

There’s a certain note of desperation in the words of the society’s chairman as quoted by the BBC: “We can’t forbid it,” says Hans Michael-Klein, but in vain because the author of the article still sees fit to state that society is calling for “kissing to be banned” in the very first sentence.

So, a group of people with no legal status or authority tackles a thorny issue that it determines is the result of a culture clash and suggests how people might avoid accidentally giving offence by sticking to the German norm unless both parties happen to be comfortable with the new fashion. That hardly amounts to a call for a ban.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Open letter to unknown cat owners

Dear unknown cat owners in Ortenberg,

I don’t know who you are, but my wife and I were in your lovely town today — although, if what we’ve heard has any truth in it, you probably don’t appreciate it as much as you probably should.

But I digress. The point is, walking through the old town, we met your two cats sitting on some steps with a blanket and a food dish. They were very friendly and clearly wanted to be petted, but when one of them — the little black one — stood up, we noticed that it had several nasty, suppurating open wounds on its back, where it can’t scratch. My wife reckons it must be a food allergy or, more likely, mites. I really don’t care, to be honest: the point is, it had untreated wounds and badly needed to see a vet. It did seem to be coping fairly well, under the circumstances, but it’s not nice to see and must be very unpleasant for the cat.

We were interrupted by the arrival of a little old lady: as it turned out, one of your neighbours. I’d describe her to you, but it’s unlikely you know her well enough. She told us to be careful with those cats, and explained why.

You see, the house on the steps of which these cats had been resting was her house, but they weren’t her cats: they’re yours. So how do they come to be in front of her door with a blanket and a food dish? You may well ask, but then, you know the answer to that, don’t you? It’s because you’re hardly ever home. Very occasionally, your little old lady neighbour sees your car, but normally she doesn’t see it, or you, from one day to the next.

She doesn’t want to take your cats in, for fear of catching something, and in any case she’s a little old lady and can’t really look after cats, especially when one of them clearly urgently needs the expensive attention of a vet. Although, to be honest, she’d be well within her moral rights to take the poor creature to the vet and get them to send the bill to you. But she’s a little old lady who lives on her own and wheezes when she walks: it’s really not her business.

Also, I’d say she has little experience of cats. She classes them as strays, which is why she won’t even touch them; but of course they’re not, because they’re far too friendly and affectionate. They were so clearly brought up in human company and belong in someone’s house and garden, not begging for food on an old lady’s doorstep.

And this little old lady, who doesn’t know the first thing about cats and who wheezes when she walks, feeds them. She feeds them not because it’s her job to do so, but because she has a spark of humanity in her and can’t bear to see them being left to their own devices, especially the little black one with the suppurating wounds. It’s a responsibility she can well do without, and there’s a reasonable chance the cats will outlive her, and then what?

It’s clear you don’t care one jot about them, because otherwise the little black one would have been to the vet’s and got the right treatment. If you’re almost never in Ortenberg, I can only assume it’s your second home, so it’s not as if you’re short of money. To be honest, if we didn’t already have cats, we’d have promised the little old lady who wheezes when she walks to come back next weekend and take the cats home with us. She’d thank us, and I doubt you’d even notice.

What happened, then? Did you acquire a couple of cute little kittens and not expect them to grow up? Did you honestly think that cats raised in human homes with humans would be able to look after themselves when they grew up? Or did you just get bored of them? What are they supposed to do in the winter? Do you know how bitter the winters up there in the Wetterau region are?

Not that you care (apparently), but I personally believe nobody should be allowed to have a pet cat (or dog, or anything) unless they know how to take care of it. There should probably be a test, like a driving test. Only if you pass it can you get your licence. Most importantly, if you do get a cute little kitten, you must be made aware that this is going to be a commitment for fifteen or twenty years. That’s comparable to the amount of time you can expect to have a child in the home if you add a baby to your family; only, unlike with children, you can’t get tax breaks and welfare benefit for cats. If you’re not absolutely certain you can sustain that level of commitment, I don’t think you deserve to have a pet at all.

I almost wish now I had instructed your neighbour to get somebody to drive the cats to the nearest animal shelter, where the black one will be treated by a vet and both given to a home that actually wants cats. But she’s a little old lady who wheezes when she walks, and I didn’t want to upset her, and I’m still too British to poke my nose into other people’s business.

Damn my Britishness.



Sunday, July 31, 2011

rewboss in America

I don’t mind telling you I’m very excited about this. I wasn’t sure I could justify extending my stay after the conference, but flying halfway around the world to within spitting distance of San Francisco and spending all the time in a hotel conference room would simply have been nuts, so it had to be done.

Actually, as well as doing some sightseeing, I will be able to visit the famous Googleplex, although for obvious reasons I’m not allowed to film inside the building. And meeting some YouTube friends, particularly fellow Top Contributors and some actual flesh-and-blood Google employees. With a little luck, I’ll also have time to meet in the flesh some online friends of mine.

There’s a lot of stuff to organize and paperwork to do, but unless something truly unfortunate happens, such as the complete collapse of the euro, I should be enjoying the California sun in just a few more weeks.

Well, as much sun as filters through the famous San Francisco fog, that is.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fun with Google Street View

Google Street View can sometimes be more entertaining than you think, which I have recently discovered. It seems that pretty much all of England, if not the entire UK, has now been covered by the service, which means you can virtually drive your computer just about anywhere. For example, you might start at the Cornish village of Tintagel and drive out north-east on the B3263, through Bossiney...

...where, apparently, a leaf got stuck to the camera (and, for the record, stays stuck for at least half a mile, after which I got bored).

A much better game to play, though, is one I call “Now You See It, Now You Don’t”, which takes advantage of the fact that the Google Street View camera often returns days, weeks, possibly even months later to spots it’s already visited. This can have the effect that just by inching forwards or crossing to the other side of the road, you can experience time travel.

Here, for example, are two views from the market place in the town of Stow-on-the-Wold:

Not only was the second view — a single keystroke away from the first — taken on market day, but from the evidence of the trees, I’d say the two images are three or four months apart.

Germany is a bit trickier, because so far only major cities have been catalogued, but here’s some construction work on Friedrichstrasse in Berlin, just north of Friedrichstrasse station:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Rotten summer

There’s very little to add to this video, except that I made it yesterday and today is looking just as awful weatherwise.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trial by media

A hot topic in the US, but pretty much nowhere else at the moment, is the end of the trial of Casey Anthony, which found her not guilty of murdering her daughter, but guilty of lying to police investigators.

The story is tragic, and easily told. A few years ago, Casey Anthony disappeared with her daughter Caylee. When Casey re-appeared, her mother Cindy wanted to see Caylee, but Caylee always seemed to be unavailable, usually with the nanny. Eventually, Cindy reported the child missing. A few months later, the badly decomposed remains of Caylee were found. The “nanny” did in fact, exist, but had apparently never met the child. Unsurprisingly, Casey was arrested and put on trial. She has now been acquitted of murder.

Now, here’s an important thing to consider as you read on: I do not know whether Casey is guilty or innocent. This is a very important point: I do not know. For all I know, she could have killed her daughter in cold blood. Or perhaps through negligence, and then panicked and tried to cover it up. Then again, for all I know, she could be innocent.

The disturbing thing, for me at least, is that pretty much all of America appears to be convinced that Casey Anthony is guilty, guilty, guilty; or (even more disturbingly) probably guilty, but deserves to be found guilty even if she isn’t. Right now, America is a nation of people choking on their breakfast cereals because a woman who obviously has blood on her hands is walking away a free woman, albeit with a stain on her character.

A representative tweet from a certain Igor Zag captures the mood of the nation: “So your [sic] saying in the state of Florida I can commit murder but can’t lie to the police?”

No, Mr Zag. “They” (whoever “they” are) are saying that the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Ms Anthony murdered her daughter. You see, that’s how the justice system works in any democratic and civilized country: innocent until proven guilty. And that’s the principle that means you can’t get dragged off the street and imprisoned simply because you can’t account for your movements on the night in question. And it’s the same principle that saves you from lynch mobs.

In most other western democracies, this would be news, and it may be surprising news; but it wouldn’t cause such a display of public outrage. There’s a vague hope that the jury got it right, and that if they did, the person who actually did commit the murder can be found and brought to justice. And for the most part, that’s all you’d hear.

America is, as usual, a special case. This trial was given wall-to-wall coverage by the press. Everything about the trial, in true American style, was reported on and made public. And because America has no sub judice laws, the media could say what they liked about the whole affair. And the considered opinion of the media right from the start was that Casey Anthony is clearly guilty. And because Americans up and down the country have been obediently consuming the hyped-up sensationalised stories fed to them by media outlets vying for their attention, that is what America firmly believes. That the jury, shielded from everything the big news corporations, decided either that Ms Anthony is innocent, or at least that the evidence is not as clear-cut as the media would have us believe, speaks volumes. The evidence wasn’t convincing. What convinced most of America of the woman’s guilt clearly wasn’t in the evidence itself, no matter how many of them will protest otherwise.

The distasteful aspect of this — well, one of the most distasteful aspects — is that even if the accused is in fact guilty, a “not guilty” verdict is the best thing that could have happened for the media, which is looking more and more like a big reality show than a collection of responsible news outlets reporting, you know, the news. Already there are promises of interviews with jurors, interviews with lawyers involved in the case, and Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera is even boasting about how Ms Anthony’s ex-fiancé has told him who Caylee’s father is (but to find out, of course, you have to go to his blog and watch the video). TV stations and newspapers can be assured that the nation is incensed enough to hang on their every word and continue to consume. This tragedy is worth millions, perhaps even billions, to them, and this circus has just been handed the best free advertising it could have wished for. I predict they will spend the next few days or weeks, possibly even months if nothing new comes along, trying to out-scoop each other. They are, in fact, making a killing out of a killing, and that depresses me more than I can say.

So basically, Mr Zag, and all those threatening to throw darts at the jurors or cast Casey Anthony into a bottomless pit, you’re missing the point, mainly because you have been manipulated in the most obscene way. The jury reached the verdict not because they’re stupid or blind, but because, with all due respect, they have a much more intimate knowledge of the trial and everything that went on than you do or ever will; and because they were protected from the sensationalist and prejudiced reporting from the big media companies. It may be the “wrong” verdict in the sense that perhaps, after all, Ms Anthony is guilty; but the fact that the court came to a decision so at odds with public opinion is proof positive that the case was judged purely on the evidence presented to court and was not influenced by the baying mob, and that, America, is exactly how it was designed to function and exactly how it should be.

Old cars

My latest video now on YouTube is a video about the “Kahlgrund-Classic” rallye, an annual event at which enthusiasts drive their vintage and classic cars around the local countryside. Because it’s fun. The video, by the way, is in the “Reportage” series and so in German; closed captions are available for those who need it.

This video was made at the pre-start meeting, where the participants gathered, had their vehicles and papers inspected and did all the necessary bureaucratic stuff. And it was a rotten day: wet, cold and totally uncharacteristic for the beginning of July. This really made it difficult to film, as I was basically dashing about between showers and trying not to get rain on the lens.

One thing I signally failed to do was to warm up my interviewee, but I didn’t think it would be necessary. Well, I know him personally, and just a moment before we were laughing and joking. I’d talked him through what I wanted to know, and everything was fine, until he was standing in front of a rolling camera and I asked him to explain the rules. Suddenly, he wasn’t the Achim I knew any more.

It wasn’t dreadful. He didn’t seize up totally. He knew what he wanted to say, and perhaps that was part of the problem: he seemed to be trying to remember his lines, rather than just talking to me. It was a snap decision to interview him, though — heck, it was a snap decision to go to the event — and perhaps, on balance, it would be best to do what I did with my last interview: film it a few days before the actual event, in the comfort of the subject’s own home.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

How I know I’m nearly famous

My wife often asks me when I’m going to get “rich and famous”, and today I was able to give her the good news: I’m still not rich, but well on the way to fame. I know this, because the name “rewboss” has been used for a scam.

One of things you should always do from time to time is to google yourself: not for reasons of vanity, but because it’s always prudent to know what, for example, a possible future employer might see when they speculatively plug your name into a search engine. That’s what I did this evening, and I was gratified to see that, for the first time I can remember, “rewboss” has made it into the exaulted realms of Google suggested search terms. Type “rewboss” into Google, and it suggests “rewboss YouTube”, “rewboss German” and, mysteriously, “rewboss manufacturing”. Which is odd, because I don’t manufacture anything, and as far as I know I am the only rewboss on the net.

Searching for “rewboss manufacturing” turns up some forum posts with titles like, “Has anyone ever had any dealings with Rewboss Manufacturing?” Well, I haven’t, so I looked, and apparently just a few months ago, Rewboss Manufacturing was a shady Malaysian company spamming forums with offers for TVs and smartphones at knock-down prices. The uninamous verdict of the experts is that this is a transparent scam and anyone who orders anything from them deserves whatever happens.

Well, I have nothing to do with Rewboss Manufacturing, so if you found this blog post looking for information about the company, I would advise you not to touch them with a bargepole (assuming you can find one long enough to reach Malaysia). This revelation leaves me simultaneously horrified, flattered and daunted. Horrified that people might think I’m a scam artist; flattered that I am obviously famous enough for people to stumble over me on the net and think my screen name worthy of pilfering; and daunted because there’s still a long way to go before I am so famous that using my name for a scam of this sort wouldn’t work.

It also explains why a few months ago I had a sudden flurry of new YouTube subscribers based in Malaysia.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Former Bond girl

Actress Michelle Yeoh has been denied entry to Burma, also called Myanmar, and the speculation is that this has something to do with the fact that she is playing the part of Aung San Suu Kyi in a biopic called The Lady. Although this is probably not, on reflection, all that surprising, it is significant enough to be a news story: the shiny new, all-democratic civilian Burmese government, like the pigs at the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm, don’t look all that different from the old dictatorship.

Consequently, this has been widely reported, and for a while “Michelle Yeoh” trended on Twitter. But with a certain weary inevitability, many, if not most, reports of this event refer to her as “former Bond girl Michelle Yeoh”.

I suppose it could have been worse; she could have been remembered chiefly for the instantly forgettable The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. But still, I can’t help feeling that this is a bit rough on an actress who won a BAFTA for Best Actress in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an achievement all the more remarkable when you consider that she doesn’t speak Chinese and had to learn her lines phonetically.

Of course, I realise I sound as if I’m denigrating the rôle of Bond girl, but it still somehow jars. We’re talking about an actress selected to play Aung San Suu Kyi, and it might for that reason be more apposite to mention in this context Crouching Tiger..., or indeed Memoirs of a Geisha, another film she had a prominent rôle in, and which won a modest sprinkling of Oscars and BAFTAs.

The only real reason for referencing her Bond past is so that we will all go, “Oh, that Michelle Yeoh!” But does that really add anything to our understanding of the story? Does it matter if we don’t actually recognise the name, or even if we have no idea of any of the films she’s starred in? A prominent actress cast in the rôle of Dr Suu Kyi, and who has met her frequently in the past, is denied entry to Burma. That’s the story, and reducing the prominent actress to a particularly feisty sidekick in a piece of light entertainment is a bit... unfair.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

We don’t get thunderstorms

Even if you don’t understand German, it’s clear what’s going on in this video. Taken today, it’s an unusual event: a full-blooded thunderstorm in our village.

Normally, thunderstorms tend to avoid us. Coming in from the west, they usually go up either the Kinzig valley, towards Fulda, or the Main valley, towards Aschaffenburg, completely missing our little vale. Armegeddon can come to everywhere else, while we swelter in hot, humid air, listening to the far-off rumble of distant storms.

This one made an exception: it raced up the valley, unleashing not quite its full force, but a fair portion of it. We had at least 17 millimetres of rain; almost certainly more, but our rain gauge was knocked sideways. The sound sent our cats, normally not particularly fazed by natural phenomena, scuttling into the cellar, where I later found them watching with a mixture of trepidation and fascination at the spreading puddle of dirty water.

We were lucky. Our neighbour across the road sustained some minor damage to the roof: at the end of this video, he’s removing some other tiles to get at the dislodged ones and replace them before the next shower (he just made it).

The full force of the storm was felt elsewhere, though: we’re still very sheltered here. The radar showed a huge swathe of heavy rain and thunderstorms sweeping across central and southern Germany, and another of our neighbours, who is in the volunteer fire brigade, told us that every single brigade in the whole district was called out at least once, most several times, and a few were pretty much out and about for the whole afternoon.

Anyway, we’re fine, barring a few battered plants.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Filming woes

It seems such a simple idea: a camera, a tripod, and a microphone is all you need to make a video featuring yourself standing in front of various bits of landscape. After two days and nothing to show for it, here’s what I have learnt:
  1. Autofocus cannot always be relied upon to focus on your face even if it almost completely fills the frame. It does sometimes, but sometimes it will focus on the background instead.
  2. Manual focus is tricky when you have nothing to focus on because what you are focusing on — i.e., yourself — is standing behind the camera trying to focus. You can try focusing on the patch of ground you’re intending to stand on and then tilt the camera back up to start filming, but if you’re using a lot of zoom because you want to throw the background out of focus, that trick isn’t quite accurate enough, as becomes painfully apparent in high definition.
  3. Automatic Gain Control allows you to control the input level of the microphone. Use it wisely if you want audio you can actually use.
  4. Take note of where the telegraph poles are in an otherwise empty field, and don’t position yourself between even a very distant one and the camera.
  5. Trying to get your face evenly lit in bright sunlight will make you understand why the professionals use huge lights even on the brightest of days.
  6. Stand near a tree, and you’ll find it impossible to light your face at all without washing out the background. A camera’s backlight setting does nothing more sophisticated than increasing the brightness.
  7. Never, ever stand anywhere near an electric fence. Electric fences interfere with the camera’s circuits. Audibly.
  8. If you do clip a lapel mic to your jacket, remember that opening the jacket will mean you’re no longer speaking into the mic.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Zombie attack!

I have every belief that the people who drafted the Freedom of Information Act in the UK had the best interests of the British public uppermost in their minds, and were seized of a genuine desire to make government more transparent, accountable and democratic. The Freedom of Information Act — the FOI for short — sounds noble and simple enough: anybody can submit to a government body a request for information and can expect a reply in twenty days. And some important information has come to light, such as the revelation that 74 Metropolitan Police officers have criminal records.

But things don’t always work out in a country like Britain, where a favourite pastime is making civil servants run around in circles. They’re civil servants, you see, and servants are people you give nonsensical orders to in order to watch them break into a sweat. Finished painting that room yellow, have you? Well, I’ve changed my mind — I’d like it green. Nothing pleases a British citizen more than watching fussy little men in old-fashioned suits and round glasses metaphorically jumping through hoops, and that’s what’s been happening. The latest one to hit the headlines was a certain Robert Ainsley, who asked Leicester City Council what preparations they had in the event of a zombie invasion. The Council has been forced to admit that they don’t have any specific plans, prompting a crowd of people with nothing better to do at the weekend to mount a full-scale zombie attach on the city. Other requests included somebody with a taste for men in uniform wanting to know how many male police officers in Hampshire were bachelors, a question about the number of sexual acts performed on Welsh sheep, and a retired sailor looking for an old Navy recipe for sautéed kidneys and curried meatballs.

Commenting on this, stand-up comedian John Holmes said that one of the worst offenders was The Daily Express newspaper, and went on to calculate how many billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money had been spent by councils and government departments answering frivolous FOI requests. The inference was clear: our money being wasted to provide a tabloid newspaper with non-stories designed to enrage the kind of people who would be lost without the little ritual of choking on their breakfast cereal every morning (the average Daily Express ready, in fact).

Actually, there are two reasons to take Holmes’s comments with a truckload of salt. The first is that having got his audience worked up about a paper that exists to get people worked up, he cheerfully went on to say that he had put in his own requests and was waiting to hear, for example, what the combined lengths of all his local council workers laid end to end would be. Even if that was a joke, it doesn’t work because it asks the audience to believe that he is a hypocrite and will waste taxpayers’ money in order to get self-righteous about the waste of taxpayers’ money.

The second reason is that Holmes’s calculations assumed that each request would be given a single person’s undivided and active attention for the whole twenty days, which of course isn’t what happens: for most of that time, it’s sitting in various in-trays and out-trays. Besides, an FOI request can be refused if it would cost more than £600 to comply with. That’s designed specifically to allow requests that just require a bit of sniffing around in the archives, while relieving agencies of the legal requirement to take exact measurements of hundreds of staff.

And when you look at these frivolous requests, they’re not so bad after all. Given a properly-designed database, it’s the work of a few minutes to find out how many police officers within a certain age range are currently single and how many arrests were made for bestiality in a given area. A zombie attack might be a remote possibility (well, pretty much impossible, actually), but actually the wider question of how well local governments are prepared for a completely unexpected threat — scientists did recently use a hypothetical zombie attack as a model for an outbreak of a highly virulent disease — is a good one. If, eleven years ago, you’d asked the government of New York City how they’d respond if a jet airliner crashed into a skyscraper, you might have been laughed at, too.

Besides, it gave some people the excuse for a bit of good-natured fun, not to mention some fresh air.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

New video fail

I just spent a significant part of this morning filming a new sketch. I already knew I was heading for trouble because as I was filming the last, and longest, piece, a huge black cloud came over. But it wasn’t until I viewed the rushes (as we videomakers like to call them) that I realised that, despite my best efforts, most of the shots were horribly out of focus and unusable.

This is what comes of not having good studio lighting and not employing a cameraman.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Destination: Seligenstadt

The latest video in my “Destination” series is about the historic town of Seligenstadt, which is one of my favourites in my locality. From where I live, it’s a short train ride, then a bus ride to the ferry, which features at the beginning of this video. The view at the jetty is what you see on the video thumbnail: the journey bypasses the usual trek through nondescript residential and industrial areas and takes you straight to the heart of the matter.

This is a remake of a video I did some years ago, which contained a factual error regarding the legend of Einhard and Emma — I’ve taken the opportunity to correct it here. I fear, though, that another error may have crept in: having said that the town hall is the only building on the market square that is not half-timbered, I now notice that there seem to be several other non-half-timbered houses there. In my defence, I will say that it’s not always obvious: some types of half-timbered house are rendered with plaster, although I can’t swear this is the case in Seligenstadt.

Also, in the earlier version of this video, I suggest that with the lack of parking in Seligenstadt, it’s best to park on the Bavarian side of the river and take the ferry as a foot passenger. I wouldn’t recommend that now: there aren’t enough parking spaces there either.

For those in Germany wanting to get to Seligenstadt by public transport, the nearest long-distance railway stations are Hanau and Aschaffenburg. From Aschaffenburg, you need to take the number 50 bus as far as “Seligenstadt, Fähre” to pick up the ferry. From Hanau, there is an hourly local rail service to Seligenstadt, which is very convenient, but you miss out on the ferry. Alternatively, take any local train bound for Schöllkrippen, Aschaffenburg, Würzburg or Nürnberg as far as Kahl am Main, and from there the number 50 bus for the ferry.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Debbie the crazy cat lady

This is the video that currently has the online world abuzz with speculation, in which “Debbie”, filming a video for a dating website, breaks down and cries because she just loves cats and can’t get enough of them.

The report in the UK’s Sun is typical of the kind of speculation currently making the rounds. Having described in detail the entire plot of the video, the paper admits that “some viewers have speculated it’s all an elaborate hoax”.

Well, let me just state quite categorically that this video is not “an elaborate hoax” or a “fake”. Neither is it a genuine bio for a dating site. Journalists are becoming increasingly lazy these days, it seems, and not bothering with any real research — odd, considering that these days, research can be a matter of a few mouse clicks and a bit of common sense. But this does represent an interesting departure from the norm: while the Sun has clearly missed the point, the Daily Mail actually gets surprisingly close.

The video was uploaded by somebody calling herself “hartmanncara”, and it takes a second or two to just click through to her YouTube channel profile page, where she lists her name as “Cara”. There is also another video up, which is clearly by the same young woman, this time pretending to be cojoined twins called Cara and Kara. The point here is that the “cat lady” video hasn’t been downloaded from an eHarmony profile and re-uploaded to YouTube by somebody else: it was uploaded to YouTube by the person who made it and appears in it. Who, presumably, is called Cara Hartmann.

She has now added links to her Facebook fan page, where she is listed as an “entertainer”, and her Tumblr page, which includes such stories as Rosie O’Donnell discovering that what she thought was breast cancer was actually a baked potato. Granted, those links might not have been on her YouTube profile before she became famous, but even without them everything pointed to “Debbie” being fictional.

Finally, of course, Cara (as we must assume she is called in real life) is also on Twitter as @hartmanncara (the same username as on YouTube, not hard to find), where she says nothing at all about cats, but does talk about going viral.

It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to discover all of this, which is one reason I don’t think it’s an elaborate hoax. It’s certainly not elaborate by anyone’s reckoning. And calling it a “hoax” or a “fake” implies that Cara was deliberately trying to deceive us. I don’t think that at all: there’s no real attempt made to hide her real identity (unless this is an incredibly elaborate double bluff). I think it’s a young lady with the talent to amuse just having a bit of fun, and almost certainly never expected the video to go viral. It’s well-acted, but it is so clearly a parody, it’s hard to understand why anyone would take it seriously in the first place, or why anyone would be so disappointed to discover that it’s a complete fiction from start to finish.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Binned policies

Once again, the British government are in trouble for abandoning their policies, this time for backing down in the face of council opposition to reintroducing weekly rubbish collections.

For those not up to date with British life, the inhabitants of that fair isle have been suffering unbearably under a clearly misguided government policy to allow rubbish collections only every second week, and to force people to recycle anything recyclable.

Some explanation is required for the benefit of those who, like me, live in a country where exactly this policy has been very successful for at least a couple of decades now, and has byzantine rules involving exactly what must go into yellow sacks, what must go into blue bins, what must be returned to the store and what must be taken to which rubbish tip or bottle bank. You see, what for Germans is a chore is for the British near slavery: in the words of the Communities Secretary, the corpulant and delightfully-named Eric Pickles, weekly collections are “a basic right for every Englishman and woman” — what he thinks the Welsh, Irish and Scottish people are entitled to was left unclear.

But yes, it is the absolute undeniable right of all English people not to have to worry about where to put two dozen million tons of rubbish every year when the landfills fill up. This is every bit as important as free speech, access to education and Britain’s Got Talent. The defeat of the government at the hands of local councils is just another stage in the slow but inevitable slide into anarchy, communism and fascism (all three at the same time, it’s that serious).

It is fundamental to the very essence of Britishness that 57% of all rubbish goes to landfill sites. If Germans think they can get by with a measly 1%, that’s their business, and no doubt they’ll pay for it later, you’ll see. One day, stinking garbage will become a valuable resource for powering time machines made out of DeLoreans, and then we’ll see how smug those Teutonic grins are, won’t we?

UPDATE: Apparently, reports of a U-turn have been exaggerated.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The hidden pitfalls of YouTube’s CC licence

Last week, YouTube introduced a new feature: video uploads can be made available under a Creative Commons Attribution licence. What this licence means is that anyone is allowed to use the video, or parts of it, for any purpose, including commercially, on condition they credit the original author. It’s the nearest thing to public domain without actually being public domain.

The really interesting aspect of this is that videos set to this licence can be found using the YouTube online video editor: if you want to add some zip to your own video, you can use the YouTube editor to look for CC-licenced videos and edit them into your own. There are numerous possibilities here: for example, I could upload the beginning of a sketch, set it to CC, and challenge you to film and upload an ending, and use the video editor to add my beginning to your ending. This is pretty much in keeping with the whole ethos of Creative Commons, and YouTube’s recognition of that should be applauded.

Unfortunately, using this option is one thing; using this option legally is a whole other thing. One of the things that has become obvious to me over the years (and bear in mind that I am not a lawyer) is that there is a whole lot of ignorance about copyright law, and this is likely to cause problems for many people. You can’t release anything you want under this licence. In fact, the list of things you can release is vanishingly small, and is restricted to videos that consist exclusively of the following:
  • content that is entirely your creation;
  • content whose copyright has expired (which can take as much as 120 years);
  • content which has been explicitly released into the public domain by the original author;
  • content which has been released by the original author under a Creative Commons Attribution, Sampling or Sampling+ licence, but no other type of CC licence.
That last point is especially nasty: it means that you cannot use most types of Creative Commons material in your video if you want to release it as CC-BY. The potential for users incorrectly (and illegally) releasing videos under a CC licence is vast.

This poses a problem for people wanting to use the YouTube video editor to make mashups of this kind. Let’s say I illegally upload a scene from an episode of Doctor Who and (also illegally) set it to CC-BY. A little later, you fire up the YouTube video editor and, browsing through the CC content, find my video. “Perfect,” you say: “the exact scene I need, and it’s Creative Commons Attribution so it’s legal for me to use!”

Obviously, it’s not legal for you to use, but you used it in good faith — after all, I’m the one who convinced you it was legal. But is that going to stop the BBC filing a copyright infringement notice against your video and putting your entire account one-third of the way towards termination? And what would be your legal position? To what extent are you liable? Should you have researched more carefully? Ignorance is never a good defence, but just how thorough does your research have to be? Suppose it wasn’t something as obvious as a TV show, but a music video from a no-name band of the sort that might legitimately be expected to release their music under a Creative Commons licence?

It’s a nice feature, but it could have lots of unintended consequences. Let’s just hope YouTube has thought about these questions.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The launch!

This is it. Ahead of schedule, the new-look rewboss hub is online, and this blog is now officially launched.

So welcome, reader, to the wonderful new world of rewboss. At last, you now have the option of answering me back, properly, by leaving comments on this blog. And please do: currently, it’s set to accept comments from anonymous users, so anyone can join in.

How is this all set up? Well, the online world of rewboss is divided up into the following areas, all connected to each other and (hopefully) complementing each other:
  • The hub is the centre of the rewboss world, and will also host longer articles that have more-or-less permanent relevance.
  • This blog, keeping you up-to-date with my activities and giving some background information into the bargain.
  • The Twitter feed, for quick updates and alerts, as well as some bonuses.
  • The YouTube channel, where (obviously) I host my videos.
  • The forum, which I have neglected of late. Ideally, it would be a community for people to get to know each other, but I realise that internet message boards are now old hat. I’ll be watching to see what happens to it.
All the old articles from the previous incarnation of my website can be found at, so they’re not lost. But from now on, this is where it’s happening.

So... onwards, to greatness and magnificence!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tidying up

Almost there. The new-look hub is just about finished, and apart from writing one or two more articles for it (just so that it doesn’t look too empty when it goes live), the only thing left to do is to write the .htaccess and robot.txt files.

Then I have to download the current site, remove the ad code so that it doesn’t do unexpected stuff, and reupload it to the new subdomain. I think that’s pretty much it, and I’m looking forward to see how well it all works.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Still tweaking

I think I’ve got the basic design and layout of the new hub working, which is gratifying, but there are still articles to write and things to tweak. The main navigation bar has undergone a small redesign: a tiny tweak, but resulting in what I think is a huge difference visually, and a bit more in keeping with the image I’m trying to project.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Even better than expected

When you try doing something you’ve never done before, you expect things to go wrong. In the case of that SimplePie class I was talking about, the difficulty was just finding the correct download link. Once I had the correct link and the class was successfully installed, a quick test script I wrote actually worked first time (once I’d corrected a couple of silly typos).

The real test will come later, when I upload everything to the web server. But for anyone writing in PHP and needing to read RSS and Atom feeds, SimplePie is the tool I’d recommend.

Sadly, Twitter no longer supports an RSS feed, which you’d think would have been an obvious thing to support. You can get a little widget to embed on a web page, but it uses JavaScript to write it in, it’s clunky and it’s slow; and I can’t get it to integrate nicely with the design I have for the hub. The other alternative is to roll up my sleeves and get dirty with the Twitter API, something I have never done before. I’m not sure I want to.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Goodness, that was easy!

My idea for the navigation bar on the new-look hub was, I thought, really ambitious. Imagine my surprise, then, when it worked perfectly first time.

There’s still some way to go, and the next big challenge is incorporating feeds from this blog and my YouTube channel. For this, I hope to use a nifty little piece of server-side software called SimplePie. I say “software”, it’s really just a PHP class that parses RSS feeds, and it’s just a lot more reliable than attempting to write my own. And this is also the reason I’m even writing blog posts before I officially launch this blog, so that I can get the feed working before I officially launch the hub.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Making progress

Everything’s coming along nicely. The new-look, slimmed-down, rewboss website (to be renamed the “rewboss hub”) is looking good before I’ve even done the first mockup. I hope to get the whole thing up and running... soon.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Stitched up

A short video in German about the reason for the stitches in my mouth. (Subtitles available for non-German speakers.)

Hello, there.

As I write this, my new blog hasn’t officially been launched yet and is still in the very basic design stages. Which means that if you are reading this, either you have stumbled on this post by accident, or you are so fascinated by my blog that you just had to drill down all this way to read every single post.

Well, stranger things have happened.